“This place is a meat market,” I told Chris.
“I thought you’d enjoy it,” he said.
“You were wrong.”
“Lighten up,” he told me. “Come dance with me.”
I shook my head.
Chris touched my arm. “Ok,” he said. “I’ll be with the guys. Come join us in a bit, yeah?”
I shrugged and smiled as best I could.
Once he’d gone, I leaned against a wall for a while, but that just made me feel alone. I finished my drink. I looked for Chris and the others, but the dance floor was a crazy writhing mess. I didn’t know why I’d agreed to come, but Chris and Tim had just about managed to convince me it might not be so bad. They were wrong. But at least they tried. I decided to get another drink and see if I could force myself into the spirit of the night.
“Hey there. I had a dream about you last night.”
I looked at the guy. Just glanced. It was a reaction more than a choice. I had no desire to look at him. It’s not like I hadn’t heard it before. “I’ve never heard that before,” I said, continuing towards the bar.
He reached out and tried to take my hand as I walked past him. I shook him off, starting to turn at him, but I changed my mind. I crashed into a couple of dancers, somewhat harder than was necessary, but I didn’t slow down.
The bar was busy. Three deep, at least. I crabwalked along the scrummage of flesh and hair, looking for a way in. There was nothing. Just limbs and bodies. Lights and noise. I began to feel dizzy.
I was outside before I realised it, sucking lungfuls of sharp winter air. The sting in my throat felt good.
By the time I’d calmed down, the sweat that covered my body was starting to freeze. It took a real effort to move my limbs. I still wasn’t used to cold weather at the best of times. This certainly wasn’t the best of times.
Luckily, the bouncer had seen me come out and let me go back in to get my coat. I still feel that same shot of fear when I speak to a bouncer. To security. I can’t help it. But this one was nice. Huge. Towering. Imposing. But nice.
I got my coat.
I put it on.
I zipped it up.
I took my hat from the pocket.
I put the hat on.
I started to walk and I took out my phone, but the battery was dead. The battery was always dead. Everything was always dead. Always. I felt stupid. I felt bad for leaving the club. I should have said goodbye. Chris and Tim and the others were trying to include me, to make me feel welcome. But they didn’t get it. I’d message them when I got home. When I charged my phone.
I tried to keep my mind on these things. On making a hot cup of tea. Of eating biscuits. These were the things that mattered now. This was where to focus. Forget the past.
As I came around the corner onto the street I was aiming for, I saw the night bus pulling away from the stop. For a moment, I was about to start running, but what is the point in chasing a bus?
I walked slowly to the bus stop and sat on the two parallel metal bars that pass for seating in these things. It was freezing though and I couldn’t stay on it. Besides, the screen told me the next bus would be forty five minutes, and there was no way I could stay there for that long. Not unless the driver was willing to lift my frozen corpse on and take that home.
I figured that if I went to the stop for the N62, maybe I’d be able to catch that, and anyway, it was taking me closer to home. More than that, it kept me moving, which at least meant my blood would keep circulating.
As I walked, I pulled my arms into my sleeves and inside my coat and wrapped them around myself to keep warm. My breath clouded in front of me and then opened up for me to pass through it. I could feel the night at the back of my throat. As I walked, I was sweating, but the sweat was turning cold as it came out of my pores and I was starting to itch.
In the narrow alley leading through the supermarket car park, two long shadows detached themselves from the larger mass of shadow. I watched them with a slowly rising sense of dread as the eldritch strands of blackness settled themselves into humanoid shapes.
When I realised they were actually people, I felt a rush of relief.
There were two of them. That was all I could tell in the dark, with their big coats and their hoods up. Male, I assumed.
As they stepped towards me, across my path, the relief started to fade. I slowed my pace and instantly regretted it. I should probably have just kept walking.
“Got a light?” said one of the guys.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I don’t smoke.”
“I don’t smoke,” said the other one in a mocking, high pitched voice.
The one who’d asked for the light had stepped closer to me and seemed even taller now. His friend was trying to circle around behind me. I knew what was happening but it was like I was watching it on TV. Just waiting to see what would happen next. Wondering how the hero would escape.
I became aware my whole body was shaking. I wasn’t sure my legs would work even if I knew what I wanted to do with them. Could I run away? I was fairly sure both of these guys were far more athletic than I was.
“Can you lend us some money,” the first guy asked me. “So we can buy a lighter?”
“Er… sure,” I said, fighting to keep my voice under control.
“And some more ciggies,” said the other guy. “And maybe some beers.”
“Yeah,” said the first one, holding his hand out now. “Buy us some beers too.”
“Of course,” I said, fumbling to get my hand into my pocket.
It didn’t seem to fit though. It was like my pocket had shrunk. Or maybe my fingers had swollen. Does that happen when it’s cold? I thought they got smaller? I was sure Mr. Richards had taught us flesh shrinks when it freezes. I thought of the obvious example. Of shrivelling. Somehow, this is what was concerning me.
“Where’s your money?” asked the guy in front of me.
“How much do you want?” I asked.
“How many beers?”
What was I talking about?
“Are you being funny?” he said.
He pushed his face right into mine. His forehead touched mine briefly and he twisted his head a bit.
I stumbled backwards, into his friend. “Maybe give us your phone too,” he said.
“The battery’s dead,” I told him.
“I don’t care about the battery,” one said.
The irony of this was sharp and painful. This here. Happening here. Now. Here. After everything. I thought of my parents. Of my brother. The world was so stupid. So pointless.
“Who gives a shit about the battery?” the other asked.
“I just thought…” I said.
“Don’t think,” the one in front of me said.
They were getting closer to me. Their voices getting quieter. It was like the voices were inside my head. The shadows around us moved. I didn’t know how any of them there were there. Moving on the periphery. The silent threat. Unseen. Closing off options. There was nowhere to go. Again.
My wallet was in my hand now. I could feel it against my fingers. They gripped it hard. “Ok,” I said, trying to remove my hand.
At that moment a loud noise pierced the night. A police siren. “Hey!” shouted a voice from behind me. A man. Loud. Confident.
The two guys spun and ran full tilt, disappearing again into shadow across the car park as if they’d never been there. Part of the world. Part of the darkness. Phantoms of the past. Threats of the future.
I was swaying. I was shivering. My head felt like a balloon. History is a boomerang. Not a toy. A weapon. I remember this. I forget it. I remember.
Footsteps behind me.
I looked out into the open space.
“Are you ok?” asked the policeman, putting an arm on my shoulder. “Did they hurt you?”
I stayed tense. I didn’t flinch. I wouldn’t.
“I don’t…” I began. “I think… why…” I had no idea what I wanted to say, but my lips were shivering and opening and closing all on their own and I think sounds were coming out.
I felt like I was singing.
I was disappearing somewhere.
I felt my knees buckle and the officer put his arms around me. “Come on,” he said and helped me to move.
We took steps. Slow and careful.
I didn’t know what was happening. Where was I being taken? What would I see?
At the edge of the car park, he sat me on a low wall and asked again if I was ok. I nodded. I took off my hat and put it over my face, but my head quickly became cold and I put it back on. I didn’t dare look into the shadows for fear of what was there.
He sat down beside me. “Do you need anything?” he asked.
I shook my head and turned to thank him. It was then I realised he wasn’t a police officer at all. He was a young guy. About my own age. Maybe slightly younger. Handsome. Tall, with short hair and glasses.
“Who are you?” I asked him. “What happened to the police?”
He laughed and pulled his phone out of his pocket. He touched the screen a few times and a siren rang out.
I didn’t understand. “But…”
“I downloaded this,” he said. “Sound effects. I make short movies.”
“It doesn’t matter. The main thing is, are you alright?”
“I…” was all I said before I burst out crying.
“It’s ok,” he said.
“It’s not,” I told him. “Not ever.”
“They’re gone now,” he said, meaning, I supposed, the two guys who wanted my phone and money.
“They’re gone,” I said.
“I was trying to tell you in the club,” he said. “I couldn’t believe when I saw you that it was you. It was all so clear. And I tried to tell you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my mind spinning.
“I had a dream about you last night. About two guys trying to mug you in a dark street, so I was trying to tell you not to walk home alone and to be careful. Then the next thing I knew, I thought I saw you getting your coat from the cloakroom. I tried to follow you, but there were so many people.”
“I tried to find you outside. It was just luck that I saw you when you left the bus stop, but you were so far down the road, it took me a while to catch up.”
“I don’t…” I looked at his face, trying to make connections. It blurred and I rubbed my eyes. “In the club?”
“I tried to talk to you, by the dance floor.”
I didn’t really understand. He took one of my hands between both of his and rubbed it. “A dream?” I asked.
“A dream,” he said. “Last night. I know how that sounds.”
It sounded perfect. It sounded like a message. It sounded like prayers and like family. Like a boomerang that was actually a circle. The missing part in place.
“Ok,” I said, and I think I even laughed.
“I’m Shaun,” he said.
I told him my name and he nodded.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“I live here now,” I told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked and I realised what he meant.
I told him where I was living. And then I apologised.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he told me. “It wasn’t your fault.”
It never is.
That is the point.
“Thank you,” I told him. “Thank you.”
“It’s ok,” he said.
“Do you want me to take you home?” he asked.
I looked at him and I did, but didn’t say yes. All I did was nod.
“Are you ok to walk?” he asked. “Or do you want to sit here a bit longer?”
“I want to walk,” I told him. “It’s very cold.”
We walked away from the past. Again. Always walking away from the past. Or running. Away though. That is the point.
I stopped when we got to the road and were bathed in light and noise. Traffic. People talking outside a fried chicken shop. Suddenly all there again. You just step back into life.
My saviour had taken a few steps before he noticed I wasn’t still walking and he came back and stood in front of me.
“What is it?” he asked.
A motorbike went past. The night bus going in the other direction followed it. I saw a face pressed against the glass, mouth open, eyes closed. Sleeping. A group of girls walking down the street towards us were laughing loudly.
“What else happened in your dream?” I asked.
He smiled. “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “Ok?”
“Ok,” I said, because it made sense. “When I’m warm?”
“Yeah,” he said. “When you’re warm.”