An extract from The Illustrated Child, published in the UK in October 2020 by HarperCollins HQ (and as The Book Of Hidden Wonders in the US and Australia).
The oar made a slap, slapping sound as it hit the water, dipping into the soup-like moat and coming back covered in slime. There was a thin trickle of water in the bottom of the boat, near our feet, but Dad had assured me it was from the unseasonable summer rain the night before.
‘Is all the river like this?’ I asked, wrinkling my nose at the frog-skin smell dislodged from the moat’s depths, my eyes tracing the water for signs of the gargoyle.
‘No, no, Roe, once we get out from the moat and under the bridge it’s much clearer, I promise.’
Monty stood at the front of the canoe, his paw poised on the helm, his tail erect. For once he was silent. As we approached the bridge, he bunched his body up and took a flying leap, just catching the wooden slats with his back claws. He pulled himself up almost unscathed, the end of his tail dangling pondweed.
‘Bye, Montgomery!’ I called as we drifted beneath the bridge, my voice echoing. His replying meow echoed back, louder than normal, and then we were out the other side, and the water was beautifully, fantastically clear.
‘What do you think?’ Dad said, propelling the oars with relish, his huge hands bunched like grappling hooks round their handles.
‘It’s like another world,’ I said, leaning over and looking deep into the water. Here and there, the setting sun pierced its depths, filtering through the weedy fronds and catching at the scales of a million fish. I crouched low in the bow, tingling as the tips of a weeping willow trailed its sad fingers over me. The wind rustled in the trees above our heads, and Dad sighed happily.
‘Psithurism,’ he said
‘Sith-you-who?’ I said, not really listening. Early green conkers plopped into the water, sending crystal drops into my lap.
‘It means the sound of the wind in the trees. Ow!’
A conker landed on Dad’s head before rolling around in the bottom of the boat. He picked it up and began pulling at the spikes. The shell came away in his hands, and a young white conker dropped to the floor of the boat. It looked wrong, obscene in its nakedness. Dad picked it up and let it fall over the side.
‘Do you know the story of the Crystalfish?’ he asked me, resting an oar and letting the boat drift perilously close to a sandbank.
‘Is it one of your stories?’
‘It is, but I don’t think I’ve told it to you before. Would you like to hear it?’
I nodded. Dad hadn’t told me a story in a long time. I thought that he might have stopped for good. It was a worrying idea, mixed up with the feeling that my childhood was nearing its end. Relieved, I settled back on the wooden seat and listened.
‘There used to be a fish that lived in this river. She was small and insignificant, except for one thing: she had a diamond growing on the side of her body, just beneath a fin.’ He picked up the oar and began pushing it into the sand below us, stirring it up until the water lost its clarity and we were floating on a cloud of glittering gold.
‘On grey days, the little fish was safe, but on sunny days the sun would find the diamond and set it sparkling.’
‘Was it some sort of treasure?’ I was getting too old to believe in Dad’s stories, but I couldn’t help be sucked in, especially when they contained treasure in some form or another, as they invariably did.
‘It was a treasure, but it was also a curse. On days when all the other fish would bask in the warmth of the sun, she had to hide in a rotten old boot for fear of being caught.’
‘What happened to her?’
Dad looked sad for a moment, dipping his finger into the settling water and sucking on it thoughtfully.
‘I’m not sure. I think that’s up to you. It’s your story, you know. How do you want it to end?’
Having ownership of the story felt like a big responsibility. I stared at the surface of the water. For a moment I thought I saw something glittering below. ‘Can I think about it?’
‘Of course.’ Dad lifted the oars and began to row. The water sped beneath us. A streak of electric blue flitted past us, and Dad lifted his hand to point.
‘Kingfisher!’ As he said it, the oar careered out of his grip and fell onto my outstretched hand, sending it smacking into the side of the boat. A dart of pain shot through my fingers.
‘Oh, Romilly! Oh, my dear!’ Dad looked wildly about as I stared, repulsed yet fascinated as blood spread along the lines in my hand like a flower blooming.
‘It’s OK, it’s only a small cut.’ I held my hand over the side of the boat, letting the blood drip into the water. The red dispersed into the gold, and I thought of the fish who would feast on it tonight.
The water beneath us was still as glass now. I leant over the edge, looking at my reflection, my hair so long now that it dangled almost to the water.
Dad made to pick the oar up, and it tumbled out of his hands and into the river, sending my reflection into a thousand dancing particles. The girl in the water disappeared. I wondered if she’d swum down to search for the Crystalfish.
‘Hark,’ Dad whispered, reaching for the sodden oar and turning the boat around to start the journey home, ‘I think I hear monkeys.’
I smiled and closed my eyes, and sure enough there was a chittering in the trees that could be monkeys or could be crows.
‘Look,’ he said, pointing at a stick in the water, ‘a snake swimming to the mangroves!’ It was getting dark now, the sun almost gone, and it was very easy to believe we were on an Amazonian tributary, drifting through dangerous waters.
‘Do you hear that?’ I said, joining in. ‘A dangerous beast!’ Far away, Monty’s plaintive meows could be heard, welcoming us home.
I could see the lights of Braër now, and the silhouette of the bridge before it. Everything around us was familiar but oh so different.
‘I think I know how the story ends,’ I said, pulling my coat around me. Even now, in early August, the nights were drawing in earlier, bringing with them a cool wisp of the autumn evenings to come.
I cleared my throat, trying to form the ending in my mind. ‘Maybe one day the sun set and it was forever night,’ I said, ‘and when the moon was full, the Crystalfish came to the surface, knowing she was safe. She stared at the bright round light in the sky, and she was happy and sad all at the same time.’
Dad was silent for a long time, then he stretched as if he were coming out of a reverie, and nodded as we sped under the bridge.
‘We’re home,’ he said quietly.