In a city of seven million, what were the chances that you and I would meet again?
It was a question I found myself asking on the night bus home. I even tried doing the calculations to soothe my head- but would it be as simple as 1:7 million? Or would it be double, or half? And what about all the other factors to be taken into account? I’m no mathematician, but the outlook wasn’t good.
I had been working some kind of introductions evening at the Museum of London that night, pouring champagne for pre-drunk and overexcited young lawyers (or something along those lines) whose firm were so kindly throwing them a welcome party to celebrate the life of alternating hard work and hedonism that surely lay ahead. Luckily, I was on the “early” shift, so at 12 I promptly put down my bottle of Moët, signed out and left my poor colleagues to deal with the dirty entrails of the night.
A cool rain was falling when I got outside, mixing with the city smog and dusting the streetlamps gold. I walked a little way until I found an overhanging roof offering just enough space to light the cigarette I had been gasping for all evening. The smoke rose slowly through the drizzle to the grey, cloudy sky, as if it were going home.
The circle line ran until 12.30, so I took one of the last trains eastbound from Barbican. The carriage was empty but for one navy-suited man who sat staring at a single page of the Evening Standard until I got off at Embankment. Only the lost and lonely wander between midnight and 4am. The sleepers are already sleeping, the drinkers still drinking. The few of us that remain aren’t headed anywhere.
I certainly wasn’t in any hurry to get home; only desperate to be free.
I came out of the station and past Charing Cross to find that I had just missed a bus, and the next wouldn’t arrive for at least 40 minutes. But it was of no bother to me: like I say, time moves differently during these strange hours.
There was an all-night cafe around the corner from the bus stop, where I often found myself after long shifts, so I entered the familiar womb of fluorescent lighting and paid for a cup of tea and somewhere slightly warmer to sit, along the front window. Outside, the rain continued to fall, drumming a pleasing plush-plush rhythm into the pavement.
In a matter of hours the cafe would be flooded with drunken revellers (and a couple of heartbroken sods) ordering chips and talking loudly about their love for life. (I knew, for I had been one of those people myself.) For now, though, it was almost silent: only the hum of the dormant deep-fat frier, the dull beat of the rain outside, an occasional crackle from the overhead lighting, and somewhere - at the back of my head - a metallic, percussive sound. I looked around, recognising worn-out faces of those coming off or about to start night shifts, either half-asleep or half-alive.
The rain had settled like dew across your hair, despite the umbrella chucked under the table, and droplets hung, glistening, on the host of silver bracelets furnishing your bare wrists, which crashed together as you scribbled intently in black ink on a wide sheet of paper.
Thus the symphony of scattered sounds was complete.
I thought about how, were I an entirely different person, I might go over and sit down across from you, ask what you were working on, and see if your eyes shone illuminate gold as I imagined they must. Time would slip by and I’d offer you another coffee and we’d stay, talking, or maybe quiet, until dawn; two strangers finding peace in an unforgiving city.
The fantasy disintegrated as I heard the screech of a chair across the floor. Sketchbook under one arm, canvas bag slung across the other, you walked slowly to the door, paused- as if to measure quite how badly you had damaged the silence- then turned, to look at me.