18 Mulberry Road
Magic Parcel: The Awakening
There was once a boy, a little boy by the name of Jimmy; Jimmy Scoggins to be exact. He lived with his mother and his older brother, Tommy, in a mid-terrace house in an ordinary town in England. They never considered they were anything other than straightforward, regular and the most usual sorts of people.
Although Jimmy was only nine, he was quite a bright little boy for his age. His favourite things of all time were weekends, holidays, and anything which meant he didn't have to go to school. This particular morning, he had to be up early because there was something he badly wanted to do ...
“Jimmy! Jimmy!” yelled Mrs Scoggins in her usual high-pitched, drawn-out wail. “It’s half past seven! Time to get up! Jimmeee!”
It’s funny how first thing, when you’ve woken out of a lovely warm dream of that eternal holiday from school, ready to get up for that special visit you’ve been looking forward to for ages, you decide you don’t really want to get up after all. Doesn’t that warm blankety feeling make you just wish everyone else would go away?
“I’ll just roll over and pretend I didn’t hear,” thought Jimmy in that semi-drowsy state he called waking up. Why on earth had he wanted to get up anyway? What was so special about this particular day?
The thought rang suddenly in his half-empty brain. Covers shot back and he leaped out of his bed - well, crawled anyway - ready for the day. He should have known straight away it was Saturday. There was always a different feel about the morning when it was Saturday, particularly the first Saturday of a holiday. This was always the day he went to see ...
“Uncle Reuben! Why didn’t you think of it sooner, idiot,” he muttered under his breath, tapping the side of his head with his forefinger; and what’s more there was ... “No school! Yippee!”
He hated school even more than cabbage and castor oil - yuck! How he hated school! ‘Empty head’ is what his class teacher always called him. ‘Thoughts in the clouds’ he usually said, did Mr Bolam. He was all right really, Mr Bolam, Jimmy supposed, in a funny sort of a way. Would have been much better if he hadn’t been a teacher, though. Rum lot, those teachers. Always telling you what to do; things they wouldn’t dream of doing themselves. Good for you; good for discipline, they always said. Jimmy didn’t not believe what they said, he just didn’t ever listen. Didn’t have the time; he was too busy thinking of his next visit to his ...
“... Uncle Reuben!” he shouted more clearly as he pulled on his trousers. “Must hurry; can’t be late for my bus ...”. Besides, it was breakfast time, and the smell of bacon frying downstairs was beginning to make him realise his stomach was empty and was crying out to be filled.
“Back upstairs,” his mum ordered, as he bowled through the kitchen door in his futile attempt to stop himself catapulting into her, as she barred the way in, “and put your clean shirt on.”
He knew his “Aw, mum!” in complaint wouldn’t cut any ice, but he had to try anyway as he turned on his heels and trudged grudgingly back to his room. Her “and brushed teeth and hair wouldn’t go amiss either”, he caught as the topmost step felt his lead foot in its haste to reduce what could become a major hazard to his achieving his goal of hurrying breakfast.
“Not much longer to go now, mum,” he mumbled at last through two large bulging bags at the sides of his face he called cheeks. He could hardly speak, his mouth was so full in a desperate attempt to polish off his breakfast in time to catch his bus. Getting up from the table, he stuffed another bridge roll into his groaning cheek sacks - surely they would burst if much more was pushed in. Leaving half his breakfast on his plate for the cat, he made a dash for the door.
“Sit down!” she frowned as he attempted to whiz past her left ear on his way out. “You will finish your bacon!”
Jimmy was stopped in his tracks by her commanding voice, and a swift arm-lock applied as his flailing limbs spun past her head. There she goes again, bossing him about as usual. Couldn’t he decide when he had had enough?
“... for your own good,” she always nattered. “... ought to do as you are told ... be getting into bother one of these days with not listening ...”, she always droned
on. He didn’t really listen much anyway. Mothers always fussed ... didn’t they?
“Oh, mum,” complained Jimmy. “Can’t I just ...? I’ll miss my bus! Please, mum!”
“Just a little more then, dear,” she said quietly, her head drooping slightly to form that stern double chin of finality he knew so well. There was no further use in arguing; that, most definitely, was that. He sat down and began to eat again with as much decent haste as he could, making sure not to stuff too much in at once, or else she would keep him all the more.
“OK,” she said quietly again, “that’ll do. Off you go now, and don’t ...”
She wasn’t given the time to finish. He was through into the hallway in a flash, coat and scarf flying behind in his slipstream as he reached the open gate. She smiled slightly and shook her head in that knowing way all mothers have, and to herself she wished him a good time.
Shooting a quick glance to his right as he skidded onto the pavement, he saw the great blue double-decker chugging along the road just a couple of stops lower down. It would be a close run race as to who or what would reach the stop first - bus or boy.
“Gosh,” he panted in full stride, glancing over his flapping scarf; “must ... get ... there! Oh no! I’m going to miss ...”
The stop was in sight and he made a last despairing lunge as the bus’s bell clanged permission for it to set off, passengers on board. A hand’s distance ... not quite ... and then as he was about to miss the darned thing, two great hairy hands appeared from nowhere. Grabbing a hand and the flapping hood of his anorak, the anonymous hands hauled Jimmy towards the platform. Two sensations he felt; one of powered flight, and the other of being almost strangled by his own coat.
Once safely on board, he looked around to find an enormous conductor, who was grinning a great toothless welcome to his number 59.
“Nice of you to drop in,” he grinned, bowing low. “Please take a seat. Best views on top. Wipe your feet before you tread on our newly-laid carpet.”
Jimmy mumbled his gratitude and slowly wound his way up the spiral stairway to the upper deck. The bus was one of those ancient carriers which had so obviously been brought out of retirement to fill in for a younger, sprightlier relative which had broken down. It was so old, even the bell wasn’t guaranteed to work every time, and even if it did, it was just as likely to ring five minutes after the knob had been pressed, or not at all.
Jimmy shuffled along the side gangway on the top deck between the window and banks of worn bench seats, trying to find somewhere to sit. The big, square, fat or squat frames of the Saturday morning shift at the local foundry works filled the bus, row upon row of silent, unresponsive, reluctant bodies, being taken from the warmth of their weekend laziness.
He managed eventually to squeeze himself into a small space between a fat pair of greasy overalls and a long, thin blue boiler suit, on the front-most seat of the deck, giving him a wonderful view all around. From this seat, which was Jimmy’s favourite of all, you could be absolutely anything; airline pilot, for example, though he didn’t think it would be as cramped as this for space ...
“Attention please, this is your captain Jimmy Scoggins calling. I hope you have had a pleasant journey with us. Touch down in will be in ...”.
What if an engine caught fire? He could bring her in to land on only one, and be the hero of the day, saving all on board.
Or ... or ... spaceship captain!
“Hello base. Hello base. WIJS calling. Cruising along just below cloud base. No sign of life on this planet as yet, but some strange markings and what appears to be buildings just ahead. Making for them now ...”
And ... and ...
“Tumbles Row; next stop terminus,” the harsh voice cut roughly through his inter-galactic adventure, jerking him back to the top deck again. His stop! He hadn’t noticed the other sardines on this deck, squeeze out of the can the stop before. He had to hurry along the gangway, down to the platform and out onto the pavement before the bus got up too much speed. On the roadside, panting slightly from his exertions, he gathered his bearings. He set off in the direction of his Uncle Reuben’s house, only a five minute walk from the stop.
The houses, in the main, had been built between fifty and a hundred years earlier, in their terraced and semi-detached splendour, with long gardens running and tumbling down to neatly trimmed and shaped privet hedges by the path. To Jimmy, they all looked the same, but there was an individuality about each one. If only because of the paintwork outside, each was entirely different from all the others. Immaculate in their appearance and proudly maintained by their owners, they all displayed their best characteristics in the early morning sunshine.
Now, his Uncle Reuben’s house was different, and rather special. At the end of one of those late Victorian terraces, it stood in a wonderful position in relation to the others in its row. Set in large gardens to three sides, with a strong, high fence all around, the house and gardens enjoyed complete seclusion and privacy from outside eyes. To the outsider, it was just another old house and garden, but to Jimmy it was heaven and paradise rolled into one. It was one of those few special places Jimmy could have found with his eyes shut, for whenever he was near to it, he had a funny tingling sensation run through and around his body. It was as if he had walked through a very mild electric field, making the hairs on his neck stand on end; not with fear, but with anticipation. For, indeed, he didn’t quite know what to expect whenever he visited Uncle Reuben. Something different and exciting always happened.
The garden tumbled backwards and forwards over itself to provide all who entered something different according to his mind and interests. It was whatever you wanted it to be. There were so many trees and bushes, and so much dense undergrowth that the fence, apart from a few obvious places, could hardly be seen at all. You felt that you weren’t even in a garden, but somewhere ... up the Amazon, or ... in the Himalayas, or ... or ... even on another planet!
Jimmy hadn’t explored it all yet. He hadn’t had the time. You see, he’d only been going to Uncle Reuben’s every Saturday since he was six, and now he was nine. There was always the odd corner he seemed to have missed, or that particular area he was sure wasn’t there the last time, or that rather interesting-looking old shed he hadn’t noticed. Always something ...
There was that tingling feeling again! He was almost there. One more corner, and ... Uncle Reuben, as always, standing on the front step (the top one of ten to be exact), thumbs under lapels, and boot caps flashing, as he smiled his welcome to his favourite nephew. In the years he had known him, Jimmy had never seen that smile leave his face. He was one of life’s optimists; he saw good in everything, and had a great deal of wisdom and ‘extra’ knowledge that other people didn’t have.
He was a funny old soul really, if you stopped to think; shortish, quite thick-set, with a great bush of black, curly hair which always stayed in the same position but never seemed orderly or to have been combed. And those horn-rimmed, half-moon spectacles he had perched permanently, like a bird ready for take-off, on the end of his nose, added a certain odd look to him; like some absent-minded professor. Absent-minded he certainly was not. Jimmy was forever puzzled how he knew so much (he always had an answer for all, absolutely all of, Jimmy’s questions), and he never seemed to forget anything you told him, no matter how long ago it was. Although he swore he could not see an inch without them, Uncle Reuben never seemed to look through those glasses, but usually over them. And those eyes - they were so sharp, bright and deep that you couldn’t imagine them ever needing glasses.
He didn’t know very much about Uncle Reuben, except that he had always been there - well, ever since his father had died when he was five. Reuben had taken over responsibility for the education and well-being of both Jimmy and his brother, Tommy, who was now thirteen. Mother had shown Jimmy photographs of his uncle from years and years ago, from long before he had been born. The funny thing about him was that he never looked any different. He had remained the same ‘age’ for the last twenty or thirty years at least; but that was impossible. Was it though? Jimmy had begun to wonder, especially since he had come to know him over the years.
“Hello Jim, old chap,” Reuben greeted his nephew as he rushed through the gate, which always closed itself, and down the path. Jim was his preferred name, not the ‘Jimmy’ his mother insisted calling him, nor the ‘James’ he so often was called at school. As with so many things, Reuben seemed to know what a you were thinking and what your wishes were. He also treated you, not as a little boy, but as an adult, an equal.
“Hello, uncle,” Jimmy replied, “sorry I’m a bit late, but the bus was slow and I nearly missed my stop.”
“That galactic mission, eh?” Reuben asked, bushy eyebrows becoming almost lost in that black mop as they slowly crept up his forehead, and eyes twinkling above the rim of his spectacles. “Any way, come on in. Coffee’s in the pot, and your favourite ice cream is on the kitchen table.”
Jimmy had stopped questioning how Reuben knew what he was thinking, and how he had discovered what his favourite ice cream flavour was for that week (he changed it so often); he now just accepted that's the way it was. He had even changed his choice of flavour on the bus that morning so only he knew his favourite; but to no avail. There it was, on the table when he got there, the flavour he had chosen! He was a marvel, that uncle was; the sort everyboy should have.
“You know that story you were telling me the last time I was here?” Jimmy mumbled through a mouthful of walnut and coffee ice-cream, his new favourite. “You know, the one about the other world - the one through the fence.”
“Yes, old man,” Reuben answered, eyes glinting over his glasses. “Yes, I do.”
“Well,” Jimmy went on. “You didn’t tell me what happened. Could we finish it today, please? I’ve tried to think of ways the Chieftain might get his country back, but I’m sure I’ve no idea.”
My, that ice cream was good. He wasn’t sure which he liked best - the ice cream or the stories. If only school was like this - he would stay there during the holidays! It was strange that the ice cream dish always stayed full until you had had enough, and only then did it empty. No, really, the stories were the best; foreign countries, other worlds, space travel, people. Reuben knew how to keep little boys interested forever.
“OK then,” Reuben grinned. “Let's go into the lounge and see where we were.”
The lounge was one of those enormously high rooms, so popular about a hundred years earlier, with a large decorated fireplace and a long, curved wooden mantle piece over the fire grate. It never changed. The décor always had that freshly-painted look; as if the decorators had only just packed away their pots, brushes and covers, and walked out the door just before he had walked in. The late morning sun stole through the slats of one fawn-coloured, half-closed shutter as they sat in front of a crackling fire in the black-leaded grate. They sat with a large glass of orange juice on their knees.
“Before we start, Uncle Reuben,” Jimmy asked, fixing his relative’s glinting half-moons, “one thing has been puzzling me since the last time.”
“Yes, old chap,” Reuben asked, “and what is that?”
“Well,” he went on, “I’ve been looking at some old photographs Mum gave me, and ... and ... why do you look the same? I mean ... why don’t you look older now?”
Reuben’s eyes wrinkled at the corners, as his brows met in the middle and threatened to cover his eyes altogether. That same smile played around his mouth which widened slightly to reveal two rows of even, white teeth.
“I’ll let you into a secret,” he confided, bending closer to Jimmy as he dropped his voice to a whisper. “A secret I’ve never told anyone else yet.”
Jimmy’s eyes widened, eager to learn anything about this remarkable man, particularly anything nobody else knew. His mouth opened slightly, and his cheeks grew vaguely pink as he almost stopped breathing in anticipation of what he might hear.
“You see,” he went on, “I’m at least three hundred and fifty years old, and I’ve been on other worlds different from this one as well.”
The light grew steadily dimmer in the room and all noise gradually faded away until all Jimmy could hear was the gentle hiss of complete silence, and all he could see was the glowing face of his uncle, not a hand’s width from his own face.
“I don’t age very quickly,” Reuben added, “so you wouldn’t tell any difference if you were to see me a hundred years from now. Yes, I shall still be here in a hundred years time. You see, I’m ...”
There was a loud bang at the front outside door which made Jimmy jump almost onto the mantelpiece. He blinked his eyes, that slow blink as waking from a long sleep and interesting dream, and found the room flooded with light again; his uncle no longer there. He waited for a few minutes and, as Reuben didn’t return, he decided to explore the garden to pass the time.
“Must have been somebody important,” he muttered as he stepped out of the scullery door into the brilliant late morning sunshine. Standing on the top step and surveying the scene before decidingwhere to go first, he noticed that the garden was an entirely different lay out from that he had seen the week before. Down towards the bottom of the long herbaceous border where there had been a great bank of thick leathery laurel bushes, there was now a wide gap, showing the sturdy fence beyond; and surely that shed ... had become much ... bigger?
Puzzled, he set off down the stone steps and climbed across the turned stone balustrade at the bottom, to strike out across the well-manicured lawn. Usually he didn’t manage to reach the end of the garden, for interesting objects often caught his eye en route, off to the left or right. This time, however, there was no distraction; no deviation.
Reaching the end of the lawn, he stepped out onto the wide gravel path which led across the border to the fence. With only two strides crunched along its noisy way, he stopped, realising that the path he now took for granted, should not have been here at all. And the space he had just walked through should have been an enormous weeping willow! The fence, however, seemed to draw him, against his will almost; tall, black, sinister, letting through no chink of light from beyond, it pulled Jimmy ever closer.
In the gloom, underneath its shadow, he peered as you would through the doorway into a dark room, trying to see more closely. Suddenly, off to his right, he caught sight of something glowing slightly, about half-way up the oak staves. He blinked and strained his eyes again trying to make out what it was.
“Funny,” he muttered, “that wasn’t there before. What is it?”
He moved closer, entering the shadow completely.
“Can’t be!” he whispered to himself, though he didn’t know why. There was no-one thereabouts to overhear him. “It’s a ... a handle!”
Sure enough, there was the faint, silvery, ghostly outline of a curved, knobbed door handle in the fence, but no door could he find.
“Who on earth would want to put a door handle in a fence?” he puzzled, half-smiling, half-nervous. “I wonder if ...”
He reached out to touch the handle, but changed his mind half-way, only to find his hand drawn, involuntarily, towards the object of his attention. The silvery, transparent outline became solid as his fist closed around its metal exterior. He found himself putting his weight against its lever in an effort to open up whatever was beyond.
The handle was fully depressed when a small door-shaped section of the fence moved slowly inward towards the waiting boy. A grey mist began to form and to creep out from beyond, flowing along the ground towards him, as a profound silence fell over all.
“Jim! Jim!” a deep clear voice, like a spring morning after a night of rain, rang out from the house, breaking the spell around him. “Lunch’s ready!”
Jimmy spun around, loosing his grasp on the latch, and caught sight of his Uncle Reuben’s unmistakable form at the bottom of the house steps. He waved, but turned once again to find that the handle was no longer there, the fence was simply a fence, and the whole area was flooded in warm sunlight the like of which he had never felt before.