Jack found these days hard. Hot days by the river where he might have to take his clothes off in front of his family and Rachel. It didn’t make it any easier that Rachel knew something was wrong.
‘What’s wrong jack?’ Asked Rachel. ‘Nothing’ said jack. But there was something. Not eating had been his safety. Within his control. When everything else felt like it was changing, only jack could say what he could eat. Being 14 wasn’t easy at the best of times. The small town where jack lived had one big school and that big school didn’t work well for boys like jack. Now ‘Sticky Jacky’ or ‘Skin Thin Jacklin’ might be seen without his trademark dirty black T-shirt.
‘Come in it’s not deep’, said Rachel. ‘I can swim you know’, said Jack. But jack stayed on the ground next to the tree that the 4 of them had settled near.
Rachel lived next door to Jack in their small town near Doncaster. Her mum, Jilly, was the kindest lady he’d met. She was always wearing a dress and always smiling. Rachel had never met her dad before, but it didn’t matter because Jacks Dad offered to spend lots of time with Rachel and Jilly.
‘Is something wrong jack?’ Rachel was in the water now and looking for someone to be with. ‘I’ll race you to this tree if you are quick enough!’. Jack wasn’t concentrating on Rachel. He wasn’t even looking at the river. In fact, for such a young boy, the only direction jack seemed to look was inward. But despite whatever was going on in Jacks mind, he took his shirt off slowly and walked towards the waters edge.
The spot they’d picked was away from the others people who had parked their cars. They’d walked further along the track to a green square in between trees that created shade on the nearest side of the river. On the other side, yellow and green fields spread themselves into the distance. The shallow water of the river shone light blue. You could see stones through it. It was a like a postcard. Like a place Rachel and Jack might go someday.
Jacks feet touched the water edge and the chill made its way up Jacks body. His arms were crossed far enough that he cradled both elbows with his hands. The structure of his body served its purpose – a sort of crumpled protection. And as the sun shone down through the sprinkled leaves overhead, jacks pale white skin seared in the red heat.
Rachel, always thinking of others, made an effort to keep talking to jack as normal – without looking at him or his body. Rachel always did this type of thing. She knew how to do the small things that could make people feel better without them knowing. But as jack got further into the water and began to uncross his arms, Rachel couldn’t help but notice the streaks of red across his stomach. They looked like lashings, bruising too. If jacks frame had been any larger – there is no way his arms would have covered up the damage.
The day would pass slowly. Jack crouched over the trunks of trees and Rachel chatting and exploring nearby. All the while, Jilly and Jacks dad Neil spent time on their own too. They seemed to enjoy letting Jack and Rachel do their own thing. It wasn’t the first time the 4 of them had come here, and it wouldn’t be the last. But it would be the only time Jack remembered this piece of grass and river with happiness. The coming months would reveal what he had been most afraid of and what he hoped Rachel would never see.