Hide and Seek
‘They played the game two or three days a week without fail. Never the mother, just him and the two kids; the boy and the girl.’ The old man snorted, spat to the side. ‘There was one time, mind, I remember not seeing them for a while. The boy cut his hand on a broken bottle. Scre amed so loud that the girl started crying too. After that it was a couple of weeks before they came back, then every few days without fail… until recently, of course.’
Standing, legs apart, on an old tyre, James looked out across the field - a maze of paths and patches of flattened grass, the houses in the distance divorced from it by tall fences. He hunched his shoulders. ‘Dunno much about it mister.’
‘Best that way. Nowt you can do.’
‘So…’ James paused a second. ‘Do you know then?’
The old man shrugged.
‘Were ye here?’
‘Not on the day I wasn’t, naw, but plenty others I was. Often met them when I was out with the dog. The bairns didn’t like it - the dog - gave away their hiding places. Still, sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I had been out that day, you know, it was the time the dad took to find them in the end.’ The old man waited, as if expecting a response from James. After a few seconds he went on: ‘He didn’t know the area, see, that’s another thing I could’ve done to help. I grew up here. There’s not a single hiding place I don’t know about. I practically invented them…’ He sighed and scratched the end of his nose. ‘Similar thing happened a few years back.’
‘Aye, a little boy went missing.’ The old man glanced James up and down. ‘How old are you?’
James puffed his chest out and straightened his back. ‘Twelve and a half.’
The old man gazed a little longer at James, then nodded and set off along the dirt trail, leading to the colliery, girding the heath. James hesitated a moment then leapt off the tyre and followed.
Tracks from heavy vehicles were baked into the trail. James balanced along the peaks, his arms out to the sides, leaping over the dips and dwindling puddles, that the earth drank slowly through its cracked lips. The road was flanked on one side by dying trees and bushes: rubbish for hiding behind, thought James, watching the old man’s dog weaving through them. He took a run and jump at a large puddle, catching the edge with his heels - a shock of water rising in his wake - then ran to get alongside the old man. They walked in silence for a bit, then James spoke: ‘What d’ you think happened?’
‘What do I think happened?’ The old man hawked up some phlegm and spat it out in front of him. He frowned at it for an instant before speaking. ‘The day started same as usual: the bairns running into the grass till it rose above their waists, yelling for the dad to close his eyes, count to fifty. He counted quietly at first, louder as he got toward fifty, slurring the numbers to make his voice sound bored. But at fifty he didn’t go, not straight away. He stood and waited, rolling himself a cigarette, calling out “I know you’re in there”, things like that, then walking off in the wrong direction, or stepping straight past one of their hiding places, looking away, pretending not to see, just to drag out time, build anticipation.’
‘Then what happened?’
The old man splayed his hands to the sides. ‘He found them.’
‘I thought ye said he didn’t,’ scowled James.
‘The first few times he did.’
‘Then what happened?’ he said impatiently.
‘It began as usual. The bairns telling the dad to close his eyes, turn around, count to sixty.’
‘Ye said fifty before.’
The old guy shrugged. ‘Fifty, sixty… do you want to hear the rest or not?’
‘The dad closed his eyes and counted to fifty, but this time something was different and he counted quickly, then waded straight into the grass, eager to find them.’
‘How do ye know he counted to fifty if you weren’t there?’
‘It’s the rules,’ the old man stated, stepping to the edge of the field. ‘It’ll be easier if I show you.’
‘Can’t ye just tell us?’
‘It’s only a short walk,’ the old man said. ‘You want to know what happened, aye?
James gestured that he did. The old man smiled, lifted his hand, and beckoned him over.
The grass rose up above their waists - almost chest high on James. In the centre of the land the old man stopped and looked around, shielding his eyes from the sunlight. He shook his head and mumbled something to himself, then took a few steps and searched again. He sniffed and wiped his hand across his nose, it flattened against his face as though it was rubber.
‘The dad stopped about here to get a good view of the area, then cupped his hands to his mouth. “I give up, you’re too good,” he shouted. Something moved. The bairns! He smiled, relieved, ducked into the cover of the grass, and crept slowly towards them.’
With difficulty the old guy squatted onto his haunches, placing his fingertips against the ground for balance. James eyeballed the thick white hair spiralling into his scalp. The old man waved that he should get down also. He stooped and bent slightly at the knees.
They moved through the field, the yellowish green blades whipping into James as his guide moved beyond them.
Suddenly the old man stopped, James just managing to avoid a collision.
‘It was a good one, much deeper than usual. When he got close enough the dad burst out the grass and rushed toward the bairns, shouting and holding his hands out, ready to grab them.’ He took a deep breath, then screamed and jerked upright. He jogged forward, his hands in the air, fingers crooked. James’s mouth hung open as though the terrible cry was gargling up from his own throat. Ten of so feet away, the old man doubled over, resting his hands on his knees. His ruddy cheeks pumped in and out, saliva clinging to his lips. ‘But they weren’t there,’ he wheezed, pausing to take a few breaths. ‘Just an old T-shirt tangled in the grass.’
A few moments passed. James went over to the man. ‘Did ye have to scream like that?’
‘How d’ ye know he did?’
The old man rubbed the small of his back and straightened up, sucking through his lips as he did so. He clapped off the dried grass embedded in his palms, then took a tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket and began rolling a cigarette. His hands were shaking. Shreds of tobacco jumped to the ground. The old man glanced at James, then dropped his gaze back to the tobacco. He licked across the gummed edge of the paper, then ran his fingers over to seal it. ‘Paul! Sarah!’ he shouted. ‘Come out where I can see you now!’
‘Who’s Paul and Sarah?’
The old man shrugged. He picked a flake of tobacco off his tongue, then lit the cigarette and inhaled.
‘I’ve got to go,’ said James.
‘But we’ve nearly found them.’
‘There’s no one to find.’
‘There’s always someone to find.’
James tutted and made to leave but before he could do so the old man darted forward and seized him by the arm. James tried to prise away the fingers. The grip was strong and got stronger the more he attempted to loosen it. Effortlessly seizing the other arm, the old man yanked James up close. ‘Fifty’s the count,’ he whispered, then let go and turned his back.
James stood motionless for one through to three. Upon four he ran.