Sixteen

Behind the door is a garden under snow. You take one step, two, sink; you come from somewhere warm, your footwear is not meant for this terrain. You turn back but the door is gone.

The lawn is long, with trees shaped like chess pieces. It belongs to a big house, you are sure, but the night and weather are closing in and you cannot see any building but a shed. You make for it, past a pawn or two.

Inside, two horses, shadow-dark. The other knight tosses over your burgonet. “We’ve been waiting,” he says. You make your move.

The game

Philip and Bill were brothers, sixteen and fifteen, skinny jeans and thick wool jumpers. Good friends, except at school, when the halls and locker rooms Phil inhabited were a world beyond Bill’s, one his high fives could not reach.

There was a game they played on the train home: Look, No Hands. They marked their victories on Phil’s bedroom wall, seven years of triumphs and crushing humiliations numbered in crayon and fountain pen. Bill was careful to ensure Phil never lost too many consecutive rounds. It was a fair handicap: Bill, after all, still had both his arms, thank God.

The memory game

Matilda’s grandmother often told her off. “You are forgetting yourself, my girl,” she would say, through lips pursed tight as though she had swallowed a lemon, although Matilda knew from asking around that this was an accident of birth and not of citrus.

Matilda could not fathom why her grandmother thought she had forgotten herself. She wished she could, especially her too-long arms and knobbly knees and fear of semolina, but she’d never been able to. She suspected her grandmother meant to say, “You are forgetting me”, but had become lost mid-sentence on account of her age, which was substantial.

The bumberleees’ game

There is a game the bumberleees play. It is not unlike hide and seek, except there is nobody doing the looking. The aim, as the older bumberleees explain to the younger bumberleees when they first take their turns, is to find a shoe to snuggle inside and stay in it as long as possible.

The bumberleees do not die. When their bodies are squashed – by, say, a human toe or the tip of a shoehorn – they immediately appear back in their burrow, as bouncy as ever, and whichever bumberleee hid the longest is greeted with cheers and cake and lemonade.

The hunt

Down the puddled lane she ran, bin liners knotted around her feet to keep her satin slippers dry. She was running through rain, not air. It felt like swimming. The dress was soaked into her skin. The ribbons were soaked into her hair.

The man on the horse kept his distance. But he was never out of sight – at every twist in the lane she looked back and saw him, unmoving at the corner before. It was no use wishing the die had not chosen her. She was in the game and all she could do was sink or swim.