by Shelley Trower
Scarlett has never had a friend come to visit before. She meets Kensa at the bus stop, and they walk the mile or so to the opening in the hedge, to the fallow field. She shows her friend the way through the trees. The family’s two Alsatians come bounding over; one jumps up at Kensa and nips her nose. Her eyes water. ‘Doris, come,‘ Scarlett yells at it, grabbing it by its neck, kicking it hard in the belly. This small, wiry 14-year-old, barely bigger than the beast itself.
At the end of the path is a mobile home and a caravan. Kensa stares at the caravan with its broken window. Scarlett has run into it and beckons her friend to join her, telling her it’s her bedroom, but Kensa is still standing there taking in the rubbish on the floor, a barbie with missing legs, a can of beans with a spoon sticking out of it. Kensa had only ever seen Scarlett at school before, in her uniform. She’d got annoyed with her for smelling bad sometimes but had no idea of this life of hers in a caravan, with no shower or bath, wearing a grubby T shirt and jeans. Kensa looks down at herself, wondering why it ever seemed a good idea to wear her best sequinned dress. She digs out the old scratchy jumper her mum insisted she brought, and puts it on.
Scarlett had no idea her classmates would be shocked to find she lived in a caravan, that her brother slept in the barn. She’s proud of the work her family has done; she walks her friend to another field and sweeps her arm toward the four long greenhouses where they’re growing lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers.
‘It’s all organic’, she explains.
‘What’s that?’ asks Kensa.
‘Natural. No chemicals. No poison.’
Scarlett leads Kensa to the first greenhouse, they go in and she picks a deep red tomato. ‘Here.’ Kensa takes it. When she bites the insides explode down her chin and her scratchy green jumper, the seeds getting caught in the knitted ridges. She tries to dig one out with her fingernail.
‘Mmm, nice,’ she says politely when she realises Scarlett is watching intently. It is good for a tomato, but she’s not a big fan of tomatoes.
‘Come on.’ Scarlett grabs her hand and takes her back to the caravan area, this time to her parents’ mobile home. Scarlett wants her friend to have fun, desperately seeks out something that’ll make her stay.
‘Mum,’ she calls in through the door, ‘I’ve got a friend over.’ Nothing happens. They enter the main room, where her mum and dad are watching TV. They say hello, their eyes flickering over for just a moment.
‘Water the greenhouses will you,’ her dad says, drinking from a can. Kensa wonders if they’re drunk but they’re not noisy like her parents get when drunk. Scarlett seems to give up on them, and takes Kensa’s hand to head back to the field. Kensa wants to go home now. She tells Scarlett she’s going to get the next bus. Scarlett asks her to help with the watering first. There’s a water butt nearby but the trickle seems to take forever to fill the two watering cans.
‘Lucky there’s rain on the way,’ Scarlett says. Kensa looks up at the sky and sees only blue sky and a single seagull.
‘Sorry Scarlett, I’ve got to go, I told my mum I wouldn’t be long.’
‘It’s OK, my brother will help,’ and Kensa sees Dom—recognises him from year 11 at school—he must have left in June, 16 by now—walking over to them from the barn.
‘Right Scar, who’s this?’ he shouts across when he’s still half a field away.
‘Kensa,’ she shouts back. They start walking in his direction. ‘Remember Kensa, from school? She’s off in a minute.’ They’re close enough now for Kensa to see his cheeks look dirty grey, his hair tangled, red eyes.
‘Yeah, y’know my mum’s always on my case.’
‘Back in a minute,’ Scarlett says to Dom. She takes Kensa’s hand again and leads her back to the trees. This time she takes her a different way, showing her where there’s magic mushrooms. She points at the small earthy area of barely noticeable grey bumps.
‘Those are my brother’s,’ she says. ‘He gets off his head.’ Kensa isn’t quite sure but thinks she might be impressed.
‘He fights with Dad,’ Scarlett adds.
‘What happens?’ Kensa tries to picture them fighting. ‘They use fists?’
‘Dad pushed Dom’s face into the mud, held him down. I thought he was gonna drown, I had to kick Dad off.’ Now Kensa’s going anyway she can say whatever. ‘Now Dom fights back.’
The two friends come out again higher up the fallow field than the way they went in, and suddenly the world seems to shine again.
Kensa runs free, runs up the hill, runs into the golden light of the sinking sun.
Near the opening she checks herself and looks back and waves. ‘Bye, Scarlett, thanks for having me,’ she yells across the field. Scarlett is still there, watching her. A bus will come in 18 minutes.
Scarlett runs back to her brother, who is finishing up watering the first greenhouse. She starts on the second. Between them, they’re done in another 15 minutes. If you were the seagull, you might see that the moment Kensa is getting on the bus is the exact same moment that Scarlett and Dom are putting down the watering cans and walking back to the mobile home.
They’re hungry, and her brother has picked a cucumber, snapped it in half. They’re nibbling their halves as they walk.
‘Who the fuck was that?’ her dad barks when he hears them rummaging in the kitchen area.
‘My best friend, y’know who I met the first day at our new school.’ It’s been nearly a year since they met, last September, when they were both 13. It’s now July, the first week of summer holidays. Scarlett’s family had moved from Manchester to Cornwall last summer for “the good life,” to embark on the dream of self-sufficiency. Kensa had always lived in Cornwall, like her parents and granny—they’d moved about ten miles from the west to this town by the north coast.
‘That’s nice love,’ says her mum. ‘Put some beans on will you.’
‘None left,’ says Dom, having rummaged through the cupboards.
‘Pasta then.’ No pasta either but there’s a sack of rice that he digs a cup into, chucking the grains into a surprisingly clean saucepan. His mum has washed up, and now he suddenly feels her touch his shoulder and whisper.
‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ He feels a shudder at her touch, what in hell is going on? She’s hardly talked to him for months. He turns around and stares at her, sees purple under her left eye.
The kettle is boiling, and he slams the saucepan on the ring, turns the gas on and catches it with his lighter. A sudden rush of flame lashes up the pan’s sides, almost catching his eyebrows as he peers in. Scarlett is looking for onions and remembers they’ve grown some by a hedge; she runs to get one and knifes the ends off and slices it roughly into a frying pan, pours oil on it, runs for tomatoes and squeezes them in, the juice oozing into the oily onions and the flesh landing erratically on top.
If you were a seagull that could see through roofs and walls you might see that at this same moment Kensa’s dad has come home and is heating up beans and making toast in their three-bedroom bungalow. Kensa has a brother, too, who is playing Minecraft. They will eat sooner, as beans don’t take long to heat, and bread doesn’t take long to toast. But they will all eat between 6 and 6.30pm, each family with its mum and dad and brother and sister. After eating, the families watch TV until 7.35pm. At 7.35pm, Kensa’s dad runs the bath, and the children start going to bed. At 7.35pm, Scarlett says goodnight to Dom. Her parents are asleep on the sofa bed in front of the TV. She takes herself to her caravan, closes its door and gets under her duvet. The cat jumps off, and scratches at the door to go out. Scarlett lets her out, and closes it again, this time locking it. The broken window is small; she feels quite safe from the wolves. The main difference between the two families is that when the children are asleep, it is only Scarlett’s mum who occasionally howls.
Drifting off she dreams the cat is tapping at the caravan door, and for a moment she is the cat in the moonlight outside, furry and of the night, then she wakes a little, finding herself in bed, hearing her brother’s voice whispering, ‘Scarlett, open the door.’ She jumps up and unlatches it, and he gets into bed with her. The door stays unlatched, ajar now. It’s warm together, they curl up and she begins again to dream restlessly. Until an almighty bang, and the stench of black smoke that creeps through the broken window, through the door.
They leap up and run outside, beginning to see thick smoke bellowing into the sky, flames flickering gently out the parents’ window like the mobile home is some crazy candle. Their mum stumbles out the door towards them, reaching out for them grotesquely, they back away. She carries on into Scarlett’s caravan, slumping into her bed. Dom and Scarlett sit on the caravan’s doorstep, wondering what in hell to do. For a minute or two they watch the smoke billowing, the blaze flickering light onto the nearby trees, then Scarlett feels like she’s waking up from this dream and it is real and she must get the dogs out—she runs to the cage at the back of the mobile home and shakes open its back exit, the dogs leaping over her knocking her to the ground. From the ground she’s looking at the front door imagining her dad stumbling out like her mum did. Waiting for him to stumble out.
She’s getting up, walking toward the door, when the sirens ring out. A flashing blue pulsates faintly over the fallow field, and then bright torches beam the way to their home—people running, reaching them through the night. She returns to the ground, watching the white beams bobbing up and down, getting closer with the running people, she’ll just rest here. The dogs are barking, growling, jumping at the running people—she hears her brother calling the dogs off, grabbing the biggest and swearing at it, kicking it down. As the night gets colder, the smoke and the heat grow warmer. She can rest here now, she can wait.
They found a way for the fire engines that night; they got close enough to put the fire out, shooting water through trees. Scarlett got wet, and two of the ambulance workers put a blanket over her and walked with her mum and brother across the field to the first flashing ambulance. The second had its back door open, ready. The three of them got into the back to be checked over before leaving for some emergency accommodation in town—a room with three single beds in it. They seemed numb, didn’t talk, just lay there most of the night in and out of black sleep.
After a few weeks, their mum, Linda, found a three-bedroomed flat to rent a couple of streets down from the school. The police investigation concluded that the cooker had a gas leak, that a lighter spark set off the explosion while Linda was returning from a wee in the nearby trees. She also reported having just set foot back inside their home when the explosion knocked her to the ground; she’d picked herself up and stumbled back out the door. Her husband had been drinking but wouldn’t have had much chance anyway, they concluded. She was lucky to have got back out in time.
They had no insurance, but kept the plot of land, renting it out to a neighbouring farm. One day, when they have the money to build something to live in, they dream of returning. In the meantime, Scarlett’s mum has got a job as a hospital porter. She’s scared of her mum sometimes though, at night, when she drinks, when she starts arguing loudly with herself. One day, Scarlett will ask her whether she started the fire. One day she’ll get away from here.
They aren’t allowed pets in their new home, but the old farmer couple next door to their plot has taken in the dogs, Doris and Bouncer, and her cat, Kitty, and sometimes they go and visit. The dogs are fed regularly and trained and seem gentler now. When the summer holidays start again, when they’re both 15, Scarlett catches the bus with her old friend Kensa—they say hello to the farmers then take the dogs for a walk, past the overgrown greenhouses through the woods to the fallow field, imagining themselves soon grown up, ready to return to the land.
Scarlett’s brother has left home by now, gone to London to live with Louisa who he’d met in the pub on the beach. As Scarlett and Kensa walk the dogs, they imagine the romances ahead of them, sunsets on the sea, the golden sand.
A fortnight later they decide to camp out the night. They borrow a tent and pitch it between where the mobile home and Scarlett’s caravan used to be. They’ve brought cider and snacks, and they sit on a fallen old tree as the sun goes down. Just as Kensa cracks open her can she notices her foot feels strangely warm. They’re sitting next to a blackened mound; there’s been a fire here—the heat is its residue. Scarlett looks up and sees him there by the greenhouses, looking toward them, ghostly.
‘Dom?’ she whispers as though to herself. Kensa looks in the same direction and reaches for Scarlett’s hand. ‘Dom,’ Scarlett says again, as he walks towards them.
He’s carrying twigs and some paper, and with a quick nod of his head to acknowledge them he sets about re-lighting the fire.
‘Dom, what happened?’ Scarlett’s eyes are wide. Kensa looks like she wants to run, like last summer, but this time to pull Scarlett away with her. He’s unshaven, tangled.
Dom ignores Scarlett until the fire is catching and their world is a dusky blue-grey. He tells them then, that after one week with Louisa he’d returned to their land. ‘It’s better now,’ he says, ‘with him gone.’
Shelley Trower worked as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Roehampton, UK. Publications include Senses of Vibration (Bloomsbury, 2012), Rocks of Nation (Manchester University Press, 2015), and Sound Writing (Oxford University Press, 2023). Along with numerous academic publications she has also published creative non-fiction and fiction in edited books, journals and magazines, including Unsound: Undead, Life Writing, Australian Humanities Review and Litro Magazine.
Thanks go to Kayleigh Kitt for helpful feedback on a draft of this story.