Running on the Cracks
By Julia Donaldson
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2009 Julia Donaldson
All rights reserved.
This is the bit I've planned. I know what I've got to do, but it would help if my hands would stop shaking.
It would help if there was more space too. I should have gone into the disabled loo instead of the ladies. The cubicle is tiny; the gap under the door feels huge. What if anyone peers under it? Instead of seeing two feet plonked apart facing forward, they'll see a bulky school bag and various clothes going in and out of it.
First, off comes the brand-new, snooty blazer with the high school crest on it. Poor blazer — it'll never enter the high school now.
A door swings. Footsteps, coming toward me. Another door bangs in my ear. Someone is in the loo next to mine. I freeze with my tie half unknotted.
Don't be so paranoid! No one's looking for me yet.
I unbutton the white shirt and slip out of the black skirt.
An echoey announcement wafts through the air. It's for the Exeter train, not mine, but there's not much time left.
I rummage in the school bag. Beneath the empty files and folders and the unused gym kit is my precious sketchbook. That's not what I'm looking for, though it's good to feel its familiar battered corners.
Here it is, the secret carrier bag. And inside it, the jumble-sale clothes.
I still think that jumble sale was a brainwave. A total disguise, and such a cheap one — only £3.50 altogether for the beige hooded anorak, the white T-shirt and red sweater, the definitely nondesigner jeans and trainers (how Caitlin and Flo would slag me off if they saw them!), and the pair of sunglasses.
Actually, I'm not so sure about the sunglasses anymore. Maybe they'll just draw attention to me. After all, the clothes aren't summery. In fact, they're too hot for this warm September day, but then Glasgow is bound to be colder than Bristol, and it'll be winter all too soon.
Now for the cleverest trick of all. Folded up inside the carrier bag is a flimsy nylon hold-all — another jumble-sale bargain. It cost all of 40p and is big enough to contain my school bag and all its contents. Now I won't have to leave the school bag in the station or risk having it spotted and identified on the train.
The hold-all even has a zip pocket for my purse. No need to check the contents of the purse, really, but I do: £39.60 and a ticket.
The wrong ticket.
That's all right, though; it's all part of the plan. Instead of a ticket to Glasgow, I've bought a standard day single to Paddington. The ticket will be as unused as the school uniform, and it cost a lot more than the jumble-sale clothes, but it was worth it. Along with my note, it should put them off the scent for a while. "I'm going to see the Dali exhibition at the Tate Britain," I told the ticket clerk. He'll remember me now. That's the plan anyway.
The £39.60 is just enough to pay for my ticket on the Glasgow train if I have to, but I do hope I won't. I'm planning some more sneaky visits to the loo, timed to coincide with any ticket inspections.
I remember Mum's scorn for fare-dodgers. "Sorry, Mum, but this is different," I tell her. I don't really believe in heaven, but I still find myself talking to her — and to Dad too.
The transformation is complete, and the ladies is all mine again. Furtively — no, casually; I mustn't look furtive — I emerge and look at myself in the mirror.
The clothes and hold-all are nondescript, which is the effect I wanted. My face is unfortunately not nondescript at all. I look Chinese, like Dad, instead of English like Mum. (For some reason, thinking about Mum and Dad isn't hurting so much as usual. I suppose the excitement and nerves are covering up the hurt.) If my hair had been long, I could maybe have cut it, but it's short, black, and shiny. Hood up? Hood down? Sunglasses on? Off?
No time for dithering, as a crescendo of train wheels and a floating announcement remind me: "The nine forty-five for Glasgow Central is now arriving at platform one. Calling at Cheltenham Spa, Birmingham New Street, Preston, Carlisle, and Motherwell. Platform one for the nine forty-five to Glasgow Central."
Suddenly I feel sick. It's the thought of all those stops and starts. It's going to be a long journey, and I don't know what's at the other end.
Through the Letter Box
"Who's walked off with those bloody Telegraph supplements?" Rab was in his normal mood, shouting at any paperboy within earshot and filling the already thick air of the depot with yet more cigarette smoke.
"I saw you put that pile of Heralds on top of them," said Finlay.
Rab shot him an ungrateful glance. "What's that black muck on your fingernails?" he asked.
"Nail varnish," said Finlay with a faint sigh that was intended to be withering.
Rab gave his nearest to a chuckle. "What do they call that shade, then? Black Death?"
Actually, it was called that, but Finlay wasn't going to tell Rab. The nail varnish had been a bargain at the Barrasmarket; so had the spiky bracelet. They'd have been more than twice the price in Inferno.
Finlay scooped up his bundle of papers. BODY FOUND BY BIN MAN was the headline on the Morning Post at the top of the pile. As he rammed the papers into the luminous yellow bag with the strap designed to cripple young shoulders, he had a vision of himself as a modern-day Oliver Twist. Rab was Fagin, of course — exploiting his troop of innocent defenseless paperboys, stunting them, insulting them, poisoning the air they breathed.
"If you get any of that Black Death on the papers, you'll be the next body in the bin!" Rab yelled after him.
"You've just dropped ash on the Scotsman," Finlay couldn't resist calling over his shoulder. It was the sort of remark that would get him into trouble at school or at home — "answering back," as it was unfairly called by his teachers and parents, who considered they were the only ones entitled to make personal remarks, but old Rab wasn't going to hand out a Notification of Misconduct form or order him to tidy his room and couldn't afford to sack him. Finlay had only been doing the paper round for three weeks, but he felt he had the measure of Rab: His bark was worse than his bite.
Who were the sadists who designed and positioned letter boxes? There were the ones at the very bottom of the door, so you had to kneel in a puddle to push the paper in, the ones that always tore the paper (maybe they had a cunningly concealed serrated edge), and the ones that resisted newspapers altogether, preferring to snap hands off.
The garden gates were almost as bad. Some didn't want to open, and some didn't want to close — but if you left them open, you could be sure that some Neighborhood Watch busybody would spot you and complain.
Finlay was relieved when he reached the block of flats on the corner of Struan Drive. This was the easiest building — no gates, no paths blocked by wheely bins or burst bin-liners. It only took about two minutes to deliver ten papers to the flats.
He tramped up the stairs, enjoying their echo. His feet beat out the heavy rhythm of "Stone Sacrifice" from Breakneck's new album. When he reached the second floor, the strap across his shoulder transformed itself into a guitar strap and he played the solo in his head as he fumbled for the Morning Post. Here it was: "McNally, 2/1" scrawled across the top above the BODY FOUND BY BIN MAN headline.
But there were already two papers poking out of 2/1's letter box. Today was Tuesday. He dimly remembered now that the weekend paper had still been there yesterday.
Maybe McNally 2/1, whoever he or she was, had gone away on holiday and forgotten to cancel the papers.
Or maybe they were ill. Maybe they'd had a stroke and were lying on the carpet, trying to claw themselves toward the phone.
Maybe they were dead.
Finlay pushed today's Morning Post into the letter box. Instead of thudding down to the floor, it stuck beside the two others; this must be one of those doors with a wire cage inside it to catch the post. He squatted, pushed the metal flap up a bit, and peered inside. There was a light on.
That didn't mean anything. Maybe they'd left it on to fool would-be burglars.
Was there a smell coming from the flat, or was he just imagining it? A ripe, meaty kind of smell — not mouthwateringly meaty, though; nothing like bacon or burgers. Could it be the smell of a fresh human corpse?
What was the time? Finlay glanced at his wrist before remembering that he'd discarded his embarrassing watch in favor of the new spiky bracelet. But it must be about twenty to nine. He ought to get a move on. There were five more floors in the flats and then the whole of Endred Close to do. He was going to be late for school again as it was.
But in his mind he could see the headline, BODY FOUND BY PAPERBOY.
Finlay wasn't sure if he wanted to find a body or not, but if there was a body to be found, he didn't want someone else to find it. He didn't want to be in the small print: "Neighbors and even the regular paperboy had failed to spot telltale signs."
He put down his paper bag and tapped at the door. Silence. He tapped again, louder. Silence. Or was there something? A faint thud? He pushed the letter box again and peered in.
Two green eyes in a tabby face stared up at him. The cat opened its mouth in a silent meow.
"Whit d'ye think ye're doing?"
Finlay spun round. A grim-looking woman in a fleecy dressing gown was standing in the doorway of flat 2/2.
"I was just a wee bit worried about Mr. ... Mrs. ... McNally," he spluttered.
"Miss McNally," said Dressing Gown, eyeing him up and down. She obviously thought he was up to no good.
"She's not been collecting her papers. Do you think she's all right?"
Dressing Gown's scowl softened slightly.
"She'll just be having one of her downers, that's all. This time next week she'll be dancing the Dashing White Sergeant. All night long, knowing her."
"I see," said Finlay, though he didn't really. "Is her cat all right?"
"Oh, aye, right as rain. She'll neglect herself but no' the moggie. She spends all her benefit on cat food, that one does."
Of course — that ripe meaty smell, fresh but mildly revolting, had been the smell of cat food. Finlay should have recognized it, considering the number of times Mum had made him feed Mungo even though she knew it made him want to puke.
Dressing Gown wasn't volunteering any more, but shestayed in her doorway; under her scrutiny there wasn't anything Finlay could do other than shoulder his bag and clatter on up the echoey stairs. He couldn't get back into the rhythm of "Stone Sacrifice," and he felt foolish to have been carried away by fantasy. Now he would definitely be late for school. He would miss registration yet again, and that almost certainly meant another Notification of Misconduct form to be taken home and signed by Mum or Dad. Another N of M form meant no pocket money next week. And that meant the electric guitar was one week further away. At this rate, he'd never get to be in Ross McGovern's band.
Well, there was nothing he could do about that now. Except, perhaps ... Finlay's thoughts turned from corpses to forgery.
It's three in the morning, and I'm trying to keep my eyes open. I'm in an all-night café. It's not like the one in "The Streets of London" that's full of down-and-outs carrying their home in two carrier bags. Unless you count me, that is. I suppose I'm a down-and-out, and I'm carrying my home in one nylon hold-all (which is, in fact, holding not a lot).
The café is called Midnight Oil, and there are old-fashioned oil lamps on all the tables. There's a blue bath full of plants and a green one full of goldfish. The walls are purple and covered in mirrors, which I notice are for sale, but I don't think I'll spend my remaining thirty-four pounds on one of them.
The menu has all sorts of coffee and hot chocolate, with whipped cream, hazelnut, cinnamon, tiramisu — you name it. I've been sticking to tea, which is a bit cheaper (but quite enough — £1.50), and resisting the food.
This wasn't in the plan. I'd been looking for the youth hostel when I stumbled on this place, but this is a cheaper and maybe a less conspicuous way of spending my first night in Glasgow. The staff are quite young — students, I suppose — and the shifts keep changing, so they don't all know how long I've been sitting here.
There are other people sitting by themselves: a man with a mobile phone, a woman with a book of puzzles. I don't think anyone is giving me suspicious looks, but then it would look a bit suspicious if I kept looking 'round for suspicious looks.
Instead, I'm pretending to be immersed in the evening paper, which I now know off by heart. There's nothing in it about me, but I suppose there wouldn't be, yet. It's this morning's papers I'm dreading.
My plan for the day is written in my head:
1. Buy some cheap food
2. Get some sleep (where? a park bench if it's not raining?)
3. Find a library where I can
a) read today's papers
b) look up all the Chans in the phone book
4. Start looking for ...
What shall I call them? Granny and Grandpa? You never taught me the Chinese for those words, did you, Dad? But then you hardly ever talked about them. How I wish, wish, wish I'd asked you more, before it was too late.
Here's what I do know about them and about your childhood:
They owned their own restaurant, but I don't even know what it was called. There must be dozens of Chinese restaurants in Glasgow.
They lived in the basement of a tenement house quite near the restaurant, and you were their only child. All I know about the flat is that there was an alcove in the kitchen where you used to sleep. Oh, and that there was a square nearby with a big sycamore tree in it. (I know that because there was a sycamore in our London garden too. Mum always complained that it stole the light, but you liked it; you showed me how you used to pick up the winged seeds and twirl them in the air and pretend they were helicopters.)
I don't know what school you went to, just that there was a brilliant music teacher, but I can't remember her name. I do know that, when you left school, you went to the music college and studied the flute. I don't think your parents were too pleased about that, even before you met Mum — they'd have preferred you to help them run the restaurant.
What else? I know that your father used to love a song about a galloping horseman. And that your favorite food was your mother's dumplings, called nongjia jiaozi, which you said meant "village dumplings." You taught me how to make them, and they are still my favorite food.
Not a lot to go on, really, is it? But anything would be better than where I've just come from. Aunt Sarah was all right, I suppose, though so cool and controlled that you'd never think she was the sister of warm, impulsive Mum. Maybe I could have found a way of handling Flo and Caitlin's spitefulness. I did love the birds, and I thought I liked Uncle John, until that morning I try not to think about.
Here comes the waitress with the shaved head and the nose ring. She's taken my teacup away. Does she think I ought to go? Should I order another tea? Maybe it would stop me from falling asleep.
I hope there won't be too many Chans in the phone book.
"Hello, is that Mrs. Chan?"
"It's ... my name's Chan too. Um ... I'm trying to do some research into my family tree and —"
"Where did you get my number?"
"From the phone book. It's just that —"
"I'm sorry, I can't help you."
"The number you have dialed has not been recognized."
"Hello, is that Mr. Chan?"
"Chah twing ... (CRACKLE CRACKLE) ... Chan ... tsiu chong (CRACKLE CRACKLE) not here."
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that. I'm looking for either Mr. or Mrs. Chan."
"Chah shing help you liu (CRACKLE CRACKLE) chong."
"I'm sorry, I can't understand what you're saying."
"Hello, I'm looking for my grandmother or my grandfather. Their surname's Chan."
"I don't think you've got the right number."
"Hello, is that Mrs. Chan?"
"Mrs. Chan, yes."
"I'm sorry if I've got the wrong number. I'm looking for the Mrs. Chan who used to own a Chinese restaurant."
"This not a restaurant, no."
"No, I know it's not a restaurant, but I wonder if you used to work in a restaurant."
"I think you got the wrong number. This not a restaurant."
The Doughnut Thief
Finlay stirred the doughnut mixture and gazed absently out of the van. The Barras market bustled around him, but he barely noticed. He sighed a deep sigh.
"That's a long face for a Saturday," said Marina, scooping a doughnut out of the hot oil and dumping it onto the sugar tray. "Cheer up, it may never happen."
"It already has," said Finlay.
"What is it this time? School or Mum and Dad?"
"Both," said Finlay. "It's those bloody N of Ms."
"Language, Finlay!" Marina reproached him automatically. She turned the doughnut over in the sugar. "I thought N of M was a rock band," she said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Running on the Cracks by Julia Donaldson. Copyright © 2009 Julia Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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