'There's magic on this island,' said Gran as I stepped off the boat. The harbour was busy. The afternoon tide had brought the crab boats in as well as the passenger ferry.
'It doesn't smell very magical,' said Cat. They were the first words she had uttered since we boarded the sleeper train the night before.
Gran chuckled. 'Not all magic is cupcakes and sugarplum fairies, Catherine.'
My sister wasn't always like this. She was fun until she turned fifteen and started hanging out with those kids at her new school. That's when the spark went out of her eyes, anyway.
Gran pulled me into a hug with her weather-beaten hands. Her cardigan smelled like honey on toast. Cat shouldered her bag and strode past us. She must have been boiling in her thick, purple hoodie.
Gran's house was just as I remembered it. All crooked and jaunty like a crow's nest at the top of the village. You could see the sea from every window and hear the boats in the harbor when the wind blew in the right direction. On a clear day, you could see the craggy mainland, but I preferred it when there was a bit of cloud and I could pretend we were in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles from civilization. Next to the cottage, a flash of yellow paint peeped out from under a tarpaulin. The promise of adventure; Gran's old skiff, Canary.
I was up early the next morning. The summer holidays rolled out before us like a road to the horizon and I couldn't wait to get out and explore. Cat, on the other hand, slept like a log.
A dead log.
When she dragged herself out of bed, she ignored the breakfast laid out on the kitchen table and grabbed an apple from the bowl instead. She left the backdoor swinging behind her. I trotted to keep up. Maybe she couldn't hear me calling because of her headphones.
When we got to Cowrie Cove, Cat plonked herself on the ground near the top of the old steps that spiralled down the cliff face. A few summers ago — I can't remember how many — we spent hours looking for cowries down on the beach. We still had a bottleful of them on the bathroom windowsill at home.
'What do you want to do?' I said.
'Nothing,' snapped Cat.
'Well, I'm going to the grotto.'
The old cave was our secret place. We weren't supposed to play there because it was dangerous, which, of course, made it all the more exciting. It was hidden behind the spiky rocks in the eastern corner of the cove. A black slit in the cliff face, most people wouldn't even notice it.
It was like I had been there only yesterday. The fishing net hanging on the wall still had our various treasures knotted into it: a starfish as big as my hand, a piece of driftwood shaped like a dolphin, a shiny black pebble with a hole right through the middle. Totems recalling happier times.
I found Cat outside, dragging a stick around the beach.
'Are you done?' she snapped.
'Why are you such a misery all the time?' I said. 'As soon as mum comes home, we'll have to go back to London.'
Cat threw down her stick and rolled her eyes like I was some stupid kid. I hated it when she did that. I marched off towards Gran's house. I could hear Cat's heavy boots behind me, so I walked faster, determined that she wouldn't catch up. I tried to resist looking back, but when I got to the top of the cliffs, I turned and saw what she had been doing with the stick on the beach. In letters as tall as Gran's cottage she had written: GET ME OUT OF HERE.
'Cat! Cat! Wake up!'
'What do you want?'
'Just come, will you? Quick! Before the tide washes it away!'
I pulled her hoodie over her head and dragged her to the cove.
'Very funny,' grumbled Cat when we reached the clifftop.
'It wasn't me! I swear.'
'Oh really? Who was it, then?'
'I don't know… it must be the island… the magic Gran told us about.'
Cat raised her eyebrows. 'Magic? Next, you'll be telling me a mermaid wrote it.'
'Well whoever it was, you should write an answer…'
Cat looked from me to the beach and back again. At the foot of the cliff, last night's tide had washed away her words and the receding water had left a reply. Elegant letters riven into the white sand: Where do you wish to go?
The rickety steps rattled as we ran down them. Cat grabbed a stick. There was something in her eyes that I hadn't seen for a long time: a pinprick of light in her dark pupils.
'What are you writing?'
'Stop following me,' she said. 'You'll mess it up.'
There was fun behind the crossness in her voice. I stepped out of her way.
I sensed someone watching us before I heard his footsteps. A boy in black jeans was leaning on the handrail halfway down the cliff steps. Cat noticed him too and the atmosphere changed. The spark went out of her eyes. She scratched something in the sand and threw down the stick.
I didn't say anything because I knew if I opened my mouth I might cry. I could feel it in my throat like I had swallowed a pebble. The boy said something to Cat and they sloped off together. On the beach, she had written: Anywhere but here.
Gran and I had finished tea and washed up by the time Cat reappeared.
'There you are, Cath… I mean, Cat, dear,' said Gran. 'There's a plate of food in the oven.'
'I've already eaten,' said Cat.
Gran followed her upstairs. I could hear the low rumble of voices, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. When Gran came down, her eyes looked different. The outsides had sort of softened into her face.
'Your sister's had a busy day,' said Gran. 'She's going to get an early night. How about you and me have a game of Rummikub?'
A storm was coming. The wind was already howling like a wild dog when I approached the cove next morning. I paused on the cliffs, not wanting to look down. As long as I kept the magical beach just out of sight, anything was still possible.
My feet crept towards the edge and I peered over.
No, not just water. A boiling mass of foam and spray. The tide was high, surging towards the bottom of the cliffs. Only a narrow ribbon of sand was still exposed and low growls of thunder were rolling in from the black horizon.
I kicked a pebble into the abyss.
'Isn't Cat with you?' said Gran when I got back to the cottage. The door slammed in the wind.
'I thought she was still in bed,' I said.
'Still? Oh, go and wake her, would you, dear. Gently!'
I was halfway up the stairs already. 'Okay!'
I knocked on Cat's bedroom door. And again.
'Cat, wake up.'
I eased the door open. 'Cat, don't be mad, Gran asked me to — '
The wind caught my words and whipped them out of the open window with the frayed ends of the curtains. I don't think my feet even touched the stairs as I flew back to the kitchen.
'Slow down,' said Gran, fingers gripping my shoulders. 'What do you mean, she's gone?'
'The magic! There was writing on the beach and — '
'Alright, alright, listen to me,' said Gran. 'Wherever she's gone, we're going to find her.'
Gran slung her oilskin coat on and shouldered the door open. The tarpaulin next to the cottage was flapping like a trapped bird.
'We need to hurry,' she said.
Rain was lashing down when we reached the harbour. The gunmetal sky felt like it might tumble down on top of us. Gran was staring out to sea, shielding her eyes as best she could with her knuckly hands.
I followed her eyes towards the horizon where a tiny blob of yellow was thrashing about in the bruised waves.
I bounced from foot to foot on the dock as we waited for the coastguard to bring her in. The other boats bumped and jostled in the heavy swell. Canary bounced along behind the lifeboat. Cat was hunched under her purple hoodie. The harbourmaster thrust out a hand to help her off the lifeboat, but —
'What have you done with my sister?' I yelled.
'Nothing,' said the boy in her hoodie. The one we had seen on the beach the day before. 'We were going to the mainland, but she bottled it at the last minute.'
'Where else might she go,' shouted Gran. 'Quickly, think!'
'Wait! Ben! It's too dangerous!'
Too late. I had already started running. Before I knew it, I was scrambling over jagged rocks, the sea, and storm beating my face and hands.
The mouth of the cave was gulping water and vomiting it back out again. I hauled myself inside and the roar of the sea spun all around. A huge wave crashed and the spray knocked me over. A few more of those and the whole cave would flood. I lost my footing again and gashed my knee, but my cry of pain just merged with the shrieking wind.
Cat was sitting in a nook in the grotto, underneath the hanging fishing net. Her face was hidden.
'Go away,' she said.
'Cat, we have to get out of here. The tide's still coming in… the storm…'
'I don't care.'
'Please, Cat, come on!'
It was dark in the cave, but I could see tears streaming down her face when she looked at me.
'He took Canary,' I said. 'Your friend. The lifeboat just brought him in. We thought it was you on board. Where were you planning on going?'
'I don't know. Home.'
'But we're going home soon anyway. Can't you enjoy being back on the island just for a little while?'
'We're not going home, Ben. Not for a long time, anyway.'
'A week or two, I know. As soon as mum is well enough.'
'You don't get it, do you?'
'What do you mean?'
'Mum hurt herself.'
'Yeah, I know — '
'No, Ben. She hurt herself. It wasn't an accident. They can't just put a bandage on and send her home. It takes a long time.'
I felt stupid. Maybe I'd known all along but didn't want to face the truth.
'She was very good at hiding it from us,' Cat whispered, reading my mind.
I looked at my sister, crouched in the corner of the cave, shivering, deathly pale.
'Are you going to do the same thing?' I said.
'What? No! Oh Ben, I'm sorry.' She ran over and hugged me tightly. We stayed like that for a long time, until we both felt waves lapping around our feet.
The tunnel was deep in water by now. The sound of the sea was like a thousand horses beating their hooves on the rock and sand. I was soaked to the skin and the relief of finding Cat had sapped all the strength from my arms and legs.
'Climb up there,' said Cat. 'I'll come behind in case you slip.'
My fingers were so cold I could hardly persuade them to grip the rock. Every knuckle screamed in pain. But, somehow, I managed to clamber round the side of the cave entrance and along the rugged cliff face. It was like the island showed me where to place each hand, where each foot would find a solid hold: a glimmer of light on an elbow of rock; a little starflower peeping out of a crevice the size of my hand; the shrill kee-ar of a tern that stopped me grabbing a loose piece of rock before it crumbled into the sea a moment later.
I could see Gran now. Up to her knees in water, as we struggled over the last of the rocks. She pulled us both into a hug so tight I couldn't breathe. My eyes leaked onto her oilskin coat.
I slept late the next morning.
The light woke me and I squinted at the dazzling window.
'The storm's passed,' said Cat. I hadn't noticed her sitting in the chair in the corner.
Cat smiled. The spark was back.
Later we walked to the cove, all three of us.
'What are you two going to do with yourselves today?' said Gran.
Noisy gulls were scavenging among the debris on the beach: driftwood, seaweed, shells, pebbles, a broken milkcrate, a scribble of orange rope. It took a while for my eyes to see through the chaos, but then I realised what I was looking at…
Every piece of flotsam, every stone, every footprint left by the gulls, had all been arranged to form letters. A word. A question:
Cat and I ran down the creaky old steps. She picked up a stick and scraped the point through the sand to form her answer.
Gran caught up with me and watched.
'There's magic on this island,' I whispered.
'I told you,' said Gran.