Bowral and a blind date

I don’t know why I let myself be talked into internet dating. Here I was on a Saturday morning driving up the highway toward Bowral to meet a girl that I had only swapped a few online messages with. The sun was warm through the car windows on this early autumn day. I was for from feeling relaxed but the beautiful scenery had a calming effect. I let my wander to my early memories of visiting Bowral in my first year out of high school. I was with Rose then and life seemed so much simpler.

Bowral is a fashionable town on the Southern Highlands, surrounded by grazing farms and stud cattle properties. The town had grown up on land granted to the Surveyor General, John Oxley, in 1825, but it was the coming of the railway in 1867 that really kicked Bowral growth along. Because of its mild climate and varied scenery it became a favourite holiday destination for the gentry of Sydney. To outsiders, Bowral is most famous as being the home of Sir Donald Bradman, Australia’s greatest ever cricketer.

I find somewhere to park in the main street and nervously check my phone for messages. Nothing. I hope she is still coming but there is part of me that wishes she wasn’t. I make my to the Bowral Cafe and Pattisserie – handmade chocolate, gelato and pattisserie the signs says – and find a table toward the back. I’m a little early but I hold off ordering until she gets here. The clock on the wall ticks and customers come in and out.

A poster on the wall advertises the Bowral Tulip Festival in September. I remember going to it a few years ago. The flowers were pretty and crowds had gathered to celebrate the arrival of springtime.

I looked up and a slender young woman with blonde hair had entered the shop. It was her. She looked around until she caught sight of me sitting at the back and smiled. I stood and awkwardly offered my hand when she leant forward and kissed me on the cheek. We ordered coffees and then tried to make conversation. I’m not very good in these sort of situations but she was friendly and I began to relax a little.

We finished our coffees and Julie suggests we wander the shops. That sounded like a better option than sitting uncomfortably so I slipped on my coat and slung my bag over my shoulder. Her hand slipped into mine as we crossed the road and entered the bookshop. Now I was in my element, but we seemed to have widely different tastes in books. I look young adult and fantasy and she wanted to look at crime novels.

We wandered in and out of other shops – Country Accept, Mic Mac Boutique, Barbara’s Storehouse. Our fashion tastes were as different as our book choices.

Next stop was a stroll around the Bradman Oval. What a gorgeous place this is! White picket fence surrounding the cricket ground, pavilion and shady trees. There was no cricket on today so all was quiet.

Eventually we arrive back at my car. Julie thanks me for the morning and says she will message. She presses her lips against mine and my heart rate flips. We both know she isn’t going to message. I could tell from her kiss.

I follow the railway line out of town and lose myself in the verdant paddocks of the Southern Highlands. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I suppose.

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Molly #41

As the week went on we played soldiers, and space men, and outback explorers, and one day we were even washed up on a deserted island! There were pirate ships, and monsters, and space aliens, and time travel, and giant bugs, and wading through swamps, and spying on the enemy, and we did so much running that I kept getting puffed all the time, but Shawn was always right there beside me. “C’mon Blue,” he would say, “You can do it.”

We never had time to just sit and talk, other than spending a few minutes each morning when we would read some of my book together. Because Shawn was such a bad reader, I started reading out loud to him and sometimes we would get through a whole chapter before we went off to play in the sand dunes.

We began to read ‘Storm Boy’, a story about a boy who lived with his father in the sand dunes of South Australia’s Coorong, and it was Shawn’s idea that we collect driftwood and build ourselves a humpy just like the one Storm Boy lived in.

“I’ll be Storm Boy,” said Shawn, “And you can help me save Mr Percival.” We wandered all over the sand dunes looking for a lost pelican to save, but the week came to an end before we found him.

I was sad when I had to tell Shawn that I was going to be heading home tomorrow and I didn’t know when I would be back again.

“No worries, Blue,” he said. “It’s just like when Storm Boy had to go off to school. We can play again next holidays.”

He bent his head down to reach under my hat and quickly placed a little kiss on my cheek before racing away over the sand dunes. I stood there and watched him until he disappeared. I didn’t know if I was sad or happy but I could still feel his rough lips against my cheek.

Molly #40

The next day I looked for Shawn when I got to the beach, but there was no sign of him again. I went back to my usual game of fixing my sand castle and then my drawing and had just sat down to start reading my book when I heard a loud “psssst” from behind me. I turned around and there was Shawn grinning at me from behind a tree. He came and sat down beside me with a thump, and just like the day before we read a page of my book together before he got bored and wanted to play a game.

“Today we’re soldiers,” Shawn said. “I am the Captain and you are Private Blue.”

“My name isn’t Blue,” I said, “It’s Molly.”

“I like Blue,” he replied, “So that’s you’re codename, okay? It’s because you’ve got red hair.”

I was a bit confused about what he meant, but before I could say anything he started laying out his plans.

“Okay Private Blue, we need to attack the enemy in that castle over there. We have to sneak up on them, and then throw these bombs at their castle.” He pointed to a little pile of gumnuts and banksia men on the ground.

“Stay low, and follow me,” he said. He filled his hands with banksia men and began crawling across the sand on his stomach. It felt a bit silly but I didn’t want to upset him so I did the same thing. As we got closer, he yelled “NOW!” and started hurling the banksia men at the tree. I threw mine but it didn’t go the whole distance. Shawn then grabbed my hand and dragged me behind another tree.

“Look out, they’re firing back,” he said, then made some noises like bullets flying through the air. We played like that again all morning until Catherine came looking for me to head home.

“See ya, Blue,” said Shawn. “You’re a lot of fun to play with, for a girl.”

“’Bye Shawn,” I said shyly and then ran down the sand dune to find Catherine.

Molly #39

I worried about the boy all night, but when I got back to the beach next morning there was no sign of him. I thought he might have come back and destroyed my castle and drawing, but I was relieved to see that they had only been partly washed away by the tide and wind as usual.

I soon forgot all about him as I went back to rebuilding my sandcastle. As the morning sun climbed higher and the sand got hotter I sat under the shade of my big straw hat and read a bit more of my book. I only had a few chapters to go and wanted to finish it before bedtime so that I could start a new book the next day.

I became so engrossed in my book that I didn’t even hear anybody coming until suddenly a shadow fell across my page. I looked up with a sharp intake of breath as I saw it was the same boy again. I tensed, waiting for him to kick over my sandcastle or say something nasty, when he flopped down on the sand beside me.

“What are ya reading?” he asked.

I was so surprised by his question that I didn’t even think and turned my book around to show him the cover.

“ ‘Gold at Lambing Flat’,” he read out, “What’s that?”

“It’s a story,” I said softly.

“Can I read it with you?”

I was surprised again and just nodded. This boy wasn’t at all like I expected boys to be.

I opened the book and he leaned his head toward mine to see the page better. He got so close that his head pushed my hat back and I could feel his wiry hair tickle my forehead.

“Is that where you’re up to?” he pointed to the page. I nodded and he began reading. “J-James c-c-came to the c-c-cottage door. Mary, where are you he c-called…” I looked at him as he read and saw a big frown of concentration on his forehead. He kept licking his lips as though the moisture would make the words slide out of his mouth easier. I felt a little sorry for him because he didn’t seem to be very good at reading. “… the old man was down in the dry c-c-c-creek bed…” he paused for ages and stared hard at the page. “What’s this word?” he asked. My eyes followed his finger down the page.

“Fossicking,” I said.

He frowned again and his lips moved slowly as if he was trying to get them in the right shape to say the word.

“Fo-ssick-k-king. I wonder what that means.”

“I think it means ‘looking for gold’,” I said, “That’s what the book is about.”

“Oh, cool.” He looked around and picked up my stick and started scratching in the sand. “Do you want to play?”

“Ummm… I don’t know if I’m allowed.” My heart was racing and I looked down the beach again to see where the girls were, but just like yesterday they were a long way off.

“Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll show you.” He stood up and held out his dirty hand for me. I hesitated and then reached my hand up and he helped me to my feet. His hand felt all rough and I didn’t like the way it was so dirty.

“First of all, we’re spies and we have to make sure nobody catches us. You need a name, so I’m going to call you ‘Blue’,” he said with his lopsided grin. “How old are you, Blue?”

“I’m eight.”

“Good, well I’m ten so that makes me the boss. Quick let’s get behind the bush before anyone sees us.” Shawn grabbed my hand and dragged me behind a banksia tree before pulling me to the ground. “We have to lay low,” he whispered in my ear, “But when I say ‘run’, we have to run to that tree over there, okay?”

I just nodded my head and was wondering why he called me ‘Blue’ when he yelled ‘run’ and took off for the tree. I jumped to my feet and tried to keep up with him but I kept stumbling in the thick sand. I was puffing heavily when I finally joined him at the foot of the tree.

“Good work, Blue,” he said, “We can rest for a bit now because the enemy don’t know we’re here.” We spent the next hour running from tree to tree, and each time I would get hot and puffed and my legs were starting to get really tired. We were resting for a moment in the shade of a big green tree when I heard Catherine’s voice calling.

“Molly… Molly, where are you?”

“I have to go,” I said to Shawn, “That’s my sister.”

“Oh, okay,” he said, “Just be careful you don’t tell anyone you are a spy.” The last I saw was his lopsided grin and then he was bounding away to hide behind another tree.

Molly #38

Every morning after breakfast during the holiday I went to the beach with my sisters and I played in the sand and read my book while they swam in the surf or sun baked. I didn’t like the taste of the salt water or the way the sand would get pushed into my bikini bottom by the waves, so I was much happier building sandcastles on the beach than swimming.

After I had built my sandcastle up nice and high, I used a stick to draw patterns and pictures in the sand around it. I pretended I was an artist working on a painting, but every morning I would have to start all over again because the wind and the waves washed some of it away overnight.

Sometimes I just sat on a sand dune and read my book, getting lost in the world between the pages. The words would float past my eyes as I devoured every sentence and eagerly turned each page to find out what happened next.

Then I would put my book down at the end of each chapter for a rest and just gaze out to sea. The beach curved away for miles to the south until it was lost in a haze of salty seaspray. The other end of the beach ended in a rocky headland that stood tall above the curve of sand. There was a pathway to the top of the headland but I had never been allowed to go up there. Mum always warned me that it was too dangerous and I could fall off the cliff into the sea if I wasn’t careful.

As I looked out to sea, I could see yachts sailing across the bay, gently moving against the waves with their white sails flapping silently in the breeze. There always seemed to be yachts coming or going from somewhere, always just sailing out of my reach.

Seagulls high overhead called out to me, and as I looked up I wondered what it must be like being able to fly so high above the beach and look down on my sisters below as they played in the surf. I could hear the girls screaming every now and then from my spot on the sand hill as they jumped in and out of the waves.

I went back to drawing pictures in the sand, dragging my stick through the golden grains to make swirling clouds that followed the little wave patterns. I was intently drawing a sailing boat in amongst the sand clouds, when a shadow suddenly blocked out the sun.

I looked up and got a fright when I saw a boy standing there.

“What ya doin’?” he said.

I was so scared that I didn’t know what I should do. I quickly looked down the beach to see how far away my sisters were, but they were all in the water and a long way off.

“Nice drawing,” the boy said, “Don’t ya talk?”

I just looked at him with wide eyes, hoping that he would go away and leave me alone. Instead, he squatted down on his heels. “I like your boat. You’re pretty good at it, you know.”

I looked down at my sand drawing then looked at the boy again and he grinned at me.

“My name’s Shawn,” he said, “What’s yours?”

I was still too frightened to answer so I just looked away.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything,” he said, and then sat on the sand and hugged his knees. He was wearing blue shorts and had dirty knees and hands. “I just want to watch you drawing.” He grinned again and I could see that he was missing a tooth. It made him look a little lopsided and funny.

I thought if I went back to my drawing he might just go away, so I picked up my stick again and started to add some sails to my boat.

“Why don’t you draw some fish?” he said suddenly, and pointed with his chin to where I was drawing.

I still didn’t answer, but I thought for a moment about how to draw a fish. I curved a couple of lines together in the sand until my fish took shape and then added a tail so that he could swim. He looked like a great big fat fish swimming just below my boat.

“Beaut fish. Do you wanna play with me?” the boy suddenly said.

I looked at him and shook my head slowly.

He rested his head on his knees and kept looking at me for a few moments, before he stood up. “Okay, maybe I’ll see ya tomorrow.”

He walked off into the sand dunes and disappeared behind a banksia tree. I quickly picked up my book and towel and ran down the beach to where the girls had left their bags and waited for them to come out of the water so we could go back to Grandma’s house.

Molly #37

I opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by darkness and a feeling of disorientation. My fuzzy mind wondered if I was still dreaming and falling through the night sky. Any moment I thought I might float through a cloud and land on the ground with a thump. Then I heard a whooshing sound and a long screaming whistle before the full moon suddenly burst into view as the train emerged from a long tunnel. The click-clack of the wheels on the track brought me fully awake and suddenly remembered that I was on my way to visit Grandma for the school holidays. I looked out the window and could see the moonlight sparkling on the dark water of a river and then I was plunged into darkness again as the train entered another tunnel.

I could feel Mum’s leg pressed against mine as she slept in the seat beside me. I rested my head against the window and closed my eyes again. I knew there was still a long way to go because Mum had said we wouldn’t be there until morning, so I curled my legs underneath my bottom and wrapped my arms around Mrs Bear to keep her warm.

I tried to go back to sleep but the rocking motion of the train kept waking me up every time I started to slip back into my dream, so I decided to just look out the window instead. Every now and then I could see the lights of a farm house in the distance, and I wondered about the children inside tucked up in their beds. I started to think about Ellen and hoped she was safe and happy. It made me sad because I knew I would never get to see her again now that she had moved so far away, but I hoped she wouldn’t ever have to worry about getting bruises on her legs again either.

Slowly I noticed that the sky was getting a lighter outside my window. There was a thin band of dark purple starting to appear through the trees, even though the stars were still shining in the blackness above. As I watched, the purple gradually turned into a light pink like the colour of my fingertips.

I looked at Mum’s face where she was sleeping beside me and wrapped in a blanket. There was enough light now for me to be able to see a little smile on her lips as she slept. I smiled too because I thought she must have been having a nice dream to smile like that in her sleep.

The sky was slowly turning orange as the train crossed another river and it slowed as we made our way up a long hill. There was a loud blow on the whistle and Mum opened her eyes. I could tell she was still sleepy because she didn’t move and just stared out the window with that little smile on her lips.

As Mum slowly woke up, she turned her head and smiled even more when she saw I was watching her. “Good morning, sweetheart. I think we must be nearly there. Have you got everything?”

I slid my feet down off the seat and felt for my backpack where it was resting on the floor. I put my book in the bag and held Mrs Bear tight as Mum stood up to wake the other girls.

The train was sliding into a little railway station and coming to a stop beside the platform as I followed my sisters to the door. All of a sudden the door was open and Mum was helping me jump over the gap between the train carriage and the platform and then I was standing in front of Grandma and Grandpa. It had been so long since I had seen them that I suddenly felt shy as Grandma started kissing everyone hello.

“Oh Molly, you keep growing all the time,” said Grandma. She wrapped her arms around me in a big hug and kissed my cheek. She smelled of soap and hairspray. I didn’t know what to say so I just hugged her back. “What’s the matter, Molly?” she said, “Has the cat got your tongue?”

Grandpa was busy picking up everyone’s bags and putting them in the boot of the car, and then I was squashed in the backseat between Jasmine and Catherine and we were on our way. I couldn’t see anything because the seats in Grandpa’s car were so deep that I had no idea where we were going, but eventually he pulled up and when I climbed out I was standing in the driveway of Grandma’s house.

Since we had been here last, Grandpa had built a little bedroom at the back of the garage and I slept in there with Mum. It was just like having a little house of our own and it made me feel important that I wasn’t just in Grandma’s house with the older girls. Rather than sleeping on a mattress on the floor like I usually did, I had my own bed covered with a beautiful quilt that Grandma had sewn. I sat on the bed and looked at all the little panels of the quilt and tried to work out the story they were telling. There were lots of pictures of cows and tractors and other farm things and I thought that maybe Grandma had made it to remind herself of the farm she used to live on with Grandpa all those years ago when Mum was a little girl.

Molly #36

One afternoon I came home from school to find Stephen laying on his bed and listening to the radio. His hands were behind his head and his eyes were closed. There were clothes carelessly thrown all over the floor.

“You’re home early,” I said as I threw my school bag on my bed. Lately he was getting really down in the dumps and I was worried. He didn’t normally throw his clothes all over the floor like that.

He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at me, sadly I thought. “I lost my job today, Molly. They just told me they were putting some people off and I was the newest starter so I had to go first.” I didn’t know what to say so I just gave him a little smile.

“Well, at least we can play together again, can’t we?” I said hopefully. He just looked at me for a moment and then turned his head away and closed his eyes again. I didn’t know what else to say so I just sat on my bed quietly and read my book.

After a while he sat up and put his feet on the ground. “I’m sorry, Molly,” he said. “Do you want to go and play in the tree house?”

I closed my book and we both went outside to play. The afternoon sun was still hot, but it was nice and shady in the tree house. Stephen helped me climb up first, and I sat on the platform with my legs crossed while he climbed up the ladder.

“What do you want to do?” I said.

“Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t you just play and I’ll watch.” I watched his face but he had closed his eyes again and was leaning back against a branch of the tree.

I started playing with a doll, making her climb up the tree, but every now and then I would look up to see if Stephen was watching. He kept his eyes closed for ages, but then he started talking about going away somewhere, maybe to Western Australia to work in the mines. Mum had recently received a letter from an uncle who worked over there and he said Stephen could easily get a job there if he ever wanted one.

“But you don’t want to go all that way, do you?” I didn’t like hearing him talk like this. Usually he was so happy and fun to be around.

“I might have to if I can’t find any work here.”

I was worried about him going away, but a week or so later he found work picking fruit at a local orchard. He took me with him one weekend, out amongst the green leafy cherry trees and the hot red dirt between each row. Stephen showed me how to pick the cherries by twisting them with my fingers and then putting them in a tin until the farmer came to collect all the full tins.

After a little while my fingers began to hurt so Stephen said I could stop picking. I sat on the ground under the shade of the tree instead and started to read my book. Every now and then I took a cherry out of the tin and popped it into my mouth. They were different to the mulberries I had eaten before. Some of the cherries were a little tart and made me pull a face. In the afternoon I got tired and lay on the ground and watched Stephen climbing on the ladder way up in the cherry tree. It reminded me of when I watched him climbing trees when I was little. I closed my eyes for a little while and all I could see were red cherries dancing before my eyelids.

The cherry picking lasted for a few weeks and then Stephen started working for a builder. He told me he spent the day carting bricks and things around. It seemed like everything would be okay and he would be happier, but then he got put off by the bricklayer because there wasn’t enough work around.

Soon after another letter arrived from Western Australia to say there were some apprenticeships available. I saw the forms spread out on Stephen’s bed and he just stared at them all afternoon. It was a few days later that he came home and filled the forms in.

“I just can’t bear being out of work any longer, Molly,” he told me in bed that night. I lay there with tears forming in my eyes because I couldn’t bear the thought of him going away.

He was really excited a couple of weeks later when he got a letter to say he had been accepted. I found out he was to start in a few months time after being cleared by a doctor and some other things. At least that meant he would still be at home for Christmas.

Then I got a letter from Ellen; she told me that she was going to stay in Melbourne with her mother and wasn’t coming back. To top it all off, Dad came home one night and said we were moving again.

I was very sad and confused when I went to bed that night. Everything seemed to be happening at once. I sat on my bed with my legs crossed and started to write a long letter to Ellen to tell her my sad news, but every time I tried to use my pen the page was blurry with tears. I wanted to tell her that I would be her friend forever and would visit her in Melbourne one day.

Stephen came and sat on the end of my bed. “Don’t worry, Molly. I won’t be gone that long. Once I’ve got some experience for a few months I’ll be able to come back here and get a proper job.” He gave me a big hug and I left wet tears all over his shoulder. Eventually I finished the letter and popped it in the mail box.

Molly #35

A few weeks later Ellen and I were sitting on my bed reading books. I was laughing at a funny passage in my novel and Ellen was smiling at me because I kept making her laugh. Sometimes we went on like that for what seemed like hours, but Ellen was always the first one to get bored with reading. This day she seemed a bit restless and her smiles looked a little sad. I wasn’t sure what was wrong but I didn’t want to ask and upset her again so I just tried to find funny parts of my book to read out so that she would laugh with me.

“Mum and I are going to Melbourne for Christmas,” Ellen suddenly blurted out.

I looked up from my book. “What?”

“I said, Mum and I are going to Melbourne for Christmas. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t.”

“When… when do you go?” I wasn’t smiling anymore. I had thought we were going to be together for the whole summer holidays. I didn’t know whether to feel happy for her or not but I knew I felt unhappy for myself.

“We catch the train after school on Friday. Mum said that she wanted to visit her sister. I haven’t seen Aunty Vicky for years… I’ll write to you every day, Molly.”

“I’ll write to you as well, but I’m really going to miss you, Ellen.”

“I’ll miss you too, Molly, but you have to promise not to tell anyone, at least until after we’ve gone.” I looked at her face closely. I felt like there was something she wasn’t telling me. How come she had never mentioned going to Melbourne before, and why the secret?

“I won’t tell anyone,” I said, “I promise.”

She looked happy; no, more relieved than happy, and gave me a hug.

“It’s going to be all right,” she said. “Mum and I will be safe. Aunty Vicky lives on the beach just south of Melbourne.” She had become chatty now, but I was still worried.

“I remember going there a few years ago,” said Ellen, “It was when I was little and it was really pretty and colourful. These little wooden houses were on the edge of the beach and we walked on the sand every day.” Ellen stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. “You’ve gone quiet, Molly.” She kissed me and I put my arms around her neck and she leaned her head against the curve of my arm. There was so much I wanted to say to her but I just couldn’t think of the words. I closed my eyes to stop the tears from falling.

As we sat there silently for a moment, I tried to think of myself in Ellen’s place. There were no secrets between us and my mind ran with thoughts of rabbits and bruises as I tried to understand Ellen’s struggle. We sat there clinging to each other for ages until Mum called out from the kitchen,

“Molly, Ellen – it’s time for dinner.”

“You mustn’t tell anyone,” Ellen whispered as we walked out of the bedroom.

Molly #34

As the hot summer weather came along, streaky white clouds started to float in the wide blue sky each day. Every morning I would look out my bedroom window and wonder if it was ever going to rain again, because I hadn’t even seen a drop of rain in the whole time since we had moved here from the north coast.

I hadn’t been invited to stay at Ellen’s farm again, but Ellen often stayed with me for the weekend so that we could play together. In the warmer weather we spent most of the time on the weekends at the swimming pool.

“Come on you two, hurry up,” Samantha called from outside. She was always in a rush to get to the pool. I just liked to take my time and enjoy the walk with Ellen. We walked holding hands and Ellen never stopped talking.

“We’re coming,” I called out from the kitchen. I was dressed in pink swimmers and a white tee shirt and Mum was busy covering my face in sunscreen. She always said she was terrified of me getting sunburnt and so she slopped extra layers of sunscreen all over my nose. I had to close my eyes tight so that I didn’t get any sunscreen in them because it really made my eyes sting. As soon as she finished I put my hat on my head and tucked my towel under my arm then raced outside to catch up with the others. The girls had already set off, so I climbed through a hole in the fence next to the rusty iron shed in the backyard and hurried after them. Ellen climbed through the hole behind me and our sandals raised little clouds of dust as we moved quickly across the dry ground, skipping to catch up with Samantha, Catherine and Jasmine.

Samantha took her hat off as soon as we are out of sight of the house and I watched her straight black hair bouncing against the back of her white tank top as her long brown legs strode along the footpath. I thought she should have kept her hat on or she would get sunburnt.

Ellen and I caught up to the girls when they stopped to wait for the traffic at Hoskins Street, and then we all ran across the bubbles of melted bitumen to get to the park. The sun had started to get quite hot by then and the grass in the park was brown and spiky. There was a little bit of shade every now and then from a row of date palms that lined the footpath through the middle of the park. Each time we came to a tree, Ellen and I would stop in the shade to rest before racing each other to the next tree.

As we stood in the shade for a moment, I looked up and saw some high school boys watching us walking through the park. I hurried after the girls when I heard one of the boys say something and the other boys started laughing. I wasn’t game to look around again when another boy whistled loudly. Catherine and Samantha didn’t seem to notice though as they just kept on walking. Samantha was busy pushing some stray hair behind her ear, and when Catherine leaned toward Samantha and whispered something they both giggled. Samantha looked back over her shoulder to where the boys were standing. I started walking a bit quicker in case the boys followed us, but we were soon at the safety of the pool entrance.

It was cool in the shade of the little shop at the front of the pool, and I lined up behind Catherine as she paid the lady behind the counter. As soon as we went through the turnstile, the bigger girls disappeared into the change room and Ellen and I raced to put our towels down on the grass. The pool was surrounded by soft grassy lawns, and there was a big shady peppercorn tree in one corner.

“Last one in is a rotten egg!” yelled Ellen. She was already half-way to the pool so I just dropped my towel and raced after her, leaping into the cool clear water. At first the water was so cold it took my breath away, but then I bounced to the surface laughing and Ellen splashed water in my face.

“Ellen!” By the time I splashed back, she had already swum away from me like a little seal and I started chasing her. She swam much faster than I could but she eventually slowed down until I caught up to her. We spent the whole morning in the water like that, swimming around, playing games, and chasing each other until we eventually got tired and climbed out to lay on our towels for a rest. I lay there watching all the colourful bodies splashing around in the pool.

“I wonder where the girls have gotten to.” I looked around the pool from my towel but I couldn’t see them anywhere amongst all the rainbow coloured swimmers.

“I thought I saw them over there earlier,” Ellen said as she pointed toward the back fence. I looked over to where Ellen was pointing and saw a group of teenagers sitting around on their towels. There was Samantha was lying on her side, one tanned knee propped up in the air. She was talking to a boy and running her fingers through her hair. I thought he looked like one of the boys that had been outside in the park and he was lying on his side as well. They seemed to be leaning quite close toward each other.

Catherine was lying on her stomach with her eyes closed. Every now and then she lifted her head and said something to the others, then lay down and closed her eyes again.

I kept looking around until I found where Jasmine was. She was with a different group of girls, sitting on the edge of the pool with her feet splashing in the water and talking to her friends.

I turned back to Ellen, content now I knew I hadn’t been left behind. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could play here forever and never have to go back to school?”

“Except when your fingertips get all wrinkly from the water,” Ellen laughed. I smiled into her sparkling eyes and felt as happy as the sunny day.

“Ellen, what are those marks on your legs?” Suddenly Ellen’s eyes lost their sparkle and she looked down at the blue-grey bruises at the top of her thighs. They were normally covered by clothes, but I could see them clearly now she was in her bikini bottoms. There were four of them, shaped like fat sausages spread out in a fan.

“It’s nothing,” she said quietly, “I just bumped them.” She didn’t want to talk about it and I was sorry that I had brought a cloud across our sunny mood, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Ellen… I’m really sorry. Was it your Dad?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just swim.” Ellen leapt up from her towel and jumped in the pool. I sat there feeling helpless for a few moments until I thought of asking Catherine what I should do. I stood up and walked over toward her group.

As I got closer I could hear them talking.

“It seems Lauren is the flavor of the month,” said a girl in a strawberry-coloured bikini.

“I know, both Peter and John have asked her out.”

“Oh my gosh, what did she say?”

I tried to get Catherine’s attention but she had her back to me, so I stood there uncertainly for a moment.

“Hey Catherine, is that your little sister? How cute!” one big girl said. I felt my face blush bright red and the boy that was talking to Samantha looked up and grinned.

Catherine sat up and didn’t look very happy to see me standing there. “Molly, what do you want?”

“I wanted to talk to you, about Ellen.”

“Can’t you do this at home?”

“It’s just that she is sad. I made her sad about the bruises on her legs.”

Catherine stood up. “Okay Molly, let’s get an ice cream.”

As we walked toward the canteen I told Catherine about the bruises on Ellen’s legs, and how she wouldn’t talk to me about them. I told her that when I asked if it was Ellen’s Dad she ran off. Catherine gently put her hand on my head. “Why don’t you just go and play with her. I think she just needs you to be her friend and make her happy.”

Catherine bought two ice creams, and I took one over to where Ellen was sitting on the side of the pool. She was looking down at the water and slowly kicking her legs back and forth. I sat down next to her and gave her one of the ice creams. As we sat there eating together silently, I put my arm around her wet shoulder and she leant her head against mine.

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