For Craig and Mike, who gave me the voice and inspiration for this parabolic tale At Easter they'd painted the facade of Flockton Bros, the late shop, an orangy tone of brown: the colour of diarrhoea. No doubt the choice was fortuitous, a job lot of masonry paint scooped from Wickes, but to me it made a pretty profound statement on the human condition. It had been a crap year, all told.
I'd learned what it felt like to get infatuated with a girl, to fall head over heels in lust until nothing else - not the state of the ozone, not the starving millions in Africa, not even my marks at school - mattered any more, only to pluck up courage after weeks of deliberation and rehearsal to ask her out and then to get knocked back. Not just knocked back, but laughed at, for Chrissake. And pointed at by huddles of her cronies who would stand with their free hands covering the bottom halves of their faces. I should have hated her - did hate her - for that, yet still I was besotted; still I wanted her; still I could not get her out of my fantasies. I learned then that the feeling of being hopelessly in lust hurts physically: a stabbing pain in the gut not unlike the sensation you get during a vicious attack of the runs, and every time I passed Flockton Bros' crap coloured facade I was reminded of it.
At Christmas, Jim's dad had got cancer of the balls and died. Then his mum cracked up. So did he, though in a different way, and these events heralded a fallout between us - bosom buddies since first school.
After his old man died, Ray, the elder of the Flockton Bros, really took Jim under his wing, accommodating him while his mum was in hospital with what was euphemistically termed 'her nerves'. Jim had got to know them through taking on a paper round and he became like a member of the family.
Some weird family it was too, with Ray, his brother Kev, their wives Madge and Sue plus an army of kids all living on the two floors of the high-faced Victorian terrace above the crap coloured shop. I could never quite work out who was married to whom or whose kids were whose: they just sort of got on with their lives in a heaving melee. The two eldest had been through school with us, a year above and below us respectively, but I'd never had much to do with them. They were, like the rest of the family, mousy looking, scrawny and disturbed in a tedious kind of way.
I tried not to dis the Flocktons. I spose they were a lifeline for Jim really; God knows what he'd have done if they hadn't taken him in. He didn't have any other family to speak of, so he'd probably have been taken into care or something. But the thing is, the longer he lived there, the more like them he became. He took to talking like them, dressing like them, wearing a baseball cap the wrong way round and calling people 'Dude'. And getting into all that Jungle music which no-one can possibly enjoy unless they've recently dropped an E or something.
That's no joke. I'm sure he was doing drugs, and I don't just mean a weed. He was definitely into drink. I saw him walking to school one time with the two eldest Flocktons, palming a can of Special Brew. I was sure he'd pinched it from the shop; there's no way they'd have sold it him.
They called him Jamie. He'd never been called Jamie, not by me, not at school, not at home, and suddenly it's Jamie this, Jamie that, like he was a different person. Dead weird, it was.
I took it hard. I mean, it isn't easy, is it, effectively losing your best mate on the rebound from being slapped off by a noxious cow you believed you were in love with. But I understood, in a way, where Jim was coming from; if life was a problem for me, then it was a cosmic conundrum for him.
I don't know, maybe Jim and I would have grown apart in any case, but I hadn't seen it coming. Not before he became a surrogate Flockton.
It came to a head the Saturday after my birthday, when Jim and the eldest Flockton kid came round mine after dinner. I can still see them, swaggering up the drive, wearing identical Adidas bottoms with those buttons up the sides of the legs, and still the sight makes me heave. I mean, the Flockton kid had hardly spoken to me before, and Jim hadn't known me from Adam for two months past.
I knew why they were coming: birthday equals cash equals suckering me to pay for their good time, innit? I found myself wondering whether Jim had changed at all, whether he'd always been like this, taking me for a ride since that day we'd found each other in the book corner during Miss Grimshaw's class in first school. After all, he'd been quick enough to drop me after eight years of loyal camaraderie when a better offer came along in the guise of the Flocktons. By the time they reached the door I was fuming and I bawled at him to eff off and take that tramp with him.
I said it to hurt. Those Adidas bottoms were the thing at the time; anyone wearing them had to be touchy about his appearance. That was in March: the week before they painted Flockton Bros crap brown.
Leinstow, the world's most banal small town in which I have the misfortune to be being raised, lies in the shadow of Swandale, a majestic array of hills, crowned by Rooney's Seat - reputedly England's highest peak outside of Cumbria.
There's some legend about an Irish giant, the eponymous Rooney, who, mourning the death of his son, waded across St George's Channel into voluntary exile atop the hill and wept for six months, welling up the spring which streams into the river Swan. It emanates from the dale as a tributary to several more significant east-flowing rivers. On the basis that these ultimately feed into the Humber, the locals have it that Rooney's spring is the source of the watery swath on the east coast which divides Yorkshire from Lincolnshire.
Easy though it is to scoff at local fable (and, believe, I've scoffed with the best) there is a solemn ambience which pervades Swandale to the roots of its gorse; a majesty about the place indefinable to anyone who has not been, and intangible even to those who have.
In winter it's bleak, battered by belting gales, lashed in swoops by sheeting showers which drive even the sheep from its faces. Spring is heralded by shrouds of mist which can conceal its stunning beauty for weeks on end until the sun's determination burns through the sky to reveal the violet crested peaks of early summer. I know, you see; I witness the cycle year in, year out, for this is the view from my bedroom window. Drearily dull though Leinstow may be, Swandale makes a pretty cool back garden.
The summer holiday was nearly upon us and I had never seen those hills looking so inviting: the punchy light of dawn impacting on the peaks; the discrete beams of sunlight showering through the curdle of cumulus cloud like some religious painting with an angel in it.
The workaday backdrop to this scene was the throes of year 9 exams which were to determine our GCSE options; that term, for the first time in our lives, we had been cornered into asking some searching questions about our futures. Pretty scary stuff for a kid who had yet to start shaving and still spoke soprano.
I was in need of a break. More than a break: an escape. That morning, as I watched from my bed the dawn break so spectacularly over those hills, I devised the plan.
I put the idea to Steve first. Steve was an old friend, a good friend, and since the rift with Jim we'd been spending quite a bit of time together, hanging out in town, by the bus station and that. Not the world's most fulfilling social life, I know, but like I say, there's little else to do in Leinstow unless you're into drink, drugs and robbing, which we weren't. Hardly.
Steve got well excited and suggested that we take a few other mates with us. I left it at that, assuming we'd just go home and try to convince our parents that it was cool, but before I know it, Steve's gone and invited Marcus.
Now, it's not that Marcus wasn't a friend of mine exactly; it's just that I didn't feel that he'd really appreciate the experience in the same way as Steve and me and I thought to myself that it was a bit snide of Steve to have gone and asked him. I didn't think it to anyone else, though; after all, I hadn't asked him to keep it secret. So when it transpired that Marcus had a four man tent, light enough to be carried easily between us, the balance tipped and he was in.
By pooling our resources we were able to glean adequate back packs and sleeping bags, a Primus stove and cooking utensils. Anything else we needed could be bought with a few quid each into a kitty.
Now there was only one thing standing in our way.
'But it's only for three days, Dad!'
My father was perched on his chair, puffing away on his pipe. What with his balding pate and portly form he looked to all the world like a garden gnome; I wanted to find a fishing rod to slip into his hand.
My mother chipped in: 'What are you going to do about food? Water?'
'For f...' I started, but thought better of it. 'We'll take dried stuff, pasta meals and that. Water's no problem, there's springs all over the hills.'
My mother frowned: 'Is it safe to drink?' Even Dad had to smile at that one.
'I have been camping before, you know,' I tried.
'Not on a three-day hike, unsupervised, up on the tops,' Dad insisted. 'What would you do if the weather were to turn? It can get nasty up there, you know. Even at this time of year.'
I sighed resignedly. Why is it that parents only see the risk of impending disaster when it suits them? Why is it never I don't want you to go to the shop for me: you might get knocked down by a bus or please don't take out the rubbish: what if you injure your back? Still, at least they hadn't given a categorical no, which was something. Then a few hours later, unprompted, my mum came out with, 'I notice you didn't ask Jim if he wanted to go.'
I felt ambivalent about this tack. On the one hand it meant our proposed expedition was still a live issue; on the other, I was sick and tired of the subject of my defunct friendship with Jim. My mum had liked him, and really regretted our rift. (Almost as much as I did, despite my protestations to the contrary.)
'You know I'm not friends with that prat any more,' I retorted.
'That poor boy,' she returned, 'has been through so much over the last year,' and she shook her head reprovingly.
'Yeah, well he seems happy enough with the way things are,' I mumbled.
An uneasy silence fell like dusk upon us. We sat watching some documentary on TV about this priest in South America who was helping street kids find God. When the credits began to roll, my dad got up to pour himself a drink with which he returned and caught my eye in a steely stare. 'I think "seems" is the operative word,' he said.
I made no reply, and shortly decided that bed would be the most comfortable place at that time. I tried to nod off with thoughts of freedom in the Swandale hills, of cosy campfires after dark, with no pressure and no parents. But my heart wasn't in it.
It was the last day of term, with that carnival-like atmosphere in anticipation of six weeks school-free bliss. Steve, Marcus and I had gathered for a planning meeting during morning break. They reported that they had both managed to get parental blessing for the idea. I told them that I was still working on it.
It turned out that Marcus' mum had insisted we take her mobile with us, 'just to touch base in the evenings and say we're OK,' a proviso which I felt confident would tip the scales with my folks too, which was all well and good. Or should have been. Problem was, I could foresee trouble with Marcus.
I thought the kid was a prick, to be blunt; I also sensed that the feeling was mutual. It was that three's a crowd problem: the only thing we had in common was Steve, so like as not, one of us was going to finish up playing gooseberry. From the effort Marcus was putting into being all palsy-walsy with Steve - snide grins, arcane jokes, exclusive to the two of them - he had clearly foreseen this and decided that it was not to be him. Frankly, I couldn't be assed playing head games with the pair of them when all I wanted was to escape into Swandale for a few days of liberated laughs and a taste of adventure.
Trouble is, three's a very lonely crowd when you're the one who's left out. You know: you've been there - admit it, if only to yourself. But without Marcus, there was no tent. And without a tent, no trip.
Then suddenly the solution struck me like a bolt from the blue; even the pride I had to swallow went down in one easy gulp. I made my excuses and left Steve and Marcus to each other: no reason to ask their opinion on my ruse; if it back-fired I'd rather they didn't know and if not . . . . well, Steve hadn't asked me about Marcus and the trip was my idea after all.
Jim wasn't in school that day; him and half the rest of the roll: no-one would be asking questions about unauthorised absence in a new academic year six weeks down the line, after all. But it did occur to me at that moment that his attendance had become a little erratic of late; the fact that I hadn't really noticed worried me for some reason and, for another - even less explicable - gave me a vague pang of guilt.
At tea time I phoned Flockton Bros and was answered by one of the kids. I asked if Jim was there and got a mildly confused pause in response, before a cry of 'Jamie: PHONE!' deafened my right ear.
I know this is a really poncy thing to admit, but my heart was racing ten to the dozen. I was reminded of the time I'd asked Yvonne (the noxious cow) out and for a split second had to deal with all that stuff again before pulling myself together.
'Hi, Jim,' I started, casual as could be, 'it's Johnnie. Look, I . . . .'
It's not often that I'm lost for words, as you might have gathered, but of a sudden I realised how much this meant to me. As I stood making throaty noises into the receiver, I was asking myself why the hell he didn't hang up. I'd been supposed to be his best friend and I'd abandoned him when he needed one most simply because he'd been acting like a prat. Well, who wouldn't have in his shoes? What a bastard . . . .
'You what?' he prompted.
It just came out: 'I . . . . I've missed you and I'm sorry.'
A pause. Oh, hell, what had I said?
'Yeah, me too.'
His words hit my system like a sedative and I sensed that my hand had stopped shaking. With refreshed confidence I went on: 'Steve, Marcus and me are taking a hike for a few days up Swandale . . . .'
'. . . . Yeah, I heard . . . .'
' . . . .D'ya wanna come?'
I let the pregnant pause take its course.
Oh, come on, Jim, I thought, don't start bearing a grudge. Not now. And I asked, 'Why not?'
'Marcus is a bell-end.'
I smiled, suddenly feeling all nostalgic; it had been months since I'd heard him use that term. 'He's a bell-end with a four man tent,' I offered.
'All right then.'
'We leave tomorrow.'
'Meet round mine at nine.'
'Nice one. See ya.'
Hardly needed his arm twisting, I thought as I put the phone down. Loath though I was to admit it, perhaps my dad had been right.
The weather was, if anything, even more glorious when we set off on our adventure. Swandales' hills in all their stunning stateliness stretched invitingly before us that morning as we ambled leisurely along the bridle path which leads from Leinstow to the great green yonder, carrying our back packs like snails.
Marcus's attempts to establish himself as Leader were quickly quelled by Steve, who made it clear that he was unimpressed. Besides, despite being the proud owner of most of the equipment we carried, it soon became apparent that the kid had far less nous about hiking than the rest of us, who knew the hills well from regular, albeit less ambitious rambles in the past.
By the time we reached the gate at the mouth of the path which leads to the dale's lower slopes, the competitive edge to the dynamic had dissipated as we fooled about, telling jokes, horsing around uninhibited by the handicap of our packs. It was just as I had hoped: we were entering a land of liberty, leaving our quibbles and worries behind in town, able just to be four boys together; four boys on the doorstep of adolescence, staring maturity and its responsibilities timidly in the face but, for now, able to truly relax.
Even so, I didn't feel entirely at ease.
Once into the folds of green and gorse, Jim had adopted the role of scout. By far the most agile and energetic of us, he would forge forward, ahead to the crest of an impending peak, rushing back like a terrier off its leash to report on the view from the top. He seemed carefree: emancipated, discharged from exile in the crap coloured shop.
In one sense it was like he'd never been away, like our friendship had been uninterrupted, but not so as to stop me thinking how good it was to have him back, with his boundless energy, his quirky quips, his way of cheeking back. Never a high flyer at school, Jim nevertheless had a mind as sharp as a needle, always ready with the witty riposte, able to pick up and assimilate information with consummate ease.
As he scurried to and fro before us in the folds of the hills, we three following in staid steps along the way, I reflected on what I had missed in the intervening months. Time had marked its passage on him; since March he had hit a growth spurt and now stood a good two inches taller than me. His legs had grown disproportionately gangly and protruded from his baggy shorts like stilts. His face, though still with child-like features beneath the mop of fair hair, now sported a whispy teenage 'tache, the odd zit threatening to erupt on his chin. He looked like a choirboy on testosterone.
There was something different about the way of him, too. Something intangibly subtle but undeniably different as he lapped up the liberty which embraced us, now into the thick of the wilds, not another soul about - only sheep and the distant trill of birdsong. In retrospect, I reckon it was his eyes which betrayed it; they still sparkled but had lost lustre: lachrymose in laughter, like a clown's eyes.
By noon, the heat had grown intense. We couldn't have covered more than six or seven miles but already I was well knackered. I sensed Steve and Marcus were too, though neither was prepared to lose face by admitting it. Still Jim yo-yoed between us three and the top of the forthcoming peak but even he now sported beads of sweat on a face grown grubby through constant wiping with dusty hands.
I suggested we stop for lunch. We'd reached an ideal spot for a rest: downstream from Pilston Force, a minor waterfall, the sound of which was just discernible in the distance, the air imbued with that freshness, the kind of ionising effect that waterfalls have. The stream itself was crystal clear; I'd never seen a stream looking so fresh and inviting. It made me want to kick off my boots and sit on the bank, to dip my overheating feet in its soothing current.
Steve and Marcus didn't take much convincing on the idea and even Jim's brio faltered at the thought of respite. Relieved of our packs, I felt like I were on the moon, light as a cricket, intoxicated by the heady heat. Steve produced a Frisbee, wanging it high over Jim's head and we laughed together as Jim jumped hopelessly to catch it. He sent it spinning back with ferocious force, and we all jumped and danced with the sailing disc, playing that game for a bit. Then I lay back on the grass, just staring into the blue of the cloudless sky till I could see the motes floating in the glassy glaze of my eyes.
Jim was bothering me, though. As I lay there staring into space, I finally figured why. I got the distinct feeling that he wanted to tell me something, that he was biding his time, waiting for an opportune moment. I felt, too, that the something was not a good something. You know how it is with mates sometimes: you can tell when they're in trouble, even when they've said nothing, just from the way they are? And Jim was in trouble all right: in it deep and in it big time. I cursed myself for not spotting it before, for being so self obsessed, so bloody proud as not to have heard his cries for help for what they were.
I didn't know what the problem was, though. I hadn't a single solitary clue.
We didn't get far that afternoon. You would not believe how hot it was out there on the hills: that still heat which closes in on you like fear, and no breeze, not a flutter. No shade out there either, just the relentless heat of the afternoon sun.
We walked together now, the four of us, following the stream away from Pilston Force, down into the valley between the hill we had conquered that morning and the imposing hights of Rooney's Seat. Here the waters meet with the legendary giant's tearful stream to form a pool of still blueness, too small really to be called a lake, before running out of the fold en route to the Humber. It was the obvious place to stop for the night.
Marcus' tent was one of these geodesic things with the bendy poles and watching him struggle knowledgeably with it was good for a laugh till it palled. Unannounced, I wandered down to the clear blue pool to cool off a bit. It wasn't deep enough for swimming, nowhere near, but a splash and paddle was all I wanted.
I wasn't surprised that Jim followed me down. He had a bit of a sheepish way about him and, to be honest, I felt uneasy too. We hadn't been together, just the two of us, since our big fallout and I sensed that, despite my hasty apology over the phone, there was a good bit of unfinished business about it. But right there and then I just wasn't in the mood for tackling it.
Jim said nothing as we strolled down the path, but he smiled at me, which felt kind of reassuring, and took the lead like he generally does. On reaching the water I sat on the bank, taking my boots and socks off but Jim, he's, like, just standing there, staring into the glassy blue of the pond, his eyes as wide as pools themselves. I was about to leap splashing in when he stopped me with the gesture of a cop to a motorist caught in a speed trap.
'Ssh! Hear that?' They were the first words he'd spoken since leaving camp. I tipped my head inquisitively, but heard nothing. 'There it is again!' This time I fancied I'd picked up on it, just the merest plop in the stillness of early evening. 'Trout!' he exclaimed. 'I bet there's pure trout in there.' His eyes were really burning now. He stood on the bank and peered intently into the water. I didn't know what to make of it
'So?' I inquired.
'Dinner, stupid!' He said it without averting his gaze from the pool, its surface still shimmering in the haze of heat.
'Yeah, right,' I retorted. I was really beginning to think he might have flipped. 'No rod, no line, no hook.'
'No need!' Now he looked up at me and grinned, amused by his own poetic spontaneity. Then he lay on his stomach at the bank of the pond. Just lay there, still as a cat before the pounce, his hands dipped into the water.
Jim and I had been river fishing together many times, caught our share of nice ones, too; but this was a new one on me. I just stood there by Jim's prostrate body, unsure if this was one of his wind ups, or for real, or whether he'd truly lost it.
There's something going on, though. Jim, he's still lying there, seemingly motionless, but I can't see his hands beneath the sun's glare on the water. Minutes have passed, and he's still in position, a stare of pained concentration on his face, and I'm just watching, confused, dubious, yet somehow entrapped in whatever weird spell he's casting. Watching how his fringe billows away from his forehead as he stares into the blue, how his reflection is undistorted by the pond in the stillness of the tired day . . . . Then . . . . SPLOSH! Up come Jim's arms in a swift crane-like manoeuvre and, flapping in his hands, one plump rainbow trout, which he lands on the bank with an air of intense satisfaction.
I stood agog as Jim raised himself on his elbows, cupping his chin in his hands, letting the silence take its course. At length I said, 'How the f . . . .'
Jim shrugged offhandedly. 'Easy in this weather. They're dead dozy under the sun. You should try it at night. Now that's hard.'
'You flash git!'
'No, really. Try it. I'll show you how.'
A little uncertainly, I adopted Jim's posture on the bank. 'Trick's to get your hands cold,' he advised. 'Fish are cold blooded, right. Tickle 'em too soon and you burn 'em. They turn tail and swim off.'
'Tickle them?' I was incredulous, unsure if I'd heard him correctly. Had I not seen with my own eyes what Jim had just done, I would have sworn blind he was taking the mick.
'Yeah, tickle them. Veery gentle at first, but not till your hands are freezing cold. You have to wait till they're dead numb. Till then, don't move a muscle or you'll frighten them off. They have to get used to you, get to trust you, see.'
'That's well snide.'
'Nah, just a bit of fun.'
I didn't agree. My hands couldn't have been in the water more than thirty seconds and, despite the heat of the day, they were freezing in the stillness of anticipation. The temptation to wriggle my fingers was agonising and I imagined the blood freezing in the veins of my wrists. The sensation bordered on physical pain; I certainly didn't fancy trying this at night.
'Look!' hissed Jim, 'there's one!'
From bank level I could see easily into the shadowy pool, right to its muddy bed and, sure enough, Jim was right. Not six inches away, facing me, was a trout, staring straight into the snare of my hands. 'Now really gently move your fingers, like they were reeds,' Jim whispered. I could no longer feel my fingers and was not at all certain that they would move. Nevertheless, they responded to my effort and, with complete astonishment, I saw the fish approach, as though beckoned by the gesture. 'Now gently stroke it,' Jim instructed.
I was convinced that the trout would balk at my touch. Isn't that what they're supposed to do? But the spell was cast. Astounded, I felt my finger brush and play along the scales, and the fish stayed static as I lay doggo on the bank of the pool with my closest friend as my guide. I was enraptured.
'See,' Jim whispered, barely more than mouthing the words, 'they just love it, so long as you're gentle. Now all you do is get your hands round it; keep stroking, keep it happy, fingers together at the bottom, that's right, good . . . . now grab it quick as you can.'
I stared into the water. Stared at the trout in my grasp, duped by my gentle overtures, nestled unconcerned between my palms. I swallowed hard.
'I can't . . . .'
'I . . . . I can't do it, Jim . . . .'
He looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe it sounds crazy to you too. I mean, it's not like I'm into this veggie stuff or anything. The time we went on a school trip to the abattoir, some of the kids felt sick. Claire Ireland bawled her eyes out and swore never to eat meat again; but me, I just thought 'so what? I know meat's dead animal, so what's the scoop?' Jeez, I must have baited and hooked scores of fish in my time and never thought anything of it. But this . . . . This was a fish I'd stroked, a fish that - OK, I know it sounds mad - that trusted me.
I couldn't do it.
I had to sneak my hands from the water and let Jim finish the job for me.
The trout landed, he regarded me with a combination of amusement and disdain. 'Think you can bring yourself to eat it?' he quipped.
'Yeah, yeah, sarcy git!' I examined the two trout closely. They were real beauts. 'It's certainly a neat trick. Where d'ya learn it?'
You'd have to know him well to have spotted it, but Jim's head fell just a weeny bit as he answered. It's one of his quirky mannerisms, one which means he's holding something back. As I say, you probably wouldn't have noticed it, but I did. I'd known him since we were five.
'Ray Flockton,' he said. Then there was this pause which, uncharacteristically, sat uneasily between us. It was the first reference he'd made to the shit shop all day. I nodded, then thought it expedient to change tack.
'You won't tell the others, will you? About me bottling out with the trout, I mean.'
Jim sucked his teeth: 'What's it worth?'
'A leathering if you say one bloody word.'
'Yo, I'm scared!'
And I grabbed at Jim, he at me, then we fell wrestling playfully to the ground until we were both gasping for breath. It was just like old times.
'It was dead weird, though,' I reflected as we walked back to our encampment, 'when I had that fish in my grasp, but I couldn't grab hold of it. It was just that . . . . I don't know . . . . You wouldn't understand, would you?'
The question had been rhetorical, but Jim seemed to be giving it careful consideration. At length he spoke, addressing the ground as we went: 'You're wrong,' he said. 'I do understand.'
I hadn't expected him to say that. It was then that the penny dropped. This had been about more that catching our supper; it was almost like he'd been testing me out . . . . Jim was trying to tell me something. But still I could never have guessed what it was. Not in a million years.
You can imagine the amazement we got from Steve and Marcus on our return with the two miraculous trout. Jim told them we'd caught one each, which was good of him, and I saved face by gutting them with Marcus' treasured Swiss army knife - like I say, it's not that I'm squeamish or anything - while Marcus looked on and said, 'Ugh, gross, sick' at the sight of the fish innards. Didn't stop him eating the trout, though, and well tasty they were too, even though they disintegrated a bit in the pan when we fried them on the Primus.
We stayed up late that night, round the campfire, the whole scene lit by the brightest full moon you could imagine. It was gorgeous. God knows what we talked about for all those hours; we were just shooting the bull, and planning the next day and our ascent of Rooney's seat. From there it would be all down hill to Fenthwaite, from where my dad was due to pick us up the afternoon after.
It was past midnight before anyone remembered that we'd promised to phone our folks on Marcus' mobile, which didn't go down too well back home, but we didn't give a damn. It was well cool out there in the valley and, but for the crackle of the campfire, totally quiet. Eerily so, once we were cocooned in our sleeping bags, but we felt safe together all the same.
I was woken by Jim's flat-footed exit from the tent. I opened my eyes a weeny crack and figured it was getting light, though dawn proper had yet to break. Must have been about five, I spose. I assumed he was just going for a pee or something, till he saw my eyes open and whispered, 'I'm off to catch some breakfast. Wanna come?'
I didn't, particularly. I felt snug in my sack and a venture into the pre-dawn world of Swandale sounded distinctly chilly. But the thing is with Jim, he's not too good at asking favours, so you've got to learn his language. It's kind of like a code: for 'wanna come' read 'will you come, please'.
The early morning was more temperate than I'd expected, so I just pulled on a pair of shorts and headed off in the tee-shirt I'd slept in, bringing a fresh one in the hope that the pond may not be too icy for a wash.
It was, though. Freezing. I winced inwardly at the sight of Jim's hands in that water, but he seemed immune to the cold and had landed two fish in fifteen minutes. We said little, I being content to watch his prowess in the trout-tickling division.
We sat on the bank by that pool, just taking in the scene, catching the first rays of the breaking day, clocking the sky as it turned from navy to light blue and the fleeting mist evaporated around us. In the distance was the bleating of sheep and the sweet scent of the gorse reached its peak as we sat there on the bank, the breakfast catch at our side, just chilling.
'You happy, Jim?' I asked.
I don't know why I said that. It just seemed like the right thing to do. He didn't seem surprised.
'Yeah,' he said, 'right now I am. This is cool.'
'What about other times?'
It's funny. Some people get moody in the morning and just want to grumble.. Others get energetic and want to go for a run. I get curious and ask questions, I always have; don't know why. It drives my folks crazy at breakfast.
Jim simpered sardonically and shook his head. He didn't manage to meet my gaze. 'Why?' he returned. 'Does it show?'
I nodded: 'To me it does.' Maybe it was my imagination, but I fancied Jim's eyes were welling up and I thought of the legend of Rooney, whose apocryphal tears had created this pond, which had yielded the seacret of the trout, which had supplied our supper. I found it a really sad thought, but then I felt pretty sad already. Seeing Jim upset has always had that effect on me, ever since we met at first school. I've never had a brother, so I don't know what it's like, but I reckon knowing Jim had come pretty close to it at times.
'What is it that's bugging you?' I asked; 'I know there's something.'
Jim stayed silent for ages, but this time it felt OK. Finally he looked across the pool of water, shimmering red in the new sun's ascent from the horizon. And now I could see that he was crying. Crying inside. If I'd put my arm around him he'd have cried outwardly too, but I didn't. For some reason I just sat there, looking at him, my best friend, this fully grown kid sitting there with his knees drawn to his chin, looking across at the sunrise and crying inside. He was hurting. Hurting really bad.
'I can't say.' He didn't look at me as he spoke.
Now he turned to me, looked me directly in the eye. 'I just can't, right?'
I held his gaze. 'Don't talk bollix!'
Jim's head drooped in response to hang between his knees and finally tears fell freely onto the grassy bank.
'It's Ray,' he murmured.
I saw his fists clench, his head lift, his chest rise as he fought to get the words out: 'Ray Flockton. He . . . . he touches me, OK? Private touching . . . . Stuff like that.'
Don't ask me how I looked when he said it. I reckon my jaw must have nearly fallen to the ground. I got that light headed feeling, you know, when it suddenly feels like you're in a play or film or something.
It just didn't make sense. I mean, the Flocktons were a bit weird, like I said, but I never thought . . . . Come on: Ray was married, with kids and that. All I could say was, 'I don't believe it,' which was stupid of me, and I saw Jim reel from the impact of my words.
Of course, I didn't mean I disbelieved him. Jim would never have made a thing like that up. It's only looking back now that I see what a mind-bending admission it was for him to make, cos Jim, right, he's the most anti-gay kid in town. I don't give a toss, personally - whatever turns you on - but Jim's always on about how disgusting it is and how it shouldn't be allowed and that. I meant I don't believe it in the Victor Meldrew sense. I meant that I was gobsmacked.
Cos Jim had always made Ray out to be this top bloke, too. And though I never much liked the guy personally, I'd respect for him on account of all he'd done for Jim, taking him in when his mum threw a wobbler, buying him all those designer clothes and that. But, why . . . . This didn't add up at all . . . . Even now that his mum was better, Jim still spent pure time at the shop. Why would he do that if Ray was . . . . well, you know?
Jim had turned away. He was there with his hands on the crown of his head, forearms hiding his face, rocking rhythmically on his haunches. He wished he hadn't told me, I could sense that, and I was his best mate. I felt so helpless, so inadequate. It was like I were watching him die. I couldn't think what to say, so I just sat with him, willing him with all my heart to speak.
'I only let him,' he went. 'I didn't do nothing.'
Something in what he said kick-started my common sense. I realised why he'd told me. Jim and I, we'd always had this bond of trust, up till when he'd moved in with the Flocktons leastways. We'd always been able to discuss things, to tell each other stuff we'd never have dared tell anyone else. But more than that, I'd let him tell me. Sure, I hadn't seen it coming, but I'd let him all the same. I couldn't carry on running from it.
'I know,' I said. 'Jim, it's not your fault. These things aren't.'
Jim lifted his head. His eyes were red and there was snot in the dimple of his lip. The sight of him made my heart grimace. I could see that he'd been having a waking nightmare, reliving whatever stuff Ray had put him through, torturing himself and I just wanted to reach out and hug him, reassure him, but I couldn't. He'd only have pulled away from me, because I didn't understand, couldn't understand, will never understand what he was feeling.
'I don't know how to make it stop,' he goes.
I drew a breath, but said nothing.
It was obvious, wasn't it? Stay away from the shop. Tell the police. Call social services. Whatever. Loads of ways.
I looked at Jim. Looked right at him. He was picking away at a spot on his knee. He suddenly looked casual, composed. Seeing that hurt me most of all.
And I thought about Yvonne, about how I still longed to see her even after she'd been such a noxious cow to me. And I thought about that trout - uncomprehending between my caressing hands in the freezing numbness of the pool . . . .
'You can never tell anyone about this,' Jim said abruptly. I frowned. There was an unwonted coldness in his voice, a harshness in his tone which made my guts recoil. 'I'd only deny it anyway,' he goes, 'and you'd just look like a fool.'
Then suddenly it clicked. I thought about the Flocktons, about the houseful of children, about that bastard Ray in there, lording about like a kid in a sweet shop. I wanted to be sick.
'Jim . . . .' I started, but it was no good. He just got to his feet. He looked so together. You'd never have guessed he'd been crying; even less how badly he was hurting inside.
My mind seized by pressure-cooked confusion, I wrestled inwardly with the dilemma. The questions whirled through my mind: How could I betray him? I couldn't. Yet who was betraying whom? Had I chosen to become ensnared in this silent conspiracy? Did I have the choice? Was it mine to make?
I can't do this, Jim, I thought.
Anger was rising within me like a tidal flow, beyond my control. I felt suddenly trapped, because I knew right there and then what we had to do: re-join the others, all casual like, as though nothing had happened and nothing had changed.
I could no longer bear to look at Jim and my eyes flicked to the pond, reflecting the intense blue sky in its crystal stillness. Then I lifted my gaze to the vast plane of green around us, to the expanse of hills which moments earlier had held such promise, so many possibilities.
The last of the dew sat dank on the grass before me, Jim's feet rooted in it, waiting expectantly for me to make my move.
It's not his fault, I told myself; these things aren't.
Slowly, I lifted my head. Jim just holds out his hands for me and I haul myself up. His fingers are warm and moist with tears and sweat and it's all I can do to stop my grasp slipping. Then we turn to the fish and pause. He looks at them, then I look at him and then I catch him biting his lip.
But by mutual consent we left them there, the two stricken trout, out in the open in the Swandale sun.