â€˜The man opposite has died!â€™
The very first time I heard those words my inner voice told me â€œNO WAY!â€
I am Lucy. I have long red hair and big blue eyes. I am an eight-year-old girl not used to anyone dying, never mind someone living opposite me, and then dying. Pete, my twelve-year-old brother, should have given us some sort of warning that we were about to be given a shock with his statement but he chose not to. Typical of Pete. He is a brother who is great company if you are on your own with him but put friends around you and he is a show off. Perhaps it was because the friends that I have surrounded myself with on this day in April are all younger than him and female. Who knows?
|The Man Opposite Has Died|
I lean towards him and say quietly in his ear â€œWhat?â€
He pretends that he has not heard me, shifts from one leg to the other, clears his voice then says, like he was a newsreader, â€œGeorge Davis has died this morning.â€ He chooses to tell us in our front living room of our house which is directly opposite to where George Davis lives, or should I say lived. Let me tell you which friends I have with me and a bit about them so you can imagine the scene for yourself.
I have Claire with me. She is nine and pretty, or so everyone says. She has long dark hair to her middle back, is taller than my four foot, thin and always clean- looking even when the rest of us are not. She is my best friend at school and out of school. She can be a bit of a tomboy but can also dress very feminine when she goes out anywhere special. She is a bit of a mystery and I suppose that is what I like about her. I met her recently in McDonalds and she looked great in casual clothes.
Rob is the boy next door who is nine and always comes around almost every day after school just to hang out with us. He is blond haired and wears it long for a boy. I have always found him to be friendly and reliable: two very good traits for a friend. He is very careful about everything and I suppose a bit of a mummyâ€™s boy. For example, although he is strong he would never use his strength in a fight with any other boy in case his clothes become messed up in any way. He is a loyal friend and he loves whistling; any tune will do. Some of his female friends hate him whistling but personally I find it reassuring and think it could be so much worse. I find it amusing that we tend to hear his whistle before we actually see him. No matter how much food he eats he never seems to feel full up and as a result he is always hungry; often he will ask my mum, or anyoneâ€™s mum for that matter, for food. He looks, for all the eating, very slim. He has green eyes and a friendly face.
Then I have with me Giselle who is ten. She has longish shoulder length brown hair and acts older than her age. I believe this may be because her parents are much older than our parents. Anyway, thatâ€™s what mum says. Giselle always tells us she has a mobile phone but none of us has seen it. I think this is definitely a lie. We call her Auntie for fun as she acts older than her age. Here is a photo of Giselle, Claire and I so you can see what we look like. Yes, thatâ€™s me in the middle with Giselle looking all grown up at ten on your left and Claire on your right.
All friends dressing up. Except Giselle was â€œtoo old to dress upâ€ (as if!) so only Claire and I did. Thatâ€™s the trouble with Giselle, she always acts older than her age. Giselle loves to please everyone but as mum says â€œit will just tire her out.â€ We prefer her just being herself but there you are. We all get on most of the time and that, as mum says, is what matters.
Oh, by the way, hereâ€™s a photo of my mum so you can see what she looks like. This was taken in March so itâ€™s recent. Mum thinks she can keep an eye on my older sister, Dora, by being on Facebook but she is, of course, well wrong. Donâ€™t let mum know this as she will be mad.
She is the coolest mum in the whole wide world and itâ€™s not just me who thinks so but all my friends. My mum is known as Katy and is twenty-eight but looks younger, or so dad keeps telling her. She was born Sheila but is known as Katy. Weird or what? Anyhow I think that most of the time I am blessed with a great mum and an okay dad. Dad spends most of his time either cleaning the car or under the car painting the inside of the wheels. Seems crazy to me but thatâ€™s what dad likes doing. Once done he will spend hours, it seems, admiring the wheels like they are part of some new fashion show for car lovers that only he can see, oblivious to rain, sleet or even snow. I have no photos to hand of dad so donâ€™t expect one. Why should I have dad in my story?
To continue then Claire, Giselle and I are looking incredulously at my brother, Rob, having just been told that the man opposite has died. One of the first thoughts we all share was well finally we can check out his pond and see if there really are newts in it!
Giselle, eager to please as usual, then voices what we had all thought, â€œLetâ€™s go and pay Georgeâ€™s garden a visit and see if there really are newts in his pond!â€ Immediately though, her older self comes to the front and she then adds, â€œWe canâ€™t possibly do this as George, God bless him, has just died.â€
I speak with a smooth and soothing voice, â€œLook, if we are ever going to know whether there are newts in his pond this has to be the best time to find out â€“ maybe not the happiest of times for George as he is no longer here with his wife, Vi, but he can hardly object now, can he?â€
My friends nod to me in agreement. I smile trying not to look smug. Rob then finds it in himself to say rather proudly, â€œYou will need someone strong to get over his garden gate. Donâ€™t think youâ€™ll get in unless someone climbs up and unfastens the bolt from the inside.â€
I say, â€œWe could always ask a blond boy to assist us!â€
Claire asks, â€œWho?â€
I immediately respond with â€œRobâ€. Claire looks like she wants to hide her face away.
We all agree to do it after lunch but we will need a plan of action.
Suddenly Pete, more to Rob than anyone else, says, â€œI have seen old George putting varnish on that garden gate last week so it may ruin your clothes if you climb it, just sayingâ€¦â€
We decide in that moment in time that that my brother Pete will be climbing the garden gate but Rob will be giving him a hand up on account of his strength. End of. We agree to meet after lunch.
George Davis is eighty-three but continues to work hard on his house and garden until he dies today. I have a photo which mum gave me to show you what he looks like (or what he looked like).
Mum says that he looks like Sir Michael Caine. I would not know as I do not know who Sir Michael Caine is. Mum says he was a good actor in his day. Anyway, here is a photo from mum to let you see what the poor man looked like before he died. Mum also says that George is rumoured to have a famous oil painting â€“ a decent copy of a Degas painting. I donâ€™t even know who Degas was but mum says he was a great artist skilled in drawing people, horses and ballet dancers.
I have spoken to George when he was living, I think, twice in my lifetime. Once when we were allowed to carol-sing at his door and when we had sung our hearts out, he muttered, â€œNot bad for beginners,â€ before giving us a pound coin. The second time was when my cat Billy went missing and he kindly unbolted, then opened his side gate, so my brother and I could look for him in their garden. On our way out he had observed that, â€œI hope you find your cat. Vi and I have no pets; the nearest we have to pets are the newts in the pond. They are like our pets although you canâ€™t see them now as itâ€™s winter. Come back in April and you can see them in the pond. You can also see the frogs â€“ and hear them! But I prefer the newts.â€
A man after my own heart! I would have given anything in the world to have seen his newts.
All I can say about George with any certainty was that he seemed to have been a kind man â€“ a kind, old man. And now a kind, old, dead man. Oh, before I forget, we did eventually find Billy in my chest of drawers, asleep under my best nightie, snoring.
George married Vi in 1957 and they had three children â€“ all of whom live in Australia.
Look, before I forget, mum says I should let you see what Vi looks like. So here is a photo of Vi, his wife. No idea when this photo was taken but I think a couple of years ago.
Vi taught at the local primary school for years and George was a member of the church. Some sort of minister in the church mum says. They both retired together about eight years ago and lived quiet and happy lives until of course one of them had died. Mum says, in their own way, they were a lovely married couple. I am never going to marry â€“ I think the whole idea sick â€“ having a man telling me what to do for the rest of my days. Donâ€™t show this to mum. She would say â€œWhen youâ€™re older youâ€™ll understand.â€ The only problem is that she says this to me in the same way as she says that I will like vegetables â€œwhen Iâ€™m olderâ€ so I tend not to take it all too seriously. I shall never marry. End of.
I have seen newts before, of course, but only in books at the library. I love all wildlife and creatures. Rob and I never forgot that day in December with the skies full of black billowy clouds and the smell of bonfires in the damp air and the promise of spotting the newts the following spring. What a great invitation! With George dead, this was unlikely to materialise. We must now surely find a way to make Georgeâ€™s invitation remain intact so we can see the newts, if they really are there.
Oh, mum reminds me that George played the violin as she could hear the strains of a violin at night on weekdays when I was meant to be asleep (how can a girl possibly be expected to sleep when there are so many books that need attention?).
At first she thought it was Vi playing the instrument as she thought she â€˜looked more musicalâ€™ than George but it was definitely George as once when he was playing, Vi appeared in the garden pruning the red roses.
Poor old George had died at the ripe old age of eighty-three. Who was going to play a sweet melody on his violin now? No-one. That was certain. Vi could hardly start now to learn the violin in time to play him off to Heaven. Mum says when you die you go immediately to Heaven. If I had my way I would abolish all death. I was so annoyed when I found out that someday we all had to die. Why should death come along and ruin everything? Why should death take our lives away? Mum informs me that â€œlife is for the livingâ€ and in their own way parents can sometimes make some sense although their expressions such as, â€˜itâ€™s up to youâ€™ as mum says and, â€˜itâ€™s down to youâ€™ as dad says never make sense to me. How can the opposite words mean the same thing?
Rob and I play a game with our friends called RIDIQ which is short for â€˜ridiculousâ€™. The game is easy to play. All you do is think up ridiculous statements and the most ridiculous one is the winner. If necessary, if in a group of friends, we vote for the best RIDIQ. Oh, youâ€™re better off not playing it if there are just two of you as you may just cancel each other out with your final choice. If there are more of you playing you can hopefully decide better by voting. Long live democracy.
Rob and I share the credit for this game as he had said something totally ridiculous one day and it was my idea to make it into a game. Try it yourself and see if you and your friends can come up with the most ridiculous statement. Just remember that Rob and I thought it up. How cool are we?
In the end it was my mum who fed us all at lunch and we then started to play RIDIQ in my living room before venturing out. Claire could think of very little in the way of ridiculous statements so she was content to sit and watch Rob, Giselle and I attempt to win as Pete, my brother, had exhausted all his ideas to win and had graciously given up.
â€œJust think up a statement that appears to you to be ridiculous,â€ I whisper, helpfully, to Giselle on her final turn but I rather think she is far too sensible to be even associated with the ridiculous.
She then shocks me by squealing with delight â€œI am not here!â€
We all laugh appreciatively.
â€œWell said, for you,â€ we hear Rob enthuse.
Giselle is not best pleased and cries, â€œJust what do you mean by â€˜for meâ€™?â€
Rob lies. â€œI didnâ€™t mean anything by it! Just pleased that you are getting the hang of the game which I designed.â€
â€œWhich we designed!â€ I shout.
â€œOkay. Which Lucy and I designed.â€
Rob then plays a blinder by declaring, â€œI donâ€™t know why I eat squirrels â€“ they always make me cough.â€ We all laugh at how ridiculous this statement is but into my head pops an even more ridiculous statement. Do I dare to annoy Rob and come out with it? Of course, I do.
â€œYou have to be a nut to be liked by a squirrel!â€ I shout ecstatically to the sound of richly deserved laughter. Rob says, â€œOkay. I think Lucy wins today unless anyone else disagrees.â€
There is silence and I get to bask in my moment of glory.
Then in silence we all look at each other; hearts beating as one. We know the time has come for action.
Rob declares solemnly to us all, â€œOkay. I think we all know without going on too much that we need to be very secretive from now on. Tell no one what we are doing. Poor old George has died and we can finally get to see the newts in his pond, if they exist of course. First we have to cross the main road. Can I suggest that Claire and Lucy cross first and then hide behind the small fir tree and await the rest of us who will cross together?â€
Pete then states, â€œBeing the oldest here you have to be guided by me on most things. After all it is me who is going to risk my neck climbing over the gate. Do you all agree now that I have final say if we cannot agree on any matter?â€
â€œWe agree,â€ I say for all of us. I was keen to press ahead to get to see the pond. No-one else said anything to contradict me. We all felt excitement ripple through our hearts and tummies. How cool is that feeling? Even better to share it with those you like.
Rob wore shorts and tee-shirt, as did Pete. Claire, Giselle and I all wore jeans and tee-shirts. We are now ready to face our adventure. The risk attached made it all the more worthwhile. Claire and I cross the road after waiting ages for the cars to clear out of our way and hide behind the small fir tree. The fir tree had its own strong smell of pines; this was not unpleasant. Shortly afterwards Pete comes over with Rob; both of them trying to look innocent and yet neither managing to quite pull it off. I could not swear to it but Iâ€™m sure Rob was whistling.
From our hiding place, we could see brave Pete square up to the imposing gate that belonged to the deceased George. Rob held out his joined hands for Pete to place his right foot into and within seconds Pete found himself on the very top of the tall gate once Rob had pushed him up high with the strength of a superhero.
â€œWOW!â€ we all thought. Moments later Pete had disappeared down the other side of the garden gate. After what appeared to be ages we all heard the sound of a large iron bolt being reluctantly forced back and, with a strong push from Rob from our side, the gate began opening.
â€œWOW!â€ we again all thought. The gate was then swiftly pushed to its most open by Rob with ease and we were inside shutting the gate as quickly as we could manage it. Our hearts were beating fast inside our chests as we realised we were in what appeared to be a garden that was full of the joys of spring! The sun shone like new crystal glass.
Blackbirds, trying to build their nests by scavenging twigs on the garden floor, scatter in disgust as we enter this paradise on Earth. I see a Robin perched on an apple tree branch which shows no fear of any of us. I understand at that precise moment why any man or woman would have wanted to live here; such was the great beauty of this garden in springtime.
Daffodils curtsey in the slight breeze to us in sheer delight. Just for say a minute we all are lost in the gardenâ€™s beauty. All except Pete who has only just realised that he has been bleeding quite badly from a cut on his shin that he has obtained from his clambering down the other side of the gate. Claire manages to keep him calm by tying a ribbon taken from her hair around it. Luckily it soon brings success by helping to stem the bleeding shin. Pete winces in pain. He looks much older when he is in pain.
â€œCheers,â€ is all he says to her, relieved he is no longer in any danger. Claire simpers, â€œOh, thatâ€™s okay,â€ suddenly embarrassed as she has only just realised that she has been, moments earlier, touching his bare leg with both her hands. For no real reason, she now feels shy and embarrassed about it. The feeling soon passes as she notices what we have all failed to notice.
A donkey is eating the long grass in the meadow next door to where we are. We all are pleasantly shocked. The donkey does not even look our way it is so engrossed in eating the lush, long grass which the meadow generously offers to it. Obligingly, the donkey eats to its heart content. The meadow is called Sloping Meadow. I am then aware of just how cool and moist the grass beneath our feet is in Georgeâ€™s garden and, for that moment at least, the cool, moist air takes my breath away.
A young girl appears along the side of the donkey and, quick as a flash, we know that she is younger than us and also we know instinctively that she will not be any problem to us or our mission. She shows no fear and comes as close to us as she can in range of the fence but still managing to keep her balance among the bluebells. She looks slightly surreal standing there clutching a single bluebell. Pete leans over the fence and takes a photo of her. This is what she looks like. She told us her name is Monaie and her father owns Sloping Meadow as well as the donkey. She has evidently been allowed to look after it today while it was eating the long grass. We all like her and we believe she is about six. Isnâ€™t she cool? We wave goodbye to her across the fence and carry on.
Poor Georgeâ€™s garden looks rich in colour. Many flowers are out, especially red pansies, purple pansies and white pansies and even I can recognise some species such as Michaelmas daisies and deep red and deep scarlet tulips that seem to have taken over most of one of the flower beds. They are resplendent and vibrant and all have happiness living inside them but somehow escaping slowly through their scent and through their beauty.
Just as we think we cannot remember where the pond is, Peteâ€™s mobile phone rings, startling all of us and making Claire jump.
â€œHello, dad?â€ says Pete in a muffled voice.
â€œPeter, donâ€™t forget to remind mum I am playing golf till at least five p.m. today. Canâ€™t get her to pick up the house phone.â€
â€œOkay dad, will do,â€ replies Pete.
We all then look at the expression on Peteâ€™s face. He looks surprised at seeing something. It then becomes clear. The pond is quite near â€“ nearer than Pete and I had remembered when searching for the cat. It looks much smaller than before and greener now but this is because there has been so much growth of pond plants and pond weed since December. It is still a large pond. Large enough to house many living things.
â€œLucy, you lead the way,â€ mouths an excited Pete â€“ the pupils of his eyes are large and I can tell, call it sisterly intuition, that he is happy to have made it here so far, almost unscathed. In his joy he completely forgets his aching leg. The pond has taken his mind off the pain.
â€œNo,â€ I say, â€œwe can all walk slowly over to the pond and we can all do this together.â€
We all walk more or less together towards the pond. The nearer we are to the pond the shorter the grass appears to be, possibly because George and Vi loved to sit together, near the pond and wanted the grass to be short in the area where the nearest thing that they had to pets are here to be viewed â€“ their newts.
It is the smell that hits me first. A strong smell of almost stagnant water but at the same time water that is full of life. We see water boatmen on the surface of the pond and all sorts of miniature creatures swimming about in the water itself. I manage to spot a dark green dragonfly high up, hovering like a tiny helicopter above the pond. Some of the creatures in the water look to me like small, shy prawns. Above the surface we spot mosquitoes annoying each other and lots of hoverflies showing off to each other. From the waterâ€™s edge we search for many minutes for any signs of larger creatures and suddenly Rob shouts, â€œLook, Siamese frogs!â€
I say, â€œWhat?â€
Rob repeats, â€œSiamese frogs!â€
Pete sees them clearly. They are two frogs â€“ the smaller carrying the larger on his back. The frog at the back has its front arms clasped firmly around the neck of the one in front and looks like he is strangling her.
Pete instructs us, â€œThese are not Siamese frogs â€“ they are mating. Thatâ€™s how they mate and when she lays the frogspawn â€“ he will fertilise it with his fluid. We did this in Biology. The frogspawn then will turn into tadpoles and the tadpoles will grow arms and legs and eventually, after losing their tails, they will evolve into baby frogs. Trust me.â€ We did.
We are gobsmacked and stare at these two frogs that I had actually thought were fighting.
Mum always says that if you ever come across any unusual activity in life there is always some down to earth reason for it and not to be alarmed. Things happen for a reason; she tells me this often. She is usually right. Pete holds the pair of frogs in his hand high in the air so we can all view them but we persuade him rapidly to release them back into the pond to avoid any sort of harm coming to them. A huge PLOP later and the mating frogs are back in the water, using their instinct to swim down low into the depths of the pond and away from any danger. Pete thinks we are funny coming out with such things as â€˜Siamese frogs!â€™ For the next few minutes I catch him chuckling to himself about Robâ€™s remarks. Rob feels embarrassed for the next few minutes refusing to comment on anything. The word â€˜matingâ€™ really did not help much either but he soon forgets his embarrassment when he hears, then sees, a beautiful jay (my favourite bird) chase away a sparrow from its territory at the front of a pair of cedar trees.
I read somewhere that the jay, such a beautiful bird, actually belongs to the crow family. The only thing I can see the jay having in common with the crow is that they are both noisy birds.
Let me now try to describe the rest of the garden. Most of it is lawn but to one side of this lawn is an area where Vi and George have planted many fruit trees and they are now covered in white blossom; some of the blossom has fallen and is gently covering the land below; some of the fruit trees behind are evenly covered in pink blossom. I am not sure what type of fruit trees they are but I am sure of one thing â€“ they look lovely. The blossoms that have fallen now remind me of snow. Both white snow and pink snow. I wish you could see this. It reminds me of Japanese paintings that I have seen in the library. At the back of the garden is a large, well built, wooden shed with what looks to me like a proper wooden roof on it. How cool is that? To the right side, facing the house is Sloping Meadow itself, now full of spring growth; even I can spot catkin and early thistles taking shape inside the rolling grasses of Sloping Meadow. Quite something. I can see buttercups and crocuses everywhere. How beautiful this garden is! Never realised, until now, that you could have mauve crocuses.
How pretty these mauve crocuses are?
Swept Off My Feet
â€œItâ€™s just like the Butterfly House at Whipsnade Zoo here,â€ I say.
â€œLucy, you are so right,â€ whispers an excited Claire. â€œOnly,â€ she continues, â€œwithout the glass to keep them in.â€
â€œYes,â€ I agree, â€œAnd, whatâ€™s more, I can see so many butterflies not only here but also in Sloping Meadow, where the donkey is.â€
No-one is at all surprised when out of the blue sky a Red Admiral lands on Peteâ€™s bad leg.
â€œWow,â€ Pete sighs. â€œItâ€™s like he knows I am hurting and... wants to make friends?â€
â€œI would never have imagined that a garden could ever be as lovely as this one. Poor George will certainly miss it,â€ is all that Giselle can say, in what appears to me, at least, as a very grown up tone. We all nod in agreement and sit down to feel the sun on our faces just for a short time. Rob forgets his earlier discomfort and says, â€œWould it not be just great to see some newts now?â€
â€œYes,â€ I agree, â€œbut please can we just go to the back windows of the house and see if we can spot Georgeâ€™s oil painting, as mum says itâ€™s a copy of a real Degas painting?â€
â€œI thought you were keen to see the newts!â€ cries Rob. â€œI mean, isnâ€™t that why we have come here, risking our necks?â€
I say, â€œYouâ€™re right, but I also need to be able to let mum know if the rumours that George had a copy of a famous oil painting in his house are true or not.â€
â€œSure,â€ Rob says, unconvincingly.
We all walk towards the house again accompanied this time by a braying donkey. The last thing we need right now is to be found on someone elseâ€™s property. The noisy donkey could make other neighbours look at us from beyond Sloping Meadow or from the back gardens of the street.
â€œWe should do what Lucy wants,â€ says Giselle trying her level best not to be seen crossing the garden path.
At the window, I state the obvious, â€œI canâ€™t reach up to see.â€
It is Rob who answers my distress call by lifting me clean off my feet. (Now I know what it feels like to be swept off your feet by a boy!)
â€œTake as long as you need,â€ Rob says confidently, holding me up perhaps higher than I need to be. Thank God we brought Rob with us, I think privately. I can feel his heart beating fast through both our tee-shirts and, if anything, it makes me even more nervous and excited. I can even smell the scent of the Fabric Conditioner his mum uses to wash his clothes. Cherry Blossom & Sweet Pea. I only know because mum uses it at times.
It really is not long before I am able to see into the lounge at what looks to me like a painting of two women in a place of work. Here is a photo taken just minutes later by Pete on his phone of what I had seen through the window. Canâ€™t wait to let mum know that the rumours are probably true. How cool is this oil painting?
On looking around poor Georgeâ€™s lounge through the limitations of the glass window, still being held up by the superhero Rob, I then notice another oil painting which looks like someone has painted it straight onto the back of an oak door. I guess it must be about one metre high. It is of a Chinese lady. Rob thinks you should see this now so he asks Pete to take a photo of it. Hope you can see why I think it unusual. The more I find out about George the more I think I might have enjoyed his company, had he not died. Anyhow, here it is. Just how great is this?
Rob suddenly drops me hard to the grass floor. THUD!
â€œCanâ€™t hold you anymore Lu. Sorry!â€
â€œOh,â€ I respond, tying to remain cool, â€œthatâ€™s fine. I have seen what I needed to and can now tell mum.â€ Pete then walks right up to the window, positioning himself carefully like he was about to take a selfie, so he could then take more photos of the two artworks with his mobile phone then we once again crossed the garden path passing the two stone lions that guard Georgeâ€™s back garden. The lions are made of quarried stone, hand-painted and both topped with manes that looked like real gold, reflecting the golden sunshine.They stand about four feet apart. We all feel happy. Happy to be here in this protected garden.
We are finally on our way to see if we can find and catch a newt or two just to say that we have actually done so. We are all excited. Rob is that excited that he forgets just for a while how hungry his tummy is feeling. He quietly whistles us along our way â€“ all the way to the pondâ€™s edge. The light reflects majestically on the still water and the very top half of a silver birch can be seen as a reflection inside this shimmering light display. We must be in Heaven I think to myself.
After what appears to have been an age it is Claire who calls out to Rob, presumably for him to respond and catch it, â€œNEWT!â€
Rob is too startled to do anything.
* * *