It seems strange to remember this above than anything else, but the clarity is undeniable. I remember the first moment being about the bubbles, floating on the surface of the water like reflected clouds made manifest, or the woven candy floss of fairgrounds; an oily sheen gleams on their surfaces before a magnificent and soft pop of a soapy supernova, they’re brought to life by the muddling of two substances, then extinguished by nothing more than the biggest of killers: time.
I wake up. The sun is beaming through the window of the room and I notice immediately the sharp smell of sweat. I had another of my weird dreams last night and, as such, have had a panic sweat all night. Brilliant. Another set of sheets to drop off at the launderette on the way to work. The alarm is still ringing its toll in the background, relentless in the pursuit of its goal. Even a deftly thrown hand at the slightly recessed snooze button only delays the inevitable, the stunning blow shaken off within a five-minute window. Giving in, I fall out of bed, yawn and stretch and try to come to life (as a kid, I’d never really understood the first part of that song; as an adult, I understand only too well). I figure a cool shower will help the procedure, so I wander across the hallway to my tiny bathroom, grab and throw on a plush Egyptian cotton towelling robe, one of few luxuries, yawning again for good measure and to make sure that I’m really, truly unawake.
It’s amazing the lies you believe when you’re a kid. When you’re in primary school, every house is owned, detached, with four windows and a red door, a pointy roof, a little white garden fence which seems to encompass acres of land, and you live with your parents and siblings and pets under and endlessly sunny sky. Even by adolescence, we’ve realised how much uncorrected hyperbole this is, and by adulthood we’re stuck renting a one-double-bedroom, one-bathroom, open plan ‘living space’ in a block of three hundred; my ‘living space’ is a kitchen and lounge with a tiny, two person plastic dining table in the middle acting as an ineffective Berlin Wall between them. The bathroom only called such because of its ability to house a bath should you wish to remove the sink, toilet, shower, plumbing and tiles, and adjust the layout of a substantial part of the master bedroom; it’s better referred to as a ‘wet room’. It’s no wonder that so many of us feel failed by real life and lack some respect for the pronouncements of our elders and leaders, who conspire to make the extremely young believe in a false freedom which can only be achieved by a one-in-fourteen-million-chance victory or through becoming a minor- to mid-celebrity by selling our souls, our dignity, on reality television and any chance of a career beyond it.
I turn the fake-chrome faucet in the shower; icy water falls from the head to the ceramic base beneath it. I jump back, the cold water burning the skin on my hand with glacial ease, and rub the now damp robe, a victim of my vigour. I wait the compulsory two-and-a-half minutes it takes the boiler in my flat to bubble up to a perfect lukewarm (a temperature it never seems to be able to breach meaning I regularly stand tantalisingly close to tepid) before I strip down and step into the cubicle. Ah, as expected.
The water splashes down onto my face and careens, in its myriad rivulets and streams, across my chest to my toes. I’d always looked after myself, so my taut skin caressed my toned physique. This was the only way to be: society has a way of letting you know when you aren’t correct, and the slightest hint of tubbiness is the first crime against fashion. Even the health magazines, which I read very infrequently, are littered with tips on how to ensure my abs are well defined in just six easy steps, and how to gain perfect toned arms for the-beach-bod-tee (three exercises, two supplements, and one t-shirt)... I’m guilty of looking at these articles and feeling a sort of civic pride at my three long hours, three times a week gym schedule which keeps me this shape. I’m not old enough to remember the point where magazines for “keeping fit” became so obsessed with the cultivation of self-image, but I freely admit that I’m a slave to their influence. Organic shower gel made with real fruit and vegetable extracts. Anti-dandruff shampoo with a vitamin complex which would sustain the health of a small nation. Gentle whitening toothpaste made with baking soda and arctic lichen. Specific razors for specific parts of my body. Olive stone exfoliants, papaya and tea tree toners, oil- and fragrance-free moisturisers, one each for eyes, face, neck, lips and hands, plus one for arms which is slightly enriched with an invisible amount of fake tan: I have them all, some in two or three brands signifying failed experiments to find which best to ensure my youth and protect against becoming an alligator, in ranges expensively-designed for ‘le Moderne,’ and with one thing in mind: to make one more attractive to a preferred gender. This would be great if they actually did help me to find a lasting relationship; my median length is a somewhat pitiful six months. Somehow, there are always problems. Perhaps I move to quickly, perhaps they’re too controlling, perhaps we’re simply both too independent, but the result is always the same. My mother often expresses her pride in my achievements with the caveat that it would be nice to see me settled down. I remember that I once saw a film about a guy who had a schizophrenic episode, in which he span, uncontrollably it seemed, into another of his personalities. He lived outside of his own body, an observer of sorts, of the myriad attributes of his other self, watching himself drink to destruction, fight with abandon, deconstruct his career, and fuck whoever fell onto him. I sometimes wish that were my life — able to do whatever, with whomever, with no compunction. My life, sadly, is safe and controlled, partly by the world in which I live and partly by a secret worry that I’d enjoy recklessness just a bit too much. It’s for this particular reason that I’ve been single for a while and, thus, am mildly celibate. I wonder why I care so much.
Suddenly, unbidden, a memory of last night’s dream comes back to me — no, it hits me. Hard, vivid. I stare into my own eyes in the bathroom mirror, flecks of dried toothpaste foam breaking a clear view but not preventing me from slipping into recollection.
I’d been standing in front of a great, white ceramic sink – though the word sink didn’t really begin to adequately describe what could almost have been a very small bath. It appeared to be (optimistically) three-quarters full of water, the rest of the surface area taken by the billions of bubbles dotting its precarious surface. My hands were in the water, so I began to search for and remove the, until then, invisible crockery hiding under the bubbles. A dinner party seemed to have taken place, or so I’d assumed, as there were both larger and smaller plates moving around under there, and a collection of pieces of silver cutlery. One by one, I took them from the water, washed them over with a dishcloth which had arrived on the draining board to the right of the sink. I was methodical in my labour, slowly removing each and firmly removing the dirt and remnants of the soiree from them. I placed them carefully on the board to dry in the gentle breeze which had begun to emanate from the slightly ajar, unreasonably commanding leaded window I noticed in front of the sink, its white frame aglow. Outside the window... My memory fails. I remember it being very bright, but there were no features that I can remember in that überwald. The light hurt my eyes if I looked at it too long or too hard, as if that world’s minutiæ weren’t for my consumption. I don’t remember thinking that this was an issue, and I continued my unbidden task.
I looked to the right, plate in hand, and there he was, in full, stereotypical, Native American regalia and dress, as if from a spaghetti Western; from canvas shoes, through khaki-shaded robe and leather belt, to the blood red headband with a solitary yet magnificent snow-white feather emerging victoriously from it. Curiously, he was holding a tea-towel and looking at me with no small degree of expectation. I handed him a plate, dripping wet and with some bubbles still clinging to the surface. He took it gently in his untowelled hand, then applied the cotton to the damp plate with slow vigour. All the time, he never looked away from my face.
“Thanks,” I said, unnerved by not only his sudden appearance, but also by his confident gaze.
“It’s okay,” he replied, with a wry curl of the corners of his mouth. ‘You’re washing my plates, it would be rude of me not to do something to help ya.’ His eyes gleamed with amusement, and it became clearer that he was a young man of no older than twenty or twenty-one years old.
“Well, I didn’t have a great deal else to do,” I said, my nervousness becoming ever more visible, “and there seemed to be quite a number to get through. Also, some of these stains need some work.” Babble. Why did I choose this time to allow my conversation to descend into smalltalk? All the questions I could have asked...
“I normally leave them until the next day. I find that some of the more resistant dirt comes off if you let them soak for a bit, though that does mean the bubbles have a tendency to disappear and they’re, y’know, the best bit,” he said, with a hint of sadness in his voice. His eyes closed for just a second, and when he opened them, there was a shimmering line of moisture along the bottom edge of his eyelid. I looked away, in an attempt at exercising respect for this strange grief. He breathed heavily, in out, then, as I looked back at him, he seemed to have instantly recovered, the Mona Lisa smile gracing his face again.
“Well,” I replied, my British politeness becoming more and more a modus operandi to stop the very real panic rising to my surface and emerging, triumphant, in a mess of garbled, hurried verbosity, “I can wait a while, if you’d like a cup of tea?” I remembered who I was talking to, and in an unusual episode of national stereotyping brought on by said agitation, “Or, perhaps, a coffee?”
“Actually, I’m good for joe, thanks. Don’t worry, I think you’re doing a great job. Perhaps I’ll do it your way next time, kid,” he said with a wink.
I didn’t know quite how to respond to being referred to as ‘kid’ by somebody who looked younger than I did, so I chose to simply ignore it. Perhaps this was just his way of asserting his authority in his own home, as I’d assumed this place to be; I couldn’t pretend to be alpha-dog in this space – I’d never been good at that game when confident and on my own territory, let alone when in fear and on his – and his calm amusement gave a subtle air of total ownership of the surroundings.
“Um...again, thank you.” I mumbled, and continued to wash while drinking in the room.
He smiled again. To the right of the sink was a tall mahogany cabinet, drawers forming its base, a rack for plates, then a cupboard above it with glass doors and intricate leadwork holding small panels of glass in a beautiful, if large, clear mosaic. The old but beautifully polished wood looked regally over the rest of the kitchen and dining space, keeping its crockery hidden and organised inside, and presenting a more appropriate view to any onlookers than simply a sideboard with stacks of plates, cups, saucers, cutlery of myriad shapes, sizes and scope. There were already many crocks inside the cabinet, and some plates in the rack, though it was clearly not full. I assumed that the dishes we were washing would, eventually, fill and render it complete. The American had finished drying his plate, and turned slightly on his heel to reach and deposit the plate in its home on the rack. In doing so, a shard of light from the window caught his face, illuminating him in spotlight; he briefly appeared much, much older, as if the light had aged him beyond reason. He turned back and immediately became the young man he’d been before. I shivered. He saw my discomfort, and tilted his head gently to the side. He opened his mouth as if to say something, before deciding against it and picking another plate from the draining board. He worked this plate as he had the last, wiping gently but with intent around the rim, then toward the centre, then in reverse, until the plate was dry enough to be placed, still gently, into the rack next to its brethren. I wondered who he might have to visit that would require the large number of plates the rack seemed able to hold...
“Well, this is alright, isn’t it?” he suddenly said, turning to look directly at me again.
“Um...” I paused, without knowing really what to say, still perturbed by his brief transformation into a wizened senior. “I suppose so.”
“Look, I know this may seem a bit strange to you, but, y’know, just relax a bit. Let’s talk about something, it’ll help settle your head, kid.”
I looked at the effortless confidence pouring from every pore of his skin and nodded gently, even though he’d not really explained anything about how I’d come to be here or why he was entertaining my presence in his opulent surroundings. I also didn’t have the first idea what to talk about; what subject would be appropriate for discussion with somebody who you’d only met mere moments ago — in their kitchen, wherein you’d apparently just appeared? Especially somebody who, without knowing it, had set you so completely on edge due to their supernatural ability to become ancient and revert to youth akin to a jellyfish, though alternatively activated by light? Also: why wasn’t I terrified about my location? While his rapid re- and de-aging had been petrifying, I was strangely calm about the fact that I was unsure about how I arrived in front of that sink, sleeves up and ready to get to work on the dishes. I mean, surely I had to have rolled them up myself at some point, but why didn’t I remember doing so?
“Hey,” he interjected, as if reading my mind, “let’s talk about what’s going on in your life, kid. I’d like to learn a little bit more about ya.”
I stood, mute, thinking about how to proceed with this. I’ve never been good at talking about myself, the racial memory of British self-deprecation and modesty being especially strong in my genetic make-up. Even job interviews in the past have been a challenge, my career furthered only by adequate questioning and the ability to answer well under pressure; my curriculum vitae, however, was an exemplar in how to say that you’re good at specific things without actually taking any of the credit for the achievements.
“Where should I start?”
“Tell you what, what’s a normal day like for ya? I’m interested. Let’s start there.”
I break out of my reverie and step out of the shower cubicle into the bathroom, skilfully avoiding accidentally putting my trotter into the toilet. I turn on the hot tap in the sink, which isn’t afflicted by the same allergy to temperature as the shower, and it begins to steam. As I look into the clouded mirror, I am certain that I see a flash of brown and red behind me, of something moving very quickly from one side of the appallingly small room to the other. I spin rapidly, picking up my electric toothbrush in some vain hope that it would be effective as a weapon in the face of any well-prepared villain, and am confronted by...nothing. I wonder if this is really just a residual not-so-senior moment from last nightmare? I look back at the mirror, and (why did I think there would be?) there’s nothing in it. I realise that I’m being silly, and turn on the cold tap. With a splash of water to the face, I reassert my ease, and brush my teeth, lightly contemplating the once again fading memory of the previous night’s dream, before making my way into the kitchen.
A friend of mine once described bran cereal as perfect for dieters due to its ability to put one off food for life: never a truer phrase, I reflect, as I lean against the kitchen worktop and shovel down a bowl of the stuff, swimming gracefully in a flavoursome lake of semi-skimmed and granulated, and hope beyond hope that it really does make me healthier and less likely to be beset by old age bowel trauma. Anyway, I absorb the remaining sludge at the bottom of my bowl, and crack open the tiny fridge. Space in there is at a premium, so I’ve dedicated a shelf to beer, dairy and juice, a shelf to cold meats and eggs, and a shelf to fresh meat; the door contains milk and carbonated, and there are two drawers underneath all this which remain blissfully free of the vegetables and fruit they’re purported to contain. I tend to eat through those too quickly; they require no cooking, so snacking on them rather than having proper meals is almost always my first choice. On the odd occasion I do find myself cooking, then I invariably have somebody to cook for. Creating an amazing gourmet meal for one is both unnecessarily time consuming and an inordinately solitary experience. Thus, it is to be avoided and my fridge remains carrot-free. I break from looking around at this spartan landscape and remove the clementine juice I’ve been ferreting around in there for. Cold and delicious, as juice which has flown five-hundred miles to be here should be. I wonder, as I pour myself another glass, if Tesco gets Air Miles? If so, there must be some lucky executives flying first class all over the globe thanks to my taste for exotic fruit juices.
With my bowl cast into the slimline dishwasher (because the sink is tiny) and my hands gripping the glass of juice I’ve poured, I cross the room and sit at my dining table (hilariously described on the packaging as ‘expansive, with room for all the family’, which is not inaccurate if your family consists of just you and a cat), grabbing the remote from the work surface along the way. I flick the standby button, the flashing red eye resuscitating the TV from its overnight coma. The only place I was able to find enough room for this OLED 3D 4K HD SMART-TV (and much more technobabble) was on the wall, thus there it was mounted, dominating the room. Whoever invented the flat-screen should be lauded, though, as without it being a centimetre thick I wouldn’t have the room for a television at all. The old CRT TVs would have only found a home here as the base of a coffee table, which I was also distinctly lacking, in favour of the space saving attributes of a minute side table beside the two-seat pleather sofa, which itself is positioned beside what the estate agent optimistically described as a ‘Juliet Balcony’ (and by this they meant that the doors could be opened inward, but only if you move the sofa and table into the kitchen first, meaning you can then lean against the metal railing which is designed to prevent your accidental suicide — already unlikely on the first floor, as jumping from this height would probably only result in a couple of broken bones and an embarrassing trip to A&E) which looks onto the industrial park next door, already a hive of workers and honey-gatherers in their articulated conveyances. The news flashed up on the screen with its usual pronouncements of mass violence occurring somewhere (“Terrorist bomber attacks Manchester council building”), some economic issue besetting England (“Chancellor acts amid new Sterling warning while ES strengthens for seventh year”), some poverty-swept county being used as a political tool (“Rest of world must do more on Yorkshire Famine, minister says”), or some section of our society being vilified and blamed for almost everything which is perceived as the general ennui (“Half of all national riot suspects on benefits, many are Muslim”); all headlines point to one thing: our world is sailing gently down the Thames, while the world our parents left behind strengthens, and there’s nothing much we can do about it other than to look on in wonder and horror. Even local news, the great bastion of firemen saving cats and children producing masterpieces, has become the projector of that otherwise hidden (“Bisexual brothel operating in centre of town, jury hears”), a doomsayer (“Welsh Protest Against English Refugee Site: 500 Days and Counting”), and a nationalist voice of untruths (“England goes it alone — and we’re doing great!”). I learned in my History lessons at school the story of our ‘going it alone’: the rest of the United Kingdom saw the light well before we did, fighting successfully to disband the union, then each, over time, becoming part of the then European Union. Northern Ireland became once again, by popular vote and in a show of Irish unity never before seen, simply ‘Eire’. All of our former home territories subsequently voted in favour of the greater European project; all became affluent and successful within the now entitled ‘European States’. Whilst the continent’s political unification finally found pace alongside its economic, England, disgorged from the former EU and never part of the Euro, declined and then languished, sharing little more than imports and strict borders with our former partners.
The world is a stranger place than I remember from my childhood. The only conflict then was between my friends and the kids from the next estate who, it was generally agreed (by us) weren’t quite right and shouldn’t be allowed to join our games. It was all friendly, mind, and we played together at school as if our post-enforced day never occurred. We annexed an area of green behind the houses and any encroachment was dealt with swiftly and effectively by a time-honoured method — throwing what the earth provides: in spring, mud; in winter, snow; in autumn, leaves; in summer, whatever is to hand depending on how wet it was. I remember there being no problem with different races, genders, sexualities — we just all protected our little estate enclave. How some things change and how some remain precisely the same. This was all before the great ‘Clima-pause’, the tabloid name for when the scientists finally told us that the ice caps were at the point of no return and that the next few decades would see flooding and unpredictable climate change... The weather since has been exactly that. We don’t bother with reports now other than to see how today is going to be different. The high point was a 26ºC Christmas Day a couple of years ago; the low point was the Anglian Monsoon, a summer of unrelenting torrential humidity, my eighteenth birthday ruined by waterside floods and friends unable to style their hair. We were left wondering whether or not somebody would eventually discover HRT for the atmosphere; we’ve been promised that flood protections are at their best ever, since delegated to the Ministry of Defence, which must be a comfort to the former residents of Bournemouth (affectionately titled ‘Britain’s Atlantis’ since it disappeared under the waves) and current residents of our newest seaside cities, Norwich and Bristol.
Yet even as kids, it seems, we were being prepared for work. No, I change that: all of life is a run up to retirement, when after having eighteen years of being looked after at the start, we can finally take a break from the sixty-five years of hard graft (menial or intellectual) to panic about whether or not our menial pensions can afford to heat our homes and feed ourselves and our partners (if any) for the remaining years, which, due to our careful, medicated, but stressed lifestyle, the free-radical nature of cancer, and the terrifying world we live in, might be a princely fifteen years. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, twenty with good behaviour. It doesn’t seem balanced, in my opinion. That said, between the bombings and the disappearing land, who knows if I’ll reach retirement... A lot of people have decided to forgo paying into anything other than the compulsory state pension as they don’t see the point — they don’t expect to live long enough to see the benefit. I, a while ago, was presented with this argument; I decided that, considering my luck, I’d be the one that ended up being saved through nothing more than living on high ground, where most major companies have relocated — whoever could have thought, all those years ago, that Birmingham would become the thriving centre of UK commerce? – surviving through the worst of it, and coming out the other side with nothing to show for it. I think about this almost every time I step into my car and begin the drive to work.
Driving! Now that’s an adventure when you live in this city. I bought, not so long ago, a second-hand wheeled shoebox from a guy in a dirty suit and hair styled to make him look like a cinematic 1980s New York Mafioso. He was adamant that the car would be perfect for my city lifestyle as it was small enough to manoeuvre around traffic, to park in tiny spaces, and consumed a sizeable amount less electricity than the next model up. What he failed to mention, however, was that this also meant that the car was cramped, my legs often arguing with the steering column, could only seat two people and a briefcase, ruling out any hope of shopping for anything larger than a fortnightly food top-up or some tightly packed clothes. It consumed so few kilowatts that the top speed was in the low fifties, making it more of a chore getting to work on time during rush hour (which, in my car, was more like saunter hour) than if I’d just bought a travelcard and hopped on the somewhat pungent people-mover which stops outside my block. Moreover, when zooming at a pace just beyond that achievable by a scared domestic cat, the apparent manoeuvrability of the car was limited to that required to swerve gently aside when the, nowadays admittedly few, rich commuters in their 4x4s, delivering their titanic and usually individual children to the Better Schools two boroughs away, fail entirely to see my anthill car from their Himalayan perspective. I sometimes think that the greatest blessing I ever received was the ability to survive this hamster maze every day.
All journey terror aside, my paceless drive is once again successful, and I arrive at the office with plenty of time to spare. I desert the car on a charge pad (the cost of which is drawn from my salary – post-tax, of course) and I amble through the rotary doors which, without fail, pause halfway through their orbit, trapping me inside. I wait, with descending patience, as the concierge at the desk just inside the building fumbles ineffectively for the well-hidden reset button. A couple of taps, and a gentle push from me, restores order, and I tread into the reception area. Working for a large company has positives and negatives. The positives being that I get paid a relatively good salary, though not extravagant, and I get some great benefits – it’s my company’s Corporate Healthcare Package that makes it affordable for me to continue to use the gym, for example (£40 per month after tax, to also include private hospital, optical and dental — all handily owned, along with businesses in almost every other sector, by our sole shareholder: English Industrial ltd.). The negatives, however, one would say could outweigh the positives. For example, while I know the names and faces of the directors of the company and all of those in my team, I can name on one hand the number of people in my office that I know well enough to go drinking with. I wouldn’t share a personal secret with any of them. Everybody in my workplace is better known by a job title and/or email address. I copy and blind copy people I’ve never met, some I never will meet, and some in countries thousands of miles away; we all work for the same organism, taking its many arms and feeding it until it grows bigger and excretes a golden egg for the benefit of those at the top. None of us feel like we’re a part of this. We’re not even the zookeepers of this corporate beast — in this offshoot, we’re just the manicurist.
Reception is the epitome of this disconnection. Only in a large corporation could that word be used in such a mutated way: mid-21st Century business is metal and glass and white polycarbonate, clinical and unwelcoming. I say hello to the concierge, and he nods at me with a curled half-smile. I swipe my work pass on the turnstile leading into the complex and walk toward the chrome-doored lifts before jumping into one just about to depart. The space is cramped, as usual, with the suits and ties of the professional class, the 18-person rated lift currently containing about 25 (thankfully, it was designed in America). It zooms up toward the heavens, Helios’s chariot drawn by its solar steeds, and stops at thirty-three. No muzac to be heard in this lift, no – these are austere times and music licensing is an unnecessary expense. I step out of the lift and wander through to my plastic desk. Sitting down on the threadbare and clearly cheap chair, I hit the button required to start my ancient computer, crowned by a panel of glass and plastic, through its daily routine of finding the files required to start up, deciding they aren’t the correct ones and so deciding to go have a look for others, just in case. This ritual requires the sacrifice of time, sanity, and at least one cup of steaming hot soil from the vending machine yonder; the machine sends a sword of orange across the screen to indicate its progress and to thank me for my continued patience. I arise once more, knighted by the apparatus regis, to acquire said earth.
The office is a hive of activity, with hundreds of shirts and ties whipping around with a seemingly pre-determined flow, each worker playing a small part in the generation of the honey. My part is simple: make sure that it doesn’t stop being there; I have to keep it flowing, make it available when required to feed the beast, and to ensure that there aren’t any dry spells where the honey is substandard or less than needed to simply sustain the beast. I remain sedate throughout, as it doesn’t do well to develop undue stress. That is, until my immediate superior stomps across the alps to invade Rome. I barely get back from the coffee machine, and my computer only just announcing that it is ready for me to give it my credentials so I can access the secret things within, before The Boss arrives on his elephants.
“Not even logged in yet? Bad form, very bad form.”
“I’m early for work, sir. I have another ten minutes before you’re even paying me to be here. As you can see, I’m just about to log on to the system and get some work things done before I get started on my...”
He cuts me off, mid-sentence, to proclaim his victory: “That’s all well and good, but while you’re here you should be working. Get it sorted, and quickly. Come and see me at 10am; I have a project I need you to work on.”
I smile as if I’m four years old and he’s given me a cake. ‘No problem, sir; I’ll see you then.’ Gushing. Yes, I know, it’s weak, but having a job where the only real trauma is the bad coffee, the slow computer, and my strange manager... Well, I wouldn’t be able to get the same anywhere else during these sustained stiff economic times, would I? So, day in and day out, I gush willingly to avoid the dreaded sack and ensure that my tiny flat and tiny car can both be sustained. He troops away to conquer another soul.
I log into the computer and, noisily, it brings up my email and calendar programme. I have a full day of activities designed to ensure maximum productivity and minimum time to relax. The only two blocks of time I have free in my diary, now I’ve added my fifteen-minute 10am meeting, is a thirty-minute long lunch break (while I’m sure it’s illegal to have such a short break in a very long day, I reflect again on the threat of being unable to get anything better). An hour and a half before I have to go and see Him, so I get on with some basics that won’t take any longer than that. It might mean (corpo-rage!) that I will get to have a coffee before the meeting. This would make whatever work he’s going to pile on, inevitably above and beyond my responsibilities yet somehow perfect for me and my aspirations even though my only career aspiration is to someday get out of this godforsaken place, a little more bearable.
10am rolls around faster than I’d hoped. The fifteen-minute alert pops up first, totally disturbing my flow. Unable to get back into it, I take myself over to the vending machine for the promised coffee. I think for a second about taking one to The Boss, then decide against. I wolf my coffee. Feeling like my car during rush hour, I slowly navigate through the dashing crowd to his office. I knock on the door three times, his prescribed number: any more or less results in the best avoided trumpet of disapproval.
“ENTER!” comes the bellowing cry from within. I push the door, step through, turn and push the door closed. Before I’m even sure that the door has closed properly, there’s the expected bark from behind me.
The front door slams as I rush through, throwing my lunchbox and tiny bag onto the floor. “MOM?!” I howl. Pause.
“Mom, lookit what I made at school!” I offer what appears to be a doll-pillow, embroidered with the most awful blue fabric flower.
“Oh, that’s beautiful!”
She’s lying, but she’ll keep that thing for the rest of her life.
“Right then, I’ve got something special for you to handle today,” he says, as if I’m to think it a prize. He assigns me some pointless academic research project that will take most of the rest of the day, and instructs me to clear my diary to get it done. It’s at times like this that I reflect that the only two things I’ve gained from having completed a degree (with Honours) are access to the graduate scheme which eventually brought me to this role and an ability to conduct accurate and useful secondary research. On the bright side, his instruction means I can legitimately wipe the day’s activities clear; downside, tomorrow is going to be hell trying to catch up with the work which, no doubt, will be left untouched by anybody else on the team.
“Thank you, sir, I’ll have it done by close of play.” Deep inside, I cringe at myself and my inability to be anything more than the brown-nosed toad that needing money for rent has made me.
“Well done.” He’s the only man I know whose finality is so clearly defined that he almost pronounces the full-stop at the end of his sentences. I don’t have to ask if I can leave; He’s expecting me to.
Back at my desk, I look at the computer screen and evaluate how long it’s going to take for the venerable old thing to load up the software I need to complete the task. For any consumer machine, having a word processor, internet browser, spreadsheet and email software open at the same time would be no trouble at all; I may as well be asking this computer to cure the common cold or develop the alchemical elixir for eternal youth and beauty. I imagine the CD tray ejecting from the front of the machine and a delightfully grey beard growing rapidly and unbidden from it as I experience time moving much faster than everybody else around me. I evaluate and decide that it will take much longer to wait than it will take for me to grab another coffee (leveraging the time-honoured Granny Kettle Watcher equation). All of us have addictions: for some it’s alcohol, for some it’s class-As, for some it’s money; for me, it’s caffeine.
I daydream at the coffee machine. Flashes of memory, things from the past, half-forgotten moments which I revisit when I have quanta of freedom like this.
It’s raining, inside and out. Some wag set off the fire alarm by means of a lighter while the teacher was distracted on the most useless day of the year to do so – it’s a veritable monsoon outside, and now it’s Amazon in here, the trees sodden and deltas forming down desks from handy water jets positioned in the ceiling of the classroom. The teacher panics, unsure where the cause could be – or possibly prescient, because of how her hair will look like beyond this unexpected shower. We file out in an orderly fashion; Jay is behind me, as usual, cracking jokes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was him that set the alarm off, and he’s in a typically jovial mood. He says something humorous enough to elicit a laugh from me and a few others, and the teacher barks for silence from the rear of the line. Subdued, albeit briefly, we trudge on through the darkness of the winter mid-morning, out into the courtyard, where we join the other kids in our school. The teacher has panicked so far that she’s forgotten to tell us to put on coats before marching us out; the rain is resulting in our class’s white shirts becoming somewhat see-through. There’s a boy next to me who is panicking even more than the Sasquatch-haired teacher, as he wraps his arms around his chest. Jay ambles forward, cracks a joke and puts his arm around me in friendly humour. I don’t know where to look.
The coffee machine beeps to let me know that my single serving cup has finished dispensing. Eyeing its beige foam, I return to my desk.
An electronic reminder pops up on the computer screen at a few minutes before 6pm and disturbs my flow. The Boss will be expecting this research report before then, so I put the finishing touches to it and email it over. It’s only once I’ve done this that I realise I haven’t yet had anything to eat; dropping into deep-focus mode pretty much means that I don’t notice the time, and I power through all the way to end of day without pausing for a snack. I’m glad I tanked up on coffee earlier, otherwise I’d have serious withdrawal symptoms by now. Before I can get a response from the Boss asking me for any more work to be completed, I tell the computer to shut down, grab my coat and bag, and head back down to the car.
As I get into the lift, somebody behind me taps my shoulder. With some difficulty, I pivot around far enough to see Jay behind me. Jay and I have known each other since we were kids, and have had something of a mirrored life: same school and college, but different courses; same university, and similar courses; different jobs at the same company; we still live only a few roads away from one another. You could say (and he often did) that he was my oldest friend, though nowadays we only really see each other at work and on the odd occasion that we get together after hours for a few end-of-week beers.
He was grinning in a very strange fashion; I knew that smile from years of Jay’s Bad Ideas.
“Alright, Jay,” I say, conserving as much oxygen as possible.
“Are you coming out tonight, mate?” he asks as if there were some plans I was party to. Obviously this thought shoots across my face as he then continues: “You know, Andy from finance’s birthday? We’re all going into town now for a couple of beers cause it’s Friday – didn’t you get my email and text and missed call?”
“I’ve been off my email and mobile all day, mate, had a big one from the Boss to finish. Been incommunicado all day. Could be good fun, though I gotta drop the car off at home first.” I hadn’t even realised this morning that today was Friday, the end of the week, the start of my temporary respite. Wow. I’m glad he mentioned it, otherwise I’d likely have come into the office tomorrow, a thankless offering.
“Wicked, mate! We’re all meeting in that new place on the waterfront, the cocktail one. Andy is getting a few mates to come out too, and that new girl from HR is coming, the pretty one.” Jay only mentions girls when he’s got his eye on them and he needs a wingman. They never have names. In some ways, I’m envious of his ability, and in others... not so much. “See you there at 9?”
‘Sure, I’ll see you there. Will probably aim for 9.30 though.’
“No worries, mate.” He walks off with something of a spring in his step.
I don’t even know Andy-from-finance.
Blue seemed to be a theme in the bar. The cocktail thrust into my hand, before I could even order the beer I wanted, was cerulean; the bartenders were wearing t-shirts in azure; the walls may have been white in normal lighting, but the fluorescent tubes and spotlights were tinted to throw a cyan light onto the room. Through the crowd, I spot Jay across the room with the rest of the people who had decided to attend: he is fairly difficult to miss being the most obviously trendy person here (Jay’s status as Office Fashionista was unchallenged. The only bloke in the office who, while loving more masculine pursuits such as Sunday morning football, was able to navigate the endless vagaries of the sartorial world); I grab the strangely thin tumbler of Blue (the bar’s “finest and most unique cocktail creation”) and stride with under-developed confidence toward them. They seem to be having a ball, by the look of the thing. Andy-from-finance is wrapped in some kind of crepe paper affair, clearly designed to make it easy to recognise that it was not only his birthday, but a pretty significant one, and that he should be approached by anybody who wished to pass on their best, especially if those people were of the correct gender and found themselves single, unaffected or sufficiently lubricated.
I shout a “Hello!” over the deep bass and high chatter, and raise a hand to wave at the rest. Jay spots me and bounds through with arms outstretched for the usual deeply practiced, perfunctory and symbolic hug. I reciprocate, one-armed, and break to rest my glass on the table beside our group. They were all standing, the conversation between them flowing like a sedate river through a twilight valley. I jump between the odd conversation, being sociable but not really settling on any one group to remain with – I’m not sure that I have a great deal in common with any of them other than Jay, and he’s currently trying his hardest to develop a conversation with Pretty-new-girl-from-HR.
A while passes, and I decide to go to the bar to attempt to buy a drink with a more sienna hue. I begin to excuse my way through the crowd when I’m party to a hand on my shoulder: a quick snap of the neck reveals Jay, red faced from the slight gap in the air conditioning where he’d been standing with Pretty-new-girl-from-HR.
“Mind if I join you, mate?”
“Course not.” I shout back, the music considerably louder here than the other side of the dance floor.
We stumble and “EXCUSEME!” our way to the bar, moving against the flow of the crowd. Once at the bar, I’m determined: I shall not accept a cocktail. I mean, they have beer taps, so they must serve it, surely? I find myself reflecting on how language hasn’t kept pace with society in many ways; I’m preparing myself to ask for a pint, knowing full well that we moved to metric a few years ago. It was a canny way for the pub industry to increase profits — a half-litre, served when one asks for a ‘pint’, is somewhat less than the old imperial pint. I don’t mind the change — it seems more logical; however, it does require one to cease cynicism in order to recognise it. We stand, expectant, hopeful twenties between tight fingers. I decide to break some of the silence that rests between us while sedentary bartenders look with calm abandon at the myriad bottles behind the bar, all with the uncanny ability to develop a shade of blue even when they weren’t naturally that colour.
“You know that new concierge guy? I think I recognise him from somewhere, but I can’t place it.” I’m not sure why I ask this: It’s been playing on my mind, I suppose, and Jay is the only person I’d think to talk to about it.
“I dunno, mate, I don’t really pay that much attention to the front desk unless I’m waiting for a parcel!”
He takes a long draught from his cocktail; perhaps not a great plan. He’s forgotten the ‘hours likely to be compos mentis = (((number of hours planned to be out) + (the number of units of alcohol consumed thus far)) x (number of units per hour likely to be consumed)) / 8’ equation.
“How’s the love life then?” he asks, putting his glass back onto the bar carefully, as if fully aware of his strength (a sure sign of drunkenness: the attentive alcoholic). I’m sure we had this conversation last time we were out, a couple of weeks ago, but I choose not to bring this up.
“Non-existent, Jay. Every day is a rolling programme of work and home, with the odd beer with you and the guys. Nothing exciting ever happens, and meeting somebody at work is virtually impossible ‘cause I haven’t got the time.”
Christ, I really am terribly melancholy.
“It can’t be that bad, mate – bet there’s plenty of ‘em chasing ya, you just don’t see it?”
“Well, if they did, I don’t.”
“Bad times, mate.”
Silence. Uncomfortable silence. It’s clear that Jay has no further recourse to this and is thinking about how to resurrect the conversation without it sounding like I’m a total lost cause and like I have something in my life that makes me even vaguely interesting. He fails.
“Another drink?” Saved by the bartender, he settles on the time-honoured way of reviving a conversation: ignoring what just happened and instead opting for another beverage.
“Can I get a pint please, mate.”
I’m presented with a half-litre glass filled with something blue.
Back over with the work crowd, I listen to the music in the background. I’d not noticed before that the music had become very acoustic; it must be nearing closing time. The lyrics of the song currently playing are thrown into sharp relief as I listen attentively and reminisce.
He is genuinely beautiful. This is the first time we’re making love; his soft, supple skin undulates atop me, the heat and humidity of the sleeping bag reducing our friction. Furiously, we move, synchronous, his long hair gently brushing my face as he kisses me, and his tight chest (Oh, how he’d been so afraid of people seeing his body two short years ago) pressed against mine. Suddenly, I transform into a tiger, roaring at the chase; into a firework, exploding at the first; into a silk sheet, falling delicately down to the ground. There are butterfly-kisses, then he indicates that he must return to his own tent before the teachers wake up. I pull off the johnny which protects us both from stupidity, and instantly wish I’d been a little more intelligent about how. Moments later, Jay re-enters the tent with a glint in his eye and a small grin — clearly, he’s had the time of his life with the pretty brunette in the adjacent tent — and, without asking a single question, returns to his own space next to mine, his warmth suffusing the space between us. Eventually, I feel his arm drape over me and we both pass out.
I see Jay making his way toward the dance floor to steal a slow one with Pretty-new-girl-from-HR; Andy-from-finance has pulled what Jay will, with some pity, call a “pig-monster”. Most of our team have paired off with somebody and are enjoying the last few moments of the evening, before making their decisions to go home with dignity or with what will later be referred to as shame. I make up my mind. I leave alone.
This is the conclusion at which I usually find myself, as a sad representation of Beaudelaire’s state of unwarranted and unwanted loneliness in the midst of a crowd, walking back to my quiet flat, the vapour from inescapable e-cigarette warming my raised knuckles and nose in the developing chill of the autumn night, to watch some recorded TV, drink whatever bottled beer I have chilled and go to bed cold and incomplete. I sometimes try to inject a little camaraderie into my life by breaking out the iPad and sitting on Twitter for a time, in the hope of finding somebody to lighten my mood; the fact of the matter is that the friends I follow are all still partying the night away when I get home, leaving me with the wonderful experience of talking to strangers on the same sinking ship as I. This does nothing to raise my spirits, so the iPad, chronically underused for this specific reason, gets put on charge and stuffed into a drawer in order that the constant pinging of messages from people attempting to unburden themselves doesn’t keep me awake until the small hours; I’ll be awake until the small hours anyway, though, staring into the blackness of the room and over-thinking.
We lie on the riverbank in a cloud of hormones and energy.
It’s a clear day, bright and cloudless. There’s an aroma of honey and pollen in the air from countless buttercups along the bank, and there’s a constant hum in the background from the gestalt bees zipping from one grail to another.
We’re sitting in silence; there are no words which would change this moment, or are necessary to improve it.
Suddenly, an arm is draped over me. I smile to myself, drinking in the gushing sunshine, and close my eyes.
It’s leaving day. We’ve been together since that night, two years, but now we’re going to different colleges and, with no doubt, to different universities afterwards; we’ve agreed that it’s probably for the best if we call it quits now rather than to wait in hope forever. We hug, kiss; he asks if I’ll be alright. There are tears in his eyes.
‘Don’t worry, at least we’re both going to the same place!’ Jay’s words from earlier in the day echoed in my ears, delivered accompanied by his wingman smile.
I wonder if I’m depressed, or just overly introspective? I realise that all of this is just pitiful self-loathing, but I can’t stop myself; the St. John’s Wort I take periodically (when Holland and Barratt have a sale on, otherwise affording these things is a challenge) doesn’t even touch this melancholy which sometimes just grabs me by the head and shakes me, side to side. It has, on occasion, reduced me to red-hot tears, streaming as I sit in the dark of my flat. God, I must sound like the worst kind of hormonal, darkly-minded teenager, whose postmodern poetry comes in fits and bursts, dripping with the myriad bodily fluids they wish to throw onto the page, predominantly (but not exclusively) their bile and blood. I’m pleased to say that while I don’t have a great opinion of myself, I have never self-harmed, nor have I ever written a poem containing a woe-is-me narrative. I don’t have it in me to do that. It’s okay doing it now, talking to oneself, but... I don’t know, saying it aloud is one thing, but writing it in verse seems almost to reduce the emotion to insufficient but extensive verbiage. An old school teacher spent a lot of time teaching me (and others; we weren’t a small class) about emotional literacy; the words are not enough. I sometimes express this to myself, standing in front of the bathroom mirror and looking deeply into my own eyes, partially in ego and partially in hope, looking for the answers to the questions I have burning inside, all of which begin with a very simple concept, but one that causes much consternation for all who need to ask it.
The alcohol kicks in; I drift off to sleep.
‘So, it seems you’ve a fairly standard life?’
‘I’d say so. Nothing too out of the ordinary, for somebody of my age in this decade. It’s a little...dull in parts, though,’ I agreed, with not a little dejection in my voice.
He leapt from his chair, almost knocking it to the tiled floor, and exclaimed, ‘Life is what you make it, kid! If it’s dull, you should mix it up a bit!’
‘How am I meant to do that, though?’ I implored. ‘I have to work to afford the flat, and once that money and the bills are gone, there isn’t much left over to “mix it up.” I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who has been able to just do whatever they want to do. Life isn’t like that. I just feel a bit like I’ve wasted it.’ The dreamcatcher spins.
‘Why do you think that, kid?’ he said tenderly, drawing his chair in again with barely perceptible noise. I looked around the room at everything he had there: it seemed hazy, but there were hints of a fuller life than I felt mine had — photographs of children, grandchildren; ornaments clearly collected over decades; the homely feel of a country kitchen.
‘Well, I just...I don’t know, I feel like being alone and doing the job I do, the cyclical nature of it all... It just feels a bit wasted. Like there’s loads I could have done, but I never got around to. There was so much promise after University, but it’s all become quite...’ I paused. The word I was looking for just wasn’t there, until I looked into his eyes. ‘...grey.’ I shuffled the newspapers which lay on the dining table between us. It worried me that I didn’t know how I’d got into this room, or where the exits were, or even what had happened in the run up to being in front of that sink. I thought I must have been dreaming, one of those lucid dreams which you hear about, but are never able to actually achieve. I agreed with myself — if I am aware it’s a dream, then it must be a lucid experience. Perhaps I’d simply had a really good evening and blacked out a few hours. It didn’t explain why I hadn’t a hint of a hangover, but conversely it didn’t seem important to worry about it at the time.
He drew his wry smile, and looked back at me: ‘Life is only wasted if YOU waste it. Take this opportunity to think over your choices. Everybody is more intelligent here, kid, including you — not because they have become cleverer, but because... Just think of it like this: we’re in a place where your mind is undistracted and, therefore, can really get to town on processing all that stuff you’ve been taught over the years and not had the chance to.’
Is that why, I wondered, I feel more verbose? I have always thought in a polysyllabic overture, but I often shy from exercising this in speech – it’s not socially acceptable. Above the window, turning gently in the low breeze, was a dreamcatcher, his religion made visible in this space otherwise unadorned by anything that could be considered a sacred relic or artefact. Periodically, the wind blew especially hard, and the dreamcatcher whistled a low melody while spinning through time. I watched it for a while, sitting on the flock, flowered armchair in the far corner of the kitchen. ‘What secrets might a dreamcatcher hold?’ I pondered aloud.
I almost leapt a metre into the air when suddenly he appeared beside me: ‘What secrets do you have that you need kept in one?’ Startled, I took a moment to compose myself before I could respond.
‘Well, I suppose it depends on what the context is. Some secrets I keep inside, some I have to put out of mind.’
‘And, kid, those out of mind are the ones the dreamcatcher keeps for you.’
‘Even you?’ I questioned, not assuming I would get a straightforward answer from my evasive friend.
‘Oh, yes. Even I need to put things out of mind sometimes, otherwise I’d be overwhelmed by it all.’
I thought back to our first conversation and to the tears in his eyes when he considered the bursting of the soap bubbles. I pondered why such care was given to such a trifle, especially one which was unstoppable: soap bubbles were unstable by their nature, and could not be expected to simply sit around forever waiting for somebody to use them. Eventually, they just had to burst and allow the trapped air back into the world. I considered that there were many afflictions which could cause such despondence; it wouldn’t do to consider my strange companion unstable, especially as it appeared that my leaving his home was currently an unavailable option.
Breaking the silence, he informed me, presciently: ‘the sweet aroma in the air is bison grass’. It drifted in through the slight gap in the window and permeated my senses. It wasn’t heady, though; instead it was light, grassy and energetic. ‘They burn it to release the darker aromas, y’know. It’s nice to have it drifting in, but I keep a few bunches of the fresh stuff up here so that it all blends and makes the old place smell just a bit better,’ he intoned, pointing at some small threshes of a dark-green grass hanging from the dark roof-beams by tightly woven hemp string. I looked at the stems hanging there, with their strange buds. I was standing and looking at them intently, as if I expected them to suddenly develop tiny, verdant mouths and serenade me (such was my impression of this place).
‘Why do they burn it? It can’t just be for the smell.’ I replied, my eyes unwavering.
‘Ah, I don’t know. Some of them tell me that it’s meant to be in reverence, but I’ve no truck with that. It just smells nice, all of spring and promise.’
He sighed, gently. ‘Yeah, reverence. Worship, if you like. There’s a complex and passionate dance they sometimes do to accompany the burning, which is fun to watch. They think it influences the health of their people.’
‘Does it?’ I asked, inquisitively.
‘I don’t know – but there’s a power in positive thought, isn’t there?’ His enigmatic smile once again graced the conversation, which simultaneously set the surface of my emotion at ease and caused a gentle rumble of panic deep in my subconscious.
I wake up with a start; it was the middle of the night. It seems like I’ve been sleeping lightly for a few hours, which has helped me to regain a little composure, the dream fast fading, though the smell of bison grass seems to linger in my consciousness. I’m thinking with some clarity, which is helpful as it also seems that I’m soaked to the bone with a cold sweat which seems to have come upon me while I was asleep. I hop out of bed, dry myself off with a towel left limply hanging over the top of the door to the bedroom, and clamber inelegantly into a pair of jogging bottoms and a t-shirt. Having achieved this little victory over my own body, I crawl back into bed, and into the still-warm duvets which protect me from the outside cold caused by my leaving the windows open – I cannot sleep with them closed, as the air from outside cannot refresh that inside the room otherwise.
I lie in the darkness and focus past the little stars of light I see before me (some optical illusion or the first signs of elderly glaucoma). They make delightful shapes on the walls of my vision, parody constellations of imperfection, strangely reflected in the pool beneath them, amplified when I look outside to see Cetus swimming through the dark ocean above. We don’t see many stars here in the middle of the city, courtesy of overly-bright LED street-lamps, neon signs, and the ambient light pollution of a hundred-thousand businesses still alive, mobile phones still being tapped, headlamps still cutting through the darkness like Heaney’s spade. I continue to look, though, squinting with some hope of seeing the vast extent of the galaxy we spin through, careening through space in a blistering whorl. The universe’s mysteries remain so; planets are formed and destroyed, stars are born and reach nova, things move apart and closer together, and we see yesterday’s show, as if the universe from our viewpoint was nothing more than catch-up TV, a few billion years of programming just waiting to be downloaded, analysed, categorised, published and perused for our pleasure in all of its awesomeness, its magnificence, and its sublimity. And yet, I reflected, we still venerate the “stars” on the small screen, forgetting both the greater wonder of the skies and the impact even one normal, otherwise insignificant person can have on us.
It had been something of a blur. University was drawing to a close, with the five preceding years being punctuated by much hilarity, worrying financial statements from the student loan company, and more hard work than I was used to. I’d been dreading Graduation. Mom and Dad were both there, which was great, and even Jay had made it, who I hadn’t otherwise seen for about a year – we’d both been dealing with dissertation fear. The idea of being in front of all those people in tahat flock of robes filled me with terror. What would I do on stage? Where should I walk? Whose hand do I shake? With what pace should I cross? I didn’t even have anybody to hand hold me through that process — I’d not been with anybody since him, not long term. I mean, you know, I’d had some fun, but I’d not been with anybody who I liked like him, or who I’d be with any longer than a few weeks. There was one... He was a handsome lad. I was drunk and he wasn’t like anybody else I’d met there; we’d bonded in the SU bar over The FA’s recent decision to allow mixed professional football and too much lager. He drank better than me, to be fair — I was absolutely mortal. Later, he ground against me, into me, while I leaned back against the wall in the alley outside the pub, legs raised and arms wrapped around him. Suddenly, I was that tiger again, that firework, that silk sheet. He went back into the pub, and I decided that it was a good time to go back to halls. We made good friends with benefits, in the end. Jay kept on telling me that I was a loser, and that I should make my mind up what I want and go for it, but I wasn’t sure what that was. I was sure I’d find out soon: Real Life was around the corner, and don’t people say the end of University is when you find out what you really want to do?
My eyes are heavy and I can feel myself drifting away to sleep again (I try never to fight it, as inevitably I win the battle; creating my own insomnia isn’t the intention). The gentle tap of the vertical blinds against the frame of the window is rhythmic, and counts down like little sheep to my unconsciousness. I relax into my sheets, clothes adding warmth and causing a tighter wrap of the blanket of heat around my chilled frame. Drifting downriver... I sail into a light dream, into a boat suspended atop a perfectly calm river, the banks gently passing by, incredibly slowly. They pass whilst I remain static, looking up into the duck-egg sky, hands underneath my head offering support. A bird flies over head, briefly, the shape of its brown wings wide and its pale head visible fleetingly before gone again. Gone... drifting... I yawn, in my boat, as the wind gently lifts and pushes me downriver...
We’d got back together after Uni — just for coffee initially, but we’d rekindled the relationship we’d once had over time and over beer. I rejected the graduate scheme I’d blindly applied for when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and, instead, applied for a teacher training course. A couple of years later, I finished my inductions and accepted a permanent job at a great little secondary school local to where I grew up. We moved into a small 2-bed terraced house and adopted a dog, a lemon beagle we called Beans. He, having completed his own education (culminating in an MA in Politics), took up a HR management role within a large organisation whilst canvassing for his election as a local Councillor, an election he’ll likely win as the Labour candidate in a very safe area. Don’t get me wrong — we’re human, we argue and fall out and make up afterwards — but we lead a very comfortable life: few money worries, beyond the usual fears created by the declining economy; two ‘premium’ e-cars, which are the envy of our families and a sizeable number of our friends; the cozy sofa which we curl up on during those Sunday afternoons and evenings we designate as our ‘us’ time, punctuated by wine and Yorkshire puddings...
I wake again, violently. I’ve barely been asleep for another couple of hours, a glance at my phone tells me, which doesn’t fill me with joy. I won’t get a regulation eight hours of total shut-down, so I’m barely going to function today — I can predict my psychological reaction to this stunted cycle. I peel back the sheets — sweaty, again, but less so than last night. I drag myself out of bed and to the shower. I turn the faucet again and get into the deluge; exhausted, I momentarily lose my balance, leaning to the wall for support. The glazed tiles are slick, wet from the shower and already lacking any texture due to their ‘value for money’ nature. I fall backwards heavily into the glass shower surround, losing my footing in the process, and descend bodily to the ceramic floor. I sit there for a minute, both body and pride bruised, feeling every one of my years. A wave of melancholy hits me, at the apex of the pain: how did I reach this point in my life? All the promise of my education, all the opportunity presented by a future unwritten, all the paths I could’ve taken... At its most basic, all the people I could have ended up with. Instead, I’ve chosen a tick-box job, a tiny rented shithole, and solitude. I know this world that my parents made isn’t easy to work with, but surely I could have done better than this... Quietly, but invariably, I begin to weep. The water is cold and metallic. I hold myself, knees into my chin. What price, this life?
I’m wallowing in self-pity, I know it. I’m not immature enough to think that I can just pull myself out of this mood, but I can certainly pull myself out of this shower. I lean forward, reach for the handle of the glass door and launch myself upright, unsteadily. I Bambi my way to the living room and collapse on the sofa. I consider the opening the balcony doors for a modicum of fresh air, but I realise I don’t have the energy to move the sofa and table. I flick the TV on again, to be confronted with glossy adverts for sugar-based snacks and cleaning products.
Out of the corner of my mind, an itch. I thought I can’t shake, even when confronted with cordless vacuum cleaners and laundry detergents which can remove all known stains from all known fabrics. A dream of a life that could have been. Why couldn’t the dream be a memory rather than a fantasy? I curl up foetally, my head cooling while the pleather warms to its touch; I blink once, twice, then the cold spreads throughout me. I feel the cold in my marrow, ice water travelling tremulously to my heart, to my mind, to my liver.
Perhaps tomorrow will be a better day.
Saturday dawns through my ineffective blinds. I’m still on the sofa, the TV still cycling overly saturated ads for useless tat. I resolve to do something productive with my day, if nothing more than to attempt to lift this despondence that I’m in. I’m still quite hungover — it seems that I hadn’t quite got that cocktail out of my system when I had my fall last night — so I walk shakily to the kitchen, where I drop a pod into the very slim coffee machine, reaching up to grab a mug from the hooks suspending them and saving cupboard space, placing it with defiance under the spout of the machine. It splutters, grizzles, then dispenses with vaporous aplomb. I can feel its mechanical pride as the glossy crema expands, its gleeful ‘beep beep’ a perpetual reminder that only machinery can truly fulfil its purpose. They have made noises for the last couple of years about the growing abilities of Virtual Intelligence, the successor to what we now see as the dumb ‘artificial’ variety; VI, under its various brand names, has started to find its way into a great many devices — for example, cars are on the brink of being able to drive themselves; VI means that these cars will now talk to you about current affairs and how they affect your specific family, like a virtual chauffeur, while you generously ignore it. They say that, within the decade, we’ll all have VI robot humanoids in the home, doing all the housework we all hate and providing companionship where there otherwise wouldn’t be. We’ve all seen those films where people learn to love the robot, falling in love with the robot, fighting for its rights... But it’ll still have a purpose. Once they take the housework away, since manufacturing and service roles have already been entirely replaced by automata, what purpose is there for the rest of us?
I’m being snarky at a coffee machine. This is the low point of my depression, I’m sure. I need to get out of here.
After raiding my miniscule wardrobe for a combination suitable for what appears to be quite a bright day — shorts, t-shirt, factor 30, a small bag containing, amongst other things, an emergency umbrella — I leave the block, aimlessly choosing to turn left, on the advice of the re-runs of an old TV show from before I was born, and stride towards the outskirts of the city. Almost immediately, my phone starts to vibrate in my pocket, the heartbeat of my life outside the flat. I pull it out of my pocket, the slim display pulsing with Jay’s face and two buttons to accept or reject the call. I hit the green button; Jay’s already talking into his handset before I even get the phone to my ear.
“...need you here; bring the car!”
“Slow it down, Jay — I missed the start of that. What’s going on?”
“I need you to come to me, mate — there’s been an...” The pause is tangible. “...issue, and I need transport. I’ve sent my location to your phone. Please!”
“Alright, mate, calm down. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Cheers, I really appreciate it.” A beep, then silence. He’s hung up. Jay never calls me in a panic like this; I look at my phone and his location flashes in my notifications. I press it, then jab the button to send it to my car’s navigation system, all while I jog back to the flat. I hurry up to the flat to retrieve the car’s key, then back down again in a similar rush. I jump in and turn the car on, hit the accelerator sharply and grimace as the car judders to a sprightly 25km/h.
I cross the centre of the city and aim north on the expressway. Roadworks, again. The car reads the signs and, against my will, slows down to match the prescribed speed limit, proscribing my prompt progress. I look out of the window towards the city I’ve just passed through. From a distance, it could almost be described as beautiful — its remaining brutalist blocks blending in alongside post-modern waveforms and millennial spikes of cerulean glass twinkling in the sunlight. The new Capital – since London became a bay (only Manchester had any other claim, but it half-disappeared before that battle could be settled); how it had grown after that decision had been made. What used to be the council building, Victorian design with 21st Century additions, now houses the English parliament, controlling everything from Hadrian’s Wall to Land’s End, the flag of St. George flapping in the breeze where the council crest and the Union flag once greeted visitors. Before my time, but the web is littered with photographs of the past; they’ve not been able to censor every positive image of the past – yet.
The expressway, and its roadworks, reaches a conclusion and I refocus my attention. Pointing into the correct lane, I drift left and towards Jay’s location. Under an overpass, over an underpass... The nav abruptly trills to let me know that I’m “approaching your destination”, so I slow down marginally so as to absorb my surroundings and ensure the correct turn. I see Jay before the nav can tell me that I’ve arrived; I glide to a conclusion alongside him, then, with a cursory glance out of the mirrors to check I’m not going to accidentally cause my door to be ripped off, I jump out of the car and quickly scurry around to him.
“What’s going on, Jay?”
“I need you to come inside, mate. Quickly.” Jay’s already started to lope back into the house; I follow him, nonplussed.
Inside the house is a scene. There are bodies littered across the hallway, some stirring but most comatose. Jay, seeing my confusion, grabs me by the arm and leads me, weaves me, through the throng towards the back of the house. Passing through a part-closed doorway, we are birthed in a wash of sunlight; through the French windows in front of me is the garden, its expansive greenery pocked with varying hues of pink, purple and blue. Jay continues to drag me past the vista and into another room to the left of the huge windows allowing my view.
This room is darker: muted colours, closed curtains and very dim light. There’s nothing in here other than a ratty, moth-eaten fabric sofa and another body, slumped and snoring across the arm and its arms, saliva leaking unrepentantly out of the open mouth, down its cheek, pooling in the hand lying gently underneath it. Jay, unnerved, whispers, stutters, “I-I don’t know what happened. We were out all night, s-so we didn’t think anything of being in here. One minute, w-we’re in here relaxing, joking, getting -“ A moment’s pause, almost nothing — but too much to BE nothing. “- c-close. I went for a glass of water, but when I got back, t-this is how I found her. That’s when I c-called you.” The olive oil tone of his face has drained giving him the colour and texture of porridge.
“Has she...taken anything?” I ask, cautiously. I don’t want to imply that he has taken anything; Jay, for all his current almost-clean living, has a chequered history with drug taking. I found out when we got back together for a few drinks after we’d graduated that he’d almost been kicked out of university at one stage because of a slight overindulgence on magic mushrooms and cocaine, which had resulted in him laughing uncontrollably throughout a 9am lecture, before flirting outrageously — and almost physically, prevented only by a course-mate’s swift intervention – with the sixty-year-old lecturer. The resulting conversation — in which the Dean used the words “parents” and “criminal record” and “expulsion” — convinced Jay that this needed to be the end of his dalliance with psychotropics. As such, even the suggestion that he might have relapsed sends him into a spin which, exemplified by the last time I made an ill-advised joke about his chemical past, results in his refusal to communicate in any fashion until an apology is received and he is able to give a full explanation about why you were wrong to even suggest it.
“Mate, honestly.” This is unusual — he doesn’t even show a hint of anger at the suggestion that drugs are involved. If anything, he looks scared. I’ve never seen Jay scared. “We didn’t take anything together. We had a few drinks, came back here, we shared a feel of our goods, then I went for a water. When I got back...” He gestures at her, still shaking.
“Have you called an ambulance?” This seems like a redundant question, but I thought I should ask.
“Yeah, mate, but they’ve told me it’s gonna be at least another hour. ‘cause she’s still breathing, she’s —” he puts on a prim, stereotypically English accent, “‘not a priority case, at the moment, Sir.’ Fucking NHS funding cuts.” He’s genuinely angry at this. Most political I’ve ever seen him.
“Did they tell you what to do with her?” I can guess what’s coming here.
“They said that if I can get her to A&E myself, then they’ll see her faster, but they can’t get the ambulances.” He looks imploringly at me. I’m not heartless enough to say no, even if it wasn’t my best mate asking. I nod, holding his shoulder firmly in a show of solidarity. He seems to snap out of his panic and becomes the Jay I know: resolute, certain; he picks her up, still curled into a ball, and walks decisively back towards the front door. I walk behind, again dodging the bodies, which are now mostly red-eyes and yawns, until we reach the car. Opening it quickly, I jump into the driver’s seat while Jay places her delicately across the back seats before sitting in the passenger seat. In the meantime, I program the navigation to the nearest A&E — three boroughs away. Fucking NHS funding cuts.
I whir through the city again, this time paying less attention to the sublimity of the landscape and more to darting between lanes, like a demented Jack Russell. We get to the hospital in less than thirty minutes; I pull into a parking space and rush to pay a quarter of a week’s salary for half a day’s parking whilst Jay daintily lifts her frail form. He hurries through the sliding doors and into reception; I watch them go as I jog back to the car, apply the required sticker dispensed from the ticket machine to the inside of the windscreen, then follow them as hastily as I can.
A&E in a modern hospital is a very unique experience. They’ve never managed to completely get rid of the NHS, but so much of it is “operated under licence” by private providers that it may as well be gone. Even sections of hospitals can be franchised out, claiming a percentage of the hospital’s operating costs based on footfall and services offered, as is the case with, for example, most A&E departments; this one, operated by English Industrial Healthcare, is branded and painted in corporate colours, still managing to be clinical through the permanent grins of the vinyl ‘patients’ adorning the walls. Those actors have never seen A&E — they’d have been paid in services, so they’ll be shipped to an En-Ind private hospital.
At the desk, Jay is already getting Pretty-new-girl-from-HR booked in. She’s slumped on a chair nearby; nurses to and fro, obviously extremely busy, without a single one paying any attention to her now heavily-breathing form. Not that any of us blame them — since we banned immigrants from holding public sector roles until they gain permanent citizenship, there’s been a permanent shortage of medical professionals, alongside the already catastrophic shortage of teachers and civil servants. As such, the nurses and doctors here must be run ragged — borne out by their red faces and tired eyes. I look back to Jay, who turns and marches back towards me, still standing near to Pretty-new-girl-from-HR.
“Right, she’s booked in, but we have to wait with her until they can assign her a bed and a consultant.” He looks a little despondent.
“Well, that’s good news — normally, if it was going to be ages, they’d tell us to go home and wait for them to send a responder.” I’m optimistic for us both, particularly as we both know that this could take hours unless she suddenly takes a turn for the worst. Jay makes a non-committal noise from the back of his nose; he sits weightily beside her. I attempt to fill the already burgeoning silence: “Fancy a coffee?” He nods, slowly, then raises his head to look at me. His eyes burn into my conscience.
“Yeah, that’d be great, please. Black, no sugar,” he exhausts, weakly.
I go for an adventure through the warren of wards and corridors, Alice through the looking-glass, in order to find the dispenser; past alcohol gel dispensers and unoccupied gurneys, lines on the floor leading people to major departments, each in the colour of the company who franchises it – lipstick red for Virgin Care’s paediatrics ward, Bupa sky for surgery, The Practice teal for the GP surgery, UnitedHealth cyan for the cancer ward. A plethora of disconnected staff tied together only by a patient and a computer system.
I follow the GP line — in my limited experience, the coffee tends to be near the people who are more likely to want it, and people ensconced in wards are unlikely to want caffeine; a fruitful decision as the monolithic Nescafé machine appears around the next corner. I quickly select a black coffee, pay with my phone, and wait for the machine to push out a small wine-glass sized steaming cup of Robusta. Then, I repeat the process, before retracing my steps and following the purple E-Ind line back to A&E. As I walk back, I reflect that my life is like a series of repeated actions, over and over, with no apparent purpose. Last night’s impromptu trip to the bar and today’s trip to A&E is the most off-plan thing that’s happened to me in weeks, months; is it bad that I’m actually quite excited by this? Almost sordidly — I’m genuinely thrilled that I’m doing something unplanned, unpredictable. Spontaneous. Then, I’m momentarily disgusted with myself for even considering that this could be a positive experience. Has my life really become this dull, that I could consider somebody’s ill health exciting. I take care to wipe the involuntary curve from my face before I get back to Jay. He needs support, not my introspection.
When I turn into A&E, he’s sitting next to an empty chair; I increase the pace and hold out his coffee. He looks up to me, tears in his eyes.
“They’ve taken her into intensive care. I’ve been asked to wait.” He allows a tear to roll in parallel with the emerging shadow on his ashen upper lip before wiping it away with an angry hand. He then reaches forward for the coffee I’m still holding, outstretched. I press it into his hand, ensuring he has it gripped well before I let go — the last thing we need right now is scalding to the groin to add to the situation. He draws the paper cup back to his face and inhales the steam; he takes a lazy but determined sip before lowering it and resting it on the arm of the metal chair. I sit next to him — the other side, not the seat that Pretty-girl-from-HR was slumped on, and replicate his action. This coffee is pretty strong for machine-brew; I can feel the caffeine begin to kick in almost immediately. Jay, too, must have felt the same, as he gruffly rises, coffee in hand, and begins to pace to and from the posters of the beaming models. On the next pace, he finishes his cup with one, two gulps, then roughly casts it into the metal bin underneath the poster. He’s unusually quiet as he returns and thumps back into his seat.
I feel that I, somehow, have to break the silence, before he slips from melancholy to rage. There’s little I can think of other than —
“So, I hope you don’t mind me asking — was anyone else with you?”
Jay looks at me, his deep blue eyes turning from anger to sorrow. “There was one guy, one of her friends; he came back from the bar with us to the house for the after-party. I don’t know his name, just that he came into the room while we were getting a bit...heated —“ His eyes momentarily flash with that wry charm Jay has in spades, “- not that it put her off in any way; I just assumed she had a voyeuristic streak. I went with the flow; after a while, it seemed like he’d just passed out, so we carried on. It’s after that this all happened.” He gestured vaguely towards the ward.
“So whatever happened must have happened when you went for your water, right? And where has he gone now?”
“That’s the only idea I’ve got about it all. But I was only gone for a few minutes. By the time I got back to the room, he’d gone.”
“That can be enough, though. As I say, whatever happened must have been while you were out of the room.” My inner desire to Sherlock my way through this mystery is almost unbearable. Again, I’m left with the unshakable feeling that this situation could become positive, a feeling I need to withdraw from my psyche with some urgency.
“You’re right, but...” He pauses. Pregnant. “...she didn’t have anything on her and he was knocked out. I don’t understand...” Now, he looks at me, boring into me, searching for something. “...how.”
“Look, mate, don’t panic for now. Let’s worry once we know more about how she is.”
Once more, sonorous silence.
After a while, a white coat emerges from beyond a portal. He carries a clipboard and the frown of a man deputised to deliver bad news. His eyes scour the room, landing uncertainly on each of the would-be patients and nervous accompaniments dotted around the waiting area, before settling on Jay. The warmth I had otherwise cocooned against the draw of the metal seat was leeched from me; I can see from his pallor that Jay is experiencing the same. The doctor gently walks towards us, then, clipboard at the ready, looks directly into Jay’s eyes.
“Are you the gentleman who brought in the young lady who had passed out?”
“Yeah, Doc, I’m Jay.” Jay stands, visibly rattled.
“Please could you come with me? Your friend can come as well, if you want.” Cold, direct.
“Yeah, okay.” Jay looks at me; I don’t need him to ask to know what that look means. I stand and follow as the doctor leads him back through the portal from whence he emerged.
We walk down the intensive care ward corridor, past one, two, ten bodies trapped on beeping machines, blue and white uniforms hurriedly weaving webs of care around them. A feeling of deja-vu tickles against the back of my mind, a pink sensation. I can’t pin the thought, so I box it for later. The doctor takes a turn left, into a small, dimly lit corridor, with walls that look whitewashed instead of being covered with the regulation anti-bacterial plastic coatings. This must be the old part of the hospital, now unused for patient care and employed, instead, as offices and meeting rooms. Conjecture, but the only sensible idea which I have on the matter right now. Another left turn, then a right through two double doors secured by an electronic pass which the doctor quickly moves from around his neck to the small black pad on the wall, then right again — this time, into a small office, with a paper-littered oak-wood desk with a laptop buried in a corner, three cushioned seats set askew from one another, and a bookcase filled with dusty medical tomes with unkempt covers. As the doctor quickly reorganises the seats into a triangle, I cast my eye over the broken spines: the usual collection, Gray’s Anatomy, The Journal of Investigative Medicine, Macleod’s Clinical Examination, and the like, but some interesting other choices too — and one book which seemed entirely out of place. At the bottom-right of the bookcase, almost hidden beside yet another book on surgery, was a thin red spine — deep red, the colour of maraschino — with gold filigree darting across the leather. I try to look closer, hypnotised by its presence, but my focus is broken by the doctor, who gently but firmly presses me down into one of the — I must admit, extremely comfortable — seats.
“Right, Jay — do you mind if I call you Jay?” A pause so subtle that you could slice it with a cat-hair. “Your friend is in a bad way. We’re concerned — and I’ll be honest with you here — that she’s going to have to spend some time with us while she recovers.” Jay looks like he’ll join her shortly after. “Now, we don’t know the circumstances surrounding her...illness, but she seems to have taken something quite strong. As such, the usual drug prevention laws apply, and we have to hold her for further testing, even if she doesn’t make it. Moreover, we’ve had to inform the Police, who will be here shortly in order to take statements from you about what happened. They will want you to be separate from this gentleman -“, gesturing at me without looking, “- for that, though they’re happy for you to remain together until then. They do, however, want me to make sure you’re secure until then as they don’t want anyone absconding before they’ve had a chance to, er, probe you for details, if you’ll pardon the expression.” He stands, resolutely. “There is a bathroom just across the hallway, refreshments in the staff room at the end of the corridor on the left, and there are other little offices you can go and sit in if you want some times separately, however I will be leaving you here for now.” He walks towards the door; Jay stands too, attempting to block his way.
“You can’t leave us here?!” He exclaims.
“Not only can I, Jay, I must. I have patients to attend to and you have to be secured. That’s all I can do for now. I have, as you can see, tried to make you as comfortable as I can, but you must comply.” His steely-certainness is unnerving. He pushes past Jay and walks unrelentingly towards the double doors; one swipe and he’s away. The doors thump with surety behind him; Jay, dumbfounded, jogs up the corridor and start’s hammering on the doors, shouting to be let out.
I, on the other hand, cannot help but twist my head back towards the book on the shelf. I stand up and move over to the bookshelf, descending to a crouch beside its cover. I reach out with one finger, pulling the top of the book out to me, releasing a small plume of dust and ancient sebum from the volume next to it. The book comes easily from its cradle, and I grip it between finger and thumb, reverently removing it from its place. The cover, definitely leather, is vivid along its whole face — there are no spots of wear or damage anywhere on its rough surface — with the filigree from the spine reaching around and across both sides of the book. Below the decoration is a series of characters, also in the same filigree-gold; they spell out the title of a glorious tome, one of my favourites from school – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. My finger runs over the detail, feeling how the symbols and the decoration have both been inset into the cover. This isn’t leaf — these are veins of gold embedded into the leather itself, a gilt nervous system. Delicately, I open the cover of the book. On the first page, centred and bold, are the same words as on the front cover. The ink used to print this page seems raven — an unforgiving black which almost feels like a hole has been drilled through the page, through everything, to present these images. They’re almost uncomfortable to look at.
“What is that?”
I twist on my heel and jump up at the same time, unbalancing myself and dropping the book. In my focus, I hadn’t realised Jay had come back into the room. I bend down and grab the book, putting it into my jacket pocket quickly. I don’t know why I felt I needed to feel ashamed about this, but I wanted to take it – I hadn’t held a proper hardback book of fiction, made of paper and leather and workmanship, since almost before my living memory.
“Oh, just this book I’ve been reading. I had it in my jacket just in case we were going to be long.” The less he knows about the burglary the better, under the circumstances — I should be paying attention to his needs, not being distracted by personal desire for something as simple as a book. That said, having made the split-second decision to take it, I would rather he didn’t picture me as a thief, regardless of its momentary accuracy.
“I can’t be arsed with reading outside work; did enough of that at Uni.”
Tangible relief. “Haha, I knew you’d say that. I’ll finish it off when I get home, anyway, now you’re back.”
“Thanks, mate, I appreciate the support.” He smiles, a genuine and soulful smile, and I know that I’ve said the right thing here. Wingman Jay, drinking and dancing Jay, flirting with everyone that isn’t a best mate Jay, does have a soft, vulnerable side. It’s that side of him which drew us together as friends, when we’d first met at school, I recall.
I remember the snow. Cold, wet and awkward, it meant that getting to school was a slow and moist affair. In order to reach the comprehensive Academy, that my working-class parents had selected as my third choice school but had been overruled by local selection policies meaning that only the rich kids commuted to the two ‘outstanding’ schools in the area, I had to climb a steep hill. Me and twelve hundred other mountaineers, scaling and descending five out of seven. On this particular day, however, the snow made the climb even more challenging. I’d only been at the school for a year, only really made friends from within my form group and in my English class. Slipping and sliding feet at a time back towards the base of the hill meant that it took great concentration and effort to clamber to the peak of this daily drudge.
As I approached the apex, I saw — from the very corner of my vision, I almost missed it — somebody on the floor. Kneeling. I decided that, as that could so easily have been me, I’d go over and see what was wrong. As I approached, I saw shaking — I’d assumed due to the cold, but it became more and more overt that this was the shaking of a crying child, a peer in distress. I kneeled beside and asked what had happened.
“Nothing.” Sniff. Eyes wiped with a sleeve. The usual, accurate, clichés. “Go away.”
“No, not until you’re alright. What happened?” I insist.
“I fell. That’s it. Just hurt my knee, though, and the lads from year ten saw me go over. I looked a complete twat.”
I put my arm around the boy, hoping that the minor show of solidarity would help. He pushed my arm off him, sniffled and wiped again, then unsteadily stood up.
“I’m alright, honestly.” He lies with aplomb.
“Look, at least let me help you over the top of the hill, then you can make your own way.”
He looked at me, all red-eyes and water. “Alright.”
I helped him up; I did as I promised. He, instead of leaving me to it, stayed walking beside me.
Sensing my internal query, he said, “Well, I might need you again, just in case.”
It was a moment of little consequence, in the grand scheme of things, but it had led to this specific moment. Since I’d helped him up, we’d always propped each other, pretty much through thick and thin. Every scrape, every fight, every new computer game that absolutely had to be played start to finish on the Friday night it was released... Our parents called us inseparable — it actually crafted one family out of two, them growing to support each other just as much as we did — in particular, my parents were on hand to console Jay’s mom when his dad died, while I made sure Jay didn’t derail. Conversely, along with many other situations, he supported me through THAT break-up.
“What are you thinking?” He pipes up; it feels like an age since the last time we spoke to one another, but a glance at the clock details just four-minute’s passage.
“Honestly? Just thinking about how we met and some of the things we’ve got through over the years.”
He chuckles to himself. “Yeah.” Silence again.
Realising I’ve not really paid attention to my surroundings, I survey the rest of the room. The paper on the desk is arranged into dishevelled piles. On some, the scrawl one can only attribute to those who’ve spent so long taking lecture notes that they can no longer write legibly. Others, doodles and flowers, clearly drawn when phone calls were edging towards the extraordinarily dull. On the walls, the usual collection of old NHS posters outlining the almost life-or-death need to use alcohol hand gel after touching things — any things – in the hospital, alongside newer posters from whichever company was running whatever ward they had bid for at that point in time. I stand and wander over to the desk, the book weighing heavily. I absentmindedly move a few scraps of paper around, flicking through notes about new drugs, memos from ‘above’ describing new procedures to try and which patients to reject without treatment — nothing too controversial, admittedly, since the companies became overt about their desire to only treat those who could afford it — and deliberations on conditions hitherto unseen or untreatable. I continue flicking, not really paying attention to the pile of papers I’ve moved. Then, trying not to draw attention to myself, I gently turn and return to my seat next to Jay, who is still sitting with his head in his hands. I say nothing — the less, at this point, I consider.
Eventually, a rap at the door. Involuntarily, we both raise and twist our faces to look at who walks through; in plods the doctor who had deposited us in this room, accompanied by two police officers. They seem officious, plainly ignoring the doctor and bee-lining to Jay.
“Hello, sir. Are you Jay?” intones the first. Long gone are the days when an officer of the law must introduce himself in conversation.
“Yeah, I’m Jay.” He stands, holding out a hand — impeccable breeding, courtesy of his mother. The police officer looks at Jay’s hand, then looks back into his face. There is no other motion from him. Jay lowers his hand, sufficiently aware of where he stood in this situation.
“Jay. We need to discuss how you came to be here this evening. Please could you follow us?”
“Of course, officer.”
The two policemen turn and exit the room; Jay glances at me before following them, with a look of abject terror in his eyes. The doctor takes up the rear; he gently shuts the door behind himself, leaving me solitary.
A few minutes pass. Nobody returns — I suspect that this may be a longer interview than Jay had planned, and I make the executive assumption that the doctor won’t return until Jay does. Quickly, I pull the book out of my pocket; I flick through the pages, taking in the joy of the smell and the feel of each page.
Not reading yet, just feeling.
I refuse to allow this to be the moment I enjoy this. I put the book back into my pocket, feeling its comforting weight against my chest. Filled with a sense of loss at having decided to relinquish this moment to the future, I decide to be bold: I sweep the paper out of the way of the computer partially hidden underneath it all and open the lid. The machine is clearly about a decade old, grimy and slower to start than my computer at work. Nervously, I keep checking the door to make sure nobody has come back in — I consider that I can very quickly slam the lid shut if somebody does, but they’ll still know I was on it — while the start-up screen cycles. Eventually, it silently flashes into life. I load the web browser on the desktop. I think, briefly, about what to search for when I decide, instead, that I need to see what they’ve looked at themselves. I tap the history tab; all the websites recently — which, in itself is humourous, as it’s clear that this computer hasn’t been used for a year or so — populate the list with immediacy. I scan down the list. This was a long shot, so I’m genuinely surprised when I see a link — a single link, accessed a year and a half ago — to a website. A single character title. Poirot. Quickly, I tap the link and wait. The page loads slowly but with determination; a black background, on which words populate. I search the desk for a pen, finding one hibernating under a cairn of discarded post-it notes, and scribble the website address onto an unused note. I thrust it into my pocket, then shut down the computer and close the lid – I’m left intrigued about why this book, why now, and why would someone else be so drawn to it too?
Time passes slowly as my mind mulls these thoughts. I find my leg bouncing up and down with unconscious boredom as I clock-watch. I need to take my mind off what’s in this office; I can’t process it until I get home, as I need to be somewhere I can focus and I can guarantee I won’t be seen. Thus, I begin to daydream — to remember.
There were 5 empty bottles of rosé; I had only drunk 2 of them. There were seemingly endless amounts of other drinks (alcoholic or otherwise) at this Bacchanalian, but our little cluster had reserved ourselves for the sweet pink and the resulting loss of inhibitions that followed. This was the night I regained an old friend and made a new one. It was the night that I remembered myself, and the night that saved my life.
It was the first time I’d seen Jay in about six months, since we’d both been focussing on Uni. I was seeing my then partner, and been drawn away from various social circles through educational ambition and, due to moving into a flat with my partner, various home comforts. We’d stayed in touch, of course, and I knew there would be no problem meeting up again, but I wondered how much I’d still know him. He was bringing his current housemate with him to the party: a housewarming for a mutual friend who founded the mixed-gender football club we both played for while we were at school.
I’d arrived, as usual, a little early, and felt a little lost. Casa Debauchery wasn’t huge, having only two bedrooms, a living room, one bathroom and a kitchen/diner, and it was quite badly decorated, it’s most recent prior inhabitants being some rather unclean students. The host was doing a very good job of hiding or fixing the very worst of the damage, but the flat was still in need of some loving care: paint was peeling from most of the walls, the toilet needed industrial assistance, and the kitchen was cold and bare. The living room, however, was tastefully furnished in Ikea furniture, with a study space designated separate by a computer desk.
There were a great number of people already there, none of whom I knew, having been disconnected from the host for almost 3 years as well. I made small talk, and slowly absorbed the Burgundy I’d fortuitously remembered to buy on the way to the party. Just as I began to feel slightly more sozzled and slightly less like a spare part (alcohol being great at encouraging you to make friends with people you’ve never met before), Jay arrived, bringing Lars in with him.
Jay had changed very little since the last time I’d seen him: he now sported a shaved head, his only visible difference. He was also now minus the partner he’d had 3 years prior, which was no great loss (she was Eastern European, with no chin and a personality that could sand floors).
Lars, his house-mate, was a revelation to me. A part-Swedish brick wall of a man in his mid-twenties, Lars can only be described with one word: stunning. When he said “Hello!”, I noticed his fairly obvious trained accent: well-spoken and caramel-smooth. There was a hint of arrogance in his voice: it didn’t detract from his attractiveness; if anything, it added to it, giving a confidence to his tone that drew almost everyone to him. His speech was indicative of one who had received elocution lessons, but this didn’t make him aloof; he was, other than Jay, the friendliest person in the room, willing to speak to anyone and to be both part and centre of attention. Moreover, Lars was... different. At 6’2”, he was rather taller than me, athletic physique, and that 5 o’clock shadow that draws me immediately to a man. I was fully aware that I was in a long-term relationship, but there was just something about him that put me on edge, something that made me pensive about approaching him; I was immediately, inexorably attracted to him. I chose to override my instincts, on this occasion, and nervously introduced myself to him. We hit it off immediately.
The evening, from there, was a whirlwind of alcohol and singing. Someone had the bright idea of putting a ‘hits of the Noughties’ CD on, which led to the entire party automatically descending into nostalgic singalong. I have only flashes of memory of the night beyond this point: dancing like a lunatic in the kitchen; discussing hairdressing with a guy called Simon; finding myself talking to Lars... finding myself getting closer to Lars... finding myself kissing Lars...
We’d all, at around 4am, got a taxi back to Jay and Lars’ house, after having continued the singalong by howling a number of ancient pop songs at rather high volume on the street outside the party. Once we'd arrived at the house, Jay, smiling at me, went to his room, and Lars and I remained downstairs to continue our conversation. I was quite lucid at this point, and was enjoying the company of someone who gave me the butterflies in my stomach that I hadn't ever felt with my partner. Time passed, and Lars and I sat closer to one another. I melted into him when he held my hand, when we kissed... I allowed him to lead me up to his room.
I woke up wrapped, somewhat akin to a sausage roll, in a quilt on a leather sofa. At some point, I'd decided to wrap myself in a spare duvet, and fall (somewhat face first) into the pillows on the sofa downstairs. Perhaps it was guilt, perhaps it was reflection; all I know for sure is that my head hurt immensely. Something that night had told me that what I was doing was terribly wrong, but also desperately right. I was finally awake after years of slumber.
It’s unsettling that these memories come back to me unbidden, particularly when they force me to examine parts of my life I’ve attempted to bury. That night was... hedonistic. Not at all in character. In fact, it’s more the sort of thing that Jay would do. I smile to myself — briefly — before I glance at the clock; an hour has passed, yet I’m still alone in the room. My concern for Jay rises dramatically; where have they got him and why do they still have him an hour later, considering he has done nothing wrong?
Precipitously, the door bursts open. Standing there, ashen and trembling, is Jay. “They’re letting me go, for now. I’ve had to agree to stay ‘inland’, as if I’m going to flee to France or something. Any chance I could stay at yours, mate? I don’t think I can face being alone at the moment.”
“As if you need to ask.” I say, solidly. He definitely needs the support.
“They’ve put me on the ‘Identify Driver’ list, apparently, to stop me trying to get in a car and disappear.”
“You wouldn’t have done that anyway, though.” Jay isn’t the sort to run away from his problems — which is mostly the reason he gets himself into this sort of trouble.
“I know, I told them that — but they seemed keen for me to understand that the option wasn’t there anymore.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fair enough. Right, how do we get out of here?”
On cue, the doctor pushed the door open, silently beckoning for us to follow him out of the room, out of the ward and out of the hospital. In my pocket, like a gentle knife into my conscience, the book tapped my side.
We arrive back at my place, which is a little unkempt due to my early call to action. On the way here, Jay has been uncharacteristically silent, predominantly sitting with his head in his hand, eyes blankly staring out of the passenger window. Advent was similarly solemn, with him soundlessly sliding out of the car, the heavy atmosphere broken only by the sound of the car being alarmed. I honour the necessity by just opening the door and walking Jay to the flat. Once in, he sits weightily onto the sofa; I, filled with genetic memory, put the kettle on and drop teabags into two identical Ikea mugs. The TV flashes into life; I suspect that Jay has become unable to continue processing his own thoughts and has decided on background noise as a foil to his inside voice. The TV is still playing the news channel. Instinctively, I grab the remote and flick to an entertainment channel; while I don’t know if anything may have leaked to the press, I wouldn’t like for Jay to see news about today’s events scroll by while he’s trying to forget them. As the opening credits of an Australian soap-opera garishly fill the screen, and having passed Jay a cup of hot tea, I make a nature-call excuse and slip out of the room, pausing briefly to withdraw the book from my coat pocket.
Once in the now-locked bathroom, I sit atop the plastic lid of the clinical-white toilet and set the extractor fan running, for nothing more than the bleaching noise it creates as counterpoint to the silence. I turn the book over in my hands, looking again at its drying cover and rough edges. Sitting, on this throne of effluence, I open the first page and read.
Jay taps the door. “You alright mate?”
Knocked out of focus, I notice that I’m around a score or so of pages into the book. “Yeah, sorry! I was just reading.”
“Yeah right, your phone’s out here – I bet you’re just wanking!”
“I’m rolling my eyes hard, Jay.”
“Not the only thing that’s hard then, dirty bastard!”
I put the book in a box I keep next to the sink for toilet rolls. There’s no reason not to have this book, other than the obvious fact I purloined someone else’s property, but I feel strange about it, still. I reflect that the last time Jay and I would spend time together in the same house was at Uni.
I’m awake without fail and two full hours before the dreaded 9am alarm, today. The first Sunday in some time where this has been the case (Sunday is normally for lounging in bed until around 10am, before reluctantly remembering that I need to apply myself to laundry and housework), I bound about the flat.
I don’t notice that Jay isn’t present, as expected, until I go down to the car.
Which is gone.
My eye twitches.
Instead of having an aneurysm over Jay’s grand theft auto, I instead tap my phone to hail a taxi. I’m sure he’ll return it in vaguely the same condition in which it was when he lifted my spare key from the pot in the living room in which it is kept.
Noiselessly, the electric cab sails to a halt. It’s very odd travelling in a car which, inside, is essentially a small, luxurious waiting room — for you to wait in whilst it automatically whooshes one to a pre-selected destination, ready to hop out and go having paid automatically thought your linked debit card. They’d become particularly popular when people realised that they were often much more luxurious than cars which could be bought for oneself and were remarkably cheap during off-peak hours now that there was no driver to pay for. I genuinely only keep my car because the surge pricing during peak hours is crippling for anybody other than the super-rich and because, even if you could afford one, they’re few and far between, being lured through algorithms to the city centres, where the money is. I swing open the coach door and slide into the forward-facing seat. The door closes itself as it feels my weight depress the fabric, then the seatbelt alert highlights that I’m not moving as quickly as the software would like; these taxis are still intended to make a profit, after all. I quickly snap the belt into place, then settle into the supple synthetic leather while the car starts towards the University.
I take the opportunity to gaze out of the window and daydream. In front of my eyes, hazy and half-remembered, swim the symbols from the book, twisting and turning in the passing skyline. Some combined, briefly, making new shapes which merged with the flapping of the herring gulls which prey upon the interesting organisms which live in the canals which swerve serpentine throughout the city. One swoops; a symbol dives with it towards an unsuspecting minnow beneath the shallow surface of the water. One lands atop a long-defunct chimney pot; a symbol dances around the aperture as if buffeted by the unseen smoke of an old coal fire. One circled an unseen enemy; a symbol dithers and descends from the sky as if a snowflake being carried by a gentle breeze towards its moist decline. I am hypnotised by the micro-vibrations of the electric motor of the car, the ballet of the herring gulls and the dancing of the symbols within my mind. My eyelids flutter; perhaps I awoke too early...
The car smoothly skitters to a halt outside the University. I, suddenly fully awake, hop out of the cab and run towards the doors. Once inside, I’m accosted by the aroma of old, oiled wood; these halls of learning, doused in pomp, bring many memories back to me; perhaps, however, for another day. I’m focussed on my destination — the reception desk directly ahead of me. I march there, determined; the blonde bob with red horn-rimmed glasses looks up and over the top of the spectacles in order to judge the dreadnought heading towards her.
“Hello, how may I help you?”
“Hi; I used to come here. I’d like to remember my time, if I can?”
“Alumnus ID number?”
A flurry of touchscreen taps, then a visitors badge is unceremoniously thrust at me. I take the badge; the hand is repurposed as a pointing device, to dismiss me. The LED lamps dotted about the entry hallway had been programmed to dot and sway akin to the old fluorescent tubes they replaced — turning a battleship requires time and patience, I reflect, and Universities are not known for quickly admonishing tradition and any given ‘accepted way’. Even the seats, though clearly new, evident courtesy of the materials of construction (you didn’t see many carbon fibre waiting room chairs when I was a kid), had been purposefully distressed to give them the appearance of age, in a style they’d begun to refer to as ‘retro-modern’, the combination of modern materials and previous styles, with the object aged to make it look vintage. They’d begun the trend in the mid-2000s with t-shirts and jeans, the fashion industry leading the way to a wholesale shift in the art world; soon after, we’d had AI painting original synthetic oils in the Renaissance style, neo-Gothic architecture made of 3D-printed plastics directly in position, and these chairs — carbon-fibre Bauhaus. The universities, obviously, had loved this — they could replace old, worn out furnishings with the same tired look, made from new, durable, cheaper materials. They often even managed to turn a profit by selling off the old as originals, drawing more money for them used than they were worth when first purchased. A cottage industry which, in some cases, saved many small campuses from collapse or conglomeration after the closing of the borders to sub-prime international students (a Government decision to limit the number of foreigners here on a student visa — which loosely translated to anybody who couldn’t ‘donate’ a couple of million to the Treasury alongside their hundred grand tuition fees). Even when I was at Uni, the number of students from abroad was diminishing, particularly on courses which were below Masters-level; sad, I reflect, as it has taken away a much-needed perspective from higher learning. Ah well, nothing to be done now it’s done.
I’m back at University.
The morning has broken; thanks for waking me so early with darkness, the early sound of a holiday half-celebrated, and the broken promise of snowflakes. When I was cruelly tricked into leaving the warmth of the flat, I was never told that the shapely clouds and nip in the air simply meant I'd be shivering into my steaming coffee.
Since my days became graced with abhorrent 9am lectures and life-wasting 5-hour gaps (6 today, 6. Forgot to mention that cancellation, didn't you? Thanks.), I’ve grown apart from the concept of study. I've become less tolerant. It's a real shame, this unwelcome and unwanted change.
Last year, Tuesdays were the day we awaited; Monday is a party-goer, with his Union parties and almost expected trips to Loaf for a final dance, a few more beers, and a hope of an indiscretion, but Tuesday was who we all woke up with for pizza and classic British comedy. We loved her blankets on the floor, her bizarre games (photos of which ended up all over the Internet), her movie nights (which saved us an absolute fortune – I even made pizza from scratch a few times to thank her for being great), and in return she loved us back, keeping herself free for these waxen shenanigans.
What has happened since then? I'll tell you: Uni became more serious. I’ve started littering open text books around the flat and turning the TV off, reneging on ordering of delivery foodstuffs and instead choosing to trip-trap off to the library. The fun left. Now I'm resigned to black coffee, soul-eating gaps, and an empty chair where others once would have sat and kept me laughing until Wednesday's gentle hand took mine.
If I'm honest, I reflect and acknowledge that the change is mostly down to me. I started to realise how much effort my degree may require; my work patterns had become erratic; I lacked available money in a way I'd never done before: we simply saw less of the fun. Saturday has somehow become Tuesday’s avatar. Don't get me wrong, I love Saturday, as it’s when we all get together for the usual nightclub-kebab-regret cycle, but... Well, Saturday’s a bit of a tourist. It comes and goes, always changing plans, bringing new and brief 'mates' all the time. Not like the old days, with our plans in stone and solid group of good friends. The friends still exist, but the 'golden age' has passed, somewhat.
Change is a good thing, as it refreshes the mind, but I do miss how these days were. We'll all keep in touch, I'm sure, and we'll have cause and opportunity to relive the past when we meet for those reunions we’re always told the University positively encourages (whilst positively encouraging donations to the trust). Until then, the chair remains empty.
I look blankly at the walnut-veneer walls, having lost my train of thought. Fortunate, really, as my old Languages lecturer, Penny, arrives immediately then from around a corner at the far end of the foyer. She catches my eye; her demeanour immediately shifts from tense and harassed to buoyant and vivid. I’m pleased that she remembers me, particularly as we didn’t know each other that well at Uni beyond lectures. Her curly, brown hair bounce full of life upon her hazel-jacketed shoulders as she hurriedly walks towards me. I stand, open armed; she embraces me in warmth.
“Oh, how lovely to see you!”
“Thank you – it’s been too long, I’d assumed you’d forget...”
“Don’t be silly, how could I forget that essay you wrote on how language is used to obfuscate the truth in detective fiction?” Playful.
I am abashed. “Thank you – I hadn’t even thought...”
“Well, I was impressed! I always thought it a shame that I didn’t get to teach you for any other modules. Anyway, manners – would you like a coffee?”
I nod gently in order to convey my acquiescence. She pulls away from the embrace, smiles and spins on her heel.
After a series of complex twists and turns, sharp and soft, we arrive at her lab. It’s less clinical than I was expecting; she had banks of computers, surrounded by mountains of books, each describing a multitude of symbolic languages, all frayed edges and mottled leather. She spots me looking at them.
“I don’t know why we still use the originals, to be honest; we digitised everything in the library about five years ago, so everything is on these things.” She waves a nonchalant hand which, having swept by the table next to her, now contains a tablet computer, razor-thin and glassy. She slides the device into her pocket. She uses the now-free hand to beckon me into a glass compartment at the back of the lab, a makeshift office of sorts. We lean into to a corner wherein an old Krups filter coffee machine sits on an old school table. Next to it, small pots of ground coffee, little sealed individual milk cartons, little squares of paper-wrapped sugar portions. Penny reaches up to a little shelf above all of this, where stacked neatly are a number of mass-produced mugs and pots of teaspoons. She grabs two mugs and a teaspoon, then puts them in front of the machine; a filter and a couple of spoons of ground beans later, the machine gleefully chugs hot water into the jug beneath. The room fills with the sweet aroma of Arabica; presently, Penny removes the jugs and pours a healthy amount into the two mugs. I notice that our conversation has limited during this; I feel that both of us have so much to think about that we’ve not processed each other’s presence. I, for one, am flitting in thought between wondering where Jay is and thinking about the past. I look at Penny; she is looking at the table while warming her hands around the mug. Then, she looks up; she must have realised I was looking at her. She smiles.
“So what brings you here today?”
“Honestly, I’m just trying to find myself. I thought that, by visiting Uni again, I’d get a sense of who I was then.
“I can understand that. It might be why I never left!” She smiles, gentle and caring.
We chat about my time there; I recall events and she supplements them with the insider track, the information that wouldn’t otherwise be available – the reason why that lecturer always seemed a little drunk was because he got tanked at lunchtimes because his wife had left him, the reason the Student Union was so small was because the Vice-Chancellor at the time disliked student politics because they tended to produce left-wingers and he was deeply right-wing... This doubling of my past lasted an hour or so before Penny indicates that she has to go to teach.
“Just before you go,” I say, tentatively, “can I show you something I found?”
I fish the book out of my jacket pocket, handing it to her delicately.
“Oh, this is beautiful!” She exclaims. “The workmanship here is superb.” She opens the cover and looks at the first page. “The ink has kept well; Agatha Christie would be very pleased to know that one of her works has lasted this long, I’m sure!”
“I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it, to be honest. It’s just a book.”
She looks at me. Half smiles. “Sometimes, things with history help to remind us of our own.”
Outside, I hail a cab. One arrives almost immediately, then silently glides towards home. In the cab, I’ve time to think. It’s night-time and it’s raining; the white noise and the flashing lights of the LED lamps are hypnotic, allowing me to relax and fall into an almost meditative state.
The cab arrives at home; I step out, hood raised, into the rain. I climb the stairs leisurely, then open the door to the apartment. Jay is on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket and holding a can of lager. There’s a number of empty cans on the table — three... no, four. Two and a half litres of beer probably isn’t good for anybody. I shout a quick “Hi, mate!”, then swerve into my room. Jay is still lying on the sofa, wrapped in his blanket and sipping gently on the can. I need to muster up some conversation in order to process what he’s been through. I drop my jacket on the floor, book still ensconced within.
“So... What happened, mate?”
He looks at me through sunken eyes. “I went home.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, I went to my old house, the one from when we were at school. I just wanted to feel some normality. I just parked outside for a bit — it didn’t feel the same going back.”
“It wouldn’t, mate, your folks haven’t lived there for years.”
“Nostalgia. That’s all it was. I went to the pub around the corner from there for a quick small, which lasted as long as it took for the screen to show my face as a main suspect in the case. They’ve released me in order to make the public root me out.” He looks at me, tearfully. “I swear to you, I didn’t do this. I swear.”
“Jay, I know. I trust you. Believe me, if I thought you’d done this, I wouldn’t have you in my home, would I?” I realise that this isn’t reassuring, but it was all I could think of. He really looked like this had taken its toll on him — from finding the girl to being told he was being treated as a flight risk, I can only imagine the effect on his psyche.
“Thanks. Really, I mean it. You’re my best friend, mate.” He holds my hand. Keeps holding it.
“No worries. You need another beer?” I don’t really mean to ask this, but it seems right. He probably shouldn’t have another.
“No, thanks. I’m pretty tanked.”
“Alright. I’m gonna have one, though. Want to put on a film?” Play for the safe options, I say.
“Yeah, go on then. What are you thinking?”
“Die Hard. Our favourite.” A smile tells me all I need to know about that selection. I press a few buttons on the remote and the screen blinks into life, straight into the film. I stand up and move to the fridge, retrieve a Sapporo, then sit back in my seat. This is friend time. I resolve to wait until at least twenty minutes into the film; with the amount that Jay has thrown back, he’ll probably be asleep by then.
As Jay’s gentle snore rises, I swear that I’m clairvoyant. I need to put some money on lottery tickets. I walk to my jacket and retrieve the book, taking a moment to hang the jacket up properly after lifting the tome from its inner pocket. Jay’s snoring has reached a sonorous hum; I take myself to my room, leaving the TV (after turning it down a little) so that Jay can continue to sleep to the background noise. Then, after clambering into bed, I lose myself at Styles.
I awake to the sound of clattering around the flat. Jay must be up; it sounds as if he’s attempting to make some sort of porcelain symphony, plates and cups clinking and crashing in the kitchen. I drag myself from beneath the sheets, Dolly my way to the bathroom and brush my teeth. I feel I need a moment of calm before I check what’s going on in there.
I construct an outfit based entirely on my ability to throw it on quickly, choosing last to put on a light jacket with a deep inside pocket, into which I ensconce the book, it’s cover comforting me, providing an anchor point to my past. Dressed and brushed, I leave the room and aim for the living space. Jay is in there, clearly throwing together a fry-up and coffee for two. He turns and spots me in the doorway.
“Morning! Thought I’d treat us to breakfast.”
“That’s really kind, thank you.”
“It’s honestly my pleasure.” A kind smile. It lingers. “What time have you got work today, mate?”
“Actually, I’m going to knock today on the head.” He looks at me, a mixture of inquisitiveness and surprise.
“Unlike you to skive off — what have you got planned?”
“I’ve got a few places I need to be today, a few things I want to work out. You’re welcome to come, though; it’d be great to have the company.”
“Oh, cool, okay then.” Jay immediately smiles again; I’m looking forward to giving him the opportunity to take his mind off the nonsense of the last few days. He plates up breakfast and we eat, bracketed by small-talk about the weather, the TV programmes he’s been watching to avoid the news, the political landscape. Finished, we clear away the mess into the dishwasher and stand, prepared and resolute.
“Right, let’s get ready. Could be a pretty cold day, so bring a coat.” I don’t know what today will be like — I haven’t turned the TV on to find out — so, we probably need to prepare for most eventualities. What I haven’t told Jay is that this excursion, if successful, could lead to a few days away. By asking him to prep for anything, then he’ll most likely bring his coat and jumper rather than just the t-shirt on his back and the jeans he lives in. I intend the same, packing a small bag once we’ve separated. Into the holdall, I carefully place the book, my tablet, a few toiletries and a couple of changes of clothes. Not enough to disappear, but enough to leave for a few days. Finally, I put a hat, gloves, scarf, and a gardening trowel — a secret Santa gift from a superior at work who had no concept that people could live in houses without even window gardens – into the bag. I don’t know where this journey will end, so I’m a Scout.
“Where are we heading then, mate?” I hear Jay shout from the living room.
“Tell you when we get there!” I shout back, the smile I bear emphasising my good humour.
“You’re a crap sat-nav, mate!”
We take the lift down to the bottom floor and stride out to the car. From out of nowhere, there is a flurry of flashes and a cacophony of clicking shutters; the press have clearly found out about the girl, hungry for something new to report, have worked out where Jay would be and researched where I live, and are now here for their feeding frenzy. I squeeze us through the throng, pushing against aggressive lenses and penetrating notebooks, hurry Jay into the now-opened car, dash around to the driver’s seat and quickly depart. As the doors lock themselves and the flashes disappear into the rear-view, I’m acutely aware of Jay’s silence.
“This cannot be the rest of my life,” he says, suddenly.
“It won’t be, mate. Don’t worry.”
For the first time in years, I feel like I have purpose, a reason for getting out of bed and getting things done. This is a paradigm shift in my personal life, which had begun to stagnate. I’m thrilled at the possibilities which await.
The car hums beatifically as I point it towards my destination. Through the city I drive, towards the motorway. Where I intend to take him is somewhere I’ve not been since I were a child, but somewhere I know we will be safe.
An hour passes. Jay, some time ago, turned on the stereo and flicked some music from his phone to it. Since then, we’ve mostly been in better spirits, singing along to the various tunes he’s elected to use as our journey playlist. Eventually, in a pause between one song and the next, he asks: “So, where are you taking us?”
“Wow, okay — that’s some distance on a jolly. Why there?”
“I’ll explain more when we get there.”
“I trust you, mate, as always. Anyway, I’m along for the ride, you know I am.”
I smile; Jay returns it. He flicks another song to the stereo and we resume our faux-karaoke.
As the motorway, following the weaving of the River Severn, makes way for the hills and valleys of South Cymru, I internally plot the shortest route to our destination. Since the economic decline, the country formerly known as Wales (but always known as Cymru) fought for and won independence from England, becoming part of the ES. Whilst passports weren’t required to cross the border, one has to be careful to be seen as a tourist rather than an economic refugee. Cymru’s economy has seen dramatic success, in part because of the movement of much financial and service industry moving from the now-defunct London to ES states nearby, predominantly for the non-existent trade barriers but also for the similar culture and work ethic. Many financiers successfully applied for Welsh or Scottish passports during the break-up, meaning that they had the right to live and work in any ES nation; those of us from England without connections did not stand a chance. This is another reason why a small bag is more sensible than a large one — they are less likely to assume you’re trying to flee England.
We approach Trefynwy border control. The federal border checking staff motion for me to halt the car, then offer a gesture which suggests I wind down the window.
“Where are you two going today, then?”
“We’re just heading to Caerdydd to see some friends.” I mustn’t look nervous.
“Alrigh’. Not here to do any work though?”
“No, just visiting.”
“How long for?”
“Just today, actually — we’ll be back over the river by this evening.”
“Good to hear. I’ll put your licence details in the system; we’ll know when you leave, so try to make sure it’s when you say you will.”
“Well, enjoy Caerdydd. You can go now.”
He motions towards the now rising barrier. I smile, wind the window up and glide through the checkpoint. Stage one, complete.
Jay has been silent throughout this.
“What’s up, mate?”
“Well — officially, I’ve just absconded from the country.”
Neither of us had thought of this.
“Don’t worry, mate, we’ll be back in England in the next few hours. Nobody will even know you’re gone.”
He looks at me, nervously. “Yeah, I know. Just don’t want to make myself look guilty.”
I smile and tap him on the arm. “Don’t worry. Honestly. We’ll be here for two hours, max.”
He remains silent, but continues to flick music to the stereo while we pass into the outskirts of the city; once upon a time, this was known as Casnewydd, but it has since been absorbed into Greater Caerdydd. In itself, it has become a thriving port town, with direct access to the River and, thus, the Bristol Channel out to sea. The hoverships, which are still the cheapest method of goods transport, line up along the coastline like hats atop a glassy display. Beyond the port is mostly residential and shopping, with a motorway tunnel denoting where the old edges of Newport town end and the urban boundary of Caerdydd begins; at the other side of the tunnel, hills and street signs, all dual-language, lead to the centre of the city.
Another half an hour of driving before I exit the motorway, sliding onto the slip road and towards the seat of the Welsh Government, the Senydd at Bae Caerdydd. This grand building had, since devolution became independence, received a number of upgrades, to accommodate a doubling of the houses of government, supplementing (and renaming) the old Parliament with an official Senate (Cyngres and Senedd, respectively). The head of state, the separately elected First Minister, has offices and residence in a newly constructed building nearby; the resulting adjustment to the road system has made this part of town quite difficult to navigate, lots of pedestrianised zones and one way systems. I follow the roads almost blindly, Jay pointing out landmarks and making pithy jokes about leeks. I aim for Parc Bute, a mere two miles from here.
A multi-story car park and a short walk later, we’re in the middle of the park. A vast swathe of grass- and woodland in the centre of the city, Bute Park (as it was known before the Welsh Language (Public Places) Act, voted in by referendum just before independence was claimed) is a sanctuary, a playground and a lung. Given the same designation as green belt land once was, it has been protected by statute and provides recreation and fresh air for miles around. I used to visit here as a child; my aunt moved here many years before I was born and my mother brought me here regularly to visit. I know this park like the back of my hand. Jay and I walk, nattering gently about sights, smells and sounds, towards a grove I used to hide when my aunt and I played hide and seek all those years ago. Once there, I head to the shadiest part of the grove, surrounded on most sides by trees and bushes. I drop my bag on the floor and sit on my haunches.
“So, mate. What have we driven for two hours to do?”
“I just wanted to remember, mate. My past is so fleeting; I remember flashes.”
“I can understand that.”
He begins to relax as a gentle, calming breeze lifts the aromas of the park around him. This was a good idea – he needs this, given the situation. An opportunity to reflect in an environment which isn’t constructed, isn’t observed constantly, and where nobody knows him. I need it too – a break from the norm, for just a few moments.
Jay breaks the silence. “Why specifically here, though?”
“Honestly? I’ve missed coming here. My aunt, who adored this place, would bring us as often as she could. The Afon Taff runs down there -“ I gesture towards the stadium, “- and the trees and plants here are as natural as they could be, being in the middle of a huge city. There’s nowhere else I think I’ve lived where I can just... relax.”
“I feel you. Fancy a drink?”
“I’ve got to drive, Jay, remember. We can’t stay in Cymru.”
“I’m sure the local brewery has some non-alcoholic options...”
Back in the car, after a short time surrounded by nature and a slightly longer time in a local bar, we head down a different motorway towards a different part of the border. The Severn Bridge became a toll bridge again a few years ago, primarily because the cost of crossing is a de facto visa. The price to enter Cymru rose dramatically when it was nationalised after independence, with the primary intention of preventing English migrants. Now, the price has settled to a reasonable €10, only payable by non-ES citizens, though the fluctuating exchange rate means that this can be anywhere between £25 and £100 depending on what decisions are made by the government of the day. Fortunately, it’s still free to exit Cymru, though there is now a border gate on the exit side where there was blissfully free travel before. We approach it gently, once again attempting to look like simple travellers; even leaving can be dangerous if they think you’re suspected of a domestic crime, particularly as there are no longer any reciprocal agreements regarding the return of lawbreakers.
Again, we’re beckoned by a border guard, a woman this time. She carries a terrifyingly large gun for what is an otherwise very slight frame, held by a baldrick over her riot gear. Pre-emptively, I wind the window down.
“Hello, sir. Did you enjoy your visit?”
“I did, thank you. Just reliving some memories from my youth with my friend here.”
“Pleased that you like our country as much as we do. Didn’t do anything naughty while here, did you?”
I attempt to smile without looking guilty of anything. I need to say something which will take her attention away from this train of thought, particularly as Jay looks less capable of processing this question than I am. Instinctively, I take Jay’s hand and hold it, then look directly at the border guard. “Of course not; just visiting some places my aunt took me when I was a kid.”
“Is your aunty Welsh?”
“My great-grandmother was; my aunt moved here before I was born to be closer to her heritage. We visited loads before the borders.”
“That’s lovely. You should think about citizenship, they’ve changed the rules recently because they want those people who can help us become greater to come home. Think about it.”
“I didn’t know that, thank you.”
“Well, you have a lovely afternoon. The computer will register you’ve left Cymru, so you can carry on. Drive safely to your destination.”
“Thank you again.”
The gate rises and we glide through. I raise the window.
“Jay, let go of my hand.” He’s holding onto it so tightly that my fingers are beginning to go numb. Shocked into reacting, he releases my hand immediately.
“Sorry. Just. Thanks.”
“Don’t worry, we got away with it. Back in England, nobody any the wiser. Let’s go home.”
“Alright, mate. Again, you lead and I’ll follow.”
“You may as well be entertained, mate — we’ve got another couple of hour’s drive ahead of us.”
Smiling gently, he takes our his phone.
“Alright. Mind if I read a book?”
“Go for it; the British Library collection will be on there, if you’ve got it?”
“I think so, might have come with my subscription – but I have a book on here I’m reading anyway.”
Silent tapping, gentle buzzing, the odd beep. Jay is clearly entertained. We drive in quiet, and the sun begins to descend. I wonder if it’s sensible leaving him to his thoughts.
“Could you do me a favour?”
“Go for it, mate.”
“I’m going to take us to a hotel for the night, maybe Bristol, rather than driving home. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, course it is. You’re paying, though, mate.”
“Wouldn’t even have asked you, Jay, I suggested it. Maybe we could grab a few beers?”
He continues to doze gentle whilst we travel towards the centre of Bristol.
On arrival, and having parked the car, we head in separate directions; Jay in the direction the majority of tourists were heading, assuming that was the pub district, and I following the signs ahead towards ‘The Avalon Hotel’, which seemed appropriately named. Once inside the mock Tudor architecture, I am surrounded by even more retro-modern furniture, this time emulating the 16th Century; high backed plastic-wood chairs, upholstered poorly with newer fabrics. The reticulated windows were hazy with smog and dust, seemingly having been left for some time. The place was, therefore, dark; even the LED candles were ineffective at adding sufficient light. Opposite the windows, a mock-Tudor desk is manned by an ancient looking man in a heavy blue blazer, grey shirt and grey trousers; his horn-rimmed glasses sit on the end of his nose, holstered around the back of his neck with a small spectacles rope, his eyes downcast at today’s newsprint crossword. As I approach the desk, those eyes, now displaying very obvious cataracts clouding the blue-grey of his irises, rise and meet with mine. He takes a deep breath and rises from his chair.
“How can I help you?”
“Do you have any vacancies? I’m looking for a twin or a double room.”
“We do, yes. Will somebody be joining you?”
“Yes, my friend, later on.”
“That’s okay. They not with you now?”
“No, he’s shopping in town.”
“Okay. We’ve got a double at the moment, but we’re out of twins. Doubles are a hundred a night” He wheezes, looking at the vacancy book.
He passes me the contactless device and I wave my card over it. The device beeps and asks for PIN confirmation; I dial my pin into the second device and a receipt promptly emerges. He fumbles with tearing the bit of paper, shoves it into a box underneath the counter, then with apparent ease, he spins on his heel and grabs a keycard from the wall behind him.
“You’ll be on the third floor, room three-oh-seven.” I can hear every syllable enhanced, practiced for tourists with less understanding or the tendency to forget. “You’ll be pleased to know that it’s a suite — lucky you.”
“Enjoy your room. Be careful — the staircase is quite narrow.”
Which was the very definition of an understatement. Not only was it one person wide, it was also spiral, meaning that you couldn’t see anybody coming down it. Periodically, there were person-sized holes in the wall, no doubt to allow people to pass by one another without ascending or descending to another level. I have to do this a couple of times to allow tourists, all coats and cameras, to continue down to the depths of the hotel; when at the third floor, a left turn and a door on the right and I’m at room Three-Oh-Seven; on the door, a plaque which reads “The Grail Suite”. Of course.
I wave the keycard over the door lock (another anachronism in this false palace), then walk in. The room is overpowering; in the centre of the room is a huge double four-post bed with drapes tied neatly apart. There is a wooden table under a large stained-glass window, over which is draped a lace tablecloth; atop this is an LED candelabra. There is a bathroom through an archway to the left of the table, with a large bath and shower and two porcelain sinks on top of a long reclaimed-oak bench. Having scanned the room, I drop my bag on the floor and sit on the bed. I take my phone out of the pocket and text Jay.
‘I’m at the Avalon, got us a suite. Where are you?’
I don’t expect an immediate response; I tap a location pin then, as a result of knowing his tendency to tardiness. Outside the hotel, the sun is now beginning to set in earnest. The gathering clouds pock the sky with deep grey, ready to sweat over the town. I remember that I always keep a golf umbrella in the boot of the car just in case the walk to work turns out to be wetter than expected, so I detour back to the car park. On the way, unexpectedly, I bump into Jay.
“Alright, mate — thought you were going to the pub?”
“Nah, I decided against it – I feel better walking around than staying still.”
“Makes sense. The hotel is only around the corner — could go to the offie, get a few bottles and just bed in?”
There’s an off-licence around the corner from the hotel; we amble to it, taking time so as not to look worried or hurried. The more natural we look, the less likely that anybody will assume anything is wrong. We walk in and browse the chilled beer aisle and the ales. Jay opts for a ten-bottle case of twist-cap American water and I for a few bottles of local brew; we pick up a selection of snacks and crisps, and a bottle opener for those of us who prefer real beer. Another quick swipe of the card later and we’re out and heading to the hotel.
When we arrive, the hotelier (if he could be called so) is absent. Instead, the gentleman receptionist has been supplanted by a short, dumpy woman of advanced age. Her wispy, platinum hair is arranged in an untidy bun atop her head, which in turn is nose-first directly toward us. She stands in a cloud of lavender and gingham, channelling a movie version of the 1950s. She has eschewed all make-up other than a hint of mascara and what appears to be an oddly mismatching lip gloss, lips with prise themselves apart with a creak.
“Do you have a room?” she says, pointedly.
“We do, room three-oh-seven,” I say, attempting to remain cheerful.
“The suite? That only has one double bed.” A raised eyebrow creates a crushed paper effect across her grey skin.
“Oh, there’ll be no impropriety; we’re a family.”
She looks at each of us in turn, then back at me with incredulity. “You don’t look anything like each other.”
“We’re adopted,” says Jay, thinking with the immense speed that he’s famous for. “Our parents couldn’t have their own kids, so they adopted the pair of us. We’re siblings.”
That seems to placate her latent phobias. She nods, very slowly, and sits back down. We consider this to be her consent to pass and continue towards the spiral, quickly ascending. This time, nobody is heading down — which is a relief as, burdened as we are with alcohol, managing these stairs could be challenging. We pick up the pace to the room once we reach the third floor, barrelling into the room. The door closes quietly and the LED lights flicker into life.
“Gonna be cosy tonight, then.” Jay’s smiling again.
“Keep your hands to yourself — I know what you’re like when you’ve had a few!”
He laughs heartily. “Sod off — I’ve only asked to touch you up once!”
“And what a memory that is!”
He cracks open a beer and takes a deep swig. “Well, you never know, you might get lucky later!” Again, he grins and winks at me. Salacious git. He keeps looking at me, though, long after he’s finished grinning, diminishing into a simple... smile. I break the stare and pop the cap of a bottle. Not bad, this, considering we’re in cider country. The stout is silken, with plum overtones and a bitter cocoa after-taste; it goes straight to my head. I lean forward and grab a chocolate bar, in order to at least add some processing power to my stomach. I realise that Jay and I haven’t eaten since breakfast; he leans forward, arm outstretched, and grabs a packet of salt and vinegar. We both wolf our respective snacks, then go in for more; this time, he chocolate and I crisps. There is a moment of rustling and chewy calm while we revive ourselves, washed down with foamy beer. At the end of the snacks, I realise that the beer is also finished; I’ve drank it far too quickly. Jay has finished his bottle too, but it’s half the size — two hundred and fifty millilitres to my half-litre. He reads my mind, twists the cap from another bottle for himself then pops open the cap from a bottle for me. We clink bottles and silently, internally, utter the word ‘cheers’. Neither of us feels particularly cheery, but it’s part of English genetic heritage — one must not be with a drink and with friends without at least once having a ‘cheers’ moment. We both take a draught.
“How much did you drink, kid?”
“Not as much as I’d like. I only had two bottles.” Indignance.
“Hey, not judging you, just wondering how you came to visit me when you were right there a minute ago, enjoying your beer.”
“Good point. I think it made me a bit drowsy, because of having not eaten.”
“Kid, look — you have take-out where you’re from, right?”
“Take-away? Of course!”
“Why don’t you just order some?”
I wake with a start. Jay is lying next to me, flicking through the books on the other tablet. I grunt gently, having had the fifteen minute nap of a true night owl; Jay looks over at me and grins.
“Enjoy your kip, Sleeping Beauty?”
“I wasn’t out long, though.”
“Nah, not long. But, my God, do you snore.”
A call from outside the door: “Anybody order extra pepperoni?”
We demolish the pizzas that Jay has presciently ordered in silence, judged for the gustatory incongruity by the prints on the walls, their glazed ink-painted eyes gazing upon the drooping mozzarella in static starvation. Soon after, the beers are finished too, with the remaining bottles stacked neatly beside the candelabra and the empties in the bin underneath. It’s now dark outside, with LED streetlamps throwing cold light through the window and onto the pavement below. In my mind, there is a feeling of emptiness. I hadn’t realised that if felt full until now; a weight lifted, as it were. Am I going mad? Not that I have much choice now but to carry on.
“Where’s next on our tour of Great Cities?” Jay is veiling his excitement and, realistically, his exhaustion.
“Home, I think.”
“Yeah, it’s probably about time.” He looks at me with smiling eyes.
We wake up late and check out of the hotel after a few quick ablutions. I programme the destination into the car, then ask it to self-drive. I rarely use this feature as I don’t trust it, but I need to do other things on this journey, not least get a short snooze in. Jay has already begun to doze off; I, too, begin to settle down.
“Welcome back, kid.”
Asleep, again. I must have dozed off in the car. “Hi. Since I’m here, help me: what is life all for?”
“You’ll find out soon. Some of this you have to work out — certain things won’t be possible unless you fathom it.” The dreamcatcher seems to be larger; the smell of the grass is almost overpowering. He seems to have both grown and shrunk since I last saw him, a juxtaposition which requires a headache inducing amount of processing to work out. “Anyway, pay attention. The things you can have for free: you’ll need to use all of your senses when it’s time.”
“Just trust me, kid. You’ll get it when you need it. Now — WAKE UP.” The bass in his voice becomes resonant, the shock pushing me
into consciousness. I blink once, twice, then sit bolt upright. The car, gleefully gliding along the M5, is approaching what looks to be a very large flood across the carriageway. There are no other cars around, but the rain appears to have been pounding for the whole journey; the car hasn’t processed the pond, probably because it blends into the darkness of the tarmac, its gentle ripples the only hint that something here is awry. I receive a sudden flash of understanding and, with panic, grab the steering wheel and plant my foot on the brake, disconnecting the auto-drive. The car slows down, quickly but not violently, before hitting the flood at 50kph and beginning a heart-stopping aquaplane. The car slides along the surface of the water, the tyres unable to displace it at this speed, creating a wheel-spin as the tyres fail to find any grip; I keep my foot gently on the brakes while trying to stop the car from rotating off into the central reservation.
It’s at this point that I hear Jay wake up, with a shout. The car drifts, disconcertingly quickly, to the side of the M5; it begins to bounce as I feel the wheels connecting with the stepped-line of the hard shoulder — then, suddenly, the flood is gone.
Hands, as one. Smiles; teeth; falling.
Grass-smell, symbols around us.
Purple haze, a fog of remembrance through the descent.
The moon has ripened and reddened; a lunar eclipse. I must have been so absorbed with all this that I missed it on the news.
I close my eyes.
Sounds are swimming in my mind; I feel as if I’m under instructions and I don’t know how to carry them out, nor do I know how to ignore the instruction. Instead, I just open my mouth, my throat, and attempt to emulate. I keep my eyes firmly closed because I can feel, with not an ounce of external sight required, that Jay is staring at me, judging me, as if I’m possessed. I may very well BE possessed, in truth — who knows. I continue until, abruptly, I hear a sharp crack, like lightning heard too closely. My terrified eyes immediately open; I am surrounded by light. I can make out a bright column of blue light within the white, darting up to the red moon, whereupon it meets with a purple glow; then, at the moment I see it and with little hesitation, the purple light pounces down, carrying the blue column with it and down, continuing down, past the stones and into the earth. Another rumble from within the earth, then the ground in the horseshoe seems to wobble, twist, then develop a violet hue. Within the obsidian horseshoe, what looks like a pool of water appears, glowing gently purple, with ripples flowing over its surface as each stone makes contact with the edge.
I grin; for the first time, I feel I have someone to care for. I hold his hand and walk us both into the purple pool. We’re drawn in, gently but firmly, down, below the surface. The liquid caresses us before promptly disappearing. We’re floating, still holding hands, in space, surrounded by stars, but strangely able to breathe. I look at Jay; he looks serene, his eyes half-shut and his lips curled into a smile. This place feels warm, comforting. Nothing here matters, nothing can harm us. Just... floating, surrounded by stars, holding hands and simply being.
Eventually, our hands merge, integrating, as if formed as a liquid and mixed in a bowl. I look at Jay; he looks back at me, and we’re drawn together, closer. We melt into one another, becoming one. Our consciousnesses are the last to coalesce; I hear his thoughts, his fears (the panic about the girl, the comfort of our friendship, the desire for acceptance) meld into mine (the need for partnership, the incandescent rage against what world had been left to us by our grandparents, the deep lack of understanding of my self), becoming one, answering some questions and raising others. I processed my fears with his mind; he processed his desires with mine. I felt his blood running through my veins; I understood his lasciviousness, he understood my nervousness.
The stars pulled on our cells, broadening them, imbuing them with their energy. We glowed with the fire of a billion fission reactions, purple flames emerging from the edges of our body. The universe around us adjusted accordingly; we created gravity, drawing comets to adjust their path around us, their tails caressing our fire. We drew detritus from a thousand impossible planets, forming rings, then crafting ourselves a shell from the rock and dirt, protective and metallic. We burned and cooled. Oceans formed on our surface as we held each other within one another, tightly, safely. Life came and departed once, twice, a hundred times, on the surface we had made as one. We grew grass and trees and plants and fish.
We were alive.
We drank the smell of bison grass and became one with the life on us.
We saw him, on our surface, planting root vegetables and smiling enigmatically at the soil he brushed over them.
“You alright, kid? Finding yourself?”
“Look, eventually you’re gonna have to snap out of it. This can’t last forever.”
“Because the world will turn without you in it if you don’t.”
“We don’t know what you mean; we are the world.”
“No, you aren’t. You mustn’t spend your life here.”
“We’ll be okay. We want to experience this for a little longer.”
We drifted our consciousness away from him and back to our tectonic movement. We relocated, shunted ourselves into the abyss, floated away from one star to another; life ended, it became cold, then gently warm again on the surface, as our fire kept the core alive. We accrued gas, became ethereal, spirit.
We fell into a sympathetic orbit of a warm star alongside a giant. We settled and became still.
For centuries, all was calm.
I wake up. The sun is beaming through the window of the room and I notice immediately the sharp smell of sweat. I sit up with a start; how did we get home?
Lazily, it came back to me. The car had slowed more rapidly, but I had been unable to stop it drifting off the side of the road and into the adjacent barrier. With a bump, it had come to an abrupt halt.
Jay had huffed loudly and fallen back into his seat. I’d continued to hold the steering wheel, not comfortable letting go. Eventually, breaking the tension, the car had turned itself off.
We’d looked out of the windows for a long time before I’d realised Jay’s hand had been gripping my leg the whole time.
“Right, so, yes, well, shall we drive in manual the rest of the way?” His eyes had been anxious, but his smile remained both infectious and forgiving. I had nodded tacit agreement, my lesson here learned: don’t fall asleep, don’t trust the car.
We had driven the rest of the way in silence, both of us paying attention to the road. Taking in a thirty minute stop at a service station to recharge the car, take a nap, and get some food, the journey had been otherwise uneventful.
Thus, we’d arrived at my apartment again. Dishevelled, we decanted and decamped from the car. Jay, at that point, had surprised me:
“Ash, can I come to bed with you?” He had looked at me without glancing away and taken my hand.
Suddenly, the dream had gained a face. The moments of what I’d considered inconsequential were, somehow, meaningful. The hands, the arms, the lingering looks – I had brushed them aside as just-close-friends. I’d never considered that he might... mean more than that.
I’d silently nodded.
Thus, here we lie, having, after all these years, finally found one another.
Findings by Dav Kelly is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0