Careering: Sunday

There was usually a window of about half an hour when the light was still just good enough for Sarah to paint and the first hint of the muted constellations above began to glow, enough to tempt Alex out to join her on the roof terrace. He would call out the stars as they appeared while Sarah and Rob, if he was back from work, would gently wind him up by picking out planes in the stack over Heathrow and asking whether it was Ursa Major. Or they’d pretend to have forgotten that the brightest point they could see, one of the few celestial bodies that could cut through the London light pollution, was Venus and not a star at all. Alex would patiently explain it to them again. 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 the flat roof atop a 1990s loft conversion, maybe three feet square and adorned with a battered old deck chair, a couple of stools and a plant pot, now sans plant, but it opened up a view down and across Islington and, more importantly, an unrestricted view up and out, over the the London skies.

Sarah was cleaning her brushes, watching paint leech from a tip into the water in her jam jar, a blue, swirling blur. It reminded her of a Takahiko Hayashi 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 discernible 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 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 photography, 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 up 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. 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 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 Ubisoft ?” 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 sighed and, after tentatively touching at the paint to see if it was dry, 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 mock 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 sharp intake of breath simultaneously.”

“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, ironed out the goose bumps, 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, eek 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 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 maybe looking for some perspective.

“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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.