contents
chapter 1
chapter 2
chapter 3
chapter 4
chapter 5
chapter 6
chapter 7
chapter 8
chapter 9
chapter 10
chapter 11
chapter 12
chapter 13
chapter 14
chapter 15
chapter 16
chapter 17
chapter 18
chapter 19
chapter 20
chapter 21
chapter 22
chapter 23
chapter 24
chapter 25
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Chapter 3
Aitch.

Elké took a deep breath and leaped from the train. She struck the grass verge a glancing blow and tumbled head over heels down the embankment, finally coming to rest, thankfully, amongst some soft clumps of heather. Scrambling quickly to her feet, she waved gaily at the fast disappearing figure of 'Loco Ken' who was leaning far out from the wagon in a most precarious fashion.
    "Now where is my pack?" muttered Elké.
    She soon rescued it from a patch of briars and headed across the meadow to the road that wound it's way up the valley through the rolling green hills of The Cotswolds.
    The sky directly above was of the palest blue changing to a pinky orange towards the eastern skyline where the sun was at this moment in the process of easing his great weight from off of the distant horizon.
     On the other side of the road, beyond the hedge, a line of pollarded willow trees traced the course of a narrow, meandering river.
    Elké, full of fresh vitality, struck northward in such an exaggerated gait that she startled a family of goldfinches who had been busily feeding from the abundant wayside thistledown.
    The miles rolled by until Elké entered a quaint bustling village with an even quainter name of Morton-In-The-Marsh. It was then that her stomach gave a faint rumble of complaint.
    "Don't worry old girl," she laughed, patting her midriff affectionately. "We'll soon sort you out."
    The remedy came in the form of 'Mrs. Bumpkin's Tea Room' situated next to the post office in the village square.
    Mrs. Bumpkin was a plump, cheerful lady with tiny coal black eyes set above rosy red cheeks.
    "Now! What can I get you, young lady?" she said, her pen poised over a well-worn pad.
    Elké eyed the mouth-watering menu but her thoughts went to the meagre savings that would have to last…she did not know how long.
    "Just toast and jam and a chocolate milk shake please," she announced, at last.
    Mrs. Bumpkin rammed the pad into her apron pocket and stalked off into the kitchen muttering something about "not enough to feed a grasshopper."
    Presently noises could be heard issuing from the kitchen. Sizzling noises. And smells wafted through the open door. Pleasant smells. Smells that tantalized the nose of Elké and caused her stomach to rumble in protest once again.
    After what seemed like an age to Elké, Mrs. Bumpkin appeared at the kitchen door proudly carrying a huge tray.
     "Take that worried look off your face, my girl," tutted Mrs. Bumpkin, after placing a large plate in front of Elké containing a fluffy mushroom and tomato omelette topped with crispy grilled bacon and melted cheddar cheese. "This is on the house. Call me an old fool if you want but I can't have a young mite like yourself leave this shop hungry, can I?"
    There was also the tallest glass of sumptuous chocolate milkshake that Elké had ever set eyes on, a plate piled high with piping hot toast, a dish of freshly churned butter and a pot containing, in Mrs. Bumpkin's own words, "my very best homemade apricot jam."
    Elké, her eyes sparkling with both amazement and pleasure, tucked in with relish.
    Mrs. Bumpkin disappeared into the kitchen once again only to return, almost immediately, with a cup of tea rattling in her hand. She plonked herself down in the chair opposite Elké and watched with satisfaction as the girl devoured her breakfast.
    It was not until Elké had polished off the last piece of toast, spread thickly with butter and piled high with jam, did Mrs. Bumpkin ask after her name.
    "Well, Elké," said Mrs. Bumpkin, pouring herself another cup of tea, "in which direction are you travelling?"
     Elké explained of her plan to find her father in Birmingham.
    At the very mention of Birmingham Mrs. Bumpkin raised her eyebrows in alarm and said in a low, warning voice, "you be careful in Birmingham, do you hear. There's bin some dreadful stories in the papers recently…'bout Birmingham."
    "What sort of stories?" asked Elké, feeling a slight chill run down her arms.
    "Stories of children disappearing," replied Mrs. Bumpkin, in an even lower and more sinister voice. "Children like yourself… disappear… never to be seen again…"
    Mrs. Bumpkin sat staring at Elké with vacant black eyes that were now as large as saucers. Suddenly her hand dived into her pocket and pulled out her writing pad, causing Elké to jump back in fright.
    "I have a sister in Birmingham," said Mrs. Bumpkin, scribbling furiously. "Kathy's her name. She also runs a Cafe." Mrs. Bumpkin stopped writing and looked up. "Not at all like this one. Very busy it is. Even has a disco at night, so I'm told."
    She shook her head disapprovingly and ripped the page out, handing it to Elké. "Here's the address. Tell her I sent you. She's a lovely woman and will certainly find you somewhere safe to stay."
     Elké thanked Mrs. Bumpkin very much, paid her the money she owed and made to go. "Hold on. Hold on," cried Mrs. Bumpkin, jumping up and rushing to the kitchen. She returned and pressed a package into Elké's hand. "Just a little something to help you on your way this afternoon. Goodbye and take care."
     Outside, the village square had taken on a transformation. Market stalls with multi-coloured awnings had sprouted up as if by magic. Cheeky Barrow boys touted their wares to the milling crowds of brightly dressed housewives out enjoying the summer sunshine.
    "Here yar, miss," shouted a young lad. "Six juicy pears. A give away at fifty pence."
     Elké grinned openly "six is too many, but I'll take two and two of those bananas as well."
     As the boy deftly bagged the fruit he gave her a big wink and said. "I've thrown yer in a Cox's fer luck."
    Elké headed through and out of the village by way of the Stratford road. She had already removed her pullover and tucked it in her backpack, for the sun was now high in the sky.
    The fields on either side were a hive of activity. In one a combine harvester was gathering the ripe corn, and in another farm workers raked and collected dried grass to be later made into a splendid haystack.
    After a while the road, apparently feeling a little lonely, took a sharp turn towards the river and soon the two were running side-by-side. The river babbled and chuckled away merrily as if it too was glad of the company.
    As the day wore on Elké found herself drawn towards the river. She kicked off her shoes and sat on the bank with her feet immersed in the cool, clear running water.
    "All this walking business has certainly made me hungry," she mused. "I have already eaten most of the fruit." And then she suddenly remembered. "The package Mrs. Bumpkin gave me."
    Elké jumped up, rummaged in her backpack and found the neatly wrapped package hiding under her jumper. Two rounds of sandwiches: One crammed full of roast chicken and stuffing and the other cheese and tomato.
    "Mrs. Bumpkin, you are a dear." She munched away happily, her feet once again dabbling in the river.
    Two passing Mallards quacked noisily and raced each other for the crusts Elké threw to them.
    A dazzle of blue and the merest splash: Mr. Kingfisher catching his supper. He sat on a bough of the tree opposite, deftly turned the fish in his beak, and swallowed it whole.
    Further down the river a mother otter lay basking in the sun watching her two youngsters play rough and tumble.
    "AAH! Pure happiness."
    Then, above the typical river noises, Elké detected another sound. Was it a whimper? A whine? Surely an animal in distress.
    An object in mid-stream, caught up on some rocks, attracted her attention. She rolled up her jeans to the knees and waded out. The object was a small sack tied at one end with string. And there was something inside. Something that moved. Something alive. Elké gingerly picked up the sack by its neck and carried it to the bank.
    After cutting the string with her knife, she stood back and boldly called "come on out whatever you are."
     But the creature did not even have the strength to crawl from the sack. It just trembled slightly and whimpered. In exasperation, Elké grasped the corners of the sack and gave it a firm shake. Out plopped the most bedraggled of animals and lay shivering on the grass.
    "And what sort of creature are you?" said Elké, moving closer. As if in answer the animal gave a small yelp. "Why! You're a puppy dog," she exclaimed, picking him up. "You poor little mite. What kind of person would put you in a sack and cast you into the river? How wicked."
     Elké wrapped the puppy in a towel and gently patted him dry. This seemed to revive him a little. Sitting the tiny bundle in the palm of her hand, Elké began a closer examination.
    "He cannot be more than a day old," she thought, "for his eyes are not yet open."
     Now that his fur was almost dry it could be seen that his colouring was predominantly black. But also, he had some strange markings on the front of his chest. A horizontal white stripe across the middle and two vertical ones down each side formed an almost perfect 'H'.
    "That's the obvious name for you, my boy," laughed Elké. "I shall call you 'Aitch'."
    The newly christened puppy gave a sharp yelp of approval and proceeded to suck strongly at Elké's finger.
    "Oh! You poor thing. You are hungry, of course. But what do little puppy dogs eat?"
    She tried him with some banana. Aitch did manage to lick some from her finger, but the process was slow and awkward.
    "What you need, my poor darling, is some warm milk. But I do not have any. Wait a minute though," exclaimed Elké, after a moments thought. "I passed a farm a few miles back. They are sure to have milk."
    She promptly tied the towel around her neck to form a crude sling and popped Aitch inside. He seemed very happy snuggled up to her warm body.
    Elké retraced her steps back down the road and eventually came to the bridge across the river that led, via a muddy track, to Puck Farm.
    The farm buildings loomed into view, but Elké's presence did not go un-observed. Two border collies came bounding towards her barking madly.
    "Chip, Spike, quieten down at once." The stern, authoritative voice belonged to a large, imposing woman standing before the farmhouse door, her massive arms covered to the elbows with flour. She turned to Elké and said rather curtly. "Yes, what can I do for you?"
     Elké explained the situation and at the sight of Aitch nestling in the sling, the woman's face softened a little.
    "Well, I suppose you'd better come inside," she said, turning to go in herself. "Kick off your shoes and leave them in the passage, that cart-track's as mucky as sin. And keep them dogs outside. They'll sneak in at the slightest opportunity."
     Elké followed the woman down the long, dark passage and into a huge square kitchen at the back of the house.
    "Sit yourself down while I give my hands a wash."
     Elké was fascinated by the charm of a genuine English farmhouse kitchen. A casserole of braising steak sizzled in the oven of a spotless Aga cooker, filling the air with the delicious aroma of onions and spices. The scrubbed solid oak table at which she now sat could comfortably accommodate twelve grown-ups. And a pine dresser, chock-a-block with colourful crockery and copper pans, almost filled one wall.
    "Let's take a look at the patient, shall we?" said the farmers wife, expertly picking up Aitch who let out a cry of indignation. "Don't worry old boy, I shan't hurt you. Mmmm, you're a young 'un and no mistake. Too young for solids, that's for sure." She handed him back to Elké. "Here, hang on to him while I prepare some milk."
    The woman moved about her kitchen with the casual air that only comes with years of experience and chatted all the while. "You should be here in the spring. I'm making bottles non-stop for the orphaned lambs or the ones whose mothers can't give milk." She seized a pan, added a slurp of milk, a splash of water, a drop of some clear liquid and placed the lot on top of the Aga. "That puppy of yourn, you say his name is Aitch, he wouldn't be able to keep down neat cows milk, so I've mixed in some water and a drop of glucose to give him some energy…that should be warm enough."
    She poured the mixture into a bottle, popped on a clean teat and handed it to Elké.
    Aitch grabbed the teat into his mouth almost immediately and sucked away with intense concentration.
    Elké chuckled. "He certainly is hungry."
     The woman stood back, her arms folded, and watched the two of them. "That puppy won't be old enough to travel for at least a week or two," she remarked, seriously.
Elké looked up in horror. "But that's impossible. I do not have the money to stay here for that long."
    The woman laughed out loud. "Don't worry about money, child. This is a farm. You will be able to work for your keep easy enough."

chapter 4
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