I honestly thought you were going to kiss me, as we nestled together: the fire of building 32 engulfing the brickwork across the street - black smoke billowing into the empty sky. It was November, and there was a harsh chill to the air, despite the brightness and clarity of the day. The flames had blossomed during lunchtime, flourishing like the deadly, exotic bloom of a foreign flower. Winter had settled into the bones of the street long ago; all the other greenery falling into quiet senescence. The naked flames drew us to the window where we huddled together, entranced by the undulating striptease before us.
You were six years younger than me, though there was a seriousness and maturity in you that levelled the ground beneath us, our words and thoughts drawing us together near-seamlessly. We answered each other's questions with natural ease; completed one another's sentences. We hugged, we pecked one another's cheeks, we clutched at each other's arms - but never held hands.
The fire had already begun, when we met. It had been a long, difficult morning of juggling experiments, but you had summoned me to discuss something that "would sound too depressing to discuss over the phone." I wasn't sure what to feel when you approached, though the muted expectation patched between my ribs felt somehow justified.
"I don't want to be alone this evening," you began.
I wanted to answer, teasingly: is this some dorky way of asking me out? But something stopped me. Something held me back. Instead, I replied, more cautiously than normal: "why?"
Your answer had me toying with images from sentimental, coming-of-age movies. The kind with an inevitably bittersweet backing track: something Indy, perhaps. Streams of images fell upon me. You and I running barefoot through the sand on a cold winter's night, leaping into the impossibly cold waves and declaring that we were living: that we had lived, that we were alive.
That's what's meant to happen, when someone dies, right? Or when someone's about to.
When we're young, and there's an energy beneath our skin, and the youth and the fire and the life is stolen from another of our kind – isn't that what we're meant to do? Films say so. Books say so. Say we're meant to get angry. Get sad. Jump around like hooligans, perhaps, and assert our presence, our vitality, in the face of death.
Instead we sat awkwardly, in the small Chinese café we'd finally settled on, listening to voices in a Cantonese tongue, and watching rippling flames devouring Building 32 through the small window to our left. One of the waitresses told us it had begun by accident. I imagined a woman, smiling, tossing a sizzling pan into the sink whilst making breakfast – somehow producing a small chaos that had surged into a smouldering heat.
We discussed the people we'd lost. Oh, yes: we'd both lost others, and we've both lost young. Mine had been a childhood friend who'd succumbed to the idiocy of a junior doctor. Yours had been a recent buddy who'd been fooled by senior practitioners into thinking she'd beaten the cancer destroying her.
It should, perhaps, have been sad: but it wasn't, so much. Tears collected in both my eyes and yours, but we smiled, rather than cried. Took comfort in the oddities we'd derived from grief. You'd wound up in an abandoned farmer's field, fully suited from the funeral. I'd slunk off from school on the sly, clambering a fence into the church yard to say hello – or maybe goodbye – and had spent the next hour being entertained by a wonderfully friendly seagull.
We ate, and talked, and then sauntered around town: black smoke clinging to the air, visible everywhere our feet led us. We linked arms. Wound up in the university library, of all places; took coffee in the café and lingered in the stairwell between the fourth and fifth floor, gazing out at the flames. The city's voice began to grow, lights springing into consciousness below us. Years ago, this stairwell had been the same place I'd sat alone, thinking: a chemistry book in one hand, a poetry book in the other. You wrapped your arms around me, and nuzzled your head against my hair, but said nothing. We stood in silence, and watched.
We talked for a long time; talked about everything, anything. Building 32 was close to the library, yet far enough away to warrant safety. Rain pattered against the window in the quiet stairwell, but you were warm and soft against me – and the fire? The fire still set aglow our skin, burning into the darkness.
Eventually, it was time to part. You walked me to my taxi. We embraced tightly. I felt a kiss against my cheek. As I was driven away, from the depths of the city, I glanced back to you. You stood waiting, and watching: your dark coat stark against the flames, licking at that damned building, behind you. Tiny figures of men were scurrying to and fro in the distance, determined to lay waste to the roaring blaze. You became smaller, and smaller, until almost one with the inferno in my gaze.
Somehow, it was beautiful, in a way. A comforting destruction: tempting in its warmth, and brightness, and fervour. As the taxi turned from the urban realm, I closed my eyes – and wondered how long it would burn. Wondered how close we could have gotten, before the heat singed away something that had become so natural, so easy.