21:30 – Prelude (I Know You)
This is gonna be a heavy night / way too many drinks, ain’t even started / Never need to apologise / we already know we’re far from perfect
Ollie drummed along to the rhythm of the city. He hadn’t realised how much he’d miss the myriad of sounds until he found himself camped out in the silent desert in the dead of night. There was a comfort in being back and hearing life rattle around him like nothing had changed. The rat-atta-cha, of a train clattering on the tracks. Rat-atta-cha, rat-atta-cha, rat-atta-cha. Wings of pigeons rustling as they swooped to peck crumbs off the ground. Footsteps shuffling, heels and flats clickety-clacking as people hurried across the platform. Rat-atta-cha, ruffle, click. Rat-atta-cha, rustle, clack. Ollie leant back on a bench on a platform for the overground line, losing himself in the sounds of the city. A train emptied its passengers and they parted around Ollie like a stream around a rock, their conversations and hustling, bustling sounds added to the cacophony in his mind. He let the sounds build and clash together like a chaotic symphony, until – as always – they began to mutate into the ack-ack-ack of machine gun fire, and the whistling boom of mortars.
“No.” He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on individual sounds separating them. That was the train leaving. That was a car horn. A bird. A bike. Footsteps approaching, and stopping.
“Ollie? Ollie Green?”
A figure stood over him, silhouetted against the sunlight filtering through onto the platform. Ollie squinted, trying to place him, until the man took a step forwards into the shade and his face came into focus.
“Good to see you man, it’s been a while.”
Ollie was overcome with a strange sensation, he recognised the man before him, but his familiarity felt distant. He’d known Levi – known him very well – they’d been close friends at high school, but everything before Sandhurst, before the war, seemed like a distant memory; like something that had happened to someone else, or something he’d read about in a book. He remembered Levi, but he didn’t know him.
“Last I heard you were oversees, fighting for queen and country. When did you get back?”
“Few months ago.” Ollie replied automatically. It had been longer than that now though, he couldn’t remember exactly. The last few months were a haze of depressed darkness. He had very little recollection of what had happened since he returned home. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure why he was sitting on the platform; was he going somewhere?
“I heard what happened to Frankie. That’s rough – must’ve been horrible.”
Ollie’s throat seized up. He couldn’t even nod.
Clearly sensing that he’d strayed into dangerous territory Levi deftly changed the subject. “I’m heading out for drinks with some of the guys from Glenbrook – do you remember Nick and Stuart? – Want to come? They’d be stoked to see you.”
Stoked. Ollie wasn’t sure anyone was ever stoked to see him anymore. Not since Frankie. Not since…
He dragged a hand through his hair, shaking out his sandy blonde curls and forcing the bad memories from his mind. He could definitely use a drink, and it wasn’t like he had anywhere else to be. He smiled, hoping Levi wouldn’t notice that it didn’t reach his eyes, and unfolded himself from the bench. It was all too easy to slip into the charming, bubbly persona which had carried him through life thus far. He looped his arm around Levi’s shoulder and together they loped out of the station, cutting through the streets of London like they had in the good old days.
The sun slipped behind the buildings, setting the sky on fire with a majestic burst of pink clouds. Static hung in air with the threat of a thunderstorm and the city felt tightly wound, like a coiled spring or a loaded gun just waiting for a spark. Brexit Party flyers crunched under their shoes and a few steps later they passed graffiti bemoaning climate change, foretelling the end of the world in floodwater and fires. As they walked, Levi filled Ollie in with everything he’d been up to since Glenbrook: English at Leeds, followed by a Masters when he couldn’t think of anything better to do, a couple of years of traveling, months of job searching, and finally saving up enough to move out his parents house and into a shitty little flat in Brixton. It was nice to hear about a normal life, if a little surreal to think of all the things he could have been doing instead of learning how to kill, and pulling his friends from fiery wrecks of bombed out tanks. No. Ollie pushed that thought from his mind and focused on Levi. On his mop of dark hair which he still hadn’t managed to tame all these years later, on the slight bulge of his arms which had filled out under his shirt, and on the five o’clock shadow that crept along his jaw. He nattered about the merits of taking the bus rather than the tube from his new place, and his eyes sparkled when he weighed up the pros and cons of trying to cycle to work. Ollie wasn’t really paying attention to what he was saying, but it was a pleasant distraction to just listen to the musical cadence of Levi’s voice. He’d always had such a lovely way with words.
They came to the bar Levi was heading for, flashed the bouncers their ID, and slipped inside; instantly overwhelmed by loud music and liquor tainted air. The sounds clashed together in Ollie’s mind: the dun-dun of the bass line and the rhythmic thud of the beat. For a moment it threatened to drown his mind, until Levi grabbed the sleeve of Ollie’s dark green jacket and pulled him towards a booth at the side of the room.
Nick and Stuart hadn’t changed a bit. A little older, but none the wiser. They’d been Ollie’s first platoon, his first squadron, and it was all too easy to fall in step beside them once again. Soon the drinks and banter were flowing and Ollie felt more at ease than he had in a long time. Nick was a doctor now, if you could believe it, and Stuart worked in finance, handling obscene amounts of money on a daily basis. They chatted for a bit about their current lives, but their conversation kept returning to Glenbrook and the stupid shenanigans they’d got up to in high school.
“Do you remember when you set the fume cupboard on fire in Mr Griffith’s chemistry lab?” Stuart asked Ollie, laughing.
“That’s an exaggeration, slightly,” Ollie slurred. “I didn’t set the whole fume cupboard on fire.”
“Yes you did!” Nick laughed. “Oh Christ, I’d forgotten that.”
“You dipped a lit splint into the – oh what was it – ethylene or something flammable, and knocked the bottle over, which spilled this burning liquid all over the bottom of the cupboard and – whoosh – up it went in flames.” Levi added, nearly crying with laughter at the memory.
“And do you remember Mr Griffiths? Flapping to try and put it out?”
“Didn’t he have a cast or something at the time?”
“Yes! A bandage on his arm that caught fire until that prefect, what was her name?”
“Yeah, Mable, got the fire extinguisher and put it out. Oh god. So funny.”
The three of them fell about laughing. Ollie forced a smile, though it was more of a grimace. He saw it all in his mind; Mr Griffiths’ bandage burning as he screamed for help. Frankie howling in pain, his clothes burning right off his body. The stench of burning, the sickening smell of burnt human flesh. A waitress walked past their booth with a tray of chicken wings for a table across the bar. The smell reached Ollie and he retched, sick to his stomach.
“’scuse me.” He sipped out of the booth and pushed his way to the bathroom, fighting through crowds of merry drinkers and people queuing (“Oi, mate!”) until he crashed through a stall door and threw up in the toilet.
“Put it out. Put it out. Help me. I’m going to die.”
“No you’re not, Frankie. Help’s coming. They’ll be here soon. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m going to die.”
“Help’s coming. Stay with me, Frankie. Stay with me.”
Ollie flushed the toilet and stood on shaky legs before stumbling to clean himself up in the sink. He rinsed his mouth with water, spitting the bitter taste of vomit down the drain, and splashed handfuls of cold water over his face. Bracing his hands either side of the basin he stared at his reflection, almost not recognising the face staring back at him. He looked gaunt and tired, his high cheek bones even more prominent above sunken cheeks. He’d lost his tan and his skin looked pale and sallow under the bright lights of the bar bathroom. He grabbed a hand towel to dry himself off and ruffled his hair back into looking artfully dishevelled rather than just dishevelled. God, he needed a drink.
By the time he returned to the booth laden with another round of drinks (including two additional shots for himself) the others had been joined by a guy in a yellow t-shirt. He looked Greek, or maybe Indian, with curling dark hair and a scrub of beard on his chin. He grinned at Ollie as he approached the table and slid the drinks into the centre.
“Sorry,” Ollie faltered, “I didn’t get you anything.”
“S’alright, I don’t drink.” The guy beamed. “I used to, don’t get me wrong. God knows the medics always threw the best bar crawls at uni, I don’t think there was a weekend in first year when I didn’t have a hangover that lasted until Wednesday. Hangovers are the absolute worst, though. Nothing takes the edge off a hangover. That’s why I prefer cocaine.” He laughed, they all did, not sure if he was joking or not.
“Ollie this is Blaine, a fellow doctor.” Nick introduced him. “Ollie just got back from a tour in – where were you again?”
“Which unit?” Blaine asked, without waiting for a reply. “Got a mate out there serving as a medic. God the tales he tells. Sounds like hell. Not sure I could cope with it to be honest, I can’t even stand a night shift in A&E. We had a motorbike accident in yesterday, right? Guy hadn’t been wearing leathers and the skin had just been scraped off the whole of his left side. I’m not even meant to be on rotation in the emergency room, but cuts, you know, we’re understaffed and everyone else was tied up with these kids that had stabbed each other, so I got the page and –” he was off, talking a mile a minute, filling the silence and regaling them all with terrible tales. Ollie sat back, content to listen.
He was pleasantly buzzed, the lights and sounds of the bar blurred; soft at the edges. For a moment, just for an instant, Olllie felt okay. If he could stretch that moment and ride it through until morning he would. If he could freeze that instant where nothing hurt and his mind was balanced between calm and chaotic, he’d live in it for an eternity.
Of course it had to end. Things always did.
“Last orders!” The bar tender shouted over the din of the music. Ollie was surprised to find it was gone twelve.
“That’s our cue to go home.” Stuart drained the last of his pint.
“But it’s only quarter past midnight! The night is young!” Blaine protested. “We’re just getting started.”
“Nah, I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Bullshit, I know your schedule, Nick – you’re not in until 3, you can have another drink, or two.”
“Where? All the good places are closing. I’m not going clubbing.”
“God, no. Not a club. Not with their overpriced drinks, sticky floors, uninspired music, sweaty crowds, horrendous toilets, and drunken idiots trying fuck you or fight you. No, we’re not clubbing.”
“Then where? I’m not drinking under a bridge again with you, Goldberg, we’re not nineteen anymore.”
“A house party! I’ve got mates in the eastend who throw a big fuck off party every Friday night. There’s, like, 6 of them all in a giant townhouse and it always slaps, you know?”
“I’m not crashing a house party.”
“You’re not crashing. I’m inviting you. I was heading there anyway until I ran into you guys.”
Nick and Stuart shared dubious looks. Blaine gave up on them and turned to Ollie.
“C’mon, you look like a man up for a laugh, you coming?”
Ollie considered. He certainly wasn’t ready to go home just yet. “Yeah, sounds fun.”
“And what about you, Billy Jeans?” Blaine directed at Levi. Levi glanced at Ollie for affirmation before shrugging.
“Yeah, alright. Drink life to the lees, and all that.”
“Oh, fucking hell, you’ve twisted my arm.” Nick groaned.
Blaine gave a delighted ‘whoop’ before extracting himself from the booth. “Uber’s on me!” he shouted and disappeared towards the door.
“That guys a lunatic,” Levi laughed. “You sure he’s a doctor?”
“Best in our intake,” Nick shrugged. “Don’t know how he does it.”
“Crashing a house party in the eastend, what could possibly go wrong?” Stuart sighed and drained the last of Nick’s drink which he’d left sitting on table.
Yellow (Blaine Goldberg) - Junior Doctor who took a frightening amount of drugs to get through the day and had accidentally killed someone, somehow.
Green (Oliver Green) - Soldier who heard the rythym and beat in everything, back from a war and very troubled about something which had happened out there.
Red (Rosie Flanagan) - Woman with OCD who struggled with intimacy, talking about sex / cleaning with a mess of innuendos and was clearly reeling from relationship problems in her recent past.
Chapter 2: 00:15 - Quarter Past Midnight
00:15 – Quarter Past Midnight
It’s a quarter past midnight as we cut through the city / the streets are getting restless, good times bad decisions
Rosie Flanagan was kicked out of the bar she’d been hiding in. She’d lingered as long as she could, watching the couples leave together with a sick jealousy in her stomach, as she sat at the bar alone. She nursed her drink, stretching it as long as she could whilst the wait staff began to clean the place around her. It was just gone midnight, when did bars start closing so early? She wasn’t half as drunk as she wanted to be, just tipsy enough to ignore the voice in the back of her mind that screamed about the sticky state of the bar and the grubby underside of the tables. She took another sip of what was basically melted ice water now, and screwed her eyes closed against the impulse to snatch the cloth off the bartender and give the place a proper scrub down; god knows it needed it.
“You need to leave now, Miss.” The bar tender told her. She opened her eyes to look at him. He was tall and thickly built. Tattoos wound up his arms and disappeared under his back t-shirt to reappear on his neck. His hair was ginger and swept into a high wave. He had wide holes in his ears rimmed by thick black tunnels. “We’re closing.” He added when Rosie made no attempt to move. His arms looked strong and for a moment she allowed herself to fantasize about what it would feel like to be held in hands like that, hands that could probably span the small of her back without difficulty. But the thought was quickly chased by how dirty his hands must be from handling dirty glasses all evening and wiping down the sticky bar top. Her stomach rolled. “Miss?” He reached to help her down off the stool and she flinched, backing away from the contact.
“I’m going, I’m going,” she mumbled, her words slurred together. Maybe she was more drunk than she thought. It still wasn’t enough. She wove her way across the floor, glad she was wearing pumps and not heels, and fought her way through a maze of bar stools to find the front door. It was still warm outside. The sun had long set but the neon lights that blazed above the bar made everything look bright. She’d barely made it a few steps from the place before the lights clicked off, plunging everything into near darkness. Without glancing back, she set off walking into the night. She didn’t have a destination in mind, she only knew that she wasn’t going home. She couldn’t face going back. There were too many memories crowded in her apartment. Places where they’d kissed, where they’d touched and…she shuddered. No. She couldn’t go home.
Somewhere must still be open at this hour. It wasn’t even that late. She only wanted to stay out drinking until she forget her problems, was that too much to ask?
She found herself stumbling along by a canal and climbed up onto a bridge than spanned it. Stopping in the middle, she leaned over to look into the murky water below. Moonlight glanced off the gentle ripples and gleamed multicolour from the oil slick that clung to the edges. No waterways in London were free from pollution. The thought made her unspeakably sad. Humans wrecked everything. She was no different. Her whole life was falling apart and in that moment she wanted to end it all. It would be so easy to climb up onto the edge and jump; only the fall was far too little to do any damage. She’d just end up swimming in the grimy polluted water, and that thought was enough to make her shrink back from the edge and hurry further into the night.
She could hear music pumping from somewhere. If she’d followed it she might find like minded people, people with alcohol whose only intention was to burn the night away. If she stayed awake forever then tomorrow would never come, that was how tomorrows worked, right? If only she could prevent the onset of tomorrow, then she’d be free of consequences. Then everything would be okay.
Ollie and Levi stumbled out of the bar, feeling a lot more lightheaded than anticipated.
“God, that last drink really hit me,” Stuart mumbled, teetering on the edge of the pavement.
It was a warm summer’s night and the sky still wasn’t fully dark: a deep sapphire blue shot with a smudge of orange light pollution that rose up from the horizon. The fresh air hit Ollie like a wave and he wobbled before Levi thrust out a hand to steady him.
“Where’s Blaine buggered off to?” Nick was asking, scanning up and down the street.
“Guys! Guys!” Blaine yelled at them from further down the road trying to get their attention, it was a loud whistle from him that finally did it. They turned to stare at the source of the sound and saw Blaine chasing down a black cab that had stopped at a traffic light. So much for an Uber.
“Oh hell no. I’m not running,” Stuart groaned, but the others were already off, jogging after the taxi with reckless abandon. Ollie felt the rush of joy that came from running through the night without a care in the word. Wind whipped through his hair and street lights blurred past as his feet pounded on the pavement. The others were left for dust in his wake as his army training kicked in and he sprinted – heart racing – lungs heaving – to catch up with Blaine. He fell, breathless, into the back seat and plastered his forehead against the cold glass as he waited for his breathing to level out. Levi slumped beside him a few long moments later, wheezing from the effort.
“Fuck, you’ve got some legs on you.” He muttered, tipping his head back against the headrest. His chest heaved, rising and falling in mesmeric movements. His throat was bared, the little hollow at the base of his throat glistened with traces of sweat. Ollie swallow a lump in his throat and went back to staring out of the window.
Nick and Stuart scrambled into the jump seats facing them as Blaine shouted, “Hackney Wick!” to the driver, and then they were off; driving into the night to somewhere unknown. Had he been thinking clearly, Ollie might have thought that following a stranger to a crazy house party on the other side of London was a pretty bad idea. But he hadn’t been thinking clearly for the last few years, and – hell – it wasn’t the worst decision he’d ever made.
Blaine got chatting to the driver – Ollie was beginning to realise the guy never stopped talking – and soon the radio was thrumming quietly through the speakers. The music washed over Ollie with soft beats and pleasant melodies that he largely ignored. The station must have been playing an eighties programme, churning out reams of songs Ollie vaguely recollected. A clash of guitar chords were followed by a high pitched synth melody and Blaine shouted, “Oh, tune!” with a gleeful screech. “Turn it up!”, he instructed, before he sunk into a deep crooning voice; “love, love will tear us apart, again.”
Blaine had a lovely voice despite the soft kick Nick aimed at him across the back of the cab. He knew every word, even the low mumbled ones Ollie had never managed to catch. When he started singing along with the instrumentals the others finally relented and even Ollie found himself shouting the lyrics along with the others. They paused at a red light and Blaine wound down the window to serenade a group of girls walking between bars. One of them told him to fuck off in a heavily northern accent whilst the rest of them giggled at him.
Levi laughed and Ollie found himself laughing along. It was pleasant. Relaxed. Ollie let his mind go blissfully blank and went back to watching London flit passed the taxi window in dreamlike blur.
Chapter 3: 00:48 - Bad Decisions
00:48 - Bad Decisions
Love me, leave me, rhythm of the evening, chasing a good time / London’s burning, if the world is ending, let’s stay up all night
Ollie forgot that the cab was actually heading somewhere and was surprised when they pulled up in front of a row of terraced houses in a rather dilapidated corner of London. A building down the street was nothing but an empty shell – roof open to the night with the moon framed in an empty window on the upper floor. Logically he knew it must have been a construction site, a building part way through being torn down, but it looked eerily similar to the multitude of bombed out building he’d seen in the desert. It reminded him of photos from the blitz and if he let his imagination wander, he could picture what the rest of modern London would look like after a heavy round of artillery fire. He could even smell the smoke, before he realised people were sitting on the curb sharing a cigarette.
“C’mon,” Levi pulled Ollie from his reverie and led him up the steps of the townhouse. It was four storeys tall with windows in the roof and a raised parapet that almost formed a balcony if you were brave, or reckless, enough. His grandparent’s house had the same, Ollie remembered sneaking up there for a smoke whenever he’d been forced to visit. Multi-coloured light spilled from the windows and the place was thrumming with a bassline. American teen movies, eat your heart out, Ollie thought as he and Levi followed Blaine up the porch steps and into the house. Bodies ground against each other pressed up against the wall in the hallway and there was a constant stream of people running up and down the stairs. They found another couple making out on the sofa in the living room, oblivious to the crowd of people dancing around them. The kitchen had been stock piled with alcohol of every different kind along with mountains of plastic cups and trays of quickly melting ice. Ollie helped himself to a rum and coke and sat himself up on the counter. Blaine was already halfway through regaling a pair of girls with a hospital miracle and Stuart had found someone to argue politics with already; you couldn’t take him anywhere. Nick disappeared to take a leak and Levi ended up nursing his drink and staring at Ollie.
“What?” Ollie eventually demanded when he couldn’t take it any longer.
“Nothing.” But he didn’t look away. “You just never used to be one for sitting and drinking in the kitchen at parties.”
Flashes of high school dance parties – the memories that lingered beyond the haze of being black-out drunk – swam to the front of Ollie’s mind: dancing on the dining room table; downing pints of dirty punch on a dare; holding court with Levi in the garden, never quite sure why people clamoured to be around them as much as they did. Ollie wasn’t that kid anymore. Any trace of him had died the moment Ollie realised his training hadn’t just been abstract survival skills, that he was out there to kill or be killed. But there was a challenging tone to Levi’s remark, and when Levi smiled with a mischievous glint in his eyes, Ollie desperately wanted to be that kid again – if only for a night.
“You mean you’ve been missing my dance moves?” he arched and eyebrow and planted his foot on the counter, standing upright so that his head brushed against the ceiling. “I still got moves.” he swayed his hips from side to side watching as Levi’s face lit-up with a delighted grin. “They used to call me Drumstick in the army, but I always wanted them to call me Snakehips,” he grinned back, spinning on his heels and moonwalking as far as the sink. He almost toppled and fell, but caught onto a cupboard for support.
“Drumstick? That cause of your incessant habit of drumming on everything?” Levi teased.
That and he’d once eaten an entire trayful of chicken drumsticks in the canteen. He couldn’t stand the taste of them anymore though, not since Frankie.
“Least I got rhythm,” Ollie gave a little tap shuffle to the beat of whatever grime song was blasting from the speakers in the living room.
“You’ve got something, alright.” Levi chuckled into his cup. Ollie didn’t ask what he meant by that, his attention was slipping as the drinks finally went to his head – that and the combination of dancing around in dizzying circles on the counter-top. He hopped down before he could fall and let his head stop spinning for a moment.
“I need a piss,” he decided, realising only as he spoke how true that was, and pushed his way through the crowded living room back to the stairs. He fought off one lady asking if he’d seen her friend, and side stepped a woman in a red dress who looked like she was trying to polish the hall mirror.
Rooms branched off the landing in every direction, it took a moment for Ollie to find his bearings and he stumbled into two occupied bed rooms before he found the bathroom. There was something about the action of going to the toilet that made you realise how drunk you really are, Ollie mused as he tried to piss into the toilet bowl. Maybe it was something to do with having to stand still and wondering why the room kept swaying around you, until you realised you’re the one that’s swaying. Without making too much mess, Ollie zipped up his fly and washed his hands in the sink. He didn’t even give his reflection a glance.
The second thing Ollie noticed about being just over the edge of tipsy, was how easy it was to lose your bearings and forget where you were headed. Rather than returning to the kitchen, Ollie wandered through the living room towards the second reception room at the back of the house. If it had been owned by more grown up people, it probably would have served as a dining room, but whoever lived here was using it as a home cinema. A projector was hooked up the ceiling plastering A Clockwork Orange silently across the back wall. Alex and his Droogs prowled along the marina above a couple furiously making out on a large purple beanbag on the floor. In the corner people swapped smoke rings and a couple more were loudly debating why the shining was the best horror movie ever made. They were shouting over the music and both seemed to be making the same point without listening to what the other was saying. Ollie turned to leave, when the couple on the bean bag rose for air and he was overcome with a shocking jolt of recognition.
“Laura?” Frankie’s finance. But that wasn’t Frankie, of course it fucking wasn’t. Frankie was dead.
“Ollie,” Laura stilled. A guilty look spread across her face. “It’s not what it looks like,”
“Of course not.” Ollie felt numb. He shook his head and pushed his way back to the living room, not sure what to do with the thoughts running rampant in his mind.
“Ollie.” Laura grabbed his arm and crowded him up against the wall. “Ollie, please,” but now that she’d caught up with him, she was at a loss for what to say. “He’s dead.”
“I know. Just seems a little soon to be moving on.” It was exactly the wrong thing to say. Shutters closed behind her eyes like robot going into kill mode. Anger flared from her and Ollie flinched back against the wall.
“Don’t, don’t you judge me, Ollie Green.” She snapped. He feared she might slap him. “You think this is moving on? This is barely holding it together! He’s dead. He isn’t ever coming back, and it kills me. I was supposed to be married by now. I was supposed to be settled. We were going to raise a family and build a life together and now it’s all gone. I feel so empty... I’m not even a widow. There’s no word for losing your fiancé.” Tears spilled down her cheeks and her voice cracked. It was heart-breaking to see her emotion pour out of her like that. “He was more than my boyfriend, he was my future. I miss him every cell in my body and I’m just so sick of being alone. I need someone to hold me,” she inched forwards until she was pressed right up against Ollie’s torso. “Touch me,” her hand brush across his hips towards his crotch.
“No.” Ollie gave a strangled yelp. “No. We can’t it’s a bad idea.” A terrible idea. This was Frankie’s fiancé, she was grieving - for god’s sake, so was he. But his body was already betraying him.
“You were his best friend, you knew him so well.”
“He’d want you to take care of me.”
“No. No he wouldn’t, not like this.” Ollie’s voice was lost at the back of his throat. Laura was hypnotic, mesmerising. Alcohol pumped through his veins and music filled his brain. It would have been so easy to give in and let the consequences be damned. Bad decisions were his forte. But Laura deserved better than this. “No, stop. You’ll regret this tomorrow.”
“I don’t give a damn about tomorrow. The world’s ending, Ollie. Look outside.” She arched into him, whispering into his jaw. “You only have to turn on the news to see we’re doomed. I planned my future and it got shot to hell. I’m done with thinking about the future. Don’t talk to me about fucking tomorrow, talk to me about fucking, tonight.” Her hand slid around the back of his neck and pulled his head forwards to clash her lips against his. He tried to resist, but he was drunk and human. The temptation to open his mouth and let her tongue slide into his was too strong. He arched into her and moaned as she sucked on his lower lip. It was her perfume that finally did it, the perfume she’d scented all of her letters to Frankie with. As she angled her head to force the kiss deeper, Ollie got a great waft of the fragrance – traces of coffee and flowers – and suddenly he was sitting on a cot in the army compound gently ribbing Frankie for receiving post to hide his own jealousy.
“No. This is wrong.” He pulled back and gently forced Laura away from him.
She glared at him, eyes like daggers. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong; that you came home and Frankie didn’t.”
Her words were like a splash of ice water across his face; a piece of shrapnel to the thigh. They cut Ollie to the core. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember how to breathe.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, but when he opened his eyes, she was gone.
Chapter 4: 01:22 - The Waves
01:22 - The Waves
Suddenly we’re falling through the twilight zone / watch the party playing out in slow motion / is it an apocalypse of nihilism on your lips? We sink or swim
Ollie slid down the wall and dropped his head between his knees. The truth was she was absolutely fucking right. Frankie should never have been the one to die.
They’d been moving troops and supplies back to base, travelling in convoy. Three armoured vehicles. Ollie and their XO were meant to be travelling up front. But that would have put all of their commanding officers in one vehicle – and that made no tactical sense. What if they’d had to regroup or faced an attack on the road? He reasoned that it made more sense for him to travel further back. Frankie volunteered to take his place. They were a few clicks short of their destination when a mortar strike took out the lead vehicle.
Ollie had acted on autopilot, ordering his troops out of the tank to find cover as he sprinted towards the head of the convoy. He’d expected to engage with enemy troops, instead he found his best friend stumbling towards him; the clothes burnt from his body, his skin on fire.
“Put it out. Put it out. Help me. I’m going to die.”
He should have been the one in that vehicle and Frankie, god bless him, Frankie, with his fifties quiff, cool-bad boy vibes and charming smile for everyone, Frankie should have come home to marry Laura.
Feeling numb, Ollie glanced up to watch the party play out around him. Everyone was oblivious to his pain and no one questioned another drunk sitting in a heap on the floor. A pair of trendy combat - boots that would have been worse than fucking useless in actual combat - stepped over him to reach the laptop sitting on the pair of speakers in the corner.
“Enough of this indie shit, mate, we need some floor fillers.” The guy complained. “It’s twenty past one, people are flagging.”
“Fine. You choose.”
Ollie listened to them argue bac and forth until they settled on a playlist and the opening notes of Praise You began to pulse into the room. It drew people like a magnet; they flooded in the from the kitchen and the hall way, and Ollie had to stand up to stop himself from being trampled on. By the time the beat dropped people were twirling and jumping, sashaying around the room with their best drunken moves. He nodded along, hips swaying in time to the music. He couldn’t deny that the song was tune. It still was. He wouldn’t let the song get taken from him like so many other things had. So what if it had been their go-to song to blast through the stereo in the army. So what if it had been playing when Frankie got hit?
Ollie threw himself into dancing, letting the music wash over him like waves. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the crowd, in the sweat, in the dark, in the smoke. It was still a good song, he tried to tell himself; throwing his arms above his head and releasing his inhibitions into the night. It was still a good song. We've come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good.
“Put it out, put it out.”
When Ollie couldn’t lie to himself anymore, he fled the room from the room; seeking solace under the night sky.
Levi’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Feeling heavy limbed, he fished it from his jeans and squinted, trying to focus on the screen. It wasn’t a text or a real notification, just another news update that he didn’t want. No matter how many times he tried to turn the notifications off, whatever settings he changed, his phone still insisted on keeping him up to date with all of the horrors in the world. Sabre-rattling in the Middle East. Fucking hell. He dismissed the notification without reading it – noting with surprise that it was gone 1am, where had the night disappeared to? – and stuffed his phone back his jeans with annoyance. Why wasn’t it ever good news? Forget a handcart, the world was going to hell in a freight train. One day his phone was going to ping with a notification that North Korea had sent nuclear missiles heading their way and he wasn’t even going to be surprised. He topped up his cup with another slosh of vodka, sure there was still some coke in the bottom somewhere, and glanced around the kitchen for a conversation to latch onto. Ollie still hadn’t returned from the bathroom. Stuart was arguing with someone about the latest developments in the tory leadership race and Nick was propped up against the wall, practically nodding off into his beer. Really not in the mood to talk politics, Levi slipped around the kitchen table and out into the garden. The sky was a dark as it ever got that time of year; with the lights from London and the party behind him blotting out any hope of seeing the stars.
He found Blaine sitting on a patio table, smoking a joint and keeping up a constant stream of conversation to someone sat beside him who was mindlessly scrolling through their phone and looking they weren’t listening to a word Blaine was saying.
“Billy Jeans,” Blaine greeted him with a smile and held out the joint. Levi shrugged – why the hell not – and took a drag. He choked a little on the smoke, much to Blaine’s amusement; and tried to remember when the last time he’d been high. It had been a good few years since he’d let himself cut loose like this. It felt nice. He needed an escape, from the stress of worrying about the future, from the perpetual bad news. He sat one of the patio chairs and handed the joint back to Blaine. They passed it back and forth until it burnt down to nothing, and Levi tipped his head back waiting to feel the effects, letting it carry him off into an almost meditative state.
The music kicked up a gear inside, changing from deep rocky tunes to loud electronic beats. A group of people who had been stargazing on the lawn pulled each other to their feet and hurried inside, already dancing and singing along as they went. Levi found his foot tapping along and his brain picked up on the subtler instruments and backing melodies of the song that he’d never noticed before. Blaine was still nattering away, so Levi forced himself to focus on what he was saying, quickly realising that he was expounding on his daily litany of drugs. Clearly the crack about cocaine hadn’t been a joke. Levi was engrossed as Blaine listed the pills he took to bring him up and the one he used to slow himself down; the careful routine of substances time almost to the minute. Levi had to remind himself that this guy was a doctor. People’s lives were in his hands on a daily basis and from the sounds of it, he wasn’t ever not high.
“Don’t you worry about making a mistake?” the words were out of Levi’s mouth before he could think on the wisdom of saying them.
“Dude, I take drugs so I don’t make mistakes.” Blaine laughed at him. “You try getting through a fourteen hour shift and still being alert at the end of it.
“You drink coffee?”
“Yeah. ‘course.” Levi found himself laughing; what an idiotic question.
“You’re useless without it, right?” Blaine smirked. “Did you know that caffeine is a poison? Plants developed it as a way to protect themselves from being eaten. Then humans come and along and began to chow down on it every morning. But because it’s socially acceptable, no one sees the problem with our entire workforce dependent upon a toxin that was developed to kill would-be consumers.”
Levi didn’t know what to say. It was true, what made caffeine and alcohol more socially acceptable than other mind altering substances?
“You ever made a mistake because you were too hopped up on caffeine?” Blaine asked.
“You ever made one because you hadn’t had your coffee yet? You work in marketing right? Ever send the wrong email, post the wrong update, order the wrong quantity of something?”
Levi blanched. He’d issued the wrong invoice to a customer last week because he was half asleep, waiting for this coffee to brew. How did Blaine know?
“It’s the same for me. I just rely on stronger toxins. So thank you for the insinuation that I don’t know how to do my fucking job. I’d like to see you cope with the things I deal with on a daily basis. I’d like to see you pull yourself out of bed looking down the barrel of a double-shift when you’re the only doctor on call – even though you’re still a junior doctor, you’re going to be the most senior person in that hospital and your call will the final decision. It could be the balance between someone living and dying and it will all. Be. On. You.” Blaine stared at him. Levi wanted to look away but there was a vulnerability behind his eyes that Levi couldn’t ignore. A fleeting expression of fear and regret crossed his face before he thrust an arm out behind him to lean back on and plastered a stoic, determined look on his face once more.
“There was something.” He spoke quietly, almost to himself. “On the train home from a helluva long shift. I’d been covering the maternity ward. Short staffed as always. The resident doctor was doing an emergency c-section so I was in charge. The woman was screaming, screaming, in pain. Something was wrong, very wrong.” He swallowed a dry lump in his throat and wet his lips, gathering his thoughts before he continued. Levi wasn’t sure he wanted to be listening anymore. He wasn’t sure it was a question he’d ever wanted answering. But he couldn’t pull himself away. “The baby was breech. It was a difficult labour. Everything was upside down and backwards. I panicked. I froze. The baby wasn’t crying, why wasn’t the baby crying? The mother just kept screaming and screaming and the nurses didn’t know what to do either. They kept asking me. Everyone was looking to me. Why wasn’t the baby crying? I held it in my hands, this tiny creature, turning blue, not crying.” Blaine stared at his hands. Levi was almost certain that Blaine had forgotten he was there. “Not breathing. The mother’s screams echoed around the room but the baby was silent. I think I shouted for it to cry. To just fucking cry, god-damn-it! Then, finally, the most beautiful sound in the world. It began to wail. I’ve never felt relief like it. Even a hit doesn’t come close, though I’ll chase it – I keep chasing the high that comes from knowing they’re going to live; they’re going to be okay. Bloody hell.” He dragged a hand through his hair and shook his head. “A shift like that, it takes something stronger than the regular stuff, you know?”
Levi really didn’t, but he nodded anyway, scared to say anything that might break the trance Blaine was in. He seemed determined to talk and Levi was determined to listen. He’d always been good at listening.
“I had a three day weekend to look forward to and I needed to blow off steam in style. Not wanting to waste a moment away from the hospital I took a hit on the train home. Ketamine. Something special my cousin cooked up for me. Real strong stuff. It was just the ticket. I sat back waiting for it to hit when my pager goes off. Ah, hell. I panic. I’ve got this really ugly ringtone, proper 90’s shit, so no one else will have the same tone? Because it proper scares me when I hear it go off. Trigger warning, you know. I thought – shit – they’re calling me back. But before I could fumble for my pager, this guy opposite takes out his phone to answer it and I realise, with such a heady rush of relief, that it wasn’t mine after all. God. It was bliss. Better than an orgasm. I can tell you. Why that business guy had the same shitty ringtone I’ll never know. Because the guy goes and collapses moments later. He just goes down. Crumples in his nice suit and he’s lying there, gasping for air, dying in front of me. Of course, I know, I’m a doctor, I need to go and help. But I can’t move.” Blaine shivered and dropped his head forwards, leaning over the edge of the table with his hands gripping the edge, knuckles white. “I couldn’t move. Whatever he’d put in that ket had fucking anaesthetised me. I could see and hear everything in that train carriage as passengers crowded around him to ineptly help. They fumbled with his collar, someone tried to take his pulse, but no one started doing CPR, or phoning for help. And I was powerless to move. It was a nightmare. A literal waking nightmare. I screamed at them to get the defibrillator from he driver’s cabin. I yelled for them to start chest compressions. But no one heard me. I sat back and watched from inside my own mind as the guy died on the floor in front of me. So, yeah, okay. I killed someone. Because I was high. I’m meant to be a doctor. I’m meant to fucking save people and I let him die. You happy?” Blaine pushed himself off the table and squared up to Levi for a moment, towering over him with a feral look in his eyes, before he hurried back to the house and pushed his way roughly inside.
“Shit.” Levi was left sitting stunned. He didn’t even know where to begin to process what he’d heard. He drained his vodka and crushed the cup in his hand. His motions felt exaggerated; heightened and slowed-down at the same time. He stood, and found himself fascinated with the beauty of the garden; the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying in the breeze, the waxing gibbous moon, more than three quarters full, shining brightly with every crater, every dark patch standing out in sharp contrast. God his loved the sensory aspect of being high. But wait, he forced himself to focus, the drunken, marijuana tinged hazed tugged at the edges of his mind unhelpfully. Blaine. Levi knew he would forget most of what he’d heard by the morning - he was already forgetting now – he needed to go and find Blaine and reassure him, or at least warn Nick that Blaine needed someone to talk to. But by the time he’d even wandered over to Nick to broach the subject, it was already slipping from his mind.