I don’t have a guest post for you today, so instead you shall have another story. This one was written for Emily Dodd, who said “You know those dog multi-leads? Well a man used to come into my bedroom with wolves on a multi-lead or sometimes… sharks. The sharks swam in air. Thankfully it hasn’t happened for 20 years or so, he’s probably working in Disney land (:” Enjoy.
Once Upon A Time, there was a little boy called Bartholomew Benjamin Crannington-Hill, a name he had inherited from Irish-American parents along with a small leather suitcase and a pair of green and white striped pyjamas. Unfortunately those were the only things he had to remember them by, for Mr and Mrs Crannington-Hill tragically died at sea when their son was only a baby.
At least, that’s what everyone told Bartholomew Benjamin. In actuality his parents were alive and well, but were so chronically forgetful they had merely set down his basket on a park bench on the way home from the hospital and forgotten all about him.
Well, I say it was a basket, but of course it was the little leather suitcase, for Mr and Mrs Crannington-Hill had been so busy gesticulating about the contractions they had quite forgotten to bring the lovely basket with them to the hospital (even though they had purchased it solely for the purpose of transporting their bundle of joy back home) and had to make do with Mr Crannington-Hill’s briefcase, lined with a pair of Mrs Crannington-Hill’s pyjamas.
But all this talk is by the by. A passing nun observed what appeared to be two people abandoning their baby on a bench and walking off merrily together, and vowed never to let the poor child know what cruel fate his unfeeling parents had thrust upon him. She concocted the ‘died at sea’ story with the help of her brother, a monk with aspirations of piracy, and deposited the infant Bartholomew at a nearby orphanage.
This was not the sort of orphanage you read about in stories, where the children are made to bathe in cold gruel and grow their own food in a yoghurt pot on the windowsill using stones instead of seeds.
In point of fact it was an alright sort of a place, run by a woman called Martha who did her best, and by and large the orphans all got along with one another because there didn’t seem to be much point in fighting when they were all in the same abandoned boat.
However, there was one thing that troubled Bartholomew greatly, and if you are sitting comfortably I will tell you about it now. Actually, I’ll tell you even if you’re hanging upside down from a tree singing Nelly the Elephant, but I’m only going to say it once so it’s in your best interests to quiet down and pay attention.
Now, Bartholomew found it hard to sleep at night. He had tried all sorts of things to help him settle down, from warm milk to counting sheep to running a marathon to tire himself out, but somehow whenever darkness fell he was as wide awake as a pumpkin without any eyelids. Martha eventually told him he must just be nocturnal, and said he could stay up as long as he didn’t keep any of the other children awake.
This in itself was not a problem. The thing was, it got very boring being the only person who was awake at night. What with everyone else being asleep, there was nobody Bartholomew could talk to.
He made do for as long as he could, but there came a time when Bartholomew had read all the books in the place, and figured out the jigsaws, and drawn so many pictures he could hardly hold the pencil any longer. He couldn’t think of any other quiet activities to do, so he took to stalking around the corridors of the orphanage in his socks, keeping watch.
He wore his mother’s old pyjamas as sort of a uniform, even though they were much too big for him and smelled of peppermint. They made him feel bigger and older than he was, which he thought would give him more confidence if he ran into any danger.
The first two nights were uneventful, and he didn’t need his mother’s big pyjama confidence at all. But on the third night, Bartholomew saw something that unnerved and perplexed him in equal measure.
He was patrolling the nursery wing, which contained a group of orphans under five who were all as bright as buttons and owned an impressive array of speech impediments, when he saw a strange shadow sliding under one of the doors.
It was spooky and sinister, and definitely seemed like the sort of thing he ought to investigate.
Bartholomew pulled up his collar and spiked up his hair to make himself appear larger just as Davie Attenburgers had taught him, and crept towards the suspicious door. He pushed it open very slowly, and with a deep breath, stuck his head into the room.
Standing in the moonlight, staring at the twins (who always wound up sharing a bed even though they each had once of their own, I’ve already told you it was a perfectly nice orphanage) with menace in his manner was a strange man, who Bartholomew had never seen before.
He was dressed in a long green coat whose hem reached nearly to the floor, and on his head he wore a tatty hat with wide brim and a feather. In his hand he held a lead, which linked to four other leads, which had four enormous wolves attached. The wolves were staring hungrily at the twins, and they looked skinny and malnourished, like they hadn’t eaten in a while.
One made a growling noise in the back of its throat and Bartholomew gave a little shout of surprise. The twins didn’t stir, but the man snapped his head round and looked Bart straight in the eye. He bared his teeth, which were thin and pointed like the wolves’, and snarled at the boy. Then all at once the man and the wolves disappeared. It was like they evaporated into the shadows, leaving Bart and the twins alone once more.
“Bart?” said one, although he couldn’t tell which twin it was as they were both entirely identical in each and every particular, “Bart, is that you?”
“Hush little twinny,” Bartholomew said kindly, “it is me, I was just coming round to see that everyone was sleeping safe and sound. Go back to sleep, to dream of iced pickles and eggs with lovely bows on.”
“That sounds nice,” the twin said agreeably, and off she went back to the realms of sleep.
Bartholomew tippy toed out of the room and let out a big long whoosh of air. He didn’t think the wolf man would come back tonight, but what about tomorrow? Those beasts had looked mighty hungry, and the way they looked at the children made Bart feel sick to the stomach.
In the morning he made up his mind to tell Martha what he had seen, but she did not react at all in the way he thought she would. Instead of expressing concern and perhaps calling the police, Martha said to him,
“Bartholomew, I thought we agreed that if you weren’t able to sleep you would stay in your room as quiet as could be, reading a book or some such?”
“I know Martha, but I’ve read all the books in the place,” said Bart, “and I was ever so quiet on my tippy toes.”
“And yet you say you woke the twins?”
Martha’s expression was stern and unforgiving.
“Well, maybe one of them,” he admitted, “but twas only for a moment!”
“You can’t go cavorting around in the middle of the night, waking up the little ones and all,” she said. “It’ll be anarchy by the end of the week. And it’s no wonder you think there are monsters and bad men around the place if you never give yourself any rest, now is it? You must stay in bed and get a good night’s sleep once in a while.”
Bartholomew thought about this for a while with his logical brain.
“Alright Martha,” he agreed, “I will stay in bed tonight and try to sleep.”
But when it came to night time, Bartholomew Benjamin Crannington-Hill found he could not sleep in the slightest.
He tossed and he turned and he sighed and he moaned, but sleep evaded him utterly until he found himself once again slipping on his big pyjama uniform.
As he got dressed, he thought he heard a sound from the room at the end of the corridor, which was shared by a girl called Lucy and her little brother, Alfred.
They were new to the orphanage and didn’t speak a lot, as they had recently seen their parents killed in a terrible accident and were so traumatised by the experience they could never tell anyone what had happened.
Very quietly, Bartholomew opened his bedroom door and crept along the corridor to Lucy and Alfred’s room. The door was ajar and the bedside light was on, which meant they must not be asleep.
With his heart in his mouth and his lungs in his throat, Bart pushed the door a little further open so he could see into the room.
The strange man in the green coat was there again, standing at the end of the bed with his growling, snarling wolves. Lucy was sitting up in bed, looking at him defiantly, but her little brother Alfred was nowhere to be seen.
For some reason the wolves didn’t seem to notice Bart this time, and he was able to listen to what was going on.
“A deal is a deal,” the man was saying, as Lucy pulled the bedclothes tight around her.
“You broke your side,” she said, “I don’t have to give you anything.”
“It’s not my fault what happened to your parents,” the man said, “I kept my end of the bargain, they came back from India like you wanted.”
“But I didn’t get to see them,” Lucy wailed, “they came back in an urn! That wasn’t what I wanted!”
The man sniffed.
“Should’ve been more specific,” he said. “Anyway, what’s mine is mine. And it’s time for you to pay up.”
“I’m not giving you my brother,” Lucy replied, and then there was just the teeniest movement from behind the curtains and Bartholomew realised with a sinking feeling that the stranger had just discovered Alfred’s hiding place.
“Stop right there,” he found himself saying, stepping purposefully into the room.
“You again?” the stranger said, whirling around in surprise and giving Alfred just enough time to hide elsewhere. “I don’t think I like you very much, Bartholomew Benjamin Crannington-Hill.”
“How do you know my – ” Bart said, but the man and his pets disappeared once again.
“He knows everyone’s name,” Alfred explained dolefully, crawling out from under the bed. “It’s his bithnith to know.”
“What deal did you make with him?”
“We said that if he brought our parents back safely from their research trip to India, we’d give him anything he asked,” Alfred said. “But what he asked for was me.”
“And he brought them back dead,” Lucy added, “killed in a flood trying to help some local people float to safety in a tree.”
“That’s terrible,” Bart said, and the other two nodded their agreement. “What are we going to do about it?”
Alfred and Lucy exchanged puzzled looks.
“We? Do? It? About?” they chorused like confused weasels.
“Well I can’t leave you to it, now that I know,” Bart pointed out. “That would be awful. But we probably can’t rely on Martha to help. She doesn’t believe this man exists.”
“Neither did the police officer who told us about our parents,” Lucy remembered. “I don’t think grown ups can be trusted to help with this.”
Then all of a sudden there was a terrible scream from the other end of the orphanage, where the nursery children slept.
Right away the three of them were on their feet and running towards the sound, but when they got there it was much too late. Martha was there, staring at the twins’ empty bed and crying and crying.
“They’re gone,” she said, “the twins are gone.”
And where their sleeping bodies usually lay in a tangle of identical limbs and snottery noses, there was a piece of flowery nightie flecked with redness.
“It was that man, Martha,” Bart said urgently, “you must believe me now!”
She looked at him hard, through bloodshot eyes. He seemed to believe what he was saying, in spite of how mad it made him appear.
Martha broke down then, falling to the floor with a bump.
“I didn’t want to believe it was him,” she said thickly, putting her head in her hands. “Nobody has heard from him in so many years, I began to think he was just a dream.”
“You mean you’ve met him before?” Lucy asked, sitting next to Martha and holding her hand in what she hoped was a comforting sort of way.
Overcome with emotion, all Martha could do for a while was nod. Then she managed to compose herself enough to tell the tale.
“When I was a little girl, no older than the twins, I lived in this orphanage myself. My parents disappeared in the fog one night and never returned, and I was far from being the only one.
I didn’t like it here at first, because the older children used to frighten us with stories about how the place was haunted. Or at least Doris – she was the lady who ran the orphanage then – told me they were only stories.
‘They’re just trying to frighten you, Martha,’ she would say, ‘you mustn’t pay them any mind, that’s just what bigger brothers and sisters like to do.’
But Doris was wrong. They weren’t trying to frighten us, they were trying to warn us.
There was a man, you see, who used to come at night and take the little ones away. He would lure them with promises of bringing their parents back to them, but he never did it. It was said he took them away to eat their souls, although nobody knows for sure what he did with the babies he stole. One thing is for certain, though – they were never seen again.”
“Did you ever see him, Martha?”
“Once. He came into my room, all tatty and menacing, and I was frightened… but I thought he couldn’t hurt me because Doris had told me he was just a dream. And I knew she must be right, because he had four speckled sharks with him, just floating there in mid air. That was how I knew it couldn’t be real.”
“He has wolves now,” Lucy said, staring uneasily at the scrap of fabric in Martha’s trembling fingers.
“But why has he come back now? Nobody has seen hide nor hair of him since I was ten years old… the night Danny Morgan vanished.”
“Perhaps one soul lasts him eighty years,” Alfred suggested pragmatically.
“She isn’t ninety,” Lucy hissed, aware of the social taboo of discussing ladies’ ages, but Martha didn’t seem to notice.
“You might be right,” she says. “And perhaps when he reappears, he brings the animal the last child was most afraid of? Danny was terrified of wolves. He used to cry when he saw a dog.”
They pondered this for a while, turning it over in their brains until Bartholomew felt a long enough time had passed for him to say urgently, “But how will we get the twins back?”
Martha shrugged helplessly.
“I don’t think we can. That man is not of this earth, that much is plain. The best we can hope is that when he takes their souls, it’s painless and quick.”
“This is why parents die all the time,” Bart said in disgust, seeing kindly Martha with new eyes and not entirely liking what was in front of him, “as soon as something terrible and inexplicable happens they just sit down in the dust and give up. Well I’m not going to give up. I’m going to find out what happened to the twins and I’m going to rescue them from that horrible old man, or my name isn’t Bartholomew Benjamin Crannington-Hill.”
Meanwhile in the shadows, the horrible stranger with his great long coat and his tatty old hat listened to what young Benjamin said, smiling evilly to himself.
And he waited.