Work Header

Brush Contact

Work Text:

Spare blankets were folded at the back of the airing cupboard. The emergency candle was on the shelf above the door, from which it could be reached by standing on Theresa's trunk. The fire hose, in the corridor outside, might be long enough for climbing out of the window. She hadn't been able to test it. Once you got through the window, the quickest way out of the school grounds was across the football field and through the laurel hedge. Then north into town. It wasn't that far.

Estelle ran through it again in her head, while she brushed her teeth, whispered goodnight to her friends and got between the sheets. It was her bedtime routine. When she was still very young, her mum and the other operatives had taught her always to know the nearest escape route and the whereabouts of important things. You needed them when someone came tapping at the glass, half frozen, in the middle of the night. Of course, the house that they had lived in back then was gone; the operatives were gone. The cell had been broken up. This was school, and everything was different. But you never knew, Mum had said, when someone would come to the window and cry to be let in. So you had to be ready, however silly it seemed.

She hadn't seen Mum since Christmas; six months now. They wrote to each other once a month and were allowed a visit once a year. They couldn't see each other more often because the government thought that Mum would corrupt Estelle and that Estelle would end up in prison too. Even the last Christmas visit had almost been called off; there'd been the big Yule crackdown then, with police on the streets, and doubled security at all the prisons.

When she'd finally seen Mum, she'd been surprised by how small she looked. At home, Mum had always been calm and strong in the middle of anxious people. In the prison interview room, sitting in grey overalls behind the fly-spotted glass, she'd tried to speak cheerfully (the guards were watching in case she said too much), but she'd looked as frightened as Estelle felt. It wasn't only the guards who frightened her, Estelle saw. It was the witches. Witch-sympathisers were always put into prison with witches. Estelle thought Mum must have met some witches who were horrible people; not scared and nice like Mr Whitestone, or smelling of perfume like the witch who'd flown from Hatfield, but actually wicked. Perhaps Mum couldn't be sorry that those witches had been burned. Perhaps that was what frightened her.

Only one thing had cheered her on that visit. That was Mum, as she said goodbye, giving her the sign. Mum had opened and lifted her hand as though letting a small bird fly away. The prison guards hadn't seemed to notice. So they didn't know everything about the witches' rescue service, and that was good.

All the operatives, most of whom were women, gave themselves the names of birds. They were code names or, as Mum once called them, 'nomm duh gayres'. Mum had been called Owl. Estelle had been too young to be a proper operative, but she'd wanted to be called Swallow. And the place to which they let the witches fly away was code-named Haven. Haven was another world. No one knew what its real name was, but Mum thought the Havenites probably called it 'the world', like everyone else.

Haven was out of the window, across the football field and into town (and then what?). Estelle scrunched her pillow and curled into a ball. She never slept very deeply.


In Geography, Mr Crossley got annoyed because Nan Pilgrim couldn't name an export of Afghanistan. 'Belladonna!' he exclaimed, waving a stick of chalk in her face. 'Afghanistan is one of the world's largest exporters of contraband witchcraft supplies. Don't you remember our lesson on the exotic supply trade?'

Someone giggled. Estelle tried to smile at Nan, whose face was turning scarlet, but Nan glared and looked down at the lid of her desk.

'Does anyone,' Mr Crossley said, 'know who controls the belladonna trade?'

Almost everyone looked blank. They'd already had an hour of single-celled organisms with Miss Portman and there were nearly three more, long hours to go until lunch. They blinked dully as Mr Crossley's green eyes passed over them. Finally, Nirupam Singh raised his hand.

'Warlords,' said Nirupam. 'They have bases in northern Pakistan and even in India.'

'Thank you,' said Mr Crossley. He turned to the blackboard and started drawing a diagram with lots of arrows.

Behind his hand, Simon Silverson hissed at Nirupam, 'Of course, you would know about that!'

The rest of 1Y swung round to stare at Nirupam while Mr Crossley, completely absorbed, went on with his diagram. It was unusual to see Simon try to put down Nirupam in front of the class. For one thing, Nirupam was very tall; and for another, unlike Nan Pilgrim, he rarely said anything that anyone could jump on. But Simon obviously thought that he was on safe ground here. They'd all heard the story about Nirupam's family in India being witches. Probably some of the others' families were witches too, but people could at least claim to be sorry for British witches. They weren't sorry for foreign ones.

'How much is belladonna per pound?' giggled Brian Wentworth, happy that no one was picking on him for a change.

Nirupam said, 'Blood. Slavery. And murder,' in a voice that wobbled the smirks on Simon and Brian's faces. Theresa wrinkled her nose. Mr Crossley finally noticed they were talking and told everyone to shut up.

Estelle glanced at Nirupam. She wasn't used to hearing any of her classmates speak so clearly and deliberately about anything to do with witchcraft. Usually they giggled, like Simon or Theresa, or they got angrily silent, like Nan. Estelle usually joined the giggling, because she didn't want anyone to ask questions about her mum. But she'd sometimes wanted to yell that witchcraft was about imprisonment. And murder.

He must have sensed her stare, because he turned and looked back at her. His face was tense, and she saw that his hands were balled under the desk, as if he was very angry. But he didn't look as if it was her he was angry with. She blushed and went back to copying Mr Crossley's diagram of the belladonna trade from the blackboard.


At lunchtime, Estelle felt strangely sad. She mumbled an excuse to Karen, who would happily stay and eat lunch at Theresa's table even though Estelle was her best friend, and went to the post room to see if Mum had sent a letter.

There wasn't a letter, of course; it wasn't the time for Mum to write, and no one else sent Estelle letters except her Welfare Officer from the government. If she'd had a letter to hold it would have been a bit like holding Mum's hand. Lacking one, she stuffed her hands into her blazer pockets and wandered off around the side of the gym. It was a dull day, damp and windy, more like April than June.

She went 'round the back' to the shrubbery, where the tears lurking behind her eyes might come out without anyone seeing. Estelle was light on her feet, and she stole down the path without making a sound.

Not until she rounded the last corner did she realise she wasn't alone. In the middle of the shrubbery, concealed from the school windows by a large rhododendron, was Nirupam Singh. It was obvious why he had come here. He was smoking. His face was muddy yellow; he sucked the cigarette with an expression of bitter loathing, making noises in the back of his throat and having to put his hand to his mouth. Thin puffs of smoke rose above his head. She was glad that the sky was so grey; if it had been a clear day, someone might have come to investigate why the shrubbery was on fire.

He was concentrating so hard on not being sick that he failed to notice her arrival. Estelle wondered whether to back silently away. But Nirupam looked as miserable as she felt. She coughed, feeling like someone in a spy film, and scuffed her foot around in the dirt as loudly as she could. He looked up. Immediately, he hurled the cigarette away into a tangle of bindweed.

'It's okay,' Estelle said hurriedly. 'I won't tell.'

'Too late. You've made me lose it now.'

'You didn't really look like you were enjoying it.'

'It was horrible.' Nirupam looked down at his large feet and didn't say anything more for a moment. 'When they burn people – on the bone-fires – a lot of the people actually die from the smoke. Did you know that?'

'No.' Estelle didn't. 'It makes sense, though, I suppose. People can die from smoke when their houses burn down. They have those warnings about it on TV.'

'It's meant to be better,' he said. 'Better for the person who's burned. You breathe in the smoke and then you pass out and suffocate and you don't feel the fire when it makes you bubble and turn black.'

'I suppose not,' Estelle said faintly. She'd never given that much thought to what it was like to be burned. Mum and the other operatives hadn't talked about it. As a child, she'd pictured it like burning a piece of paper: a sudden whoomph and nothing left.

'It probably is better,' Nirupam said. 'But the smoke – '. He stared into the shrubbery. 'It's still horrible. Itself.'

'Perhaps you shouldn't smoke any more.' Estelle wondered whether she should take him to sick bay. But Matron would probably be able to tell that he'd been smoking. Then they would both get detention. 'You don't look well.'

'I'm angry,' he said.

He did look angry. Estelle remembered how tightly wound he'd looked in Geography and how she, too, had felt angry then. She also remembered that she'd come into the shrubbery to cry. The tears seemed to have passed for now.

She drifted a few steps closer. 'I've never seen someone burned,' she said. 'My mum wouldn't take me out when there was a bone-fire. I bet it's horrible, though.'

'I've seen it. It is horrible. It's unbelievable.'

'Who did you see?'

'My brother.' He took a long time before the next word. 'My mother.'

Estelle couldn't speak. She tried to imagine never seeing Mum again, not even at Christmas. It was impossible. She stared at Nirupam, trying mutely to express compassion.

A gust of wind rattled the rhododendron leaves, sending raindrops flying.

'What happened?' she said finally, hastening to add, 'if you want to talk about it.'

'It doesn't matter. Only that my brother was a witch, and he ended up using his witchcraft to do favours for anyone who asked, so that they wouldn't report him to the police. But some people were jealous because they thought the others got better favours. So they reported him anyway. My mother had never used witchcraft in her life until he was arrested. She tried to make a spell to get him out of prison. But she didn't know how to hide what she was doing. So they arrested her too.'

'I'm sorry.' Estelle was miserably aware of how inadequate it sounded. 'What about your dad?'

'My father isn't a witch. We were allowed to move to the UK.'

Estelle took a breath. 'Was there a – '. She had no idea what the witches' rescue service, or the operatives, or Haven, might be called in India. After a moment's floundering, she made the sign, lifting her palm and opening the fingers as if letting a bird fly away. If he recognised the sign, she might have committed herself to telling the story of Mum and her own past. However, and mostly to her relief, he didn't react to it at all.

'Was there a what?'

'An organisation – to help witches escape. An underground railroad. There's supposed to be one in England.'

'If there was, no one told us about it. Just like no one talks about it here.'

'But if someone was in trouble,' Estelle said more firmly, 'the organisation might contact them. I suppose they can't help everyone. But they must help some people. You never know.'

'I know what happened then.' But he gave her a searching look, as though he understood that she wasn't just trying to be optimistic.

Estelle didn't dare say more. She didn't want to tell her story, not yet, not until she knew that someone at the school actually needed the escape routes and the passwords. It wasn't really fair; he'd shared his story with her, so she ought to have shared with him. But she didn't want Theresa to start making jokes about Mum. She didn't want Karen to stop being her friend.

'It's nearly one,' she said. 'We ought to go back.'

'I suppose so.' Nirupam brushed some ash from his blazer. 'It was nice talking to you,' he said unexpectedly.


'You talk like an actual person.'

'Um. Thanks.' Estelle's cheeks went pink. If that was a compliment, it was her first from a boy. She gestured vaguely in the direction of their next lesson. 'We should probably go now.'

They pushed through the shrubbery. Estelle was keenly aware of the narrow space of dark leaves, and of the ghost of Nirupam's breath on the back of her neck. She looked at her watch. They were just going to make it.

'You can always talk to me again if… smoking upsets you,' she said, as they came in sight of the art block.

'Thank you.' His face was quite serious. 'You can talk to me if you need to cry again.'

'I wasn't – '

'It's all right. I know what it's like. A lot of them do, but they won't admit it.'

'Oh. Okay. Until… whenever, then.'

Estelle slipped through the door and into her seat beside Karen, who leaned over and started telling her what Theresa had said at lunch.


The cloud had lifted during the evening and the stars were out. Nights like this were a double-edged sword. Easier for someone running to find their way; easier for the police to follow them.

Karen and Heather lay whispering until Theresa, as dorm monitor, asserted her authority and told them to shut up. In the next bed, Nan Pilgrim lay stiffly on her back with her hands clenched. Estelle wondered if Nan was afraid of Theresa or afraid of going to sleep. Sometimes, in the mornings, Nan looked as if she had had strange dreams…

Witchcraft ran in families, of course. Although sometimes it didn't; sometimes it skipped a generation, or disappeared, or showed up somewhere it had never been before. Mum had said it was like being able to roll your tongue (which they could both do), or like having curly hair (which Estelle did, but Mum didn't). So the biology was complicated but it did mean that quite a lot of people at Larwood House were probably witches. Perhaps they were hiding their witchcraft, or perhaps they weren't old enough to get it yet, but they probably had it.

There was Nan. Everyone said that her mum had been burned. Nan wouldn't admit this or deny it, but she'd once said that she wished she was a witch, just so she could turn Theresa into a sheep. Estelle wouldn't be too surprised if magic were to start breaking out around Nan. And now there was Nirupam. His family was stuffed with witchcraft; he'd admitted to her that his mum and his brother had been burned. She wondered if he had witchcraft and if he was frightened that it would come out.

Well, thought Estelle, she was there. Whatever good that might do.

Again, she ran through it all: candle (on the high shelf); blankets (in the airing cupboard); easiest climb (through the window by Heather's bed); quickest way out of the school grounds (across the football field and through the laurels); route to the town and the Old Gate House (bear left, by the big elm; follow the North Star; straight on till morning).

If the tapping at the window came tonight, she'd be ready. She'd never done the job properly, not yet, but Mum had always said that Estelle would make a good operative.

She was a cell. She was a single cell.