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Walking Through A Snowstorm On The Sun

By: Sergio Burns

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…I have Placebo's Black Market Music (bought earlier from HMV in Market Street) in the palm of my hand, reading the CD's blurb as I drink coffee in a cafe in the centre of Manchester.

Inspecting the lyrics while thinking: existence is a bit like walking through a snowstorm on the sun. A great adventure shot through with the most outrageous contradictions, and cosmetically overlain with the most intricate bollocks. It is weird, perhaps bizarre, the complexity of ordinary lives and relationships. I can't quite figure it out. Are we, for example, the simple product of an infinite array of possibilities and chance permutations? Or is there a definitive blueprint - somewhere - for each individual's existential trajectory? Something which magically circumscribes the journey birth to death, babe to corpse. I chuckle to myself, the world's most prolific cynic, and for some reason, and at that very moment, Lloyd Spender's handsome, tortured face forces itself into my mind and haunts me…and I remember…

We are in Soho, London, the week before Christmas 1999, newly graduated sons of some God or other, out on the festive piss, being swiftly decanted from a club in the early hours of a dark, December morning.

Outside in the street Murray Rankin, a monster of a man with a shock of red, wavy hair, a shy and vigilant demeanour, and a strange taste in socks, remonstrates with a startled Billy Prentice. I think it was something William John had said earlier in the evening. An accurate, though quite unnecessary, derogatory remark about Arsenal given a Chelsea spin.

Rankin is laconic and morose, the perfect foil for the witty joker that is Prentice, a dark haired lad and economics graduate, hence outwardly ordinary, internally cunning, a cross dresser in the making. Murray's eyes have narrowed and he has got as far as curling one of his huge hands into a ball of a fist. At six foot, two inches, Rankin is an imposing figure, towering above the fearless economist. I step between them, remind them it's Christmas. They drunkenly square up to each other, surrounded by the city's angular shadows, late street lamps, and everything is spinning around, faces, angry and snarling, voices echoing down empty streets, inebriated chaos. Prentice, Rankin and me…

I calm them down, glance around at Spurs - aka Lloyd Spender, a Tom Cruise lookalike - uncharacteristically subdued, muted, his thick dark hair teased by the gentle wind, his face expressionless. He catches my concerned gaze and I nod, see beyond him to where small flakes of snow begin to flutter from the moody sky. Lloyd makes a weak effort to smile, tamely shrugs, pushes his hands deep into his coat pockets and turns his collar up against the cold like in a Suzanne Vega song.

The night grows darker around me, and I suddenly remember, as a child, running in the sunshine through the woodland that bordered the council estate where Spender and I grew up. A sprawling maze of concrete and coruscating glass guarded on all sides by the city save for that one green splash of trees.

Lloyd didn't follow me into the academic forest of university. He took a more wayward route, a more adventurous trail, and yet we remained - in that great machine of life - the best of friends. While I had travelled seven miles across London to university, Spurs had remained on the estate, and we had, to some extent, drifted apart. I was, however, a frequent visitor to my mother's home, a regular Caffrey's drinker in the local Pig and Dumpling- a pub with all the sweeping culture of a Sunday fry up and an egg-stained vest - and on one occasion I had ran into my old friend. We greeted each other as if the years between us hadn't existed, and agreed that, when I had graduated, we would meet up on the first Christmas, post-graduation, night on the piss, a yearly excuse for a drunken stupor, myself and my former flatmates Rankin, the giant philosopher, and Prentice, the economics wizard, annually enjoyed during the festive season.

And, there we were…

As we walk I call my girlfriend Karen on my mobile. She bellows down the Siemens Orange C45e that she had expected me home hours ago, and is now in the darkest of black moods. While Murray and Billy niggle away at each other, I plead reason with Karen the Impaler - "Lads Christmas night out, we do it every year"- but she refuses to listen. We are moving toward Leicester Square, when I eventually swing round to ask Prentice and Rankin to quiet down, I can hardly hear Karen shriek at me! It is then I realise Spender is no longer with us.

- Where's Lloyd? I frown. - Jay Vee you fuck! Are you listening to me, you arsehole! Karen screams down the phone, her voice crossing the city in shrieking microwaves. I hold the phone out from my ear and wince. Aware that Lloyd is no longer with us I look about myself, drop my arm carrying the phone and allow it to rest in mid-air in the palm of my hand. - Jay Vee you bastard! Jay Vee! Are you listening to me! Karen calls out into space at thigh level.

I cut Karen off, switch off the phone and put it in my coat pocket. We look about ourselves. - He was behind us coming down Wardour Street. Rankin spreads his arms in a gesture of innocence, and we all shiver in the early morning cold.

London in the snow. It had felt like Christmas, but now everything was running out of control, and change was the shadow in the darkened architecture of every building in that metropolis. Then, I had remembered Lloyd, earlier in the evening, dancing in the oscillating blue, red, yellow flickering strobe lights to Moby's Go in some club, with some bleach blond sourpuss, chewing gum and posing, playing it cool but already attracted to him. Prentice and Rankin punching the air with clenched fists and nodding their heads in time to the music, and then in the chaos of this night he is gone…

The others make reassuring noises about Spender and with a wave they walk away, trudging off through the gathering snow toward Charing Cross Road, refusing to help me search for Spurs, telling me he will be okay as they disappear into the gloom like in a dream. I retrace my steps back to Wardour Street and on toward Oxford Street. "Maybe he just went home", I think to myself, "Caught a taxi", though I somehow instinctively know something is amiss. There is, I know, no way he would have just gone off without saying something to me, no way…

My recollections gradually fade, and I order another coffee. The woman in the cafe scurrying off to fetch it, as two men crouch toward each other at a table toward the rear in hushed conversation. She returns, responding to a remark from one of the men who she obviously knows well, turning immediately away from me and heading back toward the counter. My mind drifts back to that fateful night three years previously.

As I walk up Oxford Street, I recall our whispered conversation over the cheap lasagne-splattered wooden table with the cigarette burns, littered with bottles of Miller Genuine Draft, empty pint dishes and five minutes, fourteen seconds of Cubic 22's classic Night In Motion playing in the background. - I'm scared Jay Vee. He said lifting a bottle of MGD to his lips, pausing and studying me. - Why? I frown. He looks away evasively, takes a swift, short pull from the bottle of beer and looks around at me again. - I think Marianne suspects I am seeing someone else. He makes a face. - Why'd you think?

His answer is facetious. Spurs in his long relationship with Marianne had had many affairs, so that was nothing knew. Something else was bothering him, but his replies become increasingly flippant as I probe his original statement, until, at last, he laughs, puts his arm behind my neck and draws me toward him. - You've been a good mate to me Jay, let's not spoil it. It is a cryptic moment, a menacing statement hanging in the air, directionless, yet with sinister undertones. I laugh with him uneasily. We shake hands, embrace across the table, playfully punch each other on the shoulder, and all the time I know there is something very wrong.

Against my better judgement I phone Marianne at the flat she shares with Lloyd and their fourteen month old daughter Gemma, apologising for getting her out of bed at three thirty in the morning. My call makes her anxious and she confirms Spender has not returned home.

I decide to walk back to Leicester Square, but caught in the growing snowstorm, I shelter in a shop doorway waking a bedraggled bearded soul shivering beneath a blanket of cardboard. He asks me for a cigarette, but I say I cannot help him, though I give him the only pound coin I have left and we huddle against the biting wind blowing snow into his front living room, and crouch as far back into the doorway as possible. He tells me that his luck is about to change. That it is the one thing he is sure about. I share his misery, knowing that, by now, it would be futile to return home - Karen will have changed the locks and have barricaded herself into the bedroom. I eventually leave the doorway. The bearded man calling after me that his luck is about to change.

I walk to the underground station at Tottenham Court Road. At just a little after five in the morning I head out on the Northern line to Chalk Farm, and from here walk the few blocks to my brother's home in Belsize Park Gardens, seeking shelter from the twin storms of blizzard and Karen.

More than a little annoyed that I have wakened him at such an ungodly hour on such an ungodly night, my brother, nevertheless, agrees to let me sleep in the spare bedroom. I have restless, terrible dreams about being locked away in a hideous castle, watched over by headless guards, and huge bald women. My cellmate, the bearded man from the doorway in Oxford Street, continually ranting on about his luck, which apparently, is about to change.

At breakfast, around eleven thirty, my sexy sister-in-law Sonia, wife to my disconcertingly sensible sibling Lee, searches my eyes and is keen to interrogate me about my faltering relationship with Karen. I shrug, non-committal and evasive. Sonia is persistent, however, and eventually I open up. My brother plays his favourite Smiths CD - sings Panic on the streets of London - pours coffee, as I scramble over all the lurid details of Karen's psychological decline. My sister-in-law wide-eyed, her head propped on her knuckles as she leans in toward me. - Maybe mental instability is one of the modern prerequisites for entry to the teaching profession. She whispers, grinning, from behind her coffee mug.

Later, with twenty pounds I have borrowed from Lee, I catch the tube back to Charing Cross and walk aimlessly through the city, a stinging wind whipping across me from The Thames, as starcrossed flurries of reluctant snow fade into the damp streets, and I can't shake Spurs from my thoughts. I call Marianne on the mobile, only to discover that Lloyd has not returned home and she has decided to phone the police.

I find myself in Blackfriars, sitting nursing a coffee at Pret A Manger in Rennie Street when a pretty dark haired girl in a nurse's uniform approaches my table. I try to ignore her, sipping my Americano and reading the sports pages of The Guardian, as she sidles into the seat opposite.

- Hi! She says matter of fact, as if she were going to ask me if I liked Chicane's Sunstroke (Disco Citizens (on the train) remix ), or the novels of Martin Amis, or the Neil Jordan movie Interview With The Vampire. I look up slowly from my newspaper, nod half-heartedly, thinking about care in the community and how it isn't working. - I was on my way to work and saw you through the window. The girl smiles hopefully. - Well that's the beauty of glass love. I hear myself nonchalantly reply and return to flicking through the pages of my broadsheet. - I'm Lois…Lloyd's girlfriend. She introduces herself. - Lloyd pointed you out to me one night in a club. He said you were his best friend. - Was? I frown. - What? She tries to smile, looking awkward and uncomfortable. - Past tense… I shrug. She looks at me bemused. - Can I get you a coffee? I smile and nod toward my own cup. She shakes her head. - I was on my way to work…It's just that I was supposed to meet Lloyd over an hour ago, but he never turned up, and then I…I just saw you, and wondered if you had seen him.

I pause, look up from my newspaper, study Lois, her wide, blue innocent eyes, high cheekbones, dark hair framing her slender, angular face. - Sorry. She checks her watch. - I have to go. She makes to stand. - There is something. I tell her cautiously. She frowns. - But not here. When do you finish work?

We hurriedly arrange to meet after her shift at St Bartholomews hospital. She leaves, and I watch her go, and prepare myself for the prospect of returning to the flat and facing Karen.

There is no reasoning with Karen, and we tumble, unavoidably, into our own giga-relationship black hole. She yells, I curse through gritted teeth, as all the complex recriminations of a shared life of incompatability - floating free in darkest space - loses its fragile anchorage and slips out into the depths of the cosmos. I try to explain my concern for my best friend who had now been missing for the best part of forty-eight hours, but in the paranoid universe of the disintegrating Karen, my explanations become distorted. Warped in the claustrophobic tunnel of our fading love. As I leave the flat, angry and embittered, I decide only to return for my clothes, my R.E.M CD's, my computer, Sim City, and my Chelsea football scarf.

I sit in my car outside St Barts and watch the rain relentlessly pound the windscreen. Water continually running down the gentle slope of the glass in little droplets, like fleeing liquid convicts from a transparent prison.

Lois is fifteen minutes late. She apologises and climbs into the car, and I reassure her that I have a great deal to think about anyway. We drive to the Little Bay restaurant in Kilburn, and become anonymous diners in that busy and wonderfully cavernesque establishment.

I try to explain the inexplicable events of the previous evening and early morning. Lloyd's disappearance, his sombre, troubled mood and the fact that I knew there was something wrong. She mentions that she had always suspected he was involved in drugs, though Spurs had always said it was "simply business". I tell her about Marianne and his daughter. This seems to upset her, gentle tears well up in her captivating eyes.

Within the confines of The Little Bay, on that rainy Saturday night just before Christmas 1999, I suddenly feel as if the whole of my universe is rushing in on me. I tell Lois about my disintegrating relationship. She describes Karen, surprisingly, as an idiot, and strokes my hair in the most familiar fashion.

Outside in Belsize Road she gives me an unsolicited hug, and we console each other. I drive her home to her flat in Hayes. We sit in the car for a while and talk until she invites me in for coffee. Lois shows me her Terry Pratchet Discworld collection of books, her PC, though she is forced to admit she does not possess Tomb Raider or Fifa '99, and her Ridley Scott videos. She plays Enya on her CD player and we open a bottle of her finest Argentinian Syrah, relax in the soft glow of her scented candles, discuss the myseries of space and time, the meaning of existence and Stamford Bridge till three in the morning.

Then we are kissing, her hands fumbling with the belt on my jeans as she slips out of her blouse, and I reach behind her to unclip her bra. Naked, we embrace and gently lie back on the floor, she moans and I climb on top. Looking for balance with my outstretched foot I inadvertently click the on button of her CD player and, spookily, The Smiths' Girl Afraid quietly fills the room. The world revolves rapidly, orbiting my existence, the rogue planet making love to my best friend's love affair. Then she is reaching behind my neck with her hand and pulling my mouth toward her lips and protruding tongue. She makes strange little squealing noises, like an ecstatic piglet, hisses, shudders and cries out. Exhausted, I roll off her like a piece of the space shuttle being jettisoned. She pulls me to my feet and we pad, nude, through the hall to the bedroom where we tumble into the king size together. From the living room I hear the faint sounds of The Smiths' Oscillate Wildly on the CD player.

I smile to myself, listen to the rain's gentle rhythm on the window, hear Lois moan in her sleep, and lie awake till after five, my mind racing with all the intricate patterns of existence and relationships which intertwine and surround and confuse me. I hear the first cars of another London morning whoosh past outside, before a turbulent darkness overpowers me…and still nothing would change, because everything was now irreversibly different, and I felt the same. Was this all part of the mysterious blueprint, or had I arrived at this place via a number of chance happenings and decisions? How could I betray Karen and Spurs so casually, so cheaply?

I drive Lois to work just after lunchtime next day, kiss her goodbye, just like a real couple, and tell her I'll phone.

I move in temporarily, with the warring duo Rankin and Prentice, remembering that I am due to start work as a journalist in Portsmouth in two weeks time.

I sulk for the next few days, speak to the Police about Lloyd Spender's mysterious disappearance, find myself unable to banish Lois from my thoughts and, inexplicably, decide to return to the flat to try and sort things out with Karen. I take a wrong turning, however, and head north on the M25, thinking about how easy it was to drift into sex with Spurs' girlfriend. I drive all the way out to the Watford Gap services on the M1, where I stop to take on petrol, treat myself to a coffee and a sticky bun, and sit for a while in the brilliantly lit cafeteria, looking out at the twilight, watching all the shapes of humanity come and go, and consider the anarchic tangle my life has become.

I am tuned onto Capital radio as I drive back toward London in the rapidly fading light, when a somewhat surreal, and incredibly sombre, newscaster reports on a headless man and a murdered woman being discovered in a burned out car by kids on waste ground behind a Peckham housing estate. Soon an incredulous Prentice has called me on his mobile to say that the headless male has been identified as Lloyd Spender, and the world hurtling toward me speeds up.

Space wraps itself around me like a huge cosmic blanket, and the twilight outside the car becomes a beautiful darkening blue, streaked with crimson, yellow and mauve. Weirdly, Chicane's Sunstroke (Disco Citizens (on the train) remix) becomes an absurd backdrop to my recent discovery, filtering from the car's speakers as the news report fades and finishes.

My mind fragments like an exploding star. Cars, dark metal boxes, speed to and from destinations or maybe their drivers, just like me, are driving aimlessly and drifting from one district of chaos to another. Above me and around me wide-spaced and lonely stars make a reluctant appearance in a bleak and gloomy sky, a bright three quarter moon lighting up the frost hard fields beside the M1.

The murdered girl, Hannah Carter, turns out to be eleven weeks pregnant (to Spurs I presume), and the husband, Johnny Carter (an evil looking character with an earring in each ear, a tattoo on his neck with the words "cut here", and some heavy connections to several very nasty drug dealing underlords), is eventually charged and convicted of the double homicide. His mistake was not to remove Lloyd's personal effects (wallet, keys, rings) from the burned out shell of the decapitated corpse. In court, Carter has the audacity to protest his innocence throughout the trial and, indeed, beyond to his incarceration. The missing head is never found.

Later that night I return to Lois's flat to find my new found nurse calmly entertaining a colleague she introduces as Jill. I don't wait long, make my excuses, and when we are alone in the hall I give her the news about Spurs. She simply nods and whispers "I know", and I can't help remembering how beautiful she looked that night in the hall, bathed in the light flung out from the living room into the gloomy lobby. I try to hug her to protect her from the terrible reality of the moment - and because I find her irresistable - but she pushes me away and guides me to the door. Stupidly, I make a shambling apology, turn and leave, confused, dazed and philosophical.

After several failed reconciliations with Karen - she eventually marries and has three children to a Police officer called McCrum - I move into a flat in Essex Road, Milton, Portsmouth with an accountant called Rachel Fleet. My life like so many, disappears in the great mix of existence, drifts along as if it were an insignificant part of the otherwise magnificent scheme of things, drags on, mundanely, like an afternoon spent in a doctor's waiting room. My relationship with Rachel Fleet flounders on the inescapable reality of our turbulent and restless personalities, and after two years and the birth of our daughter Chelsea (what else), I am offered and accept a better job on a paper in Manchester, and we split.

That's how I come to be drinking the dregs of my second cup of coffee in an anonymous cafe in Manchester, lost in the nostalgia of the last few minutes, and I'm thinking - and only God knows why - about what goes on in the darkness of those hidden rooms inside our heads. I miss my daughter, at this moment of time, hate her mother, and feel, for the first time, some sympathy with Carter, the man who murdered my best friend. His wife, I assume, had fallen in love with, and was pregnant to, Spurs, and the poor demented man had simply taken his revenge.

The woman who had served me earlier is bending over in front of me, wiping the adjacent table, exposing fleshy legs and slack muscle beneath her short skirt. As she finishes she turns away from the table and I see her fifty something face collapse into a series of sharp folds, her jowls quivering as she walks toward me, smiling.

Outside, the street lamps with their soft, orange, sodium glow are taking their weird place in the darkening Manchester universe. I drain my coffee, replace the CD in the dinky little bag supplied by HMV, check the time, pay the bill, leave and head back to my car.

As I am walking it begins to rain. A couple jog past in the fading light, clinging to each other beneath an umbrella. There is something vaguely familiar about them. Then I am spinning round, watching them run laughing to their car. The girl climbs in first and immediately switches the radio into blaring life, the subtle sounds of R.E.M's The Great Beyond can be heard, I would imagine, half way across the city.

- Lloyd? I call out cautiously, convinced I must be mistaken, walking toward their car, peering hopefully into the descending gloom, picking out Lois looking back at me from her seated position in the passenger's side of the car. Spurs is now standing poised by the driver's side, rain flattening his hair. He is looking straight at me, his eyes wide, a look of absolute horror on his face. - I thought you were in Portsmouth. He whispers.

And, in my mind, I am wondering about a blueprint, an inevitable outcome, or something more like randomness and chance…perhaps.

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