What secrets lie underneath the tree?

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The question is whether to go straight to the police, or let sleeping dogs lie.

The only dog in this story is anything but asleep. Marcus watches my every move, ready to spring up at the slightest sign I might put down my pen, and fetch his lead from the peg in the hall. But no, Marcus, I’m afraid we’re not going anywhere until I’ve decided what to do.

Marcus is generally quite obedient – except when he’s busy digging.

I should have remembered that when I decided to take him exploring the new building site.

If only I’d kept him on the lead this would never have happened.

It seems an eternity ago, but it can’t be more than two hours since Marcus was digging away happily at a patch of uneven ground in the one surviving corner of the old orchard.

I was leaning on a half-built fence, enjoying the sunshine and the scent of a honeysuckle that had somehow avoided the bulldozers, when I felt the first large spots of rain. Overhead thunder clouds were gathering ominously.

“Come on, Marcus, let’s get home before we’re both soaked.”

Marcus put his head down and dug with renewed vigour. He seemed to have unearthed something he was reluctant to abandon. Probably an old bone. All round him fountains of rich black soil rose and fell. The afternoon was growing darker by the minute.

“Well if you’re not going to come, I’ll go without you!”

I shouted as if he was a naughty child, then made for the gate without looking back. I’d hardly unlatched it when he streaked past me, more like a greyhound than a Jack Russell, straight into the road – and under the wheels of a car. I thought that was the end of Marcus, but no. Somehow he’d managed to miss the wheels and emerge unhurt, shivering with fright, at the far side. The only evidence of his narrow escape was a fresh scratch on top of his head. The shortness of his legs had saved him.

As I comforted Marcus, and crouched down to attach his lead, I saw he was still holding something in his mouth. A bundle of filthy rags!

“Drop it, Marcus, drop it at once.”

It was only then that I recognised the pattern on the torn stained fragments of material. Ten years ago it had been a beautiful silk doll’s dress, with blue and white stripes, and rosebuds round the hem. I’d last seen it the day we buried Vivian’s ‘Babby’.

It was the summer holidays, and we’d only just moved to Thorn Leigh. With the expansion of Peterborough, the village had become a desirable place to live – near enough to commute to the city, but far enough away to retain its rural peace and charm. There wasn’t even a supermarket or a takeaway.

The village was divided between ‘locals’ who lived in the stone cottages along the main road, and ‘incomers’, like us, who’d bought new semis on the first sprawling estate. We planted neat flower beds and pretty hedges of ornamental shrubs. They had greenhouses, cold frames and row upon row of flourishing vegetables, and regarded our lawns and pretty hedges as a waste of good agricultural land. Both parties in this undeclared war kept themselves to themselves.

But I was only eight, and I didn’t know that yet. So I was delighted when Vivian Beech arrived in our garden uninvited and challenged me.

“Youse playin’ or wot?”

Vivian was unlike any child I’d ever met. She seemed practically grown-up, much bigger than me, and she always wore the same pair of men’s dungarees, an enormous sweater, and welly boots. She said she’d left school and was going to work on a farm. She could carry me on her shoulders, and swing me round and round ’til I was dizzy. Vivian didn’t seem to have anyone to play with, and neither did I, so we spent that long summer together.

Although Vivian wore strange clothes and couldn’t read, it was always fun when she was around. Until the day she took me to the apple orchard behind our estate. As she helped me climb higher into the trees than I could ever have managed alone, she muttered in a hoarse whisper

“This ‘ere looks like a good spot for a burying.”

I didn’t know what she meant, but next day when Vivian called for me, she was pushing what she called her ‘babby pram’. It was more a basket nailed on to a plank of rough wood than a doll’s pram, and the mismatched wheels made it difficult to push. Peeping inside I caught a glimpse of a baby doll with skin as pale as porcelain, long gingery lashes, and a mass of frizzy red curls.

When we reached the seclusion of the old orchard, Vivian sat on a tree stump and rocked the ‘babby’, while I had to dig a hole with a piece of broken bark. It was hard work, and I didn’t really believe that we were going to leave the beautiful doll in such unwelcoming ground, but Vivian laid her to rest in her blue and white dress on a bed of apple leaves. Then we sang “’way in a manger”, while Vivian sprinkled the peaty soil over her ‘babby’.

“Youse never to tell nobody. Lick ya finger and ‘ope to die.”

“Lick my finger and hope to die,” I promised.

The holidays over, I started my new school, made new friends and soon forgot Vivian and the ‘babby’. But today, as the rain clouds blew over as quickly as they’d arrived, something drew me back to the ‘burying spot’. With Marcus securely tied to the gate, I soon discovered why he’d been so intent on his digging. There was no trace of any porcelain doll, just a few small whitened bones, and a tiny skull with wisps of gingery hair still attached.

Vivian died young, and there seems little point in raking up her past. Marcus is snoring now, stretched out at my feet, and I wouldn’t want to disturb his rest. So I’ll just sit here a bit longer, before I decide whether to go to the police, or let sleeping dogs lie.