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A secret to all involved.
The young boy watched as his father stripped the milkmaid naked, his hands snaking over her smooth skin. Mummy was away, again, and the boy was crouched under the bed. If his father looked in the mirror he might see the boy, just as the boy saw him and the milkmaid, but his father’s eyes never left the trembling girl’s body. Her eyes were screwed tight, and she shivered like it was a cold winter’s day. It wasn’t, though, so the boy didn’t understand why she was shaking. Maybe it was cold if you weren’t wearing clothes. She should put them back on, if she was cold.
His father obviously noticed the girl’s distress, because he laid her down on the bed and the boy felt a swell of jealousy rising in his chest like an acid bubble. Why did his father tuck her into bed when he never did it for him?
Then his father climbed into the bed too, and the mirror didn’t let him see what was going on anymore but he heard the creaking and moaning and groaning and gasping. The bed shook above him in a chorus of springs and grunts, metal and animal sounds combined into a single torturous symphony. His father gasped and grunted with every creak, every bounce. The girl was silent.
And then everything was silent.
The girl slipped out of the room like a ghost, vanishing as soon as the door closed. The boy wondered if she just evaporated as soon as she was out of sight; or maybe she just carefully missed the creaky stair as she went down.
His father’s heavy breathing echoed around the room, slowly winding its way into all the nooks and crannies. It slid between the slats of the wardrobe and bumped up against the glass in the window like a trapped bumblebee. The sound wedged into the boy’s ears until it filled all the world.
Eventually, the boy crept out from under the bed. He wasn’t as ghost-like as the waif of a milkmaid but the carpet muffled the sound of his footsteps as he padded across the room. The turning of the handle sounded like a gunshot in the silence. As the boy wrestled with the door, trying to stop it from banging open or slamming shut, he turned and saw his father watching him from the bed. He froze. There was something about the quiet, about the stillness of the room and in his father’s eyes that demanded it. Movement seemed wrong.
So he stood like a deer caught in high beams, trembling a little even though he wasn’t cold.
And then the spell broke like the vase the boy had smashed last week with the ball as his father raised a finger to his lips and winked. The doorknob twisted like a fish in the boy’s sweat-slicked hands and he pulled the door open and slid out into the hallway. Tiptoeing away, because his father wanted him to be quiet, the boy thought about the wink. It was a bit like the wink mummy gave him when he found her smoking the sweet-smelling cigarettes, the ‘we have a secret, you and I’ wink. Did his father know about that wink, too? And what was the secret they had?
The boy didn’t know.
Maybe the milkmaid could tell him, but he never got the chance to ask her because she was gone the next day and no-one would tell him when she would be back. And he didn’t want to ask his father, because mummy always told him that the important thing about secrets, the most important thing of all, was that you never, ever talked about them. His father sometimes got cold and scary when he did something wrong, and the boy knew that telling a secret was wrong. So he held the secret close to him, without knowing what it was.