Our Last Summer by Jennifer Joyce
After another cocktail and with encouragement from Yvonne (which included threats of violence if I failed to show up) I’m now crammed into my seat on the plane, too hot and stuffy, with a too-chatty neighbour on one side and someone already snoring on the other. Boarding had caused a welcome distraction from the fact I’m on my way home, but the nerves kick up another gear as I buckle my seatbelt. The safety video is being played while the cabin crew demonstrate what to do with oxygen masks and life jackets in case of emergency, but I need an oxygen mask right now as I struggle to gulp down enough air. We’re actually moving along the tarmac and any minute now we’ll pick up speed and bump up into the air, up into the clouds, and I’ll be racing towards Little Heaton.
‘You okay there, honey?’
The woman sitting next to me leans her head towards me to check on me as I clutch at both armrests, my breathing coming in panicked little puffs.
‘Do you think it’s too late to get off?’
She gives the rattly laugh of a heavy smoker. ‘Probably a teensy bit too late, I’m afraid. But you’ll be fine, I promise. There’s really nothing to worry about. You’re more likely to get hit crossing the street than the plane going down in flames.’
‘It’s not the flying bit I’m afraid of.’ It’s what comes after. The Tomasz bit.
Before the safety demonstration, my neighbour had been chattering on since she plonked herself into the aisle seat next to me, but I realise now that this is the first time I’ve actually spoken myself. I’ve been far too busy trying to not freak out to form words. Perhaps the alcohol is starting to work after all if I’m managing to communicate by means other than panicked, rapid eye blinks.
‘You going home?’
I nod, squeezing the armrests again when I realise my grip has loosened ever so slightly. ‘Only for a visit. My sister’s getting married.’
The woman beams at me – a proper mega-watt, Hollywood smile. ‘Oh, how lovely.’ I smile back but I can’t match my neighbour’s enthusiasm. I have nothing major against my little sister or her groom, but the thought of flying back to England, of rocking up in the village we grew up in … My neighbour rattles out another laugh. ‘Not so lovely then?’
‘No, no. It is lovely. It’s just …’ I look at the woman sitting next to me. I’m sure she introduced herself, back at the beginning, before we’d started to taxi out, but it was while I was checking there was definitely a sick bag in the little pocket in the back of the seat in front of me and I didn’t quite catch her name. Dolly? Polly? Not important. The important thing is this woman looks like she’s lived. She’s tried to mask the passage of time; there’s definitely some filler in those lips and Botox to the forehead and around the eyes and mouth, and her hair is bleached almost as blindingly white as her teeth, but there’s the raspy laugh and the hint of a fading tattoo just peeping out from the collar of her shirt. I don’t have any tattoos. I was always too much of a wuss. I almost got one once, when Ed got Butters tattooed on his wrist, but I was too scared to go through with it. But this woman wasn’t. She’s brave. Much braver than I’ve ever been. I wonder if her heart was ever so broken, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to crawl out of bed again?
‘What is it, honey?’
I take in a deep breath, filling my chest right up as I think about telling this woman everything. Going right back to the beginning, where it all started. I’ve never spoken about it, not even to Yvonne. Never relived those days, not even the happy ones. But I could talk about it now. My neighbour looks kind and thoughtful. A giver of honest advice. And we have several hours stretching out in front of us, so why not? I can pull out the thoughts I keep pushed down, examine them, test them out, unburden myself without risk, because I will never see this woman again once we leave the plane.
‘Oh, look.’ The woman’s eyes have flicked past me, past the next row of passengers, towards the window. ‘We’re up!’
I turn towards the window. She’s right – we are up in the air. I’ve been so distracted, I hadn’t noticed. I’ve even loosened my grip on the armrests so I’m barely holding on at all. I am very hot, though, and my fingers are jittery as I start to unbutton my cardigan.
‘Worst bit’s out of the way now.’ She pats my hand and smiles at me, but she’s wrong. This is the easy bit. The worst bit is to come, when I arrive in the village and the memories hit me full pelt. I feel queasy just thinking about it.
‘You look like you need a drink.’ She sits up straighter and pats me on the knee. ‘Let’s get you some wine and you can sit back and tell your Aunt Doll all about it.’ Reaching up, Dolly presses the assistance button – bong! – before aiming a mega-watt beam at me.
‘I think they’ll be coming round with the troll—’
My words are snuffed out as we’re hit with a sudden bout of turbulence. It’s so forceful, I’m dragged backwards and pinned back against my seat. My hands are back on the armrests, gripping with all my might as I squeeze my eyes shut. I’m going to need the sick bag if my seat rocks side to side any more vigorously. But the rocking stops, which is a massive relief until I’m pulled backwards again, as though the headrest of my seat has been wrenched downwards and I’d be staring up at the ceiling if I was brave enough to open my eyes.
This isn’t turbulence, I realise as a roar starts to build up in my ears. There’s something very wrong with the plane. The roar intensifies, and it reminds me of the motorbike seconds before Sacha sped away out of the village with Ed on the back, helmetless and vulnerable. I never saw Ed again after that and I push that final image of him away as the roar surges. The sound is deafening and it feels as though my ears or my brain will pop with the pressure, and then I’m falling, the air rushing by at incredible speed. I’d cry out, scream, but I can’t open my mouth.
The plane has broken, depositing me into the sky and I’m falling. I’m going to die, right now, without ever seeing Tomasz again. Without telling him that I’m sorry and that I’ve never stopped loving him. That I haven’t moved on, no matter how hard I’ve tried. I’ve dated – disastrously – for the past four years and nobody has ever come close to him.
I hear my name through the roar in my ears. It isn’t Dolly – I’m certain I didn’t get around to introducing myself and we’re currently falling to our deaths from a broken plane so it isn’t the time for small talk.
I can feel the air on the back of my neck now, lifting my hair. I feel oddly free, despite the knot of fear tight in my stomach and the way I’m clinging on to my seatbelt so tightly I can feel the rough material cutting into my skin.
‘Elodie! Let go!’
It can’t be Dolly, so it must be someone from the other side, encouraging me to pass as peacefully as I can under the circumstances. But I don’t want to let go. I want to cling on to life, thank you very much. I don’t want to die. Not like this. I’m only thirty-two. Far too young to die. It would be a tragedy, and it’d definitely put a dampener on Heather’s big day. I’m not saying she wouldn’t go through with it – this is my sister we’re talking about here – but it’d be a more subdued celebration than she’s been planning, with the mother-of-the-bride howling into a tissue as the vows are exchanged rather than demurely dabbing at her eyes.
I wonder if the reverend would give them a two-for-one deal. Buy a wedding, get a funeral free …
‘Elodie! Let go.’
The voice is insistent and much louder now. And it sounds familiar, which makes sense, actually. Because aren’t you supposed to be welcomed into the afterlife by a loved one? So it’s comforting and death feels a bit less shit?
But who do I know who’s passed? It can’t be either of my grandfathers as the voice is clearly female, and it can’t be my grandmothers either. My grandma on my dad’s side used to speak like Queen Elizabeth even though she grew up in a rat-infested two-up two-down with an outside bog – and I very much doubt she’d drop the charade even in death – and my other granny is still going strong according to Mum’s emails.
The voice is definitely northern. It screams ‘home’, and not the tiny apartment I’ve been renting for the past few years. It screams England. Little Heaton. My childhood bedroom overlooking the cricket grounds. Listening to Kim Wilde and wishing with all my might that I was brave enough to spread my wings and fly the hell away from the stifling village. It screams visits to my grandparents’ house on a Sunday. Screams sitting in the back of the car with Heather during hot summer trips, or riding my bike through the village with Yvonne and Ed, pedalling as fast as we could, whizzing down the dusty track to the woods and … wait a minute. Yvonne. No, it couldn’t be. Yvonne hasn’t passed. She was very much present earlier, when she was giving me a pep talk to get me on the plane.
‘Elodie! Stop being a scaredy-cat and let go.’
That was definitely Yvonne with her trademark encouragement. How many times had she talked me into doing something by calling me a scaredy-cat? I’d shoved sand down Ryan Pilkington’s underpants to prove I wasn’t a scaredy-cat when we were in reception class. I’d snogged Jack O’Leary on the coach to Chester Zoo, swiped bubble gum from the minimarket, crept out of the house to go to parties and made prank phone calls, all to prove myself over the years. I’d even boarded a plane and ended up falling through the sky to my death.
‘Elodie Parker! Let. Go.’
There she is again, clear as day. But the ghostly voice cannot belong to my best friend because she’s alive. Isn’t she? Oh God. What if something terrible has happened to Yvonne too? A traffic accident (more common than a plane falling to pieces in the sky, according to Dolly) or sudden illness – a heart attack, or a stroke, something like that. Because although Yvonne is only in her early thirties, it happens, doesn’t it? It’s so tragic. She was no age at all. They’ll say the same thing about me and all the other poor souls who were on the ill-fated flight to Manchester airport: Dolly, the man who’d been snoring next to me, the pilots and cabin crew. Perhaps not the obnoxious bloke sitting behind me, who’d rhythmically drummed on the back of my seat while we’d taxied to the runway, distracting me as I’d tried to concentrate on not throwing up. I hope that when my seat had been flung backwards, it had smacked him in the face.
‘Elodie! For God’s sake! Tell her, Ed!’
My eyes fly open. Ed?
I see blue sky first, broken up by the wispiest of clouds. As I suspected, I’m no longer on the plane. I’m no longer in my seat. I’m falling through the air, backwards, my feet tilting up towards the … trees? Yes, those are definitely trees surrounding me, and the sky I spotted is only a tiny patch, a little window in the canopy of leaves, but how did I fall so quickly? How am I so close to the ground that I’m below tree level? I don’t have much time then. Any second now I’m going to splat onto the ground. On a scale of one to Jesus-fucking-Christ, how much do you think it’s going to hurt?
‘For God’s sake, Elodie!’
This voice doesn’t belong to Yvonne. It belongs to my sister, who I also thought was very much alive. She’ll be gutted if she’s kicked the bucket before saying I do.
‘How old are you? You’re twenty-four. Get a grip, you loser.’
Twenty-four? I wish. Life was much simpler when I was twenty-four. Back when I still had hopes and dreams instead of crushing disappointment.
I know you’re not supposed to, but I look down. I’m soaring above a body of water, but it isn’t a vast ocean where I’m about to plunge to my death. It’s a river – and not a particularly wide one at that.
‘You promised you’d help clear out the loft. It’s a mess. Mum’s kept everything. It’s all been shoved up there. Paintings from when we were in nursery, old toys, certificates, those matching dresses she made us wear for Aunty Laura’s wedding. They were minging. Do you remember? White with blue flowers. We looked like the teacups from Gran’s wedding set. Hold on a sec. Are you wearing my new shirt dress?’
Heather’s rattling on but I can’t take it in. I’m too focused on the fact that I’ve somehow ended up on a swing, with my sister and my two best friends somewhere close by. My feet tilt downwards and then I pause in the air for the briefest of moments before I swing back out again.
‘You’re going to have to let go, Elodie.’
Despite Yvonne’s words, my grip tightens on the rope between my fingers. It wasn’t the seatbelt I was gripping onto after all, but I still don’t want to let go. Of the rope or of life. I’m not ready to die. There’s so much I haven’t done. So many regrets. I can’t pass to the other side yet.
‘Don’t you dare drop into that filthy water.’ Heather’s tone has risen to near-hysteria. ‘You’ll ruin my dress.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll catch her when she swings back over.’
I start at the sound of Ed’s voice. A voice I haven’t heard for so long. My sweet, beautiful Ed is here. I twist to catch a glimpse of him, which sends the smooth trajectory of the swing off kilter. I twist again, to face forwards, but that only makes the swing wobble further and in the panic, I slip from the thick branch seat of the swing. The palms of my hands burn from the friction of the rope as I cling on with all my might, but then I’m falling. Again.
It all happens so fast; one second I’m sitting on the branch seat, the next I’m in the icy water, the skirt of my dress billowing around me. The shock of the fall and the chill of the water is enough to keep my attention away from the trio standing on the river bank for a few seconds, but then I spot them. Heather, covering her mouth with both hands, Yvonne jumping up and down while whooping with joy, and lovely Ed, beckoning for me to join them. The jolt of déjà vu when I spot them is so intense it makes my stomach turn. I haven’t seen them for years, not in the flesh, and yet here are they, standing in front of me.
‘Look at the state of you.’ Heather’s eyes are wide and her nostrils flared as she looks across the river. She must be having a lazy day because her usually sleek hair is mad frizzy, the curls growing upwards instead of down. I quite like it like this. It’s more natural and makes her look younger. ‘You can buy me a new dress. I’m not wearing that one after it’s been in that gross water. It’s probably full of river slime and fish poo.’
‘I think we have more important stuff to worry about than a stupid dress.’ My feet are bare – I’ve lost not only my seat and an entire plane but my socks and shoes as well – so the riverbed is slushy underfoot. I step on a sharp rock and almost stumble.
‘That stupid dress cost me forty quid. I want a new one or I’m telling Mum it was you who broke the cat teapot.’ I snort as I continue to wade across the water. That was years ago, and it wasn’t even me who broke it. ‘That’s up in the loft as well, by the way. Minus the ear, obviously. I think Mum’s got a problem.’
I’d say so. Both her daughters are dead. I’d hardly say she’s feeling her best right now.
‘Anyway, I’m off. I need to chuck all that crap Mum’s kept hold of before she hides it somewhere else. Like my bedroom.’ She pulls a face, her lips stretching out to reveal her teeth, and there’s a glint as the sun catches the braces on her teeth. ‘Don’t be long. If you make me clear everything by myself, I’m definitely grassing on you about the teapot.’
Heather has gone by the time I make it to the river bank. Yvonne jumps up and down as I drag my feet the last few steps.
‘You did it! I can’t believe you finally let go.’ She covers a giggle with her hand. ‘Shame about the dress, though.’
Ed reaches out a hand to help drag me up onto the bank. ‘I thought Heather was going to stick around and kill you.’
Yvonne snorts. ‘And miss out on clearing the loft for twenty quid? Are you mad? That’s half a dress.’
I’m back on solid ground but my hand is still clutching onto Ed’s. I don’t ever want to let go, just in case he leaves me again.
‘What’s all this about clearing out a loft?’ Is it metaphorical? Like some sort of baggage-shedding ritual I have to go through before I’m allowed to pass through to the other side? And can I say no thanks, I’d rather go back to living if that’s okay?
‘Are you mad?’ Yvonne stoops to pick up a pair of white trainers. ‘It’s your loft. You’re clearing it out for the conversion.’
‘Conversion?’ I frown as Yvonne shoves the shoes towards me. ‘What am I converting to?’ An angel? With wings and a halo and a flowing white nightie-like dress?
Yvonne looks from me to Ed and back again. She tilts her head to one side. ‘Are you trying to be funny? Because that was worse than one of Ed’s attempts at humour.’
‘Oi.’ Ed pokes his foot out, nudging the toe of his trainer into Yvonne’s calf. ‘I am hilarious. You think I’m funny, don’t you, Elodie?’
‘See.’ Yvonne juts her chin up in the air when I fail to answer. ‘Even Elodie thinks you’re as funny as thrush.’
There’s a weird sensation murmuring in my stomach, and not just because Yvonne has brought up a yeast infection. I’m starting to piece bits of this encounter together and none of it makes sense: the rope swing, Heather’s hair and the braces she had removed during her second year of uni, the broken teapot and a loft conversion. And then Heather’s assertion that I was twenty-four. I look closely at Yvonne. Her eyebrows are slightly bushier than usual, as though she hasn’t had them threaded for a while, and she hasn’t worn her hair with a wet, slicked-back look for years, because she realised it made her look like she hadn’t washed her hair for a week. And Ed – my lovely, beautiful Ed – doesn’t have the Butters tattoo on his left wrist.
I take the shoes and lower myself to the ground as I try to process what’s happening to me. Am I dead – or have I somehow travelled back eight years in time?