Instructions from a ten-year-old

When I was about thirteen, I remember reading Flowers in the Attic and realising pretty quickly that it was a good thing my parents didn’t know what it was about. I’d been stopped from reading Judy Blume’s Forever a few years ago, and had learned to be more careful about revealing my reading choices. It’s something that came back to me when my eldest, then seven, started to tell me about a Jacqueline Wilson book she was reading at the time – she mentioned that the mother in the book was pregnant and the sixteen year old daughter was too, and I started to realise for the first time that I needed to pay more attention to what she was reading.

Instinctively I felt that the right thing to do was let her read what she wanted to read, within reason (maybe not Flowers in the Attic or Hollywood Wives just yet). But I was worried that my instincts were wrong, and wanted to know the rule of thumb. Internet research and chatting to some authors and librarians gave me some good guidelines:

  • Let them read what they want to read, though for younger kids, be sure it’s not going to give them nightmares.
  • Tell them they can and should ask questions if they don’t understand anything.
  • Chat to them about what they’re reading.
  • Read the blurb, and if you have time, read some or all of the book (I’ve never had time for the latter)
  • Ask booksellers and librarians for guidance
  • Trust that most kids will skim over bits they don’t understand (apparently there’s an orgy scene in Stephen King’s It. I read it at about 13 and have no recollection of an orgy scene)

For me, common sense and personal preference would say no graphic sex, no rape, no parents murdering children, and, well, perhaps no children murdering parents – in case they get ideas.

Now my eldest is ten, almost eleven, and she recently asked to read my first book, The Other Side of the Wall. Well, asked again. She’s been asking since it was first published, and I’d said she could read it when she was fourteen. Then twelve. But the other day she’d run out of books, and I finally gave in. She flew through it in two days, and told me that while it had been her favourite book before she read it (because I’m her mother) now that she’s actually read it, it’s more than ever her favourite book. I’m just glad one person in the family has now read one of my books (Ahem, husband, if you’re reading this.)

She suggested I write a new chapter to show how all the characters are doing six months after the end, and started brainstorming ideas. I said I liked it and might do it. Then she suggested I blog the first chapter, like I did with One Click last month, and I was much more enthusiastic about that – mostly because it’s just a matter of copying and pasting. This is why she is my chief marketing officer by the way. So for anyone who’d like a peek, these are the opening pages of The Other Side of the Wall:

Chapter 1

Sylvia – Friday, July 29th 2016

The dog barks, waking Sylvia with a jolt. The bright red digits on the clock radio tell her it’s 4.02am. Oh God, she’s been in the chair for over an hour. The baby stirs in her arms but he’s asleep – now to get him back in the cot. Her eyes start to close again before she can begin the manoeuvre – tried and failed on so many other nights like this one. Maybe she’ll sit and rock just a little longer. But the dog barks again and this time Zack starts to whimper. Bloody dog. Pulling herself out of the chair, still shushing Zack, Sylvia pushes the curtain aside and looks down into the garden. It takes a moment for her vision to clear and another before she spots the dog – Bailey is barking at the wall they share with Number 26. Jet-black against the night-time garden, it’s hard to make him out. What the hell is wrong with him? Her eyes roam to the garden next door. Untamed bushes fight for space with tangled weeds and uncut grass. Poor Mrs Osborne couldn’t look after it before she died, and the new owners have done nothing with it yet. Her eyes move to the fishpond glinting in the moonlight, and stop there. She presses her nose to the glass to see better – is there something in the pond? Everything is blurry still – she screws up her eyes, then opens them wide. Her vision clears and she can make out the shape. Little arms and little legs and floating hair. A child. It looks like a small child, lying face down in the water.

“Jesus. Tom, wake up! I think there’s something wrong next door!” Still staring out the window, she shifts Zack from one shoulder to the other. There’s no response from Tom. She rushes to the bed. “Did you hear me? I think there’s a child in the pond!” she hisses. Tom stirs but sleeps on. “Here, take the baby!” Putting Zack down beside her husband, she goes back to the window.

A cloud is covering the moon now, but she can still just about make out the shape. Jesus! She needs to go down there. Tom has his arm over Zack but he’s still asleep.

She goes back and bends over him. “Tom! Did you hear me? You need to mind Zack – don’t let him roll – okay?”

Tom mutters something, and pulls Zack closer.

She races downstairs and goes first to Megan’s room. Her daughter is asleep, her hair fanned out on the pillow. In the hall she grabs her keys and rushes outside, closing the door behind her. In bare feet and pyjamas, she runs into her neighbours’ driveway. No car – must be in the garage. At their front door she hesitates for just a second before pressing the doorbell. There’s no sound from inside. She presses it again, and waits. The bell is loud and shrill in the otherwise silent cul-de-sac. Surely they’ll hear it – all the other neighbours must hear it too. But still nothing. She tries a third time, and a fourth, but there’s no sound behind the heavy front door. Stepping back, she looks up. The curtains are closed and there’s no light in either of the front bedrooms. Unsure now, Sylvia stands barefoot in the driveway, wondering if she imagined the whole thing. She’s still bleary-eyed and her head is woozy from lack of sleep – it could have been a trick of the light or nothing at all. But she can’t just go back inside without being sure. Her eye travels to the corrugated garage door, and beyond it to the side passage. Mrs Osborne never used to lock the gate – maybe the new neighbours have left it open too. Treading carefully through the dead potted plants and planks of wood that litter the ground, she makes her way along the side passage towards the gate, unlatches it and gives it a push. It swings open, banging against the wall of the house. The noise makes her cringe instinctively, but only for a moment.

The dew-covered grass is cold on her feet – she hardly registers it as she makes her way to the end of the garden – stomach tight, adrenaline pushing her on through the darkness. At the fishpond, she stands on the edge, her feet cold on scrubby soil. Her stomach flips as her eyes search the glittery water. But there’s nothing there. No child. No ripples. Nothing. Could the child have gone under? Feeling sick, she bends down and puts her hand into the water. It’s cold as she reaches further in and feels around. There’s nothing there. She pulls out her hand and, mesmerised by the empty water, stands at the side, staring but not seeing. It’s like an old mirror, spotted with algae, holding nothing more sinister than the moon.

Bailey barks from his side of the wall, rousing her from her daze. Oh God, what is she doing in her neighbour’s garden in the middle of the night?

She walks back up the garden, her eyes searching shadowy bushes, no longer sure what she’s looking for. Bailey barks again and she shushes him, but there’s no other sound. At the house, French doors just like hers look out onto the garden, only here the paint is peeling and the glass is still single-glazed. Peering through the panes, there’s only inky blackness inside. She raises her hand to knock but drops it again. This is silly.

She closes her eyes to remember and the image seems clearer now: the little arms and legs, the hair floating out just beneath the surface. Her memory is embellishing a picture that wasn’t very clear to begin with. The only certainty is that there’s nothing here now. Still, heavy air, and nothing. She stands for another minute, just listening, then turns and leaves.

Inside her own house, she goes back to Megan’s room and this time goes over to the bed to kiss her cheek and pull the duvet back up over her. Are the patio doors in the room locked? She checks. Of course they’re locked, they always are, and the key is up high where Megan can’t reach. Breathing a little more evenly, Sylvia goes upstairs, wondering if having Megan sleep on her own downstairs is such a good idea.

Tom is sitting on the side of the bed, rocking the baby. He motions to her to stay quiet as he attempts the cot transfer – success this time. Well versed in night-time practices, they both walk noiselessly to the landing before speaking. In a whisper, she tells him what she saw.

“You imagined you saw something in the pond next door and you rang their doorbell at four o’clock in the morning?” Tom asks, rubbing his eyes.

“I know. It seemed so clear at the time though – I thought I could see arms and legs. It was horrific,” Sylvia whispers, shaking her head. “Thank God there was nothing there – I don’t know what I would have done if . . . well, you know, if there was a child there and she wasn’t breathing. I was thinking of that little girl who’s missing – the one they mentioned on the radio.”

“Sure. I know,” Tom says, yawning. “But look, it’s dark out there and you were half-asleep – it was just a shadow. Lucky the neighbours didn’t wake up – they’d be wondering what kind of lunatics they’re living beside. Come on, let’s get some sleep.”

She follows him into the room and climbs into bed, hugging herself for warmth – her feet still wet from the dew next door.

*

The blaring noise of the radio wakes Sylvia with a jolt. How can it be morning already? It feels like she’s been asleep for five minutes. Memories of the ghost-child in the pond break through the fog of sleep and her stomach tightens. She stretches, feeling for the volume button, just as the seven o’clock news headlines come on the radio.

“Gardaí are still searching for two-year-old Edie Keogh, missing from her home in Dún Laoghaire. The child was last seen when her mother checked on her at midnight on Tuesday night, but she wasn’t in her bed on Wednesday morning. The front door was open, and one suggestion is that the child let herself out and got lost. Edie has light-brown shoulder-length hair and was wearing dark-blue pyjamas – members of the public are asked to contact Dún Laoghaire Garda station with any information.”

God love that poor mother, Sylvia thinks, shuddering as last night’s apparition materialises in her mind. The news story must have pushed her imagination into overdrive. She switches off the radio. Beside her, Tom groans and rolls out of bed. In his cot, Zack starts to stir, and she can hear Megan’s feet pattering across the floor downstairs, on her way to check if it’s morning.

In less than thirty minutes, Sylvia is running through the rain to her car, fumbling for her keys and wondering why she didn’t think to take them out inside the house. Tom is standing in the doorway with Zack in his arms. He’s already in his suit and looking at his watch – rain means traffic and traffic means their childminder may be late arriving. As she reverses out of the driveway, she glances up at the house next door, and takes a sharp breath. The front-bedroom curtains are open now. Someone is definitely there. Where were they last night? Did they just ignore her knocking? Anyway, time to focus on real life, and what’s ahead at work today. And Justin. She grips the steering wheel a little tighter.

One long hour of rain-soaked traffic later, Sylvia reaches the IFSC and pulls into the Stanbridge Brown car park to find her space occupied by another car – for the third time in two weeks. It’s a new security guard, and he’s not impressed when she asks for a visitor spot, even when she points out that her own spot has been taken. That space isn’t hers though, he tells her – it’s a shared space and she has no entitlement to it. She groans inwardly and explains that it is hers, but she’s only just back from maternity leave and the records haven’t been updated. He raises one sceptical eyebrow and consults his screen. No, he says, the computer has it down as a shared space, and there’s no way the system is wrong. She’ll have to get her manager to sort it out but in the meantime, since she’s stuck, she can use the visitor spot.

Shaking her head, Sylvia parks and takes the lift up to the third floor. In reception she smiles a lukewarm greeting at Breeda.

“Sylvia, that missing child on the news – she’s from out near you, isn’t she?” asks the receptionist, looking up from her screen. “Yes, somehow it makes it even worse knowing she’s local to us – not that it should make a difference of course, but still . . . Anyway, I’d better head in – is the boardroom booked for my meeting with Justin?”

“Yes, all booked.” Breeda leans towards Sylvia and lowers her voice. “But what do you think is the story with that little girl? Awful thing. When you think about the kind of people who are out there . . .”

Sylvia glances at her watch. “I know . . . but maybe she’s just lost – hopefully they’ll find her any day now.” She picks up a newspaper from the stack in front of Breeda. “I’d better run if I’m going to get anything done before the meeting – thanks for organising the room – chat to you later!”

In her office, the leather chair is cold to touch, despite the mild temperature outdoors, and she’s glad of the cool air conditioning after the muggy journey in. At least they didn’t take her chair while she was gone. Her PC flickers slowly to life and she scans her emails, leafing through the newspaper at the same time. The front page shows a photo of the missing child – a smiling face with still babyish dimpled cheeks and big blue eyes, framed by long lashes and light-brown hair. The Keoghs live less than a mile away from Sylvia, and Edie is not much smaller than Megan.

Sylvia shivers. Taking out her phone, her fingers hover over the screen for a moment, then she types a message to her childminder.

Hi Jane, Megan was a bit off form last night – can you keep a close eye on her today? See you this evening. Thanks, Sylvia.

She shakes herself and pulls out her notes for the meeting – this has to go the way she’s planned, or things will only get worse.
The phone rings: Breeda calling to let her know that Justin is waiting in the boardroom. Sylvia takes a deep breath and picks up her notes.

***

If you are curious to find out what’s going on with Sylvia’s neighbours, you can find out here (At time of posting, it was 99p as part of Amazon’s summer sale – editing now as price has gone back up to £3.99.) If you want to find out what happens six months after the ending, I suspect you’ll need to check with the ten-year-old; she’s working on ideas as I type.

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Author: Andrea Mara | Office Mum

Blogger, freelance writer, author, mother - muddling through and constantly looking for balance.

4 thoughts on “Instructions from a ten-year-old”

  1. Like the segue into the book plug there! Also, from giving writing camps to children, I know they’re way more robust than adults give them credit for. I did choose quite a dark theme for their story template and some children chose not to engage with it and go for happier stories. They do know themselves. Good luck to you and your ten-year-old chief marketing officer.
    Derbhile Graham recently posted…The Café That Was Slightly Too Pleased With ItselfMy Profile

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