It had been cold for as long as any of us could remember, but memory is short when you’re a child. Four months of bitter winter felt like four years; imprisoned in duffle coats and bobble hats, playgrounds icy, gloomy battlegrounds where we fought with the very concept of fun.
It was 1986 and we were ten. Well, Martin and I were ten – Peter and his twin sister Dawn were both nine, and the distinction was powerful. They would be ten in the summer, but the summer was a lifetime away. Dawn was, as these things go, taller than all of us already so we grudgingly let her play in our gang. That, and Peter’s Mum said we had to.
We all had bikes we trolled around the neighbourhood on: Peter had a giant blue Grifter with handlebar-twist gears. Martin rode a knock-off Halfords BMX. Dawn had an old racer in a soft green colour, to which she carefully attached the maximum number of spokey-dokeys, making her approach sound like a typist at 150wpm. I had a second-hand but beautiful chrome Mongoose which my parents had bought from a pro cyclist. Its untarnishable metal frame gleamed coldly in the brittle air of the frozen early March morning.
We had been riding fairly aimlessly around the streets, crunching through frozen puddles, slooshing through the remnants of the February snowfall and whizzing down the low contours of suburbia when Martin suggested we head out to The Woods.
“The Woods” was a grand name for it, but it fitted well enough that nobody called it anything else. There were trees dense enough to lose yourself in for a short time, thickets of some evergreen shrub that could be useful for hide and seek or making dens inside. There was even a pond where ducks landed in the warmer months. In this weather, frost clung to the fallen trees and iced the dead branches, giving the place a mystery and beauty the local parks could never offer.
Every small to mid-sized town has somewhere like The Woods, a liminal zone where town shades into countryside. Slowly, over the intervening decades, The Woods became marooned in the ever expanding suburb around it, ending up as a sort of park with a scrappy interface of trees between it and the estate that swallowed it. In 1986, though, there it still was, a wedge of trees with, as far as we knew, only fields beyond.
It wasn’t too far a ride and we were all happy to go, so we set off in our usual formation – Peter leading, me and Dawn in the middle and Martin trailing ever so slightly behind. It wasn’t intentional, it was just how we pedalled.
“I’m tired,” said Martin after a while. “Why are we going to The Woods, anyway?” I told him that it was his idea in the first place and, further, he was a big whiny baby who was whining. He was quiet after that, puffing along behind in listless silence as Dawn and Peter talked about what they were going to have for dinner that night, and what was on TV, and speculating on whether school would be open on Monday if it snowed tonight.
It was barely 10 o’clock when we reached The Woods. The sun was technically high in the sky but it gave only light through the sullen clouds, not warmth. Usually on a weekend The Woods were fairly busy with children playing – not today. The cold had frozen people indoors. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the year a lot of our friends would really get into computers.
It was our place that day, cold and dismal as it was. We dropped our bikes carelessly under a familiar bush not far from the entrance and went deeper in on foot.
“Think we’ll find that ant nest?” asked Dawn, who had been so fascinated by the discovery, last time we were had been there, that she had successfully pestered her parents to get her an ant farm for Christmas.
“Probably not,” I said. “It was just lucky we found it last time and anyway, ants hibernate.”
“No they don’t!” Dawn took the opportunity to give me a lecture on ant behaviour, though it was really more about how lovely ants were and how they were really clever and what kind of tunnels they build. I didn’t say anything, but I secretly still believed that ants hibernate. I’m not sure what’s right, now, even though I could look it up in a moment online. I won’t. Why spoil it? I’m going to say Dawn was right. She loved those ants.
“Where are we going?” Martin had wandered off to the side of the vague path we were following to search for a stick. He intended to smack the remnants of snow and tiny icicles from the overhanging branches, and stood peering at a dry, crackling dogwood. “Do we need sticks?”
“Yeah, sticks!” said Peter, swishing through the overgrown gaps between trees to join Martin in hunting for sturdier branches.
“You want a stick?” I asked Dawn, who shrugged.
“Don’t need one.”
“What if they want a swordfight?” I pointed behind her, where Martin and Peter were duelling. She held up her hand, two fingers sticking out.
“Then I’ve got a gun and they can piss off.” At this we both cracked up, amused at the brutality of her response and the forbidden thrill of swearing. We all knew a few swear words and we hardly ever used them. I had no idea until then that Dawn knew perhaps as many as I did.
“So… what swear words do you know?” she asked me as we wandered down in the direction of the pond. Peter had decided it would be frozen so we should go down and see if we could slide across it.
“Er, I know piss, shit, bollocks, bastard, bloody, sod, prat-”
“Prat’s not a swear word,” she said, interrupting my list. I glared at her, trying to look scornful and probably missing the mark by several years.
“Yes it is. It means pregnant camel and-”
“That’s git,” she interrupted again, with a frankly infuriating air of high knowledge. “Prat’s not a swear word, you could say prat to a grown up and they wouldn’t mind. Do you know fuck?” I gasped. “I heard Mum say it, I think it’s a bad one.”
“I didn’t know you knew it,” I looked away as I said it, embarrassed not only by her saying it but also at my reaction. I shouldn’t have reacted at all. That didn’t look cool.
“You didn’t want to tell me because I’m a girl!”
“No, because you’re nine, you’re too young!”
“What are you shouting about?” Peter was suddenly in between us, tapping his forehead with his stick as he walked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing,” said Dawn.
“Mum doesn’t like you swearing,” Peter said, reproachfully. “You’re not teaching her anything, are you?”
“Me? No!” If anything, I added in my head, it’s the other way round. I looked over at Dawn who was stifling a laugh.
“I know poo and bum and sex. And fanny,” said Peter, proudly.
“Poo and bum are baby words, Pete,” Dawn pushed him and he dropped his stick.
“Oi!” he picked it up and ran at her with it. She ran away, off between the trees. I watched them go, him swiping madly, her bobbing and weaving to stay out of his way.
“What’s going on?” said Martin, slouching up to stand next to me.
“Brother-sister stuff,” Dawn arched to avoid a swipe from Peter, who overbalanced and fell face first to the mulchy woodland floor. He howled with incoherent rage.
“God, you complete TIT, Pete!” Dawn yelled, laughed and ran faster. He scrambled to his feet and hared after her again. Martin and I exchanged glances and jogged slowly after them.
We found them fighting. Dawn had Peter’s elbows pinned with her knees and she was pawing at his face while he shook and kicked. We stood watching them for a moment. Dawn was laughing and laughing at her brother’s discomfort and, in all conscience, I couldn’t let this go on for more than a few minutes.
“You go and sort them out,” said Martin, folding his arms and smirking. “She’s your girlfriend.”
“She isn’t!” I possibly sounded more upset than I actually was at the insinuation.
It was wrong, though, she wasn’t my girlfriend. That stuff was way beyond us at this time. There had been moments, but they weren’t romantic just intimate in the way children are intimate. The previous year, while Peter was upstairs with his leg in plaster, we had played in a paddling pool. Getting dry, we examined each other’s naked body more out of curiosity than anything. At that age our bodies were so similar that it was like looking at our own bodies – the shape of the spine, the backs of the knees, the soft warmth of the underarms. The differences were fascinating, of course, and we spent time examining each other thoroughly. We’d kissed and cuddled, too, and played Mummies and Daddies, even trying lying on top of each other and bouncing in a haphazard way. It wasn’t a sex thing, not really, it was learning, it was a game.
Peter’s Mum walked in when I was kneeling in front of Dawn, leaning my head on her thigh, mesmerised by her folds and creases. I don’t think she was shocked, in retrospect. Surprised, certainly, and embarrassed – she told us to get dressed and asked if I should be going home. After that, Peter was always around when I was with Dawn. I don’t know if he ever knew what happened. I didn’t think so, but there was always a nagging doubt. Sometimes he looked at me like he did know.
I took a couple of paces forward and hauled Dawn away, hooking my arms under hers. Peter got to his feet and launched himself at his sister. Martin was already there, wrapping himself around the taller boy’s waist. I held onto Dawn even though she wasn’t doing much more than laughing and calling Peter a variety of bad things.
“Stop it!” I shouted. “Both of you!” They didn’t. I tried a different tack and screamed as high and as loud as I could. This was before my voice broke so my scream was pretty piercing. I was proud of its stopping power.
And stop everyone it did, causing them all to turn and look at me. After a moment, Peter started laughing.
“Nice girly scream, man!”
“Shut you up, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, only because I thought another girl had turned up,” Peter wiped the mud Dawn had been smearing on his face away with his sleeve. Martin and I let go of our respective restrained siblings.
“Can we find the pond now?” asked Martin. “I just want to know if it’s frozen.”
It was frozen, really frozen. Martin simply stared at it from under his blue bobble hat, a drip taking his motionlessness as an opportunity to form on the end of his nose. Peter and Dawn were immediately testing it, seeing if it could hold their weight. Bubbles of water shifted under them, but nothing cracked. It was safe, for a few yards at least. I wanted to walk out on it as confidently as they did, but I remembered a dream I’d had.
I was walking out on ice with my dog – Sandy, a border collie who died last year – and there was nothing for miles around. Just ice, snow and sky forever. When I had started the dream I could see a ragged line of spears and banners, an army tiny on the horizon, but they were gone by the time I reached the spot I remembered most clearly. Looking down, there was a man frozen under my feet. He was looking up at me, hands outstretched, eyes wide, legs vanishing into the white beneath them. I don’t know if I even thought about trying to rescue him, which is an absurd idea outside a dream and perfectly logical inside, before he started to move. Somehow he was clawing at the surface of the frozen sea, arms able to move within their frozen prison, eyes now threatening. It was as if the ice was just separating us like a pane of glass and even as I woke up the thought was in my head – which side of the ice was I on?
I didn’t want to go onto the ice, because I didn’t want to look down. Martin moved forward, and I couldn’t let him be braver than me, so I stepped onto the pond.
It was just like stepping onto any other part of the floor. It didn’t give, it didn’t creak or groan or splinter, it just felt solid and slippery. Instinctively, I crouched a little to keep myself balanced. No way was I being the first to fall over, though that wasn’t a problem for long as Peter crashed onto his backside a few moments later. Dawn was laughing at her brother yet again when he pushed her ankles and caused her to collapse next to him, which brought her close to hysteria. I thought it looked painful rather than funny, but there you go.
“I really hope you didn’t break it,” said Martin, looking a little panic-stricken. “Maybe we should… oh.”
I followed his gaze. Beneath my feet was a shape, just below the ice. For a second I was worried it would be a face glaring up at me, but it wasn’t. It was a long, striped cone. White, against the dirty off-white of the icy pond, with a single, sharply-defined black stripe around the middle.
“What’s that?” Dawn asked, shuffling across the ice on her hands and knees. “A traffic cone?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know what it is,” said Peter, breathing heavily. “It’s a new-clear warhead.”
There was a long moment of silence. We all stared at the cone in the ice. The idea of the nuclear warhead was omnipresent. When I was really small, my Mum had pushed me in my pushchair along a march for CND, me proudly holding a tambourine decorated with the peace symbol. Martin’s Dad had a ‘Nuclear Power? No Thanks!’ sticker in the window of his car, which we all misinterpreted at the time as referring to nuclear bombs because no other type of ‘nuclear’ anything ever came into our frame of reference. We’d all read, to varying degrees of comprehension, ‘Protect and Survive’ when Peter had found it in his parents’ dresser and brought it to my house for inspection. The talk of fallout and radiation sickness terrified me more than the blast, the idea that people would become walking death, to even be near them could irradiate you, too. What was real, what was fantasy, what was just children getting ideas mixed up none of us knew, or even knew that it was happening. The nuclear warhead was the ultimate bogeyman in our childhood, and here it was, under the ice in the pond in The Woods.
“I’m going home,” Martin broke the silence and he ran, legs flailing, the way we had come. Peter huffed at his cowardice and Dawn, well, Dawn didn’t react. She didn’t take her face away from the ice she was practically pressing her nose against.
“It’s pronounced ‘nuclear’, Pete,” was the first thing she said when Martin’s ungainly footfalls had vanished from earshot. “Are you sure it’s not a traffic cone? Why would there be a nuclear warhead in the pond?”
“I watched a programme about them with Mum and Dad the other week,” he said, ostensibly ignoring the correction to his pronunciation (which subsequently improved). “They look exactly…”
“When? Why didn’t I see it? When did you watch telly with Mum and Dad and I didn’t? You’re lying, I would have seen it too.”
I went to see if I could find Martin’s stick as Peter explained that actually he’d been allowed to stay up late and watch the telly and actually Dawn had fallen asleep early that night. My guess is that Peter had had a bad dream and was allowed to stay up late because it was easier to have him in the living room than deal with his frightened moans. I guessed this because Dawn told me that Peter often had bad dreams and would lie in the bottom bunk calling out for someone to come. I laughed when she told me, a secret giggle at the expense of my best friend, but I was glad. I wasn’t the only one. When I woke from my dream about the man beneath the ice I called and called, not daring to leave my bed to find someone who could comfort me. I wanted to walk to my parents’ room and climb into their bed. It seemed impossibly far in the dark, and I couldn’t get the courage to put a foot to the floor. What if it was slippery?
I found Martin’s stick, or another stick of similar sturdiness – Christ almighty it was a stick who knows? – and walked back to the warhead under the ice.
“What are you going to do with that?” asked Peter, looking worried. “You’re not going to poke it? Jesus, what if it explodes?”
All three of us had the vision then, the one that caused Martin to run; a searing flash of heat and light swallowing us all instantly and leaving nothing except the mushroom cloud, blossoming over our town. Our parents dead instantly or poisoned beyond hope, lurching to other towns as radioactive lepers, spreading sickness. Our homes rubble, torn apart in gales from another world. The end of everything. One nuclear explosion, we knew, would trigger a chain reaction. America would think we had been attacked by Russia and launch, Russia would retaliate, everyone would die. Everyone – those unaffected by the initial strikes would suffer the nuclear winter to follow and die worse deaths as frozen, hungry barbarians thrown from paradise to hell by a world-encircling cloud of poisonous filth.
All of that, because we poked a stick through some ice.
“Do it,” said Dawn, standing up to look at me. “See if you can crack the pond and get the stick through. If you can and then we can pull it out we can take it to… the police. We’ll have saved everyone. We’ll be heroes.” She smiled and put her hands on her hips. Peter made a noise like ‘guhhh’ and hung his head, knowing that I was going to do as she suggested. I poked the end of the stick at the ice around the warhead then, believing perhaps that I had found the weak spot, I brought it down hard, point first.
The impact made me wince, and hurt my shoulders. It had scarcely damaged the ice. A little powder was thrown up and there was, if one cared to look, a small dent. I tapped it again. It didn’t sound hollow, and there was no way I could chisel a hole through solid ice using a blunt stick.
“This is stupid,” I said, throwing the stick down. “We should just tell a grown-up that it’s here. We don’t have to get it out of the ice.” I knew it was the wrong thing to say, that it ended the game early. Dawn grabbed the stick from me.
“God, you bloody boys are such stupid bastards!” she yelled. Peter’s mouth tensed into a perfectly straight, lipless line. She whacked the ice several times, hard. The stick just bounced off. She stood over the impassive white cone and jumped, pulling her feet up under her and pushing them out as she fell.
Thud. Nothing. Thud. Nothing. Thud, thud, thud, nothing. She looked close to tears. I walked over to her and put my hands on her shoulders. She looked at me without understanding. I took my left hand and patted my right shoulder, nodding. At this she understood and put her hands on my shoulders.
“If you do this, I’m telling,” Peter said.
“One,” I said, ignoring him. “Two. THREE!” Dawn and I jumped as high as we could and landed as hard as possible at the same time.
The ice cracked beneath us and we both lost our footing, tumbling in an untidy heap. For a moment she lay on top of me, her visible breath curling warmly into my mouth. Where a few years later I would maybe have tried to kiss her, at the age of ten I just stared at her eyes. They were blue, with a sharply-defined ring of black around the iris, and they shone.
“You’ve cracked the pond,” said Peter from far away. “RUN!” Not really getting it, I thought he was worried about the bomb exploding. Then I realised we could fall through, into the pond. I had a vision of Dawn’s face staring up at me, hands clawing the ice, before my legs started to work again and I pulled us both to standing.
Cracks surrounded us, spreading crazily across the pond. Was it deep? No-one knew. There were rumours, taken as solid fact at school, that it was an old quarry pit and essentially bottomless. Two years ago, a boy from another school had drowned in it. Sometimes and adventurous kid would dive in and drag a bike from its shallows. Maybe it was all shallows. I recalled a film we’d watched at school about how it was possible to drown in six inches of water. A chunk of ice tore free from the rest of the pond and flipped over, some trapped bubble of foul-smelling air forcing it up. It was pretty thick. If that was the frozen stuff, there must, I reasoned in a mad instant, be loads more underneath.
“Come on,” said Dawn, grabbing my hand. “I’ve seen people do this, they spread their weight out and it doesn’t…” she yelped as her foot went into a freshly-opened crack. I pulled her back. Without saying anything else, we ran.
It wasn’t far to the edge of the pond. We collapsed at the edge of the water, laughter tinged with terror and relief. Peter stood nearby, angry beyond words, surely relieved too.
“That’s not funny! It’s not funny! I am telling!” he shouted. We didn’t stop laughing, and we didn’t get up.
“You’re going to be grounded,” Peter told Dawn on the walk back to our bikes. Dawn told him that she didn’t care. He turned to me. “And I don’t think I can be friends with you any more.”
“Oh, come on, Peter!” I said, suddenly worried. “I didn’t do anything! You can’t break friends because of this, that’s not fair.”
“Yeah, Pete, don’t be such a git,” Dawn punched him on the arm.
“Ow! DEAD ARM! OW!” Knowing I was in his bad books, I tried not to smile at this. Besides, I knew he would get his own back – his dead legs were legendary, as was his ‘paralyser’, a knuckle dug into the spine without warning that sent its victim to their knees. Dawn could handle that, she was always one step ahead in their unending cycle of petty revenge.
We found our bikes and rode home in more-or-less silence.
Peter and I stayed friends, for a while. When we went up to high school in September we were in different classes and slowly drifted apart. That meant I saw less and less of Dawn and, when boys and girls solidified into packs, eventually we slipped off each other’s radar completely. But we had a spring and summer that lasted seemingly forever, and memory is short when you’re a child.