Tasteless

I woke that morning with a dry throat and a rasping, grating thirst. Blinding heat flamed behind my eyes, sweat beaded my forehead. I clambered out of the balled-up bed sheets and stumbled to the bathroom. Turning on the cold tap, I immersed my head in the freezing water, then filled a glass. I swallowed the water down in greedy gulps, refilled the glass and drank again. Wiping my face on a clean towel, I examined my reflection in the misted mirror. Two bloodshot eyes in an angry, flushed face stared back. Searching the bathroom cabinet, I discovered a packet of paracetamol. I downed two tablets and finished another glass. A strange sensation coated my tongue; a sharpness I had never noticed before.

            Downstairs, I prepared a simple breakfast. Though my throat was painful, I felt ravenous. That was most unusual for me. Finding no enjoyment in food, meant I never craved it. Preparing a meal was a dull process; a necessary routine to avoid the inconvenience of dying. I put together a bowl of porridge, a mug of hot milk and a banana. Nutritious, healthy; the vitamins and minerals needed to sustain the workings of the body. It was insignificant whether the food was salty, or sweet, or spiced. I could squirt a dash of hot chilli sauce on the porridge if I chose; it would make no difference. Except, I did not buy hot chilli sauce, nor any other form of seasoning for that matter. Bland is fine when you cannot taste a thing.

            Doctors called it ageusia and they had no definite idea why I suffered. It was possibly due to a problem with signals from my taste buds not being received by receptors in my brain.  Born with the condition, I had no idea what porridge tasted like, or milk, or banana. Nor did I understand what everyone found so attractive about a cappuccino or why people raved on about chocolate. Food and drink were for me an essential, not something to desire. As long as I got my recommended daily allowances, it mattered very little what I ate. Most of the time, I just got on with it, lived my life as I had always known it, but I cannot pretend that it did not upset me sometimes. It gnawed away at the back of my mind; a jealous, niggling ache. I was missing out on a large part of what it meant to be a social human being. The pleasantry of meeting for lunch or supper held no thrill for me. The great obsession for cookery programmes passed me by. When I went out, everywhere I looked there were restaurants with people sitting; eating, talking and having a good time together. By any reckoning, I was abnormal, sidelined, ostracized. My disorder made me strange and different. Making friends was difficult. There was always the worry about whether I told a person, and if so, at what stage in the relationship. As a child, I could never join in with the excitements of choosing penny sweets, ice creams at the beach or birthday teas. Dating was hard work; taking a woman out for a meal, choosing wine or cooking a special dinner were impossible tasks that highlighted my weirdness.

            My throat still sore, I sipped the hot milk with care. I had to fill my grumbling stomach with something before heading off to work. My tongue continued to feel odd. It tingled as I swallowed but the rawness was soothed by the liquid, so I downed the whole mug. I decided I could manage some porridge and tried a spoonful. Once more, my tongue seemed to prickle almost as if it had a spirit of its own. The feeling was pleasurable and I finished the bowl.

            Work was the usual dull rigmarole; meetings, telephone calls, writing reports, updating records, interspersed with general pleasantries with other work colleagues. At about ten thirty, Maggie came across for a chat. She was a friendly, full-figured woman, some might say dumpy, with straight, mousey hair. Ordinary but not unattractive. I had often wondered if she harboured some hope of a romantic liaison with me. We were both single, after all. I was middle-aged, balding and skinny so I could not afford to be too fussy. Even so, I had never asked her out. It was all too embarrassing.

            “Hello Nigel,” she said, “Are you all right? I noticed you look a bit under the weather today.”

It was like Maggie to notice something like that. She was the sort who paid attention to what was going on around the place.

            “I have a sore throat,” I explained.

            “Oh dear,” Maggie sympathized, “Can I get you anything?”

            “No, no thanks. A hot drink at lunchtime will help, I’m sure.”

As I was busy, the rest of the morning passed quickly enough. For lunch, I decided to pop out to a café on the High Street; a popular place buzzing with chatter and steaming with crowded bodies. Workmates praised the delicious smells and savoury nuttiness of the artisan breads cooked on the premises. Of course, I could not experience these wonders. No sense of taste meant no sense of smell either; the two inextricably linked. I did enjoy the cosy, relaxed atmosphere, however, and the fact that the seating was arranged in private nooks where I could read my paper in relative peace.

            When you cannot taste your food, ordering meals is difficult. So much to choose from but nothing to guide you. At this particular café, I normally picked the first item chalked up on the blackboard. That lunchtime, it was Roast Tomato and Basil Soup with Goat’s Cheese Focaccia. It sounded nutritious. The plump waitress gave me a wooden spoon with the number eight penned on it and I settled myself at a table tucked away in a corner bay. I had a quick glance around at the happy faces, gorging and gulping down food in ecstasy, then buried my head in the newspaper.

            Service at the café was excellent, another reason I favoured it, so the soup arrived quickly. I dipped my spoon in the steaming bowl, good and hot to ease my throat, and took a careful mouthful. My tongue exploded like a firework in a tin can and I dropped the spoon, showering the table top with orange droplets. Something strange was happening. A tangy, zingy reaction was reaching into my sinuses, stretching up and buzzing in my brain. My synapses were working overtime; detecting, calculating and recalibrating. This…must be what it felt like to taste…to smell. This sensation, this sharpness in my mouth, must be the taste of tomatoes. This tickling, this stinging in the nose, must be the smell of the soup. I had read descriptions about how food tasted; family and friends had tried to explain the nuances. Now, I was actually experiencing it. My mind, my tongue, my nostrils were making connections with the words. My body felt like it was in overdrive. The flavours and aromas were overwhelming. I had never felt so alive, so excited. I finished the soup, savouring each spoonful. Then I nibbled the bread, taking delicate, slow bites, breathing in the scent, enjoying the itchy, savouriness of the cheese.

            When the meal was over, I sat looking upon my fellow diners with benevolence. Now I understood. I hurried back to the counter. I needed to experience more flavours but I was spoilt for choice. Everything seemed like a new possibility; a mysterious door to open. I decided on dark chocolate cake and a cappuccino. Finally, I would discover what all the fuss was about. The minutes waiting for my cake to arrive were filled with unbearable apprehension. My pulse beat vigorously in my chest. Saliva gathered in my mouth. When it arrived, again quickly because of the great service, I stuck my fork into the brown, crumbly cake and took a large chunk. Another explosion in my mouth. A rich, sticky sweetness filled my throat and travelled up my nasal passages. The clockwork of my brain hummed. My heart quickened then settled in a steady rhythm. A great wave of contentment washed over me. I sipped the cappuccino expectantly. This feeling in my mouth must be a roasted nuttiness.  I laughed out loud attracting the bewildered attention of three diners at the next table. It did not bother me; I felt delirious.

            Back at the office, I sat at my desk enraptured.

            “You’re looking much better, Nigel.” Maggie commented when she brought over some paperwork.

            “I am better. In fact, I feel on top of the world,” I replied. “Something wonderful has happened.”

            “Oh, my goodness, I’m so pleased for you.” Maggie said, giving me an encouraging smile.

            “Look…would you like to come out with me tonight…go for a meal…to celebrate?” The words surprised me but I was different now; confident and assured.

            “Oh, Nigel…that would be lovely.” Maggie looked flattered and I felt exhilarated; empowered.

We dined that night at the most expensive restaurant in town. Maggie looked delightful in a floral knee length dress that revealed shapely calves. To reflect my new-found exuberance, I wore my only patterned tie with a pale pink shirt purchased on the way home. I instructed the waiter to select for us the best meal and wine on the menu, as this was a special occasion.

            “What a treat!” Maggie enthused, “Thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you. I hope you don’t mind me asking…what exactly are we celebrating?”

            “You are very welcome.” I replied, “Today, my life has changed unexpectedly for the better and I would like you to be part of that change. Today, for the first time ever, I have a sense of taste.”

            “Nigel, I’m so pleased for you. Do you mean that before today you couldn’t taste a thing? I never realized, you kept that quiet.”

            “It was a secret I hid from most people…one I bore with shame and regret. But now, things will be different. I feel like I have come alive. I want to start enjoying myself.”

We toasted this news with bubbling champagne. An aroma of spiced apples hit my senses. The dry, acidity fizzed in my throat ending in a subtle creamy flavour. 

            “So, this is champagne?” I said, “It really is like tasting stars.”

Maggie giggled, “I’ve never had expensive champagne before; it is delicious. The bubbles have gone to my head!”

Our starters arrived and we were rewarded with salty in the mouth salmon tartare, with a zesty lime and hot, peppery dressing. My heart began a fast, rhythmic beating. My tongue and nostrils prickled like static.

            “How are you finding it, Nigel? It has certainly put colour in your cheeks,” Maggie observed. She too had rosy patches growing on her face and beginning to travel down her neck.

            “It is amazing,” I said, “I never knew just what I’d been missing but I intend to catch up. Have some more champagne.” I refilled her glass to the top.

            “Cheers!” Maggie giggled again as we clinked glasses.

The waiter brought our main courses. I could smell the savoury, roasted flesh of the beef as he made his way down the aisle. It gathered in my nose, travelling up my nasal passages, sending wild signals to my brain. My mouth watered, my stomach clenched, in anticipation. As soon as the plates were on the table, I raised my knife and fork and tucked in. The meat was tender in my mouth, slightly metallic, like the blood I had tasted on my finger when I cut myself shaving getting ready that evening. The buttery, pungent Roquefort sauce coated my tongue and teeth thickly. I took a gulp of the spicy red wine; felt the burn of it in my nostrils. This was a kind of ecstasy.

            “It’s good, isn’t it?” Maggie said.

            “Good? It’s superb…it’s wonderful…the best thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.” I fought back tears of joy and gratitude.

            “I feel rather privileged to be sharing this with you, Nigel.”

            “I’m glad you are here to share it,” I said pouring out two more glasses of the dark, delicious red wine.

            “Oh, only a little for me…I’ll be falling over. I don’t often drink alcohol.” A splurge of red reached the edge of her neckline where her rounded cleavage began. There was movement in my trouser front as I watched her. Something was going on down there which I had never noticed before. I looked away quickly, took another swig of wine.

            “Time for dessert,” I said as the waiter approached.

            “I’m getting rather full…” Maggie said.

I still felt hungry, like I could eat everything all over again, “Don’t worry, I’ll finish yours if you can’t.”

The apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream was a divine concoction of acidity and sweetness. The pastry was buttery and crisp; it melted on the tongue. It had been a pleasurable evening. I had treated my newly discovered senses to an intense experience. I felt happy but this was only the beginning. There was plenty more to find out. I was not yet satiated.

The taxi dropped us outside Maggie’s modest semi. I paid the driver and walked her to the shadowy doorstep. She turned to face me.

            “Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said.

            “My pleasure.” I put my arm around her waist and pulled her towards me for a kiss. She smelt of beef and wine. Her lips tasted sweet like the vanilla in our dessert. I pushed my tongue into her mouth searching for undiscovered flavours. I recognized the metallic tang of flesh. She pushed me away.

            “I’d better say goodnight, Nigel. I’ve had too much to drink.”

            “Of course.” My cheeks burned hot, “I’m sorry Maggie…I got carried away…exciting evening…hope I haven’t spoiled things.”

            “No…it’s all right. I’ll see you in work on Monday.”

“Would you…dine with me again tomorrow?” I asked shyly.

“I’d love to.” She unlocked her door, waved a brief goodnight and went in.

I walked the mile and a half back to my house in a blissful daze. Life was good. Food and drink had opened up a different world for me. The possibilities seemed endless. My stomach rumbled at the memory of the delicious meal we had enjoyed that evening. I bounced up the garden path and put my foot down with a crunch. I lifted my leg to see what I had trodden on. There under my shoe, flattened and sticky, was a squashed snail. I bent down, scraped it from the pavement and popped it in my mouth. It was moist and chewy. I rolled it around my cheeks savouring the gritty, soil-like flavour.

Over the next three months, I took my taste buds on a gastronomic tour of the world. Every restaurant in town was sampled: French, Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Lebanese, Greek and Turkish. Maggie and I ate out three or four times a week. We even tried the American diner and the local fish and chip shop. I developed the vocabulary and lifestyle of a gourmet. Every flavoursome delight was categorized and filed in my brain. Every new eating experience awakened further the spirit that had lain dull within me.

            I bought cookery books, utensils, spices and herbs. Each night after work, I experimented with a different culinary style. My shelves were stocked with myriad teas and coffees. My wine rack filled with the finest, most expensive bottles. As my wallet got thinner, my girth widened. I had bought a whole wardrobe of clothes to express my new, confident personality. Gone were the grey suits, white shirts and dull ties. Instead, I wore bright chinos and colourful, open-necked shirts.

            My hunger never diminished. The more I experienced, the more I wanted. When my mind was not preoccupied with food and drink, it turned to my other obsession: sex. Passion ran through my veins like a full-bodied, red wine. I had discovered a libido that had been well-hidden for many years. I was invigorated, hopeful and randy. My relationship with Maggie had been going well. We had fun together and were good friends but it had not progressed as far as I would have liked. I was desperate to get her into my bed. Her birthday was coming up and I planned to cook her a meal that would ensure we ended up under the sheets.

            In the fridge and cupboards, I had stocked a feast for lovers. Only those foods with an aphrodisiac quality had been selected. To eat, I had chosen oysters, a salad of avocado, rocket, celery and pomegranate with a chilli dressing and a dessert of bananas, melon and figs with a rich, dark chocolate sauce. To drink, there would be Muscadet for the oysters, an excellent Merlot mulled with cinnamon and the finest Colombian coffee to finish. The meal was calculated to achieve maximum sexual outcome. It could not fail. To add to the romantic atmosphere, I had bought a red table cloth, napkins and candles and had ordered ten red roses to arrive on the day.

            On the evening of Maggie’s birthday, I spent hours lovingly preparing the meal and tableware. When everything was ready to my satisfaction, I went upstairs to bath, shave and dress. Waves of anticipation rolled over me as I studied my reflection in the mirror. The trousers were a getting a little tight but the coming meal was purposefully light and overall, I thought I looked pretty good. Noticing my cheeks were rather too red, I decided to go into the garden to stand in the cooling air. As I passed through the kitchen, I grabbed the bowl of peelings to take to the compost bin.

Outside, the sky was turning purple-grey and the fresh breeze was wet with drizzle. It was getting late; Maggie would be arriving shortly. It would be a relief as my empty stomach gnawed painfully. The lid of the compost bin came away with a sucking sound. I sniffed the fusty, rotten odour of slick vegetable waste. Fat, juicy worms squirmed amongst the decay. I snatched up a fistful and stuffed them into my mouth, chewing on the slimy flesh; enjoying the meaty flavour. Greedily, I gulped down a couple more fistfuls to keep me going until we ate. The chime of the doorbell sent me running inside to wash my hands and welcome Maggie.

She was surprisingly radiant in a gold jumper and black skirt.  I led her to the table and she smiled in admiration at the roses and candlelight.

“How romantic. Thank you, Nigel.”

She pecked me on the cheek and I helped her into her seat.

We had a wonderful meal; the conversation and laughter flowed as freely as the wine. After we had eaten, we sat close together on the sofa finishing our coffees. Maggie put her head on my shoulder and sighed. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I stroked her hair and lifted her face to mine. We kissed and I ran my hands over her body. She did not stop me but pressed her lips harder against mine and pushed her body closer. My heart began to beat faster. I pulled the jumper slowly over her head. Again, she did not stop me. I undid her bra. Her body was curved, soft and pink like a peach. I rubbed my nose over her breasts and breathed in. Her skin smelt of spice and musk. I dribbled with hungry desire. I kissed her hard on the mouth, nibbled at her lip, tasted iron on my tongue.

            “Ouch.” Maggie’s face was anxious in the flickering light. A drop of blood glistened on her lower lip. “You will be gentle, won’t you, Nigel?”

Saliva pooled in my mouth. My pulse pounded in my brain. My stomach lurched and grumbled. My loins throbbed.

            “I’m sorry Maggie. I can’t help myself. You taste delicious and I’m starving…”

I opened my mouth wide and sank my teeth deep into her sweet, bare flesh.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

Happy Halloween everyone!

Can you come out to play?

“Can you come out to play?” said the boy at the door.

Liv looked him over shyly. He didn’t seem threatening. He was small and pale, oddly old-fashioned in his grey school shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. His knees were muddy and his plimsoles scuffed. Mum had told her things would be different here. “In the countryside people won’t care what you look like. No one will tell you that you’re wearing the wrong trainers. They’ll probably be in wellies. We’ll be happy there.” she’d said.  

“Wait a minute, I’ll ask my Mum.” Liv pushed the door to and ran up the narrow hallway calling, “Mum, there’s a boy asking if I can go out to play with him.”

“A boy…who?” Mum came to the top of the stairs with Mrs Bevan, the landlady, waddling behind.

It was Mrs Bevan’s house they were moving into. Well, not her house exactly, she was renting Mrs Thomas’s house to them. Mrs Thomas was Mrs Bevan’s Mam who had lived in the house all her life until recently. Mrs Thomas had gone into a residential home after she fell down the stairs and they hadn’t found her for two hours. Liv tried not to imagine the old lady laying on the dark wooden floor, legs twisted underneath her, a livid bruise growing across her face.

She shrugged. “He didn’t say his name. Can I Mum? I’m bored. Please…”

“I expect that’s young Dylan, your nearest neighbour. Good boy, he is. Nice family. Struggling a bit, they are, you know. Father just lost his job.” Mrs Bevan said. “She’ll be fine playing with Dylan.”

Mum thought for a moment, then sighed. “I suppose it’s all right but stay in the garden. And only for an hour tops because you’ve still got to unpack your things.”

“Thanks.” said Liv, scrambling to put on her shoes. She hurried down the hallway and flung open the door but no one was there.

“Dylan?” she called, wandering down to the front gate to see if he was in the lane. A startled blackbird flew up from the hedgerow but, other than that, it was deserted.

“You back already?” Mum said when she saw Liv sitting on the bottom stair struggling with her laces.

“He’d gone.” Liv replied.

“There’ll be plenty of chances to make friends with him, I’m sure.” Mum smiled sympathetically. “Mrs Bevan is leaving now. She’s shown me where everything is. We’ll go and have a cuppa and a sandwich then I’ll help you sort your bedroom out.”

——

Liv sipped her hot chocolate. It was strange sitting in a different kitchen, at an unfamiliar table, drinking from someone else’s mug, eating from someone else’s plate. She missed their kitchen with the shiny breakfast bar where she sat on the shiny stool swinging her feet.

“You okay, little dreamer?” Mum asked.

“Just thinking this kitchen looks very old.”

“Everything in this house is old, Liv. That’s why we got it for a good price but it’s clean and warm and furnished with the things we need.”

“It’s a shame we couldn’t bring our own things.” said Liv, then regretted it as Mum’s beautiful dark eyes clouded over. 

“I’m sorry we couldn’t too…” Mum reached for Liv’s hand. “But you know Dad needs them for his new family. You have your special things. And we’ve never had a garden before and now we have an enormous one. It’ll take all day to explore that tomorrow.”

“It’s okay, it just feels weird.”

“We’ll get used to it.” Mum squeezed her hand. “Now eat up so we can get your room done before bedtime.”

——

The next morning after breakfast, there was a knock on the door.

“Can you answer it, please Liv?” Mum called from the small back room she had chosen for a study. “I’ve got to ring the solicitor.”

Liv skipped along the hall and opened the door. There was Dylan looking the same as yesterday.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“I’ll just tell my Mum.” Liv ran to the study. “Dylan’s here. We’re going to play in the garden.”

She tugged on her wellies and went to join Dylan outside. It was a bright day and the air felt crisp with breaths of Autumn.

“I’m Liv. Are you called Dylan?”

Dylan nodded then stood scraping at the fallen leaves with his damp shoe.

“What do you want to play?” asked Liv.

“Cowboys and Indians. You be an Indian and I’ll be a Cowboy. I’ll chase you, like this.” He trotted around as if he was riding a horse and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

Liv looked doubtful.

“You do the Indian cry.” He opened his mouth in a large o, moving his hand over it in an ululation.

“No, I don’t want to.” said Liv, “I don’t think that’s a nice game. The Native American Indians were driven off their lands by the settlers. It was horrible and sad.”

“Cops and Robbers then. You be a robber and I’ll be a cop. I’ll chase you, like this.” This time, he pretended to drive a car and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

“Another quite nasty game.” said Liv, “I’m not sure.”

“Can you hold your arms like this so it looks like a bag of swag?” Dylan mimed creeping around holding his loot over his shoulder.

Liv sighed. “I suppose I can.”

The two children chased around the garden, Liv exploring as she went, finding paths through the overgrown lawns, ducking under branches and jumping over old fallen walls. It was an amazing place to play in, left to decay and grow wild. When they grew fed up with chasing about, they kicked up piles of dead leaves gathered near the hedges and pulled moss off the crumbling stonework searching for woodlice.

“Let’s go to the stream.” Dylan said.

“I can’t. I mustn’t leave the garden.” replied Liv.

“It’s in the garden.” Dylan said, “At the bottom, then you cross the stream and you’re in the woods.”

Liv followed Dylan down a winding pathway, partially hidden with ferns turning shades of gold and brown. She could hear the stream before she could see it, a whispering, giggling sound like there were other children playing somewhere in the garden. They sat on the wet bank amongst the dying ferns and bracken, hidden from the view of anyone who might come walking, and watched the water hurry over rocks and stones.

“Sometimes I come here and hide.” Dylan said.

“Why?” asked Liv.

“When they laugh at me at school. When they point at my pumps and say we can’t afford proper shoes.”

“Mum told me it would be different here but I knew it wouldn’t. They laughed at me at my school too.” Liv said, “They didn’t like my trainers or my curly hair. And they called me dirty…because I’m mixed race.”

“Your hair is pretty.” Dylan turned his face away. “Sometimes I paddle across the stream and go into the woods and hide in the trees. When my Dad gets angry, when he shouts at me and my sister tells me to get outta the house before I get a good wallop.”

“Mrs Bevan said he lost his job.”

“My Dad don’t want me.” said Dylan.

“My Dad doesn’t want me either. That’s why we’ve moved here. He wants his skinny, blonde girlfriend and new baby. So, we’re the same, you and me.”

“We can be friends.” Dylan said.

“We are friends.” said Liv.

“Shake on it.” Dylan spat on his palm and held it out.

Liv spat on her palm and they shook.

——

At lunchtime, Liv told Mum about Dylan and what he had said down by the stream.

“That’s really sad, Liv.” Mum said, “I hope he’s all right. Perhaps we should call in and say hello to his family this afternoon when we go to post the documents for the solicitor.”

“Don’t say anything Mum, please. He’s my friend and he told me, not you.” Liv bit at her lip. She didn’t want Dylan to think she was a blabbermouth.

“I won’t Liv, but we need to check. This could be serious and we might not be able to keep this a secret. Okay?”

Liv nodded and picked at her cheese sandwich, dreading the walk to the Post Office.

——

On the way back from posting the letter, Mum stopped at the tiny cottage with the peeling front door at the corner of the lane. Their nearest neighbour. Liv stayed by the rusty iron gate.

“We’ll just say a quick hi,” Mum whispered as she rang the bell.

There were shouts and scuffles behind the door, a baby’s cry then a round, flustered face appeared at a grubby window. The face disappeared and a moment later the door opened.

“Oh hello, I thought you were the milkman come for his money. We’re a bit late paying, see.” said the round-faced woman.

“Hello, we’ve moved in next door and wanted to introduce ourselves. I’m Becca and this is Liv.” Becca smiled broadly.

“Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Sioned. I’d invite you in but you’ve caught me in a bit of a muddle, everything all over the place and the little one a bit agitated as you can hear…” She shrugged as another whining cry came from behind her.

“No, no, we wouldn’t expect that. We just wanted to say hello, and Mrs Bevan told me you’ve been having a hard time lately…with your husband losing his job. Just to let you know I work from home and I’m always around if you need anything.”

“I bet she told you, a right gossip that one!” Sioned snapped.

“No harm meant, sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it…only we all have troubles, I’m going through a divorce now, that’s why we moved, so…” Becca said.

“Oh, no…it’s very kind of you to offer. It is a struggle, with four kids, see.”

“It must be difficult. Are your children all okay?”

Liv squeezed her hands tight in the pockets of her coat.

“Well, normally yes. We always put them first, see. Go without ourselves as long as they got what they need. But, oh they have been poorly, little loves, with this stomach bug going through school.”

“Your children are ill? That’s miserable.” Becca said, “What about Dylan? He’s managed to escape it then, has he?”

“Dylan? No! He’s been the worst of the lot. Got it bad, he have. Been in bed for three days. The washing I’ve had…” Sioned shook her head and the baby wailed again. “Look I gotta go sorry, nice of you to come round. When things are calmer, you’ll have to come for a cuppa. Tara!”

She shut the door and Becca gave Liv a bemused look. “There must be another Dylan in the village.”

——

That night, Liv lay awake as a seasonal wind blustered around the house. The large tree outside her window was scratching at the panes with finger-like branches. Mum had drawn the curtains back to show her there was nothing to be scared of but she felt uneasy. She regretted telling about Dylan. After they left Sioned’s house, Mum had asked lots of questions about him, trying to work out where he came from so she could help him if he was in danger. She wanted to know everything he’d said, what he looked like, what he was wearing, whether he wore the same school uniform as the one she’d bought for Liv (he didn’t; Liv’s polo shirt was a pretty royal blue.) Next time he visited, Mum said she would have a word with him. Liv thought herself a bad friend and decided, if Dylan came again, she wouldn’t let Mum know. She sat up, switched on her bedside lamp and reached for her book.

It was difficult to concentrate with the howling of the wind and the scraping of the branches. Liv lost her place on the page many times until she bumped the book back on the table in frustration. As she did so, she heard a tap on the window. It was a different sound to the rasping tree. She sat very still, listening. The tapping sounded again, a series of sharp, urgent raps on the glass. Someone was knocking on her window. Liv went cold. She lay still, uncertain what to do. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

Liv took a deep breath, then slowly, slid out of bed and padded across the chill floorboards on wobbly legs to the curtain. Once there, she froze, heartbeat pulsing. She took another breath and put out a shaky hand to lift the curtain. The branches scratched at the window. The wind roared. There was no one there. Liv turned the latch and opened the window. It pulled out of her hand with a crash and hung broken against the wall. She leaned out, peering into the darkness.

“Can you come out to play?” said a small voice.

“Dylan? Where are you?” Liv called.

“Here.”

Liv strained her eyes and saw his face, white in the rays from her lamp. He was sitting in the crook of a branch a little way from her window.

“What are you doing? In this wind? You’ll fall.”

“I’m a good climber.” Dylan started to shuffle along the branch towards her window.

“Dylan. No. Get down.”

“Can you come out to play?” his voice carried, clear and cold on the wind.

“It’s the middle of the night! My Mum would be angry if she knew you were here and so would yours. Go home to bed Dylan.” Liv tried to pull the window closed but it dangled on damaged hinges.

Dylan shuffled closer; his skin bruised in the shadowy light.

“Go home Dylan!” Liv shouted.

The wind tore at the broken window. Liv held on tight.

“What’s going on?” Mum shouted.

Liv turned and saw her Mum standing, hands on hips. She looked back at the tree. Dylan was gone.

“Whatever were you doing opening your window in this wind?” Mum struggled with the catch. “It won’t close properly. It’s broken. That will have to do for tonight.”

She took Liv’s hands. “What were you doing, love? I’m not cross, it’s all right…”

“I don’t know…I was scared…the tree.” Liv hugged her Mum.

“Well, you’d better come and sleep with me tonight. I’ll ring Mrs Bevan in the morning and explain about the window.”

——

Mum called Mrs Bevan early the next day. While she was on the phone, Dylan knocked on the door. Liv opened it angrily.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“Can I come out to play?” Liv spat. “What do you think you were doing coming round like that last night, Dylan? You could have got me in trouble. I broke the window. That’ll cost Mum money. You could have been killed.”

Dylan looked down at his plimsoles.

“I’m not sure I should play with you again.” Liv started to go inside.

“Can you come out to play?” said Dylan.

Liv sighed. “You’re hopeless…just let me tell my Mum I’m going outside.”

——

They sat by the stream. The water sparkled in the sunshine as it tripped over rocks. The air was at rest after the wild night. Liv had suggested they do something quiet after the adventures of the previous evening. She hadn’t told her Mum she was playing with Dylan and didn’t want her to hear them if she came out looking. They searched amongst the ferns for signs of insect life.

Liv pulled at a beautiful orange frond. “Where do you live, Dylan?”

“Here.” he said.

“I know you live in the village, but where?”

“Let’s go in the woods. I’ll show you my favourite tree. I’m a good climber.” said Dylan.

“I don’t think I should. Mum says to stay in the garden.”

“I’ll show you my favourite tree.”

Liv shook her head. “I don’t know…”

——

Becca put the kettle on to boil then searched in the cupboard for the bara brith. Mrs Bevan would want a cup of tea and she liked to have a little something with it. Becca hoped she wouldn’t stay too long. That woman knew how to talk. She’d been very understanding about the window though, offered to pop in on the way to the residential home. Becca didn’t know why Mrs Bevan had to see the damage; she could simply organise a carpenter, but it was her mother’s house after all.

“Hello…Becca?” Mrs Bevan called from the hall, “The front door was ajar so I came in, hope that’s all right? And I have Mam with me. She spent last night with us.”

“That’s fine.” Becca said as Mrs Bevan entered the kitchen with a small, frail old lady hanging onto her arm.

“Thought it might be nice for Mam to see her old home. There we go, Mam.” Mrs Bevan settled her mother on a chair. Then, as an aside to Becca said, “She’s getting a bit forgetful and I didn’t want to leave her in the car on her own.”

“Oh, of course.” Becca said, “Would you like some tea before we go upstairs?”

“Paned, mam? That’ll be lovely.” Mrs Bevan struggled to get her bulk out of her jacket, hung it on the back of a chair then sat next to her mother. “Where’s Liv then? I want her to know it doesn’t matter about the window, cariad.”

“She’s playing in the garden with that boy, you know, the one who came round the other day when you were here.  She thinks I didn’t see them creep off.” Becca put two cups of tea on the table, making sure to use the coasters. “I’ll let you do your own milk and sugar.”

“Thanks. Dylan, is it? From down the road. Here we go Mam, two sugars for you.”

“Well, he is a Dylan but not the one from down the road. To be honest, we don’t know who he is. Do you know any other Dylans in the village?”

“I can’t say I do. It’s not like the old days, see. I used to know everyone here but we’ve had so many incomers.” Mrs Bevan looked sheepish, “Sorry, not to mean anything by it but since they built that housing estate on the edge of the village, it’s not been the same.”

“Dylan? My Dylan is here.” the old lady said.

“No, Mam. The little girl has a friend called Dylan. Your Dylan isn’t here anymore, is he Mam? That was a long time ago.”

“Oh, you knew a Dylan too, did you Mrs Thomas?” Becca smiled at the tiny, wrinkled face peering at her with confusion.

“He was her brother, wasn’t he Mam?” Mrs Bevan patted her hand.

“Ssssh, quiet Dylan.” Mrs Thomas whispered urgently, “Dad’s coming and he’s angry with you. Run, Dylan, run away quickly. Hide. Hide. He’s got his belt.”

“Oh, mam. It’s all right. Dylan’s not here. That was when you were children. Drink your tea Mam, I need to go and see this window with Becca.” Mrs Bevan got up and beckoned Becca to follow.

Outside the kitchen door, she said in an undertone, “She’s getting worse, poor thing. Dementia.”

“I’m sorry.” said Becca.

“Sad story about her brother. Died when they were children. Only nine, he was. Mam doesn’t normally talk about him. Finds it upsetting. They were very close.”

“That’s terrible. How did he die?”

“He fell from a tree. In the woods behind here. There was lots of talk at the time, nasty gossip you know, can’t stand gossip. People in the village said their father was to blame.”

“Really? How awful.”

“Yes, he was known for his drinking and his temper, my grandfather. Some said he chased the poor boy into the woods to give him a beating.” Mrs Bevan sighed. “Terrible the things people say. It nearly destroyed Mam.”

Becca said, “Is your Mum okay, do you think? We better check on her.”

They went back into the kitchen. Mrs Thomas was fumbling with her handbag.

“What are you trying to do now, Mam?”

“My photo…Dylan.” the old lady said.

“Oh yes, in your purse. She has a photo of her and Dylan. Keeps it with her.” Mrs Bevan reached into her mother’s bag, pulled out the purse and retrieved the photo. “Here you are, Mam.”

Mrs Thomas touched the photo tenderly then held it out to Becca. “My Dylan.”

Becca saw a faded black and white picture of two children, about Liv’s age. A girl in pigtails and pinafore, arms locked with a pale boy in a grey shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. They both wore plimsoles.

“Are you all right, Becca? Your hands are shaking, bach.”

“It can’t be…” Becca dropped the photo and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Becca? Wait!” Mrs Bevan shouted.

——

Outside, Becca ran on to the lawn, calling wildly, “Liv! Liv!”

The grass was slick and she slid, twisting her ankle.

“Owww…Liv, Liv!”

She heard children’s voices, laughing and whispering, but when she limped towards them, she realised it was only the stream gurgling over the rocks.

“Liv, where are you?” she shouted. Her heart was beating hard in her chest. Her stomach gripped tight with panic.

Then, she heard the scream. The piercing cry of a terrified child. It was coming from the woods.

“Liv.”

Becca slipped and splashed across the slimy rocks, chill water seeping into her trainers. She hobbled through the undergrowth, frantically searching the trees, trying to locate the screaming. Up ahead, stood a grand old oak, its lower branches almost swept the ground. Liv sat slumped over one of the branches, howling pitifully.

“Liv, Liv, it’s all right, I’m here.” Becca scrambled up the tree, grazing her elbow on the rough bark.

“He fell, Mum. He fell. He’s dead.”

Becca pulled Liv her into her arms in an embrace. “I know.”

They both looked down at the leafy floor but no one lay there.