He tapped the blank piece of plastic against the reader, and the gate clunked free. I followed him through it and let it swing slowly shut behind us as we set off on our ritualistic walk. We were practically leaping between the radii of each streetlight’s glow, but not because we were hurrying. My stride was tiny in comparison to his. (I’m almost always close to a jog trying to keep up with him, but I never really mind. It keeps me warm. Well, that and whatever remains in my bloodstream of the red wine I have with dinner.)
That night, we just wanted to reach the river. The familiar streets, although beautiful under the guise of night, held too much risk of our conversations being overheard. The open windows of a passing taxi, the merry students enjoying their university lifestyle, the people with nowhere else to go but a shop doorway… they all posed too much of a threat to our privacy.
As we crossed over Skeldergate Bridge, he began to make small talk – a warm-up for what was to come. I was out of breath, and my replies sounded raspy – more emotional than I had intended. There was no need to look out for cars as we crossed the road. This late at night, we were sure to hear them with plenty of warning. Of course, the traffic lights didn’t know this – still changing, despite having no one to change for. He galloped down the stairs beside the bridge, and we sat ourselves down on opposite ends of the bench overlooking the river.
I pulled my legs up onto the seat and crossed them in front of me, preparing to listen and working out what I might say myself. Someone cycled past behind us, but I didn’t flinch. I might have, had I been alone at this time of night, but I feel as safe as I would at home, sitting here, with him.
We’d been flung haphazardly into each other’s orbits by chance – our student accommodation flats joined together by an oddly placed fire door adjoining our respective kitchens. Ever since, we have orbited the city together, observing its most silent hours first hand, before sitting beside the river and sharing ourselves. Our greatest struggles, our most unachievable dreams, fell only on our ears (and maybe the occasional insomniac duck). We offered no solutions, we didn’t antagonise each other with unnecessary optimism – we just sat here, letting our histrionics fuel our friendship and dissipate our despair.
With a filter tip hanging from the corner of his lip, he said: “You go first, while I roll this.” So I did. I watched his hands work as I played with the cuffs of my jumper and talked about whatever I could think of. As I spoke, I felt myself relaxing, babbling and repeating myself, releasing the tension I’d been holding all day. The river gently lapped at the stone, and I could see pigeons sleeping in the ironwork of the bridge.
He mostly nodded, smoked his cigarette, occasionally bringing up an experience that might relate to something I’m talking about, but that was about it. That’s all I needed.