HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


Out of Reach

It's not clear when the family knew for certain that he wasn't coming back. Some realised sooner than others. Some hoped for longer. Mr Binoche suspected from early on. Pierre had done peculiar things before, after all. The whole of Hampfield knew that. But this? This was something unforeseen.
It was his younger sister Simone who searched for the longest, who called his name every day, who walked the woods. She was heart broken. He had been her ally and she missed him. Mr Binoche said that he'd always been out of reach, a mysterious and stubborn child. Madam described him as her sweet little dreamer. She recalled a time when he took his new goldfish to bed with him. Unbeknownst to her he slept with it on his pillow and whispered a goodnight story. She awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of his tortured screams. The fish was rigid, its eyes a waxy blue. He could not be consoled and sobbed until dawn.
Robert described his brother as a loony tune, a freak, a fool. He probably made Pierre's life pretty miserable. There was the time Pierre was found tied to the edge of the weir but the parents wouldn't accept that it could have been by his older brother.
Their house was a Victorian red brick rambling affair set in the woods. Ivy, moss and lichen blurred its outline and on most days smoke, like a grey finger, pointed at the sky. The woodland blanketed the house on three sides. On a windy night the children fell asleep to the sound of branches bumping and scratching against the windows. They told stories at school about squirrels coming in to the study to bury their acorns under piles of paper; of the night a bat flew in and they all stood in the doorways flapping their arms trying to chase it out; of huge, hairy spiders under the sheets.
As the wildlife came in to the house so the children went outside to live. They built dens and mazes. Robert laid snares and traps, sharpened sticks to a terrifying point. Pierre climbed trees. They were outside each day until their eyes could strain against the dark no more. This was the happiest time for all of them but especially for Pierre. He could spend his days out of the reach of his brother. He was like an acrobat in the trees, swinging from branch to branch. He was small and agile and strong. He could sense which branch would hold his weight, when he needed to jump, how far he could glide. Pierre would travel from one end of the wood to the other through the canopy, with Simone chasing along the woodland floor, shouting with excitement, looking up at him with joy. Sometimes he would climb to the top of the tallest tree and wedge his legs into a forked branch. From here he could inch his head above the canopy and survey the treetop kingdom. His kingdom. When he came down he told Simone how, in the distance, the yellowy green leaves of wood gave way to a dark shadow. They wondered together about this black forest but never went there.
What exactly happened that day isn't clear. It was a strange, heavy, humid day. The sky grey and dense but not ready to release. The trees for miles around the house stood still and listless. Robert was back early from university with some kind of disgrace clouding his return. He was lying sticky and bad tempered in front of the football. His mother was fussing around him, careful with her words, nervous and birdlike. She had fended off gossip in the post office with a squeaky “La folie de jeunesse!” and then a hasty “Boys will be boys!”. She was doing his washing. Piles of stained, fecund mens clothes. She was having trouble equating all this with her child, her boy, her son. She felt jittery, on shaky ground.
Her husband came through the door and threw his heavy body in a chair opposite Robert. His shirt was taut over the bulge of his belly, armpits stained with sweat. “We need rain!” he moaned. She knew work had not been going well and brought him some tea and watched as his eyes glazed in front of the screen.
When Simone and Pierre returned from their woodland walk she called them all to the table. The family ate in silence, each lost in their own world. The only sounds the soft clunk of the dark grandfather clock in the hall and the murmur of the plumbing. Father and eldest son ate quickly and waited with irritation for the others to finish.
“What will you do now, Robert?” Simone asked.
“I don't know!” he snapped back. “What about him? No-one ever asks him.”
Pierre kept his eyes lowered. He could feel it starting, could sense brutish alliances forming. He heard the muffled deep tones of his father's voice, saw his mother's pitying look across the table. His father's voice droned on and on, punctuated by the sharp, sneering laugh of his brother. Both of them goading him to respond. He kept his eyes lowered, stayed out of reach, listened to Simone's gentle, measured breaths.
How he ended up on the roof isn't clear. Each family member later told a slightly different version. Simone remembered him being chased through the house by his brother. She wasn't certain what Robert was waving above his head but he was laughing. Mr Binoche maintained it was just a bit of high jinx between two boys. Madam believed he just went in search of some peace and quiet. Whatever it was, he never came down again.
He got out there through an attic window, having barricaded the way behind him. His mother tried pleading with him through another window, weeping as she did so. His father tried to talk some sense in to him and, when that failed, got a ladder from which he hurled dire warnings. Robert ignored him until it got dark and was pushed to apologise. Simone quietly collected a blanket, some food and a thermos and passed them up to him from her bedroom window.
That night he lay in the roof gully above her room and watched the stars. Above him swept the smokey haze of the Milky Way, cut by the black outline of a hunting owl. He could sense her shallow sleeping breaths beneath him and pressed his hands against the cool slate. As it grew lighter they tried again but he was already lost to them. He told Simone that he was happy up there, out of reach and that he planned to stay. His mother sent up his meals that day and the next but Mr Binoche insisted that they stop pampering him, that when he was hungry he would come down. Madam half-heartedly tried again but knew he wouldn't come down. She had heard him humming as he gathered leaves into a pile for his bed. She hadn't heard him hum since he was a little boy enjoying his food. She retreated to her room and sat in front of her dressing table staring, unseeing, at her reflection in the mottled mirror. A yellowed, brittle orchid hung its head beside her and the framed faces of her young children peered in from the past. She remained hunched on the stool while Robert and her husband shouted and threatened and hurled things at the roof.
As three days became four, then five, life in the house returned to its routine of work and school. Robert got a job in a local French brasserie, impressing them at the interview with his pronunciation of the wine list. When he was safely out of the house, Simone would climb on to the roof and join her younger brother. They would share the food she smuggled up and silently watch the stars coalesce from the darkening sky. One day she appeared with cake and a candle for his nineteenth birthday. He laughed when he saw it and heard his mother call up “Happy Birthday son.” He was gone the day after the storm. The heavy summer skies finally broke during the night. Simone woke with a start and immediately recognised the drumming of torrential rain on the roof tiles. She ran to the window just as thunder crashed overhead. Straining to see through the sheeting water she called for her brother. Her hair was plastered across her face as she shouted his name again and again. Lightening flared the garden in to view. A familiar sight curtained by grey. She looked up at the shining slates but could not see him. Ducking back into the warmth of her room she suppressed the fear that he had been swept away. She pulled on her frayed old dressing gown, the arms had been too short for years, and hurried up to the attic.
Her mother found her the next morning, still wet and shivering, huddled in her bed. Until that moment the rest of the family had forgotten Pierre. Madam sent the two men to search for him while she tended to her feverish daughter. They came down to confirm what Simone already knew; he was gone. Over the next two days the family conducted their own private search. Simone, when she recovered, kept looking. Wherever she walked she looked up into the treetops. After several days she caught a glimpse. A dark silhouette against the smoky grey sky. She stood still and held her breath. As she watched it moved. He was watching a ragged winged buzzard circling overhead.
“Pierre! It's me! I'm alone.” she called.
Slowly he looked down, his arms embracing the tree trunk. He seemed frozen, unsure but then he raised his arm and waved. He climbed down slowly towards her and she climbed up to meet him. They stopped a couple of metres apart and she looked closely at her brother. He looked wilder, clothes dirty and torn. But more than that, there was a look in his eyes she had never seen before. She smiled and they sat silently on a branch swinging their legs and sharing her sandwiches. Without asking she knew that he would never set foot on the ground again and that he was happy.
She went after school each day to the foot of a giant silver beech tree and waited for him. Sometimes she would close her eyes and listen to the sounds of the woodland, the rustlings and patterings. Then she would catch the sound of a heavier crack and look up to find him swinging through the trees to their meeting point. There were times when he never showed up and she left him food, a warm jumper, a plastic sheet or some other sign of her love. Once she found a carved wooden owl waiting for her.
The summer before she went away to university she spent as much time as she could with him in the woods. They climbed together and he showed her some of his arboreal kingdom. She loved to see him perch on a branch so still that small birds came to investigate his presence. She shared some of his wild food; berries and nuts and leaves. Although the family never asked about him, her mother would always look up at her return and Simone would nod at her. She seemed reassured by this. Madam had become a greyer, smaller woman since Pierre left. She rarely spoke and even more rarely spoke English. Conversation in the village post office was now very limited, she kept her eyes downcast. As she had decreased, the two men in the house had bloated. They were harsher, louder and more defiant. Simone often saw her mother wince as Mr Binoche pushed past her. Robert had developed the smudged complexion, oily sheen and rounded jowls of a drinker. He was short tempered and coarse and bored.
Simone looked for Pierre every university holiday and was reassured by the sightings that were shared through village gossip. His feral shape was seen climbing through an orchard, squeezing out from under the corrugated curve of a barn roof, balancing along a garden fence. The siblings met on many occasions and Simone told him about her exciting new world that was leading her further and further away. Eventually she got an amazing internship that she really couldn't turn down and she was suddenly out of reach overseas. Someone emailed her and told her about her thuggish brother, who had cajoled his front of house team, after a heavy night of after hours drinking, to search for his missing baby brother with torches and dogs and slingshots. Pierre was never seen again.
Simone took some leave and came to find him but he was gone. She climbed to the top of his lookout tree and peered across the swaying treetop sea. She heard the sorrowful cry of a buzzard and imagined him intently watching its soaring flight. In the distance the black outline of the forest caught her eye and she hoped he was under its dark blanket.