The Dare

Fiction
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Mark Morton/Flickr (CC-by)

“Excuse me. I wonder if you’ve heard the news. The Russians have launched a missile. The world will be ending soon.”

His name was Alfred and he was smiling. The two children exchanged a look of fear.

Dad said he couldn’t help it. Alfred was to have been a doctor, Dad said, but he’d had a breakdown, ended up here in their market garden doing odd jobs and labouring. He had a way of approaching very quietly. They’d turn round and he’d be there. Always smiling. And talking evenly in his polite, expressionless voice.

At the beginning, the children had stood transfixed by curiosity, giggling, unsure how to react. But gradually the smooth flow of his words began to scare them, so now they ran from him, chasing each other, pretending it was all part of a game.

The market garden was the children’s own beautiful dangerous playground in which they knew every inch of the acres of land and greenhouses. It was another world, a world of space, secret hiding places, smells, and dangers. When they went home at teatime they felt caged, their nerves still taut, senses alert. Now Alfred had intruded on their world and for that they hated him.

Freddy was nine and Hazel two years younger but she kept up with her brother in most things, ran as fast, climbed as fearlessly, played as wildly. If they found a new game, it was Hazel who dared Freddy to do it. She had a way of looking at him without words, throwing down the dare.

Their new game had been to build a shack out of old broken boxes and bits of wood. They furnished it with empty diesel cans and filthy sacks, rigged up a roof from old tarpaulins. The finished construction was foul-smelling and crawling with insect life and well hidden behind the tractor sheds. As the children emerged at the end of the day they came face to face with Alfred; he was standing there smiling, a spade balanced over one shoulder.

“Excuse me. I don’t know if you’re interested but I’ve just received a communication. The Martians have finally landed. They’ll be taking over any day now.”

Hazel gave her brother an anguished look and they ran, breaking apart to pass on either side of the intruder. Why couldn’t he leave them alone?

The next day they decided to explore the greenhouses. As they tugged open the first door, they were hit with the overpowering heat and ripe reek of the tomatoes. Balancing on the heating pipes they walked the length of the greenhouse, brushing their fingers along the hairy fragrant stems of the plants, occasionally breaking off a small green tomato. They lobbed the fruit into the water tank, disturbing the weeds and scum.

The other day they had watched Dad and Ned beat a rat to death here. It had swum frantically from the tank through a connecting pipe into the tank in the adjacent greenhouse, over and over again, mad in its frenzy to escape. At each end, blows from a spade and a shovel met the animal and in the end it was dead.

Later, the huge rhubarb house became their haunt. It was a vast, corrugated barn kept in total darkness by thick, creaky wooden shutters. One of them would go inside, watching the sunlight narrow to a crack as the other swung the big heavy door shut and threw the bolt across. The dare was to endure the pitch blackness as long as possible, mastering their rising terror of all the groans and creaks. Three steady knocks meant, ‘let me out,’ and each time Hazel lasted the longest.

The third week of the summer holidays was unbearably hot. The cracks in the soil were like open wounds and the sky was an unbroken blue. Near the water tanks a dead frog lay flat and stiff.

They had played all morning on the roof of one of the old concrete shelters. By propping a plank against one side wall they could run straight up onto the roof and lie spreadeagled on the sloping concrete. The overhanging branches of an old oak tree allowed them to swing down to the ground. Eventually the concrete was so hot it became unbearable.

“Let’s go to the tractor shed,” Hazel said, but once inside they realised it wasn’t such a good idea after all. It was even hotter in there, the air heavy with the stench of oil and machinery. They took turns bouncing on the driving seat of the biggest tractor, twisting the wheel to and fro, the coarse sacking of the seat prickling their bare thighs.

“It’s my turn now, Freddy. Come on,” Hazel said, but her brother was staring straight past her. Hazel followed his eyes and saw Alfred standing in the doorway, leaning on a big shovel.

“I heard voices,” he began conversationally. “I wonder if you’d be interested in my discovery? I’ve been digging in the big fire hole and I’ve come across a live landmine from the war. I expect it to explode in about fifteen minutes so you’ve plenty of time.” Alfred turned and walked away, dragging the shovel along the ground with a harsh, grating sound.

At first Hazel and Freddy did not react. Then Hazel said, “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?” Freddy hesitated.

“Yes—we’ve got to.”

It wasn’t far to the fire holes, deep brick pits that housed the coal furnaces to heat the greenhouses. The children were strictly forbidden to climb down but often peered in, drawn by the glistening heaps of coal and the fierce crackling heat coming from the black furnace doors. Alfred was already standing on the edge of the biggest pit, wiping his forehead with a large, greasy handkerchief. He turned and smiled at them.

“If you stand over there,” he began, “you’ll be able to hear it ticking clearly.” He looked so pleased and welcoming, his eyes smiling brightly behind his round glasses. Alfred waited patiently, a tour guide presenting a marvel. Beyond him the sun glinted on the heaps of coal.

Hazel looked at Freddy and he glanced away uncomfortably. He knew that expression. It was a dare.

Freddy forced himself to look at Alfred, still standing smiling on the edge of the fire hole. Without warning Freddy ran forward and pushed Alfred with a short jab. The man stumbled backwards, his hands clutching at the air. He looked surprised but made no sound as he toppled and fell. Hazel stepped forward and saw Alfred’s head strike the corner of the furnace. Then he lay still, his hands still outstretched.

Hazel caught hold of Freddy’s arm and nipped him hard so he squealed.

“Come on,” she said. “We’d better tell Dad there’s been an accident.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications, both in print and online. She has written four novels and two novellas; Offcomers won first prize in the NAWG (National Association of Writers’ Groups) Open Novella competition in December 2016 and three others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national UK competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

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