Pooh-Sticks (A Short Story)
This is a short piece I wrote a few years ago. I’ve left it largely untouched since then. Hope you like it.
The sun was shining through the trees, covering the pavement with speckled light. Blossom was dancing here and there on the ground as playful gusts of wind tossed the petals through the sunbeams. Somewhere in the oak tree overhead a bird was chirping away, a sound just heard over the gentle bubbling of the stream flowing along the other side of the road. Just along from this spot was a crossroads and a bridge over the stream, a wide road bridge with pavement on either side, and a medium height birch tree stood on the far bank. From under the oak tree you could see the bushes that were growing on the banks on either side of the bridge, and how the vines working their way along the stonework had met in the middle. The blossom on these vines and its reflection in the water below made a sort of halo if you looked at it from the right angle, and every now and then the warm breeze would tease some of the blossom off the vines, letting it flutter down to the water and drift away with the current.
‘Come on you’ she was saying as he lagged behind, ‘I want to go see that village fete that they do here, sounds like a good laugh.’
He quickened his pace to catch up with her. ‘Only you would come to a village like this wearing heels like that. How are you going to cope at the fete, you know it’s in tents on grass right?’
‘Ah, and therein lies my cunning plan, high heels for the road, flip flops for the grass!’
And with that she swung her handbag off he shoulder and began rummaging through it on the ground. He had always been amazed at handbags, at the way he knew he’d never understand them but how interesting it was to watch how girls could fit so much into them without them ever looking heavy or bulky. As he watched, she pulled from her otherwise unremarkable shoulder-bag a pot of lip gloss, a bottle of water, a not particularly small paperback book she’d been reading on the train, the ipod for when the book had been boring her and she’d fallen asleep instead with her head on his shoulder, her mobile phone, a pair of sunglasses with big lenses and the sought after pair of flip flops. In true handbag fashion these were lodged underneath everything else, but she was surprisingly quick to unpack it all to get them, and repack everything again along with her high heels.
‘Ta-dah!’ she exclaimed straightening up with the bag repacked, miraculously no bigger that it had been even though it now had heels in it.
‘God they hurt my feet sometimes, especially when it’s hot. I don’t even know why I wear them.’ she said, pondering the bag for a moment before grinning and saying ‘Actually I do, because when I wear them it makes me taller than you.’
He rolled his eyes skywards at this in mock agony, but she just laughed, swung her bag onto her shoulder again, kicked on her new footwear and sauntered across the road.
‘I wish you’d watch the road!’
‘There’s nothing coming!’ she called back with a cheeky grin over her shoulder. He loved that grin, it was playful and reminded him of how children in school playgrounds go ‘nya-nya’ when they get one up on each other. He smiled to himself and followed her across the road and out from under the shade of the oak. She was next to the blossom bush now picking up and examining a pair of sticks. With a grin not dissimilar to hers of a moment ago he bounded deftly over to her and grabbed her round the waist, making her squeal in surprise and squirm playfully as he tickled her.
‘No, no get-off-I-hate-being-tickled nooOOO!’
He just laughed and carried on tickling her, but then one of the sticks in her hand jabbed him somewhere in the midriff and he released her, cradling his injury.
‘Ok ok, careful with those you just stabbed me!’
‘Oh my god I’m sorry! Where?’
‘There’ he said pointing as his chest, breathing heavily from the laughter of a moment ago. With both of the sticks she was still holding in one hand, she wiped the tears of laughter from her own eyes with the other and then put her free hand on his chest where she’d stabbed him. She rubbed it better for a moment, both of them still slightly out of breath from the scuffle. Then she put both arms up around his neck and looked up into his face, blinking slightly because she was facing into the sun.
‘Maybe next time you don’t surprise me like that, ‘kay?’
‘Maybe you don’t worry me by crossing the road without looking.’ he replied, putting his arms around her waist and subtly turning so he was between the sun and her and she didn’t have to squint. She smiled and chuckled quietly.
‘Well you know me, the little daredevil that I am.’
‘Oh yeah because crossing the road’s so hardcore. You’ll be extreme ironing next!’
She dealt him a playful smack to the back of his head. ‘You’re the one getting all worried about it remember.’
‘Only because I care.’
‘I know you do.’
She kissed him in the cute way that she sometimes does, briefly and all the time smiling, and then rested her forehead against his.
‘And sorry for stabbing you.’
‘And for hitting me just then?’ he added, looking her in the eye with his best puppy-dog impression.
‘Mmm… no you deserved that one’ she said and grinned.
He mock-sighed at this before kissing her gently on the nose.
‘What are you picking up sticks for anyway?’
‘Hmm?’ She murmured, her mind elsewhere for a moment. She looked up past his face at the sticks still in her hand, blinking now because the sun was back in her face.
‘Oh yes! I saw them and the stream here and I thought we could play pooh-sticks!’
‘Pooh-sticks?’ he repeated quietly, smiling at her childishness.
‘Yes, come on it’ll be fun, and at least if it’s not it’ll be short. I challenge you!’
‘Ah, well who am I to turn down such a challenge.’
She laughed and brought her hands down to his face.
‘I knew you’d come around.’
She kissed him again and he gave her a little squeeze. Then she turned and, taking his hand in her free one and bearing the pooh-sticks in the other, they walked together to the middle of the bridge.
They had an adorable relationship. He’d been quiet and reserved before they’d met, overly cautious even. Never a risk taker. He’d always been a nice guy, everyone would say so, his problem was just that he’d been shy when he was growing up. He’d always been more comfortable in small groups than large ones. It had taken someone like her to help him out of his shell. She’d always been playful and bold. Spontaneous. Her friends described her as ‘smiley’ a lot of the time, and for a while it had been her nickname, but she had always preferred Lizzie. She said that the double z better reflected her “cra-zee-ness”. To this he’d reply “you’re such an english student” and she would laugh, and then they’d argue about how arts subjects compared with sciences, him rooting for maths and physics and her for english and history. To their friends they were so different. They didn’t tick boxes, they simply enjoyed being with each other. For them, falling in love was the easiest thing in the world.
They’d met at a house party during the Easter holidays. He noticed her dancing to Take That in the middle of the living room with her friends while he was over by the door talking to his. Her hair was coming loose from the hair-tie holding it in its ponytail, and he remembered noticing her stop to remove it and thinking how pretty she looked with her hair down. He hadn’t spoken to her that night, he’d been too nervous, but the next afternoon most of the people who’d been at the party had met up again at the beach to exchange gossip and compare hangovers from that morning, and at the beach a mutual friend introduced them. Her personality warmed him instantly. They talked like old friends all afternoon, responding to each other in an undefinable way, almost too subtly for either of them to notice. He helped her and her friend cook burgers on the disposable barbecue, and they’d laughed along with everyone when the youngest guy Max was buried in the sand and people were taking embarrassing photos of him. It was when it was getting dark that he had asked for her number. The barbecue had been loaded with sticks to turn it into a small fire to keep everyone warm. While it burned in the middle of the circle of people, most of whom discussing whether or not a beach bonfire was illegal, he plucked up the courage to asked her. He remembered that moment for a long time afterwards. He’d been so nervous, he remembered stuttering when he’d said it and being thankful that it was dark so she couldn’t see him blush. She’d been looking into the fire, and when he said it she turned to him and smiled, blinking at the same time to help her eyes adjust. And she said yes. That evening he went home with butterflies in his stomach. He asked her out a week later. She said yes then too.
At the middle of the bridge they stopped and leaned out over the low stone wall, looking down through the blossom laden vines.
‘I wish spring wasn’t so short, blossom’s so pretty and it’s never around for very long. Look, that bit’s already gone brown and yukky. It’s so depressing.’
She reached down with one of the sticks to brush some of the dying petals away, and suddenly a bird zoomed out from under the bridge with a shrill cry. Lizzie was so surprised by this that she dropped the stick and it fell to the water with a splash. The bird that had probably been perched on a concealed vine had disappeared into the oak tree.
‘Rats, dropped it.’ she complained, peering down at the stick as it floated out of view under the bridge.
‘That is how you play the game, though normally someone else drops theirs at the same time.’ He knew what her response would be to this. The stuck-out tongue and slight frown she dealt him before looking away again were almost as familiar to him as her cheeky grin. He loved it almost as much too.
‘Don’t worry’ he said with a grin, ‘You hold this, I’ll get myself another one, just don’t drop that one as well miss clumsy.’
Before she could think of a quick retort he was walking over to the far side of the bridge. There weren’t many sticks around the bush there, mainly just bits of dead vines and fallen blossom petals, but he wasn’t after them. Just along the bank on this side of the stream stood the birch tree and on the ground around it’s trunk were a few fallen branches. He selected one that looked about the same size as Lizzie’s stick and turned back to the bridge. She was still in the middle, and she’d fished her sunglasses out of her bag and was leaning on the wall looking down into the water. He could see the sunlight reflecting from the water onto the side of the bridge and onto her face, giving the scene a dreamy sort of glow, even in the spring sunshine. She looked up at him as he started back towards the end of the bridge and smiled, giving him a little wave – obviously his quip about her dropping the other stick was forgotten – and he smiled to himself as he rounded the wall at the foot of the bridge.
‘Thanks. You miss me?’
‘Nah.’ She flicked her hair out of her face and moved her sunglasses up to her forehead where it acted like a hairband. ‘You weren’t gone long enough.’ she added with a wry smile.
‘I’ve got my racer’ he said proudly, holding out the stick.
She glanced at it briefly, but she was eager to start the game now. She examined her own stick in her hands, turning it over and over as if trying to see which way it would float better and how she should drop it. He just watched her, absent mindedly picking a piece of bark off his birch stick until she was satisfied with hers.
‘Ok here we go. Hold them level, next to each other. And you’re NOT allowed to throw it down so it gets to the water faster!’ She peered at him through comically narrowed eyes and pursed her mouth as she said this. He just smiled back.
Side by side now, they raised their arms together and held out their sticks. She reminded him that they would let go on nought, NOT on one, and then started the countdown.
Through the corner of his eye he caught the twitch of her hair that told him she was momentarily checking to make sure he wasn’t cheating somehow.
He looked sideways at her, her face and her arm still slightly illuminated from the sunlight reflecting on the water below.
He looked back at the stick in his own hand, and for that moment between one and zero all the reasons why he loved her came back to him, at once, as he was about to drop a stick into a stream for a children’s game they were playing, and he smiled.