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The Stairs Lead Down

I.E. Lester









All characters in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

All rights reserved. This is protected under the copyright laws of the United Kingdom. Any reproduction or unauthorised use of the material or art work contained herein is prohibited.

Distributed worldwide by Writer’s Sanctum Publishing LTD



Cover art by: Writer’s Sanctum Publishing

ISBN: 978-1-9998786-0-3

First Print: 31/10/2017



Visit our Website: www.writerssanctumpublishing.co.uk



To Lesley



































Chapter One



Lizzie looked out of her bedroom window for the last time. Through the grey light and raindrops she could see the removals men carrying her life out in dull brown packing crates. Her bed and the sticker covered chest of drawers that had long dominated this room were already inside. And it wasn’t as though they were just moving house. She was being uprooted.



It wouldn’t have been so bad if Mum and Dad just wanted to live somewhere nicer in Twickenham. That she would have been okay with. She agreed with them when they said they wanted a bigger house. Her parents had bought this house the year before she and twin brother Noah had been born and they were outgrowing it.



If her parents had suddenly announced they were moving somewhere larger but not moving out of Twickenham she would have been happy. A larger house was something she could show off to her friends. But they were moving north; and not just by a mile or two. Her parents were moving them all to Leicestershire. What the hell ever happens in Leicestershire? Lizzie hadn’t even been sure where it was when Mum had said where they were going; it was just north. She’d wondered whether it might be next to Scotland. It wasn’t anything that interesting. It was just in the middle.



Until they mentioned the idea of moving she’d thought her parents were as happy here. She was so why couldn’t they be? She’d asked them why they were moving. She’d asked them what was so wrong with Twickenham. She’d asked them what was so important they move now. Mum had answered all her questions. It was just the answers made no sense to Lizzie. Mum had talked about opportunities; to get away from the big city and enjoy a quieter, easier pace of life. To Lizzie that sounded like hell. Lizzie liked the big city. Why would she want to get away from it?



She’d Googled the village where their new house was. It was tiny. There were less people living in it than in the road they lived on; had lived on she corrected herself. Looking around this empty room she couldn’t claim to be living here now.



All that was left to show that she’d ever lived in here were the marks on the walls from the Blu-Tack that had held her posters up. Very soon even that would be gone. Her father had arranged or the entire house to be redecorated before the new owners moved in. In two weeks this room, her room, would belong to a ten year old girl who would, no doubt, cover the newly painted walls with her own posters. Part of Lizzie cringed at the thought of One Direction covering these walls.



Down below she saw the shutters on the back of the first van close. In a minute or two everything she owned would drive away; everything except her clarinet. That would be travelling with her in Dad’s car. She wasn’t going to let anyone else take care of her most prized possession.



As the van moved away she saw Michelle standing on the opposite pavement. She’d been Lizzie’s best friend since nursery school. They’d been in all the same classes together ever since but not anymore. When school started up again, Lizzie would have no friends. She hated that more than anything else. She’d asked Mum whether she could stay with Michelle’s family so she could carry on at school down here. Mum had given her that look; the exasperated one. She knew instantly she would not win the argument.



Lizzie waved at her friend. Michelle didn’t reply; she hadn’t seen her. She thought for a second about opening the window and calling her friend to join her. The emptiness of her room though, made her reconsider. In truth she didn’t want to be here, not like this. She headed down the stairs and slalomed her way through the various men packing up their lives into boxes or ferrying appliances and pieces of furniture outside to the second van.



There was more than an hour before they’d be finished and her father would want to be away. She was going to spend as much of that as possible with her best friend.



~*~



Lizzie twisted herself almost entirely around so she could see through the rear window of Dad’s car. Standing outside the gate of her, now old, home was Michelle. There were tears running down Lizzie’s face as she waved to her friend, growing smaller as Dad drove away. It wasn’t fair. Just because Mum and he wanted to move to the country, why did she have to? Her whole life was here. What did she want with Leicestershire?



The car turned the corner. Michelle was now out of sight. A few seconds later she turned back around. Looking back was depressing; and not a little uncomfortable. Dad drove the route she had walked each morning since she’d moved to high school. Within a minute they would be passing the gate she would never walk through again.



Lizzie wasn’t interested in taking one last look though. She fished her iPhone from her pocket and started tapping in a message to Michelle. It was her intention to spend the whole journey like this. She certainly had no intention of saying anything to her father. Five minutes later she’d run out of things to write. She could tell from her messages Michelle was feeling as uninspired as her. She said a quick goodbye to her friend, promising to talk later.



She looked out of the window. She didn’t recognise the road Dad was driving along. It wasn’t somewhere she’d been before; or if she had she hadn’t cared enough to remember it. It was a London street like any other; rows of houses and shops, bus stops and bollards. It wasn’t as nice as Twickenham; but when she thought about it, nowhere was. And she was sure this Ashby de la Zouch, the nearest town to their new house, wasn’t going to be either.



What kind of name was Ashby de la Zouch anyway? It sounded French. What was a town in England doing with a French name? It was stupid. She’d seen pictures of it on the internet. It looked boring, boring and stupid. And it was her new home. She felt miserable.



Lizzie glanced at the Satnav screen. There was still more than two and a half hours to go before they’d arrive; two and a half hours of misery and the weather looked like it agreed with her. Rain started to fall as Dad turned onto the M25. Two hours; it felt horrible. That’s how far she would be from everything she liked about her life; two and a half hours from anything civilised.

She wondered where Noah and Mum were. They’d set out half an hour or so before Dad. He’d agreed to stay to the end; handle the handover of the keys to the estate agent and take care of any last minute paperwork. Lizzie had been glad he had waited. That extra half an hour with Michelle, in civilisation, was precious to her.



For once the traffic on the M25 was free from queues. Every time she’d been on this road (usually for days out or holidays) they’d been held up. Dad would usually start to grow angry and begin cursing. Mum would always tut and remind him of Lizzie and Noah. Mum needn’t have bothered. His language was nothing she hadn’t heard in school; and not even close to the screams of the girls on the hockey pitch. There was nothing she could learn from him.



Her attention was caught by the clicking of the indicator. She looked through the windscreen to see where they were. The sign indicated he was turning onto the M40 and headed for Oxford and Birmingham. Oxford was as far north as Lizzie had ever been before. Her school had organised a trip there last year to visit the Ashmolean Museum. She’d found the museum boring but had enjoyed walking around Oxford itself. The college buildings were pretty.



Birmingham though was something else. She’d never been. From everything she’d heard she never wanted to. She’d met one or two people from the city and they sounded awful. She could hardly understand them. She also couldn’t understand why they allowed themselves to sound like that. She knew if she’d been born there she would have done everything possible to not have that accent.



A horrible thought passed through her head. Would the people in Ashby sound like that? Was she going to be surrounded by people who talked…wrong? Could anything else make this worse?



~*~



Noah was glad Lizzie had opted not to join him and Mum on the drive up. It meant he wouldn’t have to listen to her whining or suffer through the inevitable argument with Mum it would lead to. It also meant he would get to see the house first, explore it and stake his claim on the best bedroom. Lizzie had had the largest, other than Mum and Dad’s, in their house in Twickenham and now it was his turn.



Mum announced a detour. She was going to drive along the high street in Ashby de la Zouch before they headed for the house. Noah was happy when she’d suggested that. It was something else he was going to get to do before his sister. She usually insisted on being first at everything and would always remind him of being born first whenever he questioned it; as if twelve minutes made any difference, beyond their having different birthdays anyway. He’d always liked that. He got his special day and didn’t have to share it with her.



High Street, no Market Street he corrected himself, looked normal. Okay it was a little smaller than Twickenham’s centre but it seemed okay. There were plenty of places where he could hang out with the new friends he was sure he would make. It would be different but he reckoned he would get used to it; and so would Lizzie. She would just be insufferable until she did.



Mum pulled the car into the drive of their new house just behind the first of the removals vans. The drive way was enormous; just like the house. Back in Twickenham one van like the one ahead of them would have filled their driveway. Mum and Dad had had to park carefully if they wanted to get two cars on the drive. Here you could probably fit more than a dozen.



As the removals van turned around ahead of them Noah saw another vehicle was already there; a car he didn’t recognise. The man leaning against it was also unknown to him. Mum did seem to recognise him though. She waved as she pulled on the handbrake and switched off the engine. That was it. Their journey was over. They were here.



Noah unclipped his seatbelt and got out of the car. The gravel of the driveway crunched under his feet. He stared at the house. It looked weird. The stones, wet from the recent rain, gleamed in the sunlight. It looked wrong. This house was so old he thought it would look far better through mist than in bright sunshine.



Mum had crossed the distance to the man she’d waved at seconds before. They were talking warmly. When the two of them moved to the front of the house and he unlocked the front door, Noah realised who he must be. He was the estate agent his parents had bought the house from. Mum stepped inside. That confirmed it. It was real. This was his new home.



He had this uncontrollable urge to rush inside and explore but wasn’t sure if he should. Would he just be getting in the way of the removals men? His restraint was never going to last. There was no way anything was going to keep him from seeing where they would be living. He virtually ran across the driveway; wanting to get a closer look at his new home.



A few feet short of the door he pulled up to a halt. There was a name carved into the stone about the door. It was weathered but still just about readable. His new home was called Clemency House. It was an odd name. He wondered what it meant. He shook his head. That was a matter for later. Right now he had more important things to do. He jumped through the large oak front door into the entrance hall beyond. He was in his new home.



~*~



It was the ceiling that struck him first. It was so high. Noah had grown a lot over the last two years. He stood taller than either of his parents now at 6’ 4”. Back in their Twickenham house it had been no problem for him to touch the ceilings anywhere in the house other than the stairwell.



Here though even on tiptoes his had had to be three or four feet short. The ceiling also had wooden beams showing. He hadn’t seen them on the photographs his parents had shown him and Lizzie when they announced this move. He liked them. They were cool.



He examined the room; left to right. There was a huge wood and stone staircase ahead of him. It was enormous. Four people could probably walk up it side by side. It would be less of a problem to get the beds and other furniture up this staircase than it had been getting them down in the old house this morning. There were three doors leading from the entrance hall; a single door on both the left and right walls, and double doors ahead of him alongside the stair case. The walls were unplastered stone.



This looked like the kind of place Dracula might live. He’d tease Lizzie about that later. She always got a bit freaked out by horror movies. There was mileage to be had from her living in what could be the set from one of them.



Noah could hear voices from the room to his right. One of them was Mum’s. He’d better go there before exploring; in case there was anywhere they’d prefer him to not be. He turned and started towards the door leading to what looked like a kitchen. He didn’t get very far. A couple of steps and he could see down the short corridor to the left.



At the end of it was a staircase leading down; or at least starting to lead down. After four steps there was a small platform, as though the stairs were about to turn a corner, only there was nowhere else to go. All sides were blocked with stone. Why would you build a staircase that only went down four steps and then stopped? It was freaky.



It was cold too. It must be the stone. He touched the wall. It wasn’t quite painful to the touch but it was close; and this was August. What would it be like in January? Hopefully not too bad if the central heating worked; else this was going to be a very cold winter. Surely his parents would have checked that before buying.



Mum’s voice called him away. He climbed the steps back to the hallway and entered the kitchen. On the counter top there were five sets of keys and a bunch of documents. That made things a lot more real; keys.



‘These are yours.’ Mum lifted one of the sets and handed them to him. She swept all of the remaining sets into her bag. ‘Try to keep out of the way of the removals men as they bring the furniture in but feel free to look around.’ Noah headed back into the hallway. Mum shouted one final instruction, ‘The front left bedroom with the en suite is mine so don’t go getting ideas on it.’



Noah wanted to explore the downstairs first so the subject of the bedrooms could wait. From what he’d seen on the estate agents’ page for this house it wasn’t as though any of the bedrooms were small. He wouldn’t be stuck with a box room again. He made it across the hall just before the removals men started carrying in his parents’ large sofa. That made the decision of where to look first easy. He would go where they weren’t.



Noah watched as the man walking backwards with the sofa reached the double doors and pushed them open. Beyond him he saw the lounge. Like everything else in this house it was huge. Their furniture, cramped in the Twickenham house could actually look small here.



Noah turned and stepped through the third door. Beyond it was a wide corridor. This must be the room Dad had earmarked to store his books. The walls here would easily accommodate the huge numbers of books Dad had accumulated. Noah didn’t understand why he kept them. Surely you could get all that information on the internet these days. And if you wanted to read books wouldn’t a Kindle be just as good? Not if you were ancient like Dad it seemed.



~*~



Noah had just finished exploring when he saw Dad and Lizzie arrive through the bay windows at the front of his new bedroom. She was too late. He’d already got the removals men to unload his bed, wardrobe and the boxes containing his stuff into the Long Room; the name he’d given this room, his room. It was a cool room; especially having the door that lead to the crawl space that ran along the eaves the full length of the house.



Much as she would moan when she found out he’d already claimed this room, if she was honest Lizzie would probably have not wanted it. She’d have had nightmares about what lay beyond that door. It was exactly the kind of space that monsters would hide in after all. And it wasn’t as though the room she’d have would be a bad one. All three of the remaining bedrooms were huge. He headed downstairs to meet Dad and Lizzie.



He regretted it as soon as he got down. Lizzie was still pissy. It had been her default setting for the past few weeks; steadily getting closer the nearer the moving date, today, had gotten. He pitied Dad for having to share the car journey up.



Lizzie stormed out of the kitchen and ran up the stairs. She was passed him and gone before he’d even had the chance to say hello. Mum came to the kitchen door with an exasperated look on her face. Noah just shrugged and pointed upstairs. Satisfied her daughter had not stormed out of the house Mum smiled at him and headed back into the kitchen. Where was Lizzie going though? She’d better not be heading for his room. He turned and raced back up the stairs himself.



His fears were groundless. She’d not headed for Long Room. He quickly searched all the remaining rooms and she was nowhere to be seen. Where was she? It struck him he’d not checked the crawl space. He didn’t think it was the kind of place she would go even as angry as she was. For one thing there were undoubtedly spiders in there. Surely her fear of them would trump any desire to remain hidden. He headed back to check anyway.



The crawl space was as empty as all of the rooms had been. Where else was there? He must have missed somewhere. He’d heard old houses like this often had secret spaces; priest holes and the like. Maybe she’d found one of them. He was sure there was no such thing in his room but he’d not paid as much attention elsewhere. He headed back to the landing and looked around. Was there anything he’d not…



He caught something out of the corner of his eye. There was a join in the wallpaper at the top of the stairs. He knew instantly what that must mean. He remembered the listing for the house had mentioned a third storey. Dad had claimed the space to be his office when Noah had mentioned it weeks ago. It was where Dad said he’d write his next bestseller.



Noah had laughed when he said that. He’d thought Dad was being overly confident. His last book, the third he’d had published was the only one that had done well in terms of sales. It was unknown yet whether he would be able to replicate that success. He’d regretted laughing when he saw Dad’s face. Noah’s lack of belief had hurt his feelings. Irrespective of that however, there being a third storey meant there had to be a way of getting to it. And Lizzie had found it.



He headed over to the join to look for some kind of handle. When he reached the top of the stairs it was obvious. He couldn’t believe he’d missed it when he’d been exploring earlier; but earlier he’d been keen on establishing exactly which of the bedrooms would be his so hidden doors hadn’t been on his radar. He reached into the small recess and pulled the door open.



Beyond it was another set of stairs; far less grand than the ones from the ground floor. He climbed them and entered the attic space. Sitting on the floor at the far end, knees drawn up to her chest, was Lizzie. He crossed the distance between them and sat down, crossed legged next to her.



He didn’t say anything. He had the feeling words were not something she needed right now.









Chapter Two



The next four weeks passed in a blur. Noah couldn’t believe it was the first day of his new school tomorrow. It wasn’t a day he was looking forward to. The teachers were sure to single them out for introduction. He remembered when a new boy had arrived at school back in Twickenham this time last year. It hadn’t looked like the experience had been fun to go through. And now it was his turn; or rather, their turn. Lizzie would have to go through it as well.



He walked the full length of the Long Room from his bed to the large bay window to the front of the house. He stared at the world outside. He still wasn’t used to how quiet it was. Nothing seemed to happen here; ever. He opened the left hand window to let the summer air in. All he could hear was bird song and wind. Make that less than nothing, he thought.



He could understand why his parents had made the move. Mum had been complaining for years about living and working in the city. She’d never liked London; only moving there because Dad joined a law firm in the City. She was a country girl, she always said. And when a fellow doctor in the hospital had been attacked by a patient she’d been treating, Mum decided she’d had enough.



It hadn’t surprised him. What had was Dad agreeing so readily. Dad was London through and through. He had been born in London and lived his entire life in the city. He always used to complain about Twickenham being the sticks. Noah was astonished to see how easily Dad had adapted to the real sticks.



Lizzie still hadn’t. He could hear her talking through the open door. He knew who she was talking to. She’d spent much of the past four weeks on Skype or Facetime to Michelle back in Twickenham. She was making no effort to fit into her new life. Noah didn’t understand it. He knew that this move wouldn’t have been something he would have chosen to do either. He had a life too back in Twickenham. It wasn’t as though she was alone in that. But wanting to be back there was pointless. All it was doing for her was making her even more miserable.



He wasn’t going to let her mood bring him down though. Through the window he could see it was a beautiful day. Lizzie could waste the last day of the holidays if she wanted; he wasn’t going to. He was going to go out riding. This was the perfect day to get his bike out. With any luck he’d bump into Mark and Paul. He met up with them the first time he’d cycled around the lanes. He virtually ran down the stairs eager to get on with the day.



As he reached the ground floor he skidded to a halt to avoid the collision with… What the hell? There was no one there. He was sure he’d seen a movement. He’d thought it must be Mum; after all he had heard Dad’s music playing in his attic office so it couldn’t be him. But she was nowhere to be seen. She must have ducked inside the lounge.



The door was open a fraction; more than enough for someone as small as Mum. He pushed the door open to say hello. ‘Good…’ He never added the morning part of the greeting. The room was empty. She wasn’t there. But he could see her at the bottom of the garden; on her knees probably doing some weeding. Noah was confused. How had she got there so quickly?



He knew how. Or rather he knew she hadn’t. She’d never been in the hall when he came down. So what had he seen? He walked back into the entrance hall wanting to know had caused him to think someone had brushed passed him. Only there wasn’t anything. Everything looked normal. Everything was where it had been since Mum had finished the unpacking. He didn’t get it. He had been sure he’d seen something. He had to have. He couldn’t have been imagining it could he?



Of course there was another option. Maybe it was a burglar? Had someone broken in? The thought scared him; especially as Lizzie was alone upstairs. He ran back up the stairs, taking them two at a time. He needed to know his sister was okay.



He burst into her room.



The shock of it made her drop her phone. It bounced off the bed onto the floor. ‘What the hell?’ Lizzie screamed at him. ‘What do you think you’re doing No-Brains?’



‘I just wanted to make sure you were okay.’



Lizzie scrambled to retrieve her dropped phone. The screen was blank. Dropping it had cut the connection. ‘Now look what you’ve done, idiot.’ She started tapping frenetically on the screen trying to get Michelle back.



‘I’m sorry…’



‘Just get out,’ Lizzie said. She turned her attention back to the phone screen as Michelle reappeared.



~*~



Noah pulled the door behind him, leaving her to her conversation. As he did Dad emerged from the secret door that led to his office.



‘What are you two doing?’ he asked. ‘I heard shouting.’



‘I wanted to make sure Lizzie was okay. I thought I saw someone in the house.’



‘You what? Where?’



‘Downstairs in the entrance hall; by the bottom of the stairs.’



‘Did you see who it was?’



‘No. I didn’t get a good look. It was more of a feeling. I felt someone brush past. I thought it might be Mum at first but she was out in the garden.’



Dad looked concerned. ‘Let’s go check it out. You stay here and I’ll make sure all the rooms on this floor are empty. Then we’ll go check out downstairs.’



‘Shouldn’t we make sure Mum’s okay?’



‘Don’t worry about her, Noah. If she’s out in the garden as you say she’ll have her secateurs with her. If anyone approaches her now I’d worry more about what she might do to them.’



Noah wondered if Dad meant this or was just saying it. He was about to protest but Dad didn’t give him a chance. He turned and headed for Noah’s room. ‘Do you still have that cricket bat in your room?’



Noah nodded. ‘It’s down the side of the wardrobe.’



‘Good, I’ll grab it while I’m in there. It might come in useful.’



Dad was gone for longer than Noah expected. What was keeping him? He began to worry the intruder may have found the cricket bat first; maybe even alerted to it by Dad’s question. Should he go in and check?



Just as he decided to, Dad re-emerged; cricket bat in hand. When he saw the quizzical look on Noah’s face he simply said, ‘Crawl space’. It made sense now. He would have had to have checked the crawl space to know the room was truly empty.



‘I’ll just check the other rooms. Shouldn’t take long.’



Dad was right. None of the other rooms had a crawl space down to check so they were done in next to no time. ‘Right, let’s go check out downstairs. Stay behind me.’



Noah thought he should probably go first. After all he was the one who was armed out of the two of them. From the way his hands were trembling he wasn’t going to volunteer that though. Dad was cool as anything even without the cricket bat. Noah found it impressive.



‘Let’s start with the kitchen.’



Noah nodded and Dad pushed the door fully opened. They peered within; empty. The same was true of all the other rooms. There was no one there.



Noah expected Dad to get mad for having wasted his time and worried him for no reason. He didn’t though. He actually seemed proud of Noah for his first instinct of checking his sister was safe. That was okay but the way he said it and the look on his face made Noah blush and he hated that. Blushing is for babies.



‘Tell me where you saw this person,’ Dad said.



Noah led them back into the entrance hall. He stopped by the bottom of the stairs. ‘It was right about here.’



‘Exactly here?’ Dad asked.



Noah thought about it for a second. He tried to think where it had been. He wasn’t totally sure ‘I think so.’



‘Could it have been a draft from the basement stairs?’



Noah looked across to the blocked in staircase. There was something odd about that part of the house; and not just for the stairs going nowhere. It was always cold there. Maybe it could have been just a draft. ‘I’m sorry Dad, it might have been.’



‘Don’t worry about it. I’d rather you were safe than sorry.’ Dad ruffled his hair. ‘Anyway, crisis over; what are you going to do today?’



‘I was going to go out on my bike.’



‘Good idea,’ Dad agreed. ‘Maybe you could take your sister.’



Noah looked at him expecting to see a broad grin. There wasn’t one. He was being serious. ‘Do you think she would want to go out when she can be on Skype with Michelle?’



‘I don’t expect so, but could you ask her just in case. It would be good to see her getting out.’



‘I guess I can…’



‘Good,’ his Dad replied before he could finish. He was halfway up the stairs before Noah could think of anything else. ‘It might give me some peace to work on my novel if she goes with you. I won’t have to listen to that rubbish she insists on calling music.’



~*~



The afternoon couldn’t have gone any better if Noah had planned it. For one thing Lizzie had done exactly what he suspected. She’d turned down his offer of going for a bike ride. She’d claimed she didn’t want to get wet and it looked like it might rain. It was an obvious lie. For one thing it was a stunningly beautiful day; for another she’d not opened her curtains. How would she know what the weather was like? She could stay in her room on Skype until the end of time as far as Noah cared. It was her life she was wasting.



The second thing had been finding Mark and Paul exactly where he thought they would be. It was almost as though they’d been waiting for him. He’d gotten there just in time. Within a minute of his arrival they were off; to who knows where.



Noah was still getting used to the area around Ashby. When he’d first ventured out on his bike the week after arriving he’d got completely lost. One country lane looked just like any other to him. How can you navigate without landmarks to navigate by? Hedges and trees all look the same. Maybe it would change over time as he got used to navigating by tree shapes rather than shops and road signs, but that time wasn’t yet.



He’d cycled for hours (it felt like hours) trying to find something he recognised or a road sign giving direction to somewhere he’d heard of. When the fourth village name, Newton Burgoland, seemed to come out of the pages of a Harry Potter novel, he’d given up and resorted to checking his phone and the Satnav app he’d installed.



Of course it hadn’t been that easy. Apps need a network connection. In the middle of nowhere that was the last thing he had. All he could do was pick one of these weirdly named places and head for it, hoping he’d find signal there. He’d opted for Measham as it sounded the least weird.



It had been a good choice in more ways than one. Apart from giving him a strong 3G signal it also turned out to have been a turn in the right direction. His other options would have taken him further from home.



Today though, he hadn’t had to trust to luck when it came to directions. Paul and Mark knew the lanes well. He guessed he would over time. One or two of them were already becoming familiar. They’d ridden for miles. He felt physically tired. His friends though seemed to have endless energy. He would probably develop it himself if he spent much more time in the saddle.



He realised he was happy they’d moved here. Back in Twickenham he would never have been allowed to cycle as far as he had today. The traffic on London roads made such activity dangerous. Mum would only allow him to cycle in the park and she insisted they go there by car.



She’d been overbearing when it came to safety before they’d moved. Everything was dangerous; everyone you didn’t know was dangerous. Now she was different. She’d relaxed; Dad too. This move seemed to suit all of them; well almost all of them. Hopefully she would lighten up and give it a chance. She’d probably enjoy it if she did.



He locked the garage door back up after hanging his bike back up on its wall mount and headed inside. Mum was in the entrance hall as he stepped through the over large doorway. She was crouched down tending to her plants; or to one in particular. ‘Hi, Mum,’ he said to get her attention.



‘Hi, Noah. How was your day?’



‘Great, I think we cycled halfway across the country and back. My legs are killing me.’



Mum laughed but didn’t turn around. She was, as usual for her when she wasn’t working, tending to her plants. As he was turning towards the kitchen to get a drink she stood quickly. ‘Damn thing,’ she said.



‘What’s up?’



‘It’s this Mother-in-Law’s Tongue. I think the damn thing is dying and I don’t know why.’



‘Could it be where you’ve put it?’ Noah had always thought the placement unusual. She’d placed the large pot containing the dozens of long vertical leaves on the platform at the bottom of the cut off stairs.



‘What do you mean?’



‘It’s away from the light there. And there can be a hell of a draft from the wall it’s next to.’



‘I wouldn’t have thought so. It survived twenty years of my Aunt Marjorie before I inherited it. If she couldn’t kill it I’m not sure a draft could.’



‘Are you sure you want to take the risk?’



Mum stood there for a second thinking about it. Eventually she replied. ‘No, that can’t be it. It must have some kind of pest. I’ll see what treatments I can give it.’



Noah shrugged and headed for the kitchen. His stomach was screaming at him to feed it something.



~*~



Noah lay on his bed watching YouTube on his iPad. It was his latest attempt to pass the time. Nothing was interesting him. He’d given up on his PS4; he’d just not been into it tonight. He flicked through the hundreds of channels on TV and found nothing. He’d even tried reading a book; he was that desperate. He was feeling restless and edgy.



In front of him, on a hanger hooked over his wardrobe door was the reason. His new school uniform was staring at him; or at least that’s what it felt like. He always felt this way the night before he went back to school; going to a new school made it worse, more intense. But it was nothing new.



He closed down the YouTube app and switched the iPad off. Nothing was working. He thought he’d go check on Lizzie; see if she was okay. She may have been a complete pain in the neck for the past few weeks but she was still his sister.



He knocked on the door. ‘Go away,’ came from inside.



He wasn’t going to give up that easily. He knocked again. ‘It’s me, Lizzie,’ he said. ‘Can I come in?’After a seeming eternity Lizzie called him in. She was sitting cross legged on the bed. Even across the room he could tell her eyes were red. She’d been crying. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her like this since they’d moved here. She was miserable and he didn’t know what to do to help her. He wished he did.



He sat down on the bed near her and squeezed her hand. ‘Are you okay?’



She shook her head; obviously not trusting her voice.



‘Do you want to be alone?’



She shook her head. ‘No, it’s okay. You can stay.’



‘Are you worried about school tomorrow?’



‘No… Yes.’ She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘I don’t know.’



Noah knew what it was. He couldn’t exactly have missed the signs over the past few weeks. It wasn’t school. It was school without Michelle. ‘Do you miss her that much?’



Lizzie nodded. Fresh tears welled in her eyes. She rubbed her eyes again. ‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a bitch lately.’



‘It’s okay.’ Noah squeezed her hand again. This time he didn’t let go. He had the feeling she needed him not to.



They sat in silence for several minutes. Lizzie was hurting; more than Mum and Dad suspected he guessed. Apart from family holidays (and not all of those, Michelle had come on a couple with them) he couldn’t remember his sister without Michelle before the move. The two of them were a package deal. You didn’t get one. You got both.



Noah had never had a friend like that so he couldn’t tell how it would have affected him. Maybe boys are just different. The closest he’d got was Ian back in nursery and infant school. Ian had lived two doors up and they were best friends. Were, that is, until Ian’s Dad moved the whole family to New Zealand when he was eight.



Noah couldn’t remember how he’d felt when Ian left. Had it been this bad? He didn’t think so. But Lizzie had had Michelle for longer. She must have met her around the same time he’d met Ian; in the reception class. But they had not been separated at eight. They’d had five years longer; five years to grow closer and closer friends.



He was still in Lizzie’s room, still sitting in silence, when Mum came up to order them to bed. Tomorrow was a big day and they needed their sleep. Reluctantly he said his goodnight to his sister and headed to his own room. He wasn’t likely to get much sleep tonight.





Chapter Three



Despite everything whirling around her head Lizzie had fallen asleep almost immediately Noah had left her room. She awoke actually feeling refreshed. Much of the darkness of last night was gone; but not all. She still hated the thought of walking into a new classroom to meet a new set of classmates and no Michelle. But somehow her brother had given her a great deal of strength just being there for her.



She stared at the school uniform laid out on her bed. It wasn’t that bad. As Mum had allowed her to choose the trousers option it was actually better. She hadn’t had the choice back at her old school and Lizzie had always hated wearing skirts. Being as short as she was she always felt the length made her look like a kid. The other girls in her last class were all taller than she was; some considerably more so. They looked far more grown up than she did. Trousers would, she hoped, overcome this. And they’d be warmer when winter set in. It wasn’t reason enough to like the move though.



She glanced at the clock on her bedside table. It was 7:30. Mum would be calling her down to breakfast in ten minutes. She had to be ready then. If she was late she would miss the school bus and Mum would have to drive them to school. She didn’t want the first sight her new classmates would get of her was Mum’s 4x4 dropping her at the school gates. It would be bad enough without them mocking her for the Chelsea Tractor school run.



Noah was already at the breakfast table when she got down. She was pleased to see he looked as awkward in his uniform as she felt in hers. At least they had that in common. He was just loading a forkful of toast and scrambled egg into his mouth. The smell of it hit her. She actually felt hungry. She hadn’t expected that.



‘Do you want anything?’ Mum asked.



‘Are there any more scrambled eggs?’



Mum smiled. ‘Coming right up. Help yourself to orange juice.’



Lizzie sat, upended her glass and poured herself some. Noah smiled through his scrambled egg. It was infectious. She smiled back. The pain hadn’t gone away but for the first time since she’d been forced to come up to Leicestershire she felt it might; someday. And besides it wasn’t long until half term. Michelle would be coming up at half term so she had something to look forward to. If Mum allowed it; she hadn’t summoned up the courage to ask yet.



Given the tension between them over the past few weeks it hadn’t ever been the right time. If she was going to win Mum over to the idea she needed to be less of a pain. She would tell Noah of her plans later. If she could win him over he would probably take her side with Mum. And Noah liked Michelle anyway so it shouldn’t be much of a problem.



A couple of years ago he’d become so smitten with Michelle she could probably have gotten him to do anything for her. The two of them had discussed what they should ask him; just to see how much she could control him. They’d never had the courage to go through with it. In truth Lizzie would never have let her brother suffer too much. Against her better judgment she liked him. Last night confirmed why.



The scrambled eggs arrived. They smelled amazing. She quickly helped herself to a mouthful. They tasted amazing too. It was not going to take her long to demolish this plateful; probably much to Noah’s disappointment. She was sure he would have volunteered to finish off anything she left. He would just have to do without it today.



She barely had enough time. As soon as she was putting the last forkful into her mouth Mum was calling for them to leave; or ‘Get the hell out of here’ as she put it. The bus was due in five minutes. It would take them nearly that to walk to the stop at the end of the road.



She jumped up and half ran into the entrance hall. As she passed the dead end stairs she felt a cold draught. She shivered. Goosebumps rose up on her arm. It was still summer; there shouldn’t be a draught like that. She rubbed at her forearms as she stepped through the front door into the sunlight. It was a warm day already. Before she’d reached the front gate the sun’s rays had warmed her up.



~*~



The Stand Up and Announce Yourself was nowhere near as painful or embarrassing as Lizzie had feared. It was all over in fifteen minutes; and that was for the two of them. There were times when it was good to be a twin. Some things are best shared. Humiliation is one of them.



It didn’t compare with how the teachers at her old school had treated the new kid this time last year. She’d felt sorry for him. He’d got the third degree with the class being invited to ask all their questions in one quick session.



The teacher had probably thought it was best to get it all over with in one go rather than have him answer the same questions over and over as classmates asked individually. Lizzie disagreed. One to one was better; even if it did mean she did have to repeat the same story a hundred times, and this morning it had felt that was exactly what she had done.



The strangest question had been ‘What’s it like to have an accent?’ Can’t these freaks hear themselves? Or does dumb yokel voice go with dumb yokel brain?



It could have been worse she guessed. The accent here was not even close to Scouse or Brummie when it came to bad accents. If her parents had moved her to Liverpool or Birmingham she would have run away. She let her mind wander with thoughts of her and Michelle travelling the length and breadth of Britain having adventures. The two of them morphed in her head into Doctor Who types. That would have been fun.



She heard her name being called out. It roused her from her thoughts. It was Noah. Lunchtime was nearly over and it was time to get back for the afternoon register. Being late on their first day wouldn’t give the best of impressions. She grabbed her bag and headed for the classroom.



Three lessons to go and their first day would be over. That didn’t sound too bad; well, apart from the next being history. She couldn’t stand history. What was the point of learning about what people did centuries ago? They were all dead weren’t they? They’d be no more dead if she lived her whole life never hearing about them.



She watched the boys in her class surrounding Tamara and Phoebe. They weren’t exactly subtle about it. Of course Phoebe and Tamara played up to it. There was no way they would wear skirts that short if they didn’t want to be looked at. Lizzie noticed Noah’s eye turn in their direction. Thankfully though, he wasn’t as crass as some of the others.



Boys never paid her that type of attention. Given her shortness and boyish body she doubted they ever would. She had none of the curves that seemed so captivating. She wondered if she should feel jealous of them. She didn’t think so. The thought of being stared at by boys like that didn’t sound at all enjoyable to Lizzie.



There had been similar girls to these at her old school; Grace and Olivia. They’d been complete bitches. They probably still were. Lizzie had thought Grace was beautiful; long flowing red hair and a handful of freckles on each cheek. She’d fantasised about being her and admitted it once to Michelle. Michelle had laughed. Lizzie had flushed with anger; upset her friend was mocking her. It had dissipated in an instant when Michelle explained why she thought it was funny. All the time Lizzie was wanting to be Grace, Michelle had been wishing she was Olivia.



Lizzie and Noah’s new form teacher, Mrs Roddam, walked in and interrupted her memories. The class slowly settled down as the woman waited. Tamara slid onto the seat to Lizzie’s left; an accident of alphabet. She’d not said a word to Lizzie yet. Tamara had been one of the few to not ask her any questions about where she was from. Was she just too cool for such trivia? Or, more likely, too much of a bitch?



Lizzie waited for her name to be read out and called out ‘here’. Noah did likewise a few seconds later. Within a minute the register was complete and Mrs. Roddam left the room. Thankfully the next two lessons were in this room. She’d be spared the inter-lesson mêlée in the corridors.



She looked back to Noah behind her. His attention was currently being held by Tamara’s bare legs. He didn’t even notice Lizzie turn around. Oh God, her brother was as much of a Neanderthal as the rest of the idiot boys. She felt completely alone.



~*~



Noah was still waiting for her when she walked out of the changing room. She wasn’t sure he would be. She’d thought he might have left with his friends. Friends? How can he have friends this quickly? How could he have let go of his old friends enough to allow new ones in.



She didn’t know how he’d managed it; unless he’d not had any really good friends. Or maybe boys were just different. They were different in so many other ways, this extra one wouldn’t surprise her. He pulled his rucksack over his shoulder as she approached him. She fished in her bag for her phone and unlocked it.



‘What are you doing?’ Noah asked.



‘Ringing Dad,’ she replied.



‘Why?’



‘To come fetch us, stupid. We have missed the bus you know.’



‘So? Have you looked out there? It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t we just walk?’



‘Walk?’ The thought of it hadn’t occurred to her. Now Noah had raised it, it didn’t fill her with excitement. ‘But Mum always told us to call if we miss the bus and stay in school until she or Dad arrived.’



‘But that was in London. We’re not in London anymore.’



That much was obvious, Lizzie thought. ‘But what difference does that make?’ she asked.



‘It’s not exactly busy out there. We’ll be fine walking home; and besides Mum’s at work. Can you imagine how pissed off Dad would be if we interrupt his writing? Knowing our luck he’ll be “in the zone”.’



Noah had a point. She’d thought it would be great having Dad around more since he’d given up being a lawyer to concentrate on his writing but it was the complete opposite. He was so irritable when he was writing; worse if it wasn’t going well. Maybe walking home was better than calling. ‘Okay so how far is it?’



‘Not far,’ Noah replied. That was good to hear. ‘No more than a couple of miles.’



‘A couple of miles; since when is that not far?’ Her legs were already aching from having games last lesson. They sadist teacher had ordered them to run laps around the 400 metres track. She was about to protest further but Noah was already heading for the door. His long legs covered the distance easily.



She hoped he wouldn’t walk that quickly the whole way. He needed to remember their size difference. They might be twins but they were nothing alike in height. He was eighteen inches taller than her and most of it seemed to be in leg length at the moment.



Noah turned left at the school gate. She might not have the best understanding of the local geography but she knew that was not towards home. She called for him to stop and asked why he was going the wrong way.



‘I thought we’d pop into Ashby first. We can get a milkshake or something at Big Udders first.’



A milkshake? Where had they moved to, the 1950s? And what the hell was Big Udders.



Noah must have noticed the expression on her face (a first). ‘It’s a café where a lot of the kids here hang out. I went into town last week with Mark and Paul and we went there. It’s kind of fun.’



She was still a little dubious. Noah tried one more thing to sweeten the deal. ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a milkshake if you’ll agree to go.’ That made things different. If her brother was paying she was much more inclined to see what this place is all about. She nodded. Noah grinned and they headed down Market Street.



~*~



Lizzie was in the kitchen when Mum got home. Bad timing, she thought. Mum would want to know all about their first day at school and, as Noah was nowhere to be seen, Lizzie knew she would get the full force of her curiosity. Why is it people always seemed to want to know the small stuff? She poured herself a glass of orange juice, sat down at the breakfast bar and waited for the inevitable barrage of questions.



It never came. In fact, Mum never even entered the room. Lizzie wondered what had happened to her. She’d seen Mum slam the door of her car shut, wave to her through the kitchen window and head for the door. Surely she would come straight into the kitchen. She was just about the move when she heard Mum’s voice. ‘What the hell?’



Worry ran through her. Had she done something or forgotten something that was going to piss Mum off? She couldn’t think of anything she was supposed to have done. What was it? She pushed herself up from the seat and walked into the entrance hall.



Mum was on the small platform at the bottom of the four steps that lead nowhere. What the problem was she couldn’t tell. Mum was in the way. ‘What is it?’ she asked.



Mum turned round. There was a puzzled look on her face; one that showed she was also a little annoyed. Lizzie hoped it wasn’t something she’d done. ‘Have you seen the plant?’ Mum asked.



Lizzie shook her head. ‘No. Why?’



Mum stepped to the side to allow Lizzie to see exactly what the issue was. The plant looked like it was dead. It’s long thick, glossy green leaves were brown and shrivelled. Lizzie gasped at the transformation. She’d known Mum was concerned about the plant, worried there might be some kind of blight affecting it, but for it to have withered so dramatically in a day shocked her.



‘What could have caused that?’



Mum shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I couldn’t find any sign of disease or bugs that might have caused this.’



‘Could it be the draught?’



‘No, a draught wouldn’t do this; at least not this quickly. It’s died inside a day.’



‘Are the other plants okay?’ Lizzie asked.



‘None of them are showing any signs of disease. But it wouldn’t be the plants I’d worry about? I’m more worried what killed them could be affecting us.’



Lizzie hadn’t thought of that. Should she be worried? ‘Do you think there’s something…?’



From the look on her face Lizzie could tell Mum wished she hadn’t said what she said. ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s nothing. And remember, you can trust me on this one. I am a doctor after all.’



Lizzie laughed. That was one of Mum’s regular statements whenever she tried to reassure her or Noah of anything. Lizzie liked the fact Mum was a doctor. It made her proud. Her job was way cooler than what most of her friends parents did. Of course it did have a downside. She’d never been able to pull the wool over her eyes by pretending to be ill to get a day off school.



One comment about the sniffles, a headache or anything and Mum would get the bag out, stick a thermometer in her mouth, take her blood pressure and threaten some pretty unpleasant medically things. End result was Lizzie stopped trying around age seven. The advantage; when Mum rang in telling them she was sick, her teachers never queried it.



Mum was right. She was a doctor. She would know this kind of thing. If she says there’s nothing to worry about then there isn’t. ‘Anyway, enough about the plant,’ Mum said. ‘I want you to tell me all about your day.’



Oh God, here it comes.



~*~



Lizzie picked up her iPhone to check the time. It was two thirty. She’d woken up half an hour ago and couldn’t sleep. She felt restless and edgy and lying here in the dark wasn’t helping. All she was doing was stressing herself out over every sound and checking the time every two minutes.



What could she do to make herself relax and feel sleepy? Maybe a drink would help. It couldn’t hurt. She pulled the duvet back and swung her legs out of bed. Her feet found her slippers exactly where she’d left them. She never put slippers on in midsummer back in their old house. But back there the ground floor wasn’t entirely stone floored.



She pulled the dressing gown around her shoulders and tiptoed across the floor. She hoped she would remember every creaky floorboard between here and the top of the stairs. The last thing she wanted was to wake up Mum and Dad. She eased the door opened, just enough to allow to slip through albeit sideways, stopping it short of the point where its hinges would complain.



Once clear of the door she turned to make her way towards the stairs. She wasn’t alone. There was someone there with her. Was there a burglar? She was terrified. She opened her mouth to scream. Just in time Noah clicked on the torch on his phone, focussing the light on his face so she knew who it was. He was holding a finger in front of his mouth suggesting quiet.



‘You nearly scared me to death,’ she whispered. ‘What are you doing out here?’



‘Heading for the kitchen. What about you?’




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