The Ocean of Story by Nazneen Ahmed

Celebrate Puffin's 80th birthday with this extract from The Puffin Book of Big Dreams, a new short story by Nazneen Ahmed. 

Nazneen Ahmed
The Ocean Story by Nazneed Ahmed
Illustration: Areeba Siddique

Sumaya had explored every inch of the library and every single one of the books on the shelves.

Or so she had thought.

One morning, Sumaya’s mum headed to the computers, as she did every time, to write her job applications. They visited every Saturday without fail, and every day during the school holidays. Sumaya knew it was because it was too expensive to heat their flat through the day, and there wasn’t anywhere else to go that didn’t cost money.

Sumaya sighed. Her world was so small: just the flat, her school, the library. She decided to go down to Geography, perhaps because she wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else. Running her fingers across the white and steel railings, she made her way down the steps.

She lugged a dusty old atlas on to the turquoise carpet and traced the places Ma had told her their family came from. Peshawar... Lahore.... Chittagong. The names sounded full of mystery and promise, but Sumaya had never even been to the Isle of Wight.

Then something on one of the lower shelves caught her eye. A tiny book, covered in aquamarine leather, tucked between two old books.

She pulled it out and opened it. It was strange: it didn’t have words or maps on the pages, just curious shapes with dates inside them. The clocktower bells began to ring out, marking ten. Sumaya started to turn the pages in time, reaching page ten on the final ring.

At that very moment, a strange breeze whipped through the library, and everything around her began to move.

First, the bookshelves and the wooden door flew through the air and stacked themselves neatly underneath Sumaya’s feet. Then the railings rose up, shaped themselves into an arch and lowered themselves on to the doorframe. The long white curtains and curtain pole spun away from the window and planted themselves into the wood of the door. It all happened very smoothly, like a dance.

‘It’s been a long time since my last voyage,’ rumbled a deep, rolling voice from the timbers.

Sumaya jumped. Where walls had been a few moments ago, there was sky. She looked down, and realised she was now standing on the deck of a ship that seemed to be talking to her. She ran to the railing and looked overboard. Where the carpet had just been, there was now a turquoise sea. Panic flooded her stomach.

‘What do you mean, voyage? Where are you taking me? Where’s my mother?’ she cried.

‘The library will return at noon. You opened the book at page ten on the tenth toll. That doesn’t happen very often, you know.’

She still had the book in her hand. She flicked through the pages and looked again at the shapes. They were stamps. The last, over twenty years ago, was in the shape of a pirate’s hat.

‘That child wanted to visit Treasure Island. I can go to any river, lake or ocean that’s in any of the books in the library. Sumaya, where would you like to go?’

The Ocean Story by Nazneen Ahmed
Illustration: Areeba Siddique

She sucked her breath in hard. There were so many places. Breathing out, she whispered, ‘Peshawar.’

‘And which Peshawar would you like to visit?’

Sumaya frowned. ‘There’s more than one?’

‘Each book’s places are unique to it. Do you wish to go to the Peshawar in a geology book, in military history, or in the 1901 atlas you were just looking at?’

‘The atlas, please.’

The ship moved smoothly across the water, slicing through the waves. In a few moments the turquoise darkened to a muddy olive colour, and riverbanks rose on either side. Dark grey-green mountains reared sharply above.

‘The Great Kabul River,’ announced the ship.

A plank lowered itself to the bank. Sumaya clambered down, her whole body humming with excitement. She started climbing the rocks until she could see the tops of the mountains. She spied little huts balanced improbably among the peaks. Our family must live somewhere nearby, Sumaya thought, her arms tingling. She had imagined an exotic place scented with rosewater and cardamom, but the real Peshawar was fierce and wild. To live here, her relatives must be fierce and wild too. Despite the crisp breeze, pride glowed warm in her chest.

‘Sumaya, it is time to return,’ came the ship’s voice.

It had felt like no time at all, two hours. She felt a rush of sadness as they sped away.

‘Where to next time, Sumaya?’ the ship rumbled gently, as she watched the waters turn turquoise again.

‘Next time?’

But the ship didn’t answer. Sumaya looked up to find the library back to normal.

She sighed. It wasn’t the first time she’d fallen asleep in the library.

But she still had the book in her hands. She flicked through the pages. On the last page there was a new stamp: this year’s date, inside the shape of a tiny mountain.

She looked at the bookshelves and smiled. Now she could go anywhere she wanted, even the Isle of Wight. All she needed was the right book.

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