'I'm just saying,' Jake said, 'how on earth was the witch still hungry if she lived in a house made of gingerbread?' My friend was often just saying things. The woodland bird noises and steady flow of the River Stour acted as constant instruments in the natural orchestra.
'Maybe she was diabetic or could only eat children.' I suggested. I'd paused for slightly longer than I should have and his answer came back unperturbed.
'Like people who don't eat meat, except for fish?' Jake's voice passed from my left ear to my right and back again as he trudged along behind me. Occasionally our footsteps would fall into the same rhythm and I'd smile with the triviality of noticing.
'Yeah, I guess so.' Sometimes it's better to climb out of the rabbit hole of a conversation with Jake before you find yourself lost deep underground. A sharp rustle in the dry leaves to the side of the path indicated the presence of a literal rabbit, perhaps darting into its very real rabbit hole.
Going on long walks across the countryside wasn't something I normally enjoyed, but the night before, I received a text from Jake asking if I'd join him. Although suffering from cabin fever, being stung by nettles and burnt by the sun didn't appeal to me.
'Please man,' came the reply, 'I don't want to be on my own. We'll get a pint after, I promise.'
A pint with Jake usually meant six or seven and being tasked with carrying his 12-stone frame home. I reluctantly agreed, not wanting to waste this summer like the previous few spent indoors staring at screens all day.
I stopped our two-man convoy next to a broken tree, it was dry and splintered. When I placed my bag on it I noticed the beetles and woodlice crawling through the cracks. Lifting my sports bottle out of the front pocket, I unscrewed the lid and drank deeply. Having only had a cup of builder’s tea with breakfast, my head was beginning to ache. 'Want any water, ma-' My offer of refreshment to Jake was cut short by his absence and as I peered back around the bend in the path to spot him, he was tucking something into his jeans and restarting a hurried pace towards me.
'Sorry, shoelace came undone. Nightmare.' I eyed him perhaps a little too suspiciously because his reply seemed unnecessarily cutting, 'why've we stopped? Can't handle the pace fat boy?' I had put a little weight on since school but I had thought it hardly noticeable. 'Water? It's for jessies,' continued Jake as he strolled past me. My thick skin allowed me to shake off any hurt and once I'd pushed the plastic bottle back into the bag, it didn't take too long for me to catch up.
The day was hailed by the morning news as a heatwave – the hottest day on record apparently. I could feel the sweat forming patches on my grey t-shirt around my armpits and I realised my wardrobe choice added to the difficulties of the walk. Jamie wore long sleeve t-shirts and even in dark black jeans he looked unaffected by the intrusive nature of the heat. We passed through the thick woodland as the river seemed to divert away from the path entirely, leaving us alone with the chirping birds and occasional snap of a dry twig.
'You see Charlton are looking to sign Murphy?' My words felt forced, disrupting the flow of nature around us. Although Jamie and I had gone to the football many times, we hadn't been in at least a year. Jamie’s interest seemed elsewhere.
'Really? That's cool.' The words were spoken with an unnatural disinterest and I resented my friend for not trying harder to continue the conversation.
The soft hum of an engine could be heard overhead and as we left the thicket of trees I spotted a small yellow plane drifting steadily across the sky; its wings occasionally glinting in the sun indicating a swift change of direction. I'd paused to look up at the aeroplane and as I returned my gaze, I saw that Jake was stood on the other side of a v-shaped enclosure gate. He waited with an impatient look on his face as if in a hurry. I shrugged his visible annoyance off and attempted to lighten the mood with a playful, 'oops,' indicating my awareness that the gate is commonly known as a kissing gate. Jake was silent and waited for me to get through, then allowed me to walk in front of him across a field high with wheat. I ran my hand across the tops of the crop, exposing my love for Russel Crowe’s character in Gladiator. The poster of the film was put up when I was twelve and continued to be a feature until Uma Thermon in Pulp Fiction replaced him last year.
With only sport socks my boots rubbed hard on the backs of my ankles. We had three more painful miles to cover before reaching the village of Mersham-more specifically The Farrier's Arms pub where my parents would pick us up. They were incredibly pleased that I’d decided to go for a walk, my dad musing, ‘when was the last time you saw daylight anyway?’ It was true, I was a reclusive boy – I’d have the curtains drawn shut and my music on loud, Minecraft on the screen with Van Morrison vibrating through the walls continuously until a loud banging from my sister Susie, leading to an argument between us.
The ground underfoot was littered with stones; some large, others quite small, all adding to the difficulty of this terrain. I knelt to investigate what I thought was an arrowhead and brushed the dirt off to find myself holding just another miscellaneous rock. Looking up, I could see that Jake was across the field and almost at the beginning of the next section of woodland. This time I got the sense that Jake's pace had increased too much to keep up and annoyingly I got quite deep amongst the trees before I spotted Jake's long sleeve t-shirt billowing slightly in the steady wind as he stood on the train tracks checking his
I approached Jake and could see the screen of his phone, dimmed in the bright sunshine. Large messages were being sent back and forth.
'What am I meant to do Eli?' Jake never called me by my first name and his eyes were glazed over, staring almost past his phone.
'Get off the tracks first, you nutcase.' I stepped across the rails, nodding towards the signs which stated a £1000 fine for trespassing. Reaching the stile, I turned back and Jake hadn't moved. He continued talking as if I was next to him but I couldn't hear what he said.
'You coming mate? That pint is a-calling.' If it was bad news, there was no way I could comfort him sober, if he was just pre-occupied, he was being an idiot.
Looking at Jake, I saw what I did on the first day we met. I hated school to the point that it made me feel sick, I’d do everything I could to avoid classes and any sort of test sent me into a panic from which I was rarely rescued. I found solace in reading, enjoying adventures that weren’t mine and being transported to events which were always happening just beyond the school gates. I’d find myself a wall or post to lean against and I’d lose myself. It was during one of these escapes, reading about Robinson Crusoe’s fantastic survival, that a football interrupted me, smacking the wall, and bouncing away. The effect was like cold water on someone sleeping. Looking up with annoyance, I met the sharp, worried eyes of Jake, with his blonde spikey hair and countless freckles. After apologising profusely, he mumbled that he’d shot the ball well past the post and I wasn’t the target. After replying that he should be more careful next time, I returned to my reading. When in my maths class his embarrassed face offered me a seat next to him, I found that school was more tolerable and the sickness in my stomach went away.
‘He wants me to work in Newcastle.’ Jake’s skin never usually held much colour but he was a cold grey in the hot August sunshine.
‘Who does?’ My patience was getting a little thin but my friend appeared incredibly worried.
‘He wants me to leave home and work for Six figures. That’s good, right?’ My question hadn’t registered. His ghostly appearance was reflected in my seemingly invisible presence.
‘Who the hell are you talking about, you loony?’ His tear streaked face lifted towards me and my smile dropped away.
‘My dad.’ Whenever I’d met Jake’s dad he was always formal, usually wearing a smart shirt, sometimes with a red tie, sometimes a blue.
Out of his pocket, Jake lifted his phone and with a trembling hand, held it towards me. As I stepped closer, I saw edge of several painful cuts on the fleshy under-side of his arm, hidden inside the sleeve.
‘Jake, your mother and I have been talking,’ began the latest message, ‘while we do love you, your choice of life has made it impossible for you to remain in this house. You know our thoughts and I have arranged with Christopher for you to work in Newcastle. He will help you to find suitable accommodation. You will have a good life, my boy. Goodbye’ Tears dripped off Jake’s chin and his skin was red with painful looking blotches. He once mentioned in passing that his uncle Chris was a bore who he hated spending time with.
‘What lifestyle, Jake?’
‘I’m not right, dad says.’
‘What’s wr-’, there was a loud clicking noise and the sound of pulsing adjustment coming from the track which lay between us. The humming and clicking increased in volume and began snapping more frequently.
‘Come on Jake, we’ve got to get off, now’
‘You go Eli, I just can’t.’
‘Newcastle sounds great, big hot shot job. Fuck your family. You’re going to die if you stand here.’ My voice was raised to a shout, I’d moved off the track, further away than a talking volume.
The train came into view fifty metres away, its dark blue body eating up the distance rapidly, 40 metres, 30, 20. Jake’s eyes met mine and his head rocked very unsteadily as he nodded his understanding.