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a short story

by David Mathew

Light caught on water always made him think of Celeste.

The memories could arrive at the most unfortunate of moments. In a meeting at work, for instance, with the overheads dunking two pins of whiteness in a colleague's drink. Or on a drive somewhere late, with a red traffic signal striping through a puddle. On such occasions it was difficult to keep hold, to maintain control. He missed her.

Other times, such as now, he deliberately sought out her presence, by coming here to London Bridge, which was where they'd first met and where they'd first kissed and where he'd proposed with her tiny mittened fingers in his hands... Tonight the clouds had bitten the moon into the shape of an anvil; on the water, crescents of light, a million of them, stretched away into the distance. He could feel her close. His eyes were blood-red from staring, but if he breathed very slowly and denied the intrusion of the constant pulse of traffic, he could summon back her perfume.

Celeste on London Bridge.

'Look at the lights on the water,' she'd said to him, although they'd been strangers only five minutes earlier. A small woman now akin to a child, she'd hustled her way closer to his body, seeking warmth. 'This river has more eyes than there are numbers.'

He had fallen in love before those words, of course, but never with such haste, such finality. His heart had been parked on London Bridge ever since.

'Can I meet you here again?' he'd asked.

Celeste had ignored the question. 'Can you imagine what sights it must have seen since the beginning?'

He had thought that he was being rejected. With a heaviness in his voice that matched that inside his ribcage he had murmured, 'Yes I can imagine.'

She had turned to him, a smile on her face. 'No you can't,' she'd said. 'Tomorrow night.'

As she was walking away he'd called, 'The same time?'

'We'll both know when we're ready.'

The memory warmed him: the air had been milder on that evening. The wind was playful and fresh tonight, and the river's eyes were gazing right back. His elbow stung with a psychosomatic injury: one night, as midnight had edged closer and the breath of the river had smelt sootier, with their bare arms around one another, in late-summer dress, they had watched the cautious approach of a wasp. It had a drugged look about it, and was crawling along the handrail.

'Scared to fly,' Celeste had remarked.

By this point he had long since learned to take her comments and savour them, juice them, enjoy their stranded logic; above all, he should never question them.

'Why?' he'd asked.

'Lose his aerial licence.'

He'd been disappointed in both of them, and he had watched the wasp as it inched nearer, transferring the blame onto its thorax.

'The last wasp of summer,' Celeste had said. 'Isn't it romantic?'

'Shall I put it out of its misery?' he'd replied.

'What makes you think he's in misery? Don't you dare.'

The wasp had stung him on the elbow; up to then this discomfort had never been his to behold.

Celeste had thought this hilarious. As she watched him recoil, while he rubbed the blighted pimple, she'd told him that it had served him right for thinking bad thoughts. This was the first time that he had wanted to be apart from Celeste, and by admitting this to himself -- by comprehending that he could feel rationally about her, that he was not cherishing her as if she were a doll -- something snapped and he had appreciated the true, hidden nature of the love he felt.

'Will you marry me?' he'd asked with his elbow in his palm.

'Come here,' she'd said, and as usual he'd grinned at the way she'd needed time to answer the question: this question, any question. 'I'll kiss it better.'

'Kiss my life better,' he'd told her. 'Marry me.'

She'd actually set her lips to his beating wound. 'Tomorrow night,' she'd said, though not as an answer to his proposal.

I frightened her, he knew. A cloud or a bank of clouds now chewed up the moon and made many of the river's eyes close. He felt ashamed. He felt sick. He felt haunted.

London Bridge came alive with the traffic that he had been ignoring -- suppressing even. London Bridge: where they'd met, where they'd shared an eager first kiss; where he'd made a decision about constructing a future with Celeste. And London Bridge: where she'd stamped on his dream, on his ego; and from where she'd attempted to hurl herself into the freezing eyes.

'Celeste,' he whispered.

Startling him badly, a voice to his left said, 'Was that her name?'

He turned. 'Excuse me?'

The other man, tall but with a slight stoop, with wire-brush sideburns and a pate only scratched with a few loose whips of greying hair, said clearly, 'The one who hurt you. Her name was Celeste?'

'It's none of your business, mate.' Turning away, he acknowledged the canny winks of the river's eyes.

'Oh but it is,' the other man answered. 'If she hurt you, it's very much so my business. She dumped you?'

'Among other things.' He was aware that his interlocutor was stepping closer. Every car behind him, across the strip of pavement, was making a sniffing noise as it passed.

'And you're thinking right now that your life couldn't get any worse, aren't you?'

He was frowning. But determined not to turn, to pay this intruder the compliment of a sympathetic counsel, he continued to stare at the Thames. But his heart felt like it was doing push-ups.

'I do have something of the kind in mind, mate, yeah -- thanks for asking.'

'But you're wrong,' he was told. 'Things can always get worse. Haven't you learned that yet?'

He faced the other man. 'What's your game?' he said. 'What you selling?'

'Selling? You amuse me. I'm taking.'

'Taking what?' His arms instinctively tightened against his body, to protect the wallet in his jacket pocket.

'Taking anything I desire.'

'And what do you desire, mate. Or more specifically, why don't you fuck off out of it?'

'Have you ever heard of Sweet Tooth?' came the response.

By now a mild nervousness had changed its wings; the colours differed. He was frightened -- and not of being pickpocketed either.

Slime-smells slid off the water. The clouds opened up like a flesh wound. Even the traffic seemed to gasp.

'No, I've never heard of Sweet Tooth,' he said. 'What is it?'

'Good. That means you haven't learned everything you need to know about fear. I'll be your teacher.'

'You'll do fuck, mate. I'm in a bad mood,' he bluffed. 'Piss off.'

'I love that. Dying-ember arrogance.'

'I'll call the police.'

'When? Tell me when. You're already fish-food, and believe me, there's nothing tastier than grief. You'll be quite in demand.'

'I'm warning you...' he said.

The proffered smile was carefree, was cheeky. The air seemed to gulp. 'You strolled into my plot,' was the response -- the weird response.

Immediately uncertain of why he'd said it, he replied, 'But this is my story. It's nothing to do with you.' Nor was he certain that what he'd said was true. Was it his, the imaginary ground, for all to see -- or was it Celeste's?

A focal point, he realised. I'm a focal point. People are watching me.

Or reading me.

Or possibly just listening to me.

'And your story is nothing without somebody else's intervention,' said Sweet Tooth. 'And she's gone. So now it's my turn. Say goodbye.'

And then their bodies met.

For the last time he thought of Celeste.

And then, as if in shame, the river closed its eyes.

© David Mathew 2003.
This story is published here for the first time.

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