“Poke!” Kelly shrieked as she jabbed me in the ribs with the long stick she brandished in her left hand.
She ran away across the garden, cackling like a demented hyena, but I didn’t react. I rarely did. As the middle child, with an older brother and a younger sister, I’d long since learned to ignore the provocation they offered me on an almost daily basis. I paid no heed to my brother’s teasing. I allowed my sister’s childish behaviour to pass without response. Experience had taught me that if I simply ignored them they would soon get bored, fight with each other or find something else to amuse themselves.
My brother, Ashley, rarely devoted more than a couple of minutes to trying to aggravate me before giving up. Every now and then he would push a little harder; throw me on the ground, sit on my chest, and either slap my cheeks or dribble on my face until I called out for our mother, but normally my apathetic response to his jibes and name-calling successfully convinced him to leave me in peace.
Kelly was a different story. She wasn’t as cruel as Ashley. In fact, I don’t think there was a mean bone in her body. She was just playful. Once in a while I would indulge her, chase her around the house or garden laughing as she squealed in the high-pitched and thoroughly aggravating way only little girls can, but most of the time I just ignored her. It could take ten, even fifteen minutes for her to give up and go find someone else to play with, but eventually she’d realise I wasn’t interested in participating in whatever silly game she’d cooked up in her head and find someone else to annoy.
She trotted almost all the way to the back door of the house before she realised I wasn’t chasing her. She stopped, turned, a confused expression flooding her face as the stared across the garden at me. I suppose I couldn’t blame her. She’d come out to find me lying on the grass at the far end of the garden in the shade of the old oak tree gazing blankly at sky above me. She’d found a stick on the edge of the lawn and crept across the grass in what I’m sure she thought was a thoroughly stealthy manner, striking only when she was reasonably confident I was oblivious to her presence. The least she could have expected was a gasp, a jolt, a look of annoyance, but instead she found me lying in exactly the same spot, staring into the heavens as though she didn’t exist.
I almost smiled when I saw her glance down at the stick in her hand. In her six-year-old mind there was only one explanation for my lack of reaction. The stick hadn’t done its job. From the way she pouted at it I knew she was silently scolding it for its failure. It was almost comical to watch and I might even have laughed had I not known that when she was done reproaching it she would return and strike again.
Part of me wanted to yell at her, tell her to bugger off inside and leave me alone, but I knew that any reaction would only serve to encourage her. The truth was, she’d jabbed me pretty hard the first time. The stick was sharp; sharp enough that it had punctured my skin. The wound was tiny, barely worthy of attention, but I knew that she’d drawn blood. Just a little bead hovering on my flesh, not even enough to dribble down towards my back, a minor irritation but still…when she returned, and I knew she would, she would jab me harder.
I rolled my eyes, silently willing my mother to come to the kitchen window, to look out, see what her daughter was up to and put a stop to it, but already Kelly was stalking towards me again, her body hunched, the stick protruding in front of her, aimed directly at the side of my body. I held my breath, readying myself for the surge of pain I knew would follow when she reached me, bracing myself, but before she’d crossed even half the grassy expanse between us my mother’s voice sang out her name from inside the house.
She stopped in her tracks, frowning at me, wordlessly debating whether to ignore my mother’s call and continue across the lawn or hurry into the house and find out why she was being summoned. My mother called out again, her voice louder, sharper. It was a tone even Kelly had learned to recognise, a tone that said my mother was not in the mood to be ignored. My sister stomped her left foot, narrowed her eyes at me, then tossed the stick towards the fence, turned on her heels and trotted back towards the house.
I felt a surge of relief as I watched her disappear inside. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my little sister. I did. I suppose I even loved Ashley in a way. I just preferred to be left alone. It was different when I was around my friends. When they teased me I gave them the reaction they were looking for, just as they reacted when I teased them. We’d joke with each other, call each other names, laugh, mess around, generally have fun, but when it came to my siblings it was a different story altogether. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play with them. Rather, the games they wanted to play simply weren’t fun for me.
Though Kelly was a girl, she wasn’t particularly girly despite the pigtails and dresses my mother forced on her. She had dolls and tea sets, all the usual girly toys, but she much preferred to have someone chase her around the garden, play hide and seek with her in the park or accompany her to the pond at the edge of the woods behind our house so she could wade in the water looking for frogs and fish. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy those activities, but somehow spending time with her felt more like a chore than a pleasure. Perhaps it was because in spite of her tomboy nature she was still a girl, or maybe it was because she was five years younger than me, but after five minutes with her I always started to find her company tiresome.
Ashley was different. We shared a lot of interests. We both liked playing football, playing war games in the woods, basically any activity that involved running around a lot and getting as dirty as possible. He was three years older than me and was just beginning to develop a real interest in girls, but for the most part we had a lot in common. However, Ashley liked to play rough and he was both bigger and stronger than me. On his own he wasn’t too bad. Sure, I came back with scrapes and bruises, but if I was in the mood to spend time with him I could tolerate his occasionally excessive aggression. It was a different story, though, when he was with one or more of his friends.
With his friends around he was even rougher, and he seemed to have a sadistic streak that flourished in their company. I cringed as I recalled how, just six weeks earlier, he’d convinced me to join him and a couple of his friends for a game of football in the park. Throughout the game he’d repeatedly tripped and pushed me, laughing wildly whenever I fell, and when finally I’d grown weary of his attacks and announced I was going home he and his friends had decided it would be amusing to toss me in a muddy puddle.
Perhaps from his perspective it had been fun – certainly he and his friends had laughed a lot – but it wasn’t the way I liked to spend a Saturday afternoon.
So when I wasn’t with my own friends, I usually preferred to be alone with my thoughts, my daydreams, to find some solitary activity to keep me amused. Just thirty minutes before Kelly had come marching across the lawn, stick in hand, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. Amusing myself. I’d had the house to myself. Ashley had gone out with his friends and my mother had taken Kelly with her to the supermarket, but it had been such a beautiful, sunny morning I’d found myself out in the garden, walking around the lawn aimlessly as I contemplated how I wanted to spend my morning.
I’d been thinking about going back inside, climbing the stairs to my room and playing on my computer when the old oak tree caught my eye. Instantly it had become a challenge too exciting to pass up. At the age of seven Ashley had climbed to the second branch that protruded over the flower beds, but he’d been unable to ascend any further. He’d looked down, seen how far he was from the ground and froze there, gripping the trunk fiercely, fighting back tears, refusing to admit to his four year old brother on the grass below just how terrified he was.
He’d stayed in the tree for nearly two hours until our father came home from work, but even then he hadn’t been able to climb back down. If Dad hadn’t gone to the garage, fetched a ladder and climbed up there, I suspected Ashley would still be in the tree. Since then he’d always bragged about climbing it, told me that he was going to get all the way to the top, but he’d never attempted it again. He would never admit it, but I knew he was afraid.
Well, I wasn’t afraid of climbing the tree, anyway. I was afraid of climbing it in front of him, of failing to get as high as he had, of freezing just as he had, of the teasing I would get from him if I didn’t at least manage to get beyond that second branch. I’d always told myself I could do it, but whenever the thought of climbing the tree had crossed my mind Ashley had been home, and if he was around there was no way I could even consider attempting it.
As I’d stood beneath the tree that morning, knowing he wouldn’t be back until dinnertime, I decided I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. If I could climb beyond that second branch when he wasn’t home, I could repeat my ascent at some point in the future when he was there to witness it. I may have been smaller and weaker than him, but it was one little victory I could claim over him.
It had taken me nearly twenty minutes to pluck up the courage to begin the climb. At first I was afraid that if I started and failed I would find myself stuck in the tree waiting for someone to come home. I knew that even if my mother found me up there and got me down long before Ashley got home he would hear about it, and I would never hear the end of it. I decided, though, that wasn’t going to happen. Even if I found myself on that second branch, paralysed with fear, I would summon the strength to get myself back down to the ground. I’d jump if I had to. The pain of two broken legs seemed insignificant compared to the teasing I’d get from my brother.
Then I was afraid of failure for an entirely different reason. Ashley was better than me at almost everything. He could kick a ball further, run faster, hit harder, shout louder; even when it came to something as simple as eating the evening meal he could clear his plate long before me. It’s fair to say I admired and despised him in equal measure. Even he never witnessed me climbing the tree, even if it was something I attempted only once, success meant everything to me. It meant that there was one thing I could do better than him, but if I failed then I would prove to myself that even in that regard I was less than him.
As I stood staring up at the haggard branches, I almost convinced myself to abandon the idea entirely. It seemed much more sensible to simply imagine that I was able to climb higher than to try and fail. I reasoned that he had been seven when he’d made it to the second branch, and I was eleven, older than he’d been when he’d made his attempt. That meant that in order to truly consider that I’d beaten his record I needed to make it at least to the third branch, ideally higher. Staring up into the tree, the blinding sunlight cutting through the canopy, the task seemed almost impossible.
I’d decided. I’d resolved to go back into the house, play on my computer, perhaps watch a film, abandon any notion of climbing the tree, but even as I made up my mind I found my hands grasping at the trunk, my feet scraping the rough bark. I’d made it all the way to the first branch before it truly crossed my mind that I’d started the climb, and by then it was too late. I’m sure I could have come up with any number of perfectly reasonable excuses to climb back down, to head inside, but I knew that if I did so for any reason it would feel like failure later.
I stood there on that first branch, no more than ten feet off the ground, remonstrating with myself for a good ten minutes, trying to find a way to back out of the climb that wouldn’t make me feel like a coward later. Finally I reasoned that if I could make it as far as the second branch then I could return to the ground without feeling like a failure. Sure, I needed to make it up to the third branch to feel as though I’d beaten Ashley, but if I made it as far as the second branch then I’d at least equalled his record. It would be no victory, but I couldn’t consider it a failure either.
Gritting my teeth, I reached for a small branch above me, using it to pull myself up, gasping as I hoisted my feet from the firm wooden outcropping beneath me, wrapping my legs around the trunk. I’m not exactly sure what I did after that. I suppose I should have paid attention, tried to remember exactly what I was doing so that when I finally came to try climbing the tree again I would know what to do, but I think perhaps my rational mind shut down and my body just took over. I do vividly recall crying out at one point. My foot slipped and for the briefest of moments I felt certain I was going to fall, but somehow I managed to hold on and after what felt like an eternity I was standing on that second branch.
For a good couple of minutes I hugged the tree just as my brother had years earlier, my eyes squeezed tightly shut, my heart pounding in my chest, mentally rebuking myself for my foolishness, but then I heard a noise. The sound itself was insignificant. Somewhere behind me, someone closed a window and I heard the clunk as it slammed shut. As I say, it was nothing particularly important, but it caused me to look around, open my eyes, involuntarily seek out the source of the brief disturbance, and by the time I realised what I was doing I’d turned around completely on the branch.
I found myself stood there, my back pressed to the rough bark, my hands at my sides, staring out over the top of the fence that surrounded my garden and into the garden beyond. And the one beyond that. Though I couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet from the ground, I felt like I could see for miles across my neighbourhood. Four doors down I could see Gemma Hargreaves, a girl from my school, a girl two years my senior, sat in a deckchair in her back garden in a tight T-Shirt that hugged her breasts. I suppose if I’d been Ashley I would have been enchanted by the sight, but I had little more than a passing interest, a vague sense of curiosity that disappeared within seconds.
I couldn’t see over the rooftops of the houses to my right, but I could see into the windows, at least those of the first three houses. The house directly adjacent to mine was one I was very familiar with. Before she’d moved into a retirement home, Mrs Anderson had lived there. She’d been a kindly old lady who’d always welcomed me and my siblings into her home, even looking after us once in a while during the evenings when my parents needed to go out. I’d been in every room in her house and knew it almost as well as my own.
The back bedroom looked very different now, though. After she’d moved out the house had been sold to a couple with two teenage sons. My brother had befriended the younger brother, a boy only a year younger than himself, but the older teen was sullen, moody, almost hostile whenever he saw us. It was his bedroom I was looking into, and I could see him there. He was lying on his bed wearing nothing but pale blue shorts, his eyes closed, headphones pressed into his ears, listening to music I was sure I wouldn’t enjoy myself. I could make out three posters above his bed – two depicting rugby players, one a scantily clad model – pinned to the blue painted wall.
I remembered the wallpaper that had hung there when Mrs Anderson had owned the property, white with little red flowers climbing from floor to ceiling. Though the blue paint was a vast improvement, I felt a little sad to see that the wallpaper was gone. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me. Though I didn’t know the boy who now occupied the room, I was fairly confident that the wallpaper wasn’t exactly to his taste.
The house beyond was one I’d never been inside. It belonged to a man I knew only as Frank, an utterly strange individual. He had lived in the house for as long as I could remember, perhaps for as long as I’d been alive, but in all that time I’d only ever seen him once or twice. I was seven, maybe eight, the first time I ever set eyes on him, at least that I could recall. I’d been walking home from school and I happened to pass his house as he was unloading bags from the boot of his car. I remember it clearly, because one of the bags split as he hoisted it out, emptying various canned goods onto his driveway. I’d laughed. I expect most people would have laughed too, but being a child I was less discreet about it than perhaps I should have been. He heard me, saw me, and the look he gave me caused me to run the rest of the way back to my house, and then up the stairs to my bedroom.
I knew little about him except that he lived alone and antagonised my father by mowing his lawn every Sunday morning just after dawn. Somehow I’d concocted an image in my mind as to what his house would look like inside, and that image was of a dark, dingy place entirely devoid of joy, a place that sent a chill racing up my spine. However, from what I could see of the interior of his house that image was entirely wrong. The walls were plain, but bright, and from where it stood on the second branch I could just make out photographs hanging on the wall. It was difficult to tell who was portrayed in the pictures without closer inspection, but one of the photographs seemed to be of Frank stood beside a woman. I couldn’t tell if she was old or young, a mother or spouse, but she was definitely an adult and based on how close he was standing to her I suspected she was someone he cared about deeply.
I couldn’t see much in the third house, just yellow walls and strange cartoonish pictures, but I knew the property was occupied by a young single woman and her two children, both of them younger than even Kelly. I suspected I was looking into the youngest child’s bedroom, though in truth the room could have been occupied by either or both of them. The window was open, just a crack, enough for me to see the pale red curtains that hung inside, curtains that fluttered slightly in the light morning breeze, but beyond that the rest of the room was a mystery to me, though one I wasn’t particularly curious about.
I glanced away from the houses when I heard voices in the woods behind the properties. At first I couldn’t see anyone in the woods, but then I spotted them, three boys from my school. I didn’t know there names, but I recognised their faces and was fairly sure they were a couple of years older than me. They were walking along the footpath, a narrow dirt track that led from the playing fields at the end of my road to a housing estate about half a mile away. Though it was pure speculation on my part, I guessed that they’d been engaged in some game in the fields, perhaps football, and were on their way home.
I watched them as they walked, a grin spreading across my face as I realised that they were completely oblivious to my presence. I felt like a spy, sneaky and silent, and the feeling was exhilarating. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but that didn’t matter. I was watching them, observing them, and they had no idea that anyone could see what they were up to. Not that they were up to much. They were just walking, talking, occasionally laughing, but that wasn’t important either. What mattered was that I could see the trio, and in some way felt that I was a part of their conversation, walking alongside them.
Nothing I saw was particularly interesting. Not Gemma sat in her deckchair, not my neighbour lying on his bed, not Frank’s photographs and certainly not the three teenage boys on the footpath, but the fact that I was able to see things I shouldn’t have been seeing was exciting, and I think it was that excitement that gave me the courage to climb onwards when the boys finally disappeared from view. Even when I glanced down at the grass below, the distance between myself and the ground didn’t discourage me from clambering up to the third branch. I did it with surprising ease and speed, anxious to see what secrets would be unveiled once I was up there.
When I reached the branch I edged myself around until once again my back was pressed to the trunk of the tree, until once again I could stare out over the gardens, the woods, into the houses beside mine. Nothing really changed except the angle at which I was looking at things, but that made it no less fascinating for me. I looked first into the bedroom of the house next door, finding the teenage occupant still lying on his bed, still listening to music. He’d shifted a little, his right leg now bent slightly, his hand resting on his stomach, but otherwise the view hadn’t changed.
When I looked into Frank’s house I saw nothing different, except that there was a cluttered desk next to the window, but I could also see into his back garden. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. A neatly trimmed lawn with neatly trimmed hedges running along the fence, but it was the fact that I was able to see that lawn, those hedges, that brought a grin to my face. I wondered if perhaps Frank would be angry if he knew that I was looking into his garden, and the idea that I might be seeing something he wouldn’t want me to see caused my smile to broaden.
When I glanced towards Gemma I found that she wasn’t alone. Lying on the grass a few feet from her was a boy I vaguely recognised, a boy I’d seen her holding hands with at school. His upper body was bare, sunglasses covering his eyes, his mouth moving as though he was talking to her, though I couldn’t even hear his voice let alone make out what he was saying. It didn’t stop me from imaging the words that were coming out of his mouth, though. I watched them silently, hearing their conversation in my mind, giggling to myself as the fictional banter became more ludicrous.
After a while I got bored of watching them and turned my attention to the woods. I could see no one on the footpath, no signs of life within the trees, but that didn’t matter. I was seeing the woods I’d known all my life from a different angle, admiring their enchanting beauty from a fresh perspective. I had no memory of seeing the woods for the first time. They were just…like my house, my brother, my parents, something that had always been there, yet when I looked at them from atop the tree it was almost like I was seeing them with fresh eyes.
I’d explored every inch of the woods, from the pond on the eastern edge to the playing fields in the west, from the ugly housing estate that lay beyond them to the south all the way along the fence that backed onto the gardens of the houses on my street. I knew every tree, every path, all the nooks and crannies, all the places a person could hide, all the spots that were too dangerous to explore thoroughly. It was fair to say I knew those woods intimately, and yet looking onto them from where I stood in the tree I felt an overwhelming urge to explore them once again, to seek out something, anything, I hadn’t seen before.
I wasn’t wearing a watch, couldn’t see any clocks, but somehow I knew that my mother would be home from the supermarket within the hour. I also knew that if I was in either the house or garden when she got home I wouldn’t be able to go out into the woods. It wasn’t that my mother didn’t like me playing in the woods. She knew they were safe. Rather, she would keep me home to watch over my sister while she unpacked the shopping, started the housework, fretted over what she was going to prepare for dinner that night.
She didn’t need me to watch over Kelly. My sister was a pain, but if there was no one to entertain her she was perfectly capable of entertaining herself. That didn’t matter to my mother, of course. She had this unreasonable idea that because Kelly was “only six” she needed someone to be watching over her at all times, but only if there was actually someone home to watch over her. If I was out my mother would still unpack the shopping, still get on with the housework, still fret over dinner, and Kelly would be left to her own devices. All I needed to do was get down from the tree, leave my mother a note to tell her I was out and I could spend the afternoon exploring the woods.
Perhaps if I’d taken a little more time, been a little more careful climbing down from the tree, I would have been able to have my little adventure in the woods, but I didn’t even make it off that third branch. Or, more accurately, I didn’t make it off the third branch safely. As I turned back towards the tree I felt my foot slip. I didn’t panic, didn’t really think I was going to fall, but then I was falling. One moment I was stood on the branch and the next there was nothing but air beneath the soles of my shoes.
My backside hit the branch hard. It didn’t really hurt, but the impact caused me to let loose a thoroughly undignified grunt. I remember grabbing at the tree, trying to hold onto it, but it was like the rough wood became soap beneath my fingers, slipping through my grasp, and then I was falling. I saw the first branch approaching, but there was nothing I could do to avoid it. My forehead slammed against it, my whole body twisting, turning, and then the grass below slammed into my back.
I felt the impact, felt my body land, but I wasn’t in there. I suppose I should have been worried, perhaps even panicked, but instead I found myself staring at…well, myself, but not in the obvious dent in my forehead or my lifeless eyes. Instead I was fixated on my T-Shirt. The hem had ridden up a little, just enough to expose my navel, and as crazy as it might sound my first instinct was to reach down and try and cover myself up. I couldn’t, of course. I tried, but my fingers passed ineffectively through the fabric, through my own flesh, as though what I was seeing was an illusion, some intangible image.
I sat down next to the tree, staring into the house, wondering why my mother had summoned Kelly inside. I suppose I could have gone in to find out, but it didn’t seem right to just walk away from my body. I felt as though I should be there with it until I was found, until my mother, or perhaps another member of my family, realised what had happened to me. And maybe once they figured it out someone could explain it to me.
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