it isn’t until a little less than two weeks later that i find it, the rubiks cube, still hidden under my bed from when i panicked all those days ago with Mo. the coloured squares are faded but some still perfectly aligned; i still have no idea how that happened. panicking makes everything move so quickly.
today marks my first day off before exams start. we are on study-leave, a cruel yet tempting process whereby we get to stay at home to revise, are somehow expected to force ourselves not to procrastinate, and come into school only when we have an exam. everything is terribly confusing. the prospect of revising is one which i have come to greet with a familiar dread; the prospect of sitting in a silent exam room for up to two and a half hours is one which i have not prepared myself for at all. it is not the exams i am worried about, it is the people, and the silence, and the demons. it is always the demons. part of me hopes that i will be too nervous to think about anything except the exam, but the rest of me has a feeling that isn’t true. the demons are with me, always, and most of the time i am not strong enough to push them away. i fight them off but they never die, like some deadly kind of phoenix which feeds off the ashes in my mind and uses them to start a fire that never really goes out.
school today was a dismal arrangement of warnings from teachers matched with half-hearted promises to revise, and it ended with depressingly forlorn goodbyes from my friends and i as we left school - the only time we'll see each other in the next few weeks is in the exam hall; which, i suppose, doesn't even count as seeing each other at all. gecko, as only gecko can do, was out of school as quickly as humanly possible, so that he can fit as much work into the time we have before the exams. sven and i hung around for a bit, leaving it as long as we could before we actually had to go home. i think it's funny how much we procrastinate. we use one reality to escape another, as if we can hide from everything tangled up in the now. this now is one i want to escape from more than ever.
it is late afternoon when i arrive home, and i spend half an hour sorting out the mountainous pile of files and revision books that i forced myself to pull out of my locker and carry home. the apartment is empty and quiet, how i like it; my parents are always late on a friday, spending hours planning lectures and classes for the following monday, leaving the university late at night. i fix myself some cereal and get through two hours' worth of maths revision before i get that familiar feeling - that sour tasting, heavy-shouldered feeling that reminds me how much i detest revision, and how much i am dreading the exams, and how much i wish i was doing something, anything but this. the solution is my only solution, usually: Mo.
charlie bucket, she says when the sound of her voice replaces the frustratingly repetitious dial tone. i am so glad you called.
you are? i say, a smile spreading across my face like watercolour across blank canvas.
i am. she says. we must celebrate.
i laugh. celebrate what?
the line goes silent for a minute. well, she says eventually, there must be something worth celebrating.
i nod, despite the fact that she cannot see me. i'm sure that, somewhere in the world, at this very moment, there is an old man blowing out the candles of a tiny 85th-birthday-cake that he bought himself because he lives alone and his family are too far away to come and see him.
indeed. Mo says. and, on the opposite corner of the world, there is a man and woman cracking open a bottle of wine that they bought for someone's party ages ago but forgot to take, because the woman went for a scan and it turns out she's pregnant, after months of trying.
of course, i answer. it seems rather distasteful that we are not celebrating at this very moment.
i agree. she says. excellent. meet me in twenty minutes?
yes. i say.
yes. she says. and bring some champagne?
yes. i say.
yes, she says again. and the line goes dead.
soon afterwards i find myself pulling on an old flannel shirt and some jeans, slipping on a pair of trainers, grabbing my phone and heading to the kitchen. i swing onto the countertop and reach up to the top of the cupboards, my fingers exploring the dusty plains of wood before i find what i am looking for.
you see, my parents hardly ever drink. despite their seemingly arbitrary existence at home, neither my mother nor my father ever think to drown their sorrows in alcohol. and i do not drink often - neither does Mo - in fact we barely do it at all. but sometimes all it takes is the sweet taste of something so excitingly forbidden to make things a little brighter. champagne is like a filter, one that turns up the exposure of the world until its colours begin to look more hopeful, and more beautiful. of course, it isn't as if they were not beautiful before; it is just a matter of rediscovering.
i drop the bottle in my rucksack and swing it over my shoulder. as i pass my room i duck under the doorway, realising i've forgotten something. i reach for the rubiks cube and slip it in too, zipping up the bag and striding into the hallway. without hesitation i have grabbed my keys and slammed the door, taking the stairs two at a time.
usually Mo is waiting at the door of her apartment building but tonight she is not. a rather obnoxious out of order sign has been scribbled onto some paper that is taped to the elevator. i take the stairs instead. stopping outside Mo's door, i rest against the wall and something hits me. shouting. Mo's voice is barely audible over the sound of her father's, and for a moment i want to run in there, to protect her like she does to me every time the demons invade. but i know that would only make it worse. fists clenched, i stand at the door. silent. waiting. hoping.
she emerges minutes later, famous doc martens on her feet, one of her brother's old hoodies morphing her slight frame. red is blossoming on her cheeks, her eyes dark and her gaze fluttering to the ground. i take her hand; still i say nothing. neither does she. i let the silence remind her that she is safe, and that she is loved, and that i will fight her battle beside her no matter what.
i don't know much about Mo's family. she has told me that her mother died when she was very little, and that her father can never look her in the eye. she has told me that her brother has started an apprenticeship as a mechanic and that he doesn't like it when she stays out late. her father stays out late. he sometimes comes back with alcohol on his breath and lightning in his fingers, like a walking tornado fueled by burning liquor and cigarette smoke. Mo says the cigarettes aren't good for him; that the embers settle in his stomach and ignite every time he raises his voice. he is a dragon, she says, hibernating but breathing fire.
these thoughts surface as we walk, my mind raging in the and my heart racing.
don't worry about me, charlie bucket, Mo says. don't worry about me.
i want to believe her, but how could i not worry? parts of her have lodged themselves in my head, in my mind, and they never let go. i do not want them to; it is a comfort. but if i think about her all the time, it doesn't mean i don't worry about her, too - especially now.
i hold her hand tighter but say nothing.
she sniffles, fingers peeking out of the enormous sleeves of her hoodie as she reaches up to wipe her eyes. where do you want to go? she asks quietly.
there it is again: the change of subject. but if our breath was ink and we could write words when we spoke i would not want her to turn the page. i am torn between trying to help or keeping quiet; i know the latter is more painful but she is in pain already and i cannot stand to see it worsen. eventually i turn to her, pulling on her hand to slow her footsteps to a stop, and whisper: where we always go. and i am kissing her forehead and smoothing back the waterfall of hair that is concealing her face and i swear i taste salt on her lips. her eyelashes brush my face like a butterfly kiss and in that moment there is nothing i want more than to light up the darkness inside of her. she says that it's all there is but i am sure she was made for more: she had angel wings unfolding from her shoulder bones and although she tells me it is fire that turned them to dust it is fire that sets her alight; the good kind, sunlight, the kind that warms you from the inside and thaws out an ice heart. the darkness makes her cold but there is sunlight in her veins and it is beautiful, if only she knew where to look for it. you are beautiful, i whisper. i can tell she doesn't believe me but i do not say it again, because repeating things sometimes makes them lose their meaning and both she and i cannot afford to have the truth taken away from those three words. i feel a flicker of a smile on her lips and then she pulls away, and we walk, the silence seeming not quite so heavy any more.
it is late when we reach the train station, the sky pierced with pinprick stars, the clouds fading like smoke. the sun is a flame that has almost burnt out. Mo's fingers stay firmly entwined with mine as we slip through the crowds of grey-suited and grey-faced businessmen navigating walthamstow central, and the rest of the arbitrary-yet-extraordinary passengers destined to ride the trains back home. i remember the moment when it really hit me, how incredible it all is. every single on of these people seem so unimportant when i pass them by, but each one has a different journey, a different story, a different point on the map that they must reach. our paths cross for just a moment, and in that moment there is so much we don't know. it is fascinating, but often overlooked. i have found that to be true with rather a lot of things.
Mo and i board a train into central london and watch the night rush by from the other side of the scratched glass. eight stops later we exit onto the northern line, my heart beating that little bit faster as we step into the tube. people. lots of them. i fear them generally but love them individually - the most loved of which is standing right beside me. she rests her head on my shoulder and i spend the journey matching my breaths with hers, counting the stops and not the eyes that seem to land on me like vultures to prey; licking at me, tearing me apart. it takes all of my strength not to pull out the rubiks cube and hold onto it for dear life. but Mo does the job just as well, and soon enough we emerge from the grimy interior of the embankment tube station, the demons present but silenced, as i always hope they will be. we are faced with a stretching expanse of horizons: those which are close and those which are nothing more than glittering lights in the distance. i have always thought there is so many more than just one horizon. we are always reaching for more, and so we find ourselves brushing each horizon, each achievement and failure and experience, with the tips of our fingers. and then we move on: to the next goal, the next aspiration, the next loss. horizons upon horizons.
Mo chooses a simple one to get us started. the fear in her eyes has faded - i am so thankful for that - and she gives me a look which tells me where to begin, or at least what to aim for. an ambiguous instruction; an ever-changing crossroad. i head left, towards victoria embankment gardens, and stop at a bench just outside the entrance. tonight, we reinvent ourselves. with more than just names.
i pull out the wine and in the dying light we drink, chins to the sky in an upward salute. to passersby, we are drunken teenagers, capturing the now in a champagne bottle and swallowing it so that our heads pound but our hearts smile. to some, we are reckless. to others: wise. but what we must mot forget is that to most we are practically invisible, so comparing ourselves to them will do us no good at all. we live for us, for the now, because who the hell knows what might happen afterwards?
so we drink, and when the bubbles hitting the back of our throat don't make us feel so alive, we walk, wandering down the embankment and taking in the city and the sounds and all the spaces in between. and when our minds start to crave the alcohol once more, we find somewhere new to sit, and we open the bottle again. rediscovery. it makes things beautiful, and it makes them last.