In Part One, here, I shared the beginning of a short story I wrote a while ago and ‘refound’ unexpectedly. Here’s the next instalment:
The Christmas Miracle
The good thing about Sydenham Hill Woods is they’re pretty private. All the parks and stuff around here are ok but they’re stuffed full of people with children and old people doing this fast walking thing but looking like they need the loo like now. But in the woods, especially up the top above the old abandoned railway tunnel, there are loads of paths and tracks and walls and steps and stuff and no one else within shouting distance. Hound and I love it here, especially in the rain when no one comes. The walls and steps must have belonged to some old houses or something and Hound is always nosing around, tracking down his arch enemies, the foxes.
This year, given the ‘wettest December on record’ stuff, even the paths have turned into small ponds and soon they cover my boots in brown goo. Hound’s normally blond coat has disappeared round his legs and stomach by the time we reach the fir and seconds later he’s pretty much the same colour all over as he’s into the gloop in two ecstatic doggy bounds, yelping and yapping with delight. Every stick I toss at him he leaps like salmon, plucking them out of the air before he gives them a perfunctory shake like they’re a squirrel or something and dropping them so he’s ready for the next missile. He never tires. About a year ago I had to babysit for Mrs McCracken’s little girl Abigail for about an hour. Mum said it would be a ‘good idea’ as practice for my sister Judy. Abigail’s like Hound, never getting tired but unlike Hound she was really annoying. Still I leant one thing: if you put children into one piece pyjamas and leave the arms inside, they stop being annoying even if they scream a bit. Mum hasn’t trusted me with Judy yet. Well until last night of course, but that was an emergency.
The best thing to do, Dad says, is just ignore Hound and he will follow. I set off up the slope into the old ruins. It’s always fun bashing a new route through some ivy and creepers. The ground is really rough, all broken bricks and roof tiles covered in slimy green plants. Today I take a new path which is like a small stream. That’s when I fall over and cry out as I bang my knee. I don’t want to cry but I can’t help it. It really, really hurts. I then swear; I don’t like swearing usually but I do anyway.
I’m just checking for blood when I hear this cry, like a faraway voice but sort of next to me. Really weird, like a sort of delayed echo. Then it’s there again, so I shout ‘yooo hooo’ and I get this ‘yooo hooo’ back. Neat. So I try ‘yabba dabba doo’ and ‘doh’ and ‘arseholes’ but there’s no more echoing. So I shout for Hound, thinking we ought to go when I hear it. A long way away, like in a tunnel: a voice shouting ‘Help’.
I’ve never had much reason to wonder if I’m brave. You know, there aren’t many opportunities in this part of South London but I’m pretty sure that, deep down, I’m a coward. Hearing ‘Help’ like that freaks you big time. Hound is better than me because he nuzzles my hand and looks like he knows something important is happening. Having got his message across, Hound sets off back up the slope and into a tangle of branches. I follow and shortly we’re by a low wall. I know this bit; there’s a dark hole here and I’ve dropped stones into it before, never hearing the bottom. One time the smell that came out was so disgusting, like Dad’s wellies the time he found Myrtle out cat had left one of her dead mouse-presents in it that I nearly upchucked into it. I kind of knew that’s where the voice had come from.
I try another ‘Halloooo’ and ‘Hallo’ bounced right back.
This could go on all morning.
I try, ‘Who are you?’
Hmm. I speak more slowly. ‘What…. [pause] is… [pause]… your… [pause] name….?’
‘Why… are… you… in… there?’
‘… shut in…’
‘Did… you… say… shut… in?’
‘Yes…. we are… locked…’
OMG. There’s more than one. And how’d they get down there?
‘My… wife…. she’s…’ Just then Hound starts barking furiously so I miss the bit about his wife. He has to be old if he has a wife though he sounds like Emile at school. Emile’s from Poland. What on earth are they playing at, climbing down this chimney or whatever it is? Maybe they’re like Tony’s brother and do free jumping or something. Suddenly Hound sets off down the slope, barking like mad. Probably a rat. They’ll be rats down there, down that chimney. I shiver and lean over again. I can hear voices. I suppose he’s talking to his wife.
Joe says, ‘Who… you?”
‘Dan… need help, yes?’
‘Yeah. Er I can get… the … police…’
‘NO. NOT POLICE.’
There’s something in his voice that makes me step back and I slip down the slope again. I fall through braches and ivy and crack my hip and shoulder and I’m soaking and muddy and my dad is in hospital and Hound tries to lick my face and I want to go home.
I mean to walk past Mr Gold’s bakery but he catches me and makes me come in and sit down and eat a bun. I feel sick but better after two bites. He asks what happened. He has these completely round specs that are made of wire which he wraps round his ears. His voice is a bit like Joe’s, only thicker, older.
‘Mr Gold, can you get in the tunnel in the woods?’
He looks at me like my teachers do sometimes. ‘Yes, there are tours sometimes. Two, three times a year. But mostly it’s bats so they mustn’t be disturbed. Why?’
‘I wondered if someone might get stuck there?’
‘No, is not possible. Nein.’
Mr Gold has given me an old smelly flannel to wipe my face and hands. He then gives me another bun and tells me about the railway. ‘It was the Crystal Palace High Level Railway. A famous artist painted one of the stations. Camille Pissaro. So beautiful. He loved cabbages. The gates are always locked. Is not safe to go far in.’
Mr Gold likes talking; he uses his hands a lot which creates a sort of mist from the flour. He is seriously ancient. He has skin that folds and creases in lots of different ways depending on whether he’s smiling or counting change or explaining the ingredients to a customer or how to cook something. Mum says he’s Jewish and often has Jewish things around the bakery; like now he has that funny candle holder which has another lit candle in each day.
‘You had better go, see if your papa is home, yes? Here,’ he gives me a bag, ‘buns for the needy, yes?’ Does he mean Joe and his wife? As I tug at the door he says, ‘You stay out of the tunnel, Danny, it’s not a good place, not now.’ He gives me a serious look, sad but serious. Mum says he had a bad time as a child, that’s why he looks sad. ‘Give your mama my regards. And little Judith? Such a sweet Pitseler. Little dumpling cheeks.’ He uses weird words sometimes but then he is old. Then he says, ‘If you got troubles, you tell someone, Danny. Share a trouble, half a trouble.’ He waves me away. ‘Mazel Tov, Danny. Mazel Tov.’