There was always something magical about the last day of school before the summer holidays. I am sure you remember the sensation yourself. The bell would ring, and you and your friends would spill out of the school gates in a single mass. The sun would be shining brightly in the sky, and the whole summer would stretch out ahead of you. Literally, anything was possible, and the world was your oyster.
That was certainly the way my classmates felt on that fateful afternoon. We may have been in the Sixth Form by now, but that changed nothing. We all regressed a little in our excitement. The end of the day had finally arrived, and everybody was in astonishingly high spirits. Well, everybody except me. I could not shift the sinking feeling of uncertainty in the pit of my stomach.
You have to understand – all my friends were off to university in September. They had one last summer at home, and then their new lives would begin. Lives that may or may not include me in the future. I should have been joining them, but I could not decide on what to study. My exam results were good, and I could have taken my pick of courses. My Dad was adamant that I was only going to university if I was going to leave with a degree, though. Not just any degree, either – one that meant I could get a job.
Dad was funny about that kind of stuff. It was the money involved. He wanted me to have a better life than him, and as he had spent most of his adulthood swimming against a tide of debt, he did not want me making the same mistake. I could not help but question his logic, though. I mean, how was I supposed to get a decent job without a degree anyway? How would skipping out on university help me?
I pushed all of that to the back of my mind. I had decided to take a gap year. Obviously, this would turn out to be a gap of several years. More of a chasm year, if you will. Still, I was not to know that at the time. Besides, I am getting ahead of myself, revealing events that are yet to unfold. You will have to forgive me if I ramble a little. This whole 'talking' thing is not really my forte. I get the feeling that I am going to open the floodgates a bit.
Looking back, I think this is when my predilection for nihilism really began. As soon as my exams were finished, I lost interest in the idea of school. What would they do if I stopped turning up, expel me? Big threat, that.
Except… that was a threat that scared me. The fact was I kept going back to school for a reason. I was going to miss the routine and structure it provided me. Sure, the idea of a lie-in every morning was nice, but I wanted a little more purpose in life. If that was not going to come from university, where would it come from?
The daily bus journey, for example. That used to be a genuine highlight for me. Riding the bus with school kids was like wandering around a zoo with the cages left open. You were always on your guard, knowing that something was about to happen. You just had to hope it was not to you.
Case in point, once there was this fat kid sat on the upper deck. Tim something – I cannot remember his surname. He was a bit of a non-entity, to be honest. I have no idea why he sat on the upper deck. There was a hierarchy on the bus. The coolest, hardest kids sat at the back of the top deck. The kids one level below them ruled the back of the lower deck. Then the cronies, the second-string if you like, took the front of the top deck. I tended to perch at the front-lower, minding my own business.
Anyway, on this fateful occasion, Tim something-or-other puked his guts out on the upper deck of the bus. Thankfully, I was not sitting right by the stairs. That was Katie Johnson. I heard the roars of disgust coming from above so I knew something was up, and the next thing I knew, Katie was screaming and her hair was fluorescent yellow. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen, and quite possibly the funniest. Katie did not come to school for three days after that. When she did eventually return, she had cut her long hair into a bob.
On the morning of that last day of school, the bus was particularly rowdy. People were singing songs and running up and down. But as I have already mentioned, my thoughts were elsewhere. I was staring out of the window, trying to work out what was going on in my head. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I was trying to cling onto that moment for as long as possible. To imprint it on my mind. My last ever journey to school.
I was shaken from my reverie when Jack gave me a dead arm. He did it to get my attention, and to be fair to him, it worked. That did not change the fact that I was pretty annoyed with how he went about it.
'Ow! What did you do that for?' I said, rubbing my arm.
Jack is without question the vainest person I have ever encountered. He would spend ages sculpting his waxed hair in a mirror, window, or puddle… anything that provided him with a reflection. I once saw him use the back of a spoon in the canteen. He loved his hair, he was ever so proud of it. The funny thing is I saw him last week in High Wycombe, and he was completely bald.
'Late night? You look knackered and you're not joining in,' Jack said.
'Of course,' I replied, with what I hoped was a knowing look. 'You know me.'
The truth was Jack did not know me. Nobody did, back then. I am still not exactly one for opening up to people, which is unfortunate when you consider how much money I now spend on counselling. I sit in virtual silence for an hour, unless I am complimenting my counsellor on his biscuit selection. Five years ago, however, I was even more of a closed book. The idea of letting somebody in made me squirm.
Before Jack could reply, the bus pulled up at the school. The usual ritual unfolded. It started to slow down, then lurched to a sudden stop. All the kids that were standing up let go of the handrails, tumbling forwards and backwards, cackling as they did so.
Jack and I waited for the hiss of the opening doors, then joined the scrum to get off. The feeling in my arm was returning as we made our way through the gates. Our form room was on the other side of the school grounds, in the Languages block, but we planned to take a detour via Performing Arts. This was the only block in the school with half-decent toilets.
I will never forget the smell that greeted us when we opened the toilet doors. You might think you know what I mean. Let us be honest, all school toilets have a pretty rancid aroma. They are usually like a hundred car park lifts, all melded into one. This time, though? The stench was so foul I almost gave myself whiplash trying to get away from it. The fact that it was so unexpected made it even worse. These were supposed to be the nice toilets!
Jack and I exchanged looks, silently agreeing that we would hold our breath and do what we came to do.
Matthew emerged from the only cubicle while we were at the urinals, lurching past us with his trademark slouch, but not acknowledging either of us. In his defence, we did not make an effort to open conversation either. His Mum had died of cancer the previous year, and he had not been the same since.
Matthew had always been on the fringes of our group. The kind of kid you would invite out because everybody else was coming, but he would never be the first person you asked. The thing was his main purpose was to be our punching bag. The butt of our jokes. He put up with it because... well, let us just say nobody else in the school was banging down his door and begging to be his friend. Once his Mum passed away, that all stopped. How do you playfully take the mickey out of a kid that lost his Mum? Unfortunately, when the jokes stopped, so did the friendship.
I sometimes felt bad about how I treated Matthew, but I did not lose any sleep over it at the time. The way I saw it, there were kids that said and did far worse than me. I was not a bully, and I did not get bullied. That was the way I liked to keep things; flying under the radar, but joining in with the mockery every now and again.
I cannot say why I was compelled to speak to Matthew that day. As I moved over to the sink he was standing there, staring at his gaunt reflection in the mirror. I decided to say something.
Okay, it was hardly something to rival Wilde or Churchill. It was more than I had said to Matthew in months, though. I had allowed our relationship, which was hardly watertight to begin with, devolve into mutual discomfort. As it was the last day of school, it hardly seemed appropriate to end things on such an awkward note.
Unfortunately, Matthew did not share my enthusiasm for building bridges. He grunted, 'I've been better,' before shuffling out of the toilets without drying his hands.
'Strange kid. God knows what he was doing in that cubicle,' Jack said, sidling up next to me. I did not respond. I had started the day feeling strange and uncomfortable, and that sensation was only growing as the hours passed.
Strolling towards the Languages block, Jack and I met with Sam and Tom. Jekyll and Hyde, I used to call them. They were practically joined at the hip, but complete opposites in many ways. Sam was short and stocky. He was not the sharpest either. Tom, meanwhile, was over six feet tall and weighed about eight stone soaking wet. On top of that, he was smart. Wait, let me rephrase that. I was smart. Tom was more like a genius.
Two became four, and we wandered into the form room together. I cannot remember what we discussed. It was probably the usual chatter. Football, girls, and summer plans – the Holy Trinity of vitally important topics. What I do remember was the speech that Miss Hamilton gave. She laid it on real thick about what a pleasure it had been to act as our form tutor, and to watch us grow into fine young adults before her very eyes. She started to choke up as she played a slideshow of photographs from our time at the school.
I would have joined her, given my strangely emotional state of mind that day, but for one thing. Valerie Hamilton was arguably the most deeply unpleasant individual I had ever encountered in my young life. She had humiliated me during my first year at school because I was speaking in Spanish class. She made me recite the numbers one through to ten in Spanish in front of the whole class, knowing full well that I had not been paying attention and would mangle the pronunciation. I would never forget the laughter of the other kids, and I would never forgive her. Even Matthew had got in a few digs at me that day, calling me the 'Kwotrow Kid.'
The rest of the day, from what I remember, passed without much incident. I can only assume that I spent the bulk of it in the same haze that engulfed my morning, staring into space and wondering what would become of me. When the final bell rang, and school was out for the summer, I moved for the exit as quickly as everybody else. I did not realise at the time that I would never return to education again. At least, not yet.
Jack, Sam, Tom, and I convened, and compared notes on how excited we were that school was over. I faked enthusiasm as best I could, but I still could not shake the black cloud that seemed to be following me around. That was when I spoke the words that would shape my entire future.
'The sun's out. Let's go to the park for a kickabout. Maybe invite Matthew too, you know, for old time's sake. It might do him some good. We can always just stick him in goal.'
Jack shot me a side-eyed glare, as though wondering what I was playing at, while Tom seemed to muse on the idea.
'Where is Matthew? I haven't seen him in ages,' he said.
'Off being depressed somewhere, I'll bet. He's probably high,' Sam said. 'You know he smokes weed now? Harry told me. His cousin gets it for him.'
'Harry's full of rubbish, and so are you,' I said. Turning my back on Sam, I started to walk a pace or two faster. I was pretty sure I had heard him make an, 'ooh!' sound and handbag-clutching gesture behind my back.
Tom picked up his pace and walked alongside me.
'Do you ever worry about Matthew?' he asked.
'Honestly? No. I haven't thought about him much at all. Does that make me a bad person?'
Tom shrugged. That was one thing you could rely on Tom for. If he had nothing nice to say, he defaulted to saying nothing over lying.
'It's just that... I saw him earlier. He looked a state,' I said. 'I thought, you know, last day and all. Maybe we need to draw a line under our friendship before everybody moves on.'
'It's a nice idea. He got into Plymouth though, so it's not all doom and gloom for him. Studying Psychology, apparently.'
'Plymouth? He'll never go. It's too far away. He doesn't have it in him.'
I was not sure whether I was trying to convince Tom or myself. The fact was this revelation left me feeling even worse about myself. It transpired that even Matthew had an action plan. Me, though? I was still floundering.
Gap year, I remember reminding myself. I was going to take a gap year. I deserved a break.
'I've sent Matthew a text, for what it's worth,' Jack said. 'We'll just have to see if he turns up.'
I did not say another word until we reached the playing fields.
It took about an hour to stroll there, but seeing as the bus did not take that route and none of us could drive, we hardly had a choice. We could have gone to the closer park, but that was for kids. Besides, the playing fields had a river that I loved to stare into. It reminded me of being a kid. My parents would bring me here to kick a ball around or fly a kite, and then we would feed the ducks. Those were simpler times when I did not need to give the future a second thought. That was my parent's department.
To my surprise, when we reached the fields Matthew was standing at the gate. He nodded silently at us all, then fell into step behind us. We all took it in turns to verbalise our greetings, but he never really responded. At the time, I thought nothing of that. He was not exactly the conversational type these days. It was nothing new. After a while, though, I decided to try and engage with him again.
I will be honest – I do not think my intentions were entirely altruistic. After all, as I have already said, it was hardly like the welfare of Matthew was at the top of my list of priorities back then. Hold a gun to my head and ask me why I tried to speak to him, and I would probably say it was because I wanted to spend time with somebody even more miserable than I was. I think I hoped that, by proxy, his depression would cheer me up.
Whatever the reason, I dropped my pace and started to walk alongside Matthew.
'Something the matter? Apart from, you know...' I said.
'What do you think?'
I was not to be deterred. 'Is there nothing I can say to help? Nothing I can do? It's the last day of school. This is a day that you'll never forget. You may as well make some happy memories.'
'The past cannot be changed, and when it's ruined your future, what hope is there?' Matthew said.
I remember being confused by that, assuming that it was something to do with his Mum. He shut up after that, so I did not get any more information out of him.
The vision of the playing fields when we set foot into the open space is an image that I will never forget. The sun was bright in the clear blue sky, the trees loomed large, and the grass was greener than I had ever seen. The sunlight reflected so brightly on the river that it was almost blinding to look at. The soft breeze and the sheer beauty of it all is forever cemented in my memory. It felt like summer had well and truly struck me in the face, and in that moment, I was the happiest I had felt in a long while.
It was also the last moment of my childhood.
We managed to find a nice quiet spot to play football, away from the children and dog walkers. Despite what I had said about Matthew earlier, I opted to play in goal. It was the only position I was half-decent at, and the others hated playing there. I earned an eye-roll from Jack for my decision. We always played two vs. two, and as Tom and Sam always partnered up, Jack would be paired with Matthew.
'Okay, we all know the rules. First team to score three goals wins. They get to nominate the next keeper and we change teams,' I said.
We started to play, and for a few glorious hours, all my troubles seemed to melt away. I was not thinking about my future, whether my friends would stay in touch when they went to university, what I would do next year, or what would happen when that year was up. All that mattered was kicking the ball through the pile of rucksacks and jumpers that we were using for goalposts, or preventing one of my friends from doing the same.
I think the game was good for all of us. We all needed to blow off steam. We jostled, we insulted each other, and I laughed so hard I thought I might puke when Tom kicked his own foot instead of the ball, just when he was about to complete his hat-trick. Even Matthew seemed to be smiling and lost in the moment. At least at first.
After a while, the inevitable happened. Sam hoofed the ball with all his might. It sailed past the goal and towards the river. We operated a simple rule when this happened. Whoever kicked the ball beyond the boundaries of the pitch was responsible for fetching it.
'Off you go then, Sam,' Jack said, collapsing to the ground.
'Maybe pick us up a couple of drinks while you're at it,' I said.
I was grateful for the break. This was the first time we had stopped playing since we arrived, and it was only just dawning on me how exhausted I was.
'Nah. Screw that. We're done anyway,' Sam said.
'Shut up and get the ball, fatso,' Jack said. 'You know the rules.'
'What did you call me?' I could hear the steel in his voice, and I knew that a confrontation was brewing. Keen to help the situation simmer down, I stepped in.
'Relax. I'll go,' I said, sighing as I attempted to get to my feet.
'No. I'll do it,' Matthew said.
The four of us looked up in surprise. To be honest, I think we had forgotten he was there.
'Are you sure, Matthew? Sam should go really. That is the rule,' Tom said.
'It's fine. I want to go,' Matthew said. I remember the slow and methodical look he gave us all, as though seeing us for the first time. Eventually, he turned on his heel and slumped off.
As he approached the ball, he appeared to stop and consider for a moment. He turned and looked at us once again, then back-heeled the ball straight into the river.
'Nice one, genius! I know you're not exactly Messi, but at least kick the thing in the right direction!' Jack said.
Matthew, for his part, turned again and started to walk towards the river.
'Matthew? What are you doing? Please tell me you're not thinking about — ' Tom said.
'Seriously mate, leave it – it's just a football! We'll get another one!' Sam said.
Matthew continued, unperturbed. Before we knew it, he was wading into the river. The water reached his ankles, then his knees, as he continued to move. The current appeared to grow stronger with every step.
'Somebody stop him before he hurts himself!' Jack cried, but I found myself rooted to the spot. That is the moment I have replayed in my mind ever since, time and again. How Matthew kept going as though in a trance. He could have simply reached for the ball and snatched it up with his hands, I was sure of it. Even if he could not, like Jack said, it was just a football. We could have picked up another on the way home if he was that concerned.
Above all, I will remember the way he locked eyes with me when the current began to gather pace. How those eyes seemed to widen in surprise, as though he had snapped back to his senses. Had he deliberately decided to end his life, and found himself shocked into action by the human survival instinct? Or was the whole thing a tragic accident, born of his determination to fetch the ball and build bridges with the rest of us?
I will never know the answer to those questions. All I do know is that Matthew could not resist the rushing water and found himself battling against its flow. Eventually, I snapped out of my stupor and rushed to help. We all did. We managed to drag him out of the river, and Sam attempted to give him mouth-to-mouth. It was to no avail. His lungs were swimming with fluid, and it was too late to do anything about it. Matthew died that day, and so did a piece of me.
Five years on, I have not returned to those playing fields. I work at the school now, as a teaching assistant to Miss Hamilton. Life is full of little ironies, I guess. It was the only job I could get in the education sector without a degree other than being a janitor.
I decided to take the job so nothing like this could ever happen again. Every morning, I make a promise to myself that I will watch over every kid at the school,
and if any of them show any signs of depression beyond the usual teenage angst, I will notify teachers, parents, social services and anybody else who could help.
So far so good. The kids I see seem to be happy, jovial and normal enough. Thing is, I am acutely aware that I probably would have said the same about Matthew once. That is why I remain vigilant, watching these kids like a hawk until the end. Right until their very last day of school.