However, this happy time came to an end the day Finn came over for supper on the night of 14th August. Mom had cooked meatloaf, and as we sat down Dad asked us about our day on the streets. Unfortunately Finn made the mistake of telling the truth. I usually lied and said that Finn and I had been at the Bradbury house, or the park, or annoying the big kids. I’m not sure where they thought all my newly acquired knowledge was coming from: maybe they just thought they had a very politically engaged six-year-old. As Mom passed Finn his plate, he said ‘Cal and I learnt about the My Lai massacre today. I’m not sure how proud I am of America any more.’ Mom looked at the two of us suspiciously, then turned her attention to me.
‘Callum Dominic Corrigan, care to tell me more?’ I’d never heard Mom sound so stern in my entire life. I squirmed in my seat. Now was past the point of lying.
‘Well, Mom, don’t be angry, but…’
Her eyes narrowed even further. ‘But what?’ ‘There’samanlivinginthehedgeandhisnameisO’MalleyandhesaidhewasinaplacecalledVietnamandhe’sbeenteachingmeandFinnabouthistoryandathingcalledpolitics. Pleasedon’tbemadMommy-‘ and then I ran out of breath.
‘Cal, you know better than to talk to strangers! And Finn, how would your parents react if they knew you’d been spending your afternoons in a /hedge/ of all places! I’ve a good mind to call them right this minute.’
Finn grinned apologetically at me. I scowled. My father kept his eyes on supper, as if wishing himself away from the situation. I have since learned that Dad was the master of avoiding conflict. We sat in silence.
A few minutes later Mom reappeared, considerably more composed.
‘Mr and Mrs Bradbury say that Finn isn’t going to be in any trouble, but we’ve agreed you both must tell us where this Mr O’Malley character is. You know it’s not sage to talk to people we don’t know. I’m disappointed in you both.’
Finn and I hung our heads, both secretly panicking at the fate that might meet Mr O’Malley. We knew he was just a harmless old man, but would anyone believe us? Finn and I were dismissed from the table, and permitted to play until his parents walked around to pick him up. Neither of us felt like doing anything much. I was still furious with Finn for giving away the existence of Mr O’Malley, and showed it by refusing to talk. He pleaded, saying that it wasn’t his fault and that he didn’t know my parents weren’t to know, and all manner of other things. I held my stubborn ground. In my mind, I would never forgive Finn for this transgression. I was still silent when half an hour later Mr and Mrs Bradbury solemnly appeared on our doorstep.
My mother took me aside. ‘Sweetie, you’ve got to tell us where this Mr O’Malley is. He could be dangerous.’
‘Mommy, you can’t! If you find him you’ll never let me see him again!’
‘Cal, if you and Finn don’t take us to where you found Mr O’Malley, I shall ground you for a whole week. And no television either.’
In my six-year-old mind, a week was an extraordinary amount of time. I begrudgingly agreed to show my parents the hedge. That was the first time I prayed, in all seriousness. I thought ‘If there is a God, please let O’Malley be out foraging. Or asleep under the blankets. Or…just anything to stop Mom and Dad finding him.’
A few minutes after my frantic praying, I realized there was no God. The hedge was there, with signs of light within it. After we pointed it out, Finn and I were led back to the Bradbury house for pie and ice-cream. I didn’t seen what happened outside. All I knew was that the next day Mr O’Malley wasn’t there. The blankets weren’t in the hedge, and Mrs Bradbury’s jewelry box was back on her dresser. It was an odd time. I refused to talk to Finn, regarding it as his entire fault, and he passively accepted the idea. That made him even more infuriating. About a week later, he and I were brought into the Bradbury living room to have the situation finally explained to us. Mrs Bradbury spoke first.
‘Now, I know the past few weeks must have been very scary for you two, but it’s over now. Mr O’Malley can’t hurt you any more.’
‘He didn’t hurt us, he was kind!’ I cried.
‘It’s true, Mom.’ Said Finn. ‘He never laid a finger on us. He just taught us interesting things. And he gave me his watch.’ Finn pulled out a battered old pocket watch on a chain. ‘He said he was planning giving it to his eldest son, but since his wife left him…’
My head whipped around. ‘Hey, you never told me he gave you a watch! Why didn’t he give me one? I was his best student and everything. You never asked any interesting questions!’
‘It’s because you’re rude, stupid. You can’t give a pocket watch to someone who interrupts all the time; you can’t be trusted. You’d just break ‘em, anyway.’
I was about to show Finn just how much I could break him when Mr Bradbury coughed.
‘Now, you two, listen here. Regardless of whether he gave you a watch or not, Mr O’Malley was not a good man. He was addicted to something called heroin. This means he gave himself shots of bad things that could kill him. Did you ever see him do this?’
Finn and I shook our heads no. We both knew that this time it was better to lie.
‘Anyway’ continued Mr Bradbury, ‘When we went into his hedge last week, we found that Mr O’Malley had taken too much of his bad medicine. Finn, Cal – the reason Mr O’Malley can’t hurt you any more is that he died. You know what that means, right?’
We nodded. Finn spoke. ‘It means that your body is tired and you can’t carry on. You go to heaven. Mr O’Malley will be in heaven, right?’
Mr and Mrs Bradbury looked uncomfortably at one another. It was like they had bad news, but couldn’t bring themselves to share it. The silence lasted a couple more seconds, then Finn and I were sent out to play again. Our territory had been cut from two blocks to one, so the general store was out of bounds. We sat on the pavement, looking glumly at our sneakers. The occasional car rolled by, and Finn and I took turns kicking stones into the drain.
‘You think it was our fault Mr O’Malley died, Finn?’ I asked quietly.
‘No’ he said solemnly. ‘He was a sad man. Mom says that sometimes when people get sad they just die. Broken heart. But we’ll remember him forever, right?’
‘Right’ I agreed.
And that was my first encounter with the darkness of the adult world.