It was Grandpa who taught Vita to throw.
Vita’s grandfather’s name was Jack Welles. Or, technically – because he had come from the kind of family that believed in long names, long cars, and long dinners – his name was William Jonathan Theodore Maximilian Welles. The family fortune had long since disappeared, but the habit of extravagant naming remained. His father was American, his mother and his schooling were English. Jack was a jeweller by trade, tall enough for door ways to pose a hazard, and thin enough to ﬁt his legs through a letter box.
When Vita was ﬁve, two things happened: her father was killed in the Great War, and she contracted polio. Her mother fought against the disease with wild, unsleeping passion. For long dark months Vita lay in a hospital bed, lifted out for baths in almond meal and oxidised water. She was given chloride of gold to drink, and wine of pepsin. She began to look far older than she was.
And then one day her grandparents arrived from America. Grandpa sat by her bed, gave her a ping- pong ball, and told her to call him when she could hit the head surgeon with it. Then he drew, with the steady hand of a jeweller, a very small bullseye on the far hospital wall.
She missed, and missed, until she did not.
Grandpa coached her like an athlete. He was a crack shot himself, and Vita spent hours throwing. She threw pebbles, marbles, darts, paper aero planes. When she came home from hospital, aged seven, she could send steak knives in elegant loops to land upright in a pat of butter across the room.
Vita grew, and her bones grew stronger, and eventually her leg brace was put away. Her left calf was thinner than her right, and her left foot curved in on itself, and her shoes were made, gratis, by a cobbler in the softest leather he could ﬁnd. Her mother top- stitched them with red silk, and embroidered birds on them. She could run, though it made the muscles pull and burn, and although Vita willingly complained of cuts, and demanded band ages where there was very little blood, she never breathed a word about that particular pain.
She grew up small, and still, and watchful. She had six kinds of smile, and ﬁve of them were real. All of them were worth seeing. Her hair was the reddish- brown of a freshly washed fox.
Vita’s mother Julia only once raised the question of Vita’s constant target practice.
‘She won’t have it easy,’ said Grandpa. ‘And she looks so breakable. She might as well know how to throw a rock or two.’
By the time Vita was eight, she could hit an apple in the highest branches of a tree from ﬁfty paces. She could skim a stone and make it bounce twenty- three times. ‘Back home, your Grandpa’s the best shot in town,’ said Grandma Lizzy. She was a tall woman, with a stern nose and richly kind eyes. ‘But I think you’re better.’
Grandpa watched Vita bowl overarm at the sea.
Now learn about velocity: learn how the air makes things twist. Look it up! Learn it! Learn as much as you can, for learning is the very opposite of death! Wonderful!’ Grandpa was the only person Vita knew who seemed to spark electricity when he talked, as if he struck against the world like ﬂ int against steel.
Eventually, Grandpa and Grandma went back to America, back to Hudson Castle. It was shortly after this that everything changed, and led Vita here, to her tiny room in the attic, looking out as the sun set over New York City.
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Katherine Rundell spent her childhood in Africa and Europe. After completing a degree in English and a doctorate on John Donne, she is now a full-time writer and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where she studies Renaissance literature and climbs old buildings at night. Katherine has won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award and has been shortlisted for many others. In 2017 she was selected as one of Hay Festival’s Hay30 influential young thinkers to watch.