In eight seconds time, I will die.
Every school has a tough kid. Ours is called Jug. Short for Juggernaut. Jug is huge. He looks like three normal kids squished together into a big ugly blob. He is so large that people think he’s a man with a kid’s face. He looks like a shaved gorilla, an orc, a pink Hulk.
Jug is sprinting towards me. His massive King Kong hands are raised, ready to push me into the water. And I cannot swim.
That’s the sound of his footsteps. Or is it my heart?
In 5 steps time I will die.
Behind me is Blake Mere pool, the scariest pool in the Peak District. A circle of water so dark, it looks like ink. People say that no animal will drink from it. No bird will fly over. I don’t blame them.
In 4 steps time, I will die.
Jug doesn’t want to kill me. He doesn’t know that I can’t swim and in his tiny mind, he’s just goofing around but he’s so big and clumsy things that tend to break, like people. Like that time when he told a boy in 4C to ‘catch a brick’. The boy missed and cracked a rib.
Jug is about to push me in the water to remind me who is boss, but the thing is, I already know. It’s his girlfriend. Her name is Neat, short for Anita Jasso. Neat is The Bad Girl. She is short, dark and keeps you awake, just like a triple espresso.
It was Neat’s idea to come here, to the scary pool. Jug’s dad is a bus driver, so he gets free travel, but we still had to trek for miles. Then the moment we got here, Neat wanted to go home, moaning that she was cold. The reason she is cold because she is hardly wearing any clothes. She is shivering so much that I can hear her bones rattling. It sounds like someone knitting.
Neat hates me because I’m Jug’s Best Friend. I’m his onlyfriend but three’s a crowd so she wants me gone. She tried mocking me, but it made Jug protective, so now she’s got a new plan. It’s called flirting. She flirts with me to makes Jug jealous and it works. It’s why he’s going to push me in the water, in exactly three seconds time.
Even though my life is about to end, I have to admit Jug looks cool, like a great big friendly dog, bounding towards me, ready to leap.
The curious thing about this moment is that I know how to stop it. I could swerve to one side, so he’d crash into the water. Jug would emerge, looking wet and dopey and in that moment, I would seize his title, “The Toughest Boy in the School”.
The reason I know howto defeat him is because I do martial arts. I’m saying “martial arts” because if I used its real-name, Aikido, you wouldn’t know what it was talking about. In a nutshell, Aikido is like Karate but with one major difference: in Karate, you use your own power to whack people but in Aikido, you use the enemy’s force against them, which is great if you’re a skinny kid like me, fighting a big, fat slab of meat called Jug. So, instead of attempting to stop Jug in his tracks, the Aikido way is to let him glide by and plop in the pool like a big fat comet.
It’s my Dad’s fault that I know martial arts. He didn’t want me to get bullied. I have a birthmark on my face that looks like a target, for fists. I’m also shy, skinny, half-Polish and have hair so short, it makes me look bald. You I can see why he’d think I’d get picked on, but the weird thing is, I don’t. I have never been bullied in my life. To be bullied you have to be noticed and I’m the kid they ignore.
It’s the final second before I die and time to make a choice. To live or die?
Let’s weigh up those options:
If I dolive, Jug will be happy, having re-established his position as the school’s Alpha Male. If the pool is shallow, I will claw my way out, coughing and spluttering, looking like a total loser. Jug and Neat will laugh and bond, so I’ll no longer be a threat, then we’ll all live happily ever after.
But if the pool is deep, as I suspect, I will die. The black ink will swallow me up and gloop, I’ll disappear forever. Neat used to be a Life Guard so she maydive in and save me but I wouldn’t bank on it. She really doeswant me gone.
So, what’s it to be? Life or death? To be or not to be? That is the question. Should I glide to one side and let Jug be the chump? Or just… die? To be honest, there’s not much life to save. My mum hates me, my Dad is dying and the only friend I’ve got, is the kid who is pushing [CL2] me in. I try to be positive. Wrack my brains for all the good things in life, like Lauren Hope and chocolate. Then I’m struck by a thought…
Is that it?
Are those the only things I can think of that are worth living for?A girl who doesn’t know I exist and a bar of Galaxy Caramel? And then I remember, my Dad! Not only is he the best Dad ever but he’s the brightest, funniest…
Jug’s hands hit my chest with the force of a truck. My entire body flies through the air and for one brief moment, I am flying. Then…
I hit the water.
Or should I say ink. As cold and black as Death.
There’s an advert on the telly that tells you what to do if you’re drowning. It suggests you relax. If you do this, your body will float. I ignore that advice and thrash about, like a deranged helicopter, desperately trying to escape the crazy cold water.
Shock. Splash. Thrash. Gulp. Gloop. Sink.
There’s a brief hope that Neat will save me then…
I am floating in the deep and the strange thing is, I’m not dead. I’m alive. I’ve never felt morealive but there’s more…
There is someone down here with me.
How totally WEIRD is that?
From the moment I hit the water, I knew she was there. A presence. A ghost. A spirit. I can’t tell you whether she is in my head or ‘in’ the water but there is definitely someone down here. Or some thing. Don’t ask me how I know that, I just do. I also know that she’s female. And bright.
I feel her surprise. I’ve startled her but she isn’t scared, just curious. We both are.
The crazy thing is, I’m not scared. I’m scared of drowning, obvs, but not of her. So, though my body is going through the involuntary movements of a boy losing his grip on life, my mind is as clear as water. It’s an odd thing to say but I feel at home in this world and she knows that. We are both completely enthralled.
A moment ago, I was a sad kid on land, bored out of his brain, just hanging around with a thug and his girlfriend. Then a few seconds later and BANG, I’m floating in an awesome new reality. A world of total blackness. Sure, it is so bone-chillingly cold that life is draining from my body but boy, this place, it is wonderful.
I’m in total darkness. It’s as if I am insidethe colour black, how bonkers is that? Shafts of light from the surface attempt to pierce it but she pushes them away. Whoever enters this dark and eerie world is lost, but that’s fine with me, I was lost already. It all seems strangely familiar but the most amazing thing of all is,
I AM NOT ALONE
There is definitely someone down here with me. A friend. A girl… friend. Don’t ask me how I know she’s a girl, I just do. There’s a lightness to her spirit that boys just don’t have, not round here anyway.
We circle each other in the water, as if we’re doing a dance. As first dates go, it’s weird. We don’t do the normal date stuff, like sit in a café and flirt. We don’t say things like,
Hi, I’m Jan, oh this old thing? It’s a birthmark
In fact, we don’t speak at all. We just float. Now, I am aware that sounds a bit odd but it’s true. She knows me. She likes me. She wants to know more. Perhaps she can sense that I’ve accepted my fate and finds that reassuring. Who knows what she thinks? She’s a spirit!
Are you Death?
I say, or is it think?
comes the echo and she laughs. I look around to see where she is but she’s not in one place, she’s all over, like a sound, like music. My heart is the drum and it’s beginning to fade, slowing down to a stop.
Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom
I see a light in the darkness and then….
A massive hand plunges in and grabs me by the hair. Jug’s massive fist hauls me up to the surface, to a world of pain and air.
Cough Splutter Light Cold
And Jug’s ugly face.
I’ll take the mermaid any day.
* * * *
The three of us walk back in silence, Jug, Neat and Me. The Peaks are bleak. The wind is so cold, it cuts like a knife but it’s not as cold as Neat’s heart. She doesn’t even look at me. The girl who had the power to save me but deliberately chose not to. But I don’t care, all I care about is the ‘thing’ in the water. Who was she? And why do I feel so alive?
It is starting to get dark. We shouldn’t be here, out on the Peaks. It’s dangerous. It is not a place for humans. Both Neat and I are shivering so much that Jug must make a choice. Who should he give his coat to? He doesn’t need it because he’s so stupidly tough, he could survive the next Ice Age, but me and Neat? We’re wimps.
Jug assesses the situation to see who needs it most. Neat is cold because she is wearing a skirt the size of a postage stamp. Her legs hang from it, like bits of string with knots for knees. Jug keeps glancing at them, as if they’re something special.
I am cold because I’ve been underwater, where I almost died. Jug sees me as a drowned, wretched, skeleton of a boy with an ugly red mark on his face. Then he looks back at Neat, the coolest girl in the world. It’s a no-brainer. He hands her the coat.
I trudge through the rain, watching them walk ahead: the hyena and the ape.
I feel a bit dizzy, something is wrong. I can hear the voice of the underwater ‘creature’ but I’m not underwater? It appears to be coming from the rain. I look up to see where it’s coming from.
I say, in a very small voice, then my whole world turns black, but not “cool black” like the pool, just plain old unconscious.
* * * * *
I wake up on Jug’s back, draped in his coat, then everything goes black. Again.
* * * * *
I wake up in hospital. The lights are bright and it’s way too noisy.
Clash. Bash. Swish. Clunk.
My trolley slams to a halt. A doctor tells me I’m lucky to be alive then everything goes black.
* * * * *
I wake up in hospital. My mum is arguing with the doctor. She is wearing a Tesco tabard so must have come straight from work. I am going to be in so much trouble. Fade to black.
* * * * *
I wake up on a trolley. Jug is by my side. It looks like he’s been crying.
Fade to black.
* * * * *
I wake up in hospital but this time it’s different. I’m in bed. I can hear the telly. Strictly Come Dancing. I look around and find I’m on a ward. Mum is asleep in a chair. My hand hurts. I look down to see there’s a plastic thing sticking out of it, exactly the same as my Dad’s.
* * * * *
I wake up in a taxi. We’re on our way home. Mum is asking a thousand questions.
What was I doing?
What was I thinking?
Do I know I could have died?
Did I know how understaffed they were at work?
Did I know that she had to leave Dad for ten whole hours?
And now he’ll be late for his test!
She asks me these questions in one long string, so there’s no time to answer. I don’t, I just stare out of the window. We never get taxis. We can’t afford them.
The car is posh. The seat hugs me like Mum never does.