Sleepless Hollow

By Brian Robinson.

Freddy wasn’t a bad boy but he did have a few rough edges. One of his bad habits was his tendency to run off when out walking with his parents. Like all boys, he loved exploring and this often got him into trouble. This used to make his parents feel a little anxious because they always liked to keep him in sight. When he was out of sight there was always the chance he would get into more trouble. Freddy was so prone to running off ahead, that his parents gave him the nickname Up Ahead Fred.

One of their favourite walks took them to a place named Sleepless Hollow. Sleepless Hollow was a small wooded area about a mile outside of the village where they lived. It was a deeply sunken place surrounded by very flat grass fields. It was strange because it didn’t fit in with the rest of its surroundings. It was as if the ground had caved in for some reason. It was known as Sleepless Hollow because local legend had it that anyone who walked through the wood always had problems sleeping afterwards.

One day, Freddy and his parent’s set off on their usual walk. It was a dull winter’s morning but this didn’t put them off. His parents had a favourite saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather: there’s only bad clothing.” This is what they used to say to Freddy if he ever complained about being cold.

They left their village walking along a narrow winding lane, but well before they reached Sleepless Hollow Freddy, as usual, had run off ahead. The wood was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and there were signs everywhere saying ‘Private Property Keep Out, Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’. Freddy was only just learning to read, but he knew perfectly well what the signs said. His parents had already made that clear and he understood that the wood was strictly out of bounds. Very few people used to enter Sleepless Hollow.

Warnings can exist for a reason

Freddy, however, was feeling the urge for adventure that morning so he completely ignored the sign, ducked under the fence, and was soon in full exploring mode. Because of the thick foliage, it was quite dark in the wood and the atmosphere was more than a little foreboding. Freddy didn’t pay much attention to that though. His mind was on other things. That was another one of Freddy’s rough edges. He tended not to listen when people warned him about danger. As he walked deeper and deeper into the wood, so his urge to explore grew stronger and stronger.

On this particular day, the leaves on the trees stood perfectly still. There wasn’t a wisp of wind in the air, nothing stirred, and there was none of the usual birdsong or forest sounds. It was as if time was standing still, and all living things had taken the day off.

After a short while, Freddy came across a giant oak tree that seemed to stand in his path. It was old and dying, and it was completely hollow inside apart from a small plant that sat in an entrance hole. It was big enough for a small boy to easily squeeze into so Freddy did just that. He was amazed to find how spacious it was inside. There was enough room to fit at least four or five people. Once he had squeezed fully in through the hole he stood up and looked around. Then he gazed upwards following a shaft of light that was beaming down through the open top of the tree. Freddy thought this strange because there was no sun on that day. Yet inside the tree, he could clearly see the sun high in the sky.

As he followed the shaft of light down he noticed it was making something twinkle on the floor. Freddy knelt down to see what it was. He cleared away some of the dead wood around it and found a golden ring that turned out to be the handle to a trap door.

Freddy decided he would try and lift the door and explore further. To begin with, he struggled and struggled but the door refused to budge. But after a bit more grunting and groaning, it finally gave way. What he found before him, was a flight of stone stairs leading steeply downward. Freddy decided to make his way down with the shaft of light leading the way.

After a little while he came to an old wooden door and on the door was a sign. Freddy hadn’t learned how to read yet, so he didn’t understand what the sign said. However, he probably could have worked it out had he spent the time. He knew how to sound out syllables, and he knew all about phonetics. However, Freddy wasn’t in the mood for phonetics. He was in exploring mood and far too eager to find out what lay on the other side. The sign read: IF YOU GO THROUGH THIS DOOR YOU WILL RETURN NO MORE. Freddy pushed through the door without giving the sign a second look.

On the other side, the first thing he noticed was that the light there was entirely different to that of the world above. It was bright, but it was a softer artificial light, and it took a little while for his eyes to adjust. When they finally did, he found himself in a world where everything looked familiar yet was strangely different.

There were houses, buildings, trees and so on, but everything looked to be softer and on a much smaller scale. It was also very colourful, and he could see lots of boys and girls running around playing. He didn’t notice any grownups at first, but then he spotted a policeman standing near the kerb next to a small car. Although Freddy had some bad habits, he was a sensible boy. He decided the best thing to do would be to go over and speak with the policeman.

“Hello young man,” said the policeman as he approached. “What can I do for you?”

“Is this your car?” Freddy asked.

The policeman began to laugh. “Well I’m blessed if that is not the strangest question I’ve ever been asked,” he said. “Grownups don’t drive cars here. Only boys and girls are allowed to drive. Would you like to take this car for a spin?”

“Yes please,” Freddy said, and before you could say fiddlesticks and fairies, he had jumped into the car and was speeding off down the road. This was like a dream come true for him. He had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t still asleep in bed having a lovely dream. He never once imagined that such places could exist, and racing through his mind was the thought that he never wanted to leave this magical place.

Freddy soon had to stop at a set of traffic lights, and when he did, a car pulled up beside him. Freddy glanced across, and the boy he saw driving the other car looked exactly like his school friend Jimmy. He instinctively shouted out “Hello Jimmy.”

The boy shouted back “My name’s not Jimmy, it’s Rudy. They call me ‘Rudy the Racer’ because I like to race people. Would you like to race?” Before Freddy had a chance to say yes, the traffic lights changed to green and Rudy sped off ahead. Freddy couldn’t resist so he slammed his foot down on the accelerator and gave chase. Rudy was swerving around corners, screeching his tyres, and children were running and jumping out of the way, but even so, Freddy was beginning to catch up.

Rudy kept looking over his shoulder shouting out “You’ll never catch me.” But Freddy kept driving faster and faster determined to prove Rudy wrong. He was having the best fun in his whole life.

Freddy could see a fork in the road up ahead, and he was trying to guess which way Rudy might go. As they got to where the road split, Rudy swerved off to the left but it was too late for Freddy to follow because he had guessed wrong and swerved off to the right. As Freddy looked across he could see Rudy stick his hand up in the air and shout out, “I won, I won.” Very soon Rudy disappeared over the hill and was gone.

Freddy felt a bit sad because he had enjoyed the race so much and he hoped to make a new friend. However, he soon realised he was speeding down a very narrow and dangerous country lane. And just as he thought he ought to slow down a bit, he saw a young girl walking her dog right in the middle of the road directly ahead. He slammed on his brakes and screeched to a halt just in time to stop the car from ploughing into them. The girl didn’t seem to be bothered though. Freddy’s erratic driving hadn’t fazed her at all. She walked over and calmly said, “I see you’ve met Rudy.”

“Oh yes,” Freddy said. “I was hoping we could be friends, but now I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.”

“Don’t be silly,” the girl said. “Rudy doesn’t make friends. All he does is drive around like a lunatic all day and all night. He has no friends. My name’s Nelly by the way. It’s not my real name but my mum calls me Nelly because I’m always glued to the telly. Would you like to say hello to my dog? Her name is Smelly.”

“Why do you call her Smelly?” Freddy asked, “Does she stink?”

“No, of course not, I call her Smelly because it rhymes with telly. I thought that would be rather obvious.”

Freddy noticed something strange about Nelly’s eyes. They looked vacant, empty somehow. He had seen the same thing in the policeman’s eyes. Something was very odd about this place but he couldn’t work out what it was. He looked down at Smelly’s eyes and even they had that same vacant stare. Freddy began to feel a little uncomfortable. “My name’s Freddy,” He said.

“Would you like to walk with us? You could come and see our house if you like,” Nelly said.

“All right,” Freddy replied. “Will it be okay if I leave the car here?”

“I don’t see why not. One of the grownups will see to it.”

As they walked along the lane, he couldn’t help but wonder about the strange world he had found himself in and the unusual people that lived there. He began to think that this might not be such a good place to be after all. Freddy found he had a job to keep up with Nelly. “Why are you in such a hurry?” he asked.

“There’s something good I want to see on the telly,” she replied.

Nell’s house looked quite nice from a distance, but as they got closer, he noticed the house was crumbling. The paint was cracked and peeling; the thatch on the roof was black and full of moss, and the front garden looked overgrown and untidy.

When they got inside things didn’t get much better. In the kitchen, there were pots and pans scattered everywhere. There were bits of jam glued all over the table and lumps of pastry stuck on all the chairs. Nelly introduced Freddy to her mum Caley and then immediately disappeared off into another part of the house. When she didn’t return, Freddy asked, “Where’s Nelly?”

“Well, it’s only a guess young man, but I’d say there is a good chance she’s watching the telly. She’s never very far away from that thing,” Her mum replied with a wry smile on her face.

“She can’t watch it all the time.”

“Oh yes she can,” her mother said. “Every morning she takes the dog for a walk down the lane and then she comes straight back and watches the telly all the rest of the day and all through the night until the next morning.”

“What about sleep?” Freddy asked. “When does she sleep?”

“Don’t be silly, Nelly never goes to bed. Nobody sleeps here. It never gets dark. We just do whatever we want and we never stop. I thought everyone knew that.”

“You must stop to eat,” Freddy insisted.

“No,” she replied. “Nobody eats here. Well, I tell a lie, there is a boy who eats all the time, but that’s because eating is all he wants to do. This is a place where all your dreams come true. Whatever you decide you want to do in life, you can do here twenty-four hours a day. This is the land of your heart’s desire.”

Freddy had felt a little uncomfortable before, but now he started to feel very worried indeed. On the face of it, he had thought this was a dream world, but now, he wasn’t quite so sure. He began to wonder if it might be time for him to return back to the real world above ground. He wasn’t sure he liked the people in this strange place and he wasn’t sure he would be able to survive long there. But quite apart from that, Freddy was getting very hungry and he also knew his parents were probably wondering where he was.

Freddy noticed that Nelly’s mum was becoming a bit agitated and she began to fidget. First, she looked around her kitchen at her pots and pans, then she looked back at Freddy, and then she looked around the kitchen again.

“Is everything all right?” Freddy asked.

“Well, I don’t want to appear rude, but I have some baking that I really must get on with. Would you like to come and see some of my cupcakes before you go?”

Freddy agreed straight away because he felt so hungry and he thought she might offer him something to eat. He followed her out of the kitchen and past the front room where he saw Nelly glued to the telly. She led him on to a room at the end of the hall. Caley opened the door and all Freddy could see from floor to ceiling was cupcakes. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He had never seen so many different cakes all in one place. There were plain and fancy ones; large and dainty ones and there were cakes of all colours and all flavours.

“Why do you bake so many?”

“I don’t know,” Caley confessed. “It’s just that I love baking so much I can’t stop. And as we don’t eat anything here, the cakes just seem to build up and up.”

“But what’s the point of baking cakes if you’re never going to eat them?” Freddy was getting more and more confused.

“Do you know it’s funny, nobody’s ever asked me that before. I’ve never really thought about it,” she said.

“Would you mind if I tried one of them?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. They’ve never been eaten before. Besides, I’m not even sure they’re edible. I use some strange ingredients you know. I worry more about what they look like than what they taste like.”

That was the last straw for Freddy. He decided he had just about enough of this world. He’d thought that doing what you want all the time would be a brilliant idea; now he realised it would be positively horrible. The world he had found himself in had become a frightening place. Freddy said, “I think I’d better be getting home now,” and he turned to go down the hall towards the kitchen.

“And how are you going to do that?” Nell’s mother asked.

“I’ll go back through the door I came in of course.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “That door is a one-way portal. Didn’t you read the sign: ‘IF YOU GO THROUGH THIS DOOR YOU WILL RETURN NO MORE’. Once you come into this world you can never go back. I thought you knew that.”

Tears began to stream down Freddy’s face. He was afraid, tired, hungry, and he was missing his mum and dad. Nelly’s mum began to feel a little sorry for him. She had never felt sorry for anyone before, in fact, she had never felt anything much. After a minute or two of feeling like this, she realised that feeling sorry for someone wasn’t such a good idea. It was the sort of thing that takes you away from your baking and she began to dislike the feeling intensely.

“Look, I don’t think there is anything I can do to help, and anyway, I really must get on with these cakes. Why don’t you go and have a chat with my neighbour Mary? We call her Magical Mary because she spends all her time reading books on magic spells. She’s into gerbils you know. I think she wants to communicate with them. She might be able to help.”

“Do you think so?” Freddy asked feeling more and more desperate.

“I’m not going to make any promises. All I know is that I sent a boy there just like you several years ago and I’ve never seen nor heard of him since. I assume she must have helped him.” Freddy took directions to Magical Mary’s house and thanked Nelly’s mum for her help.

Mary lived only a short way down the lane and Freddy did his best to try and cheer himself as he walked along. When he arrived, he noticed that Mary’s garden was just as untidy as Nelly’s. It seemed people in this world didn’t pay much attention to keeping things neat. But all Freddy could think about, was the hope that Mary did have some magical powers and Nelly’s mum wasn’t just trying to get rid of him so she could get back to her cupcakes.

As soon as he arrived at Mary’s front door he knocked gently, but when there was no answer, he began to knock harder and harder. He wondered if Mary was out, but then again, Nelly had said Mary never went out. After waiting for several minutes, he decided to go to the back of the house to see if she was busy in the garden. As he walked past a side window he saw Mary sat at the kitchen table deeply engrossed in a book. She held a magnifying glass to her eye to help her see the print.

Freddy tapped on the window to attract her attention, and when she saw Freddy’s face she practically jumped out of her dress with fright. She came and opened the back door still holding her hand over her heart. “Oh, I say you scared me nearly half to death. I’m not used to seeing strangers. I think the last person I saw was, let me see…,” Mary began to think, but soon decided it was so long ago she couldn’t possibly remember.

Freddy explained everything that had happened and he told Mary how desperate he was to get home. “Oh dear me,” Mary said. “What makes you think I can help? I know nothing about spells for small boys. Now if you were a gerbil that would be a different matter. Anyway, as it happens you’ve caught me at a bad time. I’m rather busy right now, and I can’t stand here chatting all day. I’m sorry,” she said and began to close the door on him.

“Please can you help me,” Freddy said. “I’ve got nowhere else to go. Please help me.”

“Oh very well, you’d better come in,” Mary said. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you come and see my gerbils while I have a think.” Mary led Freddy out of the kitchen and up the stairs towards the bedrooms. All he could see lined up against the walls as he went along was rows and rows of cages full of gerbils. The cages were stacked up as high as the ceiling. They were on the staircase, and they were stacked in every bedroom. They looked healthy enough, but because there was so many of them, they made the house quite smelly.

“Why have you got all these animals?” Freddy asked.

“Well, when I was a little girl I read a book about Doctor Dolittle, and as you probably know, in the book he used to talk to the animals. Now that was only a story of course. He couldn’t really talk with the animals. But I loved the story so much, that I decided I would spend the rest of my life trying to get to know animals just like he did in the book.”

“Have you ever managed to get a gerbil to talk back?” Freddy asked.

“Well no, not yet anyway,” Mary said.

Freddy began to lose hope that Mary would ever be able to help him. He began to doubt she had any magical powers at all. They went back downstairs, and just like with Nelly’s mum, Mary started to become agitated. She kept looking back towards her gerbils, and Freddy knew she wouldn’t want to be away from them or her magic books for very long.

Freddy said, “I know you’re very busy, and I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but if you wouldn’t mind looking up a spell for me, I would be ever so grateful. I could be out of your hair in no time at all and then you could get back to your gerbils.”

Mary seemed to lock onto this idea, and she immediately went to a cupboard from where she produced a whole stack of magic books. She sat herself down at the kitchen table and began to pour over them. Freddy sat opposite watching her face as she digested the contents of the books. Her expressions told him everything about her progress. One minute her face would light up as an idea came into her head, the next it would darken as it turned to dust.

After about an hour of getting nowhere, Freddy decided he would remind her of the boy she had helped previously. “Nelly’s mum told me you had helped a boy before. He was locked in this world just like I am and you helped him escape. If you could remember what spell you used then, you might be able to use the same spell to help me,” Freddy said.

“Oh dear no, that wouldn’t be a good idea at all. You see I hadn’t been doing magic for very long then, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it. I made an awful mistake,” she said.

“What happened?” Freddy asked.

“Well, I was trying to kill two birds with the one stone if you see what I mean. And that’s where it all went wrong. You see I thought it would be a good idea to turn that boy into a gerbil first, and then, that would give me a gerbil that might be able to speak. And I also thought it would be easier to get a gerbil out of this world as opposed to a boy. Gerbils are a lot smaller you know. This all made perfect sense at the time, however, I’m afraid I didn’t think things through very well,” Mary explained.

“What happened to the boy?”

“He’s in one of those cages on the stairs but I can assure you he’s perfectly happy. He gets everything he wants, food, water, and a little wheel for exercise. I do look after my animals you know. Anyway, that happened a long time ago, and I really don’t want to talk about it.” Freddy felt a lump form in his throat.

After about another half an hour or so, Freddy thought he saw a slight change in Mary’s face. It started with a twitch, then she gave a nod, then she scrunched her face up for a second or two, and then she leapt off the chair and started running around the kitchen screeching “That’s it, that’s it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

Freddy’s spirits lifted immediately. He just hoped that Mary wouldn’t come around the table and try and kiss him in her delight. “I can’t understand why I didn’t think of it before. It’s so simple. All I have to do is make up a spell using the same words as the words on the door: ‘IF YOU GO THROUGH THIS DOOR YOU WILL RETURN NO MORE’. If I rearrange the letters I can undo those words and the new spell is bound to work. Brilliant!” Mary then set about making up the required spell which apparently was the easy bit. very soon everything was ready.

“Right,” she said. “Come and stand beside the kitchen door. This will be the door back to your world. I want you to imagine as hard as you can that this is the same door you came through. Close your eyes, and when I make the spell I want you to concentrate on the door and nothing else. When you feel the time is right, I want you to grab the door handle and go through. Have you got that?”

“I think so,” Freddy said.

“Well, I hope you have, because you’re only going to get one chance at this. Here’s a piece of advice before you go. Always keep your parents in sight. They are there to protect you. Your time to run wild and free will come soon enough.”

“I will, I really will,” Freddy promised.

Mary then began to chant out her spell, and Freddy listened to her voice drone on and on with his eyes tightly closed. After about a minute or so his head began to spin and he noticed that the smell from the gerbils started to disappear. Mary’s voice grew more and more distant, and then he began to smell something that reminded him of the stone steps he had climbed down earlier. He decided the time was right so he reached out his hand and grabbed the door handle and pushed through.

To his delight and amazement, Freddy found himself back on the stone stairs leading up to the oak tree. He gave out a massive sigh of relief and mounted the stone steps two at a time up to the trap door. He shot out of the hole in the tree like a rabbit with the whole world after him and ran as fast as he could to the edge of the wood. He then ran around the entire forest until he eventually found his mum and dad on the other side. They looked as if they were searching for him and calling out his name. Freddy felt really guilty, but he was so pleased to see them that all he could think about was giving them a big hug.

“Where on earth have you been? We’ve been looking for you everywhere. What have we told you about running off,” his mum chided.

“I’m so sorry mum. I got lost. I didn’t mean to,” Freddy said.

Then he turned to his dad and said, “Do you think it’s possible for other worlds to exist dad?”

His dad replied, “Oh I’m not sure about that Freddy. What’s wrong with this world anyway? You’ve got everything you want here haven’t you?”

“Yes, Freddy agreed.”I think I got a bit ahead of myself.”

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