Awake

He pedals with bold, heavy movements and when there’s an incline, he swings his legs out and flies, silent and free. I envy him his perfect happiness. I pedal as fast as I can, always behind him, trying to copy. He’s wearing shorts, quite rightly. It’s a balmy summer holiday evening, the air still baked in the last of the day’s heat. I chose jeans, and now I regret them, but I don’t like my legs very much. They’re not like his.

The path is rough as we come off the main track and make our way through the trees, down to the reservoir. I match the path that Adam carves out, avoiding the larger piles of bracken. At some point there’s a stream. He manages to sail through with rough, angry grace. I ready myself, I pray, and yes, I’ve managed to do it too. The icy water splashes onto my ankles. The sudden cold is a shock; it propels me onwards.

A clearing gives us a view now of the water. I like this place, we both do, though it’s the first time we’ve come here this summer. It’s only the second time I’ve done anything with him this summer. The reservoir ripples slightly. It’s vast, like an ancient lake, like it’s always been here. The water is a dark velvet blue, deep and unforgiving.

Adam holds a hand up, signalling to stop, and we leave our bikes just on the edge of the woods. We walk along grass then down to a small stone beach. It’s rough and more concrete really. Nothing about the reservoir is natural, really, apart from the animals adapted to it. It’s on top of an old village, in fact. Atlantis in Wales.

For a while, we run around, exploring the area we already know. We throw stones across the water from a small pier. I try to teach Adam how to skim a stone, but he’s heavy handed and more impatient than me. I’m smaller and manage the perfect manoeuvre for it. He picks up a larger rock and throws it as far as he can. We watch as the heavy ripples stretch out.

‘Luke, do you think we can hit the steeple?’ Adam asks. ‘Go for it,’ I reply, ‘but we’ll never know if we do.’ He means the church steeple, the tallest part, the point that might someday stretch from the water. I’ve never seen it – the water has never dropped low enough to reveal any of the village. I asked about it at home once, but my parents weren’t sure. It was flooded for the reservoir long before they were there.

‘What do you think it’s like down there?’ I ask. ‘Do you think it’s still like a village? All the same buildings?’

‘Who knows,’ Adam answers, running to the end of the pier and gazing down. ‘I think it’s haunted,’ he says, turning with a serious face to me. I snort, but he nods his head. ‘Oh yes. Full of ghosts. All the drowned people still trapped there. That’s why you don’t see anyone swimming.’

I protest, happy to correct him. ‘But last time we saw all those dogs swimming, remember? In the spring.’

Adam ponders this but shakes his head. ‘They’re not interested in dogs,’ he says, and I take ‘them’ to be the reservoir ghosts. ‘They’re waiting for something.’

‘What for?’

‘What do you think? For revenge. Revenge on whoever flooded their village for this.’ He stretches his arms wide, across the expanse of water. ‘No one knows if they got out in time. What if some of them were in a bunker or something, expecting it not to happen, refusing to budge? Then when it’s too late, they’re trapped. They try to swim up, to swim out of it, but the pressure gets them, they suffocate…’ I wince. ‘Now they’re lost there, waiting to take whoever it is back, and torture their soul…’ He tells this tale with glee. I roll my eyes a few times, but the images stay rooted in my imagination. I cast about for something else. ‘Do you want to try and build a fire later?’

*

I watch as Adam tramps through the leaf litter, pausing here and there and collecting something, examining it. Then, if it’s good enough for the fire, he’ll toss it back in my direction. My job is to build up the fire itself. I have the delicate job, domestic and precise. He hunkers around, in the wild, using his wit and working on luck alone. I don’t really know why we’re friends.

I think about him at school. He never talks to me really, not there. He is a year older, and has different classes, different friends. Sometimes I hear them on the bus, laughing and talking about things I don’t understand. If we’re alone at school – passing in the toilets or changing rooms – he might nod, might say hi, but that’s about it. One day I’ll understand that, I suppose. We’re only really friends because we live on the same street. Now we’re building a fire together.

‘Luke!’ he shouts suddenly, beckoning me over. ‘Look at this!’

It’s probably a dead animal. I weave my way clumsily through, curious as anything, but when I get there it’s just that stream again. I look questioningly at him. ‘In the water,’ he says, his face aglow with excitement. I peer into it, and just tucked under the icy ripples is a mountain of unopened beer cans, as well as two small bottles of vodka. You’d think it was rubbish, but it’s all been placed very carefully.

‘Whose is it?’ I ask. He doesn’t know; he looks around and then points. Up ahead is a single dark tent. Nothing moves inside or around it. We look back at the bounty.

‘They must be keeping it cool,’ I say, and he nods a little impatiently, crouches down. He reaches forward and takes one of the small vodkas. ‘No,’ I whisper dramatically, ‘we can’t.’

‘Hang on,’ he says in a subtle voice. ‘I’m only going to try.’ He unscrews the red cap and sniffs at it, then sips. I thought he would be much more confident, but I notice him wince the first time. On his second little swig he seems much happier. I have never had a drink, not something proper, like vodka. I wonder how experienced he is. I know I’ll try it when he asks me. I don’t want to, but I do want to.

‘Go on,’ he says, probably expecting a protest, but I take it immediately and do the same as him. It’s vile, like a poison, and I have no idea what pleasure anyone could ever get from the taste. I silently swallow it down and nod. Adam doesn’t take any more, that would look suspect. I’m quite glad. I stand up and return to my fire building, and he follows in a moment with the last lot of wood.

‘What can we start it with?’ I ask with a sudden panic. ‘I don’t know how to do the stick-rubbing thing.’

Without a word he digs into his shorts pocket and holds up an old, slightly rusted lighter. ‘I took it from George’s room,’ he says. George is his older, dark-haired brother. I try not to think about George too much.

The lighter takes a few strikes but eventually we have fire. Nothing more than sloppy, irregular flames, but enough to watch. Silence falls between us; now we have nothing to do. I can’t find anything to say, and notice again the gap between us, the refusal to form a friendship in the light of day. I look at the reservoir and wonder if we’ll do this again.

‘Luke,’ Adam says suddenly. The word almost makes me jump; it’s been so quiet. ‘Yes?’

‘Look what I’ve got.’ He reaches into his cargo pocket and pulls out one of the cans of beer. I never noticed him take one. ‘You shouldn’t have taken it!’ I hiss, looking at the trees with the tent within. I worry who might be there, who would mind.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ Adam replies sharply, ‘who’s taking count?’ He cracks it open and takes a few heavy, long slurps. Beer is in his comfort zone, then. He burps and passes it to me. I defiantly place it to my mouth and finish it. It’s gross, but now who’s stupid?

‘Nice,’ he approves, and glances back. ‘Might get another in a bit.’

‘No…’ I begin, but actually I don’t really care anymore; I wouldn’t mind it myself. I stand up suddenly. I want to swim. ‘I’m going to swim,’ I announce. This is surprising only to me, but I feel in this moment as though I can. I shouldn’t have stood too fast as I’ve got an awful head rush. I hope he gets that beer soon.

The stone pier is cold and harsh in barefoot. I’ve taken my shoes and socks off only. I won’t take anything else off until I’m there, away from sight. When I reach the end, I look at the water. It’s dark, and huge. There isn’t much light left in the sky. There’s a cool breeze invading the summer evening. I don’t want to do it.

‘Go on then!’ I hear from a distance. I knew he would. My head is swimming; it’s the only thing swimming. I get up, turn to head back but he’s beside me, Adam, except his t-shirt is off. ‘I’m coming too,’ he says, but I shake my head.

I glance, then stare at his chest. There’s some hair there too. He follows my glance, sees me staring, and sees me hold out a hand, reaching forward. A flash of anger sweeps across his face. His eyes are the warning.

He pushes against me.

Black. I’m in a heavy void of nothing, I can’t even think, there’s only rushing. I must have lunged at him too because when I open my eyes, he’s in the water with me. We both flail out, kicking, desperately trying to find the surface in the shock of the cold. I think about the village beneath us, the lost and hungry souls who have surely seen us, and are reaching with rotten fingers towards our kicking legs. I imagine how the clutch of death will feel and I think I shout out. I claw at the stone pier and instead of a hand at my leg, a powerful one grabs my wrist, then my other, and hauls me up.

We lie on the stone pier, side by side, panting and trying to ease the race in our chests. I roll over and throw up over the side of the pier – mostly water and beer, I suppose. I don’t know what to do next. I wish I were still down there, because now Adam must hate me. I know why he pushed me in.

Adam gets up after a while and walks to the stone beach. I watch him look at the remains of the fire, kick at it, put his shirt back on. I wait for him to leave, but he doesn’t. He turns back and waves at me, calling me over.

‘Alright?’ he asks, lifting my bike up. In his rucksack there’s a jacket. ‘Dry yourself with that,’ he says. ‘Not ideal, but it’s something.’

‘Thank you,’ I say quietly. I mean it too. Thank you for today, thank you for saving me, thank you – for staying to leave with me.

We cycle in the moonlight and part company at the end of the street.

 

 

For more of Alex Pickett’s writing, read ‘A Stone’s Throw’ and ‘He’.

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