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It was the last Friday in September and school was out. Amy handed her mother a sheaf of thick, lumpy, A3 sized sheets of painting, representing a month's hard work in her art class. As they walked down the hill from school, Amy occasionally breaking into an exuberant skip, like a caged young animal newly released, they laughed and chatted. The little girl was telling her mother all the note-worthy trivia of her day when she suddenly stopped and pointed to a lady.

"It's Brian."


"It's Brian. That lady is Brian."

"That lady's name is Luna. Why do you call her Brian?"

"I painted a picture of her and my Mrs Gibbs said it looked like Brian."

"Well, who's Brian."

"He's a snail in a programme called 'The Magic Roundabout'."

"Oh, that's right. But you've never seen The Magic Roundabout, have you?"

"No. But Mrs Gibbs say's she looks like Brian from The Magic Roundabout."

Jane's cheerful smile changed to a puzzled frown as she watched Luna. She could see a resemblance. Luna seemed to slide down the path on the other side of the street. She noticed that the shimmering rainbow tendrils coiling about her, had assumed the vague shape of a snail's shell though they continued to wave and quest experimentally in all direction, with the main body of the more adventurous tendrils forming what looked like the head end of a snail, complete with antennae and eye-stalks, preceding the curly integument surrounding the woman. The tail that followed was quite different, appearing as a dark, seething mass, very close but not quite attached to the back of the shell. Amy tugged her mother's sleeve, her little face a mirror of her mother's expression.


Jane looked down. "When did you notice that lady looked like a snail?"

"Can't remember. We always walk the other way when you see her so I can't usually see her properly. She always looks like a snail when I see her though."

"Why did you paint her?"

"Mrs Gibbs said to think of something we'd seen that was unusual and interesting and then paint it."

When they got home Jane took Amy's paintings into the kitchen and sorted through them on the table. The painting of Luna had the name Brian painted at the top, in red. It was easily recognisable to Jane. Amy was quite good at painting for a little girl of seven. Jane bit her lip and tried to think how best to put her question.

"Amy? You didn't mention that you could see the things around Luna. Why didn't you say?"

"I said something to daddy once, but he said he couldn't see anything and he got cross with me. And I told Julie Willis and she said I was fibbing."

Jane understood of course. She could also see things other people couldn't and she'd learned to keep quiet about it too.

"Are you cross with me mummy?"

Jane deliberately cleared the frown from her face and smiled. "No sweetheart. You were right not to tell anyone. People don't understand if they can't see the things you can see. I see them too, so you can tell me. Have you seen anything else that other people don't seem able to see?"

"I think so."

"Tell me."

"Lots of people have little dark smudgy things down their backs and some people have bright sparkly things bobbing around them. But that snail lady is the only one with so much stuff. When we went to swimming lessons last week and the lollypop lady told us to cross the road, the snail lady passed us, and I could smell her before she went past. All the bright, shiny things at the front of her smell nice, sort of like fruit and flowers - but the dark horrible things at the back smell bad."

"Oh. She got that close to you." Jane tried to keep the alarm out of her voice.

"Um hmm. When I looked round to see where the smell was coming from, I saw the lady walking beside our crocodile and everyone was pulling away from her as she passed. And I could see the things in the dark end trying to reach out toward us. But the bright things at the front were floating back towards the bad things and pushing them away from the children."

The blood drained from Jane's face as she tried to keep up the reassuring smile. Amy noticed though. She was a sensitive child.

"What's the matter mummy?"

"Nothing sweetheart. You go and see Felicity Bunny. She's been waiting for you to come home. Take her a carrot."

Amy skipped off to get a carrot for her rabbit.

Jane thought for a while. There must be a way to explain the thing to Amy, in a way that wouldn't frighten her too badly - but would, nevertheless, frighten her enough. Her own mother had made a bit of a hash of it when Jane was little because she was so disturbed to find her daughter shared the same 'gift' that had caused such wretched problems for her in the past.

Luna had been an old school friend of Jane - though her name was Margaret in those days. But Jane's mother had banned the friendship, saying Margaret was a 'spirit magnet' with no defence against this curse that amounted to a contagious sickness. Margaret's mother believed in everything: tarot, astrology, spiritualism, ley lines, every sort of mysticism, every method of divination, every kind of cult, religion and magic. In her ignorance, she practically invited the things that sucked on her unfortunate daughter's vital energy. Jane could see the wisps of colour attaching themselves to young Margaret and Jane's mother could see them too.

Jane's mother had explained that she thought the child, Margaret, was attracting every stray scrap of spirit that her mother called up. The child had sprung a leak - a leak of her psychic energy - and it attracted these things like moths, lost in the black night, to a bright flame. People's beliefs in magic, religion - all things supernatural - over thousands of years, may have caused pre-existing 'elements' or 'spirits' (for want of a better description) to grow stronger or they may even have given rise to new ones. Then, as faiths had died in one belief system after another, allegiances changed from old gods to new and, in recent times, been replaced more and more by scientific thinking, all these forlorn entities had been left to 'starve' and shrivel away. They roamed their empty dimension, divided from our own by no more than the flimsy veil of our disbelief, looking for believers to attach themselves to - and feed.

Poor Margaret, she said, didn't stand a chance. She wasn't very bright or sensitive but she did believe in everything her mother believed. She couldn't see or sense the things she attracted. Nor could her mother. But Jane and her mother could see them and Jane's mother was determined to protect her own daughter from these parasites that would suck away her reason and her will.

That's not to say that all the parasites are what we would consider 'evil'. Those forming a shell around the lady now calling herself Luna, protected her to some degree, from the depraved elements trailing after the energy leaking from base of her spine. They even tried to protect people who came too close to their host. But they didn't always succeed. Luna had a reputation for being a bit of a Jonah. Accidents happened around her or people became mentally or physically ill soon after being in close proximity to her.

As Jane's mother explained it, if Margaret didn't attract all these parasites, the more benign element wouldn't have to protect her and those around her from the more dangerous species of spiritual leech. The problem had been made worse when Margaret, in her teens and twenties, had taken 'mind expanding' drugs that were fashionable at that time. They had opened her mind somewhat, but they'd also enlarged the rent through which her energy was leaking. She briefly became popular with a bunch of kooks, who found her useful in seances and their bizarre, drugy rituals. It was about that time that she changed her name and began to lose her mind. Years later, no longer popular or sane, she looked to most people like a very old woman, shambling down the streets, muttering nonsense to herself.

Of course, it was out of the question for Jane not to believe in the existence of these things. But she believed them to be what they really were: parasites from a dimension just beyond our own. She didn't need 'faith' to believe in the evidence of her own eyes. It would not have occurred to her to worship or revere these things, or draw their attention to her in any way. Some of them were able to give glimpses into a human's future and would do so, at a price. Such information would have given power and status to magical practitioners in ancient times or rural settings - so the heavy price paid might have seemed worth it. Modern methods of prediction, weather forecasting, health services, banking, law enforcement - all the trappings of modern life and security - made this sort of thing redundant. So the more sensible and balanced individuals lost interest in the hidden world. But the denizens of that sinister dimension still needed people and lusted after their devotion and homage, their strong emotions of love, hate and fear and, most of all, their life and energy.

People who didn't believe and couldn't see had a certain protection. Disbelief is almost as powerful as belief, in its way. If Amy could see, she also needed to understand what she was seeing, otherwise she could misinterpret all the pretty colours as something to be desired and welcomed. Jane turned all this over in her mind and finally came to a decision about the best way to present the information to her little girl.

She selected the colourful painting entitled "Brian" from the top of the stack, flattened it out on the table in front of her and called Amy in from the garden.

"Come and sit by me. I'm going to tell you a true story about what happened to the lady in this picture."

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