The String Games

Chapter 1

Nim  peeled the glossy cover of the road atlas from her legs and shoved the book into the door pocket. Winding the window handle, she made the glass disappear into the panel and gusts of air pummelled her ears, drowning Josh’s chatter from the back seat. Beside the road, puffs of dust turned the colours grimy. Trees were limp under the sun and yellowing banks of grass needed a good cut. There weren’t any pavements in this part of France, so a man with caramel skin dragged his box on wheels at the roadside. His springy hair was layered with a scattering of dirt. Lifting his hand to wave, he stepped into the path of the car and Mum swerved, making the tyres shriek and sending Nim jolting forward. The engine spluttered and stopped, leaving the car pointing at some bushes.

‘Bloody idiot.’ Mum sank her head to the steering wheel. ‘Thank Christ I missed him.’

Nim moved her seat belt to stop it digging into her shoulder.

‘All his stuff’s gone in the road.’ Josh could see everything from his booster seat. ‘Let’s go and help.’

‘You stay here.’ Mum yanked her door open and left it hanging like a broken wing. She bent to pick up packages that had skidded towards the car. Josh scrambled across the front seats and leaned out for a better view. ‘I think they’re football shirts. See, the man’s folding a red one.’

‘Wait,’ said Nim, but Josh jumped out of the car and darted to grab one of the shirts that had ripped from its packaging. He held it against his chest, but the hem came down so far it looked more like a dress.

‘Get back in the car,’ Mum yelled, making Nim glad she had stayed put.

‘It’s a bit big for me,’ said Josh.

Mum snatched the football shirt. ‘Do as you’re told, Josh.’

As soon as Mum turned, Josh dashed to pick up another shirt, but this time he took steady steps towards the man and offered it to him like a gift. The man grunted and piled the last of the shirts Mum had collected into the ripped cardboard box and secured the lot with an elastic snake. Mum mumbled something Nim couldn’t hear and she gave Josh a push, sending him in the direction of the car.

‘I want a football shirt.’ Josh squeezed through the front seats back to his place.

‘You know what Mum says: askers don’t get.’ ‘But he’s got loads.’

‘Doesn’t mean one of them is for you. Keep quiet now, Mum’s on her way.’

Mum flopped into the driver’s seat like she was made of rubber. The fob on the key chain clunked as she turned the engine on. ‘That was a close call.’

‘Is the man okay?’ asked Nim. ‘Of course he is,’ said Mum.

They followed faded signs that showed the words Le Camping, and Nim realised they must be very close. After passing another bundle of trees and a rock the size of a dog’s kennel, there came a sign that pointed left. The car wriggled along a drive and went past a picnic area where families sat in the shade. Nim stretched her neck to gawp at the old men who were chucking silver balls onto the ground.

‘What are they doing?’ asked Nim.

‘It’s called boules,’ said Mum. ‘Strange sort of game, but that’s the French for you.’

Mum tugged the wheel and drew the car to a stop in front of a shop. She put her hands behind her head and opened her mouth so wide Nim could see a flash of metal fillings. It wasn’t polite to yawn without covering your mouth, but the rules didn’t always apply to adults.

‘Would you believe it?’ said Mum. ‘Non-stop talking all the way here and Josh has finally nodded off.’

Nim turned to see her brother slumped against the

window, his white-blond curls wet around his forehead. ‘He’s dead to the world.’ Nim reached for his shorts and gave them a tug. Josh’s head flopped to the side and his Thomas the Tank Engine fell from his lap.

‘Let him sleep,’ said Mum. ‘I’ll get the keys.’

Mum walked to a door labelled La Reception du Camping. Understanding the language was going to be easy. After the summer holidays, Nim would have proper lessons taught by a lady called Madame. That was one of the good things about going into Year Six at Whitlock Primary, and with Josh starting in Reception, she’d be able to keep an eye on him at playtime.

A ripping noise came from the back seat and Nim hoped the pong wouldn’t carry. When the boys at school farted everyone thought it was funny, but Josh wasn’t being rude; farting in his sleep didn’t count. As the fumes hit, Nim crinkled her nose and grappled with the door to escape into the fresh air. She knew it wasn’t a good idea to leave Josh on his own, but a few minutes wouldn’t matter. Wandering over to where the road bent, she counted the caravans lined up in a row. There were twelve in the first section. Most were pea-coloured, with large windows to the front. She didn’t know how much room there was inside, but staying in one might be a bit of a squash when Dee and Ella arrived.

Footsteps on the decking alerted Nim that Mum was on her way back and so she scrambled into the car. Kicking a half empty bottle of water between her feet, Nim pretended she’d been sat there all along. Mum lobbed a carrier bag onto the back seat.

‘I’ve got some milk and some bread so we won’t starve. One afternoon we can come down to the shop and buy ice creams.’

‘That’s a good idea,’ said Nim.

Mum jangled the set of keys she’d collected and tossed them to Nim. ‘And now for a tour of the campsite.’

Number fifty-six, or cinquante-six as Mum kept saying, was at the top of the hill. It didn’t look special but when Mum parked the car she rubbed her hands together. ‘Let’s wake up Josh and get inside.’

The caravan was dark with the curtains drawn, but Nim could make out a table and found her way to a sofa shaped like the letter ‘C’. Mum slid the folding doors along their tracks to find the bedrooms and opened the windows to get rid of the stuffy air.

‘Where’s my bed?’ asked Josh.

‘You’re sharing a room with Nim and Ella. It’s this way.’ Squeezing into the tiny space, Josh pointed to the bunk that crossed above the other beds. ‘I want to sleep up there.’ ‘I suppose that’s okay. So long as you lie still and don’t bring the whole contraption down.’

‘Cool.’ Josh grabbed the ladder and clambered up the rungs. ‘I expose this is the best place to sleep.’

Mum made her eyes go wide. ‘You suppose right.’ ‘Can’t I have a go, Mum?’ asked Nim.

‘The twin beds are for you and Ella.’

It wasn’t fair but Nim knew better than to argue. ‘Alright, then.’

‘Who’s Ella?’ Josh lay on the mattress and chewed his thumb.

‘Doh!’ Nim curled her fingers and knocked her knuckles lightly against Josh’s forehead. ‘She’s Dee’s daughter. She wants to be a ballerina. And you must remember Dee.’

‘Dee-dee, wee-wee,’ said Josh.

‘Mais oui,’ said Mum. ‘Oui means ‘‘yes’’ in French.’ ‘That’s funny,’ Josh giggled.

‘We’re going to have a great time,’ said Mum.

‘Why can’t Dad come on holiday with us?’ asked Josh. ‘Let’s not go over that again. We’re collecting Dee and

Ella from the airport in the morning. We’ll have loads of fun. You wait and see.’ Mum turned her back and left the room. She wasn’t exactly angry but it was easy to tell she didn’t want to talk about Dad.

‘It’ll be okay, Josh.’ Nim tightened the muscles in her forehead, thinking of the best advice to offer. ‘We’re at Dad’s for the weekend, soon as we get home.’

‘But I wish Dad was here.’ Josh held his legs in the air like a worn-out puppy.

‘I know.’ Nim gave his tummy a pat. ‘So do I.’ ‘I need Blankey,’ said Josh.

The yellow blanket always made Josh feel better and he spent hours stroking the silky edge. ‘You wait here. I’ll get it.’ The boot of the car was open and inside was a huge empty space because Mum had already lugged the bags into the caravan. Nim hunted about the back seat where Josh’s toys were stashed. She found a couple of engines and slung his yellow blanket over her arm. Sticking out from under the passenger seat was the special zipped carrying case that held her scooter. Nim had sneaked it into the car when Mum wasn’t looking and now she was having a job getting it out. It was always difficult trying not to show she preferred one birthday present over another. She’d worn the denim jacket Mum had bought on her tenth birthday a few times. The shoulders were embroidered with golden buttercups, but one go in the washing machine and the blue dye had leaked, turning the flowers green. The jacket wasn’t so lovely after that, but the scooter Dad had given her remained special and shiny. He often said he couldn’t afford much, not with paying the mortgage and finding rent for his flat, but he did his best.

Nim tried to disguise the scooter case by draping Josh’s blanket over it, but Mum with her eagle eyes spotted it as soon as Nim stepped into the caravan.

‘I told you not to bring that thing,’ Mum snapped, the lines on her forehead turning sharp. ‘Shove it under the steps and don’t let me see you playing with it.’