Scarlett and the Soul Thief – first chapter.

Published February 16, 2014 by Annie Oliver

Well I thought I’d give you all a taster of what Annie has conjured up. This is her first chapter and I don’t mind it at all. Even the folks at youwriteon quite liked it, naming it the CHILDRENS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2011. Mind, she’d be nothing without her old Aunty Freda…

Chapter One.

The top of Bramble Towers blotted Scarlett’s window-view, cutting through the skies a like a grey shark fin. Dismal. She was about to turn back and think about attempting her homework when…

“…You stringy little ferret! I’ll pox you, my lad! Come back here!” floated through the air.  The towers shook with a tremor that sounded just like a wheeled shopping bag, narrowly missing a small head.  Freda, Scarlett thought, with glee, craning her neck to get a good view. Freda and Edna Crabbefoot lived next door.  They were family, of sorts.  Her Mum called them the ‘Aunties’ and never seemed to question their presence, yet they looked at least one-hundred-and-two, and talked of no other sisters but each other. Scarlett stuck her head as far as she could out of the eighteenth floor window. Her raven curls brushed against the condensation on the windowsill.

“I’ll fettle you, my lad,” Freda was saying.

Fettling was bad.

Freda had once fettled a lady who would not stop talking during bingo. The lady had, according to legend, woken up the next day with a case of weeping warts and incurable halitosis. Freda had also fettled the building’s caretaker when he would not fix her leaky tap. After the fettling, a large green toad had camped out on the caretaker’s doorstep, croaking and blinking at Scarlett with bulging eyes each time she walked past. A few days later, the caretaker had returned, fitting Freda and Edna a whole new set of taps, and a walk-in shower.

The grey blocks of concrete that characterised Bramble Towers appeared to quiver amid the damp mist which cloaked the buildings. Freda’s red anorak blazed like a bunch of poppies amongst the dull surroundings, matching her face. She was furious, gripping her shopping bag with white-knuckled glee, her index finger twitching like mad. Scarlett stifled a giggle. They called it the ‘Freda Finger,’ because if she wagged that crooked forefinger at you, something bad would likely come your way.

“I’ll skin your gizzards boy!” Freda screeched. Scarlett leaned even further out of the window, craning her neck.

Tall and skinny, Freda leaned over the boy with a nose that could etch glass, and a pair of eyes which were constantly on the roam for anything or anyone trying to sneak past her. She was just about to unleash the finger when she stopped and sniffed the air, her chin jutting skyward as she cast her gaze up to the eighteenth floor. Scarlett whipped her head back inside, just in the nick of time. She quickly jumped down from the window, praying that Freda hadn’t seen her.

“Come onand get your dinner, Scarlett.” Edna shouted. Now, she was nothing like her sister, being warm and chubby, with at least six chins and five ankles. She shook her head despairingly, her chins wobbling in a flurry of blancmange as Scarlett entered the kitchen. “Come on,” Edna said through a mouthful of fried egg.  Edna ate a lot, which was why she always smelled a bit like cooking oil. A bit of yolk dribbled down her cheek, landing in her third chin and disappearing. She put a plate in front of Scarlett. Scarlett shook her head and pushed it away.

Edna lowered her voice, “come on, lovey. If you carry on like like you’ll end up mal-flourished.” She wolfed down another huge mouthful of sandwich, more runny yolk escaping into her folds of neck flesh.

Scarlett stifled a laugh. “Did you mean malnourished, Edna?”

“That’s exactly what I said,” said Edna, looking all disgruntled, “mal-couraged.”

“Shut up and put your good teeth in, you daft old bat,” said Freda, barging into the flat, “you’ve egg on your chins…and you,” she pointed her crooked finger at Scarlett, “cheer yourself up. You’ll turn the milk sour with that miserable face. What’s the matter now?” Scarlett knew she was up against it. The last time Freda had shown anything like sympathy was the time that she had swabbed Scarlett with a nettle to take her mind off a bee sting, but Freda was the barometer. If she could pass the Freda test then her Mum would keep her off school.

“I don’t feel well,” Scarlett said, in her best sick voice. “My stomach hurts and I’ve got a headache.”

“Hmmm,” said Freda, putting a hand on Scarlett’s head, “you do feel clammy.” She looked deep into Scarlett’s eyes, “and you don’t look right. Open your mouth” she ordered. Scarlett opened wide. “I knew it!” said Freda, “it’s the worst case of trying-to-skive-school-tomorrow-itis I’ve ever seen.” She gave Scarlett a look that said she’d better not argue. Scarlett sighed. Freda was right. It was only a few weeks into term, but already Scarlett had been tripped over, prodded, had her phone flushed down the toilet, and wore her dinner. She had also cut about five pieces of gum out of her hair. However, the words were definitely the worst. Whoever made that rhyme about sticks and stones had never met Jemima Bloom, the most evil child to ever step into the gates of Grimsfield comp. Just lately, Scarlett had been hallucinating omen-style soundtracks every time the girl entered a classroom.

Freda narrowed her eyes, but her voice softened a little, “come on now, lovey. We’ve talked about this before. You know what I really think of school. Load of rot! Complete rubbish! I could teach you more in an hour than you’d learn in a year there, and I’m talking proper lessons that will actually be useful in life.”

During the summer, Scarlett had enjoyed many of Freda’s lessons, being forced to indulge in the art of Glaring and the skill of Haggling. Just lately, she had even begun to develop proficiency in one of Freda’s favourite talents, Finger Pointing with Malice. Aside from that, the two of them had spent many hours adding to Freda’s bulging home remedies book, hunting down wild plants and rare spices for Freda’s strange recipes and cures. “However,” Freda continued, “according to your mother, this here school thing is important and so you have to go.”

“But, Freda…”

“No ‘buts’ Missy,” said Freda, “do what you’re told, or else! No more running off and no more skipping lessons, do you hear?” She wagged her finger at Scarlett, her eyes glinting. Scarlett ignored the pointed finger. Being a friend of Freda, she enjoyed immunity from its curses.  Freda glared, her eyes shining into Scarlett’s. “Stop the smirking, madam. Just because I don’t have my own teeth doesn’t mean I can’t bite. I’ve told you before. You let me go down to your school and I’ll sort that little madam out and all her so-called friends.” Scarlett could just imagine the kids faces at school when Freda turned up, wearing her plastic rain hat and checked apron, finger waggling and giving them all what-for.

Her Mum walked into the kitchen, shaking out her white-blonde hair. “I heard that and the answer is no. No time off,” she said sternly, “you can sleep in a bit later tomorrow, though, Scarlett. Martin’s giving you a lift.”

“No way, Mum” said Scarlett. “I’m not travelling with it.”

“Come on, Scarlett.” Maggie gave her a look. “He’s alright, you know.”

“Alright for keeping you out of disaster, you mean,” said Scarlett, laughing. Maggie needed a butler, not a boyfriend, given that she found it impossible to function in everyday life. She floated about the world like a leaf in the wind, forgetting to pay bills and getting distracted by the colour of a flower when she should have been picking Scarlett up from school.

Maggie laughed and rolled her eyes, “look at me Scarlett,” she said. “I’m getting no younger, he’s got a good job and a car, and he’s kind…”

“…and his trousers have fallen out with his shoes,” said Freda, looking up from the Grimsfield Herald with a macabre smile.

Edna choked on a bit of bread and began to guffaw loudly, “true that is, sister!” she said, as Freda slapped her on the back.

“…and he spends long periods of time in an imaginary world inhabited by other geeks who all cast spells on each other over the internet,” said Scarlett, giggling.

“It suits me if he spends all his time on the internet,” said Maggie, wrapping her slender fingers around a mug of Freda’s nettle tea.  She lowered her voice “It wouldn’t do to have anyone get too close, Scarlett.” She nodded around the room at Freda and Edna. They all hushed and held their breath and looked at Scarlett with excitement and anticipation. Scarlett knew they were waiting for her to ask the question that had been unspoken for years. She nodded and looked away from their questioning gazes, clearing her throat and blinking away the idea that Freda and Edna were anything but normal aunties. Freda grimaced with disappointment at Edna as if to say ‘that’s that, then’ and then they all went back to slurping and munching – although Edna was looking at her tomatoes with a lot more suspicion – until…

“Good evening, fellow aliens,” Martin said in a robotic voice, peeping his head around the flat door. Without knocking. This infuriated Scarlett in a way that normal verbs, like ‘exasperated’ or ‘incensed’ could not adequately describe. He sat down at the table, clearing himself a space amongst the clutter – the likes of magazines, crystals, snowglobes and books – that Maggie liked to hoard on every surface. Edna gave him a smiling grimace and plonked a plate of dinner in front of him. As Martin picked up his cutlery, Scarlett waited.

He brandished his fork at her. “May the fork be with you,” he said, nudging Scarlett, “eh? Scarlett? Eh?”

“And also with you,” said Scarlett dully, clanging her fork against his. My life, she thought, is actually tragic.

“Big day today,” said Martin, wiping the steam off his black-rimmed glasses, which Scarlett was sure had clear glass in them.

“Not really,” said Scarlett, “it was the same as always. I sat learning irrelevant stuff while people I don’t like threw things at me and buried stuff in my hair.”

Martin looked at her blankly. “Oh, school!” he said, “noooo, I’m not talking about that. Today is the day I got my badge.” He brandished a small badge in Scarlett’s face, which was blatantly a ‘school prefect’ badge, except someone had super-glued ‘Level 7 Mage’ over the word ‘prefect. “What do you think?’ said Martin, “eh? Scarlett?” He beamed proudly. “No-one has ever got this far on MERP before. Level seven wizard…who would have thought?” He proudly pinned it onto his checked polo shirt which was, as usual, snugly tucked into his navy trousers.

Freda snorted and spat a bit of nettle tea out. “Never thought much of wizards,” she muttered, “but I have to say you’ve got the look of one.”

“What was that, Freda?” said Martin.

“Oh, MERP,” said Scarlett, quickly changing the subject, “the game.” MERP was an acronym for the online game Magic Enchantment Role Play. When he wasn’t playing MERP, Martin loved to talk about MERP more than anything. He probably dreamed about MERP too.

“What do you think then, Scarlett?” said Martin, still looking slightly quizzically at Freda. “One more level and I’ll be a sorcerer. Amazing isn’t it?”

“I truly am lost for words,” said Scarlett, dryly. Freda chuckled and Maggie gave them both a warning glare.

“Yes I’m going to upload all my new spells today,” he said proudly, “and edit my online world. There’s so much to do, it’s going to take me ages, so I’m sorry, Maggie, I can’t do dinner tomorrow night. Can we put off until the weekend? I’ll call and change the table.”

Maggie waved her hand dismissively, but Scarlett could tell she was more than a bit huffed. “Fish fingers for dinner again then Scarlett.” She laughed, although there was a trace of the furious Freda about her smile.

“Unless,” said Scarlett, hopefully, “you don’t take me to school tomorrow. That’ll give you at least an hour head start.”

Martin’s face briefly lit up until Freda swiftly batted him around the head with the Herald.  “Not likely,” she said, pointing to the front page.

Maggie leaned over and grabbed the Grimsfield Herald from Freda. “Ooh, more girls gone missing,” she said. “That’s awful.”

“Another three,” said Freda, and her and Edna exchanged a look. The kind of look they gave each other when they were trying to sneak out to bingo without old Mrs Robson from flat 10B finding out and tagging along with them, because Freda believed the old lady to be cursed where bingo was concerned.

“I’ll be fine,” said Scarlett. “There’ll be lots of other kids walking to school. I’m hardly going to get kidnapped, am I? Not at that time of day.”

“No, ducky, you’re not walking,” said Freda . “I’ve got a bad feeling about these disappearances, so we’ll all come with you. I need to go into town anyway. My big toe’s been throbbing like mad so I’m going to pop into the bingo hall. It always throbs when I’m due a big win.”

“Fine,” said Scarlett, knowing when she was beaten. She slipped into her room, and sat in the cool and cluttered silence for a while, praying that she could slip into school unnoticed tomorrow. Or that Martin had traded in his bright yellow camper van ‘Bessie’ for something much less embarrassing since she had seen him the day before.

As she emerged, Martin held up a bumper sticker. It read “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE TOO CLOSE TO A LEVEL SEVEN WIZARD!”

“The perfect shade of yellow to match Bessie!” he said. “Eh? Scarlett? Eh?”

Truly, truly tragic, thought Scarlett.

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