Fiction

 

WASPS

I have a scar that makes me think of us. You know the one. You have it too. On warm summer days when your arms are bare do you catch a glimpse of it, there in the crook of your elbow? Do you think of me?

     We were about twelve, back in the days parents would let their prepubescent kids hoon around the streets on their bikes without a second thought.  

     Foxhole Farm was a mile outside town. I must have cycled out there to see my aunt and uncle a hundred times growing up, cutting across the fields, avoiding the just-passed-their-test teens who bullocked along those narrow country roads like they were indestructible. A few of them found out they weren’t. A few of them never got the chance to learn that little truth. A click of the fingers, brake too late, turn too sharp and woomph, gone. There seemed to be one kid every year who never got out of the car again. 

     East Wolton went houses, houses, houses, Bam! Fields. There was a ruler-straight line of semis that signaled the town limits, as determined by the Borough Council a half-century earlier. Nothing would budge them or that line. The sprawl had peaked with a spate of new build cul-de-sacs in the late fifties. A hundred different side-roads with themed names. I lived on Tennyson Drive, off Coleridge Road, opposite Byron way… the town planners didn’t get very far in their Big Bumper Book of nineteenth century poets. I think you got trees, didn’t you? Chestnut Avenue, Hawthorn Street, Willow Walk. 

     It was a fine sunny day during one of those picture-book, Enid Blyton scripted summer holidays that never seemed to end. But as with most of my childhood memories, Stephen King had overseen the final edit. There wasn’t any particular reason to be cycling out to Foxhole other than we had to cycle somewhere. And we knew at the end of it we could have free rein over the farm. 

     It was the four of us. Me, you, Ollie and Jenny. Always us four.

     We made it to the farm. Aunt Hen tried to cook us bacon. Just have a quick sandwich, love. You’re a growing lad. Instead, we set out past the old duck pond for the sprawling woodland a mile away over the fields. We were cycling along a dirt track when Ollie came to a sharp stop up ahead. There was a curious hole in the ground and, in the time-honored manner of young boys everywhere, he found a stick and gave it a poke.

     It was a wasp’s nest. 

     A cloud of them burst out of the hole and within seconds, Ollie was back on his bike and haring toward us, yelping. Moments later I felt the first sting.

     We turned tail. I don’t know how long the things followed us. I swear I heard buzzing the whole way down the track. I was pedaling furiously, and then suddenly I wasn’t. I was on the ground, my bike skittering away across the dusty earth. It took a few moments for the pain to register.  It was a rasping, biting pain that made me forget about trivial things like wasp stings. I was stunned, unable to move. The pain cut across my forearms and when I looked down there were huge, red welts running in lines just beneath my biceps. Ollie caught up and skidded to a halt beside me. 

     “What happened?” Ollie asked. “Come on, they’re still chasing us!”

     I pointed weakly to my bike, lying on the ground. A moment later, you careened past, and I watched as an invisible hand pushed you in the chest and threw you backwards.  You landed with a heavy thump. Your bike carried on, riderless. 

     “What?” Ollie said. Jenny braked sharply and nearly smashed into the back of him. 

     “I’ve been stung!” she yelled.

     You started crying, and that must have been too much for me, because I got to my feet and tried to dust myself off, but the pain was still burning up and down my arms. I was dimly aware that there were other little pin-points of pain around my body, too. My foot, my legs, my neck.

     “Electric fence,” Ollie pointed at the thin, almost invisible line of wire strung across the track. “You hit an electric fence.” He turned to look back toward the nest and then up ahead again. 

     “They’re coming!” Jenny said, bouncing the front wheel of her bike up and down.

     “Come on,” Ollie said, but you and I froze. Once bitten, twice shy. The burnt child dreads the fire and all that. Ollie led the way, crawling underneath the wire, dragging his bike behind him. Jenny followed and as soon as she was through, she was gone, a disappearing spot leaving a dust cloud in its wake. But Ollie waited. He gave me a look and then inclined his head at you, a red-faced bundle of snot and tears. 

     “Come on,” he repeated. Maybe it was the buzzing I could hear all around me—imaginary or not —maybe it was the sight of you in pain, but I managed to pull you to your feet. I took a hold of you around the waist and something changed. Back then, I didn’t understand it. But now? Now I know what that was. The first sense that holding you had become something different. 

     I guided us under the wire and flinched when my back clipped it. You tensed in my arms for a moment, the electric shock passing through me into you, a shared jolt.

     We tore back to the farm, scattering ducks as we went. The pain in my arms had eased a little, but the stings were really starting to come through. My foot was throbbing. We bundled into the wide, open space of the kitchen where the lurchers rested up against the Aga. It was summer, the Aga was off, but they still lay there, the happy memory of it warming their bones on winter days. There was a terrier too. Uncle Hector always had a terrier. The dogs came and went. I couldn’t tell you the name of one of them now. But it always seemed to be two lurchers and a terrier. It was the terriers you had to watch out for.

     I pulled off my shoe to get a look at my foot and two of the little bastards flew out. They’d been stinging my foot the whole journey back. They flew drunkenly and I took my anger out on them, smashing their crunchy little bodies, hammering them with my shoe and grinding them into dust. 

     “What the bloody hell is all this racket?” Hector said, coming in from a back room. He was still an imposing man. Rounding the headland of his fifties and crawling gently towards old age. He had a barrel of a chest that stuck out over a belly that was doing its level best to keep up. His beard was gray-white with nicotine staining the left corner of his mouth. Height of summer, middle of the day and he was sitting in the back, smoking. 

     “Wasps. Electric fence,” Ollie blurted out. 

     “Hen!” Hector yelled up the stairs and then retreated back inside again.

     Aunt Hen padded down in soft, fluffy slippers. “Right you are,” she said, taking charge. She brought down an old biscuit tin from a high shelf and pulled out wads of cotton wool, plasters, tweezers, TCP.

     “Here.”

     She passed around the cotton wool, brought out a flask of vinegar and poured it into a bowl. The acrid smell of it cut through the scent of wet dog and hit the back of my throat. 

     “Come on, then. You’ll have to do each other. And I’ll take care of these burns on your arms. Well? Get a move on. Tops off!” We looked at each other in alarm. Hen tutted. “For God’s sake, it’s just  skin.”

      Reluctantly, we took off our t-shirts. The burns sang out as I dragged mine up and over them. I tried not to look at you. You’d taken your top off and I can still remember the pale pink training bra you were wearing underneath. But if you were self-conscious, it didn’t show. You reached out your skinny little arms, dabbed the cotton wool into the bowl and pressed it where I pointed. You took my foot on your lap and doused it in the stuff until it seeped into your skirt. 

     When it was my turn, I gingerly reached out and then retracted my hand. I heard Hen tut again. You took my hand in yours, pulled it towards your stomach and said “here,” pushing the cotton wool down. You caught my eye and smiled weakly. A shiny thread like a silvery wire lay flat on your face, running from the corner of your eye, curving round your mouth and ending at the point of your chin where a single tear waited to drop. I wanted to touch you, but I wanted to run, too. 

     There was a small gas cooker in the corner of the kitchen that Hen used in the summer when the Aga was off. She put a pan of milk on and came over. 

     “Here,” she said, pulling your arms to her. She smoothed over the burns on your forearms with a white cream and then wrapped a small, tight bandage over your elbows with a degree of skill. 

     “Shit.” The milk began to boil over. She stood up and snatched it off the hob. The lurchers followed her movements with the points of their noses, but seeing there was nothing in it for them, they settled again. 

     “Do Charlie while I make you a drink,” Hen pointed. Did she know back then? Hen was as smart as a whip. Smarter than Hector, for certain. She loved you, right up until the point she didn’t any longer. 

     You tried to copy Hen’s bandages and every time you laid your hands on me, a little spider with ice-cold legs danced up and down my spine.

     My bandages came off within an hour and Hen re-wrapped them for me with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth and a funny look in her eyes. She poured us hot milk that bit at the back of our throats and made us cough. Hector appeared in the doorway and laughed hard.

     “Get out of here, you old pervert.” Hen chased him away and then told us to put our clothes back on.

     There was rum in that milk. It was my earliest memory of alcohol. It was warming, it was safe, I was with you and my heart felt like it could lift me up into the sky. 

     If my blood starts to pump enough, or my skin tans, the scars are still there. Thin white lines. We both have them. We used to look at those lines together when we were lying in bed. You used to trace them with the point of your fingernail and tell me it was the day you first knew you loved me. I wonder if you still look at them like I do.

 

Author Bio:

T. K. Howell is a writer living on the banks of the Thames. When not writing, he manages ancient oak woodlands and tends to trees that are older than most countries. His writing is often inspired by mythology and folklore. 

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