"Miss Isobelle Harding," our principal, Mr Saunders called me to the stage.
Shaking with adrenaline and sweating like a bitch in heat, I ascended up the metal steps with the sound of applause ringing in my ears. All my focus went into not tripping in my graduation gown and looking like a complete dick-head in front of all these people. The pressure of having a hundred pairs of eyes following me across the stage scorched my face with embarrassment. I wasn't exactly an outgoing person and despised being the centre of attention. Perspiration began to form across my upper lip like a sweaty moustache.
Why did this gown have to be made from black polyester?
In temperatures of thirty degrees, the heavy material was suffocating. By the time I had walked across the stage, I had turned into a flustered mess. As subtly as I could manage, I wiped my moist palms across my gown before accepting the scroll. The Principal grasped my clammy hand in his as we exchanged an awkward handshake. I couldn't get away quick enough, scampering off down the opposite steps to where my best friend, Joanne Prichard was waiting for me.
A beaming smile spread wide across her face. "We did it!" she squealed, jubilantly, bouncing on her heels.
"I know," I gushed, relieved that it was finally over. "Thank fuck for that," I expressed, reminiscent of all the caffeine-infused nights that we had endured over the last few months.
"I can't believe that you're going away tomorrow. I'm gutted that I can't come with," she replies, pouting her lips to accentuate her envy.
It was true. I was incredibly lucky to have been chosen. The university had managed to secure a grant for one of us to study a rare species of wolf. One that had been sighted in the remote state of Forest Lake, and I was the lucky candidate. All the necessary equipment would be provided as well as food and lodgings. When the information pack came during the previous weekend, I scoured through it, obsessively. I tried to run a Google search to see if it would bring up a street view, but each time that I tried, I was presented with a blank screen. This place was so remote that there weren't even any news articles available.
"I know, I've never been as far as Spain before," I mutter, in response. "I've always wanted to travel to America. Now my dream is becoming a reality." I gave a little squeal of excitement.
My mother was majorly concerned about me travelling alone, which didn't alleviate my anxiety. As much as I wanted my own independence, I was rather scared to be taking this giant leap by myself, and I was surprised when my professor informed me that there was only one place available. I knew that Joanne was disappointed, and to be honest, I was too. I wish that she was sharing this experience with me because this would be the longest time that we would spend apart.
"There you are, girls," my dad chimed as he rushed towards us.
My mother was hot on his heels, as were Joanne's parents. They were all bleary-eyed after shedding proud tears of joy during the ceremony.
"Let's get some pictures," Joanne's dad, Gordon urged.
"Just the girls first, then we'll do one with the mums; then the dads, and then finish with a group photo," Gordon spoke, organising things.
I posed beside Joanne, both giving our best smiles before we were ambushed by our mothers.
After he went snap-happy, Gordon passed around the camera, allowing us all to view our pictures on the digital screen. My smile faltered and I was forced to witness an unfiltered reality of a bog-standard image.
Where was a Snapchat filter when you needed one?
"This is one of the proudest moments of my life," My dad, Arron, gushed with pride. "The other times were marrying you, Fiona, and of course, when you were born," he said, as he pinched my flushed cheek.
I cringed, bearing my teeth.
"Shall we go to The Smoke House for dinner?" I suggested.
That was mine and Joanna's favourite restaurant, and I wanted us to enjoy one last meal together before I leave for the summer. I would be gone for twelve weeks. That would mean three long months of missing everybody. I wasn't going to hold my breath that they would have sufficient WIFI out in the sticks. It would be just my luck to be given a carrier pigeon to send messages back and forth.
"We've never been there, have we Gordon?" Joanne's mum, Norah asked.
Gordon pressed his lips together as he thought. "Isn't that the one that serves cowboy food?"
"That's the one," Joanne replied, rolling her eyes. "Honestly, Dad. Cowboy food." She chortled.
"I bet our Izzie will get to experience the real deal over the water," my dad added, "Real cowboy food," he looked at me with awe.
Dad had always wanted to go to and experience how cowboys lived. He loved watching old western films and often wondered what it would be like to ride on horseback. Whenever he watched an old film on television, he would comment on how his lifelong dream was to sit and eat food that had been cooked on an open bonfire, ride through the wild west, and sleep under the stars. The equestrian centre a half a mile down the road from us didn't quite cut it in comparison.
"I'm not going to be hanging around any cowboys, Dad. Where I'm going, there's nothing but forest and mountains for miles," I explained.
Not that the thought of strapping big countrymen wearing slack jeans and not much else didn't seem appealing, because it did. A girl could dream, and those were exactly the kind of thoughts that I could pack in my spank bank and fantasise about during the twelve-hour-long flight over there.
My father's exuberant expression never faltered. "It's still going to be brilliant though, no matter what. It's a fabulous opportunity you've been given," he chirped, happily.
"I couldn't agree more," I replied, still relishing the delicious imagery of riding rodeo on some ranch-hand called Hank. Hank the hunk who was hung like a...
"Earth to Izzy," Mum chuckled, snapping me out of my reverie.
I blushed furiously. I had been single for way too long, and my over-active imagination was reminding me of that.
Dad's upbringing was not as cushy as mine had been. He came from a life of poverty on a council estate in Bradford. Both his parents had died whilst he was little, and he went to live with his aunt. He shared a bedroom with five of his cousins, and each of them survived on one decent meal a day.
Money was tight, and he left school in order to get a job and help out as best as he could. It was only after he turned twenty that he joined the police force, starting out from the bottom, then spent years working his way up the ranks to become a Chief Inspector at the Metropolitan Police department.
My mum came from a modest middle-class family in Warwickshire. Her life was a stark contrast to the way Dad lived. She never knew the meaning of poverty and never understood how it felt to go hungry. My grandparents always made sure she was happy and never went without. They owned a stable full of horses and enjoyed holidays abroad every year, whereas, Dad had never even visited the sea-side.
Mum studied to become a Paediatric Surgeon and currently works at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Both my parents came from opposite walks of life, yet their paths entwined together somewhere along the way. That's almost poetic if you think about it; as if fate somehow had a part to play in bringing them together. Am I a hopeless romantic in thinking that? Yes, I suppose I am.
My parents have always supported me in all I've ever wanted to do. I had always shown an interest in animal biology, so I knew that it was my vocation. The type of career that would enable me to travel the globe and take me to places that I would only read about in reference books. Those were my dreams and I couldn't help but wonder whether fate had any plans in store for me too.
We arrived at the restaurant and were lucky to be seated straight away. The western-themed décor and the scent of the smoked meat made it really feel as if you were sampling a taste of the wild west. After perusing the wooden-backed menu, I had made up my mind on the chicken bucket special and a large glass of house red.
"Mmm, this brisket is to die for," Mum complimented as she tucked into her food.
Norah gave Mum a look which suggested that she was also immensely satisfied. "It is. It just melts in your mouth... And this dipping gravy is, Mmm, heaven."
I flash a grin at Joanne who was glowing crimson with shame, embarrassed by the orgasmic noises that our mothers were making whilst they savoured the food.
"I think we should bring our wives here more often, Gordon," Dad joked, looking at his friend with a wide-eyed expression on his face.
Gordon snorted with a nod. "I know. They seem to be enjoying the meat alright."
At that point, Joanne nearly died of humiliation and so did I. Her fork dropped from her fingers and clattered onto the table.
"Izzy, are you coming to spend a penny?" She asked, hastily. It was a polite way to ask if I would accompany her to the women's restroom.
I followed her as she weaved her way past the tables filled with happy diners. The moment that we were out of earshot she rounded on me.
"Why are they like this? We can't bloody take them anywhere," she whined, in a mixture of amusement and embarrassment.
"They're having fun. It's cute really. My parents work all the hours that God sends. It makes a change, seeing them spend time together like this," I replied with a shrug.
Joanne chewed on the inside of her cheek before answering. "Yeah, but they don't give a shit what they say and who hears," she huffed with a half-laugh.
Joanne was easy to embarrass. It didn't take much. Just the mention of sex was enough to turn her a deep shade of red. I wasn't a prude by any means, but I kept my saucy thoughts to myself. Those were locked in a vault in the back of my brain, never to be brought out into the open.
After a short moment of respite, we returned to the table to finish our meals. The conversation began to flow as smoothly and the alcohol thrummed through my veins. Perhaps I shouldn't have consumed half my body weight in wine, but who knew when I would have the opportunity to indulge over the next few months?
Once the evening came to an end, we all said our tearful farewells. My only concern was the lack of service my mobile phone was likely to receive high up in the mountain range. But that was a problem that I would have to deal with another day. Tonight, I was planning to dream about Hank and his extra large plank.