Tweet Edmund sat on the bench at the bottom of the garden. He peered into the rose bush beside him, moving onto the neighbouring agapanthus when the roses yielded nothing of interest.
“Hallo there, Edmund!”
He looked up from the bushes to see Charles crossing the garden. The blond boy waved.
“Hallo, old chap. Mother thought I ought to see how you’re getting on after you were ill, and you weren’t at school again today. Cook told me you were out here by yourself. Are you alright?” asked Charles. He sat on the bench beside Edmund.
“Hallo, Charlie. Thank you for coming over, but I suspect I shall be alright soon enough.” Edmund looked down at the ground. He dug the toe of his plimsoll into the soil. Sometimes he wished he could crawl into the earth and hide there, never having to face other people and their questions or expectations.
“You seem out of sorts. Are you still ill?” asked Charles.
“I don’t know if I should say,” replied Edmund. He drew patterns in the dirt with his toe.
“I’m your best friend! Of course you should say. Maybe I can help.” Charles smiled.
“I don’t think anyone can help me in this regard, but I appreciate your concern all the same.”
“Is it the war? Are you getting scared about it? Was it the air raid last night? I jolly well think you ought to be getting scared, if you aren’t already. Father tells me all sorts of things that Mother thinks I shouldn’t hear. Why, only last night, he told me-”
“It’s not the war, Charlie.”
“Then what is it?”
“Mother got Cook to look after me while I was ill because she’s too busy with the Allotment Committee and trying to organise the evacuees. Well, one night Cook told me a story, and I think it might be true.”
“What kind of story? You know, if it was about the war, then you really ought to tell-”
“It was about fairies.”
Charles looked at Edmund for a moment, his grey eyes scrutinising Edmund’s worried face. Charles broke into a peal of laughter. Edmund’s ears flushed, and he looked away. Hot tears gathered in his eyes, threatening to spill down his blushing cheeks.
“You see, that’s why I couldn’t tell you,” he mumbled.
“You’re twelve, Edmund. Don’t you think you’re a little old for fairy stories?” Charles slapped his thigh, wheezing with laugher.
“Cook told me that sometimes fairies snatch human babies from the cradle, and leave their own babies behind instead. Humans bring them up as their own children, but they aren’t. They’re called changelings, and they have special powers, just like fairies. Some of them can even grant wishes,” replied Edmund.
“Is that it? Is that what you’ve been worrying about? How silly!” Charles wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“I think I might be one.”
“I think I might be a changeling.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” asked Charles. He gazed at Edmund with a mixture of condescension and fear.
“I don’t fit in anywhere, Charles, and you’ve seen how all the other chaps at school make fun of my red hair or my fear of water. I’ve always been such a disappointment to Father, compared with all the marvellous things William does or all of the compliments Celia gets. And you know I have never gotten along with Mother.”
Edmund gazed back at the house. He’d been born there, or so his parents claimed, and yet he still couldn’t bring himself to call it ‘home’.
“Lots of boys disappoint their fathers or don’t get along with their mothers, and even I have trouble with the chaps at school. Really, Edmund, you ought not to be so stupid. Don’t you know there’s a war on? There are more important things to think about.”
“I can’t really take sides if I’m a changeling, can I? I wouldn’t even be a person, let alone British.”
“I can’t believe you just said that. You’d better not let any of the grownups hear you. They might think you’re...you’re one of them! Father says the Führer has spies everywhere. You don’t want them to think you’re one,” said Charles. He looked around the garden, as if he expected to see informers lurking in the bushes.
“Being a fairy has nothing to do with the Führer.”
“Oh, I really cannot tolerate you when you’re in one of these moods. I rather think I shall pay Joseph a visit. At least he doesn’t talk nonsense about fairies.”
Charles stood up. He glared down at Edmund, daring him to challenge him. Edmund said nothing, staring at the patterns he’d drawn in the dirt. Charles let out a huff of indignation, and stomped away across the garden. Edmund heaved a sigh of relief when the side gate slammed shut behind his friend.
“I wish I could get away from this place. I wish I could find my home. I wish I could be where I belong,” said Edmund. He finished the elaborate pattern in the dirt, marking the last curlicue with a flourish.
A low drone made Edmund prick up his ears. The sound rumbled in his ribcage as the air raid siren wailed into life. He watched his family through the window, hurrying for the shelter of the cellar. No one has even stopped to check that I’m there, he thought.
Edmund left the bench and crawled into the bushes. He wrapped his arms around his knees and drew them to his chest. He thought of the family crouching in the cellar under the house. A hot tear escaped as he wished again to go home.
“Gotcha, lad. Let’s get you home,” said the strange voice behind him. He felt the strong hand on his shoulder as the first bomb fell.