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Little Exiles

Little Exiles
Little Exiles Robert Dinsdale A stunning novel set in the wake of the Second World War, Little Exiles tells the extraordinary story of the forced child migration between Britain and Australia that took place after World War II and how this flight from home shaped the identity of a generation of children.Jon Heather, proud to be nearly nine, knows that Christmas is a time for family. But one evening in December 1948, no longer able to cope, his mother leaves him by a door, above which the legend reads Chapeltown Boys’ Home of the Children’s Crusade. Several weeks later, still certain his mother will come back, Jon finds himself on a boat set for Australia. Promised paradise, Jon soon realizes the reality of the vast Australian outback is very different; its burnished desert becoming the backdrop for a strict regime of hard work and discipline.So begins an odyssey that will last a lifetime, as Jon Heather and his group of unlikely friends battle to make their way back home. LITTLE EXILES ROBERT DINSDALE It is proposed that the Commonwealth seek out in Britain, by whatever means necessary, at least 17,000 children a year suitable and available for immediate migration to Australia. Arthur Calwell, Australian Minister for Immigration, 1949 Table of Contents Title Page (#u9db28473-240e-58ab-9adc-00e8551f35d2) Epigraph (#uf6d1db36-44c0-52a0-9230-db6867f267c3) Book One: The Children’s Crusade (#u6d8b8147-a6ea-5c20-8a25-00017e90bba7) Chapter I (#uaab8dfbb-2b17-5680-9cfa-01ed9977da54) Chapter II (#u7a188d86-389f-5bcc-97b8-5fba48096236) Chapter III (#u03e07b02-9631-5149-a164-84735bb9c23b) Chapter IV (#u053ae107-a46a-5b31-80e8-a4caa76263a0) Chapter V (#u293395f3-46b1-5a87-b66d-1faaed8002a7) Chapter VI (#u26199d64-a843-59b4-af5d-b2596a04975b) Chapter VII (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter VIII (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter IX (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter X (#litres_trial_promo) Book Two: The Stolen Generation (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XI (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XII (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XIII (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XIV (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XV (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XVI (#litres_trial_promo) Book Three: The Three Childsnatchers (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XVII (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XVIII (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter XIX (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) BOOK ONE I The boy standing vigil at the end of the lane, a Christmas lantern in his hand, still believes his father is coming home. Christmas, he has been taught, is a time of family, when errant sisters might come back to the fold, when black-sheep brothers might go carolling with the mothers they say they despise. He is eight years old, proud to be nearly nine, and he still recalls last Christmas, how he stood at the end of the lane, tracking every approaching motor car until the snow drifts climbed above his boots. It had taken his mother to prise him away. She had hoisted him up and hauled him back to the terrace, where his sisters were ready to welcome him with hot mulled wine – which was terrible to taste, but at least made him feel warm and fuzzy inside. He had gone to bed that night in squalls of tears, but risen the next morning to presents under the tree – a book he had pined for, The Secret of Grey Walls, a cap gun he had been told, time and again, not to expect – and it was not until the evening that he realized he had not thought of his vigil all through the day. This year, he has resolved, he will not be so cowardly. He has his cap gun tucked into his belt, he has brought mulled wine in a flask, and he has wrapped up warm. Christmas is a time of family and a time of miracles. The logic will not be denied. It is 1948 and, though he has never once seen his father, he knows that he is coming home. He was born in the middle month of winter in the year of 1940. He has twin sisters older than him by eleven years, and they are the ones who attended his birth, straining with his mother in the backroom of the terrace where they live. Of his earliest years, he remembers little. His mother kneads dough in a bakery before dawn and cleans houses in the afternoon, and it is his sisters he remembers making him breakfast and dressing him every morning. He grows up, quickly, between one end of the street and another. A shop mistress smiles when he enters her shop, secretly palming barley sugars into his hands. A neighbour invites him to play with her daughter in a backyard on the other side of the road. So lost is he in this world of women that it is not until he sees two brothers tumbling over one another further down the terrace that he discovers it is cowboys and Indians he longs to be playing, not with dolls’ houses and ponies chipped out of wood. At night, there are sirens. If the sirens sing before dusk, they hurry together to a shelter buried in the grounds of a house at the end of the terrace. Outside, the world quakes. Through a speak-hole sliding back and forth, the boy can see cascading oranges and reds, great reefs of smoke. He hears whispers of factories on fire and great barrage balloons strung through the skies. If the sirens do not sing until after dark, they remain in their house, crammed into a cubbyhole beneath the stairs. Sometimes the building shakes. At first, the boy does not understand the fear – but, in the tomb under the stairs, terror is a disease that spreads quickly. One night, crammed into that cubbyhole, his mother begins to sob. The boy believes he can hear his own name in the tears: Jon, Jon, Jon, the word swallowed by the song of the siren. He is five years old when he begins to ask about his father. It is 1946 and there are suddenly strange men in the streets, great companies of them descending on the taprooms and alehouses. Jon watches them from his window at the top of the terrace. He notices, for the first time, that his mother stands alone at the end of their lane each evening, watching these strange intruders march back from the ruins of warehouses and factories they are rebuilding. He wonders if she too is bewildered at the invasion of their city, but his sisters smile oddly when he dares to ask the question. They tell him she is waiting. Nothing more, and nothing less. She is waiting for their father to return. They bring out photographs. A man with wild black hair glowering into the camera. A man with two young girls, one sitting on either knee. His name, they tell him, is Jonah, though he too is always known as Jon. It thrills the little boy to think that he, one day, might be like the man in the pictures. At the back end of summer, a man in uniform arrives at the house next door, and the little girl with whom Jon is sometimes invited to play is introduced, for the first time, to her father. Jon watches as the man pauses, the little girl framed in the doorway, and crouches to urge her forward. At first she freezes, her mother looming behind. Then the man vaults the brick wall, scooping up the child and embracing her mother in one swift movement. In some of the other doorways along the redbrick row, other women have appeared to witness the reunion. One of them, Jon notes, begins to applaud. There are stories to be learned. His father was a hero fighting a crusade on the other side of the world. His father was in the jungle teaching the natives to fly Spitfires. There are other stories as well – his father once worked at a lathe; his father was arrested in a backroom brawl – but these are not the tales with which the boy obsesses. Though the boy has never once met the man, he wants to grow up and be just like him, out in the world on grand adventures, with friends and family at home thrilling for news of his exploits. He begs his mother every evening to tell some other tale of his father’s derring-do. Sometimes he is swooped away by his sisters – but, sometimes, he is wily enough to trap his mother in the question. One night, after his sisters have put him to bed, his mother returns from an evening sweeping some factory floor. He waits for her to climb, wearily, to her bed – and then he pounces. He tells her he has had a nightmare, that he dreamed of his father lost, somewhere at sea, fending off sharks with the butt of a broken oar. It is nonsense, she tells him. His father cannot swim; he would never have got himself into such trouble in the first place. The boy does not notice, at first, when the stories stop being told. He supposes it may have been earlier than he first thought, for he was surely telling himself the stories as well, lining up his lead soldiers and imagining them his father’s company, or building matchstick planes and putting his father in the cockpit. In his games, his father makes his way home from the jungles on the other side of the world, but is forever sidetracked by helpless villagers, or orphaned children searching for someone to protect them. Each time he goes to sleep he constructs a new fantasy, some other adventure his father cannot resist as, kingdom by kingdom, he picks his way back to English shores. In a journal he writes stories about his father. At first, they are only short passages, idle thoughts: his father parachuting from a plane; his father in a coracle, tumbling helplessly over a wild waterfall. He is beginning to compose a longer story – his father crossing Siberia by sled with Nazis on his trail – when his mother discovers him at work, hidden under the bedcovers. He does not understand why she starts crying. She takes the journal away and forbids him from writing such stories ever again. He is not permitted, any longer, to mention his father. The winter of 1949 lingers long into the following year, but lasts longer still for Jon’s mother. She is at home more and more often, lying in bed until hours after dawn, so that soon it is Jon’s sisters who cook breakfast and scrub his laundry and take the ration books out to gather the week’s groceries. On Christmas Day, she does not get out of bed at all. They open presents gathered around her bed, and bring a small tree into the room that Jon has decorated with stray strands of tinsel. Early in the New Year, he finds one of his sisters sobbing quietly to the other in the scullery. He listens at the door, but they are well versed in his ways and shoo him away. Three nights later, Jon piles his few belongings – clothes and bedspread and a bundle of treasured books – into a suitcase and follows his sisters to a neighbour’s house. He spends the night on the floor of the living room, where the deep rug before the fire is a more comfortable bed than he has ever known. He wonders, absently, why their mother has not joined them in the adventure, but is promised he will see her again soon. Three nights later, his mother arrives on the doorstep and takes dinner with them: a broth made of onions, thickened with potato. She has brought hard bread from her bakery, but its appearance on the table causes deep and troubled sighs. His mother has stolen it, Jon understands – but a little theft does not damage its taste. She comes intermittently after that. One Sunday, she strolls with him along the canal. Another time, she and his sisters go for a long walk – and only his sisters return. Easter comes, and she brings him a new book, wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. He has been waiting for Mystery at Witchend longer than he remembers, and is so eager to sink into its pages that he does not realize, until it is already dark, that his mother stayed only a few minutes that day. By the break of December in the year of 1950, he has not seen his mother in four long months. Christmas approaches quickly, and he is determined it will not be like the last. He makes plans to go to the old spot, to keep his customary vigil – but, just as he is preparing to leave, a familiar voice rises in the hallway below. Thundering down the stairs, he sees his mother standing in the door. He does not run to her, though he knows it is what she expects. At the command of his sister, an adult now, he approaches gingerly. His mother crouches and tells him that she loves him. He accepts the words, because he has always accepted them, has never for a second doubted she does not think of him as often as he thinks of her. She tells him to put his best coat on, to polish up his boots and gather together the books she knows he loves. At last, the boy understands: Christmas is a time of family and a time of miracles. They are going back home. Through the redbricks, piled high in frost and ice, he trails after his mother. They wander the old street, but they do not go back to the old house. They march on, instead, into thoroughfares Jon has never known, strange, foreign streets where black men stand out in the snow. They come to a broad thoroughfare from where he can see the lands beyond the edge of the city. There has been snow on the dales for many days now, and they loom luminescent in the night. A silvery moon hangs above, shipwrecked in banks of white cloud. Between two houses, their windows boarded up, a lane drops onto a street below. Thorn trees grow wild along the verge and, to Jon, it appears like the entrance to some fairytale forest. His mother stops and crouches down so that his face is only inches from hers. Her eyes are shimmering. She produces an envelope and presses it into his hands. Do not read it, she implores. A smile flourishes and dies on her face. She knows how Jon loves to read – but the letter is not for him. He is only to pass it on. She turns him to the alley flanked with trees. At its end, lights are burning in the windows of a sprawling redbrick pile. It will not be forever, she tells him. But there is no place for Jon with his sisters any longer. They have carried him where she alone could not, and they can take him no further. Yet, his mother will be well soon. She will have money, she will have a home, she may even have a man of her own. She brushes the hair out of his eyes, and turns him on the spot to usher him on his way. She will come for him before the new year is two months old – but, for now, he must float on alone. Jon stands alone as his mother returns to the terrace. At moments his feet compel him to follow, but he is strong enough – defiant as he knows his father must have been – to remain rooted to the spot. Only when she is gone from sight, wreathed in a sudden flurry of snowflakes, does he fail. He fumbles after her for one step, and then another – and then he stops. It is not what she wants. It is not what his father would have wanted. He turns to the trail, tucking the letter into his coat. He can see, now, that the redbrick pile is not one building but three, two houses hunching on the shoulders of a hall with a spire like a church. He walks, slowly, between two pillars of red brick. Then, down the ledges he goes, head held high so that none of the midnight creatures watching him from the trees might see that he is afraid. In front of the tall spire there lies an open yard, where a motor car sits on blocks of stone and a single bicycle is propped against the wall. Washing lines criss-cross above him, beaded with snow. He advances slowly. The building looms, a fairytale castle made out of bricks and mortar. Above the door, the legend reads, in cursive script, Chapeltown Boys’ Home of the Children’s Crusade. Beneath that, a shield is mounted on a tall cross, and emblazoned with words Jon has to squint to make out. We fight for the paupers and not for the princes. We fight for the orphaned, the lost and the lonely, the forgotten children of famine and war, the desperate ones who deserve a new world. Jon barely has time to finish the final words when the doors on the other side of the yard open. Beyond them, he sees children – short and tall, young and younger still, more children than he has seen in his life – and, above them, wrapped in long robes, a man in black. The man gestures to him. ‘Jon Heather,’ he intones, his voice old and feathery. ‘We are so very glad that you have found us.’ II ‘That little one’s still in bed,’ a voice, full of mirth, whispers. ‘Might be he froze in the night.’ The first voice pauses, as if weighing the idea up. ‘He’d have a better chance of not freezing if you gave him back his blanket.’ Once the voices have faded, Jon Heather opens his eyes. In truth, he has been awake since long before the morning bell, just the same as every last one of the mornings he has been here. At night, long after lights out, he forces himself to stay awake for as long as he is able, just so that they might not take his sheets, but even so, he wakes every morning to discover that his sleepiness has betrayed him, that he’s been sucked under, that now he’s shivering on a bare mattress with only the ceiling tiles to shelter him. Once he is certain the dormitory is empty, he squirms back into yesterday’s clothes – they are two sizes too big, hand-me-downs he was given once he had worn out the clothes in which his mother sent him – and ventures out of the room. If you are careful, you can walk the length of the landing without your head once peeping above the banister rail. It is a long passage, and overlooks a broad hall below. Along the row, there are other dormitories and, at the end, the cell where the returned soldier who leads them in games sleeps. Jon Heather steals past each doorway, mindful of other stragglers, like him, trying to avoid the stampede. At the top of the stair, he stops. Here, the stairs cut a switchback to the entrance hall below. Standing at the top, he gets a strange sense of things out of proportion, of the downstairs world drawing him in. He pauses, fingering the banister for balance. Through a gap between the rails, he can see the big double doors through which he first came, holding up his mother’s letter like a petition. He has stood here every morning, waiting for her face to appear at the glass, or else for his sisters to come, raining their fists at the door and demanding his return. So far: stillness and silence, more terrifying than any of the dreams that have started to taunt him. The hall below is stark, with a counter at the front like an old hotel. At the doors stand two of the men in black, conversing in low whispers. The elder is the man who first welcomed Jon to the Home. Wizened like some fairytale grandfather, he wears little hair upon his head. Beside him, another man listens attentively. Somehow, his skin is tanned by the sun, a stark contrast to the pallid men who shuffle around this place. Jon wants to wait until they have passed before descending the stairs, but presently the elder man turns, sunken eyes falling on him. ‘The bell,’ he says, ‘was more than fifteen minutes ago.’ Jon, wordless, shrinks back, even though he is a whole staircase away from the man. ‘Breakfast. No exceptions.’ The men in black leave the hall along one of the passages leading deeper into the building. These are hallways along which the boys are forbidden to go, and all the more mysterious for that. At the bottom of the stair, Jon listens to their footfalls fade, and wonders how far the sprawling building goes. Now, however, he is alone. He can hear the dull chatter of boys in the breakfasting hall, which joins the entrance hall behind the counter, but something pulls him away, draws him towards the big double doors. The glass windows on either side are opaque, barnacled in ice, so that the world beyond is obscured. He stands, tracing the pattern of an icy crystal with his index finger, before his eyes fall upon the door handle. Then, suddenly, his hands are around it. At first, that is enough – just to hold on to the promise of going back out. Yet, when he finds the courage to turn the handle, he finds it jammed, locked, wood and steel and glass all conspiring against him. Jon Heather pads into the middle of the entrance hall and turns a pointless pirouette. Breakfast is the same every morning: milk and oats. Sometimes there is sugar, but today is not one of those days; there will be no more sugar until the boy who wet his bed and secretly changed his sheets is discovered and punished. By the time Jon Heather arrives, most of the boys are already done eating – and, because they are not allowed to leave the hall until the second bell sounds, they are now contriving games out of bowls and spoons. They sit at long tables, skidding bowls up and down, crying out the names of famous battles of which they have heard. One boy, who has not been quick enough in wolfing down his oats, has found his bowl upended and perched on top of his head like a military cap. The oats look like brain matter seeping down his cheeks. ‘Just get it off your head, George, before one of them old bastards sees.’ ‘It’s hot …’ the fat boy trembles. ‘More than mine was,’ says the lanky, red-haired boy beside him, shoving his bowl away. ‘Look,’ he whispers, out of the corner of his mouth, ‘you can eat up what’s left of mine if you like. Just don’t make me have to take that thing off your head for you.’ ‘I wish you would, Peter. It’s getting in my hair.’ The lanky redhead groans. His head drops to the table for only an instant, before he sits bolt upright, swivels and helps the younger boy lift off his new helmet. ‘I’m never going to hear the end of this from the other boys …’ ‘It’s in my ears, isn’t it?’ The older boy digs a finger in and produces a big clot of porridge. ‘You want me to wipe your arse as well, Georgie boy?’ Jon Heather must walk the length of the breakfasting hall to get his porridge from the table at the front. When he gets there, all that is left are the congealed hunks at the bottom of the pan – but this is good enough; it’s a tradition for each boy to hawk up phlegm into the pot as he takes his portion, and most likely it didn’t sink this far. Besides, Jon isn’t hungry. He carries a metal bowl back to a spot at the end of the table and pretends to eat. Two months. He is only staying a short two months. His father has surely endured much worse, locked up in some jungle camp for years on end. ‘You’re new,’ a boy, tall with close hair and sad, sloping eyes, begins, flinging himself onto a stool opposite Jon. Jon does not know how to reply. ‘I am,’ he says – but then the second bell tolls, and he is spared the onset of another inquisition. During the day, there are sometimes lessons. The men in black sit them down in the chantry, which squats on the furthest side of the entrance hall, and give them instructions in morals. Mostly, this means how to be good, but sometimes how to do bad so that good might prosper. This, the men in black explain, is a difficult decision, and to shy away from it would be the Devil’s work. When there are not lessons, the boys are left to their own devices. Often, the men in black disappear into the recesses of the Home, those strange uncharted corridors in which they study and live, leaving only a single man to prowl among them, making certain that the boys have made the best of their lessons and are growing into straight, moral young men. Today it is the sun-tanned man in black. Periodically, he appears in the doorway to summon a boy and take him through long lists of questions – What is your age? How long have you been here? Are you an adventurous sort, or a studious sort? – before propelling him back to his games. Jon is hunched up in the corner of the assembly hall, listening to bigger boys batter a ball back and forth, when the sun-tanned man appears. He seems to be counting, with little nods of his head, eyes lingering on each boy in turn. Every so often, his face scrunches and he has to start again, as the gangs the boys have formed come apart, scatter, and then reform. In the middle of the shifting mass, Jon Heather sits with his knees tucked into his chin. Come night-time, at least there will be order; at least there will be a place allotted for each boy; at least the day will be over. Even if he has to sleep in the biting cold without his blanket again, listening to the whispers of the boys around him, watching the shadow of footfalls outside the dormitory door, it won’t matter. Every nightmare is another night gone, and every night gone is another few hours closer to the morning when his mother will return. The man in black’s eyes seem to have fallen on another boy, the lanky redhead from breakfast, but something compels Jon to stand up. Dodging a rampaging bigger boy, he scurries to the doorway. At first, the sun-tanned man does not even notice the boy standing at his feet. Jon reaches up to tug on a sleeve. His fingers are just dancing at the hem of the cloth when the man looks down: violent blue eyes set in a leathery mask. ‘I have a question,’ Jon pronounces. ‘A question?’ The accent is strange, English put through a mangling press and ejected the other side. ‘I want to call my father. He’s coming to fetch me.’ The man in black nods, as if he has known it all along. ‘I didn’t know who to ask,’ Jon ventures. ‘I see,’ the man says, placing an odd stress on the final word. ‘And when was the last time you saw your father? Was it, perhaps, the night he brought you here?’ ‘My mother brought me here,’ says Jon, exasperated at the man’s stupidity. ‘And your father?’ Jon Heather says, ‘Well, I haven’t once seen my father.’ The man gives a slow, thoughtful nod. He crouches, a hand on Jon’s shoulder, but even now he is some inches taller and has to look down, along the line of a broad, crooked nose. ‘Then it seems to me, you hardly have a father at all.’ At once, the man climbs back to his feet, barks out for the red-haired boy and turns to lead him along the corridor. Alone in the doorway, Jon Heather watches. ‘If you keep letting them take it, they’ll carry on taking it,’ the boy with red hair snipes. Tearing Jon’s blanket from the hands of a bigger boy, he marches across the dormitory and flings it back onto Jon’s crib. ‘What, were you raised as a little girl or something? Just tell them no.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Yeah, merry Christmas,’ the redhead replies. Christmas Day has been and gone. This year, no card from his mother, no parcels wrapped in string with his sisters’ names on them. All of this he can bear – but he cannot stand the thought that, this Christmas, he kept no vigil for his father’s return. It is the small of the afternoon and outside fresh snow is falling. Ice is keeping them imprisoned. Jon tried to hole up in the dormitory today, but with the grounds of the Home closed, clots of bigger boys lounge around their beds, working on ever more inventive ways to stave off their boredom – and Jon knows, already, what this might mean. If you tell tales to the men in black, they give you a lecture on the spirit. If you tell tales to the soldier at the end of the hall, he bustles you to a different room and, by the time you look back, he is gone. It is better, Jon decides, to stay away. A man, he tells himself, can endure anything at all, just so long as he has his mother and father and sisters to go back to. He bundles up his blanket and tucks it under one arm. Then, with furtive looks over each shoulder, he bends down and produces a clothbound book that has been jammed beneath his mattress. He could read We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea a hundred times – he’ll read it a hundred more, if it makes these two months pass more quickly. ‘Where’re you creeping off to?’ It is only the red-haired boy again, suddenly rearing from a bottom bunk where he has been tossing the rook from a game of chess back and forth. On his elbows, he heaves himself forward. ‘I’m going to find a corner,’ Jon says. ‘Down in the chantry?’ Jon shrugs. The Home is still a labyrinth of tunnels and dead chambers, and he has not given a thought to where he might retreat. There are passages along which the boys know not to go, but mostly these lead only to barren rooms, boarded-up or piled high with the things past generations of boys have left behind. A brave expedition once found a box of tin soldiers here which they brought heroically back and refused to share – but not even those brave boys have dared to sneak in and spend the night in that deep otherworld. Bravery is one thing, they countenance, but foolishness is something else. At night, those rooms are stalked by the ghosts of children who died there. ‘Maybe I’ll go to the dead rooms,’ Jon says, for want of something better to say. ‘Well,’ the red-haired boy goes on, allowing himself a smirk at this new boy’s ridiculous pluck, ‘you see George, you tell him I’m looking for him. I said I’d come looking, but I aren’t ready yet. You tell him that.’ ‘Which one is George?’ ‘The chubby one. Got no right carrying fat like that in a place like this.’ The one who wore a cap of milk and oats at breakfast, Jon remembers. He sleeps in the bunk beside the red-haired boy and wakes early every morning to hang out his sheets to dry. On his first morning in the Home, Jon saw the red-haired boy shepherding him out of the dormitory and returning with crisp sheets stolen from the laundry downstairs. ‘I’ll tell him,’ says Jon. In the end, Jon does not dare follow the long passage from the entrance hall and venture into the boarded-up rooms. Instead, head down so that he does not catch the eye of a man in black scolding two boys for playing with a wooden bat, he slopes across and finds a small hollow behind the chantry, where old furniture is piled up and blankets gather dust. It is cold in here, but Jon huddles up to leaf through the pages of his storybook. So engrossed is he that he does not, at first, register the portly figure who uncurls from a nest of dustsheets. Suddenly, eyes are upon him. When he looks up, the chubby boy is standing in front of him, holding out a crumpled blanket as if it is both sword and shield. He is shorter than Jon remembers, with hair shorn to the scalp but now growing back in unruly clumps. His lips are red and full, and the bottom one trembles. ‘I just want to …’ Jon scrambles up. ‘I’m sorry,’ he begins. ‘I didn’t know anybody came here.’ The fat boy shrugs. ‘You’re George.’ The boy squints. He seems to be testing the name out, turning it over and again on his tongue. Then, head cocked to one side, he nods. ‘There’s a boy up there, said he was looking for you …’ At that, the boy seems to brighten. ‘That’s Peter,’ he says. ‘He said he’d come soon.’ Jon shuffles against the stack of chairs, as if to let the boy past. ‘You don’t mind if I stay? Just a little while?’ Jon shrugs, sinks back into his blanket. ‘I come here before stories sometimes.’ Jon falls into his book, but he has barely turned a page before he hears the boy strangle a bleat. When he looks up, torn out of some countryside adventure – Jon has never seen the countryside, and marvels that people might live in villages on hills, climbing trees and boating on lakes – the boy is too slow to hide his tears. There is a lingering silence, and Jon returns to his tale: two boys are scrambling to moor a boat as fog wreathes over the Fens. Again, the boy chokes back a sob. This time, Jon looks up quickly. Their eyes meet. The boy strangles another sob, and then rushes to mask the fact that he has been crying. For a second, his eyes are downcast; then, by increments, he edges a look closer at Jon. At last, Jon understands. The boy wants his crying to be heard. ‘What’s the matter?’ The boy shrugs oddly, his round shoulders lifting almost to his ears. ‘What’s your name?’ Perhaps he only wants to talk – but, if that is so, Jon cannot understand why he is cowering in this cranny at all. ‘I’m Jon.’ George gives a little nod. ‘There was a Jon when old Mister Matthews brought me here. He was one of the bigger boys. He wasn’t here for long.’ ‘He went home?’ George shakes his head fiercely. ‘I think the men sent him somewhere else.’ Jon considers this silently. There might be no more than six or seven men in black roaming these halls, but somehow it feels as if they are everywhere all at once. They are quiet men who speak only rarely, unless it is to lead the boys in prayers or summon them to chores – yet when a boy has done something wrong, been tardy in making his bed or been caught whispering after lights out, they have a way about them, a gentle nod that they give. Then, a boy must go to a corner and wait to be dealt with. He might find himself running laps of the building, or locked in the laundry. The other boys say that he might find himself in one of the dead rooms with his trousers around his ankles and red welts blooming on his bare backside. One night, a boy was caught chattering after dark and taken from the dormitory, only to come back an hour later with the most terrible punishment of all. ‘They’re writing to my mother,’ he said, ‘to tell her I’m happy and don’t want to go home …’ Surely, Jon decides, it is these men in black who are keeping him here. They have cast an enchantment on his mother, another on his sisters, and have raised up walls of ice around him. ‘What’s in your book?’ Jon inches across the floor, thick with dust, and holds the cover up so that George might see. ‘Peter used to read stories to me when they put me here …’ ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘It was before the summer. There was snow in May!’ Jon is about to start spinning the familiar story so that this fat boy might hear it as well, when somewhere a bell begins to toll. There comes a sudden flurry of feet. Jon crams the book under a stack of chairs. At his side, George is infected by the panic and, knees tucked into his chin, rolls up into a ball. The footsteps grow louder. Then, a short sharp burst: somebody calling George’s name. ‘George,’ the red-haired boy says, loping into the hollow with the air of an exasperated schoolteacher, ‘there you are …’ George unfurls from his bundle, throwing a sheepish glance at Jon. ‘I’m always here, Peter.’ The red-haired boy follows George’s eyes. ‘This one been pestering you, has he?’ Jon shakes his head. ‘He’s bound to pester someone, aren’t you, George?’ says Peter. George eagerly agrees. ‘How are you doing, kid?’ The fat boy shuffles his head from side to side. ‘They told him about his mother last night. He told you about his mother?’ asked Peter. ‘My mother’s coming back for me,’ Jon begins. He does not know why, but he proclaims it proudly, as if it is an award he has striven for and finally earned. ‘Yeah,’ Peter says, slapping George’s shoulder so that the little boy stumbles. ‘That’s what George here thought as well. But they called him into the office last night and told him she wasn’t ever coming back. She’s dead, George. Isn’t that right?’ George nods glumly. It occurs to Jon that, though tears shimmer in his eyes, he is thrilled to hear it announced so plainly by Peter. ‘Me,’ says Peter, ‘I been here longer than George, longer than lots of these boys. My mother’s been cold in the ground for almost forever. My sister’s with the Crusade too, but they shipped her off to a girls’ home in Stockport, so it’s not like I’m ever seeing that one again.’ He exhales, as if none of it matters. ‘So the one thing you got to understand, kid, is that whatever’s coming up for you, it isn’t Sunday roasts and trips to the seaside.’ In the hallways outside, the bells toll again. ‘Come on,’ says Peter, ‘you don’t want to know what happens to boys who skip their stupid vespers …’ Peter scrambles past, out into the hall. Momentarily, Jon and George remain, sharing shy glances. Then, Jon moves to follow. George reaches forward and tugs at Jon’s sleeve. ‘She’s really coming back, is she? Your mother?’ Jon does not mean to say it so, but suddenly he is full of spite. He whips his arm free. ‘I’m not an orphan,’ he says. ‘I have a mother and a father, and they’re both coming back. I don’t care what Peter thinks – two months and I’ll be gone …’ They push across the hall. The straggling boys are hurrying now, down the stairs from the dormitories above. ‘That’s how it was for Peter,’ George begins, drying his eyes so vigorously that they become more swollen and red. ‘But it’s just like he always says. The childsnatcher doesn’t come in the dead of night. He doesn’t creep up those stairs and stash you in his bag.’ They follow a passage and go together through the chantry doors, where the other boys are gathering. ‘He’s just a normal man, in a smart black suit – but once he calls you by your name, you never see your family again.’ In the doorway, Jon hesitates. The boys are gathered around, sitting in cross-legged rows, little ones and bigger boys both – and there, standing in the wings, are the men who run this Home: normal men, in smart black robes; childsnatchers, every last one. December is cold, but January is colder still. It snows only rarely, but when it does the city is draped in white and the frosts keep it that way, as if under a magic spell of sleep. It is only in those deep lulls between snowfalls that the boys are permitted into the grounds of the Home. It is Peter who is most eager to venture out. Jon himself is plagued by a relentless daydream in which the Home has been severed from the terraces beyond. In the dream, the enchanted whiteness goes on and on, and he begins to wonder how his mother – not nearly so brave as his father – might ever find the courage to cross the tundra and find him. George, too, takes some coaxing. He has not been beyond the doors of the Home in long months and stands on the threshold, squinting at the sky. Peter assures him it is not going to cave in, but it does not sway George. It is only when Peter admits defeat and bounds outside, leaving him alone, that George finds the courage to follow. Watching Peter disappear into that whiteness, it seems, is the more terrifying prospect. Some of the boys build forts; others attempt an igloo that promptly caves in and entombs a little one so that his fellows have to dig him out. The returned soldier leads a game of wars, in which each gang of boys must defend a corner of the grounds – but the game is deemed too invigorating by the elderly man in black, and must be stopped. Even so, the boys continue in secret. George, swaddled up so that he looks like a big ball of yarn, sits in a deep fox-hole dug into the snow, dutifully rolling balls for Peter to hurl, while Jon – a sergeant-at-arms – sneaks a little pebble into each one, to make sure it has an extra kick. In this way, they are able to hold their corner of the grounds, up near the gates by the fairytale forest, against the onslaught of a much bigger army. Peter declares it the most glorious last stand since Rorke’s Drift – but when Jon looks up to declare it better than Dunkirk, he sees that Peter is gone. George is too busy rolling an extra big snowball, one they can spike with a dozen stones – Peter calls it the atom bomb – to see what Jon has seen, so Jon leaves him to his task and follows the trail of Peter’s prints. He has not gone far. He stands at the gates of the Home, with the stone inscription, now a glistening tablet of ice, arcing above. Icicles dangle from the ornate metalwork of the gate, and in places a perfect pane of ice has grown up. Peter is simply standing there, squinting through the gate at the long track beyond. ‘Peter?’ Peter is still – but only for a moment. Then, he whips a look around and the expression on his face has changed. No longer does he look lost in thought; now he has a face ready for a challenge. ‘Do you dare me to do it?’ Jon’s eyes widen. ‘Dare you to do what?’ Peter tips his chin at the metalwork. Where the two gates meet there is a great latch, around which scales of ice have built up, like the hide of a winter dragon. ‘Go on, Jon Heather. Just tell me you dare it …’ Suddenly, the idea has taken hold of Jon as well. ‘OK,’ he says. ‘I dare you!’ Peter finds a stone under the trees and, taking it in his fist, hammers over and over at the ice. When the first shards splinter off, neither Peter nor Jon can stop themselves from beaming. A big chunk crashes to the ground, spraying them both full in the face, and they laugh, long and loud. Now, at last, the lock is free. Peter stands back to admire his handiwork. He shakes his hand, trying to work some feeling back into his fingers. ‘Well,’ Jon says, ‘go on! That wasn’t the dare …’ With aplomb, Peter drops the rock, flexes his fingers, and takes hold of the latch. He moves to lift it, but the latch is still stuck. Still, not to be dissuaded, he tries again, each time straining harder, each time falling back. ‘You try,’ says Peter. ‘I can’t get a grip …’ But Jon Heather simply stands still and stares – and when Peter, nursing a frozen hand, asks him why, Jon just raises a finger and points. Unseen until now, above and below the latch there stand black panels with big keyholes set in each. Though they too are coated in ice, it is not the winter, Jon sees, that is keeping the boys entombed. Something draws him to look over his shoulder. From a window high in the Home, surely in one of the barren rooms, the ghostly image of a man in black peers out. He has, Jon understands, been watching them all along, safe in the knowledge that they cannot escape. ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘we’d better get in.’ Before Peter can reply, a sudden cry goes up. When they look back, the little fox-hole around which they had been camping has been overrun. In the middle of a platoon of six- and seven-year olds, George sits dusted with the prints of a hundred snowballs, their atom bomb lying in pieces on his lap. Jon sticks with them in those first weeks. When Peter is with them, the bigger boys in the dormitories leave them alone, and he and George are free to sit and push draughts across a chequered board, or make up epic games with the flaking lead soldiers that they find. On the final day in January, they have ranged lead soldiers up in two confronting armies, when George asks about Jon’s mother once again. Jon does not want to hear it today. He has been counting down the days, and knows now that he is beyond halfway in this curious banishment. ‘Did she have short hair?’ George asks. ‘Or was it long?’ A ball arcs across the assembly hall, skittering through their tin soldiers to decimate Jon’s army and leave George victorious. From the other side of the hall, the hue and cry of the bigger boys goes up. Jon reaches out to pass back their ball, George scrutinizing it like it is some fallen meteorite, but he is too late. Out of nowhere, Peter lopes between them and scoops it up. ‘He asking you about your mother again, is he?’ Peter drops the ball and kicks it high. One of the other boys snatches it from the air and a ruckus begins. ‘George, I told you before. Don’t you make it any worse for him than it already is.’ ‘I just want to know what she’s like.’ ‘He shouldn’t be thinking about his mother. You remember how much time you spent thinking, and look where that got you.’ One of the other boys launches himself at the ball and sends it looping towards Peter – but Jon scrambles from the floor and punches it out of the air. ‘My mother’s nearly here,’ he begins. ‘Less than four weeks.’ ‘Jon,’ Peter says, waving the other boys away, ‘I’m not saying it to be cruel.’ He turns, chases the ball, and disappears through the hall doors. Sinking back to the ground, Jon gathers together the tin soldiers and begins to prop them back into their ranks. He is determinedly lining them up when George reaches out to pluck up a fallen comrade and stand him next to Jon’s captain. ‘If she does come back,’ he whispers, ‘I’d like to see her, just for a second.’ The snows subside as February trudges by, and the boys are released into the grounds on more and more occasions, so that soon it is simple for Jon to find some cranny where he can curl up and while the day away. Now, there is an eerie stillness in the Home, only the guardian men in black ghosting wordlessly around, sometimes hovering to watch their boys at play. The sun-tanned man in black is the worst, forever appearing in a doorway to prey on a boy with his eyes and then nodding sagely if a boy returns his gaze, as if, somehow, a secret pact has been arranged. George has pestered Jon this morning for more games of lead soldiers, but Jon has concocted a plan. Peter may think he knows everything; he may think that, because he has lived for years among the men in black, he can never be wrong – but Jon knows his mother is returning. What’s more, he can prove it. He remembers the letter she pressed into his palm, that night she left him behind. In that letter, there is surely the proof that his rescue is imminent. He will find it and he will make Peter read every word – and, in only one week’s time, he will wave goodbye to Peter and George and never think of this Home ever again. He waits at the head of the stairs as the men in black hustle a group of boys out into the pale winter sun. When all is still, he creeps down the stairs. The entrance hall is the centre of the Home, the chantry on one side, the dormitories circling above – with all of the other offices where the men in black live and work snaking off behind. It is along these forbidden passages, in that labyrinth of boarded and dead rooms, that he knows he will find the irrefutable truth that will be his sword and shield, words scribbled onto paper with a signature underneath. He is about to set off when one of the men in black appears from the chantry. It is the man with leather skin, tanned by a sun that has barely shone since Jon was left here. His hair is piled high, his eyes deep and blue, and for a second they fix on Jon. Then, a voice hellos him from deep inside the chantry, and he turns. Jon seizes the opportunity and scuttles away. He has never walked along this corridor before. It drops down unevenly and, on each side, there are chambers. He peers into the first and sees a stark room, as austere as the dormitories above. In the next, a black cowl hangs against a bare brick wall, bulging out so that, for a second, Jon believes a man might be hanging inside. At the end of the corridor, a tall door looms, its panels carved with branches and vines. The door is heavy, but not locked. Inside, the chamber broadens from a narrow opening and winter light streams in. There are no beds here, only ornate chairs around a varnished table, and a thick burgundy rug covering the floor. Jon dares to step forward, his bare feet sinking into the shag. He looks up. He marvels. Two of the walls are lined in books, but on the third wall, facing the windows so that its picture might be seen from the grounds outside, there hangs a great tapestry. It is unlike anything he has seen. On the left, there stands the broadside of a ship, moored at a jetty with sailors hanging from the rigging, gangplanks thrown out – and there, on the deck, a single man in black with his arms open wide. Beneath him, the jetty is crowded with children, a cacophony of arms and legs all groping out to reach the ship. Among them, more men in black stand. They are not shepherding the children on, but each has his head thrown back, as if to send up a howl like a lonely, vagrant wolf. As Jon looks right, the tapestry changes, its scale lurching from big to small. The children gathered on the jetty become a thin procession standing in the narrow streets of some cobbled city. Maidens in long white robes lounge over the rails of balconies above, their eyes streaming as they rain shredded flowers onto the heads below. Further along, the tapestry reaches a strange apex, a trick of perspectives that makes Jon think he is looking at some terrible picture of hell. The procession of children seems to have changed direction, so that now they walk not towards the pier but away, along a steep mountain road. Through crags they come, descending the ledges to a wilderness of sand and stone. Men with dark skin and cloths wrapped around their heads peer at the procession. One, with a sword in each hand, lifts his weapons as if to shield himself from their glow. Voices rise on the other side of the door. Jon turns, but it is already too late. The door handle twitches, and the great oak panels shudder forward. Quickly, he tumbles towards the far side of the room. Nestled in the towering bookshelves there sits a hearth, but no flames flicker behind the grate. He forces himself into the fireplace. It is thick with soot, but he tucks his knees into his chin and braces himself against the chimneybreast. Then, as the door finally opens, he claws out to pull a fireguard in place. It is made of thin mesh, and he squints through so that he might see the men in black appear. At first, they are obscured by the table and chairs – but, finally, they move into the great bay window. The older man moves forward with a cane in one hand, the other walking behind. Jon cannot be certain, but then the face appears in profile: it is the sun-tanned man. He reaches out to bring the old man a seat, passing the fireguard as he does so. Jon stifles a splutter; he has dislodged soot, and it billows around him. ‘It will be the last season you see me,’ the old man begins. ‘Father …’ The old man raises a hand only halfway. ‘I will not last another winter. An old man knows when his time has come.’ He pauses. ‘I am proud,’ he whispers, ‘to have seen it this far.’ They talk of all manner of things: the wars that have risen and fallen; the desperate families who have slipped through the cracks between the new world and the old. The old man remembers how it was the last time there was war, the great plagues that came afterwards like some punishment from on high. And now, he says, that hour has come again. A war might have ended, but the world has to limp lamely on. Across the country, the Homes of the Children’s Crusade swell – and throughout Britain’s once great Empire, the fields cry out for new hands. ‘Father,’ the sun-tanned man begins, glaring through the window at the endless white. ‘What will happen once you are gone?’ ‘Why, the world will carry on turning.’ Something howls in the chimney, and instinctively Jon squirms. As he shifts, soot billows out of some depression and blots out everything else. His body convulses. He kicks out to brace himself against cold stone, but he cannot quite conquer the cough in his chest. When he splutters, his whole body pitches. The fireguard rattles in the hearth. The voices stop. Jon gulps for air and slowly calms down – but there is no other nook in which to hide. He listens for the footfalls, sees the legs as they approach the fine mesh. He shrinks as the guard is lifted. The sun-tanned man crouches – and suddenly they are face to face. ‘Come out here, little thing.’ The man reaches out his hand. For a second, he holds the pose. Then, as if unable to refuse, Jon folds his own hand inside the massive palm. In the shadow of the great tapestry, the sun-tanned man hauls Jon to his feet. ‘Is he one of them?’ he asks, dangling Jon by the arm so that the older man might see. The elderly man nods. ‘Very well,’ says the sun-tanned man, and barrels Jon out of the room. Behind Jon, a door slams. He reels against the wall and turns back just in time to hear a key turning in the lock. It is one of the cells he passed on his way to the library hall. There is little here but a bedstead with blankets folded underneath – and, high above, a single window glaring down. The branches of a skeletal willow tap at the glass. He tries to sit, but he cannot stay still. He feels the urge to bury himself beneath one of the blankets, but he dares not unfold it. Instead, he parades the walls like a dog in its kennel. There is scratching in the lock again, and the door judders open. The sun-tanned man does not say a word until the door is firmly closed behind him. ‘Jon,’ he begins. ‘You are fortunate it is me. Some of my brothers take less kindly to little boys busying themselves in places they should not go.’ In response, there is only Jon’s silence. ‘This,’ the man in black begins, reaching into his robe and producing a piece of folded paper. ‘Is this what you came for?’ Jon totters forward and takes hold of the letter. Once it is in his hands, he snatches it close to his chest and holds it there. ‘You may read it, Jon,’ the man says softly. ‘She told you not to – but what she says hardly means a thing anymore.’ Jon does not move. He knows what the man wants, knows that he desperately wants it too – but he will not tear open the letter while he is being watched. He holds the man’s glare until he can bear it no more. Once he is alone, he crawls onto the naked bed. He turns the letter in his hands. It is almost time to read it – but he will savour it first. Hours pass. He dreams of what he might find within: his mother’s sorrow at having to leave him behind, the dreams she has of the day he and his sisters will be reunited and the old house restored. Darkness comes. It will be lights out in the dormitories above, but tonight there is moon enough to illuminate the cell. He sits down and unfolds the paper. It is not a letter, as he had thought. Instead, it is a form, typewritten with only two words inked in, and two more scrawled at its bottom: his name and his mother’s, the last time he will ever see her hand. I, being the father, mother, guardian, person having the actual custody of the child named JON HEATHER hereby declare that I authorize the Society known as the Children’s Crusade and its Officers to exercise all the functions of guardians, including the power to house, home, command and castigate, and have carried out such medical and surgical treatment as may be considered necessary for the child’s welfare; including, thereafter, the right to license guardianship of the child to a third party proven in its dedication to the moral upbringing of young women and men. There are words here that Jon does not understand, but he reads them over and over, as if by doing so he might drum their meaning into his head. He dwells even longer over her name scribbled below. It seems that by declaring her name she has performed some magic of her own; she is no longer his mother. He puts the paper down, retreats to the opposite corner of the room, goes back to it an hour later – but it always means the same thing. His mother is never coming back; he is a son of the Children’s Crusade now. The sun-tanned man’s name is Judah Reed. He brings Jon milk and bread for supper, and they sit in the silence of the chantry as Jon eats. On the side of the plate is a single apple, waxy and old but still sweet. ‘You have been selected,’ Judah Reed begins, ‘for a great adventure.’ He sets down a book and turns to the first page: black and white photographs inked in with bright colours, a group of young boys beaming out from the veranda of some wooden structure. ‘These boys,’ he begins, turning the book so that Jon can see the happy faces, ‘are the boys who once slept in the very same beds as you and your friends. Like you, they had no mothers, no fathers, no place to call their own.’ Jon bristles at the assertion, but his mother’s signature is scored onto the backs of his eyes. ‘They came to the Children’s Crusade desperate and destitute, but they left it with hope in their hearts.’ Judah Reed turns the page. There, two boys sit in the back of a wagon drawn by horses, grinning wildly as they careen through fields tall with grain. Behind them, herds of strange creatures gather on the prairie. ‘Where are they?’ Jon breathes. ‘They’re safe,’ Judah Reed continues, ‘and together, and loved. They work hard, but they have full plates every night – and, one day, every last one of these boys will own his own farm and have a family all of his own.’ Jon fixes him with wide, open eyes. ‘Have you heard of a land called Australia?’ In all the books Jon has seen, Australia is endless desert and kangaroos, convicts and cavemen. Of all the four corners of the world, it is the only place he has never imagined his father. ‘Those boys are in Australia …’ Jon reaches out and turns the page. A postcard of some sprawling red continent, surrounded by azure waters, is clipped into place. Judah Reed offers it to Jon. In the corner of the picture, a small grey bear holds up a placard that cries out a welcome. A little Union Jack ripples in the corner. ‘That’s where you’ve come from, isn’t it?’ Jon says, eyes darting. ‘You came to take us away …’ The man’s fingers dance on Jon’s shoulder. ‘You must understand, Jon, that this is what your mother wanted for you. Little boys grow up into wild, troubled men on these streets – men who lurk in the factories by day and torment the taprooms at night. There could be no other future for a boy like yourself, if you were to remain.’ For a fleeting second, Jon thinks he looks sad. ‘It does not have to be that way, Jon. There is a better life waiting for you. Your mother gifted you to the Children’s Crusade so that you might have just such a chance.’ The other boys, he goes on, have already been instructed. While Jon was locked away, they gathered in the chantry and heard the tale told. England groans with its dead – but its Empire is desperate for good souls to come and till its land, fish its lakes, conquer its wastelands. Australia is the Eden to which the orphaned boys of war are being summoned. It is not always that little boys, so full of malice and sin, are permitted back into the Garden. This is a chance, he explains, for Jon to begin again. ‘You don’t understand,’ Jon trembles. ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ Judah Reed stands. ‘If you had not been locked away, Jon Heather, for trespassing against the very same men whose only purpose is to rescue you, you might have learnt about the noble traditions of the Children’s Crusade. How, many centuries ago, it was children who were called to do the Lord’s work in the Holy Lands. And how their time has come again – how children, brave and unsullied, are to crusade to the other end of the earth, where the Empire will surely die without us …’ Jon does not care about the British Empire; he cares only about his empire – his mother, his sisters, red bricks and grey slates and the terrace rolling on and on. ‘But I want to stay,’ he ventures. ‘You will find that the new world welcomes you,’ says Judah Reed, striding to the chantry doors and stepping beyond. ‘I’m afraid, Jon Heather, that the old world doesn’t want you anymore.’ ‘Jon!’ George tumbles out of bed as Jon steals back into the dormitory. ‘Jon, where have you been?’ It is dark in the dormitory, but moonlight glides across the room as, somewhere above, snow clouds shift and come apart. ‘Get back into bed, George.’ Peter swings out of his bunk, biting back at some snipe from one of the bigger boys lounging above. He goes to George’s side and, an arm around his shoulder, ushers him back to his cot. ‘But I just want to …’ ‘Jon doesn’t want to hear it,’ Peter whispers. ‘Not now.’ As Peter is tucking the sheets in around George, batting back his every question, Jon trudges the length of the dormitory and finds his own crib. It is just as he had expected: the blankets are gone and only the pillow remains. ‘Jon, what did they say?’ Peter lopes out of the shadows, rests his foot on the base of Jon’s bed. Sitting at its head, Jon realizes he is still kneading the postcard. It is creased now, and the ink has smeared his fingers. He offers it up. When Peter takes it, he cannot make it out – but, nevertheless, he seems to know. ‘They took us in the chantry and sat us down. They say it’s a paradise, waiting for boys like us, fresh fruit for breakfast and crystal lakes full of fish – that we’ll all grow up to have big ranches and families and everything boys could ever want.’ He pauses. ‘Jon, there’s something else, isn’t there? What did Judah Reed say?’ From down the row, someone barks at them to shut up. Peter lets loose with a volley of his own, and the silence resumes. ‘He said we were being rescued,’ Jon begins. ‘But – but I don’t need to be rescued, Peter.’ Peter relaxes, sits beside Jon. ‘I know what you’re going to say, Peter. But I saw her letter. He made me read it. And …’ He takes the pillow into his lap and beats it. ‘There’s still my father. It will all be OK when my father finally comes home. But if I’m not here, he’ll never find me. I’m not like you, Peter. I’m not like George. I’ve got …’ He trembles before saying it, but he says it all the same. ‘… people who love me.’ Peter stands. ‘There’s every one of us in here just like you,’ he says. ‘Every one of us had a mother and a father who didn’t come back.’ He turns, kicks along the row to find his bunk. ‘We’re the same in this hole,’ he mutters, ‘and we’ll be the same on the other side of the world.’ Peter slopes back into the shadows, but Jon is not ready to let him go. Leaping up, he screws up the postcard and hurls it after the retreating silhouette. ‘You want to go!’ he thunders. ‘You’re happy to be going!’ The silhouette hunches its shoulders and turns around. ‘Peter?’ comes a voice. ‘You go to sleep, George,’ Peter whispers. He stalks back up to Jon, lands a heavy hand on his shoulder. ‘You upset him over this, and I’ll throw you overboard the first chance I get. I’m not happy, Jon, and I’m not sad. This place or some other place – it just doesn’t matter to me anymore.’ There is fight left in Jon, but suddenly he softens; his shoulders sink and he tries to squirm back. ‘There isn’t any escaping from it. We were marked for it the second we came through those doors.’ Jon curls up on his bare mattress and reaches into the slats for his beloved book. It is too dark to make out any of the words, but it doesn’t matter – he knows it by heart. In the story, a gang of friends drift out to sea aboard the old Goblin and land, at last, on some foreign shore. There, among the alien faces, is the one they clamour for: their errant father, who takes them safely back home. Jon flicks quickly to those pages – as if, even in this darkness, he might breathe it in. Something shudders at the end of his bed, and he reaches out to see a blanket suddenly lying there. On the other side of the dormitory, Peter slumps onto his bed and pulls an overcoat around him with a grunt. ‘Thank you,’ Jon whispers – but there is no reply. Jon does not sleep that night. He lies awake, listening to the fitful snores of the other boys. In the small hours, he suddenly remembers the great brick arch through which he first entered the home, the stone inscription that was hanging overhead. At last, he understands what it means. It is as the boys of the Home have always understood: the childsnatcher does not come in the dead of the night. He does not creep upon the stairs. He does not lurk beneath the bed, clutching a sack in which to stash all the little boys he carries away. He comes, instead, in a smart black suit, with a briefcase at his side and papers in his pocket. He crouches down and calls you by your name – and, once you take his hand in your own, you will never see England again. III They set out from a dock in Liverpool. It is as far from home as Jon has ever been, but now even this foreign city dwindles on the horizon, lost in mist from the sea. They call it the HMS Othello. It has ploughed through countless wars, but now it is bound to a different journey. Below deck, the boys sleep three to a cabin. After the dormitory, it is a luxury to which none of the boys are accustomed. After lights out on the first night, there comes a gentle rat-a-tat at the cabin door. Peter swings out of bed and whips the portal open. Still clinging to the cardboard suitcase they have each been issued with, there stands George. ‘Can I sleep in here, Peter?’ There are three bunks in the cabin, Jon curled up in one, no doubt pretending to sleep; some other boy in the other. Peter shakes him until he stirs. ‘Hop it, Harry,’ he says. ‘We need the bed.’ Muttering some incomprehensible complaint, the boy trudges out of the room. As he goes, George creeps through the door and finds the bunk warm and inviting. ‘Thanks Peter.’ ‘Don’t thank me,’ Peter says. ‘Just go to sleep.’ There is only a moment’s silence. Between them, Jon hears George begin to speak. Then, thinking better of it, he holds his tongue. Two more times he tries to be still, but it will not last long. ‘What is it, George?’ ‘I didn’t like the way the ship was moving. It feels like we could tip right over.’ Jon hears Peter’s sharp intake of breath, decides Peter is about to admonish George, and scrambles upright in bed. ‘I don’t like it either …’ ‘You can hardly walk,’ George goes on. ‘One minute you’re in the middle of the hall, the next you’re up against the wall. Nothing looks right.’ Peter rolls over, drawing the bedsheets over his head. ‘It’s only Judah Reed can walk without stumbling,’ George says. ‘Why can Judah Reed walk like that, Peter?’ There comes another rat-a-tat at the door. George instinctively shrinks into his covers, while Jon dives back into bed. Only when he hears Peter pulling the door back does he open an eye to watch. There are two boys standing in the doorway. The smaller, Harry, is still trailing his blanket; a taller boy looms above. ‘We don’t want this one in our bunk, Peter. Some of us want to sleep. There’s enough little ones down the way, without throwing this one in with us.’ Peter throws a look back at George, now nothing but a bundle beneath the bedclothes. ‘If we let you sleep in here, you’ll sleep on the floor?’ Harry nods, eager as a dog waiting for its bone. ‘You can take a pillow,’ Peter adds. ‘But it’ll take Judah Reed to stop me pounding on you if you piss everywhere tonight.’ Peter slumps back into his bunk, rucking up his blankets to make up for his missing pillow, and snuffs the light. Moments later, George bleats out. At first, Peter thinks he is being a scaredy-cat yet again – but, when he tugs at the cord, he sees George sitting up in bed with wide, apologetic eyes. ‘It’s no good, Peter,’ he says. ‘Just the mention of it makes me want to …’ ‘What the hell,’ Peter mutters. ‘I wasn’t going to sleep tonight anyway …’ Jon follows them out of the cabin, leaving the fourth boy to crawl, eagerly, into one of their beds. The corridor outside is narrow, lit by buzzing electric lanterns. The ship is a labyrinth, but Peter seems to know his way better than most. Jon and George trail after him like rats behind some piper. They are not the only boys on board. There are others, boys in prim school uniforms – and, so the whisperers would have it, girls in smart pinafore dresses too. Nor are Judah Reed and the other men in black the only adults travelling south. Jon has already seen a group of swarthy men, speaking in some guttural language of their own. Peter leads George up a small flight of wooden stairs, and fumbles with a clasp to kick open the portal above. When the doors fly open, sea spray whips at George’s face. ‘Isn’t there another way, Peter?’ ‘I don’t know, George …’ ‘I don’t think I can go overboard, Peter.’ They venture up. There are still adults milling about the deck, keeping windward of the great hall that sits there. Jon closes the trapdoor and, hand in hand, they scuttle towards the great hall. Creeping downwind of it, they search for the way in. The boys have never seen luxury like this: waiters are pushing trolleys, men with skin as dark as those who came to live in Leeds, while a chandelier dangles above. At last, they find an unlocked door and push inside. From here, Peter remembers the route. He leaves George at the toilet doors, and tells him to hurry. ‘He’ll only be at pissing again by the time we get back,’ Peter whispers. ‘That boy could not drink a drop for three days and still find water to piss.’ When George reappears, he is shaking. As they go back on the deck, the ship rises up on a deep wave and then rolls. Hanging lanterns throw light onto George’s face, and Jon sees that he has been sick. ‘Wipe it off,’ says Peter, slapping him on the back. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ ‘I’m feeling it too,’ says Jon. ‘Yeah, well, don’t you two go turning it into a competition …’ Peter pauses. He has been denying it to himself, but even he can feel a sickly stirring in the pit of his stomach. He looks up. The half-moon, beached there in white cloud, is the only thing that doesn’t seem to be trembling in the whole wide world. ‘You see that?’ he says, putting an arm around George’s shoulder. ‘Even the moon’s closer than Leeds is now. At least we can still see the moon.’ ‘It’s the same moon, though, isn’t it, Peter?’ George marvels, as if he has uncovered some unfathomable secret. ‘And the stars – they’re the same stars?’ Peter turns and strides towards the edge of the ship. The starlight sparkles in the water, so that it seems there are silvery orbs bobbing just beneath the surface. ‘I wouldn’t swear on it,’ he says. The seas are rough that night. In his bunk, Jon cannot sleep. When he scrunches up his eyes, he can almost pretend that the cabin is not rolling with the waves – but then the lump starts forming in the back of his throat, and then he has to curl up like a baby to stop himself from throwing up. In the bed beside him, George has retched himself into uneasy unconsciousness while, beyond that, Peter gives a fitful snore. Some time in the smallest hours, there comes a lull, as if the sea has flattened out to allow him some rest – but, cruelly, Jon is no longer tired. Careful not to tread on the younger boy Harry, he stands up and creeps to the door. As he steps out, the corridor pitches and lanterns throw long, dancing shadows on the wall. The belly of the boat moans, long and mournful, but when the sound dies down, he can hear something else: another whimpering, not of the boat, but of a boy. Steadying himself with a palm against each wall, he shuffles along the corridor, until he finds a cabin door left ajar. With each wave, the door opens inches and then closes again, allowing Jon to peep within. In one bed, a bigger boy has his head buried under a pillow while, on another, a much younger boy, perhaps only four years old, has his sheets pulled up around him. Jon curls his fingers around the edge of the door, stopping it from swinging, and suddenly the boy’s eyes shoot at him. ‘What happened?’ Jon whispers. The little one will not answer, but suddenly the bigger boy rears from his pillow and lets loose an exasperated groan. ‘Get it to shut up, would you? It’s keeping me up with its wailing …’ ‘Is he hurt?’ ‘Judah Reed came round,’ the bigger boy says. ‘Told him his mother’s kicked it.’ Jon opens his mouth but does not have any words. ‘Don’t know why he’s making such a fuss. He got a piece of cooking chocolate out of it. More than I got when they broke it to me. I got a pat on the head.’ The little boy lets out another cry but, when Jon goes to him, he only buries himself in his sheets. Sitting on the end of his bed, Jon hears footsteps outside, and looks up to see Judah Reed himself standing in the open door. ‘I believe this is not your cabin,’ he says. The ship suddenly lifts, but in the passageway Judah Reed does not even stagger. ‘Well?’ Jon nods, swings down, and makes to leave. In the doorway, he has to squeeze past Judah Reed himself. He smells of honey and charcoal soap. ‘What happened to his mother?’ Jon asks, remembering his own, the way she held his hands as she passed him the letter and took off up the road. Judah Reed’s blue eyes look immeasurably sad. ‘I believe she was … consumptive,’ he says, and steers Jon on his way. In the morning, the waters have changed, reflecting the pale blue vaults overhead. Around them, the ocean glitters. There are landmasses on the horizon, hulks of earth gliding in and out of view. As Peter leads George and Jon onto the highest deck, they dare not look out at the vast oceans that stretch into the west, gathering instead at the port side of the ship and pointing out proud headlands and outcrops of rock. Jon tells them about the boy from last night. He was not, it seems, the only one. Last night, Judah Reed stalked the passageways below deck, leading boys off to some office deep in the belly of the boat, palming a hunk of chocolate or toffee into their hands and telling them: your mother is dead; your father is gone; you’re our little one now, and we won’t do you wrong. It was, one of Peter’s friends tells them, like a nursery rhyme, one they then had to repeat: my mother is dead; my father is gone; I’m your little one now, and you won’t do me wrong. In a launch at the stern of the ship, they find lifeboats, each stacked on top of the other. Finding a way into the first is simple enough – all they have to do is crawl under a lip of wood and work their way beneath a stretch of tarpaulin – but it does not feel the same as Jon thought it would. Sitting in the prow of the boat, with an oar latched either side, it does not feel like escape. He hears George approaching, crawling on hands and knees, and Peter following after, straining to contort his bigger body through the gap. He only has to look at George’s face, breaking into a beam, to understand: like everything else that they share, this is just make-believe. He could spin a story of stealing this lifeboat and rowing back to England to find his sisters and wait again for his father, but that is all it would be – a fairy story to delight the fat boy. ‘What is it, Jon?’ George is trying to pluck one of the oars from its clasps. ‘Do you think Judah Reed’s finished telling boys their mothers have died?’ he asks, looking over George’s head to where Peter crouches. ‘I don’t know …’ ‘Only, why did he tell them when they got on board? Why not back in the Home, like he did for George?’ Suddenly, George remembers. His hands stop prying at the oar, and he shoves them in his pockets. ‘I didn’t even get a hunk of chocolate.’ ‘He’d have come for me last night, wouldn’t he, Peter?’ Jon’s voice rises helplessly. ‘If she really was …’ He does not have to finish the words. Peter nods, but it does not convince. ‘What happened to your mother, Peter?’ Now even Peter has his hands shoved in his pockets. ‘You don’t want to hear that silly old story,’ he says, shuffling from foot to foot. ‘Does he, George? He doesn’t want to hear that dreary old thing.’ ‘I like your stories, Peter.’ Now they look expectantly at Peter, as if waiting for a bedtime tale. ‘My sister, Rebekkah, she reckoned it was a broken heart. On account of the fact my father didn’t come back. Dead in India, they said, but he wasn’t even fighting. He was on a motorbike and it flipped. He used to ride one even before the war, and my mother always hated it. She said I went on it once, but I don’t remember. Then there’s a letter in the post and it says he was killed in action, but it wasn’t really action and it wasn’t really killed. It was just an accident, and my mother wasn’t the same after that.’ ‘So she kicked the bucket!’ chirps George. Peter doesn’t mind; he simply nods. ‘Sometimes that’s all it is, I suppose. There one day, gone the next. So Rebekkah and me, we tried to muddle through, but there was a neighbour who kept coming round with bits from her rations, and eventually she cottoned on. Rebekkah begged and begged, but it didn’t work. They sent a man with a briefcase, and then we had to put some things in a bag. I thought we were going to be together, but they sent Rebekkah to a place for girls, somewhere called Stockport.’ Peter pauses. He is hanging his head, so that Jon can barely make out his face. ‘So then that’s it. Children’s Crusade and …’ ‘How long?’ whispers Jon. Peter shrugs, but it is a pretend shrug, as if there is something he wants to hide. ‘I can’t remember. Four years, I suppose … five months. A few days.’ He hesitates. ‘Nine days. You want the minutes and hours as well?’ There is a gentle pattering on the tarpaulin, rain beginning to fall across the ocean. Soon, outside, Jon hears the scampering of feet as people head for shelter. ‘Peter,’ says George. ‘I feel sick again.’ ‘The ship’s hardly moving, George.’ ‘It’s not the ship. It’s my insides. They’re turning somersaults.’ When they emerge, the decks are almost empty, every man, boy and girl heading for their cabins. The rain now comes in sporadic bursts. Jon looks up. He wonders: was it a storm like this that waylaid my father? Is that why they really put me to sea? Or is it something worse? ‘What if my mother didn’t come for me because …’ His voice trails off – for, along the length of the ship, towards the prow, he has seen the spindly black figure of Judah Reed, crouching above a collection of little ones. Jon reaches out, as if to take Peter’s hand. He does not know he is doing it until it is too late. Peter shakes him off, gives him a furrowed look. ‘Come on,’ says Jon. If Judah Reed cannot catch him, he cannot tell him his mother has died. If it is true, Jon does not want to know. Quickly, he takes off, lifting the door back into the bowels of the boat. Peter and George hurry after. ‘Where are we going?’ George puffs. Jon Heather thinks: somewhere they can’t find me. Soon, in the depths of the ship, they are hopelessly lost. Peter demands that they stop as he paces a passageway, trying to get his bearings. Jon swears that he could find the way back to deck simply by listening to the creaking of the ship, but the doubt in his voice is all too plain, and suddenly George starts to blubber. A sharp slap on the back quells him, but after that he waddles nervously in Peter’s wake, complaining of being hungry and thirsty and afraid of the dark. ‘Can you be shipwrecked if the ship isn’t wrecked, Peter? What if we get shipwrecked down here?’ ‘It’s not shipwrecked if the ship isn’t wrecked, George.’ ‘We could still starve. It’s worse than a desert island, Peter. We couldn’t even find a coconut to drink.’ At last, a staircase presents itself, and they emerge into a new passageway, where bright lights shine and a thick red carpet covers the wooden boards. There is a new smell here, of collecting dust and paraffin lamps, and the air feels dry. Jon follows the smell to the end of the passage, and pushes at the doors there, so that they open just a crack. Pressing his eye to the hole, he takes a deep breath and looks over his shoulder. ‘What is it, Jon?’ Jon turns and pushes the doors apart. In the room beyond, the walls are lined with books. Tables are heaped high with newspapers bound in string. A dozen lamps line the walls, and big pipes run between the bookcases, radiating heat. ‘You’ll have read all these books, will you?’ asks Peter, punching Jon on the shoulder. Jon peers right and left. Surely there is no man alive who might have read every one of these books. They stretch from ceiling to floor, long shelves protruding from every wall to form alcoves in which a boy might hide away. Some of them are bound in leather with embossed titles: The Natural Laws of Navigation, Colonies of the Cape, and many more. Others are ragged storybooks with crumpled or missing covers. Peter starts ferreting in a box, while George waits dumbly at the door. ‘Here,’ Peter says, tossing him a comic with the silhouette of an American detective on front. ‘You liked this one when we were at the Home.’ ‘Are you going to read it to me, Peter?’ ‘Later. You look at the pictures for now.’ Beaming, Jon disappears into the shelves. The books are older here, with names he recognizes but cannot pronounce. There is a little reading area, where two ornate chairs face each other across a low table. Stretched out between them, there sits an enormous clothbound book. On the front, in golden letters, are the words An Atlas of the World. Jon pores through the pictures. There are always maps of villages and dales in the storybooks he loves to read, but never before has he seen a map so vast. He sees oceans with names he has never heard, the shores of the Americas and Africa, the endless expanses of white at the fringes of the world. He traces the names of countries with the tip of his forefinger, but no matter how hard he searches he cannot find England. His eyes are drawn inexorably down, and he sees the scorched yellow mass that is Australia, sitting so lonely and remote. He wraps his arms around the book and staggers to the entrance of the library. Peter is sitting cross-legged on the ground, surrounded by comics. ‘I’ve never seen these ones,’ Peter says, holding one up with a flourish. ‘Dustbowl comics. They’ve come all the way from America, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m keeping these.’ ‘You can’t keep them!’ George gasps. ‘Some other boy’ll just keep them if we don’t, George. Don’t be such a stickler.’ Peter looks up. ‘What’ve you got there, Jon boy?’ Jon flops down beside them. ‘It’s an atlas. Maps of the world …’ ‘They had a big thing like that at the first Home I was in. Showed everywhere that was British, with little Union Jacks all over.’ ‘Peter,’ Jon wavers. ‘I don’t know where we are.’ ‘Well, we’ll soon fix that.’ Peter snatches the book and tears it open. ‘How dumb can you be, Jon Heather? A few days out of England, and you’re lost already!’ Peter peers down at the great map of the world in the centre of the book. His finger hangs delicately over Africa, then circles its way through the Middle East. ‘There we are, Jon Heather. England!’ Jon cranes to look down Peter’s finger. ‘It’s tiny,’ he says, eyes flitting back to the sprawling mass of Australia. George, too, crawls over to Peter’s side, and peers at the world in his lap. ‘Will we be together,’ he says, ‘on the other side? Everyone from the Home, back in the same place?’ When Peter looks up, Jon catches the look of unease in his eyes. ‘What do you care?’ he grins, fighting down whatever he has felt. ‘You hate all those boys. They’re rotten to you.’ George whispers, ‘But I still want them to be there …’ Peter considers it. ‘Yeah,’ he scoffs, snapping the map shut, ‘we’ll be together, all right. All us boys of the Children’s Crusade. It’s going to be a grand adventure.’ Jon Heather spends long hours trying to judge by his atlas which shores they are passing, imagining in which of these strange lands his father might be lost. When the rains come, he hides again in the lifeboat, still clinging to his maps. Oftentimes, George crawls in after him, to listen to stories, or puzzle over why Peter always wants to sit with the girls from the girls’ home, or else to just sit in silence, watching Jon read. Today, however, Jon has been alone, with only his thoughts and maps to keep him company. When the rain has passed over, he wriggles back onto deck. There might be land on the horizon, or it might only be a trick of the light. He holds tight to the atlas and scuttles back below deck. In the cabin, Peter is reading one of the dustbowl comics for the hundredth time. On the front, two horsemen stand in front of a rampaging wall of dust in which the title, Black Chaparral, is picked out in dirt. In the bunk beside him, George is twisted in the blankets, naked to the waist. His skin is red, as if some unseen birthmark has spilled over and spread. Jon stops. ‘George, what …’ His voice trails off, unable to find the words to describe this horror. Over the top of his comic-book, Peter glares. Only a second later, Jon knows why – for, suddenly, George’s eyes scrunch tight, his lips part, and his face is flushed with waves of slobbery tears. ‘Jon Heather, for someone who doesn’t stop thinking, you don’t ever think!’ He flings the comic down, rolls out of bed, and goes to give George a sharp slap on the back. ‘What did I say, George?’ ‘There, there …’ George replies, between mouthfuls of air. ‘Not that part,’ Peter interjects. ‘What did I say’s wrong?’ George looks up at Jon, with eyes ruddy and red. ‘It’s only a heat rash.’ ‘A heat rash?’ Jon gasps. ‘Peter, you can’t possibly … Georgie boy, get out of bed.’ The fat boy’s eyes flicker. It is as if he’s been told to leap off a cliff, and is finding the idea strangely tempting. ‘Peter says I should have my rest.’ ‘Come on!’ First, George must wait for Peter’s permission. Peter, eyes drifting back to his comic, slumps back into his sheets, refusing to even look up – so, taking his cue, Jon marches over and takes a pudgy hand in his own. The redness is here too, staining the backs of his fingers in wild, webbed patterns. It takes a few tugs to get George out of bed, but when he understands that Peter isn’t going to rebuke him, he duly follows Jon out of the cabin. Turning away from the stairs that would take them to deck, they follow a labyrinth of passages. ‘It has to be somewhere,’ Jon says. ‘What does?’ ‘He’ll have a cabin, just like ours. Just like those dead halls in the Home …’ At last, Jon knows he is near. The cries of the children are faded now, and in a doorway left ajar he sees a desk, a pot of pencils, a little calfskin Bible. At the end of the passage, a door is propped open and there, at a chair inside, sits Judah Reed. Jon does not dare cross the threshold, so instead he reaches out with his free hand and knocks, softly, at the door. When Judah Reed does not turn around, he knocks again. He means it only to be a little louder, but judges it badly; now, he is hammering at the door. The sound startles George, whose hand tenses in his own. Still, Judah Reed does not turn around. Instead, he lifts a hand, one finger stiff to indicate they must be patient, and concludes whatever he is writing. Then, at last, he looks over his shoulder. ‘Mr Reed,’ Jon says. ‘I need your help.’ ‘Very well,’ says Judah Reed. Jon moves to take George into the room, but quickly Judah Reed stands and strides towards them. ‘How can I help, Jon?’ Bemused, Jon shuffles back, so that George is in full view. When even this does not do the trick, he steps behind and pokes George in the small of the back, driving him forward like a particularly truculent ass. Judah Reed looks George up and down. ‘Put him to bed,’ he says, and promptly turns back to his study. ‘But …’ Jon bolts forward, making George clatter against the wall. ‘Isn’t there medicine? What about a doctor?’ Judah Reed’s lips begin to curl. ‘I can’t take that to the ship’s doctor. Be sensible.’ ‘He’s …’ ‘Causing a bother?’ For the first time, Judah Reed crouches down. Now he looks George in the face, his golden jowls pock-marked, his blue eyes cold. He lifts a brown hand and, turning it over, presses it against George’s brow. George shudders, wants to reel back. He felt that hand once before. The man had stroked his head, just as he was telling him the news: she’s dead, little one. I’m afraid your mother loved you very much, but now that’s gone. ‘He’s burning, isn’t he?’ ‘Bring him back if he starts raving. We can’t have another mess like last time.’ Turning to go back into the cabin, he looks over his shoulder. ‘I mean raving. Speaking in tongues. Thrashing around. Until then, young man, you’ll have to belt up. Your mother and father aren’t here now, so you have to be a big boy.’ ‘My mother’s dead!’ George suddenly pipes up. ‘You told me so yourself!’ ‘You see,’ Judah Reed says, ‘you’re not really so sick after all.’ When they get back to their cabin, Peter is still sprawling on his bed. He has been lingering over the last page of his comic – though, Jon notes, he’s now holding the thing upside down, as if he has had to quickly snatch it up and pretend he’s been reading it all along. ‘Well?’ says Peter. Jon doesn’t utter a word, just ushers George back into bed. ‘Told you so,’ Peter goes on, snapping the comic shut. ‘Never take a poorly kid to one of those men in black, Jon. They’d just as soon put you to sleep like any old street dog.’ Swaddled up in his sheets, George gives a startled look and buries his head under his pillow. Now there is nothing but long days of empty ocean, a week when the wind fails to fly, another when no boy can sleep for the lurching of the ship and the nightmares it creates – of boys tossed overboard, starving to death in the bellies of whales. Soon, the boys begin to linger below deck throughout the long days, for in the open they must gaze into the endless blue, unable now to distinguish between backwards and forwards, the old world and the new. It is worse, they say, than the endless days locked in the Home. At least, then, there were walls through which they wanted to break. Out here, there is only the ocean, stretching in all directions, absolute and indefinite. Once upon a time, they sat in the chantry and learnt that they were being sent to Australia, for sunshine, oranges, milk and honey – but nobody told them how far they would travel. Nobody dared to tell them that the world was so vast. Peter crashes into the cabin, breathless but beaming. ‘You two best gather your things up,’ he begins. ‘What is it, Peter?’ ‘It’s land, George.’ They scramble onto deck. The word has spread quickly, and from every portal the passengers pour. They squabble their way to the highest sun-deck, but even there they have to fight to reach the balustrade. Out there, the endless azure expanse is broken by a thin red line. ‘I don’t like it, Peter.’ ‘Tough, little friend. This is it. We got there in the end.’ They linger on the sun-deck throughout the day – and, although the red line hardly thickens, by dawn the next morning they can clearly see different contours in the land. The next morning, the sun rises somewhere beyond the continent, spilling vivid colours: bloody reds and yellows, vermilion light bleeding into the ocean. Fists rain at the cabin door. When Judah Reed barges in, only Jon is there; Peter and George have long since been awake, watching the terrible continent growing in size. ‘Come now,’ Judah Reed intones. ‘We’re going ashore before dusk. You’re to dress smartly. Nobody will let the new world down like they did the old.’ Judah Reed disappears. Moments later, Jon can hear his fists raining at other cabin doors along the corridor. He pulls his cardboard suitcase out from underneath his bunk. In the suitcase there is a smart set of clothes, short trousers and a shirt, a necktie – so that every boy might look diligent as he enters the new world. There is even a pair of black shoes. As Jon wriggles into these unusual garments, he pauses. He struggles with the necktie, though Peter has repeatedly shown him how, and finishes by cramming it into his pocket. Then, feet uncomfortable in new shoes, he finds his copy of We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, wraps it in a bundle of his old clothes and forces it into the empty suitcase. As he leaves the cabin, he catches his reflection in a looking glass. His brown hair is longer than he has seen it before. Even his own mother would barely recognize him. Out on the main deck, the parties are gathering. Jon can see the first boats rowing out. They fill the water between the Othello and the port. Against the redness, there sits a low, sprawling township, whitewashed walls sitting around a single stone tower. A bigger boy paws his way through the crowd and claps an oversized hand onto Peter’s shoulder. ‘Judah Reed’s looking for you,’ he says. At Peter’s feet, George looks up like a startled rabbit. Peter grapples through a group of schoolgirls to look down on the fore-deck below. Down there, Judah Reed stands before the elder boys of the Children’s Crusade. Behind him, a contraption winches another boat level with the deck, and a seaman barks out orders. Peter shrugs, hoists George to his feet. ‘Time’s up, little fellow. We’re shipping out.’ George is reluctantly rising when the bigger boy doffs him on the shoulder and presses him back down. ‘Not you,’ he says. ‘It’s only bigger boys in the first run.’ Peter looks back over the rail. As if drawn to him, Judah Reed looks up and makes a single commanding wave. Peter turns to Jon. ‘How old are you?’ he asks. ‘I’m ten,’ Jon begins. Peter kicks George until he gets his attention. ‘You heard that, George? You tell them you’re ten too.’ Peter begins to stride away, but Jon hurries after. ‘Peter,’ he says. ‘You’re going to be there, aren’t you? When we get to the harbour …’ Peter shakes Jon away. ‘How in hell do you think I’d know?’ he snaps. ‘You make sure he tells them he’s ten, Jon Heather. And you look after the sorry little bastard if they’re about to split us up. Promise it, Jon.’ Jon nods. ‘OK,’ he says, ‘I promise.’ From the balcony, Jon watches the bigger boys being shepherded onto the boat. Slowly, they are winched out of sight. Moments later, the boats emerge from the shadow of the Othello. From on high, Jon fancies he can see Peter sitting in the prow of the boat, heroic as some proud Viking figurehead. He does not notice at first, but suddenly George is standing beside him, his arms wrapped around two cardboard suitcases. ‘Peter left his behind,’ he whispers, clinging tightly to the second case. They set it down and open it up. Inside, there are no old clothes, no trinkets carried over from the old world. There is only a single sheet of paper, torn raggedly out of some book. It is a page from one of the atlases, the empty continent with every city and river marked upon it. In the west, somewhere south of a little town named Dongara, Peter has scrawled a giant cross – but this is no treasure map for pirates. ‘We’ll give it to him on shore, won’t we, Jon?’ Jon folds up the paper and stashes it in the pocket of his stiff jacket. ‘I think he meant it for us, Georgie boy. So we can find our way back.’ A call goes up from the fore-deck, Judah Reed hollering out for the other boys of the Children’s Crusade. ‘All the way back, Jon?’ Jon nods. ‘All the way home, George.’ He looks at the sky. ‘One day …’ IV They are the last of the Crusade to go ashore, gathered around Judah Reed with the sea spraying wild about them. On shore, Judah Reed manhandles each boy onto the jetty. They march along the pier, into wooden outhouses where other boys are already lined up. When Jon and George join the procession, there is no sign of Peter or the bigger boys with whom he sailed. ‘You remember what he said,’ Jon whispers. ‘You’re ten years old.’ ‘I’m eight.’ ‘You’re ten,’ Jon insists, ‘and don’t forget it …’ There are other men in black here. They greet Judah Reed at the head of the procession and meander up and down the column of boys. To some, they whisper hellos; to others, nothing but an indifferent glance. Behind them, there stands a trio of ladies older still. The boy in front of Jon trembles. Jon recognizes the gesture well enough. A little ripple runs through his body, and then he begins to cry. The boy is practised at disguising it – a life spent in the dormitories of the Children’s Crusade is good for something – but he will not disguise it forever. Jon wonders what Peter would do, reaches forward and jabs the boy in the ribs. ‘You ought to stop that,’ Jon whispers. ‘I don’t know where on earth we are.’ At the front of the outhouse, the boys are being confronted by the women. One by one, they announce their names, and one by one they are led through doors, away from the coast and the disappearing Othello. Jon cranes to look out of the outhouse windows. On tip-toes, he can just see the column of boys walking across a red dirt yard to a motorbus sitting beyond. The bus is yellow, like those that once patrolled the fiery streets of Leeds, and its driver lounges against the side. Some of the bigger boys are already on board. ‘George,’ he whispers. ‘I think it’s Peter …’ George bounds up, springing awkwardly to try and see. ‘Where are they taking him?’ Before Jon can answer, one of the women is looming above them. He looks up, shuffles quickly back into place. The woman has a shrewd eye on him – but she seems willing to let the misdemeanour go. She takes a step back, so that she can consider George. ‘What is your name, little one?’ Her voice is throaty, the accent an English one that Jon has only ever heard on the wireless. ‘He’s called George,’ Jon interjects. She goes on. ‘I would like to hear it from him.’ George tries to look at the woman, but instead he looks back at Jon. Jon’s eyes flare. It is an unspoken command, the kind Peter might make, but George is silent still. ‘I’m Jon!’ Jon announces. ‘Jon Heather …’ The woman breaks from George and ponders it casually. ‘There was a Jon at the start of this row,’ she begins. ‘Jack is short for Jon, is it not?’ She seems pleased with this deduction. ‘Yes,’ she goes on, ‘I believe Jack would suit. How old are you?’ Jon answers almost before the question is finished. The word seems to have a magical effect on George, for suddenly he spins around. ‘I’m ten too,’ he pipes up. ‘Very well,’ the woman replies. ‘Across the yard and bear left. Each boy must follow the boy in front.’ Jon ushers George forward. In front of them, the hall is already emptying. At the threshold, framed against red dirt, Judah Reed stands watchfully. The sky, once a rolling blue expanse, is paling as evening approaches. Side by side, they step out. The boys ahead are banking left, away from the yellow motorbus. There is a sweet smell in the air, and birdsong in the branches of trees Jon has never before seen. The engine of the motorbus fires, chokes out exhaust and draws away. George freezes, eyes drawn after the bus. ‘Are we going the same way?’ Jon pushes him on. Along the verge of the dirt track there sits a collection of other vehicles. A ramshackle wagon already has a gang of six boys piled into its open back, with a single dog standing proudly among them. Dark and sandy, with deep drooling jaws, it is not like any of the mongrel street dogs of Leeds. Behind that, another utility truck is being loaded. ‘Stop that dallying, you pair of scuttlers!’ a gruff voice bawls out. ‘It’s getting dark already …’ A burly man shoos them towards the rear wagon like a dog might herd sheep. George is the first to run. Jon holds his ground only momentarily longer, George’s hand suddenly pressed into his own. Settling in the wagon, they are greeted by the snout of the sandy dog and silent hellos from the boys already on board. ‘Here,’ one of them finally begins, ‘take this.’ His fist is bunched around a small green apple, which he tosses to Jon. Jon takes a bite; the fruit is sour, and he passes it to George. ‘See,’ the boy says, ‘we’ve reached the Promised Land.’ The wagon engine begins to hum. A final trio of boys push their way aboard, bustling others out of the way as they scrap for a seat. ‘You’ll have to do better than that, boys,’ Judah Reed declares. Jon turns to see him striding out of the outhouse. His black robe billows behind him – but, for the first time, he is wearing heavy brown boots that reach almost to his knees. ‘You wouldn’t want to be walking all the way on those sea legs, would you?’ Judah Reed strides to the back of the wagon, plants one leg firmly on the platform and lifts his hands as if he is miming pushing at a wall. The boys try and make room, but there is little to be found. In the end, they pile on top of one another, like cattle in a truck ready for the abattoir. Judah Reed climbs aboard, drawing the gate shut behind him. On his haunches, he hammers a closed fist against the bumper and the wagon kicks into gear. At first it sluices on the uneven ground, but soon the driver has hit the road. ‘Boys to be farmers,’ he begins. Somewhere behind them, a cheer goes up. ‘And girls to be farmers’ wives,’ he beams, looking back at Jon. ‘Son, this is the beginning of something for you and your sorry sort.’ The wagon leaves the last of the houses beyond, and as far as Jon can see there is only red earth and scrub. In the fading west, he can still hear the shrieking of seabirds. ‘This earth will give up its bounty to you, if only you leave that old world behind. But let even a scrap of those streets stay in you, and it will eat you alive …’ Judah Reed spreads his arms wide, as if he might embrace every boy on board. ‘Boys,’ he says. ‘Welcome home.’ It is difficult to judge distance, without houses and snickets to guide the way. To Jon, it is almost as if they are back at sea, sailing across an ocean of scrub. Some distance out of town, the wagons turn from the highway and branch away from the ocean – and, so Jon believes, away from England itself. The scrub thins, until they sail above pastures of sand where only outcrops of coarse grass grow. Soon the roads grow rutted and worn, until there is hardly any road there at all. On occasion, one boy whispers something to another. They point out distant rises of red, a strange creature flattened by a tyre, a single tree, capped with a bulbous crown of thorns. ‘Jon …’ George whispers. He ferrets in Jon’s pocket until his fingers find the map Peter left for them. He wants to draw it out, but Jon clenches George’s wrist as tightly as he can. ‘But how will we find our way back?’ Jon looks back along the trail. The other wagons are still rattling behind, but other than that there is no mark by which he might know if they are in one place or another. ‘Peter will know …’ The road starts to slope, and they sail into what appears to be a shallow canyon. The scrub grows thicker again, nourished by cool shadows, and they see birds for the first time since the coast: chattering yellow parakeets, of the kind wealthy boys might once have been given as pets. Deeper into the canyon, they see a waterhole between two hummocks of land. Other birds flap in the shallows, scattering when the wagon rattles through. They rise out of the canyon, and below them the scrub rolls on. High above, they can see the violet night on the eastern horizon. And, if ever there was a sign that they are no longer on the same earth, here it is: it is not night and it is not day and yet, up in the sky, the sun and moon hang together, two great orbs beached above reefs of cloud. ‘George,’ he whispers. ‘George!’ His head jolts, and he follows Jon’s gaze. ‘It’s the same moon, isn’t it, George?’ George is dumb for only a moment. Then he nods. ‘That’s what Peter said,’ he agrees. The words seem to soothe him – but, all the same, he closes his eyes so that he has to see no more. Jon must have fallen asleep too, for a sudden lurching of the wagon jolts him awake. It is dark all around. He scrambles to sit upright, George hunched in a ball beside him. There are trees on either bank, but they are stumpy and only half in leaf, the canopy of a fragrant forest so low that Jon can see for miles around. ‘We’re nearly there, boy.’ Jon wheels around, crashes against the side of the wagon. ‘Nearly where?’ The wagons bank left. There are shapes in the darkness, silhouetted creatures that bound away from the convoy. ‘There,’ says Judah Reed, a wistful tone in his voice. Carefully, still grasping the rim of the wagon, he kicks his way through the curled-up boys to reach the cab. The wagon suddenly drops down a ledge in the track. The jolt stirs the boys around Jon. George scrambles around, uncertain in which strange world he has awoken. ‘Jon,’ George begins, forgetting to whisper. ‘What is it?’ In front of Jon, Judah Reed hammers the roof of the cab and the driver barks out. Seconds later, the truck’s horn blasts, three short sharp sounds. They thunder around a narrow bend in the track – and there, for the first time, Jon sees lights in the undergrowth. There is a clearing coming, harrowed land with little cauldrons of fires stirred at its fringes, as if to keep the desert wilderness at bay. As they near, the boys around Jon become more alert. The wagons slow, banking hard so that their headlights sweep across what appears to be a ruined village. On the other side of the barren expanse there sits a collection of shacks, raised on stilts above the desert floor. Between them, causeways have been carved in the scrub – and, beyond that, the first of a row of sandstone buildings sits. The wagons stop, and Judah Reed vaults to the ground. At first, the boys are resistant to follow, so Judah Reed reaches in and palms the first boy onto the ground. He stumbles to his hands and knees in the sand, scrambling aside just in time to avoid the other boy who comes tumbling after. ‘Don’t fall on your knees,’ whispers Jon. He does not know why it is important; it seems like something Peter might have said – and, for the moment, that is good enough. ‘What?’ George asks. He will be the next to go; Judah Reed is already barking his name. ‘Just don’t let him push you over,’ says Jon. ‘I’ll be right behind.’ Jon slides from the back of the truck, reaching back just in time to whip his cardboard suitcase with him. He presses a hand into the small of George’s back, and together they scurry away. ‘What is this place?’ whispers George. A boy beside them grunts. ‘End of the world, little George,’ he says. ‘You’ll be wetting that bed forevermore now.’ The boys gather along the fires. Behind them, the desert writhes – but, ahead, it seems, worse things are stirring. Boys have spilled out of the tumbledown shacks. Some of them are carrying lanterns. There are girls, too – though, at first, Jon does not recognize them as such. They all wear short trousers and ragged shirts, the girls in dresses that stretch to their ankles. They all have bare feet, and hair that has grown into great matted tassels. From the night, a man in black strides forward, clasping Judah Reed’s hand in his own. Then, suddenly, the women who met them at the docks are crying out shrill orders. The new boys form a long rank in front of the fires and, one after another, are dispatched into the shacks. ‘Your suitcase, young sir …’ Jon clings tightly to the suitcase, and does not breathe a word. In there: his English clothes, his precious book – the only things he has left from the other world. The woman does not ask twice. She cuffs him around the ear, a blow that stings more than he had anticipated – and, as he is righting himself, prises the suitcase from him. George gives his up more easily. She slings them back into the ute, where a dozen others are piled. The woman whistles out, and a clot of barefoot boys scamper between two of the shacks. Jon pauses, but one of the boys takes him by the wrist. He resists, but not for long. Soon, he is clattering after them, along a narrow lane with tall banks of scrub. One of the boys whispers something, but Jon does not hear. He looks back, finally gives up the fight when he sees George being swept along behind. They go deeper into the compound, past a square where a well, heaped high with stones, is set into the ground. The shacks here are darker, but groups of boys lounge on their steps. ‘How many?’ one of the boys hunched on the step asks. The boy beside Jon shrugs. ‘I reckon thirty, all told. They had girls in one of the trucks.’ The other boy nods, as if this news pleases him. ‘What have we got here, then? Two little ones?’ ‘I’m ten!’ Jon pipes up. When he elbows George sharply in the chest, George repeats the words, just as he has been told. ‘Yeah, settle your shit down,’ the older boy grins. ‘We don’t much like new boys, but it’s not you to blame for that. We’re on the same side here, all of us except Ted over there. You just pick on him if you ever feel the need.’ One of the other boys mutters a string of curses. ‘I’m only joking, Ted.’ ‘I’ll joke you in a minute!’ The older boy tips Jon a wink. ‘He always says things like that. We haven’t yet worked out what he means.’ He stops. ‘Up you get, then. There’s an empty bed in the bottom corner. You two might have to top and tail it. Village muster’s at dawn, so you’ve got …’ He looks up at the chart of stars. ‘… about four hours, I reckon.’ Jon is the first to venture past the boys, up the steps into the wooden shack. They enter a bare cloakroom, where hooks line the walls but nothing hangs. The smell in the air is at once familiar and horribly unreal. If George has forgotten it, Jon has not; he can still remember the first night he walked into the dormitory of the Children’s Crusade back home, the smell of damp and piss that permeated the place. Beyond the cloakroom, the new dormitory stretches to the furthest walls. Something dark scurries across the boards – a rat, or whatever other little creatures live in this far flung world. Banks of beds line each wall, simple wire frames raised at the head like a hospital stretcher, so that there is no need for a pillow. There are boys in each, but few of them are sleeping. They grumble as Jon and George stumble on, finally finding a vacant bed in a corner where the floorboards squelch miserably underfoot. George rolls onto the bed. There is only one sheet, but he wraps himself in it tightly, as if hopeful he will disappear. ‘George,’ Jon whispers, jumping on the bed alongside his friend. George looks up, pudgy face drawn. ‘Yes?’ Jon does not know why he thinks of it, but he cannot stop himself now. ‘What was your mother like, George?’ ‘I don’t remember,’ says George lightly, as if it is the most terrible thing. Jon squints at him. ‘But I wish she was here.’ He offers some of the sheet to Jon. ‘Jon,’ he whispers, wary of the wild boys shifting around them. ‘Do you have it? Do you still have Peter’s map?’ Jon reaches into his short trousers and pulls out the page of the atlas. It means nothing any longer, just a few scribbles on a part of the coast they could not find again, even if they spent their whole lives trying. All the same, he stretches it out and, in the preternatural gloom, he and George study its contours. ‘That’s where we’ll find him,’ says Jon. George’s eyes widen. ‘He’ll be waiting for us there.’ Jon lies down in the bed, curled around George. The sounds of boys wheezing, the chatter of creatures in the scrubland, the endless desert where there is nothing to run to and no one to hear you cry – this, then, is his new world. He says his prayers to unknown stars and wakes, the following morning, to an alien sun. V ‘There once was a boy who ran away. He ran as far as he could run, and when he could run no more, he burrowed down into the baked red earth. When he could not burrow any further, he curled up and slept – and, when he woke, he found little droplets of moisture on the walls of his den. He stayed there through the day, and the following night as well, rooting up worms and grubs for his dinner, lapping at the water that seeped out of the earth. And, in that way, he decided, a little boy could live.’ George likes this story. He has heard it three times already, but there is something in it that troubles Jon. All the same, he stays at George’s side while the boy continues. Breakfast is almost over – and though Jon cannot bear spooning the slop into his mouth, he knows he will be aching by the afternoon without it. One of the cottage mothers drifts by, trailing rank perfume behind her. Some of the littlest boys, four or five years old, are bickering in the corner of the stark breakfasting hall, and she glides towards them. Moments later, one is lifted by his ear and taken to the front of the hall, where a corpulent man in black, his face full of jowls, receives him and carries him out of the hall. On the dirt outside, Judah Reed is waiting. ‘The little boy spent every day and night in his den. He did not grow up like the boys who did not run away. He couldn’t grow a single inch bigger, because his den wouldn’t let him. The seasons came and went without him seeing another living soul but the grubs he ate – until, one day, he heard the song of a kookaburra chick, lost in the desert …’ It is always the sound of the kookaburra that brings the smile to George’s face. Neither he nor Jon know what a kookaburra is, or what it looks like, but for George it is enough to imagine this otherworldly creature coming to the runaway’s help. There might still be friends to be found in this red and arid land. Jon’s spoon clatters in his tin plate, but the sound is quickly drowned out. The corpulent man in black is back, clanging the hand-bell, and he parades up and down the long trestle table. The little one who was taken away is nowhere to be found. ‘Eat up, George. You’ve got to get going.’ The story will have to be finished another day. Jon pats George on the back and scurries out of the hall. The sun is already up, but the heat is not yet fierce. The boys here say that this is winter – though Jon can remember winter well, so it must be just another of their tricks. He leaps over the soft earth where the kitchen sinks empty out and takes off at a run. The dairy is at the other end of the compound, over fields that, come the spring, the boys here will be tilling. He is running barefoot, but it no longer hurts; it took less than a day before his shoes were wrestled off him. At the head of the sandstone buildings – where Judah Reed himself lives – he vaults a fence and takes off across the field. In the scrub that surrounds, the youngest boys of the Mission are out on village muster, collecting up the kindling that will be used to stoke the boilers tonight. Jon spies a little one he knows as Ernest on the very fringe of the field, where the fields back onto a low forest of thorns. Ernest waves at him; some of these younger boys can barely say a dozen words. Left alone on their daily forage, they grow languages of gestures and grunts. ‘You’re late, Jack …’ Jon careers into the dairy. The old herdsman, McAllister, who comes in from the cattle station to check over the goats, lurks at the back of the barn – but Jon manages to slip in unnoticed. ‘I’m sorry,’ Jon begins. ‘I came as fast …’ ‘Ach,’ the boy spits, wrapping his fists around the teats of the next she-goat in line. ‘I couldn’t care less, long as I don’t have to squeeze your share of these udders.’ He uncurls his fingers from a teat and, dripping with warm milk, reaches out to grasp Jon’s hand. ‘Name’s Tommy Crowe,’ he says. ‘Pleased to meet you, Jack.’ ‘My name’s Jon.’ The boy named Tommy Crowe smirks. ‘You got a familiar voice on you,’ he finally says. ‘Where’d they ship you in from?’ ‘England,’ Jon shrugs, kicking his bucket into place. ‘I could’ve figured that one. There’s some lads from Malta came once, but you can tell them a mile off.’ He pauses, pinching out a squirt of milk as he ponders this problem. ‘Isn’t it … it’s somewhere in Leeds?’ Jon nods. ‘I knew it. Second I clapped eyes on you, I said to myself – Tommy, I said, that lad’s got Leeds written all over him.’ He tweaks a teat and shoots a warm spray of milk straight into Jon’s face. ‘I’m from the old place myself!’ Tommy Crowe goes on. ‘Well, never spent hardly a month there, if I’m to be truthful about it. They shipped me over almost as soon as they could. Just made sure there was none of them nasty U-boats still sharking around, and packed us all off. There was a bunch of us, got evacuated out into the dales, and when we come back – bang! Nothing to come back to. I must have been about seven. Had myself a giant family – brothers and sisters, half-brothers, cousins who were brothers, brothers who were sisters. Almost every kind of family. Then …’ He shakes his head, grinning at the absurd tale. ‘I thought some of them might wind up here too, but I haven’t seen them since we were in that Home. Maybe they ended up somewhere worse – what do you reckon?’ Tommy Crowe must be thirteen years old, though he appears much older. He has a pointed chin like some comicbook hero, and sharp eyebrows that rise villainously, so that there is always something contrary about the way that he looks. ‘You done with that bucket yet?’ Tommy asks. ‘You can’t mess around in here, Jack the lad! McAllister’s known to take a riding crop to a boy for a bit of spilt milk …’ Jon looks over his shoulder. The old man McAllister is kneeling now, pressing his forehead to the face of one of the billy goats in its stall. ‘What’s he up to?’ Jon asks. ‘He’s eyeing up which ones are for the block,’ Tommy Crowe grins. ‘You won’t know how to slit a throat yet, will you? Lad, you’re going to love it. Nothing quite like it when that kicking stops!’ He flashes Jon a grin and, buckets dangling from shoulders, elbows and wrists, lumbers out of the door. In the red dirt outside the barn, Tommy Crowe stops. When Jon hurries after, he sees him, leg raised on an upturned pail, surveying the untilled fields. The smallest boys are ferreting around in rabbit holes in the undergrowth beyond. The rabbits have long been driven from those warrens – even rabbits grow wise to the habits of hungry boys – but it is a ritual among the little ones to set traps, just in case. Rabbits, it is said, are English – and this is a magical thing to the boys of the Mission. One of the boys has strayed further than the rest, has almost disappeared into the shadow of the eucalyptus trees that grow in strange clumps, their many trunks opening out like the petals of a flower. At last, he drops down a ridge between two low, sprawling trees, so that only the top of his head can still be seen. ‘Here,’ Tommy Crowe says, ‘give me that bucket.’ Jon does not know how to ladle another bucket into Tommy’s arms, but somehow he slides it into the crook of an elbow. ‘You’d best be after that boy,’ he says. ‘Have you seen what they do to boys they think might run away?’ He pauses. ‘I’ll stall McAllister if he shows hisself …’ Scrambling between the rails of a fence strung with barbed wire, Jon scurries over untilled earth, finally reaching the bank of red earth where the little ones are camped out. The eldest and most brave dumps his collection of kindling at Jon’s feet and smiles eagerly, like a dog that has brought back a pigeon to its master. Jon clambers over the bank, kicking dirt into the mouth of one of the rabbit holes. Behind him, the boys suddenly shout out, chattering animatedly at this transgression. Over the bank, Jon can just see the silhouette of the boy skipping from one tangle of roots to another. It is Ernest. Jon calls after him, and though he half-turns his head, he does not stop. When Jon has almost caught him, he slows, trots cautiously three steps behind. The little boy slows to a dawdle and they plod on together, coming to a spot where a pool of light spills through the trees. ‘It just goes on and on,’ says Ernest, his tone one of wonder. ‘It doesn’t end.’ Jon looks down. There is a look like fear on Ernest’s face, but it is wrestling for space with a burgeoning grin. ‘I thought there’d be a fence,’ he begins, watching Jon turn in bewildered circles, trying to seek one out. ‘Maybe there’d be a wall. A big old wall with spikes and locked gates.’ He shakes his head in disbelief. ‘But there isn’t a wall,’ he says, taking a seat between two huge roots. ‘Isn’t it the weirdest thing? You could just walk and walk forever.’ Jon reaches a barrier of tussocky grass and pushes through, feeling the jagged curtain fall shut behind him. He feels, for a moment, like a storybook knight, fighting through walls of thorns to rescue the princess trapped on the other side – but when he emerges he sees only the same shadow wood going on forever. There is rustling behind him and he turns, expecting to see Ernest creeping through on hands and knees. The creature that emerges is something he has not seen before. It is only two feet tall, the bastard offspring of a kangaroo and hare. Tiny black eyes study him cautiously, and then it bounds away. Jon pushes back through the thicket – but on the other side Ernest is nowhere to be seen. He starts, wonders if he has come back the same way at all, or whether the forest has, somehow, turned him around, stranding him only a short walk away from the Mission. Then, he hears voices, shrill cries of delight. After long months of waiting, the boys of the Mission have finally trapped a rabbit. Jon follows the voices back to the field. Some of the little boys are already kindling a secret fire; they will sleep well tonight, on bellies full of wild rabbit instead of the usual mutton and bread. Beyond them, Tommy Crowe is laden down with another yoke of pails, striding heroically out of the dairy. Jon rushes to help him, remembering suddenly the threat of Mr McAllister – but all that day, and long into the night, he cannot forget the lesson of the scrub. It is a thought too terrifying to share with George or any of the other boys, something only he and Ernest might understand: in this prison, there are no walls. That night, George is already tucked up in bed when Jon reaches the dormitory. Since the second night, they have slept in different beds, but George ordinarily sits at the foot of Jon’s, listening to stories Jon can remember from books. Soon, he will have to start changing them, bit by bit, to keep them fresh. No matter how much George asks, he does not want to start telling the stories they hear from other boys in the Mission – kookaburras befriending boys hiding in holes, jackeroos and jolly swagmen. Jon does not want his head filling with Australian stories, not if it means losing some of his own. Jon slinks past George’s bed as softly as he can but the covers buck and a fat little head pops out, like a grub from its knot in the wood. Jon presses his finger to his mouth and George nods eagerly. It isn’t rare for one of the cottage mothers to hear boys chattering after lights-out and turf every one of them into the night so that the cold might teach them some manners. The floorboards around the bed are still acrid where George had his accident three nights before. It was the first time he slipped up since they came here, but at least the boys in the nearby beds were understanding. Some of the others would surely have told tales. ‘You been to the latrine, George?’ ‘I hate it when you call it that,’ George answers. In truth, it’s hardly a latrine. It’s a shallow ditch the boys are meant to dig out, but rarely do. ‘I’ve been,’ George nods. He hates going there, but there’s a special dormitory on the compound’s edge where the bedwetters go, and he’d rather go to the latrine a hundred times a day than have to sleep there. ‘I’m cold tonight, Jon.’ ‘This is winter, little George. It won’t get much colder than this.’ ‘I miss the proper winter.’ Deep snow and howling wind and waking to icicles hanging from the inside of the window – yes, Jon misses the proper winter too. Jon climbs into bed. The mattress is old and stubbornly refuses to bend to him, even when he kicks and punches. Like lots of the other boys, he has fashioned a pillow from old sacking that he has to hide every time the cottage mother makes an inspection. He beats it into shape and lays down his head. ‘Jon …’ a little voice ventures, ‘are you awake?’ ‘I’m thinking,’ Jon says. ‘How come you’re always thinking? You never used to be thinking … Even in the Home, we used to play games.’ ‘We don’t have things to play games, George.’ George grumbles, too afraid of upsetting Jon to snap back. ‘If Peter was here, he’d find them. He could make games out of windows or beds or pieces of brick.’ For a moment: only the whisper of wind around the dormitory walls. ‘Hey, Jon, what are you thinking?’ Before Jon can reply, the door opens at the end of the dormitory and, in the light of a lantern beyond, there appear two silhouettes: the first a boy, no older than Jon, and the second an imperious cottage mother who steers him on his way with a hand in the small of his back. The boy shuffles forward and behind him the door closes – yet there are no sounds of footsteps retreating. Every boy among them knows: the cottage mother is waiting to hear what happens next. Jon and George watch the boy totter forward, moving between the banks of beds until he can find his own. All around them, the other boys turn away. Some bury their heads in their makeshift pillows. Others feign snoring, as if they have long been asleep. The only boys who watch are those who tumbled from the boats with George and Jon, but soon even some of those are turning away. The latecomer climbs into bed and rolls onto his side. He has not undressed and, if the cottage mothers find him like that in the morning, he will be due a punishment, a naked lap around the dormitories or no breakfast and double chores. George’s bug eyes swivel from the latecomer to Jon, and then back again. It is only moments before the whimpering begins. In his bed, the latecomer crams sacking into his mouth to strangle the sounds. ‘Jon,’ George whispers, ‘what happened?’ ‘Maybe Judah Reed had to tell him …’ Jon’s voice dies. ‘… that his mother died.’ Jon drops from his bed and, keeping his eyes fixed on the splinter of light under the dormitory door, crosses from one bank of beds to the other. When he reaches the latecomer’s bed, the boy turns suddenly, so that he does not have to see Jon’s approach. Undeterred, Jon gets very close and whispers, ‘What happened?’ When the boy does not reply, Jon tries again. He reaches out, puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, as if he might force him to turn. Suddenly, the boy does just that, wheeling out with a clenched fist to catch Jon on the side of the face. Jon’s ear burns, and he staggers back. The boy brings his fists up to his face, forming an impenetrable wall – but before the wall closes Jon has time to see eyes swollen and red. These are not the tears any boy might shed at bedtime. Here is a boy who has cried himself dry, summoned up strength, and sobbed himself senseless again. Tonight’s whimpers are only the distant echoes of something else. ‘Judah Reed just wouldn’t believe,’ he says. ‘I told him everything, and he said I was making it up.’ Jon creeps back to his own bed, hauls himself up. Beside him, George is feigning sleep, but one eye pops open. ‘Well?’ he asks. ‘Is it his mother?’ ‘No,’ says Jon absently, his mind somewhere else. ‘He … had an accident. Out on morning muster. He fell and …’ ‘There isn’t a doctor here, is there, Jon Heather?’ ‘No,’ says Jon. ‘Not for miles and miles around.’ Across the dormitory, the boy gives a great wet breath, and then he is silent. Dawn. In the breakfasting hall, Judah Reed appears to have quiet words with some of the bigger boys, and then ghosts on, nodding at each gaggle of little ones in turn. When the bell tolls, Jon is the first out of the breakfasting hall, barrelling through the Mission until he spies the dairy buildings ahead. A shock of parakeets rise from the branches of the shadow wood, and he watches them cascade over. He wonders if they know what is lying on the other side. If he were a boy in one of those sorry Australian stories, he would probably stop and ask them. In the dairy, Tommy Crowe is waiting, while McAllister shuffles in the recesses of the room, whispering sweet promises to the goats. ‘There was a boy in my dormitory last night,’ Jon says, sitting down to take a teat in hand. ‘Came in long after lights’ out, with one of the cottage mothers. He wouldn’t say what was wrong.’ Tommy Crowe nods thoughtfully, rounding off a pail and shuffling another one into place. ‘I heard there was honoured guests back at the Mission. Maybe it was that. They haven’t been round for a while. If you ask me, they’re rock spiders, every last one.’ Jon is struggling to produce any milk this morning, but at last a warm jet ricochets around the bottom of his pail. ‘Are they poisonous?’ he asks, picturing these savage monsters stalking the shadow wood. ‘Jack the lad, wake up!’ Tommy laughs. ‘A rock spider isn’t a spider. It’s …’ He pauses, not certain how to explain it. In truth, he is not certain where he heard the words. ‘It’s friends with Judah Reed and the rest. They come by sometimes, to take kids on outings, off to proper farms, show them how the Australians do it, or … Sometimes they get to go to a town. They have ice cream. They look in shops. That sort of thing.’ Jon tries to picture it. ‘Do they … adopt us?’ He does not say what he wants to say – I can’t be adopted, Tommy; I still have a mother – because, suddenly, he knows it for nonsense. ‘I think they took one or two lads once. One little lad called Luca. And a bigger one. I don’t remember his name. They brought that Luca back, though. I don’t think they liked him much.’ Tommy Crowe pauses, mindful of McAllister prowling behind them. ‘Look, Jack the lad, if there’s one thing you should know, it’s … keep your head down. Don’t go with an honoured guest.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I don’t know, Jack, but isn’t it funny? A day out with ice cream and big fat steaks and all the lemonade a boy could drink … but, once they’ve been, nobody ever wants to go out again. Some things just aren’t what they promise.’ Jon Heather knows that well enough. Australia was supposed to be a land of milk and honey, kangaroos taking them to school and plates piled high with treats. Now, he looks up, out of the dairy doors, at nothing but flurries of dust and wild little boys picking up sticks. ‘Come on, Jack the lad, I’ve got a special treat for you today! McAllister’s done his numbering, and we’ve got ourselves a billy to slaughter.’ Tommy Crowe grins at him sincerely, proud to be sharing this prize. ‘You ever killed a goat before?’ The question is so absurd that Jon is lost for words. Until only a few days ago, he hadn’t even seen a goat. He’d seen rats and cats and dogs, even a fox one night, ferreting through the dustbins on the terrace – but, for Jon Heather, cows and sheep and horses and goats are as much a fairytale as unicorns and serpents. ‘Is it … difficult?’ Jon asks, desperate to fill the silence. ‘It doesn’t have to be. You can do it nicely, if you’re good.’ At the back of the dairy, one billy goat has been separated from the rest. Tommy Crowe wanders over to the stall, and the goat approaches him tenderly. Crouching down, he cups its bearded jaw and strokes its brow. The old man McAllister rears up from a neighbouring stall. Up close, Jon can see that he really isn’t that old after all, no older, perhaps, than Judah Reed. A fat black moustache hangs over his top lip, and his eyes hunker below bushy brown slugs. ‘He’ll cook up nice,’ McAllister says. ‘You showing this little one how it’s done, are you, Tommy?’ Tommy Crowe nods. ‘Reckon he’ll chuck up?’ Tommy laughs, secretly shooting Jon an apologetic look. ‘Wouldn’t be normal if he didn’t.’ At once, McAllister’s face darkens. ‘Just make sure he doesn’t chuck up all over that meat. It’s what you bairns got to eat. It all goes in the pot, chuck-up and all.’ After McAllister wanders out of the dairy, Tommy Crowe turns to Jon. ‘Let’s get started,’ he says. ‘You get round the back. He’s bound to kick if he gets a whiff of what we’re doing, so just watch out. I saw a boy break his ribs that way, once. He couldn’t go in his dormitory after that, so they had him locked up with one of those cottage mothers.’ Tommy shakes his head. ‘He’d have been better in the bush.’ It is Jon’s job to get around the back of the goat and force it from the stall. This is easier said than done and, in the end, Tommy Crowe has to leash the billy with a rope and tug him out onto an expanse of bare earth. Tommy hands Jon the rope and shoots back inside to collect the killing knife. Alone now, Jon Heather watches the goat. It does not try and run, but simply drops its head instead, chewing contentedly on a clump of coarse yellow grass. Its eyes are tiny, lost behind tufts of grey and white, but Jon thinks he can see deeply into them. Once, he had dreamed of having a pet dog. He would tame it and train it and take it on walks in the terrace, and call it his very best friend. A goat, he thinks now, would have done just as well. ‘Here you go, Jack the lad,’ says Tommy, reappearing from the dairy. ‘Take hold of this. I’ll tell you when it’s time.’ Jon finds the knife already in his hands. It is smaller than he had imagined, with a short handle and a longer blade that curves back against itself. Tommy has others stacked up – one with jagged teeth like a saw, one a huge cleaver sitting on a wooden shaft – and he circles the goat gently, cooing at it all the while. ‘Give him a hug, Jon.’ Jon recoils. He thinks of Judah Reed, putting his arm around a boy just before telling him: they’re all dead; you’re the only one left. ‘Go on, Jon. If you hold him properly, he’ll roll right over.’ Tommy Crowe is right. Jon advances, strokes the back of the billy’s head, and then drapes himself over its body. Bemused, the goat nevertheless relents, rolling onto its side like an obedient pup. It is then an easy thing for Tommy Crowe to take the rope and knot together its back legs and fore. ‘Keep pressing down, Jon. He’ll only try and get back up again.’ Tommy bows low, rubs his forehead onto the goat’s shoulder. ‘Won’t you, lad? You only want to get up!’ Tommy looks up. ‘Have a go, Jon. Bring his head back, see. The first cut’s the hardest, but after that, it’s plain sailing.’ Jon understands, too late, why the knife is in his hand. His eyes widen, he flicks a look at Tommy, another at the throat now exposed. Still, the goat is silent. Jon Heather thinks: it might at least cry. ‘Take it in your hand like this,’ Tommy says, snatching up a stick to show him how. ‘Then …’ He tugs the stick back. ‘Don’t be shy. If you’re shy, you’ll hurt him.’ ‘Tommy, I don’t …’ ‘Of course you don’t! Street boy like you … But, Jon, you have to. We all have to. If you don’t, they’ll know. Then they’ll come and make you.’ Tommy is silent. ‘It’s better they don’t have to make you, Jon. The thing is, they enjoy making you. It’s better not like that.’ Jon isn’t certain that he understands, but he pictures Judah Reed standing here, pressing the knife into his hand. ‘They’re making me anyway, Tommy. You’re making me …’ Tommy releases the goat’s hind legs. The poor brute kicks out, and Tommy must tackle him again. ‘I knew a boy who wouldn’t,’ he breathes. ‘It was when we were building the sandstone huts.’ ‘Building them?’ ‘We built them our very own selves. There was hardly a building standing when I got dumped here. But this boy, he wouldn’t mix bricks, and he wouldn’t kill goats, wouldn’t go out on muster or even pop the head off a chicken. Wasn’t that he was a cry-baby. I don’t think I ever once saw him cry. He just wouldn’t do a thing he was told. So …’ ‘They made him.’ The way Jon breathes the word, it might be a spell that they cast, a terrible enchantment. ‘How did they make him, Tommy?’ ‘The same way they’ll make you, if you don’t cut this goat. With nights in Judah Reed’s office and big old welts on your bare backside. With slop for breakfast and tea, so you’ll be begging for a hunk of lovely goat. Going out for lessons with honoured guests.’ Tommy Crowe pauses. ‘Do you want to know why I’m the only lad in this whole Mission who’s never had a strap across him?’ Meekly, Jon nods. ‘It’s because Judah Reed doesn’t even know my name. I never gave him a reason to learn it. He might have put me on that boat and brought me here, but he doesn’t even know I was born. And that, Jack the lad, is the only way to do it. So …’ He pauses, tilting his head at the blade still in Jon’s hands. ‘… are you going to cause a stink about this, or what?’ Jon strokes the top of the billy’s head. The silly creature must love it for, willingly, he tips his head back. With one hand, Jon steadies the head against the earth; with the other, he plunges forward with the blade. He must have done something wrong, stabbing like that, for a jet of red shoots out at him and Tommy Crowe winces. ‘Don’t skewer it, Jack the lad! Bring it up, like this …’ The second time is more difficult, for now the goat knows what these two turncoats are about, and now the goat resists. Even so, somehow, Jon gets the knife back in. He tries to draw it up, opening the neck, but over and again it slides back out. Now he is mindlessly hacking, hands covered in pumping red, the blade so slippery he can hardly keep hold. Quickly, the goat relents. Its kicking stops, and Jon reels back. ‘Up and away, Jack the lad! We’ve made a meal of this one!’ Tommy rushes around, grabs a broom handle from the dairy wall, and runs it between the goat’s hind legs. With one mighty heave, he throws the billy on his back and staggers to a dead tree by the dairy doors. Here, he slides the broom handle into the crooks of two branches and steps back with a flourish, the goat hanging from the tree with its throat open to the ground. ‘Damn it Jack, you’re letting it spill!’ Jon looks down. Too late, he sees the puddle of blood spreading around him, his feet islands rapidly being submerged in a grisly typhoon. Too stunned to do anything, he simply stands there, imagines the tide getting higher and higher, subsuming his ankles, his knees, the whole of his body. At last, Tommy Crowe pushes him out of the way, kicking two milk pails into place so that the blood might be caught. ‘It’s for sausages, you dolt … Blood sausages, remember?’ Jon looks up. The goat dangles with two gaping smiles: the first its lips, the second the great gash they have carved in its throat. Only minutes ago, it was a real, living thing; now it is a cruel mockery of everything it used to be. ‘You want to help with the butchering too?’ Against his will, Jon nods. ‘It’s easy enough,’ says Tommy. ‘Just take a hold of this knife …’ Once the goat has bled out, they strain to carry the buckets of blood away, into the dairy where fewer flies can set to feasting. Now, Tommy Crowe explains, there comes a job any old boy can do, without even a hint of training. ‘All you have to do is twist until it pops off. You ever get the cap off a bottle of milk?’ Jon nods, eyes fixed on the goat’s gaping smile. ‘Same thing, Jon. Go on, give it a go …’ Jon might keep still, then, were it not for the footsteps he hears behind him: McAllister knuckling around the corner of the dairy. With Tommy Crowe’s eyes on him, he steps forward. The goat is strung high, so that the head dangles almost into his lap. Up close, the stench is severe, steamy and sour. He places one hand on one side of the goat’s head and, holding his body back as far as he can, the other hand on the opposite side. Eyes closed tight, he turns the head. It has moved only inches when it resists, and he lets go. Behind him, Tommy Crowe insists that he just has to try harder. When he tries again, something gives, and now the goat’s head is back to front. He turns again, his hands now oily with blood, and at last there is a sound like a pop. Stumbling back, he crashes into the dirt. When he opens his eyes, the goat is staring back, a disembodied head bouncing in his lap like a baby boy. Next, the legs have to be broken. This, Tommy explains, will make it much easier to whip off his skin. Each leg needs a good old yank, but when Jon takes one of the forelegs, dangling close to the ground, he can barely get a good grip. There’s a trick to this, Tommy Crowe explains. All you have to do is twist at the same time as you snap. In this way, the bone shatters inside. Legs, he explains, really aren’t so difficult at all. ‘You ever had a broken bone, Jack the lad?’ Jon shakes his head, hands still clasped around the two ragged ends of the leg he has ruined. ‘You will,’ mutters Tommy. ‘It hurts like hell.’ Under Tommy’s instruction, Jon is supposed to slice up the goat’s tummy, from its star-shaped backside to the great gash in its neck, but the hide is thick and it is all he can do to force the blade in. If Tommy Crowe were doing it, he says, he could have the skin off a goat like this in ten seconds flat – but every time Jon tries to draw the blade up, it sticks on fat and flesh. First, he has the knife in too deep; then, not deep enough, so that it rips out and Jon staggers, catching his own arm with the tip of the knife. Now, his own blood mingles with the goat’s, but Tommy tells him not to worry. ‘It takes some practice, Jack the lad. Once you’ve killed a dozen of these bastards, you’ll be able to skin anything. A cow, a kangaroo, Judah Reed himself …’ Even with Tommy Crowe’s help, it takes an age to wrestle the skin off. Now, it is naked, glistening white and red. The first thing Jon must do is collect up the guts. This is easy enough, because they slide out straight away. All it takes is the right incision – but when Jon sinks the blade in, a smell like shit erupts, and he staggers back. Coarse brown muck pumps from the hole he has made, and Tommy Crowe rushes to finish the job. ‘That’ll happen if you’re not careful,’ he says, wiping his hands of the thick slurry. ‘You put that knife straight in its shit sack.’ Jon tries to wipe his hands clean up and down his thighs, but all it does is make a dark brown mess, massaging it deeper into his palms. ‘Look,’ says Tommy. ‘I’ll cut you a deal. If I get this bladder out, you do the rest. If this goat pisses all over itself, he’ll be ruined.’ He stops. ‘Shall I tell you what pissed-on goat tastes like, Jon Heather?’ Tommy is a deft hand, and Jon watches as the guts cascade out of the carcass and flop into another pail. Some of it, Tommy says, can be saved for offal, but some of it can be fed back to the other goats. As he sets to sorting out the delicacies from the rubbish, he throws out instructions at Jon. First, the goat can come down from its hook, onto a stone slab at the dairy wall. Once in place, Jon can start hacking up pieces of flesh. This, Tommy Crowe explains, is the fun part. Each leg comes off easily enough, but you can carve up the back and neck almost any way you can think of – ‘use some imagination, Jon Heather!’ – and grind it down for sausage and stew. For the longest time, Jon stands over the splayed-out carcass, trying to imagine it the way it was: head and legs, fur and face. A few strokes of the knife, he realizes, and it isn’t even a goat anymore. He stands frozen, willing the blood back from the bucket, willing the guts to writhe up like charmed snakes and dance back into the body. ‘Here,’ says Tommy Crowe. ‘I’ll finish it. Honestly, Jack the lad, I had you pegged for stronger stuff.’ ‘How many goats have you killed, Tommy?’ Tommy Crowe shrugs, severing a big haunch of meat and raising it aloft. ‘They don’t call me goat killer for nothing!’ ‘What about … back home?’ For the first time, Tommy Crowe blanches. ‘Not back then, Jon. It was Judah Reed himself showed me to kill a goat.’ By the time they are finished, dusk is thickening. Tommy rinses his hands in one of the goat troughs and, wiping them dry on his legs, steps back. ‘I’ll take these slabs down for salting and stewing,’ he says, hoisting up the wheelbarrow into which the remnants of the goat have been piled. ‘You happy enough cleaning out here? Them flies get everywhere if you don’t …’ Absently, Jon nods. As he watches Tommy go, he stands up. Even if he does not look, he can see the gore in the corner of his eyes, all up his arms and splattered across his shirt. In places it is already dry, caked with coarse sand, and he hurries to the trough in which Tommy washed. The water in the stones is milky and red but, even so, he drops to his knees and plunges his arms in. In the swirling water, flecks of flesh start to bob to the surface so that, every time he draws his arms out, another shred of dead goat is clinging to him. Worse still, the redness has seeped into his skin. Now he looks like George did aboard the HMS Othello, his hands and arms marbled, as if by a birthmark, deep lines of red in the crevices of his knuckles and the folds of his palm. Jon rips his shirt off, balls it up to hide the gore inside, and tries to use it as a washcloth – but it is no use; his skin has changed colour inches deep. Jon is still sitting there, watching the shadows lengthen over the untilled field, the darkness solidifying in the shadow wood beyond, when gangs of little ones stream past, arms heaped high with kindling from their daily muster. At the end of the procession, dragging his bundle behind him on a length of orange twine, there comes Ernest. Today, he has red sand caked up one side of his face, as if he has been lying in the dirt. Jon finds himself hiding his red hands underneath his bottom, but it only makes him more conspicuous. When he is almost past, Ernest looks up and, leaving the other little ones to march on, wanders up. ‘Jon?’ Jon Heather gives a little shake of his head. ‘What are you doing here? It’s almost time for the bell …’ ‘I want to find the fences,’ Jon croaks. He had not known it, but he is close to tears. ‘There were no fences …’ Ernest whispers, throwing a look over each shoulder. ‘There have to be,’ Jon says. Anything else is too difficult to believe. There have to be walls. There have to be gates. There have to be locks and chains, just like at the Home in Leeds. If there aren’t, he thinks, this isn’t a prison at all. This is just real life. And you can’t escape from real life – not until, like that billy goat gruff, you’re stretched out on a stone with your insides taken out. ‘We just didn’t see. We didn’t go far enough. There has to be something … somewhere …’ Ernest lets his length of twine fall through his fingers and slumps down, using his bundle as a seat. Yet, he does not have time to sit long. Suddenly, Jon Heather is standing. Then, he is over the fence and into the untilled field. ‘There might be another rabbit,’ he says. ‘We can …’ He is going to say catch it, but then he remembers the blood on his hands, and checks himself. ‘… watch it,’ he finally says. ‘To see where he lives.’ There are no men in black by the dairy tonight, and it is a simple thing to climb up, over the red bank, and disappear into upturned trees and walls of thorn. He wonders what it might be like under those branches, how far a boy might have to go until he is in the woodland and not in the Mission. There is, he knows, only one way to find out. The first step, and he feels warm red sand in between his toes. The second, and he is between two trees. He realizes that he is creeping, as if sneaking up on the lodge of Judah Reed himself, and when he takes his next steps his chest swells out. They are only a stone’s throw from the fringe of the scrub, but when he looks back half of the dairy is obscured by upturned Christmas trees. He does not look back again until they reach the bushes where they last stumbled to a halt. He rests back, in the palm of one of the eucalyptus trees. It hardly seems to matter, anymore, whether they push further or not. They might be anywhere in the world. ‘Do you want to go back?’ he asks. Ernest shrugs. ‘Do you?’ Jon Heather says, ‘I just want to see the fences. They’ll be at the edge of the wood.’ He takes off. Bolder now, he begins to run. Behind him, Ernest is still – but, moments later, he too begins to fly, whooping as he dodges an outgrowth of low boughs. The trees are sparse and, for a time, grow sparser, so that soon they can see the sky darkening above, stars beginning to twinkle in the endless expanse. Then, at once, the trees disappear. Ahead of them, nothing but undulating redness. ‘No fence,’ whispers Ernest. There is fear in his voice, but there is awe too. They are looking at something beautiful yet terrible, evil and alive. Jon Heather stutters to a stop. The sun must have disappeared suddenly, while they were in the shadow wood, for not even its red fingers touch the horizon. ‘It can’t be far,’ he trembles. They bound across a world of low bushes and branches, unworldly things that seem to have been pruned into spidery shapes by a malevolent gardener. The sky is vast above them and the world is vast around. Finally, a stitch in his side, he stops. Ernest catches him up, and then drifts on. ‘Maybe we missed it.’ ‘We can’t have,’ says Jon. ‘We might have come through a gate. One they left open …’ The stitch in Jon’s side is severe. He presses his hands to it and crouches down. Ernest must be mistaken, either that or a fool. The men in black would never leave a gate wide open for any old boy to wander through. In Leeds, there were big black bars, with latches and locks and chains, all encased in ice. ‘Maybe it’s this way,’ says Ernest. He wanders on a few steps, and then a few more. As his footsteps fade, Jon looks behind. Though he can still see the border of the shadow wood, he cannot see beyond. Perhaps the wood itself is supposed to be the fence that should be keeping them in. In the summer, its walls will close and its traps will be sprung, but in the winter, the cracks appear and a boy might slip out. His eyes are lingering on the shadow wood when he hears Ernest cry out. To his later shame, he freezes, cannot even turn around. ‘Come on, boy,’ begins a deep, throaty voice, one Jon does not know. ‘You’ve come far enough.’ ‘I …’ It is Ernest, floundering for words. Jon Heather sinks into the dust, feels something scuttle over the tips of his fingers. ‘Let’s be having you, boy. It’s almost dark.’ The man’s voice seems to soften. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll tell him you were out before dark. It’s worse if you’re caught after.’ Now there are footsteps again. Jon scrabbles sideways, desperate not to be in their path. ‘I’m sorry,’ Ernest begins, somewhere in the gloom. ‘I wanted to … see the fences.’ They are almost upon Jon now. He crouches, listens for a footfall, and darts forward. In that way, a few yards at the time, he tracks back towards the Mission. The shadow wood is fading in front of him, swallowed up by the gathering night. ‘I promise I …’ Ernest, Jon hears, has started to cry. ‘Save the tears, boy. It isn’t so bad. I could have left you out here, after all. It’ll be over soon, and then you can be a good boy again.’ He stops, the footsteps suddenly still. ‘But I can’t listen to your blubbering, boy.’ His voice hardens, yet it is barely a whisper. ‘So stop your crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.’ Jon cannot bear to hear Ernest swallowing his tears, so he hurtles forward. He takes huge strides, desperate not to be heard, leaping over the plain until the scrub starts to thicken around him. He is almost at the edge of the plain, the eucalypts ranged in their ragged frontier in front of him, when he feels crunching under his feet. He stumbles. At his feet, there is a little cairn of bones: scrub chicken, if he is not mistaken. They are, he sees, not very old at all. He crouches down to peel a wing bone from his heel, and sees that the ground is scuffed up around him, as if some animal has made this its nest. But animals, Jon Heather notes, even Australian animals, don’t stop to build cairns out of their kills. He might wonder about it further, but he hears them again: the man in black, and Ernest’s little voice drowned out underneath. They might be anywhere behind him; the voices seem to curl from every direction, borne on flurries of desert sand. Perhaps, he begins to think, the men in black are their own kind of fence, watching out for boys slipping through to pick them up in the nothingness beyond. He crashes back through the shadow wood. Things skitter in the trees, but he pays them no mind. He only scrambles on, overjoyed to see the orbs of the border fires burning in the Mission beyond. The darkness is almost absolute when Jon Heather crashes back into the Mission. On the opposite side of the untilled field, the dairy sits empty but for the goats milling within. Further on, the first wave of boys is already emerging from the dining hall, bellies full of gristly goat. Jon hangs at a distance and sees George among them, hands shoved in pockets, head tucked into his chin. He wants to call out, run over and fling his arms around the fat boy, but instead he looks over his shoulder. Other figures have emerged from the shadow wood now: the man in black, with Ernest propelled in front of him. If Ernest has been crying, Jon cannot see. He waits until they pass, and then waits longer. He does not have to follow to know where they are going, but he follows all the same. Soon he is standing at the centre of the Mission, where the column of sandstone huts marks a big cross. The man in black takes Ernest through a door, and then they are gone. ‘Jon Heather, you missed dinner!’ Jon turns to see George gambolling towards him. ‘Well?’ ‘Well what?’ ‘Well, why did you miss your dinner?’ Jon wants to tell him. There’s nothing out there, George. There’s only more nothing, as far as the eye can see – nothing in the north and nothing in the south and nothing in the east and nothing in the west. That’s why they brought us here – a nothing place for nothing people. He wants to say all of this, but he cannot. He could never describe the yawning terror of standing there, knowing that, even if you ran and ran, you wouldn’t get any further away. There isn’t a boy who would believe it if he didn’t see it for himself. ‘What happened to your hands?’ George suddenly asks. Jon looks down. It still looks as if he is wearing scarlet gloves. ‘It’s nothing, Georgie. I was working.’ ‘It’s nearly bedtime, you know …’ Jon feels his feet rooted to the spot. ‘I’ll be along, George. I’ll catch you up.’ George folds his arms. ‘What are you up to?’ ‘It’s …’ Jon turns, feigns a big smile. ‘I didn’t finish my work,’ he lies. ‘They say I can’t go to bed until it’s done, or I’ll have to go for Judah Reed.’ George’s lips curl. ‘Rotten old Judah Reed,’ he whispers, conspiratorially. ‘Can’t I help?’ Eventually, George is convinced and scurries for the shelter of their dormitory. It would not do, he knows, to be caught out after dark, not with cottage mothers and men in black drifting around, looking for lurkers. Now that he is alone, Jon is suddenly afraid. He hears, dimly, one of the cottage mothers rounding up little ones as if they are stray chickens, clucking after them as she forces them up into their shacks. They will come for him soon enough, demanding to know why he has not also retired. If he was missed at dinner, somebody will know; somebody will ask questions, and he doesn’t know what he’ll say. Once silence has settled over the Mission, he hears the faint sound for which his ears have been straining. He drops to his haunches, eyes fixed on the sandstone door, and tracks along the wall, trying to discern the exact spot from which the noises come. Somewhere, in there, a boy is crying. It is, Jon Heather knows with a terrifying certainty, Ernest who is making those sounds. The noise comes in fits and starts. Ernest bleats out, and then there is silence; Ernest screams that he is sorry, and then he is still. Every time Jon thinks it is over, it comes again, and soon he begins to notice a pattern in the sound, a rhythm, as if Judah Reed is a conductor and Ernest his orchestra. Then, without warning, the sounds just stop. Jon listens out for them, realizes that he desperately wants to hear. As long as Ernest is crying, at least he knows Ernest is still alive. Yet now there is only silence: dull and absolute. Suddenly, the door twitches and opens. Jon springs to his heels, ready to dart into the stretching shadows, but he is too late. Ernest appears before him, the man in black hovering above. Judah Reed has a hand on each of the little boy’s shoulders, and he ruffles his hair as he sends him on his way. ‘You’ll be a good boy,’ he says, gently leading Ernest down the step and onto the bare earth. ‘Good boys make good men.’ Ernest walks forward, stiff and deliberate. His head is down, but still he seems to see Jon staring. Now, his steps grow longer. He is, Jon understands, trying to run, but something is stopping him. Dumbly, Jon watches him go. When Jon looks back, Judah Reed has come closer, to fix him with a curious gaze. If you were clever, Jon Heather, you would run yourself. If you were as clever as you think you are, you might have hidden in the shadow wood while the man in black escorted Ernest back into the Mission – and then, safe in the knowledge that the lookout was gone, you could have carried on running into the big bleak nowhere. Judah Reed looks down at him, along the line of his crooked nose. ‘Let me see your hands,’ he says. Jon could not resist, even if he wanted to. A force he does not know compels him to stand up, and he finds his hands coming out of his pockets, his fists unfurling to reveal those blood-red palms. Judah Reed crouches and takes Jon’s hands, one at a time, in his own. It seems as if they are both wearing gloves: Judah Reed’s, monstrous and leathery; Jon’s, tiny and red. ‘It was a very good goat,’ says Judah Reed. A smile blossoms on his face. ‘You did a very good job. You fed the whole Mission. I hope you are proud.’ He pauses. ‘Are you proud, boy?’ There is a look in Judah Reed’s eyes like fire, a look that tells Jon: there is only one answer to this question. Being ashamed, he sees, is not an option. So he nods, because nodding is all he can do. ‘Some of the boys in this Mission could learn a thing or two from you. Australia will be grateful that you came.’ ‘It won’t come off,’ blurts out Jon. His inside crawls, for surely he should be petrified, surely he should want to take flight – but, strangely, he finds that he wants to be here. It is the most peculiar sensation. There are a thousand things he wants to ask. It is, he realizes, only Judah Reed who really knows the way across the big bad nowhere and back to England. ‘I scrubbed and scrubbed but it wouldn’t come off.’ Judah Reed says, ‘It never does,’ and, smiling, returns through the sandstone door. VI Two days later, Judah Reed leads them in a Sunday service and, afterwards, they are permitted to write letters. In the assembly hall, Jon finds a seat at a long trestle table, and begins to dream of an opening sentence. At the far end, one of the cottage mothers looming on his shoulder, George wriggles onto his stool and stares, puzzled, at his paper. Jon throws a look around the room and sees, for the first time, that none of the older boys of the Mission have come. He wonders why they do not care about writing to their mothers – and then he feels George’s sticky hand on his shoulder. The little boy is standing beside him, stubby pencil in his fist. ‘You’ll have to sit down, George. If one of them sees …’ ‘What can I write, Jon?’ Jon shuffles over, offering George half of his stool. Eagerly, George flops down, almost upending Jon. ‘Will I write to the Home, do you think?’ he wonders. ‘Or Peter?’ He stops. ‘Where would I write to Peter, do you think?’ Jon looks into George’s expectant eyes, recalls vividly that morning in the Home when George was crying behind the chantry. ‘You can write to my mother, if you like.’ Jon lifts the pencil out of George’s fingers and pushes it back in, the right way round. ‘What will I say?’ ‘I don’t know, George. It’s your letter.’ ‘Can I have a look at yours?’ Quickly, Jon wraps his arm around the page. Isn’t it enough that he’s sharing his stool and his mother, without George having to share every single word? Bewildered, George mirrors the action around his own page. ‘I might tell her about being a sailor,’ he decides, and promptly breaks the point of his pencil. While George is scratching away, Jon ponders every word. This letter has to be perfect. The perfect line could send his sisters scurrying halfway across the world. He sketches sentences lightly, using only the very tip of his pencil, and when it does not sound right he starts again, pressing harder this time to disguise what went before. He wonders if he should tell her he is well. He wants to tell her – but perhaps she might think he is better where he is, and not come for him at all. He wonders if he should tell her how terribly they live, how there is no food but the food they forage and butcher, how Judah Reed might appear at any moment to take boys into his study for a beating – but he does not want to upset her; she does not deserve that. At last, Jon decides that he will tell the truth, without any fancy. His mother will surely appreciate that. He writes each letter perfectly, just the way she always liked. Dear Mother, There has been a dreadful mistake, and I am in Australia. I know you did not mean this for me, because you love me, but the men from the Children’s Crusade say we have to be Australian boys. I promise, mother, I am forever your English son. I know home is hard and there is not money until my father comes home. I promise I will help. I’ll be eleven soon, and then I can find work, in a shop or on a bike. Or I can come and clean houses with you. I wouldn’t be a nuisance. I don’t need Christmases and I don’t need birthdays and I don’t even need a Sunday dinner. I’ll have bread and gravy. I’m sorry I made it so you had to give me away. But anything bad I’ve done or anything bad I’ve said, I haven’t meant a thing. I want to be good for you. I love you and I love my sisters, and I’d love you wherever we lived, even if we never go back to the old house. I’ll be your best boy, if only you come and take me back. I’ll get you anything you want – and, mother, if I haven’t got it, why, I’ll go for and get it. I am your son who loves you, Jon (Heather) It fills one side of the paper and, rearing back, Jon is tremendously proud. He suddenly thinks of what Peter might have said if he had seen such a display, and inwardly he cringes. This is nothing of Peter’s business. Peter is gone, and Jon can think whatever he wants. He glances at George, who has made a mess of one side of his paper and started again on the reverse. His displays are big and crude, but he has made more words than Jon thought possible. You will be ever pleased to know Jonn looks after me like my one brother. Its not the same as peter but he is in deed a very good boy. He promises I can live with you when we are to get back in England Jon wants to rip the paper away – and perhaps George senses it, for he shifts his body around and the words are gone from sight. It is better this way. Let him think whatever he wants – but there will not be room for him at the old house. Some of the boys have finished their displays and, sealing them diligently, hand them to the cottage mother sitting at the front of the hall. On the other side of the hall, Jon spies Ernest, creasing his page and carefully displaying an address on front. ‘I’ll catch you up, Georgie …’ Jon sees Ernest almost at the cottage mother’s desk, and scurries around the long table to catch up. Ernest seems eager to avoid him, for he is almost at the door by the time Jon’s hand lands on his shoulder. ‘I’m …’ Jon does not know what to say. ‘… sorry,’ he whispers. ‘I didn’t …’ All his words have failed him. He does not know what to say sorry for, but for some reason he can picture himself with a stick in his hand, beating Ernest over and over. ‘I just got scared.’ Ernest shrugs. ‘I didn’t tell, you know. They were sure they’d seen me with another boy, but I said I was on my own.’ Jon nods, dumbly. ‘Did it … hurt?’ he finds himself asking. ‘He had a hockey stick.’ A curious sensation spreads, like warmth, across Jon’s stomach, up his chest and down his arms, as if he has too much energy, as if he should jump up and sprint in circles. He remembers Judah Reed telling him he ought to be proud, and realizes what the feeling is: guilt, not for letting Ernest be beaten, but for something else. They stand, neither one really looking at the other, complicit in some secret. ‘You write to your mother too?’ Jon begins. ‘Every month, ever since I came.’ Jon cannot bear to ask how long that has been. Nor can he bear to ask the question that floats in the air between them, daring to be voiced. If Ernest has been here for years, if he has written a display diligently each month, why, then, is he still here? ‘What did you tell her?’ ‘I told her about the fences.’ Ernest tucks his head down, shuffling away as if embarrassed by what he is about to say. ‘I told her she can come and get me almost any time she wants – ’cause if there’s nothing keeping us in, there’s nothing keeping her out.’ They walk together out of the assembly hall. Sundays are supposed to be spare days, no work and no worry, but it doesn’t feel that way to Jon. Boys are gathering with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Some of them, it seems, have already found a way to cause mischief, and a strident cottage mother is hauling them by their ears to a waiting man in black, a creature much older than Judah Reed, with hands wrinkled like oversized gloves and a deep stoop that makes him look like a tortoise. Ernest comes close, breathing out words Jon cannot hear. ‘What?’ asks Jon, tilting his ear. ‘I saw a road,’ whispers Ernest. ‘When he got hold of me to march me back, I looked up …’ He pauses. This, it seems, is much more magical than a world without fences. ‘It had a bank on both sides and … there it was. Like a river without any rain.’ His face dares a smile. ‘Tyre marks in the dust. There was a glass bottle on the edge, like someone just threw it there.’ ‘There’s somebody out there …’ ‘I saw it. They can’t stop me having seen it.’ Jon Heather stops. He looks at his hands, no longer bloody, except where the blood has worked into the crevices around his nails. ‘Where?’ ‘Into the sun,’ says Ernest. ‘We should have been running into the sun.’ That night, sleep will not come. Jon imagines his display, winging its way to England. Over glittering oceans it goes, through tropical monsoons, around the cape of India, taking up with a flock of migrating birds who will keep it company all the way back to English shores. It is night when it arrives in the old town, but it roosts with those same birds in the gutters of one of the old terraces, diving down to find his mother as soon as morning comes. She will hold that display dear to her. Jon knows it. Perhaps she will write a display of her own – but it will only be her emissary. She will be following soon after. If he wasn’t so certain of the fact, perhaps he might be dreaming differently tonight. He pictures coming through the scrub again, the lone wallaby skittering out of his path, and seeing nothing but the bush rolling on. The world had never seemed so huge as it did then. His mind’s eye rolls on, and he sees Ernest, dangling from the arm of a man in black, the pair of them silhouettes against the dying light. Beyond them, Jon can see nothing but the undulating red plain – but Ernest can see more. Somewhere, out there, there is a road. He closes his eyes, ignores George’s pleas for a story, and pictures it snaking back to the sea. A road can lead you anywhere. A road can even lead you back home. ‘Jon Heather, you lazy sack! We’re going to be in trouble!’ Jon wakes, to feel fingers grappling with his foot, trying to haul him out of bed. There is a moment in which he might be anywhere in the world, but then he remembers. Fear grips him and he rolls over – and it is only then that he realizes it is George, not some haughty cottage mother, urging him to rise. ‘You were talking in your sleep,’ George says, indignant. ‘What did I say?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘You must have heard something.’ ‘We’re going to be late!’ Jon blinks the sleep out of his eyes, bewildered that he might have slept so soundly, and looks around the dormitory. All of the other boys are gone. ‘You shouldn’t have waited for me, George. Now you’ll be for it too …’ ‘I can’t go out on my own, Jon Heather, you know I can’t.’ They are fortunate, this morning, that their cottage mother is not feeling particularly vicious. When they emerge, blinking into the sun, she is drinking tea from a dainty cup, and simply waves them on with a withering gaze. All the same, Jon knows, she won’t forget it. They’ll have to be doubly careful for the next few days. In the breakfast hall, Judah Reed is taking a register. He does not have a roll call of names, so instead barks out ages, and every boy of that age must then go to a certain corner of the room. Then he begins to count. ‘Remember,’ George whispers. ‘I’m ten too.’ ‘Is there,’ Judah Reed proclaims, ‘a boy named Peter here?’ George’s eyes light up. His head swivels, like an owl’s, to find Jon’s. Across the room, nobody raises their hand. ‘Does he mean our Peter?’ Judah Reed must hear, for his gaze falls on George and hovers like a hawk. ‘Shut up, George.’ ‘David?’ Judah Reed calls. This time, a little one raises his hand, but Judah Reed quickly dismisses him as too young. ‘Must have gone to the stations,’ Jon hears Judah Reed mutter. ‘Do we have the right number?’ The cottage mother beside him nods. ‘Very well.’ Once the head-count is complete, Judah Reed rings a hand bell and breakfast begins. Jon watches as he shares whispered words with two other men in black, and a particularly serpentine cottage mother. They sit together at the head of the hall, and two girls from somewhere else in the Mission bring them a tin tray piled high with bacon, eggs, and a jug filled with orange juice. ‘I was number one,’ says George, considering the bowl of dry hash he has collected. ‘Don’t you think …’ Jon’s thoughts are too fast for his words to keep up. ‘There isn’t even a list.’ ‘So?’ ‘The boy in the dairy, he reckoned Judah Reed doesn’t even know his name …’ ‘I don’t think he knows mine.’ Jon Heather thinks: better keep it that way, George. ‘Eat up,’ he says, remembering, dimly, that first morning in the Home, the fat boy with porridge pumping out of his ears. George pokes some of the food into his gullet, but the taste is horrific; it must be the scrapings from the bottom of a pot. After a few attempts, he perfects a way of poking it to the back of his throat, so that he barely tastes a thing, but by that point the hand bell is clanging. ‘Dairy for me today,’ says George. ‘I’m going to sneak a suck of milk.’ Jon should have thought of that. ‘Tell Tommy I said …’ Jon falters. ‘Hey, George,’ he says, as they traipse after the other boys into the morning light. ‘You do what Tommy tells you, OK?’ ‘You don’t need to badger me, Jon Heather. You’re not Peter, you know.’ After they have parted ways, Jon joins a rag of other boys outside the sandstone huts. There are boys of all ages here, only the very youngest spared and sent off for village muster, and Jon finds a spot to stand among them, not too close to the front and not too close to the back. ‘What is it today?’ asks a little one next to him. Jon Heather only shrugs. They seem to stand there, in a useless clot, for an age. The coolness of morning evaporates, to be replaced with a dull, insistent heat. Finally, Judah Reed and another man in black appear from the dormitory shacks. They have, Jon knows, been carrying out inspections, making mental notes of which boys have failed to make their beds, or which boys have sneaked banned treats and trinkets under their mattresses. Once, a boy was found to have been saving chunks from his evening stew to have as a midnight supper. He had to make a trip to Judah Reed’s office and wasn’t allowed dinner for five nights straight, in order to teach him a lesson. Judah Reed approaches and the boys part to let him through. Without looking back, he makes a simple gesture and, snatching a shovel from its prop against the wall, begins to march. As one, the boys follow. Jon tries to catch the eyes of a bigger boy beside him, giving him a questioning look – does anybody Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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