Our Last Summer by Jennifer Joyce

Chapter 3

I’m glad Yvonne’s taken the lead because although I used to know these woods like the back of my hand, it’s been years since I navigated the worn tracks in the woodland floor that will lead us out onto the lane. Some of it looks familiar: the huge tree across the river with a girth so wide Ed, Yvonne and I couldn’t make our fingers touch as we stretched our arms around it, the bend in the river up ahead where Ed would build campfires, the clearing to the right where we’d play cricket or lay about under the shade of the trees when it was too hot. We spent our childhoods in these woods. Laughing, sharing secrets, daring each other to climb higher up the trees, competing to see who could swing and drop furthest out into the river. I’d never been brave enough to let go of the rope. Until now, I guess. My dress – Heather’s dress – is sopping wet and clinging to my thighs as evidence of my accidental courage.

‘You all right?’ Ed slips his hand into mine as we veer away from the river, swerving right and picking our way over the dirt and broken branches as we head into the trees. There’s no worn path here but we know the way. Knew the way. As familiar as the scenery is, I’m not sure I could find my way back to the lane unaided these days.

I shrug in response to Ed’s query. I’m not sure if I am all right or not. On the one hand, I may not be dead as I’d feared, but on the other hand I’ve somehow hopped back in time to become my twenty-four-year-old self again. Can you be all right in that situation? It’s odd to say the least. Unsettling. A complete head fuck, actually.

‘Heather won’t really kill you.’ Ed gives my hand a squeeze. I’d forgotten what it was like to have my hand in his. It’s comforting, despite the weird situation I’ve found myself in. ‘Maybe just rough you up a bit.’ He grins at me, and it’s a full-on goofy, toothy grin, and at that moment in time, I don’t care why I’m here because Ed’s here too and it makes my heart feel full. I’ll go with it, soak up every Ed-filled second, and deal with the details later.

‘It’s quite nice though, isn’t it?’ Yvonne steps across an exposed tree root, shuffling immediately to the right to avoid a prickly bush. Ed and I wait for her to elaborate, to fill us in on the conversation she’s started partway through. ‘Your gran moving in. Most people shove their wrinklies in nursing homes and begrudgingly visit once a month these days.’

My stomach flips and I squeeze Ed’s hand tighter. Gran. The loft conversion. I do some quick calculations in my head and yes, that did happen eight years ago, not long after her fall that resulted in a hip replacement.

‘Yvonne, who’s the prime minister?’

Yvonne turns her head to look at me over her shoulder. Her non-threaded eyebrows are pressing towards each other and her top lip is raised on one side like a bad Elvis impersonator. ‘You what?’

‘Who’s the prime minister?’

Yvonne turns her head back so she’s facing forward again. She side-steps the narrow ditch that she twisted her ankle in, aged seven. ‘What is this? An episode of The Chase?’

‘No, I’d just like to know who the prime minister is.’ Because if she says who I suspect it is, I may have to freak out. Perhaps I should be freaking out already, because time travel or not, I’m currently walking through the woods in Little Heaton with Yvonne and Ed instead of sitting up in the sky in a plane. Yes, I definitely should be freaking out but I’m oddly calm. Perhaps it’s the soothing ripple of the river behind us, or the fact that Ed is here, holding my hand? I never in a million years thought that would happen again and whatever the reason I’m here is – death, time travel or lack of oxygen during the plane malfunction causing hallucinations – I’m grateful for this time with Ed again.

‘Did you take in dirty river water?’ Ed pauses, our entwined hands meaning I’m halted too. ‘Did you hit your head on a rock?’

‘No, I just want to know who the prime minister is.’ I set off again, quickening my step so Yvonne doesn’t leave us behind.

‘She’s taking the piss.’ Yvonne glares at me over her shoulder. ‘But the joke’s on you because I do know who the prime minister is. It isn’t as though I could have missed them – they’ve been all over the bloody telly lately.’

‘Then who is it?’

Yvonne’s quiet for a moment. The only sounds are the trickling water in the background and the snapping of twigs underfoot.

‘It’s that guy. You know the one. Posh git with the smug-looking face.’

Ed snorts. ‘That narrows it down a bit.’

‘You know who I mean.’ Yvonne wafts a hand about. ‘I know who it is. I do. But his name’s gone.’ She turns, so she’s walking backwards while facing us. ‘Do you know who the prime minister is?’ She aims the question at me, eyes narrowed in challenge.

I know who the prime minister is in the present day, because even though I’ve been living in the US for the past four years, I still keep up to date with UK current affairs. Not entirely by choice, I might add. Dad’s rants are frequent, and Mum often has to snatch the phone off him to rescue me if he gets into a particularly heated stride.

But is this the present day? Or are we back in a post-coalition, pre-referendum world, before they added a revolving door to Number 10 to make it easier to switch the leader of the country after the latest scandal? A world where Dad’s rants were even more frequent and there wasn’t a phone to be snatched away as a form of rescue?

‘See? She doesn’t know either.’ Yvonne flashes a satisfied grin before she turns back around, hopping over a low bush that leads onto a dirt track.

‘I do know.’ Ed and I follow Yvonne over the bush. She’s waited on the dirt track and falls into step with us as we make our way along the dusty path so I’m now sandwiched between my best friends, which is a glorious place to be. If this is death, I welcome it with open arms. ‘It’s …’ I pause for a moment, because if I get this wrong, I’ll never live it down (‘Hey, Elodie, remember when you thought you’d travelled back in time? Ha ha ha.’) ‘… David Cameron.’

‘That’s the guy!’ Yvonne nudges me with her shoulder. ‘I told you I knew who the prime minister was.’

‘But you didn’t though.’

Yvonne juts forward, so she can look around me and shoot daggers at Ed. ‘Er, yeah, I did. I just couldn’t think of his name.’

We’re about to step off the dirt track and onto the lane that will take us into the village when there’s a deafening roar, a bit like the din I heard earlier, when I thought the plane was in trouble. Maybe this is it. Maybe death is catching up with me, tardy but now fully ready to cart me off to the afterlife. But I’m not ready to let go of Ed all over again. Not when I’ve only just found him again. I squeeze Ed’s hand, as though I can ward off death and keep Ed if I hold on tight enough. He pulls me backwards as the roar intensifies, and I shut my eyes, shutting out death, real life, anything that means I’ll lose Ed. The noise is almost breathtaking in its ferocity, but then it starts to recede and I’m still standing on the dirt track, still clinging on to both Ed and to life.

‘Dickhead.’ Ed’s insult is audible now the roar has tailed off. I open my eyes and see the motorbike disappearing around the bend up ahead in the lane.

Sacha. Of course. The day we cleared out the loft to enable its conversion into usable rooms was the day the Nowaks arrived in the village. It didn’t seem significant at the time but our lives would be shaped by the arrival of this new family in Little Heaton. Ed and Yvonne don’t know it and I almost envy their blissful ignorance of what is to come.

Ed pulls on my hand as he and Yvonne step out onto the lane, but my feet are planted firmly on the dirt track. ‘It’s okay. The road’s clear now.’ He gives my hand a gentle tug but I refuse to move. I don’t want to go any further into the village because I know who will be there once we go around that bend. I can’t bring myself to look at my friends so I study the thorny bush running the length of the lane instead.

‘I don’t want to go home.’ There’s a knot of dread in my stomach that’s loosening into nausea. I want to lean over and expel the cocktails I drank in the airport bar all over the gravelly lane.

‘I know clearing out the loft is a pain in the arse but at least you’re getting paid for it. And we’ll help, won’t we, Yvonne?’

‘We will?’ I still can’t look at my friends, but I hear Yvonne yelp. I’m guessing a sharp elbow from Ed. ‘Yeah, yeah, course we’ll help. Come on then. Let’s get it over with.’

I don’t want to move, but it’ll make no difference whether I stay or go. The events following the arrival of the Nowak family happened in the past and this weird little trip down memory lane won’t change that.

Little Heaton is much prettier than I remember it. While I’d found it closed in and smothering, it’s actually clear and open, with oceans of green beyond the quaint, higgledy-piggledy buildings. Black-and-white Tudor-style houses sit alongside thatch-roofed cottages, Edwardian terraces and semi-detached bungalows with dormer windows, their neat gardens bursting with colour: red and pink roses, sunshine-yellow peonies, zingy orange zinnia.

We turn left once we’ve crossed the footbridge over the canal and the bright yellow railings of our old primary school are like a beacon in the distance. I yearn to rush over to the school, to remember those blissful years of hopscotch in the playground with Ed and Yvonne, of slightly warm milk after playtime and stories on the carpet, all of them with happy endings. I don’t want to remember boring assemblies or lessons practising handwriting skills or Mr Hinchcliff’s bad breath, but the happy memories are a salve. I didn’t think I missed Little Heaton, didn’t think my move to California was anything but the escape I’d been planning for years, yet the sight of it – of my childhood home, being with the friends who knew me inside out – makes me feel mournful of those four years away.

I want to run through the village. To see it all, to drink it all in and remind myself that it wasn’t all bad, but Ed and Yvonne are striding on, following the path to the heart of the village, and I go with them, afraid they’ll vanish if I take my eyes off them. We pass the butcher’s and greengrocer and the minimarket, and I smile, despite myself, picturing Mrs Gacey standing behind the counter in her tabard, eyes watchful for ‘thieving little swines’ filling their pockets with sweets. There are flowers everywhere on the high street, filling window boxes and hanging baskets and the three-tiered planters either side of the war memorial.

‘Sacha. There you are. At last.

The name pulls me out of my reverie, and I look across the road to the Royal Oak. The doors to the pub are wide open and a woman with waist-length strawberry blonde hair tied back in a low ponytail strides out. My heart is pounding as I watch her stop in front of the motorbike that had roared past us on the lane. I feel a sense of déjà vu so strong it almost takes my breath away, because she’s exactly how I remember her the first time I saw her. She’s wearing the bubble-gum-pink shorts with a white lacy vest top and gladiator sandals, and the stance – hands on hips and head tilted to one side – is absolutely spot on as she stands in front of the motorbike.

‘Looks like the new owners are finally moving in.’ Ed nods at the white van parked up outside the pub. I tug on his hand to keep him moving but he remains in place.

‘Wow.’ Yvonne stops too, placing a hand up to her forehead to shield the blazing sun. Both motorbike and owner are leaning against the pub wall, the owner cupping his hand around the cigarette in his mouth as he lights it. He looks up, taking a drag before exhaling a slow cloud of smoke in the air. He doesn’t see us. His eyes are on the woman in front of him.

‘Where’ve you been?’ She’s still standing with her hands on her hips, her head still tilted. ‘You should have got here before us on that.’ She points at the motorbike before resuming the hands-on-hip stance.

Sacha runs a hand through his mop of dirty blond curls. ‘I had to say goodbye to Ronnie, didn’t I?’

‘And he probably thought he’d get out of unpacking.’ A new voice emerges from the van parked in front of the pub.

Sacha smirks as he places the cigarette between his lips. He shrugs. ‘Did it work?’

‘Nope.’ Somebody jumps out of the back of the van onto the road. I pull on Ed’s hand again but he doesn’t budge. ‘There’s still loads to do. Me, Dad and Grandpa have taken the big stuff in but there’s tons of bags and boxes and stuff.’ He turns and lugs a huge cardboard box from the van. He lists to the left, overcompensates and lists to the right, and then he’s off, pretty much steady as he heads into the pub.

‘You heard your brother. Lots to do. Chop chop.’ The woman claps her hands before she grabs a box of her own from the van and heads into the pub. Micha Nowak, the new landlady of the Royal Oak. I’d been in awe of Micha the first time I’d seen her. She was so much cooler than my own mum, and she lit up Little Heaton with her pink shorts and made it feel a slightly less bland place to live.

Her son remains in place, smoking his cigarette as he leans against the wall, seemingly in no hurry to help his family. I pull on Ed’s hand, more urgently this time. I need to get away, to put as much distance between myself and the Nowaks as I can. I barely glimpsed Tomasz behind the huge box and it feels like luck was on my side, because I don’t want him to see me like this, soaked through with grubby water.

Yvonne leans towards me, her voice hushed when she speaks, even though we’re across the road from the pub and have yet to catch the attention of the motorbike rider.

‘He. Is. Gorgeous. Go and talk to him.’

I shake my head. I will not go and talk to Sacha Nowak. I don’t even want to look at him. I may have unfairly heaped the blame for Ed’s death on Tomasz, but Sacha was definitely at fault. If it wasn’t for him and his stupid, reckless riding, Ed would still be alive.

‘Who do you think Ronnie is?’ Ed, too, is talking in hushed tones.

‘Who?’ Yvonne is talking to Ed but she’s still watching Sacha. If she were a cartoon, her eyes would be heart-shaped. I can’t judge her, though. I was as mesmerised as she is the first time I clapped eyes on Sacha. When I didn’t know any better.

‘Ronnie. He said he had to go and say goodbye to him.’

Yvonne shrugs, eyes still trained across the road. ‘A mate, obviously.’

Ronnie. How had I forgotten? I wonder where Ronnie is now, in the present, non-weird world.

‘Go on, Elodie.’ Yvonne wafts a hand in a shooing motion. ‘Go and talk to him.’

I shake my head. I can’t. I won’t.

Yvonne sighs. ‘Stop being a scaredy-cat and go over and talk to him. Ask if you can have a ride.’ She winks, her lips spreading into a grin.

‘Why don’t you go and talk to him?’ Ed turns to Yvonne to raise his eyebrows in challenge before he turns back to Sacha. He’s lifted one of his knees so his foot is resting against the wall now and his head is tilted up to the sky as he puffs lazily on his cigarette. He looks as though he doesn’t have a care in the world and I can feel my hands start to tremble with anger. With the injustice. My beautiful best friend died and he’s standing there, at the scene of the crime almost, because this is where it all began, here outside the pub. The argument. Sacha and Ed on the bike. Me begging Tomasz to stop them. And later, those words that I could never take back. The words that changed everything.

It’s your fault Ed died.

I can’t go over there and talk to him. Look at me!’ Yvonne points at her chest. ‘I’m wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.’ She leans over and pokes me on the arm. ‘Go and talk to him. Please. Big me up. I’ll go home and get changed into something less loser-ish.’

‘I can’t.’ I lift the skirt of my dress. ‘I’m soaking wet.’

I didn’t have that excuse the last time. Ed had caught me when I swung towards him and pulled me onto the river bank so I didn’t end up in the water. I’d gone over to talk to Sacha while Yvonne pelted it home to ditch the T-shirt. If only I hadn’t. If only we had never met Sacha Nowak. Everything would have been different.

‘Fine.’ Yvonne swipes the palms of her hands down the thighs of her jeans. ‘I’ll do it.’ With her hands clasped behind her back to give off a casual air, she wanders across the road to the pub to introduce herself to Sacha. I know what will happen next: Micha will return, followed by her younger son, and she’ll tell the story of why they’ve relocated to Little Heaton, which is rather a sweet story involving her in-laws and the castle up on the hill. But I can’t bear to hear it now. I could shout out to Yvonne, call her back over – she isn’t quite across the road yet – but what would be the point? Yvonne would laugh in my face if I told her the truth. If I told her that meeting the Nowak family will lead to heartbreak and devastation. And it isn’t as though this is real. I can imagine the past – so vividly it feels genuine – but I can’t change it. We did meet the Nowak family that day. And Ed died as a result.