Monthly Archives: June 2018

Careering

Sunday

The terrace was the reason they’d taken the house originally. It had been further from the tube than they’d wanted and the only pub in spitting distance was the Three Feathers, stubbornly untouched by the estate agent’s claims for gentrification, but the little roof space had woven a spell on all of them. It was just a flat space, maybe four feet square fringed with a low wall and adorned with a battered old deck chair, a couple of stools and a plant pot, now sans plant. The house had taken a direct hit in the Blitz and when the money for renovations had run dry a flat roof had proven a cheap short cut to making it habitable again. They were unaware of this happy accident arising from the house’s unhappy past and had simply fallen in love with the views it afforded down and across Islington and, more importantly, up and out, over the the London skies.

There was usually an hour in the evening when the light was still good enough for Sarah to paint but the first hint of the muted constellations above began to glow, tempting Alex out to join her on the roof. He would name the stars as they appeared while Sarah and Rob, if he was back from work, would gently tease him by picking out planes in the stack over Heathrow and asking whether they were comets or UFOs. Or they’d pretend to forget that he’d told them that the brightest point they could see, one of the few celestial bodies that did cut through the London light pollution, was Venus and not a star at all. Alex would patiently explain it to them again.

Sarah was cleaning her brushes, watching paint leech from the tips into the water in her jam jar, a blue, swirling blur. It reminded her of a Japanese print she’d had in her room as a student, back when all futures seemed possible. She glanced over at Alex. He was slouched back in the deck chair, a pair of binoculars resting on his stomach.

“You know what happened last time you looked through those…” said Sarah.

“They are strictly for star gazing,” replied Alex. “That incident with the couple on Woodfall Road was not entirely my fault.”

Rob’s head appeared in the hatch at the top of the steep stairs that served as the route up to the terrace.

“The One With The Naked Neighbours And The Surprising Things You Can Do With Fruit,” he announced. “Still can’t believe they called the police.”

“It wasn’t an episode of Friends, Rob.”

“No, it was funnier,” said Rob. “Although if it was I’d be Joey, right? The good looking one.”

“It’s not much of a choice. The funny one, the good looking one and the…the other one. What was the point of Ross anyway?” said Alex.

“He was the nice one, wasn’t he?” said Sarah, still idly stirring her brush in the jar, the water now a murky grey. “You’d be Ross, Alex.”

“Thanks a lot,” he replied. “So I’m the dull, wet guy who’s so lacking in character that he gets given a pet monkey just to make him more interesting.”

“Well I didn’t mean it quite like that,” smiled Sarah. “Anyway, you don’t need the monkey, you’ve got that whole neighbourhood peeping tom thing going on as a character quirk…”

“I was star gazing.”

The natural light was fading fast now, steadily replaced by the soft glow of the city. Sarah finished cleaning her brushes and sat down on one of the stools, accepting a quick swig of the beer that Rob had brought up with him and was offering round. He stood looking at the picture Sarah had left drying on her makeshift easel. It was an abstract series of blue and grey circles, bold and well defined in the centre and then progressively distorted and smudged towards the periphery of the page. He liked it although, if he was honest, he preferred her pencil drawings, preferred things rooted more directly in reality. Sarah caught him looking at the picture and raised a quizzical eyebrow. He smiled and nodded approvingly but knew better than to offer more; too many well intentioned observations about her painting had ended with the critiqued picture in pieces. He pulled up the other stool, took his beer back from Sarah and offered it to Alex who was now peering up towards the sky through his binoculars.

“What are you looking for up there?” asked Rob. “Trying to see our destinies?”

“God, no. Nothing like that. There’s no glimpse of the future up there, just lights from the past,” replied Alex.

“That’s deep.”

“It’s just physics.” Alex adjusted the focusing ring on the binoculars, tried to get a better view of the Moon. It was only a quarter full but still one of the few things bright enough to cut through the light sodden sky. It’s just physics. He remembered saying something similar three years ago as his justification for jacking in the PhD, walking away from all that conceptual stuff about gravity and relativity to take up a graduate place with Deloitte. Swapping Lorentz transformations for double entry bookkeeping. It paid better but it was a mental downshift and he still felt the nagging, gravitational pull of his old studies.

“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” interrupted Sarah suddenly.

“Like what?”

“This… This… I don’t know. This scratching out our days.” Sarah pushed her hand through her hair and frowned. “What happened to what we wanted to do?”

“You mean you didn’t want to design towers for video games?” It was Alex’s usual tease.

“Hey, those games need a lot of towers… and my correct title is Concept Artist as you well know.” Sarah straightened on her stool and extended her arm with a flourish. “Concept Artist responsible for initial design of player climbable structures. Should I continue to impress with my sketched portfolio of traversable in-game terrain then I have a very decent shot at being Lead Concept Artist in two to three years’ time”.

“It’s something to dream about.”

“Every day on the 153, believe me.”

“Maybe this is just a phase,” said Rob. He drained the last of his beer. “Maybe we need to go through this while we figure it out.”

“But we had it figured out,” protested Sarah. “When I met you… at that talk, what was it?”

“NGO roles in provision of public services,” said Rob.

“Sounds like quite the party,” said Alex from behind the binoculars. Sarah ignored him.

“Yeah, at that. When we met you knew exactly what you wanted to do. It was the thing that struck me about you. The passion. You were absolutely going to work in the public sector, or the third sector or whatever it’s called, and you were going to help people.”

“And hopefully I still will,” said Rob. “The social media thing’s just temporary, just to get some money behind me early on. It’s not forever.” They all fell silent, slightly awkward. Sarah tentatively touched at the paint to see if it was dry and rolled up her picture. Alex put down his binoculars and tried to lighten the mood.

“What were you doing at that talk anyway Sarah? Doesn’t strike me as your sort of thing.”

“What makes you think I’m not interested in social enterprise?”

“She was in the wrong room,” said Rob.

“You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone that,” smirked Sarah. All of them laughed and Alex wagged a finger in admonishment. “Alright, alright. It was at the Barbican and I’d gone to see a Murakami exhibition but I was running late, got a bit lost, and ended up in a room full of earnest liberals listening to someone talk about co-operatives and sustainable funding. They all seemed so nice that I thought it’d be impolite to just walk out.”

“Just imagine the vicious tutting you could have been subjected to…” said Alex.

“We could be quite scathing in our shows of mild disapproval,” agreed Rob. “Some poor guy turned up to another talk one time with a coffee from Starbucks, it was just after the whole tax avoidance thing, and I think we briefly created a vacuum in the auditorium as everyone took a simultaneous sharp intake of breath.”

“Well it wouldn’t have technically been a vacuum…” started Alex before being drowned out under a mock chorus of tuts from his flatmates.

The early evening dusk was giving itself up to the beginnings of night now and the last of the sun’s warmth that had baked itself into the terraces was fading. Sarah rubbed her bare arms with her hands before gathering up her painting equipment.

“I think I’m going to head in,” she said. “Early start tomorrow.”

The other two didn’t move. She knew they liked to sit out for longer, eke out the weekend and delay the onset of Monday morning. Alex would usually be last to come back downstairs, pulling the hatch behind him. Sometimes he’d sit and try to wait until all of the lights across the surrounding streets winked out, hoping that the progressive darkening of the neighbourhood would allow more illumination from above. Once there’d been a power cut and he’d been able to just pick out Mars, seemingly tucked away behind Venus, just a trick of their relative positions and rotational orbits. The others teased him about how scientific, how clinical, he was about it all but he saw the beauty in it too. When he told Rob he wasn’t looking for destiny up there it was true but he was perhaps looking for something. Perspective? He wasn’t sure anymore.

“Good night,” said Rob. “Don’t forget our guest arrives tomorrow.”

“Guest?” said Sarah pausing at the head of the stairs.

“God, Sarah, do you read anything the landlord sends us? We talked about this last week. He’s offered up the spare room on Air BnB. We’re splitting the money, remember? He’ll take half and then take the other half off the rent. Said we can stop it anytime we want if it doesn’t work out.”

“Vaguely,” said Sarah. “Might be nice to have someone else around anyway. And I could definitely use the cash.”

“Tell me about it,” said Rob.

 

Monday

It was already dark by the time Alex returned from work. He walked down Shakespeare Street underneath the orange-white glow of its streetlights, his shadow lengthening as he got further away from each one, and then shortening as he approached the next. He paused at the mid point between two of them and briefly tried to remember the maths. Why would his shadow grow? He figured it was just triangles. He used to know this stuff. As he continued down the street the light closest to his destination, number 42, faded and winked out. That’ll save the Council about 27p tonight then. He’d just finished a project reviewing potential infrastructure savings for all the London Boroughs; something the Mayor’s office had commissioned. That was the stuff he knew now. Next door’s cat, tabby with white feet, watched him from the wall outside the house, both of them now in darkness.

“Alright Schrodinger? Still alive then. Bet you’ve had a better day than me,” he said to the cat, cracking his usual physicist’s joke. The cat began to lick its paw. “I guess you’ll only answer to Socks, eh?”. Socks remained silent and Alex, shaking his head at himself, let himself into the house.

He could hear voices from up on the terrace as he stepped into the hallway, almost tripping over a large, flower patterned carpetbag that had been left behind the door next to a propped up umbrella. Rob and Sarah and a woman’s voice he didn’t recognise. They seemed to be laughing a lot. Their guest. Air BnB. A bag and brolly he didn’t recognise. Slowly he put the pieces together and somewhat reluctantly headed up to join them.

“…so then Rob moved in a few months after we’d met at some event.” Sarah was just finishing the story about how they’d ended up in the house as Alex emerged on to the roof. She was sat forwards in the deck chair talking to a small, immaculately dressed lady. Late 60s? Alex was terrible at gauging ages. The first time he’d met Sarah he’d guessed she was 35, largely on the basis that she had been wearing a cardigan and had just told him that she was a big fan of Countdown. She’d been 25 at the time. Their guest had short, grey hair, pushed back on one side with an ornate mother of pearl hair clip, a bright white flower design above her left ear. She was looking at Sarah intently and smiling. She sat straight, upright and there was something immediately confident and calm about her. Sarah described it later as like that moment when a passer by intervenes at an accident you’ve witnessed and announces ‘don’t worry, I’m a doctor’.

“Hey, Alex, you’re back,” said Sarah jumping up from her chair. “You must meet Maria.”

“Hello part timers,” replied Alex before more formally turning towards their guest and extending his hand. “Hi, Maria, lovely to meet you. I’m Alex.”

She stood and took his hand, her grip firmer than he’d expected. They held eye contact for a few seconds before she closed her other hand on top of their handshake and squeezed, smiling. “It’s lovely to meet you too Alex.” She spoke softly and slowly, drawing out her vowels.

“Was your journey okay? Did you have far to come?” he asked, now curious about her accent.

“I’m over from Kansas. It’s been a fun trip so far.”

“We’ve done the Wizard of Oz joke,” interrupted Rob before Alex could reply.

“All you London folk do sound a little like munchkins to me though,” said Maria, eyes twinkling. She sat back down smoothing her skirt on her lap before folding her hands together. She was precise and graceful in her movements. “I was saying to Rob and Sarah how much I adore your roof terrace. It’s the reason I booked the room.”

“It’s the reason we took the house,” said Alex. “It’s just a shame we get more light from the streets than we do from the sky. You must have more luck at home?”

“Oh sure. Out in the countryside it’s glorious. And if you ever get a chance to get over to Bryce Canyon then it feels like the stars are laid out across the sky like diamonds that you could just pluck down and claim as your own.” She briefly paused and looked down at a ring on her left hand, turned it on her finger, rubbing its single stone. “But it’s good to see a different view of it all once in a while.”

“Maybe we should swap,” laughed Alex. “I don’t seem to be able to make out what I want to see up there.” He gestured up and out at the night sky.

“When things get dark you’ll see what you need to see,” she replied.

The four of them contemplated the London sky for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts. Sarah broke the silence, insisting that they were being terrible hosts and rushing downstairs to fetch glasses and a bottle of wine. Maria sat and had a drink with them for half an hour or so before declaring that jet lag had defeated her and that she ought to retire to be fresh for her planned tour of London’s galleries in the morning. She asked Sarah if she’d like to accompany her. Alex filled in the blanks and realised they must have been talking about her painting before he’d arrived home. Impulsively Sarah agreed, shushing her house mates’ queries about work. Looking quietly pleased Maria left them and went downstairs to her room.

“How are you going to get out of work?” asked Rob after Maria had gone.

“I’ll chuck a sickie or something,” said Sarah. “It’ll be okay. Besides there’s a game in the production schedule for next year set in London so it’ll double as research if I take my sketch book with me.”

“But we don’t know her?” said Alex.

“And yet we’re perfectly happy to have her stay in our house,” said Sarah. “That’s kind of how AirBnB works.”

“I think what Alex is saying is that it’s not AirBnBnTourGuide,” said Rob, trying and failing to enunciate each ‘n’ clearly.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Sarah. Rob faked a silent laugh, sarcastically, by way of reply. “It’ll be nice. She’s over here on her own, doesn’t know the city. Why not show her that Londoners don’t deserve their less than legendary reputation for hospitality? What do you think, Alex?”

“I guess it’ll be fine,” he said. “I don’t know. There’s something about her that I can’t really describe though. Like she’s got a…”

“An aura?” said Sarah. “Really? Coming from you, Alex?”

“Not an aura,” sighed Alex.

“A dark and mysterious past that haunts her?” said Rob, affecting a fake film voice over.

“Not that either. I don’t know. A presence. There’s something assured about her. She just seems utterly and completely herself if that makes sense. And, no, Sarah, I haven’t started believing in auras.”

“Sounds a bit like it to me,” teased Sarah. “I think I know what you mean. That’s why I’d like to spend the day with her.”

“I’m going to bed,” said Rob. “One thing’s for sure, none of us are in Kansas anymore. He theatrically clicked his heels together, muttered ‘there’s no place like home’ and left Alex and Sarah sat out on the terrace looking up at the night. Out of habit Alex looked for Polaris but there was too much light. It seemed rare that he could find it these days.

 

Tuesday

The late morning sun was struggling to break the clouds over Trafalgar Square as Sarah and Maria emerged from the National Gallery. Making their way down the steps they linked arms, like old school friends, and Sarah felt her companion lean into her slightly as she took the stairs. It was almost imperceptible but there was just a sense that Maria wanted, or needed, some support. Well she’s not a young woman. Probably mid 60s ? Sarah hoped Alex hadn’t made any observations about their guest’s age at breakfast. He was hopeless at things like that. Could tell you how old Saturn’s moons were but ask him to judge something, someone, staring him in the face and he’d be off by eons. She patted Maria’s arm and suggested that they stop for a bit, told her that she really needed to make some sketches of the square.

They perched on the bottom step in silence for a few minutes as Sarah swiftly penciled the grey, granite lines of Nelson’s Column into her notebook. Feeling vaguely guilty at her absence from work she started to embellish the drawing a little, adding details that might be useful as hand holds or points that someone could hook a rope around. She started to pencil in Nelson’s details but couldn’t get the angles of his bicorn right and so gave him a makeshift fez instead. Nelson continued to stare stoically in the opposite direction, seemingly untroubled by her alterations. Maria had spent the minutes gazing at the square, watching fellow tourists idle past, but now she looked over at Sarah’s sketch, curious.

“That’s great but what are those extra bits sticking out ? And what’s with the hat ?”

Sarah flipped her notebook closed. “I thought he might fancy a change. The extra bits are for work. When they take my drawings and use them in the games they often need to change them so they’ll work for the player.” She sensed Maria wasn’t entirely following. “So in this game there’ll probably be lots of things to do in London, lots of things they want the player to explore and find. I was just making the column easier to climb up. They always like things you can climb.”

“Why’d they make them like that?”

“Oh I don’t know. It gives the player something to do. They call it goal oriented game design or something. Lots of little, achievable tasks. Apparently you get a hit of… what’s that brain chemical that makes you happy?”

“Dopamine?” suggested Maria.

“Yeah, you get a hit of dopamine every time you complete one of these little tasks and that keeps you playing.”

“Sounds like life, wouldn’t you say?” said Maria looking at Sarah intently. Sarah hadn’t really noticed how green her eyes were before; she had a slight cloudy patch in her left pupil, a smattering of blurred white dots. It reminded her a little of the view from their terrace at night. Like stars fighting to break through the haze.

“Well it depends on the tasks,” answered Sarah finally. “Put it this way, I’m not sure how much dopamine I’ve been getting lately.”

“Perhaps you need to go and climb up that,” said Maria pointing up at Nelson’s Column, laughing.

“Well, assuming I didn’t break my neck, then it would certainly give me a hit of something.”

“And a great view.”

“And a great view,” agreed Sarah. “That’s the other reason they make them like that – the games I mean, why I spend my life drawing towers. In the game, whenever you get to the top of something tall it opens up the world to you. Shows you new things to do and places to go.”

“So your art shows people where they are and where they might go ?”

Sarah shook her head. “I hadn’t thought of it like that but… at a stretch, maybe. I used to think that my painting outside of work was trying to do that. Or at least that it was trying to show where I was and where I might go and that that would resonate with some people.”

“You shouldn’t distinguish between the two,” said Maria. “What you call your work and what you call your painting outside of work. It all comes from you. It’s all how you spend your days.” She patted Sarah’s arm and smiled. “Anyway, would you listen to me, doling out advice to talented young artists. I have to say that, personally, I liked the flowers. Back in the gallery. The Monet and the Van Gogh.” She sounded out the Gogh to rhyme with dough, extending the ‘o’ sound, and caught Sarah frowning at her. “What’d I say ? Van Gogh ? How’d you say it ? Goff ?”. They both laughed. “You prefer the abstract work, don’t you ?”

“I do,” said Sarah. “And thank you for the advice. It’s nice to hear.” She wrinkled her brow, her nose crinkling in concentration, lost momentarily in thought. “I like the flowers too but there’s always something slightly sad about them to me. Something so beautiful, yet so fragile. Those paintings are just a snapshot of something fleeting, something that’s going to disappear.”

“Oh my dear. That’s not sad. That’s the very definition of joy. Come on, I sense you need something more modern. Take me to the Tate and I’ll buy you lunch on the South Bank.”

Inside the Tate Sarah felt a deep feeling of calm; the peace and vastness of the canopy above seemed to absorb her anxieties. Gave them room to lift and dissolve. They walked in with nothing but the echo of their footsteps for company. Outside the South Bank bustled, in here it was still. For a long time they just walked the floor, absorbed in the space, watching dust motes dance in the slats of light falling across the concrete from the high, vertical windows above. Eventually Maria pointed out that there was an exhibition running. Yayoi Kusama. They bought tickets and ventured into a world of coloured dots and circles and impressionistic shapes, endless patterns repeating, forms stretched and mutating. Another room filled with nothing but giant, monochrome canvasses on each wall, monolithic blank tranquility. And then, at the end, a darkened room with mirrored floors, walls and ceiling. They cautiously ventured in, eyes adjusting, and a myriad of LED lights overhead began to blink on and off. Pulses of colour that reflected back from the surfaces and into infinity; there, everywhere, and then they were gone. Sarah felt like she was standing in the centre of the universe watching its evolution on fast forward. The flash of the Big Bang, stars exploding into life, collapsing in on themselves, and then darkness. Or like she was a single neuron firing inside her own mind, watching the millions of other chemical reactions trigger and blaze in her cerebral cortex. It was dizzying and euphoric. They both sat down and lost themselves in the ineffable dazzle of lights.

Later they ate lunch on the roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A green oasis atop a brutal concrete slab of a building. The sun had won its struggle with the clouds and they sat watching a faint shimmer of heat haze dance across the Thames.

 

Wednesday

It was still dark as Rob and Maria left the house. The early start had been her idea; jet lag had her on American time and so she said she’d sooner go out first thing rather than in the evening. Rob thought she must have been up for a full hour or so before they left because she was as perfectly elegant as she’d been the day before: there was a precision and neatness about her that he thought must require serious time. He looked like he’d rolled straight out of bed, planted his feet in his trainers, and pulled on whichever coat he’d passed en route to the front door. From under the duvet to the porch in thirty seconds flat. It was cold. The heat from yesterday’s late Autumn sun had faded fast, up and out as evening cooled to night with no cloud cover to cap its escape. They’d all sat on the terrace and watched it sink over towards Highgate. They were up too early to see it reappear.

“This better be good,” said Rob.

“Well, good morning to you too,” replied Maria brightly. “It’s nice to see you made an effort for me.”

“Believe me. Being up at this time is an effort.”

“I can’t believe you’ve never seen the dawn before, Rob?” smiled Maria. “Open your eyes, it’s beautiful.”

Rob glanced up and mentally conceded that there was something magical about the half light and quiet of this hour. He had seen it many times. It’s just that he usually saw it woozily soft filtered through the alcohol of the previous night before he found his way to bed. The idea for this morning’s early start had germinated the previous evening. They’d been on the roof listening to Sarah rave about the Kusama installation at the Tate, none of them wanting to point out the smudge of paint on her cheek that lifted and fell each time she smiled. She’d spent the late afternoon absorbed in a fresh canvas. Rob couldn’t remember seeing her so passionate since the day they’d met, back when she insisted on dragging him round the Murakami exhibition that she’d missed after he insisted that she stay and listen to the talk from Vision Housing and the various other social enterprises speaking that evening. They’d both been so certain then. Both fit to burst with ideas and energy. For a while he’d mistaken their mutual passion as a spark between them, a shared attraction, but as they spent longer together they settled into an easy friendship. There was a drunken kiss one night shortly after they’d moved in to the house but it had marked the end of any romance rather than the beginning. They’d both laughed it off: you can’t fake chemistry. Alex had told them that the mutual attraction of objects into each other’s orbit was actually more of a physics thing. This story had come up during the evening, Maria was curious as to how they all wound up together in the house. In turn that had led to a conversation about how Rob had fallen into his current job rather than pursuing the idiosyncrasies of London’s housing policies. He’d told her how those things had happened but he hadn’t really told her why. He wasn’t sure if he knew why. He knew the lines he said out loud when people asked him – it’s just a stop gap, I’m just getting some money behind me, it’s just a temporary thing – but he couldn’t remember now whether they were true.

Maria had insisted that she wanted to see London’s homeless crisis (Rob’s words) for herself. The others, surprised, had listed a host of alternative ways to spend a morning in the city but she wouldn’t budge. She said wanted to experience the place as it was, not as its people presented it for visitors. After he’d first moved into the house Rob had done some volunteering at the various homeless shelters round Islington and so he’d offered to take her down to one of them; he hadn’t been for about a year but if the circuit hadn’t changed then breakfast would need serving at Union Chapel. They took the tube down from Finsbury Park to Highbury and Islington, sitting quietly in half empty carriages with early rising, suited commuters and late returning nightshift workers, stifled yawns marking the beginnings and endings of days.

There were soft slashes of pink in the dawn sky, sunrise’s forward scouts, as they approached the church. The Union Chapel spire was bathed in the early morning glow, red brick framing high vaulted windows and gothic revival detail. A pair of magpies took flight from a perch near the top of the tower squabbling in their rattling, staccato voices. Rob was halfway up Compton Terrace, almost at the church, before he realised that Maria wasn’t with him. Turning back he saw her standing beneath the overhang of a spreading Oak, leaning on an iron railing, just gazing at the building. He was about to urge her to hurry up but something in her reaction gave him pause. He walked back to her and together they stood for a few minutes and watched as the rising sun slowly warmed the russet tones of the old spire. Watched it come to life in the light.

“Do you believe in God?” asked Maria, relinquishing her hand on the railing and taking Rob’s arm instead.

“No, I don’t I’m afraid Maria,” he answered. “But it’s kind of magical this time of the day though, I’ll give you that. I can see why people see something bigger.”

“Oh no, don’t misunderstand,” said Maria. “I don’t believe either. Not anymore at least. Not since my late husband passed away. There’s nobody and nothing controlling our futures. There’s just here and now. Come on, you promised you’d show me the shelter.”

They ended up working the morning shift, changing bedding, washing up, serving London’s lost bacon and eggs and endless cups of tea. The centre manager, Jenny, had remembered Rob and had set them straight to helping out. Maria was a novelty for the patrons of the shelter and she spent most of her time sat quietly talking with each of them individually, laughter following her around the room. She was deep in conversation with an older man when their shift finished. He had a grey flecked beard and a nasty scar running between his right ear and the corner of his eye that gave him an intimidating look. The smell of stale alcohol and tobacco clung to him. Maria was sitting opposite him, holding his upturned hands in her own, gently massaging his fingers with her thumbs. Rob stood, arms folded, and watched them from across the room.

“He’s in a bad way.” Jenny had noticed Rob watching the odd couple. “He shouldn’t be here to be honest. He’s got stomach cancer. Late stages. They’ve told him its incurable and so every time he gets checked in to a hospital he just checks himself out again. Says he’d rather live out his last days on the street than lie down in a ward.”

“Hasn’t he got anybody?” asked Rob. He knew what the answer would be, he’d had this conversation so many times before in the early days of his volunteering. Surely everyone has someone. The truth was that everyone didn’t have someone. This was a community to pick up the pieces for people without a community.

“He had a wife. From what he’s told me after she died he lost his way, took to drinking too much, lost his job. You know the story. You’re only ever…”

“You’re only ever six bad months away from the street,” interrupted Rob. “I remember.”

They went over to join them. Maria was whispering something to him and, in response, the man had reached up to touch her hair clip. He had started to cry. As his fingers found the carved flower in her hair Maria quickly reached for his hand, moved it, and pressed it to her cheek instead. Eventually she released his hand and said her goodbyes.

“Come on,” said Rob. “Let me show you inside the church. It’s quite something.”

Maria shook her head. “I’ve seen the church,” she replied. “I’ve seen your church. It’s all here, in this room, in the bedrooms we cleaned and the pots we washed up. Sarah showed me the Tate, I don’t need to see another grand and imposing space.”

Rob smiled at her. “Let me buy you a coffee then. There’s a kiosk in the foyer that does a great cappuccino and all the money comes back into the shelter. You don’t have to look at the stained glass window or the chandeliers or the balustrades. Just have a drink with me. You’ve reminded me of something today and I wanted to say thank you.”

“Alright, it’s a deal,” said Maria. “And just what have I reminded you of today young man?”

“You’ve reminded me of who I used to be,” said Rob.

“No, no, no,” replied Maria gently. “Not who you used to be. Who you are.” 

 

Thursday

“Explain it to me again,” insisted Maria. Alex leaned forwards in his seat, elbows on knees, to narrow the gap between them across the tube carriage. He didn’t want to raise his voice. Around them people examined their phones.

“Are you just humouring me now?” he asked. “I’m sure there’ll be things that explain it all when we get there.”

“No, I really want to try to understand it,” she replied. “And I like hearing you talk about it. I want you to humour me, not the other way round.”

The train slowed into its next station. Alex watched the blur through the window resolve itself into a platform, waiting people, a name. Camden Town. He always thought it was like watching a film slowing down into a series of still photographs and, finally, a single, framed shot. There was a moment, even if it was just a fraction of a second, a heartbeat, when everything stopped before the train doors slid open and exhaled its passengers onto the platform. Mind the gap.

“Okay. Imagine the world and imagine a big line drawn all the way around the equator,” started Alex.

“I think I have this part,” said Maria. “I’m imagining parallel lines horizontally stacked on top of each other…”

“And underneath each other…”

“And underneath other other,” she continued. “Reaching to the North and South Poles. If you take the equator as your start point, then you can measure how far north or south you are. Degrees of latitude. Seems straightforward enough.”

“Well, allowing for a certain degree of latitude in your explanation, you’re right,” acknowledged Alex with a smile. “But latitude was always the easy part because it works from a fixed physical point – the lines you draw north and south around the earth don’t move relative to the equator. And if you know your stars and a bit of maths then you can work it out by looking at the sky. Longitude was where it got messy because all those imaginary lines are now running vertically and without a natural reference point.”

“This is where I lost you last time,” said Maria. “What do you mean there’s no natural reference point?”

“Because the Earth is spinning. Longitude is a distance in the planet’s daily rotation. Unless you agree an arbitrary fixed point to measure against then no one will ever agree on where they are. The Earth is always moving. One degree every four minutes.”

“Well I never did like to sit still anyway,” laughed Maria. “So the good folks at Greenwich offered to be the fixed point of reference for measuring how far east or west you were?”

“We’ve missed out a bunch of stuff about how they standardised solar time for everyone first so that you could always know what time it was wherever you were but, yes, I guess you have it about right.”

“Not bad for an amateur,” smiled Maria with a satisfied nod of her head. “We can’t all be… what was it again?”

“A physicist. Technically an astrophysicist I guess although I never finished my thesis.”

“Well, I don’t know about physics but I do know that you’ll never find your way to where you want to go unless you know where you are now.”

The tannoy on the train interrupted them, announcing that there were suspensions on the Northern Line from the next stop in a tone that Alex recognised as more apologetic than Maria did. They changed at King’s Cross with a plan to follow part of the circumference of the Circle Line and then take a boat up the Thames. It would take longer but Alex figured that some time on the river would allow Maria to see some of the sites and might give him a better chance to explain the intricacies of a system of navigation that had, after all, arisen to guide people lost on the waves. He wasn’t altogether sure why he’d agreed to the trip but Maria had suggested it and had been roundly supported by Sarah and Rob, the three of them nagging him through yesterday evening until he’d agreed to show her the Observatory at Greenwich. Despite himself the idea of it had got under his skin, sparked something of the curiousity he’d often felt in his post grad days. He wasn’t booked out to a specific client this week so he’d taken a couple of days leave. He was long overdue holiday anyway. It was a standing joke in the house that he had so many days in lieu stacked up that he could spend all of next year in Cornwall. It had taken Rob some time to explain this to Maria. Looe. It’s a place in Cornwall. In lieu. Oh never mind.

The disruption that had forced the change of route seemed to be causing problems across the network. They made halting progress on the Circle Line before the train stopped at Liverpool Street. Alex felt his phone vibrate in his pocket as it picked up the station Wi-Fi and he reflexively pulled it out to check his messages. Maria watched his expression change as he stared at the screen, the frown, the slight slump in his shoulders. He looked up and took a deep breath. She saved them both the awkwardness.

“Do you need to be somewhere else?”

“I’m sorry. Really sorry. It’s a work thing. There’s a client audit that’s over running. They need an extra pair of hands to get it over the line by this evening. I don’t want to leave you in the lurch but…”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Maria. “I will find Greenwich just fine. 51 degrees north and zero degrees west, right?”

You were just humouring me,” said Alex. “How did you know that ?”

“I like to know where I am and where I’m going. Now, go on, go do whatever it is that your job needs you to do. I’m a grown woman. Go count things. Just promise you’ll let me tell you all about it tonight.”

“Okay, that sounds good. Just stay on this train to Tower Hill and then you should be able to pick up the boat service.”

Alex left the train, left Maria, just as the doors slid shut again. He turned to wave and she lifted her arm in response, a brief flash of white as her watch caught the glare of an overhead light. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered Prof Miller testily explaining relativity to them again, three of them sitting in his dusty study in Oxford, listening to the rain outside. He remembered listening for patterns and order in the rhythmic fall of water on pavement. Remembered debating the apparent randomness of rain with colleagues who went on to help discover gravitational waves. Discovered the universe’s pulse. Remembered letting his mind roam, untethered, to fathom the smallest particles and the largest spaces and the longest times. He knew, dimly, that he and Maria would observe that light on the train differently. Her from inside the carriage. Him watching her move with the train from the platform. They would see the light relative to their perspectives. The train cleared the platform and, buffeted by the sudden back draught, Alex turned and headed for work.

Maria closed her eyes. The contrast was a little too bright when the carriage was plunged into the darkness of the tunnel. She felt the familiar, nagging tingle in her hands and rubbed them together until it faded.

 

Friday

Maria had blacked out somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.  She’d woken up in the University Hospital Lewisham. They told her that she’d passed out in the planetarium at the Royal Observatory but in the darkness of the auditorium nobody had realised until the audience was returned from its tour of the solar system and the lights came back on. She remembered seeing the sun. Distended solar flares erupting across its writhing, fiery surface. It looked, to her, like an angry, malignant tumour seen in detail through a microscope. She remembered the perspective pulling away from the sun and the sensation of spinning, facing out towards the neighbourhood of planets. Accelerating past Mercury and Venus and Earth. Fragments of the commentary stuck in her memory. Not the scientific facts but the more human attributions. Mercury, named for the messenger of the gods. Blake writing in tribute to Venus. Speak silence with thy glimmering eyes, And wash the dusk with silver. She remembered Mars. Another angry, red circle. Remembered it growing on the screen above her until it filled her vision, seeming to throb and pulse, bringer of war, until she slipped from consciousness.

She was sitting up in bed when they arrived.

“God, we were so worried,” said Sarah. “When you didn’t come back, we just didn’t know what to think.”

“Are you okay?” asked Rob. “They won’t tell us anything because we’re not family or something. We tried to tell them that you’re our guest and that you don’t know anyone here but they said they can’t disclose information.”

Alex was silent. He hovered at the end of the bed, head down, shifting his weight between his feet.

“What happened?” said Sarah.

Maria closed her eyes. The telling was the thing she had found hardest in the last few months. The shock that she had felt in being told was something she felt again each time she passed on the news. She resented it. Resented seeing herself reduced to the victim of something random, an object of sympathy, in the eyes of those with whom she shared the shock. There were many things she had chosen to be in life and she wanted to be remembered for them. Not for this. Not this arbitrary act of war that her own body had declared on itself.

As she opened her eyes she pulled the delicately carved hair clip from its position above her left ear and laid it on the sheet in front of her. Tipping her head forwards she lifted her hair deftly from her scalp and placed it next to the clip, dark grey strands spread across the crisp whiteness of the bed. The exposed skin was smooth and pale save for a blotchy, swollen lump, crimson stained behind her right ear, the size of a dollar coin. It used to be the size of a dime. Look after the dimes and the dollars will look after themselves. That’s what Mom always used to say. She looked up at the three of them. Sarah had covered her mouth with her hand, eyes pricking with tears. Rob was shaking his head. Alex had pulled his arms across his chest, colour drained from his face. And then Sarah’s arms were round her and they were both crying.

In the aftermath, with the three of them perched on the edge of her bed, Sarah closest, Alex furthest away, she told them all of it. She told them that she had been diagnosed nine months ago, had been told the chemo wasn’t working three months ago, and that she’d taken the decision to abandon the treatment and live what time she had left. Maybe six months. They didn’t really know. It had brought a certain clarity to her thinking. Not peace exactly, she felt restless for life rather than reconciled to death. She told them that she’d lost her husband ten years ago. That they’d never had children – she paused as she recounted this, an unspoken regret – and she’d found herself alone. Initially, she admitted, she’d felt lost and had only really made sense of her new circumstances when she’d moved away from Wichita and deeper into the country where, eventually, she’d found a new sense of perspective under the broad and sweeping Midwestern skies. Found enrichment in the amplified solitude of a small town rather than the isolation she’d felt in a bustling, busy city.

They listened in silence, letting her talk. Sarah held her hand. Rob poured a glass of water. Alex grew increasingly agitated, rising from the bed and pacing the floor. When she seemed to have finished speaking he started to rock backwards and forwards on his heels. He spoke quietly and urgently.

“It’s unforgivable. I’m sorry. To leave you like that.” Words tumbled from him in a torrent, addressed as much to himself as to Maria. How could I have done that? Someone should have been with you. I should have been with. I was with you. And then I left. For an overdue audit. Left to count things when you were counting on me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. He was shaking his head, fists clenching and unclenching until Rob put his hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, hey Alex. It’s alright. This wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know. None of us knew.”

“Rob’s right,” said Maria softly. “Don’t blame yourself for this. I chose to take the trip and I don’t regret it. Whilst I still have choices I’m damned if I’m not going to use them. Please, please don’t blame yourself.”

“But I should have been there,” said Alex.

Maria stared at him until he met her gaze. He noticed the cataract in her eye, the smudged white dots, stars through an unfocussed telescope.

“Not for me,” she said. “You shouldn’t have been there for me. I made my choice and don’t need looking after Alex. You need to make your choices. Trust me. Make them before they get made for you.”

 

Saturday

It was late by the time Rob and Sarah arrived back at the house with Maria. She’d stayed at the hospital for twenty-four hours, reluctantly agreeing that she might need the rest but impatient to be away from the array of medical equipment and drugs and professionals that could do nothing for her. She’d joked with the nurses that she was like a diabetic with a sweet tooth in a candy store. You got nothing I can have but boy do I want it all. Sarah had insisted on organising a taxi, worried about the hustle and bustle of the tube on Saturday evening. Maria had agreed on condition that she paid, they use a black cab, and that they make the driver cross the Thames via Tower Bridge. She told Sarah that it’d be another landmark she could sketch for her game, another little source of dopamine for people playing, another marker to help them navigate. Sarah thought there was more of the tourist in Maria than she cared to admit and that she probably just wanted to see the strange castle on the river.

They crossed the Thames as the sun was going down, the towers on the bridge short and squat against the skyline in comparison to the jagged thrust of the Shard which dominated the view to the west. London was a city of silhouettes in the dusk, the fading light leaving just familiar shapes, the impression of places. Rob pointed out the sights as they appeared, sometimes just a momentary glimpse between office blocks and flats, and then a broader sweep of buildings as they crossed the bridge. A jumble of shapes and styles from the past and from the future. St Paul’s. The Gherkin. The Tower of London. City Hall. Traffic was unusually light and they didn’t get stuck as they crossed. Rob had hoped that perhaps they would so Maria would have more time to admire the view but she had to absorb it in less than a minute before they plunged into Whitechapel and everything closed in around them again.

When they stopped outside their house it was dark. The streetlight hadn’t been fixed and all of the lights inside were off. Rob let them in and called for Alex. There was no reply but it was then that they heard the shouts from outside.

……

Alex hadn’t gone back to the hospital. The others knew he blamed himself for what had happened but didn’t realise how hard it had hit him. He’d said he wanted a bit of time on his own and they’d respected that. In the time they’d lived together it was something they’d become used to. Rob teased him for being grumpy and they knew he’d never really settled into corporate life but neither of them thought there was more to it than that. If he was honest with himself he knew that the way he felt had a name. Depression. He should have been more clinical about it, more scientific, but he found it hard to apply his usual, objective mode of thinking to his own internal emotional landscape. He knew it had been getting worse and he could trace some of it to the small sets of decisions that had taken him further and further from the things that he’d thought of as making up who he was. He remembered the genuine disappointment that Prof Miller had expressed when he’d told him that he was giving it up. He hadn’t been angry and he’d even understood it – noone’s getting rich mapping the universe – but there was almost a resignation to it. A sense that another bright talent was about to be eclipsed by the need to make the rent. There had been occasional rational moments when he realised that he could just jack it all in, walk away from the office and start again. Lately those moments had come less often. The sane and reasonable voice in his head drowned out by a chorus of anxiety and regret and sadness.

Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of his fragile inner peace. It wasn’t just the guilt, on some level he knew that it wasn’t his fault, but the stark confrontation with mortality that had shaken him. There seemed to him to be a pointlessness to it. He’d always valued order and structure, causality and consequences, and whilst he could understand the facts of her disease he couldn’t explain why it was happening anymore than he could explain his own illness.

He put on his suit, straightened his tie, and headed up to the terrace.

……

Up on the roof Alex had his back to them. There was a small wall that ran round the sides of the terrace at knee height, there as a gentle reminder if someone got too close to the edge. You could perch on it and dangle your legs over the side of the house if you didn’t mind the guttering. None of them had ever thought of it as particularly dangerous. Early on the landlord had offered to put up a taller set of railings but they thought it would obstruct the view and had told him not to bother. Alex was standing on the wall, seemingly oblivious to the shouts from people in the flats in the adjacent street telling him to get down.

“What are you doing, Alex?” Rob spoke quietly, holding his arms out, palms down, trying to signal a sense of calm that he didn’t feel to Sarah and Maria.

“Alex, please,” said Sarah. “Just step down and let’s talk.”

Alex didn’t reply and didn’t move. It had been a cloudless day and the temperature was dropping now that the sun had gone, the air was still. Alex didn’t feel the cold through his suit. Pure wool. He vaguely remembered that fact had been important at work, they’d all been given pointers on personal presentation in the first year on the graduate scheme. A couple of the partners, knowing his background, had joked that he’d have to leave the cords and the elbow patches behind now that he was a professional. There’d been no malice in it. He hadn’t been offended. It wasn’t until later that he’d begun to reflect on his decision and wonder whether he’d got it badly wrong. It was Maria that broke the impasse.

“Where are you Alex?” He didn’t turn but this time he did reply.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

“Latitude. Start with that. Tell me our latitude,” nudged Maria.

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “How would I know that?”

“We’re not so far from Greenwich. I bet it’s roughly 51 degrees north and a touch over zero degrees west. How would you know if I hadn’t told you? You taught me this Alex.”

“A fixed reference point. You need a fixed reference point and then you can work it out.”

Across Islington the lights went out. Later it was reported as a power cut, some problem with a sudden surge on the National Grid causing fail safes to kick in and the electricity to switch off. Around them the shining rectangular frames, the windows of the surrounding flats and houses, winked out. The streetlights snapped off. Shakespeare Street went dark. As their eyes adjusted to the absence of light Maria walked across the terrace, reached up, and took Alex’s hand.

“Tell me what you see,” she said.

“You can never see much here,” he replied. “Usually just Venus and some of the brighter stars. The moon obviously, when it’s out.”

Rob and Sarah cautiously crossed the terrace and stood on Alex’s other side from Maria. Sarah took his other hand.

“I saw Mars at the planetarium,” said Maria. “It’s the last thing I remember before I fainted. Where would it be if we could see it now?”

Alex described its position relative to Venus and slowly began to tell them what he could remember about the positions of the distant objects they could see and the ones that they couldn’t. He was a little rusty but none of them would have known if he got anything wrong. He showed them Orion’s Belt, the three stars in a line that they could usually see above them, bright enough even when London wasn’t dimmed, and then he noticed the slightly skewed rectangle of Ursa Major. It was just visible now that the glare from the ground had been subdued and, just a slight turn of the head on from that, if he followed an imagined line from its two pointer stars, then he could make out Polaris. The North Star. He described it to the others.

“So you know where you are now,” said Maria squeezing his hand.

“It’s a start,” said Alex. “I could work out the latitude but you know longitude is always trickier than that.”

“Because we’re always spinning, always moving,” said Maria.

“Yes. Yes, we are. I just wanted to make it stop.”

“You can’t make it stop Alex,” she answered. “Not like this. It’ll stop for you, sure, but everything else keeps on spinning. You’ve got your fixed point up there,” she gestured at the sky, “and maybe you just need to pick your own fixed point down here. Your own Greenwich.”

“I think I had it,” said Alex. “I think I used to have it. Maybe I just need to find my way back to it again.” He stepped down from the wall and quietly accepted Maria’s embrace. Rob and Sarah clutched at his back and the four of them stood on the roof holding him as he wept.

They stayed out on the terrace until the power came back on about an hour later. Sarah had made them all tea and they’d sat staring across the rooftops, hands wrapped round warm mugs, steam rising into the night air. When the lights returned the stars overhead faded but all of them swore they could still see the North Star, unwavering, the sky rotating around it.

 

Sunday (One Year Later)

They had promised Maria that they’d watch the sun rise over Bryce Canyon and remember her. She had died in the Spring, the emails and Skype calls that they’d all maintained after she returned home from London becoming steadily less frequent as her illness took hold. They’d all wanted to fly out but she had insisted that they shouldn’t.

I am well cared for, come and remember me when I’m gone, she’d told them. Come and pick me out a diamond from the sky. Don’t let Alex tell you that stars and diamonds aren’t the same things either. I’ve been reading a lot now I’m stuck in bed and all the carbon in our solar system might just be the scattered dust from a dying star. Some of it must be diamonds and some of it must be us. I kinda like the idea that I’m built from a supernova. Don’t spoil it for me.

Alex, back now at Oxford, had called in a favour from one of the professors in the Chemistry department and persuaded him to send Maria a letter, on very official looking University headed paper, confirming that essentially, yes, she was made from stardust.

They had travelled to Kansas for the funeral. Sarah flew in from Montreal, Rob and Alex from Heathrow. Sarah’s design work from her sketches around London had picked up positive critical notices when the game had shipped and she’d taken a larger role in the Canadian office. She’d held firm on a flexible arrangement that left her enough time to paint and she’d just exhibited for the first time in a small downtown gallery. The others teased her when they met up – lead concept artist, putting on shows at Station 16, get you – but she could see how pleased they were for her. Despite them all leaving the house they were closer now than when they’d lived together. Rob had stayed in London but had needed to move a bit further out, his new job at the housing association didn’t pay well but he knew why he was doing it. Alex was back in Oxford, picking up the thread of his unfinished thesis, looking again for order in the chaos.

The three of them sat in silence as the first light of dawn stole over the jagged formations of the canyon, orange rocks warming into life, shadows extending. The last of the visible stars overhead slowly faded from view but they knew they were still there. Sarah had brought a flask and shared out paper cups of hot coffee to ward off the last of the night’s chill. It was a long time before anyone spoke.

“Thirty-seven degrees north. One hundred and twelve degrees west,” said Alex.

“What’s that?” said Rob.

“It’s where we are, isn’t it?” asked Sarah. “Co-ordinates.” Alex nodded.

“You’ll never find where you want to go unless you know where you are now,” he said softly.

“You getting all deep on us again,” said Rob. “Who said that?”

“Someone who always knew where she was. Someone who’ll be missed.” He raised his coffee in salute and the others held their cups up in a quiet toast as the sun began its steady ascent marking the new day.

 

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Union

Reunion

Your lips wear the same smile but your eyes look like they long tired of trying it on. There are creases at their corners. The lines around your eyes, the lines traced across your forehead, outnumber the ones at the turn of your mouth, on your cheeks. You look like you have cried more than you have laughed. There’s a hint of grey in your roots that the highlights don’t quite disguise. The fringe you used to look out from under has gone. Those rare glances, that flash, that spark. Back when you gave yourself up in glimpses. Back when you had something to give up. Now you meet my gaze openly, laid bare and empty. All given up.

It’s been what ? Eight years. Nine ? Ten ? We joke about the passing of time as a way to pass the time. What else should we say ? Hey, we were wrong. There won’t be someone else, someone better.

You wanted someone to travel the world with, someone you could curl up with under blankets reading the Sunday papers, someone who’d tag along round another visit to the Tate, someone who liked jazz and dancing and singing along to big power ballads after too much vodka. What should we say ? I hated airports, not the travel particularly, but airports specifically. That was a problem. I liked to kick back the covers, glance at the sports section, and then go search out more coffee. Tate, schmate. I don’t know if it’s art but I know what I like. And, yes, I can belt out “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” with the best of them. But jazz ? You know I drew the line at jazz.

I wanted someone who liked clubs where sweat dripped from the ceiling, someone who’d share a sneaky joint before catching a matinee re-run of Bladerunner at The Gate, someone who’d idle away the summer in the pub, someone who liked punk and bars with more beer pumps than seats and shouting the words to “God Save The Queen” in a late night taxi up The Mall. There’s nothing to say. You hated the smell of my kind of clubs in your hair in the morning. Like washing your hair in cigarette infused beer you said. It always smelled like being young to me. You wouldn’t smoke in public and preferred the original cut of Bladerunner with the voiceover. No-one prefers the version with the voiceover. And you said summer was too short to waste in the pub and that bars were for sitting and talking and that it was disrespectful to sing the Sex Pistols that close to the Palace. I think you were joking about the Pistols. And you were right about summer.

It’s been what ? Eight years. Nine. Ten. It’s been too long and not long enough. We joke about all the ways in which we just didn’t fit, just didn’t work, as a way of distracting ourselves from all the ways in which we did. What else should we say ? Hey, we were wrong. Turns out there wasn’t someone else, someone better.

My lips don’t smile quite as much as they used to and my eyes don’t even pretend to. There’s not so much creases at their corners as cracks, chiselled in place over years of screwing themselves closed. Shutting out the light and embracing the dark. I haven’t cried but I haven’t really laughed either. Just some numb state in between. There’s grey scattered across my hair that the tightly cropped cut doesn’t quite disguise. I used to stare at you, brazen in my attention. I couldn’t help it. My desire was an open secret back when I had something to offer. Something for you to take. Now I can’t meet your gaze, don’t want to see any trace flicker behind your eyes fade and fail. All burned out.

 

Union (him)

“We’re going on to Sally’s.”

It’s noisy in the club. Some band I didn’t catch the name of are hacking their way through The Jam’s “Start!” and our group, gathered loosely at the bar, are shouting to be heard over them. It’s noisy but I heard you clearly. I pretend I didn’t, exaggerate a cupped ear, point towards the band, and shrug. I just wanted to feel you lean in closer, feel your breath on my ear, smell the faint trace of perfume mixed with lemon vodka. You take a step in towards me and lightly rest your fingers on my arm. As you rise slightly on the balls of your feet to close the gap I catch a flash of green eyes hidden somewhere under layers of fringe and mascara. You smile.

“We’re going on to Sally’s. After this. If you wanted to come along then that’d be cool.”

It’s noisy in the cab. I don’t remember who flagged it down but I guess maybe Sally or Mike had sorted it out whilst we were talking on the pavement. You were telling me about backpacking through South America and wanting to learn the Argentine tango. I’d hooked my leg round the back of a lamp-post and thrown my head back with a triumphant “ole”. You’d laughed and pulled me into a dance hold – “not like that, like this” – and I felt your heel slide up the back of my thigh. I stared at you until you broke eye contact, shook your head laughing, and said: “Ole is Flamenco, twinkle toes.” The cab’s running through the main arteries of the city, taking us away from its heart. As the pulse of the night dims the more I become aware of my own. The windows fog up and I sketch a smiley before wiping it clean so I can try to see your reflection in the glass. You’re on the pull down seat opposite listening to Sally talk about the time she met Sister Bliss from Faithless. I’ve heard it before. The cabbie’s got the radio on and “God Save The Queen” rattles out of the speakers just as we turn up The Mall, circling the Palace. Me and Mike join in with a loud rendition as the girls try and drown us out with the national anthem. Fascist regime. Send her victorious. We mean it man. Long to reign o’er us. No future, no future, no future.

It’s quiet at Sally’s. Her and Mike have disappeared, apparently so she can show him some book he’d been asking her about. I’ve known Mike a long time and he’s not much of a reader. Me and you are sitting on a blue futon. I’m picking the label off my beer bottle and you’re idly swirling an ice cube around the inside of your tumbler.

“Sally hasn’t got that book,” you say.

I look at you. You’re tilting your head, hand behind your neck. Your hair has fallen away from your face and I trace the line of your jaw. Your lips twitch in a smile and there’s that flash of green again as you catch my eye. This time you don’t look away.

“Mike’s never heard of it anyway,” I reply. You laugh and I put a finger to my lips. Shh!

“Well I’m not going to sit here quietly and listen to them shagging,” you protest loudly. There’s a pause and then Sally calls from the next room: “we’re not shagging”. Another pause: “not yet anyway.” And then laughter followed by a few mock gasps and groans.

It’s quiet when we kiss. I was always bad at reading the signs. If you’d left it to me we’d have still been sat there arguing playfully about why jazz sounded like something musicians do before they start playing the song or swapping war stories of terrible first dates or how you couldn’t talk in pubs anymore or… You moved across the futon quickly, whispered “enough talking now, twinkle toes” and kissed me. Later you swear I said “ole”. It sounds like something I’d say but, honestly, I don’t remember anything after that kiss.

 

Union (her)

We had met before. I thought so anyway although you didn’t seem so sure. It had been at some mutual acquaintance’s house party just after I touched back down in London. I guess I might have come off as a little moody, everything had just seemed smaller somehow – narrower – than the possibilities of travel. I think Sally had introduced us and she probably didn’t help. She knew you from the crowd at the pub and presumably at some point you’d had a conversation about books as she pointed at you, declared that you were reading Kerouac’s “On The Road”, and then pointed at me and said “just back from travelling” before leaving us to work it out. (I’d known Sally a long time and talking to men about books was pretty much her default chat up approach: a shortcut to gauge taste, intelligence, and sensitivity quickly according to her although that didn’t quite square with the number of blokes she seemed to end up in bed with who hadn’t made it beyond Andy McNab and Dan Brown. I assumed either Kerouac or you hadn’t done it for her). Anyway we awkwardly shook hands – you had soft hands – and I said some stuff about Bolivia that always sounded better in my head and you said some stuff about Sal Paradise which I nodded at, not wanting to admit that I’d never made it past the first twenty pages of “On The Road”. Sparks didn’t fly. I wasn’t surprised you couldn’t place me. I remembered your hands. I didn’t feel that would be the right thing to say now.

There were a few of us catching up in some bar in Soho. I was enjoying it. It was quiet enough to talk but occasionally a snatch of “Sketches Of Spain” would float across the room from a hidden speaker. If I looked over my shoulder, back to the bar, I could see us reflected in the mirror between the optics. Maybe it was the drink but in reflected candlelight, filtered through stacked glasses and half empty spirit bottles, we looked kind of glamorous: a snapshot of how I always imagined living in London in my 20s would be. I teased my fringe, tried to find the right balance between hiding my eyes and being able to see, and it was then that I saw you looking at me. I don’t think you realised I knew. You were watching me directly, I could see you in the mirror. You were smiling. You had a soft smile.

I didn’t really enjoy the club and if I hadn’t have been staying at Sally’s I probably would have cried off. It was too loud, some crappy three chord wannabes were on stage and I missed being able to hear you. We’d talked in the bar. Not chatted; talked. I guess it had started as small talk, getting all that “have we met ? yes I think we’ve met. are you sure ? I think I would have remembered” stuff out of the way before settling into conversation. You were serious but there was a lightness to it, you always skewered yourself when you thought you were getting pretentious. And you were funny. Not that overbearing blokey version of funny where everything has to be banter, just, I don’t know, just dry and self deprecating and funny. I knew I was laughing enough and running my fingers through my hair enough that Sally would notice. She didn’t disappoint, chasing me into the toilets for an interrogation before making several indelicate comments about what she was planning to do with Mike later. I hadn’t met him yet. She chastised me: “that’s because you’ve been talking to the same guy all night”. And then: “want me to invite him back with us ?”

I didn’t get much say in it in the end. Sally did what she figured was best and next thing I knew we were spilling out of the warmth of the club, static hiss buzzing in our ears, and on to the street. I felt that fresh air head rush, an oxygen and vodka kick, and turned to see you wrapping yourself around a lamp-post. I thought you were propping yourself up but eventually clocked that you were showing me what you thought was an Argentine tango. I grabbed you and showed you the basic step, felt you tighten as my foot found the back of your leg. Felt your soft hands. Watched your soft smile. I think we might have kissed then if Sally hadn’t yelled that we needed to get our dancing asses into the cab.

Back at the flat Sally had long since pulled her literature to lover trick and was subjecting Mike to all of the things she’d described to me earlier. As far as we could tell Mike seemed okay with it. We talked and I realised that nothing would happen unless I moved first. I think that was one of the reasons I felt myself fall for you a little that night. There was never any presumption. You seemed serious again, vulnerable even. There was a tension between us now, when it had been so easy before, that would only be broken if that soft smile from those soft lips relinquished themselves in a soft kiss. I moved towards you. Eyes closed, hands touched, it started.

 

Communion

We all fall in love sometimes.

“Why’d you ask me back that night ?” He was playing with her hair, she was lying back across their sofa, head in his lap.

“I didn’t ask you back. Sally did. She’s always doing stuff like that. Just trying to speed things up, that’s what she usually calls it.”

“That’s not how I remember it. In the club, you asked me. I made you repeat it because I wanted you to lean in closer to me. I thought maybe you were just looking out for Sally, didn’t want her to have to go back with Mike on her own or maybe…” He played out a length of hair between finger and thumb, let it fall back across her cheek.

“Really ? Before the street tango ?” She shifted, pushing up onto an elbow, twisted her head to look up at him.

“Yeah, before I taught you to dance…”

“As if, twinkletoes. And, yeah, maybe I wanted to keep talking.” She paused, rolled her eyes up to look at the ceiling, slumped back into his lap. “Really ? I asked you ?”

Time doesn’t pass as a constant. It stretches and slows in the heady rush of the fall, snaps back to speed when reality intrudes. They’d been stretched out in their own little bubble of time for what felt like weeks, months, years. Enough time to open up the deep seams in the mines of each other’s hearts. Enough time to compress what they found and shared there into something precious: they surfaced something hard and pure and unbreakable from their core. That’s how it felt inside the bubble. Like they were perpetually on London Underground time: next train in two minutes but no train ever arrived. Always two minutes. If you could have watched the bubble, timed them on that imaginary platform of artificial time, you’d have only been there ten days. They’d spent every one of those ten together. Time’s not constant. They believed, in the bubble, that love was.

We all fall in love sometimes.

“What do you want to do ?” she asked suddenly, looking up at him, pushing her fringe out of her eyes.

“What now ? This afternoon ? They’re showing Bladerunner at The Gate. I’d be up for catching that if you fancy it.”

“No, I didn’t mean today,” she said. “What do you want to do about us ?”

“What do I want do about us ? I didn’t realise I got to decide all of that…” he said, smiling.

“Well, okay, I see what you mean. I didn’t phrase it very well. I mean…”

“How do I feel about you ?” he interrupted gently.

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess that’s what I was asking.”

Silence isn’t always empty. It has shape and weight when felt by two people connected by the terror of sharing their deepest vulnerability, and that weight changes and lifts as relief replaces the terror. The recognition that the prickly, discomforting swell of feeling in your guts is matched by its source. Butterflies seem to dance effortlessly except when they’re in your stomach. They’d both figured it out within a day of meeting, maybe even that first night, but neither would commit to giving it a name, giving it voice. Even inside the bubble.

“I… God, it feels so soon and I didn’t want to scare you but…” He tips his head back and picks out shapes in the cracks in the ceiling. Like the lines astronomers draw to show constellations but without the stars. A route map through the heavens. He measures each word carefully in his head. There’s Pegasus. That could be Orion. Just say it. If that’s Orion then the North Star would be just there. Say the words. My North Star. “I’m falling in love with you.”

She smiles and sits up. Leans over to kiss him on the cheek. Puts her arms around him. “Good. Because I’m falling in love with you too and I don’t want to do it on my own.”

The silence that settled now, as they embraced, holding each other fiercely, wasn’t empty. It carried the weight of the words spoken out loud, the sound long gone but the meaning, the implications, lingering, and it carried the weight of all their hopes, their fears, and their dreams. Silence isn’t empty. And they believed that love wasn’t either.

We all fall in love sometimes.

 

Disunion (him)

I wasn’t sure if you were pissed off because I didn’t want to come with you to Prague or pissed off that I didn’t want to look at throws in Ikea. Or it could have been the sheets again: you hated it when the smell of my Saturday night seeped its way into your Sunday morning. Lately, after a big night, I’d been crashing at Mike and Sally’s. You said you didn’t mind; I don’t remember when you stopped coming out with us. We tried to mix it up a bit, early on. Did things you were into. Ronnie Scott’s and piano bars and films on the South Bank, earnest discussions about the transient nature of things after we saw “Remains of The Day” with groups of men in roll neck sweaters and goatees and women styled exclusively in black: black hair, black nails, black clothes. (I was dying for the BFI to put on “Spinal Tap” just to see if the usual crowd showed up. I would have had a field day). Mono no aware. I got it. I just didn’t want to watch an entire festival of Japanese anime or another Ishiguro adaptation to reflect on it further. There’s only so much cherry blossom I need in my life. I wanted to stop standing around talking about how melancholy we all were, all are, and to get out there and live a little.

I’m guessing it was Prague. There was some piece you’d read in the Guardian on one of those long Sunday mornings with the supplements that listed the ten best jazz clubs in Europe. You’d seemed quite excited about it, started telling me about this place called Reduta, and how we should go. I think I made a vague noise to signal that I was listening which must’ve been lost in translation as next thing I know you’re checking flights on Skyscanner. The row didn’t start until you were asking me for my passport number. I tried to explain my whole thing with airports again – the apprehension, the stress, the people – but I’m not sure you believed me. I guess it does sound a bit weak, a bit like someone just making some shit up to avoid your European city break. It was true though. I couldn’t really handle airports. I’m an okay flier, it’s not that. It’s the anticipation of it. There’s just something funny that happens in my head when I have to queue up with hundreds of people to check that none of us are going to blow each other up. You said it was bullshit and went with some old friend instead.

I like London. I don’t really need anywhere else and I couldn’t understand your need to explore. To be honest it was even narrower than that. I liked specific bits of London. Three or four dirty clubs, usually down some half hidden set of stairs off a street in Soho and usually the sort of place you didn’t worry too much about why your feet stuck to the floor. A couple of pubs. Proud Mary’s for coffee and an unfussy breakfast. And The Gate serviced all of my re-run cinema needs. That was pretty much it and it was enough for me. I could live a little in my little corner of London. But it wasn’t enough for you. At first we at least shared The Gate together and you’d tagged along on my semi regular afternoon excursions, laughing as I puffed a hurried joint as we walked into Notting Hill. It was cheaper to go the The Gate and chemically enhance the experience than mess about with a Multiplex. You always declined when I offered you the roll up although we used to share a smoke sometimes curled up in bed late at night listening to Jeff Buckley. I think that was as close as we got musically. Enough blue notes for you and enough distortion for me. That was when we seemed happiest though, watching tendrils of smoke curl to the ceiling before you’d nudge your head into my neck and ask if I wanted to dance. That was your code for sex. You always thought it sounded more romantic and I guess it did. We’d dance whilst Jeff crooned “Hallelujah” and, on a good night, “Lover You Should’ve Come Over” as our soundtrack in the background, our rising sighs eventually eclipsing his.

I had this idea of us when we started out. The idea us would catch a tube up to Queensway, walk through Hyde Park, dodge the tourists visiting Diana’s memorial. We’d pull our coat collars up against the cold, you’d slip your hand into mine inside my pocket and drag me down to the gallery at the Serpentine. You’d try not to laugh as I gave my considered judgements on whatever exhibition was running. I’d try to pretend I wasn’t impressed, moved even, by your reflections on the art. You understood that stuff but you wore it lightly; it was all bluff with me. Then we’d walk past the lake, if it was really cold there’d be fog rising where the water touched the bank and we’d head down towards it. I liked to imagine us as two translucent figures disappearing from view, suspended in the magical mist. Mono no aware. I guess I’m not immune after all. As the afternoon faded we’d mooch over towards Mayfair, waltz into one of the big hotels like we belonged and settle in for the early evening; drinking cocktails we couldn’t really afford. Like we were just about to pass “go” and the two hundred pounds was coming. Then we’d find a quiet restaurant up on the outskirts of Soho, talk into the night, before heading home on the tube. We’d put on Jeff, share a smoke, and then dance ourselves to sleep. That was the idea of us and, for the longest time, that was the reality of us.

You used to say that love was like the bit in the middle of one of those circle pictures we used to do in maths. What do you call them ? Venn diagrams. The middle was the bit where we overlap. We don’t spend so much time in each other’s circle anymore.

 

Disunion (her)

I was aware it was happening but I didn’t know what to do about it. I hesitate to use an analogy from jazz – because I know you don’t like jazz – but there’s sometimes a moment in an extended piece, in an improvisation, when the players realise that they’ve lost the spark of what they were doing. They’re still producing notes, occasionally riffing back on refrains that previously worked, but something has changed and the music has gone stale. I’m finding myself reaching for sequences that have always served me well before. I can be your art loving, free spirited traveller if that’s what you want me to be. I can be your serious talker; setting the world to rights, musing on the impermanence of things, and arguing the toss over the voice over in Bladerunner. I still can’t believe you thought I was serious about that. Give me some credit: nobody thinks it needs the voice over. Maybe if things were different we could have a real discussion about that unicorn dream sequence though. Is that the trouble now ? I used to be all of those things but I used to be funny as well. And I used to be just me. Not a version of me that was for you but just me. In fact, I was never more me than those first few months that I was with you.

So I knew something had shifted. If we’d have been having dates at the beginning like we were having dates now then we’d have never made it this far. There was something there still between us but it wasn’t enough. We were waiting for someone to telegraph a concluding descending scale so that we could clumsily end our improvisation. A cue for the song to finish. There would be no polite applause. Who am I kidding ? Impromptu musical jams might end like that but relationships don’t. It would be more likely that one of us would hurl our instrument to the floor and exit stage right leaving a squall of feedback in our wake, the other left alone on stage blinking in the spotlight. Part of me wishes that one of us would. It’d be better than this drawn out decline.

You’re out again. I think you were meeting up with Mike and Sally and I guess you’ll end up treading your familiar route from The Adelaide into the West End. Recently you’ve been trying to persuade me to come to some 90s night at the Borderline so maybe you’re there. I didn’t really fall for Britpop the first time round so I’m not sure that nostalgia is going to lend it anything emotionally for me this time round. You were babbling about how you’d had a drunken moment of clarity the week before during “Live Forever”. We see things they’ll never see. That’s us, you declared. Me and Mike and Sally. I wasn’t sure which “me” you’d meant. I didn’t see those things that they, apparently, will never see so I wasn’t convinced it was me you meant in your boozey epiphany. But I did remember when we – just me and you – did see things that no-one else saw. When we were so in tune that we could sit in a group, noise and chatter flying about us, and we’d exchange a glance, the slightest look, and each other instantly knew what the other thought.

You’re out and I’m home and I’m mainlining power ballads like some Bridget Jones cliche. I’m a lousy drinker when I’m on my own but I’ve made an effort with a makeshift cosmopolitan. There’s no triple sec so, technically, it’s vodka and cranberry juice but that just seems slightly pitiful. Sitting home alone drinking vodka cranberry is for losers but sitting home alone making cosmoplitans  is a different thing entirely. I’ve even got one of those little umbrellas. I can toast our demise with a degree of class. And various love lorn anthems. I’m giving a full throated if slightly off pitch rendition of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” when upstairs bang on their floor in irritation and I have my own moment of clarity: I’m through half a bottle of vodka, enough cranberry juice to permanently cure all cystitis in West London, and murdering Bonnie Tyler. I crawl to bed.

You’re not there, not even in traces, the usual faint residual scent of you absent on your pillow. I washed the sheets and now I wished that I hadn’t. I miss you.

 

Reunion (reprise)

You look surprised to see me and maybe even a little embarrassed. Perhaps she hadn’t told you that I might be coming. Most of all you look older. I know that’s a stupid thing to say after nine years but it’s what strikes me the most; you’ve hastened your hair’s natural retreat by cropping it back and it’s fading to grey. You’re carrying more weight now. Not a tummy exactly but everything’s a little looser, I have to work at making out the line of your jaw. I suppose that if we’d seen each other more often – or at all – then the change wouldn’t be so marked. I can see how the increments would have accumulated over time, I just get to see all of them unfolded at once. It’s enough to send me to the toilets so that I can find a mirror, try to see what the impact of nine years has had on my own face. I can’t judge. I’m too used to seeing it every day and it’s been a long time since I was the person that you knew who peeked up and out from under a fringe. I think I used to hide behind it in the hope of being found. I don’t hide anymore and I’m not looking to be found.

When we talk it’s less awkward than I’d expected. There’s a moment as we meet when the slightest inclination of your head suggests that, maybe on auto-pilot, you’re thinking of greeting me with one of those cheek brushes that seems to have become the standard in our 30s. The older we get the less contact we seem to want. In our 20s it was all hugs and embraces. And, for me and you, the tango of course but it’s a long time since I did any dancing. I shift backwards slightly and offer my hand. Less contact. We touch and I remember the softness of your skin.

When you meet back up with someone after a long absence there’s only really two places the conversation can go. What are you up to now or do you remember when…? We start with the now and keep it light; you’re working up in Harrow, a tech start up that I didn’t catch the name of, and I’m dividing my time between travelling and freelancing, sometimes combining the two. Writing about jazz clubs ? You offer it with a tentative smile, a cautious prod at the thin ice covering the deep waters that are our former lives together. You were always good at that. Finding ways to get me to open up, unlocking the private chambers of my heart, leavening and lightening my seriousness without belittling it. You wouldn’t have let ‘private chambers’ pass without a gag either. I catch myself missing that. Missing the fun we had, even when it was innuendo and bad puns. Writing about jazz clubs. You know me too well. I haven’t really changed. And he nods, sadly, and says: no, no you haven’t. 

We’re saved from our small talk by the arrival of the cake. Mike’s carrying it in, thirty five candles flickering and illuminating Sally’s name spelled out in icing. I knew that there’d been a similarly large celebration at her 30th but I’d been out of the country, it was the summer I spent in New Orleans. She’d never been one to pass up a party and this gathering had been billed as the warm up event for her 40th. It wasn’t clear if her and Mike were planning to do this every year but I already knew this’d be the last time I saw them. I didn’t know how I’d feel when I saw her again. Watching her about to blow out the candles, the flames dancing under her easy smile, I could see why it had happened. She’d been a pretty girl and now she was an attractive woman, lively and confident and larger-than-life. The size of her personality was still in inverse proportion to her dress size. I don’t know whether she’d ever told Mike but something about the way they are together, the way he still tracks her movements around the room, rests his hand lightly around her waist when they’re close, makes me think that she never did. Maybe she never thought it was a big deal. Better to hide the truth to stop people from getting hurt; it was just a drunken mistake.

I can clearly remember when you told me. That morning in the kitchen in the flat. Things hadn’t been great for a while but the connection between us held fast. A little frayed but it held. I don’t think either of us really knew how we were going to resurrect what we’d had at the beginning but if you’d asked us then I think we’d have said we wanted to. We were incandescent falling in love but didn’t know what to do when the boil settled to a simmer. Maybe we’d have found the right ways and the right moments to turn the heat back up if we’d had more time. I slept with Sally. Four words that took three seconds to say between two people and to break one heart. I slept with… You were half way through saying it again, tears forming in your eyes, but I didn’t hear it. I was shaking my head, trying to dislodge the words. You stepped towards me extending your arms, saying you were sorry over and over and over again, but for each step you took forwards I took one away until my back bumped against the front door. It was our last tango. I held onto my tears until I’d slipped out the door and fled to the street.

I wound up on Shepherd’s Bush Green sobbing on a bench until some homeless guy offered me a swig from his last Special Brew. Looking back there was something blackly funny about it I suppose. Perhaps I should have invited him to sit down, maybe we could have gotten drunk and duetted on some power ballads, howling incoherently at the early risers and late finishers making their way across the park. He looked a bit like Meatloaf and I had enough mascara smudged around my eyes that I could’ve passed as that witchy woman he sometimes sings with. Anything for love but we won’t do that. Instead I smile at him, decline the proffered can, and ask if he’s okay. We chat for a bit and I give him some change for a coffee or something. I’ve seen enough bad movies that I was half expecting him to turn out to be a philosophy lecturer down on his luck offering up wisdom for the lost, or an angel testing people to see if they’re worth saving, or a lonely multi millionaire in disguise, waiting for the right person to bestow his fortune on. The best he offers is “people aren’t reliable, you can’t trust them” before he shuffles off across the Green towards the Off License.

Sally leans forwards and chases the flickering flames across the cake with the most extravagant exhale she can muster. She gets them all bar two. Thirty three candles marked now by a smudge of black smoke slowly rising into the air and two that stubbornly still burn. I look up and you’re staring at me. I hold your gaze as Sally swoops on the final pair, snuffing them out with another quick puff of air. Each reduces to a glow, like an echo of the fire they once were, and are then extinguished.

All My Friends

Clare

Remember that time when we danced in the kitchen to “All My Friends”? It was the end of the night, all of us back together, ten year anniversary meet up. Later on the two of us had drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of “Astral Weeks” floating up through the floorboards, rising like a soft, sweet spell through the house. The covers were still kicked off the bed, lost in the urgency of our prior entanglement. The last thing I heard before you started calling my name, over and over, breath rising faster, coming now in gasps, was Van singing love to love to love to love to love to love and then, for a good long while there was no sound except the beating of your heart, my head collapsed on your chest, your fingers in my hair. I guess I never learn.

I woke up around five a.m., skin raised in bumps against the early morning chill. You must have rolled across the bed at some point in the night taking the duvet with you. Part of me saw the funny side; everything between us in bed had been the same as it always was and you stealing the covers was no different. You were always selfish in bed. To be honest I’d been drunk enough this time that I couldn’t even remember if I’d come last night or even if I particularly cared.  I sat for a while on the edge of the bed, arms criss-crossed, knees pulled up to my chest, hands rubbing some warmth back into my body. The room was stale with the smell of last night’s booze and last night’s sex. The sun would be rising soon and it felt like watching it might be my only consolation from a predictable and miserable weekend. I pulled on some clothes and left the room as quietly as I could. Not out of concern. I couldn’t face another one of our morning-after conversations.

The night’s black was softening to a dark blue as I left the house. Someone was asleep on the sofa in the lounge, TV fizzing with static lines opposite them. The kitchen looked like a Tracey Emin installation, there was a skyline of discarded, empty bottles arranged in a line on the table we’d all sat round for dinner a few hours ago, and the floor was strewn with a set of clues about how the evening had gone. Several corks. Smudged cigarette ash. Somebody’s iPhone. A bra. Not mine. Too big. I guessed maybe it was Lizzie’s. A pair of Levi’s. Also not mine. I couldn’t place them but I knew they weren’t yours. I remembered enough to know we’d made it upstairs still dressed. I knew because the anticipation of you was always what tripped me up, seemingly even after all this time. Van was still singing quietly from the speaker in the kitchen. Stuck on repeat through the night.

It was chilly outside but the air cleared the fog in my head; the cold felt like clarity, cutting through last night’s heat. It had been a surprise to see you and maybe that’s why all my good intentions turned bad. What’s that saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It wasn’t hell. At best it was two old friends rekindling something they once sort of had. At worst it was a drunken reunion fuck that didn’t last long enough to remember why we’d ever slept together in the first place. You seemed to enjoy it so I guess I could console myself with the fact that I’ve still got it. The worst of it really is that it happened, that I let it happen, made it happen even. It had been a good night, catching up with old faces and kicking around the times we’d all been together before, living on top of each other in student rentals and cooking up another variation on pasta and tuna, or toast, endless rounds of toast, and drinking cheap sherry straight from the bottle before we’d head out to some retro 70s night at the Union. It was only ten years on and now it was all Prosecco and tagines – one meat, one vegetarian – and swapping stories about first homes, second homes, mortgages, trips to Ikea and how many weddings there had been this year. Underneath I guess it was still the same. The dynamics in the group settled into the same rhythms. Me and you settled into the same rhythm.

How could I have been so fucking stupid? You hadn’t changed. The same cock-sure smile, the same easy conversation, the same self-assuredness. When you’d told me you were “in the City” now I nearly spat out my wine. It was too obvious and too perfect. Of course you were “in the City” and, no doubt, perfectly at home there. You didn’t look surprised when I said I was teaching. God, I think you even said something, it could have been “good for you” like the patronising twat you are and, instead of turning away and joining back in the conversation about that night we all moved our mattresses out of our rooms and slept outside in the Quad when we were all in Halls, I smiled and thanked you. I was like a needle being dropped on vinyl. I just settled back into a groove that had been well worn in years ago and let the same old song spin. We both knew the tune and the words. It’s a song I thought I’d given up singing.

The sun lit the horizon and a honey-glow spread across the gardens around the house. Birds began to chatter and trill, breaking the stillness of the dawn. My head was starting to ache and so I headed back into the wreckage of the kitchen to see if somewhere amid the carnage there was a packet of paracetamol. Even just a glass of water. Something to shake the pain. I guess, misguided as I was, that’s all you were the night before. Something to shake the pain.

 

Jon

I’d spent too much time stuck talking to Neil. He’d cornered me as I’d gone over to the laptop – Jo’s I think – that was acting as jukebox for the evening. The screen was cycling through a bunch of old photos, all of us back in the day; a ragbag assortment of early 90s band tee-shirts, ill advised fringes, over sized graduation gowns, that weekend we went camping in the Peak District and tried to find magic mushrooms, out of focus shots of the inside of pubs, young blurred faces refracted through half full pint glasses and bottles of Diamond White. It was strange seeing us like that, all digital. Pictures had never formed part of our moments back then, they were something you dug out and looked at weeks after the event. I was surprised she’d kept them and gone to the trouble of scanning them all in. I’d long since discarded all but a handful of mine and I think I preferred our youth when it was analogue and disposable.

Me and Neil had been pretty close for a while. I’d been a bit surprised that he’d been invited as I knew the others had been happy to lose touch after we’d all drifted off after college. He’d single handedly got me through the stats modules on our course and I was grateful for that. He was lousy at reading people for someone that had a degree in psychology though, and all of the reasons why our friendship had waned over the years came back to me as he picked apart every song choice I made trying to liven things up after dinner had been cleared away. The Wonderstuff. Like a watered down Waterboys, they sounded old back then, let alone now. Okay then, The Waterboys. Celtic music for people that have never been to Scotland or Ireland, roots music for people with no roots. Nirvana. Pixies with a poster boy but without Kim Deal. Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Two words. Slap. Bass. And on and on. Eventually I put on LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and left him mid sentence (New Order moved to New York, hired a publicist and started self referring constantly…) to cajole the others into dancing.

We were all pretty drunk and the effects of the alcohol, as well as some kind of nostalgia muscle memory, pulled everyone into place in the room as if we were all back, 19, 20 years old, as if nothing had happened to any of us since. I slipped back into my patented head down indie-shuffle, only now without my hair dropping across my face. What was it Lizzie used to say to me? Something about eyes being the windows on the soul so why did I cover mine with a pair of curtains? She was up and dancing too, as unrestrained and enthusiastic as she always had been. She still sang along loudly, seemingly untroubled by actually knowing the words although, by the end, she’d picked up the “where are your friends tonight?” refrain which she embellished with an expansive sweep of her arms which seemed to signify that said friends were right here. It was a bit literal. Clare was dragging Richard on to our make-shift dance floor. We’d all seen this before and knew how it ended. I watched her flick her hair, tilt her head to one side, saw her beckon to him with an out-stretched finger. He took his time, all casual disinterest, eventually  acquiescing with a hands-up gesture of mock surrender and then they were circling each other, orbiting closer and closer until he leant in, whispered something in her ear and they both laughed. I remembered too many nights and too many mornings picking up the pieces and forced myself to look away. Clare was as beautiful, as out of reach, as stupid as I remembered. But I think I still loved her and so I guess I was just as stupid too.

Later, as everyone started to drift off to bed, I put on Van Morrison, a gentle serenade for sleep. It was the record playing that one time we made love. You teased me about it for the longest time afterwards – it was just a drunken shag, Jon – but I know what it really was. To me at least. Another night that had started dealing with the fall out from another of your run ins with Richard but had ended with your mouth on mine, nails dug into my back. The way young lovers do. Sweet thing. Slim slow slider. Van was singing those sensuous songs just for us, the melodies swirling like tendrils of smoke around us as we entwined.

Now he was just singing them for me and my memory of you. Through the ceiling, from somewhere upstairs, I heard laughter and then, steadily, the rhythmic knocking of a headboard. I turned the music up and poured another glass of wine.

 

Lizzie

It was all fabulous. Exactly as I’d pictured and planned it: the cottage, the reunion, the long rambling walk through the countryside, the dinner and drinks, the old times marked by a new time together. I’d seen the cottage in a magazine and knew instantly, surreptitiously ripping out the page and stuffing it into my handbag, nonchalantly glancing up to see if anybody in the waiting room had noticed. I just knew. We all had to get back together and it had to be there. It was the impulsive Aries in me but there was something so right about it that I spent the next few days trawling social media, tracking everyone down, getting this thing set up. The girls had pretty much all said yes straight away – Clare needed a bit of a pep talk – and once the boys knew that the girls were coming then they’d all fallen into line. Just as I knew they would. Predictable boys who’d become predictable men. Fun though. Hopefully they’d be caught unawares by unpredictable Lizzie.

The cottage leaned towards the ramshackle side of shabby-chic, all of the furniture was not so much distressed as pleading for help, but I still loved it. For the longest time I just stood outside taking in the sweet smell of the wisteria clambering up a trellis on the front of the house, a riot of pink and purple to rival the contents of my make up bag. Okay, almost rival. I had hoped the others would arrive to discover me resplendent in front of the flowers, perhaps toting a small glass of something fizzy, reading something serious and romantic like Emily Bronte or Daphne Du Maurier but a local farmer started muck spreading in the next field along, ruining the ambience, and I remembered that I’d only bought Jilly Cooper’s “Riders” with me anyway so I waited for them all inside.

If I was completely honest with myself my heart did sink a little when I first opened the door. The apparently very recently applied disinfectant didn’t quite mask the slightly musky, damp smell, as if someone had hurriedly tried to clean up after two wet dogs. Not dogs like my beloved Judy either, more like the ones that chased her around Hampstead Heath trying to mount her. Poor thing. Their outsized amorous attentions always reminded me of that unfortunate night I spent with Giles from the First XV who insisted on initiating sex by calling a scrum, shouting that he was about to bind on, before declaring ‘ball coming in now’ at the moment of penetration. He had a sticker on his door in Halls that read “I like playing with odd shaped balls: do you?” which I assume he meant as a joke but the strange thing was that he really did have very odd shaped balls. I told him he should probably get them checked out and we never really saw each other again after that.

I opened a few windows to let in some air – mostly slightly pungent manure tinged air – and bagged myself the best bedroom. Huge double bed – why not be optimistic – and the only en suite bathroom. The bath boasted a stained in tide mark, a yellowing brown line running a couple of inches below its top, but it was nothing that half a bottle of Molton Brown wouldn’t hide. An explosion of bubbles and a few carefully placed candles, quietly exhaling lavender and sandalwood, and it would suffice. I now hoped the others would arrive to discover me ensconced in foam, reclining, glass of champagne in one hand, spurting shower head in the other, their imaginations running wild, assuming they’d caught me in flagrante, exclaiming at my outrageousness. Sadly the plug didn’t fit flush in the plug hole and the bath would only stay full if I sat on it, the combination of that digging in to my buttocks and the taps poking me in the back forced me to give up. The shower didn’t work properly either. There wasn’t enough pressure to rinse clean the bath oils from my skin let alone get me worked up into a lather.

But it was fabulous. Really it was. When they all did finally arrive I felt as excited as I had the night Daniel Braithwaite had introduced me to his tongue piercing. Something of an oversight not inviting him to be honest although none of the others had really taken to him. Such prudes. It was wonderful. We talked and ate and then, later on, we danced in the kitchen. Someone had put on that Vic Reeves “Dizzy” song that had been out when we’d been at Uni and, just like they used to, everyone had changed the words to “Lizzie”. I was a little tipsy and had spun on the spot, the room blurring, faces from the past flickering in and out of view. I think Jason had caught my arm as I slowed down, stumbling a little, head still spinning long after my body had stopped. I was tipsy but not so drunk that I couldn’t still feel the lump under my breast rubbing against the underwire on my bra. Since it’d grown I’d stopped wearing all of the lacy stuff that I liked, settling for something more comfortable – god forbid, even those hideous sports bras – but I’d made an exception tonight. Just in case. To feel more comfortable I ran my hand up my back, unhitched the clips, and made great show of wriggling the straps free from my shoulders, pulling the bra free from under my top before dropping it in the middle of the kitchen floor. The others found it hilarious, bellowing “Lizzie” along with the song even more loudly; just another moment of spontaneous, delicious outrage to add to my long list.

After I went to bed, alone, I found, in my handbag, the photo of the cottage that I’d ripped from that magazine in the waiting room a few months ago. You get a decent class of magazine in the oncology ward at London Bridge. Next to the photo was an unopened letter with the hospital’s address stamped on the front and my test results inside. I turned it over in my hands and, like all the other times, teased at a small tear on the top of the envelope with a fingernail. A perfectly polished, manicured fingernail. I put the envelope back in my bag. It would be fine. No, it would be fabulous.

 

Jason

I was pretty drunk but that was not unusual so I had no problem catching Lizzie’s arm, steadying her as she stumbled over her dance steps. It was like I’d re-calibrated my own sense of sobriety over the past couple of years; no drink at all left the world too sharp, too acute and I needed a few units to take the edge off it. Otherwise there was just too much of everything. I suppose I was aware that it was taking a little bit more, steadily month by month, to blunt the razor. I was aware but I had no interest in stopping.

It had been an effort to come. Lizzie was hard to say no to, just like old times. Somehow she’d worn me down, stalking me on social, filling my mobile with texts, piling up mail in my in box. I wasn’t really in touch with the others and so perhaps curiosity had gotten the better of me. They’d all sent messages after 7/7 but Lizzie was the only one that I’d seen in person, insisting on taking me out to various pubs in Highgate, plying me with gin until I’d loosen up enough to talk about it all. Most of those nights ended in tears – my tears – and her arms around me, whispering that I needed to let it out. She meant well but I always felt like her therapy 101 approach to my psychological welfare was akin to her approach to parties when we’d all known each other as students: she was brilliant at making a mess but lousy at clearing up afterwards.

In the end it’d been the promise of some peace in the country that had convinced me. I think Lizzie had sent everyone an invite with a screen grab from Withnail & I on it underscored with a stolen line from the film: “what we need is fresh air, harmony, stuff like that”. Maybe she didn’t realise quite the extent to which I’d been drifting into the arena of the unwell, to steal another line, but seeing Richard E Grant’s disheveled indignance stirred something in me; one washed up, booze soaked loser calling to another. London wasn’t good for me anymore, I knew that. I was double dosing on beta blockers and citalopram just to function, slooshing the pills down with a glass of red on a good day and a bottle on a bad one. I’d started travelling in the rear of tube trains because I figured if someone was going to blow themselves up they’d be near the front, cause more damage as the momentum of the trailing carriages concertinaed into each other. I’d started applying rational assumptions to irrational acts carried out by lunatics. What did that make me?

If you’d have asked me before that day, before the smoke, before picking my way through darkness, nostrils filled with the scent of charred flesh, mouth stung with the iron tang of blood, before the starter-gun blast that had left my ears permanently tuned to a constant background of static, before hearing the confused, frightened cries for help, if you’d asked me just before then I’d have said I missed them all. Lizzie and Jo and Neil and Clare and Richard and Jon and Gina. There had been a time when that was our little universe, each of us orbiting the others. Afterwards a distance opened up. I guess the explosion pushed me out, gave me enough velocity that I just flew off into the darkest reaches of space. How do you break orbit? What would I know? Neil could probably explain it but none of us ever really had the patience for listening to him explain his degree except Jon. And even Jon seemed to give up on him after a while. Everything changed that day. I changed that day and they became, pretty much in an instant, strangers to me.

Nothing in the weekend had caused me to change my view. I saw all of the old routines play out but felt detached from all of them. I used to be a part of it but now I just felt like I was watching a bad remake of The Big Chill or, worse, Peter’s Friends. Jesus, let it be me that’s saved up for the end of the film as the big reveal: I’ll be the one with the incurable disease or the one that died or the one that’s about to be murdered. So I did what I always did lately and I drank. It made the movie more bearable. It slowed things down enough, dialed down my twitchy anxiety enough, to catch Lizzie’s arm as she faltered. I watched her dancing, the others calling her name in time to the song, and watched her unhook her bra, drop it to the floor. Everyone cheered. Same old Lizzie. It reminded me of something we used to do and I thought this was her last attempt to bring me back, to tractor-beam me back into their constellation.

I dropped my jeans, swung my hips in an exaggerated fashion. Lizzie mock spanked me just like all those nights a lifetime ago, all those nights before, and the others laughed and called out encouragement. I fixed a smile on my face and tried to tune in to the joy, to the nostalgia, concentrating on gyrating my hips, forcing as much comedy as I could from the simple act of removing my trousers, but it was drowned out in my head by screams and fire.

 

Jo, Jo Jo, Joanna

I’m Joanna now. For at least the last five years. Joanna. No, not Jo. Definitely not Jo Jo. Nothing that you can play back to me across the span of years separating us as we are today, all thirty something and figuring we can get on with things now that we know who we are, and how we were then, nebulous, not quite set, wobbling around in the moulds we’d crafted in adolescence, cooling into the hard and fast people we were going to be. No name, in short, that you can append with any of the rhyming prefixes that marked those years together and which, at the time, I had laughed along with. Blow Jo. The time Richard regaled seemingly the whole campus with a tale about our oral adventures. My oral adventures. He wasn’t one to reciprocate which was unfortunate as his three minute missionary mission hadn’t exactly knocked me out of orbit. Houston, we have a problem. Or flow Jo. A personal favourite; a fairly routine, clumsy mishap spilling the contents of my bag onto the floor one night in the pub sparking tampon related hilarity and an incident in which a pint of snakebite and black was soaked up in its super absorbent layers. Crow Jo. I dressed in a lot of black then, stayed pale, went heavy on the mascara, dyed my hair, listened to the Sisters and All About Eve and the Mission, so I vaguely understood this one. Of all of them this was probably the one I’d been happiest to wear as a label back then; their intentions may not have been entirely good but I wore this one like a badge of honour. I’m pretty sure there were others: slow Jo (always late), go Jo (always first to leave), and various comments on my sexual proclivities or otherwise (no Jo if I batted away some cack handed, groping pass from an unwelcome suitor or pro Jo if I decided to have some fun and it was, in the classic male-female double standard, deemed too soon or, heaven forbid, a one night stand).

Joanna suited me better these days. I think they’d all been surprised that I’d cut back my hair, neat bob, still jet black, and they were a little thrown by the suit. I’d come straight from the office. I assume, perhaps, they thought I’d turn up in the bat mobile or astride a giant raven or something rather than in my standard issue, company scheme Ford Mondeo. It was white, had too many miles on the clock for its age, and struggled to start on cold mornings. It got me from A to B and served as a neat metaphorical expression of where I was in my life. I’d spent a decent part of that first evening with all of us back together trying to imagine what each of the others would choose to drive but had given up after pegging Clare as wanting an Alfa – looks lovely, slightly aggressive, but completely unreliable and will always let you down – but needing a Golf – something steadfast and whilst not that sexy to look at, actually quite exciting underneath if you picked up the right model. One of the merits, or otherwise, of working in a brand consultancy was that I could now reduce almost any emotional expression to a mental exercise that shorthanded human behaviour to car choice or likelihood of being life and soul of a party or best-fit celebrity. Clare would be Jennifer Aniston: likeable but doomed to make terrible romantic choices. At a party she’d be the one flirting and subsequently sleeping with the guy with whom she’s done all of this before, writ large, whilst her old friends look on with quiet pity and the man that actually loves her, is obsessed with her, watches in drunken despair. Oh look, that’s exactly what she is doing. Maybe there’s more to those brand projection techniques than I give them credit for.

My main concession to my past, to the old Jo that they’d all known, was to bring my laptop so that, at the very least, the weekend would be soundtracked appropriately. I wasn’t selfish enough to turn every evening into a re-creation of a night out at Sector 5 but I knew that once everyone was suitably refreshed that I’d get away with chucking on ‘Temple Of Love’ or ‘In Between Days’ or, at a push, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. Turns out that I  totally didn’t get away with the Bauhaus. Neil and Jon took over DJ duties at that point to enthusiastic encouragement from the others and played the hits as remembered through everyone’s indie-tinted glasses, presumably with those thick rimmed NHS prescription frames. Some time later, after what seemed like a long discussion, they settled on LCD Soundsystem which I’m not sure was likely to unite the new, shiny us in the same way that, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit united the memory of us. I liked it more than Jo would have: she was a bit more militant about that sort of thing. She would have found it a bit too arch, a bit too knowing. I just danced.

I danced and I remembered. It was like I’d always been on the periphery before, always observing, and a flood of memories came back seeing them all again. Jason holding an upside down, empty pint glass on his head, tears of beer streaking down his cheeks, other hand raised in celebration. Neil asleep on Jon’s floor surrounded by vinyl, the two of them sharing music into unconsciousness. Gina in the library with the lead piping. No, seriously, Gina in the library, protesting as me and Clare dragged her out to join us in the Union on a Friday afternoon. Richard, in a rare moment of not being a total dick, buying that nine bar after our finals and initiating the second summer of love in ’94. To be honest I don’t really remember that: June went up in smoke. Lizzie getting us backstage, into the VIP area, at Glastonbury after blagging security that she was managing PR for Rolf Harris. Back then he needed less PR, not sure even Lizzie could pull that one now. All of us eating vodka jelly and opening our hearts to each other as only drunken strangers can. All of us vowing to keep in touch. All of us swearing these were the best days of our lives.

I danced and I remembered. I even remembered Jo, the various versions of Jo that were foisted on me whether I wanted them or not. I think she would have liked Joanna.

 

Neil

I don’t function in the countryside. I’d felt myself tense up just driving over the Severn Bridge and seeing those rolling Welsh hills and valleys extend to the horizon. Well, I imagine there’d be rolling hills, great waves of grass spilling over itself, a dazzling emerald expanse, if I could have seen anything through the pissing rain that my one working wiper flapped ineffectually against. If there had been a way to cross the central reservation and hightail it back to a stale coffee and greasy fry up at Aust Services then I’d have done it. Why had Lizzie arranged this nostalgia freak show in the middle of nowhere? I’d just driven past Bristol and, presumably, several functioning bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. Everything, in short, required for a decent night out. The order sometimes varies. Finishing in the hotel rather than the hospital is optimal. I’ve never been to Bristol. It could have been fun. I’d even drink cider if it meant avoiding the onward trek into the wilderness. Is cider a Bristol thing? Or is that pasties? I try not to venture further west than Reading for precisely these reasons: the avoidance of hold-in-one-hand meals wrapped in pastry and alcohol distilled from apples bobbing around in some straw-chewing farmer’s barrel in a barn. But right then, squinting into the deluge plastering itself onto my windscreen, imagining the verdant fields beyond, I would have happily killed a kitten for the chance to bite into some stodgy mincemeat and sup on warm, flat scrumpy rather than keep going.

My first impressions of the cottage were not good. I didn’t really have a benchmark as cottages were another thing I’d deliberately avoided in my life along with tents, horses, farms, summer walks in meadows, autumnal tramps through drifting leaves in the woods, bluebells, campfires, and botanical gardens. I was yet to see a green space I couldn’t mentally improve with concrete, a Starbucks, and wi-fi. There was a purple flower climbing its way up the walls and framing the door that had prompted much delight in the others but which just looked like a drop in centre for drunken, drowsy wasps to me. I’d spotted at least two of the little bastards furiously headbutting a window as soon as I’d stepped inside. Later I learned that this mysterious plant was called wisteria but not before mis-hearing Lizzie and spending a few confused minutes wondering why she was quite so enthusiastic about having contracted listeria. Cue, inevitably, general hysteria.

My first impressions of the others were not good either. This was the second time they’d all made a first impression on me and at least they were consistently disappointing. That first first time, back when nobody was reflexively sucking in their stomach every time someone pulled a camera and everybody’s imagination still outstripped their income, I’d only really been impressed with Richard. He’d always had a confidence about him which I’d mistaken as an acceptance of himself and being a grown up when the rest of us were still kids. It wasn’t until later that I realised he was just a bit of an arrogant arsehole with an inflated sense of entitlement. Therefore, given my track record on first impressions, I wasn’t reading too much into my initial deflation this time around but, seeing them, listening to what they’d done and filling in the blanks on what they hadn’t, I couldn’t help but see my own failures reflected back. I wasn’t the person they had known but I wasn’t sure I was quite the person I’d wanted to be either.

I’d gravitated to Jon as the evening progressed. It wasn’t like I’d planned it but it didn’t surprise me either. If he remembered that night I tried to kiss him then he didn’t bring it up and I could tell from the way his eyes still tracked Clare around the room that not only was he still playing for the wrong side but that he was also still playing out of his league. I think I wanted to tell him that he was important to me but I wasn’t good at sincerity at the best of times and least of all removed from my urban comforts. I don’t mean that I still had feelings for him but I wanted to tell him that his rebuffal was the turning point for me; it was when I realised who I was and felt good about it. The details are a little hazy – tequila will do that – but I do remember him not being a dick about it. Just a kind, gentle even, letting down and then we sat round listening to records until I crashed out on his floor. I don’t tell him any of this. We just talk about some songs like we used to.

As the night started to find its natural end my need for a smoke finally became more urgent than my aversion to being outside. I figured the wasps were probably asleep but I didn’t really want to find out if you could fight off a badger by stubbing it in the eye with a lighted cig. The insistent nicotine nudge was too persuasive. I convinced myself that the same farmer that I wouldn’t be buying cider from anytime soon had probably killed all the local badgers to stop them spreading TB or something. I accept I’m not going to be offered the gig when David Attenborough goes. I know more about Country & Western than I do about the country. What I mainly know is that I don’t like either of them.

I avoided being bitten in the ankle (or throat – maybe they can jump?) by any of the myriad of woodland creatures running rampant in my mind and settled down on the sofa. Jon was still up, playing Astral Weeks now, but I recognised his look, even after all this time. Van was going to give him solace that I couldn’t. If he could hear Richard and Clare shagging through the floor above then he wasn’t letting on. Luckily for him it didn’t seem to last all that long. I flicked on the TV, turned the volume right down, and flicked the channels until I found something to look at that reminded me of civilisation. I don’t even know what it was but it wasn’t green. Tomorrow I’d drive back to Bristol and spend the rest of the weekend in bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. I fell asleep wondering why the hell you had to pay a toll on the Severn Bridge going west but grateful, at least, that I could escape home for free.

 

Gina

I liked to lean in close to the fingerboard as I played, feel the strings vibrating beneath my fingers and through the wood of the body, close enough for the metallic tang of the strings to fill my nostrils. Sometimes I would crouch so that my chin rested right down on the instrument, wrapping myself around it until it felt like a part of me, until the sounds I coaxed from it felt like the sounds I would make if my soul could speak. Tonight it wanted to speak of absence and loss, my hand working the bow to draw long, deep notes: a slow, sad melody for my memories.

I remembered a time when I hadn’t been quite so invisible to them. Jo making me pick out bass lines from whatever record she was into that week, usually something dark and doomy. More recently she’d kept sending me YouTube videos of Apocalyptica or some other group of cellists looking for space in an already crowded field, re-interpreting rock songs in classical forms. This is what you used to do for me, she’d say in her e-mails. I’m not sure picking the riff from Enter Sandman was quite the same thing but she seemed to think it was. I hated all of those groups anyway. If you have Brahms and Bach and Mozart then why would you waste your time on Metallica? I’m not a snob about it – I don’t think I am anyway – but if you’ve painted in all the colours on a palette then why would you settle for using a pencil?

They had always found me serious, I knew that. I sometimes wondered why they’d persisted, all those times badgering me to leave the library or pulling me out of a rehearsal room, dragging me out to the pub or the Union bar or a club. I suspected I was a good influence, a reminder for them to study, to work, and perhaps it helped them unwind more knowing I was out with them, that I wasn’t sat alone in the quiet, methodically trying to improve. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed it despite myself. Some of those nights I was able to shake off the nagging feeling that I had to be buried in a book or consumed in my playing. Some of those nights I had fun.

I hadn’t made it to the reunion and, even though I’d driven all the way out to them, I think I knew that I wasn’t going to really go. I’d made it as far as the cottage, arriving so early that I knew no-one else would be there. I’d sat in the car on the drive for a while, window down, listening to a starling trill, watching it occasionally dart to the ground to grub around for food before it returned to its nest, tucked into the guttering. Mentally I composed a cello counterpoint to its song, even in that moment I couldn’t quite switch off. It didn’t really work. I couldn’t reconcile the keys. The cottage looked just like its picture and I imagined the others arriving, filling it up with their presence and their stories to fill in the blanks between how we’d been then and how we were now. I wasn’t sure I had a story to tell: I was just the same now as I was then, only more so, the solemnity and sadness exaggerated. Maybe that was what they’d given me back then: a break from myself, my relentless self.

There was a kind of ragged beauty in the setting. The tumble-down, down-at-heel cottage slowly succumbing to the encroaching climbing plants and flowers, its walls alive with a buzzing, thrumming throb. I couldn’t help but hear the music in the place, the drone of insects, the whistle of birds, the whisper of leaves unsettled in the wind. It was playing a tune I wasn’t sure I would hear anymore when the others arrived; maybe they had learned to sing outside of their straightforward progressions of the past, something beyond do-re-mi, but I wasn’t convinced. Part of me wondered if it’d do me good to hear something simple but it lost out to the part of me that wanted to retreat somewhere to lay my fingers across strings, pick out a range of tones to say all the things I wanted to say but couldn’t articulate in words.

I liked to lean in close to the fingerboard as I played. I’d checked in to a local B&B, asked for the room on the top floor. If I leaned in real close I could just barely scrape the surface of the strings with the bow, so the resulting sound could scarcely be heard but I could feel it reverberate through the cello, seeping out of me and back into me. I took the sounds I’d heard in the day and what I imagined as the sounds as the old group came together again and I recomposed them into something. Took them in and let them out through all the hours and days and months of effort and practice and purpose and method. And all the contrasting hours, lost to me now and lost to me then, of nothing and of dancing and laughing and talking.

I took those sounds and played an elegy for myself.

 

Richard

I am here and it already feels like a mistake. I’d had other options this weekend. They were all good. Number one: Bodger’s stag in St Tropez, second marriage but new fiancée seemingly more open minded than the outgoing Mrs Bodger and so less likely to break down in tears at her own wedding at the reveal in the best man’s speech that her husband had paid to snort a line of coke laid out perfectly in the cleft of some stripper’s arse. Number two: invite to meet Jacinda’s parents down at Sandbanks, two days of making polite small talk with her old man about yields and the best shirt makers on Jermyn Street as the foreplay for two nights of teasing his daughter out of her perfectly pressed clothes and seeing if everyone would still make eye contact over breakfast after they’d heard their pride and joy squealing at me to go deeper, go harder, through their shockingly thin walls for such an expensive house. Number three: boss had invited me to join him for golf and then drinks at some private member’s club he belonged to, promised to fast track me in to both; I can’t stand the prick but I need his contacts and network.

It could just be the coke making me a bit paranoid but I’m not feeling much warmth from my former comrades. Even when I tell them what else I could have been up to this weekend. I stop short of suggesting they should be grateful that I’m here, it’s not like I was crass about it. I suppose it’s a little sobering for them to face into their relative failure in life, funny how we could all exit the same University at the same moment but on such different trajectories. Some of us were always headed upwards. It’s going to be a long night so I retreat to the bathroom to do another line. It will at least speed everything up and make Neil and Jon’s dreadful musical choices a bit more bearable. Will remind me what it was I saw in Clare all those years ago as well. She still looks at me like she’ll dance to my tune so I might as well salvage something from the night even if it’s just a nostalgia fuck.

The coke brings a clarity, a sharpness, to the scene. I can feel palpable resentment from Jon as I start talking to Clare just as I can practically see her sense of conflict between wanting to believe this time will be different and remembering all the times I let her down before. I thought perhaps the intervening years would have given her distance enough to see through my tricks but, instead, they seem to have offered up new opportunity. We haven’t been in touch and the space means that part of me is unknown to her now. I fill that space with the version of me she wants to hear, the version she’s secretly been carrying around for the last ten years, the version that regrets ever letting her go and has come to the realisation that she’s the great, lost love of my life. It’s so easy I almost don’t go through with it. I used to like it when it was a challenge getting her into bed.

Upstairs I realise I’ve misplaced my phone, I was fishing around for it to see if she was up for a few candid photos. She always drew the line at that when we first knew each other, said she couldn’t just turn up at Boots and ask for that set of prints. I couldn’t tell her that you didn’t go to Boots – there were places you sent those kind of pictures – as it would blow my cover, reveal me as the sort of person that did this a lot rather than the constructed person who had never done this sort of thing before but only wanted to now because it felt so special with you. Only you. I must have left my phone downstairs. It was too late to retrieve it. I could hear Clare undressing in the bedroom and I’d necked a couple of viagra tablets – the only downside of my cocaine habit was a literal downside downstairs but it was easy enough to coax some life back into the beast with a little additional pharmaceutical help. I went back into the bedroom, my fully saluting cock leading the way.

 

……

It wasn’t even Clare that found the body. She’d sat outside, early in the morning, for an hour or so until Neil had woken up on the sofa. The two of them had talked for a while, half heartedly clearing up the detritus from the night before. Joanna had joined them, then Jon, then Lizzie, and finally Jason, nursing a hangover forged in the fires of hell. The six of them had talked quietly for a while, lamenting the fact that Gina hadn’t showed, kicking around memories from a time when early morning reconstructions of the night before had been a regular occurrence. Lizzie had found Richard’s phone, distracted from making another round of tea by the urgent, vibrating buzz of a missed call and then repeated voice mail prods. Joanna had volunteered to rouse him in case the call was important. Clare shook her head, smiled wryly, told them all that she knew she was stupid, knew that she should have learned. Joanna rested her hand on Clare’s arm in reassurance and set off with the phone. All of them hit the stairs a minute later when they heard her shouting.

Later the police found the powder and the pills. Even later the coroner recorded it as misadventure. The funeral was the last time any of them saw each other again.

All My Friends: Richard

I am here and it already feels like a mistake. I’d had other options this weekend. They were all good. Number one: Bodger’s stag in St Tropez, second marriage but new fiancée seemingly more open minded than the outgoing Mrs Bodger and so less likely to break down in tears at her own wedding at the reveal in the best man’s speech that her husband had paid to snort a line of coke laid out perfectly in the cleft of some stripper’s arse. Number two: invite to meet Jacinda’s parents down at Sandbanks, two days of making polite small talk with her old man about yields and the best shirt makers on Jermyn Street as the foreplay for two nights of teasing his daughter out of her perfectly pressed clothes and seeing if everyone would still make eye contact over breakfast after they’d heard their pride and joy squealing at me to go deeper, go harder, through their shockingly thin walls for such an expensive house. Number three: boss had invited me to join him for golf and then drinks at some private member’s club he belonged to, promised to fast track me in to both; I can’t stand the prick but I need his contacts and network.

It could just be the coke making me a bit paranoid but I’m not feeling much warmth from my former comrades. Even when I tell them what else I could have been up to this weekend. I stop short of suggesting they should be grateful that I’m here, it’s not like I was crass about it. I suppose it’s a little sobering for them to face into their relative failure in life, funny how we could all exit the same University at the same moment but on such different trajectories. Some of us were always headed upwards. It’s going to be a long night so I retreat to the bathroom to do another line. It will at least speed everything up and make Neil and Jon’s dreadful musical choices a bit more bearable. Will remind me what it was I saw in Clare all those years ago as well. She still looks at me like she’ll dance to my tune so I might as well salvage something from the night even if it’s just a nostalgia fuck.

The coke brings a clarity, a sharpness, to the scene. I can feel palpable resentment from Jon as I start talking to Clare just as I can practically see her sense of conflict between wanting to believe this time will be different and remembering all the times I let her down before. I thought perhaps the intervening years would have given her distance enough to see through my tricks but, instead, they seem to have offered up new opportunity. We haven’t been in touch and the space means that part of me is unknown to her now. I fill that space with the version of me she wants to hear, the version she’s secretly been carrying around for the last ten years, the version that regrets ever letting her go and has come to the realisation that she’s the great, lost love of my life. It’s so easy I almost don’t go through with it. I used to like it when it was a challenge getting her into bed.

Upstairs I realise I’ve misplaced my phone, I was fishing around for it to see if she was up for a few candid photos. She always drew the line at that when we first knew each other, said she couldn’t just turn up at Boots and ask for that set of prints. I couldn’t tell her that you didn’t go to Boots – there were places you sent those kind of pictures – as it would blow my cover, reveal me as the sort of person that did this a lot rather than the constructed person who had never done this sort of thing before but only wanted to now because it felt so special with you. Only you. I must have left my phone downstairs. It was too late to retrieve it. I could hear Clare undressing in the bedroom and I’d necked a couple of viagra tablets – the only downside of my cocaine habit was a literal downside downstairs but it was easy enough to coax some life back into the beast with a little additional pharmaceutical help. I went back into the bedroom, my fully saluting cock leading the way.

……

It wasn’t even Clare that found the body. She’d sat outside, early in the morning, for an hour or so until Neil had woken up on the sofa. The two of them had talked for a while, half heartedly clearing up the detritus from the night before. Joanna had joined them, then Jon, then Lizzie, and finally Jason, nursing a hangover forged in the fires of hell. The six of them had talked quietly for a while, lamenting the fact that Gina hadn’t showed, kicking around memories from a time when early morning reconstructions of the night before had been a regular occurrence. Lizzie had found Richard’s phone, distracted from making another round of tea by the urgent, vibrating buzz of a missed call and then repeated voice mail prods. Joanna had volunteered to rouse him in case the call was important. Clare shook her head, smiled wryly, told them all that she knew she was stupid, knew that she should have learned. Joanna rested her hand on Clare’s arm in reassurance and set off with the phone. All of them hit the stairs a minute later when they heard her shouting.

Later the police found the powder and the pills. Even later the coroner recorded it as misadventure. The funeral was the last time any of them saw each other again.