Barley Sugar Sticks

The rock pool is through the village and then a longish way on, hidden in small bit of forest by the side of the road. Archie knows that Ralf thinks Matilda is likely to be there but pretending not to. Hiding in the bushes or up a tree. Wherever girls hide. Ralf didn’t used to be interested in girls. Only last year he said Matilda was a carrot-topped gawk. Gawk was a word Archie didn’t know. Ralf didn’t explain it and of course Archie couldn’t ask.

He did start to speak, his mother tells people, but then he stopped. All of a sudden. Ralf tells anyone who asks that it’s because Archie’s tongue is so big – it gets in the way. Archie can’t explain why because he doesn’t speak, and when you can’t speak it’s difficult to think – not in a straight line, anyway. Everything’s round in a circle, thinks Archie. Sun in the day sky, moon at night. Bicycle wheels, even.

Ralf gets to ride the bicycle. Archie would like to ride the bicycle, sometimes, but Ralf says he’d only fall off and get hurt. Dad made a kind of cart to go behind the bicycle, out of a wooden box, and Archie gets towed about the village in that. It bumps a lot, and it’s splintery, so Archie hangs on to the sides. The village kids laugh as they go by but Archie doesn’t mind. Not much, anyway. But soon he’ll get too heavy for the cart, and then he won’t be able to go anywhere. But Ralf will. He’ll still have the bicycle.

The sun is hurting the top of Archie’s head, his right cheek and part of his neck. Mum just cut his hair short in the kitchen. She uses a pudding-basin for a guide. She won’t let him go to the barber in Comsonley like Ralf and Dad do. All the men come back looking like Hair-Hitler, she complains. Razored back and sides, floppy on top. Ridiculous! The pudding-basin haircut looks ridiculous too, in Archie’s opinion. Just a different kind.

Barley sugar! Ralf shouts – as he always does when they get near to the village shop. Mrs Selby barley sugar sticks are kept in a glass jar on a shelf behind the counter. She isn’t very tall which means she has to reach up for them. Sometimes her blouse comes untucked from her skirt and then you can see an inch of her wobbly middle. This makes Ralf laugh. Archie isn’t much interested in ladies’ middles, but he is in barley sugar. It’s the shape as well as the taste. He wonders how they put those twists in it, like the stair-posts at Grandma’s. He supposes the barley sugar must be soft at some point – then it would twist. But wood is never soft, so how did Grandma manage to twist her stair-posts?

I suppose you’ll be wanting your usual? Mrs Selby enquires, glancing downwards and sideways at Archie but managing to avoid his eyes. Only trouble is, I’m waiting on delivery and there’s only one left in the jar. Shall… he… have it, or are you going to share?  She flicks her eyes at Archie again. The mongol-thing might be infectious, for all she knows. Catch her letting any of her kids share sweets with one of those.

Naked, Ralf jumps into the pool with a showy splash. He’s still convinced that Matilda is watching him from her hiding place in the woods. I spotted a flash of red over there, behind that tree, he whispers. Just like those red shorts she likes to wear. She’s here, all right. Can’t keep her eyes off, I reckon.

Archie takes off his clothes more slowly, sits on the bank for a while and lowers himself into the pond. It is green and cool. Mud squelches and twigs snap between his toes. He can’t swim – Ralf said he’d only go and drown himself, so it safer not to teach him – but it doesn’t matter. the water is cool and sensual against his hot skin. Trees bow in above their heads, a leafy umbrella.

The pool is strange – shallow at this end, deep at the other. Ralf once explained. It’s like a ledge on a mountain. Archie doesn’t know how deep the deep end is and it doesn’t matter because he’s never going to try it. Ralf tells him there’s a monster – like a dragon or water-snake. Like the one at Loch Ness, he says. Archie wonders where Loch Ness might be and whether the monster there would be bigger or smaller than the one in their own rock pool.

After a while, when Matilda – if she is there at all, has failed to come out of hiding – Ralf becomes more reckless. I’m going to dive into the deep end!No, thinks Archie. What about the monster? He shakes his head violently.

Ralf ignores him. He is imagining how he will look to Matilda – his admirer and imaginary audience – as he executes a perfect swallow-dive into the deep end – fearless – heedless of water-snakes and whatnot.

The sun has gone behind a cloud and Archie shivers, imagining his brother poised white and naked on the brink, staring down into the black water. And the monster staring right back up at him, its jaws open wide, showing rows of needle teeth. Archie decides to his eyes. If you shut your eyes you can’t see bad things happen. Scary things go away.

He keeps them shut for a long time, waiting to hear Ralf’s voice – shouting, boasting, and calling out in triumph – but no sound happens. After a long time, reluctantly, he opens them. The sun has come back. In the bushes on the far side of the pool he too thinks he sees a flash of red, but it might be dazzle, or the lights your eyes make when they’ve been squeezed shut. He wonders if Ralf has run away. That’s it – Ralf and Matilda are playing a joke on him, and have run away hand in hand into the bushes – leaving him to worry. Like hide-and-seek. He waits a while longer, then puts on his clothes and shuffles round to the deep side of the pool. He doesn’t want to look, but he does.

A long way under the water he sees Ralf. Ralf is floating, face down and his arm is caught in something – a tree bough, maybe. No bubbles are coming up. Shouldn’t there be bubbles? All is still. Again, something red in the bushes. And something else red, rising in a little vertical stream and spreading out over the surface of the water. Making patterns like oil on the puddles outside Ben’s Garage. After rain.

Archie shuts down. He does that, sometimes, when he can’t work things out. It’s like closing your eyes only on the inside of your head. He makes it all dark inside his head and then, carefully, he picks his way back to the shallow side of the pool. Ralf’s clothes are in a soggy heap in the trailer.  Archie leaves them where they are. It’s as if they’re dangerous. He thinks about taking the bike, but knows he can’t just get on and ride it. It takes practice to ride a bike and Ralf said he’d only fall off if he tried. Ralf is usually right, and Ralf…

Darkness.

But he does find the solitary barley sugar stick. Mustn’t waste it. Waste not, want not. He slots it in his jacket pocket and starts to walk home as fast as he can go, which is not all that fast. He passes the shop just as Mrs Selby is turning the sign on the door found. Open has become Closed. She darts a suspicious look at him from behind the glass. She must be wondering what he’s doing on his own.

Why Ralf isn’t with him.

And the bicycle.

And the wooden cart their Dad made.

Archie knocks at the door of his house. He hasn’t got a key. Ralf carried one for both of them but it’s still with his clothes at the pool. Mother comes to the door and lets him in, and at once the telephone rings. Distracted, she turns back into the hall to answer it. It is Matilda’s mother. Archie doesn’t like Matilda’s mother. Her voice is too loud. There is a long, faltering conversation. Archie’s mother is asking Matilda’s mother a lot of questions but isn’t waiting for the answers. Her face has gone pink and watery-looking. Tears start running down both her cheeks. She looks silly like that. Archie doesn’t like it.

He’s very tired from his long walk, and by now also very hungry, so he fishes out the stick of barley sugar begins to suck. It tastes sweet, as always, but this time salty too, like tears got mixed up with it in his mouth. At the close of the conversation, his mother drops the phone and it swings about on the end of its black cord. She runs back down the corridor and makes a swift grab for Archie. Now her face is red.

Her hand comes down with a crack on the side of his face.

3 thoughts on “Barley Sugar Sticks

  1. Lovely writing! Would you be interested in writing for an up-and-coming Australian blogozine? If so, what’s your email and I’ll send through submission guidelines and we can have a chat. Thank you! 🙂 North.

    Liked by 1 person

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