Liam watched Brian and Shawn and Dougie get onto the school bus and decided to hitch home. It was his first day back at school after three days exclusion. Stuffing his sweat-shirt inside his rucksack, he climbed the steep hill out of town, pulled out a crumpled packet of Silk Cut from his shirt pocket and lit one and saw himself at the beginning of a longer journey. Abi was with him: they were taking a tour around Scotland or Europe or maybe even the world. Someplace you could live for practically nothing, where the sea was warm and you could flop about in the salty water all day, or lie in the sand and smoke lots of dope and eat curries and chips and kebabs.
Liam had been abroad twice in his life – to Tenerife and to Malaga, business trips, his father had said. And he supposed they were, for his father had spent most of the time in one conference or another while Liam and his mother had stayed on the beach or beside the hotel pool. It was okay, Liam liked fooling around with the waiters, but the bits he remembered best, the bits that had colour and words and warmth, were the bits with his dad. Twice he took Liam down to the beach to kick a ball and one night he’d stripped off and went skinny dipping in the moonlight while Liam had paddled in the shallows. Another time they went to an arcade and played war games and Subbuteo. He noticed the way pretty girls looked at his dad and liked it. Sometimes he’d pretend it was just the two of them, and that they were never going home.
There was one afternoon in particular. They’d met up with a colleague, or so his dad had said, in a bar and she’d waved and kissed his dad on the mouth, not a long sloppy kiss or anything, but on the mouth anyway. ‘This is my son, Liam’, he said, with his hand on Liam’s shoulder and she fixed him with her dazzling smile and brown eyes and said how pleased she was to meet him and she stayed all evening and her funny accent made them laugh. And when it was time to go his father asked the waiter to call a cab, and they all got in, and the lady spoke Spanish to the driver, who took them to her house, which was pretty, like her.
Wasn’t it more than likely, Liam thought now, as he inhaled his Silk Cut, in the most grown up way he could, that this lady and his father had been meeting in secret for years, that this romance was the real reason his dad had left.
A moorhen darted off her nest, no more than a metre away – a bit further on a rabbit skittered from the brambles by his feet, streaked across the road, and was almost hit by a car. Liam watched it dive through the crispy thatch of last year’s bracken, but it shook him up and made his heart thump. And he’d only just settled back into the hypnotic padding of his trainers, when he tripped on the edge of a pothole and ripped the sole half off. And now a fine curtain of drizzle swept across the loch and the flapping of his shoe got on his nerves.
Liam took the key from under the bin and let himself in, but stayed only long enough to change into a dry hoody and sweats from the ironing pile and grab his waterproof off the hook on the backdoor. He was late, his mum would be home soon – he hadn’t missed a day this week and had no intension of letting a little rain spoil his routine.
The swollen river was the colour of strong tea and the woods hissed with rain. He was hot and sweaty from the run and his stomach muscles hardened with anticipation. A few weeks ago he had stashed some dope in a jar beneath a fallen oak tree and the thought of getting high doubled the incentive to spend long afternoons and evenings at the river.
He squatted down against the log and pulled his hood up to make a rough shelter against the rain and rolled a one skinner and lit it. Then, as though it wasn’t raining at all he stretched out his legs and leaned back. He might have fallen asleep if a solid trickle of rain hadn’t run off his hood and puddled on his belly. He folded over, hacked a lazy cough, stood up, shook out his top and stared at the river. A few seconds later, he’d stripped off down to his underpants, wrapped everything in his waterproof and rammed it all under a nearby root.
The way the water flowed into the shallow pools of his collarbones and wrapped around his neck sent a thrill right through him. He tried to make his breath steady and smooth, suppressing the occasional sharp gasp of hysteria. As he moved a little way from the bank the water picked up pace, needles of rain stung his face. He grabbed a twisted hazel branch above his head with both hands and wrestled with it until his arms ached. Trillions of tiny silver splashes steamed hypnotically and he half-closed his eyes. And then he let go and his feet lost their hold. He lunged up and back but the branch was out of reach. Over and again he kicked upwards searching for a handhold, but he was weak with dope, his eyes blinded by water and in the end there was nothing to do but go with it and paddle. The bank raced past, a low slung branch caught his shoulder – he barely felt it. A row of those damned willow came and went, the oak with the rotten middle. Everything went spinning past. He began to urge his arms and legs to pull and push until at last some kind of regular pattern emerged. It felt like an hour, but it was only a few minutes before the river slowed into a broad pool. He stood up at last and pushed himself forward with long swaggering strides. He blew great plumes of water into the air and shook himself and saw it cascade off his skin and it was beautiful.
He pulled himself onto the bank, lay down, stuck his tongue out and caught the tingling rain.
He must do it again, go back, do it again. He stood up. His legs felt weird. He felt weird. He was changed. He could swim! He dropped into a press-up position and pumped: up down up down. And after a few burning minutes he rolled onto his back and started giggling. It wasn’t a wish any more – it wasn’t a hope. Sometimes over the past week he’d touched the bottom, just the faintest unacknowledged push, but now he remembered each and every cheat with the condescension of the expert. This time there was no hesitation – he walked back up the river and with only the very smallest gasp, lowered himself into the water and found his hands and feet more than ready and eager to paddle and loop and kick.
Heaving himself from the water a third time, Brian stepped up from behind a tree and offered him a hand. Liam stared, eyes widening. The other two were leaning casually against the crowding trees. Liam heard a camera shutter snap and the triumph of the previous moment transformed into humiliation: he knew what he had looked like in his underpants, a child taking his first struggling strokes, a prick.
Ignoring the hand he pulled himself onto the bank, twisting as he sprang up to face the river, feet still in the water, conscious now of the spots on his back and his exposing boxers.
Brian and Shawn and Dougie dropped tight beside him, ripped off their socks and shoes and flung them over their shoulders like grenades. The steady rain dripping from the trees popped and crackled like distant gunfire.
‘Come on guys, last in’s a gay-boy.’ All three sprang to their feet and tore off their clothes. Liam stood too, preparing to run, but Brian and Dougie snatched his arms and held him.
‘Aw, come on, Liam, show us your doggie paddle.’ And they pushed him hard and he fell sideways into the pool and swallowed water.
By the time he’d found his feet they were on top of him. Shawn and Dougie held one arm each. Brian nodded and placed his hands on the back of Liam’s head and pushed forward and down.
Under the water and beyond the rushing of noise in his ears, he could hear them counting. They pulled him up after twenty. Liam gulped at the air. Brian pushed again. Liam began kicking with his legs as his lungs went into spasm.
They were going to kill him.
After the fourth ducking, Liam’s mind and lungs began to balloon and go soft and cave in. He saw his dad, the matt of twigs and the coffin.
They dragged him up, words distant and slow. Liam hung from their grip like a doll.
‘Come on, man.’ They hauled him towards the bank.
‘Let’s go, Brian.’ Mark said ‘He’s not worth it.’
‘Fuck you! What’s wrong with you guys – he’s a fucking cunt.’
Liam felt his arms release, but he was so weak that his head went easily down. When he surfaced, Brian grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back and forced him over.
‘Leave Abi alone. I’m warning you, loser – leave Abi alone.’ He threw Liam forward with disgust, then waded after him, punched him hard in the kidneys, before turning to the bank where the other two were finding their scattered gear, silently pulling on their clothes. ‘Com’on man.’
Brian batted the water again and spat and heaved himself out.
Liam folded over, coughing, clutching himself. When they were out of sight, he made it to the bank, gripped a root. A sleepy, post-adrenalin sludge was seeping through him but it was a long time before he managed to haul himself out and crawl to the knot of clothes jammed under the roots, and with his fingers numb and clumsy and his skin like sodden glue, it took an age of damp pulling to judder his clothes back on. Desperate for a smoke, he first needed to make sure he was alone, so he tramped a few clumsy circles through the trees. They were gone – he was sure they were gone.
At last his wrinkled and fumbling fingers extracted a Rizla without it tearing and he laid it between two deep creases on the old oak’s trunk. Then he crushed the heated hash and mixed it with tobacco and tipped it in the trough and eventually it all came trembling together. He sucked at it, hunched over the smoke as though it might warm him and, once it was done, he crumpled down onto his side and pulled his knees up, clamped his arms between his legs, waited for the nausea and shakes to pass and slept.
Later, in bed, he relived the almost drowning. He could see it all – the way they’d crept up on him, commando like, through the woods, the glint of a blade, Brian’s muscular hands pushing his head down, he saw himself thrashing under the water and felt the collapse of his lungs…
But in the end he had won, hadn’t he, had shamed Shawn and Dougie – they had tried to drown a boy and the boy had been too strong for them and they had given up.
Closing his eyes, he heard the emotion in his dad’s voice, felt his strong chest as he drew him close, saw him come back at last – and all because – the boy could swim.