The best thing about our new house is that it’s right by the river, I just jump over a low wall and run through the trees. The ground is covered in white garlic flowers with bright green leaves. I kick off my sandals and walk into the water over slippery stones until it’s deep enough to swim. I dive under and see how far I can go, and come up again by the rocks on the other side. I can be here as long as I want, and no one else ever comes.
I have my own pathways across the river where stones stand up above the water, and I jump from one to the next so fast I feel like I’m flying. Higher up river there are the rapids with big rocks and water rushing through them. And up at the waterfall is a deep pool, clear and bubbly where the water falls into it. My brother wanted to catch a salmon when they were leaping, with a string bag on the end of a brush handle. He tried for ages, but he never did it.
Down stream there’s a little island where I’ve built a den with stones. There are yellow king cups growing in big clumps where the water is shallow, and the river banks and the island are covered in white anemones. Further down, past the bridge, the water is deep and slow, and I lie in the long grass and watch it moving, and carrying little things.
I’m looking in the toy shop window at a cowboy outfit – trousers with a fringe right down the sides, a waistcoat with a star on it, a wide black hat, and guns. They’re big and silver and they fit in a belt and Daddy says they’re called six shooters. I want it. Mummy says it’s for boys but it’s not, it’s for me. So we go in the shop and I watch the man wrap up the box in brown paper, and then I carry it.
I’m going to check the bear trap across the river, and I’m wearing my Davey Crocket hat that grandma made, it’s furry with a tail. The trap is a big hole where there was a tree root that came up, and I’ve laid branches and twigs and moss over it so the bears won’t know it’s there, and they’ll fall in. But there’s nothing there, it’s just the same. So I go up the steep hill under the oak trees to the grave yard to see if everything’s alright. It’s where I bury little dead animals I find, mice or moles or shrews. I make them a proper grave with a stone on it and there’s a little wall round them all. Everything’s alright.
I go outside and Daddy’s there, holding one of the handles of a bike. It’s for me. It’s my birthday and I’m seven. I walk round it and look. It’s green, and it has yellow ribbons tied in big bows on each of the handles, for my plaits. I climb on and Daddy holds the bike and runs. We go down the drive lots of times and I can nearly do it without him. When he’s gone to work I keep trying, and as I’m pedalling up the drive I fall over sideways straight through the beech hedge. But it doesn’t matter, I can do it.
I’m in bed and I can hear them shouting, and there are noises, things breaking. It goes quiet, but I can’t go to sleep. Daddy comes in, smiling a lot, but I turn my back and look at the wall. He tells me he and Mummy were having a big argument, and he makes it sound funny, and says she threw eggs at him, then the sugar basin, and oh what a mess he was! But I know it’s because he wants me to be friends with him, and I won’t. It’s not fair, I love Mummy too.
He keeps on talking, telling a story, and it’s funny, and I turn round. He makes me laugh, and when the story’s finished he strokes my face, and kisses me good night. When he’s gone I feel bad again. I remember I wasn’t going to let him make me be friends, but he did it. And I’m angry and sad. Why can they just do anything and say anything, but they get cross with me if I do? I want to tell them, but I can’t. And they always talk, they don’t hear.
I’ve walked up to the farm to play, but there’s geese by the gate. They push out their necks and hiss when I get near and they won’t move. Sometimes I wait for hours, but today Mr. Manby’s there and he shoos them away and lets me in. “They’re in the barn” he says, “go and find them”. All three of them are doing hay slides. We climb up the hay, which is nearly to the roof, then where there’s a bit that’s like a steep slope we slide off the top and whoosh down it. We do it over and over, and my legs are scratched and sore but it doesn’t matter.
Then we hear the tractor and go outside to look, and Mr. Manby has brought a load of silage in the hay cart. He pulls up close to the low wall that has a steep drop on the other side. Then he brings a hay fork, digs it into the silage, and throws a big bundle over the wall to the ground below. We all jump onto the wall, gather armfuls from the cart, and throw them over. It smells lovely, fresh cut long grass, still green and full of flowers. When the cart is empty we play at jumping off the wall into the soft pile of silage, over and over.
I’m riding over the bridge, along the lane past my first school and as far up the long hill as I can pedal. Then I get off and turn left up the really steep part, pushing my bike up through the hazel trees and out into the sunshine at the top. I stop for a rest on the flat part by the old barn. I can see right down to the river, to home, all of the valley and the hills behind. I dare myself to go down the hill with no brakes. I know I can do it.
I wheel the bike to the beginning of the steep slope, hold the handle bars tight, take my foot off the ground and go. It’s very fast, the air is rushing at my face and the trees are a blur. There’s a tumbling old stone wall coming at me and I have to turn right, and it’s really hard to get the handle bars to do it in time. Moss on the wall brushes my cheek as I whizz past. I fly on down the hill, slowing down as it levels out, until I’m by the school again and need to start peddling. That was really good. I knew I could do it.
We’re coming home in Daddy’s new car. It’s got two big seats for them in the front and a small one in the back for me. There are lots of corners, and we’re going fast. Mummy says something and puts her hand on his arm, and he laughs, and suddenly we’re going faster. At the corners it feels like the car is falling over, and the wheels make a noise. Mummy screams. It’s so fast now I can’t move, I’m stuck against the back of the seat and slide from one side to the other when the car turns. It feels like my tummy is behind the car and it can’t catch up, and it hurts, and I’m so frightened I can’t say anything, it won’t come out.
Then we’re outside the house. Daddy gets out but Mummy doesn’t move. He goes round to her side and talks to her, but nothing happens. So he lifts her out and carries her. My legs feel funny and my head hurts. I go inside but I don’t know where they are, so I take my coat off and wait. Daddy comes, but Mummy’s gone to bed and he tells me to go too. Nobody says anything about it.
I’m a long way down the river, far away past the bridge, creeping through tall bull rushes. I put up my hand to warn the others behind me not to come yet till I’ve made sure there are no crocodiles. They crouch down in the long grass, leaning on their spears, and wait for me to give them a sign. It’s hot, and I want to swim, so I take off my clothes, drop them on the bank and roll into the water.
I’m underneath the bridge sitting with my back to the wall watching the water. it’s my hiding place, nobody comes under here. A car drives over above and it sounds really loud. Then I have an idea and come out onto the little sandy beach on the other side. Taking my shoes off I start moving stones, and tell the others what to do. We’re building a dam across this side of the river, to make a pool. It’s hard work moving the big stones but we can do it.
There’s a little noise somewhere, and I look up. Old Bob is leaning over the bridge way up above me and he’s laughing. Not big and loud, but he’s watching me and laughing. My face is hot, I feel silly, and I run under the bridge right to the middle and sit down against the wall and pull up my knees. I can’t stop the silly feeling, my eyes burn and I cry. There was nobody else there, it was just me, I made them up. And he knows. I’m never going to play with them again.