“Look up. What do you see?” Mr Eyre was lying on the grass in the centre of the lawn with Bryony and Bethany on either side of him. Hodge had also been invited to the late evening lesson but had declined saying she had better things to do that lie about looking at the night sky. She had, however, fussed about making sure each of them had a blanket to lie on, although Mr Eyre and the girls had all protested that it wasn’t necessary. Hodge had insisted, so that was that.
It was a warm and clear summer night and with the curtains drawn inside the house, conditions were perfect for Mr Eyre’s astronomy lesson. He turned to Bethany. “Miss Bethany of the House of Figs, what do you see?”
“The moon and lots of stars,” replied Bethany. “They’re so bright! It’s almost as if you could reach out and touch them.”
“They look like pin-pricks in a velvet curtain,” said Bryony.
“Very poetic; as I would expect from a writer, Miss Bryony of the Flowering Vine.” Bryony smiled broadly in the darkness.
“Is the moon made of cheese like in the story of the Fox and the Wolf?”
“What story is that Miss Bethany?”
“Oh, Mr Eyre, you must know that story. You know, the one where the fox is made to do all the work by the wolf because he’s bigger than him, the then one night, the fox tricks the wolf into going down the well by showing him there’s a big round yellow cheese at the bottom. But it’s only the moon’s reflection.”
“Ah, that story. So, Miss Bethany, do you think the moon is made of cheese?”
“It can’t be. That’s the point of the story,” said Bryony.
“Well, what keeps the moon up in the sky?
“Ah, an excellent question, Miss Bethany. It’s because of gravity.”
“Sir Isaac Newton and the apple,” said Bryony.
“Well Mr Eyre, it’s something to do with the size of the Earth holding everything down. Otherwise we’d all just float off.” Bryony paused. “But I don’t see what that has to do with the moon.”
“The moon is also pulled towards the Earth by gravity. However, it’s moving so quickly that although it’s always falling, it falls past the Earth.” Both girls were silent. “Remind me tomorrow and we’ll do a little experiment. It’s too dark to see properly now and anyway, we must take advantage of this wonderful view of the night sky over Cheshire.”
“Is it different elsewhere then?”
“Absolutely, Miss Bryony. That’s another question for tomorrow; when we have our globe in front of us.” Mr Eyre patted his pockets. “We should be writing these down. Have either of you got a pencil and paper on you?”
Bryony reached into her pinafore pocket. “My writing book,” she waved it in the air. “I can use this.” Bryony sat up and noted down ‘Moon and Gravity’ and ‘Night Sky in Different Places’ in her neat cursive script.
“Right then, let us proceed. Observe that tonight’s moon is full, like in Bethany’s story; and we’ll talk more about the moon tomorrow. Now, what do you know about the stars?” Mr Eyre quizzed them on their knowledge of the constellations, pointing out such wonders as Orion, The Big and Little Dippers and the North Star. Then his voice became quieter, almost a whisper. “You know when we look at the stars we are actually looking into the past.”
“I don’t understand, Mr Eyre.”
“I’m not sure I do entirely, Miss Bryony. It all has to do with the speed of light which travels very, very fast.”
“Faster than a train?”
“Much, much faster. Faster than we can really comprehend; but the stars are so very far away, that the stars in the sky which we’re looking at now, are as they were in the past.”
“How long ago?”
“I’m not sure. We’ll try to look it up tomorrow.”
Light suddenly spilled across their faces as Hodge opened the kitchen door. “Mr Eyre? I think it’s about time you were coming in. It’s well past the girls’ bedtimes.”
“Right away, Mrs Hodges,” replied Mr Eyre springing to his feet and picking up his blanket.
Hodge opened the door wider and a small dark shape rushed out, streaking across the garden past Bethany’s legs and into the bushes at the edge of the lawn. “Astra!” Bethany started to run after the kitten.
“No, child!” Hodge hurried outside. “Not in the dark.”
“A black cat in a black night…” commented Mr Eyre, unhelpfully.
“Oh but Hodge, we have to go after her…she’ll get lost,” Bethany wailed.
“Don’t worry, sure she’ll come back when she’s hungry,” said Hodge. “Cats are very good at looking after themselves. And it’s time she got used to being outside.”
“But it’s so dark,” Bethany sobbed.
Hodge put her arm around her. “You’ll see, my chicken; she’ll be home in the morning. Sooner, more like.” She looked up. “Isn’t that right, Mr Eyre?”
“Certain to be. Remember cats can see much better than us in the dark. Astra won’t get lost. Trust me. She knows she has a good home here.”
Bethany sighed and with one last look across the garden she was persuaded to come inside.
Bethany was out of bed as soon as it was light. Dressed in her nightdress and carrying her sandals, she sneaked past Hodge’s door, crept downstairs and went through to the kitchen. She looked up at the door, about to fetch a chair so she could reach to slide the top bolt open when she noticed that it was already drawn, as was the bottom bolt. The key was in the lock and not hanging on its little nail by the side of the door. How strange, she thought. It was surely too early for Hodge to be up and about since there were no fires to lay in summer. She took a deep breath, turned the large door-knob and pushed the door open just enough for her to slip outside.
The first thing she noticed was a saucer of milk which had been put by the doorstep. It looked untouched. She looked along the side of the house. There was no-one about. Maybe Hodge had put the milk out last night in case Astra came back and was thirsty. But who had gone outside? Surely nobody would have left the back door unlocked all night. Hodge was most particular about security.
Bethany pushed her feet into her sandals and hurried into the garden. The dew on the lawn felt cold and wet as she paced around the edge of the lawn peering under shrubs and behind bushes. “Astra! Astra!” she called softy, hoping the kitten would hear her and come running. She finished the circuit of the lawn. No Astra.
Glancing back towards the kitchen door and the untouched saucer of milk, Bethany screwed up her eyes for a moment. Then she set off towards the orchard, not even pausing to look at her fish. She hesitated with her hand on the gate, knowing she was breaking Hodge’s rule about not venturing out of the garden by herself. But the thought of poor little Astra, lost and alone, strengthened her resolve. She’d find her kitten and bring her home and no-one, least of all Hodge, would be any the wiser. Bethany closed the gate and scanned the orchard wondering where Astra might be.
A movement off to the left caught her eye. It was Mr Eyre. Bethany hurried towards him, but as soon as she could see he was empty-handed, a lump began to form in her throat.
“Oh, Mr Eyre, where can she be?” Bethany wailed.
Mr Eyre looked down at her, shaking his head. “Astra hasn’t returned then?”
Bethany’s bottom lip quivered.
“Come on, chin up, Bethany. Don’t give up hope yet. There are plenty of places where she might be.” He put his hand on her shoulder and steered her back through the garden.
Bethany’s stomach was churning and she was trying hard to fight back the tears, but as they passed the fountain she noticed a little black shape by the kitchen door. “Astra!” she cried, breaking into a run. Mr Eyre strode after her. As they neared the back of the house they could see that it was indeed the missing kitten. Astra was sitting on the doorstep by the empty saucer calmly washing her little black face.
“Astra!” Bethany called out again. At the sound of her name, the kitten started trotting towards her. Bethany bent down and scooped her up, gently cradling her in her arms. Astra purred loudly as she was carried back to the house.
At the kitchen door, Mr Eyre picked up the empty saucer. He looked down at Bethany’s feet. “Give me your sandals and I’ll clean all that mud off them.” He raised his eyebrows. “Not word to Mrs H. eh?” He winked, then went to the sink to run the saucer under the tap, before locking and bolting the back door and taking Bethany’s sandals from her. “Off you go then.”
Bethany hurried upstairs with Astra in her arms. Bryony was sitting up in bed. “I just saw you from the window.”
Bethany grinned. “Astra was just outside the kitchen door when we came back.”
“So Mr Eyre was out looking for her too?”
Bethany set Astra down on her bed beside Bryony, continuing to stroke her. She looked up at her sister and nodded. “Yes, he was coming back from the woods. He must’ve gone a long way in, his jacket was covered in burrs and bits of twig and his trousers were all muddy.”
©2019 Chris Hall
From my latest work-in-progress. What do you think? I really appreciate your feedback.