A very old new home
Madison Greenacre got out of the car and looked up at the enormous, gloomy looking house. She scowled.
‘Seriously?’ she asked, turning towards her parents. ‘You’ve dragged us all the way here – for this?’
Madison Greenacre was a solitary child. She didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and she didn’t have any friends. The reason she didn’t have any friends was because she was horribly shy. She only had to look at another child and her stomach started churning, her face turned scarlet, her hands would sweat and her tongue would tie itself into knots around her tonsils so she couldn’t talk.
She loathed being shy and longed to have friends. She’d watch other children playing together and ache to join them. But she knew what would happen if she did, because it happened every time. If she plucked up courage and went over to them, the scarlet-face-sweating-hand-tongue-knotting thing would happen and all the other children would see was a bright red shiny face glaring at them. And Madison knew the children would look at her and laugh nervously. Sometimes young children were so scared they cried! And Madison would wait for one of the bolder children to shout ‘what are you staring at?’ or ‘what’s the matter with you?’ And as she couldn’t answer because she was still trying to unravel her tongue, pretty soon she’d hear ‘Come on everyone, let’s ignore the freak!’ So Madison kept herself to herself and didn’t bother trying to make friends.
Madison’s mother came and stood beside her and put an arm around her shoulder, which Madison shook off angrily.
‘I know it looks a bit run down at the moment, darling, but just you wait. Once we’ve had the chance to do it up, it will be fantastic. Come and look at the garden and you’ll see what I mean.’
Madison ignored her mother and stalked off after her father, who was unlocking the wide front door. The door creaked open and the pair stepped into a panelled hallway with a vast fireplace in front of them. Madison looked around. There were more cobwebs than Madison liked. The light poured in through a stain glass window, throwing different colours onto the floor – reds, blues, greens and yellows. She looked up at the window; it was really pretty, but she was in too bad a mood to admit she liked anything.
‘What do you think?’ asked her father, watching her.
‘Dunno,’ she muttered.
‘Look!’ Her father went over to the fireplace and ran his hand across some engraving in the stone above the mantelpiece. ‘1561 – that’s when this house was built. Or some of it, anyway. 1561. That makes it Elizabethan.’
‘Whoop-i-do!’ said Madison, unenthusiastically.
Her father laughed.
‘Cheer up,’ he said. ‘Once we get settled, you’ll change your mind, I’m sure. I know it’s not what you’re used to, but it will be fun! Bit of hard work, sorting the place out, and in a few months, we’ll be up and running as a guest house. And both Mum and I will be here all the time with you, running it. No more commuting – I can’t wait!’
‘Oh great!’ said Madison sarcastically. ‘Then the place will be full of strangers. That might be your idea of fun, but it’s not mine.’
‘It’s a fresh start, darling,’ Mum said as she came into the hall, staggering slightly under the weight of a large box. ‘Peter, can you bring that other box in and take it straight to the kitchen? Then at least we can have a cup of tea. Madison, there are some advantages about moving somewhere new – no one knows anything about you and you can be whoever you like! Come on, let me just get the kettle on and I’ll give you the grand tour.’
A week later, Madison was getting used to the house and starting to like its old-fashioned dark wood panelling and deep window frames. The furniture they’d brought from their old house had arrived, although there were several rooms which weren’t being used yet and were still completely empty. Madison spent quite a lot of time wandering around these empty rooms, imagining what they would look like when her parents had finished decorating them. She also imagined what they would have looked like in Elizabethan times, when they were brand new.
The garden was lovely; huge and shambolic. There was a long untidy lawn with steps going down to several trees and a thick, shaggy hedge all the way around. The flowerbeds were a mess of plants, bushes and weeds but there were colourful flowers everywhere. Dad fixed a swing from the branches of a huge oak tree. Madison was very happy, swinging herself gently back and forth, stuffing her face with strawberries and raspberries she found growing in a patch at the far end of the garden.
Late one afternoon Madison was lounging on a sofa in the sitting room reading a book. Dad brought in two cups of tea, dangerously balanced on a large book.
‘Madison, quick, give me a hand before I drop this,’ he said and Madison jumped up, carefully took the cups off the book and set them down on the floor because there wasn’t a table.
‘What’s the book?’ she asked.
‘It’s an old ledger I found in that room off the kitchen. I want to have a look at it after tea.’ Dad plonked the heavy book onto the broad mantelpiece and turned towards the chairs.
‘Dad!’ Startled, Madison leapt to her feet and pointed behind him. ‘Dad, what’s happened? What’s that?’
Mr Greenacre turned to where she was pointing. There was a gaping hole in the wall, a piece of panelling had vanished! Dad walked across to the wall and peered inside.
‘Hey Madison, guess what? We’ve found a priest hole!’
‘A what?’ asked Madison, joining him by the hole and looking in. She saw a little gap behind the panelling in which a thin person could probably just squeeze.
‘A priest hole. It’s where Catholic priests used to hide during Elizabethan days.’
‘Why on earth would anyone want to hide in a hole like that? They wouldn’t be able to move. It must have been really uncomfortable,’ said Madison.
‘You’re not kidding. I’m not sure I could even get in that hole,” replied her father. “And sometimes they were shut away for days. Imagine being claustrophobic and shut in there! But I suppose it’s better than being killed, which is what would have happened to them if they’d been found!’
‘What do you mean? Why would they have been killed?’ asked Madison.
‘Well, Queen Elizabeth 1 – remember, this house is Elizabethan – hated Catholics and tried to get rid of them all. So lots of people converted to being Church of England. But some rich Catholics who wanted to keep their faith going made tiny little rooms or spaces in the walls of their houses, where priests could hide in a hurry if they saw soldiers coming.’
Madison fetched her laptop.
‘It says here there were sometimes more than one priest hole,’ she said, staring at the screen. ‘When they could, they built them in several places in the house so that no matter where the priest was when the soldiers came, they had time to get into the nearest hole. Do you think there are any more here?’ Madison looked up eagerly.
‘I doubt it, it’s not that big a house. But you can have a look if you like. They are usually triggered by something – like pushing in a certain place, that sort of thing. I wonder what caused this one to open… it was when I put that book down on the mantelpiece.’ Dad went over to the fireplace and started feeling around the place where he’d dropped the ledger.
‘Oh, here we go, Madison. Look here. See this knot here in the wood? If you press that… see? Gosh, it’s clever.’
The pair watched as the panel slid gently back into place again, hiding the tiny room from view.
For pretty much the rest of the day and the whole of the next day (it was raining), Madison spent tap, tap, tapping away at every wall in the place. No knot was left unpressed, but nothing shifted.
‘Bother,’ she said crossly, as she slumped down against the wall of an empty bedroom just along the corridor from her own bedroom. It was late at night. Madison had officially gone to bed several hours ago, but had sneaked out of her bedroom and down the corridor, keen to carry on searching. She had tried to keep as quiet as she could, because she knew her parents had already lost enthusiasm for this game and would be cross if they found her still searching after they themselves had gone to bed.
She looked at her watch. It was nearly one in the morning.
‘Oh, I suppose I’d better give it up for the night.’ Madison heaved a huge sigh and scrabbled to her feet. As she did so, she felt the wall behind her move.
Startled, she twisted round and stared. A large piece of panelling had slid to the side revealing a large hole behind it. Madison peered in.
It was a lot bigger than the first priest hole they had found, more like a tiny room. Madison took a step into the room and stopped abruptly. It was freezing! Even in the semi-darkness, she could see her breath and she felt her skin erupt into goosepimples.
‘Wow, I need a jumper before I spend any more time in here!’ she muttered and turned straight round to get out of the cold. Just then, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted something. ‘What’s that?’
A statue of a strange bird-like creature stood in the corner of the room. It was big. Its head nearly came up to her shoulder. Madison put out her hand and touched it cautiously. It wasn’t stone, as she’d expected and despite the temperature in the room, it didn’t feel particularly cold either. It was covered in feathers and was firm, but gave a bit when she poked it.
‘Weird. Why has it got feathers? It’s some sort of huge bird, I suppose. But what pathetic little wings! Don’t think those could hold up a great big body like this.’
She ran her hand over the creature, stroking the feathers down its neck and along its back. ‘What are you, funny, ugly bird-thing?’ she whispered. ‘And what are you doing in this priest hole?’
Unsurprisingly, there was no answer. A minute or so later, suddenly realising how cold she was, Madison decided she’d done all the stroking she could for the night and, shivering, she started back to her bed. She couldn’t wait to show her parents the next morning.
Madison froze at the door. The hairs at the back of her neck rose, as she realised the noise came from behind her. Slowly she turned around. She blinked her eyes. And blinked again. Whaaaat?
The statue had stepped into the room behind her and was moving its head around slowly, as if stretching its neck. Then it stretched out its wings – Madison was right, they were truly pathetic – flapping them gently. Then it sank down and jerked back up several times, bending its legs as if doing squats.
Despite her fear, Madison laughed, it looked so funny. This huge, monstrous, ugly bird creature bobbing up and down like a sparrow. She shook her head violently. It was a statue, for goodness sake. It couldn’t be bobbing up and down. She was seeing things.
‘And what manner of being are you?’
Madison heard the words and she saw the statue’s beak move, but somehow the two things just couldn’t be connected. Could they? She stared.
‘I repeat, what manner of being are you?’ The voice was stronger, more imperious now.
Madison opened her mouth to shout for her parents, but her mouth went dry and she stood rooted to the spot, feeling the creature’s eye watching her curiously, unafraid, waiting.
‘I’m er... I’m Madison,’ eventually she replied. ‘Who are you?’
‘Montgomery Puff, at your service.’ The creature attempted a bow but it was clearly still beyond him and he squawked in pain, which rather ruined the grand effect it was clearly trying to make.
‘Montgomery Puff – what’s that?’
‘I do not comprehend you,’ said Montgomery Puff, rocking his head from side to side experimentally, ‘My name is Montgomery Puff, Grand Vizier of the House of Puff, ruler of the noble land of Dodos.’
‘Dodos!’ exclaimed Madison, latching on to the only word of his speech she understood. ‘But aren’t you extinct?’
‘By extinct, you mean...?’
‘Extinct, um, you know, there aren’t any more of you. Dodos don’t exist anymore. You’re all dead.’
The dodo looked at Madison severely.
‘I think I exist,’ it said simply. ‘I’m here, after all.’
Madison thought for a moment.
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ she said uncertainly. ‘But how come?’
‘How do I come to be here?’ There was a brief pause and then Montgomery Puff’s voice rose to a shrill shriek.
‘I was snatched, brutally torn from my family, humiliated and dragged away, forced into a crate. I was held in a dark, damp, rocking place for a long, long time. For an age I was held, always on the move, always cramped, unable to move, unable to smell the fresh air and bask in the warm sunshine between the trees. I fed on nothing but fish – unpleasant, salty fish instead of sweet, juicy berries – served by clumsy brutes who did not trouble to assist me. I...’
‘You poor thing,’ cried Madison, tears welling up in her eyes as she heard the torment in Montgomery Puff’s voice. ‘That’s awful. Who did that to you?’
‘There was a name,’ said Montgomery Puff thoughtfully. ‘What was it now? I don’t seem to,.. it’s all so cloudy.’ He stopped.
‘Well, how did you end up in this house, then?’ Madison asked.
‘Drake! That’s it,’ Montgomery Puff ignored her question as he spat out the name. ‘Drake, that is the name. He is called Drake, Francis Drake, the man who is in charge of those who captured me. Where is this Drake? I demand to see him! Fetch him to me now and let him explain himself.’
The name was familiar to Madison.
‘Francis Drake? Sir Francis Drake? The sailor bloke? But he’s dead. There was a programme about him on the TV the other day. He died hundreds of years ago...’ Madison’s voice trailed off as she realised just how strange this was.
‘Do not lie to me!’ The imperious tone was back. ‘You cannot protect him. Fetch him to me now!’
‘I can’t. I really can’t. He really is dead. He died years and years ago, honestly.’
‘This cannot be true. It is many moons, yes, since I was incarcerated, but not years. You are trying to protect him.’
‘No, I’m not. And I wouldn’t, anyway, after what he did to you. Snatching you away from your family and bringing you here. I think it’s horrid!’
There was a pause.
‘Look,’ said Madison, finally. ‘I don’t know what’s going on here... but, if you’re really a dodo, then what are you doing in England? I don’t think dodos lived here. Actually, I’ve no idea where dodos lived.’
‘I live on the beautiful island of Mauritius. It is a wonderful place, full of tall, shady trees, green vegetation and calm, warm water. We live in blissful harmony on Mauritius, we dodos and the other birds and beasts. For hundreds of years my family have overseen the order between neighbours, settling any disputes and seeing off those who would seek to destroy our peace. Truly our small island is a blessed place.
‘At least it was,’ Montgomery Puff continued. ‘Then one day, men entered our world. A huge wooden ship arrived and men – rough and hard – came onto our shores. They cut down our precious trees and chased my kinsmen and the other birds. Worse, they brought with them horrible rodents – rats, they are called – and four legged creatures called pigs too, who attack our nests, steal our eggs and kill our young. And now we fear for our lives. The island is no longer safe for us to live in openly. Many of my family have been brutally murdered, chased by groups of men until, exhausted, they fall down and are cut apart by the men and their bodies held over a fierce hot flame they called fire. We have had to retreat away from the edge of the water and now live higher up in the hills where our food is harder to come by and we are afraid to go out foraging as we have always done. And where we used to lie and rest in the open sunshine, we can no longer go, for fear of being spotted and chased by men.’
Madison noticed the dodo spoke as if everything was still happening now. It was as if the dodo had no idea that all this took place many centuries ago. She took a deep breath.
‘Montgomery – is that what I call you? Montgomery, I don’t know how to explain this, but you aren’t in Mauritius any more. You’re in England. I think Mauritius is a long way away.’
For the first time in her life, Madison wished she was better at geography.
‘I’m not sure what happened, but I’ve always heard that dodos are extinct. There’s even a saying – as dead as a dodo. I don’t know how or when it happened, but dodos haven’t existed for hundreds of years. Yet here you are in my house in England, hidden in a priest hole. I think you may have been here for years and years.’
Madison indicated the walls and ceiling with her arm and the dodo looked around him properly for the first time.
‘Where is the sky?’ he asked politely.
Madison went over to the window and pointed. ‘Look, that’s the sky – it’s night time. There are stars, see? And that’s my garden down there, full of trees and flowers.’
‘Take me there!’
‘Um, it’s night... and cold...’
‘Take me there and let me feel the fresh air once again.’
It seemed a reasonable request after being cooped up for the best part of five hundred years, so Madison opened the door and beckoned him out.
‘We do need to be quiet, so we don’t wake my parents. Come on, this way.’
Montgomery Puff waddled heavy-footed after her, puffing slightly. He was quite slow. At first Madison put this down to stiffness – after all, he hadn’t used his legs for a few centuries. But by the time Madison had finally got him down the stairs, across the hall and out of the heavy front door, she could quite understand how easy dodos would have been for Drake’s sailors to capture. Montgomery Puff wasn’t exactly built for speed.
Montgomery Puff liked the garden. He waddled around, stretching his limbs, head high in the air as he breathed the first fresh air he’d known since his capture. Madison stood watching him, shivering slightly in the cool air. She still didn’t understand what was happening, but she could see how happy Montgomery looked as he wandered around. Tears welled in her eyes again as she thought of the cruelty he’d experienced and the horrors of being trapped for so many years in the tiny priest hole. She resolved to protect him.
Madison had no idea what would happen if news of Montgomery Puff got out but she guessed it would be bad. She’d had plenty of experience of how mean children could be to anyone who was different to them and she had no reason to suppose that adults would be any less cruel. Also, she’d learned about scientists experimenting on animals at her last school; the pictures of deformed rabbits and dogs smoking cigarettes had made her cry and the boys had teased her about it for ages.
‘That’s not going to happen to Montgomery!’ she vowed to herself.
She picked a couple of ripe strawberries from the plant beside her. Didn’t Montgomery say he ate berries – would he like these?
‘Montgomery,’ Madison whispered as loudly as she could, not wanting her voice to carry too far in the night. ‘Montgomery, would you like a strawberry? Here, try these.’
The big bird waddled across to her and inspected the fruit in her hand before picking it up in his beak.
‘How delicious. I thank you,’ he said politely.
‘There’s plenty more here,’ Madison showed him the plants. ‘And there are raspberries too, over there. And I think these things are blueberries,’ she said more doubtfully as she pointed to a low bush.
Montgomery Puff tried them all, declaring each one to be his favourite and continued wandering round the garden, stopping occasionally to shake a leg out at right angles to his body and performing more of the strange bobbing movements.
Even warm summer evenings turn into cold nights, and although Madison was fascinated, watching Montgomery perform his strange dance, she suddenly realised she was shivering. She was only wearing thin pyjamas. She stood up.
‘Montgomery, I’m sorry, but I think you should come back inside now. We need to decide what to do about you, how to keep you safe. If someone sees you, then we’re in trouble.’
Much to Madison’s relief – she’d expected the dodo to refuse – Montgomery Puff agreed.
‘I do feel unaccountably sleepy and wish to retire to my nest for a rest. Will you lead the way?’