I wrote this in 1997; it was the first piece of prose I’d written since school. It’s reads to me now like self-indulgent guff. But there were parts when I remember thinking: “I’ve begun to find my style.”
Returning, I am remembering your quiet grace and gentle ways. In the intervening years, those years of your absence, I mythologised you, I think, until you gradually and invisibly became the standard for all the others who came and then eventually went.
It occurred to me only afterwards how simple everything had been with you when we lived in days without consequence. The trains in the morning and evening through countries of light and dark until the empty or crowded bars at night. Your house or mine. How you’d say my name. You teaching me quietness and me teaching you silence and then distance. For in the end, I went, choosing to leave rather be left.
No photographs and no letters to hold me back and yet you did, without effort and without meaning to. Your image did not haunt me as I had thought it might, hoping that it would and that it wouldn’t’.
And how we met. Running for the train to take us back to the city and our very separate lives and my throwaway remark:
“Do you ever get the feeling that we’re going to be doing this run every night?”
Your reply was nowhere as banal as my opening, shortly before I knew you, and long before I loved you. And while I don’t remember much of the conversation, a few fragments remain like songs that take you back and make you sad: a slight lisp, green eyes, soft Irish accent, a cascade of autumn hair.
A month elapsed, I think, and then one Tuesday night, I suggested McCracken’s and we went and talked there in the quiet murmur of pub conversation, happy though not altogether at ease in the dim light. This was before I smoked so you didn’t complain. Instead we charted each other’s pasts and I found myself wanting to have known you before. I wondered, because it is my nature, how long this would last, how long before each other’s stories and humour became tiresome and then grating. But they never did, even at the end. You always brought a joy to things: that was your gift, I think. Outside in the street, a cold fog had come down and the taxis and the landrovers ghosted slowly past as we made our prolonged goodnight. I offered to walk you home but you declined, always independent, and we walked away from each other.
In the following months, we grew into one another slowly, almost accidentally. We mapped each other’s natures and your friends became my acquaintances and my friends regular characters in the stories I’d tell. We played each other our records and of course hated them. We talked about our families and of course they hated each other. We laughed and called each other “the enemy” and although we laughed we knew we didn’t feel like it.
All this time we lived together and separately, moving with one another in the rhythms and tides of what I supposed to be inarticulate love.
And then one night I told you. In one of the gloomy corners of Robinsons where we discussing the play we’d just seen. Our friends had dwindled as the evening moved past us until you and I remained. The people around us were lost to me then and in one of those silences I told you.
And your face in a single moment lost its smile and its innocence. You set your glass on the table and looked down at your lap and after a time in the silence I realised that the expression on your face, one which I had not see before, was that of helplessness. Your words, when eventually they came, lacked the grace I’d come to find in you. Even now, as then, I cannot recall them all, only panicked snatches here and there about friendships and loves and the things that lie in between. I understood then, without having to be told, that I had spent those months walking only with your shadow and that your true thoughts had lain elsewhere entirely. And though I masked my disappointment well with the practice of experience and said that nothing had changed, we both knew that the tone and the colour of our acquaintance were forever and completely altered.
We left shortly after that. The brief walk home was conducted in silence broken from time to time by whatever frantic banalities we could seize upon and when we parted at Shaftesbury Square, it was in quiet relief.
For the two months we inhabited following that night, we managed well around each other, polite and friendly and careful. But we went out at nights only rarely and found ourselves more busy than we’d previously been.
And then on St Patrick’s Day, our friends held an Irish Breakfast, beginning at eleven and cooking eggs and bacon and drinking dark, sweet coffee. In the afternoon we went to the bars at Queen’s, the dozen of us, and drank, listening to songs that you knew by heart and which were altogether unfamiliar to me. We talked to each other only a little. The afternoon passed quick and pleasant.
Evening and we went to Robinson’s, navigating our way in the careful manner of the heavily drunk. By eleven o’clock, by departures and strange orbits, only you and I remained and, uncomfortable and uncertain, I finished my drink quickly and suggested we leave. But you wanted to stay and in the fifteen minutes that followed alone with you I was all at once perfectly and miserably sober. So we drank more and began finally to talk as we’d done before. I told about Julie and how I believe I had loved her and if she had left her husband, as she ought to have, I’d be married to her by now.
So you told me about Peter.
When you’d finished, I said it seemed that if you were thrown that’s where you would fall: with Peter. You nodded and began to become to upset so I reached out and laid my hand on yours, cupped around your glass.
And then you said my name and suddenly everything became right again. I had always moved cautiously with people and around them but you reached for me and for a time we held each other in that place beyond everything and everyone. We remained there inside those minutes, still and together, and I noticed the scent of your hair for the first time and how tightly you held onto me. It occurred to me then that I no longer wanted anything from you.
And that was how we parted: nothing given, nothing stolen. Another two months passed and our time together ended. By our own choice, I suppose, and for different reasons. Mine: because to remain around you would have cost me too much in the end. Yours: because you had other places to see and other people to meet.
I became an accessory to one of your years and then litter left in your passing. The things I had wanted, or chosen to need, came back and were simple, I believe. To be with you. To hear your voice carried over stillness. To lie beside you and watch moonlight move across you, slow as a sea, and then the sun, soft as dust, settle upon you.
You were always lost to me, I suppose.