S11 SAVING A BUCK*

 

1

It was a garden. I didn’t know if it was a secret garden, but it was definitely a garden. A big garden, more like a jungle, with trees, bushes, and flowers jostling each other, climbing over each other, and hanging over the narrow path that wound through it all.

The sun was beating down from a blue sky. The tops of the trees were rustling in the breeze, but the garden was warm and still, and thick with the sweet smell of the flowers.

I slipped my incorporator in my pocket, and listened. Loads of birds were cheeping, and loads of bees were buzzing, but I couldn’t hear anything that might be human.

I crept along the path, ducking under a spiky rose branch that hung from a tree, and squeezing past a big clump of purple flowers that were spreading over the path.

I soon guessed why the garden was so warm and still: it was surrounded by a high wall, usually hard to see behind bushes and trees, and plants that climbed all over it.

What should I do? As usual, it was an urgent mission. Sherlock Holmes hadn’t had time to explain the problem. He said, “Go,” and I went. Should I hide, or should…?

A scraping noise, somewhere near. It might be somebody poking a big key in a big lock. That figured: if this was a secret garden, it would be locked.

Clunk. The key turned in the lock.

Should I wait, and face the person? No: he might be a Wrecker. I’d hide, and hope to find out what was happening before I showed. As the door creaked open, I ducked into a shallow arch, against the wall, covered by a thick layer of pink roses. Its wooden seat had rotted away to a few splinters, so I could back into the corner.

The door creaked again, and shut with a thud. The lock went clunk. Footsteps came along the path towards me, sometimes loud on the bare stone, and sometimes muffled on the moss. With a bit of luck, the person would walk past without spotting me. Then….

I didn’t have that bit of luck. A little girl stopped in the entrance to my arch, and, with her hands on her hips, and her eyes gleaming, demanded, “What are you doing here?”

 

2

She was wearing a blue dress dotted with clumps of white flowers, and carrying a grey book. Her face had a disapproving frown, like a teacher who’d caught me doing something she didn’t like.

I said, “I… I came to see you.”

“Hiding in there: that seems a strange way of seeing me. What is your name?”

“James. James Rodger, but my friends call me Jam.”

“How old are you, James?”

“Twelve.”

“How did you get in here? The gate was locked.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Do I have time to hear it? This is a secret garden, a secret between me and Dickon and Colin, yet I find you, trying to hide in it. Do you wish to explain what you are doing here?”

“Yeah. I want to explain.”

“Then you may do so as we walk around the garden.” She moved off.

I followed her. “What’s your name?”

“Mary Lennox. I’m ten.”

“I’m a Guardian. I….”

“A Guardian. What do you guard?”

“I guard stories. If….”

“Stories? How can you guard stories?”

“I have this thing. It’s called an incorporator.” I brought it out. It’s a dark grey thing like a thick e-book reader, with a screen on one side. The display showed:
Title: The Secret Garden
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Edition: 1985.
Page: 185.

“A what?” She stopped, and held out her hand for it.

“An incorporator.” I let her take it. “It lets me go to any story.”

“Story? Why do you keep saying ‘story’?”

“Back home, I could read about you in that story – The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The incorporator lets me go into that story.”

“I am not part of a story.” She pushed the incorporator into my hands, and walked on.

“I know how you feel. It’s hard….”

“Are you in a story?”

“I don’t know. Like you, I don’t feel like it. I’ve stopped worrying about it. I feel like a person, and that’s all that matters to me. Sherlock Holmes sent….”

“Sherlock Holmes! Do you know Sherlock Holmes?”

“Yes. He’s the Chief Guardian. He sent….”

“He’s in a story too. I forgot, for a moment.”

“It’s confusing. He’s the Chief Guardian. His instruments detected that somebody visited this story without permission. He sent….”

“Someone visited here?” She stared at me.

“Yeah. Have you seen anybody?”

“Wait. Let me think.” After frowning for a few seconds, she went on, “Yes. I can tell you. I found a man here – in the garden – last week. We talked. I happened to say that I would tell Colin and Dickon that I had met him, but he made me promise not to do so. I haven’t told them. But he didn’t make me promise not to tell anyone else.”

“So you can tell me.”

“Y…yes. If you ask.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was a big black man, but he was dressed like the servants in the Hall here.”

“Yeah. When you use the incorporator, it changes your clothes to suit the story you go to.” I held my arms wide, to show my scruffy brown shirt, patched blue breeches, and heavy black shoes. “What did he say to you?”

“He bowed, assuring me that he was my friend, but he would not answer my questions, nor tell me how he came into the garden. I was not sure if I should trust him.”

“Did he want you to do anything?”

“Yes. He asked me if I knew a story called The Call of the Wild, by Jack London.”

“Did you?”

“No, but there is a library in the Hall here. I crept along there, and found it.” She held up the grey book. “He said he would return in a week, when I had read it.”

“Return? Is he coming back? When?”

“Now. That’s why I came to the garden. To meet him.”

“What!” I looked around in alarm, but the garden was still quiet. “Can I hide somewhere, and listen to what he says to you?”

“If you wish.” She frowned for a moment, then said, “I know a place. It’s not far from here. Come with me.”

A bit farther along the path, she stopped at a seat. It had a long wooden plank to sit on, and one to lean on, fixed between curly metal ends. It had been painted green, a long time ago. It was in an alcove sheltered by a hedge, but that had grown wild, filling most of the space behind the seat. She said, “I shall bring the man to this seat, to talk to him. You may hide under it, and listen.”

“Under it? Could I hide under there?”

“Of course you can. You can crawl in from the back. There’s a board across the front, so he won’t see you. Come on: what are you waiting for?”

“Maybe I could hide behind that… that hedge.”

“No. There is no room, and you would not hear. You must hide under that seat.”

“I’m not sure….”

“Are you going to stand there all day, gibbering like a monkey? I tell you: hide under that seat.”

“I’ll take a look.” Reluctantly, I went round the back of the seat. Underneath, the stone slabs were (fairly) dry and clean. A few dead leaves had gathered at one end. I lay down, and wriggled under. The space was just long enough for me to stretch out. I said, “I’m not sure about this.”

“Nonsense!” she said. “It is a perfect place. Move a little forward. I can still see…. Shh!”

There was something in that sudden, “Shh!” that made me lie quiet. In a louder voice, she said, “You have come.”

“Yes indeed, Miss Lennox,” said a man’s voice. “I have come, as I promised I would.”