Fallen leaves swallow Alfie’s voice and it’s hard to see further than a few paces outside the clearing through the tree trunks. The sun’s low in the sky so when he looks towards the main road through the trees, in the direction of the nearest houses, all he sees is a blur of orange.
‘Thomas?’ he calls again. No reply. He sinks into the battered, fly-tipped sofa, soaking the ambience of the crunchy brown carpet and the bottle crate TV. One of its antennae (sticks of garden cane) has vanished since yesterday evening, which means that other people come here. The is their place. Alfie and Thomas’s.
Without Thomas it’ll be no fun. Alfie pulls his you’ll-soon-grow-into-it sized coat tighter. He can feel his dinner sinking in his belly. He ate it quickly. He wanted to be on time to meet Thomas at the usual place, but he’s been waiting a while now and Thomas hasn’t shown up.
Alfie shouts for him again. They might have quarrelled at lunchtime but this isn’t the playground. Things are different outside school. And tonight’s their last evening together.
At the end of the school day they all stayed behind and ate cake and Thomas blew out candles even though it wasn’t his birthday. Mrs Trent said it was just a bit of fun. They all needed something special to cheer them up because Thomas wouldn’t be coming back. Tomorrow Thomas is moving to another town, far away, where he’ll be at a new school and make new friends.
Alfie liked the cake.
He looks about the makeshift living room. It took them a while to drag the sofa and the two armchairs from the edge of the road to the clearing. Thomas found the crate for the TV but Alfie was the one who brought the cane for the antennae from home.
‘Where’s Lilly Singer?’ a voice calls from somewhere behind the sofa. ‘Finished playing kiss-chase yet?’
Thomas is still angry.
‘Thomas!’ Alfie yells, wheeling round on the sofa, jumping up and hanging over its back. ‘Where are you?’ He can see autumn: fallen leaves, dark black bark and cracks of shady sky.
‘Where’s Lilly Singer?’ Thomas hurls back from a hiding place somewhere in the undergrowth.
‘Awh,’ Alfie says, ‘come on Thomas, it was just a game.’
‘Yeah, but you’d rather play whatever-you-call-it with her than soldiers with me. It was my last day!’
The head of a dirty looking boy rises out the ground, from nowhere. His hair is pulled in a loose side-parting and covers his left eye. Thomas’s dad hasn’t made him get changed out of his school uniform to come out to play. It doesn’t really matter if it gets dirty now, he won’t have to wear it again. His jumper is faded anyway and there’s a rip in his trousers that’s been there for ages.
‘I’m here waiting for you now, aren’t I?’ Alfie stands up on the arm of the sofa to look more closely at Thomas. ‘Where did you come from?’
Thomas hadn’t been in the undergrowth at all. His head had popped up from the leaves on an empty bit of ground between two trees.
‘Someone’s dug this hole.’
‘Wowwww!’ Alfie rushes over.
The hole is rectangular and deep enough so that when Thomas is standing in it only his head is above the ground. It reminds Alfie of something.
‘You know what this is, don’t you?’
‘It’s a grave. There’s going to be a murder, and the murderer has planned it and he’s dug this hole last night when everyone was sleeping and he’s gonna come back tonight with the body of his wife, or dad or something and he’s gonna bury it.’ Alfie takes in a massive breath. ‘Bury a body here!’
Thomas pulls himself onto the edge of the hole.
‘It’s quite a big grave,’ he says.
‘Have you ever seen a grave before?’ Alfie asks; Thomas shakes his head. ‘Well then. Anyway, maybe the murderer’s going to kill more than one person and squish them all in together. Like on TV.’ Mentioning TV Thomas absentmindedly gestures behind him to the bottle crate. The den doesn’t seem as exciting any more now they’ve found this hole.
Alfie sits on the edge of the grave next to Thomas, and both boys dangle their legs over the edge.
‘Do you want to do something naughty? Something really naughty?’ Alfie asks. He’s always getting Thomas into trouble. ‘We need to do something extra special seeing as it's our last day together.’
Thomas looks hesitant. ‘What is it?’
‘We need to come back tonight,’ Alfie whispers. ‘We can watch what happens. We need to check if there’s a murderer about.’
‘What if he sees us though?’
‘He won’t, we’ll hide over there on the sofa and we won’t make a sound.’
‘Oh,’ Thomas glances doubtfully at the always-damp sofa, ‘I don’t know…’
‘You’re not scared are you?’ Alfie leans on Thomas’s shoulder and stands. With a sly twist he manoeuvres himself round and gives Thomas a shove. Thomas falls back into the hole. Alfie repeats himself – ‘you’re not scared are you?’
Thomas jumps up and glares at Alfie. His hair has fallen back and Alfie can see his left eye. It stares blankly at a point a little lower than the other. Thomas always covers his glass eye with his hair. It doesn’t move in quite the same way as the other one. It makes people look at him funny.
‘I’ll do it.’ Thomas says, hurrying to pull his hair back over his face. ‘How will you get out of your house? What time shall we come?’
Alfie knows Thomas will be able to sneak out a lot more easily than he will. Thomas’s dad isn’t strict like Alfie’s parents – Thomas doesn’t even have a bedtime and tonight is perfect for him, because his dad will be preoccupied with getting ready to move house.
‘I’ll sneak out at half-past eight,’ Alfie says, ‘when I’m supposed to be in bed. I’ll come straight here and wait for you on the sofa. You better be careful not to get caught going out though, or else I’ll be here all by myself.’
It smells like bonfire. Or barbeque.
Alfie opens his eyes – which he doesn’t remember closing – and realises he has been asleep. He’s waiting on the sofa, in the dark, for Thomas. For the second time today Thomas hasn’t shown up. In an orange glow he can see smoke drifting through the clearing from behind him. Clouds of it flow past the bottle crate TV and up into the darkness amongst the trees. It’s coming from behind the sofa – from the hole.
Alfie has no idea what time it is, and his coat has soaked up damp from the mouldy sofa.
Keeping quiet, he turns himself around and raises his head over the back of the sofa. Smoke smarts his eyes.
Alfie can see a fire in the hole. Logs and branches are sticking up out of it, flames licking them. There doesn’t seem to be anyone tending it. He waits and no one comes, the fire just keeps burning. But who started it? And why? If only Thomas had turned up. Thomas would know what to do.
Alfie leaves the safety of the sofa. Taking a few steps across the fallen leaves, getting closer to the fire.
As he approaches he can feel the heat on his face. He realises he’s sweating and the inside of his jumper, underneath his coat, is clinging uncomfortably to his skin. He peers into the hole. The smoke brings tears to his eyes and he can hardly see anything. There’s a blurry mass of orange flames stroking sticks and branches. And an eye. For a second, between the leaps of flame and flurries of smoke, he thinks he sees an eye. A single eye staring up at him from the hole. But someone is coming from the other side of the flames. Alfie can hear leaves scratching under heavy footsteps and the sound of something being dragged.
He retreats to the sofa, dives onto it and peers round. The man hasn’t seen him. From what Alfie can see he’s wearing all black. He’s just a silhouette. A masculine black shape on the other side of the flames, throwing two more large branches into the hole.
Alfie doesn’t know what he is seeing but he knows he’s scared. He doesn’t want the man to see him. Why is he having a bonfire here, and now? And was that really an eye that Alfie had seen in the fire? He sits, quiet and still, trying to keep his breathing under control.
The phone rings. Before he came out he slotted his mum’s mobile phone inside his coat because he knew that if he and Thomas came across a murderer in the woods they would need to phone the police. Now it’s ringing. It blares a high-pitched sing song above the crackling of the fire, piercing the smoky clouds. Alfie sees the man look up and across the hole. Right in the direction of the sofa.
The man is lumbering over, so Alfie runs. Knocking over the TV crate, jumping over branches and piles of leaves. Running and running and not looking back. He’s across the main road without even looking in either direction and through the alleyway into the estate in no time. When he gets home, which isn’t far at all, and in the back gate, he doesn’t know if the man is behind him any more. The phone has stopped ringing and after turning the lock in the backdoor he puts the handset back on the dining table.
He can hear his parents’ voices humming in the living room as he stumbles up the stairs. The landing light is on, like always. The central heating turned up uncomfortably high, as ever. It can’t be all that late if his parents are still up. He desperately wants everything to be normal. He wants his parents’ voices to go on chatting. He wants to hear the quiet drone of the television programme they are watching. He wants the backdoor to stay locked and the man from the woods not to have followed him very far. He wants to pull off his mildew-smelling coat and dig out the dry, milk-scented pyjamas from under his pillow. He does not want to look out of the window and see the hint of orange flame staining the smoke in the sky beyond the estate, he doesn’t want to see a figure standing at the end of the garden. He does not want to remember the chestnut iris staring at him from the fire, or think of Thomas, who won’t be in school tomorrow because he’s moving away.