Flip

Fourteen-year-old Alex wakes up to discover he's not in his own bedroom. More surprising is that he doesn't recognize his hands or his legs... How is it possible that Alex has become another boy who everyone calls Philip? A riveting psychological thriller.

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“Right, let’s see what Miss Sprake has to say, shall we?” Alex was made to stand in the corridor while the teacher with the bow-tie and bulging briefcase went in to one of the classrooms. He’d been marched from the station to the school, his escort panting alongside him, too out of condition to walk and talk at the same time. If Alex had made a break for it, there was no way Bow-Tie could’ve caught him. But it wasn’t in his nature to disobey a teacher quite so blatantly, even if that teacher had mistaken him for someone else. Besides, Alex had nowhere to run to.


Bow-Tie reappeared with a woman Alex assumed to be Philip’s form tutor. She pulled the door to, shutting off a hub- bub of classroom chatter. “EN2”, the panel on the door said. English. He wondered what they called Miss Sprake behind her back. Spray-Can, or something like that. Quite young but frumpy, in her pale-blue blouse and a navy corduroy skirt that came to her knees. She removed her glasses and held them, carefully, by the stems. His friend David was the same with his – paranoid about smudging the lenses, obsessively cleaning them with a special cloth. A long way from here, David would be in History at this moment, an empty seat beside him.

“What’s this about, Philip?” the woman said, a crease forming between her eyebrows. If she meant to sound stern, it came out more like concern. Perhaps she liked Philip. That was a first, this morning.

“I don’t know, Miss.”


“Mr Johannsen says you were at the station.”


“I wasn’t going anywhere.” He shrugged. “Just sitting there ... thinking.”


A snort, from Mr Johannsen. “That would make a change, Garamond.”


So it continued: the two teachers doing the good-cop, bad-cop routine, Alex failing to come up with a satisfactory explanation for his truancy. For sure, he wasn’t about to tell them the truth.

Oh, what it was, I woke up in another boy’s body and...

Eventually Miss Sprake decided that, whatever the reason, he had been caught off-site during school hours without permission. Sanction: a comment in his planner and he was to see her after last period so they could discuss this properly.

“Just be thankful Mr Johannsen came by when he did,” she said. “An entire day on the skive and I’d be sending a letter to your parents and red-slipping you.”

Red-slipping. That must mean isolation, here. At 30 Crokeham Hill High it was called being “kabinned”, after the Portakabin where you served your sentence. Alex had never been kabinned or received a comment in his planner, although he was getting one now. At least Philip was.

“What’s your first lesson?” Miss Sprake asked.


Alex plucked a subject out of the air. “History.”


“I hardly think so,” cut in Mr Johannsen, “seeing as I’m your History teacher.”

Damn. What were the odds? “Sorry, I meant... Actually, which week is it?”


“Blimey, Philip, you’ve been on this timetable for nine months.” This was Miss Sprake. If that frown cut any deeper, her eyebrows would shear off. She flipped to another page in his planner. “Blue Week, Monday, first period: German.”

German. He didn’t do German. “Oh, right, yeah. That’s it, German.”

“Right, get yourself off there. And no stopping at the lockers – you’ve missed twenty minutes as it is.”

As she handed back the planner, Philip’s mobile rang. Mum.


He pulled the phone from his blazer pocket, the ring tone (some rap thing) startlingly loud. Before he could answer, Mr Johannsen snatched the mobile from him.

“I don’t think so, do you?” With that, and some fumbling for the right button, Bow-Tie Man switched off the phone. The ring tone stopped.

“That call was important!” Alex’s raised voice ricocheted along the corridor.

It was hard to tell which of the three of them was the most shocked. After a pause, Miss Sprake said, “Philip, you’re in quite enough bother as it is.”

“Sorry, but I need to take that call. I really do.”

“What you need to do, in fact, is take yourself off to German. Now.”

“But—”

“Now this minute, Philip.” She took the mobile from Mr Johannsen. “As for this, you can have it back when you come to see me this afternoon.”

 

Halfway down the corridor, he realized he hadn’t a clue where the German classroom might be. He must have headed off in the right direction because Sprake or Johanssen would’ve called after him otherwise. Frankly, Alex didn’t care where he was going. All he could think about was the missed call. Just a minute later, he’d have been free to talk to his mother. One minute. How unlucky was that? Now, he didn’t know how or when he’d get another chance. If the rules at Litchbury High were the same as at his own school, only Years Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen would be allowed off-site at lunchtime, and there were bound to be teachers on gate duty; so, no chance of sneaking into town to use a payphone. He’d have to wait until he got the mobile back. Which meant he had to survive a whole day in this school, passing himself off as Philip Garamond, attending lessons that were nothing to do with him, surrounded by teachers and pupils he had never met, in a building that might as well have been a maze.

It was all he could do not to hurl Philip’s bag against the nearest wall.

At least the smell was recognizable. School corridors. They had to be the same all over the country. This one brought him to a stairwell, with two other corridors leading off it and, at last, some colour-coded signs. Language department, first left. According to the timetable in Philip’s planner, he was in LA5. Alex found it, letting himself into the room to a round of applause and ironic cheers.

“So, Flip,” said the teacher, “hat man deine Uhr gestohlen?”

“What was that all about?”
Alex gave the boy a sideways glance. Short blond hair, spotty chin; he wore his blazer over his shoulders like a cape. One of Philip’s mates, no doubt. He’d fallen in step with Alex outside LA5. “Nothing,” Alex said. “I was just goofing around.”

“No you weren’t.”

He was right, that shambles in there with Herr Löwenfeldt was for real. Forty minutes of trying to pretend he could communicate in a language he’d never studied in his life. Alex had got off lightly, really: another note in Philip’s planner and banishment to an empty desk at the back of the room to copy out lists of vocab ... to see if you can become as fluent in German as you are in sheer bloody stupidity.

“I’ve never seen Löwenfeldt so angry,” the lad said. “I thought he was going to rip your planner in half.”

“Or me.”

They were on a twenty-minute break. Alex wondered where he would go, if he was Philip. On a day like this most people would head outside. He didn’t want to hang out with this boy. He wasn’t his mate; Alex didn’t even know his name. Another lad joined them as they walked along the corridor, surprising them from behind; one hand on Alex’s shoulder and one on the first boy’s, swinging himself through the gap.

“Hey, Luke. Flip-man.”

“A’right,” Alex said. Flip. The teacher had called him that, too. Philip-Flip. It made sense. He quite liked “Flip”; it was cooler than Philip, or Phil.

“Nice one, eh? Ich bin ein tosser.” The second boy laughed, gave him a shove. “And you skive off registration. You, my friend, are in the zone this morning.” He sniffed, hard and loud, dredging the contents of both nostrils and swallowing it. “So, you seen Spray-Can?”

Alex laughed. They really did call her that.


“What’s funny?”


“No, nothing, it’s just ... nothing. Yeah, I saw her. No biggie.”
“You coming round the back?” the second boy said, looking furtive. He raised two fingers to his lips. Alex couldn’t figure out what he meant at first, then he caught on. “Oh, no. I’ve got stuff to do.”

“Like what?”


“Donna, he means,” the first boy said.


“Oh, Donna.” Boy two gave Alex another shove. He was big and brawny and his clothes looked like they didn’t quite fit. Quietly, he said, “You got any on you?”

Alex produced the playing-card box and passed it to him, a conjuror palming something he doesn’t want the audience to see. The boy pocketed it. “There’s eight in there,” Alex said. “Have the lot. I don’t want them.”

“Serious?”

“I don’t smoke.”
The first boy laughed. “Yeah, right.”


Both boys were looking at Alex, watching his face as though waiting for the punchline to a joke.


“Look, I need a slash,” Alex said. “I’ll catch you two later, yeah?”

Alex had to traipse round three ranks of lockers before he tracked Philip’s down. He opened it with the key on the boobs keyring, sorted the books he would need during the day, then shut himself away in a toilet cubicle for the rest of break. He hid there at lunchtime, too, even though he was ravenous. The thought of encountering any more of Flip’s mates, or worse, either of his girlfriends, was too much.

He didn’t know how to be, with them. Didn’t want to be there at all. It was a case of keeping a low profile, running down the clock until he got his hands on the phone. Once he spoke to Mum, things would be on their way to being straightened out. He turned up to Flip’s lessons, though, making sure he was marked on every register – no point drawing himself to the teachers’ attention any more than he had done already.

Finding the classroom wasn’t always easy. Likewise, knowing where to sit, and who to sit next to (or not to sit next to). Avoiding eye-contact and conversation as much as possible. He got plenty of funny looks and comments, but he could live with that. If they thought Flip was acting weirdly, so what? Being six months behind in the curriculum didn’t help but he managed to blag his way through; in any case, it seemed no one had high academic expectations of Philip Garamond for Alex Gray to live up to. As it happened Alex was bright, but they would never get to discover that. English was with Miss Sprake. There was homework to hand in – an essay, which he’d found tucked inside an exercise book in Flip’s bag. So that was OK. Not very well written, if the first paragraph was anything to go by, but that didn’t matter. Hand it in. Tick the box. Another lesson survived. Another hour nearer to the end of the day. If nothing else, the school work was a refuge; a foothold on the scary, insurmountable cliff-face of what had happened to him. The more he did, the less time he had to think.

In Art, period four, Flip’s cigarette-smoking mate reappeared, parking himself right next to Alex. While the teacher was setting up the interactive whiteboard, the boy leaned in close, whispering, reeking of stale tobacco and fresh sweat, raking his fingers through his just-woken-up brown hair.

Why hadn’t Flip been at basketball practice that lunch-time? Eh? And why was he being such an idiot?

“Oh and, by the way, Donna is well mad at you, man.”

Jack, he was called. There was his name, in blocky green felt-tip on the cover of his art folder. His shirt sleeves were rolled right up, past each elbow, folded tight into his biceps. There was a hyperactivity thing going on: the rocking back and forth on the stool, the thudding of a knee against the underside of the table. He reminded Alex of a lad at Crokeham Hill who popped his thumb in and out of its socket to impress girls and who’d ask questions like: would you rather slam your dick in a door or run across the M25? Looking at Jack – his gurning, dumber than Dumb & Dumber expression – Alex realized this could well be Flip’s, and therefore his, best friend.

By the end of the day Alex was faint with hunger. But Miss Sprake wasn’t about to let him go without an explanation for his little trip to the station that morning. He gave a shrug. Apologized. Said it wouldn’t happen again. That sort of thing.

“Are you OK, Philip?”

She’d perched herself on the edge of her desk, fussing again with her reading glasses. Her clothes were creased and her dark-blonde hair had worked loose here and there. She looked tired but like she was making an effort not to be.

“I’m fine, Miss. I’m just ... you know.” Another shrug.

“This term’s been a struggle, I realize that, but after our chat...” She exhaled. Alex hoped he wouldn’t be expected to remember anything she and Flip had discussed in their chat, whenever that was. “Look, skiving off isn’t going to help. Is it?”

“No, Miss.”

“And the work won’t get any easier in Year Ten, I can promise you that.”

Alex steadied himself against the back of a chair. Quite apart from breakfast and lunch, Flip would’ve scoffed two or three Snickers by now. A struggle. How had Flip done in his Year Nine assessments? Alex had missed his altogether, he realized, along with choosing next year’s GCSE options. Not to mention Christmas, Easter. The half-term holiday in Cornwall. The borough chess finals. He closed his eyes, woozy all of a sudden. In that instant, the nightmare of the previous night recurred, flashing through his mind. Then, snap, the image vanished as quickly as it had come.

“Philip? Do you need to sit down?”

He shook his head. In the afternoon light, the room was rinsed a bright lemony colour and smelled of chalk dust, drawing him away from the clutches of the dream. The teacher’s face was soft with concern. He noticed her ear- rings: a small silver guitar on each lobe. Maybe Miss Sprake wasn’t as boring as she looked.

He hesitated. “Am I ... am I all right, Miss? Underneath.”

“Underneath?”


“Yeah, like, inside. As a person. Am I all right inside?” What he really wanted to know was, “What’s Philip Garamond like?” Alex had no idea. He knew him, physically – more intimately than he would’ve wished – but he didn’t know him. He couldn’t ask his teacher about that, though, without her thinking him completely mad. Even the question he had asked appeared to have flustered her.

“What a strange thing to say, Philip,” she said, with a nervous half-laugh.

“No, it’s fine. It’s nothing. I just ... I want to do OK, that’s all. Better.”

“Good. That’s good, then.” She went on watching him. After a pause, she said, “Let’s see if we can get through this last month of term, shall we?”

He nodded.

“And I know it may not seem like it, at your age, but there really is more to life than cricket and girls.” She was teasing him, trying not to smile.

“I know, Miss. There’s basketball as well.”

Miss Sprake covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed. Alex was quite pleased with that: his first joke, as Flip. The teacher put her glasses back on, took them off again. “Right, you look done in, Philip. Go on, get yourself home.”

At the door, Alex remembered. “Oh, Miss... My mobile?”

In the school car park, Alex switched on the phone. Most of the messages were from Donna or Billie. He scrolled down to the one that mattered and, hand shaking, keyed in the voicemail number. Alex had expected his mother. It wasn’t her, though, it was the woman Mum worked with at the library. Kath? Kathy? He’d spoken to her on the phone a few times and had met her once. In the message, she talked quietly, as though she didn’t want to be overheard.

“Listen, I don’t know who you are or how you got hold of this number, but if this is your idea of a prank then ... you’re sick. Sick in the head to do something like this. How could you? How could anyone try to do this to her?” There was a pause, an unidentifiable background noise. He heard her breathing. “But I’ll tell you this, young man, if you phone Fran, Mrs Gray, again or leave any more of your evil messages, I will go straight to the police and let them deal with you. Do you understand?”

Click.

Alex stood perfectly still in the middle of the car park. He realized he had been holding his breath; he exhaled, releasing the air from his lungs in a ragged sob.

Shutting the phone off, he clenched it in his fist as though ready to fling it as far away as he could or as though he might crush it to pieces. When, at last, he moved, he found he had no direction in mind and simply headed pointlessly towards the school entrance before circling back on himself.

“Mum,” he said, under his breath. Then, louder, “Mum- mummum.”

Crying so hard by now that it was more snot than tears. Only then did he notice her: a curly-haired girl, ten metres away, sitting on a wall with a book open on her lap and what looked like a cello case propped beside her. Watching him.

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