I woke up to the sound of an almighty crash on the roof above my head. It was dark in my attic bedroom, but I remember narrowing my eyes and straining my ears. There’s another loud crack. It’s a metallic impact that can only be a car. An alarm sounds down in the street. I hear two distant warning shouts. There’s a second heavy thud overhead, followed by a tsunami of explosions. I can’t hear individual impacts as they are lost in the deluge.
I scramble out of bed, stumble to the window and draw back the curtains. Apple-sized hailstones are raining down and clattering on everything in sight. The road’s black tarmac is awash with icy orbs, bouncing and dancing with demonic glee. All the vehicles parked in my neighbourhood are being reduced to scrap. The hailstones have pitted them with dents and craters that make them beyond repair. It’s going to be a loss adjuster’s nightmare.
Years later, it wasn’t the midnight storm I recall as much as what happened before and afterward. The hailstorm happened at a point in my life when things would change irrevocably. It was a significant marker for my two close school friends and myself. We would recall our lives up to that night and the time beyond it. After seven years of friendship, we were all about to go our separate ways.
The storm happened the day after we completed our gruelling A-Level exams. David, Gavin and I had been looking forward to respite from the tough schedule and its strict conditions. We wouldn’t miss the wretched invigilators who enforced neckties rules on the hottest of days. I hated the end of term tests at school, and these final exams signified the end of studying. It was an enormous relief to say goodbye to my school days and hello to the rest of my life.
We wanted to celebrate our years together, but we’d been too busy to organise anything. It was David’s mother who motivated us to get together, and she suggested an afternoon at the Grand Hotel’s cocktail lounge. We were all old enough to drink and appreciate the curious venue. The Grand Hotel was a throwback with its piano player and Afternoon Teas. However, its idiosyncrasies lent the occasion an ironic touch of exotic sophistication.
The morning of the storm was the start of a warm summer’s day, and I joined my parents for breakfast. My father had a couple of days off work and I’d agreed to accompany him to Ken Harrison’s Nursery in the morning. My father held Ken as an example of a modest man made good. He admired his strength of character, persistence and determination; major assets he regarded as lacking nowadays. In retrospect, I think this was my father’s way of introducing me to business. He realised I wasn’t an academic and I my predicted grades wouldn’t offer a route to a glittering career. I had no pretensions about researching a niche subject and retreating to an ivory tower.
Twenty years ago Ken had taken on a plot of land from an old-timer who’d grown his own produce. Ken had wanted to supplement his meagre income by selling vegetables, however he soon discovered a talent for nurturing prize blooms. His chrysanthemums were renowned. Dad had watched Ken sell his produce to florists, farmer’s markets and restaurants. It was a prefect cash crop, and he soon developed a handsome income throughout the growing season with his ageratums, snapdragons and sunflowers, but to name a few. His mixed bouquets were popular and particularly lucrative as they allowed him to blend various flowers without losing money on unsold individual varieties. Ken had started small and with shrewd business acumen, he’d grown within his capacity and delivered quality blooms with consistency. He now had one and a half acres of fertile land and some thirty greenhouses. His chrysanthemums were in their prime and ready to be cut for market.
My father and Ken greet each other like lost brothers and engage in banter with no hesitation. Ken relates how well everything’s going and discusses his plans to harvest his crop of chrysanthemums. At this juncture, Dad puts his arm around my shoulder and asks if Ken remembers me and shows how much I’ve grown. Ken grips my hand in his ruddy-coloured fist and smiles, and says he could use a reliable fellow for the summer. Before I can respond, my father volunteers my services and I’m agreeing to four days a week, ten hours a day with lunches thrown in, and I’m to start tomorrow. I’ve no proper plans in place and Ken’s a friendly enough chap, it’ll be fine. Anyway, it’s the best offer I’ve had since leaving school yesterday.
I never realised what it involved until we had a tour of the premises. Ken maintained his greenhouses and set them up for industrial scale production, including an artificial light system to extend the bloom time. There were tens of thousands of blooms waiting to be prepared: cut, boxed and delivered to various clients. I’m not a horticulturist, but that ocean of golden flowers in their prime is impressive. I can only guess at the market value, but it must a tidy sum.
It’s midday when we return home and Mum says I’ve missed a call from David. He and Gavin are getting ready and want me to meet them at The Grand at two o’clock. Mum has ironed my best shirt and suggests a sports jacket and tie. My face says no to the tie, she smiles and removes the tie. I enjoy a light lunch with my parents and notice the temperature is heading towards 37 degrees. Perspiration covers my father’s brow, and he changes into a short-sleeve shirt before giving me a lift to the coast. I’m aware the air feels heavy and at the doorway Mum says that it’s predicted to get hotter towards nightfall. The tie was a none-starter today.
I arrive at The Grand and a receptionist directs me through to the bright lounge bar. The lads have only just arrived and they’re browsing through a drinks card. David’s mother, Edith, gives me a warm smile, says I look very smart and hands me a menu. We’ve got a table with a sea view and an overhead fan. I joke about the fan feeling colonial, but appreciate the welcome breeze and relief from the gathering heat.
Edith had no trouble recommending and describing any of the drinks. We’re still young enough to find the names amusing; “Screwdriver”, “Juicy Lucy” and “A Short Trip To Hell”. A straight-faced waiter allows our mirth to subside before taking a note of requests. Edith orders a Martini, Gavin plums for a Whiskey Sour, David tries a Margarita and I sample The Old Fashioned.
David is the first to notice the change in light. We’re losing our view out to sea as the sky darkens by the minute. The barman turns on the house lights to compensate. The conditions are unusual for a summer’s day. By the time our drinks arrive, we’re more grateful than ever for the circulating air.
I thank Edith for organising our end-of-school celebration and raise my glass to all our successful futures. The first distant flashes of lightening reflect across the dark water in front of us as we clink our glasses.
It was when Edith enquired about our plans for the summer that Gavin revealed he was going to Canada to study Engineering. It stunned us, he’d neither talked about the move nor mentioned that his family were emigrating too. I think David and I assumed he’d applied to a university in the U.K.
David was hoping to study English in London because of family connections there, but that depended on his results, of course.
I was a little reserved about my prospects and announced my new job at Ken’s Nursery. Gavin and David were both stunned that I’d got a job and assumed we’d all have time to relax or go for one of our weeklong camping adventures. Summer had always been our time to visit the Lake District. We enjoyed fell walking there and enjoyed the fresh mountain air. My news put a bit of a damper on things. Edith suggested one more drink for the road.
We had the same again. I tried to cheer my friends up with ideas for a break later in the summer. The trouble was that our suggestions were now colliding with reality. Gavin’s move was going to go ahead before his results arrived and the family move was a given. In many respects it was David who had no plans. It was he who would be at a loose end during the summer. We were a trio who had functioned forever. None of us had questioned what would happen “after”. There was silence when the next round of drinks arrived. I had already proposed a toast, and so I let somebody else offer a suitable sentiment. Was this the end or the beginning? Should we remember the past already? Because now was feeling like “after”.
Edith’s plan was to enjoy a couple of drinks and mark the end of the exams. She hadn’t intended to stay beyond a second drink and so when we finished our round she wished us all well and left money for a third round. Outside the hotel the sky had darkened to a slate grey, and the temperature was past 40 degrees. She ordered a cab, and we waved her off as the heavens opened up. The rain was torrential as she disappeared down the coast road back to town.
It was a wonderful treat and an afternoon of many revelations and fond memories. If we’d been more experienced, we would’ve departed with Edith and avoided the reappearance of long buried emotions. There were unspoken resentments and jealousies that should have remained buried. Many memories surfaced during the next round of drinks that were better locked away. There was Lucy, who had been Gavin’s girlfriend. She ended up with David before they fell out. That time when the window got broken, and I got the blame so David’s stepfather wouldn’t kill him. The money I lent Gavin that got stolen and David almost got expelled from school. All those events we would have laughed at if we’d stopped drinking before the heavy rain arrived.
It was David who hit Gavin first. He’d always been short-tempered. I tried to separate them and David whacked me. I’d tried to defend Gavin and shoved David into the low wall. The impact knocked off the copingstone into his parent’s garden. It was David who bit my wrist and removed a chunk with his teeth. The chances are, if we’d been older, none of that would have occurred.
The next morning I arrived at Ken’s Nursery to discover the closed sign in the reception window. He still required me to work, except I was no longer needed as a gardener. I’d be spending the summer collecting broken glass to throw in a dumpster.