It’s nearly night-time and it’s summer so the sky is red and animal clouds are in it and moving quickly. Summer means fires on the estate, houses and mattresses and cardboard boxes. I’ll find them on my way home through the back path, the whole sky full of smoke and boys running and when I go inside for my tea I’ll talk about the new fire. Summer means Mum sunbathing out where the bins are, and earywigs all over our house, in keyholes and towels and beds, and the whole street skipping with one big rope singing On the Hillside Stands a Lady until bedtime. Parents coming out in twos and fours then to bring us in and the last one tying up the big orange rope and going away somewhere else because he’s lonely.
Nearly bedtime now but I want to watch the news, all by myself, so I’m taking my TV that rolls ducks and boats and the Tower of London across the front of it to Row Row Row Your Boat Gently Down the Stream out to the playground in the middle of the back path. I am setting it on a wall and winding it up and sitting down on one of the round stone seats by the round stone table in the living-room part of the playground. The big girls with tall black shoes are nearby and some of them come over to me.
‘Can I brush your hair?’
They are sitting round me in a circle and when they’ve finished I get up onto her lap and I brush hers. I remember her. She was the baby-sitter once and we watched a film with pirates and ships and canons and she laughed when Dad asked her if she wanted something to drink, laughed about it with her friend who came later, just before we went to bed. I’m telling her again how she looks like the woman I saw singing on TV.
‘Who, Suzy Quattro?’
The girls are laughing. They are leaving together now, back down to the big road at the front. The sky is dark red now and the clouds are black. Boys are here in the part that’s lower down than everywhere else. They’re jumping on top of a blanket they’ve set on fire. They come up to the wall and knock over my TV. I’m running behind the wall to pick it up. I’m running home.
All sun. My brother leads us through bushes opposite our house and inside there’s a space. Somebody’s made chairs from planks and tyres and boxes and everyone is here already, the whole street, but we’ve missed it. It’s stopping. So we come back out again. The bushes have the white squish berries all over them that kill you if you eat them. The whole street goes off together and leaves me and my brother and Richard. And now the three of us are far away from the back path and we’ve been walking for a long time. All sun. We see a dog with one eye.
Four men are lying on the grass under a bridge. We go over to where they are because they told us to. We’re standing now, watching them. Mostly they do nothing but sometimes they spit. They’re looking at their shoes. They only have vests on top and their faces are dirty.
‘Will you do something for us?’
He’s talking to my brother. They don’t have shoes. They have big black boots, scraped away and white around the toes.
He’s not smiling. He’s not promising things.
‘Will you bring us something?’
Before they promised sweets and I went with them. I saw chocolate bars and chews and rock so I followed.
He’s not smiling. He’s not giving us anything.
‘Will you bring us water?’
The last time was nearly night-time and the sky was red. Red for ages and ages. Now it’s after lunch. All sun. They lie and spit and stare up at us, into the sun.
Only one of them is talking. Every time he speaks the other three laugh and roll about, pulling at the grass.
‘Yeah, water. Four big pint glasses of water. From your house. ls youre.house close? Can you get there and back in ten minutes?’
They’re all sun-tanned. Their hair looks wet. They push their fingers through it and it stays where they leave it.
‘No. It’s further than that. About twenty minutes there and back.’
The one speaking has curly hair. It’s light. The colour of skin in pictures.
‘Twenty? Well lads, is it worth waitin’ for?’
They laugh, far back in their mouths, as though they don’t want to laugh at all.
‘Jesus, Mick. Lay off it.’
He’s looking up at my brother and his voice is a different voice now.
‘We’re thirsty. It’s that simple. And we want four big pint glasses of water from your house, that’s twenty minutes from here, there and back. So you and your two wee friends are going to go back to your house, get the glasses, fill them up with water, and bring them back to us, and you won’t be any later than twenty minutes, and you won’t spill any along the way. Ok?’
He’s looking like someone else now. The tall one. The one with the I-Know voice.
‘Do we get something?’
Sweets. Clove rock and lemon bonbons and twirly whirly bars, on the top shelf of a wardrobe inside a bricked-up house.
‘No you don’t. You get to do us a favour, ok? Christ. Kids today. Runnin’ fuckin’ businesses.’
He spits. The others roll away. They lie with their feet towards us and they look up at the bridge. He’s staring at my brother. And we’ve whirled around and we’re running into the sun.
They didn’t move but we’re moving now. We’re running. My brother shouts out that we’re running to beat the clock. I don’t know the bridge where the men are lying but now we’re in a street. I can remember it. I asked a big girl to tie my laces here and she did, but into a hundred knots instead of just one and they wobbled in a pile on top of each foot. I had to put my feet up one by one onto Dad’s lap when I got in and I watched them all come undone under his fingers. And we’re into another street now and from here I know the way. We come to the big road my brother sang Finders Keepers on, the road I always think of when I hear a Why Did The Chicken joke, the road me and my Mum and my brother stuck our thumbs out on to try and make cars stop when we missed the bus from town, though no car did and we walked all the way along the road until we got home. The men didn’t move but we’re moving now, so quickly I’m tired and I want to stop running but my brother is shouting how we’ve got to keep running to beat the clock. Past the school and the shop where I got the pink pretend jewellery set for my birthday. I watched it behind the glass every day until my birthday came and then I bought it and when Dad lifted up the earrings they dropped and smashed on the bathroom floor, so he bought me a whole new pretend jewellery set in blue. Down the back path and past the playground with the low part in the middle and the living-room where the two boys saw me sitting on the wall watching the big girls smoke cigarettes in their tall black shoes. The men under the bridge didn’t move but the two boys did and I followed them. I walked behind them and they turned round to me very often and smiled. They promised and I went but when we got there there was nothing there. And the one who was tall and thin told me the whole time where we were going, where it all was, the things they promised, and he turned around as he walked and smiled at me the whole time. And it was nearly nighttime and the sky was red. Past the playground and down the back path to the big wooden gates showing the way to the houses. And I’m tired of running but my brother and Richard are home already, so I keep running, right up to the back doorstep, and then I stop. I’m sitting and putting my head on my arms on my knees. I’m breathing quickly. My heart is loud.
Glasses of water appear beside me in the biggest glasses we’ve got. They come one by one and stand beside my thighs. I watch them from under my elbow. They’re dancing in the sun. The sunlight goes right inside the water, and dances there, and I watch it through the glass. I think about the big shadow my brother and Richard run into in the hall every time they come out of the kitchen, holding another glass of water in both hands. When the shadow goes out into the back yard and moves across it in a line until all the squares are covered, the sky’s already gone red. I sat on the back step one time and watched it move across. It was straight, like a ruler, and slow, and the sky was red and the clouds not turning black, just redder and redder. I sat there for a long time. Mum and Dad standing in the yard had no shadows. They talked in low voices I couldn’t understand and then they just stood and didn’t speak. Just looking at the two boys who came and stood in our yard. The two boys stood by the gate and didn’t speak. It was quiet and the sky was red and I could hear my heart, still banging inside me. I felt the metal edge of the step hurt the skin under my leg
and I watched the big shadow move across the yard, slowly, like the tide coming in in straight lines instead of in waves.
‘I’ll take two glasses ’cause I’m the biggest.’
My brother has stepped over the glasses into the yard. He’s shaking my arm. I look up and the sun goes into my eyes. He’s handing Richard one of the glasses. Richard is still standing behind me in the big shadow. One glass is still standing beside my thigh.
‘Come on, you’ve got to take one too.’
I’m standing up and turning to the shadow and bending down to pick up the last tall glass with the sun inside its water. It’s heavy and full. Richard steps past me into the sun and when I tum round we’re standing together and all of the glasses are in our hands.
‘We can’t run this time, but we’ll walk fast. If we run, it’ll spill. Let’s go.’
My brother and Richard are moving up and down in front of me, getting more and more ahead, like they’re on boats. Their heads are down, looking at the glasses. Their heads go up quickly sometimes as they look at the path but then they go back down again. They’re faster than me. I’m looking at them and I should be taking care over my glass, but I watch their heads instead and when they go round the corner at the end of the back path they’re gone and I can’t watch their heads anymore. The sky is blue. There’s no-one else right to the end of the back path and I’m beginning to hear my heart. I pass the last of the tall wooden gates and now I’m at the playground. I can’t see their heads but the sky is blue. The sky was red and no-one was there and I was in a wardrobe. I pushed against it and it opened and I ran to the window. Instead of glass there were boards and bars but part of the wood was broken. I saw so much red I thought new fires on the estate, new fires everywhere, and I was crying but nobody was there. I can’t walk anymore because I can’t see their heads so I’m putting my glass down on the ground. I’m sitting on the ground and bringing my knees up to my forehead. I put my hands around my knees because no-one is here. I watch the colours that come when I push my knees into my eyes.
Someone is touching my arm now. He touched my arm and when I turned round there was a boy standing in the room and he was carrying my trousers. He helped me to put them on, held them out and I stepped into them, one, two, that’s a good girl, and he took my hand and we found the front door and we walked out together. He held my hand the whole time and we walked along a long street and in every front yard boys were playing. I saw the tall thin one right away and the other was bouncing a ball against a wall and he said No but I said Yes and then he kept holding my hand and he brought me down a hundred steps and at the bottom there was the back path. My parents stood at the back door and he talked to them. Then he went away and he came back with the two boys and then he went away again.
‘Come on. I’ll take your glass too. You’re too small.’
I look up and the back path and Richard’s face have a purple colour that’s changing to blue because I pushed my knees against my eyes. He’s bending down to pick up the glass and I’m standing up and watching the blue go away from the ground until it’s normal.
‘But you’ve got to keep up this time or we won’t beat the clock, ok?’
We’re walking. I can walk with Richard easily this time and I watch the glasses as he moves up and down as well as forward and hardly any is spilling.
There are long dark shapes under the bridge so the men are still there. The one with the curly hair is looking at his watch. We’re standing right in front of him now but he doesn’t look up. One of the others is sleeping. The other two are slapping cards on top of other cards that sit in a pile between them. They don’t look up or stop playing, even though we’ve come back with the water.
‘Thirty-four minutes children.’
‘I know, I’m sorry. My sister fell behind and sat down, so Richard had to go back for her.’
He’s looking at me now. I want to sit down again. Put my knees against my eyes and watch the colours. I don’t.
‘I’m sorry. She’s only four.’
‘Are you only four?’
I’m looking at my brother. His hands are full. I look back at the man and he’s still staring at me. I don’t speak. His voice is different again.
‘Some cat took that child’s tongue out.’
He spits. He drops the spit slowly to the side of his feet. Then he lifts one boot and stamps on the spit with his heel. He looks back at my brother.
‘Did you spill any?’
‘Lads! Room service has arrived! Get your fuckin’ act together! Sit up, you! There’s a lady in front of you!’
He kicks the man who’s asleep on his side, but he sits up so quickly I know he wasn’t really asleep. The other two put down their cards slowly and turn their heads to us.
‘Are we going to get those glasses, or are you just going to stand there holding them all day?’
My brother and Richard hand over the four glasses to the four men. They take them. Now they’re all standing up. Looking down at the water in the glasses in their hands.
‘Thanks very much’.
And then he looks up, looks at my brother the whole time, and he empties the water with the sun in it into the grass at the side of him, where he spat, looking at my brother. They all do it, one after the other, looking at my brother, four taps turned on and spilling into the grass, until the last glass is emptied and the sun’s gone with the water into the ground. They’re handing back the glasses. We stare. Richard and my brother take them, still staring, and the four men pick up their cards and walk away.