Hazel arrives last. We hear clattering at the base of the treehouse and David, closest to the entrance, turns.
“She’s here.” He tries to keep his tone light but there’s a certain strain in it. I hear Hazel’s bike dropping hard onto the ground next and I wince. What the hell would her mam do to her if she broke it? Why can’t she just take a bit more care of things?
She climbs up and I try to act normal as I see her looking round. It’s all dark here with only a small dirty window, and disgusting spiders in several places. It’s really small, too – smaller than I remember it being. David’s dad built it when we were all five or six and I haven’t been here in four years, so I suppose it’s to be expected. But it just seems to hammer something in really hard, especially when I see Hazel looking at everything. The place smells of wood and heat and dust and oldness.
Hazel’s hair is bleached. It used to be brown. It’s shorter, as well; I remember it as down past her waist. I’ve seen her twice since primary school ended, over a year ago now, but I haven’t updated my mental picture of her. In fact, my memory sneaks slowly backwards when I think of her. In my mind she looks nine or ten. It’s like my brain’s trying to trick me into thinking our friendship has actually ended, which it hasn’t yet. It’s ending, and no amount of meetings in treehouses will drag us three back together again, but it hasn’t finished. In second year it’ll be different. But we’ve just finished first and everyone still treats us like children.
“Hi,” says Hazel, a bit shyly. She speaks like it’s a question, one she feels stupid for even asking.
“Hi,” says David. I nod, and smile a little.
Hazel moves awkwardly to sit beside me. There used to be a little table and some chairs in here. David must have moved them out. Hazel has a bag with her, floral-print, and she fusses with it after she sits. I suppose to avoid looking at us. She pulls out a notebook and then an iPad.
“Mam went crazy when the year ended. The school year, I mean. Because my summer exam results are so crap. I’m trying to study now so I’m – fairly prepared for next year, I suppose.”
“Why’d she care about your results?” I ask. Then I decide I’ve probably said something wrong. Hazel’s parents never took an interest in her stuff in primary school. Her father was always away and never seemed to call. Her mother didn’t like it when she caused problems, which was often – she got sent to the principal’s office three times in the week before Christmas in fourth class – or when she broke her things. Otherwise she didn’t take an interest in her.
“Uh, she started going to this new therapist thing. I don’t really know what she’s doing but she’s all interested in me now.”
“Oh. Do you – do you like that?”
Do you like that. Do you fucking like that. I mean, I just can’t really believe I said something so stupid.
She turns to David. “Do you come out here ever?”
“I do sometimes, yeah. Jennifer and her friends used to use it, after I outgrew it, but they never do now.”
“Is Jennifer eleven now?”
“We never came here at that age either. Remember, all we wanted to do was hang out in the little playground after it got dark. We thought we were acting like teenagers.”
“Have you been to the playground, since primary school ended?” I ask Hazel.
“Were we still going there when primary school ended?”
“I don’t think you were.”
Hazel had a lot more freedom than us and by the time we were eleven and twelve she was talking to us less. All three of us were talking less by then; me and David were in different friend groups and I think Hazel was too, although I can’t remember who she was friends with. But me and David still met up fairly regularly, while Hazel quietly removed herself from our world. And now of course we’re all in different schools, and that has an effect. Especially since we don’t live very near each other. It’s just the way it happens, I suppose.
“What’re you studying?”
“Maths, today. Like, algebra and stuff. I’ve a lot of trouble with algebra.”
There’s something touching in that fact. The first-year maths we’ve studied really is not difficult. Hazel was never very good at school.
“Also, um, I have this,” says Hazel, her voice so unsure it automatically makes me want to accept whatever she’s offering. She rummages in her bag and produces a can of beer, a brand I don’t recognise.
“My dad buys them. He’s home for two weeks. Then he’s going back. He works in Romania now. I thought someone might want some.”
“I’ve never had any,” says David.
“Neither have I. I only have the one can. I didn’t want to take more. Here, I’ll-”
I listen to the familiar sound it makes when open, like a fizzy drink. I’ve never had alcohol either, except for sips. I feel slightly irritated. Why the hell did she cart all this crap here, schoolbooks and everything? Why won’t she just talk to us? She used to.
We pass it around, anyway. It tastes pretty awful. I feel sort of trapped. We haven’t been sitting still for long but my legs feel cramped and aching. We tell some anecdotes which aren’t particularly funny. Hazel opens her maths textbook and works slowly through problems. I didn’t think she actually would. I thought she’d have propped it open and tried one or two, then talked. She and David seem to lose their shyness. I still feel nervous. It’s probably good that we went to separate schools, and won’t keep bumping into each other as we move further and further apart.
“I don’t think she’s bad.”
Hazel says this out of nowhere and I don’t know what she means until she continues.
“Like, a bad mother or whatever. He’s always gone so she’s better than that. She looked after me and everything. There was just that one time with my ankle.”
That happened when we were seven or eight. Hazel had sprained her ankle badly and her mother hadn’t believed it hurt as much as she said it did. The ankle ended up going untreated for two days.
“She used to barely see me. As in, she might have left the house before I woke up and come back in time to get me to bed. That was only a few times, but it was – like that. I don’t know, though. Like I can see why – I don’t know.”
She looks up at us sharply and we both turn our eyes away. She doesn’t seem sure about the point she’s making anymore. I glance at David to see if he knows how to respond.
“I think I have to go,” she says. We’ve only been here for an hour. I don’t reply. I’m still not sure what I could say, where this came from. I hope David will but he doesn’t. She half-crawls past us to the exit, which is down a blue plastic slide, and she slips out and down. It smells like summer. Cut grass, and there’s a barbeque somewhere. I’m not sure where the cut-grass scent is coming from. The lawn in front of David’s house, visible from outside the treehouse, is uncut and bursting with flowers.
“Bye!” Hazel calls from below.
“See you!” I yell it so she hears me. I probably will, too, a few times more, and we’ll never be able to find anything to talk about. I look quickly across at David; it’s weird, how different he looks from a year ago.
“I think I’ll have to go soon. I – I’ll have to be home for dinner.”
We try to make conversation for another few minutes, but it falters. We don’t have much common ground anymore.