A boy discovers his grandmother’s secret life and has to defeat an ancient enemy to save her.
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RA Jones author
Sam Jones’ holiday with Gran is all baking and cats (yawn). But when she gets a cry for help from her old village, everything changes. Something bad is happening and only Gran can fix it. But when she falls victim to a shapeshifter’s trick, Sam is left alone with just dog, cat and cherry bakewells. Things look bleak..But the Dreables haven’t bargained for Gran’s secret gift to Sam. Cunning…
R A Jones
HOLIDAYS WITH GRAN
Holidays with Gran.
It was enough to make a nine-year-old weep.
You see, Sam Jones’s mother had rules. Some of them were sensible, like never playing in the road, or remembering to brush your teeth night and morning. Others were understandable but not always easy to follow, like eating five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day even in national fish and chip week. But some were downright unfair—at least they were as far as Sam was concerned.
The Joneses were a pretty average family, except for the fact that Sam’s mum liked exercise. Tons of exercise. So Sam swam, and ran, and played lots of games—and so did his mother and father. But Mr and Mrs Jones’s favourite exercise was walking. And we’re not talking about a quick stroll about the park for twenty minutes, here. These were serious, over the hills and far away, fifteen miles in an afternoon, yomps.
But Mr and Mrs Jones were kind and didn’t expect Sam to do that every weekend. Not at nine years old. So they saved up their big yomps for a week’s holiday in the Dolomites or on the Aztec trail in the Andes—without Sam.
Oh, they did go on holidays with Sam. Lots of nice holidays to the beach—as long as it was near a coastal path, or Middle Parks—where you had to cycle everywhere. But the yomping holiday with Sam’s dad was one of Sam’s mum’s rules. And that was okay with Sam because yomping in the Andes wasn’t quite his cup of tea, thank you very much. No, it was what he was expected to do instead that he had a problem with.
“Oh come on, Sam,” Mr Jones said as they drove down to where Granny Merryweather—she was Sam’s mother’s mum—lived. “It won’t be that bad. You know Gran loves having you stay and I know for a fact that she takes you to lots of great places.”
Sam was staring silently out of the car window at the blur of traffic speeding by. He hadn’t said much since turning off his computer at home and trudging to the car. But Dad’s coaxing stirred him out of his reverie.
“Yeah, but she can’t play football any more and I have to make my own bed and we have to talk about school and what things were like when she was a girl just after the war. She’s always on about how important it is to remember something called the ‘lessons of the past.’ And she has even more rules than Mum does.”
“Is that where she gets it from,” his dad said with a grin.
“She’s just no fun anymore, Dad,” Sam whined.
“Well, she’s not as young as she was,” Mrs Jones chipped in, “but she has lots of brilliant trips planned for you. There’s that zoo and the museum.”
Sam squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted to scream out “BOH-RING!” but with a huge effort of will, he managed to shut it off before it escaped his mouth. A part of him knew that sulking wasn’t fair and it would only make his mother and father feel guilty. But he couldn’t help himself.
“It’s not a zoo,” he explained through clenched teeth. “Gran doesn’t believe in zoos. It’s a cat sanctuary run by her friend. She helps out on Wednesdays and last time I had to spend all day counting the tabbies. There were twenty-eight of them.”
“Wow, that must have been interesting,” Mr Jones said, trying to sound impressed.
“No, it was just bonkers because they kept hiding behind a big tree to confuse me.”
“Cats don’t try and confuse you, Sam,” Mrs Jones said in a very schoolteachery way, since that was what she was when she wasn’t yomping.
“Those tabbies do, I’m telling you. And it always rains. And Gran’s always busy with her baking circle. Last time I had to make a Swiss roll.”
“I bet he was pretty miffed that you’d done that,” Mr Jones said, smiling in a really silly way in the rearview mirror.
“Not funny, Dad.” Sam sighed.
“Hey, your grandmother thinks you’re the best thing since sliced bread, Sam. And she’d do anything for you, you know that,” his mother reminded him, sounding more than a bit shirty.
“Yeah, but she has all these weird sayings. Like you can’t go out by the back door and in through the front. And last time I was there, she bought a new broom and the first time she used it, she brushed the leaves in instead of out.”
Sam’s dad made a face at his mother, who shrugged an explanation. “It’s a tradition. The broom brushes good luck in if you use it that way the first time.”
“See, Sam, it’s just a tradition,” explained his father.
“And what about whistling?” Sam demanded. “She says I should never whistle at night in case I wake something up that shouldn’t be woken.”
Sam’s dad paused and considered this, but all he said was, “So maybe she’s a little superstitious.”
“And you’ve both forgotten that time she left me at the supermarket and drove home.”
Sam’s dad frowned. “Alright, slightly weird, a tad superstitious, and a bit forgetful. But it could be worse.”
“It’s mental, that’s what it is,” Sam said, feeling blood suddenly rush to his face.
Sam’s mother shook her head. “Okay, if that’s how you feel, next time you can come yomping with us,” she said stiffly. “Only we won’t be able to stop because you have a tired legs episode.”
Sam thought for a moment and then sighed. “It would be fine if she had a DVD player or a computer or…oh, I dunno. I just wish something different would happen at Gran’s for a change, that’s all.”
“Maybe it will,” his dad said kindly. “You never know. Maybe she’ll ask you to make a Victoria sponge this time.”
Sam wanted to giggle but he stopped himself. His dad could usually make him smile but for once, Sam wanted him to know he wasn’t happy.
Mum threw her husband an icy stare before deflecting it towards Sam in the rearview mirror. “That’s not helping, Malcolm. And Sam, stop being such a misery guts. The fact is she’s not getting any younger and you’re getting older. But for the next week, you’ll just have to put up with each other.”
Half an hour later they arrived at Gran’s. Gwladys Mary Merryweather lived in a bungalow with a paddock at the back where she kept hens. The TV was black and white and she didn’t have a laptop or an iPod. But she did have lots of books and a chocolate Labrador called Troop and a snooty black cat called Ginger. Sam had asked once why Gran had called the cat Ginger and she’d said, with a completely straight face, “Because that’s what he wants to be called.”
Gran was always saying stuff like that with a completely straight face and most of the time Sam had no idea if she was joking or not. The door to the bungalow opened as they pulled up. Sam saw straight away that Gran hadn’t changed. Gwladys Merryweather wasn’t fat and she wasn’t thin. She had hair that was halfway between silver and light blue depending on how recently she’d been to the hairdresser. She wore a flowery dress and some beads and a pair of glasses attached to a brown cord that hung around her neck so that she wouldn’t lose them. The glasses looked a bit like seagull’s wings.
Sam retrieved his backpack and suitcase from the car and followed his mum and dad inside. Everything was spick and span in Gran’s bungalow, as indeed was Gwladys Merryweather. The living room table was laid with china cups and two three-tiered plates; one laden with small sandwiches and the other groaning under the weight of the most amazing selection of cakes.
“Vanilla custard tarts!” Sam’s mum exclaimed and then added in awe, “These aren’t you know who’s?”
Gran nodded her head and smiled. “Brenda McPherson’s very own.”
Sam’s mother actually squealed and ate two, one straight after the other. Gran ate one as well and, spitting crumbs, she said, “I have to admit that there is only one other person in the world who makes vanilla custard tarts better than Brenda McPherson.”
“Is that you, Gwladys?” asked Sam’s dad with his mouth full.
“Me?” Gran said, sounding surprised. “Oh no, I’m more an éclair specialist. No, there’s a woman in the village I grew up in called Libby Brown. She makes the best vanilla custard tarts in the world.”
Mum and Gran started to make cooing noises and went on to discuss chocolate éclair league tables. Dad’s eyes went up to the ceiling and it made Sam want to giggle, but he stopped himself.
“Made some fresh cream horns for you, Sam,” Gran said. “Your favourite.”
“No thanks,” Sam said. “Not hungry.”
“Sam, you’re always hungry,” his mother said.
“No, let him be,” Gran said, eyeing Sam with that special look of hers that implied that she always knew what Sam was thinking, even when he didn’t really know himself. She pursed her lips and added, “They’ll keep. If you don’t want anything to eat, Samuel, you can take your bag to your room while I make a fresh pot of tea.”
Gran was the only person in the world that ever called him Samuel and when she did it usually meant she was a bit mad at him. He could have eaten two of Gran’s cream horns without them touching the sides but he didn’t because he knew that if he did, he’d forget about feeling hard done by and grumpy. Gran’s cakes had that effect. More than once he’d asked her what special ingredients she used to make them taste sooo good. Gran just peered at him through her glasses and said, “Care, love and attention,” before turning away and adding quietly, “and maybe a pinch of special Merryweather spice.”
Sam’s bedroom was old and had circus wallpaper featuring elephants and lions and clowns and ringmasters, which Sam had loved when he’d been younger. Now it just looked childish and tired. Gran had arranged all the things they’d found over the years together on a dressing table: Glassy smooth stones from the river and tickets to funfairs jostled with battered dinky toys that he’d loved to play with once, but which now just looked rusty and old and squeaked when he tried to run them over the doily.
As he meandered back to the living room, he glanced in to the kitchen. Gran had her back to him, one hand on a chair back for balance as she reached into the fridge for some milk. The radio was playing old songs, but as he approached the living room, he couldn’t help but overhear his mum and dad speaking.
“I don’t know what’s happened between them,” his dad said. “They were the best of pals once, remember? He used to cry his eyes out when we took him home.”
“Since her hip op, she’s not as agile. You can see that,” Mum replied.
“See her wince when she got up? She’s still in pain,” added Dad. “She obviously needs a bit of looking after.”
“She’ll never admit to that in a million years.”
Sam hesitated. He’d never heard his mum and dad talk like this before. There was a long silence and then Dad said, “Maybe that’s it. Maybe Sam just wants the old Gran back and just can’t accept that she isn’t the woman she was.”
There was a rattle of cups from the corridor and Gran appeared with a new tray. A powdery smudge of icing sugar dusted one eyebrow and the tip of her nose and as usual, she smelled of cinnamon and soap. “I see you’ve grown a couple of inches since Easter,” she said.
Sam shrugged. He didn’t know what to say to that. The smile changed to a scowl on Gran’s face. “Well, don’t just stand there like a statue, open the door.”
Sam sighed and did as he was told.
After they’d had tea, Sam’s mum and dad left for the airport.
“Be good,” Sam’s mother said after she’d hugged him for the fourth time.
“Try and enjoy yourself,” Sam’s dad said with a wistful twinkle in his eye. The funny thing was that Sam’s gran had a twinkle just like that when he’d been smaller and sat on her knee and looked at books about sharks and dinosaurs. But lately that twinkle seemed to be getting dimmer.
“Don’t wear your legs out,” Sam called after them as they drove down the street.
When the car finally turned the corner, Sam turned and looked around from his grandmother’s gate at the bungalow with a sinking heart. It was going to be a long seven days.
They always had hot chocolate just before bed. It was one of the things he did look forward to about being at his gran’s. But with the chocolate came one of Gran’s little rules. She insisted on reading to him. If they didn’t finish a book by the time the week was over, he’d take it with him to finish at home. But Gran liked to read books about animals and jungles and the outdoors. They were okay but what Sam really liked were books about wizards and ghosts. Gran wasn’t keen on those at all.
“Can’t be doing with all that silly stuff,” she’d say. “Real life is much more interesting.” But Sam had heard her mutter under her breath, “And anyway, there’s no reason to tempt fate, if you ask me.” He had no idea what she meant by that.
The book she was reading to him now was about some children called Susan and Timmy, who camped on an island in a lake and who pretended to be pirates. There was no one in his whole school called Susan or Timmy, and Sam thought the story sounded a bit old-fashioned, just camping on an island. Still, it was quite exciting the way Gran read it. But after three chapters, Gran closed the book and looked at Sam.
“If your yawns get any bigger, you’ll swallow Troop.”
“I am a bit tired,” Sam said.
“Did you read in the car on the way down? That sometimes makes you tired.”
“What were you reading?” Gran asked.
“About a boy called George whose grandmother was horrible and who was always bullying him when his parents weren’t at home. The boy decided to make some special medicine for her because he was convinced she was a witch. It was a really funny book.”
“Sounds as if it wasn’t good news for the grandmother,” Gran said.
“Just as well you’re not a witch then, isn’t it?”
“No such things as witches. Besides, I retired a long time ago.”
Sam’s mouth turned into the shape it became when he wanted to laugh but nothing came out. He couldn’t help but notice that Gran wasn’t laughing either. He got as far as the sofa when Gran said, “Don’t I even get a goodnight kiss, then?”
Sam turned. “Mum said that since I’m now nine I don’t have to kiss people if it makes me feel uncomfortable and childish.”
“Is that what she said. “ Gran’s voice sounded suddenly odd and tight.
“Well, goodnight,” Sam said.
“Goodnight, Sam,” said his gran. When Sam got to his bedroom he heard his grandmother blow her nose and sniff for quite a long time.
That night, as he lay in bed waiting for sleep to come, Sam thought about what he really knew about his grandmother. He knew she was old. He didn’t really know what she’d been before she’d been just Gran, although he realised that she’d probably had a job once. Maybe she’d been a fireman or a nurse. Maybe a baker. He didn’t think she’d been in the army or a policeperson. But the truth was he didn’t really know. Just like he didn’t know what was in the locked cupboard under Ginger’s basket in the boxroom. When he asked Gran about that, all she’d say was,
“Things that need to be looked at when they need to be looked at and not before.”
That was classic Gran. No explanation, just some weird old saying that got you thinking all sorts of things.
What he did know was that she didn’t really like football or books about wizards and ghosts and vampires and was always telling him to be polite to people even if they were nasty to you. Sam thought that was just plain silly. But Gran was insistent.
“Be nice to them. Takes the wind right out of their sails,” she’d say. “Makes them think about what they’re doing. And since most people don’t think at all, it’s always worth a try.”
Sam couldn’t see the point of it. But then he couldn’t see the point of making his bed every day or making sure the fireguard was always in place at night even when there wasn’t a fire.
“Never know what might try and come down that chimney,” Gran explained.
And then of course there was broccoli. He couldn’t see the point of broccoli at all. But it, along with the fireguard and bed making, was a big part of being at Gran’s. Sam turned over. His foot was itching and he had to reach down to scratch it. He wished he’d eaten those cream horns now too since his stomach was rumbling incessantly.
But it wasn’t cream horns Sam dreamed of that night. Instead, he dreamed of being on top of a mountain with his mother and father.
They were on a high trail with the world stretched out like a green chess board beneath them. But he was way behind and much as he tried, he couldn’t seem to get his parents’ attention. Even if he ran he couldn’t seem to catch up. In the end, they disappeared out of sight and Sam was alone in that high place.
Way down below he could see Gran’s bungalow with Troop barking. Slowly he made his way down the mountain towards it. But when he was halfway down, a mist came down out of nowhere and engulfed him. It was a cold and damp mist that seemed to suck the heat out of his bones and he began to shiver. Worse, inside the mist he had no idea of direction or time and all he could do was wander around the mountainside. From somewhere a long way away he thought he could hear Troop barking. But there were other things in the mist too. Whispering things that came and went and sometimes he thought he could feel the touch of very cold fingers on his face. He was very tired but he knew that sleeping on the mountainside in the mist wasn’t a good idea. He tried to listen for Troop’s bark and walked towards it. He seemed to walk for ages. Finally, he got too tired and sat down on the cold mountainside. Maybe it would be okay for him to close his eyes and rest for a moment or two.
Then he felt something warm and wet touch his hand. He leapt up. A big furry head nudged his leg and something wet flicked at his fingers...and, as was the way with dreams, Sam woke up. He was in his bed at Gran’s bungalow and Troop was there licking his outstretched hand. Sam didn’t know quite why but he was suddenly really glad that Troop had come to wake him up. He got up and dressed and looked out of the window.
It wasn’t raining.
But it was Wednesday.