I hadn’t smiled in what seemed like ages, but as I drove down the lane towards my uncle’s house I couldn’t help but allow a small one to force itself onto my lips. Maybe I’d begun to relax, to put behind me the problems going on at home. I needed this break – a break from Tom and a break from the kids.
‘If that were me I’d be expected to give notice before going off somewhere,’ he’d moaned.
‘Well, maybe you’ll see what my life is like for a change. You can be the one to fetch and carry the kids all weekend – see how you like it,’ I snapped back.
We’d been married fifteen years – and it used to be good – but nowadays all we do is constantly snipe at each other. I needed space to work things out. When I’d told him I was going, the previous evening, it hadn’t seemed to bother him – I don’t believe he thought I meant it – and he’d got his nose firmly embedded in his newspaper, so I doubt he took it in. My world wasn’t important to him.
Although we kept in touch I hadn’t seen Uncle Pete in ages. I knew from his letters he was non-judgemental and if I confided in him it would go no further – and possibly it could help to get my head sorted. I had no other family, father had died a few years back and mother was long gone. Mum’s brother was my only relative.
His dilapidated house in the south of England I used to think quite posh, but I could see that over the years Uncle had let it go. Even so, just looking at it caused my stomach to flip as many happy childhood memories came flooding back. Tea had been set up on the old wicker table in the garden for my arrival, and sun glinted off the china teapot decorated with tiny forget-me-nots which I recalled so clearly from my past. He had such an easy way about him and within minutes he had me forgetting my troubles and relaxing, as I nibbled the dreaded cucumber sandwiches, minus their crusts of course. I followed this by spreading strawberry jam upon a scone and topping it with a dollop of clotted cream. Once we’d eaten, and had our preliminary chat, Uncle, who was in his eighties, left me in the garden while he went inside for a nap. I was happy to have time alone, to explore the garden and to breathe in the fresh country air. The garden, once beautiful, was now overgrown and I picked my way between the tall shrubs until I came to the bottom, where I knew I’d find the old Summer House, now sadly strangled by ivy. I pushed the ivy away from the door and peered inside…..
A little boy stood laughing at me. His clothes were smart, his Sunday best. He beckoned me to go to him. I saw his pale blue eyes – so like Uncle Peters – and in his hand he held a spinning top.
‘Come, play with me,’ he called.
I walked forward and we hugged each other. I wasn’t afraid because he was smiling … and he looked happy to see me …….
I knew he was only in my imagination but he seemed so real, so alive.
I don’t know what made me walk on towards the river but somehow I felt compelled. It was as though he’d taken me by the hand and was pulling me … and we were laughing … and as we got towards the river he ran on ahead.
‘Bet you can’t find me’’ he called.
He was fast. I couldn’t keep up – and when I got to the river I couldn’t see him. I looked everywhere. I kept calling his name.
‘Theo. Theo. Where are you?’
I can’t remember any more after that. I don’t know what happened – or who found him. I think I was taken home … maybe before he was found … but no one ever talked about it in front of me. I know I missed him. It was never the same coming here after that … in fact I … I’m not sure I ever did come back – certainly not to the river.
Suddenly I needed to get away from the water, to get away from my confused memories and to go back to the house. I don’t know how long I’d been by the river, but it must have been a while because Uncle Peter was back in the garden when I returned.
’Been for a wander?’ he asked.
‘Not far, just to the Summer House,’ I lied.
He looked at me, smiled and nodded. Somehow I knew he didn’t believe me.
‘I’ve brought some old photographs out,’ he said, pointing to a biscuit tin on the table. ‘I thought you might like to see some photograph’s of when your mother was little.’
We spent some time looking through them, recalling old memories, seeing him and Mummy playing together in the garden.
Eventually he said, ‘So, tell me, why have you really come here today, my dear?’
‘I just needed to get away,’ I sighed. My marriage isn’t going well … and I think it could be all my fault.’
‘Why do you say it’s your fault?’ he questioned gently.
Then suddenly I was crying – sobbing.
‘Because it usually is! Mummy always tells me that anyway. ‘Why was life so easy before we had you’, she’d say. I used to love coming here when I was little – but suddenly everything changed, she wouldn’t bring me anymore – she told me you didn’t want to see me … but she never told me why!’
I don’t know where all those words came from. I certainly hadn’t meant to say them. I felt five years old again.
‘Oh my poor girl!’ Uncle Pete reached out his veined hand and took mine. ‘We thought you’d forgotten. We thought it best to let things lie. You never did anything to be ashamed of my dear.’
‘Then tell me – why did she say that?’
Uncle Pete sat staring ahead, his face contorted as if battling with a thousand demons. Then he looked at me.
‘You did nothing my dear … nothing.’ He paused once more as if trying to decide how he should tell me. I waited. ‘You did nothing.’ His eyes were far away. ‘Do you remember Theo?’
‘I think I saw him in the Summer House – but that’s silly, I couldn’t have … could I?’
Then he smiled – a big beaming smile, as if all the turmoil he’d experienced earlier had gone away.
‘I’m glad you saw him … for you see, I see him too. Tell me, what do you remember about him?’
‘I can’t remember much. I seem to get as far as the river and then my memory … fades.’
He nodded again. ‘It was a beautiful summer day, much like today,’ he began. ‘You and Theo were playing in the Summer House. You got on so well together.’ He beamed one of his wonderful smiles… but then, quite suddenly, his expression changed. ‘We’d told you not to go down to the river. We … your mother and I … were drinking wine, here, in the garden … and then you appeared, dripping wet and crying, saying Theo had pushed you into the water. Your mother was furious. I went inside to get a towel to dry you.’
Suddenly I could remember – remember being soaking wet. Remember playing by the river. It was such fun. We were laughing so much. Theo hadn’t meant to get me wet, he’d just pretended – and I’d slipped on the wet grass.
‘We’re in for it now! Here grab my hand’, he shouted.
He pulled me out and I was running back through the garden.
‘Tell them it was my fault. They won’t be cross with you then.’
And that was all, all I could remember.
‘What happened to Theo, Uncle Pete?’
‘I fetched a towel… and when I got back your mother had gone. I dried you off… and then she reappeared.’
‘He won’t do that again, the little tyke!’ she’d said.
‘I thought she’d given him a dressing down … so I waited … thought he was too ashamed to come back … ashamed of causing trouble … so I waited for him to appear. Then you went home and I went to the Summer House to find him. He wasn’t there, so I went down to the river. He was floating a little way out, face down. I went in … but it was too late. Your mother had pushed Theo into the water … she’d not meant to cause him harm… but she was angry …and after she left he must have got tangled in the reeds. It wasn’t your fault, my dear. Your mother was the one responsible for Theo’s death’.