The little village of Pilton in Somerset has been home to many creative people, including authors such as Fay Weldon, John Le Carre and Guy Kennaway. Our writers’ group has been fortunate enough to have the company of Guy Kennaway recently; it’s so fascinating listening to a published author and having the opportunity to ask questions. A couple of weeks ago he gave us the line, “The first time I smelled that…” for our homework. We’d been talking about darker fiction involving children, which I think may have been the inspiration for me writing this…
‘Hello,’ I say.
‘Hello Sarah,’ she replies, also smiling. ‘My name’s Pamela.’
‘You’re very pretty Pamela.’
‘Well, thank you.’
‘Do they send the nice person in before the others?’
‘That’s usually how it works.’
‘I thought so,’ I say.
‘Shall we sit down?’ suggests Pamela.
‘I couldn’t decide which colour to choose.’
‘Well, I’m going for blue.’
‘Then I will take red. I like red anyway.’
There’s a pause in the conversation, so I remind Pamela what she is suppose to do next. ‘This is when we stop being all chatty and friendly and the conversation becomes serious. I also expect you will introduce me to two detectives in a minute. They always come in twos.’
‘Well, quite,’ says Pamela, and she looks a bit disconcerted.
‘Oh don’t worry,’ I say. ‘I’m not psychic; I just watch a lot of telly at my Nan’s.’ I smile at her and watch her relax a bit more.
‘You do understand why we’re here, don’t you Sarah?’
‘Yes. You all just really want to know what happened.’
‘Quite.’ She gets up from the settee, heaves open the door and beckons in two men in suits. ‘This is Detective Chief Inspector Grieves…’
He nods and says, ‘Joseph.’
‘…and Detective Sergeant Peterson.’
‘Peter,’ the second man says.
‘Peter?’ I question. ‘Your name is Peter Peterson?’ I start laughing. He looks annoyed.
‘It’s a family name.’
‘Sorry!’ I put my hands over my mouth and laugh silently.
‘Now then,’ says Pamela, ‘we need to talk to you about yesterday. If you get worried, scared or have any questions, you just let me know. Ok? I’m here to help you.’
‘Thank you Pamela,’ I say and take a moment to study her expression. She is so kind, I almost feel bad as I smile sweetly and innocently at her. She’s on my side, I can tell.
I glance at the mirror and suddenly stand up, slapping the arms of my chair and making everyone else jump. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? My buttons are wonky!’ I stand in front of the mirror and undo my cardigan buttons as quickly as I can. I count them as I do them back up evenly. There are six. I look at my reflection and smooth back the whispy bits that have come out my ponytail. That’s better; much neater. I adjust my focus as though looking through a window, and wave.
‘Who are you waving at?’ asks Joseph.
‘Probably your superior, one or two colleagues of yours and maybe Dr Biggs? Is Dr Biggs here? They made me see him before; he thinks I’m a bit nutty!’ I laugh. The detectives look surprised and glance at the mirror nervously. ‘I have watched The Bill you know. Nan was really pissed off when ITV axed it.’
‘How old are you?’ asks Joseph.
‘Nine years, seven months and ten days.’
Joseph mutters, ‘How convenient,’ and Peter looks confused.
‘He means it is still 140 days until I become criminally responsible. There isn’t much you can do about me until then.’ I sigh and sit back into my red armchair. ‘It doesn’t matter anyway because I didn’t do it.’
‘You don’t seem very upset that your brother is dead.’
‘I’m in shock,’ I reply, ‘and anyway, he wasn’t my real brother and he wasn’t very nice.’
There is a bit of whispering between them before Joseph asks, ‘Can you take me through what happened in the morning please?’
I’m bored and I start to swing my legs. ‘Do I have to? I told the other people yesterday and it’s so…’ I look at Pamela, ‘it’s so really sad.’
Pamela reaches out and pats my hand. ‘I’m sorry dear, but they do need to get the facts straight.’
The detectives don’t look nearly as sympathetic, so I do my best to look upset. ‘There isn’t a lot to say. I was playing in the orchard when it must have happened.
Don’t look at me like that Peter Peterson. I am only nine; we do play.’
‘What were you playing at?’ he asks.
I quickly think about school lunch times at what the other girls do. ‘I was making up a dance routine.’
‘Really?’ He sounds like he can’t imagine me dancing.
‘Really,’ I confirm. ‘Would you like me to show you?’
‘That won’t be necessary.’
‘And then blossom started to fall in the wind so I pretended it was confetti and I was getting married to Justin Bieber.’
There’s a pause while they try to decide whether I’m being sarcastic or not. I smile sweetly and I don’t think they know.
‘And what made you go into the barn?’
‘The blossom looked so pretty, so I went to get a pair of those thingies – those garden scissor thingies – oh what are they called?’ I looked at Pamela for help.
‘That’s it! I went to get those so I could cut some small branches off and take them inside.’
‘And then what happened?’
‘Well that’s when I found him. Dead.’
‘How did you know he was definitely dead?’
‘I recognised the smell,’ I say. ‘There was that cat last year, and the first time I smelled that smell of death was a long time ago. It was either Mummy or Daddy, but I can’t remember and they won’t tell me. They don’t want me to talk about it.’ I stare intently at Detective Chief Inspector Joseph Grieves. ‘It’s a bit like gone-off orange juice. If you could taste it, it would be fizzy, but in a bad way.’
They stare at me strangely – even Pamela looks slightly alarmed. Maybe that wasn’t a normal thing to say. I think it’s best to talk about the point they need to know.
‘It must have been an accident. He was always being told not to play in the barn. He must have fallen and hit his head on something. It’s a concrete floor in there. And there were loads of things he could have hit his head on if he’s been climbing the tractor: the wood axe, the log splitting thingie, the wheel barrow, all those metal tools, the…’
‘All right all right Sarah,’ says Joseph crossly. He gets up and Peter follows him out of the room. They are gone for ages.
‘They do believe me don’t they?’ I say. ‘You believe me Pamela?’
‘Of course I do dearie.’
‘What are they going to do to me Pamela? I’m scared!’ I put my face in my hands and sob loudly while she comforts me. I’m aware she makes a gesture to the mirror and eventually Joseph comes back in.
‘Go on then, take her away,’ he says.
‘Where to?’ asks Pamela.
‘Back home I suppose.’
I keep crying as I walk past the detective. Then I turn round and give him a little smile.