|The Dark is Rising Sequence is by Susan Cooper and all of the named characters used here are hers, except for Doris Day, whose identity is used here in a purely fictional context. No profit is made from this story.|
"I am coming. I'll be there for Christmas."
"But why aren't you coming now? Will, it's your birthday!
Will sighed. Mary usually made a reasonably convincing adult these days, but there were occasions when the twelve-year-old in her took over.
"Look, it's just a bit difficult at the moment. I can't really get away "
"So you said, but you still haven't explained why. I don't see what difference a couple of days can possibly make."
"My dissertation "
"The semester ended last week, Will, and I know that for a fact because I phoned the university and asked them myself."
A silence crackled uncomfortably down the network of wires connecting the dingy phone booth in the corner of a North London café to the warm, bright hallway of a Buckinghamshire farmhouse. Will pictured Mary twisting the telephone cord around and around in her fingers, plump cheeks reddening with emotion, as she waited for him to acknowledge that she was right.
"It's just I'm a bit behind with everything, that's all. It's nothing serious, I've just got a bit of catching up to do."
"Well, why can't you do that here?"
"Come on, Mary, how much do you think I'm really going to get done at home, what with you and the dogs, and James, and the rabbits, and the twins, and the dogs, and you? And James? Not forgetting you and the dogs "
"Are you smiling? You are, aren't you, I can hear it."
"Yes you are!"
"I just don't want to see Mum upset, that's all "
"Mary, Mum's fine. I've spoken to her and she's fine. You know that, don't you?"
"I was going to make you a cake " There was a lingering trace of petulance there, slowly subsiding into resignation. Mary knew when she was beaten.
"I'll make it up to you, okay? Promise. Next year you can make me a cake every day for a week, and I won't complain once."
"Huh. You'll be lucky!"
Will smiled into the receiver. "I'll see you on Christmas Eve, all right?"
"Yeah, all right. Good luck with the work, then."
"Thanks. Bye, Mary."
"Bye." There was a muffled click as she hung up, and the familiar hallway, with the its line of muddy Wellington boots by the door, its slightly tarnished Victorian mirror (once belonging to Will's great grandmother) on the wall, and its tantalizing smells -- apple-wood burning in the parlour, his mother's shepherd's pie -- receded again into the background of Will's life.
He carefully replaced the receiver on its cradle, and crossed the busy little room back to his table. He was beginning to wish he hadn't chosen this place. Its faded chintziness seemed incongruous in the middle of the city, as though it had accidentally been transported here from some quiet country town, and was having some problems fitting in. The clientele consisted almost entirely of elderly women, neatly set hair rinsed a startling variety of pastel shades. A few of them had brought along tiny yapping scraps of fur, cheerfully ignoring the large 'Guide Dogs Only' sign on the door. At least, Will assumed were supposed to be dogs. Perhaps the staff had their doubts too, and that was why they were allowed to stay. At any rate, they didn't look as if they'd be capable of guiding anyone anywhere.
He sat nursing his cup of lukewarm tea, trying to stretch it out. He was ridiculously early, he knew, but it was better than being ridiculously late. He'd woken up this morning before the alarm, his mouth dry, and leapt out of bed in a panic, convinced he'd overslept. As it was, he'd ended up sitting on the bed with his coat on, counting the sprigs of roses on the ugly wallpaper until he felt he could reasonably leave the flat. The dissertation, typed up two days ago, sat neatly in the middle of his desk.
He glanced at his watch. It said exactly the same thing it had last time he'd looked: You're early. You're a fool. You could be at home by the fire, Raq and Ci thumping their tails on the hearthrug, panting a silent open-mouthed greeting. Barbara would fuss over you and tell you you're skin and bone, what are you surviving on down there in London? She'd make you little snacks, and Gwen would tell her off for spoiling your tea, and James would complain that he never got that treatment, and she'd remind him that it wasn't his birthday, and besides, he looked quite well-fed enough as it was
The little bell above the door jangled suddenly, the limp sprig of mistletoe someone had sellotaped to it bouncing about bizarrely. Will jumped, his heart thumping staccato against his ribs, but it was only another old lady. He had the weird thought that he'd accidentally stumbled onto a meeting of some secret society, whose members were all female and over sixty. The Old Lady Mafia. This one had no dog, just a little tartan trolley on wheels, which she was having some trouble manoeuvring up the step. Glad of the opportunity for action, Will bounded up from his chair and lifted the trolley up for her.
"There you go." He gave her a friendly smile. Her head shot forward and she raised a hand to her glasses, gripping them firmly as though this might somehow boost their strength. He was subjected to a stern, piercing stare for several seconds longer than was comfortable.
"Thank you," she said severely, still glaring at him with suspicion. Will felt as if she was seeing through him, into him, examining the secret places of his mind. He returned to his seat hurriedly, with the absurd feeling that he'd somehow given himself away.
The old lady sat down heavily at the table next to him and began glaring at the waitress. Obviously the glaring was something of a way of life for her. Will fiddled with his empty teacup, observing her through the gaps in his fringe. If there really was an Old Lady Mafia, he thought, she'd be the Godfather. Godmother. Godgrandmother? He shook his head and, against his better instincts, looked down at his watch again. Well, that was a good three minutes out of the way. It must be time for another cup of tea.
Not being an expert in the glaring method of ordering drinks in cafés, he made his way over to the counter. A small girl with dark hair in a pageboy cut smiled timidly at him, self-consciously tugging at the knot of her apron strings.
"Erm another tea, please."
"Anything else with that?"
"No, just the tea, thanks."
She turned away again and Will busied himself feeding the charity box on the counter with two pence pieces. It was made of clear Perspex; you put a coin into the slot at the top, and you watched it roll along a little slide that zigzagged its way down the inside of the box, past an assortment of grinning cartoon characters printed on the outside, until it landed with a satisfying chink on top of all the other spare change. He put another one in. Roll, roll, roll, chink. He rather liked the noise it made going down.
"One tea "
"Ah thanks. Sorry, I was just "
Back at the table, he changed his position so he was facing the window. Last minute Christmas shoppers hurried past, heavily wrapped up against the cold. A woman stopped to adjust the bags she was carrying, shifting one to her other side and looping the handles over her arm to leave a hand free. A small child hung from this hand, bawling at the top of its lungs and doing its level best to pull its mother over.
"I'm going to bleedin' well slap you in a minute!" She looked up and Will accidentally caught her eye. He turned his head away in a hurry, but not before she'd shot him a very dirty look indeed. Happy Christmas to you, too, he thought. When she'd gone past he looked up again, but nobody else looked his way. All the passers by passed him by; no one slowed down as they approached the teashop. Nobody stopped when they came to the door, or pushed it open, or came in. Seconds and minutes ticked by in an agony of slowness.
He looked down at his tea, steaming innocently away in the cup. It made his stomach churn to think of drinking it. He wished he hadn't bought it. He wished he hadn't come. He wanted to go home.
"Don't go anywhere."
Will leapt half a foot out of his seat, spilling his tea into the saucer. The voice was so close it sounded right next to his ear. He looked around wildly, but there was no one there. From her table, the Godgrandmother glared steadily at him, her old face angular and imposing under the fluffy white perm.
"I'm sorry, did you just say something?"
"I said, 'Don't go anywhere.'" She had a slight accent, although not one Will recognized.
"Oh." Will wasn't sure what to say to that. "Were you talking to me?"
The woman didn't answer, just glared at him. She sat motionless, holding her teacup onto the saucer with a grip of iron. She hadn't removed her coat, although it was warm in the café. The coat was a thick tartan one, and with her solid, square figure, she looked not unlike her shopping trolley.
Will's first thought was, "Poor old thing, she's not with it at all. I wonder why no one's looking after her?" His second thought, and one that came from an entirely different part of his brain, was, "She knows who I am."
"I'm not going anywhere," said Will, carefully.
The woman nodded. "Good," she said, and turned her head to glare at a hapless Pekinese owner in the far corner. The conversation appeared to be at an end. Will went back to his tea, feeling somehow disturbed and reassured at the same time.
"If you wait, he will be coming." He looked up. The old woman was still looking in the direction of the Pekinese, but the words were obviously meant for him. "He will be coming very soon, I think."
"Okay thanks." He wanted to ask her who she was, and what it meant that she was saying these things to him, but he had a strong feeling that it was unnecessary. If it mattered, he would find out in due course, and if it didn't, then it didn't.
"It is good that you will see him. Yes, this is a good thing. You want to, I think, very much. I am right, yes?"
"Yes." So much, he thought, that looking at tea makes me feel sick. So much that I'm missing my own birthday, and I'm not sorry.
She nodded again. The Pekinese, obviously fed up with the all the glaring coming its way, had begun to yap furiously from under its owner's chair.
"He will not be long now. You will see." Abruptly, the old woman let go of the cup, stood up, and walked swiftly out of the teashop, dragging the little trolley behind her. She seemed to have no trouble with the step this time. Will didn't remember seeing her pay for the tea, either, but no one else seemed to have noticed. He waited to see if she would walk by the window, but she didn't, so perhaps she'd gone the other way. There had been something very familiar about her, somehow, and yet very strange.
Faces passed on the street outside, blurring and mingling. He checked each one as it went by, but none of them had what he was looking for. His tea cooled in front of him. Someone had switched on a radio, and the voice of Doris Day floated, quiet and transistor-tinny, into the warm café air. The dark-haired girl mouthed the words of the song to herself as she punched the buttons on the cash register, "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow " Outside in the city, the air was clear and dry, the ground bare. London was too busy, too fast, too warm for snow.
The bell above the door jangled again. It was him. Will knew before he looked round, although for a second he didn't dare. Then he did and it was true and he was there, tall in the doorway, peering hesitantly into the interior, beginning to unwind a long scarf from around his neck. He was wearing a dark coat and jeans, and the white hair was cut shorter than the last time Will had seen it. He hadn't spotted Will yet. Will opened his mouth to call him over, but, mysteriously, no sound came out. He swallowed. The breath seemed to lock up in his throat, and all he could do was sit there, motionless with his cold tea, and his eyes on this person who was standing in the doorway. He was turning slowly, scanning the room; any second now he would see
His eyes were like resin and deeply strange. Will thought of frankincense, and of myrrh; the blood of trees, worth its weight in gold. Images flashed in his mind that had no business being there -- the desert, stretching red and tawny into the distance; gifts for a king; a hawk's amber gaze searching the arid landscape for signs of life.
"Will?" He had seen, he was coming, he was here. Standing in front of Will's table, a tentative, 'is it you?' expression on his pale features.
"Hello." Will felt rooted, as though he had always been here on this chair, in this café, in this city, looking up into this face, and always would be. His skin prickled and buzzed in a way that made him wonder about magnetic fields and iron filings and the laws of physics in general. Up in the heavens, planets collided in dizzy joy at the hugeness of space, suns imploded with the absolute, unassailable rightness of it all, and Doris Day sang along to the music of the spheres. A small warmth sparked somewhere deep in him and spread outward through his body, all the way to the tips of his fingers and the roots of his hair. "You're early."
Bran's smile was quick and fleeting, like lightning, or shadows on a day when the clouds race. He reached up to touch his hair in a nervous gesture, pushed the hand back down, and gripped the back of the chair opposite Will. The long scarf dangled forgotten, trailing a little on the floor. He gave a short laugh that sounded less like an expression of mirth and more like a new way of breathing.
"So are you. I mean, hello. Happy birthday. Sorry I didn't bring you anything."
Comets danced, constellations slid and folded in upon themselves like a kaleidoscope and the universe did improbable things. Doris, somewhere out in the timeless wilderness of space, was singing about her secret love and the stars were doing harmonies. The little teashop, with its greying nylon lace curtains, its plastic holly in vases on the tables, its wipe-clean floral-print tablecloths, suddenly revealed itself to be the only place in the entire universe you could possibly consider spending your birthday, the old ladies were the best old ladies, the small yappy dogs the finest, the most perfect, Crufts-winning examples of their respective breeds. It was all Everything was
"It's all right,"
said Will, and smiled.