Ruth Spence is a new writer from South London, where she lives with a comedian and their two small children. Follow her on Twitter: Roothes.
Hide & Seek
By Ruth Spence
A neat purple bruise begins to take shape on Henry Hughes’s forehead as tears roll down his pink cheeks. Behind him, an absent plane trails smoke through the cloudless blue sky, and over the sound of flapping streamers and tinny music, the buzz of the party stalls.
From white picnic tables on the grass, parents’ heads turn and take stock of their children. Plastic cups and finger foods hover before their lips as they assess the danger. They remind me of meerkats, bobbing up in alarm before relaxing back into quiet conversation.
Mr and Mrs Hughes inspect their child for damage. They stroke his hair and fuss around him. Their expression tells me that I was never supposed to come to the party. The invite had been a dyed and perfumed appeal to stay away, but Mother hadn’t realised. Somehow, she believes we belong.
It had been her idea to move here. She’d insisted we have a fresh start, but these tree-lined streets and rock dash stucco houses are far from welcoming. I miss my old house, with its secrets buried beneath the floorboards and under flowerbeds in the garden.
I sniffle, trying to bring tears to my eyes for Henry’s parents. “It wasn’t my fault,” I say, and hang my head. “All I wanted to do was give him his present.”
Mrs Hughes scowls. The party has reached the stage where the only thing the adults want is to drink and gossip. Mr Hughes asks Henry how he hurt himself.
“It was an accident,” I tell him, but he cuts me off.
“I wasn’t speaking to you,” he says, moustache bristling, and asks Henry for his side of the story.
Henry puffs on his inhaler. He sniffles, glances at me and then back at his father.
“He hit his head,” I say.
Before I can continue, Mother squeezes my hand and hisses in my ear: “I’m not going through this again, Ivy. Behave yourself.” She looks worn out. The lines on her face betray years of fatigue and worry.
I have never been good at parties. No matter. Henry’s present can wait till later. I hope he likes it.
I nod and mumble an apology. We both know the words mean little. I give Mother a thin-lipped smile and hold it on my face for Henry to see. I flash my teeth as he stares at me, open-mouthed, like a goldfish.
Henry Hughes is a mouth breather. I noticed him the day we first arrived in the neighbourhood. He was watching me from the sidewalk, jaw hanging loose. He sat on his bike and stared as we carried boxes and furniture into the house.
Henry likes to watch me. Just last week I caught him spying on me when I fed the neighbour’s dog. He thinks I didn’t notice, but the dog was always yapping at me, like it knew I didn’t belong.
Mrs Hughes calls for the children to gather round. “Let’s play hide and seek,” she says. “Kids can hide first and then the adults will come and find you.” She turns around and winks at the assembled grown-ups. At last, they can drink in peace.
The children rush off, diving behind neatly pruned rosebushes and white wicker furniture. In the shadow of an apple tree, Henry glances around, not knowing where to hide. I should help him. It’s the right thing to do.
“I know a great hiding place,” I tell him. “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
He hesitates, so I hold out my hand and widen my smile. “Your head was an accident. Don’t let it ruin our day. Friends?”
He looks at my hand, half-smiles, and grabs it. His palm is clammy and wet like a handful of worms. I squeeze it and lead him behind the rose bushes to a hole in the fence.
He tugs his hand away. “We shouldn’t leave the party,” he says. Ketchup sticks to the corner of his mouth. Cake crumbs cling to his T-shirt. I should have known he wouldn’t be any fun.
I shrug and pout my lower lip. “Fine. I’ll go by myself. You can stay here at your boring party with all the other little kids.”
I nod towards the gang of parents squawking with drunken laughter, to show him he won’t be missed. “I know somewhere we can go so they’ll all have to look for you. The birthday boy should have the best hiding place, don’t you think?”
Henry nods, and we squeeze through the fence. We part the overgrown greenery until we reach the woods. Birds trill overhead. Crickets vibrate in the tall grass. Tiny flies catch the light as they hover between the weeds.
Henry sticks close to me as we follow a narrow trail through the undergrowth. His mouth-breathing is audible. I can feel it – hot on the back of my neck.
Faded empty chocolate wrappers, broken glass, and discarded, dirt-trodden beer bottle tops litter the ground. The sound of the party quietens.
Henry stops. “I saw what you did to that dog.”
I turn to face him. “What dog?”
He looks at his shoes and mumbles under his breath.
I turn to keep walking, but he raises his voice, and looks me in the eye. “I saw you give it that stuff to eat.”
“What do you mean?”
He swallows. “It’s for rats. You shouldn’t give it to dogs. It isn’t good for them.”
I shrug. “I didn’t know it was for rats. That poor dog was always barking at me. I thought it might be hungry. I saw my mother give that stuff to the rats in our basement once. I thought maybe it would be OK for dogs too.”
I look at the ground. “Does this mean we can’t be friends?”
Henry pauses, then shakes his head. “We can still be friends,” he says, looking serious.
I take his sweaty hand. “Perfect.”
The deeper into the woods we go, the quieter it becomes. There’s no trail to follow now and the trees are thicker and closer together. Everything is still.
We reach a twisted tree in the centre of a clearing. Termites have carved out a narrow crawlspace in the ancient trunk, but the entrance is guarded by a tangled network of dead roots where the ground has fallen away. Sunlight shines through the holes in the bark, illuminating damp cobwebs.
I gesture towards it. “Ta-dah! Pretty neat, huh, Henry?”
He looks at the tree, half-hiding behind me. “It’s OK, I guess,” he says, peeking over my shoulder. I turn and face him.
“OK?” I grab his shoulders. “Have you never crawled through a dead tree before?”
He shakes his head, and I smile. “Henry, you’ve got to try it. Think of all the cool things you might find in there…”
He scratches his head. “What cool things?”
“Maybe you’ll find your birthday present. You should look and see for yourself.”
“You put my present in there?”
“Maybe. The only way to find out is to crawl inside.”
He hesitates. “Will you come too?”
I smile. “Of course, but there’s not enough room for both of us. You go in first.”
Henry squats down by the tree. “I’m not sure I’ll fit,” he says, squinting. He looks at me again for reassurance, and then pokes his head into the space between the roots.
“You must be chicken,” I tease.
He crosses his arms. “Don’t call me that. I’m not a chicken.”
I grin. “Prove it.”
Henry gets down on all fours and crawls through the space between the roots. I get down on my knees, too, cheek to the damp earth, and watch him crawl into the belly of the tree.
He kicks his legs. “I’m stuck,” he says.
I’m holding my breath. “Keep going,” I tell him. “It gets wider towards the middle.” My knuckles turn white from gripping the dirt too tightly as he wriggles deeper and deeper. “You’re doing wonderfully,” I say.
Henry squirms, but he can’t turn back. His muddy sneaker pokes out of the tree. “Help me, Ivy,” he calls. “I can’t move. I can’t breathe…”
I curl up at the foot of the tree and lay my head against the hollow trunk. “I hope we can still be friends, Henry. It’s just… It’s so hard to fit in, especially with someone watching you the whole time.”
His cries grow muffled and desperate. “Please…”
I close my eyes and listen. “I’m going to have to leave you now… so I can get help.”
Henry sobs. “No, please, don’t leave me.”
“Don’t worry, Henry. Everything will be all right. Someone will find you.” I smile. “Just stay where you are.”
No one can hear him but me, so I sit silently for a while, his moans disturbing the peace of the forest. The sun teeters over the horizon as the shadows grow longer and darker.
By the time I creep back into the garden, the game has long since ended. Grass-stained children run around playing tag, their loud mouths and sticky hands coated with sprinkles and frosting.
Mr Hughes is missing. So are the other fathers. I take a seat at the buffet and gorge myself on birthday cake and mini pizzas. Mrs Hughes does the same with rum punch. The other mothers are crowded round, jockeying for position as they ooze sympathy, avoiding each other’s eyes. Mrs Hughes has stopped laughing.
I smile through mouthfuls of cake and eat until I am full. For a second, Mrs Hughes catches my eye, and her face changes. She starts to shake.
Mother takes one look at my damp torn jeans and grabs my arm. She tells me we should be going. I twirl my hair and say goodbye to Mrs Hughes.
We hurry down the quiet street past parked cars and pristine street signs. Mother tugs me along by the wrist. She doesn’t speak to me, other than to say, “Did you do something, Ivy? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. We can’t move again. We just can’t.”
“Yes, Mother,” I say, and look back at Henry’s four-bedroom house with the big driveway. Parents and children pile into their minivans clutching deflated balloons and white plastic goodie bags. The party is over. It makes me smile.
Header image from Pixabay.
Copyright © ‘Hide & Seek’ Ruth Spence 2020