Jacob Fallada heard the boys long before he saw them. Their shrill, panicky voices carried all the way down the deserted dirt-track leading to the dilapidated caravan he called home. Jacob was unused to such interruptions. His was a very solitary existence. He rarely interacted with other people. The nearest dwelling was several miles away. If Jacob required any provisions, he had to hike across fields and through woodland to a remote village shop. At this time of year, the entrance to the dirt-track was overgrown, concealed from the road, the surface itself boggy and rutted with potholes, almost impassable. How the boys had stumbled upon it, let alone made it all the way down to the bottom end, was baffling, an impossibility almost. For this reason, Jacob abandoned his artistic work, pulled on a thick winter coat, and went outside to investigate.
Since early morning, patchy mist had been rolling in off the sea, enveloping the surrounding countryside in a wispy, shifting curtain of gloom. Through this curtain appeared three sturdy-looking young boys. They wore waterproof clothing, scarves, bobble-hats and wellington-boots.
“Look,” said one, pointing at Jacob. “A man. He’s sure to be able to help.”
“What’s the matter? What’s happened? How come you’re out here, in the middle of nowhere, all on your own?”
“We were with our fathers,” said the same boy as before, “on a daytrip to the seaside, a nature walk. They went down to the shoreline to see if it was safe for us to walk along the beach. They told us to wait near the shelter by the slip-way. But they never came back.”
Jacob listened to all of this with a mounting sense of unease, scrutinizing each boy in turn, studying them at closer quarters, for they were the mirror-image of the three boys who had tormented him at school, who had teased, beat and humiliated him in front of the other children.
“What are your names?” he felt compelled to ask.
“That’s Shane. That’s Will. And I’m Zac.”
Jacob shuddered. Shane, Will and Zac had been the names of his tormentors. Not only did the boys now standing in front of him bear an uncanny resemblance to the bullies of yesteryear, but they had the exact same names.
“We’re scared,” said Shane, the slightly bigger, bulkier of the three children. “We want to find our dads. We want to go home.”
“I—I understand,” said Jacob, mastering his emotions, telling himself that this was no more than a bizarre coincidence, that his memory was playing tricks on him, that the boys didn’t resemble the Shane, Will, and Zac of the past as closely as he had originally thought. “So you were told to wait by the shelter near the slip-way leading down to the beach, right? Only your fathers didn’t return. You went out to search for them and couldn’t find your way back again?”
Each boy nodded earnestly.
“Okay. Perhaps it would be best if we retraced your steps, then. I’m sure your fathers lost their way in the mist. I’m sure we’ll find them without too much trouble.”
But Jacob knew how treacherous that stretch of coastline could be in these conditions. In the past, he had heard stories of ramblers or birdwatchers going missing when venturing along the shore, never to be seen again.
They walked along the dirt-track, ducking to avoid overhanging bramble bushes, squelching through thick mud, stepping over rutted potholes full of dull, brownish water. Every twenty or so paces, Jacob would steal a glance at one of the boys. Each time, a painful memory rose to the forefront of his mind. He remembered the day Zac pinned him down and made him eat pieces of mouldy orange peel from the floor. He remembered the time Will had accosted him in the sports hall changing-rooms, stripping him naked and pushing him out into the corridor, so all the other children saw him naked. Or the time Shane slashed his forearms with a protractor, slicing his skin, drawing blood time and again. But what haunted him most of all, as they turned and made their way down towards the main coast road, were memories of those horrible bullies laughing at him, how much pleasure they derived from inflicting the utmost pain.
“Did you come this way?” Jacob asked them.
“I don’t think so,” said Will. “I’m sure we came over a railway bridge.”
“I see.” This baffled Jacob all the more. The nearest railway bridge was several miles away. If they had come from that direction, then they must have been walking for hours before they stumbled upon his caravan. “Right, we better cross over.”
They crossed the main road, and walked down a narrow, winding lane that led all the way up to the cliff tops.
“Right,” said Jacob, bringing them to a halt. “The lane up ahead is always flooded. To get past, we’ll have to walk along the grass bank. You must be very careful, though. The ground is saturated, treacherous, very slippery. If you don’t display sufficient caution you could fall into the boggy pit in the field to your left. So perhaps it would be best if I walked behind you.”
“But what if the boy at the front lost his footing and fell?” asked Will. “You’d be too far away to help.”
“You’re right,” said Jacob. “Maybe I should be in the middle, then.”
“But there are four of us,” said Shane. “How can you be in the middle? Four, after all, is an even number.”
“Of course it is,” said Jacob. “What I meant to say is: One of you will lead the way. I will follow directly behind. The other two boys will bring up the rear, as it were.”
“But why not have two at the front and one behind?” said Zac. “Surely that would make more sense. We’re walking forwards not backwards. If we get into any difficulties it would be much easier to help a boy in front of you rather than behind, wouldn’t it?”
“Okay, okay,” said Jacob, losing patience at this point. “We can’t stand here all day arguing. Zac, you go first. Will, you next. I will be directly behind you. Shane will be directly behind me.”
This decided, they clambered up onto the bank and proceeded to edge very slowly, very carefully along the soft muddy grass. Halfway down, despite the caution displayed, Zac slipped over onto his backside, arms flailing.
“Ah!” he cried out.
Jacob lunged forward and grabbed hold of his wrist, stopping him from sliding off the bank. Startled, Shane lost his footing completely, and went tumbling from the verge, crashing through the adjoining bushes, plopping into the bog below.
“Help!” he shouted, splashing around in the thick quagmire. “Help!”
Jacob scrambled along the bank on all fours. “Shane! Shane!” But there was no response.
“Where is he?” asked Will. “Where’s he gone?”
Jacob called out time and again. But still there was no answer. Crouching closer, he stretched out a hand, searching for the boy’s body, but all he encountered was the boggy ground, the clingy, cloying feel of cold, sticky mud.
“I’m going to have to wade in.” He lowered his legs into the quagmire, inching deeper into the mud, trying to find the bottom. “It’s very deep. But I might just be able to get some kind of foothold.”
The mist was much thicker now; he could barely see a hand in front of him as he waded through mud up to his waist, doing a complete sweep of the surrounding area. But it was all in vainShane was nowhere to be seen.
After ten minutes of fruitless searching, Jacob hauled himself up out of the bog. “I—I can’t find him,” he said, struggling to keep the tears from his voice. “He must’ve got dragged under, he must’ve—”
“How could this have happened?” said Zac.
“It was an accident,” Jacob replied, struck by the boy’s harsh, accusatory tone.
“But you’re an adult,” he went angrily on. “By offering to help us find our fathers, you took responsibility for our welfare. If one of us gets hurt or lost or whatever, then it’s down to you to put it right. You’ve got to try again. You’ve got to wade through the mud until you find him.”
“Impossible,” said Jacob. “The mud is too thick. If I risked another foray into the swamp, I may well be dragged under, too.”
“Then you must hand yourself into the police.”
“The police? Why?”
“Because you’ve failed in your duty of care towards us.”
“It’s not my fault,” Jacob argued. “I took you aside, back there, not fifteen minutes ago, and warned you of the dangers. I told you to watch your footing. I told you how slippery the grass would be.”
“What are we going to do?” cried Will. “What are we going to do?”
“Calm down,” said Jacob. “Look. We’ve made it this far. If we use the cliff tops to guide us down to towards the beach, we might just be able to get to the shelter. We might just be able to find your fathers. Agreed?”
The boys reluctantly nodded their heads.
“Come on. Follow me.”
On higher ground the wind was much stronger, the mist thicker still. To be extra safe, Jacob insisted that they hold hands as they walked along the undulating terrain, keeping to the grassy knolls, being careful to avoid the very edge of the cliffs.
“How much further?” asked Zac, coming to a stop, letting go of Jacob and Will’s hands.
Jacob surveyed the blank, blustery scene. “Not far now,” he replied. “If my calculations are correct, the shelter should be just down this incline. There’s a car park of sorts, a concreted area. Once we reach there, the shelter is only a stone’s throw away.”
“What’s that?” asked Will.
Both Jacob and Zac swung round. Will had wandered over to the edge of the cliff, and was now pointing at something which had caught his attention.
“No!” shouted Jacob, darting out a hand to drag him away from danger. But he missed completely. Will tottered, swayed, and toppled into the misty abyss. “Will!” Jacob scrambled down on his knees, close to the ledge, staring into nothing more than a blank void.
“No!” he repeated despairingly. He couldn’t believe what was happening. An hour ago, he had been absorbed in his artistic work, thinking of nothing more than expressing himself to the full. Now two young boys had lost their lives within a quarter of an hour of each other. He sniffed and rubbed his eyes. He looked at the exact spot where Will had fallen. All that was left, caught in the tangled coastal scrub, was one of his wellington-boots.
Zac started to cry.
“Don’t, please,” said Jacob, getting to his feet. “He—He shouldn’t have wandered off like that. He knew we were walking close to the edge of the cliffs. He knew it was dangerous. I only let go of his hand for a second—a second. If anything, it was you who stopped. I—”
“I want to go home,” Zac sobbed. “I want my dad.”
“Yes, yes, of course you do.” He took the boy’s hand.
“The shelter is just down here. Come on.”
They set off once again. The waves crashing on the shore below frothed and fizzed, the stiff blustery wind buffeted them all way down to the car parking area, where the mist started to thin. Up ahead, Jacob could just about see the outline of a wooden structure.
“Look,” he said, pointing. “There’s the shelter.”
They raced over but found it empty. Jacob walked from front to back. Nothing. No sign of anyone at all.
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone here,” he said, slumping down on the bench inside. “What do you want me to do? Walk down the slip-way, walk along the beach, call out, see if I can find your father?”
But Zac just stood there, directly in front of Jacob, head lowered, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.
“Zac? I said: What do you want me to do?”
In time, he lifted his head. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t see what happened to Shane—not really. I’d slipped over. I was scared, busy trying to hold onto the bank, to stop myself from falling. But with Will, I saw you push him off the cliff.”
“What? No!” cried Jacob. “What are you saying? I rushed over to help. I didn’t get there in time. It was a complete accident. I—”
“Two accidents in such a short space of time,” said Zac, very calmly now. “I don’t believe you. I think you only led us down such a treacherous route so you could kill us.”
“Kill you! Why would I want to kill you? I was hard at work when you came shouting and screaming down the track. As I rule I never leave a piece of artistic work unfinished. All I’ve tried to do is help.”
“Some help! Just you wait. When our fathers return, they’re sure to want answers. I’ll tell them that I saw you push Will over the cliff top. I’ll tell them everything: How Shane suddenly disappeared like that, that one minute he was calling out for help, the next, you’d leapt off the bank, that in all likelihood, you drowned him in that muddy bog.”
“Wait just a minute!”
As Jacob stood up, Zac charged forward, beating him about the head and chest with his balled fists, forcing him back down to the bench. Unprepared for such a vicious and determined assault, Jacob took a few significant blows to the face, making his eyes flood with water. Blindly, he raised his hands, trying to defend himself. They grappled, struggled, fell wrestling to the ground, breathless, rolling from side to side. Gradually, Jacob’s superior strength overwhelmed the boy. He clambered on top of him and put his hands around his throat. As Zac gasped and gurgled and kicked out his legs, Jacob squeezed as hard as he could, until the thrashing desperate movements subsided, until the boy’s body went limp.
Slowly Jacob came to his senses, finding himself staring into Zac’s lifeless eyes. He had killed him outright. He had strangled him with his bare hands.
Approaching voices roused him back into the here and now. Thinking fast, he picked up the boy’s crumpled body, carried it around to the back of the shelter and dumped it in a drainage ditch, pushing the corpse down below the surface with the toe of his boot, until it was completely submerged.
When he returned, three well-built men in waterproof clothing were standing in the shelter, stamping their feet and rubbing their hands together, trying to warm themselves up.
“Look.” One of them pointed at Jacob. “A chap’s just appeared out of nowhere, a local chap, no doubt, he’s sure to be able to help.”
“What’s happened?” said Jacob, struggling to mask his distress. “How come you’re out here, in the middle of nowhere, all on your own?”
“We could ask you the same question,” said the bigger, bulkier of the three men. “It’s not a day to be out for a stroll, is it? What are you doing here?”
“Me? I’m—I’m an artist. I was just out walking, trying to absorb myself in the scenery, trying to get some, erm…inspiration from nature.”
“An artist, you say?”
Jacob nodded his head. “What about you?”
“We’re on a daytrip with our sons, a nature walk. We didn’t realize the weather was going to be this bad. We wanted to check that it was safe to walk along the beach. We asked the boys to stay here. But we got lost. When we returned, they were gone. Have you seen them, three-nine-year-olds wrapped up in hats and scarves?”
Jacob listened to all of this with a mounting sense of unease, scrutinizing each man in turn, studying their familiar features at closer quarters. For these men were grownup versions of the three boys who had tormented him at school.
“No,” he lied with surprising conviction. “I haven’t seen anyone.”
“Shit,” said Will senior. “Where the hell could they have got to?”
“You are a local man, though, aren’t you?” Zac senior asked Jacob, stepping forward of his companions. “Could you help us search for our boys?”
“Erm, yes, I am local, and I’d be more than happy to help.”
Taking it in turns, the three men asked Jacob various questions about the likely route the three boys would have taken, and how far they could have ventured. Even though he was still reeling inside, Jacob offered useful pointers and advice; he managed to master not only his fear, but a growing sense of irritation, because these men clearly didn’t recognize him from their school days. After all they had put him through, the tears, humiliation, the sleepless nights he endured, still he was a complete nobody to them.
“So you think it’s best if we walk along the cliff tops, then?” asked Shane senior.
“Yes,” he replied, honestly—as much as he didn’t want to retrace his steps, there literally was no other way up to the main road.
“Okay,” said Will senior. “We’ll let you lead the way.”
As they set off, Zac senior made a grab for Jacob’s elbow.
“Wait. What’s that in your pocket?”
Jacob reached inside his pocket, pulling out a length of woollen material. He looked at his right hand as if it was somebody else’s. Scrunched up in his palm was Zac’s scarf.
“Oh this, I, erm…found it on the cliff tops, just up there.”
He let the scarf fall to the ground.
Zac senior swooped down and picked it up. In that one moment, crouched, with the back of his head exposed, completely unknowing and defenseless, Jacob felt a dark impulse to strike him, to punish him for all the bad things he had done in the past.
“Well, if he lost his scarf up there,” said Zac senior, staring at the cliff tops, oblivious, “they no doubt headed up towards the main coast road.”
“Must’ve done,” said Will senior. He turned to Jacob. “Come on. Show us the way.”
“Erm, yes, of course.” He darted a nervous look over his shoulder, in the direction of the ditch behind the shelter, but none of the other men seemed to notice. “Follow me.”
As they picked their way along the sloping, uneven ground, struggling through long rustling grass, Will senior let out a cry and dashed over to the edge of the cliff. “Look,” he shouted over his shoulder. “There’s a wellington-boot here, on the ledge.”
Inwardly, Jacob cursed himself. As best he could, he had tried to lead them away from the spot where Will Junior had fallen to his death.
“You don’t think they’ve fallen over the edge, do you?” Will Senior turned and asked Jacob.
“No, no,” he replied, feeling a mad compulsion to push this man over the cliff, to send him tumbling to his death, to kill him, to right many past wrongs.
“I don’t like it,” said Will senior, turning and addressing his two friends. “But it’s not like we can go and investigate now, is it? We’d never get down there; the tide’s all the way in. We’ve no other option than to get up to the main road, maybe hail down a passing car or lorry.”
“That may present us with a few problems,” said Jacob. “The track leading down from the main road is flooded. And even if we manage to circumnavigate it, traffic rarely passes through these parts on days like this.”
“Never mind,” said Shane Senior. “We’ll just have to climb up onto the bank and walk around the standing water. The boys have been gone for hours now. We’ve got to at least give it a try.”
When they got to the lane, they clambered up onto the grass bank, and slowly trudged through the soft, saturated grass. About halfway along, Shane Senior spotted something caught in one of the bare tangled bushes.
“Hey,” he said, pivoting to the side, arms outstretched, almost losing his balance. “It’s Shane’s bobble-hat. I’m sure of it.” He went down on one knee, leaned forward, and tugged the hat from the bush, freeing it up.
As he examined it in his hands, Jacob stood directly behind him. Vividly, he recalled the extremities of the swamp-like bog, the time he spent frantically searching for this man’s son, how, on more than one occasion, he nearly got pulled under by the overwhelming weight of all that mud. He knew how difficult it would be for anyone not expecting to fall in to haul themselves out again, that, with one firm push, he could condemn Shane Senior to a horrible death, the kind of death a bastard like him deserved.
“This is bad,” said Zac senior, sidling up alongside them.
“Look at the thick pools of mud in the field there. If one of our boys slipped and fell, I don’t think they’d stand a chance of dragging themselves out again.”
“Granted,” said Will senior. “But we’ve got to remain positive. Just because we’ve found a few items of clothing, doesn’t necessarily prove that something terrible has happened. I mean, what are the chances of all of them meeting a bad end, within a few hundred yards of each other?”
“Exactly,” said Shane senior. “And boys their age are always losing stuff, aren’t they?” He turned to Jacob. “Do you live close by? Have you got a phone?”
“Yes. I live five or so minutes away in, erm…temporary accommodation, a caravan just up the road, the only dwelling for miles around. But I’m afraid I haven’t got a telephone or any internet access or anything like that. By choice, I might add. My artistic work is very important to me. I abhor interruptions of any kind.”
“Never mind all that.” Shane senior took a mobile phone from his jacket pocket.
“Damn! Still can’t get a signal. Maybe, on higher ground, maybe back at this chap’s humble abode, we might be able to contact the emergency services. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” his two friends said at one and the same time.
“Besides, we need to warm up. I take if you’ve got electricity? A kettle? I take it you can make us a cup of tea?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. And, like you say, maybe you can get a phone signal a little further inland. And, who knows, maybe your boys have stumbled upon my homestead, maybe they’re there now.”
They made their way up the winding lane, crossed the main road, and walked in the direction of Jacob’s caravan. Every twenty or so paces, he would steal a glance at one of the men. Each time, he remembered the critical moments that had just passed, when he had the chance to strike out at them. He remembered the back of Zac’s head, so inviting. He remembered Will kneeling close to the edge of the cliff, and Shane leaning over that quagmire of mud. If only he had been brave enough to grasp the opportunity, he might have been able to exorcize some painful demons, once and for all.
“Is that it?” said Zac, pointing at the rundown, mildewed caravan with boarded-up windows. “You actually live in a piece of shit like that?”
“Erm, yes,” Jacob replied, wincing at Zac’s mocking tones, reminiscent of all the times their younger incarnations had terrorized him. “I know it’s not much, but it serves my artistic needs well.”
Both Shane and Will were busy checking their mobile phones.
“Any joy?” asked Zac.
Will lifted his head. “No, nothing. It’s like being in a third world country out here.”
“Me neither.” Shane clicked his phone shut. “But I could certainly do with a hot drink.”
He turned to Jacob. “Put the kettle on, will you?”
“Of course, of course,” he gabbled in reply. “Please, come inside, take off your coats, try and dry off.”
Once inside, Jacob rushed over to the far end of the caravan and drew a thin curtain across his desk, the quiet nook where he worked so intently each day.
“I’d, erm…rather not show you any of my artistic work,” he said, in all seriousness. He hated the idea of being ridiculed by these three men, these enemies, his former tormentors.
“As you wish,” said Zac, stepping to the side, making room for his two friends.
“Please, sit down, over there.” Jacob pointed to a tatty banquette with torn upholstery. “There’s not much space, I’m afraid. But at least it’s warm and dry, eh?”
He then went over to the sink and filled the kettle from a wonky, rusted faucet.
“Is tea okay for you?” he asked, flicking the switch.
“Fine, fine,” said Will. “But do you really think the boys could find their way here? Not to question your judgment, but the dirt-track is almost completely obscured from the road.
The surface itself is boggy and potted with holes. I have grave doubts as to whether boys their age would be able to get all the way down to the bottom end.”
“Agreed,” said Zac. “And the fact we can’t pick up a signal here means this whole excursion has been a terrible waste of time. Our boys are out there somewhere, freezing-cold, scared.”
“You’re right,” said Shane. “We shouldn’t have come here. We should’ve kept searching. We should’ve waited at the side of the road for a passing vehicle, someone who could’ve gone to the local police station, who could’ve informed the coastguard.”
Cringing inside, Jacob listened to them shout and curse. To be in such close proximity to these men again, to see hands which had once clasped his throat, fists which had once pummeled his face, feet which had once kicked out and stamped on his body, appalled him.
“How far is the nearest town from here?” Shane got to his feet and walked across the creaky-floored caravan. “How far is…?” he trailed off. “Hang on.” He picked an old letter up off the kitchen table and studied it closely. “Is your name Jacob Fallada?”
Jacob lowered his eyes and swallowed hard.
“What?” said Zac, standing also, “—the Jacob Fallada, our Jacob Fallada, the little pipsqueak from school, the smelly bastard, the freak who was always pissing in his pants?”
“Ha!” Will shot to his feet and clapped his hands together. “I thought there was something familiar about you.”
All three edged into the kitchen area, rounding on Jacob in the exact same way they had rounded on him at school.
“Well, Jacob,” said Shane, making a wide sweeping gesture, taking in the whole caravan, “you’ve certainly done well for yourself. Ha! Look at this luxury palace. Then again, you always were the most likely to succeed, weren’t you?”
The other two snorted with laughter.
“So this is what you’ve been doing with yourself all these years? Christ! Will you take a look at this place, boys? Fallada is like a rat in his own personal sewer.”
Jacob just stood there with his head lowered, concentrating on the low rumble of the kettle, willing it to boil, willing them to leave him alone, to finally be out of his head.
“Remember that time you ate all that mouldy orange peel?” asked Zac, winking at the others. “Always been a man of refined tastes.”
“Or that time you exposed yourself outside the sports hall changing-rooms,” said Will. “Always were a filthy little pervert, weren’t you, Fallada, eh?”
“Or when he cut himself with that protractor,” said Shane. “Bloody attention seeker. Can’t say it surprises me: Shit living in shit.”
“You were such a pathetic specimen,” said Zac. “And what? You call yourself an artist now, do you? Bloody vagrant, more like. Where’s this artistic work, anyway? Over there, behind the curtain, in the corner? Best I have a little look; best I run a critical eye over it, eh?”
“No, no,” said Jacob, stepping in front of him. “Really, I must insist. I—”
“What?” shouted Zac. “Are you going to try and stop me?” He jabbed a finger into Jacob’s chest. “Are you going to raise your hands to me?”
Jacob took a few short, sharp breaths. “I’m – I’m glad I hurt them,” he blurted out. “I’m glad they’re dead. I’m glad they won’t have the chance to grow up to be evil bastards like you.”
“What?” cried Shane, pushing past Zac. “What are you talking about? Our boys? I swear, Fallada, if you’ve laid one finger on them I’ll kill—” Shrill, panicky voices sounded from outside.
“What’s that?” said Zac, swinging round.
“That must be them,” said Will. “Old piss pants Fallada was right, after all. They found their way here.”
In complete disbelief, Jacob pushed his way past the others, threw open the door, and rushed out of the caravan. Through another thick curtain of mist appeared the three little boys.
“Look,” said Zac Junior, pointing at Jacob. “There he is.”
Jacob stepped forward, open-armed, relieved that his ordeal was over, that all the murderous nastiness of before had been nothing but a crazy delusion, that he hadn’t hurt the boys in any way.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Your fathers are in the caravan. They’re having a nice cup of tea. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Our fathers?” said Shane, pulling a shiny protractor out of his jacket pocket. “We haven’t come here to find our fathers, Fallada. We’ve come here for you.”
Neil Randall is a novelist and short story writer. His debut novel A Quiet Place to Die (Wild Wolf Publishing) was voted e-thriller Book of the Month for February 2014. His historical novels, The Holy Drinker and The Butterfly and the Wheel (both Knox Robinson Publishing) have been widely praised. His latest thriller, The Girl in the Empty Room (Crooked Cat Publishing) was released in September of last year. His debut short story collection Tales of Ordinary Sadness (Knox Robinson Publishing) has received much critical acclaim: Darkness Reigns at the Foot of the Lighthouse was short-listed for the prestigious Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2009, and Hands long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015.