Simon is starting to understand that there are rules nobody ever talks about and nobody ever writes down. This is the summer when Franny drives them all up to Loch Lomond in the car he borrowed from his brother, who got a job in England and moved away. It’s the year Simon finishes school, when – on the last day of term, after the last exam – no one bothers going into biology but him, and Mr. McBrearty, rather than letting him go, lectures him for an hour on why he shouldn’t have picked physics at university because he’d never meet any women.
Simon considers that if he knew the rules, he wouldn’t now find himself so painfully alone in a tree with this younger girl, Orla, in near-silence, as the day loses its heat. There’s a bottle of schnapps which is, in Simon’s view, frighteningly close to being finished, and Orla isn’t passing it back as often as he would like. She just keeps putting her lips around its neck and staring out over the loch, where Franny in his pants kicks water at another younger girl, Laura, who laughs and kicks back.
“Midgies,” Simon says. He swipes at the empty air in front of his face. Orla looks up at him from the lower branch and rolls her eyes. He can’t tell if this is in reference to the flesh-eating insects or to his conversation. He rolls his eyes too, just in case. She hands him the bottle and he finishes it in three long slugs.
“I bet it’s freezing,” Orla says.
“Aye,” Simon says. He finds straddling the narrow branch causes a bone in his groin to press down on one or both of his testicles, but lifting either leg over brings on a sudden and agonising cramp in his backside. So he shifts his weight back and forth. Then, worried that these small rocking motions will make him appear nervous, or odd, he climbs down to the broad bough where Orla is perched. She shuffles along, a little more than is needed to make space.
Fire in, big man. These simple words of instruction Franny delivered into his ear before running towards the loch. Now Simon is concerned that if he doesn’t fire in, or isn’t seen to have attempted to fire in, that his friend will be annoyed, or disappointed (which is worse). And he doesn’t know how to go about it, whether it’s invited: whether she has been smuggling coded messages of invitation among the hair flicks and wistful sighs that would have told him exactly what to do if only he didn’t suffer from this peculiar illiteracy.
Once, McBrearty described the outdoors in summer as a sexual fairground, soaked with colours we can’t see, odours we can’t smell and sounds we can’t hear, as the whole of nature – bird, plant and beast – advertises its urgent, explosive fertility. For reasons that were opaque to him at the time, McBrearty’s talk gave Simon a painful hard-on, but it stays with him, this image of a vibrant parallel world of nature, of signs and signals in ultraviolet and infrasound. And he contemplates it every time he misreads a gesture or fails to get some subtle joke. He thinks that there’s another parallel world, one of hints and winks, where the punctuation of a text can pervert its meaning. Where a girl’s hand stretched across the bough of an ash tree can mean keep your distance, or please touch me.
Orla is younger – at least a year – but she has bits of colour in her hair and she can skin up like she’s been doing it forever. There’s a system by which Simon is able to categorise everyone he meets as unreachably cool or utterly beneath him, and it places her soundly in the former category. He doesn’t particularly fancy her and she isn’t particularly mature – at least not in the sense that Franny alluded to before picking her up in his car – but these are little things. He places his hand next to hers on the branch and imagines wispy fields of magnetic energy passing through the gap between his little finger and hers. He wonders if she can feel it. Her head is turned towards the water, away from him, perhaps challenging him to take the initiative and reach out to her. Close the gap. Say something important and profound.
“Have you been up here before?” he says.
She sighs and pushes herself off the branch. “Is there more booze in the car? Where are the keys? Are you coming?”
The keys are in Franny’s jeans, under Laura’s trousers in a pile at the foot of the tree. She walks off while Simon fumbles in Franny’s pocket. He follows her into the woods until, out of sight of the loch, she stops and turns.
“What’s that smell?” she says.
There is a smell. It’s faintly familiar and it triggers in him some deep instinct for revulsion, as if it might have signified something vital and awful in a previous life. He remembers feeling the same way when McBrearty made the class burn crushed animal bones. Then, the bitter fumes clung to his blazer for two weeks.
“It smells like something died.”
A couple of steps from the track: a baby deer – Bambi – curled, its fur unruffled, limbs intact. She sees it first, and makes a soft sound – oh – like she has remembered something important.
She takes his hand and yanks him towards it, and he’s surprised by the roughness of her skin and the firmness of her grip. He thinks perhaps he ought to be shielding her from the horror of it, that he should let the girl place her head on his chest and weep for the creature’s wasted life. This, he understands, is how these situations are supposed to go down. But she has already shaken off his hand and collected a long stick from the forest floor, and is using it to poke the fawn’s belly.
“It’s all puffy,” she says.
“It’s full of gas,” he says, “When dead things decompose, the bacteria inside them produce methane, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide. The pancreas is so full of enzymes that it basically digests itself. And after a couple of days…”
“It’s like a wee balloon.”
She prods it in the middle of its swollen gut, and the little deer emits a quiet fart. The air turns nasty. Orla throws the stick to the ground. She stretches the neck of her t-shirt over her nose and mouth and Simon can see that she isn’t wearing a bra.
“Watch,” he says.
An experiment. Gently, with the outside of his foot, he nudges the deer’s skull. The eyes bulge in their sockets, establishing an almost-human expression of surprise on the deer’s face. Orla lets slip a guilty titter. He pushes harder and one eyeball plops forward onto the deer’s nose. A blast of coarse laughter and a howl of reprimand from Orla. She slaps him hard across the chest.
If he knew the rules, he might now show Orla to Franny’s car and leave the creature to decay in peace, its dignity blemished but essentially intact. They have shared an experience. They might drink and tease each other about it: you should have seen your face. There might be laughter, then meaningful conversation. But he’s ahead now, and there’s a boulder in the middle of the path that can’t be stepped over and ignored. Without warning Orla of his intention, he collects the boulder with both hands and casts it down on the deer’s corpse.
There is a wet, airy sound, like opening a bottle of fizzy drink. The bloated belly collapses in a fountain of pale liquid. And in the same instant, a kidney shoots out of the deer’s arse and lands neatly on Orla’s shoulder.
“Why did you do that?”
He can tell she’s unimpressed, but it’s clear from the composure in her voice that she hasn’t noticed the little piece of offal quivering beneath her bob. Casually, he steps over to her and flicks it into a patch of nettles, then shrugs.
“What was that?” she says. Her voice has gone up an octave. There’s an egg-shaped brown stain on her top where the kidney was sitting. ”What was that?”
As he considers whether it behoves him to tell her the name and function of the necrosed organ he has just removed from her shoulder, she makes a gagging sound and takes off, wrestling her shirt over her head. He watches her bare back slip behind a cluster of evergreens with only a vague sense of having crossed a boundary.
Later, they share the small tent because Franny wants to go with Laura in the bigger one. They talk rather than listen to the wet sounds and whispers coming from next door, and they carry on for a while after the neighbours go quiet. Neither she nor he mentions the deer. As Orla falls asleep, she rolls towards Simon and lays her arm across his chest, and he lies on his back, examining the stitching in the roof, until she flips over an hour our so later.
The air in the tent is hot and boozy when he gets up. Orla is gone. Outside, he breaks out in goosepimples. The sun is not quite clear of the hills and there’s a persistent breeze that wasn’t there the day before. He finds Orla on the shore, reading one of those books about star-crossed vampires. The beach is pebbled and she hears him coming.
“I get up when the sun gets up. I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“I don’t think so. Did you want to read? I could walk about for a bit.”
But she puts down her book and they sit together. It’s before six. Orla says to Simon that she can’t bring herself to sleep late in the summer, knowing that so much of the day is already gone. He thinks that he’s never been awake this early in his life, and that he might need to catch up later in the car, but he tells her that she’s probably onto a good thing. Five or ten easy minutes pass in silence. A bird wheels over the water.
“What’s that?” she says.
“It’s an osprey.”
The bird swoops, skims the surface of the loch, and takes off again, a large fish thrashing beneath its feet. Its ascent is awkward but steady. They watch as it hangs for a moment in the sunand goes down among the trees.