The Red House David J Thacker This Special Edition for British Fantasy Award 2011 consideration.
Copyright ÂŠ 2010. All Rights Reserved.
It probably had a real name, but all us kids called it The Red House. It was pretty easy to see why. It was a single storey building, a door on one side, windows on another two, the whole thing made up of exposed brick. It stood in the middle of the woods like some kind of monument to man’s perseverance – a solid, constructed presence in the middle of – hell, despite – the woodlands around it. It was odd, but there was no wood involved in its construction at all. Not that we could see. There were metal doorframes and window frames, and tin on the roof. There was no attempt to make it blend in with its surroundings. There was no road leading to it, no pathway to the door. It looked like it had been dropped there, deposited; a monumental and totally alien presence amongst the green. I have no idea if anyone had ever lived in The Red House. By the time we found it, the windows and doorway had been bricked up, the lighter tone of the new bricks managing to stand out even in the shade of the woods. I can’t imagine that it was the most hospitable of places to live anyway. There didn’t seem to be any electric going to it; no plumbing was visible. Not that we thought about that at the time. We didn’t realise that houses needed such things – in our world, they were just there. It was unthinkable that anyone would be without them. Still, The Red House had an otherworldly quality to it, a feeling that it was somehow out of skew with reality. Nobody could put their finger on why, but we all knew it. Even before anything happened. It was a scary place, an odd place. And for all those reasons, it was naturally fascinating. Colin, Peter and I had been friends for years. Most people can say they had a best friend, especially when they were twelve, but I was lucky enough to have two. 2
Colin was the brains of the trio. He was tall and gangly, and his hair was usually a mess, but he had a mind as sharp as a barber’s razor. He did well at school, and for that reason he was usually hated by most of the kids. It was as if his being intelligent was a personal affront to them, something he did on purpose. In reality, it was just part of him – he could no more stop being clever than the rain could stop falling from a storm cloud. I never minded it. We all had our specialities and brains was his. Peter, meanwhile, was the funny one. He had a joke for every occasion and was actually quite popular. That didn’t mean that he didn’t get beaten up every now and again by the school bullies – being the fat kid generally took care of that – but it did mean that, every now and then, he could laugh his way out of it. Pete was good fun to have around. He knew when to shut up and he knew when an occasion called for a funny line. As I grew older I realised just how rare it was to get those two qualities together. I was the sporty guy of the group. Out of the three of us, I was the one most accepted by the other kids in town because I had represented the school in a couple of competitions and won. Mostly swimming contests, but I was a pretty good runner too. At that time, I wasn’t too interested in girls, but I remember being a bit annoyed by the fact that they seemed to like hanging around me whenever there was a track competition coming up. I suppose girls mature a bit faster than boys, so they were at the stage I would reach at fourteen or fifteen and I sure found an interest in them then, but at the time I would much rather spend time with my two buds. I don’t remember how we all got together. Colin and Pete were both outsiders really, kids who didn’t make friends easily. On the other hand, I was Mr Popular and had no trouble getting to know other people. I wasn’t too bright though, so perhaps that was it. I slipped behind in lessons and it took me hours to do my homework (when I did it – the main advantage to being the school’s star athlete was that you got time off from homework for ‘training’). I remember asking Colin for help once with some 3
algebra, but I can’t honestly say if we were already friends by then or not. It might be how we met, but, really, that sort of detail doesn’t matter. By the time Lawrence came along, we felt as if we had known each other all our lives. We were friends, we were family. We were blood. I should explain that we all lived in the country. Darton was a small town, situated on the edge of what was a large forest at the time. It’s not quite the same now. The town has grown and become part of Byeford, which was the largest local settlement during my childhood. In fact, nowadays I doubt if many people even know that Darton was once a town of its own – most of them just think of it as a suburb. The forest is smaller now too, a lot of it having been cut down for factories and industrial areas. Back in my day, you could wander into the woodlands and quite easily get lost amongst the trees. It took no longer than ten minutes for you to lose all sight and sound of the town, so dense was the greenery. Of course, we kids thought we knew it too well for anything bad to happen. We navigated it through a cunning combination of natural and fashioned signs, largely known only to us. By the time you reached the tree shaped like a bent over old man, you knew you were only twenty minutes walk away from the Golders farm on the other side of the woods. If you then followed the star symbols cut into the bark of every sixth tree, you could find your way to the little brook that cooled us off in the summer. And if you followed the small piles of rocks as far as they went and then looked for the tree with the skeleton of a kite in it (the remnants of some other kids’ fun a few summers back), you would be going in the right direction for The Red House. Anyway, this story comes from one of those summers that everyone has at some point in their lives. One where the sun seems to always shine and nothing is ever strong enough to stop you from enjoying yourself. You have your friends around you and nothing, absolutely nothing, can go wrong. Colin, Pete and I spent large parts of that summer in and 4
around the woods. To the modern reader, this might seem strange – three unsupervised kids, bumming around together with no parents to tell us not to do that or how to do this. But it wasn’t odd to us. Our parents knew that we had enough common sense not to get into trouble – actually, they knew that we had enough common sense to avoid the outcome of trouble, because in those days it was still okay to discipline your child and to use implements to do it – but they also knew that we couldn’t really go that far. Sure, we could have walked into Byeford, but why would we have wanted to? We were young and full of energy, and there were fields and streams to play in, wars to be fought between heather and thicket. We had our own perfect eden, where knights could fight dragons (but ignored the damsels in distress) and space pirates could board ships that flew through the skies. We didn’t need anything else. The woods were always a good place to play. Not only could you climb trees, or try to track animals, but you could forget about the town. If you wanted to vanish, and let’s face it, all kids want their own little world no matter how happy they are at home, the woods were the perfect place. It was a quiet day when we first met Lawrence. We had spent the morning trying to find a fox’s lair, knowing there was at least one of them around because some of the farmers said their chickens were being annoyed at night. We thought that it was part of our civic duty to track it down and, well, we weren’t all that sure what we were going to do when we found it, but we knew we’d do something. Run away, probably, or at least that would have been the case had we been successful and the fox had been angry, but in the end we were saved the trouble of deciding because we never found the darned thing. But looking was hard work. By the time noon came round, we were all three of us tired out and ready for a rest. Colin knew that there was a good open patch of land nearby, complete with a small stream, so we bowed to his superior knowledge and headed off over that way. Colin was always the one who could find his 5
way around the best, probably because he had a better memory than Pete or I, and sure enough the clearing that he remembered was just where he said it would be. Pete had a small backpack with him – well, that’s a bit fancy for a sack that he had attached some rope to so that he could carry it over his shoulder, but it’s the best description I can give – and, as usual, he had some food in it, mostly biscuits. It was a feast for us, though, and the water from the stream was clear, cool, and refreshing. We just stretched out on the grass beside the brook and put the world to rights. “Sanbourne’s has some of those gobstoppers in,” Colin proclaimed. “The ones that last all day.” I nodded, content with the knowledge, but Pete needed to confirm something. “The red ones or the blue?” he asked. “Red,” said Colin. “At least, they start out that way. They turn blue a bit later.” We looked up at the sky for a while, searching in vain for a cloud. “I prefer the blue ones,” Pete said. “Well, you can have mine after I’ve sucked the red off,” I volunteered. “Ugh!” Pete cried out. “I wouldn’t go near anything that had been in your mouth.” “Your mother wasn’t as fussy when we were tongue kissing last night,” I came back. Pete thumped me on the arm, but didn’t say anymore. It was an insult that we had heard some of the bigger boys using, Ted Gordon especially, and so we used it as well. I don’t believe that we actually understood what was meant by it, and none of us would really malign another’s mother, but it felt good to say it and to get one over on Pete. Colin affirmed this by clapping his hands briefly in mock applause. Nothing more was said for a few moments. I was just about to speak, when I heard a twig snap nearby and sprang up into a 6
sitting position. I looked around us as the other two also sat up. “You hear that?” I asked. Both of them nodded. “Think it was the fox?” asked Pete. I stayed quiet on the subject, but in my mind I doubted it. I guessed a fox would probably be a bit quieter than that. I stood up. “Who’s there?” I shouted out. We could see where the trees started again on our side of the stream, but after about five trees in it was nothing but darkness. “We know you’re out there, so you might as well show yourself.” Colin and Pete were both stood up as well by this time and glancing at one another. Their nervousness spread slightly to me, but I had started out as the brave one and I couldn’t go back now. We waited for probably a full minute but there was no other sound and nothing to see. I turned back to my friends. “Perhaps it was the fox,” I said. We smiled at one another and Pete bent down to pick up his backpack. As he did so, a stone whistled past where his head had been. All of us crouched down immediately. I looked out in the direction that the missile seemed to have come from, but still there was nothing to see. “Come out, you coward,” I yelled. “There’s three of us and one of you, and if you don’t show yourself we’re just gonna have to come and get you.” There was only silence by return. I glanced at the other two again. We all knew that it was a hollow threat given that we had no idea where our attacker was. “You’re in my spot,” came a thin voice from somewhere out in the trees. “This ain’t anybody’s spot,” Colin shouted back. The voice sounded again. “I’ve been coming here for a long time, so it’s more my spot than yours.” I still couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from. “Can’t we share your spot?” I called out. “We don’t mean any 7
harm, and…” this was my ace in the hole, “…we’ve got biscuits.” There was a pause. It was almost as if I could hear the other person thinking. “You’d let me have some?” the voice said. “Sure. Just come on out here and we’ll all have some,” I replied. I looked around at Colin and Pete at the same time and winked at them. We all knew this was just a ruse and that we would jump the kid the minute he appeared. “Well, I’m sorry for that stone,” the voice shouted. It was not a very strong shout. “I was just surprised by you being here.” “That’s okay,” I said. “That’s all forgotten now.” I scanned the treeline for signs of movement. When it came, it was not where I had expected it to be, nor was it what I had expected. From over to my left, closer to Colin than any of us, a short figure stepped out from behind a tree. It was a kid, just like us, but very different all the same. For a start, he was very scrawny. I mean, I told you that Colin was thin, but he was a muscleman compared to this kid. Looking at him, I don’t know how he had had the strength to throw that stone. He was almost a walking skeleton. His clothes were brown and filthy, and he emerged into the light blinking all the time. He was shorter than us too. In all, he was a pretty pathetic specimen. I looked at the guys and instinctively we all decided the same thing. There was no way that we were going to jump this kid. He didn’t look as if he would survive it. The boy came right to the edge of the clearing and stood looking at us, unsure about going any further. “I’m John,” I said, “and this is Pete, and this is Colin.” The boy looked at us but did not move. Colin nudged Pete and he dug into his backpack. He pulled out a biscuit and held it out. I couldn’t help thinking that it was like trying to draw a stray animal in. The boy took a step forward. Then, when none of us did anything to spook him further, he came a little closer still. 8
“What’s your name?” I asked, instinctively dropping my voice. He looked up at me. His eyes were large and brown. “Lawrence,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “Well, hello Lawrence,” I said and extended my hand to shake. Immediately, Lawrence stopped his advance and stared at me. It was almost a flinch. “It’s okay,” I said, withdrawing my hand. I could see Colin giving me a nervous glance. “Here, come and have that biscuit.” I sat down again on the grass, hoping that this would put him at ease. Colin did the same, leaving just Pete stood up, one hand still outstretched with his offering. Glancing at us throughout, Lawrence slowly walked even further forwards. As he passed first me and then Colin, his eyes looked all around, as if weighing up the quickest escape route if necessary. For my part, I tried not to look directly at him so as not to appear antagonistic. Lawrence finally reached Pete and took the biscuit from him. Pete smiled and then carefully sat down on the grass as well. The new boy took a small bite out of the biscuit and chewed it slowly. “Why don’t you join us?” I said. “We were just sitting talking.” Lawrence looked at me and I couldn’t read his expression. There could have been relief in there, or weariness, or maybe even caution – it was difficult to tell. What was sure, though, was that he was going through his own private little battle before he answered us. After another quick glance around, Lawrence took another bite of the biscuit and then sat down with us. We all smiled at him. Talking later, we decided that none of us had really known why we had reacted like this. I mean, there was no reason to want to bring him into our group, or to talk to him. We could have just assured him that we meant no harm and then gone on our way. But we didn’t. Something about this pitiful little figure fascinated us and we wanted to know more. We left Lawrence to finish his biscuit before we attempted 9
conversation with him. It was understood between us that Colin would start the talking. I had brought him into the clearing, and Pete had fed him, so it was only right that Colin now had his moment. “I haven’t seen you round here, Lawrence,” he said. “Are you local to Darton?” The boy looked at him with something approaching fear, but said nothing. “It’s alright,” Colin continued, “we’re not going to tell anybody. It’s just a question.” That was the reason Colin had to be the first one to talk, you see. I mean, I had seen the state that Lawrence was in, the dirt, the torn clothing, the nerves, but it had never occurred to me that he might be a runaway or something. The boy stayed quiet. “Are you from Byeford?” Colin asked. Lawrence shook his head. “Seaton?” Colin named the next town over. Another shake of the head. And then that thin voice again. “You wouldn’t know where I came from,” he said. “Is it a long way away?” Colin persisted. “In some ways,” said the boy. “But not in others.” Colin looked over to me and shook his head. I shrugged in return. It didn’t look as if we were going to get a straight answer to this question. Pete was making a circular motion with one finger next to his temple, but as he was sat behind Lawrence it was only the two of us who saw it. “Would you like another biscuit?” I asked. Lawrence looked at me expectantly and smiled. As his lips pulled back, I could see that his teeth were yellow. I looked over to Pete who shot me a glance back. Pete was not keen on giving up his food at the best of times, and especially not to strangers. But he dug into his bag one more time and pulled a biscuit out, passing it delicately over to Lawrence. 10
As he ate, I took the opportunity to look at the boy more closely. His clothes were not only rags, they were old rags. Parts of them were worn thin and his skin was visible underneath. As he ate, I could see every muscle in his jaws working and all his exposed skin seemed to be stretched tight across his bones. I wondered when it was that he had last had a decent meal, yet he did not gobble at the biscuit in the way that I would have expected a starving man to. There was a curious smell coming off him too. It took me a moment to identify it, and then I only managed because I recognised some of the source on his clothes. It was oil. Like motor oil or car oil, it stuck to his clothing and streaked his arms and legs. I wondered if he had been hiding out in someone’s barn, amongst all their farm machinery. It seemed less and less likely that he had come from a home anyway, not looking like that. Lawrence finished his biscuit, and looked around furtively. None of us really knew what to ask him next and I think that we all felt the silence growing uncomfortably. Suddenly, Lawrence stood up. “I must be going,” he said. “I have things to do.” I started to stand up as well, but the sudden movement seemed to scare him and he turned to go. I would have reached out to stop him, but I had the absurd notion that I would break one of his bones if I grabbed him too forcefully. “Please, wait!” I said. Lawrence stopped, but every muscle in his body was tensed and ready to run. “Are you going to be alright?” I asked. The boy thought for a moment. “Yes,” he replied. “Would you like us to meet you here tomorrow?” I said, not sure why I wanted this. Again a pause, and then the thin boy looked straight at me. “If you like,” he whispered. “Okay,” I said. “Same time. And don’t worry, we won’t tell 11
anyone about you.” Lawrence nodded and then, before another word could be said, he bolted off into the trees again. Within moments, he had vanished from view. Naturally, we talked about this strange meeting. In fact, it was all we could talk about. But first, we walked out beyond the clearing a way, just to see if Lawrence was still out there and listening. We didn’t find him. “Where on earth could he have come from?” Pete wondered. “I reckon he’s a runaway,” Colin said. “Probably got a father that beats him and a mother that doesn’t feed him…” “Well, that bit is obvious,” Pete chimed in. “So he’s run away and is living off what he can find,” Colin finished. “How old would you say he was?” I asked. The two of them thought about it. “About our age, I’d say,” Colin finally decided. “But he’s not eaten well for so long, it’s stunted his growth. That can happen, you know.” “He looks younger,” I said. “And older,” added Pete. I was about to call him on this contradiction, but then I thought about it. I nodded my head. He was right. We thought over it a little more. “Did you see his arms?” I asked. “The grime on them?” said Pete. “What was that?” “I think it was motor oil,” I said. “Not all of it,” Colin said, solemnly. “If you looked closer, there were some darker streaks on there as well, and I think that was dried blood. There were bruises under the dirt too.” “God,” I whispered, aware that I was blaspheming but thinking it was the only way to express my thoughts. “I wonder how long he’s been out here?” Both of my friends shook their heads.
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking around that area of the woods for Lawrence. After talking some more, we all decided that we should help him if we could. We had all heard the story of Jimmy Kraft who had lived over in Seaton a few years back and who had been blinded by a punch from his drunken father one night. The man had been punished, but Jimmy had never recovered his sight. It was a tale told between all the kids in the schoolyard, whispered like the story of a bogeyman and similarly feared. We had all seen our fathers drunk at some time or other and, although most of them were amiable or stupid at these times, the thought was still there that we could be the next Jimmy Kraft. Of course, as an adult, you know these fears to be unfounded, but as a child they were as real as the corn in the fields and our hearts went out to the hardships that we imagined Lawrence suffering. So we looked for him, hoping I suppose to find a way to take him away from all of his problems. But there was no sign of him. If he had been sleeping in the woods near to the clearing, we couldn’t see where. Eventually, we realised that night was approaching and we reluctantly gave up the search. We returned home suddenly appreciative of our loving parents, but slept that night with fitful dreams. The next day we met up at my house before setting off into the woods again. This time, Colin was also carrying a bag. “What’s in there?” I asked. Colin pulled open the top and let the two of us look in. “Clothes,” he said. “Some of Jack’s. I reckon they are about the same size.” We both nodded. Colin’s younger brother was still quite short and was probably the closest any of us got to Lawrence’s height. “And I brought some extra food,” Pete smiled. “I even convinced Mom to let us have one of her apple pies.” “Have you got anything?” Colin asked. I nodded and then glanced around quickly. I didn’t want anyone from the house to see what I had got. Secure that I 13
couldn’t be seen, I lifted my shirt at the back and pulled the knife out of the waist band of my trousers. Pete looked at it with round eyes. “That’s your Dad’s, isn’t it?” I nodded, turning the knife in the light. It was not large, but it was sharp and had done more than its fair share of cutting on hunting trips. There was a letter F carved into the bone handle. “He’ll kill you if he finds out,” breathed Colin. I could see in their eyes that there was a sort of fear but also admiration. “He won’t,” I said. “He thought he’d lost it last night, and it was only when we were looking for it that I got the idea. He doesn’t know I found it. I just figured that Lawrence might need some protection out there, or at least something to cut up any meat he might catch.” My two friends nodded at my sage wisdom. They had brought food and clothing, but I had the greatest gift of all. I returned the knife to the back of my trousers and made sure it was covered up. Colin and Pete hitched their bags over their shoulders and together we set off for the woods. It was another beautiful day, but we were not thinking of how we could enjoy it. We were on a mission to save another boy. We reached the clearing earlier than we had on the previous day, largely because we knew where we were going and didn’t mess about looking for foxes. Lawrence wasn’t there yet, but we had expected that. In some ways, we were pleased to get there first anyway. If he had been that skittish the day before, it would be better for us to be there and quiet when he arrived. That way he could observe us from the woods again until he was sure it was safe. We settled down by the stream once more and waited for his appearance. None of us spoke very much. For some reason, we couldn’t think of anything to talk about. Around noon, I looked over to Colin and he made a slight move of his head to his right. Without being obvious, I looked over in that direction. I was a little surprised because that was 14
over towards the stream, the opposite side of the clearing to that which Lawrence had last used, but nonetheless I trusted Colin’s instincts. At first I couldn’t see anything beyond the trees, but I reminded myself that I was not looking for a large figure, or a tall one, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. After a moment or two, I could tell there was someone out there, watching us. I couldn’t say if it was Lawrence, but I couldn’t think who else it could be. I looked over to Pete and nodded. He knew what I meant but he had his back to the stream and could not look without being very obvious. It was nearly killing him to stay faced that way, but thankfully he managed it. Five minutes passed, and I lost sight of where the possible figure had been. Another five minutes dragged by and then suddenly, in the rough area that I had been looking, Lawrence appeared. His dark clothing had hidden him until he was much further forwards than I had expected. I smiled at him, and Colin gave a wave. Thankful that the charade was now over, Pete wasted no time in turning around to also greet the slight figure. Lawrence seemed a little bolder this time, walking up to the opposite bank of the stream with very certain steps, but still he waited before he crossed the water. None of us said anything or made any sudden movements. Pete carefully and slowly opened his bag once again and pulled out his mother’s apple pie. He put it down on the grass in front of him and this seemed to make Lawrence’s mind up for him. He stepped into the stream and splashed his way across to us. We had decided before arriving that the best way to approach this meeting was not to ask Lawrence any questions, but to just talk about everyday things. That way, if Lawrence wanted to join in, he could. And he might also let something slip by accident if he was relaxed in that way. So, the first thing that Colin said to him was, “I hope you like Apple pie.” Lawrence looked at him, but gave no answer. 15
“My Mom bakes the best apple pie in all of Darton,” said Pete, eagerly. “And that’s not just me saying it. Everyone agrees.” We all nodded. Pete’s Mom was definitely a better cook than my own, anyway. “We need something to cut this with,” said Colin. He looked at me. “John?” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant, but then I cottoned on and reached around to my back. I brought my father’s knife out and showed it to everyone. Lawrence’s eyes instantly grew wide and he started to push himself away on the grass. He was so desperate to escape, he didn’t even think to stand up. “Whoa! Wait!” I said. “I’m not trying to hurt you. Look, it’s for the pie.” I held the knife out, the handle balanced in the palm of my open hand. I moved it so that it was over the pie. “See. No harm. Just for cutting up the pie.” Lawrence stopped trying to get away and looked at the knife again. Now he seemed fascinated by it. I continued to hold it out towards him. None of us moved. I could clearly hear a bird singing in a tree somewhere, and I remember thinking that at least someone was having an easy time of it. Back then, like most kids, I thought that birds sang because they were happy. Now I know that most of the time it’s a warning call. Slowly, Lawrence came back into the group. My arm was starting to ache from holding myself still for so long, but I was determined not to move. Surprisingly, the boy put his own hand forward to meet mine. “Sure, if you want to cut the pie, go ahead,” I said, but this was not what he had in mind. His fingers glided slowly over mine, not touching me or the knife blade. Instead, they settled on the handle. His touch was almost impossibly light. I could see him stroking the bone grip but I could feel no pressure on my palm. There was a look in his 16
eyes that was almost reverential. “Take it,” I said. “I brought it for you, anyway. To help you protect yourself.” Lawrence looked up from the knife and into my eyes. He held my gaze for a moment. “Really, it’s yours,” I repeated. He looked back to the knife and, careful not to touch the blade, picked it up. I was pleased to put my arm back down by my side. I looked over to Colin and Pete and they seemed vaguely worried. Suddenly, I realised that I had just given a strange and possibly disturbed boy a dangerous weapon and that we were all within striking distance. But Lawrence carefully put the knife down on the grass and then looked up at me. “Thank you,” he said and I was surprised again at how weak his voice was. He looked at Colin and Peter. “Thank you,” he repeated. After that, things were a little better between us. I’m not saying that we broke out the fiddles and had a Ho-Down, but it felt as if some line had been crossed, some worry erased. We three talked about anything that came into our heads as Pete unpacked more food from his bag and we all ate. Lawrence did not join in very much, but he smiled at some of our jokes and obviously enjoyed being in our company. After we had finished eating, Colin opened his bag and took out the clothes he had brought for Lawrence. It suddenly occurred to me, just as Colin was pulling a red shirt out, that Lawrence could feel hurt about this particular show of charity. Food was one thing, especially as we all shared it, and a knife for protection in the woods was only smart, but clothes, well that was another thing altogether. But in the end it was alright. Lawrence rejected the red shirt and a pair of blue pants, but he took another shirt that was brown and a pair of black pants. There were shoes in the bag as well, but he refused to take any despite the fact that he was bare foot. 17
On reflection we decided that the red and the blue clothes had been a stupid move anyway. If the boy was on the run, he needed to blend in with his landscape and brown and black were best for that. After about an hour in our company, Lawrence suddenly picked up all of his new belongings and stood up. “I must leave,” he said. We looked up at him. “Why must you go now?” Colin asked. “Can’t you stay a little longer with us?” It was obvious from the look on his face that Lawrence would have liked to have stayed, but he shook his head. “I have things to do,” he said. “Preparations.” “Preparations for what?” I said. “I cannot say,” he replied. “I must go. Thank you all again.” And with that he turned and ran back across the stream. As soon as he had crossed over, however, he stopped and turned back to us. “Will you be here tomorrow?” the tiny boy asked. He looked even smaller framed against the vast woods. I nodded. “If you will be,” I replied. Lawrence smiled, and then vanished once more into the trees. The four of us continued to meet, every day, for the rest of the month. As the time passed, so Lawrence came to stay longer and longer with us. He still did not tell us where he was living or what circumstances had forced him to be here in such a poor state, no matter how many subtle or none-too subtle questions we asked. We stayed in the clearing and talked of many things, of things that Lawrence could not have known about, Darton things, but which he enjoyed hearing, and of things that all boys knew of, no matter what their backgrounds, like the joy of swimming naked in a river on a hot day or the thrill of climbing a huge tree for that special apple. And, as we continued to meet, so Lawrence began to look 18
better. His mood lightened and he spoke more. I became aware that, under this frail exterior was actually a tough character, even if he was still covered in grime and, possibly, blood. At the end of the first week of our friendship, we convinced Lawrence to come with us to a pool where we all could swim, for no other reason really than to get him to wash. As we all emerged from the water at the end of our stay, two things struck me, as I’m sure they did Colin and Peter. The first was that Lawrence did actually clean up. As planned and hoped for, most of the oil and dirt was left in the water, making him seem almost normal. But, just as this was an improvement, so it uncovered a greater problem. Lawrence’s back was covered in bruises and cuts. This extended round to his chest and legs, with one particularly nastylooking gash slicing its way down his thigh. His skin was mottled purple and yellow and looked like leather in places as well, the evidence of older injuries and deeper scars. He looked as if he had been on a battlefield, fighting for his very life. As soon as he noticed us staring – and how could we not? – Lawrence grabbed his clothes and covered himself up immediately. Soon after, he made his usual excuses and left. The incident worried us though. He was evidently in some pain, and, more to the point, some of the wounds had been fresh. We had all assumed he had escaped whatever hardships had oppressed him, but now it seemed that we were wrong. This incident did not stop Lawrence from returning the next day, however, for which we were all pleased. Our joy was tempered, though, by the state he was in. Once again, his clothes and body were covered in oil and darker substances. I daresay that you are reading this and wondering why, given all that we had seen, all that we thought we knew, why we did not tell an adult of our friend’s plight. Yet therein lies the answer. He was our friend. I’m not sure when any of us realised it – I think Colin may have been the first, but that’s just a guess – but there came a point where we were no longer going to see Lawrence as Good 19
Samaritans, but because we wanted to be in his company. He was always guarded in our presence, but we felt he had reason for this and we told ourselves that sooner or later it would change. Eventually we would know what he was running from. In the meantime, however, we would laugh with him and play games with him and generally act as if we had known him outside of all his problems. I suppose we saw ourselves as his chance to relax, his reason to forget his troubles, and when all is said and done what greater thing can a friend offer? Alongside this, though, was that other component of friendship: secrecy. We had told Lawrence – I had told him, at our very first meeting - that we would not tell anyone else about him. This was the condition under which he agreed to meet again, and it was more than our lives were worth to break that oath. It is, as far as I am concerned, a factor of my friendships today, this keeping of confidences, but it was probably the highest of all considerations when I was twelve and the world seemed to hold so many more secrets. But I am not convinced that telling anyone else about Lawrence would have changed the way things turned out, anyway. It might even have hastened events along. But I digress. One of the other reasons we enjoyed Lawrence’s company, besides the fact that he was a kid like us and an outsider, was that he was a storyteller. Back then, none of our families had a television, and the radio wasn’t that exciting, so we were used to making our own entertainment. Colin had always had the gift of telling stories, mostly ghoulish campfire tales that chilled your blood and made sleep difficult. He relished the idea of involving an audience – even if it was just Pete and I – in fantastic and disturbing tales, and he often pestered his grandfather and his grandfather’s friends for more, which he would then pass on to us after going over them in his head and polishing their twists to perfection. Peter, meanwhile, preferred comic stories and could spin out a joke for five, ten minutes or more when most people would tell it in one. Which is not to say that this made the joke too weak to be 20
told either. Peter would salt the story with other littler stories and asides, each individually funny, until he finally brought you to the punchline. Over the years, I have heard many professional comedians tell jokes in this way, but to my mind none of them had the warmth or skill that the young Peter had. My own storytelling, as you can no doubt tell by now, was not of that standard. I preferred to tell true tales, historical tales of Darton and the area, with little embellishment but lots of local colour. I suppose that is what lead me into being a historian in later life, but whatever effect it had, I was nowhere near as good as my childhood companions. Lawrenceâ€™s tales, though, were of a more fantastical nature than all of ours. He did not tell many, and those he did tell were often unstructured and without focus, almost like he was musing aloud, but they held us entranced nonetheless. Our telling of stories arose out of the fact we could not really talk about home or such things with Lawrence. As I said earlier, we did originally discuss the latest town gossip, real or imagined, but it was not something that we continued to do. Lawrence listened and seemed to enjoy it, but gradually we came to feel differently. As the strange boy developed into a friend, so we felt that such conversations left him out of things a little. We were encouraging him to join in, to open up, but all this talk did was emphasise that our lives were different to his and he was an outsider in our world. So, even without really discussing it, we stopped talking of Darton matters and spoke of more general concerns. And so the storytelling began. It was probably a week later, with the four of us lay back on the grass once again in our familiar clearing, that Lawrence started to tell a tale. Until then, we had been just staring at the sky and enjoying that warm silence that can be found amongst friends. His voice, still thin, still weak, surprised us in the quiet of the day. â€œThere are gods, you know. Gods that still walk this land,â€? he 21
said. “They were here long ago and they have never gone away. They just changed.” “Do you mean like the Egyptian gods?” asked Pete. “The ones with heads of dogs and birds?” “Possibly,” Lawrence replied. “But not in this country. Some of them here may not even have bodies, or faces.” “What use is that?” Pete proclaimed. “How can anyone worship something that hasn’t got a face? That’s silly.” “You don’t need to see them to know they are there,” Lawrence continued. “They live in the trees around us, and the clouds above us. Have you ever looked up at a cloud and seen a face in it, or the figure of an animal?” “Yeah,” said Pete, cautiously. “Then you have seen a god, passing by and letting you see his form for a brief moment,” Lawrence said. He sounded almost proud of his words. “When you look into the forest, deep into the woods, and see the darkness beyond; when you watch that darkness and think that you see a shape inside it move, a shape too big or too different to be human, then you have seen a god as well. They are there all around you. You just have to look.” It was the most I had ever heard Lawrence say and for this reason alone I was staying quiet. What he said, however, upset me. It was blasphemous and strange and it surprised me he could say such things. “And what do they do, these gods?” Pete wanted to know. “They do what you and I do,” Lawrence said, still gazing up at the sky. “They try to survive. They are no different to us, really. They have their own squabbles, their own fights. They even have territories.” “They don’t sound like gods to me,” Pete moaned. “Perhaps they are not gods then,” Lawrence muttered, and I think that, being the closest to him, I was the only one to hear this. “Perhaps that is just the only name we can give them.” It was an odd conversation and, I am sure, soon forgotten by my friends. But it stayed with me for reasons that I could not 22
explain. A few days later, Lawrence continued the notion. “Do you believe that ideas can be seen?” he asked. At the time he was talking to Colin, but we had all discussed his earlier stories. “Are you talking about your gods again?” Lawrence shrugged. “Maybe.” “I believe that people can have an idea and make something from it,” Colin said. “Like someone having the idea for a car or a factory and then building it.” I was sitting up against a tree at the time and I could see the two of them clearly, lying head to head like the hands on a clock. I noticed Lawrence wince at Colin’s words, but it did not stop him carrying on. “How about someone fighting for an idea?” he said. Colin thought for a moment. “I’ll fight for my country,” he decided, “but that’s not really the same. I mean, I can see that. Are you talking about Revolution now, like those French people had once?” Lawrence shook his head. “I don’t know about them,” he said. “I’d fight for any of you,” I joined in. “If you couldn’t do it for yourself.” Colin propped himself up on one arm and looked at me. “What, you’d even fight Hank Jordan if he beat me up?” Hank was one of those kids whose body had fast outstripped his brain, leaving him with an adult farmhand’s build and a malicious adolescent’s brain. At school, he was forever picking on kids like Colin and Peter. “Well, I’d certainly challenge him,” I replied, not wanting to back-pedal from my heroic stance, but also aware of the realities of it. Colin lay back down and we were all quiet again. Lawrence was looking at me, his brown eyes never leaving my face. I waited for him to ask if I’d fight for him too. But he said no more about it.
Summer was coming to an end. Not only were the nights getting longer, but the prospect of school loomed on the horizon. It was something we had all considered but not yet spoken of. “What’ll happen to Lawrence when we go back?” It was Pete who finally said it. School was just over a week away and even though we would not have to leave Darton to go to it, it would take up all of our days. “I don’t know,” I said. “But the nights will start to get colder soon too. That’ll be another problem for him.” I’m not sure how much of our concern by this point was for Lawrence or for our having to lose him. Admittedly, we did worry about what he would do when we were not there – we seemed to be his only source of food, and he was now spending a much longer time with us in the afternoons than he ever had before – but there was also a feeling of loss in the idea of our going back to school. We felt - I felt - as if Lawrence would be staying free whilst we returned to timetables and charts. His summer would never end. It was a stupid point of view given the hardships and pain we could see he suffered every night, but it was there in my mind all the same. “Why don’t we ask him to come back here with us?” Pete suggested. Colin took that one. “It’d be no good. We’ve suggested he comes to Darton several times, but he won’t step foot out of the woods. He’s not likely to agree to live there if he won’t even come and visit.” “We could kidnap him,” said Pete. Colin and I just looked at him. “Besides,” Colin continued, “we don’t actually know that he doesn’t have a home. After all, we’ve all seen those wounds. They’re not healing and there are new ones every day. He could be being beaten on a regular basis.” “Then we should tell the police about him,” Pete said. I stared at him. “We can’t do that. It would be betraying his trust.” 24
We all stared at the ground in silence for a while. “What we need to know,” said Colin eventually, “is where he goes to.” “He won’t tell us, though,” I said. “No, but perhaps the time has come to bend the rules a bit,” Colin replied. “Perhaps we should follow him.” “We can’t do that,” Pete said. “He’d spot all three of us, and besides he always leaves us and waves from the edge of the clearing. He’d see if we were preparing to come after him.” “Alright,” said Colin, evidently running an idea through his head. “How about if only one of us followed him?” “Same problem,” I said. “Not if that person wasn’t there to start with. How about if only two of us meet Lawrence, telling him that the third is ill and can’t come out. That one can then come along a little later and watch from the woods until Lawrence leaves, and then he can follow him from a slight distance and the other two can wave Lawrence off as if there was no problem.” We all thought over this for a moment. To us, it made sense. “Which of us gets to follow him?” asked Pete. I answered that one. “I think that one’s obvious. It’s me. For a start off, I’m a bad liar, so I’d probably blow it right from the start if I was one of the two. But most importantly, I’m the athletic one here and if Lawrence has far to go, you two would never keep up.” It was not said maliciously and neither of my friends took it that way. It was just true. We all agreed, I was to be the one to follow Lawrence back to wherever he went, and we would decide what to do after that. The next day, Colin and Pete struck out for the clearing on their own whilst I waited at home for a reasonable time to pass. I had mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I knew we were acting out of the best possible motives, but on the other it would mean spying on a friend. That felt wrong somehow. 25
I looked up at the sky and watched a cloud pass over the sun. For a brief moment, I fancied that I saw the shape of a cat in the cloud, but then a gust of wind up on high must have taken it and it became just another odd shape again. I wondered if Colin and Pete had looked up and seen the same thing. I liked to think that they had, that the three of us were still connected in this venture. Eventually, I set out for the woods on my own. Colin and I had talked about this and he had told me of a route that would bring me round to a spot near the clearing, but far enough away that any small sound I might make would not be obvious. It was a new path for me and consequently it took me longer to get to the spot than usual. From my vantage point near a bush, I could see Pete’s night black hair bobbing around in the clearing. None of the other two were visible, so I figured they were sat down while Pete stood to tell some story or other. Later, Colin confirmed all this for me. He said that Lawrence had arrived on time, but had been surprised to only see the two of them. He had looked more tired than usual, but brushed this off in his concern over me. I felt awful that he had been so worried about my health when I was secretly spying on him. The three of them had settled down to some lunch but, Colin had said, Lawrence did not seem as involved as usual. At first, the two of them put this down to my absence, and then they feared that he had somehow spotted me in the woods and was feeling betrayed, but gradually it came down to the fact that Lawrence was just very tired. Pete asked him again why this was, but all he would say was that he was spending too long with all of us. He no longer had enough time to prepare, he had said, but of course would not be drawn any further. I, of course, knew none of this until later. It was a surprise to me, however, when Lawrence left the clearing earlier than usual. It was not a lot earlier – the sun was still quite high above the horizon – but it was enough to be noticeable. I saw him come to the edge of the clearing and wave back to my friends. Then he 26
turned and ran into the woods parallel to me. I waited for about a minute, until he was just beginning to disappear, and then I followed him. The task was easier than I had expected. It occurred to me that one of the reasons why Lawrence had always seemed to vanish easily into the forest was that we had spent most of the time prior to that sitting in the sun. We were not used to the shadows of the trees and our eyes could not compensate. I, on the other hand, had been sat in the gloom for most of the day, feeling the slight chill of an area that the sun sometimes struggled to reach, and my eyes were used to the landscape that Lawrence now walked in. And he did walk. After his initial burst of speed, Lawrence then slowed down to a much more manageable pace. I admit I was pleased about this. I had not really done any training over the summer and privately I had my concerns as to whether I could have kept up a run for any long distance. I trailed the small boy for about an hour, heading deeper and deeper into the woods. We had half decided that he must live on the other side of the forest, possibly in some town we had never heard of, and this route seemed to confirm that. I was no longer sure of where I was. I had not seen any familiar landmarks for around the last fifteen minutes, but I was not worried. Once we reached our destination, I was sure I would be able to find a way back to Darton. After another five minutes, I came upon a landmark that I did know. It was an old tree, possibly one of the oldest and tallest in the forest, and high in its branches was an old wooden frame and a twist of material that still held its colour to that day. The remains of a kite. I stopped for a moment, sure of the direction that Lawrence was heading in, and took my bearings. Over to my right was a small pile of rocks, still visible even though some animal appeared to have knocked them over. Following a line through them and up to the tree, I traced a route in my mind that extended further 27
into the greenery. All the way to The Red House. With a start, I realised that was the direction Lawrence was going in. I picked up my speed again and set out after my friend. I could tell he had not seen me following him, and I gambled upon him being so fixed on getting home that I could close some of the gap between us. Within a few minutes, I was close enough that I would have been able to make out his features if he had turned to face me. I was so close, in fact, that I had to quickly dive behind a bush when Lawrence suddenly stopped walking and stood still for a moment. I peered ahead of him to see what had caused this change. There, in front of him, was The Red House. It occurred to me we had not visited this site at all during the summer. Usually, the three of us came out here at least once or twice, drawn by the mystery and incongruity of the building. It was nothing special, really. A squat, ugly structure; a blot on the lush landscape surrounding it; but it held a fascination. Probably because it was so weird. I have described it before, but I donâ€™t think I will ever get across the feeling of wrongness there was about The Red House. It just should not have been there. There is no other way to put it. No matter how many times you saw The Red House, it always pulled at your attention, and at first I thought this was the reason that Lawrence had stopped. But as I became braver and looked out further from my hiding place, I could see that he was not looking at it at all. If anything, he was trying very hard not to look at The Red House. And he was shaking. It was quite a shock. I remembered Lawrence when he had first come across us, a tightly wound bundle of nerves, scared of us and what we might do but wanting to step forwards all the same. Yet this was different. This was not apprehension, or worry. This was fear, naked and raw. His whole body was quivering and his hands, although still at his sides, were flexing 28
and grasping erratically. I wondered why he had chosen to go home this way when it evidently scared him so much, surely there must be another path that he could have taken. I wanted to go over to him and hug him, to stand with him as a friend and to help him to overcome this fear, but at the same time I knew I could not. So, I stayed partially hidden in the woods and watched as Lawrence fought with himself to go further. I glanced over at The Red House again, just to make sure I had not missed anything. After all, it could have been a bobcat that he had seen, or a snake, but I knew in my heart that it wasnâ€™t. It was the building itself that scared Lawrence. That bricked up, empty faced, monstrosity of a building. I waited. As I did, I saw Lawrence bring one hand up and take something from his pocket. There was a glint of sunlight and I realised what it was. The knife that I had given him. I felt a surge of pride that I was actually helping him in some way. Holding the blade in front of him, Lawrence took a tentative step beyond the trees. His footsteps faltered slightly and he looked incredibly tired. All the same there was a gravity and a purpose to his features that I had not seen before. He was forcing himself to do this, but he also needed to do it. Just a few more steps, I willed him, and youâ€™ll be at the side of the building. After that, it wasnâ€™t a long walk to get to the back of The Red House and then beyond it and back to the trees. He just had to do it in stages. But to my amazement, Lawrence was not heading for the side of the building. He was going to the front door. Or at least to the place where the front door had been before it had been bricked up. There were three rickety and crumbling wooden steps that led up to the blocked entrance, and before I knew what was happening, Lawrence was stood at the front of them. I could see him pause. He seemed to take a tighter grip on the knife, but he went no further. Slowly, I moved towards him 29
whilst staying under cover of the trees. Lawrence put one foot onto the first step and then waited, the other leg still firmly planted on the ground. I thought that he was testing the safety of the step, but only seconds later he lifted the other foot and ascended to the second level. With his free hand, he wiped his brow. I had no idea what Lawrence was doing, but I had a sudden desire that he didn’t go any further. I was on my feet, now unconcerned if he saw me or not, and I wanted to shout across to him to come away. But I said nothing. I watched as he moved up to the final step and stood there. Lawrence reached out with his free hand and placed it up against the new brickwork. He held it there just in front of the stone, not quite touching. Without looking round, he said, quite clearly, “This is for you, John. For all of you. It always has been. Thank you.” I wondered how long he had known I was there. And then he touched the brick and vanished. It was as if I had been released from a spell that I hadn’t realised had enchanted me. My legs worked again and my voice was suddenly shouting out his name as I ran as fast as I could towards the doorway. I had no thought for my own safety, no comprehension that what I had just seen happen to Lawrence might repeat with me. I just had to get to the door, to get Lawrence back. I leapt up all three steps at once and slammed hard into the bricks. It hurt and I fell back onto the ground, but there was no other effect. I lay there, looking up at the brooding ugliness of The Red House, and said Lawrence’s name over and over again. Nothing changed. Finally I got up and approached the doorway once more. Slowly, almost reverentially, I put my hand out to it. Only cold brick 30
awaited me. I ran my hands over it in the hope of finding a crack, a handle, anything, but I knew this was not what had made Lawrence vanish. I left the door and walked around the rest of The Red House. All down one side, past the shadow of a window; around the back, which had never had door or glass in its form; and back to the front past that final brick-blinded window. There was no sign of Lawrence. I sat back down on the grass and stared at The Red House again. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stayed there and waited. I didn’t want to leave in case I missed Lawrence coming back. Gradually, the day began to disappear and the night crept in. The colour of The Red House deepened until it matched the dark streaks that we had seen on Lawrence’s arms and legs. The warmth of the day slipped away and I shivered on the grass, curling up into a tight ball to get warm. But still I would not leave. At some point in the night, I must have fallen asleep. I had not intended to, but exhaustion and the cold dragged me into it. I awoke with a start, convinced that I had heard the sound of a voice screaming. I looked around me, but there was nothing to see except the dark front of The Red House. Painfully, I uncurled from my warm ball and stood up. I was shivering and I could see my breath in front of me and I wasn’t sure if the cold was the fault of the night or of the House, bleaching all that was warm or good out of the world. I staggered forwards to the front doorway again, slowly ascending the steps. At the top, I slumped down and pressed my face to the brick. It was rough and cold to my skin. I listened carefully. Behind the bricks, within the house, yet also as if a thousand miles away, I could hear machinery. The clank and whirr of oiled parts, the thud of pistons. Some great infernal mechanism working away. And there too, in the midst of the industrial noise, another sound. Another scream. As if from a young boy. 31
They found me the following day, just after dawn. I was stretched out underneath a large tree, face down in the dust and far away from The Red House. I had no memory of how I got there. The rescue party had been mobilised around midnight, when my parents had realised I was not coming home and quick visits to Colin and Peterâ€™s homes had found that I had not been with them during the day. They had searched all night. Neither Colin nor Peter had said anything about Lawrence or about my attempt to follow him. They were both terrified that I had indeed found out where he lived, and that his violent father had set about me as well. But as they had no idea where that could be, they decided between them to say nothing, rather than send the rescue party off in the wrong direction. For my part, I was well, if suffering from the cold of the night and extreme exhaustion. I told my parents I had decided to go walking in the woods alone and that I had gone deeper than ever before and had become lost. It was easily believed. I was allowed to see Colin and Peter, but none of us were allowed out until school started. Naturally, they wanted to know what had happened. For some reason, however, I did not tell them. I said that I had followed Lawrence far into the woods, but that he had been too quick for me and I had lost him after about two hours. By then, however, I was lost myself and I spent the rest of my time trying to get home. They both seemed to accept this, and my self-professed problem with lying did not show me up. All the same, I was aware that something had changed in me. It was the first time I had not told my friends the absolute truth about something, the first time I had kept things from them. I wasnâ€™t even sure why I did it. I just knew that what had really happened was a confidence between Lawrence and me. For a while, I went along with their worries for our other friend. Colin especially was concerned that Lawrence would arrive at the clearing on that first day after I had been found and 32
would be upset we were not there, but we knew there was nothing that we could do. The next day, the worry was there again, and the next, but gradually as time progressed and school began again, it faded. The first Saturday after school, however, we all went back to the clearing to await the arrival of our friend. I knew he wouldnâ€™t be there, but I feigned the same disappointment as showed on the faces of the other two. The leaves were starting to turn on the trees and the world was changing. Summer was over for all of us. In the years that followed, I never saw Lawrence again. I thought about him many times, but I never really understood what had happened on that day. After a while, when I thought back on my night by The Red House, I decided that it must all have been a fever dream; the disappearance, the noises, everything. Colin and Peter and I stayed friends, but if anything I started to drift away from them after that summer. I looked out of my bedroom window and over to the woodlands and I no longer saw the playground that it had once been. Now there were dark things in there, things I did not understand, things I could not share. They bound me to a boy who was no longer there and cut me off from those who couldnâ€™t see them. I resolved to get out of Darton, and the only way I knew of doing that short of breaking my parentsâ€™ hearts was to do well in school and go to College. So I knuckled down to my books and changed my life. I no longer went in for all the athletic things, much to the annoyance and disapproval of my school, but I studied hard. In the end, I was even getting better grades than Colin. I made it to College, and from there to University. I got out of Darton. It was about forty years after that summer that I came back to town and found some of my answers. My parents were long since dead and I was thinking of retirement. I had kept the family home on and rented it out for a few years, but now my current tenants wanted to leave and I had to go back to sort things out. I was of the mind to sell the house 33
and be done with it, pocketing myself a nice little nest egg in the process. I had an attorney to see to most of it for me, but I needed to be there for signatures. I turned up at his office one day to find that he had been called away. It was an annoyance, but I was in no real hurry. I decided to look around the town again. As I think I have already said, Darton no longer really existed as a town. Officially it was part of the urban sprawl of Byeford, the industrial sector of that particular town. A lot of the shops I had known were gone – not just the proprietors, which was understandable, but the buildings themselves – and in their place was a uniform street of Starbucks and cell-phone shops. There was no real heart to the town anymore. There were still some woodlands, but they were greatly reduced and I knew that the view from my old bedroom window now took in two factories and a packaging plant as well. So it was with a feeling of nostalgia and faint grief that I came across The Museum of Darton. It was not a great building to look at, more of a converted shop really, but then I doubt if Darton had had that much history in the first place. There was no curator that I could see and no one to take money, so I decided to kill a half hour by stepping inside. The results were not encouraging. A few display cabinets, covered with a patina of dust, and a table top model – that was the sum of Darton’s heritage. I looked at the model first. It was a plan of Darton as it was now, etched onto the top of a glass case. There was the industrial area and there was the new housing that had been built twenty years before to mop up the overflow from Byeford. I could even see my own street and the place where my parents’ house would be. Underneath this glass map, however, was a model of Darton as it had been at the turn of the century. Admittedly, this was further back than even I went, but it was amazing to see how similar it still was to the Darton of my youth. The main change between then and now, of course, was the amount of green that 34
had been lost. It shocked me. I had always known how much the new Dartford had encroached on its countryside, but to have it graphically put on display in this way was stunning. There was a legend at the side of the case, giving significant historical dates for the town. One date jumped out at me straight away. It was the year that Colin, Peter and I had found Lawrence, but it was marked on this list as the year that the first factory was built in the town. The beginning of the rot. I had never realised, but of course it had been. I remember my father getting excited about it and in school that fall we had done a project on the wonderful new industry coming to town. I looked at the model for a little while longer and then left it for the display cases. There were a few town registers behind the glass, photos of the streets as they used to be and of past mayors, none of it really of any interest even to a professional historian like me. They represented the public face of the town, the civic pathways that we were supposed to follow. My interests in the field had always tended towards the individual stories, the oral histories and local gossip that told you far more about a place than dusty old books could. I was about to give up on the Museum and try my attorney again when an item in another case caught my eye. It was a photograph, black and white, but no less recognisable for that. It was The Red House. The caption below it said that it was the William Christenberry house, but there was no further explanation and the name meant nothing to me. The doorway of the house was bricked up even here, as if there had never been any evidence that it had been otherwise. I stared at the picture and felt a chill go down my spine. A small piece of paper below it said â€˜1900 â€“ 1975â€™. Below that in the same case were two objects. The first one that I saw was the knife. A small hunting knife with a bone handle, the letter F clearly cut into it. I put one hand onto the glass as if I could will it to come to 35
me. There was a card by the side that explained how the knife was a turn of the century hunting implement, found during the demolition of the Christenberry House. It did not say it explicitly, but I knew that the knife had been found inside the house. I could feel tears coming to my eyes. It was true, all of it. Lawrence had existed; he had gone into The Red House. I had doubted it for so long, but now I could see the proof. And then I noticed what the knife was displayed upon. It was so ordinary an object that I had not seen it at first. I certainly had not given it any credence compared to what lay upon it. But the card had on it a brief line, right at the bottom, saying ‘from the Christenberry House’. It was a brick. A weathered and chipped red brick, handmade as it would have been in 1900. And on it was the maker’s mark. The trade name. Lawrence Bros. I stood and stared at it for so long I felt my leg going numb. Lawrence Bros. And I realised that I had never even known his real name. There are some things that you can’t understand until you are older, wiser, and more distanced from them. And there are some things you just don’t have the scope to understand, not as a kid and not completely when you are an adult. In my life, for example, I have flirted with religion at many extremes. I was devout as a child, doubting as a student, agnostic as a young father and atheist as a divorcee. Now, as I reach the end of my life, I find myself turning more and more to the devout stage again. Yet still there are doubts. There are doubts because of a young boy who seemed to fight a mighty battle every night, coming away with scars and cuts every time. There are doubts because he talked of gods walking the land and involving themselves in petty territorial squabbles. 36
There are doubts because I saw things that I cannot possibly explain. I think that the old gods do exist, but as the boy said, they changed. They became part of the world around us, part of whatever people wanted to believe in. So some became what we term Nature, and others became Progress or Industry. And it is these gods that fought one another. But the battleground is huge, the whole of the world, no less, and not even gods can be everywhere. So, on occasion, I think that they choose champions to fight for them. Champions who do not have names but who want them; who do not have lives beyond the fight, but need them; who battle for their gods but need to know that there is more to fight for. More to die for. “This is for you, John. For all of you. It always has been. Thank you.” The Red House was that boy’s battleground, the thing he took all his identity from until he met us. Free by day, he fought to keep those infernal engines away from us for as long as he could, to keep Darton the kind of place where boys could grow up and have friendships able to eclipse the sun with their brightness. It had been a chance meeting, but it changed everything for both of us. He needed to see us, to share some of the experience of just being a boy again, of having friends and lying in the sun, because that was what he was fighting for. And somehow, I knew that, even if I couldn’t articulate it until now. I hope that I was a good enough friend to him, and I hope that he will be there when I go to my God. But I have doubts. TRH
David J Thacker has nursed a desire to write ever since he won second prize in the Platignum Pen National Writing Competition at the age of six. Unfortunately, life – in the forms of school, university,
and work â€“ got in the way. He did, however, manage to write a play for young people which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2001, and he penned the Libretto for a modern Oratorio in 2000 (no mean feat when you canâ€™t read music). Having had the <ahem> good fortune to be made redundant, David was then able to take to writing full time, leading to a story appearing in the SFX magazine Pulp Idol collection. Although now employed, he still loves writing and The Red House is his first long-form piece of published work. David J Thacker is a pseudonym.