Copyright © Ian Irvine 2006
Chapter 1. The Prison Visit
As the children’s bus turned in to the gates of Hopewell Women’s Prison, Runcible Jones felt his panic rising. He’d been rehearsing what to say to his mother, Millie, all the way but, after the hysteria his last visit had caused, he couldn’t think of a single safe topic.
The bus stopped at the guard house with a clash of gears and a shuddering jerk, and black fumes puffed up through a rust hole in the floor. Runcie covered his nose. He desperately wanted Millie to talk about his dead father, Ansible Jones, though if Runcie ever mentioned the topic she would have a fit. Ansie’s book on magic, his life’s work, had caused all the trouble in the first place. Magic was not only illegal; it was a serious crime. Besides, the prison warders listened in to their conversations, hoping to gather more evidence.
The kids scrambled off the bus, jostling each other in wary silence as they formed a queue in the driving rain. Runcie ended up last, as usual, next to the belching exhaust pipe. He was soaking wet and his head was throbbing by the time the line inched up to Security, where it stopped again. At this rate, visiting hour would be over before he got to see Millie. And he still had nothing to say.
Runcie wasn’t game to ask her about the break-up, much less the divorce. He’d been just seven when Millie had left his father. That day was burned into his memory, and it was all his fault.
He couldn’t bear to question her about the mysterious fire that had killed Ansie and destroyed all his work three years later. Millie had wept for weeks, then refused to mention his name ever again.
And Runcie was too scared to ask his mother why, why, why, a year after Ansie’s death, she’d been arrested for having a copy of his banned book. Of all the strange events of his unhappy life, that was the oddest.
He already knew the answer to his one remaining question – when are they letting you out, Mum? Seven more years, with good behaviour.
Runcie handed his card to the warder, a stout man with bristling white eyebrows like worn-out toothbrushes and ears covered in a felt of grey hairs. Runcie remembered him from last time; he was the only decent warder here.
The warder waved Runcie inside but, as he passed through onto the grimy linoleum, he held his breath. He would have known Hopewell Prison in pitch darkness, for its cold reek of unwashed clothes, sweaty fear and stewed Brussels sprouts would live with him all his days. It was the smell of his mother’s despair.
He could see her now. Little Millie sat hunched behind wrought-iron bars thick enough to hold back King Kong. She was shivering and her hair, which last year had been as golden as flowing honey, hung over her ears like mouldy straw. Runcie waved, then had to look away. Her grey eyes were fixed on him as if she were starving and he couldn’t bear it. Each visit she looked thinner and more tormented. Runcie was terrified that she was going mad.
That left only one good thing in his life – the memory of those times he’d shared with his father, just playing in Ansie’s workshop while he told stories, laughed, joked and talked about his work, his passion. Magic! It had been the happiest time of Runcie’s life. But later, in her anguish, Millie had attacked his father’s work unceasingly. She refused to admit that magic existed, and called Ansie a fraud and his book a lie. Runcie felt as though he was expected to deny his own father. Even though he was desperate to find out more about Ansie’s work, in his worst moments Runcie found it hard to believe in him.
The line inched forwards. Forty minutes of visiting hour were gone already. Millie’s blue fingers were clenched around the bars now, her pale face crumpled like a discarded rag. A whippet-thin warder, standing by the far wall, was watching her, and everything about him shone, from the braid encircling his hat to the metal caps on his black bootlaces and the tip of his bony nose. Everything but his eyes which, like coal in a cellar, took in everything and reflected nothing.
Now the authorities were blackening Ansie’s name, making him out to be a dangerous criminal. It was a lie! His father had been the kindest, gentlest man in the world. He wouldn’t even tread on an ant. Why were they doing this to him; to us?
The warder with the furry ears tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Your turn, laddie. Better hurry.’
Runcie glanced at the clock. Five to twelve, and visiting time ended on the hour. He scuttled across the room, slipped into the seat and his eyes met his mother’s. Despite the bone-aching cold, she was sweating. He tried to smile but couldn’t.
‘You’re looking well, Mum,’ he lied.
Millie smiled but he wished she hadn’t, for it was a ghastly deceit. He clenched his fists under the bench until his nails dug into his palms. She wouldn’t last seven more years. What could he say to her? How’s the food? What did you do today? Are the other prisoners nice?
‘Mum,’ he blurted without thinking, because thinking did him no good at all, ‘please tell me about Dad and the good old days.’
He should have known better. Millie gave a cracked moan then said savagely, almost madly, ‘He destroyed our family. Don’t ever mention his name again.’
‘Then why did you have his book?’ he whispered. ‘Just tell me that, Mum.’
Down the far end of the row, the coal-eyed warder’s head whipped around and he leaned forward like a hunting dog straining at the leash.
Millie’s mad look was gone in a flash and she reached through the bars. ‘Runcie, promise me one thing.’
‘Of course, Mum.’ He took her little, freezing hand. Her whole arm was shaking. ‘Anything.’
‘Promise that you’ll never have anything to do with magic.’
He stared at her, aghast. How could he promise that? ‘Mum?’ he whispered.
The minute hand jumped, then the clock began to bong the midday hour. ‘Promise, Runcie!’ She crushed his hand.
Runcie couldn’t make that promise; he just couldn’t. He looked up and the warder was stalking towards her, scribbling in his notebook. For the first time, Runcie wanted him to hurry.
Millie must have seen the hesitation in Runcie’s eyes, for she hissed, ‘Runcible!’
He crossed two fingers behind his back and took a deep breath. He hated lying to her, but he had to, until he looked into her wet, ravaged eyes. Prison was agony for Millie, yet her only thought was how to keep him safe. He couldn’t do it.
The warder jerked Millie to her feet. Runcie clung to her hand but it slipped free. It was his chance to say nothing but he couldn’t bear to leave her facing that terror. ‘I promise,’ he whispered, and felt the weight of Hopewell Prison descend on his thin shoulders.
The warder hauled Millie away, still staring over her shoulder at him. The iron door thudded shut.
‘Time to go, laddie,’ said the kind warder.
Runcie stumbled back to the bus, eyes stinging. He wasn’t going to cry. Not a single tear, even in the gloom where no one could see. He had to be the strong one.
What was he supposed to do now? He had to learn about magic. How could he truly know his father, or even believe in him, without it?
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