Short fiction for Stevie Turner’s November contest.
“Where did you get that?”
Six-year-old Jake does not say “What?”. His expression says it for him. His mum has used that tone of voice, the one that makes him think he’s done something wrong. Only, he hasn’t.
“You’re sucking a sweet. Where did you get it?”
“A man.” Jake’s older sister has come to his rescue. She’s eight.
“Man? What man?” Mum still seems to be on the warpath, but why?
She’s still talking. Still asking questions. “What have I told you about taking sweets from strangers? Even talking to them. I expected better from you Evie. You’re supposed to take care of your brother.”
Both children look at the ground and shuffle their feet.
“It’s only sweets. He’s just moved into the house on the corner. You said we should be nice to the neighbours.”
Their Mum’s tone softens. “I meant Billy’s Mum and Dad, and Mrs Murphy, the people we know, the ones who’ve been here as long as us. We don’t know this new man, and until we do I’d rather you didn’t talk to him. And don’t take sweets from anyone. Ever. Do you understand?”
Both children mumble their assent, still puzzled about the strange ways of grown-ups. The man had only wanted to get to know his new neighbours. They’d been taught it was rude not to speak when spoken to. Now it seemed there was a new rule. If the grown-ups didn’t know the person it was okay to be rude and pretend they didn’t exist.
That was Thursday afternoon. Saturday morning they go with their dad to the park. He pushes them on the swings, bounces them on the sea-saw, him on one end and the two of them on the other.
“You’re too heavy!” Jake says. Evie laughs.
On the roundabout Dad scoots, one foot on the platform the other on the ground, making it spin faster and faster until he jumps on too and the trees and the people stop spinning by quite so quickly.
As it slows Jake leans in close to Evie and points. “There he is.” Jake swivels round, trying to keep his finger pointing at the man. Evie wants to tell him it’s rude to point but the rules about rudeness don’t seem to apply to their new neighbour. She tries to follow the direction of Jake’s finger but sees only Billy and his dad and Mrs Murphy’s mum with the baby in its buggy. Then she sees him. It is their new neighbour, standing, watching the children playing.
Their dad puts a foot on the ground and lets it skid along, bringing the roundabout to a standstill. Then he’s off, striding towards the man.
“Hey, you. What’s your game? Did you give my kids sweets?”
The man holds up a hand as if to ward off a blow. “Whoa. I was just trying to get to know them. We are neighbours, after all.”
“Well, they don’t want to know you. You stay away from them.”
Jake and Evie exchange looks. The man had smiled at them when he’d offered them sweets. His ruddy cheeks and white beard made Evie think of Father Christmas. Okay, so he didn’t have a red coat and it was summer. Even so, he was just being friendly, wasn’t he? Why were Mum and Dad so … so angry?
A few days later Jake and Evie are on their way home from school. They are annoying their Mum by doing what she calls “dawdling”, which is actually inspecting every flower growing heroically from cracks between the footpath and the wall, chasing every butterfly whose interest in the flowers is as keen as theirs and much more important.
“Come on you two, we haven’t got all day!”
Of course we haven’t, Jake thinks. The day is half over, this is the best bit and you’re spoiling it. He stoops to pluck a dandelion clock and begins counting as he blows the seeds on their parachutes, watching them as the wind takes them over the gardens and away towards the fields beyond the town. “One o’clock, two o’clock, three …”
“Stop it Jake,” Evie says with a giggle. “It’ll make you wet the bed.”
“Don’t be silly, Evie, you know that’s only an old wives’ tale. But I do wish both of you would stop dawdling and catch up.” Their Mum is standing with hands on her hips. Jake wonders if she realises they are right beside the Sweetie Man’s house.
And the Sweetie Man is there, right behind their mum, tapping her on the shoulder. She jumps, turns. “Wha …”
The Sweetie Man is holding out a bunch of … what do you call that long spiky blue flower? Danveler? Landerver? Anyway, that’s what he’s holding, offering it to their Mum. “Peace offering,” he says with a smile.
The children look at each other, mouths open, not daring to speak.
Their mum finishes her sentence. “What? Oh!”
“Peace offering,” the man says again. “You know I didn’t mean any harm to the children. I’m truly sorry. Please take these. There’s a whole hedge of them in the garden.”
While he’s talking their mum takes a step back, shaking her head. Then she shrugs her shoulders, reaches out and takes the bunch of blue flowers. “Thank you. They smell gorgeous.”
The man turns and walks back into his front garden, letting the gate slam shut, not turning around.
“Well,” Mum says. “What about that!”
When Dad comes home, after he’s given them all hugs, he says “What’s that smell?” Then he sees the vase of flowers on the hall table. He bends towards them and inhales deeply. “Hmmm. Lavender. Lovely. Where did you get it?”
“Don’t be angry,” Mum starts, then hesitates. She lowers her voice. “It was him. Our new neighbour.”
Before she can say more, Dad erupts. “The cheeky bast.. so and so.” He grabs the lavender from the vase and strides to the kitchen where he jams it angrily into the pedal bin.
“What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know. He took me by surprise. He seemed genuinely contrite.”
“Contrite! I’ll give him contrite. That’s typical of his sort, trying to ingratiate himself.” He turns to his children. “No one in this house is to accept gifts from that man. Do you understand?” The children nod but their brows are knit in puzzlement.
Another week passes. Jake and Evie are not allowed to play in the street. They are confined to the back garden. On Saturday they are pleased to be allowed out. It’s the day of Billy’s birthday party and they have been invited. There’s jelly and ice cream and a big bouncy castle. They play blind man’s bluff and hide and seek. When it’s Jake’s turn to hide a long time passes whilst the children search in vain for him. Their Mum arrives to collect them before he’s found.
“Come on Jake, you can come out now. It’s time to go home.” There is no reply.
“You’ve won,” Billy says. “Stop messing and come out.”
There is still no response.
“This is ridiculous. Where have you looked?” Their Mum is starting to sound irritated.
“Everywhere,” comes the chorus from several young voices.
“There must be somewhere you haven’t thought of,” Billy’s Mum says.
They all shake their heads.
“I looked in the bedrooms,” says a girl with blond ringlets.
“And I looked in the bathroom,” chimes in a boy with dark skin and curly black hair.
“The summer house?” A big skinny girl with plaits nods.
“And Dad’s shed,” Billy offers.
“What about behind the shed and summer house? Could he have squeezed into the gap between either of them and the wall?”
No one answers.
“Run and look,” Billy’s mum shouts. Before she has finished speaking all the children run for the patio door, pushing and shoving to be the first outside. The adults follow and watch as the older children peer into the gap between the shed and the wall and the space behind the summer house. Evie stays close to her Mum, clinging to her skirt and sucking her thumb, something she hasn’t done since … since … well, if you asked her she probably wouldn’t remember. She doesn’t even realise she’s doing it.
Billy’s Mum puts her hand to her mouth and runs towards the back of the summer house. She disappears from view. After what seems a long time but probably isn’t she reappears, shaking her head.
“I just remembered the corner where Billy’s Dad keeps a load of scrap timber. I had visions of Jake lying under it all. The times I’ve told him to clear it out! Well that’s it. All that old rubbish is going to the tip. Ah! Listen to me going on. No, he wasn’t there.”
“The bouncy castle? The trampoline?”
The children look at each other, shaking their heads. It’s obvious that Jake is not in the house nor in the garden.
“Mum! Look. The bolt on the back gate is open.”
Billy’s Mum runs to where her son is pointing to the gate that leads into the passage that runs down the back of the houses, ending in the side street that leads to the park.
Evie’s Mum rummages in her bag for her mobile phone. Evie hears the near sob in her voice as she asks Dad to hurry home. She wonders why Jake would open the gate and go out into the passage. Perhaps he thought he would find a better place to hide out there.
Their own garden does not have a back gate. The Sweetie Man’s does. She remembers that, before the Sweetie Man came to live there, it belonged to old Mr and Mrs Connor. When Mr Connor died and everyone went to the wake the children were allowed to play in the garden. Mrs Connor went to live with her daughter and the Sweetie Man came to live there soon after.
Thinking about the wake and the games they’d played in the Connors’ garden, she remembers that Jake had opened the gate that time. It didn’t have a bolt, only a little catch that was easy to release simply by pressing down on it so that the gate swung open on its hinges.
There’s a commotion in the passage. Billy’s Mum is laughing and there’s a man’s voice. Seconds later Billy’s Mum is back at the gate with Jake in tow.
“It’s alright,” she says. “Sean Galagher found him trying to open his back gate.”
Seeing their Mum’s puzzled look Billy’s Mum explains. “Sean’s the man who bought the Connor’s place. He’s here, look.”
And there stands the Sweetie Man. He’s wearing a black jacket and trousers with the Maltese Cross symbol on the pocket.
“Sean used to be a paramedic. Worked alongside Billy’s Dad. He’s retired now but volunteers for the St. John Ambulance.”
Jake and Evie are both clinging to their Mum’s skirt now.
“I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot,” the Sweetie Man says, holding out a hand to their Mum.
Their Mum ignores the outstretched hand. “I’m sorry, too.” Almost in unison they both say “You can’t be too careful these days.”
There are streaks of mascara on their Mum’s cheeks where she’s been crying. The Sweetie Man – Mr Gallagher – has let his hand drop. “I should have known better than to give the children sweets before we’d been introduced.”
“You should. I’m not sure their Dad will be too pleased even now. But thank you for returning Jake. We were all beginning to panic.” She looks sternly at Jake, ruffling his hair, saying: “You silly boy. You gave as all such a fright. At least you’re safe now. It’s time we got off. Your Dad will be waiting for his tea.”