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Read an extract from HappyHead by Josh Silver

Read an extract from HappyHead by Josh Silver

When Seb is offered a place on a radical retreat designed to solve the national crisis of teenage unhappiness, he is determined to change how people see him and make his parents proud. But as he finds himself drawn to the enigmatic Finn, Seb starts to question the true nature of the challenges they must undergo. The deeper into the programme the boys get, the more disturbing the assessments become, until it’s clear there may be no escape…




‘I think it’s down there,’ Mum says.

‘We’ve already been down there,’ Dad says, a bit shirty now.

‘No, it’s a different road – look.’

‘They all look the same.’

‘No, that one’s narrower than the others.’

‘What does the satnav say?’

‘It’s not working. It thinks we’re in the middle of a field.’

‘We kind of are in the middle of a field,’ Lily chips in.

It’s unfortunate that I’m spending my seventeenth birthday with my face pressed against the car window for eight hours as my parents and sister talk without coming up for air. But they wanted to wave me off. I said they could have done that from the front porch, but they didn’t think that would have been meaningful.

I think it would have been meaningful. The meaning being that I could have got the train and avoided this. I could have seen Shelly last night and said goodbye, and not got up at four thirty to the sound of Dad waving a box of chocolate Cheerios in my face, claiming they were a fun treat before I left.

Going to HappyHead will do me a world of good, Mum is now saying. I should be thankful that I was selected. Grateful.

‘It’s a blessing.’ She loves that word. ‘Truly,’ she says as she catches my eye in the rear-view mirror. ‘You’ve always had a bit of a sensitive nature, haven’t you?’

I think she might actually want an answer. Lily snorts.


‘And we love that about you, Seb. We do. You’ve always felt things very deeply.’ Christ. ‘Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s… part of who you are. What makes you special.’ I want to open the door and jump into the bushes flying past us. ‘I just worry sometimes about how you’ll cope. Life isn’t easy.’

For a while now, there has been a general feeling among my parents and my teachers that something has to come along to really shake things up for me if I am to equip myself for the Next Phase of Life.

When the letter came, they were all very excited. HappyHead would be the answer.

It had to be. They all agreed.

The car is packed with my things so me and Lily are parted by a bulging suitcase, which is definitely for the best. But it keeps digging into my chest when Dad brakes too hard, which he does all the time. I didn’t want to bring everything from my wardrobe, but Mum insisted. When I said it wasn’t necessary because of the required belongings list, she said I could never be too prepared.

‘Where even are we?’ Lily groans.

‘Nearly there,’ Mum says, unconvinced. ‘Just a little tricky on these Scottish roads. Let’s try and enjoy it.’

Enjoy it.

Shelly said she was going to get a bottle of vodka and some weed, and her uncle was going to let us sit at the back of his pub and bring us free drinks.

4:30 alarm, tho, I texted her yesterday. I’ll have 2 pass if I want 2 survive the journey. Sry.

I wanted to go to the pub. I did.

Lame, Shelly replied. It’s your pissing birthday buddy and you’re going away for nearly two weeks. You say you’re independent, but they have a hold on you, Seb. You’re scared of them. Always have been. Goodbye. I really hope you make some friends there so it’s not just me putting up with this shit. I didn’t reply to that. Shelly loves to use full sentences and first-name me when she thinks I’m bailing. And anyway I don’t always do what my parents say. And, if I do, it’s only to make things easier because I can’t cope with the disappointment and the ‘that’s not like you, Seb’. Also I’ve had weed before and it wasn’t up to much. I pulled a whitey and threw up in the shower.

Shelly didn’t get a letter from HappyHead. No one else at my school did.

Just me.

Maybe she’s jealous.

I can see Mum has opened the parent/guardian pamphlet – now covered in coffee rings and with tatty edges – yet again. ‘Oh, Seb. Selected.’

‘I’m pretty sure it’s just random, Mum.’

I don’t think she has parted with the pamphlet since it arrived. She’s read it so many times that she practically knows it off by heart and sometimes just quotes bits of it at me like ‘nurturing strengths’ and ‘athletics track’.

The car is very hot now.

‘They must see something in you, Seb. They must. They have to be using some sort of … set of standards for the selection process, right? Richard?’

Dad doesn’t answer.

‘They’ve never even met me, Mum.’

‘And,’ she ploughs on, ‘you needed a little boost, didn’t you? What with your grades dropping so—’

‘Yeah, it’s great, Mum.’

She turns and looks at me, beaming with hope. ‘I’ve signed all the consent forms. And you filled out the questionnaire thoroughly, didn’t you?’

I nod.

‘Good. Mandatory. Gosh. Like the army used to be…’

I try to avoid the tone in her voice that can only be interpreted as please, please, please don’t balls this up, son.

I suddenly feel the familiar twist of dread in my stomach. I pull out a sherbet pip from the packet inside my coat pocket. When I press it to my lips, I realise I can’t stop my hand from shaking.

‘Can we put Hunky Dory on?’ I say.

Lily rolls her eyes so much they go completely white. She loves to act as if I don’t really like David Bowie, that I just say I do to try to be interesting. But that’s not true.

‘Fake obsessed,’ she mutters.

‘Just wait, Seb. We need a break from music so we can think.’ Mum sharply presses the off button on the dashboard so the Lighthouse Family abruptly stop singing.

I’ve never felt the need to explain my appreciation of Mr Bowie, especially to my schmucky little sister. She thinks I went seeking something out to make me look a certain way because of how painfully bland I am, but I didn’t.

Bowie found me.

She wouldn’t understand the importance of the first time I saw the lightning bolt shuddering down his face on Shelly’s mum’s CD case when I was thirteen.

Or that I stole it.

Or that, when I listened to it, I danced round my bedroom in Mum’s heeled boots, sometimes crying.

I do not need to tell her that.

And I do not need to tell her that he was the first man I ever fancied.

And by fancied I mean properly.

Hot buzzing in my head, can’t focus, can’t think of anything else, talking to his picture under the sheets, want to tear my chest open and cool the pain of not being together on the cold hearts of everyone who has never felt this way type of fancied.

I can smell Dad’s cheese and onion crisps that he is trying to eat while also holding on to the steering wheel. He lifts the packet and pours them on to his face.

‘Oh, drat.’

‘Eyes on the road, love.’


Lily’s headphones start blaring that shitty music she loves. She often says I don’t get her music and that it’s actually really relevant. It’s actually Christian pop. She loves the churchy pop groups, and for that my parents give her things and drive her to and from freestyle dance class four nights a week and she always has twenty-pound notes rolled up in her purse. She’s fifteen and richer than most people I know. I will never understand it, but apparently that’s what God will do for you.

‘Lily, turn that down. Did we put Seb’s regular pills on the form, Richard? I think we missed them. Did we miss them? That’s the kind of stuff they’ll want to know about. And the course of diazepam last year? Richard?’

‘We put it all on the form, Mum.’ I find myself looking for an ejector seat button.

Lily is lifting her shoulders up and down in some kind of street-dance judder that she must have picked up from all those hours of practice.

‘What about the lavender pillow mist?’ my sister says. ‘Do they want to see that on there?’

Mum looks at Dad, worried. ‘Do they?’

‘Funny, Lily,’ I say. ‘How’s the hip hop coming along? The classes are worth it, I see.’

‘Dick,’ she says.

‘Sorry? Didn’t hear you.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Louder, Lily.’

D-I-C-K, she mouths. ‘Come on, Seb. If anything, you should understand what that is.’ Her eyes flick from her phone to Mum and she gives a wicked little smile. She’s always threatening to tell them. Blackmailed by a fifteen- year-old. She loves it. Little sadist. She shrugs, casual, in a way that says try me.

She wants to see me squirm.

I don’t care, anyway. They know. They must do.

I turn to press my forehead against the cool window and it fogs with the hot air from my nose.

I focus on the bright yellow fields. The sky is electric blue today.

A Bowie sky.

Lily pokes her tongue into her cheek, so it bulges. ‘HappyHead. Sounds like you’ll be right at home there, Seb.’ She leans back, smug, like she’s won something.

Not long now. And then some peace. From this.

Nearly two whole weeks.

I stare out of the window and watch as the sky darkens, streaking with purple and pink like a new bruise.

Mum sharply inhales. ‘Did we put about the childhood bedwetting?’

‘Yes, Mum,’ I say. ‘Everything was on the form. Just leave it now. Jesus.’

The car bumps along the road and my head bangs against the glass.

‘Watch your language,’ Mum says, sounding hurt. Lily smiles.

Suddenly Dad slams on the brakes. The force of my body pushes me into my seat belt.

‘Dad!’ Lily snaps. ‘I really, really would prefer not to die before Lola’s birthday party next week.’

‘Sorry, everyone.’

I look up at the thick wall of tall reeds that we have nearly just ploughed into. The same reeds that have been on either side of us for over an hour now.

My toes are numb, my arse is numb and I’m desperate for a piss.

Blair Witch, family edition,’ Lily says, looking out at the swaying reeds.

I reach for my Sherbet Pips.

‘Well, we can’t just sit here,’ Mum hisses at Dad. The clock on the dashboard reads 19:30.

‘We have to get there before eight, apparently,’ I say. That’s what the letter said.

Arrive no later than 20:00.

‘Yes, Seb, we are well aware,’ Mum says quietly, opening the glove compartment and sifting through the glacier mints as if a map might suddenly appear.

We sit for a minute, with only the sound of the wind in the reeds and my sister’s intermittent pissy snorts. I reach down into my rucksack to find my phone.


I open the message:

Have fun, Seb. You’ll boss it.

Still first-naming, but she’s coming round, at least. I text back:

Thnx. If I make it. This effing journey might end me b4 I even get there. How was last night?

There is banging on the window.

‘Shitting hell!’ Lily screams.

‘Lily!’ Mum says, but stops as she turns to see what the rest of us are seeing. The face of a man staring in through the window above my sister’s head.



‘Hello!’ the face says, smiling widely.

His teeth are very white.

He stands back and shows us the front of his overalls, running his finger over the pocket on his chest where the word ‘HappyHead’ is written in bright green lettering, underneath a smiley face.

‘Oh,’ Mum says. ‘Perfect!’ She laughs in a way that sounds like she could just as easily cry, then rolls down the car window and sticks out her head. ‘We seem to be a bit lost,’ she says in that fake posh voice she sometimes uses.

The man walks round the front of the car, cutting through the beams of the headlights, his yellow overalls bouncing the light back into my eyes.

‘Don’t worry, it’s hard to find.’ He chuckles and bends down. ‘Full house in here!’ he says, poking his head through the gap in the window so it hovers above Mum’s lap.

‘Mrs Seaton,’ Mum says, holding her hand near the man’s face. He takes it and for a moment I think he’s going to kiss it. I think Mum does too because she gives some sort of stifled squeal, but instead he shakes it enthusiastically and says,

‘Ah! Sebastian’s mother.’

‘Yes!’ she says loudly.

‘Hello.’ He looks directly at me. ‘You made it.’

There is a distinct smell of antiseptic coming from the floating head. Reminds me of that pink ointment Mum put on our chickenpox spots.

‘Hi,’ I say to the antiseptic head.

His hair is neatly clipped and gelled into a perfect quiff, like one of the T-Birds from that film Grease where they dance on the car. His high cheekbones throw a shadow over the bottom half of his face.

‘I’ll take him from here, Mrs Seaton. It’s not far to the gate.’

‘Wonderful,’ Mum says. ‘Thank you. Just in time, hey, guys!’

Dad nods.

Lily just stares at the man.

‘Right, Sebastian. Let’s get your stuff.’ He’s still smiling.


A pang of nervous heat radiates in my stomach, making me suddenly feel dizzy. I open the car door and pull out my rucksack from the footwell. As I stand by the reeds and slam the door shut, the cold wind blows up the inside of my coat. I shudder.

‘Everything in there?’ Antiseptic asks, pointing at my bag.

See Also

‘Yep,’ I say.

‘Current medication?’

‘Er, yep.’

The sky is ash grey now.

‘Personal belonging?’

‘Oh, he’s got that!’ Mum’s voice pipes up from inside the car. ‘In that funny little box.’

‘Is it safe?’ he asks quietly.

‘Huh?’ I take a step backwards because he is now very close to my face. ‘Yeah. It’s … safe.’

He holds my gaze. His eyes are very black. I’m not entirely sure what to do.

Then he nods.

‘Great!’ He slaps my back and winks. ‘Let’s go.’

He is smiling again.

‘What about the suitcases?’ Mum says. ‘He might need—’

‘He won’t.’

Antiseptic moves in front of the car and stands in his yellow overalls, teeth glinting in the beam of the headlights.

‘Sorry, but who are you?’ Lily says.

‘Lily!’ Mum turns. ‘Don’t be rude. Sorry, sir.’

‘How do you know he even works for that place?’

‘Don’t worry.’ He laughs. ‘You make a good point, Lily. I have some ID that might help.’ He pulls it out of the front pocket of his overalls and holds it up to the windscreen. Mum and Dad lean forward to read it through the glass. ‘I’ve been asked to pick up any stragglers on the roads. Most people used the train or our coach shuttle service. We anticipated some teething problems and welcome any feedback you might have. Perhaps a map might be useful next time?’ he says, looking at Mum.

‘That would be helpful, er –’ she squints at the ID card – ‘Mark. Yes, thank you.’ I can see she’s blushing.

‘We wanted to wave him off,’ Dad says weakly as if it’s dawning on him that the eight-hour trip may not have been worth it. ‘Can we not come to the gate?’

‘No need. We’re all good from here. Aren’t we, champ?’


‘Yeah, I guess,’ I say, swinging my bag over my shoulder and joining Antiseptic in front of the car. When I look over at the windscreen, I have the sudden urge to get back in.

I clench my teeth together, hard.

‘Thanks for bringing me all this way.’ I hold up my hand in a farewell salute.

‘It’s getting dark.’ Antiseptic takes hold of my shoulder and I feel him pull. ‘Come on.’

‘Wait!’ Mum shouts and opens her door. She stands in front of me and holds out her arms. I step into them. She squeezes and kisses the top of my head.

‘Just make sure you do your best,’ she says. ‘This is going to be great for you.’

‘Your mum is right,’ Antiseptic says, smiling.

Dad holds up his hand through the window, reciprocating my salute. ‘Good luck, son.’

The man takes hold of my shoulder again. I look into the back seat and see Lily has her headphones in and is nodding along to something poppy, probably with a wholesome moral undertone.

She catches my eye. ‘Bye,’ she says, then mouths, bellend. I turn round because Antiseptic is pulling me by my shoulder again. Harder this time. I hear a door slam and the engine revving behind me.

‘Families are difficult, huh, champ?’

I don’t really know what to say to this so I just shrug. The car horn beeps and the headlights swing over us with the crunch of wheels turning on the dirt.

And they are gone.

Antiseptic sets off, walking quickly ahead of me. ‘It’s not far. Maybe half an hour,’ he says.

‘But I thought we were—’

‘Keep up.’

‘One second!’ I shout. ‘Mark? I need to go.’

He stops. ‘Go?

‘Yeah, I need a wee.’ God. ‘It’s been a long journey.’

He waits for a moment, and I watch his back rise and fall as he inhales deeply. He turns, smiling.

‘Go in there, quick.’ He points into the dark reeds.

‘In there?’

‘Where else?’

I look at them rustling. ‘It’s fine. I can wait.’

He steps towards me. ‘You’re going to need to be resilient, Sebastian,’ he says. ‘It’s important.’


‘You can’t always take the easy path. At HappyHead.’

He is looking at me and he is definitely not blinking. I look back at the reeds once more.

‘I can wait, thanks, Mark. The urge has passed.’

‘OK,’ he says. ‘You can go when we get to the sunflowers. Where it’s less dense.’

By the time we reach the sunflowers, it’s nearly completely dark. I can just make out rows and rows of them, running all the way down to a tall wire fence.

‘Go on,’ Mark says, pointing his torch into the field.

The pressure in my bladder hurts now and is making me see white dots dance across the sky. I bite my lip and weave my way between the rows of flowers, their heads reaching up over mine. When I look back, I see Mark silhouetted against the sky, holding what appears to be a walkie-talkie.

He puts it to his mouth. ‘Not long,’ he says. ‘Yes. They were just a little lost. Sebastian is with me now…’

I find a big sunflower to put between us and, as I piss on it, I feel a shudder down my spine. The steam rises up round me.

This isn’t exactly what I expected.

I don’t know what I expected because there were no pictures on the pamphlet, but I didn’t think I would be urinating in a field of flowers. It’s all a bit Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for me and there was a reason I didn’t sign up for that.

‘Done?’ he shouts.

Jesus. I jump, steadying myself. ‘One sec,’ I reply.

I glance behind me. In the dark, the sunflowers look a little bit like human heads, floating. Watching. I shudder again and squeeze the rest out, looking down at my new white slip-on Vans. I head back to the path, quickly now.

He must see that I keep checking behind me because he says, ‘You don’t need to worry.’ I pull a face like he is making false assumptions. ‘Now come on. We don’t want to be late for the introductions.’

HappyHead by Josh Silver is published by Rock the Boat. Available now.

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