March 21, 2021 § 4 Comments
The air is hot and dry, and the lichen-stained headstones are draped with clouds of slow moving pollen. Bees dip in and out doing barrel rolls. She takes photos so she can name them from the poster on the kitchen wall. The grasses and wild flowers are turning brown and the ripe seeds quietly explode. The smell too sweet. It takes her back to honey gathering time when she turned the handle of her dad’s extractor. It creaked and leaked honey and pissed the bees off for days. ‘I’m not surprised,’ she complained. ‘It’s stealing’.
She breathes in deep and wills the pain to stop hurting her head, to stop making her shout in her sleep. The dreams never wake her and she never remembers them, but he does because her sounds wake him. He sits up in bed and watches, his arms open ready to gather her.
The buzzing makes her sleepy. She sinks to her knees between two graves, and lies flat on her back, legs together, arms close to her sides. She breathes slower and slower until she forgets to breathe. She begins to feel light. Unseeable. Invisible. In a place where time doesn’t move. She can’t feel her body resting on the ground. She looks down. It’s there, it’s resting, but the eyes aren’t seeing. The grass is so long no one will see her.
So this is how it’s done. What will she say if he finds her like this? “I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to be dead,’ she’ll whisper.
His eyes will look at her steadily and his mouth will say, “And what is it like?’
‘It’s fine,’ she will answer turning her lips into a smile. ‘I like it’.
October 18, 2016 § 17 Comments
The Goodness of Mr. Smith
Mr. Smith rolled off his wife onto his side of the bed and opened his eyes. He scowled at the hairline crack creeping across the bedroom ceiling noting it had grown another inch since last Saturday. He made a note in his head to telephone the plasterer.
Mr. Smith was waiting – waiting for Mrs. Smith to say what she always did. Then it would be his turn. Yes. Lovely, dear. Thank you. Every Saturday after the ten o’clock news and before midnight the conversation would be the same, but this time it wasn’t. Mrs. Smith had fallen fast asleep with her mouth open and was snoring. He put his usual words away and began to feel a little light headed as new, unfamiliar thoughts formed in his mind. They bubbled up into his mouth and tried to come out. Mr. Smith clamped his jaw tight shut.
Yes, said the thoughts. On balance it had been rather pleasant, although I’m glad there hadn’t been over much foreplay. It’s been a hard week at the office and I’ve got quite a headache. Of course it’s always nice to feel another skin next to mine, but as the years have gone by making love to you has become rather a chore.
The thoughts carried on, determined to come out of his mouth. Of course, the reasons are clear to me. First, you have not aged well. Your skin has grown sallow, and your flesh has become increasingly flabby. Your wonderfully pert bottom, once small and irresistible, has become large and wobbly. And then there are the wrinkles. Mr. Smith touched his lips to make sure no words were coming out, then continued.
The real problem, as I see it, is we have been married too long. Familiarity has dulled my ardour. Your body no longer excites me. Of late I have found it increasingly pleasurable to imagine a new woman in our bed when we are making love on Saturday nights.
Mr. Smith became aware of a stirring and felt a flush of heat creeping up his face. He decided he must concentrate a little harder so he stared closely at the hairy mole on Mrs. Smith’s cheek.
The thoughts were backing up in his brain and making him feel a bit jittery, so he breathed in a big noisy breath and allowed them to continue. I think it may help our love life if I were to have an extra marital affair. Of course, I would be discreet. It may perk up my interest, and also, in the long term be of benefit to you. It may encourage you to shave your excess body hair, particularly that unsightly moustache that has taken to growing on your top lip. It might even inspire you to buy some interesting underwear.
Mrs. Smith snorted rather loudly in her sleep and groaned. Mr. Smith gulped down the remaining unspoken words, and felt them return to the confines of his highly disciplined mind. As he quietly plumped up his pillows and straightened the duvet one last thought appeared. There will be plenty of other opportunities to express my desires. And after all, the last thing I’d ever want to do was upset my dear wife. He gently nudged Mrs. Smith and kissed her cheek. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Lovely dear. Thank you.’
November 21, 2013 § 11 Comments
A short piece of flash. Just a draft…
Maud’s hands were still shaking when she found the empty table by the window in the cafeteria. She stiffened her jaw and tried to look unfriendly. Speaking to anyone would break the spell. She dumped her backpack on the spare seats and wondered if the fluttering in her stomach meant she was going to be sick.
The overnight ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg was tethered to the quay in an untidy cat’s cradle of hawsers, and the snake of cars nudged down the ramp deep into the ship’s insides. But, she told herself taking another swig from her water bottle – surely people don’t get seasick just from sitting on a ship in a harbour. She remembered her mother’s words, and pulled out a packet of oatcakes from the front pocket of her backpack.
Maud had never been on a ship before – in fact she’d never been abroad. That was why she was wearing the scarlet shirt. Exciting things always happened when she wore red – like the time she’d met Josh. She’d ironed it carefully that morning then boarded the train from Brighton to Liverpool Street. She’d held on tight to the rabbit’s foot – it meant she’d find her way around the Tube without getting in a state.
The train to Ipswich was slow and old, and mostly empty. It stopped at Manningtree where yachts propped up on stilts leaned dangerously in the estuary mud. She got off and waited for the shuttle to Harwich. The air was thick with sea salt. This was the end of the line; but Maud knew it was the beginning of the next phrase of her life.
She had bought the shirt the week before from the Oxfam shop in Kensington Gardens. It was the old fashioned type with no collar and had probably once belonged to an old man. It had fine dark blue stripes on a maroon background, and was long enough to tuck into her best jeans – the ones with the rip in the knee that were perfectly bleached from being endlessly scrubbed and left out in the sun. She smoothed her hair and examined her reflection in the window. You look good, she reassured herself.
The ship’s motion suddenly changed and it began to sway gently from side to side. The hawsers holding it fast had gone, and the ferry moved sideways leaving a swirling channel full of plastic bottles. The oily water bubbled and churned as if there was something alive under the surface. I’ve done it, she thought, patting her stomach; no one can stop me now.
October 24, 2013 § 2 Comments
Boris had gone blind. He did look cleaner, but he didn’t look right. Thomas had put him feet first through the mangle and his head had got stuck. Maudie’s bottom lip trembled, and Thomas began to whistle loudly like he did when he’d mucked things up. ‘Got it Maudie!’ he yelled. ‘Quick or he’ll suffocate! We’ll turn the handle together then his head’ll go through. Ready. Steady. Go.’
Something crunched as they forced the teddy bear’s head between the rollers. The glass eyes shattered, sprayed themselves across the stone kitchen floor, tinkled, then winked like lots of diamonds. ‘You’ve squashed him like a hedgehog,’ wailed his little sister. ‘He’ll think he’s been run over! He’s dying. Muuum!’
‘Didn’t do it on purpose. Just wanted to see if he’d fit.’
‘Say sorry,’ demanded his mother. Thomas wouldn’t because it would make his sister happy. ‘And if you ever do that again I’ll get the bat out.’ The bat waited on top of the dresser: it was plastic, seasick green and left criss-cross marks on the back of his legs.
Thomas couldn’t get to sleep that night thinking about Boris and how he hadn’t meant to be nasty to him. When he finally did get off he dreamt Maudie was putting his Action Man through the mangle and singing Three Blind Mice. When he worried about things he had nightmares and wet the bed; and when he did that his mother tried not to shout but always did, and threatened to take him to the doctor to see if there was anything wrong with his bladder.
Thomas hid the Action Man under the bed and wondered what he could do that he wouldn’t get told off for. It was getting silly. He got the blame for everything. His legs were covered in bruises because Maudie kept kicking him, and he even got told off for that – nobody ever asked him why he’d had to kick her.
He locked himself in the shed with Rex to eat dog biscuits and to get some inspiration. No one would know, he thought; and it’s just an experiment. He cut off a short piece of rope and shredded it so it looked like tobacco, then he rolled it up into a kind of cigarette with toilet paper. He twisted the ends so the bits of rope wouldn’t fall out, and lit up. Rope is hemp, hemp is marijuana. It’s supposed to make me feel happy. Soon his lungs and the shed were full of hot brown smoke. It wasn’t working. He didn’t feel any happier and the dog wouldn’t stop barking.
‘What are you doing in there?’ shouted his mother. ‘Open the door at once! Why are you trying to set the place on fire. What’s got into you?’
She sent him to his room and told him to stay there. ‘Come and play, Maudie,’ he whispered through the keyhole. ‘I’ll give you half my marbles and let you win at tiddly winks.’
‘No way,’ she said. ‘Don’t play with bad boys.’
After supper Dad brought him baked beans on toast. ‘Girls really don’t understand boys, do they?’ he said, punching Thomas playfully on the arm.
‘I don’t get them either, otherwise I wouldn’t be getting in trouble all the time.’
‘There is a trick, you know.’
‘Think about what will happen if you do a thing, and when you’ve worked out what will happen if you do it, you decide whether the thing is worth doing or not.’
‘Right…’ said Thomas.
When he woke the next morning he knew exactly what to do.
He got up before everyone else, laid the table and loaded the bread in the toaster. He did the washing up and made his bed. He made Maudie’s too, and put all her dolls in a neat row on her pillow. He carried his gym kit to school without complaining, and didn’t ask to go to the sweetshop. He even kept quiet when Maudie blamed him for something she’d done, and went to bed without kicking up a fuss.
‘I think it’s working,’ said Dad after three days of perfect behaviour. ‘They’re getting confused. Two more days should do it.’
His mother watched with her mouth open as Thomas did the washing up yet again instead of slinking off to watch telly. Maudie followed him around asking him if he was ill. Dad just smiled.
‘Five days are up,’ he said. ‘What’s the plan now?’
‘That’s my boy.’
‘I’ll ask if I want any help, thank you,’ said Thomas as his mother hovered around the kitchen door. ‘Go and have a lie down until supper’s ready.’
Supper was delicious – the meat pie the best they’d ever tasted.
‘Not eating?’ said Dad.
‘Feel sick,’ said Thomas. ‘They made me eat liver at school. Yuck.’
‘Did you follow that recipe I gave you for the meat pie then?’ his mother asked. ‘It was delicious.’
‘Kind of,’ he said.
In the morning after she’d walked Thomas to school, his mother went to empty the waste bin. Hidden at the bottom were two empty tins of Pedigree Chum.
Thomas was quiet on the way back that afternoon – so was his mother. When they got home he went straight to the waste bin and started poking about. ‘There’s something I need to do,’ he said, dragging a chair over to the dresser and reaching up to the top shelf.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m doing what Dad said.’
Thomas handed her the bat and waited….
October 14, 2013 § 6 Comments
I found out the truth last week: they’re not my real parents. I know because I found the adoption papers in the top drawer of Mum’s dressing table stuffed behind her underwear. I found Alice and Jane’s too. They had our names on – the papers not the pants – so I know it’s true. It means my real mother gave me away. Strolled into hospital with me all excited about being born, then cool as cucumber, walked out without me. Stranded. Motherless.
I told my best friend Belinda about it, and she said I should be thankful I’m not an orphan. That’s when you don’t have any parents. ‘You’re one of the lucky ones,’ she said. ‘You’re just second hand.’
I knew what that was because we had a second hand car, and I wore the clothes Jane had grown out of. Hand me downs. Faded and darned. Even my shoes had the shape of someone else’s feet. Jane got her clothes from Alice – who’s the eldest and doesn’t have a job – so that makes my clothes second hand twice over. Belinda said second hand was what you had when you couldn’t get anything better, then she decided she didn’t want to be my best friend anymore. I didn’t care.
‘Dad. What’s second hand?’
‘Something used, sweetheart.’
‘It’s when you want something more than someone else, so you buy it from them.’
‘Like our car,’ he said handing me a duster. ‘Let’s polish.’ We rubbed until our faces shone hot and pink.
‘So is second hand good then, I mean for the person who has it?’
‘Yup,’ Dad smiled, running his hand over the shiny black bonnet. Then he stroked my cheek as if it was a soft, furry animal purring on his lap. ‘I take extra special care of my second hand purchases.’
‘Dad. Can you buy second hand children too?’
‘No sweetie. Just things.’
‘Hurry up and get in the car!’ bossed Alice, pulling my hair.
‘Ow! Ow! Alice is killing me.’
‘I’ll tell you a secret if you shut up,’ she whispered, twisting my ear until it hurt. I pressed my lips into a thin red line, opened my eyes wide and waited. ‘It’s rude to stare,’ she said. I pressed them even tighter together because what I really wanted to do was stick out my tongue. ‘We’re going to the dog rescue place.’
‘Are we agreed then?’ said Dad.
We nodded like the plastic dog on our parcel shelf. ‘We’d like that one.’
We piled into the car and Mum handed Alice the black and white collie. It sat neatly on her lap and started licking her face. Alice wasn’t being nasty any more. All the sharp edges on her face had turned into a soppy, wet smile.
‘Ten minutes is up,’ announced Dad.
‘Your turn,’ said Alice. ‘Do you want to hold her?’
‘No,’ I replied, sucking my thumb. ‘Give her to Jane.
‘Who’s next after Jane?’ smiled Dad, looking at me.
‘Your turn Flora,’ said Jane, mopping her face with a sleeve. ‘She’s our own second hand dog. Hasn’t run out of lick yet.’
‘Shan’t. Don’t want to.’
Dad stopped the car and looked at me through the rear view mirror. ‘Don’t you like our new dog?’
‘She isn’t new, she’s used,’ I grumbled, spreading the word long on my tongue. ‘Belinda said you only had second hand when you can’t have new. Used is bad.’
Mum leaned across and planted a noisy kiss on Dad’s cheek. His face turned red like a strawberry, and he tried not to smile. The collie put a paw on my arm like a question. Then she crawled onto my lap, curled up and closed her eyes. ‘Must have run out of lick,’ I said.
October 10, 2013 § 11 Comments
A short piece of whimsical flash. Not a word of truth in it. But then…
Let me know what you make of it!
He was used to hanging around in this job. Good at the waiting game. He found things to do, planned the catch, preened the old tail feathers. Turning up late for work was bad news: his clients could be a handful – get a bit wild – give him the run around; and sometimes they got away. That meant trouble.
The wind was splitting the clouds into untidy clumps and ruffling his feathers. Nothing new then – Gareth was often needed when the weather turned nasty. That’s why seagulls were so popular in his line of work: they could handle gales. His mind hopped back to the night that ferry had gone down in the Channel. Force 9 it was – splashed all over the papers. There had been hundreds of punters needing help; but the boss called in reinforcements, and they got the job done just in time. Great team work too. That plane that went down in the thunderstorm last week had been a bit messy – got a bit out of control. Souls milling around aimlessly wondering what the devil was going on. Didn’t know they were dead. Still, accidents happened – that’s what Gareth was there for.
The organist was halfway through Gluck’s Dance Of The Blessed Spirits. Five minutes to go. It wouldn’t be soon enough for the two ravens that were eyeing Gareth from the belfry. They knew what he was up to and they wanted him off their patch. He hopped around the yew trees pretending to be interested in some rotting confetti, then he took a spider by surprise and swallowed it. The ravens cackled and started to dive bomb – Gareth sidled under the hedge and pretended he wasn’t there.
Like his cousin the albatross, Gareth was a soul catcher. When death took people by surprise their souls didn’t have a clue where to go; they’d flit about in a panic and end up causing havoc. If Gareth and his colleagues didn’t move fast they’d all end up in what was known in the trade as the twilight world – that in between place that wasn’t heaven and wasn’t here either. Being stuck there was when the real trouble started: the restless ones would slip back again and hang about haunting people.
Doris had been planning this day for months. She should have married Harold, and needed to sort things out with Alf so she could. She’d been slipping arsenic into Alf’s tea for a week or two, and it had finally done the trick.
Alf came out of the church in his box and Doris dabbed at her face with Harold’s hanky. The boss had been right to send Gareth – Alf had probably had such a shock when he died, his soul was probably still inside his body and getting a bit confused. This was Gareth’s only chance to sort things out, and probably Alf’s too.
As the coffin bearers lowered Alf into his last resting place, Doris kicked up rough. ‘Get rid of that seagull,’ she whined. ‘Horrible dirty things.’
Harold aimed a kick at Gareth, but he was ready for him. He dodged, fluttered a bit unsteadily, shook himself and peered down the hole. This was the bit where Alf’s soul was supposed to leave his earthly body. Nothing happened. Gareth hopped from one leg to the other flapping his wings crossly. Then he let out a squawk loud enough to wake the dead – Alf had been a bit on the deaf side after all.
Then he saw it: a silvery bubble rose from the coffin pulsating like a jellyfish. It reached the feet of the mourners and dithered. Gareth flapped his wings again and the bubble floated sedately towards him. It wobbled uncertainly then hovered two inches from his head. Gareth opened his beak wide and swallowed. Job done…
October 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
Never trust old ladies you find on park benches…
Monday again. One o’clock. She’s already there – second bench on the left by the dragon statue. She’s just nicked a white tea rose from the flowerbed and is stuffing it clumsily through the top buttonhole of that old coat I’ve given her.
I sit down and hand her the smoked salmon sandwich. She forgets to say thank you and gets busy with the cellophane wrapper. ‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’ she mumbles with her mouth full. I pass her the envelope. ‘We said fifty quid from now on. Hope you haven’t forgotten.’
‘You’re worth every penny,’ I answer warmly.
She takes the can of Guinness from her pocket, and rips off the tag with her teeth. ‘Cheers,’ she says pocketing the envelope. ‘What a beautiful day.’
I lean closer and breathe her in. The heady combination of Armani’s Absolutely Irresistible and black Sobranie’s make me feel warm and safe. ‘You were wonderful this week.’
‘It’s not easy, living with this gift, you know. Don’t get too close – you know it makes me nervous.’
She has a new ring on her finger. A large single diamond. ‘You were right,’ I say. ‘It was just like you said. I met the man of my dreams. On the escalator at work. I tripped, and as he helped me up, our eyes met. I heard music. Pity he has a wife. Such a shame.’
‘That’s the way of the world,’ she sighs.
‘You probably saved my life too, by the way.’
‘That was particularly difficult to accomplish. Tell me more.’
‘It was the gas. I left it on. Remember, I told you I forget sometimes. You know the flame often goes out in the winter. I fell asleep and thanks to you the meter ran out. Bless you. You do such wonderful work.’
She gives me the empty wrapper and faces me full on. She wipes her mouth with her coat sleeve and screws up her eyes. ‘This week will demand great vigilance. It will involve considerable time and effort on my part. I will need to double my fees for this one.’
I ask her if she will be happy for me to pay her next Monday. Her mouth turns down at the corners. ‘I shall be passing this way tomorrow. We shall meet here at the same time. If you have a pair of warm winter gloves and a nice salmon sandwich – with half a dozen slices of cucumber this time – I shall get along very nicely.’
I’m so glad my mother’s fur-lined gloves are going to such a deserving home. They fit her perfectly. I wait for her to finish eating. ‘Beg pardon’, she burps happily. ‘This week’s going to be particularly demanding for you.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Listen carefully, love. It’s vital you only walk on the left hand side of the road, if you get my drift. If you don’t, all manner of unpleasant things are going to happen.’
This, I explain, will be difficult, because I have trouble knowing my right from my left.
‘Easy,’ she exclaims. ‘Buy some white cotton gloves and write L and R on them in red biro.’
‘What an intelligent suggestion’, I sigh. ‘No sooner said than done.’
‘Just one other thing,’ she warns.
‘The bears are about. It’s that time of year again. You remember. The pavement? Don’t tread on the cracks or they’ll get you. Can’t trust bears, you know…’
October 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
A moment in time. A mother relives the last day she spends with her young son…
It had been a year since James had woken her with a question. ‘Mummy. Where does the rain go when it stops being rain?’
‘To the sea,’ she replied sleepily, moving over and lifting the bedcover for him.
‘And how does it get there?’
‘I’ll show you.’ She folded him close.
‘When it isn’t dark. Tomorrow. Now go back to sleep.’
‘The river’s different today.’ She spoke the words carefully as if they might break.
‘How?’ Robert probed gently.
She gave no sign she had heard him, but began to scratch the dull orange lichen lacing the parapet of the millpond bridge. Her fingers bled into the crumbling brick.
‘That must hurt,’ he said.
‘What?’ she answered distractedly. ‘What must?’
She didn’t answer but suddenly leaned too far over the parapet. Robert jerked as if stung, his hand flying to the small of her back. ‘Look,’ she pointed. ‘The trout are back.’ An arc of sunlight streaked through the crack willow leaning away from the bank as if it must surely fall, and the bright patch of water glittered as the river trout flickered silver in the light.
Robert held her tight. ‘They like the warmth,’ he said.
‘No, no,’ she insisted. ‘They’re playing.’
He breathed in deeply. ‘So how is the river different?’
‘That day it was screaming,’ she said. ‘Today it whispers.’
Robert had become her bridge to before. Every week he sat stiffly on the hard cane chair in her white hospital room and read her poetry; and then, as the pills began to shield her from the past, he took her walking amongst the trees. Today, she had asked to be taken out. ‘To the river,’ she breathed.
‘Shall we walk now?’ Robert slid his arm around her shoulders and eased her away from the bridge.
‘No.’ The skin around her eyes wrinkled into a smile. ‘It’s quite safe. I won’t do anything silly.’
She took a small square of white paper from her pocket and began to fold. Creasing and tucking – the blood from her fingers staining the paper – she folded again and again. She blew sharply on a seam and flattened the shape with two fingers. ‘Look,’ she smiled, holding the boat in her palm. ‘That’s what we were doing.’ She blew again and the boat fluttered from her hand and rocked through the air into the water. It landed on its side and drifted beneath the willow.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Now I remember. The river was full after the rains. It screamed at us to stay away. It spat at us as it spewed itself out from under the bridge. We stood there.’ She nodded towards the crack willow bent over the water. ‘We took no notice.’
‘You were on the bank to float paper boats?’
‘I was showing him what happened to the rain on its way to the sea. James thought the river was angry. He wanted to placate it by giving it our boats as a gift. He didn’t hear my warning. He slipped, and the current…’
The boat hit the bank and quivered. Again and again the ripples pushed it into the bank. ‘It will surely sink,’ sighed Robert.
‘Wait,’ she urged, tears trickling down her cheeks. The breeze suddenly changed direction, lifted the boat upright and it floated downriver.
‘I am finished here,’ she said, taking his arm. ‘We can go home.’
October 6, 2013 § 3 Comments
I wrote this piece of flash fiction very quickly – it is really a first draft. It is
a) an exercise in characterisation;
b) designed to imply much more about the character than is said.
Tamsin had three Montblancs – one red, one pink and one blue – every one containing a cartridge that matched the barrel of each pen exactly. She kept them lined up side by side – not quite touching – on the third shelf down next to her Ian McEwan’s.
She used the red pen when she felt the need to assert herself. The pink she reserved for the occasions she wanted to bring out her feminine side. The blue was for calming her nerves. Hidden at the back of her desk drawer was a cheap black plastic Parker she’d found on the seat of a London cab, and a bottle of Quink Permanent Black. She used this pen the most, liking the feel of it between the thumb and first finger of her left hand, but also because it made her feel normal and less burdened by the unpleasant memories that often sprang into her consciousness without warning.
She opened her Moleskine notebook, selected the blue pen, and began to write. For five minutes she scribbled furiously across the paper, then abruptly stopped, reached for her Mulberry satchel, and emptied the contents roughly onto the Bokhara rug.
She removed the receipts from her leather purse and threw them in the wastepaper basket along with a passport-sized photograph of a man with a beard. She cut his balding head into four neat pieces. Into the basket went the miniature Steiff teddy with matted yellow hair, and last year’s diary. Flicking through, she noticed she had written most of the entries in red.
The scarlet lipstick, as yet unused, together with the hairbrush, nail file and bottle of Aspirin, she returned to the Mulberry along with the Moleskine. She reached into the desk drawer and withdrew a small packet. She opened it and put the contents into her pocket.
The grandfather clock at the top of the elegant staircase struck six fifteen, and punctual as ever, the front door slammed three stories down.
She fixed a small, closed-lipped smile upon her face, checked the Gerber fixed blade was save in her pocket, and descended the stairs.
October 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
A piece of flash fiction about what could go wrong – or could it be right – when a little girl throws stones…
Ginny remembered Susie Metson because she always had a runny nose but never a handkerchief. Ginny kept hers tucked neatly inside the waistband of her knickers. Susie liked to wipe the stringy slime from her bottom lip with the hem of her summer dress, and hang around outside the back gate of Ginny’s house whistling loudly until she came out to play.
‘Would you show me how to do that?’ asked Ginny one day.
‘Don’t think so,’ replied Susie solemnly.
‘Your mum wouldn’t like you whistling. Not ladylike.’
Susie wouldn’t tell Ginny what she meant. ‘Trust me,’ she said turning the corners of her mouth into her not-quite-there smile. ‘I know about these things.’
Susie had a laugh like a hyena, was two years older than Ginny and wore clothes that looked like they belonged to somebody else. She wore the same thin dress every summer until the buds on her chest got so big the seams split under the arms. The dress had a violent design of roses the colour of fresh blood, and a tie around the waist that always came undone and trailed in the dirt when they were playing in the field behind Ashby House. Susie said that was where the rich people lived. She didn’t care about the mud, she didn’t care about the grass stains on her knees either. After the dress wore out she whistled at Ginny’s back gate wearing her brother’s cut off denims, but it wasn’t the same somehow. That was about a month before she disappeared.
The two girls always played near Ashby House in the summer holidays because that was what Susie said they should do.
‘Why do we have to go and sit in their back meadow again?’ Ginny complained. ‘I get dirty and there are creepy crawlies that bite. My mum thinks I’ve got fleas.’
‘It’ll be worth it,’ said Susie mysteriously. ‘It’s now or never.’
Each day they crawled closer to Ashby House through the prickly corn. They became as one, bobbing up and down like a pair of nervous hares with the scent of a terrier in their nostrils. Conversations were desultory and often left unfinished.
Soon they found the earwigs.
‘That’s a good sign,’ exclaimed Susie brushing one off her leg and treading on it. ‘It means we’re close to the wall.’
The wall was falling down and made of flintstone, pebbles and lime mortar. Susie began to prize out the pebbles with her penknife.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Ginny.
‘Don’t touch. The white stuff burns. We’ll need these for later,’ she whispered, putting three perfectly round pebbles in her jeans pocket.
‘For the witch. You’ll see.’
They scrambled over a low bit of wall and hid amongst the trees. The garden was overgrown and full of shadows, the house large and proud. The girls waited: Ginny scratching the bites on her legs, Susie wiping her nose.
‘I need to go home now,’ said Ginny picking at her nails. ‘It’s teatime.’
‘No,’ insisted Susie. ‘That can wait. Look.’
An old lady with hair like white candyfloss struggled through the verandah doors and wobbled onto the terrace. She scraped along the slabs with a walking frame towards a wicker chair, sat down, sighed, and folded in on herself.
‘There she is!’ whispered Susie.
‘She doesn’t look like one.’
Susie chose a stone, rubbed it between her fingers, spat on it, and aimed. It bounced along the terrace and came to rest at the old woman’s feet. The white head trembled like a jelly, and the old lady turned her head towards the shrubbery.
‘Who’s there?’ The voice quivered like a frightened child’s. As dogs began to bark in the house, Ginny threw another stone. A window smashed and tinkled on the paving stones.
‘Oh lor!’ gasped Susie, licking her runny nose. ‘I never could throw straight.’
Two black Dobermanns came bounding into the garden.
‘Find the intruders!’ screeched the old lady. Her voice now strong and coarse and angry.
‘Come on, Susie,’ Ginny breathed, tugging wildly at her clothes. ‘The dogs!’
‘Just one more pebble to go,’ Susie whispered, her eyes bright. ‘This one’s for my dad.’
‘Bull’s-eye, she giggled. ‘Revenge is mine. Now run!’
The old lady slumped forward, her head resting at an odd angle on her chest as if she had suddenly fallen asleep.