The opening of Richard Lambert’s novel for children, Shadow Town, published by Everything With Words on 21 October 2021.
Steady drifts of rain blew in from the sea against roof tiles and window panes, rainwater trickled inside drainpipes and from somewhere in the sleeping city came the howl of a dog. The dog was crying to be let in. The shadow stopped and listened. Unlike the dog, the shadow had no desire to be let in, no desire for a dry place, no desire for sleep. And the city did well to sleep. Or pretend to sleep. Because the shadow was full of hate.
The shadow kept the semblance of a human being. It stopped at a new noise – a rumble. Above, in one of the houses, someone snored. The shadow rose easily through the air. It moved along the sides of the houses, peering in at each upper window that was not curtained or shuttered. Dark room after dark room until – there. The snorer.
On a great bed of white sheets, on his back, lay a large man. His chest swelled as he inhaled and his snore was so loud it buzzed the panes of glass. The man exhaled and his chest sank. A moment of silence then his chest inflated once more and his snore buzzed the glass. At the hinge of the window was a gap where a draft entered the house, and here the shadow slipped inside. The man’s eyelids flickered. Dull brass gleamed on a mantelpiece. The shadow approached. The shadow bowed, and as the man inhaled with one of those gigantic snores, the shadow shrank until it was as thin as a thread and slid up a nostril. The man snorted as if a gnat had got up his nose, and rolled over.
The man was dreaming of his childhood. When he was little, on Friday afternoons after school, he would come home to the smell of pretzels, fresh out of the oven and sprinkled with crystals of sugar. His mouth used to water. His mother would bring the warm pretzels to him at the kitchen table. He would swing his legs, happy. He lifted a pretzel, smelled its delicious aroma, took a bite. It was the tastiest pretzel he’d ever eaten. Then, in his dream, in one moment, sweet pastry turned foul, fresh bread turned mouldy and his mother began to cry. The man felt such a jolt of something nasty, something that hated him and his mother – it was like plunging into a bath of hate – that he sat bolt upright in bed, wide awake. He knew something hateful had got inside him. He leapt out of bed. Still the feeling didn’t leave so the man began running round the room, as if he could run away from the feeling.
The shadow left his body. It flowed under the door. It crossed the hallway to a room that smelled of sour breath, where an old woman dreamed, and it fell on her. It leaked into her dream with such hatred that when she woke the next morning she was weighed down as if her body was heavier than a sack of compost. Her low mood did not leave her for three days. The shadow didn’t wait around to see that mood pass, it left the old woman and floated downstairs to the kitchen where, snoozing by the fire, it found a cook happily dreaming that she was flying like an angel. That is, until the shadow brought a cliff into her dream and the cook flew into it with a splat. The cook woke with a shock, convinced that all her bones were broken. She began weeping. The shadow popped out of the house via a keyhole.
If it could have, it would have slammed the door and put a curse on the place.
It made its way through the city. It didn’t sense the rain blown in from the sea or the coldness of the air. In the sheds beyond the marketplace, the animals in their pens stirred nervously. Rain drummed on the high tin roof. The animals sensed the shadow. The pigs grunted and the cows bumped against each other. The shadow flew above them. The pigs squealed. The shadow reared, grew larger, seemed to fill the whole space of the windy sheds, and the pigs screamed and the cows bellowed and all the creatures rattled the galvanised metal rails of their fences the way prisoners condemned to death rattle the bars of their cell doors on the night of their execution. But the shadow did not enter the animals’ bodies. It passed through the sheds and out the other side and floated on towards the harbour.
There, it climbed the rocks that rose towards the castle and by a pool the last tide had left, it sat. In the harbour water near the rocks stood a heron, waiting to spear a fish. The heron was completely still. It either did not notice or did not mind the shadow. All that moved were the multiple rings opening on the water from each drop of rain and the waves lapping against the rocks. The shadow seemed almost to cross one leg over the other. It waited. What did the shadow wait for? For its food, like the heron? Perhaps. Or perhaps it did not know why it waited. Perhaps it only knew what it wanted when the thing it wanted arrived.
The rain drifted in from the sea. The shadow turned and scanned the city from the long hill on one side that sloped steeply down through a jumble of tenements and houses to the municipal buildings and warehouses, then across the river and up the hill on the other side to the castle that towered over the harbour. Not a light shone anywhere. Not in any window, not from any streetlamp. Nowhere.
Except above. Right above the shadow a light shone at the end of the castle. Like a challenge.
Seeing that light, emotion stained the shadow, made its substance thicker, as if it was about to shudder into a physical body. Startled, the heron took flight. The shadow shot upwards like a firework, but a dark firework.
Through the rain-spotted window, at a desk, by firelight and the glow of a table-lamp, in a low-ceilinged room so pokey it was more like a ship’s cabin than an ordinary room, sat a tall, thin man with black hair. His back was to the window and he was working at papers. The shadow gulped and a deeper darkness spread through it as if it had swallowed a whole tub of ink. The ink of the deepest inkwell, the deepest ink-mine (if ink could be mined), the deepest ocean of the blackest ink that wrote the blackest messages of hate. The shadow leapt at the window. It didn’t even try to find a gap.
Glass shattered. The wooden muntins that held each individual window pane splintered. The shadow hurtled across the room, bringing with it the sweeping rain, sending the flames in the fire roaring and flapping in fear. It skidded to a halt by the door. Now it turned and expanded, like a balloon filling with air, only it was not air it filled with, but black vengeance. In the firelight, the man’s eyes widened, as if with terror. The grey in the man’s black hair caught the light. And now the shadow shrank, condensing all its hatred and vengeance until its emotions were contained in something the size of an arrow-head. It aimed itself at the man’s heart. It would shoot itself through that heart faster than an arrow, faster than a crossbow bolt, faster than a bullet. Then, at the very moment it was about to hurl itself, something about the man stopped it. His eyes twinkled. The shadow could not believe it. The man’s eyes twinkled and the brackets of a smile twitched at the ends of his cruel mouth. The shadow hesitated. Then it understood – this was a trap.
The door was thrown open and stark lights flooded in, hurting the shadow’s eyes. A net of light was flung and when it touched the shadow, the shadow felt searing pain. If it could have screamed it would have done. It made no sound. Figures moved beams of light that stabbed its eyes, and the net of light was drawn tighter and tighter as the men bellowed, shouting instructions, and their boots thudded on the floorboards of the cramped, cabin-like room. The shadow thrashed. The shadow strained upwards, the men pulled the net, and for a moment the battle between shadow and men hung in the balance. Then one man lost his footing and the shadow was released with tremendous force. It catapulted upwards. A man’s skull knocked against the ceiling and made a noise like a bowling ball hitting a skittle. Another man’s body thudded into a wall. He grunted and fell like a sack of rocks.
The shadow zipped out of the window.
The shadow flew. It glanced backwards, saw lights take off from the roof of the castle and come after it. The lights drew nearer quickly. There were several flying figures, and beneath them they carried nets of painful light.
The shadow faced ahead and, as if taking a deep breath, gathered all its being into its head with the rest of its shape tapering behind it like a tail, and fired itself across the night.
When the shadow looked back several miles later, the figures were still there. But they were lagging. And each time the shadow checked, they were further behind. Except for one figure. Though it grew smaller, it did not give up. Five minutes passed, ten, fifteen, and still that one figure with a net of light pursued the shadow. At last the shadow grew tired. It had been flying for half an hour and the figure behind kept its steady pace, and now the shadow lost its speed, and its pursuer neared. By this time the shadow had reached the mountains and the great forests there, and still the figure came on steadily, like a wolf hunting a wounded deer.
The shadow descended to the forest.
It moved through the forest. The shadow was travelling slowly now, drifting from side to side with tiredness, almost crying in desperation to escape, but each time it checked behind, the figure with the net of light was there. Growing nearer. They slalomed between the trees. The figure behind was almost upon the shadow. The shadow put on a final burst of speed, weaving between trunks, and when it looked behind, the figure had gone. The shadow slowed, then floated over ferns and bracken. The forest was silent. The shadow was safe. Air rushed and the figure – a teenage boy with blond hair – dropped like a hawk, his net of light opening. The shadow wrenched itself sideways. It fell through ferns and bracken. It would have crashed into the damp ground. It could actually smell the damp ground – wet bark, pine needles, and soil. But, to the shadow’s surprise, it did not touch the ground.
It fell through the ground.
There was a hole there.
The shadow fell into another world. It knew that it was in another world because the air was warm and dirty and not clear like the air of the mountain and the shadow was not beneath the ground but falling upwards, which was impossible. It fell upwards through the air, into the sky. By the time it managed to slow itself and hover, it was high above the land of this other world and it was looking down on a city, a metropolis so large it dwarfed the city the shadow knew. The shadow had never seen so many lights. Roadways of light in a vast, endless web, large rectangles of brightly lit grass where people ran around chasing a ball, towers of glass taller than the tallest towers of the castle in the shadow’s home city, and in the distance a broad snaking river, crossed by lamp-lit bridges, and beside the river a great wheel of light as tall as the castle in the shadow’s city, with people in glass bubbles on the wheel. There was the sound of an earthquake in the sky, the shadow turned, and bearing down upon it was an iron bird the size of a ship. The shadow jumped just in time and the flying-earthquake-bird-ship sailed past, and through its portholes the shadow glimpsed lots of people before the thing left in its wake filthy fumes stinking worse than farts. The shadow coughed several small shadows, and shuddered in disgust.
It moved away, avoiding more of the iron flying machines, and seeing no sign of its pursuer – the young blond man with the burning net of light – it descended.
It searched for an uninhabited place to stop and rest. But the city was endless. Finally the shadow could go no further and it drifted with the warm air along a street of houses. The streetlamps were on but each house was dark, their curtains closed, except for one room which was lit up and the window open. And the shadow would have passed on beyond this room, too, it was so tired, except that a boy’s voice came from the window, uttering a word the shadow recognised. ‘Balthasar.’ That was the word. So the shadow sank to the small front garden only big enough for a few bushes and a patch of grass, and here it came to rest, under that window on a warm night – it was summer here – and lay down on the ground under a bush and fell asleep.