We hit November with a bang, and winter almost immediately set in. Rain was all over the place, making small floods in the most god-awful places, with the main foyer completely un-enterable for the best part of three days after half term, and our coursework got heavier, UCAS and our personal statements only adding to the stress of our final year of school.
Nathan fitted in with us easily, much to my surprise, because even though I assumed he was arrogant, moody and rude, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Though he hardly smiled, he was very funny when he opened his mouth, though that was another rare occurrence that stunned me. He was an observer, rather than a doer, and that suited our group just fine, though it still unnerved me when we fell into silence and I would look over to him, see him staring at me with a look on his face I could barely even try to fathom.
Remembrance Day was looming, and as a Sixth Form, we held a service for the fallen on the 11th of November. We needed poppy-sellers, the prefects taking the job, and people to lay crosses on behalf of our old boys who had died in the war. Twenty seven were needed, twenty seven signed up. Especially me, because I had to.
It wasn’t an option for me.
It seems simple; take eight steps, place a tiny wooden cross down, and return, keeping your head down and stay on your feet. It’s never as simple as you think.
I, personally, am heavily affected by remembrance services. I found this out last year, when Mandie and I spent most of the service in tears, clinging to each other for support. I had done so well the year before, managing to bite my lip into two, but shedding no tears.
In theory, as I stood at the top step and leant over, pushed the cross into the soft earth and straightened up, I had two steps to take before I was home free, and could flee back to the hall. Typical me, as I stepped down, I stumbled and nearly hit the floor.
A warm hand caught me from behind and held me on my feet. My heart pounded as I looked up at him, his smile small and almost heartbroken.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” I breathed, and his smile grew slightly. I sniffed away the tears that had been blossoming in my eyes for the best part of forty-five minutes. He smiled again, squeezed my hand and released me.
“It’s okay to cry,” He whispered as we took our places in the hall again. Somehow, he had managed to manoeuvre himself into the chair beside me, when I knew he had been sitting at the further end of the row. I swallowed and folded my hands into my lap, he reached his right hand over and took my left into his, resting them between us. I felt a lot stronger in his grip, trying not to cry, but knowing it was alright as long as he was there.
Breathing heavily, I managed to make it through the rest of the ceremony without bursting into tears or having a panic attack. Nathan’s strong fingers intertwined with mine kept me calm, but still, I had no desire whatsoever to stay longer than necessary, however a hand, warm in mine and still holding on, stopped me in my tracks as I picked up my bag and went to leave.
“Please let me go, Nate.” I whispered, he shook his head and pulled me back to him, “I can’t stay.” I felt the lump in my throat returning, my chest tightening as my vision blurred with tears again.
“Why, Katie?” I loosened his grip with my own hand and nearly threw it to his side, stepping back and away from him, “I-I don’t understand-”
“Just... not today.” I licked my lips, considering telling him exactly why, but knowing that it was way too hard for me to face right now. Instead, I simply hugged him tight and walked away, leaving him standing there, watching me disappear.
“Repatriation ceremony, mum?” I was sat across the table from her, clutching dad’s scarf in my fingers as I held it around my neck, “They’re bringing him back, then?” From what I’d heard, there hadn’t been much of him left to bring back.
“Yep.” She looked at me for a long time, then reached across the table and gripped my hand, “It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance if you ask me, but...” she sniffed and looked to the floor, her eye brimming with tears for the longest time before they spilled over her, down her cheeks and splashed to the table. “You don’t have to-”
“I’m coming mum,” Reflexively, I pulled on the scarf, an action that would, over the next few years, become a nervous habit. “I don’t want to miss my chance to say goodbye.”
I sat down in the common room and drew my knees up to my chest, staring into the base of the plastic chair across from me.
“Katie?” A small hand squeezed my shoulder and I looked up to see Mandie looking at me with an awkward smile on her face, “You okay?”
I shrugged, my usual response to those pointless questions.
“Not like I’ve got a choice in the matter,” I said softly, “No, not at all.” I shrugged again and she released my shoulder.
“You frightened Nathan, I think,” She said softly as she sat down beside me, pulled my legs across her and pulled at my laces, the only shoes that I knew I would have any hope of getting away with.
“Yeah, well...” I shrugged and curled back up, sighing. “It was unintentional.”
“He thinks he’s done something wrong,” She murmured, and I looked up at her, “He wanted to apologise, but-” She smiled and I wrapped my arms around myself, looking around the room for him.
“He didn’t know how.” I finished for her, “Where-”
“Art.” She whispered, “Sulking.”
I looked at her, whispering a thank you and grabbing my bag to run up to the art rooms. After possibly the longest trek of my life, I pushed the door of A4 open and set myself down at one of the desks opposite the tousled, dark-brown hair of Nathan Bailey. He was scribbling on a piece of paper with a pencil, alternating with an ink pen and swearing every so often as he focussed solely on the page.
There was a long silence as he scrawled on the page for a little longer, screwed it up with a loud ‘fuck’ and looked up to throw the page into the recycling bin.
“How long have you been standing-?”
“About two minutes,” I said softly, “Er...” I took a breath and crossed the room, finding a stool and sitting down beside him. There was a long awkward silence where we simply looked between each other and pulled empty expressions. “My dad was a soldier.”
I cringed, realising that by just throwing that out there, he would probably assume I was totally insane. His only response was to raise his eyebrows.
“Oh.” He nodded at me and I looked away. “By was... do you mean-?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “He kind of... two and a half years.” I crossed my arms and looked into his face, expecting an expression of disgust, or pity. I saw only a hesitance in his eyes before he reached forward and touched my hand. “I still can’t face it.”
“What you did...” He breathed, “It makes you incredibly... so brave.” He whispered, “I know I wouldn’t be able to-”
“Yes,” I murmured, “You would.” I cut him off with the simple words. “Because your heart would tell you to.”
He stared at me for a long time and I swallowed; my mouth dry and unable to function, before he leaned forward and very slowly, very gently brushed his thumb across my lips.
“You’re so weird,” I managed as he pulled away.
“I try.”He raised a shoulder in a half-shrug, making me grin. He dropped his hand, running it along my shirt sleeve and touching my hand for a very long time, “Any time,” He breathed, “Any time you need someone to talk to...” The door banged open and his hand was gone.
“Thank you,” I breathed, the warmth of his fingers still clasped around my own.
“Really,” He murmured, “I mean it.” I nodded and picked up my bag, swinging it back over my shoulder and going to leave the room.
He gripped my hand again and held me in one place.
“Let me walk you to lesson?” It was a question, as opposed to a command. I nodded and his fingers slipped into mine as he carefully pulled me through the corridors, guiding me to English and lingering in the doorway as I stepped into the empty classroom, my eyes still threatening to spill over like they had so many times before.
I turned to smile and say goodbye to him, but he wasn’t there anymore. My heart hurt.