Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
It was always there, the memory covered, most of the time, by daily trivia. Then my brother came to stay with us.
“Did you ever wonder what happened to Lyle?” he asked that first evening, as we swapped stories of our childhood.
I felt my face burning and an iron band tightened around my chest as I struggled to breathe, symptoms my mother called my allergy. “Even the smell of tomatoes brings it on,” she said, but she did not know about Lyle.
Bill was still talking. “Bit of a mystery at the time,” he said, “the way the fellow disappeared.”
It happened when I was eight, and Billy four.
Dad’s mother had cancer and when our parents had to go to her, they left us with their friends, the Andersens. The Andersens lived on the edge of town with a large garden, a huge tin shed that was Mr Andersen’s castle, and an enclosure known as “the chook yard,” where a big black rooster bullied his harem of hens.
Mr Andersen had retired but he was always busy, working in his garden or doing odd jobs for neighbours. Sometimes they paid him, but mostly it was “a favour for the dear old girl” or “a bit of pruning for a poor old chap.” Although he did not get much money, he often came home with car full of junk that someone was going to throw out. “It might come in useful,” he would say. “I’ll put it in the shed.”
Billy and I loved the shed. We never knew what we might find as we poked around: pieces of old furniture, bottles half-full of strange liquids, and rusty tins with faded, unreadable labels.
The shed was not my favourite garden place. That honour was reserved for an old mulberry tree, with branches that arched to the ground, making a little, hidden house that I claimed as my own. When Billy followed me I pushed him out.
Those first weeks were heaven. Mrs Andersen, who had no children of her own, treated us like small adults, and Mr Andersen spoiled us both. Then Lyle moved in.
He was there one afternoon when I came home from school, leaning against the kitchen wall and watching Mrs Andersen.
“You always were a good cook, Phyll,” he said, grabbing a handful of peas. Mrs Anderson frowned, and pulled the bowl away.
“Hey, who’s this?” he asked, looking at me. “Aren’t you a pretty one?”
Mrs Andersen told me sharply to “get changed now, and go outside.” She sounded angry. She had never sent me out of the kitchen before, especially not without my glass of milk, but I did not argue. As I changed out of my school clothes I heard her telling the man to “watch yourself, Lyle.”
Lyle would have followed me outside, but Mrs Anderson called me back for my milk, and as I filled my glass she stood between the visitor and me.
“You won’t be staying long,” she said to him, but he laughed again.
“I’m sure big brother will give me a bed, after all we’ve done together.”
“Sid’s not like that any more.” She banged the lid on the saucepan and might have said something else, but Mr Andersen walked in.
He frowned when he saw Lyle, but when his brother talked about “old times,” and something he “would not want to have to tell,” Mrs Andersen spoke up. “I suppose you can stay for a couple of days,” she said, crunching up her face like somebody taking nasty medicine.
So Lyle stayed, and I did not like him at all. He called me “little girl,” and was forever trying to stroke my cheek. Mrs Andersen did not like him either, and always seemed to know when he had me cornered.
“Betsy— I need you.”
“Don’t go,” he would whisper—grabbing my arm with his sweaty hand.
I would yell an answer, as loudly as I could, ready to peel potatoes or help make up a bed, anything to get away from Lyle.
Then he disappeared.
It was a Saturday morning. Mrs Anderson had taken the car into town, Mr Anderson was working in the garden, and Lyle was dawdling over his breakfast. I did not want to stay in the house so I took a book and Jessica Jane, my favourite doll, and headed for my own safe place—under the mulberry tree.
There I was, sharing an adventure with the Famous Five when there was a heavy breathing over me. I looked up to see, looming though the branches, Lyle’s face.
“You look very cosy, little girl. Mind if I join you?” I did mind, very much, but what could I say? He came very close and I tried to wriggle away.
“Hey, sit down lass—don’t be such a hurry there.”
He grabbed my arm, and held me down, against the trunk so I could not move.
Something tinkled on the lawn outside, Billy’s tricycle bell.
I screamed for him to come, and could hear the wheels approaching then moving away. Poor Billy! “You must never, never come in here.” I had said, when I claimed my special place, now I was calling him. What could a four year old do?
“Ssh— we don’t want the little man here.”
“Billy!” I choked on the shriek as a big, dirty hand went over my mouth and I could not breathe.
There was a rustle in the branches. It was not Billy who answered my scream, but Mr Andersen.
“Go inside Betsy,” he said sharply, pulling Lyle out of the way. I scrambled past them and ran up to the house where I rushed into my room and slammed the door. I buried my face in the pillow and sobbed.
When Mrs Andersen called me out for lunch I was very relieved that Lyle was not there. I must have looked awful, but no one asked any questions, and when I choked over my food Mrs Anderson gave me a hug and took the plate away.
I went back to my room and wished I could cuddle my doll, but she was still under the mulberry tree and I knew I could never go back, not even for my beloved Jessica Jane.
There was a gentle knock on the door and a quiet, “Betsy girl!”
It was Mr Andersen. He had collected both my book and doll, and as he gave them to me I remembered how he had come earlier, just when I needed him most, and suddenly I felt safe again. I snuggled contentedly into my bed and lost myself in Enid Blyton’s world.
Mr Andersen worked all afternoon, in the garden under my window. “We must get those tomatoes planted,” he said to his wife, and I heard her murmur agreement before she went inside.
By the end of the day he had made a trench, a little longer and wider than my bed, and he must have got up early the next day, because, before I had my breakfast he had the hole filled in, with good, soft garden soil.
But where was Lyle?
He did not come back to the house. For a couple of days I expected him, and shivered whenever a door slammed, or a branch rubbed against the window but when he did not appear by the end of the week, I began to trust Mrs Andersen when she said: “That Lyle’s gone for good this time.”
Then the policemen came in their big car. There were two of them, standing at the front door asking for Lyle, and they did not sound friendly.
Mr Andersen told them his brother had moved—no, he did not know where—and yes, he would let them know if the man came back.
The policemen did not believe him, they kept repeating the same questions, and one of them took Mrs Andersen outside, as if he thought she had something different to say. They did not look at the tomato plants standing, like a rank of guards, in the new garden bed.
“Your brother will certainly not come back,” Mrs Andersen said again, as the police car drove away. “Good riddance to him.” How could she be so sure when even the policemen thought he would turn up?
“Better water those tomatoes, eh love?” Mr Andersen said grinning, and I looked at the oblong mound of earth.
Our grandmother died, our parents returned, and Billy and I went home. I tried very hard to forget about Lyle, but sometimes, in my nightmares, I was back in the Andersen’s garden, with great hands reaching up, out of the dirt, to grab me, and, when I woke up, I stuffed the blanket into my mouth to smother my screams. And I developed allergies; as my mother said: “just the smell of a tomato can make Betsy ill.”
Now, as my brother talked, the memories came back. “Quite a mystery man, our Lyle,” he said, “I always thought he’d met a sticky end.” I tried to steady myself as the room swayed around me, Bill’s words pushing into my head. “But it seems he was conning some old girl—got his hands on her money and took off. I met her son. He said Old Andersen followed it up—and made good the loss. He was a corker bloke, Old Andersen.”
He certainly was. The room stopped spinning, my breath came easily, and as I felt the cool air on my face I knew that if I had a dish of juicy red tomatoes I could eat them all.