We were young and we were bored and it was this dangerous combination that birthed ‘The Great Idea.’ Three weeks had passed since our graduation from Stella Londt Secondary School. It had been a lazy stretch of time for all of us. The sun was comfortably bright, the sky was peppered with tufts of clouds, the grass was soft and dry. There were no more exams, no more momentous decisions regarding our futures, and we had all sunk into a basin of seemingly stalled time. Results would come out in a month and then the world would start again, but until that time we spent blissful hours wandering the city, going to the lake and sunbathing in the garden.
I minded our next-door neighbours’ son, Joey, during the mornings, so he often accompanied Tayla and I on our outings.
“Do you think next summer will be like this one?” Tayla asked me, leaning back on the grass.
We were in Rhodes’ Park, in the heart of Eslan. Joey was clambering around the playground and the two of us were lounging by the stream.
I pulled a face. “Probably not. We’re all heading off in different directions.”
“Yes, but we’ll all be back here for summer won’t we?” she said. Her eyes were so wide I felt I couldn’t deny her. She was begging me to reassure her.
“I suppose. I mean, things will be different, sure, but we’ll be here. And we’ll probably make even more of an effort with each other if we’re not all in the same place next year.”
We were both quiet for a little while as we wondered at the year ahead. Tayla was leaving the city for the University of Levant, a four hour train trip from here. It was both far away and not far away. It wasn’t a massive upheaval, no countries or seas to traverse, but all the same it wasn’t here, where we had lived all our lives, where I would be.
“I’ll probably be back most weekends,” she said, almost pleadingly. “We can meet up every Saturday.”
I smiled my affirmation but I knew, if not from logical foresight then certainly from Mark’s experience, that such things never quite worked out.
Mark, my older brother, was in the University College of Bellincourt, which was only two hours away, and he came home at most twice a month. He stayed in contact with a few friends here but his life had migrated to Bellincourt.
I blinked at the sun, climbing steadily higher in the sun, then turned to Tayla. “It’ll work out,” I told her, “because it has to work out. We all have to end up somewhere. Thousands of people do this every year and it turns out just fine. We’ll be alright.”
She smiled and we clambered to our feet.
“How about some ice cream?” she asked, eyeing the stand behind me.
We bought our ice cream, brought one back for Joey, and sat on a bench chatting about boys and clothes and everything decidedly clear of our futures.
It was Andrew who suggested a trip. “The Nine Muses are playing in Levant next weekend,” he told us one evening at the lake.
“Levant,” said Tayla, turning to me, “we can go find all the fun places for when you come to visit me.”
“Will you miss us Tayla?” asked Matthew, winking at her.
Tayla glowed a brilliant red before tossing back some cutting comment. Matthew had recently started dating Elise Coetzee so she and her friends had joined us that evening. His arm was around her shoulders but I could tell she wasn’t pleased by the banter between him and Tayla.
The Great Idea fell into place pretty easily from there. We spent the rest of the night planning all sorts of wild adventures and booked our train tickets the following day.
We were a mixed group. Tayla and I were friendly with most people in school but we didn’t belong to any particular group. We had known Andrew since primary school. He lived nearby to the street where we both lived and often called over in the evenings. Matthew and he had become best friends when we started secondary school and, by default almost, we had befriended him too. Elise was in a few of my classes but I’d never spoken much to her until she and Matthew started dating. Her closest friends, Christine and Sophia, were in the same biology lab group as Tayla and I so we knew them reasonably well. The final group member was Jack Retief. He completed Andrew and Matthew’s golden trio, though he’d only joined our school halfway through. He and I had been co-editors of the school’s newspaper, so I knew him quite well too.
The day of departure, Mark brought me to the train station. He was home for the summer and though he spent much of it working in the petrol station down the road, it was nice to spend time with him and to simply share a house with him again.
“Take care kiddo,” he told me as he handed me my rucksack. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
That didn’t rule out much. Mark was ten times the daredevil I was. He’d been waterfall kayaking, shark cage diving, snowboarding. The night of his Leaving Ball, he and three of his friends spontaneously decided to go bungee jumping off the massive Estrucan Bridge which all eastbound traffic crosses to get out of the city.
“See you soon, big brother.” I hugged him and went through the barricade. Tayla, Matthew and Jack were already on the train, saving seats.
It was a four-hour journey to Oliver Castellan Train Station, a massive, sprawling complex filled with lost travellers and frazzled businessmen. Wandering round, laden with heavy backpacks and growling stomachs, we somehow managed to stumble in the right direction, tumbling out of the station and onto the doorstep of the city. From there, Andrew and I figured out the tram system while the rest sat and grumbled on a bench nearby. Forty minutes and a few wrong turns later, we arrived at the hostel, checked in, dumped our bags and headed back out into the night. We found the Main Plaza that evening, and dined and feasted there, under the sparkling lights, amidst the friendly cheers. The city was alive, buzzing, excited for our arrival. Flowers adorned every surface; spiralling up lampposts, festooning gargoyles, framing windows. Travellers and locals alike roamed the plaza; sprawled outside restaurants and drifting about the fountains in the centre, talking, laughing, perched on walls, sharing drinks and cigarettes, moving with a certain cheerful ease. We joined them, discussing the night and other trivial things; the stars and the upcoming Leaving Ball and our favourite animals and the assorted scandals associated with graduation night.
So the night continued, until the big clock tolled one and we slowly meandered back to our beds.
The following morning, after much grunting and groaning, we set out to explore the city in daylight. We chanced upon the Royal Palace in our search for breakfast, and returned there at midday to take the official tour.
“Did you see the massive antlers?” Jack asked me, pointing them out.
“Very elegant,” I agreed. “Have you been to the dungeons yet?”
We ventured down there together, the stairwell purposely lit with spooky, dim lights. Andrew and Matthew thought it hilarious to frighten us, hiding behind the rusted bars and leaping out from the dark. The underground air tasted of clay, the dank walls loomed and gloomed, the light bulbs flickered sporadically and yet, there was such light among us. We were happy and free and content. The world was an exciting place; it didn’t pose danger but opportunity. The unknown was not frightening but thrilling. There were ten thousand prospects to touch, to try and to conquer. We believed in our own immortality; we believed we could do what we wanted to do and be who we wanted to be. It was a beautiful day.
That evening we climbed to the top of Prince David’s Tower. Standing at the balcony, breathing in the heavy summertime air, we surveyed the city before us.
Levant, illuminated and glorious; a city of discovery and art, of new and old, of greatness and grace. Levant was a city steeped in history; Prince David had ruled from there, it was the first city to give women the vote and among one of the first to declare its independence from Laurentia during the Western War. The city was noted for its artists and cultural investments. At least three world-renowned painters had studied in the Levant School of Art and Design and had galleries dedicated to them in the city. There was a strong writing community also; their Writer’s Guild held conferences throughout the year and people flocked from around the country, and even from other countries, to attend.
We spent that second evening in one of Levant’s many taverns, eating, drinking and playing cards. Elise and Matthew disappeared outside early on, so Tayla spent her time charming local boys, though she swore there was no correlation.