The boy was standing on the grass, squinting into the bright sun at the distant second floor window of Sister Richard’s office, when someone shouted – Go! – and he realised with a jolt that the game had begun. The other child chosen to be It was already halfway to where the rest of the class was standing bunched together, half turned away in preparation of flight and making little jumps of anticipation before stuttering into a run when the boy started towards them, his head lowered and eyes focused only on the children’s feet flicking up behind them, the winking buckles of their shoes, the matt dirt of their soles and their white socks flashing against the grass, focused only on the knot of children straight ahead and ignoring those who peeled away, some running for the high ground beside the tennis courts and others angling sharply left or right, trying – the boy was peripherally aware – to cut around him to the patio in front of the convent, all these he ignored as he accelerated and focused only on the diminishing knot of children making for the stump of the plane tree in the south west corner of the field, some of whom were looking back as they ran and shrieking as the boy drew closer. The boy’s best friend could hear the shrieks of the children through the open window of Sister Richard’s office where he was kneeling over a footstool as Sister Richard came round from behind her desk, tapping a wooden ruler against the ball of her left hand. The boy later could not say at what point the knot of children became three then two, then just the girl, but she was near the edge of the field and he was close enough to see her ponytail flick left and right, covering and uncovering the thin red line of her hair band and then she was leaping over the swollen roots of the plane tree’s stump, which was cracked right open down the centre, though no one knew whether it had been felled or struck by lightning or gale or some other act of God, but it did not matter now because she ducked into a gap between the thin branches of the shrubbery and he leapt after her, immediately aware of the dimness here and how the plants muffled the shrieks and squeals of the other children because he could hear her breathing and his own and the padded ssh of their feet on the damp soil as he followed her through the tangle of branches, she moving with fluid sureness and him blundering after, until she reached the splintered wooden planks of the fence around the convent’s perimeter and turned in a half crouch, her freckled face frowning, biting her lip, wide-eyed in excitement and he reached out and tagged her on the bare skin of her arm – straight off she tagged him back, more of a push in the chest, he tagged her again and tried to leap away, but she got him with a slap on the forearm and they both stood there, unsure what to do, panting and wiping roughly at the hair sticking in sweaty wisps to their foreheads. The boy lunged at the girl, the blood throbbing in his head from competitiveness and adrenaline, and concentrated on pinning her wrists together so he could hold her, tag her and run, but she would not let him and they fought, wriggling in the damp soil with the leaves of the branches stroking their scalps, like when he wrestled his sister, their faces red, their knees burning on the green carpet, only it was not like that at all because the heat from the girl’s body, the tang of her sweat and the pulsing strength of her limbs all knotted somewhere near his tummy, no, it was more like the time he found himself behind Caroline from Year Six in the queue for morning assembly and felt something between joy and fear at being that close to her because even though she was so tall that his head did not even come up to the top of her brown leather rucksack, he thought she was perfect with dark hair and pale skin like his mother only she glowed more, but it did not matter what it was like because it was happening here, now, so the boy pushed all this away and clenched his jaw in determination to see the thing through, the knowledge that he would never tell his mother already beginning to collect at the edge of his mind, hours from hardening into guilt. They struggled for a moment, two like this, squashed against each other, neither wanting to let go, their feet and knees skidding on the soil, by turns laughing and struggling for purchase, before they both released their grip at the same time and their eyes met, she with one leg crossed beneath her, brown hair fallen over her face and he with a leaf stuck in his collar and streaks of soil up his shins, and she said, lie on me – what, he said – lie on me, she said, and then, sex me – and he did not ask what or how, perhaps because he wanted to pretend he knew the game as well as anyone or perhaps because he knew in some way different to the way he knew how to tie his shoelaces, some way different to the way he knew things he had been taught, that there was a thing which could be done between a boy and a girl though what or how he did not know, but instead clambered roughly on top of her, straining his neck to hold his head away from hers and began to move his torso vertically up and down like a seal until she said – no, not like that – and gripped him by the arms and shook him so his body moved jerkily up and down across her.
They both released their grip at the same time and their eyes met, she with one leg crossed beneath her, brown hair fallen over her face and he with a leaf stuck in his collar and streaks of soil up his shins, and she said, lie on me
We were made in sin and in sin did our mother make us. Forgive us our something as we forgive those who something against us, the boy thought and he could hear the voice of Father Edward over the speakers fixed in every nave and corner of the church, as if the priest were looking down on him from the pulpit, turning the pages of the gospel with his hairy fingers, looking down on him even there, in the dark space behind the stump of the plane tree, and all afternoon he sat at his desk, watching his best friend shift uncomfortably in his chair because his backside was red and sore from Sister Richard’s ruler, and the boy was so convinced it was him not his friend who should have been called to that office for what Sister Richard must surely know he had done that he dared not draw attention to himself by going to the toilet and instead tried to hold out until the short hour hand edged its way to three, but it was no good because at two fifteen he felt his bladder flex and his pants turned hot and wet and still he did not move as the hot wetness seeped along his thighs, and other children complained about the smell, and his face flushed furiously red, until finally the bell rang and he bolted from his seat, out along the corridor, away from the other children, his best friend, the girl, away from Sister Richard and the voice of Father Edward, out onto the road in front of the convent where his mother was waiting, distinct among the other parents with her dark hair and pale skin, and raced into her arms and she, startled by this sudden affection from her five-year-old, pressed him to her breast, but by then it was too late, because the secret of the girl and the shame of what had happened there behind the stump of the plane tree was furled between them and though they went home and the night inked in and out and the boy grew and went to sex education classes and slept with women, he lived his life on bail for what he and the girl had done, a memory of the flesh that furled tighter and fell deeper inside him, until it was so far fallen that only if something cracked him right open down the centre in one breathless blow would the bright sun ever unfurl it and light once again the secret spaces inside of him.
Max Sydney Smith was born in 1986 in London. His short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines including The Stockholm Review, Structo, Open Pen, Shooter and Noon. His flash fiction pamphlet, ‘Without Seeming to Care at All’, will be published by Rough Trade Books in 2019 as part of the Rough Trade Editions series.