Bracknell town council had arranged for the fireworks display, and the accompanying bonfire to take place on the grounds of South Hill Park. It was a large manor house and grounds that had long ago been converted into a public art gallery, theatres, cafe; a general centre of culture. Its acres of green fields and forests stretched for miles in either direction of the house, broken in front of it by a main road. On the evening of November 5th, the side of the road on which the manor sat beside a crystal lake would be vacant. The empty field across the concrete from the house would play host to the bonfire, and the spectators. The field was public space, generally empty, occasionally host to a travelling fairground. It was rumoured that the fairground would be there on the night of the display. The council hoped that the free event would bring the residents of Bracknell together, and create an evening that they could all enjoy, and remember for years to come.
The mayor stood on a podium atop a stage, dressed in a dark blue suit and adorned with the chains of office. His gray hair was thinning but neatly kept, and his large glasses looked odd on his kind face. Not that any of the students watching him were paying attention in any way. His kind appearance did little to enhance interest in his dull vocal tone. The year 11 students of Brakenhale Secondary School had lapsed into a fugue state of near-unconsciousness. As the mayor stepped back from the podium and was replaced by the head of year, the students rippled back to life in a sea of muted, customary applause.
Jay Andrews had been switched off for almost the entire duration of the assembly, having arrived late to school that morning just as every other morning; he had managed to stealthily position himself on the back row of seats, slipping in unnoticed while the mayor had taken to the stage. He came to life only to add his own sarcastic slow clapping to the applause. Staying in tune only long enough to hear the details of the upcoming London trip to see a play, he immediately switched off again. He had paid the fees already, and as long as there was no news postponing or cancelling the trip, he had no need to listen to anything the head of year had to say. The usual routine of a morning assembly was followed, and so Jay was certain he could daydream and nothing of value would be lost. The head of year predictably followed up by addressing the 'thought for the week' – usually a proverb stolen from ancient history or a religious text with a tenuous moral story tacked on to relate it to the world of modern day secondary school – which that week was 'what goes around comes around', with a short story targeting bullies, but at the same time being completely unlikely and the consequences being disproportionate and unrelated to the crime. In this particular story, two boys were picking on a third at school by calling him names. The third boy became afraid of them, and in running away from them after school one day, was hit by a car and killed in front of the name-callers.
Jay slouched in his chair, staring up at the ceiling and letting his arms hang limply down his sides as he closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose. Five minutes later, his tutor group were the first to be dismissed, being group 'A'. The rest of his class were, however, seated at the front of the hall, and Jay had to wait until the large group walked past so that he could surreptitiously merge with the throng and disappear without drawing attention. Once he was out into the corridor, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket and smoothed it out against a wall. The timetable, drawn out in his own rushed handwriting, caused a sigh of grief. He screwed the paper back up into his pocket and headed toward the art building. Jay had little to no interest in any of the subjects he was being forced to study any more, much less for what he believed to be an ultimately pointless subject. His rationale failed to remind him that the only reason he had to take art was that it had been one of his choices for GCSE; he had chosen it expecting it to be easy, and instead found it tedious and boring. As most people who have survived secondary school can attest to, by the time you reach year 11, everything just seems to be dragging out for as long as possible, delaying the inevitable end of school, when the teachers would magically lose all authority. Until that point, it only seems that they are making things much harder on students, that final chance at causing some lasting damage. To most teenagers in compulsory education, that day seems as far off as the heat-death of the universe; it is going to happen, but it feels like they will never live to see it.
Jay reached the classroom and put his jacket over the back of the seat, not wanting to subject his belongings to the chalk-dusted floor. The desks in the art room were arranged into a horse-shoe layout, or a U-shape. The centre is where the teacher walked around, surveying the students as they worked on whatever sat dead-centre as a model. Today, that model was a table, with vases, glasses and various pots arranged aesthetically. Jay let out another long exhale through his nose and threw his head back. He was the first into the classroom and already wished that he had made the decision to not turn up to school at all that morning. Inevitably his friends hadn't, they would sneak in at morning break. Two hours away, and Jay would be subjected to drawing the same image repeatedly up until that time.
Eventually, after all the other students had filtered in, and the register had been taken, class began. The teacher explained what they would be doing, but to Jay, it became an analogue to Charlie Brown's teacher; nothing more than a muted trumpet, a filler sound effect taking up space. Jay already knew what was being said, they would be drawing still-life. There could not be much more boring than that. The pointlessness of the exercise did nothing else, if not proving to Jay exactly how worthless art was as an academic subject.
'Do we have a problem, Mr. Andrews?' the teacher asked agitatedly. Jay had somehow let out a groan while burying his head in the darkness of his arms which were crossed over the desk. He didn't even bother to lift his head to reply, simply grunting in response as giggles rippled around the class. The teacher stared daggers at Jay for a moment before addressing the chuckles of the others, 'don't humour him. He will only begin to think that he's actually funny.' She clapped her hands together and ordered everyone to begin. There was a sudden commotion as many students hopped up and wandered over to the bin to sharpen their pencils, others began straight away. Jay kept his head down for a further five minutes until being chastised by the teacher; he then took up a pencil and immediately drew the most basic, childlike scribble of a vase that he could manage, even using his left hand to add to the rebellion and heighten his sarcastic artwork. He admired his product, giggling at his own joke, and deliberated whether or not to re-do it in wax crayon for full effect. He settled on a scrawl of "Jay aged 15" in the corner, using his left hand and backward letters, before he dropped the pencil and sighed. It was going to be a long day.
The noise and general chat in the room had escalated to a volume where Jay struggled to hear himself think, but could swear that he heard his name mentioned. At first he blamed paranoia and internal arrogance, busying himself drawing doodles around the outside of his masterpiece. But then he heard it again, more clearly. Not a whole sentence, just the name, followed by a girlish giggle. Scanning the faces around the room in a clockwise pattern, he tried to put a face to the voice. He heard the giggle again, and his eyes shot directly opposite. Catching the eye of an attractive girl, he hastily readjusted his gaze and pretended to be looking out of the window. Her face flushed red and she quickly looked back down at her paper; Jay looked back at her. Hope Burton, a very attractive girl; blonde, sweet, seemingly innocent. Jay continued to look, and eventually she looked back. She caught eyesight and once again looked back down at her work. Jay smirked to himself and continued to doodle as his ego inflated. Throughout the remainder of the lesson, he continued to try and catch her eye contact, to no avail. He tried also to listen to their conversation, but over the noise it was inaudible except for the occasional word. While Jay was looking over at Hope, waiting for more eye contact, his vision was suddenly blocked by the form of the teacher standing over him; she berated him for his work, denounced him, called him useless and more that Jay simply ignored, zoning out and just nodding to everything she said. When she finally left, Jay made eye contact with Hope long enough to smile at her, she smiled back and he suddenly blushed, embarrassed at having been made an example of by the teacher; he suddenly felt very self-conscious over the smile. Evidently, Hope had turned more red than she had been, and also quickly got back to work.
Eternity came to pass, saplings broke into light, became trees, withered and died, all in the amount of time that it took for the bell to chime the end of the lesson and time for morning break. Jay threw on his jacket and swept from the class faster than anyone could notice. He left his "work" on the table, along with a note he had addressed to the teacher; it informed her to keep hold of the image as it would be worth a fortune one day.
For all he hated of double lessons in the morning, Jay reflected as he made his way to the football cages in the playground, was that it was morning break when the lesson ended; that meant that he had a kind of freedom for fifteen minutes. It was time to play football with the other groups.
Jay hated football, and most other sports; he considered the spectating of sports to be a massive waste of time and television broadcast schedules. It also took an immense amount of effort to follow the politics of whatever game you chose to support, and Jay simply found it too difficult to take something that seriously. Nonetheless, he enjoyed the camaraderie and the teamwork of a game at school breaks. Everyone got together at break time; the bullies, the popular kids, the clever ones and the ones that weren't tough, cool, or smart enough to be able to fit into any of the other groups; the obscures. They all joined together and united in a common purpose. To, for some reason or another, try and use their feet to direct a ball into a net.
Jay always played defence; he was unable to kick a ball straight, or with much force or accuracy, but he was damn good when it came to depriving other players of possession. Playing in defence also allowed him to relax a little, and not bother with the frustration of sweating and losing breath. As he stood on the defensive line that day, hands in pockets, thinking about Hope and the emerging desire to sleep with her, he suddenly became aware of the fact that people were shouting his name. Waking from a daydream of explicit images, he realised that the ball had found itself resting against his foot, and he was being charged at by someone from one of the other classes, a kid that no-one spoke to; one of the obscures. The boy's team cheered him on, it was his moment to be a somebody, to do something memorable. Unfortunately, Jay couldn't allow that to happen; placing the sole of his foot on top of the ball, he gently rolled it back and stepped backward with it, giving it enough momentum that he could reverse it with a sharp kick up the court. It launched toward the other goal, and then veered off into the corner. One of Jay's team-mates caught it with a volley and sent it whirling into the back of the net. Cheers erupted, the scorer ran toward Jay and threw his arms around him, effortlessly hoisting his light frame into the air and spinning him in a circle. He set Jay back down and they high-fived, before he charged off again, leaving Jay dizzy, facing the side of the courts. He found himself making eye contact with a girl on the outside of the cages. She motioned for him to come over. Trying to act nonchalant, he wandered slowly over with his hands in his pockets. He stopped a few steps short of the cage, as if he was frightened she would reach through and slam him against the side.
'What's up, Jess?' he asked, his confidence was undermined by the faltering of his voice. Jessica was a pretty redhead from his class. The two had been in a "relationship" two years prior, but they had both been far too young and shy to do anything; including talking to one another. They had been boyfriend and girlfriend in name only, and had only ever hugged once; even that had only occurred because Jay spent the entire school day psyching himself up to do so.
As Jessica began to speak, the pale skin of her lightly freckled cheeks grew pink and she looked down at her feet, 'um... Hope wants to know if you'd go to the firework display with her.'
Jay thought for a second before shrugging his shoulders; he wanted to say yes, but he knew where it would lead and he really didn't want a girlfriend. Hope was attractive, but Jay didn't want the burden of a relationship. That was far too serious for him.
'Well, we need an answer,' Jessica said sweetly; her voice was quiet and non-confrontational at all times. Jay could tell that she was trying to be assertive, but it wasn't working. He just shrugged again and answered with a noncommittal, 'meh.' and then conveniently, almost as if planned, the ball arrived at his feet and he charged back into the game. Once he was sure that Jessica was gone, he found his friend Liam and jogged over.
Jay was in a different class to Liam, while he was in the "top" set, Liam was in the lower. That meant that while Jay was subjected to the hardest of work, and equations that would make any of the other kids cry, Liam cruised on with multiplication tables. Jay swore that his own placement in the class was a mistake on the school's part, although it did allow him to jokingly refer to himself as the brains, citing Liam as the brawn.
'What did she want?' Liam asked with a nod in Jessica's direction, and momentarily losing interest in the game as he stared at her butt. Jay suddenly clicked his fingers as loud as he could, an inch from Liam's face. He shifted his attention over to Jay, and his raised eyebrows simply asked the same question he had just said aloud.
'Asking me out for Hope,' Jay said, and thrust his hands into his pockets, watching the ball in play. Liam slowly turned to face his friend, a look of exaggerated confusion on his face.
'But,' he paused, as if trying to contemplate what he had just heard, 'she's hot... And you're...'
Jay furrowed his brow in an expression of anger, stared for a few moments, and then punched Liam hard in the shoulder. Liam exploded in a laugh, rubbing where he had just been hit, before he shoved Jay playfully, 'let's go get some fresh air.'
Jay waved the flame momentarily over the end of the cigarette between his lips, inhaling deeply as he did. He then passed the light over to Liam, who always seemed to lose his own at some point before morning break. Jay took the cigarette between his fingers and removed it from his lips, exhaling as he did so. He let the poisonous fumes wash around his body before looking around the alcove in which they sheltered from the school CCTV camera placed in the strategic position on the corner of the sports hall. The alcove had once been a doorway, bricked up sometime in the 70's, and now it served Jay and his small group of close friends as a place in which to smoke during breaks, and to do so covertly on school grounds. Jay stood against the wall in the corner, left hand in his pocket, the other holding the cigarette. Liam stood in the opening, his hood up over his head and he bounced from foot to foot. The other two, Billy and Michael, stood against the opposite wall. Jay noticed the unusual silence and coughed awkwardly.
Billy stood opposite, not a smoker himself, but he always joined his friends. Although it was by no means an act of clingy desparation, he had other friends and his best friend was in Jay's class, but he didn't smoke, and never joined them outside of school; always far too preoccupied with football games. He never seemed to get along with Jay anyway, harbouring a mild dislike, but Jay never understood why.
Michael – Mickey to his friends – stood next to him, leaning back against the wall. He breathed a column of smoke vertically into the air. Jay noticed for the first time that he was wearing a white polo shirt in place of the white dress shirt of school uniform, but he still wore the school tie. He had a relatively short temper – only slightly longer than Liam – which Jay had learned to stay on the right side of throughout their turbulent past. They hadn't been friends at the beginning of school, Mickey had disliked Jay for some reason. After being paired up forcefully in class one day, they became friends. There had been a few minor fallouts – once over Jessica – but they had returned to being friends and now felt closer because of it.
Liam stood in his ostentatious American-style hoody over his white shirt and inch-long tie. He wore white trainers in defiance of the uniform policy. His black gelled hair crept out from under his hood as the rest of his face was masked from the smoke of the cigarette between his lips.
As Jay finished his analyses of his friends, he realised that no-one had spoken. They could hear the football game continuing in the distance. Jay had always had issue with starting a conversation, never being able to think of something to say in any situation, but the awkwardness of the silence bugged him. He slid his back slowly down the brick wall until he was squatted on the floor. Thankfully, Billy saved him from the silence.
'So what's everyone up to tonight?' he asked, looking around. He made eye contact with Mickey, who swiftly blew a puff of smoke in his face. He gave a girlish cough as a joke when he fanned the smoke away. The others laughed, Jay had nothing to answer for himself, he never did anything without first being asked; never wanting to organise anything to avoid shouldering the burden if nobody enjoyed themselves.
'Jay will be shagging his new bird,' Liam said, putting on a smug grin the second that Jay threw him an angry look. Billy and Mickey looked in Jay's direction in unison, both questioning with their gaze.
'Who is she?' Billy asked. Jay's face returned incredulity, Billy had a huge mouth on him; any hint of something in morning break would result in a not-so-subtle joke in class and the whole school would know by lunch time, assume they were already a couple and tease accordingly. Jay often said that teenage boys had only two goals in life: get laid and make their friends look stupid.
Unsure what to say, Jay met Liam's eyes and gave a pleading look. Liam saw, acknowledged and dismissed this in less than a second; 'Hope Burton,' he said, exhaling cigarette smoke as an impressed silence fell and the awe hung tangibly in the air.
'You're shagging Hope?' Mickey asked, Jay shrugged it off and focused on the embers at the end of his cigarette, 'but, she's hot,' Mickey said, Liam sputtered with laughter. Billy too. Jay just sighed loudly and looked up to the ceiling of the alcove.
'She just asked me out. I'm probably not going to go,' he said after a moment of awkward silence. He stood up and began to pace the alcove impatiently as the quick-fire questions and suggestions came at him.
'Not going? Are you retarded?'
'You're punching above your weight, I say you should go.'
'If you're not going to go, I'll go in your place.'
Jay threw down his cigarette butt forcefully; he'd had enough. He didn't like to storm off in anger, but sometimes he felt it was needed, even if jeers and taunts from his friends followed him.
The rest of the day passed smoothly and without incident. His friends curbed their teasing about Hope, but replaced it with facetious mocking of Jay's newly discovered sensitive feelings and tendency to run off in a strop. Jay simply adjusted and filtered out what he paid attention to, until he barely noticed it. As the day went on, he had come around to joking with them, disarming the insults with self-deprecating playful humour. Yes, Hope was hot. Yes, he was going to sleep with her. Yes, that was all he was interested in. Of course, that was not the case, by expressing interest, she had already registered in his mind, and now he couldn't help noticing her all the time. He even adjusted many of his actions if he thought that she was looking at him.
By the time of the last lesson, as he sat at a corner table with Mickey and Billy in maths, he still hadn't made up his mind whether to admit that the interest was mutual. As he pretended to focus on his work, but putting more effort into talking with his friends, a note dropped onto his exercise book. He looked up in time to see Jessica sweeping past, looking over her shoulder with a knowing twinkle in her eye. Her red hair hung half way down her back, drawing Jay's eyes downward. He couldn't help but watch her buttocks as she walked away, rolling her hips. He snapped out of the trance as Billy leant over the table, intending to steal the note. Jay already had it in his hand, knowing without even a glance that it would be from Hope. As his hands began to tremble, and his friends eagerly awaited the message, he looked once at each of them, before he screwed it into a ball and threw it directly into the bin. A cocky smirk and a snort as he showed off to his friends, and he got back to his work. Half an hour passed, and Jay wrestled with a migraine induced by seeing so many numbers concentrated in a small space, as another note dropped onto his book, more covertly than the previous one. Once again he watched Jessica's curvy hips sway as she walked on, and, moving his gaze over slightly, he discretely looked at each of his friends across the table; they were both fully engaged with their work, and Jay took the opportunity to unfold the note on his page. The delicate curls of a girl's handwriting in purple gel ink stared back at him from the note.
'Jay. Please don't throw this one away. Hope just wants to talk to you after school. Please? Love from Jess xxx'
He was tempted to screw the note up and once again throw it into the bin, the situation was beginning to test his patience and his last nerve. But he knew that it wouldn't go away unless he addressed it head on. He scrawled a note back quickly in a biro that was running out of ink, not even bothering to follow the lines on the page as Jess had. He screwed the note into a ball and tossed it across to Hope's table. He looked up and met the disapproving gaze and raised eyebrows of the teacher, putting on his best cheeky smile that he found always seemed to disarm people, and then he returned to work, wondering why it was that girls couldn't just ask questions themselves, they had to delegate the task to a friend.
Jessica grabbed the note excitedly and concealed it under her notebook, before seemingly realising that it was probably addressed to Hope. She rolled the ball across the table to Hope, who slowly fumbled with the note, trying to contain her excitement. Her cheeks turned pink as she read the words.
'5 minutes then I'm gone.'
It wasn't perfect, but it was a start. Hope could barely keep the smile from her lips as she spent the rest of the lesson taking every opportunity to look at Jay. He knew this, and he loved it.
The bell clanged three, and as the rest of the class rushed to get out and head home, Jay uncharacteristically hung back. Attempting to waste time, he stalled, talking to the teacher about his problems with factorising algebraic formulae. He never paid any attention to the coherent explanation, and instead continuously shot glances at the clock. Ten minutes later, he decided that he had taken enough time to leave, and Hope would have given up and gone home. If she hadn't, she was clearly stupid. Thanking the teacher, Jay grabbed his things, pulled on his jacket and slung his bag over one shoulder.
Hope was clearly stupid.
She stood at the gates, glancing right and left, waiting patiently. Jay slowed his pace, he wanted to postpone the meeting for as long as possible. He didn't know what he was going to say to her, and was nervous about the discussion that was to come. The truth was, she was a very attractive girl, beautiful. But Jay was not sure he wanted to be in a relationship with anyone. He considered darting away, but she spotted him. No turning back now. He shouldered his bag higher and sighed to himself. As he drew nearer, she smiled at him, and before he could say anything, she spoke first.
'Hey, Jay!' her voice was sweet, tender. It did not conform to the usual voice expected of girls in Brakenhale school, which was a biting, nasal tone familiar to people who wished that they were from London or Essex. Her long blonde hair curled delicately down over her shoulders, her azure eyes caught his focus. She was slightly shorter than Jay, and she had small, delicate facial features. He found himself perversely imagining her in all manner of sexual situations with himself fulfilling the male role. He came to his senses to realise that his gaze had drifted down to her full, round breasts. She noticed this and bit down anxiously on her lip. Jay waited for her to speak again, before realising that she was waiting for him to take the lead. He sighed; things couldn't get much more awkward, and so he decided to dive in.
'Listen,' he began in an already impatient tone, 'what the hell do you want, Hope?' he asked, walking past her out of the gate. She jogged to catch up with him as he realised how unnecessarily aggressive he had come across.
'I just want to have a word,' she said, already sounding upset at the dismissal. Jay felt bad, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a joke.
'Sure. How about "formaldehyde"? You can have that word for free,' he said arrogantly, and even his conscience told him that he was being a dick. She let out a loud sigh, and the next time that she spoke, the words cut into him like daggers. She was on the verge of tears.
'Please. Jay... I'm serious. Why won't you just talk to me?' she asked. Jay found it harder not to be sympathetic to her. 'All I want to know is whether you will let me go to the fireworks display with you. I won't even bother you. I just want to get to know you. As friends.'
Jay began to grow annoyed at the persistence, and considered saying yes just to get her to shut up. But somehow he was annoyed by it, and couldn't help that it came out in his lie: 'I wasn't even thinking of going to the display, Hope. I have plans on that night.'
'You're not going at all?' she said disbelievingly, she was calling him on the lie, 'so what are you doing instead?'
Jay snapped. She seemed suddenly nosy, prying into his private business. Even if there were no real alternative plans, she should have just accepted the answer he gave her, 'absolutely none of your bloody concern. No means no,' he didn't really want to go with her anymore. She had pushed her nose into his business, and the verbal abuse from his friends earlier had made it not worthwhile. It showed in his response, terse, hard and aggressive. Hope couldn't hold back the tears anymore.
'Why are you being such an arsehole?' she yelled, her voice cracking under the stress. She had stopped walking beside him. He stopped and noticed her a few paces back, shaking her head slowly at him. Tears poured off her face, he had tainted her beauty. 'You don't care about anyone but yourself, do you? As long as you're happy, you're content to be a wanker to people who are only trying to be nice to you. You don't care who you hurt, you're just selfish. One of these days, it'll hit you. You can't go on being like this.'
Jay was gobsmacked at her outburst, he was going to take a step forward to put his arms around her, comfort her and stop the tears, but mostly he wanted to stop the feeling of guilt. She raised a hand, and he stopped in his tracks. She turned and stormed off, half-running away from the monster that had caused her hurt. Jay was left alone with the guilt, his hands began to sting in the harsh, biting cold and he clenched his fists tight, pulling them into his jacket sleeves to keep warm. The sudden onset of winter cold felt like karmic retribution for breaking an innocent, beautiful girl. He turned and carried on the walk home along, left with Hope's comments to last him the entire journey in contemplation.
And to haunt his dreams.
He awoke in the night in a feverish sweat, staring through the near-darkness at the ceiling as his conscience berated him.
She's right. You're a dick, Jay thought to himself as he lay there, you need to grow up; you can't keep being like this.