‘Mum said we can’t go back home ‘til lunch time.’ Laura shifted on the seat of her bike and thumbed her bicycle bell twice. ‘She said we’re a bloody nuisance in the summer holidays and that teachers don’t know they’re born.’
She looked at her two younger sisters. Margaret was practising holding her breath, her cheeks puffed out, her eyes slightly crossing with the effort; she would often do this until she made herself dizzy. Anne was in the tree over the Braddyll Road sign, swinging like a chimpanzee in a dress, flashing navy blue army stores knickers.
‘Bloody heck, Anne, get down. Mum says I’m in charge. I’ve decided we’re going to the clearing in Hulton woods. If you can’t keep up, woe betide, you’re in trouble,’ Laura announced, kicking at a loose stone on the pavement. It ricocheted off the wheel of Margaret’s scooter, making a pinging sound.
‘Hey!’ Margaret protested, letting out her breath so her voice erupted on the air. ‘Don’t kick stones, Laura. It’s dangerous. This is my best scooter.’
‘Well it was mine once, so really I can do what I want with it.’ Laura was preparing for a swift getaway; one foot raised on a pedal, the other firmly placed on the floor, ready to make the most of any unfair advantage.
‘Are we allowed to go to Hulton woods? Does Mum know?’ Margaret was grasping her old scooter like a life line, secretly hoping it would lead her back home.
‘Course we can Margie, it’s the summer holidays. We can do what we want!’ Anne shouted as she climbed down onto the Braddyll Road sign, balancing with arms outstretched, toes pointed like a ballerina. ‘Don’t worry; I’ll look after you… watch me, watch me now!’ Her voice shook the air as she flung herself onto the grass and rolled over.
‘Get up, Anne. You’ve got green on your dress already. You’ll be in for it. Mum can’t get green out, even in the twin tub. ’ As Laura said this Margaret readied herself on her scooter, knowing that she would have to scoot like billio to keep up with her bigger sisters.
‘Keep on the pavement,’ Laura yelled as she started down the hill, their mother’s instructions reverberating in the girls’ ears like articles of faith. ‘Always stay on the pavement and don’t talk to strangers.’
From high above, the three of them looked like busy ants, racing down the hill.
The summer morning promised everything. An endless day, a cloudless sky, a parentless horizon.
Anne reached Greenfold’s farm first, jumping off her bike whilst it was still moving; she ran towards the farm gate with arms out in front of her, bracing herself for the collision.
‘I win, I win,’ she jumped on the gate.
Laura cycled up next slightly flushed around the temples. ‘Anne, you’re such a baby. I wasn’t racing. Mum would paddle your backside if she saw what you did to that bike.’
Margaret rattled along last. ‘It’s not fair. I haven’t got a bike,’ she said.
The three of them stood on the bottom bar of the metal gate so they could survey Greenfold’s farm. Margaret rested her chin on the top of the gate, her sandaled feet on tip toes to give her a bit more height.
‘I don’t want to go through Greenfold’s farm. Dad says the farmer shoots trespassers.’ Margaret reached up the sleeve of her home knit cardigan for a crumpled hankie, then wiped her nose with it. ‘What are trespassers?’ she asked.
‘He only shoots boys who mess around in his barn. And anyone he finds shaggin’ in there. We’re just taking a short cut to get to Hulton woods. Margaret, don’t be such a spaz, I’ll send you home if you don’t shut up,’ Laura threatened.
Margaret looked hopeful.
‘Mum’ll go bananas if we’re back before lunch.’ Laura suddenly softened, ‘the clearing is a great place; a big pond to paddle in. Trees to climb.’ She mimicked the body language and soft tones of persuasive adults. Margaret’s forehead tensed, Laura’s attempt to sweet talk her having the opposite effect.
‘Well, we’re going whether you like it or not.’ Laura said, dissent not an option. Anne had already unhooked the gate and was pushing it open, Margaret and Laura still clinging on as it swung back.
‘Let’s push our bikes,’ Laura said, ‘we’ll go behind that barn. We don’t want to go passed the farmhouse. Anne, don’t go too far ahead. Mum said for us to stay together.’ Laura’s voice had lowered to a whisper. Her eyes warily followed Anne’s nimble movements as if she was observing some feral creature and working out how to trap it.
The three of them picked their way around the side of the barn and found themselves in the shade of the barn wall. The dried mud along the dirt track was indented with tractor tyres and cattle hooves, so the girls had to drag their wheels along. Opposite the barn was an orchard of crab apples growing in an area of scrub land. The small deep red fruit were already beginning to hang, the branching corymbs drooping in the morning heat. The leaves were glossy and oval shaped; the edges, like triangular teeth.
‘There, see! If we go through there we can get across the stream and into the big woods. I’ve done this before with Una.’ Laura was whispering but her voice echoed into the deep shade of the trees beyond.
‘When were you here with Una? Mum doesn’t like you to see Una. Mum says she’s half wild. And her parents are no better.’ Margaret repeated the often heard phrases, savouring each word. ‘She’s heading for trouble, that one.’
‘OI! You three; what are you doing there?’ The voice sounded like a giant’s. The three girls all screamed aloud. Margaret crouched down on the ground with her hands over her head. Ann stood still and jutted out her chin in the direction of the voice. Laura stepped forward.
‘Hello, Mr Green. You know my dad, Peter Gifford, 26 Barton Way. He comes and gets manure for his roses from you. He says your manure is the best, thankyouverymuch,’ Laura announced.
A huge man was standing by the barn, in muddied, green dungarees and wellies; he had a rifle slung over his shoulder; he squinted into the gloom at them, bright sun directly in his ruddy face.
‘Are you Gifford’s girls?’ His voice seemingly pleased by this knowledge. ‘Where’re you going?’
‘It’s the summer holidays, Mr Green. Mum said we aren’t to go back home til lunch,’ Laura felt this was explanation enough, she had come to understand how best to talk to adults, that’s why she was milk monitor and Mrs Welch’s favourite pupil in class. The trick was to repeat certain phrases that adults said and to ‘use your common sense,’ a favourite phrase of her mums. She had also learned that there were some things that she shouldn’t repeat. Words like shag and fuck.
‘Does your mum know you’re off into the woods?’ The growl was softer now.
‘She’s got the twin tub out and all the bedding to do so she doesn’t want us cluttering up the place; she’s says for us to use our common sense.’ Laura recited this like a catechism.
Mr Green placed his rifle down and moved over so he could see them more clearly. ‘You be careful in there. It’s quite dense in places. Stick to where you can see the light coming through the trees.’
Margaret was still crouching; she was preoccupied with some flowers that were growing up around her – long stemmed, small white petals shot through with pink. She had picked off several heads and squashed them into her knitted pocket.
‘Those are milkmaids, or lady’s smock. They’re the fairy flower. You’re entering the fairy world now.’ Mr Green chanced a smile, his gruff voice sounding a little pleased. ‘You be careful. You wouldn’t want to be dragged under the hill to fairyland.’ He laughed to himself as he moved away.
‘I’ll be in the top field; I can see everything from up there, so think on.’ His voice rested in the air above them.
‘Thank you Mr Green,’ Laura pulled Margaret up by the collar and smacked the flowers out of her hand.
‘Hey,’ Margaret yelped, ‘why’d you do that?’
‘You heard him, your stealing fairy flowers, throw them away.’
Anne remained still until Mr Green had disappeared, then she said, ‘He’s like a great big bear. I like him.’
‘Come on, I’m meeting Una at the clearing,’ Laura announced, unable to conceal her secret any longer.
Margaret opened her mouth but Laura intervened, ‘Margaret Joan Gifford, pick up your scooter and stop whining. If you keep on, I’ll tell mum you weed your pants on the way home from school the other week and hid your wet knickers in Mrs Booth’s front privet.’ Laura realised she had gone too far as Margaret’s eyes brimmed with dark tears. In the shade of the tall skinny silver birch trees she looked waif like, smaller than her normal size.
They continued in silence apart from Margaret’s snivels which dented the air’s stillness in strange, sad bursts. Anne was a little way ahead; she kept looking round at Margaret, at first to smile with sympathy, then to pull silly faces. In the green light her face seemed to float in mid-air, her body broken up by dappled sun and shade. They could hear the sound of plashing water coming closer.
‘There’s the stream. Let’s hide our bikes,’ Laura’s voice sounded a little urgent, as if they were late for something. The three of them worked together quietly, covering the bikes with ferns and genera leaves collected from the stream’s edge. The air became acrid with a liquorice smell. Summer midges pulsed over the water.
‘Socks and sandals off,’ Laura’s voice sounded like a charm.
The three girls sat at the edge of the stream, unbuckling summer sandals and removing white socks in silent accord.
‘It’s not deep; it’ll only get to your shins.’ Laura’s voice was comforting in the gloomy light. ‘Hold your sandals up, come on Margaret, hold my hand,’ and with a rush of sisterly kinship Laura clasped her youngest sister’s hand like she was about to lead her in a game of ‘ring ‘o’ ring a roses.’
Anne’s toes dipped into the water and she crossed the stream by stepping lightly on glistening stones, then she bounded up the mossy bank on the other side. She turned triumphantly but said nothing.
‘You’re doing really well now, Margaret. Best out of all three of us,’ Laura soothed. Anne did several cartwheels in quick succession.
‘Anne, stop showing off. It’s not clever,’ Laura chided as she helped Margaret up the bank; she was breathing heavily. ‘Quick, shoes on.’
‘I can do what I want, Laura, you’re not the boss of me.’ Anne and Laura squared up to each other briefly; then Anne skipped ahead, her hands skimming clumps of white bryony and devil’s parsley that covered the woodland floor.
They moved together, wading through undergrowth. Anne collected some cow’s parsley, the pretty flowers dropping instantly, catching like confetti onto her dress. Hawthorn trees squatted around the girls, hard and sharp with rutted bark; they were covered in small red berries that hung in glossy bunches, each berry with a black tip so they looked like strange jewelled bugs.
‘This is the clearing!’ Laura pointed ahead. As the girls emerged from a line of rowan bushes they found themselves in a meadow enclosed entirely by different thorn trees. At the centre was an ancient tree with enormous spreading branches. The three girls remained at the edge of the space for a few moments, the air quickened around them with summer gnats caught in the rays of the sun. The meadow rippled down the hill to an expanse of silvery green water and,at its centre, was a small green island.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Margaret said, her voice mimicking the sound of her teacher, Miss Croft, who found many things beautiful, particularly Margaret’s neat writing.
‘Come on,’ Laura sprang forward, racing, hardly catching a breath. Her sisters ran after her, heads thrown back, shouting at the sky. When they reached the tree they were out of breath with laughter; they tried to encircle it with their outstretched arms.
‘It’s massive, it’s the biggest tree in the world,’ Anne cried, eyes darting for some foot hold.
‘Una, Una, I’m here. I said I’d come.’ Laura was looking up into the stippled green canopy.
There was a voice from high above. At first it giggled; then they heard ‘come up.’
‘How?’ Anne asked, still searching for a way up the tree.
‘Okay, I’ll come down,’ said the voice.
Anne reached up as far as she could and ran her hands over the rutted, corky bark. Margaret lay down under the tree’s cool shade, spreading out her arms, feeling the grass beneath. Laura’s lips parted slightly, as if she was about to say something. They could hear rustling above in the tree but couldn’t see anyone.
‘I’ve been here since dawn,’ the voice said, it was sweet and high.
‘No, you haven’t,’ shouted Anne, chin jutting out, looking keenly into the mosaic green sea above her.
‘I can come here whenever I want.’ Now almost a whisper, teasing.
Anne looked over to her sister. ‘Laura, is that true?’ Laura was very still; she didn’t respond.
Then Una appeared, crouching on one of the thicker branches above them, her dark eyes almost sleepy, her long dark hair swirling slowly in the warm air.
‘Let’s go swimming,’ and as she said this, she jumped forward, caught hold of a branch and swung to the ground.
‘We can’t swim. Mum would be cross,’ said Margaret.
‘Okay, you can watch,’ Una smiled at them. They all smiled back.
The edge of the lake was boggy, fringed with clumps of white, fluffy meadow sweet, and tall spikes of purple loose strife. The air smelt of sweet almond and hummed with the sound of bees and hover flies. Una led the three girls round to a natural sloping beach of fine light brown sand.
‘You can paddle here.’ Una had taken off her summer dress and was wading in, in vest and knickers. The sisters stared at each other. Anne moved first kicking off her sandals and socks.
‘We can dry our vests and knickers in the sun,’ Laura said, bending down to look into Margaret’s eyes, gently holding onto the tips of her fingers.
As the four girls waded into the water, their breath caught by the chill on their bare skin, they held hands and grinned as if they shared a secret.
‘There’s an island at the centre of the lake. I have a den there. There’re water voles at the edge and frogs. A heron lands there, I’ve seen him, brings fish to eat. Have you seen how a heron kills a fish? He spears it with his beak.’ As Una talked she moved further into the water so it was soon up to her chest. The water was up to Margaret’s neck now.
‘I can’t swim,’ Margaret said.
‘That’s ok. It doesn’t get much deeper than this. We can wade over together.’ Una’s voice rippled across the water.
The sun’s glare on the surface of the lake was so bright and the girls could only see their circle of fingers touching. Margaret was now on her tiptoes, edging her way along, her toes feeling for something firm to hold on to.
‘Laura, I want to go back, I want to go back,’ Margaret pulled her hands away breaking the circle, her head suddenly submerged.
From the bank they could hear shouting, a deep voice, and they could see a greenish grey shape moving towards them within the bright glare, first splashing, and then the rhythmic sounds of limbs striking the water.
‘Margaret, Margie…’ Anne shouted, trying to part the water with her hands. Laura threw herself under the surface, and emerged immediately coughing, her eyes wild, her mouth like a gash.
The two girls stared at each other, grasping hands. Suddenly the huge frame of Mr Green emerged from under the water, holding Margaret in his arms; she was clinging onto Mr Green’s ears, her eyes and mouth clamped shut. When she opened her eyes she looked up at Mr Green, her face white, her cheeks filled with air as she held her breath. When they reached the water’s edge Mr Green lightly placed Margaret on the sand. She was still holding onto his ears.
‘Now I know my ears are big, but let’s not make them any bigger,’ he said. ‘Well, I did tell you to think on, didn’t I? Good job I was nearby.’ He didn’t sound angry.
The three girls huddled together. They looked across the lake towards the island. They could see Una’s dark figure crouching down at the water’s edge, her hair falling into the water. Mr Green waded into the water, cupped his hands and shouted, ‘Oi, missy, you need to get back over here now.’
Later that day, after they had been given a good telling off from everyone, and had been forbidden to ever go anywhere near the clearing again, or indeed, near Una again, they were allowed to sleep together in the same bed and drink warm milk with sugar.
‘I think we should play in the garden, tomorrow,’ said Margaret, ‘Mum said we could turn the garage into a theatre for performances and such. I could show everyone how long I can hold my breath. ’
‘Margaret, you’re such a scaredy cat. I don’t care what you two do but I’m off down the rucks,’ said Laura, her voice moving through a yawn. And the three of them fell into the same dream about green giants and nymphs with long dark hair and sleepy eyes.