The Met Office issued a level three heat warning for the first time that year. It was after three A.M., but it was still hot in the flat as we lay together in the small room, the still-neutral distance between us bridged in part by my bangled arm. The bangles clinked gently as he ran his fingers over them. The noise stopped for a moment as the fingers paused.
"Here too?" he said.
I nodded wordlessly. There too. He pushed the bangles aside, and his fingers traced instead the fine, white lines on my arm, complements to the neat, red scars above my knee that my pyjama shorts did not pretend to hide. Fingertips felt between the bangles, finding more of the numerous scars.
"So, how's the madness, then?" he asked, with all the inoffensive rudeness of an old friend. I shrugged as best I could with my head propped up on my free arm.
"Not too bad," I said. "I'm fine."
He didn't lift his eyes from the scars that belied my assertion.
"Ok, well, obviously…" I half-lifted my left arm, where the evidence of my continuing madness was abundant. "There's nothing new, though," I added quickly, feeling the need to justify myself.
"So you've stopped?" he asked, meeting my eyes this time, his hand still for a moment on my arm. I made a noncommittal sound.
"It's been three months," I said, sidestepping brightly. It was a question I couldn't answer.
"What happened three months ago?"
I laughed softly. "Same old madness. You know."
"So did it help?"
"I felt like an idiot at the hospital when they had to stitch me up," I said, recalling the brisk impatience of the hospital staff towards "people like me."
"Well, it was a stupid thing to do," he said, as bluntly as ever, but there was no malice in his tone.
"I know," I said. "I don't think I've ever felt more stupid." I turned my arm over while I spoke to show him the latest change in the topography of my skin – the largest of my scars, still red-purple, bordered on either side by 5 pinprick stitch marks. He touched it gently before returning to stroking my arm, sliding his fingers over the small ridges of scars visible between the black bangles.
With infinite slowness, his hand moved to touch mine, his fingertips lightly brushing the back of my hand, the skin there smooth and unscarred. He hesitated, the territory unfamiliar. I didn't move my hand away. Instead, I turned it over, offering a wordless invitation, which he accepted, slipping his fingers between mine.
Our hands clasped in the predawn darkness of the London summer. We looked at each other until my gaze slipped shyly away from his. Our casual conversation gave no hint of the new direction the situation had taken. We spoke about everything except what we were at that moment, two old friends with fingers intertwined.
Without letting go of my hand, he began to trace the line of my arm with his free hand, running his fingers over the scars and up over my shoulder, as slowly as if he wanted to learn everything about me, studying the geography of my skin. I was still too shy to meet his gaze, and my eyes drifted, settling on nothing, only occasionally glancing at the intent look on his face as he watched me, checking for my reactions. He knew me too well not to know how easy it would be for me to panic and retreat to my own bed, feigning tiredness. I smiled briefly, and squeezed his hand, although my heart was racing.
The fingers continued their study, moving over my shoulder to my neck, where they paused.
"You've lost your weird neck thing," he said. "You're not even flinching."
I shook my head. "I haven't lost it," I said. "I guess… This just doesn't bother me." I was never cut out to be in a romance novel. I was hardly about to tell him how right it felt to be lying there with him, how being touched by anybody else still made me jump.
I met his eyes then, and we held each other's gaze, two sets of blue eyes locked together for what felt like the first time. Neither of us spoke.
"I think at some stage we're going to have to stop pretending this is a normal conversation," I said quietly.
"Maybe," he said. We fell silent again, neither of us sure where to begin. I took a deep breath, but he spoke first.
"Whatever this is, it's just tonight. There are just too many reasons –"
"I know," I cut in. Relief and disappointment vied for dominance. "I just needed to – I was scared. I am scared. I don't want to hurt you. Again." I was inarticulately apologetic.
"You won't," he said, brushing a strand of hair out of my face.
"Sorry, by the way," I added, trying to keep the mood light. The sudden seriousness was as disconcerting and new as everything else.
"It wasn't your fault," he shrugged. "I was really lame back then."
"No!" I chastised him. "It was sweet."
"No, definitely lame."
"I'm trying to defend you, here," I said in mock indignation. "Sweet."
"All right, a little lame," I conceded. "But I'm still sorry you got hurt."
There was silence again, at least between us. London defied silence. Even in the hours before dawn, it buzzed. Outside the window, the first birds were stirring. The baby in the flat across the road was crying again.
His eyes lit on a large scar below my elbow, and he turned my arm to look at it.
"Hey!" I laughed, as he twisted my arm awkwardly. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all," he said pleasantly, examining the scar, as intently curious as a child. "What's this one from?"
"I put my arm through a window. Accidentally," I added hurriedly. "My first batch of stitches. On the plus side, now I have a lightning scar." Having grown up reading Harry Potter, it was a comparison my ten-year-old self had not been slow to make.
"It's more like a question mark," he said, tilting his head sideways. I tried to do likewise, but the position of the scar made it impossible, and I gave up.
"You'll never see the question mark," he said, with a mock-sorrowful shake of his head.
"That's tragic," I said, pulling a face.
"Totally," he agreed.
He smiled at me, and I returned it, not avoiding his eyes this time. We were quiet again, then. It was enough for us just to be together, our hands stickily clasped in the heat.
The early summer sunrise was already beginning to intrude on the little world we had created. The world outside would not be forgotten. The chorus of birds was out in full voice now, and there was already traffic on the roads, humming with increasing volume as the gears of the great city began to turn. Against my will, I was beginning to yawn, my three-in-the-morning energy depleted in the pale morning light.
"I should go," I said, although I made no move, reluctant to shatter our new-found intimacy, uncertain it would survive the light of day. "It could be awkward if I fell asleep here."
"It would definitely surprise my brother to come in and find us like this," he agreed, and I laughed, loudly enough for him to clap a hand over my mouth. I was unused to the thin walls of the little flat, and it showed.
"Ok, ok," I whispered, rolling my eyes and pushing his hand away. "Sorry. I forgot."
We lay for a few moments longer, trying to ignore the sun's probing fingers, and our own drooping eyelids.
"All right," I said at last, with a sigh. "I'm really going." I let go of his hand and sat up, making a half-hearted attempt to comb my hair with my fingers. I pushed myself off the bed and stood up on unsteady legs. I lingered in the doorway, and for a moment we just looked at each other, both of us with small half-smiles on our faces, unsure how to act.
"Well, good night," I said eventually, resting a hand on the door frame and looking at him affectionately.
"Good night," he responded, yawning widely, more tired than I was.
I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again, suddenly shy. One last, fleeting smile, and I left without another word, returning to my own room, just the other side of that thin wall. Tired as I was, it was a long time before I slept.
It was only years later, long after I returned to my own country, that I found that, if I stand in front of the mirror and turn my arm a certain way, I can see the question mark. As it turns out, the tragedy did not lie in my inability to see the punctuation mark in my scar. We never spoke of that night again, he and I, but whenever I let my fingers brush over the white ridges on my arms, I remember how it felt to be there with him. To be loved. The glib "I love yous" of the movies would have been absurd for us, somehow. I was not the only one who was never designed for a romance novel. A hundred obstacles separated us – and those three little words were, after all, just words. They went unsaid, and I returned to my Southern Hemisphere winter, six thousand miles from the heat wave of London. Life went on.
But I remember that geography lesson – the way my old friend studied the scarred contours of my skin, my ordinariness made fascinating through his gaze. And sometimes I can't help but laugh too loudly at the memory, but the laughter echoes emptily, so far from those thin walls, and I stand alone in the ensuing silence with nothing but my memories and my scars.