Carl was jumpy that night. He didn’t lose his even temper with the boys or with us, but we could tell his mind was elsewhere. It was as he poured our three cups of tea that matters came to a head. The teapot hovered successfully over two mugs, but when he stationed it over the sugar bowl and started pouring Ben and I looked at each other.
I know. I’ve been watching him. I’m surprised he’s not tried to put one of the boys in the sink and wash him with the plates from lunch!
That was too much for me. I burst out laughing. Carl’s eyes swivelled to me.
“Rather a sweet tooth you’ve developed, Carl.”
He looked blank. I pointed to the sugar bowl. He looked confused, then horrified, then his eyes met mine again and, I hope, saw that I understood. I certainly had no intention of laughing at him, after all, my own attachment to Ben was still very fresh in my mind. How could it not be.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll have another go.”
“Don’t…” said Ben, softly. Carl looked at him, surprised.
“You’ve been off beam ever since lunch. I can tell. And we both know why, and we both just hope it’ll come right for you.”
He looked, startled, into each of our eyes in turn. “How do you know?”
“Because we too had a quite sudden attraction to each other. Because we too are in love. Because we saw what happened this afternoon between you and Mr McKendrick.”
“Jim. His name’s Jim.”
I looked at Carl, confused, my memory seeking the moment when the man had introduced his Christian name into the conversation.
“How do you know his Christian name?”
He looked confused, then worried. “I don’t know. I just do.”
“He seems a nice bloke,” I said after a pause.
“He is,” he said positively, as if he’d known him for years. “I hope to heaven that he gets the job.”
“Hamish said he would,” I told him.
“I know. But are they always right?”
“About things they understand they seem to be, yes. You know they are. And they seem to have learnt how humans work very quickly, quicker than I ever did.”
“But how can they know what decisions other people make and how they think when they don’t really know the people?”
I shrugged. “I don’t have a clue. But we’ve all seen that they can. Hamish particularly.” I thought for a moment. “You know, if Efan’s always the one who does the first aid, perhaps he’s going to be a doctor when he’s older. And Ben and Aidan always seem to be looking after people so perhaps they’ll be vicars or something. Not that we need more than one. And Hamish knows what people are going to decide, and what they’re thinking. What does that make him?”
“That wasn’t what I meant… and the day we have to have policemen on the Island, I’ll leave! I want us to carry on sorting ourselves out as we do at the moment. He’d not be very busy if that’s what he’s going to be.”
“I don’t care so long as they’re happy and safe,” said Carl, “and so long as Hamish is right about Jim McKendrick.”
“I hope so too,” I told him, “for your sake.”
Once Carl knew we realised what was in his mind he seemed more ‘present’, if that’s the right term. There were no more sugar-bowl type episodes, anyway.
The next day brought no news about Jim or the job, nor did the day after. Carl was beside himself with apprehension and could only be pacified by Hamish who kept repeating that Jim would most certainly get the job, and please would he talk about something else? Carl just looked at him.
“But why don’t you get his room ready?” asked Hamish. Ben and I heard.
“We don’t know if he’d want to live here,” we told him. “He may be offered a room somewhere else.”
“But he’d be with Carl if he was here,” said the unquenched, shameless Hamish. “They both want that.”
“How can you be so certain he likes me that much, Hamish?”
“Didn’t you feel the thing between them when they saw each other? It’s like seeing a bee spotting the pollen in a flower for the first time. They just have to be together.”
I suppose that for a human who was born from the earth that’s not a bad comparison. And although I think there’s probably less mental tension from the bee, and the plant — so far as I knew — doesn’t have a lot to say in the matter, the attraction’s certainly as strong.
Later that evening there was a knock at the door, just as we were thinking about bedtime for the boys. It was the smith. He looked round at them as they watched him, rather warily, looked pleased, and invited himself in as usual.
“You’ve got enough room to let someone stay here for a while, haven’t you.” It was a statement, rather than a question.
“Yes, I suppose so,” I said, “but we’d want to know who it was first. You know — make sure he was all right with the boys, and that we could get on with them.”
“Don’t forget, Aidan, this is the village’s house, not your property. And it’s only one person, and then only until we can find a home for them, or build one.”
He certainly had a way with words.
“And you wouldn’t want someone here who harmed the boys, would you?” I retorted. He looked daggers at me.
“Don’t be cheeky, boy. We haven’t just invited anyone to be the new teacher, you know. It took a lot of discussion and a careful decision.” I felt the tension heighten, and stopped myself turning to look at Carl.
“Who is it, then?” I asked as casually as I could.
“It’s a man called McKendrick…”
And I felt the tension vanish into thin air, and the warm glow of exultation and excitement replace it.
“…who you may have seen when he came to the school to look around. The Headmaster and the Elders thought he was the best for the job here, and as he lives such a long way away he’ll have to live here. We need somewhere for him, as I said. So that’s settled. He starts in a fortnight. Make sure you’re ready for him.”
Wonderful. Just like that. So tactful.
When we’d finally waded through the bathing sessions and had got them to bed and quiet we discussed what to do.
“W..w..would he share with me?” said Carl, doubtfully, wistfully.
I thought. I was sure Hamish would say that he most certainly would do so, and that he’d jump at the chance. But, thirteen I may have been, but I was sure it wouldn’t be right for him to come to a strange place and be immediately told he’d immediately be sharing a bed with someone he’d barely spoken to.
“How about putting him up in the guest bedroom, where the smith wanted Carl to sleep?” suggested Ben. A look of disappointment crossed Carl’s face.
“Ideal,” I said, ignoring it. “If he wants to get together with Carl he can — after all, we’re not going to stop him, and probably Carl won’t!” He looked at me, straight-faced, but said nothing.
Our next visit to the Glade found Angharad and Gwaed both happy, playing together, and already knowing how the boys were and that the new teacher was to be living with us. How did they know? How did we know that Gwaed knew? Oh yes, Angharad told us, but it was obvious that he was happy about it long before she told us that he knew. You must look after him well, she said. People in the Village might be surprised that he should live in the same house as some of the children he teaches, and other children might get jealous. And Carl…
Yes? And Carl…?
…and Carl needs someone too, you know. Although more boys love girls, some boys love other boys, and just as much. You two do, and Carl needs someone now he can’t have you, Aidan.
How did she know? I’d not told her, not even in thought. Ben wouldn’t have done, or I’d have known. I supposed it must be a thing of the spirit, and left it at that.
We watched the two of them some more, playing like… well, like kids. Or like young animals play. Chasing. Stopping to rest and nuzzle at each other. Chasing. A pause for silent communion. Chasing. Playing.
At last we wished them good night and went our way, naked as ever. And half way through the wood Ben stopped.
Why should they be the only ones?
Tag! You’re It!
And he was running off down the hill as I looked after him for a split second, surprised. But as the rush of the spirit of the game hit me I too was running, running as I hadn’t except at school sports, and excited to be playing and carefree after all those months of almost constantly looking after our boys.
It couldn’t be that I was catching him up?
He turned and faced me, only to dodge, laughing, as I reached out to tag him. But I had played before, as we all have, and since the last time I had become stronger, more supple, more cunning. I could now plan ahead and turn on the spot, especially without shoes, and he was much nearer me than he had planned. My own dodge brought my hand to within a few inches of his naked bottom.
He ran on, round the bend, and I could hear as I rounded it that the sound of running had stopped. Think, Aidan… He’s taken cover, and was waiting for me to run past; I just knew it. But which side of the track? I parted the bushes and as quietly as I knew how indianed my way through them until I could see the space where he would be waiting for me. But as I had taken some little time with my manoeuvres he had become anxious (I could “hear” him) and was standing in the middle of the track. The breeze was causing the tops of the trees to rustle, otherwise he would have heard me. As it was I was trying to think quietly, if you understand me.
At last, inch by inch, I pulled myself to the edge of the track, and was gathering myself to pounce like a cat, when the anticipation of imminent surprise got the better of my thoughts and he “heard” me indeed. There was a laugh, and he turned to face… the opposite side of the track! With no more thought I did my cat leap and launched myself at his back. We both fell, fortunately, not onto anything sharp or hard, and proceeded to indulge in one of those wonderful, boyish, happy, tickle fights.
Who got the better of it I can’t remember, but it was probably Ben as he was the stronger. When we last separated and rolled away from immediate contact we were both laughing so hard it hurt.
I haven’t done anything like that for ages! I told him.
I know. We neither of us have. And seeing those two playing made me think we should. It’s only right, after all. You’re thirteen and I’m only two years older.
I thought about it. He was right. I was so busy helping the others to live and learn that I’d not had time to play.
When we reached the house we found everyone asleep, although I was fairly sure that Carl would be wakeful.
Although for nine of us the fortnight that followed was as normal as it can be with seven lively boys to look after, for Carl it was as difficult a time as he could remember since his parents were killed. He was frequently mentally absent, and we had to endure some rather interesting cooking, some of which was either burnt or nearly still alive. I asked him if either Ben or I should take over in the kitchen for the sake of our digestions — though I didn’t actually say that — but he would have none of it. Matters improved a little. It was the following Monday that the smith appeared, just as we were arriving home from school. He was, as usual, curt and to the point.
“McKendrick arrives on Thursday. Is everything ready for him?”
“The room hasn’t been used since we got here,” I retorted. “We can clean it if it needs it.”
“That’ll be a job for Carl,” we were told. I knew he would want to, but didn’t see why the man had to make himself so unpleasant as to tell him to do things. But Carl, naturally enough, needed no second bidding, and went almost immediately to start work with a will, as if the cleaning would hasten Jim McKendrick’s arrival. His absence meant that Ben and I washed up, and for the first time the boys helped. Well, hindered, really. Hindered and damaged. It was after the third plate had hit the floor and smashed that Carl came to see what was happening and was immediately mortified that he was neglecting a job that was usually his. We told him not to be silly.
Thursday arrived, and a rather haggard looking Carl greeted us at the breakfast table.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him when we were, for once, alone.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” he admitted. “I was so worried about… everything.” The finish of the sentence was rather lame, but I knew the real subject.
“It’ll be fine,” I told him.
“But what… what if…” He swallowed. I tried to think past his words, to listen to his mind as we’d been able to at times before, but to no effect.
“What if he doesn’t like me? What if he’s gone off the idea of me? What if he’s not even… what if he’s got a girlfriend?”
I thought for a while, trying to find words that would convince him. I remembered that sudden stop to the conversation — to the very fabric of life, almost — that had happened when the two first became aware of each other. I reminded him about it. “Perhaps he’s thinking exactly the same thoughts as you,” I finished.
He just looked at me, at once hopeful and apprehensive.
It was after school that the ferry was due to dock, we knew. We also knew that Carl had been refused permission — by the smith; who else? — to go to the “port” on the coach which went to pick up any passengers. Like us, he was having to wait until it lumbered into sight and stopped at the Village pub. I’ve never seen anyone so ill at ease, so nervous. I could “hear” his thoughts after a manner, but only as a buzz of anticipation, worry, dread, excitement, hope, and near-panic. We and the boys were excited, hopeful, and eagerly anticipating the arrival of our guest. Our guest who would probably become more than that — more of a resident. We were outside the pub, an unusual event in itself, since it was forbidden territory to anyone under eighteen.
The cloud of dust announced the old vehicle’s imminent arrival, and as he saw it I felt Carl’s mind become suddenly still. Pleased but worried, I looked round to see his face become white, his eyes roll upwards, his knees buckle… I was just able to stop his head hitting the ground, but the rest of him subsided in a heap next to me.
In the excitement of helping him to come round we quite forgot the coach’s arrival, and it was just as his eyes were opening that a pleasant, light mainland voice chimed in.
“Is he all right?”
I looked up at Jim. His anxious eyes were glued to the still-groggy Carl, who was still only just aware of his surroundings.
“I… er… think so. He must be a bit ill, or something. Welcome, by the way. You’re staying with us.”
“Yes, I know, and thanks so much for inviting me. I was looking forward to meeting… you all.” There had been that slightest of pauses, and I just knew that he had been going to say ‘him’.
Carl sat up, groggily, and tried to get to his feet. Jim put out a hand to stop him. “No, stay there if you’ve just passed out. It’s nature’s way of saying you’re doing too much, or are too tired, or have had a shock of some sort.” The look he got in return was so intense that it made Jim smile. “It’s all right. It’s no problem. Let’s just get you home, shall we? Will the coach take us all there?”
This last was to me, and I had no idea of the answer. Jim turned back to the vehicle’s driver, whom we all regarded as being of as dubious an age as his vehicle. He told the man the problem, and asked the question.
So it was that we missed the smith completely. The coach, carrying seven boys, two teenagers and two young men, passed him as he was hurrying down toward the pub. Ben and I grinned.
By the time we reached the house Carl was better, though embarrassed beyond measure. Jim took charge, ordered him to bed and the boys outside to play, and insisted in helping him up to his room with Ben. I put the kettle on.
When they reappeared Jim was a bit straight-faced. “He’s really done in,” he said. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing to him but he’s tired out. He doesn’t even look as if he’s been eating properly. It’s about time you started doing a few of the jobs around here. Your brothers are too young, but two great boys like you ought to be pulling your weight and helping him. Is he your older brother? Or is he someone who’s just helping until your parents get back?”
Ben and I looked at each other, astonished. It had never struck us that anyone coming to live on the Island would fail to have been told about us.
“Carl looks after us all,” I told him. “My Dad and Ben’s parents visit when they can, but we and Carl look after the boys. They are our sons, after all.”
He just looked at me. “Aidan, don’t be silly. You’re too old to be romancing.”
“It’s the truth, Jim,” said Ben. “And I’m surprised the smith hasn’t told you the full story. It’s a difficult one to grasp, I suppose, for an outsider; but not as difficult as it was for us to go through.”
He still looked at us, face set. “I don’t know what sort of game it is you’re playing, but you are, of course, talking rubbish. Perhaps you want to try to lead me up the garden path because I’m a teacher, and at your school — why, I don’t know. You were all right with me when I first meet you all.” Did his face soften a little at the end of that? Had he just remembered Carl again?
“Jim, ask the blacksmith. Ask My dad. Ask Ben’s mum and dad. Ask anyone in the Village. They will tell you what we went through, and that we are to look after a family, our family, that were born out of the earth.”
Another pause. Did I see doubt beginning to gather on his face? No?
“Nonsense. That would be a fairy tale.”
“It was a damn embarrassing fairy tale,” Ben exploded. “Look, I’m not going to fill you in with the details. Carl could. Our parents can. The smith can, just as Aidan says. Please, just go and ask them.”
Again a pause, while it all sank in. It was interrupted by a footfall at the door, and a bout of sniffing and a keening that said that a boy was in pain and scared, but didn’t want to admit it. And, of course, was by now naked. Jim’s eyes opened wide, followed a split second later by his mouth.
I cut my hand. Ruaridh was doing his best not to break down, but the blood leaking from a gash in his left hand was certainly enough to shock someone much older.
“We’d better get a doctor…” Jim was saying, just as Efan followed his brother into the house. I was glad to see that the man had his priorities right, even if he was being faced by the unusual.
It’s all right, I know what to do. Efan was there, of course, as he always would be when someone was hurt.
“It’s all right, Jim. Efan will see to it. And when he’s finished he’ll have made sure there’s not even a scar.”
“He can’t do that! That’s a bad cut. It’ll need a visit to the doctor, and probably stitches in hospital. A six year old can’t just take it on, and nor could you, or even I.”
“He saved Miss Flude’s life. He’s done more healing in school too, before even the Matron has had a look.”
“I can’t allow a potentially dangerous cut to be dealt with by a six year old.”
Ben and I looked at him, exasperated. None of us had seen that Ruaridh and Efan had both slipped out again. The argument began again. “Jim, you don’t know these boys, and how special they are. Efan can heal, using power from the earth. He knows living things. He was born as a… a…” Ben paused, realising just how ineffective it would be to describe their origins as plants. Jim looked at him, waiting. “…as a mandrake. There. Now you have it. They are mandrakes or, I suppose, still boydrakes at the moment.” He stopped, hoping that would persuade the man.
“You’re talking about fairy tales and legends, Ben, and I find it insulting that you’re trying to joke with me in this way when I’ve only just arrived. And when one of your brothers is in danger too, with a bad cut. I can’t fathom out why you should want to, because you’re not likely to confuse me enough to make me leave again, if that’s what you’re trying to do.”
Efan reappeared, Ruaridh’s hand in one of his, and a bunch of leaves in the other. He crossed to the passageway to the kitchen.
“Where are you going, young man?” asked Jim.
“To the tap, to get some water.” And he wasted no time and disappeared. Jim started after him, and we just as naturally followed.
Efan was at the flowing tap, a look of concentration on his face. He held the leaves under the tap, then put some in his mouth, and chewed, although with a look of disgust on his face. When it was softened to his satisfaction, he spat out the wad and smoothed it onto his brother’s still bleeding cut. We all watched silently, Jim with his mouth hanging slightly open. Efan held the wad on the damaged skin, then reached for the remainder of the leaves which he added as an outer dressing to the poultice.
“There. Now you can put something round it to keep it there for a bit.”
“That’s fine,” said Jim, “but it’s not good enough.”
“Because the leaves aren’t clean, because they’ll only stop it bleeding for a bit, and because it needs stitching.”
“When you sew the two sides of the cut together so it heals,” I told him bluntly. He looked shocked, then thoughtful.
“It might be a good idea if the insides are spilling out,” he said just as bluntly, “but if that plant will clean it, bring the edges of the cut together and make them join so they don’t leave a mark, why do you want to stitch them?”
“You know that they’re not just going to do that on their own,” said Jim.
“Yes they will, if I do it right. And I know how to. And I have. I’ll show you in a bit.”
“I’m sorry, but I want him taken to a doctor.”
“No,” I said.
“No,” said a voice from the door. “It’s not necessary.” We swivelled round. Carl seemed to have recovered, and was looking straight at Jim. “Efan is right, Jim. He has powers that you don’t know and none of us can understand. All the boys have. It’s because of their origins.”
“Oh no, not you too!” Jim exploded. “I’ve just been telling these two not to try fairy tales on me, and now you’re doing it. And I thought that you…” He stopped, as if for breath. “…at least would be on my side.” Ben and I both knew that was not the original ending of the sentence, and from the mental chortle from Efan and the recovering Ruaridh I knew they were aware too.
Carl looked straight at him. “Jim, these boys, and Ben, Aidan and I, have all been hoping against hope that it was you who got the teacher’s job here, because it was obvious that you were the best for it, and… and all the kids you taught when you were here liked you a lot.” His face clouded over. “I just hope we and they weren’t wrong.” He turned and left the kitchen. Jim looked nonplussed.
“But why, then, if you do want me to have the job, are you feeding me so much nonsense about these boys? And anyway, why are they naked? All right, they’re young enough for it not to matter, but it’s hardly the done thing to let them play outside with nothing on. And I still want this boy’s injury seen to properly.”
How do I persuade him that we’re telling the truth? And why, my mind rebelled, was he telling me what to do in by own home? I thought, and was aware that Ben was on the same mission. I felt his mind grasp a possible solution, one I couldn’t see.
“Jim, look at their waists. What do you see?”
“Look at their waists. Really look,”
He did as he was bidden. A pause.
“What happened to them? Was it an operation?”
“No. They were born without a navel. They were born out of the earth. They had no need of a navel or an umbilical cord. When it was time, their roots withered away and we had to dig them out before the earth suffocated them by stopping their lungs from working for the first time.”
“But that can’t be! It’s the stuff of legends, as I said. And why…”
“I know,” I said, “but that is how it was. And this is no fairy tale or old legend, this is actual, and real, and happened two months ago.”
“But they’re six years old!”
“Five. And that is how they were dug out. In the last two months they may have aged a year, I don’t know.”
“But…” Another pause, and he shook his head as if to clear it.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” The Briton’s answer to everything, a cup of tea. If in doubt, brew up.
“I think I need one. I still can’t understand why you’re trying to get me to believe all this.”
“You must ask our parents, or the smith,” Ben told him. “They’ll fill in the details that we don’t want to.”
I think by that last look he gave me he really was starting to believe in us, or at least that it was no use arguing any more.
We found Carl in the main room, his head in his hands, surrounded by the other five boys, naked still but strangely silent. As we appeared they started.
What’s happened to him?
Why’s he crying?
How can he be so unhappy when his new best friend’s just arrived?
I quietened them as best I could. He didn’t sleep well last night. We’ve been telling Jim… er… Mr McKendrick about you and how you were born, and it’s a bit difficult for him to accept. And he thinks Ruaridh should go to the doctor to get his hand made better.
But Efan’s better than a doctor!
We know that, but Jim doesn’t, yet.
Jim stopped at the door, seeing that this wasn’t where the joke of which he had thought himself to be the butt was going to finish. He took in the situation. “Carl,” he said softly. “Carl, look. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to cause an upset to you. But I can’t just accept what they’re saying to me, or that you’re backing them up.
Carl looked up. “I hoped you’d just take me on trust.”
“Believe me, if the situation had been less unusual I would have done — I’d have been able to. I mean, you came across as being an immediately sensible and… er… likeable guy when I was at the school. But to an — well — outsider, as you put it, you have to admit that it’s not something I can swallow.”
“No one on the Island would tell lies like that to get around someone.”
“Maybe not, but I’m not an Islander yet, so I don’t know these things. It sounds as if there’s a lot I don’t know. And if a proportion of what they — and you — are saying is true, then there is an awful lot I have to learn.”
“Well,” I started, “there’s a good deal more to our story, but I’d want you to start to hear it from others, not Ben or Carl or me. We can fill in the gaps later, where we can.”
The atmosphere had improved quite a lot by the time we had chatted about more mundane things over a cup of tea for us and squash for the boys. Carl was still rather quiet. I think he had expected some sort of immediate whirlwind to happen between the two of them, and it hadn’t happened. Jim was as ‘ordinary’ towards him as he was to us.
A knock on the door introduced the smith in his usual tactful fashion, though as usual the sight of the boys’ nakedness stopped him for a moment and I suspect softened his attitude rather, for he was almost civil as he complained of Jim’s avoidance of him as he arrived.
Oddly, in the ensuing conversation, during which the boys went outside again to play, it was the smith who cemented into place a bit more of Jim’s belief of the manner of the boys’ birth. He just referred to it in a matter-of-fact way, and apart from a look of perpetual astonishment on the teacher’s face I could tell that he was perhaps starting to accept it.
“It’s a lot to take in,” he said suddenly, when we were talking about something else.
“What?” asked the smith.
“All this about the boys, and special powers, and so on. And… I’d forgotten about Ruaridh’s cut hand! We must see that it’s all right, or make arrangements for him to see a doctor.”
“Cut? What cut? Why wasn’t I told?”
“Efan saw to it. It’ll be fine by now.”
“Nonsense. Anything like that must be properly seen to. Get him in here.”
“You can have a look if you like, but it’ll be fine,” I said.
“Don’t argue, boy. Get him in here and I’ll take him to the doctor.”
“If he needs the doctor, we shall take him ourselves.”
The voice was Carl’s, but, suddenly, the tone was one of Authority. I recalled at the time that the other occasions when he had done something similar were all quickly forgotten, and wondered why. What was odder was that the only time it occurred to me that he had such an ability would be just after he had used it. At other times he was just Carl.
“Of course,” said the smith, meekly. Jim looked at him, confused. I wondered why. By then the event was forgotten even if the smith’s reaction was still current.
Carl hadn’t said anything special, had he?
Ruaridh was called in, and Efan came too, of course. “Will it be cured now?” I asked Efan.
Yes. “Er… yes,” he repeated. “Shall I take the poultice off?”
“Yes please.” I hoped he was right.
Carl’s knots had to be cut, and several turns of gauze strip later we could see the remnants of the leaves. But here were live, green leaves no longer. Those on the outside were brown, as wet and as dead as autumn’s forest floor. Those they protected were now nothing but mud, such as could be seen at the bottom of any autumn ditch; a clean mud nevertheless, which washed off to show nothing but a slight red discoloration of the flesh. Of the jagged, bleeding, dangerous cut there was no other sign. Jim gasped. The smith snorted.
“It’s a bruise, that’s all. You’re worrying me about a bad cut, and there’s just a bruise. Don’t you know the difference?”
“I can assure you, Mr… er… Smith, that when he came in that cut was as bad as any I’ve ever seen. Indeed, I was insisting that the boy be taken to a doctor, or to hospital. It needed stitches. That’s when they started to tell me about the boys and their beginnings, and how they had helped with other people who were hurt or ill.”
“What do you mean?”
So Ben and I had to tell in detail all about the stories of the other children Efan had helped, and about how we first discovered his abilities. When we mentioned Miss Flude the smith snorted. “It’d have been an advantage if that old cailleach had been allowed to die naturally.”
We just looked at him in silence until he squirmed, and when seven small naked boys and three others are all staring at you in disgust it is inclined to mean something even if you are a Village Elder and a Special Person in the eyes of the Spirits. Yes, Jim was disgusted too. It was the first time he had joined with us in support of the boys or their efforts.
There was no spoken retort to the comment; none was needed. Someone broke the silence, and soon afterwards the man left, much to our relief.
“He is not a pleasant person,” said Jim, and who were we to disagree?
He insisted on having a close look at Ruaridh’s cut which, if anything, had faded even more over the ten or so minutes since being exposed to the air. At last he looked up at Efan, then at Ben and me. “Well,” he said quietly, “I still really can’t believe it. By rights this hand should now be red, swollen, painful and still bleeding. Instead it looks as though it had been… what? Knocked lightly by a branch? A bruise that’s so nearly gone it’s been forgotten? I don’t know. But one thing is certain, Efan, you have an incredible ability, and one that will benefit everyone who calls on your help.”
Efan smiled. “It’s easy. I just know what to do.”
Bed time came soon, and after some typical five year old reluctance there was a general movement upstairs with Ben, Carl and me in attendance as normal. As normal we each removed our clothes so as to avoid getting them wet in a bathroom full of small, clumsy boys. We had no idea just how noisy and rumbustious they were, for to us it was all normal — an activity that had become part of life. Because of the din we failed to hear the bathroom door. It was only a cool draft than on my naked bottom that told me it had opened. I looked round, and Jim was standing there, his mouth open, and staring at…
…Carl. Carl who, blissfully unaware, was sitting at the side of the bath, naturally also naked, but partially covered by Padraig, himself almost completely covered by the towel. He was sitting a little way down Carl’s thighs to allow his back to be dried. A fold of the towel moving over him was lying at the base of Carl’s belly, and it first hid, then revealed, the dark hairs that started in a sudden line there. At times the towel moved further to show, nearly, what lay beneath. As Carl satisfied himself that Padraig’s back was dry the towel dropped away completely. There was a half gasp, half whimper from the door, and Jim was there no more.
Only then did Carl look round. “Ok?” he asked.
I never blinked. “Fine,” I replied.
At last they were all in bed and we were able to dry ourselves and put our clothes back on. I wondered what reaction there would be from Jim. He was nowhere to be seen; but when Carl went into the kitchen to make a drink for us all he appeared.
“I was a bit surprised that you bathe them in the nude.” It was a bald statement, but sounded rather like an attack. I was surprised that anyone should think there was another way.
“Who?” asked Ben. “Them or us?”
“You. You shouldn’t show yourselves off in front of small children…” He was obviously uncomfortable with it.
“Why ever not?” Ben exclaimed. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Lots of people think it’s wrong — that it’s indecent. That children that young wouldn’t understand.”
“That older boys’ bodies… er… undergo changes.”
“Well, of course they do,” I said impatiently. “Efan will have told them.” Efan the doctor, I should have added.
“But it’s not right. They’re too innocent for that.”
“Innocent? What do you mean, innocent? They’ve done nothing wrong, if that’s what you mean.”
“You don’t understand. Perhaps you’re too young too. I mean that they have no knowledge of what happens with their bodies.”
“Well, they’re pretty good at using them,” Ben grinned, losing his exasperation for a moment. “They do all sorts of things with them, just like any other kids.”
“Yes, but nothing to do with… er… you know.”
“With… er… sex.”
“Well, neither were we when we were showering them.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t. Look, the human body is a work of art. A work of God, or of the gods, whichever you prefer. I don’t hide my face or my feet from them in case they’re offended, so why should I worry if they see any other parts of me?” Ben was really getting into his stride. He was welcome to carry the argument. It had been a long day, and I was tired.
“It’s just indecent.”
“It just is. Young kids like that shouldn’t know about that part of the human body until they’re much older. Until theirs looks like that too.”
“Why not,” said Ben again, now exasperated.
I suddenly thought of something. “When you were at school, did your teachers ever take you swimming?”
“Well, yes,” Jim was puzzled. “Of course they did.”
“And where did they change afterwards?”
“In a cubicle, same as us.”
“And you never tried to catch one of them in the nude? Look over the door, or under it, or make a noise so they had to come out and tell you off?”
There was a pause.
“That’s not the same.”
“But you were interested, and had to behave badly before you could see what you wanted. Isn’t it better to let them grow up with information so it doesn’t seem dirty to them?” I was really proud of myself.
“Well, I think it’s wrong.”
“Why?” said Ben.
“I’ve told you.”
“No, not really,” said Ben. “All you’ve done is to say that you think it’s wrong, but not why — at least, not the facts, just your own feelings about it.”
“What’s the matter?” said Carl’s from the door, where he was carrying a tray laden with mugs of tea.
“Jim doesn’t think it’s right that we strip off to bathe the kids,” I said.
“I’d like to see him have a go without getting drenched!” said Carl, cheerfully. He was still in the usual good mood that bathtime always installed in him.
“But it’s wrong,” said Jim again.
“Nonsense,” said Carl. “You tell me the logic behind your view, and I’ll tell you the logic behind ours, then we can discuss it until we reach a conclusion. But whatever that is, it’ll not mean we change, because it’s the best way of doing it without having to change clothes afterwards.”
“Well, I disagree with it. And…”
“But you’re our guest,” said Carl quietly, all the bounce of his mood now gone. “And on this island, when a guest disagrees with his host he agrees to differ, he doesn’t try to change his host’s ways without good reason.”
Another pause. I knew that Carl was once again dismayed by Jim’s attitude. This was the man he’d suddenly been attracted to, and whose arrival he had awaited so long and so impatiently.
Silence again. I hated awkward situations. Carl handed the mugs around, and we sat looking at the floor.
“Does anyone else do it here?” asked Jim suddenly.
“Bathe their children whilst in the nude.”
“I don’t think we’d know, do you?” I answered.
And that, really, was the end of the conversation.
Carl was very quiet — upset, even. It is unkind, when your hopes are raised so high, to have them dashed by the emergence of a contrary character. He could see his chances of being accepted as more than a friend vanishing as the evening drew to a close.
Nearly in silence, we went to bed.
Jim wasn’t due to start until the following Monday. He would be alone all the day with Carl while the boys, Ben and I went to school. I hoped they would be all right together, that there would be no blazing rows, that Jim wouldn’t storm out. Because despite all his arguments the fact remained that he was the choice not just of our boys but of all the others in their class. And, of course, originally, of Carl. So it was with some alarm that I saw him in the playground over the lunch break. Quite happily he was playing with the kids, whilst the regular teachers stood around smiling, for a change with teacups in their hands, at ease. He, on the other hand, was being teased unmercifully and being treated as a roundabout, an mock-punchbag, a tree to hide behind… and both he and the youngsters were loving it, even ours who had seen something of a different side to him. At last the bell sounded, but none of the little ones heard it, they were so intent on this new plaything, this person who understood them who was at one with what they needed. So it was with a shock that they reacted when a voice rang out: “OK! Enough! Time’s up! Stop NOW!”
The look he got at this sudden voice of authority was comical, from all of the other kids, and from all but one of our boys. It had the effect he needed, and although it shocked them it was obvious from later experience that they still loved him, could treat him as a plaything, a playmate, but up to a point. The point at which, through reasons of time or necessity, the play had to stop or was too rumbustious.
The exception to the reaction he got? Hamish. Hamish the quiet, who liked rules, if established, observed for the good of all. If you play football, he once “said”, everyone plays by the rules, and anyone who doesn’t stops playing. Why should anything else be any different? At thirteen and fifteen neither Ben nor I were into grey areas, so we just had to agree with him. And now, Hamish just smiled slightly, and was seen to talk quietly to one of the more ebullient boys who seemed unaffected even by Jim’s commands. I hoped that Jim would notice.
Once they had obediently trooped back inside, we crossed to him. “Congratulations!” said Ben, heartily. “That was good to watch. Quite some spectacle.”
He laughed. “It’s not exactly something I was taught at Teacher Training, more an instinctive thing. Perhaps I was lucky with my own teachers, because I think that’s where I learned it.”
“Well,” I said, “it certainly works.”
He smiled. “What makes it more effective is if you have one or two of them on your wavelength. Hamish, ever since I started play, was both playing with the others and talking in a corner to one or two of the others who were going a bit too far. He was almost policing them.”
He noticed, I thought. I “heard” Ben agree. “He’s a good kid,” I said.
At that moment our bell rang, and we had to go back ourselves. But we did so with lighter hearts than the night before.
We arrived home tired, as each of us had been involved in football matches. The boys, as usual, were playing outside, and their clothes — and those of their friends — were strewn around the area where they were playing. We smiled as we made our way indoors. An empty indoors: of neither Carl nor Jim was there any sign.
We were puzzled: we were worried. Puzzled because Carl at least should have been there to look after the boys — although increasingly it was becoming obvious that between then they could look after themselves and anyone else who had a problem. What Efan couldn’t do with a handful of freshly picked leaves or freshly dug roots was not worth doing when it came to injuries. And with the young Ben and the young Aidan to comfort, and Hamish to sort out the squabbles, we knew they could come to no harm that arose amongst them. But still… he should have been there. Jim, of course, was a free agent. We hoped they hadn’t had some sort of violent argument; after all, Jim was still unwilling to come to terms with the boys’ powers, even less with their origins.
We went to the kitchen to see what we could do about cooking a meal for us all, when there was a sudden hush to the mental background clamour that was the boys and their friends playing. We stopped too, wondering, hoping this was not an injury or something we’d need to deal with. But to our relief we “heard” Carl.
It’s all right. He’s just had a bit of a shock, that’s all. He’ll be fine in a minute.
You took him up to the Glen. This from Padraig, the boy who we’d noticed to be most interested in the Island’s folklore, part of which was their own birth.
Yes. He had to see for himself what the truth is. Without it he could be against us in an emergency.
I had no idea what he was talking about, and neither had Ben. But it suddenly occurred to me that Carl was talking to the boys in their minds, just as we did. But he…
Aidan and Ben are home.
It was suddenly obvious to us that we should go out to see what the sudden silence was about. We knew it had to do with Carl and Jim, but everything else about it had cleared from our minds.
Jim looked as if he had seen a ghost, and was still suffering from shock. White faced, tousle haired, stumbling feet, he shambled past the statue-like children and into the house. We helped him into a chair. Carl bought in a cup of tea. Gradually the noise outside resumed.
It took him all that evening to regain his speech and anything like normality. From the chair where he seemed to have taken root as firmly as a mandrake, he watched the boys and Carl and us as we went about our business of feeding them, bathing them and putting them to bed. Finally we sat down beside him.
“Now do you understand?” said Carl, kneeling in front of him and looking into his eyes. For a fleeting moment I wondered why he bothered with his voice, but then remembered that Carl couldn’t communicate as well as we could, and Jim was from the mainland. The teacher nodded, though rather feebly.
“Do you see now that what we have are seven living legends at the start of their life?”
I’d never looked on them that way before, and it gave me a glow of pride. Jim nodded again.
“Had I better get you to bed?” Again a nod. Carl looked at us and raised his eyebrows for our agreement.
“Need a hand?”
“No, I’m probably better on my own. It’s a narrow staircase.”
“Ok,” I said. And then did a double take. “Are you — well — coming back down again?”
He stopped and turned.
“I... think so.”
He looked a bit wretched.
“He needs me at the moment. It’ll be all right. Nothing will happen — unless he wants it to.”
It was a good thing we all knew each other so well. Ben and I knew exactly what he meant. We went to bed with some apprehension, nevertheless.
And in the morning it was as if nothing had ever happened. Carl and Jim were up early, and both were smiling and laughing. Jim looked at the boys with a new respect, a respect that became less obvious as breakfast continued and they proved that they were, indeed, just ordinary kids.
Most of the time.