My grandfather liked to write bad poetry. It was almost always self-involved, bigoted and rank with clichés. He clunked out pages and pages of it an old Underwood typewriter he'd bought at a church bazaar for three pounds in the fifties. They still had pounds in those days. He liked to write in the afternoon, listening to music, while the dogs slept in the sun and my grandmother basted herself in gin.
Being an engineer, Grandpa was at least good with the technicalities. His sonnets were in perfect iambic pentameter. Every villanelle he wrote stuck doggedly to its Spartan rhyme scheme. It was the constant sneering at a new age that made me cringe when he'd read his latest creations to us after Sunday lunch. His favourite topic was moaning about the modern youth turning to Idleness and Communism, an umbrella term that probably included gays, black people, liberals and rock stars.
My father told me once that Grandpa had threatened to disinherit him and my uncle after he discovered them listening to LPs of Led Zeppelin. I couldn't imagine Grandpa getting upset with me. I only knew the half-cocked insults he and Grandma would fling at each other from opposite ends of the house whenever they disagreed on something — which was often. To my sister and I he was a kindly old wizard, conjuring boiled sweets out of drawers and piggybacking us until his arthritic spine would have no more.
My grandparents' house was outside of town then, before the urban sprawl swallowed up the old homesteads and vomited out small doomed capsules of concrete. Grandma was an avid gardener, at least at the front of the house. When she died she had been engaged in a quiet war with Mrs de Vere from bridge club about whose gardenias were the best specimens in the county. The rear of the house was an entirely different matter. It was hard to tell where the yard ended and the woods began.
I can't remember how many afternoons I spent at the bottom of the garden playing or reading, lying on my back and squinting at the sunlight percolating through the trees. Hours didn’t exist there. Instead, time was measured by the way the light segued from emerald into amber and finally into amethyst. Maybe that's why I understood the theory of relativity the first time I heard about it. Of course space and time were the same thing. Grandpa even looked a little bit like Einstein with his crazy grey hair and huge moustache.
I was sixteen when the hottest summer in fifty years descended on the district. The afternoon thunderstorms, exhausted from their trek across the coastal plains, gave only brief respite. A sticky humidity clung to everything as the roads steamed and swimming pools coalesced into ponds of green soup. The school pool was not spared this fate, but Mr Carlsson made us swim in it anyway. I'd take extra long in the showers after phys ed to wash out the algae that caught in our hair.
“Jesus, Brody, are you entering a beauty competition or something?”
“Fuck off.” I continued lathering. Liam had not made things any easier when he labelled the pool The Piss Pot.
“You look like a girl in a bubble bath.”
A few other boys laughed, but I ignored them and took my time. I turned up the spray and stepped back into the jet to rinse myself off.
Liam had sidled up right next to me. He was a hulk of a boy. Though I’d never actually seen him bully somebody, I kind of felt that anybody in his reach was at constant risk of being stuffed into a locker or have their head pushed into the toilet bowl.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Give me some.”
“Shower gel, idiot. I don’t have soap.”
“Maybe you dropped the soap,” said a voice. I turned round to see Graeme smirking, already tumbling his wiry frame into his permanently crumpled school shirt.
“I’m not a fag, Solomon,” the big boy said and helped himself to my shower gel.
My best friend snickered and pulled on his trousers. “I didn’t say you were.”
Liam scowled. “This stuff smells girly.”
I shrugged as I towelled myself off. “Whatever, bru. Use it or don’t.”
The bell rang, and Mr Carlsson started yelling at us to get our arses to class. Liam took his time, examining his biceps in the mirror.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” Graeme asked me as we hurried to English. “Going to the grandparents. My folks will be home late again. Why don’t you come with?”
“That’d be cool. We haven’t hung out for ages.”
“We can only chill if we study first.”
“Why are you so boring lately?”
“I don’t have a photographic memory like you do,” I said.
“As long as I have some Jacob time to myself.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
I felt a tap on my back when I reached the threshold of Mrs Hawkins’s classroom.
I turned around. Liam was holding out my bottle of shower gel.
“Thanks, dude. Actually smells quite nice.”
As I took the bottle, Liam fixed his gaze on Graeme.
They stared at each other for a second. Then Liam made a fist and punched Graeme on the shoulder.
“Ow!” Graeme snapped. “Jesus, what’s wrong with you?”
Liam said nothing but ambled into the class.
“What was that about?” I mouthed to Graeme as we took our seats.
“He’s just being a dick.”
“Mr Solomon. Mr Brody.”
Mrs Hawkins’s voice was a raspy reed piercing through the white noise of the settling class. “Is your conversation more important than finishing the syllabus?”
“Sorry, ma’am,” I mumbled and got my books out.
“Seems like you’re spending a lot of time at your grandparents these days,” said Graeme as we cycled out of school.
“My dad’s practice has really taken off,” I said as we cut into the afternoon heat. “He’s often in surgery until like seven. And my mom’s commute doesn't help either.”
“I thought you were looking forward to being on your own now, especially since your sister’s at varsity.”
“I thought so too. But it’s getting too quiet at home.”
“Why, are you still scared of the dark after all these years?”
“Then why do you still have that night light in your room?”
“Batman is cool no matter how old you are.”
We turned into the little path into the woods.
“Why do you always go this way?” Graeme moaned. “The path is shit and it takes twice the time.”
Generations of kids had cut tracks into the preserve over the years. In summer the foliage dwarfed everything, and sometimes the paths would be particularly difficult to ride on, after rain had turned the soil into putty.
“I still think we’re going to end up being hacked to death by the Butcher,” said Graeme.
“The last victim was twelve years ago, dickhead, and he’s rotting in jail.”
“Yeah, but I think these woods are cursed. Someone always ends up dead in this place.”
I didn’t answer. It was true. Many things had gone down at the cliffs. The eastern section of the preserve undulated into a promontory that plummeted down into a pool. There the stream swelled and fed into the lake where, my grandmother insisted,a water-spirit lived, a woman with long red tresses who saved those who were pure of heart but drowned those who betrayed their loved ones.
But Grandpa didn't believe in such things. He always maintained that God was simply in a bad mood when he sketched that part of the Preserve.