A Short Story by Callie Hill
I stand outside the two-up, two-down, chocolate box cottage with Wordsworth, my Golden Retriever. The bright-red door surrounded by bright red roses looks back at me. Being half way between my parents’ house in one direction, and half way to work in the other, I couldn’t have chosen anything more perfect if I’d picked it myself. I can’t believe it’s mine: who’d just give me a house? I’ve gone through a list of relatives but there’s nobody I can think of. Whoever it is, after the run of bad luck I’ve had lately, I’m very grateful.
Two weeks ago, my landlord told me he was selling up and I needed to move out. Trying to find a place to rent is one thing; trying to find a place to rent when your flatmate likes to sniff your potential new landlord’s crutch is another.
‘We’ve a new place just come on the rental market,’ the letting agent informed me when he rang me at work. ‘The owner is happy for you to have a dog as long as they’re well-behaved.’
I think about the time I came home to a pile of half-eaten cushions; and the time when Wordsworth got his head stuck in the bin trying to recover a thrown-away chicken tikka takeaway carton. ‘Yes, Wordsworth is very well-behaved,’ I tell the agent, as I make a mental note to buy a dog cage for when I’m out.
‘Great. How about lunch-time today? 1pm okay?
So there I was, on my way to the viewing, standing at the lights as I waited to cross the road; my mind was all over the place. I looked up at the lights: green. Green means go; I stepped into the road. A double-decker bus came hurtling towards me. I froze. Everything slowed down: of course green doesn’t mean go, I’m a pedestrian. What was I thinking? If it wasn’t for the person standing behind me, who yanked me back onto the pavement, I wouldn’t be here now. I turned to thank the stranger who saved my life, but nobody was behind me; another pedestrian pointed out a woman with long dark hair wearing a red dress who’d already fled.
I reach inside my bag and check the time on my phone. It will be another fifteen minutes before I’m due to meet my mystery benefactor. The midday sun penetrates my bare neck and arms; I remove my sunglasses and wipe away the perspiration nestled between my brows. I take the bottle of water out of my bag, I take a swig then drip the rest into Wordsworth’s mouth. As hot and thirsty as I am, it must be much worse for my loyal furry companion. The garden is encased by a stone wall. A cherry-blossom tree hangs down, shielding it from the piercing sun like a Japanese parasol so I walk over and sit down; the shade instantly cooling my burning skin. The sound of birdsong loosens the knot in my shoulders, as I lean back against the tree and relish the warm breeze as it filters through the umbrella of cherry blossom. Wordsworth moves in closer to the wall as the owner of a bicycle pings their bell. Something tickles my arm; it’s a ladybird, reminding me of another hot day many years ago….
It was 1976, the hottest summer on record, Britain voted to stay in the European Union, and ladybirds swarmed the nation. More importantly it was the year I left primary school and had my first bicycle. I was coming up to twelve years old: virtually a grown up.
My best friend, Susan, who’d always lived in the house next-door moved away to a village on the outskirts of town. There was no more somersaulting over our orange space-hoppers, no more building dens in the abandoned allotment plots at the back of our house, and no more going to Brownies together. My life was over as a I knew it. Until, in an attempt to compensate for the loss of my best friend, my parents bought me a bicycle. My passage to freedom. If Susan couldn’t come to me, then me and my bicycle would just have to go to Susan.
The only obstacle in my way, was I’d only been to Susan’s house once before. I was with Susan and her mother then, so there was no chance of getting lost. It was about two-and-a-half miles away; across the dual carriageway, under the railway bridge, past the stream, past the church, and through to the other side of the village. There was no way my parents would let me cycle there on my own; especially since I didn’t know where I was going. But what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
As soon as my parents left for work I ran to the telephone table in the hall and picked up my mother’s book that contained all her telephone numbers. It looked like a mini-telephone and you dialled the letter of the person you wanted a number for. Susan’s surname was Peters, so I dialled ‘P’ and the book sprang open. I picked up the chunky receiver of the red telephone and dialled the number.
‘Hello,’ a familiar voice echoed down the line.
‘Susan, is that you?’
‘Yes. Yes, it is. Anna? Is that you?’
‘How did you guess?’
‘I’d know your voice anywhere,’ Susan laughed, like she thought what I said was funny. ‘I can’t believe I’m actually speaking to you. How are you?’
‘Well, it’s boring here without you. But guess what?’
‘Tell me, tell me. What is it?’
‘I have a new bike. Mum and Dad are at work so I’m going to cycle over to your house.’
‘Oh Anna, that would be fantastic. But how do you know how to get here?’
‘I’ll find it. It can’t be that difficult. I know as far as the stream, I think.’
‘Well, I could come and meet you by the stream with Nancy; she’s almost fourteen, so she’ll know how to get there.’
‘Okay. Who’s Nancy?’ I felt a pang of jealousy as I imagined her taking my place as Susan’s new best friend.
‘Nancy lives over the road. There aren’t many kids round here, so we’ve kind of got stuck together.’
‘Is she nice?’ A picture of Susan and Nancy having sleepovers’; staying awake until midnight, sharing stories and sweets, formed in my head.
‘She’s okay. Not as much fun as you though.’
The knot in my stomach loosened as I discovered Susan still considered me to be her best friend. Still, I was intrigued as to what Nancy was like and arranged to meet them both at the stream in an hour’s time. I took my packed lunch out of the fridge and put it in a cool bag together with an ice pack and a bottle of orange squash. I went over to the blue kitchen dresser where my mother kept a notebook and pen for her shopping list and pulled down the hatch. I couldn’t tell her where I was really going, so I left a note pretending I’d gone swimming at the new sports centre at the top of the road. I was a strong swimmer so she wouldn’t mind me doing that. I was just about to click the hatch back into place when I noticed a bar of chocolate hidden at the back. I thought this would go down nicely with my sandwiches so added that to the bag as well.
I put my bag of goodies into the basket at the front of my bicycle and set off down the road. I was a bit shaky on my two wheels at first, but I soon got the hang of it. There was an underpass that went under the dual carriageway to the other side of the road, so I headed in that direction. The heat of the sun scorched my arms as I held onto the handle bars. A bead of perspiration formed on the top of my lip and the plastic saddle was becoming slippery as if the heat had made that melt too. When I reached the underpass, the coolness provided brief respite from the blistering heat. I was starting to feel thirsty and the thought of the delicious chocolate made my tummy grumble. I was about to stop for refreshments but the roar of traffic overhead made me cycle through to the other side as fast as I could. I imagined my parents coming home from work and wondering where I was before a policeman came knocking at the door to say I’d been buried alive under a volcano of melted tarmac.
My next stop would be the railway bridge. I was a little unsure which way to head but then I heard a train rumbling past in the distance, so followed the sound. After a while I spotted the bridge ahead of me: I let out a sigh of relief as I discovered I was going the right way. I cycled on, feeling pleased I’d managed to travel such a long way all on my own.
Just after I passed the railway bridge, the road forked into two. I couldn’t remember there being two roads when I came here before and didn’t know which road to choose. A ladybird flew down and landed on my handlebars before flying off down the road that forked to the left. There were a lot of ladybirds around that summer and my father said they were lucky; I considered this to be an omen and followed the same path as the ladybird. The path started to slope upwards: I pedalled harder. Unlike the roar of the underpass, the pathway was peaceful. I could hear the trickle of the stream: I realised I was on a bridge and the stream was flowing beneath me. There hadn’t been a bridge last time I was here. Had I taken the wrong turn? So much for ladybirds being good luck. I was just about to turn back the way I came when some boys ran past almost knocking me off my bicycle.
‘Hey look where you’re going,’ I called after them. But they just laughed.
‘Get off and milk it,’ one of them shouted.
‘Wow you’re original,’ I barked back, but they’d already gone.
It was then I first heard it. No more than a faint whimper at first. Then a bit louder, and a splashing sound followed by a bark. I looked over the side of the bridge but couldn’t see anything. There were steps heading down towards the stream, where the boys had come from, so I jumped off my bicycle and bumped it down the steps. The sound was coming from under the bridge. I dumped my bike down on the grassy bank, pulled off my sandals, and rolled up my jeans. Holding on to the bridge wall for support, I made my way down the bank and peered under the bridge. Right in the centre of the stream was a small golden coloured dog, splashing around. It looked as if it could swim but the water looked deep and the current was taking it down stream. I needed to do something fast.
I ran around to the other side of the bridge and looked to see if there was a stick or something I could entice the dog back to the bank with. But there was nothing. It looked like I would be going swimming after-all. The water came almost up to my chest; its coolness refreshing my burning skin as I waded through. Although I’d passed my bronze award at swimming club, this was different; there was no force of the current at the swimming pool. It crossed my mind there was nobody else around if I drowned, but I pushed this to one side and focussed on grabbing the dog. I’d entered the water a little further downstream from where the dog was, so by the time I reached the centre, I was in almost within touching distance. Momentarily, I thought about what I’d do if the dog bit me? But there was no time to consider something that might not happen; I had a job to do. Trying to move against the current was impossible so I stood still and held out my arms as the puppy was washed towards me. As he whimpered and licked my face in gratitude, I realised I needn’t have worried about him not being friendly after-all. I waded back to the bank and the puppy, who I could now see was a male golden retriever, clung on to me, his paws embracing my neck and his head on my chest like a baby.
When we reached the bank I needed something to stop him running off again, so I took the belt from my jeans and looped it through his collar. I grabbed my bike and sandals and climbed to the top of the bank. Now I could see the wrong turning I took ran parallel to the road I should have taken; the stream ran between them. If I stayed walking along the edge of bank I would eventually come to the place where I was meeting Susan.
As I made my way to our meeting place, I saw two girls. One lay on the grass and the other was shouting. As I got closer I could see the girl shouting was Susan and she was calling for help. The other girl looked like she might be dead. The puppy pulled excitedly towards them and it was hard to keep up with him and steer my bike at the same time.
Susan came running towards me. ‘Anna, I’m so glad to see you. And Wallis: you’ve rescued him.’
‘Oh my god what’s happened, Sue.’
‘It’s Nancy. She has this disease where she needs to eat chocolate. I mean like, she really has to have it or she could die.’
I thought of the chocolate in my bag and knew how she felt. ‘So she’s not dead yet then?’
‘No.’ Susan looked at me horrified as if just saying such a thing might make it true. ‘She became dizzy and took out her chocolate to eat it, then these horrid boys came along and snatched it from her, then Wallis chased after them and before we knew it he’d jumped into the water, and then Nancy ran after him, and then she collapsed. Oh Anna, it’s so awful, I don’t know what to do.’
‘Well we mustn’t panic. Remember what Brown Owl taught us. We have to stay calm. And I have some chocolate so I suppose she can have it.’
I took the chocolate out of my bag and pressed it against Nancy’s lips. A ladybird crawled over her face and she moved her head from side to side before gradually opening her eyes. She tried to raise her head and made a mumbling sound. I wondered if she was thirsty too, so took the orange squash out of my bag. Placing my hand at the back of her head, I gently raised her a little before tipping the sugary liquid into her mouth. Nancy became more coherent and sat up but she was still dazed.
‘I need to find Wallis, she mumbled as she tried to stand’
‘It’s okay, Anna’s already rescued him, I told you she was the best friend ever.’
A warm feeling rushed through me. How could I have thought Susan would forget me?
‘Here, have this,’ I tell Nancy, breaking off a chunk of chocolate.’
‘Cheers,’ she smiled at me. ‘You must be Anna; I’ve heard so much about you. And you’ve found Wallis,’ her smile breaking into a huge grin as Wallis jumped all over his owner, licking her face. ‘You saved both mine and Wallis’ lives. How can I ever repay you?’
When we got back to Susan’s house, Mrs Peters rang my mother at work to let her know where I was. It was agreed that Susan, Nancy and I would have a sleepover at Susan’s new house. We stayed up until the early hours of the morning, sharing stories. I told them about how I’d followed the ladybird and asked if they thought the ladybird had saved Wallis’ life by making me go down the wrong road. Nancy said she agreed with my father that ladybirds were magical creatures. Her own father’s family had lived in the village for centuries. She knew all the old wives’ tales of how the stream had been used to drown witches in bygone days. But although the village witches wore black hats like ordinary witches, their cloaks were bright red. Folk lore said only the bad witches died when they were drowned, and the good witches came back as ladybirds. But the really magical ones came back as people. The ordinary villagers knew these were special witches in a past life because the ladybirds were always close by to bring them good luck. She said the village had another tradition where if somebody saved your life then you had to always look out for them, or you would die as if they hadn’t rescued you at all. The spell was only broken if you saved their life in return; and if you did you still had to give them the thing they desired the most.
A car door slams, bringing me back to the present moment. A woman with long dark hair, wearing a red dress and dark sunglasses walks over. There’s something familiar about her but I can’t quite make it out. But as soon as she speaks I recognise her. The way her smile breaks into a huge grin as she bends down to smooth Wordsworth.
‘I used to know somebody who looked just like you,’ she tells him. ‘And you must be Anna,’ she says, giving me a hug. ‘So lovely to see you again after all this time.’
‘Nancy?’ She hasn’t changed much. ‘The other day, at the traffic lights, was that..?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been around, looking out for you, but now it’s time for me to go.’ Her hand flashes a ruby engagement ring. ‘There’s somebody else that needs me now. But before I go, I need to give you this.’
I stare at the set of keys in front of me. ‘But it’s too much. I couldn’t possibly…’
‘You have to,’ she tells me. ‘You saved my life that day. Now I have saved yours in return, but I still need to give you the thing you desire the most. You do need a house don’t you? But if you don’t like it, or perhaps there’s something else?
‘It’s perfect, I tell her. ‘But that’s just an old wives’ tale. It’s not true.’
‘A lot of people think that way. But I know better.’ A ladybird, falls on the keys before floating off towards the house.