Thursday, April 18, 2013

Summer Holiday

This is an extract from a novel of which I have written a few chapters, but which may never see the light of day. I am working on something else now. On the other hand, it may resurface in another context at a later date. I thought it could almost stand alone as a short story, so here it is. The events described didn’t happen, but they might have.


They are somewhere in Wales. He hasn’t understood the name of the town. They are staying in a small, two-storey cottage, overgrown with ivy, a thatched roof in poor shape. At the rear is a small orchard, probably apples. A shed, somewhat dilapidated, contains gardening tools, a wheel barrow and a small push-along lawnmower. One side of the wooden shed has almost collapsed inwards, but a heavy, ancient armoire props it up from the inside.

Simon enjoys walking up the steep, narrow staircase to the bedroom that he will share with Sally. He almost doesn’t mind that, sharing; it is just so exciting to be there. Up the stairs, then down a step into the room. Ceiling sloping towards the deep window, that looks out over the orchard, towards the craggy hills beyond.

On the ground floor, the small, cosy lounge room. Dark heavy curtains, dark heavy furniture. Tall bookcases filled with books. A deep purple leather lounge suite. A step down from the passageway into the narrow kitchen with the flagstone floor and big old iron stove. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling. At the rear a sunroom, with wrought iron furniture, white paint flaking off, magazines strewn on table and chairs. Dead flies in the dusty corners.

On that first evening the children are all very excited and noisy. Their father brings out the game of Monopoly. He is a quiet man, dark of skin and hair, with a sharp nose bringing his face into focus. He likes to read, to himself and to the children. He sets out the Monopoly board on the coffee table, and the first argument is over who has which token.

“I’m the car,” claims Simon, predictably enough.

“No. I’m the car,” Sally naturally asserts her counterclaim.

“Here you are, then,” says Simon, laughing. “Because I really wanted to be the ship!”

Ian is too young to play, but is given the dog token and some money, to keep him happy. Their mother sits quietly in an armchair, her eyes closed, her hand at her forehead. Every so often, for no reason that he could have explained, Simon stands occasionally, rising from his crouched position on the floor, and runs around the room, through the narrow spaces between the weighty furniture.When he bumps the chair in which his mother is sitting, for perhaps the third time, she opens her eyes suddenly and snaps at him.

“I have a rotten bloody headache, for Chrissake. Doesn’t anybody care?”

“Were we supposed to guess?” says the father irritably. “Go and lie down for a while if it’s that bad. We’re just having some fun.”

“None of you care,” she snaps.

And they aren’t having fun any longer.

In the morning the sun shines brightly through the light curtains and wakes them early. They hear strange sounds – birds, sheep, cows, chickens – and giggle together. Sparrows, pigeons and starlings are all they really know from their life in the flat. And their cat, Timmy. There are smells, too, drifting in through the open window, as the breeze lifts the curtain.

“Pooh!” says Simon. “Is that you?” There is a chicken run in the orchard, and a goat tethered nearby. They giggle some more.

Later, Simon and Sally are playing together down towards the back of the orchard. They are climbing trees and challenging each other to jump from the branches, higher each time. At the moment, the boy is climbing out along a branch that slopes upwards, so that, when he has crawled as far as he thinks the branch will still hold him, he is probably seven or eight feet from the ground. It is a long drop, and he quails slightly, doubt battling with an obstinate refusal to retreat.

“Simon, be careful. You don’t have to do it. You’ve already gone higher than I would.” His sister actually sounds concerned.

“It’s ok. I can do it.”

He thinks about crawling back meekly along the branch and lowering himself to the ground. Instead, he stands on the branch, which yields slightly under his weight, steadying himself using the branches above. It is curious, what he notices all of a sudden from this vantage point. For instance, the dust and pollen and insects adrift in the shafts of sunlight penetrating through the branches; the buzz of bees; distant traffic on the highway; the smell of crushed grass; an old nest in the branch just above his head; the engine of a tractor two or three fields away; also not very far away, the bleating of a late-season lamb.

He holds his breath and jumps. In the suspended time he sees the look, first of annoyance, then of horror, on his sister’s face, as she follows his trajectory. She raises a hand to her open mouth, then partly extends an arm towards him, as if the thought of catching him or breaking his fall has crossed her mind.

He lands heavily on his feet and the air leaves his lungs in a rush. But, being slightly overbalanced, he tips forward, thrusting out his arms to protect himself. The left arm takes most of the impact, and there is a sound like that of a young tree branch snapping. He manages to rise to his feet, pushing with his right arm, and looks with surprise at his other arm, which bends strangely a short way above the wrist. Then he turns very pale.

His sister comes to his side. To her credit, she does not say, “Are you alright?” Clearly, he is not.

“Cripes! Can you walk? Shall I get help?” She appears torn between leaving him and quickly getting help, or staying with him and walking slowly back to the cottage. The problem solves itself when he slumps to the ground and starts sobbing and groaning. “I’ll be right back.” She sprints away, calling for their mother and father.

For the remainder of the holiday he wears his cast with pride, and decides not to hate his sister quite as much for a while.


My new novel, one that is actually finished, is Angel’s Harp, and will be available soon. Watch this space.

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