Our Last Summer by Jennifer Joyce

Chapter 5

I’d always felt smothered by Little Heaton, as though I were too big, too fast, too everything for the drowsy little village. The hodgepodge dwellings – Georgian mixed with Edwardian, Victorian, post-war and the new-build development at the bottom of the hill – may have seemed quaint to most, but it felt confused to me, as though Little Heaton couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. I suppose the village reminded me of myself, because I didn’t know what I wanted to be either, only that I wanted to be something, and I was never going to achieve anything in dreary Little Heaton. But did I ever do anything about it? Did I study hard to reach my potential like Heather? Did I dream of travelling the world, soaking up culture like Ed? Did I squeeze every bit of adventure from life like Yvonne?

No. I did none of those things. I whined about life in Little Heaton. Bemoaned the lack of adventure and culture. I aspired for more, was bursting to be free of the place, but I didn’t do a thing to escape. Until this day. This is the day it all changed, and it started up in the dark, dusty loft one ordinary summer afternoon.

The suitcase is as stuffed to the gills as the loft itself, crammed with yet more soft toys and records, columns of cassette tapes, yellowing certificates and postcards, a bundle of knitted blankets, jumpers and cardigans, and stacks of posters. My hands delve straight for the cassette tapes, clawing through them until I find the one I’m looking for. Originally, I’d dragged the entire case down to my bedroom, poring through my mum’s past, reliving her childhood as I played the cassettes, an assortment of shop-bought singles and albums and mix-tapes. But this time there is only one I need. And there she is.

I stare at the cassette for a moment before I press it to my chest, my eyes closing to savour the memories of that day. Slipping the cassette into the pocket of my jeans, my attention is back on the suitcase. The posters are at the bottom, wedged underneath the knitwear. I bypass Duran Duran, Adam & The Ants, Blondie, The Human League. There’s only one poster I need too. Only one poster I tacked to my bedroom wall as though I was still a teenager, moving it up to the newly converted bedroom up in the loft a short while later. It became my inspiration. My escape. I was leaving Little Heaton, somehow, and I was going to start the life I was always supposed to.

There was a cassette player stored in the loft somewhere, because Heather and I only had a CD player in the bedroom and I listened to Mum’s old music somehow. I move quickly, because Dad and Heather will be back from the skip at any moment. Leaping at Crap Mountain, I pull at grubby bin bags and falling-apart boxes until I find it. The red and black Walkman. It’s old and missing its headphones and batteries, but I know it works and that I’ll find replacements downstairs. I hear the front door closing and the murmur of Dad and Heather’s voices drifting up the stairs so I make a dash for it, scuttling down the ladder onto the landing with the Walkman tucked under one arm and the poster clamped between my teeth. I make it to the bedroom a couple of seconds before I hear my family clambering up the ladder.

‘Elodie?’ Heather pokes her head through the hatch as I creep out onto the landing. ‘We’re not done up here.’

‘I was just going to put the kettle on.’ I reach up to touch my throat. ‘All that dust. I’m gasping. Do you want a brew?’

Heather narrows her eyes at me, pausing for a moment before she answers. ‘Go on then. I’ll have a tea.’

‘Coffee for me, love.’ I don’t see Dad, but I hear him loud and clear.

‘Take this down to the skip on your way.’ Heather’s head disappears and the gap is filled by the suitcase. I climb up a few rungs of the ladder to take its weight as she lowers it down. ‘Don’t let Mum see it. It’s full of her junk.’

I wonder what would have happened if it had been Heather who’d opened the suitcase eight years ago, judging the Eighties mementos to be nothing but junk to be tipped into the skip. Would I have ended up in America, or would I have stayed here in Little Heaton, idling my life away, forever coming face to face with everything I’d lost? Walking the streets filled with memories of Ed. Bumping into Tomasz in the minimarket. Passing the pub where it all kicked off that night. LA wasn’t all I had hoped for but at least it wasn’t that.

The suitcase whooshes down the side of the skip and thumps into the bottom. We’ve been up in the loft for a couple of hours but the skip isn’t anywhere near full. I should go back up into the loft and help Dad and Heather but I head into the living room instead, opening drawers in the cabinet and rifling through until I spot the set of earphones bundled in the corner. Shoving them into my pocket, I head into the kitchen, where Mum’s peeling potatoes.

‘What are you looking for?’ Mum’s already put the peeler down and is wiping her hands on a tea towel as I start to rifle through the nearest drawer.

‘Batteries. I found a Walkman up in the loft and I want to see if it still works. No point chucking it if it does.’

Mum predictably, because she’ll use any excuse to cling on to things, opens the drawer next to the sink and pulls out a new pack of AAs.

‘How are things going up there?’ She returns to the potatoes, grabbing the peeler and the half-naked spud.

‘Good. Still a lot to do though.’ I back away towards the door with sluggish steps. I’m eager to feed the batteries into the Walkman – nothing would take me back to this moment in time more than listening to that song again – but I’d also quite like to wrap my arms around Mum and tell her how much I’ve missed her.

‘You’ll keep it, won’t you? The Walkman? If it still works.’ Mum swipes a strand of hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. ‘I know you all think I’m mad, but I just don’t see the point in throwing away something that still has some life in it, even if it’s a little battered.’

I can’t help thinking about my relationship with Tomasz. I threw it away because I’d thought it was beyond repair, but was there still hope? A little bit of life that I couldn’t see because I was too blinded by grief and my need to run away? Should I have been more like Mum and clung on, just in case?

‘Yes.’ I twitch my lips in an attempt at a smile. ‘I’ll keep it if it still works.’

I turn and bolt from the kitchen. From the house. My feet batter the pavement as I run towards the woods, and I’m already tearing at the pack of batteries, my fingers clumsy and ineffective in their haste. I take a different route to the woods, so I don’t have to pass the pub as I don’t want to be reminded of how powerless I felt after the whirlwind that is Sacha Nowak came into our lives. I want to remember the hope, rediscover the strength I gathered on this day. The resolve to change my life. To pinpoint exactly what I wanted and to go for it. To do whatever it took to be happy.

Tomasz made me happy. For a brief time, before it all went horribly, devastatingly wrong. But I can’t claw those moments back. Those days are gone. But I still have this song. The song that came before the Sacha Nowak whirlwind. The song that picked me up and spirited me away from the fallout.

With the batteries slotted into the Walkman and the earbuds plugged in, I drag the cassette from my pocket, fumbling fingers pulling the case open. I haven’t yet reached the woods but I can’t wait a second longer. The tape is in the Walkman. The volume is up. I pause on the pavement, my breath ragged, pulse racing, and I press play. The rapid beat begins. The slightly eerie synth sounds. And then Kim Wilde, being a kid in America.

I take in a huge lungful of air, allowing it to rest until my lungs start to burn. My eyes are closed as I take in the lyrics. Everything sounded so much better in America. It was murky, and vibrant, and buzzing with life. It was everything I wanted and needed. Everything I hadn’t been able to imagine, laid out before me. I was leaving Little Heaton and moving to America and I wasn’t ever going to look back.