As they crawl under the hedge and out through the hole in the wire fencing surrounding the school, nervous laughter catches both Keagan and Peter. Checking behind them in case a teacher is patrolling, they see the coast is clear and start the twenty-minute walk to the local outdoor swimming pool.
Although bunking off school is a regular occurrence for the boys, today has proven difficult because Keagan should be meeting his form-teacher after lunch to explain the packet of ten Rothmans she found in his jacket pocket.
‘What are you going to say to her?’
‘I’ll just say I forgot.’ Says Keagan, lighting up a cigarette from a non-confiscated packet.
‘That’s original! I’m sure she’ll be ok with that?’ Peter says, wide-eyed.
‘Yeah, I suppose I’m in for a week of lunchtime detentions. But look on the bright-side, there are worse things than spending my lunchtime with Miss Roslyn!’
Miss Roslyn, their form-teacher, is the latest crush for all the boys at school. A newly qualified teacher, she also teaches French, a subject they have suddenly become more interested in after four years of only being able to say, bonjour.
They are active sixteen-year-old boys who had done well in gaining a place at the respected local grammar school. Although bright students, they have not applied themselves to the rigours of the academic world with great enthusiasm. Whilst they were both expected to achieve a reasonable set of O-Level results, as their reports so often stated, they could try harder.
Keagan Devlin, a member of all the school sports teams, his teachers using the threat of expulsion from them as a discipline measure, was the taller of the two at five feet ten inches. His active lifestyle keeping him in good condition, he was considered a good-looking young man. His brown hair is cut in the fashionable style called a “wedge”, and when out of his uniform, he would regularly pass for being eighteen, a benefit he had found when going to local pubs and clubs. Normally the instigator of the trouble they so often found themselves in, it was often remarked that he must have kissed the blarney stone, regarding his half-Irish heritage and ability to talk himself out of difficult situations. Of course, being the youngest of five siblings also helped, his brothers teaching him all the tricks they had learnt over the years.
Peter Chubb, small for his age at five feet seven inches, his hair a lighter shade of brown and with a slightly pale complexion, was the more cautious of the two. Born into a traditional English working-class family, with one brother, he was the spoilt child, at least according to Keagan.
As they make their way under the subway at Gants Hill underground station, with the usual pungent smell of urine dominating the atmosphere, Peter stops as he passes the ticket office looking uneasy as he coughs into his handkerchief.
‘Another cold? Your mum will have you off for a week?’ Keagan says.
‘You’re just jealous.’
‘Yeah true, I’d just be told to get my lazy arse out of bed and get to school.’
‘Who will be there?’ Peter asks as they carry on through the underpass.
‘Danny and Eddie, not sure about Mark, they’ve been every day this week, I don’t know how they do it.’
‘If you were a teacher, would you want Danny in your class? They probably invite him to take the day off!’ Peter says, laughing.
‘I’m sure half his teachers don’t even know who he is.’
‘And the other half wish they didn’t.’
A bright sunny day in late April, it’s the perfect day for the pool. As they arrive, they join the small queue outside the entrance to the 1920s built lido in Valentines Park. Although it’s seen better days, it is still a popular place for all the local teenagers during the summer months, being the only outdoor pool in the area. After getting changed in the cramped and tired-looking changing rooms, which still have most of the original fixtures including the original 1920s mirrors advertising “Vimto”, they go out to the main pool area. Seeing their friends occupying the sun-beds at the deep end of the pool, they make their way over, taking two beds next to them. The boys exchange stories about how they escaped school for the afternoon. Danny Wade, “Shoulders” referring to his powerful upper body gained from five days a week at the gym, along with copious amounts of steroids, always denied but nevertheless likely, is talking to Keagan about a fight he had at school. Danny was in a fight at least once a week and Keagan, as his preferred wing-man, would always get the full details if he wasn’t there. Peter, keen to avoid getting involved in any fights and happy to avoid the discussions, is talking to Eddie and Mark about a concert they are all going to the following week. Ian Drury and the Blockheads are playing at the Gants Hill Odeon. Eddie, who has a friend working in cinema, has offered to get them all in through the back doors.
‘Who’s up for a swim then?’ Keagan says as he finishes hearing about Danny’s latest conquest.
With agreement from them all, they get up from their beds. Reaching the edge of the pool, Keagan grabs Danny’s legs tossing him unceremoniously into the pool.
‘You’re a dead man Devlin.’ Danny says as Keagan jumps up, and assuming the bomb position, hits the water with a huge splash. Much to the annoyance of the other pool users.
‘No bombing!’ The attendant sitting in his highchair shouts.
The afternoon goes by with the boys spending most of their time in the water, inventing many different games to play, most of them involving somebody getting hurt. Although they’re all starting to mature from boys to men, they can quickly switch from one to the other. Today the younger side is evident. As the time approaches the normal end of a school day, the boys are relaxing on the sun-beds when Danny suggests one last race before they leave. Lining up along the pool edge, Keagan and Danny given extra room as they’re always so competitive, all five boys dive in. Racing across the deepest section of the pool, Danny makes it first, Keagan just behind reaches the edge of the pool and looks around to see who’s left. He sees Peter still in the middle and from the frantic way his arms are flaying he instinctively knows something is wrong. Immediately he swims back towards him. Mark, also noticing the situation, looks up to the lifeguard’s highchair, alarmed to see the chair empty.
‘Over here.’ Mark cries, attracting the notice of the other pool users but no sign of a lifeguard.
‘Peter,’ — shouts Keagan as he swims towards his friend who appears to be having difficulty breathing and in his panic is battling to stay above water — ‘take my arm, I’ll pull you in.’
Peter in blind panic grabs for him, pulling Keagan under the water, increasing the danger for both of them. Keagan manages to get control of him and is doing what he can to get him to safety, but it’s proving difficult because of Peter’s struggles.
Mark climbs out of the pool and runs to find the lifeguard. He finds him coming out of the changing rooms with an armful of towels. ‘Help, our friend’s in trouble.’ He says as he points to the scene in the middle of the pool.
‘You’re ‘aving a laugh mate,’ — comes the reply from the six-foot heavily tanned lifeguard, as he turns toward the scene — ‘you little gits have been mucking around all afternoon what do you take me for?’
Mark grabs the towels from the lifeguard, and throwing them on the ground shouts at him. ‘Get your arse in there, can’t you see he’s drowning.’
Angry, but realising this may be genuine, the lifeguard sprints towards the pool, diving in he reaches the trouble in a few powerful strokes. Keagan has somehow got Peter in a hold and is attempting to pull him to the side. Although relieved that his friend is not kicking or grabbing anymore, he’s concerned at his lack of movement. He’s starting to think he will not make it when the lifeguard grabs hold of Peter and pulls him away, expertly getting him to the side of the pool. Lifting him with the help of both Danny and Eddie, they get Peter out and onto the edge of the pool. The lifeguard pulls himself out and immediately into action as he checks a motionless Peter. He’s giving resuscitation as a second lifeguard arrives. Offering help he is tasked with calling for an ambulance and rushes off to the office area.
Keagan pulls himself out of the pool and joins the crowd surrounding the scene as Peter gives a loud cough, expelling the water with force. Clearing the water restarts his breathing and the lifeguard turns him on his side to the recovery position. Keagan, seeing the difficulty his friend is having, his lips blue and his skin almost transparent, asks the lifeguard if he will be all right.
‘Yeah, he’ll be ok now, but we’ll wait for the ambulance to arrive to check him over. Can you boys get me some towels, it’ll keep him warm while we’re waiting.’
As they all help in covering Peter with towels, they can hear the ambulance siren approaching. Being only a mile or so from the local King George’s Hospital, the ambulance has responded immediately. Two ambulance men arrive at the side of the pool. They check Peter over as Keagan stays by his side, whilst the other boys move away to talk.
‘Shit, that was lucky what the hell happened?’ Danny says.
‘I don’t know, it was only when I saw Keagan going back that I realised there was a problem.’ Mark says.
‘He must’ve swallowed water and panicked.’ Eddie helpfully adds.
‘No shit Sherlock.’ Danny responds as he shakes his head.
Keagan joins the group as the ambulance men wrap Peter in their big red blankets and lift him onto a stretcher.
‘Danny, they’re going to take him to King George’s he’s still not breathing well, I’ll go with him, can you go round to his mum and let her know what’s happened?’
‘No problem, I’ll take his stuff with me, do you want me to take yours?’
‘It’s ok, our stuff’s together in our bags by the sun-beds I’ll just take them with me, I can get changed there.’
‘I’ll get them.’ Says Eddie as he runs off to the other side of the pool.
‘So what exactly do I tell his mum?’
‘Fuck, we’re supposed to be at school!’ Keagan says, a look of horror on his face which turns to a resigned smile, ‘Looks like I’m in shit then!’
‘It’s ok for you, I’m the one who has to go there and tell her!’
‘Yeah, but you scare the life out of her, she won’t say anything to you. I’ll have to explain why we weren’t at school when she gets to the hospital.’
Eddie returns with the bags over his shoulder and gives them to Keagan, who rejoins the crew taking Peter to the waiting ambulance. Danny heads off to get changed for the trip to Peter’s house.
The ambulance sets off for the hospital, sirens clearing the traffic and adding to the feeling of drama. Peter is laying on the stretcher, now converted to a bed, still wearing the oxygen mask while the ambulance man continues to run checks on him. Keagan sits at the other side of the vehicle putting on his school jumper, already contemplating the discussion he’ll be having with Peter’s mum. He knows he’s about to be in serious trouble, this woman wraps her son in cotton wool, after all. A sudden realisation hits him, he will have to explain this to his mum! It’s a close-run thing which will be worse.
‘How are you doing?’ He asks Peter as he leans across.
Peter nods and raises his hand with a thumbs-up sign.
‘I’ll tell your mum it was my fault, don’t worry.’
Peter looks at him, his expression says it all. Good luck with that then!
Keagan produces a nervous smile, Peter’s mum will know full well that it was his bad idea, it always is.
As they arrive at the hospital, the crew wheel the stretcher carrying Peter straight into the busy accident & emergency department, passing through the big plastic double doors into the admissions area. Keagan is asked to go to reception to give them Peter’s details. He gives the details required and with the officious staff not allowing him into the emergency area, he takes a seat, checking through his bags while he waits. As usual, the waiting area is crowded with casualties. Injured limbs, nose bleeds, people being sick, Keagan is careful to avoid these, whilst a young baby in its mother’s arms cries endlessly.
Instinctively he looks up as Peter’s mum walks in through the main doors. Taking a deep breath, he waves to attract her attention. Noticing the worried look on her face, Keagan knows this discussion will not be easy. A normally easy-going and gentle woman, he gets on well with Mrs Chubb, usually! In her fifties with greying hair and a stout figure, Mrs Chubb has two boys of which Peter is the youngest and with her eldest son married and moved away, she now spends most of her time fussing over Peter.
‘Hello, Mrs Chubb.’ He says tentatively as she approaches.
‘What the hell happened? Your friend said he nearly drowned. What were you doing at the pool? Where is he I need to go in?’
Clearly not requiring an answer to all these questions and Keagan being grateful to avoid answering them, he points to the large double doors.
‘He’s in there, I’m sure he’s fine, they said they needed to keep an eye on him for a while.’
As she heads off into the direction of the emergency area Keagan sighs. Deciding he’s had enough of sitting, he paces around the waiting area. His mind on the events of the afternoon and his pending discussion with his mum, he trips over a young girl on the end of a row of chairs. Her leg is packed in ice and elevated on a stool.
‘Thanks, that’s just what I needed.’ She says.
‘Sorry, my fault, I didn’t see you there — are you all right?’
‘I was until you kicked me!’
Her warm smile is hard to ignore, but it’s her eyes that transfix him. A shade of green he’s never seen before, they remind him of the early leaves on his fathers rose bushes at home, so bright, so full of life. Coupled with her shapely figure, her long mousey-blond hair and that smile, he’s decided, she’s gorgeous. Estimating her to be of a similar age, although clearly in pain from her leg injury, there’s humour there which he likes. Sitting in her P.E. kit covered by her school blazer, a school which Keagan knows was a few miles away in Hainault, she gives him a puzzled look.
‘Why are you walking around in your pants?’
His cheeks warm as he looks down and smiles, starting to explain why he was still in his swimming trunks. As he gets to the part explaining what happened with Peter, Mrs Chubb reappears from the emergency area.
‘Keagan, can we sit down somewhere? I need to talk to you.’
Something in her tone suggests that this will not be good news. He reluctantly says goodbye to the girl, frustrated he hasn’t even got her name yet. Leading Mrs Chubb to a section of seating in the far corner of the room, his heart rate increases, although he’s unsure if this is concern about what Mrs Chubb will say or the effect the girl has had on him.
‘Keagan, I need to tell you something important.’ Mrs Chubb says as they take their seats.
Oh god! He thinks. She’s started with his name this will not be good.
‘Peter has told me what happened, and I want to thank you for what you did at the pool.’
Whilst he was prepared for an in-depth interrogation, what he did not expect was thank you. His pre-prepared story now abandoned as he listens.
‘You’ve been a friend to Peter for many years and we’ve talked to Peter many times about telling you this.’ She sighs, composing herself a little before continuing. ‘Peter has always been adamant that he would tell you when the time was right, because of what happened today, he’s agreed that now would be a good time. Peter has an illness, it’s called Cystic Fibrosis,’ — as she says the words her voice falters, Keagan can see tears developing in her eyes — ‘it doesn’t affect him all the time but he’s not had a good week and it’s probably why he got into trouble at the pool today.’
Instinctively Keagan’s reaches out to Mrs Chubb, she takes his hand in her own, resting it on her lap.
‘Peter will be all right so you mustn’t worry, but they have to keep him in for a few days. They need to treat him for an infection on his lungs. He’s quite used to it I’m afraid, he’s here regularly, but he’ll be out in a couple of days. You probably realise now that I don’t really keep him home for having a cold?’ She looks up giving him a half-smile, ‘You’ve been a good friend to him Keagan and I know he’s wanted to tell you for some time but he’s always worried about it. He’s never wanted pity because of his illness, he just wants to be treated as normal.’
Now it all made sense to Keagan, the time off from school, the weeks when he would just not be around. What is Cystic Fibrosis? What does it do? Is he going to die? All these questions are going through his mind, but he decides now is not the time to push for answers.
‘I’m so sorry Mrs Chubb, I understand why Peter didn’t tell me. It’s all right, it doesn’t make any difference, is there anything I can do to help?’
‘Just be his friend,’ she grips his hand tighter, ‘look Keagan, you can be a bit of a sod sometimes and you seem to have a knack of getting into trouble. I accept that because he values your friendship and I know you care about him, you wouldn’t see him come to harm.’
‘I promise Mrs Chubb, I won’t let him do anything dangerous or stupid while he’s with me and I’ll make sure I protect him, now that I know.’
‘No! Do what you normally do, don’t treat him any differently, he would hate that, just be yourself Keagan, please.’
‘All right, yeah, you’re right — can you do me a favour though?’
‘Of course, what is it?’
‘If I do get in trouble — could you tell my mum it wasn’t my fault, I was just helping Peter.’
She smiles, she knew this was why her son liked Keagan so much, he could always be counted on to push any situation. Reaching across, she hugs him.
‘Thank you Keagan, you’re a good lad — sometimes! All right, I’ll go back in now, you’d better get home, your mum will be worried, and you’d better put your trousers back on.’
Realising that it’s six o’clock, and he’s already over an hour late, he thanks Mrs Chubb. Kissing her as she leaves, he looks around for somewhere to change. He notices that the girl he was talking to, or at least trying to, was no longer in her seat. She must be in with the doctor. He contemplates waiting, but decides to change his clothes and hope he can catch her on the way out. He would love to ask her name, maybe try to meet her again, but he would also like to avoid being in any more trouble with his mum. Decisions decisions, he thinks, as he makes his way to the toilet to change back into his uniform.