it is 10pm.
my parents are home from work by now.
i am on an adventure.
they called at the expected time, after their (what i can only assume is silent and fairly miserable) journey home from the university. i briefly wondered whether to be honest, but then decided against it. after all, i think not-knowing will do them some good. i told them i was at Mo's house for the night. when her brother called, (her dad, unsurprisingly, has escaped to the pub) she said she was sleeping at mine. neither her brother nor my parents will think to check the truth of our whereabouts - we are almost sure of that - so at least, for a while, we are safe.
we walk over the bridge and along the southbank. despite having hardly any money between us, Mo insists on flicking a penny into the hat of every street artist we see. she bows her head at every saxophone player and juggler, dropping copper pieces at their feet before turning away with an almost-unnoticeable smile. i stop to tie my shoelace and by the time i straighten up she is chatting with a heavily-tattooed man selling pancakes. he gives her one for free, and winks at me. remarkable, i whisper in her ear as we walk on. she shakes her head. i steal a kiss and a bite of her pancake; she accepts both.
the sun has long since made its descent below the clouds, and london has come alive. fairy lights twinkle from places so high that they look like stars and there are smiles on the faces of everyone we pass. music fades and crescendos as i make the journey between each busker, jazz morphing into Jamaican drums in some sort of wonderful madness. that's what it is, london, i think. organised chaos. serendipity constructed from the minds of every street vendor, every musician, every passer-by. there are people, and there are demons, but it is nighttime and i have Mo and i am happy. for tonight, the demons are only shadows.
we somehow find a violinist within the vibrant eruptions of dance, music and laughter. she wears a beret and bright red lipstick and plays softly, tenderly, stroking the bow across the strings to form tranquil melodies. Mo pulls on my hand.
let's dance. one corner of her mouth is turned up in a crooked grin.
my heartbeat seems to slow. i look around. maybe the demons aren't just shadows?
i am silent. because i know that i am happy, and i know that i can do it, but the people have turned into strangers and the nighttime has turned into darkness and i cannot help but think that everyone is watching, everyone is seeing; seeing me, my clumsiness, my nerves. i can't face it.
Mo's eyes haven't changed, her lips still quirked up at the ends, but she is gentle. the violinist flicks her gaze towards me and my stomach drops and no, i can't, i can't, i won't, i'm trying, Mo is pulling me in in carefully but she doesn't understand, some things not even she understands -
i shake my head and pull away. she drops my hand. whispers: you don't have to underestimate your significance.
she blinks, glancing at me to make sure i heard it, and then runs quickly into the centre of the circle of onlookers. she twirls, for the attention of no one in particular, and curtsies. the violinist smiles gratefully; Mo drops a penny at her feet. and then it is over. she walks on; i follow.
it takes a few minutes for the words to sink in, but then i think i know what she means: i'm worried about what everyone might think, but i don't have to be. i can live without my existence depending on what i assume other people will assume.
but it's hard, i want to tell her; it's unimaginably hard. i know she is only human and i know i am, too, underneath all the demons, and i know that humans are not meant to understand each other completely. we can understand each other complexly, but not completely. that's what makes us different.
and so i know Mo is trying, and i know sometimes it's hard for her to work out why i do the things i do, and why i cannot do the things she does. but i guess i am okay with that. she respects my limits, even if it means she has to take a step over those limits for her to realise that maybe, for now, i can't hold her hand and step over too. i read something somewhere, once - i think it was a quote on the front of Mo's philosophy book. it read: i do not know a perfect person. i only know flawed people who are still worth loving.
silence sets in for a little while. i am still apprehensive. slowly the demons begin to fade from black to grey, and the nerves turn from flames to embers that settle in the pit of my stomach. i'm sorry, charlie bucket. Mo says quietly, her fingers trailing across the railings separating the path from the river. i shake my head again. it's alright, i say after a while, tossing her a gaze as soft as a shadow. i'm trying.
i know, charlie bucket, she replies with a sad sort of smile. i know.
i wonder what sven and gecko are doing right now, i think aloud, desperate to provide some sort of soundtrack to our somewhat empty journey. gecko? Mo says with a smirk. studying, i assume. and sven - well he'll be playing on that goddamn computer game of his, won't he?
i shrug. how's nate? nate is Mo's older brother.
alright, she answers. he's been working overtime a lot recently. gets home later than - she stops. tries again. he gets home pretty late nowadays. but we manage, she continues. dad - well. he's the same, i guess. her eyes harden. it's us who have to change.
my hand finds hers and my skin welcomes her touch; her fingers are just on the cold side of perfect.
did he - my voice cracks. has he - i can't bring myself to say the words; those dreadful words, an implication of something terrible and unbelievable, and something like that happening to Mo.
not... for a while. she says slowly. but sometimes, sometimes i just think...
and then we are at a standstill, and my forehead is pressed to hers; i have gritted teeth and my breath is coming hard and fast, i am fuming. in my head i picture belt buckles and swinging fists and tears. i want to push it all away but the tragic thing is that i have heard the stories, and i know that what i picture is not far from the truth. because Mo described it to me once. she spoke of a night when her father had come home particularly drunk, and particularly angry, and although she was accustomed to both of those things, that night was different. everything seemed to be amplified, she said. she was up late finishing a school assignment and he stumbled in. shouted something incoherent, something about going to bed. Mo was silent. her father moved towards her. stopped. nearly fell. i got up to try and help him - she said, and i remember the tremble in my voice, the fear in each syllable as it dropped from between her lips - and he exploded. he thought i was trying to push him away. so he grabbed me, and he pushed me, and i couldn't - i didn't know what to do. he hurt me, charlie, but what could i do? he's my father. even if he hits me. even if he roars. i feel like i can't... disrespect that? i don't know. and the last words, the words that pull on my heart and burrow under my skin and make my head pound: even if he disrespects me.
i wanted to tell her that he has no right, that she can fight back, who does he think he is? but the truth is that i don't know. i never will. her decisions are her own, and all i can do is help her cross whatever bridge she's crossing, even if i so badly want to cross it for her. everyone is fighting their own battle that i don't even know about.
and i guess she thinks the same about me.
you deserve so much better. i say, with all the sincerity that can force it's way between my clenched teeth. she says nothing. i trail my fingers along her jawline and kiss her softly, slowly, the kind of kiss that is almost tender enough to be a breath. but this time it is an apology. for all the things she cannot have, and all the things she shouldn't. and all the things she so badly deserves.
by this time neither of us are taking any notice of where we're going. my eyes stray to Mo's battered old doc martens, and the light that bounces of the patent leather every time she takes a step. tendrils of conversation flutter loosely around me but i can't concentrate. i think i am still angry. if my thoughts were pencil sketches my head would be a canvas covered in eraser marks, lines and scribbles building up until the starting point is indecipherable, the end a dreaded moment somewhere in the distant future. i am unsure of what to feel and how to feel it. i think Mo feels the same.
but then i see something familiar. the slender curves and perfect shapes of a guitar, resting against the brick wall of the tunnel we have just ducked under. surprisingly, this one isn't banged up or broken like the models gavin's dad presents to me; it looks new, a hilariously bright electric guitar with orange paint and purple stars stenciled around the edges. wires snake across the ground from the instrument to a small amplifier. a case lies open next to it, but no one is around.
i can picture the smile on Mo's face before i even glance her way. on one hand i am glad she's cheered up; on the other, i'm slightly apprehensive about what this means.
what? i say, swinging her hand in mine.
she grins, tugging on my arm and wheeling us round to face the guitar. go on, charlie bucket.
what? i ask again. she laughs. play me a song.
i know Mo is not one to turn down an adventure - and that means i'm not, either - but... here? with all the people watching? i turn my head to look at the passersby. suddenly it feels like every pair of eyes is on me. yet again, the demons start to invade. i shake my head, the tiniest of smiles playing in my lips.
it's not mine... i say uncertainly, my palms sweaty, heart already beating fast. Mo chuckles. i know that, charlie bucket! she says. you don't have to steal it. just play a song.
i raise my eyebrows. i don't understand why you're so adamant -
she bats her eyelids. come on, she tries again. for me?
that gets me. unsaid words hang in the air, but Mo doesn't have time for that. she drops my hand and grabs at the guitar. suddenly she's strumming wildly, nonsensically, on the garishly orange instrument that isn't even hers. i want to laugh out loud - until i am reminded of the demons, and it doesn't seem so funny anymore. instead it feels like everyone is staring, everyone is laughing, i can't do this, i can't, i have to make it stop -
finally i reach behind me and unzip the rucksack on my back. Mo pauses, cocks her head to the side like a puppy.
if i'm going to play a guy's guitar without permission, i say tersely, i should at least give him some money first.
once a few five pence pieces have found their way into the guitar case at our feet, i pull the guitar out of Mo's arms and cradle it in my own. my fingers shape the chords out of instinct; i am calmer: not calm, but calmer. i should have known. if Mo can't calm me down (and moments when Mo can't calm me down are very rare indeed) then music will.
she laughs and sings along, shouting the words to whatever song i'm playing - i'm not even sure what it is - as if nothing's happened. yet again, i must remind myself that she cannot imagine me completely. nor can i do the same to her. but she sees me in a way that no one else does; as if, to her, i am a collection of bones and cells and heartbeats that match up to no one else. but how? i want to ask her. how can you see me as anything else but an ordinary being; just a normal human? we are all the same underneath the surface. our bones are aligned in a way that is mo different to anyone else. our blood runs through our veins in the same way. except you, i think amid the tangle of lyrics in my head as i play, my gaze fixed on Mo. you are different. you are extraordinary. it's as if every time i love you i go deeper beneath your skin, and i see how beautiful you are. your ribs are a cage because your heart is precious. mine is dangerous. that's the difference.
i want to tell her this, i want the words to fit between the lyrics i'm singing so that maybe she can understand. but something stops me. someone's shouting.
my stomach seems to drop to my feet.
run! Mo yells, her eyes filled with something in between joy and fear, something i've always envied when all i can feel is panic. i oblige, putting the guitar down as gently as time will allow, and follow her lead. our feet pound the cobblestones and we emerge from the tunnel in the same direction as we came in; amidst all the mixed up feelings in my chest, i can't help feeling a little disappointed that our journey is folding back on itself, like a book that has been torn and is now being closed, to hide the guilt, and the uncertainty. my backpack collides with the shoulders of passersby as i dive through the crowds; something hits the ground behind me with a smack but i don't turn, just run, just run.
hey! i can hear the man again; louder, this time, although we are further away - he must be coming after us, shit, - the voice low, heavily accented, each syllable dragged out and swung from the speaker's lips. jamaican? i shake my head and try feverishly to catch my breath. now is not the time, charlie.
but here it comes again: hey! dude! slow down! dude?
i turn my head in spite of myself. (because, really, who can say dude in a menacing way? surely i should give the guy a chance.)
hey, he calls breathlessly, resting his hands on his knees while he recovers. i find myself doing the same. he is tall - enormously so - with dark skin and a tumble of dreadlocks bouncing wildly about his face. somehow he seems to fit the oddly fantastical guitar.
dude, he says again, (and, yes, i'm sure he is jamaican) i wanted to tell you something. i look up; i can hear Mo let out a short sigh behind me.
i brace myself.
the guy cracks a smile. i just wanted to tell you that was freaking awesome.