"Simon, rise and shine you sleepyhead. We're running late. Breakfast is in fifteen minutes". Patricia Knox flung open the door to her son's room; in no time the curtains were pulled aside and the window opened. It was the start of a beautiful summer day and a mild breeze came in through the window from the harbour, which neither impressed nor encouraged Simon to stir, whose tuft of red hair peeked out from under the bed covers.
A bit unnerved, Patricia ran her fingers through her disheveled blond hair, straightened her robe and snatched her son's blanket off him and let it fall to the floor next to the bed. "Don't forget to brush your teeth. Now shake a leg! You haven't even packed yet, you know", she commented through gritted teeth when she saw the t-shirts she had ironed the evening before still on the dresser where she had put them.
She rushed out of the room and Simon listened to the creaking of the stairs as she hurried down to the kitchen.
"Just five more minutes", he thought and turned over again to the other side. The banging of dishes, the smell of freshly-toasted bread, eggs and bacon finally woke him up. He sprawled and stretched before slowly opening his eyes. Sea air found its way to his nose through the open window. He listened to the goings-on of the harbour and the sporadic cries of the ever-hungry seagulls, who fought for the fish scraps thrown into the water by the fishermen each and every day.
"Summer holidays, at last", he rejoiced.
Simon had passed the fifth grade without any trouble. He was eleven years old with fiery red hair, freckles and perky brown eyes. He was perhaps a bit small for his age and also a bit chubby which he was teased about at school sometimes. The fact that he liked to daydream, not always paying attention like he should have, didn't exactly make him popular among the kids. Actually he only had one good friend: Richard Dawson, Richie for short, who was himself a bit different than others. Richard was also eleven years old, in the same grade as Simon and wore thick horn-rimmed glasses. What's more, Richie was just about the tallest in his class and had dark, neatly parted hair. He was lanky and sometimes a bit clumsy, well-nigh scatterbrained. But he was Simon's best friend.
While most of their classmates got together after school to play soccer, cricket or something like that, the two friends loved walking through the port. Both had a passion for the ships that docked at the Portsmouth harbour everyday. They took snapshots of every newcomer and pasted the pictures in an album while spinning their own stories about where the ships were from and the exciting journeys of the yachts, cutters and container ships.
But now summer vacation had begun and Simon and Richie wouldn't be pasting any new pictures into their album, since Simon was to spend the summer with his great-aunt Abygale. She lived five hours away from Portsmouth in a small village at the seaside, in the county of Devon. Little did Simon know that he would be seeing his friend Richie again very soon and that the adventure of their lives was about to begin.
"Simon, these eggs are getting cold", sounded the slightly irritated voice of his mother from the kitchen. She must have burned her finger on the pan, for suddenly she cursed loudly.
"Are you awake?", she called up the stairs from the hall. "How can it take so long to get out of bed", Patricia sighed, returning to the kitchen to pour herself another cup of coffee.
She really didn't feel so good about sending Simon to Aunt Abygale for the first weeks of school holidays. But ever since her separation from Eduard Knox, Simon's father, two years before, nothing was the same as it used to be. They had moved to Portsmouth and Patricia had gone back to work last year as an editor for a London publishing house. Basically she had plenty of time for herself and her son, since she was able to do a great deal of her work at home. However, there were important seminars and book reviews scheduled for this summer that she could not simply postpone. Aunt Abygale didn't hesitate to invite Simon to spend part of this school vacation at her place. She liked the boy very much, all the more because she’d never had children of her own.
Patricia looked out of the kitchen window at the front garden of her small cosy house. Simon would be spending a nice summer at the seaside. He loved the water, the beach and of course the harbour with its small, colourful houses and fishing boats.
She took a deep breath, got over her guilty conscience and went about making sandwiches for Simon's train ride.
Simon reached up and stretched, sat up, tousled his red hair and rubbed the sleepers out of his eyes. He yawned and looked around in his room. He had absolutely no desire to think about what to pack and what not. “Just a few t-shirts, shorts, his favorite jeans and a jacket”, that should be enough”, he thought.
"Should I tidy up", he wondered, as he crawled out of bed and looked around his room, which was a bit messy. Actually things were scattered all over the place: small parts to model ships not yet completed, comics under and next to the bed, numerous snapshots of ships that he and Richie hadn't yet put into the album, and so on. Even his desk under the roof window could have used some order. But he could also take care of it after his vacation, he decided, and climbed onto his desk to look out of the window in the direction of the harbour.
Something was different than usual on this Monday morning. Sure, it was the first day of the school holidays. But that wasn't it. Hadn't he seen a face at his window last night? Or had it only been a dream? He couldn't remember. He let his view of the harbour wander back over the roof. Something was glistening in the morning sun and drew Simon's attention - a small, round object stuck under his window between the roof shingles. Maybe it’s a coin? No, it's probably not a coin. He liked letting marbles roll down the roof gutter, only to fish them out of the rain barrel down in the garden later on. But a coin?, no chance! He didn't have so much pocket money that he could simply throw it out the window.
He became curious, reached out dangerously far over the windowsill and tried to grab the glittering object. But in vain! He slid forward just a bit. He stretched his arm more and more and after some effort, he was holding a strange glittering platelet in his hands. It was elastic but solid, too. Similar to the nacre that forms inside a shell, it shimmered in his hand. Perhaps it could be the scale of a big fish? But how did it end up on the roof? He couldn't make any sense of it and crawled back into his room, deep in thought.
"Simon, I hope you're finally up. Your hot chocolate was warm once upon a time", he heard his mother's voice say, no longer quite so full of understanding, breaking up his thoughts.
"Yes, Mum, I'll be down there in five minutes!", Simon hollered and trudged down the hall to the bathroom.
There he splashed some water on this face, brushed his teeth and quickly ran the comb once through his hair. "That'll have to do for now", thought Simon, quickly putting on his jeans and t-shirt, randomly stuffing the most necessary things in his travel bag and ran down the stairs into the kitchen, where his mother was sitting behind her newspaper and acting as cool as a cucumber.
She raised her eyebrows over a corner of the paper and looked at Simon. "Good morning, sweetheart. I hope you slept well?" Somehow she had managed to wrap her hair around those huge light-blue curlers.
"Hmm", mumbled Simon. "Is there anymore orange juice?"
"Sit down and eat your eggs, dear, I'll bring you a glass", Patricia replied, laid the paper aside, went to the fridge and returned to the table with a glass of juice. Simon listlessly poked around at his omelette. She studied him.
"Tell me, young man, were you walking around on the roof again last night? Haven't I told you, several times now, not to roll marbles down the gutter? One of these days you're going to tumble down yourself and then all I can do is call the fire brigade, an ambulance and who knows what else. That's not really necessary, is it?" She put the glass of orange juice on the table, all the time keeping a watchful eye on him. It seemed that she was really expecting an answer from him so early in the morning.
"No, that wasn't me", Simon murmured. "I've already rolled all of my marbles down into the rain barrel. I need to fish them out before we leave," he replied absently. Simon was still thinking about that strange platelet he had found between the roof shingles.
Did he really see a face in front of his window last night? And what about that weird scratching sound on the window pane? It seems his mother had also heard something. It was better to keep his thoughts to himself, before he made a fool of himself. Maybe he ought to tell Richie about his discovery after all they had agreed to write to each other.
Patricia hesitated and seemed to be waiting for a more detailed explanation from her son; but then gave up. "Well then, it must have been a couple of cats", she sighed, sitting back down, making sure her curlers were in place and turning her attention back to the newspaper.
When breakfast was finished, the dishes done and Simon's lunch packed for the trip, he ambled to the rain barrel. He was now hanging upside-down with legs kicking in the air over the battered barrel, which was in the cover of a wild hedge behind the house. With an effort, he retrieved all of the coloured marbles from the murky water and dropped them into a small brown leather bag.
Fortunately there was not much rainwater in the barrel so that he crawled back out fairly dry. He looked down: "Thank goodness nothing's dirty", he thought. His mother wouldn't hesitate for a moment to have him change his clothes. And that's the last thing he wanted to do.
"I have to call Richie!", the thought suddenly hit him. "I have to tell him about my discovery!" Simon ran up the stairs to the house two at a time. Standing in the hallway, he stopped and listened. It seemed like his mother was in the bathroom devoting herself to her curlers. He went over to the small, round wooden table next to the stairs, where the telephone was and dialed the Dawson's number. After the third ring, the phone was answered by the shrill but friendly voice of Emma Dawson, Richie's mother. "Good morning, Mrs. Dawson. This is Simon. May I speak to Richie, please?"
"Simon, how good of you to call one more time", greeting him cheerfully. "I thought you would already be on the way to your aunt. Or will you be leaving tomorrow? Have you already packed, how is Patricia?" She was firing one question after the other at him. Taken aback Simon replied: "Um, yes, today. I'm leaving today. I just have to speak with Richie beforehand!"
"Richard, Richard", Emma Dawson called throughout the house. "Just a moment please, Simon. He'll be right here. Riiichaard! Simon's on the phone. Hurry up, he doesn't have much time!", she shouted loud enough that the neighbors surely knew that he was on the phone. Simon could hear Richie storming down the stairs and Emma Dawson whispering: "... now you can tell him the good news yourself."
"Sure, mum, thanks", Richie panted completely out of breath, snatching the receiver from his mother before she had the chance to pass along all her best regards to Simon's mother.
"Hi Simon", Richie wheezed into the receiver.
"I have something to tell you", both of them hastened to share the news they had.
"OK, you first", said Simon. What did your mother mean by good news?", he wanted to know.
"You won't believe it", Richie began. "My father is going on an expedition during school holidays and I get to go with him", Richie informed his friend excitedly. Simon gave a loud groan and wondered what was so good about this news.
Richie's father, Professor Gerald Dawson, was a biologist and head of the research department for a pharmaceutical company. It wasn't any surprise to Simon that Professor Dawson was once again going on a trip to the far reaches of the world to look for unknown plants. But it surprised Simon that Richie was allowed to accompany his father this time on an expedition that was not completely free of danger.
"We are going to Exmoor, where he wants to compare deposits of certain lichens and mosses with those of Dartmoor", Richie said, drawing Simon back from his thoughts. "In any case he will try to prove that the "Opegrapha fumosa", an exceedingly rare species of lichens, is not only endemically native to Exmoor", Richie proudly concluded his brief excursion into domestic flora.
"You're travelling to Exmoor?", asked Simon in disbelief as he began to get the point.
"Yes, isn't that great?", Richie rejoiced, jumping for joy and just missed falling on Daphne, the Dawson's chubby cat, who was purring around his legs.
"We'll be staying in a small guest house in Ilfracombe", he continued. "You get it? That means we can spend the school holidays together and have all kinds of fun, Simon. We are leaving bright and early on Wednesday", Richie said, beside himself with joy.
"Oh man, Richie, that's awesome!", Simon enthused.
"You also wanted to tell me something", Richie reminded him.
"Simon, are you ready? We are leaving in five minutes, otherwise you'll miss your train", warned his mother's voice from the bathroom.
"OK, Mum, I'll hurry!", Simon shouted up the stairs.
"Richie, I have to get a few things together here. I'll tell you everything on Wednesday. Let's meet at 3 in the afternoon, in front of Mr. Twiggle's Ice Cream Parlour in Ilfracombe."
"Okey-dokey, I can even take my bicycle along. Dad said, we will drive the delivery truck from his lab", Richie explained, happy that he wouldn't have to use some old rusty bike in Ilfracombe.
They ended the call and Simon raced up the stairs. It won't hurt to take along the album and pictures of ships, he decided and really looked forward to spending holidays with his best friend.
Pensively, his eyes roamed over the desk. That bright round thing was still where he had left it and gleamed in the morning sun. He took in its details again and ran his fingers over the smooth surface. Try as he might, he just couldn't figure out where the strange platelet came from and why it had suddenly appeared on the roof.
"What are you?", he asked thoughtfully. But the scale-shaped thing would not yet reveal its secret. Simon sighed. He would surely figure it out together with Richie. So he packed the shining platelet next to the photo album and photos in a side pocket of the travel bag, snapped it shut and slid down the banister to the hallway.
The summer break promised to become a great adventure and he looked forward more and more to the time he would be spending with Richie; apart from that, there were also Aunt Abygale's blueberry pies and gingerbread cookies that she always had freshly baked in supply.
He was now ready to leave and could hardly wait to board the train in Portsmouth Harbour.