‘What a fine weather today! Can’t think whether to drink tea or hang myself.’ – A.P. Chekhov
Three weeks after I left school for good, twenty-five Facebook messages exchanged in a group chat and eight texts doled out in the absence of Wifi later, a road trip had been planned for myself and a group of female friends. It was to symbolise the Last Summer: our final farewell to school, with the charm of gin and an Angel Olsen soundtrack which was lacking in the leaver’s dinner, in posing for umpteen photos in a lurid eBayed dress, thinking how much less gorgeous than everyone else I looked, and burying my pride in a disappointing chocolate mousse.
“It’s been a decade,” Jaya said as she arrived with Martha and Tess and the others in the road trip cohort that evening, standing in sundresses pulled over swimsuits, the car-park with the huge marina billboard and dilapidated blow-up cinema beside it looking suitably macabre for a adulthood send-off. “It’s been forever.”
“Since you’ve driven?” I asked.
“Since I’ve seen you guys.”
This was not accurate; it had been four days since our last reunion. But ever since school ended, this was how it was: impossible not to quantify everything in terms of forever. Two dollars for a bus ticket to the ends of the earth, please.
The time of summer vacation is strange at best, eerily endless and with an unmistakeable note of doom hanging over all days. The summer vacation always makes me think of Irish folklore about someone stumbling through a fairy ring into a land where time doesn’t exist and ending up sleeping for the next hundred years. Without the means for continuous travel or an endlessly-unfolding accordion of fun plans, summer holidays as a student left me with limited avenues other than just plain killing time. But weeks of boredom provide their own cure: sleep. Oversleeping, napping, even sleeping whilst awake, nodding to the hum of a screen whilst on a bed or night bus home – and, if not occupied with a gadget, just staring off fatalistically into an irreparable past conception, the fault of the Beach Boys, of what a vacation ought to be.
How many holidays have you spent mentally parked in the middle of one of those ridiculous suspicions that everyone else is being disgustingly exceptional while you eat and dribble and slump your way through summer? The August after school ended (forever) I bussed my way into an insidious late-night schedule of drinking mixed liquor with old school friends, passing out, then retreating to a darkened room the following day to cry over unattractive Facebook photos. My nights were chock-a-block, my days were slow and sad and gummy. In the absence of any kind of travel excitement, I found adventure in sleeping over – not necessarily slumber parties so much as deliberately staying out too late for the last night bus home, then gratefully accepting a friend’s bed by necessity. I was the mattress nomad, much happier in beds that weren’t my own. My home bedroom had begun to acquire a repelling stench, both literal and figurative, reminding me all too vividly of afternoons where I would hang off my bed, upside-down like a bat, the curtains always closed to escape the judgmental rays of sun – though linen couldn’t absorb the perpetual mixtape of laughter and can-opening which the summer breeze subscribes to, singing of grilled meat and vague, impressive-sounding surges of action, showing me up in my attempts to ignore an entire season.
Books did not prepare us for this. In children’s stories, the English summer holiday is a park of wonder, as in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and the typical Enid Blyton adventure. Judy Blume’s Midwest summers are more torpid, making me think of chewing gum and aimless skate-boarding. But The Parent Trap, a byword for millenials on the fuckedupness of modern marriage, depends on being set during a summer holiday for its entire outlandish premise. It is because the twins are temporarily suspended from the trappings of school life that they are able to dodge reality, to wear the clothes of adults in their execution of intercontinental travel and forged emails – tricks which depend on freedom from time-regulated lunch breaks and behaviour-monitoring wardens, to ignore the issue of finance for now. For whatever beautiful reason – I personally like to think it’s the result of a yearly writers’ conspiracy, held between rounds of cream soda at a dingy seaside pub – The Long Vacation becomes a kind of hallowed shibboleth in children’s stories, an unspeakable code for a state in which reality is temporarily suspended that all manner of crazy antics might occur. The Winnie the Pooh books come to an end when Christopher Robin must go to school, a place too terrible to be spoken out loud. The Narnia books are engrossed in the summer vacation to the point of life and death, so that the final time the protagonists take the train – a frequent Narnia byword for the end of the holidays and start of term – they die in a crash, and are sent back to the dream world of their vacation. Aslan explains: “The term is over: the holidays have begun”. Leaving the message of eschatological redemption aside, this storyline has always creeped me out. It reverses the trope of thinking you’re dying but it was only a dream. Instead, the Narnia characters really do die, ending up in a permanent dream. They are banished from term forever and are on eternal holiday. Perhaps it’s my status as a recent graduate which makes this so terrifying.
In Teen Vogue’s list of movies about graduation, an overwhelming number relate to the time just before graduation. Featuring A Cinderella Story and Ten Things I Hate About You, they deal in the momentum and fizzing energies at the zenith of high school: prom-night, soccer play-off, hearing back from college applications. It’s an easy formula, perhaps because it comes with a story arc of suspense pandering to drama which is ready-made for high school film. But of the million-and-one movies reporting on the phenomenon of high school life, very few treat the summer break. Of the films which do, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland comes closest to sealing in the exasperation of the humid holiday. Owing to Mottola’s perfect decision to set wistful, concupiscent youth against the backdrop of a theme park, a pathetic synth-pop sort of glamour will forever be attached to the image of a glittering fairground ride on a summer night. In addition, something this film does very well is conveying the ‘It’s Just Not Fair’ sentiment so central to those marooned in fusty suburbia for the hotter months. “But it’s my graduation present,” Jesse Eisenberg weakly gripes at his parents’ dinner confession that they aren’t going to pay his way to grad school, or for a summer’s voyage through Europe. It’s an interesting parent-child exchange: James (Jesse Eisenberg) translates his mother’s firm, gritted-teeth delivery into a lack of sympathy, though what it really accounts for is the self-torment of a parent financially unable to give their child what they want. Throwing tantrums as a kid, who has not theorized themselves as some kind of prisoner in the tower, their parents as tyrants? Everything always on the brink of getting ruined, or just after it. ‘You’re ruining my life, mum.’ ‘Everything’s ruined.’ ‘It’s ruined now.’ Such a frequent verb in my child vocabulary, full of all that petulance and drama and disappointed idealism. If ‘coming-of-age’ is the blossoming or ripening of youth, the summer holiday is the sweet sticky rot which follows.
You’d think the cruelty of summer exams would be enough to make the holiday marvellous by comparison. School in June is a beast. After a three-hour stint in the library during finals term, I dived into the world for ten minutes just to buy a sandwich, to find that everyone around me was at the start of an expedition. Girls in dresses and trek boots, harvesting snacks from their backpack while they waited around for the late friend. I had made up for my outfit by pulling on a coat, also black, also indecent for mid morning. My textbook told me there is only so much matter in the world and it’s eternally rearranging itself, therefore when I was back in the library I tried not to calculate or compare. But I did, wondering whether the girls had entered a glade by now and taken out the picnic things, how lost they were in miles, how many daisies they’d threaded into chains while I was deep in my best attempts to memorise Foucault’s theory of economics. Summer exams will do that to you every time. And summer always looks better seen from the outside, at a considerable distance. A boy told me three Junes ago that the most beautiful memories are never beautiful at the time; it’s only in retrospect that they attain their full transcendence. But I guess I’d really like to believe in the present for once.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines exile as banishment or prolonged separation from one’s native land. Being in a dramatic mood, I could call summer a voluntary exile. The foreign land of holiday, in which you are cut off from term time, made an ex-student.
The phrase ‘to come in from the cold’ means when someone returns to the world after a period of isolation, hiding, or exile, famous from John Le Carré’s 1963 spy novel. I would say a better phrase might be ‘to come in from the summer’.
The summer after the Last Summer, I spent a good few days in darkened rooms. I watched beautiful films and sat in my solitude like it was a church. I also spent lots of time lying on the grass with my friends, eating choc ices and getting parallel chocolate stains up our arms. I went to Prague for the first time with an old friend and thought how dreamy the underground system was, with the flash of music as the trains went by, the stained glass ceiling catching my sweaty, upturned face and reflecting it back to my iPhone screen in blues and greens and purples.
Sarah Murphy is a half-Indian, half-Irish millenial. Favours pinafores, strong believer in a good escape route. Always thinking about that line in I Capture The Castle about Topaz’s quirks ‘requiring much affection to tolerate’.