I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I'm not. So when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred — I cheated.
I stood at the spot where you had to stand when it was your turn to count, which was beside the recycling bins, next to the shop selling disposable barbecues and spare tent pegs. And near to there is a small patch of overgrown grass, tucked away behind a water tap.
Except I don't remember standing there. Not really. You don't always remember the details like that, do you? You don't remember if you were beside the recycling bins, or further up the path near to the shower blocks, and whether actually the water tap is up there?
I can't now hear the manic cry of seagulls, or taste the salt in the air. I don't feel the heat of the afternoon sun making me sweat beneath a clean white dressing on my knee, or the itching of suncream in the cracks of my scabs. I can't make myself relive the vague sensation of having been abandoned. And neither — for what it's worth — do I actually remember deciding to cheat, and open my eyes.
She looked about my age, with red hair and a face flecked in hundreds of freckles. Her cream dress was dusty around the hem from kneeling on the ground, and clutched to her chest was a small cloth doll, with a smudged pink face, brown woollen hair, and eyes made of shining black buttons.
The first thing she did was place her doll beside her, resting it ever so gently on the long grass. It looked comfortable, with its arms flopped to the sides and its head propped up a little. I thought it looked comfortable anyway.
We were so close I could hear the scratching and scraping, as she began to break up and dry ground with a stick. She didn't notice me though, even when she threw the stick away and it nearly landed on my toes, all exposed in my stupid plastic flip-flops. I would have been wearing my trainers but you know what mum's like. Trainers, on a lovely day like today. Surely not. She's like that,
A wasp buzzed around my head, and usually that would be enough to get me flapping around all over the place, except I didn't let myself. I stayed totally still, not wanting to disturb the little girl, or not wanting her to know I was there. She was digging with her fingers now, pulling up the dry earth with her bare hands, until the hole was deep enough. Then she rubbed the dirt from her fingers as best she could, picked up her doll again, and kissed it twice.
That is the part I can still see most clearly — those two kisses, one on its forehead, one on the cheek.
I forgot to say, but the doll wore a coat. It was bright yellow, with a black plastic buckle at the front. This is important because the next thing she did was undo the buckle, and take this coat off. She did this very quickly, and stuffed it down the front of her dress.
Sometimes — times like now — when I think of those two kisses, it is as though I can actually feel them.
One on the forehead.
One on the cheek.
What happened next is less clear in my mind because it has merged into so many other memories, been played out in so many other ways that I can't separate the real from the imagined, or even be sure there is a difference. So I don't know exactly when she started to cry, or if she was crying already. And I don't know if she hesitated before throwing the last handful of dirt. But I do know by the time the doll was covered, and the earth patted down, she was bent over, clutching the yellow coat to her chest, and weeping.
When you're a nine-year-old boy, it's no easy thing to comfort a girl. Especially if you don't know her, or even what the matter is.
I gave it my best shot.
Intending to rest my arm lightly across her shoulders — the way Dad did to Mum when we took family walks — I shuffled forward, where in a moment of indecision I couldn't commit either to kneeling beside her or staying standing. I hovered awkwardly between the two, then overbalanced, toppling in slow motion, so the first this weeping girl was aware of me, was the entire weight of my body, gently pushing her face into a freshly dug grave. I still don't know what I should have said to make things better, and I've thought about this a lot. But lying beside her with the tips of our noses nearly touching, I tried 'I'm Matthew. What's your name?'
–from The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (St. Martin's Press, 2013)