My three brothers and I grew up on the waterfront during the ‘baby boom’ years of the 1950s. Our childhood was formed by hours of roaming in unruly packs over the great country that was Alderside Road - miles of mudflats when the tide was out, endless railway tracks, and steep paths through forests full of tree forts, Tarzan swings and pit traps.
At the end of a day of adventure we’d settle into our bunk beds and pass the time sharing stories. There were many legendary tales but often those told by my older brothers were about the people who lived along our street. Crazy people, perverts, witches, and murders.
Crazy people like Crabby Appleton who thought he owned the mudflats and would shoot a load of buckshot at any kids he saw treasure hunting or clam digging on the mud.
“No no. Not buckshot. It’s rocksalt,” my oldest brother Ross might correct, always the authority.
“What? No! You have it wrong. He has a bb gun.” Scott, sibling number two, liked to have the last word. “I know because one of the bbs hit the mud right next to my big toe.”
Perverts like Mr. Ville who lived a few doors away from us. Ross often told how Mr. Ville ‘liked boys’ and was always inviting him and his friends to come in for long visits.
“He's creepy," Ross would continue. “And one time we were out in the little sail boat and he was waving to us from his deck and he was stark naked.”
I wasn’t sure what all this meant, but I did remember that on Hallowe’en while trick-or-treating Mr.Ville insisted we come into his house and sing for our candy. I offered that up to the night’s storytelling and my brothers looked at each other knowingly.
Witches like the one that lived next door to the Cookie Lady. We absolutely had to pass her low house to get to a plate of fresh made cookies, and pass it again to get home. We were certain we could see her staring out at us from behind the stiff lace curtains in her little kitchen windows.
“You have to be careful, “ Ross would advise, looking at me and and our little brother Randy in turn. “The witch’s house is really close to the road. If you walk too near it she will reach out and grab you.” Both Randy and I flinched.
I listened intently to every story and believed every word. Randy would sit on the blankets between us, clutching his cat, round crew cut head bobbing as he followed the story from sibling to sibling. Sometimes later he would wake screaming in the middle of the night. Our mother explained that Randy was prone to ‘night terrors’.
One summer day mom sent the four of us out after breakfast noting that she would be going over to the neighbour’s for coffee. We milled about aimlessly arguing over what to do then finally agreed to walk up the trail across the tracks from us and check out the new tree fort Ross and his ‘gang’ had been building in the woods. I was happy to be with my brothers and outside. There was a high tide spraying salt into the air, the earth warmed in the sun, and the banks along the railway were covered in buttercups. But I was also worried. On our way into the forest, we had to pass the house of Mr. Brown, the murderer.
Everyone feared Old Man Brown. He was always yelling at the kids in the woods and there were many stories. Our happy chatter quieted as we neared his property. The undergrowth turned to unkempt bushes lined by an old fence and there was a crooked gate and a mangy yard. Across the yard stood a house, brown (of course) and run down.
My brother Ross stopped and crouched behind a bush and we all crouched down with him. “I don’t see him, do you?” Ross whispered. We shook our heads.
Keenly studying the yard for any movement, I saw a rusty trike half buried in the grass. I saw evidence of a flower garden, gone to seed. I saw gingham curtains hanging closed and dusty in the windows. But I didn’t see Mr. Brown anywhere.
“Hey! Do you see that?” The three of us looked at Ross then followed his finger. He was pointing across the yard. “Looks like a chopping block.”
Near a ramshackle shed there was a large round of wood with a massive rusty ax buried in its top. Spreading away from it was a deep red stain that covered the top of the wood and ran down its sides. I felt Randy lean closer into me as our young imaginations wrestled with the possibilities.
“Blood,” Ross whispered, more loudly than he needed too. I shifted and looked back down the way we came, to the tracks, and home. “He must kill chickens here or something … maybe kids.”
Randy suddenly jumped up and started to run back down the path.
“Stop,” Ross called. “Come back. It’s ok. Let’s keep going. He’s not around anyhow.”
I walked down a bit and tried to look reassuring as I took Randy’s hand. Keeping well away from the murderer’s house, we continued up into the forest. Not much further though, the older boys stopped abruptly in front of us, their heads cocked. I followed their gazes and saw that we were at the base of a cherry tree full of ripe, deep-purple cherries. The mid-morning sun was blazing through its branches and I could feel the beginnings of a sticky summer sweat under my poptop. Without a word, Scott started climbing. Then we were all scrambling into the tree, reaching for the juicy fruit.
“Hey! Guys! What about me?” Randy called up in a loud five year old whisper.
Looking down we could see our little brother reaching but unable to to touch the lowest branches. Ross and I dropped back to the ground and together gave him a boost, helping him get his footing in the gnarly bark. We clambered behind him and the four of us, branch by branch, moved into heaven.
“Quietly!” Ross reminded us. This was one of Mr. Brown’s trees and from within its canopy we could see the sorry little homestead with its broken swing set and cracked cement patio. Mercifully, the blood soaked chopping block was out of sight. We had a moment of peace, then, each of us on our own branch, chewing slowly and slurping the cherry nectar. The morning buzzed with quiet. Nothing but wasps and the sound of our happy breathing could be heard. I looked down to check on Randy and saw that he was pulling cherries off their branches and eating them by the fistful and grinning, his cheeks stained red with the juice.
“These are so good!” Scott, never quiet for long, yelled down from above us and began to pelt Ross with cherry pits. Immediately Ross started climbing to get him, and Scott, screaming, scrambled further up.
“Hey! You Kids!” Instantly terrified we froze, absolutely still and silent. “I can see you!” It was the voice of Mr Brown, the murderer, and it was was coming closer. “Get out of that tree! Hey!”
Like a bladder letting go, our hands released and we slid like sacks of fruit down through the tree. Branches scraped me and some of the thinner ones twisted in my clothing but I kept sliding until I hit the dirt and then I was running. No time for crying, no breath for whimpering - just run. I could hear my brothers around me gulping air, the sound of bushes being trampled and as we ran, and I could hear Randy. Screaming.
He couldn’t get out of the tree. He was too little.
None of us stopped. We ran down the path, past the old gate, over the tracks, through the bush, across the road and into the neighbour’s house where our mother was having coffee. She and Mrs. Drake were sitting at a yellow table made bright by the sun shining in from over the water. They looked up in surprise as we slammed through the open door - three sweaty kids with torn shirts and covered in cherry juice.
“Mom!” We all shouted at once.
I started to blubber. “You have to come with us. Old Man Brown has Randy and he’s going to be chopped apart by an ax!”
Mom and the neighbour laughed a bit, looked at my brother Ross who nodded, and I cried harder.
“You have to come now!” Scott and I grabbed my mother’s hands and started dragging her out of the house.
“Well, I guess I better go then,” Mom called out to her friend. “I’ll fill you in later!”
All three of us held onto mom. I had her hand and was pulling her up towards the scene of the crime, trying to make her hurry, hurry. Ross and Scott walked at her side, pressed into her as if trying to absorb all the brightness she seemed to carry with her up the path.
It was odd to have our mother in this part of our arboreal world with its secret clubhouses, stump kitchens and contraband stashes. Each fork in the trail seemed a bit smaller as she passed, each slumping prickle bush a little less menacing. None of us spoke on the walk up, struggling as we were with our own particular mix of guilt and terror. Mom, on the other hand, seemed unnaturally cheerful. When we reached Mr. Brown’s gate, she leaned in to open it.
“No! You can’t just walk in there!” I was horrified. “He’s got an ax!”
“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. Pushing my restraining hand away, she pulled on the gate. It opened with a loud metal scraping sound and there was movement on the patio up by the house. The three of us kids jostled each other trying to hide behind Mom’s slender back as she climbed up the scrubby grass hill. At some point, I realized that I was hearing laughter. And strangely, it was my little brother’s familiar laughter. I peered up towards the house as we neared and could make out someone sitting on the old broken chair.
“Hello there,” Mom called out. “It appears you’ve found something that belongs to me!”
“Hi Mommy!” Randy said with a cheerful chirp that didn’t sound chopped up or even in pain. I stepped out from behind my mother and saw him sitting on Old Man Brown’s lap. In his hand he had a chocolate bar.
“Is that … an O Henry bar?” I asked incredulously.
Randy smiled, his face now covered in warm chocolate as well as cherry juice. Then he took another big bite.
“I found this little guy stuck in one of my trees. He was terrified so I helped him down and gave him a treat. I was sure I’d be seeing you pretty quickly.” Old Mr. Brown smiled warmly at mom and I saw that he had nice white teeth. I looked around and noticed the chopping block was actually just covered with red paint. And the house was not really so old. And the chair he and my brother were sitting in was a comfy garden seat, perfect for stories ... and chocolate.
Mom and the murderer chatted for a few minutes while Randy finished his treat. Ross, Scott and I stood shuffling our feet and feeling uncomfortable. Then the adults turned to us and gave a lecture on picking fruit from a tree without permission.
“I really worry one of you is going to fall and put an eye out or break a limb,” explained Mr. Brown. “But I know how hard it is to resist at this time of year,” he chuckled. “My kids used to love climbing in that tree.”
I found it a bit shocking to learn that Mr. Brown had kids. After we made promises to stay out of his orchard and then said our goodbyes, we started back down the trail. On the way Mom explained that Mr. Brown’s kids were grown and living in Vancouver and that his wife, Cindy, had died of cancer just a year ago.
“He seems so lonely and sad,” Mom mused, almost to herself.
I grew quiet, thinking of the words lonely, sad and murderer. They didn’t fit together very well. I decided Mr. Brown was probably not a murderer, and then I began thinking about Crabby Appleton and Mr. Ville (who later became my music teacher) and the Witch (who later became our babysitter), but my thoughts were interrupted by Randy.
“I’ll go see him lots so he won’t be lonely anymore! ” my little brother volunteered. I thought that might be a pretty good idea, especially if there was more chocolate involved.
“Me too!” I said.