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.
“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.