In Howl Woods

Everything smelled of grass. The bottom of her sleeping bag, her hair, all of her clothes, even the stuff she hadn’t unpacked. It was everywhere. At least twice in the night she’d climbed over girls’ bodies on her way to the outside toilet, and had awoken that morning with her eyes crusty and an ache in her neck and left shoulder. She brushed down her combat shorts and stood up in the tent’s doorway. And stretched. Imitating the nonchalance of the others, whom she supposed probably felt similar discomfort, she coped.

The Brownies had spent their first night in Howl Woods. Daisy was in the Fox Group with the likes of Hannah Crosby and Georgina Matlock, who had been appointed leaders on account of being older. Daisy knew they’d been going through her stuff, but she’d said nothing. She was too young to have her complaints taken seriously.

Wiping her nose on her yellow jumper, she stood with the other girls as they waited for Brown Owl to fasten the flag to the pole and begin the morning meeting. Overgrown shrubs marked the end of the field, and that’s where tents were. They were small – both from a distance, and considering the number of other girls who’d slept together inside them. Daisy’s was second from the left. From her place in the circle, she saw that its entrance hadn’t been closed properly. A waterproof coat lay on the damp, trampled turf just outside the doorway, fluttering against the old white canvas flap. She thought of her dear grandma, who tended to spend the end-of-summer weeks casually swatting flies and humming songs while the radio in the corner of her kitchen played soft voices. The smell of baking, the cat’s curiosity. Daisy just wanted to sit there with her grandma, eat her cupcakes and talk about school. She didn’t want to be in Howl Woods with mean people. The coat was her grandma’s.

The wind side-parted Daisy’s hair as Brown Owl barked announcements. Two supervisors shared what was clearly an adult joke, their cold laughter making them appear less approachable. One of them tied her streaky blonde hair back tight and looked Daisy right in the eye.

Daisy straightened her posture so she wouldn’t be picked on. Over the other side of the circle she saw Mary and Annie whispering and smiling, and tried to make eye contact with them so they’d feel like she was also in on whatever they were in on.

“After breakfast you’ll be going orienteering in your groups,” Brown Owl said. “So I hope you’ve already washed.”

Daisy hadn’t. Behind her, Hannah’s mother pulled up her blue trousers upon exiting the toilet tent. The sun broke through the thin clouds, lighting up the field. Daisy stood up straighter.

Brown Owl smirked. “In these conditions, you shouldn’t have any trouble at all,” she said. “It’s a perfect day.”

The sun disappeared and the wind returned before Brown Owl finished her sentence. Mary looked over at Daisy and smiled. They lost eye contact when Annie said something to Mary, and in that moment, Daisy understood that Mary didn’t know how unhappy she was to be there. She wished Mary and Annie hadn’t been so lucky as to be placed in the same tent. She wanted Brown Owl to pick on them for talking. Daisy recalled how, whenever the three of them walked home from school, Mary and Annie walked together, in front of her, down the narrow bit of the path that wasn’t wide enough to fit three people. Every afternoon. Like it was a given. It was never the other way around. She recalled one time Mary and Annie walked home without her after she had to stay behind in French. They hadn’t even waited five minutes for her. She recalled how Mary and Annie shared a desk in Maths, which also went unquestioned. She wanted these things to change when they got back.

Brown Owl said there was one more matter that needed to be raised with the group that morning.

“I think someone misplaced something last night or this morning,” Brown Owl said.

Rotating so that everyone could see, Brown Owl presented a pair of knickers.

“Does anyone recognise these?” she said.

A few girls laughed. No one confessed to owning them. The supervisors scanned the circle for signs of guilt, but everyone looked puzzled. Squinting, Daisy saw the knickers were striped red. She thought that they looked like hers, before it dawned on her that they were hers. Fear spread through her small body, like some disease.

“Nobody?” Brown Owl said. “At all? Come on.”

Silence fell over the circle. The wind stopped. The sun illuminated Daisy’s blushes when it came out again.

“We can’t start the day until somebody steps forward. Can the owner of these please stop wasting our time,” Brown Owl said.

Daisy realised that Hannah and Georgina must have gone through her stuff. She kept all her dirty underwear in a plastic bag, which they must have found in the side pocket.

“It must be one of you.” Brown Owl said. “Come on.”

She turned the knickers inside out, revealing a dirty mark on the gusset.

“Oh my god,” said Hannah, covering her mouth.

Mary looked at Daisy. She knew. Most of the circle adopted various expressions of revulsion. The two supervisors snorted. Brown Owl paraded the knickers around the middle of the circle, and Daisy tried to react like the other girls, feigning disgust and shaking her head. She willed the moment to pass. She could feel that Annie was staring at her.

Brown Owl stopped to examine the knickers. Brown Owl fingered the label, and then turned to the group.

“Daisy Meredith,” she said above all the sickened cries, holding the knickers aloft. “Thank goodness your mother wrote your name on the label.”

Some time later, way after Brownies, Mary, and Howl Woods, Daisy said: “I spent the rest of that weekend in the tent, and cried for about a month when I got home. Honestly!”

The guy next to her smiled vacantly. It was the wrong type of smile, she felt, for that particular moment.

“It was awful. I’d brought this photo of my family with me to camp. I cuddled it every night in that tent.” Daisy went on.

He laughed. There was more to it, but she couldn’t find the words, and he wasn’t really listening. After a while, a different guy got up off the sofa and asked if anyone wanted any snacks from the shop, and that was that.


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