July Writing Challenge: The Longest Day

At the end of June I posted on my Facebook author page asking for writing prompt suggestions. I received a lovely amount and the one I chose to respond to was, ‘write about an ordinary day that lasts forever.’ I had a few stabs at this but this was the final result. I hope you enjoy it. This is the second draft and I will probably play around with it a bit more before it gets added to my next collection. I’ll be asking for a new challenge for August!

Time didn’t work the same way in Grandma’s garden.

Time had its own rules there.

Time is not the same for children as it is for adults either. And if you combine children with a dark and secret place they have been forbidden to enter, you find that time plays tricks on you. That an ordinary day can become an extraordinary one. That an ordinary day can even last forever.

Would you like that? To live forever?

I thought I did, when I was a child. I first realised death would get me when our dog Ralph got smashed to bits by a speeding car. He wasn’t supposed to be out on the road. That was my fault. I left the gate open and he followed me out to the ice cream van, wagging his fat tail hopefully. His hope ended when the speeding car swung around the corner and took him out. I still remember counting the bits of him that were spread across the road. My mother later said I was in shock, when I kept repeating the number. Twenty-two. It was twenty-two. And I knew then that death was coming for everyone, even me, which didn’t seem remotely fair because I was obviously special, and ought to be allowed to live forever. Children are self-centred like that. Think the world revolves around them.

Until they go to visit their grandparents and the house is full of noise and gossip and there are aunts and uncles everywhere you turn. No child can tolerate that much head rubbing and lip smacking for long, so we wriggled free, me and my cousins, and we went out to the garden.

We followed the wide stone steps from the front door, down to the first layer of the garden. This was Grandad’s domain, with his runner bean plants, giant marrows, trimmed conifer hedges and the door to his cellar. There was a little low brick wall we taught ourselves to balance on, arms flung out to either side. If you toppled one side, you’d land on his runner beans and someone would tap on the glass from the window above to scold you.

We skipped down a worn grass path away from the tapping on the windows and the prying adult eyes until we came to the next layer. A flat spread of grass surrounded by bright flowerbeds. Grandma’s domain. A rotary clothesline swung in circles in the breeze. Her bird table and bird bath were always full to attract the birds she watched from the window.

There was another wall here – you could jump down and land in the final area. The lower garden, where the grass was longer and greener. Grandad’s compost heat warmed the air and flies buzzed manically around it. Here the fences seemed higher, the trees thicker, the canopy above sheltering us from the windows of the house.

Here, we traded secrets. Robert was a snitch and a tell-tale. Martin wet the bed last time he slept over at Grandma’s. Lucy’s dog got splattered on the road and the blood sprayed all the children in the face. It was a zombie dog who kept walking even after his head had rolled away. Maria’s mum had an affair and now she is getting a new daddy. Here, we traded dares. Throw one of Grandad’s tools over the fence. Poke a stick into the steaming compost to see if it is really full of snakes. Steal some knickers from the line and hang them in a tree. Pick the plums from the neighbour’s tree. Throw plums at the houses and then duck.

It was dark and green and safe but in the fence was a small iron gate that led down to the very lowest, furthest part of the garden. Grandma and Grandad did not venture down to the lowest point for several reasons. There were too many trees, Grandad said, so he couldn’t grow anything down there and also, the hose wouldn’t reach. It was too difficult for them now to climb all the way back up, Grandma said, with their old bones and bad backs. It was too wild down there, they said. Best to leave it alone.

We were forbidden. They couldn’t see us from the window, couldn’t see what we were up to and we were always up to something. It was too overgrown down there, too tangled and there could be rubbish, even glass amongst the undergrowth. Over several summers, our curiosity grew into something that felt alive. Something yearning and aching and building up inside of us until that particular summer, the summer I was twelve, we could bear it no more. We hatched a plan and prepared for battle. It was me and my two younger brothers, Patrick, eleven- and nine-year-old Harry. It was my cousins Robert and Martin who were ten-year-old twins at the time, and cousin Maria who was eight.

We set up a picnic in the lower garden, not too close to the fly infested compost pile. We asked to borrow a huge umbrella for shade and behind that, we dutifully spread out a soft blanket and organised the food and drink they’d let us take. We knew from the windows they would just about be able to see the umbrella and would hopefully assume we were still playing behind it.

‘They’ll be too busy watching the match,’ I added when Patrick gave me an anxious look. ‘Besides, we won’t be very long.’

We stood at the gate and took a deep breath. Beyond the gate, darkness beckoned and Maria slid her sweaty hand into mine. I checked my watch – it was ten am. Behind us the sun was a red gold ball of fire torching the garden, but beyond the iron gate, we could feel soft cool air calling to us. It smelled different too. It smelled alive.

What struck me first, before we went through the gate, was how green it all was. How you couldn’t really tell where one tree or shrub ended and another began. It was a mass of tangled green in varying shades and it felt hungry. It wanted us to come in.

So we did. What we found first was a set of small stone steps. This delighted Maria who happily hopped from one to the other, declaring they were small enough for fairies. The boys charged ahead, waving sticks at imaginary danger. I lagged behind, mainly because I wanted to take it all in, this forbidden, secret land, and because Maria was still tightly clutching my hand.

There was little light. Only tiny fragments made it through the thick canopy of trees and vines above our heads. I identified fir trees mostly, but there were hawthorn, ash and elm as well, all pushing and vying for space. The bushes were mostly rhododendron. Grandad always said that plant was an invasive pest, but its flowers were in full bloom, exciting Maria further as she danced ahead to pluck the bright purple petals.

It was silent. I saw the odd bird flit from tree to tree but I didn’t hear any song. The path seemed to go on forever and I was in awe, confused. I had no idea my grandparents garden was this big, this long. It kept going down, which didn’t seem to make sense because I knew that behind their house was another road full of houses just like theirs. I felt like we should have reached a boundary fence by now, someone else’s land. But it just kept going, and the steps got narrower and steeper and when I called ahead, the boys did not answer.

‘They’ve gone,’ Maria stated plainly and my heart beat faster.

‘Hiding,’ I told her. ‘Watch out. They’ll jump out on us soon.’

Suddenly, she froze and screamed. It was a horrible sound, one that I was sure the adults would hear from the house. Thanks to her, our adventure would be over before it had even begun. I shook her arm to get her to stop but she just pointed to something sat on the next step. Something we had almost stepped on.

It was the largest slug I had ever seen. It was almost as big as my foot. I backed up, blinking in panic, because although I liked to think of myself as a tough customer, I was repulsed by those things. It was just sat there, glistening and pulsing. Its gleaming skin was the colour of the steps, mottled green and grey. I looked over my shoulder and felt sick when I saw more slugs posted on the steps we had already descended. How we didn’t slip on them and fall to our deaths, I will never know.

She hadn’t got far but that was enough for Maria. She pulled free of my hand and charged back up the steps, screaming for her mother. Great, I thought, watching her go. Any second now they’ll be bellowing at us to come out and asking us what the hell we thought we were up to.

‘You can stop hiding now,’ I called out to the boys. ‘Maria went back screaming over a slug! The game’s over!’

There was no reply, just a heavy waiting silence. I stepped over the slug and kept going, mainly because I knew I had to retrieve my brothers and cousins before the adults really got angry with us. There were no more steps after a while, but I couldn’t believe how far we had gone. Where was the fence? Where were the other gardens?

Peering ahead, I could see a dusty brown path weaving around tall firs and pines, seemingly stretching on forever. The branches of the trees were so low and heavy they brushed the ground, creating dark pockets of thick shadows between their trunks. I stared at every one, daring the boys to leap out and scare me and every time, it felt like something was watching me in return. I shivered and walked on.

Now the steps had ended, there was nothing man-made down here at all. No signs of human life. No rubbish, no old plant pots or garden tools, no bird feeders, nothing. I looked up and saw a tiny fragment of sunlight winking at me through the tops of the trees. Around me, the darkness seemed to creep closer.

‘Boys?’ I called out again, nervous now. This was no fun without them. The plan wasn’t to come down here on my own and get shouted at on my own afterwards. The plan was to have an adventure, to explore and discover. I didn’t feel like doing that now. I turned in a circle and caught a glimpse of something shimmering to the left. I wove my way through the trees – some spindly white boned birches this time – which were growing in a haphazard fashion around a large pond. ‘Boys?’ I asked again, but I didn’t like the sound of my voice down here. It sounded too loud, too abrasive and I was sure I could hear the bristle and rustle of undergrowth that didn’t like it either.

I stepped closer to the pond and felt cold water seep into my trainers. Yuk! I grimaced and plodded forward a few more steps, cold brown muck squelching between my toes. The surface water of the pond was rippling, suggesting life beneath and I watched for a while, as a trio of ginormous dragonflies descended like mini bug-eyed helicopters. There were flies too. Lots of them. A gentle thrum of crickets and grasshoppers could be heard beneath the buzzing of the flies and as I skirted around the pond and kept going, the sound grew louder.

I searched around the pond, keeping it in my sights, on a mission now to find those little turds and make them pay for ruining our plans. Maria, I could forgive, but the boys were taking this too far now. This was supposed to be a group adventure. Having said that, the silence and solitude were becoming rather nice. I smiled a little bit, thinking how lucky we were to have found such a secretive place. I also felt an unexpected twinge of anger at the adults for keeping this from us for so long.

I searched for footprints in the mud and dust and found none. I searched for broken twigs and sticks, a trail of anything that would lead me to their hiding place and found nothing. I got bored after a while and as there had been no angry bellows from the adults, I started to make a den a safe distance away from the pond. I got lost in my work for a while; dragging suitably long branches and sticks over to a sturdy pine and arranging them around it in a wigwam formation. I covered it with ferns and left a doorway to entice my cousins in. I sat in it for a while, feeling hot and sticky and thirsty, and thinking longingly of our food and drink back on the picnic blanket.

‘Okay,’ I announced after an hour had passed. ‘I’m going back now. I’m hungry. You better come out and follow me back up or we’ll all be in trouble.’

There was no answer. I was proud of the little den though and smiled at it over my shoulder as I walked back past the pond and headed back towards the steps. Only they weren’t there. I stopped and looked around. The pond was on my right, as it had been on my left on the way down. So the steps ought to be directly ahead. But they weren’t. Instead, all I could see were trees and rhododendron bushes. There was no path at all. No steps, nothing. It was like a dusty, dry jungle of silence and waiting.

‘What?’ I asked myself, turning in a circle, but I had no answer. I had no clue. I had no choice but to keep walking. I checked my watch and saw to my horror that it was past lunch time. How could that have happened? I hadn’t taken that long over the den, had I? I must have. I shook my head and kept walking, trying to head back towards the hill of steps that had led me here.

But there was no hill, no rising incline of land, so surely this was the wrong way? If I wasn’t climbing upwards, I was going the wrong way. I turned around, slightly panicked now and laughing at myself nervously and tried the opposite direction. That didn’t make sense because the pond was no longer on my left, but what could I do? Maybe there were two ponds?

‘You guys!’ I yelled out in frustration. ‘You’ve ruined this whole game and I hate you! Come out right now!’

Of course, no one did. The boys were long gone. Perhaps a monstrous slug had scared them too and they’d run back to the gate another way. I had no option but to stomp around in anger and frustration, but I only seemed to get myself more lost. Some time later, gleaming with sticky sweat, I sat on a grassy hill under a ginormous oak tree and checked my watch. I was shocked to discover another two hours had passed me by. This wasn’t right. I was so confused, all I could do was sit there for another hour, just gazing at the ground in front of me, just trying to figure out what the hell had happened here.

Eventually, the panic subsided and a kind of weary, grudging acceptance kicked in. Maybe I live here now, I thought, maybe this is my place and I can never leave. With that notion kicking around in my head, I started to perk up a bit. I stopped freaking out and started exploring instead. I found all kinds of interesting and unbelievable things that day on my own at the bottom of the garden. You would not believe any of them if I told you. And I knew that if I ever spoke a word of this to anyone in my life, I would be branded either a liar or a lunatic.

I knew I would keep it to myself and once I’d made that decision, things got easier again. I began to enjoy myself, climbing trees that seemed to provide the perfect branch at the perfect time. I found long, twisted vines of elder and ivy and swung from them, each one holding my weight easily. I found a little stone bridge that swerved over a thin, shining point, where I stood and watched rainbow-coloured frogs diving and swimming.

I heard the voices in the undergrowth, the whispers in the trees, the soft playful laughter behind the leaves and I laughed back. I was home.

And not long after that, with my watch telling me it was now four in the afternoon, I suddenly came across the stone steps again. The slugs had gone. Bright light sparkled from the garden at the top and I could even hear my cousins laughter.

I emerged blinking and squinting into the hot sun that parched the end of my grandparents garden, fully expecting the adults to come racing down towards me, stressed and panicked and furious. But they didn’t. My cousins and siblings looked up at me from where they were sprawled out lazily under the umbrella we had set up, but none of them seemed to react with any urgency. I’d been gone all day; what the hell was wrong with them?

‘Can we eat this now you’re back?’ asked Maria holding up a slice of apple cake in her grubby hand.

I stumbled towards them, nodding, my head fuzzy with fatigue and confusion. None of them reacted as I plonked myself on the blanket and plucked several leaves from my sweaty hair.

‘How long was I gone?’ I asked them after a while. I was staring at my watch, trying and failing to understand this.

Martin shrugged, his mouth full of crisps. ‘Dunno.’

‘Ten minutes?’ Patrick suggested.

I tapped my watch. ‘That’s impossible.’ I opened my mouth to start to tell them, to explain that my watch said I’d been in there all day, that I knew I had because of how long and far I had walked and climbed and played, because every inch of me, every bone ached and throbbed with exhaustion. But then my mouth snapped shut and I said nothing.

Minutes passed and still I said nothing. I was starting to think keeping it to myself might be the best option. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me or call me a liar and besides that, I’d found something special, hadn’t I? Something dark and inviting, something secretive, something alive.

Something that was mine.

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