Quite early one morning, not long after Jay had arrived, her mother rang, sounding quite unlike herself.
“Hello darling,” she said in a strained voice. Have you been having a nice time?” and without waiting for an answer: “Is dad still there? Can you put him on now?”
“Hello dear,” said Gramps. “All's well here, how about you?”
There was a long silence as he listened. She saw the colour leave his cheeks, and when she was sent out of the room so that he could talk to Gran without her, she was really scared. She didn't know what to do with herself, and sat on the stairs not actually trying to eavesdrop but frustrated that she couldn't quite hear.
At long last, Gran called her.
“I'm sorry about that,” she said. “Your mum didn't have much time to talk, but she asked me to give you a big hug from her,” which promptly happened. “She said to tell you not to be alarmed, but Grace has gone into hospital for some treatment that might help her. Can you give me a hand with the housework today?”
Although Jay knew there must be more to it than she'd been told, she didn't ask any questions but set to and tried to help Gran after Gramps had left for work. She soon found that she was too distracted with worry to be much help. She made a mess of the beds, and was so clumsy with the dusting that things kept falling off the shelves. She went out to play in the garden but her heart wasn't in it, and she sat on the swing for a while trying not to cry, though her heart felt huge and hot with the misery inside her.
Swinging listlessly, in her mind's eye she could see Grace racing around like an excited puppy in this same garden last year, or at home, jumping on the bed which she now seemed to have no energy to leave. She thought about how everything at home had been disrupted when Grace got ill. The biggest change was that their mum had stopped driving to work and stayed at home to look after Grace. That meant Jay had to go to school on the bus, which was noisy and chaotic and did nothing to soothe her jangled feelings. Most of the other children hardly seemed to see her, pushing and tumbling and shouting around her as though she was part of the bus. There was only one girl who often sat next to her on the bus, apparently with no other reason than to keep the others from jostling her. Jay was far too sunk in her own feelings to return anyone's friendly overtures.
“Sumira,” the girl, who wasn't in Jay's class, had said, on Jay's first journey on the hateful bus. “My name's Sumira, but I like to be called Su.”
Jay hadn't answered then, nor had she responded except with a shy smile when Su had tried, time after time, to be friendly. Just before the holiday Su had handed her a piece of paper with a phone number on it, saying:
“Maybe you could ring me when you feel better. I hope you do,” but Jay hadn't. She'd never really had any close friend but Grace, and couldn't imagine it ever being different.
By the time the Easter holiday had come, the thought of going away made her very confused. She wanted to be away from the changes in her home life, wanted everything to be back as it was before, wanted both to be at home and somewhere far away. She had begun to feel rather useless and somehow like an intruder, no matter how much she tried to help. It had come almost as a relief to be sent away; but now all she wanted was to be back in the flat with her mum and Grace rather than sitting here in her favourite garden.
Eventually, getting bored with the swing, she went in and offered to help Gran make lunch; but she was clumsy and slow and unusually self-conscious. She cut her knuckle on the cheese grater and had to have a plaster. She couldn't remember which way round the knives and forks went when she was laying the table. When she dropped an egg on the kitchen floor it felt like the last straw and she dashed out. Running up to the room which Grace usually shared with her, she collapsed on the floor and leant against the bottom of the bunk bed, feeling worse than ever.
She heard Gran coming up the stairs, and then a gentle knock on the door. “May I come in, dear?” Jay didn't answer. She wasn't sure she wanted to see anyone, however loving. Gran turned the door knob and came in anyway, lowering herself carefully onto the floor and patting Jay's knee comfortingly. She was wise enough not to try to put her arm round Jay, though, which was a relief.
“My dear, I do understand. I wish I could promise that everything will be okay, but it wouldn't be honest. I won't lie to you, I'm worried too, but I've got lots of work to keep me busy, and I know it's harder without anything to take your mind off it.”
Jay sniffled. Gran handed her a clean tissue. “Look, this is only a suggestion, but it's a lovely day. Why don't you take yourself out for a walk instead of having lunch with us? I'll make you a sandwich to take. I think you're old enough to go to the woods on your own, and all the bluebells are out. You've been there often enough, I'm sure you won't get lost.”
Jay put her head on Gran's shoulder and thought for a while, but couldn't think of anything better to do. Everything seemed pointless today, so why not go out? She sighed deeply and gave Gran a wan smile.
“Okay, Gran, thanks, I think I will.”
“Which way in would you like to go? I'll call Gramps and get him to meet you later. Take your mobile so you can ring him when you're ready to come home, and tell him which end of the woods to collect you from. He'll be glad of a chance to leave work early.”
Although it was a sunny spring day, there was a cold wind blowing when Jay got out of the car, and she stuffed her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket. She had to take them out almost immediately to put her pack on. Gran had insisted on her taking sandwiches and a drink, although Jay couldn't imagine being hungry. Deep in her bleak mood, she hardly noticed when Gran drove off. She slouched across the footbridge at the caravan site, up the hill, through the ruined farm and across the fields to the woodland. The gorse was ablaze with blossom and alive with bees, but Jay saw them only with the outer edge of her mind. There was no-one else to be seen. She walked along the gravelled bridleway for a while, looking down but not really taking in anything she saw. A little way into the woodland, a lovely smell caught her attention, and she stood up straight and gazed around her in wonder, her misery almost forgotten. Under the grey trunks of the tall trees, whose branches were just beginning to show a faint mist of bronze and green, the ground was covered with a deep, richly purple-blue mist of flowers. The colour shimmered as far as her eyes could see, pouring itself over the hillsides, pushing right up to the edges of the paths and even trying to spill into the stream far below. Delicate white windflowers nodded here and there. Jay made her way down to the edge of the stream down a steep and muddy horse track, filling herself with the sounds of rapturous birdsong and the majestic swoosh of the wind among the nearly bare branches.
After a while, she scrambled back up the steep hill to the main path. Other muddy paths led up the hill, and Jay took one of these. Concentrating hard on where she was placing her feet so as not to crush any of the budding plants which managed to push up even where the path was well-trodden, Jay wished she was allowed to pick a bunch for Gran and Gramps. She knew that picking wild flowers was forbidden. A bunch for her mum. A bunch to put by Grace's bed... Suddenly she was sickeningly unhappy, with what felt like a huge and dreadful pain in her heart and throat. She crouched down at the edge of the path and doubled over with sobs, letting the tears fall now that there was nobody to see. There was a vague sense of gratitude that Gran had thought to pack a clean hanky as well as some tissues.
What felt like a very long time later, her crying fit eased and she clambered back down to the main path rather shakily. She never wanted to feel like that again.
She walked for a long time, into the pine forest, round the big bare shale patch which could be seen from the main road, and up to the upper path which would lead her back towards the gate she'd come in by. She peered into the mysterious pits that were surrounded by fencing and barbed wire; they reminded her of something, and she started back at a fast pace. At the far end of the woods, she clambered over the gate and, instead of going back the way she'd come, set off diagonally up the meadow at the side of the woods. Halfway up, there were three caves leading into the hillside just where the gorse and trees which topped the rise began.
Both the girls had been curious about the caves a year or two before, but they hadn't been allowed to go even close. Later, Gramps had told them stories of secret underground passages, ancient mines which had been started before history began, by men who had dug for silver and lead all over this area.
She had nobody to forbid her now, she would go and see for herself. The furthest of the three tunnels went straight into the hillside. Its entrance was deep in mud and water, and Jay did not feel attracted to it. Next time I will bring wellies and a torch, she decided, and scrambled along the hill's edge to the middle cave. This one went in diagonally, and was topped by a leaning oak tree. Jay could just make out a ledge where maybe the tunnel turned; but the entrance was steep and just as wet as the first.
She got to the third cave entrance, and thought that this one was even more obviously not a natural cave. The entrance was quite round and looked as though it had been carefully shaped, but it was not very high, full as it was with many years' worth of blown leaves. The path into it was shallow and sloped steeply downwards; at the bottom was a pool of water. She peered in, full of excitement and a slightly strange feeling of awe; it was hard to see far into the darkness, and of course she was standing in her own light. Her curiosity got the better of her and she shuffled down on her behind as far as she could. She could see that the tunnel curved sharply to the side, towards the woods that she had been walking in. Turning around to see how far she had come, the cave mouth looked small and rather dauntingly further off than she had expected. One foot slipped into the pool, then the other. It stank.
She scrambled reluctantly back up to where the path was almost level, wondering without much interest whether her already grubby trainers would be finally ruined by their immersion in the stench. At the entrance, the earthen path levelled out and became a grassy hollow which was moderately sheltered from the wind. Jay hunkered down, opened her pack, and began to nibble a piece of chocolate.
Out of the wind, the sun felt delightfully warm. Jay stretched her legs and leant back against the stone to make herself more comfortable. She squashed the pack up to rest her head on, and gazed up at the patterns the branches of the tree above her made against the sky. She could hear the steady drip of water in the cave behind her, and the faint sound of traffic on the main road.
She could just hear a drumbeat, not like a car stereo but quite fast and somehow both friendly and compelling. She closed her eyes and listened to it in the warm sunshine. There's nothing to fear, said the gentle drums, nothing to do, nowhere to go, relax, relax, you're safe. Listen, listen. Jay suddenly realised that she was in some sort of special time, and, reassured by the drums, got up and went into the cave again, leaving her sleeping body behind her.