First 300 words
On a summer’s afternoon in 1965, Adeline dips her sable brush into a glass jar and turns the water inside it pastel blue. The sky whips the fluffiest pavlova clouds and the privet hugs the snowiest flowers. Perched on the tip of a picnic stool and wrapped in a cotton apron, Adeline squints at the meadow ahead and dowses her canvas in green paint.
‘Gooseberries,’ she remembers. ‘I’ve forgotten mother’s blasted gooseberries.’ Adeline sighs. She lays her brush flat on the mixing palette and cracks her knuckles.
A male voice resounds an energetic hello. ‘Afternoon, Adeline. Beautiful day.’
Adeline turns to the voice. A teenage boy plucks his hat from his crown and tips his head from the sun. She would normally reply to such a polite salutation but today her throat is dry from the heat. His uninvited approach turns Adeline’s cheeks a shade of blush pink.
‘Adeline? That is you, isn’t it?’ He strides through the parched grass, pausing at the perimeter of her blanket. ‘Are you all right?’
Adeline wipes her hands on her apron, marking the cotton with a greasy rainbow. ‘Perfectly well Master Dolton.’
He extends his small hand. ‘Call me Henry.’
‘I’m sorry Master Dolton, was there something you wanted?’
Henry fumbles the pair of binoculars swinging from his neck. ‘Nothing in particular. Just passing.’
Realising her rudeness, she washes the paintbrush in the water and stands. ‘Are you looking for something? A bird, perhaps?’
Her desire to talk seems to delight him, and he pulls a pocket-sized book from his waistcoat. ‘This is a Golden Brambling,’ he says and points to a goblin bird.
Adeline squeezes her eyebrows together. ‘I thought those types of birds were a myth?’
‘I did too,’ Henry admits. ‘Can you keep a secret?’
‘I’ve found a Brambling nest in the willow tree—and it’s gold.’
Wearing a clinical white hospital gown and slippers, Thomas glances back at his friends in the hallway. Their encouraging smiles persuade him further along the corridor and into the dark of the governor’s office. He pauses beside a tall grey cabinet and prises his little fingers into the lip of the bottom drawer. One last check behind him.
The coast is clear.
His friend, Siggy, hisses along the corridor. ‘What does it say?’ He is the eldest of the trio and his uncombed hair drips hazelnut spirals over his grey eyes.
Thomas is quiet. He concentrates on the rough green file. ‘Property of the Nord Staatlichen Krankenhaus’ is written in black ink on the cover. He takes from his shoe a packet of matches and strikes a match alight. A small gasp as he reads: Thomas E Wolf. Admitted 03rd December 1965. Clinically suspected poisoning by salt.
He is startled by the fluorescent lights clicking into brilliant white in the hallway and snaps shut the file. He rolls out the drawer, stuffs the file inside, and tiptoes across the office and towards the door. His heart pounds in his ears and thrashes against his chest. Peeping around the wooden door frame, he watches his friends run for their lives. A stretched black shadow of a thick and lumpy shape slicks the corridor floor. Its length grows in the imitation light and passes the place where Thomas listens. With his back flattened against the woodchip wallpaper of the office, he feels the cool leak inside his gown, but the cold, the fear, shares no likeness to the harshness of the nurse.
She stops a fraction from the door. Her musty scent clings to her overalls. Thomas dares not breathe, dares not blink an eye. This is the moment in his life he feared, a moment uncanny and perverse. This is the moment the office is locked and will stay locked for thirty years.