Our theme for the writing group this month has two elements, a number and ‘a guilty secret’. As usual I’ve written a story, but it has turned out longer than I intended, so here is part (i)
A guilty secret
I have a guilty secret and do you know, I’m not the slightest bit sorry or ashamed. It was a couple of years ago now, but I think about it from time to time, especially if an item crops up in the news which has a resonance. The story goes back many dozens of years to my childhood, which is where many guilty secrets have their roots.
My mum had scarlet fever and I was sent away to stay with an aunty; she was called Aunty Flick and I don’t now remember how she was connected to our family. She wasn’t a real aunty, but she was very kind and let me do just about anything I liked, which included chocolate cake for breakfast. She was a writer and was happy for me to go off with a few sandwiches or anything I liked to take from the biscuit tin and not come back until I felt like it. She had arranged a friend for me, a boy called Philip who was about the same age.
Philip was a nice lad and we hit it off from the start, but he was very timid and nervous. I’m not sure who he was, the son of a neighbour – but was he also somehow connected to Flick? His father went off to work early; he walked down to the station and caught the early train to the city and came back about tea-time. This left Philip with his mother, Margaret who was quite nice. She said to me when I met her that I should call her Margaret, which was very difficult in those days and I usually ended up calling her ‘…er…’ She seemed a sad lady but she let us go off adventuring all day.
“You’re so good for Philip, Martin, you’re a wonderful friend,” she used to say.
There was another lady, much younger than Philip’s parents but I’m not sure who she was, only that she lived with the family and Philip called her Aunty Selina. She went out on her bike most days, riding round with her chain squeaking. He never talked about her and I didn’t like to ask, and anyway, we just wanted to be Dan Dare or the Lone Ranger and kill the baddies. For some reason, I didn’t like Aunty Selina, she sometimes said unkind things to Philip which made him shake and be unhappy. When he was like that I told him he was the Lone Ranger, and I’d be Tonto and then he felt brave.
We used to go along by the river which we’d been told not to. We were hunting crocodiles so we needed to be near water. There was a lock along here and a lock-keeper’s cottage, but he didn’t live there, he’d moved to the village and cycled along to keep an eye on it. We never saw any boats, and we never saw the lock keeper open it. We pretended these gates were the Gates to Hell and an underwater Cerberus guarded them. I’d said it in a silly way but I’d accidentally frightened Philip so we never went near the edge.
There were some shrubs and rushes which we hid behind; sometimes we were ambushing the Sheriff of Nottingham, sometimes we were on the lookout the Saracens attacking Richard the Lionheart. We never really saw anyone, but on this day, as we sat in the bushes, the door to the lock keeper’s cottage opened. We’d never seen the lock keeper so we were quite excited but stayed silent.
To our surprise Philip’s dad rushed out! He had his jacket and hat in one hand and his briefcase in the other. Philip stood up but before he could call out to his dad Selina rushed out too and she was just wearing her petticoat! Well my mouth just dropped open and Philip seemed struck dumb too.
Philip’s dad was shouting something. I must have heard what he said, but I have forgotten, maybe too shocked, upset or frightened. He was walking away from Selina but she just rushed at him and shoved him and somehow he tripped or slipped or fell into the lock with a great splash. I hear it sometimes in my dreams.
Did I really see her pick up a lance – probably really a barge pole, but once before, in a meadow we’d been knights jousting and we’d had deadly lances, which were really just bull-rushes from the pond. Did Selina snatch up a barge pole and poke at Philip’s dad as he was in the water? I couldn’t see, I was still sitting in utter shock, and Philip was just standing his mouth wide open as if he was silently screaming. Could I hear Philip’s dad shouting and coughing and gasping, and splashing? Did Selina lift up the dripping lance and bringing it down awkwardly so it slipped out of her hands and then there was no sound from the lock?
Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart galloped away and never returned and left two small boys frozen in horror, one crouched in the bushes, the other standing watching his father’s murder.
Selina brushed her hands together as if she was dusting her palms and turned and saw us. Except she didn’t see me. She flew towards Philip, her bare feet not touching the ground and she grabbed him by his arms and lifted him up, shaking him.
“You saw nothing you little brat! You saw nothing! And if you tell anyone then I will tell them it was you and who will they believe? They will believe me, the grown up! And then you will get sent away to a place for naughty boys and lots of them will be bigger than you and they will like hurting little boys! You saw nothing!” Every word was accompanied by a vicious shake so Philip’s head rocked backwards and forwards.
Did I stand up and say I saw what happened? Did I come to the rescue of my friend like Dan Dare or The Lone Ranger? I crouched frozen in the undergrowth.
“What did you see?” screamed Selina. Philip was beyond answering and she threw him to the ground and then went back to the lock keeper’s cottage.
Neither of us moved, him lying visibly shaking on the ground, me in the bushes realising that I had wet myself.
Selina came out of the cottage and stared at Philip, then slowly raised her hand and pointed at him. She said nothing but walked quickly round the back of the old building and moments later I heard the sound of her bicycle with its squeaky chain.
I crept out of the bushes on all fours and crawled to Philip. He was lying on his back staring at the sky, his eyes wide open and for a minute I thought he was dead, that Selina had killed him too.
“Are you alright, old chap?” I asked and my voice was all trembly and I could feel my eyes stinging.
I helped him up and we walked away from the Gates of Hell.
I don’t know where we went that day, I just remember walking and walking, endlessly walking. We didn’t speak much which was unusual; normally we never stopped. Aunty Flick said me and Philip sounded like happy little birds, twittering away to each other. Selina killed those happy little birds.
That day was the last time I saw Philip. That day of wandering was the last thing I really remember of that time; as I said, it was all a long time ago. I went home as my mum was better from the scarlet fever, and I know I was like a different boy from the one who had left her. Aunty Flick said I was sad because Philip was such a good friend and now I’d never see him again. I wrote him a letter which Aunty Flick said she would try to send if she could find the address they had moved to, but I never heard from him again. And I’ve never forgotten him, or that perfect summer, which became separated in my memory from that last day. I often thought about that summer with Philip, I rarely thought about the lock.
This is not my guilty secret.
Part (ii) tomorrow!