I found him two days ago after I’d had the fight with Mummy. She was being so unfair, so I ran off down the garden to my secret hiding place in the summer house and there was this man. Just sitting there like he’d always been at the bottom of our garden, hiding in our summer house.
Well not sitting really- more like crouching. And he looked all scared and watchful, like he was expecting someone to come and find him any moment. He had really really long hair and a big black beard, but they were all tangled up and matted and so he looked a bit gross actually.
His clothes were really dirty too, and all messed up and torn and I wondered how they’d got all like that. They hung off his body quite strangely too, like they were made for someone lots bigger than him. And then I saw how thin and hollow his face looked and I wondered if it was maybe because he hadn’t eaten anything for a long time.
I nearly screamed right out loud when I saw him because he was sitting (crouching) so still I hardly noticed him before he turned his head and looked right at me and it made me jump like Marcus makes me when he creeps up behind me and thinks he’s being funny. And even after I’d seen him I nearly screamed again because what was such a strange man doing at the bottom of our garden? Didn’t he have a house he could live in instead? Houses are better than gardens.
I also remembered about what Miss Walker said at school about Stranger Danger and that if somebody you don’t know tries to talk to you you should not talk back to them and you should tell someone. And Marcus says if you don’t do that you might be got by a Creep or a Pae-do-phile.
But the man at the bottom of the garden didn’t look like a Creep, and to be honest he looked as scared of me as I was meant to be of him. And maybe because I was still quite scared and not thinking straight, I said:
“Who are you?”
Because I really was quite curious about what kind of person would turn up in your garden like that.
The man blinked in surprise and looked me and down. When he spoke, he spoke in a husky kind of voice, which sounded as if he hadn’t been doing much talking lately. He said:
“Little girl, please, just turn around and go back to your home. I’ll be gone very soon and it’s better if you don’t see me.”
“I don’t want to go back to my house because Mummy’s being really unfair and I don’t want to be near her because she’ll start shouting again or I’ll start shouting and then we’ll both be sad,” I explain. “And I don’t mind seeing you. Why is it better if I don’t? I just got a little scared then because I wasn’t expecting to see you here and because of what Miss Walker and Marcus say about Stranger Danger.”
The man looked at me a bit weirdly. He seemed to be turning over lots of things to say in his head but in the end all he came out with was:
“My big brother.” I told him. “He’s really mean. I don’t like him.”
The man stared at me oddly for a long time. I wasn’t sure why. I thought I’d been quite sensible but he clearly didn’t agree. I tried to break the silence with a question.
“What’s your name then?”
I thought it was an innocent enough thing to ask but the man looked quite shocked and I hoped I hadn’t offended him. I was just about to tell him so when he replied, so quickly and abruptly that I almost jumped again.
“My name is Sirius Black.” He said.
“I’m Alexa Robinson.” I tell him. “My friends call me Lexie sometimes which I like but Marcus calls me Allie all the time which I think is yucky- don’t you?”
He nodded gravely and I decided that I might like him.
“What are you doing here?” I added. “I hope you don’t think I’m being rude- I just didn’t really expect to find anyone here.”
He gave a hollow, barking sort of laugh which I didn’t really understand because I didn’t think I’d said anything that funny.
“I bet you didn’t.” He said, then sighed, looking all distant and faraway, like he couldn’t really see me at all.
“How old are you?” he asked suddenly.
“Six and three quarters.” I informed him, feeling proud. “I’m the oldest in my class apart from Catherine and Ben H.”
He smiled wistfully. “Are you indeed?” But after that he didn’t say much more. He just sat there, staring into space with his fists all clenched up like he was angry or frightened. Or both.
It was weird. He was scary, but he didn’t scare me. He just didn’t seem like the kind of person who would hurt anybody on purpose. I liked him. Then suddenly, just as I was casting around for something else to say, he broke the silence himself.
“I’m here because I’m on the run.” He said, talking very quickly and quietly and it was like he wasn’t really talking to me but just to himself. And he seemed desperate just to get the words out of him.
“I’ve been in prison for twelve years because those fools think I’m the traitor. They think that I killed him. I killed him!”
I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I felt like I do in school sometimes when I don’t understand but Miss Walker just keeps on talking and talking but I was shocked and horrified when anger flashed suddenly across his face and he smashed his fist into the wooden wall of the summer house.
“Shhh!” I cried, feeling appalled. “Don’t do that! You might hurt your hand! And if you make loud sounds then Mummy will hear you and say you have to go somewhere else!”
I couldn’t say much about this mysterious stranger but I reckoned Mummy would have a fit if she found him here.
He shook his head like he was trying to clear it.
“There’s a boy I’ve got to find.” He continued, seeming a little more normal now. “He’s at school- in Scotland. And I’ve got to find him. I’ve got to explain. I can’t have them keep thinking-“
He broke off, burying his head in his hands. His whole body was shaking and I wondered why and then I realised it was because he was crying.
“Please don’t be sad!” I said to him. I hate it when grownups cry. It feels all wrong because grownups are meant to be happy so they can look after the children, not the other way round. Anxiously, I reached over and patted his back, gently. His clothes were rough and grimy. I wondered when he’d last had anything new to wear.
He shook his head again, like a dog, wiping tears from his face.
“Scotland’s a long way away.” I told him, “But you can catch a train there from the station in town. I went there once with Mummy and Marcus to see my auntie.”
The man looks sad. “Train’s are too risky.” He said and I asked him what risky meant and he said it meant dangerous. And he said if he went on a train he might get caught.
“By who?” I asked, hoping for more information but his face shut up tight and he said “Never you mind” in a way that warned me not to ask more.
Then Mummy came into the garden and started shouting “Alexa! Alexa!” and I guessed it was because it was time to have tea. I told the man this and he looked sort of regretful and I suddenly remembered what I’d thought early about not having had anything to eat in a long time and I said:
“I could get you some food if you like because you look quite hungry.”
And his eyes lit up like somebody had lit a fire behind them.
“Oh yes,” he breathed, “Please yes.”
So I smiled and told him of course and was there anything he didn’t like because Marcus is always complaining about all the foods he didn’t like to eat. And the man laughed and said.
“Anything. I’ll eat anything.”
So that was that.
When I got inside, Mummy said:
“I’m sorry I got cross earlier, Alexa, I’ve just been so stressed recently after everything that’s happened.”
And she asked me if I was okay and when I said yes she said if-there’s-ever-anything-you-want-to-talk-about-you-know-I’m-always-here-don’t-you?
So I said yes again because I knew she was there. I just didn’t want to talk to her.
In the evening, I said to Mummy: “Can I go and do my homework in the summer house?”
And she said: “What homework do you have?”
And I told her: “Spellings and I have to finish off my group’s poster about the Great Fire of London.”
And she said: “Okay, but don’t stay out there too late.”
So I promised not to and while she was on the phone to her sol-ic-it-or like she always is in the evenings now, I took some crackers and jam and a yoghurt out the fridge, and some fruit out the fruit bowl because only Mummy would care it was gone and I put them in my schoolbag with my spellings and my poster and raced to find the funny man in the summer house.
He was still sitting where I’d left him when I got back and I wondered what he’d been doing while I’d been inside the house. I emptied out all the food and giggled when his eyes widened and he seized a pear with eagerness in his eyes.
I lay down in the floor on my tummy while he was eating and started colouring in the poster with the felt tip pens Granny gave me last Christmas.
“Thank you,” he said at last when he’d gulped down the last of the yoghurt.
“That’s okay,” I smiled, paused and added mischievously, “You eat like a dog.”
He laughed, smiled and stretched, “I can believe that!” he chuckled.
The man looked different now he’d had some food. He looked more cheerful and more relaxed and his face looked less gaunt and scary. I told him so and he laughed again.
“The last meal I had came from a soup kitchen in Exeter.” He told me. “So I think I’m justified in looking a little worse for wear.”
As my poster progressed towards completion, he began to relax and talk a bit more freely. He used long, confusing words so I barely understood what he was saying half the time and sometimes, I didn’t think he was even using words that were actually words at all but I liked listening to him anyway. He had a nice voice that reminded me of being little and how things used to be.
I wanted to know about why he was running away but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it, and he changed the subject every time I asked. Instead, he told me about how things were before he had to run away. He told me about his friends: James and Remus and Lily and about the boy he was looking for who was the little boy of James and Lily.
“There are lots of boys round here.” I said. “I might know him.”
But the man shook his head and said that he was certain that the boy was in Scotland and that he was thirteen so probably older than most of the boys I knew and he was right. I hadn’t really thought that any of the boys at school would be the kind of boys who such an unusual man would be looking for anyway.
I finished the poster and the man said it looked beautiful and I thought so too. I hoped he would be alright sleeping in the summer house because Mummy says it could get very cold in there but the man said: “I did twelve years in Azkaban- I think I can manage a night in your summer house.”
I didn’t know what Azkaban was but I reckoned that meant he was going to be okay. So I went back to the house.
I lay awake for a long time that night, thinking about the man at the bottom of the garden. I wondered if he was cold. Then I wondered how long he would stay. If he was trying to find his friends’ little boy, he would probably have to go soon. I was starting to worry lots about this, so I got up and found the big fat book of fairytales that Mummy’s too sad to read to me now. Fairytales are good because in a fairytale, everything can be okay again just with someone waving a magic wand or something. Or getting wishes, or kissing the right person. Or meeting the good fairy just when you’re sure that everything has gone wrong.
I also like those sorts of stories best because they’re simple: people who are nice and kind and work hard end happily and the mean people who are cruel and pre-ju-diced don’t.
I lay in bed, reading my fairy stories (except the really confusing words) and wishing that real life could be like that too.
Another good thing about fairytales is that reading them makes me very tired. I didn’t have to wait long before I fell fast asleep.
Me and the man at the bottom of the garden began to make a routine. He would stay in the summer house alone all day, until after school when I would take food and my homework down to him and he would eat and test me on my spellings and I would do any other projects I had to work on.
As well as all the food, I brought him other things, like some clothes of Daddy’s that he left behind and some books to read to stop him being bored in the daytime.
A lot of the time he would just talk. He rarely made more sense than he had on the first day but I still liked to hear him. He was my fairytale man- cast in to my world to tell me about his one. Sometimes I thought he must be making up some of the things he said, but I didn’t really mind that. I found it interesting and my favourite part of the day was fast becoming when I would hurry down to the summer house, and spend a few hours with the stranger.
I hated being in the house, because Mummy was always sad or angry and I never knew which one she was going to be. And I worried that she would be okay. I worried about that a lot.
On the fifth day, I brought him the spare tuna sandwich that I didn’t eat at lunchtime, a drink of squash, another yoghurt (because he seemed to really like them), a chocolate bar and some more fruit.
“Are you sure you haven’t told anyone about me?” he asked as he devoured the sandwich.
“I told Megan at school but she didn’t believe me.” I said. “She said I was making things up. She said I must be imagining it.”
He laughed. “And do you think you’re imagining it?”
“No. Because if I was imagining you you wouldn’t be able to eat all of that food. And you wouldn’t be able to eat if you were a ghost either.”
“Ghosts are easy to spot.” He agreed. Something in his voice sounded like he’d seen a ghost before, although I thought it would sound silly if I asked.
“But you haven’t told your parents?” he checked.
I shook my head. “I haven’t told Mummy. And I would never tell Marcus. And Daddy-” I broke off suddenly, realising what I’d said too late.
I shrugged. It was bad enough everyone at school asking questions without him doing it too.
“Daddy doesn’t matter.” I assured the man. “He’s not here anymore.” I said it quietly, hoping he would start talking about something else.
I sighed. “He left.” I explained. “Months ago now. I don’t know where he is. Mummy says that he lives with somebody else now.”
I look up. The man’s eyes are strange. Is he feeling sorry for me?
“That must be hard.” He said at last, smoothing a strand of coarse black hair out of his face.
“Mummy used to be happy but now she gets cross really easily and cries all the time when she thinks that we’re asleep. I don’t want to talk to her because it’ll only make her sadder. I’d talk to Marcus about it but he hits you if you mention him. He says he dumped us and he doesn’t deserve us.”
I bit my lip, because I didn’t want to cry in front of the man. I didn’t know why I was telling him all this when I hate talking about it to anyone else- Mum, Marcus, my friends, my teachers. But he seemed different to them, almost like he didn’t come from our world. He was like a man in a fairytale who appears in the middle of the story to help out, before vanishing off to some secret castle in the sky. I knew he wouldn’t say stupid things just like I had known when I first saw him that he wouldn’t hurt me. I just knew it.
He said: “Do you think he dumped you?”
I thought about it for a long time.
“I don’t know.” I say in the end. “He used to play with me, and read me stories, and he showed me how to cook omelettes and fairy cakes. And he used to tell me he loved me.” I broke off, still thinking, “But he’s been gone for lots of months now. And he hasn’t rung up or written. And how can you love somebody when you don’t even see them?”
After I’d said that, the man sat very still for a very long time, with a very thoughtful expression on his face. He was staring hard at the floor but I don’t think he could even see it. When he spoke, his voice was bright and hard like metal.
“Alexa,” he said. “I think that if you love somebody, you love them wherever, whenever, whoever they are. I think that even if other stuff gets in the way, it doesn’t make you love them any the less. I think you can love people you think you hate and love people you’ve never even met.”
I looked at him. “Like that boy you’re looking for?”
He closed his eyes and gave his head a funny little twitch which I thought probably meant I was spot on.
“Families are tough, aren’t they?” He said at last.
I nodded. I couldn’t speak.
Gently, he reached over and put his arm around my shoulders and suddenly I was crying like I hadn’t cried since Mummy told me that Daddy wasn’t coming back. And he didn’t say any of the stupid things that other people say like “I’m sure it will all be okay” and “You must be feeling so upset” and he didn’t try to pretend that anything was fine when it obviously wasn’t.
And I realised that nobody had hugged me like that since Daddy left.
There is a man at the bottom of our garden.
The next morning is a Saturday and I race downstairs and wolf my breakfast so that I can go down to the summer house and tell the man thank you for looking after me when I was so sad last night. Well at least I want to but Mummy has made pancakes and it’s been so long since she did anything special like that that I really don’t want to rush them down. So I take my time, and Mummy looks happy that I’m enjoying what she’s cooked.
After the three of us have finished eating, I get up cause I really really want to go to the summer house, but Mummy says “Wait Alexa” so I do.
And she looked at me and Marcus and she takes and deep breath and she says: “You two- I know it’s going to come as a bit of a shock but...” and she pauses like she doesn’t know what to say “...I have a letter from your father...”
Madly, I race down to the summer house, the letter clutched tightly in my hand. Daddy’s words are going round and round my head and making me feel dizzy. I want to lay down and to be sick and to laugh and cry. I want to tell the man at the bottom of the garden and I want to talk to Daddy.
I burst through the summer house doors to find...
Nothing. He is gone. No trace of him remains. The clothes of Daddy’s I leant him are folded neatly on a chair underneath a stack of the books I gave him to read.
Where is he?
I am looking around everywhere, hoping he is playing a trick and will come jumping out from somewhere, laughing and asking me why I am so excited.
But he doesn’t.
His names springs to my lips, the name he told me the first time I met him and I had almost forgotten:
“Sirius Black!” I yell.
I run to the front of the house to try and catch him but the street is deserted save for a massive black dog which howls mournfully and gallops off. But I’m scared of dogs so I run back to the summer house and sit down.
I choose the chair that doesn’t have the clothes and books on it. I sit there for a long time. Mummy comes and I have to slip the clothes and books onto the floor where she can’t see them and she holds me tightly for ages and ages.
“If there’s anything I can do, Alexa...” she says. She says it lots of times.
Bring back the fairytale man. I want to say to her. Bring back the stranger in the summer house, the man-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden.
But of course I can’t do that. Instead, I unfold the letter that Daddy sent and read it again.
You were right. I want to tell the man. He loved me after all.
But of course I can’t do that.
I often wondered what happened to the stranger. I wondered if he escaped from the people who were chasing him and if he found the boy he was searching for. Lucky boy, I thought, to have a man like that wanting to be your father. Knowing how much the man loved him, I hoped the boy would love him too.
That’s not the last I see of the man. That night, the man is on the television, and the lady who reads the news says he is dangerous. She says he is a murderer and that he is carrying a gun but I know better. The man was not a murderer, or a ghost, or a Creep. He was just a wizard.
After all, it happens all the time in fairytales. The person helps the wizard out- gives them food or heals them, or carries them across a fast flowing river, and in return the wizard grants them a wish.
I gave the man at the bottom of the garden five packed lunches, four novels and a set of man’s clothes and he gave me my Daddy back.
It’s simple really.
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