The First September
A/N: Well, this is it. Thank you so much for reviewing and reading from the start. I don't want to say much; so here it is. The Last Chapter:
The last two weeks of the longest (and shortest, depending how you looked at it) summer I had ever experienced went by in no time at all. It was though those last few days had been pinned to the wing of a hummingbird.
After he got out of hospital, Jake spent all of his time outside, Owen got a sunburn and they enjoyed the summer that we'd planned long before I went and crapped it all up. I tried being happy for them as they lay on their backs not talking about me for hours and it sort of worked.
And however short they were, I wouldn't have minded if those days went on forever. In those two weeks, Jake 'did' monogamy and smiling and his icy nature thawed a little. In those two weeks, Owen made university plans that weren't all about going to Oxford and ate Ben and Jerry's ice-cream from the tub. And I, for the first time probably ever thought about the future. A future without me in it.
Talking long into the evening, Jake and Owen tucked that ominous idea of saying goodbye from Chislet and childhood forever into their shirts and jacket pockets, sitting firmly on them so nothing crept out and spoilt the atmosphere. They lived for the moment, kissed for the moment, laughed for the moment. And the moment was all we needed.
Until the first of September.
"So now I have swimming trunks, hiking boots and a first aid kit," said Jake pointing to the large traveling bag on his bed.
"Check, check and check," said Owen with a smile ticking off the list he was holding. "You're all done, Mr Fisher. And it's only taken you, what, three years now to get packed?"
"Christ on a bicycle," breathed Jake, running his hand through his hair. "This is really it isn't it?"
Owen looked down at him momentarily, his bottom lip trembling. He quickly returned to his list and clipboard, clearing his throat and speaking in a slightly gravelly tone. "Now, I've marked the youth hostel in on the map for when you get to Rome, but after that you're on your own. Just keep everything safe."
Jake nodded as he shrugged the rucksack on his shoulders. "Fucking hell," he said breaking into a massive smile and pulling Owen into a crippling hug. "Fucking hell!" Jake kissed Owen triumphantly.
There was a small knock on the door and Jake and Owen quickly parted before Vicky Fisher entered her son's room.
She gave him a weak smile and pressed her fingers to her lips.
"Jake," she said in a choked voice.
"Oh come here mum," said Jake briskly, enveloping his mother in his arms and holding her tight.
"You take care of yourself," warned Vicky. "If I ever have to come visit you in hospital again…"
"You take care of yourself," said Jake seriously.
"Don't worry son," came a voice from behind them, Kenneth stood in the door frame of Jake's room, as imposing as ever though his bleary eyes were a little clearer. "I'll take care of your old mum for you."
Jake winced and gripped onto his mother tighter, before reluctantly pulling away.
It was clear to Jake that the icing on the cake of everything that had happened was his mother breaking up Kenneth. But life isn't like that, so instead we have to take the small victories where and when we find them; like Vicky trying to give up cigarettes and Kenneth taking off his boots in the house.
"Ready?" asked Owen gently from behind Jake. "We don't want to miss the plane."
"Ready," said Jake solemnly. Vicky gave a hacking cough, grabbed Kenneth round the waist and they both followed Jake and Owen downstairs.
After the last dog was sold; Pollyanna the vicious Alsatian had found a place with an ex-policeman who knew how to handle damaged animals, Jake was jubilant. Until Owen pointed out that Jake had yet to sell his beaten up range rover, which was unsurprising considering how it was basically running on prayer and a combination of abuse and flattery from Jake.
"You have it," Jake had said running his finger up Owen's arm.
"Really?" asked Owen, half caught between feeling honoured and really not wanting the car.
"Yeah. Makes sense to keep it in the friendship group. Tilly vomited on that seat, I bled on the backseat from that fight we got in and you drooled all over that window."
"Urrm. Thanks, Jake," said Owen wrinkling up his nose. "What lovely…disgusting memories."
"Hey now, they're the best kind of memories!" Jake said happily moving to kiss Owen on the neck.
"Wait," said Jake suddenly as Owen pulled past Chislet Illuminated. "Stop a minute."
Owen parked in the space outside of the shop and Jake leapt out of the passenger seat.
Mum was sitting at the desk inside the shop, Pointer the dog at her feet gnawing on a plastic desk lamp.
"Hi Jake, Owen," said Mum with a smile. "You off now then?"
"Yep," said Jake, beaming. "The flight is in a couple of hours. So I thought I'd come to say goodbye."
"Well come 'ere then," said Mum briskly grabbing Jake by the neck and pulling him into one of her horrible, boney hugs. "I remember the first time I saw you; six years old, just moving into the village with your Mum to look after your Gran, weren't you? Tilly pinched you on the arm."
"I forgot about that," said Jake with a smile. "We only really started being friends when I was fourteen."
"Actually Jake,It's good that you came," said Mum. "I saw some articles in the paper that you might like, so I clipped them." She shooed Pointer out of the way of the cupboard and handed Jake a stack of clippings.
"It wont be long till we have to say goodbye to Owen as well," said Mum rounding on Owen. "Where is it you're going?"
"Leeds," said Owen. "It was very last minute. I think they're shoving me in a shed for the first year."
"Well it will be odd not seeing the three of you just hanging around the village," said Mum sadly.
"I'll pop in for Christmas," grinned Owen. "And I think Mum'll want me home every bloody weekend."
"Well you can pop in, but I can't guarantee that the new owners will want you bothering them."
"What!" chorused Jake and Owen in disbelief.
"I'm not supposed to say anything," said Mum quietly, looking over her shoulder into the partition between the cottage and Chislet Illuminated. "But a friend of mine at the mother's grieving group you know I went to owns a chain of bookstores. After she lost her son Gavin, or Gabriel or something in a car crash- she's had more time to expand the business and well, let's just say she made me and Francis an offer we just couldn't refuse!"
"So, what are you and Mr Slattery going to do?" asked Owen.
"We're retiring early aren't we?" smiled Mum. "Without the shop we can sell the cottage and move somewhere with lots of sun! Perhaps even start up a restaurant," she said, her eyes flashing with future prospects. "I think a fresh start will do us both the world of good," the smile wavered a little, "I hope."
"Congratulations Mrs Slattery," smiled Owen. "And Good Luck."
"Well don't let me keep you!" said Mum "Imagine after all this if you missed your plane."
"One more stop?" pleaded Jake as they got onto the motorway. "I know that we aren't as on time as we thought but-"
"I'm way ahead of you," smiled Owen pulling down a familiar route.
The Downs. It had almost been the fourth lover in our twisted relationship. Twisted and beautiful, while it lasted, like petals in a complicated plant structure.
After they picked out a spot, Jake stretched out onto the grass on his back, besides him Owen lay on his front, running his fingers through the grass.
"I'll miss this," said Jake, gently injecting himself into the silence. "The downs."
"You know they might have grass in Europe," said Owen. "Hills too, I'd imagine."
Jake nudged Owen with his foot, they grinned at each other.
"Come with me," said Jake suddenly. "Sod the plane ticket. If we just go back for your passport; France is less than two hours away in the euro tunnel and then we could drive down till we hit Italy. We could be together-"
Owen sat up and kissed Jake urgently, grabbing the collar of his army jacket and trying hard reduce every gap between them. Jake fell onto his back, taking Owen with him, the grass staining his army jacket for what must have been the hundredth time. The kiss ended and Owen smiled sadly at Jake.
"You know it wouldn't work…think of all those European people you'll be able to shag- I'd be boring and terrified. I need to sort things out here don't I? Get some help, get off to Leeds for University."
"I know, It's just I…mate."
Owen sighed stroked Jake's face tenderly. "It's not properly goodbye," he said gently, "I think we owe it to Tilly to stay in touch…send me postcards and e-mails and..."
"The next time we see each other might be in twenty years," muttered Jake, he reached up to run a hand through Owen's hair. "You might be head teacher of a school, you might be in," his wrinkled up his nose, "a civil partner-ship with a sensible orthodontist named… Alan."
Owen laughed and kissed Jake again.
"You might have kids! And a wife!"
"I like that…I'll find her in South America, one of those dark-eyed Latina beauties. And she won't mind swinging…and she'll take a shine to Alan."
They exchanged a smile and the promise of a Technicolor, candy-coated, overly saccharine future, though beneath the smile they both knew that it could only be speculation. That's the amazing thing about having a future, whether or not it's been entirely planned out for you since birth, you can never really know how it's going to turn out. Whether you're going to be a doctor or a tramp, whether you're going to travel the world or never quite make it past Southeast England. Whether you're going to live till a hundred or die tomorrow.
Sitting up and extending his arm, Owen placed a hand around Jake and he in turn moved his head to rest on Owen's shoulder.
"Promise me you won't overdose on something again or get an STD," said Owen quietly.
"Promise me you'll," Jake struggled for something to say. "Promise me that what ever you do, you'll be happy…or something."
They sealed their promises with a fleeting kiss.
Jake pressed his head against Owen's chest, their fingers entwining, sharing each other's spaces. "This is it then isn't it?" he mumbled, eyes wide open staring at the downs.
There it was, Chislet behind us, Canterbury Cathedral and the rest of the world ahead of them.
"Not on your life," said Owen, smiling somewhat painfully into Jake's hair. "This is just the start."
"You're not going to sing the Circle of Life are you?"
"It'd be appropriate and I do have quite a nice voice," said Owen with a wry smile.
"You even try it, and I'll punch you in the face," said Jake, hugging Owen tightly around the waist.
I curled my fingers round the grass. Everything was ending now, Mum and Dad were selling the shop so I'd lose my room. Jake and Owen were going there separate ways so our drama had reached it's dénouement. But somehow, I wasn't worried. They'd remember. I know they would. They would miss me for as long as they lived, which I wanted. But I also wanted them to get better.
"Besides, Matilda Slattery," I told myself firmly. "You had a good run didn't you? Could you really imagine yourself doing the nine to five 'til you were sixty?"
No way. Tilly Slattery was not a slow burning candle. She was a firework.
"Right then, well, we ought to get going," said Jake glancing anxiously at his watch.
"Say Bye, North Downs."
"Bye Tilly," whispered Jake solemnly.
"Bye Tilly," said Owen. "We'll always miss you."
Jake and Owen embraced each other and by doing so they embraced the future, new life and new love. Together they created a barrier, soft like a wall of smoke but so impenetrable that the past pains and heartache wouldn't and couldn't pierce through. In that one gesture, I realized that they just didn't need me anymore. They'd both be fine; together, alone and alive.
That summer, our last summer, (and perhaps all my life) we'd been clinging to the edge of a jagged precipice, our hands bloodied and tired with the effort. We clung to it because we were terrified of plummeting miles and miles down into the blank whiteness below. What we didn't realize was- that by holding on- we weren't taking the chance not to fall. But to fly.
And after one last look over the downs, I closed my eyes and embraced the white of the void, ready to soar.