SHORT STORIES

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Knock Down Ginger

 

Kate sees one of the knock-down-ginger boys hiding behind the sunflowers. He’s quite good at it. He keeps absolutely still and doesn’t even flinch when the others scream for him—‘Markus! Markus!’—as they leap her boxwood like three little gazelles.

She could run like that once. Seems like last week.

She should really go back inside so the poor lad can come out and escape, but sits on the bench instead.

‘It’s OK, you know. I used to play that game,’ she says, looking straight ahead. ‘I’m not hypocritical enough to report you. The police have better things to do anyway. But if your gang were to bother an old person like that, or break anything, then it wouldn’t be OK.’ She smiles. He probably thinks they already have bothered an old person.

He stays frozen, probably hoping he’s camouflaged, against all evidence to the contrary. You do, at that age. What, nine? Ten? His eyes remind her of a frightened robin, or a kitten you could coax out with a treat. One jean-covered knee protrudes slightly between the thick sunflower stalks. Another couple of seconds and he’d have made it to the shade of the garage.

‘A glass of juice, then, before you go? Promise I won’t poison it.’ She doesn’t sound lonely, does she? Or dodgy? The victim turned perpetrator. They’re not supposed to speak to strangers these days, let alone trespass in strange gardens. Friends with children seem to keep them indoors, like small pets. Fabulous dialogue from this bunch, before they’d realised she was actually at home. Some of it was perennial: Shut. Up. Fine then. At least I don’t look like a nipple. Some was new: Get lost, you stupid tube.

A dilemma now. If she goes inside to get the juice, he’s sure to bolt.

‘Will they come back for you, d’you think?’

Still too scared to answer. However she words it, she’ll seem like an old bat to him. Hardly a wrinkle around her eyes, but they do bag a bit underneath. At fifty she’d thought nothing of showing neck and upper arms, but now, only four years later, a scarf looks nicer. Not much age, really, in the scheme of things; still borderline, in fact, but when this boy finds his friends again, she’ll be ‘that granny’. Funny, really. He’ll remember this afternoon.

She should go in. He’ll be dying of embarrassment, not to mention cramp. He really is brilliant at holding that pose, though.

She rises just as he crawls out, T-shirt scrunched into his armpit at one side so that it reads PAIN. There’s an S in that armpit, she guesses. His brown hair is close-cropped at the back, smooth as a seal’s. His eyebrows are heartbreakingly straight and fine.

‘Sorry.’

‘It’s all right,’ she says. ‘No harm done.’ Tube, she thinks.

He’s backing away, almost gone for good, but gives her a rueful smile of the kind that only a child can do properly.

Kate grins back. ‘Mind how you go.’

 

*

 

 

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