The Camp

It was the sort of summer that childhoods are made of. Halcyon days. I don’t even know what a halcyon is, but the word is older than I am and who am I to argue? The air was the scent of pine and wood smoke and the deep smell of musty canvas; tents unaired at any point of the year save this one weekend. Of course, we didn’t appreciate it – the organisation that had gone into co-ordinating four groups of Scouts from across the county and the Guides too; just one troop of those, but more than we’d had on camp before. They’d set up in a secluded part of the site, down river, hidden from view, like a stately home shielded from the rabble. We didn’t appreciate how much effort went in, but you don’t when you’re a kid – we didn’t think that way.

This treasure trove of Guides couldn’t be kept hidden, though, not with group games and craft sessions and archery and all the rest. It was in the twang of bowstrings that Eddie came up with THE PLAN. We were older, getting to the point of no return, the point where we were stretching street cred to keep up with the Scouting anyway and soon we’d be done with it altogether. We were cooler than that. Eddie was the coolest of all, with cigars stolen from his dad hidden in his spare roll mat.

‘We’ll blow off the camp fire,’ he said, ‘be so busy no one will notice.’

A blow off; it was important that we kept our freedom, took this one chance to do as we wanted, whilst the parental eye had given us over to someone else’s lackadaisical care. We all agreed hurriedly, only Bisley raised objection, but he found fault with anything. Eddie stared him down. We stepped forward and shot for the targets, an erratic flurry of arrows. Laughter, like honey or gold, sounded from nearby. The Guides, temporarily forgotten in the making of THE PLAN, were abroad, allowed out of the seclusion, like nuns visiting the sickly townsfolk.

The girl laughing at our bowmanship was beauty; freckled nose with pixie eyes, angel-blonde hair and pale wrists encircled with silver bracelets. She approached, a gaggle of her cohorts coming with her, all taking places in the lines for the bow stations. I foisted my bow, the handle cracked and a sun-weathered red, onto a boy from another troop and claimed my place at the back of the queue with the pale wristed Guide.

I didn’t ask her name, because that would diminish it somehow, but she told me without asking. Beatrice. She said it with defiance, expecting laughter and hoping to quell it in advance. I didn’t find the joke. Lacking anything interesting to say, I told her about THE PLAN. She threatened to expose us, to put away all our hopes, to despoil our courage and leave us to campfire songs and homemade blankets. I protested, voice hushed, entreating. She smirked at me, eyelashes fluttering and brokered a deal for her silence. A meeting with me, alone, at the time of THE PLAN, under the small stone bridge about ten minutes from the camp site. I hungrily agreed, not seeing her purpose. Then, she leaned in and whispered it to me, lips brushing my virgin ear. I froze and she laughed her honey once more, stepped to the mark and loosed a shaft directly to the target’s heart.

The time eked away in leather working and woggle making, in camp food and weak squash. Eddie whispered to his chosen eight throughout the afternoon of the promise that lay before us. I said nothing of my promise and my intent to keep it at all costs. By dinner time, the Guides had once again retreated to their bastion, watched hawk-eyed by every boy until the last blue jumper slid between the trees and melted into the air.

Dusk came slowly, the heat of the earth keeping the tent warm to baking, the sides rolled up to allow the miniscule breeze access. I heard Eddie and Bisley moving from the tent next to ours, creeping away to the broken stile that was our meeting place. Go on without me, boys, I thought and crawled free of my own tent to the safety of the tree line, where thick conifer obscured the track that ran by the river.

Canoes had been stacked here ahead of tomorrow’s activity time and I hesitated in case one of the leaders was still finalising the crafts. All was quiet, everyone would be heading for the fire clearing, and I was alone in the failing light with flitting moths and pipistrelles winging silently after them. The river gurgled below at the bottom of a grassy slope. I kept to the track above and made my way towards the bridge. The route brought me past the Guides’ camp; I could hear tent pegs being fastened where the darkness had obscured guy ropes from tripping feet. Trees prevented me from being discovered, but the enormity of what I was doing suddenly fell on me and I stopped stock still. The bridge, still invisible in the rapidly closing gloom, lay ahead. Closing my eyes so that I couldn’t see what I was doing and be scared of the consequences, I dashed forward, thinking of freckles and whispers, oblivious to danger.

She won’t be here, she won’t be here, she won’t be here. The words played a shambling tattoo in my head as I slipped down the bank and gained the towpath. The bridge was a bold shadow ahead, grass growing around its base; it was uncared for and unused. I moved into the deep shadows beneath it and pressed myself against the cold stone, idly fingering at a hole in my jeans, a souvenir of my crawl.

The drip of water and the steady swirl of the river were the only sounds as I stood there, slightly breathless, waiting for Beatrice and the event she had brought me here for. I was nervous, aware of my body in a way that I had never been before, aware of what was about to happen with it, to it. I floundered on the edge of panic, buffeted by desire, by hope, by the imminent culmination of so many hours of dreaming. I looked eagerly down the towpath, waiting for her blue jumper to appear there, for I was convinced that it would be the first thing of her I saw.

She was not there, though, and I turned to look behind me in case she has come around the bridge in order to avoid being seen. It was then that I saw her, not behind me, as I had imagined, but across the water on the opposite path to mine. She was not alone, her pale wrists outstretched, her hand disappearing into Bisley’s trousers. He stood, grasping at her, grabbing her breasts under that blue jumper, which was tucked unceremoniously beneath her armpits. I don’t know why I stayed to watch them, watch the whole thing, which must have been over in a matter of seconds, watched her lift her leg and place it awkwardly out from her body to allow him inside, to thrust, to spurt in ecstasy. I imagined her face remaining passive, untouched, untroubled, filled in for what the shadow of the bridge hid from me. The truth may have been different.

Afterwards, they stumbled to the floor, wasted on one another. I pressed myself closer to the bridge, further into shadow. I did not turn to run until I heard him suggest they go again, and that golden laugh that had entranced me with bow in hand floated across the water, coquettish and suggestive. The gasps began again and I fled, my feet pounding over the grass and not stopping until the sounds of Ging Gang Goolie hung in the air around me. I slunk into the clearing and felt my face tingle at the heat of the fire, and the lurking cold in my stomach that no flame could touch.

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