Today we publish Polly Crosby’s beguiling, magical debut The Illustrated Child in paperback! Order your copy now, and start reading with this exclusive first chapter extract below.
Braër was an ancient farmhouse. A month of living there had still not unearthed a fraction of its secrets.
As I ran from the house, tugging on unfamiliar wellies, I stared up at its mossy roof and dirty walls. Dad told me that it had probably once been called Brother Farm, but time and the soft Suffolk accent had changed it.
The house itself was long and low and surrounded on three sides by a moat clogged with cowpats and slime. In the middle of the water was an old fountain, and perched atop it was a gargoyle with a sinister, winking face. It ogled me as I ran past, its eyes bulbous and staring.
On the south side of the house, down an overgrown path, stretched a bumpy meadow filled with sagging grass. It was the perfect base for my newly invented invisible army, and the edge of my territory. I could go there on my own, making pretend campfires and having sword fights with prickly bushes, knowing that I was safe, even though I could barely see the house above the long, scratchy grass.
As I set off down the path towards my camp, a sharp whistle brought me back. Dad was stooped in the back door, his huge shoul- ders nearly touching the frame on either side. Something small and snow-like was curled up in his open palm.
‘What is it?’
‘I wanted to draw one, so I thought, why not?’ he said, planting
the tiny kitten into my eager arms, and suddenly it was mine. ‘It’s a Siamese,’ he said, wiping his hands on his trousers, leaving a snail’s trail of white fur on the corduroy.
‘Is it a girl or boy?’ I asked, trying to look through the fur at the correct place.
‘A boy.’ Dad crouched down, looking at me as I hugged the kitten. Briefly he reached forward and touched my cheek, and I leant into the roughness of his hand.
‘Yes,’ he said to himself, his voice a growl of love, ‘it’s that look in your eyes, right there that I want to capture.’ He straightened up, his knees creaking. ‘I’m going to need to paint him. And you, of course. I have an idea…’ he trailed off. Frowning at me, he turned on his heel and entered the house, leaving the kitten and I alone.
I examined his bony body. He was small and soft, and smelt of wee and sawdust. He had pale creamy fur tinged with chocolate brown at each edge. As I was studying him, he uncurled himself, tipping off my arms, towards the moat below us. I caught him by the tail just in time, tucking him back safely into the crook of my arm. He opened his eyes for the first time and stared at me with big, red-blue irises. He was hot and slightly sticky-damp in my hands, and I loved him immediately.
I balanced him on my shoulder and made my way up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom, filling the kitten in on the minutiae of our lives.
‘Dad lost his university job ages ago, and he’s been trying to work out what to do with himself ever since,’ I said, tickling him under his chin as I ran up the second staircase; the tiny, windy one that Dad was forever tripping up on. ‘He says we’ve moved here so he can paint instead of teach art. It’s the summer holidays, and I’m going to be nine soon, and Dad says he might have to give me a painting instead
of a real present for my birthday, but that’s OK because his paintings are like stories made real. He says someone has to make some money, or we’ll be living on bread crusts and moat water, so I thought I might sell some stuff outside the house. I found some nice pebbles and I tried to paint them, but I’m not very good at painting. So I wrote poems on them instead, but I’m not very good at poems either, so I dropped them in the moat. Here, this is us.’
I pushed open the three-foot-high door that marked the entrance to my vast bedroom.
The kitten perked up as we climbed through into the huge, bright space. It was the shape of a tent, one of those old-fashioned tents – a huge triangle. And it felt like a tent too: when it was windy outside, the air caught beneath all the beams and vibrated until you felt like there was nothing but thin canvas between you and the sky.
When Dad had first shown me my room, I spent the entire day in there, not daring to believe all this space belonged to me. There were dustsheets over the furniture, and in the corner, a pretty parasol leant against the wall as if the young lady it had belonged to had left it there only moments before. The first time I opened it, it showered dust all around me, and I walked the length of the room, holding it above my head in a sedate manner, pretending I was as posh as its previous owner.
I tipped the kitten onto the bed, and studied him. ‘You look like someone important,’ I said, ‘and important people have long names. How about Captain Montgomery of the Second Regiment?’ Montgomery seemed satisfied with his name, and curled up happily on the quilt.
On that first night his mews pierced my dreams. He wrapped his pulsing little body about my head on the pillow, and I found him in
my dreams too, popping into existence in the middle of a sweet shop, then a flowery meadow, the little bell on his collar rattling shrilly, announcing his arrival and preceding his loud meow.
On waking the next morning, he followed me round the house, and Dad soon joined us, stooping to sketch us whenever we stopped, wiping his dark hair out of his eyes and grasping his stubby pencil, his knees creaking as he crouched down to get a better angle of us.
Dad’s love of drawing had always been a part of him, but since we had moved to Braër it had become an obsession. His fingers, when they stroked the fringe from my face late at night, had the sharp tang of pencil lead on them, and the skin of his face had echoes of paint and pastel, especially under his eyes, where he had rubbed them so often in frustration. I had the feeling that moving to such a ramshackle house had made Dad start to go ramshackle too. His jumpers, once smart, had started to become holey and smattered with the baked bean juice that he sipped straight from the tin.
It was only by the end of the second day of kitten ownership that I managed to shake Dad off, creeping back to hide in my bedroom, the little cat on my shoulder. I shut the door quietly so as not to let Dad know where we had gone. I needed to show Montgomery something secret. In the middle of my bedroom, concealed beneath my bed, was a special floorboard. Below it, in the small dark vacuum, were my favourite things: a musty snail’s shell, a rusty bolt with a star-shaped end that I’d brought from our old house, and my most treasured possession: a shiny yellow coin that I had found three days ago in the middle of the meadow, which might or might not be real gold. It had a funny-shaped man’s head on one side, and he was wearing a crown a bit like Jesus. I put the coin between my teeth and bit down on it like I’d seen pirates do, but my tooth, which was a bit wobbly, shot with pain. I spat the coin back into the hole and sat, tonguing
the tooth so that it spun-danced in my mouth. Montgomery, growing disinterested, squatted nearby, releasing a flurry of wee that trickled into the cracks between the floorboards.
Later, in the slumbering twilight hours of my bedtime, when my tired mouth could no longer accommodate the syllables of my new kitten’s name, Montgomery was condensed down to Monty, and then just Mont. I held him close and inhaled his buttery smell.
I lay back, eyes half closed, listening hard for the battalion of soldiers that left the meadow at night to keep their march on the stairs. Their marching tonight was soft, as if their feet were clad in slippers. They condensed into one soldier, a bearded, paint-covered soldier that melted into the form of my dad as he sat on the edge of my bed. ‘Sorry for hiding,’ I mumbled, turning my cheek so it nestled into the soft corduroy of his leg. I felt his hand on my head. It was big
and heavy. I liked it.
‘Your hair is awfully tangled; it feels like a bird’s nest.’ ‘I’d quite like a bird to nest in my hair.’
‘Then we shall leave it be. What story shall I tell you tonight, daughter-mine?’
‘The one about the Rabian Nights.’
Dad’s stories were full of colour even though he never had any pictures to go with them. You could smell the hot, spicy night air and the sweating horses as they galloped across the sand. Mont jumped from my neck and landed with a soft thud on the bed. As he began the story, Dad ran a hairy finger along the length of Monty’s tiny spine, exploring the kitten’s bones as he spoke of strange fruits and spiky plants, turbaned men and glittering jewels. I closed my eyes and I was there, a bearded man with tattooed skin and dark eyes swooping in at me amidst a cloud of fragrant air.
Dad leant forward and kissed me, first on my forehead, and
then on the little mole on my cheek. He left me dozing quietly, my mind on flying carpets and dancing snakes. When he had gone, I opened my eyes and scooped Monty up, wrapping him round my head like a turban, his tail covering my face. My finger inched its way under the floppy skin of his belly to stroke the soft bump of the mole on my cheek, and the light beyond Monty’s fur flickered out as my eyelids closed.
The Illustrated Child is out now in paperback! Available here.