It was the summer of our sixteenth year, the air warm and heavy with the perfume of honeysuckle and the ever-present smell of the sea. Jim and Dan had been shipped off to the same school for the past two years, while I attended the same boarding school as my father and all the men in our family, a place of polished mahogany and swift, brutal punishments for any perceived wrongdoing.
The back of my legs still smarted from my most recent whipping -- for getting caught red-handed with a cigarette in the boys’ bathroom after curfew, and I couldn’t very well turn down a dare, but the headmaster, in my experience, was not an understanding man -- when I set off to find Jim and Dan and Jack that first day back at home.
Jack was the easiest to spot, leaning on the low stone wall along his mother’s garden, licking something sticky off his fingers and staring mournfully, as though disappointed not to have more of whatever he’d been eating. He’d always been a fan of sweets and it began to show around his middle somewhere around the time we turned thirteen; I imagined Jack looking someday like my father’s brother Algernon, with his portly belly that shook when he laughed, generally just after he’d precariously balanced a full plate of Christmas pudding right on top of it.
“Hullo,” I said by way of greeting, aiming a kick at Jack’s shoe where it stuck out into the lane. “Seen the others?”
He shook his head and pushed off the wall, jogging a bit to keep up as I set off down the lane toward Dan’s place. By the time we reached the end of the lane Jack was breathing hard, and when I made to turn the corner he reached out and caught my arm to stop me. “There.”
That was all he could manage until his breath came back to him, but he pointed toward a big tree in the center of the field that ran along the lane. I could just see the top of Jim’s head leaning against the trunk, but I knew already that Dan was there as well, sprawled on the ground with his nose in a book, no doubt.
I scrambled over the gate and didn’t look back to see if Jack had followed, picking my way through a sea of blue wildflowers until I reached the tree. We’d spent plenty of summers climbing this very tree as boys, pretending to be pirates sailing the seven seas or hunters in search of lions as we laid in wait for any cats that were dumb enough to wander past our hiding spot. It had been years since we’d given up those games -- at least two, I reckoned -- but sometimes we still found Jim and Dan under the tree, Dan reading some book or other and Jim just leaning against the tree and reaching out every so often to tug at Dan’s hair.
I’d seen him do it once, back when we were still fourteen and I’d gotten to the tree first. I’d shimmied up the trunk to search for lions, just in case we were still hunters when we weren’t at school, before Jim and Dan and even Jack declared us too old for ‘kids’ stuff’ (though I was fairly sure that Jack just didn’t want to climb the tree anymore.) I was halfway up the tree, just below the spot where the branches grew too narrow to support me, when Jim and Dan threw themselves down on the ground below the tree.
The sound of their voices drifted up to me, though I couldn’t make out the words. Then they went quiet and Jim leaned back against the tree while Dan opened whatever book he was reading. I was about to shout down to Dan that school was out, a joke so well worn it was more of a greeting between him and the rest of us than an insult these days. But something stopped me, and as I watched Jim reached over and tugged Dan’s hair. Instead of shouting or batting Jim’s hand away Dan tipped his head back, then he smiled at Jim for a full five seconds before he turned back to his book.
It was nothing, but I stayed quiet in the tree for a long time anyway, even after they finally went away.
Since that first time, I’d seen them do the same thing more than once, even sometimes when Jack and I were about, as though they’d forgotten we were there. And they were at school together, so it made sense that they were best mates, but sometimes when Jack and I found them already under the tree, it felt a bit like we were interrupting.
I stopped at the edge of the tree’s shade, squinting at Jim and Dan where they lounged in their usual spots, Dan’s head resting on the grass just next to Jim’s thigh and Jim’s fingers drumming the ground just above Dan’s shoulder. Glancing back over my shoulder, I could just make out Jack scurrying over a low spot in the stone wall and hurrying across the field. I turned back to Jim and Dan. They still hadn’t looked up.
“What d’you reckon?” I said, shy suddenly, though I’d known them both all my life. It was the first time we’d seen one another since Christmas, since the glorious snowball fight in Mrs. Prothero’s garden that ended in steaming hot chocolate around the kitchen fire and Jim and Dan sitting just a bit too close together on the bench nearest the sink.
Jim looked up then, nodding at me and then looking past me to watch Jack come jogging across the field. His fingers stopped their drumming long enough to reach out and tug Dan’s hair, and Dan’s face appeared from behind his book long enough to blink owlishly at us.
“Hullo,” he said, then he dove right back into his book.
“We could go and see if the ghost is still about,” I said, kicking at a stone until it rolled through the bright green grass to land inside the tree’s shadow. I edged toward it, tracing its path with my toe and inching a little closer to Jim and Dan in the process. “Or go into town and see if Glenys is about. Have you seen her since last summer?”
I cupped my hands in front of my chest to indicate what had happened to Glenys since the last time we all saw her -- or what I’d heard had happened, at any rate -- but none of them seemed up for investigating the mystery of sixteen-year-old girls and the way their frocks kept changing shape as they got older.
“I want to finish this book,” Dan said without looking up again.
“Dan’s reading,” Jim added, as though that was a perfectly good reason for him to stay right where he was. “Besides, Glenys looks like a horse.”
He looked down at Dan when he said it, fingers drumming the ground again, just by Dan’s chin this time. I scowled and looked to Jack, hoping for a single ally in my mission to get our summer on track, but he just shrugged and glanced longingly in the direction of our little village.
“I don’t want to walk all the way into town. What to come round my house? Mum’s made speckled bread for tea.”
“Fine,” I said, casting a withering glance at each of them, one by one. Jack was the only one looking back. “Stay here then and read your dumb old book. I’ll go myself, and I’m not coming back to tell you if it’s true.”
I kicked the stone once more for good measure, aiming it near Dan’s outstretched leg, but not near enough to bring Jim to his feet. Then I turned and walked away, not heeding Jack’s voice as he hurried after me, calling for me to wait. Instead I walked a little faster, and when I glanced back to see how far Jack had fallen behind, I saw Jim and Dan instead.
Jim’s fingers were still drumming out that same beat, and I watched as Dan reached up without looking away from his book and curled his own fingers around Jim’s. He held them there, just for a second, then he pulled his hand away to turn the page, but it was enough to make Jim stop drumming.
It was just Jim and Dan, best mates since forever, maybe even back when we were all meant to be best mates. I’d seen it coming years ago from the branches of the tree, but even then there was a crawling feeling in the base of my stomach when I looked at them and they thought I couldn’t see, a strange, unsettling feeling I didn’t understand but meant that we’d never be pirates on the high seas together again. I shook my head and slowed down a little, until I heard the labored breathing that meant Jack was catching up.
“Do you really think the ghost could still be about?” Jack asked when he was near enough for me to hear him. I looked over at him and shrugged, the sight of Jack’s red cheeks and wide, bright eyes making the memory of Dan and Jim fade a little.
“Could be,” I said. “Want to go find out?”
“All right. Then can we go round my house for tea?”
“If the ghost doesn’t get you first,” I answered, laughing and scurrying over the gate before Jack could catch me.