'Awww . . . c'mon, Chris,' urged Jeremy Hutton, my best friend for as long as I could remember. ‘Don’t be such a wuss!’
We had been sitting within the school playground beneath one of the old pine trees along the bottom edge of the oval while having lunch on a Friday, and discussing plans for our weekend. As usual his plans were far more grand than mine, so I just knew that whatever we got up to wasn't going to be tame.
'They say that sometimes you've just gotta take a chance or two, don't ya know?' he continued.
'And who is it that says that, Jem?' I asked, as I bit into an apple and started chewing.
'Well, my dad for starters. C'mon, we'll be heroes!'
'Won't do us much good if we're dead though, will it! And besides, since when did you start listening to anything that your old man ever said?'
'Okay, both fair points,' he said with a grin.
There was only one more week of year six left, then we would break for the summer holidays, before next year starting high school in the next town. We both just knew that everything was about to change.
To be honest it scared the crap out of me, but maybe Jem's idea wasn't such a bad one after all? We would say goodbye to our childhood with a bang . . . that is provided we both survived!
So that was how Jeremy and I found ourselves crouching behind a granite boulder the very next day, near the top of a small, overgrown hill while peering down into a gully, at the bottom of which could be found the creek which flowed through the middle of our little bush town.
It was summer, and it was hot, and the air was filled with a cacophony of sounds coming from birds and insects. High above us we could hear the sound of crows, with their distinctive call, kark-kark, being carried on the wind. Higher still we could see an eagle, a huge old Wedge-Tail bird, soaring effortlessly on warm currents of summer air. And above him there were clouds, light and fluffy and windswept, scurrying across a blue sky.
Creeping stealthily through the dry, overgrown bush, with litter crunching beneath our feet, we edged closer to our ultimate goal, carefully using every available obstruction as cover – trees, logs, blackberry bushes or rocks – as best we could. A short while later we had descended about half way down the slope and were once again crouched behind a granite boulder – only this one was split right down the middle, allowing us a clear view of our target. After each short advance, we had scanned the terrain ahead before moving forward once more, edging closer and closer to the swiftly flowing, crystal clear waters of Sawyers Creek and the orchard and home of old Mrs Walker, which lay beyond.
Our objective was the huge cherry tree at the bottom of her orchard, which at this time of year was heavily laden with fruit; ripe and juicy and going to waste.
Jeremy was the one who always led the way on our missions, and our misadventures, and I always seemed to be the one who followed blindly. He raised his finger to his pursed lips, letting me know we needed to remain quiet then gave a signal to advance. I nodded then silently we left the cover of the boulder and crept forward once more, before this time taking cover behind the root clump of a fallen tree.
We knew she was there, the old woman was always there, keeping a watchful eye on her beloved trees, always ready to chase off any unwelcome intruders. But to us, and the generations that had come before us, that was half the challenge. Half the fun.
Being able to get into the orchard, fill a bucket or a sack (or whatever was handy) with fruit and then get back out again with your prize – and yourselves – intact was an act that could make you famous.
Fail, however, and you faced certain ridicule at the hands of your peers.
Apparently there had never been any shortage of triers from within the ranks of local kids, but there were very few who had ever succeeded, or so the story goes.
And now we were the latest in a long line of fools.
After another short breather, the two latest fools to attempt this hazardous feat were ready to advance once more.
Carefully we scanned the terrain ahead. There was no sign of any movement amongst the trees or around the house, but we knew she was there. She was always there. I thought that I had seen some movement near her house when we were still at the top of the slope we had just crept down, but I couldn’t have been sure about that.
‘What do you reckon, Chris?’ Jeremy, asked me in a whisper.
‘Dunno,’ I answered, in the same whisper. ‘She’s got to be there some place. I thought I saw something, or someone, moving around near her house just before we started down the hill.’
Jeremy nodded gravely, and we both turned our gaze back to the trees before us, scanning from side to side, peering amongst the tree trunks, searching for a sign, any sign, of our nemesis.
Just then we heard a noise up at the house. The distinctive bang of a door slamming shut echoed around the hills.
Jeremy smiled. ‘It’s time to move,’ he said to me, as he started forward, ready to move around the large knot of roots and dirt that had offered us shelter.
‘Are you sure, Jem?’ I asked. ‘What if it wasn’t her that we saw moving around when we were back up there,’ he said, while cocking my thumb in the direction of the top of the hill. ‘What if she was only just coming out of the house just now? Or what if it was just the wind slamming a door?’
‘Don’t be such a girl,’ Jeremy scolded. ‘If she was just coming out of the house now, that means she would have had to have gone inside sometime between when we saw her from back there, and when we got to here. And we didn’t hear the door slam while we were coming down the hill, did we? So that must mean she’s just gone inside now, doesn’t it?’
He could be so persuasive when he tried. And I hated it when he was always right. I merely nodded and with resignation I followed him forward.
There was only a short distance to cover between the tree we had been hiding behind and the bank of the creek, from where we would be able to easily hide once more, though we would first need to reach it and cross the cool, clear waters of the creek.
‘You ready then?’ Jeremy asked.
‘Like I have a choice?’
He just grinned at me, and I knew I would follow him. I would follow him through the gates of hell if need be.
Nothing happened during our twenty metre dash from the tree to the edge of the creek. There were no screams of rage coming from the direction of the house. No mad dogs, foaming at the mouth, came racing down the orchard ready to tear us apart, limb from limb. There were no shotgun blasts pointed in our direction. There was no nothing.
When we reached the cover of the bank, all we could hear were the sounds of our own hearts beating, the sound of water flowing over nearby rocks, and the mocking laugh of a Kookaburra coming from high atop the hill behind us.
Was the damn thing laughing at us? Most probably, we both thought.
‘Well, so far so good,’ Jeremy whispered, between gasps of air as he lay with his back resting against the bank of earth. ‘You ready for the next part, mate?’
I looked at him gravely then slowly nodded.
Jeremy smiled and patted me on the shoulder. ‘Loosen up a little, Chris,’ he said to me. ‘This is going to make us famous.’
I tried to smile back, but couldn’t. ‘It bloody well better,’ I replied.
‘All right, just follow my lead,’ Jeremy said, and in an instant he was gone.
All I could do was watch as he scooted up over the bank, creeping forward in a cautious, low, crouched type of shuffle, dodging around saplings and heading toward a three-strand barbed wire fence. That was all that stood between us and our ultimate goal.
Eventually, satisfied that I too could make it in one piece, I followed, being just as cautious and going just as slowly as my friend.
Soon I joined Jem beside the fence, with both of us taking cover behind some bushes.
We all knew that from the kitchen window of her house the much-feared Mrs Walker would often cast her steely gaze toward the bottom of her orchard. We also knew that at this time of year, with her trees so full of fruit and ripe for the picking, she would be keeping a particularly watchful eye on her domain.
There were a couple of things that we didn’t know however!
The first was that the old woman had heard all the stories about ‘that mad old Mrs Walker’ and ‘that mean old Mrs Walker’, the crazy lady that lived out on Anderson’s Road. She knew that we all thought she was an old witch who wouldn’t give anything to anybody, and even though she had apparently tried to tell people otherwise, it had been of no use whatsoever.
In reality she was nothing like that at all, she was just a sweet old woman who lived alone since her husband had died, but in the end she just gave up and let people think what they wanted, and made sure that the legend lived on by trying to keep us kids off her property.
The other thing we didn’t know was that she treated the whole thing as if it were a game. She would have happily given the fruit away; if only people would have asked! But where was the fun in that?
Our target, that huge old cherry tree, was well in sight.
Being so heavily loaded at this time of year, its limbs hanging low with the weight of the juicy red treats, patiently waiting for us to reach out and grab, the temptation was almost unbearable. It stood not more than twenty feet from where we now waited, beyond a no man’s land which neither Jeremy or I wanted urgently to cross, yet both knew that we must.
We stood there in silence, both wanting to run to the tree, but both knowing the consequences of being caught.
I looked at Jeremy. His face was a study of concentration.
‘Well?’ I asked him.
He turned to me, unsmiling. ‘Let’s do it,’ he said.
I nodded, then swiftly and quietly we both climbed between the strands of barbed wire that was designed to keep out the likes of us and covered the distance between the fence and the tree, soon arriving at its base, ready to plunder its riches.
Quietly we took from our pockets the carry bags we had brought with us and opened them. There was a soft rustle of plastic as we did this and nervously we both froze, looking at each other before then looked in the direction of the house, half-expecting the old woman to have heard us. When nothing happened we relaxed, then eagerly reached for the succulent fruit hanging all about us.
Silently we picked for almost half an hour without incident, with our bellies and our plastic bags growing fuller by the minute and with our hands and faces stained scarlet from the juice of the succulent fruit. We even surprised ourselves by how far we could spit the cherry seeds after having chewed on the delectable flesh.
It wasn’t until some weeks later, however, that we found out that during this time the ever wary Mrs Walker had indeed been keeping a watchful eye on her property. She had relayed with relish, to anyone who would listen, how she had glanced down amongst her trees on at least three separate occasions and had seen nothing.
On the fourth occasion, however, she glanced down amongst the trees and then turned away, but then she stopped, and slowly turned back to look out her window once more.
Was that a splash of blue down there by her favourite cherry tree?
When she looked again, at first all she could see was green, the rich dark green of the leaves of her trees, gently waving to her in the summer breeze. She watched and waited and then moments later a broad smile came over her face, and she rubbed her hands together with glee.
Down at the tree we were just finishing up. Our bags were both almost filled with fruit and we were both just placing our last handfuls of cherries in them, when we both froze in terror at the sound of a gate creaking on its rusting hinge.
We looked at each other, dumfounded. It was me who eventually ventured a first look in the direction from where the sound had come, peering around the tree trunk to get a clear view of the gate. And there she was, as large as life and just as fearsome as we had always imagined her to be . . . old Mrs Walker herself, coming at us with fire in her eyes and a walking stick raised threateningly above her head.
‘Jesus’, I yelled as I shrank back around the tree to where Jeremy was standing. ‘Let’s get out of here quick, she's coming for us!’
In one motion I picked up my trophy and ran for the fence, with Jeremy close on my heels.
We could hear her behind us, it sounded like she screaming at us, as she half ran, half hobbled after us.
‘You damned little thieves,’ we heard her cry. ‘I'll be telling the cops on yer! And yer folks too! You just wait. Yer lives won’t be worth livin’!’
We reached the fence and we both literally threw our prized bags of cherries over it, then began to climb through, with the mad woman right on our heels.
Jeremy made it through safely, rolling out of the way, and I went to follow, but as I climbed between the rusting rows of barbs my t-shirt snagged on the bottom wire. Terrified I looked up to see Mrs Walker almost upon me, raising her walking stick high up into the air. I yanked at the t-shirt, but I was stuck fast.
The old lady was almost singing as I heard her chanting, coming at me, ‘You'll be sorreeeee! You'll be sorreeeee!’
And the smile she had on her face when I looked up into it seemed totally hideous. The woman is insane, I remember thinking. She had to be!
‘You'll be sorreeeee. You'll be sorreeeee.’
Terrified, I screamed, ‘Jere-meeeee!’
I was convinced I was about to die at the hands of this crazy lady. Again I tugged at my t-shirt, still caught fast by the rusting barbs. I'm too young to die, I thought, thirteen year olds don't die, only old people die!
Just then Jeremy grabbed my arm and pulled hard. He heaved and nothing happened. The woman was laughing now. She really was mad.
Holding the walking stick firmly in both hands I could only watch as she raised them high into the air. The walking stick seemed to be a solid extension to her arms, then almost in slow motion I watched the arms and the walking stick begin to slice down through the air.
Jeremy could see what was happening and just then, thankfully, he gave an almighty tug on my arm, heaving with all the strength his young body contained. Just as the stick came crashing down through the air, my t-shirt finally let go and the two us rolled away into the long grass as the walking stick ‘whooshed’ past the spot where only moments before my head had been.
Trembling, we both got to our feet and instinctively began to run, but after only a few paces we both stopped and turned around, looking at the two bags of cherries lying on the ground.
That was our proof and neither of us wanted to leave that behind without good reason.
We looked at the bags, then looked at the old woman laughing at us and hitting her walking stick on the top wire of the fence. Then we looked back at each other and smiled. There was no need to ask ourselves what to do. We both knew.
Together we dived for the bags, picked them up and began to run, looking back over our shoulders just the once to see the mad woman still there at the fence, banging her walking stick up and down on the rusty wire and laughing at us.
We ran and we ran and we ran. Down over the steep bank and along the edge of the creek, where the going was easier and we were out of the woman’s sight, not slowing until we were well around the bend in the creek and well away from Mrs Walker and her orchard. Then, beside a large and tranquil pool of water, beside which were lush grass covered banks, we slowed to a walk, before finally stopping and collapsing, breathless, onto the soft bank.
We lay there on our backs for a few minutes, catching our breath in the warm afternoon sun, feeling its warmth on our bodies, before either of us said anything. Partners in crime, and loving every minute of it.
‘Christ, you should have seen the look on your face,’ Jeremy said when once again we were both breathing normally. He had sat up and pulled off his t-shirt, and had now propped himself up on one elbow, looking at me with a grin stretching from ear to ear.
For a while I could say nothing. I just didn’t know what to say. I just looked at him blankly, not knowing whether I should be laughing or crying.
‘Th-th-thanks,’ I eventually managed to stammer, while sitting up and pulling off my t-shirt as well, then sticking my finger through the freshly torn hole and wiggling my finger at him.
‘Hey, don't mention it,’ Jeremy replied, placing a hand on my bare shoulder. ‘You would have done the same thing for me.’
‘Don't be so sure about that,’ I said to him, smiling. Then we both began to laugh.
We stayed there for about another hour, reliving our afternoon adventure step by step and talking about all sorts of stuff, before finally we thought about heading home. There was something about being in Jeremy’s company that made me feel good. Nice even, for want of a better word, but at the same time I found myself confused by my friendship with him. I often found myself thinking about him in a way . . . well, in a way that I knew I shouldn’t.
I also knew that I could never tell anyone about those feelings. Especially not Jeremy.
‘Hey, you’ve been bleeding,’ he said to me when he sat up to get ready to leave.
‘Look,’ he said, pointing at my side.
Glancing down I could see two deep scratches, now clotted with blood, running parallel from side to side across my skin, just above my waist.
‘Wow. I hope I get a scar,’ I said.
‘Can you feel it?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
Reaching out his hand, he gently ran his fingers along the scratches, sending a tingling sensation, like electricity, coursing right through my body. Instinctively I pulled away from his touch.
I didn’t know what it meant, but something within me had stirred when he had done that.
‘Oh, shit. Sorry mate. I didn’t mean to hurt you or anything.’
‘No. It’s okay. You didn’t,’ I said to him, to which he responded by reaching out once more and touching the scratches, while holding my gaze for what seemed like just a few moments longer than he should have.
When he pulled his hand away, allowing his fingers to slide across my flat stomach as he did so, just above the waist-band of the jeans I was wearing, he collapsed back onto the grass beside me, so I did the same, our heads right beside each other, our shoulders, our hips and our legs all touching.
‘I bet we’ll both remember this day for a long time,’ he said after a lengthy silence, during which all I could think of was the softness of the touch of his boyish body.
‘I reckon we just might,’ I eventually answered, but my mind was thinking about something other than cherries, which was, I was sure, what he had been referring to.
After a little while longer I noticed that the soft dappled light of the sun behind the trees had begun to turn into shadows that were growing longer. It was late in the afternoon and would soon be dark, so I got to my feet then held out my hand for him. ‘Time we were heading home,’ I said.
He sat up and reached for my hand, allowing me to grab hold of him and drag him to his feet, but as he did so he seemed to overbalance and bump into me, and hard. For a moment I wasn’t sure what was happening, but we quickly grabbed hold of each other and held on, to prevent either of us from falling.
My hand went to his waist, while his found my shoulder. Our faces were just inches apart and suddenly it seemed that something I thought I could have only ever dreamed about was now within reach. The question was, however, what was going to happen next?
‘Thanks,’ Jeremy whispered, his voice sounding quite hoarse.
I wondered if his mouth was as dry as mine was now feeling? I tried to say something, but my tongue just seemed to stick to the roof of my mouth.
And then it happened.
Jeremy kissed me.
Jeremy. Kissed. Me.
I was stunned. I didn't know what to do. So I did the first thing that came into my mind . . . I pushed him away from me, and yelled, ‘What the hell?’
I regretted it immediately.
'Oh Jesus! I'm sorry, Chris . . . I . . . ummm . . .' he stammered as he took a few steps backward.
For what seemed like a long time we stood there staring at each other, our mouths open, but with neither of us saying a word.
Hell, what could we say to each other?
For the first time that I could ever remember I could see a genuine fear appear in Jeremy’s eyes. He was always the confident one, the leader, but in an instant that had been blown away.
My head was still spinning and words were impossible to string together, but my brain was still working. I knew that I needed to think fast. I needed to say something before Jeremy turned and walked away.
Jeremy had kissed me. It was one of those things I had recently been yearning for, and it had finally happened, but now I was lost for words. I could only watch as Jeremy picked up his t-shirt and his bag of cherries and instead of turning to leave he took a couple of steps backward, his expression grim, his shoulders slumped, as if he had just lost a schoolyard battle.
He took a few more steps, without taking his eyes from my face, and as he did so he said, ‘I’m really sorry, Chris. I shouldn’t have done that.’ Then he turned and started walking away from me.
What should I do, I thought. Should I let him go? Should I chase after him? Should I tell him that it didn’t matter? Should I tell him that we’re still friends, no matter what? Should I tell him that it was something that I had wanted too?
All these thoughts were spinning around inside my head as I stared at his tanned but retreating back, but then I suddenly found myself moving, as if I was being dragged along by Jeremy, by some invisible elastic cord that was between us and had been stretched to the max as he walked away from me, but was now rapidly contracting.
It took no time to cover the short distance between us and when I placed a hand on his shoulder and spun him around he jumped.
‘I said I was sorry,’ he blurted out, as if he were worried I was going to hit him or something.
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘And I’m sorry, too . . . for yelling at you and pushing you away like that.’
‘I said I was sorry, too. Didn’t you hear me the first time?’
‘But . . . I mean . . . why?’
‘We’re still best friends,’ I replied, with my nervousness clear for all to hear as I stepped in closer to him. Once more our faces were just inches apart.
‘You’re . . . you’re not mad at me?’ he asked, as he eyed me suspiciously.
‘No mate. I’m not mad at you,’ I whispered in reply, before placing a hand on each side of his waist, pulling him closer still.
‘So, now what?’ he asked in that same hoarse tone that I had heard earlier.
‘Well, like you said earlier, maybe it really is the time for me to finally take a chance or two,’ I replied.
So then I kissed him back.