THE ROCKING CHAIR
‘MUM!’ Polly leaned over the banister rail and called down to her mother, busy directing the removal men. ‘Mum, can I have the attic room?’
Her mother, frowning distractedly, glanced up. ‘Attic room? I don’t remember an attic.’
‘Where’s this to go, Mrs Rutland?’ Polly’s mother stared at the table distractedly before waving her hand in the direction of the door on her left.
‘In there for now.’
‘Can I mum?’ Polly persisted.
‘Can you what?’ She started to walk away, not listening. ‘Lizzie, have you found the kettle yet?’
Polly grinned. Her mother hadn’t said no and she dumped her backpack on the floor, staking her claim to the little room before her sister, Lizzie, saw it. And that included the rocking chair.
It was set at an angle in front of a small dormer window and Polly had planned to sit in it and inspect the street from this handy watch point. But someone had beaten her to it.
‘Lizzie, this is my room!’ she protested. ‘I asked mum—’ But the girl in the rocking chair was not her sister. ‘Who are you?’
The girl did not speak, just rocked gently back and forth in the chair, her arm around a battered rag doll. The rockers made no sound against the bare, wooden floor.
‘Who are you?’ Polly demanded again, crossly. ‘This is my room.’
‘It used to be mine.’
The girl’s voice rustled, like tissue paper and Polly, not known to back down over anything, took a step back. ‘Did it?’ Then, ‘Well, we’ve moved in now so you’ll have to leave.’
The girl turned to look at her. ‘I know. I keep telling them that want to go, but I can’t.’
‘Don’t be silly…’ Polly started firmly enough but the girl’s face was so suddenly pleading that she trailed off. ‘You must.’
‘I will. I you’ll help me.’
‘Polly? Polly! Are you all right?’ Polly looked up from the rocking chair into her mother’s concerned face. ‘I’ve been calling and calling. You must have been asleep.’ She looked around and shivered. ‘Are you sure you want this room? It’s very... I don’t know…’ She rubbed her arms briskly. ‘It wasn’t on the house details and the agent never brought us up here. Almost as if he didn’t know. Or didn’t want us to see it.’ She shook her head, half laughed. ‘That’s just stupid. Everyone wants an extra room.’ She glanced around again, and then said, ‘Have you been picking lavender from the garden?’
‘No.’ But as Polly opened her hand she saw that she was clutching a dry, crumbled stalk. It was almost unrecognisable as lavender, but the scent was still strong. ‘I, um, found it up here,’ she said.
’Oh, right. Well, Dad’s been out to fetch some pizza.’
‘Wicked!’ It had been hours since breakfast. ‘Who used to live here?’ Polly asked, following her mother downstairs. ‘Was there a girl about my age?’
‘Just a young couple, I think. Too young to have a daughter of twelve. They had to move quickly which is why we managed to get the house so cheap.
Her mother turned and looked back. ‘Why what?’
‘Why did they have to move quickly?’
‘Who knows? New job, maybe? Like your dad.’
After her bed and chest of drawers had been carried up to the little room, and a rug had been found for the floor, Polly returned to the rocking chair.
She could see the whole street from her perch in the roof. There were some boys playing with a football. A woman was taking her time about mowing a tiny scrap of lawn while she eyed up her new neighbours.
An old lady was walking along the street carrying some flowers and, as she stopped at their gate, she looked up at the attic window. As she saw caught sight of her sitting there, the flowers dropped from her hand, spilled onto the path as she clutched at the gate, her mouth moving.
Polly watched her mother running down the path to help the lady into the house. Her sister Lizzie picked up the flowers. Then she looked up, too. Polly poked out her tongue.
She didn’t go down. She was watching for the girl who must have snuck into the house while everyone was busy. She must live nearby. She wasn’t left in peace though, instead Lizzie burst into the room. ‘Mum says you’re to come downstairs this minute!’ She couldn’t resist a smirk. ‘You’re in big trouble!’
In the kitchen her mother was pouring the old lady a cup of tea. ‘At last. Didn’t you hear me calling?’ Then, turning to the old lady, ‘You see, Mrs Potter? It was my younger daughter, Polly, you saw in the window.’
‘No. It wasn’t.’ The old lady looked pale and shaken, but her voice was firm. ‘It was Emily. She was much fairer than your daughter. All gold and white she was, poor little girl. Like a little angel until she took so ill. Then she used to sit there, all day, watching what went on. It gave me such a turn when I looked up and saw her.’
Polly recognised Emily at once as her visitor in the rocking chair. Okay, “white and gold” was a bit over the top, but she’d had fair hair and really pale skin.
‘Does she still live around here?’ she asked.
‘Sssh!’ her mum said, trying to shut her up. ‘Mrs Potter has brought us some flowers to welcome us to the house.’
But the old lady smiled at her, said, ‘No, dear. She was lost. During the war. Her mum and dad and Emily were in the air raid shelter in the garden when it took a direct hit.
‘Were they all killed?’ she asked.
‘Polly!’ She gave her the “look”. ‘See if you can find the biscuit tin.’
But Mrs Potter, recognising a kindred spirit, leaned forward. ‘Emily’s mum and dad were found in the shelter,’ she half whispered, ‘but there wasn’t a trace of poor Emily.’
Polly felt a shiver run through her. ‘Didn’t anyone look for her?’
‘They looked. When they couldn’t find her they thought she might have wandered off. Lost her memory, maybe.’ She paused. ‘She never turned up, though and I don’t believe she ever left. She’s still here somewhere, you mark my words.’
Polly’s eyes widened. ‘You mean out there? In the garden?’
‘Biscuit, Mrs Potter?’ her mum said sharply. ‘Polly, take your dad out his tea before it gets cold. Now.’
Outside, her father was surveying a cleared patch of ground.
‘Is this where the garage is going to be?’ Polly asked as she gave her dad a mug of tea.
‘That’s right. I had some men clear the site as soon as we exchanged contracts on the house. The concrete will be coming tomorrow for the floor slab.’
She looked around. The garden was a mess. Neglected. ‘What was here before?’
Her dad laughed. ‘What wasn’t! Piles of rubbish, overgrown bushes, even part of the old air raid shelter from the war. It must have been… Polly?’
The empty rocking chair was moving gently by the window. ‘Hello, Emily,’ she whispered.
‘I’m here. I want to help. Tell me what to do.’
‘Show them,’ the papery voice commanded. ‘Show them where I am.’
‘But I don’t know –‘
‘Sit here and you’ll see.’
As Polly took a hesitant step forward the rocking chair moved invitingly and she lowered herself into it. Closed her eyes.
‘Emily!’ Her mother was standing in the shelter doorway. ‘What are you doing?’
The sweet scent of the lavender lining the path was strong and she stopped to break of a piece to take with her into the stuffy shelter.
Polly was digging with her hands. Her fingers were clawing, tearing at the earth as her father grabbed her, lifting her away.
‘Stop it!’ He shook her. ‘Polly! What are you doing? What is it?’
‘It’s Emily!’ She struggled to free herself. ‘Emily’s buried here. She showed me. Please, daddy! You’ve got to help me find her!’
Mrs Rutland took her daughter from her husband’s arms, and said, ‘I think you’d better cancel the concrete, Peter. And fetch your spade.’