I wished someone would stop hammering.
Why is there a noise of kids shouting?
Can’t they keep the kids in the junior class quiet?
Is a teacher sick? They sound as if they’re running wild.
How can I sleep with the juniors making so much noise?
The paradox of sleeping in school, while not completely unknown for me, certainly hadn’t ever before included lying down, and in a bed at that. Faced with such a puzzle to sort out my brain dragged itself into something approaching wakedness. The sounds of children continued, but I could distinguish no words. What was…
Interesting, isn’t it, at what point in waking up the logic of normal life floods back? It took me, I suppose, some ten seconds that morning, before I realised that the children making the noise were…
Mine? Ben’s and Mine?
I blinked stupidly, until the memories of the previous night came flooding back. And with them came the question again: why were they making such a noise? And… hang on… they’d never made a noise at all yet! They’d had no need to.
Before I was really awake I shot out of bed, fearing the worst. What had happened? Were they running wild? Had someone come into the house? Where was Ben, anyway? Surely he should be there beside me? What…?
I ran to the door, opened it, and the noise hit me. But it was a happy noise. There sounded to be no danger here. What was going on? I stumbled down the stairs and into the front room, hardly noticing the smell of bacon cooking, and there…
There were seven small boys, naked, tumbling on the floor, being grabbed and tickled as they came within reach of an arm, by…
My father. I just stood there, mouth open, stupidly. And one at a time they noticed I was there, and rushed up to me, and clustered round, making noises, one or two of which were spoken words. And over it all my brain registered: You’re up! Hallo, Dad! We’ve been playing with Grandad! Are you all right? (This was the young Ben) What’s that smell? Is this what being human is? And one by one they hugged me, as far up my thirteen year old body as a five year old could reach, and looked into my eyes with unreserved smiles. And surely, I hugged them back, and looked them in the eyes too, and saw how happy they were. Then I looked at my father.
When two people know that they have shared an experience that is deep beyond the depth of everyday life, there is a bond. And there is sometimes an unspoken recognition of that bond. Words are unnecessary because each knows exactly what the other has experienced. Such a bond is fatherhood. And I suppose any father and son who are also good friends, presented with the first son of that son, form an incredibly intense bond of shared pride and shared experience that is a purely male thing. It is immeasurable in its depth. The closeness of the two increases further; the love increases, the respect increases from father to son — or rather, from grandfather to father — to the surprise, I suppose of both. Certainly to the surprise of the son/father. And if that son/father is himself only just thirteen… well… there should be another word in the dictionary to describe it. Certainly the overworked ‘love’, meaningful as it is, is entirely inadequate.
I carefully, gently, disentangled myself from my beautiful sudden family, and without taking my eyes from my father’s walked over to where he lay on the floor, propped up on one elbow, still breathing quite heavily from his exertions with his grandsons. I sank to my knees, naked from my bed as I was, and yet unembarrassed, and still musty from sleep, and hugged him as if he had been an eighth son. But for longer, and with the full weight of my tousled head on his shoulder.
For a while, we were alone, but then the boys came clustering around us, quiet now, and with thoughts of love of their own washing through my mind. Dad looked up at them and smiled, rather mistily, I thought.
He cleared his throat. In a voice that was unlike his own, as different as I had ever heard, he wavered rather than spoke: “I’m sorry I didn’t believe… I still don’t know how… but they’re wonderful, and they’re so obviously yours — and Ben’s — that… well, they’re Family.”
He paused, trying, I suspect, to get his equilibrium. Then, almost sharply: “I’m proud of you.”
It turned out that the boys had been having to learn how to say the words that they knew in their head quite quickly so as to play with Dad, and I stored that knowledge in my head for later. It was all very well the three of us trying to teach them to talk out loud… no, no: the two of us. Carl couldn’t — could he? No. Of course not. But once again something nagged at my mind. If Ben and I tried to teach them it would be all too easy for us to make up for the exasperation of their not wanting to use their voice by going back to what they could do. But if Dad were to spend time with them, they would have to learn: they would want to learn.
But the smell of bacon being brought in by a happy looking Carl soon brought back the present to my mind, as I watched six of the boys still tormenting Dad who was loving every minute of it. The last one, my namesake, just sat there, looking at him adoringly.
For once in my life I knew what he meant.
“Breakfast!” called Carl, cutting through my thoughts. At last the present caught up with me: I was the only adult in the room, (me! Adult!) who was naked, and up to that point I’d thought nothing of it. But now…
“Excuse me,” I muttered, and swiftly got up and went upstairs, my mind in a whirl with emotions, pride, puzzlement, confusion and that slightly out-of-control feeling that dealing with a group of young boys brings. But I knew that I was hungry and that the smell of that bacon was getting to me, and it was that alone that stopped me from lying on the bed again to get my bearings in this new life of mine. I found some clothes and flung them on, then went down again where I met a wave of thought.
“Come on!” “This smells too good to wait for!” “What is it?” “Why did you put clothes on?” “Yeah — we haven’t.” “I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” I said out loud. Dad looked at me, puzzled.
“He said he was hungry,” I told him.
He shrugged. “Well, after being used as a sack by my grandsons, so am I.” The way he was looking at me caught me completely unawares. It was the expression I’d seen so many times at childhood bedtimes and at moments of my personal stress whilst growing. A look of love, of care and of pride. But there was something tempering — no, augmenting — it. I caught a glimpse of his emotion, and now equal with the love in him was the pride he felt for me. It was different from the old relationship at home with my brothers. There, because of his attitude and care for us I knew of the love, but here, I could feel he was talking to an equal, someone who he loved just as much, but who he knew he was at ease with in a different way. It’s difficult to explain, even now, so long after the event. At the time, at thirteen, I could no more put it into words than fly to the moon. But now I suppose I know how it feels to have another life started, life that is of you yet not yours; life that you are responsible for yet have no responsibility for; life which you love, yet did nothing directly to start; life that loves you because you have been given a magic name, and have done nothing to prove yourself unworthy of it.
That breakfast was amazing. Mind-boggling, even, to Ben and me, to my father and Carl. We four adults — well, one adult and three boys of varying ages — were dressed, hungry, and sitting around a table. Seven five-year-old boys sat between us, naked, hungry, and fidgeting. The smell of grilled bacon was having the effect it always has on the hungry male and as a result eleven stomachs were rumbling and eleven mouths watering. Four of those present couldn’t wait to tuck in: seven of those present had cottoned on to the fact that this was cooked pig and were totally confused because of its origins and because of the nature of their birth.
They had no particular love for members of the pig family, but the idea of consuming the flesh of an animal was something that beings that had developed, let’s face it, as plants, couldn’t cope with. They weren’t disgusted, they were just puzzled. I think they might have learnt quicker if we hadn’t thought in our minds what bacon was — if that had been possible — but it was also Carl’s fault for telling them that fried tomatoes grew from the earth…
After a circular and involved lesson in human and plant biology, where they came into the growing process, what humans had to do to keep alive and not just fade away in pain with no energy at all, and why it was not possible any longer for them to tap their roots down further and drink nutrition from the soil, we got them to think about taking the first mouthful. It was Ruaridh who picked up a piece of bacon and brought his teeth down on it, cautiously, his mouth watering visibly as he did so. And as his saliva worked its magic and the taste buds received their first messages, such a mental shout of wonder rang out that I was amazed my Father never heard it. I could see by his face, though, that he had felt the sudden release of tension, and almost immediately all seven pairs of jaws were working furiously as if to make up for lost time.
That first meal was a messy business.
And the bacon was by now cold.
We all three sighed, and I knew we all had a lot to learn. They had to learn details of the most basic of human social behaviour, and we had to learn what they needed to do to make up for the lost years of learning between birth and five. It would be a long haul.
Carl vanished, having seen that some of them were looking hopefully at the serving dish as if there should have been more, and before long we could smell that other wonderful morning smell.
I kept my mind firmly on flour but off wheat growing in the fields, and majored heavily on water and salt and yeast. Thinking of yeast made them scornful, and I got visions of a white bloom on skin, and an itch that never stopped until the next rain. I explained how humans had found a way of getting their own back and making yeast do something useful. The result was that they attacked the toast, and butter — no, I never thought of its origins either, and nor did anybody else, it seemed — with relish. And then they lounged back in their chairs, hands over bellies which were suddenly feeling full for the first time ever.
I had to. How many times had I done just that on a Sunday morning, the only time we had a full cooked breakfast as a family? It was always a wonderful meal, a team effort between my father and my elder brothers in its production, and one of the things that made Sundays worth while. After that it was always quietness and then Church, and then not much else at all. Very boring for a young boy. But as I’d got older it started to improve as things got a bit freer. And now here were my own boys doing just the same, and looking contented, just as I had always done. And just then I felt contented, too.
I was Ifor who first belched.
The look on his face was astonishing. He hadn’t the first idea what had happened. Dad was about to voice his automatic disapproval, but I cleared my throat and stood up, looking at him.
“I know it’s the first time, Ifor, and you’re not to know, but we don’t do that.”
Why? I couldn’t help it.
“I know. But I… you need to know for the future.”
Dad looked at me.
“How did you know what he said?”
“You answered him, but he hadn’t said anything.”
“I… er… hadn’t he?”
“No. And now I think of it, it’s not the first time it’s happened.”
Ben broke in, in his quiet, sensible voice. “Mr McKee…”
“And that’s another thing. Ben, please… I know you’re in this as much as Aidan. I can’t have you calling me Mr McKee. And I’m not your father, either, so it can’t be “Dad”. So it’d better be Hamish.”
“But I can’t… I mean… I don’t think… er… well… Can’t it be Dad, like Aidan?”
“Well…” I could see Dad was surprised. “Well, yes. Of course. I’d… I’d be proud.”
Was this really my father talking?
They had all finished eating. None of them had experience of living as a human. None of them had any idea how a human body worked. One by one they all started squirming on their chairs, and it took us a long time to work out what the looks of concentration on their faces really meant. Not until Hamish started crying did we even really cotton on to the fact that something was wrong. I went to look at him, and found that he was holding his willy with one hand, and had the other sort of pinching his bum together.
He had no idea what was happening.
Very quickly we had to take them to the two (fortunately) toilets in the house, and even double up with the bath, basins and shower. Explanations surprised, worried, disgusted, and finally relieved them when they found how easy it was to feel better. Dad took them back downstairs after we had all cleaned them up, and we all set to without pleasure to clear up the results from all the makeshift receptacles we had had to use.
“We’re not having that again,” I said firmly to the other two. Oddly enough, they agreed.
Lavatorial instructions are not the nicest topic for visitors to walk in on, but when the door was flung open I saw no reason to stop as soon as I saw who it was who was intruding on us without invitation.
I expected him to interrupt in his usual bullying manner, but when he saw the seven small boys there, all looking up at him with wide eyes, he was struck completely dumb. The wideness of their eyes was due partly to the apparent complications of the bodily functions that humans have to observe, and only partly due to the physical size of the visitor. And his ugliness, I thought. Ben chuckled.
The silence continued for a comically long time. At last, Aidan, my namesake, piped up in a real voice.
“It’s all right, Aidan, all of you. He’s the village blacksmith. He’s harmless.” As soon as the words were out I knew it was the wrong thing to say. It broke the spell, and he shot me a malevolent glare.
He doesn’t like you.
Perspicacious boy, that Aidan.
I know. I don’t like him either, but we’ve got to be nice to him.
Because he’s… Er… in charge.
Yes, but he… er… started things off. I’ll tell you later. He likes you, anyway.
I was surprised to find that the man’s face was softening again. But I suppose seven good looking boys sitting, naked, staring at you, is not an everyday occurrence.
At last he rumbled into speech. “It’s… good… to meet you at last.”
That was it. Nothing more. It got a faint smile from some of them. The others maintained their stare.
“Can I have a word, Aidan?” No please, no apology for bothering us when we were in the first stages of getting used to each other. I made for the door. He backed away through it. I felt someone else following me, looked round and saw Ben.
“I only asked for Aidan.”
“What you say to Aidan affects me too. And Carl, come to that.”
“Carl is not significant.” This grated on me, far more than I thought it should, and I wondered why.
“Carl is a wonderful help to us all,” I started indignantly. “If it wasn’t for him, some of them would be dead.”
“We were woken last night,” I started, but then couldn’t recall what it was that woke us. “Anyway, we knew somehow that they were being born. And that they were panicking.”
“Because they couldn’t get out of the earth. We had to rush up there and dig them out.”
Ben chimed in. “You can’t know. You weren’t there. If we had arrived any later one at least would have suffocated in the earth. We had to clear all the soil from their faces, then round their chests, otherwise they couldn’t have breathed.”
“You should have called me.”
“There wasn’t time. By the time we’d got to you, the first one would have been dead.”
“It was more important to call me.”
Ben and I just looked at each other.
At last Ben took the reins and pulled. “If… you… think… that the life of one of our boys is worth less than your presence at the birth of the rest, then I have nothing but contempt for you.”
The silence seemed… well, as if one of the teachers at school was winding the handle on a machine which would release a giant spark of static electricity. Breathing stopped as we waited for the bang as the discharge jumped to earth…
…but nothing happened. The smith had drawn himself up to his imposing, frightening full height, his face was red, but there was silence. I gawped at him. As the seconds ticked away I was aware that even the boys were silent. Hastily I looked round to reassure myself. Each one of them was staring at the man still, but their expression had subtly changed. From each of them the look was blank: no fear, no revulsion, no anger, no inquisitiveness. Just blankness. I looked at Ben, who was also looking round, then at Carl. And on his face was the same blank expression as the boys’. I looked back to Ben.
I have no idea at all.
As if this was a trigger, Carl’s face relaxed, then broke into a smile.
“Aren’t you even going to invite me in?” asked the blacksmith gently, his face echoing Carl’s smile.
The next week none of us went to school. We were up from dawn to dusk being teachers ourselves. Our sons had to get used to eating and defecating, sleeping and waking, bathing and dressing… oh, dressing! The thoughts of utter contempt that anyone would want to cover themselves up! The disbelief that we, their parents, would want them to cover themselves up. It took ages of circular argument to persuade them that we’d love it if they were unclothed all the time, but that firstly the rest of the people around would scream if they were seen with nothing on in public, and that in winter they would need to keep warm. In fact we were almost always naked in the house, all of us: it was easier that way. Certainly bedtimes were easier, since it’s far less uncomfortable to bath a reluctant boy if you’re naked as well. The wallpaper in the bathroom was the only thing to suffer.
The only problem to this lifestyle was when visitors called unexpectedly. Even my father was taken aback on his frequent visits if there was a delay before he was let in, only to find a half-clad son or friend answer the door, who then expressed mild irritation when we realised it was ‘only him’. Eventually we told him to knock in a certain way so we’d know, and after that he was admitted by one of us completely naked. We had lost all worries about his seeing our bodies, something which even two months previously would have been a major incident. It took him a month to become used to it, but he lost his embarrassment eventually. And it wasn’t even as if we’d asked him to strip too.
The smith visited once more, and had returned to his usual unease-making self. I don’t know what it was about him apart from his size and the way he filled a room, no matter how big, just by being there, but I was always on edge when he was with us. So was Ben. It might have been the memory of the Spirit telling us that he was untrustworthy. Certainly we had no intention of letting the boys alone with him as he suggested one night on the pretext that we needed a night away from the house. True, we did. All we were getting to do was to nanny, eat, sleep, nanny, teach, eat…
The weekend after they were born — I have to use the word — we finally thought we were winning. It wasn’t so much that we were getting them to do what we wanted, it was that they were finally realising that we weren’t the only people in the world, that they had to be what others expected them to be, that the sudden appearance of seven boys of exactly the same age in a small community was going to be surprise enough for others without their suddenly stripping off their clothes and finding a soft patch of earth to defecate on or widdle in.
Audible speech was getting better: I’d say that it was equivalent to about a four-year-old’s. Their actual thought processes which Ben and I, and apparently sometimes Carl, could ‘hear’ was well in advance of that, particularly in terms of wild, growing things. It seemed logical that it should be so. On the Sunday, when they were all in bed and we three were getting about the only daily respite we could, Carl calmly announced that he thought he could cope with them on his own if we wanted to get back to school.
We looked at him, astonished. “But they’re always on the go! They’re always asking questions! They’re not really ready to use the toilet all the time yet!” Ben had had a trying day with Efan, who seemed at times to let excitement at discovering something new get the better of him. He was so crestfallen when it happened that it was all we could do to stop ourselves laughing at him, but it had taken the sting out the situation and forgiveness was unnecessary.
“I think they have. Efan’s was just an accident — I’m sure it won’t happen again. And besides, I think they’re at the stage when they need the first taste of what school is like.”
That silenced us completely. Our boys. School. It wasn’t a connection we’d made.
“You mean, you think they should start at the Infants’?” Carl was the oldest of us, and although Ben and I were the parents we relied on his knowledge to steer us through the difficulties of life.
“No, not yet. But at the moment we’ve been teaching them things when the need was there. They make a mess eating, we tell them how to do it nicely. They put their shorts on back to front, we show them how to do it properly. Sometimes they’re not even all watching when we do it, so we have to show them two or three times.
“If we sat them all down and taught them like they were at school it’d save time, get their brains working better, and get them ready for school classes. And…” he paused. I wondered what was coming next. “And perhaps we could get some of the other kids to come up and play with them.
As soon as he’d said it I knew we should do just that. Only by introducing them to non-critical company could we gently get them used to the presence of other kids. And you can’t get much less critical than a five-year-old in the company of his peers. And girls too… I wondered what they’d make of them. And then I remembered Angharad.
We’d never been to see her. She’d been alive a week and we’d forgotten all about her! Our only daughter. My sudden shock and my sick feeling of having let her down must have made itself felt even to Carl. I could feel both him and Ben in my mind… To see her you should go. Needs to know you care, she does. How does he know? I thought.
Oh God, I’d forgotten with all the work we’ve been doing. We must go, and now — we ought never to have forgotten…
I know. I feel awful. I hope she’s all right.
To get them used to wearing clothes we had by that time taken to being clothed ourselves most of the time, except at bath or shower times, so we didn’t have to brave the Village’s feelings as we hurried out of the house, Ben and me, past the glowering windows of Miss Flude’s cottage, up the path and into the wood. My mind kept flashing back to the other times he and I had passed the same way; often we had been hand in hand, not because we were scared of the dark, of course, but… well, because it was more companionable. And we had been fired with the burning need to be alone, to hold each other, to explore each other; and for each to wonder how on earth there could be someone else who loved him as much as he loved them. Now, we were filled only with the sense of having somehow neglected our duty, that we were in disgrace, that we were not worthy parents.
At the start of the tunnel we hastily stripped, almost ripping the clothes off in our impatience. He was ready first, and without a glance at me ducked his muscular back and struggled through into the Glade. Furiously, I tore off my underpants and bent to follow him. Once inside I straightened up and cautiously looked around. And became aware…
Every other time we had been there, the Glade had welcomed us. It seemed, to us alone, that there was light there. And our own special area was open to us from the moment we entered, if we were alone. But this night it was as cold and as dark as the outside wood, cold and cheerless. Ben was standing puzzled and disappointed, right in front of me. My annoyance at his rush into the tunnel without me evaporated, and as I slipped my hand in his I knew that this time, this time it was indeed for mutual comfort.
I’m sorry. Why was he apologising?
For not waiting for you.
Oh. That’s all right.
A pause. What do we do now?
Go over to the Grove? See if it’ll open?
Ok. So, still hand in hand, and by now close together, we crossed where the saplings had been, and walked up to the opposite side, still expecting it to open as if it were the Red Sea and we the Israelites. It remained obstinately impenetrable. We turned and looked at each other.
Don’t know. You cold?
An arm went round my shoulders. Mine went round his chest. We stood, and watched, and waited.
So’m I. Shall we warm each other?
Every day between the births and now had seen us both collapse into bed and fall almost instantly asleep. The constant care, the constant questions, the cooking and washing up, the bathing, the questions… Each one of us was worn down at the end of the day. We had had no time to ourselves, none at all, neither at the end of the day nor at the end of the night. It was always a sound from a bedroom that awoke us, and that was the sign for all of them to start the daily round of wash, question, eat, question, teach, question, clear up…
So now, tired thought we were, as we moved to bring each other’s body into full contact, the feeling of excitement came on us suddenly, fresh as if it were for the first time again. And with it the love which had been slumbering, drugged by the need for urgent, practical things, awoke, and we looked into each other’s eyes with no need for urgent communication. And there was the awoken love, real and fresh and exciting and yearning, nearly incredible. Despite the inhospitable temperature and the lack of welcome, we sank to our knees and kissed, and watched the other’s face, and kissed… and all the time our bodies’ lifeblood was changing its course so as to bring the manhood of each of us to the ready. It was only as we swayed down to lie on the grass that I realised the temperature had increased along with the light. I stared over Ben’s shoulder and made a sound.
The Grove was open. Open in all its warm, soft, gently lit glory. And there… there was Angharad, watching, smiling.
Your love has returned. That is good. The Grove stays closed if there is no love.
So was that it? Comfort comes only to those whose love was expressed?
She seemed well; clean, tidy — why is it that girls seem always to stay tidier than boys? Our boys had all the benefits of baths, basins, toilets and paper in them; all she had was the rain, grass, leaves… oh well, did it matter?
Gwaed licks me clean, she said happily.
Are you well? It seemed such a mundane thing to ask, especially as she so obviously was.
I am. I am loved here by all. I learn the way of the woods, of the wild growing things, of how man has changed them, and I play… I play with the dew, with sticks and stones, and Gwaed is with me. And if it rains and I want to keep dry he has a warm coat and we lie together. And at night we are in a nest of grasses and feathers, and his sister is at my back.
It seemed that her talk flowed as rapidly as the boys’, and she was happy with her life. But something seemed to be worrying her. She was more able to put her thoughts into words than her brothers were despite being the same age. My thoughts must have given me away for she looked directly at me.
Where are my brothers?
They are asleep. Ben was ready for the question. They are at home, in bed, tired out.
She digested that. Then: Is it true that humans have things over their heads at night?
I was puzzled. What did she mean?
I mean, do they sleep with something over them? Something high?
In a bed, with covers, in a house, with a roof. Ben was more alive than me.
But that is how all the humans live!
It is, Ben said, and because your brothers are human they do too. Do you want to come and see?
A scared look crossed her face. I dare not. If they saw me, they’d do something horrible.
What? I asked.
Who? Ben asked.
The other humans. They wouldn’t understand, and they’d keep me there somehow.
I couldn’t argue. If a strange, small, naked girl was wandering around a night time village, and someone saw her they’d surely lock her in a bedroom, and ask questions in the morning. But then again, if Ben and I took her, she could stay and see them the next day and no one would be any the wiser. But my thoughts betrayed me…
No… I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be somewhere with — a what? a roof? — over me. Please can’t you bring them here?
Yes, but not tonight because they’re sleeping.
Are they happy? Are they all growing?
Yes. They are very lively, very happy, just as happy as we are with them. They have met my father and love him as much as they love us.
She looked pleased. I really want to see them.
We’ll bring them here tomorrow.
Without warning she ran over to me and hugged me. The tears started in my eyes, though God knows why. She was happy, loved… it was just that her existence was so different from ours and from what the boys’ life was becoming that I wished I could take her back with me. But at the thought she broke away, and looked at me warily.
No. I must be here. I cannot live… under something, like the boys do.
It’s all right. I know. We know. We know there is a need for you here. We just want you to be as happy and safe as they are.
I will be. I am.
She hugged Ben too, and he looked into her eyes trying to read her happiness. She smiled as she backed away from him.
Really. I could not live inside. And what would Gwaed do?
She crossed to the encircling undergrowth and paused.
We promise, we both said. She waved her hand and slipped into the bushes with hardly a sound. The Grove was silent, and seemed devoid of life without her there, and for the first time we felt as though it wouldn’t be right to stay there. A look between us was enough: we crossed into the main clearing and found our way to the tunnel, feeling the cold night air on our bare skin as we did so. Putting clothes on after a visit there was odd, but the night was cold, especially after the warmth of the Grove. Hand in hand once again we walked home, and this time we were able to talk — quietly — about Angharad’s fate. To that time, we had been so taken up with the boys, and more recently with getting to the Grove to see her, that we had not discussed her at all. As it was, we discovered we were in no position to do anything about it. She was, in appearance, totally human, yet in her attitude to everything around her she was indeed as wary as a fawn, and as nervous. We agreed the main thing was that she was safe, and happy: we were both of the mind that if we tried to take her away she would not be able to adapt to ‘normal’ life as the boys were (generally) doing.
There was still no light from Miss Flude’s cottage. This puzzled us rather, as the awkward old lady was known for her late evenings, when she would be happy to be at her window so as to criticise everything that went on around her. As we looked for signs of life, a small shadow was seen to leave the shadows at the side of the house and run down the lane, right at the bottom, and disappeared from view. It happened so quickly that we were both still gaping as it vanished, for instinctively we knew that the shadow was none other than one of the boys.
Who was it?
I couldn’t tell, not at this distance. What’s more important is why?
We ran. At the front door we found a small, naked boy fighting with the metal of the lock, mewing small sounds of frustration as he did so. At the sound of our approach he stopped — and I mean stopped; he stood as still as any stone, so that if we had not known he was there we would have missed him in the dappling of shadows that covered the door.
Who is it? I was wondering to myself.
There was a small movement as he ‘heard’ me, the movement of relaxing muscles. He looked round, white faced in the moonlight, and inarticulate feelings of relief and anxiety radiated from him. I couldn’t be angry that he was out of bed so late, when he should have been asleep for hours; he was just so… well, there’s no other word for it… sweet, standing there, his emotions broadcasting to us his anxiety. Ben was with him before I could get to him.
What’s the matter, old chap?
It’s the woman in that cottage. She’s sick, like her leaves are wilting.
How do you know?
I was, I suppose, a bit jealous that Ben had got there first and was the one to be hugging him. Efan looked at me as if I was brain-dead. Can’t you feel her?
I stood in the cool air and listened, although I had no idea what he meant.
What? I was confused. It was late, and although he was sweet he really needed to be indoors, asleep. How can you know there’s something wrong with her?
I can feel it… can’t you?
No… and I really don’t believe that you do either. Sorry, Efan, but she’s human, and you don’t know much about people yet.
He looked defiantly at me. Daddy, she is ill. She needs a simple thing from the earth. I know that mint has it in it.
We were both now looking stupidly at him. Up to that point we were both, I suppose, thinking he’d had a bad dream or something and was sleepwalking. But now…
How do you know?
I just do.
But… We stood and looked at him. What to do? If we took him seriously and there was nothing wrong goodness knows shat Miss Flude would say. If we didn’t. and she was really ill…
Can’t it wait until morning? We could call the doctor.
What’s a doctor?
Oh no… not at this time of night!
Someone who knows how to make people better when they’re ill.
But I know how to.
I just do.
A fifteen year old and a thirteen year old had been brought to an impasse by a five year old. Now what?
As we stood there, looking one to the other, I was aware of a change in his thoughts. All of a sudden, as if he had been mentally drawing breath, a ‘shout’ nearly overcame me. I looked angrily at him.
“Efan! That was horrible. It was like being deafened.”
He looked at me, puzzled. What’s deafened?
“Like being too close to a loud noise.”
That was better. I could tell he understood that.
What was it for?
I have to get the others.
“No, no… they’re all asleep. Let them be. Look, we’ll call a doctor in the morning — or at least we’ll call on Miss Flude and make sure she’s all right.”
But we must help her now! The anxiety was strengthening, I could hear. But there was a noise at the door, and an adult voice said “No — let me… Oh, Ruaridh, do get out of the way, there’s a good… Oh, it’s you.” Carl was at the door, and all round him were the other six. Ruaridh was looking anxiously at Efan.
“What’s going on?” asked Carl
“We were just coming back when Efan ran out from behind Miss Flude’s cottage. He says she’s ill, or something.”
She is Ill. I told you.
“Don’t be rude, Efan,” I said automatically.
“But how do you know, Efan?” Carl was more patient.
“… I just do… Please?” It was still quite a job to get words out of them, especially when they weren’t in what I called ‘learning mode’.
“What d’you think we should do, Carl?”
“I think we should all go over there now, and see what’s needed.”
This was not the answer I was hoping for from the sensible Carl. It seemed too drastic a measure for just a small boy’s say so, even if the boy was rather special… And then, of course, I got to thinking. Perhaps, because they were special, they could really see and hear things that we couldn’t.
It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that we should go the old lady’s cottage, although what we would do once there I had no idea. I dreaded going into the place, especially with one or other of the boys. She was so much against us, against being naked, against anything unusual in the Village, that if she saw three teenagers (I was proud to be able to call myself that) and seven small boys who she probably regarded as the work of the Devil — and they naked, too! — she would probably have a heart attack. Idly as we hurried along I wondered if Efan knew a cure for one.
The house was dark. I looked at Efan to see his reaction, and found that he was white faced, eyes wide open, with the suspicion of tears starting. Concerned, I hurried to him, all worries about our probable reception gone in the instant of wanting to care for him. He accepted my hug and looked me in the eyes.
We must find some mint… there must be some in her garden. Pick it carefully. Don’t bruise it. Leave the roots so it can grow again. Hmmm, I thought, even in that moment. If only he knew the difficulty we had keeping mint from growing and spreading everywhere… But I left him, and scurried obediently around the back of the house where I thought the vegetable garden would be sure to be.
My panicky shout brought them all running, away from the front door where they had been trying to find a way in. They clustered around me and the recumbent form of Miss Flude lying on the path, doubled up, still fighting for breath. Three teenagers and six small, naked boys gaped, worried but powerless. The seventh small, naked boy pushed his way through, a small bunch of green stems and leaves in his hand. The scent of mint came to me as he passed, and I sniffed appreciatively. I always had loved the smell, whether from bruised leaves pressed between my young fingers, or in cooking, but somehow it seemed stronger, more potent now. I wondered why. Something to do with the night air, perhaps?
Efan sank to his knees beside the woman’s face, and bent over. Her eyes flicked open for a moment, then closed again in pain and panic at her inability to breathe properly. And, probably, in shock too. The boy took a sprig of the herb, looked carefully at it, then stripped off the leaves. Throwing the stalk aside, he dug a hand in the soft earth of the well-tended bed by the side of the path and looked at the leaves in his hand. Before we could stop him or ask what he was doing, he had put them all in his mouth and was slowly chewing them. I shuddered. Raw mint! And why? But what was this? He had bent to the woman’s mouth and seemed to be breathing over her, blowing his breath in her face, time and time again. When the breath had washed around the woman’s gaunt face, it rose in the clear air to the rest of us standing around…
What I had always thought of as the smell of mint was as nothing, nothing, to this. This was not mint essence such as you might buy in the chemist, or anything similar to it. This was a live smell, a smell of what mint would be, so to speak, if it had been able to have its own way in the world. The potent smell lifted the senses. It brought wellbeing. It made breathing light, and easy, and banished tiredness. It was a cup of tea at the end of the day, but magnified a hundredfold in its resuscitative powers.
As one, we all sighed with contentment. At the sound, Efan looked up and smiled at us, then went back to his patient. Yes, patient. No longer was she the dreadful old woman to be scared of and worried about, but a patient. Of a five year old boy.
He stripped another stalk of its leaves and repeated the performance. As his breath came to her nose, the eyes opened again and looked at him. By this time my senses were in overdrive, and I knew that the expressions which passed over Miss Flude’s face went swiftly from relief to surprise, surprise to horror, and slowly from horror to relief again. And then — and I knew there was no mistake — the expression went from relief to… love? Her? Love? How…?
By this time she was breathing normally, and the eyes had closed again, but this time into sleep. Once more Efan took mint leaves to his mouth and, now very gently, breathed on the woman’s face. The expression changed again, subtly. The look of peace that came softened those habitually angry features, and I suddenly thought, even at the age of thirteen, that here was a striking woman who once must have been a local beauty. What had happened…?
She is asleep. She will be all right now.
But our little lad was swaying, the face still white, but with drooping eyelids. Was this use of — what? Power? — physically or mentally draining? I caught him as he fell, and held him, prone, in my arms.
“Here, let me take him,” said Carl.
“No, I’ll put him back to bed. You’d be better taking Miss Flude into her cottage and making sure she’s OK.”
He saw the sense in that. I took Efan, still sleeping in my arms, out onto the track. At the gate I looked back. Carl and Ben, assisted by six elves, it seemed, were carrying the old lady into the cottage. I smiled, despite the mint-scented dead weight in my arms, and returned home. A his head touched the pillow his eyes opened, saw me, and he smiled faintly. She’ll be all right.
You know, I think she will. I kissed him, covered him, and immediately he was asleep again.
When the others returned they were buzzing with what had happened, but I’m sorry to say I stopped them all short. “Efan’s exhausted, I’m tired, and so should you be. There’ll be plenty of time in the morning to talk about it, but now you are none of you to make any more noise to wake him. Off to bed with you, and quietly.” There was something in my tone that sounded different even to me, and they all looked slightly astonished, but turned, quiet now, and said their goodnights.
No boy of five ever shuts doors, so after I’d done so I turned to the other two. “That goes for all of us. I’m ready for bed, and I think we all should get some rest after tonight. They’ll all be up early enough, except Efan, and we need to be in a fit state to deal with them. Coming?”
To my surprise they both nodded, and the door was opened again. We made sure all the others were in bed, kissed each and every one of them, then went to our own rooms. Ben was about to say something, but I tiredly shushed him.
I was only going to say I love you. He sounded hurt, so I grinned at him and put my arms round him.