Anna would like this day, I thought as I hosed and swept the concrete pathway behind the milking shed. It had rained during the night and the morning was fresh and breezy with ragged fair-weather clouds tipping speedily eastwards at low altitude. It would soon be the summer break. I could remember previous holidays when I’d dearly wished I was still back in school, but not this summer. Farm jobs had kept me busy so far, and I did anything that Dad asked me to and more, just to tire myself out, so that for a while at least I would be able to stop thinking about Anna. I had already creosoted the chicken sheds, and the stable had never looked so tidy and well-tended. I longed for contact with the others, but we had agreed to keep apart so as not to arouse suspicion. Hobbo for one was convinced he was being watched.
And so I turned over the past in a search for lost information that might help to fill in some of the gaps. Back in the house I raked in my chest of drawers and found a journal I had begun nearly a year ago. I sat on the edge of the bed and began to read.
My name is Sam Smith. I am eleven years old, just. My friends are Olivia, JJ, Hobbo, Pam, Griff and Anna. I attend St Mungo’s School.
I had written this in a large, dark brown hard-backed ledger I’d picked up in a bargain bin the previous year at the Larksbridge WH Smith. It had cost me 4/11d. The pages had closely-spaced lines and several annoying red vertical lines dividing the page into columns of various widths. For lack of anything better to do I read on.
I’ve got straight, blondish hair, the kind that looks like it needs a wash even when it doesn’t. I prefer it cut fairly short. I’ve always had short hair, apart from when I was a tiny baby, and everyone has strange hair then. I’ve got a thin, slightly crooked nose and quite full lips. My skin is typical English peasant – stark white in winter and red and freckly in summer. Mum says I have nice teeth. She has always made us brush our teeth so I’m quite proud of mine. I’ve only ever had two fillings, unlike some of the children in our year that I could name who are practically ready for false teeth. Mum says I’m slim, but not thin, and I think I’m quite strong – all the haymaking and animal feeding over the years, I suppose. Oh, and George is my favourite Beatle.
When I’m not at school my favourite clothes are jeans and a T-shirt, and either plimsolls (if it isn’t muddy) or wellie boots (if it is). This is partly for convenience – who can be bothered changing every time a farm job looms up – and partly because a lot of my clothes were once David’s. Just as well I’ve never taken much interest in fashion, I suppose.
People say I’m tall for my age. Until David suddenly grew about a foot overnight I had almost caught him up, and he’s three years older than me. We shared a room until I went to St Mungo's, when Mum decided I should have my own. I’m not a boarder, unlike my friends there. Mum insisted on my living at home as a condition of her agreeing to me going there. David’s fourteen now and intends to leave school next year and work full time at the farm. Dad says he should stay on at school and get some more qualifications, but secretly I think he is looking forward to having David around all day.
I live on Dikeway Farm in the village of Finlow-on-Teal. You won’t have heard of it or ever been there because it is very small and off the beaten track, as they say. It’s probably not changed much in a hundred years. There is no street lighting beyond the few lanes around the middle of the village, and that was put in not that many years ago. Many of the cottages still have outside lavatories and nothing much in the way of heating, apart from a fireplace in the living room. There are still fields separating many of the houses and the centre of village life is a pub called The Boat. Grandad told us it’s called that because it was built from the timbers of a sailing ship.
Dad’s farm is at the end of the village high street, which isn’t much of a high street any more since it is now a dead end. For centuries there had been a ferry over the River Teal but it stopped in the 1930s when the bridge was built. Over the years most of the businesses have closed or moved into Larksbridge, and now only the Post Office and The Boat remain open. Nowadays, most people by-pass the village altogether, and as a consequence Finlow-on-Teal has become a quiet, forgotten place frequented only by locals.
I was born on the farm, as was my brother, David, and so naturally all my earliest memories are farmyard-related – sights, sounds, touches and smells. From the time we were old enough to walk and hold a pail of hen feed, Mum and Dad encouraged us to help around the farm.
Of course, I’d heard of St Mungo's long before I went to school there. It’s quite famous in this neck of the woods, and one of the places that cropped up regularly in Grandad’s war stories. David and I used to listen avidly to his yarns, even though he was usually talking to Mum at the time. He said St Mungo’s only became a school after the war when the Terry family demanded it back from the Army. The ministry had taken the place over in 1941, and by the end of the war had made themselves very cosy there, thank you very much.
I had read enough for now. I turned the page and ruled a margin. I wrote the date and then a title: The Black Cat Gang. I underlined it and then closed the book. Tomorrow, I would make a start. I had resolved to spend any spare time I had writing the story of the past year, if nothing else than as a testament to the bravery of my friends and as a record of the incredible, unbelievable story in which I played, and still play, a part. For this story is not yet over. It will not be over; I will not let it be over until every question has been answered.
The story begins more than a year ago; long before I had met Anna, long before I had even set foot in the grounds of St Mungo’s School.