by Steven John

There were five of us on the path to the lake; Jordi and myself on bikes, Marigold and the twins, Lakyn and Cassia, on foot. The girls candied up in skimpy summer shorts with their scarlet lipstick, night club hair and bra straps thumbed out from under sleeveless t-shirts.

The path was wide enough for the girls to walk side by side, with us boys showing off, pulling wheelies and skidding our rear wheels in the blanket of wild garlic, crushing up a pungency to compete with the girl’s cheap perfume. The girls feigned indifference, little handbags slung over their bare shoulders, arms crossed over budding breasts. They’d stopped halfway and sat in a line on a dry stone wall. Jordi and I lent our bikes against the stones and perched one on each end.

The bright eye of the sun shone through the wood’s spring canopy, onto a ringing mass of bluebells and herds of cow parsley. Birdsong flooded the woods with more than sound, it was like you could reach out to the valley waking from hibernation and stroke the top of its head. For a moment we were silent. Our eyes followed the line of the stream as it threaded down to where we were born, each one of us hoping to see a future as far away from the village as possible.

I’d stretched my fingers along the wall as close as I dare to Marigold’s thigh. When her finger tips touched mine I swear my heart jumped to the wrong side of my chest.

A tree had keeled over from the lake’s bank, its smooth, leafless branches rising from the water like serpents. Jordi knelt at the water’s edge, cupped both hands and scooped out tadpoles. He let the water sieve from his fingers until the black sperm wriggled their fragile tails in his palms.

‘We have to go for a swim,’ Cassia said.

‘In our clothes?’ I said.

Lakyn and Cassia had already dropped their handbags and taken off their shoes.

‘Just take your tops off,’ Lakyn said. ‘We’ll be dry by the time we’ve walked back.’

Three of us watched as the twins pull off their t-shirts. I’d never seen a bra over real breasts. Cassia’s was yellow, Lakyn’s was pink – delicate as cut flowers. I was sure I could smell roses.

‘I’m going back,’ said Marigold.

‘Don’t go Mari,’ the twins yelled.

‘You’re both sluts.’ She was crying.

‘She’s wearing a see-through bra, that’s why,’ Lakyn said.

‘She’s got nothing to put in a bra,’ Cassia said.

I went after her. ‘You don’t have to go swimming, Marigold,’ I said. ‘Please stay.’

‘If you go swimming with them, we’re finished,’ she said and walked on.

I let her go. I was stunned to hear that we’d started.

Jordi and I took off our t-shirts and jeans. The freezing water weighed around us like armour. Our feet sank into the silt on the bottom then, in the space of one stride, we were out of our depth. The four of us swam to the fallen tree and hung onto the branches. Shrieking with cold, we skimmed sheets of water over each other until, in unison, the twins arched their bodies and went under, their bottoms floating momentarily on the surface.

Jordi and I were first out of the water and took the twin’s hands, pulling them up the bank, doing our best not to look down their wet underwear. We pulled on clothes, Jordi and I in silence, the twins chattering as though nothing had just happened.

On the way back through the woods we stopped at the derelict cottage. There were mildewed signs screwed into the stonework that said ‘Danger – Unsafe Structures’. The doors had thick fencing posts nailed horizontally across the frames. The glass in the rusted mullioned window frames had been smashed years before. We peered through at abandoned lives. There was a wooden-handled grindstone wheel and the remains of a horse-drawn log carriage. In the corner were steep, wooden stairs to the first floor.

‘I’ve always wanted to go up those stairs,’ Lakyn said.

‘There’s no way in,’ I replied.

Cassia moved round to one of the wooden doors and pointed to where it should have reached the ground. There was a gap between the bottom of the rotted panels and the earth. Jordi pulled at the crumbling wood. Pieces came away in his hands – enough to crawl under.

Downstairs, there was nothing more to see. I turned the handle on the grindstone till it hummed, then burnt my hand trying to stop it. With her feet feeling the sturdiness of the wood, Lakyn climbed the stairs. I went into one bedroom with her, Jordi into another with Cassia. The bare floorboards were pasted with bird shit and putrefying, feathered ribcages. There was a disturbed flapping from exposed roof timbers as roosting pigeons clattered their escape. Lakyn put her lips up to mine. I tasted lake mud on her tongue. She put her hand behind my head and pulled me tight onto her face. I put my hand between her legs and felt under her wet shorts.

We walked out of the beech woods in the late afternoon sunlight, Jordi and I attempting to push along our bikes with our arms around the twins. I looked anywhere but at Lakyn. The great brushes of ivy that choked the trees darkened and solidified as the sun fell down the sky. Ladders of fungi swirled up the fence posts and along the fallen timber. I stopped once or twice to pull stones out of the high mud banks, looking for ammonite fossils as I’d done as a kid.

When we were in sight of the twins’ house they let go of our hands and ran on ahead. By the time Jordi and I reached their front door it was shut.

Lakyn and Cassia went on to the same university then shared a flat in London. I saw them in the village pub years later. They’d been to visit their parents. They shouted my name and kissed me. Made me feel I was someone for a while.

Marigold was married with a baby daughter by the time she was twenty-three, divorced and a single mum by the time she was twenty-eight. I invited her out for drink once but we couldn’t think of a damn thing to say once we’d reminisced over our school days together.

When it came to saying goodbye she wept and said, ‘Whatever happened to us?’

And me? I never got away. I still live in the same village. I do some labouring on building sites, some landscape gardening. Hand to mouth. I’m allowed to see my son once a fortnight.

At the weekend I walk the dog to the lake. When it’s hot she goes in the water after a stick. The derelict cottage is still standing, although the rotten stairs were removed on grounds of safety. The pigeons have the bedrooms to themselves now; finding a mate, nurturing their chicks, piling up the shit and the dead.

Steven John lives in The Cotswolds, UK, where he writes short stories and poetry. He’s had work published in pamphlets and online magazines including Riggwelter, Spelk Fiction, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed and Ellipsis Zine. He has won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record six times. Steven has read at Stroud Short Stories, Cheltenham Poetry Festival Fringe and The Writer’s Room on Corinium Radio. He is Associate Editor at www.newflashfictionreview.com.

Twitter:  @StevenJohnWrite
Website:  www.stevenjohnwriter.wordpress.com.