The water was too hot, Agnes called for Alice but by now she was downstairs helping Cook with dinner and in any event Agnes preferred to bath her son herself. She had already surprised her friends and had an almighty row with Ambrose over her refusal to employ a nanny and she knew that her preference to look after him herself, as much as possible, was considered very odd .
“Come along my little man, we’ll manage perfectly well on our own won’t we?” Henry, sitting on a vast towel on the bathroom floor smiled back and returned to his wooden bricks. Proud of her modern bathroom, with shiny taps and running water, Agnes added cold water to the enormous bath and tested it with her elbow as she had seen her own nanny do many years earlier. Satisfied that it was at last the correct temperature, she lowered the child into the bath and called to her nephew Edwin to give her a hand and so set in train the series of events that would ultimately culminate in the death of Edwin five years later.
Poppy hated the journey back to school. Not because she had to go back to school, but because her mother made it such hard work. She sighed as she watched her younger brother drag his heels across the station platform, trying to distance himself from the woman in an electric yellow cape marching in front of him. She knew exactly how he felt, how he longed to be anywhere at all but following his mother. It was only recently that Poppy had realised that nobody else seemed to notice her mother. The embarrassment and dread that accompanied any outing with their mother was quite unnecessary. The crowds were quite blind to her eccentric appearance as she flapped her arms and called to Duncan as he dawdled behind her. But it still didn’t stop her dreading every public outing.
“Come along darling, you’ll miss the train if you don’t get a move on. Look Poppy’s waiting by the barrier.” She came to a sudden halt in front of Poppy, like a huge liner pulling into dock, and pulled two crumpled paper bags out of her enormous handbag. “Snacks!” She announced in a loud and commanding voice as if the snacks might choose suddenly to change themselves into something else altogether. Poppy took the bags and balanced them on the top of her suitcase. Duncan looked on in horror as a third bag was extracted. “I packed a third one just in case any of your friends were hungry too. Some of them do have to travel a long way and they might be a bit peckish by the time you all get on the train.”
“Thank you Mum.” Poppy took the third bag and glared at Duncan who managed a mumbled thank you whilst staring at his shoes and praying for the floor to open up and swallow him. The pressure of people trying to squeeze through the barrier to the waiting trains was becoming stronger and Poppy pushed Duncan through. She turned and gave her mother a final hug before following him and the sea of people towards their train and the relative normality of school dragging her suitcase and shoving Duncan and his suitcase forward as they went.
By the time they had pushed through the crowds and got onto the train the doors were closing behind them and the train was pulling out of the station and heading towards the edges of London before they found their seats. Poppy left Duncan with his friends, he declined to take his snack bag. Poppy had some sympathy with him and moved along the train looking for Helen.
“Hey what’s in there?” She poked her finger into a carrier bag on the lap of a girl sprawled over two seats.
“Poppy! I began to think you weren’t coming. I’ve saved you a seat.” She sat up and Poppy dumped her case next to the rest of the pile of luggage and clambered to the empty seat by the window.
“It was the usual long drawn out farewell.” She held up her paper bag. “Complete with interesting snacks for the journey. Do you want some?”
The other girl smiled weakly. “What is it?”
Poppy leaned against the cool of the window; the fight to get onto the train had made her rather hot and bothered. Unlike the more modern long distance trains there were no tables and the seats were just a little too small. As Poppy leaned back she slipped towards the edge of the seat. She looked around at the sea of boys and girls, the youngest in their new uniform, clearly bought to last and several sizes too big. Others, like herself in skirts bought many years earlier and even Poppy thought were perhaps edging on the wrong side of decency. She turned back to her friend
“I’ve no idea. Dad was starting to harvest the beetroot at the weekend so there’s probably something beetrooty, and Mum’s been writing a new book this summer so there’s been lots of experimentation. You don’t have to eat it; I’ll leave it discretely on the seat and hope I don’t get arrested under some law about dangerous substances.” She tucked the three bags in the gap between the two seats empty seats opposite and took the proffered chocolate biscuit. “She means well, but her cooking really is dreadful.”
“She sells lots of books.”
“I know but I can’t imagine anyone actually cooks with them. Her recipes really are a bit odd…” They giggled and sat back and worked their way through the packet of biscuits.
“Poppy, I’ve got some news.”
“Good or bad?”
“Mmm, sort of both.”
“That sounds sort of bad.”
“Well I’ll never have to sleep in that pokey, horrible attic room again.”
Poppy raised her eyebrows. “That sounds like good to me.”
“I won’t have to sleep in that pokey, horrible attic room again because Mum has got Battersby’s job and the flat that goes with it.”
Poppy spluttered, sending chocolately crumbs all over the seat opposite. It was a moment before she was able to speak. “That is dreadful news. Your mother is the new matron? Oh Helen you are kidding?”
“Sadly not. Do you think it’s that bad?”
Poppy sat back in her seat and looked heavenwards. “She’ll come down on us like a ton of bricks if we breathe at the wrong time.” The train sped through a tunnel and her ears popped. Poppy closed her eyes and shook her head. When she opened them there was a tall blonde girl brushing the crumbs off the two empty seats opposite them. The girl was wearing the same school uniform as her, so Poppy supposed she must be a new pupil, but she looked as if she had stepped out of the pages of Vogue and try as she might Poppy could not stifle the niggling feeling of jealousy crawling up her back.
“Anyone sitting here?” Before waiting for a reply she tapped Poppy’s foot. Poppy immediately removed it from the seat. The newcomer swept off the remaining chocolate crumbs before smoothing her skirt as she sat down.
“What a dreadful journey. There’s nowhere to sit. Every seat seemed to be reserved for somebody.”
Poppy looked at the enormous mound of luggage that had suddenly appeared. All movement up and down the carriage had ceased. Faced with a wall of leather suitcases and matching bags everyone had given up and returned to their seats.
The girl was clearly oblivious to the chaos she had caused and had begun to pull out her purse from her bag. “Is there a trolley service? I’m gasping.”
Poppy returned her gaze to the blockage in the aisle. “Not any longer I don’t think.” For a moment she considered offering her the dubious contents of the three paper bags her mother had provided but decided against it. Helen offered a chocolate digestive. The new girl recoiled in horror.
“No wheat, and no dairy with sugar.”
Poppy blinked and exchanged glances with Helen. This girl was going to get jolly hungry if she was going to stay off biscuits all term thought Poppy.
“I was going to get some drinks from the buffet. Would you like something?” Poppy fiddled in her coat pocket for some change. She hoped she didn’t ask for something too expensive, there was less than she had expected.
“Mineral water, still. I don’t do sparkling. Welsh is good. I can’t pronounce the name, but it has a blue label. That one’s very good.”
Helen gave Poppy a pound and Poppy climbed over the luggage and made her way along the train to the buffet leaving Helen to struggle to make conversation with the new girl. By the time she returned with two cans of lemonade and the only bottle of still water the buffet sold, the conversation had ground to a halt.
“Poppy, this is Julia. She will be in Year Eight with us…”
“Lovely,” replied Poppy with little feeling.
Julia glanced at the bottle in Poppy’s hand. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly drink that. It’s full of chemicals. Yes, I’m just coming for the one year, thank goodness.”
Poppy was beginning to think the feeling was mutual, but managed a weak smile. “Well, welcome to Martingdale Abbey.” The train jolted and Poppy lurched towards Julia who put her hands up in horror. “It looks like we’re here.” She handed Helen her lemonade and they dragged their suitcases off the train. Boys and girls tumbled out of carriages and half-heartedly made their way towards the waiting buses. Julia stood alone in the carriage. Poppy sighed and went back in. “Is something the matter?”
“My cases, I can’t possibly carry them all.” She picked up a small overnight bag and swept off the train leaving Poppy surrounded by her bags.
By the time they reached school Poppy was struggling to keep her temper. “How dare she treat me like her servant? I’m surprised she didn’t click her fingers. If she thinks I’m going to carry them off the bus and into school as well she has got another think coming. She’s unbelievable.” Helen let Poppy rattle on only half listening to what she was saying; the enormity of having her mother as the school matron was only just dawning on her and she wasn’t entirely sure she was looking forward to it.
After their first brush with Julia both Poppy and Helen were quite keen to stay out of her way. However, fate had other ideas and as they dragged their suitcases along the corridor they could hear her voice and it was coming from their room.
“Tell me this isn’t happening. Pinch me and make me wake up.” Helen looked helplessly at Poppy.
Julia had already taken the best bed, tucked around the corner and with access to the deep windowsill, which she was covering with her books and a large collection of toiletries.
“Oh hello, you two again.” Julia turned and gave Poppy and Helen a quick glance and returned to her unpacking.
Knowing her friend only too well, Helen put a restraining hand on Poppy’s arm and her finger to her lips.
Poppy took a deep breath and threw her coat on the bed by the door. This was not how she had planned on spending her senior year at Martingdale. Stuck with the worst bed in the dorm with the new girl from hell. Suddenly, for the first time in years she felt a pang of homesickness and wished she had kept her mother’s snacks. The beetroot and chocolate cookies might not be to everyone’s taste, but they were a tangible link to home and right now she wanted to be anywhere but here.
Edwin lay in bed and listened to the wind howl around the metal window frames. He thought their rattling sounded like dried up skeletons banging to be let in and shuffled further down the bed, pulling the covers completely over his head. It was dark and stuffy but at least he couldn’t hear the windows any more. Eventually he had to come up for air and he poked his nose out from under the top sheet. It was cold and he could feel his nose start to run. He wiped it on the edge of the sheet and watched the shadows on the ceiling.
As the eldest in the dormitory, he had chosen his bed and to everyone’s surprise had opted for the one by the door. He didn’t want the beds by the window, the draughts and rattling unnerved him and he liked to be able to see who was coming into the room before anyone else did. He also had room for a chair next to his bed, a small perk, but one none of the other boys had. He wasn’t sure what time it was, the moon was throwing pale shadows of the trees across the walls and ceiling and he guessed it must be hours until the morning bell. He turned to face the wall and tried to go back to sleep. He could hear the gentle snores of the other boys as they echoed round the room, one or two were becoming louder and he moved further down the covers to try and drown them out.
A gentle draught blew over the edge of his exposed forehead. It was cold and instinctively he pulled up the sheet again. Then he stopped. The window was on the other side of the room. Where was the draught coming from? He placed his hands slowly over the wall and, like a policeman doing a fingertip search; he painstakingly worked his way along the wall next to his bed. He found it; a thin line working its way across the wall diagonally from his pillow. It wasn’t quite straight; it looked more like a crack in the plaster. He sat up and ran his finger along its entire length. Then he heard it. It was like a scratching noise. He pulled his finger back with a start. The noise stopped and tentatively he placed his hand back on the wall. He didn’t wake anyone up so he couldn’t have screamed, but it wasn’t for want of trying.
The evening had gone on forever. Helen and Poppy unpacked more or less in silence. Relegated to the bed by the door Poppy did at least have space for a chair by her bed, on which she carefully placed her alarm clock, an old-fashioned wind up clock that folded into its own case. It had been her father’s when he and her mother had first got married and as a little child she had been fascinated by the way it folded up into a neat little box. Her father had explained that it was a travelling clock and when she had first gone away to school he had solemnly presented it to her, saying that as she was a traveller now it was hers. Next to her clock went sock monkey, a rather strange creature fashioned from a pair of pink stripy socks. They had been all the rage a couple of terms ago and her mother had unexpected cottoned on to this and made one for Poppy so that she would not be left out. Her mother’s sewing skills were, noted Poppy at the time, as experimental as her cookery, and it bore little resemblance to the cute long-legged monkeys her friends tucked in their bags and sat on their pillows. Hers had two very short fat legs and two extremely uneven arms, as if one had been amputated at the elbow. The ears were attached somewhere in the region of the back of the head, giving the monkey a look not unlike a speeding terrier and one eye fell off within minutes. Nonetheless, Poppy loved him. It was the only time her mother had actually noticed a fashion or trend and Poppy knew that it had probably taken her hours and a lot of sore fingers to create the oddity she held in her hands. Long after everyone else had moved on to the next trend Poppy still took Sock Monkey with her everywhere. Her link with home, however eccentric it was.
Her chest of drawers was pushed up next to Julia’s and as she put her clothes away she could hardly not notice that whilst her drawers were sparse with plenty of room, Julia had to squeeze and push to force her drawers to shut. Poppy had never seen anyone turn up with quite so many clothes and was secretly fascinated by the colours and textures. Julia went next door to hang up her washbag and Poppy stroked a soft baby blue jumper poking out of the top drawer.
Poppy pulled her hand back and shoved it protectively in her armpit, as if burned. Julia looked at her for a moment as if about to say something else, but then she changed her mind, began to sort her games kit and turned her back on Poppy.
Throughout all this Helen watched the two girls from her bed in the middle and wondered how on earth she was going to survive this term. For the first time she thought that having her mother as the matron was the least of her worries. Although nothing had been said, it was quite clear that Julia was as cross to have been put in the same dorm as they were to have her there. The three girls continued their unpacking in silence Julia didn’t seem to want to talk to them and they both felt uncomfortable talking as if she wasn’t there.
Lights out was dreadful. As it was the first day of term, Mrs Beecham came round personally to turn out the lights and say goodnight. Helen squirmed and ignored her mother. Poppy was polite but cool. She wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out and she didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. Julia had no such fear and began with a list of complaints. As she lay there Poppy conceded that some of them were quite valid and she couldn’t see why they had to supervise the juniors’ tooth brushing either, but more wisely, she kept quiet.
“Julia you don’t make the rules, you keep them.” Poppy muffled a laugh; Helen turned to the wall and buried her head under the covers. Mrs Beecham said goodnight and turned out the lights.
Julia, unaware of the relationship between her new roommate and the matron, scowled. “Cow!” Helen shot up, but Poppy was faster and glared silently at her friend putting a finger discretely to her lips. Helen met Poppy’s eyes and reluctantly slid back under the covers. Meanwhile Julia turned over to face the wall and went to sleep. It was then that the unravelling began.
Poppy curled into a ball and stuck her nose between Sock Monkey’s wonky ears. ’It’s only the first day. Julia’s probably a bit unsure of herself, it can’t be easy being the new girl when everyone else has been here for ages, thought Poppy as she shifted to avoid the draught that was coming from the wall. She wriggled again. It was jolly cold and it didn’t seem to matter where she put her head, she couldn’t avoid it. Slowly she put her hand to the wall and felt for the source of the draught. It didn’t take her long. There was a crack, just above her head. It stretched diagonally across the wall for about twelve inches. She edged closer and wondered if she could see all the way to the outside. That would certainly be an excellent excuse to move rooms and hopefully to one without Julia Montague. Her earlier sympathy was vanishing rapidly into the cool air brushing her face.
As she leaned closer her fingers pressed against the wall, but there was no resistance. The wall seemed to melt and she watched, incredulous, as the tips of her fingers disappeared into the plasterwork. She yanked them out and rubbed them. Slowly she prodded the wall very gently and once again her fingers slid effortlessly through the wall. It wasn’t unpleasant; it was rather odd, strangely ticklish as if somebody was running their fingers over her palm. She tried to pull her hand back. Somebody was running their fingers over her hand. But as she pulled the other hand pulled too and the other hand was stronger.
Fear gripped her whole body, she hadn’t realised how strong she was as she fought the hand on the other side. But as the whole wall melted there was nothing to hold her back and she had no choice but to let herself be dragged through. She felt hot angry tears stream down her face. She didn’t usually cry easily and the tears made her angry, then she cried even more.
It was several moments before she realised that the tugging had stopped. She opened her eyes, instinctively wrapped her arms around herself and curled into as tight a ball as she could. It was dark, but warm and she was sitting on something soft, a bit scratchy. She put her hand down, it felt like their old picnic rug. Suddenly she felt whatever she was sitting on shift and fear gripped her again. She pushed herself up against the wall. This time it did not yield and she sat, completely still, holding her breath.
There was movement again. Poppy’s grip tightened on Sock Monkey and she wished she had brought something more useful with her.
“Hello.” A voice, almost a whisper, crept out of the dark.
Poppy didn’t trust herself to reply. She didn’t trust herself to breathe, but breathe she had to and having held her breath for so long she gasped for air.
The voice spoke again. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to scare you. If it helps I’m terrified too.” It paused. Poppy remained silent. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
Poppy’s fear vanished and was replaced by hot-headed anger. “Why am I here? How should I know? You’re the one that dragged me through the wall. Where am I and who are you?”
Poppy felt a hand over her mouth and tried to scream, but once again the hand was stronger than her and though she was silent she involuntarily stiffened, sitting rigid as the owner of the hand gradually and tentatively let go.
“Shush. For goodness sake you’ll wake the entire dorm.” Poppy could begin to make out a boy in front of her. He looked about thirteen, the same age as her. Short dark hair, it was hard to tell in the dim light and he was wearing striped pyjamas. Very old-fashioned, thought Poppy. She could feel the boy giving her the once over as well. Her pink sheep pyjamas though very comfy and warm were not, she knew, her best feature. Old and missing a couple of buttons they did look a bit scruffy. Rather like Sock Monkey, she thought as she released the toy from her vice-like grip around its neck.
“I bet he feels better now!” The boy smiled and nodded at the oddly shaped monkey. She began to breathe normally and her anger subsided. She looked nervously around her. It was a fairly small room, not unlike the one she had left behind. There were three beds; she was sitting on the one nearest the door. There were two other beds, one underneath a window with a deep windowsill. Suddenly Poppy had an overwhelming desire to be sick. She pulled her pyjama top to her mouth and concentrated with all her mind on keeping her mouth shut and her supper down. Eventually she felt confident enough to breathe again and open her mouth. This was her dorm, Beauly dorm, Martingdale Abbey School, but there were three boys in it. There were no posters on the walls, the curtains were thin and brown, not the thick yellow flowered ones she had left behind. The built in dressing tables and drawers had been replaced by three heavy, white painted chests of drawers. There were no knick-knacks, no photographs or ornaments to remind them of home. She could make out what looked like a book on each chest of drawers. There was something else missing. She looked around again. No mirrors. Poppy felt the beginning of a smile. Definitely a boys’ room. Even she wouldn’t put up with a room without a mirror. The beds were laid out in pretty much the same pattern. Though as the room was so small there was little option for any other floor plan. The beds however, were quite different, metal framed with sheets and thick blankets. They looked quite severe compared to the fluffy duvets covered with cuddly toys that were in her dorm. Eventually she turned to the boy on the bed next to her.
“I’m Poppy. I don’t understand but this is Beauly dorm isn’t it?”
The boy nodded and repeated his question. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
“Because you pulled me through the wall.”
“I did not.”
“There was a crack in my wall, you pulled me through.”
“No there was a crack in my wall, look.” He pointed to the crack on his side of the wall. It was about the same size as Poppy’s.
“I don’t think it makes a lot of difference who started it.” Poppy stared at the crack.
What are those?” Edwin tentatively prodded Poppy’s pyjamas.
“Pyjamas, like yours, well sort of.” Poppy realised that his immaculate, if old-fashioned, pyjamas were nothing like hers.
“But you’re a girl.”
“You wear a nightdress.”
“No I don’t. I hate them, they ride up and I get cold.”
“How old are you?”
“What,” Edwin paused and then went on, “what date is it today?” Poppy thought for a moment.
“Umm.” The boy on the bed looked thoughtful. “On my side of the wall it is September 24, 1908.”
“Oh.” Poppy didn’t know what to say, or really what to do. Part of her wanted to be safely on the other side, for this to be a dream. But part of her, the part that she would later wish she had ignored, wanted desperately to know what would happen next.
“And on your side?”
“On my side it’s quite a lot later,” answered Poppy as ambiguously as she could.
“So you’re from the future?” He sucked in his breath and sat back against the headboard. “It’s a dream, but a jolly good one. Far better than usual. I don’t want to wake up.”
Poppy shivered. “I do, I want to wake up right now. But I don’t think we can.” She reached out and touched the boy for the first time since he had put his hand over her mouth. “We’re both wide awake and I don’t know how to get back.” They both looked at the crack in the wall. Poppy prodded it, but her finger just bent back. There was no soft melting of the plaster. “What do I do now?”
“I don’t know.” He held onto her hand and despite all her best efforts Poppy began to cry.
“Please don’t, oh gosh, please, please don’t cry.”
By now Poppy was sobbing loudly, all pretence at bravery long gone. She rubbed Sock Monkey’s lumpy tail against her cheek and cried into his ears. Completely taken off guard and with no idea what to do the boy just sat and waited for her to stop.
“Sorry, I’m okay now.” Poppy sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I need to find out how to get back.” She looked around at the sleeping boys and back to the boy in front of her. “But I think I need to find out why I am here at all. Who are you?”
“Edwin Sinclair. This is Martingdale Abbey School. There are thirty-five boys here and we are all choristers at the Abbey. I’m thirteen years old, it was my birthday yesterday. My father is posted to St Petersburg in Russia and I live with my aunt and uncle in London in the holidays.” He stopped and Poppy took over.
“I’m Poppy McWhirter and I go to Martingdale Abbey School too.” Edwin raised his eyebrows but Poppy ignored him and went on. “There are about two hundred boys and girls, including twenty or so choristers. Most of us are boarders, but there are some dayboys and girls. I have a brother Duncan; he is eleven and a chorister. I live in Dunnshire. My father is a history professor and my mother writes cookery books.”
Neither of them spoke, both desperate to learn more about the world of the other but both scared of what they might find out.
“So what now?” Edwin broke the silence.
“I don’t know. I want to go home; I really want to go home.” As she spoke she leaned back against the wall and thought of her bed on the other side. She leaned further back and suddenly Edwin began to blur. She panicked and tried to lean forward to hold onto him.
He put out his hand to grab her. “Wait!”
But Poppy continued falling backwards and lay on her own bed. She leaned forward towards the wall. “I’ll be back,” she whispered. “I promise.”
The Abbey Tower poked through the haar like the castle at the top of the beanstalk. Although built on a hill on the edge of the River Tannet it was lower than the school buildings and the mist frequently settled in the dip during the autumn months, giving the buildings a magical appearance. Poppy looked out of the window at the choristers getting ready to lead on for morning practice in Song School and thought about Edwin. He would be doing exactly the same thing. She found herself thinking of him almost as if he were in another country doing the same things at the same time but just in a different place, not a different time altogether. She watched James Murray, the Head Chorister, try to organise the boys.
“Richard put your square on straight and quit mucking around! Richard are you listening? Richard! Duncan!”
“Sorry James, what?”
“Put your history revision away, give Duncan back his ear and put your square on straight”. Duncan let go of the equally dishevelled boy next to him, adjusted the cap on his head and was transformed from scabby kneed ragamuffin into an almost angelic choirboy. A few early morning tourists stopped to take photographs and the Dean’s Irish wolfhound, Conal cocked his leg against the wall in salute.
Once safely inside the vestry murmurs of disorder started to break out. Cloaks were hung up amongst cassocks of deep crimson and surplices in varying shades of white. The snake retraced its steps along the cloisters and into a large, bare room.
“Shove up Henry. If your voice was as big as your bum you could deafen the old bags in the cafe”.
“Who’s calling who fat? I didn’t have seven slices of cheese on toast for breakfast this morning. When you open your mouth there’ll be no room for any sound to come out.” Nonetheless, Henry moved obligingly along and another eight boys managed to squeeze in.
“Good morning gentlemen,” boomed a voice that seemed to be part of the Abbey itself. Indeed, there were many who believed that Charles Frobisher, Master of the Choristers, was just that, a part of the Abbey, a buttress that perhaps had lifted away from the rest of the building and taken on a life of its own. Size wise he certainly could have done duty as a support to the huge thick medieval walls. A tall man who was almost as wide as he was high he filled all the remaining space in Song School. Waistcoat straining against his ever-increasing girth and with a permanently red glow to his cheeks suggesting that merely standing up was a bit of an effort he was, nevertheless, quite a nimble man. .
“I trust you all had a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast?” Several boys sniggered and poked Duncan, who despite his enormous appetite was as skinny as a rake and showed no sign of ever having overeaten in his life. “Because, if your performance at Evensong last night was anything to go by you are going to need all the energy you can muster to survive the rollicking I am going to give you this morning.” Frobisher scanned the boys for any sign of dissent. Apart from a bit of wiggling down the probationer end of the bench where Simon Bell and Kevin Hughes were comparing the size of the scabs on their knees, he had their full attention.
They knew that last night’s service had not been one of their best. There had been some dodgy top notes which had been combined with an unprecedented amount of fidgeting. Itself not helped by the fact Guy Wilson was convinced he had seen movement on Johnny Watson’s head and whispered the word “nits” very loudly into both his neighbour’s ears.
“Right gentlemen; let’s have a look at the psalm first.” He scrunched up a scrap of paper and threw it at a red headed boy on his left. “Wake up James!”
And so it went on. Frobisher allowed himself a small smile and growled at the probationers who had moved on to the removal of their scabs, in order to better compare size and quality.
Whilst the boys returned and joined the rest of the school just in time for assembly, Helen took Poppy to one side as they handed out the hymnbooks.
“What’s up? You’ve been like a ghost since you got up. White as a sheet and hardly saying a word.”
Poppy started at the word ghost. That was precisely what she was trying to work out. If it had been the other way around and she had pulled Edwin into her world, then he would have been a ghost. So what did that make her in his world? thought Poppy. She had done little since she had woken other than go over the events of the night before and still none of it made sense. Part of her wondered if it really had been a dream, but she knew it wasn’t. Tonight she was going to go back. She had no idea how but she needed to see if she could.
“Poppy, what’s the matter with you?”
Poppy absentmindedly shoved hymnbooks in the direction of the younger children coming up the stairs and narrowly missed blinding several of them with the corners of Junior Praise Edition V. Those further down the queue, noticing the obstacle course, ducked and put their hands above their heads to grab a book as they filed into the hall.
“Nothing, I’m fine, I just didn’t sleep well last night. First night of term and all that.”
Poppy eyed up Julia as she took her book and followed the younger children into the hall. She couldn’t put a finger on it, but something about Julia made her uneasy.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Poppy paid little attention in class, ate her lunch without even being aware of what it was and did her prep on auto pilot, vaguely conscious that it was geography but completely oblivious to the subject matter. She counted the hours and then the minutes until bedtime and lights out.
The last ten minutes, in bed for quiet reading were the longest ten minutes she had ever endured. Helen was not convinced by Poppy’s explanation, but having failed to get anything else out of her all day had given up and concentrated on staying out of her mother’s way. Mrs Beecham was determined to make her mark as the new matron and Helen had no intention of being one of her first victims, family loyalty was clearly secondary to school rules. Julia ignored them both. Any attempt to make conversation had been pointedly rebuffed. She folded her clothes meticulously and placed them on her windowsill, hung up her blazer and began to apply the first of her many face creams. Poppy watched in fascination and vowed to buy some moisturiser at the weekend.
“Goodnight girls, sleep well.” Mrs Beecham turned out the light. Poppy placed her hand gently on the wall and waited. Gradually she felt the wall soften and she leaned forward and silently let the hand on the other side pull her through.
Although the initial element of shock had gone both Poppy and Edwin were still surprised to see each other. Neither had been entirely convinced that the other was real or that they would meet again and the relief as Poppy appeared through the wall was palpable. The night was clear with a bright moon casting sharp shadows around the room. Poppy could see more clearly and she examined Edwin closely. Aware that he was under her microscopic gaze he laughed.
Poppy blushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.” She fidgeted with embarrassment.
“It’s okay. I wanted a better look at you too.”
Poppy blushed even more and could feel the heat of her red face. She shook her head slightly so that her hair fell over one side of her face. Edwin very tentatively moved forward and tucked it back. Conscious that he had probably overstepped the mark he whipped his hand away. Neither of them spoke. Eventually the silence was broken by a loud snore from the other side of the room and they both giggled.
“That’s Henry. He has snored every night from the moment we started. He’s from a huge family and shares a room with about four or five brothers. I’ve never been sure how many there are. He loves it here for the peace and quiet. Shame it’s not so peaceful for the rest of us.” Henry had settled into a loud but rhythmic snore. The occupant of the third bed rolled over in his sleep, pulling his blankets over his head as he turned. “Who do you share a dorm with?”
“There’s me, my best friend Helen and a new girl Julia. Helen and I arrived at the same time. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother has just been made the new school matron.”
“Quite,” agreed Poppy. “I can’t tell you much about Julia; I’ve only known her a couple of days.” She paused.
“But you don’t think you’re going to like her?”
“How did you guess?”
“You wrinkled your nose when you said her name. My mother always used to do that when she talked about people she didn’t like.”
“I think I’d like her.” Poppy smiled.
“I’m sure you would, but she’s dead.”
Poppy blushed again. “I’m really sorry, I had no idea.” She wished she could keep her mouth shut.
“It’s fine. She died four years ago. Blood poisoning, she cut herself gardening and it never healed.”
Poppy thought how much she took stuff like antibiotics for granted; how different their worlds were. She didn’t belong here, it was all wrong. She turned towards the wall.
“Don’t go. Not just yet, please.”
Poppy returned her gaze to Edwin. The moon shone through the window directly onto her face. She had worn her thick red hair in plaits all day and released from its binding it was slightly frizzy and the moonlight gave her a magical quality, as if she wasn’t quite real. Edwin supposed that here in his time, she wasn’t real. But he had touched her and she felt real enough to him. He didn’t know what to say, what would make her stay. All he knew was that he had to stop her going. It was vital that she stayed.
“I don’t think it’s my choice. I don’t choose to come here. You bring me. It’s you pulling me through.” She sighed and looked down at her hands in her lap. “I imagine that even if I did go, somehow you would bring me back again. So the burning question is why? Why are you bringing me here? What am I here for?” She looked straight into his eyes and Edwin felt as if she was looking right into his soul, reading all his secrets. He shut his eyes quickly. He was way out of his depth. He opened them again very slowly and looked carefully at Poppy. Her gaze was less intense and he didn’t feel quite so threatened.
“I don’t know. I have no idea. I just felt a draught, put my hand to the wall and there you were. And, this time, I seem to remember that you were waiting for me. So it’s not just me doing all the work.”
“True, but I knew you would be on the other side.”
“Did you? You had far more confidence than I did.”
“Okay, I didn’t know for sure, but … well I hoped you would be.” Now it was Poppy’s turn to look away. She regained her composure and turned back to Edwin. “Look, there’s not much point me just crawling through the wall every evening. If there is a reason then it looks as if we have to do a little work ourselves to figure out what it is. Give me a couple of days; let me dig around a bit.”
“Dig around in my future?”
Poppy nodded. It sounded creepy when he said it, but there was no getting around the fact that Poppy would know about Edwin’s future long before he ever experienced it himself. And that was the first of the ties that began to bind Edwin and Poppy together whether they wanted it that way or not.