The nosy neighbour

Hunter Smith lay on his bed looking up at the ceiling, thinking about what had happened at school that day, the last day of term before the long summer holidays.

‘Hunter!  Slimy, spotty ginger!’

He clenched his fists as he remembered the chant being yelled in his ear, as he was shoved from child to child in the small circle surrounding him. He felt his muscles tense up as he relived the jeering faces, the sly pinching and kicking as he was pushed off balance, unable to catch his breath or fight back in any way. He remembered the short moment of relief when the group was broken up by the arrival of a teacher and the way it was immediately replaced by humiliation when he looked at the sneering, unsympathetic face of Mr Bowerchalk.

‘Pull yourself together, Smith! Don’t you even try to defend yourself?’ Mr Bowerchalk had said roughly. ‘And you lot,’ he continued, looking at the children still standing around in a group, ‘find yourselves someone else to pick on – perhaps a more worthy opponent.’

Hunter’s teeth were in danger of crumbling, so tightly were his jaws clamped together as he pictured his tormentors laughing at him as they wandered away, leaving him alone in the middle of the playing field. How dare they treat him like that?

‘Why do they always pick on me, it’s so unfair?’ he muttered angrily to himself. ‘They’re vile, horrible. God, how I hate them!  And that monster Bowerchalk, he’s as bad as they are with his ‘Go and pick on someone your own size.’ Hunter mimicked Mr Bowerchalk’s sneering voice.

Hunter couldn’t tell his parents about the bullying; they wouldn’t have been interested. From the age of five, Hunter knew he was a disappointment to his parents. He knew they really wanted a sporty son, one who won lots of cups and trophies they could show off to their friends. But kicking a football hurt his foot and toddlers could run faster than him. Hunter knew then he wasn’t ever going to be able to live up to their image of their perfect son, so he didn’t even bother to try.

When Hunter looked in the mirror he saw what he was – a small, weedy looking boy with greasy ginger hair, freckles and thick glasses held together with sellotape. He knew that was what other people saw when they looked at him and he knew exactly what went through people’s minds when they saw him for the first time.

‘Poor lad, how unfortunate,’ thought his parents’ friends, smiling brightly at him, trying to conceal their thoughts.

‘What a creep!’ children thought on meeting him, looking quickly away and not bothering to conceal their dislike.

Hunter spent a lot of time on his own, mostly indoors, playing games on his computer or doing homework. He told himself he didn’t mind not having any friends, that he preferred it that way, that other people – especially children – were so boring. So long as they left him alone, he was fine. Unfortunately, at school they rarely left him alone. He was an absolute magnet for every bully in the school, even the girls. Almost every day it seemed he would find himself being pushed around by someone.

‘Well, it’s the holidays now at least, so I won’t have to put up with anything more from those idiots for a while. Six and a half weeks!’

Hunter stretched his arm out and picked up a book from the floor. “A Practical Guide for Star Watchers” was a big, heavy book but Hunter loved it. He sat up against his pillows and settled down to read.

An hour later there was a brief knock at his door and his mother walked in.

‘Mother, can’t you wait?’ Hunter asked, annoyed. ‘What’s the point of knocking on the door if you’re not going to bother to wait for me to answer before barging in?’

‘What?’ replied his mother vaguely, looking around the room with a faint look of disgust on her face. ‘Oh, sorry, whatever darling. Listen,’ she continued still looking around. ‘I know it’s the first day of school holidays, but I’ve got to go out. I’ve been invited to lunch at the Reeds!  You know, the ones with the huge house outside Ashbourne?  It’s very last minute – I expect someone’s dropped out. But never mind, I’m not going to miss such an opportunity, but I simply must get my hair done before going there. I can’t turn up with a mop like this can I now?’  Mrs Smith patted her hair. ‘Goodness knows what they’d think. So anyway,’ she said, finally looking at Hunter. ‘I’m off out now and won’t be back till mid-afternoon, so can you please look after yourself. Why don’t you go and make friends with that girl who’s just moved in next door?’

‘Why would I want to do that?’ said Hunter, disagreeably.

‘Well, they’ve got that lovely big house there, although it does need a lot of work doing to it. I dropped by with your father earlier in the week, but they were having their furniture delivered at the time. I must say some of the furniture looked pretty battered and old, not at all what I would expect… Well, it might be nice for their daughter to get to know someone before school starts again in September – she’ll be going to Micklethwaite Grammar. I didn’t meet her, but her parents told me she’s very shy, so it would be good for her to get to know you and then you can be her friend and introduce her to all your friends when the holidays are over.’

‘What friends?’ said Hunter. ‘You know I don’t have any friends at that hideous school. Everyone hates me and I hate all of them!’

‘Oh, now dear, don’t be so melodramatic!  I know you’ve had a few problems with a couple of people but I’m sure you’ve got loads of nice friends. And if you haven’t,’ Mrs Smith continued brightly, ‘then perhaps this girl can be your friend. Now, what’s her name?  They did tell me… Maddie, Madeleine?  No, Madison, that’s it. I know that’s right because I thought immediately of Madison Avenue, you know, in New York, where all the famous advertising companies are…’

‘Hadn’t you better get going if you want to get your hair done in time?’  Hunter couldn’t stand it when his mother was in one of her twittering moods and knew the only way to stop her gabbling away indefinitely was to remind her of her appointment.

‘Oh, yes, I must dash. Anyway, darling, as I said, I’ll be out most of the day, I hope you don’t mind. Do something, won’t you. Don’t just stay up here in this stuffy room wasting the day. Get outside and get some fresh air or something. And you could try tidying up in here a bit – it’s like a pigsty!’

‘Mother, can you buy me a telescope please?’

‘What?  Oh don’t be silly, please. I’m just dashing out. What do you mean a telescope?’

‘I mean a telescope. You know. So I can look at the stars properly.’

‘Oh, you’re not still going on about stars are you. For goodness sake, can’t you get yourself a proper hobby, something a little less weird?  I mean, what boy of your age wants a hobby which involves staring into outer space in the middle of the night?  Why don’t you take up tennis or something?’

And with that, Mrs Smith shot out of the room and down the stairs and a minute later, Hunter heard the front door slam and the car starting up.

Hunter scowled after her. Typical, he thought. All in a dither because some rich person she barely knows has invited her to lunch at the last minute. Dashes straight off, can’t even be bothered to have a proper conversation about getting me a telescope. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve asked. Oh, well, what do I expect?  My parents just don’t care about me.

That night, Hunter slipped out of bed and climbed up the stairs to the attic with a pair of binoculars hanging round his neck and clutching a notebook and his copy of A Practical Guide for Star Watchers. He opened the big window, pulled a table and chair in front of it and raised his binoculars. It was a beautiful night with barely a cloud in the sky and Hunter was soon absorbed in identifying stars and marking them on a chart of the night sky.

A slight sound outside disturbed his concentration. He sat in silence for a moment, until another sound reached him, coming from the garden of the house next door. The moon was shining brightly and looking down, he could clearly see the girl next door, walking in her garden.

That must be Madison, thought Hunter. What’s she doing out at this time of night?  And what’s that with her?  He couldn’t quite make it out. Was it a dog?  He twiddled the sights on the binoculars and trained them on the object beside Madison.

But try though he would, he couldn’t quite make it out. If it was a dog, it was very big. But it didn’t quite look like a dog, something was missing. He retrained the binoculars and was in time to see Madison and whatever it was turning back into the darkened house. Dammit, thought Hunter. What was it?

Of course, thought Hunter the next day, the simple thing would be to go round there, as his mother suggested, and meet Madison and whatever the thing was she took out into the garden at night. But two things were in the way of that idea. First, he was in fact rather nervous of meeting new people, knowing how people generally reacted when they met him. And second, it would please his mother, and that wasn’t something he was about to do if he could help it!

So instead, he spent the afternoon playing on his computer in his bedroom and waited until his parents had gone to bed that night. Once again, he crept upstairs to the attic, binoculars in hand. He looked at the stars a little half-heartedly, his ears alert for the sound of anyone walking in the garden. A little creak made him jump and quickly he lowered the binoculars so they were focused on the neighbouring garden.

But there were a few more clouds in the sky that night, and he couldn’t even make Madison out clearly, although he was still sure there was something else with her.

It was the same story for several nights after that too. All Hunter knew for sure was that Madison was bringing something out with her. He wracked his brains trying to work out what it could be and why Madison could only bring it out at night.

‘Well, that’s suspicious for a start,’ he said to himself. ‘She looks pretty furtive about the whole thing, keeping so quiet and being so careful not to let the door slam. I bet her parents don’t know anything about whatever it is she’s keeping there. It’s definitely not a family pet, then!’  Oh, it was so frustrating not to know!

The dodo and Madison were getting on brilliantly. He looked forward to her arrival every night, when she opened the tiny, freezing priest hole and waddling out after her to go down into the garden.

‘Please try to be as quiet as possible,’ she whispered to him. ‘I don’t want my parents waking up and catching us.’

Although he tried hard, Montgomery Puff wasn’t built for walking quietly. To get up and down the stairs meant he had to jump from step to step. A tiny sparrow jumping lightly from step to step makes virtually no noise. A meter-high bird weighing as much as a six-year old jumping down wooden steps (with no carpet yet) makes quite a lot of noise. Ingeniously, Madison took both her pillows from her bed and put one on the step Montgomery Puff was about to jump onto to muffle the sound and put the second pillow onto the step below, gathering up the first pillow once Montgomery had jumped off it. Of course, while the pillows did help keep the sound of bouncing bird down, it also made the journey very slow and Madison’s heart would beat rapidly all the while until they were safely out in the garden.

Montgomery Puff’s acceptance of her was a new experience for Madison. Her shyness meant making friends was so hard. Normally she felt that people were judging her, looking at – and laughing at – all her faults. She imagined they noticed every time she blushed when she spoke to a stranger, the way her hair fell across her face, hiding it from their gaze, the way her legs seemed to give way underneath her when she walked into a room full of people. But Montgomery didn’t notice any of these things and for Madison to find someone – or something – who seemed to accept her with all her quirks and who welcomed her wholeheartedly when she visited him each night was, well, wonderful.

Each night, Madison opened the priest hole and led Montgomery as quietly as possible down to the dark garden, where he stretched his tiny wings and performed strange bouncing movements with his legs in the moonlight. Madison quickly learned not to laugh, although it was difficult. She knew how offended he would have been if she’d laughed at him – she could imagine just how she would feel if it were the other way around. Once or twice he broke into a slow, galumphing run, but it never lasted more than a few steps. Mostly, however, he walked in a stately way, head held high, wandering between strawberry plants. Afterwards the two of them returned to the bare room which housed the priest hole. Madison would slump down onto the floor next to him and listen while Montgomery talked about his life. And boy, could that dodo talk!

‘I remember the excitement throughout the family each time a new fledgling is born. For dodos, family is everything. For days the whole dance of us assemble around the egg, waiting, waiting.

‘What do you mean, dance of us?’ interrupted Madison

Montgomery shook his head as if trying to smooth down ruffled feathers. He didn’t approve of interruptions.

‘A dance,’ he replied grandly, ‘is when all my kinsmen are gathered together in one place. I have told you of the strong bonds we dodos have with one another.’

‘A dance of dodos,’ Madison whispered quietly to herself, trying hard not to imagine what they would look like bobbing and swaying jerkily in formation. ‘Wearing tutus?’

Montgomery ignored her muttering and resumed his story.

‘We watch the egg start to move, to roll from side to side as the bird within starts to break out. We see the cracks appear, become wider. It is so anxious-making. Most times one of my younger, less controlled kinsmen will hasten the cracking by rolling the egg around to release the fledgling.’

Madison saw Montgomery’s eyes welling up with tears of joy.

‘Oh, how wonderful, how beautiful it is to watch the new life come into being!  To watch the birth of a creature and to dream in awe about his future.’

Montgomery paused and looked out of the corner of his eye at Madison. Satisfied she was paying attention, he continued.

‘Of course, it is even better knowing that the fledgling is one of my own and that he too will play an important role in the lives of all dodos. I have 26 children, you know!  Of course, it may be rather more than that by now... oh!’

He stopped abruptly and Madison saw the smug look on Montgomery’s face vanish in a split second, replaced by a look of pure, agonising sadness as he remembered he was now alone in the world. She scrambled to her feet and impulsively flung her arms around his neck.

‘Oh Montgomery, I’m so sorry. But you’re not alone. I’m with you and I’ll do anything I can to help you.’

Startled by the unexpected embrace, Montgomery instinctively pulled himself upright, but on hearing Madison’s words he relaxed very slightly and allowed her to stroke the feathers down his back – something he had never allowed before. After a minute, though, Montgomery began to fear Madison would never let go of his neck and he pulled away gently.

‘I thank you for your kind words,’ he told her rather formally. ‘But I wish to retire now.’

Madison released her hold and Montgomery, without looking in her direction, waddled back into the ice-cold priest hole and the panel swung shut behind him.

Read Chapter 3

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