Charles remembered what his childhood had been like. If he had been asked to sum up his memories from ‘back then’, he would have said it was sunset-washed gardens and laughter and counting coins.
The light was gold. Charles looked over at the glowing sun as he ran through the grass. Sunlight passed through the green blades, so they looked like candles seen through emerald wine bottles.
He stumbled. That was how it was back then. He was small, barely old enough to run. He fell often, but then again, that was what grass was for.
Charles’ small feet faltered and he took a tumble. His fingers tightened into a fist to protect what he was carrying as he scrambled back to his feet and continued running.
“Erik!” he cried out, waving his arm above his head as he approached. “Erik, mummy gave me more!”
The other boy turned, slightly surprised. He had bright eyes, and, oh the sun , the sun shone through Erik’s mop of boyish hair, brushing it a luminous gold. “Really?” he asked. Charles would have thought it impossible for Erik’s face to light up even more, but it did.
Charles knelt down by his friend and opened his palm. Four small coins glinted dully in his palm.
“Whoa,” Erik said, plucking one from Charles’ open hand. He lay it on the ground next to dozens of other ones. “You got a lot this time.”
Charles puffed up proudly. “My mum only gave me one this time.” He looked down at Erik’s pile of coins. “Did you find all of those already?”
Erik nodded. “I’m too tired to find more though…”
Charles and Erik scooped the coins into a canvas bag, then toted them back to Mrs. Lensherr’s house to put in a jar. They counted each coin as they dropped it in with a muffled tink, then they wrote out how much they’d collected onto a scrap of paper. When the jar was full, Charles and Erik would add up all the numbers and write it on the top of the jar.
They loved counting and collecting their coins.
It had started as a game, really. Erik had a knack for finding shiny metallic objects, like bottle caps and coins, and Charles had suggested that they collect the coins.
“One day, we’ll have enough money to get as much ice cream as we want,” Charles had said one hot afternoon.
“We’ll buy a bike,” Erik added.
“A car! One of those fancy ones!”
“We’ll be so rich-”
“They’d make us the president of the United States of America!”
They laughed. Whether from the ridiculousness of it, or the fact that they thought they really could, it is hard to say.
It really was a golden time.
In hindsight, it was too good to be true. The weather, that is. Charles was sure that his childhood couldn’t have been so beautifully lit. He had lived in England after all. Maybe it was just that the company he’d had had chased away all the rainy days.
But the rainy days did come. One day, the sun shone a little bit bluer, and the clouds that drifted by were a little bit darker, and the sky wasn’t the only one crying because everyone was wearing black and Charles’ daddy was… not there anymore.
There were other men. After his father died, there were many new people who came to their house often, but they never stayed for long, only ever a couple of weeks at most. But then one of them stayed. He was a businessman, from who-knows-where, Charles’ mother told him. His mother told him to call the new man ‘daddy’ too, but Charles didn’t like it.
While he was a nice man and made his mother laugh, the world didn’t seem as alive. To Charles, the world was becoming more grey.
Then the day when the man asked his mother to come away with him to Italy and France and Greece and his mother had said yes.
Charles had watched as the mansion staff packed his bags, and he had quietly slipped out of the back door. He snuck up to his mother’s room (no one had packed up there yet) and pulled open a drawer to the dresser next to her neatly made-up bed.
Charles was running again. Only this time, the sky was thick and grey and the grass didn’t shine like it used to.
Erik’s house was a small cottage nestled between clusters of trees, barely visible from the road. Charles walked up to the old wooden door and knocked.
Erik was the one who opened it.
“I think I’m leaving,” said Charles.
Erik’s face, already downcast, fell even further. “My mum told me that you won’t be back for a long time. I didn’t believe her.”
Charles nodded. “A year. Mummy said a year, and then they’d get married…”
“It…” Erik took a shaky breath, “It’s not fair!” he wailed. Tears pooled in his eyes even as he tried to wipe them away. “We were going to...to have a bike! And a house,” he sniffled.
Charles’ lip trembled and he held out his hand. “I found this in my mum’s room. We don’t need it, but I hope this will be enough for a bike and then,” he pushed the money he’d found into Erik’s hands started sobbing, “when I get back,” he choked, words becoming harder to understand, “we can buy a house together, and- and-”
They were both fully in tears by now. Erik and Charles pulled each other into what could only be described as a hug, but in reality they were clutching each other like they would fall from a great height.
“I don’t want to go.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
Charles went to France and Italy and Greece and many other places besides, but when he returned home a year or so later, there was someone else living in the little cottage by the road. It was a young couple. No, the Lensherrs didn’t live around here anymore, they said. Couldn’t pay their bills, had to move out, went back to Poland, they said.
He supposed the many many ten shilling notes he’d given Erik hadn’t helped. It burned to know that he hadn’t helped.