Twelve Places

A journey…

Folkestone

“There it is!” I looked at him, eyes narrowed, wondering what he meant. “Everything, it’s all right over there! We’re on the edge of the universe!” I smiled as best I could, inwardly perplexed. As he glanced back at my face, his features slid from exhilaration to crushed disappointment, then sallow frustration. “You have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, have you?” He paused, his brow in knots. “Look,” he said, as patiently as he could. “Behind you, that’s just, dunno, childhood and small towns and buses and, you know?… Out there — “ he waved his hands expansively “ — that’s… that’s everything! The whole world!”

I stared across the sea and attempted to grasp his point, but the grey waves were refusing to reveal any such grandeur. Not his usual, articulate self, I thought. What was he on about? And what was that about buses? Surely they would have buses “out there” as well, wherever that was… I exhaled, deeply. “You dumb oaf,” I said, putting my arm through his and nudging him in the ribs. I sensed his entire body relax. “Come on, I’m getting cold.” We turned and walked back up the cliff path, pushed close together by the undergrowth. And I knew, in that moment, without any shadow of a doubt, that I loved him.

When I reached the top, I opened the small, brown envelope. Stupid, selfish, childish idiot, I thought to myself, putting me through this. I don’t know what he wanted to achieve, apart from rubbing my nose in the past. It’s over, get over it! But of course, he couldn’t. Slowly shaking my head, I tipped the envelope and watched as the particles whipped in the air, hanging in space before a sudden gust flicked them out of existence.

Granada

We had been walking all day, the weary trudge into the city at some godforsaken hour setting the rhythm for a constant stream of monuments and artefacts, of cobbled streets and castle steps. “Come on, it’ll be too hot later!” he had enthused, and I’d gone along with it. By about ten a.m. I had already admitted defeat, my senses overwhelmed by the maelstrom of mementoes. I remember him glancing at his watch, his eyes calculating. “OK,” he said, “We’ve time for a stop. Coffee?” I almost cried with relief. Settling myself down, I rubbed my feet as he queued at a kiosk, quietly hoping that the service would be unreasonably slow so I could have more of a break.

On we went. Before long the pavements were glistening in the heat, the sun’s stifling rays pushing any remaining shadows into the side alleys. We darted like lizards through the verdant gardens of the castle, its tightly-clipped hedges and bright bushes offering some, though meagre respite. Eventually even he started to flag. “Hot, innit,” he said, his brevity speaking volumes. Not far away, a lime tree dappled shade onto a grassy bank. We collapsed in tandem and lay for some time, our touristic wherewithal slowly recharging. I idly flicked through the guidebook while he simply stretched out, eyes closed.

“Hungry?” he asked, breaking the silence. I realised that I was — not hunger-pangs-desperate, but I had that light-headed, serene feeling of starvation that comes from eating nothing but a vending machine sandwich all day. We stood unsteadily, two wide-eyed Bambis on ice, finding or feet before descending towards a winding street of eateries, their laminated menus in five languages stifling any pretence of authenticity. Eventually we rounded on a place that appeared genuine. The tapas was good; the proximity of a chain smoker less so. We paid and left, conversation muted as we made our long, winding way back to the hostel.

The grassy bank had not changed at all — it could have been yesterday. Running alongside the street was a small river, mountain waters still flowing despite the heat, fed by the watershed hills above. He’d known I wouldn’t be able to resist coming here, of all places. Slowly I watched as the stream of silver descended, merging with the sparkling water before disappearing under the bridge.

Bury St Edmunds

It didn’t take long to unload our possessions from the white van, its high-roofed shape still looming outside the kitchen window. A motley catalogue of clothes, books and CDs, a lamp stand and a stack of framed pictures, two kettles, a toaster, a sandwich maker, a frying pan and a fistful of vaguely matched cutlery represented all that we were. Having opened the back and started carrying boxes back and forth, we found ourselves drawn into a pattern of to-ing and fro-ing which proved impossible to stop — until the last carrier bag of extension leads, light fittings and other random objects was carried across the threshold.

For no reason I could fathom, he had carefully stacked our worldly belongings to create a Close Encounters-like mountain which now filled the part-furnished front room. “Naa naa naa naa naa naa,” I said, looking on in admiration as he collapsed into an armchair. Fact was, the van would still have been full if I had been in charge. “We should order a pizza,” I said, looking at a leaflet left pinned to the notice board by the previous tenants. Without waiting for an answer, I dialled. “Twenty minutes,” I repeated out loud as I replaced the handset.

Suddenly he jumped to his feet, energised. “Well, what are we going to do for twenty minutes?” he asked, perkily. He grabbed my hand and we dashed, giggling, upstairs.

“You absolute bastard,” I thought as I took the trowel from my bag. Kneeling down, I dug a small hole and quickly emptied the contents of the envelope into it as quickly as I could. I’d chosen a spot round one side of the house, hoping to God I wouldn’t be seen. No, I had no idea why I was occupying myself with this, just another of his oh-so-clever games. Once the deed was done I stood, face flushed, and shoved the trowel back into my bag, mud and all.

Carcassonne

“What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, nothing.” I knew that wasn’t true — he had that funny look on his face, and “nothing” had become a codeword for “something quite important”. A small part of me went cold, knee-jerk trepidation to what was wrong. Perhaps I had forgotten his birthday? No, it wasn’t that. “Go on, what?” I asked.

“I think…” — the pause verged on the theatrical — “I wonder if…”

“Go on!” I laughed, pushing him, perhaps a little too hard, judging by the expression of hurt that flashed across his face. “Go on,” I repeated, moving closer to him.

“Well… I was wondering… if we should live here.”

“Serious?” He started to look crestfallen again, so I pulled him tighter still.

“Serious.”

I thought about the life we were already building, the little house in Bury St Ed’s, my graduate management scheme, his perfectly adequate, yet bland job.

“What would we do?”

“Don’t know — same stuff? Perhaps not here,” he said. “We could go to… a town? A city? We could go to Montpelier? Marseilles?” I’d never been to either and nor had he, not to my knowledge. We’d have to go visit, weigh up options, find jobs, leave jobs, and what about the paperwork… this was not a decision to be taken in a hurry.

I found myself grinning uncontrollably. “Sure,” I said.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Will you marry me?”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Of course, I thought to myself. I had to come. The place was so packed with tourists, so noisy, so unpleasant I could not imagine what we had seen in it. Still I walked up the steps, past the shops full of medieval kitsch, past the hotel with the mannekin, past the ice cream stalls and wasp-infested, overflowing bins. I found the well next to the basilica, expecting to feel something when I saw it but… nothing. I emptied the packet into the grate, the specks barely having time to glint in the sun before disappearing.

Les Saintes

The ladder extended upwards, vanishing through a small, square, dark hole in the ceiling. “Up you go,” he said, gesturing. A thousand bad thoughts, of bogeymen and modern-day pirates and Hannibal Lecter jostled for position in my head. “You’re not… scaaaared, are you?” I shook my head, weakly. “Oh, come on!” Up he went, acting full of bravado, his boots clattering on the rust-scarred rungs. I watched as the soles of his feet vanished into the darkness; then, realising the room I was in had become the scarier place, I mounted the ladder.

Above was a second dark chamber and a second ladder, this time stretching up to a rusty trapdoor. He was already half way up, torch in hand. “It’s unlocked,” he said, his voice echoing round the brickwork. He pushed the metal plate upward, allowing the morning light to flood in. No sooner had he done so than he vanished. Exasperated now, I repeated the exercise, clattering up and poking my head through the hole before inelegantly stumbling to my feet on the platform above.

“Look,” he said, and I did look — back down the tiny mountain, across the trees and towards the island’s main town, our honeymoon hotel hidden somewhere in the haze of rooftops. “Made it ma, top of the world!” he shouted. I laughed, though I did not know what he meant. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, nothing at all.

I buried the silvery dust on the beach, digging a small hole with my hands. I could see the look-out post far above, gently tugging at me but I was in no mood to make the final journey, nor had he asked me to. Slowly I heaped sand back over the ash pile, almost absent-mindedly letting it run through my fingers, shaping it with my palm. Even as I stood and walked away, the tide was already coming in.

Denver

“We’ve come all this way for… pizza?”

Damn right I was angry. The day had been scorching; I felt jet lagged; and he’d done his usual trick of, well, not thinking about anything other than some deeply held set of goals only he knew. We had stood a mile above sea level, on the steps of the monument for the briefest of moments before jumping back in the air conditioned Jeep and heading up into the mountains. Any suggestion of stopping to look back at the view, to check whether that had been a deer, to investigate that vaguely curious tree had been met with a let’s-just-get-there grunt.

And “there” had little to endear itself, all blocky buildings and empty parking like a ski resort out of season. With nothing else to do he settled on the notion of food without waiting for any opinion from me, pointing and striding like it had been the plan all along. The dingy restaurant could have been a film set, with its dark-varnished wood and broken neon signs advertising mass-produced beer. All that was missing was chicken wire.

“What’s your problem?” he asked, flipping out the Americanism with a shrug.

“How about a, ‘What do you fancy doing today?’ “ I retorted, my voice a strangled whisper as I tried not to make a scene. Oh, how I wanted to make a scene. “A ‘How are you feeling’ would have been a start!”

“I’m not your mother,” he said. As my eyes were still adjusting to the gloom, I couldn’t tell if he looked sheepish or hurt, or just plain indifferent.

The sanitised steps didn’t seem appropriate; nor could I convince myself that passing tourists would appreciate a face full of, well, him. At the bottom of the steps stood a carefully manicured shrub in a giant pot. I sat on its edge and scraped away some of the bark chippings, then leaf mould — surreptitiously, I hoped — then trickled the envelope into the hole I had made, before smoothing back the layers of vegetable matter. When I left it was like I had never been there at all.

Caen

I watched as the men unhitched the hawsers from their moorings, letting them slide into the harbour waters. Their compatriots hauled the heavy ropes onto the ferry, coiling them onto the deck like snakes.

Beyond, a small lighthouse flicked its solitary beam on, off, on, off, its rhythm a quiet talisman against the dusk. “I will be here,” it said. “Whatever comes next, I will be here.”

Below deck, a small van with all our belongings. Haven’t we been here before, I thought. The stereo, the lamp stand, even some of the cardboard boxes had been unloaded into our two-bed semi in Bury St Ed’s, five years before; and, in a matter of hours, would be again. How quickly will it feel like home, I wondered. How soon will it all feel like so much of a dream.

Behind us and a long way to the south, Bèziers. Across eighteen months we had been overwhelmed and thrilled in equal measure, before adapting to our new life. Eventually we realised it would always be a foreign place, and us foreign to it. France would never sustain our souls, however many friends we had, or films we watched, or meals we ate in the pizzeria beneath the castle wall.

Beneath and between us nagged a darkness, an undercurrent making itself known only through meted silence, the occasional word left unsaid. I’m not sure even he knew what it was, some part of him locked away, the consequences of its release too awful to contemplate. “What’s up,” I would ask; he would shrug, invariably, leaving neither of us the wiser.

When we decided to go back I’d felt a quiet sense of relief, even optimism. Time to start afresh, I thought. Get back to how we were and, indeed, decide what might come next? I had ideas, obvious, important ideas that nagged at me, but the time had never seemed right to broach them.

Beside me, he stared into the middle distance.

Finally I stood and looked up at the ferry as it hauled itself out of the harbour. Families leaned against the rails, waving at whoever waved back — I found my arm lifting, involuntarily, before letting it fall. “Biodegradable,” I muttered to myself as I pulled the twist of paper from my bag. Screwing it into an even smaller ball, I flicked it downwards, between bow and brickwork. It bobbed for a while, taking on water before sinking beneath the surface.

Portmeirion

The tea arrived eventually, the chinking of cups and saucers breaking the stagnant silence. I poured, pushing a cup towards him. He pulled it closer with his fingertips, saying nothing. “Scone?” I said, forcing my eyebrows up and, I hoped, smiling. He shook his head.

With nothing else to do I took one for myself, carefully cutting it in half, smearing it with cream and jam, taking a bite, chewing slowly. “Mmmm,” I said, consciously over-animated.

Don’t mention children. That had been my mistake — if mistake it was. I felt conflicted. Perhaps there would never have been an appropriate moment to broach the subject. In hindsight however, I could have chosen a better environment than the energy-sapping, paint-peeling insincerity of someone else’s folly village. In the rain. “Not like the TV series, then,” he had said when we arrived. I don’t remember him saying much else.

Whatever. The moment I had floated the idea — barely reaching the end of my first sentence — he had plunged into one of his black moods, shutting me out of any further conversation. Having traipsed in silence through the motley collection of buildings, he let me lead him to this, equally worn and washed out tea shop, his body responding even if his head could not. At least it was warm, for a time.

“Mmmm, that was lovely,” I said, conscious of my repetition. “Are you sure you don’t want one?” No answer. “Shall we go, then?” A barely perceptible nod. We stood and put our coats on, heading back out into the drizzle.

“There’s the car, look,” I said for no reason. I smiled, holding his arm like a young lover, or a carer, I was not sure. He walked on, head furrowed. I wanted to scream, to run away as fast as my legs would carry me.

The beach was as bleak as I remembered, the wind-whipped droplets of rain could have been the same ones that had surrounded us, eternally swirling, destined to never quite hit the ground. I walked quickly to the sea’s edge and did the deed, turning and striding back to the car. The same car, I thought. I turned, half expecting to see him, but no. Of course not. How stupid of me.

Los Angeles

At first I couldn’t place my finger on it. Something was different, I knew that much. He was altogether more firm in his footing, less dishevelled, more lithe, less lumpen. His jacket sat on his frame like it was supposed to be there, rather than hanging from his shoulders. And his eyes — they possessed an awareness, a sense of purpose that I had not seen for years. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen it.

It took a while for the cogs to whirr, for the puzzle pieces to click together. Then I realised. That transatlantic trip, several weeks before. He’d come back clean shaven, which should have been my first clue. “You look nice,” I’d said. “Did you get a haircut?” “Yeah, there was a place in the hotel. Only took ten minutes,” he’d replied. He’d never had haircuts off his own bat, not until I almost dragged him to the barbers myself.

When the reality dawned, as I was loading the dishwasher one morning (yes, that mundane), it felt like a crevasse yawning open. I stood back involuntarily, leaned myself against the kitchen surface for support. Not that I knew anything at all. Simply an unease, a dull feeling of something, somewhere, somehow different.

After several days I broached it. “What happened in L.A.?” I asked, my voice tentative. “Nothing,” he said. It took me a while to work that one out as well. That he knew exactly what I was asking, and why. I could be so thick, sometimes.

I sat in the diner, people-watching, browsing the menu, doodling on the corner of the paper mat, imagining Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal at the next table. I’d wanted to come here, I’d knew he would ask even before I opened the next envelope. “We’d just talked,” he had written. “You don’t have to believe me but it’s true. It was enough, though.” Ha, I thought. No, I don’t believe you. Call me callous, call me juvenile. I knew I wouldn’t be proud of the moment, but I emptied him into a pepper pot and left, quickly, without paying my bill.

Vienna

We’d joked about it for so long. “It means nothing to me,” was the stock reply whenever the place was mentioned, over time becoming more a mantra than a humorous remark, a Pavlovian reaction in Eighties pop. When we saw the advert for the weekend deal, we both knew we would be going. It was the first moment of understanding we had shared for months. Even the utter kitsch-ness — the organised trips, the fixed menus — seemed fitting. Above all, neither of us would have to make any decisions.

That’s how, a few weeks later, we found ourselves bouncing across the cobbled streets in an open horse and carriage at some unfeasibly early hour. It had rained in the night, lending a damp sheen to the pavements; the morning was crisp yet pleasant; shop keepers were lifting shutters and proudly wielding brooms. While not magical, it certainly felt less than real — neither of us was particularly disappointed to be squashed together in the leather seats, a blanket over our knees and spiced wine cupped in our hands like Narnian children.

Our relationship was over, that was obvious. We’d been through the period of gifts, now thankfully in the past — flowers and chocolates, belated offerings at the altar of what might have been. He’d not taken long to realise it was futile, bless him. The deity had long since moved on, its existence snuffed out by a lack of belief. While part of me wanted things to be different, I could no more conjure gratitude than any other pointless miracle.

The strange thing was, as I loved him less, I liked him more. That cliché — let’s be friends — I now understood: all those fragments of our shared times together, none strong enough to support soulmates, were more than adequate to sustain a friendship. He knew me better than anyone, and I, him. I turned towards him. “To us,” I said. “To us,” he replied, stretching a smile across any other emotion he may have felt.

We chinked our glasses, the steam rising up and dissipating in the morning mist.

I retraced our steps, walking this time. In my pocket, the last of two envelopes, this one somehow more poignant than the others. “Forgive me,” he had said. I hadn’t thought I could, but with each step another strand untangled, teasing apart the weft of our memories. At each cobbled street corner, I took a pinch from my pocket and let it fall from my fingers, sprinkling him along the route.

Dove Dale

“Come on,” he had said. “It’ll be fun.” I could not imagine how. The absolute last thing I wanted was to meet up with his old friends. We’d already said we would, but really? My boxes were half packed, various belongings piled in the front room, personal effects extracted from the morass of shared experience. Another week and I would move into my new flat, we would go public. Etc. Until then, we cohabited, each acting carefully cool, sharing a strange nether-land somewhere between deceit and honesty.

“Please,” he said.

“You do know… don’t you, that…”

“Of course. It’s over. I get it. Please come.”

So we went. Keeping up appearances was not that hard and in fact, I did quite enjoy myself. It would have been difficult not to — long walks, stunning views, hefty meals. I slept better than I had for weeks. Enough people to not feel under any pressure. He seemed to be having a good time and I was content to go with it, a distant stranger among strangers, nodding and smiling on cue.

It was only on the last afternoon that I started to engage with anyone in the group. “That’s more like it,” I had exhaled when we reached the top of the rise, the waterfall crashing beneath us. One of his friends had looked over and grinned broadly. “Of course it is, he had said. Every time.” We walked down together, chatting about nothing at all.

It wasn’t until we were driving back that I asked who it was.

“Martin,” he said. “Why?”

I had not expected to feel so overwhelmed. Initially at least, I could not understand the last envelope, why he had wanted me to go there. I walked the path up the side of the fall, pausing just once for breath. From the top, the view was as stunning as I remembered it — better, if anything. Of course, I thought. Of course. I get it now. As I stared across the landscape, as vast as it was serene, my lack of comprehension dissolved, leaving only a sense of release. “Thank you,” I mouthed, finally. I emptied the final particles into the stream before making my way down, stepping carefully now, listening as the falling waters dashed on the rocks below.

Canterbury

I was surprised how few people turned up. Apart from close family and the handful of friends I’d met just weeks ago, he had little to show in terms of a lifetime’s relationships. I thought you were more popular, I remember mouthing to his coffin. No, in fact, I didn’t — he had been happy enough in his own company. For a fleeting moment, I was surprised I had fitted into his life at all.

Not that he was there. The hymns were not those he would have chosen; the vicar’s cobbled-together eulogy (what a horrible word) bore little resemblance to the person I knew. We filed out as we filed in, welling up at appropriate moments before, during and after the service. “You are so strong,” his mother had told me. If only she knew. Of course, I was devastated — who wouldn’t have been? But even as I absorbed the cold shock of the phone call from the hospital, I already found myself faced with a nagging, guilty sense of relief.

The wake was interminable. While I went through the motions of grief — some genuine, some to meet expectations — I knew I was biding my time before I could leave. Perhaps I could start telling people how tired I felt, I thought. Perhaps someone would get the message and send me on my way.

A voice interrupted my train of thought. “Can I get you a cup of tea?” it said. I turned and recognised the face from the walking trip only a week before.

“Martin, isn’t it? I’m so sorry… to think…”

“Yeah, well.”

“Yes. Please,” I said, realising it was quite possibly the best idea in the world.

A week after the funeral, I found a small, yet bulky package on the mat, from the funeral directors according to the postmark. I opened it to reveal a folded letter, a small bag and another, smaller package. I unfolded the letter with trepidation. “Bear with me,” the message read. “If it’s not too much trouble, take this to Folkestone — you know where. It seems strange to say this, but I’d appreciate it and I hope you will understand why.” A brief anger gave way to a feeling of quiet purpose. Still dragging me to places, you selfish idiot, I thought to myself. But why not? I could be there and back before supper.

It was the least I could do.