Brown and burgundy; the leaves wave
From the trees like hands
In the darkness, the
Orange grins of pumpkins are
Parents light bonfires
Sparklers spell names, draw pictures
Cold toes, hot coffee
The clash of metal on metal rings through the courtyard. Pigeons soar, startled, from the heavily laden apple trees. Maysie, our tortoiseshell cat, looks up sleepily from her perch on the garden wall, then turns her head away. If Ma was in earshot, she would probably start shrieking at me and my brother to quieten down. But I know that she is the other side of the house; far enough away that we can work in peace.
My brother, Adrian, distracts me from my thoughts. “Hey, Miriam, are you here to fight or aren’t you?” I look over at him. Neither of us are wearing any more armour that a breastplate. He prefers to fight with a shield: I don’t. His face is flushed from fighting, but he’s smiling. “Sorry!” I say, before raising my sword and preparing myself. My brother pushes his brown hair from his eyes, his expression one of utmost concentration.
As always, he attacks first. He sprints the three steps towards me and aims a forceful blow at my chest. I neatly step to the left and block his attack, then swiftly cut my own blade down towards his shoulder. He blocks, and we are thrown back into our rapid dance with swords. Even though he is two years older, he and I are very evenly matched at fighting. Apart from him, nobody knows I can fight. A girl with a sword is a shameful sight. So it is our secret.
I know his style, and my mind is flitting through possible attacks, blocks and counterattacks faster than I can deliver them. He is a blur, his expression fierce and serious. We are so close to one another, weaving in and out of the way, and yet we never touch. Only our blades clash together, sending ringing noises echoing off the walls of the courtyard.
After a while – ten minutes, maybe more – the familiar burn of exertion starts to wind it’s way around my sword arm. For a while, I ignore it. But finally I admit that I’m worn out. Almost like my confession was the key to a floodgate, my body seems to begin screaming at me, clamouring to tell my brain about all my various pains. But I’m not going to stop. Not now!
I know that Adrian is getting tired too, because his blocks are slower and are barely stopping my sword before it touches him. His face isn’t flushed any more; it’s bright, tomato red. I’m not in a much better state. I feel like I’m burning up inside and I am uncomfortably aware that the hair on my forehead is slick with sweat.
I can feel him weakening: his attacks are getting feebler and feebler. I grin, taking advantage and showering him with blows. Ignoring my exhaustion, I feint an attack towards his right thigh, then at the last second pull out and swing at his chest. He wasn’t expecting that and my blow catches him full-on in the chest. He staggers back from the blow, his bright red face so surprised that I burst out laughing.
I can’t help it; he looked so funny with his eyes wide, his mouth a round ‘O’ of shock. Laughter spills out of me like water from a tap and I lower my sword. Suddenly Adrian comes shooting into my vision, sword held high, and I only just manage to block him. Caught off guard by his sudden attack, he soon has me pinned against the courtyard wall with his blade at my neck.
We’re both panting. He’s gone – if this is possible – even more tomato-coloured. He backs off, lowering his sword, still gasping for air. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting, with my back against it. He falls down, a marionette with severed strings. My heart is pounding and my hand so cramped I can’t prise my fingers away from the sword handle. After a couple of minutes catching our breath back, he says,
“If you hadn’t begun laughing, you would’ve won that.”
I laugh again, the memory of his face flashing through my mind. “You just looked so funny,” I say with a smile. He returns my smile ruefully, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Now he’s won, our score is… let me see… 7 : 8. But in his favour. Drat! Now I’ve got to beat him tomorrow. We sit in companionable silence for a while before he stands up, offering me his hand so that I can too. I groan as I stand, rubbing my sore muscles. “You shouldn’t have let me sit down, I’ve gone all stiff!”
He grins. “Come on, let’s go and get this stuff off before Ma comes looking for us.” Walking out of the courtyard, I whistle to Maysie, who is still soaking up the sunshine on the wall. With her slinking at our heels we troop through the orchard towards the house.
With my sword bouncing at my hip, and the calming, childhood sounds of the wind in apple trees, the purring of Maysie and the cooing of pigeons, I feel perfectly at ease. My limbs still burn slightly, but it’s a good burn now, a healthy I’ve-just-done-exercise burn. I relax. Linking my arm through Adrian’s, we make our way through the heavily laden apple trees, laughing in the summer sunshine.
The contents of the overcrowded minibus spilled out onto the sand.
After being cooped up for hours in that sweaty tin-can bus, the teenagers exploded.
For hours, the golden sun gazed at the crazy teenagers in wonder
Watching as they ran and screamed and slid and clambered over the endless sand dunes
They chased, and raced, and tumbled, and played games until the sun began to sink
Then, as one, they collapsed at the bottom of a dune, exhausted
Sand caked every inch of their sticky suncream skin
They lay sprawled on the sand, using each other as pillows
When they recovered their breath, they struggled to their feet and slowly stumbled off
Searching the golden sand for driftwood
By the time the heap of wood was big enough, the sun had sunk out of sight
Leaving only the very tops of the dunes blazing with gold
They lit the fire and the dancing red flames shot up into the dark sky
With the last traces of energy they possessed, the teenagers leapt to their feet
And danced, and sang, and ran around the bonfire as the night fell
Holding hands, making an untidy ring around the roaring bonfire
Dancing to the left, to the right, faster and faster, stamping their feet on the sand
Singing all the campfire songs they knew, as loudly as they could
Until they ran out of songs and had to sing them all twice
All caught up in the wild stomping rhythm
When the flames died down, they collapsed around the ring of glowing coals
Marshmallows were passed around and soon everyone was eating and chatting and talking
The fire popping and crackling merrily in the centre
The stars began to prick through the heavens and shine
A yellow moon peered over a dune, then raised its dented head and climbed into the star scattered sky
The teenagers lay on their stomachs around the fire, watching the gleaming ashes with heavy eyelids
The wind gusted now and then, sending sparks like red fireflies floating through the air
The conversations grew quieter, laughter still breaking out now and then
The fire was little more than embers but the heat it gave off was cosy and comforting
Slowly, their heads drooped and the conversation faded away
With their heads resting on someone else’s stomach, they sleepily stared up at the stars
Then, one by one, they drifted away
Their dreams full of running and dancing and the stamping of feet
Until all that was left at the bottom of the moon washed dune
Were the still warm ashes of a fire
And the sticky sandy bodies of many exhausted teenagers.