First Scrapes of Summer: 1984
Louise leaned over the topmost bale of straw and spat on Joe’s head. He was seated below on the dusty floor, writing in the dirt with a stick.
‘Oi’, he shouted back, jumping up from the floor and turning to stare angrily at her.
Louise rolled onto her back in the straw. The barn was stuffy and claustrophobic in the heat of the summer. ‘Oh, I’m bored!’ she exclaimed. ‘Nothing ever happens here. We might as well be at home’.
‘Well, why don’t you go back home, then’, Joe shouted back sulkily. He twiddled with the string on his cagoule, a precautionary item of clothing his mother made him carry, ‘just in case it rained’. In the dirt he was playing noughts and crosses with himself, an indication that he was as bored as Louise, but he would never have admitted it.
They were playing, as they often did, in the barn. The estate where Joe lived was still a working farm, despite its rundown appearance and the straw bales provided a place to play indoors when the unpredictability of the British summer weather caught them unawares. The bales were stacked high enough so that climbing to the top gave a view out of the windows and across the fields. The sun was making an attempt to peer through the clouds and the ensuing streaks of light caught every dust mote as it danced down to the floor: almost as if they were sat inside a snow globe. Any movement, no matter how small, sent up sparks of dust, dancing and twirling in the spotlights.
Joe’s family had moved into a cottage in the grounds of Shelham Hall five years earlier, when Joe was just a baby. They had wanted to escape the nothingness of living on yet another housing estate. Joe was small for his age, petite even. Dark eyes and hair framed an elf like face which was given to mischievousness. He was scrawny but strong, both physically and in will power. Fiercely intelligent and constantly battling to have his say against Louise, who was five years older, he was always on the lookout for ways of getting one over on her.
Louise and her sister, Sarah, were ‘townies’ as Joe called them, hailing from a large industrial town in the Midlands. During the summer holidays they always came to stay on ‘the estate’, as they referred to it, and spent most of their stay moaning about the lack of opportunities to get into trouble. Secretly, they loved every minute of it. Not a backwards glance was made to friends left behind for the summer, as the urge to don a pair of dungarees and wellies, and run about the woods pretending to be pirates or detectives, took hold.
Louise was thirteen going on 23 and definitely the head of the gang. Tall, skinny and freckly, she lacked the smoothed skinned beauty of her sister, Sarah, but made up for it in shrewd cunning and ingenious creativity when it came to getting into trouble. Ever searching for an outlet for her energies, Louise liked to be kept busy. She now looked around her at the straw and sighed. Yellow: she didn’t like yellow. Neither the colour nor anything that smelled yellow: Vanilla ice-cream, the washing up liquid that her mum used, the soap in the dispenser at school. The thought of it added to the tediousness of the afternoon and she yawned. ‘We could go and spy on Mrs Eakin’, she suggested to the others.
Mrs Eakin lived in one of the coach houses. Once used to house the family carriages, the coach houses, now converted into flats, provided a meagre income for the crumbling hall. A widow of some years, Mrs Eakin was somewhat of a busybody. If there was ever anything going on she was the first to know, and the first to tell. It was rumoured that during the Second World War she had been part of a covert team that undertook top secret activities, or so the children liked to believe. One of their favourite games was to pretend that they were part of her operation: a mission of some sort to sneak about the woods and grounds of the estate in search of some vital clue that led to a full scale police investigation, in which they could play a major role. Louise had been reading far too much Enid Blyton, an activity she could never admit to her friends back home. The innocence of the narratives and the ordinariness that the protagonists enjoyed in their relationships with friends and family was enviable. Louise’s family life was far from ordinary: more along the lines of Adrian Mole than the Famous Five. Despite her unfailing grumpiness and her sharp manner with the children, Mrs Eakin loved having them around and, more often than not, just happened to have a cake in the pantry whenever the children dropped by. She had never had children of her own and so had no grandchildren to spoil and fuss over in the summer holidays. During term time, she volunteered in the library at the local primary school and inevitably, summer days were long and tedious. There was a nephew who visited occasionally, who found the children as irritating and meddlesome as they found him suspicious. Louise and Joe were convinced that he was after Mrs Eakin’s money, and they kept careful watch on his movements, mentally noting his every utterance in the hope that in that fateful police investigation, that they knew would come one day, they would be ready with the kind of insightful and crucial contribution they were convinced they had already noted or heard.
Sarah sat a few feet away from Joe, cross-legged on a bale of straw. She was only a little taller than Joe, being two years older, with poker straight hair that Louise had envied since the day she was born. Louise’s untameable mane of eccentric curls always made her look like a street urchin standing next to Sarah’s catwalk coiffure. Louise would spend hours with hair dryer and diffuser, mousse and hairspray, trying to get some semblance of order to her curls whilst Sarah woke up, shook her head and was ready to face the day. Sarah listened to the tittle tattle between her sister and Joe, as usual contributing nothing and instead preferring to continue doodling and sketching in her notebook. She was a silent creature: listening and absorbing but saying little. Occasionally, when she did speak, it would always be to add something so vital or so extraordinary that the other two would be stunned into silence. It would be the end to a disagreement or a suggestion that meant, at last, they had a purpose and would go about their day as if boredom had never occurred to them, and all the while they had simply been awaiting the right moment to undertake whatever activity had been suggested. ‘Mrs Eakin’s nephew’s here, apparently. And Scott and Susan at the hall,’ Sarah said softly. Scott and Susan were nephew and niece to the owners of Shelham Hall, the Cartsons, and like Louise and Sarah, only visited in the summer. Scott was a year older than Louise and so it was inevitable that Louise’s admiration for him was in direct proportion to his indifference to her. He was tall and athletic and always arrived at the hall with a set of golf clubs so that he could walk out to the farthest of the fields and spend the day practicing his swing. Louise had tried to become interested in golf and had even taken a book out of the library, much to her mother’s puzzlement, in an effort to engage Scott in a mature and meaningful conversation about this ancient and very adult pastime. It was of course, to no avail. Spotty school girls were not his type, apparently. As another opportunity to get close to Scott, Louise had cultivated a friendship with Susan, finding that in actual fact they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company.
‘How do you know that they are here?’ Louise asked, indignant that she had not been the bearer of such important news. Sarah, without looking up from her sketching simply replied, ‘Saw the car on the driveway as we walked down to the barn earlier’.
‘Now she mentions it’, barked Louise crossly. The thought that they had spent the morning lounging in the barn when they could have been splashing around in the Hall’s outdoor swimming pool was beyond irritating. They were only allowed to go in the swimming pool when Scott and Sarah visited. Christine, Joe’s mum, had asked them not to go pestering the Cartsons about using the pool at any other time. The pool was a remnant of times more prosperous and was tired and dilapidated to say the least, and the water was usually freezing, but nevertheless, it made for an entertaining couple of hours.
‘Shall we go up to the hall then? asked Louise, trying not to sound too eager.
‘HE won’t be at the pool. He’ll be playing golf with his Uncle’, Joe contributed, smirking.
‘I was going to spend some time with Susan, actually’, she retorted.
‘Course you were’. Spat back Joe, laughing. ‘Louise fancies Scott, Louise fancies Scott’, he sang, laughing.
Louise took off one of her trainers and threw it down at Joe, catching him on his back as he tried to jump out of the way. ‘Oi!’ he shouted. Joe retaliated by taking off one of his wellies and threw it upwards towards Louise. It flew straight past her, over the top of the bales, fell down the other side, and landed on the floor wedged between the wall and the bottom bales of straw.
‘Ha, well that’s your next job then. You can spend the afternoon trying to get that back’. She jumped down the bales and was out of the door before Joe had chance to think of a defensive repost.
Louise knew that Joe would go straight to his mum and she would be in for it when she got home later, but she didn’t care. She dusted down her clothes, ran her fingers through her hair and stormed off in the direction of the hall.