Here, just for fun, is the opening of my YA novel Shadowmaker, a time travel yarn that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. It’s had a little notice – a shortlsting in a magazine competition and it made it to second reads in a Hodderscape open house – but no takers as yet. As I’m considering putting it back out there, any creative criticism – especially from you YA readers and writers – would be gratefully received.
Edie looked around the kitchen, at food-splashed walls the colour of cowpats and woodlice moored to the floor by lakes of cooking oil. Shouldn’t August sunshine make a place look less like a squat?
‘It’s disgusting.’ She was tired of carrying boxes and being sticky with dirt. And although they still hadn’t unpacked yet, she was already tired of living in a basement.
‘It’s fine,’ Mum said, dragging the bucket closer to her. ‘Just needs a bit of love. More importantly, it’s cheap. My new job doesn’t pay enough to be fussy.’
Edie groaned. ‘It doesn’t need love, it needs a blowtorch. The carpet looks like a defrosting woolly mammoth.’
Mum giggled. ‘Funny.’
Edie wasn’t trying to be funny. She’d left her friends and her home behind for a flat that smelt like a fish and chip shop run by rats. The thought made her want to punch the wall.
Mum hadn’t listened when Edie begged to stay in Manchester. So one Saturday, after an hour of swearing and door slamming, Edie stormed from the house to the nearest salon, where she’d had every inch of her shoulder-length copper hair shaved from her head. Mum hadn’t said a word when Edie returned home, but her eyes had spoken for her. She’d loved Edie’s hair – and Edie had been sure to keep it cropped ever since.
‘Make yourself useful,’ said Mum, emerging from the cupboard to flick her with a rubber glove the colour of phlegm. ‘Could you fetch me some fresh water, please?’
Edie twitched her arm away. ‘Well, that’s assault, for a start.’
Mum fixed her with cool green eyes and her ‘you’re pushing your luck’ face. ‘How about you mope less and help more. And after you’ve fetched the water, can you nip upstairs and ask Flora for the back door key.’
Edie sagged. ‘Can’t you go? The house stinks of poodles and pee.’
‘Don’t be mean, love. She’s an old lady living alone. She’d appreciate the company.’
‘She’d have more company if she didn’t smell of poodles and pee.’
‘All right, for goodness sake!’
If only she had a Taser.
As her finger touched the bell, there was an explosion of yapping from the other side of the door. Before today, Great Aunt Flora had just been spidery writing in birthday cards and a five pound note every Christmas. Now they were living in her basement. Would Edie have to call her Aunty? Well, she could get stuffed. Mum and her Nan had been her only relatives for sixteen years. Now Nan had died, she didn’t want or need a replacement.
‘Bluey!’ Flora’s voice was the same pitch as the dogs’ yapping and was so loud, she could’ve been standing on the step beside Edie. ‘Leave Poppet alone or it’s the naughty step for you. Sammy, move your bum. Budge, you lot. Mummy’s got to open the door. Where’s that key?’
A couple of minutes and a torrent of swearing later and the key was found, two chains swung free and four bolts were loose. Despite the hot sun on the back of her neck, Edie thought of crypts as the door creaked open and through a narrow crack, she glimpsed a walnut face and two raisin eyes.
‘Hi, Flora. Mum asked me…’
She gripped Edie’s arm, pulling her inside as the front door slammed shut. Edie blinked in the gloomy hallway. There was a smell like public lavatories and soft, snuffling noises coming from somewhere by her ankles. She jumped as something rough and wet brushed the back of her hand.
‘They’re just curious, lovey.’ Flora’s voice receded along the hall. ‘Sorry if I was a bit rough, but Bluey’s a little sod. Nearly escaped yesterday when the postman delivered the nightie I’d ordered. A cracker it is, all pink and flowery. You can’t hardly see the bra cups for lace.’
Edie tried not to imagine Flora wearing a nightie, but failed.
‘Little bugger’s got an adventurous soul, see,’ said Flora.
‘Is that the dog or the postman?’
Silhouetted against a rectangle of light from the kitchen doorway, Flora tossed a sluggish miniature poodle to one side with a flick of her slipper. The dog shivered from nose to rump then trotted towards Edie, joining a circle of eager, weepy-eyed faces.
‘Don’t let’em bother you,’ called Flora. ‘Suckers for tickles, that’s all. Come to the kitchen. Got some squash somewhere .’
As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, Edie glimpsed walls crowded with photographs and portraits, surrounded by chocolate brown wallpaper and pale green paintwork – it was like an art gallery inside a mint Aero. Keen to escape all the eyes, she headed for the kitchen, dogs parting before her. She was pretty sure a grave would feel less claustrophobic.
The kitchen resembled a junk shop, cluttered with stacks of yellowing newspapers, food packets, tins and dismantled electrical appliances. Edie picked up something that looked like a food mixer with a propeller on the top.
Flora blushed. ‘Great fun taking ‘em apart, bloody nightmare putting ‘em back together again. Now where’s that squash? Ah, pantry.’ Flora ducked through a bead curtain with a clatter of plastic.
Edie was reluctant to trust even mucky jeans to Flora’s chairs, which had the same greasy sheen as the basement’s kitchen counters. There were more photos hung by the cooker, so for lack of anything else to do, she wandered over, careful to avoid an Everest of mouldy tea bags heaped by the gas ring. The first picture she looked at was of a young woman in a long dress, hair scraped back from her face. Behind the woman hung a painted backdrop of broken stone columns and tumbling roses. On the cardboard mount in gold lettering, an inscription read Albert Dee esq 1881.
‘There you go. Found ‘e under a load of old fairy lights.’ Flora reappeared from the pantry draped in cobwebs, a sprinkling of dust in her hair. ‘Why’s it what you want’s always at the back?’ She brandished a mug filled with something luminous.
The liquid had a chemical smell, a mixture of fruit and plastic chairs. Edie forced a smile, carefully resting the mug on the draining board.
‘You found my pics, then,’ said Flora. ‘Gorgeous, wasn’t I?’
Edie looked between the graceful figure in the photograph and the gnome-woman beside her. ‘That’s you?’ The words were out of her mouth before she could think of something polite to say.
Flora just smiled. ‘Oh, yeah. ‘Bout 21 there.’ She pointed to the next picture along, which had crinkled from the heat of the oven. ‘Bit younger there. Too skinny, but that was mostly corset. Good one of the ghost, though.’
‘Ghost?’ Edie had seen the smudge of grey but assumed it was dirt. Now, as she peered closer, the mark resolved into a translucent figure, dark blotches marking the eyes and mouth.
‘I was so young when I met Albert,’ sighed Flora. ‘He was a snapper in town and I was a girl who saw dead folk. Being a medium was fashionable then, see.’ She traced the name with her fingertip. ‘So handsome ‒ moustache like a floor brush. All fake, o’ course.’
‘The moustache?’ Conversations with Flora mangled her brain.
Flora laughed, showing a mouthful of unnaturally white teeth. ‘Not the ‘tache, Muppet. The pics. You can’t photograph real ghosts.’ She dabbed at her nose with her cardigan sleeve. ‘Now, what do you want?’ Flora was soon scuffing back to the pantry.
Edie looked up at the gold lettering: 1881…