‘Manchester first, or Glasgow?’ I ask Steph. She shrugs. ‘As long as we get to the Doctor Who exhibition in Cardiff, I’m not fussed.’
I chew on the end of my pen as I weigh up the options from within a tiny hostel room in Poland. My best friend Steph and I have been travelling Europe for over a month and now we’re working out where to go next. We’ve got limited time, even less money and a to-do list that’s increasing exponentially. But are we worried? Of course not. This is the gap year.
Steph and I were so desperate for independence after HSC that it was almost an illness. With the air of a pair of conspirators, we hatched a Gap Year Plan; to find jobs, earn money, and then do whatever we jolly well pleased with it. It takes us nearly a year of manual labour and scrupulous savings but in October, we board a plane to Paris, and baptise ourselves rapidly into the world of travel. We wander casually past the Eiffel Tower, count our euros with too much optimism, catch quiet buses at midnight, sneak inside every English pub we see, befriend fellow travellers, talk to strange locals, read maps, get lost, run late, queue for hours. We marvel at the ancient colosseum in Rome, and encounter the ingenuity of today’s technology at CERN. We sob together in Auschwitz and laugh hysterically when cyclists stack it in Amsterdam. We both get ridiculously ill in Hungary and attempt to cure ourselves by soaking in the hot baths of Budapest. We master the art of fitting the two of us and a monument in a selfie. We ring our parents when we feel like it.
We fulfil childhood fantasies; Steph by going to the Doctor Who Exhibition, me by getting inside The Spectator’s London HQ. With an unprecedented sense of empowerment, I turn to Steph and say, ‘You know, we can do anything we want to do. Anything!’ A wide smile unfurls on her face. ‘I know,’ she replies.
On the 6th of November, I remember it’s been exactly a year since we finished our last HSC exam. We’re awed by how fast life’s moved since we started calling the shots ourselves. Whilst trying on leather jackets in Italy, I put it to Steph that we could have been sitting first-year university exams right now; we both cringe at the thought.
A few months later the gap year is over, our paths diverge and institutionalised education has a hold on us once more. Steph goes to UNSW to become immersed in maths and science. I head to Sydney uni where I begin writing about student politics. Lectures are lonely, textbooks are heavy and weekend catch-ups on study mean the freedom of travel is a faded feeling that neither of us experience anymore. Steph and I are so busy that we don’t see each other again until six weeks into university. When we meet, I notice an uncharacteristic flatness to Steph, and she tells me she’s been a bit off.
A bit off in this case turns out to be cancer. Leukaemia, a type where there’s a 40 per cent chance of complete cure in adults, but being only 19 years old, we’re hoping her odds are more. Doctors weigh up treatment options like we weighed up destinations; her to-do list now has things like ‘blood tests’ and ‘chemo’ instead of Manchester and Glasgow.
I visit Steph in hospital regularly, trying to make sense of how we got from the streets of London to the haematology ward. We make a pact to go the hairdressers and get them to cut our hair short; something I always told Steph we should try but she bluntly refused. It’s funny and ironic, but in a way, disgustingly unfair.
A topic of great debate in society, and an endless dilemma for young people, is what they should actually be doing with themselves. The gap year factor is a curious element. It splits young people based on their first choice as adults, which is a choice between education and independence. Should we be pursuing higher education, building around ourselves a fortress of skills to protect against economic fluctuation? Or perhaps more worldly, practical approaches such as participating in the workforce and having a financial capacity to do things builds stronger young people. In our case, having jobs exposed our lack of life experience and ultimately humbled us. Europe inflated our expectations, revealing endless potential for those willing to work hard.
Youth is first-time adulthood where you discover the world and your position in it. A youth well spent is learning to encounter both the world’s realities and its possibilities, and to do so with a sense of freedom. Learning to operate in our own freedom is a process of trial and error, but there’s an underlying belief that we’ll get there in the end. It’s like trying on hundreds of leather jackets or musing over a short hair cut in the mirror; eventually you find the style that looks rather good on you.
When Steph’s parents leave the hospital for the day, we get off her bed and assume their chairs. We debrief about what we’ve done in our life, what life’s just done to us, and how we are going to spend our youth in the light of it all. Again and again we talk about our gap year, our year of desperate freedom-hunting which maybe, deep-down, was just a quiet search for identity.
I don’t know if we found it. But now Steph and I know a secret; we know exactly what constitutes a full youth.
And I suppose that’s why Steph, hooked to an antibiotic machine, can look at me and say with complete honesty, ‘You know, I think we’ve got most things figured out.’
Something of the freedom of the gap year returns to me as I smile and say with equal honesty;
‘Of course we have.’
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