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Authors: Joanne Owen

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BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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Chapter Three

A few months later we made that same journey again. But this wasn't like any of the others. This wasn't a quick visit for tea, or lunch, or for the holidays. This was for good. The car swerved off the road onto the lane and my head smacked against the window. There was blood, and I knew there'd be a bump the size of an egg tomorrow. I wound down the window and inhaled the smell of earth and roses, and the marshy riverbank. At least they were the same as they'd always been. But while they were the same, nothing else was, because when we arrived, Granny wouldn't be there, because Granny was gone.

‘Close it. I'm freezing.'

I did as I was told. Daisy always got what she wanted. That's how it was. I wiped smears of blood from the glass.

‘I'm definitely having the big bedroom upstairs, aren't I, Mum?' Daisy asked, actually pouting. ‘If you're forcing me to live in this dead-end ghost town, I need something as compensation, don't you think? I mean, what am I actually going to
here? I still don't understand why we had to move. I know you and Granny were born here, and I know the house is bigger, but I don't want to be stuck here, trapped like –'

‘Stop it, Daisy.' Dad caught her eye in the mirror. ‘You might actually come to like it.'

I said nothing, and Mum said nothing. We watched the house come into view, and then the charred cabin. Mum caught my eye. We both looked away, and Mum concentrated on pretending to look for something in her bag, while I concentrated on counting how many different kinds of birds were in the garden. I'd got to four when I noticed a jumble of boxes and furniture stacked up outside the house.

‘What's that stuff doing there?' I asked. ‘You can't throw it away. That's her life.'

just things, Rosie,' Mum almost snapped. ‘Things aren't a person's life.'

‘I know. I didn't mean  … ' It came out all gruff and I broke off. Mum was already walking down the path, kicking out at the leaves like they'd done something to make her really angry, but it was me who'd done that.

‘You're not
getting rid of Granny's stuff, are you, Dad?' I asked. ‘What about all her books?'

‘Now's not the time, love. And go easy on Mum, eh? She needs a bit of time to get used to things.'

‘That's exactly why we shouldn't do anything rash like chucking all her stuff away,' I shouted after him. ‘It's too soon.' I couldn't believe they'd done this without saying anything. It looked like Granny had been thrown out of her own house. Was I the only one who cared? I knew Mum was right about things not being a person's life, but wiping out someone's entire physical presence seemed totally disrespectful.

I hung back by the car until they'd all gone through the front door. I'd been terrified of going back inside the house nearly as much as going to the funeral, but it was something I had to do on my own. I gripped the iron door handle.
One, two, three
, I counted, and stepped into the hall. I opened my eyes. It still looked the same here. Chequered tiles on the floor, mirror by the coat stand, and the photo of me and Daisy at an old-fashioned steam fair next to that. We were holding hands, grinning like mad things in front of a lorry that had the words ‘Relive Grandma's Yesterday' painted on the side in swirly letters. But while everything looked the same, it didn't smell quite the same, and that made me feel all wrong, like I'd been sawn in half by a magician, and the two halves had been separated. I know that sounds dumb, but what I mean is that half of me felt like I always did when I came here, and the other half didn't know where it was.

‘Stop admiring yourself.' Daisy came up behind me and stuck out her tongue at the mirror. ‘You're not as pretty as you think.'

‘But I wasn't, and I don't  … '

‘Stop arguing,' called Mum. ‘Leave those boxes in the kitchen and try to get some of your stuff unpacked before dinner. You know where your rooms are.'

Yep, Daisy was
having the big room upstairs and I was having the room in the cellar. It hadn't been easy to persuade Mum to let me, though. She was right, it was cold down there, and I had to crouch to get into bed because the ceiling curved so low, and it was two floors away from the other bedrooms, but that's why I wanted it. That's what had made it our secret cave. Almost all Granny's furniture had been replaced with mine, apart from the dressing table and an armchair, but it smelled the same as ever, of her warm, sandalwood perfume. The horrible thing was, being here right now wasn't making me feel safe or like nothing could hurt me. It was making me hurt.

I flopped onto the bed and pulled the covers over my head, but kept imagining Granny creaking down the stairs and surprising me with a mug of something hot and sweet, so I got up and finished unpacking.

I thought Mum and Dad had cleared everything out, but in the bottom drawer of the dressing table, right at the back, I found a parcel tied with string. I opened it and saw a flash of silver. My heart flipped. A silver necklace, with a charm – this had to be Granny's necklace, the one she'd gone crazy trying to find. I sat at the dressing table and fastened it round my neck. The bear-shaped charm sat high on my throat. It had tiny rubies for eyes. It was beautiful, really unique. And then I started thinking about what would have happened if we'd looked here and found it. Maybe she wouldn't have got upset, and then maybe, I don't know, maybe it wouldn't have happened.

The necklace wasn't the only thing in the package. There were also two pairs of babies' shoes – one red, the other green – a couple of letters and an old photo of Granny. She must have been about twenty, and she was wearing
dress, the dotty one, and she had a ribbon in her hair. I swallowed hard. Her smile was exactly the same, that wide grin that made her whole face sparkle. She seemed so happy. She was standing outside a hut that looked a lot like the cabin here, but there were mountains behind it, and a lake to the side. It must have been taken
, in Poland. I guessed the letters were from the man she'd wanted to go back to. They were written in what must have been Polish and signed off with an undecipherable squiggle. I wished I could read what they said. I remembered the look on her face that showed how much she missed these people, and now I knew how that felt for myself.

I knew Granny had said Mum didn't like her talking about her past, but everything was different now. Maybe she would be interested in this stuff. Maybe she knew about these people. I climbed back into bed, actually feeling excited about having this chance to find out more about Granny's life, and I knew I had to think about doing something with my own too. It bugged me that I never did take that audition, which meant I still had a promise to honour. But, at that moment, I just wanted to throw everything into looking at Granny's past.

Chapter Four

I heard the front door banging shut, Dad and Daisy's voices outside and then the car leaving. I sat bolt upright, remembering the stuff I'd found last night. I had to talk to Mum about it. I got dressed, grabbed Granny's things and went upstairs.

‘Fancy boiled egg and soldiers?' I called to Mum.

‘Lovely, thanks Rosie.'

Mum came down in her dressing gown, looking like she'd hardly slept. I couldn't remember what she'd been like when Granddad died. I was too young. I think he'd been ill for ages, so it wasn't such a shock. I didn't know how she'd coped with him dying, but I did know that Granny being gone had really changed Mum. She'd been distant ever since.

I reached for a toast soldier and knocked over the salt. Mum picked up a few grains and threw them over her shoulder. ‘Had enough bad luck, haven't we?' she said.

‘What do you mean?'

‘The old wives' tale, you know? Spilling salt is meant to bring bad luck, so you're supposed to throw some over your shoulder to stop it, to blind the devil or something.' She brushed her hands. ‘What are those shoes doing on the table?'

‘I wanted to ask you about them. They were in a package at the back of my dressing table. Are they mine and Daisy's?'

She looked them over. ‘They look handmade, lovely leather, but definitely not yours.'

‘They were with these letters, and this photo of Granny.' I showed her. ‘Look at her dress. She's wearing that same dress. It must have been taken when she went abroad. She told me she lived in Poland and only came back here because her mum was ill. Do you know
where she lived in Poland? Do you know anything about the people she met there? Did you know about any of this?'

Mum took the photo. The way her breath quickened when she looked at it made me think she'd seen it before, that she did know something.

‘What is it, Mum? What do you know?'

‘Nothing.' She sniffed and laid the photo face down on the table. ‘I can't help you, Rosie.'

‘But it's amazing, don't you think? All these things we never knew about Granny. And don't you think the building in the photo looks like the cabin? Maybe she built it to remind her of that place.'

‘I don't know. Like I said, I can't help you.'

I rapped my spoon against the egg cup. I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall. Why was Mum being so difficult? It was like trying to reason with Daisy.

‘Are you sure you can't remember anything else? And don't you want to know more?' I asked. ‘I mean, some of the things Granny told me just before she  …  she died, and now finding this stuff?'

‘The past is best left alone, love. You're not always better off knowing everything, believe me. Fancy a walk?' she asked, changing the subject. ‘Dad was dropping Daisy in the village. We could catch her up. We could see if there's a theatre group here. I know you were thinking of taking that audition. It would be good for you, love.'

Maybe Mum was right; maybe it would do me good to join something here.

But I didn't care about that right now. All I wanted was to know what the letters said. I wanted to know what
this stuff meant, and why Mum was being so cagey. It was obvious she knew more than she was letting on, and her being all secretive was only making me determined to know more. Whatever it was, it clearly
a big deal, to Mum as well as to Granny. And I thought I knew where to start: I wanted to read that story Granny had mentioned, the one about Vasilisa and the dolls, the one she'd said was the most important story of all. I felt for my doll in my pocket. I hadn't been without it since that night.

‘I'll stay here,' I said. ‘I was thinking of tidying up around the cabin.'

‘You don't have to bother yourself with that, Rosie. I've arranged for someone to clear everything away. It's being pulled down next week. We need to get on with our lives. It's for the best.'

I turned cold. It was too soon.

‘Don't you want to remember her?' As the words slipped from my mouth, I knew how awful they sounded. ‘Sorry.'

‘I don't want a constant reminder of how she died.' Mum froze. She was staring at me like I'd done something terrible. ‘Where did you get that?'

‘This?' I touched the necklace. ‘It was with the other stuff I found in my room. This is what Granny was looking for that night. She was desperate to find it. She said it was from someone she loved. Have you seen it before? Isn't it –?'

‘You have to stop this, Rosie. I can't live in the past.'

‘Wanting to know about the past isn't the same as living in it.'

‘Please. Go to your room.'

I did as she asked, but I wasn't letting this go. I didn't yet know what the big secret was, but I had to find out. I was
going to
find out.

Chapter Five

I waited in my room until I heard Mum leave. She slammed the door so hard the windows shook. Why had she gone so mad-crazy at me about the necklace? It wasn't my fault Granny had loved someone else before she met Granddad, if that's what had upset her. I knew Granny was her mother, but she was my grandmother. Mum didn't have
the rights over her. This was as much my history as hers.

My head felt a bit clearer once I was outside. It was one of those mornings that make you feel like you're stepping into a brand new world. I mean, the smell of the air, and the bright light and the pink flowers bursting through the earth. Everything seemed clean. But there were no flowers around the cabin. The earth was all scorched, and just seeing it, being that close to it, made me feel sick. I couldn't bring myself to go inside. Not yet.

I decided to tidy the chicken pen instead. It was in a right state, a jungle of weeds and old straw and mess, and no chickens. I panicked. THERE WERE NO CHICKENS. Crap. I hadn't thought about what had happened to them. Maybe Josephine had taken them. I
Josephine had taken them.

I swept the soggy straw from the run, then leaned into the coop and scooped out a bundle of bedding. It was full of rotting flesh and feathers and bone and shards of broken shell. I threw it back down, trying not to retch. They'd either starved to death and rotted, or maybe a fox had got in. Or maybe it was the fire. They were too messed up to tell.

I put on gloves, swept it all up and pushed it into a bin bag, as best as I could without actually looking at what I was handling. I was about to go back to the house when I noticed the cabin door had blown open – just a little, but enough for me to see into the room. This was the kind of thing Granny would have said was a sign. I had to go in, didn't I? If Mum really was going to have it pulled down, I didn't have much time to see if anything could be salvaged. I took a deep breath, and forced myself to step over the threshold.

Inside, it looked like an ancient shipwreck, precarious, and burned back to its crumbling skeleton. The floor and remains of the furniture were covered in what looked like a dusting of black snow. The walls were covered in bubbles that turned to powder when I touched them. All the tapestries were gone, all the colour and life. I could make out the fireplace though, and all I could see was me and Granny warming our hands, her in that dress, snapping at me, and then me leaving her on her own.

I flipped round to the door. There were voices just outside.

‘Did you know your house is supposed to be haunted?' A girl's head appeared in the opening. ‘Must be
haunted now.' She sniggered. ‘Burned like a proper witch, didn't she?'

‘Leave it, Amy,' said a boy. Luke, I think his name was. I recognised him from when we'd stayed here last summer. He'd hung around Daisy the whole time. I guessed the girl was his sister.

‘What do you want?' I asked. ‘Daisy's not here.'

Luke looked embarrassed. ‘Don't listen to her,' he said, glancing at his sister. ‘She's an idiot.'

‘You're the idiot. She's an idiot. You're both idiots.' The girl gave me a filthy look and left, which was just as well. I had a massive urge to punch her. Not that I would have, but the urge was definitely there.

Luke took a step inside and brushed against a wall. There were powdery traces on his sleeve, and I really wanted to wipe them off him. I didn't want anyone to have a single piece of this place. ‘Sorry about my sister,' he said. ‘And sorry about your gran. She was a nice lady.'

Neither of us said anything for what felt like an age, but he eventually broke the awkward silence. ‘I meant what I said about your gran. She was a legend.'

That didn't exactly help with the awkwardness. It felt weird hearing a stranger talk about her. ‘How do you know?' I asked. ‘What do you know about her?'

‘I know she put me in my place when I threw that worm at you.'

‘That was you? A worm? I thought it was a snake.' I immediately regretted mentioning that. Of course it wasn't a snake, and now I felt like an idiot. The funny thing was it made me feel better to know that the person who'd done that to me was just this gangly, nervous boy, and nothing at all to be scared of.

‘She said if I ever did anything like that ever again, all the worms in the world would turn into snakes and come and find me. Then she gave me a sweet and told me she was joking.' He laughed. ‘But I haven't gone near a worm since.'

‘You deserved it.' I laughed too, and he stepped right inside and had a good look round.

‘What are you doing in here, anyway?'

‘I really wanted to clean it up. My mum wants to get rid of it, but I  …  I don't know. I wanted to see if it could be fixed up, see if anything could be saved.'

I didn't know why I was telling him all these things. I hardly knew him. Actually,
was probably the reason. I didn't know him, and he didn't really know Granny, so he wasn't going to get all upset and make me feel even worse when I was trying to make things better by talking about her. That's what kept happening with Mum. It always ended in tears, or an argument, or both.

‘I'll help, if you like. Not sure there's anything left to save, but we could clean it up.'

I didn't know what to say. I mean, I didn't think I could do it alone, but I wasn't sure it was right to let a stranger help me.

‘We should start with the big stuff.' Luke began heaping all the larger furniture into one part of the cabin, so I just got on with it too. Once we'd carried all that outside, we fetched a load of bin bags and swept up all the smaller bits. After a couple of hours it was pretty much tidy, except for around the hearth. I'd left that until last, because that was the hardest, because I knew she'd been found near there. I moved the bellows aside and picked up the coal scuttle. It was much heavier than I'd expected. As I tried to heave it away, it slipped from my grip and broke right through the floor. The area around it fell away and a deep hole opened up.

‘Look at this.' I waved him over. ‘It's really weird. There's a massive gap down here.'

‘What? Like a secret passageway?'

I knelt and reached into the hole. ‘Don't know. I can't feel where it ends. Maybe  … ' I shut myself up. ‘Stop making fun of me.'

‘I wasn't, actually. Well, not

I leaned into the hole again and saw a glimmer of silver and red. It was Granny's cake tin. I opened it. There was a slab of mouldy ginger cake inside, and a folded-up piece of paper with Mum's name written on it in Granny's spidery handwriting. I'd seen her put this in the tin. I opened it, curious to know what she'd been reading in the kitchen that night.

My darling Greta,

I've written so many versions of this note, none of them right. But here it is, as it is, the best I could do, because you deserve to know the truth, my darling, so I shall just say it. The fire was no accident. It was my doing, my decision, my wish. I don't expect forgiveness for the hurt this will cause, but I hope with all my heart that you can come to understand why I had to end my life in this world.

You are a mother, Greta. You can imagine the pain of having to leave your young daughters, and the horror of learning you will never see them again. Imagine trying to live with the fact that you weren't there to protect them when they needed you most. Imagine the agony of never having the chance to say a real goodbye. Imagine that pain, Greta, and multiply it over and over, for mine has worsened as time has passed to the point where I can bear it no more. I need to return to the family I left and lost a lifetime ago. I understand why you were unable to accept them, of course I do, and now I ask you to try to understand why I have chosen to go.

The life we've shared has brought me so much joy, my darling, but I am old. My mind isn't what it was, I'm not who I was and my heart can hold no more pain. The time has come for me to cross the threshold from this life to what lies beyond. It is time for me to join those I left behind, my Bear and my girls, my Anastazja and Lilka. But I leave this world thankful for the life I have been lucky to lead, and calm in the knowledge that it is my time to pass.

I wish your girls, darling Daisy and Rosie, the world. I have left my dolls for them, to see them through their lives. And Greta, my girl, I thank you for making my world so special and seeing me through my life.

Your loving mother.

Part of me wished I'd never read it, but most of me felt like I'd been torn up into tiny pieces. It couldn't be right. I mean, I
to be reading it wrong. But as I reread Granny's words, over and over, with my heart burning and my head spinning, and they kept saying the same thing, there was no getting away from it. Granny had
to die. It was there, in scribbly black and white. That's why she'd made me go to Josephine's, that's why she'd wanted me to take the dolls, that's why she'd ‘cleared away the cobwebs'. It was all planned out, and I'd let it happen. I'd left her alone to do it.

And she'd had a family before Mum. Two secret daughters who'd died, and she'd left us for them  … 

My head was spinning so much I lost my balance and fell forward, into the hole.

And I just kept falling.

All I could hear was inside my own head, and all I could see was inside my head. The earth had swallowed me up.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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