Read The Secret Message Online

Authors: John Townsend

The Secret Message

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

John McCrae

If any question why we died Tell them that our fathers lied.

Rudyard Kipling

Lying deceives. Hiding the truth destroys.

The difference between a lie and a story is that a lie tries to hide the truth while a story tries to find it.

I never knew it was there. Every night the secret was just above my head, in the darkness. I had no idea … never in my wildest dreams. Then something struck in the middle of the night that changed everything.

Since we moved house three years ago when I was eight, I didn’t have a clue what was up in the loft. But a mystery that no one had discovered
before was just over my bedroom. It was me who eventually found it. It was me who finally worked out the clues, cracked the code and solved the riddle. It was me who uncovered the incredible truth from 100 years ago. It was me who first saw what it all means. You could say it was like double vision. You’ll soon see why.

The question I’m dying to answer now is very simple. Could anyone else work it out and unlock the secret message? Can you? I’ll tell the whole story and you can see for yourself. You might be able to puzzle it out faster than I did – if you can spot the signs. Keep a close lookout for the clues as I tell you the story that stunned my dad, made my mum cry and changed me forever.

I was woken in the middle of the night. A sudden clattering noise filled my room for just a few seconds. I sat up, blinking into total darkness.
After a final click and clunk above my ceiling there was only silence … so I flopped back to sleep.

I forgot all about that noise in the night until next morning, when my little brother Ben blurted, ‘Oh by the way, Mum – someone was up in the roof last night. They were walking around in the loft.’

We all stared at Ben as if he was mad, but then it all came back to me. So I said, ‘Yeah, I remember now – something woke me in the night.’

‘In that case, Sam,’ Dad winked, ‘You can come with me to investigate. But be warned … we might find a dead body.’ He paused for dramatic effect before adding with a smile, ‘I set mousetraps up there a few days ago. Do you still want to climb the ladder into that mousey world of creepy cobwebs?’

I’d only been in the loft once, but I loved it up
there. It wasn’t scary, just full of dusty clutter, dark shapes and boxes covered with curtains. It had strange smells and little piles of chewed cardboard left by mice. It would be a great place for a den. I followed my dad up the ladder and poked my head into the cold, eerie world above our bedrooms. I had to be careful where I trod, because Dad said I mustn’t poke my foot through to the bathroom.

A mousetrap above my bedroom had snapped shut and the cheese had gone. The mouse that woke me in the night had a lucky escape. I lifted a sheet beside another trap and uncovered a stack of cases. It was there I saw a small, brown leather case that looked very old and unusual.

‘What’s this?’ I asked Dad.

‘That belonged to your great great grandfather. Do you remember my Grandad Peter? He left me that case, which was his father’s. I’ve never looked inside as it’s locked and I don’t have the key.
Apparently it’s got stuff about the First World War in it, so I don’t think it will interest you.’

‘Can I bring it down so we can have a look?’ I asked. ‘We’re learning a bit about the war at school.’

He let me carry the little case downstairs where he looked at it carefully.

‘I’m afraid I’ll have to get some tools on this so we can open it up,’ Dad said.

He then went to a drawer and, after a lot of searching, he found an old photograph and put it in my hand. ‘This was the owner of that case. Meet your great great grandad. You’re in for a shock, Sam.’

I stared at the face of a boy standing in a cornfield. He was dressed very smartly in an
old-fashioned
school uniform with an unusual collar. On the back of the photo there was faded writing in pencil:
GH 1911
. But it was the boy’s face I couldn’t stop staring at. It was just like I was
looking in a mirror. If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have sworn it was me.

If you ask me, all babies look alike. I don’t know why grown-ups go on and on about which relatives a new baby looks like most. When my little sister was born, Dad and I laughed every time someone said, ‘Oh, doesn’t she look just like Ems when she was a baby?’ Ems is my mum and she told me it was just the same when I was born – when old aunties kept saying, ‘Oh, doesn’t Sam
look just like his great great grandad? He’s the spitting image – an exact double.’

I’ve grown up knowing that long ago a man I never knew looked just like me. I’d seen some of the crumpled brown photos in a box in Dad’s desk, but I hadn’t seen the one of the boy in the field before. I have to agree that we do look so alike. I think it’s our eyes and the shape of our chin.

My younger twin brothers, Ben and Tom, look nothing like me. They just look like each other! Twins, so they say, run in our family (Dad says noses do, too!) so I’ve always felt a bit left out by not being a twin myself. But I think it’s really cool to have a sort of twin from the past, even though he died long ago and we never met. He’s made me feel a bit special sometimes … but nothing like as extraordinary as when I saw that photo. It was the moment I knew I had to find out more about my twin from 100 years ago.

My dad gave me a little frame to put the photo in. He said, ‘You can hang it on your bedroom wall with your drawings.’ So that’s what I did. I put it between my two favourite paintings. One is a flying skylark which I drew from a book and then added a tree and a field in the background. The other is a close-up of a poppy I picked from a ditch. I thought it looked so lonely with its bent stalk, so I put it in a jar and painted it in watercolours. Everyone said what a good job I’d done, so I’m really proud of those two pictures. But now I have a third to look at every night before I go to sleep. It’s my twin in a suit with a strange collar.

I was drawing at the kitchen table when Dad came in with that case I’d found. He said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve had to mangle it up to get it open, but at least you can now look at what’s in it. Nothing much!’

The case was lined with smooth red silk and
there were just two books inside. One was a small black Bible and the other had a burgundy leather cover.

‘It looks as if your great great grandad typed up his memoirs and stuck them on the pages in that book. I haven’t read them yet, so maybe you’d like to take first peep, Sam.’ Dad then put another battered little case on the table, which he unzipped to show an old portable typewriter inside. ‘I remember my grandad telling me this belonged to his father as well. It must have been used to type those pages.’

I gently placed my fingers on the typewriter keys. It felt really weird to be touching something that my twin had once touched. It was also weird that four of the keys had blobs of hard wax stuck on them. ‘Why are those letters blotted out?’ I asked.

Dad shook his head. ‘No idea. Maybe he didn’t like …’ he paused to work out which keys were
covered, ‘… 6, Y, H and N. Maybe hot wax spilled over the typewriter and set on those particular keys. Anyway – have a little read and let me know if you find anything interesting in that leather book. Don’t expect anything too exciting!’

Little did my dad know what I was about to discover. When I went to bed that night, I opened the book and slowly began to read the first page. Like all the pages, it had a typed sheet of thin paper stuck on it. A few inside were upside down. I must have been the first person for ages to read these forgotten words that were older than my dad. Maybe no one alive knew what story they told.

I so wanted to find out about the man who was my double – or maybe I’m his double. So I plumped up the pillows on my bed, pulled the duvet up to my chin and began reading the faint words in front of me …

O
UR
S
TORY

by Frederick Ovel

There is more to Freddy Ovel than meets the eye (and far more than meets his own eye).

On his 80
th
birthday (in 1980) it is time, at last, to tell the whole story.

The basic facts are these: Freddy was born in a little cottage in the heart of the countryside. It belonged to the Squire, as did much of the land for miles around. Freddy’s
father worked in the Squire’s stables – not that Freddy ever knew Pa, who was killed by a carthorse in an accident shortly before Freddy was born.

The Squire let Mrs Ovel and her children (Freddy, brother Harry and sister Maud) stay on in the cottage, despite there being no breadwinner to pay the rent. Ma worked hard tending a plot of land to grow food for the family and to sell for a few pennies. But country children at that time, more often than not, had an absolute whale of a time. The glorious fields were a wonderland of adventure – and the hay meadow was a magical, summer playground. It was another world then.

Squire Hoadley and his bossy wife lived at
The Grange
, in beautiful grounds surrounded by tall hedges, up a long drive behind ornate iron gates that were always shut. Everyone
said their only child, Giles Hoadley, was ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ and never allowed into the village. Much of the time he lived away at boarding school and never set eyes on other children in the village. Giles had a privileged childhood in so many ways, yet he was starved of the most important thing of all – a loving family. Freddy, on the other hand, had the happiest of families, despite all their hardships. These two boys, like flip-sides of a coin, grew up less than a mile apart yet without ever meeting – for all intents and purposes … at least, to begin with.

In the cottage next to the Ovels lived another family, with two children; Daisy and Gordon. Both families shared a pig that they fattened on scraps all year, till the day the pig man called. After the killing and butchering, the two families had half each to salt and hang up for ham and bacon through the winter.

Daisy from next door was best friends with Maud and Harry, while Freddy looked after her brother. Some people in the village called Gordon a simpleton. In fact, he’d had a head injury as a baby. At the village cricket match a ball flew to the boundary and smashed into his pram. He was lucky to survive but his abilities were impaired, which made most children laugh at him … but never Freddy – who cared for him like a brother.

It was in the summer of 1911 when Freddy’s life changed. One evening, as the children ran through the hay meadow, Freddy happened to look across the valley into the Squire’s orchard, lit magically by a crimson setting sun.

‘Hey, look at all them bright red cherries in the trees,’ he panted. ‘How about picking a few?’

Maud cuffed him round the head. ‘Don’t you dare think about such things, Freddy Ovel. Ma would skin you alive if she ever found out. It isn’t just stealing. You know what she says about you going anywhere near the Squire’s land.’

Harry joined in. ‘Maud and me can go in the Squire’s wood, but you’re strictly forbidden, Freddy. Ma says you’re the baby of the family and must stay close to home. She lost Pa on the Squire’s estate, so she says she can’t risk her youngest going there.’

Gordon looked up and said slowly, ‘Is the Squire a bad man, then?’

‘No, Gordon,’ Freddy answered calmly, ‘The Squire’s been very good to let us stay in his cottage, as we can’t afford to pay the rent. He’s usually quick to turf people out, but Ma says we’ve been “mercifully spared”.’

Daisy grabbed Gordon by the hand and ran
to the top of the hill, with Maud and Harry in hot pursuit. Freddy stood where he was and stared across at the orchard. The
cherry-pickers
had gone and their ladders were still propped against the trees … waiting.

‘I love cherries,’ Freddy whispered. He looked all around, but the others had disappeared over the brow of the hill. It was now or never … so he darted back down the valley, leapt over the brook and clambered the fence into the orchard. He was soon up in the branches, laden with the plumpest of ripe fruit. Just as he crammed yet another handful of cherries into his mouth, he heard a voice below.

‘Are you one of Papa’s cherry pickers by any chance?’

Almost falling out of the tree, Freddy quickly wiped the juice from his mouth and dropped to the ground, twisting his ankle as
he landed with a thud. Despite the pain and a cherry stone in his throat, he tried to speak as calmly as he could manage.

‘I’m exploring, that’s all. Just admiring the view. Hope you don’t mind.’ He began choking as he looked up to see a pair of eyes staring back at him. Deep blue eyes just like his own … from a face exactly like his – but without the scratches. The boy staring at him in disbelief was the same height and build, but he wore a tweed suit with buttoned waistcoat and Eton collar.

‘How extraordinary,’ the boy said. ‘Whoever are you?’

‘I’m Freddy. Freddy Ovel from just down the brook. I’ve never seen you round here before.’

The boy held a sketchpad and pencil. ‘Remarkable. Not that I live here much. I’ve only just returned from boarding school.’

‘Is your pa the Squire?’

‘That’s right. I’ve come down here to
sketch. Are you all right? You seem to be making a strange face.’

Freddy tried to stop wincing. ‘It’s my ankle, that’s all – but if my face is strange, so is yours! You look just like …’

‘Yes, I know. It’s absurd. Listen, I think I need to tell you something …’

Freddy knew he could get in big trouble. He’d been caught red-handed by the Squire’s own son. He tried to change the subject. ‘I like drawing, too. Can I see your sketch?’

The boy held out his pad. ‘Of course. This is only a line drawing, but I may paint it later. My nanny showed me how to do different types of shading – do you see?’

Freddy was impressed. ‘That’s so clever. I wish I could draw like that. Er … how old are you?’

The boy tucked the drawing under his arm and carefully placed the pencil in his breast pocket. ‘I shall be twelve in January.’

Freddy gasped. ‘It wouldn’t be the seventeenth, would it?’

‘However did you know? Have you got psychic powers?’ He stared at Freddy in stunned silence before leaning forward and peering directly into his eyes. ‘Would you mind if I just look at your eyes really closely?’ They stood nose to nose. ‘How peculiar! How tall are you?’

Freddy shrugged as the boy announced, ‘I suggest we stand back to back and compare heights. We seem to be like two peas in a pod.’ His hand rested on the top of both their heads. ‘Put your hand against mine. That’s amazing. We’re completely identical. I’m Giles, by the way. But listen, I’ve got to tell you something about the cherries …’

Freddy felt himself blushing. ‘Sorry. You’re not going to tell anyone are you? I only ate a few.’

‘I thought as much. In that case, you ought to know the truth. For some reason, most of those cherries are full of maggots.’

Whether it was the effect of what he heard, the shooting pain in his ankle or the shock of meeting his double, Freddy was violently sick … before he passed out.

It was the smell of horses that dragged him back. Freddy opened his eyes and blinked up at a wooden roof and straw bales stacked in a tottering pile. He heard a horse snorting close by and the distant trilling of a skylark. Then he felt the warm, syrupy cherry-sick sticking to his shirt and the burning in his throat. As the cramps in his stomach returned, he began retching again.

‘Here he is. This is the boy. I managed to get him into the stable, but I think he needs a doctor.’ Giles stood over him anxiously, as the
Squire’s housekeeper bustled in with a bucket and cloth. ‘Do you think he’s going to live, Miss Greet?’

She stooped to wipe Freddy’s face, but when she saw it, she froze. He looked up at her and groaned. ‘I’m sorry. I’m never going to eat another cherry as long as I live.’

‘Oh glory! Cherries are the least of our worries,’ Miss Greet mumbled, propping him against a bale before adding, ‘You shouldn’t have fetched me, Master Giles.’

‘I couldn’t ask Mama as she doesn’t like to get her hands grubby, and she won’t let me talk to the villagers.’

Miss Greet responded curtly, ‘You were right not to tell her. She must never know.’

Giles stepped back as Freddy was sick again. ‘I think he must have eaten a lot of cherries.’

She wiped her hands on her apron and
sighed. ‘I’m not bothered right now about wretched cherries. And I suggest you forget about them, too. I’ve got serious thinking to do. I always knew it was wrong to split twins up like that.’

Freddy pulled himself up and repeated feebly, ‘Twins?’

She hesitated before gabbling on without taking a breath, ‘This has really let the cat out the bag. I’ll get shot if they find out. But I suppose it’s only right you hear the truth, now that you’ve met. I always knew it was bound to happen. But you must both promise me never to say anything. Will you promise to keep this a secret and never tell a soul?’ They both nodded, looking completely confused.

‘In that case,’ she went on, ‘this is the gist of it … and to think it’s in here where it happened shortly before you were born. It was only my second week of working for the
Squire as housekeeper when the accident happened. This was where your poor father met his end. A terrible accident. I fetched the doctor but it was too late.’

Freddy sat up on the bale. ‘Ma’s told me about how Pa died and how our cottage came with his job. She says we’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to stay on without having to pay rent to the Squire.’

Giles was still frowning as Miss Greet continued in a secretive whisper. ‘Your poor mother, Freddy. She was in a terrible state. She could hardly afford to feed her older children, let alone the third due. When it turned out to be twin boys, you can imagine her anguish. Not that she didn’t want to keep both, of course. But she knew you’d all end up in the workhouse and her children would doubtless be taken away.’

Giles spoke for the first time. ‘That’s
terrible. So what about … I mean, what about my Mama?’

‘She couldn’t have children of her own, and the Squire was desperate for a son and heir to carry on the Hoadley name. The agreement was that he would let your ma stay on in the cottage if they could raise one of her babies as theirs. But the deal was that no one must ever know, or she’d have to move away. And that would mean the workhouse – so she had to agree never to set eyes on her adopted son and never to speak of him again.’

Giles sat beside Freddy on the bale in total disbelief. ‘Me. So I was the one to come and live here?’

‘That’s right,’ she went on, looking over her shoulder as if the horses were listening to every forbidden word. ‘But I’ve been sworn to secrecy and it’s more than my job’s worth. It’s just that when I saw you together just now, it
seemed … No, I should have kept my mouth shut. Forgive me for telling.’

Giles turned to look at Freddy directly. ‘It’s all a bit of a shock, actually. I woke up this morning an only child, and now I’ve got a brother. And he looks like … that!’

Freddy smiled for the first time. ‘Two brothers, actually. Harry’s a couple of years older. And a sister. Maud’s a year older than us. You’ll have to come and meet them.’

Miss Greet shouted, startling one of the horses. ‘No! That you can’t do. Never. I wish I hadn’t spilled the beans now. I reckon I’ve well and truly upset the applecart.’

After a long pause, Giles stood and said thoughtfully, ‘I’m glad you’ve told us, Miss Greet. It just takes some getting used to, that’s all. Don’t you think so, Freddy? We can still see each other. We can meet in secret. I’d like that.’

The colour was returning to Freddy’s cheeks as he stood to look Giles in the face. ‘I won’t tell a living soul. Besides, if I say anything to Ma, she’ll box my ears for coming on the Squire’s land.’

‘In that case,’ Giles said, offering his hand, ‘we’d better shake. As a pact. We’ll swear an oath to be loyal to each other and always keep our friendship a secret. We must never tell anyone without each other’s permission.’

They shook hands firmly and their promise was sealed. Forever.

Other books

Snow Dog by Malorie Blackman
As the World Churns by Tamar Myers
The Deadly Sky by Doris Piserchia
Last Ditch by G. M. Ford
Sookie and The Snow Chicken by Aspinall, Margaret
The Wild Heart by Menon, David
Malice On The Moors by Graham Thomas
Secrets to Seducing a Scot by Michelle Marcos