The street lights cast their isolated amber glow, barely bright enough to light more than a small radius around them. Alex, trudging down the pavement, vaguely remembered something in the local rag about the street lights being too bright, but he hadn’t read the article properly. It could have been that they were not bright enough. It mattered very little, but it occupied his mind as he stepped out of the doorway leading to his first floor flat all the way to the end of his road. Even with the street lights there was an indescribable sense of malice in the way the shadows loomed around closed shops and tenement buildings. It was an ugly part of town.
Alex pulled his coat tightly about him. It was not an overly cold night for the time of year, but in a strange way it brought comfort from the dark countenance of the buildings. He trudged on through the lamplight, turning out of his street into the main road that ran from the centre of town. The street lights were brighter here, illuminating the run down façade of the Victorian factory. Large empty windows smothered with dust glared down at Alex, like the empty eyes of some long dead beast. He ignored it, walking on more quickly to pass it before crossing. Two teenagers, hoods pulled about their faces were walking aimlessly down the pavement. One of them, clutching coins and notes in one hand, turned towards Alex slowing his pace.
“Will you go to the shop for us?”
“No,” Alex responded laconically, moving off before their rude inquiry could turn to outright anger. Not that he was worried if it did; he was just too tired to deal with it. He was too tired to deal with anything. They did not seem to be bothered by his refusal, though, continuing on down the road in search of someone else to pester to buy them cheap alcohol from the all night garage.
Alex turned into a small alleyway that cut through the middle of the industrial buildings newly renovated for office spaces and flats. There were no street lights here and though there was little cloud cover, it took Alex’s eyes a small time to adjust to the new darkness. He was enclosed by high walls but he walked through confidently; being surrounded was better than the strange shadows thrown in the main streets.
The river made a soft noise as he emerged from the alley mouth, its black shape cutting through the town like a vast snake winding through tall grass. Fairy lights had been hung at Christmas under the span of the bridge, and they still swayed in the breeze. Several of the bulbs had blown in the months since they were hung, and Alex shook his head at the pathetic glow those remaining gave out. Like tattered streamers hung at a funeral. It was a relief to step onto the bridge, where the lights could not be seen. Alex approached the edge and leaned against the rail, peering away from the town. Further down the river boats could be seen rocking gently, their masts shaking like admonitory fingers. The water was dark as ink as it passed beneath the bridge. Alex imagined the cold of it, the choking mud, and the strangling reeds reaching out from the river bed. He put a foot on the railing and climbed up.
The wind whipped at his coat as he spread his arms out, its trail flapping in the wind. He adjusted it so that it didn’t smack against his legs, and then laughed at how pointless it was now. A cat cried, a primal howl of pain, and then fell silent. Alex looked down at the water below, took a deep breath and then snorted it out with contempt. The vapour billowed out from his nose in a small cloud. Alex watched it dissipate and then closed his eyes. Now, he told himself, now’s the time.
There was a small cough from behind him. He did not want to turn, but there was something about that cough. Not familiar, not persistent, but something about it that meant that it could not be ignored. Opening his eyes again and blinking into the wind slightly, Alex turned his head. In his peripheral vision he could see the shape of an old man, slightly hunched, one hand resting on a stick. He was dressed in a thick jumper, shirt, and smart trousers, his silver hair standing up from his head, teased by the wind. He stood on the opposite side of the bridge, looking out towards the town. If he had been standing on the rail he would have mirrored Alex entirely. Alex hoped that the old man would wander on, coughing to himself, but he did not. He stood resolutely looking along the river towards the town, leaning on his stick, and occasionally letting a small cough out from between his lips. Go away! Alex thought, but the man merely blew his nose on a white handkerchief that looked like a ghost in the darkness. It was of no consequence; the old man seemed oblivious to Alex’s presence and would presumably be as oblivious to his absence. The splash would not bother him unduly. Turning his head back towards the river, Alex closed his eyes and concentrated on the sound of the water slipping past the bridge’s supports.
“You jumping, yeah?”
Alex froze instinctually for a second and then turned his head and opened his eyes. The old man was stood off to his left hand side, gnarled fingers drumming the rail on which Alex was standing. Alex could see the man’s scalp beneath his white hair and the lines across his forehead. The old man wasn’t looking at him though; he was staring out over the river.
“You jumping?” the old man repeated. His tone was casual, as if he were commenting on how the weather was getting warmer or the scene he was surveying. It threw Alex, who found himself responding with a simple “yes”. The old man nodded as if he understood, but gave no other sign of acknowledging Alex’s admission.
Alex closed his eyes again, drew another deep breath and snorted it out. He tried to shove the old man from his mind and focus on what he was about to do. The finger tapping continued, a dull tattoo backed by the river’s flowing melody. Alex tried to ignore it, but it was relentless. He willed his legs to move, to take the one step out from the bridge, but he couldn’t. They were frozen by the presence of this old man. He was intruding on something private, shoving the desiccated flesh of his nose in where it didn’t belong. Opening his eyes again, Alex crouched and manoeuvred so that he was now sitting on the rail, feet swinging above the drop to the water below.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked the old man, who had still not looked at Alex.
“At what?” Alex asked, turning his head left and right to take in the sights. Perhaps the boats would be interesting for the old fellow in the daylight, but when they were nothing more than vague shapes in the darkness what was there to see. The man stopped drumming his fingers. A small silence ensued, before he spoke.
It was said with disbelief, as though it should have been obvious to anyone that someone standing on this bridge in the middle of the night would be there specifically to look at the moon. Alex stared at the old man, who turned his head towards him. For the first time Alex saw his face. He had watery grey eyes and his face was lined with his age, though there was a vivacity to the man, as if the spark of life fired deep within him. Alex wished the old man could say the same for him. The old man raised one of his fingers from the rail and pointed to the moon, which hung above the river. It was a fat crescent shape, as if a ship was sailing across a wide, dark sea with a solitary silver sail being billowed by the wind.
“Beautiful. Not many people appreciate it. They just see it and think nothing more of it,” the old man said, and then continued without a breath between, “can I have your coat?”
“Your coat. If you’re jumping, you won’t need it.”
Alex frowned at the old man, trying to see if this was some sort of joke. There wasn’t the trace of a smile on the man’s face. As if to confirm the impression that his question had been genuine, the old man reached out and took hold of the bottom of the coat, which still flapped in the breeze.
“Sure,” Alex said, shrugging, “sure you can.”
What did it matter to him after all? It was not going to be any use to him where he was going and it would mean it wasn’t catching the wind. He swung his legs over the rail, stepped down, shrugged the coat from his shoulders, and handed it to the old man. He thanked Alex and slipped it on. Alex was more than a little surprised that it fitted him, more so that it actually suited him. The man offered Alex his hand, and, slightly bemused, Alex shook it.
“Good luck,” the old man said and then turned and walked away, his shuffling gait eventually taking him out of sight. Alex moved back over to the rail, climbed up, and looked out over the river. The wind seemed to have stirred up a bit, and it stung at Alex’s arms, which had been covered by his coat. Goosebumps appeared on his forearms and his mind flew to visions of sitting drinking hot cocoa, a fire dancing merrily in the grate. He hesitated, looking at the silver sail of the moon, which the old man who had wanted his coat had come to admire. It was a beautiful thing now that Alex came to look at it. Had the moon actually been a sail, then the boat would have been passing across the sky back towards Alex’s home. There was cocoa in his cupboard and the milk was only a day or so old. He crouched on the rail, hands grabbing the cool metal, and then climbed down.
He wound his way back along the deserted streets, keeping an eye on the moon. It seemed to be coming nearer and nearer to him, although he knew that was impossible. As he stood outside the tenement building in which he had a flat, Alex noticed darker patches in the moon’s silver light, where craters and mountains that covered the rock’s surface met. They made a face, smiling benignly down at the earth. The man in the moon. Alex smiled. He approached his door and then realised that his keys had been in his coat pocket. He turned and that was when he saw it: his coat was hanging from the door handle, with a note attached. It read simply: ‘don’t forget the moon.’ Alex looked up and down the street but there was no sign of the old man. How did he know where I lived? As he unlocked the door to let himself in, Alex turned and looked at the moon one last time. It, like him, was sailing on.