The End of the World
The world would end at five to four, just after the disco.
Our final day at Merton Grange Secondary School had arrived, brilliant and bright and commencing with skirmishes at the gates; school ties worn as bandanas and tourniquets, in knots as compact as a walnut or fat as a fist, with enough lipstick and jewelry and dyed blue hair to resemble some futuristic nightclub scene. What were the teachers going to do on our last day, send us home? They sighed and waved us through. The last week of formal lessons had been spent in desultory, dispiriting classes about something called “adult life,” which would, it seemed, consist largely of filling in forms and compiling a CV (“Hobbies and Interests: Socializing, watching television”). We learned how to balance a checkbook. We stared out of the window at the lovely day and thought, not long now. Four, three, two . . .
Back in our form room at break we began to graffiti our white school shirts with felt-tips and Magic Markers, kids hunched over each other’s backs like tattooists in a Russian jail, marking all available space with sentimental abuse. Take care of yourself, you dick, wrote Paul Fox. This shirt stinks, wrote Chris Lloyd. In a lyrical mood, my best friend Martin Harper wrote mates4ever beneath a finely detailed cock and balls.
Harper and Fox and Lloyd. These were my best friends at the time, not just boys but the boys—the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable. Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band. Harper, we all knew, was lead guitar and vocals. Fox was bass, a low and basic thump-thump-thump. Lloyd, because he proclaimed himself “mad,” was the drummer, which left me as . . .
“Maracas,” Lloyd had said, and we’d laughed, and “maracas” was added to the long list of nicknames. Fox drew them on my school shirt now, maracas crossed beneath a skull, like military insignia. Mr. Ambrose, feet up on the desk, kept his eyes fixed on the video of Free Willy 2 that played in the background, a special treat ignored by everyone.
In our final assembly, Mr. Pascoe made the speech that we’d all expected, encouraging us to look to the future but remember the past, to aim high but weather the lows, to believe in ourselves but think of others. The important thing was not only what we’d learned—and he hoped we’d learned a great deal!—but also the kind of young adults we’d become, and we listened, young adults, stuck between cynicism and sentimentality, boisterous on the surface but secretly daunted and sad. We sneered and rolled our eyes but elsewhere in the hall hands gripped other hands and snuffles were heard as we were urged to cherish the friendships we’d made, the friendships that would last a lifetime.
“A lifetime? Christ, I hope not,” said Fox, locking my head beneath his arm, fondly rubbing his knuckles there. It was prize-giving time, and we sank low in our chairs. Prizes were awarded to the kids who always got the prizes, applause fading long before they’d left the stage to stand in front of the photographer from the local press, book tokens held beneath the chin as if in an ID parade. We sank lower in our chairs until horizontal, then, when it was over, we shuffled out to have our photo taken.
But I realize how absent I am from the above. I remember the day well enough even across twenty years, but when I try to describe my role, I find myself reaching for what I saw and heard, rather than anything I said or did. “What were you like?” my future wife would later ask, “before we met?” and I’d struggle to reply. As a student, my distinctive feature was a lack of distinction. “Charlie works hard to meet basic standards and for the most part achieves them”; this was as good as it got, and even that slight reputation had been dimmed by events of the exam season. Not admired but not despised, not adored but not feared; I was not a bully, though I knew a fair few, but did not intervene or place myself between the pack and the victim, because I wasn’t brave either. I neither conformed nor rebelled, collaborated nor resisted; I stayed out of trouble without getting into anything else. Comedy was our great currency, and while I was not a class clown, neither was I witless. I might occasionally get a surprised laugh from the crowd, but my best jokes were either drowned out by someone with a louder voice or came far too late, so that even now, more than twenty years later, I think of things I should have said in ’96 or ’97. I knew that I was not ugly—someone would have told me—and was vaguely aware of whispers and giggles from huddles of girls, but what use was this to someone with no idea what to say? I’d inherited height, and only height, from my father, my eyes, nose, teeth and mouth from Mum—the right way round, said Dad—but I’d also inherited his tendency to stoop and round my shoulders in order to take up less space in the world. Some lucky quirk of glands and hormones meant that I’d been spared the pulsing spots and boils that literally scarred so many adolescences, and I was neither skinny with anxiety nor plump with the chips and canned drinks that fueled us, but I wasn’t confident about my appearance. I wasn’t confident about anything at all.
Soon it would be time for my friends and me to settle into some role we might plausibly fit, but when I tried to see myself as others saw me (sometimes literally, late at night, staring profoundly into my father’s shaving mirror, hair slicked back), I saw . . . nothing special. In photos of myself from that time, I’m reminded of those early incarnations of a cartoon character, the prototypes that resemble the later version but are in some way out of proportion, not quite right.
None of which is much help. Imagine, then, another photograph, the school group shot that everybody owns, faces too small to make out without peering closely. Whether it’s five or fifty years old, there’s always a vaguely familiar figure in the middle row, someone with no anecdotes or associations, no scandals or triumphs, to their name. You wonder: who was that?
That’s Charlie Lewis.