Winter looked at him warily. She’d waited. He clambered up the bank, nearer, and stones cascaded down. The slope was not stable.
“Why are we running? Why were you so … angry,” he said as he got close. He didn’t want to say frightened. “What’s going on here? You and Hugh aren’t friends anymore? Who’s the horrible guy, and what happened to Marco?”
“He’s a boy.”
Winter kept walking. By the time he reached the spot where she’d stood, she was five steps on, walking fast.
When he was younger, Casper had gone exploring under the earth with those friends. Marco, Hugh, Winter and him. The caves under Earthquakes were amazing. Would they still be there? Of course, those things don’t change. He wondered if he’d fit through the cracks anymore. He wondered how the others had changed. It had been a while, and Winter looked so different. Hugh looked different too. The limestone cliffs gleamed above him with a slice of sunlight, not too far ahead now. The smell of the silage fell on them when the wind stirred.
“I hate him.”
Winter gave him such a look, he dropped his eyes and watched the stone shift under his steps.
“And Marco.” She said his name and stones slid under her foot and splashed into the river. Winter righted herself with a jerk. She looked ahead. That would be the end of the Morrison land, where the willow trees shimmered. The winter sunlight was not warm, but it lit the few remaining leaves like sequins.
“Hugh … ”
“Hugh is just dumb,” Winter said. “I don’t care about him.”
They paused in the shadow of the branches. Casper looked at her, but she refused to look back. On the other bank the broken white stones of Earthquakes made a tumbled field, right up to the cliff they had broken from. Winter pointed.
“See the spring?”
Clear water trickled between stones and mossy pockets of soil, until it met the swollen river. He could trace it up for a bit, but then it dived under the earth and was hidden. That little trickle must have been enough, over a long long time, to rot the lime cliff and send it crumbling into a fan of broken ground. Rabbits moved on the green grass, as they passed.
“Maybe our fossils came from there.”
He nodded. “Fresh water?”
She kept on walking, and he followed her, until the road was up on their shoulder, only masked by the broom and scraggly trees. They would be near Marco’s farm now. Out of Morrison land. He remembered there being a bridge up ahead. There was a bar crossing the river, constricted with fat pipes. If it were new, and he thought it must be, it must have been put up badly, and weathered worse. Winter shoved through rough scrub to the spindly metal legs that supported it. She swung a leg over it, so she was sitting on the pipes.
“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t touch it till I’m over.”
She started wriggling forwards, out over the river. Water rolled over some underwater obstacle, just below her. The sinuous waves could have teeth. The bar dipped and swayed. Four years ago, neither of them would have weighed the thing down, and he wondered whether Winter had been using it then. She’d never mentioned it, but she had liked to have secret ways to get around. The bar was not much above the swollen river. Winter’s filthy boots were spotted by river spray. Then she was across and looking at him, and Casper did not like the look of the gap. He clambered up onto the pipes. They were cold, like running water. He could feel them thrumming slightly. He edged himself along. The bar dipped and swerved with every shuffle. Earth and silt and rotten soil filled his nostrils. Brown water tasted his shoes. His weight had dragged the bar and pipes into the water, he was going to ruin expensive farm infrastructure, and he might drown. But he found that as he struggled forwards the bar flexed less, his wet feet came free of the flow, and the bank got closer. Winter looked anxious to him, until she caught his eye. Then she looked bored and started hunting through the ruined stoney land for a path. He reached the cement block anchor and dropped onto unsteady feet. His ears cleared of the river’s hiss and rumble.
“The boys changed. I don’t know. They talk about ‘pussy’; they laugh together when they see me. None of my friends live this side of the flats. They don’t realise how bad it is.”
She directed her words into dark patches on the edge of the path as she walked. Casper couldn’t get close enough to see her face before she moved on.
“The Morrison boys got involved and now … ”
“Hugh used to be cool,” Casper said. The boy he remembered was more interested in fish and stone carving than anything female.
“There it is.”
Winter crouched in the grass beside a stone that looked like a massive tooth. She dipped her hands into a pool and tasted the water. He crouched down opposite her. The water was clear and he could see the pebbles which lay close under the thin skin of soil. Winter washed her face and gasped. The water tasted clean and mineral. He threw it across his face, like Winter had done, and felt his uncertainty fall behind him. The afternoon opened it’s big sky around him. The rocks and grass guarded him, and Winter acted like she knew him. He didn’t want to ruin that. Winter paused over the water for a final word.
“Hugh is a git. Marco’s arrogant, frightening. Jessy’s a creep.”
Winter splashed herself again. “I don’t want to talk about them.”
Casper nodded and started walking. He was sick of following Winter, and he wanted to see the valley laid out below him like he remembered. Point A. Vantage. That was what they called it. The path became familiar as it departed from the river. It would meet the main track somewhere up there. He looked over his shoulder and Winter was a few steps behind. Earthquakes was a ruined fan of country. Great boulders had tumbled from the cliff. They lay on top of each other loosely. Where they failed to fit together there were hollows and caverns. From the surface these looked like gap-toothed gullets in the grass. Jags and caps of stone announced the tops of bigger boulders, while the biggest loomed like little lonely cliffs, copies of their parent. You had to be careful if the path curved close to one of the larger boulders. Often the deepest pits opened up with curving smiles around the socket of the huge stones. It was utterly silent, invisible, but the stones were unstable and moving. Loose teeth in their earthy gums, as they slid slowly towards the riverbed, they opened filthy gaps behind them. Sometimes the hollows were filled with leaves. Gnarled native trees took the shelter of the hollows and thrived to fill them. Their leaves looked like bushes to the unwary. If you tried to push through a low bush you could find yourself tangled in thin branches, seven meters above a bare and cold cavern floor. Up there the earth was hungry.
Point A was a limestone slab jutted out of the land. They had found a walking path up to the crown. Grass grew there. Even Marco’s wheelchair could reach it. He’d sat there with a walkie talkie, and had a clear voice right to the farm. Casper smiled. He stood there and let the wind toss his hair. If he were handsome he’d look romantic standing there. He knew that he didn’t, and stared out at the land when Winter joined him. Anyway, she had enough trouble already. She wouldn’t want his interest.
The curve of the river lay like a wide ribbon on the land. When it got lower again, it would separate out into the silver braids he remembered. Rows of trees followed the flood, or marked out the southerly sides of fields. He could see the hazel paddock and the quince tree, and the water race and the poplars and the farm. It was like a toy house, the second last on the dog-leg of the road. He could see the boundary of Na’s land by the colour of the grass. Everything around it was a neon green, fertilised with effluent and nitrogen.
Casper sat on the edge of the stone. He listened to the cautious rattle of insects out in the grass before speaking.
“I’m afraid of going back to school.”
Winter sat down and looked out at the river.
“I fucked up and all my friends hate me.”
Winter glanced over. “Nice,” she said.
They shared a look, and his melancholy must have looked ridiculous because Winter laughed, and Casper shook his head at himself, laughing too. The stress rolling over in his stomach settled.
He flicked his sketch pad out and rolled through the pages until he got to a blank one. He put the pencil on the page.
“I like this girl, back home. She has a boyfriend who is cooler than me, but she likes me more.”
He jerked the pencil across the page, delineating a fence line. With a light hand he scratched out poplar trees.
“We were at her house, just hanging out. We both like to draw and she’s making a comic. We were.”
Winter watched him draw. He didn’t usually like it when people watched, but she didn’t say anything so he continued.
“I guess she’s just physically affectionate or, you know. I’m pretty sure.”
Winter’s face hadn’t changed, and she could perhaps be bored. She looked down at the farms. Her house used to be the furthest down the dog-leg, the last block on Na’s road. Still would be. Nothing about the buildings or the land seemed new. God. He didn’t want to tell her anything, but he had to. It felt like it would crush him from the inside if he didn’t talk to someone.
“Like, she was kissing my cheek and stuff,” he said.
He drew the river with a heavy line, using the side of the pencil lead to get a wider line. Erin’s lips tasted like blood and honey. The air had been hot and thin between them, and she had been heavy and he’d felt her skin moving under her shirt.
He watched what he was drawing and scrubbed the lead into the page until it snapped, but he’d got the dark line he wanted. The surface of the page had given the black line the illusion of shimmer and splash. Where it passed his pale poplars, Casper smudged the lead with a thumb, making shadow.
“Then she said all sorts of shit about it, gossiping, and now I’m here.”
He didn’t feel any better. Maybe because he hadn’t managed to say anything. What weakness. On the very far side of the river flats the mountains were pale. The high fields were white gold and the scree slopes were blue and dissolved into the grey sky. Birds moved on their errands, with the wind.
“I’m almost glad. No. No, I’m really sad that Clive died, but if he hadn’t I don’t think Mum would have brought us back. I’d like to see his face again and hear him tell a story. He told them well. I’d like to see his eyes, or even just see him from a distance, walking on the land. I think I’ve missed it more than I knew, and I think I’ve been missing this all like, like you miss salt in porridge. I think I’ve missed Hugh and Marco that way, and you too.”
He ducked his head between his shoulders and fumbled out Clive’s knife to sharpen the pencil carefully into a point.
“I remember going down into the caves with you all. I remember having adventures and playing and things, like Andy does alone. It was good. I’m sure it was.”
“What am I supposed to do about it.”
Not a question. Winter had her shoulders up, nose flared. He was suddenly sick of her.
“I don’t know,” he said, angry that he could feel her there, vibrating the air; he could smell her hair. He had really thought the three would have just kept playing games when he left, fighting and sending radio messages to each other and defying imaginary paratroopers. He felt like they’d let him down somehow.
He stood. “Look. I’m going to go and talk to Hugh. I want to see him, and I want to see Marco.”
Winter shrugged. “I don’t think you should go back over the pipe. It looked like you almost broke it.”
“It wobbled pretty bad when you went over,” he said. “You’ve probably damaged it by using it like that too much.”
“I don’t care,” Winter said. She stared intently at the farmland below. “Marco’s dad put it up.”
Injuring farm infrastructure was wrong. He walked away, and then realised he’d left his drawings with her. He walked back and Winter picked the sketch pad up to hand it to him, then paused.
“I hope you’re not being an arsehole to her.”
“I’m not,” he said. Terror rode his chest. He wished he hadn’t spoken.
“Cause some guys are like that and I really hope you’re not.”
“I hope I’m not. I’m not. Give me my sketch pad.”
Winter looked past him, at the broken land. “It’s pretty shit when guys are nice just to get your clothes off.”
“I’m not.” He stared at Winter. “No. We’re friends. I like her. I like her. I like her drawing, I like talking, I like a lot about her. I want to hold her, because I like her. Who she is. That’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s okay to want someone, it’s not a bloody sin.”
Winter raised her hands, sketch pad in one. “Okay. Okay. Shit. Just checking.”
Then she smirked slightly. “Are you two going to get together when you get back to town?”
His whole body felt hot and his head felt light. He went to grab the sketch pad, and realised how close to the edge they both were. The grass looked soft down below, but he knew it was only a thin skin over gravel and boulders. He tried to breathe.
“Give me my sketch pad. I’m going.”
She smiled, just like she had to Jessy once she knew she’d got him fuming, and she handed Casper the pad. He turned and walked. His feet wobbled on the uneasy ground and he thought he might pitch into one of the holes. He wanted to hit something or break, fall into a hole. He slowed down and stared at the milky sky. Birds still circled where the silage lay.