Tanya Farrelly is the author of three books: a short fiction collection When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House), which was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and named winner of the Kate O’ Brien Award 2017, and two novels: The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close (Harper Collins). She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Bangor University, Wales, and teaches at numerous institutions, including the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin, and the People’s College. She is the founder and director of Bray Literary Festival and has recently been appointed Writer-in-Residence at NUIG. Her second short story collection Nobody Needs to Know is forthcoming from Arlen House.
The tent had been there for some time. But covered as it was with thick branches of coniferous trees, no one had seen it. Or had at least failed to pay attention. It was Elsie, or more precisely Elsie’s little dog that found it while nosing around in the long grass for a ball.
Elsie was seventeen that summer. The days were long with her father out at work, and she complained that she had nothing to do. One day, she’d been on Facebook and she’d seen an ad – a dog rescue charity – looking for a home for a small brown terrier. She’d shown it to her father, who was doubtful at first. Elsie wasn’t the sort of child trusted to take care of an animal, but then she wasn’t a child anymore. This was a fact Elsie’s father had to face up to. Despite her simplicity, Elsie was becoming a young woman. He looked at her that day, at the long denim-clad legs stretched out on the couch, the shapely breasts under her childish yellow t-shirt. Maybe an animal would be good for her, teach her some responsibility. It would get her out of the house. But he warned her never to go too far. It was the dog that lured her to the woodlands.
Elsie had taken the path that led around the coast, but she’d veered off and up the fields that led to the woodland, and eventually to the head with its cross on top. Up there the people looked like ants from the beach below. The met office had reported that it was the hottest summer in thirty years. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and the grass was beginning to yellow. As soon as they’d climbed the steps and got out into the open grass, she’d taken the lead off the small brown terrier who she’d named Biscuit. The dog had run on ahead, but not so far that he’d lose sight of his owner. He stopped every now and then for Elsie to catch up.
That morning, Elsie had taken Biscuit to the pet store. Her father had given her money, and she’d bought a plastic thrower with a rubber ball, and a woolly sheep with a squeaker inside that the dog had torn open in minutes. The ball she’d kept inside her jacket until their trip to the fields. Now, with Biscuit off his lead, Elsie threw the ball. She brought her arm back in an arc, jumped and flung as far as she could, and the dog went bouncing after it. They continued like this until they’d reached the edge where the field met the woodland.
‘Biscuit, come on boy!’ Elsie yelled. She could see the dog nosing round in the grass, seemingly unable to find the rubber ball. ‘Biscuit!’ she shouted again, but the dog didn’t come and she made her way through the long grass to where he was standing, nose going and tail straight, staring towards the circle of conifer branches, which Elsie could now see were hiding a brown tent. Its door was open and outside it in the grass, there was a girl reading.
‘Hello.’ The girl looked from her book, stood up and stretched. ‘That your dog?’
‘Yes,’ Elsie said.
‘Cute little thing,’ the girl said, kneeling and clicking her fingers to coax the dog, who stayed back, wary. ‘Afraid he may have eaten some sardines I threw there, hope it doesn’t sicken him.’
‘Are you camping?’ Elsie asked. She’d done that once with her parents. She remembered her father building a swing in the trees and her mother complaining about getting eaten by midges.
‘No, we’re living here. For now anyway,’ the girl said. She put her hand down, cracked open a can of coke. ‘You want one?’ she asked.
‘Sure,’ Elsie said. The dog had got braver now, and was sniffing around the camp, at a purse that contained cosmetics. Elsie had noticed that the girl was wearing make-up, which seemed strange being outdoors and everything. And she was younger than Elsie. She looked like a little girl playing grown-ups.
‘You’re pretty,’ the girl said. Elsie smiled. Maybe she could be friends with this girl. She didn’t have many friends. The kids at school thought she was strange. She knew she wasn’t as clever as them, had to take special classes. Some of the boys liked her. At least she thought they did. One of them had stopped her one day in the corridor when her teacher had sent her on an errand. He’d pushed her hair back from her face, and he’d kissed her. But it wasn’t like she thought a kiss would be. He’d pushed his tongue inside her mouth, it was strange, sloppy. Then he’d let her go, and she’d gone back to class with the taste of that boy in her mouth. A liqourice taste like he’d been eating blackjacks.
‘Do you like reading?’ the girl asked.
Elsie shook her head.
‘You should, you know. You can learn a hell of a lot from reading.’ The girl picked up the book to show her. On the cover there was a picture of a bare-chested man and a woman in a flimsy dress coming off her shoulders. Elsie had seen some of the girls at school swapping books like this. But they didn’t keep them in the school library.
‘Why are you living out here?’ Elsie asked.
The girl shrugged. ‘We had nowhere else to go. Besides, it’s nice you know, the freedom.’
Elsie nodded. It did seem nice. From the fields you could see all the way down to the bay. She guessed at night the girl lit a campfire. Maybe she cooked beans and toast, the way her father had all those years ago. Toast was always better on a campfire. It tasted woody, like the outdoors itself.
‘Who are living here with?’ Elsie asked, pushing the hair out of her face and taking a swig of the cola.
‘My boyfriend. We wanted to be together so we came out here where no one could bother us.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘Here he is.’ The girl stood and waved. Elsie looked up, shaded her eyes against the sun. The dog started up barking. A boy was coming across the field, bags in both hands. ‘He went to get supplies,’ the girl said. ‘Hey, did you get everything?’
The boy nodded at Elsie. ‘Who’s this?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ the girl laughed. ‘What’s your name?’
Elsie was struggling with the dog. She’d put his lead on, but he was kicking up a racket. ‘Elsie,’ she said. ‘And you?’
‘Tessa and this…’
‘Shut up,’ the boy said, abruptly. He dropped the shopping bags and flopped down in the grass.
‘Why, she’s just…’
‘Don’t go telling people who we are,’ the boy said.
The girl shrugged. ‘Whatever. She’s just walking her dog. She doesn’t care about us.’
‘I’d better go,’ Elsie said.
The boy looked at her. ‘You don’t have to,’ he said. The girl smiled. ‘Yeah, stay,’ she said. We could have something stronger than this.’ She waved the can of coke, searched in the boy’s shopping bags and brought out something else. ‘Oh, cider. You do like cider? she said.
‘No, really I’ll have to go,’ Elsie told them. ‘But thanks for the coke.’
The girl smiled. ‘See you next time,’ she said. And Elsie felt their eyes on her as she turned and walked back down the field with the dog.
That evening at dinner Elsie answered her father when he asked about her walk. But she didn’t tell him about the couple she’d met, or the fact that she’d gone into the fields up by the woods. But she thought about them as she sat on the couch and watched TV that evening while her father spent a very long time on the phone. She thought about the girl and how friendly she’d been, not like the girls she knew. She thought about the black lines around her eyes and how they made them look enormous. Elsie had never worn make-up. Her father didn’t approve. Come to think of it, her mother hadn’t either. At least she didn’t think so. Her mother’s face was beginning to fade. People said she looked just like her though, so she guessed she couldn’t ever forget really. And that was good. Sometimes she talked to her in the mirror and imagined her answering back.
The boy had been funny. She thought about how he didn’t want to tell her his name. He wasn’t unfriendly though, he was okay. Not like the girl, but then boys were funny. You never knew what way to take them.
The next afternoon Elsie hooked Biscuit up to his lead and retraced her path from the previous day. This time she walked right up to the tent. The door was open, but there wasn’t anybody there. Elsie looked around, saw a charcoal circle in the grass where the couple had lit a fire. The dog got a bit of burnt stick in his mouth and began to chaw on it.
‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ The girl had come up behind her from the woods. Her hair was wet and it hung sopping over one eye.
Elsie smiled. ‘Just out walking,’ she said. ‘Thought I’d stop by.’
‘Good,’ the girl said. ‘That’s nice. You take him out every day?’ She pointed to the dog, too busy chewing to notice.
‘He’s a rescue,’ Elsie told her. ‘Me and my dad saved him. His name’s Biscuit.’
‘Cute,’ the girl said.
Elsie looked around the small camp. ‘Where’s the boy?’
‘Oh, he’s working. Got a job with the fair for the summer. He’s running the Waltzers. You know the ones that spin round and round and it feels like maybe your neck’s going to snap with the gravity?’
Elsie nodded, though she wasn’t sure she knew what the girl meant. It was nice just sitting with her.
‘You mind if I do something with your hair?’ the girl asked.
Elsie shrugged. All she ever had done to her hair was a trim. It fell down her back in long ripples of blonde. ‘Okay,’ she said. And the girl sat on a rock and told her to sit in close to her. Elsie sat on the ground between the girl’s knees. She felt her fingers in her hair, surprisingly tender.
‘I’m going to give you a French braid,’ the girl told her, and she began separating Elsie’s hair into strands and plaiting them. Elsie sat back and closed her eyes, the sun on her face. The dog chewed the stick, and all they could hear was the birds.
Elsie began to spend all her days with the girl. She’d get up late and have breakfast, then she’d take Biscuit and they’d walk across the fields to the camp. Sometimes, the girl asked her to bring things. Things she said the boy always forgot to get when he went to the supermarket.
‘He never thinks to get what I need,’ she complained. Elsie didn’t see the boy. She always left before he came up from the fair on the seafront. She did see him one day when she and her father brought the dog to the beach. They stopped at one of the kiosks for a ninety-nine and there he was standing at the edge of one of the rides. Every so often he’d give a push to one of these big armchairs full of kids, and it would start to spin and the kids would scream in delight or terror. There was loud thumping music that made it seem like a disco.
‘Can I try some of this make-up on you?’ the girl asked Elsie one day.
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Elsie said. Nervous that she’d have to go home with it on and her father wouldn’t like it.
‘It’s okay. We can take it off again if you don’t like it. It’s not like it’s a tattoo or something,’ the girl pleaded. ‘Go on, I’ll bet you’ll look so pretty.’
‘Alright,’ Elsie conceded.
It was starting to rain that day and the girl told Elsie to come inside the tent. It was surprisingly big. She couldn’t stand up in it, but there was plenty of room for sitting. She liked how the shadows of things outside showed inside. Branches reaching like long fingers along the canvas. She sat opposite the girl as she daubed foundation on her cheeks and then began to work it in with her fingers. Next, she put some eyeshadow on her lids. She told Elsie to close her eyes and Elsie was aware of her breath on her face and when she opened her eyes again the girl was right up close to her.
‘You’ve got a pretty mouth,’ she said. She took out a tube of lipstick and told Elsie to open her mouth, then to gently rub her lips together. She held up a mirror and Elsie hardly recognised herself. The girl had made her eyes dark like hers. Her lips were pale and shiny. She didn’t look like a child playing dress-up, the way the girl did. She looked like an adult.
‘You should wear make-up all the time,’ the girl said. ‘You’re a real knock-out. I’d better not let Petey see you. Oops.’ She covered her mouth with her hand. ‘Don’t let on I told you his name, will you?’
Elsie laughed. ‘No.’
‘You know you make me feel kind of tingly… down there.’ The girl took Elsie’s hand, she guided it under her short skirt and inside her panties, so that Elsie felt the warm wetness between her legs. Slick of it on her fingers.
‘Oh,’ Elsie said, and she tried to pull her hand away, but the girl held it there and rubbed it a little back and forth, so that Elsie’s fingers were damp, and she felt kind of funny.
‘Do you like that?’ the girl asked. Her eyes were glassy. She took Elsie’s other hand and sucked on one finger. ‘Don’t worry,’ the girl said. ‘It’s okay.’ She put a hand behind Elsie’s head and pulled her towards her. She flicked her tongue inside Elsie’s mouth, and it felt good.
‘Don’t worry the girl told her. Petey won’t be back for ages yet. Let’s have a little fun.’
Elsie had never been with a girl before. Hadn’t been with a boy either apart from that liquorice kiss. When the girl pulled up her t-shirt and clamped her mouth onto Elsie’s nipple, she thought she might die, but in a good way. She pulled at the girl’s sweater, eager. The girl didn’t stop her.
For the whole of that week, Elsie got out of bed and went to the fields. She had to tie the dogs lead to one of the tent stays so he wouldn’t wander. Every afternoon the girls made love. Sometimes, they didn’t bother to go inside. The girl said she liked to make love in the grass, although Elsie found it somewhat ticklish. They didn’t need to worry about passers-by unless they came right up to the camp, so well hidden were they by the hedge of conifers.
At the weekend Elsie was restless. Her father liked to spend Saturdays with her. He’d take her out for lunch and then go for a walk on the promenade. Sometimes he’d take her to see a film. She’d always liked the time she’d spent with her dad, but now she just wanted to be with the girl.
She was quiet that Saturday. The sun was shining, and the seafront was packed with day trippers. Her father had brought a blanket and instead of going to a restaurant, they bought fish and chips and ate them in the grass. The fish was greasy, her fingers slick with it. When she licked them, she longed for the girl. That evening, when they were at the cinema, she got a text message. ‘Come tonight!’ it said. A knot of excitement formed in her stomach. She wasn’t sure how she’d manage to get out. When they got home, she thanked her father and said she was tired. She hugged him, something she rarely did and her father patted her back awkwardly.
Elsie didn’t think to take a torch. And it was bright enough until she veered off the coastal path and up into the fields. Even then, the moon was enough to guide her. She picked her way through the long grass. The night was warm and it was just as well because she’d slipped out past her father, who was dozing in front of the television, without so much as stopping for a jacket. As soon as she got in range, she heard the tent zipper go up and the girl stuck her head out. There was no campfire, just the girl in the tent with a flashlight.
‘Wasn’t sure you’d come,’ the girl said.
‘Didn’t you get my text?’
‘Yeah, but I wasn’t sure.’ The girl put her arms around her, kissed her hard on the mouth.
‘Where’s the boy?’ Elsie asked.
‘He’s going for a beer with some of the boys from the fair. Said he’d be back late, that he wouldn’t wake me.’ The girl smiled in the lamplight.
They undressed quickly. The girl took Elsie’s breasts in her mouth, first one and then the other. Elsie felt that tingle that the girl had mentioned the first time they’d been together.
‘Hey, why don’t we go outside?’ the girl said. ‘I’d like to do it in the woods. I’ve never done it in the woods before.’
But Elsie didn’t want to. It was dark amongst those trees, and underfoot it was prickly. She pictured them running naked in the woods, two feral children. For all the girl’s insistence, she stayed firm and when she put her mouth on the girl she stopped insisting.
Elsie lay on her back aware of nothing, but the girl’s hands and her mouth and the way her hair fell over Elsie’s body. ‘Now you,’ the girl murmured. And Elsie wriggled from under her, pinned the girl’s wrists above her head and let her breasts hover just above the girl’s red lips, teasing. This girl had taught her things, things she’d read about between the pages of those paperbacks that the girls in school read. Things she had never even imagined. Now she wondered if this was what they were all doing; her schoolmates. A game that she had been excluded from. But now she didn’t care because she had this girl with her raven’s hair and full lips.
Elsie didn’t hear the tent door being lifted. When the girl gasped under her, pride swelled in her belly. She didn’t see the boy standing behind her. He must have moved stealthy as a cat. When she felt his hands on her shoulders she went to turn, shocked from her dream-like state, but he hushed her and told the girls to continue. ‘Go on,’ he told the girl, and she slid her fingers inside Elsie, even as she tried to buck backwards to rid of herself of the boy’s weight. When he pushed himself inside, there was pain. Pain like she’d never felt before, like something inside her had torn. It must have lasted no longer than five minutes. Five minutes of the boy’s weight on top of her, of him pumping inside her ripping her insides open. His hands pinning her wrists just as hers pinned the girl’s, and the girl sobbing beneath.
‘Elsie,’ the girl whispered, when the boy had left the tent to take a piss. ‘Elsie, I swear I didn’t know.’ The girl tried to touch her face, but Elsie pushed her hand away. She took her clothes and ran naked through the fields.
Elsie didn’t stop running until she was almost at the road. There was no one behind her, and she stopped and dressed behind the low wall. When she crept into the house her father had gone to bed. She hushed the dog who gave a low growl but stopped as soon as he realised it was his mistress. Elsie crawled into bed fully clothed, pulled the duvet up around her. Despite the warmth of the night, she couldn’t stop shivering.
The next day, Elsie stayed home. The dog looked at her, expectantly. ‘Not today, Biscuit,’ she told him. When the girl sent a text, she didn’t answer. I didn’t know, it said. And a few minutes later. You won’t tell anyone, will you? The phone rang, but Elsie didn’t answer, and the girl left no message.
On Saturday, Elsie went to the seafront with her father. It was hot, and the dog panted as they walked the promenade. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and the grass had yellowed to straw. The fair was still going, and on the Waltzers Elsie saw the boy. When she saw him her blood felt hot, and a nerve kicked off in her head. He was laughing with a bunch of giggling girls as he gave their big chair a spin, and Elsie wanted to push him right in front of it. But she didn’t, and she turned away before the boy saw her.
No one knew how the gorse fire started. Could have been some careless picnic-makers having a summer barbecue, or someone dropped a cigarette on the cliff walk. But like its name it spread -wild and rapid along the head and the surrounding woodland. Helicopters were brought in to try to curb it. They lowered buckets into the sea, dropped tons of water, but nothing would stop the blaze. Homes were evacuated when the fire got too close. On the news, it was reported that a homeless couple were burnt in their tent – no one could understand how they couldn’t get out, but the whole neighbourhood lamented the tragedy. People had seen them about – a young girl and a boy. There was nothing left of their remains, but bones smouldering.
Elsie and her father watched the helicopters from the beach. The dog barked at the sound of the blades. Elsie thought of the girl and her heart ached. It ached long after the fires had died, when nothing remained but ashes.