Tag Archives: flash fiction

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ennui, Lorde, solutions architecture, and puns about hats

“Did you get it?”

“Not only did I not get it but they didn’t even talk to me about it.”

“But you threw your hat in the ring, right?”

“Yeah, of course but it looks like there wasn’t really a ring to throw my hat into. Or I didn’t have a very good hat. Or the ring was already full with a much better hat. Is that too much now on the hat stuff?”

“No way. I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. You’ve got a top hat-”

“Really? A ‘top hat’?” interrupted Pete. “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Unintentional punnery, I promise,” protested Jen. “I would con-fez if it’d been a deliberate hat joke.”

“Good lord. Remind me why I call you again when I’ve got bad news? There’s a…,” Pete paused for emphasis, “…flat cap on my career prospects and by way of commiserations you’re doing bad gags about millinery.”

“Sorry, let’s draw a veil over the whole thing…” said Jen.

“That’s not a hat, is it?”

“It’s kind of head gear. Close enough to count as another feather in my-”

“No more. Enough.” Pete cut off the last pun but she could hear him barely suppressing his laughter.

“Okay. Seriously though, I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. I know I don’t really know much about that thing you do… what is that thing you do again? Actually, don’t bother, I didn’t really understand it last time. I don’t know much about it but I thought you were getting on really well.”

“So did I. And it’s Solutions Architecture in IT,” said Pete.

“Yeah, let’s not try and have that conversation again.”

“Agreed as long as you don’t try and explain PR to me again.”

“Like I said. It’s dead easy.” Jen let out an exaggerated sigh with a flourish. “I try to get journalists to write nice things about the company, or, technically get them to reproduce the nice things I’ve already written about the company for them,”

“Except…”

“Except when I think they might be about to write nasty things about the company and then I try to stop them. That’s basically it.”

“Doesn’t it ever strike you as, I don’t know, utterly futile?” asked Pete.

“Maybe. No more so than translating a bunch of user requirements into what’s basically just a rough idea for a piece of software design that you then give to some actual developers to go and build.”

“Touche. And I thought you didn’t understand it?”

“PR darling,” mocked Jen. “Knowledge for us is a mile wide and an inch deep. Don’t ask me what any of those things actually mean.”

“Depressing, isn’t it? I can’t decide if I’m genuinely sad about not getting the job or about the fact that I thought I might have even wanted it in the first place. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, was it? Me and Georgie used to talk about it. How we’d carve out our niches doing the things we loved and it wouldn’t matter too much if we never really got paid that well. I was going to write software, not ‘solutionise’ it or ‘architect’ it or any of those other pieces of jargon we invent to legitimise all this nonsense. She was going to get her club night off the ground, try and get into promoting stuff.”

“What happened?” nudged Jen quietly.

“I don’t know. It seemed temporary and that made it seem okay. Do the big corporate IT job while she got herself set up – I used to run out flyers for her from work on the company printers – and there’d always be time to get back to the other stuff later. Always later. You get used to the money I guess and then… since the accident, since she’s been gone, I’ve just stuck at it. On some level I think I understand it as hanging on to something constant as everything else changed. Even if it was hanging on to something that was a bit crap it was still… still better than everything else.”

“What does your grief counsellor say?”

“That I’m intentionally hanging on to something constant because everything else changed. You don’t think I came up with that phrase on my own, do you? I think what I said to her was that work was utter shit but I preferred sinking knee deep into it every day for the chance to briefly pretend everything else was normal rather than quit and face up to getting on with my life on my own.”

“I prefer your version. Hers sounds a bit like solution architecture. Do you worry we’re getting too old now to change?”

“I don’t know if it’s age or a mindset or what it is. You heard the Lorde record?” asked Pete.

“Of course,” said Jen.

“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re not 19 anymore, it’d be not that surprising if it had passed us by. I really like it. Like, really like it. More than someone in their 30s should maybe. That last track…”

“Perfect Places?”

“Yeah, Perfect Places. It’s like my experience of being 19 wrapped up in three minutes. All that ennui and that weird mix of thinking you’re having the time of your life but already wondering whether you’re looking in the wrong places for the wrong things. I just listen to it and wonder how it would have sounded to me when I was 19. How she’s nailed that down in the moment rather than ten years later, looking back, I just don’t know.”

“This is a little off topic but do you want to know something funny?” said Jen.

“Go on…”

“I always used to think ennui was pronounced ‘enn-you-eye’. Had no idea that last syllable was like ‘we’.”

“Really? After you gave me such a hard time about Choux pastry? It’s a French word, isn’t it? So it’s pronounced more like ‘oui’. There’s just not a decent English equivalent for that particular brand of boredom and dissatisfaction.”

“Weltschmerz,” declared Jen.

“Bless you,” Pete retorted. “Or gesundheit I guess would be more appropriate.”

“Very funny. Weltschmerz. It’s like the German equivalent of ennui, isn’t it? Or near enough. Wonder why the Europeans got all the good words for a yearning, world weary sadness?”

“Make the most of them. We probably won’t be allowed to use them post Brexit.”

“Why are you thinking about being 19 again? Apart from the Lorde record I mean.” Jen’s voice dropped as realisation struck. “Didn’t you meet Georgie when you were about that age?”

“Yeah, yeah I did. She was the right thing I found, I guess…” Pete trailed off and the line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.”

The line went dead and Pete whispered to himself: “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”

 

360

I can tell you what it said. I’ll give you the short version rather than the Peter Jackson version. Don’t misunderstand, there were no hobbits or dragons or songs about gold in my three sixty feedback. Definitely nothing about gold. There was the slight inference that my career was heading inexorably towards Mount Doom though and a number of comments suggested that I might as well have been invisible for the past three years. And all without the benefit of a magic ring. What was the point of that ring, anyway? All it did was make you invisible and, over prolonged exposure, go a bit mad. So, in that respect, I guess, pretty similar to my job. But that’s not worth ripping up Middle Earth for, surely? There was that stuff about it ruling over all the other rings, one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. All that. I think it gave the wearer the power over the will of men. It wouldn’t have to work too hard on mine: I’m losing more of it everyday.

I digress. This is what it said. I’m paraphrasing but you’ll get the general idea. My peers all said I was anonymous and lack presence. They all said, on such a consistent basis that I have to be suspicious that they didn’t agree it beforehand, that I had reached the limit of my potential. Hit my own personal ceiling. What the hell is a ‘personal ceiling’? That’s actually what one of them put in the open ended comments. Standing on the top rung of my own career ladder and, should I try to climb higher it’d inevitably end with me on the floor in a heap. That was another one. They had definitely been comparing notes. I think my favourite, if I can put it like that, was: “he reminds me of Ringo Starr: he’s the least talented amongst us and the best he can hope for if he steps away from the protection we give him as a group is to read stories for kids about steam trains.” Well, I’ve got news for you, Thomas The Tank Engine’s worth a billion pounds a year. And he was the best drummer in the Beatles. So, I take your Ringo slur and I wear it with pride.

Those fuckers were never going to write anything nice to be honest. Straight self-interest. There’s a finite number of jobs above us and we’re all in for them so why put anything down in writing that might inadvertently give a rival a leg up? Even if it just boosts their confidence a fraction, enough to tip them over the edge in a tense interview or some made up presentation task. Tell us about a time you disagreed with someone and how did you change their mind? All that. What’s your biggest weakness? Drink and the musical theatre of Barbra Streisand. Ha, and indeed, ha. Is there anyone who doesn’t say… ‘well, I guess my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist’ or ‘well, I do find I’m so committed to my work that I sometimes work too hard’ to that question? I made the mistake of answering it honestly once. I thought they’d acknowledge my self-awareness. Turns out they weren’t looking for someone who got bored easily and had a tendency to procrastinate for hours wondering whether he’d made a catastrophic series of decisions from his A levels onwards. Live and learn.

I was disappointed in the responses from the people in the grade above. Disappointed that there weren’t any. I guess, on some level, I was aware that I wasn’t a huge blip on their radar but I thought I might have registered a little. Or at all. There are billions of pounds and dollars and yen being spent on developing stealth technology around the world to fit out planes that are invisible to enemy defence systems. Billions. And here I am with, seemingly, in built stealth DNA. I should be able to make a fortune letting them replicate my genome to smear across wings and fuselage and, why stop there, tanks and aircraft carriers and bombers. Instant invisibility. Utterly undetectable to anything or anyone with decision making power.

I had consoled myself that the fact that my immediate peers hated me and my seniors were completely oblivious was because I was a man of the people. The real people. Good, honest (and, talking of being honest, not well paid) workers. They would recognise my common touch and my empathy with their concerns. Sure, they never invited me for after work drinks but I guess that was because they didn’t want me to feel awkward. I understood. Or I thought I’d understood: turns out they took the anonymous opportunity afforded by the online ‘personal development’ survey to give me a right kicking as well. It is not true to say that I relentlessly talk about young bands and the latest gig I’ve been to as a way to try and appear like I’ve still ‘got it’. I genuinely like Stormzy and that whole grime thing. Not knowing the song titles doesn’t mean anything. It’s about how it makes you feel, isn’t it? Middle management can feel urban rage and alienation as much as anyone else. I put their comments down to some kind of reverse snobbery. And that stuff about me lying about having a tattoo really hurt. It’s not like I’m going to get that out in the office to prove it, is it?

Bloody HR. I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to it. Three hundred and sixty degrees of feedback and no degree of restraint or discretion. At least they’re making everyone do it. I will have my revenge.

Stage fright

He stood with his arm on the mic stand, elbow jutting out, as if it might prop him up like a crutch. He clutched the microphone in his other hand, head bowed to meet it. Hunched and bunched. Words swam in his mind but not the ones he’d sat up, late nights and early mornings, scribbling, scrawling in endless notebooks. Rhymes taunted him. Hunched and bunched. Clutch and crutch. He couldn’t see them out there in the darkness but he could hear patience running thin, the scrape of chair legs, glasses on tables, voices that began in whispers growing in volume. He stood framed and still in the spotlight. Hiding in plain sight. Light and sight. Clutch and crutch. Hunched and bunched. Words and rhymes, just not the right ones.

Come on, man. Give up the stage, buddy, let someone else speak. We wanna hear some verse.

The restlessness in the room has a shape now, an edge. It’s been given voice and all he can hear is chatter and disappointment and a room full of wasted Friday nights. There’s a hand on his arm and the compere is leaning into his ear, urging him to speak or sit down. He’s seen this before and there’s a note of understanding but the grip on his arm is getting tighter and he can feel a distinct tug away from the microphone. Some people just can’t do it up here. It’s all in their head and all on the page but not here, not here where there’s nowhere to hide.

He closes his eyes. Whatever he wrote in all those dripping minutes and sweeping hours has gone. Now or never. He speaks.

 

Life writes faster than I can write:

 

If I really – really – committed and held myself to the words,

A thousand words, every day,

Two thousand, three thousand, four,

I’d be too slow and too far behind the curve, the swerve.

Even if I lost some of my reflexive reserve I just don’t have that kind of verve

And maybe I don’t have the nerve.

 

Maybe I’m not ready to bleed.

This ain’t no magic trick, there’s nothing up my sleeve,

No facade or screen or Wizard of Oz behind the scenes and

No filter between you and me: you ready to hear my dreams?

My screams?

My brain and guts and heart and all the viscera in between?

 

‘Cos you might have met me tonight, or any night, any day

And all that stuff we learn to protect ourselves with would have been in the way,

All those masks, those crutches that keep me from your clutches, that suit of armour I lug around,

Each step heavier than the last as it drags me down.

Hunched and bunched and scrunched and out to lunched.

Gut punched.

And all the stuff would have been in the way and would have done its job.

Its fobbing off job: it would have said I’m okay.

 

But I’m not okay.

Not tonight, or any night, any day.

I learned too much of that stuff to protect myself with and it gets in the way.

I got to learn to bleed.

I got to learn to write faster than life.

 

‘Cos lately life’s been writing faster than I can write and faster than I can stand to live.

 

Later, when they buy him a drink, they tell him there was applause. Later, when he puts that armour back on, it feels a little different. A little lighter.

OK Not OK

Ext: a hill overlooking a festival field at dusk. Glastonbury. Two friends, O and K, early 40s, are sitting and looking down towards the Pyramid Stage, at a myriad of winking lights from phones and torches and sparks from lighters and cigarettes. At an armada of tents, like inverted boats spread across the hillside. At flags and banners. At thousands and thousands of people, walking and laughing and dancing. They have not sat here for many years.

O: “What strikes me is how little has changed despite how much has changed.”

K: “I’m not sure I follow.”

O: “Do you think people really change? Their essential character, I mean. The core of them.”

K: “I don’t know. I’d like to think we don’t get set for life at a particular point. It’s not like jelly in a mould. It’s…”

O: “Wobbly ?”

K: “Maybe that wasn’t the best analogy.”

O: “Maybe it was the perfect one. We get set in the mould but then we’re still a bit wobbly even after we get turned out.”

K: “And then, of course, if someone pours boiling hot water over us then we disintegrate and dissolve.”

O: “Remind me not to let you make the tea tomorrow morning…”

K: “No danger of that, my camping skills haven’t changed since last time we were here. I’m surprised you didn’t notice when we were putting the tent up.”

O: “I did. It seemed impolite to mention it.”

K: “You have changed. See, we’re not set. You’ve acquired a bit of discretion and diplomacy in your middle age…”

O: “Whereas you haven’t acquired any useful festival skills at all in the past twenty years.”

K: “But I have grown in so many other ways.”

O: “You’re not wrong there. Now we’re back to things being wobbly again.”

K leans back and reaches inside an adjacent tent, pulls out an acoustic guitar. Strums opening bars to Radiohead’s “Karma Police”. O sings the first line tunelessly. It is hard to say whether it is intentional. They laugh. K stops playing.

K: “If they fail to show later then we can offer to step in.”

O: “How long do you think we’d last before we got bottled off?”

K: “Well they’re more experimental these days. Maybe no-one would notice.”

O: “You remember last time? When was it? ’96? ’97?”

K: “God, yeah. It was ’97. Best performance I ever saw. I know some of it was timing, don’t get me wrong. Listening to them play a bunch of songs about a sense of dislocation and anxiety and unease. It was like Thom Yorke nicked my diary and set it to music.”

O: “Presumably he left out all the bits about why women wouldn’t sleep with you?”

K: “That was The Bends, I think…”

O: “If it’s anything close to ’97 then it’ll be pretty special tonight. Maybe they’ll still do Karma Police. You can check you’re playing it right.”

K: “I think I am. For the longest time though I couldn’t play along to that song. Don’t laugh, it’ll sound stupid but there’s an e-minor in the chord sequence and in the shorthand, on the tab, it’s always written as Em.”

O: “You couldn’t play it because it had your ex-girlfriend’s name written on the music?”

K: “You said you wouldn’t laugh.”

O: “No, I didn’t. You asked me not to and then told me something so funny that it was impossible to stop myself.”

K: “Luckily there aren’t many names you can make out of chord annotations.”

O: “I knew a guy once called A Sharp.”

K: “Of course you did.”

O: “Used to call him B Flat just to annoy him.”

K: “I was expecting a better pay off in that gag.”

O: “Well, that’s half your trouble, isn’t it? You keep setting your life expectations too high and end up being disappointed.”

K: “Perhaps I did then. Not so much now. Experience takes it out of you after a while.”

O: “I guess it does. So does sitting on the ground like this to be honest. My back’s killing me.”

K: “Want to head down?”

O: “Hang out with the kids? Pretend we still got it?”

K: “Whatever we had, we still got. Don’t worry about that.”

O: “Alright then. Let’s show them how it’s done. You okay ?”

K: “Some of me’s not okay. The same stuff that wasn’t okay then, it’s not okay now. And I don’t think that’s going to change. But, yeah, I’m okay.”

O: “You haven’t really changed. And you know what? That’s more than okay.”

 

Arrivals

I didn’t remember it like this. On the out leg I’d shaken off stasis in a few minutes, rinsed out the last of the fog in my brain under a cold shower, and gotten on with running diagnostics. There were rumours they put a little extra in the wake up shot for the arrival on Mercury. Just some adrenaline to give you a head start, get you over the shock of the hellish, sun baked rock you got to call home for the next six months. Whatever it was it wasn’t like this. I felt like I was in a waking dream, asleep but not asleep. I should be more alive than this. The capsule was a cacophony, ablaze with angry red lights and the flight AI repeating “destination reached, destination unknown, destination reached, destination unknown” over and over until I flicked audio to mute. The words still ran in endless sequence across the heads up display in front of me. Reached. Unknown. Reached. Unknown. Maybe it was shock. I’d logged enough time in cryo to know that the process can still throw your body out. Every time a little different. People aren’t supposed to be asleep that long until they’re dead.

The lights and the warning should have had me on edge but I just felt numb. Dislocated. Shaking my head like I was trying to dislodge water from my ear I unstrapped and requested the capsule opening sequence to start. You have reached your destination. Destination unknown. Capsule release commenced. Stand by. Two minutes. Stand by.

I closed my eyes and tried to understand if I was still locked away, frozen in sleep, experiencing one of those stasis nightmares that some of the older crew used to warn us about. We figured it was just scare the rookie stuff. Standard bullshit from guys ground down by the cycle. And it was enough to grind you down: six months off, six months travel, six months on, six months back. Two years all in. I’d run three cycles. There were some guys pushing ten and looking like they’d never break out. With my eyes shut the white light and red flashing from inside the capsule receded to an echo dancing across the inside of my lids. Just colours and shapes. I thought of you. We’d promised this time. Both of us. It was always this place, you always met me here each cycle, and it was always this time. You always met me at arrivals, never saw me depart. We promised this time, didn’t we Dawn? It’d be the last. Break the cycle.

Capsule release confirm. Stand by. You have reached your destination. Destination unknown. Capsule release confirmed. Caution advised. Repeat. Caution advised.

I opened my eyes and saw that I’d arrived. The metal lid on my world for the last six months prised open and the familiar platform was waiting in front of me, ready to carry me to de-con, then debrief, and then arrivals. And then you. It was all familiar but fundamentally different. It was silent. There were no voices over the com, no instructions to step out onto the platform – sometimes gentle, sometimes more urgent depending on how phased they thought you were coming out of the sleep. Nothing. Stepping on to the platform and looking down there were no engineers. No one running checks. No one shouting up at what you missed in the last six months: usually a blow by blow account of who was sleeping with who, whether the Red Sox had won the World Series, or the state of the solar reserves. That last update was always the same. Depleted. Need another cycle.

I rode the platform down, rubbed at my legs as they bore my weight again. The stims and auto-toners had done their job but there was still always something different about those first few paces. Jamieson used to tell me one real step’s worth a thousand muscle simulated ones back when I ran my first couple of cycles with him. That was before they made the flights solo so they could rotate the crew and keep Mercury One manned all the time. Gave us all a loneliness supplement. A couple of guys quit but most of us stuck it out. What else was there? I figured the extra pay would let me break the cycle quicker, bring me two years closer to you.

I cleared the deserted decontamination room and didn’t stop in debrief. There was nobody to debrief to. Nothing much to report anyway. It had been a routine trip, lost a couple of weeks when a solar flare blew out a kilometre of panels, and I had to divert some of the mech resource to assess the damage, but otherwise all by the book. Arrivals is empty save for the ghosts. Not real ghosts, not powdery figures you might see in the old films, the ones they’d show in class to teach the kids about how we used to live, before the shortages, before we had to build the sun farms. Ghosts of the imagination. Passengers arriving from the colonies: a couple connecting, their long distance relationship brought up close; a child clutching a balloon waiting for her mother, her father kneeling next to her, scanning the exit; a man in a suit, phone pressed to his ear, looking for someone holding a sign bearing his name.

But there are no arrivals here except me. And there is no one here to greet me. No one. No Dawn.

 

Careering: 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 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 professor’s 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 gallery in Downtown. 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’ll be missed and someone who always knew where she was.” 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.

Careering: 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 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, its towers 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 in their crossing. 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 gotten 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 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 choir of anxiety and regret and sadness.

Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of the fragile peace in his head. 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 without London being dimmed, and then he noticed that 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 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 sat 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.