I always picture her as she was on that last day, in the blue dress scattered with white stars. White ankle socks and navy shoes skip before us, then break into a run.
‘Bet you can’t catch me!’
We didn’t try. Wandered on, bickering. We were often happy to amuse the afterthought; that day, happy to collect her from a party while Mum got tea.
A rustle of leaves, a beating of wings—a song thrush flew out of the hedge at Hoad’s field. The nest—the last we ever robbed—was above head height and a good way in. I hoisted Jem onto my shoulders.
‘Mark! Jem! Bet you can’t catch me!’
She wasn’t a hundred yards ahead, I swear, but by the time Jem was down she’d disappeared into Church Lane.
‘Shit! It’s cracked.’ Jem threw the speckled egg into the hedge.
‘Doesn’t matter. We’ve got one at home.’
A battered Anglia rasped towards us when we turned into Church Lane. As he slowed to take the corner, the sick bastard looked straight at us and did a little wave.
There was no sign of Josie. We thought she was hiding and would jump from behind a hedge. It was in the churchyard that we started calling.
‘Come on, Josie. Mum’ll be going spare.’
We scoured the place, hoping to see the blue dress flitting between headstones, peeping from behind a tomb.
‘Josie! The game’s over, okay?’
We walked home trying to convince ourselves she’d had a longer start than we thought or dodged away among the graves to leave us hunting, the mischievous little thing. She’d be long home by now and we’d be in for it for letting supper spoil.
We were barely through the gate when Mum flung out of the house, more powerful than she ever was again.
‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Sorry, Mum, we…’
‘I hope you’re sorry. Susie’s mother says you left hers more than an hour ago. Now get indoors.’
She stood to one side pointing at the front door, but after a moment pushed past us to the gate and scanned the street. When she turned back to us, she already seemed smaller.
PATRICIA NEWBERY’s prose and poetry has been published in several reviews, including Ambit. She’s a translator and editor and lives in Egypt.