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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.”

“Do you want to borrow the car on Friday night?”

Most weeks I would reply, “Not really. I’m tired, I had a lot of homework this week. Thanks though, maybe next week.”

“Ok. Well don’t let yourself get bored cooped up here.”

“I won’t.”

So I just stayed up late watching films, reliving past memories and exploring the ruins of the infinite potential futures that had so suddenly collapsed. In short, I was haunted.

In the autumn I started university, studying medicine as I had planned. The day after I moved in was the freshers’ fair, where all the student societies were pitching for you to sign up and join them. We’d already had our lecture timetable and it looked pretty busy when I compared it to that of the geography student who lived opposite me. But as I set off in the procession round the stalls I felt I could feel Ian following me round. Of course, he would stop at every table and sign up for everything from acting to zumba.

I paused in the crowd and hesitantly re-checked the lecture timetable I’d just put into the calendar on my phone. It looked like I was going to be really busy and I knew how hard-working some of my classmates were going to be. Would I really be able to keep up with them if I started signing up for all these things?

At that moment I took a big shove in the back and dropped my phone. I whipped round to see someone very tall, clearly quite amused but holding up their hands apologetically and for a split second I could have sworn it was Ian.

“Sorry dude! You can't get away with standing still in this place. Here you go.”

He handed back my phone and the screen had gone blank. I looked at the black screen – an empty chalk board on the palm of my hand. I shook my head and smiled.

“Alright, Ian. Time to grow.”

Looking up, I saw I was standing in front of the zumba society stall and snorted.

“There is a limit!” I thought, and quickly moved on, now stopping here and there. At first I thought I’d just sign up to a few things. Then I signed up to a few more. Finally, I must have left my email address on 30 or 40 different sheets of paper.

Over the next few years, alongside studying hard, I tried pretty much anything that came up. I played tennis, squash, table tennis, football and basketball. I tried rowing and acting and writing. I went to concerts and gigs and plays and all kinds of events. In the end I even became the President of my student union. I realised that shove in the back had woken me up from a much deeper sleep than just the daze following Ian’s death and I made sure I told the new Freshers to watch out for it when I gave my welcoming speech.

“You’re going to have some of the best opportunities, the best times of your life here. Don’t sleepwalk through it, lost in whatever dream you have of the future. Wake up, go out, and grab hold of everything life throws at you… starting with a drink, the bar opens in 5 minutes. Questions? ”

Now it’s five years since that school careers interview and I’m pretty much where I thought I was going to be when I’d grown up. I’ll shortly be graduating as a newly qualified doctor and moving to a rented flat in London. I still don’t want to be a surgeon. Finishing university brings yet another careers interview.

“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”

I smiled and imagined the 6ft 5in Peter Pan sitting next to me, the silent Lost Boy in the pantomime.

“I don’t know. Wherever life’s opportunities take me.”


This is an entry to The National Student's short story competition: Searching for the Sunrise, by Charlotte Frampton. The text has been edited for grammar and punctuation only. 

The National Student's short story competition is in association with the Home Entertainment release of Mistress America. Mistress America is available on Digital HD in the UK on 7th December, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: 

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