Once upon a time there was a bunch of kids, a gang of Nine, who lived in a very average-looking neighbourhood. The Gang of Nine comprised average-looking boys, average-looking girls. Kids between 8, 10, 12. All – best friends. Some of them – even related. They looked more like a pirate crew, minus the ship. Actually, minus a lot of other average-kid-related and pirate-necessary things.
Those kids loved playing tricks on their average neighbours in the average-looking neighbourhood. So, the old neighbours, all average even after several glances, hated those kids. To tell you the truth, it was a reciprocative feeling. There was, however, one particular neighbour whom the kids disliked more than average. They were afraid of her. Her name was Madam Terrace. Little Kate-Create from the gang of Nine, you see, was very creative. She invented the lady neighbour’s name. Why? Obviously, because Madam Terrace stayed on her terrace all day long. Day in, day out. Watching the kids. Staring at them. Sometimes falling asleep from all the staring. Then, waking up again and staring some more. Watching the other average-looking neighbours passing by. Checking out their stuffed with average-products grocery bags. Taking mental notes. Total weirdo, below average.
One day, the Gang of Nine decided they wanted to build a real pirate’s ship. Something like a wooden construction between two chestnut trees that towered powerfully before one of the neighbouring blocks. The gang of Nine wanted to build their ship exactly there, on those trees. With ropes hanging from the top branches, with ladders, with an observation post, and with a little galley at the bottom – for the Cook, little fat Piraña, to prepare charcoal-grilled chestnuts (that fell from the trees), and peppers, bread, or onions – whatever the gang could knick from their homes. The problem was, once the kids began work – picking up thrown-away clothe-lines, metal tubes from old antennas, wooden planks and abandoned metal junk they’d found near the common bins – all the average looking adult neighbours began to protest outrageously to the kids’ idea. Madam Terrace, of course, was on her terrace. Watching.
The gang’s leader, Nick, aka Big-Lip, gathered everyone in his parents’ basement for an emergency general meeting. Rough times had called for drastic measures. Whatever that line was.
Big Lip, along with the other eight average-looking kids planned an extraordinary strategy. They divided their strategy into three weeks – observance, persuasion, and convergence – and distributed roles for each gang member.
1. On the first week, they were to observe every single neighbour from the average looking neighbouring block and learn their habits. They’d take notes – actually, little Willie, Big-Lip’s sister, was assigned as the gang’s personal secretary. She was tiny, big mouthed, and quick as a wasp. If there ever existed something like a journalistic prodigy, she was it. So, whatever kids noticed about the neighbours, they’d report to little Willie and she’d jot it down diligently. For one week, little Willie would have collected all the information about every single average-looking neighbour – habits, hobbies, oddities, needs.
2. On week two, the gang had to assign each other to a neighbour and play a British colonialist. This meant that, for Mrs. Uddershlops, 10-year-old Max, the gang’s most talented musician, had to take her dog out for a walk every morning, play the violin around lunch time for her and pick up her post; for Mr. and Mrs. Bubblemasters, Titti and Gerda, the crafty twins, who could build a rocket ship out of bubble wrap and matchsticks thanks to their flair for sciences, had to water the couple’s tomato garden and build Mr. Bubblemaster a grappa boiler in his basement, which was a real piece of cake; for Mr. and Mrs. Mushkin – Big Lip and his sister little Willie had to clean their basement. That was a heavy task for Big Lip and little Willie because the Mushkins had an awfully stinky basement. Big Lip and little Willie, in fact, found out why. The Mushkins kept a barrel of sour cabbage in their average-looking basement. The goo liquid, Horatio Mushkin thought, would become a beauty-inducing potion because his wife Bo – everyone knew – was quite ugly. In fact, everyone – the kids especially – called her Bo The-Scarecraw. But now, during that week – it was different. Big Lip and Little Willie and their friends had to be polite to everyone. The strategy had to work. It just had to – above average!
3. On the third week, the gang had to go around the average-looking neighbourhood block that was so much in the way of their future pirate ship, and collect signed consent forms from all the neighbours.
It worked quite well during the first two weeks. It would have gone even smoother if the gang didn’t miss out on an important detail. That detail was Madam Terrace. Now, what were the kids to do with her? They were afraid of her. What could they do for her to convince her to sign the consent form? She was always on the terrace. She never went out. She never took a pet to pee. She never stirred anything strange in her basement. So, what were the kids to do for her in order to get that last signature?
Gerda suggested,“Let’s buy her binoculars as a gift. That might buy her off.”
“She’s on the first floor. This woman can spot the crusts in my eyes in the morning from where she’s standing”, Big Lip retorted.
“How about we buy her pop-corn. She’s watching all the time. I mean, don’t we like munching on something, while we watch TV?” chubby Piraña said.
“Guys, I’m just gonna go and interview the woman – otherwise we’ll keep guessing here all day. That’s total tabloid to me, ain’t right”, suggested little Willie.
“That’s an idea. Who’ll be the victim? I ain’t going”, scurried Max.
“You wuss…yeah, who’s gonna go?”, said Boyo, the boy who was the perfect ship gunner because he was so good with his catapults and slingshots.
“I’m dealing enough with Bo and her stinky basement”, said Big Lip and cleared his throat.
“Are you serious you people? Who’s going to do it then?”, asked Dilly, openly aggravated by the situation. She was good at dancing and entertaining but when it came to fighting other neighbouring gangs or doing pranks, she always protested and refused to participate. She usually went colouring her nails while the gang of Nine would be fighting other gangs. Sometimes Dilly would have done her own nails and would still be restless and nervous so, she would start colouring someone else’s nails, Piraña’s, most often. He was secretively in love with her so everyone knew; he was ready to do anything for Dilly.
“Fine, I’ll go – but I’ll be the Quartermaster on the ship!” said little Willie.
“Ok” said one.
“Sure” said another.
“Deal” said a third.
“You got it”..
“We’ll be right here”…
The gang was cheering the little girl.
And so little Willie went. Apartment 2, first floor, brown door, to the right. The girl knocked on the door. She heard Madam Terrace call out “Come in, dear“. Little Willie’s heart began to throb. Her fingertips got cold. Her nose wiggled. Her nose wiggled because the apartment smelled funny. Of fried food – fried a few years ago, rubbed on the carpets and on the wallpapers and sealed with stench from more recent frying. Little Willie’s mind was going too descriptive. “Ok, cut to the chase, we need to know what Madam Terrace wants. That’s what I’m here for…” little Willie said to herself, pulling herself together.
“I’m here dear. On the terrace”.
“Yeah, where else could you be,” Little Willie mumbled under her nose. But the moment she walked onto the terrace, the girl’s eyes nearly popped out. Her whole world crumbled before her very eyes. She felt like she was the worst person in the world. She hated her thoughts, her sharp tongue, her friends and their nasty pranks. She was ashamed of herself because of what she saw.
Madam Terrace was legless, shackled to a wheel chair.
“Oh…ah, hm, Ma…Madam Terr…I mean, Mrs…” what on earth was her name, little Willie panicked. The girl froze, not knowing what to do next.
“Call me Greta, dear. Have a seat – pull a chair from the kitchen and come join me. It’s a beautiful day today and you guys have a lot to do, don’t you?” the woman smiled and waved at the gang of eight kids outside who were waiting in eagerness, but pretending that they weren’t looking towards Madam Terrace’s terrace. Big Lip was whistling on top of that, to make their standing before the terrace look casual.
“My dear, let me tell you a little story,” the woman went. “Maybe you will calm down meanwhile and tell me what you came here for?” she smiled warmly.
Little Willie slowly calmed down. She actually began to listen and liked the woman’s voice. It sounded musical and soft.
“When I was about your age, maybe a few years older, my best friend Edmund and I made a promise to each other – to love each other for eternity. We wrote our promise and a little prayer for each other on a piece of paper. Yes, that was, that was when we were fourteen, fifteen? A few years older than you,” Greta said looking tense, saddened even.
“We buried the little piece of paper in the soil and we planted two chestnut trees on top of it. That was back when there were little houses around here and not these faceless blocks,” the old lady paused. She squinted her blue eyes like she was trying to read a very small text or as if she was trying to remember something – more like the second one, little Willie thought.
“But then, a few years later, the war came and they called my Edmund. He was only twenty, only twenty, dear!” she looked at little Willie with pain in her eyes. “I joined, too, of course. I joined the Red Cross as a helper; had just done the nursing course…I had no choice. I thought that was actually my choice, to go to war, to be closer to my Edmund”.
“He never came back again, my dear. My darling Edmund never came back. I came back – just half of me. These useless stumps are just a reminder of the useless things wars are”. Little Willie felt like she had grown up a few years.
“And so I sit here, on my terrace, watching my beautiful chestnut trees grow gracious and strong, and I think of my Edmund and I feel at peace,” said Greta and smiled.
Little Willie was speechless, atypical of journalists. She forgot the gang’s crafty intentions. Little Willie had no strategy, nothing to convince the old woman about, nothing to bargain. Little Willie kept quiet and stared, somehow, in a little owe for Madam Greta.
“Where is your paper to sign, my dear? You’re going to do the best thing ever with those trees – bring joy, imagination and life to them, things that only love and children can do to all of us big, old ‘trees’,” Greta chuckled.
Little Willie produced the paper reflexively and handed it to the woman. The last remaining signature was in; the easiest one at that.
“Can I come visit you again?” little Willie said before she left.”I want to hear more about the war and Edmund,” she said, “please?” her eyes pleaded.
“Of course my dear, any time – you know where to find me!” said Greta.
Little Willie thanked Greta and what she’d never thought she’d ever do in this lifetime the girl leaned over the wheelchair and kissed the old lady on the cheek.
“I’ll wave goodbye as soon as our ship sets sails, then!” little Willie whispered and ran off outside the apartment more joyous than she had ever been.
Madam Terrace watched the kids jumping around and shrieking with complete joy and excitement now that they were finally allowed to build their ship.
But there was so much to do.
So little a time.
Because adulthood was just round the corner…