An extract from Lauren Mooney’s novel in progress, Tank (working title), for middle-grade readers.
The note was on the door when Freya got home from school:
F – Come to no. 47 – Mrs G
It was a hot day a few weeks before the summer holidays and Freya’s pea-green uniform was clinging to the sweat on her back. She dropped her bag on the ground and pulled the note off the door for a closer look.
The writing clearly belonged to Mrs Godwhinnis, an old woman who lived on their street. When she was little, Freya had gone there sometimes to be fed if Mum was working late; she still thought with horror of the long, slow afternoons in that musty front room. But now when Mum worked late, Freya went to Emily’s for tea, two streets over. She hadn’t been to number 47 in years.
What could Mrs Godwhinnis want her for? Perhaps she’d had a fall and needed someone to go to the shops. But then how had she left the note?
Freya decided to get changed first. She tried her door key, but nothing happened; it must be double locked. Two months from now, Freya would be twelve, and Mum had promised the bottom lock key for her birthday: no more babysitters. But today she was out of luck. She couldn’t get in.
Freya lifted the flap of the letterbox and called ‘Mum?’ into the house. No answer and no sign of movement inside. She peered through the letterbox. Today’s post was lying on the hall floor. Red envelopes. Mum always hid the bad post if she got home first, so she must have been out all day.
‘Mum?’ Freya called again.
She felt a tingle up her spine. The kids from down the street, playing football in the road, had stopped; she could feel them watching her. She straightened up, trying to look casual – nothing to see here – as she peered through the living room window. Mum’s jacket and bag weren’t tossed over the chair like usual. Freya had been right, she wasn’t in. But Mum had said she wouldn’t be working today, Freya was sure. They were supposed to have tea together and, if the heat kept up, ice cream. So where was she?
There wasn’t much Freya could do. She slung her backpack on, held her head high past the football boys and went to Mrs Godwhinnis’s house.
The door swung open almost as soon as she knocked.
‘Freya,’ said the old woman. ‘Come in.’ She was small, with beady, wet blue eyes and thinning hair. She stood back to let Freya inside.
Mrs Godwhinnis had been old all Freya’s life. She seemed like she might have been born old. Her house smelled of stale rice pudding and the two little Scottie dogs she walked less and less often. Freya had a fear of dogs, which embarrassed her, because these ones in particular were small and rubbish, but she couldn’t help it. Mum said there was no stopping phobias, you just had to learn to live with them.
‘Cup of tea?’
‘It’s boiling,’ said Freya.
‘Cool you down.’
‘No it won’t. I’ll just have water.’
‘I’ll just have water, please.’
Mrs Godwhinnis nodded and went into the kitchen. Alone in the living room with the same old stale smell of years ago, Freya’s heart sank. She thought how, coming here when she was little, she would sit on the couch with bare legs and then, when she got up, find matted pale hairs stuck to the backs of her thighs from those horrible dogs. She wondered if today she could get in and out without having to sit down. Then the old woman came out of the kitchen and said, ‘Sit then, what you waiting for, a written invite?’
Freya did as she was told, perching regretfully on the edge of the couch. She sipped the glass of water Mrs Godwhinnis handed her. Warm. She hadn’t run the tap long enough.
‘So-o,’ Freya said awkwardly.
Mrs Godwhinnis sat back in her chair. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Now, Freya. Your uncle’s on the way.’
Freya blinked. ‘My what?’
‘Your mum’s brother, Michael.’
Uncle Mike? Freya hadn’t seen him for years; before Mrs Godwhinnis mentioned him, she’d barely remembered she had an uncle. She was too surprised to reply, so the old woman went on, ‘Your Mum’s working away from home a while. It was sudden, but you don’t need to worry.’
‘So while she can’t look after you, you’re gonna stay with Michael.’
There was a buzzing in Freya’s ears. Her hands were cold. ‘But where is she?’
‘Don’t get cross.’
‘I’m not,’ said Freya, but her voice sounded too loud in her own ears. She thought of the empty hall, bills on the floor, the double-locked door she couldn’t get through. ‘Where’s Mum?’
‘I told you,’ said Mrs Godwhinnis slowly. ‘She’s had to go off for work.’
‘But why didn’t she tell me? She never said anything this morning.’
‘Well, she thought she might not have to – like I said, it was sudden. Now, if that’s all sorted,’ Mrs Godwhinnis put her mug down and pulled herself to her feet. ‘I’d better check my potatoes.’
Freya sat mute, shocked, staring at the glass in her hands. She pictured the water inside getting hotter and hotter, bubbling over the top. Mrs Godwhinnis stopped in the doorway. ‘Don’t look so worried,’ she said. ‘I’m gonna feed you your tea, and then we’ll get you off to Michael’s. You’ll like it there. Lots of green fields, fresh air, all that. Be good for a girl your age.’
Mrs Godwhinnis patted the top of a suitcase with her bony, large-jointed hand, and ducked into the kitchen. Freya wondered how she hadn’t noticed it until now: the big black suitcase in the corner of the room – and it was hers, her and Mum’s, the one they took away on long weekends to the seaside. It was big enough for both their things with space left over for whatever they wanted to bring home, like stuffed toys from the grab machines or one of the wide-brimmed sunhats Mum always bought on holiday, even though she had twenty just the same at home.
Freya got up and went over to the case. Sliding the zipper slightly open, she saw purple fabric with polka dots: her summer dress. The suitcase was full of her things. She leant against the wall for a moment, all the air gone out of her. Then she picked up her backpack and went out of the house. She needed fresh air, space to think, away from the sound of the little Scottie dogs taking up carpet in the room above.
In Mrs Godwhinnis’s front garden was a wooden bench, with an ashtray and an empty coffee cup and space for one bum. Freya sat down, took out her mobile and called Mum.
The phone didn’t even ring. It was off.
Freya felt sick. She was full of questions, too many to begin asking, but something in Mrs Godwhinnis’s matter-of-fact manner made her feel she wasn’t allowed to ask them anyway.
Away for work? Mum worked at the Tesco two streets away. Where would she be sent away for so long? Where would she go that Freya couldn’t follow? And how long would Freya have to stay with Mike? She barely knew him. Didn’t he live miles and miles away? How would she go to school?
The front door swung open and Mrs Godwhinnis stood there, looking angry. ‘Thought you’d gone off,’ she said. ‘Don’t scare me like that.’
Freya shrugged and looked down the street, at the late afternoon light on the windows, as familiar to her as the backs of her own hands. This road. The kids at number 56 having a water fight. Freya had lived here all her life, never been away more than a few nights – and never, ever without Mum.
‘Pass that,’ said Mrs Godwhinnis, pointing. Freya looked down. Then she picked up the ashtray and handed it over.
Mrs Godwhinnis took a box of cigarettes out of her apron pocket, lit one, and sat down on her own front step, saying, as she did so, ‘Oooof.’ It was a long, low sound, like the air being pressed out of her.
They were quiet while Mrs Godwhinnis smoked. After a while she said, ‘Known you since you were just born.’
‘Yeah,’ said Freya, embarrassed.
‘You gonna be good for your uncle?’
‘But don’t I have to go to school?’
Mrs Godwhinnis shrugged. ‘Miss a couple weeks,’ she said. ‘Not the end of the world.’ She finished her cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. ‘Freya,’ she said slowly. ‘You’re not gonna have the summer you expected. But that’s what life is. Things happen to us, and then we have to go on. Right?’
Freya folded her arms across her chest and looked down at her shoes. The note on the door, the suitcase full of her clothes. Had Mum packed them? Had she known and gone without saying goodbye? It was all happening so fast. Mrs Godwhinnis said Mum was only working, but Freya didn’t believe her. She could admit that to herself: she didn’t think it was true. Either Mrs Godwhinnis didn’t know where Mum was, or she was lying. One thing was certain in Freya’s mind: Mum wouldn’t go away like this, and leave Freya alone, if there was anything she could do to avoid it. Something must have happened. She might even need Freya’s help.
‘Now,’ said Mrs Godwhinnis. ‘Are you coming in for your tea or are you gonna sit outside and sulk and be hungry?’
‘Come in,’ said Freya.
‘I’ll come in.’
‘There’s a good girl,’ said Mrs Godwhinnis, standing up. ‘Come on then.’
Freya followed her back into the house.
They heard the car out in the street while Freya was helping wash up. Both of them stopped what they were doing and looked at each other.
‘It might not be him,’ said Freya. Then the doorbell rang.
‘Go on then,’ said Mrs Godwhinnis. ‘Open up.’
Freya dried her hands on her school skirt as she went to the front door. A small man in a leather jacket was waiting on the step, only a head or so taller than her. He had close-cropped dark hair and a familiar nose, a little like hers, very like Mum’s.
‘Mike,’ she said.
‘Hello Freya.’ There was a pause, where she wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to hug him. Then he reached out and gripped her on the arm instead, rather hard. He was blinking a lot. Freya could feel that Mrs Godwhinnis had come to stand behind her, and Mike, looking over her shoulder, let go. ‘Kathleen?’ he said.
‘Thanks for coming so fast,’ said the old woman.
‘Course,’ said Mike. He looked at Freya. ‘Got all your stuff together?’
‘You should at least come in for a cuppa,’ said Mrs Godwhinnis. ‘Such a long drive.’
‘It is far?’ asked Freya.
‘Oh yes,’ said Mike.
He agreed to stop briefly, but would only accept water, and seemed raring to be off again. He said he wanted to get the driving over and done with; he wouldn’t even sit down in Mrs Godwhinnis’s front room, which Freya secretly thought was very sensible of him.
Ten minutes later, they had the heavy suitcase in the boot of Mike’s car, which, like him, was on the small side and a little worse for wear, though unlike him it had rust over the wheel arches. Freya sat up in front by her uncle and waved to Mrs Godwhinnis through the window. ‘Thanks for tea,’ she called.
‘No bother,’ said the old woman. ‘You keep safe now Freya. See you soon.’
But how soon? Freya wondered.
And then they were off, crawling down her road and past her house in the fading light. She took a last, lingering, hungry look at her bedroom window, wondering when she would see it again, and how it was possible to feel homesick for somewhere before you’d even left.. Then the house was out of sight and everything Freya knew was already behind her. Mrs Godwhinnis had said she’d miss a couple of weeks of school – but term would be over in two weeks’ time. So that was no guarantee of getting back before September.
Freya looked at her uncle. He was familiar from long-ago visits, but only dimly so. She probably wouldn’t have recognised him if they’d bumped into each other in the street. But surely if she asked him, he would have to tell her? ‘Mike,’ she said slowly. ‘How long am I staying with you?’
Mike nodded like he’d been expecting the question. ‘Just a few weeks,’ he replied, not taking his eyes off the road. ‘The summer.’
“A few weeks” and “the summer” were not the same thing. But it couldn’t be very long because Mum would be back soon to collect her.
Freya tried to imagine spending weeks and weeks in some strange place alone, but it was hard. Even missing two weeks of school – a few hours ago it would have been cause for celebration, no more maths for two whole months, brilliant. Now it just felt strange. She thought of her best friend Emily sitting alone at lunch and felt guilty.
No Emily. No Mum. Just – Mike.
Freya turned to look at her uncle, wondering what sort of person he was. There was grey in his beard and dark hair, and his clothes looked as old as his car. She felt more like she was alone with a teacher than a relative, though maybe that was just because she didn’t remember him much. Though he’d been nice when she was little, she was sure. And he still seemed nice enough. If a bit formal.
She hadn’t seen Mike for years and years, she was sure. Mum wasn’t good at keeping up with people: every January, or so it seemed, Freya would find a box of unwritten, unsent Christmas cards in some kitchen cupboard, or down the back of the stairs. Mum forgot things, misplaced them, she’d always done it. And now Freya was alone with this uncle who was almost a stranger, could perhaps be stuck with him all summer, in some far-flung place miles from home.
‘You said it’s far away?’
‘Yep,’ said Mike. ‘I live a fair bit north of here, in the countryside. Up in Northumberland, do you know where that is?’ Freya shook her head. ‘Anyway,’ he went on. ‘It’ll be quiet, for a city girl like you. Hard to get used to. But it’s nice and green.’
‘I won’t be there long though.’
‘No,’ said Mike, and nothing else. He still wasn’t looking at her.
Freya took a deep breath. ‘Mike,’ she said. ‘Where is she? Where’s Mum?’
The car slowed down at some traffic lights, but Mike kept on looking straight ahead. He took so long to answer that Freya wondered if he’d heard. She was about to repeat the question when he said, ‘Didn’t Kathleen – Mrs – the old lady—’
‘Didn’t she tell you?’
Freya shrugged. ‘She just said Mum had to go away for work.’
Mike caught her eye in the rear-view mirror and nodded. ‘There you go,’ he said. ‘Just like Mrs What’s-her-name said.’
‘Why? Because another office needed her.’
‘Yes,’ said Mike, but he looked uncertain.
‘But then why’s her phone off when I tried to call? And why didn’t she tell me about it this morning? And why—’
‘Freya,’ Mike interrupted. ‘You have to trust us, okay? Your Mum’s safe and everything’s fine, but she’s had to go away for now. That’s all. She’ll come back and get you as soon as she can.’
‘She’s had to go and work somewhere else?’
Mike took off the handbrake and they rolled on with the traffic, north, to the top of the city. ‘Yes,’ he said, slowly and deliberately. ‘Exactly.’
It was then that Freya decided she didn’t trust her uncle, and she definitely, definitely didn’t believe him. He seemed nice enough, but Freya knew a lie when she heard one – and she also knew that she could push all she liked, and shout, and yell, but all that would do was catch him on that she suspected, and he still wouldn’t tell her the truth. Once an adult made up their mind to keep you out of something, that seemed to be the end of it. She was going to have to find out what was really going on all by herself.
Freya felt alone, really alone, for the first time in her life.
‘Mind if I put the radio on?’ said Mike.
‘No,’ said Freya. She crossed her arms, looked out of the window, and settled down for the drive.
Freya woke up when the rain started. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but the car was so warm (‘Sorry,’ Mike said, ‘the air-con’s broken,’) and she’d been so full of Mrs Godwhinnis’s salty potatoes, she must have dozed off.
Now the car was cool, and it was dark outside. There was heavy rain running down the windowpane – the tiny windscreen wipers squeaking as they worked against it – and drumming hard on the roof. As though in time, Mike drummed his fingers on the wheel. He was beating out the rhythm of music on the radio that Freya didn’t recognise.
She was surprisingly cold now, her bare arms and legs goose-pimply. She rubbed at them to warm up, and Mike looked over. ‘Hi,’ he said quietly, as though somebody else in the car was still asleep.
‘Hi,’ said Freya.
Mike reached into the back and pulled out a raggedy blanket, which he handed over. It smelled of dog. Freya thought of Mrs Godwhinnis’s house and the long, strange day. At least it was warm.
‘Where are we?’
‘Nearly back. We’ll drive through the village soon. I’d give you the tour, except you can’t see much in this.’
‘The one nearest my house. Barrow.’
‘Barrow,’ Freya repeated. They were driving slower now, through winding roads, and she felt queasy. She tried to make out shapes through the rain-soaked window, but it wasn’t easy. She glimpsed a church spire, and then they were going up and up the side of a valley, rain lashing at them all the way. Freya peered out.
‘This is the place,’ said Mike. ‘Not that you can see much.’
Freya couldn’t. She had an impression of low buildings, shutters running with water, and someone at the side of the road, a girl. Freya saw her distinctly, standing quite still in spite of the weather, like she was in her own climate. ‘She must be soaked,’ said Freya.
‘Jesus, was someone out in this?’
‘Didn’t you see her?’
‘No,’ said Mike, shaking his head. ‘But I’m sure you’re right. Country people. They’re mad.’
‘Aren’t you ‘country people’?’
Mike laughed. ‘Not properly. I wasn’t born here.’ A few moments later, he stopped the car. They looked at each other. ‘Come on then, shall we brave it?’
Out they bundled, into the storm, Freya still wrapped in the blanket, her backpack in her hand knocking her shins. The rain was falling so hard that it was like somebody drumming their fingers on her head, and she shrieked in surprise as she ran after Mike, through the storm, towards the dark shape of a house. ‘Hurry up!’ she said as he fumbled with the keys. It could only have taken a minute or so, but by the time they fell inside, they were both soaked through and laughing.
Mike flipped on the light. They were in a cosy, old-fashioned entrance room, with stone tiles, a line of coats and a little table with an old-fashioned house phone on top. She and Mum just had mobiles, but there was one similar in Mrs Godwhinnis’s house, she remembered playing with it as a kid.
‘Retro,’ she said, pointing.
‘Ah,’ said Mike. ‘Yeah. We don’t always get great signal here. Do you want the tour, or are you too tired?’
‘I–’ Freya began, but Mike interrupted.
‘Oh no!’ he said, swinging the door open. ‘We’ve left your suitcase in the boot.’ They both looked out at the rain, which seemed even heavier than a moment ago, though Freya wouldn’t have imagined that was possible.
‘Leave it,’ she said.
So Mike loaned her an old t-shirt to sleep in, and a spare toothbrush, and showed her up to the room she’d be staying in, up and up and up – the way seemed long to Freya, and all the ceilings very high, which made Mike’s house feel strangely tall. Meanwhile the wind whipped round outside. Freya thought of boats out on the ocean, surrounded by weather.
On the top floor, Mike pushed a door and said, ‘This is your room.’
It was plain and simple, without much to distinguish it: a wooden wardrobe, a chest of drawers with a wide porcelain bowl on top, pale green curtains at the window. Freya thought longingly of her room at home, with the bedspread that matched the curtains, and her own posters on the walls, and her old books and toys on the shelves, and Mum downstairs. This room was bigger, but it wasn’t really hers, and for a moment she felt a wave of homesickness so strong that it was like being dizzy.
But when Mike said, ‘Is this all right?’, he looked so keen to please that Freya could only say, ‘Yeah. Course. Thank you.’