Cinammon Drops and Violet Wine

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John strolled into the woods like he was there on business. The best way to get away with something was to pretend you were supposed to be doing it, his friend Kenneth had once told him, before demonstrating. He’d walked into church through the back door, touched his cap to a couple of choir boys while heading straight for the alter, reached under it and pulled out a square bottle and two candles, and walked back out with them under his arm. Nobody had said a word.
Still, what business could a chandler’s son possibly have in the forest? Coal had replaced wood in most peoples’ hearths, and any herbs and berries they wanted could be far more easily found at market. It was too cold out today for children to want to play here. The clouds where so low that clumps of them seemed to snag on the highest branches.
At least the grey weather meant fewer eyes to see him. On the way here he’d only met two or three people, all too eager to get back indoors to do more than nod at him.
He hoped she would be there. If she wasn’t, he’d have come for nothing. But he’d checked, going past her house, and her window had been unlit. If she’d had to cancel their meeting, she would have left a candle there to tell him so.
A fat drop hit his head, shocking him into the present. He wondered how old was too old for these sorts of games.
“John!”
The thought evaporated. Darcy was curled up in their hiding spot under the path, a hollow between two trees that had fused together further up. As he approached, she unfolded her legs and turned so that he could squeeze in next to her. She was wearing her brother’s old clothes. It struck him that she looked more feminine in these than she did in the grand, frilly dresses she usually wore.
“I thought you might not come,” she said.
“I thought you might not come.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because ladies are supposed to mind the rain?” he grinned, then gasped as she elbowed him in the ribs.
“I’m only thirteen. Not a real lady yet.”
“I can’t see you ever becoming one, to be honest. You look more at home in those clothes than most men.” He managed to block her elbow with his hand this time, and took the opportunity to poke her until she squealed.
“Hush! What if we’re found?”
“If we are, it’ll be your fault for tickling me!”
She was right, tempting though it was. He poked again and hit something soft.
“OUCH! John, that really hurt!”
That wasn’t there before, he thought, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks. “Sorry. I’ll stop.”
They were silent for a moment. It was different from the comfortable silence that often occurred between them. It didn’t exactly feel like the hard, cold silence after a fight, either, although it was closer to that. This silence felt hot and awkward.
The rain started in earnest. They pulled their legs to their chests, arms around them. John felt the tiny hairs on her arm tickle the tiny hairs on his arm, and scratched, moving away from her slightly.
“Did you bring anything?” she asked.
“Oh! I did.” He fished a small bag of cinnamon drops out of his pocket. “Your favourite.” She squealed her delight, though she was careful to keep the squeal quiet. “Did you bring anything?” he asked.
She raised a finger the way the pastor did when he was telling them to be patient, picked out the smallest cinnamon drop, and popped it in her mouth. John sniggered. Then she reached around to her side and pulled out a tea towel and a small bottle of something blackish-purple and probably forbidden.
“What’s that?”
“I don’t know,” she said, unwravelling the tea towel to reveal the squashed remains of two pieces of lemon sponge cake. “Father drinks it. I tasted it, it tastes of really nice violet cordial.”
He popped the cork on it and sniffed. “This is violet wine, I think,” he said. “Though I’ve seen violet wine, and it’s not usually this black. Are you sure we should be drinking this? Won’t your father notice?”
“Father never notices anything these days,” Darcy said. “If he does, I’ll just tell him he should never have left it out.”
John looked sideways at her. Darcy had always been more adventurous than him, but she’d never talked badly of her parents before. He’d never heard anybody talk about their family like that.
He handed it back to her. “Ladies first, then.”
Darcy scowled at him, but took it. She tilted the bottle towards the light. John thought he could see the sugar in it swirling. Then she lifted it to him, the way adults drank to your health, and took a big gulp.
John had to catch the bottle as Darcy nearly dropped it in her coughing fit. He spilled a little on his trousers before managing to steady and cork the bottle, laughing.
“You’re mad, Darcy Sullivan!” he giggled, hitting her between the shoulder blades. She smacked his hand away. “Here.” He’d brought a flask of water as well, in case she’d had nothing more interesting. She downed nearly all of it.”I thought you’d tried it already?”
“I did,” she said, finally getting her breath back. “Just a little bit, though.”
“Then why did you take such a huge gulp?”
“I didn’t expect it to be so strong!” She coughed again. “It burned my throat.”
“Alcohol does that,” he said. “My dad let me try his gin once. Horrible stuff.”
“Go on then if you know better, it’s your turn.”
“I know better than to drink it all in one gulp like that!”
“Do it, then.”
He uncorked the bottle and sniffed it again. Then he carefully put it to his lips and tasted a bit. His eyes widened. “It’s really nice!” He took a bigger sip.
“Don’t drink all of it!”
“So says the girl who emptied half the bottle in one go,” he teased. “Besides, you said your dad wouldn’t miss it.”
“No, but I will!”
“Are you sure? We don’t want you choking again – careful!” He just about managed to avoid spilling it again. He was sure that nudge would leave a bruise on his ribs.
He gave it back to her and they took turns sipping it, eating the cake and cinnamon drops in between and giggling louder and louder over the rain. John’s feet were wet, but he didn’t care.
“Goddamnit’,” Darcy said, imitating John’s accent, and John giggled at the blasphemy. “I need t’go to t’ privy.” He giggled even more, and she joined in. “Stop making me laugh, John, or I’ll wet myself in our hide-out!”
“Oh no you don’t, get out!”
“But it’s raining!”
“You’ll have to be quick, then.”
“Just let me wait it out a bit, then we’ll go home.”
His heart sank. “Just go in the bushes like when we were little,” he said.
She twisted her mouth. He noticed that her cheeks were red, but she didn’t seem to be blushing. His dad had red cheeks after a drink or two, he remembered.
“You can’t go back with those red cheeks anyway,” he said. “They’ll know you’ve drunk your dad’s alcohol. You’re drunk, Darcy!”
She glared at him, then laughed. “You ought to see your own cheeks. You’re at least as drunk as me!”
He raised his hands to his cheeks, and she copied him. They were surprisingly hot against his cold hands. “You’re drunker than me, I bet,” he said, cupping her cheeks too.
“Am not!” To prove her point, she reached up and held his cheeks too. “Oh. Yes I am.”
They giggled again, holding each other’s faces, and this time they couldn’t stop. Laughter born in their guts shook itself free, weakening their limbs until, unable to stay upright, their foreheads touched and they leaned on each other.
Finally, they stopped, still holding each other’s faces.
“John?”
“Mm?”
“Do you love me?”
What?
She looked at him. Their faces were too close, and she looked a little cross-eyed. He felt like laughing again, but didn’t, dropping his hands instead.
“Well?”
“I don’t know,” John said. “Kenneth told me that if you love a girl, you have to kiss her.”
“That’s not it,” Darcy said. “Kieran told me that you can tell if somebody loves you from the way he kisses you.”
“How?”
Darcy sat back and twisted her mouth. “I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose we might know if we tried. Do you want to kiss me?” She looked straight at him. He’d never noticed how deep and rich the brown of her eyes was.
“Sure, I suppose so,” he said. He could feel his heart beating as though he’d been running. He wondered how you went about kissing someone you loved. He hadn’t seen it done very often.
“We need to close our eyes,” Darcy said. She obviously knew better than he did. He obeyed and leaned forward.
“Ow!”
He opened his eyes and saw Darcy rubbing her forehead through stars.
“Are you sure we have to close our eyes?” he asked, gingerly checking for bumps.
“Yes! I’ve seen my brother do it, and they closed their eyes.”
“Didn’t they bang heads?”
“No! You’re just no good at it, I bet.”
He glared at her. “You’re the one who’s no good at it! I bet they cheat, anyway. How can you close your eyes and aim at the same time?”
She scowled, but then seemed to consider. “Well, they were touching each other’s faces,” she said.
“Like we were just now?”
“Sort of,” she said, and lifted a hand to his cheek, caressing it.
Heat shot across his skin and her eyes widened at the look on his face. He leaned forward and, hesitating for just an instant, placed his mouth on hers. The same heat blossomed where their lips touched, unfurling, spreading everywhere. He was suddenly aware of every place where his body touched her’s – her hand on his cheek, his arm behind her back, her leg curled under his. It felt like someone had lit a candle in his head and shown him a whole universe of new sensations. It felt like heaven.
How long the kiss lasted, he couldn’t say, but before it finished her hand moved to the back of his neck and into his hair, and her other hand was around his waist, pulling him closer. They finally broke apart, flushed and breathless, staring into each other’s eyes, amazed at their new discovery.
Then Darcy gasped and jumped back. It was only then that John realised that his hands, too, had been pulling her closer to him, and as she pushed them away he felt a terrible sense of loss.
“What?” he asked.
She shook her head, even redder than before, and wouldn’t look at him.
An awful doubt came to him. “Did I do it wrong?”
She glanced at him, then down, and shook her head again.
“Then what is it?”
Curling away, careful not to touch him, she said, “I think we’re being sinful.”
He laughed, then stopped at the hurt in her eyes. “It didn’t feel sinful to me,” he said.
“But gluttony is a sin, and it always feels good,” she said. “This feels even better than gluttony, so it must be a sin.”
John was stumped. After a while he came up with, “But don’t adults do it all the time?”
She lifted her hands and stared at them as though wondering if they were really hers. “I think maybe we did do it wrong,” she said finally. “I don’t think adults do it like that. They must do something else. Or maybe that’s what married people do.”
John said nothing. The hot, happy feeling was entirely gone now. Even he knew that ladies from good families did not marry chandler’s sons.
“I think I do love you,” he said quietly. “And I think you love me, too. I think that’s why it felt so nice. Not because it’s a sin.”
Darcy didn’t reply. Instead she stood up, wobbling a little, and scooped up the empty tea towel and bottle. John followed suit. Dizziness nearly toppled him as he stood, and he had to lean on the tree trunk. He felt a bit sick as they started back.
“It was a silly idea,” Darcy said. “We shouldn’t do it any more.”
John nodded, too unhappy to speak. Before they left the forest, he threw up on the edge of the path.

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