24 July 2016

Ah, the first week of the glorious holidays, and we are off on our travels. First stop, Essex. This was our third visit to the, dare I say it, iconic Beth Chatto Garden. Click the Read More for...

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Mrs Comfort had not returned to the house with the children but she had prepared them a lunch of sandwiches and cake. The air was still and pleasantly warm and the patio seemed the ideal location for the meal. Alan and Katie preferred to eat at one of the tables and Mr Cook erected the sunshade for them. He found the cushions for the swing seat in a shed and Tom and Jess soon assembled them and threw themselves on. The seat proved long enough for Jess to lay fully stretched out, while Tom sat at her feet, squinting into the brightness and claiming that sunshine was good for you because it wasn’t as if they’d seen much this year, was it? Nobody could fault him on that latter point.

All of the children preferred tea to orange juice and Mr Cook waited on them quite happily, offering around the plates of ham and cheese sandwiches, crisps and cake, until the children were full.

After they had eaten, it was time to go. Tom and Jess would be dog walking for neighbours of Maurice and Aubrey, and that would keep them busy until those gentlemen returned on the 16:15 from London Bridge. Katie and Alan would do three or four hours of leafleting down at the pier. Mr Cook had put the uneaten food into a plastic box and insisted Katie take it with her. “It might make the afternoon go quicker if you’ve got a snack,” he said, and winked. He saw them to the end of the drive.

With a wave, Jess and Tom set off towards Eastleigh Court. For a change, Tom looked reasonably cheerful, as he knew they would be walking a pair of unarguably butch setters: red, barky and mad.

“Thanks for your help this morning,” Mr Cook said as he held the gate.

“We didn’t do much,” Katie replied. “It was such fun. Can we come back another time?”

Mr Cook’s hands gestured to indicate that that decision rested with the children. “Any time. And, by the way, I think you’ve made rather an impression on Mrs Comfort,” he said, looking at Katie.

 Katie looked down, and then glanced over to Alan. She had concluded during their meal that he had something on his mind, and when they paused by the gate to say their goodbyes he finally spoke up. “That end stable door, the one that stays shut. I was just curious. What do you keep in there? Is there another animal inside?”

Mr Cook laughed. “Do you mean like a tiger or something? Sorry to disappoint you, Alan, but nothing lives in that part of the building, apart from a few spiders perhaps. I can’t remember the last time I even went in there. It’s chock-a-block with my grandfather’s junk, mostly. To be perfectly honest I’ve never spent much time investigating exactly what is in there; there is so much of it, you see, that it would take months, possibly years, of dedicated effort to sort through it.

“You probably know that years ago the Cook family lived at Medgate Hall, until it burnt down. Well before my time though, when my father was still a young man. Medgate Park was my grandfather’s pride and joy. He never recovered after the fire, literally struck dumb, and for the rest of his life he never spoke another word. I was a young boy when he died and I hardly remember him.

“At the present time, Medgate Park is the site of the zoo, but I dare say you already knew that too. My grandfather used the profits from the Cook furniture factory to landscape the park and modernise the big house. I’ll have you know it was one of the first houses in the district to have indoor plumbing and gas lighting.

“Despite what many people think, quite a lot of what my grandparents had collected on their travels did actually survive the fire. When we moved here, the house wasn’t large enough to accommodate even half of the possessions gathered over a busy lifetime spent travelling and collecting so, when the stables were built, grandfather stipulated the addition of a large storeroom. Sorry if that’s not terribly exciting.”

If Alan was disappointed, he didn’t show it. In fact, he looked quite thrilled. “Oh, I’d love to look in the door, Mr Cook. Do you think I could?” he enthused.

“Of course you may; you’d be most welcome. My grandfather and my father were avid collectors of all sorts of things, and going into that room is like stepping back in time. These days, I don’t have much need to go in there, but whenever I do it always looks exactly the same. They built the place well so there is very little dirt and dust, even today. No light gets in downstairs and the walls are thick, so grandfather’s belongings are as well preserved as they would be in any museum. In fact, my father was rather keen on the idea of donating the whole lot to Medgate Council if, in return, they would find a suitable home for them so they could be displayed to the public. He was still in discussions with the authorities when he died.”

Alan had listened attentively; Mr Cook’s description had made him keener than ever to see inside. Alan felt comfortable dealing with the past. It was over, its energy spent, and that made its potential as a threat a faint shadow compared to the unpredictable future. Thoughts about the future always made him feel vaguely anxious.

****

As Alan and Katie walked through town, they chatted about their morning. A new dimension had been added to their lives, one that promised adventure and fun, not to mention slap-up meals. It was amazing that, quite by chance, they had collided with an entire world that had existed their whole lives, just a few streets away from Reed Park and about which they knew nothing. Life was funny sometimes.

“That was such a good morning, wasn’t it? I think I’m walking in the clouds,” Katie said, and twirled round a couple of times, arms extended like a ballerina.

“A couple of hours with the leaflets should bring you back to earth,” Alan replied with a chuckle.

“I wish I could live at White Gates,” Katie said dreamily.

“I’ll bet you do. With Mrs Comfort as your mum, I suppose. I think there might be more to Mrs C than we’ll ever find out,” Alan said darkly.

“But she is beautiful, don’t you think?”

“Yes, she is beautiful,” Alan agreed, “but there’s a strangeness as well. I wonder if she and Mr Cook are, you know…”

Katie pretended shock. “Alan Cooper!” she said, and then she grinned. “Actually, I suppose I’ve wondered the same thing. Have you noticed the way Jess looks at her?”

Alan’s eyes glistened with mirth. “I have. I think we can expect a resumption of riding lessons sometime soon, don’t you?”

“Do you suppose Mrs Comfort is her real name?”

Alan shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe there’s a Mr Comfort somewhere.”

“I wonder where she comes from. She doesn’t talk like a local, does she?”

“Well, if she’s foreign her English is just about perfect.”

“I suppose we could just ask Mr Cook,” Katie concluded, “be nosey.”

“Nah. I wouldn’t want to do that. It would seem a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? Maybe she’ll tell us herself, one day.”

They emerged from the end of Marine Drive and turned left onto the Esplanade. The tall banks of cumulus clouds that had built up during the morning had merged into a rain-heavy sky, grey and featureless to the horizon and mirrored in the rolling, foam-topped waves breaking on the shingle. The wind was freshening; rain was imminent.

Not surprisingly, the sea front was practically empty, but Alan seemed determined to at least try to impose a leaflet on the few passers-by that there were. “Let’s stand near that shelter,” he suggested. “That way we’ll have some chance of staying dry if it really starts. We can dive inside and poke our heads out if anyone does pass by.”

“And finish the sandwiches,” Katie added.

It was quite hopeless, though. By now, the rain had really started, and they watched as people scurried from one shop doorway to another. After half an hour, they had only managed to give away six leaflets; so, to cheer themselves up, they sat in the rain shelter and finished off the food. “Might as well call it a day,” Alan said as he snapped the lid shut on the empty snack box. “Go round mine and watch some telly, if you like.”

However, Katie wasn’t ready to go yet. She knew that on Saturday afternoons Alan’s TV would be tuned to Grandstand and his dad would be sprawled in front of it with the curtains shut, a combination of pipe smoke and smelly feet filling the room with a choking fug. No thanks, she thought. “Why don’t we look for somewhere else to stand that’s in the dry? What about the Penny Arcade? I bet that’s where everyone’s gone.”

Katie wasn’t wrong. The place heaved with trippers, hell-bent on having ‘a good day out’. There were locals in there too and Katie spotted several classmates, on the lookout for boys no doubt, cruising the aisles arm in arm, grinning and giggling. The noise was tremendous. Shouting children, pop music played so loud it almost drowned out the rumbling whine of the dodgems, and a strident Tannoy broadcasting a bingo caller’s announcements added to the din already being created by a hundred whirring, stuttering, clattering slot machines.

Alan held his ears and looked unhappily at Katie. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” he mouthed.

Katie tugged on his sleeve and he brought his ear down to her level. “Let’s give it a chance,” she said doubtfully, and thrust a leaflet in the direction of a mother with a pushchair, dragging a small boy. Her glare was enough to quench Katie's smile. “Perhaps you’re right,” she conceded when the woman had passed.

Before they’d had a chance to make a decision, a short man in a dark uniform and peaked hat appeared in front of them, blocking their way. His ears stuck out almost at right angles and quivered when he spoke. He seemed very upset about something.

“And what do you two think you’re up to?” he snarled, his moustache twitching like a lavatory brush with a nervous complaint. “What have you got there?” He snatched a leaflet out of Alan’s hand and glanced at it briefly. “You giving these out?” Without waiting for a reply, and with an unpleasant smirk, he waved the leaflet in the children’s faces. “You need a permit to distribute handbills, and I bet you haven’t got one. Am I right?”

Alan and Katie did not need to reply – their faces answered for them. The man folded his arms and nodded with satisfaction. “As I thought. Right, clear off the pair of you, and if I see you round here again, I’ll report you.”

The man’s upper lip convulsed wildly as he pointed toward the exit. He reminded Alan of their school caretaker, Mr Clements, universally referred to, for no definable reason, as Wild Willie. Even the teachers called him that.

Wild Willie was a shouter, with a manner so gratuitously officious that around Reed Park Secondary made him something of a joke. The children had learned not to take the slightest notice of his toothless rants about mud on feet and leaving outside doors open, but he lacked the wit to realise he was his own worst enemy.

The man standing in front of them could have been Wild Willie’s long lost cousin. His display of aggressive authority actually had the opposite effect to that intended, and Alan felt half-minded to reply with something rude. Instead, he took his time putting away the leaflets. Katie had ducked under the man’s quivering arm and escaped some time ago, and now stood waiting by the exit.

When he had finishing packing his satchel, Alan looked calmly into the man’s face and said, “So, where do we get a permit?”

“Try the naffin’ town hall!” the man yelled. “Now, clear off!”

****

The Sunday afternoon meeting in the sofa had not lasted long. It seemed like every time they went there now the children had grown some more; it was either that or the sofa had shrunk. After some bad-tempered wrangling and wriggling (mostly Jess and Tom pushing and poking one another) they had reached a compromise, with Katie sitting cross-legged on a sofa cushion out on the grass facing the others. It was a fair-weather solution, but fortunately, the weather that day was glorious. Warm sunlight poured like honey through the canopy of the apple tree opposite, making every shadow’s edge seem ultra-sharp and ultra-real, with the bright grass dappled like an expensively patterned carpet.

Jess had had her film developed and passed the packet round for the others to ooh and aah and giggle at the snaps. About half were taken by her mum and showed Jess posing in various outfits, and the rest showed scenes around Medgate. The children usually featured in these and they chronicled some of their recent activities, including their visits to White Gates.

When the packet returned to Jess she fished out the photo of Alan sitting astride Annabelle, looking inordinately pleased with himself and with Jess sheepishly holding the reins. Using a clothes peg, she attached it to a rip in the sofa cover.

First on the sofa agenda, a report back on the children’s moneymaking exploits. Pleasingly, it seemed the dog walking service had begun well. While Tom was preoccupied with whittling a bamboo cane he had found, it fell to Jess to relate the details of their recent dog walking exploits. As well as two jobs yesterday, thanks to the old gentlemen of Eastleigh Court, they had also had a mid-week engagement – walking two Airedales while their owner attended a concert at the Pier Theatre. News of the dog walking service was spreading, it seemed.

“Why don’t you join us for a spot of dog walking?” Jess suggested. She rummaged in her handbag, pulled out a rather crumpled piece of paper, and held it out to Katie. “We’re going to have a hundred of these printed. What do you think?”

Alan prised himself out of his corner, and stood to look over Katie’s shoulder. Katie made room for him on the cushion. Even though hand drawn the lettering was still very neat. The title read ‘ACE DOG WALKING SERVICE’. Underneath, it continued, ‘Can’t find the time to walk your pet? Got an appointment, or just feeling lazy? Reliable dog walkers at your service! One day’s notice required. Just phone Medgate 656 to book a walker. Not Sunday afternoons.’

Underneath there was a sliding scale of charges, going from half a crown for the first half hour up to twenty-five shillings for a whole day, and either side of the list was a drawing of a rather happy-looking dog. Altogether, it looked undeniably professional. “I did the layout and Tom did the letters, and the dogs. What d’you think?”

“Definitely impressed,” Alan replied. “Didn’t know you could draw.”

“That’s about our hundredth go,” Tom replied. A cane that had begun the day over two feet long had been reduced to the size of a pencil; the rest had been converted into the wood shavings that thickly coated his jeans.

With an air of faint exasperation, Jess pressed her lips together and gave him a look. “He exaggerates. It’s our third try, in fact. There’s a shop in Bum Street that’ll print a hundred of these for ten bob.”

“Bum Street?” Katie looked puzzled.

“Elm Street. Someone’s felt-tipped the street sign again. We’re going to leaflet the whole of Eastleigh Court. It’s bound to give us more work than we can handle. Why don’t you join us?”

Katie glanced at Alan, who did not look at all keen on the idea. “Maybe,” she said. She knew how Alan felt about finishing things he had started. There would be a rule, no doubt.

“By the way, whose phone number is it?” Alan asked.

“That’s my house,” Tom replied. “My mum’s home most of the day, and she said she didn’t mind taking calls for us.”

“It’s going to be a big help. So how’s the leafleting going?” Jess asked.

"We’ve hit a problem,” Alan replied. “We’ve got to go to the town hall and get some sort of licence or permit if we want to keep at it. Some jobsworth down at the pier has threatened to report us if we come back without one. They don’t cost anything but it involves some form filling.”

Tom sucked air through his teeth and raised his eyebrows. “Good luck with that. They’re a funny bunch down there. If they take a dislike to you there’s no way they’ll ever give you a permit. It’s a racket, my dad says. He told me he once tried to get a licence to take photos of tourists on the Esplanade and they turned him down flat. When he asked why, the woman said her boss didn’t like the look of him. And you’ll need to get a National Insurance number. That’s in the Town Hall, too.”

“Sheesh, what a palaver,” Jess sighed.

“Let’s go down one day after school,” Katie suggested. “Before we go off the notion altogether.”

“Yes, let’s just do it. I’m picturing that bloke’s face next time we go down to the arcades and, when he starts getting shirty, we just whip out our permits. It’ll be worth the aggravation just for that.”

“So, how much money have you made from dog walking so far?” Katie asked Jess.

As if anticipating Katie’s next question Tom jumped in with, “We’re not spending it all in Tony’s, OK? We’re supposed to be saving most of it, I thought, so we can have a fun summer holiday, Jess’s last with us.”

“Don’t keep reminding me,” Jess muttered. She raked in her shoulder bag and brought out her purse. It looked homemade: a small red suede sack drawn together at the top with a leather thong. She loosened the top and tipped the money onto the sofa cushion. It did not take long to count. There were several notes and a lot of silver. “I make it five pounds, eight shillings and sixpence; pretty darned good, eh?” Alan gave a low whistle. It was pretty good.

“So, Katie, how much have you made from your wonderful leaflets then?” Tom said rather pointedly.

“We don’t know,” Alan confessed.

“Yet,” Katie added.

“Could be nothing, could be quite a lot. I think we’ve given out about three hundred so far; so even if only one in five has been used that’ll be three pounds we’ve earned, and it could be a lot more.”

“Or a lot less,” Tom countered, and lifted his catapult to take aim at a passing gull. “It’s a pretty chancy way to make a few quid if you ask me.”

“We’re going back to see Bob next Saturday, and then we’ll know,” Katie said, to draw a line under this pointless discussion. “And if it’s above three quid we’ll treat you to spaghetti in Tony’s, won’t we, Alan?”

Alan nodded, but plainly, his thoughts were elsewhere. The visit to the town hall sounded even worse than a trip to the dentist. He looked up to see Katie watching him. She punched him gently on the arm. “It’ll be OK,” she said, confident she had read his mood correctly. “I’ll do the talking at the town hall if you fill in the form. Deal?”

They touched knuckles. “Deal.”

****

Alan would have kept putting it off so Katie had set Wednesday after school as the time to make the visit to the town hall. They’d scooted home to change out of uniform and then walked into town together. Jess had advised them to ‘dress sensibly’, to which Alan had replied with something cutting about Jess being the last person who should be dispensing such advice since, even on an average day, she could make a pearly queen look like a sensible dresser.

Neither said much on the walk there, as both of them were a little nervous. Tom’s stories about his dad’s encounters with the council when he worked as a market trader had rather put the willies up them.

Once inside the front entrance of the town hall, Katie explained to a man in uniform, standing by the revolving door, why they were there. He directed them up the central staircase. “Look for a door on the right called DEPARTMENT OF WORK, then go further along and on the left you’ll find one marked LICENSING.”

Katie caused a bit of a stir when, too busy gawping at the elaborately decorated ceiling, with its huge chandelier, to notice where she was going, she fell over a man kneeling to tie his shoelace. The entrance hall had to be the largest indoor space she had ever stood in. In every direction, her eyes met with a riot of exotically coloured stone: shaped and buffed columns and pillars of glinting marbles and basalts that ranged in hue from smoky white to the deepest black by way of spotted greys and swirling reds. If the intention was to overawe the visitor, then its effect on Katie could be considered a tremendous endorsement.

Without looking to right or left, Alan walked straight ahead and mounted the steps. He hissed at Katie to come on, after she had stopped for the tenth time to run her fingers over the polished stone. At this rate, they would miss Blue Peter, in direct contravention of Rule 18.

Katie pushed open a glass panelled door marked Room 16a – Licensing, and entered hesitantly followed by an even more reluctant Alan. They had arrived in a large room, populated with the usual office paraphernalia of desks and filing cabinets and lit by rows of harsh strip lights. A short woman with black hair tied in a bun leaned on the service counter. She had her back to the children and, after the briefest of glances to establish who had entered the room, continued her conversation with a seated man dressed in work overalls, who had his feet up on a desk. He sipped a mug of tea and nodded from time to time while adding his own observations to the woman’s analysis of the previous night’s episode of Coronation Street.

With a shudder Alan realised the place reminded him of the Reed Park School office, a joyless dungeon run by an unpleasant woman who had accumulated a seemingly inexhaustible supply of sarcastic one-liners. It wasn’t somewhere you ever wanted to go, even if you had forgotten your dinner money, because to eat would require you to beg for a day’s credit and consequently to endure her thinly disguised contempt for the human race. He’d rather go hungry than put up with that.

The children waited silently, but Katie could sense Alan’s rising exasperation. She was used to being ignored by adults, being a child after all, but Alan had other ideas. He was already itching to leave. On the counter, he saw a bell marked RING FOR SERVICE, and so that is what he did.

Immediately, two things happened – the woman ceased her conversation mid-sentence, and then the man burst out laughing and nearly spilled his tea. “Steady, Elsie,” he chortled. “Be nice now. They’re only kids.”

Katie observed her. After years of Gran-watching, she could tell that the last thing on this woman’s to do list was being nice, and at that moment, Katie wished she could disappear down a gap in the floorboards. She looked at Alan, who not only appeared entirely unabashed, but also seemed rather pleased that his initiative had had some effect.

After working over in her mind something to say that would be suitably withering the woman was going to let Alan have both barrels of her contempt; Katie knew she had to speak first. “I’m so, so sorry,” she burst out. “Really sorry. He can’t help himself sometimes. My brother’s a bit, er… simple. You know. Please let him off this once,” she finished and, before Alan could reply, she gave him a kick in the shins accompanied by a meaningful glare. “Now Alan, say you’re sorry to the lady.”

“I’d do it if I were you, Alan,” the man chipped in, still swaying with laughter. Katie could imagine how much he would enjoy relating this little vignette of office life to his mates in the maintenance department downstairs.

Alan lowered his head and exhaled through slack lips. “Sorry,” he mumbled. After another kick, a slightly more heartfelt, “Sorry” seemed to do the trick, for the woman closed her mouth and turned to face the children. She unfolded her arms, put her elbows on the counter and cradled her face in her hands. “So, Alan,” she said brightly, in the manner of a nursery teacher addressing an imbecile, “and what can I do for you on this fine afternoon?”

“We’d like a form for a leafleting licence,” Katie told her.

“That will be an RC-147,” and as she turned to go said, “And Alan, don’t touch anything. If I hear that bell again I might just find the RC-147s are out of stock.”

After a long wait, the woman returned from a cupboard and handed Katie a single piece of paper. Katie looked at the form. The information it asked for was basic and the form took no time at all to complete. “How long…”

“At least six weeks,” the woman said without apology.

“What?” Alan spluttered. “But why? Because you’re so busy, I suppose.” He looked over the counter and nodded towards a pair of women standing becalmed near a photocopier, arms folded and deep in conversation. Clearly, they were in no hurry to do anything much that might be construed as licencing. “Why can’t they do it?”

Katie bit her lip. She had a feeling that Alan’s tactless protest was unlikely to yield any kind of favourable outcome.

The woman smiled indulgently at Alan and once again folded her arms. Clearly, she would enjoy this. “Well for a start, my colleagues over there only deal with busking, fishing and ice cream permits. Second, all permit applications have to go through the Permits Committee, and they only meet once a month. Third, all permit applications are signed by the mayor in person. He insists, and he’s a very busy man. Did you get that, Alan?”

While the woman had been educating Alan into the esoteric practices of the Licensing Department his cheeks had been getting redder and redder, and it looked for a moment as if he might be about to reply with something sarcastic or otherwise provocative. Katie tugged urgently at his sleeve. “Alan, let’s allow the lady to do her job, eh?” she pleaded.

“Yeh, Alan,” the woman mimicked, picking the form up off the counter. “Let me do my job, the first stage of which is to not let your form accidentally drop into the bin.” She gave him a challenging stare and dangled the paper.

Alan knew he was beaten, and gave Katie a faint nod of acknowledgement. “Sorry. Thank you for your help,” he mumbled, and turned away to leave.

“You’re very welcome!” the woman trilled.

At that moment, Katie wanted to kiss Alan, but she knew that would not have gone down too well. Instead, she put her arm through his as they made for the exit.

At the door she paused, just to make sure the woman didn’t actually put their form in the bin. However, she had seemed satisfied by Alan’s humiliation and Katie watched her add it to a pile in a wire tray, before turning back to resume her chat with the maintenance man. Throughout, he had sat with his feet on a desk, swigging a mug of tea while watching the whole interchange with sardonic amusement, as if it was just another scene from an episode of Coronation Street.

People in this place seem to be paid for doing very little, Katie concluded. She heard the pair laughing as the door closed behind them. Damn adults.

Out in the hallway the children stopped while they tried to remember which way they had come in. “I think maybe you need a rule for speaking to officials,” Katie said as they stood in front of a wall-mounted floor plan.

“Like what?” Alan scowled, clearly still bristling after his recent bruising encounter with local government bureaucracy.

“Like try to be a bit more tactful, maybe. Gran always says, ‘You can’t fight the system’.”

Alan looked a little shamefaced. “OK, rule 210. Be nice to officials, especially ones who can mess up your plans. That do?”

“Very nicely,” she said, and lightly head-butted his arm. “It’s this way, I think.”

They strolled along, chatting. In the distance, at the far end of the corridor and just before the stairs, three men and a woman emerged from a room. All were smartly dressed and had folders or bundles of papers under their arms. All four shook hands and they dispersed, two of them disappearing into adjacent offices, while the other two, both men, headed for the staircase.

Without warning, Katie felt herself being pulled along as Alan quickened his pace. “What is it?” she asked.

“Probably nothing.” They had now reached marching speed and Alan was beginning to puff slightly at the unaccustomed level of exertion. On reaching the staircase, he paused and looked down over the stone balustrade into the busy atrium below. He scanned the crowd and then nodded towards the entrance doors. “There, see him?”

Katie looked. One of the men – older, hook-nosed and with a Mediterranean tan – waited for the other by the revolving doors. Under a sign that read CLOAKS a short, rat-faced man was collecting a raincoat. She would recognise that pockmarked face anywhere. “Him! Wonder what he’s doing here?”

 Alan shrugged. “I’m wondering the same. I’m also wondering who his mate is, the old bloke. Looks as flaky as a Cornish Wafer.” Alan looked around. “They came out of that office door. Why don’t we take a quick look, see what’s in there?”

Katie bit her lip. They had come here to get a trading permit and now they were breaking in to someone’s office. Alan tugged her along by the wrist. “Come on, scaredy cat. We’re just a couple of lost kids, right?”

The door was unlocked. A gentle knock had produced no response so the children entered. Except for a semicircle of office chairs, the room was empty of furniture. A large display had been set up all along one wall. Undoubtedly, this was the room’s purpose. The display boards contained blocks of text, photographs, plan drawings and maps. They looked expensive.

Katie ran her eyes along the boards from one end to the other. The theme of the display was immediately apparent: the council was planning a huge new shopping and leisure complex called The Medgate Centre. A large picture under the title drew Katie’s attention. It was an artist’s impression of the finished development – all tinted glass, polished steel and white concrete. Outside the main building, the picture showed children playing, and shoppers sitting and chatting, around a paved plaza whose centrepiece was an artificial lake, complete with fountains and statues. Could something like this really be coming to plain, fuddy-duddy old Medgate? Katie gave a low whistle. “Wow,” she breathed. “This looks great. What do you think, Alan?”

Meanwhile, Alan had been working his way methodically along the display boards, quickly scanning through the text and pausing briefly to take in the photographs. “It’s impressive,” he said absent-mindedly. “But what was ugly-chops doing here, the bloke from the café? There must be some connection, don’t you think?”

For the time being, Katie had seen enough to satisfy her immediate curiosity and had begun using the space to perform cartwheels and backflips.

After a few minutes, Alan had reached the far end of the display. “Oh, what?” he said in disbelief. “Surely, this has to be wrong. It can’t be there,” she heard him say. Alan had paused at a map showing the shopping centre’s intended location. “Come and see this. You’re not going to like it.” He looked over to where Katie was now kneeling, with her head under a chair. She had spotted a plate of biscuits.

“Why?” she said through a mouthful of custard cream. “Seems like a great idea to me.”

“It’s not so much what they’re going to build, it’s where they’re going to build it.”

Katie stuffed the rest of the biscuits into her pockets and came over. Alan pointed at the map. She looked and looked again. “That can’t be right,” she said, puzzled. “It looks like they’re going to build it right on top of the zoo.”

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