How strange it all felt to be back at school, and yet at the same time, this bright September morning held within it the familiarity of order and expectation that felt quite comforting. The year 8 group were lined up on the stairs chattering excitedly about their adventures in the summer holidays. The bell rang and the door to the classroom was opened by the smiling form teacher who beckoned to the now silent group to file into the classroom. She wished each student a cheery good morning, the last one being little Polly, who even managed a slight smile. Once seated, the register was taken and then there were notices, reminders of school rules and an overview of what the students could look forward to over the school year. The sun slanted across the desks. The room was warm and clean. The newly waxed floors were beautiful and it was hard to imagine that by the end of the term they would be dull with the scuff marks of thousands of busy feet. Polly had already stopped listening. She was distracted by her surroundings and weighing up the other students. They all looked so smart. The girl in the row next to hers had delicate shoes with a pretty slim strap. The girl to the right of her had a beautiful new pencil case, with a little fluffy toy ginger cat hanging from the zip. Polly’s pencil case was a clear plastic bag. She knew people saw her as different. She wore uniform, but it was second hand and never quite the right size. Her mum used to cut her hair and the fringe was often uneven or a bit too short.
Slowly, the teacher’s voice filtered back into Polly’s thoughts. Something about mobile phones not being allowed in the school and that they had to be handed in at reception. Well, that didn’t bother her, thought Polly wryly, as she didn’t have a mobile. She didn’t even have a computer. Everyone told her that she didn’t really need one anyway. But it was more than that. It was another thing that set her apart. It was good to be back though; there was something very secure about it.
There was a knock at the door and the headmistress appeared. She entered the room, turned towards the class, and with an imperious contented look, she surveyed each student and then introduced the little dark-haired girl at her side. “This is Lian who comes to us from a province in the south of China” she explained. “I expect you all to be welcoming and helpful to Lian as she begins her school career here. Lian speaks no English, although in this wonderful age of technology she has an electronic dictionary to help her with translation. Obviously, Lian will need extra help, so she will have an assistant with her for many of the lessons”.
“Where would you like her to sit, Miss Jay?” she said, turning to the form tutor.
“I think it would be best in front of Polly” she suggested, “then the assistant can sit by the side of her”.
“Fine” said the headmistress, walking to the desk and inviting Lian to sit down.
Polly studied the new girl’s shiny black hair, her straight back, her nice new shiny bag and the fascinating little object, like a calculator, which she placed carefully on the desk. Now there was someone more different than her she thought. Just one hour into a new day and a new term and her life had already changed. That’s what was good about school. At home there were no rules or timetables, except if it was to watch something on the TV. The warmest place was bed because they couldn’t afford the heating and mostly they ate toast; with eggs, beans, jam, sometimes cheese, but that was expensive. Once a year, to give her mum a break, she went to stay with her aunt and that was fantastic. They had proper meals. Hot crunchy roast potatoes. Polly was thinking of them now and at 10.30 on a Monday morning, she could eat a whole plate of them. In fact, the more she thought about them, the more she realised that she was actually very hungry. Oh well, she’d just have to wait.
The bell sounded for break-time. The class was dismissed and Polly just followed the others out into the sunny playground. The crows were lined up on the ridge of the roof, waiting for the rich pickings from snack-time. A group of girls from her class were standing by the doors to the hall and she stood just close enough not to be seen to be standing on her own. She often did this and sometimes she momentarily felt part of the group, especially if someone included her briefly in a conversation, but usually, at some point, the group would move away and she found herself left behind as if she was invisible.
Polly suddenly sensed that someone was standing near her and she realised it was Lian. Lian grinned and offered her a crisp from an open packet in her hand. Polly smiled. “Thank you” she said. “Thank you” Lian mimicked and they both giggled. The bell sounded again. “Geography!” said Polly indicating the direction of the classroom. “Lian” tried to say it, but it sounded so funny that they both ended up giggling.
Over the weeks, Polly and Lian grew quite close, inasmuch as language barriers would allow anyway. But they had fun. Polly would put a word into Lian’s translator and Lian would then type a reply. Sometimes, it just didn’t work though and there was many a word which remained unexplained. It was an unlikely friendship, remarked upon by many, but there was something that overcame words, something inexplicable that they shared. Lian had a quick mind and sharp sense of humour which was suppressed by her inability to communicate in English. Polly was slower, but that was compensated for by her knowledge of the school and English life in general.
Polly had noticed changes around the home. There had been an old armchair and a washing machine outside the backdoor for longer than she could remember. But, all of a sudden they went. In the front room, there was an ugly maroon-coloured settee, which was usually covered in cat hair. A nice cream coloured throw had been laid over it. Polly observed that the place looked tidy. The television wasn’t always on. Just little things, but they were different.
Then one night, after being at homework club with Lian, Polly came back to a wonderful smell of cooking! The table was set and there were candles, with a box of matches by the side in readiness to light them.
“Mum!” she exclaimed. “What’s happening?” And for one awful moment, she wondered if she’d forgotten her mother’s birthday.
“Ah, you wait and see, my little cherub. You’ll find out. Go and tidy yourself up. This will be ready in about half an hour”.
Sure enough the teasing of her taste-buds was put to an end about half an hour later when her mum called her downstairs.
Sat at the table, beaming, smart and clean, was Rob!
Polly felt a sense of foreboding. She didn’t like Rob. She really, really didn’t like Rob. He was creepy. She saw the way he looked at other women when her mother wasn’t looking. And he was always talking on his mobile about something that seemed a secret. Something that wasn’t quite honest.
Polly’s mum gave her firm stare. “Well don’t just stand there she said. We’re going to have a celebration!”
Polly sat down and watched as Rob carved the chicken and her mum shared out the roast potatoes. They weren’t like her aunts, but she was hungry.
When the food was served, Mum said “Now before we begin, we’ve got some news to tell you Polly”. Polly’s mum smiled radiantly at Rob and then continued “Rob and I have decided to get married and Rob will be your new dad Polly”.
There was a buzzing in Polly’s ears. She felt like she had been hit by an invisible but firm object that had briefly stopped her from being able to think. Thoughts tumbled, screamed, rioted in her head. But all the time there was an urgent need to respond as her mum would want her to.
“Oh brilliant” she offered weakly, struggling to smile.
“Good” said mother. “Now let’s eat!”
Polly found it difficult to eat. Hunger one moment, none the next was a bit like the see-saw life she led!
Polly kept out of Rob’s way as much as possible and avoided having to use his name, because she would never call him dad. There was something about him! He did bring a lot of gifts though; a new TV, pretty jewellery for her mother and even brought a new carpet, but there was something that wasn’t right.
After a few weeks, Lian was actually beginning to learn quite a few new English words. She was very clever and had a brilliant sense of humour which Polly loved. One day, using the translator she asked Polly if she would like to come round to her house. Polly was so happy and asked her mum if it was okay. Mum wanted to know where ‘this ‘Lian’ lived, but Polly sensed she was probably quite happy to have more time with Rob.
Lian’s mum, Mrs Xu, didn’t appear to speak English either, well maybe just a bit, but she laughed a lot and she brought the girls nice things to eat, things that Polly had never seen before. Lian had a brother called Cheng who did speak quite good English. He was starting up a taxi business. He was nice to Polly and one day he said, “Here have my new business card. You like?”
“Very smart” affirmed Polly. Then, on his laptop he showed Polly where the family used to live, just outside Hong Kong. It was just as if she was actually there.
“What do you get up to over at that girl’s house?” asked her mum one day. “She doesn’t even speak English does she?”
“Well, it’s difficult sometimes, but we manage, because she’s got a computer” explained Polly.
Rob was slouched in an armchair. He saw his opportunity. “Would you like a computer Polly?” he asked.
Now this would be a difficult one, reflected Polly. If I say no, it will be me that suffers, because I really want one. If I say yes, he’s going to think that he has me “in his pocket”.
“No thank you she said. I can always use the one at school”.
He continued reading the paper. They both knew the game that was being played.
It was during the Easter holidays that Lian’s family suffered a break-in at their house. They were all away for a day. Cheng had left his laptop behind and that had been taken. There was an empty space where the flat screen TV had stood, a lovely vase from the front room, and worst of all, Lian’s mum’s jewellery box had gone! Mrs Xu looked very sad. Something told Polly that life hadn’t always been that easy for her but that she was a courageous lady. Cheng was angry. He needed his laptop for his new business. Polly read about the break-in in the paper. Apparently there had been quite a few in the area and she couldn’t help but wonder.
One Saturday, Lian and Polly went walking to the shopping centre, spent a couple of hours there and then wandered back through the smaller streets to Lian’s home. On the way back Lian met her brother and they stopped and chatted for a while. Polly wandered ahead to give them time together and then she noticed Rob driving past in his white van. She peeped round the corner into the narrow street where he had parked. It was a dead end. She saw Rob get out of the van, undo the gate in the fence and disappear inside.
A few minutes later he came out, locked the gate and drove off. Polly walked to the gate and saw that behind the green wire fencing was a lock up garage. It looked as though it had once been used for car repairs. There was the faint outline of E Barker and Son over the doorway and couple of tyres leaning against the wall, with an old wreck of a car, minus its windows, rusting by the fence on the left-hand side.
Rob had said that he worked for the Corporation. Why did he need this place?
Over the following weeks Polly observed Rob. Sometimes she didn’t think that he was very nice to her mother. He did very little around the house, although she had to admit that he did bring presents. There was something wrong though. His attitude to Polly varied. When her mother was around, he asked for things nicely, but when she was on her own he could be quite nasty, almost scary, so Polly kept out of his way as much as possible.
Polly’s mother had gone to shop for her wedding dress with a neighbour. Rob was still in the house. She heard the familiar tone of his mobile. Not long after he shouted “Going out for a while! Won’t be long”.
When he’d left, Polly made up her mind to go back to the lock up and see if he was there. It was dark by the time she arrived. The garage doors were open and there was a dim light on inside. The gates were open and another man was helping Rob to load up the van with boxes. They both disappeared into the lock-up, their backs towards Polly, so she slipped in through the gates and into the shadows behind the open garage doors. She stared though the crack between the door and the brick garage wall, just above the hinge, and saw computers, TVs, what looked like CD players and lots of cardboard boxes. The two men emerged from the lock-up and switched off the light as they went. Polly held her breath. They went over to the van and closed the rear doors. The mobile went again and both men leaned against the far side of the van deep in conversation. Polly slipped into the garage and crouched behind the boxes at the back.
The two figures came back and put the light on again.
“What do we do with this stuff on the side here Rob?” said the other man.
“Oh I’ve got a buyer for the TV” said Rob triumphantly “and this stuff from the Chinese lot, I can off-load that too to a guy I know on the south coast. He’s good with jewellery. Knows how to lose it if you know what I mean. So don’t you worry” he smiled. “We’ll have a nice little profit from this lot”.
All went dark. There was the sound of a key turning and Polly thought she was alone!
She had a small torch in her pocket and started looking in some of the cardboard boxes. Then in one of the boxes she saw the Chinese vase and a beautiful carved jewellery box. She was so absorbed in these discoveries that she hadn’t heard the sound of someone approaching. The light went on again and the doors opened and it was Rob. She went to run, but he lunged forward and caught her roughly by the arm.
“What are you doing in here” he growled under his breath and threw her into a pile of empty cardboard boxes, turning quickly, and locking the doors. “You” he said menacingly “are going to learn a lesson that you won’t forget for sticking your nose into what you shouldn’t”.
“You can’t keep me here” retorted Polly. “Mum will be worried and wonder where I am”.
“Oh that’s easy” said Rob with an evil smile. “I’ll just tell her that you’re with that Chinese friend of yours” and he whispered so closely to her ear that she could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath. “Now when I come back, we’ll take this little matter further” he added, pushing her back into the boxes.
The light went out again, the key turned in the lock. An engine started outside and then there was silence.
Gradually a little light filtered in from the edges of the corrugated iron roof, just enough to make out shapes. There was what seemed to be a long bench against the wall. Polly felt amongst the objects on the bench and a screen lit up. It was a lap top! Polly’s expertise with laptops and computers was minimal, but Lian’s brother had shown her how to send an e-mail, if that is, she knew the password! That was the first problem. What would Rob use as a password? Sometimes she had seen him sign into his laptop and had tried to see what he was typing. It seemed like it was just three letters. It was definitely an R at the beginning, but it wasn’t just the word Rob because his fingers would move to the left and the right of the keyboard. Polly readjusted the screen so that it shone down on the keyboard. To the left was ‘A’ and the right was ‘L’. Robert A Lake. Could it be RAL.
She hesitated for a moment and then tried RAL, and she was in! She couldn’t believe it. She had never been that lucky before, but luck was certainly with her now.
Now to what address could she send an e-mail? Cheng, she realised. That would be her only chance. She reached into her pocket and there was the card that he’d once given her. The next thing was to get the e-mails up and running. Now what had Cheng told her to do. He had opened a hotmail account for her when she had gone to tea there a couple of weeks ago. Yes, she was through to her account! She carefully entered the e-mail address in the “to” section and then she typed “Cheng, have found the stolen things. I am locked in a garage in Clay Lane and am in danger. Please get the police URGENT! This is the truth. Remember you gave me your card.”
What were the chances that Cheng would see it and that he would believe it! At least, perhaps the reference to him giving her a card would make him believe that it was true.
Oh well. At least it was done. Polly looked around. She felt cold and shivered in the dark. She could just make out a side door leading out of the garage. She turned the handle and pulled, but the door seemed to be locked, although there did seem to be a slight movement. She tried again with all her strength and the door opened. She found herself stood in a small enclosed kitchen. She could see the outline of a wide plain window, with spider’s webs hanging from the corners. A stream of moonlight shone on a cluttered sink top. In the corner to the right of the window there was a table piled with newspapers or magazines and then to her right there was what looked like a small fridge. She opened the fridge door and the light coming from the inside was very comforting. There just appeared to be jam and milk in there, but maybe this was just what she needed. She remembered something she had seen on the TV months ago. She found a newspaper from the pile and taking a spoon from the sink top she spread the paper with the jam. Then she placed the jammy paper on the window and hit the window with a small iron bar that was propped against the wall. The breaking of the glass didn’t make too much noise as the pieces stuck to the paper and she hammered round the edges until the shattered glass fell with the jam-covered paper to the ground. She knocked out a few remaining bits carefully. The full moon had appeared again from behind a bank of cloud. She laid a hand-towel over the window ledge, stood on a chair, sat on the ledge and swivelled herself round into position to jump down, avoiding the broken glass.
She realised that she was at the back corner of the garage and behind her was a ragged hedge. The fence was too high to climb, so her best plan was to wait for Rob to arrive and somehow escape past him through the gate. The moonlight disappeared again. There was the sound of a vehicle approaching. It was Rob’s van. The engine stopped, there were footsteps and the sound firstly of the gate being opened and then closed and locked again immediately. Then she heard the garage door being opened. Polly hid in the bushes. She’d forgotten to switch off the computer and she hoped that the screen was now dark. She heard the side door open too into the kitchen. Rob was very near her now. The high fence stretched all the way around the garage. There was no way of escape. It must have been when Rob saw that the window was broken that he started swearing and shining his torch into the darkness. She heard him go back into the garage and then out into the yard. Sensing Polly was in the bushes, he started crashing his way through. The line of bushes thinned out at the back corner of the wire fence and there was nowhere to hide. She couldn’t stay where she was and she couldn’t go. She screamed as she felt his hand grab at her coat. He’d got her and was dragging her so that she was running, falling, sliding, screaming. He put his hand over her mouth but she could still hear screaming. No but it wasn’t screaming it was police sirens! There were blinding lights. There was shouting. Rob dropped her and tried to scale the fence and Polly could see the outline of him spread-eagled at the top. An Alsatian dog was barking on the other side of the fence.
A policeman called to Polly. He was cutting a hole in the wire fence by the gate. Rob was coming down again. If he gets here he’ll take me as hostage, she thought with horror. The policeman peeled back the fencing and Polly crouched down low and tried to begin to crawl through. Rob was coming for her. The policeman kept saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you!” and all of a sudden he gripped Polly under her arms and hauled her through. The policeman hugged her and handed to a lady. Somehow one of the policemen had opened the gate and Polly turned to see Rob surrounded. He fought violently but eventually he was wrestled to the ground. The blue lights on the police cars continued to flash, but the sirens and the dog fell silent, as it was all over. Rob was led away, hands cuffed behind his back.
Lian arrived with her mother and brother and they huddled around Polly. “You got my e-mail” sobbed Polly. “Yes” said Cheng. “Knew it was real. I gave my card only to you! So I told the police”.
“Oh, thank you so much” said Polly.
Polly’s mum was there too, going on about something to do with “why did she have to pick now. Everything had been perfect. This must all be a mistake!”
Meanwhile, Lian’s mum gave Polly a big hug. You very brave girl she said and good friend for Lian. From now I give you my special name for you ‘Xiou Xing’ mean “little star”.
Polly was so happy.
She had the best friends anyone could have!