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Don't You Forget About Me
Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Then

Tapton School, Sheffield, 2007

‘You loved me – then what right had you to leave me? Because … nothing God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.’

My most truculent fellow pupil, David Marsden, looked up and wiped his chin on his sleeve. He had given Emily Brontë’s Gothic novel the emotion of reading from the menu at Pizza Hut. As a teenage male, it was important you kept it monotonous to avoid allegations from other teenage males of being a massive bender.

The room was muggy with that syrupy heat you get as you near high summer, the sort where your clothes feel grubby by midday. In our squat box of a Sixties building, the windows heaved halfway up as poor man’s air con, we could hear the liveliness of the school field in the distance.

‘Thank you, David,’ said Mrs Pemberton, as he closed his paperback. ‘What do we think Heathcliff means in this passage?’

‘He’s nowty again because he’s not getting any,’ said Richard Hardy, and we guffawed, not just as it delayed proper academic discussion, but because the person making the joke was Richard Hardy.

There was some muttering but no proper answers. It was six weeks to the final exams and the mood was a febrile stew of excitement at imminent freedom and a bottleneck of panic about the reckoning that awaited. The tortured inhabitants of these pages were starting to get on our nerves. Try getting some real problems, like ours.

‘“Then what right had you to leave me” is a bit creepy, isn’t it,’ I said, if no one else was going to break the lengthening silence. Mrs Pemberton could get testy if they ran on, and make the homework bigger. ‘I mean, the idea Cathy had to stay with him or she deserves to be unhappy is a bit … ugh.’

‘Interesting. So you don’t think Heathcliff is justified in saying that by denying her feelings, she ruined both their lives?’

‘Well,’ I took a breath, ‘it’s the thing about how her love for Heathcliff is like the rocks underneath, constant, but gives her no pleasure,’ I say this in a rush due to the inevitable mirth at the word ‘pleasure’. ‘It doesn’t sound like it was going to be much fun? It’s all about her obligation to him.’

‘Perhaps then the love they share isn’t conventionally romantic but deep and elemental?’

‘It’s mental, alright,’ said a male voice. I glanced over and Richard Hardy winked at me. My heart rate bumped.

My teacher had an annoying way of taking me seriously and making me do actual thinking. She once kept me back and told me: ‘You play down your intelligence to enhance your standing with your peers. There’s a big wide world outside these walls, Georgina Horspool, and exam grades will get you further than their laughter. Pretty faces grow old too, you know.’

I was furious afterwards, the kind of fury you reserve for people who accuse you of something that’s absolutely true. (I was quite pleased at the ‘pretty face’ bit though. I didn’t think I was pretty, and I wouldn’t be old for ages.)

A murmur of chatter spread around the class, and the air was thick with no one caring about Wuthering Heights.

Mrs Pemberton, sensing this fatal straying of attention from the text, dropped her bombshell.

‘I’ve decided you’re going to change places. I don’t think sitting with friends is doing concentration in this room many favours.’

She started going from desk to desk, swapping one in for one out, amid much grumbling. I was convinced I could smart mouth my way out of this.

‘Joanna, you can stay put, and Georgina, you’re at the front.’

‘What?! Why?’

Obviously the front row was reserved for the problematic, lazy, or outcasts – this was deeply unjust.

The seating layout respected invisible but rigid castes: swots and oddities at the front. Averagely well likeds, who worked for good approval ratings, like myself and Jo, in the middle. At the back, the super cool girls and boys, like Richard Hardy, Alexandra Caister, Daniel Horton and Katy Reed. Rumour had it that Richard and Alexandra were kind of seeing each other but also kind of not, because they were cool.

‘Come on. Shift.’

‘Aw, miss!’

I got up with a sigh and slung my pens in my bag at a speed that emphasised my reluctance.

‘Here you are. I’m sure Lucas will be glad to have you,’ Mrs Pemberton said, pointing. There was no need for that phrasing, which caused a ripple of sniggers.

Lucas McCarthy. An unknown, who kept himself to himself, like all future murderers. Not social contagion, but not who I would’ve chosen.

He was lean, with a pointed chin; it gave him a slightly underfed look. He was Irish, signalled by the scruffy-short tar-black hair and pale skin. Some wags called him Gerry Adams, but not to his face because apparently his older brother was nails.

Lucas was looking up at me, warily, with dark, serious eyes. I was taken aback by how easily I could read his startled apprehension. Would I make any disgust towards him humiliatingly public? Was this going to be harrowing? Did he need to brace?

In seeing his concern, I suddenly saw myself. I felt bad that I was the kind of person he’d fear that from.

‘Sorry to foist on you,’ I said, as I dropped down into my chair, and felt the tension ease by a millimetre. (I liked to use elevated vocabulary but in an ironic, throwaway manner, in case everyone thought I was trying to show off. Mrs Pemberton so had my number.)

‘Here’s your question to work on together until the end of the lesson, and we’ll discuss your joint findings on Friday: is Wuthering Heights about love? And if so, what kind? Nominate a note taker,’ Mrs Pemberton said.

Lucas and I gave each other uneasy smiles.

‘You’re the thinker so I best be the writer,’ Lucas said, scrawling the topic across a sheet of lined A4.

‘Am I? Thanks.’

I smiled again, encouragingly. I saw Lucas brighten. I rifled my memory bank for any stray useful fact about him. He’d only turned up in sixth form, partly why he was someone out on the periphery of things.

He always wore the same dark t-shirts with half faded-out pictures on them, transfers that had fragmented and splintered in the wash, and three red and blue pieces of string as bracelets. I recall some of the boys calling him ‘the gypsy’ for that. (But not to his face, because his older brother was nails.) In the common room, he often sat by himself, reading music magazines, Dr Marten boot-clad foot balanced on knee.

‘I agree with you about Heathcliff. He’s a werewolf more than a person, isn’t he?’ he said.

I realised I’d spent two years in the same building as Lucas, the same rooms as him, and we’d had never had a conversation before. He spoke softly, with a slight Irish lilt. I vaguely expected a local accent. I’d paid him no attention whatsoever.

‘Yeah! Like a big angry dog.’

Lucas smiled at me and wrote.

‘I don’t know, it annoys me Cathy has to take the blame for the whole story,’ I said. ‘She makes one wrong decision and everything goes to shit for generations.’

‘I suppose if she makes the right decision there isn’t much of a plot?’

I laughed. ‘True. Then it’d just be Meet The Heathcliffs. Wait, if Heathcliff is his surname, what’s his first name?’

‘I think he has one name. Like Morrissey.’

‘Or he could be Heathcliff Heathcliff.’

‘No wonder he’s pissed off.’

I laughed. I realised: Lucas wasn’t quiet because he was dull. He watched and listened instead. He was like opening a plain wooden box and finding a stash of valuables inside. Was he plain? I reconsidered.

‘It’s not her decision though …’ Lucas said, haltingly, still testing out the ground between us. ‘I mean, isn’t it the fault of money and class and that, not her? She thinks she’s too good for him but she’s been made to think that by the Lintons. They grow up differently, after that accident with the dog. Maybe it’s all the dog’s fault.’

He chewed his biro and gave me a guarded smile. Something and everything had changed. I didn’t know yet that small moments can be incredibly large.

‘Yes. So it’s about how love is destroyed by …’ – I wanted to impress – ‘… an unhospitable environment.’

‘Is it destroyed though? She’s still haunting him as a ghost years later. I’d say it carried on, in a different form.’

‘But a twisted, bitter, no hope form, full of anger and blame, where he can’t touch her any more?’ I said.

‘Yes.’

‘Sounds like my parents.’

I’d told jokes with some success in the past, but I don’t think I’d ever been so elated to see someone crack up. I remember noticing how white Lucas’s teeth were, and that I’d never seen his mouth open wide enough to see them before.

That was how it began, but it began-began with four words, three lessons later.

They were printed on lined A4, at the end of shared essays on ‘the role of the supernatural’. We had to swap the folder back and forth, annotating it, straining with the effort of impressing each other.

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