In Thunder's PocketJoan Aiken
I SAT BY the window, kicking my heels glumly against the dusty floor. When the train stopped at a station I didn’t bother to look out – I knew that my stop wasn’t for ten minutes yet.
But the fat woman opposite me collected up all her shopping bags and started to work her way past me. I pulled down the window and opened the door for her. She clambered out and went off, leaving the door open as she didn’t have a free hand to close it. I was just about to pull it shut – rain was blowing in – when a gull shot by me through the open doorway and started to hurtle about the inside of the carriage, crashing against seat-backs and luggage racks. Twice it hit me – quite hard – and I could see that it was liable to do itself real damage if nobody showed it the way out.
‘Just keep calm, you stupid oaf!’ I told it; but it didn’t keep calm.
My jacket was up in the rack – Perdidas, black-and-white lozenges with a black hood – so I snatched it down and managed to loop the hood over the frantic bird as it whizzed past me for about the fifth time. Bundled up inside the jacket I carried it, kicking and flapping, to the open window, and turned it loose. The gull shot off into the rain without a word of thanks. I slammed the door and shut the window.
The train began moving again. I flipped my jacket back into the rack and was about to sit down when a voice from behind me made me start – someone had come into the carriage from the corridor side.
‘Hey – that was pretty neat!’ said the boy who had come in.
He took off his own rain-spotted jacket and slung it up into the rack beside mine. It was the same colour. Then he sat down where the fat woman had been. He was about my size, brown-haired and freckled. He wore jeans, trainers and a t-shirt. He gave me a calm look.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘St Boan,’ I said. ‘And don’t I just wish I wasn’t!’
‘Thunder’s Pocket. Oh. But why? You been there before?’
‘No, never,’ I said. ‘Why do you call it Thunder’s Pocket?’
‘That’s what the locals call it. Because they get such a lot of thunder storms. On account of how the land lies – a steep hill running down to a narrow harbour. Storms get trapped, you see, they go round and round.’
‘Why don’t you want to go there?’ he said. ‘It’s not a bad place. Apart from the storms.’
‘I have to go,’ I said. ‘Mum broke her leg falling off a ladder. She’s in hospital. I have to stay with Uncle Adam and Aunt Lal. And I can’t bring Crowner, he’s my dog, because the house is small and they have a cat. A cat, I ask you!’
‘Oh. Bad luck. Still, it won’t be for long, will it? And there’s lots to do in Thunder’s Pocket. You like surfing?’
‘Never tried,’ I had to admit.
‘They run classes. You can fish, too. Your uncle got a boat?’
‘I’m not sure. He has a shop – Readables and Collectibles.’
I asked the boy if he lived in St Boan, and he said no, half a dozen stops farther on. ‘At Wicca Steps.’
I was disappointed – I had taken to him. There was something easy and sensible and plain-spoken about him.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Eden,’ he said. ‘My friends call me Den.’
‘Do you ever come to St Boan?’
‘Yes, I do come sometimes – when I’m asked!’
There was a rumble of thunder overhead and a flicker of lightning over to the right where, now, I could just catch a glimpse of the sea, white waves breaking on a rocky bit of coast under a dark sky. The carriage lights blinked, went out, came on again.
‘See,’ said Eden, ‘we’re getting into the thunder zone. People who live in Thunder’s Pocket have to manage without TV mostly. They get too much interference. And only a few have phones. Same reason.’
Good grief, I thought, what sort of a place am I coming to? And my heart sank another couple of notches. I’d been planning to ask if I could watch my favourite programme, Buccaneers’ Quay, which was due that night at half-past seven. I wondered if Uncle Adam and Aunt Lal even had a TV set.
They had a phone, I knew. I had never met them – this visit had been arranged in a hurry after Mum’s accident.
‘You watch much TV?’ I asked Eden. ‘What’s your favourite?’
But no, he said, no, he didn’t watch much. ‘Only people! My hobby is collecting things.’
‘Things, what sort of things?’
‘Oh, fossils, shells. Puzzles. Numbers. Keys.’
He smiled. The smile changed the shape of his face entirely and made him seem, for a moment, like somebody I half remembered from long ago.
Only, who could it be?
He said: ‘Maybe I’ll show you my collection sometime. The special thing about keys is that each one is made to open a particular lid – or door – maybe more than one. Yes, keys are very good things to collect. But look, we’re coming to your stop’.
The train had slowed down. There were platform signs saying ‘St Boan’ and now the sea had retreated and lay far below us at the foot of a steep hill.
It looked like a black and wrinkled rug under massive purple clouds.
A man who must be my Uncle Adam, white-haired and white-bearded, was on the platform scanning the train as it slid to a stop.
‘Well – so long – good talking to you. See you sometime,’ said Eden as I hurriedly dragged my zip-bag down from the rack. ‘Maybe we’ll meet again one of these days. Hey, don’t forget your jacket!’
UNCLE ADAM, FOR it must be he, had already spotted me and opened the carriage door. I scrambled down on to the platform clutching bag and jacket in my arms.
‘This is all your luggage?’ said Uncle Adam. ‘I assume you must be Ned?’
‘Yes, that’s all – yes, I’m Ned …’
I turned to wave goodbye to the other boy, Eden, but already the train was slipping away, he was out of sight.
‘Better put the jacket on,’ Uncle Adam advised. ‘We’ve a ten-minute walk and it’s raining again. Every single day but one this summer it has rained, and that day it hailed. Nibs doesn’t like it one bit, do you, Nibs?’
I was surprised to see that Uncle Adam’s cat was with him. Nibs was a small compact tabby wih white whiskers and dark brown ears.
‘He comes with me wherever I go,’ said Uncle Adam. ‘You might give him a finger to sniff, just to get acquainted.’
‘It probably smells of dog,’ I warned.
Nibs flattened his ears as he got a whiff of Crowner the terrier on my fingers, but then he rubbed his whiskers along my wrist to show he forgave me for keeping such low company.
I slung my pack over my shoulder and slid my hands in to my jacket pockets.
Then I let out a squawk. ‘Oh, cripes!’
‘What’s up?’ said Uncle Adam.
‘I’ve got the wrong jacket!’
‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s the other boy’s, his was up in the rack too. I had an apple and a ballpoint in my pocket – I don’t mind about those, he’s welcome to them – but here’s something of his …’
I pulled it out.
It was a brass key, slightly tarnished.
‘He told me he collected keys. I’d noticed that our jackets were the same. But, when I got out in such a rush – Oh, blow it!’
‘Do you know his name? Where he lives? We could phone …’
‘I only got his first name – Eden. He did mention the name o
f the place where he lives – wait a minute – um – I’ve almost got it. Wicker something. Wicker Steps, that was it. Half a dozen stops farther on, he said.’
‘Wicker Steps? He must have been pulling your leg. There’s no such place.’
I felt as if Uncle Adam had emptied a pail of cold water over me.
‘Are you sure? He didn’t seem as if he were having me on.’
‘Maybe you dreamed him. Maybe you fell asleep. I didn’t see any other boy when I opened the carriage door just now.’
‘But – if I dreamed him – what about this key? And where’s my apple?’
We had been walking as we talked. St Boan was a tight-packed little town, all set on a steep hill sloping down towards the harbour. At the foot of every street we crossed, I could see white crests of waves and masts of boats tilting back and forth. A gust of wind blew rain in our faces at every corner.
‘Cars aren’t allowed in the town unless they are making deliveries,’ Uncle Adam explained. ‘There’s a car park up top.’
I was still worrying about the jacket. How could I have made such a stupid mistake?
Uncle Adam stopped by a red door with a brass plate that said ‘Doctor’s Surgery’. He didn’t go in, but slid a plastic card into a slot in the wall beside the door.
I was a bit startled to see a plastic-wrapped red pill pop out of a tube and fall into a metal cup below.
‘Your Aunt Lal’s daily pill,’ Uncle Adam explained, pocketing the pill and carefully replacing the card in his wallet. ‘She takes it at one o’clock.’
‘Every day?’ But why does she only get one at a time?’
‘It would be dangerous to have more than one.’
How queer! I thought. What sort of pill could be so dangerous? And what sort of illness needed such a pill?
Uncle Adam began to explain as we turned down one of the steep streets.
‘Have you heard of Malot Corby?’
I felt I had just heard the name somewhere, but that was all.
‘Is it a man or a woman?’
‘A woman. Your Aunt Lal’s and your mother’s cousin. Yours too, come to that. She’s dead now, died last year. She was a famous artist who lived in this town. She painted pictures and carved statues – the town is full of her statues, you’ll see them all over the place. Look up there.’
I looked where he pointed. We were now crossing the harbour front. It was a curved, cobbled promenade, protected from the sea by a low stone wall. Up to our left, where Uncle Adam pointed, among the slate-roofed houses on the hillside, I could see quite a big green, tree-filled space, with white and grey objects here and there among the bushes.
‘That was Malot’s garden,’ Uncle Adam said. ‘Now it’s a public park. It’s full of her statues.’
For the first time I began to feel that I might come to like St Boan. The harbour was grand, green dancing water and a lot of bobbing boats. And Malot Corby’s garden which seemed more like a small forest than a park looked as if it would be a good place to explore.
‘But what has Malot Corby to do with Aunt Lal’s pill?’ I wondered why Mum had never mentioned this famous relative. But then she had said hardly anything about Aunt Lal. Didn’t seem to want to talk about her at all.
‘I was coming to that,’ said Uncle Adam. ‘I wanted to tell you before we get home. It upsets your aunt to hear Malot’s name. Gives her a headache. We used to live next door to that garden. And your aunt had a quarrel with Malot about some lace. And, just before she died, Malot put a curse on your aunt.’
‘A curse? Honestly, Uncle Adam? You’re not kidding?’
‘I didn’t know people really put curses,’ I said. ‘Not any more.’
By this time we had walked right across the harbour front. Gulls kept swooping and diving past us, letting out harsh piercing cackles and shrieks. They were huge, black-backed birds, twice the size of Nibs. But they stayed well clear of him and he of them, though I noticed he kept a wary eye on them.
Signs here and there said: PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE GULLS.
Now Nibs, who had been running along the low sea-wall – he didn’t seem to mind the rain at all – jumped neatly down and turned inland, away from the water, along a narrow street which bore to the right and uphill, over a headland.
‘Oh yes, people still put curses,’ Uncle Adam said. ‘In fact several people in the town believe that about half Malot Corby’s statues are neighbours she had it in for, that she turned to stone.’
‘But that’s awful! That’s wicked!’
‘So you see how important it is,’ Uncle Adam went on matter-of-factly, ‘that your Aunt Lal gets her pill every day precisely at one o’clock.’
I had a million questions I wanted to ask.
How did Adam and Lal know about the pill – what did the doctor say who had prescribed it – why hadn’t the other people, the ones who’d been turned into statues, know to use the pill – what had the quarrel been about, how had it started – was there no way of getting rid of the curse – why had Mum never said anything about it.
At that moment, Uncle Adam said, ‘Here we are.’
On our right the houses had come to a stop.
A grassy headland ran down to rocks where waves were breaking in clouds of white spray. The houses on the left went a little farther, and the last one had two beds of red geraniums in front, divided by a short cobbled path and enclosed by a low white-washed wall.
‘Only just in time,’ said Uncle Adam, pulling out a latchkey.
The clouds above were now black as tar and the rain had increased from a drizzle to a downpour. Lightning shot down the sky like someone slicing a curtain with the point of a knife and a terrific crash of thunder rampaged overhead.
‘In you go, quick!’ Uncle Adam whisked open the door and walked into a hallway which was small and dim, because at this moment the overhead light, which had been on, went off.
A voice from the middle of this instant dark said, ‘Did you remember my pill?’
‘Of course!’ said Uncle Adam. ‘And here’s nephew Ned with a stolen jacket and a mysterious key.’
DURING LUNCH THE rain stopped and a watery sun came out, silvering the white tips of the waves.
But Aunt Lal said, ‘Better take your jacket whenever you go out, Ned. It’s liable to start pouring here at any time. Besides, the gulls in St Boan are such fiends. They’d sooner drop a slop on you than snatch a sandwich out of your hand – and they are experts at that, too.’
I’d already learned this on our walk from the station. The gulls in St Boan excelled in the sport of dive-bombing pedestrians, swooping low overhead to spray us with their white droppings. When we arrived at the house I had found gulls’ mess down the back of my jacket – Eden’s jacket – which I had to wipe off with wet tissues.
‘You’ll soon get used to dodging them,’ Aunt Lal said, as she helped with the mop-up. ‘The Council put up all those signs asking tourists not to feed the gulls but they take no notice.’
I wasn’t sure whether ‘they’ meant the tourists or the gulls.
Aunt Lal had a very soft voice – I could only just hear her – and an odd way of talking, something like a lisp. It took me a while to understand her. She was friendly, but gentle and vague, with a slightly startled look, like a person who’s had a shock. Her soft white hair was bundled untidily into a huge heap on top of her head. It looked as if it hardly ever got combed. And her wondering pale-grey eyes never stayed still; they kept roaming around, looking over your shoulder or up at the ceiling or out of the window. The house was quite dusty. Slip-covers on the furniture were faded and worn. Uncle Adam, I learned, did most of the shopping and cooking. It seemed nobody did the cleaning.
Uncle Adam was plainly very fond of Aunt Lal and treated her like something very delicate and precious that had been damaged. She, I found, spent most of her time making lace on a pillow, using a lot of bobbins and threads. It was fine, fine cobwebby stuff, quite useless, it
appeared to me, but it got sent off, Uncle Adam told me, to famous lace exhibitions all over the world. Mostly Aunt Lal did this in the front room, with the window open so she could see and hear the sea. Or, if the weather was fine, which it seldom was, in the back garden, shaded by four big apple trees, all loaded down with apples.
‘You can eat as many as you like,’ Uncle Adam told me. ‘But only the red ones are ripe yet. They are Worcesters. The others are Coxes. They ripen later.’
Of course I wanted to get in touch with Eden to return his jacket and have my own back.
But Aunt Lal repeated what Uncle Adam had said. ‘There’s no such place as Wicca Steps, dearie. Oh yes, there used to be, in the seventeenth century, about twenty miles along the coast to the west. It was a famous place for witches, and a lot of them got burned by King James. And then the whole village fell into the sea. It was on the cliff-top and there was a big landslide after the winter gales. Your friend must have been teasing you, saying he came from there.’
I looked in the phone book but could find no Edens. Anyway that was his first name.
As soon as lunch was done, I went off to explore the town.
‘You can’t get lost here,’ Uncle Adam said. ‘All you have to do, in case of doubt, is walk downhill and make for the sea. Come and find me, in the shop, around five o’clock. You’ll easily find the shop, it’s in Fore Street, halfway down on the right.’
The first thing I wanted to do was go back to the harbour and look at all the boats. Now the tide was full in and great green waves were bashing against the harbour wall, sometimes splashing right over.
Piers like crabs’ claws ran out on each side of the harbour. You could walk all the way out to the end, but I thought I’d wait to do that till the tide was out – just now you’d get soaked with spray from both sides.
While I was leaning on the harbour wall and dodging gulls and clouds of spray, a red-headed boy shot past on a bicycle.
‘Hi, Eden!’ he shouted and was gone, out of earshot before I could tell him I wasn’t Eden.
I thought it was odd that he should mistake me for Eden, since we weren’t alike. It must have been the jacket.