Winning Entry in the 2012-13 Club Competition for 1st 3000 words of a Novel

One Silent Voice by Pat Young

– he, who says nothing, has most to tell –

 

DORDOGNE, FRANCE.
NOVEMBER
Don’t know how long I’ve been up here. Doesn’t matter. Nobody knows where I am. Nobody cares.
I’ve imagined this day a million times, thought I’d be ready. I knew what Dad was going to tell me this morning. I really did, even before he started to speak. Didn’t expect the words that came out of his mouth, though. Or the picture they painted.
Feel sick but, now they know, I don’t have to be scared any more. The fear that was nagging at me, like a rotten tooth, is gone. But there’s a gap left, reminding me.
Round to Spyhole 1 for another look at the woods. Should know by now that I can’t see a thing through the trees. If I look down, perfect view of the swimming pool, so close I could jump in. When it’s sunny, the water sparkles, tempting me to swim, but not today. The pool’s been drained. The only swimmers are dead leaves floating about on a puddle at the deep end.
When Mum and Dad called me into the kitchen and told me to sit down, I knew. Dad started to tell me they had some bad news, and I knew. I was scared my face would give me away. Did my best to wait till he’d finished. Then I escaped, ran up here.
My tummy rumbles, complaining it’s been too long since breakfast. Can’t understand why it wants food on a day like this. Move to Spyhole 3, on the café side, and poke my nose out. Imagine I can smell pizza and my mouth fills with water. Down in the courtyard tables and chairs sit dressed in tarpaulins, waiting for winter to pass.
Had to get out of the house. Couldn’t bear to listen to them any longer, trying to reassure me, saying, ‘Sorry, Charlie. No twelve year old should have to hear about this sort of thing.’ and ‘You’re not to worry, Charlie, this doesn’t affect you in any way.’ If only they knew.
Something buzzes near my face and I dart away. When I hunker over and peer into the shadows, I spy a bluebottle, caught in threads of gossamer that bind its wings. It spins and turns, desperate to be free, cocooning itself in a shroud. At the edge of the web, the spider waits, as patient as death. One more slow spin and the fly gives up. Dangles there, dead, swinging in the breeze of my breath. The spider prances towards its prey, then freezes.
Someone’s coming. They can’t. This is my secret place. The hatch creaks and starts to rise. We scuttle into the dark corner, the spider and I.
***

MAY(six months earlier)
CHAPTER 1

I thump my foot on the floor. That’s the family signal that I’ve heard the instruction from downstairs. I have a whole set of signals that I use instead of words. Some for home, some for school.
The atmosphere hits me like a bad smell when I walk in. They’ve been fighting again.
‘Have you washed your hands?’ Mum’s face is red, maybe from cooking lunch. I nod.
Dad’s already at the table, in a clean shirt. ‘Hello Charlie. Had a nice morning?’ He pours pink wine into two glasses and puts one at Mum’s place.
I nod and smile. Mime breaststroke and he says, ‘Ah, did you have a good swim?’
Nod.
‘Pool busy?’
Shake my head and hold up seven fingers. Dad frowns a bit, then says, ‘It’s still early in the season.’
‘It’s May, Richard. And it’s a beautiful day. How can we claim to be one of France’s top campsites, if we only have seven people in the swimming pool?’
‘Charlie was probably in the water at a quiet time. I’m sure it will get busy later on.’
Mum bangs the casserole dish down on the table. She throws the dishtowel onto her chair and speaks through her teeth, in a funny, low voice. It sounds kind of threatening. Don’t like it.
‘How long are you going to bury your head in the sand like some ridiculous ostrich?’
I glance from one to the other, not knowing what she means, but neither of them seems to notice me, sitting here with my face all puzzled.
‘Must we continue with this charade? Pretending all is well and barging ahead with your obsession.’
Really confused now. No idea what she’s talking about – ostriches, charades, obsessions. I reach for the bread basket and sink down into my chair to munch on a chunk of baguette. Dad takes a piece of bread too, but he doesn’t eat his. He picks out the soft, white centre and rolls it between his finger and thumb till it turns into a grey bullet. Then he answers Mum, speaking very slowly and clearly, ‘This is neither the time nor the place.’
Can’t follow what’s happening here. It’s like my parents have suddenly started to speak in a secret code. Haven’t a clue what they’re on about, but I can tell they are cross with each other.
‘Sit up properly, Charlie,’ snaps Mum, as she passes me my plate.
‘Don’t take it out on the boy. This has nothing to do with him.’
The beef stew smells delicious, but I don’t really taste it. I’m just shovelling food into my mouth and swallowing, in a hurry to get away.
‘Don’t gobble your food, Charlie. Have you forgotten all your manners?’
‘Come on now, Vivienne. That isn’t fair. Let’s have a pleasant family lunch. You and I can talk about this later.’ He reaches towards Mum’s hand but she snatches it off the table before he touches her. He gives a little cough and moves his fork instead. Then, in a jolly voice, that sounds a bit false, he says, ‘I like the look of this year’s sports organiser. Gus, he’s called. South African, a big, handsome rugby player. I think he should appeal to the ladies who go to Aquagym, eh Charlie?’
I nod my head, agreeing a bit too much perhaps, glad to hear a normal conversation. Relax a little and start to taste the rich sauce and the juicy meat.
‘So you met him, Charlie, did you?’ Mum asks me.
Only one nod this time, in case my head falls off, and another piece of bread to dip into the gravy.
‘And do you agree Dad’s made a good choice? Will the campers like him, do you think?’
One more nod. I must have the strongest nodding muscles in the world. Dad is very good at choosing the summer staff, and usually, I like them, well, the ones that bother with me. Suppose Gus seems nice enough, but I got a bit of a bad feeling about him when Dad introduced us. Thought at first he might be fun to have on the campsite. He play-boxed a bit, ruffled my hair and asked me if I prefer sport or Playstation. He smiled at me, as Dad explained why I didn’t answer his question. He didn’t react in the way that some people do, when Dad said the word ‘mute’, didn’t seem shocked or curious. Made a funny face and said with a big smile, ‘Never mind, mate. That means you won’t swear at me, eh?’
What bothered me was the way his smile switched off the moment Dad turned away. And, I noticed he didn’t smile with his eyes, just his lips and his teeth.
‘We also met Nathalène, didn’t we, Charlie?’ He turns to look at Mum. ‘You know, the girl who plans to be a schoolteacher?’
‘Nathalène? What a pretty name. And does she start soon?’
‘Yes, and I think she’ll be a fantastic KidzKlub leader. What do you think, Charlie, is she nice?
A great big smile is spreading across my face. Bet my cheeks are turning pink.
‘Oh,’ says Mum, ‘I think our Charlie is a little bit in love with Nathalène. He’s blushing.’
Wish Mum wouldn’t do that, but she’s right. Nathalène is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. And she smiles with her whole face.
‘One leader for the children’s club? says Mum. ‘We usually have at least two. I suppose we have to find a way to save money, but isn’t that a bit risky?’
‘I’m not trying to save money and you’re right, one person can’t run Kidzklub on her own. The boy from Paris will help when he gets here.’
‘What boy from Paris?’ asks Mum in her snappy voice. ‘I thought there was only one guy from Paris, the one that’s coming to work as barman. You told me his friend pulled out, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, but he’s bringing another mate who sounds like he’ll make a good KidzKlub leader.’
‘And you’re giving him the job without an interview? Have you taken leave of your senses, Richard? He could be a total psycho.’
‘I’m sure he’s not,’ said Dad, but Mum doesn’t seem convinced.
She’s shaking her head and her lips are screwed up like she’s sucking a lemon. ‘That’s not good. Not good at all. This is going to cause trouble. I can sense it. And while we’re on the subject of saving money, you’ll have to abandon Phase Five.’
‘Absolutely not.’
‘Richard, we are up to our necks in debt.’
Neither of them seems to notice when I get down from the table and sneak out.

***

CHAPTER 2

Sebastien’s face is dark and surly as a thundercloud. ‘You can’t keep me wrapped in cotton wool for ever,’ he says, folding his arms and slouching against the kitchen worktop. He props one huge, Converse-shod foot on top of the other.
Catherine gives him a long look. Whatever happened to her sunny boy, who sailed through adolescence on a good-natured breeze? Nostalgia makes her sad for a moment, and she has to make an effort to smile. ‘I’m sorry, Sebastien, I don’t really understand why you’re so keen to go away. There’s no need for you to get a holiday job. We give you a generous allowance, don’t we?’
‘Yip, I guess you do.’
‘And, if you feel you don’t have enough to spend this summer, I’m sure Father will give you a bit extra.’
‘That’s not the point.’ He unfolds his arms and starts to fiddle with the drawstrings of his sweatshirt hood. ‘I’d quite like to earn some money of my own.’
Catherine finds it easy to smile, glad this is about money. ‘Your father will be home in less than an hour. Why don’t you speak to him over dinner about one or two days a week with the firm? You can learn the ropes and earn a few euros at the same time.’ Thinking the matter is settled, she pats his arm, and lets her hand rest above his cuff. When she notices its fraying edge and tucks a loose thread out of sight, he moves his arm away, beyond her reach.
‘I think I’d like to earn a bit more than a few euros, Mum, maybe save some for going to uni?’
‘Oh Sebastien, you don’t have to worry about money, and anyway, it won’t be that expensive, if you’re living here.’
‘Well, that’s the thing, you see.’ He lowers his eyes. ‘JJ and I have been talking about sharing a flat.’
‘A flat? In Central Paris? Are you mad?’ Panic is making her voice rise. She needs to calm down. ‘I thought you were planning to live at home.’
‘I don’t want to spend half my life commuting, and I’ll miss out on all the fun if I have to come home every night. Mum, can we talk about uni another time? I thought you wanted to hear about my summer job?’ He starts sucking the end of one of the hoodie strings. He used to suck the corner of his snuggly blanket when he was tiny. She swallows down her hurt feelings and smiles at the memory of Sebastien as an angelic toddler. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, he has turned into this tetchy young man.
‘I do. I want to hear all about it. Come on, let’s sit down. Tell you what, let’s take a drink out onto the balcony and you can fill me in on the details.’
Their view of the Parisien skyline is one of the reasons they bought this apartment and Catherine never tires of looking out on the city where she was born. The evening sun has cast the Eiffel Tower in solid gold and painted pink the white stone of Sacré-Coeur. She smooths her skirt and sits at the table, crossing one sheer-stockinged leg over the other. While she waits for Sebastien, she tries to decide how best to handle this. Here he comes, clutching their drinks to his chest. He puts a Perrier and a glass down in front of her and pops open his can of Coke.
‘Thank you, my darling.’
‘You’re welcome, Mum,’ he says, sitting down opposite her. He takes a long drink, closing his eyes, and she watches his Adam’s apple move in rhythm with each swallow. His neck is still skinny, a few soft whiskers and a couple of spots the only signs that her boy is turning into a man. She is fighting an impulse to reach out and touch him when he puts his can back on the table and burps, very much like a man. A split second later, the boy is back, grinning at her, as if he has done something immensely clever. She shakes her head in mock despair.
With a quick ‘Sorry about that.’ and another huge grin, he slaps his thighs, business-like, and takes a deep breath. ‘Okay, Mum.’
‘Okay, Sebastien,’ she echoes, ‘let’s hear it. Tell me your idea.’
‘Do you remember, at New Year, I told you some of the boys had been talking about going away for the summer?’ He waits for her response.
‘Yes, I do, and I made it clear that I did not want you to go.’ She tilts her head and raises her eyebrows, hoping to dilute the acidity of her tone.
‘I know, and I told the guys that.’ He flashes his most engaging smile, ‘but JJ went ahead and made some enquiries anyway.’
‘Why am I not surprised to hear that Jean-Jacques is behind this?’ She smiles too, working hard at keeping the conversation light-hearted.
‘Well, anyway, there are two jobs going at a fantastic holiday camp in the Dordogne. JJ is taking one and Nasim was going to take the other, but now he can’t make it, so that’s why there’s a job for me. If I want it.’
‘Why has Nasim changed his mind?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t ask.’
Catherine reaches for her glass and takes a sip of water, more in need of thinking time than a drink. ‘And what would this job involve? Do you have any idea? Bearing in mind that none of us has ever set foot on a campsite, far less holidayed on one.’
Sebastien laughs. ‘Don’t turn up your nose like that, Mum.’
‘Well, really, son, who can blame me? Call me a snob if you will, but I can hardly think of a worse place to spend one’s summer.’
He leans towards her, saying, ‘You’re a snob, Mum.’
She loves it when he teases her. ‘I know I can be a bit of a snob sometimes, but, can you imagine, all those creepy crawlies in your tent, having to share showers, not to mention toilets, with all sorts of people.’ She shudders, hamming it up for his benefit. ‘No, thank you, not if it were the last holiday in the world.’
‘No-one’s asking you to go, Mum.’
She hears the edge in his voice and pulls a face before she speaks, hoping it will help steer the conversation in a safer direction. She still feels sure she can talk him out of this mad idea. ‘Well, thank goodness for that. I’ll stick to five star hotels, if you don’t mind. But go on, tell me about the job. I didn’t mean to interrupt.’
‘Okay. One job is bar work, which JJ fancies. So he’s planning on taking that one.’
‘And the other? Please don’t tell me it’s cleaning toilets? Oops, sorry, there I go, interrupting again.’
‘No, it’s not cleaning toilets, it’s organising the Kids’ Club, except they spell it with two K’s and a Z, no apostrophe, apparently.’
She manages to resist a strong urge to comment on declining standards in grammar, but cannot stop a disapproving little shake of her head. ‘And what does organising a Kids’ Club, two K’s and a Z, involve? With or without an apostrophe?’
‘Always a stickler for grammar, eh, Mum?’
‘I’m sorry, son, I can’t help it. Go on.’
‘According to JJ, it’s basically about providing activities for children, for a couple of hours a day. There will be two couriers, me and a girl, and the campsite has a special KidzKlub room, equipped with art supplies, music and stuff. I get full board and lodging, one day off every week, loads of free time, and they pay me.’
She pauses for a moment, trying to take in all he has said, and noting his enthusiasm. ‘Sebastien, I can’t help but notice that you’re speaking about this job as if it’s a fait accompli.’
He examines the cuff of his sweatshirt, starts picking at the frayed edge. ‘Well, that’s the thing, Mum. It sort of is.’
‘Sorry? You’ve lost me. It, sort of is, what?
‘A fait accompli. You see, I told JJ I would go with him, if the campsite would take me and they’ve said yes. I’ve got a two week trial, starting on Monday.’
His eyes are still lowered. This is a bad sign. She can’t ever remember a situation where he was unable to meet her gaze.     She feels sick, fearful of what is to come, but she tries to keep all emotion out of her voice. She says, ‘Which Monday?’ and waits. He does not answer right away.
When he looks up at her, he snags his lower lip between his teeth and his answer sounds more like a question, ‘Er, this Monday?’
‘That would be in three days’ time. Am I correct, Sebastien?’
‘Yip. Sorry, Mum. I’ve been planning to tell you, but you didn’t seem to want to talk about it.’
‘How long have you known?’ She hopes he won’t say that he has known for some time. She can’t bear the thought of him keeping something like this from her. He has never had secrets.
‘I only found out from JJ this morning that they’re prepared to take me without an interview. But, the thing is, they wanted an answer straight away, so I told JJ to say yes. Mum, please tell me it’s okay with you. I really want to go.’
She is aware of tears threatening, but blinks them back. She doesn’t like the idea of him going away, especially with JJ. She feels betrayed, let down by her child whose openness and honesty she has always taken for granted.
He comes round the table, stands by her side and asks, ‘Can we have a hug, Mum?’
She gets to her feet and faces him. Relief is written all over his young, guileless face. She wants to grab him, hold him close, never let him go, but when his arms reach out towards her, she turns her back on him, her only child, and walks away.

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