‘Just get out and don’t come back until tea-time.’ Emer and Anne didn’t stop to be asked twice. They knew they were lucky to get out at all, after their last escapade. Turning up two hours late for tea had not been appreciated by any of their parents. It seemed the ban imposed on going “out the fields” was now lifted. The girls fled for the front door. Half way there, however, Emer spun around and took the stairs two at a time, while Anne waited in stomach-twisting fear in case her mother would remember the punishment and call them both back. Emer reappeared, clutching her white-banded watch, a present from her grandmother. ‘So we know what time it is,’ she explained, slipping it into her pocket as they exited to freedom. The chief joy of visiting Emer’s place was roaming the long fields with their blackberried pathways tracing down to the river.
‘My Mam says we’re “glued together at the hip”,’ Anne offered, pushing her hip bones against Emer’s and looking down, doubtfully. ‘I’m not sure I’d like that.’ Emer just shrugged, ‘Mammies,’ she said, dismissing adult pronouncements as irrelevant. ‘Let’s go over the bridge.’ Anne glanced up at the hill, and slowed her step. She knew, as did Emer, that over the river was technically out of bounds. Temptation overrode caution. She accepted Emer’s outstretched hand and heaved herself over the gate that secured the disused bridge. ‘Let’s go,’ they chorused together and laughed. They used the few remaining bridge struts to jump gaps, ignoring the drop to the river below. Once over, they exchanged conspiratorial glances and started up the short but steep hill. As the ground levelled out they paused to admire the view of the river from above and to exult in their daring.
They went further in this day than they ever had before. Emer held court with a discussion on how to survive in the wild. ‘Beech nuts,’ she declared, ‘and blackberries, of course.’ ‘Would you kill a rabbit?’ asked Anne, ‘I don’t think I could, even supposing I could trap one.’
The woods were thick with undergrowth and conversation lulled as the two struggled with their progress. ‘Hsst,’ Emer whispered, ‘See, through there.’ A small cupid peeped at them from a clearing, his bow no longer in evidence, beside him a rectangular, leaf-strewn pool from a forgotten era. ‘Wow,’ breathed Anne, ‘It’s like the Secret Garden.’ ‘Come on. Let’s go see,’ Emer strode forward with Anne following slowly, afraid to disturb the ghosts of the pool. They sat in companionable silence on a stone seat near the moss covered cupid. ‘You couldn’t drink that water, though,’ – Anne’s thoughts had reverted to their earlier conversation. ‘Course not.’ said Emer, slightly scornfully, ‘You’d have to collect rainwater or find a stream. Running water, that’s the thing.’ ‘I’ve got some sweets left.’ Anne gave her friend a softened, sticky toffee and another silence ensued as the last of the supplies were sucked to nothing.
Anne closed her eyes against the warm sunlight that dappled through the trees. Birdsong and bee-buzzing filled her ears. She could tell there was a blackbird nearby and she strained to catch other songs to identify. Emer explored the surrounding woods. Suddenly the ground under her foot gave way and she fell awkwardly with a gasp of surprise. Her entire left leg was hidden by the hole she had stepped into. She eased herself out and stepped more carefully, realising that the ground was pockmarked with similar holes, hidden by years of autumn leaves.
A sudden crack made her swing around. She could make out a distant figure. She crept back to the pool. Grabbing Anne’s arm urgently, she whispered, ‘There’s someone there.’ Anne’s eyes followed her pointing finger and saw a man coming nearer to them. ‘Is that a stick?’ she whispered. ‘Maybe it’s a gun,’ Emer suggested. ‘Let’s get out of here before he sees us.’
The girls moved off, making for the safety of the bridge and the other side of the river. A shout rose behind them, ‘What are you doing here? Trespassers!’ Crashing noises came to them through the heavy undergrowth and they ran in panic. Behind them a louder crash caused them to glance back over their shoulders. The man had fallen and was having some difficulty in rising again, though he still shouted loudly at them. His angry face was visible now and he was waving the stick fiercely in their direction. They turned and fled in terror, reaching the gateway to the bridge and ran across its raggedly spaced slats. On the opposite bank they paused, safe on home territory.
‘Not a word to Mam or anyone.’ Emer said as firmly as she could, when her gasps had subsided. ‘Course not.’ agreed Anne. They’d never be let out again if they blabbed.
He shouted until the dryness in his throat caused his voice to crack, but it was no use. He had frightened away the only other occupants of these gardens – that was his responsibility as caretaker. Each time he tried to drag his leg upwards pain caused his eyes to blur and his stomach to heave. He rested for a time, trying to calm his racing mind. Cold seeped into his bones and sleep overtook him, when he awoke it was dark and a soft rain was falling. No one was in sight and no one was likely to appear. That was why the deserted lodge of these gardens had seemed ideal when things had become unpleasant at the hospital. His body was already weakened by a week of living with little food. He heaved himself forward once more but pain drove shocks through his enfeebled body and blackness descended. Underneath his prone form a small white watch slowed and marked the date of his passing. The small cupid still smiled his stone smile as the man decayed into the ruins of the old estate.
Clodagh O’Connor has been an aspiring writer since age 8, though she is only really getting around to a few scribbles now (at age 51). She also write haiku, has 2 sons and one husband, works in telecoms, likes maths and makes origami boxes.