Mysterious Journey Into Night
Johnny was having trouble with his classwork. Creating a family tree was a complex business after all.
He pulled the sleeve of the girl next to him. "Sarah, what are we supposed to do if we've had two mums?"
She shook her head, blond ringlets bouncing. "You can't. Why don't you look at what I've done and do it properly?"
He glanced at her paper. She had started with herself at the foot of the tree with her age – seven years old – and then continued with her parents and grandparents on the boughs above.
"But my mum died when I was two. Then my dad married Steffi. Steffi says she wants to be my mum now."
Sarah looked thoughtful. "Oh." She patted his arm. "I'm glad you've got a mum again."
Johnny looked down at his paper. "I don't know how old Steffi is and I don't know where to put her. I haven't always known her. But she said she really wants to be my mother."
Johnny had known Steffi for a year before she married his dad. Thinking of Steffi as mum seemed strange, but the times when they had gone on days out with her had always been fun, whether to the fair or the seaside or visiting one another's houses. She was always so nice and had a gift for him each time.
She beamed when he met her in the playground at home time, crouching so as to hug him, her blond hair obscuring his vision. He got the sharp scent of her perfume as he always did. "How was school today, darling?" Steffi had a funny way of pronouncing darling, even though she said it a lot. She drawled a bit with the 'dar,' syllable and made the 'ling' sound like 'link.'
"Very good thank you, Steffi," he replied with practiced politeness. Thinking he should say something more he added, "we had to draw a family tree and write about our families. I decided to put you in as my mum, but sorry… I don't know how old you are and I know it's rude to ask."
She smiled broadly. "Thank you Johnny. And I'm thirty-eight."
"The teachers all say they're twenty-one when it's their birthday."
She laughed, scrunching up her nose. "Some adults just don't want you to know how old they really are."
On the way back Steffi bought him an ice cream and then they stopped in the curios shop. It was quite dingy in here, even though it was not late in the afternoon. Johnny thought the place smelled strongly of dust. The owner was an old lady who seemed to have even more bracelets and bangles than Steffi did. "My new son, Johnny," said Steffi grinning.
Johnny grinned a little awkwardly. "Hello."
The old lady peered at him over her spectacles. "Hello there, Johnny. And congratulations, Steffi."
"So what can you show me today?"
"There is a bracelet with a fertility symbol - for barren women."
Steffi suddenly gave that glare that meant she was going to say something hard. She never spoke crossly to Johnny, but she certainly could to other people. "White and grey magic cannot cure a barren woman and we both know that full well. I would say they're as useless as our medical institutions and the butchers therein." Steffi was breathing a little hard, her breast rising and falling. "So is there anything left to impress me?"
Johnny had heard her talk about magic before. Did she believe in it? She was calling it useless now. Nonetheless, she bought a small silver skeleton ornament and seemed happy again when they left.
Johnny was interested by her skeleton. "Cool. Isn't it like a tiny marionette?" Johnny loved the story of Pinocchio. It had been Steffi who first read it to him and then he had seen Disney's version with its gentler puppet character that he had liked even better. Steffi had been particularly enthusiastic about the idea of Pinocchio coming to life in both versions once Geppetto had created him.
Steffi lightly stroked his hair. "You can hold it, darling."
On the corner of their street, Johnny caught a glimpse of a hooded figure out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned around there was nothing.
"Did you see that? Someone in a cloak and hood?"
"No darling, there was nothing," said Steffi quickly.
Steffi wasn't quite the cook Dad was, but she made spaghetti well enough. She did not make anything for herself, but sat opposite him, smiling at him as he ate. He felt a little self-conscious. He had put the skeleton on the chair next to him. He gestured to it. "I think he should get a seat as well."
"You are a thoughtful young fellow. Do you want him?"
"Y-yes, thank you."
"Then he's yours. Oh, I got something else earlier." Steffi took a small paper parcel from her bag and opened it. Inside was a doll made of lurid green material. Johnny peered at it. It looked home-made, with twigs for arms and legs and leaves for hair. It had little black beads for eyes that seemed to stare at him as she held it out. The sight of it made him uncomfortable.
"What is that for, Steffi?"
She put a hand over her mouth and gazed at him for a moment before answering. "I have insomnia, darling. That means I have trouble sleeping. This is supposed to help, if I hang it over the bed before I lie down for the night. Really, I'd try anything now. It's awful not getting any sleep."
Johnny thought he would find it harder to sleep with such a thing in his room, but he did not say so.
After tea, Steffi wanted to play a game with him. Although Johnny best liked to read on his own in the evenings, playing a game with Steffi was no bad thing. She selected "Escape the Blob" and set it up on the living room floor. She amused him as they played by making the blob piece speak in a gruff voice.
"I wonder what planet he's from?" said Johnny as he lost a swamp hopper piece to the blob. "It would have to be outside the solar system. Nothing lives on the other planets in our solar system."
Steffi leaned across the board, smiling. The rays of the sun streaming through the window lighting up her face. Close to, it looked like she had put yellow glitter in the makeup on her nose and cheeks. "Either that or he's magic."
That reminded Johnny of her words in the curios shop. "Steffi, what does it mean when you say a woman is barren?"
He was surprised by the pained expression in her blue eyes. "I mean that I cannot have a baby, darling. You are a clever boy and have read that book on how the body works and where a baby comes from. Well one thing it doesn't mention is that there are ladies who … cannot have a baby." She was forcing her smile now.
Johnny thought that sounded as though she had wanted to have a baby herself. "Sorry."
She reached out a hand, her numerous bracelets sliding down her arm and lightly touched his cheek. "You are my son now, Johnny. Legally."
Maybe he was legally, but it still seemed strange to call her 'Mum.'
After the blob had cleared the board of little swamp hopper pieces Johnny hinted that he wanted to read now and Steffi took that as meaning that she should test him on his reading. Johnny was two years ahead of his reading level so he showed her that he could read a passage from the Bluestone series. The story is set in a world of anthropomorphic rodents and the first in the series recounts how an order of plucky mice defend their citadel made of blue stone against the aggression of a rat warlord and his horde.
Johnny sat with Steffi on the sofa and read her the passage where the mice debate what to do about the oncoming threat. The villain had the epithet "the Scourge" and at this point in the story, was little known in the Bluestone country. The mice had supposed that he was some sort of bogey that lived in bad dreams and the dark corners of imagination. A silly mousemaid suggested that he was really coming to get them for staying up late. Steffi laughed out loud at this part, scrunching her nose as she always did.
Johnny was glad she enjoyed it. "Isn't the Bluestone country great? Just imagine, mice doing such exciting things. When the Scourge attacks it gets so much better. He's a better villain than Sauron in Lord of the Rings. He actually moves about and does things and in the beginning, he frightens everyone as much as Sauron does."
Steffi pushed her blond hair away from her face. "Sauron never excelled at combat. I recall that in the extended mythology, he always lost when he got in a straight fight. But he was a conniving demon."
Steffi smiled. "That means he was always plotting or scheming. He twisted other characters to his will."
Johnny thought about Middle Earth. "They had magic in that world, but it didn't help them much."
Steffi gave a wry smile. "The story is set in a period of very great general decline, when nothing is at its best anymore. And magic in the world causes problems as much as it helps."
When it came to playing with Magnus, Johnny's hamster, Steffi was keen to be involved there as well. She held Magnus up to her face, wrinkling her nose and making kissing noises. Johnny was pleased that they got on. The ladies often did not like Magnus and Dad virtually never had time to play with the hamster.
Johnny held up a piece of raw carrot. "See what he does when he sees this?" As Johnny expected, Magnus stuffed the entire thing into his cheek pouches, distending them greatly.
Steffi shook her head, her thick yellow hair rippled and bounced. "Oh Magnus, you bite off more than you can chew."
"Look how he changes shape though."
"We'll take care of him, whatever shape he's in. He's family."
Having Steffi in the family certainly made things better for Magnus and maybe for Johnny too.
Dad came back late that evening, after which Johnny retired to bed, taking the skeleton with him. It was more interesting than a teddy bear. He stayed awake reading, the skeleton lying beside him. His parents' voices carried up the stairs. Steffi had by far the more penetrating voice of the two and he could easily make her words out. She was talking about the translation work she had to do and how a deadline was a stressful thing. Then she was talking about him. She referred to him as "my son" rather than by his name. He really ought to call her mum. Or mother. He would have to ask her which.
Magnus was running in his wheel. "Remember Magnus, call Steffi, 'Mum.'"
He heard Steffi's footfalls up the stairs. She had a lighter tread than Dad's. He decided against pretending to be asleep as she opened the door, the lamplight glinting off her nose and cheeks. She kissed him, her strong perfume invading his nostrils.
"How about a lullaby, darling?" She gathered him into her arms and hummed a haunting tune without words. He felt it go round and round his head and he became very relaxed as she held him to her.
"Good night, erm, … mum," he murmured. There he'd done it.
She beamed. "Call me if you need anything, my son." That was really nice. He hoped he could be the son she wanted. He lay back and drifted off into a dreamless sleep. Suddenly he awoke. The sound of a woman moaning and crying was carrying across the landing. He sat up in bed, feeling anxious. Was Steffi unwell? Surely Dad would be doing something?
But Steffi cried louder. Oh for Goodness' sake, Dad! Will you just let her cry? Johnny could not bear to hear her like this. He stood up and slipped out of his bedroom. The landing lights were dim and the landing seemed longer than usual. He stumbled along as though moving through water. Steffi screamed and he snapped out of his lethargy and ran to her door, but then a harsh, guttural sound froze him where he stood. Filled with fear, he remained transfixed as the terrible voice grated and screeched and something heavy moved across the room. The spell of fear released him as if from invisible bonds and he flung open the door and saw –
His Dad lay sleeping in bed, snoring loudly as usual. But Steffi was nowhere to be seen. The window was wide open, the curtains fluttering in the wind. Johnny peered out. The only light was from the street lamps. He was about to shut the window when he noticed three large gouges in the window sill. What could have caused that? It was all so strange. He shook his head in wonder, but there was another surprise. Feathers on the floor by the window. He picked them up. Impossibly large, dark green feathers. What green birds were there in this country? They were much too big to be parrot feathers. He threw them out of the window. More importantly, where was Steffi? Had some huge bird broken in and carried her away? He began to feel sick with worry for her. What did it all mean?