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14 An idea of fun

waspSteph had come with them to the forest one year and ended up absolutely hating it. Phobic of wasps and spiders, she seemed to attract them wherever she went. Eating outside with her on the rickety, light, fold-up tables in the warm twilit evenings had been a nightmare because she’d started to scream every time a wasp got near her or the food. Once Elisha had clapped her hand over her mouth to stop her squealing. She could tell that, although her father was at first amused by Steph, he was by then getting a little impatient, especially with the screaming.

‘Stop waving your arms around. You’ll just antagonise it,’ warned Elisha, shaking her head at her dad who was rolling his eyes at all the drama.

‘I hate it here, I hate it,’ moaned Steph, through Elisha’s fingers. The wasp dive-bombed her again so that she panicked, tore her friend’s hand away, let out a high-pitched scream and ran back inside the green inner tent, zipping it up behind her.

The Goodmans all looked at each other and laughed for a minute before Elisha’s mum went in with a jam tart and some instant custard to cheer Steph up. Then it was quiet except for the sounds of the dusk — a low, reassuring humming, or maybe more like a ticking, like the forest breathing. Her dad said it was the sound of all the grasshoppers rubbing their back-legs together but Elisha thought that unlikely.

toilet-tentThey were camped quite a distance from any facilities so her dad had put up their own toilet tent. He always used to muck about and walk around inside it so that the tent looked like it was moving by itself. It had made both girls dizzy and breathless with laughter earlier, especially when he made funny sounds too so the tent seemed to walk and talk by itself. He was almost as good as the cut-price aliens on kids’ TV shows. This time he made it walk a little too far and stumbled into a ditch, nearly toppling into a load of gorse bushes before the girls ran over and righted him.

Unfortunately, the diet of instant food wasn’t what Steph was used to; and she’d had to go to the loo in the middle of the night. This was a bit of a palaver, especially as it was raining. It was always raining if you needed to go in the middle of the night — it was like an unwritten camping law. Like one of the house laws was that, as soon as you turned the light off and left a room, you immediately needed to go back in and find something tiny on the table in the dark.

The sound of the rain drumming steadily on the canvas made Elisha feel protected, all cosy and safe as she snuggled deep into her electric-blue sleeping bag with the neon-orange interior. The colours meant that it even looked warm.

It could be pitch black in the forest at night, a solid darkness you never got in town, with all the streetlights and cars and stuff. When she’d first experienced it, Elisha had found it spooky. But now she relished it. Breathing cool night air redolent of grass and trees and heather and mist — damp and fresh and earthy. Opening your eyes and not being able to see a thing. Sometimes she felt like her camp-bed was floating on a river … But Steph was still at the spooked-out stage and insisted on having a light on in the outer tent.

She heard her friend fumbling around for a torch and bumping into things, swearing under her breath, but just ignored it and tried to go back to sleep. Steph had to put on wellies, grumbling the whole time. And, once outside, Elisha heard her trip over a guy rope and yelp. Elisha had to stifle a giggle. Poor Steph.

But this was nothing compared to the ear-splitting, banshee-like scream that came from the toilet tent two minutes later. Her dad was up in seconds and out of the tent flap with a torch. She and her mum pushed themselves up on their elbows in their camp-beds, wondering what on earth could have happened now. Steph stumbled back in, mumbling something incoherent as she struggled out of Elisha’s yellow wellies and almost fell onto her bed, with such force and so unevenly it nearly collapsed under her. Elisha had tried to explain that you had to be gentle and careful with a camp bed. If you plonked yourself down on one end, the bed would catapult up into you.

‘What was it, hon?’ her mum asked, as her father strode in.

‘There was a hornet by the light in there,’ he explained. ‘And then a spider landed in her hair.’

‘Oh, poor Steph,’ said Elisha, looking across at her friend in sympathy and feeling rather guilty for having laughed. An encounter with a hornet and a spider would have made her scream too.

‘I’ll heat some milk for hot chocolate,’ her mum suggested, getting out of bed and pulling a long, ruby-coloured, woolly cardigan round her. Her dad got a carton of long-life semi-skimmed milk out of the cooler bag and started to shake it.

‘Oh goodie.’ Elisha went over to her friend. ‘It’s all right, Steph.’ She found the little red torch lighting up a long triangle of tartan blanket and switched it off.

Steph sat up and groaned. ‘I want to go home tomorrow. I don’t like camping.’

Elisha glanced anxiously at her father as he raised his eyebrows in exasperation. He was lighting a calor gas lamp to supplement the small one they were keeping on through the night for Steph.

‘It’ll be better tomorrow, you’ll see. It’s not going to rain tomorrow.’ She hugged her friend, stroking her hair over and over to comfort her, like her mum sometimes did for her when she was upset. ‘And we’re going to have hot chocolate now.’

‘I can’t stand it here another day,’ wailed Steph miserably. ‘It’s horrible. I don’t know how you could even call it a holiday.’

So it seemed camping wasn’t everyone’s idea of fun.