Fantasy Drama

This was a mistake, thought Diana. I never should have come, and the best thing to do is to slip away before anyone starts making small talk and I’m trapped.

     Diana had never been a fan of school reunions. She didn’t know if it was because she thought they were futile and boring, or that things could go horribly wrong, especially with people you didn’t want to meet again, or both. And because of her father’s job, her family had moved around so much when she was a child that she’d never really been at any school long enough to develop that kind of attachment, though Greendale Girls High probably came nearest. Credit where it was due, they’d never sent her to boarding school. That didn’t mean she necessarily gave them credit at the time, but though she loved her school stories probably, even then, she had a realistic streak that told her that in real life it wouldn’t be remotely like Malory Towers or the Chalet School, and anyway (though it wasn’t the kind of thing you admitted, even, or especially to yourself) she would miss her parents quite dreadfully, not to mention having her own room.

     But she had been happy enough in her three years at Greendale High. She’d even become one of a quartet of friends, though she always had the feeling that she and Greta were the add-ons and Valerie and Jane were the dominant pair. Greta was shy and academic, and she, Diana, was (probably like anyone who hadn’t been a first year at the school!) the Newcomer. Val was one of life’s natural leaders, and in a school that had a proud musical tradition, able to sight-read the most difficult music even more easily than the music teacher, and Jane’s father was on the local council and one of the leading lights of the local Amateur Dramatic society – the Amdrams, as they were nicknamed. 

     Diana looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of Greta or Jane or Val. She should have told them she was coming, though they had got out of touch, the way even the closest of schoolfriends often do. She supposed they had the kind of looks that would still make them recognisable – Val small and dark, Jane tall (in the school stories they would have said willowy) and fair, and Greta – well, maybe that wouldn’t be so easy. Greta’s distinguishing feature was her curly dark brown hair, and she always swore that as soon as she was out of her mother’s control she’d use straighteners, though Diana, who’d always wanted natural curls, thought that would be a terrible shame and doubted she’d go through with it.

     And me, thought Diana? I was the one who was plump – not obese, not enough to be teased for it, and had slightly sticky-out teeth, and hair that looked lank the day after washing. None of those things had changed. But in clothes that suited her (she favoured loose-fitting tops in bright colours, and dark trousers or a skirt) and with her hair subject to the latest miracle shampoo and fastened with a smart mock tortoiseshell barette, she didn’t look bad, though there were still the sticky-out teeth. Diana had a morbid fear of the dentist.

     It was a curious thing, she thought, as the music pounded, seeming to belong to all eras and none. Almost everyone says, when they go back to school, how small it seems! How that seemingly huge building that they had got tearfully lost in when they were eleven (okay, she hadn’t been there when she was eleven!) had shrunk after university, and office blocks. Greendale High School didn’t seem to have shrunk at all. It seemed to have expanded and not just with the adding on of a couple of classrooms or the like. It had grown upwards and outwards and looked both newer and older. 

     I’ll stick it out, Diana decided. I’ll at least “show willing” as Mother used to say, now I’m here, and I will see if I can find Greta and Val and Jane. She was growing more used to the music. She remembered that in the sixth form block, with easy chairs they were allowed to sit on between lessons, they had a radio that was allowed to be played at lunchtime, and was actually played most of the time, but quietly, and it was tacitly understood that as long as it stayed quiet, that was fine. But at lunchtime it was turned up and was a symbol of their privileges and special status. Most of the time, Diana hadn’t liked the music much. The default channel was Radio 1, and she wasn’t a follower of the charts. But it wouldn’t have done to say that. The likes of Jane and Val, especially Val, could, and they got away with it. If Val chose to retune to a classical channel, or to a drama, or to anything she chose, then she was one of the leaders, and nobody teased her. Not that they actually teased in the sixth form, they’d become, at least on the surface, more civilised by then and were trusted to be unsupervised in their leisure time, but there were still subtle ways, of letting you know you were out of step and odd.  Diana was one of those people who was self-delusional (though at least she knew it) when she told herself that she didn’t care about being out of step. 

     Some said oddly, Val wasn’t the head girl. That was a quiet, easy going girl called Marion. At the time Diana thought it perverse, though Val proclaimed herself unbothered by it. But with hindsight perhaps, thought Diana, she’d underestimated Marion, and she was more suitable after all. She wondered if she’d bump in to Marion. 

     Diana seemed to have been walking for hours, though she told herself that was an exaggeration, a trick of perception and yet she still only seemed to be in the first room she had entered, a vast entry hall, like a long, wide corridor, with doors leading off to both sides, and desks – not school desks, but the kind you’d find in the reception area of a hotel, flanked by tall pot plants too perfect to be real, and too natural to be artificial, jutting up from their pebble-topped pots. She surreptitiously fingered the leaves to see if they were real or fake, and still wasn’t quite sure. There certainly never used to be plants like that, she thought. The odd thing was that though her ears were now growing more used to the music, and she could pick out snatches of conversation, her thoughts seemed to be muted and muffled. Perhaps there was some truth in the phrase I couldn’t hear myself think! There had been plants, she remembered, but just regular little cacti and African violets, and most of them were short lived. But everything was supersized now. 

     One thing she did know, even with her mind not quite functioning properly, was that people at desks like that provided information. She went to one of them, staffed by a woman with a bright smile wearing neutral coloured clothing, and asked directions to the sixth form block. It was crazy to be asking directions, but she realised she had to and that was that. Diana didn’t know if the woman was surprised at her request and pretending not to be, or not remotely surprised and feigning polite interest. “You just carry on walking,” she said, “Out onto the square, where the shops are, and just keep on in a straight line. You can’t miss it.”

     “Thanks,” said Diana. Normally, if someone had said, “You can’t miss it,” she’d have joked, though it was true, that they didn’t know her and shouldn’t underestimate her lack of a sense of direction. But this time, she didn’t. 

     She carried on walking past the desks and pot plants, and began to wonder if she would ever reach the back of this building, but in the end she did, and came out onto the square where the shops were, just as the lady on the desk had said. So far, so good. The music was still playing, through the kind of loudspeakers they had at fetes and carnivals and parades, out on the square.

     She had been repeating the square where the shops are in her mind like a mantra to keep her on the right track, but only when she reached that place did it entirely dawn on her that there’d been no square and no shops at all at Greendale Girls High. There’d been a little courtyard with benches where the girls could sit at break times or lunch times (though someone else always seemed to have got there first) and there was an intermittent tuck shop, but there hadn’t been a square and shops. Even allowing for misremembering or half-forgetting. And this was not some extension of the courtyard, or some little stationery shop. There was a large supermarket, with automatic doors and rows of shopping trolleys. A supermarket as part of a school was a very odd thing. There had definitely been a supermarket at her university, a modern campus university, but that was more normal, and it had been much smaller, too. 

     She wandered into the supermarket, where the same music was playing, sometimes interrupted with announcements about special offers though she had meant to keep on walking in that straight line that the lady with the bright smile and neutral clothes at the desk had told her about. She wandered up and down the aisles, and for a few minutes it was as if she were on a shopping trip and not at a school reunion, but she didn’t buy anything. There was a rear exit to the supermarket, and she walked out into the open air again. It was like an extension of the square, as if it had only been interrupted by the supermarket, although it grew longer and narrower, and there were buildings, some mellow and old, some shining and new, on either side. 

     She felt compelled to ask someone she passed by if she were still heading in the right direction for the sixth form block, and was assured, again, that she was going the right way, she just needed to carry on in a straight line, she would see the café first. “Thank you,” said Diana. She noted the word. Not cafeteria or dining hall but café. That was something new, as well. But perhaps not so earth-shattering. After all, it had been the paradox of recent years that as schools grew ever stricter on matters such as attendance and uniform, they did their best to dissociate themselves from words to do with school at all, in favour of ones you’d encounter in a hotel or an office. 

     There was no mistaking the café. And there was no mistaking that it was not some dolled-up dining hall that kidded nobody. There were tables with crisp gingham cloths, and wickerwork chairs, and all manner of different coffees and teas on offer, not to mention a plethora of sandwiches, except, of course, they weren’t called sandwiches, they were called wraps or focaccias, or baguettes. 

     Perhaps Val or Jane or Greta will be here, thought Diana, or Marion. Or Ellen who played French horn in an orchestra even while she was still at school, but willingly bowed to Val as the “chief musician”. Or Kate, who’d already decided she wanted to go to drama college, or Lydia, who was the star at science and whose father had been to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party and (separately) been awarded the OBE, though both on account of his long term tenure in the civil service rather than for anything more spectacular. Or anyone

     There was music playing in the café, too, but it was different. And, though Diana supposed it was quieter (or had her ears just grown more accustomed to it?) there seemed something even more pervasive about it. A loud, throbbing beat, you could almost get used to, but this turned, and tinkled, and twisted, and made her realise the difference between hypnotic and restful. 

     There’s no need to show willing thought Diana, in fact there’s no reason whatsoever to go through with this, so why don’t I just have one of the gamut of coffees, though I’ll probably end up just having a cappuccino, and one of the sandwiches that they don’t call sandwiches, or a piece of one of those delicious looking cakes, and then walk the straight line back again, back past the road and the square and the supermarket and the reception area, and forget all about it and put it down to experience. 

     But of all things, a line from a TV quiz show came to mind. If the whistle blew to indicate that the contestant’s interrogation was over, the question master said, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” It had passed into the language, though you didn’t seem to hear it quite as much as you used to, or maybe she just wasn’t involved in the relevant conversations. 

     She passed through the café with the gingham table cloths and wicker chairs, and didn’t order anything to eat or drink. She wondered if anyone were giving her a funny look, but they didn’t seem to be. It’s almost as if I’m invisible, thought Diana, then dismissed such a fanciful thought. The lady at the reception desk and the gentleman as she left the supermarket had seen her. She carried on walking. Gradually, the music floating from the café faded, and there were, perhaps a few seconds without music, but then the silence faded, and the music became loud again, and started to throb again, and Diana knew that she was nearing its source. It was coming from upstairs, in a concrete block, that seemed to have no downstairs, and yes, that was familiar. I’m nearly there, she thought, I’m nearly there, I’ve been past the square and the supermarket, and the cafe,  and soon I’ll meet Val, or Jane, or Greta, or Marion, or Ellen. Or anyone. 

     For surely the tenacity of trudging across a space weirdly transformed would have its own reward. She wasn’t even sure she wanted it now, but she was going to claim it. Diana couldn’t remember if she had ever used the childish cliché are we there yet? but was pretty sure that she must have done, catching sight of some holiday-landmark on a flat horizon.

     This time the building was more familiar.  Just a few more steps now, follow the music, and the music was getting louder. 

     Then she was standing outside the block. There would be a door, dark red when she was last there, but it wouldn’t matter if it had changed, and she’d push it open, and she’d be in the stairwell, and she’d climb up those stairs, up the longer flight, and then round the dogleg , and up the shorter flight, and she’d be in the sixth form block. 

     Where’s the door, Diana wondered. Perhaps I’ve misremembered, or perhaps they’ve altered it, and put it on the other side of the building. That would be the least of the changes they’d made, the sort of change you could laugh about. For a second, she thought she saw Marion, for this girl was about the same height, and had her smooth short hair, and an air about her that was unassuming but self-possessed, and a smile that was guarded but sincere. No, it wasn’t Marion. That was a shame, but she was the right person to ask, a person who wouldn’t give her a strange look. “What’s happened to the stairwell?” she asked, making a joke of it herself, and quite prepared to take one at her expense.

     She was right in thinking that the girl who looked like Marion but was not Marion wasn’t unkind, but she still gave her a strange look.

     “Er – to get upstairs?” she added, helpfully, hoping it didn’t come over as sarcastic.

     “Oh, to get upstairs,” the girl said, relieved she were now on more explicable ground.  She took Diana round to the back of the building and indicated what looked like a ladder cut into the concrete, a vertical ladder with narrow, steel rungs. And whose bright idea was that, wondered Diana. Oh, I DO wish I’d worn more sensible shoes. But with a sigh, she began to ascend that ladder, remembering what she’d once heard someone demonstrating a telescopic ladder say. Always keep three points of contact on the ladder. She realised she was perspiring now, and her heart and the music were pounding, but, at last, she reached the top of the steel ladder cut into the concrete, and was by a glass door.

     But to reach that door she would have to, somehow, get herself over a step steeper than four steps of the vertical ladder, and the door itself seemed too narrow for anyone to get through, though people must have, for there were people inside the upstairs of the building that had no downstairs, where the music was pounding.

     I can’t, thought Diana, I just can’t, and yet I’ve come this far.

     Trying to gather her forces and telling herself that it wasn’t impossible, and she wasn’t going to abandon her plans now, at the very last minute, she inadvertently caught a glimpse, a surprisingly clear one, of herself, in the glass door.

     And she saw, not someone who was five years older than she’d been when she last entered that building, or what had been that building, nor even ten years older, but someone forty years older, a woman on the brink of old age, clinging to a steel ladder cut into the concrete of the building.

     The music was louder than ever, but her screaming was louder.

     Or she thought it was. Nobody else seemed to hear it.

September 29, 2020 06:47

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Prince Brempong
04:45 Oct 08, 2020

Excellent story! ,but just that it is a little lengthy. I appreciate your story keep it up. Kindly do read my story and give some feedback-Prince Brempong.


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Jesna Anna S.
16:15 Sep 29, 2020

Awesome story! Keep writing! I appreciate if you can read my story, "Agnes" and give your valuable feedback.


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