by Sonia Trickey

The six of them­­­ met in the long shadows of late afternoon at the south entrance of the park. The gravelled track leading down to the gate was a cloistered passage of hawthorn and hazel slashed with sharp shafts of sunlight. It always smelt of urine and damp. It was the kind of place your mother warned you about, the kind of place where fast girls in miniskirts might get what they had coming. And whatever that might be, Diana was ready to find out.

Adam, small, freckled and fifteen, shoved open the gate. ‘It’s this way.’ He directed them towards a spinney of whispering beech trees. A red path cut its way towards the trees and they took it at a gallop, knapsacks banging against their backs.

This was Diana’s territory. She had spent the long afternoons of her childhood roaming these 400 hectares of ancient parkland in role as Artemis the Hunter, stalking deer and squirrels with her younger sister in tow – a naiad called Imogen, or a nymph, or occasionally a fawn.

‘When will it get dark?’ asked Cassie with a slight raising of the eyebrows, pulsing teenage cool with her terrifying pout and face full of Maybelline bronzer. ‘My mum’ll go mental if we’re not there by eight, Adam.’

‘There’s loads of time.’ He stopped at a tree stump and scanned the horizon. ‘I know where I’m going.’ He looked at James and Cassie. ‘Shall we?’

‘Nah. We’re too close to the road,’ responded Cassie (ponytail flick), ‘and it’s still light.’

Diana was giddy with anticipation. When Cassie (the disreputable year 9 icon of love, lip-gloss and Liebfraumilch) had unexpectedly invited her to join these dangerous Dionysian rites, Diana had slipped the eiderdowned embrace of her parents’ love so deftly and silently that they were yet to notice any change. She had never lied to her parents before.

‘Let’s go in there,’ said James indicating a soft craggy hole about three foot deep and six foot wide that had been torn open the previous autumn when a beech had been toppled in a gale. ‘If we all get in under there, no one will see us.’

The roots of the tree were like Hecate’s withered fingers, stroking their hair as they clambered into the tight space. Charlotte screamed.

‘For God’s sake,’ Jonathan rolled his eyes.

‘What? It’s gross – all muddy and earwiggy.’

‘Shut up screaming or someone will hear. Sit down!’

‘I’m not sitting on the mud.’

‘Jesus Christ, woman,’ said Adam.

They were all impressed. Adam knew how to speak to women. He shrugged off his jacket and laid it on the ground like a modern Francis Drake. Cassie sat down on the expanse of nylon anorak while Diana and Charlotte took a sleeve each. Adam placed his knapsack in the middle of the huddle and with a flourish, drew out a bottle of wine.

Diana quivered between fear and excitement.

‘Have you ever been pissed before, Diana?’ he asked slyly.

Charlotte chipped in, ‘I’ve been pissed before.’

Cassie, Diana’s sponsor into this salacious underworld, offered a crushing explanation, ‘She’s very imma-chure.’

‘I had some champagne once at my grandfather’s eightieth.’ Diana’s defensive shot failed, eliciting cat-calling and a riffle of mockery. A plunging desolation yawned inside her as she remembered the laughter of her family, the outdoor games of hide-and-seek with her cousins, the time they’d all been told off for tying up her younger sister in the cellar, the mouthful of champagne they had all agreed was ‘dis-gust-ing.’

James opened the bottle and swigged. He handed it to Adam who took his turn then passed it to Jonathan.

The sun gleamed weakly through the trees, casting faint shadows on the floor and illuminating the damp mulch in between. Suddenly, a wellingtoned couple came into view and three Labradors bounded down the path encircling the miscreants in their hidey-hole.

‘Cesare! Benji! Rusty!’ a woman’s voice ululated through the woods.

The three-headed Caesare-Benji-Rusty barked, leaping around them.

‘Cesare! Benji! Rusty! Come!’

Diana watched two children amble down the path behind their parents, who were making their way to the south gate. She recognised the family from church; the younger boy was about the same age as her sister and the older boy had sung with her in the choir just a year previously. She glanced back at her new companions who had concealed the incriminating bottle: nothing to see here but six children under an uprooted tree, like gnomes in a German fairy tale.

The dogs lost interest and plummeted down the hill. The family receded and finally disappeared, the weighted gate clanging behind them. Diana toyed with an urge to bolt after them and ask for a lift home.

‘Shit,’ breathed Charlotte, ‘that was close.’

They all began to laugh. ‘That was the Roses,’ said Jonathan, ‘they go to my tennis club.’

This seemed like the funniest joke they had ever heard and the six of them doubled over with laughter. When they had calmed down, Diana leaned her head back on the crumbling tree stump and steadied herself by looking up through the network of branches to the sky.

‘Let’s get behind the house,’ said Adam, ‘there won’t be so many people.’ They screwed the lid back in the bottle, placed the bottle in the knapsack and resumed their scramble.

There had been a late snowfall that year and this was the first warm spring day. The woods sheltered indigo bluebells and late snowdrops but an insistent chill fingered the scented air. Amplified after the mute winter, birdsong billowed through the treetops and though there was still no canopy, sap was rising in the chestnuts and buds were erupting. Stale leaves, released from winter stasis, resumed their decomposition, exhaling a clean sharpness.

Once they emerged from the woods, the stately home was in their sights. In front of the house was the car park and in the fading light pensioners, families with dogs, young couples—the ordered world of grown-ups—meandered back to their Land Rovers and Volvo estates. The children felt more exposed here, it was likely that someone in the car park of respectability would recognise at least one of them. Advancing against the onslaught of afternoon walkers, they passed the salient of the walled garden and disappeared from view.

Beyond the house lay the gallops: a ragged expanse of ragwort, rushes and rough grass that stretched to the high dry stone wall marking the westernmost boundary of the medieval deer park. The sky was now dove grey and a murmuration of starlings undulated above them. Diana watched the birds gather and fall.

Adam hesitated. They had reached a fork in the path and it was beginning to get dark.

‘I thought you’d done this before,’ said Cassie with that devastating flick of her ponytail.

‘I have. I just don’t remember this bit.’

‘Both paths look the same to me,’ said Charlotte, soothingly less knowledgeable than the boys.

‘Maybe it doesn’t matter?’ said Diana, who was suddenly bored of the whole expedition. Stalking deer with Imogen was more fun than this. Also, she knew with absolute certainty that both paths led to the same end point.

‘What about the wine?’ said Cassie. Adam handed Cassie the open bottle and pulled out a second for the boys.

Cassie took a mouthful and passed the bottle to Charlotte who drank and then passed it on to Diana. Ahead, a swallow dived down, skimmed the tops of the rushes and scythed her way upwards through the clear cold air. Diana solemnly swallowed the wine and handed the bottle back to Charlotte.

‘Do you think we should take the right-hand path?’ Adam asked, looking across the horizon, unwilling to take lone responsibility for the decision.

‘Definitely,’ responded Diana, firmly steering the group forward.

In the gloam, the landscape assumed new possibilities. The park was deserted now. It was the vernal equinox, though they didn’t know it, that moment of celestial alignment when light and dark exist in equanimity. The moon was in a waxing, crescent phase pointing downwards to Venus and Mercury. Life was migrating northwards as the earth reached a point of cosmic equilibrium in its journey around the sun.

The wine thawed the edges of teenage cool and jolted the children into a feeling that anything could happen, everything was possible, that all was permissible in this indigo world between worlds. An impromptu game of tag started up: no one was it, everyone was it and like children, they ran shrieking and laughing in the twilight.

By the time they had finished the wine, it was dark and Jonathan hurled the empty bottles into the blackness. The wantonness of this action angered Diana. ‘You shouldn’t do that. You might injure an animal and it’s littering.’

‘It’s littering,’ Jonathan mocked.

‘She’s right, Jonathan,’ said Adam unexpectedly, ‘that’s not cool.’

Jonathan said, ‘I’ll go and get them if you come with me, Diana. I’m scared of the dark.’

Duck, duck, goose. Diana ran and Jonathan gave chase.

He caught up with her under the reach of an ancient oak. She had stopped once she realised he couldn’t outrun her and allowed herself to be caught. Now they were playing a different game and, away from his friends, Jonathan was disarmingly uncertain.

‘What happens now?’ whispered Diana looking into his eyes, turning her face up to his. It was an old script and he followed where she led.

So this was her first kiss, the moment she’d been chasing all evening but now she’d caught it, she wasn’t so sure she wanted it. The opalescent moon was gleaming slyly in the sky, tipping her a wink. Jonathan’s hands were grabbing her everywhere and though she asked him to stop, he didn’t seem to hear. ‘Perhaps he’s lost in passion,’ Diana thought optimistically. Whatever it was, Diana wanted to escape but was unsure how to communicate this. She leaned into the gnarled bark of the oak and looked up into the impassive sky. Far away from the lights of the town, she could trace the North Star, the Plough, then Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cephus, and stupid Cassiopeia.

Jonathan was still kissing her. It was interminable. Diana was unsure how to extricate herself and uphold both their dignities. Was Jonathan really enjoying this? Surely, it had to end soon.

She felt Jonathan slide his cold hand into her knickers. She froze. Frigid. She pushed his hand away but again, he insisted. And he didn’t stop there but inserted a bony digit into her vagina. It felt like a medical examination. She looked up at the stars for guidance but it was the moon that gave her the bearings she needed: the virgin, the hunt, the woods.

‘I want to find the others,’ she gasped, releasing herself. She plunged into the darkness, bounding over tussocks of grass, safe in the knowledge that she could outrun him. Jonathan pursued her until the rest of the group appeared like a greasy stain against the west gate.

‘Where have you lovebirds been?’ asked Cassie, arms draped around Adam’s shoulder. The group snickered. Diana managed a smile.

They had nearly reached their destination. A little way beyond the park boundary was the pub car park where Cassie’s mum would meet them and drive them home. On the short walk up the road to the pub, Diana felt a cold bite in the air and listened to the roar of the wind in the leafless canopy. There would be a frost tomorrow. As the children approached the well-lit world of steak lasagne and lager shandy, they cleaved into their gendered groups. In fact, just before they arrived at the pub’s gravelled car park, the boys sloped off, childishly, recognising that there may be consequences for transgressions they’d rather not face.

Once the boys had departed but before they were stowed in Cassie’s mother’s saloon car, Cassie turned on Diana, ‘So?’

Diana was unsure what was expected of her.

‘Jonathan told us,’ said Charlotte.

Diana awaited their judgement. She had no words with which to express her feelings about what had just happened, she lacked even the nomenclature to describe it. Cassie didn’t. ‘He fingered you,’ she hissed.

Diana felt relieved that there was a name for what had happened; it gave her a diagnosis of sorts.

‘Did you like it?’ asked Cassie.

Diana shrugged, baffled by the question. It was a bit like having undergone a vaccination or a blood transfusion without being consulted. Maybe it was good for her. Maybe she’d feel grateful soon.

‘And then you ran away,’ said Charlotte.

‘Yeah, you little tease,’ chimed Cassie.

Both girls broke into peals of ribald laughter. Diana’s breathing shallowed and she felt a rumbling shudder of rage resound through her but she somehow stretched her lips and joined in the giggling. She hated them but she especially hated herself; a frolicking collaborator, doe-eyed, compliant and stupid.

On the drive home, Diana watched the high stone walls of the park speed by. Beyond the wall, in the quiet darkness and the empty woods, she imagined the goddess Artemis hunting; a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder, stealthy of foot, unerring, true. She drew one shaft and fired, then another and another. Jonathan, James and Adam all slain, a single arrow penetrating each of their hearts; virgins all avenged.

The car stopped at a red traffic light. Hanging over them, the moon suffused the breathing night with a cold diaphanous light. The lights changed, the car accelerated away.

Sonia Trickey started writing again last summer after attending the Cambridge University creative writing summer programme. Since then she has had two short stories accepted for publication by Fictive Dream and Calyx Arts. She was had a notable entry in the Disquiet short fiction prize. When she’s not writing, she is teaching English in a secondary school in Cambridge.