Afternoons, according to Rob, were not much good for anything. Just when lunchtime had worked up a head of steam and seemed to be well on the way to evening, it suddenly stopped, leaving you with this continuation of daylight which was, frankly, unnecessary. 'I mean, why is there so much daylight? What's it for? You can see perfectly well at night. Daylight just seems exaggerated, a bit literal-minded, if you know what I mean, Daniel.'
I decided he was drunk, though he was still speaking clearly enough, and striding down Gosling Rise so fast I could hardly keep up with him. Ahead of us, the sea was a chilly pale blue that made it look further away than it actually was. 'I don't feel that at all. I don't like the dark.'
'That's because you're the sort of well-behaved person who has nothing very much to gain from the darkness, Daniel. Three beers and three women and you're happy. You can go back to your Arctic and your corned beef, what was it?'
'Three and a half,' I said, running a few strides to catch up, 'beers, I mean.'
'Oh, so you're extra happy now, are you? You don't look it, just your usual studious self. So what do you do with your afternoons, read Derrida?'
The hiccup had come back in a more solid form, a fist-sized lump of peanut-mulch in my gullet. I only had time to breathe every two or three steps, and when I did the frosty air tasted of peanuts. 'I walk. And go to, go to bookshops.'
'That sounds very intellectual. I fancy that. And then we can get on the train to Fulmar and go to the party.'
'What, what party is this, Rob? I don't remember any party.'
He had stopped and was appraising the streets and shops round about, which caused me to career right past, finding it difficult to adjust my pace on the steep hill. When I came back, Rob was staring into a window-display of trusses, incontinence pads and prosthetic limbs, all pink plastic, beige canvas, straps and buckles. 'So this is Helmston,' he said, as if he had never been here before. 'Remarkable. Why do you think they put this place on a hill? Must be a bit of a poser for the customers. Why are you in such a hurry, Daniel? We've got the afternoon ahead of us, haven't we?'
'I don't... remember... party.'
'There's always a party if you look hard enough. It's a university, isn't it? But why am I telling you this, Daniel? You're the student.'
That afternoon was a series of non-sequiturs. Sometimes we were in bookshops, sometimes walking. At one time we were in a cafe because Rob had told me he was worried about my condition, and I needed to sober up. 'I can't understand it,' he said, 'unless you'd been drinking before I arrived. Have the hot chocolate with whipped cream. You need something on your stomach. Which is more - ' patting his own stomach - 'than I do. But I never eat anything, so it's hardly my fault.' Another time we were crunching along the beach, Rob still talking all the time, though I could hardly hear him for the wind and the grinding of the waves. He had bought a copy of Charles Olson's Maximus poems, an outsize yellow hardback, in one of the bookshops and was reading me bits of it as he walked. 'Projective verse, Daniel. What do you think?' He put the book on one of the drier mounds of shingle, picked up a stone and ran with it into the shallows, the water drenching his socks, before launching it into the waves and turning to me with a mock-triumphant look. 'Seven bounces, what you do think of that?'
I felt a sort of shadow pass over me, inside my head or outside it, I wasn't sure. I put my hand up to my forehead, as if to wipe it away.
'You know, Daniel, I like you. You're so easy to talk to. But you don't do much, do you?' He looked at me curiously, the way he had looked at the trusses. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
'It's the starlings,' I said. Or maybe I didn't. He didn't seem to hear me, anyway.