A Map of the Sky follows eleven-year-old explorer Kit who doesn’t understand why his family has been uprooted to a remote coastal village in the North. At Askfeld Farm Guesthouse he forms an unlikely friendship with Beth, who suffers from a chronic illness he does not understand. Kit learns that Beth – who cannot leave the farmhouse – is trying to draw a map from memory that shows all her favourite childhood haunts. Kit makes it his quest to help her remember by visiting places for her. But becoming a hero like the ones in his favourite books is trickier than he thought. Can he work out that the person who really needs his help is much closer to home?
CHAPTER 1 – ASKFELD
THE INTREPID NORTHERN ADVENTURES OF CHRISTOPHER SHACKLETON FISHER, AGED ELEVEN.
A record of the places I will discover and the mysteries I am going to solve this summer. Not to be read by rival explorers or older sisters (that means you, Juliet).
The North Sea heaved and rolled against the rocks far below. Without a moment’s delay, Kit ran to the window of his new room and flung it wide open. You had to lean out into the cold air and crane your head round at an awkward, neck-aching angle, but it was just possible to see the waves from up here. He grinned at the feeling of mist-like rain on his face.
“Stop that and get back inside.” His mother did not look up from examining a scratch on one of the suitcases in the doorway, while her overloaded handbag balanced on top of another. “You could fall out.”
The land dropped sharply away from Askfeld Farm Guest House’s crag-top perch to where the great grey water stretched out under a stony sky. Between sea and air was a space that was alive with darting shapes of the auks and gannets that skimmed the waves.
“When Dad arrives, we can go to the beach,” said Kit. He closed the window; the white curtains stopped billowing and settled back into place. The smell of the sea air lingered. Then, though he knew it would provoke a reaction, or perhaps precisely because of that, he added, “When does Dad get here?”
“Not now!” his mother snapped with a fierceness he had rarely heard her use. It was not the first time he had asked since they set out that morning, but he was pretty certain the question had not yet been answered properly. Each time the response had been sharper and shorter, which made no sense at all.
“Your second room is just next door, Mrs Fisher.” Sean Garsdale, who owned the guest house at Askfeld Farm, appeared behind them, saving Kit from any further reprimand. That was one of the Fisher family rules: no arguing or shouting in front of strangers. While his mother and sister followed Sean out, Kit stayed behind and assessed what he had seen of their host so far. He was quite a young sort of adult, if you looked past the smart shirt and polite conversation: the kind that might still be fun enough to want to play football or talk about games.
Kit opened his suitcase and pulled out a stack of comics. Sandwiched between the brightly coloured exploits of superpowered heroes was a red notebook, whose use he had been planning ever since he stumbled, bleary-eyed, into the car six hours ago. He yawned, sat down cross-legged on the bed, and wrote in black ink on the cover: The Intrepid Northern Adventures of Christopher Shackleton Fisher, aged eleven (it had been his birthday two weeks ago and he had finally caught up with the rest of his year group at school). Then he opened it to the first blank page.
Through the adjoining wall of their two rooms, the voices were half muffled, but Kit prided himself on his sharp ears, and he could make out most of what they were saying. Sean was apologizing for the weather.
“You picked a grey day to arrive and I hope it doesn’t put you off. We had bright July sunshine last week. There’s beautiful walks to be had on the moors or the coastal path when it’s warm.”
“Oh, that’s not a problem; we can cope with a little rain,” Kit’s mother replied with the indomitable determination of someone who has resolved to be cheerful. “Besides, we need to get used to all kinds of weather here. I mentioned to your wife on the phone when I booked that we’re actually moving to the area. The house isn’t quite ready for us yet, but we were so keen to come and explore our new home, weren’t we?”
“Yes, of course; we’ve heard so many lovely things about this place,” Juliet agreed, in a tone that made Kit involuntarily roll his eyes. People always mistook his sister for much older than she was, because she knew how to talk like a grown-up.
At the top of the page, he wrote Day One: Mysteries and then paused, the pen still pressed down so that the ink at the foot of the “s” began to spread and bleed through the paper. Would a single sheet be enough to list all the questions racing around in his head? When he thought back over the past couple of weeks, it was one long saga of being on the wrong side of a closed door, sent outside or to a friend’s house while urgent conversations were conducted. Even worse were the false smiles when he was allowed back into the room: the bright tone with which he was told “Time to start packing!” without explanation. Overnight, asking questions had become re-categorized as bad behaviour. It earned you only a frown and an evasive comment. But Kit would get to the bottom of it all. He knew he was clever: not as clever as Juliet, of course, but he was sure he could find out the truth.
The floorboards on the landing creaked a warning. Kit squirrelled the book away under his pillow as the others returned to the room. He smiled blankly at the three of them and hoped they could not guess what he had been thinking. As it happened, no one looked directly at him as Juliet and their mother collected luggage from where it lay on the threshold.
“Just come and find me if there’s anything else you need,” Sean was saying to Kit’s mother. “This here’s a key for the front door, in case you want to go out before seven or come in after ten. And here’s a card with some useful phone numbers. Top one’s for the house. See where it says Sean and Beth Garsdale? That’s me and my wife. Breakfast is seven until nine-thirty. And although it says on the website we’re a bed and breakfast, we do now serve hot meals throughout the day. You’ll find the day’s specials written up on the chalkboard in the dining room.”
“How long have you and your wife owned this place?” his mother asked, taking the card but not looking at it. Kit noticed she was talking down to him. When he had addressed her as Mrs Fisher earlier, she had not told him to call her Catherine, as she usually did when meeting new people.
“Been about four years now. We bought it just after we got married. Needed a lot of work done, but my wife Beth has a good eye for decorating. All this,” he motioned around the white-painted room with its sturdy oak furnishings and a framed watercolour of seashells on the adjacent wall, “is her design. We had to rename the place too. The last owner, he had a bit of a strange sense of humour, you see, and he thought, because of us being so near all the seaside resorts here, it’d be funny to call this place The Last Resort! Doubt it did his bookings much good. So we took that sign down as soon as we moved in, and went back to the old name of Askfeld. That’s what this house was called back when it was a working farm.”
“Very nice.” Kit’s mum nodded approvingly. “Local history is so important.”
“I’ll leave you to settle in, unless there’s anything else you need now.”
“The wifi password?” Juliet asked. Their mother sniffed sharply, but to Kit’s surprise gave no voice to her disapproval. Normally she was quick to tell her children they should spend less time staring at screens. In her day, she liked to remind them, people read books or talked to one another. Kit always wanted to argue that people still did those things, just combined with better technology, but he knew better than to answer back. Sean pointed her to a little printed card on the bedside table, and Juliet swept it up, hurrying to key the code into her phone. She was now lost to them, in another world populated by friends her own age and conversations that interested her.
“Are there whales and sharks in the sea here?” Kit blurted out as Sean turned to leave.
He chuckled. “Oh, they’re out there all right, but you won’t often see them from the shore. You’d have to go out in a boat, or have a really good telescope, I reckon.”
Kit pictured himself aboard a pirate ship, a brass spyglass to his eye, shouting “Sharks ahoy!” while his family hoisted sails and swabbed decks. Except that Juliet would probably get seasick and his mother would insist everyone went to bed on time despite the adventure at hand.
Sean left the room, and Catherine clapped her hands together in a way that always meant instructions would soon follow.
“Juliet, why don’t you go and have a rest in our room? I’ll be along in just a minute to unpack our things and test the kettle. I’ve brought our own teabags, because you never know whether places like this will have anything good.”
Kit was not sure what she meant by “places like this”. As far as he knew, they had never stayed in a guest house before. Without a word, Juliet left the room. Once they were alone, and the door into the next room had clicked shut, Catherine leaned forward to his eye level and dropped her voice low. “Now, Kit, I hope you’re going to be very grown up and helpful while we’re here. Can you do that for me?”
Her seriousness came as a surprise; he wondered what he might have done wrong to make his mother worry he would be anything else. He nodded wordlessly. She smiled and drew herself back up.
“I knew you’d understand.”
But Kit was not at all sure he did.
Catherine frowned and attempted to neaten her son’s dark hair, which was getting too long now. He ducked out of the way as he always did when this happened, while his mother muttered something about wishing she had booked him a haircut before they moved. She left the room, and through the shared wall Kit could soon hear the soft roar of a portable kettle boiling. He took out his exercise book and pen again.
Day one: Mysteries. One: why have we moved early? We weren’t supposed to come here until after school finished for the summer, and the house isn’t even ready. Two: why isn’t Dad with us?
Kit pictured his father trapped somewhere in a seventh-floor office, looking for a way to escape and be reunited with his family. For some reason the whole subject made his mother cross. When he had asked her about it earlier, from the back seat of the car on the motorway, he had not been able to see her expression, but he had noticed the muscles in her neck and jaw grow tense. He paused to decide what to list next. The topic of Juliet’s exams was also off limits, but that was less mysterious: she tended to turn slightly pale and walk out of the room if you mentioned them. Fortunately, Kit thought exams were a very boring subject anyway. Then there was this place: Askfeld Farm Guest House, the only establishment near their new house in Utterscar with rooms available at such short notice. On the way upstairs they had passed a ground floor room that seemed to be full of books and paintings, but when Kit asked about it Sean had quickly closed the door and told him that room was private and for the use of staff only. But it did not look like any staffroom Kit had ever seen, and he suspected Sean Garsdale was not telling them everything.
Three: what is hidden in the secret room downstairs? There at least was a secret he stood a chance of figuring out without getting into trouble for asking more forbidden questions. He looked at the pile of comic books strewn across the duvet. Not one of the cape-clad characters looking out from the covers would shirk the chance to solve these mysteries. What’s more, they would certainly find a way to fix the problem of his family’s sudden strange behaviour. If Kit was going to be helpful, it wasn’t because his mother had told him to; it was because it was just what a hero would do in this situation.
“Mum! Can I go and explore?” Kit put his head round the door of his mother and sister’s room. “I’ve unpacked! Well, mostly.” Technically, he had put his comic book collection on top of the bedside table, but that had to count for something. His clothes could stay in the case until he actually needed to wear them.
Catherine held up a hand to tell him to wait. She was pressing the phone to her ear with one hand, while hanging up a silk blouse with the other. Juliet was arranging her school files on the windowsill, their bright colours obscuring the view outside. She did not turn around or seem to have noticed Kit come into the room.
“Laura? Can you hear me all right? I’m sorry, the reception is terrible here. Listen, you’ll need my report for tomorrow’s meeting with the directors. I left a copy on Colin’s desk, but he won’t think to bring it – in fact, it’s probably already buried in his bombsite of an in-tray – so I’m going to email it to you as well. No, it’s no trouble at all. It should all be self-explanatory, but if you need me to go through it before the meeting, have Debbie set up a conference call. Yes, we’ve arrived safely, thank you. The place where we’re staying is ever so quaint! Real rustic charm, and fabulous views of the sea. But the owner – he’s just so young.Well, he’s probably close to thirty and I’m showing my age, but when we first arrived, I thought we were being met by the work experience student! OK, I’ll let you get back to work now. But if you need anything else for the directors, just let me know.”
She finished off her call and asked Kit to repeat his question.
“Is it OK if I go looking around?”
“Only indoors, and don’t go disturbing the other guests.” She smoothed invisible creases out of her navy blue dress: the one she wore to important meetings. She liked to tell Kit and Juliet that people took her seriously in that outfit, though Kit could not imagine anyone daring not to take his mother seriously, whatever she wore. She wasn’t the sort of person you ignored.
The house was old, which Kit liked. Their mother had told them on the journey up that it had once been a farmhouse, built hundreds of years ago, and only recently converted into a bed and breakfast. Kit ran his hand along the white-painted wall of the stairwell, wondering what history the stones remembered. What wars, storms, and famines had they weathered? They were cold to the touch, with an uneven finish that meant the wooden stairs had been cut into odd shapes with awkward angles so they would fit in the available space.
His mother had said to stay indoors, and not to bother the other guests. She had said nothing about the staff or secret rooms. It was time to investigate what mysteries Askfeld hid.
CHAPTER 2 – ADVENTURES IN STILLNESS
DAY ONE, MYSTERY NOTES: For a secret room, it doesn’t look very well guarded. No sign of motion sensors, infra-red cameras or guard dogs so far. Can guard dogs be trained not to bark so you don’t know they’re there? I don’t mind friendly dogs, but the big police dogs they brought into school last year looked like they could bite your arm off.
The hallway was empty. Through the glass pane next to the front door, he could see Sean striding away across the grass towards a dilapidated building that might once have been stables. A draught slipped in through a window frame’s ageing timbers and rattled the frayed twine garland of seashells that hung along the opposite wall. He was willing to bet that the out-of-bounds room was not even locked. There was only one way to test his theory. He reached for the handle and the door opened easily, just as he had predicted.
The room was lit only by daylight pouring in through a wide window. The bookcases Kit had glimpsed through the doorway earlier lined the wall nearest him. By the opposite wall was a table set up with watercolours and a sketchbook. Paintings lay propped up in corners or against furniture; an empty canvas leaned against the table and in one corner an easel had been set up with a half-finished picture of a ship at sea. Beside the window sat a woman in a wicker chair, with a gingham blanket over her legs. She was young and pretty, with a bob of brown hair framing the sort of face that probably looked friendly even when it wasn’t thinking about anything in particular.
She looked round at the sound of Kit’s voice and smiled. “Hello. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Kit. My name’s Beth. You look like you’re exploring.”
What was she doing? Her hands rested on the arms of the chair. There was no book open in her lap, no screen or headphones in sight to entertain her. It seemed to be just Beth and the window.
“Yeah, I’m only allowed to look around indoors today though. Mum says.”
“Oh well, rules are rules,” she sighed sympathetically.
“Are you on holiday here?” Kit wondered if this conversation would count as bothering the other guests.
“No, I live here. Did you meet Sean when you arrived?”
“Well, he and I are married, and we own Askfeld Farm.”
That was good news. He had not been forbidden from talking to the owners. It occurred to him that Beth had the same accent as Sean. He liked the sound of it: it was less brisk and clipped than the way his parents and teachers spoke.
“Are you looking for something out there?” Kit pointed at the window Beth’s chair was facing. It looked out on a stretch of overgrown grass leading to the edge of the cliff and then the great grey sea rising and falling in flecks of white foam. It was not bright and beautiful, the way a picture-perfect summer holiday snap might be, but it was striking in its vastness all the same. Like discovering a giant, Kit thought: at once both frightening and incredible, so that it was impossible to look away.
Claire Wong is originally from Wales and now lives in Yorkshire. She studied Classics at Oxford University. In 2005 she was awarded the Owen Sheers Poetry Prize, and the Laurie Magnus Poetry Prize in 2006. Claire works in charity communications, where she has the privilege of sharing uplifting stories through press releases, newsletters and articles every day.
Follow Claire on Twitter: @ClaireRWong #AMAPOFTHESKY