Today's Reading

PROLOGUE 1994

Four pink candles.

Burning for me.

The cake is blue with two cream-coloured ponies standing in a field of peppermint icing, fenced by strands of black liquorice. The flickering candles peg the corners of the field, and there is a golden fondant dog burying a white chocolate bone. That will be Oodie.

Melissa lit the candles as she's eleven and allowed to use matches. We sit about for a while, on the big settee, my feet swinging in mid-air, kicking up the blue-and-white lace on the skirt of my birthday dress. Melissa looks at the cake while I scan the pile of presents, all wrapped up in pretty paper. I can see a box, tied in a red bow. It might contain a new riding hat but I'm still hoping for a puppy, a wee playmate for Oodie.

We sit in silence.

Melissa gets bored and leaves the room without a word, I hear her footsteps running up the stairs.

Oodie sighs as I pat her on the head, watching the first candle fizzle out, sending fine wisps of black smoke to twirl and twist in the cool air of the drawing room. I'm not usually allowed in here on my own.

Half an hour ago Mum and Dad had been bringing in presents; Papa came in with a handful of cards, now fanned out neatly on the arm of the sofa. The plates, forks, rolled napkins, cups are all set for my birthday tea.

I'm waiting.

But Mum, Dad and Papa have gone somewhere else, they rushed out the door as if there could be something more important than my birthday.

I climb off the settee and look out the bay window to see Papa hurrying down the long drive, going somewhere exciting. Oodie jumps up, her front paws on the window ledge. She isn't allowed in the drawing room either.

I slide off the chair, ready to follow Papa, but Oodie pauses, reminding me to blow the rest of the candles out. Collies are very sensible.

Then we both scamper into the hall and erupt out the front door onto the gravel. Papa is almost out of sight, nearly at the bottom of the garden. Oodie and I try hard to keep up with him but he's walking quickly. I guess where he's going. Our favourite place, the Benbrae, the pond where the Curlew was moored. Papa is planning a wee surprise for my birthday.

But Papa doesn't turn off the drive, he walks towards the woods, not the sunny bit round the Benbrae but the dark bit where the faerie pools are. I'm not allowed in there either.

I can't see Papa at all now but Oodie's sniffing the air. It doesn't seem fair that I'm standing in my garden on the day of my fourth birthday with only my dog for company.

I call out for Papa, as loud as I can. There's no reply except for my echo rolling back across the water. The ponds look warm and welcoming but I know they are full of deep, black, cold water. If I fell in, I would never get out.

With my hand on Oodie's hairy shoulder, I set off after Papa, down to the narrow dark path. We go slowly, so that Papa can't hear us and then I can jump out and shout 'boo'.

It takes me a while to get to the faerie pool where I see Papa at the overhanging trees on the bank at the far side. He's putting a necklace on, then he takes a step out over the water.

He drops.

There is a thump. Papa dances on the end of the thrumming rope, arms and legs and head all going, then he winds down until it's just his feet twitching, like his batteries have run out.

I see a shadow in the trees. Somebody is giving Papa a little push, just to keep him dancing.
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