“It’s easy, just walk normally like I did.”
“Don’t want to, it’s dangerous.”
“It’s stupid, don’t want to.”
The small fair-haired boy bites his lower lip, his smooth face bright in the sun. He climbs the ladder and steps gingerly onto the beam, spreading his arms like a tightrope walker, and moves steadily to the halfway point. He feels confident enough to look up and smile at the other boy, but as he does so a wasp flies towards his face. He makes to swat it, and loses his footing. A loud throbbing fills the air, and his arms flail as he tries to regain his balance…
* * * * * * *
Mark was awoken by a sudden cry, which he soon realised had been his own.
“Are you all right, sir?”
He nodded hasty assent, as the steady hum of the aeroplane populated the sound from his dream. No, he was not all right. He loosened his tie and sipped water from the bottle in the seat pocket. It was the same dream, with slight variations, that had besieged him well into his twenties, then eventually left him alone.
But two days ago his uncle had called, suggesting he should come back from Shanghai at the first opportunity, and now the dream had never been so detailed, or so vivid. He flicked through the in-flight magazine to regain the appearance of normality, knowing the decision had been made: he must tell her. Perhaps there was still time to be forgiven.
* * * * * * *
Mark sauntered into the hot playground with his schoolbag over his shoulder. It was near the end of term, and he felt a vague but insistent glow at the thought of the holidays soon to come. He had taken a detour on the way home, hoping to meet some friends there, but had found it empty.
He swung himself lazily for a while, then decided to intercept his brother on the way home and bring him back there. He leant against a wall by the newsagent, and immediately Stephen appeared.
Surprised and flattered by his big brother’s attention, Stephen readily agreed to go to the playground. Mark soon regretted his impulse. What a sissy, eight years old and still couldn’t swing himself. Mark soon tired of pushing, and was about to suggest going home, when he had an idea.
“Fancy an adventure?”
So they skirted the cricket pitch to the college grounds, crossed a lane, then edged along a nettle-strewn path with a battered high wooden fence on the right. Soon Mark lifted away a woven wooden panel leaning against the fence to reveal a ragged gap.
“I’ve been meaning to show you this for ages.”
They slipped through the hole, and Stephen’s eyes widened as he took in a huge dilapidated greenhouse. Broken windows hung from the frame, and the ground was a mess of glass and plant pots. Here and there stray tomato plants pushed through, filling the air with their warm scent.
But the frame appeared solid. Mark spotted a ladder resting against the fence, and propped it against the end. He was soon able to plant his foot on the wooden beam at the apex of the sloping glass. He walked steadily along, and sat carefully astride the far end. He grinned down at his brother.
* * * * * * *
A cry of alarm, then the shattering of glass, a scream, and sudden silence. Mark jumped down fully twelve feet and stared numbly at the red pool spreading over the ground. He heard a door opening somewhere and ran, taking off towards home, then diverting through the woods. He forced his way through a thicket, and sat shaking against a tree, head in hands, furiously thinking.
* * * * * * *
As he parked at the hospital, Mark recalled the coolness of that eleven year old boy with uneasy respect. How had he dared to walk home and greet his Mum so normally, to ask casually where Stephen was? To say that he had been at the swings all the time, and to stick to his story even when the police questioned him? Their father had survived his younger son by only six years, and in that time Mark would sometimes feel his father’s eyes quietly searching his face. But he had held his secret. Until now.
He had rehearsed his lines many times. “Mum, it’s about Stephen…” The nurse led him over to his mother’s bed. He drew the curtain closed, and sat down. He took her thin, warm hand, and looked into her eyes. But there was nothing left.