Kay was not one for staying in bed all morning. Even though it was the first day of the Christmas holidays, they were up and about nice and early, before their dad had started work. Kay sat at the small kitchen table, slowly munching on a milky bowl of cereal whilst their dad leaned back, eyes closed, behind a large mug of tea, and their mus bustled, filing dried laundry among various baskets.
“I’m glad you’re up already,” said their mum, “you can do me a favour and go and get some quick bits of shopping for me. Just a few bits and pieces I forgot at the weekend.”
“I might have had plans,” frowned Kay.
“Well I can tell you don’t have plans,” said Mum, “otherwise you wouldn’t have said you might have. It’s only a few things, I’ll give you my card to pay for it all, and you’ll get some fresh air and still be home for lunch.”
“I suppose so,” said Kay, holding their spoon up in the air thoughtfully. “If it means I get to choose what flavours of crisps we have.”
“I don’t care,” said their dad, “as long as you don’t eat them all before the rest of us have a chance.” He took a long, slow slurp on his mug of tea, and closed his eyes again.
“There we are then,” said Mum. “And you can daydream all you like while you’re there.” Kay stared out of the window, up at the sky, before looking down at the ordinariness of the kitchen around them, the cooker, the fridge, the piles of laundry. Everything felt strangely disconnected, as if a part of the world was missing but with no sign what shape that part should be.
It was a fresh, frosty morning, the ground sparkling, the roofs of some of the houses still white. Kay walked along briskly down the terraced streets, hands in their pockets against the cold, head down. The list of “only a few things” was considerably longer than those words suggested, and Kay wanted to get to the shop and home again as quickly as they could. They hadn’t seen the Jones family properly for a couple of years, and it was several Christmases ago that they had last come to stay. Last year, Kay had gone to the effort of making a line of Jones family dolls by decorating old-fashioned wooden clothes pegs, and set them up on the mantelpiece, to make up for them not being there in person. Distant as they were—not even first cousins—they were the only relatives of any sort that Kay had ever really felt close to; and video calls just weren’t the same as seeing them in person. Kay took their phone out of their pocket whilst walking along and quickly sent a message to Peter Jones, the oldest: “You didn’t say you were coming! Wanted to surprise me?”
Kay spotted Peter had read the message right away and had started typing back, which is why they were not looking out when they walked around the corner of the street and bumped straight into the middle of a man dressed in several layers of thick tweed. “Why, hello there!” he said.
Kay looked up, into the intense, sparkling eyes of Redwald Johnson. They noticed for the first time just how bright and sparkling his eyes were, as if he had captured a part of the night sky they had both looked up and stared at, and kept it to look out from forever. For a moment Kay let themselves suddenly realise just how strange the whole experience had been, but quickly pushed the thought down to the back of their mind. “Oh! Sorry!” they said, and froze, unsure how Redwald would respond.
“Sorry to interrupt your conversations!” said Redwald, his face breaking into a broad smile. “You must have a lot of holiday treats and capers to plan. Meeting long-lost friends is joy indeed.”
“I suppose it is,” said Kay, still somewhat flustered and confused.
“Oh, most certainly,” the man replied, “and it hurts greatly that there are so many long-lost friends in my life who I will never see again, not to mention the ones I might but can not. In fact—” and here he raised a finger like an actor trying to point to a hypothetical cartoon lightbulb above his head—”you could just be the person I need, to help me send a message to one of them.”
“You mean, run an errand?” said Kay. “This isn’t…anything dodgy, is it?”
Redwald frowned a little. “It’s a message, my dear Kay,” he said, “a few words, nothing more. Nothing that might see you arraigned or indicted or convicted, at least not by the forces of the law. I would never promise you sa—”
“And, you can’t message them?” interrupted Kay.
The man sighed. “I dare not use a phone for this,” he said. “You might think me paranoid, I can see why you might, but if you are unlucky you will discover why I am. Indeed, on that particular subject, i would be very grateful if you would be careful not to mention this to your friend Peter via your device. Tell him to his face, by all means, when you see him this afternoon, but do not let him know about it beforehand and do not talk about it online in any way. You should easily have time before the train arrives, to do this for me.”
“I don’t even know what time they do arrive,” said Kay.
“Ah, no matter. She will be there—my friend, I mean. Go to the Plough and Blackbird on Bly Street, on your way to the station. Inside the public bar, look for an old woman with bright, sparkling eyes. Tell her that if she sees someone, tell them that the circle will break. Have you got that?”
“If she sees someone, tell them the circle will break,” Kay repeated.
“Exactly that”, said Redwald. “Now, mind how you go. And remember, only tell people about this when you are outside together with them, face to face, without any blackguards and card-sharpers listening in. I will hopefully see you again later—I still must introduce myself to your parents at some point.”
“See you later, I guess,” said Kay. “Tell them that the circle will break.”
At least when Kay did reach the shop, the shopping didn’t take too long to do, despite the length of the shopping list. “When are you lot getting here?” Kay asked Peter whilst wandering around the supermarket.
“About four,” he replied. “If the weather’s good can we get your telescope out?”
“Sure,” answered Kay. “Ok, I’ll see if Mum will let me meet you at the station.” They started to type “Got to” but remembered Redwald Johnson’s strange warning, and deleted the last couple of words without saying more.
The house was warm and inviting when Kay came home with the shopping. Kay’s dad was upstairs in his study, typing away and tapping his feet as he listened to music; their mum was in the kitchen, preparing some vegetables for later. “Mum,” said Kay, “can I go and meet the Joneses at the station? You and Dad’ll be able to stay here and get everything else sorted out before they get here. Peter says their train comes in about three.”
“I suppose so,” said Mum. “Be careful though. I suppose you’ll be OK with all of you, but make sure you come straight back.”
“Mum, don’t worry so much,” Kay said. “It’s not like it’s far.” Kay looked out of the kitchen window, down at the garden falling away from the house and over the fence at Redwald Johnson’s overgrown, bramble-choked plot of land, but nobody was there aside from one of the neighbourhood cats silently prowling.
“Dress up warm,” said Kay’s mum. “The weather says it might snow later.”
Kay looked up at a pale grey sky: it did indeed have the look of snow that wanted to fall.
By mid-afternoon, though, the city streets were still cold but dry. Kay humoured their mother by adding an extra scarf, and set off. The light was pale, as if the sun was tired and only part trying, but most houses had twinkling, flashing fairy lights in their windows, either pale cream or multicoloured, brightening up the quiet streets. Some had large Christmas trees in their front bay window; Kay liked to judge the style of each tree. A few were tastefully restrained with every lamp and ornament in the same matching shade of magnolia, but most were a more varied mixture of colours and styles. A few were riotous over-the-top combinations of every colour and type of ornament imaginable, the tree laden and wrapped in lights and tinsel until hardly any branches or needles could be seen at all, and these were almost always Kay’s favourites.
The Plough & Blackbird was only a short detour off the most direct route between Kay’s home and the station. On a street corner, it looked much like a larger, more solid version of the standard brick-built terraces filling this part of the city, with red brick walls and windows and doors picked out in pale cream stone. In the gloomy afternoon, the yellow light in its misted-up windows seemed homely and welcoming, a place of safety and warmth. It was the sort of pub that served hearty meals and tried to appeal to all types of families, so even at this time of day it was not hard for Kay, if they walked boldly, to nip through the front door and roam around the various alcoves that made up the interior of the building. A handful of old men were sitting on stools by the bar; most of the other clientele seemed to be tired-looking young parents trying to persuade small childen to finish up their puddings and return toys to the pub toy box.
In one corner of the building, wood was burning in an open fire. A hunched figure was sat close to it, covered in layers of muted woollen shawls, turned towards the hearth and soaking up all the warmth of the flames. As Kay approached, the figure turned, and they saw an old, deeply-lined face, with two diamond-bright eyes almost glittering in the dim light.
“I have a message!” said Kay in an urgent stage-whisper. “Someone said to tell you. If you see someone, tell them. Tell them the that the circle will break.”
The old woman’s face moved almost imperceptibly, taking on an expression of the deepest sadness. “Thank you,” she said, with a quiet, serious voice. “Tell your neighbour to stay safe from the darkness.”
“I will do!” said Kay.
“And be careful,” the old woman continued. “They are always watching, now.” She turned away, her eyes back to the bright, warming flames. Kay hesitated, unsure if the conversation was over, before turning and swiftly heading back outside.
To be continued…