When Mr Mackie came into Fadge’s bakery, the conversation halted. They stepped back as he approached, letting him go first to the counter. He looked straight ahead, a thin-faced young man, sandy-haired. ‘Everything okay, Sevi?’ Mr Tompkins was Notton’s postman. ‘A brown cob, please, Nala. Yes, fine.’ They all watched him put his money into her hand, as though they’d never seen such a transaction before, or bread dropping into a string bag. ‘Ave all right?’ ‘Mmm.’ His face was flushed, his ears tipped with red. ‘And the bairn?’ ‘Fine, we are all fine, thanks.’ He fumbled with the latch, and after a brief struggle, made his escape by falling into the street. ‘What was all that about?’ asked Mrs Eddie, who’d been visiting her sister and hadn’t heard yet. ‘You’ll never guess!’ said Mrs Hawks. ‘She’s only had a baby!’That was Mrs Prattley, getting there first. ‘A...but, she can’t!’ ‘Oh, she has. We’re all going round later. Wouldn’t miss this for anything.’ True to her word, Ani Prattley came to greet the new arrival, bringing Ned and Den, her boys, with her. Eva showed them up the stair of the tiny terraced house, to a pink papered bedroom, where her sister Ave was sitting up in bed. The room was full of women pretending to be busy with knitting. Nearby stood a white wicker cradle, with blue ribbon threaded through it. It was a large cradle. ‘Well, Ave dear, the boys just couldn’t wait to see the little stranger.’ She pushed Ned, who’d seemed more avid about the contents of his own nostril, forward. He peered into the crib. A very small baby with coppery hair snuffled in its depths. ‘It’s a lovely baby, Mrs Mackie,’ Ned recited in a monotone suggestive of much rigorous drilling. Den, hauled out from under the bed, where he’d been examining a chamber pot, and shoved forward in his turn, leaned over the side of the crib, stared and began in the same flat and weary tone as his brother. ‘It’s a lovely...’ He stopped. There was a collective intake of breath. ‘But...where’s the other one?’ There was a satisfied gasp from the women, somebody gave a near-snigger, and Den was hauled from the room by the collar of his jersey, protesting loudly. ‘Where’s it gone?’ ‘Den Mackie! Just wait till I get you home!’ In truth, he had asked the question all of them wanted to ask. Where the hell was it? Ivar and Ravi. Nora and Aron. Elian and Niale: every child born in Notton was a gangel or a dopper. Nobody ever had a single child. In the old family albums, right back to the days of the tintype, doppers and gangels in their matching sailor suits and pinafores stood side by side, True, sometimes there were casualties, an only child created through tragedy, but actually starting out that way was unheard of. They might not be identical, sometimes they were a pigeon pair, but the gangel was always right handed and the dopper, a lefty. When little Mik Mackie came to start school, he was the only child in the class to sit on his own, at a desk built for two. In the in the yard of the little sandstone village school, he had no allies. Even the cissiest milksop outnumbered him. He scuffed along alone in the crocodile when they ventured out into street Teachers made him walk at the front: ‘Where I can keep an eye on you.’ Just by being born alone, he complicated things for everyone else. During country dancing, he had no partner and had to strip the willow all by himself. The intricate Maypole Dancing practised in Notton for centuries was not geared up to a single child, and the first and only time Mik took part in a display on the village green, the ensuing pile-up resulted in several children having to be cut free with sheep-shears and the near strangulation of Alic and Cila Haddrick. This did not help his popularity. Things at home were not much better. His parents had to shell out for a bunkbed, half of which didn’t get used. Eventual Tam and Mat arrived, but it was a lop-sided family. When his father was promoted at the jam factory, they acquired a small car, but there was little room for Mik as he grew, and he was left behind a lot while the others went on family outings. Even the toys in the shops mostly came in pairs; bats, teddies, bathtime ducks. The only toy sold singly was Noah’s Ark. Pushchairs and trikes were built for two, and then came tandems. The concept of solitaire was unknown. Mik liked to read, (children’s books were extra wide), and might have been content with his own company, if they would leave him alone. ‘Just saw your gangel on the swings. He frightened my dog with his carrot head, give him that from me.’ Thump. Was that your dopper going into the chippie? He owes me sixpence.’ Thump. They behaved as though there were dozens of him, and everyone a punchbag. They also accused his parents of somehow mislaying their other child. ‘I bet they’re sorry they left the other one on a tram somewhere and got stuck with you, halfwit.’ Mik couldn’t help but feel that there was a grain of truth in this. Even imaginary friends came double. No one ever had an individual one, and Mik learned to keep quiet about Ruffle. ‘Miss, Halfwit Mackie’s talking to himself again!’ ‘I can’t work out, boy, whether you do it to make yourself interesting, or whether you can’t help it, but at nearly eleven years old, you are way too big to be chattering away to yourself. Park your fictitious companion at the door, in future.’ From behind Mik, Ruffle murmured, ‘Fictitious yourself, ratskin-panties.’ Mik only just managed not to smile, and even that got him a suspicious look, and half an hour picking up litter in the yard, which he secretly didn’t mind. He’d been aware of Ruffle’s existence without quite realising it, for some time before they actually met. It was nothing as crude as a feeling of being watched. It was more a thickening of the air, something like a rippling flaw in a sheet of old glass. Sitting by himself in the classroom, dodging spit-soaked fragments of blotting paper and ‘accidental’ spatters of ink, he had been interested to notice them deflected in mid air. A rotting crab apple heading towards him in the yard reversed its trajectory and struck the thrower on the bridge of her nose. Then it bounced off, and hit the thrower’s dopple bang in the eye. One evening after school, he stood on the old wooden bridge, gazing down at the brook, wondering how deep the sluggish flow below him was, and how far the fall? How cold was the water? Was drowning as easy as they say, once you stopped struggling? How long could he balance on this narrow and slippery ledge? And why had they bothered to tie one hand behind his back, when he couldn’t swim anyway? Mik’s father had always been too busy to take him to the public baths for lessons. His brothers were now learning, in matching trunks and waterwings, but of course, as his mother pointed out, it was no use buying the standard double ticket for one boy; it was a waste. The water was probably not so very deep, but it didn’t need to be. Mik wasn’t especially tall. It was quite a long way down, from this angle. Mik clung with his one free hand to the rail, gripping the splintery wood with cramped fingers. His classmates stood on the bank, wagering how long he was going to last. The Haddricks were especially vocal on the subject. Chucking anything directly at him would invalidate the bet, they agreed with some reluctance, but splashing him by throwing stones in the water was permitted. ‘Just jump, you big Jessie!’ encouraged Bertie Smout. ‘We won’t let you drown!’Treb Smout echoed. Mik found this unconvincing. As it was, he hung on far longer than they expected, to their disappointment, and eventually they trailed off, complaining. It was getting dark, they didn’t want to get wrong. One of them gave him a derisory wave. Their voices bounced across to where he crouched, cold and exhausted on his slender spar of wood. ‘Think he’ll still be there in the morning?’ ‘Well, if he does fall in and can’t get out, his dad’ll probably give you a shilling.’ ‘A shilling? Half a crown and a jar of jam!’ they went off debating whether to demand strawberry or blackberry in return for the lifeless corpse of Mr Mackie’s eldest son. After they were out of sight, the hands that had been holding on to Mik’s sleeve throughout his ordeal helped him upon to the parapet, where he sank to his knees, shivering. ‘Thanks.’ He found himself talking to thin air.
Lucky Beadnell had woken with a mild headache. The air felt thick and syrupy, the light like a midsummer twilight, which was odd for a May morning. She sat squinting at the screen of her laptop. She volunteered at the local archives when she wasn’t studying hospitality, and generally she enjoyed deciphering the old handwritten diaries and letters. Today, however, she was having trouble focusing on her task. Whoever’d been dealing with this volume before her seemed to have been more enthusiastic than methodical. She rubbed her eyes. Chunks of text broke off without warning, or appeared in a random selection of fonts, sometimes in one sentence. It didn’t help that she had a tune throbbing away in her head, a kind of earworm. It sounded like a recorder and drum combo, slightly out of time with each other. Where on earth had she heard that in the first place? Against her will, her fingers on the keyboard followed the rhythm, plonk, twiddly, plonk, plonk, thud.
‘They pick on me because of my glasses, but nobody’s tried to finish me off,’ said the air. ‘I didn’t think ghosts got bullied.’ What bullies a ghost? Mik briefly reconsidered trying to swim. He had wriggled his tied hand free, rubbing his numb wrist. ‘I’m not a ghost. It’s just, I’m over here, and you’re over there.’ ‘I can’t see you. You can see me?’ ‘Yes. Funny,that.’ ‘Why?’ ‘You really can’t see me, can you? Otherwise you’d know.’ ‘Know what?’ ‘I really need the glasses. They’re like jam jars. I’m partially sighted. Usually I can just about make out the shape of a person. But the thing is, I can see you dead clear. Your hair’s bright... I don’t know colours. Will you get wrong if you’re late?’ ‘They won’t notice.’ Or care. Later, when Mik had learned not to flinch at being addressed by emptiness, Ruffle told him stories about going to another world through a wardrobe or a mirror, (which sounded as if you’d arrive minced.) Mik thought of the big wardrobe holding his brothers’ clothes, while his own garments hung on a limp wire strung between two nails; not a promising escape route, either. ‘I know stories about going to another world in a telephone box!’ ‘A box of what?’ ‘Your world is really weird. You’ve got cars but no phones! And you’re the only person I’ve ever met that isn’t right or left handed.’ ‘It’s not my world. It’s the world. Those are just stories. I’m stuck here.’ Ruffle’s assertion was that there were probably lots of worlds back to back like bookshelves. Mik wasn’t buying it, but asked: ‘Have you travelled from your world by phoney thing, then?’ ‘I haven’t travelled anywhere. I’m here, at home, and you’re just over there. I can reach in, just. Can’t you?’ In truth, Mik didn’t like to think about other worlds, since all the ones Ruffle talked about sounded better than his own, and also he’d be for it if he drilled a whole in the back of the wardrobe to find out.
‘Rose,’Lucky asked the archivist who was supervising her, ‘Why has this book got two page thirty fours?’ ‘Is that the history of Notton? Just as well you spotted that. Some of the other volunteers get themselves tied in knots, and one or two are too proud to ask for help. Bit like the Maypole Dancing, I expect. They went in for that, in old Notton, then they stopped doing it one year, after the Maypole supposedly got struck by lightning. Folklorists would kill to know more. Anyway, feel free to cut and paste, if you can make sense of it.’
Sitting on the grass watching the rehearsal, Mik heard the school band plinky-plonking away. The pairs of dancers wove their silky patterns in and out. There went the Haddricks. So light and graceful on their feet, you’d never guess they’d tried to drown anyone. His gaze turned to the clouds. That cloud, fluffy and creamy, was just like a big hand in the sky, another was cone shaped, like a glue pot. He turned his glance back to the ground. How slowly they seemed to be going, compared with the fleeting clouds. It must be an illusion. The music, too, was sounding more like a clown’s funeral dirge. He looked up again. That long cloud was just like a knife. There was another one, how strange. The dancers’ feet seem to be clogged as though by thick mud. Down came the cloud, long and sharp. It met the other cloud, crisscrossing in a pivot. The two clouds hardened, sliding together into one. ‘It’s not a knife, it’s scissors!’ Big scissors, bigger than the school, longer than the church tower, snipping together. The blue sky began to divide into two, and the dancers fell away from each other like two sets of skittles, their hands still grasping the coloured ribbons, right or left. The lethargic plinky-plonking ceased. There was somebody racing across the grass towards Mik, but the slice in the sky followed her, a running girl with flossy hair and thick glasses. Two severed blue curtains were pulling apart before his eyes, two sets of children falling away with them, one side losing their right-handed grip on the ribbons, the other the other, their left. The girl stumbled. Lying across the dividing sky, she formed a bridge across the abyss. Mik crawled forward, and with his two equally strong hands, seized each of the curtains and held them together only for a moment, as the giant scissors came skimming towards him and the fallen girl lay stretched out over nothingness. He struggled, despairing, even as she wriggled free, rolling towards his feet. She scrambled up. The scissors had vanished. One of the curtains was missing. Half the dancers sat on the ground, dazed. The rest were gone. ‘I think we may need to find a wardrobe,’Mik told Ruffle.