I have changed the names of people mentioned in this piece.
Don't big it up
A story about losing someone.
I was sat in the back of maths, our last lesson of the school year, with my best friend, Anna, and a heavily amended list of names shoved beneath my exercise book.
"Just- don't big it up."
I rocked back on my chair and handed Anna the guest list to a party at my house that night. "I told my neighbours I'm having a girls' sleepover. So no more than three cars in the drive, and we're going to need a staggered entry."
Anna glanced down the list and smiled at all the crossings out and '+1' additions.
"I'm on it," she said, folding the paper in half and half again.
"I'm on it, trust me. But I'm bigging it up, okay?"
That summer was the best. Unbeaten. We filled July and August with fierce fun. We were all fifteen, and something had turned for the better; plans fell into place and parties took hold.
We climbed on walls and through living room windows and listened to the same Motown album over and over again. We stained kitchens with sangria and hallways with river water. I spent all my wages as a waitress on haircuts and dresses from charity shops I cut too short.
I was nowhere near happy or content, but veered on greedy and demanding and along for every ride. I wanted to be at every party, every sleepover, every telephone call, and it felt like if you missed one weekend you wouldn't know where to find anyone the next.
At its core there were 12 of us. My brother was only two years younger than me, so our house became Designated Party House, and to my delight, it was every Friday night.
We would open up all the doors on the ground floor to become a large-scale oval we would run around, looping and looping. We would lock people in the airing cupboard, friends arriving with last Christmas' Malibu their mums wouldn't miss, other friends going missing for mysteriously long periods of time, endless playlists enabling Karen O to shout simultaneously from every room. There were futile attempts at punch and cocktails on the lawn, lip gloss maintenance, stubbing cigarettes out on the trampoline, duvets stained forever more in mud and Tango. All of us, together - the same faces, different outfits, new combinations, but always in search of more.
Somewhere at the centre of the gang was Theo.
Theo was my first guy friend. One day I barely knew him. The next, we had made fun of each other for a solid 18 hour coach ride to Belgium on a school trip. By the time we were back in England, we'd organised a party for the next day and rearranged our chairs in History so we could sit next to each other.
At first shy, he became one of the most caring, quietly funny guys I've ever known. I cherished this new type of friendship that felt so different from the others. I did not try to manipulate the time we spent together - neither of us were invested in it because we fancied each other. We just liked being around each other. If he was in a room, I’d want to be next to him. Without knowing specifically what that was, back then, it was the first time I had felt that endless love of a platonic friendship.
He didn’t put up with my shit. He got angry when I bitched too much, and sad when I wouldn’t tell him what was wrong. I had only known him a few months when I realised his approval was one of the only ones I sought out within our crowd.
Because never once in that summer were we satisfied. There was always a bigger party to have in secret, new friends to invite, and a new off license that apparently didn't ID. We would stay up all night. Endless energy from I don’t know where. By dawn the next day we would plan another one. We were always working on next Friday’s line-up. As summer went on, more and more people were added to that endless guest list. The plus-ones became plus-fours and I stopped caring what the neighbours thought.
Some time amidst all of this, Theo started going out with Alex, a girl we knew from another school. It started out as an MSN convo thing. Which is to say, he told me they talked online, when it sort of didn't count as proper talking, so I didn't give it much thought. Everyone was going out with everyone else: joke dates and Pizza Hut buffet dates and cinema dates with Theo and me having popcorn fights in the fire exit. No-one took anything seriously, everyone was getting their heart broken every week. But I know, looking back, even with just a few year's more experience, I would have been able to spot some warning signs.
Instead we played hide and seek in the wood and then made a make-shift barbeque to cook sausages and plastic cheese. We got sunburnt and buried bottles of WKD we'd found outside a petrol station. We thought we saw a puma in a forest. The photos I have are of us hugging and running and playing chopsticks on the piano and some guy's bum.
Miraculously, even after all of those Friday nights, nothing had been ruined. Only a cracked avocado green toilet seat my parents couldn't stand the colour of anyway would betray that endless summer once August slipped into September.
Because without much warning, we were in school again. And it was more fun than ever now the weekends had to be jammed full with every party we could think of. Theo and I sat next to each other in all the classes we could. The group that had felt so in-flux when we started the summer was now cemented in months of phone calls, GCSE subject changes to be near each other and mix tapes. The broken tent, gig ticket stubs and bottles of empty vodka wrapped in socks (to stop them clinking) beneath my bed were relics and souvenirs of what would become the best summer of my life.
The heat, that infectious excitement, it passed like wildfire and didn’t finish until Theo's birthday, the fifth of November. All 22 of us took up half of a restaurant to celebrate his 16th. We ordered the house wine, threw bread sticks at each other and paid in pocket money. At that time Theo never took off his cap, and I can still remember his trademark curls hidden under a baseball cap from the other end of the table.
I didn't get to speak to Theo very much that night. I knew he was sad, I knew he wasn't having the best of times, but I remember thinking, if I can't speak to him because he's surrounded by people that care for him, he can't be lonely. It could only be a good thing to have so much company. He must see he is loved.
And then ten days after that night, he was gone.
Theo’s decision, whether it was final or a call to arms to those around him, I will never know, and I will never understand.
It was ten past nine on a freezing grey November morning when my form teacher told me someone called Theodore had died. I flashed through my best friends. It was okay - I didn't know anyone called Theodore. But of course, she meant Theo. And I knew, right then and there, in a way you can only know when it is absolutely final, that it was suicide, and that it was over.
While we had all been playing at being drunk, being messed up and being heartbroken, Theo had felt it more keenly than any of us could realise, and in a way we could never fix. Back then, we assumed it was the array of things we knew about. But really, I have no idea. If Theo's death taught me one thing, it's that each person you know has a world of struggles within them, and blaming one person or one catalyst isn't fair on their memory or the years of experience they did manage to amass. It hurts, ever so much, to admit that even as my best friend, I still have no clue what Theo was going through, but it's also the truth. And the only way to do his memory justice.
All of a sudden we had to stop playing.
I ran around school trying to find my brother. No one wanted to go home to their empty houses, but no one wanted to be in the god-awful darkened classroom we were given to cry in. After all the bereavement therapy and assemblies, our group when it was united just reminded me of the one person that wasn't there, and all the reasons why.
The weeks that followed now blur into one long endless stretch of sugary teas, running the shower to disguise more crying every day and sleeping with the light on every night for a year. I did not want that darkness.
I have almost no recollection of the next few months. Where summer remains vivid, coloured with sangria and grass stains, that winter melds into one long sadness, with few things to punctuate the time after Theo.
I do know that instead of guest lists, I came home with the funeral order of ceremony. I handed it to my Mum. She was in tears at the kitchen table so I hugged her. It was the first time since Theo died I'd seen her cry.
All she said was "It's just such a waste".
When we went back to lessons, an empty seat waited for me in History where Theo would never be again. I stood in the doorway to the classroom, determined not to cry before I dealt with one of the final, natural reminders of the friendship Theo gave me. Seeing me in the doorway, my tears, my friends tried to rearrange the chairs so I'd be sat in the middle, but there was still an empty seat. I truly try to think about Theo more than that empty chair and everything he left behind, but it gets harder every year.
In a way none of us tried to stop, we never recovered from that loss as friends. I was never again as careless or hungry for fun as I was that summer. As a group obsessed with endless silliness and play and nothing getting too serious, the connotations had grown too strong: hanging out and having fun with those same people never felt right again. Instead, we drifted back to the groups we had started in, now nearly a year before.
That was almost fifteen years ago.
Unlike many of the friends I made that year, I never lost touch with Theo. We never fell out, my perception of him never changed. Our friendship never grew up, I never got too frivolous for him, he never got too serious for me. He never told my secrets, never left without me, never forgot to drive me home.
I try to think of him every day. I try to not think of those empty spaces and instead think of the full ones. I don’t make friends so fast, I don’t have so many. I cherish every friend I made that summer, and it’s an absolute life joy to have made it to their weddings, to see them have children, to see their faces begin to age, to see them meet new people we never added to guest lists.
I wish I could have shown Theo that back then. I wish with all my heart he could be here for different times. Times he could have had any haircut he liked. Harder years he could have grown out of. Better years to sink into.
And some days I forget to remember Theo. But I think he would have been okay with that by now.
If he is still out there somewhere, I don’t know whether to think of him as nearly 29 or barely 16. But I think we would have been friends still.