The day was still gray.
We walked around the house, down the cow path.
“Is it a real ocean?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said.
We came on it suddenly: a wooden shed, an old bench, and between them, a duck pond, dark water spotted with duckweed and lily pads. There was a dead fish, silver as a coin, floating on its side on the surface.
“That’s not good,” said Lettie.
“I thought you said it was an ocean,” I told her. “It’s just a pond, really.”
“It is an ocean,” she said. “We came across it when I was just a baby, from the old country.”
Lettie went into the shed and came out with a long bamboo pole, with what looked like a shrimping net on the end. She leaned over, carefully pushed the net beneath the dead fish. She pulled it out.
“But Hempstock Farm is in the Domesday Book,” I said. “Your mum said so. And that was William the Conqueror.”
“Yes,” said Lettie Hempstock.
She took the dead fish out of the net and examined it. It was still soft, not stiff, and it flopped in her hand. I had never seen so many colors: it was silver, yes, but beneath the silver was blue and green and purple and each scale was tipped with black.
“What kind of fish is it?” I asked.
“This is very odd,” she said. “I mean, mostly fish in this ocean don’t die anyway.” She produced a horn-handled pocketknife, although I could not have told you from where, and she pushed it into the stomach of the fish, and sliced along, toward the tail.
“This is what killed her,” said Lettie.
She took something from inside the fish. Then she put it, still greasy from the fish-guts, into my hand. I bent down, dipped it into the water, rubbed my fingers across it to clean it off. I stared at it. Queen Victoria’s face stared back at me.
“Sixpence?” I said. “The fish ate a sixpence?”
“It’s not good, is it?” said Lettie Hempstock. There was a little sunshine now: it showed the freckles that clustered across her cheeks and nose, and, where the sunlight touched her hair, it was a coppery red. And then she said, “Your father’s wondering where you are. Time to be getting back.”
I tried to give her the little silver sixpence, but she shook her head. “You keep it,” she said. “You can buy chocolates, or sherbet lemons.”
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “It’s too small. I don’t know if shops will take sixpences like these nowadays.”
“Then put it in your piggy bank,” she said. “It might bring you luck.” She said this doubtfully, as if she were uncertain what kind of luck it would bring.
The policemen and my father and two men in brown suits and ties were standing in the farmhouse kitchen. One of the men told me he was a policeman, but he wasn’t wearing a uniform, which I thought was disappointing: if I were a policeman, I was certain, I would wear my uniform whenever I could. The other man with a suit and tie I recognized as Doctor Smithson, our family doctor. They were finishing their tea.
My father thanked Mrs. Hempstock and Lettie for taking care of me, and they said I was no trouble at all, and that I could come again. The policeman who had driven us down to the Mini now drove us back to our house, and dropped us off at the end of the drive.
“Probably best if you don’t talk about this to your sister,” said my father.
I didn’t want to talk about it to anybody. I had found a special place, and made a new friend, and lost my comic, and I was holding an old-fashioned silver sixpence tightly in my hand.
I said, “What makes the ocean different to the sea?”
“Bigger,” said my father. “An ocean is much bigger than the sea. Why?”
“Just thinking,” I said. “Could you have an ocean that was as small as a pond?”
“No,” said my father. “Ponds are pond-sized, lakes are lake-sized. Seas are seas and oceans are oceans. Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic. I think that’s all of the oceans there are.”
My father went up to his bedroom, to talk to my mum and to be on the phone up there. I dropped the silver sixpence into my piggy bank. It was the kind of china piggy bank from which nothing could be removed. One day, when it could hold no more coins, I would be allowed to break it, but it was far from full.
The black Rover was not the only thing to arrive on Monday morning. I also received a letter.
I was seven years old, and I never got letters. I got cards, on my birthday, from my grandparents, and from Ellen Henderson, my mother’s friend whom I did not know. On my birthday Ellen Henderson, who lived in a camper van, would send me a handkerchief. I did not get letters. Even so, I would check the post every day to see if there was anything for me.
And, that morning, there was.
I opened it, did not understand what I was looking at, and took it to my mother.
“You’ve won the Premium Bonds,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“When you were born—when all of her grandchildren were born—your grandma bought you a Premium Bond. And when the number gets chosen you can win thousands of pounds.”
“Did I win thousands of pounds?”
“No.” She looked at the slip of paper. “You’ve won twenty-five pounds.”
I was sad not to have won thousands of pounds (I already knew what I would buy with it. I would buy a place to go and be alone, like a Batcave, with a hidden entrance), but I was delighted to be in possession of a fortune beyond my previous imaginings. Twenty-five pounds. I could buy four little blackjack or fruit salad sweets for a penny: they were a farthing each, although there were no more farthings. Twenty-five pounds, at 240 pennies to the pound and four sweets to the penny, was . . . more sweets than I could easily imagine.
“I’ll put it in your post office account,” said my mother, crushing my dreams.
I did not have any more sweets than I had had that morning. Even so, I was rich. Twenty-five pounds richer than I had been moments before. I had never won anything, ever.
I made her show me the piece of paper with my name on it again, before she put it into her handbag.
That was Monday morning. In the afternoon the ancient Mr. Wollery, who came in on Monday and Thursday afternoons to do some gardening (Mrs. Wollery, his equally ancient wife, who wore galoshes, huge semi-transparent overshoes, would come in on Wednesday afternoons and clean), was digging in the vegetable garden and dug up a bottle filled with pennies and halfpennies and threepenny bits and even farthings. None of the coins was dated later than 1937, and I spent the afternoon polishing them with brown sauce and vinegar, to make them shine.
My mother put the bottle of old coins on the mantelpiece of the dining room, and said that she expected that a coin collector might pay several pounds for them.
I went to bed that night happy and excited. I was rich. Buried treasure had been discovered. The world was a good place.
I don’t remember how the dreams started. But that’s the way of dreams, isn’t it? I know that I was in school, and having a bad day, hiding from the kinds of kids who hit me and called me names, but they found me an
yway, deep in the rhododendron thicket behind the school, and I knew it must be a dream (but in the dream I didn’t know this, it was real and it was true) because my grandfather was with them, and his friends, old men with gray skin and hacking coughs. They held sharp pencils, the kind that drew blood when you were jabbed with them. I ran from them, but they were faster than I was, the old men and the big boys, and, in the boys’ toilets, where I had hidden in a cubicle, they caught up with me. They held me down, forced my mouth wide open.
My grandfather (but it was not my grandfather: it was really a waxwork of my grandfather, intent on selling me to anatomy) held something sharp and glittering, and he began pushing it into my mouth with his stubby fingers. It was hard and sharp and familiar, and it made me gag and choke. My mouth filled with a metallic taste.
They were looking at me with mean, triumphant eyes, all the people in the boys’ toilets, and I tried not to choke on the thing in my throat, determined not to give them that satisfaction.
I woke and I was choking.
I could not breathe. There was something in my throat, hard and sharp and stopping me from breathing or from crying out. I began to cough as I woke, tears streaming down my cheeks, nose running.
I pushed my fingers as deeply as I could into my mouth, desperate and panicked and determined. With the tip of my forefinger I felt the edge of something hard. I put the middle finger on the other side of it, choking myself, clamping the thing between them, and I pulled whatever it was out of my throat.
I gasped for breath, and then I half-vomited onto my bedsheets, threw up a clear drool flecked with blood, from where the thing had cut my throat as I had pulled it out.
I did not look at the thing. It was tight in my hand, slimy with my saliva and my phlegm. I did not want to look at it. I did not want it to exist, the bridge between my dream and the waking world.
I ran down the hallway to the bathroom, down at the far end of the house. I washed my mouth out, drank directly from the cold tap, spat red into the white sink. Only when I’d done that did I sit on the side of the white bathtub and open my hand. I was scared.
But what was in my hand—what had been in my throat—wasn’t scary. It was only a coin: a silver shilling.
I went back to the bedroom. I dressed myself, cleaned the vomit from my sheets as best I could with a damp face-flannel. I hoped that the sheets would dry before I had to sleep in the bed that night. Then I went downstairs.
I wanted to tell someone about the shilling, but I did not know who to tell. I knew enough about adults to know that if I did tell them what had happened, I would not be believed. Adults rarely seemed to believe me when I told the truth anyway. Why would they believe me about something so unlikely?
My sister was playing in the back garden with some of her friends. She ran over to me angrily when she saw me. She said, “I hate you. I’m telling Mummy and Daddy when they come home.”
“You know,” she said. “I know it was you.”
“What was me?”
“Throwing coins at me. At all of us. From the bushes. That was just nasty.”
“But I didn’t.”
She went back to her friends, and they all glared at me. My throat felt painful and ragged.
I walked down the drive. I don’t know where I was thinking of going—I just didn’t want to be there any longer.
Lettie Hempstock was standing at the bottom of the drive, beneath the chestnut trees. She looked as if she had been waiting for a hundred years and could wait for another hundred. She wore a white dress, but the light coming through the chestnut’s young spring leaves stained it green.
I said, “Hello.”
She said, “You were having bad dreams, weren’t you?”
I took the shilling out of my pocket and showed it to her. “I was choking on it,” I told her. “When I woke up. But I don’t know how it got into my mouth. If someone had put it into my mouth, I would have woken up. It was just in there, when I woke.”
“Yes,” she said.
“My sister says I threw coins at them from the bushes, but I didn’t.”
“No,” she agreed. “You didn’t.”
I said, “Lettie? What’s happening?”
“Oh,” she said, as if it was obvious. “Someone’s just trying to give people money, that’s all. But it’s doing it very badly, and it’s stirring things up around here that should be asleep. And that’s not good.”
“Is it something to do with the man who died?”
“Something to do with him. Yes.”
“Is he doing this?”
She shook her head. Then she said, “Have you had breakfast?”
I shook my head.
“Well then,” she said. “Come on.”
We walked down the lane together. There were a few houses down the lane, here and there, back then, and she pointed to them as we went past. “In that house,” said Lettie Hempstock, “a man dreamed of being sold and of being turned into money. Now he’s started seeing things in mirrors.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Himself. But with fingers poking out of his eye sockets. And things coming out of his mouth. Like crab claws.”
I thought about people with crab legs coming out of their mouths, in mirrors. “Why did I find a shilling in my throat?”
“He wanted people to have money.”
“The opal miner? Who died in the car?”
“Yes. Sort of. Not exactly. He started this all off, like someone lighting a fuse on a firework. His death lit the touchpaper. The thing that’s exploding right now, that isn’t him. That’s somebody else. Something else.”
She rubbed her freckled nose with a grubby hand.
“A lady’s gone mad in that house,” she told me, and it would not have occurred to me to doubt her. “She has money in the mattress. Now she won’t get out of bed, in case someone takes it from her.”
“How do you know?”
She shrugged. “Once you’ve been around for a bit, you get to know stuff.”
I kicked a stone. “By ‘a bit’ do you mean ‘a really long time’?”
“How old are you, really?” I asked.
I thought for a bit. Then I asked, “How long have you been eleven for?”
She smiled at me.
We walked past Caraway Farm. The farmers, whom one day I would come to know as Callie Anders’s parents, were standing in their farmyard, shouting at each other. They stopped when they saw us.
When we rounded a bend in the lane, and were out of sight, Lettie said, “Those poor people.”
“Why are they poor people?”
“Because they’ve been having money problems. And this morning he had a dream where she . . . she was doing bad things. To earn money. So he looked in her handbag and found lots of folded-up ten-shilling notes. She says she doesn’t know where they came from, and he doesn’t believe her. He doesn’t know what to believe.”
“All the fighting and the dreams. It’s about money, isn’t it?”
“I’m not sure,” said Lettie, and she seemed so grown-up then that I was almost scared of her.
“Whatever’s happening,” she said, eventually, “it can all be sorted out.” She saw the expression on my face then, worried. Scared even. And she said, “After pancakes.”
Lettie cooked us pancakes
on a big metal griddle, on the kitchen stove. They were paper-thin, and as each pancake was done Lettie would squeeze lemon onto it, and plop a blob of plum jam into the center, and roll it tightly, like a cigar. When there were enough we sat at the kitchen table and wolfed them down.
There was a hearth in that kitchen, and there were ashes still smoldering in the hearth, from the night before. That kitchen was a friendly place, I thought.
I said to Lettie, “I’m scared.”
She smiled at me. “I’ll make sure you’re safe. I promise. I’m not scared.”
I was still scared, but not as much. “It’s just scary.”
“I said I promise,” said Lettie Hempstock. “I won’t let you be hurt.”
“Hurt?” said a high, cracked voice. “Who’s hurt? What’s been hurt? Why would anybody be hurt?”
It was Old Mrs. Hempstock, her apron held between her hands, and in the hollow of the apron so many daffodils that the light reflected up from them transformed her face to gold, and the kitchen seemed bathed in yellow light.
Lettie said, “Something’s causing trouble. It’s giving people money. In their dreams and in real life.” She showed the old lady my shilling. “My friend found himself choking on this shilling when he woke up this morning.”
Old Mrs. Hempstock put her apron on the kitchen table, rapidly moved the daffodils off the cloth and onto the wood. Then she took the shilling from Lettie. She squinted at it, sniffed it, rubbed at it, listened to it (or put it to her ear, at any rate), then touched it with the tip of her purple tongue.
“It’s new,” she said, at last. “It says 1912 on it, but it didn’t exist yesterday.”
Lettie said, “I knew there was something funny about it.”
I looked up at Old Mrs. Hempstock. “How do you know?”
“Good question, luvvie. It’s electron decay, mostly. You have to look at things closely to see the electrons. They’re the little dinky ones that look like tiny smiles. The neutrons are the gray ones that look like frowns. The electrons were all a bit too smiley for 1912, so then I checked the sides of the letters and the old king’s head, and everything was a tad too crisp and sharp. Even where they were worn, it was as if they’d been made to be worn.”