Losted

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: The Horror House
Losted is R J Dent's 11,000 word short story about a teenage seaside holiday romance that goes horribly wrong and ends in tragedy for everyone.

Submitted: April 17, 2016

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Submitted: April 17, 2016

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Losted

by R J Dent

 

 

We holidayed in Dorset that year. When I say we, I mean me – Luke; my little sister – Beth; my father – Oliver; and my mother – Katherine. Our parents drove our estate car from our home in Brighton to our rented holiday home in Dorset on an overcast day. It took us nearly three hours to get there. By the time we arrived, Beth and I were very tetchy with each other. We pulled into the driveway of our rented cottage and I was the first out of the car, looking the place over, checking it out for potentially interesting things to do, to see, or places to explore.

It was a two-storey, three-bedroom stone cottage. There were four such cottages, and the one that was ours for the week was number four – on the far right end, and overlooking meadows and fields. It looked good.

I was about to go off exploring, when my father called me back and insisted I help unpack the car. I ran back and forth, emptying things out of the car, carrying items into the cottage, putting them in the relevant rooms – making sure I did my bit to help. After being designated a bedroom, I stowed my stuff away in the wardrobe and the drawers, and looked out of the window into a flint-walled garden that looked interestingly overgrown – and which seemed to lead onto a meadow via a metal-banded wooden gate. Across the meadow I could see a stream overhung with willow trees. Beyond the meadow was a field, a small copse, and past that a path that lead towards the beach. About a mile in the distance I could see the sea. It was a slate-grey colour.

I tried to see into the neighbour’s garden, but there were too many trees creating a very effective screen. I gave up, left the bedroom and checked with my parents that I could go exploring. On receiving instructions to take my phone – and to leave my phone switched on – I went and fetched said item from my bedroom and tucked it into my back pocket. On proving I had it with me, I was granted permission to explore. That was it – I was off, charging down the stairs, past my bemused, clothes and make-up-laden sister, out via the back door, and into the garden – where I slowed down enough to take in the details of the well-stocked garden.

Our garden in Brighton was neat, clipped, well-maintained, mostly consisting of pebbles, railway sleepers and plants in large pots. This garden was very different; it had lots of trees to start with – palm trees, plum trees, cherry trees, beech trees, ash trees, and so on – those were the ones I immediately recognised. There were others I did not know – yet. It also had shrubs, bushes and plants, all tall. Winding in and around and between them were narrow cobbled paths. I followed one of the paths around a corner and then around another corner and then around another corner – it was like being in a maze or a labyrinth.

As I turned another corner, I metamorphosed into the Minotaur – my hooves striking the cobbles and producing sparks as I charged through the labyrinth – hunting for Theseus, wanting only to find him and gore him to death for daring to trespass in my royal garden. Before I knew it, I’d reached the end of the garden, brought up short by a high flint wall that bordered the end and – as I saw when I turned to look – the two sides of the garden. Turning back into Luke, I remembered the gate I’d seen from my bedroom window. It had been over in the far left corner. I looked that way and saw it immediately. As I walked towards the corner, I examined the gate. It was of light-coloured wood, but it looked solid and heavy. It was reinforced with three thick metal bands that were bolted to it – one at the top of the gate, one near the base, and one along the centre.

I held the metal ring that opened the gate, turned it and pulled. The gate swung open easily and noiselessly on well-oiled hinges. I looked out of the gate at the meadow beyond. It was lush, green and sloped down towards the stream overhung with willow trees. I stepped into the meadow and pulled the gate closed behind me. I heard the latch snick closed.

“Hello,” said someone.

I looked around, but couldn’t see anyone.

“Up here.”

I looked up at the top of the wall and there, on the other side, as though floating on air, was a girl. She was scrawny, had wavy blonde hair, and was wearing blue jeans, a green top and sandals. She looked about my age, maybe a year older.

“Hello,” I said. I was a bit disconcerted by the way she was so high up, as though somehow on the wall, but obviously not on it. “How are you doing that?” I asked.

“Doing what?”

“Floating in the air like that.”

She laughed. It was a light, musical sound.

“Because I can fly,” she said.

“No, really. How?”

She saw I was serious – that I really wanted to know.

“I’m standing on the top of a slide,” she said.

“Well you look great,” I told her. “You look like an obi-woman.

“What’s an obi-woman?”

“Obi is a word that derives from obeah, which means sorcery. An obi-woman is a sorceress skilled in root-magic, a woman who can use her magical powers to levitate, to heal, to destroy, to restore life, to give luck or misfortune, to influence the tides or the elements, or to charm or enchant.”

“That sounds like me,” the girl said. There was a trace of what I thought was bitterness in her tone.

“What’s your name?”

“Julia,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Luke. I’m here on holiday for a week. Are you on holiday?”

Julia shook her head.

“No. I live here.”

“What, always?”

“Yes, of course, always.”

I was impressed.

“It must be great living in a place like this all the time.”

“Yes, it’s okay,” Julia muttered. “Come to my gate,” she said and clambered down out of sight.

I wondered what she meant, then realised there must be a gate at the bottom of her garden as there was in our garden. I looked along the wall and sure enough, there was. It was a metal gate that looked like a silver railing. As I approached it I could see Julia standing on the other side of it, waiting. I reached out to open the gate, but Julia stopped me.

“You can’t come in.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And I’m not allowed out today,” she said.

“Why not?”

She shrugged.

“I’m just not. My m–”

Something big and fast-moving pushed past Julia and hit the gate hard. It took me a second or two to realise it was a boy. He was very big, or rather, he was short, but very chubby – what my mother would have called big-boned, and my father broad. They both meant fat. The boy had black hair cut very short. He had very dark, almost black eyes. He was grinning inanely and making a growling noise. He looked at me and stopped growling. He scrutinised me carefully.

“Magoo,” he said.

I didn’t understand him, so I didn’t bother responding.

“Magoo,” he said again. This time I thought I’d make an effort.

“Why are you calling me Magoo?” I asked the strange boy.

He was quiet for a moment, his gaze locked onto me, and then he repeated the only word I’d heard him say so far.

“Magoo.”

I looked back at Julia.

“Does he actually know anything at all about Magoo?”

“About who?” Julia asked.

“Mister Magoo.”

“I don’t know who that is,” Julia said.

“Quincy, or more commonly, Mister Magoo, is a cartoon character created at the United Pictures of America animation studio in 1949, and voiced by character actor Jim Backus,” I said. “Quincy Magoo is a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of unfortunate or potentially dangerous situations as a result of his myopia or near-sightedness. Those situations are usually compounded by Mister Magoo’s stubborn refusal to admit that he has an eyesight problem. People affected by his behaviour consequently tend to think that Mister Magoo is a lunatic, rather than a man suffering from a visual impairment. He is, in fact, a man too proud and too dignified to explain his problem to anyone.”

“Oh,” Julia said. After a few seconds, she shook her head as though unable to collect her thoughts. “He was just saying hello.”

“Was he?” I was very surprised. “It really sounded like he was saying ‘Magoo’.”

“Magoo,” said the boy again. Suddenly he bent down and picked something up from the ground.I saw something wriggle in his grimy hand, then he opened his hand and smashed its contents against the round metal gatepost.

“What’s he doing now?” I asked wearily. “Waving goodbye?”

I saw Julia grimace. The expression crossed her face quickly and was gone in an instant. If I hadn’t happened to have been looking at her when I had, I’d never have seen it. It was as though I’d got a fleeting glimpse of her real self. I got the feeling she didn’t much like the boy.

“I’ve told you not to do that, Ben,” she said crossly.

Ignoring her, Ben opened his hand and held it palm out to me, showing me its flattened contents. In his dirty palm was a crushed frog. He waggled his hand and made a gargling sound, as though he wanted me to take the dead frog.

Looking at the tiny amphibian body, now nearly transparent, made me feel sick. I looked away.

“Do you look after Ben?” I asked.

Julia nodded.

“He’s my brother,” she said. “I always look after him.”

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.

“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Julia retorted hotly, her face reddening.

I quickly changed tack.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t ask the right question. What I meant was: Ben seems a little different from you and me – why is that?”

“He’s got learning difficulties,” she said. “He’s immature too. He’s two years older than me, but he’s got a mental age of a two year old.”

“Does anyone else apart from you look after him – your parents, a carer, a nurse?”

“No,” Julia said. “There’s only my mum, and she’s not very well. Hasn’t been for a year now. She stays in bed most of the time. My dad lives in London. He did live here until last year, then he moved out. I haven’t seen him since he left. He was going to get someone to help with Ben, but in the end he didn’t.” She paused for a minute, and then asked: “Who was that girl you arrived with?”

“That’s Beth, my sister,” I said. “She’s five years younger than me.”

“Where is she now?”

“In her room, playing with her dolls or her make-up. That’s what she usually does. Probably her make-up. She likes her things more than she likes people.”

“Magoo!” Ben shouted

“Beth’s a nice name,” Julia said.

“It’s short for Eliz–”

I stopped talking as something wet hit my face. I looked at Ben, who was braying and snorting with hysterical laughter and I immediately knew what he’d done.

Trying not to think about it too much, I took a tissue out of my pocket and wiped the moist traces of dead frog off my cheek. Luckily, the frog had fallen off my face and had landed somewhere in the grass at my feet. I was glad, because I didn’t want to see it. I realised I’d suddenly had enough of Ben, frogs and Magoos. I turned and walked away, across the meadow, towards the stream.

“Luke!” Julia called. “He didn’t mean it!”

“Yes, he did,” I called back as I continued walking over the springy turf.

“He was playing, that’s all. Don’t go. Please come back.”

I think it was the plaintive, pleading note in Julia’s voice that compelled me to stop. Suddenly she sounded like the saddest, loneliest, unhappiest, most miserable girl in the world – and I could do something to help change that. I could keep her company for a while – if all the company she usually had was Ben, then she probably needed someone else to talk to. I’d been unable to put up with Ben for more than a few minutes. If I had to do as she did and look after him for an extended period of time – say more than half an hour, I’d probably end up strangling the little Magoo and then finishing him off by stuffing a plateful of flat frogs down his under-developed throat.

I turned and went back to the metal gate. Julia was smiling wanly. She looked pale and tired. Her eyes, I noticed, were green. I wanted to be with her, talk to her, listen to her, on her own; sans Ben. How could I arrange for that to happen? He was a major interference and he clearly didn’t like me. As I approached the gate, he bent down and picked up something off the ground.

“What’s Magoo got there – another sacrificial victim to throw in my face?” I asked.

Julia suddenly looked angry again. She stared hard at Ben for a moment, then said very softly, but with a voice like steel: “Put it down, Ben.”

Again he ignored her.

“Right,” she said sharply, “Julia going.”

Ben’s head whipped round and he stared at her, his face crumpling.

“Naaah,” he wailed. “Naaah Doola goan.” He turned to face her, his lip quivering, looking as though he was ready to start crying in earnest.

“Put it down, Ben,” Julia said softly. “Put it down and Julia stay.”

I have no idea what Ben had in his hand, but whatever it was, he immediately threw it into their garden and wiped his hands on his trousers.

“Gohn,” he stated. “Doola tay. Doola tay.”

“Ben no pick up things,” Julia demanded. Ben didn’t respond. He hung his head.

“Ben no pick up things,” Julia repeated, using the same steely tone she’d used a moment ago to threaten him.

“Behnopihk up,” he mumbled, grudgingly. “Doola tay?”

“Yes, Julia stay,” Julia said, nodding. Her sadness had returned. She looked dejected and lonely. Ben was probably quite demanding – and no doubt looking after him was a difficult task for her. That she could control him at all was something of a miracle. She looked at me again.

“I’m going to move the slide nearer to the wall, then I’ll climb back to the top and talk to you from there,” she said. “When I’m up there, Ben doesn’t seem to notice me and he leaves me alone for a bit and just wanders around the garden, amusing himself.”

“Ripping the wings off butterflies and happily slaughtering helpless creatures, no doubt,” I said.

“It’s the only time I get any peace,” Julia said. “So if that’s what it takes…”

“Death for a good cause; they die so you might live.”

“Sometimes I don’t really know what it is you’re talking about,” Julia said.

“I wouldn’t worry,” I said. “I rarely know what I’m talking about. Will you be able to see me from the top of the slide?” I asked.

“I will if you go back to your gate.”

“Okay,” I said. I walked back to my gate and stood outside it. I didn’t want to step back into the garden in case my parents saw me and called me in for dinner, or called me to join them for a bit of family-together-time. Not that there’s anything wrong with them – they’re lovely parents – really kind and considerate and fair and good, but I wanted to talk to Julia, not them. So I stayed outside the gate, out of their sight, and waited for Julia to reappear at the top of the wall.

It only took her a few moments. I heard the slide being moved against the wall. I heard Ben inarticulately yammering something and Julia telling him firmly to be quiet and go and play. Then I heard her sandaled feet on the slide steps as she climbed. When her head appeared at the top of the wall, I could see that she was much nearer to the wall than she had been before. This time, she could lean on the wall to talk. After her head, her shoulders became visible, then her arms and her chest. She teetered for a moment, grabbed hold of the wall to steady herself, quickly regained her balance, grinned prettily, found the best and most comfortable position to be in – which was leaning over the wall, elbows on the rough sloping cap-stones, chin in hands – and then spoke.

“I’m going to speak quietly,” she said softly, “because I don’t want Ben to hear me. You can be as loud or as quiet as you like – he won’t hear you.”

“But he’ll see you,” I said. “He knows where you are. Won’t he just stand there shouting for Doola or Magoo until you answer him?”

She smiled thinly and shook her head.

“No, that’s the strangest thing. Once I’m up here, it’s like he forgets I’m here. He never looks up. In all the time I’ve known him, he’s never once looked up at the trees or at the sky. He just looks at the ground all the time. So when I’m up here, it’s as though I’ve disappeared – and yet he seems to know I’m still nearby because he doesn’t wander far. I always think of it as me becoming invisible to him for a while. As I said, it gives me a break.”

“It’s not easy for you, is it?”

“No.”

“Can’t your mother get some help in? Especially as she’s not well.”

“Mum doesn’t like meeting new people,” Julia said, shaking her head. “They make her nervous. Besides, she’s not up to getting out of bed. She hasn’t been for a few months now.”

“Do you cook too?”

Julia nodded.

“I do everything,” she said matter-of-factly.

“You need a break too,” I said. The injustice of it all was starting to get to me. “You can’t be Ben’s carer for ever.”

“I won’t be,” Julia said.

“Why? What’ll change?”

“Let’s not stay grim,” Julia said, suddenly intense. “Tell me something nice. Tell me about a lovely place, or a wonderful person, or an amazing art work.” She paused. “Tell me something fantastic.”

Not grim, lovely place, wonderful person, amazing artwork, something fantastic… Not grim, lovely place, wonderful person, amazing artwork, something fantastic… Not grim, lovely place, wonderful person, amazing artwork, something fantastic… It took me a minute, then, ignoring the first word, I had it; I remembered an English presentation I’d given – and got an A for.

“His full name’s Benjamin Jacob Grimm,” I said, “although he obviously prefers to be called Ben. He was born on Yancy Street in New York City's Lower East Side, to a Jewish family. Ben Grimm’s early life is one of poverty and hardship, which shapes the youngster into a tough, streetwise fighter. Excelling in football as a high school student, Ben receives a full scholarship to Empire State University, where he first meets his eventual life-long friend – a teenage genius named Reed Richards. Despite them being from radically different backgrounds, science student Richards describes his dream to Grimm to one day build a space rocket to explore the regions of space around Mars, and Grimm jokingly agrees to fly that rocket when the day comes.

“After college, Grimm joins the United States Marine Corps and trains as a test pilot. Following this, he becomes an astronaut for NASA. Some years later, Reed Richards, now a successful scientist, once again makes contact with Grimm. Richards has built his spaceship, and reminds Grimm of his promise to fly the ship. After the government denies him permission to fly the spaceship himself, Richards plots a clandestine flight piloted by Grimm and accompanied by his future wife, Susan, or Sue, Storm, who provides some of the funding for the rocket, and her brother Johnny Storm, who helps the group gain access to the launch system.

“Although reluctant to fly the rocket, Ben is persuaded to do so by Sue, for whom he has a soft spot. During this unauthorized ride into the upper atmosphere of Earth and the Van Allen Belts, they are pelted by a cosmic ray storm and exposed to radiation against which the ship's shields are no protection. Upon crashing down to Earth, each of the four learns that they have developed fantastic superhuman abilities. Grimm's skin is transformed into a thick, lumpy brown-orange hide, which gradually evolves into a craggy covering of large rocky plates. Richards proposes the quartet band together to use their new abilities for the betterment of humanity, and Grimm, in a moment of self-pity, adopts the super-heroic sobriquet: The Thing. Trapped in his monstrous form, Grimm is an unhappy yet reliable member of the team. He trusts in his friend Reed Richards to one day develop a cure for his condition.”

My phone beeped. I looked at the screen. DINNER IN 10 MINS it read.

“What’s that?” Julia asked.

“I’ve got to go in. My dinner’s in ten minutes.”

“Plenty of time then.”

“Not really,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because I help set the table,” I explained. “My job’s table mats and cutlery.”

“How long have you got?”

“About a minute.”

“Okay, so what else can you say?”

“What do you mean?”

“About Mister Grimm.”

“Oh, okay. Well, he’s obviously a fictional character, a founding member of the super-hero team known as the Fantastic Four in the Marvel Comics universe. He was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and first appeared in Issue One of The Fantastic Four comic in November 1961. With his trademark brown-orange rocky appearance, his sense of humour, his blue eyes, and his famous battle cry: ‘It's clobberin' time,’ the Thing is one of comics' most instantly recognizable and popular characters. The Thing’s speech patterns are loosely based on those of the singer, pianist, comedian and actor, Jimmy Durante. And that’s it – I’m out of time.”

“Thank you for that,” Julia said. She paused. “And for saying it that way.”

 I just looked at her, pretending I didn’t know what she was talking about.

 “Okay, you’d better go. Next time we meet, can you tell me about something else – perhaps something about a famous painting or a real person?”

“Of course,” I said. “And when is the next time we meet?”

“Tomorrow? Different time, same place?”

“How different?”

“Tomorrow morning?”

“Okay. What time?”

“Nine-thirty.”

“Okay. See you then.”

And I opened the gate and went back into the garden. I turned to wave and Julia was still leaning over the wall, but she was reaching down with her hand. I stepped over to the wall, reached up and touched her outstretched warm fingers with mine, and then I turned abruptly and threaded my way along the cobbled path towards the back door.

 

*

 

The next morning I was up early and looking out of the window at next door’s garden, deep in thought about our meeting. Despite the trees blocking my view, I still tried to peer between the budding branches to see into the garden – all I wanted was a glimpse of Julia. My fingers still tingled warmly from their – my – contact with her. I hadn’t slept until the early hours. She troubled me. I’d been thinking about her a lot. I’d finally fallen asleep as morning light started lightening my room, dissolving the dark corners, bleaching the shadows, making the colours look neutral – almost washed-out. I waited until I could wait no longer, then got up, had a wash, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and took up my vigil at the window, sitting on the window sill, alternating between looking at – but not really reading – the book I had propped open on my lap, and looking out of the window every few minutes.

It was another hour before I heard voices in the garden next door. I recognised Ben’s inarticulate noises and I heard Julia talking to him. I got a couple of clean tissues and my phone and pocketed them. I went out of my room, downstairs, and into the kitchen. No one else was up yet. I had a drink, ate a cereal bar, then left a note for my parents. It said: Have had breakfast. Have gone out exploring. Have got clean phone and tissues are switched on. See you later. L. Then I went out into the garden, closing the door quietly behind me.

It was a bright, warm morning. The sun shone down on me as I walked briskly along one of the cobbled paths. I chose one that I knew led over to the bottom left-hand corner of the garden. When I got there, Julia was already in her top-of-the-slide, leaning-her-elbows-on-the-cap-stones position.

“Morning, Julia,” I greeted.

“Morning, Luke,” she said.

I liked her saying my name. I stood and looked up at her. She was wearing a navy-blue short-sleeved top and a pair of white shorts.

“I can go out today,” she said matter-of-factly.

“You can! Great.”

“But I’ve got to take Ben with me.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to go for a walk with me?”

“Of course I do,” I said. “But Ben doesn’t like me.”

“He’s better when he’s out walking. He likes to explore. Also, I’ve got a surprise – something you’ll like.”

“Okay, let’s go,” I said, feigning – but not by much – great eagerness to be on our way.

Julia laughed.

“Will you meet me at my gate in five, no six, minutes?” she asked.

“I will, fair maiden,” I answered.

She nodded and dropped from sight.

I opened the gate, went out into the meadow and walked along the wall to the metal gate at the bottom of her garden. There was no one there yet. I took a look into her garden, but there was a wooden fence placed in the way as a screen to keep the garden private. All I could see from where I was standing was the top of the slide and the upper branches of a cherry tree that was in the centre of the garden. The branches and their blossom hid the house from view. I stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the wooden fence, and at that moment I heard voices approaching. It was Julia and Ben. I was getting good at recognising their voice tones – Ben’s insistent, hectoring, unclear; Julia’s calm, soothing, musical.

They came to the gate and Julia opened it. Ben bounded out and pranced around me, jabbering incessantly.

“He’s pleased to see you,” Julia said.

I didn’t care in the slightest if Ben was pleased to see me or not, but I didn’t say that. I simply nodded and asked: “Where are we going?”

“That way,” Julia said, pointing towards the stream.

“Okay.”

We set off, Ben charging ahead, jabbering about whatever it was he was jabbering about, Julia and I walking together over the springy meadow grass.

“There’s a path along the side of this,” Julia said, as we reached the stream.

The stream was pebble-lined and very clear. It babbled noisily. Birds sang in the trees.

“Where are we going,” I asked again.

“For a walk – and for a surprise. You’ll just have to be patient. It’s not far now.”

And so we walked along the side of the stream, beneath the canopy of trees, following the noisy water across a field and into the copse of beech, ash and elm trees. Finally we stopped at the foot of a tree.

“We’re here,” Julia said.

I looked around, baffled.

“What’s here?” I asked.

Julia looked over at Ben, who was dropping pieces of twig into the stream. She leaned close to me.

“Very carefully,” she whispered in my ear, “without letting Ben see you doing it, look up.”

I did as she said. For a moment I didn’t see anything. Then I did. I grinned hugely.

“It’s a tr–”

“You don’t need to say it,” Julia said quietly. “We both know what it is, but I don’t think we should say it out loud, just in case. I think it’ll work in the same way that the slide does. If you climb up the ladder and go in it, I’ll find Ben some things to play with, and then, when he’s settled, I’ll join you. We’ll get a bit of time on our own. Okay?”

“You’re a genius,” I said, which made her blush.

“The ladder’s on the other side,” she said. “Give me a few minutes. And be careful.”

I nodded and went around the tree. The ‘ladder’ was simply a rope and some wooden pegs knocked into the trunk about a foot apart. I looked up the trunk and saw the rope and the pegs ran all the way to the tree-house at the top, which was about twelve or fifteen feet away.  I held the rope and put my foot on the first peg. I hauled myself up, put my foot onto the next peg, pulled myself up, and repeated my actions until I reached the doorway. I pulled myself into the tree-house and looked down. Julia was showing Ben something in the water – probably some fish for him to murder – still, as she had pointed out, killing things did keep the little psychopath occupied.

I watched her for a minute or two, but she deliberately didn’t look up at me or the tree-house. I decided to investigate my temporary retreat. It was very well-made, decent wood and metal corner and roof joints. The windows were thick plastic. I had the distinct feeling that although it was in tip-top shape, it wasn’t used all that much. I thought I’d ask Julia about it later.

Five minutes later, Julia pulled herself up in through the doorway.

“Ben will be fine for about half an hour,” she said, sitting down on the floor and leaning her back against the wall. “Will you sit with me?”

I went and sat next to her. She snuggled up close to me.

“Do you like me?” she asked suddenly.

I was puzzled. I thought it was pretty obvious I liked her. I hadn’t been trying to hide my feelings. What was the point of that?

“Yes, I do like you. I’d like to get to know you better.”

She nodded and rearranged herself, stretching out on the floor and resting her head on my thighs.

“Are you going to tell me about something amazing?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Today I thought I’d tell you the story of Layla and Majnun. Do you know it?”

“I’ve never heard of it. I’d like to hear it.”

“Okay. In the story of Layla and Majnun by Niz?mi-ye Ganjavi, the Bedouin poet Qays falls in love with Layla. He soon begins composing poems about his love for her, mentioning her name often. When Qays asks for Layla’s father for her hand in marriage, the father refuses, because Qays and Layla are of the same tribe and are distantly related, which, according to Arab traditions would mean a scandal and social disadvantage for Layla. Layla's father forbids Layla to have any contact with Qays. Qays, of course, becomes obsessed with Layla and starts singing of his love for her in public. His obsession becomes so severe that he sees and evaluates everything in terms of Layla; hence his nickname, Majnun, which means ‘the mad one’, or ‘the possessed one’. Several of Qays’ friends and family members speak to Layla’s father on Qays’ behalf, but the father is adamant and absolutely forbids marriage between Qays and Layla.

“Realizing that he cannot obtain a union with Layla, despite other people interceding for him, Qays flees the tribe’s camp and begins wandering the surrounding desert. His family hope for his return and leave food for him in the wilderness. He is sometimes seen reciting poetry to himself or writing in the sand with a stick. The image of Layla is so ingrained in his mind, his consciousness, his psyche, that he cannot eat or sleep. His only activity becomes composing poetry of longing for Layla.

“Soon after, following her father’s wishes, but not her own, Layla marries another man and moves to the city. When Qays hears of her marriage, he is so overcome with emotion, he vows to leave society – including his family – forever and so goes off and roams naked in the desert among the beasts. Some of the ferocious beasts befriend him and accompany him as he wanders the desert.

“During her marriage, Layla grieves for Qays, and constantly resists the advances of her husband, who grows cold towards her. After a year of joyless marriage, Layla becomes ill, worsens, and finally dies of grief. She is buried in her bridal dress.

“When Qays hears of Layla’s death he goes to her grave and, grief-stricken beyond endurance lies down upon the grave and recites all of his poetry to the dead Layla. Surrounded by the desert beasts, he remains on the grave for days, then weeks, then months. At first, everyone who passes by thinks he is asleep, then they realise he is dead. Finally, the beasts also realise the one they befriended is dead and they go back one by one to the desert. Once the beasts have gone, Qays’ relatives approach the grave. After talking it over, they put a marker on the grave that immortalises Qays’ love for Layla and Layla’s love for Qays. The last words on the gravestone are four lines from Qays’ most powerful poem. They are: Break your cage, break free from yourself, free from humanity/Learn that what you thought was real is not so in reality/Burn nothing but your own treasure, like a candle/Then the world, your sovereign, will become your slave.”

I stopped talking. It was silent in the tree-house. There was only the faint sound of a slight breeze in the branches. It was a perfect moment. Julia moved around, put her arms around me and pulled me to her. We stayed like that for a long time.

Eventually we separated so that Julia could check on Ben. He was still busy with the stream and some branches. She was right – he really didn’t seem to notice that she wasn’t there – as long as she was nearby. Perhaps because he could hear voices, it reassured him, made him feel that he wasn’t alone. It was just a theory. Who can really know how a mind such as Ben’s works? Once she’d made sure he was okay, we embraced again and stayed locked together for another long time.

We learned a little about each other that afternoon. I learned about the hidden, secret, reserved Julia; the Julia that no one else knew – the delicate, sensitive, fragile, slightly bruised Julia – the girl who would probably be – for a while – unable to break her cage and free herself from herself or from humanity; unable to learn that what she thought was real was not so in reality; unable to burn only her own treasure; unable to free herself from the tyranny of the world.

Later, as I looked up into the trees, watching the sunlight change colour, I knew something had changed within me – I had discovered a new mode of feeling, a new awareness of the extent of my consciousness and of my life. I had been touched by my own mortality and the specific moment it had happened was time-locked in my mind forever.

“We’ve got to go,” Julia said, sitting up.

“Okay.”

We stood up and Julia moved towards the doorway.

“I’ll go first. Do you want to walk back with me?”

“Of course.” I thought for a moment. “Do you ever go to the beach?”

“Not often. Why? Do you want to go there?”

“I’d like to have a look at it sometime this week.”

“Let’s talk about it as we walk back,” Julia said. She then climbed down the ladder.

I waited until she was on the ground, and then followed her down. When I reached the base of the tree, she had already started walking back towards her house. Ben was a few metres ahead of her, beating the turf with a stick, and shouting happily. I hurried to catch up with her.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“A week,” she said.

“Oh.”

“We can stay in touch,” I said.

“Yes, we can. But we won’t. You’ll get back to your life and you won’t want to be bothered with me. I’ll just be poor Julia, who’s got no spare time because she has to look after Ben.”

“We made time today.”

She looked at me, her eyes hard.

I made time,” she said icily. “I came up with a way to spend time together. I devised a plan for us. I thought of the tree-house, because of the slide. Remember that Mister Brains – you didn’t think of a way we could be together – I did.”

“Okay,” I said dejectedly. “You win. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, but you’re deliberately ruining a lovely afternoon. Our time together was perfect – and now – for some reason – you’re stamping it into the ground.”

“Then stop me,” she said. “Think of a way we can be together this afternoon.”

“I will,” I said. “You don’t need to try and spoil earlier.” After a few seconds, I added: “It was lovely.”

“I know,” she said quietly. Her anger had dissipated as fast as it had manifested itself. And she reached out her hand and touched my fingers again.

We reached her gate, fingers entwined. We released each other as Julia opened the gate and ushered Ben inside.

“Can you meet me here in two hours?”

I nodded.

“Yes.”

“We’ll go to the beach. If you can come up with a plan, that’ll be great. If you can’t, don’t worry – I’ll try and think of something. And I’m sorry about earlier.”

My heart soared. Here she was – the real Julia – back again. I grinned hugely.

“There’s a song about you,” I said.

“Is there?”

“Yes. It’s called Julia’s Dreaming.”

“Will you sing it to me? Please.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t sing. Besides, it’s got a repeated chord sequence of A minor, D minor, C, E, A minor and it’s characterised by a slow tempo, airy, ambient Mellotron sounds and lush chorus vocals which I can’t possibly replicate. Also, the chords are built around a descending bass line and because the percussionist only uses temple block echoes sporadically, there’s no discernible drum sound, so no pronounced beat; no obvious rhythm, which means the song’s got a very surreal atmosphere.”

“Can I hear it?”

“I’ll say it, if you like. Recite it, like a poem.”

“Okay. And as soon as you’ve finished, I’ve got to go in.”

“All right.”

“I’ll meet you back here at two.”

“I’ll be here. Ready?”

“Yes.”

“Right then, here goes. Julia’s Dreaming. Sunlight streams in through my window, brighter than a lighthouse beam/Will the weeping willow’s branches gently tap my window frame/Julia’s dreaming, dreams are teeming, she’s a dream within my dream/Every night I close my eyes and bide time for a ghostly bride/Leading misty mountain hunters/to find me hiding behind blinds/Julia’s dreaming, dreams are teeming, she’s the dream within my dream/Will a life of long-time waiting finally unchain my mind/Will time’s footsteps overtake me, are we all born dying/Julia’s dreaming, dreams are teeming, she’s the dream within my dream.”

I finished reciting the song I knew by heart – had known by heart for over a year, simply because it sounded so unusual – and Julia was gone.

I stood still for a moment, wondering what on earth the rest of my day was going to be like. I walked along the wall to my gate and sat down with my back to it. The treated wood was hot from the sun, but not too hot to rest against. I looked at the clock on my phone. Mid-day. Two hours until we met and went to the beach. I decided to go in and get some lunch.

As I entered our garden, I wondered what would keep Ben amused for an hour or so at the beach. What was there that he’d become absorbed in? What was there that would stop him thinking of Julia for over an hour? What could I come up with that would set her free? Set us both free.

 

*

 

The afternoon was a failure.

No, let me amend that – the afternoon was a total, absolute, unmitigated disaster. I failed abysmally. I didn’t think clearly, logically, and so I ruined the afternoon.

This is what happened.

I waited outside the gate for Julia to turn up, which she did, Ben in tow, exactly on time.

Her hair was tied back and she had changed her shorts and shirt for a floral dress.

“Right, where to?”

“The beach,” I said, without hesitation.

“Okay, let’s go.”

We walked along together, Ben gambolling, scurrying, bounding, whooping and stomping all the way across the fields. When we reached the footpath that led to the beach, we single-filed our way along it, around the edge of a barley field, across an expanse of heather, past grazing sheep, along the side of a stream, through a small copse, onto a bridle path that turned into a sandy footpath that led along the top of some sand dunes and past a caravan park and then onto the beach.

It was absolutely crowded. That was my first surprise; my first disappointment. I looked around for somewhere – just a tiny patch of unclaimed beach – for us to sit down on, but there wasn’t anywhere that I could see.

“I didn’t know it would be like this,” I said. “Look at all these people.”

“What did you expect? It’s the holiday. People use the beach during holiday times.”

“Okay,” I said valiantly. “The beach is out. Where else is there?”

“I thought you wanted to–” She stopped talking and whipped her head round. I followed her gaze.

Ben had dropped his trousers and was peeing on the beach. It was a thick stream that looked like an amber rope. It was splashing on the sand not far from a family – a man, a woman and two young children. As Ben unconcernedly peed, the man stood up and glared at us. The woman was trying to huddle her children nearer to her.

“Luke, that man’s looking over here. He’s angry about–”

I’d had enough. I was frustrated, upset and embarrassed.

“Julia, I know very well what he’s angry about. He doesn’t like troglodytes pissing on his kids. And I for one don’t blame him.”

Julia went white. She looked as though she’d been slapped – which I suppose she had. There were tears at the corners of her eyes. Then her face hardened and she speared me with a fury-laden gaze.

“Don’t you ever talk to me again,” she hissed. Then she marched over to Ben, pulled his trousers up, grabbed his arm and led him roughly off the beach.

I watched her go, crushed. I started after her, then slowed down and wandered along the sand, watching Julia as she got farther and father away. She did not look back. I stayed on the beach, loitering near an ice cream kiosk, until Julia was gone from sight, and then I slowly walked home. I made it to my gate without seeing anyone – or anyone seeing me.

 

*

 

After the chaos and trauma of the beach, my bedroom was an oasis of calm and serenity. I sat on my bed for an hour, replaying the beach fiasco over and over in my mind, like clips from a well-watched film. It was all wrong: the over-crowded beach, Julia’s tetchy mood, Ben peeing on the sand, the man standing up and staring at us, Julia’s fury and her telling me to never speak to her again, Julia walking away – it was as though I’d made a whole series of inevitable or unavoidable mistakes and everything had gone terribly awry since then.

I hated the way it was making me feel – the empty, hollow, aching feeling I had in my chest.

I needed to find a way to make things good again. I pondered for a while, but nothing workable came to mind.

I’d almost given up when my father intervened.

There was a knock on my bedroom door.

“Yep? Come in.”

My father opened the door and stepped into the room.

“Hello, Luke,” he said. “I’ve a favour to ask.”

That was my father – straight to the point, no preamble. It was a habit he’d developed in his business. He was something in the film industry – I’m not sure what exactly, but I knew he was responsible for getting films up and running, organising the finances, the actors, the locations and so on. He worked a lot, flew around the world a lot, spoke to people on the phone a lot. He always said what he meant and he never seemed to bother with small talk.

“What’s that?”

“Your mother and I would like to go out this evening. We’d like to know if you’d be prepared to stay in and look after Beth for the evening. Please. We’ll be back by about eleven-thirty, certainly by midnight.”

A penny dropped. Suddenly I’d got an answer – a solution. The missing jigsaw piece was found.

“Yes, I’ll keep an eye on her. What time will you be going out?”

“Thank you. About seven-thirty, why?”

“Will it be okay if I invite a friend around to keep me company?”

“A friend? Is it that willowy-looking young lady from next door?”

I felt my face redden. But I was pleased my father had referred to her as ‘willowy-looking’.

“Willowy?” I asked.

“She’s slim. And pretty. You must have noticed. Anyway, of course you can invite her over. Has she got a name?”

“Julia.”

My father nodded.

“Nice name.”

He turned to leave.

“What’s she like?”

There was only one word that would do.

“Complicated.”

My father chuckled.

“Of course. Well, you’d better let her know she’s invited over. We leave in an hour.”

I stood up.

“And thanks again, Luke.”

“That’s okay. Beth’s no trouble.”

“No, but she’ll try and stay up late, especially if you’ve got company. We’ll get her ready for bed, then tell her she’s to play in her room and be in bed before nine. That okay? You’ll have a couple of hours, maybe more, with your friend.”

My father went out and shut the door.

I stood in the centre of my bedroom and closed my eyes, elated. The impossible had happened. I’d been given a reprieve. And now I had to let Julia know. I wondered how I should do that.

I’d been pondering for a minute or two, when it occurred to me that I should just go and knock on her front door and invite her.

So that’s what I did.

 

*

 

Walking up the brick footpath of the walled garden to Julia’s front door felt peculiar, simply because it was such an ordinary thing to do.

If one wanted to talk to someone, one went to their house, knocked on the door and asked to speak to them.

It was so normal, so real, that it somehow seemed wrong. I thought about this as I reached the blue-grey-green front door.

To the left of the door was an old-fashioned bell on the end of a wound spring with a length of iron chain to pull to ring it. I reached up to ring the bell and the door opened. Julia stood there, her finger to her lips.

“Don’t ring the bell,” she whispered urgently.

I shook my head and lowered my hand. I decided to whisper too.

“Would you like to come round to mine this evening, just after seven-thirty?”

Julia looked doubtful. I decided to exaggerate a bit.

“My parents are going out for the evening and won’t be back until nearly midnight. They’ve said it’s all right for you to come round.”

I could see she was tempted, but still uncertain.

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?” I whispered. “What’s not to know?”

“Who’ll look after Ben?”

“I don’t know. His mother?”

Julia’s expression left me in no doubt I’d said the wrong thing.

“I’m joking. I know that’s not possible. Look, why don’t you bring him with you?”

She hadn’t expected me to say that. I wished I hadn’t, but I knew she wouldn’t come to my house unless I included the little psycho in my invitation.

“Listen,” I whispered. “Don’t say anything now, just think about it. Then, when you see my parents go out, just get your brother and come over to my house. My sister’ll be in bed asleep and there’s a toy box of tough toys for Ben to rummage in, so you and I can have a few hours together.”

I darted forward and kissed Julia’s cheek and then turned and walked down the path and out the gate. I looked back and saw the door closing slowly.

As I walked away, I wondered if I’d done enough to persuade her to spend the evening with me. Then I realised that there was very little else I could do. She’d turn up or she wouldn’t. If she did, great; if not, then…

 

*

 

She turned up.

About twenty minutes after my parents had driven off there was a knock at the door. I could hear Ben chattering away about something incomprehensible. I opened the door and smiled hugely.

Julia was wearing a green skirt, a white crop top and beige sandals. Her hair was up. She smelled of rosewood and looked nervous.

“Come in,” I said, holding the door open wide. Ben charged in and headed into the depths of the house. Julia followed tentatively.

“It’s okay,” I said, hurrying to reassure her, as I guided her into our living room. “My parents are out for hours, but they’re fine about you being here. My sister’s in her room, playing. She’s going to bed in half an hour. We can go to my room, or we can stay down here.”

Ben had discovered the huge plastic toy box I’d deliberately left in the centre of the living room floor. It was full of the most robust toys I could find and things I thought he’d like. With any luck, it’d keep him occupied for hours.

“Let’s stay down here for now,” Julia said, watching Ben as he rummaged around in the box and emerged with a large red plastic bus. He held it up triumphantly and waved it at Julia.

“Doolya, Doolya. Luck sabbuss. Sabbuss.”

Julia dropped onto the big leather sofa.

“Yes, Ben. It’s a bus. A very nice bus. Are you going to play with it?”

Ben looked uncertain. He held the bus up in front of his face and inspected it.

“Sabbuss,” he said again, quietly. And then he sat down on the floor and started to move it around, making a strange sound that I surmised was his approximation of a bus engine sound.

I sat down near to Julia. She spun around to face me and rested her legs on my lap.

“Nice cottage,” she said, leaning back on a big cushion and looking at the furnishings and the paintings on the walls.

“Yours is the same, isn’t it?”

“Outside, yes. Inside, no chance,” she said, pointing at Ben. “It’s ruined.”

I wondered about what Ben could possibly do that would ruin a house. Julia must have seen my expression, because she rushed to reassure me.

“He won’t wreck your lovely home, so don’t worry.”

“We’re renting it for the week. It’s a short holiday for us now my dad’s finished his latest film.”

“Does your father make films?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

I named a few I’d heard my father mention.

“I’ve heard of those,” Julia said. “And two of them are really good.”

I nodded, but I didn’t know which ones were good and which ones weren’t. They were just film titles to me.

“Anyway, he’s got a week and a half off before he starts work on the next one. So here we are.”

“Yes, here we are.”

In between my parents leaving and Julia arriving, I’d organised snacks and drinks. So I went into the kitchen and fetched the tray in. I put it on the coffee table in front of Julia and she stared at it.

“Have you made this for me?” she asked quietly.

I nodded.

“I’m going to have some too,” I said.

“Thank you.”

I shrugged and went back into the kitchen and grabbed a plastic bowl of snacks and a plastic cup of juice and took them back in to the living room, depositing them next to Ben. He looked at them for a moment, then continued playing the bus game.

“That’s kind of you to think of Ben,” Julia said, “but he won’t eat anything unless it’s a designated meal time.”

“That’s impressive,” I said as I sat down. “How does he manage that?”

Julia laughed. It was a musical sound. She sat back on the sofa and put her legs back over mine.

“Never mind,” she said, putting the tray of food between us. “Let’s have a picnic.”

We had a picnic.

 

*

 

We talked, we touched, we kissed, we shared food, we shared drinks, we laughed. It was lovely.

And all the time, Ben sat on the rug and played with the red plastic bus – and took no notice of us at all. It was as though we weren’t there. It was strange, but good.

Julia and I stretched out on the sofa, our bodies and limbs entwined. Her head was resting on my chest.

“Luke. Luke. I heard talking.”

I looked up. Beth was in the doorway. She was wearing a vest and one sock and looked wide awake.

“Coming, Beth,” I said. I looked at Julia. “I’ll settle her down and be right back,” I said.

She nodded.

I got up and pulled a book about paintings off the bookshelf. Some of the framed prints that were on the cottage walls were mentioned in the book. I put it on the coffee table and then went to Beth.

“Okay, madam,” I said, taking her hand. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

“Who’s that?” Beth asked, pointing at Ben.

“That’s Ben.”

“Is he your friend?”

I manoeuvred swiftly and pointed at Julia.

“That’s Julia. She’s my friend. Ben’s her brother. Do you want to say goodnight to Julia?”

“And to Ben,” Beth insisted.

“Yes, Ben too.”

“Goodnight Julia.”

Julia waved her fingers. “Goodnight Beth.”

Beth waved back.

“Goodnight Ben.”

Ben looked up and stared at Beth.

“Goodnight Ben,” Beth said again.

Ben carried on staring. His stare was intense. I moved so that I was blocking his view of Beth. The way that he was staring at her unnerved me.

“Ben’s very busy,” I said, as I steered Beth out of the room and up the stairs. “And he can’t hear very well,” I added.

“Is he deaf?” Beth asked, as we reached the landing.

I risked a lie.

“A bit.”

“Oh, poor Ben.”

“Yes, poor Ben.”

Back in her bedroom, Beth skipped across the room and hopped into bed; she was far too lively for my liking.

As she pulled the covers up, as I searched for and found her sock and her pyjama shorts and gave them to her.

She took them from me and pulled them under the covers.

I refilled her plastic beaker with water from the bathroom, put on her globe night-light, and made sure she’d got her favourite soft toy (a blue bear) next to her, not because I was a good babysitter, but because I wanted my sister to stay in her bed and go to sleep, so that I could go back to being with Julia.

I sat down in the wicker chair next to Beth’s bed and reminded her of what our parents had said about her bed time.

“I know,” she pouted. “I only got up because I heard talking and wanted to see who it was.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Are you going to get married to Julia?”

“No, of course not.”

“Oh, don’t you love her?”

“I like her.”

“But you don’t love her,” Beth insisted.

“No.”

“Did you kiss her?”

“That’s none of your business.”

Beth giggled.

“That means you did.”

“You need to go to sleep, Beth.”

“I’ll go to sleep if you tell me you kissed Julia.”

“That’s crafty. Okay, I kissed her.”

“I knew it. That means you love her.”

I stood up. “Right. Sleep time for you, young lady. And no more coming downstairs.”

“Kissy, kissy, Julia,” she teased.

“Slappy, slappy, sister, I responded lightly, as I walked towards the door.

Beth sniggered softly.

“Night, Luke.”

“Night.”

I pulled the door to, but did not close it fully. Beth liked it slightly ajar, so that’s how I left it.

 

*

 

I quickly made my way downstairs to the living room.

Ben was still playing with the bus. He took no notice of me.

Julia was sprawled on the sofa leafing through the book on paintings. I stood in the doorway and just looked at her for a few moments. She looked like the subject of a painting, lying there, reading. Then I went over to the sofa and stretched out next to her.

“Do you think I’m too skinny?” Julia asked abruptly.

“No, of course not.”

She put the book down and rolled over. She lifted her crop top so it exposed her taut stomach.

“What about my tummy?”

“It’s lovely,” I said.

“I want you to tell me if I’m too light. Too thin. Lie down.”

I lay on my back on the sofa and Julia lay on top of me, her back on my front, both of us facing the ceiling. She wasn’t heavy, but she wasn’t too light either. Her hair smelled of apple.

“Am I really, really lightweight?” she asked.

“You’re fine.”

“Feel my tummy. Make sure it’s not too flat.”

I put both of my hands on Julia’s stomach and at the moment of contact I was happier than I’d ever been.

“That feels nice.”

“Yes, it does.”

“Tell me about that picture,” Julia said. “It looks interesting. What is it?”

I looked and saw she was pointing at the large painting on the wall above the sofa. It was a huge print of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

“It’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch.”

“Do you know anything about it?”

“A little,” I said. “But better still, there’s a reference to it in the book you were looking at. In fact, there’re a few paintings in this cottage that are in that book. I think that’s why it’s here. I’ll read the bit about The Garden of Earthly Delights to you, if you like.”

“You’ll read to me?”

“Well, I’ve fed you and let you lie on top of me, so the least I can do is read to you. It’s all part of this evening’s package.”

“What else is in the package?” Julia asked, wriggling on top of me.

The wriggling distracted me for a minute or two.

“What else would you like to be in the package?” I finally managed to ask.

“Surprise me. But read to me first.”

Reluctantly, I reached out a hand and picked up the book on paintings. One-handed I found the section on The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Resting my right hand on Julia’s stomach and holding the book with my left hand, I started reading.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch. It is a triptych, which means it is a panel painting divided into three distinct sections.”

Julia’s hand rested on top of mine. My heart started thumping.

“Is there a description of each separate panel?” Julia asked.

I scanned the text.

“Yes, there is.”

“Will you read the bit about the centre panel, not the others?”

I kissed her neck.

“What’s wrong with the other panels?”

“The one on the left is too perfect, and the one on the right is far too horrible. The one in the middle looks the best of all.”

As she spoke, Julia slid my hand beneath her top.

I continued reading, my voice quavering.

 “The centre panel shows the garden of earthly delights teeming with male and female nudes, together with a variety of animals, plants and fruit. Fantastic creatures mingle with the real; otherwise ordinary fruits appear engorged to a gigantic size. The figures are engaged in diverse amorous sports and activities, both in couples and in groups. The numerous human figures revel in an innocent, self-absorbed joy as they engage in a wide range of activities: some enjoy sexual pleasures, others play unselfconsciously in the water, and yet others cavort in meadows with a variety of animals, seemingly at one with nature. In the middle of the background, a large blue globe resembling a fruit pod rises in the middle of a pond. Visible through its circular window is a man fondling his partner's genitals, and the bare buttocks of yet another figure hover in the vicinity.”

“You’ll have to stop reading now and put your other hand on me,” Julia said. She sounded as though she was having trouble breathing. I knew how that felt.

I put the book down and put my left hand on her taut stomach. I felt it flutter warmly under my hand.

She placed her hand on top of mine and then, very slowly, moved my hand to where she wanted it.

 

*

 

The screaming must have been going on for some time before I registered it at all.

It had gradually crept into my consciousness, and once there, it had got louder and louder until I sat up and realised that Beth was screaming at the top of her voice. The scream contained pain, horror, terror and incomprehension.

I leapt to my feet and sent Julia sprawling. I raced out of the room and took the stairs two at a time.

Beth’s screams were now so full of agony that everything else was blotted out. She sounded as though she was being murdered. I barged her bedroom door open.

Ben!

I stepped forward, trying to understand what I was seeing: Ben, broad and brown, moving rhythmically on Beth’s bed; Beth, tiny, pale, somewhere beneath him, her shrieks terrifying.

I reached out to drag Ben onto the floor and stomp the little bastard to pulp, when I felt myself being turned by a pair of strong hands. I looked up; it was my father. He pushed me gently but firmly towards my mother, who quickly steered me out on to the landing, and pulled Beth’s door shut.

There was a cacophony of sounds from Beth’s room, all confusing, all terrible: my father shouting, Ben howling triumphantly, Beth shrieking in despair and pain and fear, furniture thudding, flesh being hit, Ben yelping in pain…

As my mother held me, I looked away from Beth’s bedroom door. Julia was standing on the stairs. She was white.

My father came out of Beth’s room carrying Beth, who was sobbing loudly. She looked like a tiny crumpled ghost child. He carried her into his and mother’s bedroom. He reached the door and turned and glared at Julia.

“Get him out of here,” he snapped, then slammed the door shut.

Julia darted into Beth’s room. I eased free from my mother’s embrace and followed her into the room.

Ben was naked. He was curled up in a heap on the floor. He was sniffling and muttering something incomprehensible. When he stopped sniffling it was almost intelligible. It sounded like he was saying “Losted… losted… losted…” over and over again.

His clothes were strewn on the floor. Julia quickly gathered them up and went over to Ben.

“Ben, come on,” she said, her voice firm. “Time to get dressed.”

Ben sat up and held his arms out. His eyes were unfocussed. Julia slipped his shirt on over his head. Her movements were smooth and practiced. She pulled Ben easily to his feet and directed his legs into his underpants and shorts. She sat him back down and slipped on his canvas shoes.

I heard my mother go into her bedroom. I heard her and my father talking. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

The door opened again and my father stood in Beth’s doorway. He looked steadily at Ben and Julia.

“I’ve called the police. They’re on their way,” he said coldly. “We’re going to press charges. It’s serious: rape and assault. Now get out.”

Julia pulled Ben to his feet again and led him out of the room. She didn’t look at me once. She didn’t look at anyone – just stared straight ahead.

I stood at the top of the stairs and watched her lead her brother down the stairs and across the hall to the front door.

“Julia…”

Nothing: no response; no acknowledgement; no flicker of recognition. She opened the door, went out and pulled the door shut behind her.

I went to the landing window and watched Julia drag her brother home. She looked pale, washed-out and defeated-looking. I could see what she’d look like when she eventually became an old lady. When she went out of sight, I made my way to my room and stood at the window.

For a while I looked out at the overgrown garden with its tall flint walls and its metal-banded wooden gate. Then I stared across the meadow at the stream overhung with willow trees, at the distant field, at the copse, and at the path that lead to the beach. I tried to see into Julia’s garden, but couldn’t because of the trees that screened it.

When I tried to focus on the distant slate-grey sea, I found I ended up staring at nothing in particular for a very long time.

 

 

*

 

 

 

Losted

Copyright © R J Dent (2015)

 

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