Smalltown Boys

Isaac took another look at his phone. About last night… He put it back down. Lacking the composure to continue with the message, he drew the curtains to be met with brilliant sunlight that left him blinking, briefly blinkered into expecting warmth. Things had not changed overnight. He picked the phone up again, and inadvertently moved to his photos. A quarter of his life, documented patchily, but accessible with a single swipe. He considered looking through them, scrolling and scrolling until he was there again, but incidentally clocked the time: to his surprise, still only 6am. He had not slept, and so did what he always had in these situations and went for a walk. The paths were well-trodden, and always brought him immense comfort, but at no point had he expected to be doing it again. All year he had been getting himself used to the idea of leaving, preparing for one final clean break, and yet now he felt like he was going backwards. In the cold light of day, it seemed inevitable. Confrontations had needed to be made. The faded posters for Imperial (‘Linthorpe’s finest night out’) were still on the wall next to the corner shop. Both were long shut, but the memories hit all the harder for it: waiting outside the shop, begrudgingly adhering to the patently discriminatory maximum four kids at once policy that would eventually come to create an invaluable window for clandestine conversations; years later, those conversations curtailed and the grudges turned bitter, directed silently and seething across the Imperial bar. A leaf appeared on his shoulder, prematurely escaping its branch. It took him by surprise, but the first signs of autumn filled him with a bittersweet joy. All his life he had unwittingly basked in the creeping gloom of the season. When Danny and Jake would deride him for being ‘a miserable sod’ and the like, he revelled in that too, because for as much as he just liked being teased, it meant he had found his place. Now, for the first time in nineteen years, those initial brown leaves descending on to the roads were all he would have of a Linthorpe harvest. He clung to the thought of Jake telling him to get a grip. Indulgence in melancholy is fine until it becomes reality. The flashbacks had grown stronger over the past twelve months. With so much changing, and so much yet to change, they were suddenly blazing bursts of white heat, undimmed by time; almost tangible. Truthfully they were unreliable, but increasingly they were all he had. Somehow, though, the memories had never felt more immediate or intense than in the faded light of the previous night. As he made his way back home, Isaac had to rack his brains to remember Jake’s arrival. ‘The ancient mariner has returned!’ Danny had greeted him, enthusiastically. ‘Mariners take boats, Daniel. I’ve only been on a plane.’ He said it with a sheepish, declining intonation, head down. Isaac felt like a light had gone out, just as it was turning back on. Danny and Taylor swamped Jake though, cajoling him into more reasonable smiles and even laughs, and on it went, pint by pint. Isaac found it hard to feel much more than an observer. It soon became apparent that twelve months was a long time; to some people, at least. Isaac and Jake were filled in on all of Danny and Taylor’s various misdemeanours, from the latter’s nineteenth birthday to their freshers exploits in Bolton and Sunderland respectively; Jake regaled the group with tales of his travels across the Far East. All Isaac felt he had to offer was a hope that he passed his A-levels properly this time. He was therefore reluctant. No doubt as rehearsed, though, Jake eventually moved on to him, with a casualness that was as jarring as it was expected. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘what about you Ise? Glad to be finally getting out of here or what?’ They both knew they could exchange no more than pleasantries. Isaac added a half-hearted dig at Jake’s globetrotting exploits for effect, but it was far from enough. Time went on and there was no movement. There were occasional sparks, such as when Jake dared question Danny’s bravery in the face of dental treatment, but Isaac was never fully involved. ‘Says the guy who bottled giving blood this time last year,’ Danny had prodded back at Jake. He then pointed to Isaac, adding that, ‘at least Tom Daley over there had an excuse.’ Jake forced the requisite laughter, and Isaac bemoaned the restrictions imposed by prejudice, only half-joking. He was certain that with twelve months having passed, Jake would find no barrier to the process, but knew it was not his place to say. For Isaac, the pub reunion was thoroughly uneventful. Before he knew it, it was time to say goodbye. His and Jake’s farewell was judiciously less intoxicated than usual, which had likely not helped; heading off in their taxi, Danny and Taylor’s was considerably looser. ‘Tight get has all that money, and still has the cheek to live walking distance from here,’ Danny joked. ‘You sure you’re alright getting to yours Ise? Bit further.’ ‘I’ll be alright.’ Out of habit, he took off in his expected direction, intending to wait until the coast cleared behind him to turn back. Perhaps it was just a strong form of muscle memory, but as far as Isaac was concerned he had forgotten, forgotten that it was simply not necessary any more. It was ironic: for a year, remembering was all he had done. His friends were gone, doing what he should already have been too, and he was left alone, with lines not drawn under the reasons why. Come the next morning he found himself returning to his phone, going through it all again, the history and pre-history. The keepsakes ranged from the standard to the unsavoury—specifically a primitive videophone recording of Jake in a fight, the one time his veneer of equanimity cracked. Isaac failed to attend the spectacle, always veering as far from aggression as humanly possible, but someone had bluetoothed it to him, and with him it stayed. He had upgraded his phone since, but transferred the file, because he knew the story, and found losing it unconscionable. Until last night, it was something he had never managed to bring up. ‘Ah, Mr Bond,’ Jake whispered. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’ His grin was not reciprocated. ‘You don’t change, do you?’ Jake continued to grin, undeterred, and if anything, propelled. ‘Nope.’ Like nothing had changed, he sat on his favoured upturned plant pot, glowing in the dark. Isaac was careful as ever not to cross the line and alert the garden light sensor. ‘Serious though,’ ceded Jake, ‘we gonna have a proper chat then?’ ‘Why else would I be here?’ ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’ He smiled, and this time Isaac did too. As he watched Jake remove his keys from his pocket, he felt in his stomach a familiar fizz, an inebriation unplanned. Inside, they slowly made their way to levelling with each other, skirting, the layer of awkwardness still leaving them both evasive. The dance went on, and Isaac’s feet were long blistered. The video, he thought, well that would seem a soft way in. ‘Do you remember that time you got into a fight with Andy Corkhill?’ Jake blushed. ‘It wa'n't a fight really, more of a confrontation.’ Isaac’s brain reached to tell him that it was—he still had the video! But he thought the better of it. ‘Don't even know why you'd do that; no one got into fights by that age, s'childish.’ Disingenuousness was met in kind. ‘Yeah, well.’ The film failed to pierce. Everything had gone unspoken again, right back to the start; right where Jake wanted. As ever, it was his house, and his terms. In truth, Isaac found it suited him. If they were to be mates again, they had to act like it. In some ways more than others, it was like nothing had changed. Isaac had anticipated that returning to the scene of the crime could end up multiplying the awkwardness, but that was not the case. Now he was finally there, he felt no overwhelming rush, just a relaxing familiarity. He noted the persistence of the little things, like the jam with the mortice lock in Jake’s bedroom door that left it difficult to get open. ‘See your parents never got round to having that fixed,’ he remarked. ‘Yeah, don’t blame ‘em though,’ Jake replied. ‘Not been any need for owt here to be open for a while now.’ When Jake asked for a chat, he was not underselling things. Once they had warmed up, his lines varied from the innocuous—‘don’t know about you, but I plan to live off biscuits and own-brand Angel Delight’—to the gently mocking—‘yeah, alright Sam Smith, I’m sure you’ve coped’. Mostly, Isaac was just happy to be hearing them again, but he felt they knew each other too well for that to be all. ‘You’re such a cliché lad,’ he told him at one point. ‘Well, we both know that’s not true,’ Jake replied, with an almost audible lament. It was an exercise in reconciliation, but with little emphasis on truth. By the end of the meeting there was mutual acceptance that they were friends once more. It went without saying. On the way out, it struck Isaac that the door was also difficult to close. Confrontations had needed to be made, but in the morning, he wondered if they were. Having pieced every part together, Isaac sat back down on his bed, realising that while things cannot be expected to change overnight, even a year was not too long. He picked up his phone, ready to return to composing his message. About last night…

Scott Brummitt