by Janet Howson
drinks for two
London is spectacular at night. The dark skies blocking out the flaws of the horizon. The impressive panorama of the famous modern buildings: The Shard, The Cheese Grater, The Walkie-Talkie and The Gherkin contrasting with the dignity of St Pauls. All of them are lit up, alongside the ubiquitous cranes that cross the skies. The effect is magical and I find a comfort from this that masks my loneliness.
I am leaning on the side of the bridge, soaking in the atmosphere. I have had a reasonable day. Meeting friends for lunch and then seeing a Shakespeare at The Globe Theatre, followed by a walk along the Southbank. We had found a reasonable Italian restaurant for dinner in and then my companions had gone home. Somehow, I couldn’t wrench myself away from the atmosphere and sights so I walked back to the bridge, just for one more look.
The bridge was busy, Couples strolling hand in hand, young office workers on a night out, tourists, buskers, cyclists and joggers, all competing for space. How often I had walked along here with the girl I thought I would be sharing my life with, the memories still hurt and the rejection too painful to recall. Over a year ago now, I should have moved on, started again found a new love.
Then there was a bump and a cry of pain. I span round to see a jogger stretched out on the side of the bridge, her bottle rolling away from her, a cyclist speeding off into the distance. I ran towards her, other pedestrians involving themselves with rescuing her bottle, offering platitudes, “Hey, are you okay?” “That was quite a tumble.” “Do you want me to call someone?”
She was sitting up, rubbing her ankle. Her blonde hair was scraped off her face and tied into a small pony tail on the back of her head. I bent down. “Can I give you a hand?” She put her arm up towards me and I lifted her off the ground. Her eyes were piercingly blue, holding me in their gaze. So difficult to look away. On standing I could see how tall and willowy she was. Her lycra outfit clung to her body outlining her young athletic body. “Can you walk all right?” She took a few steps still hanging on to my arm. She limped slightly and grimaced at the pain.
“I might have pulled a muscle but I don’t think I have broken anything.” Her accent had that familiar hint of Irish. Musical and beguiling. “I just need to sit down. I will be as right as rain in a moment.”
“There's a pub, across the bridge. A drink might help. They say brandy is good for shock.” I wondered if I was being too presumptuous. I didn’t want to leave her though. I wanted to stay with this girl on the bridge. The rest of the onlookers had wandered off to continue their evening activities. It was just me and her, surrounded by the noise and beauty of the night.
Her blue eyes looked at me, a smile appeared on her lips. She realised she was still holding on to my arm. “Oh, sorry,” she said withdrawing her hand gently. “I can walk okay. A drink would be lovely.” She smiled again, this time showing her beautiful teeth. I was conscious, as ever, of my own uneven teeth, something I had always meant to have corrected but never got round to doing. We took a few steps together but again she winced with pain. “I may have to hold on to your arm again.” She was apologetic I was hopeful.
We walked slowly across the bridge, her limp becoming more pronounced the further she walked. I was aware of the onslaught of people crossing from one side of the bridge to the other, feeling the need to protect her from another potential collision. The prams, the bikes, the suitcases on wheels, the tipsy office workers, the people unaware of anything around them as they studied their mobile phones. The pub seemed miles away, although I knew it was only at the end of the bridge. “Perhaps we should have called an ambulance, you may be doing damage by walking on that injury.” I suggested.
She looked at me with an amused smile on her lips. “You are such a worrier. I am fine, just get me to the pub.”
We continued in silence rather than compete against the noise but the silence was comfortable; there was no need for conversation. We reached the pub. It was crowded, full of young office workers still in their suits, glasses in hand, gathered around in small tight groups, some were smoking, some vaping some just talking excitedly. The atmosphere was vibrant, welcoming. Couples earnestly looking into each other’s eyes, planning, enjoying each other’s company. I so wanted to be a part of this again. To be half of a pair. To share the day’s problems and to listen and sympathise with the one you loved and who cared what happened to you and to be here, in the heart of our wonderful capital. To belong again.
We found a table outside that was being vacated as we arrived. I cleared off the glasses they had left ready to deposit them on the bar when I went in for the drinks. “Is it a brandy then?” I asked half-jokingly, knowing that spirits had lost their popularity, it was shots, cocktails and prosecco now.
She looked at me with her translucent blue eyes. “I'm in training for the London Marathon so I’ve had to give up alcohol. Boring I know. A lime and soda would be great. Let me buy it for all your trouble. I expect you have far more interesting plans for the evening than sitting with an injured runner in a pub.” The way she said it, an enquiry waiting for an answer, a reassurance? More interesting plans? How far from the truth could that be. I didn’t want to leave her. I loved the comfort and ease of her company. Let this moment go on forever.
“Absolutely not. I was on my way to St Pauls to catch the tube home but I couldn’t wrench myself away from the beautiful sights seen from the bridge. It's great to have an excuse for a drink and a chat.” Did she blush? I couldn’t see but regretted what I had said as she went quiet. “I'll get the drinks and this is my treat. A lime and soda isn’t exactly going to require a second mortgage.” I felt her relax. She laughed and I went in to tackle the crowd at the bar. I didn’t want to be long. I was afraid I would get back with the drinks to find her gone, evaporated into the crowds having decided this was not a good idea. I pushed my way to the nearest barman, ordered the drinks, fought my way back, nervous in my fear of returning to an empty seat.
She was still there. She was rubbing her ankle and her head was down and her fair hair had been taken out of its top knot. I studied the scene for a moment. Could there be hope? Was she with a partner, married even?
“Sorry I was so long. A lot of custom at this time of night. How is your ankle?”
She looked up and smiled. A beautiful smile. “Thanks for the drink. I think rest and a couple of anti-inflammatory tablets will do the trick. I have to admit it will be a welcome break from all the training. It seems to have taken over my life for the last year.” She looked up at me, there was something in her eyes. Regret?
“You must have worked so hard. I hear it takes over your life and everything and everybody takes a back seat. I don’t think I could ever do it.” I stopped myself. The distant echo of forgotten conversations, arguments. A fear of repeating foolish statements, expectations and unwarranted demands.
She paused, frowned slightly, took a sip of her drink. “There are some things in your life you just have to do. Things to test yourself. Sometimes it causes regrettable consequences. I've had a focused but lonely year.”
So she too had been lonely. She too had been struggling with her singleness amongst the couples. That pain you felt with the arrival of cards announcing an engagement, the wedding invitations and the inevitable stag nights, in the knowledge that out there was your perfect partner, the one you had let go but never forgotten.
“I've had an awful year too.” What should I say? How much should I tell? I searched her face for a sign. “I have tried to fill it; my work, my friends, exhibitions, walks, that sort of thing but nothing worked. I just so regretted…”
She lent over the table, placing her hand on mine. There were tears in her eyes a slight quiver on her lips. “Simon,” the soft way she spoke my name brought back wonderful memories. So many hours and days then years together. How could it have gone so wrong?
“Could we try again? Is it possible you could forgive me? Could we be that couple again, Simon and Alice?”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. She just leant across the tiny table, kissed my cheek and ruffled my hair. How I used to love her doing that. One of the many things I had missed. One of the things I thought I had lost and would never be able to retrieve; until the incident on the bridge.