Chapter 1

The historical moment caught Olga alone on the dark shores of the sludge pit. The lake stretched all the way up to the suburbs. Fireworks were bouncing off its surface like varnish off a car hood. Classic example of something other people loved that held absolutely no appeal for her. Every time she gave fireworks a chance, she may as well not have bothered. This last assertion being an answer not just to fireworks but anything mainstream. Like fizzy juice, or hip hop from Poznań.

The historical moment gripped hard. In its clutches, teenage pathos and private elation coalesced into a feeling that (in the future, but not yet) Olga would recognize as happiness. She squeezed her chest and tensed her legs a bit like when trying to cum. That’s what Wabbit from Valkyrie taught her about orgasms: be prepared. Coincidentally, this was also the Scout motto.

A purple pompon burst over the water. May there be peace and abundance, agricultural donations, Easter breaks in foreign capitals, fireworks both bigger and brighter. Not that any of this would affect Olga directly, but the symbolic changes added up to nothing short of a seismic shift, straight from the geography workbook. A glacier pushing the wetlands with its brow, crumpling land masses like a viscose blouse in the wash. Just like yeast cake triumphantly rising out of its form, so will the nation reach new heights of European belonging, basking in the sun of Western validation.

Olga had been standing on the sludge pit shore for some time now, musing on all this and reminding herself of the important distinction between a metaphor and a simile. Some time – long enough for someone to worry about her? But Mama and Ziutek were across the lake, and troop leader Buzzard, although technically more proximal, had her own sixteen-year-old priorities. She and her suspiciously hot new boyfriend Relax were impossible to prise apart. If anyone attempted, drool would inevitably splatter. Plastered with hickeys, Buzzard might just pop by the Wolves’ tent later on to check if anyone is still out and about. That anyone being of course Goblin. And whoever else he was hanging out with that night.

Nearby thoughts replaced distant ones. Olga spun like a planet round its own axis – only faster – and headed back to camp. There was still a degree of flow on the pitch. Girls bustling in and out of the cold washroom like schools of fish. Boys doing such things as they do when they are left alone, most likely neglecting to wash their hands after taking a piss.

Indeed, the lads from Challenge stood around the fire, putting it out in an age-old penis-wielding ritual.

‘Hey Moomin, give us a hand!’ shrieked Noodles, a bespectacled blond who for some reason always reminded her of Nietzsche. Or Goethe. Or another demented Germanic tragic.

‘Maybe next time,’ she said. Probably too quiet for them to hear, which seemed to be a recurring problem. Anyway, the lads were plenty occupied with themselves. She made a beeline for the tent, scuttling past the guard booth in case Gel felt inspired to wrestle her into the dirt again.

Grey Wolves’ tent was up by the moorings, second from the left between Valkyrie and Challenge. Olga slinked in through the heavy tarpaulin entrance. There seemed to be a stir of sorts, with everyone animated and Karolina in the throes of her particular brand of laughter which habitually brought her to the point of tears.

Olga and Karolina had known of each other since nursery, but back then it had only been on ‘hello’ terms. They each had different best friends then, girls who swiftly receded into history thereafter. Their only link was Cheese, whose parents were friends with Olga’s parents. The friendship revolved mostly around Cheese’s parents’ allotment and their homemade plum wine, but extended to other things like having the kids learn to ride a bike together. Since Karolina was in Cheese’s nursery group and lived on the same block as Olga, she was naturally within her orbit of perception. But Olga never felt quite up to letting herself get drawn into the strong gravity field of that mirthful girl with pronounced cheeks and two bouncy chocolate plaits.

That is until the day they found themselves in the same primary class, all three of them together. They were standing on the huge court outside the school, licks of sun on the ground vying for power with the darkness of poured asphalt. Cheese’s long-lashed eyes closing in on Karolina, who was doubling up with laughter at something nobody else could quite grasp. Olga took in Cheese’s lower lip, twitching slightly as he reached to exert the minimum push that would be needed to topple Karolina’s already hazardous stance, and it was in that moment that she decided she would not, could not stand for this. And that the other girl surely would welcome her intervention, whether she liked and wanted anything to do with her after, or not. Turned out she did, giving rise to a new pattern of movement and behaviour that had the entire neighbourhood either coo over how ‘inseparable’ they were, or simply take them into account for all and any plans as a duo.

And so, what began as an offer of protection turned into something rather long lasting. Truth be told, Karolina came in Olga’s defence just as often, though in other ways. Like whenever Olga wasn’t quick enough to answer, or couldn’t think of what to say. But it was absolutely best when they were alone together. They just got each other, and that was the end of the story.

Pushing through the general cheer filling the tent, Olga looked to Croaker in an attempt to make sense of what was going on. He was full-on grinning, which with Croaker was usually code for extreme discomfort. The manic twinkle in his watery-blue eye a further indication that things were indeed not good. He knew the others were going too far, and yet would not do anything about it.

Croaker seemed perpetually torn between allowing to himself to get implicated in things like a normal fifteen-year-old and not wanting to shirk responsibility. He was the patrol leader after all. In five years, he would probably go on to study law, or something along these lines. Something where he could get paid for feeling conflicted.

Olga slid into her sleeping bag with a rustle that made her think of crisps – which she did not like, but always ate on these trips anyway. The chuckling continued, breaking out alternately in different corners of the tent. A torch light shone through the entrance. Buzzard poked her head inside. After a quick headcount, she stretched her face in a competent smile.

‘Sleep tight Wolves, do me a favour and behave, would you. Morning drill 8am tomorrow. Twenty push ups to anyone who is late.’

‘Buzzard, Buzzie, Bazookie! Tell us a bedtime story, Buzzlady,’ said Croaker.

‘Just look at her, no chance. She can’t wait to get back to her new boyfriend.’ If you were out looking for a statement to cringe at, Rajek was always your likeliest bet. He was almost loved for it. The line between bullied and loved can be very thin, in truth.

‘Don’t be jealous Rajek. Goodnight, boys! Karolina, Moomin, Sońka – sweet dreams! Oh, I haven’t noticed Sońka’s asleep already. Quiet my angels, quiet.’

Once Buzzard left, everyone fell silent for maybe a minute. Karolina groaned quietly. Her period was always so much more intense than Olga’s. Not to mention that of course she had got it ages before. She was officially considered dateable while Olga was still waiting, helpless with a body like a pine shelving unit and clumps of hair under her armpits. She’d got her period by now, sure, but the whole thing was anticlimactic to say the least.

‘Karolina, do you want some mint tea?’ Karolina’s nickname was ‘Grimer’ but Olga never called her it to her face. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why. Perhaps in solidarity against guys. Or perhaps because Grimer was such a gross pokemon and Karolina was getting more and more beautiful by the day.

‘Thanks Moomin, thanks. I think I’ll manage…’

‘Be brave, Grimer!’ Croaker chided in an exaggerated wail. Cheese joined him in an unmistakeably pornlike moan. Karolina snapped and erupted with laughter. She shook and choked, hilarity her only answer to the more or less insincere sighs of exasperation coming from around the tent.

‘Shut up Grimer, or it’s going to be a super zoom situation…’ that was Goblin, the undeniable ringleader, shaman and mascot of the group. Only yesterday he rubbed bleach into his gums to impress one of the older girls, Leftie. It was impossible to predict what he would do next. Always going about threatening to ram logs into people’s arseholes. Well, mainly Karolina’s. He would be the group clown if he wasn’t fucking terrifying. People laughed and feared all at once, snapping pictures of Goblin belting out Moldovan Euro disco from the watchtower naked while they all stood to attention in front of a visiting commandant. In formation with the troop, Olga likewise looked on, taking in the muscles on his back, toned for how skinny he was. The cascade of hair that streamed down it. His eyes when he turned to look, slightly at an angle and the colour that Olga imagined Siberian lakes must be. Those nostrils he liked to flare so much (he always looked ugly in photos). And as the bible says, she kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. In the truest depths of this gruesome organ, she had been fancying Goblin for years. Worse than fancying. Every notebook of her diary ended with a massive pencil graffiti, I love Goblin. Olga bore her affection as a veil of shame, a sacrifice at the altar of the absurdity of love. When her friends complained about the latest fucked up thing he did, she nodded along, hoping her ridiculous secret wouldn’t come out. That said, Goblin was actually quite popular with girls, especially the older ones. And so, Olga envied, sighed, journaled and shamed herself, in the absence of anyone else to do that for her.

To the extent that this was possible lying down, Karolina was doubling down in hysterical laughter. She looked like a caterpillar in a nylon cocoon.

‘Oh Grimer, now you’ve really got it coming… just you wait…’ Goblin extricated himself from his sleeping bag, awkward and grunting but still unfathomably cute. His long hair hang loose and virginal in the night light. Before Olga could react, Goblin bounded across the tent. The temperature in the tent rose by a few degrees. He straddled Karolina’s cot. Sońka, definitely not asleep, dove into her sleeping bag. Karolina’s laugh turned seamlessly into a shriek, echoed by everyone on the girls’ side of the tent.

‘Super zoom!!!’ roared Goblin, expertly reaching for the fly of his trousers. Dutch camo. Best pattern. Right in Karolina’s face. Olga had already taken her glasses off so couldn’t quite see what he took out of his fly but of course she knew. She wasn’t naïve, besides she could basically smell the collective horror and fascination all around her. Cheese flashed a torch over the thing, lending the scene a chiaroscuro effect. Olga knew she must run to Karolina’s rescue but felt suspended in a strange sense of timeless reluctance. She didn’t much fancy getting close to Goblin’s theatrically lit beige roll. If they ever have sex, then she’ll see it. But for now, it’s not meant for her.

‘Leave her alone, you pervert!’ a somewhat ineffectual shout issued from her own mouth. After a few long seconds, Karolina managed to push Goblin off the cot. The whole tent was trembling with no one quite knew anymore what.

 ‘Want a super zoom too, Moomin…? But I can’t do that to you… you’re too sweet.’ Olga swallowed the insult. Karolina was whimpering in disgust. Goblin retreated over to his side of the tent, scoring a hi-five from Rajek and Cheese en route. The younger boys continued to pretend to be asleep. A minute passed. More muffled whispers and sniggers came from the guys’ side of the tent.

‘Just shut up already! Some of us want to sleep.’

‘Calm down Grimer, we all know you’re on your period,’ said Rajek.

‘Idiot.’

‘What’s that Grimer? Am I hearing you want another super zoom?’

‘Fuck off, Goblin.’

‘If you ask nicely I’m going to give you a real close up…’

Goblin was already halfway out of his sleeping bag. Karolina just about managed to pull the blanket over her face. Olga was feeling left out again.

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