I could tell that as soon as I had asked the question that the atmosphere in the room had changed. My mother coughed quietly, looking concernedly at my father. Matt seemed to know a bit about what was going to be said too and avoided my gaze when I tried to meet his eyes. Dad cleared his throat. I felt certain that I was about to uncover the big mystery that had been puzzling me for years.
"Elle," he began, "What I am about to tell you is for your ears, your mother's ears and your brother's ears. No one else's. Do you understand?"
I nodded quietly, holding my breath. My father continued,
"We have been moving because ... because ... because of a bit of trouble I have been having at work."
"Then why don't you quit your job?" I asked, feeling slightly disappointed with his answer. Dad gave a dry laugh.
"Quit? Quit? This is no ordinary job, Elle. This is serious work. Some people go and sit in front of a computer screen all day, and some people decide to open shops, or try out the property ladder. Those hobbies are not jobs, oh no. A real job is one that I do. Something that our country can benefit from. Something that you can't quit or retire from, or call in sick. In my job maternity leave is unheard of. We just hire nannies. Not that I would ever take maternity leave, of course – being a man and everything. Anyway, my point is that quitting is out of the question. You can't quit when you are ..." he paused suddenly as if deciding after all that I wasn't to be trusted. He stared into my eyes, and I tried to look steadily back at him. Finally he took another breath.
"You can't quit if the welfare of Great Britain depends on you. You can't quit if you are on top of your game. You can't quit when people look up to you and respect you, when they would cut of their right arms to be in your position. You CAN'T QUIT, ELLE WHEN YOU ARE ... 001. The leading agent in the United Kingdom, on the edge or unravelling one of the world's biggest mysteries."
At first I thought he was joking. I almost laughed. Then I looked more closely at his face. Utterly serious.
It was a lot to take in. It's not every day you find that your own dad is a secret agent. Most kids would think it was cool, I imagine – but it honestly wasn't. Now that I "knew", a lot of things changed. For some reason I had to change schools. To this day I still can't understand why that was necessary. Dad said it was in case I had given away any clues. It would be easier for me to start afresh, knowing what and what not to say to my classmates. He almost went down the whole home-schooling route, but I begged him not to.
My first day at Thistlebank High was strange. I kept thinking that kids were staring at me. Some may have been because I was new and different, but I couldn't help but think that they knew everything about me. Everything about Dad. He had explained everything.
"It is a difficult job, Elle. I work for the government, keeping an eye on the other political parties around the globe. If they're planning anything big, anything unusual, I tell the government here. I have helped the country a great deal. Wars have been stopped! You've heard of nuclear bombs? That was me. I was the one who discovered what they were creating, the one who warned Britain that we needed to be careful around them. So we were careful. And we haven't been hit. Do you see what an achievement that is? It's good to know what's going on. Then you don't get caught by surprise. Of course, it's a risky business. We've had to move a couple of times – in a hurry, I must admit. Sometimes I see someone who is looking just a bit too interested in us. You know the sort – keeps popping up at our house unexpectedly with the excuse that they wanted to borrow sugar and all sorts of other nonsense. Or you heard about rumours. People wondering what we're up to. When you spot these signs, you realise it's time to move on. We go somewhere else – another country; just until the noise dies down."
I listened to all of this with my eyes wide, my mouth hanging open. It sounded like something out of a film. A cheesy James Bond movie, perhaps. Except my dad wasn't some hunky actor with three stunt doubles. All of his tricks were real.
"That's the work I have been doing, but recently I got a promotion. Now I focus mainly on criminals. Being a spy is one thing, but stopping evil geniuses is another. I'm not joking about this, Elle. There are some bad people out there. Doing things you can't imagine. We have to bribe the media so that they don't reveal some pieces of information that would send the country into turmoil."
At school I was quick to make friends. It's a skill I have had to pick up quickly because we moved around so much. There were three girls I liked especially; Ailsa, Emily and Joanne. They were in most of my classes and seemed to like me too. They also didn't ask too many questions about where I had come from, which was good.
The first time I asked Mum if Ailsa could come round she almost shouted at me.
"Elle, what are you thinking?! If she came round here... what if she saw something?"
"Like what?" I asked grumpily, "It's not fair. I've been to hers heaps if times. I bet she thinks we're really rude, not having her back."
"Your father has some important documents he is keeping in his study. What is she found out about those?"
"Why would we go into his study?"
She didn't have an answer to that. Sighing, she suggested. "Why don't we take her to the pool? You could go swimming."
When I asked Ailsa the next day, she was excited. "Sure! Do you want me to bring the money for lockers?"
"It's OK, I will."
"Right then. Do you want it to be just us two, or should we invite the others?"
I hadn't asked Mum about the others. "Um... just us, I think."
"OK, see you after Maths!"
I watched her walk down the corridor. For the first time in a while I felt happy. I was going swimming with a friend! I decided that I liked Ailsa. I like Thistlebank High. I would be extremely careful not to say anything about Dad; that way we should have been able to stay there as long as possible.
I didn't know how hard that was going to get.