There was a quaint red-brick shop on the edge of our village. It stood as a representation of our community, a hub for the town to socialise, to buy our food and conveniences. Mrs Carter, a plump, round woman with rosy cheeks, greeted patrons of the business, she didn’t judge, it wasn’t her job to. When I was a child, she’d sneak me a chocolate bar when I’d pay for our family’s groceries.
“Don’t tell your mother,” she’d say, and I never did.
It was to buy a favour, I knew this in time, but I always took it with a smile, a smile that was always reciprocated. I didn’t eat them on the way home, I couldn’t allow mother to know. When I arrived home, mother would count the change in my hand, then ask me to breathe out. She’d lean in and smell my breath. It was as if she knew of the clandestine deal I’d made.
“Are you hiding something?” she’d ask.
I’d shake my head.
“You know chocolate is bad for you?” she’d state, “You shouldn’t take something that’s not yours.”
I’d nod. I’d feel my face flush. She’d sigh, knowing I was lying, knowing what Mrs Carter was like, though she never took it further. I’d hide the chocolate bars in a toybox under my bed.
The townsfolk were always suspicious of outsiders. They’d try not to, but it was too easy, they drank in their features, their attire, their gait; they wanted to judge them, but only the innocent may judge.
Travellers were looked upon somewhat kindly, people who arrived with rucksacks and tattered hiking shoes. They’d visit the shop to stock up before moving on. Some were brave enough to ask if they could camp in one of the large fallow fields that encircled the village, and if the town so wished, they did. Rarely was anyone afforded such luxury, and usually only after others had been expelled.
In the evening the adults would gather at the one pub, the Red Lion, that stood at the crossroads in the centre of the village. Children were not allowed to attend. Instead we were corralled into the village hall where the elders would take care of us as the adults talked. If an outsider decided to stop at the pub for a quick pint, the burning stares of everyone inside, communicating they were not welcome, would send them scampering. The occasional visitor would ignore this warning sign and bravely order a drink, this would not be turned down. A certain level of respect was gained. It wouldn’t help them in the end, an unspoken agreement had been broken. They’d be welcomed in and would always accept the invitation to get drunk, they thought they were accepted, why wouldn’t they.
I’d know when someone was in the village that didn’t belong, wasn’t accepted. It was as if the clouds grew pregnant with dread. It was said grey clouds before rain foretold the coming of misery, that lack of sun would spoil the crops. People were restless as the earthy smell permeated the air. They’d hunt like predators, communicating with each other through wordless glances and nods. They knew though, if an unwelcome visitor was present, where they were. From inside my dark townhouse I’d watch the weather. When the clouds gathered and the sun was obscured, a sense of dread would grow. I’d wince when the three slow knocks rapped on the door. Mother would know it was for me. Mrs Carter’s son Tom would be waiting.
“Can Steve come out to play?” he’d ask.
Mother would always respond, “He can, my dear,” and a tear would roll down her cheek.
We’d walk in silence down the road that sloped gradually towards our destination. I’d wait while Tom would stop at all the other houses that held children, and slowly but surely, an ever-increasing line of resigned and frightened kids would follow until we arrived at the quaint red-brick shop.
Mrs Carter, her cheeks still beaming happiness would welcome us in, though the shop was no longer open. We’d orderly file past the shelves of sweets and crisps and biscuits, though no child averted their eyes. We’d descend the stairs into the basement. We’d know when it was time when the bell of the shop would toll.
A man, it was always a man, would sit confused on a chair, his hands bound behind his back, his mouth shut tight with duct tape. We’d hear the slow and purposeful footsteps of Mrs Carter as she descended the stairs behind us. The man would try and speak, though we could only ever hear his muffled cries. His eyes were always blue, his hair always jet black.
“You are here in the presence of innocent children,” she’d start, as she always did, “only the innocent can judge.”
One after another we approached the man. Some would pinch, others would prod. I always held my hand to their face, to feel that it was real and not some illusion to trick us. Invariably my hand would slip away drenched in the man’s sweat. We children would line back up and wait for our orders.
“Is this man right to be judged?” Mrs Carter would ask.
Anxiety would spread through us children until one would be brave enough to nod. Soon after everyone followed suit.
“Thank you,” Mrs Carter would say, and one by one we’d climb the stairs and leave the shop.
If the sun was beaming, we’d feel happy, as we were told our judgement was right. It didn’t matter though; the judgement had taken place.
Tom would see us back to our houses. I’d run to mother, who’d reluctantly accept my embrace.
“You are a good child,” she’d say, she never used the word innocent, because we weren’t.
The pyre that burnt from the top of the hill behind our house lit up my bedroom with flickering amber. I kept my window shut on such days; I didn’t want to smell the burning meat. The whole town would be involved in the festival of feast that would follow. I only ate what I was required to, mother never forced me.
The innocence of childhood ended when I accepted that first chocolate bar. Today I am seventeen, I am no longer considered a child in my village. Before I accept my new role, I open up the toybox that has laid under my bed for so many years. It’s so full, not a single extra bar could fit in there. I wonder if anyone else kept theirs. I wish I ate mine now, as it only serves as a count of how many judgements I have partaken in.
I was asked if I wanted to see Mrs Carter’s body before her ascension. I declined. She was nothing but a source of anxiety to me. From the shop, I watched the clouds that hung grey and foreboding all day and rang up the groceries for Josh, he was buying food for the festival of feast, he was only six.
“It’s my first festival tomorrow,” he said delighted, I smiled.
“That’s £9.44,” I said, ignoring his excitement, that would soon disappear.
He handed me a ten-pound note. I gave him his change and a special chocolate bar from under the counter.
“Don’t tell your mother,” I said with an ease I was uncomfortable with.
I watched as he left, seeing the sky close in dark. The shop bell rang as a man walked in.
“I think I’m lost,” he said.
“You’re not the first,” I replied, feeling my heart race. His black hair and blue eyes were so familiar.
“I have a map down in the basement, I can help you find your way.”
“You’re a life saver,” he said relieved.
He was right, but not in the way he thought.