It’s interesting how even the most terrible events can have positive outcomes. The older I get the more life surprises me. It was nigh on thirty years ago, and for a long time it felt like the end of the world, but perhaps if it hadn’t happened Sam wouldn’t have had a chance of becoming the Mayor, and the townspeople would still be the miserable, self seeking goblins they’d been for as far back as anyone could remember, while the town would have remained ill-kempt and ugly.
I overslept that fateful day, and woke to the sound of unravelled weeping from somewhere nearby. The street where I lived has since been swept away and replaced with well-built brick houses, but back then it was narrow, and the houses were mean, with damp walls so thin that I must have heard every baby in the street being conceived, except those that were the result of illicit liaisons in the thicket behind the inn a couple of hundred yards down the road.
I washed quickly, got dressed, and walked into the brilliant sunshine to have my breakfast. I hadn’t kept food in the house since the rat problem became so serious, and although all the rats were gone now, I wasn’t yet confident that they wouldn’t return.
The sound of crying hadn’t abated, and it seemed to be coming from Mary Simpkins house. Perhaps her dying mother had taken her final breath.
At least her grief seems to have silenced those five noisy brats of hers, I thought, callously.
The cafe where I liked to eat was the other end of town, past curving, litter-strewn back-alleys and along the main street. I kept my eyes out for rats, as I always did, because they terrify me, and only a couple of days earlier they had been everywhere. Now, dispite the continued filth of the town, the rats really did seem to have gone. Thinking about them had kept me distracted, so I was only half-aware of the edgy feeling that was growing in me – that feeling you get on a dark night when you become convinced someone unseen is watching you, following you, about to pounce, or when you think you have lost something which is essential to your life.
There was something wrong, but what was it, why this sense of impending doom? The sky was clear, all the buildings looked the same. I looked around me, trying to discern the cause of of my unease, and I saw young Sam, leaning on a pair of crutches his father had made for him out of hornbeam. He was alone as usual, because none of the cruel children in the town had time for a cripple. He looked so forlorn, balancing on his precariously thin legs, staring at something in the distance.
That was when it came to me, all at once. I could still hear the sounds of women crying, and they were coming from the houses all around. The streets were quieter than usual – only a few men passed by, and all of them looked exceptionally angry. There were no children – no little girls playing hopscotch or jacks, no boys chasing each other, kicking stones, picking fights; no childlike laughter or tears. Not one, except for Sam.
I looked back at the quiet, gentle lad. His gaze hadn’t wavered. I followed his line of sight. He was looking towards the distant hillside with its vast, rocky face. A gap had opened up in the cliff face, exposing a cave behind it, and a man in brightly coloured jester’s attire was dancing towards it, throwing his knees high in the air and jiggling his elbows as he played a merry tune on his pipe, which I had to strain to hear over the sounds of crying, and, just like the rats, all the children of Hamelyn followed behind, happily prancing and jigging in a similar manner to him. He led them into the darkness of the cave. The rock-face closed up behind them, and they were gone forever.
Every single child in the town was lost, except for one – young Sam, whose legs would not let him join the throng.
©Jane Paterson Basil