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The Golden Calendar
Chapter One

The beginning of the holidays is always difficult. Even holidays in the country with easy-going aunts take practice, and going to school every day is not good practice. Unless you plan very carefully, things are likely to go wrong and people are likely to ask you to tidy your room or do your holiday homework ‘so that you have got the rest of the holiday free’. Jennifer and Michael had had experience of this kind of thing before and had learnt that the best defence was to have A Plan. The important thing was that the plan should involve something of which grown-ups would approve but which would still leave plenty of flexibility to do what they wanted.

At breakfast, Jennifer said, “Can we go a nature walk? We’ve found a book with a list of flowers to look for in summer. We thought we would see how many we can find in one day.”

“That’s a good idea,” said their aunt. “You could walk along that lane to the old quarry. But don’t go in the quarry, it’s too dangerous.”

Now, it was exactly to the quarry that Jennifer and Michael wanted to go. It was a limestone quarry and one of their friends from last year had told them there were a lot of fossils to be found if they searched in the spoil heaps near the old workings. Brachiopods, tiny creatures like cockles, were easily found and their friend had found a complete trilobite. Trilobites were rather like wood-lice and, while you could often find portions of the creature, whole ones were quite rare. Jennifer and Michael were determined to find one. The knew they would not be allowed in the quarry – someone had been drowned there last year. Luckily, Jennifer had thought it out.

“But it says that some of the flowers are found in places like quarries. There’s something called biting stonecrop that likes dry, rocky places and we wanted to look for it.” Jennifer knew perfectly well that this was growing in several places on the wall along the lane but she knew she had to be reassuring. “It’ll be O.K. There’s a fence round the deep water and we’ll be careful. I’ll make sure Michael doesn’t go near the edge.”

The fence was, in fact, no safeguard at all. It had been put up years ago and had long ago been broken down by mountain bikers doing ‘airs’ in the quarry bottom but she was fairly sure that her aunt would not know that. Of course, her aunt was not deceived by Jennifer’s ploy – she had seen the geology book in Michael’s bedroom – but she was genuinely pleased at the idea of ‘the children doing something useful’ while she got on with the house work.

“You ought to write down where you find the flowers,” she said. “You know, in grass, in the hedgerow, or wherever.”

“Or in the quarry.”

“I didn’t say you could go in the quarry.”

“It’s O.K. We’ll promise to be careful.”

“Well, do take care. And I want you back in time for lunch.”

“So we can do the washing up,” thought Michael, but he didn’t say it out loud. “We could take a picnic,” he said, carefully.

“All right. Find what you want in the pantry.” She decided not to allow them to think they had got away with the deceit. “And if you are thinking of looking for fossils, it might be useful to take that geological hammer from the garage.”

“Fossils?”

“Yes. Fossils. Since when were you two interested in flowers? I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.”

“Sorry.”

“Well, anyway, take care. It really can be dangerous, you know. There’s deep water and, even if you can both swim, it’s not easy in clothes and shoes. For some reason, best known to themselves, your parents want you back – and I don’t want bothering with hospitals, let alone inquests.”

Michael said, “I had to swim in clothes in the life saving class.”

“But not in shoes. Just keep away from the deep water. It’ll be dirty and cold and there’s old machinery which can trap your legs.”

It was obvious that things were going to be all right and Jennifer and Michael felt a bit guilty for having tried to hoodwink their aunt.

At thirteen, Jennifer was the older of the two. She was a tall girl with blonde hair and a happy smile. This made her very pretty. Of course, she didn’t smile all the time because Michael was so much younger and, when you have to look after a younger brother, life can, sometimes, be a bit serious. Adults expect you to be grown up and sensible all the time and to be responsible and to set a good example even if your brother is perfectly capable of looking after himself. Jennifer was not the kind of girl who likes to wear the kind of clothes that parents like girls to wear; she definitely preferred raggedy jeans and fashion boots and floppy jumpers and designer ear-rings and eye-shadow and pop group badges and things like that. Which proves that she was a normal girl and did normal things – which is all the more extraordinary in view of the extraordinary things which happen in this story.

Michael was two years younger than Jennifer. He was the kind of boy who always wants to know things, and he was always wanting to make things and design things. He had lots of brilliant ideas but, unfortunately, lots of these brilliant ideas didn’t work. Of course, when you are eleven, people, especially older sisters, hardly ever take any notice of your ideas anyway and that can be very frustrating. On the other hand, you can be very useful to have around when ideas are needed.

Michael prepared the picnic, a couple cans of orange drink and some chocolate biscuits (“Call that a picnic?” said Jennifer), and put it in a small backpack together with the geological hammer as well as the flower book, a notebook and a pencil (more evidence of having thought ahead) and the two of them set off.

Their aunt waved them off. “And keep out of the tunnels, they’re not safe,” she called.

“Keep out of the tunnels. Keep away from the water. Don’t fall in. Don’t have a good time,” Michael mimicked his aunt’s voice when they were out of earshot.

“It’s just adult talk,” said Jennifer. “She knew we were going to the quarry and she didn’t try to stop us. She’s O.K. really.”

“Would she get blamed if anything happened?”

“I’d be the one to get blamed,” said Jennifer.

“Not if you were dead.”

The lane leading to the quarry was certainly a pleasant place for a walk. It was one of those glorious, bright blue days with fleecy white clouds when all the world feels as if it is having a holiday. But the main attraction was the quarry and the absence of grown-ups.

The entrance to the quarry was badly overgrown and muddy where the ruts made by past lorries had filled with water and been churned up by mountain-bikes. A steel pole across the path was padlocked and might have stopped vehicles from entering but was no barrier to Michael and Jennifer, and they, like the mountain bikers, simply went round the end.

As usual, they spent a few moments jumping up and down on the old weigh-bridge in front of the disused quarry office but, of course, even had its mechanism not been rusted solid, it would not have reacted to anything weighing less than two young elephants. They knew this perfectly well, of course, but everyone jumps on weigh-bridges.

The quarry was not big as quarries go. It was, perhaps, not much bigger than a football field in extent and the man-made cliffs were only a few metres high. Nevertheless, the old workings, interspersed with pathways and spoil heaps covered in brambles, nettles, rosebay willow-herb and gorse were an excellent place to explore. The age-old need of all human beings, whether young or old, to discover new territory took over for a while and, in rapid succession, the quarry became, first, China (the story of Marco Polo had been on television), then cowboy country and, then, Middle Earth. Middle Earth lasted longest but games of this sort do not go on for long and they soon recalled their objective of finding fossils and the importance of making at least some sort of a list of flowers.

The notebook came out and they quickly noted down nettles, rosebay willow-herb, gorse and brambles. They also found, honeysuckle, wild roses, daisies, birdsfoot trefoil and tormentil. This last was the subject of some genuine research in the flower book and, to some extent, helped to allay the feelings of guilt that they had at trying to deceive their aunt. There was biting stonecrop growing on a ruined building but this went unnoticed.

“Come on, I want to find these fossils,” said Michael at last. “After all, that’s why we’ve come.”

“O.K. Over there looks a good place, by that pile of rocks.”

The rocks were lying near the foot of the cliff and were partly covered in loose earth and smaller bits of rock. They were mainly bits of the slaty shale that had been discarded by the quarrymen but the area seemed as good a place as any to start. Michael and Jennifer had seen geologists splitting rocks with a hammer and took it in turns to tap the edges of the rocks. “Really and truly we should have safety glasses so we had better be careful,” said Jennifer. The shale split easily and they quickly found a few brachiopods. Each one was partially embedded in a larger piece of rock but it was quite easy to prise them loose.

“How old did you say they were?” asked Michael.

“Four hundred million years.”

“They look like little sea shells.”

“They are.”

“But we’re miles from the sea.”

“Four hundred million years ago, there was a big sea all around here.”

“How do you know?”

“It says so in that geology book we were looking at.”

“The book might be wrong.”

“Well, how did the brachiopods get here then? That’s one of the ways they know there was sea here. Because of the sea shells.”

“Hmm!”

There were lots of brachiopods but no trilobites. Once, Michael found what might have been part of one (“I think it’s the tail,” said Jennifer) but, whatever it was, it wasn’t very impressive.

“I’m bored,” he said.

“You can’t be bored already. We’ve only just come.”

“Well I am. They’re all the same. Just silly little shells. They aren’t even coloured.”

“Well, of course they’re not. They’re fossils.”

The argument didn’t have time to develop because at that moment, they were distracted by a big, orange butterfly.

“Come on,” said Jennifer, “I want to see what sort it is.”

“It’s a Greater Orange Buttermoth,” said Michael with a grin.

“Don’t be daft. It’s like those fritillaries we saw last year in the Wyre Forest,” Jennifer said. “Except it’s bigger,” she added after a moment.

Michael couldn’t remember going to the Wyre Forest but he wasn’t going to put up with Jennifer’s superior knowledge.

“It’s nothing like those we saw last year,” he said. “It’s totally different. I think it’s a tortoiseshell.”

“Rubbish,” said Jennifer. “Don’t be stupid. It’s much bigger and it’s a different colour.”

The butterfly flew off and, leaving their picnic and hammer on a rock, they followed it along a track, stopping when it stopped and going on when it went on, each time trying to get as close as they could before it moved on to the next flower. Jennifer wanted to study the markings on the wings so they could look it up in the butterfly book when they got home. Unfortunately, each time they felt they were just getting close enough for a good look, and no matter how carefully they tried not to tread heavily and no matter how hard they tried to prevent their shadows falling across the beautiful insect, the butterfly flew on until, eventually, it disappeared amongst the flowers of a buddleia bush growing right up against the cliff. Its beautiful, purple flowers completely covered the bush so that it was almost impossible to see the leaves and the butterfly simply vanished despite its own brilliance.

“Perhaps it’s disappeared,” said Michael.

“Well, of course it has,” Jennifer replied, “if it hadn’t disappeared, we would still be able to see it and then you wouldn’t say stupid things.”

“No. I mean really disappeared. You know, magic or something.”

Michael said this almost to himself as he didn’t want to be laughed at but, really, this did seem the sort of place where magic things ought to happen. But Jennifer overheard him.

“There’s no such thing as magic,” she said.

Really, Michael didn’t think there was either but he did feel like an argument.

“How do you know?” he said. “You often see it on television.”

“That’s not really magic, it’s just tricks. You can see how it’s done if you look carefully.”

“Well, you can’t see how that was done. There’s no-one here, so how do you know it’s not magic? Anyway, if you were magic, you’d probably want people to think it was a trick so that people wouldn’t always be asking you to do things for them. I mean magic things.”

“If people could really do magic things, they’d magic themselves lots of money and not bother going on television,” said Jennifer. “At least I would. I’d magic you away as well and then we wouldn’t have such stupid conversations. Actually,” she went on after a while, “you could think it was magic if you want because in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the queen of the fairies, slept on a bank where there were musk roses and woodbine, and woodbine is another name for honeysuckle, and there are plenty of roses and honeysuckle here. Perhaps if you look hard enough you’ll be able to see her.”

It was clear to Michael that Jennifer was just showing off – he knew she had been doing Shakespeare last term – but he thought it was wisest not to say anything.

While they were talking, they kept on looking for the butterfly. Michael pushed some branches aside and, in doing so, revealed a hole in the cliff face that had been partly blocked by a fallen rock.

“It’s a cave.”

“It’s not a cave. It’s a sort of tunnel. It’s probably where the quarrymen kept the gunpowder or whatever they used for blasting.”

“I’m going in.”

“No, you’re not. Auntie said we were to keep out of the tunnels. They’re not safe.”

Michael knew perfectly well that Jennifer was right but he said, “A quick look can’t do any harm. Why should it fall down now? It’s been like this for years.”

“All the more reason to be careful. Any old pit props will have rotted. You remember what happened in that book we read. They all got trapped when the roof fell in.”

“Well, I’m just going to look inside.”

Michael poked his head through the gap in the rocks. “It’s not a tunnel. It’s a sort of window and there’s a room. There is light coming through a hole in the roof and you can see old equipment. Like Tutankhamun’s tomb. I’m Howard Carter.”

Despite herself, Jennifer said, “Let’s have a look” and, before she could protest any further, Michael squeezed his way inside so as to make room for her.

It really did look completely safe and, putting aside her worry about caves – after all, this wasn’t a cave and had obviously been used as a store – Jennifer followed Michael inside, telling herself that their aunt had only said don’t go in the tunnels. A store room wasn’t a tunnel.

The room was not really all that big – about five metres on each side but it was full of broken tools and empty sacks. Everywhere was thick with dust and spiders’ webs and it was obviously years since anyone had used it. Michael was exploring towards the back of the room but it was Jennifer who noticed the box.

“Look at this.”

It was not very big, about sixty centimetres long and perhaps forty centimetres wide, the size of a medium-sized toy box. It looked very old and was made of a dark-coloured wood, stained with water and with curious carving on the lid. They reminded Jennifer of some ancient runes she had seen on holiday in Scotland. It was not really the sort of thing you would expect to find in the store room of an old quarry. Quarrymen would have used a roughly-made box of cheap wood but, for all the dust and cobwebs, this looked as if it had been carefully and expensively made by a craftsman.

“Is anything in it?” Michael wanted to know. “Perhaps it’s treasure.”

Jennifer tried the lid. “I think it’s locked.”

“Let’s have a go.”

Michael pulled at the lid but it remained stubbornly closed. He tried again, this time using all his strength. Gradually, it responded to his efforts and the lid slowly opened, the iron hinges creaking with the rust of years.

“It’s not a box.”

“What do you mean? Of course it’s a box.”

“No. I mean it’s not a box. It’s a sort of hatchway. There are steps going down”

“How can there be? It’s much too small to get in.”

“It’s not. It’s plenty big enough. And there’s a sort of handrail.”

And as Jennifer leaned over Michael’s shoulder, she, too, got the impression that the opening of the box was expanding until there really was plenty of room to climb in and, even, to walk down the steps.

Michael didn’t seem to notice that this was strange. “I’m going to have a look,” he said and, stepping over the side of the box, he started down into the dark, feeling his way by keeping his hand on the rail.

Suddenly, Jennifer was seriously alarmed. She was sure her aunt would classify the steps as a tunnel or, at least, a tunnel entrance. And how could a small box have suddenly become big enough to climb in? Something was wrong. “Michael! Come back! It’s not safe!”

But Michael was nearly out of sight. “It’s all right. It’s light at the bottom. There must be a way out.”

Jennifer knew it would be safer to go back and she was sure that the adults would expect her to look after Michael and would probably blame her, as the older one, if anything went wrong. “Come back!” she called, but, nevertheless, followed him down the steps.

 
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