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THE AGE OF LONGING

Colin Huggett

 

But there are some things, that having no life of their own, look to the human heart for their existence

Leon Bloy

 


 

CHAPTERS

2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19

 

1

 

As I wake each morning, it is the photograph of her they have let me keep which helps obscure the past, these memories I have.

"I had no intention of telling them."

"You said you were going to?"

"I told you, you mustn’t believe everything I say."

In saying these words, a young girl made them into a captivating universe where for a fleeting second, together with the smile that barely touched her face and lips, I am brought to the edge of that completeness and perfection in which, for one incredible moment, I seem to vanish, as perhaps do all things when you finally reach yourself. And yet, because in her own unique way she was so flawlessly representative of that lissom youthfulness that escaped me when I was that age, I choke too in giving way to the past, to what I was and what I had missed. That was another of the things I tried telling them; if I had known someone like her then I would not be here now. They were, of course, concerned about what had happened, and in that way doctors have, kept asking just how it was that what took place between us could have ended as it had.

"You say she hurt you, and it was because of her that all this has come about." I recall one of them asking shortly after I arrived here. "But how could this be, she was only a girl?"

"By being herself," I replied

Yes, loveliness too, corrupts, as does the sad, forlorn recall of these events that have come to mean so much to me and which I spend all my time writing and thinking about. Alone, with all the time in the world as I face these walls and equally disquieting sheets of paper, wondering what next to write, to say about her, how to carry on when I feel so tired and drained, such a long way from those things that took place between us. It is what I have done, swallowed her and then been made to disgorge, this is why I am always so empty, so hungry, why I go on writing about her as if I shall go on forever, as though I shall never stop. And just as I am writing this, I hear her voice again; where does one go on that journey from one moment, one miracle, to the next, in that instant when reality and a breath at prayer converge, in that awesome silence following her first beguiling word.

It's a record I've heard thousands of times this past year or so, one I've come no closer to forgetting now or as I could then, and it's then, each morning, when I get out of bed and have a leg in this other unstable normality that comes with daylight, that I begin another of those collapses shaking me into so many pieces. Dressed for the street, for living, as they say, tears begin to trickle down my face as a door opens and she's standing there waiting to meet me, her smile putting me together once more, just as she is each time on opening the writing pad and seeing her naked among the pages, I again experience that utterly desperate wistfulness and loss twisting its bitter knife in me. Angel, I didn't know you were here, I thought you would either be in Greece or China, or one of those other places we once talked of going to. But you are here, though, it is you, and I love the torture, the next move you'll make, or maybe you'll fall asleep in some station or airport buffet or waiting room, your head on my shoulder, totally unaware of the frankly calculating stares of other travellers who, with that same, sly desire stiffening in them, have, like so many the world over, been mesmerised by the youthfully wayward appeal curving so frantically into your legs above and around a knee where a skirt and a sock have their own consummate ends.

Wanting you more than ever - to want, has, it seems, always been my greatest talent - the faultless, hazardous blue of your eyes muzzles into me with all the enigmatic textures of a fate whose unravelling, not so long after you left, continues to reverberate through those gestures and echoes that began to overtake me from the very start. While it is only now, from the depths of another kind of loneliness and futility, that I am able to resume this story and in so doing try to find some way of dealing with all those other inexplicable questions - the one big unending "Why?" - that shapes my existence and that of others like me incarcerated in the deathly hush of the countryside with no other future before us. In a place such as this, with so many people, you would not think it possible to be so alone. I miss you, how I miss you! You gaze out at me from within the depths of a photo­graph with such an unforgettable expression, I feel myself beginning another of those collapses into the dense layers of such infinitely complicated nostalgia, of tears shed and those to come, My love, a tear is no different from a kiss, both have so many meanings.

How did I come to be trapped in this nightmare? I wanted only to love you, to be with you, is that too much to ask from this unending solitude splitting itself into fragments, this next moment without you rushing towards me in the night? Are you still there? Can you hear me? What do I have to do to get you back? You can say anything now and I'll believe you, I'll believe it, even if it means forgetting my own life and living yours, as I always wanted. Rowan, I scream this next sentence out of a pitiless concoction of flesh and blood trying to pass itself off as life: don't go yet, please stay a little longer to hear what I have to say. Let me hold you once more and then die; you can be my suicide note.


 

2

 

Today I saw her again. It was in the town during the lunch hour as I was leaving the library, and seeing her on the other side of the road as I came down for a breath of air, I began to follow her, eagerly, hesitantly, with my eyes, as I had done on that last occasion when I was with Alison. But for reasons which seemed very clear at the time, but which then became frighteningly vague the second she had gone. I allowed her to hurry past, telling myself I would not have known what to say or do if I had caught up with her, and in the end I lost sight of her in the crowd. How old is she? Where does she live? Alongside such aimless if pertinent questions, I have no way of knowing her name, but because her presence brings to me a longing I have come to associate with the idea of consummation and that plaintiveness of dreams familiar in adol­escence, the words "Angel" and "Forever" come to my lips, while to myself, to my deepest hopes and wishes, I call her mine.

There are some people whose faces haunt you long before you ever come to know them. It had been like that with her, the very moment I saw her I knew that I was lost.

And then the following Saturday, which was just a week since I had first noticed her in the supermarket, the very thing that I found myself longing for but was equally afraid of happening, began to take place. Again, as on those two other occasions, seeing her intensified and demolished everything about the day, turning the most trivial and insignif­icant details into the monumental urgency they perhaps should attain when they belong to a chain of circumstances that are about to smash your life to pieces. I got out of the car and a few minutes later I was looking at her face once more and telling myself nothing would ever be the same again.

It was summer, a warm, bright day in early July, the fourth to be exact. I remember it quite clearly as it was two days after my fortieth birthday, not that one could easily forget it. Or meeting someone like Rowan. The second I saw her everything started to come back again, not only from those other times I had seen her, but going back beyond that, back to a past forming like a dim, hazy, but permanent recollection glowing warmly inside me, a nostalgia born not only of the past it seemed, but of a shared and unknown future wistfully imbuing it.

She was upstairs in the library's reference room, sitting at one of tables by the tall windows overlooking the roofs and street below. There were a number of books opened on the table in front of her, and although she was busily writing in one of those school exercise books with ruled lines that were very similar to those I use now, there was a tautness, something guardedly self-conscious about the position of her body and the way she sat, that made me think she knew I was there. Her head was turned away, in profile, but even though I could only see part of her face I was immediately flooded with those vague yet destructive tremors of a familiarity I had come across before, there was about her a simple immensity that gave rise to a feeling of danger and unease confirming a fascination that was more than good for me to know.

But real or unreal, it was as if I had come out of a deep sleep to find myself beside the person I had been dreaming about. She had that look about her which is not at all common but which you instinctually associate with and occasionally find in girls of her age group, one that in being both innocent and seductive owes its existence not only to the often shy and unconsciously knowing sidelong movement of the eyes, but also in the cohesive naturalness and simplicity of the hair, clothes, and gestures. It was this kind of simultaneous perfect­ing of features and general attractiveness which, appealing to something deep in myself, had given birth to those two earlier sentiments, angel and forever, while now, to the world created from that inward whisper, at finding myself closer to her than ever before, there was added a further endearment: "You!"

Leaving me floundering in their wake, the minutes passed as I fell between her and the ever-present awareness of time reflected not only in the movement of the clock on the wall, but also in my recollection of the past and of my own youth that flowed between us with such tender poignancy when I looked at her. It was almost mid-day and I should have been thinking ahead to the evening and to the preparations for the birthday party that Alison my sister had arranged and which had been held back until the weekend, but instead I couldn't help thinking of those other times scattered through the hours and days when she hadn't been there, when I had gone on looking for her, and wondered again, with a renewed curiosity that wasn't without jealousy, where she had spent them. I had told Alison I wouldn't be long, and in fact I had only gone to the library to check some references connected to something I was writing, but I knew I wouldn't be the first to leave, to move, and I continued to sit there, a short distance away from where she sat, absently eyeing the book in front of me, a pen held idly in my hand, remaining aware of her movements even when she made none, conscious of them when I wasn't actually watching, for already, in advance, they were giving way to the slow wave of the shock that I knew would take place when she finally got up to go. But even then, when I reached the window at the top of the stairs and was unable to see her in the street below, I take solace in the beginnings of a girlish blush that had accompanied the brief, deferential glance thrown in my direction as she got to her feet, turned, and left the room, her shoes squeaking on the polished floor. That quick­ening blush and glance, represent a whole armoury of welcome offerings, and smiling to myself I think of her, so close, so far away, and soon to return.


 

3

 

The days pass. I spend my time at the library either looking up at the clock or out of the window, glancing expectantly towards the door when someone comes in, in the hope that it may be her. And then?

It is now a week since I last saw her, and I think of the absence of this girl who is a stranger to me as one would a lover who has gone away; her endearments remain the voice of my own imaginings. I wonder where she is and what has happened to her, and all manner of suppositions enter my head by way of explanation. Perhaps she is ill or on holiday, perhaps she was only paying a visit to some relatives or friends in the town, although I tell myself this isn't likely. All the same, the thought that this may be true fills me with the same intolerable pain as the hesitancy rooted in the fear of rejection which prevented me from speaking to her in the library on that last occasion. Why didn't I?

My speculations are endless, and seem almost naive consid­ering I know so little about her, or indeed if she would ever recognise me again let alone become anything more than someone you pass in the street and give a polite nod or word to. And so in this way all my questions are left unanswered as I come back to my initial wondering while watching the street, the junction with its usual crowd of shoppers jostling each other by the traffic lights, the incessant flow and movement of time and people. As I say, it is rather pathetic that I am so emotionally involved with this girl while remaining a stranger to her, so I am forced by this impasse to wait, waiting is all I have, no matter how much I consider the options. It is only two weeks and yet it seems a lifetime since that day I first saw her, and yet, looking back over my life, was there ever a time when I wasn't thinking of her, when I wasn't anxiously waiting for her to come past the library, out of a shop, a railway station, or one of her moods. When wasn't I waiting for her to come out of herself and be mine.

I do not sleep well, and had another restless night interr­upted by my concern for the person whose plaintively haunting features and youthful bearing so much of my time revolves, for now, as then, no sooner am I asleep than I am fitfully awake again, glad to see the daylight appearing in its prying, uncertain way, as it in turn brings me closer to her, to that other world of people and activity outside the enclosing walls of the house. For even though the library does not open until nine o'clock, I find myself being carried along the town's main street by those hurrying to work, much earlier.

The buses and cars coming from the surrounding area all come to a stop in the market square, and more than once I found myself impatiently waiting there, knowing that if she came by bus - I'd told myself she'd be too young to have a car - I would be sure to see her. Instead, failing this, I go and stand in the shadow of the columns that form an archway to the front of the library building, following the procession of passers-by with an earnestness one would normally give to some more outstanding event or spectacle, remembering as I do - how could I forget?  - that day when from that same spot on which I was standing there began the awakening of that overwhelming poignancy that envelopes me when I think of her. Now and then I find a cafe in which to sit while waiting for the time to pass and because I tell myself it might somehow lead to her in vindication of my perseverance. So that even then, I am in reality leaning my head against the window onto the street as a child might in an attitude of wishful longing, as if touching the pane of glass could bring her back. Windows lend themselves to enchantment, a visor that allows one to gaze out at the world without being seen. To see and not be seen, is not only a voyeur's lament, it is an older man's too.


 

4

 

Today made up for all the disappointments and inexactitudes of the others; her name is Rowan, I saw it on the front of one of her books when she was out of the room. She had arrived soon after me, furthering my expectations in the hours ahead while revealing, too, the plight such fantasies give rise to. Do you judge a fool by his hopes, by the inevitable comparison with others that I make, or is it an unreal optimism, misplaced or not, as her face goes on conspiring with the tangible evidence of youth to form a barrier between us. What does a girl of her age, her agelessness, think and feel? She is like a painting, a picture whose rare, profound, and subtle beauty could never conceivably belong to me, and which by some force of necessity I can only stand back from and admire. I am in deep, I know that. I am lost, as I said at the beginning.

Her briefcase still has its shine and looks new, one of those gifts I suspect from proud parents or a relative, and which takes me back to my own young, immature beginnings. Her keen studious efforts revive my own and encourage me to feel more like writing than I have for some time now; even so, these tend to lapse and my heart sinks a little whenever I hear her chair move and catch sight of her leaning back to stretch, or getting up to go to a bookcase as she does from time to time. Now and then she will reach into the pocket of her coat hanging on the back of her chair, and unwrapping a sweet pop it into her mouth, or wandering down to the video section at the other end of the room, will allow a tiny, knowing grin to fall in my direction on the way back, as if to suggest that in being held prisoner by the hushed confines of the place we were sharing a common, unspoken fate. This acknowledgement of an enforced mutuality took me by surprise when it first happened, and I had no time to return it, even though in a deep, alert part of me I had been hoping and waiting for it, or something like it. Immersed in her, everything she is charms and lends a wondering solidity to these fleeting thoughts and conjectures.

She wears no makeup and her hair, which is fair and straight, and which she wears in plaits or in neat, sheaf-like bunches at the side of the head, today sweeps loosely down to her shoulders. Often, absently, she pushes it back behind an ear to keep it falling into her eyes, and such seemingly ordinary gestures have in themselves become part of a deepening momentousness that crushes one with the weight of its appeal. She can be no more than sixteen or seventeen, if that, and yet there is about her clothes and general demeanour an unaffected quality that makes it difficult to guess her age with any confidence. As said, she wears no makeup and it is as if she has still to come into contact with the trends and fashions that force most girls to adopt a style and way of dressing beyond their years. With an older woman I would perhaps find pleasure and certainty in such an appearance, while hers both absorbs and worries me. I go over my own adolesc­ence and what I find there causes me to retreat still further into that sense of ultimate loss I stubbornly refuse to admit or take to heart, even though I am vividly aware of it.

At her age I felt little but the doubt, confusion and insecurity she now arouses in me, and in trying to assess something like this I realise that one or two years can make all the diff­erence between success and failure in the unconscious or deliberate weighings of my chance. I know hardly anything worth knowing about the scientific aspects of botany and biology, but the books she is using tell me she is either very clever and advanced, or somewhat older than her appearance suggests, and this gives to her disposition, to the way I see her, an intelligent and mature bearing that contrasts oddly with that endearingly shy and rather precocious habit she has of gazing thoughtfully up at the ceiling or at a point some­where above my head, while nibbling idly on the end of her pen. At such times, she seemed to stay like that, the end of the pen in her mouth, for an eternity, but it could only have been for what amounted to seconds, little more than a minute, as these thoughts and feelings rushed through me, and a moment later the reverie is lifted in the downward motion of her head as she looks away, resuming her writing, intent, oblivious, as if nothing has happened. Composed, herself above all things, it is odd to think that the person so diligently writing in the exercise book has no knowledge of the chaos brought about by her absence.

On entering the room she nearly always glances up at the clock as she moves across to the table, invariably taking various items from her briefcase as she puts a knee on the chair while making a cursory examination of her notes. Then, pulling the chair under her, she flicks a strand of hair from her forehead while turning her attention to a book, absently putting the pen she has picked up to her lips before she begins to write, the eager, intent look of light puzzlement or frown that comes to her face as her hand moves across the paper bringing back to me a dreamlike raptness and excitement that is also both sorrowful and compelling. Even as I study her, there is something I cannot comprehend or fully take in no matter how often or how critical is this look of introspection, for it is not only the physical actuality of her being there that daunts and overwhelms me, but also the dependence on her that I fear. I find myself memorising her features and the way she moves, and that appealingly distinct stance she adopts when she stands in front of a bookcase, the subtle strength of her hip showing through her jeans. In this way, it is only when she leaves the room for some reason or other and I am alone and able to examine her affect on me more closely, that I find in myself reasons why this poignancy that brings me to the point of tears should be so far-reaching. I am overcome, fixated to a reminiscence into which I collapse, but in truth I am a willing slave to this emotion that she induces.

After all, there is nothing about her that I do not know as far as this is concerned, for it is this familiarity - she has never been an absolute stranger - that allows me to think of her as intently, as lovingly, as I do. Everything about her is a surrendering to those compelling silk-like threads being spun between us and that vision - partly an emotional recollection, part of a daring future - she takes me back to. And so, whatever words I use to describe her, it is impossible to entirely avoid myself, for it is she who nevertheless steps out of the pensiveness which at her beckoning I have become.

An afternoon passed, it was another Friday, a day of reckoning before the weekend arrived to upset our routine, those two days when there was even less chance of seeing her and which had become a void in my life. She looked up once or twice, nothing more, and at one point passed my table and went to a window at the far end of the room which looks out at the small park where she sometimes sits, but that is all. What more do I expect? At one point I went downstairs and smoked a cigarette on the steps, to see what her reaction might be, I suppose, but all the while I could feel myself being pulled back to the room, to the times when I had walked the streets telling myself that all I ever wanted was to catch a glimpse of her, of someone like her, to see her again if only for a moment, but I knew it wasn't enough. I had known when I woke up that morning that I would be ready to leave when she did, to follow her, to see where she went, where she lived, which, with great caution and care, and the stealth belonging to a criminal instinct I assumed to be purely imaginary, is what I did.


 

5

 

"Hallo."

"Hallo."

A pattern has been established, our lips barely move but their meaning is clear, and like neighbours who remain strangers but are familiar with each others routine, a rapport has been tentatively formed. It is the same later in the day when she gets up to leave and her mouth shapes itself into an almost inaudible goodbye across the floor as our eyes briefly meet and we smile self-consciously. It was at such a moment that I noticed their colour for the first time, for often they are shaded and hidden by her posture or a hand pressed to the side of the head when reading. Like everything about her, they belong to the mythology she has established in my mind, that of someone whose ancestry belongs to a race whose history has been lost in time and place, for as yet I have never seen her other than when she has been distantly alone, the ethereal nature of her face and eyes reflecting a poised and enigmatic questioning as they alight with rapt expression on some faraway horizon far removed and never quite belonging to the present. They are an incredible grey-blue.

They belong to "us" these oblique greetings and farewells that have emerged from daily contact, and in turn have led me, mare than ever, to try and make sure I am always there before her. Whether this is to placate some innate qualm or fear, or to gain a kind of territorial advantage, however irrational, I do not know, nonetheless the idea that to arrive after her will somehow break the spell of the past few days is very strong. It may also be due to some pain or loss in my own distant past, an oversight or neglect, however slight, on someone's part, that has affected me more than it should. I would not, anyhow, like her to arrive and be hurt at not finding me there, I have, in essence, become as much a part of her mornings as the tables, books, the clock on the wall, or the ponderously silent rows of bookshelves themselves.

I'm aware that there is something unusual if not peculiar in feeling as I do, and it is more than likely that she would not give any change in our routine more than a passing thought, if that. I wish above all for her to think the best of me, and this compliance, no matter how small, belongs to that, for even if she still seems a long way off she is now no longer beyond my wildest imaginings, and I, if I can believe it, am no longer such a complete stranger to her. Lying awake at night, I repeatedly go over the day and the profundity of tiny, illumin­ating, details whose nuances endlessly twist and turn inside me as I re-live those few words and hesitant half-smiles she has left behind. Is she merely being polite and friendly, or is she sufficiently aware to want to know more, but as with myself is being held back, she because of her age, her youth.

Night harbours and encourages the wildest dreams and flights of fancy, and there are times both during the day and night when I am saved from crashing down from the very pinnacle of the dilemma I have woven about myself by the one solitary truth that prevents these internal dialogues from collapsing into a total fantasy of the most absurd kind, Rowan does exist, she is real, and not just an aberration, however implausible. It's true that I don't quite look my age, but how old, how much older do I seem through her eyes, those of someone so much younger than myself. There is so much to be read into a situation where the particip­ants are a very young girl and someone old enough to easily be her father, and this has not gone completely unnoticed. The curious glances of the librarian have already told me he is only waiting for a certain move on my part in order to confirm the suspicions he has been entertaining for some while now. Throughout the days I have again noticed his attention turning in my direction as he peers out over his desk and down the room towards us. It is not hard to guess what he is thinking, and along with the imagined sound of Alison's voice and the mental picture I have of her face fixed in abject disapproval, these images form part of my own speculations concerning the girl. But in either case it isn't what they might think or do that gives birth to the resentment I feel, should this be so, but the upheaval and despondency I know will overtake me if she also shares this opinion with them.

Another day, another smile, and again, in contrast to the mood that dominates me during the hours spent at the library, I felt so alone, so utterly dead to the rest of my life, that I made up my mind to talk to her, come what may. Yet daylight saw me pulling back from this resolution even before she arrived, and the second she came into the room I found myself inevitably slipping back into the unworthiness engendered by the ineffability of her clothes, her walk, the person she is, the absolute fact that she is there erasing such intentions and turning them into foolish presumptions and impertinences. She is beautiful, a delight in the way only girls and young women are, with that pure, wholesome, often coy charm that accompanies them and which they exude so naturally.

We exchanged our usual, tentative greeting, and the day passed as the rest have, bringing her to me and then taking her away once more. If I were not so shy myself or could control the apprehension fluttering to the surface, I think it would prevent the ultimate stalemate to be foreseen, even if it has not yet come to pass. Instead, I find myself still waiting for a conclusive sign or gesture from her, for an intractable look that is more approving than the vague glances I have come to know. Even so, it wasn't even a look or an expression I wanted, but something unmistakeable and as impossible to ignore as it was to misinterpret, so that whatever I said or did it couldn't possibly be rejected. A few well-chosen words were all that was needed, only I'm so self-conscious about such things, as I've already said, and unable to act, went on waiting, as only I knew how, waiting for myself I'd always assumed until the day came, when having met her and finding myself that close, she was in danger of becoming someone else, invisible, so great was the shock; or was it me who had become so wanting, so consumed, that I became her.

I had thought about it often enough but at the time it was little short of a far-fetched notion on my part even to think that within a few days of this meeting I should find myself making love to her. And yet, despite what I write here, I have given up trying to analyse the radiance that had such a hypnotic hold on me, although there can be no doubt that as an older man I would in the scheme of things be naturally attracted to a much younger woman. All the same, there are any number of young girls wandering about the town and none of them, however striking, has made the same impression she has. I say that I have given up trying to understand the affect she makes, but really I know it too well. What I mean is, I no longer have any hope of arriving at a conclusion. How does one talk to an angel, anyway?


 

6

 

It happened like this.

I was halfway along The Walk, a broad, tree-lined avenue with guest houses and small hotels to one side, when I saw her in the adjoining park through the frieze of trees ahead of me. It was her shirt, the sudden splash of a familiar check against the grey-green background that caught my eye, as the sun, the day, and the immense finality to weeks of hoping, came into a circumscribing link in a chain making her future synonymous with my own, and which left me asking, how long had she been there?

At first, as I drew nearer, I thought she was going to ignore me, to pretend she hadn't seen me, as she had done once before in another part of town, but then everything suddenly changed as that depriving tentativeness which had previously came between us was dispersed in the voice merging thankfully into the vitality of the lightly tanned face and arms where the faint throb of a muscle pulsed softly at the bend in an elbow just above the rolled-up sleeves.

"Hallo again."

 Her eyes lit up, the rather surprised and breathless, "Oh, hallo!” finding a refuge in my own hesitancy as I managed to stammer the few mundane words the tremulous, curving line of her mouth demanded of mine. I'm not sure what I did say, I never found words easy to come by when with her, there was so much to be disturbed by once I found myself that close. Perhaps I mentioned the weather or made a reference to the library - I was on my way there - for I remember her attention being drawn to my own briefcase - surprisingly hers was on the grass by her feet - and asking me if that was where I was going. I said I was, and, in turn, asking if she was. It was an irrelevant, pointless thing to say as she had a large broom in her hand and was so obviously at work, and in, any case I had meant later in the day. But she grasped my meaning with a forgiving grin, and in conjunction with this went on to tell me about her job in the park that summer.

"I only started last week. I think I'm the first girl they've taken on, which is lucky for me. I want to study botany," she added, the earlier smile that had left her face returning before vanishing again with the quicksilver rapidity with which it had come into being.

"Yes, I noticed the books you were reading in the library," I replied, as she went on making a few, obligatory, half-hearted movements of the broom before coming to another stop, the dappled shade of the trees flickering over her skin helping to add to the soft, stream-like murmuring of a voice that was to go on lingering in the ears and memory.

"What do you do?" she then asked, gratefully finding another opening for us both. I told her I was a writer, a journalist, and her face, finding its way back into the miracle lying between the friendly brilliance of the eyes and the lilting peal of her voice, became once more the two dimples lingering at the corners of her mouth clutching at me like eddying whirlpools. Asking me what kind of things I wrote. I told her.

"I wondered what you were writing when I saw you in the library” she said. When she spoke I fought to find a reply, an answer; when she lapsed into silence the gravity of my thoughts leapt after hers; when she turned to face me I looked away. I went on looking for her long after we met. Frowning slightly, she scratched the back of an arm just about the wrist.

"I was silly enough to put my hand into some stinging nettles," she explained with a self-effacing grin as she put the affected area to her mouth, and for some reason I could never begin to fully understand, the bottomless, childlike simplicity of this remark brought a familiar lump into my throat. "I have to go now," she went on, as she again began using the broom while at the same time catching sight of a man in overalls moving towards us from the direction of the nearby pavilion, her efforts turning into more purposeful ones as he drew nearer. "That's my boss," she said in explanation, and seeing this concerned her and muttering a hasty, irresolute goodbye, I walked away. I was in two minds about asking her when she would be going to the library again, but I didn't, but I might have done so, if, when I did glance back a moment or two later I had seen her eyes following mine. But when I looked over my shoulder she was busily raking the path, the leaves, her back to me. A light grey-blue, as said, I have never seen eyes quite like hers. It had come about, but meeting her had solved nothing, at least for the present. I had but grazed the surface of a tormenting beauty and sadness that gives no respite, and the sudden, unexpected sense of elation, has, if anything, worsened with an accessibility tightening like a knot. I know that if I were sensible, or completely mad, I should have no hesitation in putting the whole episode out of my mind while trying to content myself with the interests and activ­ities I had before. But I know I won't, I know I can't. I say her name and there wells up inside me the urgency of a joy I cannot be without. To wonder isn't only to know, it is also to be part of.


 

7

 

It was another warm day, one of the hottest that year as it turned out, but I hadn't really noticed it until I closed the door of the house behind me that lunch hour and felt the cool inviting green of the park beckoning through the trees. With or without me, Alison had finally decided to go to a friend's as arranged, and the thought of the hours ahead filled and animated me with the richly invigorating chemistry of a freedom and adventure I had become increasingly and impatiently conscious of through the meal. A few minutes later I could see the lake, and then, closer still - trapped in its watery stillness - reflections of that future I had been prec­ipitated into since first seeing her. She had come!  She was there, the dogs beside her, as she said she would be earlier that day when on my way back I'd again seen her in the park. She had seemed a little uncertain about being able to make it, to come, and in this as in so many other ways she was and would go on being a constant source of surprise even when I thought I knew her, that is now more than obvious after all that has happened. Seeing her mattered, of course, but in mattering so much it held even greater significance as that figure of another youth that was myself at her age went on learning more about a rapture in which I could find no real consolation. For it seems there never is enough time in which to grasp and fully compre­hend those strands of a happiness coming apart the instant it reaches out to you. To possess happiness, security, for just a moment, was, in any case, an ambition she helped foster. And then, with each of the steps taking me towards her, she again became a stranger to me, someone from a troubled, distant past who was as painful to be with as without. A dream within a dream as they danced between us in the bright, gentle breeze, a mass of sunspots had momentarily reduced her to an indistinct haze as I stood up from patting the Labradors, the soft, characteristic pleading of their eyes swiftly replaced by the studied grey enchantment of hers.

"I shouldn't make too much fuss of them," she grinned. "They get very dirty."

Resonant with youthfulness, the words drifting between us on that summery air had a carefreeness that in reminding me of the age difference between us, went on taking her even further away.

"That's Cleopatra," she said, pointing, when I asked her their names. "And that's Casanova. He's a bit tubbier."

Today, so long after, I am still haunted by the knowing flicker of a smile that hardly touched her lips as she spoke these words.

"It's suits them, doesn't it," she went on, patting Casanova, who had ventured nearer on hearing his name, the laugh that had never ceased coming into her voice once more spreading its fascination into the tiny creases troubling her eyes and mouth.

"Quite a combination," I answered, troubled myself at finding in this reply a need not to be found anywhere in hers. Having only just met, I wasn't unable to prevent myself thinking ahead to Alison, the house, and the separation I would soon be going back to.

"I think it was Julian's idea," she replied after a thoughtful pause when I asked her who had named the dogs.

"Who's Julian?" I queried, fearing the worst.

"Oh, that's my brother," and folding her arms as she spoke, at the same time crossing a foot over the other as a ballet dancer would do, the simple, absolute charm this engendered began piercing me through and through with an ache that went on hurting as far back as I could remember.

"Anyway," I went on, filling the brief silence this gave rise to, "I think your dogs are trying to tell us something."

"Yes, I think you're right," she said, uncrossing her arms and ankles. "I suppose they'd better have their run or I'll never hear the end of it," looking over to the dogs who had been showing signs of restlessness while we talked, as another tiny, habitual frown, in making its presence felt, became a favourite of mine, it seamed to exist for me alone. There was, too, a flutter of alarm at the abrupt dispersing of a mood I had found a recess in, but alongside this came another voice I was never in danger of forgetting and which went on telling me that this quickening sense of loss was in the natural order of things, and that in suffering the ravages of loveliness encompassed by the young girl before me, I was drowning on behalf of all men. How ruthless the young can be! And then, as we walked on, in response to something I had said, the dogs running ahead of us, she west on to tell me about her family, how she was the eldest of four, having a sister who was a year younger, and two brothers.

As she talked I listened hard, like a tape recorder, in a way I'd never listened before, remembering all she told me, all she didn't, knowing I had to so as to write about it one day, as I do now, although I didn't think about it in quite that way at the time. I say it is my journal in which I write these things but it is she who is really writing it, she who is the beginning and end of it, no matter what others may say or think. She spoke, and her voice, like that of her presence moving along the path beside me, were each an elusive reminder of a marvel that carried on taking place both before and after she came into my life, and which became less clear with each of the steps taken towards that goodbye I dreaded. Having to leave the universe I had been allowed into was to always be the same, whether it was at a railway station or on a bus, or, as on that idyllic afternoon in the countryside with only the grass, trees, and blue unruffled sky as witnesses to a separation which, although clearly defined in advance of it taking place, still leaves you cruelly and hopelessly lost at that precise moment of parting.

At intervals, she herself would unwittingly draw attention to this other existence by saying, "I shall have to go soon," and I would either pretend not to hear or make some remark about it not being late, unsure if she was stating a fact or expressing a regret, but continuing to follow the growing thread of despondency attaching itself to the dogs foraging in the hedgerows or the faint outline of cars and lorries making their way along a line of hills in the distance, their shapes lost and found again in the thin white clouds lifting above the chimneys of a limestone works.

"What time do you have to be back?" I finally asked

"I didn't say, but we usually have tea at five."

Without speaking and with that kind of slumbering, inexplicit thoughtlessness you arrive at when something or other draws to a close, we made our way back the way we'd come, until, reaching the bottom of the field where we had started off, she called the dogs to her and put them on their leads. A car passed the open­ing onto the road by a small copse or woodland, the outer branches of its trees overhanging the short path leading to it, the traffic that had only been a faint murmur not so long before becoming louder as we neared it, the last few remaining trees giving a temporary respite before we reached the road with the town beyond, the afternoon we had shared slipping still further away in the quiet shadow of the wood further up the hill. It was then, appro­aching the road but still in the protective shade of the copse, that the deliberation sidling into her posture turned into an innuendo that played such a significant part in the unfolding of this story.

"Thank you for the walk," she said, her thoughts exactly echoing mine, the dogs brushing against her as she half-turned, the conspiratorial note making itself felt also taking up a position in her stance as we drifted to a stop, the unspoken complicity of its meaning framing an illicitness we silently shared from then on.

"I enjoyed it too," I recall saying, as much of this spiralled through me. "It was a nice walk," I added rather lamely.

"Yes, it was," she repeated with a quiet emphasis, immediately changing her tone to remonstrate with one of the animals as he pulled on the lead. "Casa, stop it! You've had your walk so be a good boy, it's only a silly vole or mouse." Then to me, "He wouldn't hurt it, really, he only wants to play, don't you...." A slightly deflating, unspoken, "Well...here we are...." finding its way between us as we stood there, neither making a move to go but in our own muted way pondering a resilient future.

"Perhaps I'll see you in the park tomorrow?" I said, dismissing the evening lying in wait and the late afternoon silence that of its own accord had found a way into this stilted uneasiness. "Yes, all right, although I'll be working in the greenhouses for some of the time. It will make a change," she smiled.

"What time do you finish?" I asked, the urge to hold her hand or to give her a parting kiss twisting itself into an intrusion and not the affectionate reassurance I wanted for it.

"The same time, four o'clock."

And as if to confirm the earlier innuendo that to be seen with an older man was less than discreet, she turned her head to give a quick glance towards the opening and. a passing car.

"I'll see you tomorrow then," I volunteered, hanging back as she moved towards it, pulling the dogs closer.

"Yes, all right," came a voice from over a shoulder before finally disappearing from view.


 

8

 

After the warmth of the sun, a cold, shell-like emptin­ess hung over the house as I came in from the street. Going into the kitchen, I changed my mind about coffee and went upst­airs to the room where I worked; plunged into a timeless anony­mity, everything was as I had left it before going to meet with Rowan, a few hours, a thousand years before. Glancing at the half-filled page in the machine, I went across to the window over­looking the garden, the low, discernible hum of traffic moving across the lawn and surrounding rooftops. It was true, the way she had hesitated as we said goodbye betrayed the fact that she didn't want to go, that she was conscious of what had come to pass between us, the image of her face returning along with the things she had said - the way she said them - cushioning the inadequacy of my hopes against the desultoriness filling the house with its vacant, pointless air.

I stood by the window for some time, gazing idly into the deepening shadows below as my mind wandered repeatedly over the day. I was glad I hadn't told her my real age, I said I was thirty, I don't know if she believed me. She is just seventeen, twenty-three years younger than myself. I'm as old as her father! Rowan.... Then I went downstairs to the lounge, where I switched on the television and stood back waiting for the picture to fill the screen, the face of a man, then a woman, and finally a number of zoo animals flickered into life as the picture became clearer. Outside, from the front of the house, a car lurched past and I waited for it to stop, thinking it might be Alison; a door slammed and I could detect the faint voices of neighbours coming from further along the lane, the eager, breathless outbursts of child­ren competing with the equally urgent patter of feet running up and down before instantly vanishing as the road fell back into the tense and watchful quietness matching that of the room as I switched off the television and went back upstairs. Feeling tired and luckless, I was still in the mood when Alison came in.

"How did you get on today?" she asked as she came into the kitchen, her words taking me back to the mysteriously fragile world of Rowan's - where was she? - as they carried on sharpening an emotion brought on by the jingle of car keys and the door closing firmly behind her as she entered the house.

"Not too bad, thanks," I replied, as she reached up to give me the customary welcome on the cheek, the familiar, complacent sweetness of her lips clouding the loyalty and fidelity demanded by the girl I imagined in her place.

"How was work?" I asked.

"Okay, thanks. Have you eaten?"

"I had a sandwich earlier on.

"What do you fancy?" she went on, going to the fridge.

"I don't mind."

To tell the truth, I wasn't all that hungry, but eating is another of those distractions that go some way towards subduing the impatience and listlessness that shadow you when in one place and wishing to be in another. A solace if not an answer.

"Is the steak all right?”

Her eyes clashed with mine.

"Yes, it's good."

"It should be, it cost enough. Perhaps we should become vegetarians," she said after a thoughtful pause, her voice lacking conviction.
"Yes, perhaps."

Between such exchanges, I went on wondering where Rowan was, what she was eating or doing, the coming evening to be followed by the night stealing over its outer edges making me realise that I knew nothing of her nights, boys of her age.

"There's more vegetables if you want them." She gave me an enquiring look.

"No, thanks."

"Are you sure, there's plenty left."

"Quite sure, thanks. You have them."

"No, it's all right, I've had enough for now. I can always use them tomorrow."

Reaching across for my plate, she placed it on hers and took them across to the sink.

"Are you working tonight?" she asked, the plates making a soft sucking noise as she put them into the water.

"I don't know. I may do a bit if this headache goes," I replied, leaning my elbows on the table and rubbing my eyes lightly with the tips of my fingers as Rowan had a habit of doing, the sound made by the legs of the chair as she put it back into place having its origins in Rowan's wherever she got up to go to a bookcase in the library.

"How about some coffee? Or would you like some fruit first?"

"Yes, okay, coffee, please," I replied, hesitating. "I couldn't eat anything more.”

Getting up, I went across to the window that gave another view of the garden.

"How's Julie, has she decided where she's going to ski this year?" I ventured, the words merging with the tinkling of cups filtering back from that far-off place I had just left behind.

"She hasn't made up her mind yet, although I think she's quite keen on that place she went to last year," she added, as I went on enduring the sound of the kettle being filled. Contagious, habits can become deadlier than any virus. "She asked about you," she went on, her expression changing in response to the abruptness of the movement as I turned away from the window and went into the next room.

"What is it? What's wrong?" she queried, moving to the door after me, her mouth shaping words I was almost far from hearing.

"I'm sorry," I said, far from being sure what I was saying or doing as a strange, faraway sound went on echoing in my ears.

"It's this headache. I think I'll take a walk, it might clear it."

"There's some painkillers in the bathroom," she said to my back as I reached the hall.

"I took some earlier,” I lied. "I think fresh air will be better. I won't be long," I added, the hand opening and closing the door as I went out into the road stopping me from entirely sinking into the depths of that wounding, fathomless privation that was myself. Rowan!

Perhaps I was very close to it then, to what came later, and to recognising more fully the likelihood of what might happen should she ever leave or be taken from me. I didn't have to give a second thought to know what it would be like without her, and a familiar gulf, a hollowness and futility, as of dying - or rather not having lived - swept over me as it did some time later in the anguished sweetness of relief when I broke down and went on my knees to pay homage to the young and beautiful person who had permitted me to put a foot into the enticingly brief rapture of her world.

The path where I had talked with her that afternoon was by now a vacant, darkening patch; a man walking his dog added his isolating footsteps to mine and the quietly deser­ted road taking me up past the auberge de la jeunesse towards the house where she had told me she lived, experiencing ahead of reaching it a gratifying warmth as I came to the moss-covered stone wall fronting the property as I put my hand out to touch it, to console myself with the solidity of its age, and the sense of consolation it gave because she passed it every day and it too was close to her.

Through the trees and shrubs bordering the house around the gravel drive, I could see a light on in a down­stairs window and another at the top of the house to one side. I took this to be her room, it somehow seemed fitting for a teenager or younger person, and I kept my eye on it as I walked past, hoping I might see her outlined in it or crossing the room. It was as I came level with the gate that the light went out and I slowed down, thinking that if it was her room she might have decided to take the dogs for a routine walk. But after a few minutes nothing had happened and I walked on, any expectations I had muffled and enclosed by the darkness. I thought of ringing her, and even though it was out of the question I still went into the telephone box outside the hostel and looked up the number, before, retracing those last minutes I had spent with her, going down to the park where we had said goodbye, to the edge of the field and the trees where the dogs had picked up the scent in the ditch, and where - sheltered by the darkness and the huge, sombre embrace given by the trunk of a tree - I did the very thing that had been welling up inside me since the very first moment I saw her: I wept.

Later, unable to sleep and torn in two by the aching loneliness of that stream of ineradicable longing leading back to her, I went downstairs to smoke, again submerging myself in the inexplicable realities of the words and gestures following our next meeting and the possibilities springing from it. It was four o'clock and still not light, the untroubled stillness of the garden a dividing screen behind which time and circumstance hovered with their slow, ponder­ous disregard of the fervent wishfulness turning and twisting its knife in me. Opening the back door, the first sighing breath of a reluctantly placid dawn brushed against my face, while unseen, high above, I could hear the steadily insistent progress of a plane, and found myself envying its passengers their freedom, their journey, and their problems, whatever they may have been, they seemed so far removed from the agonising pain of waiting as it was in the real world, on earth. The past, the future, would I ever make of them the present?

 


 

9

 

The house itself could be reached from two directions: one was the route I had taken the night before, along the road that took you out of town. The other was less direct but of more interest leading as it did through a small road close to the park, across an unkempt meadow where horses and goats often grazed, and through a small woodland nestling on the side of a hill, before coming out into another field or meadow facing the road where she lived. It was this latter route we took at her instigation when I met her from work later that day.

At first I found myself being unduly cautious as we left the meadow and the cover of the trees behind, but I was even more surprised at her reaction, her lack of it, as I followed her across the road and through the gate, our feet losing themselves in the uneasiness of the gravel drive. She hadn't said anything - in hindsight, her lack of words, was, I suppose, speaking for her - and it was as we entered the house that the explanation I had been waiting for fell away as being of no account. It was so much what I had wanted and least expected that my alacrity in finding a reason for caution must seem little short of extraordinary.

"What about your parents?" I had said as we went up the drive, half-expecting someone to appear at any moment.

"They're not here," she said, simply. "They've gone away for a few days."

It was then that I began to think I really understood her and the nature of her response on those other occasions in the library and during the walk we had taken the day before.

"I'd better see if there are any eggs."

I followed her down the side of the house to the large, part­ly overgrown garden at the back; there was a greenhouse with panes of glass missing and which, like the vegetable plot around it, had been sadly neglected. I made some remark about it and she agreed, saying she would like to do something about it but that she didn't have the time. But these details, such as they are, while being a necessary part of the story, tend, I feel, to distract or relieve it of its most essential factor, which is Rowan herself. From seeing her as a face in the crowd, as it were, to being there with her, were, for me, entries not only into a relationship I wished above all to have with her, but also into my own past, which she made more nostalgic still because until then I had never known anyone quite like her. In finding her, someone so much younger than myself, I had taken a confusing and unsettling step back into a void that would eventually bring me face to face with the emotional poverty of my own fate. But then, should it be so unusual to find that it is those things we have never had that are the closest to us.

Collecting the eggs from a tumbledown shed housing the chickens, we went through the rear door into the tall, spacious old-fashioned, and partly-beamed kitchen that still had its original cupboards set into the walls. An indefinite cohesion of mood and atmosphere, created from the meeting of past with present and to do with memory as much as the house itself, ran through the interior, linking Rowan's presence and mine to another time and place I could never quite put my finger on. But then, everything about her, from the simple parting in her hair to the graceful, self-assured mannerisms, brought back that lingering, age-old poignancy in a dreamlike disbelief. "You're here, you're really here...." a voice kept saying for me. How often in the future was I to go on repeating those words when she no longer was.

"I'll feed the dogs and then we'll go upstairs," she had said as we came into the house.

"Are you sure it's all right," was my reply.

"Of, course, I told you, there's only me here."

Opening the door, she went into the hall, and a second later I heard her greeting the dogs who scampered out to greet us from another room.

"Hallo old boy, how are you? Have we left you alone all day? And you, Cleo, what have you been up to?"

Somehow descriptive and related to one of those snow­bound Christmas mornings, or from the pages of a book that fleetingly swerve back from childhood - the house lent itself to that kind of memory - in recapturing a long-vanished past, the echo of her voice touched, too, a sadness and regret never far from taking the floor beneath one. And a second or so later the dogs picked up my scent - I was in the kitchen list­ening through the open door - and at her urging - "Go on, go and see him!" - came running through the doorway to greet me. "They don't take too long to feed," she said, following after them and opening the door into the garden. "They can have a good run later on, can't you?" the faint breathlessness edging into the words compliant with that merging into my own.

"It doesn't matter," I said, meaning that they had to be fed, although it did, of course. Everything mattered, it was so dependant on her.

She then fed the dogs, made sure the gate was shut, and leaving them free to roam the garden, pushed past me, saying in that independent way of hers, "I'm going upstairs," leaving me to follow her along the hall with its red and black floor tiles and up the wide, impressive staircase, itself in keeping with the rest of the house in being an epitaph of sorts for the past it conjured up. The building as such was on all floors with a small wing or annex at each end, Rowan's flat or flatlet, as I found, being on the first or upper at the top of the staircase and consisting of one very large room that was both bedroom and lounge, with an adjoin­ing kitchen and bathroom. At the far end of the larger room, an unusually tall, bow-fronted window looked out towards the front of the house, this being the room I had seen the light on the night I had walked by.

There was a single bed just inside the door, and further along the wall a bookcase part­ition dividing it into two distinct halves, the window section being the lounge or sitting area. Opposite the bed was a dressing table, with a large wardrobe of indefinite age or style standing along the same stretch of wall. An armchair, sofa, and a chest of drawers with a row of books along its top completed the main furnishings, while dotted about the room and standing on the floor around the window, were a flotilla of pots and containers of various sizes and colours in which stood the plants she had told me about and which she had immediately gone over to when entering the room.

"Some of them are having a struggle," she said, her back to me as she bent to take a closer look. "It's this room, it doesn't get enough sunshine," and she motioned towards the row of trees looming over the front of the house and which, although providing shelter and a certain privacy, also threw it into deepening shade.

"Perhaps you could revive some of them in the greenhouse," I suggested, the look I received in reply a facial replica of someone placing their hands on their hips in an attitude of indignant, theatrical protest.

"Hm," she murmured, standing up. "That greenhouse would just about finish them off!"

As she spoke she moved back to the other end of the room, letting her coat drop in a heap onto the bed, and, still standing, kicking off her shoes without bothering to untie them, these two acts depicting a freedom of habit that in both fascinating and worrying me, also said I was now trespassing on the foreign territory of the young. ,

"I'll make some coffee, or would you prefer something else?" she called out, disappearing into the kitchen and leaving me alone with the books, bed, wall posters, and the rest of belongings playing their part in the hollowness left in her wake. A record player stood on a small table in a corner, and on a shelf below it a small stack of records. There was a guitar occupying a space in the same corner, and as I glanced around the room I recognised the cover of a book I had given her among some papers and other books littering part of the floor near the sofa. I was looking through the titles of the books on the chest of drawers when she came back.

"There isn't very much there that would interest you," she said, "most of them are to do with school work."

"I see you have Céline and Jarry," I replied, surprised when I shouldn't have been.

"Yes, we did them for English translation, although I don't really understand them. Do you mind if I put a record on?" she added, swiftly changing the subject as she moved away.

I said I didn’t and became aware of music spreading itself over the room as I went on searching for similar­ities, parallels in my own life, and finding none.

"I hope you like Leonard Cohen," she said, moving past me as she spoke.

I didn't know who Leonard Cohen was at the time, but he had a pleasantly deep voice, and attempting to be favourably at home with the music, with her, I said I didn't mind.

"Do you take milk and sugar?" It was apparent her mother was English, as her voice floated from out of the kitchen.

"No sugar, just milk, please."

"I'm sorry I don't have any wine."

"That's okay, I never drink in the afternoon, anyway."

She spoke in the casual, matter-of-fact manner of someone who did enough entertaining for it to be second nature to them. It was, I guessed, her attempt at being at ease, mine being even greater.

"Do you need any help?" I called, hearing her moving about in the kitchen.

"No, it's okay, thank you. I can manage." And even though I couldn't see her, because of it, perhaps, I was more than just listening to the sound belonging to the person she was still becoming. At that moment, I heard her open the kitchen window and another voice, female, barely audible from where I was sitting, drifted upwards from outside, abruptly freeing Rowan's, when she answered, of the restrictions running through it a second or two before. Then the window closed and I recovered from the beginning of the alarm it had brought back from when I first entered the house, and which had continued to hover inside me along with the underlying mixture of doubt and happiness being with her gave. The record she had put on was partly responsible for that, I suppose, the gentle, sad theme of the song, that of love, dissolving into the years I had used up and the freedom and youth I no longer had.

"Who was that?" I was forced to ask when she came into the room not long after. She carried a tray and her shoeless feet seemed to glide above the floor.

"Just now, you mean? Oh, that was Michele, she's a friend of Helene's. She didn't know they'd gone away. I expect she's wondering why I didn't ask her in," she went on, placing the tray on the floor in front of the sofa where I was sitting, and in the same breath making a reference to the Cohen record and asking if I liked it. I said I did, which wasn't untrue, even if inwardly I felt a million miles away from sentiments so vastly remote from the realities of my own.

"He's a writer," she said, turning her attention to the plants within reach by the window. "I've got one or two of his books here, somewhere."

She was rubbing a trace of dust from the leaf of a plant, then wiping her finger on her jeans as she sank back into a kneeling position by the tray, giving a small tug at the waist of the sweater she had changed into.

"Shall I put the milk in?"

"Please," I nodded, as eyes greyer than any winter's dawn looked up at me.

"I hope it's all right," she said, handing me the mug. "I'm not very good at entertaining, I'm afraid."

"I wouldn't say that."

"Oh, that's all show!" her sudden laugh bringing her close once more. "There's some biscuits if you want." She indicated the container on the tray, removing the lid and holding it out to me. "I'm afraid I haven't got much else to offer you. I don't seem to eat all that much." She paused as if reflect­ing on this. "I'm trying to save, anyway," her words leaving me to slip further into the reverie centring itself around the mug she sipped at before replacing it on the tray, and - looking a little lost - sat back on her heels, pulling gently at the waist of the sweater as before, so that all the pract­ised decorum of a Victorian lady would always fall short of emulating the momentous gracefulness that lifted the beauty of her fidgeting from out of the commonplace. The fields still flushed her cheeks, while the fair curtain of her hair, uncomb­ed and unforgettable, fell about her shoulders and down to the faint, rounded curves of her breast. Long, flaxen like straw, it was of the kind men hang themselves with.

"I hope it's okay," she said, a vague smile coming to her face as I put the drink to one side and took another of the biscuits from the tin.

"It's fine, too hot just now, that's all." Taking a biscuit herself, she bit into it, and still holding the piece that was left, let her head droop onto her chest, allowing hands that met idly in the hollow of her lap to again compose themselves into the forcefulness of a charm men had sought and admired throughout the ages, it came so easily to her. While for me, it achieved its aim in becoming another of those endless threads singled out and isolated from so much else in my life I knew I had become its victim.

"I thought you lived with the family?"

Interrupting the momentary silence, I emphasised the word. I was still surprised at finding myself there, at thinking how different it was.

"How do you mean?" she asked, her eyes alighting on me as they came back from their wandering: a little puzzled, she looked even lovelier.

"Well, living up here. It's so self-contained, isn't it. It must be like living alone."

"Oh, I see what you mean. Sorry!" she said, laughing at, with herself. “That came about by chance, really. The previous owners used to let this part of it, and when we came here we decided to leave things as they were, which was lucky for me. I would have hated to be stuck in some grotty little bedsitter like some students," she went on, pulling a face as she glanced around the room. "Do you like it?"

"There's nothing to dislike is there. I think it's very nice," I replied, remembering some of the places I had found myself in when younger. "You're right, you are lucky."

"I know, But I do spend quite a lot of time down there," she added, taking up my earlier comment. "I have most of my meals with them, and I can always watch television when I want."

"They obviously don't mind leaving you in charge," I said, as this occurred to me.

"Oh yes, they know they can trust me. I'm not really alone though, I have got the dogs with me!"

She leaned forward, holding out the tin, and after I'd taken another biscuit she took one herself, slowly nibb­ling on it as she had the first. Resisting the impulse to look at my watch, I found myself wondering about the time. I knew it couldn't be late, but part of me was already involv­ed with leaving - with not wanting to go - of suffering another missed opportunity, another night of reckoning - and this made me far more conscious of time than I might other­wise have been, my concern about the passing minutes linked in turn to work I had got behind with, and to various other obstacles that were never far from my mind when I was with Rowan.

I knew there was little chance of a future together, but even so I constantly dismissed the thought, refusing to believe what my most instinctive reasoning told me, if only because there was a stronger, more compelling one opposing it. I tried seeing the reality of the situation, but I saw her too, and of course I was blinded by the fascination attach­ing itself to the compulsion and abandonment she was so good at wringing from me. I wasn't prepared, I had no specific plan and as far as this was concerned I was at her mercy, hope alone being a very poor strategy. I'd never expected to be asked into the house and had already begun to recon­cile myself to the idea that the afternoon and everything so far, although pleasantly friendly, was to be just that and nothing more. She was a nice, intelligent girl, and it had to be accepted that this was to be how I would go on seeing her; that in all probability she was a virgin, and even if by chance she wasn't, one had little or no say in it outside of the jealousy and hurt to be got from it and that rambling discursiveness that had been going on in my head for as long as I'd known her, and in so many other ways even before then.

The trouble was that no matter what I thought I couldn't tear myself away and continued to sit there in an agony of waiting, just as I had been doing for the hours and days of weeks past. Having come that far, there was nowhere to go it seemed, except backwards through the maze of disappointments and short-lived expectations I knew only too well and which I was naturally anxious to avoid. After all, no matter how tormentingly vague it all seemed, it was she who had invited me into the house and this in itself had to mean something. In any case, although it wouldn't be completely true to say I was unaware of any real or definite change taking place between us, there is, however, more than a hint of truth in saying that even as this began to make itself felt I couldn't bring myself to fully believe it, or believe in it: incredulous as it was, on looking back it wasn't that unexpected. Bringing me to the house had been the first big surprise, the first intimation of the existence of another kind of girl behind the outer shell I had helped erect; the second surprise or development took place with more far-reaching consequences following her exit to the kitchen to make more coffee, for it was really then, with my own life rapidly falling apart, that I anxiously began to write every­thing that I thought she should know.

 


 

10

 

The Cohen record had come to an end while we were talking and she asked me if I wanted to hear the other side.

"Or shall I put something else on?" she said.

"Play the other side if you like. I don't mind."

"Are you sure? Some people find him rather melancholie."

She turned the record over - it was a fairly old machine that had been there when she moved in - and it was while she was in the kitchen that I got up from the sofa and went back and sat on the floor close to where she had been, my back against it. It was more than a guess that she wouldn't return to the spot, and it turned out that when she came back into the room she moved to the sofa without the slightest hesitation as I had hoped and suspected she might. Our fingers touched as I took the drink from her and a moment later heard myself saying,

"We seem to have changed places."

"You've changed places," she said, giving me a quizzical, knowing look that is sometimes described as old-fashioned.

"Do you mind?"

In trying to surprise her I was surprising myself.

"No, not if that's what you want. If you're comfortable."

"I can't say I'm used to sitting on the floor."

"That's up to you, isn't it," she answered in her own forth­right fashion, her voice assuming a deceptive ambiguity - a neutrality I found deceptive - and which entered it from time to time. Her words weren't like a question at all.

"Where would you like me to sit?" I ventured, finally getting it out, feeling I should have placed more emphasis on the "you" but I didn't, couldn't.

"Wherever you want," came the reply, flashing me a quick glance as she spoke, this time adding a tiny, resigned shrug of the shoulders, her eyes looking both at and through me as the movement of her head took on an equivocal, questioning lilt. In a flash she became one of a class listening intently to a teacher.

"I feel like sitting next to you," I confessed, as another shrug that spoke volumes as it crossed her shoulders brought me to the verge of an entirely different horizon, that same stranger's breath saying, "That's better, it's far easier to talk like this, isn't it."

I was sitting next to her, but not too close, so that the small space between us resembled all the different between the accidental and the deliberately contrived. She had given me one of her sidelong looks as I sat down, but this time the coolness of her eyes was relieved by a faint crinkling at their corners and by her mouth opening into the wider daring of a smile.

"Why are you laughing?" I asked, thinking that what I was feeling had little to do with me but went on elsewhere. Relieved of a burden, I was still trying not to be serious.

"I don't know," she laughed, saying it in the way people say it when they do.

"They say it's bad manners to laugh at guests," I said, joining in, and she laughed more, as I wanted, putting her hand to her mouth as if to stop herself, the light convulsive ripples gathering and passing through my hand as I put it to her shoulder.

"Well, you could at least let me in on the joke," I went on, pulling gently at her arm as I tried getting her to face me, but she resisted, or seemed to resist, as I moved my other arm around her so that it was pressed between the sofa and her back, taking a guilty and surrept­itious kind of pleasure and satisfaction from the manoeuvre and from the light throbbing that went through it.

"Was it that funny?" I asked, smiling as I leaned slightly forward to try and catch a glimpse of her face, which she turned away in shy embarrassment in an attempt to stop me from seeing the puckered grin moving across it.

"No, I suppose not," she blurted out from behind her hand, subsiding a little, but obviously still finding it a joke. "Anyway, you know as well as I do what I was laughing at," she said soon after, this time rather more seriously.

"Do I?"

"If you don't, you should," she answered flatly.

"Of course I know," I relented, wondering if the time had really come when it was safe to put all my cards on the table. "I suppose it did seem a bit obvious, but you're really as much to blame as I am, aren't you."

"Am I? How do you mean?" An earlier solemnity and concentration coming back to her face as she considered what I had said.

"You know what I mean."

"No I don't," she replied, sounding more curious than pressing.

"You must do," I insisted, hoping to bring back the smile by smiling myself. "You know how attractive you are."

I thought of using the word "pretty" and have gone on thinking about it ever since.

"That doesn't count," she said, looking away.

"Why doesn't it."

"It just doesn't, that's all," this time giving a small shrug of disapproval with her lips.

"It does with me," I countered.

She paused before saying, "Yes, it would with you because you're a man and they fall for anything."

"It's hardly anything," I replied, this time trying to suppress a smile while asking myself if she really meant what she said. "Don't you like being told that?" I asked, without finding anything like an answer.

"It depends," a wry sort of frown, a pondering, coming into her features

As she didn't add to this, I began to think of it as a statement in itself, her response to how she saw herself, if not how others saw her or how she thought they did. "All right," I went on, feeling both mystified and not a little silly in the ensuing pause while I went on trying to find words to fit the situation without upsetting her further, the magical outline of her profile rewarding me for my trouble as I put my hand to the hair falling from her shoulders, letting it slip like silken gold through my fingers.

"Forget what I said, I'm sorry if it upset you. I was only being sincere, you know...."

"Yes."

A hush whose origins were more rooted in breathlessness than silence, emptied the room. She could so easily have meant no as she sat quite still in a kind of overpowering and simpli­fied perfection, her body and features moulded by an intensity that held me in its embrace, and which told me that whatever happened this picture she created would always remain unattain­able and beyond reach, I fell so short of it. Reaching out to the smooth, unblemished softness of her cheek, my hand found an assurance both delicate and painful; being so close, so forgiving, was to explain everything, and pulling her gently towards me as I brushed her hair with my face, I again experie­nced that feeling not unlike awe, as of trespassing, as I had on coming into the house. Running my finger across her cheek, I was seized by the fear that she would pull away, until I realised it had been the unexpectedness of the touch that made her flinch; picking a flower or holding a helpless, newborn creature that could easily be hurt, were images that came to me, they fitted whatever passed between us.

"Anyway," I said, taking her hand, "it doesn't really matter if you like being told or not, you are very beautiful, whatever you might think." And then, having finally admitted what had been on my mind for so long, I turned away from her as if no longer wishing to believe it myself, thinking I might have al­ready said too much by the way she sat there, neither answering or showing resentment, or giving any indication at all of what was going on inside her head, but remaining quietly and impass­ively thoughtful like someone much older as she went on being locked inside that distant, pensive gaze of hers that for years was to remain at war with me and the future caught up in it.

"Rowan, what are you thinking?" I said, shortly, squeezing her hand, not worried but not assured either by this lapse coming between us.

"I don't know. I don't know what to say when you tell me things like that."

"Why say anything, why not just accept it for what it is. Besides, I've said it now. I wanted you to know, that's all. I'm sorry if I embarrassed you."

In the rush of emotions hurrying to the surface, she was suddenly so much younger than myself. 

"No, it isn't that," and there was something grateful in this and the hesitation following it which prevented me from asking what she meant, for I could see she was going to enlarge on it as she gave another of her multitude of shrugs while toying with the fingers in her lap. "I don't really mind you saying those things, it's only that I want to be appreciated for myself and not only for what I look like. People have been patting me on the head and telling me how pretty I am for as long as I can remember, since I was a child, really."

"Is that so bad?"

"It's not bad, just boring hearing the same old thing."

"You're an odd girl," I murmured, using the first words that same to me as I took another opportunity to squeeze her hand, telling myself I wanted nothing more than the small, imprison­ing grin she gave and receiving in turn another of those up­heavals to be suffered whenever I looked at her. She didn't object or try to stop me when I kissed her, showing neither agreement nor reluctance, and I took this to be part of her, her response, no matter what had gone before. "I've been wanting to do that for a long time," I said.

"Have you?"

Along with the words aimlessly falling from her, there wasn't the slightest hint of surprise or resistance when I again found her cheek and mouth, the faint outline of her breast beneath the sweater coming into contact with my hand as I kissed her, willing it to touch, then touch again, as it went on meeting another resistance in a shape and form whose unexpected weight and size startled me, "You're so lovely," my voice an involuntary gasp intent on trying to convince me still further of the enormity of the discovery that had liter­ally taken my breath away. The foundation of joy, of eternity, in my hand, I found myself sinking into a timeless cocoon outside of which there was nothing but the monotony that was existence.

"You know I can't sleep with you."

A sound devoid of all meaning was dragging thin strips of barbed wire through me, as a subsidence, as of breath being violently sucked from the body, took the dearest of all futures with it. So near, so far.

"Why not?" When? Where? Each is a book.

"I can't now."

The idea that she had at some time dragged me down still further; so far, and yet nothing but another facet of an old defeating pain, a desire turned inside-out like some discarded sock, as a limp, abashed hand fell pointlessly away. Alone, an only child once more, I was renewing the futility of my own isolation.

"Don't you like me?"

"It isn't that." Her hands on her thighs, one of her thumbs was still casually tucked into the pocket of her jeans. "I don't know what it is," she went on in almost the same breath.

"Is it because I'm older than you?"

"No, of course it isn't," and I believed her, even though it didn't help. "I don't know why."

Accompanied by a slightly impatient toss of the head, it was as much an appeal as an exclamation.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you in," she said, an apologetic note entering her voice.

"It doesn't matter," I said, repeating myself in so many ways.

"Please don't be annoyed."

Her fingers were commiserating with my sleeve.

"I'm not annoyed," I replied, although I had already betrayed that conviction. I was, in truth, more disconcerted than anything. "It's just that.... "..I started to say, the words stranger than I meant them to be. "It's... I wanted you so much," I stammered, moving slowly, feebly, if anything, through the thick, corrosive air, the burning behind the eyes stronger. "I expect you knew that, didn't you?"

She nodded, her lips pursing a "Yes," although it wasn't only her voice that became subdued, faraway.

"Rowan," I said, my own voice fainter now, "I want you so much I can't help myself. And taking her hand I put it to my face, rubbing the cheek against it, unable to stop the tears settling like tiny spools of film onto her skin as the dam burst.

At first, something like astonishment had shown itself in her reaction, the sympathetic concern of the arm she put around me as she got up and knelt facing me on the sofa.

"You mustn’t cry," she said softly, her voice low and consid­erate. "Not for me."

"I can't help it," I mumbled, words and tears combined reducing themselves to a hoarse and strangled faintness. "I'm sorry...."

"You've broken one of the rules, haven't you," she said in answer to this. You've allowed life to get too close and you shouldn't." Noticing my watch, she screwed her head sideways to look at the time. "I have to go out soon," she said. "I said I'd visit a friend."

"You're always going," I complained, immediately thinking that this would make no sense to her as I carried on asking myself if being so young and beautiful, having everything ahead of you was always so simple.

"Oh, don't look so worried," she murmured, seeing my face, "It's only a girl from school."

Even if her usual composure and self-assuredness had temporarily vanished, she never was to remain anything but herself. At times I found it attractive, but there were other occasions when I had to admit that the picture of cool, distant adequacy she sustained, annoyed me, it put her so much out of reach.        

"If you don't want to see me again," I said, "you only have to say so."

Getting up, I went over to the window as I carried on having difficulty reconciling the room to the one I had known earlier.

"I'm sorry I upset you."

"It's not your fault, is it. I upset myself," I replied, trying to smile, the springs of the sofa and the light padding of feet behind me bringing a further surprise to someone telling himself he was beyond all revelations.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, scolding me in that light-hearted and amusing was of hers that never quite lost its seriousness.

"That isn't what I meant at all. Of course I want to see you again, but I won't if you start getting all mopey." And she put her arm through mine in the way older woman do, hugging it to her. "Silly!" she went on, giving my arm a squeeze in a manner that was as puzzling as any enigma.      .

Chastised, captivated still further, I was already on my way back to that very room or to the park where we had met, waiting for the next day, the next time I would see her. I said as much when we kissed at the door as she showed me out.

"I don't know, perhaps," she smiled, when I asked her about this.

"I want you," I repeated, mumbling something about not wanting to go, so that she pushed me off with that knack she had of being able to put you in your place while remaining as endear­ing.

"Hm, you'll just have to be patient, won't you."

"That sounds like some kind of promise, is it?"

"Maybe," and seeing what on another occasion she called my puppy face, she smiled again, as she did a moment or two later when I looked back at the door closing behind me. The detachment to be found abandoned in the profile of the young knows no mercy.

 


 

11

 

"I've wanted to do this for ages." I sensed her smile.

"Yes, I know." "I suppose it was obvious."

"No, not really," she replied, making excuses for me. "I just knew."

"Did you want me?"

"Yes; no. Well at first I wasn't sure."

"When were you?"

"That day you brought me the ice cream in the park, I think."

"I noticed you long before I saw you in the library," I said. "Remember that?"

She shook her head, momentarily far away, it seemed.

"Where were you, I don't remember seeing you."

Savouring the words before I answered, I was re-disc­overing histories that had led to this, seeing them, for the first time.

"The first time I saw you was in the supermarket," I said. "It was a Friday night and you were going out as I came in. It was quite busy so you wouldn't have noticed me, would you."

"No." She shook her head, giving an apologetic grin: happy or not, there was a pensiveness about her face, her eyes in particular, that she never really lost.

"Then I saw you passing the library one lunch hour," I went on."I wanted to talk to you then but didn't know how. You seemed to be in a hurry."

"I don't know where I could have been going," she said in reply, looking thoughtful as only she knew how.

Her hand in mine, I looked at her fingers, holding them up to my face for a closer look.

"I didn't know you bit your nails," I said, as all of her shrugs, her smiles, came true in one.

"I bit them while waiting for you to talk to me," she said with a petulant grimace as she pulled her hand away. "You took long enough."

"How was I to know you wanted me to," I replied, kissing the hand the moment she put it back in mine.

"I was curious," she volunteered.

"I didn't know."

"How could you. There are lots of things I never show to anyone," she went on, speaking as I leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead.

"Don't ever try to really know me, will you," she added a moment later.

"All right," I whispered, kissing her again, thinking I understood what she meant. Then, as much to myself as to her, I said, "What are you doing?"

On her knees, the young girl whose enchantment I was trying to survive, was playing with the hairs on my wrist.

"Just seeing what you're like."

She looked up and then away, with that habitual downward movement of the head I'd first noticed in the library.

"You're very hairy."

"Is that a criticism or an observation."

"It's a compliment."

"I thought Virgo's only criticised?"

"You mustn’t believe everything I say," her attempt at a smile made sadder by being so brief.

"Perhaps you shouldn't say things you don't believe."

"That would be boring!" came the instantaneous retort.

"So they come up to your expectations, do they."

"Um... They're okay."

Then as an afterthought, as if it had been on her mind all along, she asked me how I had known her name.

"I saw it on the front of one of your exercise books at the library."

"Oh."

She seemed almost disappointed.

"Why do you ask?"

"I just wondered," she said, continuing to trace lines across my wrist with her fingertip.

"I saw it one day when you went out."

Her faraway look came back as if it needed confirmation.

"I'm sorry about all that," I said. "Did you really mind?"

"No, if I had I wouldn't be here, would I."

"I should have said something sooner but I didn't know what."

"Just say hallo," she grinned, sharing one of her secrets with herself.

"That's easier said than done."

"You are shy, aren't you," she remarked, almost to herself.

"I suppose so, sometimes."

"I don’t like men who are pushy, they usually are. That's what I liked about you," she added in a lower kind of voice, at first hesitating. Reassured, I went on finding myself jealous of them.

"Why, do many of them ask you out?"

"They drop silly hints. George isn't so bad," she said, mention­ing one of the men who worked in the park.

"I suppose the main reason why I didn't say anything was because I thought you would have said no."

"Why should I have said no?"

"I don't know, perhaps I felt you would have thought I was too old for you."

"I never see people in that way. I either like them or I don't."

"That's what I liked about you....."

Her profile becomes the flower border being gently ruffled by the wind outside this window, her lips move as her voice pleads with my ear in the distinctive murmur of a sigh trapping me in its tides. She was so lovely, so beyond anything one has a right to, that the idea of succumbing, of dying in her arms while gazing up at her, again took hold of me. It was to be my way of thanking her.

Our hands meet and her mouth moves against mine, the faint explosions caused by the eager nibbling of her lips taking my breath away; suddenly, I wanted to run my tongue along the lines of paler skin criss-crossing her ankles where the sandals had been.

"You're very beautiful," I was listening to someone say on my behalf.

"You're not so bad yourself," she murmured with another grin, her head inclined to one side as she searches my face, the unmistakeable softening in her eyes something I hadn't seen before as past and present converge in the inner tears she wrings from me as a consummation deepens. You!. Rowan....

Anguish competes with joy; oceanic, impassive, her expression was irrelevant in that second, I only know it had no sympathy for the death of one's own youth and its wasted opportunities.

Our lips part, she leans her head against my shoulder, her sweater abandoned to a hand whose anxiousness is taking me back to so many lost beginnings, only to be lost again.

"Can I?" Miracles also intimidate.

“If you want."

Her lips barely moving, that vulnerable stillness of her body was forming itself into a resilient truth, that yield­ing assent no words can match or deny. Trying not to, but fumbling all the same, I tried to be myself, natural as they say, as if anyone had ever been themselves let alone me be mine. It was bliss choking me; her neck a swan's, her arms and shoulders were the downy, unfolding wings of an ideal never to be forgotten.

"You're all fingers!"

"I know."

Giving a slight, forgiving grin as she spoke,  she leaned back, putting her hands up behind her to her shoulder blades. "Men!" she added, scolding me with an accusative eyebrow as she then moved her hands away.

"It was caught," I explained, or tried to, encouraged, closer, my own hand going back to its paradise, to that accord opening in the hopeful, silken majesty of a parachute. I was almost afraid to look, to fall that far.

"It's cold in here," she said, shivering slightly, her breasts trembling in a motion in complete contrast to their fullness and warmth. So far, so good.

"I'm sorry."

She had stiffened and relaxed in the same faint gasp that left me doubting if I ever would find the complacency so essential to achieving happiness, to being at peace. Nakedness, anyhow, is a myth, one can never see all despite the cry, I am yours beck­oning from within a skin itself clothed in the restlessness of a desire that asks one to go on wanting more. Loveliness, too, corrupts.

Astonished, audacious, I again told her how lovely she was, but it was really to myself as my hands, the whole relent­less urgency of need, became imbedded in such paralysis; what does one do next,: where does one go on a journey without end.

"I love you."

"Don't talk."

She was right, of course, joy is of the utmost gravity. Mesmerised, I was also trapped in the frank shyness as she looked past me, over my shoulder, a gesture that was characteristic of her and which I found so enlightening; the natural aphrodisiac of the young. Being content underlined such things, take them away and the earth becomes the void it’s always been and all in it effort. I tried imagining what it was like to be without fingers, and then almost wished mine weren't so important in the chaos filling hands hanging emptily and at war with them­selves.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"This is silly!"

Exasperation, an intake of breath, took over the space where 'heaven had been, the exquisite twin globes witnessing my fall as she pulled down the sweater, the hand steering me over to the bed in the corner having as much to be with bringing me back to life as any heartbeat.

"It wasn't very comfortable, was it," I was forced to agree, shaking myself free of the immediate past with all its regrets and once more able to participate in the emergence of another universe as I found myself on the bed beside her, her own feat­ures fixed into the candour of an attentiveness impossible to repeat. I knew then the imperishable and absolute meaning of a purpose to be discovered only in these centuries of separation and withdrawal that have come upon me since. As we kissed, her eyes, everything - regaining a luminous and acquiescent watch­fulness - went on becoming part of that hushed astonishment that came into being with finding myself alone with her in that way. Close at last, I went on searching, obeying her responses, react­ions, as if they were my own, wanting to know more but unwilling to hurry or perhaps alarm, forever amazed at my good fortune in finding her as those barriers that had previously come between us began to slip away, and in so doing were taking that self-assuredness and composure with them.

Finding the jeans, my fingers dared themselves to slip below the waistband, their caution an adjunct to the objection I still half-expected, her face buried in my neck and the crook of my shoulder with a near-painful insistence. Surprised  still more, an explorer lost in the Amazon of himself, I was content to go on suffering the velvet warmth of her skin, that endless continent making it impossible to return to what I'd been, and wanting only for this to go on and on into the forlorn currents at odds with the passionate expectation she aroused in one. Conscious too, of the re-awakened confines of the room, of a distant silence interrupted only by her breathing and the intermittent creaking of the bed, and of the question-answers running wild inside me about her age, her future, which in turn fed on the apprehension - more oppressively still - about us, the body being offered to mine and those magnetic eyes closed on an horizon I could only guess at when the time came to leave her later that day. Flushed, burying her face in my arm in mute exhortation, the short, panted spasms of breath were gripped, like the glow of her cheeks, in the heat of a tension causing the area around the forehead and eyes to grow starkly pale in contrast, her, "Yes, oh yes!" in answer to my prompting, so faint it was almost inaudible, her agreement confirmed in the way she automatically raised her hips from the bed as though it was something she had done a hundred times before. Love: I wasn't teaching her anything, I merely thought I was. Her underwear a neat, practical blue, I have travelled ceaselessly in search of that moment since. Another slight, permitting sigh taking her from me, I had a brief, mental pict­ure of a fisherman's float abruptly vanishing beneath the surf­ace of the water, those fathomless depths to be seen in her eyes as they flickered open, an ocean whose tides we had elected to drown in. "Yes! Yes!...."

It wasn't at all like any word I had heard before, this utterance whole symphonies were created from, as, enclosed in its tense, imploring vigilance, her inward gasp encapsulated a hunger that became instantly dramatic as she shook beneath the rigors of an entry. To undress is to restore, and making love to her was a restoration and affirmation that had become obscured and hidden, dimmed by time and habit, as she sighed again, the arm held protectively across her face shielding both of us from a pleasure grown too acute. I wasn't only imagining that sanity spun off course in that ecstatic seizure that then left her, asking me how could I live without the cont­orted biting of her bottom lip; a delicate shade of pink, the silken petals of a flower were being called upon to open, to absorb, to perfect all things, the eyes opening and closing beneath their lids telling me she was seeing herself as I was seeing her, that trembling, helpless loveliness anthologising an era of hopeless, stricken longing that was to leave its numbing wonder roaming around my head for years to come.

"Are you cold?"

Entranced by nakedness, an erection fought with the tiny rash of goose pimples on her arms.

"A little."

Then, in answer to an instinctive reflex that between lovers has no words or deeper comprehension, I became the prisoner of an uncontrollable urge as I melted into her, the fear of loss I was never to totally overcome submerged in the bed's intoxicating warmth.

"Something tells me you've done this before," I couldn't help saying.

"No, not really," she answered, smothering me in the blind profusion of kisses, her earnestness only serving to emph­asise the unbelievably anguished closeness that arose from being with her. She was, as I've already implied in these pages, all one could wish for, and holding her then, I carried on meeting the girl I had watched entering and leav­ing the library, her forehead creased in concentration, ankles crossed beneath the table, a strand of hair being idly twisted by the small, neat fingers. It was something I couldn't stop reminding myself of if only because I could never quite believe it; it seemed incredible to me then, writing about it now in this small, secluded room, I find it more incredible still.

"You're so lovely, so absolutely beautiful," I told her, unable to resist giving in to the impulse, the caress intent on coaxing an even greater eclipse in the renewed-eternity of the eyes-closed withdrawal into herself we had briefly left aside, and those tiny, resigned gasps she used to make when aroused that have gone on reverberating through me to this day. For she never did stop surprising me from one moment, one mannerism, to the next, and in a manner I was quite incap­able of learning from I was so intrigued and troubled by her. Yet, despite the willingness she physically revealed so overt­ly, she was for the most part still much younger in experience and temperament than I ever guessed or allowed myself to believe, and allowing me to have her that first time was in itself only another elusive nuance in that web of fascination in which I found myself. Even then, it was for her just another step on the rungs of a ladder, while my own search - taking place far more assiduously after I met her - went on remaining an integral part of a future that with hindsight was to have only the one outcome.

"Don't worry," I murmured, placating any unspoken anxiety as I felt her hips tighten in the excited momentum of the other person she had become, her own whispered groan and the one escaping from me not long after, fraught with a rapturous sublimity unlike any other; making love or writing a poem was something constantly being done for me by her. If only she had always been like that!

"Angel!...." I gasped, feeling my own birth-death in that tearful, liberating joy as I stared down to where the adroit admittance of a debauching paroxysm - the tip of a tongue - was passing across her lips.

"Oh my God!" she cried, teaching me everything I needed to know.


 

12

 

The next afternoon I saw her again. We met on the path she uses on her way home after work. It is only a day since I last saw her, but in those vast and replete words of thanks that come over me at the first hint of her through the trees it seems so much longer. From that first day I had never stopped asking myself what it would be like, what her hold over me would be if we ever made love. Now I knew it fully as we greet each other with the same deceptive word we used when still strangers: hallo, the grey-blue density of the eyes joining the mouth in a querying: smile.

"What kind of day have you had?"

"Oh, it wasn't too bad... A bit boring," she replies with her customary frankness, the features then relaxing into the more typical pensiveness I have come to know. It is then, as we meet, that daylight reveals a dependence which night - despite itself - can only hint at. It is no longer a question of wanting her, I cannot visualise being without her, the friendly peck I give her cheek a cautious, tentative one - there may be someone watching - a concession and recognition to the difference in our ages and which lies behind it.

"What about you, what kind of day have you had?" she asks as we deliberately move away from the path towards the refuge of the trees, my hand only then finding hers.

"Not too bad," I say, thinking I might later tell her the truth.

"Did you do any writing?"

"A bit. It wouldn't come." I hesitated as I was saying this. "I was thinking about you," I added, almost thoughtlessly, although the reverse was true.

"You shouldn't."

"Why not? Why do you say that?"   

A car went past as we crossed the narrow road, the driver's face a hurrying mask of envy as he glimpsed us.

"Only because I think your work is important," she said, the sight of an empty seat resonant of that underlying desolation searching for another victim. Sitting, we went on walking aimlessly towards a future that for us could only exist in the beginning.

"Thank you for yesterday," I said, putting an arm around her shoulders in an attempt to offer her something, her "Yes," coming out almost as a question.

"Do you still want me?" I finally asked, looking around for something to offer myself.

"Of course, that must be fairly obvious."

No, Rowan, nothing was obvious, nothing was ever that distinct with you.

"You never say," I said, regretting the plea in my tone.

"There isn't much point in talking about it when you have nowhere to so, is there," she replied, hands interlocked in her lap, her body rather taut. Nearby, her parents and Alison were moving about, equally tense; a door slammed, footsteps drawing closer, the row we'd had when I came in late and woke her up the night before catching me in its recriminating claws in the branches of the trees and the dry tufts of grass at our feet.

"You can't come to the house," she went on, clarifying her earlier remark, making sure that I knew it.

"I know," I replied, holding and losing her, for even if I had taken her to one of the guest houses neither of us could have stayed the night without more questions being asked. And when I half-heartedly suggested it I could see she didn't like the idea of us posing as a couple anymore than I did.

"I can't take you back to my place either," I muttered lamely and as an afterthought that had to be mentioned as I was sure it must have occurred to her.

"Does your sister know about me?" she added, almost cheerfully.

"No," I said, shaking my head, "I haven't told her anything."

Minutes? Hours? I don't know how long we sat there linked together by this new, if predictable impasse.

"Are you feeling cold?" I asked in response to the empty sky and the cooler late-afternoon breeze reaching us across the nearby lake.

"No, not really."

"What time do you have to be back?" I said, thinking of her usual five o'clock deadline, her tea.

"I still haven't finished that holiday homework," she said, taking her hand from mine and removing a handkerchief from her pocket.

"Do you have to do it tonight?" I queried, a sea lapping a shore as the hand came back.

"I should really. Some of us have to work, you know," she said rather mischievously, something of a daring grin lighting her face. "I shall have to go back for tea, anyway."

Pulling her closer, her head resting against my shoulder, I carried on wondering if it would be better to hang than to be reprieved endlessly.

"Anyway, whatever happens, last night was certainly something to be thankful for."

"I told you, you don't have to thank me."

"Don't I?" I said, inhaling her hair, her profile, one I was afraid of at the time.

"I wanted it too," she replied, remembering for both of us.

"You never did tell me who else you'd slept with."

"Oh, just boys," she grinned, inventing persecution with a plural singularity. She paused, and I found her smiling at them, at herself, perhaps. "There's only been two, actually, other than you, the word only sticking in my throat. "Why do you ask?"

"Men always do," I wanted to say, but didn't, and replaced it with the less pointed, "Just curious," the neat outline of her legs beneath the jeans hurting more than ever.

"Then again, I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised, but I am. When I first saw you I told myself you must be a virgin."

She liked that, her eyes lit up and she smiled, hugging herself and me. For reasons she knew best she often liked to be misunderstood.

"Did you? Really?"

"Well, it isn't all that surprising, is it. You don't look your age, you know that."

"Yes, I do know," she said, peevishness creeping into the reply.

"When you're older you'll be pleased."

"I never want to get old," the underlying vulnerability of this retort bringing her closer.

"Well, you won't, will you. Anyway, you make me very happy," I said, her cheek cool to my mouth.

"Hm!" she muttered, the pressure on my hand growing as she rubbed h»r nose into the sleeve of my coat. "You really are an old softy, aren't you."

"If you say so."

And then I used those words which had their inception in her and with which I began this journal.

"You know, there are some people whose faces seem to exist somewhere inside you long before you even come to know them," I began, waiting for this to sink in. "It was like that with you," I went on, speaking more slowly, as if speaking fast or slow would have added anything more. I was lost. "Do you understand?" I asked, a moment or two later, again witnessing for all time the curiously unmoved blue of her eyes above the sheet's whiteness as it had been the night before.

"Yes, I think so," she said, following a silence. "But it rather frightens me."

"Why?" I asked, watching her withdraw into one of those distant, silently dramatic moods the young often adopt but which she had made her own.

"I just don't want you to let me have my own way, that's all," the words quietly firm, her lips barely moving as she came back to me. "I'll walk all over you if you do," as if I needed to be convinced. Asking me the time, I held up my wristwatch. “I shall have to be going soon," she said, looking at the watch. "Yes, I know," I replied, a mood of my own coming on. Then: "Does it seem strange to you my saying those things?"

"No, not really," she answered, giving me a winsome grin before looking away again, this time her profile a haven barred by impenetrable thoughts.

"In any case," I urged, "It's a compliment as much as anything, if you can see it that way."

Smiling with her mouth, she flashed me a brief if sadd­ening glance as her hand tugged at my sleeve.

"I'm sorry," she said, the ambivalent tone of her voice leaving me to wonder what for.

"But then," I went on, and it was as though she had never spoken, "you always look rather sad and preoccupied, don't you."

"Do I? I don't mean to." And she raised her eyebrows in that fetchingly quizzical manner as she often did whenever I mentioned anything to do with her habits or appearance.

"Anyway, it doesn't matter, does it," I managed to say, moved by the look as I pulled her closer. "It makes you look even more beautiful, if that were possible."

As I kissed her I couldn't help noticing - as I had before - that her response to this, although quietly submiss­ive, was also accompanied by a lively flush that crept onto her cheeks, and this in turn prompted me to think what she would be like, how she would be, with someone of her own age.

"Oh that!" she exclaimed, imitating the laugh I remembered, when I asked her what George had said to make her laugh that day I had taken her the ice cream in the park. "He thought you might be my father," and she laughed again, saying, "How old are you, really?" giving me one of her devastating sidelong glances as she brushed aside the hair falling over an eye.

"I told you," I said, anxious to change the subject. "Can I see you tomorrow?" I added, suddenly afraid.

"Do you want to?" she said, glancing up at me.


 

 

13

 

Would she never come!

I glanced at the clock for the third or fourth time in as many minutes before going back to the window, the room behind me beginning to feel cold despite the glow of the fire. Love can also be a tyranny.

"It wasn't my intention to start another affair." She had become quieter and not a little upset as she divul­ged this, her overall demeanour remaining unchanged when I finally got her to say she would come to the house.

"What time shall I come?" she had simply asked.

She was coming! I had caught sight of her fair hair bobbing against the green splash of hedgerow by the junction as she turned into the road. A few minutes later her tense and slightly worried features were rivalling my own in the hall mirror as I stepped aside to let her in. "You've got your boots on," I remarked for want of something to say and because I was a little surprised. A dry, if sunless day, she wore her usual jeans and a blue, lightweight coat over a shirt.

"Yes." She looked herself over a little uncertainly. "I came over the wood," she said, giving a small shiver, her breath coinciding with the relief in mine now that she was there. "It's warmer in here," she went on, following me into the lounge after removing the boots and going across to the fire, her voice and everything about her presence becoming manifest­ly distinct, changed somewhat, in surroundings I had only associated with Alison. But she had come as she said, she was there, and another wave of gratitude surged through me at again being alone with her. Desire, incredulity, each was as consuming as the other.

Closing the door, I went over to where she stood by the fire, the comforting embrace of the room joining in its intimate relief.

"I'm glad you came," I said, daring to put a hand to her young girl's waist, as all I had hoped for, as I had imagined, became true.

"They went on and on at the college" - she had gone to enrol in an evening class later in the year - "and I thought I was going to miss the train. There isn't another until three or four, I think."

Hearing someone approaching along the road, she drew back into the room.

"It's okay," I murmured, my eyes going from the window to her, "it's only a neighbour," the fading footsteps bringing to the surface the underlying tension to be felt in the rest of the house, the hand around her waist stiffening slightly in conjunction with the warning it had invoked in her. "It's just someone up the road," I repeated, as the footsteps came to an assuaging halt, our withheld breaths, together with the brief emptiness that followed, integrating themselves into the mutually anxious grimaces of relief. Why had I been so alarmed when Alison had a car?

"Do you mind if I have a drink?" she asked, her face still reflecting a concern that showed more obviously now the danger had passed. It was then I realised with something of a shock that whatever the consequences of inviting her to the house I would do nothing to prevent it, for in fearing' Alison finding out I automatically thought of Rowan and losing her.

When I brought the coffee in from the kitchen, she was kneeling on the floor, the glow of the fire a luminous patchwork along the side of her face and neck in the semi-dark of the unlit room, her slightly arched back bringing to mind the sensual, rewarding lines of a cat, never failing to take me back through the avalanche of details spelling out the fascination I felt for her and of the longing that tore me in two. I believed and yet I was ready to believe.

"Are you sure you wouldn't something to eat?"

"No, it's all right, thank you," her politeness, although not new, part of the strangeness she was feeling, smiling faintly, painfully almost, as I pulled one of the armchairs nearer to her and sat down.

"What time does your sister come in?" she asked, her sip at the coffee a detached, meditative one that helped make the questioning glance towards the window all the more explicit.

"About five-thirty, sometimes later."

"I see," the lips shaping the sound causing me to fall silent, unable to prevent myself being affected by the devotion invest­ed in such an ordinary thing, at seeing someone kneeling on the floor a cup in their hands.

"Don't worry, it will be okay," I said, offering a palliative to both our doubts, letting her know that I knew, as I let her hair run through my fingers. The right words, the only words, they were the sly truth of a man in love, of someone who couldn't help himself. And I was desperately in love with her, with what had gone before and that to come, with her walk and gestures, the hypnotising brilliance of her eyes, her eternal, distracting silences, and with all the many irresistible impulses filling me with want, recklessness. It was, need I add, one of those remarks that make little or no sense when seen in hindsight, as we were to find out. Also, I don't really know why we sat talking in that downstairs room as we did, instead of going upstairs, but that is what we did, and what took place that afternoon I have described as it happened, as I have tried describing everything in this account of the breath of fire that swept over me during a summer not so long ago.

"Don't worry," I said, if not for the first time, leaving her to stare at me, through me, as she could so easily do, and with a familiarity I could often feel a stranger in. "Come and sit here, you're too far away there." Hesitating, she stared down at the cup in her hands, and for a brief moment I thought she was going to refuse, but then a relaxing kind of frown replaced the earlier one, and allowing a reluctant smile of acquiescence to enliven her features she got up and moved towards me. "You can sit here," I said, patting my lap, taking the cup from her and placing it on the floor beside my own. "There's no need to worry," I again added as a lamely reassuring afterthought.

"Are you sure?" she replied, letting her caution be overcome as she leaned back against me.

"Of course, I wouldn't have asked you to come otherwise, would I?" letting myself be placated in turn by that desire ruth­lessly merging with the intricate web of an intrigue I was hungrily pulling around myself.

"I haven't done anything like this before," she confessed, becoming ever more irresistible, more painfully youthful.

"I know," I answered, somehow sounding dismissive although I hadn't meant to. "But what else could we do," I found myself saying, the blonde softness of the hair beneath my chin sweeping me before it as I kissed her arm, the pullover covering it, just beneath the shoulder, her presence eclipsing all that had gone before. In having so much, there is so much to lose.

"Rowan!" I felt myself say, reborn once more into that wonder­fully new and inexplicable timelessness to be found in the smooth seashell of her skin, her ear and neck, the immediacy that is both as near and far as an horizon one can never reach, as eloquent as footsteps in the dark, along with the tiniest suggestion of permissiveness in the faintest of shadows under the eyes, themselves belonging to the ineffable provocation taking place in the acknowledgement curving into her arms and shoulders in a slackening tautness telling me what I most wanted to hear and at that moment had always known.

"I can't have enough of you!" I remember saying as if offering an explanation, but she took this as she did most things I said or did, with a detached, inner smile as though she had known all along, which she had no doubt. I never really knew how she felt about anything let alone what she approved of, and even at those times when I felt myself closer to the unravelling of this secret, I soon realised that she only seemed to approve, if you see what I mean. Even in my arms she was as far away as she would always be, as she is now as I write about her in the loneliness of this vast imprisoning. "It's for me?" is what I most wanted to hear her cry, as she had that day I took her the ice cream, so that there would then be no mistaking her own commitment as I went on waiting, watching through her eyes for that other love to show itself while risking nervous, far-reaching questions to myself, along with worry­ing about what the others had said to her or had loved her in the way I did. We were, of course, talking about my own life, which I had on more than one occasion given her, along with those other words I was always making her a present of.

"I love you," I would say. "I always have." But she had an answer to this as she had one to most things, saying,

"Do you? How can you be so sure?" Speaking of it almost as an impossibility, not of this world, like flying to the moon, as maybe it was. And thinking again that David or Mick had perhaps said something not dissimilar to her, added, "Much more than I've ever loved anyone or anything." But this, too, appeared to make little or no impression on her as she remained so still, so absolutely herself, there was very little left to be desired, so full I was. Her head on my chest, there was hardly a sound or movement from her during the rest of the time we were there, which in certain ways I guess is just how it should be, at some point along the way hearing her say,

"I told you, I'm not sure what love is," this in itself providing yet another beginning and, eventually, another end, a slow, traumatic one which for a time brought me to the edge of another absolute silence to go with the one she left behind as I went on trying to find another life, another way to live, if there was one. I knew then, as I'd always known, I suppose, why it was I wanted the world to stop, as one day it did, but nobody believed it as it stopped only for me.

What do I write about you Rowan? How can I ever start to say what did take place during one moment spent with you, between holding your hand and letting it go, as I've said elsewhere. Once I saw someone close to me drown, and although it left me confused and shaken, it didn't hurt at all, not in the way loving you went on to hurt. And I did, have you I mean, a dozen times or more, but on recollection, in trying to re-live this true story I try to speak of, it seems that once is all that really seems possible.

Strands of the finest silk, an overlapping network of sensations building their infinities about our heads, was coming apart, these miracles being spun from the nimblest of touches faltering to a dismal halt in the charred remains of a dream's dying promise.

"What is she doing back!" I choked on the wiry, fibrous aggr­ession adding its sinewy disbelief to the futility falling through me like so much debris.

"What is it?"

Coming loose, my head spinning in all directions, I lurched to my feet.

"It's Alison," I blurted, the sound coming out in an odd, strangulated croak.

"Is it your sister?" she gasped, numbly, unable to fully comprehend in that second, the possibility - the impossib­ility - of being half-undressed in the front room of an older man whose sister's car door had just slammed shut with an aggrieved, knowing thud.

"Yes, get your clothes, quick!" I urged, angered by the frightened, misplaced urgency and alarm being forced into her voice and gestures as she got to her feet, her body - all I had sought - being bundled away as she hastily arran­ged her clothes, the innocence impaled on the unjust harshness of experience. She had never seemed lovelier or more unseen.

"Of course it's my sister!" I wanted to shout, who else in the circumstances would be able to turn me into a gibbering idiot in the seconds that took a lifetime to learn, to elapse, as I shoved her into the hall, grabbed her boots and coat, before hurrying her through the dining room into the kitchen and out into the garden.

"Stay here until you hear the street door close," I stressed, wondering why I was making it sound so easy as I pressed the boots into her arms. "And then go down the path to the road," I added, pointing to the thin alley that ran down the side of the house and garage to the front. "I'll see you in the park tomorrow, same place," patting her arm in what was intended to be a demonstration of confident assurance before turning back through the kitchen and dining room in search of the face that only a short while before I had wanted to avoid.

The street door was open, the cooler rush of air blowing through the house; the car was parked on the road, it too looking as though it had been abruptly and ominously deserted. Reaching the hallway I was about to call upstairs when Alison suddenly appeared in the porch, her face, clothes and limbs frozen into an unmistakeable accusation one has come to know from plays and films.

"Who's that young girl in the garden?" she asked, her hands moving somewhat agitatedly in that direction.

"What girl?" I replied, warding off the invisible blow that had already left its mark.

"You know what girl, she's out there now."

"Where?" I made as if to move past, beyond her and a million others baying for blood. "I don't know who you're talking about."

"Well, she's there. See for yourself!" she went on, tight-lipped, as she brushed past me into the hall and dining room. "I know she's been here, you can smell her scent everywhere!" her nose seaming to twitch in an expression of distaste as she spoke, and for the first time I could detect it too as she moved across to the window, and in the same calamitous motion that took her there, the kitchen door opened and Rowan stepped back into the house, neither walking or moving in the way people do but like a mirage emerging from out of the floor in front of us. Was it really her, the same girl I had met in the library long ago, talking to Alison like that, compl­acent and altogether unreal?

"I'm sorry," I listened to her saying, "I didn't think." And for a singular moment I thought she was going to put out a hand and touch her in some sisterly if inappropriate commiseration, but instead she then stepped back into the garden, giving me an odd, vacant kind of look as she did so, pausing again as though she was about to add to what had already been said, before disappearing down the side of the house to the road as I had previously directed her. She was wearing her boots and pullover, I'd noticed that when she had made the pointless gesture of stepping back into the house, indicating that she'd been putting them on - she had to - when she should have been getting away. There had been no time to think, and I didn't think or act in any cohesive fashion, acting without thought, against thought, blindly obeying the impulse that had been existing when I'd first become aware of the car pulling up, the alarm and panic running ahead of me then now forcing me past the face and hands reaching out to­wards me as I hurried in the direction of that irreplaceable joy I was on the point of losing.

"Where are you going?" I heard her call as I reached the porch, but I had ears and eyes only for the relentlessness of the mysteries weaving themselves about my head as I fell out of the door in one painfully deliberate movement taking me back many years to where another girl, books beneath her arm, and a welcoming smile on her face stood waiting for me on a corner after school, her hand taking mine as another door behind me slammed shut in violent opposition to the echoes of a memory intent on rebuilding all that had gone before.  

Foreseeing my intentions, Rowan had either heard me call out or had guessed what might happen, in any case she was wait­ing at the end of the road by the hedge, looking back at the sound of my footsteps and voice as I called out to her. Her face serious but without reproach, the hand she let me take made everything seem worthwhile in the renewal taking place as I caught up with her. We walked on, at first without speaking; it was different. Relieved, I had been afraid that what she had said to Alison would be used on me, thinking she had a right to be at least angry or confused but she seemed neither, and what she said next took me another step closer still towards that eventual understanding telling me how little I really knew about the girl walking beside me.

"I'm sorry," was all I could find to say in answer to the sea of details racing and flowing silently around us.

"That's all right," came the reply, accepting what had taken place without making an issue of it as we turned the corner and began walking in the direction of the town and the unknown future beckoning among the roofs of the distant buildings.

"Do you think she'll tell them?" She meant her parents.

"Who, my sister?"

"Yes," she nodded, speaking from within a lostness enlarging my own.

"No, why should she, she doesn't even know them," the panic and confrontation we had just come through at the house giving way to this latest threat dragging us along in that same irrefutable tide. "I mean, what do you think they'd say if she did?" I asked, knowing full well what my own reaction as an adult would be if I were in their shoes. Ahead of us were to be seen the lights of the housing estate lying in wait for us on the other side of the trees, it wasn't so long since I had stood there with her when I had gone to the house for the first time.

"I don't know really," she finally answered, arriving back at the negative with which we had begun. "They'd be surprised, I suppose. Most likely they'd tell me how silly I was," she continued, the ruefulness in her tone accompanied by a faint grin signifying a recognition and awareness of the naughtiness in herself.

Reaching the end of the path, we stood in the shadow of the last few trees as we had once before, the busying circles of time and fate eddying around us as they had done then, as they never stop doing, of course, as they are doing now even though they have little or nowhere to go in looking backwards. Late afternoon, and although still light, something of the dusk to come and those problems I knew would come with it was already trying to settle over the sound of homeward-bound traffic reaching out to us from further along the path where the road began.

"Will you be all right?"

She insisted on leaving me there, should we be seen by someone putting two and two together.

"Yes, I'll survive," she said, showing me another self while at the same time letting me know she had been more upset by what had taken place than she outwardly showed at the time. And when I thought about this as my own desultory footsteps were taking me back to the house, as I couldn't help doing, I began to think that to be very odd, seeing as my own future was bound up with it.

"When will I see you again?" I had said with some misgiv­ings, again asking myself why it wasn't she who was saying it.

"Tomorrow if you want."

"Of course I want to see you," I said, my understanding of her ambivalence too late in preventing me from being a little terse. "I wouldn't be in this situation otherwise, would. I?"

"No, I suppose not," she replied in a fainter tone, more subdued that she normally let me know. "But am I really worth it," she then asked, for the first time indicating an outcome that had never been far from my own mind all the time I had known her. "Have you really thought about it?"

"Of course I have," I replied, finding it difficult to believe how little she knew me. "But how about you, are you sure this is what you want?"

"I think so. I wouldn't have come to your house if I wasn't, would I?'

 


 

14

 

"Can I come in?”

It was the following day when I opened the door to find her standing in the porch, that began what now seems the rapid, disintegrating sequence of events leading to my being here. It was raining heavily and I mentioned how wet she looked. "Yes, I know. That's what happens when you go out in the rain."

"Take your things off and go and sit by the fire," I said, ignoring this. "I'll get you a towel."

"It doesn't matter. I don't mind being wet, honestly."

"You'll catch a cold."

"You don't catch colds, they're viruses," she said in similar vein.

"You can have a shower if you want," I said, coming back down­stairs and handing her a towel.

"I've just had one," she smiled, referring to the rain she had just come through as she began wiping her face and hair. "Anyway, I haven't got time, I've got to back soon, there's a meeting. I wouldn't mind something to drink though. Some­thing cool would be nice."

I made a drink and brought it through from the kitchen with some biscuits. She refused the biscuits as she took the glass from me, but when I had closed the door and came over to sit with her, I saw she was nibbling at one. The grey, over­cast sky had made the room prematurely dark for that time of day as the rain went on beating against the window, and just by being close to her, by looking from her to the window and back again, was so nice, so much what life itself should have been and, it seemed, never had, until then and those days preceding it.

"That can't be the time, can it?" she asked, looking towards the clock on the wall." I mustn’t be late."

"It's stopped," I said, following her glance. "It was getting on my nerves so I haven't bothered to wind it up."

This seemed to amuse her, so that once again those infect­ious curves dimpling her face around the mouth, made their brief, encouraging appearance. Until she had made this unex­pected visit, I had been dreading the idea that I might not see her again, now I found myself doing it in advance of her going. Running the towel over her feet, the glimpse I had of her ankle was another remembered blow.

"Thank you for the note," she said, leaving the towel on her lap and reaching for the glass on the floor by her chair.

"I'm glad you got it. I was afraid someone might have opened it."

"Oh, they wouldn't do anything like that, they're very upright and proper."

By this I wasn't at all sure if she meant in comparison to herself, but I didn't say anything and let it pass saying instead, "I was worried about you."

"You needn't be.”

"I was worried because I didn't know what was happening. Anyway, you're here now,I'm pleased you came." "I wasn't sure if I should," she replied, sipping quietly at her drink. "Why do you say that?" "Oh, you know..." "Because of yesterday, you mean?"

She nodded, putting the glass back on the floor as she was speaking,.

"You did take a chance coming to the house, didn't you. Say someone had seen you."

"I left it until it was very late and all the lights were out, so there was little chance of that. Then the dogs started to bark," I managed to laugh.

"Oh, that's what it was," she said, her short laugh joining my own as she picked up the towel, the movement of her hand and head as she ran it over her hair in collision with questions that had kept me awake for much of the night and whose unpredict­able answers went on troubling me now.

"What did you do last night? Did you say anything?"

"No, of course not," she said, following a pause that took me in the opposite direction.

"You said you might."

"I told you, you mustn’t believe everything I say. Was your sister angry with me?" she asked in the same breath as she went on looking into the fire.

"No, not really," I lied. "Not outwardly, anyway," Alison having gone out by the time I got back to the house.

"She must have been upset, it couldn't have been very nice for her, could it. Everything happened so quickly," she went on, following another, deeper, pause.

"I know," I said, if only because I felt I had to say something.

"I didn't know what to do, really, once she'd seen me. I don't know why I spoke to her like that, I was so nervous."

"Perhaps that's why," I added lamely, sensing the panic and disruption of the day before about to enter into the silence coming between us. We were, after all, in the very same room that had brought them to life. "What's your meeting about, any­way," I hastily added, hoping to get things onto another foot­ing.

"Oh, I don't know," she said a little impatiently. "They have them from time to time, it gives someone the excuse to feel important. Besides, I won't be there for much longer, I go back to school soon."

"I expect you're not looking forward to that, are you."

"I don't mind. At least I shan't have to get up so early."

"If it was up to me I wouldn't let you get up at all."

"Hm, I can imagine," she said, flashing me a quick look that was more nonchalant than I would have liked.

"I don't blame you for being annoyed at me, the last thing I wanted was for that to happen."

"It couldn't be helped, could it," she said, her shoulders giving a small shrug as she spoke. "We took a chance and it didn't come off."

It was the choice of words as much as what she said that took me by surprise, as they did not long after when she got up to go.

"When I said I hadn't told them, I wasn't telling the whole truth."

"How do you mean?"

"If I tell you promise you won't be cross," she went on, these alleviating words and the entreaty coming into her voice doing their utmost to bring her back from that alien world I felt her vanishing into. "I had to talk to someone, so I told Sarah what was going on, she's a friend from school. Don't worry, she won't say anything," she added, reaching for my hand.

"But why, why did you tell her? What was the point?"

"I told you, I had to talk to someone and Sarah and I have always shared our secrets. I know her, she won't say anything, honest!"

Every cripple has his own way of walking, and I know my own emotional and psychological limp went on becoming more noticeably pronounced when a few days later she told me she was going to see relatives in another part of the country.

"I didn't know until yesterday," she said, the, apologetic note in her voice failing to create the conviction it should have.

"Do you have to go?" I asked, as I sought for affirmations of stability among the grass and trees of the park, my own state of mind showing a growing anxiety as it went on forgiving her even though she had done nothing that needed forgiveness.

"I said I would. They're expecting me. If I don't go now I won't be able to see them for some time as I'll be back at school. Come on," she said, her voice changing as she looked around us to make sure no one was watching before reaching up on her toes to peck me on the cheek, "don't get all mopey, it's only for a week then I'm all yours again. You can see me off!" she added brightly.


 

15

 

The moment she had gone I felt myself become adrift in the dreary emptiness of the town, how it had been when she was there. I had waited for her to wave from the window of the train, but she hadn't, it was one of those things she didn't believe in, like so many others.

"Take care."

"Of course. And you," her voice teased, fighting against the vibration of the engine as she touched me on the side of the face with her nose, as a daughter might.

"I'll miss you," I said, already feeling so alone I only imagined I was talking to her, there didn't seem to be any real point to it anymore.

"It's only a week, isn't it."

"I wish I were coming with you."

"Um, so do I," she said, but I never quite believed her.

“What would your mother say to that?"

"She'd probably fall in love with you!" she laughed.

Then the day before she was due back I went for a walk and found myself near the house. It was the day I rece­ived a postcard sent in an envelope, and with a view of where she was staying. It said: I'm not so happy with the idea of you being in love with me. Remember how surprised you were that I wasn't a virgin? There are parts of me hidden when I'm with you, even from myself....

It was about nine o'clock in the evening and growing dark. A light was on in her flat on the first floor, I could see it from the street, through the trees overhanging the window, the lower half of the house itself in darkness. Surprised by this, but wanting to make absolutely sure it was her and not another member of the family, I waited for some time to see if the light went out before walking back to the telephone box further down the hill. After a short interval, the phone was picked up and a voice I recognised as hers came on the line. The moment I heard it - the moment I'd seen the light on in her room - I knew something was wrong, or if not wrong then not quite as it should be, the contents of the postcard alerting me to that salutary, unhappy fact, while returning early as she had was itself questionable, seeing as she had been so keen to go. To begin with, it was as if she had been expecting me to call, for even though it was the first time I had 'phoned her at the house she didn't seem at all surprised to hear me. I asked her if she was alone and she said she was, and when I said I was coming to see her she readily agreed, in itself indic­ating she was a very different person to the one I'd said goodbye to at the station almost a week before.

When I got back to the house, I didn't ring the bell but picking up a handful of small stones from the drive, threw them up at the window. At the third attempt she must have heard them, for the curtains parted and I saw her look out. 1 was standing in the porch when her shadow passed across the coloured glass panel of the door.

"What's wrong?" I was asking, trying not to read disaster into every second as I followed her upstairs to the flat. I was literally hanging onto every breath.

"Nothing really."

Appearing to have anticipated my remark, she then fell silent, but even those two words hurt, they differed so much from those I had clung to at the station.

"Come in," she said, turning inside the door and closing it after me. The room I'd left not so long before had also been warm, but it lacked the warmth, the purpose, she gave to hers. "How did you know I was back?" "I didn't, until I saw your light on. I had to ring to make sure it was you."

"Yes, they've gone away for the weekend, they didn't know I was coming back today."

"I thought you weren't coming back until tomorrow?"

"Didn't you get my card?"

"Yes thanks, it came this morning. I was wondering why you hadn't written."

"I'm sorry," she said, moving past me.

"So am I, Rowan," I replied. "It doesn't require that much effort, does it."

It was untypical of her to let such a challenge pass and because she did I could tell there was something on her mind, she was as preoccupied with it as I was with being back in the room where we had first made love a few weeks earlier. Saying she would make some tea, she went into the kitchen, leaving me to follow her. Annoyed as I was I didn't know what to do except be close to her.

"Why didn't you let me know you were coming back?" I persist­ed, as she filled the kettle and put it on the gas.

"I said I'm sorry. I'm not much good at writing letters, I thought you knew that," she answered, as I went on noticing how her casual, unhurried movements were in complete contrast to the thoughts anxiously racing through me.

"You knew I'd be worried, didn't you?"

"I don't see why you should be, I was perfectly safe up there."

"You know what I mean.”

"This is why I was in two minds about you coming round to night, it's the wrong time. This is why I didn't tell you I was coming back today, I knew you'd want to see me."

"Is that so bad? I haven't seen you for the best part of a week!"

"You would have. I was going to ring you. I didn't know I was coming back today, either. It was a last minute thing."

I didn't say anything, except to myself, my own doubts and misgivings, the upheaval she could inflict with the slightest criticism or disapproval. I was also afraid, instantly alone, but not for the first time.

"Let's go into the other room," she said, moving past 'me through the open doorway to the sofa near the window in the lounge. At first, I thought she was going to sit down, but instead she put one leg up on the arm in a kneeling position, her hands tucked into the back pockets of her jeans.

"I'm sorry," I said, calmer now, regretting my outburst. "I just had to see you," I went on, somehow making it sound more of an excuse than it should have.

"You would have," she reiterated. "I do things like that. I have to have time to adjust to places, so I came back a day early to sort things out. Is that so bad?" she asked, turning away from me and letting out an impatient sigh that added itself to the regrets queuing up in my mind. Upset as I was, the relief at seeing her again was as isol­ating as I had known it would be.

Getting up, she went back to the kitchen and we carried on talking through the open door, and as she hadn't asked me to sit down I went on feeling like an intruder at the wrong house.

"How are your parents?"

"They're fine, thanks."

"What did you do up there?"

It sounded like an idle question, but it wasn't.

"Oh, the usual things. Went to the coast. Saw some old friends. It was okay. What did you do?" she added, bringing in a tray which she placed on the floor by the sofa.

"This and that," I replied, having of course spent a lot of time thinking about her. "Wondered how you were getting on."

"That's what I want to talk to you about, it's one of the reasons why I came back early."

When she told me about him, we were sitting in almost the same position we had been in that first day I was there. She rarely said my name, at least not in that way, in drawing my attention to something she specifically wanted to say, and further subsidences ran ahead of me as I looked across to where she was kneeling on the floor.

"What is it?" I said, warned in advance.

"You won't get angry with me, will you?"

"I've never got angry with you, you know that."

"It's about someone else, I think I told you about him before - " She hesitated a little before going on. "His name's Mick. Well, I met him again," she said after a further pause, continuing to go on stabbing me long after she fell silent and we both looked at one another and then away, the pain proving I wasn't as yet dead, only in the process of dying in some new and unexplored part of me she was intent on unearthing.

"I see," I recall saying, but of course I was unable to feel or remember anything at all apart from the disfiguring sense of horror crouching over me, there was, too, a violent hatred associated with loss and self pity, but nothing compared with the anger aimed at myself, about myself, as I asked her how long she had known him.

"I knew him before I came down here," she said, the faintness in her voice revealing some nervousness, if not regard for me.

"We lived in the same village for a time."

"What happened-?" I asked, bringing things back to the immed­iate present.

"Nothing."

"Did you sleep with him?"

"No," the quiet resentment underlying her previous denial becoming more emphatic. "I only saw him the night before I left, it just happened. I didn't know I was going to see him again, did I. You do in a small place like that."

"How old is he?" I asked, how could I not?

"Twenty-two. He's a social worker."

"Is that why you didn't write?" I said, pressing the point.

"No, not really. I told you, I only met him just before I left."

"He's obviously made an impression on you."

"He's quite good fun."

"Does this mean you don't want to see me anymore?" I said, putting my neck firmly into another noose.

"No, I didn't say that, did I. He's up there and you're here, aren't you."

When the time came for me to go - she was tired after the journey and it was late - she guessed what was on my mind and in the nicest possible way asked if I would be too disappointed if we didn't see each other for a day or two.

"I can't help it," she tried explaining. "I'm always like this when I go anywhere. Anyway," she went on, this time with a small knowing laugh, "I'm not supposed to be seeing you, remember?"

I did, how could I forget. For someone who had been on the verge of losing her, the idea of seeing her again, under any conditions, was nothing short of a miracle.

Until she began coming to the house on a regular basis later that week, I saw her but once and that was by chance in the market when we were both shopping. We stopped and talked for a while, in passing, as it were, as perhaps people would from the same street or neighbourhood, or as friendly strangers. But this in itself didn’t signify anything more than being but another stage or small step in the learning I had still to do about the girl who had unwittingly taught me how to both love and fear her.


 

16

 

On that last Monday she rose out of a sea of alarming blue. I opened the door and she was standing there in her uniform. It was lunch time, her first day back at school after the holidays. Autumn, there had been a light frost on the hills, the cooler winds bringing a freshness to the air that left a pale, roseate glow on her cheeks. Her hair was held together in two bunches at the side of the ears; she wore white, knee-length socks and casual shoes with a small heel that made her seem slightly taller and which gave a light, bouncy motion to the way she walked. A white shirt and striped tie beneath the pullover completed the outfit. That bluest of blues, her blazer and skirt were of the heart­breaking lucidity of a sky at dawn. The first time I had seen her dressed like that, it is true to say that there are revel­ations one never does quite recover from. And if I say I really did begin to die beneath the force of the attraction whose roots were so painfully imbedded in the unattainable, do not mock or pity me, it is the only way we should leave this world.

"Well, aren't you going to let me in! It's cold out here," she said, in one of those flippant asides or rebukes it was impossible to be annoyed at.

"Sorry, Rowan. I wasn't expecting you," I said, watching myself about to be born and then growing rapidly old in the past and future coming together in a cohesive rush. Hair. Face. Voice. An eye, then another, her breasts and lips as I remembered them, just as it had always been somewhere in the elusive shadows of a distant memory.

"Expect you've got some other woman here, haven't you," she smiled in the same mocking vein as I closed the door behind her, an inferno hanging about my head as I felt myself sinking into the harsh realities of the precarious loveliness moving before me.

"You do look a bit cold," I replied, ignoring this as I was meant to.

"Yes, I'm not used to wearing a skirt," her eyes going across to the table where I had been working for warmth, I had brought the typewriter downstairs to be near the fire. I had been writing when I saw her pass the window. "Your fire looks good!" she smiled, her neat, even teeth an intoxicating whiteness against the blue of her coat as she rubbed her hands and moved towards it.

“I'll make you a drink," I started to say as I went towards the door, but the next instant she was beside me, taking my hand and leading me back into the room. I only became aware that she had taken her blazer off when she went over to the window to pull the curtain, and then, when she came back to the fire­side, I really stopped noticing much at all.

"What about school? Haven't you got to be back?" But all she did was to press a finger to my lips as an entreaty to be quiet.

"This is part of my education, isn't it. You said I could learn from you."

"There's a bed upstairs," I said, as we began to undress each other on the floor.

"You didn't say that the other day."

"That was then."

For the rest of that week everything was fine; she came diligently to the house for lunch each day, and if we didn't make love she would often turn up after school, having said she wouldn't be seeing me until the following day. It was when I opened the door to her on the Tuesday of the next week and saw her standing there, her briefcase hugged resolutely to her, that I immediately noticed the change. In the lounge, I asked her if anything was the matter.

"Oh, it's nothing," she said, her face a study in preoccupation as she tried to avoid my eyes.

"You were okay yesterday," I recall myself saying, staring helplessly at her back as she gazed out of the window.

"Was I?”

"You seemed okay," I said, coming close to putting a hand on her shoulder before thinking better of it, the grey, mist-filled road emphasising the bleakness coming between us. "Rowan, I'm not sure what to think or do when you're like this," I finally said, the thoughts of that imagined winter without her getting the better of me.

"Don't do anything."

"How can I not do anything?" She needed the prompting.

"It's no good, is it?"

"What isn't?”

"Us." She paused before pulling the trigger a second time. "You seem to want something different."

"All I want is to be with you. Nothing's changed, has it. We're still the same as we were yesterday, aren't we?. Is it Mick?" I went on, coughing up what had been bothering me. "Have you heard from him?"

She shook her head.

"No. We didn't say we were going to write. There's no point, is there," she added soon after. "I don't know what it is. It's just me." She forced a hollow laugh.

"That's what I don't understand," I replied, finding myself becoming lost in the maze of unnecessary, verbal exchanges. "You say you like me and yet you don't want to see me!" I said, exasperation fuelling an already fraught situation taking a turn for the worst.

"I didn't say I didn't want to see you. I meant that I couldn't go on seeing you so often. I'll still come round in the lunch hour if you want."

"But that's all I really see of you now, isn't it. I wouldn't mind so much if we didn't get on or if I've done something to upset you," I said, my voice trailing away.

"No, I've told you, it isn't anything like that. I do like you, but, well...." her own voice fading away as mine had into a turbulent silence. "Perhaps that is the trouble, you're too nice... You're always there, aren't you, waiting for me, trying to protect me all the time...."

I didn't see her again that day, or the one after, she had said she wanted to have some time alone and I was wary of making things worse by insisting on it, so that when she appeared later in the week it was to give the impression that her earlier outburst had been forgotten, hugging me as I let her in. In that moment she was as she had always been, as I had always fondly imagined her. I opened my eyes and she was there, wrapping herself around me, her small, cold nose rubbing against my cheek in an impetuous, puppyish display of affection.


 

17

 

I found the note some days later, she must have put it through the door the night before. Written in that small and hurried scrawl of hers, it said: Please don't be too upset but I shan't be coming to see you anymore. I know how you feel and the last thing I want is to hurt you, but it's silly to go on as I have, pretending that nothing has happened. You weren't far wrong when you guessed I had got myself involved with Mick, the boy I told you about. I didn't really mean to. He rang me earlier this evening, which is really why I'm writing this note to you. He's coming down for a few days. I had an idea this might happen but I didn't know how to tell you. I still don't. I'd like us to be friends, but I don't think you could after what you've said. I have to finish now as it's getting late and I want to bring this round when I take the dogs out and then get my things ready for tomorrow. I'm not very good at writing letters, as you know, so you'll have to excuse this for being so inadequate, if that's the right word. It has been more of an effort than you can imagine. I'll come round for my books and records sometime, if that's all right.

The following days were a nightmare.

On reading the note my first impulse was to go to her house or the school, not only to talk to her in an attempt to try and make her change her mind, but also to see her and to have back in my life for but a moment the girl without whom it was so bleak and empty. Telling myself this wasn't feasible, I made an aborted decision to stay away, to try not to think of her, but I couldn't; she was everywhere, from when I woke up -when I did manage to get some sleep - to when I eventually fell into bed. But whenever I went out I invariably found myself in those places where I knew there was every chance of seeing her, telling myself I wasn't doing it deliberately and repeating the lie as I passed her school and the house and library at various times during the day. If I had seen her I'm far from sure what I would have done except repeat those sentiments she already knew, but even as I write this I also know it would not have made any real difference to what did happen.

It was during one of those days soon after getting the note that I saw her coming down the road leading from the school into the town. Watching her from the relative privacy of a tele­phone box, seeing her like that, talking and laughing with her friends, made me realise the hopelessness that had always been present in our relationship but which I had refused to see so clearly until then. As intense as it had been - on my part, at least - there was at the same time so much we hadn't been able to share, even a simple matter such as walking down the street together had been impossible. And although I fully understood why we had to keep everything secret, it didn't prevent me from feeling bitter and resentful at being deprived and excluded from this natural participation in her life.

Keeping out of sight, I followed her into the town centre, stepping back into a shop doorway when she drew nearer to the place where she caught her bus. I wasn't certain what I was doing or what it was meant to achieve, if anything, it was all so disturbed and unreal and filled with that unending self-pity I couldn't shake off. I didn't know if Mick had arrived, as she had said he would, and part of me kept pulling back in jealous apprehension at the thought of him suddenly appearing beside her and for her to show him that closeness and affection she had once shown me and which I still thought of as being mine.

On that day and others like it, I secretly watched her bus depart before wandering back to the house, reliving those times spent with her, the night - along with the many others to be got through - attaching itself to that inborn loneliness and dread she used to leave behind when I watched her disappear at the corner of the road after leaving the house. From that very first day earlier in the summer when I had seen her in the super­market, to the time I got her note, I had been waiting for her to give me this verdict, and even after I had received it - when it had hit me full in the face, as it were - I still couldn't bring myself to accept the finality of its contents, and that I would never again know that radiant tenderness to be found in her. Like a fool, I still went on hoping something might happen to make her change her mind, and, as she had so often before, to arrive at the house in that breathless and impromptu way of hers.

 


 

18

 

The day it happened began like so many others leading up to it. Unable to sleep or concentrate on anything, I found myself in the town centre as before, catching glimpses of her in the lunch hour and on one occasion from the upstairs window of the library as she was on her way back to school. It was later that day when her way home had taken her past the bus stop and onto the broad, tree-lined avenue where I had first stopped to talk to her, that my underlying despondency began to accelerate into that jarring sickness I later came to know so well. Immediately she reached The Walk, I knew she was heading in the direction of my house, presumably to pick up the books and records that had accumulated there during her visits, and which she had mentioned in her note. Yet even within the sense of disorder and mistrust that arose at the thought of seeing her again, I went on blindly hoping that she was going to tell me she wanted to come back, that, as on those other occasions, what she said had all been a mistake.

Thinking she would have been annoyed if she knew I'd been following her, I made a small, hurried detour through the park and arrived at the gate of the house just as she was ring­ing the bell. Pale, unsure of herself, she reminded me of how I must so often have been when meeting her.

"I've just rung the bell," she said, giving me quick, nervous smile. "I thought you were out."

"I've been into town," I said in reply, taking the keys from my pocket.

"I came round to get my things. Do you mind?"

"No. I got your note, I knew you'd come sometime."

I had been without her, I had lost her, and then, in what seemed like one fatally, magical stroke, she was there once more, for the last time, her presence an embrace coiling relent­lessly around me.

Once inside the house she became more distant still, hanging back in the hall, and I had to coax her into the lounge.

"At least you're not wet," I joked, or tried to, but all she did was force a smile, saying she couldn't stop when I asked her if she would like a drink. A wall of blue, the sheer, precipitous wonder of her being there was a reprieve given and retracted in a single blow. We were lovers reduced to strangers, and in that split second when I again found myself alone with her, we became something more intangible than either.

"Have you got everything?" I asked, as she was putting her things into the briefcase along with the items already there. It was, of course, the wrong moment - as if there is ever a right one - to be saying goodbye: I had found out what it was like not to have her to look forward to, and this, taking me by the throat, and exerting another brutally crushing reminder of the life awaiting me without her, brought back the deadening pointlessness that came with being in the world we had shared once she had gone. Feeling a slight shiver go through me as she was about to leave, I again asked her if she had everything.

"Yes.... I think so," she said, stopping to glance around as she fastened the briefcase.

"Have you seen Mick?"

"Not yet. He isn't coming down until next week."

"Do they know?" I asked, meaning her parents.

"Yes, He'll be staying there." And then, with a few meaningful and well-chosen words that both erased and gave substance to what had gone before, she added,

"It's different, though, isn't it?"

"How are you getting on at school?"

"Oh, it's okay," she replied, staring down at the floor. "I don't mind it, really. What have you been doing?"

"Nothing much," I mumbled, a kind of protracted grief meeting in my eyes and throat for yet another death.

"How's your writing going?"

"Haven't been doing any. Hardly seems to matter anymore, does it."

"I'm sorry about everything," she said, picking up her briefcase for the second or third time. "Please don't be too upset."

Usually there was some kind of script, some idea what to do, however vague, but in that second there was nothing but a dulling, conclusive ache, beyond which there was still an existence to be given meaning to, and within this, swamping everything, an enormous black sickness which swept over me in the form of a very old conversation that had been going on in my head ever since I could remember. It was then, propelled by deadening waves of absence and loss, I lurched drunkenly for­ward, not really knowing what I was doing but feeling in some wild and clamouring part of me that if I could only hold her one more time it would be all right and that what was creating the chaos running amok in me would finally stop.

"Rowan, you don't know how much I miss you!" I cried, crying, my eyes swimming in that profound and unbelievable density as I brushed against her, my arms reaching out towards and past that figure who had come to mean so much to me: her keen, unblemished skin symbolising theirs, she had become all the adolescent girls in the world while I went on being every man who has been imprisoned by the cleavage around a knee where a sock ends and a skirt begins.

"No, please don't!"

"I love you!" I went on hearing an anonymous voice pleading, trying to hold her as she pulled away, dropping her briefcase, before, in the same hurried movement that took her to the door, stooping to pick it up before running from the room and out of the house into the road, the inside of the house lapsing into a resounding empty silence as the door slammed shut behind her.

It was an inopportune moment, should there be any other, in which to succumb to the terrors of the plummeting mindlessness taking place in and around me; in a flash, as if a light had blown its fuse, a lifeline had been severed and she, too, had gone, for what seemed forever.


 

19

 

Can it really be January, or is it July, the month we met. Not that it makes any real difference, nothing does change anymore, let alone the weather. Any­how, it's raining now as it did then, after she left, and I found myself aimlessly wandering about the streets into one of those other nights that call and reach out so plaint­ively to me as I continue to write and dwell on these backward glances revivifying her face and words. It is this saddening inertia and futility that renders everything into dust, I feel old, dead in another way, there never was a time, it seems, when I didn't feel otherwise unless it was with her.

"A lot comes out, doesn't it!"

The light breeze brings back another of those echoes of the past, the sun shines and there are birds singing in the trees at the edge of the field. Soon I shall have to stop writing as they'll be calling us in for tea. Rowan, won't you love me just a little?

 

Sète-Paris