The aftermath of the school production of Romeo and Juliet was like a lit box of damp fireworks. Things fizzled and threatened to explode after I had obliquely asked Mr Rupert Acres for the hand of his daughter Emily in marriage.
Mrs Angela Acres had fainted and the school nurse was quietly asking the textiles teacher, Ms Evans, whether she should sedate or revive her. I believe a splint was being contemplated, although they couldn’t decide on which limb.
Mr Acres seemed to be in shock and was sitting on a tombstone stage prop and staring blankly into space and nodding vacantly. My dad, a plumber, was trying to take advantage of the situation and sell him a new central heating system for the manor house.
My mum had cornered Emily against the balcony scaffold and was, I believe, reminiscing about her own wedding. Emily, like many kids today, was ignoring her completely and texting manically.
My phone dinged. “Wtf? - Em”
“I was going to jokingly ask to meet your dad in, like, three years,” I typed back lamely. My high from playing Romeo to Emily’s Juliet had already deflated as the enormous stupidity of what I’d just done set in.
“In three years you won’t have to ask daddy,” Emily replied. Then, a moment later, “But ever ask my dad before you ask me - ever again - and they won’t ever find your body,” she added, without appending any cheerful emojis. Gosh, could she text fast. I looked up at her, her head down, illuminated in the glow of her screen, and tried to read her expression. Was she angry or happy or what? She seemed to be seething. I felt faint.
“Sorry, not as funny as I thought it would be. I’ll make it up to you, promise,” I offered. Emily looked up quickly and our eyes met. She seemed less angry now. She smirked. “I’ll think of something – Em,” came back as she touch-typed without looking at the screen.
I headed over towards her and grabbed my mum by the arm. “Sorry, mum, it was just a joke! Please, it was just a joke!” I apologised, trying to tug her away from my ‘secret’ girlfriend. Emily slipped past us and went over and stood in front of her dad with her hands on her hips. She had a no-nonsense, telling-off-a-naughty-boy look which she must have learned from Ms Florence, the drama teacher. Her dad jolted and his eyes started to focus on Emily as his brain unfogged. “Daddy, it was just a joke! I’m not getting married any time soon. Lets go home.”
And so things defused and everyone began to drift towards the exit, flowing past a speechless Ms Florence as though she were a rock in a stream.
When my family eventually reached the parking lot, I saw the nurse and Ms Evans helping a wobbly Mrs Acres into the Acres’s Range Rover. Mrs Acres had to turn her whole body to turn her head on account of the cervical collar they had just fitted.
On the way home I frantically tried to recall who knew what: Emily Acres and me - Will Palmer - were boyfriend and girlfriend, but in secret.
The drama teacher, Ms Sarah Florence, and her partner, the textiles teacher, Ms Janice Evans, both knew about us and had been instrumental in engineering the downfall of Emily’s family’s preferred suitor, David Ross.
David Ross suspected it. He was chairman of the local young conservatives association and captain of the school rugby team. He’d always been told he was going to marry Emily and I guess if you’re told something often enough you begin to believe it’s true. He had proposed to Emily twice in as many weeks and the realisation that Emily wasn’t just playing hard to get hadn’t really sunk in.
No other schoolkids knew, except the black-haired, bombshell Ruth Abbot, who was now firm friends with Emily and trusted by Ms Florence. Even my school friends Kev and James didn’t know. Like much of the school, they were assuming that I was chasing Ruth, misinterpreting the way she kept coming over to my table at lunchtime to deliver secret messages that they didn’t know were from Emily.
My parents and brother, Simon, knew. But who would they tell? I suspected they had told the whole village, but lacking any evidence of public displays of affection, nobody believed them.
Emily’s parents, Mr Rupert and Mrs Angela Acres, were the lord and lady of the manor in my village. They refused to believe that Emily and I had any kind of relationship; such a thought was unthinkable, given the gulf in social standing between our families. Emily was mistress of the manor and I was the son of a plumber! Impossible.
Which left me wondering what Emily thought. Was I really just her ‘bit of rough’, as David had once taunted?
My phone dinged: “Midnight feast? – Em”! I sent back a thumbs-up emoji.
So if my life was a play, would it be a comedy or a tragedy?
I had to lay down some heavy hints about, “Oh, what an exhausting evening!” “Oh, look at the time!” “Oh, aren’t we all tired?” to get my parents upstairs workably early. Then I hid in my room until five minutes to twelve. Finally, after hours of clock watching, I crept downstairs (avoiding the squeaky step) like a cat burglar and let myself out of the house as quietly as possible.
It was deathly quiet as I stalked that moonlit night down the field edge towards the copse. As I paused level with the tree-house everything was completely silent. And then...
“Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Oh, the joy of hearing her voice beckoning!
I launched myself across the ditch and jumped the lower rungs of the ladder and scaled up into the tree-house! The hatch was open and, with great urgency, Emily heaved me in as soon as my shoulders breached.
She was all over me, pinning me down, peppering me with kisses. “Don’t” ... kiss... “ever ... kiiissss ... Do ... kiiiisssss ... that... (deep breath... ) again!”
I could see the determined glint in her eyes as she paused, assessing me to see if I was going to be compliant. “And don’t forget, it’s supposed to be Juliet who proposes to Romeo,” she added.
“Which Juliet did tonight in front of the whole school!” I reminded her, “And at loads of rehearsals, too!”
“Well, that was just practice! And there was hardly the whole school there!” she retorted, and then launched a tickling attack. I defended myself and we rolled around and eventually, fighting for breath, kissed and made up.
Enough moonlight penetrated the canopy and streamed through the window for me to see her face as she lay beside me, panting. The shadows of her two little, conical breasts rose and fell as we recuperated.
“We need to work on sound proofing,” Emily said thoughtfully. A sudden fear that our giggles and bumping around could have woken the whole row of cottages chilled me to the bone.
“We need an extension!” she added, warming to the subject. “There’s loads videos of stuff about ‘tiny homes’ and ‘tree houses’ on the internet. I’ve been watching...”
I studied her face carefully. She seemed terribly excited.
“And I’ve been researching! Will, you are so very good at building things, can’t we have an extension?”
There was an expectant tone in that final word. She was serious!
“Well, honey, what if people notice?”
“Yes, I know its silly, but I can’t shake the idea. We could build a new tree-house in the manor wood! We could have a lounge, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, turrets and...” she grasped my collar with both fists to make sure she had my attention for the finale, “ ... a proper balcony I can use when I need you to come up!”
The sparkle in her eye told it all; she knew it was silly and she desperately needed to do it, anyway.
She deflated slightly, “Of course, we’d get caught. The gamekeeper is very loyal to daddy...”
There was a sigh and a pause.
“But when it’s our wood, we will build it and it will be great!” she recovered cheerfully.
My head spun. ‘When it’s our wood?’ Was she serious?
“And at least you’ll let me redecorate in here! Do you think we can run electricity out from your workshop? Does the workshop have mains water? We can’t just run the waste into the stream...”
“No! Stop it! That would be crazy! You are mad!” I giggled encouragingly.
Emily snuggled down, tucking herself under my armpit and melting into me. “I set my phone alarm for three. Wake me then?” and we kissed tenderly ‘good night’. It was clear that Emily wasn’t going to let me do anything more - so, resignedly, we napped.
I had to drag myself to school the next morning. My limbs felt like lead. I had slept with my girlfriend – and, yes, I mean slept - and I was feeling exhausted. Emily stood with the girls at the bus-stop looking even worse.
A girl in the year below giggled, “Hi, Romeo,” as we passed in the school corridor. Another group of younger girls blushed when I accidentally glanced in their direction. And David Ross gave me an angry shove by the lockers. This was new: I wasn’t used to anyone recognising me. I wasn’t used to any kind of attention or reaction at all. But I was in a school of over a thousand students and at least nine hundred and ninety still had no idea who I was – only the kids whose parents forced them to go to the play because a brother or sister was in it would have gone. And all my classmates were oblivious of the fact that I was even in the play, let alone playing a leading part and kissing Emily Acres on stage! A big, happy part of me wanted to announce to the world that Emily was my girlfriend. A wiser part of me suppressed the urge.
I saw Emily at lunchtime when I was helping disassemble the set we had built for the play. She was in deep, whispering conversation with Ms Florence and Ms Evans in the corner of the assembly hall while the scenery gang – I was still a member – slaved. I could tell they were up to something.
Ms Florence waylaid me as everyone filed out just before the start of the afternoon classes. “Mr Palmer,” she commanded. There was an edge to her voice. It was the kind of like the tone my mother uses when she calls me ‘William’. The rest of the crew left, giving me ‘you’re-in-trouble’ smirks and questioning glances on the way.
“Mr Palmer, that was an extremely stupid thing you did last night.” Ms Florence announced even before the last of the crew were out of sight. She had her hands on her hips and was standing up tall, eyeing me. It was a pose I’d seen before: it was exactly the same no-nonsense pose that Emily had used on her dad.
I looked around warily, wishing her stern voice didn’t carry and echo, so.
I knew she meant me asking Mr Acres for an appointment to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
“I am appalled at your stupidity. What do you have to say for yourself?” Her tone, now, was irritation with a dose of disappointment.
“Sorry, it was a joke,” I apologised lamely, avoiding her eyes.
“You cannot act. I have told you so.” She seemed crosser again, now. “You cannot act. And it wasn’t a joke”
She had simply stated the truth, and she knew it. I nodded.
“Will, dear, you hardly know Emily. You might think you know her, but you don’t. Not well enough to marry. At first you were just her escape, her vent. And then, all I ever cast you as was as a bit part - a knight in shining armour. Now, there is a risk things are going to get serious, and you have to proceed carefully.” She started to lecture me in a quieter, even tone. “That is, if you care for her,” she whispered.
“I really care,” I whispered even more meekly, still avoiding her eyes.
“Oh, dear. Oh, well. So be it. I suspect she is beginning to feel the same way about you. I will try to help. But you really must avoid Mr and Mrs Acres! And you must keep this secret! Anyone finds out, and I mean anyone, and it’s curtains for your chances.” She seemed resigned. “Dismissed.”
That gave me plenty to think about through the afternoon. And now there was no Dance Club after school with Ms Florence every day, nor Ruth neither. I missed that. So I was on the normal bus home, sitting alone as usual. Unusually, Emily was also sitting alone a few rows further back. That usually meant I was going to get some texts on the journey home.
Sure enough, as soon as the bus pulled away from school, my phone dinged: “Do NOT go near it tonight! - Em.”
Intriguing! It must mean the tree-house. Our tree-house. Just what was Emily up to?
I got the exact same text on the way home Tuesday and Wednesday evening, too. It was Thursday when I got “6? - Em” instead. This was new. Normally, we didn’t meet week nights because Emily had to exercise the horses. I had a feeling this week had been different. I stole away after dinner and approached the tree-house from the field side.
The first thing I noticed was that some balustrade from the school play balcony had been tacked to the back wall beneath the window. It was very decorative. It was only visible from the field.
The next thing I noticed was that there was a light on inside the tree-house. The evenings were getting longer quickly and it was still light, but you could still see the brighter glow from inside.
And the third thing I noticed, as I finally put my head up into the tree-house, was that the inside was completely redone!
Emily proudly showed me all of her changes. Firstly, she had lined the whole thing with a vapour barrier so it would be dry even in winter. Then the roll-mat had been glued to the floor and the trap-door cut out so we didn’t have to keep laying it out and rolling it up. It was now two layers of roll-mat thick, and considerably spongier. The trap-door had some draft-proofing around it to dampen the thud when it closed, and a bungee cord from the door to the back wall gave it some spring so it hardly clonked at all. The walls and ceiling were padded with a soft, squidgy foam that had a gently undulating ripple pattern on it. That offered some insulation, as well as some sound proofing, Emily explained. There was a small, black-out curtain to draw across the window. And in the corner, Emily had stood a chunky camping lamp with, she showed me, an LED and a red-light setting. This would help with our night-vision she giggled. It was wonderful!
It was now even smaller inside our tree-house. Taking an inch or two from every wall, the floor, and especially the ceiling, really made it feel much smaller. But it was soft and padded and very cosy. Emily had even scattered some cushions around. The rugs that Ms Florence had given us the night we hid here after the hunt ball smelled freshly washed.
“Sarah drove me to the builder’s merchants. And Janice ‘borrowed’ the foam from the music practice rooms,” Emily elaborated, using air-quote fingers around the word ‘borrowed’. Now I knew for certain that those two teachers knew about the tree-house. “Apparently, this is a death-trap and we are breaking every building regulation in the book...” she faded away. We smiled at each other. I gave her a congratulatory kiss.
The kissing escalated and soon we were bouncing off the padded cell walls as we tongue wrestled all over our tiny little love nest.
“Please move your hand. Lower! NO! Higher! That’s better.” Emily put the brakes on my hesitant exploration, keeping my hand firmly within the boundaries of her tummy.
Time flew. It was getting late.
“Phew! Phewee! We really need to fix the ventilation! We could asphyxiate in here if we get any hotter!” Emily exclaimed. And so we opened the hatch and tumbled out and staggered around outside trying to suck in some fresh air. It was time to go home.
Ms Florence cornered me on my way to lunch again. She was making a habit of it. Clearly she knew my timetable just as well as I did. She was playing her ‘secret agent’ role again, scanning the corridor for anyone watching us as she pushed me into an empty classroom and closed the door behind her.
“We really must stop meeting like this,” she sounded as though she was telling me off, although she was grinning.
“Well its you who keeps ambushing me!” I tried to defend myself.
“Listen carefully, I will say zis only once,” she interrupted in an extremely fake French accent. And then in her normal stern tone, “Tonight is school parents evening. I am a teacher, ergo, I will have to be at the school and meet the parents of those students sensible enough to elect to take drama...”
I began to wonder where this was going.
“I have a favour to ask you, Will.”
She looked at me questioningly, as though she was wanting me to agree to help her before she actually told me what it was she wanted me to do.
“I guess I owe you...” I heard myself concede.
“I guess you do, buster! Now, have you ever tidied up after a horse?”
And so she started giving me detailed instructions on how to muck out a stable and I left fifteen minutes later, late for lunch and with little appetite. Her parting words were, “And now, I guess you owe me big time!”. Baffling.
That evening I changed into rough old jeans and t-shirt and headed off to the manor stables. I was tempted to borrow one of my brother Si’s trendy t-shirts, but I knew he’d explode if he caught me. Not worth the risk. And it wasn’t as though anyone would see me; after all, Emily’s parents would be at the school parents evening just like mine.
Oh no, what if they met? Would my parents do anything stupid? I tried to block out the bad thoughts, but I was beginning to get filled with a sense of foreboding.
I found the stables easily enough. There was nobody about. I headed in warily. Everything was exactly as Ms Florence – well, should I call her Sarah now we were outside school? – had described it. There, on the end, was Val’s stall. Valerie was Ms Florence’s mare. She was out in the field at the back. The manure from the night before still sat in little piles in the stall, and the heat of the day made it smell sweet and ripe. The stench of maturing horse manure would normally be enough to make me retreat, but a promise is a promise, so I unbolted the door and went in with a wheelbarrow.
There was a therapeutic calm in mucking out a stable; yes it sounds silly, and no, it wouldn’t be cool to do it often nor be made to do it, but because I was doing Ms Florence a favour and because it was a bounded task with an end in sight, I actually felt quite cheerful. I was feeling proud of myself. I tried to do a good job.
It was when I was wheeling a full barrow out that I met her. Emily was just coming around the corner. She stopped, shocked. I stood still, shocked too. It took us a moment to unfreeze.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, disbelieving.
I waved back at Val’s stall and tried to explain.
I began to see it all now; so obviously this was why Ms Florence and Emily were so close! Duh, Ms Florence stabled her horse at the manor. She and Emily probably met here in the stables and talked most evenings. They were probably real friends. No wonder Ms Florence knew about me from when I first helped Emily and we began to spend time together. No wonder Ms Florence knew all about the tree-house. No wonder Ms Florence had been sufficiently motivated to plot to prevent Emily’s engagement to David Ross. The only remaining question was, just how much did Emily know about Ms Florence’s scheming?
Emily composed herself again. She couldn’t stand there talking all evening as she had to get on and muck out after the other horses, so I helped her. She wasn’t lazy and I pushed myself to keep up with her and shovel as quickly and effectively as she did. Then we put in fresh bedding and went out to get the horses. They all came over as soon as Emily appeared, and followed her into the stables and peeled off into their own stalls without Emily even having to touch them. They were all so docile and used to the routine. They eyed me and dismissed me; I was neither interesting nor a threat.
Then Emily brought her mum’s horse, Clive, out to a large ring in the barn abutting the stable block. The buildings were connected and we didn’t have to go outside. She started lunging Clive on a long line. I stood beside her and had to spin around with her, trying to keep out of the way. We talked about horses. Emily wanted to compete in steeplechases! As in real steeplechases, not the kind of thing you see on telly, which is racing around an oval like hurdles for horses. As in racing across the fields between two churches, jumping all obstacles in the way. Like fox hunting without the hounds and the fox. It sounded fast paced, challenging and exhilarating. Emily wound up to hyperventilating excitement, just describing it.
And then it was time to fill the mangers, and to do this we had to go up into the hay loft.
Following the mistress of the manor up into a hay loft has to be every stable-boy’s wet dream. The nice, sweet smell, the nice, soft bedding, the warm, happy atmosphere ... It was exactly as seductive in real life as it is in the films. I gently toppled Emily into the loose hay and we started frolicking. Her mouth sought out mine and we kissed deeply as our bodies wriggled together willingly. I could feel her heart beating against mine.
Suddenly Emily leaped up, her face bright red. She put one arm and hand defensively across her chest. “You groped me!” she accused.
I spluttered. I hadn’t meant to. I hadn’t noticed it. We had just been rolling around tickling each other as we kissed. Our kissing often became horizontal and wriggly and we’d done it a dozen times before in the tree-house. Now we were just taking advantage of the additional lateral space in the hay loft to get rather more rolling in. Perhaps I had touched her ... but only an accidental glancing brush?
She stood there looking at me. Her knees went together and her free hand swung down to cover her crotch. She was protecting her modesty through her clothes.
And then it struck me: there was something different about her t-shirt. It wasn’t as as tight as normal. It didn’t stick out so much at the front. That was it! She wasn’t wearing a bra. How very stupid not to have noticed right from the beginning! I had never neglected to check her out before. And now I’d spent the evening with her and not noticed them. I felt a fool.
“Please, go. Just go,” she said spoke so quietly it was almost impossible to hear her. She looked down at the floor. Shame welled in me, even though I was a bit unsure what exactly I’d touched.
“I’m really sorry,” I said quietly. “It honestly was an accident,” I said as I walked slowly past her, hoping beyond hope that she would stop me.
I was half way across the yard before she caught up. She swung me around and landed a quick peck on my lips. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d be here tonight. Or I’d have dressed better.” she said as an explanation. “I still love you.”
I kissed her back, relief flooding over me as I wrapped my hands around her and pulled her tight, hoping to feel, imagining I could feel, the bumps of her nipples against my chest. She had said the L-word! Did she really love me? It was still time to go home and, after a passionate vertical embrace, Emily sprinted back into the stable block and left me to walk home.
It was chilling how close a call it had been: just as I reached the bottom of the manor house drive and turned into the lane towards home, the Acres Range Rover wooshed past me and braked just enough to swing wildly in. I had had to leap up onto the verge out the way. Mr and Mrs Acres hadn’t even noticed me; Mr Acres seemed angry, eyes locked ahead, and Mrs Acres could only look forwards on account of the collar. They seemed to be fuming.
There was a definite atmosphere in the cottage when I got home. Mum and dad were just back from the parents evening at the school and they too were fuming. Dad had a puffy black eye. His other eye fixed me angrily as soon as I opened the front door.
“You stay away from that girl, do you hear me!?” he screamed. His voice normally went lower when he was a normal level of angry; this was a higher-pitched voice instead, full of anxiety and uncertainty. He was shaking. He was scary.
I squashed my back to the wall and slid past him into the kitchen. He turned to watch me pass.
“What happened?” I asked my mum who was standing still, facing the kitchen top in front of the kettle.
“Mr Acres denied that Emily was going out with you. Mrs Acres slapped dad.” my mum said flatly. She didn’t turn around. The kettle steamed; it had recently boiled, but no cups had been poured.
“He said no daughter of his would ever go out with a son of a ... of a ... of a plumber!” my dad expanded, his voice raising to an angry squeak when he finally managed to squeeze the last word out. There was a seething, boiling, anger, causing the words to come out jerkily.
“I don’t think its anyone’s business,” I said defensively. My mum turned around and just looked at me sadly, like I didn’t know how the world worked.
I was having trouble getting to sleep that night. I had skipped dinner on account of having no appetite. I felt sick. I had at least managed to shower the sweet stench of horse wee off of me, though. I lay still, thinking of how messed up my life was. So this had been what Ms Florence had meant when she warned me to keep it all secret from everybody.
My phone dinged. “Go to the stables now. Don’t use a torch. Wear black clothes. Text me as soon as you get there. - Em”
It was a scared Will Palmer who crept down the stairs (avoiding the squeaky step). I could hear my parents still up, muttering in the kitchen. I slipped out, trying to let the latch down as silently as possible. And with heavy footfalls, filled with foreboding, I trekked back towards the manor.
I could see the Acres’s Range Rover parked at a crazy angle in front of the manor house porch, the skid marks of a hurried arrival picked out by the porch lamps. The stables were off to one side, and I had to cross in front of the house to reach them. There were still lights on, and I could see Mr Acres pacing in one of the reception rooms. I was walking on the lawn so as not to crunch the gravel on the driveway. I tried to keep to the shadows of the shrubbery.
When I reached the stables, the horses whinnied. I was relieved that the Acres didn’t have any dogs. At least, I didn’t think they had any. I had never seen any. But what if they had the hunt’s hounds? I was extremely scared. I texted Emily to tell her I had reached the rendezvous.
“There is a ladder on the back wall behind the old dairy. Text me when you’ve found it,” orders came back promptly. I looked around wildly, wondering which building might once have been a dairy.
I found the ladder by elimination. It took a while. I thought Emily might be impatient, but if she was she didn’t show it. “Good boy. Now. place it under the second window, top floor, east wing,” came my next instruction.
I carried the ladder gingerly across the back lawn. If her parents had looked out they would surely have seen me, a man dressed in black and carrying a ladder, bathed in the glow of their exterior lighting.
It took me a while to locate the window. Was the top floor the attic? Where did the east wing start? Which way was east? At last I located what I thought was the window and placed the ladder against the sill. I texted Emily. I was kind of expecting her to tell me to come on up to her, but no reply came. I began to wonder if my text had got through.
But standing still, hiding in the shadows, I suddenly saw the bottom of the window inch upwards. It was an old, sash window and it creaked with even the smallest movement. It took Emily several minutes to raise the window enough to be able to creep out. All the time I was scanning the back of the house, trying to catch a glimpse of her parents if they heard the sound and went to investigate.
And so my girlfriend Emily slowly crept down the ladder and landed beside me, a small suitcase in one hand. We grinned stupidly at one another. Then, without saying anything and without embracing, Emily grabbed my hand and started tugging me away from her home and towards mine.
We were hiding in our tree-house. A silent Emily was curled up in my protective arms. We hadn’t said a word, but it was clear that Emily was running away from home. Did she mean to live in the tree-house? Was she going to go to school? Our exams were soon. What would my parents say? So many questions, but right now didn’t seem the right time to ask them; I was waiting for Emily to start talking.
“They locked me in my room. They want to publicly announce my engagement to David. They say that there are vicious rumours flying around the village that need quashing. I asked what rumours, and they just said they were nasty, unbelievable rumours and that your family started them. Mummy and daddy have forbidden me from ever seeing you again. They say you are a bad apple and people are talking,” Emily said quietly.
“My dad said I wasn’t to see you again, either. Your mum hit him,” I replied. We were both quite calm.
There was a pause as we both contemplated the enforced separation that our parents were planning.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“What does it look like we’re doing? We’re running away!” Emily looked at me confused, as though I had been thick not to realise.
A small voice at the back of my head drew my attention to Emily’s use of the word ‘we’re’. We were running away. Me, too. Emily wasn’t going alone. And of course, I accepted that. No girlfriend of mine was ever going to run away alone.
“How long can we hide here?” I asked. I was sure Emily had it all worked out. It was a shame we hadn’t built the extension to the tree-house as she’d wanted; more space, a kitchen and toilet and so on would have been useful.
“Where does your brother work?” Emily asked, not replying to my question.
“Eh, the meat processing factory up on the industrial estate,” I said meekly.
“What time does he drive in the morning?” Emily followed up. It was becoming obvious what she was planning. Was he going to give us a lift somewhere?
I wasn’t expecting what Emily actually planned at all.
At five, just as the first hint of dawn begun to lighten the sky to the east, Emily shook me awake and we crept down out of our tree-house and stalked quietly back to the manor!
Emily deftly climbed back up the ladder. For a moment I was confused, thinking she was breaking back into her own house, returning to her bedroom, abandoning me. But she slowly inched the window closed again from the outside and then shinnied back down. She beckoned to me to help remove the ladder and we stowed it back behind the old dairy. We were leaving her parents a locked-room mystery; Emily had seemingly vanished.
And then we were saddling Clive and Val. Well, obviously Emily was saddling them. I was standing around awkwardly, being no help at all.
And that was how, at first light, Emily led us off across the fields. She had Val by a halter rope and I was sitting astride Val. It was kind of uncomfortable to trot; Emily seemed to be able to time her ups and downs with Clive but all I did was bump up and down extra much as Val’s gait seemed to constantly catch me off-guard and my timing was terrible.
Ahead of us there was a hedge looming. I couldn’t see a gate. Emily seemed to be heading straight towards the hedge. I was becoming nervous. Were we going to jump it?
We seemed to speed up as we approached closer. Emily was tapping Clive with her heels, encouraging him. Val was matching the pace effortlessly. The horses knew what was going on. “Hold on tight!” Emily whispered commandingly. I did. And then, suddenly, just like that, to a signal I hadn’t seen, we were airborne. We sailed over the hedgerow and landed with the thuds of hoofs on the other side. All I saw was Val’s head rising in front of me on one side of the hedge and then sloping down towards the ground on the other. I felt like I could slip right down off over her head! But Val righted herself and trotted on, in step with Emily on Clive. We’d made it!
There were three more hedges between the manor and the industrial estate. I suspected that Emily was enjoying herself. At least, she was fleeing the manor in style.
It was a shock to reach the industrial estate at six fifteen and see a mini sitting in the middle of an empty car-park. It was Ms Florence and Ms Evans. How did they know?
“I texted them,” Emily said, as though reading my surprise. We trotted up to the waiting car. Our teachers got out.
“Lovely morning for a nice brisk canter,” Ms Florence declared.
“Its not technically morning yet, not in my book,” said Ms Evans sourly. She didn’t seem to be a morning person.
“So, why are we here?” Ms Florence enquired.
“To take the horses back,” Emily replied, in a tone indicating that much ought to be obvious.
“And where are you two off to, so early in the morning?” Ms Florence countered. Her eyes seemed to rest on Emily’s small suitcase. She was drawing herself up in her stern, authoritarian mode so feared by all students.
But it was the first time I had ever literally looked down on her and somehow she seemed smaller, so I felt a bit braver. If Ms Florence lunged for me, could I just trot off? As though Val could read my mind my horse whinnied softly and walked up to her mistress and nuzzled the crook of her arm. My bravery was evaporating.
Emily hopped off of Clive in an lithely elegant motion. However, I managed to get both feet stuck in stirrups as I tried to dismount and a very uneager Ms Evans shoved me back up into the saddle by pushing her large meaty hands against my bottom cheeks. Then she tugged my foot out of the stirrup on her side and, without any apparent effort, lifted me bodily from my steed and put me down next to Emily. She looked at me with disdain - as though I had forced her to intervene.
Emily, now on the ground, looked up at Ms Florence. We still hadn’t answered her question. But Emily, braver than I could ever be, was holding Ms Florence’s eye without blinking.
“I see,” Ms Florence said finally, as though everything had been explained silently between her and Emily. “I don’t condone this course of action.”
“It’s worse than just running away! We are aiding and abetting truancy!” Ms Evans seemed worried.
Ms Florence reached out towards me, thrusting her palm in front of me. “Phone, Mr Palmer.” she demanded. Weakly, I complied. Then Ms Florence passed it to Ms Evans who silently held it in one hand while holding another phone in the other, tapping with both thumbs on both phones simultaneously. Ms Florence turned back to watch us, demanding our attention so we lost track of what Ms Evans was doing to my phone.
“Why didn’t you just ask for a lift?” she waved towards the horses exasperatedly.
“Duh, how romantic is that?” Emily snapped back.
“Do you have any money?” she asked us.
Emily fished a credit card out of her pocket and waved it proudly in front of Ms Florence.
“That figures. They can block it. If that happens, or if anything happens, or if you just want to come home, give Janice or me a call. And message me a thumb up every night or I won’t be able to sleep. Do not hitch-hike. Exams start in two weeks. We have to have a plan by then. Good luck”
And with that, Ms Florence slipped effortless up onto Val and, grabbing Clive by a halter rope, made a clicking sound that caused the horses to start walking away, back towards the manor. Ms Evans went around to the driver’s door and, as she was about to climb in, threw my phone towards me. “Catch,” she said by way of warning.
And that was how we found ourselves alone in a car-park on the edge of town. We’d only been hiding in the bushes a few minutes when the first cars started to stream in, bringing the first shift into the meat processing factory.
“Is that his car?” Emily asked for the hundredth time.
“No. I’ll tell you when Simon gets here,” I replied, irritated.
And it seemed to take Simon a long time to get to work. But, eventually, we saw him driving in and parking up among the growing sea of cars.
“What now?” I asked. I had assumed Emily wanted to talk to Simon, perhaps ask him for help, but she had put her hand on my arm to stop me when I’d started to make a move.
“We wait” she said quietly. She was watching the car park with an eagle eye.
There was a whistle from a horn high up on the side of a grinding facility and everyone standing around by a side door started to file inside. The first shift must have started. No more cars were arriving. It was only a few minutes later that Emily dragged me from our hiding place and out across the now-still lot towards Simon’s car.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this!” I hissed. Emily had tried the doors, but Simon had locked it. Now she was bending and poking a metal coat-hanger down through the rubber lip of the driver’s door window. It was hard to see what she was doing. I tried to stand beside her nonchalantly, pretending that nothing illegal was happening. There was a sharp click. The door was open.
“How the hell did you know how to do that?” I asked incredulously.
“The internet,” Emily replied matter-of-factly. She seemed extremely proud of herself.
“Good job he has a rubbish, old-fashioned car. He really needs an alarm,” Emily added as she fiddled with something underneath the steering console. There was a grunt and the engine started to run. “Get in! Don’t forget my suitcase! Lets go!” Emily demanded and she was already backing out of the space as I jumped in and closed the passenger door.
“Seatbelt!” Emily chided as she slipped quietly out of the parking lot. As soon as we had turned onto the road away from the factory Emily revved and, with wheels spinning, we took off towards the town centre.
“Since when could you drive?” I asked my incredible girlfriend. There was so much I had underestimated about this girl.