By Tom Pears
It’s 4am. Another house. Another part of London. Another girl. Another hollow fuck. You close the door gently behind you; you hate those awkward morning conversations. The cold air greets you like a slap in the face. Karma, perhaps. You’re in Angel. You’ve got work in a few hours. It’s fine, you’ve done this before, many times. You strangely enjoy wandering London in the early hours of the morning. You notice the smell on your breath, the grim concoction of overpriced lagers and IPAs; face it, you love a pretentious craft beer pub. The streetlights glow white, blinding you briefly, it takes your eyes a second to adjust and you begin to start walking.
Down the road, you can hear the shuffles and excited chatter from the street cleaners. Your ears are sensitive to the abrasive swishing of their brooms. The rustling and crashing of the bin bags. You can’t make out what they’re saying, but there’s laughter. They seem happy.
You look up to the sky; you do this all the time, especially on walks like these. You track the night flights in the sky with your eyes. The sky is clear tonight; that’s rare for London. The red, white and yellow lights dot the sky like a string of beads or bioluminescent deep-sea creatures. They twinkle unrelenting against the cold black sky. You wonder where they’re going, who might be on them, if anyone famous. The usual. As you take in this aerial ballet, she flashes in your mind. Not the first time, flickering in your subconscious. She was there, as if in front of you, for a nanosecond. You remember the last time you travelled on a plane; she was next to you. She squeezed your hand with all of her force because she was scared of flying. Then the cold air intervenes, snapping rudely at your ears. You rub them, shake your head furiously and move on.
Your feet take you down another street; you don’t know where you are, you don’t care. In the distance, you hear the faint whirring noise of police sirens. As you stroll down the street, you notice the Georgian townhouses that line either side. They look austere, their solemn faces leering at you as you’re illuminated by the light. It feels like they are judging you, and there’s nowhere for you to hide. You pop your collar as if to help avoid their gaze. You start to feel vulnerable, exposed.
Tonight followed that all familiar pattern. Lots of alcohol, then empty sex. Alcohol is poison, you know this. It doesn’t matter though, it’s your life. Your own patent of self-destruction. The delayed hangover now starts to kick in. You find the nearest bench and slowly lower yourself onto it. She flashes into your head again. Her eyes, big and blue, the smell of her hair. Her voice reverberates around your eardrums. You knock the side of your head with the inside of your clenched fist to halt it.
You have always ran from your problems; you’re very good at it. But tonight, everything and everyone seems to be mocking you. The cleaners, like braying hyenas. The townhouses you could never ever afford. Her. You’re completely isolated from the world, in a city of millions. You are alone, but it’s peaceful; you’re content with it. The thought of being alone used to reduce you to tears. On nights like these, you embrace it. You’ve sobered up by now. That girl from earlier, you can’t even remember her name. Drinking, fighting, fucking. You let that define you.
As you walk, you are angry, resentful at the man you’ve become. She flashes in once again, but she lingers longer this time. You look upwards to the sky, once your sanctuary, your escape, but she’s still there. You wonder if any flights are bound for Edinburgh, Florence or Barcelona, the places that you travelled to when you were happy. Your mind drifts further. You think of the nights filled with laughter, all the zoos you explored together and that first time you professed your love for her on the top deck of a night bus in front of a bunch of Korean tourists.
It’s satisfying, the wandering. It’s like London is naked for you for these precious few hours. Open to explore in your own time at your own pace. No crowded tubes, noisy buses, rude suits. Just you, alone, drifting, as if on a current. You walk past what must be a bar, recycling bags full to the brim of beer bottles and cans stacked precariously next to a bin. Vomit and chips then punctuate the path for the next 50 metres or so. You wonder about the drunken mistakes that were made earlier in the night, of your drunken mistake. Another girl; this time, short, blonde, black denim jacket. You used to kid yourself that these one night stands were part of the healing process, stories to tell. But, really all you want to do is talk to her, because you miss her, miss making her laugh. No amount of fucking will bring that back. Sex doesn’t replace anything, it doesn’t fill in any gaps. You knew it, but your ego outweighed your rationality after four pints of lager.
You stop outside a bookshop and look in vacantly; she’s a writer. You lean your head on the cold glass; she’s back again, in your head. You turn and lean back against the shop front, blowing out and seeing your breath rise and evaporate into the air. You briefly consider phoning her. You dismiss this idea quickly and say ‘twat’ out loudly; it’s not like anyone can hear you. The wry smile on your face betrays your pain. So you continue, content in your solace, but confused, detached. As you turn the corner, the pack of street cleaners reappear. They are subdued this time. One’s on his phone, another smoking; there’s no laughter. You feel disappointed, and you don’t know why.
You stop walking and lean against some railings, the iron pressing into your back through your jacket. A fox trots past you across the road as if you’re not there. You smile and look upwards. They’re still there, the night flights. You question whether anything is actually moving. Things in the sky have always fascinated you; you have always had a soft spot for planes. When you were younger, your bookshelf was full of books on fighter jets and wartime aces. She took you to RAF Hendon for your birthday and you took a photo of her next to a fighter jet. She looked incredible in high-waisted trousers and terracotta polo neck. This time, you don’t fight her or the memories.
Losing her damaged you. It still hurts, despite how you act or what you tell your friends. You loved her. No, you still love her. A darkness consumed you, overwhelmed you. She was a casualty of the war that raged in your head. Your world collapsed when she left you. You ground her down in the end, eroded all the love she had for you. You’ve always been impulsive and reactionary, and recently, you have fallen back down. You can never say no to those bad habits that masquerade as old acquaintances. Stop hiding it, you miss her. It’s natural, it’s raw. You’re a flawed human being, one of billions, you often yourself this in the blackest times.
You still don’t know where you’re going and you don’t mind. The city is serene at this time of night. You should be drained, you slept only a couple of hours, but you’re not. If anything, you feel fresh. The cool air is invigorating. Your thoughts usually defeat you, suffocate you, consume you. The scars on your arms and knuckles are a testament to the dark places and holes you found yourself in, sometimes willingly. The dark times. The longing to disappear. The suicide note you wrote, that time you watched blood trickle down your arms, thick, red, constant. But you are not ashamed. Those times have passed now.
The sun starts to rise, creeping slowly over the rooftops. You come across your own reflection in a window and for the first time you study yourself. The nearby streetlight drowns you in light as you move closer towards the glass. You look older now; you’ve grown up. The beard you’ve grown, it suits you. You nod at yourself, the first real acknowledgement you’ve made, of how far you’ve come. A tear rolls down your cheek, burning a path, then another follows. There are no more night flights in the sky. You are not healthy, your body is poisoned. You can’t sustain this, and deep down, you know. You decide this will be your last walk for a while. Tonight it stops. It’s taken a while, but finally you realise, this isn’t what you want anymore. Three years, she’s still in there; and she’ll flicker in and out, she probably always will. You lost her and for the first time, you accept it. There is no redemption, no fairy tale, no winning her back. You accept this; you will heal over time. After all, you’ve overcome worse. You are smiling now, the river your tears forged have dried. But you will always remember tonight. The stillness of the city, the melancholy glow of the streetlights, the night flights.