The Last Summer: The Last Exam
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
There are some people who plan, have their lives sorted out, and book tables at restaurants months in advance. I was never one of those people. I'd pretty much been drifting through life from the day I was born; I could have floated out of my mother's womb. And don't even talk to me about making decisions, I used to hate supermarkets more than I hated anything else in the world; the rows and rows of shelves, the lakes of booze, the mountains of food and so many damn brands and clever slogans to chose from. "This cake will help you to lose weight". "These berries will stop you from getting cancer". Or "This washing up-liquid will make people madly attracted to you". I would stand still and look at it all sceptically and try to decide what I wanted more; cancer or a boyfriend, and in the end I would always just call my mum so she could choose for me.
I suppose this pathetic reasoning wasn't ever going to get me very far, independence- wise. Especially as I stood on the cusp of summer, The Last Summer, as we liked to call it. That summer all things were going to end; Owen was going off to university miles away, Jake was planning some big trip that he'd been saving for since he was a foetus and I was just hoping it would all turn out all right in the end without actually doing anything for myself. I'm never entirely sure if it made my life more or less of a waste; it wasn't as though the world was losing another brain surgeon but I wish, just once, I could have woken up in the morning and known that day I was going to really live.
I wasn't excited or particularly keen about that wide open space they liked to call the future much either; it could have been a snow white mountain set against a snow white sky while it snowed for all that I could picture of it. As I closed my last exam paper (History) for the last time I was already finding myself descending into a grim state of mourning for the old life that I was being forced to leave in the school gym with my untidily scribbled essay.
We always knew it was going to be the end of something, but we didn't know just how final all of it was going to be.
Owen finished his final exam in the afternoon, so Jake and I drifted back into to school to wait for him. It's a small village school, with an even smaller sixth form. Owen is sort of the school prodigy; he got the highest GCSE results since his sisters and took the most academic subjects of our forty-strong year. He was the only person in his chemistry class, one of two in physics and somehow managed to get a conditional place at Oxford in the autumn; so long as he got all A's in his exams. There wasn't a single teacher in the whole school that didn't want to lick our Owen's arse clean.
Lazily, Jake asked me to light him a fag and lolled against the wall outside the gate in that infuriatingly sexy way he always liked to do. As I lit the cigarette in my mouth, stole a sneaky toke and handed it to him, I saw two year-eleven girls in stupidly short skirts and deliberately chosen black bras that bulged beneath their school blouses eying him hopefully as they walked out, which Jake must have noticed because he flicked his hair like a L'Oreal advert and let out an "I am oh so cool" puff of cigarette smoke.
"Whore," I murmured to him and he battered his brilliant eyelashes innocently, offering me his last Camel cigarette- which, admittedly, Jake was always generous about.
"It feels weird just smoking in school," I said to Jake, spitting my gum onto the floor in a wonderfully lady-like fashion and lighting the fag with the novelty lighter that Owen brought me back from New York, in the shape of the Statue of Liberty.
"Never stopped us before," he shrugged.
"Yeah I know, but it's weird being actually allowed to. Feels... grownup, or something"
Obviously in one of his usual talkative moods, Jake shrugged again and shifted uncomfortably in his poncy green army jacket, which he'd bought one weekend on a trip to Camden market and insisted on wearing every minute of every day even though it was summer and about thirty five degrees Celsius going on a million. Of course, Jake is the type of weird person who just doesn't sweat, like a statue or something.
Actually, I can picture Jake as a statue; one of those amazing Greek marble statues, wonderful to look at with his icy blonde hair and cool blue eyes, slightly broken nose and completely smooth and hairless face. But like a statue, his chiselled expression was sinisterly and grimly set into stone and if you were to break open his cool white exterior underneath you would find nothing but more hard, cold rock.
"Hurry up Owen," he muttered, "he's got to be finished by now."
"Of course he hasn't, he'll be busy checking and double checking and triple checking,"
I leaned up against the wall next to Jake and used my hand to fan my face. It was one of those dog days, where you want to pant like a dog to stop yourself sticking to your seat or stick an ice cube in some sweaty crevice in a futile attempt to cool yourself down. I felt for poor Owen, sat in the stuffy school gym (which reeked of feet from year seven gymnastics and had radiators that the janitor refuses to switch off,) pouring over a chemistry exam while the ink from his pen boiled onto his paper.
"What time is it?"
I waved my empty wrist at Jake. I've never been known for my time keeping, my mum liked to joke that I wouldn't just be late for my own funeral, I'd turn up in the coffin a week later, thinking I'd got the right time. I always liked to joke right back that I'd try and be extra early for hers and bury her before she'd even died. Which I don't think she ever fully appreciated.
I cast up at the sky and pretended to study it intently "Judging by the sun's position and the length of my shadow I'd say it's around two."
"Don't ever get a job where timing is a major issue, Tills; ambulance crews, fire services, the police."
"Urrg, don't talk to me about jobs," I groaned."If I have to, I'll do a degree and a post-graduate degree and a bachelors and a masters in about four different subjects just to stay out of the real world for as long as I possibly can."
"The offer still stands about going on a gap year with me, we could go to Rome like you always wanted and France and Germany and everywhere we've never been before. We could avoid the future for as long as you wanted."
The only time Jake's eyes ever lit up and injected themselves with a bit of warmth was when he was talking about his trip. Or when he was about to come, but that's a whole other matter. He had an old shoebox stored under his bed full of notes he'd saved from years and years of paper rounds, summers in sandwich shops and ladies clothing stores up in Canterbury all ready to be converted into Euros. His eyelashes almost crisped from the heat of the passion he showed when he got out his map of Europe or anyone ever asked him about other countries.
"Oh yeah, and I'd pay for it with what? The hairs on my back?"
"That's a pleasant mental picture," shuddered Jake. "And I've seen your back- it's not hairy at all."
He reached behind me and I felt a cool palm gently slide under my t-shirt, up my back to reach for my bra strap. Within an instant, the clasp had come undone. I let out a squeal of protest and my hands went around my front to keep my bra from sliding off.
"I've still got it," said Jake, winking mechanically at me, almost like a robot.
"If by 'it' you mean a perverted nature," I snapped, juggling to free one hand so I could smack Jake around the head. "Do it back up!"
"Only if you say please."
I turned around and looked up, far up; Owen had gotten out of his exam and was standing at the gate, a clear plastic pencil case in one hand, a rucksack slung over one narrow shoulder and a bemused expression playing on his face.
"Oh Tills wanted me to have a go on her boobs," said Jake nonchalantly, taking a drag on his cigarette. "And I'm just reminding her that she mustn't forget her manners,"
"Oh" said Owen faintly, pulling a puppy dog expression. Even though he's at least a foot taller than me and Jake (who's a complete short arse) and built a little bit like Jack Skellington with skin, Owen still looks about four years younger than we do; mainly because he doesn't smoke, rarely drinks, his mum orders his jeans and shirts from catalogues and cuts his curly brown hair herself with nail trimmers.
"He's lying, Owen" I shot Jake a dark look and fiddled with the back of my top, the clasp fell miraculously back into place. "How was the exam?"
Owen stared blankly from me to Jake, his big brown Bambi eyes (which I was always dead jealous of) trying to figure us out. I swear for the cleverest boy that had attended our school, like ever, he could act like a right idiot sometimes.
"Oh right, alright I guess."
He looked at his feet and shifted uncomfortably, which struck me as a little odd; the last few exams Owen had bounded out triumphantly in his goofy manner.
"Just full marks, then?" asked Jake in a mock serious tone.
"Shut up," smiled Owen with his special Jake smile and my suspicions faded. Owen had a collection of little smiles; the "I'm terribly embarrassed" smile, the "You're pissing me off but I'm trying not to show it" smile, the "I've just done a really fun maths problem" smile and his dopey eyed "Jake" smile, I suppose I owned a smile of my own too- Owen had a spare smile for everyone.
Turning outside of the gate we made our way into the village.
Chislet looked idyllic enough, especially in the sun when everythingwas in Technicolor; the acid coloured village green and the orange brick cottages, yellow flowers and red post boxes that would look brilliant on a postcard but always looked gaudy and too bright to me. I always wanted to get a giant button and turn down the colour. Because Chislet's colour is just misleading; it should have been the greyest place in the world. But some idiot child had painted over the grey with poster paints.
Besides my dad's light shop, the post office and Mrs Miller's grocery store there was nothing to buy, there no cinemas, no pubs or clubs and there wasa ten minute bus ride to a train station to take us to the nearest humanity point. Villages like Chislet (even the name sounds like something on a carcass that you leave to fester after all the best bits of meat have been taken) are the perfect settings for murder films or summer fetes but not for gaining the valuable life experience that children of our age needed so desperately.
So over the years Jake, Owen and I sort of had to make our own fun. And if you're friends with Jake Fisher that generally includes taking some sort of illegal substance or having a lot of sex. Owen and Jake were my best friends in the whole world, but somehow by year eleven I'd managed to have sex with them both. Once disastrously with Owen when I was sixteen in The Time of Which We Do Not Speak (just awkward and agh!) and multiple times with Jake, because that's just what Jake demanded and it was just what we both needed.
"Where are we going out tonight?" I asked Jake as we walked down the main street, towards my dad's shop.
"It's the last day of exams," said Jake pensively. "So either a gig, or a club in Canterbury- definitely a night to get rat-faced."
I fished into his jacket and gave Jake's hand a quick squeeze; it was cold and balled into a stone "Sounds brilliant. I'll see you at seven?"
Jake blinked "You're going home now?"
"Its right here," I said gesturing towards Chislet Illuminated."I can't be bothered to walk or go anywhere. And if I stand in the shop for a bit, Dad will give me ten quid."
"I thought you might want to go for a drive up to the Downs?" asked Jake, trying not to look bothered. But I knew he was; the North Downs were our favourite place in the world. Better than Canterbury, better than Camden and much better than bloody Chislet.
"Maybe tomorrow we could go, if no one's busy," said Owen."We've got a long summer ahead of us, wouldn't want to do it all in one day."
"Whatever," said Jake indifferently, scuffing his battered Vans on the paving. He was trying to avoid going home I think, which Jake always did. I was about to suggest him coming into the shop (my parents inexplicably adored Jake) when Owen piped in.
"Do you wanna come round mine?" he asked rather insistently.
"Why?" asked Jake, suspiciously.
Jake liked to pretend that he didn't need any help and Owen and I liked to pretend that we hadn't noticed that Jake hated going home. We just had to help him sneakily, getting more rounds in than we should, staying out much later than we should and just generally being emotional punching bags if he needed it.
"Oh errm I dunno," mumbled Owen, colouring slightly; Owen isn't the best liar, I think it comes as part of that naïve newborn lamb act "I don't have anything better to do. You don't have anything better to do."
Jake shrugged "Okay, as long as I don't have to play X-box or make small talk with your mum or whatever."
"Just because I keep kicking your arse at Guitar Hero!" laughed Owen "See you Tills,"
Chislet Illuminated was, as always, illuminated. I don't know quite when my father decided there was money to be had in lighting, but I'd lived there all my life. The shop was crammed with lights; shades and chandeliers hung from the walls, the floor was adorned with the stupid garden lights that posh people always seem to have at parties, whilst you could barely move for large floor lamps that burnt to the touch thanks to inefficient light bulbs. We had lights that were large, lights that were small, green lights, red lights or stain glass window lights, lights made of glass or lights made of plastic, spotlights, fluorescent tubes and stupid little novelty cow lamps with glowing udders. We also had the largest electricity bill known to man.
"Hullo Tilly," Dad looked up from his fishing book and grinned, the lines on his face sufficiently lit by a desk lamp, he held up a large strip bulb. "What do you reckon? A forty watt-er?"
"Eighty; Normal ELV incandescent .It goes in one of the floor lamps." Anything for a quiet life.
He beamed and threw the bulb to me, gesturing to a gaudy Art-Deco glass floor lamp that wasn't illuminated.
"Oh Tills," said Dad as though he'd just remembered "How did your last exam go this mornin'?"
I shrugged and Dad looked crestfallen, he has always considered himself to be quite the history aficionado and had been helping me revise for the A' level exam all year. I'd always loved my Dad, he was stupid and brilliant, a little bit like Owen- but where Owen was lanky and smooth my Dad was little, round and very, very hairy. When I was younger he used to pretend to be a bear, he'd let me ride on his back and would growl on command as though I was his fearless tamer. I don't know whether or not this was teaching me proper bear handling safety skills, but I didn't care, and I don't think he did either.
That day, Dad was wearing his stupid "dad-shorts", a sort of beige khaki coloured short that revealed pale but hairy legs, and also his trade-marked sandals, without socks because even his toes are hairy like a hobbit, rendering all foot insulation completely unnecessary.
"Going out tonight, dahlin'?"
" Canterbury I think, Jake's driving us over. He finally managed to get the old banger fixed up again."
Dad frowned "You're driving? And In Jake's bleedin' death trap? I hope one of you stays sober. Don't hesitate to call me if none of you are in your right mind, I know what happens when Jake Fisher takes you out of an evening."
I bloody hoped not. He wouldn't be looking me in the eye if he really knew.
"Don't fuss, we'll be fine."
"You say that, and then you get into an accident," said Dad darkly. "Seriously, Tilly."
"Seriously Tilly what?"
Restlessly, Mum emerged from the back room; it had been cut away so that a door in led into the living room of our neat cream cottage. I looked a lot like mum; particularly the whole inheritance of the ginger gene, which I was always terribly pleased about; like dad, she was little. But she was about as far from round as it is possible to be, except maybe in the case of squares, Mum had bones jutting out from every angle of her papery freckled skin. She twitched with a nervous energy, her beady little eyes darted about the room as you spoke to her and her nails were bitten down to fleshy stubs just like mine.
"Your daughter is planning to drink and drive her way up to Canterbury," said Dad, half jokingly, half deadly serious.
"I'm not!" I hit Dad gently on the arm and he hit right back.
Mum frowned and shifted uncomfortably, tapped on the glass till counter and fluffed her hair. "I wouldn't do that Tilly, you've read all the statistics I found for you about drunk driving?"
"It's not my favourite reading material, admittedly but your little articles are always hard to miss when you leave them out for me-"
"-Pinned to her clothes,"
"-On top of my breakfast."
"-Taped to the toilet lid."
Mum frowned at me and Dad and scratched her eyebrows "I thought you liked the articles I clip for you,"
Dad thrust an arm around Mum and gave her a reassuring shake; I could almost hear her bones rattle together. "I love them, Eileen. Particularly that cracking story about male pattern baldness; which, you'll notice, hasn't affected me quite yet."
"Face it Dad, Grand-da Jude is as bald as a baby's bum, it's only a matter of time before you loose all that fuzz… can I borrow a tenner or something?"
"I like that," sniffed Dad in a mock hurt voice. "Insulting your father and then scrounging the hard earned sweat from his brow,"
He reached over to kiss the top of my head and growled playfully whilst I wriggled from his grip.
"No thanks, I'd rather just have the money."
"To buy alcohol?"
"To pay for a taxi home, so I can avoid drinking and driving. Please, please, please, please?"
Dad grinned "Tell you what. Man the shop for two hours and I'll pay you twenty."
"Urrgh." I made a great show of flopping onto the glass counter. Dad liked to be under the illusion that he wasn't spoiling me when I was already as spoiled as month old milk ."Fine."
Jake and Owen pulled up in Jake's battered old Land Rover. Owen was driving and I could see from the can of Stella in his hand that Jake had already started as he meant to go on. I pulled my patterned head band tighter over my head and fluffed up my hair, it had been so much easier to handle since I'd cut it into a bob myself one bored afternoon, before racing out of the door. Dad waved half heartedly, immersed in fixing a massive great chandelier at the dining table and Mum didn't bother to look up from her exercise machine, so I got away with the frankly too short and rather sluttish sparkly dress that I was wearing.
"You ready," asked Jake seriously, leaning out of the window, "for the first in a series of completely mental nights?"
I leapt into the car. It smelt of an old man's smoking jacket wrapped around a wet dog and the radio was roaring an incomprehensible rock track. A dog hair covered throw had been pulled over the back seat to hide the various vomit stains and blood stains and other stains that cars generally receive on nights out with teenagers and on the floor was a vast array of broken CDs, fast food paper wrappers and, for some reason, what seemed like the full contents of a tool box. I hoped to God Jake hadn't tried to fix his car himself, to save money or something.
"Bring it on," I said happily, lighting a cigarette.
Jake handed me another cigarette from the front seat to light for him, I popped it in my mouth, moving my own cigarette to one side with my tongue.
"Cheers, Ginge," said Jake, taking a leisurely drag.
"Smoke out the window, smoke out the window," muttered Owen, who was slightly 'asthmatic' or as I like to call it 'a drama queen'. Jake gave him a withering look and blew a smoke ring into his face.
We drove off, the setting sun on our heels, that ominous blank white future still very much ahead of us. I watched the bushes as we sped past, not taking enough time to look at each of them because, in life, we all drive too fast to sit and actually look and listen. We all spend too much time on the road and not enough on the North Downs.
We all do stupid things, and then we die. As Jake, Owen and I were all about to find out.