Daniel Gallagher has a secret too big for an eight-year-old to bear. But his mother is afraid to hear it. And so, they live in an uneasy chaos of lies and half-truths until the day that a chance encounter brings Daniel into the life of eighty-one-year-old Sadie Gordon. Sadie is a survivor of Stalinist Russia, who spends her twilight years tending her garden and trying to remember her daughter-in-law’s name. What could Sadie and Daniel possibly have in common, except the knowledge that they will soon be embarking on a journey into eternity.
Daniel scrambled to his feet. He hadn’t heard anyone approach, but now a man in a park keeper’s uniform was standing a little distance from him, gazing down at the river. ‘Water boatmen,’ the man repeated, pointing a bony finger at the water’s surface. ‘That’s the name for those wee bugs.’
Daniel said nothing, not daring to take his eyes from the man’s shadowed profile.
‘They’re out late this year,’ he continued conversationally. Then, still, without looking at Daniel, he glanced at his watch. ‘Mind you, you seem out awful late too. On a school day.’
Daniel needed no second warning. Before the keeper had finished speaking, he was already over the bridge and heading into the unknown. He ran down a sandy path, past a crumbling play park, and scrambled up a narrow dusty track that led the way along the river’s opposite bank.
Not until he reached a great archway of marble spanning the path did he stop running. The sound of his echoing footsteps slowed his feet. And thoughts of the park keeper forgotten, he leaned against the cool walls and panted for breath. When he felt a little better, he called out his name and heard the bridge catch the sound and toss it back and forth, higher and higher, until it vanished in the shadows far above him. Stone that carried words. A kind of magic. Perhaps the stone could pass on his words to other stones, on and on, until his message was carried right to the other side of the world.
He called out, ‘Dad,’ then waited. The echoes died. ‘Dad. It’s me. Daniel.’ Still nothing. ‘Is heaven blue?’ Maybe the transmitter only worked one way. ‘We moved house again. We’re in Cliftondale Street now. Number sixty-seven. Don’t forget, dad. Number sixty-seven.’ He wondered whether to warn his father about Ewan’s blue Rover being parked outside then decided against it. After a moment, he added. ‘I have to go now. I’m having an adventure.’
The path grew rougher now, bare earth trodden by occasional travellers, and began to ascend. Daniel felt his legs growing weary and he knew he needed to pee. He considered doing it on the edge of the path. But his senses were heightened with the strangeness of everything, and he was afraid of being caught.
He was contemplating the feasibility of doing it behind a large elm somewhat off the path and further up the slope, when he noticed a brick wall further up the slope still. It had partially collapsed along the East side, and he could make out rose bushes hidden within its confines. Intrigued, he scrambled up the slope and squeezed through the gap.
It was obvious as soon as he was inside, that it wasn’t part of the rambling park. A neat Victorian townhouse stood at the top of an orderly lawn, and at regular intervals there were flowerbeds, rectangular or oval in shape. Daniel almost turned and ran there and then. But the windows were so dark and still that it seemed impossible that anyone was home. Besides, his need to pee was quite urgent now, and throwing caution to the winds, he unzipped his trousers and relieved himself on a compost heap near the gap in the wall.
It was only as he zipped himself up again, tingling with the contentment of release, that he saw it. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. A single rose, standing out above all the others. Perhaps it was the shadows in the garden playing tricks on his eyes after he’d been squinting in the sun, or perhaps it was something his mind saw that was not truly there, but it seemed that the rose was bluer than anything he’d ever seen. Bluer than a summer sky, as blue as heaven should have been if his mother hadn’t lied.
And then all the anger that he’d used the adventure to divert himself from, all the anger he’d hidden, came bubbling up from deep down in the depths of him, pouring out of his eyes and nose in a molten rage, making him run at the treacherous object, and start to kick and tear at it so that the petals fell, like his tears, on to the moist earth below.
And so engrossed was he with the task of destroying the rose that he quite failed to hear the garden gate being opened at the front of the house.