I realised recently that this award-winning short story has been quietly lurking in the Growing Up page since summer 2008, never having been posted on the Weblog.
Here it is!
Those of a slightly squeamish disposition might be advised to read the first section or two of ‘ My hero the villian’ with their eyes closed – remember “Lord of the Flies?” and how savage children can be ? Those who are over fifty will be reminded of some of the sexist attitudes to girls which prevailed in the middle decades of the last century ! And all of us who have ever been children will remember that one of the sad but necessary entrance fees to the adult world is loss of innocence….
Archie’s mother was out. The radio was on, blaring out Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, his latest hit. I hate it. Archie says it’s because I’m too young to know heartbreak; he is twelve, but I’m only nine, and a girl. I was suggesting digging to Australia during our holidays. He was sitting with his feet up on the kitchen table, cutting lumps off a slab of butter, rolling each lump in sugar, tossing it in the air and trying to catch it in his mouth. Swinging his feet down, he nodded.
“Yeah, that’s a great idea.” He made for the door. “Come on! We’d better pick a good site before it gets dark.” It was two o’clock in the afternoon. I followed him, gratefully. Out the kitchen door we hurried, down the concrete path, not even stopping to hurdle the dustbins. We jumped over the wire netting fence separating the vegetable patch from the jungle of weeds and willows where his dad, a budgie breeder, laid dead birds to rest.
What a good time we’d had in the budgies’ graveyard last summer holidays! Unfortunately, my father saw us shooting arrows at dead budgies hanging from the clothesline. Fathers have a habit of putting a stop to fun. We were banned from the bottom of the garden for the rest of the summer. I still don’t see what all the fuss was about….they couldn’t FEEL anything….
“Hey Deirdre!” Archie had vanished into the weeds. “How about here?” I followed his voice, picking my way through the nettles. He was sitting on a sheet of rusty corrugated iron, pulling the wings off a butterfly.
“This is perfect,” he said, throwing bits of butterfly over his shoulder for luck. “Sit down here.” I sat down, carefully. “Now look at the house.”
“I can’t see the house from here, Archie.”
“Exactly!” He grinned at me. “You’re slow on the uptake! If you can’t see them……”
“They can’t see us!” I was delighted. “When will we start?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Archie said. “I know a place where I can get a couple of spades.”
“I haven’t seen any spades, Archie.”
“Huh…. girls never notice anything.” Hurt, I said nothing.
“OK, I’ll tell you. But keep it a secret?” I nodded. “See that old air raid shelter, across the cornfield ?”
“The spades are hidden inside, away in a corner among some nettles. I’ll sneak them up here later on today.”
“How did you find them? ”
He winked, rubbing what was left of the butterfly into powder between his palms. “I’m smart,” he said. “Hadn’t you noticed?”
Digging that hole was hard work. We had two bottles of lemonade from our larder, and a packet of biscuits stolen by Archie from the shop across the road.
“My geography teacher said that if you started digging from Scotland you’d get to Australia if you kept going long enough” I said to Archie, looking at the growing pile of earth. “D’you think that’s true?”
“Course it is” he replied, taking a long swallow of lemonade. “If David Livingstone could do it, why can’t we?”
“But ….” I said puzzled. “But he DIDN’T ….”
“Oh shut up!” Archie said impatiently. “Let’s get on with it.” We worked all day, stopping only to go home for our dinner.
“Where on earth have you been?” asked my mother. “You’re filthy!”
“Oh–nowhere. Just out playing.”
“I wish you’d be more like a girl,” she sighed. “You wouldn’t get so dirty.”
“Can I have some more mince, please?” I asked. I had eaten the two hills, the roads and there was no gravy left for the river. She gave me some. My mother would like it if I wore a skirt and a ribbon in my hair. But I don’t like girls. They’re boring.
“What are we going to do with these worms, Archie?” We were digging up the longest, fattest worms I had ever seen.
“Seems a pity to waste them, doesn’t it?” he said, scratching his head and thinking very hard.
“I know! Just you wait here.” He went off to the shed and came back with a hammer and some nails. “Right, pick up a few and bring them over here.” He walked towards the willow trees. I had never picked up a worm in my life. Closing my eyes and trying to think of something else, I collected about ten of them. They were slimy and clammy and they squirmed in my hand.
“We’ll have a laugh here,” said Archie. “Hand me one at a time.” I watched him as he nailed them to the trees. Wriggling and jumping, they oozed slime and worm blood. Archie grinned at me. “They don’t take long to die.” Feeling sick and dizzy, I forced myself to watch. At last they just hung there, limp.
“That’s my good deed for the day,” Archie said. I looked at him, trying not to show my feelings. “Well” he said. “The birds. I’ve given them their dinner.” I couldn’t say a word. Archie picked up his spade. “Come on, Deirdre. We’ve a lot of digging to do.”
It was Saturday morning. I was lying in bed eating a bacon sandwich, and drinking the tea my mother had brought me. I was thinking about the hole; it was getting deep. What would we do about the water?
“Deirdre!” Oh blast ….she would be wanting me to go into town.We’d be held up with the digging. “Deirdre! Come and see your uncle Angus – he’ll be off in a minute.” That was different. I liked my uncle Angus a lot. He always looked as if he was just about to have an adventure. I didn’t know what his job was, but I had overheard him talking to my father. It was something to do with nets and seals and the police. Jumping out of bed, I pulled on my jeans and a jersey, and ran downstairs.
There he was, leaning against the kitchen sink, rolling a cigarette. My mother glared at me. “You scruffy little tinker! Why haven’t you brushed your hair?”
“Oh, Anna, leave the girl alone!” said uncle Angus, lighting his cigarette and winking at me. “She’s a free spirit.” He grinned. “Am I right, miss?”
“Of course,” said I, not looking at my mother. It was worth the row later. I wanted him to like me.
“Come here!” he said. “Shut your eyes and hold out your hands.” I obeyed him. “Right! Open your eyes.”
I could hardly believe what I saw. Four half crowns! Ten whole shillings! It wasn’t even
Xmas or my birthday. I stared at him, not knowing what to say.
“Angus!” My mother sounded shocked. “She gets one shilling a week. That’s quite enough for a child her age.”
“Rubbish, woman” replied uncle Angus. “We all deserve a wee treat once in a while.” He turned to me. “Right–no banks, no savings, nothing sensible. Go straight out and spend the lot today on whatever you fancy. O.K.?”
“O.K.” I didn’t say anything else, just winked at him. He winked back. My mother glared at me as I made for the door.
“Be back here in time for your dinner!” she called. I stopped .
“What’s for dinner, then?” Grinning, uncle Angus pointed to the draining board.There lay two huge silvery salmon.
“Away you go” he said. “See you the next time.”
Out of sight of our house, I sat on a low wall. I needed to think.
Archie would be working on the hole. He would be so angry if I said I was going down town. He thought I was less stupid than most girls. I didn’t want to make him mad. But I loved having all this money. If I didn’t spend it today it might fall down a drain.
I looked at the four half crowns. One was very new and glinted in the sun. Archie could have a share! I could give him a shilling…. or even one and six. But I knew Archie. He wouldn’t be happy. I put two half crowns on the wall, then the other two, whilst making up my mind. Half shares each! That would please him, wouldn’t it?
Archie was busy. He straightened up when he heard me coming. “Where have you been, you lazy little runt?” He was really mad. Just wait till I told him!
“I’m going down town this morning, Archie,” I said. “Are you coming with me?”
“Down town? With all this work to do? Clear off. Go yourself.” He turned his back and carried on digging.
“Look what I’ve got, Archie,” I said, taking the half crowns out of my pocket. “I got a present today.”
“Very nice, I’m sure,” he said in a nasty voice. “Some of us aren’t so lucky. Away and spend it, then.”
“You can have a share.”
He turned round, very quickly. “How much?”
“Half.” He was out of that hole like a shot!
“Deirdre, you’re a real pal,” he said, giving me a big smile. “You’re the best pal I ever had.” He wiped his hands on his jeans and grabbed my arm. “Come on, let’s go. Will we walk or take a bus?”
I felt really happy. “Let’s walk,” I replied. “It’s such a lovely day.”
What a time we had! We got a big ice cream each from Cabrelli’s. In Woolies, we bought a matchbox car each, and new pencils with rubbers on the end. We bought marbles and plasticine. Archie bought a water pistol; I bought a lead cowboy whose hat and gun clipped on and off. Archie called me a swot when I got a bottle of ink for my new fountain pen. We were thrown out when he frightened one of the assistants with his new plastic jumping frog; but the money was mostly gone, so it didn’t matter.
We stopped at the corner sweet shop to spend our last few pennies on sherbet fountains and lucky potatoes, eating them on the way home. I should have got a Five Boys, I thought; my favourite chocolate, you could bite the Boys’ faces off one by one, leaving the smiling one to last. But I had no money left.
As we walked, we tried to decide what to do about the water coming in the hole.
“It’s getting serious,” Archie said. “I keep getting wet feet, and I’m running out of stories to tell my mother.”
“Perhaps we could use a tin can as a bailer, like my father does in his boat?”
“Trouble with that,” Archie replied, “is that the water would still come in, and we’d spend half the time bailing it out.”
We walked quietly for a bit, thinking. A short way from his house, Archie brought a bar of Five Boys out of his pocket. Removing the wrapper, he began to bite the Boys off one by one.
“Where did you get that?” I asked. “I thought we’d spent all the money.”
“In Woolies,” he replied. “When you were getting your ink.” There were only two Boys left.
“Can I have one?” I asked. “The smiling Boy at the end?”
“No. You can’t. I bought it with my money, not yours.” I watched him slowly biting into the smiling Boy, chewing it and swallowing it. He licked his lips. “MMM. That was nice.”
Suddenly I felt sick. “Must get home for my dinner” I mumbled, not looking at him. As we reached his gate I started to walk really fast.
“Cheerio, then,” he said. “See you this afternoon.” I didn’t answer.
That night I dreamed about Archie. He was in the hole, digging.The water began to rise. It rose very quickly.The hole was too deep for him to get out. He started screaming, and calling to me for help. He couldn’t swim. I did nothing and said nothing; just sat and watched until the surface of the water was calm.
(winner of a Highly Commended award in the Jo Cowell international short story competition UK Autumn 04)
2200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page