Where Terry limped, Clive flew. Clive, torturer of newts, was what was popularly known as a "gifted" child. If his parents had been nuclear scientists or Oxbridge dons, this "gift" might have seemed less like a curse to his father Eric, who toiled on the assembly line at the Humber works, and to his mother Betty, who served part-time in the local Co-op, slicing bacon and stacking shelves.
Tolerating aggressive correction from anyone younger than oneself is difficult at any time, but Clive's habit of improving his parents' imperfect store of knowledge began when he was four years old, shortly before the time Terry lost two of his toes to a pike. By the time Clive went to school it was widely trumpeted that he could read the daily newspaper. Whether this meant that, like most adults, he dipped into the tabloids every morning while only half awake, or that he scrutinized the quality broadsheets from political comment to sports report and then completed the crossword before breakfast, was not known but by the time he was five he was said to read newspapers.
At six he entered a competition run by NASA for schoolchildren. Yuri Gagarin had completed the first space orbit; John Glenn was accomplishing similar things for the Americans; and NASA was consulting six-year-olds in the English industrial Midlands about its space program. How such a competition ever came to Clive's attention at that age is a mystery in itself, but schoolchildren were invited to suggest experiments which might be conducted by presumably bored astronauts as they orbited the planet. Clive suggested that they take spiders into space to see if the condition of weightlessness affected the spinning of webs. NASA went for it.
Because he won the NASA competition, CLive and his parents were to be flown to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of the next manned space flight. His picture appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, looking owlish beside a huge spider's web. What was celebrity in the adult world was the worst kind of notoriety in the school playground. At school he was promptly dubbed "Spiderboy" and kicked by every kid in the yard. He hated the nickname, letting fly a punch in the mouth to anyone who used it on him, and was dealt a few punches in the mouth by way of return.
It was while they were walking home from school one afternoon--Terry, Clive and Sam, led by Terry's older cousin Linda--that Clive gave sam the dig in the mouth which loosened the milk tooth that was to go on to cause so much confusion.
"Spiderboy!" Sam had said, for no apparent reason.
Clive fisted Sam on the jaw, motivated more by habit than by genuine outrage.
Sam stopped dead in his tracks. Clive, expecting a scuffle, did too. Terry drew up short. "What is it?"
Sam spat a milk incisor, slightly bloodied at the root, into his hand.
"Soz," said Clive, genuinely horrified at what he'd done. They were, after all, friends. "Soz."
"It's all right," said Sam a little shakily. "It was already loose."
Cousin Linda, always ten yards ahead, permanently mortified at having to wet-nurse three small boys, exhorted them to catch up.
"Put it under your pillow," Terry said. "Get a tanner from the Tooth Fairy."
"There's no evidence to suggest," Clive said, "that Toot Fairies actually exist."
"Every time I lost one I got sixpence," Terry shouted.
"But what did you get when you lost your toes?" Clive argued. "Nothing."
"I got five quid in a bank savings book. Five quid."
"That was from your dad," Sam said. "It's different. Tooth Fairies aren't interested in toes. And, anyway, the pike had the toes."
"Five quid!" Terry was hurt. The pike episode had left him with a limp.
"There is a way to find out," Clive insisted. "Put it under your pillow, but don't say anything to your mum or dad."
"What are you shouting about?" Linda wanted to know when they caught up with her.
"Sam's tooth fell out," Clive said quickly.
"Is there such a think as a Tooth Fairy?" Sam asked.
Linda quickly redefined the distance between her and the knot of small boys. "Just don't swallow it. Otherwise a tooth tree will grow in your stomach."
"What?" the three boys said at once.
"A tooth tree," she called over her shoulder. "Growing in your gut."
Sam kept his fist tightly closed over the tooth, as if some malignant spirit might want to twist his arm up and force the tooth back into his mouth. He was silent the rest of the way home.
Sam never mentioned the incisor to either his mother or his father. If they thought he was particularly quiet that evening, they reserved comment. In any event, Sam was considered a distracted boy, given to self-absorption and daydreams and unnatural fits of staring.
"Miles away," his mother Connie would often remark. "Miles away. Do you think the boy is autistic?"
"Autistic?" Nev lowered his Coventry Evening Telegraph. "What's autistic?"
Connie tried to recall something she'd read in a magazine. "Well, sort of miles away all the time."
Nev didn't believe in anything he couldn't pronounce. He regarded his son watching television, his own features wrinkling in rough assessment. Sam, always aware of the way in which they talked across him, pretended not to hear.
"Nah," said his father, retreating behind his paper.
That night Sam examined the tooth by the light of his bedside lamp. The ivory peg was stained slightly yellow near the root. The ring of dried blood around the base reminded him acutely of the sensation of it popping from his gum. It was a pain-shaped bloodstain. With his tongue Sam probed the hole the tooth had left behind in his gum. It was identically pain-shaped. He switched off his bedside lamp and slid the tooth under his pillow.
Some hours later he was awoken briefly by his parents coming to bed. His mother looked in on him. Only semiconscious, he was dimly aware of her tucking in the blankets and smoothing his pillow. He rolled over and went back to sleep.
In the middle of the night he woke up feeling stiff with cold. His bedroom window was wide open to the dark of night, and a breath of wind lifted the curtain. The faint crescent of moon offered a little light but no comfort. The breeze brought on its wings a strange odor, familiar yet difficult to identify. It was a composite of smells, among which was that of grass after rain. Yet it hadn't been raining.
Something was wrong. Sam sat upright in bed.
Someone was in the room.
His skin turned inside out like a glove. He blinked at the web of darkness. His white shirt, ready for school next morning, was draped over the back of a hard chair. It floated in the gloom. He stared hard at the shirt. A figure was crouched in shadow behind the chair. The shocking stillness of the room wanted to blister and peel back like a layer of skin.
"I know you're there. I can see you."
The figure stiffened slightly.
Sam was afraid, but deep within his fear he felt curiously composed. Still his voice quavered. "It's no use hiding. I know you're behind the chair."
The figure expelled a brief sigh. Sam couldn't distinguish anything behind the draped shirt. Burglar, he thought, It's a burglar. The intruder made a decision to come out of hiding. Slowly straightening its back, it stepped from behind the chair. The curtain lifted at the window. SOmewhere far off in the night a dog-fox barked, three times. All Sam could discern was the black shadow of what he took to be a small man. The shadow approached the foot of the bed.
The voice came out in a cracked whisper. "Can you see me? Can you?"
Through the window a broken fingernail of moon was visible. It barely illumined the intruder's face, but what Sam could see he didn't like. Two dark eyes, shiny like the green-black carapace of a beetle, flashed at him. The eyes were set deep, each in a squint counterpoised to the other, lurking under a matted shock of black hair. Tangled elf-locks framed high cheek bones and a swarthy complexion. The word "half-cast" came to mind. Sam had heard the term employed by adults but used with an ugliness of meaning beyond the word itself. Now that the figure had come closer, Sam identified the burglar as the source of the smell he'd recognized on waking. It was not streaming through the window at all. It was the smell of the intruder, and in addition to the scent of grass after rain it was the odor of horse's sweat, and birdshit, and camomile. The intruder--Sam was unable to tell if it was male or female--suddenly cocked its head to one side and smiled. A row of teeth glimmered in the faint moonbeams, a mouthful of blue light. The teeth were perfect, but, unless he was mistaken, they were sharpened to fine dagger points. At full height the intruder stood little more than four feet tall, or at any rate, just a couple of inches taller than Sam. It was difficult to see what the creature was wearing in the dark, but he could identify mustard-and-green striped leggings and heavy, industrial-style boots.
"Yes. I can see you."
"That's bad. Real bad."
Sam nodded a silent yes. He didn't know why it was bad, but he knew it was better to agree. The intruder was squinting hard at Sam, as if puzzling what to do next. "And you can hear me. Obviously obviously obviously. Bad." The sharpened teeth gleamed electric-blue again in the moonlight. There was a tiny crackle as the figure placed a finger on the bed-post. Sam felt the crackle ride to the nape of his neck and fan his hair. The intruder was discharging static.
Sam suddenly had an idea who the figure was. "You've come for the tooth, haven't you?" He was dismayed by the Tooth Fairy's appearance. If he did have an image of the Tooth Fairy in his head before that night, it was of a fragile lady three inches tall, lace-winged, with an acorn-cup for a hat. Not a thug in heavy boots. "You want the tooth, don't you?"
"Shhh! Don't wake the house! How come you were able to see me? How did you spot me? Don't answer. Wait." The Tooth Fairy held up a beautifully manicured hand, five ivory fingers outstretched, a thin silver ring on each. "How many fingers do you see?"
"This is bad. Real bad." The Tooth Fairy held a finger and thumb to the bridge of its nose. It seemed to be thinking hard. "This is the worst of all possible situations. The worst."
"Don't you want the tooth?"
"The tooth. Don't you want it?" Sam held out the tiny incisor in the palm of his hand.
The Tooth Fairy got up and looked at the proffered tooth for a long time before accepting it. Sam felt a tiny prod of static as they touched. The Tooth Fairy retreated to the window, holding the tooth up to the faint light of the moon. "Do you realize how much trouble we're in? Both of us? You've seen me! Do you know what a thing like this means?" The fairy rotated the tooth in the weak light.
"Don't shout! You'll wake Mum and Dad."
The venom imparted in this remark shocked Sam to his bowels. "I'll tell them!"
The Tooth Fairy approached the bed. Reaching out a hand towards Sam's face, it closed those long, elegant but strong fingers around the boy's mouth. Again a prod of cold static. The hand twisted the slack flesh of his cheeks violently, the sharp fingernails clawing at his face. "And you'll tell them you saw the Tooth Fairy? They'll think you're fucking crazy. Know what they do with crazies?"
There was a bump from the adjacent room and the sound of bedsprings.
The hand dropped. "Shit!" said the Tooth Fairy, climbing up on the bed and stepping a heavy black boot on the windowsill. "I'm gone."
"Wait! You didn't give me anything! For the tooth!"
The Tooth Fairy looked back, appalled. Darting a glance out of the window, it seemed trapped for a moment, writhing between escape and some unimpeachable contract. They heard footsteps from the next room. Fumbling frantically in a pocket, the fairy produced a silver sixpence and flicked it in the air. It winked in the dull moonlight as it fell, spinning. The sixpence dropped lightly on the pillowcase before disappearing clean through the pillow. Sam slid a hand under the pillow but stopped when the fairy barked violently at him, "Leave it until morning, kiddiwinks. You heard me! Leave it until the morning!"
A door-hinge whined, a floorboard creaked. The Tooth Fairy hoisted itself on to the windowsill.
"Will I see you again?" Sam said.
"You'll wish you didn't." The Tooth Fairy leapt out of the window as Sam's bedroom door opened. Light from the hall streamed into the room. It was Sam's mother. She switched on the bedside lamp.
"You all right, Sam? I thought I heard you talking in your sleep. Did you open the window?"
She closed it and drew the curtains. Smoothing his pillow again, she kissed him lightly on the forehead before pulling the blankets up under his chin.
"Go back to sleep," she said.