And here is my final piece of FutureLearn coursework. Turns out that ‘borrowing’ from old folk tales is a useful way of not having to come up with your own plots! (That’s probably not in the spirit of the course really, is it?) Sad to see the end of the course, as now I will have to write without the impetus of doing it as ‘homework’.
This is a darker piece than I’d normally go for, so I’d be interested to hear what people think!
Cynthia peered out from behind the rock and stared, eyes wide, as the other children hurled themselves off the cliff and into the sea.
Those not queuing to throw their bodies into the ocean were dancing – to a tune that Cynthia, of course, couldn’t hear – apparently oblivious to everything but the music played by the man in black. She wondered where the grown-ups were, and why no-one was coming to help.
She’d watched the rats go. She’d crouched behind the bins, away from the rich and well-to-do of the city, as the man in black pursed his lips, put his pipe to his mouth and blew. Being deaf, she couldn’t hear the sound that came out, but whatever it was certainly attracted the rats. They appeared in their hundreds, maybe thousands, and flocked after the man as he stalked off down the road. Two hours later, he was back, with no rats to be seen. He met the mayor in the town centre, just outside the ramshackle old inn. She hadn’t needed to be able to hear to understand that a row was going on. Onlookers gathered as the mayor shook his head and the man in black ranted, raved and shook with anger. He, eventually, walked away and the mayor, old sot that he is, went into the inn for a flagon or seven. On the house, no doubt.
That night at midnight Cynthia was in what passed for her bed, a soggy cardboard box down an alleyway off the town square. That was when she’d seen the man in black return, and stop dead in the square’s centre. Being homeless, deaf and eleven years old – an easy target for most of the town’s oh-so fine and upstanding citizens – Cynthia was adept at keeping out of sight when she needed to and now, as the man stood in the lantern-light, malice radiating from his skinny, sinewy frame, she shrank back into the darkness as far as she could and prayed not to be seen. He put his pipe to his lips once again, and blew.
Children came running almost as fast as the rats. There was that boy who’d thrown stones at her last week. There was Daisy, the innkeeper’s daughter, who’d refused Cynthia a scrap of bread for her begging bowl yesterday. And there, among the throng, was Thomas, the mayor’s son, who’d punched Cynthia in the arm last month when she’d happened to be too near his dad as he strode by. She hadn’t had time to get out of the way, and had earned a wallop for her trouble. Thomas, however, had received a pat on the back and a paternal grin. Hamelin was not a friendly place for the homeless. And if the children were bad, the adults were worse. She’d been kicked, beaten and abused for years, all for the crime of being one of the people Hamelin would rather didn’t exist.
Then the piper turned on his heel and strode stiffly towards the road out of town, trailing children in his wake – some tall, some short, some fat, some thin, all ages and all, as far as Cynthia was concerned, equally vile. She followed from the back of the crowd as they marched past the ‘You Are Now Leaving Hamelin’ sign and onto the path towards the cliffs.
As an experiment, she tried waving her hands in front of the eyes of some of the nearest marchers. Nothing. She tried pulling them back, but it was as if they didn’t even feel it. They just kept on, into the gloom. They looked very strange, pacing through the dark in their fine night-clothes, their bare, pale feet crunching through the gravel. In her rags, she followed.
The number of kids was dwindling fast as, one by one, each child peeled away from the group and danced over the precipice. Cynthia wondered if she should do something. But what? Try and snatch the pipe? She suspected that wouldn’t end well.
She listened to her instinct instead, which, honed by years of living on the street, screamed at her to stay out of sight. Rather than trying to intervene, she just watched. Six children. Five. Four. Three. Two…
Thomas was the last. He bobbed and weaved, a faraway look in his eyes, as he walked towards the cliff edge and stepped into thin air.
The piper stopped playing and stared out to sea for a few seconds. Then he started on the path to the next town. Cynthia waited for what felt like hours and, slowly, fearfully, crept away from the rock.
A bony hand grabbed the back of her neck and swung her round. She stared into the black, dark eyes of the piper. His skin was skull-white, his lips curled back in a snarl. She felt her legs quiver, but forced herself, defiantly, to stand.
The piper’s lips moved. Cynthia did nothing. His lips moved again. Cynthia pointed to her ears and shook her head.
The piper seemed to understand this. He relaxed his grip, and looked her up and down. He took in her mop of thick, black, untamed hair, her dirt-caked face, her torn rags, and seemed to reach a decision. He held out one hand to her, and pointed towards the next town with the other.
She could go with him and then… what? What did he want from her?
Or she could run. She could go back to Hamelin. But once morning came, they’d be looking for someone to blame. She’d be the scapegoat, she knew. And they hadn’t held a public hanging in a while.
It wasn’t really a choice. She took his hand.