It was only around seven but the sky was already black as the grate. The bullet barn was busy this chill evening; dozens of candles illuminated the place, giving it the air of a deserted cathedral. This was because it was the day after All Saints; some of the more devout girls were clinging to the rituals, praying to beloved dead cats, family dogs and uncles lost in the war. Roman pointed out loudly it wasn’t as if they knew these uncles and it was just all for the show of it. The girls turned their backs towards him, greatly offended by this, but he just laughed at them.
Maria and Josek sat in their favourite spot against the back wall, Maria had fixed twelve votives in a circle on the ground which encircled them as they hugged their knees in the frosty Autumn air.
“Adults shouldn’t cry. They should be strong.”
“Babba does it all the time, it’s so annoying”, Josek rolled his eyes, his lack of empathy for the old woman was increasing almost daily.
“Babba is mad Josek, you do realise that don’t you?” Maria gave him a firm look.
“Anyway I mean true crying like when they sob so much that you wonder if they are going to stop and you kind of want to do something about it but you are only a child and what use could you possibly be.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh she finished in the end. Blew her nose and asked Papa for a drink. It is the same every year but it’s odd because last year it didn’t bother me at all. I even thought it was, I don’t know, silly?”
“Adults ARE odd”
Maria smiled in agreement, oddness was the most she would allow with her parents, Josek noted; so deeply did she love them. He felt a heavy pang at the lack of news from his own; hadn’t he loved them just as much? Didn’t he?
“She says an angel is looking after him in heaven, but it is just words. It doesn’t seem to … comfort her. Anyway. It’s over for a year thank GOD.”
With this she exhaled, releasing the tension; this sent a little puff of mist past the twinkling candle lights. Josek felt it pass. He looked at his friend with open eyes, absorbing her sweetness as best he could with his gaze.
“I just don’t understand why I am so upset for her this year?” she clenched her hands which were resting on her own knees.
Josek noticed that they were not touching; they were sat side by side like sphinxes. He was sure they had before. Not just on that terrible night but chatting here in the barn or on the path from school; he recalled situations where her arm had been around his shoulder or that time when he rested his head on her legs, it had been one of those the light as air evenings, and she had flicked his head off with her foot, cheerfully calling him a heavy headed oaf.
It wasn’t quite clear what had changed but Josek keenly felt the loss. Furtively he looked at her arms, covered in coat sleeves and his longing to touch them overwhelmed him so much that he felt weakened. He rested his head on his knees and felt gloomy.
“Things change I suppose”, he said. “Do you think we ever stop changing?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because we learn more as we get older we sort of adapt? Learning probably makes us stronger”.
“Maybe we need to be stronger the more we learn”, Josek said, simply. Maria nodded.
“That’s it. And THAT is why I don’t like all this talk of God and angels and SOULS because you have to just believe it and suck it up like soup.”
“I thought you believed in fairies?”
“I believe in Mermaids – they’re good luck you know”.
“That’s just another fairy story, God, angels, …MERMAIDS –
She affected a cross look but was not really.
A chant from inside the barn became louder – “it’s the bottle game!” Maria said, delightedly, jumping to her feet. Come on Josek – it’s SO much fun!”
Josek shook his head tightly; from the sound there would be a great many players and he was not afraid, but the chanting had a dangerous edge to it.
“Josek you have to join in”
There was a jeer from a few of the older boys as he entered the bright space.
“We’ve got enough girls, gay boy.”
“Close your mouth Albert, we need another boy – if the numbers aren’t equal then it is bad luck. Perhaps YOU should sit it out Albert?” Magdalena said defiantly, looking at Albert. She was one of the older girls – probably fifteen; she was plump and as aggressive as any of the boys. She was well liked for this, her funny observations and insults often making Josek laugh, as they did now. The jeers turned on Albert.
“No chance”, Albert was unbothered, and casting hungry looks at Paulina, who’s shirt seemed to have lost half its buttons as her big bust strained at the remaining tethers. Paulina looked at Albert with distain, but long enough for Josek to think that she didn’t really hate him at all; even though for the life of him he couldn’t quite say how he had fathomed this.
The crowd had settled into a circle – perhaps twenty children from ten to sixteen; someone was jeering “no little kids!” but Katalina and Maria declared loudly that it wasn’t fair, and could even be even worse bad luck unless everyone joined in. Josek noticed that they had become a little flushed and silly; and seemed to be looking at the older boys a lot and this gave him a very bad feeling. He slid into a space next to Roman, who didn’t meet his eye but slapped Josek’s back approvingly.
“What do we do?” Josek asked him, as the catcalls and jeering continued.
“It’s the bottle game stupid. They spin a bottle once and a person gets chosen. They spin it again and you have to…. kiss the other.” Roman’s eyes were shiny and he was grinning broadly, winking jauntily every time the girls caught his eye. He pretended to comb his hair and pulled up his collar. Josek felt a little rare excitement; metallic in his mouth and he found himself giggling with the others. In this general good humour Alfred generously proclaimed,
“OK one game with everyone then NO ONE under sixteen.”
“Make it fifteen you dog!”
“Sorry Magda, OK fifteen it is for the second game.”
A bottle was produced, Magda placed it carefully and then it spun as she dived back to her place to announce the names.
“Roman…. And Paulina”!
Josek wasn’t sure if the laughs were matched by the jeers – It was a cacophony of joyful hysteria. Roman punched his fist to the air. Josek applauded with the others and slapped Roman’s back as they eyed the older boys victoriously gesticulating rudely in a way that would have normally resulted in a beating. Alfred sneered and then was forced to laugh with the others at the sight of fat little Roman standing up and making great play of adjusting his cuffs and girding himself. Paulin, naturally disappointed, had initially sported a sulky look but seeing Roman, twisted her face in a smile. To further jeers she demonstratively slipped one more button open.
She walked suggestively over to Roman and as the shouts increased she slowly bent over, put her hands to his face and drew his lips to hers in a succulent kiss. Roman closed his eyes and returned it enthusiastically in a way that surprised Josek; but then he placed both of his hands on Paulina’s breasts and her eyes flicked open and she slapped his face. There were winces from the circle then more cheers.
Roman staggered, clutching his face but licking his lips and returned to his seat. Josek was laughing so much at Roman’s giddy smile that though he might actually faint.
The next spin was Katalina and Bruno – a pairing that received only a smattering of cheers – they had been sweethearts for some time anyway. They kissed confidently and quickly and the bottle was placed again. In a flash the bottle was spun again, in the charged atmosphere, blurring as it rotated.
Maria rolled her eyes, biting her lip as Katalina whispered in her ear. Josek possessive, eyed the older boys who seemed bright-eyed at the prospect of Maria. Sadness welled but in an instant the bottle had rested emphatically and directly at his own feet.
Josek was exhilarated and sickened in equal measure.
Roman punched his back delightedly, compelling Josek to stand on wobbly legs.
He could hardly register Maria’s reaction to this with all the noise – whistling and shouting.
“Kiss Kiss Kiss Kiss!” came the chants as his wobbly legs took him to the centre of the circle where Maria was. Everything felt a little like treacle – he couldn’t seem to move very fast which was fuelling the shouts from the crowd.
He reached forward and took her hand. The memory of her casual touch was more exciting in a way than this reality – her hot damp hand in his – equally clammy. Still it was thrilling and he held it firmly. Despite her age advantage he was pretty much the same height and so as they drew closer and their eyes closed it seemed the easiest thing in the world to place his lips on hers. As they kissed a cheer went up but Josek felt as if he had been charged with electricity – every cell in his body seemed alight. But then Maria was pulling away and so he opened his eyes, and she was disentangling her hand from his. Even though she looked happy her withdrawal had taken with it something of himself; it left him hollow.
Copyright Nicky Tate 2013.