Posner's bike rumbled along cobbles, before slicing through the cold air onto a stretch of smoother road. For the briefest of moments, he felt thrilled. He felt as though, if he went that little bit faster, he would shatter the world in front of him. He was only held back by the slimmest possible thread.
After all, it was December. Oxford was preparing for Christmas. Posner, being of Jewish extraction, was not. December tended to heighten a feeling that had been with him all his life. It had only grown since he had arrived in Oxford. It was a strange, simultaneous joy and sadness at not being quite part of the whole. For that brief moment he felt that he would finally be let out or let in, completely.
The thought disappeared as he realised that he'd missed his turning. He'd also missed Dakin and Scripps, who were waiting for him at the corner. Posner jumped off the bike, turned, and wheeled it towards them. Dakin hollered and laughed, while Scripps grinned, looking around sheepishly and trying to nudge Dakin into silence. Some things, at least, didn't change. It was nice to know that there was some corner of a foreign field that was forever Sheffield.
Posner was glad that something held he and Dakin and Scripps and Akhtar together. He did not want to spend his life in Sheffield; but he had never imagined that living away from it could make him feel so lost. He had hardly seen the other boys during this first semester of university. Yet, somehow, they had all fallen together around about the beginning of December. Even Dakin was silently grateful for that bit of normality.
Akhtar had already left a few days earlier, to be with his family for Al-Hijira. That left three of them.
"Right," said Dakin, now that they were all gathered, "How do we spend tonight? Our last night of freedom?"
"Probably the same as we will in Sheffield," Scripps pointed out, "Get slightly drunk?" he shrugged.
"God. You two," Dakin moaned, with mock exasperation, "I know a party that's going on in my halls. Tonight we are going to get very drunk. No, actually. Maybe not so drunk as that, as there's a girl called Diana who I think I may have a chance with."
"You get through them, don't you?" Scripps scolded, "What happened to Alice?"
Posner decided to tune out at this point, although he felt slightly angry at himself for even caring. He pushed his bike a few yards ahead of the other two. The sky was now dark enough for lacklustre Christmas lights. They multiplied down the street, reflected in grimy pools of rain and melted sleet.
"It certainly is a winter wonderland," said Posner, stopping and staring down the sodden road.
"If you like cold, and water, and yet more general shitness," chimed in Dakin.
They stood together in contemplative silence and surveyed the scene.
"It is Oxford," Scripps mused, "You have to admit that there's beauty in the architecture, at least."
But Dakin said firmly, "No, I don't. I believe that you've learnt to think that."
"Come off it. We're not in Irwin's class now; you don't have to subvert every comment."
"I don't have to," Dakin grinned, "I do it because I like to."
"I don't think you do though," said Posner thoughtfully. After a pause he added, in a softer voice, "I think you still have this idea that it's going to impress him. Irwin. Because impressing him is so much easier than having an actual conversation with him now… Which you may yet have to do."
At first Dakin looked unimpressed by this remark. When it became clear that no one else was going to resume talking, he said, "Oh fuck off," and stalked sulkily ahead.
Posner and Scripps trailed after him slowly.
"Still the same as ever, then," said Scripps.
"What? Dakin? I suppose so."
"Actually," said Scripps, awkwardly, "I meant you. In reference to Dakin. You and Dakin."
"I haven't seen him much," said Posner, truthfully, "But if you're asking whether I'm still hopelessly in love with him…"
"That's what I was trying for," Scripps smiled a kind of apology and watched the road.
"Annoyingly, yes. Me being in love with Dakin, I mean," Posner let out a heavy sigh, only slightly played for effect, "I thought… I thought I might meet someone here. And forget about him. You read about it happening like that. I thought maybe he was just the prelude to something bigger. It never felt like that, but I wanted to believe it."
"You're young," smiled Scripps, "You'll love again."
"What about you?"
Scripps coughed out a cloud of steam onto the air. Clearly, he knew what Posner was asking.
"What about me?"
"You said you were going to look into having sex."
Scripps laughed at the way Posner put it; Posner smiled sheepishly and ducked his head.
"Yes, well, no progress to report there."
Posner hit his back hard against the wall. It was a terrible party. He wished he were dead.
At the other end of the room he could see Dakin, when the shifting panorama of people allowed it. He had no idea whose party this was, but whoever they were, they were popular. Posner felt irritated at being so out of place among so many people. He knew no one save Dakin and Scripps. He was less irritated by this than he was with Dakin though. He was also irritated with the girl Dakin was flirting with. Presumably, she didn't know who Posner was, so the chances of her flirting with Dakin because she harboured ill will to Posner were pretty slim. Posner still took a guilty, baseless dislike to her.
"Drink. Drink yourself into blissful oblivion," Posner murmured to himself. He threw back a plastic cup full of lager. It tasted vile. He made a face of comical disgust and was stared at by a number of girls nearby.
"Having fun?" asked Dakin, when he came over a little while later.
"The best," smiled Posner, sweetly.
Scripps had no better a time than Posner. He knew very few people at the party, and all those he did know, he only knew vaguely through Dakin. He spent most of the evening in a corner with Posner. They spoke surprisingly little about Dakin, but Posner kept staring in his direction.
"Why can't I stop looking at him?" Posner asked at last.
"It's because he's flirting with everything in sight."
Dakin was a short distance away, trying to eliminate the personal space between him and yet another woman.
"Maybe he's trying to make me jealous," Posner smiled at this happy thought.
Scripps shook his head, "Why are you in love with him? That is to say, I know why you like him - he's my best friend, I should know. But to love him? To be honest, I wouldn't say he's worth the effort."
"He is, though, somehow. If I had any choice in the matter, I think I'd still love him."
"You can do so much better than that, though."
Posner turned his head, resting it on the wall. He gave Scripps a long, questioning look.
"Honestly," Scripps said, looking away, "There has to be better for you than that."
That was the last Scripps said on the matter. They went back to talking of other things - professors, lectures, poetry, home. It all found a place somewhere during the evening. After a while, Posner even quit his vigil on Dakin. While they were talking together, Scripps noticed, for the first time, that he hadn't been very happy during the past few months. Yet with Posner he felt incredibly content. He didn't pay the thought much attention, but it lingered for the rest of the evening. Or at least until Dakin returned to them a couple of hours later.
He'd had a good deal too much to drink. Diana had abandoned him for someone more sober and interesting. However, he explained to his friends, she had let him feel her up - so it hadn't been a wasted evening. He sat heavily on the floor, perfectly content.
"I wish I could have your sunny outlook," said Posner. Dakin had sat right up against him, and he didn't trust himself to say much more. He blushed as Dakin adjusted himself, rubbing against his leg in the process. Dakin closed his eyes.
"Don't you think we should be getting back to your place?" asked Scripps, hoping that Dakin was still awake, "The train leaves at nine in the morning. You're going to be shattered anyway."
Dakin murmured something incomprehensible. Then he said more clearly, "'Sfine. I don't even want to go. Let's just stay here for Christmas."
Posner and Scripps exchanged looks and sat down beside him. Dakin, eyes still closed, got the feeling that they were humouring him whilst they worked out a way to get him back to his own room.
"Really. Just leave me here. I don't want to go back to that fucking place," Dakin snapped.
"You have to go home," Posner pointed out gently, "What would you tell your family? You're just drunk now. You'll feel better in the morning."
"I'm not going," Dakin said, stubborn and irritable. He leant his head forward and then brought it back against the wall. "I'm an idiot. An idiot and a shit. God, I thought I wasn't bothered. But it's Irwin, isn't it? What if I see him again? What if he's still at Cutler's?"
"It won't be that bad," said Scripps, trying his best to console, "What are you worried about?"
Dakin shook his head and mumbled, "I just don't want to see him, that's all." He looked up at Posner, "I'm sorry."
That was all he said. He drew himself up and leaned his face close to Posner's. With a jolt of shock, Posner realised that he was about to kiss him. Posner took hold of both Dakin's shoulders and pushed him back. Dakin laughed and said, again, "Sorry."
Soon after that, Dakin fell asleep.
Dakin's head lay in Posner's lap. Beside him, Scripps shifted uncomfortably. The party had disbanded long ago, but they had been left there, as if nobody had known quite what to do with them.
"He was going to kiss you."
"You did the right thing. I know it hurts, but he was probably thinking of Irwin, he didn't mean it…"
"Shut up," Posner shouted. Dakin lurched against Posner without waking up. Scripps realised that this might be the first time he had heard Posner raise his voice. In all the time they had known each other. "I know he didn't mean it - I fucking know, all right? Just sh-shut up."
Scripps panicked as soon as he heard the sob break in Posner's throat. He wanted to do something. His arm wanted to reach around Posner's shoulders and offer some comfort. He wanted to help. But the panic kept him still.
He just sat there in silence until Posner stopped crying.
Somehow they all made it onto the train. Posner and Scripps with mild hangovers; Dakin still quite drunk. Despite the residue, it felt almost as if the previous night had been a fast disappearing nightmare. Still, sometimes Scripps would catch Posner's eye. Posner would smile at him and Scripps would realise, again, how unhappy Posner seemed.
At around midday they stumbled tiredly off the train. It was a 1940s monochrome sort of world that they stepped into, Posner thought. Washed with dull colour, like the old films they showed on the television, where someone had tried to colour in the original shades of grey.
Dakin immediately wandered towards the exit. Posner, though, stood on the platform and, through some instinct, groped for a hand to hold. He caught Scripps'. Scripps let Posner take it with no more recognition than an awkward twitch of his head. Posner looked down at their clasped hands and, seeing what he had done, released Scripps, apologising and laughing.
But by the time he had let go, the feelings inside Scripps had fallen irretrievably together. He realised, with some trepidation, what he wanted to do.
Scripps leant towards Posner and kissed him.