Bleak North - Photos, Stories and Reflections from the Highlands

Reality Check



Philip, she called, Philip, it’s time for lunch. Tell your friends to go home and come back later. She stood in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a floral, cotton tea towel. She was smiling. She always smiled, my mum. I turned and waved to Stevie and Jake and I ran in from the garden.

Stevie was my friend but not Jake. I didn’t like Jake; nobody did. He would appear amongst us, following one or another like a distorted shadow, a parody of friendship. His thin, wiry body and narrow, pinched face, his calculating, shifty eyes lay between us like a contagion, like a blemish on skin, something designed to spoil a day by its unwelcomed intrusion, something to drive us home for fear of contamination.

Jake didn’t go home when my mother called.

Why don’t you go home? I asked.

No point, he shrugged, ‘no-one there.’

He hung around the lane at the end of the garden, idly throwing hands full of gravel from the drive towards the trees or at passing birds. Occasionally he straddled the fence or swung over the gate but mostly he threw stones.

There’ll be no drive left the way that boy carries on, mother said, watching him from the kitchen window which overlooked the garden. Still, what can you expect with his background? Poor love.

Why doesn’t he go home? I grumbled. I hate him. He spoils everything. My friends go home when he turns up. Only Stevie stays. Stevie feels sorry for him. I don’t.

We could invite him in for some lunch, mother said doubtfully. He looks like he could use a good meal.

No, I answered hotly, no. He stinks. We’d never get rid of him. He steals things, I added. He took my car and my tennis racket and my football. He stole money from Stevie’s house. He steals from everyone.

Perhaps he doesn’t have much of his own.

I don’t care. He fights too and he spits and he swears. He’s cruel to animals. The other day he found a frog and he....

Don’t tell me. Mother held a hand up and turned away. She looked out of the window. She didn’t want to hear about Jake’s gratuitous cruelty.

Oh, what is that boy doing now? I do believe he’s urinating on the lawn. She knocked on the window and gestured him away. He glanced insolently towards the window and then grinned and casually drifted towards the fence. He took out a penknife and began chipping away at the wood. Mother knocked again.

I feel sorry for him but there’s a limit.

I wish he’d go away. He’ll expect me to take some food out too. Why doesn’t he go home for lunch like Stevie?

I don’t think he’s particularly well cared for. His mother is out a lot, when she’s not asleep in bed. His brother...well.... there’s not much good to say about him. Jake seems to look after himself mostly. Maybe there’s nothing for him to eat.

His house is a tip. No-one ever washes pots or clothes. We don’t go in there. It’s filthy.

Perhaps we should feel sorry for him too, like Stevie does.

I’ve tried that; it doesn’t work. He spoils it by stealing sweets or toys or hitting someone or breaking something. I hate him.

By now Jake was half way up the beech tree at the corner of the drive. He was struggling from branch to branch close to the trunk, stretching a leg one way and an arm the other, twisting his body into impossible shapes until he sat in a fork between thick branches swinging his legs. He saw us looking and waved and then dropped suddenly backwards until suspended only by his calves and the crook of his knees. Mother couldn’t repress a cry of alarm. Her hand flew to her lips. I didn’t flinch. Jake climbed trees like a monkey. He never fell, even when we wished him to. He turned his head upwards towards his feet and waved his arms then he swung back around and pulled himself into the fork of the trunk. He pulled himself to his feet and continued his ascent.

I can’t look, mother said. He’s bound to fall. She raised a hand to knock on the window and then hesitated. He might be startled and fall and it would be my fault, she said.

He won’t fall. I turned back to my lunch, scrambled egg, hot and steaming on thick buttery toast.  If he did, I said between bites, he’d land on his feet.

I’ve never seen anyone so supple. You have to admire him. He’s so fearless too.

I suppose so. I thought of the games of chicken he tried to teach us, running across the road in front of approaching cars. We were all pathetic and cowardly. We would be across the road before Jake stepped off the pavement.  Jake wasn’t happy unless he heard the squeal of brakes, the blaring of a horn and the oaths of angry drivers.

What is that boy going to do with his life, mother fretted. She was like that. Waifs and strays were her speciality and she collected them without compromise – injured birds, stray cats and dogs. She gave Jake some of my clothes when I outgrew them and she gave him sandwiches and biscuits when he had no lunch. It just made him worse. He came back for more and he came back again and again.

He says he’s going to be a burglar when he grows up or maybe join the army. He wants to have adventures and kill people.

What a noble ambitions, mother said. Perhaps he’ll grow out of it. I’m not sure giving him a weapon is a good idea.

He has a catapult and a ball bearing gun and a baseball bat he stole from a shop in town. He kills cats and birds. He stalks them like a sniper and then....

I don’t want to know. Mother looked anxious. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps you’d be better not to play with him this afternoon. I’ll go and tell him.

I shook my head. He won’t listen. He’ll just wait for a chance to break our windows just to show he doesn’t care. I glanced up. I’ll need to take some food for him. He’ll ask and he’ll keep asking.

I’ll make up a few sandwiches and some fruit and biscuits.

I finished my lunch and went outside.

Why do you have lunch when everyone else has dinner, Jake asked sharply, and why do you have dinner at tea time? Are you posh or something?

That was another problem with Jake. He was always asking questions, impertinent questions, intrusive questions, the sort of questions you didn’t want to hear let alone answer.

It’s just words – different words to describe the same thing.

I have dinner and tea.  Everyone I know has dinner and tea except you. Have you got something for my dinner? I’m hungry.

You’re always hungry. I handed him the neatly wrapped bag mother had prepared and he tore it open without ceremony. He stuffed the first sandwich between pointed, predatory teeth and chewed open mouthed.

Crisps and biscuits and an apple too, he said. I like your mum. She’s always good to me – not like the others.  She smells nice too. She has soft skin. I like your garden. It’s better than a yard. Do you have your own room? I nodded. You must be dead rich. I share with my brother.

Jake’s brother was Tyrone. He was five years older than Jake and the scariest person I’ve ever met. He was well known to the police. He was pretty well known to everyone, come to that, and not in a pleasant way. My friends and I steered well clear. He was the sort of person you didn’t want to meet, even in a group. He made Jake’s misdemeanours look like the errant foibles of an excitable pixie. He like hurting things – animals, people and Jake, especially Jake.

I noticed the fading bruises above Jake’s eyes and the small, round scars on the backs of his hands. I didn’t ask. There was no point. The answer was always the same - our Tyrone.

What do you want to do? Jake asked.

I shrugged. Wait for Stevie, I suppose. He’ll be here soon.

We should play football.

Someone stole my ball, remember? I said pointedly.

He grinned and projected his tongue through a space where had tooth had until recently resided. Let’s go to the precinct. I’ll get you another. I’ll get some sweets too. You can be lookout.

I shook my head quickly. Others had made that mistake. Jake had a turn of speed and a slippery quality which made him impossible to catch; not so his friends. More than one had been detained by security staff or shopkeepers in the precinct while Jake rounded a distant corner clutching his prize.

I wish my mum was like yours, he said. Mine smells of stale beer and fags. You’re lucky.

I suppose so.

I wish I was you.

No you don’t. You’d hate it. You’d have to tidy your room and wash.

You can come to my house if you like. My mum’s out and Tyrone is in court. I’ve got a football. You can have it if you want. It’s just like yours.

I was saved from having to answer when Stevie turned the corner and ran towards us.

We’ll get a football from my house and go down the rec to play, Jake shouted.

Stevie nodded. Okay.

I looked at Stevie and I looked at Jake.

You and Stevie are my best friends, I said. We’ll be best friends for ever and ever.

Jake smiled. Friends for ever, he repeated. I like that.


Stop. You know that’s not true. The man’s voice was soft and soothing like a voice you could trust. Only I didn’t trust him. I didn’t trust anyone. Why should I? He was one of the people who took me away, put me in this place. I could see him smiling but I didn’t look at him. You mustn’t lie like that, he said. We’ve spoken about this before. Remember?

It’s not a lie. It’s the truth. We were going to be friends for ever. I said that.

Who said it?

I did.  You and Stevie are my best friends. We’ll be friends for ever. That’s what I said.

But you never said that, did you?

Yes I did and we are friends just like I said. It’s all true. Even now I live here and we don’t see each other anymore, Stevie still sends me messages and emails. Only we have a secret code and everything is encrypted so you don’t know about it.

I lay back on the leather couch, my hands across my chest, like the body of my gran in her coffin in the chapel of rest; only I had my eyes open. I liked my gran. She was the best person I ever knew, until she died and left me. She baked cakes and she listened to my stories. She was my best friend. I let my eyes slowly close and held my breath and pretended to be dead. I like doing that. Sometimes at night in my room I held my breath until I thought I’d die.

I wonder what it’s like to be dead.

I don’t know.

My gran’s dead.

I know.

Did Jake look like that in his coffin? I turned and looked right at him. Then I lay back and closed my eyes and held my breath again. I’m going to die, I said, right now.

He tried to change the subject.

Let’s talk about your family. Have you heard from your mum?

I didn’t answer. I was holding my breath, playing dead. Eventually I exhaled heavily.

He waited for me to speak.

She can’t visit. It’s too far, I said eventually. She can’t afford it. She messages me every day though

And she posted some photographs of her holiday. She says she misses me all the time and wants me to come home. When can I go home?

He didn’t answer.

What about Jake’s mum? Do you hear from her?

I frowned.  Jake’s mum is a bitch. Look what she did to me. I held out a hand. Small, round, red scars. I pulled my sleeve up. My upper arm was the same, only fresh, still burning. It hurts; it really hurts. I hate her.

The man paused for a moment. What did Jake say when she did that to you?

Jake tried to help me. He grabbed at her and pulled her away but she hit him and knocked him down. Then his brother beat him and beat him and beat him and beat him...

And where’s Jake now, Philip?

Dead. Jake’s dead. Tyrone murdered him.

He looked at me closely. He had those sympathetic, soft eyes again. You can’t trust them when they look like that. It’s a trick they learn.

Why do you think we brought you here, Philip?

I didn’t answer. It was another trap.

There was a small, card folder beside him. He picked it up and opened it and took from it some photographs.

Let’s look at these, shall we? He said. He held up a picture of a woman with fair hair and a soft, smiling, kindly face. Who’s this?

Mum. I yawned. We’ve done this before. I looked away.

And this?

I felt my lips curl in a snarl. That’s Jake’s mum.

He held out another. I shied away and stood up. I walked to the back of the room. That’s Tyrone, Jake’s brother. He killed Jake when he tried to help me. He hit him again and again and again and then he kicked him and kicked him until there was nothing but blood and broken teeth and Jake was twisted and ugly and dead.

Even the photograph scared me – the photograph and the memory. I was trembling.

Come on, sit down. I’ll put the photographs away. That same soothing voice drifted like a lullaby, that same compassionate smile reassuring me, those same sad eyes watching me. I knew what he wanted.

Just one more thing then we’re done, he said. Come on.

I sat down.

Are you okay?

I nodded.

Who’s this? He held up a mirror. A thin, narrow, pinched face looked out at me, sharp eyed, angry.

That’s Jake.

He held up a photograph, a boy my age, wearing a school football strip, a well fed, bright eyed, smiling boy with a foot ball at his feet.

And this?

That’s me.

What’s your name? The voice was even softer, even quieter. He held the mirror before me again. Jake’s face. Jake’s face. I stood up and threw the chair back on the floor. Philip, I shouted. My name is Philip. I grabbed the mirror from him and threw it across the room. It shattered against the wall. I was breathing heavily and crying. I stepped towards the shards of broken glass and from each of them a tear stained, pinched face stared back. Everywhere I looked I saw him.

I’m Philip, I sobbed. I tried to save him, to save Jake. He was my friend just like I said. Otherwise why would I do that? I ran in from the street when I heard Jake scream; they were hurting him, torturing him, just like they always did. Stevie was behind me but I was first. I shouted and I tried to pull his brother away but he was too strong. Stevie ran for help. I tried to get him away from Jake but Tyrone was to strong. I was scared, I was crying but he just laughed. Jake was lying on the floor, his face and arms were bloody. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t help me. He wanted to help me, - he really wanted to, more than anything ever - but he couldn’t, he just couldn’t. He watched as Tyrone hit me and hit me and kicked me and he couldn’t do anything.

I was crying now as I’d never cried before. The man did not move.

He was my friend and I couldn’t do anything. I just watched. It was my fault – all of it.

I looked from one shard of glass to another and I saw red eyes, wild eyes, helpless eyes looking frantically around, as if searching for something. I couldn’t stop crying. Something awful was happening to me.

I see him everywhere. Wherever I look I see Jake. I can’t see me any more. I don’t know where I am or who I am. I’m lost. I don’t want to see Jake. He’s dead. I want to see Philip.

I ran across to the man who was standing now. He held out his arms. I ran into them and he held me.

Come on, Jake, he said. That’s enough for today. You’ve done really well. I’m proud of you.

I want to speak to Stevie. Can I speak to Stevie? I want to explain....

We’ll see. Come one. Let’s get some lunch, maybe play a computer game. What do you say?

I nodded.

Virtual reality?

He smiled as if I’d said something clever.