“Mum,” said Tobey on Saturday afternoon, after practising his violin and doing his homework. “I’m going for a walk, burn off those bacon sandwiches I had for lunch, kind of thing. I’m taking my phone and a key and I’ll be back well before dark. Ok?”
His mother barely looked up from the catalogue she was examining. “I hardly think you need to burn them off but yes, I think a walk might do you good, put some colour in your cheeks. Oh, and make sure you wear your fleece; I don’t want you catching cold. Be back by six. We’re having meat loaf for dinner.”
“Yes, Mum” Tobey ran up the stairs, his clattering footsteps unnecessarily loud in his frustration at the delay. He was going to see the wood-dwellers! As he put his fleece on, he could scarcely contain his excitement. He was going to see Aramis and Cosmodius. He was going to see friends.
Leaving the room, he caught sight of a face in the corner of his eyes. He didn’t recognise it, and wheeled round sharply. Had his mother hung a picture up there without him noticing, and if so, why? She had no right to fiddle with things in his room. Then, he blinked and realised, and the realisation was like one of Aden’s punches. He had caught sight of his own face in the mirror, and not recognised it. Was it really that long since he’d smiled? Was it disloyal, to be happy, given what he’d done? Did he deserve it?
Breathing very heavily he continued to stare at his reflection, marvelling at the changes, wondering if what he’d done was written in his face for everyone to see. Perhaps that was why. It was his fault. Everything was his fault. The wood-dwellers would hate him if they knew.
“But they don’t know” he told his reflection, before turning the mirror round, thinking that if they didn’t see his guilt, neither would he.
“Ok, Mum, I’m off. See you later.”
He closed the door behind him and began to walk in the direction of the park, his excitement mounting with every step. At one point he began to run but stopped half-way down the next road, slightly disgusted with his own lack of physical fitness, and recommenced walking briskly. In a short time, the park gates were in front of him and he was crossing the densely populated area towards the empty nature garden at the other edge.
“Cosmodius? Aramis?” he called when he approached the slatted wooden path where they had met two days before. Clichéd though it sounded, it felt like a lifetime. To his surprise, he found that there was Cosmodius, dressed like a character in a Victorian period drama, watching out for him. When he drew nearer, he saw that the wood-dweller was smiling at him, an almost frightening sight with Cosmodius’s shark-like eyes and white teeth.
“Good day,” said Cosmodius, bowing politely.
“Good day, replied Tobey, equally formal and archaic. “ How are you today?”
“I fare well, thank you, and yourself? I should like to invite you into my humble abode, if you would be willing?”
“Thank you, it’s very kind of you.” Tobey followed Cosmodius, feeling slightly wrong-footed as they went over the path towards the trees. His excessive formality was exhausting; Tobey felt as if he was being asked to sit a test for which he hadn’t prepared, the slightest mistake for which would lead to ignominious expulsion.
They stopped in the middle of the trees, where the ground sloped suddenly upwards; at the top of the slope was the edge of the park and a farmer’s field. “Before we go in, I should like to ask you something. I hear that you chanced upon my sister yesterday. Tell me, how did she compose herself? Did she behave appropriately?”
Tobey stared at him in blank incomprehension. How on earth was he supposed to answer? He expected according to Cosmodius’s views on appropriate behaviour, Aramis had acted scandalously, however, if truth was told, he had rather liked it. “She was very agreeable.”
“Are you sure that you are not mistaken? My sister can be a trifle forward at times…the irrationality of females, I expect.”
From anyone else, such misogynistic values would have horrified him- he had grown up with Bee after all- although he probably would have brooded on the unfairness of it all rather than risk actually confrontation. Still, from Cosmodius, it really wasn’t all that suprising. His voice, his mannerisms, even his dress were all from a long-distant era. It followed that his views on women would be similarly old-fashioned.
“Not at all, I found her company…erm… greatly enjoyable and comforting.
Comsmodius did not look convinced.
“I wouldn’t have been ashamed of her actions if she was my sister.”
This was undoubtedly true, because Bee would have behaved much worse, in Cosmodius’s eyes.
“Very well” the wood-dweller replied, seeming to relax a fraction. Although possessing the same fluid grace as his sister in movement, while standing still, he looked very stiff as if he’d been ironed. “Then without further ado, come in.”
Tobey surveyed the bank cynically, shooting quick darting glances around the woods and at Cosmodius, who seemed to be waiting for him to do something. Not for the first time.
Momentarily confused, Tobey bowed, remembering that that was what was required of him the last time he’d been unsure. This made Cosmodius chuckle with genuine amusement.
“Do you truly not see the door?”
“No, should I?”
Cosmodius grabbed the wrist of a distinctly wrong-footed Tobey, saying “here.” Tobey allowed himself to be half led, half dragged into the bank, closing his eyes, expecting to feel the moist earth fill his nose and mouth any second…but it did not come. Instead, when Cosmodius’s bony fingers released him, he opened his eyes to find himself standing in an underground room.
Tobey pushed his glasses back up his nose, determined to take in every detail of the strange, impossible structure. It was a long, rectangular room with shelves carved into the walls, about the size of a small classroom. The hollowed-out hole was supported with wooden rafters which were slightly stained with wood smoke from the stove, and the floor was simply warm, dry earth covered with reeds. Directly in front of him was a roughly-hewn, rustic wooden table with four chairs- did they often entertain? - and behind them, at the far end of the room were two straw mattresses and a washbasin. There were windows on the far end of the right hand side, where the bank outside sloped inwards, and as he turned slowly clockwise on his heels, he saw windows behind him with wooden shutters and a large door, which was open, making the room much lighter than it had any right to be. Directly opposite the stove, there was hanging on the wall, a large, old-fashioned wooden bow which had been snapped in two. It was the strangest dwelling he had ever been inside, but somehow, he felt completely safe and at home there.
A sudden half-forgotten memory crossed his mind, Anna, with an old baby blanket draped over her shoulders in the guest bedroom in the dark.
“Sit down, sit down,” said Cosmodius, briskly, pulling out a chair for his guest. Tobey sank into it gratefully and accepted the glass of ale that Cosmodius poured for him. The memory made him feel strange.
They passed the next few hours there, drinking the weak ale, occasionally talking, often in a friendly kind of silence. Tobey had forgotten how good it felt just to hang out with people. When he checked his watch and realised that he had better leave, he did so very reluctantly, and Cosmodius too seemed anxious to keep him there. Eventually, when he realised that he’d have to run in order to be back home on time, he left the house, Cosmodius waving to see him off.
“Please, by all means, return soon,” called Cosmodius to his retreating back.
Tobey smiled. It was good to have friends.