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Rhubarb and Custard

Rhubarb and Custard

Siobhan was trying to tie her shoelaces. One loop, over, one finger down and another loop, cross and…

“Franky, can you come and help me please?”

Her big brother sighed as he knelt by her side. He was only eighteen months older but he was the best at making knots. He wanted to become a sailor or a pirate.

Then Franky grabbed the house key, slid the rope around his neck and they both left the family house.

It was nearly noon and the sun was playing hide and seek behind the clouds. They walked into the cool air and there were goose bumps on their calves. Mother insisted on them wearing shorts in June despite the unsettled weather in London. The siblings walked down Felix Avenue and went to knock on James’ door. His older sister answered and Frankie blushed for Nellie had done a lot of growing up since she had left to go to secondary school and he could see the curves of her budding chest underneath her blouse. Siobhan would tease him later about the reddish hue of his ears.

James shot out from the dark and damp corridor and his sister slammed the door after him.

“I’ve got my brother’s football! Let’s play,” he shouted.

The children flew out like scattered birds and they quickly started an elaborate game in the empty street. There were very few cars in those days and Felix Avenue was a cul-de-sac.

They moved the bins to create a goal and Siobhan ended up as goalkeeper:

“Why can’t I be an attacker?” she complained.

“Because you are a girl!” snapped James.

“That ain’t fair, I run faster than you,” she retorted.

But James shrugged his shoulders and Frankie did not dare challenge him. After all, it was his football.

The game went on and Siobhan felt her pale skin roasting under the sun. The grey clouds shielded her but she could still feel the burn on her pearl-shine Irish skin.

“I am bored!” she screamed. But the boys were busy passing the ball to each other and she gnawed at her nails to occupy herself.

After a while she decided to run out of the goals and swiftly took the ball off James. He swore in anger and ran after her. Siobhan circled around the bins while her brother shouted she was out. She dribbled ruthlessly and finally passed the ball to Frankie before James lost his temper completely and tried to kick her shins instead.

“What are you doing!” He stamped his feet. Frankie tried to defuse the tension and sent the ball back to James. The boy whose face was speckled with freckles was spitting in rage. Then he kicked the ball as hard as he could. He misjudged his aim and sent the leather ball too high so it went straight over the sidewall.

His anger ebbed as they heard the ball ricochet behind the wall onto a flat concrete slab.

“Shit,” said James. Look what you made me do!” He sat down on the floor as if losing the ball had cut off all his energy supplies.

“Where did it go?” asked Siobhan.

Frankie ran to the wall and jumped until his fingers reached the top, he then used all his muscle power to hedge his body higher until his eyes reached over the wall.

“It fell in Mr Bard’s backyard.”

Siobhan stared at him. Mr Bard was the local funeral director. An affable man, homely and frugal, who always wore a shabby dark grey suit and spoke in hushed tones even when talking to people in the street. He was polite and sometimes gave the children some coins to buy sweets at Mrs Patel’s corner shop. Frankie liked boiled rhubarb and custard sweets but his sister preferred Sherbet Fountain that she licked from the well of her palm. Despite his gentle manner, Mr Bard worked with the dead and the idea in itself terrified the children.

“What are we going to do?” lamented James. “My brother is going to kill me.”

“Don’t worry,” said Siobhan as she put her hand on his shoulder, “we will just ring the bell and ask him to give it back.”

He shrugged her hand off him and started sulking.

“I am dead if he keeps it. My brother got the ball for his birthday and he did not want me to touch it.”

Frankie took it upon himself to fetch the ball. He rang the doorbell but the shop was closed. It was lunchtime and Mr Bard was likely to be at the Queens pub eating his pickled sandwich washed down with a pint of Scrumpy.

“We will wait until he comes back,” he started.

“No way man, my brother can come back any minute.”

“All right, let’s climb over the fence and fetch it ourselves then.” Siobhan stepped closer to the wall and waved at her brother to help her.

“I don’t think we should,” he said. His face was pale and his eyes were shifty, darting in all directions in order to avoid hers.

“What’s coming over you? I will go if you two are scared.”

Siobhan grabbed the wheelie bin and placed it against the red brick wall. She used it as a step. When she reached the top she stared down at the back garden. It was mostly the colour of grey concrete and there were wooden panels stored against the walls. They would become coffins once several layers of varnish was applied to them. While she took in the scene and her friends stared at her back anxiously, Siobhan finally understood why her brother had been reluctant to climb up by himself. There were two white sheets covering separate metal trolleys. Siobhan knew there were bodies underneath. The shapes reminded her of her parents asleep under the blanket in their bed.

She did not feel any fear grab at her chest. She kept breathing regularly and was just infinitely conscious of the leaves bristling in the skinny tree on her right side and the sun that was still searing her forehead and her nose. One old nursery rhyme about all the King's men popped into her head and she was about to whistle the tune when she refrained herself. Would it be blasphemous to sing when she was in the presence of the dead? She did not know.

“I can see the ball,” she shouted back at the two boys. Frankie joined her after climbing atop the wheelie bin.

“Can you see the…” his voice sounded shrill and small as if he was no longer her big brother but a smaller, much younger child.

“Hold on to me, I will get it. I am lighter than you.” Without fear but with slight apprehension, Siobhan did not want Mr Bard coming back early from his lunch catching her trespassing on his property, she slid down the inner wall until her soles touched the concrete slab below. She took a big breath and walked toward the pieces of wood panels. She walked on tiptoe as if trying not to wake the two people sleeping there. There was a pot of varnish with a brush on the floor and she had to walk around it cautiously before she could seize the ball.

“Here you go!” She threw it back into the street and heard James shout with delight as he got it back.

“Thanks Siobhan, what did you see?” asked James.

“Come back now Siobhan!”

Her brother’s anxious face peered from the wall and she made herself walk as slowly as possible. Her nerves were flayed but she had to show she was in control. It was only two figures lying by her side, in the quiet of the afternoon.

“Grab my hand” Frankie was waving his arms at her while leaning over the bricks. His t-shirt was all dusty and Siobhan thought his mother would tell him off.

She held onto him while he hauled her back. He was red in the face and she could see the relief in his eyes when they were both finally standing on the wheelie bin. They were holding hands when they jumped off.

Later in their bedroom, Siobhan was brushing her hair while Frankie was holding his shabby teddy bear in his arms.

“I saw the sheets moving earlier,” he whispered.

“What?” one glance at his frowning face reminded her of what they had seen in Mr Bard’s back garden.

“It was only the wind, Frankie. The wind blowing the sheets.”

He shook his head and clutched his old battered teddy against his chest for comfort.

“I know what I saw,” he insisted.

“Don’t be silly, when we die, there is nothing left. Only the wind blowing.” Siobhan dropped her comb on the desk and sat down on her bed. She pulled the thin polyester blanket over her small frame and lay in the dark, silenced by fatigue and the weight of the day.

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