Do I possess the words
And manifest the language
To express my thoughts today?
It’s been ten years and I don’t know
What grace there is in healing.
Time is the guaranteed cure,
But how much time is needed?
Ten years ago we lost you, Nan,
And still, inside, I’m bleeding.
Sometimes, when I’m lost or hurt,
I find it’s you I’m needing.
And when I think about you,
The first thought that springs to mind
Is not from my choice of good memories,
But of the day we said goodbye.
I was younger than I remember,
And I probably didn’t understand
Completely that our last goodbye
Would be the last time I’d hold your hand.
You were somewhere in your seventies,
At the time I thought that old,
But now when I think about old age
Resentment takes it’s hold.
I know it’s selfish of me to say,
And I cherish our fifteen years,
But I’m adamant it was premature,
And it sparked some deep, dense fears.
And I don’t blame you for a second,
When bitterness sweeps around me,
I just find it hard to comprehend,
Losing the heart of our family.
Sometimes when I think about
The reasons people cry
I tell myself to get a grip
We expect grandparents to die.
But I never did. That’s it right there.
The bitter taste on my tongue.
I thought you were invincible, immortal, always here.
Above me sits a dark, grey cloud,
It’s shrunk as time has passed,
Mostly I have sunny spells,
But when it rains, it’s fast.
Today it’s raining heavily,
It always does in June,
Fond memories, though, replace the last,
Finally, I grieve in tune.
People have been asking me why I decided to write a novel, or where I found inspiration for that particular story. So, I thought I would do what I do best and write a blog post to answer these questions. In my usual manner, I’ll be as honest as I like.
Let me tell you about the last two-and-a-half years of my life.
October 2011. The sun beamed down on a school playground, the children laughing and shouting and generally being kids. I was in my bedroom, which had once been the school’s medical room but had since been hurriedly transformed in order to accommodate a 20 year-old, British student on his third year abroad (i.e. they put curtains up). I had been living and working in a small French village for nigh on a month, teaching teenagers my mother tongue.
I had had a particularly bad day. The pupils didn’t care about learning English (and why should they? Cast your memory back to your own language classes at school – no doubt they were spent smuggling sweets or throwing balls of paper at the back of some other kid’s head). Equally, I did not care about teaching English. I was there because I had to be. It was part of my university course – a course that, at that time, I regretted applying for.
And so, as I listened to the excited buzz of a school playground from my hollow bedroom, staring at the anti-bullying posters pinned to my walls, trapped within four walls with no internet, no television, nobody to talk to – no distraction from self-pity – I broke.
Long story short – I was on the verge of coming home, quitting France, and quitting my degree. I would have booked a flight home there and then… but I had no internet, which I now realise was a good thing. Because I slept on it and a few days later found a room to let in a nearby town. I picked myself up, pulled it together, and decided to stick it out. Of course I did, because that was my only logical option.
And then I remembered something that I had ashamedly allowed myself to forget. I wanted to be an author. I always did, ever since I was a child and used to turn sheets of A4 paper into mini-books. But the thing is, education got in my way. I went to school and sat my GCSEs, AS Levels, A Levels which all permitted me access to university and more learning, exams and essays. Sure, I could have done a course in Creative Writing or something, but my passion for French was fast-fading and I was relieved that my love for literature remained.
That’s when Max was re-born. Max was the character I always wanted to write about but whose story I had never decided. Spider-diagrams and mind-maps and pages and pages of notes later, I finally had a story to write. Well. half a story. I had the fantasy: a made-up world with invented politics, magic and mystery, relationships and history. But I wanted to write something modern, something truly up-to-date that teenagers right now would be able to relate to.
That’s when I invented Light on the Landing. The boyband that I plonked smack bang in the middle of a fantastical tale of good versus not-so-good. And the rest of my time in France I dedicated to these five fictional musicians, running a secret Twitter account that allowed me insight into popular culture, social media, fangirls, fanboys and fanfiction, shipping and otps, parodies and fakes… you name it.
The following year, I wrote dribs and drabs, planning out plot twists and character developments, while preparing to finish my degree for that piece of paper and an extra few lines on my CV (or at least that’s what it felt like, because all I wanted to do was finish my bloody book!). I was almost half-way through, although I didn’t know that at the time, when I graduated.
Since then, I have had two full-time jobs in shops. Which was kind of my plan. I wanted to get any job I could so that I would have time to write and complete my first book, not having to worry about moving away from Salisbury or training for a new career. And I did finish.
A month or two ago, I wrote the final word (Time). A few weeks ago, I edited and formatted and basically did all the stuff that I had been avoiding. Draft 2 became The Lighter That Shone Like A Star. One week and four days ago, whilst really hungover due to me pre-celebrating, I published my novel onto Kindle.
Best feeling ever. Best day ever. (Hangover aside).
And so, there it is. The inspiration for writing a fantasy novel? Escapism. It was my escape from France, from the pressure of university, from reality. It quickly became the centre of my universe – and it still is. I know my characters better than I know myself, and I could write about them forever. The five lands – Hurburt, Terexe, Salmont, Rysked and Naegis, are like five other homes. I have obsessed over every aspect of the story, because it is one that I have been waiting a long time to tell.
As for the sequel, I have started it and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.
My degree felt like an obstacle, but if I had never studied French, I would never have lived in France and I would have never had the time or despair to begin my book.
The moon gently illuminated the Earth below, accompanied by stars, streetlamps, car headlights, and fairy lights. Carols echoed from churches; the ancient meaning of Christmas filtering through the ears of passers-by. Every window of every house gleamed, each room filled with excitement and tension; children hoping for a visit from Santa while parents frantically finished wrapping stocking fillers in the adjacent bedroom.
Christmas Eve was drawing to a close and Artie was sitting alone in his bedroom, unable to sleep. He no longer believed in Santa Claus, not after last year when he had peeked out of his bedroom door only to see his mother struggling with a bulging stocking. That was the best Christmas he had ever had, because he spent the whole day with his parents and baby sister. They were a family in its most functional form, complete and content.
This Christmas would be different, but Artie had known that for a little while. His perfect family had been torn apart in mid-November. His household was now only three, but his father was doing his best to make sure his children still had a good Christmas. There were no decorations, no lights and no tree, but his father was trying, in his own way. Artie wanted to help, but at twelve years old there was not a great deal he could offer his grieving dad.
Artie had never told his parents that he did not believe in Father Christmas, because they always tried so hard to keep the magic alive. As he struggled to doze into a dreamland, his mind filled with memory and hurt, he heard the sound of Sellotape ripping from its roll and rustling paper. His dad must be wrapping their Christmas presents, playing the role of Santa for the first time. When Artie finally drifted into sleep, his pillow was damp with tears.
Tina left the church hand-in-hand with her young daughter, absentmindedly humming O Holy Night. They turned the corner onto a road covered with Christmas lights. Waving snowmen on one house, flashing icicles on another, and ‘Santa Stop Here’ signs in several gardens. In fact, there was only one house that did not resemble a grotto and Tina did not like it.
‘You’d think he’d have at least put some lights in the window. Brings the whole street’s festive spirit down,’ said Tina. Megan, her daughter, remained silent. She felt sad when she walked past Artie’s house. It must be horrible for someone to not have their mum at Christmas, she thought. She did not blame Artie’s dad for not putting any decorations up. She did not blame him one little bit.
‘Those poor children, not having any Christmas decorations even on Christmas Eve!’ Tina continued to herself. Megan said nothing.
Netty was not looking forward to Christmas. She hated it, in fact. Her husband had left her when they were still young, and she had never loved again. For thirty-six years she had been alone, and Christmas was nothing more than a reminder of how little she had. This year was the first year that she had not felt sorry for herself. As she peered through her curtain to the house opposite, she was filled with pity. No decorations and it was the night before Christmas. That whole family were grief-stricken and Christmas would surely feel like just another day without their wife and mother.
The elderly woman had a small light-up Christmas tree on her front door, and twinkling lights around her window frames. She had been pressured into buying them four years ago, when Tina and her troupe of perfect parents expressed their disgust that her house stood alone in darkness through December. She bought a few lights to keep the peace with the ‘Anthea Turner Society’, as she liked to call them.
She saw Tina walk past her neighbour’s house, pausing to look at the unlit exterior through her flared nostrils. Netty knew that she was not thinking about the people inside, only the appearance of her wonderful neighbourhood. She shook her head in disbelief, but then stopped suddenly. Was she any better? She pitied the family inside the house, but had she offered to help them? Had she offered to watch the children so Harold could have some time alone? Had she even bothered to send a sympathy card? Or a Christmas card for that matter?
The answer was a resounding ‘no’, and Netty suddenly felt horrible. She had to do something.
‘Love, get the door will you!’ John shouted from his armchair, too engrossed in a repeat of Father Ted to answer the door.
‘Alright, you lazy sod!’ Betty, his wife, called back with a giggle. She opened the door and vaguely recognised the woman as a neighbour.
‘Hi,’ Netty began. ‘I’m doing a collection. Only, I’m not asking for your money.’
‘Then what do want?’
‘A gift,’ she replied.
Artie was awake long before he realised, drifting in and out of dreams. His sister finally brought him to a state of consciousness with her loud squeals. The boy rolled over in his duvet and slipped out of the bed, struck by the cold of his bedroom. His dad must still be in bed.
Reaching into the cot, Artie lifted his small sister in his arms and rocked her gently. He heard footsteps and his father had entered the room, smiling sleepily. He took Freya from his son and ushered the boy downstairs, where he was greeted by a small stocking full of presents.
‘Thanks, dad!’ Artie exclaimed, hugging his father’s waist.
‘That’s alright, Art. You might not even like them yet!’
‘I know I will!’
Artie was trying his best to keep up his excitement. Santa is definitely not real, he thought, because this is so different. Normally he has a massive sack of gifts and the floor around the tree is covered with presents. This year, his father forgot to buy a tree.
He began to unwrap his presents while his father gave Freya her breakfast, grateful for the gifts his father had got him. Although they may not be as plentiful or impressive as in previous years, they meant more this year. His father had tried so hard to make Christmas nice for his children, even though he was so busy and distracted, and Artie appreciated it very much.
So far, Artie had unwrapped two books, some Harry Potter slippers, and a set of juggling balls. He had just reached for his fourth present when the doorbell rang.
‘Who on earth could that be at 7 o’clock on Christmas morning?’ Harold wondered aloud, making his way to the door with Freya gripped to his side. He was stunned into complete silence when he opened the door. There was Netty with a Christmas card and a Santa hat and behind her stood several people that Harold had not seen for weeks. Steve and Janet were holding a Christmas tree while their kids each had armfuls of baubles and tinsel. Greg and his girlfriend Lorna had brought a chocolate cake and a tin of biscuits, Sarah was wearing an elf costume, and Katherine was slowly strumming her acoustic guitar.
Artie joined his father at the door and the neighbours standing outside in the cold began to sing Silent Night.
As Netty sang the classic carol alongside some of her friends and neighbours, she realised the true meaning of Christmas. Harold and Artie were both smiling, Freya bopped along making nonsensical gargles in her father’s arms. As they came to the end of the song, they all stepped aside. At the back of the carollers stood a big man with a long white beard, dressed all in red with bold black boots.
Artie knew that it was not the real Santa Claus, but it mattered not. He ran up to the man in red and gave him a big hug. His father welcomed their guests inside for a coffee and a mince pie, or some of Greg and Lorna’s cake, while Artie talked to Santa about the Christmas he had received. He already knew what his favourite present was, though – seeing his dad smile as he listened to his neighbours sing Silent Night.
All their friends helped to decorate their Christmas tree as they sang Christmas songs, only knowing the lyrics to every other verse and half the choruses, but it did not matter. Artie was laughing and singing along, and Harold was watching him with a tear in his eye.
As the neighbours bid the family of three goodbye and merry Christmas, Netty said there was just one more surprise. She led them out of the house and when they turned around, their house illuminated in every colour, flashing reds and twinkling yellows, glowing greens and bright blues.
Artie was stunned by the generosity of all those who were around him. He wrapped his arms around Netty and said ‘thank you’ countless times. She smiled down at him, full of joy and Christmas spirit.
The thing is, Artie supposed, nothing really matters. Whether Santa is real or not, whether it really is Jesus’ birthday, it doesn’t matter. Because he had his dad and his sister, and his mother was still with them, in their thoughts and in their hearts, and in the wonderful gestures that some people make at times like Christmas.
Friends since they were six years old, Jamie had never planned to tell Collette that he loved her. He never even realised it himself until ten years later, when Collette went on a date with an arrogant, underachieving arsehole. For the next year, two months and twelve days, Collette was in a happy, if not turbulent, relationship until eventually she decided that they had had one argument too many. After storming out of her now ex-boyfriend’s front door, she wondered mindlessly to Jamie’s house. Collette knew that she could rely on Jamie. He was her best friend, he had helped her through her entire relationship, he had never judged her for making the wrong decisions and most of all, he had always been there.
Jamie had spent one year, two months and twelve days of his life in complete turmoil. He had always loved Collette but it wasn’t until she became unavailable that he truly realised just how much. The jealousy that filled him from head to toe was unbearable and seemed to grow with each passing day. Her beauty overwhelmed him. Her smile sent waves of joy through his soul. When Collette was happy with her boyfriend, Jamie put his own feelings aside and was instead grateful that she was content. When Collette’s boyfriend caused her hurt or upset, Jamie’s blood boiled with a venomous anger.
Now, with Collette standing on his doorstep in the pouring rain, Jamie’s heart ached.
They talked and hugged and eventually laughed. Jamie comforted his friend in exactly the way he knew how, and Collette appreciated every second. He listened and he understood. He said only what she wanted to hear and what she needed to comprehend. He made her laugh and he made her smile. And that made him smile. Jamie offered Collette his bed for the night so she would not have to discuss her break-up with her parents, and she immediately accepted. Jamie would sleep on the sofa.
The next few weeks were some of the best; Jamie had his best friend back all to himself. Summer rolled around which meant Sixth Form had ended. Exams had seemed a lot better than they would have before, because Collette revised with Jamie. He admired Collette because she worked so hard every day, starting from early in the morning and carrying on until everyone else had gone to bed. They were studying two of the same A Levels, but Jamie was revising French while Collette trundled through History notes.
Jamie and Collette had become completely inseparable. Their other friends enquired frequently into their friendship, wondering if it was possibly more than ‘just friends’. Collette was always first to respond with a final ‘no’. Even though that was the truth, a hot blade pierced Jamie’s lungs each time the word passed her lips. The boy was infatuated and besotted. Collette was all he could think about and not being able to kiss her was impossibly frustrating. But then they got drunk.
Collette had just turned eighteen and so the pair could finally go clubbing together for the first time. They were bad influences on each other and soon lost not only their other friends, but all sense of what they were doing. As Collette slipped on a spilt drink on the dance floor, Jamie miraculously managed to catch her mid-fall and they walked off laughing hysterically to a booth. Neither of them could remember the conversation that followed when they awoke the next day, but they did have a vivid image of Jamie leaning over and planting a sloppy kiss on Collette’s mouth.
Collette had pulled away in shock and asked Jamie what he thought he was doing. With the elegancy of an elephant on roller-skates, Jamie then mumbled and slurred his way through a declaration of his undying love for the beautiful girl sitting beside him. Inadvertently he offended Collette when he began to discuss her ex, stating that she was naïve to have stayed with him for so long. In his clouded mind, Jamie thought he was being romantic and saying that she had true love right in front of her eyes. He was confused, then, when Collette stormed away from the boy and out of the club.
The next morning, the pair did not speak. Nor did they talk during the following week. Jamie made attempts to contact Collette, but she had ignored every text message. They did not see or talk to each other for a few weeks, when results day finally arrived. Both Jamie and Collette arrived at their Sixth Form as soon as it opened to collect their results. Collette opened her envelope first and Jamie smiled when she squealed in delight, obviously getting the results she needed for her first choice university.
It was with mixed feelings that Jamie celebrated his results. He had also managed to secure the results he needed for his first choice university, but he was not sure if wanted to go. In fact, nobody except Jamie and his parents knew what his first choice university was. Now it was becoming real, he had to tell Collette even if she did not want to see him. He walked over to her and she turned her back on him.
“Hi.” He said, timidly. There was no response. “Look, I’m not going to apologise again because I know it’s pointless. I just wanted to say congratulations on your results, I see you got in to university. I’m proud of you.”
He expected a reply, perhaps she would congratulate him, too. But still she was silent.
“Well, anyway. I thought you should know I got in as well. But I lied before. My first choice university wasn’t Southampton. I guess I was just scared because I kind of regretted making my decision straight away but now I’m in and…”
“Where is it?” She asked, surprising Jamie with a reply.
It was in complete silence that Collette walked away from her old best friend.
Jamie was at the airport. Collette was at home, packing. The pair had not spoken since they collected their results. Jamie never understood what he could have said to hurt her so badly and he did not remember much of their conversation. But he had told his friend that she was naïve, that she was stupid, and that she had caused Jamie unbelievable heartbreak during her relationship. And that was why Collette knew she had to stop talking to Jamie; because she did not love him back. She had caused her best friend the most hurt he had known. She had been the reason for his unhappiness for over a year. She loved Jamie, but as a friend and nothing more, never anything more.
Collette was sitting on her bed, tears rolling down her soft cheeks. The clock in front of her ticked, each second passing by with a soft thud. She never moved an inch, remaining still and silent for over two hours. Finally, she watched as the minute hand and the hour hand formed a horizontal line. Jamie was on his plane and it was time for take-off.
Collette began to cry. She crawled over her bed and peered out of her window, where she could see Jamie’s rooftop.
Tears streamed down her face, her eyes were sore and red and her throat began to ache. Her phone vibrated. It was a text message from Jamie.
‘This isn’t goodbye.’
The girl began to cry even harder, regretting the last few months and the sheer stupidity that both of them had shown. Jamie would always love Collette, but Collette could never stop being Jamie’s friend.
Collette smiled. Then she looked at the sky and sighed…
What a day. Work was utter chaos, mainly because I’m surrounded by morons. Not a single person in my office has any common sense and I spend a huge part of every day wondering why I employed them. I’m surprised they even managed to write a CV, never mind making it past the interview stage. To make this Friday even more wonderful, everyone decided to go to the pub and insisted that I go along for a ‘quick half’. Three pints later and I’m finally home, looking forward to seeing the wife and watching a bit of TV. A relaxing end to a stressful week.
I open the front door, switch the living room light on and have a minor heart attack. The room is full of people shouting ‘Happy birthday!’ flailing their arms excitedly and there’s Jay with a big grin on her face. I realise she thinks she’s done a nice thing for me and so return her smile, my peaceful Friday evening slipping away from my grasp. My ever-so-thoughtful wife gives me a hug and wishes me a happy birthday. I manage a ‘thank you’ through clenched teeth.
Stepping back to evaluate the turnout, I’m surprised that I’m happy to see some people. There’s my sister and her husband, a few cousins who I haven’t seen since last Christmas, the mates that haven’t yet managed to piss me off, and Jay’s best friend who is irritating but easy on the eye. Not too bad. But then amongst these welcome guest, I spot some others. Those people I have on Facebook but can’t bear the sight of. They are all here. In my house. For me. Ridiculous.
The first dickhead I see is Alan. This is the man who haunted my nightmares for three years when I worked in the restaurant. He is nerdy, needy and weedy. The bloke followed me around. He was everywhere. He worked the same shifts as me, had his lunch breaks at the same time as me, and even joined the same gym as me. And then he figured out my routine. I’d work out in the morning and he was there, waiting for me. I’d have a cigarette before going into work, and he was there. He started smoking so he could join me. Obsessed is the word. Why he was here, in my house, I had no idea. Jay can’t have invited him.
But he’s not the worst one. Sitting on an armchair looking like she can smell a bad fart is Jay’s sister. She hates me and I hate her. At our wedding, when the vicar asked if anyone had any objections, she stood up. Jay’s only bridesmaid stood up and squealed, barely able to contain her excitement, ‘I object!’. Why did she object? Because apparently we had slept with each other behind Jay’s back. Apparently I was in love with her. Apparently I should have been marrying her instead. Thankfully, everyone saw through it and didn’t believe her. She’s a compulsive liar. She lied that she was pregnant once just so a bloke wouldn’t break up with her. Crazy, that’s what she is. Besides, we only slept together once and I was absolutely hammered.
Then I see Charlotte and Kerry. What was Jay thinking when she invited those two imbeciles?! Jay lived with these two through all three years of university which meant I saw them every single day when we started seeing each other. The only word that can really describe them is empty. There’s nothing between their ears except their wide eyes. When I first met them, I thought they were funny. Then I realised that they were just completely stupid. How they got through university I will never know. It is impossible to hold a conversation with them, they barely understand English. I make a mental note to avoid them at all costs and then I see the worst of them all.
Harold fucking Noakes. This time I look at Jay and shake my head. She smiles apologetically and scarpers into the kitchen, hopefully to get me a strong drink. I’m going to need it to get through the night. Harry is every man’s worst nightmare. We met him at our local one night and he seemed like an alright lad. Over time he became a good friend to us both. Then Jay and I had a fight one day and she went to live with her sister for a week or two. I didn’t see Harry for that whole time, but Jay did. He was going over there every day with comforting words and a shoulder for Jay to cry on. I stayed here moping around none the wiser. Then, I see them in our local together one night. The look on his face. I could have wiped that smug grin off his mug and he would never have seen it coming. Then Jay walked over to me. We chatted and decided to go for dinner the next evening to sort things out. That smarmy git’s face dropped like a teenager’s testicles. I only carried on talking to him because Jay insisted that he talked her into getting back with me. But I know he just saw his opportunity to pounce. He didn’t even come to our wedding, not that I wanted him there of course.
Jay comes in and hands me a cold can of lager. I take a few swigs and try to appreciate her good intentions. It’s not every day your wife throws you surprise birthday party, I suppose. I make my way around the room, thanking people for coming, insisting that I had no idea there would be a party, and pretending to laugh at anecdotes about things I’d rather forget. The majority of guests at my birthday party are those I had hoped never to see again. Maybe the people I actually like are busy, because Jay can’t have just invited this group of idiots.
It gets late and gradually everyone leaves our home. I sit on the sofa and yawn. Finally I get to relax. Jay comes and plonks herself next to me, equally as tired.
“Did you enjoy it?” She asks me.
“Yeah, I really did. Thanks love.” I smile at her and give her a quick peck.
“You’re not too annoyed at me inviting my sister and Harry, then?”
I lie, “No, of course not. It was lovely to see them.”
We sit there in silence, too shattered to talk. I consider going to bed, but she speaks again before I can move.
“I know you slept with my sister, Carl.”
My heart skips a beat and I struggle to find my words. “What? No I didn’t. She’s a liar, you know that.” I don’t sound at all convincing.
“It’s okay, Carl. Harry saw you two go home together that night but he didn’t want to tell me. But he told me three weeks ago.” I was surprised that Jay wasn’t punching me or shouting or packing her bags. She was surprisingly calm for a woman who had just discovered that her husband had had an affair with her sister.
“I… I… I’m going to fucking kill that man!” I growl, getting to my feet.
“Wow.” Jay says, still unbelievably calm.
“Wow?” I wonder.
“Well, if you’re going to kill him for that, what are you going to do when I tell you that I slept with him.”
“You… You what?! When!?”
“Oh… about an hour ago when you were talking to the group of people you despise. I hope you had fun.” She stands up and walks to the bedroom. I stand silently, bewildered and shocked as she walks past me with a suitcase and opens the front door.
And there, waiting for her in the front garden, is Harry.
“Surprise!” He shouts. That smug grin is the last thing I see before the door slams shut.
Henrietta and James were watching their favourite film which happened to be on TV, balancing their laptops on their laps. James was unhappy, Henrietta did not need to ask him to know. He was usually so upbeat and positive, even when things were not going his way. Not tonight, though. Tonight he was quiet, sombre and troubled.
It was Friday evening – exactly four days, three hours and twenty-seven minutes after James’ parents had announced that they were getting a divorce. As soon as the ‘D’ word had passed his father’s lips, James had run upstairs and into his room, pushing his bed against the door. He ignored his parents’ pleas and remained silent, cradling his head in his arms whilst tears streamed down his face. That evening he had not spoken to anyone, not even his best friend, Henrietta.
The next day after school, James was sitting at the desk while Henrietta adopted her usual position, propped up comfortably against her bed. They had been chatting for a few minutes before Henrietta realised that something was not quite right.
“James, what’s up?” She asked her friend.
“Nothing, I’m fine!” Replied James, not at all convincingly.
“Just tell me, you know I won’t leave you alone until you do.” There was a long pause, before James hesitantly responded.
“My mum and dad are getting a divorce.”
Henrietta did not know what to say. She knew that his parents had been arguing for a few months, but then her parents often argued too. There was a long silence while Henrietta attempted to find the right words; the words that would comfort James and make him feel better. But there were none.
“I’m sorry.” She finally managed. “That sucks.”
“Yeah, it does. Henrietta, I’ve got to go. I’ve got loads of homework to do.”
“Okay, bye James. Just let me know if you want a chat, yeah?”
James had not spoken to her again until Friday evening. The two sixteen year-olds were sitting in their usual positions, getting ready for the movie. Henrietta reached into her bowl of microwave popcorn, listening to James tell her about his week. It sounded horrible. His parents had stopped speaking to each other, or even near each other, meaning that James had not talked to them much either. They had both come to his room on several occasions, but whatever they said made him feel worse. His mum was going to move out and James would have to stay with living in the house with his father. They thought it was the best option but they had not asked James. They did not ask him what he wanted. All he really wanted was to escape; to run away without looking back.
James talked and Henrietta listened, crunching un-popped kernels between her teeth . That was all he needed: someone to listen. Henrietta just wanted to reach out and hug him. But she couldn’t. She wanted to tell her best friend that everything would be alright. But she couldn’t. The film began and James got comfortable, opening his bag of Maltesers.
“I’m so jealous.” Whined Henrietta, “Maltesers are my favourite things ever!”
“Well, they’re all mine!” James replied, wearing a mischievous smirk.
Henrietta loved it when James smiled, even sarcastically. It had been a while since she had seen his face had broken out in a grin and he was so handsome when it did. When he smiled, she smiled. That was one of the many reasons she loved James. She loved him as a younger brother, even though he was seven months and sixteen days older than her. James loved Henrietta, too, but in a very different way. She was beautiful and she was funny, she made him happy even when he felt trapped in the darkest of corners. But she could not make him happy now. Nobody could.
His parents’ divorce did not come as a shock to James, but it was the final straw. They used to be so happy together. His home was once a haven of happiness and laughter. But that all changed seven months ago, when James’ sister Rachel passed away. That was a shock. Nobody could have expected it to happen. She was older than James by more than three years but the siblings were closer than a lot of other brothers and sisters he knew. They would spend lots of time together, playing on computer games, watching films, going for bike rides along country lanes. On this particular Saturday, James and Rachel had gone for a stroll in the summer sun. On their way home, they reached a zebra crossing. James stopped and bent down to tie up his shoelaces for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. He did not realise that Rachel had already stepped out onto the crossing until he heard it. The screech of the tyres. The blunt thud of body hitting bonnet. The screams of passers-by. James lifted his head and his eyes confirmed what had happened. His sister’s body lay broken in the road. He ran to her side, crying her name and plummeting to his knees. He knew before the ambulance had even arrived that his sister was gone.
After the funeral was when things really began to fall apart. His parents’ arguments became more frequent and more aggressive. They could not cope with what had happened; they could not deal with the pain. Their daughter’s death tore them apart. James kept to himself. He stopped going to school, stopped talking to his friends, and stopped being happy. He was devastated by the loss of his sister. He was angry with her killer. He was angry with Rachel for walking into the road without looking. But he blamed only one person: himself. He blamed himself for his sister’s death because he should have been paying attention. He should have stopped her. It should have been him. And he blamed himself for his parents’ divorce. Henrietta did not know this. She did not even know that James had had a sister because he had never told her. He had only started speaking to Henrietta a month after the tragic incident. He did not want to tell her, just in case she blamed him, too.
The film came to an end. Henrietta and James said goodnight, both feeling exhausted after a long week. When Henrietta woke up the following morning, she checked her phone to find a text message. It was from James and had been sent at 4:39am. All it said was, “I’m sorry. Goodbye. X”
` Henrietta found James in her contact list and called. No answer. She sent him a text demanding that he reply. She left identical messages on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and even sent him an email just in case. She rang his phone again and again. Still no response. There was only one option left. The ginger haired teenager threw on the first clothes she could find, grabbed her purse, sprinted down the stairs and out of her front door. If she wanted to know that James was okay, she would have to try and find him.
James was alone in his bedroom. He was alone and he was lonely. He missed his sister. He missed the life he used to have. It was past midnight, so James knew his parents would be asleep – his mother in her bed and his father in Rachel’s old room. He tiptoed down the stairs, not wanting to wake his parents, and into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of milk. He remembered when he was younger and his sister would hear his bedroom door creak open. She would follow him downstairs and pour them both a glass of cold milk. She’d make sure he was okay and if he could not sleep, read him a story until his eyes closed and his breathing grew deep and steady. Then the next morning, she would wake him up by jumping on his bed and they would go downstairs to his parents making breakfast before his father left for work. Not now. Now, James poured his own glass of milk. The stories that James read in bed were Facebook statuses and Tweets. Breakfast was no longer quality time lovingly spent with his family.
Sleep escaped James for hours. He tossed and turned. He thought about what life used to be like. He thought about how much he missed his big sister. He cried for a while, then shook himself until he stopped. After a few deep breaths, he turned onto his other side and closed his eyes. All he could see was his sister’s face. She was sad. He could not remember what she had looked like when she smiled, even though he had never seen her cry. His imagination had replaced his memory. He felt the tears building behind his eyes once more. He let them fall. He sobbed until his body convulsed. He felt sick but still the salty tears streamed down his cheeks, soaking his pillow. He did not remember using his duvet to wipe his face. He did not remember leaving his room and going into his bathroom. He did not remember taking a selection of pills from the medicine cabinet. He did not recall slipping on the wet floor, crashing to the ground and knocking himself unconscious. He only remembered saying goodbye to the only person in the world he still loved, but who did not love him in return.
James blinked. His eyes struggled to adapt to the bright lights in the ward. He saw his parents’ faces staring down at him, their eyes red from crying or tiredness, or both. He could see the silhouette of a third person but he could not make out who it was. He heard the beeping of machines. He heard his mother cry out for a doctor. He heard his father’s deep sigh of relief. He heard a choked sob from the blurred outline of a person. James tried to focus, blinking a few times and trying to sit up. His father pressed a firm hand against his son’s chest, laying him back down. The silhouette edged nearer. James could see red, the bright lights reflecting off the girl’s hair. He knew who it was, but he could not believe it.
“Henrietta?” He croaked.
“Yes, James. It’s me.” She whispered, her voice shaking.
The two best friends looked at each other’s faces for the first time. They had known each other for six months, but they had only ever spoken through their computers. The few times they had spoken face-to-face was through Skype. Six months ago, James found a girl on Twitter who had been to see his favourite band live. She had the brightest red hair, the most radiant smile, and a quirky fashion sense. The teenager had never expected her to reply when he tweeted to tell her that she was so lucky to have seen the band. But she did reply and the strangers spoke briefly. And then they realised they shared more interests. They listened to the same music, enjoyed the same films, read the same books and they were both lonely. As they spoke more often, talking on the phone and eventually on Skype, they became close friends. James was the brother Henrietta had always wanted. Henrietta was the girlfriend that James had never had.
The friends met for the first time in a hospital ward, after Henrietta had travelled over three hours on a train to make sure he was okay. James was far from okay, but he would get better in time. He was lucky. If he had not fallen, if he had not woken his parents after crashing to the tiled floor, it would have been too late. James was not happy, but he was grateful. He had wanted to see his sister again. He had wanted to escape. But now, as he looked into Henrietta’s emerald green eyes, felt her warm breath on his face, felt her lips press against his forehead, James realised he had a reason to live.