“Three!” I shout back and leg it down the holly path—slap slap slap go my shoes, and the echo’s whack whack whack. Jonah’s taller than me and maybe he’d beat me over a hundred meters, but I could still end up as the hound and not the fox because it’s stamina that counts over longer distances, and I’m at the end of the side path already, where I was expecting a view of Cranbury Avenue, but there’s just a long brick wall and fir trees and a narrow strip of lawn that goes by in a blur. I pound along and swing round on a drainpipe, sprint down another chilly side path sliced with blades of light coming through a high fence with brambles poking between the slats, then I’m out front again where I smack into a butterfly bush and butterflies blizzard up all orange and black and red and white and one goes in my mouth so I spit it out and I leap over the rockery and nearly trip up when I land but I don’t. Along I run past steps climbing to the front door, past the beehive woman’s window but she’s gone now and then round the corner and I’m pounding back down the echoey holly path, starting to get a stitch in my side but I’ll ignore it, and the holly’s scratching the back of my hand like it’s pushing in, and I wonder if Jonah’s gaining on me or I’m gaining on Jonah but not for long because I’m back at the back of Slade House, where the fir trees are thicker and bigger and the wall blurrier, and I keep running running running round the corner to where the brambles really are choking through the fence now, scratching my shins my neck and now I’m afraid I’ll be the fox not the hound, and round the front the sun’s gone in, or gone out, or gone away, and the flowers are withered and there’s not a single butterfly on the butterfly bush, just dead ones smeared into the path, powder-paint skid marks with one half-dead one, flapping a bit…
I’ve stopped, because the far end of the garden, the wall with the small black door—it’s gone all faint and dim. Not because of evening. It can’t even be four o’clock yet. Not because it’s misty, either. I look up—the sky’s still bluish, like it was before. It’s the garden itself. The garden’s fading away.
I turn round to tell Jonah to stop the game, something’s wrong, we need a grown-up. Any second now he’ll come hurtling round the far corner. The brambles sway like underwater tentacles. I glance back at the garden. There was a sundial but it’s gone now, and the damson trees too. Am I going blind? I want Dad to tell me it’s fine, I’m not going blind, but Dad’s in Rhodesia, so I want Mum. Where’s Jonah? What if this dissolving’s got him too? Now the lattice tunnel thing’s erased. What do you do when you’re visiting someone’s house and their garden starts vanishing? The blankness is moving closer like a storm front. Then, at the far end of the brambly side path, Jonah appears, and I relax for a second because he’ll know what to do, but as I watch, the running-boy shape gets fuzzier and becomes a growling darkness with darker eyes, eyes that know me, and fangs that’ll finish what they started and it’s pounding after me in sickening slow motion, big as a cantering horse and I’d scream if I could but I can’t my chest’s full of molten panic it’s choking me choking it’s wolves it’s winter it’s bones it’s cartilage skin liver lungs it’s Hunger it’s Hunger it’s Hunger and Run! I run towards the steps of Slade House my feet slipping on the pebbles like in dreams but if I fall it’ll have me, and I’ve only got moments left and I stumble up the steps and grip the doorknob turn please turn it’s stuck no no no it’s scratched gold it’s stiff it’s ridged does it turn yes no yes no twist pull push pull turn twist I’m falling forwards onto a scratchy doormat on black and white tiles and my shriek’s like a shriek shrieked into a cardboard box all stifled and muted—
“What on earth’s the matter, Nathan?” I’m on my banged knees on a carpet in a hallway, my heart’s going slap slap slap slap slap slap but it’s slowing, it’s slowing, I’m safe, and Lady Grayer’s standing right here holding a tray with a little iron teapot on it with vapor snaking up from the spout. “Are you unwell? Shall I fetch your mother?”
Woozily, I get up. “Something’s outside, Norah.”
“I’m not sure I understand. What kind of a something?”
“I mean, a, a, a…kind of…” A kind of what? “Dog.”
“Oh, that’s Izzy, from next door. Daft as a brush, and she will insist on doing her business in the herb garden. It’s jolly annoying, but then she’s very sweet.”
“No, it was a…bigger…and the garden was vanishing.”
Lady Norah Grayer does a smile, though I’m not sure why. “Fabulous to see boys using their imaginations! Jonah’s cousins kneel before the TV with their Atari thingummies, their bleepy-bleepy space games, and I tell them, ‘It’s a beautiful day! Play outside!’ and they say, ‘Yeah, yeah, Auntie Norah, if you say so.’ ”
The hallway has black and white tiles like a chessboard. I smell coffee, polish, cigar smoke and lilies. Through a little diamond-shaped window in the door, I peer out and see the garden. It’s not at all dissolved. Down the far end, I can see the small black iron door onto Slade Alley. I must have imagined too hard. Down the stairs comes Tchaikovsky’s “Chant de l’alouette.” It’s Mum.
Norah Grayer asks, “Nathan, are you feeling all right?”
I looked up Valium in a medical encyclopedia at the library and in rare cases it can make you hallucinate and you have to tell your doctor immediately. I guess I’m rare. “Yes, thanks,” I say. “Jonah and me were playing fox and hound and I think I got carried away.”
“I thought you and Jonah might have a rapport—and golly gosh, Yehudi and your mother are getting on like a house on fire! You go on up to the soirée, up both these flights of stairs. I’ll find Jonah, and we’ll bring the éclairs. Up you go now. Don’t be shy.”
David Mitchell, Slade House, 2015.