I’d just managed to focus on the pillar of papers that had grown from my in tray when my phone started to vibrate, hammering it’s way across my desk.
‘Hello. Is that Miss Clark?’ He had a typical countryside drawl and I recognised the voice but couldn’t place it.
‘It’s Tom. Tom Henry? I help your dad out on the farm.’
It wasn’t a farm. It was a small holding. And it struggled to be that.
‘Oh, hi,’ I said. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Well, I think you better come down here for a bit. It’s your dad. He’s had a bit of a fall and he’s not doing so good.’
The room started to shrink around me and the air refused to fill my lungs. I felt like I was drowning.
‘What? What happened? Where is he?’ I gripped the edge of the desk, ready for bad news.
‘He’s at home still. He refused to go to the hospital. Kept saying he couldn’t leave the farm or the fairies would steal it.’
‘Sorry? He said what?’
‘I know. But I got the doctor out and he said he’ll be alright with a bit of rest as long as he doesn’t do any work on the farm. He just needs someone to keep an eye on him.’
‘Right.’ I was glad he was going to be alright, but I knew what was coming and my tiny world began to slow as I searched my head for a pre-emptive excuse.
‘I mean, I can take care of the farm until he’s back on his feet, but he really needs his family, you know?’
I fought really hard to find the words I needed. I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t go anywhere. Work was just too hectic. But I especially couldn’t go there. I looked around the room frantically, searching for my lost dog and the word’s he’d stolen.
‘The thing is, Tom, I don’t know if I can get away from work. It’s crazy up here and I think that the best thing for Dad is that he keeps his routine. You understand, don’t you? So if you could just check in on him a couple of times a day, I’m sure he’ll be fine. How does that sound?’ I held my breath, waiting for an answer.
‘Um, actually I said the same, but the doctor said he has to have someone with him at night too and, well, he asked for you himself.’
‘The doctor asked for me?’
‘No. Your dad.’
It was impossible. He’d never have asked for me. We hardly spoke. Why would he ask for me?
‘Can you stay with him for today? Until nine at least?’
‘Ok. I’ll see you then.’
‘It’s Kate. Call me Kate. And Tom?’
‘Katie, get in the car.’ I look up at my mum. She looks angry, and so scared. She hasn’t even brushed her hair and it’s all messy at the back.
‘You can’t take her, Laura. She’s my daughter too. If you’re not interested, you leave, but I can’t carry on without her here with me.’ He looks huge. He’s only walking but he’s so fast and strong.
‘I said get in the car, Katie. Now.’ I open the door and climb up onto the back seat, clutching Mr. Babbit hard in one hand and stroking his silk ears with the other.
‘I’m not letting you take her,’ he says. ‘We could still have a good life here. All of us. Together.’
‘Oh, come on, Jack. You know it’s too late for that. I never wanted to come here in the first place. Now, after you, after everything, it’s just too late.’
‘No. If you leave now, if you take her, you’re leaving me behind. Then it’s too late. You can’t just abandon us. You can’t just abandon our daughter.’
‘She’s gone, Jack!’ She starts to cry. ‘She’s not coming back. And neither are we. If you want to stay here, fine, stay. But me and Katie are leaving. She’s only seven, Jack. You can’t put this on her. She’s all I’ve got now, and I’m not losing her for your wild ideas too.’
She gets in the car and he just stands there, looking at me and Mr. Babbit.
I turn and wave over the back seat as Mum drives off, but he just stands there, watching. He doesn’t look strong any more. He just looks lost.
My mind woke up before my body did. I knew I was still on the train, I could hear the chuddering of the tracks below and I could feel the cold glass of the window against my temple, but I couldn’t open my eyes. And then, not above the sound of the tracks, but beyond them, I heard a voice. A familiar voice. A child’s voice. A young boy’s voice.
‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret never to be told.’
And then my eyelids relented and my eyes shot open.
I glanced around the carriage. It was empty. The fluorescent lights had combined with the darkness outside to turn the windows into mirror glass. Only the splashes of raindrops were visible beyond.
I sat and watched the darkness, waiting for something familiar to reveal itself.
The rain beat hard as I ran up the driveway to the door, piercing the darkness with my urgency. I had barely slammed the heavy, black knocker before shapes emerged in the window in the door, obscuring the soft orange light, and the door swung open to reveal a tall, well built man.
‘Come in,’ he said. ‘You’re soaked’
‘Thanks,’ I headed through the door, half ducking as though that might spare me the last few drops of rain. ‘You must be Tom, right?’
‘Yes. Come on, I’ll get you a towel.’
‘Thanks,’ I said again, following him through to the large kitchen.
It was strange being back there. It had been so long and yet, it felt like I had come home at last. Like something deep inside me was rooted here and that I’d always been drawn back to where I belonged.
I took a seat at the large, round table and looked around. Nothing had changed. The same old aga, the same heavy stonework surfaces, even the same off white, woodchip paint on the walls. Granted, it had yellowed a bit over the years, but I was surprised I recognised the place at all.
‘Here we are,’ said Tom, returning with a large cream towel.
I took it and dabbed it softly against my face, so as not to smear my make-up any more than it already was, and then ran it gently back over my head along the length of my hair. When I was done, I saw that Tom was looking through the cupboards between the aga and the sink.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ he asked.
‘Please. A brandy would be perfect if you could?’
‘I’m not sure where he keeps the brandy. I’ll make you a camomile tea. That’ll fix you up.’
Camomile tea. I hated the sheer idea of it. But it didn’t feel like I had much of a choice.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Where’s Dad?’
‘Oh, he went to bed about an hour ago. He was tired so I said I’d wait up for you.’
He took an old steel kettle and filled it with water before placing it directly on the stove and turning up the heat.
‘So how long have you worked here for? Dad’s never mentioned you.’
‘Really? I’ve been here for years now. He took me on as soon as I was old enough to work.’
‘Did you grow up here?’
‘Yes. I lived up on the other side of the top field.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I was only here a short time and I wasn’t really allowed up that way.’
Tom took two large mugs down from an overhead cupboard just as the kettle began to steam and whistle loudly.
‘Won’t that wake Dad up?’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘He’s had a big day. He’ll sleep right through, I bet.’
He poured out the drinks, placed the kettle in the sink, and then joined me at the table. I took the mug in both hands, leaning over it as if to warm myself, then I looked at Tom properly for the first time.
He was still in his twenties, but working on the farm seemed to have aged him. He had deep wrinkles around his eyes and dark stubble that was starting to grey slightly on either side of his chin. His hair was a mess. It was dark and thick, and looked like it had never been combed. It ran in all different directions and stuck up where it shouldn’t. But his eyes were soft and kind. They were the deepest blue and they seemed to ripple as I looked into them. He caught my gaze and smiled and suddenly I became very aware that I had been staring.
‘Sorry,’ I said, forcing an exaggerated yawn. ‘I’m knackered. I don’t mean to be unsociable but I should probably get to bed.’
‘That’s fine,’ he replied. ‘I thought as much. I made up the bed in the back room for you. You know which door it is?’
‘Yeah, thanks. I think that used to be my old room actually.’
‘Ah,’ he laughed. ‘That explains the pink. I didn’t think that would be Jack’s choice of colour.’
We laughed together and held each other’s eyes silently for a moment.
‘Right then,’ he said. ‘I better be getting back. I’ll be over first thing though, if you need anything.’
‘Thanks,’ I said as he finished his drink and set the mug back down on the table, rising to leave. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. And thanks for everything, Tom.’
‘No problem,’ he said. ‘That’s what I’m here for.’
Daddy’s on the barn roof. He’s so high I can only just see him.
‘Please?’ I whine. ‘I’ll be good. I promise.’
‘No, Katie,’ he says. ‘It’s too dangerous and I haven’t got time to watch you today.’
‘But Daddy! I don’t want you to watch me. I’m not a baby any more!’
‘I know, Katie. But big girls can’t always get what they want. You know that.’
‘No means no, Katie. Now go and find your mum.’
I don’t want to go and find my mum. I don’t want to stay at the house. I want to play. I walk back towards the house but I don’t go in. I stop at the garden fence and follow where it goes. When I reach the big oak tree in the corner of our garden I stop and sit for a while, watching the sheep eat their grass in the field.
It isn’t fair. The sheep play in the field all day and they never get hurt. Daddy’s just silly. And soon I get bored and move closer. The sheep are ok at first. They don’t even make any noise. But every time I get too close they all start bleating and they run away.
Then I hear something different.
‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret, never to be told.’
It’s a boy. I can’t see him anywhere, but I can hear him.
‘One for sorrow, two for joy,’ he sings again.
It’s coming from the other end of the field.
‘Three for a girl, and four for a boy.’
He’s hiding somewhere. I still can’t see him, but I’m getting closer.
‘Five for silver, six for gold,’
He’s up by the pond.
‘And seven for a secret,’
I’m close now. But I still can’t see him. Where is he?
‘Never to be told.’
I could smell the bacon before I even opened my eyes. It had already started burning, I could tell, but it smelled so good I didn’t hesitate to swing out of bed and pull on my dressing gown.
‘Hi, Dad,’ I said as I entered the kitchen.
‘Katie!’ he smiled as he turned towards me, bacon still sizzling in the hot frying pan.
He had visibly aged since the last time I saw him. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in about a week and his face was covered in thick, grey stubble. He wore his trademark thick knit blue sweater and a pair of jeans which were frayed at the bottom of each leg. His eyes were surrounded by deep wrinkles and, even whilst smiling, he had a tortured expression of exhaustion and utter sadness.
I approached slowly and kissed him on the cheek before withdrawing to the dining table on the other side of the room.
‘How have you been?’ I asked.
‘Good,’ he said, scraping the bacon onto three plates already laden with eggs, beans, tomatoes and fried bread. ‘They’re still doing their best to get me out but you know me, I keep on going.’
‘Who, Dad? Who’s trying to get you out?’ Was Tom right? Had it come to this? Was he really talking about fairies now?
‘The folk up over the field. You know.’
I didn’t know whether to be relieved that he hadn’t said what I expected, or concerned that he was thinking that way at all. I just watched him as he hesitated, hovering over the plates, seemingly confused as to why he had three of them.
‘Is Tom joining us?’ I prompted.
‘Tom, Dad. Your farmhand.’
‘Oh, him. Um, yes. Yes, that’s it.’
He brought two of the plates over to the table and set one down in front of me.
‘Thank you,’ I said as he took the seat opposite me.
At that moment, Tom walked in without so much as a knock on the door.
‘Good morning,’ he said cheerfully. ‘How are you both?’
My dad stayed silent.
‘Fine, thanks. All the better for that sleep. The journey down really took it out of me. I think Dad’s made you breakfast.’ I nodded towards the third plate, over on the sideboard.
‘No!’ my dad snapped. ‘He doesn’t eat here.’
‘He means I don’t eat meat,’ Tom corrected. ‘I’m a vegetarian.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Then the other… Never mind.’ I looked up at my dad, but he was shovelling food into his mouth at great speed without even noticing how much was caught in his beard. His brow was tightly furrowed now, giving him an anguished expression.
‘You’re not working today, are you Dad? I mean, Tom can handle things, can’t you Tom?’
‘Of course,’ Tom said, leaning back against the sink. ‘I’ll take care of everything. You put your feet up, Jack.’
‘No,’ my dad said with his mouth full, threatening to splutter food across the table. ‘I need to get back to my work.’
‘But shouldn’t you be taking it easy, what with the fall? I thought we might spend some time together.’
‘My fall? I’m fine.’
‘Go on, Jack,’ encouraged Tom. ‘I can handle things.’
‘No,’ he said again. ‘I can’t very well leave you to do as you please. I’ll be with you all day. Where I can keep an eye on you.’
And with that he placed his cutlery on his plate and carried it over to the sink, still chewing wildly with his mouth open. When he reached the sink he saw that Tom was in his way, but neither of them moved. They just stood there, face to face, waiting.
‘Right then,’ Tom said eventually, stepping aside to let my dad past. ‘I had better get started. I’ll speak to you later, Kate, I’m sure.’
‘Bye, Tom,’ I said as he walked out of the door.
‘Dad? Are you ok? I asked once Tom was gone.
‘Yes, Sweetheart,’ he said, turning back to me with a smile on his face. ‘I’m fine.’
The he walked out as if nothing had happened at all. I just sat, looking at the third plate of food going cold on the side.
‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret never to be told.’
‘Where are you?’ I shout out, circling the tree with my neck craned skyward.
‘I’m right here,’ a voice comes back. ‘Where are you?’
‘I can’t see you,’ I say.
‘I can see you though,’ comes the voice.
‘You’re looking the wrong way! Look down,’ he says.
I turn my attention to the pond. There’s nothing.
And then I see him, in the reflection, sitting high up in the tree, perched on a thin branch and swaying in the wind. I look up quickly and he’s there, as clear as day. A boy.
‘How did you get up there?’ I demand.
‘Magic,’ he says.
‘There’s no such thing as magic.’
‘Then maybe I climbed. I don’t know. Why don’t you come up and join me?’
‘I can’t. I’m not allowed. I’m not even supposed to be near the pond.’
I look down into the murky water and, just for a moment, I think I can see someone looking up at me from beneath the surface, but it’s just my own reflection.
‘Am not!’ I shout. ‘Who are you anyway? What are you doing here?’
‘I’m Thyme,’ he says. ‘This is my pond.’
‘It isn’t,’ I say. ‘You’re a liar. This is my daddy’s pond.’
‘How do you know?’ he asks.
‘Because it’s on his farm. It must be his pond if it’s on his farm.’
‘Nuh uh,’ he says. ‘It’s my farm. Mine and my family’s. It must be our farm if it’s under our pond.’
‘That’s silly,’ I say, unsure if it is really so silly at all. ‘Who’s your family? I’ve never seen you here before.’
‘You’ve never looked up here before. My family are always up here. We’re the fair ones. The fair folk they calls us.’
I scrunch up my tiny face, confused by what he means, but then a shout from across the field snaps me out of it.
‘Katie!’ comes the call. ‘Katie!’ It’s my dad. ‘Get away from there!’
He runs over as fast as he can, but I just stand there.
‘It’s ok, Daddy,’ I say as he scoops me up into his arms. ‘I was just talking with Thyme.’
‘I told you not to come up here,’ he says loudly, right beside my ear. ‘You must never come up here again. It’s too dangerous.’
‘But, Daddy,’ I start, looking over his shoulder as he carries me back towards the house. But Thyme is gone. He’s disappeared again.
‘It’s magic,’ I whisper.
Tom led me around the perimeter of the house at least seven times as we talked. Then he turned to cross the garden and hopped over the fence at the end. I followed him but nearly fell as I landed in the muddy field on the other side. He steadied me with one hand and leant silently back against the fence.
‘Thanks,’ I said, embarrassed.
‘Don’t you miss this?’ he asked.
I leant back next to him and took it all in. The chilly wind, the stench of animal droppings, the combination of electric silence pierced by the relentless bleating of sheep.
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘I miss it more when I forget how it really is.’
‘Have you really remembered yet?’ he asked. ‘Close your eyes. Think back to the last time you were here and open yourself. Open yourself to everything around you. Listen to my voice and remember.’
I closed my eyes and did as he said. I was more than a little sceptical about what good it would do, but I had no reason not to.
And then I felt it. I felt the soft breeze blow a hair across my face. I smelled the aroma of freshly laid manure in the adjoining fields. I heard the unadulterated song of the sheep, calling to their lambs.
‘It’s perfect,’ said Tom. ‘I don’t think I could ever leave.’
But there was something that jarred me about his voice now. Something different, yet strangely familiar.
‘Can you smell that?’ he asked.
I kept my eyes shut and breathed in the evening air. Smoke. I scrunched my face up.
‘It smells of smoke,’ I said.
‘Oh no,’ he said, panic charging his voice with static.
I snapped my eyes open and turned to follow his gaze, then both together we vaulted the fence and ran back towards the house where big plumes of dark grey smoke billowed from the kitchen window.
Inside a saucepan with some unidentifiable substance which my dad had been planning to serve up as dinner was smoking wildly. The interior of the pan was dry as a bone and jet black and my dad was nowhere to be seen. Tom grabbed the pan and took it straight outside, dropping it on the lawn and turning the garden hose on it to splutter and smoke all the more.
‘I better find Dad,’ I said.
‘He’s in the workshed,’ said Tom.
I didn’t stop to question how he could possibly have known that, something about the way he said it told me he just knew.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked from the shed door.
My dad was inside, hammering a roll of chicken wire onto long wooden stakes.
‘I’m making a fence. I should have done it years ago. I’ll put it up tomorrow. I don’t want you going near that pond again. I can’t lose you all over again.’
‘Lose me?’ He seemed panicked, frantic even. ‘Dad, stop,’ I said calmly. ‘You haven’t lost me. I’m here. You’re not going to lose me.’
But he just kept on working.
‘Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Ready or not, here I come!’ I shout loudly.
I take my hands away from my eyes and look around the field. The grass is short. There’s nowhere to hide but at the field’s far edges.
I look over towards the next field. The fence is wooden. I can see right through it. He isn’t there. I turn and look into the woods at the far end of the field. It’s dark. He could easily hide there, but it’s too far away. He could never have run that fast. I look back to the house. He never goes near it. He wouldn’t have gone that way. And then I look over to the pond.
I hesitate a moment. But then I’m running as fast as I can and the grass is blurring beneath my feet. The tree beside the pond grows as I get nearer and soon I’m deep within it’s shadow and coming up on it fast. But when I reach it, he isn’t there.
‘Thyme?!’ I call out.
‘Thyme?!’ I call again.
I circle the tree, searching the branches for a sign of him.
‘Thyme?!’ He’s up there somewhere. I know he is.
But I can’t see him. I can’t hear him. I can’t be sure, unless…
I reach for the lowest branch and grasp it hard with both hands. Then I walk my feet up the trunk in tiny steps, hooking them over the branch and swinging myself up on top of it. From there I climb higher and higher, one branch at a time. But there’s still no sign of him and the branches get further and further apart as I ascend.
Eventually they are too far apart for me to climb any higher and I am forced to stop. I wait and sit. I look around. I doubt myself. Could I have got it wrong? Could Thyme be hiding in the woods or over by the house?
Then I look down. The pond looks like it’s miles away and so, so deep. I can’t even see the bottom. I can only see my reflection, looking back up at me.
‘Hello!’ comes a voice from right beside me.
I jump and grab hard at the branch to hold on.
‘Where did you come from?!’ I yell.
‘I told you before’, he says. ‘It’s magic.’
‘I don’t believe in magic’, I say, not even trusting my own words.
‘Okay then,’ he says. ‘Close your eyes and think of a number.’
I look at him carefully, and take in his smile. Then I close my eyes tightly.
‘Three,’ I say.
‘Right. Three for a girl. You keep your eyes shut now, and repeat after me.’
‘One,’ he says.
‘One,’ I repeat.
‘Three,’ and then I’m falling, I’m spinning in the air, I can’t open my eyes, I can’t move at all. I can only scream. And then I splash, and I’m underwater. And I’m sinking fast.
‘Get out!’ my dad screamed violently.
I ran down the hall to the kitchen.
‘Dad!’ He was advancing on Tom who simply stood there, smiling.
‘I said get out!’
‘Dad!’ I shouted again. ‘What’s going on?!’
‘This, this liar. This thief! He wants to take you away from me! He wants to take the whole farm away from me! He wants to take everything!’
‘Dad,’ I said softly. ‘Calm down. This is Tom. He helps you. He wouldn’t take anything away from you. He’s your friend.’
‘Listen to your daughter, Jack,’ Tom said with a strange chuckle.
‘You bastard!’ screamed my dad, lunging for Tom but finding nothing but air as he stepped aside. ‘She isn’t my daughter and you know it!’
‘Dad!’ I shout again.
‘No, Kate, you need to hear this,’ said Tom. ‘Tell her, Jack. Tell her what you think she is.’
‘Stop it!’ I yelled. ‘Stop taunting him! He’s confused.’
‘He isn’t confused. This isn’t new, Kate. Tell her, Jack.’
‘Fine! She’s one of you! She’s from the other side! She’s a god damn fairy!’
‘Ok, Dad,’ I said, moving in behind him. ‘Just come and sit down now, eh?’
‘No!’ he shouted, whirling on me with a deadly look in his eyes. ‘I love you, Katie! But you’re not my Katie. You’re not her. You never were.’
‘Alright!’ I shouted back, louder than I ever have before. Loud enough to shake the house around us. ‘Fine! I’m a fairy. Tom’s a fairy! We’re all fairies! Now sit down and stop being ridiculous!’
My dad stepped back, shocked at my anger. But Tom just grinned and laughed.
‘You still don’t remember do you, Kate?’ he said.
‘Not now, Tom,’ I growled through my teeth. ‘This isn’t the time.’
‘One for sorrow,’ he started to sing. ‘Two for joy,’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Three for a girl, and four for a boy.’
‘Stop it!’ I yelled.
‘Five for silver,’
‘Six for gold,’
I covered my ears but it did nothing to block out his voice.
‘Seven for a secret,’
It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. There are no such things as fairies.
‘Never to be told.’
I looked up at him, tears threatening to spill over my eyelids.
‘It is true isn’t it?’ I spluttered. ‘You are, aren’t you?’
Tom smiled once more.
‘I’m not the only one,’ he said.
When my eyes relent and I open them again, I’m not underwater at all. I’m alone, in a dark cave, surrounded by treasure. Gold and silver and precious stones of every colour. And there, in the centre is a large puddle of water that seems so deep that it goes on forever.
But when I look closer, I can see it. I can see the pond. And the tree. And there, right at the top, in one of the branches, is Thyme. He’s laughing at me. I can hear him too. He sounds so far away, but I can still hear.
‘Thyme!’ I shout loudly. ‘Thyme! Where am I? What did you do?’
‘I can’t tell you,’ he says. ‘It’s a secret. It’s magic.’
‘Tell me!’ I scream. But he just fades away into the air and disappears.
I search the puddle from all angles but I cannot see him. All I can see is the surface of the pond, the huge tree, the wide blue sky, and my own reflection.
‘Please, Thyme,’ I plead softly. ‘Please let me out.’ And I begin to cry.
But my reflection isn’t crying at all and, as my tears drip down into the puddle, my dad appears and jumps into the pond. He grabs me. The other me. The me that isn’t crying. He grabs the smiling me. And he lifts me out. He’s shouting but it’s muffled. I can barely hear him now. It’s all getting distant.
‘Daddy!’ I shout. But he can’t hear me either.
‘Daddy! Come back!’ But he’s got the other me in his arms and he’s carrying her away.
But she sees me. And she smiles.