“I want Ted to come.”
Ted’s scowling little sister wrapped her arms round his waist and buried her pout in his stomach. Behind her their mum swung the last suitcase into the car.
“Can’t, sorry.” He gave Sarah a cuddle in return. “I’ve got a job to go to.”
“Ted’s a working man now, sweetheart,” said their mum. She came over to give Ted a last kiss. “Isn’t that grown up?”
“Yes,” agreed his stepfather, stepping between mother and son. “All grown up.”
Barry and Ted squared up to each other, man and boy.
People liked Barry. Ted had been told by well-meaning strangers, who otherwise seemed to be completely sane, how lucky he was to have Barry as a stepfather. It had even been said they looked like father and son. Some of his mum’s friends at church had been heard to describe Barry as a dish.
Barry was middle-aged, Ted was sixteen. Barry packed a lot of bulk compactly onto a muscular rugby player’s frame while Ted was slim and wiry. Barry’s chin was rough with blond designer stubble; Ted was still clean shaven by nature. But at least they were the same height and could look each other straight in the eye.
Barry waited until he heard the car doors close. Then he leaned forward and spoke with a quiet, quick urgency.
“I know exactly how much booze we have in the house. I’ve measured the levels in the decanters and your mum’s jewellery has been locked away.”
Ted grinned without any humour.
“I don’t nick stuff that’s worth anything. Didn’t you read the leaflets?”
Now Barry leaned in even closer.
“Don’t talk to me about leaflets! As far as I’m concerned you deserve to be put away. Unfortunately that’s the one thing that would break your mother’s heart more than what you’re already doing. So don’t go hiding behind leaflets.”
“Gee, thanks. I think they said something about an affirming family atmosphere but I guess you didn’t get that far either.”
Barry scowled, and stepped away, and looked around, and stepped back. He seemed to be coming to the conclusion of some mighty internal struggle.
“Maybe this will be where you finally slip up and get what’s coming to you. Or maybe, just maybe, a week of responsibility on your own is exactly what you need to snap out of yourself. But to stop you getting into any more trouble than you’re already in … hell, take these.”
He pressed something small and square into Ted’s hand. Ted’s fingers closed on it automatically. He opened them up and looked down at a packet of condoms.
“Oh, bloody hell, Barry!” he exploded.
“Keep your voice down!” Barry hissed. “Your mum thinks I’m giving you money. Coming!” He turned back to the car and got in at the driver’s side. Sarah wound down her window and waved.
“Bye, Zits! You’ve got to give my love to Mr Furry.”
“’Course I will, Ugly. He’ll really miss you.”
The cat had last been seen curled up asleep in the airing cupboard, showing no sign of missing anyone.
“And say hi to Robs.”
“I’ll go and visit him every day,” Ted promised, this time meaning it. He had already made the same promise to Robert himself, even if their brother was in no condition to understand it.
“Remember Auntie Sue.” His mum leaned over and called out of Barry’s window. “You’re to call her if you need anything. In fact, call her anyway to let her know you’re okay.”
“What’s this? I have an Auntie Sue? Why was I not informed earlier?”
His mum frowned.
“And did you have to wear that t-shirt?”
Ted glanced down. The pattern on his shirt showed glowing letters exploding out of a computer monitor to tell the world that he was Geek and Proud.
“Yes,” he said. She just shrugged, and mouthed “o-kay” silently, and went back to putting her seatbelt on.
“You’d better get going,” Barry advised. “Don’t be late for work on your first day.”
“Oh, right.” Ted waggled the condoms. “I’ll keep these for later, then.”
His mum looked puzzled and the furious glare from Barry as he revved the engine was something to relish. The car pulled away with Sarah waving through the rear window. Ted waved back until the car was round the corner of Henderson Close.
He had a stab of conscience about brandishing the condoms around in front of his little sister. But, honestly! Couldn’t the man trust him to do anything right?
Then he decided Sarah was in Year 5 and almost certainly knew what condoms were. But she would still demand an explanation and Barry would be horribly embarrassed to have to give it. In fact, with a bit of luck she’d bring the subject up at inappropriate moments throughout their week in Rome, and that thought made him feel a lot better.
He stuffed the box into a pocket and went into the garage to fetch his bike.
Rush-hour traffic would already be backing up along the A338 into Salisbury, so Ted took the shortcut through East Harnham, past rows of Victorian terraced houses and over the bridge. After that the road turned sharp right to join the main road. Ted did what none of the cars could do and turned left, scooting down a row of sleepy medieval cottages and through the Harnham Gate into the south end of the cathedral Close.
Ted liked the Close. Ever since he had started going to school here, he had liked to pretend he was passing into a parallel world as he entered it; that when they put the Close wall up all those hundreds of years ago, they had encircled a little bit of fourteenth century, which continued to develop in its own way. The thick stone walls blocked out the real world’s traffic rumble. Despite his tyres hissing on tarmac and the cars and streetlights and the satellite dishes on the old rich townhouses, he felt he was in a small bubble of time, the private heart of Salisbury.
The cathedral sat to his right, bridging the gap between centuries. Later in the day, when the tourists had woken up, it would be posing for a thousand camera shots with sedate medieval dignity. The West Front was clean and gleaming from its years of restoration. For so much of Ted’s childhood it had been hidden behind scaffolding and safety netting but now, revealed in all its glory, it always made him think of a perpendicular fractal diagram – an endless recursion of niches full of saints and kings he had never heard of. He often thought that modelling the West Front on a computer would be an interesting challenge, but he had never quite got round to it.
He cycled up the West Walk and round Chorister’s Green. For just a second his good mood flickered as he looked down the North Walk to where his old school was. That had been a good five years of his life, even if he was out of it now – one step ahead of the boot, as Barry had so thoughtfully put it. So, he told himself, let it be in the past. He turned resolutely left, out through the solid medieval gatehouse into the High Street. Now he had to slow down to accommodate the pedestrians already accumulating in the gate’s narrow bottleneck. He stood on his pedals and weaved his way through them, just the occasional kick giving him the power to keep moving. Across the traffic lights and he was into the pedestrianised part of the High Street, then turning right at the other end against the one-way traffic into New Canal. He hopped off to push his bike for the remaining fifty yards to the Agora Bookshop (‘Rare and Antiquarian Books Our Speciality’) behind the taxi rank.
His carefree mood vanished as two policemen snagged themselves in his peripheral vision, strolling out of the alley leading to Butcher’s Row. He kept walking – always keep walking, just act normally – but every sense was suddenly engaged in keeping track of them. Their uniforms were light blue so they were what Barry called ‘only’ Police Community Support Officers, not ‘real’ coppers. Anyone with the power to deprive you legally of liberty was quite real enough for Ted. But it wasn’t like there was a large flashing sign over his head saying ‘arrest me’, so he let himself enjoy the feeling of having a clear conscience and walking past two coppers who didn’t even know he existed.
There was a litter bin on the pavement next to the shop. He pulled out Barry’s box of condoms and looked thoughtfully at them. On the way in, he had thought that maybe he should put the box back in the bathroom cabinet with just one left, for Barry to find. Trouble was, his mum might find them first.
Going to stay a virgin for another day, he thought ruefully, and tipped the box into the bin. He hadn’t expected that to change on his first day at work anyway, so it wasn’t a heart-breaking disappointment.
He put the matter out of his mind and pushed the shop door open.
A bell jingled. There wasn’t anyone else about. The shop was brightly lit and friendly, with pine shelving on the walls for the books and polished floorboards underfoot. Since he had been in for his chat with the owner, Mr Jackson, they had added a couple of free standing bookcases that came up to about chest height, and the place had started to fill up with books. The books themselves were a strange counterpoint to the feeling of openness and light. They smelled of must and leather; their spines were shades of tan and brown and black. They looked and smelled old. No DVD section, then, Ted thought wryly. He couldn’t picture there being much drop-in trade, but Mr Jackson had already told him that most of the shop’s income was expected to come through mail order and the web. Ted already had ideas in that direction: the shop’s site was an off-the-peg design from an internet supplier, pitiful to behold and badly needing a redesign. He would enjoy the work.
Over to one side was a desk with a till and a computer and a phone. All were brand new. Ted’s gaze slid over them while he was looking around for someone to talk to, and then slid back again. The phone was modern and black, digital and cordless. He picked it up and hefted it. Neat. It felt good. Its matt, moulded plastic was snug against his skin. His fingers fitted exactly into the smooth curves of the casing. Not too heavy, not too light. It belonged exactly in his hand.
No, it belongs on the desk!
But it could just slip into his pocket. It was a perfect fit. It could be a part of him and there was no one about to see.
“Hello,” said a bright voice. Guilt transitioned jarringly into other feelings altogether as Ted looked round. He was used to admiring fit girls in tight clothes, from a distance. He was totally unused to having to bite his tongue to stop himself saying “Wow.”
He guessed she was a bit older than him – maybe early twenties. She looked like she had started to transform into a Goth but about halfway there had decided to stop because she had enough to work with. And she did. Her hair was dark and shaggy, though it didn’t look black enough to be dyed so was probably a natural very dark brown. Her eyes were shadowed lightly but from out of the dark depths they shone with humour and good will. Only three or four ear rings on either side. She wore a loose coat that came down to her knees, and tight jeans, and a top … Ted decided he had better not look too closely at the top or he might never look away again. But, wow.
Her smile was wide and friendly, completely open.
“You’re a bit young for a typical customer so you must be Ted.”
“Uh – yeah. I’m Ted Gorse. I’m starting here today–”
“Hi. I’m Zoe.” She came forward into the shop and held her hand out. Fortunately the phone was in his left hand so he could shake hands with the right. “Malcolm and Diana are through the back. Would you like some coffee? I just put some on.”
She went on ahead and Ted took the half-second opportunity to put the phone back. The utterly bastardly treacherous little heap of junk beeped when it slid into its cradle. She paused and looked back, one eyebrow raised.
“I tripped.” He tried a ghastly imitation of an innocent smile. “Sorry. Clumsy. Oops.”
The other eyebrow went up.
“Nice shirt, by the way,” she said as she turned away.
He had forgotten the t-shirt and it took a lot of self-control not to look down at it in horror. When he had put it on that morning, ‘Geek and Proud’ had been a statement to the world. He was proud. He had acquired his geekery through diligence and practice and hard work. It made him useful to friends and family, it had already got him his first job, and one day it would earn him a living.
In the meantime, though, he was pretty certain that if any female ever agreed to be his girlfriend, the word ‘geek’ would not have been mentioned for at least a couple of hours beforehand, unless prefaced with something like ‘totally not a …’. If he had expected to get into conversation with a well fit woman that day, he would have chosen a different shirt.
“It’s, uh, totally ironic,” he assured her. He plucked at the fabric of his shirt between thumb and forefinger in several different places. “See? Irony. Everywhere.”
“Oh, yes, bursting out at the seams,” she agreed with a grin. “Come on through.”
He followed her through to the back. Her hips had just enough sway in them as she walked to make it a highly rewarding experience. She was perfectly poised in a pair of high -eeled shoes – something Ted had never worked out how women could wear, but with the right sort of woman it made their legs look fantastic, and Zoe was definitely the right sort so he wasn’t going to complain.
At the back of the shop was another room with a small kitchenette in one corner – sink and fridge and microwave – and a door into the toilet. Otherwise the room was an office, less tidy than the front room and with another computer.
“Good to see you again, Ted.” Malcolm Jackson was a tall, thin man in a suit with a loosely knotted tie. He had receding hair, grey and streaked with dark lines, and a sharp face. His eyes were friendly, but shrewd with it. “And this is Diana. I don’t think you’ve met. My wife.”
Diana had neat grey hair in a perm, and glasses, and she looked casual in a blue trouser suit that would have been smart work clothes on Ted’s mum. She had the kind of smile that could never see ill in anyone.
“Glad you could come, Ted.”
“And you’ve met Zoe. She’s the one who actually knows how a bookshop runs.”
“Hi again, Ted.”
Diana passed Ted a cup of coffee and he mumbled a ‘thanks’. He much preferred tea but if coffee helped him fit in then he would drink it. Mr Jackson tilted his head.
“Did I hear you say Ted Gorse? Not Worth?”
It hadn’t occurred to Ted, but now he came to think of it, surnames hadn’t been mentioned at the interview. He shuddered. One more victim of the Barry-trap: one more unsuspecting bystander who thought that Barry had bred and he was the result.
“Barry Worth’s only my stepdad,” he said. He took a sip of the coffee and felt his mouth shrink to half its size. God, that was bitter. He wondered how long he could nurse the mug without drinking what was in it.
“Ah. All he said to me was ‘my son, Ted’.”
“Yeah, he does that.” Ted heard the words as they came out, and realised that maybe he should try and be nicer about his stepfather. The impression he had got, Mr Jackson and Barry went back a long way. “Um, how long have you known each other?”
“Oh, about two months, on and off.” Mr Jackson downed half his mug in one swallow. “He handled the legal side when we set up the shop.”
“I thought … oh.” Ted felt himself begin to smile. He couldn’t help it, so he disguised it by making another stab at the coffee.
“Thought what, dear?” Diana asked. She tilted her head the same way as her husband did when he asked a question, but she made her tone less challenging.
“He’s always taking about ‘us lawyers’ and … I just got the impression you were closer. That’s all.”
“Well, we are both lawyers,” Mr Jackson agreed. There was a twinkle in his eye. “Can’t argue there.”
“Malcolm was a barrister until he retired,” Diana said. She stroked her husband’s back fondly. “Tipped for QC, in fact.”
“Now, dear, that was just a rumour–”
“Oh, stuff the rumours, Malcolm. You’d have been next on the list.”
Ted’s knowledge of the law was sketchy, but he was pretty sure ‘tipped for QC’ ranked higher than ‘partner in a law firm specialising in conveyancing’. He was happy to re-adjust his mental order of precedence and put Mr Jackson well ahead of Barry.
“Well, here I am, anyway,” he said.
“Do you get on with your stepfather, Ted?” Diana asked. He paused, thinking he should still try and be positive. Then he realised that even that pause had answered the question.
“Not really,” he admitted, and took another sip of coffee.
“Bit of a wanker, is he?” Zoe asked.
The coffee that was halfway down his throat shot up his nose, and he could have sworn she had waited until just that moment on purpose.
“That was unkind,” Mr Jackson reproached her, though he was smiling too. He handed the spluttering Ted a paper towel. “The witness is not obliged to answer. Come on, Ted, I’ll show you your stuff.”
Ted’s first ever working lunch break came quickly, and it felt even more grown up than having a job in the first place. The others had brought their own sandwiches. Ted had to wander out into town to buy something.
It was a warm August day and the tall buildings on either side of New Canal hemmed in the heat. Salisbury had livened up since he arrived first thing in the morning at the shop. The one-way system, from left to right, was a solid line of cars. The pavements were crammed to capacity with tourists. He hadn’t realised what a quiet haven the shop was. He surveyed the crowd with the detached amusement of a Salisbury native. He had been born here, grown up here – what did they all see in the place?
He dodged across the traffic crawl and turned into the Old George Mall on the other side of the road. It was an L-shaped passage, a shortcut for pedestrians between New Canal and the High Street. Barry liked to grumble that malls like this could be dropped into any town centre in the country but Ted didn’t see the problem. Before being a mall it had probably been a dingy alley way. He preferred it this way, clean and friendly and full of light, music pounding out of half the shops along the way.
A tour group of French kids were coming down the mall on the other side, in the company of a couple of adults. Ted’s gaze went straight past the bored-looking boys and assessed the girls they were hanging on to. Some of the boys tightened their possessive grips when they saw the English boy looking their way and one of them distinctly gave him the finger. Ted sent a genial thumbs-up in return.
They clustered around a shop window to gaze inside, which meant Ted could safely review the national costume of short tops and hotpants from behind as he walked past. It made him all in favour of a closer European union.
The mall was open to the sky and the bright light stung Ted’s hayfever-sensitive eyes. He began to wish he had brought sunglasses. The crowds tended to hug one side of the mall, staying in the shade where it was cooler, and so sheer population pressure pushed him out into the sunshine. It reflected off plate glass windows and bright stonework, all except for one bit where the light seemed to be sucked out of the air. Ted stopped and frowned, head cocked on one side.
He knew the shops in the Old George Mall and he knew this wasn’t one of them. It should have been a modern clothes shop with a wide window showing mannequins dressed in expensive fashions. Instead it was a rickety, old three-storey building of the kind you saw in museums or movies – charcoal black timbers and grimy off-white plaster in between. The shade that it cast wasn’t cool and welcoming, just gloomy.
“Okay–” Ted murmured. Someone must have put up a fake front over the shop. Were they shooting a movie here? He would have thought they would do up the entire street if that was the case. Maybe it was some kind of historical exhibition. He glanced around for a camera crew but couldn’t see one. Maybe they had only just started doing up the mall and had knocked off for lunch.
Then Ted gaped, because the French group carried on walking past the old building – and without a blink and without breaking step they suddenly were right past on the other side without actually having walked in front of it. It was as if the scene was being replayed and had suddenly jumped forward a couple of seconds.
And there, next to the building on the other side, was the shop Ted had expected to be behind the old frontage. The old place seemed to have been inserted into the mall and the mall seemed to have adjusted to it without it taking up any more space.
“How the hell do they do that?” he murmured. It was a seriously cool effect.
Other people, other shoppers, walking up and down the mall, did the same. They would come up to one side of the old building – and suddenly, just like that, they were on the other side of it. And no one seemed to notice.
Ted stood and gazed. Part of him was just thinking “what the f-…?” and the other part was thinking: so, if I stand next to it and hold my hand out, will my hand appear a few feet away or …?
The mall was turning dim as if a mighty thunder cloud had moved in front of the sun, though when Ted instinctively glanced up he could see the sky was clear. And when he looked back down, his heart began to pound. The gloom that surrounded the house seemed to be spreading, and as it spread, so the shoppers and pedestrians were growing dim too. In fact, they were turning transparent. The noise of chatter and music and traffic faded to a background murmur.
Ted glanced quickly down at his hand, front and back, suddenly desperate for assurance that he was still here: still solid and in full colour. Something bright flashed in the corner of his eye, back in the direction he had come from, and he felt a stab of gratitude because obviously not everything was fading. He looked back and saw the woman.
He couldn’t have missed her because she was easily the most colourful and most solid thing in the mall, and anyway she would have stood out anywhere. Long robes of gold and purple billowed as she moved, bedecked with silver lines and symbols that pulsed with a life of their own, like watching an animation of electrons move along the paths in a silicon chip. She moved through the crowd slowly, peering into the ghostly face of each passer-by; obviously looking for someone, because with each man or woman she would shake her head with impatience and move on to the next. Her lined face reminded him of his grandma’s generation, but while Ted’s grandma was generally nice to be with, her face kind and warm, this woman looked harsh. Her eyes glittered and her mouth was clamped into a straight line. After each disappointment it clamped a little harder.
At first Ted thought she wore a weird kind of hat until he saw it was actually her hair. It was silver with age and cut into the shape of a V so that the point hung down between her eyes. The strands were hung with jewels and gold filigree.
And then those unsympathetic eyes settled on Ted. The mouth quirked slightly in what might have been a small smile and she started to walk towards him. She walked right through a small family of dad, mum and small kid in pushchair, and neither she nor they seemed to notice.
Ted’s nerve broke. He turned and ran.
Somehow he felt she was looking for him, specifically, and he didn’t want to be found. She had too much personal authority, too much command and poise: she would just drag him into the weirdness and never let him go. And so he fled, towards the High Street end of the mall, while his feet splashed in slimy puddles and slithered on smooth cobbles and pounded on flat concrete all at the same time.
The mall was shifting. He could see the High Street at the end as it should be, but the shops he ran past were modern and seventies grey concrete and Victorian red brick and more grimy black and white timber. It seemed like the architects couldn’t decide on what style to go for, so they went for everything and got it all in at the same time. Every structure was distinct in its own style, and they were all there at once. The mall was the same size as ever but with about five times as many buildings in it.
It seemed to stretch out and the end wasn’t getting any nearer. The centuries of Salisbury pressed in on his left and his right. He forced himself to concentrate on the present day, up ahead. He would not look to either side. He would not find himself accidentally part of the 1940s or the 1820s or the 1600s or …
He burst out into the crowded High Street and collided with a very real, very present day and very irritated biker.
“Mind where you’re going, you pillock!”
The man stomped away with a final contemptuous glance over his shoulder, while his black leathers creaked and his buckles jingled.
“Sorry–” Ted stammered after him.
He looked wildly up and down the street. Off to his left lay the gate from the High Street into the Close – a massive fourteenth century arch, ancient and venerable. To his right, the pedestrianised area of the High Street merged into the one-way traffic coming out of the end of New Canal. He seemed to be securely back in the here and now. He had to make sure so, like he was squeezing a really painful spot, something he didn’t want to do but had to, he looked back down the mall.
Everything was twenty-first century. Everything was back to normal.
A hand tapped his shoulder and he shrieked and recoiled. A saintly old granny was peering anxiously up at him.
“Are you all right, dear? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m–” He had to swallow to moisten his mouth a little. “I’m fine. Yes. Thanks.”
“Well, if you’re sure, dear–”
He took the long way back to the shop, not going through the mall.
Zoe drew a breath when he got back in.
“You look like–”
“–I know, I’ve seen a ghost–” He slumped down in front of the computer and pulled the mouse towards him, hoping desperately she would leave him alone.
The strategy backfired after a while, because she began to eat her packed lunch and he realised he had never got round to buying his own. But she gave him one of her sandwiches anyway.
[End of Chapter 1 – return to the homepage for The Teen, The Witch & The Thief]