If they knew we’d gone there, our grans would’ve tanned our hides for us. As they’d say. One of our mums had a brown leather bag she called ‘tan hide.’ Our mums were too busy, and too tired with work, to do more than yell at us. And our dads would’ve taken their belts to us. If they’d known. But we were more afraid of what we’d find there than of being belted or turned into bags. So we kept well away.
Not so Jacko and Meggie. Jacko wasn’t afraid of anyone. And Meggie’s only fear was that she might lose sight of Jacko for more than the five minutes it took for him to go to the boys’ toilet. She’d have followed him in there too if the teachers hadn’t stopped her.
That winter our dads were laying about with the strike, our mums were laid low with new babies and old parents, and our grans were laid up with the flu and swollen knees and dodgy hearts. We were glad to get away from them all, even to go to school. School was usually warm, although the bottles of milk often still had collars of ice at playtime so that the straws wouldn’t push in and we’d have to lick the freezing cream and slurp up the thin liquid. We’d compete for who could be decorated with the milkiest moustache.
Then it was the school holidays. We’d glued strips of coloured paper into loops to make chains to decorate our classrooms, and had the party in the hall with red and green jelly topped with solid yellow custard and hundreds and thousands that stuck in our teeth and cardboard tubes of Smarties for the girls and rolls of Rollos for the boys from Mr Barker in his soppy Father Christmas dress and we’d all said Thank you Sir and Happy Christmas and sung a lot of songs called carols. And Carol Shelton had smirked and said they’d all been written by her Papa who worked in an orchestra and her Mama was a singer and had made a record and we could hear her on the radio. And the girls had said OOOH Carol, you lucky thing. And the boys had said Oh yeah? and gone off to play football on the asphalt playground until Mr Barker had turned back into a teacher and barked at us to go home and have a happy holiday and come back in January if we’d nothing better to do.
And then there was nothing to do for the rest of the year. Christmas wasn’t much, what with the squealing babies and grumbling grans and mums always worn out and dads always going out – if we were lucky.
So then Jacko said him and Meggie were going on an adventure and we could go too if we were brave enough. And we asked What adventure? And Jacko said we’d find out if we were brave enough.
We all lived in grey brick houses joined together at the sides to make streets called Oak Road and Beech Lane and Elder Terrace and whatnot. At school Miss said these were called after trees and showed us pictures and told us to go to the park and collect leaves to put on the nature table. But it was raining all that week and then we forgot. But Jacko found some conkers and Miss said she was pleased with him but he put them back in his pocket and Meggie nearly gave her an acorn.
Our houses were joined at the back too. Four houses were joined at the side, then there was a gap for the toilet we shared that was a little stinky room. The mums were supposed to keep the toilets clean and the dads were supposed to keep them working if they got blocked up or frozen up and that. But what with one thing or another the grans usually found themselves dragging their aching knees along and sorting everything out when they’d had enough of the stink and fag ends in the water and – we’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Jacko and Meggie lived in Ash Place which was a kind of square with a patch of mud in the middle with an actual Ash Tree (Miss said), a wooden bench all round the tree and a waste bin which never got emptied. But there were too many people in the house and their mum took in lodgers to make ends meet and Jacko and Meggie got out most of the time. No one took any notice. They were twins but Meggie was a bit slow and Jacko looked after her all the time. She was all right so long as she could see him.
So that winter Jacko and Meggie went off on this adventure. We all said we’d go too because we wanted them to think we were brave enough. Jacko led us through the park to the gate onto the path along the canal. We weren’t supposed to go to the canal in the winter. One year one of us had fallen in through trying to rescue a drowning cat. It had been all right because the canal isn’t very deep there because of the mud and rubbish you could stand on. But our grown-ups gave us all what for and forbade us to go through the park gate on pain of getting yelled at, or belted, or our hides tanned, or all three.
Jacko and Meggie’s grown-ups never bothered with that stuff. Anyway, Jacko and Meggie wouldn’t have been bothered if they had. So Jacko and Meggie went out of the park gate. We all stayed in the park but Jacko said we’d be all right if we were brave enough to stay with him and Meggie. Meggie held his hand and waved to us. So we were brave enough and filed through the gate onto the path. Miss said it was a towpath and tried to tell us about narrowboats and horses but we never saw a boat let alone a horse. Just a long strip of dirty water with all kinds of stuff floating in it.
Then before we knew it we were nearly THERE. The girls gasped and held one another’s hands. The boys whistled and looked as brave as they could. Jacko and Meggie were standing right on the edge of the path with their backs to the water. Jacko had tight hold of Meggie’s hand. It looked as if he was trying to stop her falling into the water. Or maybe to stop her jumping in excitement. Because they were nearly THERE. And so were we. We all stopped following them and stood still until Jacko called to us to catch up, come on if you’re brave enough. We looked at one another and some of us took a step or two towards him. But some of us stayed still.
Then all of a sudden the sky went dark as if it was the middle of the night without any street lights. There was a blast of freezing wind. We all huddled together and even some of the boys were crying a bit. Jacko yelled to us to follow him to keep safe so we did. All of us. We ran after Jacko and Meggie to hide from the dark and the wind and the cold. We stopped in a place that was even darker than outside but the wind stayed outside. We’d run through the arch which crossed the canal and we crowded together on the narrow path and pressed against the stone walls which were icy cold but much warmer than the air outside. One of us nearly slipped into the water. The biggest ones looked after the smallest ones. It was so dark that we could hardly see one another. Jacko and Meggie had disappeared altogether.
Then after ages we suddenly realised that we could see again. We thought our eyes had got special powers in the dark. But as it got lighter some of us crept back to the entrance to the tunnel and others went on to the far end. Then we all saw that the world had been completely changed in the darkness. Everywhere was white. Clean. Gleaming in the sudden sunshine. Shining so bright it hurt our eyes. Magic? we thought. Like the stories Miss told us before home time?
Some of us wanted to go home but some of us felt braver and we all went on through the tunnel to the far end. Then we saw that the tunnel was where the canal went under the bridge. We called out for Jacko and Meggie but they’d disappeared.
Then we saw a house on the far side of the canal. It had trees all round like the trees in the park with no leaves. But all along the branches and the twigs was shining white. It was so bright our eyes were dazzled. But when we could see again we saw Jacko standing outside the door to the house waving to us to come over. We all knew that this was the worst THERE where we must never ever go. But some of us were beginning to enjoy being brave and having an adventure. Some of the girls were being braver and enjoying having an adventure even more than the boys.
Without stopping to think, we slithered across the humpy bridge. Jacko had come down to the garden gate. Where’s Meggie? we wanted to ask. We squeezed in a bunch through the door into a dark narrow hallway. At the end of the hallway was a kitchen. It was very warm in the kitchen and for a moment we were glad to be there. Then we saw Meggie. She was sitting on a low stool beside a long settee. In one hand she was holding a flat doll and as we went into the room she bit off its head. We were horrified. Then we saw that there was a whole tray of flat dolls on the table. Then we saw that they were biscuits shaped like children.
Meggie’s other hand was holding another hand. This was a very old hand. And that hand was attached to a Very Old Gran. The Very Old Gran was lying on a long settee and covered by a blanket made of lots of different colours of wool like our own grans made to keep their aching knees warm in the winter evenings. We knew about blankets like this. And Very Old Grans with aching knees.
But we’d never before seen Meggie sitting so still, or being happy to be apart from Jacko, or holding anyone else’s hand. She beamed at us and bit off a bit more biscuit.
Then the Very Old Gran opened her eyes and looked surprised for a moment. Then she said in a very old croaky voice that we must be Jacko’s friends. And Meggie’s friends, we said firmly so that Meggie would know she was safe. Although Meggie looked perfectly safe. The Very Old Gran said we were welcome and we should help ourselves to gingerbread biscuits off the table. But we all remembered that we’d been told we must never accept sweets or biscuits or anything else from strangers even if they seemed like Very Old Grans because they might have Evil Intentions. Even though we didn’t know what Evil Intentions were we were pretty sure our grown-ups would use this as an excuse for hide-tanning, yelling, and/or belting, so we said No thank you. Politely because we remembered that our own grans liked us to be polite.
But our shoes were wet through with the snow and our toes were freezing off and Meggie was eating a gingerbread biscuit and she hadn’t died or anything and the Very Old Gran seemed harmless and Jacko had told us to go in so we bravely said Yes please after all. And the gingerbread children were very tasty and filled the great and growing gaps in our stomachs and soon all the gingerbread children were inside all of us and none of them remained on the tray on the table. But some of us were polite enough to offer a gingerbread biscuit to the Very Old Gran and to give two or three more to Meggie.
So then the Very Old Gran asked if we could give her a cup of tea out of the big brown teapot on the stove and it took two of us to lift it but we did. Then she asked if we could take the next batch of gingerbread biscuits out of the oven and it took two of us to do that too but we did. And we remembered to close the oven door firmly.
After she’d had her tea and another biscuit and while we were munching hot biscuits straight out of the oven, the Very Old Gran felt well enough to talk a bit. She said she’d had a fall when she was putting a batch of biscuits into the oven and there she was lying like a beached whale on the rag rug when these nice young people popped their heads into the kitchen. Not that she knew them but seemingly they’d had a whiff of the gingerbread and were just calling in to say hello and ask if there were any biscuits to spare for their friends. That would be us, we said. Yes, she said, that must have been all of you. But then your friend Jacko noticed I was poorly and he helped me onto the settee and covered me up with the blanket and told little Meggie to sit beside me and make sure I was all right and off he ran to send you all in to look after Meggie and me, and then he was on his way to send me an ambulance. Not that I want an ambulance. But I’ll have to have one. I’m all on my own here you know.
So we all sat down on the floor and the biggest ones found chairs and the smallest one perched beside the Very Old Gran’s feet on the end of the settee, stroking a large black cat, and we ate biscuits and told her about our own grans and she said she’d like to meet them and we said they’d like to meet her and she said perhaps they could visit her in the hospital and we said we were sure they would. And so they did.
Because after the ambulance came the Very Old Gran was taken off to the hospital and we were sent off to go home when one or two of the dads turned up to make sure we got home safely because Jacko had had to tell some grown-ups where we were when he went home to get the ambulance sent for. But we didn’t get yelled at or belted or our hides tanned.
First day back at school Miss told us a new story at home time about two children called Hansel and Gretel. She asked if we knew what those names were in English and we said No Miss, so she said Hansel is the same as Johnny – like Jacko. And Gretel is the same as Maggie – like Meggie. But we’d no idea what she was on about. Even if that Very Old Gran could make gingerbread biscuits shaped like children.
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