Danny and his little brother William lived in a pale yellow house two doors down and across the street with their mother, Poor Ruth, whom I was not to annoy.
‘Don’t annoy Poor Ruth‘ inevitably came after ‘take your jacket‘ whenever I went to play with them. But because I wasn’t sure what was annoying, I simply gave her a wide berth – until she commented to my mother that I was quiet, whereupon the admonition changed to ‘be friendly’. Danny and William’s mum became a bit of an etiquette minefield after that, so I would make a point of paying her a compliment when I arrived, and then I would keep out of her way. This seemed to work and I’ve been using it as a strategy ever since.
Danny and William had moved to our neighborhood from a bigger house the previous year. William said it was because there had been dinosaurs in their basement, but William was very into dinosaurs and tried to weave them into the conversation whenever possible. I know that William had red hair and looked exactly how little kids should look, but I often get his real image confused with that of a boy from an apple snack package. Danny was my age and okay, but there wasn’t much chemistry between us. I don’t remember much about their father before he went into hospital. When he did, members of Poor Ruth’s family took turns visiting her. One of them was Danny and William’s cousin, Anne Marie.
(In later years, the people who didn’t admire and want to be Anne Marie would include her repairmen, her moving men, sales people, customer service representatives and her staff.)
Anne Marie arrived with her mum, Poor Ruth’s Sister, during Easter break. Anne Marie came dressed in a light gray coat with a pink felt beret and carried a pink plastic Barbie purse over her arm which sort of matched the hat, but not really. I thought it looked very sophisticated. I watched the car being unloaded from our bathroom window. By her rapid bobbing and pointing, I could tell that Anne Marie was aching to direct operations and that she feared a disastrous loss of efficiency if left on the sidelines. I had an instant admiration for her and wanted to be her. (In later years, the people who didn’t admire and want to be Anne Marie would include her repairmen, her moving men, sales people, customer service representatives and her staff.)
Anne Marie was certain that the reason for her visit to her cousins was to bring home Danny and William’s father, her Uncle Jim.
‘Mummy and I are here because Uncle Jim’s in hospital’, she announced when we met the next day.
Danny made the constipated-looking face he did a lot. He didn’t like hearing about it. William sort of half-listened to any conversation, picking out just enough information to trigger his imagination which filled in the rest. Sometimes we went along with him, sometimes we didn’t. Reality was decided more-or-less by negotiation.
Anne Marie pieced together events as she remembered them and concluded that the onset of Uncle Jim’s ill health had coincided with the family’s move to the new house – ergo, there had to be something wrong with the house.
‘If anything’s not right it must be fixed before Uncle Jim can get better. So what’s weird in the house?’ Anne Marie demanded.
Danny said it was a silly question. I thought it was that houses shouldn’t be yellow, but this seemed too big an issue to start with.
‘I know!’ chirped William. ‘Everything falls into Winston’s water dish! Mum says so all the time. No matter what falls in the kitchen, it always lands in Winston’s water dish.’
Winston, one of those long-suffering family dogs, sloped away at the mention of his name.
‘Mmm,’ said Anne Marie, and we all waited for her pronouncement. ‘It’s probably a vortex.’
‘Don’t you watch Destination: Space?’ she demanded with disbelief.
‘Of course. But I missed the one with the vortex.’ Nice try, Danny.
‘A vortex is a piece of water – or outer space – that pulls stuff in,’ explained Anne Marie.
‘I thought that was a black hole,’ said Danny.
‘No, that’s a hole in space that things fall into even though it’s sideways. A vortex is like when people are travelling back in time or kidnapped to another planet and it goes all swirly around them.’
‘But things that fall into Winston’s water dish don’t go anywhere. It just makes the floor wet,’ William observed.
‘That’s because it’s just a little vortex. But if you had a really big dog with a really big dish, something might get sucked in all the way.’
We took few moments to ponder very, very big dogs and the utensils which their dishes could attract, but disagreed on the ratio. Predictably, William brought up dinosaurs. Danny demanded to know what we could do about it. Our solution was to make the water long and flat rather than deep, so it would have less swirling power. But Poor Ruth asked why her roasting tin was on the floor and why the dog was climbing into it.
I remembered that, in Anne Marie’s initial lecture, a vortex goes somewhere so, perhaps if we blocked the exit, the dish would turn back into a plain old dish filled with water. It was a fine moment for me. William said ‘Yeah!’, Danny looked relieved and Anne Marie moved quickly on to sizing saucers until she found one that fitted perfectly underneath Winston’s dish.
Then it was time for a test run: Danny dropped a spoon from next to the sink, about three yards from the vortex. It bounced off in the other direction. William nudged an empty carton off the counter a few feet away. It lay where it fell. Success! We launched cutlery and small Tupperware tubs off various work surfaces, but the gateway remained secure. We did not speculate as to precisely how this related to Danny and William’s father, but assumed that any weirdness we fixed would have positive knock-on effects.
I thought this was the end of it but, the next day, Anne Marie was on to Task Two.
‘We have to find some Power Things,’ said Anne Marie. She could have said ‘magic charms’ but she wanted to keep the proceedings firmly rooted in science. It was then that I realized this was no ordinary over-by-teatime diversion. Power Things are part of a True Quest.
As everyone knows, Power Things come with certain conditions and contra-indications: They must be found or given to you by someone interesting and cannot be just another of something you already collect. They lose their power if you tell too many people about them. And there must be a wrong way to use them, like upside down or in front of someone’s sister, which will unleash a pestilence upon the world that requires you to do all sorts of time-consuming things to reverse.
Because we were trying to fix the house, it was decided that these particular Power Things would have to come from Danny and William’s front or back yard. Once outside, we dispersed. The finding of Power Things had to be done alone.
I took the archaeological approach and skirted the rim of the house, reasoning that the most interesting artifacts would lie close to human settlement. Danny took his cue from religious hermits and wandered off into barren regions of the natural world. Anne Marie favoured method, so she experimented with various systems such as divining their location with a forked stick or watching the angle of the sun. William just picked up whatever caught his eye and shouted, ‘Here’s one!’
Anything of note had to be presented to Anne Marie for authentication, accompanied by an explanation of its true nature (as opposed to what it merely looked like) and its exotic origins. Everything approved was then scrutinized by the full committee. The finalists were:
Sioux warrior arrowhead (Danny), even though it had been found on the wrong continent.
Dilithium crystal (Anne Marie)
Tip of wizard’s wand (Me)
Dinosaur egg fragment (William)
We bundled them up in a piece of Egyptian parchment I’d found and were ready to bury them where the front path met the street, when it started to rain. We stuck all the Power Things in a pot plant near the front door and I ran home.
Mum asked where I’d been and what I’d been doing, but I knew it was more urgent to get to my room and out of those wet things so I wouldn’t catch pneumonia. No time period was ever given between the continued wearing of wet clothes indoors and the onset of pneumonia, so I assumed it was instant. And it could have far more serious consequences: From snatches of adult conversation, I had gathered that if you got very, very wet, you might wind up like Danny and William’s dad, who must have got so waterlogged that he had to go to a special hospital to dry out. I assumed they had him under sunbeds or something.
It’s a universal standard for quests that tasks come in threes and each must be more challenging and magnificent than the last. We were now on day three, so I was anxious to know what Anne Marie had cooked up.
‘We have to discover a secret,’ she said soberly.
My mind raced through every undetected misdeed I’d committed in the previous year. Not telling Sharon-The-New-Girl where the rope swing was when she asked was probably the meanest. I debated whether our Great Cause was worth raking all that up.
‘I know a secret Annnnneee Marrrrie’, said Danny slyly, making every word very long with a raised end. ‘William likes you.’
William’s face grew red and looked like it was going to implode. He kicked Danny on the leg and ran from the room.
Anne Marie sighed, giving Danny a dirty look. ‘Not that kind of secret.’
She went to find William and we followed, a few feet behind, to watch from the doorway. Anne Marie knew this, of course, and we all got in place for The-Bit-Where-The Girl-Tells-The-Guy-She-Can’t-Marry-Him.
‘I can’t marry you William,’ she declared, giving a short, theatrical look away. ‘I like Ricky MacIntyre who plays Tommy on Don’t Tell Your Father. And then Shona Johnson’s brother Gordon. Plus, you’re two years younger than me. It can never be.’ She put a hand on his shoulder and they both looked down. ‘But you can be third if you like.”
‘Okay,’ said William, heartened.
Lucky for all of us, the secret had to be in the house itself, like a locked room or secret passageway. Anne Marie told us that these could be detected by tapping on the walls. None of us knew what a secret room sounded like. I imagined one’s knock would reverberate in a long, drawn out echo with maybe a splash at the end. Or, after a second or two there would be a KNOCK BACK! I scared myself and tapped really softly after that.
Danny liked this bit because he’d seen his Dad do it during DIY projects. He said ‘hmm’ a lot and looked up and down the wall, tapped again, tapped next to it and mumbled ‘joist’ or ‘spanner board’. William didn’t get it at all and just followed Anne Marie’s movements exactly, tapping where she had just tapped.
We’d been everywhere except the parents’ bedroom – which was off-limits – and the kitchen, where Poor Ruth and Sister were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. We’d only just flopped down in the living room when Danny beheld something:
‘Look,’ he cried, and we all did. There, behind the piano, was the faint outline of a plastered-over doorway
In the movies, a choir would have come in at this point. It was all true! We all stared at it for a while with mouths open and eyes upturned.
Sadly, we had little hope of actually exploring the secret room or passageway behind it because there were fewer than six inches between the outline in the living room and the box room on the other side of the wall. Even Anne Marie had to concede that it was an old entrance to the box room. But this made it the remnant of a mysterious Time Before, plus it still counted as discovered secret. Now we had to determine how to use our discovery for The Cause. Anne Marie deduced that moving the entrance to the box room had created a portal in the space-time continuum and that we’d slipped into a bad universe where Danny and William’s father was unwell. We had to get back to the good universe. In later years I would marvel at how deftly she blended the principles of quantum mechanics and Feng Shui, but at the time I just went along with it. To seal a rift in the space-time continuum and send matter and anti-matter back to where they belong, you must leap back through the portal in a single go. Remember this, you may need it one day.
As we couldn’t actually jump through an outline on the wall, we had to use the current doorway. Anne Marie decided that leaping the portal meant standing on the living room side and doing a huge, feet-together sideways jump through the doorway so that you landed in the hall looking into the box room (the good universe). It was essential that you were in flight while passing through the doorway and that you cleared it completely.
Anne Marie went first and soared like she was born to it. William was second. We all gasped as he tottered on his landing, but his feet stayed firmly together – which was another imperative. I found it easier than I thought and over too soon. Danny was last and tried to build suspense by lingering, but interest was waning by that time.
The next morning, I learned that Anne Marie had gone home.
The following week, Danny and William’s father got better and returned from the hospital.
You, gentle reader, are amongst the few people who know that his recovery was our doing. Normally, such things are not to be spoken of. But it’s been forty-two years now, so I think we’re safe.
William tried to tell Poor Ruth soon after, but he got too exuberant and lost the thread. She stopped listening and said ‘that’s nice‘, as they do.
That isn’t to say we don’t remember. When things are going abysmally wrong, I’ve been known to dispose of a new addition to the decor or pocket some unusual object from the beach – just in case. Some skills are good to keep in reserve.
Adele Gregory is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She turned her hand to fiction in 2018. Prior to that Adele produced mainly training and self-help materials, and was a top-rated contributor for the content site Helium from 2004-2011 specialising in articles related to psychology, counselling and workplace performance.