In certain hours of night, on very unusual summer days, in only the most occasional weeks at very particular times of year, the streets of Bristol dance with nighttime like God’s violin were eking out a diamond melody from even the stillest and most reluctant paving stone. The streetlights showed no people on Whiteladies Road at 4AM sometime in late May, but if they had been there and had listened very closely, they might have heard the quiet tune of the calm in the leaves, the closeness of the night’s sky and the faraway twitter of a skylark, all rocking this way and that in the warm summer air.
In fact, although Whiteladies Road was quite perfectly empty on this fine summer night – so empty that had you whistled down it the only thing that might hear you were the trees – there were several people awake and busy not very far from it at all. Up by the Downs at the top of the hill, on the Clifton side, there is a road called Worrall Road, and down there and somewhere to the right was a house that on this particular night was filled with music. But this music was a different sort to the kind blowing about outside: it was less subtle, less euphoric, simultaneously both more and less focussed. It demanded that you pay attention to it, but at the same time that you forget what you are listening to.
The house party at Thirteen Sutherland Place had begun at nine and raged like an electric storm from eleven til three, at which point the crowds began to thin like the manic rain that breaks a long, oppressive patch of heat. The sitting room and bedrooms, unrecognisable from their daily forms, had been convulsing with sound in between lights more lugubrious than a graveyard; students had come and thrown their all at the great combustion of energy pulsing through the ceiling and floorboards like the wires that kept the city alive had momentarily broken loose and electrocuted the air they breathed. Empty beer cans, cigarette ends and the odd drugs baggy polluted the floor like the slow smoke that tainted the air. Most of the partygoers had left now. Downstairs in the sitting room a small group remained, appearing to listen to music from someone’s phone but perhaps not really hearing a thing, passing a lucrative joint between them and frequently forgetting what the topic of conversation was, if indeed there was one at all. A musical ecstasy had been reached for some of them, and now they were drifting away from the dizzy-dazzying highs they had achieved, uncertain if they were ever to land where they had taken off just a few hours before.
And outside in the garden was Danny Torrent, the creator of the party, rolling an infinite cigarette and talking to his friend Tom Reader, whom in fact he did not know as well as he might.
‘I’m feeling strange, Tom.’ The cigarette paper was licked and the tobacco rolled. Danny reached for his lighter. ‘I’m feeling very strange indeed.’
The summer night that had never truly become night had already begun to roll back into morning, and in the leaves around them the plaintive warning sounds of the morning birds had begun to sing.
‘In what way?’ said Tom. He had his own straight cigarette ready to smoke.
‘I’ve been thinking about Talia a lot tonight. I was thinking about her a lot anyway, but – I don’t know. I thought maybe she’d come tonight.’
He lit the cigarette. Tom, quiet and sceptical, a History student and an always perceptive young man, kept his face steady. He knew Danny better than Danny knew him, and would sum him up as someone too intelligent for his own good. If he was worrying about his ex-girlfriend, he was really worrying about something much greater.
‘Really? Why would you expect her to come? I thought it makes no sense for you two to be together?’
‘No, it doesn’t. It makes absolutely no sense. I’m going away too soon, and she’s staying here. And you know what I think about staying here. I can’t. I need to get away. I desperately need some perspective.’
‘You keep saying that, but I don’t know what that means.’
Two other hangers-on from the party came outside to smoke joints, and their conversation mixed quietly with the chatting of the birds behind them. Danny suddenly stood up on the bench and looked over the wall, from which you could see the whole city spread out beneath you like a bowl of distant lights.