It was the hottest day of the year so far. Mum said it was hotter than Spain. Dad snorted and said it was hotter than the Sahara! Jake was fed up. All mum and dad wanted to do was lie on the beach and roast, their skin turning lobster red. Jake had no-one to play with and he wasn't allowed in the water until mum or dad came with him.
"I'm ten, now," he said, in the car on the way down to the beach.
"Still too young, Jakey," Dad had called over his shoulder.
It had taken hours to drive, park and find a good place to settled down. And they were miles from the single ice cream kiosk way up towards the promenade.
Not my idea of a great day out, thought Jake, digging his fingers into the hot sand.
A boy about his age came past, carrying a bright blue lilo under his arm. The boy paused and scanned the horizon, one hand shading his eyes.
Then the boy looked over to Jake and said, "Want to paddle to France?"
Jake stared down at his parents, fast asleep on their beach towels.
"OK," he said.
Minutes later he was running into the cool, refreshing sea.
His new friend Tim thrust the lilo towards Jake. "You go first," he said with a grin.
"Brilliant," said Jake and climbing up he lay down on his stomach and started to paddle.
I'll be in France before tea time, he told himself and although he could hear voices calling out something behind him, splashing sounds drowned them out...
‘What’s that?’ Jazz’s mum stared, eyes wide, at the thing that stood next to Jazz.
‘I don’t know,’ Jazz confessed. ‘I found it in the park. I think it’s lost.’ She glanced down at the furry creature. Was it a dog? It didn’t look like one. Or a cat. It was too big for a rabbit, too small for a bear. And really…well, what kind of creature had blue fur? Proper navy blue, like a school blazer.
It looked back up at her with intelligent orange-rimmed eyes. ‘Prrraaawp?’ it said, in a voice that sounded a little like a cat’s but with a metallic ring to it that reminded Jazz of the sound the metal plug made banging in the sink.
‘Can we keep it?’ Jazz asked her mum. Her mum looked doubtful. ‘Oh, I don’t know, love. I mean, what does it eat, for a start? And what if it’s…savage? Does it have sharp teeth?’
As if it understood, the blue creature said, ‘Prrraaawp’ again and opened its mouth in something like a smile. Its teeth were small and rounded.
‘There, you see?’ said Jazz. ‘It’s completely harmless.’
“Special delivery!” said the postman as he handed over the strange-looking parcel. Usman closed the door and was about to call his dad when he noticed the package was addressed just to him. It was wrapped in old newspaper and felt very heavy. He shook it, then jumped as an unusual voice came from inside, shouting... “....
Auntie Jackie always gave me daft presents when I left after staying with her for the holidays. One year it was a huge jar of homemade chutney. I ate most of it on the train, and was sick in the station car park while I waited for Dad to pick me up. This time, Jackie handed me a zip-up bag, with instructions not to open it until I was sure I was by myself.
‘You have the makings of an adventure in there, my dear,’ she said, as she turned to go.
‘What sort of adventure?‘ I asked, but she was already walking away.
Strictly speaking, I wasn’t alone yet. An old woman was sitting on a bench at the other end of the platform, but I didn’t think it would hurt to take a peep in the bag. I tugged on the stiff zip. Inside, there was a coil of rope, a rusty torch, a bottle of water, one Wellington boot, and an old teddy bear with no eyes. There was also a small sandwich-shaped parcel wrapped in foil. I knew better than to expect it to contain food for the journey. I was about to close the bag again when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
The echo of his voice came back to taunt him as if a group of boys were mimicking his greeting, each with less boldness that the last. The final echo was deadened and the silence which followed seemed deafening in his ears.
The sound had been dulled by the absolute blackness of the cave which totally engulfed him. He could see nothing, not even his own hands in front of his face. The silence was terrifying along with the certain knowledge that he was completely alone in this dark dark place. It was bitterly cold, for no sunlight ever penetrated these thick walls of rock. He shivered and tried to think himself warm. It had been madness to leave his friends and go off on his own. He wanted to pinch himself and wake up from this nightmare but was rooted to the spot as if frozen.
Mentally pulling himself together he shuffled forward. A scuffed stone rolled and tumbled and he was sure he heard it drop. Then he heard a different sound – a faint noise which filled him with hope. He scrabbled on the ground for another loose stone wanting confirmation, and, finding one, he sent it firmly forward, this time with more momentum. Riccochet and then silence as his hope and the stone travelled unseen and then… there it was… a very faint splosh. He knew what that meant.
The colour of burnt almonds, with white-enamelled hooves, and fully eight feet tall: a centaur was galloping through the forest. His name was Valis. Alone and afraid, his powerful equine flanks shone, his close-curled greying chest hair sticky with the journey’s sweat. Was he really going to do this? The instructions for his task came from the highest authority imaginable. Even so, his heart almost froze thinking about what he was about to attempt.
Shivering with fear, he slowed to a canter. Here was the place. An empty spot between two enormous frelk trees. The gateway – unused for over three thousand years – stood invisibly in front of him.
All he had to do now was work out how to open it ...