There are days I wish I could preserve – not pickled or warped in old jars but frozen with ice-cold clarity; a desire for old moments and still frames. I want what has gone; unchanged.
We drove along a warm road and the scenery fell away either side, moor land in one direction. sprawling and disaffected; hills in the other, rising and sinking, occasionally marked by the brittle ridge of a cliff.
“Famous for climbing round here.” Avoiding eye contact, David glanced at the places we had spent years walking, talking, hoping and laughing, sometimes arguing for the audience of climbers hanging over our heads. A little later he said, “Sun’s come out,” as though I hadn’t noticed the huge wash of bright light that set the grass on fire and the open sky, gaping in deep blue. Sunlight caught in the dusty car windows and we stared through a translucent haze.
Behind this distorting magic the gaps in our conversation brewed with his nettled energy. He held something against me and I wanted to make amends, “How are you getting on?” It hung – it was swallowed.
He shrugged, “I don’t really know.”
I was a puppet companion in my passivity, stared out of the window at cliffs, at hills, smoky horizons, the fickle light. I sensed her absence, the cold feeling of knocking on her door, her kitchen, but did not say anything. David hated romanticism.
“Doesn’t feel real yet,” he said, “hasn’t sunk in. I’ve started to wonder whether it ever will.”
“Give it time.”
“When I was fifteen my granddad had a stroke. My grandmother, she still keeps thinking that he’s going to walk through the door and ask for some tea. She still leaves the seat where he sat empty. If we sit there she gives us this look, y’know? Like we’re going to crush him. Can’t help thinking that’ll be me in a few years. Still waiting.”
“Well, it’s your choice how you-,”
“These things don’t feel right. Don’t feel right,” he shook his head.
I saw the headlines eight months after we split but had no idea it was her. David’s mother had been driving late at night and doing nothing wrong, the other driver had been drinking. Anne died later in hospital with damage to the head. He remained a stranger, was convicted of manslaughter. Somebody else told me this. After the accident the conversation with David was excruciatingly formal, his expression adrift, incredulous, as though I was asking to borrow an enormous sum of money. There was no complexity; his face revealed every emotion, the measured confrontational eyes and sullen mouth, the clear forehead and lithe hands, all radiated honesty. An honesty that began to grind. He seemed grateful to have another accusation to hold against me, I came away crushed.
Now I was wondering if his girlfriend admired this honesty. We had only been introduced a few hours ago and here I was, already offending, stealing their meaningful time, dragging David to his uncomfortable roots, taking the place I had deliberately abandoned.
“Look,” he said, nodding, “That’s Burbage. Do you remember Burbage?”
The first day one of our group could drive, we got up at five in the morning and drove out to see the sun rise from the top of Burbage – a grit stone rock-face facing a long view of distant hills. We wound our way down these lonely roads gleeful with anticipation. Only at that age can an adventure be made out of nothing but insignificant actions and high emotion. Bluish monotones greeted us as we hunched on the rock, shivering in the sharp bitter night wind, desperate for this pitched excitement. So much potential simmering under the surface, fuelling and contracting. A beautiful moment. A frozen moment I wish I could hold on to with an iron grip. Light yawned from the horizon, but what astonished us was the clarity of the moors, the air thinned and concentrated, as though we could lift a finger and casually touch the distance. We clapped – ourselves? The view? The world? Then walked slowly back to the car, too cold to stay any longer.
“Yes I remember,” I told David as we drove past cars parked in long shiny rows along the road and cramped in the car park, climbers labouring on the rock face, relaxed walkers wandering beneath them. Stubborn in their determination to enjoy good weather.
“David, I just wanted to say…” His expression did not alter. He looked ahead – calm, receptive.
“I’m sorry for my distance all this time. I’m sorry that I backed out of whatever expectations we made of sticking together. It wasn’t all my fault, but in some ways it was.”
“Yeah?” not aggressive, just interested.
“I guess it’s hard when you’re thrown in opposite directions, to make – to make the effort to come back.”
Beams of trailing light back into the past, Anne a sudden bright picture. In the beginning we were on an uneasy bridge, delicately linked by our affection for David, and I accepted her just as she endured me. She spoke to me with detached interest. There was a part of her unquestioning, another hopeful, another reserved, another that judged. Perhaps she thought I was too much of an outsider to truly appreciate who he was. It was as David and I began to fall apart that I gradually realised how much I shared with her. There were even times when I walked through their back door into the radiant, noisy kitchen – she insisted on jazz after work, the sweeping over-dramatic kind with flourish – and instead of continuing upstairs wanted to stay in her life, among the family photos, spitting pans and messy surfaces, and wanted to know her more. I was envious of the secure hold she had over her son, his frank, reciprocated love for her – since I always seemed locked in disagreement, fighting for affection. I wondered if she had ever struggled like me, I wanted to know what she did when she felt desperate. I wanted to know if she would have split from David, given the same situation.
At the bleakest moments with David, when our expectations of each other far exceeded the reality and we continually collided – distinct, unhappy individuals – I sensed sympathy from her, I saw her more clearly.
Now David was new and unknown. Even his face was harsher, stranger to me, his smell synthetic, his Chinese girlfriend presented as one of his possessions. It seemed bizarre to me that here was a woman whom he knew so intimately and esteemed so highly, yet to me she was a stranger. She was delicate and slight, wide-set eyes and hair that fell straight over her shoulders, her clothes were immaculate. She bore a slightly hard edge, elusive but potent, with an accent that still clung to the ends of her vowels, as though she were continually trying to shake away her heritage but it refused to deny her. “Ah, hello, Amy. I hear you were very close to David at one time.”
“Yes,” I said, trying to sound indifferent. All is well and then something as uncompromising as a car crash leaps out, and someone is dead.
In the car David wound down the window and cold air blew in.
“Life gets too complicated, I suppose,” I said, nestling in the cliché.
David gave the road ahead a brief smile. “Thank you for being honest.”
“I suppose what we all need is time.”
It took him a moment to register what I’d said, and then; “Time?”
“That’s always what your mother said, isn’t it? That she just needed time. And then she could do anything.”
“Yes, yes she did say that.”
I could still feel the warmth of her body as she pulled me into an embrace, or the sharp, brutal way she gave – there was no room for refusal or guilt, acceptance was the only option. An amazing strength lay within her self-denial. Generosity is one of those virtues that lingers. Undeniable, effective.
David was speaking again, “But I don’t want any more time. No more time to wait, or think about it or any of that. I just want to move on. Speed things up – get past it.”
“Seems wrong. That a life can be so full and then just end – like that, nothing else. You think, wait, I wasn’t ready, that was the wrong moment. Because you can’t go back, or finish off, or prepare or anything. It just happens and then you have to cope. You can do what my Grandma did and fail to cope, or you can do what my Dad is doing and pretend it’s all fine.”
“I’m sure there’s a happy medium.”
“It isn’t happy.”
When we were much younger there was an Easter egg hunt in some huge sprawling garden that remains nameless and unrecognisable to me now – my father was there. His tall, awkward presence on the veranda; I remember hoping that he was watching me and me alone. We were all rummaging through the grass. There were five minutes left and the search for gold-foil wrapped chocolate had become furious. Then suddenly, amongst the scroungers, David began to run across the garden. Everyone looked to see if he had discovered a hidden goldmine, but he was heading for the compost heap. By the time the adults had realised he was already halfway up, sinking to his ankles, struggling and labouring. I stopped to watch. When he reached the top he turned triumphantly and with a smug, rebellious scowl tipped the contents of his palm down the compost heap. Some of the children began to head for it but were stopped by shrieking mothers. The gold eggs settled in the manure and David stood astride the pile, like some twisted king. One of the adults shouted to him, exasperated, impatient.
“David the object is to collect the eggs, not ruin them!”
And his reply, shouted boldly, definitively: “I don’t care!”
I have always been proud of this defiant, wilfully candid and occasionally contentious boy – the small, dirty one crowned over a children’s activity. It seemed wasted energy, that the grown David had gradually become melded and conformed. He would collect any gold egg thrown to him with a calculating hunger. I wanted to reach back, to shake him – to show him the ice-cold memory I owned.
“Here we are,” David said, braking sharply and swerving into a lay by.
“Could you,” David began, after undoing his seat belt and sitting for a few moments, “Could you leave me to it?”
I rushed to answer, “Of course. Of course that’s fine.”
So I sat and watched his powerful figure walk slowly round the front of the car and climb over the dry stone wall. I could see the hard curve of his back and the bobbing of his head as he shovelled away at the patch of earth, releasing unwanted energy. From here he was suddenly vulnerable. I could run up from behind and send him sprawling with one casual push. Here I knew, unassuming and inconspicuous, was a moment that I wished I could preserve.
His mother had wanted flowers planting in the Peak District she loved, with its untouched aura and still, vibrant landscape. She brought her children out here and forged David’s love of the outdoors. Ideally pictured, her face was always lit and framed by the moors.
I found it hard all of these years, David having the mother that I would have wanted. My own parents – divorced, fragmented – seemed faded alternatives. But she was too removed from me for the envy to be concrete. Instead I was satisfied to keep this farewell; David’s expression of grief, my own solemn observation. It was a gentle tribute. Then he walked back to the car, his hands grazed with mud, and got back in. He started the engine and turned around. I wished I had been at his side shovelling that earth, connected with that dust. He was surmounting his grief with every moment that passed, growing in speed and confidence. I was trailing behind. We are always held back by ourselves.
We drove on until suddenly we swerved a corner. There was a car charging for us – headlights blazing. It struck us in an explosion of uncertain fireworks; I saw scarlet and gold and indigo. The car crumpled around us, a deep reverberating shudder and piercing shatter; David’s gasp of surprise – no – inevitability, and my own sweating, breathless scream. In one moment our sparkling potential, our barbed past was dismissed and we were mere bodies thrown to extremes. It was the terrible beautiful. We would live on, eternally bound, in the way people are who share a common wound.
But there was no crash. Only the empty road in front of us. I knew our friendship would gradually disintegrate; there was nothing to hold it in place. In a few years we would be strangers. Perhaps he would move to China, his girlfriend had mentioned it, and I would never see him again. None of it mattered to me then, as it would have done before. All that mattered was the road, beating onwards, as ruthless as death itself.
I felt wildly, ecstatically hopeful for a reason hidden to me; as though there was some greater issue I had avoided or forgotten, that would rush in to restore the balance.
David cleared his throat.
“I should make an effort…to…to not wait for her. To not wait.”
Wait was first published by Light Transports in Commutes,