scraw (verb): to clear the throat, to ‘hawk’
We invented the game together. Floating islands, it was called. We’d kneel on the wooden bridge over the burn and hack-cough. Then we’d nod to each other and let it trail from our lips down to the water. First island to come out the other side won. Jack’s were always thick but slow-moving. Mine were fast but tended to split apart. That was automatic disqualification.
We were inseparable, that summer before secondary school. We built a den among the bramble bushes with things we pinched from the allotments behind – wood, corrugated iron, even a half-height ladder. In the park, we played the same passage of football again and again – like an action replay – with me running down the wing and crossing for him to head the ball. Even now, when I’m playing five-a-side, every time I look up I expect to see that blonde head.
When the old man with the cast-eye found our den (we’d helpfully written our names on one of the boards with black marker), Jack’s dad gave me a look I’d never seen from an adult before. It was as if only the thinnest layer of skin was keeping his rage inside. ‘Leave,’ he said, and I did. It was only years later that I realised that I was abandoning Jack.
Smaller things took on significance too. There was the plastic sheet on Jack’s mattress, which I plucked at and made some joke about. You know, something about baby-proofing. And it took him a couple of seconds before he laughed. Too long.
There was also the way he’d come around to my house and watch me play computer games. He’d be fully invested in it, level after level, but he’d never take the controller. I should have questioned that. And there was the time when he went into the fridge and lifted out a beer, even though we’d both decided that we didn’t like the taste of it after that afternoon when his dad tipped his bottle at our lips and we had to splutter, had to laugh.
Like I say, only wee things. Maybe they just took on significance because of Jack’s problems, many years later, with drugs. Mrs Stevens from down the road had seen him in town. All she could talk about was Jack’s teeth: the state of them, the gaps in the top row when he smiled. As if his problems were only dentist-deep; could be solved with a bit of drilling and a filling or two.
The drugs are one explanation, then, and his dad is another, but my worry is that Jack was my fault, my responsibility.
At the end of the summer, we went to different secondary schools. His was Catholic and mine wasn’t, but that wasn’t the reason for us breaking apart. It was me. I stepped away. Not as a drifting, but as a deliberate movement. Not over weeks and months, but in a cut-all-contact way. I ghosted him, I guess, although that term wasn’t around back then.
There were girls in the new school, of course, who hung around at the corner by the shop, and a new set of lads to play football with. We jumped over the park fence for games of World-Cuppy. But I didn’t call in for Jack and, when he showed up, I didn’t cross the ball to him in the middle but, instead, checked inside and played a short pass.
For the next couple of years, I’d see him around and we’d nod to one another. He always kept a cigarette tucked up behind his ear, against his baseball cap. The shop-girls called out to him; asking him to come over and then, in a sudden switch, hissing him away.
Then his mum moved and he went with her. Out of sight, right through until Mrs Stevens saw him in town. And, after that, I went online to search him out and found a profile picture of him as an eleven-year-old down by the burn. It wasn’t that I'd been cropped out of the photo, but that was how it felt. I sat there staring at it, knowing that I should send him a message. I should ask him how he’s getting on, whether he’d like to meet up. I should apologise, maybe, and say that I’m thinking of him, rooting for him, hoping that he’ll make it out the other side.