The air was hot and full of sweat. I took a breath and held my hand against my mouth. One and a half thousand bellowing and screaming voices in front of me. Another thousand behind me. Another thousand packed, talking and crying and laughing and drinking, into the rest of the building. It was a sound we had come to love, and it was louder and more forceful and more passionate than it had ever been.
"And so we’d just like to say, after all these nights," I paused, realising the high and reedy brass section was opening underneath me, "that we love you!"
Ben hit the fader perfectly, I let the microphone drop away from my lips, and three and a half thousand voices were united in song. I stood again at the edge of the stage with my hand over my mouth, which was creased hard with emotion. I had one foot up on the edge and one guy turned and tapped my leg, grinned and gave me a thumbs up. I nodded back to him, still standing. The crowd was bundled, hugging, swaying, hands in the air. People were crying with their faces turned upwards to the lights, mouths open, singing with tears flowing. My housemates were coming on stage, and were hugging and crying together. I stood at the edge of the stage, hanging back, looking out across the packed raised hands, the familiar faces. They were everywhere.
So this is how it ends, I thought. This is how it ends.
- - -
I was sitting on a train, two days before that moment, when I found out. It was a bad day to be on a train; it was my results day. I was an undergraduate masters student, meaning that my course lasted four years, and from scratch I walked away as a Master of Engineering.
It was the second to last day of the summer term, in my third year. The day before, as President of RAG at Warwick, I had been involved with a campus Summer Festival to raise money for charity – we had taken risks with already raised funds in way the society had never done before. We had rented a stage for bands, paid for bungee jumping, organised bars and games and DJs. With the amazing team of people we had, we pressed on against huge setbacks and lost money overall, but got the university to sit up and realise we were serious, and every summer since then, the Summer Festival has raised thousands.
I was feeling good. With the Festival behind me, the next year I would be living back on campus at the heart of things, with another year of RAG, of DJing in the Student Union, of university.
I was on my way back to Leamington after going to London for an interview for a summer job as an Entertainments Manager on a cruise ship. Cruise ship was stretching the definition a little- it was the Hull to Zeebrugge overnight ferry, but there was entertainment laid on; a kid’s entertainer in a Walrus costume, a cocktail pianist, a four piece band, and a DJ. I was to be the DJ and overall manager for the summer, before coming back to Warwick for my final year. It wasn’t stated whether or not I would have to stand in for the kid’s entertainer in his capacity as Wally the Walrus, so I was as yet undecided.
My mobile rang. It was the degree ceremony organisers.
It was obviously a mistake.
"I don’t graduate this year."
"I’ve had your name passed to me as a new graduate. So; will you be coming to your ceremony at such short notice, or not?"
"A new graduate? What in?"
"Says here you have a BSc. I don’t understand. Don’t you know about this?"
"No. I think there must have been a mistake."
"Well, what were your results like?"
"A friend rang me earlier, I’ve been in London – I’m on the boards as having a 2:1 – there’s no way I could have graduated."
"There’s no doubt about this. It just came in from your department. Oh, and if you weren’t graduating, you wouldn’t be on the boards," the woman was tetchy.
The signal on my phone died.
Staring at the table in front of me as the train crossed into Warwickshire, I realised that, despite all the maths, all of the stupid hedging of bets and scores, it was possible. All you needed to progress to year four was a 3rd class score...but it was possible...just possible, to drop off the course with a mark as good as a 2:1.
But...that would be stupid.
But...I had done it.
I had managed to crash and burn off my course, and I had spent the second to last day of my entire university life in London, away from my friends. The family in the seats across the aisle shifted uncomfortably in their seats as I began to cry.
I stood outside the Student Union at Manchester University, my bag loosely on my shoulder, an unfamiliar shirt collar and tie freshly loosened around my neck. It was Spring, and Manchester was a really great looking city. Plants around the angular brown concrete plaza were greening and budding, keen against the chill in the air and reaching for the sunlight.
I pictured myself living in Manchester. I pictured myself getting used to its bars, its cafés, its life...it was all so very different from the campus bubble community of Warwick, but I liked it.
I pictured myself setting off from Manchester, and taking a series of hopping flights to South America. I pictured myself with my then-familiar PhD colleagues, hefting our kit bags up the gangplank of a research ship moored in Southern Chile and heading for the Antarctic ice sheets.
I started nodding to myself in that British spring sunshine.
"I can give this a go," I said.
There was a new café just open down the hill from the Jobcentre towards the thatched rooves of the Old Village, and he was grateful for my custom. It was November, it was cold outside, and he was trying to wipe away the condensation on the big glass window. I slid the chair scrapingly under the table and began to unpack my books.
In a month I could have rudimentary enough Czech to worm my way into the ex-pat community, rudimentary enough to find a cheap hostel before finding work and somewhere to live long term. I flicked through guidebooks, through personal accounts of living in the capital. While the living was indeed very cheap, it seemed that property prices, at least on the rental front, were comparable with the rest of Europe’s capitals. Damn.
Jobwise it seemed that there were plenty of openings for people with bar experience and English as a language. Prague was enjoying a tourism boom.
The tall young man brought me my coffee.
"There’s a free refill," he said.
So, with the likelihood of getting casual work being pretty good, there would be no difficulty in holding down a hostel to begin with. I could actually...actually do it.
I gestured across the harbour water.
"You know, it’s criminal, seeing them just sitting there."
"They’re too small now. There’s too much traffic between here and the mainland."
"Yes I know, but they’re just so...cool."
"It just seems a waste."
"I dare say the ferry company uses them for something."
"Do you think they’d sell them?"
"What, the hydrofoils?"
"Why would anyone want them?"
"Well, you could refurbish them. Make them really plush."
"Well, they’re hydrofoils. A speedboat or a gin palace is just a boat, and a boat’s a boat, but they fly..."
"Who’d buy them? It would take a lot to revamp them. They’ve been sitting idle for years..you can see the rust on bits of them...you’d have to fit new engines...rearrange and redesign the interior..and at the end of it you’ve still got a second hand boat. With rivets."
"What’s wrong with rivets?"
"They don’t look modern. Everything is GRP these days."
"And you’d still be trying to flog a secondhand boat."
He shook his head.
The houseparty was in the dying stages. It had been a great night. The music was brilliant, the live show particularly popular, and if anyone had told me that the night would have included a group sing-along before hand, I would have laughed in their face. There was a tangy aftertaste in my mouth from the particularly lively punch which had been emptied from the wide bowl long before, but I had not drunk much. I had been too tired for much of the night, but now, as the heat in the room was dropping and the atmosphere lightened, I had more energy. There were a number of people who had arrived after I lost the urge to introduce myself to everyone, and one of these people came up to me now, as I stood next to the half-opened window, looking out at the night and breathing the air of a city I had only previously dreamt of visiting. The girl on my arm kissed me, detached herself and went to help with the beginnings of clearing up. I couldn’t help but follow her with my eyes.
"So how do you like New York?" asked the unintroduced girl.
"It’s unbelievable. I’ve only been here a couple of days, but it’s really amazing. I went for a bit of a walkabout yesterday, incredible, yeah."
"How long are you staying for?"
"Oh, another week. You know. It’s quite a long visit, but that was because of the flight prices...this was the cheapest way to get here!" I laughed.
"So are you coming back?"
The girl who had been on my arm, who I was already giddily in love with, was helping to clean, and from behind the girl whose name I didn’t know, she looked up from picking something off the floor. She smiled at me and her eyes shone.
"When?" asked the unnamed girl.
"I don’t know yet. I only decided just then when you asked me," I said.
The love of my life was still smiling at me from across the room.
- - -
Liz and Alex were reaching out for my arm, and the wall of heat from the singing crowd suddenly seemed to be pushing me. Everyone was caught up in their groups, their friends, their people, and I was standing mulling over my aborted life at university, amongst these brilliant people, as the music played on.
I turned away from the crowd and smiled at the red cheeked and tear-streamed faces of my flatmates, and joined them as they stood. The six of us held each other, in a huddle like any of the others on the dancefloor, swaying slowly behind the mixing desk and being grateful for the people around us, knowing that this was the last night, the last night that this place and these people were home.
And despite the weight of that moment, something inside of me stirred.
This isn’t entirely an ending, you know.