Gold teeth shone as a pirate climbed out of a black cab, saluted a garden gnome and then clambered up the hill to Between House. Amelia Boil’s breath misted the glass as she brushed aside the net curtain. Their guests were normally grey with electrified hair and petrified glances.
A suitcase dangled from the end of a branch that rested on the pirate’s shoulder. Amelia wondered if there was a parrot stuffed inside and if said parrot was indeed stuffed. The window whined as she pushed it up. The cold air bit as she stuck her head out.
“Amelia Boil, do you want to greet our guest by splattering your skull on his shiny shoes? Pull your head back in before the window detaches it from your shoulders.”
Amelia slammed the window down.
Scary Sandra loitered on the stairs. Her shoulder bones poked through a faded yellow cardigan as she sat hunched on the top stair. “I’m bored. I’ve picked all the nits out of my hair and licked all of the dead skin off my dressing table and all the ghosts have gone to have tea with the Queen.”
“We have a new visitor,” Amelia said as she skipped passed the old woman. “Maybe he’ll let you pick the fleas out of his jacket.”
Amelia’s mother, Deirdre, never gossiped about her unusual guests and if Amelia had not read her diary, which Deirdre kept in the drawer beneath her divan bed with the spare sheets, she would think her mother didn’t find their guests strange at all.
“Mr. D’Agosto, this nosy child is my daughter, Amelia. If you find her rummaging through your things or spying at your keyhole be sure to tell me.”
“I will do no such thing.” The sound of battle drums accompanied his words. He leant in. “You hear the drums too.”
“Ahem!” Deirdre coughed. “My daughter hears no such thing, now if you will follow me Mr. D’Agosto.”
“Please call me Alfonso.”
The certificate sellotaped to the pirate’s door stated that his name was in fact Albert Anderson and any other name he gave himself was fictitious. It also ascertained that he was no threat to himself or others and that his fantasies were to be discouraged.
“I have shrapnel in my leg,” the man with two names said. “It’s embedded in my calf from when the number 8 bus ripped into the middle of a battle and crushed several combatants.”
“Is that the bus that goes to the shopping centre?”
“Don’t all roads lead to commerce?” He tapped his foot and smiled as Deirdre passed them carrying a wicker basket full of dirty washing. He crooked his finger and urged Amelia closer. “It doesn’t matter where the bus was heading, what is important is what it interrupted.”
“And what did it interrupt?”
“A battle between the robot swarm and the fairies, and the robots were winning until a bunch of them got hit by a windscreen at 60 mph.”
A floorboard creaked. Scary Sandra wobbled on the spot and tried to look as if she hadn’t been listening in. “I thought I saw a flea hopping about your shoulder and wondered if it thought it was a parrot.”
“Do you believe in fairies, Mrs. Doherty?” Alfonso asked.
“Have to. There are a whole tribe of them at the bottom of the hill.” She gave Amelia a sly glance, as if sorry she had admitted she believed in fairies, and looked down at her pink slippers.
Amelia heard the drum beat again. She tried to pretend she didn’t but her right foot gave her away by tapping along to the discordant thump. Scary Sandra shuffled her feet to the same rhythm. If Alfonso decided to click his fingers, they would become a very strange orchestra indeed. Instead, he unlocked his door and urged them both inside.
Amelia wasn’t allowed to enter the guests’ rooms. She hesitated, but curiosity won, and she tiptoed in as if afraid the floorboards would announce her rebellion to the house.
The room was not as pretty as hers was, though Alfonso had added his own stamp to the 1970s furniture. A pirate flag decorated one wall, and a plastic parrot sat on the brass bedpost. He adjusted his eye patch and sat down on the edge of the bed. Amelia hovered by the door, whereas Scary Sandra climbed onto the bed and lay down.
“I have two things to show you.” He gulped. “Amelia you guard the door, and I will watch that they don’t escape through the window.”
“Escape,” a voice squeaked as Alfonso pulled open a drawer. “Tell me how a fellow with trench foot has the energy to escape.”
Amelia peered into the drawer. A blue footed, velvet jacket wearing fairy sat between rolled up socks. His iridescent wings flapped but didn’t take flight. The fairy winced as he poked his foot.
“He spent too long standing in puddles,” Alfonso said.
“You call them puddles. I call them ponds.”
“And in the wardrobe . . .” Alfonso wound his hands around the handles. “We have another participant from the battle.”
“Don’t you open that door,” the fairy squeaked. “You’ll never get it back in.”
Alfonso hesitated, then with a grand flourish, he pulled open the wardrobe doors and stepped back. At first, no one and nothing emerged. Amelia waited and waited. Then a blur of motion and the sound of something buzzing around the room were accompanied by fairy and old lady screams.
“It’s just a fly,” Amelia said. She could see the streaks it left on the air more than she could see the actual thing. “It’s more afraid of you than you are of it. Here, I’ll let it out.”
“No!” The scream came at her in triplicate, but only Scary Sandra made it to the door in time to stop Amelia opening it.
The buzz died as the fly hit the door at warp speed. It landed at her foot. It crunched beneath her shoe as she squished it. The Fairy winced as he jumped up in triumph and then landed hard on his swollen foot.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Alfonso reprimanded, “we haven’t chosen sides yet.”
“There are sides to be chosen?” Amelia asked, confused.
“In the war between the robot swarm and the fairies,” Alfonso slapped his palm to his forehead.
Sometimes Amelia forgot she was living with people who existed on the wrong side of reality. Sometimes she wondered on which side of it she belonged. “Am I really your daughter?” Amelia asked Deirdre. “Or am I in Between House because I’m mad.”
“What a strange question?” Her mother ruffled her fringe. “But one I should have expected. You are as normal as normal can be and as you have my nose, chin and your father’s freckles I can confirm you are indeed my daughter and if you want to know how I know that, well, I’d prefer you added a further two years to your age for a full explanation.”
Amelia changed her question. “Are you really my mother? Or are you a mad woman who stole me from my pram? Oh, and if you ever have the urge to push me down the Hill could you let me know, I’ve been practicing my roll.”
Deirdre let out one of her fake-let’s-patronize-the-guest laughs. More spoken ha-ha-ha than actual belly laugh. She then checked Amelia’s temperature and finding it normal let out a relieved sigh.
“Your father would have known what to do with you?”
Alfonso D’Agosto and Scary Sandra waited on the front steps of Between House for her. They both had permission slips to go into town. The fairy from the drawer, named Inkblot, sat in the top pocket of Alfonso’s red and black-checked coat. Amelia decided the back of her mother’s hand was not a worthy temperature gauge and that if she did actually have a fever she would just run with the mysteries of it. Better to be ill and seeing fairies than ill and rolling about in bed sweating.
“Some of my clan joined with the Between Hill fairies after the Battle of Garden Gnome,” Inkblot explained. “The Gnomes didn’t so much side with the robobugs, though they do see some benefits of the bee drones, but having had a long and intense hatred for fairies decided to stage their own massacre.”
“It’s all right honey.” Scary Sandra patted Amelia’s shoulder. “If you just accept what you see, it’s not that frightening. It was running through the cricket pitch and trying to hit the dragon dressed as an umpire over the head with my umbrella that put me in the nut house. If I’d just nodded, as the rest of the crowd did, and allowed him to set fire to the wickets, I would still be allowed into Lords today.”
At the bottom of the steep hill, which Amelia had indeed mastered a safe roll down, without crashing into the fence, a group of disgruntled fairies collected around an empty beer can. A fat fairy farted at the entrance to the can and his companion hiccupped.
Amelia fell onto her bum and hoped she squashed nothing more than dandelions and grass. She was going to need a certificate pasted to her door, if there wasn’t already an invisible one there. Maybe she had blanked it out. Or maybe, the window had chopped off her head and she was dead. After all, Scary Sandra had admitted she conversed with ghosts and according to Deirdre’s diary, her mother saw Amelia’s dead father in the most unlikely of places. Someone poked her in the ankle with a branch. It hurt.
“Hey Rapunzel, untie your plaits and let me climb up and scratch your eyes out,” a fairy complained. “You almost tore the wings off my back.”
“Dewinged, leave the kid alone.” Inkblot flew out of Alfonso’s pocket. “Without her I’d be suffocating amid stinking socks.”
“I told you . . .” The fat drunk fairy lurched towards Amelia. “That building a nest by Between House was folly. The minute humans get involved the war’s over with both sides nuked by fertilizer.”
“They’re not going to nuke the robots. It would be chaos on the streets.”
“Robots change the traffic light signals,” Alfonso explained.
Amelia shook her head. “No they don’t. We watched a video in school about the people who do that.”
Fairies and mad people burst into real, side splitting laughter.
“Think about that sentence.” Alfonso adjusted his eye patch. “A group of people doing something other than eating crisps, flicking elastic bands and snoring with their feet up on the desk. They may have CCTV but only so they can watch people picking their nose.”
Amelia wasn’t convinced.
“Plus,” Inkblot said. “The robobugs are spies. They record and send back images to the President.”
“Prime Minister,” Amelia corrected.
“That’s what you think. And what images do you think they’re sending back, Goldilocks?” Dewinged sneered.
“How many people get on or off the number 8 bus?”
“You laugh, but you try and find the driver of that bus. Well okay, you will. But you’ll have to dig hard because he’s six feet under ground and covered in tiny bites.”
“You bit him,” Inkblot said.
“Well only because he clipped my wings. But I’m talking insect bites. Official report is he crashed because a bee stung him. So where’s the dead bee and who swept up all the metal bits?”
“I think I’m going to go back up the hill,” Amelia said to Scary Sandra. “And I suggest you come with me.”
“And draw your curtains, Princess. We fight in your Greenhouse at midnight,” Dewinged called after her.
The thump-thump-thump of the battle drums accompanied Amelia as she climbed back up the hill. The greying net curtains shivered at the windows as a determined breeze fought its way through cracks in the woodwork. The front door buckled as if something pushed at it from the inside — probably one of the demented Ginger twins who had forgotten how locks worked — and the chimneystack listed to the left. She followed the broken path that ran around the house and stared at the Greenhouse. All the plants inside were dead like her father. A card fluttered from a crack in a windowpane. Amelia pulled it out.
The Battle of the Glass House: to commence Midnight, Sunday October 26th. Combatants: The Robot Swarm vs. the Fairies or The Fairies vs The Robot Swarm, depending on the victor.
Inkblot flew in and landed on her shoulder as if she was the pirate and he the parrot. Alfonso brushed dandruff off his jacket as if aware something was missing from his costume.
“I forbid anyone or anything to fight in my garden,” Amelia declared.
Weeds tore from the earth as she pulled open the Greenhouse door. Inkblot coughed and fell off her shoulder as dust surged out into the day. She brushed aside a web and hoped a real spider had formed it.
“What are you doing?” Scary Sandra asked.
“I don’t know.” And she didn’t. Wandering around her father’s old greenhouse and imagining it turned into robot central. Trying to work out if Eric Boil would side with the fairies — he loved nature — or the robots — he also loved gadgets.
“What are you doing in there, Amelia Boil?” Her mother’s knuckles rapped on the glass. “If it shatters you’ll be cut into a thousand pieces.”
“Of course,” Amelia said. “The robots will win because they will shatter the glass.”
“What?” Inkblot said, scratching his head.
“What?” Deirdre said, checking Amelia’s forehead and wondering where the fever was. “You shouldn’t be out here. Mrs. Doherty, why didn’t you stop her? You know the history.”
Scary Sandra looked down at her purple Wellington boots.
“They’ll fly in through the glass and the fairies will be cut to pieces. Inkblot won’t have to worry about trench foot because his foot will no longer be attached to his leg.”
“I wonder where I put Dr. Ellwood’s number.”
“I haven’t got a fever,” Amelia shouted.
“Dr. Ellwood is a psychologist. Now do you want me to phone him? Or do fairies and robots only exist in stories.”
“Is that a trick question?” Alfonso asked.
“Well I believe in both,” Inkblot whispered, but Deirdre didn’t hear him. “I’ll inform the Between Hill fairies of your theory regarding the decimation and decapitation of our clan should the Battle of Glass House take place.”
Amelia followed the direction of her mother’s shaking finger.
The battle drums grew louder as day succumbed to night. Amelia had rolled a jacket up, placed it under her duvet, and then crept to Scary Sandra’s room, which had a view of the back garden. The clock on the wall ticked in time with the drums and both moved at a slow speed.
“We should be helping them,” Amelia urged. She wanted to climb out of the window and slide down the drainpipe.
“Helping the fairies or the robot swarm?” Alfonso asked his voice muffled. He was no longer dressed as a pirate but wore a white sheet over his head. The eyeholes were tiny.
“The fairies, of course.”
“You only support the fairies because you’ve met them but what if you also talked to the robobugs.”
“They’re insects.” She shook her head. “I mean they’re robots. Agh! Insects, bugs, robots, they’re not real real. They don’t talk.”
“What if I told you fairies killed your father?”
“How would you know that? How do you even know he’s dead?”
“It’s how Inkblot got trench foot,” Scary Sandra said. “Your father was fixing a robobug in his shed — he had trained a bunch of robot bees to deposit pollen around the garden. The fairies had grouped around the greenhouse, peering in through the windows and wishing the clouds would empty their load elsewhere. To them, your father was the enemy. They tripped him up by laying a garden rake in his path and well, you know the rest.”
Amelia pressed her hand to her throat. She whispered: “His head didn’t come all the way off.”
“It would have if Deirdre hadn’t come out and disturbed the fairies. Or at least that’s what Eric said when he last visited.”
Below them, the greenhouse exploded. Glass shot up, then rained down on the garden catching the moonlight and looking to the disturbed mind as if the stars were falling from the sky. At least that’s what the Ginger twins called out as they tried to escape their room.
All Amelia saw was the blue foot that wobbled on the window ledge and seemed to be looking for its leg.