A bell rang and the doors erupted like sliced arteries, dark uniformed bodies spilling out into the sunlight in a surge of human noise, flowing past each other in bubbling streams, dashing to their new experiences, good and bad. A few stragglers, dragging rucksacks and gangly limbs, and then the doors closed: silence again. Birdsong and the gentle hum of a bee.

The road glowed ahead of me, golden and shimmering, the sky was painfully blue, the world seemed to sing with promise. I stared at the faces around me in a daze, each one more beautiful and more heartbreaking than the last.

Nothing would ever be the same again and that was exactly what I wanted.

I wanted to dissolve into the sea, dissipate into the air like smoke, and somehow be forgotten by everyone who had ever known me.

*******

I love this city, even in the freezing winter, maybe more so. The narrow streets feel smaller, more intimate, when dusted with snow, and the grand pink and cream buildings lean into each other, huddling together for warmth, under the weight of the cold. The people look at each other with careful, conspiratorial joy and I’m often drawn into it, smiling at strangers with an reflexive sense of community. I steal glances at their serene faces as I cross the frozen square, strung with colourful bunting and already bustling with happy people, all carefully wrapped in their thick coats and sturdy boots, crunching their way through the compacted white ground.

A barely-there snow hangs weightlessly around me, coating my hair and skin in tiny frozen flakes. I stop for a moment in front of the coffee shop, pull my hat down further over my ears and take a few delicious gulps of thick, glacial air before lighting my first smoke of the day. I think about my life, how ordinary it is, how small, how insignificant, how different from how I imagined.

The shop is bright and warm, heavy with the smell of muffins and coffee. Carrie is already there, prepping the machines.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Carrie asks, scrubbing the milk frother robustly, her dreadlocks bouncing on top of her head. Carrie enjoys big questions and big conversations and abhors small talk – refuses to engage in it – and while this is one of the reasons she is such good company, it also makes her somewhat exhausting to be around.

“I don’t know. That’s a hard question and I’ve not even drunk any coffee yet. Doesn’t it kind of depend on what you think is bad?”

“Yes but from an objective standpoint.” Carrie shouts over the pouring of coffee beans. “What would the majority of normal people think was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

These situations arise from time to time, when something causes the truth to stir within me and attempt to scramble out into the open. Sometimes I can taste the words in my mouth and my lips start to form the sounds and a rush goes through me, part terror, part euphoria. So far, it hasn’t escaped; but I’m never confident that it won’t. I rack my brain for a plausible response, enough to seem like I’m giving something of myself, some secret part of my soul, but not so much as to encourage further digging on Carrie’s part.

“I killed a guinea pig once.” is what I finally settle on. Carrie winces and stares at me. “It was an accident, but it was my fault. I fed it turps. I thought it was water.”

“How old were you?”

“Pretty young. Seven, I think.”

Carrie pauses and ruminates as she wipes down the counter, then throws her cloth into the sink before delivering her verdict.

“Well, that’s not so bad. Firstly it was an accident and secondly you were really young. That’s not a very juicy confession, Sonja. I don’t believe that’s the worst thing you ever did.” Carrie is right of course. It is far from the worst thing I’ve done, and isn’t even my story.

“Sorry.” I say and head into the back to hang up my coat.

Carrie is my only friend, other than those who have been thrust upon me through neighbourly proximity. By friend, I mean somebody with whom I have conversations, but it never goes any further than that, not any more. Life has taught me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a friendship is a weak link for people like me, and while I’m willing to concede that they are somewhat necessary to my sanity, I certainly doesn’t go out of my way to cultivate them and I always know that they are temporary.

Carrie makes a good friend. She is kind, she is engaging, she is interesting and intelligent, but most importantly, she knows when to leave me alone. Most of the time.

By five o’clock, the customers are thinning out to the ghostly dregs that normally lurk until five thirty – the ones who seem repelled by their own lives, desperate to hide from themselves in the darkest corners, wired on the ten cups of coffee they felt obliged to buy throughout the day. These are the ones I can’t bear. Their pain sings out to me so loudly that I can’t ignore it, like the cry of a newborn baby, a note that resonates fiercely in me, so that my body can’t help but sing with them. I busy myself with restocking while Carrie clears tables.

The last man leaves at five twenty nine, obviously embarrassed by his own blatant reluctance to leave, but still not hurrying. Carrie locks the door behind him and sighs heavily.

“I thought he’d never leave. Don’t these people have families to go home to?”

Not everyone does.

Carrie lives with her girlfriend, in a small apartment in a tiny back street by the river. They have been together for seven years and intend to get married and start a family. Carrie is of the opinion that there is someone for everyone, you just have to keep looking until you find them and then be prepared to do whatever it takes to hang onto them. I do admire Carrie’s approach to love; it is fierce and consuming. She loves like she talks: directly and without compromise, or fear of judgement.

“Are you still seeing that guy?” Carrie enquires. “The doctor.”

“On and off. He’s very busy.”

“Is it worth it? I mean, he lives far away, he’s never free, he hardly ever comes to see you…are you sure he’s worth the investment? You’re not getting any younger you know and while you’re seeing him, you might be missing out on something really meaningful.”

I picture my doctor, this enigmatic older man with the healing hands and the hectic lifestyle, and I realise I’ve grown quite attached to him. I’m almost sad that he doesn’t exist.

“Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it’s not going anywhere.”

“Do you love him?”

“No, not yet.”

“Do you think you could?”

“I have no idea.”

“Then move on. He’s not worth the effort. If you don’t feel like you could love him after dating him for three months, he’s not the one for you.”

The shutter door grinds to a clanging stop and I wave goodbye to Carrie and watch her dash off across the darkening square, off to her home full of love and comfort. A spike of envy needles my heart. It is short lived and quickly replaced by a gritty relief that no one is waiting for me, I miss no one, am reliant on no one. These two feelings mingle but do not quite mix. Instead, I have my home, my tiny studio apartment, where I will light a fire, eat some food and read a book, until I drift off to sleep. I’m soothed by this thought as I fall into the crowd dissecting the square, get pulled into its currents and let myself be carried along.

Lost in this somnolent state, I float, half-real, immersed in the comforting near-future of home, when a face appears in the crowd. Time freezes as it comes into view, as if a flash bulb goes off at the very moment I look up. He is brighter than all of the other faces around him, framed by a vignette, spotlit and vibrant. Something old and deep and multidimensional stirs in me, coated in smells, unidentifiable textures and sensations without form.

Memories.

My body rocks, a feeling like standing on the beach at the water’s edge as a wave comes in, my feet sucked into the sand by the fast retreating water, the ground itself suddenly unreliable and threatening.

And then he is gone, has passed me by, and I stand swaying in the ebb and flow for a moment, my heart and mind racing, before refocusing and stepping forward to continue.

And then he calls my name.

All is quiet, all is silent, apart from that one voice.

Something rises and falls and rises and falls within me.The world turns too quickly, hurtling through space, growing and retreating.

I could carry on into the frozen evening and nothing would change. Nothing would happen. I could return to my home, light my fire and read my book, fall asleep alone and safe, the future a known entity. There is no reason to change that.

But I do.