for a moment i am stunned. a question forces itself from between my lips: what?
the guy just grins. your guitar playing. it’s sweet, dude.
i am pretty certain that is a compliment i have never received before. i manage a half smile and a muttered thanks, suddenly aware, as i always am when i am faced with new people and old demons, of my myriad insufficiencies. (plus the fact that i had previously assumed that the guy was trying to kill me.)
but, as always, Mo steps in. we thought you were trying to fight us because we used your guitar, she says matter-of-factly. i’m Mo. this is charlie.
for the millionth time i marvel at how easy it is for Mo to talk to people, to greet new faces with warmth and excitement, to purposefully entangle the thread of her life at that moment with the thread of theirs. i am the opposite, stepping over strings to avoid embarrassment and nerves, tying my thread in knots until no one dares to come close. together, oddly, we make the perfect team: the dreamer and the realist. the long thread, and that which is unraveling. we smooth out knots and find new directions to travel in. our threads, it seems, are parallel, yet simultaneously entwined.
nice, the guy answers. i’m leon.
a slight silence ensues. i fiddle with the sleeves of my hoodie; out of the corner of my eye i can make out the flicker of a grin on Mo’s lips.
can you hang around, man? leon speaks up, eyebrows raised.
what? i ask again. my face burns.
do you want to play some more guitar?
the question takes me by surprise. really?
sure. leon grins again, his dreadlocks bouncing with every turn of his head.
i glance at Mo for guidance. her brown eyes are lit with warmth; her chin brushes my cheek. skepticism. she whispers. doubt. of all the things that could go wrong – what if something goes right?
i smile. that is all she needs to say.
so i follow a man i have only just met (and who i am sure is at least fifteen years my senior) back to the tunnel i just fled from, to play electric guitar to passing londoners at nearly 11pm at night. i never thought i could play in front of people i had never met before, but somehow leon makes it seem as if it is just us. he sets his guitar case on his lap and drums out a beat on the hard leather as i strum, and all of a sudden we have ourself a makeshift band and a one-night-only gig to a new audience every minute, as people enter and exit the tunnel. my fingers find their places on the worn metal strings of the guitar, and then it's just like another night at gavin's dad's music shop - Mo even sits across from me, cross-legged on the cobbles, her eyes sparkling, like always. except tonight, there is no drum kit behind me, no microphones and tangled wires surrounding where i sit. tonight, my fingers don't tell the whole story. tonight, i sing; everything from jimi hendrix to dolly parton, laughing at the mess ups and mix ups and false starts. people stop and watch; the occasional stranger even drops some loose change at our feet. a full hour is spent getting lost in the music, and i can't think of a better way to spend that time. it's not until i forget the lyrics to one too many songs, and leon's drumming doesn't quite match with the monochromatic buzz of the guitar, that he says: how about we call it a night?
what's funny is that it is, in fact, the morning. tuesday morning, to be exact. it is midnight.
Mo and i thank leon for his time and he promises to keep in touch (i give him my phone number and he promises to call the next time he passes a telephone box). leon insists on giving me a handful of change. your earnings, he says. i laugh shyly. we say our final goodbyes and head down the southbank. hungry? Mo says, glancing at the coins in my hand. what do you propose? i reply. waffles. she says, and it's decided.
after investing in two enormous waffles from an all-night diner, we venture down to the river. i sit with my back against the railings, humming remnants of songs that haven't quite left my mind yet, Mo curled up against my chest. the evening breeze has long since heightened to something harsher, something slightly less forgiving. i shiver, welcoming Mo's warm breath on my neck as she turns.
i don't want this to end, charlie bucket she murmurs.
i shake my head. me neither. i think ahead, to monday, and the start of our exams. i picture silent halls, clocks ticking, minds racing. and demons. my chest swells with fear. i just don't think i can face it, i say quietly. all that pressure. the one time when i have to be calm, i have to keep it together. i can't panic in front of all of those people. i reach for Mo's hand. how? how can i do that? how can i concentrate with all that silence; the suffocating countdown. i'll forget everything. and then all my studying... all of those days forcing myself to work... they will have been a waste.
Mo lifts my hand up in hers, kisses my fingertips softly. it doesn't have to be like that, charlie bucket. she says earnestly. not if you don't let it.
my voice cracks. but that's the hardest part! pushing all the demons away, all the doubt and the fear and the panic, getting rid of it all - it takes all of my strength. i won't be able to start the exam, let alone finish it.
Mo turns awkwardly, craning her neck to look at me. we never get anything in life we can't handle. she says, her eyes wide, serious. i know that all we have is now, but that doesn't mean the future doesn't exist. it's right in front of you. all those new nows. you just have to run, charge at them. you'll get there. it's a challenge -
- more than a challenge. i interrupt.
she nods. it's more than a challenge. but you'll get through it, because what other option do you have? you'll try your hardest, i know you will. she pauses for a moment to think, and then continues. but at the same, all we have is now. don't make yourself panic about panicking. just take each moment as it comes. if you get yourself worked up, maybe you'll panic. if you stop thinking about what might happen, then maybe what does happen won't be so bad.
i am silent for a moment as i let the words sink in. and then i smile. nod. i don't feel like i can express how much what Mo said means to me, and how much better i feel. so i kiss her instead, hoping she understands. she tastes like sugar and syrup; this moment feels like perfection.
it is almost 2am when we arrive back at the train station. we both know that we cannot go home yet - our parents would certainly be suspicious - and so we decide to ride the circle line until morning, hoping to get a little sleep. the train is deserted apart from one woman, middle-aged, dressed the navy blue scrubs that make up a nurse's uniform. i assume she's just finished the night shift.
what brings you kids here at this time of night? she raises an eyebrow as our weary figures pass her by - tired, but happy.
we're celebrating, Mo says.
the end of an era.
and what era is that?
the era of our freedom.
the woman laughs. Mo just shrugs. sometimes you have to find something worth celebrating, she says. even if you're celebrating something that's just changed for the worse.
Mo levels her gaze. because at least it's changed.
the woman says nothing. soon i am asleep, my head on Mo's shoulder as she leans against the window.
some time later, i am woken by her kissing my forehead.
now i am aware that we don't know, that we can't know, but i am also aware that if i could know something, anything, i would know that there is nothing i love more than to be woken by a kiss from my favourite person in the world, my sleepy haze clearing like mist as i catch sight of her smile. beauty, i think, is for people, but it is also for certain moments. i live for those beautiful moments.
charlie bucket, she whispers. look at the sunrise!
from out of the scratched glass of the train window i see the sky, lit up in so many stunning colours that it takes my breath away. deep ochre and dusty blue morphs into soft yellow, light grey, the palest of pinks. it is a masterpiece. so i sit there, with Mo, as the brushstroke sky rushes past us on our journey home.