Meet me near the bridge

It was shortly before 10pm that Josh finally made up his mind. There was no way out. He’d done something terrible, cowardly even, and now he would have to face the consequences.

If only he’d listened to his sister.

Then again, what did she know? Her circle of friends spent most of their time swooning over some cringe worthy chick flick or other or experimenting with the latest tone of eyeshadow. Hardly a thrill a minute! 

Being in a gang had made him feel important. Given him a sense of identity.

For years he’d been that kid. The one who’d never really fitted in. It’s not that there was anything wrong with him, he just didn’t seem to have the same interests as other kids his age and hanging about making small talk had always felt so alien to him. And then, out of the blue, Jake had approached him. Extended the arm of friendship. Made life seem exciting.

They’d spent Saturday afternoons hanging out together watching video clips and indulging his sweet tooth. The age gap hadn’t seemed to matter at first – and anyway, Jake always seemed to have lots of money on him which had been kind of handy for all those trips to the precinct. Josh hadn’t really noticed when Jake’s other friends had started tagging along, although he had a faint suspicion that it was at about the same time that Saturday afternoons had begun to make him feel a bit edgy.

The sweets were promptly replaced by something more substantial from the chippy and although the cans that got passed around had a rather bitter flavour, Josh gradually got used to the taste and barely noticed the hours that he couldn’t quite account for the following day.

The pranks that he and Jake had laughed at on the video clips they’d watched together provided the inspiration for their Saturday night antics – although Josh had noticed that it always seemed to be him that got volunteered for the dangerous stuff. When at last he’d plucked up the courage to ask, Jake’s friends had claimed that it was Josh’s size that made him the obvious candidate for clambering through windows and shinning down drainpipes and he’d tried very hard to shrug off the suspicion that he was simply being used by these much older (and stronger) men.

Eventually, the ‘collections’ turned into deliveries and Josh had to admit that he much preferred his new role. Being gifted a bike and a phone to carry out his rounds had also been pretty cool. And although he knew (deep down) that the packages that he was delivering were probably causing the recipient harm, he kept telling himself that it had been their choice to put in an order, not his.

Josh couldn’t really remember when he’d first been asked to find new customers from amongst the younger kids at his school. However, he did remember the look on Jake’s face when he’d tried to refuse, and the scar located at the back of his calf served as a constant reminder that he no longer seemed to have any control over his own destiny.

Most of the younger kids had been eager to try a free sample or two (in exchange for a quick go on his bike) and Josh had told himself that his part in all of this was simply an act of self-preservation. He wasn’t even sure what was in the pellets that they were trying. Which was precisely why he had refused to believe that what had happened to dear little Tilly had had anything to do with him – at first, anyway.

But the papers had mentioned a history of depression and, having looked it all up on the internet, Josh discovered that there was indeed a link. Her image had been praying on his mind ever since. That timid little smile and those watery blue eyes.

A life needlessly cut short. Thanks to him.

That’s why, when a text from an unknown source had lit up his phone earlier that evening, Josh had known that it was Game Over. Tilly’s brother had worked it all out and he wasn’t going to let it lie. Josh was going to pay, it said. One way or another.

As he reached for his coat, Josh glanced around his bedroom one last time. It still bore the signs of the young boy who used to spend hours immersed in the pages of a book, curled up on the window seat, enjoying his own company. Carefully pulling his door to, Josh crossed the landing where he paused (just long enough) to take in the carefree laughter of his sister and her friends, their lives so deliciously free from complication. And with a heavy heart, he ventured out into the night.

He had been instructed to head for the railway bridge at the east side of town. He knew it well; it had been a regular haunt of his, ever since he’d allowed himself to become caught up with Jake and his gang. As he trudged further and further away from the relative safety of the well-lit High Street, Josh felt certain that the author of the text had chosen the bridge so that they would not be disturbed.

He’d gone over the options in his mind time and again. He could go to the police – but Jake (or one of his cronies) would no doubt see to it that he didn’t live long enough to stand trial. He could run away – but Jake had always been extremely careful to emphasise just how far his reach extended. And so, in the end, Josh had concluded that facing Tilly’s brother and his mates was probably the lesser evil and he’d been steeling himself for this moment all evening.

As he turned the final corner, Josh was struck by the realisation that nothing could adequately have prepared him for what lay before him. Plastered on every conceivable surface were the faces of all the ‘customers’ that he’d ‘served’ glinting defiantly in the moonlight.

Row upon row; an album of betrayal and of lost innocence. And he might as well have been the photographer.

Consumed with self-loathing, Josh made no attempt to fight off the two dark figures whose blows rained down upon him. He reckoned that he’d cheated enough people during his pitifully short life; he had no intention of cheating Death now too.     

The quest for anonymity

The extent to which one’s perspective can change over time, is nothing short of extraordinary. What seemed desirable just a few short years ago can suddenly seem rather alien to us as we strive to understand the many different stages of our own ‘metamorphosis’.

Of course, some stages are easier to detect than others, conveniently highlighted by physical changes that are instantly identifiable. And whilst humans do not undergo the sort of conspicuous or abrupt change to their basic structure that occurs in insects (for example), subtle changes are often afoot – not least in terms of the developing personality. 

I recently took a trip down memory lane and spent a couple of hours thumbing through a series of photographs from my childhood. It will come as no surprise to learn that (rather than simply focusing upon the happy faces of the subjects captured within) I spent most of the time cringing at the various outfits on display – presumably fashionable at the time, but now nothing short of bizarre! From shell suits to rah-rah skirts, quilted dresses to satin bows (that were almost as big as one’s head!) I unwittingly modelled them all. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why I feel so grateful to be a mum of boys – unashamedly flaunting my right to fill their wardrobes with jeans and t-shirts that are both uncontroversial, and likely to stand the test of time. Hurrah!

As the new academic year begins to come into focus, the inevitable flurry of shopping trips and internet sessions (in an attempt to meet the increasingly stringent requirements of the secondary school uniform list) has begun. Trying to achieve the perfect balance between buying clothes that will last for more than a term, and clothes that look as though they were at least intended to be worn by a Year 7 pupil (as opposed to someone sitting their GCSEs) has not been without its challenges. The overriding consideration though (certainly from my son’s point of view anyway) has been to ensure that all purchases render him utterly inconspicuous so that he can avoid the unwanted attention of older pupils and blend seamlessly into the background.

I’m pretty confident that this is something that we can all relate to. After all, schools haven’t changed that much and neither, sadly, have children. That ‘pack mentality’ of looking for difference, weakness – or indeed anything that is likely to get a reaction – is as prevalent now as ever it was. However, I have to admit to having been rather taken aback when a friend told me that her daughter (a thoroughly personable young girl) had been going through a difficult time at school and that her circle of friends had started to alienate her. I suppose that I assumed that the age-old suspects (such as hair colour, poor complexion, budget clothes brands or unsightly braces) would be at the root of their cruelty. Imagine my incredulity then, when I discovered that it was because her daughter didn’t wear braces that she was being ostracised! I didn’t see that one coming… 

So, when does individuality become acceptable? And at what particular stage in a person’s development is it ‘OK’ to stand out from the crowd?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that there is a definitive answer to either of these questions. What I do know, however, is that I’m eternally grateful to have left the uncertainty of youth behind – and reached an age where, quite frankly, no-one feels the need to pay me very much attention at all!

The Adolescent

Parenting is undeniably one of the greatest challenges that I have ever faced, and I frequently question why quite so many of us put ourselves through this particular ordeal…

As voluntary jobs go, it is ‘right up there’ in terms of emotional investment and logistical planning and (once the prepubescent hormones kick in) the ‘goal posts’ certainly seem to move with baffling proclivity.  Nothing that I have encountered in either the exam room or the classroom has even come close to the dramatic surges in blood pressure that my own children have managed to induce, and (for a reasonably confident person) I’ll admit to having given in to feelings of utter inadequacy at one time or another.  It is then, as they say, just a happy coincidence that I am writing this now – before my two boys decide that they are old enough to contradict me!

Despite frequently thinking that a user manual might have been helpful, I’ve never been one for reading vast tomes on parenting. Besides, who actually has the time to read that type of stuff whilst frantically trying to juggle the demands of their job with the day to day needs of their offspring? On the other hand, if someone (who has done the necessary research) could please just explain to me how two children from the exact same gene pool can be so utterly different in temperament and outlook, I’d be ever so grateful!

What follows then, is my (deliberately tongue in cheek) ‘Attenboroughesque’ commentary on the ‘Adolescent’ – that most complex of human species!

If one looks carefully into the dense urban undergrowth, it should be possible to pick out a lone adult female scratching her head in bewilderment. The eldest of her offspring (at just over a decade old) is seemingly ill-equipped to take responsibility for any aspect of his existence and looks to her to ensure that his every need is met. Multiple items of clothing lie strewn about the enclosure whilst the parched bristles of a toothbrush show no sign of recent activity. A pair of glasses (the lenses of which look oddly opaque, buried as they are under a thick crust of grime) lie discarded upon the ground, whilst the pages of a book (heavily dog eared from the nocturnal pursuits of the past 11 hours) rest casually within the creases of a hollow fibre duvet. Contained beneath the solace of the cosy bedding, glimpses can be snatched of a bleary pale blue iris, tentatively attempting to take in its immediate surroundings, braving the relative intensity of the new dawn. But alas, this brief display of energy proves utterly overwhelming and (having issued a deep guttural groan for good measure) the adolescent willingly submits himself to the clammy darkness of his natural habitat once more.

Meanwhile, movement can be detected from inside enclosure two. Light streams in through the main observation point revealing meticulously organised sleeping quarters and a spirited young male engaging in the final throes of his morning routine. As he nonchalantly casts his towel over a nearby radiator, deftly selecting a playlist at maximum volume on his Echo Show, it is clear that this young mammal has no intention of awaiting instructions (or seeking approval) from the adult male who can be seen lethargically arriving upon the scene. Hackles rise as the two males begin posturing for supremacy, and the early threads of conversation swiftly escalate into the loud staccato tones of conflict. For now, at least, the young male grudgingly accepts defeat and beats a hasty retreat. From the confines of his den, he sets about laboriously (and vociferously) pacing the perimeter until the call of the alarm clock finally beckons. With a degree of calm temporarily restored, the adult male can be seen lavishly preening himself, as he basks in his first (and probably last!) victory of the day.