Sunday, 26 May 2013

Yesterday, a child came out to wander.

It was the end of an era.

The day dawned gloomy and grey. It started raining before the sun even rose and it carried on throughout the day, a persistent drizzle occasionally peaking in bursts that drenched you in six seconds. There was one moment in the day when I saw the sun: it reflected off the puddles on the road and left me wincing, half-blind.

It was the last ever day of school, and I was stood on a wall. There was a water gun in my hand and my friends on either side of me, and a lipstick-and-eyeshadow lighting bolt daubed on my face, covering my left eye and reaching down to my jaw. I was dressed as David Bowie, my red hair slicked back, my legs encased in a pair of non-stretch silver leggings.

It was the last ever day of school, universally known as Muck-Up Day, and the theme was "Space". The evening before, the whole of Year 13 had stayed an extra three hours after school. We had blown up a thousand balloons in pink, silver and black. We had hung paper stars from the ceiling and taped square metres of bubble wrap to the floor. We had filled a bathroom with cups half-full of water and draped the lower corridor in black fabric and photoshopped teachers' faces into Top Trumps cards, which were all over the walls. Classrooms were filled with balloons, or aliens, or turned into impossible stacks of tables and wrapped in toilet paper. Outside, the sign hanging from the library window proclaimed "WELCOME TO URANUS".

We got to school early that morning, and arranged the finishing touches. Once the lower years started to arrive, we soaked them with water pistols and laughed. Lydia painted herself green and we affectionately mocked her for it, as well as for her decision to wear shorts in the freezing cold. We were all dressed as spacemen or aliens, singing along to McFly's Star Girl, and it was an utter denouement when we realised that the fun and larks were over and we would have to clear up.

I was assigned a classroom with the desks arranged in a pyramid. While attempting to lift one of the desks off the third tier, I fell off a desk and spilt the cup of tea I'd left on the teacher's table. It covered a German dictionary, and - laughing hysterically - I reflected how my final contribution to school life was ruining someone else's property.

Emily drove me home once we'd tidied up, and I was so tired I fell asleep with the Bowiebolt still on my face.

That evening was Leavers' Ball. It seemed strange, how close together the events were - how we had to wake up at 6am for our last, curtailed day of school, and then stay awake until 11.30pm for the black-tie celebration that our formal education was over. We met at Sarah's house and drank champagne and took photos. I was in a dinner jacket and my friends were in long floating gowns. Everyone looked so beautiful that I felt a lump in my chest. I still have it now, thinking back: there was so much beauty in one room that it ought to have come with a warning.

I lost count of many things that evening.

I lost count of how many photos were taken. How many times my friends cried. How many hugs we doled out. How many times someone complained about their shoes hurting their feet. How many compliments we gave out, to everyone we saw. They flowed fluidly and easily, like the free wine - and I meant every one.

I definitely lost count of how many glasses of wine I drank. How many times we announced to people we barely knew - despite having been at the same school as them for years - that we would miss them. How many times I looked at all the happy couples, and sighed inwardly, and mourned my lack of a date.

How many times we laughed.

"This is it," Gill said. "We're grown-ups now. This is the end."
"I've been a grown-up for a while," I said. "Legally, at least."
"We'll be 20 next year!" Emily said, looking at me, and we exchanged shocked grimaces.
"It's gone so fast," Gill added.
"It's all over," Lydia said.

The moment I remember the most from the evening was not accidentally outing myself to the lighting technician, or dancing the Macarena in killer heels, or telling Gill to start working on having "a reasonable number of babies". It was before dinner (and before I drained two bottles of rose, which might explain my clarity of memory) when the Chaplain said grace. Or rather, sang it. She sang The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell.

I watched a tear track down Sarah's face, taking off her foundation in a neat line. I heard Gill next to me sniffling, so I grabbed her hand, and Lydia's on my other side. Gill took Georgina's hand, and Georgina took Emily's, and in a moment we were all sat there, connected.

I don't believe in God any more than I believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I do believe there are things we can't properly understand. Things we can only feel. In the end, love is what keeps us all here, and keeps us going, and love is what we have when we're hand in hand realising that this is a paradox. This is the end. This is a new beginning. It's bittersweet and glorious and full of ghosts of the past and spectres of the future, and this is what we have when everything else is stripped from us.

We have each other. We have love.

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