If I Could Fly
Jill Hucklesby, Egmont, 304pp, 978 1 4052 5226 3, £6.99 pbk
Thud and thud and stones and blood in mouth and mud and moon and stars and spikes of corn and trackies ripped and ribs on fire; ice sweat on neck and chest and spine and ache in calves and arms and eyes wide open, dry and cracked but dropping tears; there is no sound but feet, the snap of sticks, the rasp of autumn air in lungs, a pumping pulse of pain. Must keep the rhythm.
Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.
Stream to cross, a leap, a thump, a bank to climb, a clutch at grass, a stile with broken step; the wood is wet with heavy dew and, here, a tarmac road to nowhere. Take me there. Please take me there. A place to hide, a space that’s safe. My heart is pounding in my ears, a drum, a march, must stay in step, must hide my face in case they come, push my hair inside my hoody, keep my head down, sprint and jog and sprint and jog.
No air . . . a stitch . . . a searing cramp. Eyes scan for cover. Beyond the hedge, a field, a tree with roots like fat man’s legs a hundred metres up a slope, so thrust and push and elbows punch and eat the distance like it is the longest bacon sandwich in the world and munch and munch and holy mangoes! Made it.
Breathe. Stand still. Lean against the bark. Blend in. Don’t cough. Shhh, heart. Don’t beat so loud.
I have legs of stone. I’m a fugitive, on the loose. Memories of the last few hours are a blank computer screen in ‘sleep’ mode. I should be able to rerun them, like an HD game of escape at the touch of a button, and take myself back to the beginning. But the button is broken. All I remember is running down streets and alleys, across car parks, trading estates with perfect families smiling down from tattered billboards, a playground and a dual carriageway, watched by a dozen surveillance cameras, my trainers barely touching the ground.
What am I running from? My fist hits the gnarled wood behind me and sends an aftershock through my trembling frame. But it doesn’t shake open the part of my brain that can answer the question. All it throws back at me is the last rule of the Phoenix Feathers, the gang of free runners on my estate: the rule I had to swear to obey if I wanted to learn their secrets; an oath sealed with spit from my throat and blood from my wrist; a vow broken, my brain tells me, without letting me access the facts. I feel in my gut it’s the reason I am here, far from home, the faint taste of blood in my mouth.
Never trust a promise.