The summer old Jim died, the village pond dried up. We watched it shrink as we baked like bricks each day, lying on our backs on the bank, caught in a hiatus between the raging sun and earth that breathed fire. Summer became the acrid smell of putrid mud and the sound of fish flapping futilely as they suffocated. We would have flapped too if we hadn’t been afflicted with a listlessness that pinned us to the land like desiccated butterflies in a dusty museum. The brutal sun chased shadows from crevices while we indulged in the luxury of inactivity. The village became a kiln. It fixed our glaze but made us less pliable, brittle like pottery.
Old Jim used to watch us play there, perched on the farm fence rocking slightly to-and-fro. He always wore the same shabby trousers and vacant expression. Dirt encrusted his frayed edges. His boots, once brown I’m sure, were faded and scuffed. One trailed a lace behind as he shuffled along, as if he were gradually unwinding. No matter the weather, he always wore the same checked shirt, sleeves rolled up past his elbows exposing leathern swathes of brown flesh. Sweat oozed from his armpits. It stained the light fabric sepia. He seemed to be retreating into one of the old photographs my mother had unpacked when we’d arrived here weeks before. As he stared at us, he used to latch his thumb behind the bright red braces he wore. They seemed to serve as both an anchor and a support as he sat for hours in the bright sun. I wondered, sometimes, whether he ever removed them. No-one knew much about him. Village gossip had failed us here. I think they preferred to keep a sense of mystery alive in this crumbling creature, to titillate and entertain when other sources of novelty faded. Mum said that he had a son somewhere but none of us believed that. We created our own histories, full of the drama of the boys’ adventure stories that we read in the evenings. I don’t really think that any of us believed that he had ever lived a life outside that crooked fence, worn smooth by his attention.
Even twenty years on, I can still remember the sound the stone made as it cracked into old Jim’s shoulder. He didn’t even flinch, just cackled at us exposing a crooked row of yellowing teeth.
It was Simon’s voice that carried above us, following his missile with uncanny accuracy. I laughed along with the rest of them, although it sounded hollow to my ears. I cast my eyes around the group and adopted the same lop-sided expression of nonchalance that most of the village boys wore. Simon stared at us cockily, lifting one eyebrow and sneering. I may not have been there long, but I already knew that this indicated a storm was coming.
‘Five points for a direct ‘it,’ he laughed, tossing another stone from hand to hand. ‘Who’s next?’
There was an edge of challenge in his voice. A few of the others laughed nervously and looked down at their dusty boots. I focused on my trainers, once white but now covered in a sheen of grey dirt. Catching a movement from the corner of my eye, I glanced upwards again involuntarily. Simon’s eyes met mine. They narrowed and the edges creased as he grinned. It was a cold smile. Before I could retreat, he tossed me the stone. I jumped and instinctively put out my hand to catch it, the sharp edges digging into my palm.
‘G’on Joe,’ he sneered.
‘Yeah, betcha can’t ‘it ‘is ‘ed.’
‘’Ent no chance you’ll knock ‘is ‘at off!’
‘Won’t even reach the fence, I bet.’
Their voices rose in a cacophony, their tone in equal measures challenging and relieved. I laughed nervously.
‘Don’t think I’m any good at this.’
Simon’s eyes became almost cat-like as he glared at me. His voice was deceptively quiet. The others closed ranks around him, sharks sensing blood in the water.
‘Nah, just don’t wanna waste the stone,’ I replied.
‘Well, better make sure you ‘it ‘im ‘ard then.’
Simon crossed his arms as he said this, the smile gone. It made the sinews stand out beneath his brown skin, weathered by the country air. The others adopted expectant positions, echoing Simon’s stance. I looked at old Jim smiling at me from his perch. My stomach felt like it was turning to water. I glanced over to where Simon and his minions stood, a wall of bravado leaving me no escape route. I raised my arm and realised it was shaking slightly, the burnt red of my forearm drawing attention to the bony spindle holding the missile.
‘You gonna throw that or what?’
This time it was Tom’s voice lifting above the silence. It was daring me. I sensed that the pack was turning.
‘Course I am. Just gimme a minute.’
I set my feet at right-angles to the fence, just as the games masters had taught me last term. Pulling my arm back, I gripped the stone tightly. It was still cold despite my sweaty palm. I breathed deeply and centred myself, then flung my arm forward. The stone flew out of my grip as if it had been loosed from a sling. Fear made my arm more powerful. Everyone’s eyes tracked its path as it arced towards the old man. I felt a sickening sensation as it became clear my aim was good. Old Jim didn’t move, even as the stone found its target and glanced off his forehead. It was swiftly followed by a bloom of red that trickled downwards and dripped off his stubbly chin. He didn’t lift his arm to brush it away, just sat there immobile as the drops fell like petals down his shirt and onto his braces. His smile had gone though.
The boys were quiet, subdued. As I turned my eyes back to them, there was no cheer of success. Only Simon smiled.
‘Not bad. Even for you, townie.’
‘Joseph?’ My mother’s voice echoed in the unnatural silence. ‘Are you out there? Dinner’s ready. Come in and clean up, please.’
‘ “Dinner’s ready”, “dinner’s ready”,’ Simon’s voice taunted me. ‘Better go home to Mummy then, Joseph.’
I stooped to collect my cap from behind me where it had fallen, next to Simon’s boot. It had a dusty footprint on it and the brim was bent.
‘See you tomorrow then?’ I smiled hesitantly.
‘If Mummy lets you out to play,’ Simon snickered.
The others joined him. They returned to their sport and I was dismissed. As I looked back over my shoulder, I realised that old Jim was no longer sitting on the fence. A lump formed in my throat and my nose began to prickle as I breathed hard through it willing the water that had filled my eyes to dry up like the pond. I ran for home fast, relying on the stagnant air to force the unshed tears away before Mum saw me.
The smell of roast chicken enveloped me as soon as I entered the small kitchen. Mum was setting two places, the cutlery neatly laid out on the crisp linen cloth that covered the chipped Formica table. I watched her as she carefully placed her best plates on the woven mats, rich red poppies and cornstalks. I couldn’t escape the countryside, even at the table. She had crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes and they crinkled as she smiled. It made her seem more carefree than I was used to. As her lips parted, her white teeth stood out against the bright red lipstick that she always wore.
‘Did you have a fun day?’ she asked kindly. ‘They seem like really nice boys. It’s good that you have some friends.’
I smiled in a non-committal way and took a gulp of iced water from the crystal tumbler she’d put ready for me. She set my plate down in front of me. I can still remember the flavour of the rich juices from the chicken as they trickled down past the lump that sat in my throat. Mum looked at me as she sat down, sighing softly.
‘You’re always going to be my boy, you know? I know you’re growing but to me you’re my boy.’
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and concentrated on dicing a carrot.
‘I’m proud of you,’ she said, smiling.
The meat suddenly tasted like cardboard and my mouth was dry. I couldn’t bring myself to raise my eyes to hers.
The next time I saw old Jim, he was being carried from the village church in a box. Mum told me he’d died in his sleep. It was days before anyone found him and the village kids said it had been the smell of rotting flesh that had alerted the neighbours. Simon had sworn that the flesh had been green and putrid when the funeral director’s men had carried him out. He’d said that there were maggots in his eye sockets. I doubted he’d even been there but I hadn’t had the courage to question him. The afternoon of the funeral, I’d crept up to the hill at the back of the churchyard to watch the procession, perched on a bough of the old yew tree. I didn’t know why I’d done it. Simon would have laughed had he known, used me as fodder. The end of summer was in the air. The stifling heat had been replaced by the hint of rain and I sensed the dampness through my skin. I felt I could breathe again.
A well-dressed man and woman followed the coffin. Their dark clothes looked expensive. The man’s hair was black, flecked with grey at the temples like an early dusting of snow. From time to time, as they paced deliberately in the wake of the vicar’s footsteps, they glanced at each other. Their faces were solemn, the woman’s framed by a light blonde halo of soft curls. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t see any similarity between their faces and old Jim’s weathered jowls. When the vicar paused by the edge of the deep cleft that old Jim would rest in, the woman reached out and touched her companion’s fingers lightly, a look of concern on her face. She was rewarded by a brief smile as they took their place at the edge of the abyss. As they lowered the coffin, the man bent down and grasped a handful of earth from the pile that lay at the foot of the grave. He paused and bowed his head for a moment before pulling himself upright, the light glinting off his patent shoes. The vicar inclined his head solemnly. In response, the man tossed his desiccated offering onto the lid of the coffin, rattling a sharp retort against the late summer stillness. I flinched.
I sat up the tree for a long time after they left, picking the bright red berries from the branch and squashing them between my fingers.
I saw Simon a week or two ago, only from a distance across a crowded bar. He had the same ruddy complexion but these days it looked more florid than healthy. He was carrying a couple of stones of excess weight and it made him look boorish. His over-loud voice carried above the buzz of conversation as his court of followers looked on. I could have said ‘Hello’ but instead I turned and left, his booming laugh following me out into the crisp winter evening. It snowed that night, a deep blanket covering the ground and not for the first time, I remembered old Jim. I think the snow might stay for a while this year.