‘We have to have lessons in the SCHOOL ROOM!’ yelled Flora from upstairs. Mum and I exchanged glances. The schoolroom was still full of moving-house clutter and DIY dust, but Flora was obsessed. Brought up in freedom, my sister pined for conformity.
She clattered downstairs, wearing her blue gingham sundress over an outgrown party blouse, patent shoes, and her hair in messy pigtails tied with Christmas ribbon.
Mum smiled. ‘Are you Dorothy?’
‘No, this is my UNIFORM!’
She wouldn’t have survived five minutes in a real school.
‘The children who used to go to school here wouldn’t have worn uniforms,’ said Mum.
‘I can see that. But the girls are all wearing things a bit like this.’ She frowned at me in my home-made tie-dye and ripped jeans. ‘Molly says YOU look like a street arab.’
‘Well, you tell Molly I’ve been bullied plenty by actual live, visible, non-imaginary kids, and she doesn’t scare me!’
‘Flora,’ said Mum over me, ‘we don’t use racist language. Where did you even learn that?’
‘I just told you. Molly just said it.’ She turned her head and looked intently at thin air for a moment. It really creeped me out when she did this. ‘Can we do modern history today? Can we bring the record player? They’ve never heard the Beatles!‘
‘Sweetie,’ said Mum, ‘I don’t want to limit your imagination, but you’re making Fauna uncomfortable.’
‘No she’s not,’ I lied. ‘I don’t mind having History with a bunch of dead kids. Bring it on.’
‘Molly’s sorry,’ said Flora later, when we were walking Bramble. ‘She wants to be friends with you. They all do.’
‘No they don’t. They don’t exist.’
‘You’re just saying that because you’re scared! They’re not scary! They’re not skeletons or anything.’
‘Yes they are. Smashed-up, bombed-out, buried skeletons. There’s probably bits of their bones embedded in the ground where the bomb went off. They’re dead. Dead dead dead. And I do not want to hear about them walking around my house!’
Flora looked up at me with saucer eyes. For a second I thought she was going to cry. Then her expression hardened. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘We’re going to see Miss Carver. Molly wanted me to say hello to her anyway.’
‘Because she was Molly’s old best friend. She was the only kid that survived. That’s why her face is like that.’
‘Flora, no, bad idea. Flora, leave her alone!’ But she was already dashing off up the hill to Miss Carver’s house. Miss Carver was shuffling around her front garden in bedroom slippers with a watering can. She smiled at us. On one side a sweet old-lady smile, all crinkles and twinkles; on the other side the grin of a dried-up dead thing. The burned side of her face looked like a tangle of half-melted rubber bands that pulled her mouth and nose out of shape and dragged her eye down till you could see the red inside.
‘Hello!’ said Flora. ‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘All roight,’ Miss Carver chuckled in her broad Gloucestershire accent.
‘Was your best friend at school called Molly? And did she have red hair and wonky teeth? And was her doll called Topsy? And did you and her steal cider from her dad and throw up in the gazunder?’
Miss Carver’s smile dropped. ‘Where’d you ‘ear all that? Nobody in this village…’
‘Molly! Molly said it! She said to tell you that she misses you and to sing you a song about boats.’
Miss Carver put the watering-can down on the garden wall. Her hand was shaking. ‘A song about boats, dear?’
Flora put her hands behind her back and puffed her chest out. ‘Loight in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand -’ she sang tunelessly.
‘Don’t make fun of her accent!’ I hissed.
‘I’m not! It’s how Molly sings it!
See o’er the foaming billows fair haven’s land,
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er,
Safe within the lifeboat, sailor, pull for the shore.’
‘Flora, shut up, it’s not about boats -’
‘PULL for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar;
Safe in the lifeboat, sailor, cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, and pull for the shore!’
I’d never seen such an old person cry before. Tears oozed out of her red lashless eye. ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry about my sister!’ I grabbed Flora’s arm and ran away, pulling her and Bramble behind me.
‘Believe me now?’
We panted up to the schoolhouse, and I stopped. BOYS and GIRLS still carved over the two front doors, faded hopscotch in the playground. This was my home now, and I was scared to go in the front gate.
‘Leave the light on.’
‘They’re not scary!’ said Flora from the bottom bunk.
‘I said LEAVE THE LIGHT ON.’ I put my head under the covers, and for the first time in years, I found myself sucking my thumb.
An ambulance siren wailed in the distance. ‘Hello, it’s coming up the high street. It’s someone in the village,’ said Flora. I felt her get out of bed and heard the curtains being drawn. The siren stopped. ‘It’s outside Miss Carver’s! I’ve got to go and find Molly!’
Her small footsteps pattered out of the room, and I was on my own.
It was a long time before Flora came back, and when she did, she was crying. She crawled up the ladder and into my arms.
‘Hey, it’s okay. What’s the matter? It’s okay, I’m here…’
‘They’ve gone,’ she sobbed into my shoulder. I could feel her tears soaking through my pyjama shirt. ‘Everyone’s gone. Molly’s gone. There’s no school any more.’
‘Miss Carver died. They were only waiting for her.’ She looked up at me. ‘I wish you’d seen. She was beautiful. But I couldn’t go.’ She curled into me again. ‘I want my friends.’
‘I’m here,’ I said again. There was nothing else I could say.
I must have been asleep when Flora crept out of my bed. When I woke up sunlight was spilling across the carpet, and my sister was sprawled in the pool of light surrounded by pens and coloured pencils, scribbling intently in an exercise book.
She held up the cover. NEW SCHOOL BUSINESS PLAN, it said, in bubble writing with little mortar boards and apples drawn around it. ‘This place doesn’t want to be just a house,’ she said. ‘Think about it. This way Mum could teach us and make money at the same time. And Dad could work here too. He’s always moaning about his commute and the headmaster. He could be the headmaster. It could be a school for kids who get bullied in other places.’
‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘I suppose that could be okay. If it’s a really small school. And no uniform.’
‘Will you come with me to show this to Mum and Dad?’