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Chapter One: 5:10 P.M. -- Friday
Home. Home from school. Holidays. And here he was -- out on the town, but on his own. As he walked through the early evening, bright with midsummer light, Ellis saw the city center glowing like a far-off stage. But, although the sunlight was finding its way so confidently between hotels and banks, shops and offices, the city was threatened by a storm. To the north, between glassy office buildings, he could see bruised clouds, polished by a lurid light, rolling across the plain toward the town.
Most of the other people in the street were going in the same direction as Ellis, probably making for the cinema complex that dominated the eastern end of the city center. He looked with interest at the few faces coming toward him, half hoping to see someone he recognized. However, as yet, he had not seen a single person he knew.
I can always go to a film, he thought, and patted his back pocket as if the money there were a good-luck charm.
The traffic lights changed. Glancing to the left as he crossed the street, Ellis saw the city council had installed new streetlights since he had last walked that way. Retreating, like precisely spaced blooms in a park garden, they rose on long green stems that curved elegantly at the top, then blossomed into hoods of deep crimson. FOLEY STREET, announced brass letters on a black background. At the far end of the street he saw the old library he had visited regularly as a child, bracing its stone shoulders against a constricting cage of platforms, steps, and orange-colored piping. Wide dormer windows looked toward Ellis from under deep, dipping lids, tiled with gray slate. Several streets away, a new library, complete with a computerized circulation system and a much-praised information retrieval program, would no doubt be working busily. But the old building was still there, transformed into apartments, one of them owned, he suddenly remembered, by country-dwelling friends of his parents. He guessed, looking at the scaffolding, that the company that had bought the old library must be adding a third floor to the original two. More changes, thought Ellis a little ruefully, although he also wanted the city to surprise him in some way -- to put out branches...break into leaf...burst into gigantic laughter.
Free, thought Ellis, and he might have skipped a little if it had not been such a childish thing to do. Well, not quite free. University next year -- okay! Okay! That was decided. But, after all, the university had a drama society and a proper theater, so they must need actors. And he would have adventures, moments of revelation, sex, even love. The coming year, he decided, would be a year of transformation. I'm going to be an actor, said the voice in the back of his head. I really am!
I am going to be an actor, Simon had also declared last year, casually but quite definitely. And then, later...forget acting! "I'm into sex these days," he had said when Ellis, excited by the prospect of the Shakespeare Fantasia planned for the end of the year, had auditioned successfully for the part of Claudio in a scene from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. But, only two weeks after saying this, Simon had killed himself. He had, after all, been into something much more dangerous than sex. He had been in love, and love had failed him.
Somewhere behind Ellis on Foley Street a clock struck the quarter hour with a soft but significant chime. "Now!" that final fading stroke seemed to declaim. "It begins now!" And, as it faded, almost as if its echo had triggered an event in the outside world, Ellis caught sight of himself in a mirror, framed by blue tiles, linking two shops. He saw, before he strode past, the long oval of his face smiling out of a halo of curls. Not bad! he thought, glad that the quickly moving reflection had seemed to belong to someone so much older than seventeen. Yet, almost at once he felt discontented, for he did not want to look quite so wholesome -- quite so new.
But now, out of nowhere it seemed, a huge wind came funneling down the street toward him. Abruptly, the air whirled with leaves and trash, some of which danced higher and higher, lifting over the streetlights, zigzagging, twisting, before tumbling away across roofs on the opposite side of the road. One piece of screwed-up red paper spun upward as if it were about to go into orbit. A blackboard, advertising cafe; meals, tumbled toward him like a square wheel, first one corner and then another striking the pavement. Ellis dodged it. The wind punched his face, at the same time stinging him with gritty dust. Angry voices filled his ears, and a gliding figure, apparently lifted by the storm, leaped from the pavement onto a narrow, empty strip designated as a bus stop. The skater swung so dangerously close to the line of slow-moving traffic that one or two drivers tooted their horn in outrage, and a passenger lowered his window to shout angrily, "What do you think you're playing at, you bloody fool?" But the gliding man simply flung out his left arm, in a gesture both graceful and confident, and extended a single, insulting finger. Another gust of wind tilted advancing pedestrians back on their heels, and the skater, perhaps taking advantage of their uncertainty, jumped from the bus-stop space to the pavement. Suddenly, Ellis and the skater were face-to-face.
For the first time that evening Ellis recognized someone, and was sure that he, too, was recognized. The skater's expression changed. Sliding past Ellis, he turned into a shop doorway, spun around, and then darted back again. He seemed to move without any effort at all...a young man in an ancient camel-hair coat, both elbows worn through, one of them blackened as if the wearer had casually leaned among red-hot coals. A name came into Ellis's head. Jackie, wasn't it? Jackie Kettle? No! Not quite! A voice from the past spoke softly in his memory. "Funny name, isn't it? It's a strange cow." Jackie Cattle! That was it. Jackie Cattle.
Copyright © 2000 by Margaret Mahy