It was all Berto Porter’s fault. When he was just plain Bernard he was a dwarf of a boy who used to avoid meeting Helen Forsyth, or any of the other girls’ eyes in case they spoke to him, made him stutter and gave him a big red beamer face. When he went to stay in some foreign country, whose name she could never remember, that had a Shah or something, because his dad was an engineer, for about a year, he came back with long hair, a gold earring and he chewed gum like a Yank.
‘You didn’t go to no haunted house during the night.’ He snatched a look at Angela Tilby as if she was Doris Day and rolled his eyes at Helen Forsyth as if she were a cast off Calamity Jane. ‘You can’t even go to the shops without a note from your mum.’
They were sitting at the back of the huts, crazy with boredom and counting down the days in disbelief until school went back. John Summerville had lit a bit of grass and was trying to smoke it before it burnt his lips, but his fat face split into a grin and he laughed at his mates joke on cue.
Helen looked over at Angela for support, but her friend betrayed her by also grinning. ‘He put salt around the windows and the doors. We can go and check it. That will show you.’ She thumped the boards on the hut, her eyes shining with excitement.
She grinned back at Berto having trumped him. But he just flicked at his sun burnt nose, rolling the bogie on the end of his finger like a snail and absent-mindedly wiped it on the leg of his Levis as if that was déclassé. ‘Nah,’ he said, spitting through the gap in his two front teeth into the long grass, in a way that Summerville never could master. ‘I can’t be bothered.’ He slouched down even further, carefully stretching his sunburnt back against the garage wall and grunted through his nose, a ripple of pain rippling through the muscles of his face.
Angela put her hand on Helen’s leg as she pulled herself up. ‘I’ll go and have a look with you,’ said Angela.
Summerville wandered off to the furthest away hut, squeezing under the arbour of the privet hedging to do a pee and exercise his mucky little hands. ‘It’s not as if there is anything worth hanging about here for,’ she said, watching him go.
Berto remained sitting, frozen in his sunbathing pose, with his eyes closed. He trumpeted out one of his mouth-sneeze laughs, that worked his lips like a bugle’s mouth piece. He opened one eye. ‘What was the name of the weirdo you met last night?’
Angela pulled at her wrist. ‘C’mon,’ she said.
Summerville came back running his fingers through his hair to clean them, grinning at Angela and Helen.
They both shook their head and turned away arm through each other’s arm, in unison, as if they’d been practicing it as a dance step.
‘You don’t know his name, because you weren’t there and you never met anybody,’ shouted Berto to their departing backs as they walked up the road and past the school towards Risk Street.
The house seemed less threatening with the sun behind them. They giggled and hooted as they made their way through the long grass, skirting around a jaggy nettle like it was a monster, but as their feet clattered onto the grey slabs they grew silent and their hands found each other’s.
‘Weren’t you scared, last night?’ whispered Angela.
‘Not really.’ Helen tightened her grip on her pal’s hand, pulling her along to the first window, which was marked with a line of ash grey salt.
‘Look. There,’ Helen said, squatting down and inspecting the man’s handiwork. ‘That’s a salt-chain.’
Angela looked over Helen’s shoulder at the line of pellets that that her friend’s hands hovered over as if they gave off some kind of heat. She moved from one window to another and squatted down again.
‘See here’s another one.’ Then she squatted down at the door, ‘and another.’ She looked up at her friend triumphantly. There could no longer be any doubt that she’d been telling the truth and been there last night.
‘What’s a salt-chain?’ asked Angela curling a lock of her blonde hair in a loop behind her ear, which she did when she was nervous.
Helen scratched her head. ‘I’ve no idea,’ she said laughing, blurting out the uncomfortable truth in her usual boyish manner, which made Angela smile and rub her toe against the salt line as if to test its consistency.
‘Don’t do that,’ Helen screeched, making her jump back.
‘Why not?’ Angela asked, her fingers reaching for a loose lock of hair.
‘I don’t know,’ said Helen squatting down to fix the salt line.
‘Weren’t you scared?’ Angela asked.
Helen looked up at her friend, her hair framed like a halo, with the sun behind her, trying to work out what she meant. ‘No. No.’ she shook her head. ‘He was a really, really, old man. An old fossil. He must have been about 50, perhaps even sixty.’
‘I didn’t mean that,’ said Angela, uneasy, not sure if she meant to imply anything sexual.
The indecision in her voice caught Helen, and in a little girl’s voice she admitted, ‘I was a bit scared.’ ‘But not of him,’ she quickly added.
‘You’re not scared now, are you? said Angela, looking up at the dark shadows of the house and shivering.
‘Not really,’ she said, as a sudden gust swept past them, darting a look behind her as something in the house banged. ‘Maybe a bit,’ she said with a throaty laugh and the shadows around the house seemed to retreat and draw themselves in.
‘Well I think that’s proved that I was here,’ she said brushing one hand against the other to dust them down and remove any bits of salt.
‘It doesn’t matter what I say,’ said Angela, ‘you know that Berto will never believe that you were here.’
‘He’s a tosser,’ said Helen.
‘Yes, he’s a tosser.’ Angela smiled weighing the wrongness of such a word on her tongue.
‘I’ll just nip in and get something of the house to show him that we were here. I think I seen something red, copper wire, or something, yesterday. I’ll just get that.’ Helen jumped over the salt-line and was through the door before the word sprung out of Angela’s mouth.
Angela hugged the walls, bent over, almost gagging with the smell of what seemed like fish guts and raw sewerage. She could hear Helen climbing the stairs and clomping about on the floor above moving things about. Angela stumbled outside the door and took a deep breath of fresh air, just as Helen bounded down the stairs. Her eyes were red rimmed, as if she had been crying, but she wasn’t upset, she was the opposite, wired with energy, as if she’d been plugged in.
‘Don’t you smell that?’ Angela asked, bowled over like an old woman, and gradually straightening up as the smell disappeared.
Helen waved away her friend’s concern. ‘I don’t smell anything,’ she said, shaking her head, thrusting out a piece of paper in front of her and laughing and laughing, but there was no warmth in the sound, ‘Look,’ she said, ‘what I’ve got.’
The piece of paper was like a moth’s wings; Angela held it gently in her hand. ‘What is it?’ she said.
‘It’s hieroglyphics.’ Helen stroked the sheet and Angela almost dropped it, as a shadow seemed to pass between them.
‘What does it mean?’ Angela spoke in the hushed tones of a museum curator.
‘It means,’ said Helen, ‘that fucking arsehole Berto and his little fucking wanking buddy Summerville cannot deny that we’ve been here today and last night. It means that I was right and they were wrong… We were right’ she added trying to include Angela in her triumph.
But Angela wanted to run and keep running away from the house and her friend, who had developed the rasping voice of an older man, using crude language, which wasn’t at all like her. She patted her friend gently on the shoulder, but recoiled, despite the heat, and the cheesecloth top that she tended to wear like a jacket to hide her budding breasts; there was a sense of coldness about her. ‘Lets go home,’ she pleaded. ‘Just leave that there,’ she said, pointing at the piece of paper. ‘We don’t need it. And we don’t know what it says.’
Helen snorted through her nose and holding the piece of paper like a chrysalis smiled as she looked at the hieroglyphics. ‘It says,’ she said, her croaking laugh booming out and catching Angela off guard, ‘that we wait for evil, but it had already arrived.’
‘Run,’ said Angela, batting the piece of paper out of her friend’s hand and pulling at her, as if she was drunk and her legs didn’t work right, until they left the shadow of the house, then the same instinct surfaced and made them move together and clutch at each other as they ran through the long grass and out through the hole in the fence.