- Published: 31 May 2022
- ISBN: 9781761045936
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $19.99
What We All Saw
Nineteen seventy-six was the year we covered up the death of a twelve-year-old boy, hiding his body from his family and the world forever. It was the year we learnt the truth, and the lies, about Hags Drop. And it was the last year Shell, Gray, Charlie and I spent together as childhood friends.
It was also the year the drought came. This wasn’t unusual for parts of Africa, or where I live now, in South Australia. But we were in the south-west of England. Not that kids died of thirst or had to walk six miles to fill a bucket from a well. In fact, for us, the absence of water and the constant sisterly shine of the sun made for long days outside, late evenings playing and the disturbing, yet fascinating, spectacle of flying ant swarms.
So what if you couldn’t flush at school? If bathwater had to be shared? If Mum’s roses had to sacrifice their useless lives for the greater good? We had the sun, when peeling skin was
the fashion and before melanomas were commonly known. We had long yards and wide streets and mothers shouting for us to come in and us ignoring them and marbles on the grass and everything else that told us we were there, then.
And we had the wood.
Leighford council estate was bordered by trees. There weren’t just fifty, a hundred or even a thousand. There were so many that they became one. This was the wood, a single entity. Each tree was like the cell of a living creature, a grain of sand upon a beach, a single brick within a wall. Nothing alone. Everything together.
The four of us were weaving our way through the wood, along a narrow path that was rarely trodden. Gray was in his natural position at the front, swiping at trees and bushes with his chosen stick of the day. Charlie followed behind, rucksack on his back, talking incessantly about how his dad knew this and his dad knew that and his dad . . . his dad . . . his dad . . . until the inevitable happened.
‘Hell, Charlie,’ spat Gray, suddenly turning and stopping us all in our tracks. ‘Dads don’t know everything! Especially yours!’
To be fair, Gray’s dad was probably one of those who knew very little. His present dad, that was. We couldn’t vouch for the ones before as they had never stayed around long enough for us to find out. Some of them hadn’t even stayed around long enough to get to the end of his hallway. That was what my dad said, anyway.
‘He knows a lot,’ said Charlie, pushing his glasses up his nose. ‘He’s an engineer.’
The canopy of wild oak and elm above was broken where we had stopped, and the heat immediately ate into my skin in a way that made me feel immortal. Shell took my hand and led me further into the opening, away
from the argument. She lifted her face towards the blazing sun and squeezed my fingers. I took it as a warning not to get involved.
‘Your dad’s a mechanic.’ Gray looked at me to back him up, but I decided to heed Shell’s warning.
‘It’s the same thing,’ argued Charlie.
‘No, it ain’t. Engineers build rockets and figure out how things work and then make things work better. Your dad mends cars. He couldn’t ’ave sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.’
Charlie didn’t respond. He knew when to back off.
Gray, on the other hand, did not, even when he was winning. ‘What do you reckon, Sammy?’
‘About what?’ I asked, as though I hadn’t been listening to them for the past five minutes.
‘About whether Charlie’s dad’s an engineer.’
‘I don’t –’ I began, but Gray was on a roll.
‘I mean, engineers are, well, you know . . . they’re cleverer. They use their brains. Mechanics use their hands.’ He turned back to Charlie, who appeared to have lost all interest in the conversation. ‘You hear me, Charlie? Charlie!’
‘Leave him,’ said Shell.
We all stared at her. She appeared to be focusing on a point way out in the distance. As though she could look through what was really there and see something else that the rest of us could not. Which, after all, could never be true. She couldn’t see anything. Not with her eyes. She never had and never would.
Gray gave me his famous What have I done now? look, threw his stick into the wood and stomped off. Shell tapped my ankle gently with her white cane and gave my arm another squeeze.
‘Let’s go, Charlie,’ I said, and we set off once more down the dusty dirt path that would lead us to the river, where we
would swim, share the sweets we had pitched together for and, if we were lucky, find a few small trout and eels hiding below the speckled pebbles.
‘I suppose nobody knows everything,’ conceded Charlie.
‘Turd,’ said Gray, from up ahead.
‘Heard that,’ said Shell.
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