Fingers creased as horizontal lines and lying lazily bent across my little black sketchbook, I hardly notice Sam as she saunters towards me with her light tread barely creating a flicker of sound. Invisible, soundless, she slips down onto the brick wall beside me, the vivid ginger bricks causing her clear blue eyes to sparkle crimson as a ruby stone. “Dan, hi,” she says in her soft, granite voice, gazing out into the light, navy slash of colour on the clouds. I can taste the inflections in her tone, rattling into the air as stones roll along a path. “Sam.” I look up briefly, chilled hand edging silently to cover the rough, unpolished sketch beneath my fingernails. “You’re early.” Her black eyelashes brush her cheek as the wind whistles with her sigh. “I suppose I am early. By twenty minutes, thirty seconds, to be precise.” I almost manage a grin, but I cannot quite stretch the muscles in my mouth. I settle on an awkward grimace that does nothing to shatter the barrier between us. “You going to the speech later?” I ask, already anticipating her response. “I thought I might,” she says breathily. “Let’s face it, there isn’t much else to do, is there?” This time I do smile. “No,” I say. “There isn’t, really.” I think to tell her that I can only pencil in grim, grey buildings, and work-wasted employees, and hard-faced students, and mould-coloured rivers and polluted clouds. How my desire to sketch the abandoned leaf as its stem swishes in the breeze is unrealised, how my wish to paint the varying hues of pink, red, azure and gold in the fluffy clouds has floated away, deep into the endless eyes of the milky way as its stars flicker and fade with daytime. But somehow that feels a little premature at 9:30 in the morning, when my brain is still alert from black coffee and the air is still cool and fresh, and Sam’s eyes almost shut in exhaustion. “I hate this town,” I say instead. “Can’t wait to venture…somewhere…anywhere…away from this pointless town.” Sam’s small, hare-like nose with its scattered brown freckles pricks up like a rose’s thorns at my words. “Seriously? You – Dan Smith who stood back and let Mr Fletcher believe you couldn’t be bothered to do the maths homework in year six, who said nothing after that idiot Turner deflated his ball – actually want to take action?” I can feel the pink flush on my cheeks that I could dismiss as cold from the wind. “I – I was just thinking, it’s kind of dull here, isn’t it?” I shudder as the air rushes through me as the lick of an ice lolly, feigning disinterest in her response. “We’re students, Danny,” she says in frustration. “We’re supposed to be in our Golden Age, having the best time of our lives, storing memories for the grandkids-” I lean back and listen as she delivers another of her ‘wasting our youth’ lectures. Honestly, she ought to be giving the speech later. Poor Mr Sanderson is so world weary and grey-haired that even he looks anguished and jaded when he interacts with his students. “Just another lie sold to us by our parents,” I say, but I cannot seem to dredge up the bitterness that spills so effortlessly from her thin lips. “We just have to survive a couple more years in this dump, and then – then –” I’m losing momentum. Sam catches me. “And then we’ll sweat away the rest of our lives, and hopes, and dreams; in a broken-down desk chair at 11 a.m., and watch the window for the next forty years in case anything interesting happens.” Sam’s honesty lasers through my skin like the rays of the sun, turning to ashes all my plans and fantasy futures with one cruel twist of phrase, and I see my years piled up on the bin bags in the junkyard, lonely and incinerated until a tiny spark remains. “Why think about it, Sam?” I say coolly. “It isn’t going to change anything. We’ll still be sad and pathetic, in debt and miserable, and old before our time. Just like our parents and their parents before them.” I blow a dusting of dirt from my geography assignment. “It’s called the cycle of life, and nothing we say or do will –” The lost look shot at me by my best friend shuts me up. We could be four years old again, daubing our chubby fingers in violent shades of paint, slashing it across a white canvas; or clad in matching pink-and-blue party hats on our sixth birthday; or, still innocent and full of dreams, running on the beach, aged twelve, and tossing stones into the sea. If it rippled more than three times, it meant you were lucky and forever blessed, a golden fortune bestowed upon on you in later years. Well, even that was a falsity, softened by youth and rain and the thoughtlessness that marked our earlier days. But we are not four or six or twelve again, and the possibilities are dire and dark as the bell toll in Parliament square. “Maybe we can reshape our plans,” I say, despising the last shreds of hope in my voice. “Descale them, or something. That’s what my mum says.” Sam’s eyebrows raise in consideration or revulsion, I cannot decide. “Be like everybody else? Settle?” The idea is so despicable to her I can feel the hairs on my arms shiver. We were supposed to be different, Sam and I. We weren’t going to end up as detached and disillusioned as everybody else, because we had grand ambitions and light bulb minds and best of all, each other. Now, not even that. “You won’t care about this stuff when the time comes to foot your own bills,” I tell her. “My brother Andy barely even watches television anymore. It’s like he lives and breathes work, and when I try and talk about anything, he brushes me off; he isn’t interested in anything but the milk in the fridge, and the stability of the economy, and the idiot at work.” A flash of irritation runs through me as I remember how he dismissed me like an irksome fly last night, when the purple streaks of sunset set in, and I had asked if it would always be like this. “Andrew is tedious as a bag of potatoes,” Sam says unforgivingly, her harsh tone only slightly mitigated by her elfish smile. “He wanted to be a corporate drone. I have no pity for him.” That’s true. Andrew always remarked that he was not interested in the philosophy of our society; only the crisp sound of green notes as they were processed by the bank. I hate that about him, yet there is something oddly admirable about his commitment, like a Captain to his ship, to maintaining the order of things. Like if I didn’t have a foundation to push against, I would fall through my own trap and go hurtling down hundreds of deep, dark stairs, and that would silence my hopes for good. “Maybe he wants that life,” I say, the sound that arises from my throat as sharp as the drop of a coin in a hollow room. “Perhaps it isn’t a nightmare for the others. Maybe they actually like it.” “Ugh.” Sam makes a noise like a belching pig through her nose, while I laugh. “He is so annoying. Like a puppet ready to be moved by the strings. How are his Masters?” she adds sarcastically. “As useless and despondent as they were last week,” I say, zipping up my dark blue coat. The freezing chill makes my statement icier and laced with more malice than I had intended. “Brr.” Sam mimics my movements in burying into her own red jacket. “You’re in a cold mood today.” The echo of a grin flutters across my lips, tenuous as a butterfly’s wing. “I don’t know…maybe we could escape this place…go somewhere else…” I can see from the empathy in her eyes that my words hold no water, and in that bottle-blue gaze, I am an animal ensnared in a trap, howling in vain for a rescuer. She pauses for a second, and then she removes something from her tight, buttoned pocket. “Here,” she says kindly, unfolding a squashed, A1 slice of paper. The words: “Electric Art” and “Closes Monday” leap off the page. “What is this?” She reads the paper, even though she must have seen it a thousand times before, judging by its condition. “A competition,” she says slyly. “May as well enter. I’ve seen your sketches…they really come to life…” The ghost of happiness that had made its way into my chest dies like a cooled flame. “No,” I say, firmly. “There’s no life…no colour…here. There’s nothing to draw.” My tone is iced as fizzy lemonade as it tears into your tongue, fresh from the fridge. This time there is no mistaking the coldness of my intention. I glance at the wedge of litter scattered on the swept, maroon streets, where workers begin to scuttle across the zooming road like ants emerging from a green hill. The colour has been sucked from my world like a void of vacant stars, and I have forgotten what it is to see royal blue coat the layer of shop windows, to witness a shining moon rise on the horizon; to gather round a warm, flickering fire as its tongues skate in the air, to look into someone’s bottomless eyes, and find meaning and life. “So draw me,” she says suddenly. “I’m here, and I’m living, and I’m…real.” Startled, I look at the hard ground, unsure of why the blushing is beginning again. I am relieved when the air leeches the redness in my cheeks. "Colour isn’t just around you,” she says to my mussed dark hair. “You can think, create, visualise a whole world that’s just yours. Art is free. That’s why I like it.” “Okay,” I say hesitantly. “I – I’ll draw you.” For once, I have said the right thing. Her own cheeks lift in apparent exhilaration, and I realise this is an opportunity for her, too, to see something other than dust in the morning air. To see herself animated on a page, to be seen. So I draw her. One afternoon in the haze of my messy bedroom, in the photograph of my eye as it captures the details of a living, breathing being, so alive in contrast to the withering leaves on the cracked roof. She is not still as a shrub in the grass as I sketch its essence, or silent as the rock as I darken its 3D edges, nor trembling as a lamb in the grass as I outline its rugged fur, or drained as the stern lines crinkled on everyone around me. She speaks and laughs and strikes a silly pose, and somehow it does not matter that my concentration lapses, that my lines are not as straight and uniform as usual. They are all over the place – sprawled as the net of a spider’s web, uncertain as the wobbly first prints of a toddler, imperfect as the suited man who dashes through the red lights of traffic in the street. I have drawn someone real. It is not perfect or copied from the work of a superior artist, a counterfeit Picasso or a poor imitation of Monet or a cruelly amateurish version of a Vincent Van Gogh painting; it is ours, and it reflects my art, my life; not somebody else’s. I could file it away under the battered brown desk, with the other sketches. Or I could slide it into a thick white envelope, the address marked, “Electric Art, London”, and journey to a post box…the decision weighs on my mind like a ticking alarm clock. I could get nowhere, have my piece thrown carelessly in the bin with the other rejects…or I could prosper like a flower in spring’s bloom, somehow, possibly, maybe. So Sam and I wander to the sole, abandoned, squished tube shape that marks our post box, our last chance; silhouettes shadowing the other as alley cats. I breathe in a vat of cool air, and slip the finished sketch so hard it thuds as it knocks the other letters down, down, down, to the bottom. “That’s it, then,” I say with a tremor of nervousness. “Six months…and we’ll know.” Perhaps I will be suspended in time like a crooked doll, hanging sadly off the shelves, until the time comes. Perhaps nothing will have changed and the clouds will still burn grey and the sky a sludge blue, the beach a pebbled yellow. Or perhaps one event sets a chain of others in motion like a row of daisy chains, like an explosion of rainbow as paint splashes across a blank sheet of sugar paper. Perhaps it will be different now. “Good luck,” Sam says with uncharacteristic shyness in her gaze, transfixed as it watches the unmoving red post box. A tension vibrates in the air like a ceremony of insects in the sticky heat of summer, and as we stroll away from our vision of something tangible, more hopeful, our lips meet in a blur of red and icicles, and finally, I am experiencing something real. Sam’s rucksack bumps gently against mine as we end our walk along the gloomy seashore, where the black sky is blinking its starry eyes for the night. The waves lap against the vicious seaweed, and in ugliness, I find the beauty of a pink hint on a white seashell, the tip of grey on the wing of a seagull; the hum and buzz of a helicopter as it flies away from this desolate town, in search of a place more fruitful than the stone houses tunnelling our sight. Six months is not just the turn of a calendar page; the countdown to a time more special. It is days, it is hours, it is minutes; it is contained in a kiss that melts the greyness to shades of amber and magenta and teal, and bright, furious blue, clear as daylight even as darkness descends on the sky. It is a block of time passed only by idle days on the beach; by exchanges that trail into silence, by strawberry gateau cake that lulls the ravenous ache of a stomach, by paint stains purified by the rushing blue of water at the end of a feverish day. It is better than the end, for in between, you can see hope in entwined hands; you can see dreams lit in the vibrancy of a kiss; you can trace the twist of a ballerina’s shoe as you dance as though you can dance; and hear your sorrows translated into music. You can be real.