Picture by Julia Rudakova at Unsplash
Content warning : child abuse, graphic imagery
When the sky was ice-blue but just searing heat making your hair crackle and your eyes throb. When we refused to stay in the shade of the yard, helter-skeltered to the railway along back roads turning tacky. When we squeezed through the fence into the explosion of weeds bordering the tracks, ears filled with insect irritation, red-nosed from pollen coating everything in sulphurous mats. When we played blindfold hide-and-seek amongst man-tall willowherb and brambles grabby as strangers in cars, hanky tied tight over eyes, spinning as we counted down – 3,2,1 ready or not. When the proximity of the live line had us buzzing like wasps, unsteady, arms out like zombies searching for brains in webs of bindweed, listening for breathing among the tick, tick, tick. When I tripped over sticky-out legs, landing on flattened weeds studded with rusting beer cans; one gouging a weeping smile in my palm. When I tore off the blindfold to see who’d hidden in a place reeking of the dog shit bags hanging from branches like alien egg-sacks, and found Mikey Miller. When I swiped blood across my eyes, learned that dead people aren’t all peaceful as Nanna’s in white-lined coffins, powdery and floral with sleeping eyes – some are like nightmares.
When the youngest of “those bloody Millers” went missing, plucked from the street like a fancy-doodle dog tied up outside the Co-op, bike dumped at the newsagent door so several people had to step over it, grumbling, cursing bad upbringings, Benefits families. When coppers sat in a familiar living room, choking on familiar fag smoke, an unfamiliar dog dragging teats across the floor. When Mrs Miller started ranting and rasping, yellow finger stabbing, her other shirtless, blank-eyed offspring whispering about pigs and paedos. When locals on the news, microphones shoved in their faces while they’re out buying papers, spoke of “feral kids” and how in their day summers were all ice-cream, hula hoops and home for dinner. When fields crawled with searchers, poking with long sticks at every crisp packet and rotting pigeon as if a ten-year-old boy was lurking there among cheesy crumbs and feathers, mean shrew eyes enjoying the fiasco he’d caused.
When I couldn’t sleep for the angry fizz of wet-green-black flies lifting off his slime skin like a shimmering blanket, raging around my face, their feet leaving rank brown freckles on my whitewashed cheeks. When I woke screaming from his face seething, tongue bloated and purple, eyes sour milk, his stench climbing onto my skin, into my mouth, so he stayed with me. When railway workers razed the verge of hide-and-seek weeds, bagged decomposing dog crap and rubbish – the can that cut me, let in some of Mikey’s rot, my arm turning scarlet and tight as the sun. When people left piles of crackling plastic and dyed-blue chrysanthemums on the soil turned almost orange, misspelled messages scrawled on cards, fake as the flowers. When everyone bored of the story, returned to mowing lawns and deadheading hanging baskets, not worried about their kids who were good and smart and surely entitled to enjoy the last of the summer.
When the police came and took Dad; still in pyjama bottoms, watering the bedding plants before the sun got up, gearing up to his second coffee. When I saw Mum’s face and feared the way it stiffened like it does when she’s caught me in a fib, how she didn’t follow me – screaming and grabbing at Dad’s waistband, gently shoved aside by huge men in beards and stab vests – but stayed in the cool sigh of the house. When we were relocated to a beige B & B to escape the smashing of windows, the vile spray paint on the garage door, mum giving me the double as she couldn’t bear the empty space. When Mikey appeared in that borrowed bed, sticky and stinking, bindweed-white stare, words just fly-buzz past his obscene tongue – cotton-heavy with heat and grief I felt his swollen fingers trace the raw scar on my hand, felt a whisper like willowherb petals on my cheek. 3, 2, 1.
Cumbrian writer, JP Relph, is mostly hindered by four cats, aided by tea. She volunteers in a charity shop where she sources haunted objects. A forensic science degree and passion for microbes, insects and botany often motivate her words. Her debut short fiction collection was published in June 2023. Twitter @RelphJp