One Sunday in midsummer, when their father had gone off to church in his finest grey flannels, Harry and Elizabeth were sitting alone at the little wooden table in their kitchen. Harry was polishing off a second helping of his raspberry-flavoured porridge, while Elizabeth was staring dreamily out the window into the nearby forest.

“Har,” said Elizabeth.  “Wouldn’t it be nice to go away for a day—on an adventure? To see more of the world, just for one day, Har?”

“No,” Harry said bluntly. His eyes shifted to the heavy cast iron pot on the sink, and he wondered whether he could get through just one more helping without a good lashing from his father—or perhaps a worse reprimand than even that. Harry recalled one memorable evening when Father Harold had gotten properly plum drunk and given him a few instructive pointers in the finer art of how to paint a wall red with one’s forehead.

“Oh, but we hardly do anything,” said Elizabeth. “We’re just stuck in the house all weekend long. And on weekdays it’s school and then straight to bed.”

Harry burped.

“Har,” the freckled girl with the brunette pigtails leaned across the table, and a sparkle in her eyes told young Harry that something of great import was about to be related to him. “Har, I was walking home through the forest after school on Thursday.”

“Through the what?” Molecules of porridge were machine-gunned out of Harry’s pursed lips, creating a lovely mosaic over the wooden wall which divided the kitchen from the living room.

“Through the forest,” Elizabeth repeated.

“Through the what?”

“The forest.”

“You’re not allowed to go there!” Harry flourished his spoon. “It’s forbidden. Father will beat me if he finds out you were there! Why, he might even beat you for a change…”

“I was tired, my legs were sore, and I was hungry, all right? And I knew if I took a short-cut through Chetyre, I could get home half-an-hour earlier.”

“But weren’t you worried about, you know, wolves and bears and snakes and things like that, Liz?” Harry asked.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when you put it like that, I guess I ought to have been worried. But I just wasn’t, Har. It didn’t cross my mind. And the forest looked so peaceful and inviting, what with those dark green leaves swaying in the breeze and those long twisted black trunks…”

“That does not sound inviting,” Harry shook his head from side to side like an owl searching for mice. “That sounds like the opposite of inviting, like…”

“Uninviting?” Elizabeth suggested warmly.

“Yes, uninviting. So, you didn’t see anything nasty inside?”

“Nothing nasty, Har. But I did bump into somebody.”

“A man? In the forest? That’s so dangerous, Liz. Father says only really bad men live in the forest, they’re much worse than wolves.”

“I’m not sure he was a man, though, Har.”

“Not a man? What’re you talking about? Either it’s a man or it’s an animal. How can he be like a man and not like a man?”

“Well, he had a nose, and a mouth, and eyes, and all the usual parts—but he was quite a bit taller than normal.”

“How much taller?”

“I would say maybe,” and Elizabeth climbed onto the table and levelled her right hand an inch or so below the ceiling, “about here.”

“That’s nine foot at least!” Harry exclaimed. “You met a nine foot man in the forest! That’s an ogre, Liz!”

“I don’t think he was an ogre.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because he didn’t try to eat me.”

“True… anything else odd about him?”

“He spoke in a strange accent. I mean, he spoke the same language as us, but it didn’t sound like his natural language, you know? Like he was from another country? It was sort of guttural.”

“Okay, and what else?”

“Well, his clothing was strange also, sort of puffy and baggy, his pants splayed out to the sides, and his shirt made it seem like there were lots of little balloons inside his body.”

“I don’t believe you,” Harry got up to ladle a smidgeon more porridge into his bowl. “I think you just dreamt all of this up last night.”

“If I dreamt it all, then how do you think I came across this—”

And with these words Elizabeth drew out a scrunched up bit of cloth from her clenched left hand and showed it to her cynical brother. Scrolled along the top of the piece of material were the words: ‘Directions to Gagaland from the Southern Towns.’

“Look, there’s Pyat!”

Harry’s forefinger landed on a little black square which stood beside the large green mass of Chetyre, from Pyat a line was pencilled leading into the forest. The line snaked around three landmarks—‘The Red Stone’, ‘The Speaking Oak’, and ‘The Bear Lake’—before it arrived at what was a half-open doorway, titled in small cursive, ‘Back Door to Gagaland’.

“Back Door to Gagaland… What do you suppose that means?”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows split in logical deduction. “It’s some kind of entrance to another land, a hidden land—a magical land. And I’m going.”

And she was off.

Elizabeth had never seemed so happy. She was streaming across the green field with reckless abandon, her pigtail flapping in the wind like a kite, her lips whistling every which song that entered her head—first a folk jig, then a polonaise, now a ballade, then a mazurka; Harry, on the other hand, was doing his best simply to keep up with his younger sister, coughing out the odd reprimand when he could get enough air into his lungs.

Soon they had passed through the thick outer wall of the woodland, and, sure enough, all colour was at once drained from Harry’s face. He had never gone within a country mile of Chetyre before; his father had told him such horrendous tales that he expected to be consumed by a ravenous wolf at every step.

Contrary to his expectations, however, they had made it through a full five minutes in the preternatural darkness – with all their limbs intact – when Elizabeth finally ceased her incessant skipping, glanced back at her brother, and pointed her index finger ahead of them like a signpost. In a small clearing in the forest was a jagged red stone, slanting away from them and pointing upwards like a sundial.

“The Red Stone,” Elizabeth enthused, and she ran her hand over the rough clay surface of the rock.

“So what?” said Harry.

Elizabeth pulled the crumpled paper from her trouser pocket and shoved it in front of her brother’s nose.

“See! The Red Stone! We’re on the right track.”

“There are probably a hundred red stones in this forest. So, we found one…”

Elizabeth leaned closer to the rock: “come read this.”

On the top of the Red Stone there was a natural basin filled with a bubbly black liquid, and to the side of this basin the following instruction was etched in white chalk: ‘All travellers to Gagaland: one cupped handful of Gagaline is required for entrance.’

“Elizabeth!” shouted Harry. His sister had already accepted a brimming handful into her mouth. “Stop that at once! You don’t know what’s in that stuff!”

“If you’re going to come with me to Gagaland, Har, you’re going to have to take a sip! Otherwise, you’ll have to go back to Father without me!”

His sister, with a fey giggle, skipped further into the forest.

“Liz! Come back! It’s not safe that way! You’re going to get both of us killed, you silly girl!”

But no reply was forthcoming, and his sister was fast becoming indistinguishable in the dim light which beamed through the canopy.

“Father won’t be happy,” Harry winced like a dog beaten one too many times, and his fingers instinctively began to run back and forth over a thick white scar which stretched across his brow, from the base of his fringe to the left temple.

“But I can’t leave Liz alone, not in this Gagaland-place. It wouldn’t be right.”

Harry shrugged his shoulders and quickly scooped a handful of the liquid into his mouth before pursuing the gentle pitter-patter of his sister’s feet on the damp leaves.

“Not bad. Tastes like liquorice,” he said to himself, “but more sugary.”

When he finally caught up with his sister, that index finger of hers had been brought into play once more; this time she was motioning towards a tall oak tree with wide-brimmed branches and almost maroon-coloured bark.

“The Speaking Oak,” Elizabeth declared.

“Awfully quiet for a talking tree,” Harry muttered.

“Hello, Speaking Oak,” Elizabeth drew closer to it. “We were wondering if we were on the right track for Gagaland?”

“Nothing,” Harry followed her cautiously toward the broad trunk.

“You must be more patient, Har.”

“You read too many books. Trees don’t talk in real life. They just sit still and mind their own business—you could learn a thing or two from trees, Liz…”

“C’mon, Har! We’re on a real adventure here!”

“We’d better head back now, Liz.”

“Wait,” his sister raised her hand to shush him. “Do you hear that?”

“My stomach. We’d better get back soon, otherwise we’re going to miss lunch.”

“Har! Listen!”

And there was indeed a noise, a soft crackling noise from the branches above, like a plastic bag being slowly crumpled over and over and over again.

“That tree doesn’t sound too healthy,” Harry surmised. “Maybe it’s going to fall down. I’ve never seen a tree fall, but I reckon if they do, they probably make a noise like that.”

“The Speaking Oak is trying to tell us something, Har.”

“He’s trying to tell us that he’s about to fall down on our heads.” Harry took a step backwards, and tugged at his sister’s floral dress. “Mind yourself, Liz. I don’t want to have to explain to Father how you were knocked unconscious by a falling branch. He never takes kindly to that kind of news.”

“Har.”

“Liz, for the last time! Step back!”

“Wait, Har! Quiet!”

All at once the crackling stopped; the following message was related in a deep guttural voice: ‘Attention, all travellers to Gagaland, we regret to announce that due to new travel restrictions set in place—as per bill number seven-one-eight-seven-three-eight-two, document twenty-three, point H, sub-point two—a full, original hand signature for each traveller to Gagaland is now mandatory, any transgression of which is subject to prosecution. Please sign on the bark below. We hope you have a nice day.’

“The Speaking Oak,” Elizabeth declared reverentially.

“The thing speaks.” Harry stood for a moment, dumbstruck; his eyebrows were raised to his hairline, his mouth felt slack and a little numb.

“I told you so,” said Elizabeth, and, with her brother no longer gripping her dress, she walked closer to inspect the surface of the trunk. “Take a look, Har. Look at all the different hand marks on the bark. Why, there must be at least a hundred of them. And remember what the Speaking Oak said: ‘Sign on the bark below.’ You know, Har, I’ll bet there’s some way of signing our hands on the tree as well! There must be something around here!”

Elizabeth circled the great oak several times, and her head bobbed up and down like a pigeon’s as she searched both branches and roots for a clue. Harry, however, had now made his recovery and was having none of it. His jaw stiffened and his eyes narrowed.

“So the tree speaks. So what? It doesn’t mean we should listen to what the stupid thing says, Liz. From what I heard, it was all a lot of gibberish about rules and signatures—adult nonsense.”

“Found it!” Elizabeth leapt up from the dirt as though she had just won first prize at her school’s spelling bee. Nestled in her palm was a rusty old dagger with a red leather handle; before Harry could process what was happening, the ten-year-old girl had run the sharp blade over the fleshy part of the hand which lies below the thumb. Gasping, Harry charged over to wrest the knife from her grip—but the young girl had already cast it aside and was busy pressing her smeared palm to the bark.

“Lizzie!” Harry bellowed as his sister skipped through the forest once more. “Father is going to tie a rope to a tree and hang me when we get home! I hope you’re happy!”

Elizabeth did stop for a brief moment, but this was only to confer with the map before she hurtled through the avenues of trees once more; her brother’s yapping and yelling were, to her, no more vexing than an ant scampering over her forearm.

Finally, they arrived at the Bear Lake. Now, as it happened, there was a slight misspelling on the map; for the wooden sign-post which confronted the duo did not read ‘The Bear Lake’, but rather ‘The Bare Lake’. Beside the pool of water, which ran for about half a kilometre in front of them and which stretched seemingly endlessly to their sides, there lay a copious iron crater, and on this crater was printed in large block capitals, ‘DONATIONS’, under which, in small font, was the following note: ‘As part of our new humanitarian aid scheme, you are strongly encouraged to throw all your clothing into these craters for immediate redistribution. Upon swimming across the lake, uniforms will be available in the lockers.’

“Well, this is crazy,” Harry concluded; Elizabeth was already almost completely undressed. “I suppose I can’t stop you, Liz, not in this kind of mood. So, I guess I might as well join you in swimming across. But there’s no way I’m getting rid of my clothing, or putting on some dumb uniform of theirs.”

The two of them proceeded to slink into the water like a pair of otters and slowly paddled their way across the still pool. Along the far shoreline were tall metal cubicles with many small grey lockers within; each locker contained an official Gagaland uniform. Harry, as much as he detested the idea of wearing a woolly blue overcoat and a pair of thick navy blue trousers in the heat of the day, liked less the sensation of his vest clinging to his chest, and so he scoured the lockers for the right sizes and, grudgingly, slipped into the ensemble.

All kitted out in their new gear, the children could not possibly make any mistake as to which route they had to take. There were over-sized billboards with the relative distances to their destination—‘Back Door to Gagaland, 800 metres’, ‘Back Door to Gagaland, 750 metres’, and so forth; there were grotesquely large arrows, painted in every colour of the rainbow, in case their feet were lured off the pebbled road; and there were also signs, outlined in large red circles, which gave various prohibitions to on-coming travellers: ‘Immediate registration is required upon entry’, ‘Travellers who do not register their credentials are liable to prosecution’, ‘No loitering permitted in public spaces’, ‘Littering is a capital offence’, and many more.

Finally, the largest board of all stood before them, across the road, and declared: ‘Welcome to Gagaland.’

Much to Harry’s delight, however, there was no trace of any Gagaland around the tall green billboard.

“What did I tell you, Liz? You see? It’s all a big, lousy fake.”

For the first time that morning a look of distress fell upon the ten-year-old’s face. Her older brother continued: “now, what we’ve got to look out for, Liz, is highway-robber-types. They’ve lured us here with all this nonsense; they’ve managed to nick some of your clothing…”

“And provided us with new outfits,” Elizabeth shook her head in correction.

“There’s nothing here, Liz,” Harry carried on. “Now, listen. I’ve put up with a lot from you today. I followed you all the way into the middle of Chetyre; I’ve drunk water from some strange-looking rock; I’ve had to swim half a mile across a lake—and for what? Hypothermia? I’m the older brother. I’m the man here. I call the shots. And I say this adventure is officially over, complete, finished, at an end, concluded. You understand? In other words, no more. We’re going home.”

Harry stormed towards his sister, who was at the far end of the path, where it ended in an abrupt cul-de-sac before the impenetrable mass of the forest. No sooner had the twelve-year-old begun to move than he had vanished into thin air.

Elizabeth’s eyes fairly bulged out of their sockets.

“There is some magic in this place,” she told herself. “Gagaland is here, but how did Har manage to pass through and not me? I took all the necessary steps: I drank the water, and signed the tree, and handed in my clothing. He doesn’t even believe in this kind of stuff.”

Like an overseer inspecting a construction site, Elizabeth scrutinized the perimeter of the forest, which bent in a semi-circle around the end of the path. “He was there,” Elizabeth nodded her head slowly, “and then he passed over there… why, of course! Between the legs of the sign!”

Harry had passed right under the green signpost which had declared ‘Welcome to Gagaland’.

Liz practically sprinted between the legs of the sign.

###

On a snowy street called Ksenos Road, a tall man in a navy-blue overcoat met the startled children and handed them each a hundred Gagareens.

“Thanks awfully, sir,” Elizabeth smiled tentatively at the official, “but we haven’t done anything to earn this money.”

“All visitors to Gagaland get one hundred Gagareens,” he said in his guttural voice. “It is not permitted for one to stay here without capital.”

“But how did you know to expect us now, I mean, right now? Why were you waiting for us here? What’s this all about?” Harry shot out his suspicions, rapid-fire.

“Did you not buy tickets to Gagaland?” The burly man spat out.

“Tickets? What do you mean tickets?”

“Our records show that earlier today a boy of twelve years of age and a young girl of ten each purchased a single day ticket in the Forest of Chetyre.”

“Tickets… tickets,” Harry mused. “Wait, are you talking about the juice in that Red Stone thing? That was a ticket?”

“We wish all travellers to Gagaland a pleasant…”

“Hold on.”

“Stay.”

The tall man loped off down the street with giant strides; the thickness of the snow and reach of his gait rendered it impossible for the two children to keep up with him.

“Some paradise, Liz,” Harry kicked a heap of snow from the pavement into the road. “I suppose you thought it was going to be all green meadows and sky-blue lakes and houses made of chocolate and kind old women giving out sweets?”

“Nothing of the kind,” Elizabeth replied stubbornly. “I’m very happy to be here. I’m sure there’re plenty of interesting things to see and do here.”

“We know nothing about ‘here’. It could be dangerous.”

“It’s got to be more interesting than home. It’s different at least. You might have no problem with spending your whole life in Pyat, but don’t get upset with me if I want to see a little more of the world.”

Ksenos Road and the surrounding streets which passed through it were entirely empty at this time. The two children could see candle lights flickering in the windows above them and the occasional dark silhouettes drawing blinds as they walked by.

“Might I ask to see your identity documents, please?”

The two children were surprised by the soft footfalls of a giant policeman behind them.

“Identity documents?” they said in unison.

“Just standard procedure, children. Nothing to be alarmed about.”

“But we weren’t given any identity documents,” complained Harry. “All we have are these notes.”

And he held them up.

“There they are,” smiled the policeman. “So, you do have your documents in order. Although it doesn’t look like either of you have spent a single Gagareen yet—might I ask why?”

“Spend?” queried Elizabeth. “Why do we have to spend any money? We didn’t come here to spend; we came here to explore Gagaland.”

“Did we?” sulked Harry.

“I think,” began the policeman, “some of the bureaucrats here can be a little harsh and heartless. They dish out the cash, but they don’t dish out any information. They don’t let you know about all the fun you can have in Gagaland. Perhaps I can redirect you to the shopping district?”

The policeman, whose name they learned to be Constable Pecan, insisted upon seeing them out of the suburbs and into the city centre. Soon Harry and Elizabeth had lost all sense of direction in the labyrinthine streets of Gagaland. There weren’t any broad boulevards and spacious plazas by which one could trace one’s journey, all the roads had much of a likeness, and after the twentieth turn in this left-right-straight jumble of movements Harry cast aside any hope of finding their way home unaided.

“You do realize,” Constable Pecan continued as he lead the children along, “that not registering as soon as you enter Gagaland is an offence, and liable to prosecution. Now I think we can let you two off the hook today, seeing as how you don’t seem to know very much about how things function here—but consider this official notice. You can register your stay by purchasing a product at a store, any store, and unless I’m mistaken, you would have passed by three green-grocers, a jeweller, a stamp-specialist, two soft-drink dealers, and a souvenir store on your way through Ksenos Street. I can tell you, from personal experience, that we’re never short of anything in Gagaland, and there’s a shop to match your every desire—all reasonably priced too.”

When Harry and Elizabeth were led by the brusque policeman into the Town Square of Gagaland, they were amazed by what they saw. The plaza must have been at least a kilometre wide on each of its four sides, and along this perimeter were crammed so many stores that their heads grew dizzy counting them; between the buildings were all sorts of temporary stalls erected randomly all over the marble surface of the square. There were posh restaurants and pretentious gazebos, good old-fashioned steak houses and gloomy down-trodden pubs, fruit stockists and candy vendors, cotton candy stands and automated popcorn machines, huge triple-storied toy departments and solitary street sellers peddling their home-made gadgets, underground bowling alleys and arcades for electronic gaming, windows advertising the latest in fashionable head-wear and detachable runways in the middle of the square, where models were exhibiting the kind of skirts and jerseys which every sensible girl knew she had to buy.

More remarkably, from passing through streets which were practically deserted, Harry and Elizabeth were astounded to witness the sheer number of children like them wandering back and forth across the square, from shop to shop, stall to stall, talking with their friends or counting their remaining silver in some quiet corner before rushing to the next store.

“Gosh!” marvelled Harry. “there must be at least a thousand kids here now.”

“I think,” the policeman casually read off a few lines from his notepad, “the tally numbers around one thousand two hundred and thirty-four today, give or take one or two for minor administrative mistakes. And now, children, I must get back to my duties. There are plenty of little ones like yourselves who need redirecting—not to mention the criminal element to round up. You have a pleasant time here. Remember to register your stay here as soon as possible. Goodbye.”

The hefty policeman lumbered his way back out of the square and into one of the numerous little roads punctuating the arena.

At Harry’s insistence, the children chose to register their stay at Uncle Bob’s Candy Emporium. Harry bought a packet of colourful liquorice, his favourite treat, for the bargain price of a single Gagareen, while Elizabeth bought a ‘Rainbow-Floater’, a large fizzy drink with sweet cottage cheese lobbed on top and which reflected different shades of light the more she drank. Elizabeth downed her drink quickly and gave a satisfied sigh as she discarded the foam cup in a bin outside the shop; Harry, who could count on a single hand the number of times he’d enjoyed sweets in his life, chewed his way through three liquorice cubes before stuffing the packet with the remaining two dozen in his pocket.

“I’ll say one thing for this place: they know how to make decent liquorice sweets. They’re like that Gagaline stuff we drank in the forest, you remember? Except these are much, much better. The insides are crumbly and rich like fudge, Liz; and the middle parts, well, the middle is creamier and a bit sour actually, rather like lemon tart, but it mixes so well with the sweetness inside; and the outside is proper black liquorice and it’s really tough and fun to chew, and you never want to swallow it.”

“First,” Elizabeth corrected, “liquorice is horrid stuff. It’s bad for your heart and it makes your stomach all runny. And secondly, Gagaline doesn’t taste anything like liquorice; it’s much better than that—it’s like… like a warm mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows on top, and sprinkled with cinnamon…”

“I think your imagination is getting the better of you, Liz,” said Harry. “Now let’s get something proper to eat, okay?”

“You just bought liquorice!”

“That’s a snack. It’s not real food.”

“If you ate more than three pieces, maybe you wouldn’t be so hungry,” said Elizabeth. “And we didn’t come here to spend money on food; we came here to explore.”

“You came here to explore; I didn’t want to come at all. But now that I’m here, and it turns out they have some decent nosh, I’m not about to wander off into the countryside for the sake of some half-mangled notion of adventure.”

“I wanted an adventure!” Elizabeth complained. “Not shopping malls!”

“That’s life, Lizzie,” said the twelve-year-old.

“Boy,” a gruff giant, not unlike the policeman, materialized behind the two quarrelling siblings. He had a large walrus moustache and intent yellow eyes which never left you when he spoke to you. “Boy, we have a problem. Your name’s Harry, isn’t it? Yes, I thought so. I thought so. We’ve just got you on record as purchasing some liquorice at Uncle Bob’s Candy Emporium. I’m with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and it appears there has been a slight irregularity. It seems you entered Gagaland without completing the necessary protocol. You bought the ticket, but you didn’t sign on the dotted line.”

“What do you mean, ‘sign’?”

“Har!” Elizabeth shook her head in disappointment. “The Speaking Oak!”

“Lizzie, that’s nuts! You couldn’t expect me to do that!”

“The fact is,” the towering man continued, “that you have deliberately subverted regulations. You have used our tender without committing yourself to due procedure.”

“What are you talking about? Due procedure?”

“Simply put, you needed to sign your hand on the tree so as to be in legal possession of your Gagareens. And,” the official carried on, “as an appendix to this indiscretion, I should add that it was discovered that no items of clothing were received under your name in the box for compulsory donations—now although this in itself does not amount to a punishable offence, it will, nevertheless, appear most unsympathetic to the judge when your case is heard.”

“Hang on,” Harry raised his palms. “What do you mean ‘judge’? I’m a child, you understand?”

“In Gagaland there is no statute on the minimum age to be arrested. Now listen, young boy…”

“Harry.”

“There are three options before you to resolve this misdemeanour: option one, you return all the money which was given to you, in addition to a fine of thirty Gagareens for illegal possession of tender; option two, you follow me to the Bureau of Documentation to sign a supplementary document which will stand in place of the said tree; option three, you submit yourself to arrest and trial.”

“In signing ‘a supplementary document’,” said Harry, “you’ll need me to do what Liz did with that talking tree?”

“That is the procedure.”

“Go on, Har,” Elizabeth nodded.

“I won’t, Liz. There’s no way I’m going to let somebody do that to me. And what’s the whole point anyway? It’s pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

“Let me explain something to you, boy. Minting Gagareens is not an inexpensive activity. It takes certain raw materials, namely, paper and the right kind of—of dye. If you don’t use the proper dye, the stuff is worthless, and you couldn’t buy so much as a plastic whistle with it.”

“Wait. By dye, do you mean…?”

“We harvest what resources we can. You think it’s fair that you get given a whole hundred Gagareens, and you don’t have to give anything back? And what harm does a little cut to the hand do?”

“Well, you can count me out,” huffed Harry. “My blood is staying where it’s meant to be.”

“So it will be option one then?” The official enquired. “I need an answer.”

“Yes,” Harry nodded. “The first one.”

He grabbed all the money from his pocket and shoved it into the gloves of the tall man.

“That’s ninety-nine Gagareens,” the official counted. “You’re still thirty-one short of the required amount, fine included.”

“Liz,” Harry beckoned towards the bureaucrat. “Pay him the remaining thirty-one and then let’s get out of this stupid place.”

“Typical,” Elizabeth grimaced. “This is where always thinking about food gets you.”

“Where thinking about food gets me? What? We’re here because somebody fancied an adventure. My appetite is the least reason we’re in this mess.”

“If you had just signed the tree!”

“Thirty-One Gagareen,” the sky-scraper of a man demanded. And upon receiving the cash the official continued. “It seems like that’s all-in order then. The administrative transgression at the border can be considered resolved. There is now, however, a new matter to be addressed in that you are within the territory of Gagaland without any form of identification whatsoever.”

“But I just paid the fine to clear everything up!” Harry complained.

“The fine was in light of the transgression in not signing the requisite documentation to enter into Gagaland, which is a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs; you will realize of course that you are now without means to prove your identity in Gagaland, a fact which the Department of Home Affairs will not look kindly on.”

“Wait,” Elizabeth pleaded, “but he can sign the document to register his stay here, can’t he? That was option two you said?”

“He could indeed, miss, if he weren’t in immediate violation of the identity laws, which itself demands prosecution and sentencing before any new claim for funding can be made. You can’t go walking around Gagaland without any change in your pocket, I’m afraid. That’s an immediate code red offence. I should expect the law to be here any second.”

“This is ridiculous,” Harry complained. “So, every child here who spends all his money will be arrested?”

“Only the smallest expenditure of money is required for registration; we don’t encourage travellers to exhaust all their capital. And, besides, they can always sign up for more currency—although we cannot guarantee as favourable a rate of exchange as visitors first receive.”

“Hello boy!” Harry rocketed around at Constable Pecan’s deep, booming voice. And from behind the policeman’s wide frame Harry could see a chain gang ambling its way into the plaza. There was a dozen or more prisoners: some seemed barely past the teething stage as they stumbled forward like oversized dolls, others were already sprouting the first tufts of their beards and were well on their way to manhood; there were pig-tailed girls who were draining packets of sherbet into their mouths with their unshackled hands, and there were bright-eyed lads who were smacking gobstoppers as large as golf balls against their cheeks. None of them appeared terribly upset or angry or sad, or anything other than quietly content.

“Pecan,” the bureaucrat hailed the constable.

“Snodgrass,” Constable Pecan replied. “I heard you’ve got another child for me?”

“Another criminal,” replied the official. “Broke the law, Pecan.”

“Well,” Constable Pecan turned to Harry, “then you’d better join the troupe, boy. Come now. Let’s not drag our feet. It’s still early in the day, and you’re not my last port of call. I have it on record that you’re quite fond of liquorice; well, not to worry, we don’t starve prisoners in Gagaland. We’re not savages here.”

“Harry,” Elizabeth tried to get around the blockade of the bureaucrat. “What should I do?”

“What was that?” asked Harry dreamily, a calm came over him as the cuffs were wrapped around his ankles.

“What should I do, Har? I don’t know what to do now.”

“Father…” began Harry.

“You want me to bring Father here? To help get you out?”

“Tell Father to…” Harry paused. He rubbed his brow and stared at his feet.

“To what, Har?”

“Tell Father that, tell him that I’ve moved to a better place now.”

“What?”

“Tell him that he doesn’t have to worry about me anymore.”

“…But what about me, Har? What should I do?”

“Get out of here, Elizabeth,” Harry called back as the chain gang were steered down a side alley. “Leave as soon as you can. And don’t come back for me.”

“She can leave,” Snodgrass muttered to himself, and fixed a cigarette in his thick lips. “So long as she can pay for the exit visa.”

End of Part One of the Gagaland Chronicles. 

 

Hamish Filmer

Hamish Filmer grew up in Simon’s Town, South Africa, studying Classical Philology at the University of Cape Town. Hamish resides in The Hague, where he lives with his wife, Ksenia, and two sons, Konstantin and Alexander. He has had short stories published in Empty Nest (KY Story), The Cardiff Review, Type/Cast, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and The Bombay Review. http://hamishfilmer.weebly.com/writing.html

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