Tag Archives: loss

Riffs and variations on Abba, Dark Souls, charity shops, and bad analogies for grief

“It is not about Agnetha’s sexual awakening.”

“I didn’t say it was Agnetha…”

“Okay, then,” said Jen. “It is not about either Agnetha or Anna-Frid’s sexual awakening, no matter how much you might wish otherwise.”

“We’re just going to have to disagree,” replied Pete. “The whole song is one extended metaphor for learning about sex. All that stuff about being under a spell, finding new horizons, riding on the breeze. Spreading my wings. Spreading. C’mon, it’s not subtle.”

“Really? Learning about sex? It’s not that at all. It’s just Abba doing a 70s stoner anthem. Benny and Bjorn – probably Benny, he always looked like he liked a smoke – stayed up one night wired to the gills and wrote a song about soaring with the eagles. Maaaan. They even made the girls emphasise the ‘high’ in the chorus. You’re right that it’s not subtle but it’s about drugs, it’s not about sex.”

“You’ve got to view it in the context of their broader work,” said Pete.

“How so?”

“Name Of The Game. All that ‘I’m a bashful child, waiting to grow’ stuff. Does Your Mother Know. Possibly underage girl propositioning older man. Gimme Gimme Gimme. Frustrated, repressed desire. When I Kissed The Teacher. Do you need me to go on? They had loads of songs about young women being shepherded into womanhood with the help of an older man…”

“I don’t agree on Eagle but you’ve got a point about some of the others,” said Jen. “To be fair I don’t think you could release Does Your Mother Know now.”

“It hasn’t aged well. I know it was the 70s but…”

“Which one was your favourite?” interrupted Jen. “Agnetha or Anna-Frid?”

“Agnetha, obviously. Mostly for her voice. I barely noticed her blue eyes, blonde hair, or her perfect behind in those purple jump suits.”

“Now we’re getting to the bottom of your sexual awakening…”

“Boom and indeed tish. Very good,” acknowledged Pete. “She can’t lay claim to that though. I was too young. Maybe something stirred in my sub-conscious but it was really Jenny Agutter in American Werewolf In London that made me a man.”

“It was Simon Le Bon for me. Maybe Nick Rhodes. Maybe the thought of both of them together. Possibly on a yacht.”

“Easy tiger.”

“I was never the same after that ‘Wild Boys’ video,” said Jen.

“Georgie hated Duran Duran,” said Pete. There was a pause as there often was at mention of her name.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Jen. “After we first met it came up, I can’t really remember how but I presume we were drunk. She said she hated them but I used to put on ‘Planet Earth’ sometimes when we came home from the pub when we lived together and she knew all the words. I think it was like me pretending to hate house when she got into that.”

“I’ve still got all of her records, back from when she was DJ’ing a bit, a load of limited edition, white label, 12 inches that I don’t recognise. They’re with all her stuff. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“I think I can understand that. I don’t think she’d have wanted them to stay unplayed though. She always loved it when she could fill the floor and she wasn’t too snobby about what she played to do it, Duran Duran notwithstanding. In fact, speaking of Abba, didn’t she used to occasionally slip Mamma Mia in? Said it used to tip the night into a mess – place would go insane or everyone would go to the bar but either way it ended up in a mess,” said Jen.

“Yeah, she did. Maybe you’re right, maybe I should get rid of her records at least. She’d want someone to be making a mess with them if they could. Where’d you get shot of stuff like that though?”

“Charity shop?”

“Not much chance round here anymore, they’re hardly ever open to taking things now,” said Pete. “I think people were just dumping stuff off on them all the time. It was like middle class fly tipping: great piles of Dan Brown books, Fifty Shades Of Grey, three quarter size guitars that little Harry didn’t take to after all, Friends boxsets on VHS, twice worn tuxedos that used to fit, and stacks and stacks of CDs long since replaced by Spotify playlists.”

“I guess you could trek over to Notting Hill, see if the Record & Tape Exchange would take them?” suggested Jen.

“That would involve leaving the house and visiting a place we used to go to together. It’s been three years and I still don’t know if I’m ready for that. Every time it feels like it’s getting a little easier I trip over something and I’m right back where I started.”

“Two steps forwards and one step back?” offered Jen.

“It feels more like one step forwards and two steps back most of the time,” said Pete.

“Sorry, I guess it was the wrong expression.”

“It’s okay. There’s no way to get it right in words,” said Pete. “I think I’m going to write a book called ‘Bad Analogies For Grief’. I’ve been collecting them. The ones people offer by way of condolence, the ones you pick up in counselling, the ones you come up with yourself. There’s no proper way to express how overwhelming it is so you come at it from an angle, think you can pin it down and force it to make sense if you can put it into some sort of words… Want to hear my latest one?”. Jen didn’t fill the pause and so Pete continued. “I was pulling a glass down from a cupboard last week and it slipped, fell, and broke on the floor. Pieces everywhere. And the first thing you do after it happens is that you don’t move, because if you move you’re probably going to get cut. You freeze. And then you notice the big pieces. So you pick those up first because you know they’re going to hurt like hell if you step on them. But broken glass is hard to handle and even when you see a piece that looks like it broke clean it’ll sometimes surprise you with a sharp point and the more you pick up the more you start to notice that there are fragments everywhere, small diamond slivers scattered across the kitchen floor. And then you remember it’s the kitchen floor you both used to walk barefoot across in the morning. And you remember something stupid like making coffee and toast and taking it back upstairs to read the papers under the duvet on a Sunday morning. And then, as you’re remembering, you stand on a piece of glass you hadn’t noticed and the shock of it, the pain, makes you step again without looking and before you know where you are you’ve stepped into more and more unseen pieces. Each one a tiny broken fragment of the perfect, whole thing that you remembered. Just the smallest splinter, the tiniest memory, is enough to start it. Enough to bring you back to a halt.” It had come in a rush, Pete’s words tumbling over themselves. Neither spoke until Pete finally concluded. “That’s my latest one. My new analogy. The breaking glass one.”

“God, Pete, you know I don’t know what to say,” offered Jen apologetically. “I guess I’m supposed to say that eventually you sweep up most of the pieces?”

“Yes, you are,” said Pete. “Only grief doesn’t work like that. It’s like there’s a new glass dropping on the floor every single day. Maybe you’re supposed to say that eventually you go a day when a glass doesn’t drop. All I know is that I haven’t had one of those yet.”

“But you will.”

“But I might. That’s my best guess. Right now I think I’m getting a little better at spotting the shards even if I can’t stop the glass falling,” said Pete. “I guess I need to git gud.”

“You need to what?”

“Oh, sorry.” Pete laughed. Some of the tension on the line dissolved, eased. “It’s from Dark Souls. Video game I’ve been playing a lot instead of having to interact in the real world. It’s a really hard RPG where you die over and over again and when you get stuck and look up advice online people tell you that there’s no short cut to it, just that you have to git gud…”

“Get good?”

“Yeah. But spelled g i t and then g u d.”

“Why don’t they say ‘get good’, then?” asked Jen. “What’s with the ‘git gud’ thing? Doesn’t sound very nice either way.”

“I don’t know where it came from,” said Pete. “Gamers with too much time on their hands. The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound very nice but there’s a weird kind of community in the game. If you get really stuck you can ask other people to come into your game and help you out – online obviously, you don’t literally invite them into your house or anything.”

“There you go. That’s a ready made metaphor or analogy if I ever heard one. You need to add a chapter to your book – maybe a post script – about ‘Bad Analogies for Help With Grief’.”

“People helping? I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I guess you’re right. There have been moments, stupid as it sounds, when some random character popping up in my game and getting me past some impossible boss fight has been the highlight of my day.”

“I like the sound of this game,” said Jen. “I thought all those online things were just people trying to shoot each other and shouting abuse about getting owned.”

“I feel bad for spoiling it for you and wrecking the metaphor but people can invade your game in Dark Souls and just randomly attack you too. It’s all a bit arbitrary and chaotic.”

“Like I said. It’s a ready made metaphor. Analogies aside, Pete, are you alright?”

There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“This is just like Dark Souls, Jen. Repeating the same thing over and over again until you’re strong enough to move on. No. I’m not alright. Not today. I need to level up. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

Advertisements

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.

 

Boxed in

It was the waiting that grated. You could sense it across the office, a palpable air of fidgety discomfort blended with impotent uncertainty. It felt like we should all be out stock piling canned goods and bottled water; hunkering down and bunkering up. I think that’s why I was daydreaming about escape all the time. Anything to be out from the slightly oppressive sense that something bad was coming. It was hard to maintain ‘business as usual’ knowing that business was currently quite so unusual. Hard to keep a professional face on it. What happened to authenticity? That was supposed to be the buzzy new thing in leadership. Be authentic. Bring yourself to work. Get to know people, show your vulnerability, watch that Brene Brown TED talk, dial up your emotional intelligence. I guess submitting to your basest instincts and retiring to the corner of the office to crouch, sobbing, whilst gnawing repeatedly on a pencil, fists bunched, occasionally stamping a foot and letting out a yelp of inchoate rage would be considered too authentic. It’s a fine line. I walk it delicately.

The strange thing is that I’ve been in this film before. Had a bigger role than I wanted. It was my estranged, disappointed face they cut to when they announced the runners up in the “who gets to keep their job” category. No gold statue, no tearful acceptance speech. No after show party in Venice Beach. More like being hit by a tsunami on Venice Beach as the fault line running through California finally cracks open and LA is disgorged into the ocean. It’s like a bereavement. That wave, that tsunami, hits, you lose your feet on the sand, and for a while you’re thrashing and tumbling in the sea, fighting for breath and a solid place to stand. I guess some people cope with it better than others, find some exhilaration in the loss of control, give themselves up to the swell, emerging laughing and shaking the water clear of their ears. It wasn’t really like that for me. After the shock I just sank, cold and numb and adrift. Even after I found the shore it was like I was always ankle deep in it, as if the tide line had shifted, and from time to time, without warning, the undertow would pull me over and I’d pitch back into the water. I don’t think I’ll ever really stand on the beach again. Or, at best, it’ll always be a beach flying the red warning flags. Probably without David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.

Having seen this film before I know that once the end credits roll that life goes on. The lights come up and you pick your way out of the cinema, popcorn scrunching under foot, and emerge blinking into the day. Maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far. There’s other films, other roles. That’s the point. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being out of the industry for a while – a resting actor if we’re going to keep this up – wasn’t appealing. A chance to start again and to break out of all the little boxes that working in a big corporate puts you in. My favourites:

  1. Talent grids. There’s nothing quite so motivating as a three by three, nine box, talent grid. Performance on one axis and potential on the other. You can tell a lot about the prevailing culture by the labels assigned to each level on the axis. I’ve been rated ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘over performing’, ‘out performing’, and ‘astonishing and sensitive’ all within the same box, just in different places with different scales. That last one is a lie. That’s what Caroline Josephs said about me the first time we slept together. That may also be a lie. Potential is even worse. Like the myriad of possibilities and capability that anyone possesses can be wrapped up and summarily dismissed with an ‘x’ in a box. You have no potential. That’s the truth of what Caroline said about me. At least, to be fair to her, she gave me this feedback in the moment, with quite specific details on where I was going wrong, and didn’t hide it all by talking about me with her peers and putting me in a box on a spreadsheet. Who knows? Maybe she did that too.
  2. Myers Briggs. I’m using this as a catch all for all those development questionnaires that they make you fill out to discover who you are, a grand voyage of self discovery and awareness. The ones that are introduced with great sincerity by name dropping Jung, principally to distinguish the outputs from, say, reading your horoscope. But then I’m an INTP and so I would say all of this, wouldn’t I? And I would also violently kick against being put in a box. So maybe there’s something in it. I guess I believed it all more when I was junger. Yes, all of that was just leading up to that pun.
  3. Org charts. Here’s the rub. Org charts are for roles and not for people. I know they have people’s names on them, implying some kind of security sitting there snuggly within the confines of your rectangle, but they’re not for you. I’ve gotten short shrift in a variety of situations when I’ve claimed that it was my role’s responsibility to do something and not mine – paying for stuff in shops, that incident with Caroline Josephs after we broke up and I turned up drunk at her flat and shouted through her letter box that I had been practicing my skills and that she should give me another chance – that kind of thing. Turns out, as a pretty nice police woman patiently explained to me, that those things are my responsibility and not some amorphous, ambiguous title in a box in an org chart. Turns out that it’s people that do stuff and not roles. Live and learn. (Technically as an INTP I don’t so much live and learn as observe, over think, and learn but that’s less snappy and hasn’t been adopted as universal parlance).

Be authentic but fit in this box. And this box. And this box over here. It’s almost as if the beautiful complexities and contradictions of human essence – of an individual – can’t be contained in a one-size-fits-all categorisation. And yet that’s what we do to fit in and get on.

Right until they tell you to get out.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ZZ Top, Carrie Fisher, incessant drizzle, and the reminders of absence

“I’ve got a confession. I spent too much time in my formative years masturbating to ZZ Top videos.”

“Was it the beards?”

“No, it was those spinning guitars they had. I couldn’t get enough of them.” They both laughed.

“You’re a strange, strange man, Pete, you know that?” said Jen.

“And yet here you are. Again. So what’s that make you?”

“Loyal. Kind. Maybe a bit strange too.” Jen paused for a moment. “For the record though I don’t tend to walk around garages in dusty pit-stop American towns wearing tiny cut off denim shorts so I would have been no use to your adolescent self.”

“Oh I don’t know. Teenage boys can spin a wank out of almost anything.”

“Gee Pete, you really know how to flatter a girl…”

“I meant…”

“I’d leave this one if I was you. Quit while you’re way, way behind.”

“Okay. You don’t want to hear about my Carrie Fisher phase then?”

“Not if it’s more tales from the wank-bank, no,” said Jen. “If it’s a radical feminist awakening phase that you went through when you learned to appreciate strong, independent women for who they were rather than whether they were wearing a gold bikini then maybe. We’re in a post-Weinstein world Pete.”

“She was quite something.”

“Yeah, she was. Did you read any of her books? I can lend you Postcards From The Edge if you haven’t got it.”

“I’ve read it,” said Pete. It was his turn to pause. “Georgie had a copy. She loved it and she loved Fisher. I still haven’t seen the new films, you know. I know she was really looking forwards to them, especially when she heard she’d signed on, and I just don’t want to see them without her.”

“They’re pretty good but I’m no judge,” replied Jen. “Georgie was the expert on that sort of stuff. I saw Phantom Menace with her, I think it was before you two got together when she lived with me. I liked it. Couldn’t understand why she was in such a foul mood for a couple of weeks.”

Pete laughed. “When we moved in together she made me get rid of my DVDs for episodes 1 to 3. Said she didn’t want them in the house. These aren’t the films you’re looking for. Those were her exact words. I was in love with her before that but I think that was the moment I really knew.”

“It was the moment she knew too. I’ve never told you this but she rang me that week because she couldn’t believe you’d thrown them out. Apparently you didn’t even try and argue about it. Just opened the back door and chucked them in the bin. She was seriously impressed…”

“Really?” said Pete. “That’s funny. All she told me was how seriously unimpressed she was that I even had them in the first place. I still think there’s a decent film trying to break its way out of parts 2 and 3 but she was pretty militant about it. I did once catch her watching Revenge Of The Sith though when it was on TV. She said she was checking that it was as bad as she remembered it.”

“And was it?”

“So she said. You reckon she’d have like Last Jedi?”

“Yeah, I do. I think she’d want you to go see it, too.”

They were both silent. Jen was about to speak again but she was stopped by Pete’s voice, cracking but growing progressively stronger. “The funny thing is that I know you’re right but it’s just one in a long list of things I’ve stopped myself doing since she died and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to any of them. I haven’t listened to Ryan Adams. We saw him at the Lyric before anyone knew who he was. He was always our singer. There’s a Turkish place we used to eat in a couple of times a month that I haven’t been back to. Won’t walk over Hammersmith Bridge. It’s where I would have proposed. Gave up reading Game Of Thrones and I won’t watch the TV show. She was always telling me to read it but I wanted to wait until he finished writing all of them. There’s an upcoming exhibition at the Tate, retrospective of Japanese contemporary art, that I won’t go to because… No, I don’t get how it can be retrospective and contemporary either but that’s not why I’m not going… She won’t be there with me.”

“When do you think you’ll be ready to let…”

“Let her go? I won’t ever be ready to do that Jen.” No anger; a weary resignation.

“I wasn’t going to say that. Not let her go. Let those things go is what I was going to say. They’re not her.”

“No but that’s where I feel the traces of her most sharply,” said Pete after another extended pause. The conversation’s rhythm was broken now. Staccato sentences punctuated with silence. “Or that’s where I feel the absence of her most sharply. I still catch myself turning to tell her something, to point something out, and then remember she’s not there. I tell her anyway. In those places, with those things, it’d just be too much. How can I find joy in the things we used to find joy in together?”

“Can I tell you something stupid?” asked Jen.

“More stupid than my ZZ Top confession?”

“More stupid than that. You were young and impressionable. I’ve got no excuse. For a while, after she died, I didn’t know what would happen to us. To our friendship I mean. Me and you. I knew Georgie a long time, before you guys got together, but all my strongest associations were with both of you, as a couple. I worried that seeing you, speaking to you, would just be a constant reminder to me that someone was missing. That it’d be too painful. I worried we wouldn’t be able to be friends.”

“And yet here you are. Here we are. Again. I appreciate it, Jen, I really do. You’re like – these talks, they’re like a little bit of sun through the clouds.”

“I thought I would be more like incessant drizzle?” said Jen.

“Incessant Drizzle? Weren’t they on Rough Trade?”

“You’re thinking of Mild To Moderate Snow Showers. Or maybe Outside Chance of Hail. I always get them mixed up.”

Pete laughed, sucked in a deep breath. “Thank you for…, well for this. For talking shit and listening and making bad jokes and… well for all of it.”

“No thanks necessary,” said Jen. “Don’t think I’m letting you forget that you described me as a little bit of sun through the clouds though.”

“Just ‘cos it’s cheesy doesn’t mean it’s not true. Normal service will be resumed when we next speak.”

“I look forward to it. Seriously though, are you alright?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“You know the drill by now Jen. No. I’m not alright. Not today. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

Supercut

I’ve stared at a blank page for a while now, trying to compose this. I feel a little like the first time you tell someone you love them. The words are there but you can’t quite find your way into them. Deep breath. It’s only a blog post. It’s only a quick reflection on your favourite records of 2017. Okay. Here goes.

Lorde’s “Melodrama” was, for me, the standout record of the year. And, to be honest, other than a late and spirited run from Phoebe Bridger’s brilliant “Stranger In The Alps”, nothing else really got close. Nothing new at least. I had that thing again this year, which looks like it’s here to stay, where I either discovered or rediscovered something old. Poked around in the attic (technically Spotify but, you know, attic sounds more romantic) and dusted down something previously lost: this year it was a lot of “Rumours” era Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young’s “After The Goldrush” and, most of all, a lot of The Beatles. I mean a lot. I don’t think I really, genuinely, got The Beatles until this year whereas I will now quite happily argue the toss about why they are absolutely the greatest band to ever walk the planet.

I’m drifting. Another deep breath. Lorde. In some respects the fact that I love a record aching with the crushing sadness of being young, falling in love, falling out of love, figuring out your place in the world, dancing like it’s the only thing worth doing, hurting with the intensity that you hurt that first time you get hurt, hell, feeling everything with the intensity you feel that first time, isn’t a surprise. It’s maybe a surprise that a record that so perfectly encapsulates being young hit me like a sledge hammer when I have more grey hairs than brown, am probably closer to the end than the beginning. Bit it did. Does.

“Melodrama” is as damn near perfect as makes no difference. It’s smart and funny. It’s happy-sad. It lifts you up, it puts you down, and then it dusts you off and you feel like everything will be okay. It’s beautifully written: Lorde’s words were the sharpest, most perceptive, warmest, that I heard this year. There are lines that made me smile, lines that made me gasp, lines that made me cry. It’s a writer’s record. She strikes me as one of those musicians that could happily strike out and write prose or poetry – like Willy Vlautin or Nick Cave or Joni or Bob. I know that’s exalted company and she’s only 21 but I think she’s pretty special. And did I mention that I adore her record? God I adore her record.

There’s a host of details I love about “Melodrama” – things like the chk chk pause between the verse and first chorus in “Perfect Places” – but it’s the cohesion of the whole piece that has brought me back to it over and over. The narrative of the first rush of love – falling in and then falling out – framed loosely through a party isn’t necessarily new but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone articulate the experience of being young so clearly. The simultaneous joy and terror of it. The rawness of it before you learn to get a little more numb.

“Supercut” is the standout for me albeit it seems picky to zero in on one song on an album that works, fundamentally, as an album. It hangs together as a whole (which may, sadly, partially explain its relative lack of commercial success compared to its predecessor “Pure Heroine”). “Supercut” is glorious. To be honest if all it had going for it was the line we were wild and fluorescent come home to my heart then I’d be there. That is beautiful and perfect. The rest of the song, a reflection on lost love and the edited highlights of it that are all that remain in memory, ain’t too shabby either.

This wasn’t, I don’t think, what I’d envisaged for this post. But there’s something in that opening analogy about expressing love. If I needed a reminder that music is the thing, for me, that rips right through the rational part of me, the cynical part of me, and cuts to the core – the inner kid that heard the heartbreak in “Winner Takes It All” and fell in love with sad songs – then Lorde’s record does that. I can rationalise and explain all sorts of reasons why I love it but, ultimately, it just connects with me and does what music’s supposed to do: makes you feel alive.

Elsewhere, as alluded above, I also got cut open by the Phoebe Bridger’s record (especially “Motion Sickness” and the absolutely gorgeous “Scott Street”) and a range of records from the past. I spent a lot of time in the company of Stevie Nicks (who inspired her own spin off range of short stories – here) and Fleetwood Mac and I was bowled over by The Beatles, maybe twenty years after I should have been. But I guess that’s the flip side benefit of losing cultural touchpoints defined by everyone hearing things together (does that even really happen now?) – everyone now has access to everything so the past is laid out like a new country to be discovered.

2016 was the tidal wave. I lost my mum and it was like nothing I’d ever known. 2017 has been the undertow. I’ve been back on my feet but get pulled over and sucked back. I think I’m learning that grief works like that. I think it probably always will. I’ve always leant on music as my emotional crutch and the Lorde record was the one I leant on most this year.

 

 

The needle and the damage done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say. Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.

 

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. “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?”