Willow Ashwood

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

The Voice from Nowhere

 

 

 

Sometimes I really hate my mum. At work, she’s a psychologist; at home, a psycho. Mum always says all the right things to anyone who’s not family, yet she says horrible things to my dad and me.

Why does she turn every little tiff into a battle? She’s like an erupting volcano, angry sighs bubbling into spiteful words, bursting into waves of molten malice. This afternoon she was in the kitchen, quarrelling with my dad over flour. Flour! Can you imagine anything more stupid? How anyone can argue about flour, I don’t know, but you can always trust my mum to find a way.

‘Why did you buy self-raising flour?’ she shouted. ‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times: buy plain flour!’

I was upstairs in my bedroom trying to read about the history of peaceful Asian dragons, but I could still hear them both clearly. We live in a very run-down Georgian house and voices travel freely from one room to another.

‘Don’t lose your rag over nothing. You know how busy I’m at work. I can’t possibly remember everything you tell me.’

‘I was counting on you to buy it!’ hissed Mum, sounding like a volcano just before it erupts.

‘If you need plain flour so urgently,’ Dad answered back, ‘why won’t you go and get it yourself?’

The angry voices completely fuddled my brain and the words about the friendly Chinese Lung dragon jiggled about on the page and wouldn’t make sense.

‘You’re useless!’ yelled Mum – the lava spatter was quite high on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. ‘You can’t even buy the right flour! Is there anything you can do right?’

Shrinking into myself, I put my hands over my ears and waited for the eruption to blow itself out.

‘How dare you! Look at the state of this kitchen! One more word from you and I’ll–’

‘If you so much as lay a finger on me, I’ll call the police. Do you get that?’

‘Don’t you threaten me! That’s what you always say.’

‘This time I mean it – just you wait and see!’ spat Mum. ‘I couldn’t care less if you lose your job.’

‘You watch it ... ’

This was it – a volcanic eruption.  I closed my book, jumped up and ran downstairs. I was opening the front door when Mum turned on me.

‘And where do think you’re going?’ she demanded. ‘Lunch is almost ready.’

‘I’m not hungry. I’m going out.’

Mum slammed the door shut, glowering at me. ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying here for lunch.’

No way could I eat anything – I felt as though I was just about to throw up. ‘Mum, I feel sick. I want to go out for a walk.’

‘You can do that after lunch. Right now, you’re staying here! Do you hear me?’

‘I hear you all right. The trouble is you never hear me.’ I felt resentment surging inside me. ‘All you do is boss everyone around!’

‘Eleanor,’ said Dad, ‘let her go. You know she can’t eat when she’s upset.’ He then turned to me. ‘Willow, you can go out, I’ll talk to your mother.’

Mum turned her back on me and faced Dad, her blue eyes blazing. ‘Stop contradicting me! No wonder Willow is so obnoxious when you allow her to do whatever she wants.’

Mum is of average height and quite slim, but her small figure can produce a loud and scary racket when she’s furious, and at home she’s angry most of the time. My poor dad is tall and fit, but his shouting is no match for Mum’s bad-tempered outbursts. It beats me as to why she’s so angry with my dad and I, whereas her soft and fluffy voice is reserved to literally everyone else.

Mum was glaring at Dad as though she’d like to kill him – I seized the opportunity, opened the door and shot out of the house, charging forward at lightening speed. A passing car swerved to miss me, the driver sounding its horn and shouting at me to look where I was going. I didn’t give a hoot.

It didn’t take long to reach Hampstead Heath – I carried on running. In my head, a film clip of Mum and Dad yelling at each other played over and over. My legs moved faster.

After a while, the picture show in my mind changed into a marvellous movie about flying dragons. With every step my body became lighter. The spectacular loops and cartwheels of these wonderful creatures made the angry voices and nasty film snippets disappear. I didn’t notice the grass beneath my feet; I didn’t notice anything at all. The fabulous creatures drove me on. I left the shouting voices behind. A wave of ease and calm spread throughout my body.

The dragons – with their fearless eyes, shiny scales, powerful wings and arrowheads at the end of their strong tails – soared up into the sky and then dived back down. Orange and yellow flames surged from their great open mouths and thick, dark smoke coiled from their nostrils. Apart from the dragons and the movement of my legs, the world had ceased to exist. Gradually the beating of their wings synchronised with the thudding of my feet. I was at one with the dragons; I was free.

When I reached my favourite weeping willow tree on Hampstead Heath, I collapsed on the grass under its shady enclosure of sweeping branches that almost touched the ground. I love willow trees and their abundant, trailing foliage; inside their green canopies, I feel kind of sheltered and safe. The only thing I like about myself is my name; it’s cool to be named after a seriously awesome tree. Inhaling the earthy scent of the ground, I listened to the long slender leaves as they rustled in the breeze. An inquisitive squirrel stopped to look at me, then scurried up the tree trunk.

‘Hey, squirrel, don’t be afraid. I’m a big friend. If you come down, I’ll bring you nuts next time.’ I really wanted to have a little furry buddy, but the squirrel – from his perch on a high branch – looked at me without moving a muscle. ‘Please come down,’ I begged. The squirrel ignored my invite, turned around and disappeared.

Then, to my surprise and delight, a large brown dog with long, droopy ears padded over and sat down right next to me. He was mostly chocolate brown save for a white bib on his chest and three dirty white socks. His dense, curly fur was matted in places and a bit smelly. He looked at me with sad eyes. Poor thing, I thought. He must be homeless.

I would have loved to have given him a good wash and brush and lots and lots of food, but for now I just stroked him, looking into his doleful amber eyes and loving him even more for being homeless. The coat sent waves of warmth from my fingertips to every muscle in my body.

The caressing movements of my hand slowed as I became more and more relaxed. My furry pal stretched out and positioned himself close to me. He looked at me, sighed and then closed his eyes. Both of us knew we could trust each other.

If only I could cuddle him every time Mum had a go at Dad or said mean words to me. This shaggy mutt could shield me from awful things, and, believe me, I have heaps of horrible stuff in my life. When dusk fell, I embraced my canine chum and whispered in his ear, ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go home now. Next time I’ll bring you something to eat and that’s a promise.’

Having given him one final hug, I ran home.

From the outside, my house looked pretty run-down, neglected and uncared-for like the homeless dog in the park. It stood tall and proud with long windows, looking graceful, even in its dilapidated state.

I opened the front door quietly, crept upstairs to my room and switched on the small reading lamp above my bed. It seemed that Mum had stopped spoiling for a fight, but the sound of my parents stomping about downstairs and slamming doors told me they still hadn’t made up.

The curtains in my room were old – only their bottom still had some of the original bottle-green colour. Decades of dust and soot from the fireplace had painted the rest varying shades of grey and black. The rail drooped in the middle and a few hooks were missing. I reached up and drew them as best I could.

Lying in bed, I gazed at the flaking wallpaper on the shabby walls and the damp patch on the ceiling. I didn’t feel like doing anything with Mum and Dad still hostile to each other, so I turned to my favourite pastime of picturing. I imagined going into Mum’s hospital and telling the receptionist that I was Dr Ashwood’s daughter and letting her know about all the horrible things Mum had said to me. But the receptionist wouldn’t believe me.

My imaginary visit to Mum’s hospital ended abruptly with the loud banging of the front door: Dad was on his way to the pub to see his mates – that’s what he does after a fight with Mum. He has lots of friends because he can be very jolly and lots of fun – I love the way he jokes with people. My mum has only a couple of friends, but I seldom see them. Neither of my parents ever invite anyone to our house.

My parents are also at odds with each other when it comes to their appearance. Dad is pretty laid-back – his brown hair tends to do its own thing and it looks a bit wild because he often runs a hand through his shock of curls. Mum only ever irons her own clothes and Dad’s ironing skills are hugely underdeveloped. So, semi-ironed shirts and unruly hair make Dad look casual and very different to Mum who spends ages getting ready to go out.

A few minutes later, I heard Mum also leaving the house.

I was alone.

Or so I thought.

Just then, I heard a weird, raspy man’s voice say, ‘A good day to you, Miss Ashwood. I am heartily glad to talk to you. How do you do?’

I went cold deep inside, feeling totally stunned. It was the strangest thing that had ever happened to me. The voice was cracked and hoarse and the pitch was low, like a double bass. I’d never heard anyone talk like this, not even ancient men with very sore throats.

I couldn’t tell if the voice had come from outside my room, upstairs, downstairs, or if it was just inside my head. Was I going nuts? My heart started thumping so hard that it felt like it was going to thump its way right out of my ribcage.

Then, I again heard that bizarre voice say: ‘I am truly sorry, Miss Ashwood, it was not my intention to frighten you.’

My jaw had gone stiff, so I couldn’t say anything. After a massive pause I gabbled, ‘Who’s there?’

The Voice croaked, ‘My identity will be revealed in due course. If you please, Miss Ashwood, I would like to speak to you.’

Where was the owner of that spooky voice? I listened carefully, but all I could hear was my thundering heart and blood pumping in my veins. Inhaling deeply, I told myself to relax, but my trembling body refused to obey.

Having calmed down a little, a lot of questions whizzed around in my head like an electrical surge: What’s going on? What was that deep, creepy voice? How come he speaks in such an old-fashioned way? Do I hear voices? There were so many thoughts that they didn’t fit inside my overloaded brain – I was convinced that one more would cause my head to blow a fuse.

I jumped out of bed and ran to the door. My shaking hand fumbled with the handle. Eventually I managed to open the door, but there was no one on the staircase.

Running back into my room, I scanned every corner but couldn’t find anyone. Just then, my brain was buzzing and whirring like a computer on the brink of crashing.

The Voice from Nowhere refused to go away. ‘Miss Ashwood, I am a friend.’

‘Who are you?’ I whispered.

‘I assure you that I am a friend and I am very happy to converse with you.’ Long, deep, joyful laughter echoed all around me.

He must be a psycho who’s escaped from the local loony bin. But perhaps, if I talk to him until my parents come home, I’ll be okay. ‘How ... how can you be ... a friend?’ I stuttered, an invisible hand clutching my throat. ‘I never met you. I don’t know who–’

‘You will find out when the time is ripe, Miss Ashwood. Or would you prefer I called you Willow? When I was young, everyone was addressed by their surname unless they were well acquainted.’

Thoughts again raced in my head: He must be really, really old. Perhaps he’s some grandpa who’s lost his memory and can’t find his way home. But then how does he know my name? How did he get in?

‘Who are you?’ I muttered. ‘Tell me.’

‘You will find out shortly. For now, let me just say that my intentions are honourable.’

Somewhere I found within myself a little bit of strength I didn’t know I had. ‘I don’t have invisible friends. Where are you?’

‘I am unable to elaborate on this at present,’ said the Voice. Then I heard a deep groan. ‘Oh, my joints ache.’

It wasn’t the groan of a human being, at least not that of an ordinary person.

‘Can I do anything?’ I asked, desperate to find out more.

‘Perhaps one day you will be able to help me. I implore you to trust me.’

‘It’s easy for you to say that. You can see me, but I can’t see you. It’s not every day I hear voices from nowhere.’

‘Oh, I would not say that. In fact, I am closer to you than you think.’

I looked around my room again, but still couldn’t see anyone. ‘Come out and show yourself then,’ I cried out, and before I could stop myself I went on, ‘Stop scaring me! You’re freaking me out.’

‘Is that the right way to talk to your elders? Show me some respect, Miss Ashwood. Young people these days ...’

So he’s an ancient museum piece! ‘Okay, I get it. If I ask nicely, will you show up?’

‘Not yet,’ said the Voice firmly. ‘It is imperative that you do not divulge anything about our conversation to anyone, especially not to your parents. They would not understand. This is our secret.’

‘Even if I did, they wouldn’t believe me.’

‘I insist upon you maintaining silence. Talking about me will spoil the plans I have for you.’

‘Plans?’  I gasped, shivering in disbelief. ‘You’ve plans for me?’

‘Miss Ashwood, as I intimated earlier, all will be revealed at the right time. Patience is a virtue.’

‘Please tell me just a little bit,’ I begged. ‘What plans?’

‘Upon my honour, they are good plans. I will send you to a special place.’

‘What d’you mean?’ I mumbled, my whole body trembling. ‘This is my home. I’m not going anywhere.’

‘But you are not happy here. Are you?’

‘No, I’m not, but I’m still staying here.’

‘You will thank me for instructing you to go there. I say no more than the truth.’

‘Can I at least tell my dad about you?’ I pleaded, feeling too frightened to keep it all to myself.

‘Absolutely not!’ The loud and commanding reply reverberating around me. ‘I forbid you from doing such a thing.’

‘All right, all right, I’ll keep it a secret.’ I was now ever so desperate for the Voice to go away. ‘I promise.’

‘Pray heed well my words. I bid you farewell, Miss Ashwood.’