HARRY crept across the kitchen floor. His wellingtons squeaked like a finger rubbing a balloon and she heard him.

'Where do you think you're going, Harry Hodgkin?' she called.

'I'm going to see Kevin,' he said and ran out of the back door.

'Who's Kevin?' she cried.

Harry kept on running, across the garden, through the gate, down the hillside speckled with cowslips to the stream.

'She can stay with that baby,' he muttered. 'I'm going to see Kevin the Blue. He isn't sick on me, he doesn't dribble and he doesn't need nappies. All she ever says is 'Not now, Harry, I'm busy with the baby.' Now I know how my old teddy felt when I sent him to the jumble sale.'

On the banks of the stream the willow trees trailed their yellow-

green leaves in the water like girls leaning forward to brush their hair. There were tall plants called policemen's helmets which would have pink flowers, then seed pods which exploded when you touched them.

Harry settled in his secret den to wait for Kevin.

It didn't look like a den. Three trees grew close together and made a perfect place to hide. Harry kept an old ice-cream box under a root. Inside was half a packet of soggy custard creams and a hat.

It was a fisherman's hat. Harry had found it further along the bank, among the wild forget-me-nots. It was too big so he had to perch it right on the back of his head to see out, but it was a dull green colour and good camouflage.

Harry's other camouflage was silence. There must only be the churning of the stream on the stones.

In the chocolate-brown mud of the bank opposite there was a hole. Harry stared at it for so long that he saw an odd little face grinning back at him, a cross between a goblin and a water rat.

Harry blinked and shook his head.

There was no face after all.

'Come on, Kevin,' said Harry. 'I'm cold.' The willows met over the water as if they were playing 'Here's the church, here's the steeple', and they kept out the warmth of the sun.

Just when Harry thought he couldn't stay still for one more second, a dazzling blue light darted down the flight path of the stream, like a tiny turquoise Concorde, then hovered by the hole in the bank.

Kevin was here]

Of course, it might have been Kathleen, because there were two kingfishers. Harry had watched them flying at the bank, digging out mud with their bills to make a tunnel.

Kevin disappeared inside.

'Perhaps Kathleen is sitting on the eggs and he's brought her a fish supper,' whispered Harry.

Seconds later the kingfisher was back. He paused, then whizzed upstream, swift as a stained-glass arrow.

Harry felt a firebomb of joy explode in his chest. It was river magic] He had his very own secret, his king and queen birds. Kingfishers were rare and rich as jewels.

Back home he sat on the doorstep to pull off his muddy wellies.

'Hello, Harry,' said his mother behind him. 'Dad's home. He's looking after the baby so why don't we read a book? Or play a game? We never get a chance to do things together now.'

'No thank you,' said Harry.

She would just have to wait.

He ran upstairs and opened his bird book at the kingfisher page for the umpteenth time.

It said that kingfishers laid six or seven white eggs. They hatched after about three weeks. Then the parents fed the fledglings with small fish and water creatures for another three weeks. They would have to rush in and out stuffing food into gaping bills.

'A bit like Mum and her baby,' giggled Harry.

The next day at school, Harry drew kingfishers in his special topic book. It was difficult to get the colours right, especially the brilliant blue upper parts with the emerald gloss on the wings and top of the head. Underneath was a chestnut-

orange colour like the cinnamon Harry's Mum put in apple cake.

Harry wrote about the birds digging out their nest, and then hid his book right at the bottom of his drawer. He didn't want anyone to see it.

Especially David Snaddlethorpe.

Some children were scared of David Snaddlethorpe.

He walked with his arms stuck out and he had a big face with little eyes like currants in a Sally Lunn.

David Snaddlethorpe liked birds, but not in the same way as Harry.

David Snaddlethorpe collected birds' eggs like other children collect badges or toy cars.

He's like a great greedy cuckoo, thought Harry. If he ever robbed the kingfishers' nest I'd want to kill him.

Just before playtime Mrs Green gathered everyone together for news. John Campbell's stick insect had laid lots of eggs, Judith Pottle had been sick all over the new sheepskin covers in her Dad's car, and Michael Stenson's little brother had stuck a coffee bean up his nose.

'How's your little brother, Harry?' asked Mrs Green.

Harry said, 'I've been down to the stream and found a - '

He stopped. All the children were waiting. He saw David Snaddlethorpe's little eyes fixed on him, hard as burnt currants.

'I've found an interesting plant,' he mumbled. 'It's called policeman's helmet.'

David Snaddlethorpe snorted like a pig.

'What a stupid name for a flower,' he sneered. 'Are the police down there guarding something?'

He looked round to see who thought he was funny. Some children did.

Harry hung his head in shame. He had almost given away his dearest secret, just to show off.

Mrs Green said, 'I hope you're careful near the stream, Harry. It's dangerous.'

'Mum could hear me scream,' he said, thinking, it's the kingfishers who are in danger.

He went down to the stream each day on his way home from school.

The grass grew long and lush in the spring rain. Harry took an old cycling cape of his Dad's to keep in the den. When he put on the cape it was like sitting inside a tepee with your head poking out of the smoke hole.

One afternoon he saw Kevin and Kathleen whizzing in and out with food in their bills and he knew the eggs had hatched.

There would be three more weeks before the fledglings were ready to leave. At school, Harry worked in his kingfisher book but at home those weeks were so boring] Mum and Dad only noticed him when he slammed out of the room or when he was a wide-mouthed frog.

The thing that wound them up most of all was his joke eyeballs on springs. Harry loved to frighten his Mum with them, turning round suddenly so that the eyeballs bounced out at her.

One night she tore them off and shouted: 'These will go in the dustbin if you do that to me again]'

So Harry took them to the den. He made a bird-watcher to keep him company. The silly bird-watcher was made from the cycling cape draped over some branches with the fisherman's hat perched on top. Harry hooked the eyeballs so that they

dangled down beneath the hat. He named the bird-watcher Bobby, so that BB could watch KK with HH.

Now it looked as if someone had been plastering under Kevin's doorway, because the bank was white with droppings. Harry's bird book said that the tunnel would be slippery too, and littered with bones and bits of minnow and stickleback. Every time Kevin and Kathleen emerged they took quick baths in the stream.

That evening Mum said, 'Why don't you ask Kevin home to play?'

'He won't be able to come,' muttered Harry.

'But you're always on your own,' she said.

Rubbish, thought Harry. The kingfishers darted through his mind all the time. He longed for the fledglings to come out into the daylight to learn to fly. That time would be so short. He mustn't miss it.

He had a terrible dream. David Snaddlethorpe was waiting for the fledglings too. When they came out he snatched their little blue bodies out of the air and dashed them down into the mud.

Harry woke up trembling.

He was beginning to like baby-watching as well as bird-watching. The baby noticed him now and Harry was learning how to look after babies. When Mum went to Parents' Evening, Harry said to his Dad: 'You'd better get him clean clothes before she gets back. He's covered in banana and she says it stains.'

Dad disappeared for clean clothes. Harry knelt down and brushed bits of banana and soggy biscuit off the baby. He whispered, 'I've got a friend called Kevin the Blue. He's a kingfisher and he's got babies. You're the only one who knows, Humphrey.'

He sang:

Kingfisher blue, dilly dilly,

Kingfisher green,

No one but you, little brother,

Knows who I've seen.

Humphrey gave him a big smile. There was one tooth in his pink mouth like a sharp, peeled almond.

When Mum came home she looked hard at Harry.

She said, 'There isn't anyone in your class called Kevin, is there?'

'No,' said Harry.

'In fact there isn't a Kevin in the whole school, is there?'

'Don't think so,' he muttered.

She wasn't cross. She said, 'Your books are beautiful, Harry. I'm proud of you.'

Mum wasn't the only one who had looked at Harry's books. When he arrived at school the next morning he saw that Mrs Green had put his kingfisher book on full display for Parents' Evening.

David Snaddlethorpe was peering at it and licking his lips.

'Found a kingfisher's hole have you, Hodgkin?' he smirked.

'I knew there was something up. You've been acting sneaky.'

'Don't you dare go near it]' cried Harry. 'Will if I like. It's not yours.'

'Yes it is] Well, in a way it is. And anyway, they've hatched, so you can't steal the eggs.'

'I could have the babies though,' whispered David Snaddlethorpe. 'I've got a stick like a shepherd's crook and it's good for hooking things, specially things out of nests down tunnels. I could keep some chicks in my old budgie cage now the dog's had the budgie. I could get them stuffed and sell them.'

'It's against the law to catch kingfishers]' cried Harry.

David Snaddlethorpe just laughed.

Harry could hardly breathe. What could he do? David would go looking for the kingfishers after school. Harry would have to get there first. He must protect them, even if it meant sitting up all night long.

Harry's eyes hardly left the clock all day. To make things worse, a storm was brewing and he began to get a headache. Just before home-time Mrs Green sent him to the headteacher to ask for more pastels to finish his kingfisher colouring.

The headteacher searched for ages and then said, 'Sorry, Harry, we must have used them all up.'

When Harry ran into the classroom, only Mrs Green was there. Everyone else had gone home.

He fled without even a goodbye, out into the wind and slanting rain, remembering too late that his anorak was still on its peg. The sky was dark and full of storm. On the hillside the long grass soaked his legs. He slipped and fell and rolled to the bottom. He lay there panting for breath. What terrible things had Snaddlethorpe done by now? If he had hooked the babies out of the tunnel they might have fallen in the water and drowned, with poor Kevin and Kathleen fluttering over them, crying in small shrill voices for their children.

'Why didn't I get Mum?' cried Harry.

There was a great splash and an eerie wail.

Harry scrambled to his feet and stared.

David Snaddlethorpe came crashing through the policemen's helmets, setting off a hundred little explosions like bursting pepperpots. He was splattered all over with mud and his eyes stretched wide with terror.

'Bogey man]' he gasped. 'Bogey man lying in wait to get me.'

He staggered past Harry and floundered up the hillside through the long grass. The wind carried his wail, 'Bogey man, Bo-gey man . . .'

Harry heard another sound. Flapping.

He hesitated. Then, with his heart beating like a bird trapped against glass, he stalked that sound through the willow trees.

It was coming from his den.

There was a bogey man all right.

It was a bogey bird-watcher called Bobby.

The wind had got inside the cape and blown it out like a balloon and the eyeballs rolled madly.

Harry sank to the ground with relief.

'Thanks for keeping them safe, Bobby,' he said.

The storm rolled away and the pale sun swam into the sky.

Harry felt the river magic.

He watched, spellbound.

The little kingfishers came out of the tunnel into the sunlight and clung to the low branches, iridescent as dragonflies.

Then, as if they had been given a secret sign, they burst over the stream in a shower of brilliant blue sparks.

They hovered and returned. Harry tried to count them but they flashed away before he could finish.

Kevin and Kathleen hovered above the water, watching and guiding the flying practice.

'It's like a firework display,' whispered Harry. 'They're even more beautiful than I dreamt.'

He decided there were six fledglings just before they finished their display and vanished into the tunnel.

Harry was exhausted, and happy, and hungry too.

He set off up the hill for home.

Someone was coming to look for him.

It was his Mum, with Humphrey clinging to her side like a baby monkey.

Harry grinned.

'Come and meet Kevin, Mum,' he said.

Illustration: Ian Beck