Some things shouldn't happen, and yet they do. Other things, that should happen, do not.
This is a story about both types of occurrence.
There is a certain nostalgia in summertime: the scent of freshly-mown grass, the change from long sleeves to short, the afternoons spent lazing on grass, bathed in sunlight or, in the case of my set, bathed in languorous shade. This was to be one of our last summers, and the nostalgia prevailed.
We were in the lower sixth, and summer was officially not our scene, although we embraced it with all the careless joy of any adolescent. With exams over, and most of us in our seventeenth year, the weeks between the start of July and the start of September were ones to which we had looked forward with immense enjoyment, even though we had not managed to get tickets to any of the summer music festivals. My Saturday job did not demand exorbitant amounts of overtime over the summer weeks, so I was, for once, free to be a man of leisure with my friends, none of whom needed to work.
The likelihood is that it was a Thursday morning when we met up in the centre of town. Chetford wasn't the most electrifying social centre, but we were used to it and it was used to us. Steven and I had arranged to meet at eleven thirty, and he turned up in some ghastly new outfit: jeans and a leather jacket with go-faster stripes. I criticised accordingly. I was entitled to: I hadn't worn anything but black shirts, black trousers, black shoes and my incredibly threadbare leather coat for a long time. Such are the perils of life these days!
At this point in time, I should perhaps point out that I am deeply self-obsessed. This is something you ought to bear in mind, kind reader.
Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Steven. He was a really good friend of mine. He had always been painfully shy until I got hold of him. He played drums and so I talked him into playing in a band with me for a while, got him into the right sort of music, and that was that. In no time he was advocating Joy Division and Interpol to anyone who would listen, drinking as heavily as the next man and spending his money on gigs and drinks for pretty young things. This particular day, we were going to get a couple of bottles of wine and wander around Chetford, just to wind down from the stresses and strains of term time. True to form, Steven turned up twenty minutes late, immediately cadged a cigarette from me, and casually informed me that Dean was on his way, which was welcome news. Dean was very rich, very stubborn, and incomparably vain, but he had the world's best sense of humour and, generally speaking, attracted large numbers of gorgeous girls. Between us we did tend to make an intriguing trio.
It was noon before we met Dean, striding down the high street with his spiked hair and army boots. He waved sarcastically from the other side of the street, and Steven and I dodged in and out of the traffic to reach him. His handshake was warm, and he greeted us with an infallibly cordial "Good morning, kameraden". By agreement, our first stop was to be Somerfield, the nearest location of cheap wine and the necessary breakfast: we decided to share a delicious looking quiche, and grabbed a couple of bottles of Italian white wine, and then we headed on down to the recreation ground, on the other side of the river. It was a vast sprawl of grass and trees, with a bandstand, a children's play park, and all the necessary annoyances of a suburban tourist town. It was also the perfect place to spend the first days of summer, due to the sun (and the shade) and the preponderance of pretty young things. Inside a half an hour, a discman with speakers was blaring out "Totally Wired" by The Fall, and the first bottle of wine had been devoured with all due relish.
I think it was Steven who first noticed the distinctive impression that not everything was right. We decided that we needed more wine, and so came the debate as to when we would return to the centre of town.
"I'm not going yet. I can't be arsed" muttered Dean, sprawling on the grass and clicking his fingers to the music, like some comatose jazz musician.
"Well I don't want to go, I won't get served." replied Steven.
At this point I was looking sullenly at a decidedly bright sky, and feeling guilty because the sky didn't really deserve evil looks.
"Am I going, then?"
The others nodded in assent. I really was far too nice.
Slowly, tragically, I stretched out for one last glorious second, and then stood up, and padded off back across the rec into town.
It wasn't an inordinately hot day, and so I was wearing my coat, which still had a couple of buttons and a pocket remaining. It was this coat more than anything else by which people recognised me: in my younger days it had been ripped jeans and long hair, but I considered myself not only to have better music taste now, but also to be far more civilised. Almost human, in fact. (Reader, do forgive these little digressions: it gives me far more pleasure to talk of the insignificant!)
I was crossing the bridge over the river when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an incredibly pretty girl, wearing particularly avant-garde clothes. The sight of her black and white striped post-modern top was a welcome one, among the topless, tattooed inhabitants of the park, who descended during the summer months to create a considerable eyesore.
She was sitting on a bench by the river, reading a book. From my vantage point on the bridge, I couldn't make out the cover, but I fancied it had to be something awfully good. Probably Dostoevsky. Or Camus.
In fact, I was so taken up with rapture at this earthly angel, that I didn't notice the large (politely put, 'well-built'), man with a beer on one hand and an ice cream in the other, who made no effort to avoid a collision with me.
"What are you doing, can't you bloody see where you're going?" he asked, as I handed him his can of Stella Artois (what else?). It was still remarkably full despite a fall to the ground. The ice cream, mercifully, was intact.
"Sorry, my mind was elsewhere" I replied, trying to muster up some kind of haughtiness. It didn't work.
"Are you wearing make up?" he demanded, presumably referring to the eyeliner I was, indeed wearing. If you thought Robert Smith applied it liberally, you should have seen me.
"No, I'm just tired."
With that, I side-stepped past and looked again for the red-haired vision who had been the cause of this minor contre-temps. She had gone.
It's never easy to lose the one you love. Even less so when you've never met, don't know anything about her, and she's only been in your life for less than thirty seconds.
Oh, if only I had never seen her face again! If only this story could spare me the ecstasies and agonies of everything that came after. There are times when I am convinced I would have done better gently to collapse from the bridge into the river, with my memory of her clear and untarnished in my summer-kissed mind.
Somerfield was busy, but I did manage to pick up a cheap bottle of Orvieto, which would suffice for our needs. As casually as possible, I strolled over to the counter and placed it down, opening my wallet (stay calm! You won't get ID'd!) and bringing out a crumpled five pound note.
Fortunately, I was not required to hand over my non-existent ID, and I was able to get another bottle of wine ten months early. The sweet taste of victory! Or rather, the sweet taste of wine…
I left the supermarket and wound my way down the streets, back to the park, to the bridge and to the spot of grass where Steven and Dean reclined. On my way, I met one of the local homeless/probably junkie set, and gave him a little change. He was one of the nicer ones, and we had once spent ten minutes debating which Buzzcocks song was best. I think I advocated "Sixteen Again", or possibly "Real World".
It didn't take long to circumvent the feverishly tanning masses and return to our brief idyll in the shade, where I was welcomed with Steven's cry of "Dave's gay!". I spared him any kind of mildly barbed retort, and settled instead for "You really are an idiot, aren't you?".
It was a beautiful afternoon, although it was a shade too bright, and we settled down with our music and our wine, making jokes about the passers-by.
"My God, look at that chap over there: he's only wearing a towel!" cried Dean.
"Why on earth would you want that much of a tan?" asked Steven, who still had his jacket firmly zipped up to ward off any kind of sunlight.
"No idea, but look at him, just lazing around with some sort of bikini-toga on."
We spent a few minutes debating whether the 'bikini-toga' was actually marketable, and decided that, even if it were, we weren't quite bored enough to go into fashion design.
However, as we opened the new bottle of wine and changed the CD in the discman (by this point I think it was the new PJ Harvey album, unjustly underrated in certain music magazines), there was one nagging thought in my head. The girl by the river, who I had subconsciously named 'Angelene', for some unknown reason, would not get out of my head, however much I tried to forget her. Chances were I'd never see her again, she was probably a tourist. I wasn't going to mention her to anybody, because I didn't want that lovely, utterly pure image being desecrated by anybody else thinking of anything slightly different: I had seen her, and her beautiful picture was mine alone.
My regretful reverie was interrupted by a moan: "You bastard, you didn't get screw-top!"
It was, indeed true. The problem of a chronic lack of corkscrews raised its head. Amidst cries of "You idiot!", I decided it was time to retreat to our fortress, our little hiding place where, since I had been fourteen, we went to hang out in town throughout the year. There was a corkscrew there.
So it was, then, that we left the sun behind us, and tramped across town to the stone tower. It was a fire escape behind our school hall, and had a staircase up onto a stone landing, to allow terrified masses to exit the galleries of the building. The landing had a roof, and even a couple of little windows (glassless, of course), carved out. I had requisitioned it when I first turned up at the school, as a little haven in which to read during lunchtimes, and it had quickly become the place where my set hung out. We had a pack of cards, a corkscrew, joss sticks and a pair of sheets to put up during the winter months, in order to conserve heat. Its location meant that the caretakers never really came around to clear it up, although during lunchtimes it was, on occasion, viewed from a distance to ensure that no clandestine smoking was going on. Apparently, years before it had been a favourite spot.
In a moment of pretentiousness, we had named it our chateau, and outfitted as it was for a day's merriment, it was, in a way, all ours. It was, then, to our chateau that we retreated that sunny morning, to open the third bottle of wine.
We jogged unhurriedly up the stone steps, and while I busied myself with the business of lighting joss, Steven opened the wine and Dean set up the discman: the drill was well-rehearsed. As we had used all the picnic cups we had had over the previous holiday, we were, for the moment, reduced to drinking the wine from the bottle, which didn't really matter. We passed it around with the same casual and yet reverent air of soldiers sharing rum, of grizzled gold prospectors sharing… whatever it is grizzled gold prospectors are prone to share.
"What's the actual plan for today then?" asked Steven, as if the thought had just popped into his head.
"Drink. Listen to some music. Um…?" I turned to Dean for some help, and he concluded that it would be best to find some pretty young things and make their acquaintance. He brought a new meaning to the term 'one-tracked mind', and although Steven and I were often reasonably heavily preoccupied with the pursuit of females, we always considered it something of a miracle if they actually showed any interest in us! Dean, however, had more of a magic touch than we did, and despite the fact that he was prone to genuine nastiness toward anyone with whom he was in a relationship, he had more or less constant female attention.
Anyway, having finally subdued the picture of the girl by the river, it now arose, as fresh as the scent of the nearby daffodils, and I stammered something about not being in the mood.
"What?" cried Dean incredulously, "You're not in the mood to go and find some lovely long-haired femme who will laugh at all your jokes and lie under the moon with you all night?" Again, I could only mutter something unintelligible, and my friends took a genuine concern.
"Now come on, kamerad, what's the matter? You haven't got any affairs of the heart which you need to describe to us in all their gory detail have you?" asked Steven rather salaciously, while Dean was worried that I might be confused as to my sexuality.
"Look, it's awfully nice of you to be so worried, but really, I'm fine! Besides which, Dean, I know I'm camper than a boy scout outdoor convention, but you don't need to worry about me." I playfully put my arm around him, and he convulsed and scrambled away, causing Steven and I to collapse into a brief fit of laughter.
"Seriously, though, it's not a half bad idea. We could wander down to the park, or possibly the Basin?"
The Basin was at the edge of the park, cut off by an ornamental stone wall with a gate, and lots of trees. It was a dip in the landscape, which provided the ideal concealment for the teenagers of Chetford to smoke dope and drink beer on most Saturday afternoons. Late at night it was a haven for the more serious connoisseurs of needle drugs, and the genuine alcoholics.
"I'm really not in the mood to go to the Basin and pick up a few stoned fourteen year olds, but the park might be nice… and if we do find anyone, my house is free until half six…" mused Dean, his eyes imperceptibly glazing over at the thought.
I could see that they were both hell-bent on the idea, and another thought struck me: Angelene (if only I knew her real name!) had only left my field of vision, she may not have left the park. I might see her again! I felt a momentary pang of terror that I might find her with some beefy rugby team sweetheart, but I doubted it somehow.
"Alright then, you win. We'll wander around the park, finish the wine and try to look alluring."
With that remark, I turned off the discman again, and we set off, after only a few minutes in our tower, for the park, and for Angelene, Angelene, Angelene!