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Stow-aways: Where has next door gone?

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Unsplash: Nick Karvounis

Jed was certain, the house with the battered old sailing boat outside wasn't there. The entire house had vanished. The street had squeezed up, leaving no trace.

"What?" Dexter munched a crisp. "Oh yeah, that. It's often gone for a day or two about once a month, then it's back."

"Where to?" Jed's mind was ricocheting around inside his skull.

"Dunno. Should we try and follow it next time?"

Jed arrived with a small rucksack and a cover story about a sleepover. They crawled into the boat, under the tarpaulin. Wherever the house was going, the boat must be going too. They waited silently.

When Jed sat up, the boat was bobbing on water at the edge of a lake. The house was nowhere to be seen. He woke Dexter. On the shore sat an old but muscular man, who spotted them and walked over.

"Ah, my stow-aways awaken!," he said cheerfully but firmly. "You will be curious about what is happening. Follow me and I will show you". Jed and Dexter obeyed, stomachs fizzing, legs shaking. They took a short path uphill into a wood, from where they could see that the lake was part of a country park, with a quarry beyond.

"I am the Forester," said the man, beckoning them to a broad, gnarly stump. "I record the forest. This tree was 132 years old. I must gather its knowledge before it decays or is lost."

"But how?" asked Jed, wide-eyed.

"Sometimes an ancient tree is lost before its time. If this happens I use its timbers to build a bridge to the future, so I can continue my work. I built that boat before the reservoir came, from an oak that had grown slowly," he gestured to the lake. He took the boys' hands and placed them on the tree stump. "From the outside edge here, count 61 rings towards the middle, then look only at your hand." Their fingers walked across the grain of the stump, then stopped. The Forester placed his hands over theirs, and they sensed a shift in their surroundings. "Now look around," he instructed. Jed immediately recognised his school, but the street looked different. In place of the garage stood a tall, wooden building, maybe 12 storeys, with oddly green windows.

"Turn your attention to the tree again. Count back to the last ring before the edge." This time there was no school. About twelve of the tall, wooden buildings were surrounded by a wide area of trees, all with wide canopies. A couple of teenage boys were sitting under one of the trees, talking quietly as if about a girl one of them fancied.

"This is what I can show you," said the Forester, releasing Jed and Dexter's hands. "You will help build a new bridge. Our tree here is a walnut - good for furniture. Every year I collect a few walnuts to keep, to record the changes in the tree, and I plant a few of the nuts nearby, for new growth. Next year our tree will be removed, its old roots destroyed. When you notice a new walnut bench by your school, you must look after it. Keep it clean. If it is damaged, touch the darkest ring in the grain and wait for me to come."

Dexter thought carefully. "OK, but why does the house next door to me keep disappearing and reappearing?"

"I need somewhere to keep the boat, but when I come to the reservoir, the house does not exist."

"But how come no-one else notices when it's gone?" Jed was baffled.

The Forester ushered the boys back to the walnut stump. "No-one notices," he said, with a heavy sigh. Then he winked. "Except for those who must help. It is time for you to go home. We shall be meeting again soon."

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