The last few notes hung in the air like insects; then they fluttered away and she came back to herself. She realised she had been staring at the ornate ceiling for the entire second half; tracing the lines of the yellow plasterwork with her eyes, following the curvature of the gilded cornice. A tiny imperfection made her pause; a small hole in the plaster shaped like a lizard. She imagined a gecko, jade green and studded with glittering stones, crawling out from its sanctuary in the coving to listen to the music.
‘Excuse me, madam.’
She looked up at the usher in surprise, realising for the first time that the music hall had emptied around her. She mumbled an apology and stood. She heard the cleaning staff laughing as she walked away.
Outside the music hall the sky had just begun to darken, which meant that little electrical pinpricks of light were starting to flicker on all around. The music from the bars had increased in volume, an evening chorus of conflicting sounds. She walked alone through the city, the sights and sounds flowing through her; they were confusing and fascinating. She would not be able to make sense of them until she wrote about them later.
She continued to walk until she reached the quayside. The reflected light on the water hypnotised her momentarily, until a noise behind her brought her from the trance she was in.
‘Hi.’ A young man stood in front of her.
‘Hi,’ she replied.
‘Do you recognise me?’
She stared at him, a little embarrassed. ‘James?’ she said, half guessing. He nodded.
‘Correct. What are you doing here?’
‘I’m just looking at the water.’
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘It’s…odd. Unpredictable. I like it.’
James smiled. ‘Do I dare ask? How the assignment is going?’
She looked away again, ignoring the question.
‘I thought so,’ replied James. ‘You know, they won’t wait forever. You have a job to do. You need to focus.’
‘Alright.’ She turned away from him. A dragonfly buzzed past them, skimming the water. She watched its delicate glide wordlessly.
She had forgotten he was there. She turned back to him reluctantly. He was still smiling.
‘Try to concentrate, Annie. Do you need the address again?’
She nodded, and he handed her a piece of paper. ‘I’ll catch up with you later, okay? Try to have something good to report back to me.’
It was all so confusing. She read the address.
‘How do I find it?’ she asked. James laughed.
‘It’s a good job I like you, Annie. Come on, follow me.’
Annie fell into step behind him obediently. They walked through the busy city, now exchanging the last of its portion of daylight in return for moonlight and glaring artificial illumination. She paused to look at a poster.
‘Come on, we need to go. I’ve others to see too, you know.’
Was he getting annoyed? It was difficult to tell.
‘Right, keep going down that street. When you get to the end, turn right. It takes you in to a cul-de-sac. Your client lives at number 7, okay? Lily.’
The cul-de-sac was dark and silent. There were no electrical lights, and the moon was hidden by dense trees. Annie did not like it. She was about to turn back towards the main road when she noticed a soft glow from one of the upper rooms of a house. She felt compelled towards it.
The room was above a small porch. Without a thought, Annie climbed onto the roof of the large car which was parked next to it, then onto the porch. She looked into the room for just a moment before climbing in through the open window.
The room was painted a soft pink colour and this was reflected by the small amount of light coming from a lamp in the shape of the moon by the bed. The bed was draped in fairy lights and on it was a girl, who was sitting up and looking at Annie warily.
‘Are you Lily?’ asked Annie. The girl nodded.
‘I think I’m supposed to help you, somehow,’ said Annie. She continued to look around the room. There were so many things to see: a tiny brooch in the shape of a sailing ship. A doll’s house with miniature plates and cutlery. Annie began to feel overwhelmed, and sat down for a moment.
‘Who are you?’ asked Lily.
‘I…we help people. I have a job to do. It’s just…I think I came here wrong. I can’t understand it. Any of it.’
‘What is your job?’ asked Lily.
‘I don’t know. They just said I have to help you, and then I can go back. But I don’t know if I want to go back. I like it here. When they leave me alone, anyway.’
‘So, don’t help me. It’s easy.’
‘Don’t you want my help?’
‘I don’t know. I like talking to you.’
The door opened and a woman looked into the room.
‘Who are you talking to, sweetie?’
‘The lady. She came through the window.’
Lily’s mother looked about the room and walked across to the window.
‘I told you, you can’t keep it open. It isn’t safe. And it’s time for you and your friend to go to sleep now. It’s very late.’
She tucked Lily into her bed and kissed her on the head. Then she left, closing the door.
‘I don’t think she saw you,’ whispered Lily, sitting up again. ‘She thinks you’re my imaginary friend.’
Annie was looking at a picture of a cat in a ballet tutu. ‘Why is it dressed like that?’ she asked.
Lily shrugged her shoulders. ‘It’s cute, I suppose. I don’t like it much. Mum bought it for me because I like dancing.’ She yawned. ‘I’m going to go to sleep now.’
‘Do you want me to leave?’
‘Yes, please. But you can come back tomorrow if you like.’
Annie nodded, and left through the window again.
She decided to spend the night in the highest place she could think of: the roof of one of the immense skyscrapers in the centre of town. She waited until the building was almost empty – sharing lifts made her uneasy – and went up to the roof of the building, normally closed off to all but maintenance staff but accessible to Annie. She sat on the wall, watching the dots moving around in swirling patterns.
James found her a few hours later.
‘You’re a funny one, aren’t you Annie?’ he asked. Annie was not sure whether she was supposed to reply, so she did not.
‘So, what happened with Lily?’
‘We talked. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.’
‘You’ll see. They never give you exact instructions. It’ll work itself out.’
‘What if I don’t want to go back?’
James laughed. ‘You’ve got a screw loose, right enough. See you tomorrow Annie.’
There was a family of mistle thrushes nesting on a ledge in the opposite building. Annie had been watching them for weeks. Most of the chicks had gone, now. There was only one left, too timid to follow its siblings. She could hear it crying for food.
She reached into her pocket and retrieved her notebook. She wrote down all the things that had happened that day but all the words seem to tumble into one another. Nothing made sense.
The next night Lily was sitting up in bed, waiting for her.
‘I think I know what your job is,’ she said.
Annie sat beside her, enjoying the feeling of the smooth pink bedlinen under her fingers. ‘What is it?’ she asked, after a while.
‘Why do you like looking at things so much?’ asked Lily.
‘I just do,’ replied Annie.
‘Well, I think you’re here to help me with my brother. I’m getting rid of him.’
Annie looked at the small girl’s face. Was she joking? She wasn’t smiling.
‘That doesn’t sound right. What do you mean?’
‘Everything’s been wrong since he arrived. Mum and Dad started arguing and then Dad left. Now Mum looks tired and unhappy all of the time, because he wakes her up every night. Everything was better before, so I’m going to get rid of him. Will you help me?’
‘Let me think about it,’ said Annie.
‘Alright,’ agreed the girl. ‘But it’s okay if you don’t want to help. Especially if it means you have to go away.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ repeated Annie. She was sitting on Lily’s bed, opening and closing a music box. When it opened a tiny little figure performed a pirouette to a tinkling tune. Intrigued, Annie ripped back the cardboard platform to reveal the mechanical apparatus beneath.
‘Hey! Don’t do that!’ cried Lily. ‘You’re breaking it!’
Annie dropped the box in alarm, and it fell with a loud clunk. ‘I’m sorry!’ she said, standing up. ‘I didn’t mean to break it, I was just looking.’
Lily snatched the music box back up off the floor.
‘I think you should leave now,’ she said.
Annie ran to the window and climbed out, tears prickling behind her eyes. As she left she heard Lily’s mother exclaim: ‘Lily! The window’s open again! How many times?’
Annie ran until the city was just shapes on the horizon. Then she slowed to a walk until she came to a large church. The door was locked, but it opened for Annie. She sat on a rear pew and cried, softly.
‘What’s wrong, child?’
An elderly man in a priest’s cassock was approaching her. She didn’t answer but he sat beside her anyway.
‘I’m Father Martin,’ he said. ‘I might be able to help, you know.’
‘I doubt that,’ said a voice from the back of the church. The priest looked up, surprised. It was James.
‘That’s my sister,’ he said. ‘She’s not quite right in head, but we love her anyway, don’t we Annie?’
Annie drew her knees towards her forehead, making herself into a tight knot. She closed her eyes.
‘Is she alright?’ asked the priest.
‘That depends on your definition of alright. But I’ll look after her.’
The priest looked troubled, but he said: ‘Okay then. I’ll let you talk. I’ll be in the vestry if you need anything. Will that be alright, Annie?’
Annie did not answer. The priest left, reluctantly.
James sat backwards on the pew in front of Annie.
‘What is it this time?’ he asked. Annie did not answer.
‘Well, whatever it is, you’re going to have to get over it. They’re getting impatient, and frankly Annie, so am I. You need to do your job.’
Annie was tracing a carved rose on the pew with her fingertip. James grasped her shoulder and shook her.
‘Wake up, Annie. Do you know what they will do to us if you don’t do your job? To both of us?’
Annie shook her head. ‘I think I know what I’m supposed to do, now,’ she said. ‘But I’m not sure I’ve got it right.’
‘Trust your instinct,’ advised James. ‘But whatever it is, do it soon.’
The next day Annie returned to Lily’s house at the usual time.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, when she saw the little girl. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘I’m sorry too,’ said Lily. ‘But are you sure you want to help me? I don’t want you to have to leave.’
‘I think I have to,’ replied Annie. ‘I think that’s why I’m here. Do you want me to take your brother away now?’
‘You can’t yet. He’s with Mum, downstairs. I have a plan. If you come back tomorrow morning I’ll show you.’
‘Is it okay if I stay here?’ asked Annie. ‘I’ll be quiet, I promise. I like it here.’
‘Alright,’ agreed Lily. ‘How come Mum can’t see you?’ she asked. ‘Are you a ghost?’
Annie shook her head. ‘I don’t know, exactly. But I’m not the same as you. And if I don’t want someone to see me, they don’t.’
‘That’s weird. Are you a fairy?’
‘What’s a fairy?’
‘Probably not then. Come on, let’s go downstairs. Just make yourself invisible.’
Annie didn’t want to go downstairs. She liked Lily’s room; it felt safe. But she followed the small girl because Lily had asked her to.
The downstairs of Lily’s house was, to Annie’s eyes, grey and uninteresting. All of the shapes were too big, the colours too uniform. Lily’s mother was asleep on a large black sofa with a small boy on her lap. When Lily entered the room, the boy sprang up and ran to her on unsteady feet. Lily brushed past him and went to her mother.
‘Mum, I’m thirsty.’
Lily’s mother sat up. ‘Go and get yourself a drink, then,’ she said, crossly.
‘Can you get me one please?’ asked Lily. ‘I’m tired.’
‘No, Lily. You can get your own. I’m tired too. Oscar woke up five times last night. Oscar, what are you looking at?’
Annie was crouching in front of the small boy, who was smiling widely. She tried smiling back but it didn’t feel right, and the little boy’s smile faded.
Annie spent the night wandering the house, while Lily slept. She stood over Lily’s mother’s bed for a while, watching as she slumbered fitfully. Every time Oscar woke Annie held him until sleep returned.
The next morning when Lily went into her mother’s room and woke her, Lily’s mother smiled. ‘He slept all through the night!’ she said.
After breakfast Lily announced she was going to play with Oscar in the garden.
‘Alright, but be careful with him,’ replied her mother.
The three of them played a chasing game for a while, before Lily said: ‘Come on. Follow me.’
She moved aside a loose fence panel. ‘Mum doesn’t know about this,’ she said. ‘Come on.’
Annie took Oscar’s hand and they left the garden, into an overgrown field full of long spears of meadow fescue and rye grass. Annie picked one of the stalks and ran her fingers along it, releasing the seeds into the air.
‘Come on!’ called Lily, impatiently. ‘It’s over here.’
At the end of the field was a small fishing lake. Lily began stripping off her outer garments.
‘Come on. Let’s go swimming, Oscar.’
The little boy began to copy his sister and when they were undressed the two of them began to wade into the water.
‘Are you coming?’ asked Lily.
Annie had never been swimming. She took off her shoes and put a toe in the water. It was cold, but Annie didn’t mind. She began to wade in.
The water became deep very quickly. Annie was enjoying the sensation of the icy water on her body and immersed herself entirely. She found she knew how to swim; she began to glide effortlessly through the muddy water. It was peaceful beneath the surface and she could see all of the dark, hidden things at the bottom of the lake, the creatures which were not meant to be visible. A shoal of tiny fish swam all around her; a dragonfly nymph stalked the lake bed like a fairy-tale monster.
She noticed Lily’s legs a short distance away, and saw that she was holding Oscar under the surface of the water. Annie swam over and pulled Oscar from her grip. The small boy was not swimming: he was not moving at all. Annie held him close and swam back to the surface. The world exploded back into Annie’s consciousness in a confusion of noise and light. Lily’s mother was shouting.
‘Who are you? What happened?’
Annie laid Oscar down and his mother began pushing on his chest, and weeping. After a moment the boy coughed up some water.
Lily returned from the lake. ‘You said you’d help me,’ she said, accusingly.
‘Who are you?’ Lily’s mother asked again. ‘And what were you doing in the lake with my children?’
Annie felt frightened. She stood, and began to walk away, ignoring the shouting behind her.
James found her later that evening, at the top of the old clock tower.
‘You smell interesting,’ he said. ‘You did the job, then?’
Annie ignored him.
‘We can both go now,’ said James. ‘Yours was the last one on my list.’
‘I don’t want to go. I like it here.’
‘Why do you like it here, Annie? You spend your time alone. You’ve said yourself you don’t understand any of it. Why do you want to stay?’
When Annie did not reply, James left. Annie watched through the narrow window as he walked further away, eventually becoming another little ant among all of the others on the city street. She spent that night looking at the city; at the patterns made by the headlamps of cars performing the same dance again and again. At the stumbling pedestrians swarming around the streets throughout the night; at the fluttering insects which were drawn, like her, to the light.
She watched it all and knew that there was still more to see. She would have to stay.
A small mistle thrush landed on the window ledge. Annie wondered whether it was from the nest she had been watching; perhaps it was the one who had been reluctant to leave. Maybe it too liked to return to places which made it feel safe.
Then the bird took off again and she watched it glide into the air, performing graceful arcs and loops against the grey sky. Finally the bird was just a dot in the distance, and then it was gone.