We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.
("Auld Lang Syne," Robert Burns)
When I got back from Rushpool, I found myself thinking about Lesley a lot. Which was no surprise, really, since I’d thought about her a lot before I left, and, by virtue of our cat-and-mouse texting, I’d thought about her almost constantly while I was there.
None of it faded once I was back in London, though I was busy enough. Every once in a while, I’d even take out my phone and, without quite realizing what I was doing, stare at it like a lovesick teenager, waiting for a text that never came.
“Wanker,” Beverly would say gently. “Put that away. She’ll get in touch when she has something to say.” I almost wished she’d yell at me instead—get jealous, tell me to stop thinking about other girls, and give me a good row to take my mind off things. But it wasn’t like that—she knew it and I knew it—and anger, as we’d already established, doesn’t solve anything. So I took her kindness as the gift from a goddess it was and let her take my mind off things in other ways.
My mind kept circling back to New Year’s Eve, only eight or nine months ago, when we’d all—me, Nightingale, Dr. Walid, and Molly—been together at the Folly. Molly had prepared her usual dumbfounding spread, Nightingale and Dr. Walid had stood around like Edwardian gentlemen, we’d drunk champagne I’d only ever seen in the locked case at M&S, and watched the fireworks over the Thames. Lesley had arrived from Brightlingsea, a tiny gold star on her mask, where a beauty mark might have been. A charmed night, though not in the way I usually use that word. At the time, I’d thought it was the first of many. But it turned out to be a one-off.
It had been like the June Saturday my dad took me swimming at the Crystal Palace. I was a bit timid in the water, but he revealed himself to be a brilliant swimmer—goodness knows where he’d learned—and taught me how to do a flip turn, then rough-housed with me until we were both exhausted. “Can we go again next weekend?” I’d asked on the tube ride home, and he’d nodded. Or I thought he nodded, maybe I just imagined it, because the next Saturday morning he was back in bed, and my mum was shooing me out of the house to play with cousins, and we never went to the Crystal Palace again.
Anyway, morose reminiscences aside, the moral is: treasure your good times while they’re going on. Stay in the moment, as the self-help gurus like to say. You never know when change is going to sneak up behind you and knock you over the head with a police truncheon. Or a taser, as the case might be.
I think that’s why Nightingale kissed me when he said goodnight that night—something he’s never done before or since. These things are ephemeral, he might’ve been saying with that brush of his lips against my forehead —and that’s just the kind of word Nightingale would use. Who knows better than him what can be taken away in an instant?
Still, it was a gorgeous night, and I still felt a bit of a glow when I thought about it. It wasn’t the first New Year’s I spent with Lesley, and, to tell the truth, it might not have been the most fun. That honor probably belonged to a night long before we’d ever heard of magic, or river goddesses, or the fae. Though strangely enough, that night had involved masks, too.
We’d been called to some private function in Soho where a guest had got out of hand, hurling glasses and abuse at his fellow revelers, refusing to leave.
“Took your time, didn’t you?” said the very thin white woman who let us in. She was wearing a black bodysuit, black leggings and black spike heels. She had strips of yellow bunting tied around her torso, and a yellow headband in her black hair, from which sprouted two antennae.
“You’re the queen bee around here, I presume?” said Lesley, cool as ice, and only then did I realize it was a fancy dress party—I’d put her outfit down to the eccentricities of the idle rich. I stifled a giggle.
“Ha, ha,” the woman drawled. “Just get him out of here, please.”
The man in question had retreated to a corner of the function room. He seemed somewhat deflated by the time we got there, perhaps because the other guests had fled, leaving him without a target for his vitriol. The floor around him was ringed with broken glass. He was very tall, dark, and very drunk. He wore a glittery half-mask shaped like the wings of a butterfly and a turquoise column dress with surprisingly dainty matching mules. The lady’s clothing was clearly a special occasion thing and not habitual, because his grasp of staying upright in high heels was rudimentary at best. Which is to say, he was swaying like a willow in a gale, though that might’ve been the drink.
“Ooo,” he said, in a slurry baritone when we appeared. “Uniforms. Kinky.”
“Sir,” I tried. “These aren’t costumes.”
“Whatever you say, officer.” He smirked below the mask. “His and her outfits, eh? Can’t imagine what you two get up to at home. Can I play, too?”
Beside me, Lesley was having none of it. “Sir, you’ll have to come with me,” she said, stepping forward.
At which point, the man vomited all over her boots. But Lesley, and this was just one of the uncountable reasons I loved her, paid it no mind. She cuffed him, which proved the final blow to his precarious balance. He went over with an oof, and Lesley, without breaking her stony police stare for a moment said, “Right, rule is: you sick on them, you keep ‘em. I’ll take yours. You can have them back when someone springs you from the drunk tank.”
She flashed me one quick, brilliant grin when the shoes, amazingly, fit, and then hauled the poor sod away for booking.
That was only the beginning of a long and raucous night, but through it all, Lesley wore those ridiculous turquoise heels with her dark blues, and never missed a step.
Our New Year’s Eve at the Folly was too solemn, too shaded by Nightingale’s natural reserve (not to mention Molly’s silence), to compete that level of hilarity, but it glowed with a promise all its own.
After midnight, the radio started playing a ridiculous version of Auld Lang Syne as done by a boy band I couldn’t identify. Leslie gave an uncharacteristic giggle of pleasure, though, and tugged my sleeve. “Let’s dance,” she said.
For a few moments, we just swayed opposite each other, self-conscious under Dr. Walid’s gaze. Then I loosened up, the expensive Champagne bubbles finally hitting my synapses, and tried out a few of the turns and flourishes I usually only did in front of the mirror. Leslie laughed for real—not great for my ego, maybe, but I sound I’d been missing for months. I laughed too, and did an extra twirl for her.
After the boy band, the music shifted to a swing version of the same song—something that could’ve been part of Nightingale’s pre-war collection. I thought Leslie would sit down then, but she held out her hands instead. It took me a moment to realize it was an invitation, but when I did I stepped towards her and took one hand in mine, putting my other at her waist, her hand on my shoulder. Her body felt as strong and lithe as ever, despite her months of sick leave, and I realized with a pang how long it had been since I touched her. Neither of us knew how to swing dance, but we faked it with energy, twirling and dipping with a kind of mad energy. Leslie was a better dancer than me, so I let her lead. She wore black, patent leather boots that night, festive in the own way. But I kept thinking about those turquoise mules.
We danced for a long time, and every time I looked at her mask, adorned with that one gold star, I found myself pretending we were just at some fancy dress party. Soon, she’d take it off, I imagined, in my late night, bubbly haze, and underneath would be her face, her old face, the one we’d lost. We’d all go back to normal.
Normal. That’s where things went wrong, right there. Now, when I think of how much of Lesley I had then—her laugh in my ears, the feel of her body under the silky material of her blouse, the knowledge that there was someone in this world I was comfortable enough with to try out my lamest dance moves—and of how I could only think about what she’d lost, well, I want to take a branch to my former self like I did to that apple tree in Rushpool.
“What would you say to her?” Beverly asked, the next time she found me staring moodily at my mobile screen. “If you knew how to reach her?”
I thought hard, but I couldn't answer her. What could I say to Lesley that I hadn’t already said? What could I say to her that would get through?
I love you?, I thought, and even the thought was tentative. I couldn't bring myself to say the words aloud. They were like bubbles in champagne. Ephemeral.