They were small children Jacob and Ava, just nine and five respectively, but their mother was ridiculously old-fashioned, and allowed, in fact, commanded them to go to the park devoid of parental supervision so that she could get on with her chores. If they were big enough she would have made them do their own chores, but she had decided that their little hands were simply too useless in a domestic setting for now, and so wanted to be free of them and their little requests for a time.
At mid-morning it was a lovely day, the sun looking down on England with a certain gentleness, providing the country with warmth but not heat.
It was not too long of a walk, barely ten minutes along the pavement with two corners to turn, and a single road to traverse via a Pelican crossing.
The two did not complain: they liked the park, and for brother and sister, in their most innocent age, got on relatively well with each other in play. Frames were climbed, tree stumps battered with branches, and a half-deflated ball found in a bush and kicked about until the last of the air had escaped. They were not poor children by any means, but it could have been noted that they never seemed to have toys of their own.
After an hour of kicking the dust, the park empty aside from the occasional old woman who asked them where their mother was (the boy always saying that she was in the toilet over the hill, just like their mother had demanded of them), Jacob took charge to say they had to go home. Ava protested, but he managed to pick her up and carry her out of the park gates. He carried her along the pavement, behind a row of luxury bungalows and their dense, tall, lush green hedges, trimmed flat, until she settled down and he stood her up.
“Now are you going to be a good girl?” he asked her sternly, mimicking their father, a game he enjoyed playing.
Wiping away a rogue tear, she nodded and accepted his authority.
He took her hand to lead her, and it was then that they noticed the voices coming from beyond the hedge.
“What you mean where’s yer scones? They’re your scones!” said a male voice, middle-aged and annoyed.
“Well you do move things about you…like all the bloody time,” a female voice replied, similarly middle-aged and irritated.
“Don’t give me all that shite, you don’t know what yer playin’ at!”
“Oh bloody give over…”
The argument, invisible through the green, did not scare them like the ones between their own mother and father. This argument seemed more…jubilant. It was almost as if the couple were enjoying themselves in spite of their clear impatience with each other.
Jacob’s fantasy of responsibility evaporated, and he began to do what he had wanted to for years: crawl through the hedge to the other side.
He climbed over the short limestone wall, and, on his hands and knees, began to pull himself through a gap between the bush trunks.
“Don’t go,” said Ava, worried.
“Stay there,” said Jacob, turning back to look at her, but also to take a moment to reconsider, before deciding to persist.
“Don’t go without me,” said Ava, and climbed over the wall to join him at his feet.
“No!” he said, but it was too late, and she was almost on top of him.
They carried on under the bush, crawling on the soft compost, their fingernails caked, earthworms disturbed, and a snail crushed, until Jacob exited onto a higher grass turf and into the open. He then pulled Ava through, giggling, her blue dress smeared with filth.
The two children stood on the lawn at the end of a garden which extended up to a flower bed and rose bushes, after which was a stone patio in front of the screen doors of a 1950s-built white bungalow.
The patio was occupied by the owners of the voices: a couple, man and woman, in their late forties or early fifties, who sat at a cast iron table with a glass top, and drinking from several bottles of wine, red, white, rosé. The man was dressed in pale chinos and a Hawai’ian shirt, open down his chest, while the woman wore a red sundress with golden flowers, loose at the shoulders and exposing her bra straps.
Their argument over the bag of scones raged on until the woman noticed the children.
“Tony we’ve got company,” she said, pointing at them, and Tony looked.
“Jesus Christ,” said Tony, “ain’t nothin’ sacred no more? An Englishman and his castle, I…”
“Don’t be so rude,” said the woman, “we have guests…”
She beckoned the children up to them, and they cautiously made their way up.
“Please come join us,” she said, and the children stopped next to their table, whereupon the adults made as clear an inspection as they could through their blurred vision.
“Where you come from?” asked Tony.
“We were in the park,” Jacob answered, not sure what to make of them. His mother had said never talk to strangers, and these people were strange. He thought maybe he should grab Ava and make a run for it back through the hedge—or better yet leave her there, a diversion from himself. But he held his cool.
“Bloody park,” said Tony, “always some shite to do with t’park…”
“Don’t be so rude,” said the woman, “these kids are guests in our house.”
“Give over Lynn!”
“I won’t give over, you give over!”
The woman identified as Lynn turned to Ava and said, “What a lovely dress, what a shame it got so dirty.”
Ava nodded, and then Lynn rose, went through the screen doors and after a moment returned with a kitchen roll.
She uneasily knelt before the children and began to crudely wipe the dirt off them with the bone dry sheets. The rough rubbing on their skin hurt, but both Jacob and Ava knew better than to complain.
Lynn’s handiwork did little to clean the children, but when she was satisfied, she stood up and patted them both on the head.
“Good as new!” Lynn exclaimed and spun around intending to return the kitchen roll to its rightful place in the house, but nearly lost her balance. She instead left it on the patio table and went back to her chair.
“Bollocks,” said Tony, downing half a glass of red. “They look bloody awful.”
“You’re mean,” said Lynn.
“Yes you are!”
They continued on as such for a while until their dispute petered out with the pouring of fresh wine, the presence of the children forgotten until Lynn remembered they were there.
“Oh you little loves,” she said, “how rude of us…we must offer you a seat.”
Lynn offered her lap to Jacob, and, after some persuasion, Tony offered his to Ava. They did not seem too concerned about the remaining dirt on either.
After they got settled, Lynn asked them, “So, where’s your mummy?”
Jacob almost gave her the standard answer for the park, but thought better of it and told the truth for once: “She’s at home.”
“And she just sent you out on your own?” asked Tony, to which Jacob nodded.
“Parents these days,” said Lynn, shaking her head.
“Parents these days,” Tony repeated back to her, and they both had another fill of wine, requiring another bottle to be opened and poured out, some spilling onto the table top.
“So are you two brother an’ sister then?” asked Tony.
“Of course they are you dickhead,” said Lynn as Jacob nodded again. He had not realised until then that he was actually scared of these people. Forever an observant child, on both of them he could smell not only the deep stench of alcohol, soaked into their bones, but also strong, overpowering scents of misery, regret, aloneness, futility—things he had come across before in other adults, but never in such intense medleys.
“Give over,” said Tony, “I was just gonna confirm it you see, ‘cause it’s a coincidence innit?”
“What you mean?”
“Well, we’re brother an’ sister as well aren’t we?”
“Well, yeah, we are…”
The older brother and sister resumed drinking, the younger brother and sister getting sweaty on their laps until Jacob began to wiggle off. Lynn stopped him and asked, “How about a drink?”
Jacob shook his head, but found a glass of wine pushed into his face, and was too shocked to resist it being poured into his mouth.
“What are you doing you mad cow?” asked Tony. “He’s only a boy!”
“Give over!” said Lynn, pulling the glass back, Jacob choking a little.
“You give over!”
However, soon Tony joined Lynn in giving his own charge wine, which Ava took to be unusually strong cranberry juice.
Within ten minutes both children felt silly and ill, and wobbled on their seats.
“You’ve given him too much!” complained Tony.
“Look who’s talkin’!” replied Lynn, and as they argued, the children slid off their laps and stood shaking by the table.
Lynn went inside and brought out some water for them, which they both promptly threw up into the rose bushes.
“Now you’ve fucked up,” said Tony, opening yet another bottle.
“What d’ya mean I’ve fucked up?” said Lynn, stumbling back to her chair, leaving the children to continue retching.
They argued back and forth, until Lynn made a grab across the table for Tony’s throat, which Jacob, having gained back some strength, took as an opportunity to take Ava’s hand and race her down the garden to the space where they had crawled in. Sending Ava through, he looked back upon the two adults brawling on the floor like slighted toddlers, and for the first time in his life felt true disgust, a feeling which would return to him throughout his life.
Joining Ava on the pavement, both now even dirtier, they threw up again into the gutter, and an old woman walking by asked them what was wrong.
“My mummy’s in the toilet over there,” slurred Jacob, pointing roughly in the direction of the park, being too drunk to realise that the routine was not applicable.
The old woman was confused, but like most busybodies did not like to get too involved, and so walked on without another word.
On the way back home, Jacob purchased a bottle of spring water for them to share from a corner shop. They sat for a while on the garden wall of an empty house, just long enough for Ava to quit shaking and allow them to carry on.
Their mother, upon seeing the dirt on their formerly clean clothes, and still being old-fashioned since that morning, gave them a damn good slapping about their heads, unleashing a torrent of tears between them. She did not seem to notice their lips stained red or the smell of vomit—or maybe she did not want to.
After all that, Jacob and Ava went to the park a longer way, not daring to even walk quickly past those same bushes.
One day, when Jacob was twelve and going to the park alone, Ava no longer his responsibility, he decided to risk a trip past. Slowing down to listen, he was amazed he could hear that Lynn and Tony were both still there, locked in the same style of petty argument, and regarding a very similar subject:
“Where did you put the croissants this morning?”
“What fucking croissants?!”
“The fucking croissants!”
Racing off, Jacob subsequently stuck firmly to the longer way.