So what's a cri-de-coeur, cunt? Can't you speak
the language that yer mam spoke. Think of 'er!
Can yer only get yer tongue round fucking Greek?
Go and fuck yourself with cri-de-coeur!
-Tony Harrison, V
End of an era was a phrase often overused, and Dakin had always thought confronting one would be a great revelation, like the first time you experience a relative or friend’s death. One of those things you never truly realise you’ve gone through until years later when you’re looking back on all the big moments in your life and see it there, clinging onto you with such force you don’t know where it ends and you begin. End of an era, however final a statement, also brought with it a space for growth, renewal, creation and destruction given the same face. End of one, beginning of another.
But this which he knew that he was witnessing now greeted him only with a pang in his chest, and a sort of dizziness that drew all energy from him. The living room was dark, pitch dark, illuminated by the feeble light of the tiny TV set on which Arthur Scargill was wearing the face of a man sentenced to hang at dawn. He’d always looked miserable, Dakin thought, in that long-suffering but determined way union types often did – determination that was now beginning to dull and falter. It then cut to clips of dreary-faced miners, half in this world and half out of it, filing into a lift that would winch them down into the hot belly of the Earth. Even in their flat in Oxford, miles away from Barnsley and Ashington and Doncaster, the air of defeat was heavy and suffocating; Dakin could see Scripps out of the corner of his eye, perched on the other end of the setee, breathing deeply and silently like you do when you’re trying to talk yourself down from a fight. A great turn of events, someone on the TV said, and the way he said ‘turn’ sounded hopeful. The forest had been felled and flattened to make way for new developments – skyscrapers towering higher than the tallest canopy had ever reached. Whatever was to be left in the place of the era that they had just watched fall to its knees and sputter its dying breaths would be cancerous and unrecognisable, and before long it would be all that would exist.
Dakin shut the TV set off just as the picture flashed to Thatcher, her face engulfed in the screen’s dying spark before melting away into black. Scripps had stood from his end of the sofa and exited the room almost immediately, leaving Dakin alone in the impenetrable dark. For a while, he just sat, motionless. The distant rumble of cars on the main road adjacent to theirs sounded quieter than was usual for a Saturday night, as did the street below.
He heard the bathroom door slam.
Scripps was stoic and silently emotional, his heart mirroring the strains of those he cared about but strong enough to handle it for them. When he said I know how you feel, on days when Dakin struggled (which, for the record, were rare – he had all but mastered the fine art of pushing stuff down), Dakin knew that he was telling the truth. Were Scripps a woman, it would be an admirable quality to have, and were he interested in women it would surely make him more desirable because women love all that strong sensitive shit. Should he ever take the cloth such ways would also probably serve as an asset, though Dakin had to admit despite all his being dragged to services against his will he knew very little about priesthood.
For now, his priest sojourned in his vestry, the door locked and no light seeping out from underneath it. Dakin had raised his hand so as to knock gently, but hesitated as he put his head closer to the panel and listened. From inside the bathroom he could hear a tiny sound: hitched breaths; quiet, choked sobs that strained against a desire to repress them. He lowered his hand. Were they on opposite sides of the door he knew that Scripps would knock, and if he got no answer or a definitive fuck off then he would wait – perhaps put the kettle on to give his hands something to do. But they weren’t: it was this way round and this way round Dakin listened for a few more moments before slinking off to his room. He could tell himself that Scripps had Posner, he had Akthar and Crowther and Lockwood if he needed them. Who did Dakin have?
He got changed in the dark. Turning the lights on felt wrong somehow, like the ambience of the flat was one held in mourning, and thus one that he shouldn’t disturb. He pulled on a loose lycra shirt and a pair of shorts, concluding it neither here nor there if he froze to death.
Dakin would only ever run at night, not to spare his dignity. In fact, he could say he that he rather liked the idea of being the subject of hundreds of people’s thoughts for a few fleeting seconds. A couple (and he could tell which ones) perhaps lingered on the image for a few more moments: the mother herding her two children along the path, meeting his eyes like something had just lit up behind them; the girl perched on the very edge of a bench pretending to be engrossed in her book but stealing glances as he approached and passed her, now reading the same line over and over because a beautiful man in shorts that felt too small and sweat pouring off every inch of his burning skin had seared himself into her mind. It was all a very attractive proposition, all the more attractive when the sun set and he could no longer see them.
It's what he needed now. To be seen.
He usually ran in the dark for the motivation, and because Oxford City Council took whatever cuts had been imposed upon them out on the riverside street lighting. Usually he’d set off when the horizon was glowing faint pink but crane your neck right up and you’d see the zenith bruising slowly into black, so that by the time he was on the public footpath that ran alongside the river the shadows of overhead foliage and the tarmac ahead merged into one impenetrable blindfold. After about half past nine at this time of year you’d never see someone until they were breathing down your neck. Perhaps you’d hear them before they could leave your body for some civilised early-morning jogger to stumble over, but Dakin had never entirely sussed that one out: the river was roaring a constant static in his ears and spraying fine cold air onto him whenever the wind changed direction; blood pounded ceaselessly in his ears and often he’d run so fast that he was heaving for breath most of the way. In all possibility, he was essentially deaf as well as blind. Cornered, vulnerable (as much as one could be in Oxford) – the only way he could conjure enough adrenaline to prevent himself from collapsing.
(He had fallen over once or twice on his earlier runs. He’d liked it, in a morbid way, it was nostalgic – sometime since the age of ten, picking bits of gravel out of a knee graze had stopped becoming a common occurrence.)
That was his lot for a typical evening, but tonight was different. Where he would usually venture into the darkest corners of the town to prickle the hairs on the back of his neck just enough to spur him onwards, now he was leaving the house already buzzing like a livewire with such energy. If he didn’t rid himself of it he wasn’t sure what the consequences would be.
So he ran. Fast. Through the quiet and unaffected streets of grand terrace houses for whom today was just another day like tomorrow and the decades to come. His feet pounded concrete then tarmac then dirt track as he ventured into the park, following winding paths with no purpose of direction and focusing his mind on the shockwaves that rattled through his leg bones with every impact. After a while, and by the time he reached the narrow path that dipped right to the edge of the riverbank, he couldn’t physically think about anything else.
He carried on like that for another few minutes, what could have been a hundred yards or two miles, along the unlit track that remained unchanged until it didn’t. All of a sudden, there was another path approaching him, orthogonal to this one and climbing up the hill into a set of stairs that were illuminated by a lone lamppost.
In its dim orange light, a figure stood at the railings that separated path and riverbank. They were looking out over the water, hunched slightly but with an air of someone that had just recently found solitude and was making the most of it – seemingly unaware or otherwise unfazed by Dakin's fast approach.
He slowed, and as the figure came into sharper focus his suspicions were confirmed.
This was far from the first time he had seen Irwin in the past week. On campus he must have caught a glimpse of the man at least half a dozen times – across the road or entering a building – and a couple of times on top of that in which it would have almost been acceptable to approach. Though he never did. Nor did he ever try to deny that it was a pride thing; Dakin liked to think he still had a reputation to maintain, and no doubt that would be marred if he enthusiastically greeted an old sixth form teacher who pretended not to know who Dakin was out of an embarrassment that would inevitably rub off on Dakin himself.
Why he was hanging around Dakin's peripheral vision wasn't long a mystery. If they saw a television crew about, one of his more eccentric lecturers had explained, unprompted, then they weren’t to worry: the BBC were filming a documentary about the founding and history of Oxford University and most of the footage was being staged on campus.
Dakin hated that lecturer. He didn’t know why; perhaps he reminded him of someone.
It was odd; despite every other instance of his sighting being fleeting and distant, it was now – where he was close, solid, breathing – that Dakin felt as though he was seeing a ghost. It could have been because this time he’d wanted it, however subconsciously or shamefully. The perfect manifestation of everything he was running towards. Or away from. He wasn’t sure. Suddenly he became aware that all of his confidence was falling out of him like a sieve and he tried not to panic.
He had, as it turned out, all of right up until he was close enough to touch Irwin to back out and turn around. The river was louder than usual tonight; a week of on-and-off heavy rain had emboldened it to a raging torrent. Irwin didn’t see or hear him until Dakin jogged to a stop right in front of him and spoke.
“Dangerous being out here on your own at night,” he said between caught breaths, hands on his knees but looking up to see the other man jump in a split second of terror. “You don’t know who you might encounter.”
Irwin’s expression never quite lost its startled edge, nor did his voice suggest anything in the way of relief. “Stuart.”
“Thought you’d be pleased to see me out of breath.”
Despite his evident disposition, comments like that didn’t knock Irwin in the same way as they used to. It made Dakin wonder if all his pearl-clutching at school really had been a performance.
Instead he straightened with an incredulous look, as though now the shock had worn off he was only just noticing his former student's physical form. “Strange time for a run, isn’t it?”
Dakin rebuffed as if it was an absurd suggestion. “No.” It wasn’t defensiveness (that’s what he'd tell himself anyway) as much as a provocation, another little rung up the power ladder. “I had some bad news; thought I’d let off some steam.”
Irwin blinked like the seriousness had dazzled him. “Oh.” (Another win for Dakin – now Irwin felt bad for trying to match his teasing. Perhaps it was base to rely on cruelty for catharsis but at this point he really didn't care.) “I heard about that. I’m sorry. Were your family-”
“Miners?” He heaved one final breath and stood up straight, one hand on the rusted railing beside them for support. “No. But that’s still the end, isn’t it?” The next words out of his mouth came out an overspill of his thoughts, more to himself, “feels like it.” He looked out over the black river, then his gaze fell down to the thick tangle of green nettles blanketing the bank but ending, respectfully, at the railing’s edge. The air was tailed with a sickly smell of peat and petrichor. It was enough to get lost in, just for a second, before the realisation hit him. “Fuck. I’ve left Scripps on his own. He’s a wreck.” He sighed again, bowing his head with both arms outstretched on the railings either side of him. Then, after a moment, and not because he thought he needed to justify himself to his audience. “I just needed to get out.”
His audience was patient. “Yeah, course.” There was a softness to Irwin’s voice that half-filled Dakin with disgust, not quite patronising but equally as oppressive.
He wondered if Irwin could see it on him in the low light, his face hidden. Perhaps he would just sense it – what, exactly, Dakin didn’t know, because he wasn’t entirely certain what this was he was feeling in the first place. All he knew was that it made him want to scratch through his skin and rip it out from inside of him; but since coming to university he had involuntarily taken to biting his nails, so running it was.
Dakin composed himself and stood upright again, turning to look Irwin in the eye with his age-old confidence. When he was met with a muted look of concern, however, that confidence strained and hid itself behind an upbeat change of subject. “How are you, anyway? What are you doing down here?”
Irwin was busy fishing through his pocket when the question was asked, pulling out a half-empty box of cigarettes; the nerves must have been getting the better of him. “Uh, filming,” he held one between his lips as he rummaged further still for his lighter, which he located, speaking through his teeth as he lit up. “We’re doing a documentary on the history of the university. Just finished, actually.” Taking a drag, the smoke he exhaled blew along the gentle but (now Dakin was starting to notice) icy breeze in the direction of the water, not looking Dakin in the eyes. “Back to London tomorrow morning.”
The wind stilled again, as if it had only ever functioned to ferry away the heavy, warm tobacco smell. Dakin found his mind wandering back to not half an hour earlier: sitting in the dark of his living room, newly alone in more ways than one, and as he did so he felt his heart lurch involuntarily with dread. He had never felt more utterly pathetic in his life than he did at that moment, because it was taking everything in him there and then not to break down inconsolable. He felt hysterical, unable to stop himself from letting out a laugh of disbelief. Was this really what he was come to? Was this what he was like now – for how long? Forever?
He swallowed, trying to sound as disinterested as was believable. “What time?”
“Train’s at ten to ten.”
“What time is it now?”
“It’s,” Irwin uncovered his watch from his coat sleeve, “It's twenty to eleven. So I have eleven hours.” The coat was unlike him, Dakin noticed, unlike all his other shirts and jackets he’d ever worn to school – it fitted him almost perfectly. Coarse tweed. It made him look as though Dakin would look down and see riding boots and chaps on his feet.
“Think you’ll make it?”
Irwin smiled, though not quite ready yet to let his guard down. “It’ll be tight.”
Dakin wanted to let loose on him, are you real? Am I dreaming this? Are you just inside my head? Because the air felt so cruelly absurd and he felt like submitting to the weight of the melodrama. But something tethered him – a little tug on the end of an invisible leash that said even when it was dark there was always someone watching. Maybe it was the way he was raised.
He was thankful, at least, that Irwin had so far spared him the you need to move on/live your life/let go of the past speech, regardless of how true they both knew it was. Right now, as the cold was beginning to fork its way up his legs and rattle his shoulders, he was painfully caught between wanting to hold on tight to whatever he could and running as far away as the limits of an island nation would allow.
Submitted to the melodrama he had, then. Dakin took to running his fingers along the top of the railings, stopping to pick specks of peeling black paint from the rusting metal. Really he should say something else, or make his excuses to leave. But he didn’t want to leave – that would mean going home and going home would mean facing Scripps and everything that was being trampled by people that smiled at him and he smiled back – nor did he want to speak, because he couldn’t trust the only words out of his mouth not to be the truth.
If they were, he knew that, somehow, Irwin would have understood. It would be so easy for him to fall back into his usual pedantic stride: how can you miss me? We hardly knew each other. But he wouldn’t have. Perhaps he would put a reassuring, friendly hand on Dakin's shoulder (and where Dakin usually didn’t care for any of that soft shit, something treacherous in him reeled for that warm touch over his thin shirt; his thin bloody shirt that was useless against the cold) with an apology that it wasn’t something more, not even here in the dark with nobody watching.
A piece of paint came off in Dakin's hands, and he managed to pull it all the way along a few inches of the railing until he was left with a black ribbon dangling between his fingertips, which were now trembling.
Irwin must have noticed that detail; though, in fairness, the tremors had by now taken hold of Dakin's entire scantily clad body. His voice was heavy with concern again, that one Dakin wanted to hate. “You’re freezing.”
Dakin shrugged, flicking the scrap of paint into the wind. “It’s still winter, technically.” As Irwin moved to take his horrendous country jacket off, a wave of panic suddenly hit Dakin and he realised- no, he still hated all that soft shit, waving his hand in dismissal. “Don’t. I’m okay.”
The refusal seemed to humour Irwin in some strange way; as he tugged the coat back over his shoulder something Dakin wished wasn't fondness crept over his face. Irwin tilted his head, and with that Dakin braced himself for the wind-up he knew that, in his current state of mind, he’d rise to. Running hadn’t expelled the surges of energy careering through him as much as he’d hoped it would; perhaps a bust-up with his ex-teacher was the next best thing.
Irwin’s words were, however, not the provocation he’d expected. “It’s strange, seeing you here.”
(That didn’t mean that he liked them). Dakin folded his arms over his chest, pressing them hard against his ribs in an attempt to stifle their shivering. “Strange how?”
Irwin shrugged, taking a drag from his cigarette and tapping the ash onto the damp ground at their feet. “You seem different.”
“In a two years sort of way?”
“More than that.” Irwin was looking at him now. Looking for something. “I dunno. I missed you.”
He wasn’t going to say it. Dakin didn’t know if this was some sort of test, a prod in the shoulder to antagonise him enough into giving in, but he wasn’t going to. Nor was he going to let the surge of want show on his face – no, not an inch. He was going to embrace his role: unaffected, unassuming. But it was still cold and he couldn’t stop shivering.
He turned back to the river, hoping the shadows would veil his face, which was now numb. “I feel different. Sometimes I feel like it all never happened. I’ve forgotten all the poetry.”
“What about the others?”
“Posner's turning into him more and more every day. Scripps writes. I haven’t spoken to the rest.” Summaries weren’t as much untruths as they were just that – summaries. They excluded information by design. Besides, Dakin knew deep down that Irwin didn’t care about the others at all; when they were face-to-face most of what was said was courtesy. Meaningless in words – all in the looks. So when Dakin turned his head he made sure not to lift his gaze with it. “When you say ‘I missed you’, did you mean the collective ‘you', or-?"
“No,” Irwin’s response was urgent at first, then he spent the rest of it trying to reel himself back in. “I meant the singular ‘you’ – you. I missed you. I just-” he sighed, “I can’t imagine you all without the little quotes…and the singing.”
Dakin straightened, seeing a rise. “Do you do that a lot? Imagine us?”
Irwin shook his head. “No. Just remember.”
“It’s not, remembering is the past; imagining is the hypothetical future. You and your subjunctive, I thought you’d know that.”
The single word stung so much because it was proof of what Dakin was desperate to know – what he wanted deep down to be true. They were back on the same wavelength at long last, saying different things but wondering the same: why can’t I stop thinking about you? What is it? Will I ever find it again?
“The human memory is so unreliable you might as well be imagining,” Dakin said. “It’s all just painful nostalgia that never was.”
Irwin took another drag. “I suppose that’s why we write things down when they’re happening.”
“People still hear what they want to hear.” Dakin loved this. He loved that they could fall back into their own useless routines of useless words back and forward and not have to think about where it was going. “Churchill. War hero. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
“If the Welsh are striking over hunger we must fill their bellies with lead.” Irwin echoed in agreement. “‘The enemy within’. So it continues forever and ever.”
In the short silence that fell, Dakin realised that this was the first time in two years he had been this close to Irwin. Close enough to touch, easily. He could make out the details of his face: the strands of auburn hair falling around his ears (he'd cut it shorter slightly at the sides), his new glasses that suited his face in a less awkward way than they had before. He looked so...made up – like someone had cut him into shape especially for his second-rate television appearances. They probably had. But no wheelchair, of course, and – now he noticed it – no cane either. Their absence had allowed him to hide the memory in the back of his mind this far, but suddenly it came clawing its way out, arachnid limbs poking out of a crevice. Dakin turned away again, but not before noticing the pink flush to Irwin's cheeks, how tanned his skin looked for early spring. He let the blood-rush of the river pound his ears. “This time last year, if everything was as fucked as it is now, I’d be getting shitfaced somewhere. But look at me.” He gestured down at his attire. “On a health kick. Maligning Churchill.
Stop looking at me like that.”
“Then stop shivering.”
“Let me have one off and I will.”
Irwin moved his free hand from his trouser pocket to his jacket pocket, rummaging again. “You can just have one.”
Dakin held out his trembling hand – flat, palm to the ground – as way of explanation. “Can’t hold it.”
This time, when Irwin smiled, Dakin couldn’t quite hate the fondness in it as much as before. With the cigarette between his two forefingers, Irwin placed that hand over Dakin’s own, sliding the filter end between Dakin’s fingers and closing his fist, gently, around Dakin’s hand. A combination of the heat from his skin and the steadying of his grasp stifled the shivers just enough so that when it moved to Dakin’s mouth, he could take a drag from the still cigarette. As he did so, they met eyes, and this time Dakin didn’t concede until he blew smoke from the corner of his mouth and Irwin brought his hand away again, then taking another drag himself.
(Dakin couldn’t help wondering what it tasted like.)
By now he’d given up on any pretence of aloofness. All his pathetic longing may as well have been scaffolded onto his face in fluorescent lights. The feeling hadn’t been unusual before, when it was just beginning to take shape and he could ride off the anticipation. Now it was boiling over, spilling and getting into every part of him to the point where all he could feel was that and the freezing cold – bright and blinding. By now, usually, he would have just done whatever it was he wanted to do and the feeling would subside, satisfied. He had never resisted this long before and the warmth of Irwin’s hand around his fingers was lingering for so long it felt like it would burn him.
In all honesty, he couldn’t say why he stopped himself. He just knew that he had to. He’d not known something with such certainty for a long time.
So he folded his arms again, and spoke with an air of confidence to redeem himself. “All things going well we'll probably never see each other again.”
Irwin took another drag. He was huddled into himself, Dakin only just noticed – realising that he was probably pretending to not be as affected by the cold to make Dakin feel better about it.
“No, probably not,” he said. “We were probably never meant to see each other here at all.”
For a long while there was only the wind and the tearing of the river, black and invisible beside them, as they both anticipated the other doing what both of them wanted and neither thought the right choice; Dakin knew that if Irwin thought it was the right choice, he would have done it.
Maybe if it had been warmer Dakin would have asked him if he believed in fate. The word had always been associated, for him, with fantasy and great destinies; the idea that one way or another the inevitable tide would take you to where you needed to be. As of today, it felt more like futility. You can rage against all the wrong in the world all you want, for all your life, but at the end you’ll be left with nothing to show for it but indignity and exhaustion, your bones filled into the foundation of the next business park or shopping centre.
He wondered how many skeletons there were under Oxford. How many more were on their way. How many his tide would force him to trample over. Then he remembered Scripps crying in the bathroom.
“Fuck. I need to go.”
The break from the moment was so abrupt that all he could do was start walking – if he didn’t now then he feared he would be stuck there, on that orange-lit path, in eternal stalemate forever. Just as he turned on his heel, however, he was stopped in his tracks by “Dakin- Stuart.”
He couldn’t help himself, even now. “Other way round.”
This time – for the first time – Irwin’s face fell into relief, and he laughed. Dakin found himself reflecting it, and as it dissipated watched his final chance to do anything (but most importantly what he wanted to do) rise and break like a wave, until it had passed them both. Though he was a fair distance away now, he could see on Irwin's face that it had passed him too.
It was the little morsel of satisfaction his heart needed: that he wouldn’t be feeling this loss on his own.
Irwin tilted his head up – a farewell. Or acknowledgement. “Take care,” he said, though they weren’t his words. “You’ll be fine.”
Dakin’s legs were beginning to sting with the cold. “I know.” Then, feeling he owed him at least some honesty, something that was kept only between them: “I think that’s what makes it worse.”
The flat was still dark when Dakin slunk in, only the small green emergency light illuminating the hallway as he tried to close the door as quietly as the heavy deadlock would allow.
For a moment he just stood, feeling as though with the click of the lock he had suddenly returned to reality. He could have been gone for minutes, or days, but now everything seemed complete and all that he had been hungry for had dissipated. Such reality came to him first as the warmth on his bare skin, which said a lot about the weather outside because their place had a reputation amongst Dakin and Scripps' friends alike for being a health hazard even in summer.
Scripps always left his bedroom door slightly ajar, regardless of day or night or whether he was in there or not. Not enough to see in, but just enough for light to pass through. Dakin never asked why, though he did wonder if it was to spite the landlord – who had underlined in red ink, twice, the section of their lease stating that all doors should be kept shut to reduce fire hazard. Not an absurd thought, as their living room door was also propped open by a large garden ornament in the shape of a hedgehog that one of Scripps’ friends from the student paper had lifted from her last shift at B&Q and gifted to him for his birthday. Maybe they should just go all out and knock through all of the walls, he thought. Open plan, no privacy, entirely flammable.
It was just gone ten, not late by any means – and there was a warm orange light seeping out from around the frame – but still Dakin’s raised knuckle hesitated to knock on the open door. He didn’t like this new reality at all – being aware of himself and everything that he was doing – not so long ago he would have burst into Scripps’ room without warning, paying no mind to his friend’s insults or protests as he proceeded to get in the way of whatever it was he was doing. Usually writing, so Dakin would sit on the end of the bed and get Scripps to read his work aloud, which very rarely received any compliance but “piss off”. He knocked.
The room was basked in that same orange glow from the bedside lamp as he pushed the door open, and though there was superficial mess: a pile of textbooks on the desk, a t-shirt over the back of the chair – it, like always, reflected the tidy constancy of its inhabitant. Said inhabitant was sitting over the covers of his bed, book in hand that Dakin couldn’t quite make out the title of in the low light, peering over the pages at his intruder not with a look of irritation but one of understanding. The good thing about being friends with Anglicans is that they forgive easily.
“You alright?” Dakin asked, still hovering around the doorway.
Scripps sighed, sounding upbeat but exhausted. “Yeah, I’m fine. Shit day.”
The relief hit Dakin like a wave, carrying him further into the room. Scripps’ attention had drawn back to his novel by the time Dakin clambered up to sit beside him, letting his aching limbs relax against the soft duvet cover and the familiar warmth of the body beside him. As he pressed himself closer, Scripps rested his head on his shoulder, tilting the book so that they could both read it. The lines seemed familiar but when he peered at the title at the top of the page, Mary Barton, he realised that he’d never read anything by Gaskell.
It felt like the last time everything was going to be slow. And quiet. He sunk into it.
Scripps turned the page. Dakin turned his head into his friend's hair, speaking quietly into it. “We’ll be all right, mate.”
For the first time, he forced himself to believe it, and a sick feeling scraped his stomach. The vibrations of Scripps' voice hummed through the side of his body as he spoke.