The blue hour settled down over Sheffield. As the sun begins to rise on a Sunday morning, you can stand on the Park Hill amphitheatre and watch it light up the city as the streetlights fade and yellow light begins to stream through the windows of houses and cafés and dismal corner shops. Under this shade of blue, tall buildings sore into the skies and lights glitter like a jewellery box. This was the city as Nick and Clare looked down over it.
Grey faced morning people stomped down the streets, but not Nick and Clare. They glided, ghostlike, down from the steps; weaving a somnolent trail through the grass.
During the day Clare usually rose early and worked in the library until the late afternoon. She walked home when the sun had slipped behind the tallest buildings. She thought about how she had sent the first boy who loved her away. Time was in her hands now and it kept her moving. She had noticed the pain it took. She looked at the girls who sat in the park drinking fruity ciders and watching each other through dark sunglasses. They were starting to pack up because the day was drawing to a close. What did the sunset prove anyway? It was the sunrise that Nick and Clare greeted now.
“I guess we should be getting back” said Nick.
“Okay” Clare sighed dreamily, for she still felt as though she was in a dream.
They walked to the taxi rank outside the station and climbed into an unmarked black cab.
Nick gave the taxi driver directions back to the student village then sat down next to Clare. They watched the meter climb up as they climbed up the hill in the taxi. Nick checked for change in his pocket before asking, “Um, can you cover me? I’ll pay you back.”
“Sure” Clare sighed, even though she was sick of paying everyone else’s taxi fares.
Clare passed the change to the taxi driver and the two of them walked back to Nick’s flat. They got inside and Nick started kissing Clare, sloppily. They fumbled in the grey early morning darkness of his room. Clare was still slightly dazed but she felt content. It wasn’t like she cared much about her first time or who it was with. Nick cared for her. He was a good friend. It was impossible for him to break her heart because he had never held it.
Clare got dressed afterwards and stumbled back to her flat where she climbed into bed and let her body submit to the waves of exhaustion now crashing over her. The next day greeted Clare with an ache in her head as though there was a rock at the front of her brain pressing itself against her skull unrelentingly. There was also a stream of messages from Nick. Clare sighed as she scrolled through them: “Are you ok?”, “Sorry if I came on a bit strong last night.” “Sorry.”
Clare sighed again, swallowed two paracetomol and wondered if Nick loved her. She yawned, for she did not love him. She wanted adventure and danger. Yes, that was what she wanted, she said to herself as she made a cup of coffee. She was young and now was the perfect time to rush towards excitement for the sake of excitement. Nick would not be the one to hear her heart break. She felt herself being called down to something more. She was being called down, not up, for as much as Clare was a hopeless romantic she still believed that to fall in love really was to fall; to be weak, to go crazy. She wanted crazy weakness now though.
Clare sipped her coffee and typed out a reply to Nick: “I’m fine it was fun.”
Immediately Nick began typing again, but Clare put away her phone and put down her coffee. She picked up her bag and left the flat.
Elsewhere, Nick sat on the edge of his bed and thought about how he never usually showed any daring. The city was cool today; a breeze was breathing across the centre of town. Nick wondered whether or not Clare believed in him. He looked down at his idle hands then picked up his guitar. He played a few chords to try and forget about Clare for a bit. He thought of her as his love, but he knew she did not feel the same.
“Innocence is not for me” Clare thought, as she walked through the park. “I need change. I cannot just sleep like the grass, or be idle like the ancient trees.” Maybe all she wanted was to be free, and to move as much as she was allowed.
She sat on the edge of the fountain to think about this. She thought about what would be and if she would ever calm the fire that burned within her. She wanted to just get on a train to anywhere and watch the landscape and cities roll by. It had been a long time since she had done something like that. She was about to get on her feet when someone came to sit beside her. Clare turned to see who it was and recognised Alex who studied on the same course as her at the university. Looking at the water from the fountain made her feel cold. Alex lit a cigarette and watched the squirrels. He had not noticed Clare.
“Hi” Clare said.
Alex turned his head, “Oh hi.”
“You alright?” Clare asked.
“Yeah, I’m not bad. You?”
“Did you read that book you ran off to buy the other day?” Alex asked, blowing smoke up into the air.
“Yeah. I finished it last week. It was pretty good” Clare replied.
Alex nodded. “Got mixed reviews.”
“You can borrow it if you want” Clare suggested.
“Maybe” Alex said. He finished his cigarette and threw it in the fountain. Clare watched it fall and then lie there, sodden and tragic looking; polluting the water flowing down from the marble fountain. “Wanna get out of here?”
Clare nodded. “Could go for a drink or something.”
“Yeah, alright. Let’s go into town.”
They stood up and walked down the hill to the park’s entrance. As they walked along the cobbled streets, it started to rain. At first, the raindrops were light and inconsistent, but soon the sky opened up and the rain beat against the street in furious bursts. Clare and Alex hurried along the pavement, avoiding puddles and talking about new wave music. Clare and Nick had bonded over their favourite band. Did the bands we liked really indicate the people we were supposed to be with? Clare thought that this was very shallow. She was searching for something deeper, yet she still felt that it was possible to find that within Alex.
He told her about the novel he was writing. It was about two young men trying to find their place in the world. He explained the plot so far, but admitted that he had been stuck all week on what should happen next. He was struggling to find his voice as a writer and felt dwarved by those who had already written better than he could ever write.
Clare found him to be quite self-obsessed as he talked about this, but she did not care for she was becoming more and more obsessed with him herself.
They had reached the end of the street now and had been so caught in their web of conversation that they had forgotten to find somewhere to go for a drink.
“I live near here” Alex said. “We could go and listen to records at mine. I have some beers.”
“Yeah, alright” said Clare.
Clare knew that she was too clever to be going back with him, but as puddles gathered on the streets they walked through, it was too late to go back. She smoked one of his cigarettes as they kept walking and talked about their dreams of the future.
“I’m nobody” Clare said, “But a collection of the people I will be in the future.”
Raindrops sparkled on Alex’s eyelashes as he reached out and took her hand in his. They walked into the apartment block and ascended the stairs.
“The lift always stinks of sick” Alex explained.
He opened the door to his flat, and the corridor was littered with clothes and empty takeaway boxes. “Sorry about the mess” he said. “I live with all boys.”
He unlocked the door to his room and they went in. “Put a record on and I’ll go and get the beer.”
Clare flicked through the records in the plastic box underneath the desk. She picked out a Talking Heads Best Of record, but could not figure out how to turn on the player. She scanned Alex’s bookshelf instead. It was fairly sparse, but she picked out a Haruki Murakami book. She had only ever read ‘Norwegian Wood’, but counted it among one of her favourite books of all time. She loved the romance and the tragedy; the intensity of it all.
Alex came back in with the beer and put the record player on. He took the book from Clare and placed it back on his shelf, mumbling something about how it was a gift from his grandparents, how he hadn’t read it. As Clare watched Alex place the book in the exact same place on the shelf, she noticed how tidy his room was and wondered what that said about him.
They drunk more beer and played more records as the afternoon turned into the evening. By the time the sunset, they were dancing around Alex’s room. Alex pulled some sunglasses off his shelf and danced with them on. He switched on the coloured lights he had and Clare looked up to watch them flash across the ceiling. When her eyes fluttered back down, Alex’s face was close to hers. Before Clare had time to react, his lips were on hers. He kissed her deeply and passionately, picking her up and carrying her over to the bed. He lay next to her then began to kiss her again. He pushed his hand up her skirt and Clare gasped. She let it happen. Part of her knew it was a bad idea but she let it happen anyway. She kissed him back. In these moments, she loved him more than ever and she smiled then kissed him again. It was time to be weak and let her feelings take over her.
Afterwards, Clare sat up on the edge of the bed and began to cry.
“What’s the matter?” Alex asked softly.
“I really like you” Clare sobbed, “But I’m pretty sure you have a girlfriend.” Clare looked over at him when she said this.
“Yes” was all Alex said.
“Do you love her?” Clare asked.
“Yes” Alex said again, “She’s the first and only person I’ve ever loved.”
The harshness of his words compelled Clare to sob even more.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because I’ve never experienced requited love. I can’t decide whether it’s better to love or to be loved, but why can’t I have both?”
“Don’t cry” Alex sat up and put his arm around Clare. “You’re beautiful and interesting.”
They went outside to share a cigarette and Clare pictured the buildings all around them falling to the ground. Clare wiped her eyes and asked Alex about an essay they had both been assigned. They were back to making regular conversation and Clare felt the dream within her dying. She knew that she would never again be the same person as she had been earlier in the year when she had walked around with a light heart and a youthful curiosity. She felt as if she had aged forty years in a matter of minutes.
They lay on Alex’s bed and he kissed her again, but it was a friendly kiss this time and it was devoid of passion. Clare looked straight up and waited for the ceiling to fall in.
Clare opened her eyes and the ceiling was still there. Alex was still there with his arms wrapped around her. The empty beer bottles from yesterday afternoon lay still in the blue light.
Clare climbed over Alex without waking him, and got dressed. He had placed his shirt on her the night before. She breathed in its scent one last time, before taking it off. Alex awoke as Clare left, but he just watched her open and close his door.
It was a long walk back to her flat and Clare took it slowly, thinking about all her dreams of love and how they kept accumulated in the wrong people. She knew she would see him again. Maybe that was a good thing. He was magnetic and charming, Clare could watch him for hours.
The sky was very blue that day. Clare remembered Nick. Maybe the way she felt about Alex was the way he felt about her. This thought made her feel terrible. Nick had not contacted her. She wondered if they would ever speak again. Clare thought about how there was so much hurt in looking for longlasting friendship and romance and she turned away in tears when she remembered that friendship is supposed to provide the opposite of hurt.
A week later, Clare sat up at Park Hill again, looking down over the city. She had not seen nor spoken to Nick. She had seen Alex in the smoking area a few nights ago and given him a cigarette. He took one drag, then put it out because his friends were calling him back inside. She thought about all the plans she had made for them in her mind, but she had bigger dreams now.
Clare thought about the city and all its suburbs. It was calling out to her now.