Sunday, 6 May 2012

Exam Panic

Photo: Lucy Williams as Catherine O'Rourke and Hugo Diamond as Mark Kingston from the Autumn 2011 theatre production of Popular, based on the novel by Gareth Russell.

Panicking with your exams? 

Well, you're not the only ones. Here's how the characters in Popular coped with their exams. (An extract from Popular by Gareth Russell.)

‘What’s your timetable like?’ asked Cameron, as they sat around a table in the school library.

‘Sad,’ said Kerry. ‘There are so many exams on it – one after another! And I have to come in on Saturday for English Lit in the morning and History in the afternoon!’

‘My first exam is Physics,’ sighed Cameron. ‘How unfair is that?’

‘No drinking in the library,’ said a prim voice from behind the main desk.

‘Miss, are you joking?’ argued Cameron. ‘Without my Diet Coke, I’ll die!’

‘He’s diabetic!’ roared Kerry.

‘A lie too far, Kerry,’ muttered Meredith. ‘A lie too far.’

‘How are we supposed to revise Biology?’ asked Imogen indignantly. ‘Mr. Corbett’s such a crappy teacher. We don’t have any notes! He so obviously doesn’t care about our education, at all.'

‘We’re screwed for Science in general though,’ said Cameron.

‘What if we cram?’ suggested Catherine.

‘No!’ barked Kerry. ‘You know the rules – if the ship’s sinking, we all go down with it. Secret revisers will be punishèd.’

‘Well, maybe I’ll just do some myself tonight,’ said Catherine. ‘Just to be on the safe side.’

‘No!’ said Kerry, angrily smacking her fist on the table. ‘Didn’t you hear what I just said?’


‘Don’t question her,’ commanded Imogen. ‘Rules are rules.’

‘But, I…’

‘Look, do you want a slap in the face?’ threatened Imogen, raising her hand.

‘No!’ surrendered Catherine. ‘I’ll be fine.’


‘We’ll all be fine,’ shrugged Meredith. ‘Anyway, apparently for Chemistry we don’t even have to take a written test, it’s just a practical.’

‘Oh well, in that case,’ said Imogen, ‘there’s no point even opening the textbook, is there? That would be a complete waste of my time.’

‘Will the table at the back please keep it down?’ asked the librarian.

‘Power-mad bitch,’ muttered Imogen.


Over the next few weeks, the beautiful May sunshine meant that Meredith, Imogen and Cameron spent more of their time at each others’ houses, relaxing outside with their books open on the table next to them – more for show than anything else. Meredith was currently on the sun-lounger reading the Poor Little Rich Girl column in Tatler and nodding at every other sentence. ‘Gosh, it’s so true,’ she sighed. ‘It is so true.’

Lying next to her in a crêpe de Chine dress by Chanel with star-shaped sunglasses, a plethora of rings, bangles and a Marlboro Light for accessories, Imogen was mentally debating whether to go Brazilian or Hollywood for the group’s forthcoming holiday to Mexico and Cameron was drinking a cold Diet Coke and pondering what it might be like to actually want to work on a day like this

‘What are your plans for revision, Imogen?’ asked Cameron, taking another drink of Diet Coke.

‘Saint Jude,’ she replied. ‘Well, I mean, it’s sort of staggered really. I’ll start off with Saint Giuseppe and Saint Thomas Aquinas, but I think in the end it’s all going to come down to Saint Jude.’

‘Oh, he’s very good,’ said Meredith.


‘Oh yes. I’ve used him before. He really comes through. He’s very efficient.’

‘What kind of levels of efficiency are we talking about?’ asked Imogen.

Meredith paused to think. ‘Saint Teresa.’

‘Not as good as Saint Anthony?’

‘No, but then, he’s the best, isn’t he?’

‘He’s fabulous,’ said Imogen, lighting another cigarette. ‘I think he’s absolutely tremendous. I love his work. He’s like the Ronseal saint – does exactly what it says on the tin.’

‘Well as long as you both have a plan,’ sighed Cameron lazily.


On the morning of the first exam, Catherine had got so nervous she had rushed to the toilet three times already. Sitting in one of the cubicles, she heard the voices of Anastasia, Natasha and Tangela, as they arrived to re-apply their lip-glosses at the bathroom mirrors. ‘Did you see him?’ asked Natasha.

‘I know, right?’ said Tangela.

‘I told you,’ sighed Anastasia. ‘He’s weird.’

‘He’s just so rude recently and I seriously don’t understand why Catherine’s still with him,’ Tangela said. ‘I mean... she can’t be that desperate.’

‘Obvo she is,’ said Natasha, as she puckered her lips. ‘Everyone’s talking about how moody and angry and weird he is and how she doesn’t even seem to notice.’

‘Because she is that desperate. Obviously.’

As the three girls walked out, still gossiping about her, Catherine had to put a hand on her chest to try and steady her breathing. What had happened? What had they done that had made the whole school change their mind about them? And why had no-one said anything to her? Maybe it was just Anastasia’s group that felt that way? After all, Anastasia had always thought he was kind of stupid... maybe that’s what they meant? With great difficulty, she put their comments to the back of her mind and tried to ignore what she had just heard – the very same policy she had employed with her relationship for the last three months.

As she returned to wait outside the Assembly Hall before the exam started, Catherine was distracted from her worrying by the sight of panic-stricken students all around her. Kerry was holding an unblemished copy of Macbeth in her right hand and was digging her nails into the arm of a terrified-looking, well-prepared Patsy Harris, hissing: ‘What do you mean she kills herself?  I thought her hands were just dirty!’ In a corner, Imogen’s lips were moving in furious, rhythmic prayer. She had just finished rattling through Saint Thomas’s prayer for a student and she had now embarked on another round of Hail Marys. The only person who seemed calm, of course, was Meredith, who hadn’t even bothered with last-minute revision cards. With twenty minutes still to go before the doors opened, Catherine sat down to have one last read of her Macbeth notes and Cameron wandered off down the corridor to use the bathroom.

When he pushed the swing door open, Cameron was confronted by the sight of Mark Kingston, with his hands placed on either side of the sink, ashen-faced. Turning to see who it was, the relief was palpable on Mark’s face. ‘Cam... Cameron, I’m so worried. I forgot I got like this at exams. I ... I need to do well.’

Cameron went over to him and put one hand on his shoulder and another on his arm, patting it reassuringly. ‘Mark, it’s OK. It’s fine. . You always freak out and you always do well.’

‘Cameron.... I have to do well. Doing well. It’s important to me. I can’t...  I can’t fuck them up.’

‘You won’t.’

‘You don’t know that!’ 

‘Listen, you’ll be fine. You’re smart and you’ll definitively have done enough revision. Mark, if someone like you isn’t going to do well in these exams, then what chance has anyone else got? I promise it’ll be fine. Just like it always is. ’

Mark nodded and took a big gulp of air to steady himself. ‘Thanks, Cameron. Thanks.’

With normalcy more-or-less restored, awkwardness settled over them as they remembered the tensions of the last five months. ‘I should probably get back to the Hall,’ Mark muttered. ‘Thanks and...’

‘Yeah. I’ll see you around,’ said Cameron. ‘Good luck.’

‘Thanks,’ said Mark, walking away. ‘Yeah, thanks and... good luck.’


By and large, the GCSEs passed without any real incident, apart from the frankly horrifying moment when Kerry realised there was coursework for Business Studies that she had never handed in;  Cameron’s total inability to recall how to say anything in his Spanish Oral that wasn’t in the present tense; and, of course,  the unforgettable terrified squeak from Imogen at the beginning of the History exam, when she had opened the first page to see the title The English Civil War before realising that their module – Weimar and Nazi Germany – was actually listed three pages later. For a split second, she had thought that she had paid such poor attention in class that she had revised for the wrong country and wrong century. Her eyes had shot Heavenward, with an accusatory glint in them, but after turning more pages, she breathed a sigh of relief and then looked up again with an apologetic smile.

And so it was on a blisteringly hot summer’s day in the middle of June that the last GCSE exam took place for that year at Mount Olivet Grammar School. Walking out into the sunshine in his school uniform, Cameron breathed a happy sigh of relief and was about to call Meredith to see what the plans for that night were, when Mark walked up behind him. The two hadn’t spoken since the day of Mark’s ritual pre-exam panic in the boys’ bathroom, almost three weeks earlier.

‘Hey. What’d you think of the exam?’

‘It was OK,’ answered Cameron. ‘Although I don’t think they could’ve asked anymore questions on Blood Brothers if they’d tried.’

‘I know!’


To order your copy of Popular and read more about GCSEs, running away from your Physics mock GCSE and life for the GCSE year at Mount Olivet Grammar School, Belfast, click HERE or visit your local book-store!

PS - If you've any hilarious/cringeworthy exam stories, feel free to share them in our comments section!

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