I could see him from beside the door. He was surrounded by men in suits, pointing at the ceiling, looking at their drinks or at what their wives were doing. I remember the sight of them perfectly, as though it was yesterday, but strangely enough, always without sound.
I put my hand on the door knob, in the same way that one of the men had put his hand on the back of his chair.
Harry came up behind me and looked into the room. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Are you spying?’
‘Looks to me like you are.’ He seemed pleased to have found a weakness in me. But I saw him decide to go away, and I walked into the room to stand at the bay windows. A man cycling past waved at me.
Later, we went into the common. We played by the railway line, trying to throw sticks over the fence. It was broken in places, but none of us dared to go close to the openings. We went to the pond and threw stones in it, before one of the mothers told us not to.
Most of them had gone by the time we came back. When we came in he appeared from the garden and began telling us a story about a train crash that had happened years earlier. Harry told him the truth and he smiled at both of us. ‘You’re a funny boy Robert,’ he said to me, ‘you never say what you think, do you? Do you really think it will be less true if you say it?’
We went to bed and I began to pray. I remembered all that had happened that day; the men with their polished shoes; their wives carrying bags, looking at where things should go best; Harry and Victor chasing each other around the pond before falling out over a five-pound note.
Finally I closed my eyes as tightly as I could and whispered, too loudly: ‘and God bless Charles.’
That is 19 years ago.
‘This is Victor, Robert. He is three.’
I looked through the railings at a brown-haired boy. ‘Will I sleep in here?’
‘No no, this is Victor’s room.’
‘Where will I sleep?’
‘On the other side of the house. Victor needs lots of peace and quiet. You understand that, don’t you? He’s very sick unfortunately.’
‘Funny boy.’ Charles looked at his shoe, turned the tip of it a few times on the carpet, and then took a large breath. ‘Come, let’s leave him. You’ll have lots of time to play with him when he’s a bit older. What do you think; will you be a friend to him?’
‘Yes. I think so.’
‘Good stuff.’ He turned towards the door and held out his hand for me. I looked back one last time at the boy. For the first time I noticed two big white and orange machines beside the cot, quietly humming away. One of them, I remember, had a sticker of a dragon on it.
Jacqueline had red hair. I wondered for a long time why she looked as she did. In the living room’s bright lights, her face appeared very pale and I think she might have had green eyes, but I can’t remember. I have photographs of her, of course, but I won’t look at them.
The quiet stairs on a Sunday. The black and white photographs of men in uniforms and women with parasols or sitting on elephants. The piano with its silver candle holders. The bookcase with no books bought after the 1950s on it. The living room with its newspapers and low table, made from old railway sleepers. And always Jacqueline; the only one I remember always being there, whatever the weather or event.
She nodded at me when I first met her, and said hello as though it was once and forever. She had nothing to say, it seemed, but there were times when she talked to Charles for a long time, in a quiet voice, and he would look concerned then and wring his hands, start to say something, but eventually think the better of it and sigh.
I can see her now, tidying away glasses; drinking red wine with Charles on a Sunday; unsmiling, tall, stick thin.
I learned early on that she wasn’t an enemy. But also, that she would never be a friend. Something indefinable, something she’d seemingly rather die than talk about, had taken all of that away.
‘Aren’t you afraid?’
Two black beetles scurried about, fleeing from the stick I had picked up and was now bothering them with. I flicked one of them back at the little hole it had appeared from and it lay black and white in the sunshine. They would forget I had scared them and would dig and feel their way across twigs and half decayed leaves, hurrying towards God only knew what. I put the stick into the hole the beetles had come from again, but no other ones came out, though a few black ants had attached themselves to it.
‘Where are you, you shit?!’
I dropped my stick instantly and ran quickly towards the far end of the clearing. He didn’t shout again, but I heard him thrashing about in the woods behind me. He was hitting trees and bushes, stopping to be able to break things properly. I slid into the river bed, powder dry, and ran hunched down beneath fallen tree branches. I stopped and looked back, but I didn’t see him, not now, nor could I hear him. I tried to think where the river would go, and decided it must loop back on itself at some point.
Soon I got to a wide-open space where indeed the river arched itself back through low-lying fields. I cut my hand on tall reeds and then I sank into a black-deep finger of water. I went completely under and I suddenly thought I could leave it all now. I could stay here, to be nosed at by eels, never to be found but in three thousand years, oddly preserved.
But I felt too angry to stay under.
I got out of the ditch and went back the way I came. I got back to where the others were playing and I saw him instantly. He stood on a wooden walkway, low above the water, and was pointing at something far beneath. I walked up to him, past my bag and shoes, and pushed him into the water.
He came out, taking his time, apparently not thinking I could do anything else. He wasn’t crying; he wasn’t even that upset; in fact, he looked very calm, almost too quiet. He came right up to me, looked me in the eyes, until his nose touched mine. Finally, he said, just to me: ‘Aren’t you afraid?’
‘No,’ I lied.
He stepped back slowly, careful not to step on my toes, glanced at the woods beside the lake, and then he walked past me.
I have no idea what he did afterwards.
Two years ago, I was best man at his wedding.
She is happy to be alone with me, but she is also nervous.
It seemed an age since I had said anything. I felt embarrassed, I realised, and noticing myself realising, I blushed, cursing myself inwardly.
‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ she said suddenly. I didn’t know what to say, but felt encouraged when I saw she had stopped speaking.
What she’d said had brought us closer; if also impossibly apart.
Harry came down the stairs and lay his hand on her shoulder. ‘Not too late tonight darling’, he said, ‘we’ve a lot to do tomorrow.’ She smiled up at him.
It was time for me to go.
‘You’re such a melancholy boy,’ I said to myself, walking home. No-one had ever told me anything so beautiful or so true.
That, at least, was something.
‘What do you study?’
‘English Literature. You?’
‘History.’ He looked at the book I held open. I thought how funny it was that he’d come up to me, standing in a row of books, before Thackeray, on the third floor of the library, most people being away for the holidays, downstairs or in the park. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘Waiting for a friend,’ I lied.
‘Come out for a smoke?’
‘Tom,’ he said.
We went out into the day, a high blue sky and a wind that didn’t come close, staying along the square’s open windows. He had Marlboro Reds, which he said he’d bought in Sweden. I slept on his friend’s couch that night.
I still know him today. I think he lives with his wife in Fulham.
Splitting the universe
The pubs down the road were getting quieter. I switched off my laptop, went down the stairs, came back up again and phoned Ellie. She’d cooked vegetables and carved out avocados that now stood under a napkin.
‘I don’t know what to do with the wine.’
‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.’
‘I thought about you today.’
‘Should I hate you, I was thinking?’
‘Well, I don’t think you’re honest. You’re not, are you?’
‘In what way?’
‘Are you really at work? I bet you went for drinks with your friends.’
‘Oh no. I’m finished.’
‘Do you feel love for me?’
She waited, as if my answer could split the universe. ‘Ellie, you know I do.’
There was a pause, but then she said: ‘I can’t open the wine.’
‘Yes of course. I’ll get a corkscrew, don’t worry.’
‘Yeah well, I don’t drink much anyway. It’s for you.’
Later, we ate by the light of two candles, little shocks disturbing our drinks from the trains. The avocados were brown around the edges but Ellie had made mustard to go with them.
We went to bed after Newsnight.
We went to the hotel on Friday night, the train arriving after ten at Oxford. The lights of a tractor ran over the walls as we walked up the drive, the wind coming over the fields and through the trees above us.
We stayed in bed until midday the next day. Ellie stopped herself several times from talking about her classes, and I tried not to mention my unanswered emails. We ate lunch by a large window downstairs, joking about how much we’d listened to Dido already.
We read upstairs in the afternoon. I put my head on her knees, holding up Either Side of Winter. Ellie ran her hand through my hair, talking about the amount of times she’d finished before everyone else, and still had had to wait.
I kissed her.
On Sunday, we went to the river. There was enough sun and we lay where we could put our feet in the water. Ellie lay on her back, her eyes closed. I went close to her, reached to hold her hand, but then stopped and checked my mobile instead. A small grey fly scurried down my arm, flew up when it reached the first hairs of my hand, and landed on her shirt.
In the evening, I tried to talk to her, but finally went into the bathroom. I ran both taps, took off my shoes and sat on the edge of the bath. I could hear her laugh as she spoke on the phone to her mum.
‘I burnt my legs. See?’
‘Oh yeah? I got burnt on my shoulders and in my neck.’
‘Let me see?’ She ran her hands softly over my back. She tried to pull down my shirt at the back; stopped and unbuttoned the top button; and began feeling for sunburn. She went to get some water and then she wet her fingertips, tracing the outlines of my shoulder blades. ‘It’s not that bad,’ she said when she’d had enough, ‘it will go away.’
I turned around and looked at her standing by the bookshelves. She was looking intently at a piece of paper, holding one of the flat grey stones of her necklace very still. She stood just out of the sunlight, which slanted behind her onto a row of blue Tolstoys.
I’d seen her search for me on trains, in hallways, at parties, in cafes, bookshops, restaurants, cinemas and galleries. I’d heard her call me in countless places; her voice not always nice to hear. I had a thousand text messages from her, scribbled notes, birthday cards, signed books and even a long letter which she had page numbered, circling the numbers with large loops, but one that we didn’t talk about anymore.
She stood there, reading something I didn’t recognise, completely still.
Now or never it must be said, I thought.
Minutes earlier, this might even have been true.
He couldn’t see me. I saw him look past and below me, his face and shirt lit up from the hallway. He looked slightly annoyed, as though I was too far from him; like now he’d have to shout, something he detested.
‘Why did you go up Robert?’
I felt the odd sensation of making sure of your expression though no one can see you; an actor in the wings. My feet felt awkward and heavy and I tried to make it better by standing on one leg. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Why don’t you come down? We can take Max out; you know he loves it when you’re back.’
I shouldn’t have told him anything, I thought. Or made up some story.
‘Anyway, you should talk things over. What do you think she’s going to do? Bite you?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous…’ I whispered.
‘You’re such a funny boy Robert. Why don’t you just say what you think?’
‘It’s not working. What’s there to talk about?’
‘You can’t just…oh Robert, would you please come down? I can’t just stand here. I can’t even see you!’
‘I’ll be a minute.’ I had no intention of going to face him again.
‘You should talk about it. At least with me. You’re not afraid of me, are you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Good, so come down.’ He stepped away from the stairs and went into the living room.
Nothing good could come of talking of course. Nothing ever had.
But I went to see Charles in the end, and let him try once more.
It would probably be God next, patiently perhaps.
By Andre van Loon