Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 1

Everything was smoke and chaos, as it always was.

"There's another enemy ship behind us!" someone shouted. "Bearing one-seven-five, about seven hundred yards."

"Navy or privateer?" asked a woman's voice.

"Does it make any difference?" asked the first speaker.

"We might be able to reach an accommodation with a privateer. Which is it?"

"Wait… it's navy. I can see the eagle."

"Too bad," said the woman. "Very well, let's try to deal with the one in front…"

"Congreves!" shouted the first voice. "The second ship has Congreves!"

"Man the deflectors," said the woman, calmly. "Helm, full speed, hard to port and down twenty degrees."

I felt the floor move beneath me, and then there was a distant bang, light flared around me and I started to fall…

I woke up, sweating. I'd started having this recurring dream about six months ago, and just lately it had been happening more and more frequently – this was the third time this week. When I woke up I could never remember what happened before the appearance of the second enemy ship, and I still didn't know exactly where I was or who was fighting whom, but the dream always ended with me falling, although I always woke up before I hit the water… assuming it was water I was falling towards, of course.

A couple of months ago I'd mentioned the dreams to the doctor when Auntie Megan had taken me for my annual check-up, but he had just said that vivid or recurring dreams were common enough, especially when a boy was going through puberty, and that I shouldn't worry about it. Dreams, he assured me, don't actually mean anything – perhaps I was worried about failing an exam, or something.

It was good to hear that that sort of dream was common, and that it didn't have a particular meaning. But whatever else I was worried about, it wasn't failing exams. I never failed exams. True, I hadn't yet reached the important ones: the GCSEs were still nearly two years away, and the A levels were four years away, and when you're young four years feels like forever. Auntie Megan says that the older you get, the faster time seems to pass… anyway, I never worried about exams.

There were other things that I might have worried about, though: being only a hundred and fifty-six centimetres tall – or call it just under five feet two, in old money – at the age of fourteen and a half isn't a lot of fun. Dr Daruwala assures me that it's nothing to worry about: after all, I am growing, and apparently plenty of other boys of my age are no taller than I am. It's just that I've never met any of them: all the other boys at school – and most of the girls, come to that – are at least two inches taller than I am. My friends call me Miniman, or just MM, and everyone else calls me Short-arse or something even worse, which I don't like at all. But if I told them I didn't like it they'd just do it all the more, so I keep quiet and make out that I don't care.

Dr Daruwala talks about growth spurts, telling me I'll probably shoot up by fifteen centimetres or so inside six months once mine starts. All I can say is, it can't come too soon.

I got out of bed, went for a pee and looked out of the window. The weather looked okay – it had been a real mixed bag this July and August, with short periods of high temperatures but also lots of heavy rain. I thought about going back to bed because it was only about half past seven, and a Sunday at that, but in the end I decided that since I was awake I might as well go and do something useful, so I got dressed, turned the computer on and opened Facebook.

Yes, all right, maybe my definition of 'useful' isn't everyone's. Auntie Megan certainly doesn't think spending ages on social media is useful: she has her own Facebook page, but she only goes into it now and again and only keeps it open for short periods. But I like to have some idea of what is going on, and today there was a lot of chat about the previous evening's riots. Tottenham isn't that far from here and I wanted to see what people were saying about it.

I jumped about between Facebook and a few other sites until Auntie Megan called me downstairs for breakfast, and after breakfast I decided the weather was too good to hang around indoors, so I texted my friend Alex to meet me in the park, grabbed my football and went to do some practice.

Probably the fact that I'm not bad at football is what keeps me from being classified as a loser at school. In all other respects I belong with the losers: I get good marks for most subjects, I play chess, and of course physically… right. But because I was in the Year Nine school team last season and have already need told I'm in the Year Ten team from September the other boys seem to reckon they can ignore the geeky stuff and just treat me as normal. Even one of two of the girls have dropped hints that they might be interested, though Alex reckons they just want to mother me, and I think he might be right. There's no danger of me finding out, though – I have no intention of going out with any of them.

I have asked Dr Daruwala how long it's likely to be before I start growing where it matters, and he said it's already started. I said "You could have fooled me," and he gave me a lot of stuff about my balls growing and there being a bit of hair down there as well, and there is, though you need a magnifying glass to see it… In any case, any girl who saw me naked would fall about laughing.

If I'm completely honest I don't feel like going out with girls anyway. It's not just the lack of confidence that comes from being small for my age: I just don't want to get into the whole relationship thing. From what I've seen, it causes more trouble than good. Oh, sure, it's great while you're going out together, but after you break up it often seems to turn nasty – ex-couples posting evil stuff on each other's Facebook pages or dissing each other by Tweet and stuff. I don't want to get into that at all (I can just imagine what an angry girl might post about my genitals) and I reckon if you wait until you're older, probably you can be more mature about breaking up.

Alex says he feels the same way. He's a lot better-looking than me, as well as being four inches taller and a lot more muscular, and he has curly black hair and blue eyes, a combination that I think looks really good (I've got boring straight light brown hair and dull brown eyes), and I know that some of the girls are interested in him from the comments that get made. He knows how to chat to them enough to keep them happy without it actually leading anywhere, but he's told me he finds them boring and reckons that going out with any of them would be a waste of time and money. I asked if he's saving himself until he meets the perfect girl, and he laughed and said that there was no such thing.

He was waiting for me when I got to the park – he lives just outside the park gates. Because this was still the beginning of August they hadn't put the goalposts up again yet, but there are plenty of places around the edge of the park where you can use the perimeter fence as a goal, so we found a suitable place and practised placing free kicks for a bit. Alex is a defender, so he doesn't really have to be able to do this in matches, but he reckons working on his accuracy will improve his passing skills, too. I said that I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen him actually pass at all - whenever he gets the ball he usually just boots it upfield as hard as he can. So he grabbed me, tripped me up and then sat on my chest and rapped his knuckles on my forehead until I apologised.

"It's true, though," I persisted, once he let me up. "And you don't need to, because you've just proved you can pass decently. So why don't you?"

He shrugged. "I don't want to balls it up, I suppose. Yeah, hoofing it upfield isn't clever, but it's safe. If I passed it straight to their number nine I'd get torn to shreds."

"Yes, but you wouldn't," I insisted. "Well… not every week, anyway."

He threatened to come after me again, but instead suggested that we go round to his to get something to drink. While we were there we turned on one of the 24 hour news channels and watched coverage of the previous evening's rioting in Tottenham. There was film of a massive shop on fire, and then of people breaking into shops in Wood Green, which is only about two miles away from here, and looting them. Then back to Tottenham and more fires, including a double-decker bus.

"Now that's scary," commented Alex. "I'm glad I don't live on a main road."

"Me, too," I said. "Sometimes not being too close to the shops is a good thing."

I got shooed out of the house shortly after that: Alex's parents believe in having a proper sit-down Sunday lunch where people actually share a meal at a dining table and talk to each other. We do that sometimes when Uncle Jim is at home, but he's a long-distance lorry driver and he's often away at weekends, and when he's not with us Auntie Megan and I usually just eat off trays in the living room, especially if there's something worth watching on TV. Actually I like the idea of a more formal meal, but I wouldn't want to eat like that at Alex's house too often because he's got a nine-year-old sister and she just can't stop talking, even with her mouth full – at least, that's what Alex says.

A couple of hours later he texted me to suggest going swimming, so I met him at the bus stop on the main road and we caught the bus up to the pool in Southgate. I thought it might be busy, but there seemed to be very few people about when we got to the changing room, and so once I was in the cubicle I took my time about getting changed, folding my clothes up before putting them in my bag. Alex obviously hadn't done anything of the sort, because a couple of minutes after I'd closed the door it popped open again – those locks are useless because they can be opened from the outside using a coin or something – and Alex stuck his head in, catching me butt-naked.

"Aren't you ready yet?" he asked, grinning at me.

"No," I said, over my shoulder – at least I'd had my back to the door when he opened it. "Now go and wait outside."

"Nice buns!" he observed, grinning even more.

"Get lost," I replied, scrabbling for my swim shorts. I try to avoid swearing, but sometimes Alex makes that extremely difficult.

We swam for about an hour and a half, which was as long as we were allowed: the pool limits the time you can stay in, at least in the school holidays. We went back to the changing room and got dressed – and this time I made sure I was standing right against the door to stop it opening, just in case Alex tried bursting in on me again. I mean; he's my best friend, but that doesn't mean I want him taking the Mickey out of my body. It's bad enough with him making comments about my height without him going on about the size of my penis, too.

We caught the bus back down to Palmer's Green, and about two minutes after we got off the bus we ran into Danny Carmody and his sidekick Joe Silver. They're in the same class as us at school. Joe's okay, but Danny is one of those kids you'd prefer to be in someone else's class. He's not a bully as such – at least, not physically – but he has got a very loud mouth.

"Look, Joe," he said. "It's Bubble and Pipsqueak!"

It had taken me a while to learn about Cockney rhyming slang when I first moved here about three years ago. Most of it isn't really used any more except by writers of EastEnders scripts, but the word 'Bubble' is still common enough, especially in this area. It's short for 'Bubble and Squeak' which is rhyming slang for 'Greek'. Alex is Greek, but then so is a lot of the local population, and probably at least a quarter of the kids in our class have Greek parents – which is probably why Danny wouldn't risk using the word at school. Okay, calling someone a Bubble is probably less offensive than some racist words, but I don't think Alex liked it much.

As for calling me 'Pipsqueak', well, obviously I didn't like that either, but there's not a lot I could have done about it. Besides, it's true that I'm short and that my voice hasn't broken yet, just as it's true that Alex's parents come from the Greek half of Cyprus, so perhaps it was best just to let it go.

"You see the news?" Danny went on. "Man, I wish I'd been down Wood Green last night. The Feds was so busy in Tottenham there was nobody in Wood Green. People was just walking away with laptops, home cinemas, all that stuff. So tonight we're all going up Enfield – there's gonna be some good stuff just begging to be picked up! I'm gonna get an iPad, and then my little pet Jew is gonna sniff me out some diamonds and a Rolex – aren't you, Joey?" And he slapped Joe on the back hard.

I really don't know why Joe puts up with it. I suppose he's scared that Danny will give him a kicking if he doesn't, but I don't think I'd put up with all the casual racism and slapping about that he goes through. Maybe he's just one of those people who has bad luck all the time – after all, if his house was fifty yards further up the road he's be in another catchment area and would go to school in Southgate instead, where probably a majority of the kids are Jewish, and then he wouldn't get picked on. And if he had been born better-looking, maybe he'd have more friends – but instead the poor bastard is just plain ugly, and having a bad haircut is just the icing on the cake. He's probably pathetically grateful that Danny talks to him at all.

Anyway, Joe just made some non-committal noise, the way he usually does when Danny insults him.

"So – what about it, Alex?" persisted Danny. "Come with us, man – you've been saying for ages you need new trainers."

"That's true," said Alex. "You really reckon it would be that easy?"

"Sure! There's people on Facebook saying there's gonna be hundreds there, so even if the Feds do show it'll still be easy. Besides, word is they're gonna hit the big superstores first, so that should draw all the filth out of the town centre. Come on, man, it'll be a laugh!"

"Where are you meeting?" asked Alex.

"Class! We're gonna get the train from here to the Chase and then walk down. Be at the station at about five-thirty. What about you, Short-arse – you coming?"

"Yeah, why not?" I said.

"Cool – see you tonight, then. And bring some empty bags!"

They walked off, and Alex and I headed back for the park.

"You're not really going, are you?" I asked.

"Well… I dunno," said Alex. "What about you?"

"God, no! I'm not completely insane! Besides, it's just wrong."

"So why did you say yes back there?"

"Because if I hadn't Carmody would have called me a pussy and started making the usual cracks about it being past my bedtime, and stuff like that. You know what he's like. And when we got back to school he'd go on and on about what a pathetic little baby I am. So I said yes, and if he asks me tomorrow why I didn't show I'll tell him Auntie Megan caught me sneaking out and grounded me for the next week or so. Look, Alex, this is just stupid – okay, the police got taken by surprise last night, but it won't happen again. And even if it does, you can't just go about stealing stuff – if everyone did that it would be chaos! Even privateers have a code of honour – this is just anarchy!"

"What's a privateer?"

I stopped. "I don't know," I said. "That just popped into my head. I really don't know… anyway, it doesn't matter. The important thing is that we need to stay at home this evening. Please, Alex – I'm serious!"

"Okay, then," he said. "I guess you're right."

That evening I stayed at home. I sat with Auntie Megan and we watched Men in Black 2 on Channel Five, and then we put the rolling news on and found out that there really had been rioting going on in Enfield that evening and that the police had been expecting trouble and were there in numbers. I didn't much like Danny Carmody, but I found myself hoping for his sake that he'd changed his mind when he saw the police and had slipped off home instead.

Next morning Alex texted me to meet him in the park, so I took my ball and went straight there, only to find that Alex wasn't interested in playing football.

"I went to Enfield last night," he started.

I stared at him. "Are you okay?" I asked. "On the telly it looked as if there were riot cops everywhere."

He nodded. "You were right," he said. "It was stupid to go. Most of the people there early on were older than us, and at first there weren't any cops around, so it started out okay. But then they started smashing their way into shops, and that was really scary. I mean, they didn't just break through the door – I could have understood that – but once they got inside they just trashed everything. And then after we'd broken into this sports shop the police arrived, loads of them, and I really thought we were done for. Joe Silver actually pissed himself, and I thought Carmody was going to, too – he looked like he was going to faint any moment. But then one of the older guys got a fire door open at the back and we all just legged it.

"I don't know what happened to the others after that, but I'd had enough, so I just started walking, and I kept going until I got home. But I'm never going to do that again."

"Good," I said. "And… did you take anything?"

He hesitated, but then nodded, though he wasn't looking at me. "I took a pair of trainers," he said. "But I really wish I hadn't. I just feel like shit about the whole thing. And it's not like I can even wear them, because if my parents see them, or my sis, they'll want to know where I got them. I suppose I could tell them they're a cheap knock-off I got down Walthamstow Market or something, but if you look at them closely it's pretty obvious they're genuine. I suppose I'm lucky I didn't get picked up."

"I suppose so… you did wear your hoodie last night, didn't you? Or at least your cap?"

"Well… no. At least, I wore my cap, but I wore it backwards like I usually do. Why?"

"Please tell me the older kids took care of the CCTV cameras first," I said.

He went pale. "I don't think so."

"And the ones in the shops?"

"You… you think there were cameras inside?"

"Inside a sports shop? I'd be amazed if there weren't."

"But… they'd have turned them off when they closed the shop… wouldn't they?"

"You'd better hope so. But if the police knew there was going to be trouble, maybe the shopkeepers did, too, and then they would have left their cameras on."

"Oh, fuck," he said, quietly. "Shit, MM, I'm fucked, aren't I?"

"Not necessarily. According to the news it went on for ages, and there were supposed to have been hundreds of people involved. As long as you weren't wearing anything really obvious, like a football shirt with your own name on the back, you'd just look like another boy. And it's not like you actually live in Enfield, is it? So how would they know to come looking round here, even if there is a CCTV picture of you?"

"Yeah, but… suppose they do?"

"Then you just say you were at home all evening. But you'll have to get rid of the trainers – and don't just drop them in your bin! Put them in an old supermarket bag, take a bus to some industrial estate at least two miles away, and then just chuck them in a skip when nobody's looking. Or you could probably just leave them sitting on a wall somewhere – I bet some tramp grabs them before they've been there five minutes. Of course, if they're not looking for you that would be a bit drastic, but still… Or if you really feel bad about it you could take them back to the shop and apologise, but that probably isn't a very good idea."

"I'm sure as fuck not going to do that – they'd be sure to call the police. Maybe I should just wait and see what happens, then."

"Maybe. But… God, you really are a dick sometimes."

"I know. I should have listened to you."

"Say it again!"

"I said, I should have listened to you," he repeated.

"Dead right. And you can bet I'll remind you that you said that pretty much every day from now on, especially if you look like doing something else brainless. Come on, let's have a kick-about."

So we played some football, and by the time he went home to lunch he was looking a little bit better.

That night the riots spread all over London: someone burnt down a massive furniture store in Croydon, and even posh places like Ealing got smashed up. Police were having to be brought into London from all over. Then the rioting spread to other cities, and by Thursday morning, when it was starting to look as if things were becoming calm again, Alex said that he was sure the police would never have the time or manpower to try to find everyone who had been involved.

"I still wish I'd stayed at home, though," he admitted. "Every time the doorbell has rung this week I've been crapping myself. If I ever suggest doing something like that again, I want you to kick me in the nuts. "

"It'll be a pleasure," I assured him.

That afternoon he actually phoned me up, which was unheard of – he never seemed to have any credit on his phone for actual calls and relied purely on his free texts to communicate. He told me to meet him in the park right away, and from the tone of his voice it was obvious that something had gone wrong. I more or less ran to the park, and when I got there I found Joe Silver with him. Both of them looked like death.

"Danny's been arrested," Joe told me. "The stupid bastard lost his baseball cap on Sunday night, and it had his name in it. He thought he'd left it on the train, only apparently he didn't and someone found it. He was arrested early this morning, and he'll grass us up, I just know he will. He'd feed his own granny to a bear if he thought it would help him. His mum says the copper who arrested him told her that nobody who gets done for rioting will get bail, so he'll be going to prison – well, Young Offenders' – and he's bound to give them our names if he thinks it'll keep him out of Feltham. So we're screwed. Shit, guys, I don't want to end up in prison… what are we going to do?"

I thought about it, but I couldn't see any way out – at least, not in the long term.

"Will your parents give you an alibi?" I asked Joe.

"Well… I don't know. Maybe not – I think they'd want me to face up to…" He broke off, trying not to cry.

"Alex?" I asked.

"They might, but if you were right about the CCTV it won't do any good, will it?" he asked. "If they've actually got a photo of me in the shop it won't matter what my parents say – or will it?"

I shook my head. "I don't think it will, no," I said. "And even if you didn't take anything, just being inside a shop that has been broken into is sure to make you guilty of something. Sorry, guys."

"Okay," said Alex. "Then I'm off. I'm not just going to sit here and wait to get nicked. I'll just take my tent and sleeping bag, get a train as far out of London as my money will take me and then just camp out in the woods somewhere until…"

"Until what?" I said. "Alex, they're not going to forget about you just because you're not at home the first time they call. They'll just keep coming back until you come home. Hell, you'll have to come back in September anyway when school starts again."

"No, I won't. If my parents tell them I went to Cyprus they'll stop looking."

"They'll check the flight lists and see you're not listed on any plane, or the Eurostar either."

"Well, maybe I caught a ferry to France as a foot passenger, then. You saw the news – there are thousands of people involved, all over the country. They won't have time to keep after me for months on end."

"Even if that's true – and I really don't think it is – what are you going to do for the next umpteen weeks, then?"

"I don't know… but it'll be better than being locked up in Feltham!"

I sighed. "Okay, then," I said. "What do you need?"

"Huh?"

'We're friends, Stupid. How can I help? I've got some cash… or maybe…"

"What?"

"If you're absolutely determined to do this, maybe I should come with you, at least to start with. Except I am going to be here for the start of term, whether you decide to come back or not, okay?"

"But… why would you want to do that? They're not after you."

"Because sticking with your friends is part of the Code."

"What code?"

I thought that was a very good question. What the hell was I talking about? Once again, something had just popped into my head and I'd spoken without thinking about it.

"I don't know what code," I admitted, "but it's still true. You should stick by your friends. If you're going off into the middle of nowhere you'll need someone with you to keep you out of trouble – even more trouble, I should say. So, okay, we're going camping. Let me see… okay, well, we were going to go next week, but because of the stuff that's going on at the moment we thought it would be better to get out of London as soon as possible, which is why we're leaving tomorrow. We're heading for the south coast – at least, that's what your parents think, but actually we'll go somewhere else – East Anglia, perhaps… anyway, we can sort that out later. We'll stay on a proper campsite, though – we'll need to be able to recharge my laptop, so I can keep in touch with Auntie Megan and find out what's going on."

"Can't we use our phones for that?"

"You can be traced using your phone, so we don't take them at all, or if we do we keep the battery disconnected and only use it for a real emergency. We can move about a bit from one site to another. Then we'll just wait and see what happens. What do you think?"

"You're really offering to come with me?"

"I must be mad, but… yes. Unless you snore, in which case I'll be catching the first train home."

"I don't snore."

"Good. And if it turns out that I do, tough."

"I won't say a word. What about you, Joe – do you want to come too?"

That surprised me – I didn't think Alex had a lot of time for Joe.

"Would you let me?" asked Joe, who had just about got himself back under control.

"Why not? There'd be one condition, though."

"I don't snore, either," said Joe.

"No, not that. You'd have to swear to stay away from that dickhead Carmody in future. You can hang with us instead if you want – I'm better-looking than Carmody and MM has a much bigger brain."

"I don't understand why you put up with him in the first place," I said. "He treats you like dirt – why don't you tell him to eff off?"

"It's not that simple," he said. "I was going to try ditching him anyway after this, but… well, there's things you don't know. But anyway, about coming with you…no, thanks. I'm going to talk to my parents and then I'll do whatever they tell me to. I'd sooner get it over with than have it hanging over me. But it's really kind of you to ask me… I didn't think anyone…anyway, thanks. And if you're going to take your laptop with you, I'll keep in touch and let you know what's happening… well, for as long as I can, anyway."

"Thanks, Joe," I said. "That'd be really useful. We'll try to be online about nine every evening, then."

He nodded. "And if they do come for me…" He swallowed. "I'll try to keep your name out of it, Alex – like if Danny's grassed you up and they ask me, I'll say I didn't see you and I don't reckon you were there. Of course if they've got CCTV of you… I'll try saying it looks a bit like you but isn't. It might confuse things a bit."

Then Alex surprised me again, because he stepped forward and hugged Joe firmly.

"If you do that I'll owe you, big time," he said. "Thanks, man."

Joe looked at him, and something unspoken seemed to pass between them, although I might have been imagining that. In any case it only lasted a moment, and then they broke the hug and Joe nodded to us and walked away.

"Tell you what," said Alex, "he's braver than me. So – what do I need to bring, apart from the tent and a sleeping bag, obviously?"

"Not much. If we're going to be staying on a proper campsite there'll probably be a laundrette on site, so you won't need too many changes of clothes. Washing kit, towel… that's probably about it. And bring something to do – cards or your chess set, or something, because unless we do find a place where we can recharge the laptop quickly and often we won't be able to play games on it. We'll need to keep it for email and chat and stuff. What are you going to tell your parents?"

"Well, we were supposed to be going camping next week anyway, so I'll just say we're going a bit early."

"Yes, but we were only going a few miles, and just for a couple of nights. You'll have to tell them something more than that."

"I'll think of something," he said. "What about you? Will you be allowed to just get up and go?"

"I think so. Auntie Megan trusts me - and I trust her, come to that, so I might tell her the truth, or something close to it."

He looked unsure, but then he shrugged. "I suppose you know her best," he said. "Look…do you think I could crash at yours tonight? Joe said they came for Danny at six in the morning, and if I sleep at home tonight… well…"

"Okay, as long as you don't mind sleeping on the floor. You've seen my bed – there's barely room for me in it, and we don't have a spare. We can tell Auntie Megan we want to get away early tomorrow morning, and that'll be easier if we're in the same place to begin with. Come round any time after supper."

I went home, got my bank book and walked up to the bank on Green Lanes, where I withdrew most of my savings. Then I went home again and told Auntie Megan that I needed to speak to her.

"You know Alex and I were supposed to be going camping next week?" I said. "Well, we thought we'd go tomorrow instead. And instead of going up to Waltham Abbey like we were originally going to, we thought we'd go somewhere a bit further away instead."

"Oh. Where?"

"We're not sure yet. Maybe the south coast, maybe East Anglia. And maybe… well, I thought maybe we could go to Wiltshire."

"Oh! Why Wiltshire, darling? It's been three years – surely you realise you're not going to find anything now? Remember how we spent the whole of the half-term holiday there the October after you came to us? We didn't find anything then, so why do you think you will now?"

"I don't, not really," I said. "But I'd like to try. It's not that I'm not happy here – I am, you know that. I'd just like to know, that's all. And even if I do find out anything, I'm not going to do anything without talking to you first."

"Good. Jim and I would hate to lose you… but obviously if you do find anything… well, you know we'll support you whatever you decide. And we'll always be here for you."

"I know. Thanks, Auntie Megan. Anyway, we might not even go that way. I think Alex would prefer to go to the sea somewhere. We're going to talk about it this evening, and we'll tell you what we're doing tomorrow before we go."

"So why the big rush?" she asked. "Why not wait until next week?"

I could have just said that we were bored hanging around here all the time, or that the weather was good at the moment and we wanted to go before it turned nasty, or even the cover story about wanting to get out of London because we were scared of what was happening in the riots. But I didn't like telling lies, especially to Auntie Megan, so I got as close to the truth as I could.

"One of my friends is in trouble," I said. "It'll help him if we leave this week."

"How?"

That was a good question, of course: I could think of no logical reason why Alex and I leaving London could possibly help anyone else.

"Well… alright, it's Alex who's in trouble," I said. "He needs to get away from London for a bit. He was going to go on his own, but I said I'll go with him. It'll be safer with two of us, rather than having him off on his own somewhere, not knowing what he's doing. He's my best friend – I have to do this."

Most parents would have argued. Auntie Megan didn't, and I loved her for that.

"You've always been grown-up for your age," she told me. "You're old enough to make your own choices, and I've never yet known you do anything dishonest or dishonourable, so… go, if you think it will help your friend. But I want you to stay in touch, and if you need us, call, understand?"

"I will. Thanks, Auntie Megan." I went and gave her a hug, and then went up to my room to do some planning.

By the time Alex came round after supper I had a plan of sorts, and I'd even found us a campsite. I couldn't actually book it because obviously I haven't got a credit card and I didn't want to use Auntie Megan's, but the owner assured me he had spaces available.

"Tomorrow morning we're heading for Wiltshire," I told him. "I know I talked about the south coast and East Anglia earlier, but that was because Joe was there. If he does let anything slip…"

"He won't," Alex assured me. "Joe isn't Carmody – he'll say nothing."

"Well, okay, but we're covered anyway. And we're going to lay a false trail that way too, just in case. Then we'll head west."

"Yes, but why Wiltshire?"

"If we're going to be stuck somewhere for a few days I'd like to do something useful. I mean, you know how come I live with Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim, don't you?"

"Because they adopted you?"

"Yes, and I was really lucky that they did, because most people who want to adopt are looking for much younger kids. I was eleven, which is usually too old. Of course, I was small for eleven, and I looked cute back then, according to Auntie Megan…"

"You still look small and cute," said Alex, smirking at me.

I gave him the finger and carried on.

"The other problem was that nobody knew where I came from. This farmer found me asleep in his barn. I'd got a cut on my head, two cracked ribs and had bruises all over, and I couldn't remember anything at all about who I was or where I came from. They tried really hard to trace my parents: they took samples and searched through the DNA database, they checked my footprint and fingerprints, they searched through dental records, but they didn't find anything. I could still read and write and add up and stuff, but I couldn't remember anything personal. My clothes were badly ripped up, but they didn't have any labels in, so that was no good to them, either. They reckoned I'd been in a serious car crash to get like that, but there was no record of one within thirty miles of where they found me. And in the end they gave up and parked me in a children's home, and that's where Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim found me.

"Later that year they took me back to Winterbourne Stoke in Wiltshire – that's where the barn was – and we drove about for four or five days, hoping something would jog my memory, but nothing did. But I thought if I can walk around the area a bit, maybe I'll see something I'd have missed in the car, and so that's what I want to do this week – if you're okay with that, of course."

"Sure. Listen, I'm happy to do whatever you think will help. It must be weird to have no memories before you were eleven years old."

"Ten," I corrected. "I was adopted at eleven, but I was found when I was ten. They know how old I was because the only thing I was carrying when they found me was this."

I dug my pocket-watch out of a drawer and handed it to Alex, and he took it, admired the engraving of the leaping lion on the cover, and then opened it and read the inscription on the inside.

"'On your tenth birthday, January 7th 2007'," he read.

He examined the watch closely. "Strange that there's no name," he observed. "Normally it would say something like 'To Alex, for his tenth birthday,' or something."

"I know, and of course I can't even be a hundred per cent sure that it's mine," I agreed. "But the doctors who examined me agreed that it would be consistent with my apparent age, so I think it probably is mine. It feels like mine, somehow."

"So how did you find out what your name was?"

"I didn't. I have no idea what my name really is. They just called me 'John Smith' at the children's home, and when Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim adopted me I asked them to choose a name for me, so I'm Keith, after Auntie Megan's father, and Lambert, which is their surname. I don't mind being Keith Lambert, but I know it's not my real name. Maybe this week I'll see something or find something that'll help me remember."

We played video games for a bit, went downstairs to watch the news (and apparently the police were saying they expected to make over three thousand arrests in connection with the riots, which didn't cheer Alex up much) and then went upstairs to get ready for bed. Alex dug his sleeping bag and a small inflatable pillow out of his rucksack and put them on the carpet beside the bed, and while he was doing that I got changed into the old pair of shorts I wear in bed when the weather is warm. And when I took my boxers off Alex made another sarcastic comment about my 'cute little bum'.

"If you keep making remarks about my arse I'm going to start thinking you fancy me," I replied, keeping my back to him and pulling my shorts on as fast as I could.

"Fancy you? How desperate do you think I am?"

"I could answer that, but you wouldn't like it. When's the last time you went out with a girl anyway?"

"Jasmine Ball wanted to go out with me at the end of term."

"Jasmine Ball would go out with anyone who has a penis."

"That excludes you, then!"

There was a short, sharp fight, which I lost.

"You didn't actually go out with her, though, did you?" I asked when he let me get up again.

"No. You're right, she's so easy she'd probably go out with Joe Silver if he asked her, and I've got a bit more taste than that. I hope I never get that desperate."

"I'm sure you won't. If the girls in our class had a 'boy I most want to go out with' contest I reckon you'd win by a mile. I'd probably come last… well, okay, I might do better than Joe, but that's all."

"Do you care?"

"Frankly, no," I admitted. "If you ask me again in a year or two I might have changed my mind, but right now I can get by quite nicely without wasting time and money going out with any of them."

"Good. Then I'll be able to keep you all for myself!" He gave me a big grin.

"Oh, joy," I muttered, scowling at him

I got into bed, waited until Alex was in his sleeping bag and turned the light out. Sometimes, I thought, my best friend could be very strange…

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