Nathan rubbed the back of his head. Stubble scratched his fingers. His jaw tensed and his leg twitched. It was only for a moment, but she noticed.
‘Again?’ she asked.
‘Sometimes it seems like you miss it?’
‘Why must you think about it so often, then? Do you want me to take your mind off it?’ she reached out, took his chin in her hands, and guided his lips towards hers. Before, the hairs on the back of his neck might have stood on end. But those hairs had long been shaved. Now, she kissed him and he felt nothing. He pushed her away and stood up. He began dressing. He couldn’t lie there with her any longer. He needed to be alone.
‘Bye,’ he said, putting on his boots and pulling up the hood of his sweatshirt. He pulled the drawstrings tight around his face.
‘When will you be back?’ she asked, but he was already gone.
He walked out of the flat and down the thirteen flights of stairs to the ground floor. He pushed open the tower block door and emerged into the darkness outside. The cold chewed at what little of his face was exposed. It was his first full British winter for ten years and it hurt. He thought about turning back and returning to her, but he knew that she wouldn't leave him alone.
Nathan walked without purpose. After a while he went into a corner shop to escape the cold. The Arab shopkeeper looked up as the bell above the door rang.
‘Either remove your hood or leave,’ he said.
Nathan pulled down his hood and picked up a bottle of vodka. He crossed to the counter.
‘Anything else?’ the shopkeeper asked.
‘Those,’ Nathan said, pointing to a red packet of cigarettes.
‘Not those, please?’
‘Please,’ Nathan said. The shopkeeper passed him the cigarettes and took his money.
‘Manners cost nothing, you know?’ the shopkeeper said, as Nathan walked towards the door.
Nathan could feel the weight of the weapon tucked into his sock. He pictured the shopkeeper’s blood-soaked face
The bell jingled above Nathan's head as he pushed open the shop-door. The cold rushed him and made his bare ears raw.
‘People are getting so rude,’ Nathan heard the shopkeeper say, as he pulled up his hood. He lit a cigarette and walked back the way he had come, stopping only when he reached the tower block. Standing outside in the cold, he stared at the door. Not for the first time in his life, he wondered if he had the courage to do what he knew was necessary. He put out his cigarette and opened the bottle of vodka. He took a swig. Then he took another. Then he pushed open the door and walked inside. It took him a while to walk, slowly, back up the fourteen flights of stairs. He pushed open the flat door and was rushed by the heat. She was in the kitchen cooking. It smelt like egg.
‘Nathan, is that you?’ she called. Nathan didn’t answer. Overwhelmed by the hopefulness of her voice and the stench of egg, he closed the door and walked back down the stairs. He knew he still wasn’t ready and she was cooking; she never cooked. He knew what she wanted and he didn’t feel like eating. He walked back out into the cold night air and opened the vodka again.
Snow began to fall heavily as Nathan walked. He watched it as it fell, dusting the ground in front of his feet. He stopped under a street lamp and sat down, leaning his back against it. He sat and drank and watched the snow fall around him. He hadn’t seen snow since he was eighteen. He’d only been given a week’s leave each Christmas and it had never snowed. He noticed the way that it built up, thick, on the tiled roofs of the houses. He was a long way from the tower block. He was a long way from home and from her.
Nathan thought about the snowflakes. He thought about how every snowflake became lost in the abyss of others. Nathan put out his hand. Several flakes landed on it but they all melted at his touch. All that remained was water. It was so thin, so insubstantial. He closed his eyes and felt it freeze tight to his skin.
She had waited ten years for him to come home, and now she wanted him to father her child.
Guns rattled and a homemade bomb exploded behind him.
She had waited ten years for him to come home, but she was blind to who he had become.
Women were screaming and children were crying. Nathan's boots left bloody footprints on the ground.
She had waited ten years for him to come home, but he knew he never would.
He wished that she hadn’t waited. He had tried to tell her but she wouldn’t listen.
He stood up and finished his bottle of vodka before dropping it to the floor. The bottle smashed and the last dregs
of drink spilt onto the dusted path.
Nathan took the weapon from his sock and walked back through his footprints, hoping he was ready.