Home > The Book of Hidden Wonders

The Book of Hidden Wonders
Author: Polly Crosby


   You probably know me: I’m the Kemp Treasure Girl. Maybe you had the books as a child. Perhaps your dad read them to you in those wilting hours of sleep where books become dreams and dreams become books. Did you look for the treasure, digging in your garden, unsure of what you were searching for?

   Mine was an unusual infamy for one so young. Not an all-encompassing, celebrity fame, but one that flattened me into two dimensions and picked out the color of my eyes and my dress. One that stopped people in the street and made their necks crane back round to gaze at me.

   The version of me in the books was my friend. She was always there for me, sharing in my adventures, appearing at the lifting of a page. But children grow up, and as I grew taller and wiser, Romilly Kemp in the book stayed young and innocent, a sickly sweet imposter who wore my dress and demanded my father’s love, leeching it away until there was barely any left for me at all.

   But then I made a real friend. Someone I could trust: someone who knew intimately my deepest, darkest thoughts even if I dared not acknowledge them myself.

   But the beginnings of a friendship are like the beginning of a book: you never know how they will turn out until the very end.



Part One



Chapter One

   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 rain boots, 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 cow pies and slime. In the middle of the water was an old fountain. 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 toward my camp, a sharp whistle brought me back. Dad was stooped in the back door, his huge shoulders 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 leaned 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 me alone.

   I examined his bony body. He was small and soft, and smelled 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 toward 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 okay by me 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 dust sheets over the furniture, and in the corner, a pretty parasol leaned 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 candy 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 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 sweaters, once smart, had started to become holey and smattered with the baked bean juice that he sipped straight from the tin.

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