By Sian Norris
It was too nice a day, she thought, to go to school.
She’d take the day off.
No one need know.
The trees are cut out against the blue sky and it’s a fine day, and fine days should be used for fine things; they aren’t for sitting on plastic chairs, in classrooms that smell of body spray over sweat.
She waited at the bus stop and then, when the driver pulled away, she remained for a moment longer, before ducking down the overgrown alleyway with its narrow cracked path and the leaves and suckers that intruded and pulled on her navy-blue sleeves.
No one knows where I am, she thinks, and the thought is thrilling. A shiver of delight snakes down her back, delight at the strangeness of it, in a life where everyone knows exactly where she is supposed to be at any moment of any day. Her anonymity gives her the feeling of being far from home, as though she had travelled a great distance when in fact she’s less than a mile away, walking down the cramped alleyway, as a sparrow dives deeper into the bushes that flank the path.
The woods then.
She hadn't been to the woods for years. She had travelled further and further away from a time when the woods were a treat. So it was with something of a shock to realise that the woods were where she wanted to go on her holiday. And yet, as soon as she’d thought of it, the thought had settled there and it had seemed right. It was a fine day, and fine days required woods.
They aren’t quite as she remembered. In her memories they are bigger: sprawling woods to get lost in for hours, scrambling through overgrown dead hedges to find a new path, a new section of woodland to map and record. Under the sycamore and chestnut canopy, the recollection of those childish hand-drawn maps becomes vivid. She knows with sudden clarity that if she goes one way she’ll come to the flower meadow and if she goes another she’ll reach the abandoned mill. She doesn’t need to choose between the two. This is her holiday, after all. She has all day.
A song thrush calls its song three times as she turns towards the meadow. A pied wagtail wags cheerfully. A flustered jay flaps in the tree above her head, buff with that shocking flash of metallic blue beneath its wing. It’s a fine thing, to be in the company of birds. She dreams for a lapwing in the flower meadow.
There’s a woodpecker somewhere. She can hear the insistent knocking on wood, and she knocks too, for luck. She wonders if it’s green with a red cap, or black and white with a red flash. Maybe there are owls in the wood. How fine it would be, she thinks, to come here at night.
She hadn’t realised how much darker it was inside the woods until she stepped out into the meadow. She blinks hard, as the sun bounces off the heads of poppies and buttercups and big fat daisies, their yellow middles with exaggerated pimples. She sneezes at the hit of grass, long stems that shiver and tremble, releasing their seeds into the air and onto a bee’s spiny hairs or the finer feathers that line a bird’s belly.
Her sneezing fit over, she lies down in the meadow. The ground is flat against the ridges in her back, the longer grasses and flowers tower over her, so that anyone walking along the fence bordering the wood and meadow wouldn’t notice her lying there. She shakes an insect off her leg; flicks an inquisitive grass frond from her face, and looks up at the sky. A kestrel hovers above her, vaguely menacing. She gazes up at it, noticing the patterns under its wings, but it’s looking to the right of her, fixed on its prey.
She falls asleep.
When she wakes up, the sun has moved over to the other side of the sky. She’s slept in such stillness that a spider has begun to spin its web between her feet as a caterpillar mooches along the length of her shin. A snail has left a silver trail on the toe of her shoe, its long footprint a calling card. A family of chubby, glossy rabbits crop the grass a few metres from her, and underneath the scent of spring flowers she can detect the harsh decay of an animal carcass, picked clean by hawks or foxes some distance away.
Her head feels cloudy from the unexpected sleep, and her neck is stiff and sore from the flat earth beneath her. It seems a shame to force the spider to give up her newly-made home, or to alarm the rabbits. But there needed to be more to the holiday than sleeping in a field, delightful and transgressive as it may be.
Once again that thrill of anonymity snakes down her spine. To think that no one knows where she is. It’s a complete freedom. No one could intrude on her holiday. That sense of distance returned, irrational and silly, yet making perfect sense. To be where no one knew you were, to be away from all expectations and regulations – it doesn’t matter that she’s less than a mile away from home. Anonymity is a different country.
On the fencepost she spots a bullfinch, all pink and plump and proud. She glows with pride too. She hadn’t remembered that she knew so much about birds. All that knowledge had stayed within her somewhere, waiting for a fine day, waiting for a fine holiday.
Back in the woods, her pupils widen to adjust to the semi-darkness. She picks up the sound of the brook and heads towards its babble, following it upstream so she can reach the mill. It’s not as complete as it had once been. It’s no longer the mill of her memories. Back then it had looked like a mill. They would climb through the empty window frames and sit inside, wrinkling their noses at the smell of piss and empty beer cans, not thinking for a moment of why it smelled like piss and empty beer cans. They had known to be afraid, though. And so they had never spent long inside the mill. A dare, a run in, a nose-wrinkle, a shudder at the silence enclosed in the brick walls, before diving back out again into the clean smells and the sounds of the woods, laughing loudly, too loudly, breathing hard.
Now the mill is just one wall.
So much for the mill, she thinks.
She leaves the mill behind her and carries on following the brook until she reaches the pool. It’s surrounded by trees, their branches hanging low over the still surface, leaves dancing in the patterns the sun makes on the edges of the water. It’s private.
How good it would be, she thinks, to swim here. In a moment it’s a thought no longer. Struck by the thrill of anonymity and the fine-ness of her holiday, she pulls her regulation sweater over her head and unbuttons her nylon blouse so that she’s just in her plain white bra, a tiny frivolous bow in its middle. Next she loses her shoes and trousers and, just in her underwear, jumps in.
She gasps. It’s cold and the cold hurts. Her breathing turns hectic; a look of panic contorts her features until in a flash she’s used to it and calm again. It’s amazing how quickly she’s used to it. Paddling like a puppy around the pool, her bra and pants soaked transparent, her hair sticky on the back of her neck.
She pushes herself forward in a determined breast-stroke, the weed and scum on the surface of the water clinging to her skin. A water-boatman paddles beside her, a damsel fly flits and flashes in front of her eyes. She shudders at the thought that dragonfly nymphs might be in the water; their blind alien faces. Something plops behind her, a frog perhaps, or a newt. She longs for a heron.
She could be anywhere, she thinks. No one knows where she is, and so she could be anywhere. What a fine thing, to be anonymous, to be no-where and everywhere, on such a fine day. A fine holiday.
Her teeth are chattering now and the sun has moved further across the sky. It must be home time, she thinks. The buzzers will have rung and the buses filled up. She should get back before they notice she’s missing, before they start to ask where she is.
She leaves the pool, shaking her hair clean from her neck, her hands clumsy as she struggles to dry her goose-pimpled body with her scarf. Her bra and pants are damp and clinging but there’s not much she can do about that. They soak wet patches through her shirt and on to her sweater; her shivering skin rasps against the cheap polyester of her trousers. She flicks flecks of pond weed from her neck and wrists, her fingers aching from the cold, fumbling with buttons and zips and laces.
Sat high up on the mill’s remaining wall, fours boys crack open their cans of beer, and watch her get dressed.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, and is a regular book reviewer at Open Democracy. She co-edits the Read Women project. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue, is published by Our Street and her short story,The Boys on the Bus, is available on Kindle. She is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein, which in 2016 was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Prize. Follow her on Twitter @sianushka
Copyright © 2016 by Sian Norris. All Rights Reserved.