Simon’s running fast, tearing through crowds of screaming kids. He’s all elbows and knees and panting like a dog. His shirt is short, shorts are tight, because it’s the end of term and Mum says they’ll have to do. His hair clings to his sweaty neck in damp rattails. He’s chasing Nadia.
Break should be footie with his mates, kicking shins, but he can’t take his eyes off Nadia’s flashing heels and floating hair. She’s quick and light and skips and swerves and his longer legs don’t compensate. Kiss Chase is a stupid game, but he hasn’t got the words, hasn’t got the moves, and today’s the last day, his last chance. But dark-haired Nadia won’t be caught.
She keeps twisting away but he’s got to get her, he’s got to, even though he has no idea what will happen when he does. He’ll grab her by the hair if he gets a chance, yank her back and put an arm round her throat.
She stumbles and he’s almost on her, but she snakes away, spins through a group of blank-faced boys, leaps over crouched kids, and Simon barges after, marbles skittering away as the players holler. He’s not Simon anymore, he’s possessed.
But at last she slows, she’s stopping, she turns towards him. He crashes into her and they almost go over as he wraps his arms around her, bangs his chin on her forehead, searches for her face which she thrusts into his armpit and her hair is everywhere, in his mouth. She shrugs and wriggles but he clings on. She pulls her head up, looks at him with her bright, dark eyes and he doesn’t know what to do. There’s a red mark on her head where they met. Other girls would cry but he’s never seen Nadia cry. She shrugs herself free and stands there and they breathe at each other.
Nadia’s really Gary’s girl. Simon sat on a bench yesterday and Nadia slid over to talk to him, then Gary came up and thwacked him on the side of the head, knocked him over backwards, his ear throbbing, and it sounded like he was underwater. Gary grabbed Nadia and sauntered away, and Simon took himself off to Mr Evans. Today Gary’s suspended.
So Simon stands there with his throat full of spit. Break’s nearly over. He doesn’t know what to do and he’s got no breath left to say anything. Nadia bunches her dark, wavy hair behind her head, then she looks around, grabs his hand, jerks him forward and he follows at once, past the low wall at the end of the playground. They slide down the bank, knees buckling, then they’re away across the field, cut grass sticking to their soles and then flying off in lumps. They keep to the edge, Nadia reaching out to brush her fingers over the hedge that has oily leaves you can scratch your name on. They’re out of bounds. If a teacher sees them… but today, the last day, nobody cares.
They reach the stand of trees at the far side of the field. It’s where the smokers go at lunchtime. They run into the shadows and he’s panting again, but they’re under cover.
Nadia crouches down and crawls under one of the bushes. Simon sits, avoiding the brown cherries in the matted grass that leave marks on your bum. Nadia comes out of the bush backwards with two fag butts. She slips a hand underneath her skirt and pulls out a lighter. Simon’s been told that smokers die, but dying today means no comprehensive in September, no bogwashing and no bullies. Nadia holds both stubs between her lips. The lighter won’t spark first time, but soon there’s a flame. He watches his hand go out but it’s awkward taking the glowing inch without burning himself. He sucks on it hard, like Coke through a straw, then coughs and retches and Nadia smiles. Simon feels the smoke rise inside him.
The bell rings. It sounds alright from down here, like a posh doorbell, not like when you’re up close. So that’s it, he thinks. Through the leaves Simon can see the other kids forming lines. Soon they’ll walk up the steps and through the double doors towards problems and handwriting and the playground will be empty.
It’s going quiet. Simon listens to a lawnmower on the other side of the hedge. Nadia stands up, takes a couple of steps away from Simon into a bright patch among the leafy shadows. She looks at him for a moment. There’s a plate of glass between them. She turns to face a tree, takes a skipping step and drops her hands to the ground, arches her back as her heels find the bark. She holds the handstand, elbows locked. Her skirt tumbles down from her waist. There’s a patch of wavering sunlight on her thighs.
She drops down, comes up in the right order, covered again, Nadia again.
‘You like it?’ she says, and Simon nods.
‘I can take my knickers off,’ she says. Simon shakes his head.
‘Gary likes I take my knickers off,’ she says.
Simon realises he’s not Gary. He’ll never be Gary. He yearns for problems and handwriting.
‘We’re going to get into trouble,’ he says.
‘No problem,’ she says.
‘Let’s go back,’ he says.
Nadia sits down away from Simon, starts tearing up grass, throwing it over her shoulders. A distant plane rumbles. It’s a beautiful day.
‘Do you really have no parents?’ he says. Simon’s dad moved out three months ago. He sees him on Sundays. He’s not told anyone.
She keeps on tearing. ‘Yes, no,’ she says.
‘What happened?’ says Simon.
‘War,’ she says. ‘Shit war.’
‘Who looks after you?’
‘My uncle and aunt. They are okay. But old, not funny.’
He wants to ask her if she really takes her knickers off for Gary. It seems impossible.
She smiles at him. ‘You good boy,’ she says. ‘You worry little things. I don’t. Not no more.’
She starts making a daisy chain. She has long fingernails for splitting the stalks. Simon picks daisies, drops them by her knee, but she ignores them, keeps on picking her own. Simon wonders what their class will be doing now. Maybe helping Mr Evans take down the displays. Maybe solving riddles like the one with the fox, goose, and grain. He remembers the present for Mr Evans in his desk.
He turns towards school and sees Mrs Cook coming down the steps.
‘It’s Mrs Cook,’ he says.
‘Shit,’ says Nadia. ‘She’s bitch. Come on.’
They plunge into the bushes, full of the sharp stink of cat and fox. Spiderwebs snag his skin as they push branches out of the way. It’s gloomy inside and at the back there’s a chain link fence. He thinks they’ll hide, but she ducks down and clambers through a hole.
‘This way,’ she urges.
He puts his head down, shoves his shoulders through, crawls forward and draws his knees behind him.
They are in a garden. His shoes sink into soft soil. It’s overgrown with nettles and brambles dotted with tight red blackberries. Clouds have buried the sun and the air is cool on his legs and arms.
‘Where are we?’ says Simon.
‘Home,’ says Nadia. She finds a stick in the weeds and swings it in swift arcs to fell the nettles that threaten the narrow path.
Beyond the garden, the house is dark and derelict, the windows smashed and the upstairs frames charred, the walls filthy with soot. Tattered red and black curtains hang out of the downstairs windows.
‘We lived here, before the fighting. Don’t you remember?’ Nadia scythes her way forward. ‘We had goats, greedy smelly creatures. And a few chickens. Look, here’s the run.’
There’s a tangle of rotten wood and plants and chicken wire.
They walk towards the house, Nadia slashing nettles. Simon stands on a piece of yellow newspaper that crumbles under his feet into irregular brittle flakes. There are words he can’t read. He looks up and catches a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. The house. Is someone up there? He thinks of Gary.
‘Nadia,’ he whispers urgently. ‘Up there.’ He points. Nadia comes over to him, puts her head close to his, and follows his line of vision.
‘Is it Gary?’ says Simon.
Nadia shakes her head. There’s a ghostly shape in the dark room, the glint of something poking out. Then a flash and a CRACK next to Simon’s ear like a firework. He flinches, blinks.
‘Shpejt!’ says Nadia. Simon doesn’t follow. ‘Quick!’ She pulls him through the nettles, they brush his arms and legs. An angry buzzing thing zips by with a SNAP. They run through the half-open door of a shed. There’s no floor, just earth. There are sandbags piled up against one wall and they drop behind them. Dirty light filters in through the cobwebbed window.
‘What is it?’ says Simon.
Nadia’s trembling. ‘Snaiper,’ she whispers. He opens his mouth but she puts a finger against his lips, shakes her head. ‘Little brother,’ she breathes, ‘Mosubenimerak.’
She takes both his hands in hers, grips them tightly. ‘I won’t let them take you this time,’ she says. Her eyes are wide. The words trigger a vision, the back of a lorry, the stench of an oiled gun, dogs on chains. He thinks it was a film he saw. He looks out at the garden, hoping for Mrs Cook. The nettle stings throb like lashes. He holds his breath, squeezes Nadia’s hands.
The window explodes and the air is full of fragments. Nadia’s face sparkles, with tears or shards of glass he cannot tell.