When she comes back from the loos he has his arm coiled around Tiffany. She watches as he leans in and whispers something into her ear. Tiffany laughs. Rachel knows she’s seen her, but Tiff doesn’t move. Just stands there like she’s won something. There was a time when it would have made her sick, seeing Darren flirting like this. Seeing the way he is when she isn’t around. She knows him now, though. The aftershave he wears – the good stuff – when they’re out for the night. She knows it isn’t for her.
Her heels click across the tiles, warning him that she’s coming. He doesn’t turn but she sees his shoulders clench. Mark and Gaz take a step back.
–What you think you’re doing? I’m gone two minutes and you’re looking for someone new, are you? Nice, that is.
He acts surprised, like she’s said something they haven’t both heard before. His arm stays around Tiff’s shoulders. He pulls her a little tighter, pretending that he’s just being good mates.
–Calm it, won’t you? We’re all friends here, don’t be getting crazy. Can’t a guy hug his friends? Why do you always have to turn it into something?
They both know the answer to that, of course. She remembers the two nights he didn’t come home last month. He doesn’t even deny it when they’re alone. So what? he says. This is what men are built to do. Part of her wants to rip strips of perfumed flesh off him in front of his mates, but she’s tired of it all. They’re already staring at her like she’s an escaped gorilla, or an unexploded bomb. It’s so pathetic, all of it.
–Do what you want. I’m taking a walk, I need some air. You gonna come with?
He just stands there, a grin twitching at the corner of his mouth. She turns and click-clacks back across the tiles. Snatches her bag from the table, pushes through the door into the night air. It punches her like an icy fist, making her suck in her breath, wrap her arms around her middle. She’d forgotten it was so cold, now that summer is sliding into autumn. It’s not quite dark, the moon riding low in the sky, a warped oval that gives everything a silvery sheen. She tastes the air again.
She doesn’t know where to go. Mark drove them from the centre of town, ten minutes at least, four songs on the car stereo. There’s nothing in both directions, just the road. Fields lurking behind moss-cloaked stone walls. She feels stupid, standing in the middle of the road like this. She shouldn’t be the one who’s the object of ridicule. Not after what he’s done.
She picks a direction and starts walking. The wall is low, the fields spread black and unknowable beyond it. She sticks close as she staggers, in case someone comes hurtling around a corner. You never know on a Friday night. She’s dated a few boy racers in her time. She hadn’t realised how much light the pub was leaching into the darkness, but as she turns the first corner she finds there’s only blackness beyond. She takes her shoes off, dangling them from one hand. The cold seeps between her toes like iced water, numbing them, but she doesn’t care. She feels the road beneath her, the silence that falls now her heels have stopped tapping. There might be nothing out this way but grass and dirt and trees and stone. She’s unsure where any of this leads.
When she first hears it she thinks it’s a cat. A long, piercing mew, like a tabby, or the strays they get around the estate. She wonders what a cat would be doing this far from anywhere. Maybe civilisation is closer than she thought. A cottage or something, perhaps even a village. She could call a taxi, make her exit.
Then she sees it. It perches on a stone gate post, its head held alert. She doesn’t know what it is, but it’s big. She’s never seen a bird this big before. Her eyes have adjusted to the thin moonlight and she can make out the white-grey speckling across its front, what look like pale stripes on its broad, flat tail. Its eyes are dark pebbles above a claw beak. She stops, holds still, trying not to breathe. It’s the size that surprises her most. At this distance it looks unfeasibly large, like a dog. Almost too big to be a bird. It might be an eagle, she thinks, or more likely a buzzard. Her dad would know.
Her breath is misting in the air but she stands still, her feet so cold they’re one with the road. The bird is still too. A breeze stirs across its chest feathers, ruffling, and the head swivels, moving independently of its body. It looks in her direction. Its gaze feels like a thousand tiny ants crawling across her skin. It must have seen her. She tries to calm her breathing but it only makes her heart beat faster. She can’t control the shiver that spreads upwards from the soles of her feet, the tidal wave in her bone marrow. It’s so dizzying she gasps.
Then the bird’s head swivels back and its weight shifts, its chest heaving as it leans forward and falls off the gate post. In the briefest moment its wings bloom outwards, its tail fanning wide. There’s an audible whoosh of air. It looks as if it might fall flat into the road but then its wings start to work, slowing its descent as it glides over the tarmac and then lifting it, lifting that mass of blood and flesh and feathers away from the ground, over the far wall and into the field, still rising, circling into the night sky. She watches for as long as she can, until it’s nothing more than a dark speck above distant trees.
Rachel feels silly all of a sudden, standing in the middle of a dark, lonely road on a Friday night. She hugs herself against the chill breeze, trying to make sense of where she is. Still holding her shoes she turns around and treads softly back towards the pub.
There’s music spilling out of the front door as she gets closer, a dance hit from a couple of years ago. Laughter crackles into the night air. The wall is knee-high here, and without thinking she steps up on to it, letting the glow that leaks from the building light her way. The stones are rough and uneven after the man-made perfection of the tarmac. One wobbles slightly and she laughs, surprising herself with the sound. It feels good. Like being a child again, holding daddy’s hand as she edges along the wall-top, daring herself to go just that little bit further. Something digs into her heel but she doesn’t mind. It’s a bright kind of pain, the kind that reminds her she’s alive. Not like the pain she’s felt recently, with Darren.
Thinking of him makes her lift her head, peering beyond the end of the wall towards the soft light of the pub. It doesn’t seem possible, but from here she can see through one of the windows into the bar, where her friends stand in a group by the pumps. Darren still has his arm around Tiff, their faces close. She’s not sure if they’re kissing. Gaz and Mark are still there too, Gaz chugging his beer. The light refracts through his glass, sending an amber sparkle out into the night. She knows she should be there with them.
But tonight, as the breeze feathers her hair away from her face, she finds herself filled with a desire for something else. She shivers, the goosebumps a pleasurable reminder that she is alive. Without thinking she lets go of the shoes, barely aware of them falling into a tangle of nettles. She is with the buzzard – for that’s what it was, she is certain – the way that it dropped from its perch, falling, falling, floating momentarily, then lifting again to soar above the road, the fields, higher and higher until it vanished from sight. Her head is still swirling, but she thinks it might be the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
She looks back at the window but now she can’t see Darren, or Tiffany, or the others. They have moved somewhere else, gone from her sight. She laughs. They are wise to hide from her, because now she knows who she is. She knows what she has to do. She stands on the edge of the wall, the breeze sharp against her bared throat. She feels the stonework through her toes, smells the scent of grass and dirt wafting from across the fields. The night rises around her. Then she tips forward and lets her wings unfurl.
Dan Coxon edited the award-winning anthology Being Dad (Best Anthology, Saboteur Awards 2016) and is a Contributing Editor at The Lonely Crowd. His writing has appeared in Salon, Popshot, Gutter and The Portland Review, amongst others. He runs a proofreading and editing service at MomusEditorial.co.uk. Tweet him at @DanCoxonAuthor.