“Are you two alright? You’re wet through!” The voice belonged to a tall, broad figure who, when he led us into the light of his warm kitchen, turned out to be a middle-aged man with a bristling moustache.
“I was just trying to get the cat in and I heard something going on in the woods,” he told us. “I thought maybe it was Za-Za – that’s the cat – having an altercation with a fox, or that dog that lives up the road. It wouldn’t be the first time. And I found you two.” He turned and called through the doorway: “Lottie! Can you come and give me a hand here?”
“Just a minute!” The voice sounded worryingly familiar, worries that were confirmed when a red-haired girl stuck her head round the door and squeaked “Ben! What are you doing here?” Yes, it was Charlotte. Oh, hooray! Embarrassing or what!
I made up some story about looking for one of Grandad’s chickens that had got loose and might be in the woods, while I dried my hair with the towel Charlotte found for me. She kept staring at me. Perhaps she was hoping that I’d strip off completely and towel myself down. Nah, I’m not the sort of person anyone hopes that about.
Then Charlotte’s Dad looked at Grandad who was shivering and shaking like his teeth would fall out and said: “Mr Heath, isn’t it? I’m Mark Watson. You’re going to be ill if we don’t get you out of those wet clothes and into a hot bath straightaway. Lottie, go and run a bath and I’ll find you some of my spare clothes.”
“No!” Grandad’s voice was so loud it made me jump. “Leave me alone!”
“Seriously Mr Heath, you’ll catch pneumonia or something.” He made towards Grandad who shrunk back, fear in his eyes.
“Get off me!”
I stepped forward between the two men. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew that I had to take Grandad’s side, even though Mr Watson was right.
“It’s alright Grandad,” I said. “It’s alright.” I felt like I was talking to a frightened child. “We’ll go home and you can get warm there.” I turned to Mr Watson and smiled awkwardly.
“Tell you what,” Mr Watson blustered. “I’ll give you both a lift home. It’s still pouring with rain.” He gave a nervous laugh.
“Thanks Mr Watson.”
“Mark,” he replied.
‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘he’ll be saying ‘call me Dad’ soon’.
Back at his home, I had just persuaded Grandad to have a quick bath when my phone rang. The name ‘Mum’ came up on the screen.
“Ben, where are you?” She sounded either annoyed or anxious, probably both. I sighed. When would she work out that I was almost 16?
For a moment I couldn’t work out what to say. What had I said when I left? The events of the last hour or so had confused me.
“I dropped in to see Grandad,” I told her.
“Oh.” Her voice softened. “Is he alright?” The anxiety returned then, but at least I was off the hook.
“Can I have a word?”
“He’s just gone in the bathroom.”
“So what have you been talking about?”
Maybe it was my imagination but I thought she might be suspicious.
“History. I’ve got a difficult essay to write about the years leading up to the war. I thought he might be able to help.”
“Oh. I thought you went to Tom’s. He lives miles away from Grandad.”
“It’s not miles and I went to Tom’s too.” This was irritating. Why didn’t I just tell her the truth? Because she would start a spiral of worry and who knew where that would lead.
“Are you coming home? Do you want a lift? The rain’s awful?” She rattled on in this vein for a while as I began to shiver. I cut her off with the promise that I’d be home soon and went to check that Grandad was alright.
Was I right to say nothing? I hadn’t quite worked out what had gone on in the woods, or maybe I had, but I didn’t want to admit to it. If I admitted that he seemed to be running from something, that he seemed to be re-enacting our old war games but taking them seriously, then I would have to tell someone and that would put a chain of events in motion that would change everything. And I wanted to keep Grandad as he was.
Charlotte, of course, said something the next day.
“Are you OK? Is your Grandad OK? Did you get the chicken back?”
“What is she on about?” asked Tom. I was scrabbling in my bag for a text book at the time and didn’t reply. I was trying to work out what to say.
“What are you on about?” Tom asked Charlotte.
“Oh it’s just that Ben was in the woods and…”
“Found it!” I announced, waving the book in the air and hitting Tom in the face. “Sorry Tom! I’ve got to go.” I loped off leaving Tom and Charlotte staring at me. Maybe Charlotte was just being kind but I didn’t want her interfering. I didn’t want anyone else involved.