We were tight, the three of us. Jackie, Smithy and me. Heads of Cerberus, our old headmaster used to say. Three peas in a pod. We were always in trouble, but it was never anything nasty. We just liked messing around, playing pranks, daring each other to do daft stuff. We’d play knocky nine doors on the way home from school, pelt cars with snowballs in the winter, nick cartons of eggs and decorate the school windows at the weekend.
It was 1998, a school trip out in Weardale, studying the landscape for our Geography exams. The three of us got seats at the back of the bus, but it didn’t last very long. One of the teachers caught Smithy making rude gestures out of the window while me and Jackie egged him on, and we were all made to go and sit at the front.
Once we got there, they gave us some survey forms to fill in.
‘What a load of boring shite,’ Smithy said. ‘I can’t wait to be shot of it all.’ A few months earlier he’d decided he was going to join the army in the summer, which made him even less bothered about school work than normal.
‘Aye,’ Jackie said. ‘I mean, who actually gives a toss about rock formations?’
I dunno whose bright idea it was to let us go out in groups to fill out the survey forms, but they must’ve known we’d skive off. Not that I’m blaming anyone, mind. We were sent out into some woods, and the three of us escaped from the main group.
There was a little river running through the place. We found a bridge over the water, and after Smithy counted down to three we chucked our survey booklets in and watched to see whose went under the bridge fastest. Once they hit the water you couldn’t really tell them apart, but Jackie was sure his had won.
We crossed over and hiked up the side of the river until we came to a part where it narrowed and steepened into a kind of stepped waterfall, with the bank up above. There was a gap of maybe five, six feet across, with a sheer drop down to the water and rocks below.
Jackie stood peering over the edge. Smithy came up behind him, grabbed him by the waist, shoved him forward and then pulled him back. ‘Saved your life,’ he said, but Jackie turned round and tried to nut him.
‘Dickhead,’ he said.
I laughed. I went to the edge and looked at the gap. ‘Reckon you could jump that, Smithy?’
‘Aye. Nee bother.’
‘Go on then.’
‘Why should I?’
Jackie jabbed him in the side. ‘What’s wrong? You chicken?’
Smithy looked over the gap again. ‘If I die,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back and haunt both of you cunts.’ He stepped back.
‘You really doing it?’ I said.
He ignored me. He took another few steps back, burst forwards, and jumped.
Smithy cleared the gap no problem, and then turned round to crow about it. ‘Easy. Your turn now, lads.’
I told him to piss off, but Jackie didn’t say anything. He just went for it, and I watched him go.
He must have lost his footing, because he barely made it halfway. I’ve heard people say in moments like that, time changes, like you’re watching slow motion film. It’s a lie. There was no hanging in the air, like in the cartoons. He just dropped.
Me and Smithy looked at each other across the gap. Shit. We scrambled downstream to where it wasn’t so steep, and then waded back up through the water.
Jackie was splayed out on the rocks like a doll or something. It looked like he was moving, but it was just the water pushing him about. There was blood coming out of his mouth, soaking into the water.
I grabbed hold of Smithy’s shoulder and told him we needed to get help, but he had this stupid blank look on his face. I’d never seen him like that. He wouldn’t say anything, so I told him to stay with Jackie, make sure he was okay while I went to get help.
We didn’t have phones on us back then, so all I could do was charge through the woods, screaming.
It took a while to find anyone. When I got back to the rocks, Smithy was sitting in the water next to Jackie. He was soaked through and shivering, red marks all over his clothes. Jackie’s eyes were still open. I remember that.
They told us later that Jackie died instantly, whacking his head off the rocks. Some people found that comforting, but I thought it was more weird, in a way. There wasn’t any pain, or last words. He was just there, and then he wasn’t. Gone.
If it happened these days, you’d probably get counselling, some specky-eyed therapist talking to you about your feelings. But we just got on with it. There was a memorial service, but I didn’t go. I hate it when people cry, and I could just imagine Jackie’s mam there, bawling her eyes out.
We were tight, the three of us. But without Jackie things were different, and it was only a few months until our exams. I messed mine up, but it was just enough to get into sixth form. Last I heard of Smithy, he was stationed in Africa somewhere.
I think about Jackie sometimes. What he’d be doing now. And I try to remember that feeling we all had, that freedom. Back then, we thought we were invincible. We all did. But we were wrong.