All the Little Children by Jo Furniss – Spotlight

Long and Short Reviews welcomes Jo Furniss who is celebrating the release of her newest book All the Little Children by sharing the first chapter of the book with us.

When a family camping trip takes a dark turn, how far will one mother go to keep her family safe?

Struggling with working-mother guilt, Marlene Greene hopes a camping trip in the forest will provide quality time with her three young children—until they see fires in the distance, columns of smoke distorting the sweeping view. Overnight, all communication with the outside world is lost.

Knowing something terrible has happened, Marlene suspects that the isolation of the remote campsite is all that’s protecting her family. But the arrival of a lost boy reveals they are not alone in the woods, and as the unfolding disaster ravages the land, more youngsters seek refuge under her wing. The lives of her own children aren’t the only ones at stake.

When their sanctuary is threatened, Marlene faces the mother of all dilemmas: Should she save her own kids or try to save them all?

Enjoy the first chapter

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman: A Shropshire Lad. 1896. 

Chapter One

Crouched in the lea of an ancient oak tree, the safest place I could find on the sparse margins of the forest, I hid from my own children. Hunkered down like prey, I ferreted out my mobile phone; I just needed five minutes to take a work call, that’s all. Then the little terrors could have me. But Billy came crashing through the undergrowth, forcing me to flick the ringer onto silent. Late summer foliage shrouded me.

“Mum-may?”

His voice was close. I imagined his kissy lips pursed in confusion. Maybe he could smell me, like baby birds do? His footsteps faltered and he called “Marlene?” The realization that he thought I would answer to my adult name more readily than Mummy sent me into a swoon of guilt. I knew I should jump out and gather him up. Play the role of fun Mummy—surprise! But the phone vibrated in my hand. Billy’s footsteps moved away, trotting towards our campsite, still calling. His aunt’s voice sang out in reply, as I knew it would if I waited long enough, and Billy whooped as he was swept into one of her hugs. Their entwined laughter tumbled through the trees to taunt me.

If only I could stack up my life like one of Billy’s wooden towers, into an edifice of compartmentalized blocks. If only I could turn my back for five minutes without those pretty boxes tumbling down. Oopsy-daisy, as Billy might say. I tapped the screen to answer the call. The line connected to a hollow wind-tunnel and cut off. Return call: engaged. I tried again, but a voice said the number was not available. And finally, dead air, the connection cut altogether.

“Sod China.” I hoped the sentiment would reach my unreachable Chinese employee who was screwing up my day. “And Shropshire,” I said to this remote hole in the forest where I’d dragged us for a long weekend in order to bond with my kids. “Sod them all,” I said to a rare patch of blue sky visible through the canopy. It was hard enough raising three children without my staff regressing the moment I went offline.

One of those sudden forest breezes caused the oak to shudder around me. A lilt of Billy’s laughter wafted by. Amid the green of the forest, it sounded magical, like fairy music. I pushed myself to my feet, too big and too cumbersome for this realm. Too adult.

It was Saturday. Still morning. Cloudy with a high risk of tantrums. The kids had spent the whole summer bugging us—my sister-in-law, Joni, and I, that is—to go camping. The trip was a consolation prize for Joni, something to look forward to after she’d had to cancel plans to visit her mother back home in Pennsylvania. But as the school holidays ticked by, I had so much work on, so much travel, that we left it to the last weekend.

I booked a rare day off work so we could get away early on the Friday, but a crisis broke out at my factory in China. My business partner assured me she would handle it; I should go. And when I wavered, my husband got his knickers in a knot. I’d promised Julian that I would keep our progeny out of his preened hair for the weekend while he packed up and moved out in order to, in his words, give me some head space.

As I snuck out of my hiding place and followed the path out of the forest, the trees swelled and roiled in the breeze, their leaves like thousands of tiny hands applauding in sarcasm.

My car door opened with an echoing creak. It really was dead quiet in the forest. I stepped up onto the running board of the Beast, breathing in the new-leather smell of the SUV’s boat-like cabin. The long drive into the countryside had done it good. Its gleaming flanks blooded with a go-faster stripe of authentic off-road muck. Shame it had to be demoted back to the school run on Monday morning.

I plugged my phone into the car’s charger, skimming past emails and texts that Julian had sent before I’d even been gone a day: he probably couldn’t find something in the house. But then again, he couldn’t find his arse with his own two hands and I’d had enough of molly-coddling him. He wanted time on his own; let him find out what that entails. The man was an oversized Alice in Wonderland, just as rigid and self-righteous, whose world had shrunk when it should have grown. It held no job, no childcare duties, not even one of his pie-in-the-sky business schemes or, since his knees gave out, a vague plan to train for a triathlon. His life had grown so small that the tiniest detail now loomed large. Minor changes to the household routine—the cleaner putting the breakfast cereal in the wrong cupboard, for example¬—would rile him. Heaven forbid he should have to locate one of his innumerable gadgets. I deleted his pleas for a return call; let him go it alone, see if he could survive one weekend without me.

After Julian’s messages, I’d received nothing else—no emails or calls—which was the point of coming away, but still. When I tried to call Aurora, my business partner, an electronic voice told me the network was busy.

“So I can get a connection when I’m in China, but not in bloody Shropshire?” I muttered.

Something standing right behind me gave a gruff of assent.

Adrenaline flashed up my spine. The phone slipped out of my hand and bounced once on the seat. I should jump into the car and lock the door, I thought. I should scream for help. Warn the children. Go on, scream—scream! I tried to arrange my throat, but when nothing came out, I twisted round and saw a dog, some kind of giant mastiff. A starburst of relief prickled my limbs.

“Hello,” I said, only for the dog to advance a pace and press the side of its head against my abdomen. I laid a palm across its skull, which was a good couple of inches broader than my hand. “You’re a big fellow,” I told him. “I’ve ridden ponies smaller than you.” His tail swatted the ground once.

I looked up the path for his owner, but the track dog-legged away and ran across a field to the road. I scratched the dog’s ears and, when he gave a gruff of pleasure, built up into a massage over the folds of his face down to his meaty chops. And then I was a teenager again: the yeasty smell of his damp hair, the muscles knotting under my fingertips, the earthquake rumble in his throat; this could have been my dog, my Horatio, from all those years ago in Africa. If I closed my eyes, I was there again, leaning against his back under the shade tree in the yard while Dad loaded up the overland truck, my skin glowing like baked earth.

But my eyes opened on a dank English forest with a dog’s hot breath on my legs. He gazed at me like I was an angel. I took a moment to shake off the feeling that he was one too.

“So who are you, anyway?” I ventured into his pleated neck to retrieve his name tag. Chap.

“Chap?”

He looked down at the ground.

“Doesn’t do you justice, my ginormous friend.”

As I moved towards the camp, I saw that the dog’s back legs were streaked with blood. When I tried to touch them, he stepped away, so I let him be. The blood was fresh, from small cuts under his hind quarters, as though he’d scrambled over something sharp.

“Did you get hurt and run away? Come on, I know some people who’d like to meet you.” And when I headed up the short slope to the tents, he followed.

The kids tripped over each other to get to him. “Everybody,” I announced with a theatrical wave, which the dog recognized as his cue to step forward and draw up his chops, “this is Horatio von Drool, guardian of the camp.”

“Horatio!” said Billy.

“Horatio von Drool,” I corrected him, “likes to be addressed by his full name.”

The dog swatted his tail on the ground and walked to a spot in front of Joni’s cooking pot, where he laid down to rest.

“But there aren’t any houses round here,” said Charlie, my eldest and—at the grand age of nine—the wisest. He stared at the dog while twisting his trousers into tight buds.

“So where did he come from?” asked Peter, a classmate who was tagging along for the weekend.

Before I could answer, Charlie’s attention skipped away like a needle over scratched vinyl and Peter followed. They were fretting over the campfire. Charlie’s Survival Skills for Girls and Boys book said we needed to stockpile fuel. I knelt down in the dirt between Charlie and Peter.

“This is great, isn’t it?” I grabbed Charlie round the shoulders and crushed him into my side. “Being outdoors.”

He glanced up at me. “Are you okay, Mummy?”

The lack of phone service forced me to go cold turkey. But I was okay. A little giddy at being cut off from my responsibilities, but a swell of contentment hit me like the head rush from a first slug of wine.

“Let’s build a big, cozy fire,” I said. “To keep away the bears.”

“There aren’t any bears. And we mustn’t start a forest fire.” Charlie read aloud the safety instructions from the book in ponderous detail. I knew he wouldn’t settle until he’d created a pile of tinder that exactly resembled the one in the book, so I said we should take a walk into the forest to gather some firewood. Hopefully, we’d also find someone who might know where Horatio—Chap—came from.

Joni was pulling Tupperware pots out of my cooler, getting ready to cook dinner as soon as the fire was going. As I came over to explain my catering system, she was already pointing at the sticker on one of the lids, grinning up at me from where she squatted in the dirt.

“Colour-coded tubs,” she said.

“The ingredients for each meal are packed in labeled pots so they don’t get mixed up.”

“Does it come with an Excel spreadsheet?”

I made a face like that was ridiculous, but of course there had been an Excel spreadsheet.

We set off. Joni tramped away in one direction with my seven-year-old, Maggie, whose foghorn voice sent birds skittering into the sky as she harangued her aunt to hurry so they could get back first.

“It’s not a race,” Joni said, fading into the tree line.

“I want to get the biggest log,” Maggie bellowed.

Joni’s own kid, Lola, refused to leave the camp. With the infinite disdain of a teenager, she said there was no need to fatigue ourselves. Fatigue ourselves. Lola went gliding in her slow-motion gait to pluck dead twigs from the trees, like a nymph picking enchanted fruit for a heartsick knight. She high-stepped off into the undergrowth and, for all I knew, changed into a deer, such was the inscrutable nature of my niece, The Lady Lola.

By contrast, the all-too scrutable Billy was screaming to go with the big boys, who I knew would abandon him up a tree given half a chance. “Carry me,” he said no more than five feet from the camp. So he scrambled onto my shoulders, his arms clamped in a fierce little grip around my forehead.

Charlie ran to catch up with Tag-along Peter. I could hear the boy further up the path, whacking a stick against trees and singing some awful ditty about piranhas eating his nether regions: Dumb Ways to Die, it was called. Surprisingly, the list of dumb ways to die didn’t include pushing your best friend’s mother to the end of her perilously short tether.

The path turned uphill, so I swung Billy down onto my hip as I wheezed along after the boys. I was wondering how it was possible that I could run for ten miles and yet a few steep steps left me sweating and speechless, when we rounded the corner and emerged onto the summit.

If fairies existed anywhere, they would set up home here.

The woodland gave way to a stage set with oaks, their trunks bright with moss and their lower limbs strung with ferns. The uppermost branches, though dead and bald, protruded from the canopy as proud as antlers. Charlie was capering about at the foot of one tree that was as wide as my car. My eyes followed his gaze up and up, and I performed my own little dance of consternation as I realized that Peter was already far above us in the branches, making his way, with a methodical coolness, ever higher.

“Peter, come down! That’s high enough,” I shouted and he stopped. Somehow, looking up at him looking down at me gave me vertigo.

He cupped his hand round his mouth and shouted, “I’m going to the top so I can see out.”

“No, absolutely not. You need to come down right now.”

“It’s fine, the branches are really thick,” he said and climbed up another one, like it was nothing more than the rung of a ladder.

“They’re slippy,” I warned his retreating backside.

“Peter’s really good at climbing,” said Charlie. “His mum lets him climb trees all the time.”

“Well, bully for her.”

So there we stood, watching a nine-year-old perched several stories high, with nothing to break his fall but a few leaves—and me. I’d read once that it’s nigh on impossible to catch a falling child, but I could hardly stand back and let the kid plummet to his death. That would make the next PTA meeting most awkward. So I moved around the trunk, shadowing him from below, unclear of the correct heroic procedure should he actually slip.

“Peter!” I tried again. “Come down right now. Do you hear? Peter?”

But the boy had stopped and was staring into the distance at something visible only from his vantage point. He put his hand above his eyes, lookout style. He glanced down as though he was going to say something, and then scanned from side to side again.

“What can you see? What is it?” yelled Charlie, tugging at my arm and adding, “Can I go up too?”

I gave him a hard stare and carried on prowling the base, while Peter kept searching the horizon.

“Peter?” I shouted, curiosity killing me. “What can you see?”

He shouted something. What did he say, what did he say, Charlie and I asked each other. Then, Peter? What is it? Peter!

The boy wended his way back down until he reached one of the lower branches, where he hung by his arms, milking it.

“Fires.” He dropped twice his own body length into the leaves below. “Fires and smoke all over the place.”

About the Author: Jo Furniss is author of the best-selling novel ALL THE LITTLE CHILDREN (Lake Union Publishing; September 1, 2017). Originally from the UK, Jo is a former BBC journalist who has lived in Cameroon and Switzerland, and now resides with her family in Singapore.

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