In his head, Pete is back there again. He can smell the grass beneath his feet and feel the strong breeze ruffling through his hair, and he describes it all to them.
Over to the right is the big marquee where the bands will play later. It’s black and purple, with long, sturdy brown ropes coming down to attach it to the ground like giant spider’s legs. Just beside it is a longer, flatter white tent, where the never-ending buffet will be set up. If he faces that direction he can already smell the grease of warm sausage rolls and vol-eu-vents.
Behind him and to the left they are setting up the bars. The one in the middle will sell just wine and that drink that no middle-class person would be seen without in the summer, Pimms; the sign has just gone up. And further left is the row of porta-loos that stretches off into the distance.
None of the rest of his graduating class is here yet, except for Paul, who is up on top of the ladder that he is currently holding. Both of them are already in their DJ’s. Paul’s belonged to his father, whereas Pete is wearing his grandfather’s old cufflinks.
As they listen, Alan and Greg are thinking about their own graduating balls. Alan can remember little of his, except for the fight he started with the captain of the ladies boxing team. After drinking for too much he had begun to spout sexist jokes, to the amusement of his drunken friends until their girlfriends whisked them away for quiet words.
It was later on, when even more drunk, that he found one of the few girls he had yet to upset during his degree course, an attractive girl if a little short of stature and Sporty Spice hair. In his drunk head he was chatting her up, but it was only later he realised that he had been talking like his father. He hoped now that he hadn’t said anything too upsetting. He still bore a physical scar, but the words he had spoken would have been a lot worse.
As for Greg, well, he doesn’t want to go there right now and blocks his thoughts by continuing to listen to Pete.
‘It was Paul’s idea. He wanted to give something back to everyone, something good. Something that everyone would remember the Summer Ball by. They certainly got it, but it wasn’t what anyone was expecting.
‘We had to get some advice from computer guys first and of course, being poor students we had no money to rent the equipment that we needed. So we decided to get some advertisements. It’s amazing how well planned it all was, but then Paul was meticulous in that way. That’s why his practical jokes were so good. That’s why they always worked. He was so good that when the tragedy happened everyone thought that it was the best joke he’d ever pulled. Until he didn’t come down of course.
‘The adverts we got were from a couple of the local student pubs, as well as Colchester Castle, Colchester Zoo, the local train company and the ferry terminal at Harwich. It was a bit of a mix really, which was good. I guess they hoped that they would become graduation days out or something.’
‘So what was it? What was the idea?’ Greg croaked.
‘Oh, of course. Yes. The idea. We hired one of those digital signs and connected it to a computer. Along with the adverts the idea was that over the course of the day people would come up to us with messages that they wanted to display and we would put them into the computer and they would come up onto the sign. Shout outs effectively, which everyone would be able to see.
‘The sign was attached to two poles, which were held in place with guy ropes and cables ran from the computer up to the sign. I think we ended up with poles that were too big though really, and with it being a windy day we kept having problems with the sign flapping about and cables coming loose. It was on one of these occasions that the tragedy happened.’
Pete took a deep breath and a sip of tea. Alan had switched off the television some time ago and so the only sound that could be heard was the ticking of the clock in the hall, the traffic occasionally humming along the main road outside and the three of them breathing.
Pete wasn’t too sure how to continue the rest of the story. The events still fairly jumbled up in his own mind. It had all happened so quickly that his brain had never really placed the correct sequence together in the same way as at a live event that you never see repeated on television has. You remember the before quite easily and you remember the after quite easily and you remember the event happening quite easily. But not how it unfolded.
‘I suppose it began when Carla came up to request a message. We had slips of paper made up so that people could write their messages out clearly to ensure that there were no spelling mistakes or wrong words used. Since we had three requests for people to marry them over the course of the afternoon it would have been terrible if we had gotten the wrong name. I don’t think that any of those couples ever got married in the end since the proposal would have ever been entwined with what happened to Paul.
‘I told Carla that the paper’s were over by the computer, but then she gave me this grimace, pointed out her shoes and then pointed out the muddy patches that were now around the computer table. I’d had a crush on Carla every since the first year at Uni. She had long dark hair and soft honey-brown eyes that were like treacle. And a smile that made my chest pound.
‘Of course I said that I would be quite happy to go get a paper for her as long as she would take my place holding the ladder that Paul was on as he fixed the sign. She agreed and took hold of it. But just I was returning; that’s when it all happened. Perhaps it was fate. After all, the chances of those things all happening in combination are so slim. No one was ever given any official blame, but I always have. I’ve always known that it was my fault.
‘I think the first thing was Paul shouting “Got it running again”. I looked up to see that the sign was displaying “Park and Tide at Harwich”, a clever play on Park and Ride for the ferry port. Then I heard a mobile phone ring and looked back to see that Carla had taken her hands off the ladder to take a call. I’m sure I shouted, “Carla. The ladder”. But I think it was lost in a huge gust of wind.
‘The ladder rocked. I began to push Carla out of the way in order to steady the ladder. The paper I’d picked up from her flew out of my hand and strangely I still have a very clear memory of it flapping away in the direction of the porta-loo’s. I grabbed the ladder, but not in time to hear a scream of terror from Paul. I looked up, fully expecting to see him falling off the ladder and let go of it instinctively in order to try to catch him. But that was the other mistake I made.
‘Paul had been desperately trying to get both his feet back on the ladder, but as I took my hands away the ladder fell down completely and clanged to the ground. But not loudly enough to cover the screams that suddenly appeared from all around the venue. One of the cables had wrapped itself around Paul’s neck and now he just dangled there in the wind like an old sock on a clothes line.’
Alan and Greg gasped, and Greg muttered something unintelligible.
‘But the worst thing was the sign itself’, Pete continued. ‘The link had been partially severed and only part of the advert could now be read. The “Park and Ti” at one end and the “arwich” at the other end were very faint and all that could be seen clearly were the five letters in-between. They spelled “de at H”’.
‘I saw that!’ Alan suddenly cried. ‘It appeared on the internet a couple of years ago. I thought it was some sort of sick joke’.
‘If someone took a photo and then put it on the internet, that is sick’, Greg said. ‘But it obviously wasn’t a joke’.
They both looked at Pete who looked suddenly drained of blood. His face was pale and looked a little sticky from a sheen of sweat.
‘I was seeing psychologists for two years. They helped me get some perspective, some drive, some desire to continue living. I decided then that I would keep Paul’s memory alive somehow, keep his legacy going. I owed him that. Carla didn’t see any therapists, and she killed herself exactly a year to the day of the event. I blamed myself but maybe she blamed herself more. Paul had died because she didn’t want to get her shoes dirty and twelve months later she hung herself with a pair of shoelaces.’