There are monsters in the dark. He can hear them, a terrible snorting, squealing sound thundering down the tunnel towards him. The creatures burst out of the darkness and he stares at them in horror. They are huge and hideous, their white bodies covered in bristles, their mouths filled with teeth and tusks. He turns to run, but his feet seem to have forgotten what to do, and the beasts are fast. Impossibly fast. He glances over his shoulder and sees them gaining on him, the saliva on their tusks glistening in the light, their rank breath filling the air. He stumbles, falling onto the damp tunnel floor and reaches a hand out toward the beasts, begging, willing them to stop. He stares into blood-red eyes filled with madness and rage, and then they are upon him.
A screech of tyres and the blast of a horn jolted Montgomery awake, after what felt like only a moment of sleep. He opened his eyes, confused for a moment by the alien ceiling above him and looked at his watch. It was quarter past six in the morning.
‘Urgh!’ he said, turning over in his bed and trying to will himself back to sleep, but it was no use. The sun was up and its light was lancing in through a gap in the curtains straight into his eyes. He sat up and looked around at the boxes piled around his new bedroom. They looked like rows of brown tombstones, each one with his own name written on them, as if he was stuck in his own personal graveyard.
‘I don’t belong here.’ He said to himself pulling the duvet up to his chin. Muffled sounds filtered down from the apartment above and from outside came the insistent drone of traffic and occasional raised voices. Not at all what Montgomery was used to. At least if he was in a graveyard he could get some peace and quiet! Everything felt so wrong and out of place. But most of all he felt out of place. ‘I really don’t belong here.’
Finally, he decided get dressed and start unpacking his boxes. In fact, he would unpack his boxes first, since all his clean clothes were hidden away in them.
After a few minutes wrestling with the packing tape, he managed to open the first box. He pulled out a pair of jeans and struggled into them before peering in the box again. There staring up at him from a nest of well-folded jumpers was another box, shaped more like a treasure chest than one of the cardboard packing boxes. Handling it as though it might fall apart in his hands, Montgomery lifted it out and placed it on his bed. Although he had only had this box since January, it was his most treasured possession. It had belonged to his granddad, Dalton Stroud, who had died last December, just before Christmas. Thinking of his granddad made Montgomery feel homesick again, because his granddad had lived just up the road in Lower Barley, in the cottage with the post box in the wall. Montgomery and his family had moved away from the village the previous day to come and live here in the city of London. Montgomery shuddered at the thought of that word: London. That vast, dirty city. What could possibly be worse than having to live there?
That was the very question he had asked his parents the day they told him and sister about the impending move.
‘Having to put up with your whining all the time?’ his dad, Victor, had suggested. He was a plump man, barely taller than he was wide, whose face usually sported a large grin, as though he was about to say something funny, or at least something he thought was funny. What his face was lacking, however, was a moustache. He had never had a moustache, but Montgomery always felt that was what his face needed, a big curly moustache to go with his silly grin.
‘I’m not whining.’ he insisted, with just a slight whine in his voice, ‘I just don’t want to move house. Especially not to London.’
‘What about you, Gabriella?’ asked Montgomery’s mum, whose name was Philippa, though everyone called her Pepper. She was just the opposite of his dad. Where he was short and plump, she was tall and slim. Where he was light-haired and grinning, she was dark-haired and somehow always managed to look stern and disapproving, even when she was laughing at one Victor’s rubbish jokes. She also did not have a moustache.
‘Will there be fairy princesses in London?’ asked Gabriella. Montgomery’s sister was four and a quarter years old, and spent most of her time dreaming about things like princesses, unicorns and rainbows made entirely out of the colour pink.
‘I’m not sure, dear.’ said Pepper, raising an eyebrow, ‘I don’t think there are fairy princesses anywhere.’
‘Oh. I need the toilet.’ And that was all Gabriella had to say about the move. She returned to reading her book about ponies, her long dark curls dropping over her face like hairy curtains.
‘Why do you even bother asking us?’ said Montgomery, ‘You’ve already made your decision. There’s nothing we could say that will make any difference!’
‘Why not tell us why you don’t want to go?’ asked Pepper.
‘Isn’t it obvious? All my friends are here. My school is here. This is the only place I’ve ever lived and I don’t want to live anywhere else. It’s quiet and peaceful in Lower Barley and old Mr Wheatley lets us play in his field whenever we want. There aren’t any fields in London. I don’t have any friends in London, I don’t want to go to school in London and I don’t want to live in London. I don’t belong there. It’ll be dirty, noisy and smelly. That’s why I don’t want to go.’
‘Yeah,’ said Victor, who had been looking thoughtful as Montgomery spoke, ‘You’re right.’
‘I am?’ Montgomery was surprised. Had he just managed to talk his parents out of this crazy idea?
‘You’re right. Nothing you could say will make any difference.’ Victor laughed hugely at himself. ‘We are moving because we have no choice. Your mum has helped me to find me a new job and it happens to be in London. If we don’t move, we’ll all be living on the street and that’s that.’
And that was indeed that.
Montgomery looked back down at his granddad’s box and sighed. Moving away from Lower Barley had meant leaving behind the place where he and his granddad had spent so many happy afternoons.
Montgomery used to visit him every Tuesday straight after school. They would have tea together with cucumber sandwiches, his granddad’s favourite, and they would play games. Most of these were card games and memory games, but sometimes his granddad would show him a magic trick as well. The last time he had seen him, he had shown Montgomery the most amazing trick he had ever seen.
‘Right then, young general.’ said his granddad. He always referred to Montgomery as ‘general’ or ‘the general’, which had something to do with a soldier from the First, or was it the Second, World War. ‘You sit there and just think about a card.’
In front of him, on a small round table, that doubled up as a chessboard, though they never played such dull games as that together, was a pack of playing cards in an unopened box.
‘No, not the three of diamonds,’ said his granddad, ‘a different one.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of the three of diamonds.’
‘Well, you are now, so stop it. Think of a different card… Got one?’
‘And it’s not the three of diamonds?’
‘No. It’s not even the same -’
‘Enough! No clues, please. Just keep concentrating on your card.’ His granddad picked up the box of cards and opened the top. Then he placed it back on the table, standing upright but with all the cards still hidden inside.
‘Should I tell -‘ Montgomery began, but was cut off with a wave of his granddad’s hand.
Nothing happened. Montgomery leaned closer, holding his breath, but still nothing happened.
‘Aha!’ shouted his granddad making Montgomery jump, ‘Here it comes.’ As they watched, a card began to rise up out of the pack and Montgomery stared at it in amazement. His granddad’s hands were folded in his lap, nowhere near the card, and yet it kept on rising, its back facing Montgomery.
‘Would you please lift the card out the rest of the way?’ said his granddad. Montgomery did so, and frowned as he turned it over.
‘The three of diamonds?’ he said, his astonishment draining away, ‘I thought we’d both agreed it wasn’t that card.’
‘Turn it over, young general.’ his granddad rubbed his hands together as Montgomery did so with a gasp. Where only a few seconds before there had been the plain, patterned back, there was now a face card showing.
‘The Queen of Spades!’ He said, his astonishment not only returned but overflowing, ‘That’s the card I was thinking of. But how…?’ He turned the card over again and this time the three of diamonds had vanished, replaced with the standard back of the rest of the deck. He kept turning the card over and over, unable to believe what he’d seen, before looking up at his granddad. ‘How did you do that?’
‘Well, a magician should never reveal his secrets, but… maybe just this once.’ He leaned towards Montgomery, his hand ushering him forwards. Then, getting so close to Montgomery’s ear that the old man’s nose hair tickled him, he shouted, ‘Magic!’ and fell back in his chair laughing. ‘Come on.’ he said, scooping up the pack of cards, ‘Let’s have another cup of this excellent tea. I made it myself, you know.’
That had been the Tuesday. By the Friday, his granddad was dead. It was a sudden heart attack, they said, quick and painless. But it had not been so quick or painless for Montgomery. He missed his granddad, with his tea and his magic and his silly jokes. This box was all he had to remember him by. It had been left to him in his granddad’s will and contained his box of playing cards, a leather drawstring bag containing fifty weird-looking coins they used to use as a memory game, a book, full of what looked like a load of random scribbles, and a photo of his granddad as a young man. He took out the photograph and stood it on his desk, then, one by one, he took out the memory coins. Each one had a diamond engraved on one side and a pattern of lines and shapes on the other, twenty-five patterns in all, each coin having a twin. He laid them all pattern-side down on his desk and shuffled them round. The game he and his granddad used to play involved turning over any two coins and if the patterns matched, you added the coins to your pile. The winner was the one with the most coins at the end.
So Montgomery sat and played the game, but it wasn’t quite the same without his granddad. With a sigh, he put the coins away back in their pouch, slipped them into his pocket and went back to unpacking the rest of his boxes.
‘I spy with my little eye,’ said Gabriella, as the Vane family had sat around the kitchen table eating lunch. She had insisted on playing ‘I Spy’ for most of the morning, despite the fact she had not quite grasped the concept, ‘something beginning with “C”.’ She looked around the apartment with a hopeful expression, like a dog watching a ball in someone’s hand.
‘Cheese?’ said Pepper, pausing in the act of scraping a knife around the bottom of a jam jar.
‘Crisps?’ said Montgomery, who happened to have a packet open in his hands and was regretting choosing cheese and onion.
‘No. I’ll give you a clue. Try “jug”.’
‘Er, okay. Is it Jug?’
‘Yes!’ said Gabriella, delighted at herself. ‘Your turn!’ Montgomery glanced around, but there was no sign of a jug anywhere nearby.
‘So I was thinking we could go out for a little exploration.’ said Victor.
‘Why?’ asked Montgomery, looking as though his dad had suggested visiting an underwear museum.
‘To see what this glorious city has to offer, of course! Come on, it’ll be fun.’
Montgomery suspected this was unlikely, but still joined the rest of the family as they bundled into the lift a short while later, once Victor had slipped into his most embarrassing Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts. He looked like an American tourist in some rubbish old film.
The doors slid open and they made their way out into the sunlight.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Gabriella.
‘This way.’ said Victor, setting off towards the main road, ‘Let’s see what the High Street has to offer.’
Montgomery glanced up at the building behind them. ‘That really is an ugly block of flats, dad.’
‘Block of flats?’ said Victor in mock outrage, ‘That, my boy, in an apartment building. And look!’ He pointed half way up the concrete structure. ‘That’s our apartment. Number…’ he looked around for something that would remind him which apartment was theirs.
‘Number three-five-seven.’ said Pepper, ‘It’s on the third floor, so we’ve got a lovely view of the city.’
‘We used to have a lovely view of the fields.’ Montgomery pointed out, but his parents ignore him.
‘I think it’s pretty.’ said Gabriella.
‘Huh. You thought Mrs Ardle’s dog was pretty when it ate mum’s lipstick, so your opinion doesn’t count.’
‘I need the toilet.’
Although it was Sunday, Montgomery noticed that the volume of traffic and noise seemed to be no different from the previous day. Perhaps it was like this all the time, a constant stream of cars, buses, taxis and motorbikes pouring in and out of the city. The High Street turned out to be mostly full of antiques shops, cafés and what Victor referred to as ‘boutiques’, though Montgomery thought they just looked like boring clothes shops.
Having exhausted their interest in these, everyone chose an ice-cream from the corner shop before making their way to the grassed area behind the apartment block. It wasn’t especially large and Montgomery considered it nowhere near as impressive as the fields in Lower Barley, but it was very popular. There were groups of mums gathered around pushchairs, old people sitting on benches ignoring each other, and children running everywhere in all directions. Gabriella spotted four girls in pink dresses, all about her age, playing with a skipping rope.
‘Can I go and play with my new friends?’ she asked. This seemed to Montgomery to be making quite a big assumption since Gabriella hadn’t even met these girls before.
‘Of course, dear.’ said Victor, ‘You skip along.’ And, chuckling at his little joke, he turned to Montgomery, ‘What about you?’
Montgomery just shrugged and looked around without enthusiasm.
‘Why don’t you go and play football with those boys?’ asked Pepper, pointing in the direction of the apartment building.
Montgomery turned to see a group of six boys kicking a ball around, but, although they were a similar age to him, he didn’t much like the look of them. Even at this distance they looked a bit rough and menacing; not his sort of boys at all. Still, he wasn’t about to be upstaged by Gabriella, so he wandered across to where they were playing. Two jumpers served as their goal and, as he approached them, one of the boys went for a shot. The goalie punched the ball away and it bounced straight towards Montgomery. He went to kick the ball back, but wasn’t quite ready. It glanced off the side of his foot and went spinning off in the wrong direction, coming to rest among a cluster of pushchairs. While one of the boys went to fetch it, another walked over to Montgomery.
‘Nice one, Twinkle Toes.’ he said, his voice cross and aggressive. ‘Why don’t you go and play over there with the girlies?’ And he pushed Montgomery towards a couple of young girls pushing around an ugly-looking doll in a toy pram.
‘Get off!’ said Montgomery, pushing him back on reflex. The boy glanced round at his friends and, seeing they were all watching, he turned back and advanced on Montgomery. Montgomery stood his ground, but wasn’t prepared for how hard the boy shoved him and he tripped backwards over the pram, landing in a heap on the grass. As he pulled the doll out from underneath him, he heard the boy laughing.
‘That’s right.’ said the boy, ‘You stay there and play with your dolly.’ He stopped and peered at something on this ground. ‘What you got there?’ Montgomery watched as the boy reached down and spotted what he had seen. One of the memory coins had slipped out of the pouch in his pocket. He was about to tell him to leave it alone when, as the boy’s finger came within an inch of the coin, it flashed suddenly and the boy snatched back his hand. ‘Ow! What the hell, you freak?’ And with that he turned and stalked away.
Montgomery grabbed the coin and shoved it into his pocket. He felt angry and embarrassed, and he was about to get up and go after the boy, when a shadow fell across his face. It was Pepper, and she was looking even sterner than usual.
‘I can’t believe it!’ she said, having marched Montgomery all the way back to their apartment, ‘We’ve been here five minutes and you’ve got into a fighting. I really can’t believe it.’
‘Well, good.’ said Montgomery, ‘Don’t believe it. Because I wasn’t fighting. I wasn’t doing anything. That boy just pushed me when I did nothing.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous! People don’t just push someone without a reason. You must have provoked him somehow.’
‘How did I provoke him? By just existing?’
‘Don’t you speak to me like that, Montgomery.’ She put her hands on her hips, which was never a good sign. ‘I understand you don’t want to be here and I know it’s going to take you a while to fit in, but -’
‘I don’t want to fit in. I don’t belong here! I want to go back to Lower Barley, where people were nice and didn’t push you about just for being there.’
‘As I was saying,’ Pepper continued, ignoring Montgomery’s interruption, ‘it’s going to take you a while to fit in. But we can’t have you fighting. So…’ She looked around for inspiration and caught sight of the kitchen, which had been left in something of a state after lunch. ‘So you can take the rubbish bags down to the bins and do the washing up. And if there’s any more nonsense…’ She left the sentence hanging as though the punishment was so terrible she could not bring herself to mention it. Montgomery suspected it was more likely that she couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘Fine!’ said Montgomery, angry at the injustice of being given chores when he was just a victim. He stomped off and grabbed the rubbish bags from the kitchen before dragging them out of the apartment. As a final display of his outrage against such injustice he tried to slam the front door behind him, but it caught on one of the rubbish bags, tearing it open and spilling bits of leftover food and tins onto the floor.
‘We’ve only been here one day.’ he thought as he picked up the bits off the carpet, ‘How have we made so much rubbish?’
Having managed to dispose of the bags in the huge, metal bins at the front of the apartment building, Montgomery got back into the lift and jabbed at the button for the third floor. Looking at the panel he noted the buttons were numbered one to five and below them was an extra one with the picture of a bell on it, ‘the button that must not be pressed!’ Underneath this was a circular indentation in the metal which he hadn’t noticed before. He leant forwards and saw that, though it wasn’t deep, it had a curious pattern set into it. A triangle in a circle surrounded by six small stars. It reminded him of something. He was certain he had seen it before, but couldn’t quite remember where…
As he walked back to the apartment, he racked his brain for the memory of that strange pattern. However, as he closed the door behind him and walked back into the living room, all thought of it was driven out of his head, because his mum was talking to the television.
‘Did you just say “goodbye” to the telly, mum?’ he asked. ‘Did it just call you Pepper?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Pepper, standing up and looking around at him as though she’d being caught eating his dad’s special chocolate. ‘Look,’ she pointed to the screen, ‘it’s a cooking programme, so maybe they mentioned pepper or something.’
Sure enough, there on the television was a large man grinning away at the camera while slicing up what appeared to be a pepper.
‘And the ‘goodbye’?’ asked Montgomery.
‘I was just talking to myself, that’s all.’
‘What? Saying ‘goodbye’?’
‘Yes. It’s just good manners. Something you could do with a little bit more of.’
Montgomery gave her the look he saved for his sister when she was talking about unicorns and shook his head. ‘You’re strange sometimes, mum.’
‘And you’re in trouble most of the time, young man. Have you done the washing up yet?’ They both turned to look at the mound of dirty dishes and cutlery stacked up in the kitchen sink. ‘Dad’ll be back soon with Gabriella and I want that mess cleared up before he gets back. Off you go!’ And with that she settled back down in front of the television where the chef was still grinning away while poking something around in a pan.
‘Weird.’ thought Montgomery as he dragged his feet across the carpet towards the kitchen, ‘What’s going on around here?’