Extract from The Portal By Andrew Norriss
You tend to remember the day your parents disappear. It’s one of those things that stick in the mind. Even years later, William found he could recall not only the day and the date, but things like what shoes his mother had been wearing, and the headline in the newspaper his father had been reading at breakfast.
Most of that day had been perfectly normal. After breakfast, William and Daniel had gone to school as usual. At four o’clock, the bus had delivered them back to the bottom of the road, as usual. They had watched Mrs Duggan’s dog collect Amy, as usual, then walked up the lane to the house, pushed their way in through the back door… and after that, nothing was ever normal again.
On a normal day, there would have been a loaf of bread and some butter set out on the kitchen table, and Mrs Seward would have been standing by the stove, putting two eggs into a saucepan to boil as she smiled a greeting and told Daniel not to leave his bag on the floor. Then Dad would have appeared from his office and asked how things were in the big wide world of school, while he filled the kettle and made the tea.
That was how it was supposed to be. That was how it had always been.
‘Where are they?’ asked Daniel.
‘Maybe they’re working,’ said William, and he buzzed the intercom on the wall, which connected to Dad’s office at the other end of the house. But there was no reply. Which could either mean he was busy, or that he wasn’t there.
Daniel went out to the hall and pushed open the door to the dining room. Their mother’s plant books were spread out on the table – she was halfway through an Open University degree in botany – but there was no sign of Mrs Seward. The two of them went all through the house, calling for her, and then did the same outside, checking the barn and the outhouses before coming back to the kitchen.
‘Looks like they had to go out,’ said William, though without much conviction, because they both knew Mr and Mrs Seward never went out. Not together. They went out one at a time to the shops, or to take the boys to the cinema, but there was always one of them left in the house. There had to be, because of Dad’s work. It was why they never all went on holiday together. There always had to be someone in the house.
William looked round the kitchen to see if there was a note or anything that might explain what had happened, but there was nothing.
‘Are you going to ring the number?’ asked Daniel.
‘Not yet,’ said William. ‘We don’t know if it’s a real emergency.’
But two hours later, when there was still no sign of his parents, he gave in and picked up the phone.
William wasn’t sure when Dad first told him about the number, but it must have been when he was very young. He could remember his father’s big square hands showing him how to push the buttons on the special work-phone in the hall, and explaining how the numbers he should press were written on a piece of card pinned to the wall above it.
‘If anything goes wrong,’ his father had told him, ‘if there’s any sort of emergency, that’s what you do, okay?’
When he was older, William had asked what sort of emergency his father had in mind, but Mr Seward only laughed. ‘There won’t be any emergency,’ he had said, ‘but if there is, that’s the number of the people I work for. They’ll know what to do.’
At half past six, William rang the number and was a little disappointed when all he got was an answering machine.
‘Hi,’ said a man’s voice. ‘You have reached the office of Lawrence Kingston. Please leave a message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.’
William left a message. He said who he was, where he lived, and that he was a little concerned by the fact that his parents seemed to have disappeared. They might simply have gone out for a walk, but if they had it was unusual and… he was concerned.
Two hours later, there was no reply from Mr Kingston, still no sign of his parents, and William did the only other thing he could think of and rang Mrs Duggan.
‘I was wondering if you knew what was going on,’ he said, after he’d explained the situation. ‘Like where they might have gone.’
‘No,’ said Mrs Duggan, who was a woman of few words.
‘They didn’t say anything to you about going out? Or something they had to do?’
‘No,’ Mrs Duggan repeated. Then, after a pause, she added, ‘You want me to come up?’
‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Yes, I would.’
Mrs Duggan was a large, red-faced woman, with frizzy hair tied into a bunch at the back of her head with a length of baling twine, and dressed in bib-fronted dungarees tucked into a pair of Wellingtons. She was accompanied, as she stepped into the kitchen, by Timber, her black and white collie.
‘Still not here?’ she asked.
‘No,’ said William.
Mrs Duggan looked carefully round the kitchen. ‘They didn’t leave a note or anything?’
‘I’ve looked,’ said William, ‘but I can’t find one.’
‘Your Dad’s office?’
Mrs Duggan nodded. The office was usually locked, whether Mr Seward was working in it or not. ‘Have you rung the number?’ she asked. ‘The emergency one?’
William was surprised that Mrs Duggan knew about the number, but said yes, he had dialled it, and left a message.
‘Do you think I should ring the police or something?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said Mrs Duggan. ‘I don’t think your Dad would like that.’ She thought for a moment. ‘Might be a good idea if I stayed here tonight. That okay with you?’
‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Thank you.’ It was odd how much better he felt at the thought of having someone else in the house.
‘I’ll send Timber down to get Amy.’ Mrs Duggan headed for the door again. ‘And I’ll have a look around outside. Check everything’s okay.’
Mrs Duggan’s daughter, Amy, arrived at the back door ten minutes later carrying a small overnight bag and dressed entirely in pink. Pink shoes, pink jeans that hung low on her hips, a crop top decorated with glittering, pink beads, and a pink band in her hair framing a face that some would have thought had rather too much make-up for an eight year old.
Timber the dog waited until William had taken her inside, before going off to find his mistress.
‘Your Mum says you’ll be staying here tonight,’ William explained to Amy. ‘Will you be okay in Daniel’s room?’
Daniel had bunk beds in his bedroom and Amy had slept there before. The two children were almost the same age and spent a good deal of time together, though William sometimes wondered what a girl like Amy could possibly have in common with a boy whose main interest in life was collecting the skulls of dead animals.
While Amy went upstairs, he waited in the kitchen for Mrs Duggan, who appeared, a little later, with Timber.
‘Done the henhouse,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ said William. He’d forgotten the chickens. His mother was the one who usually made sure they were locked up for the night.
‘Had a good look round while I was at it,’ Mrs Duggan continued. ‘All looks like it should.’ She glanced at the clock. ‘Nearly nine. Think I’ll make up a bed on the sofa and turn in.’
William watched television in his bedroom for an hour before making sure that Daniel had turned his light out, and going to bed himself. He lay there, staring at the ceiling, his mind running through some of the things that could have happened to his parents. None of them very pleasant. It wasn’t easy to sleep, but he must have dozed off at some point because he was suddenly aware that he could hear voices. The clock by his bed said it was seven minutes past midnight and, throwing on a dressing gown, he came downstairs to find Mrs Duggan talking to a man in the hallway.
The man was elderly, with a head of closely cropped white hair and a trim white beard that framed a pair of startlingly blue eyes. He was dressed in a loosely hanging, rather crumpled suit, and mopped at his face with a large spotted handkerchief. His face lit up in a smile when he saw William.
‘Well, well, well!’ he said, holding out a hand in greeting. ‘Look at you! Almost a young man!’
‘Who are you?’ said William
‘This is your Uncle Larry,’ said Mrs Duggan.
‘My uncle?’ William looked at her blankly. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m not, strictly speaking, a blood relative,’ said Uncle Larry, ‘but that’s what your father used to call me when he was little.’ He shook William’s hand. ‘Lawrence Kingston. Your parents and I go back a long way.’
‘Do you know what’s happened to them?’ asked William.
‘I do indeed.’ Uncle Larry reached into his jacket pocket. ‘And I have a letter for you from them.’
‘They’ve gone on holiday,’ said Mrs Duggan.
William stared at her.
‘They’re taking a much earned break in France! It’s all in here.’ Uncle Larry held out an envelope. ‘When you read it, you’ll realise there’s nothing to worry about.’
The envelope had To William & Daniel written on the front in his mother’s handwriting and inside William found a single sheet of paper, also in his mother’s writing. It said…
My dearest boys,
By the time you get this, your father and I will be somewhere in France! Dad suddenly decided this morning that what we really needed was a break and next thing you know he’s packing a suitcase and we’re heading for Grenoble and a campsite in the Alps!
We’re not sure how long we’ll be gone. Probably only a few days (but you never know!) and Uncle Larry has very kindly offered to look after you both while we’re gone. BE GOOD! And remember he’ll be looking after Dad’s business as well, so try and help him in any way you can and make sure you do whatever he tells you.
We shall miss you both, but we’ll send a card and maybe try and phone once we get there, but we shall have lots to tell you about when we get back. What an adventure, eh!
William read the letter twice without speaking.
‘They haven’t said how long they’re going to be away,’ he said.
‘No,’ Uncle Larry agreed. ‘I suppose that depends on how it goes. They might be back in a day or two, maybe a week. Let’s hope they enjoy themselves, eh?’
‘How did they get there?’
‘I’m sorry?’ Uncle Larry blinked.
‘To France,’ said William. ‘How did they get there?’
‘They flew. From Stanstead.’ Uncle Larry looked at his watch. ‘By now they should be sitting either side of a little camp fire, cooking a plate of beans under the stars.’ He paused. ‘Look, I’m sorry. This is all my fault. If I’d been here when I promised, you wouldn’t have had all these hours of worry. Unfortunately, after your parents had gone, I realized there were all these things I’d need from the flat. So I went home to get them, thought I’d just lie down for a few minutes to catch my breath and next thing I knew I’d… I’d fallen asleep.’ He gave an embarrassed laugh. ‘I still can’t believe I slept for that long, but I did. It’s been a heavy week, you see, and… and I was tired.’
He looked tired, thought William.
‘I do apologise. The last thing I wanted to do was upset either yourself or Daniel.’
Before William could reply, the telephone rang. It was Dad’s work phone, not the ordinary one, and Uncle Larry answered it. He listened for a moment then replaced the receiver.
‘It’s back to work for me, I’m afraid!’ He turned to Mrs Duggan. ‘Perhaps you could make William a hot drink or something to help him sleep. I’ll be about an hour. If either of you wants to stay up and talk, that’s fine, but it might be better to save it till tomorrow.’
He walked off down the hall into Dad’s office, and William noticed that he didn’t seem to need a key.
Mrs Duggan led the way into the kitchen, Timber padding silently beside her. She collected a pint of milk from the fridge and a saucepan from the cupboard by the stove.
‘You’ve not met your Uncle before?’
‘Not that I remember,’ said William. ‘Have you?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Mrs Duggan found two mugs and a jar of cocoa. ‘And for what it’s worth I reckon you can trust him. Your Dad did.’
William didn’t answer. Uncle Larry might be the sort of person you could trust and he might not, but he knew one thing with a cold certainty that sat in his stomach like an undigested meal.
Whatever else he was doing, Uncle Larry was lying through his teeth.
How do William and Daniel set about trying to find their parents ?
What goes on in the basement?
What is special about Timber the dog?
Who is General Ghool and how does he drink his tea?
Does William carry out his threat to shoot the girls?
For the answers to all these questions and a lot more you’ll need to buy the book!
If it’s not in your local bookshop it’s on Amazon.
Guided Reading available from Badger Learning