In a haunting tale of love and betrayal, the Whittenbury family and their troubled neighbours become embroiled in
a magician’s deadly game of ‘Live or Let Die’.
A world of mystery and wonder awaits. Yet a sinister darkness lingers, for a Grim Dread rises and threatens to claim them and Mother Nature’s kingdom. Can it be stopped?
Do you ever wonder what happens when you die?
On my 18th birthday Adam Fosbrooke held to his promise to show me his kingdom. He visited me in my room at three in the afternoon. I was dressed in my Sarah in Wonderland outfit, hired for a fancy dress party in my honour due later that evening. I had my hair in ringlets, held my father’s pocket watch and a soft toy white rabbit, so as to befit my character. I also wore my heart locket, but it was tucked away out of sight under my dress. When Adam met me he chuckled with delight. I scolded him for ridiculing me, pointing a wagging finger in his direction and threatening not to go. “No, you misunderstand. I love the surprise and you look incredible, really you do. It’s just you remind me of Lucy in that outfit… but where’s your giant panda bag?”
“Panda bag, with this outfit? It really doesn’t go!”
“Sarah, take it from me it’s perfect for where we’re going. They’ll love it!”
“Okay… I’ll take it.”
He began to laugh again.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m just wondering how we’re going to climb the old tree with you in that dress, that’s all.” Adam hadn’t said anything about climbing trees. “Oh you won’t need the white rabbit as The Emperor has one of his own… all the best magicians do you know.” Yet the real magic of this night was that we were able to touch each other. For the first time ever he kissed me – a wonderful birthday kiss. He took my hand, “Come Princess, your carriage awaits.” I warned him that I mustn’t be late back for my party. It starts at seven in the Drill Hall at Ware. “Fear not, time is of little consequence where we are going. In fact we’ll be back sooner than you can say Queen of Hearts. Let the celebrations begin.”
In a moment we were outside Keeper’s at a time when Yggdrasil stood proud and a little fearsome. Panda bag in hand, we surveyed the task before us. I looked at Adam in dismay at the prospect of climbing the spindly spiny branches. “Oh relax. Here drink this,” he said, handing me a bottle labelled “Happy 18th Birthday Sarah… love The Magician xxx.”
“Drink!” invited Adam. I did so. Suddenly Yggdrasil grew to an enormous height, either that or we had shrunk. All the same, I was now fully in character as Adam told me, “Look we have a guide… it’s the grey squirrel, Ratatosk.” The creature chattered, “Follow me, the time for talking’s over.” It led us to the apex of the tree, dancing effortlessly through the branches until at last Adam announced, “Behold the horse’s head!” The topiary was so lifelike, yet now we found the horse had a large pointed spiralling horn on its forehead. Adam merely touched the horn and the sculpture sprung into being. “Epona lives… as a unicorn, just as I promised. Time to hold on for the ride of your life.” I gripped Adam so tightly, as he took up the reins. Epona spread her wings and with a triumphant neigh took to flight. I watched the ground beneath us fall away. I said I was afraid. “Fear not, for I trained her well,” claimed Adam. “She knows the way… North my friend to the Northern Lights.” I had the wind in my hair, teasing my ringlets. “The Emperor’s kingdom in the clouds awaits,” he told me. I felt no cold as we crossed cities, open country, mountains, oceans and ice covered land. We went lower and flew over a family of polar bears that stood to wave at us, before soaring high towards something happening in the heavens. The sky roared to greet us.
Was this real?
Adam confirmed it. “Hark, the drummers play to welcome us.” They stood in line and banged out ‘Yankee Doodle’ as loud as thunder. We were on horseback its true, but Epona was much more than a pony. Five, four, three, two, one… we landed gently amongst the clouds between a rainbow that arched above us. Adam saluted the drummers and they paused playing. I dared to dismount in this fantasy world and thanked Epona for the ride. I doubt I’ll ever tire of the vision of tranquillity before me. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope, with heart and X shaped clouds adorned with the number 18 in pastel shades that merged together. Epona trotted off on the cushioned ground to drink from a pool in the sky where mermaids swam. Beside it was a cascade of polka dot fly agora toadstools upon which sat numerous fairies. One flew up to greet us. “Happy eighteenth birthday Princess Sarah… welcome to Xanadu, where dreams really do come true.”
Fairies exist! They’re real… Grandma was right all along.
“It’s so hard to believe, but anything is possible with a whole lot of faith and trust,” whispered the tiny, glowing, aqua-blue creature. I held out my palm. She landed upon it. I told her she was adorable. She said she loved my bag. I couldn’t help but stare in wonder. “Come… let’s take a walk… they’re waiting for you,” she said, taking to flight once more and guiding us into the kingdom.
Adam held my hand as we walked on stepping stones. My wonderland dress swished and the ringlets in my hair curled more tightly than I could ever have imagined.
What was this place?
Adam seemed to read my mind. “It’s almost Heaven. Departed souls pass through here. If the Emperor chooses, he catches their essence… their memories and creativity… then they move on. He calls it harnessing the best of humanity, which helps feed the seeds of creation. Sometimes people who have died in tragic circumstances are invited to come stay a while, as here they have a window on their loved ones worlds. The little ones always get to stay. Here they can dance… listen to poetry and nursery rhymes and be happy again and prepare for eternity. We’ve the essence of some amazing story tellers… look there’s Roald Dahl and Hans Christian Andersen telling tales to children sat upon giant toadstools. Look at their smiles. And yonder… John Lennon, gathering fruit in the strawberry fields.” John gave me the thumbs up and cried ‘Hey, I’ve waited all these years, for the one and only Billie Shears?” I nodded nervously.
Imagine! Was that really the great John Lennon? Incredible, but why bring me here?
“This is the place where legends and myths are born. Here heroes are created. This haven normally invisible to the human eye is known throughout the animal kingdom. Here those who reside know no pain or suffering, only joy. There are no Earthly troubles or temptations. Our guests are not judged. They are free and equal.”
Adam continued, “Here they observe humanity. Although the Emperor isn’t omnipresent…”
“Everywhere all the time,” clarified the fairy.
“Quite… he knows what a muddle humans are making of things. They… we are proving terrible guardians of planet Earth.”
Which stirred someone to sing, “What have we done to the world? Look what we’ve done!” Mr. Jackson, I believe, though I couldn’t see him.
“Earth’s Song?” I asked, excitedly.
Adam explained, “Something must be done. The forests must be preserved. The oceans cleansed. Wilderness saved. Bio-diversity must win the day! Gaia demands it! There will be no second chance or forgiveness for such treachery.”
I didn’t realise you were so clever and so angry!
“It’s not Adam talking. The voice you hear in your head and the words spoken are not his. I am the voice of Xanadu. I read your mind. I know your secret wishes. Sarah, know this, as with Adam I’m ready to catch you if you fall.”
We followed the lone fairy and the voice with the glorious company of beautiful birdsong, which gave way to the sound of jazz as the stepping stones surrendered to a glorious meadow in flower. Shadows cascaded across the country road in the sky. I was quickly entranced by the dancer. But this wasn’t the Keeper of Time. No, it was the essence of one of the most brilliant dancers the world has ever known – Fred Astaire. “Dance with me… I want my arm about you,” he said. Though to my relief his perfect partner, Ginger Rogers emerged from amid the flowers to take his hand. Gracefully they glided cheek to cheek about the meadow. I watched them dance for an age. Different tunes, until a ripple of applause spread across the kingdom prompting the performers to fade away.
“I’ve the perfect teachers,” claimed the Keeper of Time as he danced his way on to the meadow. “I hope you’re enjoying your eighteenth birthday Sarah!” he asked, beckoning me on towards some bales of hay organised in a circle at the heart of the meadow, uttering, “Faisons foin.”
Let’s make hay!
A host of people were seated on the hay patiently waiting for us. Our presence turned their heads. I recognised some of the old familiar faces – Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb. Every member of the Blakesware Set was present. They began to sing, ‘Happy Birthday’.
Oh no, I’m blushing.
Samuel Coleridge stood, and then came towards us, “Happy birthday Sarah. Welcome to Xanadu. It’s not quite how I imagined it to be in my vision, but better… less opulence … more humility and creativity. I do hope you enjoy your stay… and please take care to mind the albatross, he’s a daring fellow.” I searched for it overhead only to find written in the clouds words from a poem that I knew so very well.
“ See the magic in the shadow
Standing next to Nature true,
Tiny seeds of hope o’sowing
Tiny wings of aqua-blue.”
I lowered my sights to the gathered Haymakers. They surrounded a large round table made from ice. Stood about the semi-translucent table was The Emperor wearing his ivory mask and gloves. Next to him posed the woman I’d seen many times before, yet never face to face like this. Mother Nature spread her arms to beckon me forward. “Come Earth Princess. Witness us preparing to sow seeds of hope for future generations.”
I stepped into the circle. Adam followed. I watched in admiration as a dozen or so aqua-blue fairies flirted with the air – rather as damsel flies move – and graced twelve stones set about the table as though a clock face. In the centre of the table sat an old clock. The stones lit up each time a fairies wing touched them, and simultaneously played a gentle soothing note. I recognised the music as Mozart’s ‘Twinkle twinkle little star.’
So that’s where he got it from.
“Behold the seeds of creation. The sacred objects discovered at Royston Cave… and again in the hollow of Yggdrasil. Their true value and purpose is to nurture creativity and imagination, build unity, strength and goodness and respect and love for Nature. Every planet to harbour life in this universe has them. It’s how things are done.”
So they’re seeds, not stones.
Adam took my hand afresh as we watched the fairies dance. One or two of them abandoned their task and began to flutter about us. I felt quite drowsy. They had no effect on Adam, which wasn’t surprising as he once told me, ‘The pains of sleep.’ I titled my head and let it rest upon Adam’s shoulder. He gently stroked my hair. I closed my eyes to help saviour the moment.
“Love’s young dream. It warms my heart so,” said Mother Nature.
I opened my eyes to find everyone admiring us, even the fairies. I pulled out of the embrace, and composed myself with a simple smile.
“I hear you’re a bit of a detective Sarah,” added Mother Nature, rescuing me from a little embarrassment. I nodded gratefully. The Emperor walked about the table and presented me with my familiar magnifying glass. “Take a fresh look through it. What do you see?”
Where do I look?
“You can look anywhere you please…it’s a looking glass.”
So I did just that. I was looking down upon my father and Malachi, stood beneath the Goblin Tree. Daddy appeared to raise a pretend glass as if making a toast.
“Listen… you can hear them too.”
I did so. I heard Daddy say, “Waes hael!” Then he swished a make believe sword. He spoke again, “I commend my services to you, Tree of the World… symbol of life… Am I a worthy champion of Nature? Do you honour me… as Mother Earth’s Keeper?” I knew these words. Daddy looked up at us. I could see the pupils in his eyes. I sensed the passion in his words, “For the planet blue in a sea of black.” I watched him kneel before Malachi. The dog looked up at us. He knew we were observing. The Emperor spoke on the dog’s behalf. “Arise brave knight, go claim your prize.”
You were spying on him. You made this happen.
I put down the magnifying glass.
Silence! Sometimes it speaks volumes.
You’re like the Gods that sit on Mount Olympus.
The Emperor may have been smiling. I couldn’t tell. “We’re not all seeing or all knowing. Take a second look,” he suggested. This time Adam picked up the glass. We looked through it together. We saw a man walking slowly. He was hunched over carrying a heavy load. I knew this man too. “It’s Jonas… see his sorrow,” said Adam. I hadn’t expected to see sadness in Xanadu. I clung to Adam once more to urge him to look away. He refused. “He can’t see me. Why can’t he see me?”
Where’s your mother? Where’s Caroline?
I snatched the magnifying glass from him, and was about to offer it back to the Emperor when I saw through the lens a woman in white. Her hair hung over her face. She was bleeding. I heard her crying. I heard her wail, “G…E…O…R…G…E! Geo…r…ge! George!!!”
Did Adam see and hear this?
He didn’t respond.
The Emperor clarified, “So now you understand why we do what we do. Like Uncle John Plummer we want justice for the Earth and for Jonas, Caroline and Adam. We could do nothing for Caroline… her despair is too strong, but I adopted Adam as my own son. He’s my special boy, but I’m powerless to keep him here. Soon, like the others before him, he’ll move on.”
The Emperor… powerless?
He clicked his fingers and the clock at the centre of the table vanished then re-appeared in his hands. “Why does it always have to say five to twelve? It cannot be wound without the key. Cursed Lady Markyate, heartless highway woman. Just five minutes more and we can change the world…. But now is not the time for melancholy. It’s a time for celebration and joy.” He clicked his fingers again, and the clock returned to its pride of place on the table.
“Close your eyes!” said the voice of Xanadu.
I did so.
I did so.
I’m counting stars… one… two… seven… fourteen…. eighteen!
Before me a selection of fairies were in flight, sparkling. I tried to touch them as they moved to form a heart shape. Through the sparkling heart window, I saw a frosty image of a woman I felt I knew beside a cake in the shape of a polar bear that now graced the ice table. I’d only ever seen her face in photographs.
She smiled lovingly and spoke, “Twinkle twinkle little stars…they’re incredible aren’t they, with their tiny fragile wings… a special treat for a special princess. Happy eighteenth birthday Sarah. I’m so sorry I had to go before your time. You were always on my mind. I’ve watched you grow from afar. Know that I’ve been beside you in those times when you and your mother needed me most. You just haven’t been able to see me, that’s all. I’m so proud of you my beautiful darling and Julia… but take heed. You must remind her of the Grim Dread… he roams… tell her not to lose faith… that she holds the key… you must promise me.”
The Grim Dread? I promise.
“Come blow out the candles and make a wish.”
I moved closer to the table and did as she suggested.
I wish Adam and I could be together for all eternity!
I tried to reach out to my grandma but her image was fading.
I love you Grandma. Don’t go!
“Hush hush, darling! I’m not alone. I have Elizabeth and Mary with me today. We’re listening to Mozart on piano. We’re all so proud of you and Charles. I’ll be here waiting for you when you come. One day we shall be together. I love you Princess.”
I wanted to cry, not from sorrow but from joy at having seen and heard her.
We cut the cake and shared it amongst us. It tasted delicious. There was something about Xanadu that washed away any pain from loss. It was a magical sanctuary. I could stay here in this place forever. I dared to close my eyes for fear that the world would vanish, that I’d wake to find it was all just a dream. I threw myself into Adam’s arms. He held me tightly.
I just want to hold you close for the rest of time!
Mother Nature stepped forward. “Sarah… I adore your giant panda bag… it’s so symbolic. In many ways your bag represents me… my future. I love symbolism. Come see my gallery!” she offered. “They call it the Red List.” Adam and I complied with her offer, and followed her away from the ice table and along the ‘Coleridge Way’ a path graced by fountains and brooks – a wilderness in the sky. “Come walk this fertile ground, bound by walls of cane girdled round. I’d like you to meet some of my endangered friends, all of whom dream of paradise…. and a pair of dice!” We did so, and whilst we walked, every now and then pieces of a puzzle fell from the sky before us. I picked one up. It was from the Haymakers jigsaw I made in secret. “It’s all coming together,” announced Lucy as she directed my gaze towards a mighty mountain gorilla in the mist, a pygmy hippo, an Asian elephant, a bullish Javan Rhino and a playful chimpanzee taking peanuts from a packet. It ran its fingers along the letters: WARNING!
This is so incredible.
“It is, but let me tell you… humans cannot see what they do to me. Think about the way that they live today!” said Lucy.
We must make them see!
Thoughts that prompted Lucy to point to an animal she described as a gatecrasher to celebrate The Beatles. The grey tusked creature announced himself, “I am the Walrus.” There was no Egg man!
Further on a Sumatran orangutan looked down on us from the treetops. On the path ahead was the fearsome prowling presence of a Siberian tiger and an Asiatic cheetah, dwarfed by the might of the creature beside it. I felt no fear as the predators moved aside to let us pass. Lucy stroked the head of the tiger. Another large cat emerged. It was an enormous male African lion. I could feel its breath on my skin. It roared, but I was unafraid. It caused the sky around us to tremble and screech. Horns bellowed. “It’s the extinction warning,” said Lucy. It eased. “This lion is now cared for by Uncle John. They once ranged free across West Africa… no longer. The king of the beasts is close to being dethroned forever.”
“Uncle John Plummer?” I asked. “Where is he?”
“He’s the lion’s keeper now… besides someone else is waiting for you.”
I was encouraged forward, but looked behind as I went and caught a glimpse of a proud looking man standing next to the majestic lion, after it had returned to its den. I assume it was Uncle John.
Last of all we saw a giant panda. It pointed towards my bag. A figure joined us from the side, holding some bamboo. “It’s the bag! Panda Girl! Still following in my footsteps? Here take some… she’s hungry.” It was Peter Scott, founder of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. I hadn’t forgotten how years ago he’d visited us in the garden at Keeper’s Cottage to wish us well with our mission impossible. I passed the bamboo stick to the panda. Normally shy and reclusive, the panda gently took the food from me. I offered him a close up view of my bag.
“My, look at you and Adam together…quite the picture aren’t we.”
His words were lost on me. I was too busy marvelling at the panda.
“Did you enjoy your ride on Epona? Didn’t I tell you the top of the tree resembled a horse’s head? Remember how I pushed you on the swing when you were just a girl. You said you could almost touch the sky… now look at you. Hey… look a swing… climb on. The sun is about to set. Let Adam push you so you can see the Northern Lights.”
It was a trapeze style swing. I took the rope supports, as Adam pushed me higher and higher. “Look at the colours dancing across the sky. So beautiful aren’t they?”
I feel like I rule the world!
I closed my eyes to listen to his words.
“It’s how I first saw your face… in the night sky. It was how you got me. Nothing else compares. The stars they shine for you. My Sarah! But soon I shall have to go. It has to be so… but know that I shall love you forever… but now you have to let go. Jump… take a leap of faith.”
I did so.
I opened my eyes to find I was back in my room sat before my dressing table mirror. It was over. I was alone with my reflection and just a few cake crumbs on the table to remind me of my adventure. My ever growing collection of world wild animal soft toys were there to comfort me. I hugged my panda. Tears flowed, but I’d had an 18th birthday to remember.