“It started when I was young.” Peter rubbed his fingers across the Formica table. Cold plastic, slightly greasy. “Me and my sister Rebecca.”
“Rebecca was younger?”
“Yes. I was about nine at the time. She was six.” He kept his eyes cast down. Blue Formica sea, flecked with darker marks, shadows in the depths. He tried to remember, cast his mind back like an angler, fly fishing for the past, hooking at the damp, soft images, dragging them back into the cold light, poor delicate things, scraps of torn, moist tissue.
“Where we lived then, well it was in the country but it wasn’t that remote. It was at the end of a lane off an A road. And the Motorway was to the East, the M1 it must have been. You could hear the lorries at night, when you lay in your bed and couldn’t sleep. The canal was to the north through Little Wood. So it felt remote but it wasn’t really.”
“Why couldn’t you sleep?”
He shrugged, looked up at her. She wore a half smile. What was she talking about? What was she thinking? She didn’t blink. He returned his gaze to the grubby table top.
“So it was country, but tame county, bound in. We lived in an old farmhouse. Rented. You could rent much more easily back then. And it was cheaper than buying. Much cheaper. Not like now.”
“Go on.” She was still smiling. The other one, the man, leaned against the wall by the door. He looked bored. Probably wanted a fag or a coffee, Peter thought. He was older than the woman, hard bitten.
“So this one day we decided to go for a walk. It was safer in those days. Or people thought it was. Our parents didn’t worry about us wandering off for hours across the fields. Or maybe it was just me who wanted to go for a walk and Becky tagged along.”
“Go home Beck!”
“Don’t want to.”
“You can’t hang around with me.”
“I’ll tell Mum.”
Pete stuck his hands in the pockets of his shorts and stomped away past the barns that lay across the lane from their house. Becky followed, the tiny victor in their spat.
“Where we going?”
“Wait and see.”
Across the field lay Little Wood and then there was the canal, green and murky, and beyond that Big Wood. Pete had only been to Big Wood once or twice, once with Dad, when he was little and they were exploring, riding on his father’s shoulders as they walked down the tow path, ducking so that low sweeping willows didn’t knock him from his perch. The other time he’d been alone and he couldn’t remember much apart from running and a curdled smell, mould or damp.
They cut through the fields, sticking to the edges so as not to trample the wheat. Bees buzzed around cow parsley in the hedgerows and a heavy scent enveloped them like honey and flowers. The sun shone like it always did in the long slow summers of the past. They dawdled through Little Wood, where the ferns were taller than Becky and stinging nettles lurked. Pete showed Becky how to pull the white flowers from the nettles that bore them, and suck at the end of the tiny trumpets, a hint of nectar on the tongue.
“They’ll sting me.”
“No they won’t” he grabbed the nettle to show her. “The kind with white flowers don’t have stings.”
She was reluctant, it could be a brotherly trap, but found he was right. “Why don’t they sting?”
“They just don’t.”
Little Wood was no more than a hundred yards wide, scarcely more than a copse. They came out the other side onto the canal tow path. Left lay the main road and the lock and the little shop that catered for holiday makers in narrow boats. They went right. Becky was getting tired but since she’d argued to come with her brother she couldn’t turn back now.
“Can we go home?”
Pete didn’t answer. He turned right. His sister followed...