I pushed my friend from the first floor window ledge. His screams rang in my ears as I ran back home, crying my eyes out.
It had all happened sixty-five years ago, and now, having returned to England after a lifetime in Australia, I was revisiting my old haunts.
Incredibly, the derelict house in the forest was still there. Of course now most of it had collapsed, and where my eight-year-old self and my friend Guy had been able to climb up to the first floor window, now there was no first floor, in fact the roof and first floor had crumbled in, leaving just part of the ground floor. In the 1950s, small boys could play unsupervised, unlike today.
I still remembered the day it had happened. I was upset and tearful because the following morning Mum and Dad, my sister and I were leaving England forever to start a new life in Sydney, Australia. All the usual clichés had been trotted out, how “you’ll make new friends there”, and “We’ll be able to go to the beach every weekend”, made little difference to how I felt. I really didn’t want to go.
We lived in a small village in Cambridgeshire, and my world was my family, my friends at school, and grandad and grandma. I didn’t want to make new friends, I didn’t want to go to the beach all the time. I wanted to stay here and play in the woods, kick the football around the school yard. Most of all I didn’t want to leave my friends, especially my very best friends, Guy and Richard.
It had happened on that last day. Richard had gone home early, leaving Guy and me playing in the woods like we did most days after school. But I knew that this would be the last time I would ever play in the woods with Guy.
Even though small boys aren’t known to be sensitive, Guy was being particularly obnoxious, as usual his sense of humour overriding his finer feelings. He seemed to think my enforced leaving was all a great joke, and kept repeating “Sidney is going to Sydney”, proud of his pun. Suddenly all my pain erupted, and as we sat on the window ledge we’d just climbed up to, and he chanted that phrase again and again, I leaned across and pushed him so hard that he overbalanced and fell.
I don’t remember everything that happened after that, time has a way of glossing over the details. I know that I was crying and never looked back. But soon after I’d got home I realised what I’d done, and was afraid that Guy might have been hurt badly, and I should have stayed to help him. However when I raced back to find him, he’d gone.
So I thought no more about it, joining in with all the things that had to be done on our final evening, the excitement of the long journey somehow ameliorating my sorrow. I assumed that Guy must have got up, dusted himself down and gone home, none the worse for his experience.
Next morning everything was happening in a rush, all of us keyed up and nervous, yet excited about our impending journey. After breakfast, Mum asked me when I’d last seen Guy, because his mum had just phoned to tell her that Guy had had a bad accident in the woods and was in hospital – he’d broken both his legs and was seriously injured in intensive care, and his mum was in pieces.
I was terrified, and while Mum was of course upset about Guy’s plight, nonetheless she was preoccupied with our new life. I told her I’d left him in the woods, and didn’t know he’d had an accident. My first lie, and my first and worst experience of terrible shame and guilt. When I burst into tears, she naturally assumed I was worried about poor Guy and was still emotional about leaving England, so she cuddled me, and I remember thinking how utterly wicked I was, and how if Mum had known the truth, she’d have smacked me and shouted at me, as I deserved.
Afterwards I pushed the terrible incident to the back of my mind. Had Guy lived or died? I had no idea. And when I was a newly settled ‘pom’ in Australia, all my energies went into my new life, which, as it turned out, was pretty good. I trained to be an engineer, grew up and got married, had three children, and almost forgot I had ever been English.
However now that my children had children of their own and after my wife died unexpectedly last year, I had the sudden urge to go back to my roots. Things had changed in Australia, I no longer liked the hot climate, and, since I had a good pension and plenty of money behind me, I decided to sell up and come home to England. I realised, at this late stage of my life, that I longed to return, at first for a long holiday, perhaps forever.
I strolled through the village, looking at all the new buildings and roads, the many changes. I wondered what had happened to Guy. After all these years, my guilt was as fresh as ever, and I longed to apologise to him for what I’d done on that day. Maybe he’d died? Maybe I had killed him? I just didn’t know.
And then I stopped short. I was in the oldest part of the village, which was more or less unchanged. There was the same old shop that I remembered from my childhood: Ivanbryth and Son, Ironmongers.
That was the shop that Guy’s parents had owned and where they’d lived. The very same premises where I’d go with him after school and Guy, Richard and I would play games in his back garden, usually cowboys and Indians, as I remember.
On impulse I went into the shop. There, at the counter, was an old man. When he turned towards me I recognised him: the stooping old bald-headed fellow in brown overalls wasn’t an old man after all! It was a small boy in an old man’s body. It was Guy! He’d obviously taken over his father’s shop.
“Sidney!” he said in delight as he turned towards me, his face breaking into the smile that I remembered from all those years ago.
Where were the words to tell him how sorry I was, how the guilt of pushing him from the first-floor window and not even fetching help, had eaten away at me over the years? My mouth went dry. I felt as if I was going to cry.
“All these years,” Guy said to fill in the embarrassing silence. And then I remembered one of the reasons I’d always like him so much. The slow smile, the ever-ready kindness in his eyes. “Sidney, oh my old mate, as I live and breathe! You’ll never know how guilty I’ve felt all my life about what happened when we last saw each other. I was such an insensitive little bastard, taunting you and teasing you when you were so upset about leaving England.”
“But I pushed you off the window ledge, Guy. You were injured, and I just ran away—”
“—yes, but afterwards I saw you come back to fetch help. I remember, as the ambulance was just pulling away, I saw you racing along from your house going back to the woods. That’s why I pretended I was on my own when I fell. Mates don’t sneak on each other.”
“We’re still mates? Guy, all you did was tease me, whereas I could have killed you! What was that phrase people used to say at school: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
“Sidney, that was bollocks then and it’s bollocks now. Physical pain fades away with time, but words can hurt you forever. I knew you never meant to hurt me, but nothing can excuse me tormenting you as I did. Will you forgive me, mate?”