This is the first story in my ‘Fallterling Things’ series. Hope you enjoy!
Pic by Salvatore Vuono @ freedigitalphotos.net
Gilbert was a quiet boy whom everybody knew, but whom no one could ever quite remember clearly. He had been brought up in the proper way, to be polite and friendly and say please and thank you, that sort of thing. But in spite of his excellent manners and his tidy way of dressing he seemed always doomed to be the boy last to be invited to parties, and the one who would inevitably end up sat on some step alone, imagining himself to be elsewhere, far away, on an adventure.
‘Gilbert where have you got to?’ Would be the sound that would wake him from his daydreams. It was his mother calling for him, usually when it had gotten quite late and the other children had gone home.
‘Oh I’m terribly sorry Mrs Agnew, we had no idea the little chap was still here!’ and when Gilbert was found to be skulking around out in the yard the parents of the birthday boy or girl would skuffle around the kitchen awkwardly trying to find him some cakes or sweets to take away.
‘Well there were party bags for the other children but we seem to run out, we quite forgot about Gilbert!’
In truth, being an invisible child never really bothered Gilbert. He was quite certain that he was loved by both parents, and as he had no other siblings to fight with for their attentions, he was quite contented to be alone with his thoughts most of the day. At school no one bothered him, the school bullies never stole his lunch money because the seemed to look right through him and see nothing at all, and though he had no real friends to speak of, all in all he was a happy boy.
One day during the school holidays, Gilbert was woken up by a great commotion in the kitchen. His bedroom was the attic room, it was small and had a steeply slanting roof on which his father hit his head every night while trying to read Gilbert his bedtime story. Gilbert was perhaps a little old for night time stories, but even though he could read the books himself, he enjoyed his father’s narration and the different voices he would put on for the various characters. Often Gilbert would close his eyes, and imagine the characters themselves, and that he was somehow a part of the story, before long he would be asleep and dreaming, that is until he would hear the familiar sound of his father bashing his head accidentally on the low attic roof.
But as I was saying, one morning Gilbert heard a ruckus down in the kitchen. He sat up quickly, his heart ticking loudly, still half asleep, wondering if pirates had come inland and were raiding the larder, but before long he slumped down again, convinced that the sounds were not pirates, but rather the cacophonous voice of Mrs Molston from next door.
Not long afterwards there came a knock on the door. It was Gilbert’s mother with a breakfast tray of toast and tea.
‘Good morning Gilbert, have you had a good sleep then?’ she asked as she set the tray down.
Breakfast in bed was a special Saturday treat that was not to be sniffed at. Gilbert sat up immediately and got stuck into the toast, slurping the tea down in gulps.
‘That was Mrs Molston we had round just there now.’ His mother said smiling, she pulled a tissue out of the box on his nightstand to mop up drips of tea that had splashed onto the tray.
‘Her niece Sophie has come to stay with her again for the Summer, all the way from Brighton!’
Gilbert stopped slurping his tea and looked at his mother. What he wanted to say was, ‘That’s all very nice but I’m not interested in the slightest.’ but as he was good natured boy he said nothing and waited. Mrs Agnew smiled again and put the tissue away.
‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a new friend Gilbert? That’s what I was thinking. So we had a word with Mrs Molston and thought Sophie could come and mind you while me and your dad are away on our little holiday next week.’
The little holiday. Gilbert had forgotten all about that and he felt a frown forming on his brow.
‘I thought I was to go to Nana’s’
Gilbert’s mother patted his head, half in an attempt to smooth the unruly thatch of hair, half in a sweet, motherly way. ‘Well yes but Nana is an old lady, and a week is a long time to be looking after a little boy Gilbert.’
‘But I’ll behave myself, I won’t eat much, I’ll go play outside all day and not be a bother I promise.’
Gilbert’s mother looked wistfully down at him and moved her hand down to pat his cheek.
‘No I know you’d be good Gilbert, but I think you’ll have a great time with Sophie and Mrs Molston.’
A week later, Gilbert watched his parents drive away in their rusting red Ford as he waved half-heartedly from the front step. Mrs Molston had her hand on his back and was waving so vigorously herself that it made Gilbert’s shoulders wobble. He was only a slight boy for his age which was frustrating because it meant he was constantly being treated like a baby whenever anyone did bother to take notice of him.
Gilbert watched his mother turn around several times to wave and his father had honked the horn at the end of the drive, sticking his hand out of the window and calling out, ‘see you in a week!’, as they drove off.
Mrs Molston’s niece was standing in the drive itself, she had also been waving but had turned around as the car drove out of sight, and was now surveying Gilbert intently, she came over and shook his hand.
‘Well now Gilbert seems you are now the man of the house!’ she exclaimed.
Her name was Sophie Peach and she was much older than Gilbert, and about a head taller than him too. She had long mousy hair and wore a bright poppy scarf and clothes of all sorts of colours. Her skirt was sunshine yellow and her jacket bright blue like the sky.
‘Shall we go in and have lunch?’ Mrs Molston had asked then Sophie had taken his hand and led him inside where there were buns and lemonade waiting.
‘Gilbert, have you ever been on an adventure?’ Sophie asked, speaking almost in a whisper barely audible above the radio and Mrs Molston’s tuneless singing.
‘Yes of course I have,’ Gilbert answered grumpily.
Sophie’s eyebrows scrunched up on her head in a pretty way.
‘Yes but a real adventure, I’m not talking about the ones you have in your head, I mean an actual adventure…’
Gilbert felt his head go blank, he tried to think.
‘I don’t know’ he managed finally, ‘I’m not sure.’
Sophie handed him a cream bun ‘Would you like to?’
‘Like to what?’
‘Go on a real adventure!’
Gilbert thought about this.
‘Yes I suppose.’
Later that night, when Mrs Molston had put him to bed, and herself gone to sleep in the spare room. Gilbert heard a knock on his door. He had not been asleep of course, just pretending, so he sat up quickly and grabbed his rucksack and tip toed over to the door.
‘Who is it?’ he hissed, just in case.
‘It’s me silly! It’s Sophie!’
Gilbert opened the door and a bright light caught him in the face, he nearly slipped backwards but Sophie grabbed his arm and pulled him on to the landing.
‘It’s just a flashlight’ she ushered him on down the stairs, and they had creep on the floor boards as they were old and squeaky, but Mrs Molston was fast asleep and snoring very loudly.
‘Have you got everything?’ Sophie asked once they were downstairs.
Gilbert did a double check to make sure, he was in his warm weather clothes which he had changed into after Mrs Molston was in bed, he had his rucksack packed with biscuits and a thermos in case he got hungry and his new and shiny-green wellington boots on.
‘Yes, I’m ready.’ he said and he must have looked very serious because Sophie laughed at him. ‘What a funny boy you are Gilbert!’ and then they were off out the door and into the night.
Outside the sky was awash with tiny pinpricks of starlight, they looked fainter because of the light of the huge silvery full moon overhead, Sophie said.
Gilbert thought they looked beautiful. He wasn’t used to being out after dark and the cool night air on his face made him feel giddy.
‘Where are we going?’ he whispered as they left the drive and stepped onto the footpath.
‘Gilbert are you afraid of ghosts?”
Gilbert felt a chill in his bones but he said ‘No of course not.’
‘Good. Because some of my friends are ghosts.’
They were rounding the corner now at the end of the path and were met by an old crossroads.
The road to the right led on into the town, but the road to the left was private property. From somewhere in the trees close by, Gilbert heard an owl hooting mournfully.
‘We are going this way.’ Sophie tugged him to the left and down a shabby lane, hastily pushing the old rickety gate aside.
‘We can’t go down here it’s private!’ Gilbert gasped, ‘Look it says so on the sign!’
‘Oh don’t worry about that.’ Sophie was dragging him forward now down the dark path, her flashlight searching the ground in front of them revealing all manner of bugs and night creatures desperate to get out of the path made by the bright light.
Suddenly up ahead Gilbert saw another light, much dimmer and flickering on and off feebly.It was a lantern in the side of a very old, very tall house that seemed to stretch up into the darkness and get lost somewhere among the clouds.
The sound of owl grew louder and more urgent.
‘Master Chronos it’s me, Sophie!’
There was a flutter of wings above their heads and more hooting.
‘Soophie Soophie.’ a voice seemed to say.
Sophie walked up to the front door which was incredibly wide and ancient looking. It was painted a very dark green colour and had a monstrous door knocker in it’s centre, it’s goblin face leering out at them unpleasantly.
Sophie reached up for the knocker and knocked once. Just once. The sound echoed around the trees and a scattering of bats took to the sky behind them. Gilbert felt his body become icy cold and he began to shiver.
‘Sophie I’m scared.’ he stood away from the great door but found it hard to take his eyes away from the hideous goblin face. That was when he saw its eyes begin to glow a deep orange and a voice said ‘Hah!’ from somewhere inside the knocker.
He wanted to run but instead stayed rooted to the spot. Sophie on the other hand just stood and waited patiently, putting her arm around Gilbert’s shoulders.
‘Don’t worry Gilbert, I just want you to meet some friends of mine.’
As she spoke the door opened and from the pitch black within, someone spoke.
‘Get in if you’re coming in.’
Sophie ushered Gilbert on through the door and into darkness.
‘Well well well what’s all this then?’ Gilbert was startled by a match struck right in front of his nose. The burning match travelled up through the air as if by some magic of it’s own and soon ignited inside an old lamp, being held by an even older woman.
‘He’s smaller than your average ain’t he?’ the crone asked Sophie disapprovingly.
Gilbert felt the time had come to be brave.
‘I hope you haven’t brought me here to eat me.’ he said, trying not to shake.
The old woman turned her nose up at him.
‘What planet are you on boy? Witches don’t eat little children, what a foul notion!’
Sophie tapped him on the back ‘This is Frelda, she is Lord Fallterling’s housekeeper.’
‘Unofficial, unpaid housekeeper.’ Frelda added huffily.
‘Lord Fallterling..so is this the Fallterling house?’ Gilbert asked in awe and terror.
‘Bright lad aren’t you.’ Frelda scoffed ‘Come on, we were about to serve supper if you’re quick you might get some.’
They followed Frelda down the long corridor using only her lamplight as a guide. Sophie had turned her flashlight off and so the going was slow. Occasionally a weak ray of light would cast a flicker off a mirror, or a glossy, cracked painting on the wall, revealing a regal face, or a haughty one.
‘You’re late you know, we’d been expecting you sooner. Fred Little had to go twice to the fetch the wood from the shed because the fire keep dyin’ down and you know how much he hates trips to the shed. ‘
As if in answer to something Frelda had said, there came a great booming growl from outside and the floor shook. A second later they heard a door slam and raised voices.
Gilbert listened as hard as he could to what they were saying.
‘It’s just not on Boris, not on at all. Me and Zdravko risk life and limb to get that firewood. Don’t tell me you couldn’t make an effort, a real effort and go get the wood yourself next time. Yes, I know you don’t have any hands but that’s no excuse. Really you are a selfish brute.’
The voices had become louder the more they walked, and in an instant, Frelda had opened a door and firelight now flooded the hallway with light and heat.
‘Ah the guests is it?’
The voice said. From behind him, Sophie called to the room joyfully.
‘Yes sorry we are so late!! I fell asleep on the sofa and nearly forgot to get little Gilbert here! Gilbert, I’d like you to meet my friends, the Fallterling Things!’
Gilbert suddenly found himself being thrust into a large, dark kitchen. He glanced around and saw several shadowy figures standing around a long wooden table even though he could hardly see them, he got the distinct impression they were all staring at him.
‘Hullo.’ he said quietly, hoping nobody would notice him. It worked at school, why not here?
‘Nice to meet you Gilbert I’m Fred Little.’ The voice that had been complaining to someone called Boris a moment ago came forward out of the gloom and extended a hand. Gilbert took it and then recoiled in terror when he realised it was cold and boney. Frelda flitted past them and began lighting candles on the table. Suddenly the room was much brighter.
‘You’re a skeleton!’ Gilbert took a step back and bumped straight into Sophie.
‘Yes I am indeed, well spotted.’ Said the skeleton named Fred Little. His eyes now fairing better in the candlelight, Gilbert saw Fred remove a top hat from his head, doff it in his direction and then replace the hat on his naked skull of a head, adjusting it so that a little velvet ribbon perched on the hat rim, hung down to one side.
‘Oh. Nice to meet you.’ Gilbert managed at last.
‘This is Boris and Zrdavko Orollovic, Boris is the one in the bed sheet.’ Fred said helpfully, indicating to figures to his right. Gilbert shook hands with a tall, impossibly pale man with a long face and sorrowful silver eyes.
‘Boris is my brother, he was killed in the mines 100 years ago, we have to wrap him as you see in sheet because he has no shape.’ As he said this, Zdravko turned and looked mournfully in the direction of the hovering ghost who seemed to move nearer to the ground in a courtesy.
‘Frelda cut eyes out like they have in picture books you see. It’s funny.’ Zdravko said, though he sounded more sad than amused, but Sophie and Frelda laughed at the eye holes and crude mouth cut into the cloth. Boris did his best to bow.
‘Nice to meet you Boris.’ Gilbert said and was about to stick out his hand, but then thought better of it. Just then Frelda heaped a great red pot onto the table in front of them all. Steam cascaded out from it’s sides in billows.
‘Dinners’ up’ She said and began handing out some very bent and tarnished spoons. Everyone sat down in a hurry including Gilbert who eyed the pot nervously.
‘What is it?’ He asked trying to sound enthusiastic.
‘Why it’s soup of course.’ Fred Little replied.
‘Soup! I likes soup!’ Came a tiny but gravelly voice from the floor.
Fred bent his head under the table and ranted.
‘Shut up Feast you wretch! And get out from under my toes! Filthy spider beast!’
But this did not have the desired effect and the creature whom Gilbert could not see began to sing in a husky tenor.
‘Feast, Feast, spider beast! Tra la la. Tra la laaaaaa!’
Frelda pulled Fred up by his boney shoulders.
‘Leave him be Fred, he’ll scuttle off soon once he sees theres no soup for him.’
Gilbert almost felt sorry for the cheery voice under the table.
‘But why can’t he have any soup?’ he asked Frelda.
‘Because it’s not good for his digestion!’ She scolded him. ‘Things such as him should be out in the garden eating worms like what he’s s’posed to!’
At that, there was a scuffling, shuffling noise and a bubbling gurgle from under the table. Gilbert felt something warm and sticky brush past his leg and then away. He strained his neck to see what sort of a thing it was but all he caught a glimpse of was a dark and hairy shape scrambling away out of the open kitchen door and into another unlit room.
A thought crossed his mind as he watched Frelda ladle out the soup which he couldn’t actually see for the clouds of steam.
‘I don’t mean to be rude but, seeing as how you’re a skeleton and well Boris is a ghost in a bed sheet, how do you, well how exactly do you..’ he suddenly felt very awkward with their eyes all watching him and didn’t know how to finish his sentence.
‘You mean, how do we actually eat, is that it dear chap?’ Fred asked, his toothy jaw clacking about under his skeleton head.
‘Yes. I guess.’ said Gilbert. Frelda spoke up from her end of the table.
‘This here soup, it’s magic see, not like what you livings eat. It’s for us magical folk. It keeps us walking and talking and doing what you folk can do, only it’s magic right?’
Gilbert nodded, even though he wasn’t sure he understood at all. Zdravko passed a bowl down to him.
‘Is good soup, try some.’ Gilbert looked down into the steaming bowl. He fished around in it with his spoon. The bowl was empty.
‘But it’s just steam!’ He said. Sophie laughed.
‘Don’t be silly Gilbert, it’s magic steam, it tastes great, look!’ At that, she lifted a spoon to her mouth and popped it in.
‘Delicious.’ The others were also tucking in. In Boris’ case, the spoon would dip itself into his bowl, rise to the mouth shaped hole in his bed sheet and then disappear.
Gilbert swirled the spoon around again and then lifted it to his lips. As ridiculous as it seemed, he was sure that he could actually taste something, not nothing, but he wasn’t exactly sure what the taste was. But it wasn’t half bad, so he had some more.
Soon the whole pot was empty, there was not a single drop of steam left as nearly everyone had helped themselves to seconds and in several cases thirds. Gilbert felt decidedly full and contented and settled back into his chair and rubbed his belly.
Suddenly he was aware of Frelda’s beady eyes on him.
‘Little mite’s ready for bed now I’ll wager, quite enough excitement he’s had for one night!’
‘Yes I think you’re right!’ Sophie chimed in. ‘Come on Gilbert, time to head for home.’
Gilbert suddenly felt down hearted. He had enjoyed meeting the Fallterling Things, much more than he had ever enjoyed any of the parties he was forced to go to with his classmates.
‘Do we have to go?’ He asked sombrely, Sophie smiled at him.
‘Yes but we can always come back again.’
Fred Little and the others nodded in agreement.
‘Oh but of course you shall come back, it’s such a treat having the Living over to dinner. Quite livens the place up one might say!’
So Gilbert said his goodbyes to everyone, and he and Sophie were led back down the dark corridor to the door by Frelda and her lamp.
‘Goodbye Gilbert, stop in any time you like now.’ She said, and patted him on the head.
‘Thank you for the magic soup Frelda.’ Gilbert replied and soon they were off out the door and on the road home. Gilbert turned just once, to look back at the house and he was sure he saw the goblin door knocker wink at him.