Short Story Competition: The Lost Boy: Based on a true story of life, death and growing (up)
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The following is based on a true story. When I started secondary school I was the biggest nerd. That’s how I became friends with Ian. He was also a nerd and at lunchtimes, instead of going outside, we used to hide in our teacher’s chemistry lab and play Japanese card games. We knew the periodic table pretty well by the end of the year. As we carried on through school, we were still nerds but we gradually came out of our shells and managed some social interaction like normal people. I still felt a bit left out when people started drinking, getting off with each other and generally behaving irresponsibly, but I already had a big career plan. I knew I needed to work hard to live up to my expectations of myself so I just did a pretty unconvincing job of walking around pretending I didn’t see any of the fun distractions, and wasn’t jealous of that freedom. I developed a strong disapproving frown and became fluent in patronising sarcasm. By the time we were 17, Ian and I were still good friends but it seemed like we were on quite different paths. I struggled to get my head around Ian. He never tried as hard as me at school and he never did better in exams. He didn’t seem to take things seriously, he was always joking and laughing and playing around. But then at the same time he’d read all sorts of books, which I knew were supposed to be intellectual; things by people like Hemmingway and Camus and even classics like Homer’s Odyssey. And he was still pretty hot on the chemistry. He also went fell running, he could act, sing and he was grade 8 on the piano. In the annual pantomime Ian played Peter Pan and I was a Lost Boy. I didn’t have time for a speaking part because I wanted to focus on my exams. Around the same time, we also had careers interviews with our Head Teacher. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I’m going to study medicine. I might train as a GP or I might specialise in something, but I know I don’t want to be a surgeon.” My meticulously considered and re-considered answer flowed out with great certainty. Yes, I knew exactly where I saw myself in 5 years’ time. I would be graduating as a newly qualified doctor. I’d probably be renting somewhere in London because I wouldn’t yet be able to afford a mortgage. My head teacher told me I was very mature for my age, which I of course took as a compliment. In a rehearsal break, I asked Ian how his interview had gone. “Dude, it was baffling. She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.” “So? What did you say?” “Well first I said I never wanted to grow up, because I was still in character. Then she said, ‘no really, what do you want to be when you grow up?’. So then I got serious and told her I plan to grow in as many directions as possible, with the one exception of ‘up’. She didn’t seem to like that though.” I laughed. Since Ian was 6ft 5in tall, so you could sort of see his point. “Do you think she might have meant to ask what you were planning to do when you leave school?” “Probably, but that’s just as futile a question. I’m going to do whatever I have the opportunity to do. I might be a mathematician. Or I might be a musician. Or both.” “But how will you decide?” “How could I decide? I’ll have to just take every opportunity that I can and see where it takes me.” He grinned and wandered off to play some ragtime jazz on the grand piano. That summer, after we finished our AS Levels, while I was working on a local farm earning some money to save in preparation for university, Ian went off on a walking holiday in some mountains in Spain. As a red sun set below the freshly harvested golden field one evening, I rode in a van back to an area with phone signal. There were a few buzzes and the scrolling preview of the first text message hit me like a punch in the throat. Ian had had an accident in the mountains. He was dead. For weeks, I couldn’t really understand what had happened. The most active, talented, alive person I knew was gone. I spent long, mind-numbing hours sitting in a shed threshing barley and just kept imagining all of the things he might have done in the future. Like the rumbling echoes of the threshing machine, the possibilities had seemed infinite, to him and to everyone else. But now there were no more possibilities. Now there was just the certainty of an ending. I went through the whole of my last year at school without quite recovering from the daze and although it showed, only one person really tried to get me to wake up from it on a regular basis. “Peter, are you ok?” “Yes mum, I’m fine.”
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