I woke before dawn, opened my eyes to the blackness and sighed out the remains of a dream that was already slipping away. The darkness slowly turned to a murky blue and I focused on a circle of damp plaster on the ceiling above my bed. A shaft of light seeped around the edge of the window blind and lit a slither of carpet that extended to the end of wardrobe. I watched two flies gyrate slowly around the naked light bulb until it became bright enough for them to fly to the window and settle on the dirty glass. I could already feel the damp chill of the air in the room.
But that day I couldn't be bothered to change out of the shirt and sweat pants I'd slept in. It was too cold to expose my naked skin to the air and it was certainly too bitter to wait for my body to warm the fabric of my day clothes. So I filled a glass with what remained of my vodka, and because it was early, added a splash of orange juice.
I don't like staying in my room during the day. I prefer to go out and walk the streets or through the park, the shops are too busy and people always stare at me. Today, because I was already slightly drunk, I decided to walk to the railway bridge where I'd sit and watch the trains rattle along the tracks towards the capitol. There'd be some other people there that had never made it back to the hostel. I wasn't as bad as them though, I usually stopped my drinking before the end of the day.
The narrow alleyway that led alongside the railway was still in partial darkness. The left side in shadow, the right brightened by the early light. In the evening it would be bathed in a sodium glow from the streetlamps and smell of a day's worth of unsold fast food. It was quiet here now, but tonight it would be a stinking rat-run hosting a dozen drunks lifting bin lids and sifting through the discarded food. I'd joined them once or twice, but only when I'd drunk away my benefit money.
The end of the alley broadened out on to a concrete slipway that sloped steeply down to the railway bridge. Twisted lines of tidal debris followed the contours of the slope and ended in foamy piles of water-beaten timber and plastic bags by the bridge supports. The air smelt of a blend of sewage and a brackish mist hugged the surface of the river. I saw a little group of people huddled around a smoky fire that burned in an old oil drum. The sound of laughter bounced around the concrete and echoed out into the murk. I knew I'd be greeted with enthusiasm by the ones sober enough to recognise me and as long as I made obvious my offering I'd be allowed a share of the heat from the fire.
I pulled the bottle from my coat pocket and held it above my head in a sort of ceremonial display of conformity, one of the drinkers raised a tin of beer in acknowledgement. I recognised the face when I got closer, although it was much paler and more sunken than I remembered. Deep shadows lined the sallow skin under her eyes and a freshly healed cut ran from the corner of her mouth along her cheekbone almost to her ear. Her hair was tied up in a loose bun that flopped forwards covering her left eye, I could see another cut through some of the stray strands.
I looked hard into her eyes and searched for something that would give me a reason to ask her a question, but I could see her tears building and so I looked away.
I'm never good with emotion, it's the reason why I've always retreated deep into the alcoholic mire, a place where the sludge is thick with denial and defiance. We both shared the place for eight years, on and off. We argued, fought, made up, fell out again, it was a relationship fraught with our individual life struggles and mutual despair. We split our sorrow in two because it felt easier for us to deal with, the more time we spent together the stronger our pact became. A contract unwritten but quietly understood by us both. We shared our drinking because it tied us together even more tightly. We were in lasting conflict with ourselves and with each other, our battles made easier because they were shared. But our trust in each other had been absolute.
I looked away and stared out at the heaving, grey water. I was drunk enough to talk with honesty, but too sober to contemplate the massive effort it would take to explain how sorry I felt and much I'd missed her. I left her to her drinking and walked away.
The following day, having spent a couple of morning hours in the park drinking from a shared bottle, I went back to the bridge. I saw Sarah's outline from a distance and stood and stared for a while deciding whether or not to speak to her again. She saw me and waved.
I stood slightly away from her because I recognised in her mannerisms a characteristic that I'd been wary of in the past. Her wild eyes and frantic arm movements, the continuous, hysterical talking, all indicative of the amount she'd been drinking. She smiled raunchily at me, one hand on a jutting hip and the other beckoning at me to move closer. I knew from memory what it meant, the way she held my gaze and blew kisses through her pouting lips. But I had to resist, too much time had passed since we'd been that close and I didn't feel ready to carry on where we'd left each other all those years ago.
The sun had barely risen above the tracery of the London skyline and the night's cold mist still fell in drips from the branches that hung over the bank of the river. I'd spent five cold hours in fitful sleep lying on a park bench somewhere near the bridge. I didn't know where I was when I lay down, but the chill breeze had brought me back into world I'd spent the night trying to forget. Once more I went to the bridge and again there she stood. I walked closer until I stood just a few feet away.
She really had changed in three years. Her eyes were narrower and lined underneath with skin so dark it made her face appear ghostly. There was a harshness in her gaze, a distant, bleak look that I'd never seen before. Her face was thinner and her cheeks were sunken so that the bones underneath stuck through her flesh in bruised lines. I wrestled with my memories of her yearning, regretful voice, and I felt the sharpening edge of guilt. Of course we were both wrong. I took another step closer so that I could tell her but she shrank back and away into the darkness.
And at the very end of the next day I went back once more to the bridge that crossed the river. Sarah was leaning with her back against a wall, one hand in a pocket, the other tightly clutching a half empty bottle. When she saw me she threw her head back in a mocking attempt at recognition. I reached out and tried to turn her face towards me but before I could touch her she pulled away and drew her lips back in a gruesome parody of a smile. I turned and ran as quickly as I could back along the alley and home.
I was so unnerved by my last encounter with Sarah I just lay on my bed and tried to make sense of it all but. Her deathly face, emaciated body and inability to talk, it all felt wrong. I let myself drift away into a deep, sober sleep. In my dreams we kissed and danced all night until the sun rose above the bridge. Once more I hugged her tightly as I'd done every hour of every day for all the years we'd shared each other's lives. And I dreamt of all the times we'd laughed and sung together.
I awoke in the middle of the night shaking not just from the cold but from the effects of sobriety. I lay trembling between sweat-soaked sheets. My head felt abnormally clear, as if a dense fog had dissolved away leaving my thoughts free to analyse with sense rather than through a haze of confusion. I heard her words, or some regretful echo of them, and put my face into my pillow. My thoughts chased themselves around my head until they became a blur, but now I felt more able to slow them. I cried at the memory of the moment, when I'd screamed those words and turned my back on her. How I'd stayed for another hour under the bridge still drunk enough to remember, but now allowing the sight of the river's listless flow to calm my mind. How I'd fallen into a sleep so deep the biting cold of the winter night settled itself harmlessly into my dreams. And the sleeping fantasy of an endless supply from an undying bottle.
I understood everything now. The furious argument that caused her to beat me with her clenched fists. There was a moment when I should have mumbled some sort of apology or attempted a confession for my unprovoked anger. But back then we were both too inebriated to construct a rational dialogue and so we fell victim to our rage. Time never allowed space for apology. I remembered how she'd slipped backwards and the sickening thump of her head hitting the concrete. And I remembered the way the fast, freezing water took her body away.
I went, once more, to the bridge, but I knew now that she wouldn't be there.