Patricia Knox watched the train leave the station long after Simon had climbed aboard. "What a morning", she thought and sighed deeply. Needless to say they had been running late again. However, they managed to beat the morning rush-hour traffic by cutting several red lights along the way.
They reached the train station of Portsmouth Harbour on time at 10:23. And just a few moments later, the train on platform one departed for Westbury.
Patricia's guilty conscience about letting Simon spend a great deal of his holidays with Aunt Abygale was soothed as soon as she had learned that Richard Dawson would also be spending the summer in Devon with his father.
Abygale Greenwood lived in a very old but beautiful house in the small fishing town of Fiddleton, nestled just a few miles east of Ilfracombe among high cliffs, near the beach and the offshoots of Exmoor in the countryside. Greenwood Castle, as she was used to calling her home, was built of natural stone walls, with small gables, a crooked turret on the east side and white glazed windows and doors. A massive waist-high wall overgrown with heather, made of rocks, encompassed a wild garden that could be accessed only through a small red door.
Aunt Abygale was an enthusiastic amateur gardener, although a closer look at the property revealed a passion mainly for her beloved rose and lavender beds that lined a big terrace on the southwest side of the house. In the middle of a garden filled with summer flowers and high grasses, there was an ancient oak tree that gave the place an enchanted and mystical atmosphere.
Nobody knew exactly how old Abygale Greenwood was, because the quirky but friendly and kind lady would always give the same answer to such an impolite question: "Alas, as if age really means anything. I am somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and twenty. But I feel considerably younger", she assures, usually with a mischievous wink.
Aunt Abygale was absolutely delighted when she received the call from her niece Patricia at around noon, telling her Simon's time of arrival.
"3:35 p.m. at the train station, oh I'm looking forward to it. I haven't seen the boy for ages now", she complained half-heartedly.
"Thanks a lot, Aunt Abygale. I really owe you one", Patricia said and once again her guilty conscience of the morning crept over her.
"Trish, my dear child, everything is just fine. I can't wait for the boy to get here", assured Abygale Greenwood, while putting her glasses on and writing her shopping list for the week.
"He will know what to do with himself here, believe me", she told her niece. "And when he brings along his friend Richard, all the better, it will liven things up again around here", she affirmed. "Spending half the summer with an old bag like me is really not much fun for a boy his age", she continued and smiled to herself.
After ending the call, she went about straightening up Simon's room and preparing dough for the blueberry muffins he loved so much.
While sitting in the train, daydreaming and looking out the window, Simon tried once again to solve the mystery of that strange thing that suddenly twinkled his way in the morning under his room window.
He had to change trains in Westbury and Exeter. For the last stretch of his journey he had a nice window seat with a table, where he had spread out a few comics and his photo album with pictures of ships. But he just couldn't concentrate. Across from him sat a fat man with a red face and moustache who was faintly snoring with his hands clasped on his round belly and his glasses slid down on this nose. Simon giggled quietly and fed the small, shaggy dog who sat to the right of its slumbering master. The dog took the rest of his ham sandwich carefully from his hand and proceeded to devour it with a smacking noise of pleasure.
Aunt Abygale got to the station in Barnstaple on time at 3:35 p.m., where Simon's train rolled in on platform two, on time.
Simon saw her standing at the end of the track waiting for him. He was overjoyed to see her again. As always she was neatly dressed; with a white blouse, the collar of which was held together with an ivory pin, a beige tweed skirt and footwear that was sturdy but not the least bit stumpy.
She seemed a bit rushed because her hair bun, always properly fixed on top of her head, was coming undone. She was wearing small glasses on the tip of her nose, as she often did, which were attached to a chain hanging around her neck so as not to lose them.
She came towards Simon with open arms.
"Lad, it's nice that you're finally here", she said and gave him a big hug. She had a fresh smell, like roses and lavender, just like her garden in the summer.
"Did you have a nice trip?", she wanted to know.
"Hello Aunt Abygale", Simon replied joyfully and let her tousle his disheveled red hair.
"Yes, everything went well. We were running late once again this morning, but Mum stepped on the gas to get us there on time", he smiled back to her.
"I already phoned with her and heard all about the mad rush to the train station", Aunt Abygale reported with a slight smile and shake of the head.
She drove a fairly old car herself. Not sleek and sporty like her niece's car but one almost as old as she was. At least that's what Simon was thinking when he saw the rusty-gray vehicle. But Abygale Greenwood would never dream of getting herself a new car at her age. So they drove, not quite as fast as the drive that morning had been, a few miles northeast from Barnstaple to Fiddleton, where Simon's summer holidays finally began in Greenwood Castle.
After arriving at Aunt Abygale's house, they had tea and Simon devoured half a dozen delicious blueberry muffins, the best he had ever tasted. He showed her his latest pictures of ships in his album and they played a few rounds of Scrabble until suppertime.
After Simon scoffed two large helpings of meatloaf, they sat on the terrace till nightfall and Abygale Greenwood shared one of her fantastic stories with her grandnephew.
As a well-read and educated woman she had traveled the world with Simon's great uncle, Harold Greenwood, and therefore always had a ready supply of new tales of adventure from nearly all parts of the Earth.
Simon was fascinated listening to her tell about a safari in South Africa, where she tracked down man-eating lions with her husband and a troop of big game hunters. Apparently one or more members of that expedition fell prey to the insatiable appetite of the lions, thus she ended the day's tale with gruesome undertones in her voice.
It really didn't matter to Simon how much his great aunt added to the adventures, as they were exciting enough in themselves. He had never before met anyone who could tell such beautiful, exciting and compelling stories as she did. Her tales of South Africa gave Abygale Greenwood a fantastic idea that Simon and Richie could camp out in the very same tent she had used weeks on end on the expedition in the African bush. Simon was excited. This vacation was going to be nothing but great.
The very next day the two of them started looking for the tent that was wrapped in canvas somewhere in the attic of Greenwood Castle, hidden among all of the memorabilia of long-past expeditions. Simon was amazed by the many things his great aunt had collected over the years. In one corner were imposing wooden figures and fearful masks from Africa, along with artfully carved ivory.
A handmade chess game of green and white jade that she had brought back from China was set up on a small table decorated with gold though quite dusty, among numerous Asian lanterns. There were also all kinds of swords, fancy daggers and antique pistols, as well as moth-eaten tiger skins that his great uncle had brought back from India and Pakistan. In a small chest with iron fittings, Simon found yellowed maps and sea charts as well as a small hinged compass made of tarnished brass, which he helped himself to along with some binoculars. "You never know when you might need such things", he was thinking.
After they found the tent and put it in the garden to air out, Simon got to work on a rusty bicycle that was in the shed behind the house. Not much could be done to the old bicycle. He patched up the front tyre, pumped plenty of air into both wheels, freed the frame of dirt and dust and adjusted the seat. After all, he was planning to tour the Exmoor with Richie.
He spent part of the afternoon with Aunt Abygale in the rose beds and helped her pull weeds. While she prepared dinner, he used the time to walk along the beach and collect shells and stones, which he really loved doing. He ended up throwing most of the stones back into the water, and the shells he took back with him to the house were few.
"Wednesday is here at last", Simon said with joy the next day. Richie and his father were sure to be on their way to Ilfracombe, he thought excitedly. He could finally tell his friend all about his mysterious find of two days before. Maybe Richie would have an explanation for the scale-like thing that cast its spell on him the more he thought about it. It didn't seem as radiant though as it had two days ago. He had a feeling it was changing.
He quickly packed the compass, binoculars, some money and his mysterious finding into his backpack and raced down the stairs into the kitchen to Aunt Abygale. She was just making Simon a couple of sandwiches for his trip when he came storming in.
"Wouldn't it be better if I drove you there, lad?", she asked a bit worriedly. "I was already planning to drive to Ilfracombe later on and could drop you off at Mr. Twiggle's Ice Cream Parlour."
"No, no, Aunt Aby", Simon said and thanked her. "Richie will also have his bicycle with him. We might want to ride onto Exmoor", he added happily.
"OK, whatever you think", she sighed. "But whatever you do, be careful and don't ride near the cliffs. Terrible accidents happen every year because people here on holiday just don't pay attention", she cautioned him, wrapping the sandwiches and handing him an apple.
"There you go, take off now! And don't forget that we will be eating at seven o'clock. Oh, and you wanted to set up the tent with Richard, otherwise you won't be having a safari camp today. And if you should happen to see Professor Dawson, please give him my best regards. Richard is more than welcome. It's no trouble at all. I still don't understand, how a person thinks that a boy can have fun by crawling through the moor with his father looking for some kind of fungus", she mused.
"Lichen!", Simon corrected her.
"What?", inquired Aunt Aby blankly.
"He is looking for a certain type of lichen or moss, according to Richie."
"Whatever", Abygale gestured dismissively. "Whether fungus, or moss, or whatever. It's all nonsense! Children should be able to enjoy their summer holidays. Life gets serious early enough", ending her short lecture and sending Simon off, who in no time buckled his backpack on his back, hopped on his bicycle and left.
She watched him leave with a smile on her face and decided to take a nap in the shade of the old oak tree before tea time.
Simon peddled just as fast as he could. No way could he be late and raced along the coastal road at breakneck speed. He passed Pier Hotel at the harbour and turned left onto Quayfield Road. He made a beeline to the next crossing, crossed over Victoria Street and then made a sharp turn to the right into Highfield Road. A bit out of breath, he made to Mr. Twiggle's Ice Cream Parlour on time, which was located in Highfield Road at the corner of Castle Hill.
Richie was already there, sitting on the steps in front of Mr. Twiggle's Ice Cream and Sweet Shop. He had leaned his bicycle against the wall of the small redbrick house with the large shop window. With his backpack on his knees, he saw Simon coming from far off around the corner, while his nose was taking in the smell of freshly-baked chocolate cookies, various flavours of ice cream and a variety of other treats.
Simon braked hard and came to a stop right at Richie's feet. He was panting.
"Hey Richie! Whew, what a ride! Where are your things, or is a backpack all you've got?", he asked out of breath.
"Nah", replied Richie and stood up from the steps to put Simon's bicycle next to his. "They are probably already on the way to your aunt's", Richie said happily. "She invited my father for tea and asked him to bring along my things. After all, children should enjoy their holidays and not have to crawl around in the moor. That's just not right for a boy in my age...", Richie grinned.
"Ha, ha, your poor father", Simon chuckled. "I can just imagine what her lecture sounded like. She told me the same thing today. And believe me. Abygale Greenwood can be quite persuasive. Even a Professor Dawson doesn't stand a chance to contradict", Simon laughed and could picture the poor professor putting up with a lecture about how to raise children.
"I knew that Aunt Aby was up to something", Simon said and looked forward to a few carefree days with his buddy.
"Yes, thank goodness! I was already seeing myself crawling through the bushes of Exmoor day in and day out. Your aunt has real class", Richie laughed and they entered Mr. Twiggle's.
Mr. Twiggle’s Ice Cream Parlour was the ultimate paradise for everyone with a sweet tooth, whether they lived in town or in the surrounding area or were here on holiday. Simon loved the shop. Whenever he was visiting Aunt Abygale, he had to pay a visit to this wonderland at least once. Richard who had the sweet sticky pleasure for the first time stepped into the shop after Simon and his amazement found no end. With wide-opened eyes, he remained standing in the middle of the shop and just didn't know where to look first. Although the two-storey house was inconspicuous on the outside, inside it was a dream for every sweet tooth, big or small.
As usual there was a lot going on. On the right side, next to the door, was a large display window where wide white shelves were embedded. The shelves held big lidded jars with all sorts of cookies, biscuits, waffles and macaroons, the fragrance of which filled the entire shop. Connected to the shop window was the heart of Mr. Twiggle’s business, the ice cream counter.
There were over thirty flavours of ice cream to choose from and every year a new creation was added.
„Wow! It's so incredible here", Richie exclaimed. The sweet surroundings finally got him on the move and he made his way over to Simon. Richie passed by faces as amazed as his own, people who had the same problem of choosing fruit drops, jelly beans or maybe some gingerbread cookies and ice cream.
"Simon, this is so cool", Richie enthused.
"Happy you like it here", Simon laughed and waited to be served at the ice cream counter.
"We sure don't have such a cool shop in Portsmouth", his friend said enviously, who still couldn't believe the wide variety of cookies and ice cream he saw. After standing in line long enough, Simon decided on a monster scoop of rhubarb-marzipan ice cream. He also treated himself to a large bag of mixed cookies while Richie chose to sweeten up his afternoon with a scoop of strawberry ice cream and a bar of peppermint chocolate. They left the shop and sat down on an old bench on the other side of the street in the shade of an old tree.
"As I recall, you wanted to tell me something extremely important", Richie reminded his friend while enjoying his tasty ice cream.
"Right, hold this a second", Simon told Richie and handed him his cone with the two scoops tilting dangerously to the side. Richie took the ice cream cone from him and Simon started rummaging through his backpack. After he found the platelet, he took back his ice cream and placed that magical shining thing expectantly in Richie's hand. He went about examining it at once.
"That's a big fish scale. Did you find it here on the beach?", he asked Simon, blinking at him over the rim of his glasses.
"No, I didn't. It was stuck in the roof under my window on Monday morning. I had a feeling that someone was at my window during the night. And just imagine, my Mum also heard something. It could be that I imagined the whole thing and there might be a simple explanation for how this piece came to be on our roof", he told him and nibbled on his ice cream. Richie played with the platelet in his hand and looked at Simon thoughtfully.
"So it was under your window ledge? OK, let me think a minute. One thing I can tell you for sure. It is definitely the scale of an animal. I guess we can rule out a fish. A fish would not simply jump out of the water and make its way along a few streets up onto the roof."
Simon scratched, clueless. "But what else could it have been?", he asked. "There aren't that many scaly animals on earth, are there?"
"No, there aren't", Richie replied deep in thought.
"I only know of lizards, snakes or ..." He paused and Simon looked at him with eyes wide open. "Dragons!", he blurted out.
"Dragons in Portsmouth?", Simon said amazed and looked at Richie incredulously. "Sure, Rich. That's the brightest idea of all! About as likely as fish climbing upon the roof", Simon laughed.
"It was just an idea", Richie snarled, a little offended.
"It changed colours", Simon added, "on Monday it was radiant white and shimmered like a pearl. Since then it has turned to a light blue". However it was clear that this information did Richie as good as it did himself. And so for now he returned the scale to his backpack.
When they finished their ice cream, they decided to postpone their trip to the cliffs in the moor till the next day. They were running late and didn’t want to keep Aunt Abygale waiting with the meal and they also had to set up the tent for the night. So they grabbed their backpacks, ambled over to their bicycles and took their time riding back to Greenwood Castle.
When they got back to the house, they saw that Professor Dawson had brought Richie's things. They were neatly arranged to the right of the staircase in the hallway. According to Aunt Aby, they had enjoyed good conversation with a cup of tea and a few cucumber sandwiches. After he had admired her rose beds and was given politely-formulated advice about how holidays should be made suitable for children, she went into the kitchen to prepare dinner for her young guests, pleased with herself and the rest of the world.
Dinner consisted of a huge stack of lamb chops, corn on the cob with butter, freshly baked bread, salad and her famous peach pudding for desert. Following dinner and an exciting story by Aunt Abygale, the two boys made their way to the garden to set up camp under the old oak tree, loaded down with provisions, sleeping bags, covers, a flashlight and lanterns.
The old tent had seen better days, that was for sure. It smelled a bit moldy, was stained and had mended tears here and there. But it would keep out wind and rain just as it had many years ago when Simon's great aunt, together with her husband, had traveled around the world.