Alexei Leonov has completed the first ever spacewalk. But as he reaches the airlock he realises his suit has expanded in the vacuum of space.
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The Osprey Enigma
– CHAPTER 1 –
Race against time
The Land Rover careered down the lane, scraping the hedges on either side. Potholes appeared then disappeared in the beams from the headlights. The wheels lurched into them with bone-shaking bumps.
I clasped the seatbelt and bounced up and down in the seat.
‘I really must get these potholes filled in,’ said Dad, as he leant forward over the steering wheel and stared, unblinking, through the driving rain. The wipers swung back and forth with a deep, scraping sound, as water cascaded down the windscreen.
‘Will we get there on time?’ I asked.
‘I hope so. Things should be better once we get onto the main road.’
‘Look out!’ I said.
Two eyes, transfixed with terror, were gazing up at us from the grass in the middle of the lane. Dad hit the brakes. We flew forward against the seatbelts and then slammed back into our seats. I thought we would not stop in time, but whatever it was scurried off at the last moment into the hedge.
‘It was a fox,’ said Dad, as he glanced out of the side window. He floored the accelerator and once more we sped down the lane.
I looked at the clock on the dashboard. It was 8.15 p.m. I reckoned it was ten minutes since Mr Bamford had telephoned.
He had rung on the landline and I had taken the call. He asked to speak to Dad so I handed him the phone.
‘Hmm ... hmm ... I see,’ said Dad.
Mum came into the room. ‘What’s wrong?’ she mouthed to me.
‘Right, so you’ve phoned George Travers at the veterinary practice in Gladknoll and he says take her in? ... No, that’s no problem. I heard your car was off the road. I’ll come up to Larchtree straightaway. I’ll see you in a bit.’
‘What’s happened?’ said Mum, as he put the phone down.
‘It’s Molly, their labrador. She’s due to give birth to puppies any time now, but she is very ill.’
‘Oh, Matt, that’s awful. I was speaking to Rachel Bamford only the other day. Her little boy Thomas is so looking forward to having the puppies in the house.’
‘Pam, are you gonna be okay if I pop up there?’ he said, as he grabbed his coat.
‘I’ll be fine. Tell Rachel and Derek I’m thinking of them.’
‘Can I come?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know what time I’ll be back,’ said Dad. ‘I could be late. And you’ve got homework to do, I’m sure. It’s your first week at the secondary school, Bev, you need to keep up with your work from the word go.’
‘Oh, Dad, please! I’ve done all the homework I need to. I love dogs. I might be able to help.’
‘Molly’s really ill,’ said Dad. ‘She might lose the puppies and she may not survive. It’s best you don’t come.’
‘Dad’s right,’ said Mum. ‘It’s best if you stay here. And, Beverley Miller, you haven’t spent much time on your homework.’
‘I’ve done the work I need to. Please, Dad, I want to come.’
Mum and Dad looked at each other.
‘You’ve got a French vocab test tomorrow, is that right?’
‘Right, if your dad agrees you can go, but take your French book with you. No doubt you’ll be hanging around a bit at the vets. You can do some revision while you’re waiting.’
‘Thanks, Mum!’ I said, as I gave her a hug.
‘We need to move,’ said Dad. ‘Get your book and your parka and I’ll see you outside.’
We reached the main road. Dad slowed down to check for other traffic, but barely stopped. The town of Gladknoll was to the left, just down the hill, but we turned right with a screech of the tyres and headed up towards the village of Larchtree. The wind battered the side of the Land Rover. The raindrops glistened like silver nails as they shot through the shaft of light and pinged into the tarmac.
‘The osprey centre’s coming up, Bev. Check the gates look secure as we go by.’
I rubbed the mist off the window and peered to the left. I could make out the big sign with a photograph of an osprey, and the words ‘Larchtree Osprey Project’ in big red letters. As we got closer I saw the padlock holding the gates together. ‘The gates look fine,’ I said.
‘Will the ospreys be affected by this wind?’ I asked.
‘No, they’re a long way from here. I checked on the computer before I went to work this morning. Both Mitch and Mildred are flying over France. Mitch was near Paris and Mildred was flying over Brittany.’
‘What about the two young ones?’
‘They’ll be fine Bev. We obviously can’t be sure because we haven’t fitted trackers to them, but they’ll know what to do.’
A little further on, we came to the Bamford’s. We pulled off the road, drove through a big puddle and parked in a small car park in front of the cafe and craft shop. We leapt out of the Land Rover and knocked on the door of the house at the side.
‘Hi, Matt, thanks for coming,’ said Mr Bamford, as the door opened. ‘Come on in.’
‘Hi, Derek. I’ve got Beverley with me,’ said Dad, as we walked in. ‘I hope that’s okay’.
‘Hello, Mr Bamford.’
We walked through the hallway and into the living room. Molly was lying in a wide cardboard box lined with newspapers.
‘Oh, you poor thing,’ I said, as I knelt down and stroked her golden fur. Molly’s brown eyes gazed straight ahead and hardly moved to look at me. Her tail, which I thought looked a bit like an otter’s tail, flopped up and down a couple of times.
‘She should have started giving birth by now,’ said Mr Bamford. ‘She showed all the signs that the puppies were about to be born, but nothing’s happened.’
‘Hi, Matt. Hi, Beverley,’ said Mrs Bamford, as she walked in. She was carrying Thomas who was resting his head on her shoulder and sucking his thumb. ‘Thank you for coming on such a horrible night. The wind rattling the windows woke Thomas up.’
‘Hi, Rachel,’ said Dad. ‘We’re glad to be able to help. We had best get cracking. We’ll transfer Molly to her plastic bed and put her in the back of the Land Rover. Bev, you can sit in the rear passenger seat. You’ll be able to turn round and keep an eye on her every so often. Derek can sit up front.’
After we put Molly in her bed we put a blanket over her to protect her from the wind and rain. Mr Bamford then picked up the bed and carried it outside. Dad opened the door at the back of the Land Rover and pushed some tools to one side to make space. Mr Bamford lowered the bed onto the floor. ‘There you go, Molly, you just rest easy,’ he said.
I climbed in and sat down on the passenger seat behind Dad and Mr Bamford. I put on the seatbelt and then twisted round to check on Molly. ‘You’re gonna be alright,’ I said, as I reached down and stroked her. But I knew that she might not make it. And I suspected Molly knew that too.
The engine started with a roar. Mrs Bamford was standing in the doorway with Thomas. I waved to them as Dad swung the Land Rover round. Then we headed off into the darkness towards Gladknoll.
I found a torch in the pocket of the door and shone it towards Molly.
‘How’s she looking?’ asked Dad.
‘She’s gone very sleepy,’ I said. I felt the Land Rover accelerate. I knew we didn’t have much time. Still, at least we were on our way. Soon we would be at the vets.
But then flashing blue lights flooded the inside of the vehicle.
I looked to the front and saw a police car ahead. Dad jammed the brakes on and stopped. A policeman with a bright fluorescent jacket walked up to us.
Dad lowered the window. ‘What’s wrong, officer?’ he asked.
‘Sorry, sir, the road ahead is blocked. A tree has just fallen onto the road.’
‘We’ve got a very ill dog on board,’ said Dad. ‘She’s due to give birth anytime. How long will it take to get the road cleared?’
‘A couple of hours, maybe more,’ said the policeman. ‘The men from the council are busy elsewhere at the moment. You’ll have to go to Larchtree and take the back route into town.’
‘But that’s miles out of our way,’ said Dad. ‘We haven’t got that much time.’
‘I’m sorry sir, that’s the way it is.’
‘Look, officer, I work for the Forestry Commission and I’ve got a chainsaw in the back,’ said Dad. ‘I can’t clear the whole road, but at least let me cut a big enough gap to get the Land Rover through.’
‘That would be highly irregular sir. It wouldn’t be proper procedure ...’
‘Please, we’re desperate.’
The policeman thought for moment. ‘You say the dog is very ill?’
‘Yes,’ said Dad.
‘Okay, seeing as it’s an emergency, I suppose you can. But you do so entirely at your own risk. I’ll radio through to my colleagues on the other side of the tree so they know what’s happening. The tree’s just round this bend, sir.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dad.
We drove round the bend and came to the tree. Dad and Mr Bamford leapt out. Dad opened the back door. ‘You okay, there, Bev?’ he said, as rainwater ran down his face.
‘You need to hurry Dad. I can’t seem to rouse her.’
‘We’ll be as quick as we can.’ He lifted the chainsaw out and shut the door.
I clambered over the seat into the back and knelt down by Molly. ‘You’re gonna be okay. Dad’s always cutting up trees. He knows what he’s doing. He loves animals, and birds too. That’s why he’s a volunteer for the osprey project. You’re gonna be okay, and your puppies too ...’ My voice choked and I felt a tear run down my cheek. I gave Molly a stroke and looked towards her tail. I knew that if she at least wagged her tail that would be a good sign. But her tail didn’t move.
The angry sound of the chainsaw pierced the night, like the drill of a giant’s dentist. Pieces of woodchip and sawdust splattered against the windscreen.
After what seemed like an age, Dad and Mr Bamford came back to the Land Rover. I climbed back over into the seat and Dad dumped the chainsaw in the back. Soon we were on our way again. The policemen on the other side waved us through and we headed down into town.
I kept stroking and talking to Molly all the time. Molly’s breathing was now very slow. ‘Don’t give up, we’re nearly there,’ I said.
Within five minutes we were driving into the car park of the vets. It was a new white building with a big sign, saying, Gladknoll Veterinary Practice, above its door. Dad reversed the Land Rover right up to the main entrance and we all got out. Dad opened the backdoor and Mr Bamford lifted the bed out of the back. We all rushed into the building.
The reception area was empty, but then a veterinary nurse came bustling out, followed closely behind by Mr Travers. He had a quick look at Molly and asked Mr Bamford a few questions. ‘We need to operate on her straightaway,’ he said. ‘I am afraid she might not survive, nor her puppies. You must prepare for the worst. But we will try our best.’
By now, another nurse had come with a trolley. They wheeled Molly through a door into another room. Mr Travers hurried after them.
Mr Bamford went over to a chair and slumped down.
‘Well, it looks like all we can do now is wait,’ said Dad.