Dad knocked on the front door. Catrin stood beside him nervously, wishing that no one would answer and that she could go home. She heard the sound of someone stirring within: footsteps, a voice calling. Then the door opened and at first Catrin could only see the pale blue carpet of the entrance hall stretching in front of her. Looking up, she saw a man with a black beard talking to Dad.
“Come in,” he said. Then he called to someone and a woman appeared from a room off the hall. Behind her was Louisa.
“Louisa here has been so looking forward to seeing you again,” said the woman, “haven’t you, darling?”
Louisa didn’t look as if she had, hiding behind her mother’s legs, her eyes flicking anxiously between the two visitors. She was dressed up in a red checked dress and there was a pretty matching ribbon in her hair.
“Go and show Catrin your toys, Louisa.”
Catrin remembered the play room; it had been empty the last time, with only three dolls they’d fought over. Now the walls had been newly painted pink and the floor was scattered with plastic things. At the centre sat a gleaming play-oven.
“A cooker!” Catrin dashed towards it and knelt in front of the pink and white door. “Let’s be cooks! I can be the cook and you can be the eater.”
She spoke loudly now that the parents had left them alone. Louisa stood next to the oven protectively.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s boring and old.” She sat cross-legged on the floor in front of Catrin, whose heart was still set on the toy-oven. She stared at Catrin intently and whispered, “I’ve got a secret.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a really big secret and I can’t tell anyone!”
“Not even me?”
“No, it’s a big secret.”
Catrin moved closer and matched Louisa’s quiet tone. The far away laughter of the grown-ups murmured through the house, separating the two girls from their old lives as the children of their parents.
“Do they know?”
“No, it’s my secret. Only I know.”
“Will you please tell me, please?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can tell you.” Catrin frowned, threatening tears. “But I can show you! You have to promise that you won’t tell anyone ever!”
“I promise!” Catrin swore the oath, crossing her heart and hoping to die and jumped to her feet. Louisa made a show of creeping to the door and opening it so that the grown-ups wouldn’t hear. They crept to the kitchen, where the smell of something cooking lingered by the worktops. Their parents were in the adjoining room; that door was closed.
Louisa opened the back door and skipped outside. The garden was new to Catrin and so she hesitated, not daring to follow in case Dad found her sneaking off.
“Come on!” Louisa shouted, running in the warm spring air, darting here and there across the lawn; sitting on the string hammock, framed by the heavy red flowers lacing the fence. She was beautiful and light in her movements. Her skin was fair in the sun, and her dark hair danced behind her as she moved, like Snow White. Catrin couldn’t run very fast at all, and her stubby brown hair was tied back in a ponytail. Catrin finally stepped out onto the lawn, but by then Louisa had disappeared, calling to Catrin from a distance.
She saw that Louisa was at the very back of the garden, pointing out the dark fir trees which grew there. It looked like the end of the lawn had been swallowed by a strange forest. What were the trees hiding? And the grown-ups. She could still hear them laughing. Catrin thought: they don’t know where we are, would they know to look for us amongst the firs?
“Come on!” Louisa stamped her foot impatiently, one hand grasping the lower branches of the tree. Her little white hand disappeared under the green pelt. There were only a few steps between this light place with its red flowers and cut lawn, and the wild.
“Are we allowed?” Catrin’s voice shook as she spoke. Louisa laughed and ran away, her bright dress vanishing behind the green.
“Wait!” With a final look at the house, Catrin followed, pushing past the firs and brushing away the cobwebs that trailed across their branches. For a moment, there was only darkness and a prickly wetness wiping her cheek and forehead. Shivering, she emerged on the other side in a little clearing. A few steps away lay an ugly fence which cordoned the garden off from the neighbours. The grass was muddy and yellow here, and in the middle of it was an angry-looking puddle. Louisa’s red dress looked peculiar against its brown water; she was kneeling beside it, her palms pressed into the mud, her stare fixed at the puddle.
“What is it?”
“My secret! Do you like it? Don’t tell anyone!”
Catrin crouched beside her. She saw that a trail of damp mud had smeared Louisa’s hem. Her perfect dark hair had become tousled by the wind, spilling out in all directions and covering the neat band that had so prettily decorated her head. Catrin followed the line of Louisa’s gaze to the puddle. She saw that it was deeper and wider than she had first supposed, overgrown with weeds and strange-looking flat leaves. Insects flitted across the surface. It smelled of rotten things.
“What is it?”
“A pond! My pond!”
“Do they know?”
“No!” Louisa said defiantly.
“You made it yourself?”
“I discovered it myself. I’m an explorer.”
Catrin continued to stare at the slimy water, her knees sinking into the mud. Something moved at the side of her vision. She looked down at the edge of the pond; there, beside her feet, sat a little green frog.
“Look! Look!” Catrin pointed at the creature, which was looking at the pond with its round black eyes. Once or twice it seemed to blink.
“Oooh!” Louisa exclaimed, squatting next to the frog, her face alive with excitement. “Ooh!” She moved her hand towards it, an outstretched finger, Catrin watched, holding her breath. She wanted to say, stop! Don’t touch it! But she remained silent. Louisa’s finger hovered over its tiny back, barely the size of a leaf, and then took it, quickly and decisively, into her hand.
“You’ve got it!”
Louisa turned and offered it to her, her hands covered in mud. “Go on, you take it and I’ll get a pot.”
Louisa’s cold hands touched hers as she dropped the wet frog into her cupped palm. The frog’s movement disgusted Catrin. She couldn’t bear to think of its little wriggling webbed toes, its bulging eyes bumping into the skin of her fingers.
“Don’t lose it!” Louisa ordered as she left.
Catrin clamped her palms together tight. She knew frogs could jump. Jump for miles. They had strong muscly legs, and long sticky tongues. She’d have to make sure this one couldn’t escape otherwise Louisa would laugh at her again. And they wouldn’t have a game to play anymore. And Louisa would never share a secret with her again. “Don’t go Mr Frog!” she whispered, and she kept her hands together, tight, tight. The sun warmed the back of her neck, but those trees, still wet with the dew the sun couldn’t catch, towered over her. The pond squelched and burped with its insects. When would Louisa come back? It felt like a week had passed, an age, and she was still alone. Not even the neighbours were making any noise. She noticed that her trousers had been stained by the pond-water. She imagined falling in. Louisa would come back and find that not only had the frog escaped, but her playmate too. Louisa would cry and cry and try to save Catrin by jumping into the pond. But it would be too late by then. The monsters at the bottom of the pond would have eaten her, grabbed onto her plump ankles and pulled her down into their toothy jaws. And everything would be black in their tummies. But Catrin couldn’t imagine anything further. All she could think of was being in their stomachs forever and ever. But forever was too much to think about for very long.
Where was Louisa? Catrin was afraid to stand up, afraid to follow Louisa when she had told her to stay here and guard the frog. She sat on her bottom in the mud and sang to herself.
“Catrin! Why are you singing?” Louisa had returned, with an empty jam jar in her hand, and laughing again. Catrin felt hot with shame to have been discovered singing by her self.
“Here’s the frog!” Her palms still shut together, like a hard nut, she offered it to Louisa.
Catrin carefully released the frog from her grip at the mouth of the empty jar. It dropped to the bottom. It didn’t move. She had expected it to jump, to twirl and fight against the glass sides, but it didn’t even open its eyes.
“Maybe he’s sleeping?” said Louisa, putting her forefinger inside and poking it. The flesh wobbled. She shook the jar a little. Its little green body shook with it. “What did you do to it?” she demanded.
“Nothing! I just kept him safe! I didn’t do anything!”
“Then why won’t he wake up?” She shook the jar more violently, throwing the frog up and down its narrow prison. As she shook, it fell out of the jar and landed on the grass. The girls looked at it. It didn’t move.
“Is he still sleeping?”
“He’s pretending so that we don’t catch him. Look away!” So they both looked away. When they looked back, it was still there, lying on the mud. Louisa poked it again, flipping the body over with her finger. It lay on its back, its funny backwards legs dangling in the air.
“What did you do?” cried Louisa, jumping up. “You killed him!”
Catrin’s clothes suddenly felt too tight and the sun, the slight spring sun, was burning her. Louisa stood up with her hands on her hips, her dress and hands covered in brown sludge, her face, too, smeared with it so that she looked mad. “You killed him!”
“No! No! I was only holding him. He’s pretending!” The heat increased, shooting down her arms. It was terrible, this feeling, and she wanted to go home now, she wanted to be with Dad and never see this mad girl again. The tears pricked her eyes, wetting the sides of her nose. “I didn’t kill him.” But it was too late now. The frog, smaller and less frightening than Catrin remembered it, still did not move. Louisa moved, angrily striding up and down the length of the clearing.
“What did you do? The poor frog!”
The poor little frog. How could she have done it? How Catrin hated herself! It felt like those monsters of the deep had eaten her all up. She wished they had. Better to be in a monster’s tummy, than to be a murderer.
“I didn’t kill him! It was you who told me to hold him.”
“Frog killer!” Louisa shouted, her hair twitching wildly around her face, her pale face shining against the dark green background. “Killer!”
“No, you’re the killer. You made me hold him.” Catrin screamed, tears streaming down her face, blurring her vision. She ran clumsily to the trees, pushed herself through the thick foliage, and cried out to her Dad in the garden.
“What’s wrong, darling?” The smooth low tones of a grown-up soothed her, a salve to the uncomfortable heat of her skin. She didn’t say anything but let her Dad hold her close to his chest, before putting her on the chair next to him. They gave her a slice of apple cake. She looked at it through her tears and sniffed. Then they put a spoonful of ice cream on it. “Here you go,” said the bearded man whom she didn’t know. Catrin began to eat it. First the apples and then the ice cream. Everything was right again, here in the bright kitchen amongst the chatter of the adults. She’d escaped that place, that secret place. Only Louisa was left there now, alone with that dead thing in the grass.