In which we meet our heroine and some of her friends.
Mrs Cotton wiped her hands on her flowery pinnie and hollered out of the back door to her granddaughter.
“Our Polly, get in ‘ere. I put your tea on the table five minutes ago.” Polly sighed and stood up. She looked at her muddy hands and at her equally muddy socks.
“Ah well,” she sighed to no-one in particular. “I’m in trouble for those anyway.” She bent down and wiped her hands on her socks. “Ta-ra a bit” she said to whoever was listening, and set off up the garden to the house.
“What’s for tea then?” said Polly, as she stepped through the multi-coloured fly screen into her Grandma’s kitchen.
“Spaghetti Bolognese”, barked her grandmother. Eat all of it.” Mrs Cotton wandered over to the telly and Polly was relieved that her dirty socks had not been noticed. Grandma was obsessed with cleanliness and Polly’s liking for getting dirty was a constant source of argument.
Polly looked at her plate as she sat on the chair. The meal in front of her was remarkably like the dish she’d invented for Robin. Robin called it “Spitty Polly Knees” and liked it very much, but it took a lot of preparation. Polly didn’t mind though; Robin was a good friend and she didn’t mind digging in the compost heap for the little red worms that the recipe required.
Polly ate quickly. A few bits of spaghetti landed in the pocket of her denim dungarees but she didn’t stop to get them out; she could do that later. She was eager to go back out because it was at about this time that Wesley would appear. He loved evenings on the canal and Polly could slip through the gap into the hedge and climb the embankment onto the towpath. Sometimes Robin would join them too, but he was really always happier in the garden.
Polly scraped the last bit of minced beef into her mouth and yelled in to Grandma, “I’m off out again, okay? Won’t be late.” She scarpered before Mrs Cotton had a chance to tell her she couldn’t go back out and was soon through the hedge and up the bank. She was good at it now and rarely so much as scraped her hands on the brambles.
The canal was not well kept round the back of Polly’s house. Before, when she lived with Mom and Dad and they’d just visit Grandma for a day occasionally, she’d thought it boring and quite nasty. There was a factory on the other side and the water often had a greasy sheen to it. Cyclists would come tearing down the towpath ringing their bells and Polly had thought they’d knock her into the filthy water, and she just couldn’t understand why the old man from number 7 had put a gate at the end of his garden just so he could easily get out there to go and fish. Now, Polly liked the canal – she still couldn’t see why anyone would just sit there though.
She shouldered her way through the hawthorn bushes, slid down onto the towpath and looked for her friends. No sign of Wesley. There was a big fat bumble bee busy round some yellow flowers, and some shiny bluebottles crawling over something a dog had left behind, but no Wesley. Polly wasn’t really friendly with these creatures. The bumble bees were really quite shy and the flies only liked each other.
“No point calling him,” Polly thought to herself. “I’ll just wait.” She kicked a stone into the water and waved at Hephzibah, who was paddling around in front of the factory with her ducklings. She reached into her pocket and found a lolly she’d started earlier. She picked off the fluff and popped it into her mouth, and was just starting to hum a little tune to herself when she saw a flash of blue in the bank. Wesley fluttered out, circled her head three times then hovered in front of her.
“’Allo Poll,” he said.
“Hi Wes,” replied Poll with a smile. “Could you back off a bit please, you’re too close and I can’t focus.” Wesley fluttered into reverse and grinned at her, his big insect eyes bulging.
“Not really,” Polly muttered. “I don’t like that school. I don’t like the teachers. I don’t like the kids. And the uniform. Urgh.”
“You didn’t like the canal when you first came, Poll,” remarked Wesley, sensibly. “Give it a chance.”
Polly carried on whining. “It’s alright for you. You don’t have to go to school.”
“No, that’s true.” Wesley whizzed off to a bramble and inspected a blackberry. “I can learn everything a dragonfly needs to know right here. Mind you,” he continued, “considering how stupid some humans are, I don’t know whether your schools are up to much anyway.”
Polly laughed. She knew what was coming next. Wesley didn’t think people understood the world much at all.
Polly and Wesley made their way along the towpath. As they came to the bridge Polly went under, holding her nose because of the horrible smells, and Wesley flew over the top. They met again at the other side and while Polly ran up the metal steps and dropped her lolly stick into the bin, Wesley had a quick snack of some mosquitoes that were loitering about the tunnel entrance.
“How long you got?” asked Wesley.
“Not long,” said Polly, pulling a piece of spaghetti out of her pocket and throwing it in the general direction of a scruffy-looking pigeon. “Gran will be cross with me for coming back out, I expect. Shall we go and see if Squidger’s about? I could do with cheering up.”
Wesley laughed, rolled his insect eyes and accelerated into the bushes. “Grab some of those,” he said, indicating some ripe blackberries. “Squidger’ll like them.”
Polly filled her pocket with ripe fruit and the two of them continued to the tree where Squidger had tried to build a dray. They heard some scuttling and a handful of twigs fell. They giggled as Squidger’s tail appeared, then Squidger’s body followed.
“Oi!” whispered Squidger. “What do you want?”
“It’s us, Squidger,” said Polly. “Don’t be so fretful.”
“Poll. Wes.” Squidger looked furtively to the left then to the right. “They’re after me.”
Polly handed Squidger a blackberry and he sniffed it. He ran up the tree with the fruit in his mouth, and then reappeared with a purple face.
“’Sploded!” he said in a horrified voice. “Booby trapped fruit.” By this point Polly and Wesley were laughing hysterically. Poor old Squidger was convinced that his life was in danger; that someone or something was out to get him.
“They’re just ripe, you nutty old thing,” giggled Polly. “Try another.”
Hesitantly, Squidger took another blackberry and pulled it apart. He popped piece after piece into his mouth, then ran back up his tree. He reappeared moments later wailing “Somebody’s nicked my blackberries!”
Wesley and Polly looked at one another and then at Squidger.
“They’re in Polly’s pocket,” said Wesley gently. Squidger rubbed his eyes, then wiped his mouth with the back of his little paw before running back up his tree. On his almost immediate return he glared at Polly.
“You nicked ‘em!” he hissed. “You’re supposed to be my friend.”
“No Squidge,” said Polly gently. “I haven’t stolen them. They’re a gift and I haven’t given them to you yet.” Squidger once again shot up the tree and this time emerged from the base of the bush behind them.
“A gift!” he cried. “Happy birthday Squidger! Merry Christmas Squidger! Congratulations Mister Squirrel!” He somersaulted over a branch three times, ran back up his own tree then down it again, gathered up the fruit that Polly had placed on a leaf for him and carried it up to his scruffy dray. He waved to them from above, dropped two blackberries back down to them and yelled “cheerio!” before disappearing.
“I’d better go too,” said Polly. “I’ll be in trouble as it is. See you tomorrow?”
“You will,” answered Wesley, before immediately whizzing out of sight leaving Polly alone on the towpath.
Polly reluctantly reversed her journey; through the smelly tunnel, along the towpath, past Hephzibah and the ducklings (who were being counted ready for bedtime), through the hawthorn and up the bank behind her garden. She scrambled through the hedge and picked a twig out of her hair, and heard her Grandmother’s call.
“Our Polly, get in ‘ere. Your bath’s run and you need to get sorted for school.” Polly sighed and hurried up the garden, through the back door and into the kitchen, desperately trying to think of a way to explain the blackberry stains on her clothes.