Picture, if you can, a small tree-house nestling just above head height in a very broad, old willow tree, just where the fat trunk forks into a half-dozen large boughs. It’s in a copse at the end of a garden, by the ditch that demarks the end of said garden and the fields beyond. The tree-house itself is quite small and well-weathered but well-built with a proper felt roof and tight, boarded sides. It overhangs the crown of the willow slightly and is accessed by a hatch in the floor and batons nailed to the trunk to act as a ladder. A single window looks out towards the fields. The tree-house is hard to see from the cottage whose garden this is, and will be impossible to see as spring turns into summer and the leaves of the trees in the copse unfurl.
I know this tree-house well. My dad and I built it. Now, at sixteen, I’m probably the oldest kid ever to still ‘play’ in his tree-house. My name is Will, I’m in the final year of high school and I live with my parents and older brother Simon in the cottage. My family have lived in the cottage for generations, ever since the whole row of cottages was tithed to the manor in Victorian times.
The fields behind the cottage all still belong to the manor. There’s even a patch of woodland just towards the crown of the hill beyond, like an island out in the middle of the manor land. The lord of the manor still has shooting parties and it’s still absolutely forbidden to go play there, so it’s where I used to stare longingly as a kid. Even today, sitting in my tree-house with it’s window looking out towards the forbidden forest - I long.
That’s the reality of rural life in England today. It’s the twenty-first century and quaint country ways still persist. Someone rich owns every bit of land and twenty-first century peasants - like my family - have to keep off, keep away.
I sat on the floor against the wall. The roof was so low that it felt like it was pressing down on me. My tree-house really was too small. I had to bend over and contort myself to get in and out and there certainly wasn’t space to stand up. It was unfurnished. At least it was dry and there were hardly any beetles.
Of course, hiding in my tree-house wasn’t something I told anyone I did, not even my parents. The whole point was not let anybody know that I still went there; in fact, the whole point was for everyone else to forget it even existed. It was the one place I could go and hide from the world and be left alone. Nowadays, I would escape the cruel real world and hide up in my tree-house and reflect on my lack of success with girls; revisit the latest missed-opportunity, or rebuff, or hurtful comment and torture myself that, if I could just be a bit more popular, say the right thing, be in the with the ‘in’ crowd, then I might get laid.
Village life is just so boring. I don’t have any friends in my village. There were hardly any kids my age to be friends with. Like all the villages around, we were bussed to the high school in the local market town. I didn’t have any real friends on my school bus that picked up kids from other nearby villages, either. My handful of school-friends – James and Kev – lived in villages the other side of town and it was just too far to bike. So, consequently, we hardly ever met outside school. And this was fairly normal; only the kids who lived in town had any kind of social life. There were a few kids living in villages who had friends near enough to cycle to or had parents who ferried them about, but they were the minority. For most kids growing up in villages in rural England the only social life outside school was sports, and I didn’t like football.
Even if you never met your friends, these days everyone talks all the time outside school via chat apps and what-not. I play a lot of computer games online and have many more on-line ‘friends’ and acquaintances than I’ve ever had in real life.
But recently that’s all felt hollow. Whilst I could lose hours a day to playing computer games online, I was getting increasingly frustrated and would end up - more and more - hiding away in my tree-house feeling sorry for myself and isolated.
And that was why I was sitting there the Sunday my story begins: I heard the dull thud of the hooves long before she came into sight. Emily Acres trotted along the field boundary behind our stream. It was her family’s field. They owned pretty much everything I could see through my window, and quite a lot besides that. They were the biggest farmers in the whole village.
Emily’s dad really was a bona fide ‘lord of the manor’; but then, every village in rural England technically has a lord of the manor, and so there are lots of them around. Usually, like the Acres, they still live in the big old manor house. Often the family has held the title at least a few generations. They almost never have any kind of honorific like ‘sir’ or ‘lord’; they are just the inherited remnants of an old system that has long since died. Often they are not as rich as you’d imagine or dream. Sometimes new-money yuppie stockbrokers get a weekend cottage in the countryside and buy the title.
Emily’s family live in a nice old manor house and own a lot of land and are wealthy rather than rich but, somehow, being the lord of the manor’s daughter defined who Emily was. The family may have had to send her to the normal local comprehensive high school in town but she was still a posh kid moving in the posh circles making posh friends and thinking posh thoughts.
She had been quite popular and snobby since forever and she was a leader of the local ‘horsey’ girl’s gang, but these days many of rest of that gang had grown up and stopped riding and drifted away, leaving mostly just Emily. In just a few years, she had gone from Miss Most-Popular to Miss Left-Behind and she wasn’t at all as intimidating as she used to be; in fact, I felt a little sorry for her.
I watched her trot past. The window only afforded me a narrow view and she had crossed it in just a second or so but I got a good look anyway. Watching the girls ride past, spying on them, had used to be a favourite pastime of mine. It’s strange how quickly my view of the girls had changed; at twelve and thirteen I had been nervous and scared that they might catch me and embarrass me. Now, at sixteen, I would have been excited and interested in an entirely different way to see a bunch of girls ride past. But these days, it was often just Emily and she was no threat nor especially attractive.
Her horse today was massive. She was riding a large, chestnut hunter. She was wearing tall black rubber riding boots and cream-coloured jodhpurs. From the waist down she could have been on a fox hunt. From the waist up she was wearing a normal t-shirt and some kind of body-armour vest and a black riding hat. These days, riding girls kitted themselves out with more pads than the skateboarders.
I listened to the dull, steady thump of the hoof-falls fade into the distance. I had soon forgotten about Emily and started to fidget on my mobile phone.
Perhaps a few minutes had passed; perhaps it was a quarter of an hour. The distraction of the phone could make whole hours and whole days disappear, so it was hard to say, but let’s just say it was still morning. I heard a horse whinnying and Emily pleading. It was getting closer. I crouched forward and, hunching over, made my way to the window.
Coming back down the edge of the field was Emily’s horse, sans Emily. Emily was walking behind it. Every time Emily almost caught up with the horse the horse would trot a few more steps and stop in front of her, just beyond reach.
I don’t know why I rushed down from my tree-house to help. It wasn’t how I normally behaved. But for some strange, inexplicable reason, I came down from my tree-house, jumped clear over the ditch and walked straight up to Emily’s horse and grabbed it by the bridle. The horse, a massive brute, just stood there in front of me, docile.
Emily just stood there in front of me, too. She seemed shocked. “Where did you come from?” she asked in a high-pitched, startled voice.
“I live here,” I said, waving back towards home.
Emily knew that. It wasn’t like we’d ever spoken much, but she’d have known where I lived. Perhaps she knew that, a long time ago, this row of cottages had been where some of the farm labourers on the manor lived.
Emily looked across at the cottage then her eyes swept back to the copse of trees at the bottom of the garden and then jerked upwards into their crowns. She must have noticed the old tree-house, perhaps for the first time ever; she must have worked out exactly where I had just come from. She must have seen me leave my lair. She grinned. It was a friendly, safe grin.
Emily thanked me for catching her horse. Then in one swift, flowing movement she had mounted her steed again and was looking down at me, beaming. I asked her if she was okay, and she patted her body armour proudly. I guessed she had fallen off. As I let go of the bridle her horse started to walk slowly home and the flank and Emily’s leg brushed past me. Her boot and stirrup dug into my stomach. “Sorry!” she squeaked apologetically. And then she was gone. It seemed the horse was leading the rider.
I went back to the house for lunch.
Time went slower now that I didn’t have my face in my phone again. I stood in the kitchen looking idly out over the back garden, stream and fields as I buttered some bread.
I saw movement to one side at the back. I could just make out a horse rider silhouetted through the copse, returning from the direction Emily had gone. My interest piqued, I waited for Emily to reappear past the copse. She didn’t.
Intrigued, I grabbed my sandwiches and crept out and went back down to the bottom of the garden.
There, when I got close enough, I could see Emily’s horse tied to a long willow branch overhanging the stream behind the copse out of sight of the house. Beside it was her hat and riding crop. There was no sign of Emily.
I heard scraping sounds from up in the tree-house. Quickly working out where Emily must be, I started to climb the ladder. And then there, in front of my face, was Emily’s bottom as she started to descend!
“Hi,” I said.
Emily visibly jolted. She almost lost her grip. I saw her face peering down through the hatch, her top half still in the tree-house. “Oh, thank god it’s you, Will,” she squeaked, “You gave me the fright of my life! I could’ve fallen!”
It was the first time I had met a girl on a ladder. Both of us stopped, still, for a moment. Then at exactly the time I started to climb down so Emily could come down, she started to go back up again!
We both noticed this and paused again; and then, predictably, we both changed directions again and were immediately back to how we’d first met, with Emily’s black rubber boot heels just inches from my fingers and her creamy jodhpur butt swaying just above my head. I could see the worn, smooth pads of her buttocks where those jodhpurs had spent long hours in the saddle.
“Are you coming up or down?” I asked patiently.
“I was just coming to say thank you for catching Clive; it felt like I hadn’t really said ‘thank you’ properly before,” she explained.
“I was just making lunch,” I said, holding on to the ladder with one hand and waving a squashed sandwich with the other.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to intrude,” she grinned. I grinned back. “Wel, l are you going to invite a lady into your tree house or not?” she added and tried to straighten her face.
“After you,” I replied and we both climbed up into the tree-house.
There was barely space for both of us in the tree-house. I sat in my normal position facing the window and Emily sat next to the window, facing me. Sometimes she would turn and peer out of the window to check on her horse, Clive.
I didn’t know what to say.
Emily didn’t seem to have anything to say either; she cast around, searching for something, anything, “It’s quite cosy, I suppose,” she said non-committally. I laughed; that sounded silly.
As two teens who had ignored each other for years, this was as up close and personal as we’d ever been. It was strange to have Emily Acres in my tree-house. I still didn’t have anything to say. Emily was looking around again.
“So where’s your stash?” she asked.
“You know, your stash! Drugs, cigarettes, booze, porn mags, secret diary ... that kind of thing?”
“Eh,” I croaked, the sense of social failure crashing in on me. Not only did a girl know I still played in tree-houses, but now she was going to think me babyish for not doing anything naughty in tree-houses. Was she going to tell everyone at school how babyish I was?
“It’s okay, I won’t tell anyone,” she smirked. I thought for a moment she wasn’t going to tell everyone how childish I was. But it then it dawned on me that she just thought I was hiding my naughtiness from her: “Your secret is safe with me! So, where’s the stash?”
She sniffed the air. “Strange, doesn’t stink much. You ever smoked weed?”
The only thing I could smell was a slight mossy mildew and a not-so-faint whiff of horse. “No I don’t smoke,” I admitted.
“Booze, porn mags... ?” she persisted.
I shrugged. I was beginning to push past the embarrassment and fight back. “This is 2016! Do they still sell porn mags? Hello, INTERNET – duh!”
Emily giggled. “What’s your favourite site?”
I felt the heat scorching my face. Emily went beetroot red too. I didn’t answer her. Now she was giggling fit to burst. She had even embarrassed herself.
I held out one of my sandwiches to her. I didn’t need to say anything. She didn’t need to say thanks. She smiled warmly, gratefully. We munched on them slowly as though trying to put off the time when we had eaten everything and needed to find something to talk about again.
But there wasn’t much sandwich and soon Emily was scanning the inside of the tree-house again as though looking for something to latch onto to talk about. I was just watching her. For the first time ever, I was looking at her. I had been blind. She wasn’t that bad looking.
She was quite tall. She had thin, delicate features. She had very straight, thin, blonde hair and grey-blue eyes. Her teeth were not that even, and her canines were quite pronounced. Her teeth seemed to push her lips out in a permanent pout. She looked a bit like a pike. Teeth aside, her face was actually quite pretty.
If she had a disadvantage it was her body. Whereas most of the girls at school had filled out and were curvy and had breasts to display in their push-up bras, Emily was still rake-thin with no bumps sticking out. She still looked young.
Or maybe it was her body-armour making her look so straight? She was still wearing that vest and it covered her whole torso. If she took it off her hips must stick out more than her waist? I knew all the curves of all the better-developed girls off by heart, but I hadn’t really considered Emily ever before. I blushed again, embarrassed that she might sense I was checking her out. Girls seemed to always know.
“If I get some booze, you want to try some?” Emily asked, breaking through my thoughts. I looked up startled. “My parents would never know,” she added quietly.
“Eh, yeah, sure,” I replied quickly and grinned at her. Things were definitely looking up.
Clive was whinnying. Emily rolled her eyes. “I really need to get him home” she said, jabbing her thumb over her shoulder in Clive’s general direction. “I’ve been out ages,” she added and jumped up and, lifting the hatch that she had been sitting on, descended. As just her head was left in the tree-house she paused and smiled sweetly “Nice den, Will. Thanks for the sarnie. I’ll nick us some booze, next time,” and then she disappeared. I sat there stunned. ‘Next time’?
I sat there a long time, dazed, thinking about all that had just happened. It was weird how Emily didn’t seem disgusted with me. It was weird how she had been friendly. Could I tell James and Kev? It was the single most exciting thing to have happened to me ever; I had talked to a girl! I was bursting to boast to James and Kev. But, I hated to admit, I was kind of embarrassed that it was Emily Acres. She wasn’t exactly the kind of girl you’d boast about talking to exactly. It wasn’t like she was Natalie ‘Knockers’ Dawson or anyone like that. Telling on Emily would be suicidal. Emily Acres oozed social power and control and I would never dare cross her.
My tummy rumbled. It was mid-afternoon. I had only made a couple of sandwiches before Emily had come back, and I had shared them with her. I was starving. I came down and stalked back to the house. Now that I was meeting Emily in my tree-house, I was doubly concerned about being found out. Perhaps my family knew already? Perhaps they had heard Clive? Perhaps they could hear our voices in the tree-house? Just how secret was my hideout, really? I realised just how desperate I was to meet Emily there again. I had to keep this top-secret. I had to be even more careful - now there was so much more to play for.
Mum was surprised I helped make dinner, and surprised I started on it so early. But I just wasn’t in the mood for shooting the shit out of noobs online and I had decided not to tell anyone about Emily, so I was feeling spare. And as I helped in kitchen I couldn’t help notice how worryingly good the view of the back garden was.
The next morning, a Monday, I had set my alarm clock a little earlier than usual and I got up and hurried to the shower. Then I snuck into my big brother’s room and rifled through his clothes looking for a trendy music t-shirt to wear. His room was a mess. He wouldn’t miss it if he didn’t see me wearing it. Luckily he was already on his way to work. I left for school cleaner and trendier than ever before. I was putting in an effort.
At the bus stop Emily stood with the girls and I stood with the boys and neither of us greeted the other. Each time our eyes met her steely face showed no signs of recognition. But it was that fact that our eyes met, and they did several times, that let me know I hadn’t been dreaming. She wasn’t going to openly say anything in front of everyone else, but she was acknowledging me in her own secret way. I tried not to stare. I tried not to look her way too often. I tried not to grin. I hoped my brother’s t-shirt impressed her.
At school neither James nor Kev seemed to notice any kind of change in me at all. By lunchtime I had almost forgotten about Emily and life was back to normal.
That evening nothing happened. Nothing happened Tuesday, either. Life was back to normal, although the new normal included showering every morning and borrowing my brother’s t-shirts, just in case.
It wasn’t until Wednesday, on the bus home from school, that anything happened. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate. It was a good job I was sitting alone. I almost dropped my phone when I saw a friend request from Emily Acres. I glanced urgently around the bus to see if I had been detected. Nobody was looking over my shoulder; nobody could have seen the notification. I was safe. I saw that Emily was sitting alone in another row further down the bus. I clicked the thumbs-up icon and heard a faint distant ‘ding’ sound coming from Emily’s direction. She had her head down, too. I brought my elated feeling home with me and collapsed on the sofa basking in my good luck.
My big brother Simon was looking at me funny. “You’ve been nicking my clothes,” he hissed, his big paw reaching out and grabbing my scrawny neck. I felt a panicked constriction in my chest.
Si laughed and let go, pushing me back into the sofa again. “You could have fucking asked,” he said cheerfully. He seemed to think it funny. “So, who is she?”
Damn! He knew! At least, he suspected. What was I going to say? I looked around, checking that mum and dad were well out of earshot. “Nobody,” I croaked.
Si raised his eyebrows. Then he pounced on me and, pinning me down with ease, started to rifle in my pockets. He plucked out my mobile and, as I angrily tried to grab it, held it aloft with one hand while still pinning me down on the sofa with the other. He was kneeling on my chest and I couldn’t do anything. I started swinging, hitting him with all my might in his ribs. He just ignored me and started to slide to unlock my phone with his thumb.
“6 same place?” he said disbelievingly. His attention was one hundred percent on the phone now. He looked down at me. “Who’s ‘Em’?”
I was lost. Had I just got a message while I was home? Had I not felt it arrive? Did Emily want to meet me tonight at 6pm in the tree-house? I was too confused to carry on hitting him. Si just looked down at me, amazed.
“Fuck, you really have a girlfriend?” he asked in awe. He seemed pleased. “Hey, this is great, at least you’re not gay!” he teased. He glanced up to check mum and dad were still in the kitchen, “Unless ‘Em’ is ‘Emil’, eh, you dirty dump denter?” he laughed.
“So what are you going to answer?” he asked, he face a sudden serious innocence. My tummy reeled. There was no way I wanted to tell him anything. His thumb was flicking around. Was he looking for more messages? I heard a faint ‘ding’ sound! My bloody brother had only gone and answered Emily!?! My insides lurched. I felt sick. I tried desperately to push Si off my chest and get to my phone. Si just looked triumphant, staring at the screen and ignoring me. He chucked the phone down on coffee table and got up off of me. “Next time, ask before you borrow my clothes. Or buy your own,” he grumbled half-heartedly and went up to his room.
I sat up and grabbed my phone. Emily’s chat conversation was on open. She had sent a message saying “6 same place?”, and Si had just replied, “Too busy bating.” Bating was slang for masturbating. I couldn’t breath.
“You so funny!” suddenly dinged on my screen. Emily was sitting with her phone right now! I still couldn’t breathe. What could I possibly say to make this okay?
“Sorry, my shitty brother sent that. He isn’t so funny. See you at 6,” I replied, hoping Emily believed me. I watched the screen for ages but there was no reply. I changed the phone settings to need a pin every time to unlock it. Then I looked at the clock.
Si laughed when I knocked on his bedroom door. I was freshly showered and was just in clean underwear. I slipped in.
“Nearly six,” he observed coolly. “So, ‘Em’ going to help you bate?” he smirked.
“Fuck you,” I replied, my heart hardening as he reminded me of what he had just done.
“No thanks, dump denter,” he batted back, the brotherly banter wasting time and achieving nothing.
There was a pause. “Can I borrow a t-shirt and hoodie?” I asked timidly.
“Yeah sure. See, that wasn’t so hard was it?” Si said evenly and bounced off his bed. He started rummaging in his wardrobe. He picked out a trendy, black hoodie with some white motif of some hard-rock band on it and threw it at me. “Wear a black t-shirt, or don’t wear any fucking t-shirt” he instructed me. “Do you have any ripped jeans?”
I didn’t have any ripped jeans and Si’s were all too big around the waist, so I went down for an early dinner in some of my own unripped black jeans. I wolfed down my dinner and left by the front door at five to six.
I jogged down the lane and took a left by the end of the row of cottages and then, hopping over a farm gate, went down the edge of the field behind my house to work my way back to the copse. There was no sign of Emily. I checked the time and jumped the stream and climbed up into my own tree-house. Emily was already in there, waiting for me.
Emily’s glinting eyes looked mischi, evous. The moment I had crawled in and sat down, she sat back down on the hatch across from me and extracted a hip flask from an inside pocket of her coat. She held it out towards me triumphant. The tree-house was so small that our legs were stretched out beside each other and she could pass things to me without either of us getting up.
I took it gingerly. I had never drunk spirits before and I was nervously expecting it to hurt. Carefully unscrewing the top I took a gulp. I figured I didn’t want to swirl it around in my mouth. I just swallowed it as quickly as possible, hoping it wouldn’t touch the sides on the way down. Then I passed it back to her.
She looked at me expectantly. A moment had passed. Then I felt a cough welling in my chest and I did my best to stifle it. Emily giggled. “Strong stuff,” she laughed and took a swig herself.
We sat across from one another in the fading light. I tried to assess her clothes. She was wearing a navy blue hoodie, a puffy arm-less quilted green jacket like horsey types wear, and jeans with tears in. She had her hair back in a pony-tail and I noticed she was wearing gold stud earrings that glinted like her eyes. I was liking what I saw. She was looking at me, too.
“Sorry about that message. My brother thought it was a funny joke,” I explained nervously, keen to get that topic out of the way.
She smirked. “I should go if I’m interrupting something. Just say if you need to be alone.”
My mouth was dry and the whiskey was still burning. I held my hand out for the flask. Emily passed it across and I took another swig. Better knowing what to expect this time I managed to hold the cough in. I didn’t really like the taste.
“So, you like riding...” I struggled to find a new subject to talk about. Emily immediately lit up, her face beaming at me. She nodded, banging the back of her head softly against the back wall. “Do you?” she asked back. I shrugged. “I’ve never tried it,” I confessed.
This opened up a whole big topic of conversation. Emily was sure that I would like riding if I’d just try it, and immediately decided that she would teach me. She no longer had a horse of her own, but Clive was her mum’s hunter and her dad also had a hunter and we would be able to go out together on her parent’s horses. Or, ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ as he called them; it was the only hint that she was a posh girl, the daughter of the lord of the manor. I was a bit hesitant – if Clive was her mother’s horse, then her father’s horse must be even more massive!
We chatted about horse riding until it was dark. It was becoming too dark to see up in the tree-house. Emily declared she really had to get home and then we left and I walked with her along the back of the cottages to the end of the row. Emily laughed and said I was very chivalrous, but she appreciated that I was making sure I wasn’t seen going to and from the copse.
That night, as I went to bed, I wondered whether to text ‘Em’. But what would I say? I could still taste the whiskey and I’d brushed my teeth, like ten times, already. I slept fitfully, dreaming about her. I was beginning to think her pretty.
At school we were moving in completely disjoint social groups. My friends were all boys and all into computer gaming. I hardly ever saw Emily, not even from a distance. The school was big enough that this was not unexpected. And at the bus stop and on the bus we were apart, too. But sometimes she would sit alone on the bus and when she did this I might sometimes get a chat message from her, for example saying something unflattering about the other kids on the bus. I cherished those moments and still kept showering every morning and borrowing my brother’s clothes just-in-case.
On Saturday morning my brother surprised me by taking me into town to go clothes shopping. His idea had been to get me to buy him clothes that I could borrow, but as he had a job, and as I had no money, he ended up buying three new t-shirts from his own money. It was the first time we’d ever done anything together alone. The whole new, supportive-big-brother thing was a new episode in our lives. He even took me a coffee shop after.
“So, how was the date?” he asked conversationally.
“It wasn’t a date,” I replied a bit defensively. Sure, we were brotherly bonding, but I was still suspicious.
“So, what did you do?” he asked, changing tack.
“She stole some whiskey,” I confided excitedly.
“‘She’? Who is ‘she’?” he laughed at how easily I had let that slip.
I swallowed hard. None of my school friends knew. I hadn’t told anyone. I was bursting to tell someone. And Si seemed generally on my side. He might be a really good ally. He might have lots of useful pointers. He wouldn’t tell anyone at school. He probably wouldn’t tell mum and dad either. I could probably trust him.
“Emily Acres,” I confessed. There, I had said it!
“‘Em’ is Emily Acres?” Si raised his eyebrows. He whistled. “Fuck, I’m impressed, Will,” he grinned.
Si stared down into his mocha for a bit.
“Mistress of the manor! Bet she’s got vast tracks of land, eh, Will?” and Si made an expansive gesture with his hands away from his chest as though holding up two massive boobs. He laughed at his own joke.
“So how far have you got?” he asked, clearly intrigued.
“We’re just friends,” I said defensively.
“Who steal whiskey,” he pointed out.
“We just talk,” I admitted.
Si looked at me a bit pityingly. “She has a boyfriend?”
“Eh, no,” I paused, thinking. “At least, not that I know of.”
“And it’s just you two?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “Nobody else knows.”
“You are meeting Emily Acres in secret?” Si asked, double checking. I nodded again. He whistled again. “Fuck, you just have to kiss her.” he smirked.
That Saturday morning. as Si and I got back from shopping I got a new chat message from Emily. It was just “12. Make more sarnies.” I hummed to myself for the rest of the morning, longing for lunchtime to come.
Emily hadn’t been out riding that morning. I knew because I’d been watching for her. It wasn’t until five to twelve when I saw her lead Clive behind the copse. I slunk out the front door and rushed down the lane to come at the copse from the back field, out of sight of the house.
Clive was tied to the branch that reached right over the stream again. This time he had a net of hay to munch. Emily had come prepared. I gave Clive a pat of appreciation and jumped the stream and climbed up into the tree-house.
Emily’s eyes were just as mischievous as usual. She wasn’t wearing her body armour and her bust, while visible, wasn’t very pronounced. But she did have slight hips. She didn’t look babyish any more. She was a young lady. I wasn’t just beginning to think of her as pretty, she was becoming my definition of pretty. I reddened; did she know I was checking her out?
Emily had brought a lunch-box, too, but she still held her hand out to take a sandwich. I split my sandwiches with her and she handed me a can of coke.
Next, she put down her own opened can of coke and took out her hip flask again. She poured a shot into the top of the coke can and it immediately bubbled and frothed over the top, spilling onto the wooden floor. She picked it up hurriedly and tried to drink in the foam. Then we giggled. “Not how to do it,” she laughed, holding the hip flask out for me to take. I took a swig and then took a swig of coke and made a joke of swirling them around and mixing them in my mouth before swallowing. Emily’s eyes sparkled as she laughed.
It turned out that her lunch box contained home-baked muffins for afters. They were delicious. She seemed really genuinely pleased when I complimented them. She said she liked baking.
“So, you didn’t go riding this morning?” I said to make conversation. We couldn’t just sit there with me staring at her and trying to build up the courage to kiss her. I had to say something.
“No; this way Clive won’t want to go home so early” she smiled. Cunning.
She rummaged around in her pocket and pulled out a pack of mints. She offered me one and popped one in her mouth herself. My mind raced, imagining this must be preparation and encouragement for a kiss.
“You like school?” she suddenly asked. My mind jumped back to reality. I shrugged. “Not really,” was all I could think to say. And so suddenly we were chatting about school and who we liked and didn’t like and all that and I began to get a better understanding of Emily. Reading between the lines, she was now slightly off-centre of the popular clique, although a lot closer to it still than the losers like myself. Perhaps she just wasn’t feeling so comfortable with the other popular girls, somehow. Perhaps she was the one drifting away, rather than being left behind. Her best friend, Mandy, was a remnant of the horsey girl gang from the early teens, but even Mandy didn’t ride any more. Emily seemed sometimes lonely. In many ways we were very similar, but we also had completely different interests. Emily never played on the computer and I had never ridden a horse, for example. As we talked my mind began to wonder why we were hanging out together so suddenly. What did Emily want from me?
“Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I blurted out. I immediately regretted asking, my mind wanting to unsay the words.
Emily paused and looked vulnerable. The sparkle in her eyes extinguished. “Not exactly,” she admitted.
“Me neither,” I said quietly, emboldened by Emily’s discomfort.
“What, don’t you like boys?” Emily was suddenly animate again, happy, laughing. It took me a moment to work out that I had just admitted to never having a boyfriend. Obviously she knew what I meant. I laughed, too.
Emily composed herself and looked at me expectantly. She was waiting for me to say or do something. Should I ask her out?
“Can I kiss you?” I asked meekly. It was shocking I had the courage to ask, however quietly. It was still the stupid, cowardly way out though; I should have just tried!?
“Practice, you mean?” she seemed defensive, wary, but not disgusted.
“Okay,” she said quietly, a small smile on her lips like it wasn’t a bad idea, “We can all use practice.”
And so I scooted forward a bit, and so did Emily and we met in the middle of the tree-house facing each other. I leaned forward and kissed her expectant lips. Our lips just touched, just slightly, hardly pressed together. After a pause, I pulled back hesitantly, breaking the bond. Emily was sitting still, dead still, her eyes pressed tightly shut, paused exactly as she had been when we had kissed. Then her eyes snapped open and bored into me and we watched each other for a few seconds. What was that in her eyes? Was it warmth? Encouragement?
She giggled and sat back against the far wall again. I moved away, too. And so, we had kissed! But it wasn’t a very hot, passionate kiss. It was my first ever kiss and I didn’t know what I was doing.
Clive whinnied and Emily jumped up, almost banging her head on the low ceiling. “I’ve got to go exercise him!” she exclaimed guiltily and heaving up the hatch, disappeared. I hurried to the window and watched her as she mounted up and, without looking back up, turned and rode away.
I never saw Emily return. She must have ridden a long circuit to bring herself back to the stables at the manor house without coming back past the cottage. By mid-afternoon, I had had far too long to think about things and doubt was setting in. It was unthinkable that Emily Acres liked me, but then everything that had happened recently with Emily was pretty much unthinkable, too, so what was going on? Here was a beautiful young lady, mistress of the manor, social princess, spending time with someone like me in secret and letting me have a chaste kiss and baking me cup-cakes! I was lost. And yet, at school, she was pretending to not even know me. It was all so unthinkable. I couldn’t think. I traipsed back into the house, forgetting to go the long way around. I don’t think anyone saw me, though.
That evening I sat morosely on the sofa ignoring the film. Si smirked as he paused on his way out for the evening. “Trouble in paradise, bro?” he asked softly. I stuck my two fingers up at him and mum, who hadn’t heard what he’d said but who did see my rude response, shouted out from the kitchen telling us to keep it civil. Si turned and left, banging the door to rattle mum on his way out.
My phone pinged quietly. I surreptitiously plucked it out of my pocket and glanced at it. “Tomorrow is a hunt! Em,” it said. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to respond but I was elated that Emily was still texting me!
Look, you’ve got to understand the social context for fox hunting. It’s a toff sport. It’s all about preening. I hate it. It’s cruel and unnecessary. A lot of people who have never seen it probably think it’s romantic and an important rural tradition, but that’s just so fucking false. Normal people who live in the country side detest it, although the posh clique really don’t notice that we do ... And, I realised, I wasn’t about to say anything like this to Emily! I asked her if she was going to ride, and so we spent the evening texting back and forth about Emily, riding, hunting - and Emily.
I resolved to get up early and see if I could watch the hunt from afar. The idea of spotting Emily on her mum’s hunter, Clive, galloping in the distance actually made my heart gallop, too.
Sunday morning came I and I got up quite early, knowing it would be an early start. Standing at the bottom of the garden with the mist hanging low over the glistening, dew-laden field was actually quite wonderful. In the distance I heard the horn and I knew the hunt had begun.
The mist lifted and, a while later, I was treated to the sight of the riders, now quite spread out, galloping across the field far off and heading towards the wood. I didn’t see the hounds, but I could hear them. I concentrated on trying to pick out Emily, but it was impossible to be really sure. At least half the riders were girls, I thought. The thing that impressed me most was how many of the riders jumped a low hedge and pulled ahead of those who had paused to open a gate. Within minutes, the last rider was out of sight behind the woodland and the bugle was far away and I knew the hunt had passed. I went in for breakfast.