[Me and Kristen are getting married in a week. We were friends for a while before we got together, so this is the closest I have to the story of how we met. The following probably conflates the events of several different evenings, as my memory is jumbled after all these years.]
We got to the top of the hill just after the sun had dropped below the horizon, it'd been a long and enjoyably unproductive day. A morning’s shopping trip had turned into an afternoon playing frisbee in the park, which then turned into an evening in the pub across from the cathedral. We four; Me, Kristen, Tom, and Sarah had just completed the tiring hike back up St Dunstan’s Hill from town. As we crossed into the field on the edge of campus Tom darted off to our left, rummaging around in his satchel for his camera. After a few moments, and a few significant glances at Kristen, Sarah walked off after him.
At the time Tom was using this crazy-looking Soviet camera that he'd found in a junk sale, it was a sort of rustic version of my own 80's Pentax, all odd protrusions and non-standard mountings. All the markings on the case, as well as the little instructional booklet that he'd found in the box, were in Cyrillic, so it generally took him about ten minutes to get the exposure settings right. His photographer’s eye had been drawn to the whimsical towers and gables of St Dunstan’s college, an eccentric, Hogwarts-like private school on the edge of the university campus. I could faintly hear him enthusing breathlessly to Sarah about the quality of the light, the word ‘chiaroscuro’ was carried over to us by a gust of wind.
While Tom was off in his own little world, fiddling with the arcane camera, me and Kristen sat down on the grass. The contrast between the two halves of the sky was now at its most dramatic – the thin clouds along the western horizon were glowing orange, while the first few stars were beginning to appear in the east. Kristen said something about feeling cold. I opened my mouth to offer her my jacket, but before I could say anything she burrowed herself under my arm.
She didn't feel cold, in fact, I could feel the warmth radiating off her after the walk up the hill. I was frozen for a few moments, not sure how exactly to react, my knowledge of American social customs was still a little shaky – perhaps she was just being friendly, I thought. After a brief argument in my head, I rested my awkwardly suspended hand on her waist, almost pulling it away when I realised that her top had ridden up a few inches and I was touching her bare skin. There was no stiffening of her body or pulling away, no response at all in fact. I relaxed and looked up and the stars.
I started talking about how strange it had been to me, coming to Kent from London. How I was used to being able to see five, perhaps ten stars on a clear night, and how I initially struggled to sleep without the glow of a million reflected streetlights. I'm not sure if she was listening, or if I'd told her all of this stuff before. I was only half paying attention to what was coming out of my mouth. The the rest of my mind was fixated on my hand, and on what it could feel – the curve of her hips, the softness of her skin, which had a smoothness that no skin of mine, not even my eyelids or the backs of my ears comes close to. She started talking about her own hometown, about the glow from the headlights on the freeway, the drone of the cicadas. Her description conjured up a feeling of enveloping, comforting warmth, where the darkness was somehow thicker and deeper than anything I'd known.
At this point my eye was caught by something in the sky over to my right, a tiny pinpoint of orange light moving up between the stars. To this day I'm not entirely sure what it was – perhaps a piece of space junk burning up, or a meteor, or some strange optical illusion created by a high-flying aircraft. I didn't say anything to Kristen about it, and she had by this point stopped talking. We sat in silence while Tom and Sarah slowly walked back towards us. As I looked more closely at the light. I fancied I could see a faint trail streaming out below it, like the exhaust coming out of a rocket.
All of a sudden the bottom dropped out of my head, taking the warm feeling with it. I suddenly felt very sober, very old. The librarian in my brain, issued with the query ‘what sort of rocket-like thing would be launched out over the North Sea’, had returned with a folder marked ‘Trident Missile’. Inside there was plenty of detail, diagrams and statistics about blast radius and fallout, people burned into shadows and earth turned to glass.
I have no idea where this thought had come from, and the sensible part of me knew it was stupid. There had been no recent rise in international tensions, and the cold war was over, right? but some nagging part of my mind couldn't shake the terrified feeling that I was watching the first moments of a catastrophe, the little bouncing rocks that come before a landslide.
After a few moments’ thought, I realised that above all else, I felt cheated. I could smell Kristen’s hair, feel her heartbeat against my arm and the gentle rising and falling of her shoulders. My mind went back to how lovely she'd looked earlier that day, smiling and laughing in the pub – her big blue eyes widening as Tom told a particularly gory story from his teenage years. I suddenly saw clearly all the hints I'd been too nervous to pick up on at the time.
I pulled her a little closer, rested my head on hers, and closed my eyes. There was no flash, no blast, just the sound of Kristen’s steady breathing and the approaching footsteps of our friends.