It settled down after that. Chin Woman returned – she’d been ill apparently – Grandad answered the phone when it rang and obliged Mum by being in when she called round. I didn’t see why he shouldn’t go out when he wanted, but what did I know? Nothing that Mum wanted to hear on the subject anyway. Parents never seem to want to talk to their children about important things and maybe if they did there would be fewer problems. It would have helped in Grandad’s case.
Meanwhile, I got on with life at school and the ever-increasing piles of revision papers.
There was also the problem of the new girl Charlotte Watson who’d joined us from another school right as exams were about to begin and seemed to have latched on to me. She was everywhere I went or so it seemed. She was in my science and maths sets and she invariably managed to find a spare seat near me, even when I could have sworn (and often did) that there wasn’t one. If she had been Amanda Simpson I wouldn’t have minded though I might not have dared talk to her. She’s in the popular league.
“Charlotte’s alright,” said Tom when I moaned to him about it. “Anyway, someone said she’s got a boyfriend at Ashbourne.” Ashbourne is a sixth form college in the next town, full of posh boys and gals. Rumour has it that they ride their horses to college or have the chauffeur drop them off. No-one from Glorney Mead could ever dream of going there. We’d all be way out of place.
“They’re all old at Ashbourne. Maybe she wants a younger one at Glorney. Keep her options open,” I suggested. “Come on, move!” I had just spotted Charlotte walking determinedly towards us. We got up from the bench we were lounging on but Tom makes lounging into an art form so it took him a while and we weren’t fast enough.
“Hi Ben! Hi, er, Tim.”
“Sorry, yes.” She glanced at him then turned back to me. “Did you understand that experiment in Chemistry?” Her head was cocked slightly to one side, her eyes were big. She looked a bit like Bonzo Dog. I hoped her digestive system works better than his does.
“Yeah. Maybe. Going to read my notes.”
Tom snorted. “You didn’t even take notes!”
“So, er, your notes.” I glared at him.
“You can borrow mine,” said Charlotte. I glanced at her, surprised, more so when she blushed.
“I mean,” she added, now looking down at the grey vinyl of the school corridor floor. “If that is any use.”
“Thanks, s’okay though.” I had to put her off.
She rallied. “Well, see you some time.” She smiled and set off down the corridor. Then she turned. “Or I might bump into you outside. I think you visit someone in my road.”
“Er?” It wasn’t articulate but I was bothered.
“Oh, er, yeah, my Grandad.” Next thing she’d be calling on him.
“See you then.” She waved.
“See what I mean?” I growled. “Tim.”
That was before the incident in the woods.
It was raining when I called round on Grandad early that evening. I’d promised Mum I’d take in some fresh milk as, on the days when Chin Woman isn’t there, milk tends to get left out. I got there and he wasn’t in. Only he must have been around as, when I went round the back to see if he was in the garden, I found the backdoor open and the radio on in the kitchen, blaring out a comedy programme. I could hear riotous laughing
“Grandad! Grandad!” I called. Then “Reggie!” in case he wasn’t in a grandfatherly mood but would respond to his own name.
No reply. I went in and wandered from room to room. The cupboard under the stairs, where we had hidden in the storm, was open and he’d left a tap running in the bathroom but otherwise everything was normal. The milk was even in the fridge. I guessed he had just gone out for a bit and had forgotten to shut the backdoor. I delivered the milk to the appropriate spot in the fridge and left.
“Grandad alright?” asked Mum as I shook the rain off me in the hall. It was tipping down now and I hoped Grandad was snug in a pub or back in his kitchen listening to the radio. He said he kept it on for company if he felt lonely. I imagined him in the pub with a few other old men like him, chewing over things, having a bit of a moan about how young people didn’t know how lucky they were these days. Not that Grandad was like that. He always supported me.
“Well?” Mum sounded impatient. “Is he alright?”
“Who? Oh, Grandad. Yeah. Fine.” I shrugged. There didn’t seem any point in worrying her and sending her scuttling round the pubs looking for him, disturbing him when he’d only just started another pint.
But later that evening, when I was bored writing about the rise of Fascism in 20th century Europe, and the rain was still drumming on the window, I started to worry. Supposing he wasn’t alright.
“Where are you off to?” Dad spotted me as I tried to sneak through the house unseen. Stupid open-plan 1970s design. Not only can’t you shut off the sound of the pointless talent shows that Molly watches and the cookery competitions that are Mum’s obsession, you can’t even sneeze without someone hearing you.
“Left some work at Tom’s,” I said, fumbling with the zip on my jacket. “I’ll be back soon.”
“I’ll drive you. It’s an awful night.”
“No.” I said it too quickly. “Thanks though. I am so cramped up doing this essay, my brain and body need a bit of exercise.”
He looked at me suspiciously. I don’t really do exercise. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Anyway, you’re always telling me that a bit of rain never hurt anyone. Bye!” I was out the front door before Dad could think of a suitable response.
Grandad’s house was dark when I cycled up. Perhaps he was having an early night after too many pints in the pub. I knocked quietly on the front door, not wanting to disturb him but not wanting to go away without being sure he was OK.
There was no reply so I made my way round the back and – I had secretly been fearing this all along – I could hear the radio (music this time) and see the backdoor was still open.
I felt sick. Where had he gone? Was he hiding in the house like in the thunder storm, playing a war game, and I hadn’t seen him earlier? Had he collapsed and I’d missed him? Had he gone out and something had happened to him?
“Grandad!” I stepped into the kitchen and groped around for the light switch. It wasn’t fully dark outside yet, but the light made me feel a little better and I switched on every light I could find as I tiptoed from room to room, expecting at any moment to find him lying there, his body twisted, his face… Get a grip! I My imagination was conjuring up all sorts of terrible images.
The house was empty. I didn’t know what to do next. I could have tried Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose and asked if she’d seen him but she was usually so hostile it would probably lead to trouble. His other neighbours had only just moved in. “Not sure who they are,” Grandad had said. “I called round with a pie but they were out.”
I found a torch by the back door and went down the garden. Perhaps he had been digging again and fallen in the hole. In which case he might be lying there, his body… Stop it!
But he wasn’t. He had obviously been digging recently as the hole was quite big now, and filling up with water from the relentless rain, but there was no Grandad. The back gate was open though. It led out into a lane, on the other side of which were the woods. Grandad and I had adventures in the woods when I was younger, hiding from the enemy, building makeshift camps. One summer when Nana, Dad’s mother, was ill, Mum and Dad went to visit her for a couple of weeks. Molly went with them as she was considered too young to be away from them, and I stayed with Gran and Grandad. That was Gran’s last summer and I remember her reading to me, and cooking, but mostly I remember getting wet and muddy in the woods with Grandad, pretending we were on the trail of a spy. Gran told us both off for the mess we brought back in with us, but it was great.
Something clicked in my brain. I wiped the rain out of my eyes and stepped forward across the lane into the woods.
The trees should have given me some shelter but the rain was so hard the leaves couldn’t hold it, or when they did, they collected a pool then dumped it on me as I walked below. I ducked branches as well as I could, but twigs still hit me in the face and I couldn’t see the roots and other obstacles under my feet. Once I slipped and went crashing to the ground. I lay there winded for a moment and sensed something on the edge of my hearing. Something was moving ahead of me. I scrambled to my feet and called “Grandad.” The movement stopped. Then it started again, somewhere slightly to my right and further into the woods.
“Grandad!” Stop. Start. “Reggie!” This time the movement stopped for longer. I crept forward, shining my torch on the ground, watching for twigs that might snap and give the game away. Grandad had taught me that when we’d played our games that summer.
The pounding of the rain helped hide my approach too. I guessed he was somewhere near the mound where we had made camp, a mound left there when the woods were used for army manoeuvres years back.
Something darted across my path and I jumped and shone my torch after it. The beam caught the hindquarters of a small deer racing for shelter, perhaps disturbed by the intruders.
I stepped forward again and this time forgot to look at the ground. I stumbled into a hole and fell to the side, thudding my shoulder into a tree. Something else moved ahead and this time my torch caught a figure running away from me zigzagging among the trees. It was him, I was sure.
I ran then too, not caring about the noise I was making, not caring about the branches that whipped at me nor the fact that the rain had now reached my underpants. I was sure I could outrun him. But the wood was dark and Grandad was wily, moving this way and that, diving into thick bushes, so that I lost sight of him. I stopped and listened but all I could hear was the pelting rain and my own panting.
“Grandad! Grandad! It’s me! Ben! Where are you?” My voice was high with panic now. Nothing. Think Ben, think! I remembered the games in the woods, the way we had sneaked around in silence – or as much silence as a nine-year-old could muster – the oranges we had thrown as ‘hand grenades’ (Gran told us off about that too), the time I couldn’t find him and he was just behind me. I’d panicked then, too, and he’d taught me a signal to use if I ever got lost again. A bird cry. I could scarcely remember it.
I thought hard and cupped my hands around my mouth. Then I called “Teewhooo! Teewhooo!”
Nothing. And then, tentatively, like a shy echo, a “Teewhooo!” sounded from my left.
I called again: “Teewhooo! Teewhooo!”
This time the reply was bolder. “Teewhooo! Teewhooo!”
I made my way towards the sound, stopping to call every now and then. Grandad’s replies were stronger now.
I pushed my way through a thick, prickly bush and stumbled out into a small clearing. I called again. “Teewhooo!”
The reply was loud, just feet away.
I chanced it. “Grandad? It’s me, Ben.” I shone my torch low to where I thought he was, afraid of startling him and, like a nervous fawn, he appeared from behind a tree.
“Ben! Are you alright? They haven’t got you.”
“The…the…” His voice wavered. “I don’t know. I think I must be in a muddle.”
I approached gently and he reached out his hand towards me. “Ben! You’re soaked!”
“And you!” I stepped forward and hugged him, feeling his frail frame in my arms. I wanted to weep.
Then the world was lit up by a powerful beam and a new voice demanded “What’s going on?”