Today they’d take down the moon. Megan walked home past the cold playing fields, watching the few clouds scurry away. At least they might have a clear view, this last time. She loved the moon and she couldn’t understand why it had to go.
Megan hoped to see the pale boy again, or his paintings. There were thick trees behind the grey concrete changing rooms, hiding the back wall. You had to go into the wood to see. Megan slipped between the trunks, seeing the first yellow in the leaves. In dry weather you could smell old wee. She kicked through bottles and spray cans and those squishy things like little deflated balloons. If there were older kids around, she wouldn’t go in. That was asking for trouble.
The boy must have finished his picture on that unpromising backdrop. Where was he? Often he painted a tree with four branches, radiating out. One branch bore bright flowers like the sun, one was green leaves, then leaves were flame red. She knew lots of trees but none had leaves that shape. The fourth branch was bare but white with snow. He tagged them L.
Today she saw, a different picture; a closed door, dark blue with studs like stars. A lion slept to the left and a lioness to the right, chained.
She found where to stand. She’d seen him a few times, no higher than she was. A red wool hat pulled down over his ears, grey eyes no darker than his face, and a smoke-coloured coat like swirling static that swamped him, right down to his shins. He held up a hand in welcome, but never said much, some boys didn’t. Megan thought he’d painted this just for her.
She must get home. Mum said, they should get people to cut down the trees, make the back of the place safe. Anything could lurk in there and a little kid might get trapped. Mum said people, but she meant Shirkers, that’s what Donna’s Mum and Donna always called them, and the teachers. They were the people in the yellow jackets who coughed and limped and didn’t say much, picking up litter and digging out drains. Once or twice they smiled but that was rare. Dad ran away because he didn’t want to be a Shirker.
It wasn’t much, playing fields, and a few old swings and slides. But the road by it had one extraordinary thing. They lived high above London and so many people didn’t know. This one road turned into a hill and plunged down, the houses parted, showing the city for miles and miles, like from a plane.
Megan liked it when things surprised you. You saw London right into the distance, out over jumbled roofs to the Towers. Down there somewhere the river flowed as it had since the Romans. When Dad had a job they’d gone on a boat, right down to Greenwich and back, and she’d been too little to understand the joke the man said about pirates and mermaids.
The Towers ruled the horizon, out of all scale, glass and stone and topped at night with flashing lights so planes wouldn’t fly into them. If she had a glider, and ran hard enough, she could fly to the Towers, where all the money was, and get some, for the electricity, and Christmas presents.
At home Mum fed Benny with a spoon. She smiled a tired smile and said, ‘Soup tonight’. That wasn’t as bad as it sounded because Mum made the soup from greens and potatoes, it was like eating stew really, and they had a little cheese on toast. Megan ate lunch at school but it stressed Mum out if she didn’t eat. Megan gave her Shirker friend Faisal her rice pudding because he was always hungry and she didn’t like it really. He said they wanted to give the Shirkers a different uniform, although the teachers said that was a wicked Troublemaker rumour.
The silent news on TV, the glorious moon in close-up and some angry looking people waved placards and shouted without noise. Then a very polished man, and a woman with perfect hair like Barbie, talked to each other in important faces.
‘How are they going to take the moon?’ Megan asked. Her Mum looked harassed.
‘Ask your teachers,’ she said.
You’d be able to see the moon on Pay Per View. But the days of the silver disc just rising over the roofs, just being for nothing, were over. Megan always thought the moon rising in the day was fun, like a pretty girl breaking the rules.
Once Dad took her into the park at night and tried to show her the stars. A thin slice of moon was best, he said, a big moon would hide them. For real stars you needed to go into the country. His voice was always thick and sad when he talked about the country. She missed him, but she burned and felt sick inside that he ran away from Mum and then everything got so bad.
‘We’ll take Benny,’ Mum said. Benny waved a fist of food. “She won’t remember but she can say she was there.’
‘Why did we have to sell the moon?’ Megan said.
Once Mum would’ve said, ask Dad, but she didn’t say that any more. Auntie Jo came round a couple of times, with a car boot of shopping. Mum made the tinned ham last ages and ages. But they argued, raised voices, and Aunty Jo hadn’t been for a while. She was Dad’s sister after all.
Mum turned the TV to music and they ate. Megan wondered about the boy, she’d never seen him in school uniform. He didn’t go to her school. Mum didn’t take any of the cheese, but tidying up, she popped what Benny left into her mouth.
The moon, a perfect silver disc sailed half way down the sky. People crowded into the park, like they still did the fireworks. No fireworks last year because of the money. Someone sold hot sausages from a van and loud music played. Too many people, they jostled her, and smelt of frying meat.
Troublemakers, two of them. They were worse than Shirkers.
‘It’s not theirs to sell! What next, the sun?’
They handed out leaflets, which some people took and stuffed in their pockets, and which lots of people didn’t take. Mum pushed Benny and dragged Megan away from them.
‘How’s the moon theirs to sell?’ Megan said. ‘I mean, it’s up there. They didn’t make it…’
‘Well, things are bad and they needed the money,’ Mum said. Benny slumped, half asleep and grizzling.
Megan saw the boy, hands deep in the pockets of his too big coat. She thought he must keep his spray paint in that backpack. Their eyes met, then he looked upward. She’d still never heard him speak.
They… the mysterious They in the Towers… began to take the moon. Bit by bit the moon was eaten away, like a round cake cut into squares. Piece by piece, it disappeared, so the Towers which lost everyone’s money could have more money.
Someone turned the music off. Silence, a shock that this really happened. Then someone shouted, ‘Shame! Shame!’
Square by square the moon disappeared, and now someone banged something metal, maybe a swing or the railings. Bang bang bang. Groans and pushing.
‘Shame! Shame! Smash the Towers!’
Around them, in the streets, Megan heard banging and shouting. A voice rose up from London, a voice of many voices, angry and sad. Megan found her eyes prickling, remembering Dad pointing up at the moon.
Now only a few squares left, and then the moon was gone, forever. The streetlamps flickered, and seemed only half as strong. No stars where the moon had been. A woman wept, two men argued, she saw a teenager try to lift another from the ground.
Mum stooped over Benny. ‘Come on,’ said the boy. He took her hand and led her through the turmoil. Into the woods, the darkness, to the wall he painted.
The wood lit up with a faint silver glow, coming from the door in the picture. The lions stood either side, silent, but awake now, and their chains had fallen. That door opened onto a night sky over roofs and there shone the moon, full, as it always had, a moon they couldn’t sell.
Behind her chanting. ‘Smash the Towers! Smash the Towers!’ There was a siren, screaming, helicopters. Loud bangs might be shots.
‘Step through,’ the boy said, and then he was in the picture, painted turned towards her and holding out his hand. He was painted and yet he moved. Megan’s heart pounded, she had to decide, it felt urgent, like she had to decide now. Step into the picture, or turn and go back to Mum? Leave or stay?
She looked at the moon on the wall, the whole, silver, shining moon, giving itself for nothing, and she decided.