The worms curl up in a wriggly ball, winding round and round in a slimy caress, their bodies uniting into one great mass.
I gaze down at them wondering if they sense the mutilation ahead, when Melissa’s muddy hands reach in, ripping them apart like spaghetti. One of them clings on desperately but Melissa tears it off and throws it my way. “Hook it,” she says. Then pierces her own.
I watch, quietly, as her grubby fat fingers force the wire up and up and up through the worm as it twists and turns in despair. The wire acts as a stiff backbone for the top half of the creature while the remainder of its body bends and curves helplessly in mid-air. Melissa holds it up to the light, grinning, her sweat- soaked Medusa curls coiling round the edge of her face.
“Got ya,” she says.
The rest of the gang crane forward as my twin brother John makes a grab for the hook. “Let me have a go,” he says, reaching up. “My turn.”
He glances at her, appealingly, silver-blue eyes shimmering. My stomach lurches. It’s a look that works wonders with grown-ups. But Melissa pushes him away. “No chance,” she snarls. “You’re in charge of worm collection. She’s doing the rest.”
She nods over to where I am crouched studying the worm in front of me. I glance back at my brother who is now wrestling with the first angry spit of tears. I shrug. The worm she has thrown my way is on a mission, lifting its head in the air, before scrunching up and pushing forward, seeking the safety of its slimy companions.
“Surely,” I hear it thinking, “Surely the others will save me.”
There is a rushing crash of water as Melissa wades into the river, rod slung over her shoulder. Knee deep, she stops and casts, then squats down to search for unsuspecting prey shimmering below the surface. For a minute all is still – the only noise being the soft hiss of water against rock as it snakes lazily downstream.
And then Melissa is bored. “You do it,” she commands, handing the rod to John. “I’m going to hook more worms.”
John grasps eagerly at the rod, his fingers plump and clumsy and pushes himself dutifully into the river. He turns to smile at me, triumphant. I look the other way. John is half the size of Melissa who is the eldest in our gang. He paddles at the edge of the river. I know he is afraid. The water is murky and brown where we are gathered, like a giant spill of old blood. Violence among the currents further upstream has wreaked havoc, leaving a gory pool of water and silt in its wake. Melissa eyeballs him as she sears another worm. “Further,” she commands.
John smiles, a good boy smile. Two steps forward the water reaches right up to the top of his thighs. His feet are bare and he is shivering. “Is this far enough?” he whimpers.
Melissa turns to look at me her green eyes flashing; angelic, demonic.
She takes in the worm which is struggling to find safety at my feet and spins round to face my brother. “Further,” she smirks. "Go further."
I glance back down at the pinky brown streak of slime curling through the dirt towards me and slide my hand forward, hook dangling perilously between my fingers. I hold it inches from what appears to be the creature’s face but it has no sense of danger. It reaches up, seeking out the sharp point of the hook and wraps itself round with a blind twist of its head.
A shout from the river makes me glance up. John is struggling to hold on to the rod. His body has rag dolled, swivelling and swaying against the rush of water. It reaches right up to his chest now, moistening the soft downy curls at the back of his neck.
“Further,” Melissa shouts and the other’s join in. “Further!” they chant.
Their faces ignite as he stumbles forward, gulping water, smiling bravely.
"Look at me," he warbles. "I'm, I'm fishing."
His hand appears hooked to the fishing rod, as if he himself is the catch, his legs fanning out like fins at the back of him. He looks back at me, his bright blue eyes glass-black and for a second, floats minnow-still on the surface.
And when I stand up to show off my worm, coiled round the sharp point of my hook, he is gone.