Torches

Mark Illis

In the darkness a faint spot of light appeared, pale yellow, the reflection of a star untouched by cloud. It blinked out for a few seconds, then reappeared, moving up and down, intermittently hidden behind branches heavy with leaves. Kneeling on the arm of a chair in the darkened study lined with books – smelling of books – he watched the light greedily, his nose pressed against the window, his breath misting the glass.

‘Dive right to the bottom of the pool!’

The sun skittered over the choppy surface, a few cold drops of water brushed his legs and melted on his smooth skin. He heard a bell in the distance chime once, fading to a brief, resonant hum. His toes curled over the edge as he hesitated.

‘Right to the bottom!’

– He’s just a kid, I don’t have to listen to him. ‘Come on then!’

– Eddie says it too, though. He’s a good swimmer.

Still he hesitated, watching the jewels dance, unsure, as if it was a much greater thing he was afraid to commit himself to.

– They’ll splash me in a minute, I’ll dive down deep, deep to the bottom, now, it looks lovely even though it’ll be

Cold! a shock thrilled through him as he hit the water and very suddenly he was in a different body, a less clumsy body, wading downwards. He paused and rolled over and his eyes ached at the light as he squinted. Disorientated, he watched the branches of a tree wave and blur above or below like a thin cloud.

– Right to the bottom.

On the floor of the pool, to his surprise, there was a greenish film, like mould or the mark of a disease. A fingernail whirled it into a tiny mist, dust caught in a shaft of sun.

– Breathe, I want the surface, it’s cold.

He churned upwards, seeming to grope for invisible hand-holds, and as he broke the surface Eddie splashed him full in the face. In return he ducked him while Jenny and Charlie. Eddie’s younger brother and sister, splashed him ineffectually. They played an energetic kind of water polo which seemed to involve him and Eddie throwing the ball back and forth over the heads of the two younger ones.

I knew Eddie for four years, until we were nine and his parents took him out of our school after only one year and sent him to a boarding-school somewhere. The year before that they had a pool put in their garden and I still remember the first months of that summer as an idyllic time spent in and around that pool. The water and the sun, and the big green garden, colour the memory of these months and to think back is disorientating, like trying to imagine myself in a different body.

The ball bounced out of the pool and he pulled himself out after it, water streaming off his body. He ran over the paving and onto the lawn, shivering in the warm sun he picked up the ball and ran back with it.

‘Clean the grass off your feet first!’

– Who? Oh! Quickly, it’s cold.

It was Eddie’s mother, Mrs Fox, calling from the house. He sat by the pool and threw the ball in as he wiped the soles of his feet, transferring the soggy grass to his palms and then brushing and clapping it off.

‘That had grass on it too.’

– The ball? No it didn’t, I didn’t see any.

Eddie threw it back. ‘Better clean it.’

He peeled a blade of grass off the ball, looked towards the house where he saw Eddie’s mother coming out, and jumped in with it.

– Never get warm again now. Why are you watching like that? Don’t watch.

The game continued, a little subdued under the eyes of Mrs Fox. She was sitting in a comfortable swinging seat beneath a canopy, its bright floral print matched her dress. There weren’t any flowers in the garden, only grass and paving and a beautiful weeping willow. It was planted well away from the pool because its roots would be attracted to the water. He used to imagine them uneasily, they would be crawling like stubborn blind earthworms beneath the grass.

Now and then Mrs Fox would heartily urge Jenny and Charlie to try harder. She suggested a change in the teams to make it fairer but Eddie didn’t hear, or perhaps he ignored her. Once the ball was thrown out near her feet, but she made no move to kick it back into the water and Eddie fetched it from beneath the seat, not looking at her.

They got out after a while and the four of them jogged up and down on the grass. Eddie stopped jogging on the spot and began to run round the lawn, Charlie followed him and soon all four were running round and round in the sun.

‘I can run fastest!’ shouted Eddie.

‘No you can’t!’

– Faster, sun and wind, wind and sun, faster, I can run fastest, faster.

Sun and wind seemed to cleanse him, as if he were shedding a skin. ‘Blow dry!’ Jenny shouted, ‘We’re having a blow dry!’ They ran on, shouting and laughing, in a ragged circle, as if in some wild tribal ceremony that might never end – he thought they might never stop.

I like to remember that scene, it makes me smile. I know that to idealise the past is absurd, even the sun-drenched early part of that summer probably wasn’t carefree; it’s just nice to think of it that way. It gives me a vague sense of something lost – that old cliché.

Jenny and Charlie were already flagging when Charlie suddenly let out a howl much louder and more piercing than the other shouts. He fell to the ground crying.

His mother watched dispassionately for a moment as he clutched his foot and howled, before she called out, in a tone more weary than concerned. ‘What is it? Stop crying and come and tell me what’s wrong. Come on then.’

– What’s wrong with him, what with her? Why doesn’t she do something?

Charlie didn’t move, howling all the louder. ‘Come on then.’ Her tone didn’t change and she remained on the seat, watched by the other three. The pause seemed to him to last for minutes.

At last Charlie got up and half ran, half hopped to his mother. He had been stung.

‘That’ll teach you not to step on bees, won’t it?’ said his mother.

Charlie’s red face was contorted in surprise and pain, he was four I think, or five, but she told him not to be a baby as she pulled out the sting with her long finger-nails and he let out another howl.

– Euggh, glad it wasn’t me. Look out though, they’re in the grass, be careful.

They tiptoed with elaborate caution back onto the paving around the pool. Charlie’s crying gradually became forced, with long drawn-out sniffs intended to show he still required attention.

‘Why don’t you all get dressed,’ said Eddie’s mother, walking back to the house, ‘and come inside and I’ll make you some tea.’

He watched her sandals slapping the paving beneath her thick ankles.

– Go away. Yes I’m glad you’ve gone, you don’t like me. You don’t even like Eddie!

He shifted uneasily at the thought. ‘Bum print!’ shouted Eddie, pointing and laughing hilariously. They began to move around the side of the pool, around the quiet water, raising and lowering their bottoms, leaving increasingly faint damp patches with their swimming-trunks. Jenny, who was six, thought the game was great fun. ‘Mine’s better’n yours, you can’t see yours.’ She sat up and down happily.

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