Some parts of the school grounds seemed unchanged and timeless, and others left Frankie puzzled, as she struggled to see what was missing from open spaces, and what now stood where this hedge was growing, or that bicycle shed stood. Without a camera to record the images, she knew that she had to commit all of the differences to memory. But who would she ever share them with? Who, in 2020, would ever believe her? They would look at each other and wonder whether she had banged her head or something. Frankie decided that now was not the time for those questions and concerns, and equally, she banished any fear of not being able to return to her own century to the very back of her mind. Now was the time for play.
Minutes turned into hours, and exhausted from chasing each other, climbing trees (Billy seemed to have no regard for his safety, Frankie thought, as he moved ape-like from branch to branch), and cutting their way through the knotted hedgerows with unprotected arms, the children at last slumped to the ground and stared at the impossibly blue sky. Spike had declined the invitation to enter the unknown, and had left the children to their own devices as they explored. He had chuckled to himself as he heard Frankie talk about the Forest School, much to Billy’s bewilderment. “What are you talking about? It’s a hedge, Frankie. No desks here!”
Now Spike trotted over to join them, a book clamped between his teeth. He dropped it, and carefully smoothed its cover with a gentle paw. “One of my favourites, this. ‘The Tiger who Came to Tea.’ Read it out loud Frankie – I’m hopeless at turning pages!” Both children smiled at him. “Good taste, Spike!” said Frankie, looking at the cover of one of her own favourite books. Billy nodded furiously. “I love that one too! I mean, I know I’m a bit old for it and everything, but Dad still reads it aloud when I’m feeling down.”
The years between them melted away, as Frankie read, and they each gazed at the familiar illustrations of the smiling tiger and the little girl who loved him. It led to talk of other books, and characters who had clearly stood the test of time, and jogged Frankie’s memory of the sights she had seen on the field as she walked out with Spike for the first time.
“The school has been alive with all these books and pictures and everything ever learned, Frankie,” came Spike’s voice as he caught her staring across the field and guessed what she was thinking. “Years of children’s wonder and questions and feelings just can’t disappear, can they? They have to soak in somewhere.”
The afternoon passed quickly, with the children gradually joining the pieces of the jigsaw in which they found themselves. Billy struggled to grasp the enormity of the time travel part of the story, when Spike and Frankie finally decided the time was right for it to unfold.
“So you’re here, but not really here?” Billy asked, his question giving Frankie pause for a lot of thought.
“I don’t know! Thing is, I was getting upset about where my life was disappearing to, but I don’t know – I don’t feel worried any more. I think I should be but I’m just not.”
Billy’s disbelief didn’t last long, as he was fully aware that a talking dog was sharing the explanation, and his questions rapidly fired in every direction, some not even waiting for an answer before the next one shot forward. “Wait, what? How can you have hundreds of TV channels? What’s a laptop? The Queen’s still the same one? What’s Brexit?” Forty four years of history was difficult to compress into one short afternoon in the sun, and eventually the conversation returned to the here and now and the many different things they actually had in common.
So much talk and so much sun, following the miles of running and climbing, could only lead to one conclusion. Tucked up under the shade of dense green branches, all three companions drifted off to sleep.
Minutes or hours later, Frankie’s dream were rudely interrupted by an anxious voice which she thought belonged her mum, calling out for her. “Are you out there? Where have you got to?” And then, more angrily, “Billy, for goodness’ sake! Your dad’s been looking everywhere for you!” Frankie sat up quickly, eyes wide and worried. The friends’ closed world had just reopened to let the grown-ups in, and they weren’t happy.
“Billy! Billy! Wake up! That woman’s looking for you! Look – she’s at the back door now, I think she’s spotted us!”
Billy was a few seconds behind Frankie in his alertness, but as he caught up, his face seemed to return to the anxiety setting Frankie had seen before. “Oh no! What happened there? What time is it?” The tension evaporated as Frankie’s explosive giggles filled the air. “I don’t know! 1976 or something – that’s all I’ve got!” Her own words tickled her further, and Frankie continued to laugh – momentarily forgetting there was a strange woman building herself up to a furious tirade, and she was getting closer.
“It’s not funny Frankie! I’ll be in so much trouble if Dad’s been looking for hours! He’s a real worrier!” Billy stood up quickly, his sudden awakening and movement produced tiny dizzying stars, and as he stepped back to regain his balance, a high-pitched voice signalled Spike’s return from his nap. “OW! That’s my tail if you don’t mind! What are you doing?” Billy whispered an apology as he looked down at Spike, but his eyes soon returned to Miss Taylor, who by now was striding across the field as quickly as her shoes allowed. “BILLY THOMPSON! Have you the faintest idea how much grief you’ve caused? Your father thought you’d run away – he’s beside himself! If you were mine, well, I don’t know what I’d do!”
The words continued, getting louder and more bitter with each step, and they fell on the children’s ears too rapidly to make sense. They just knew she was pretty cross, and Frankie began to wonder if standing there waiting for a closer encounter was perhaps not the wisest decision to take. Just as she was about to shout “Run!” at the top of her lungs, another figure appeared at the doorway and began to sprint towards Miss Taylor, ready to slow her march. “Janet! JANET! It’s fine, go back – I’ll deal with it!”
Billy’s dad now chose to overtake Miss Taylor, as nothing in the teacher’s body language suggested she was about to go anywhere but forward. He ran towards the children, the sheer speed alarming Frankie and convincing her that escape was the only option. But as he got closer, she caught the look on his face and felt her shoulders drop with relief. Billy’s dad wasn’t angry at all. He was smiling, and Frankie thought she could detect a wateriness about his eyes. He was just happy to see his son again. As he almost fell against his son’s body, Mr Thompson picked him up in a tight hug and spun around, laughing. “You’re playing on the field! I should have known! You must have been bored out of your tree with your old dad and Sergeant Major Taylor!” Billy’s laughter rang out in appreciation of a shared joke, and Frankie just knew that this name had been used before – several times.
Frankie found herself smiling and happy once again, and looked to Spike to share the moment. She found him at her feet, spinning in a tail- chasing expression of his own joy – the little dog really did enjoy happy endings. Looking back to the family reunion, she wanted to clap her approval, but as she prepared to do just that, another thought crept into her head. Something wasn’t quite right and she couldn’t for the life of her think what it was.
And then it dawned on her. Billy’s dad still couldn’t see her – his eyes were on Billy the whole time, and absolutely no questions were being asked about the new girl and the strange dog. By now, Mr Thompson had set his son back on the ground and Billy was telling him how daft he had been to worry, that he wouldn’t have done anything silly and that, yes, he was ready to set off home. That was all fine, Frankie thought, we were invisible before so why should that have changed?
But what bothered her was that Billy himself seemed unaware that she and Spike were still there. When both father and son set off together, back towards the school building, Billy didn’t glance back. Instead, he continued to share some private joke with his dad, who ruffled his hair and carried on laughing as Billy pretended to fight with him, his feet dancing and his small fists raised.
“Spike, I don’t think Billy can see us any more, can he?”