by Loretta M Mulholland
We had brought very little with us that summer, but Mum and Dad thought we would find plenty to do as we had so much free space and could play by the river and let our imaginations run wild. The petrol-blue Triumph Herald stood stationary by the side of the house for the entire period we were there. Mum and Dad went to the Clachan for any necessities and left my two brothers and I to our own devices. We spent every day playing by the river, or in the nearby fields, where the barley grew tall as my little brother and green as the summer grass. We spent all summer playing make-believe games in imaginary worlds inhabited by different characters every day.
One day, we stood transfixed, watching a flock of birds, their shapes dark against the clear blue sky, and we immediately entered a world where humanity was threatened by a fatal disease, carried by birds from around the globe, and only three children and an eccentric scientist could save the world. On another day, sheep appeared in a field with strange blue and red markings. What had happened to them? What would happen to anyone who approached them? They were the dammed creatures, and we would be marked in the same way if the soldiers caught us in this dying world. Another time, a stranger appeared amongst the barley. What was that he was carrying? Was he whistling or was he speaking to his dog in a strange tongue? How had he got here, to this isolated island?
But the day we found the body by the river changed our world forever. This was not make-believe. This was no story. It involved police and reporters and medical people and Mum and Dad and the ‘stranger’ in the field and many more people besides. We were interviewed and separated from each other and for a time, from Mum and Dad. Our holiday became the busiest time I could remember in all my ten years. I could no longer make up stories and characters, because one image would never leave my mind.
The body was bloated, like an inflatable balloon that you might see outside a garage, with long arms dangling around. The face was chalk white, eyes staring in a forever trance, looking upwards at who knew what. There were ragged clothes wrapped around the torso. It was a woman. She looked like a ghost but not a pretty one. Her hair floated around her head, like a halo of death. Angus was the first to speak. He said we should run for help. Told us not to touch anything. Dragged my little brother away. Put his arm round my shoulders.
‘Shouldn’t we dial 999?’ I asked.
‘The grown ups will do that. We just need to tell them where it is. Don’t cry, Catriona.’
Donnie, my younger brother, stopped speaking entirely. Angus started to draw. He drew all the time. Never had a pencil or pad out of his hands. He drew furiously for hours at a time, flicking the pages, over and over. He drew bodies in a river. Faces with long hair floating in the water. Ladies with long dresses, drifting around the pages, going nowhere. Eyes. Sometimes he drew pages of eyes. Only eyes. Black and white sketches, with long lashes and staring pupils.
Me? All I tried to do was be good. I offered to wash dishes and made my bed every morning. I read books with stories about houses with golden windows and any adventure stories I could find on the shelves of the old bookcase. I emptied bins and set the table, doing every single chore I was asked. And more.
Mum and Dad never left us alone. They were with us every minute of every day. Our family was not allowed to leave the Clachan. Then one day, my parents were taken away to be questioned again. We were left in the care of an old lady who lived by the byre up the hill.
‘Can’t we just go outside into the garden to play for a while?’ I pleaded with her, after three days of being locked in. ‘Pleasssse?’
Angus looked up from his pad. She hesitated. Donnie was nodding furiously.
‘Weel, jist fir hauf an hoor,’ she said, ‘But dinnae leave thi gerden. Dinnae stray fae thi hoose.’
Angus laid his pad and pencil aside, stood up and took Donnie by the hand and we headed for the back door together. Our wee brother headed towards the swings but me and Angus didn’t go to the garden. He had taken the keys for the Herald, and we crept inside where another unsettling discovery awaited us and I felt a chill go through my whole body.
Inside the glove compartment was a red headscarf that did not belong to my mother.
‘Why do you think that’s here?’ I asked Angus.
‘Maybe the police thought it belonged to Mum?’
‘Don’t be daft. We’d have seen it everyday.’
‘Take it out.’
‘Don’t touch it,’ Donnie squealed. We both turned in shock. It was the first time he’d spoken since we’d discovered the body. We hadn’t heard him creep into the vehicle. Last time I checked he was still on the swing. He had seemed to be in his own wee world. I looked at him, seeing terror in his eyes.
‘Don’t be scared, Donnie. It’s only one of Mum’s old scarves.’
Angus had taken the scarf out now, and was wringing it through his hands, like our granny used to squeeze the washing before she put it through the mangle. He looked like he was thinking hard, puzzling out how on earth a scarf belonging to another lady could be in Dad’s glove compartment.
‘It’s not Mummy’s,’ Donnie cried. ‘It’s not got her smell.’
Angus unfurled the scarf. We all looked at it in horror. One corner was stained dark brown with dried-in blood.
‘What should we do?’ I asked. Angus had read lots of detective stories. He must know the answer.
‘We hide it. Bury it where no-one can find it. Then we run away.’
‘What does that mean?’ asked Donnie.
‘We get the police to stop asking Mum and Dad questions.’
‘Because they’ll be too busy looking for us.’
I looked at Angus. I knew he was thinking the same as me. We would be running away. But not from the police.