- Published: 31 August 2021
- ISBN: 9781761041556
- Imprint: Puffin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 288
- RRP: $16.99
The What on Earth Institute of Wonder
One of the problems when telling a strange story is that some people decide not to believe you.
Just because the story is strange.
If you, the person attached to those magnificently handsome eyeballs, are one of them, I suggest you close this book right now. Because this story, I’m afraid, is intoxicatingly strange. It’s red-hot, glow-in-the-dark, melt-your-mind strange.
Unfortunately, it is a well-known fact that a lot of people who tell true stories leave out the strangest bits just so people will believe them. And the difference between them and me is: I’m not prepared to do it. Because the idea that strange stories are too hard to believe makes no sense to me at all.
Let’s face it, there’s not much in life that isn’t strange.
I’m sure you’ve already heard that the entire universe popped out of something a million times smaller than a frozen pea! You may not have heard that, just the other day, hundreds of octopuses woke up of a morning and decided to march out of the ocean and take a leisurely stroll across the Welsh countryside. Look it up if you don’t believe me. And there are people deep in the rainforest who know very well that plants can talk. Some in the city, too,but they don’t speak up because they know all the ‘sensible’ people will shout them down. I mean, all you need to do is look directly into the eye of a horse, or up at the night sky, and you know, while the human brain deserves all the applause it gives itself, our understanding of the universe, our own planet – heck, even just the Animal Kingdom – is about as big as an itty-bitty bikini on an elephant.
So, if you’re up for it, I suggest you grab a snorkeland get ready for a story with all its glorious strange bits still firmly attached.
I’m just going to tell you exactly what happened and leave it at that. Ready? Righto then, stay close,
It was three minutes past midnight.
Sal Cassidy sat on the edge of her bed, fully dressed in her warmest socks and woolliest jumper, earspricked, waiting for the familiar stuttering rumble of Bartholomew Stagger’s campervan. Hector, perched on the windowsill, had both eyes trained on the far end of the street.
‘Shouldn’t he be here by now?’ worried Hector,sounding all antsy.
Hector was a kakapo. A plump and portly parrot from the isles of New Zealand.
‘He’ll be here,’ said Sal, fiddling with the end ofher plait. ‘Bartholomew won’t let us down.’
‘I know he won’t,’ replied Hector, ‘but it’s a full moon. Your mum sometimes goes for late-night strolls when the moon is full. I love a midnight ramble myself, but I would rather not bump into her and have to explain ourselves.'
Sal rubbed her knees through the holes in her jeans in an effort to keep them warm. ‘Stop worrying, Hector, I’ve got it covered. I gave her a double dose of sleepytime tea. If anything’s going to make my mother sleep through a full moon it’s a double dose of sleepytime tea.’
Hector leaned his fat feathered head out the window. Sal’s mother’s bedroom was directly below. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘She’s snoring like a sea lion.’
Sal got up and looked outside. The moon floated in the sky like a humongous gargantuan overgrown grape. She shut one eye, placed the moon between her index finger and thumb and squeezed it ever sogently, trying to hold it still.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Hector, sounding irritated.
‘I’m trying to distract myself. You should try it.’
‘That’s the van! He’s here! Bartholomew’s here.’ Sallet go of the moon. She grabbed her backpack and threw it over her shoulder. She pulled on her beanie and her elbow-length, cowhide glove, then stretched out her arm.
Hector hopped on.
Sal held him up to her face and looked into his dark-chocolate, turquoise-rimmed eyes. ‘You ready?’
Hector blinked. ‘Ready.’
Sal tiptoed out of her bedroom and down the creaky wooden stairs to her little brother’s room. ‘PREP MORE. NOT LESS!’ declared the sign on his door. Sal knocked as quietly as she could.
The door opened.
Roy was standing there in his usual attire: a headlamp on his head, an old World War II gasmask round his neck and a full-length, heavy-duty raincoat that covered everything except the steel-toed caps ofhis black leather boots.
‘He’s here,’ whispered Sal. ‘You ready?’
Roy switched on his headlamp. ‘Of course I’m ready. I’m always ready.’ Which was true. Roy was a doomsday prepper. He was ready for the apocalypse, which meant he was permanently prepared for pretty much anything.
Roy reached down and grabbed the handle of alarge bag at his feet. A mild look of exasperation fluttered across Sal’s moon-shaped face.
‘That’s huge!’ she whispered. ‘What have you gotin there?’
‘Stuff,’ declared Roy.
‘What sort of stuff?’
‘The sort of stuff we’ll need when stuff happens. That kind of stuff. Don’t worry, it’s just my bug out bag. Strictly the basics, no freeze-dried ice cream or anything.’
Sal winced. ‘You could have brought the freeze-dried ice cream, Roy. It hardly weighs a thing. That stuff’s delicious.’
‘Make up your mind,’ whispered Roy, a little annoyed with his sister’s flip-flopping over supplies. ‘How about you leave the emergency provisions up to the expert? And, clearly, I’m the expert. I’ve trained forthis sort of thing, don’t forget. Plus, I’m way strong.’
He wasn’t. Roy was eight-and-a-half years old and he was a titch.
‘Anyway, it’s got wheels.’ Roy rolled his bag alongthe wooden floor to demonstrate.
‘Shush!’ shushed Sal, pointing manically at theclosed door of their mother’s bedroom.
Roy froze, bringing his transportability demonstration to an abrupt yet wobbly halt.
‘You sure we shouldn’t leave a note letting your mum know where we’re going?’ worried Hector some more.
‘But we don’t know where we’re going,’ whispered Sal.
‘That’s true,’ conceded Hector, ruffling his moss-green feathers at the reminder they were about to set off into the darkness on a who-knows-how-long journey, destination unknown.
‘Come on,’ said Sal, keen to move away fromher mother’s bedroom, despite the double dose of sleepytime tea.
And so the three of them, rippling with trepidation, tiptoed to the front door and out into the moonlit night.
Lanky and tall, fourteen-year-old Bartholomew Stagger stood on the curb, arms crossed, leaning against an idling orange campervan, its stripy pop-top roof open like a sail billowing against the night sky.
Bartholomew was pleased as punch with himself –Sal could tell, even with his sunglasses on.
‘Did she fit?’ Sal asked, barely out the front door.She hurried towards the van. Roy followed, wheelie-bag in tow.
Bartholomew, as if about to perform a magic trick, unfolded his arms and, with a slightly flamboyant flourish, slid the side door of the orange campervan open. And just like a magic trick appeared the unmistakable grey, extremely wrinkled torso of an elephant. An adolescent African forest elephant, to be precise. Not much taller than your standard professional basketball player.
The elephant dropped its head down out of thepop-top roof and let out a low rumble, like a distant thunderstorm drifting across the savanna.
‘Thank goodness you fit,’ said Sal, stroking the elephant’s flank. Her trunk reached out and curled around Sal’s waist. It sniffed Hector, who shuffled up onto Sal’s shoulder to escape the inquisitive appendage.
‘Told you, didn’t I?’ said Bartholomew Stagger, looking lovingly at the orange vehicle. ‘Volkswagen kombi pop-top campervan. Nineteen seventy-five.They don’t make them like this any more.’
‘It’s a bit of a squeeze, girl,’ said Sal, ‘but don’t worry, we’ll have you somewhere safe in no time.’
The elephant’s trunk sniffed Sal’s plait, then flicked it into the air.
‘Don’t make any promises, Sal. We have to get outof Larry first!’ panicked Roy. ‘Without being seen! And then we’ll be at the mercy of a hostile world.’
‘You don’t need to worry,’ said Bartholomew, grabbing Roy’s bag. ‘Not with me behind the wheel.’
‘I hate it when people tell me not to worry,’ said Roy. ‘In today’s world, it’s just not realistic.’
Bartholomew shoved Roy’s bag in the back of the van, tucked the elephant’s trunk inside and slid the side door shut. He loped his way round to the driver’s seat. (For a fourteen-year-old, Bartholomew really was incredibly tall.) Sal helped Roy up into the front, then climbed in beside him. Hector, still perched on her shoulder, turned round to face the elephant, both eyes locked on her curious trunk.
Bartholomew put the kombi into drive. He let the handbrake off and very slowly manoeuvred the orange campervan out into the dark, quiet, suburban street. One elephant, one kakapo, one unlicensed teenager driver, one boy waiting for the world to end and a twelve-year-old girl with a very special gift.
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay.
Mary Lawson was the first to die. Leaving Euston station shortly before 6.45 a.m, she made straight for her favourite breakfast stall.
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeck had been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once had the Rules of Baby Abandonment been broken.
A country boy of ten living near Boneville was, recently, walking to his house in the vicinity of a large oak tree, when a violent storm arose.
At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis.