“And the winner is….drum roll please….number 314!”
Frankie, like every other former pupil, had automatically clapped her hands against her thighs as soon as Mrs Butterworth gave the signal. Some habits were hard to break, and any raffle following the boring bits of assembly had always been greeted with uncontained excitement. She looked at her ticket. 515. Not even close. The chocolate hamper had escaped her, as it had for her entire primary school life. Frankie screwed the ticket up, and catching Mrs Butterworth’s glance, took the wise decision to put it in her pocket rather than dropping it on the floor. Some habits needed to be broken to avoid unwanted attention, and Frankie was always a good learner.
Speech upon speech had led to this finale. Frankie had attended many retirement assemblies as a child at the school, and was always surprised that no one ever had a bad word to say about people. At sixteen, she was practically an adult, and with that came a healthy level of suspicion that life was not always rosy, and not everyone would be sadly missed when they stopped pacing the school corridors. When she received the invitation, she had half-expected that this would be yet another retirement – that of Mrs B, who had no hair undyed or wrinkle lifted, and was surely due for some long months travelling in a camper van or pruning roses or something – whatever old people got up to. But no, and the celebration wasn’t even for a particular person, but for the school itself. Fifty years in operation, and still going strong.
As she had been getting ready for the event and wondering if there was a dress code which would eliminate her slightly ripped but highly prized jeans, Frankie couldn’t stop her mind wandering to the memory of those first days at school. For her, there were two distinct categories: her own water-splashing and hand-holding days of Reception, and the time that she was truly the only girl in school, and Billy was the only boy. In six years though, the second memory had remained hers alone, because despite her yearning to share the heady madness of what had happened with whoever was available to share a passing interest, she just had to keep the adventure firmly in lockdown. Never once did she contemplate that she imagined what happened, because her imagination, though prone to spiral, could never have come up with anything quite so crazy. But Frankie knew that sharing too much could escalate to her lying on a couch somewhere, describing her childhood to a psychiatrist. So although she didn’t think of Spike and Billy every day, they were never too far from her thoughts – ready to be triggered by the sight of an excitable dog, or a tall thin boy with a worried face.
Now, she clapped politely for the winner of the hamper – a year five child who Frankie didn’t recognise, as a whole generation of newcomers had taken over her old stamping ground. She had been surprised that there was actually room for children in the hall, as the adults associated with the school’s history packed the room to capacity, shoulder to shoulder with barely room to extend arms for applause. Social distancing had thankfully become a phrase of the past, although sometimes Frankie longed for the space away from crowds that the brief age of lockdown allowed.
With a final speech from her former head teacher, the event drew to a close, and as the last clap of the day resounded around the hall, Frankie reflected on her contribution to the morning: reading the poem which she had written soon after lockdown, about her experience of being the only girl in school back in 2020. She had been nervous, mainly because she feared the cruel smirks of her old classmates in the audience; after all she hadn’t been given the chance to edit the piece, and the sixteen year old Frankie was not immune to the embarrassment of reading aloud her unpolished nine year old efforts. But they had been kind, and perhaps a little bit moved, judging by the nods and smiles she caught when she dared to look up. Frankie could see some of them now among the faces of the young and the old, as everyone prepared to leave. There were waves to one another, but no desperate rush to reunite – after all, she would see a few at school later on, and the rest on the social media platforms she intended to access for gossip this evening. So although she continued to scour the hall for faces of the past, picking out some of the old teachers who had left long ago for ‘pastures new’ as Mrs Butterworth would say, Frankie was not particularly eager to enter into any catch-up conversations.
And then she saw him.
He was a tall thin man, whose clear awareness of his height had caused a gradual stoop over many years, convincing him that he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. Wispy curls of amber and white hair sat on his permanently rounded shoulders, having apparently slipped over many years from the slopes of a now polished head. He was standing just over two metres away, staring over black-framed glasses at Frankie – a look she had seen from disapproving teachers on more than one occasion, but which now held no silent threat of detention, only the warmth of recognition. Billy must be sixty by now, Frankie had thought only that week, but it had never occurred to her that he would be here today.
“Billy.” It came out as a whisper, not the exclamation befitting the occasion. “Billy! Is that you?” That was better – the shock of her aging friend quickly passed as Frankie focused on his eyes – now dancing with youth. Billy approached and extended his hand, and for reasons Frankie would later question herself about, she responded with a smile and a fist. Billy laughed, a grown up deep throated chuckle, and bumped his own fist with Frankie’s. “I just knew you’d be here Frankie! I felt so proud of you standing up there, in front of everyone. I just didn’t have the nerve to do it myself!”
“ But you’re an adult Billy – I mean quite an old one now!” Frankie’s words spilled out before her brain had a chance to edit them. Familiar heat rose to her face, and she shuffled nervously. “I mean you’re not a child any more – you should feel more confident now.” Billy laughed again. “I see some things haven’t changed Frankie. You never struck me as someone who would choose her words carefully. But that’s okay. I’m sure it will happen one day! Now, have you got five minutes to tell me what you’ve been up to?”
“ Five minutes? I could probably sum it up in three! It’s been six years for me, and mainly school and stuff. But you? Well, fifty years Billy! Fifty! What’s your life been like?”
The suggestion of five minutes turned to fifteen, and as Mr Evans was keen to sweep the celebrations away, the time extended further as they walked out of school and found a bench outside the front entrance, newly installed to mark the Golden Jubilee.
There was no shortage of conversation or a single awkward pause. Billy had enjoyed his time at the school, and although not as quick to make friends as he had with Frankie, some of the friendships endured to secondary school life and beyond. He had gone to university, and although his first love had always been art, his dad had persuaded him that accountancy was a safer option and would guarantee a prosperous future. Frankie had nodded, trying not to smile as she recalled Billy’s painting of the thick-legged birds, and feeling grateful that his dad had steered him in the right direction.
“Then I married and had children of my own. Three of them – can you believe it? All grown up now of course – my youngest has just celebrated her twenty –first!” Billy’s face glowed as he spoke about his family, and his clear pride in them filled the air as he talked about their dreams and achievements. “Of course, a family’s never complete without a dog though, is it? And there have been plenty over the years. I even named one after you Frankie – I never forgot you!”
Frankie’s laughter broke through Billy’s reminiscences. “You named a dog after me? Not your first born child or anything – but your dog? Gosh, thanks Billy, I am so touched!” As his face returned to the default setting which had never been re-programmed in his lifetime, a look of worry, Billy started to apologise, but then caught the glint in Frankie’s eye, and joined her in her mischievous giggling. The sound of two overgrown children laughing together caused more than one passer-by to wonder what on earth could be so funny.
As Frankie looked up, she could see an older woman approaching them, accompanied by a small dog who was straining on his lead, his legs moving ever more rapidly and causing the woman to reluctantly break into an undignified jog. “Spike! SPIKE! Slow down!”
Billy caught sight of Frankie’s open-mouthed stare, and read her mind. “No Frankie. It’s not him. I’ve not seen our Spike since shortly after he returned my painting to you all those years ago, you know, the one that said goodbye. There have been a couple of Spikes over the years, but this one, well, he even looked like him and we couldn’t resist him when we saw him on a Facebook page, needing a home. Funny enough, it was around the time I got the invite to the celebration today. Felt like a message, but then I’ve always looked for deeper meaning that is actually there!”
The woman was at the end of her tether as well as the lead. “Bill – take him! I’ve had enough for one day – he’s been scratching at everything from the minute you left. Almost as if –“
“- he wanted to attend this thing himself!” Billy finished his wife’s theory. “Frankie, I’d like you to meet Tina – my wife, and Spike, our new, slightly mad dog!”
Tina sat down, and extended her hand to Frankie. Frankie returned the gesture and the two shook hands. “I’ve heard all about you Frankie.” Tina looked at her knowingly, and Frankie was at once happy and envious that Billy had found someone to share their secret with. Perhaps one day, she too would be able to do the same. Further conversation was put on hold as Spike jumped up to Frankie, his small but determined body circling her lap to find a comfortable position, and finally settling where he could look her in the eye, panting eagerly as he did so.
In the hour that passed, Spike barely moved in his spot, and apart from turning his head occasionally to the sound of Billy’s voice, his eyes rarely left Frankie’s face. It could well have been her imagination that as Tina shared their phone number and address for Frankie to visit and take Spike for walks, the little dog sighed contentedly. It also didn’t seem real that when Frankie looked beyond the green to the first pale colours of an emerging rainbow, Spike followed her gaze, relaxed further into her body and uttered the first high pitched bark she had heard from him.
But as Billy and Tina waved her goodbye, leaving her to contemplate just how much trouble she would be in for being late back to school, Frankie finally knew that her imagination wasn’t running out of control. Spike turned to look back at her. Anyone else might have mistaken his jaws moving for the start of a yawn or preparation for barking at the other dogs who were being walked along the path. Only Frankie would be able to read those familiar words as they came her way.