“Why haven’t we got a kite?” came a low grumbling from the wispy thin grass. “Everybody else has got a kite.”
Tom poked his twin with a stick he’d found. Alice rolled onto her tummy and sighed.
“We’re getting one on our birthday, if you’re good.”
Their birthday was three weeks away.
“I want a kite now,” Tom said. “I hate today.”
“But it’s wonderful watching,” Alice scrambled to her feet. She opened her arms and twirled. Above her the kites dipped and soared: stripes and spots, hearts and flowers, eagles and unicorns, boxes and rectangles, fluorescent orange and murky sea-green. They’d have to go back soon. Mum had said half an hour, stay where you can see the house and don’t talk to strangers. Alice stopped twirling and searched for her new house amongst the row of houses whose narrow gardens backed onto the hill. She hated the dark brown of the walls in the bedroom she and Tom had to share. She felt a yank at her heart, just like a kite’s strings. She wanted to go home, where dad was, but mum said they couldn’t visit for at least a month, to let things settle. Alice wasn’t stupid. She knew what was meant by ‘things’. Two teenage boys, three years older than her and Tom, were going to live with dad now. And so was Loopy Loo, the name she and Tom had given to dad’s girlfriend because really, she was just so … but dad said she would be their stepmum soon and … Oh, how she wished…
“Which is the best one today?” she asked Tom.
“That one” Tom pointed immediately to a bird-kite with outstretched wings, brown and black with speckles at the tips. The wings flapped as though the bird-kite wanted to break free, fly as high as the clouds, as high as the sun.
“Oh yes,” Alice agreed.
“It’s the same man as yesterday,” Tom said. “And the day before. He had that crescent yellow one and then the three white clouds on one string. He let them go, remember, and they blew away but he just laughed.”
“Perhaps he thought they’d be happier up there,” Alice said. “Come on, mum’s waving.”
Tom stood slowly and hurled his stick. It bumped and bounced until it hit a stone and lay quite still.
When the children had gone, slender fingers with sharp pointed nails picked up the stick and stroked it thoughtfully.
“Was it fun on the hill?”
“Brilliant” Alice said.
“If we had a kite” Tom muttered.
“I should come with you,” mum pushed a hand through her hair. “But there’s so much to do… have you made any friends yet? No? Well never mind, at least you’ve got each other. When you start your new school you’ll meet lots of people.”
“I bet they’ve all got kites,” Tom said under his breath, sliding down from his chair.
“Don’t worry about him,” Alice said, seeing the look on mum’s face. She couldn’t stand it when mum looked like she was going to cry. Tom must stop saying the first thing that came into his head. It wasn’t fair. None of it was.
“Sorry love,” mum was stroking her hair. “I know it’s not fair.”
“How did you know that’s what I was thinking?” Alice said.
“Because you’ve got a transparent face,” mum said, smiling crookedly. “Just like your dad.”
Alice thought that probably wasn’t a good thing but mum didn’t seem to be able to read that thought.
The twins left the house early the next morning. Tom sprang over the low fence and raced away, twirling his belt high above his head.
“I’m going to be a fighter pilot like my dad,” he shouted. “And fly right up to the sun. I wish, I wish, I wish …”
“Don’t say,” Alice cried. Tom stopped abruptly and Alice ran into the back of him.
“Ow, you idiot … what’s the matter?”
Tom put a finger to his lips and pointed.
On the bench beside the gnarled oak tree sat the man from yesterday and the day before and the day before that. He was bent over, squinting at a needle. Spread on the ground was an enormous kite, inky black, hundreds of tiny silver stars scattered across the darkness.
“Tom,” Alice hissed but she was too late.
“Are you flying that kite today?” Tom asked.
“If it’s windy enough.”
“We’d love to watch.”
“You can help, if you like.”
Tom’s grin split his face from ear to ear. Alice looked down the hill. She should run and check, but the sparkling silver stars looked so lovely she longed to kneel down and touch them.
The man took a tiny silver star from his pocket and began sewing it onto the enormous black kite.
“I’m Tom and she’s Alice,” Tom announced.
“And I’m The Kite Man.”
“We’ve seen you every day,” Tom said eagerly. “You’ve got the best kites; birds and clouds and the moon. We’re getting a kite on our birthday but it’s forever away.”
“Well now we can’t have you waiting that long, can we?” The Kite Man finished sewing. The breeze blew his white shirt out at the sides. He wore black trousers, a purple belt and yellow shoes. He had a sharp, pointy face and small, shiny bright eyes.
“Here it comes, a perfect north-westerly,” the Kite Man said.
He began to run down the other side of the hill, away from the houses. Tom went straight after him.
“Wait,” Alice called but they hadn’t gone far. The Kite Man was behind Tom putting the string into his hand. Then he quickly looped a fine white line twice around Tom’s middle.
“You too.” The Kite Man took another piece of string, put it in her hand and looped a fine white line twice around her middle.
“Ready my little tail feathers?”
“What’s a tail feather?” Tom asked. The Kite man had already started running.
“Dear oh dear,” he said. “You’ve got a lot to learn. Tail feathers balance the kite.”
He disappeared behind the oak tree.
The children waited, Tom increasingly impatient. Then Alice began to feel a tugging on the string in her hand and Tom jumped up and down.
“Look, look” he cried, pointing to the top of the hill.
The enormous black kite was lifting slowly, slowly into the air and as it rose it grew bigger and bigger, spreading across the sky so that it didn’t matter how far Alice leant backwards, all she could see was inky blackness and silver stars, one brighter than all the rest.
“It’s flying,” Tom’s voice called. “And we’re flying. We’re in the air!”
And they were.
Tom was still beside her, hanging from the other fine white line. He dipped and dived, swept and soared, dragging her with him until she felt quite dizzy.
“Stop,” she called but he only laughed.
“There’s our house …”
Alice looked down. Mum was in the garden, a white sheet on the line, bending down to pick up a peg she’d dropped.
“There’s the Kite Man,” Tom shouted. “Lying in the grass.”
“But what about the kite?” Alice called back. “Who’s flying the kite?”
The Kite Man’s voice drifted up to them.
“You are, dear tail feathers, you are!”
Alice suddenly felt sick.
“Tom,” she said. “I want to get down now. Tom?”
Tom didn’t look quite so pleased with himself either. He twisted on his string, swinging his legs from side to side, trying to get closer to Alice but it was no good. The two fine white lines stayed exactly the same distance apart and the enormous black kite hung over their heads, inky black with silver stars, one brighter than any of them. Through their feet they could only see fluffy white clouds, not even the hill or the new house or anything.
The two children shouted until they were hoarse, but nothing happened.
“Can we cut the string?” Tom asked, chewing on the fine white line.
“Don’t!” Alice cried. “Think how far you’ll fall.”
They hung there for a long time singing songs and telling jokes, trying to cheer each other up but after a while they fell silent. Alice couldn’t even see her brother.
“Tom,” she said.
“I’m here,” his voice tiny. “Are you okay?”
He never asked her how she was.
“Not really,” she said. “I miss dad.”
“All right, I do. But I don’t miss them arguing. I hated all the shouting. Mum’s sad now but she’s more like old mum than she has been for ages. And when we go and see dad …”
“I know what you’re going to say” Alice interrupted, feeling even smaller. “You’ll have two brothers to play with and …”
“No, silly!” Tom’s laugh was warm and sounded closer than he had a few minutes earlier. “I don’t want to play with them. Dad says he’s going to take us onto the camp and show us the plane he flies. He’s got special permission. It’s our birthday treat but I wasn’t supposed to find out and he made me promise not to say but now I have. Oh.”
“I’m glad you have,” Alice said and suddenly she could see Tom, bobbing on his string not very far away at all. She held out her hand and he took it.
“Hey!” Tom said suddenly. “Did you feel that? Hey! Hey!”
At the same moment Alice felt a jerk. And another. Jerk, jerk, jerk. They were dropping and as they came down it grew lighter. They brushed clouds like spider’s webs out of their faces and finally they could see rooftops, back gardens, a high hill, an oak tree.
“There’s mum,” Alice yelled. “Hello, hello?”
Mum was standing in the garden, bending down to pick up a peg she’d dropped.
“Tom …” Alice began to say but didn’t finish because suddenly she was knocking against a branch and landing with a bump. Tom fell beside her in an untidy heap.
The Kite Man was rubbing his hands together, the two white strings on the floor by his feet, his eyes bright and shiny.
“Where’s the kite?” Tom asked, forgetting how much he’d disliked being left hanging in the sky for hours and hours. The Kite Man pointed upwards. Alice and Tom looked. They saw birds, fluffy clouds, bright blue, and behind the blue they saw inky dark scattered with bright shiny pinpricks, one shinier than all the rest.
“The night sky,” the Kite Man said. “Dropped a star yesterday.”
“But did we …? Were we …? How …?” Tom scuffed the toe of his shoe in the dirt, glancing at Alice.
“Run home now,” the Kite Man said. He sounded stern, but he was smiling. “And mind you behave yourself young Tom. You’ll get your kite and learn to fly, if you don’t go around annoying people too much.”
“Thank you,” Tom said. “I’ll try not to.”
The Kite Man turned to Alice.
“And you know, little miss, that you can paint those brown walls anything you want?”
Alice thought of the night sky. She and Tom could paint their ceiling deep blue and ask mum for some stick on stars that would glow in the dark.
“Yes,” the Kite Man said, even though she hadn’t spoken. “That sounds like a splendid idea. Now, run along. I’ll see you again, no doubt. Off you go, quick as you like.”
Alice ran down the hill after Tom. But when she got to the bottom and turned around to wave to the Kite Man, he was nowhere to be seen.
Alison Woodhouse has won Flash500, Limnisa and Adhoc, placed 2nd in Linkage Flash and was highly commended in Biffy50 and Vernal Equinox. She has been long and short listed in Bare Fiction, Bath Flash, Reflex, The London Magazine, NFFD Micro, Retreat West and Words in Jam. Her stories are in Leicester Writes, Ellipsis 3 and 5, Earlyworks, Bath Festival Anthology, The Drabble, 50word stories and Flashflood. She has been a reader for the Bath and Brighton short story awards and is doing an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. This is her first published children’s story.
You can follow Alison Woodhouse on Twitter here @AJWoodhouse
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