by Nadia Henderson
‘Humans are like molecules and atoms,’ I shout over the deep crescendo of cheers which, as the ball on the screen moves closer to enemy lines, may finally reach its climax. ‘Good for nothing on our own, but transformed into something meaningful once fate, or destiny, or whatever, throws us together.’
The crowd bursts into a chorus of euphoric cries; indistinguishable from one another, a mass of sound. I go to take a gulp from my wine glass, but find it empty. Maybe Nabs didn’t notice that I stopped knowing what I was on about halfway through – neither of us was much good at physics.
She rests one hand on mine, fingers damp from where they’ve been tracing five-pointed stars on her pint glass. ‘Fate and destiny are the same thing, babes.’
The November air is a pane of glass onto which our breath settles in clouds of frost. It prickles our cheeks, blotching red, but we drink it in as though it might cleanse us: of the beer-soaked carpet, squelching beneath our shoes; the thick-fingered hands in the smalls of our backs as we negotiated our way out of the pub. ‘Why do we still even go to that shithole?’ I ask, snaking my arm through Nabs’.
It’s late but we jump the stone wall – Nabs with her athlete’s agility, me with the grace of Bambi on stilts – and start our cut across Breckham Field. With each crunchy footstep on frostbitten grass, ghosts rise from the ground: summers spent outrunning Old Angus Breckham’s shouts of protest; the first – and last – time I let Dean Myers kiss me, while we lay in tall, sun-wrecked crops. I wonder if Nabs can see the ghosts too; if hers are the same as mine, or spectres summoned from a different realm entirely.
Getting wasted wasn’t going to make mine and Luke’s separation any easier, and it certainly doesn’t make the drive back to uni the following evening any less excruciating. In an attempt to avoid songs from our shared playlists coming on, I listen to three solid hours of experimental jazz. As my mind starts to wander – what did eventually push him away? – I pick out individual sounds and assign them to instruments: the nasal tones of a clarinet, the satin-smooth cantation of a saxophone, a cymbal brushed with the lightest touch. Care was taken to combine these instruments in this particular way, though the results are – to my untrained ear, at least – little short of chaotic.
I’m at the self-indulgent stage of the breakup where everything’s a metaphor, so of course it follows that Luke is the sax and I the cymbal, discordant as we thrash against each other.
In seminar, Kyle Rosewood is illustrating a point on social disenfranchisement by describing a scene from Camus’ The Stranger in such great detail that I’m glad I didn’t bother finishing it. I draw cubes and flowers in my notebook, and think of every nickname Luke ever called me that I’ll never go by again. I think about the words that made up our shared vocabulary – a collection of in-jokes and sweet nothings, curated over the years and committed to memory. Somewhere in the universe is a big black hole into which the dead language of every failed relationship is sucked, forced into an eternal vow of silence.
That evening, I rip an instant noodle packet open with my teeth and dunk its contents into a pot of boiling water. I watch the noodles soften in the water; loosening and separating from each other, drifting apart. In no time at all I am crying: deep sobs that bubble up and spill over. I take the pot off the heat, let the noodles bloat on the counter. There’s a version of me that has been lost with him, and I mourn her. She was by no means perfect – she could be distant and stubborn – but she had multitudes, depth. She went by dozens of pet names, terms of endearment exclusively theirs. Together, they wove a tapestry that not even the most wily of fraudsters would ever be able to imitate.
I’m in the kitchen spreading strawberry jam across a slice of burnt toast when Nabs calls to tell me her dad has died. ‘He’d been sick for a few months,’ she says.
Outside, a lone magpie hops along the garden fence. I look for its companion, searching for something to say. I think of Nabs’ father – a man we’d both called baba – and everything he’d meant to her. He was present in so many shared memories of bygone years: throwing the curtains open in Nabs’ bedroom when he knew we’d snuck out to share a bottle of cider in the park the night before, but never telling her mum; giving us a fiver to buy him the newspaper from the corner shop every weekend and letting us split the change on sweets. He’d been there when I got my acceptance letter for uni, and when Nabs received her rejection. He’d been made up of pep talks and terrible jokes; a dad I was more fond of than my own. I hadn’t known he’d been ill.
There’s nothing and everything to say, so we cry together, hundreds of miles apart, while I toy with the crust of my toast and watch the solitary bird fly away.
“Nabs stretches out on her bed. We spent teenage years under that duvet, trading secrets, promises, wishes – the bricks that built us.”
We lean out of Nabs’ bedroom window and watch mourners mill about in the garden below, holding paper plates of kofta in tomato sauce, fragrant rice and salad. The early-spring sun is a fluke, and we roll up our sleeves to bathe our skin in its warmth.
‘Do you remember the time we begged baba to get us that karaoke machine, and then he wouldn’t stop using it to sing ”Eye Of The Tiger”?’ Nabs says. We bow our heads in stifled giggles.
‘We were what, thirteen? Fourteen?’ she continues, slouching away from the window.
‘I can still hear that exact moment when his voice cracked,’ I say, and we sing the line together, this time melting into exhilarant belly laughs, buoyant with glittering memory.
Once the fit of hysterics has passed, I ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Nabs stretches out on her bed. We spent teenage years under that duvet, trading secrets, promises, wishes – the bricks that built us. ‘It was just after the breakup,’ she says. ‘You were so sad and so . . . far away. I didn’t want to bother you.’
There’s a microcosm of emotion in her words: resentment, hurt, distance. Nabs’ mum’s inimitable laugh – the type you can’t not smile upon hearing – floats through the open window, clinging to the net curtain, catching in the afternoon light. The house feels alive with everyone’s tender recollections. I think of the missed calls, distracted replies, broken promises to Skype or visit that have coloured our friendship this past year. I could spin a thousand explanations, convince her I’d never stopped caring about her, but all that really needs to be said right now is, ‘I’m sorry.’
The moment hangs heavy between us. There are still thoughts and needs unexpressed; wounds not yet tended to. In our twenty years of knowing each other, we’ve never once argued – we’re ill-equipped to weather choppy waters. Eventually, Nabs shuffles along on the bed and pats the space beside her. I lie down next to my oldest friend and we stare at the ceiling, letting awkwardness, grief, history and love settle like sunlight upon us.
November smells of cinnamon, burning wood. Everything is dying, turning over, but it’s a welcome transformation. The air crackles with possibility.
It had been Nabs’ idea to write letters. ‘We don’t have to mention the past. We can just write what we want our future to be,’ she’d said. I’d spent more time on mine than I had on that term’s assignments, tinkering with the intro, avoiding a conclusion. I expressly went against Nabs’ instruction, writing thousands of words about the past: an essay on every time I’d been proud to be her friend; pages recounting all the advice she’d ever given me and the degree to which it had been ignored or followed. The more I wrote, the more I could feel the space between us, a sinkhole splitting the ground we’d grown up on.
We meet at the pub. ‘Why do we even still go here?’ Nabs asks as we sidle past swaying bodies, sour breath on our necks.
When we sit down, I take the envelope out of my coat pocket and slide it across the table. ‘Sorry in advance,’ I say.
Nabs smiles, pushing the letter back my way. ‘Save it for the bonfire.’
By the time we get there, the fire is tall and unruly. The crowd hangs back behind the barriers, glasses of mulled wine in gloved hands. Flames dance against the black sky, all flicking limbs and curves. In them, the past and future converge: ancient history, childhood memories and wildest dreams ignite, and I see every version of myself who has been and will be. Each has meaning and bestows something of value to the next in a cosmos of ancestral connection. Behind me, a child erupts into cries and I’m brought out of my trancelike state. I look to my side and see that Nabs is gone.
Then, through the blur of bodies: a beckoning hand. Her eyes glint with mischief. I cut through the crowd to where Nabs is standing, envelope in hand, between the bonfire and the edge of the field. ‘We’re not supposed to stand here,’ I say, checking for surly attendants making their way towards us.
‘And we won’t be – not for long,’ Nabs says. ‘Hold out your hand.’
She sighs, rolls her eyes in playful exasperation. ‘Just – here.’
Nabs takes my hand in hers and places a stone in my palm. I turn the object over, examine its weight and smooth, cool surface. I see that she has one of her own and is folding it into the letter she’s written for me. Snatches of sentences flicker at me from the tangle of hand, stone and paper.
With her arm arched high and body thrust forward, Nabs flings the envelope, stone-heavy, onto the bonfire.
‘But,’ I start to say. But I had wanted to be burnt by her words, flagellate myself with their truth. I’d been such a shit friend. In mourning one relationship, I’d let another fall into neglect. I’d screened calls to stew in self-pity; had closed up, clam-like, lost in introspection. Even now, I thought of myself: of the closure, sweet freedom, her letter might have contained, all turning to ash on the pyre.
‘Your turn,’ Nabs says. Then, nodding in the direction of a steward who’s noticed we’re out of bounds, adds, ‘Be quick!’
So I fumble the envelope open, drop in the stone and throw.
My letter to Nabs lands at the base of the bonfire, distinguishable for only a moment before it dissolves into embers. Then, her hand is in mine and we’re running through Breckham Field – the earth of our making; our shared, formative land – feet pounding the frosted ground in unison. When we stop, our breath pours from us short and sharp, the only thing we can hear. Because we don’t speak, not to say what we’d written to each other, or just how sorry we are for what’s been. We simply stand – backs spent, hands on our knees – in our sacred space, and wait for Old Angus Breckham to chase us on.