Sunday, March 17

Part I: Siberian Wind

THE WEATHER WAS doing its utmost to bring down the city. Over the weekend there had been snow in the counties and when I looked out of my bedroom window at six o’clock there was snow on the ground; I could not decide what to make of it; the snow didn’t stick to other snow but blew around in funnels of wind up into the sky, dusted up by the bumpers of cars, thrust itself into brick and bush. Two hours later, the city was a crisscross of streets that held furious winds, winds that blew you back and filled your clothes. Siberian winds.
Helen was in the country.
It was strange to know that she was in the same country as me and – even stranger – the same city. She had arrived late Sunday night, when the county snow was falling noisily on my conservatory roof, where it refused to melt. All day I wondered if we would meet, holding my breath, and she suggested we meet that evening. A Monday evening. It had been so long since I had been out in the city, especially on a Monday night. My nerves caused me excitement, wilder tremors, and incessant trips to the toilet to sit down. When I left the office the crowds were going by hurriedly, anywhere to get out of the cold. I was late and she was stood outside Bank. There was so little daylight left. Night was being encouraged out of bed by an enthusiastic cold wind. All roads pointed into Bank, picking it out on the map for tourists and businessmen. I looked around for her, then, most apathetically, we approached each other. I had a large Helmut Newton book under my arm that I was struggling with.
She and I faced each other – ‘Shall we shake hands?’ Helen suggested. That was fine by me. Hellos and good-bys are personal nightmares of mine.
We set off down the road on a route I had mapped in my head that, though a test of endurance given the weather, would be quieter and a little scenic. Straight away she saw an expensive shop that sold macaroons and scorned it; I remembered that she was a good person. Her walking skills were terrible, she spared no thought for the rush of others nor their paths and bumped into me constantly as if trying to put me into a wall. I enjoyed it
We walked across a bridge. Workers charged in a universal direction, sadly the sun sank to fade, illuminated road signs blinked, a family of tourists posed for a photograph. She told me about how she had been so disappointed by a spy named James Bond.
The first thing I had noticed about her was her teeth. It is ceremony to notice teeth right away because they are what one looks at during conversation – and I had only seen her through photographs where her mouth was almost always closed. Her mouth was home to the kind of teeth that one might get the feeling the owner was ashamed of, though to others they are an endearing attraction, and to me they were most certainly that. Her skin was pale in the intermediate flashes of London. She was dressed in black.
She was dressed in black.
On that bridge, crossing the road, the underpass, the cobbles, the loneliness of a city evacuating its bowels, she was dressed in black. I was dressed in black, too, my coat with its torn pockets and its awful fadedness.
I’m an impersonal bastard.
She closed in.
Contact was not threatening to her. She regularly bumped into me and, rather than recoiling, I savoured it, those brushes with her warm body dressed in all its layers.
Monday nights in a cold city have empty bars. Only the desperate and the social and the desperately social occupy their hot interiors. Pints are pulled half-heartedly and the Thames rolls by in a sequined dress. Nothing can touch the line of lights on the other bank. A lot of people were drinking alone. We found a table, sitting at south and west. I was conscious of every single time our knees touched under the table. I presented my gift to her, the heavy Helmut Newton book. She opened it and enjoyed it. She turned the pages. She didn’t like the dancing bear. She was childish in her hurried way of talking, all the things she wanted to speak about, and in her manner.
It had been the first time in a long time that I had been with a girl. I was not taking it lightly. Everything, from the chatting barstaff to the gushing taps in the toilet, filled me with pleasure, and there was nothing I could take for granted. The simple stepping out from central heating to Siberian wind was not lost on me, as I allowed myself to regard it as the holiest of occasions. Maybe it could have been anyone, but that evening it was her and the more time I was in her company the more I realised that maybe it couldn’t be anyone.
A crocodile of Spanish teenagers followed us across the bridge, staggered groups, chatting, running back and forth, calling out.
The streets were clear. We put our hands in the same glove and my penis throbbed down my trouser-leg; filled with shame, I put my other hand in my pocket to hide it from a team of girls walking down the street at us. When would I cease to be such a quivering beast! Or, her… was it her hand that caused me such nuisance? I could not tell. The roads I walked down in lunch break leisure were now alive with new joy, solely because she was there with me. The buildings had been knocked down and rebuilt, brick by brick, alive new, fresh and mightier. Her accent was good and she could not stop talking. Words a hundred-miles-an-hour; bumping into me; her accent; her way of saying things; the words she emphasised.
(The only other Helen I have known in my life was the older sister of a girl I grew up with, two doors down, herself two years older than me. Helen caught the rush of adolescence before us and appeared to be damaged by it, by something we, in our softness, were yet to understand. She had a beauty-mark on her cheek. She got pregnant quite early on in her life. I didn’t see her much after that.
This) Helen didn’t know which way to look when she crossed a road. I saved her life three times every hour. She owed me.
Another bar. Another distinct quietness. Another set of lights turned down low. The wind outside raced itself down the street. There were a few couples and a few double-dates in the bar. One couple was staring at their phones; the man laughed a lot, like a schoolgirl, high-pitched; I informed the barmaid. I told Helen and she noticed it too. We discussed history. Some of our earliest memories were set, sunny, in the Canary Islands. Those were years ago. We kissed.
We kissed.
Everyone has their own flavour and their own smell and their own kiss and their own clumsiness when they kiss. Helen’s hair had a smell. She was dressed in black. Her slim knees were against mine. We kissed. I did not like to kiss in front of others but I did not want to not kiss her. Not, not, not. Her teeth. I felt her teeth with my lips because that is where my lips brushed. When we kissed she bit me, painfully; I remembered that she was a good person. The lift in the bar ran up and down, carrying its cargo from here to there; multicoloured drinks sighed on their shelves; other couples came and went, but mostly went. It was a Monday night. Everything has a beginning and an end. The Monday night crowd is only concerned with the beginning. They’ll think about the end later.
The end. The end has its own place for evenings like that. The end is dotted with pauses. Unsettle the city on a Monday night and behold the emptiness that lies upon it. Barren streets, sparse cars, spacious buses.
We kissed at the ticket gates.
I was not concerned with now.
Or then.
Or whenever.
It was a moment.
It could have stood alone.
When I awoke on the train it had pulled into the sidings. The doors were locked and everyone had left. Monday nights have the coldest loneliness Britain has to offer. I was in my seaside town. I ran up and down the train. I spotted a cleaner cleaning a train on another platform. I banged hard on the window for him to let me out. He let me out five minutes later. There was still snow on the ground. Snow blew up into the air in funnels of wind. There was more snow. I sang down the streets. There was no one around so I could sing as loud as I pleased. I pleased very loudly and I slipped, very pleased, on the snow.
Helen was now a scent on my skin and my clothes that I sensed when I did not mean to. She was the potpourri of memory. The sweet smell of congratulations dealt out to me by my chest, an emotion too fragile to sustain.

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