It was Friday June 24th 2016. I was lying in bed, I’d woken early as usual yet I had no kids to get out to school (their dad has them on a Friday) and no work (I’d booked a day’s leave). I could hear my parents’ snores competing in the downstairs bedroom. They were over from Scotland and we had gone out for a boozy dinner the night before, my mum declaring she was pissed after one glass of wine (“it’s the travelling!”). I was reluctant to wake them up with the Brexit news but I contemplated starting the day by boiling the kettle – a cup of tea would soften the blow. I was about to get up when I saw my best friend Katie on my instagram feed – resplendent in her European Union sweatshirt won 23 years earlier.
I had met Katie on a school trip to Strasbourg. We were both 16 turning 17 in our last years of secondary school. I went to the local comprehensive that would literally take anybody (and did); it was only a Grammar by name. Katie attended the local catholic school. Her school bus would pass me and the girls every afternoon as we ogled the ‘exotic’ catholic boys; much more sophisticated than the rat bags in our school.
I can’t remember why I’d been chosen for this school trip. I was quite frankly shit at French despite my mum being a French teacher so it couldn’t have been based on my ability. Perhaps it was to encourage me to focus more, to improve, as I was competent in all other areas (with the exception of Maths). Anyway, I found myself in a strangely German part of France at the wrong time of year (we would have caravanned every summer in Provence) with a girl from my school I wasn’t friends with (Kate Barrie – I’m sure she’s an astrophysicist by now) and what seemed like hundreds of students from other local schools.
After a couple of days I started to gravitate towards Katie. She looked very similar to me. I remember her large NHS-style specs. I wore similar and this was before geek-chic was a thing. She had rosy cheeks like mine and we soon discovered we held a mutual appreciation for the locally brewed golden lager. My French teacher, Mr Park, who incidentally was deemed ‘cool’ but in hindsight was inept at teaching French -our lessons consisted of watching a French-style Hollyoaks – would inappropriately buy us a couple of these lagers every night at the Hostel bar thus facilitating our underage drinking. Perhaps he felt it preferable to be in control of the situation rather than let us drink furtively.
There were differences between Katie and myself too. Coincidently her mum was also a French teacher but unlike me Katie excelled at French. It was obvious why her school had chosen her to be in Strasbourg she conversed fluently and with ease to bank managers (we took a trip to the local bank dear reader; I cowered in a corner praying that I wouldn’t be asked to speak), French students, shop owners and the like.
On the last day of our visit we descended on the European parliament. I remember the flags flying outside, not fully understanding what took place in this building or why we were here. I think by this time I was ready to go home although my 16 year old self would never admit to being homesick. There were hundreds of school pupils there from schools across the UK and immediately my hackles were up, remember I was woefully inept at French and a week spent in Strasbourg had not improved my abilities. I clutched Katie’s hand in fear as she guided me through the crowds to take our seat in the round-lecture style theatre – the main debating chamber within the parliament building. We took our seats and got our notebooks and pencils (mine’s would be pretty much redundant throughout the session) and then without fuss Katie got up and walked down to the central stage. She was given her European Union sweatshirt – which I was to see again 23 years later – and a jaunty cap (sadly the latter didn’t make an appearance on Brexit results day) and ably took part in an inter-schools quiz all completely in French, of which, for the entire duration, I was inevitably completely lost. Until the last five minutes. Question time. As I twirled my pencil around my hair, lost in my own thoughts, the quiz compere took this to mean I had a question lined up. She pointed at me and wrote something down onto her pad. Up until that point I’d never been more petrified in my life. What was I going to say? And up until that point I’ve never been more grateful for the buzzer that signalled the question time was over. Time had run out and there was no time left for further questions. I stared down at the central stage and I will never forget Katie beaming up at me as tears of pure hysterical joy ran down her face.