I didn’t hear anyone. I had been playing with my doll, putting a new pink dress on her. It was a cheap doll and its body was hollow, not rubbery like a Barbie. They couldn’t afford expensive toys, not now daddy had lost his job. A person grabbed my arm and I threw the doll down in fright. I screamed, a long scream, the sort that should have brought attention and a flurry of help, but nothing happened. Nothing except a bird flapped its wings with annoyance from high up in a treetop and then swooped across the road.. ‘Mum’ I screamed, ‘Dad’ but neither of them answered. In fact, they seemed to have disappeared. I looked back at the grass. My doll was face down in the soil. I hadn’t managed to get the dress on properly, so folds were trapped beneath her chin, one arm stuck out at a jaunty right-angle.
The woman dragged me down the garden path, hands dug under my armpit. I yelled and screamed and kicked her hard in the knees but she didn’t let go. She slung me into a white car, strapped my body into a seatbelt. Through the window I looked at my house. My lip wobbled. Where were my parents? Did they know I was missing? Surely, I thought, they would soon notice and rush out of the house. Shoot down the steps, across the grass like a rocket. Even if they were busy – mum cooking a roast chicken or dad reading the sports section in his red-topped newspaper, wouldn’t they still realise I was gone?
I watched my house with its brown door – six little pieces of glass at the top and a gold letterbox like a Willy Wonka letter I often imagined. The door seemed to be moving and my heart spun imaging mum or dad on the doorstep, but they didn’t appear. Hot tears sat behind my eyes, but I didn’t want to cry, didn’t want to look like a baby. I could hear my heart, too, right up in my ears, bagging like a drum. I sank into the seat as the woman slid in. The car wobbled with her effort but she wasn’t fat. Tall and thin, dressed all in black. A black suit, black shirt, black shoes, a black bag, she even had black spiky hair. Her skin was white like a ghosts and her eyes were lead grey. I decided she looked like something from a nightmare and I really wished I could crawl into the boot.
‘Who are you?’
She started the car, pulled out. I pushed my face to the glass and watched my little house disappear. Soon we reached the end of the road . All I could see now was a whisper of smoke from the chimney and the side wall woven with ivy. Tears spilled from my eyes. I shut them tight. Clasped my hands together. Took gulps of air. I opened my eyes again and noticed we had made for the motorway.
‘Just for a few days.’
‘Where are my mum and dad?’ At this, the woman turned and peered over her shoulder. My mum’s eyes twinkled and sometimes I could see a tiny version of myself in them. These eyes, the eyes of this woman, looked dull and flat and the surface of them impenetrable, which is a word I learnt at school recently.
‘They are having a break you said, like a holiday.’
‘Where is my mum?’
‘Time? Like time away from me, my mummy needs time away from me?’ My breath got stuck in my chest and tears dribbled down my face and onto my dress.
I didn’t have time to think about this as we pulled up outside a big house set back off the road. Row after row of tiny windows set in old red brick. A man rushed out and opened the car door.
‘Hi, my name is Alan.’ Alan wore jeans and a black pullover, red cheeks like beetroot and a long pointy beard that waved at me in the wind. “Come now.”
He gently clasped my hand. The woman followed behind us, her shoes knocking against the pavement. We wandered through a brick arch.
‘Why do the bricks smell like apples?’
‘Haha, you have a keen sense of smell, Maria.’
‘So, why do they?’
‘I don’t really know…..look, here we are.’
He took me up a steep staircase with a wooden balustrade. It curved at the top in front of a black and white picture of some sort of laboratory. I stared at it as Alan ushered me down a long corridor that smelt of honey.
‘This is you.’ A room appeared on the left. Small, with a single bed and a wardrobe. “Come in, have a look around.”
Alan seemed especially happy, so I went in and sat on the edge of the bed. Tried not to moan.
‘Why am I here?’
‘Did Davina not say?’ I shook my head and looked around. The bed had a lumpy pillow and a thin white sheet. The wardrobe looked rickety like it might fold itself up if you opened a door. I clambered to the window and gasped. Right outside, a river sailed past the house, a right blue river with thick green trees and bushes studded all around it. Birds swooped and fluttered across the surface of the water and looped back up into the branches of the trees.
‘You like that, huh?’
‘I like birds.’ I replied, feeling a bit silly but I didn’t quite know why. ‘She said my mum needed a break.’
Alan came and sat down next to me. He patted my knee and grinned. He had big shiny teeth. ‘You are here to help us.’
‘What sort of help?’
‘The best sort.’
‘You have taken me away.’
He flapped his hand. ‘Not really.’
‘You did, you abducted me?’
‘Oh Maria, you wanted to come, you were bored playing with your dolly.’
‘I was not’
‘Look you’re here to help us, things have been hard and many people have come to our aid.’
‘People are innately altruistic.’
‘They are what?.’
‘Kind, Maria, that is what I mean to say.’
‘I’m not kind. I want to go home.’
‘Yes, well we’ll see.’
‘You can stay for dinner.’
‘And then go home?’ My dolly is on the grass, she’ll be getting wet.’
‘Always found it strange how you get attached to inanimate objects.’
‘I like dolls. I have lots. I can show you when you take me home.’
‘Okay.’ Alan stood up and waved his arm excitedly. ‘Now make yourself comfortable, check out your room and then come down for tea in ten minutes.’
When I crept back down the stairs, the smell of cabbage made me feel sick. It meshed with the smell of furniture polish, dust and sweet apples. The woman who’d kidnapped me stood waiting. She showed me into a large wood-panelled room filled with rows of long tables. At each table, in every chair, sat children, all wearing identical outfits – navy blue top, navy blue trousers, white pumps. They all looked sad. Faces raked with tears. I was shown to a seat. A man appeared with a huge round pot and spooned what looked like watery porridge onto our tin plates. Another man dished out bread rolls. Someone else filled cups with water. We ate with plastic cutlery.
After seven days had passed, Alan came up to my room. His beard looked itchy on his face and there was crumbs in it. He wore a bright red pullover today which made his face look like it needed a fire extinguisher.
‘I have come to tell you it’s time. Tomorrow you will be off.’
‘Go home?’ It had rained all day, and now it charged angrily at the window.
‘Soon, Maria, I promise.’ Alan stretched long and tall towards the ceiling as if I might be distracted by his spindly arms. I wasn’t but I noticed his skin was angry at his jumper. He said ‘Get some sleep, you inquisitive little miss, and pack any stuff in this black bag. You won’t be needing to take anything with you,’ then stalked out of the room.
I lay on the bed, listened to the rain hitting the window and thought of my mum; imagined her smile, her smell, her twinkly eyes, being folded into her arms. Feeling safe.
‘Which do you want to be?’ She looked different. She wore green clothes like a doctor in hospital and a little white mask over her face. She pointed to a board attached to the wall.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Choose one, apple, honey….?’
‘I like apples.’
‘So, you have made up your mind, brilliant.’ Alan grinned.
At that moment, someone grabbed me, threw me on a bed. Thick cuffs were round around my arms and feet. I kicked and screamed. The woman walked over and looked at me with her blank ghost-like face. I spat at her and watched spit roll down her cheek. She let it roll, didn’t even wipe it away with a tissue.
‘What’s happening?’ A hand grabbed my wrist. I looked down. The woman’s nails seemed to disappear and her fingers seemed longer than normal. They wrapped themselves around my arm like an octopuses tentacles. I opened my mouth to cry out but another of her tentacles appeared and closed my mouth. When I looked at the woman, the edges of her seemed faint and her feet hovered above the floor like a ghost.
‘I want to go home!’ I finally screamed but Alan just laughed.
‘Well now, Darling, it’s too bad, you are here to help us.’
‘I want to go home. I want my mum!’
‘Please. Please. Let me go. I won’t say anything. I can keep a secret. I know she’s a ghost ……and a fish.’
‘I thought you of all people would want to help.’
‘I don’t care. I want my mum.’
‘You will meet her again and our intergalactic economy will be all the better for it.’
‘I want my mum!’
‘A lovely apple soap it is then.’