Chapter 1

Classmates
Chapter 1

 

‘Well I think you ought to dig out your ra-ra skirt for your little trip back to the past,’ Denise teased, wringing a Hellmann’s sachet over her rocket salad, ‘bet he’d love you in polka dots!’

‘Ooh, kinky,’ Heather giggled, through a splutter of Reef, ‘very Bananarama!’

‘How about a FRANKIE SAYS T-shirt?’ I actually possessed such a garment, an iconic memento from my first ever concert. ‘Might be a wee bit tight now, though. I got it when I was ten.’

‘You could wear it as a crop top.’

‘Why not team it with a pair of fluorescent legwarmers?’

‘Hey, Zoe, do your pixie boots still fit?’

I groaned in affected dismay and avoided answering by shovelling a forkful of prawns into my mouth.

Most people do not form vivacious friendships with their colleagues, or even socialise comfortably with them at all, so I count myself fortunate to have these girls.

The Tunney works nestles on the outskirts of Lichfield, and at least once a week the three of us pour out of it and directly into one of the ambrosial cathedral city’s many eateries for our tea. This particular Tuesday was jacket-potato-in-Lloyds-Cafe night.

‘Why did I ever agree to do this mad thing anyway?’ I wailed, hurling the fork down and clutching my head melodramatically. ‘Just think – I could be spending this Friday getting trolleyed in O’Neill’s with you pair. Or snuggling up in front of V. Graham Norton with Jerry and a nice bottle of red! Instead – ‘

‘You’ll be doing something that sounds a hell of a lot more exciting,’ said Denise firmly. ‘Terrifying, more like.’

‘Think positive, girl! You’ve got plenty of nights when you can tuck yourself up all nice and safe with your Jerry. It’s fun to live dangerously once in a while. And this is a very special night.’

‘But Jerry might miss me,’ I mock-simpered, veiling my excitement behind a very silly excuse.

‘I bet he won’t! He’ll be glad to have the place to himself.’

‘Well you two had better be thinking of me on Friday!’

‘Thinking of you? We’ll be dead jealous won’t we, Heath?’

‘Sneak out to the toilet, won’t you,’ begged Heather, ‘and send us a text? Let us know how it’s going. We want all the juice!’

‘I should imagine I’ll be spending most of the night in the toilet. Cowering!’

‘Going back to clothes, though, Zo,’ Denise set her empty Metz bottle down with a typically decisive air, ‘you should knock his eyes out! Put something sexy on, make him see what he’s been missing out on all these years.’

Heather, biting into a stalk of cress, pulled a sceptical face. ‘Nothing too slutty, though.’

‘No, don’t want to look desperate, do I?’

‘You wanna show him how you’ve moved on. Show him what a gorgeous and sophisticated PR babe you’ve become. Be smart, but don’t go OTT.’

‘Smart-casual, you mean?’

‘Yeah. Understated. Less is more, and all that.’

******

Musing on the girls’ scrambled pointers, I plundered my wardrobe and chests, attaining an eventual shortlist of cerise skirt versus scarlet trousers.

The skirt was a recent purchase, and I adored its slimming flow and sensual feel against my thighs – but when the momentous Friday came, I felt all wrong and formal in it. My mood was more trousery.

The trousers were of a florid satin, with an Oriental flower pattern twining prettily up each leg in gold thread. They had a happy colour; a casual, though feminine, texture. Skirts were what I wore to the office; these seemed to say more about what I was.

‘Now I need a top, Jerry!’

Jerry responded with one of his slanted, adoring gazes that made my eyes and smile involuntarily crinkle up with fondness. How empowering, to know I had someone who loved me in anything.

But of no particular help to me now. Granted, many a young girl these days hit the town attired in bra and trousers – but I was no exhibitionist; moreover, I thought wryly, tonight was about being retro and not concerning myself with the fashion practices of ‘these days’.

‘What am I doing, sweetheart?’ I half sang in a demented, Shakespearean heroine sort of way, squeezing Jerry’s face between my hands. ‘Oh sod this – let’s stick some sounds on, get us in the mood!’

My Birmingham home is served by Heart FM, a station with a Friday evening music policy of ‘great memories from the 70s right the way through to the 90s.’ I twizzled with the radio in my kitchen until Kylie Minogue’s Step Back in Time – appropriately enough – bounced groovily around the wall units. Who’d have thought she’d still be going strong?

Padding back to the bedroom past my bookcase, my eyes zoomed in on a royal blue spine bearing the legend ‘Capewell 91.’ Heaving up the box of Tunney’s Double Bubbles – samples from work – that I illogically filed atop this book, I stroked dust from its jacket and carried it through to my room, brooding. The Capewell High School yearbook! Published during our fifth year, our final in uniform.

I perched on a corner of the bed, wistfully and gratefully sidetracked from my bewildering wardrobe. I soon found my class: a jumble of awry ties, Jesus Jones hair and the kind of elaborately bored expressions no-one but teenagers seem capable of pulling. I traced a finger along the tiers of monochrome faces, speculating upon which ones I might re-encounter this evening.

Tina Skidmarks (a soubriquet I never used to her face, funnily enough): defiant pout, a perm that would not look out of place in Whitesnake – I grimaced at the idea of attempting small talk over a vol-au-vent with a sharper, brasher, twenty-eight-year-old mutation of that.

Janine Parrott, my one-time best friend – wouldn’t mind seeing her, though. Wonder what she was up to these days?

Simon Floyd; Nasreen Uppal; Bradley ‘nose-picker’ Round – and, oh Christ, there was me! The obligatory Zitty Pig on End of Row. I looked like the ‘BEFORE’ shot from a Weight Watchers commercial (an analogy rooted in truth – since it was shortly after it was taken that I ceased falling back on the old ‘puppy fat’ excuse and decided renouncing my daily hot dog and chocolate cornflake cake fix might be a more constructive approach to slimming).

Claudette Albert; Nathan Dickinson; Karl Corbett.

Karl Corbett!

Towering over the back row; his personality almost tangible through the shiny page. One of those enviably photogenic individuals, whom all cameras captured mid-laugh. I gazed, absorbing and remembering the energetic physique; the gregarious beam; the rascally green eyes, delicately fringed by those oh so tormenting lashes.

******

A colleague acquainted me with Friends Reunited last year. I couldn’t stifle a wow or two the first time those red names unravelled before me, so ‘read-me’ dramatic against the background of hockey pitch green.

My guts did a funny little tumble as I scrolled down and there, nestling in that crimson list, was ‘Karl Corbett.’ I read, with elaborate casualness, how he qualified as a vet (he’d wanted to be one from about fourteen) after 5 years studying in the sunny West Country, where I learnt to drink cider and munch carrots. (Yeah, great.) I work at a practice in Halesowen (Halesowen – woo!) close to where I live with my pet cat, Dog. (Dog! The old Corbett humour never changed.) I am still single.

STILL SINGLE?

Still. Single.

Mmm.

I belonged to the same category, of course, since Neil’s departure – though, seven months on, still cherished independence and sought no urgent successor.

I spent my lunch hour hunched, rapt, over my iBook, and my afternoon enveloped in a sugary fuzz of dormant memories. All those names;all those lives.

Some of my classmates had blossomed dramatically; others seemed yet to evolve from giggly puberty. Some had become teachers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries; others were students. (Still? What did they plan to do – remain in education until retirement age?) A handful had spouses and families; a great many more had what they demurely termed ‘significant others’ one or two were still at home with Mom.

I submitted my own life precis:

After an English degree at the University of Central England, I landed my dream job – doing PR for Tunney’s. What better way to spend my days – writing about chocolate?!! I share a flat in Sutton Coldfield with my cat Jerry.

Call it a premonition, but I actually began imagining how fascinating and bizarre it might be to mill in a room conversing with people I hadn’t so much as thought about since I was eighteen.

But I would never have done anything about it were it not for Karl.

It was his fault I was now sitting in my underwear, poring over an ancient and rather mortifying photograph.

He was the reason I was about to spend my sacred Friday night at a school reunion.

******

It was six weeks ago that, while sifting through an avalanche of e-mails from my mother (a recent night school attendee and devoted Internet convert), an unfamiliar username had blazed across my Inbox. Well, not exactly unfamiliar – there had only ever been one ‘Kcorb’ in my life – but it had been almost a decade….

I was appalled by how clumsily I groped at my mouse and jabbed it at the ‘OPEN’ icon.

Get a grip, wench! You shouldn’t be shaking. Nor should your little heart be leaping away like a space hopper on a trampoline.

His words seemed to spring off the screen as if in 3-D: too alive and feisty to be confined by a fifteen-inch monitor. I read them aloud, but heard his voice rather than my own: reciting in exuberant Black Country, all strident and cheesy, like a DJ.

Hi Zo,
Saw yer name on Friends Reunited. Thought you might be interested in a reunion I’m organising to mark 10 years since our release from the prison that was Capewell High.
I want to see as many Class of 93 members as poss @ the Brewers Wharf, Merry Hill – 8pm, Fri 15th August, to enjoy a drink – or 3 :o) – and swap memories.
Be there or be a triangle!
Your old mate,
Karl

That corny humour of old. The nonchalant matiness that paid no heed to the fact we had exchanged not so much as a Christmas card since?well – since things went wrong.

Unnervingly independent of my brain, my hot fingers double-clicked ‘REPLY’ and clacked out an effusive paragraph notifying Kcorb that yes, I would be delighted to attend.

Whoa! Delighted? Where did that come from?

I vaguely recalled Dad going to a reunion when I was very young, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his grammar school exodus. A quarter of a century was a more curative lapse (middle age having the capacity to mellow the meanest bully, or render bald and jowly the most dangerously attractive heart-throb) than a mere decade. Ten years could turn yawning wounds to scabs?but scabs still bled from time to time.

I indecisively swirled the cursor around the stark screen as I dissected his message, as though it were an A-level English assignment.

The tone was sufficiently impersonal to imply he had posted duplicates to Claudette, Nathan and all the others registered on the website. And look: he actually said he wanted to see as many Class of 93 members as poss. There was safety in numbers (oh, I could always rely on a good cliche) and anyway it would be thrilling to catch up with former peers; reminisce about verruca socks, Bunsen burners and getting pissed on Babycham. That was why I had suddenly gone all thirsty and winded, the way I did after an aerobics class. Yes!

Gulping, I fired the cursor at ‘SEND.’

******

It was well after seven, Kylie had long segued into Snap’s The Power, and I was still trouser- and bra-clad.

Clapping the yearbook shut, I vaulted coltishly upright and began zealously hauling black tops out of my wardrobe. This was easier said than done; it was a veritable sea of black in there. (At precisely what point in my life had I managed to amass all these homogeneous, unwearable garments?)

Crop top – no, far too sexy. String vest – ditto. You ain’t fourteen anymore, girl: off to the youth club disco in your trowled-on lipstick, in blatant quest of a snog! Your goal is sophistication and understatement. Lacy short-sleeved – too flouncy and scratchy. Halterneck – too holiday-ish. Aaarggh! Long-sleeved – forget it, I’d roast on such a sultry night.

The lone contender then was an Oasis spaghetti-strap jobbie: unfussy, with a modest neckline, yet flatteringly clinging.

I smoothed the glossy vest over my hips and nodded with relief at my full-length reflection. Yes, Heather was right – less was definitely more. A squirt or two of Eternity, and I was fit. I flipped the radio off and gathered up my handbag.

‘Be good, Jerry,’ I called, blowing a kiss to my pet, who was now on his haunches in the centre of my bed, his sooty face all gorgeously indignant at being abandoned for the evening. ‘Wish me luck!’

******

My asthmatic Renault Clio (the only car I have ever possessed) knows every pothole between Sutton Coldfield and Sedgley, the Black Country village where I was – to quote my lovely old granny – born, bred and buttered. I have been a happy immigrant in Sutton, an elegant borough north of Brum, since discovering in my uni days how much I liked expedient, anonymous city life. However, my pilgrimages ‘home’ are frequent – particularly when the lure of Mom’s Sunday lunch overpowers. I can virtually smell the Yorkshire pudding down my phone twenty miles away. That cosy, doughy odour of home.

The posters may be long gone, but my teenage bed remains permanently, reassuringly aired, in that sunny den with the mint green wallpaper – my sanctuary for twenty-one years. Where I would entomb myself with The Word on mute, in the midnight company of my homework, diary or Walkman.

Where I dreamed of Karl.

Sedgley perches two miles north-west of the Black Country’s ‘capital,’ Dudley, the historic colliery town famed for siring Lenny Henry, Sue Lawley and Norman Pace, the moustache-free half of Hale and Pace. I can reach it in half-an-hour, via the relentless dual carriageways that slash through the urban clutches known as Great Barr, West Bromwich and Tipton.

I reprised this route tonight – almost – tranquilly enough for the bulk of it: chugging dauntlessly down the familiar roads, drumming the steering wheel to the Heart FM soundtrack. My insides only started to whisk up as I approached Dudley and had to digress south along the new bypass to Merry Hill, the Pluto-sized shopping and leisure complex in the town of Brierley Hill. I was not so much lost now as disorientated, in a landscape dimly recognisable but painted at a distorting angle.

My innate affection for the Black Country had inevitably been diluted, by time away, into the more removed affection one might feel for a childhood seaside haunt. It was aeons since I had socialised round here. My eyes – tourist’s eyes – were like a pair of bifocals: magnifying features they spent twenty years overlooking when I was a blase native.

On the radio, Pass the Dutchie biddly-biddly-bonged to a close, and the slinky intro of Madonna’s Crazy for You oozed from the speakers.

My face smarted, as though from a slap, then just as swiftly lost its blush and turned all waxy and cold.

This was Our Song.

‘This one was requested by Abbie, out there in Willenhall,’ fawned the DJ, ‘she wants to tell Justin she loves him loads.’

I braked, none too smoothly, at the roundabout, wondering pathetically whether Justin and Abbie had had their first snog to this melty, mid-80s ballad. Beneath a lopsided mirrorball in a British Legion hall?

When Abbie heard it now, did pins and needles stab at her skin? Did Madonna’s smoky vocals seem to resonate at her down a tapering, claustrophobic tunnel?

Turn it off, came an urgent screech inside my brain, put a tape in, anything to silence this portentous music – but my fingers remained masochistically gummed to the steering wheel.

Until I became conscious that I was steering no longer, but in fact was in the pub’s car park, levering up the handbrake and deactivating the engine – killing that disturbing song, at last.

How had I arrived here? I had no recollection of my final mile or two. Clio had somehow navigated the A4036 and skimmed into a parking space with no intermediary loss of life. I had been simply dazed, abstracted?as I was on a certain other night when Crazy for You played.

Slumping against the head-rest, I exhaled slowly and deeply, slowly and deeply, a technique acquired from the softly voiced-over relaxation tapes that counselled me through A-levels and finals. I felt like I had been holding my breath for about three hours.

Brewers Wharf clientele poured around me in cliques and duos: uniformly glossy and young, like extras from Hollyoaks. All too youthful to have been members of my class, unless time – or Botox – had been exceptionally kind to them.

This pub had always been colossally popular. I tried to calculate when my last visit was. With him, undoubtedly, so I’d have been a student, and wouldn’t have felt half so incongruous and aged as I did right now amongst all these jewelled navels and Atomic Kitten hair.

Relaxation Tape Man had prescribed a mantra for tremulous moments. I recited it now, as I slithered out of the car and became the tail of the bar-bound pageant.

I am calm and peaceful.

I am calm and peaceful.

Nudging the bar door open, tentatively, I froze on the periphery of the tableau, exploring the waves of faces for flutters of recognition. None came.

I am calm and peaceful.

I struggled to radiate airy, defiant, ‘no, I haven’t been stood up’ vibes, to deflect these kids’ pitying stares.

And then I spotted him.

My body gave an eerie little judder as my eyes honed in on him like telescopic lenses.

Lolling gently on the bar, the quintessence of nonchalance.

Ordering his traditional Fosters. Even in profile, semi-obscured by a posse of on-the-pull Gareth Gates clones, his essential ‘Karlness’ shone through. He was as boyish as ever. I knew he wouldn’t have aged; his was the kind of face that would look the same at seventy.

I seemed to be rooted there like a gormless tree for about forty hours, just staring at him. And then my trusty feet took over, in the same fashion my car had minutes earlier: surreally launching me across the floor independently of brain commands.

I slithered through the crowd, murmuring excuse mes and sorrys as I bustled between couples and trod on toes, until I was within Lynx-smelling distance of him.

‘All right, Karl,’ I cheeped.