IN THE WEB OF TIME: fiction for teenagers and young adults
BOOK ONE: BE GONE
Doubts and niggles
For several days now – maybe even two weeks – William had a disturbing feeling that he was being followed. He would not be able to explain it or back it up with any proof, but from the moment he woke up to the moment he closed his eyes at night, he felt he was not alone. Somebody’s eyes were constantly on him, somebody’s breath brushed against the back of his neck, he could hear footsteps behind him but when he turned there would be no one there. At least – not a person, but sometimes he would see a cat.
It was the same – as far as he could say – cat: black mostly, with some white on its paws and the end of its tail distributed evenly up to a certain level as if a perfectly black animal had been dipped in white paint up to its knees. Its whiskers were white too. The cat had huge yellow eyes. It would glare at William in a challenging sort of way. It would not waver or scurry away, but neither would it come any closer to him. It was always some ten steps away. Once William tried to approach it, but as soon as he extended his arms towards it, the feline creature bared its needle-sharp teeth and hissed at him. William stopped in his tracks. “Okay,” he said. “I get the message.”
The cat stared.
“Are you following me?” William asked marvelling at how ridiculous he must have sounded taking to a stray animal. “I’ve seen you around.”
The cat stared.
“Stop following me,” William raised his forefinger. “I’m warning you.”
The cat hissed, rose to his feet, arched its back lazily and strolled away. William looked around to see if anyone witnessed his strange exchange with the damned creature, but luckily he was alone. Well, not quite alone – the cat was there, somewhere in the hedge, William could see the pair of yellow eyes still peering at him. He set off for the school entrance – there was no point pursuing some stupid stray in the bushes.
William wasn’t a nerd, nor was he superstitious, he trained in martial arts and fencing – he could stand his own ground against anyone, but the problem was that he did not know how to confront someone who wasn’t quite there, or someone who wasn’t quite… human.
Perhaps it was his head playing tricks on him. He had been studying for his A-levels, preparing for the fencing tournament in April and chasing girls relentlessly for the past few months. It had to be some form of exhaustion.
Maybe he was going mad. There was a history of madness in the family, mum had let it slip once, which she had then fervently denied, but William wasn’t a fool. He knew there was something odd going on in their family on mum’s side as she would never speak of her roots and she did not seem to have any living – or dead – relatives. Unlike dad. Dad had a brother and two sisters, they had children – William’s cousins; there was a grandpa and a grandma on dad’s side and William used to stay with them in Kent during the summer holidays when he was younger. There would be Christmas cards and birthday money from dad’s family, but not a peep from mum’s. Mum stood alone as if her family had all died out or disinherited her. Or gone mad.
A heavy hand landed on William’s back. It made him jump. It was Oliver: restless, fiery with the flame of his red hair, and weird at the best of times.
“Going for a swim after school? Will race you.” He flung his books, tied up with a brown string into a neat parcel, over his shoulder as he pushed the front door open with his foot.
They were walking down the busy school corridor filled with familiar faces, some of whom would soon belong to the past. But not Oliver – he was also, like William, aiming for Oxford. They would meet there after the summer holidays. William was looking forward to getting away from home and living the life to the fullest – in no other than Oxford! It was just the small matter of exams this June…
“So how about that swim? Worried I’ll beat you?” Oliver reminded him with a self-assured grin.
“No, course not! You can’t beat me, as we both know,” William grinned back at him, “but I think I’m seeing Charlotte after school.”
“I wish I wasn’t. She can be tedious at times – all that walking her home stuff’s getting to me. I’ve no time for all that,” William sighed.
“You’re bored with her, aren’t you?” Once again Oliver banged him on the back with a heavy hand. He looked impressed. “You lucky bastard!”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
“Only the good looks, huh?” Oliver grimaced. With his thoroughly freckled skin and small matt-brown eyes void of eyebrows or expression, he wasn’t the best looking of boyfriend material on offer. Creepy, as Charlotte had once put it.
“Yeah, good looks and personal charm,” William smiled ruefully. He didn’t want to talk about it. Girlfriends seemed to come and go in quick succession. None of them could hold his attention for longer than a couple of months. They were too bland, too predictable. They wanted to be walked home, fought for, begged for favours, showered with gifts, but they had little to offer in return. There was something missing in all of them. William could not tell what it was, but he would know it the instant he found it. For now, he kept looking. Tirelessly and without any luck.
Deep down, William was a hopeless romantic. He yearned that great, one-in-a-lifetime love. He knew it existed. He felt it deep in his gut: the mystery, the tragedy, the intensity of it. He knew it was out there, he just hadn’t found it yet. Sliding on the surface of casual relationships was becoming wearisome. The girls were eating into his time, boring him with their gossip and vanity, envy and insecurities. Searching for the one-and-only was a cruel task – he had to break so many hearts as he went. It didn’t give him any pleasure to do that, but he had to find her. She was there. He knew she was. Sometimes he had a distinct feeling that he had already met her – she was almost like a memory: an unclear and distant memory, someone he had come across when he was a little boy or maybe in another lifetime… if he was to believe in such fantasies, which he did not. Of course, he didn’t.
Maybe it would be Emily. William gazed in her direction. They were in the same class for geography. She had only joined the college in September and kept pretty much to herself. There was that air of mystery about her, something still to be uncovered.
Mr Kemp, known as Forest-Kemp, the geography teacher was banging on about the richness of natural resources in the African continent. William was contemplating the richness of the natural resources of Emily Tomlinson. She was athletic, tall and very alluring.
During the lunch break, William took his leave of Oliver in the cafeteria and swaggered off to make better acquaintance with Emily Tomlinson. There was a non-descript girl sitting next to her and chatting with great animation. Emily was eating a pie, and William instantly regretted having chosen the fish.
“How’s the pie?” he asked as he slid into a seat opposite her.
The non-descript girl stopped talking and stared.
“Not bad,” Emily said.
“Not bad at all,” the non-descript girl reassured him now that she had recovered her voice.
“We haven’t really been officially introduced,” William was seizing Emily with his eyes, ignoring the other girl.
“Emily’s from Kent,” the other girl volunteered this gem of information.
“So am I!” William feigned surprise. “I mean, my dad’s family come all the way from Kent – Tonbridge.”
Emily smiled, “Small world.” Her eyes positively shone.
“So you’re here to stay? In Salisbury?”
“I should think so. We moved in with my stepfather, mum and I. Last summer.”
“Maybe I could show you bits of town?”
“Maybe you could.” She was playing hard to get and William hesitated for a moment. The non-descript girl counted herself out of the conversation and turned to talk to another friend on the other side of the table.
“Well? Would you like me to? We could start with the cinema tomorrow…”
“What film are they showing?” Emily asked.
“I don’t know. Don’t care,” William looked at her pointedly. “I just want to show you the cinema.”
Emily Tomlinson laughed. She was his.
After school, William was stuck with Charlotte at a deserted bus stop bench outside school. He knew he could not take her home because of what he had to tell her. He felt such a lowlife.
The weather had gone down the drain in the last couple of days. March was unpredictable. It started to rain: firstly small timid droplets splashing on the pavement, then more persistent, large ones bombarding the roof of the bus shelter, and finally a torrent – strings of water running down the glass walls and drowning parts of William’s conversation with Charlotte.
“Shall we go?” she asked. There was insecurity in her tone. She suspected something. Her very large eyes looked pleadingly at him.
“Dad’s back home.”
“We can go to my place.”
“I don’t think we should be doing it today.”
“I saw you with that new girl in the cafeteria…”
“Oh yeah, Emily. Geography – I mean we’re in the same geography group. Just… talking – geography… She’s from Kent, like my dad.”
“I didn’t know your dad was from Kent.”
“Now you do.”
Her eyes misted. He didn’t mean to be rude, it had just come out that way. He smiled at Charlotte clumsily.
“We can’t sit here forever,” she said. “The rain’s almost stopped.”
William stood up and opened his umbrella. “I will walk you home.”
“And then you can come in for a bit?”
“No, I don’t think so, Charlotte. I don’t want to do this anymore,” he blurted out at last. “I don’t want to lead you on. I’m sorry. This is not right, not for me. I’m sorry-“
“It’s Emily, isn’t it!” her lips curled down as if she was about to burst into tears.
“It’s nothing to do with Emily, or anyone. We’re not right for each other – you and I-“
At last the tears she had been holding back, poured out. Charlotte gave him one last, hurt look, turned on her heels and ran into the rain. William did not go after her. He watched her splashing water out of puddles as she ran through them mindless of her shoes getting soaked. She was a small girl, not very sporty at all. Something clenched his throat. He hated himself for being such a callous bastard. But he couldn’t help it. He didn’t feel anything for her, but pity. She was not the one. She awoke no feelings in him, but they were there, still untouched. Perhaps Emily Tomlinson…
Holding the umbrella over his head, with the other hand in his trouser pocket, William walked home. Again, he had this eerie sense of being watched. He stopped, looked around. The street was empty but for that stubborn stray cat. It had materialised from nowhere and was seeking shelter in the bus stop William had just left. It was glaring at him – if it wasn’t for the fact that it was only a stupid animal, William could have sworn there was stern, contemptuous disapproval in those feline eyes. He stopped and looked back at the creature. The rain water was bombarding his umbrella and sheets of water slid off its edges blurring the image of the cat with only those yellow eyes glowing uncannily in the semidarkness. He knew those eyes. He knew that cat. He dreamt of it the other day when he had thought he’d woken up to find a cat sitting on his bed, watching him. It was the same cat.
BOOK TWO: BE DONE ON EARTH
Six hundred years ago Brother Edgar Kegel, a fanatical Knight of the Teutonic Order came to the sleepy town of Helmsbury, bringing prejudice, torture and death with him. At his hand, Enid lost the man she loved and her two Stracceli sisters. She did nothing to stop him then but when Kegel returns in the 21st century to lead yet another crusade of bigotry and hatred, Enid is ready is ready for him.
Enid’s two Stracceli sisters, who perished in a fire six hundred years ago, are reborn into human form and find their way back to Helmsbury. They are unaware of their past and the danger that lies ahead. One of them, Eleanor, is a lonely and awkward girl, neglected by her rich, career-absorbed parents, and bullied by a boy from the estate. The other girl, Isobel, comes to Helmsbury with her father and little brother after losing her mother to a degenerative illness. She too has to fend for herself and fight her own battles.
The toughest battle the two young women have to face is against Mr Kegel, their hateful and manipulative teacher. He is prepared to go to any lengths to destroy them.
“Don’t make us all wait, Boyd, tie up your hair!” Mr Kegel held out a dirty-brown elastic band, the kind used for bunching onions in supermarkets. His lips were curled down with contempt. They were dry and chipped. His bulging fish eyes stared at her without blinking. “Get on with it!” He shook the band in her face.
Everyone was watching them as Eleanor tried to hold together her unruly red hair and force it into the elastic with shaky fingers. Mr Kegel sucked in air through his teeth and put his hands on his hips. “You don’t want me to do it for you,” he said.
One of the girls chuckled. Eleanor looked in their direction. They were clustered together, away from her, keeping their distance. In their crisp white t-shirts and bright designer trainers, with their hair in smooth pony tails and their faces lit with smug grins, they couldn’t be more different to Eleanor. Nor any more superior. She was smaller – had always been smaller than the rest. Her hair was usually a mess: long, curly and flaming red. She hated her hair. At last she managed to bind the elastic around it – so tightly that it was pulling at her temples and at the nape of her neck, making her eyes water.
“No, she isn’t going to cry, is she?” Katie spoke with mock concern.
“Poor thing… looks a bit ruffled. I say she definitely should keep her hair down. Suits her better.”
Satisfied with the level of humiliation he had exacted on her, Mr Kegel strode off to fetch the megaphone. It was King Henry V School’s annual cross-country festival. Years Seven and Eight had already run. It was now Year Nines’ turn. The girls would go first. Once they had covered one and a half loops around the school grounds, the boys would commence their race.
Some parents had come to watch. They had lined the course along the yellow tape that marked the track. Most of them gathered around the finish line on the higher ground. Some brought portable chairs and tables; others sat on blankets and took out picnic baskets. Eleanor’s parents were not amongst them. Her father was away at the Nottingham branch of the national recycling company he worked for. Her mother was at home, but busy, as usual. She was a powerful businesswoman running a successful PR firm. In the daytime she worked from home, in the evenings she would be out attending social events which were important for the business. She had no time for being a mother in the strict sense of the word, but she was brilliant at being a competent breadwinner and provider for Eleanor. There was nothing that money could buy that would be denied to her: when Eleanor was a child she had the most expensive toys and was looked after by highly qualified nannies; now she could have any designer labels she wanted, the latest in technology, luxurious holidays in the most exotic locations – anything. Money was no object. Only Eleanor didn’t care. She wished she had a mother. An ordinary mother. One that was listening until the sentence was finished. One that was at home, baking scones. One that came to school events and parents’ meetings. One that wore flip-flops and shorts…
Eleanor’s mother would not be seen dead wearing flip-flops or baking scones. She did not have time for such trivialities. In fact, she had not found the time to give birth to Eleanor. By the time she realised a child would be a nice addition to her many other achievements, it had been too late for her to bear children so Eleanor had been borne from a surrogate. The woman, whom Eleanor never met, had been handsomely paid for her efforts and told to disappear, and Mr and Mrs Boyd were presented with a cute little baby daughter. And so here she was now, about to run in the cross-country race, wishing her parents had been here to save her and take her home.
She scanned the outer boundaries of the school field. The cross country track wound around them like a distant river. It mounted the steep hill rising above the football and rugby pitches, disappeared behind a line of hedge separating the field from the staff car park, wrapped itself around the PE sheds and, circling the fenced off netball courts, came back to its starting point. It was a daunting course: hilly, muddy and slippery in places, ugly and pointless. The loop had to be run three times by the girls and five by the boys.
Eleanor buried her head between her shoulders and joined the runners, standing at the very back of the group, amongst girls from classes other than her own. It would be easier to lag behind strangers. There would be less shame in it. Hopefully, no one would notice her.
Mr Kegel drew the megaphone to his mouth: “On your marks… GO!”
The girls took off to their parents’ and the boys’ enthusiastic applause. Katie and her entourage were at the front of the group. They looked magnificent as they glided across the field like dazzling bright kites. The rest of the competitors followed them from a respectful distance and with much less panache. They were all sorts of misfits – Eleanor amongst them. By now the elastic band was feeling like an iron vice gripping the back of her head. Tears trickled down her cheeks, but luckily it started to drizzle and the tears blended in with raindrops. Parents pulled out the artillery of dark umbrellas and huddled closer together. It had been raining on and off for the past two weeks; the ground had become soggy. After so many feet treading over the same track, it had turned to a mud trough. The runners started to trip and slide; their shoes covered in mud were heavy. Once they were out of sight behind the car park hedge, the leaders abandoned their graceful trot and started to walk. They would walk all the way to the PE sheds and from there would once again emerge in full gallop with the wind in their pony tails.
Well into their second loop, Eleanor heard Mr Kegel on his megaphone, starting the boys on their race. Soon the stampede of male runners would roll over the back of the girls’ peloton where she was following a heavy, large girl who was puffing like a steam train. Reluctant to overtake the steam girl and possibly upset her, Eleanor was making tiny steps, hardly lifting her feet off the ground. The elastic band was still hurting her. She tried to pull it off but it was well and truly stuck in her hair.
Indeed, in no time the panting of the boys hit her on the back. They were catching up fast with the girls. Most of them ran past Eleanor without a word. They had not as much as registered her. She wished she could make herself even smaller to get out of their way. How many were there, she panicked as they stomped and splattered mud around her. She dodged and ducked.
A hot breath washed over her left cheek and a hoarse voice whispered: “Out of the way, ginger freak!” She received a vicious elbow nudge into her ribcage and went flying into a puddle. Mud splattered, covering her head and face. She sat staring at the bulky body of Nathan Murdoch who was pressing forward like a bulldozer. His large head sat uncomfortably on his thick, bull neck. Without stopping he looked over his shoulder, a spiteful glint in his eye, and sneered. There was pure hatred in that look. Eleanor shuddered.
Two boys ran past and laughed as she was getting to her feet, slipped and fell again. All she wanted now was to go home, leave this pointless race behind, walk away and never ever come back to school. But she couldn’t do that. The closest gate was on the other side of the field – she would have to cross it and face Mr Kegel before she got to it. There was no point. She would just sit here and wait until dark fell. She attempted to wipe the mud off her face, but all she achieved was a smudge running across her cheek from the bridge of her nose. Pathetic, she told herself, you’re so pathetic…
“You’re all right?” It was Tom. He was tall and skinny. His hair was wet – plastered to his forehead. His glasses were steamed up. He was walking towards her, extending his arm. “Can you get up?”
“Yes, yes I can. I just slipped,” she said quickly, guiltily. She didn’t want to delay him. “Go on, Tom. Thank you.”
“Come on, let me help you.” He was holding out his hand. “Let’s go.”
Another runner passed them by and chuckled under his breath. She half expected Tom to start laughing at her, but he didn’t.
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
Perhaps if he had laughed, she would know how to react: grind her teeth and tell him to get lost, but his concern for her threw her off. She burst into tears. Her chest rumbled as she hid her face in her hands and sobbed. “I don’t want to be here… I want to go home…”
He still didn’t laugh. “It’s not far. Come, let’s get to the finish line. You can do it, Eleanor. Show Kegel what you can do, yeah?”
A trio of runners wheezed by. They were running arm and arm, heads down, elbows close to their waists, fists clenched.
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t know. Just do. Won’t leave you here till you get up.” So she did. Of course she could do it. She could run – she was light on her feet, just didn’t see much point to it. Tom nodded, “Okay, let’s go!”
They broke into a steady jog. It was easy. She smiled inwardly. If she wanted, she could fly.
“You’ll be alright?” Tom asked. “You don’t mind if I pick up pace? You’ll be alright on your own?”
He sped up: his stride lengthened, his breathing became faster. Normally, she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. At least that was what she thought. But she wasn’t thinking anymore. She was just running. Running. Running. Her feet were hardly touching the ground. She was fast. The world had become a blur. She didn’t realise that she was overtaking other runners, not only those who by now were only walking, struggling with a stitch, panting with exhaustion, but also those who were still running. Even the boys. She was faster than them.
At the start of the last loop she caught up with Katie, who gaped at her in disbelief, unable to speak, unable to force her body to pick up speed. Mr Kegel stared, too. He too didn’t believe his eyes.
“Go Katie! Go!” yelled Katie’s father, and Katie tried. She had made one last inhuman effort to catch Eleanor. Her veins were bursting at her temples, air burned in her lungs, sweat was stinging her eyes, but there was no use. Eleanor – the small, weak Eleanor – was steadily putting more and more distance between them. It was as if she was flying while everyone else was falling off their feet.
The last loop left no memories with Eleanor. She didn’t know how she had completed it. She didn’t even realise that it was over when she hit the finish line and dragged the yellow ribbon with her, still running. She didn’t hear the roaring ovation from the spectators. She didn’t hear Mr Kegel scream: “Stop! Stop, Boyd, you’ve won!” She kept running. Flying. Setting herself free.
It was Tom who shouted from behind (for now even he could not keep up with her), “Eleanor, stop! Come back! You’ve won the race!” And at last she had heard him.
She stopped. Looked around her, puzzled. People were clapping. Patting her on the back. Telling her to go back to the finish line. She won. She was the winner. She had won the race!
She saw Mr Kegel approaching with a strange, wild expression in his eyes. For a split second, she had an urge to take off and run again – away from him. Every muscle in her body twitched, crying to escape, but she stayed put. She had nothing to fear. She had won.
The award ceremony took place in a downpour of rain. Still, people stayed on to witness and marvel at the smallest girl in Year 9 to receive the gold medal. She stood there bewildered, with a shock of red hair entangled in a mad scream with elastic, with her face dotted with dry mud and marked with a smudge running from the bridge of her nose all the way to her right ear. It was hard to believe that she had it in her to win. It was hard to believe she beat the next person by three minutes.
She looked at Tom. He was smiling and nodding. “Blimey! You did show Kegel big time!” he was saying to her. Tom had come second in the boys’ race. He could’ve won if he hadn’t helped her, she thought. She mouthed: “thank you”.
Her eyes were pulled away from him, towards someone else. It was Nathan Murdoch. He was also looking at her, but he wasn’t smiling. He hated her with every beat of his heart and every fibre in his body. Nasty, spiteful thoughts were spilling out of his mind. She could read them, feel them: ginger freak! Daddy’s rich girl… has it all… Slut! Choke on it, slut! Nathan sucked up his saliva and spat it out on the ground. He put his hands in his pockets and disappeared in the crowd. His venomous thoughts still ringing clear in her head. Eleanor didn’t know how but sometimes she could read people’s minds. Right now she wished she couldn’t.