“The man in the top flat. Mister Bobo. Fine old circus family, I believe. Romanian or Slovenian or Livonian, or one of those countries. Bless me, I can never remember them anymore.”
It had never occurred to Coraline that the crazy old man upstairs actually had a name, she realized. If she’d known his name was Mr. Bobo she would have said it every chance she got. How often do you get to say a name like “Mr. Bobo” aloud?
“Oh,” said Coraline to Miss Spink. “Mister Bobo. Right. Well,” she said, a little louder, “I’m going to go and play with my dolls now, over by the old tennis court, round the back.”
“That’s nice, dear,” said Miss Spink. Then she added confidentially, “Make sure you keep an eye out for the old well. Mister Lovat, who was here before your time, said that he thought it might go down for half a mile or more.”
Coraline hoped that the hand had not heard this last, and she changed the subject. “This key?” said Coraline loudly. “Oh, it’s just some old key from our house. It’s part of my game. That’s why I’m carrying it around with me on this piece of string. Well, good-bye now.”
“What an extraordinary child,” said Miss Spink to herself as she closed the door.
Coraline ambled across the meadow toward the old tennis court, dangling and swinging the black key on its piece of string as she walked.
Several times she thought she saw something the color of bone in the undergrowth. It was keeping pace with her, about thirty feet away.
She tried to whistle, but nothing happened, so she sang out loud instead, a song her father had made up for her when she was a little baby and which had always made her laugh. It went,
Oh—my twitchy witchy girl
I think you are so nice,
I give you bowls of porridge
And I give you bowls of ice
I give you lots of kisses,
And I give you lots of hugs,
But I never give you sandwiches
That was what she sang as she sauntered through the woods, and her voice hardly trembled at all.
The dolls’ tea party was where she had left it. She was relieved that it was not a windy day, for everything was still in its place, every water-filled plastic cup weighed down the paper tablecloth as it was meant to. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Now was the hardest part.
“Hello dolls,” she said brightly. “It’s teatime!”
She walked close to the paper tablecloth. “I brought the lucky key,” she told the dolls, “to make sure we have a good picnic.”
And then, as carefully as she could, she leaned over and, gently, placed the key on the tablecloth. She was still holding on to the string. She held her breath, hoping that the cups of water at the edges of the well would weigh the cloth down, letting it take the weight of the key without collapsing into the well.
The key sat in the middle of the paper picnic cloth. Coraline let go of the string, and took a step back. Now it was all up to the hand.
She turned to her dolls.
“Who would like a piece of cherry cake?” she asked. “Jemima? Pinky? Primrose?” and she served each doll a slice of invisible cake on an invisible plate, chattering happily as she did so.
From the corner of her eye she saw something bone white scamper from one tree trunk to another, closer and closer. She forced herself not to look at it.
“Jemima!” said Coraline. “What a bad girl you are! You’ve dropped your cake! Now I’ll have to go over and get you a whole new slice!” And she walked around the tea party until she was on the other side of it to the hand. She pretended to clean up spilled cake, and to get Jemima another piece.
And then, in a skittering, chittering rush, it came. The hand, running high on its fingertips, scrabbled through the tall grass and up onto a tree stump. It stood there for a moment, like a crab tasting the air, and then it made one triumphant, nail-clacking leap onto the center of the paper tablecloth.
Time slowed for Coraline. The white fingers closed around the black key. . . .
And then the weight and the momentum of the hand sent the plastic dolls’ cups flying, and the paper tablecloth, the key, and the other mother’s right hand went tumbling down into the darkness of the well.
Coraline counted slowly under her breath. She got up to forty before she heard a muffled splash coming from a long way below.
Someone had once told her that if you look up at the sky from the bottom of a mine shaft, even in the brightest daylight, you see a night sky and stars. Coraline wondered if the hand could see stars from where it was.
She hauled the heavy planks back onto the well, covering it as carefully as she could. She didn’t want anything to fall in. She didn’t want anything ever to get out.
Then she put her dolls and the cups back in the cardboard box she had carried them out in. Something caught her eye while she was doing this, and she straightened up in time to see the black cat stalking toward her, its tail held high and curling at the tip like a question mark. It was the first time she had seen the cat in several days, since they had returned together from the other mother’s place.
The cat walked over to her and jumped up onto the planks that covered the well. Then, slowly, it winked one eye at her.
It sprang down into the long grass in front of her, and rolled over onto its back, wiggling about ecstatically.
Coraline scratched and tickled the soft fur on its belly, and the cat purred contentedly. When it had had enough it rolled over onto its front once more and walked back toward the tennis court, like a tiny patch of midnight in the midday sun.
Coraline went back to the house.
Mr. Bobo was waiting for her in the driveway. He clapped her on the shoulder.
“The mice tell me that all is good,” he said. “They say that you are our savior, Caroline.”
“It’s Coraline, Mister Bobo,” said Coraline. “Not Caroline. Coraline.”
“Coraline,” said Mr. Bobo, repeating her name to himself with wonderment and respect. “Very good, Coraline. The mice say that I must tell you that as soon as they are ready to perform in public, you will come up and watch them as the first audience of all. They will play tumpty umpty and toodle oodle, and they will dance, and do a thousand tricks. That is what is they say.”
“I would like that very much,” said Coraline. “When they’re ready.”
She knocked at Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s door. Miss Spink let her in and Coraline went into their parlor. She put her box of dolls down on the floor. Then she put her hand into her pocket and pulled out the stone with the hole in it.