Sunday, October 22, 2006

Chapter 1

When Jessie first opened her eyes, all she saw was a blur of white. She felt very hot and there was something rough and grainy against her cheek. Her ears seemed to be full of squawks and squeals. She assumed they must be coming from her school-mates.

As her eyes began to focus, she saw many tiny pieces of shell, making up paper-white sand. There was a smell of salt, and a rhythmic rushing sound which could only be – yes, waves breaking.

She closed her eyes again, as she was obviously still in a dream. Her mind drifted her back to the recent past. She could remember trying not to cry when her Mum and Dad hugged her at the airport. She remembered all the sounds of laughter and excitement on the plane. The older ones were pointing out of the windows at some of the things Mr Barker had promised they would see. Some of the younger ones were asleep, or being comforted if they were still missing their mums or dads or dogs. The new boy from Iran sat quietly. He was always quiet but Mr Barker had told the rest of them to be helpful to him and kind because it was the first time he’d been on a plane since he’d had to run away from his country with his parents.

The teachers had walked up and down the aisle. Mr Barker, as always, was telling them what to do.

‘Feet off the seats,’ he roared. ‘Don’t forget to drink plenty of water.’

He’d given them a list of exactly what to pack for a two-week field trip in east Africa. When they landed, he was going to tell them what to do next.

Ms Chess, the other teacher, was new. She usually wore her hair in a tight bun on the back of her head so everyone had been a bit surprised when she’d turned up at the airport with her hair down. It seemed to be very long for someone so old. She must be forty at least. It was also the first time they’d ever seen her wearing trousers. They were a khaki colour and had lots of zips on them.

A huddle of boys had sat at the airport trying to guess her first name.
She’d arrived with a battered brown suitcase on which was painted her initials and surname. D. U. Chess.
So then they’d moved onto the second name. ‘Ursula,’ was all they could think of so in the end they gave up and decided she was simply called ‘Duchess’.

Jessie had noticed that some of the children had brought more luggage than they were supposed to. David Casket was blushing as he hauled his case onto the Check-In scales. She wondered if his mum had packed him a fortnight’s supply of Tunnocks Tea-Cakes. He’d never been known to go without. May Pillow had said secretly to Jessie that she couldn’t leave Herman behind, so he was going to have to stowaway. Herman was her hamster.

Jessie was very good at listening. She never missed a thing and they called her ‘Earwig’ for it. She’d sat and listened to all that noise on the plane and Mr Barker bellowing,
‘Eat your last snacks, everyone. Won’t be long now. Only forty-five minutes till landing.’
Jessie had looked out of the window onto a massive turquoise sea. As they got lower, she could see little sandbanks poking up through the water, and coral reefs, just like Ms Chess had told them. She saw the tiny curved sails on fishing boats, and a big metal ship trailing a line of white foam behind it. There had been small islands too, widely spaced from each other. They were deep green with trees and had little strips of white, white beach.

And then with a bang, the last thing flew back into her memory. Being very low over one of the islands, so low that she could see the huge glossy individual leaves of the trees and she thought she saw a monkey sitting at the top of one of them. He ears had told her that something was different. The engine had started to growl and then a wing of the plane had seemed to brush against a palm frond. She knew something was wrong. Mr Barker stopped shouting and sat down very suddenly in his seat. And after that all Jessie could remember was opening her eyes to whiteness.

Something nudged against her hand. She opened her eyes and saw a small whelk shell. It had a cluster of scruffy legs poking out the bottom of it that were moving it sideways over her hand. She sat up suddenly and shook it off. She saw then that she was on a beach, staring out to sea. The sun scorched the top of her head, and inside it there was a banging feeling. She screwed her eyes up at something poking from the dazzling water. A fin? Could it be a shark?

But as her eyes adjusted, she recognised it. In the shallow water near the shore, the tail-fin of an aeroplane broke the surface. She gasped, and willed the siren to start. It would begin faintly in the distance and come closer. She’d heard them do that millions of times in the village at home. A siren would bring help. But all she heard was the waves lapping up to her feet, and birds trilling and calling from the forest behind her. And then what she heard was the unmistakeable sound of footsteps crunching on hard sand behind her. She couldn’t turn around.

She jumped up, and there was May, tear-streaked and with a cut oozing red on her forehead. She still clung to the teddy that had travelled with her.

Then Jessie heard more sounds. Murmurs were getting louder all around them and there were sobbing sounds too. Then she saw that there were children appearing from the edges of the beach, from out of the forest, even some pulling themselves up from the shallow water. They all moved to stand together on one spot on the beach. All twenty-nine of them gathered there, as if they were at a Monday morning assembly.

There was one difference though. There was no Mr Barker. No Ms Chess. There wasn’t a single grown-up in sight.

They looked at each other. There were cuts and bruises and torn clothes. Even the brashest boys had been silenced and didn’t look as cocky as usual. Jill Beaddie’s bleached hair was all messed up, and she had stopped chewing for once.

Finally, the tallest boy in the school, Callum Knight said in a quiet, rather shaky voice, ‘What are we going to do now?’

Everyone looked at him.

To be continued…..


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