I had a best pal - Richie. We liked to do all sorts of stuff together. For a long time, our favourite game was at lunchtime at school we would spin in circles. You have to stand on the grass and look up at the sky and hold your arms out at the sides, then close your eyes and spin and spin as fast as you can. Sometimes we bashed into each other or other people like two pinballs in a pinball machine – that’s what the arms-out were for. You had to keep going, no matter what, until one of us shouted STOP and we had to stop still and open our eyes. Then we were falling all over the place, we had to hold onto each other to stay up. When you open your eyes after spinning like that it’s like being on a rollercoaster. It’s like watching a movie upside down and underwater and on fast-forward. It makes you feel sick right behind your eyeballs.
One time Richie was off from school with a dentist appointment and no one wanted to spin round with me at lunchtime, and it doesn’t work with only one person. There’s nobody to shout STOP, and nobody to hold onto when you’re on the rollercoaster. Anyway, I didn’t want to do it with anyone else. That’s why I told Richie he could never be off school again.
Sometimes in the summer when we had no school for weeks and weeks, on a hot day my Dad would drive us down to the beach in the car. It was nearly an hour away, and all the way there we would play Vending Machines with the back of the seats until Dad told us to stop that, we were banging too hard on his back. On the way home, we would have tasty, salty skin and we would sit in the back quietly and lick each other’s fingers and cheeks and the backs of our hands. If we had got a little sunburned, we would peel flaky cellophane skin from our noses. I would see Dad’s eyes in the mirror with frowny eyebrows, but he didn’t say anything because at least we weren’t banging the seat.
Other times we liked to play card games. That was usually when we went Richie’s house because then we could sit in the treehouse. One of the best things about having Richie for a pal was that he had a treehouse. It was built for him by his grandfather out of old wood from the shed when it fell down. You had to sit quite carefully on the floor of that treehouse; if you scooted around, little shards of wood would slide into the skin of your bottom and defy you to pinch them out of there all day.
I know two different card games and Richie knows three, but what we most liked to do is make up new ones. We would tell each other the rules as we went along, very carefully, and only if we both agreed. These are secret games. Nobody else could ever know how to play them again, not even us, because we could never remember all of the moves. They belong to the days in the treehouse.
One May when we were playing cards in the treehouse, nearly my birthday, me and Richie decided that we would married. Lots of people at school were already married. It meant you could go together every time you had to pair up in class, and other people would move so you could sit next to each other at lunch. We would have to do it in the woods behind my house. Weddings had been banned at our school because too many people were getting divorced, or forgetting who they had promised to marry and marrying the wrong person. Some people were only getting married so they could choose their paint sets first for Art, because that was part of the ceremony, at the very end. Richie can always tell which is the best paint set. If someone picked first but didn’t pick the best set, he would elbow me in the side and we would laugh, very quietly and secretly.
You need a priest at a wedding so we asked our pal Genevieve, because she lived just nearby.
We stood under a tree in the woods. At school there’s the Kissing Tree where all the marriages used to happen. We just had to pick one that looked the same, and didn’t spike us all with brambles at the bottom. I stamped out a circle in the earth and kicked branches out of the way and me and Richie stood there. Genevieve told us to hold hands, then she kissed the tree and stood in front of it. Then she squinted her eyes. I turned around because I heard someone coming, their footsteps crunchy on the sticks and stuff on the ground.
“What are you doing?” It was Genevieve’s older sister Tab. She was smiling and laughing at us like she usually did, apart from when she was with her friends and she would snap at us to leave her alone and pull a terrible face. When she saw me and Richie, she pulled something like that face. “Are you doing a wedding?”
“It’s only banned in school.” Genevieve said, quick, to not get in trouble. Tab shook her head.
“Come here, Gene.” Genevieve ran over towards her, looking at me and Richie with big eyes like a rabbit, afraid that Tab might tell. She didn’t usually tell on us, but I had never seen her shake her head like this before. She looked a bit like Richie did that one time we span round for too long, just before he was sick by the fence. “Carl and Richie, are you getting married?” She asked. “Are you going to kiss?” Her voice sounded strange. It was hard to know whether or not to laugh. We did nothing, either of us. Tab said, “You know there’s a word for boys who kiss?”
Richie dropped my hand. It felt like he had dropped me into a cold river, like Pooh sticks except I am the stick. Tab told us the word, then took Gene by the arm and marched both of them off. I’d never heard that word before, but I guess Richie had because he was crying. Or maybe he had been frightened by some of the things we had heard Tab saying to Genevieve while they walked away. He ran away from me. For a while, I didn’t know where to go. We three were going to go to the treehouse and paint with watercolours after the wedding. I was going to paint a farm with all the animals. In the end, I went home. I made sure to step over the spot where Tab had spat on the ground.
That word that she had said was like magic, like a disappearing spell. She said it once, in the woods, and whoosh: Richie is gone from my life. It was like no spell I’ve ever heard, though. With a swear word in it and all.