Alex felt guilty as he rolled out from beneath his Saturday morning sleep-in, scratching and rubbing a sore shoulder. Responsibility leaves no poor soul in peace, like a cat that constantly sails around the feet. He was pleased that he’d managed to snatch a few hours away from his three younger siblings, but now the day's certain labour had to be faced. Only two weeks after his 17th birthday, Alex had no time to even think about a normal teenage life.
In the living room, he surveyed the damage from the previous night. The children had been allowed peanuts and chips and overflowing glasses of soft drink. A screening from the Top Horror Films Of All Times collection had been promised all week, and Alex had spent the last of his gardening money on the rare supply of snacks. There would be plenty of time to vacuum before the Old Man returned from his three-week stint on the fishing boat.
Alex massaged his middle and thought about lunch. Thank goodness for the unlimited supply of TV dinners in the freezer! The pre-cooked meals, wrapped in tinfoil, were given to the Old Man on a regular basis by one of his drinking buddies - stolen from the hospital where he worked, but fell off the back of a lorry, if anyone asked. The corned beef with mustard was normally okay, but the cabbage and mince was decidedly dangerous. It was always battle stations in their delicate stomachs. The pain and unpleasant aftertaste could hang around for days.
On the way to the freezer, housed in a shed in the garden, Alex heard a deep male voice. He walked to the back of the section, doing his best to avoid the patches of slippery mud among the grass. He peered through the overgrown hedge and could just make out Toby’s red jumper. The Dutch man who lived there was asking where their father was, how often was he away from home, and why they weren't going to school every day? Toby, aged nine, didn't say too much. He just shrugged and pushed his fingers into his eyes. The little ones, David and Sasha, stood nearby.
Alex yelled out, walking back a wee way from the hedge. “Toby! David! Sasha!” He pretended not to know where they were.
“That must be Alexander,” said the neighbour. He jumped up and down, trying to raise his bald and freckled head above the hedge. “I would like to see you!” The man’s voice was stilted, a bit like the ones that come out of computers.
“What for?” Alex yelled into the hedge as if it were a huge microphone. He tried not to sound too rude. “Have they done something wrong?”
“No, no. Nothing like that,” said the man. “Do you want to come around and join us?”
Alex hesitated, but he knew he had no choice. He decided not to climb through the hole in the hedge, which Toby had made a few months earlier; that would've been asking for trouble. He walked out the front and then down the Dutch family’s driveway, noticing that only half their name was on their letterbox. The last letters had been scraped away and he wondered if the young ones could have done that. It said Van den ... and that was it.
As he made his way towards the neighbour's house, the problem became perfectly clear: the large plum tree in the corner of the children's property had been the source of the morning's entertainment. The Dutch family’s lawn was covered in plums, some rotten and some not ripe. The young ones had obviously hurled them over the hedge, and not just one or two. It was impossible to count the exact number, but there had been an absolute bombardment. This was no laughing matter. The plums also littered the family’s patio, with red patches all over the glass sliding doors.
Alex ran up to his younger brothers and sister. “Bloody hell, you guys!”
The wife arrived with a bucket and cloth. She was expressionless. A tiny thing in a yellow cardigan.
“I am really sorry about this," said Alex. "They know they're not allowed to do that.”
“Yes, I've already had a chat with them,” said the neighbour. He grinned and put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “They tell me that you're looking after them, while your father's away for work."
"It's very hard to keep an eye on them."
"I was sorry to hear about your mother."
Alex looked down at the grass.
"But we have to be strong," said the man. "We can't let that destroy us."
"I really am sorry about the plums," said Alex, still looking down.
"Let's not say another word about it. I would like to invite the four of you to lunch.”
Alex raised his eyebrows. He wondered if he had heard right.
"How about it?"
Alex tried to think of an excuse. The gap proved to be dangerous.
“Great!" said the man. "You are very welcome."
The wife cleared away the last of the plums from the patio. The young ones nervously began to help pick some up off the lawn, but Mr Van-den-something signalled to them not to bother. “Just come inside and wash your hands.”
The young ones stared at their elder brother, waiting for permission. They knew they would be in trouble when they got home. Their little brains were addled. They'd been expecting to be shouted at. But it hadn't come. Not from Alex, who was too flustered to think, and not from Mr Van-den-something.
Alex led the way. He was not sure what to expect. All he could focus on were the hundreds of plums, which lay like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. Surely a price had to be paid.
The young ones looked silly sitting in a line on the sofa. Their faces were pale and they looked painfully sheepish. Alex felt embarrassed about their stained feet. Davie also had plum marks all around his mouth, and his hair resembled candy floss. Sasha had the demeanour of a grown-up. There was an unmistakable air of guilt across her face, but also a trace of arrogance and defiance. The children’s eyes were fixed downwards.
The inside of the house was very austere, with nothing special for roving and curious eyes to rest on. Just ordinary furniture. A few nondescript pictures on the walls.
“Did you know that only half your name is on your letterbox?” asked Alex. It seemed like the best way to break the silence, but then he realised it raised a bigger question.
“Yes. We don’t know who did that." Mr Van-den-something did not look up as he put place mats and cutlery on the table.
“I only just noticed it,” said Alex.
Mr Van-den-something gave a small resigned smile. "My wife won't be long. She's in the kitchen preparing lunch."
"Thank you," said Alex.
"Our name is actually Van den Burgh."
“Really? There’s a girl named Julie Van den Burgh in my work experience group at school.”
“Yes, that's our niece,” said the man. But he didn’t look up.
Alex then remembered that Julie had been caught shoplifting. Someone had told him that she'd punched a shop assistant when she tried to get away. The police had also found cannabis in her bag when they questioned her.
Alex desperately searched for something to say, but Mr Van den Burgh spoke first. “Here,” he said, his manner somehow forced. “Come and take your seats at the table.” He made extravagant gestures towards the table and then disappeared into the kitchen.
The children looked at their brother for guidance, but he deliberately avoided their eyes.
There were only four places set at the table. Toby and David nervously slid into two of the seats. Sasha remained on the sofa. Alex stood up and hesitated, wondering why only four places had been set. The Van den Burghs didn't want to eat?
The husband briefly poked his head around the kitchen door. “What? Only two for lunch?”
Alex and Sasha awkwardly made a move for the table. He felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t think of anything to say. The four sat in silence, surveying the cutlery and napkins neatly placed out before them.
Mr Van den Burgh appeared again. “It’s a very special lunch today.” His voice sounded higher, excited. "In many homes, sitting down at the table is the time for a family to come together, to sort out their problems, to reflect on how their lives are going. It's also a time for the adults to communicate with their children."
Then, with a terrible clatter, the kitchen door burst open. The wife came charging in, and everything seemed to unfold at half speed.
Alex caught sight of two small buckets. The couple seemed to have huge hands all of a sudden, covered in what looked like blood.
The young faces had no time to react. The hands smeared and smudged.
No patch of bare skin was spared. The mush was lathered on thick. Small heads tossed about. The red flesh was smacked over their faces, smothered through their hair. The cruel juice dripped down their young pale necks. No one tried to get up. The manic onslaught was just too incredible to take in.
Alex understood then that he had been left alone. The silent witness?
Toby, David and Sasha had their innocent mouths filled up with the mushed-up plums. They showed very little resistance. Their faces were totally covered. The pulp was everywhere. No one laughed. Just humiliation. Ridicule.
Outside, the four stood huddled in silence. Their eyes were wide and shocked, their mouths dropped open. Sasha whimpered slightly, half-heartedly trying to scrape the mess out of her hair.
Alex turned and watched the Van den Burghs close the sliding door. They calmly started to wipe down the chairs and table. They did not look up. They hadn't said a single word during the onslaught.
The four shook as they made their way home, united in their shock.
Toby started to sob. "Adults aren't supposed to do things like that to kids."
"No, they're not," said Alex.
"They told us we were going to have lunch," said David.
Alex stopped and looked down at the teary eyes before him. He thought for a moment, struggling to stop himself from shaking. "When they were little, they mustn't have had a big brother to teach them how to be good."
"I'm glad we don't live with them," said Sasha. She brushed down her stained dress, lifted her head and marched towards the house.
© Copyright, 2009. Seamus Kearney. The Plum Incident - a short story.