by Linda Rumney
I could see Dee waiting for me, her sweater already tied around her waist, her necktie rolled up in her fist.
She points at my jam jar filled with lukewarm, milky, sweet tea.
‘Breakfast. Hold it a second?’
I take off my own sweater and necktie and stuff them into my oversized shoulder bag. She rolls the jam jar between her hands.
‘Got any cash?’ she asks, ‘I have cigarettes.’
‘Just my dinner money.’
The loose change jangles in my skirt pocket as I take back the jam jar and slap at my thigh. We walk against the flow of uniforms heading to school. Michael, a comical thug, too stupid to be a real threat, lunges into her copping a feel of a breast.
‘Watch where you’re going, stinky.’
‘You watch where you’re going you dumb spaz. Touch me again and I’ll cut your bollocks off.’
‘Oooooh, tough words. Where the fuck are you going anyway?’
‘Round to your house to hang out with your Dad.’
‘You’re such a slag. He wouldn’t touch you with a barge-pole.’
Dee throws two fingers up at him, the ‘fuck off salute.’
‘Bloody wanker. Get something to eat?’ she says.
I nod and we dash across the street to Cooper’s store. Mr. Cooper is all smiles, half smiles, on account of his stroke, Mrs. Cooper has forgotten how, she’s all snarl.
‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
‘We’re on a free period,’ Dee lies as I head down an aisle.
‘Well I’m not selling you any cigarettes. It’s against the law.’
‘Only for under sixteens. We’re sixteen.’
‘No your not,’ Mrs. Cooper barks.
‘Yeah, sixth form.’
Dee provokes Mrs. Cooper into an argument as I stuff my bag with provisions. Crisps, chocolate biscuits, a packet of Cheddars and a bottle of R. Whites lemonade – I’m a secret lemonade drinker.
‘Come on,’ I say, ‘I don’t want to buy anything if she’s going to be so rude.’
‘Rude is it? Who do you think you are, the bloody Queen of England?’
‘Wait, I need matches,’ Dee says.
Mrs. Cooper slaps a box of matches on the counter.
‘For my Benson and Hedges,’ Dee adds.
‘Fifteen pence,’ Mrs. Cooper demands, an eye on me now.
Dee holds out a hand to me for the money. I give it to her from my pocket, eager to complete the transaction before Mrs. Cooper notices my burgeoning shoulder bag and it’s stolen bounty.
‘Thank you very much,’ Dee says, casual as you like. ‘Have a great day.’
I’m already halfway out the door, and I look back to see Mr. Cooper still smiling as we leave. I give him a wink and he winks back from his good side. I know he saw me fill my bag but he’s unable to tell the Mrs. He’s crying. He’s always crying. I think that was the last time we saw him alive. Mrs. Cooper packed up and retired after finding him lying in a pool of his own blood one evening, the cash register emptied of the day’s takings. She told police she had only left him for a minute. Time enough I guess, and him not able to fight back. Hundreds of people were at his funeral. Dee talked me into going so she could take a look at his corpse. You would think he was some sort of dignitary the way the line circled the church, well-wishers saying their last goodbye. Gawkers taking a final look at him. The kids at school said it was an ‘inside job,’ some evil bastard who knew he couldn’t cry out for help, probably someone he winked at and knew well. All fingers pointed at Pete, except mine, and when he stopped attending school altogether everyone just assumed. But I knew. I liked Pete. I used to watch him while he slept on the desk at the back of the classroom. He had long, thick eyelashes and smelled like digestive biscuits. He was a huge lump of a boy with dark, Romany curls and ruddy skin, like a grown man but only fifteen. I can still remember how to spell his name, Chlebek, Polish for small loaf of bread. I would have taken a bite of him, all soft and warm like he was fresh out of the oven.
We took the back roads to the woods, to be on the safe side. Not that anyone would recognize either of us out on this side of town. It was a fancy neighbourhood, high coiffured hedges and gated driveways, swimming pools, and caravans on the gravel driveways, homes we wished we occupied.
‘I’m just saying,’ Dee fantasized, ‘I wouldn’t work. I’d stay at home and have my hair done every week.’
‘That just sounds boring. Don’t you want to do something exciting, like travel the world or maybe become famous?’
‘Famous for what?’
‘I don’t know…’
She disappears through an open gateway and reappears, seconds later, with a bottle of milk.
‘Run,’ she shouts.
We reach the gate to The Dell breathless and laughing and I pull down my skirt, that’s ridden up by the weight of the heavy bag. Dee drinks from the bottle.
‘Did you see him?’ she asks me through a milky moustache.
‘The naked bloke.’
I snort out a laugh and look back up the road.
‘Yeah, his willy was all, you know?’
I shake my head, try to catch my breath, push my way through the gate.
‘He came out the house after me. I thought he was carrying a truncheon but it was his willy.’
She pushes me playfully and I stumble toward the hedge, my hair catches in the branches of a thick Hazel heavy with nut fetuses.
‘Ha, ha, ha, I’m trying to imagine what that looks like.’
‘You’ve never seen one?’
‘No. Well, my Dad’s once when we were camping in Norfolk but I’ve never seen one, you know… ‘
‘Oh God. Shut up.’
The trees bleed sunlight onto the path. The Scots Pines wheeze as they sway and nudge each other in the cool morning breeze. The woods crackle and pop in the snap of the day and nothing seems to move amongst the shadowy trees. Dee moves through the streams of light, picking up pine cones and tosses them into the shadows.
‘You know what we should do?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘what?’
She stops and reaches for her pack of cigarettes, takes one out, places it between her lips and lights it with a match, her hand cupped around the flame.
‘We should run away. Go to London and live in a commune.’
I take the cigarette and draw on it, careful not to inhale.
‘Why do you even bother? You don’t even inhale,’ she says, ‘you’re not really a smoker if you don’t inhale.’
I hand the cigarette back to her.
‘I do inhale. I just didn’t feel like it.’
We continue on through the woods to the edge of the meadow, still partially in shadow, the grass still dewy wet and shivering with a light mist that rises lazily off the wakening earth. A few rabbits, breakfasting on the moist grass, dart startled towards the woods, a flash of white the last we see of them. The river winks below us, a star studded slither of silvery grey that races between the lush, green overgrowth of the river’s banks.
Dee dashes the cigarette to the ground and I crush it firmly with my foot and sets off down the hill, her arms out as if she’s in free-fall, and I tumble after her, trying hard to stay upright under the weight of the bag.
‘Whoo-hoo!’ she cries, ‘Whoooo-hoooo!’
We look for a place to sit. The rushes and grass along the riverbank offer us a hideout and we stamp flat a patch and drop to the ground. She kicks off her shoes and peels off her socks, her feet dirty and her toenails chipped and jagged. She sees me staring at them and I try not to look too disgusted.
‘You going to take your’s off?’
‘In a bit,’ I say.
I take out our ‘picnic’ and lay it on the weave of grass.
‘Biscuit?’ I offer.
She lights another cigarette, sees me watching her and hands it to me. ‘Take a proper drag.’
I put the cigarette to my lips and suck hard on it, draw the smoke deep into my lungs the way I’ve seen her do many times. Immediately my head spins and my stomach lurches with a wave of nausea. I hand the cigarette back and spread out on the grass attempting coolness that conflicts with the stifling, hot panic in my head from the nicotine. The screen of grass meets the blue beyond and I float for a while not daring to speak for fear of throwing up.
‘See? Now you’ll probably get cancer. It’s always the ones that say they only tried it once.’
She laughs at me as if I really am the only person at risk then draws heavily herself, lying on her back, surveying the sky.
It starts to warm up a little. Not like the middle of summer. You can tell it’s September. The light is different and the sky almost milky in it’s blueness. The seeds from the exploded bull rushes float by in untidy clumps and a solitary duck emerges from the reeds, pauses for a moment as it sees us then turns toward the water splashing and flapping in an anxious hurry to makes it’s escape. Neither of us moves.
‘Why are the male of the species always prettier than the females?’ I say, not really expecting a response.
‘Because there are more of ‘em. It’s all about mating.
I saw it on David Attenborough.’
I sit up and open the lemonade. It fizzes and froths from the bottle and I suck up the foam.
‘Oh God, it’s warm.’
‘You should have put it in the water,’ she says.
‘Urgh, no. You never know what’s in there.’
‘It would keep it cool. You’re not actually getting any water in it.’
She snatches the bottle from me and takes a swig, spitting it out almost immediately. ‘That is really disgusting.’ She takes the bottle cap from my other hand and screws it back onto the bottle, throws the bottle in the river.
‘What the hell did you do that for? Now we don’t have anything to drink.’
I start to take my shoes and socks off keeping an eye on the bottle as it bobs a few feet from the riverbank.
‘How deep do you think it is?’
‘Not very,’ she says.
I’m suddenly suspicious.
‘Maybe I should get a stick.’
‘By the time you go up there and back again the bottle will be half way to the sea.’
Dee gestures with her hands towards the woods and then to the river like she’s giving me roadside directions. I edge toward the water, dip in a toe.
‘Forget it,’ Dee says. ‘We’re not going to die of dehydration.’
‘That was a pretty stupid thing to do, Dee.’
‘Look, maybe you should strip down to your undies if you’re going in after it.’
I scowl at her from the riverbank, both feet in the water now.
‘Well don’t look then, they don’t match.’
‘What?’ Dee starts to laugh at me again.
I slip of my blouse and unzip my skirt. I pull the skirt off over my head so I don’t have to stand up and Dee pretends not to be looking at my mismatched bra and panties.
‘Go on then, if you’re going. Before it floats away.’
I inch in until my knees are submerged but my bottom still planted firmly on the riverbank.
‘Bloody hell, it’s freezing.’
‘Don’t be so soft.’
‘I don’t see you getting in.’
‘I don’t care about the sodding lemonade,’ she says.
And I’m in, searching for the bottom with my toes.
‘Oh God, oh God. It’s so slimy. Argh, something touched my leg.’
I start to swim toward the bottle. The lone duck chuckles, unseen, from the other side of the river.
‘It’s not too bad really.’
‘Can you reach it? Grab it.’
The undercurrent suddenly gets a hold of me and takes me rapidly down river. The river is shallow but I can’t get a foothold. I hear Dee shouting after me.
‘Swim back. What are you doing?’
I’m swept along further and further from the sound of her voice, the water filling my ears and mouth and I’m dizzy with the unfamiliar feeling of not being able to breathe. I claw at the water trying to hold on but the water is solid without substance, moving me along haphazardly, clumsily. I catch sight of Dee racing along the riverbank, waving her arms, my blouse in one hand like a sign of surrender.
I take a huge gulp of water and lose sight of the sky, of Dee, of the riverbank. All is dark and quiet and still except for the sound of my own heartbeat. I’m not afraid. It feels nice. Calm.
Then the water breaks around me like splintering glass and I hear Dee shouting, ‘Bloody hell, bloody hell. Catch it. Catch it.’
The sky appears in a blinding flash of blue and I see Dee whipping my blouse onto the surface of the water as I exhale.
‘Catch it. Come on.’
I reach for the blouse and hold on tight. Dee pulls me toward her.
‘Thank you Jesus,’ she says.
I spit water and phlegm, still clinging to my blouse.
‘Bloody hell. I thought you were a gonna.’
I squat in the shallow water, panting and bewildered, and realize I have the lemonade bottle in my hand.
‘Fancy a drink?’ I ask her. ‘It’s nice and cold.’
Dee pulls me out of the water and we walk back to the flattened reeds. I flop down, exhausted and close my eyes.
Dee spreads my blouse out on the grass.
‘Shouldn’t take long to dry.’
We eat our stolen goods in silence. Dee tugs at the grass without any purpose. My blouse is soon dry and I put it on, slip into my skirt and pull on my sweater to hide the crumpled blouse, and we head back up the meadow to the woods.
The regiment of shadowy trees whisper amongst themselves, and we push out through the gate, the empty milk bottle still balanced on the gatepost where Dee left it. As we reach the main road she lights a cigarette and offers it to me,
‘Those things’ll kill ya,’ I say.
And we laugh till our faces hurt. Dee takes a long, serious drag. ‘Do you think they’ll vote Thatcher in?’
‘See you tomorrow then,’ Dee says as she turns in the direction of home.
‘Yeah, see ya.’
Linda Rumney is a scriptwriter and film maker, with several awards for her short films including induction into the National Screen Institute of Canada. She has completed her first novel, a departure from film, and written a series of short stories based around events growing up in 70s England.