Excerpt: ‘Jason Browne Hits Your Town’.

Here goes. Time to bust Kalyss out. She must be the only sixth-former I know who can still land herself a detention like a little kid. I haven’t even asked what she did to earn this one. We’ll have to hurry; she and Josh are desperate to glimpse the lamest teenage pop star on the planet leaving his hotel before he heads back to the States. Jason Browne’s just had a few sell-out concerts in London, and I’ve agreed to go with my friends so they can drool over him before they came back to my place. Even if I can’t stand Browne, I may as well make my last day memorable.

I spot Kalyss through the classroom window, trying to extract an earring that’s caught in her bouncy curls. She gives me a weirdly twitchy wink a couple of times and points at the teacher with her thumb. Subtle. It’s Mr Wilkins running detentions, as usual. His white mustache twitches as he frowns at me over his glasses, kind of like a walrus in tweed. I clear my throat as I walk in, breaking the silence.

“Ola?”  His eyes flick down to a piece of paper, “You’re not on my list.” Trust me, that low rumbly voice of his still manages to scare us all a bit.

“Hi Sir.” I offer him a hand-made card. “No, I’m not, but I brought you something.”

He puts down his pen and looks at me wearily. “And what’s this Miss Ojomo? Wrong time of year for Christmas cards, isn’t it?”

I stand up straight. “It’s my last day, Sir. I thought I’d write thank you notes to a couple of teachers who’ve really helped me over the years.”

“Suck-up!” a Year 11 kid coughs under his breath. I glare at him and his angry pimple that should’ve been squeezed days ago. 

“Oh,” Wilkins leans forward in his chair, which groans under his weight. His voice softens slightly, “Of course, I’d heard you were leaving us. I didn’t know it was so soon.”

“Yeah. Well… you know,” I shrug. What can I say? I’m ecstatic Mum’s suddenly dragging me away from our life in London tomorrow, so we can all have a fresh start we don’t need, in a place I don’t want to go, for reasons that don’t make sense. I take a deep breath and try to focus. Even Wilkins’ nostril hair is white. He must be past retirement age, surely.

“I know everyone thinks you’re strict and everything, Sir, but you’re so knowledgeable and -” I look out the window near his desk. I can see the top of Josh’s head and an excited gaggle of girls forming down below us. “When you taught me, I could see you were really trying to open our eyes to the big wide world out there.”

Wilkins stands up proudly to look out at the Chicken Cottage and phone shops on the street outside, wafting the smell of stale cigarettes and coffee around the room. His lips curl into a smile and he takes the card from me as Kalyss creeps over to the door. It’s working.

“Well, you certainly made discussions in our class…lively.” He spins around and I jab at the card.

“Read it, Sir.”

Pushing his glasses up his bulbous nose, he studies the message I’ve scrawled inside – something about bringing Geography to life, making everything feel relevant to us, that kind of thing. It’s true now I come to think of it.

“Well, I have to say this is a surprise. It’s nice to know that there are students out there who appreciate their teacher’s efforts.” He nods, peering over the top of his glasses at the Year 11 kid, “Do you hear that Mr Walker?”

Pimply kid stares down at his desk, mumbling something incoherent. I glance at the door and the empty seat where Kalyss had been. She’s made it.

“It’s the least I could do. Thanks for everything. Take care!”

“I wish you all the best,” Wilkins nods solemnly.

I get out of there as fast as I can, escaping down the corridor when Kalyss pulls me into the girls’ bathroom, laughing. “Thanks, Ola!” she grins and pushes my nose like it’s a button, which she knows is really annoying. “I owe you one.”

I swipe her hand away. “We need to get out of here!”

“Hold on. I can’t go looking like this,” she gestures at her reflection and unzips her jacket to proudly reveal a tight white t-shirt with the slogan I ♥ JASON on it.

“Oh my God. Are you actually wearing that?” I side-eye her as I get my hair as big as I can make it in the mirror.

She stuffs her jacket in a tiny bag and slicks some Vaseline on her lips. “Er, yeah? What else would I wear?”

Nobody understands why I don’t froth at the mouth and squeal hysterically whenever Browne’s music comes on or we pass a bus stop with his pouting plastic doll-face plastered over it. They clearly don’t listen to his actual lyrics. We check the coast is clear, hoping Wilkins doesn’t spot his deserter running down the corridor. When some guys we know leave the common room with Arsenal shirts on and football cleats strung over their shoulders, we mingle in amongst them. A few bump fists with me.

“Stay in touch fam.”

“Don’t be a stranger Ola, yeah?”

“You too!” 

Outside, Josh is checking his phone, bouncing on his heels. His eyes dart up at us. “Hurry! He’s leaving soon!”

It’s creepy how these guys know Jason Browne’s schedule. I guess I’m a creep by default now. We take the tube to West London, spilling out onto the streets to join hundreds of teenagers in a rainbow of school uniforms heading in the same direction. They’re all pushing, shoving, and crying as they march down the road. As we get closer, I stare at the puffy, tear-streaked face of the girl next to me, who looks contorted with pain.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“I…I just want to touch him!” she groans, pulling at her hair. Jesus. (Or you’d think so, the way they’re all behaving).

Outside the hotel, a shrieking crowd’s growing around a big black car. There are six or seven guys struggling to shield it from the advancing army of teenagers and I can’t believe I’m a part of it.

“That’s him!” Kalyss squeals at us over her shoulder. “It’s Jason!”

And she’s right. He stands with his back to us wearing a shiny track suit and cartoonishly big sparkling high tops, waving at the crowd. Cries erupt more forcefully than before: “Is it him?”, “It is! It’s Jason!”, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! I love you so much!”  I’m cringing for them. Looking around there are kids sobbing, some losing their voices, others literally elbowing each other out the way like it’s a rugby scrum or something. Josh fans his freckled face with his hand like he might faint or burst at any moment, and I know he’s only half joking. I ruffle his hair and when he turns his smile is stretched so wide it has to hurt.

The paps are having a whale of a time snapping away. “Over here, Jason!”, “Jason, this way!” For a moment Browne turns in our direction and waves. And there it is – the tan, the dazzling teeth, coiffed hair that’s been highlighted and hair-sprayed within an inch of his life. People gasp. I even catch my breath for a second. I mean, he looks exactly like he does in the music videos or on TV and it’s weirdly mesmerising. Then he does this kind of salute he’s known for, like he’s in the marines or something, and everyone screams louder than before. After another great surge forward, he dips down into the car out of sight, followed by a tank-like bodyguard dressed in black, and we lose Kalyss to the crowd.

I push my way out, getting kicked in the shins in the process, and stand back in a doorway to wait for my friends. Rubbing my leg, I see they’ve taken a layer of skin off. J.B. fans are nuts, I swear.

I straighten up in time to see Kalyss sitting smack bang on the bonnet of Browne’s car, pouting defiantly with her arms folded. She isn’t exactly protesting nuclear weapons or human rights violations around the world, but in her own way, it’s a protest that Browne’s leaving London and Kalyss is putting up a fight. It takes forever for his team to decide what to do; I guess it’s tricky manhandling a teenage girl, even if you do need to get an international music star to the airport. She whips out her phone, tucking a curl behind her ear, and arching her neck to get a selfie with Browne in the background. I can’t help chuckling. This girl has no shame.

Finally, the car manages to crawl away, and she’s forced to hop off or else she’d still be hugging his windscreen around the M25. Cameras flash at his windows and Kalyss stands beaming among a trail of crying kids, one of them collapsing on the ground where Browne was just moments ago. As the paps disappear, the road clears and people start to head home.

Josh spots me waving him over. He’s breathless, still jumping around like his school shoes are on springs. “Ola! Did you see Kalyss on his car? On Jason Browne’s actual car?! She’s unbelievable!” 

“Yeah, I saw,” I shake my head, laughing.

“What’s that you say? Jealous? Me? God, he’s so fit, isn’t he?”

I pick up my backpack and sling it over my shoulder. “Not my thing Josh, you know that. You didn’t get a selfie with him then?”

“No. But I swear he smiled at me!”

“At me, you mean!” Kalyss sprints up behind Josh and nearly knocks him flying. “He definitely saw me, anyway. Group hug!” With a shriek, she jumps on us both, so we all hit the ground in a heap. We have a habit of this; I’m not sure how we’ve got this far through school without a serious injury.

Kalyss’ fingers flutter around her throat. “The driver was not happy – he was all shaking his head and cussing at me. Hey, check this out!” We peer at the shot on her phone, which is mostly her face, with an angry driver baring his teeth behind her and a shadow that looks vaguely like Browne hiding on the back seat. She smoothes her hair and looks at us. “Do you think Jason would recognise me again?”

“Yeah,” I dust myself off. “Especially if you have crazy-stalker-eyes and his name plastered across your chest.”

“Allow it, Ola.” She covers her face with her hands, giggling, “Actually, he did look kind of scared, didn’t he? He ducked down and hid under his bodyguard. But still -”

I shrug, “Hey, you got yourself noticed.”

I’m laughing at first but then I keep thinking about how I’m going to miss all this and have to blink away tears that are forming out of nowhere. Kalyss’ smile fades for a second too. We all bump fists and wiggle our fingers in that cheesy way we used to rehearse when we were little. Then we’re quiet for once, sitting on the ground as clouds gather overhead, darkening the sky like a charcoal smudge ruining your artwork.

I examine the loose skin on my shins. “Are you guys still coming around mine?”

We stand up, straightening out our clothes and Josh wraps his arm around me, “For emotionally draining goodbyes and pizza?”

“Are you kidding?” Kalyss throws me an orange Starburst (my favourite kind) which has melted in its wrapper. I guess it’s been in her pocket all day, but I’ll take it. “Course we are.”

I look down at my feet. I’ve spent weeks trying to ignore the fact I’m actually leaving, and the moment’s almost here. Big spots of rain hit my forehead. They exchange a nod and Josh fishes two small presents from his bag, wrapped in crumpled pink tissue paper and each tied with a ribbon. He hands them to me.

“These are from both of us.”

I smile. The paper’s already getting wet as I pull the first ribbon and unravel it. I hold up a little white t-shirt, just like the one Kalyss is wearing, except it has a touristy slogan on it instead: I LONDON.

“Thanks guys!”

Kalyss lands a soft punch on my arm, “Just in case you forget.”

There’s a black box in the second one, containing a fake nose ring. Josh smirks, “So you can pretend to be a bad-ass in your new school.”

I try it on straight away and strike a pose for them, getting nods of approval. “Love it! Thanks guys.” I pop it back in the box. I can just picture Mum’s reaction. “Think I’ll save it for the right moment.”  

When I pull them both in for a proper hug, the sky unleashes the kind of rainstorm that’d make Noah quake in his boots. We run back to the tube holding our backpacks over our heads, shrieking and laughing.