The Footbridge
by Simon

"Hurry up, we'll be late. Come on."

"Johnny, this is a mistake. I'd really rather not do this. Can't we
just go home?"

"No we can't just go home. The girls will be waiting for us and it
would be bad form to not show up at all after saying that we would."

Hesitating, coming to a stop on the dark road, the young man pleaded
with his friend. "I'm really not ready for this. What will I say to
them? I've no idea of what to do. Are we supposed to hold their
hands? Oh, God. They won't expect us to kiss them, will they?"

Johnny stopped, turning back to look, laughing at his panicked
friend. "Horatio, for the love of God, you are incredible. How can
someone so intelligent be in such a pet over meeting a couple of
girls you've known all your life?"

"But this is different."

"How? Explain it to me."

"It's night. And now they're---girls. And it's the footbridge."

Still laughing, Johnny tried to control himself, not wanting to hurt
Horatio's feelings. "It's just Susan and Nancy. You've known them
forever. You don't have to do anything that you don't want to do.
Just talk to them. That's all."

"Oh, God. This will be a disaster, I just know that it will."

"Well, think that way and it will be."

Horatio again came to a dead stop on the path. "John, wait. Please.
Really, stop."

Turning around and taking a few steps back, John came face to face
with his friend. "Horatio, just calm down about this. It's not
anything. We're just seeing two old friends for a couple of hours."

Horatio was clearly on the edge of bolting. Embarrassed, he finally
managed to stammer out his concerns. "You don't understand. Johnny,
I've never---really talked to a girl. I've no"idea of what to say.
I'll make a fool of myself. I can't do this."

Speaking calmly and clearly, John tried to reassure him. "Of course
you can. We're not going to bed them, for God's sake. We're just
going to take them for a walk and chat them up and maybe, perhaps, if
we're lucky, get a good night kiss. That's all."

Horatio looked at him doubtfully.

"You've got to start somewhere, Raysh. You know them; they're bright
and funny. They're nice girls you've grown up with. They won't bite."

Looking scared to death, but resolved to not disappoint his
friend, "Don't leave me alone with one of them, all right?"

"Done. Now come on. You'll be fine." They crossed the village square,
passing on through the woods to the clearing by the stream. Over the
steam lay the footbridge in question. It was a warm night, pleasant.
The half moon was rising and the stars were just starting to become
visible. It was as perfect a setting as one could hope for.

They could hear the night sounds starting, the frogs and the
crickets. The water lapped softly about the bridge pilings as it ran
it's gentle course. Approaching the bridge itself, they weren't sure
at first if the twins had beaten them there or not"it was likely
about eight now, the time they'd agreed to meet.

Looking about the area, they seemed to be alone.

"They're not coming, Johnny. Let's just go home."

"Horatio, I swear, you're becoming tiresome about this. They will be
here. Why, in the name of God are you so upset about this? You're
acting the perfect fool."

"I'm not."

"You are." Johnny was starting to become genuinely annoyed with his
friend's attitude. He had gone to some effort to arrange meeting the
girls here and Horatio was acting as though he was facing the hangman.

Standing at the top of the small wooden bridge, leaning his arms
against the railing, Horatio tried to explain. "John, you don't
understand. I'm not like you."

"Raysh, you're not going to start that again, are you?"

"Hear me out." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "Everyone likes
you, you always know what to say to people, what to do. I'm not like
that. I always get tongue-tied and say the wrong thing and then I'm
either embarrassed or I've managed to anger someone. It always
happens."

"You're just shy. You'll get over that. You will." Always confident,
John truly had no idea of the agonies of self-consciousness that
plagued his friend.

Knowing that it was likely useless to convince John of his fears,
Horatio managed a wan smile. "I suppose that you're rightdo you
really think that they'll come?"

"Of course they will."

A pause as Horatio gathered the nerve to ask the question he'd been
wondering since he'd learned about this evening's adventure. "Which
one do you fancy, Johnny?"

"Nancy. They're both bright and pretty, but I think that Nancy is the
one I'll be setting my cap for."

Horatio saw the look on his friend's face. "Do you really like her
that much? I mean, do you think that you could become---serious about
her?"

For once, Johnny seemed to be completely earnest with his answer,
nodding, he replied, "Yes, I think that I could. She's"nice, if you
know what I mean."

"What about her sister? Won't that be a problem? Do you think that
they'd agree to being split up?"

"I could marry them both."

The look of horror on Horatio's face as he was about to splutter a
protest was in place when Johnny started laughing. "Raysh, you're the
most gullible person ever born, I swear."

Uncomfortable at being caught out once again by his friend, Horatio
tried to cover his discomfort by changing the subject. He was about
to speak when they both heard the girlish voices approaching the
bridge.

"Johnny! We weren't sure that you weren't just teasing us about
meeting you here tonight. We almost didn't come out here."

"You should have seen father when he asked where we were going at
this hour. He was fit to be tiedlucky for you two that Mama
intervened on both of your behalf's---she seems to think that you
both can be trusted, though Heaven knows why!"

"Though I've no idea where that thought of hers might have come from."

"Horatio! It's been ages and ages since you were about these parts
for more than a ten minute visit---are you back for good then?"

"Look at you standing there"you're taller than Johnny is now. Twice
as tall and half as wide, that's what it looks like to me!"

"All right, all right you two, that's enough"you'll have poor Horatio
here running back to that fancy school of his if you don't ease off
on him."

The four young people were, by now, all standing in the center of the
bridge, the girls having walked up to join the two lads at the top of
the gentle rise above the water.
Through the banter, Horatio noticed that Johnny had managed to sidle
up to Nancy, carefully standing next to her with a studied casualness
that was hard to miss. She didn't seem to mind. He also noticed that
the sisters seemed to exchange a look.

Susan was the next to speak. "Horatio, it's been so long since I've
seen you, I hope that you won't be too cross if I monopolize you for
the evening? I've always wanted to hear what a school like yours is
like. Nancy? You don't mind, do you? Shall we walk? It's so lovely
tonight."

"No, Sue, you two go ahead, I think that I'll just sit here for a
while, if that's all right with you. Johnny? Maybe you could keep me
company so I'm not frightened alone in the dark?"

Susan took Horatio's arm, leading him off the bridge and onto the
footpath through the neighboring woods. After about five minutes, she
stopped by a small pond formed by a fallen log across the little
river.

"You don't mind that I spirited you away, do you, Horatio? Nancy
wanted to be alone with Johnny and Father will never allow them
together. He thinks that they're both too young to be getting
serious."

Smiling, Horatio shook his head. He had thought that something like
this might happen. His being here was just an excuse for the other
two be spend some time without being found out. Well, that was fine.
He settled himself on the end of the log.

She could see his smile. "No, I'm not angry. I know that John is
sweet on your sister. It seems silly that they not be able to see
each other if they both want that. Nancy is sweet on him, too, then?"

Laughing, "Since they were ten years old, I fancy. I think that
they'll likely marry one of these days."

"Would you mind that? I've always heard that twins have a special
connection, more than just regular siblings."

Sitting beside him, Susan shrugged. "No, not so long as she was
happy. Besides, I'll marry, too, one day." She laughed
suddenly. "She'll just be married, Horatio, not dead, you know!" He
quietly laughed with her, and then became silent as his shyness took
hold of him again.

"Are you home for good now? Your school is finished for you, isn't
that right, you're done with the course?"

Unknowingly hitting a raw nerve, she was surprised when Horatio
answer was bitter. "Yes, I'm finished."

"What do you mean by that?" She wasn't laughing now and seemed to
actually want to know, looking into his face.

"I'm sorry, nothing."

"Yes you did"what is it?"

"I had hoped to go on to university. I was accepted, but I'll be
going into the Navy instead. Next week." She saw that this was
obviously the last thing in the world that he wanted to do. Seeing
some pity for him on her face he recoiled. "No, it's all right."

Under her breath she quietly said, "That sounds like you father's
doing."

"It will be fine." He seemed to be talking himself into believing
this.

She took his hand in hers. "Would you mind if I wrote you? I'd like
to, if you would agree to it."

He looked at her, smiling and nodding his head. "Yes, I think that
I'd like that." He looked down at their fingers laced together. In a
moment of boldness, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed the
back. He had never done such a thing and feared that she would be
angry with him.

Smiling quietly at him, she tilted her face just enough so that he
realized that they would fit together if he leaned forward. Throwing
caution to the winds, he did so, gently brushing his lips against
hers, their hands still clasped. Raising her free hand up to his
neck, she carefully held him right where she seemed to want him,
pressing her mouth to his again and then once more. He found that his
free hand was somehow about her shoulders, and that he liked what
they were doing very much, indeed.

He had, occasionally, though about what it might be like to kiss a
girl while he was lying in his cot in the dormitory, but he had never
realized that she would be warm and willing and that it would be
quite this"well, quite this pleasant. Somehow it had never occurred
to him that her lips might actually move under his, and that her
fingers would move in his hair, straying to his queue and playing
with it as though it were a clever toy. He had never thought about
what it would feel like to have her pressing against his chest, with
his heart beating so hard that he was certain she would be able to
both hear and feel it if she chose to try. And her leg, tight against
his. Good lord! He'd never thought about that, either.

This was amazing! And to think that he'd been scared to death, afraid
to come out here tonight. He'd never had such a perfect night, never
knew that such a wonder could be. This was happening and she wasn't
laughing at him, actually seemed to enjoy this and being with him.
Amazing.

Finally they pulled slightly away from each other, but only slightly.
Horatio looked at her, smiling slightly, but shy. There was, would
always be, a part of him waiting for the thoughtless cuts he had come
to half expect from people"well, everyone except Johnny, of course.

To his astonishment, it didn't come. Susan returned his smile and she
was the one who seemed shy.

"I hope you don't think that I do this with just anyone. I don't.
Honestly. I've " She trailed off, as though she thought he wouldn't
believe that she didn't make a habit of kissing every lad she came in
contact with.

"I don't think that. Any more than I think you believe that I do this
with every girl who I meet."

A quick bubble of laughter came from her. "But you'd like to, I'll
wager."

"Well, no, not every girl who I meet. Just some of them." He laughed
a bit with her at his admission.

Susan seemed reluctant, but went on. "The boys all like Nancy better
than they do me. She's so much more"I don't know. She's just more fun
to be with."

He looked down at their hands again, still joined; his arm was still
about her shoulder, holding them together. "It's the same with me and
Johnny. He always seems to know what to say to people. I always trip
over my own tongue"after I've tripped over my feet."

"I've wondered about you and Johnny."

"You have? What's to wonder about with us?"

"Well, " She hesitated, not wanting to hurt any feelings, "You two
are such good friends, but you're so completely different."

"Oh, that. I know. But we really just like each other. There's no one
I trust more, and nothing I can't say to him and I know that he feels
the same. I do understand what you mean, though. We are different,
and as we get older, we're less and less alike. But somehow we're
still friends. Even when I would be away at school for months at a
time, we would pick right up where we left off."

She thought about this for a moment, unable to really imagine being
separated from her twin. Even when they married, they would likely
remain close neighbors in the village, able to pop over for tea and a
gossip whenever they wanted.

"What will happen when you go into the Navy?"

"I suppose that it will be like when I was at school. We'll write and
we'll see each other when we can."

"You're lucky to have such a good friend."

He nodded in acknowledgement and agreement. He knew. He had always
known that he was lucky to have Johnny.

"But you have your sister. Every time I see you, you're together.
That would be nice, I would think"to know there's always someone
there. Someone who you don't really have to explain things to."

Susan nodded. "Yes, most of the time it is. Sometimes, though, I long
to not be half of a pair. SueandNan. It's like one word most of the
time."

He laughed. "And sometimes I wish that I had a brother or sister.
It's always seems everyone has it better than you do yourself."

"What will you miss when you leave here, Horatio?"

"Well, I've not really lived here since I was little, so it's not
like I'll be going away for the first time." The look on her face was
his first indication that he had said the wrong thing. "I mean, of
course, I'll miss Johnny and"some of the others."

"Some of the others?"

He laughed, joining her"she knew that she was being less than subtle.
His fingers rubbed her hand. "Yes, some of the others."

"Should we be getting back? We've been here for a while."

"No, not yet, but let's walk a bit. This is a pretty path."

"In the dark?" He was laughing.

"All right. You've caught me. I promised Nan that I'd give her at
least two hours, we've probably got another hour to pass." She looked
troubled. "Do you mind? I truly didn't mean to make you stay out here
with me if you wish to leave."

They were still holding hands, but now, in another bold move, he
tightened his arm about her.

"I don't mind." The admission was shyly said.

Her response was to press close to his side. "When you're in the
Navy, you'll likely travel all over, won't you?"

"Yes, I suppose so. I look forward to that part of it, actually,
seeing places I've read of. I've read that the water in the Indies is
as clear as glass and that when you look on the sea it's a thousand
different shades of blue and green."

She was silent as they walked along. Horatio wondered if he had
somehow angered or, more likely bored her. Finally she spoke,
hesitantly. "What does your father think about all this? You've only
been back less than a week and you're already going away again. Won't
he miss you?"

"No." Just the single word, flatly spoken, discouraging further
questions.

"I'm sorry, Horatio. You've always seemed to be so"nice. I've never
understood why you two dislike each other so."

He didn't answer.

"I've angered you. Please forgive me, it's really not my business."

"No, you haven't. We've just never really gotten on. I think that my
mother was the peacemaker between us and when she died, the peace
went, too."

"I remember her. When we were all five the crops had a bad year, not
enough rain, I think. Everyone had so little money, none to spare,
certainly. One day she showed up at our cottage with two dresses that
she'd made for Nan and me. They were lovely, I can still picture
them. When my mother asked her what on earth they were for, she said
that she longed to make pretty frocks for little girls and that since
she didn't have one of her own, she had decided to make them for us.
She did it in such a way to make it seem that we were doing her the
favor by accepting them, not the other way round."

"Yes, that was the sort of thing that she would do." He seemed so
proud of her, of her kindness.

"You remind me of her, you look a lot like her. Especially her eyes.
I remember that she had the most beautiful eyes." She realized that
he had gone silent. "I'm sorry. I'm making you uncomfortable talking
about her, aren't I?"

He spoke quietly. "I don't think that I've ever spoken of her since
she died. My father won't have her mentioned in the house and no one
else will bring her up, either. I just remember that one day she was
there and then she wasn't. And then I was sent to school."

They continued to walk along, each with their own thoughts. Finally,
Susan broke the silence.

"I wish that you'd been here more when we were growing up. I think
that we would have been good friends."

He looked at her, his hand gently grasping her waist again,
still. "I don't think it's too late. We can write, and I will be
back now and then. I know that it's not the same as living here, but"

Suddenly she stopped, turning to face him, sliding both her hands
about him, pulling them close together. "No, it's not too late, and
you're not leaving for a week and we can write."

He leaned down to kiss her, his arms encircling her back. "Yes", then
he kissed her again.

They stayed like that for a few minutes, feeling the unaccustomed
warmth of another body next to their own. For Horatio, it was a first
and he was enraptured by the feelings it encouraged in him, and a
little frightened.

Finally they broke part. "We should be getting back, they'll wonder
what's become of us."

Susan laughed. "They'll not even notice that we're not there, but
it's getting late, our parents will worry."

Hand in hand they made their way the fifteen minutes or so back to
the footbridge. Standing where they had left then at the top of the
structure were Johnny and Nancy, their arms about each other's waists.

Nancy saw them first. "So there you are. We were about to send the
dogs after you. Everything alright?"

Susan's reply was calm. "Yes, fine, thank you. We should be off."

The two couples made their way to the village square in silence,
hands held, separated by about twenty feet, each pair alone.

"We'll walk you to your cottage. It's late."

"Thank you, Johnny, that would be a good idea. Father will be angry
if he thinks you two just abandoned us to the footpads."

They walked slowly the half-mile or so to the Belamore farmhouse.
There were lights on inside, obviously parents waiting up for the
girls.

Stopping at the gate while Johnny and Nancy proceeded to the porch,
Horatio and Susan exchanged another embrace. "Might you be able to
come out again tomorrow? The same as tonight?"

"Would you like that, Horatio?" She was smiling at him, knowing full
well his answer.

He nodded, smiling back at her. "Eight? The footbridge?" She ducked
her head, her pleasure obvious.

They heard the front door of the house open; saw the rectangle of
light spill into the yard. "Girls? Come in now. It's late, do you
hear me?"

"Yes, Father." They saw Nancy break away from John, head into the
house.

"I have to go. Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow. Sleep well." Suddenly shy again, he kissed her cheek
before she pulled away to join her sister inside.

A moment later Johnny was beside him and they were on their way back
to the Best's farm, a mile down the road. Horatio would stay there
tonight.

They walked in silence, entering the house silently so as to not wake
anyone. After a quick wash and changing into nightshirts they climbed
into the large bed John was lucky enough to have in his room,

"So, that wasn't so bad now, was it?"

"No, you were right. It was fine. We're meeting them again tomorrow
night."

After a pause for stunned silence he heard the evenings final
remark. "Why, Raysh, I'm proud of you!"