Quickly folding the crumpled up piece of newspaper, I started, and turned at the sound of her voice.
“Hello stranger,” she said and laughed, and those 10 years vanished in a second.
“Helen,” I answered uncertainly. “It’s been...it’s been a long time.”
“Ten years, you dope,” she said and hugged me. I smelled her hair and it was the same as then. Parched fields after a storm; raindrops in mid flight.
We held each other for a few short, endless moments and blotted the rest of the world out of existence. Then she stood back and looked at me quizzically, half-smiling. She had barely changed. Even though the sun was wrapped in a thick blanket of cloud her hair still seemed on fire. I imagined that if I closed my eyes I would still see its after-image branded onto my retina. I remembered this very place some 15 years before, meeting her for the second time after months of letters. For a time our conversation had been stilted and trivial. We’d found it far easier to write our thoughts on paper, but when it came to uttering them we were hesitant at first, before slipping into the easy conversation from the day we’d first met.
Sitting in front of her fire staring into the flames and the glowing caverns beneath the wood, wondering if super-heated people lived there, their hearts pulsing with the beat of the embers, bodies touching but hands afraid to hold each other. Staring at twin flame-reflections in her eyes, knowing what she was thinking but unable to tell her what I thought...
“Mark?” I snapped awake and found myself staring into her eyes again. “Penny for your thoughts?”
Oh...you,” I answered dreamily, realising the car had stopped and we were outside her house, The same house as ten years before of course, surrounded by barns and clusters of oak trees. The land stretched lazily and flatly in all directions. In places the sky darkened and sagged and touched the earth with rain. The thunderclouds seemed to dance and wheel in the distance, occasionally gliding nearer and sprinkling her windows with drizzle, threatening to rumble overhead but turning away at the last minute before repeating the cycle.
“Red wine please,” I answered.
A cork popped in the kitchen as I sat cross-legged on the ground before a crackling hearth. A cat jumped as something imploded in the depths of the fire, squirting sparks.
She came back in and sat cross-legged opposite me on the rug, handing me a large glass full to the brim with wine. “Cheers,” she said and we touched glasses.
“I bet you were surprised I answered your letter,” she said at last, after a few moments of awkward silence.
“I knew you’d answer,” I replied. “But I never thought you’d invite me over after so long. I couldn’t believe you still lived here. What about your parents and sisters?”
“My parents died, Mark. And left us three the house. Don’t sat ‘I’m sorry’ because it was such a long time ago now. My sisters are both married. Milly’s got two kids.”
I nodded. “Do you remember...do you remember that other letter I wrote, a couple of years after we last saw each other.
She laughed, and the sound was so familiar that something jumped painfully in my chest. “That was a beautiful letter.”
“When you replied I felt so happy. For a time. I knew you wouldn’t feel the same way, but just to hear from you again, and to get such an inspiring letter...I just wish I’d said it all long before, when we first met.”
“So do I,” she said. “It’s so weird that it was only five minutes from her, that that place is still there, that...that the buildings and the trees that saw our first meeting are still there and have seen so many other things since. I just couldn’t get you out of my mind for months after that.”
“And there’s m, sad git that I am, still unable to get you out of my mind after ten years!” I looked at her so-familiar face, the blond curls hanging over her forehead, her pale skin, her wide smiling eyes and couldn’t believe these features of so many of my dreams were here before me, the shadows beneath her eyes dancing in the firelight.
She leaned over and brushed her lips against my cheek.
A bustling London station; waiting for her train to arrive with my heart juddering away so loudly that I thought passers-by glanced at me strangely. Sitting on my bed and kissing, on the cheeks, like the good friends we were. But never like lovers. Only in our thoughts. Never in reality. Always wanting to say something but lapsing into inane trivia.
“You know,” she said. Her face was slightly closer than before she’d kissed me. “That first time you came her and slept just down the corridor from my bedroom. Do you remember after we’d gone to bed I came to your room and asked what your middle name was. You must have thought I was mad. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I just wanted to see you again, on that same day. Then, afterwards I lay in bed in the dark and willed you to creep down that corridor and knock on my door. I was sending mental signals. Did you feel them?”
“I...I think so. I could barely sleep, and when I did I dreamed I’d asked you out. I kept waking up feeling so happy because I thought I’d finally done it, and then realising I’d only dreamed it. That was the longest night of my life.”
“You prat,” she answered. “Why didn’t you come? Shit, you could have asked me my middle name!”
“I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what I would say. I wasn’t even sure how you felt about me.”
“What?! After a letter a week for six months? You are kidding!” She laughed again and turned back towards the fire. I thought I saw her cheeks redden slightly but it may just have been the heat. As ever, I was lost for words. I felt like steering the conversation towards other safer, but less important matters, but for once my heart wouldn’t let me. I felt an unaccustomed resolution racing around inside me, driving me onwards. I’d let so many chances slip by my in my life. This was not to be another.
“And now?” I said finally. “Are you...attached?”
She wrinkled her nose in distaste at my choice of words and took a deep gulp of wine. “No, my dearest Mark. There’s been some, but no one I really cared deeply about. And no one for ages for ages now. I’m lonely. My parents left me so much money that I’ll never have to work again, but I seem to spend my whole life moping around inside this house thinking of what might have been. You were never really part of those thoughts. You were for years, all through uni and even for a bit afterwards. But then your letter came last week and...I remembered how happy I felt when we were together, how I felt when I woke in the morning and knew there’s be a letter from you waiting for me.”
She turned back from the flames. I could feel the heat she’d absorbed from them pulsing from her in time with her heart. A drop of wine glistened on her lower lip. I reached and brushed it away. For a second her eyes closed. When they re-opened they were moist and brimming with tears.
Kissing her was like no dream of her I’d ever had. There was no summer sun glaring against latticed windows, no shimmering water, no warm, still night. Only heat, the blaze of the fire against our skin, the warmth and taste of her mouth, her soft, urging tongue. It was over soon. We lay together amongst our scattered clothes and talked softly. I stroked her skin, kissed her mouth, her breasts, her belly as it rose and fell and glistened with sweat. The words we spoke were as that first day; interspersed with gentle laughter, made almost unbearably happy by the closeness of our bodies.
“You can stay for as long as you want,” she said, when we finally rose, unashamed of our nakedness. “Nothing much changes around here and there’s nothing much to do except...”
Something flashed deep within her eyes and, holding hands, we climbed the stairs.
Outside, the storms finally stopped circling and settled above the house. The lightning flashed and her body glared whitely beneath me, her back arched.
In the early hours of the morning I awoke, cold, as if drenched in freezing rain. Outside was a cacophony; twigs scraping windows, rain showers pelting down through wildly twisting trees. I shivered and reached for Helen, touching her skin and finding it as cold as my own. Then she slid closer to me and was warm again, and enveloped me with her warmth. She muttered something. It might have been “wake up”, so I did and we made love again, our own sighs blending with the dying breaths of the storm as it soaked itself into dripping nothingness. Our lovemaking was slow this time; the chill of my first waking was burned away by an all-encompassing heat. I felt almost afraid to touch her body as it moved beneath me, in case I should scald my fingers.
Then we slept again, and unlike the thousands of nights I’d lived without her, my sleep was dreamless.
“I’ll show you the garden,” she said the next day as we lay in bed.
A few moments later and we were strolling across springy, still-soaked grass. The air was fresh; when the breeze blew it was as cold as midwinter and we wrapped our arms around each other as we walked. I turned and stared at her in silence, taking in every feature of her face, hoping they wouldn’t fade and blur when she was away from me. Many had been the times when I’d closed my eyes and tried to picture her in my mind, seeing only a mop of yellow hair and an uncertain, white smudge of a face. In the crisp morning air the outline of her face was now sharp against the greenery around us; her curving, elegant nose contrasted as much with the waving leaves as a gaunt, wintry tree against a blazing evening sky. I felt the same pang as I gazed into her eyes as I always felt, yet now the pain was not because I feared I would never have her, but that I would lose her again. She would fade again from my memory, more vivid in dreams than in the drab realism of waking hours.
The lawns around her house were mown neatly into stripes of darker and lighter green; colour blazed in the surrounding borders. Mallows flared like beacons, roses preened themselves and boasted of their heady scent, hanging baskets creaked and rocked gently, trailing colour like comet tails.
She must have read my thoughts. “I know it’s a lot of work, keeping all this neat and tidy. But remember I’ve got nothing else to do.”
We rounded a corner of the house and I noticed one patch of lawn had been left untouched. The grass had grown up tall, yellow and straggly. Here and there thistles toppled over with their own weight, and oil seed rape burned like candles. I thought it strange, this patch of wilderness surrounded by such order. For a moment she seemed embarrassed when I mentioned it, and something grey flickered across her clear blue pupils.
“You’ve changed,” she said. We had sat down on a wooden bench in the centre of one of her extensive lawns. A twisted old apple tree overhung us like an aged guardian angel. I looked up and saw the window of our bedroom at the top of the house reflecting a bank of incoming thunderclouds. “What happened to all the jokes, all the laughter? Do you remember walking back from Pleasurewood Hills, back to Lowestoft train station because we couldn’t get a bus? We talked and talked. I don’t even remember what about now, but I know it was the sort of thing you find it harder to talk about the older you get. Films, music, teachers at school. You don’t talk about things like that anymore, and you don’t laugh much. Have I changed as well?”
“Yes,” I replied. She had changed little in looks over the years, but the smile that used to fill her face and make her eyes sparkle was less frequent now. “But you...you’ve been through a lot. Living here on your own must be hard.”
“Oh Mark, you sound so grown-up and understanding. If that had been you fifteen years ago you’d have made some facetious remark and we’d have had a good laugh. We were so...dazzled by everything when we were together then. We used to look up at the sky and talk about it for hours. About how some clouds were so high up they were made of ice. And now here we are trying to be all adult and talking about ‘being through a lot.” She tried to laugh but it sounded somehow false, empty.
“What happened to your parents?” I tried to make the question sound interested and compassionate but in the end it just sounded flat.
“Car crash. Hit by a lorry on the motorway and both killed instantly. Not that long after I replied to your letter.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know,” she answered quickly. “I wanted to move on, I suppose. You were too much of a link with the past.”
“But you haven’t moved on, have you?” I countered. “You’re still living in their house, surrounded by all those memories.”
She smiled, and despite its sadness it still made something burn warmly inside me. “Shall we...shall we retrace our steps?”
“Shall we go back in time, and visit all the places where we were together? Starting with the most recent first. That means going back upstairs and making love again. Then, technically, we’d have to wait another fifteen years before seeing each other again, but I don’t think I could cope with that.”
We chased each other upstairs, ripping off our clothes as we went, and this time, enthralled by her idea, we laughed as we rocked on our bed and I imagined the hands on her juddering alarm clock winding backwards while the sky outside darkened towards morning. Sprawled together we slept the afternoon away and woke up fifteen years ago.
It was time to revisit our past.
Durham was first. The following day Helen drove us up there, and it seemed that the thunderclouds I’d seen reflected in the window followed us north. I rested my hand on her thigh and turned to face her until me neck ached while the car was buffeted by the wind. It seemed that the muscles in her face relaxed the nearer we got to the university city, the faster the fifteen years passed. By the time we caught our first glimpse of the ancient cathedral, almost white against the storm-black and sky and lassoed by the Tees, the sad smile of the previous day had been replaced by a broad grin.
“Things were odd here, weren’t they?” said Helen as we sat in a tearoom. “You’d changed. You seemed nervous and somehow...distant. Why was that?”
I was silent for a few moments. I sipped my cup of Earl Grey, and its flavour seemed to float around my brain, lulling me. “I don’t know. I think that the older I’ve got, the shyer I’ve become. I know it’s normally the other way round, but I guess I’m just twisted that way.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she replied and rested her hand on mine. “You certainly weren’t shy coming to see me after such a long time. Most people would just have ignored my letter.”
“How could I possibly have ignored a letter from the person who’s filled my thoughts all these years? There was something else as well though. Durham was weird that time because I’d realised it was too late to say what I wanted to say to you. I’d missed so many opportunities. That first night in your house stands out. And you’d been seeing other people at uni. I just wasn’t sure what was between us anymore.”
We walked out into the crowded streets. A chill wind blew in from the moors to the north. Back in our guesthouse we lay silently in the dark until the early hours of the morning, stroking our bodies while the moon gushed through our thin curtains. Eventually I heard her breathing settle down, and in its sound I heard her voice, all the things she’d ever said to me, and the happiness we were experiencing seemed so ephemeral again. I drifted into sleep and woke only minutes later, drenched in sweat yet shivering with cold. I listened in the darkness and heard nothing than the odd car cruising past, the creak of boards somewhere else in the old guesthouse. I could no longer hear Helen breathing.
I looked towards her, and for a moment it seemed the moonlight had blanched her face, changed it to a ghastly white. My skin bristled with goose pimples; reaching out I feared that as soon as my fingers touched her cheek her skin would crumble away until there was nothing left of her on the bed but fine, white powder.
I touched her and yelped, withdrawing my hand. Her skin had felt so cold that it burned my finger, and I grasped it with my other hand.
“Mark...what?” She rose, and against the fluttering curtains I could see only the strands of her hair. Her features were dark and indecipherable. “Oh Helen!” I exclaimed, and hugged her. She was warm and firm again. I had suffered only from the after-effects of some nightmare.
The following day she drove us back down to Suffolk, where the storms had mercifully passed and the air was fresh and clean. In the late afternoon while Helen bathed I wandered into the gardens again, my feet leaving imprints in the soft grass. I marvelled at the work she’d put in to keep them looking so pristine. In her parents’ time I remembered battered outbuildings surrounding the main house, their wooden walls cracked and slanted, overgrown with weeds. Even these had been tidied; they had been painted a glistening black, and the equipment stored within them had been stacked neatly into place. I looked in each building in turn, seeing glistening spades and forks hanging from shining nails, lawnmowers polished and immaculate in their corners, logs for the coming winter in symmetrical piles and smelling of rain washed mountains.
I came to a building that looked a little less well kept than the others; one wooden sidewall was torn by a gaping rent that revealed only petrol-scented darkness within. Yellowing bracken gathered around the structure, rustling in the breeze. I found the door, which was secured by a heavily rusted padlock, and as soon as I pulled, the lock snapped and the door swung open, creaking like a horror movie cliché. When the sunlight flooded in, I gasped.
Space inside the building was completely taken up by an estate car. It may once have been white, but rainwater must have linked in through chinks in the roof above and rusted it away. The car’s roof had been smashed in by some immense weight; the window frames had buckled outwards while its top had been pressed down almost to the level of the steering column. There was no glass in the front windscreen apart from some jagged shards around the edges; all the other windscreens were criss-crossed with tiny cracks, like leaves. I stepped carefully into the building, my feet slipping on the oily floor. There was scarcely room to move, but I edged myself between the car and the walls to peer into the front passenger window. Both front seats were sprinkled with glass fragments. The window frames had buckled so much that I had to bend down to peer inside, grazing my back on the uneven walls behind me.
I sniffed and smelled something salty and unpleasant. Just as I noticed dark stains covering both the front seats I heard footsteps approaching the building and jumped. “Mark? Mark, where are you?”
Stumbling, I edged around the car and found myself back out in the daylight. The air smelled as sweet as honey after the stifling interior. Helen was still some way off just appearing around the side of the house. I was glad, because I was strangely worried that she would disapprove of my entering the battered building. I picked up the remains of the padlock and thrust it back into the door where it dangled uselessly. And then, looking up again towards Helen, I gasped again.
The patch of lawn she was now crossing had been the area that was desolate two days before. I had clearly seen the overgrown grass, the profusion of weeds and the tangled remains of once well-tended rosebushes. But now the grass was as neat and green as the rest of her grounds; the weeds had vanished; the rosebushes stood in rows around the lawn, garish in alternating shades of red and yellow. Scratching my head I looked back towards the building I had just left, and wondered whether I had also imagined its contents.
I was silent and uneasy over dinner, even after several glasses of fine wine from her father’s cellar. Helen tried to talk, but after discovering her answers met with little but monosyllabic answers, if she was lucky, she gave up and took to staring at the contents of her glass, twirling it in her fingers.
“Tomorrow?” she said finally.
“Tomorrow?” I said, perplexed.
“I was wondering if you wanted to continue our journey into the past tomorrow. Since we got back from Durham you’ve behaved just like you behaved there before, so distant. Did it remind you of being unhappy?” She lowered her glass and leaned forward, staring into my eyes. “I love you,” she said. “Always have. Thought it was just a schoolgirl crush at first, but it was oh so deeper than that. I never wanted to lose you.”
“But you haven’t lost me,” I replied. “We’re here together. Now. There’s no reason why we should ever be parted again. I’m sorry if I’ve behaved strangely today. I saw something...”
I looked towards the window. The night was so black its panes could have been made from ebony.
“In the garden?” asked Helen.
“You saw my parents’ car?”
“I kept it,” she said, and took a deep gulp of wine. “I know it’s sad. I know it’s sad still living in the house that they used to live in, drinking their wine, keeping their garden the way they used to keep it, better even. Oh Mark, I just can’t let go of them.”
“I can understand that,” I said, feeling appalled. “But...the car. It’s different. It’s morbid.”
“Yes, I agree.” She turned away from me, and for a moment I thought I saw a smile flicker across her face. She looked again out into the night, towards the outbuildings, the wrecked car, the stains on the seats.
I felt scared of her when we made love that night. She rode me, and dug her fingers into my cheeks, drawing blood. She tossed back her halo of golden hair and laughed as we came, before collapsing sweat-drenched on me.
So the following day we took the train down to London and paused for a moment by the ticket barriers ate Liverpool Street station.
“I bet you can remember what happened here,” said Helen.
“I actually managed to ask you out,” I replied. You’d spent the whole weekend at my house, but I never managed to ask you until just before we parted. I’d sat opposite you in the pub and been so preoccupied with telling you how I felt about you that I was too tongue-tied to say anything at all.”
“It was this very place,” said Helen. She turned and looked up towards where steps led up to a higher level overlooking the main station concourse. “I remember looking up there and seeing a policeman looking down, smiling at us.”
“I was in a complete daze on the way home,” I continued. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I thought that was finally it, and that we’d be together forever. But nothing really changed, did it?”
“My feelings had changed,” said Helen. “I think maybe just after we first met, I could have coped with going out with you but only seeing you during the holidays. But this was a year on. I loved you, but...I wanted to have some fun as well. Oh Mark, if only you’d told me before. Things might have been so different.”
“But why the regrets now?” I said, holding her hand and leading her away from the ticket barrier towards the Underground. “I still can’t believe it’s really happened, but we’ve come together again. Why...”
I glanced at her and saw tears welling in the corners of her eyes. She slowed and stopped and I hugged her while crowds of strangers flocked past, their voices and the clattering of their footsteps merging into one dreary, endless hum. Their lives continued, flowed with time, while our stopped, as if we were on a cinema screen and their imagines had blurred while ours had become sharper, more distinct. And then we continued moving backwards in time as Helen has suggested, and I became more and more confused because her unhappiness seemed to increase the further we retraced our steps. On the train journey up to my former home in Denton she drew away from me and stared out the window, wiping away the condensation from time to time to stare at the green fields slipping past. I tried to ask her what was wrong but she merely shook her head and hid her eyes from me.
When our taxi drew up in front of my parents’ old house the only emotions I felt were those caused by memories of Helen’s associations with it, not those of my parents and my growing up there. The rose bushes that my father had once nurtured so lovingly along the side of the house had withered and become choked by creeper; all its visible walls were blanketed in foliage, a contrast to the bright pink walls of Helen’s house. Black paint had flaked off the gates; patches of rust covered them like lesions. It seemed as we sat in the taxi that time had moved on for me; the place I’d once called home had fallen into new hands who cared little for the hard work my father had done there. Helen was still in the same house where she was born; she still clung to the relics of a life that no longer existed. Her parents’ bloodstained car still rusted in its garage; the gardens, unlike the tangled mess of my parents’ house, were as immaculate as when hers had been alive. I began to feel something strangely wrong in the events of the past couple of days. Coming here, and then planning the following day to revisit the places where we had first met, was to delve into a past that was just that. Past. Finished. We had somehow managed to revive our relationship, but turning and looking at Helen, who could barely hold back the tears in the seat beside me, I realised that even that wasn’t right. Wasn’t meant to be.
Back at her house in the evening her spirits revived somewhat, helped along their way by the glass after glass of wine she consumed before, during and after dinner. Afterwards, with the sun plunging below the horizon and a chill descending over the house, I lit a fire and we curled up on the rug before it, talking quietly, not of the past, but of our plans for the future. I was right, she said. It was time to move on. She’d start by getting rid of the car, and then she’d put the house on the market and we’d buy somewhere together. Perhaps somewhere more urban. Because, as she put it, the fields and the open sky and the scent of wood smoke made her feel so sad. She could think only of the past in this place; tending the garden, fighting back the weeds, she felt as though she was fighting an unstoppable force. Everywhere she looked she saw ghosts; sometimes she imagined her parents faces, gaunt and bloodstained, stared down at her from the highest window of the house, mocking her, chiding her for not letting go. Sometimes she thought she thought she saw her sisters wandering along on the other side of the fence ringing her property, half invisible in the corn, gliding like spirits. She thought they were beyond the fence because, unlike her, they had moved on and no longer grieved for what was over.
She eventually fell asleep in my arms and I carried her upstairs. I lay beside her and lapsed into a strange broken sleep full of the sort of images she had been describing. I woke with a start and the room was awash with moonlight. It drenched everything with its mercury brightness; even the dark mahogany wardrobe that loomed in one corner seemed to shine with inner light. Hearing her breathing softly beside me I rose silently and padded towards the window, wanting to see the earth bathed in white. Opening the curtains my breath stopped in my mouth and my heart jigged.
The moon was huge; it filled half the sky and I could discern its every future, its ridges of bone-dry, lonely mountains, its huge desolate plains, its shadow-draped craters. Below it, Helen’s gardens had been laid waste, as if its light had seared and charred them. The lawns she had watered daily for years were patches of brown; I imagined them crunching if I stepped on them. I saw dark masses of vegetation surrounding them that must have been forests of weeds, overhanging what was left of the lawns and bobbing up and down in the wind. I leaned out, and the air was chill for late summer. I had half expected the moonlight to burn my skin like the midday sun. Beyond the gardens I saw heaps of wooden planks, their edges chipped and scored, covered in moss. Earlier that day these had been her outbuildings, with four walls and roofs. Their contents, logs, tools, boxes, had been stacked with obsessive neatness. They had completely vanished.
“Helen?” I whispered. I turned, and a shaft of moonlight slanted across her body. Her skin seemed so pale and thin as to be translucent. I imagined I could see through its layers and that within, instead of flesh and blood I could see only an ashen nothingness, a barren stillness as dead and blasted as her garden. “Helen?” I repeated, louder this time. Her eyes flickered open and she groaned as she pulled the sheets over her body.
“One more day. One more trip into the past,” I barely heard her mumble. Then...over.”
Fearing I was dreaming I climbed back into bed and faced the wall, to scared of the awful harsh whiteness beyond her window, afraid even of touching her skin in case it should crumble away beneath me.
All was utterly transformed in the morning. I awoke to feel her naked body straddling mine. I reached and held her breasts. They were full, warm and alive and when I pulled her down and kissed her, her mouth tasted as rich as the majestic gardens I knew were blooming again outside.
Our final trip into the past involved only a half hour drive to the coast. Helen was a total contrast to the previous day. She chatted all the way about the sort of things we used to chat about all those years before, and the minutes sped past. I forgot all my negative thoughts, and the scene outside her bedroom window receded in intensity until I almost managed to convince myself it really was a dream. In fact, the reality had long since dawned that the things I had seen were, far from being a dream, far closer to a waking state than anything else I had experienced that day. Even the wonderful sex that morning, the feel of her sweat-slippery skin sliding back and forth against mine, the flush of her pale cheeks, the sense of togetherness as we lay together amongst the tangled sheets afterwards, still inside each other. Even that was less real than the harsh, burning white light of the moon.
At the theme park we tried to retrace our exact steps from that sunny Sunday some fifteen years before, but the old rides had been replaced and we found it difficult. I remembered one ride and prayed it was still there. It was. Two people sat in circular vehicles that whizzed around each other, narrowly missing. When we’d ridden this before, Helen had leant against me, trying to convince both of us it was only ‘centrifugal force’ that pushed her closer towards me. This time there was no attempt to transfer the blame. We hugged each other tightly as the wind whipped against our faces, knowing time was short. As we clambered out of the machine at the end, the attendant peered at me and frowned. I turned to Helen and we laughed simultaneously. Her eyes grew so wide they threatened to drown me. As we wandered off I saw the attendant talking to another, occasionally glancing over his shoulder at us and pointing. I knew what he could see, and I could sympathise with his confusion.
The sun arced over the sky, and I began to feel as I had once done after a weekend at home before going back to boarding school. The state of happiness was still there, but threatened by its imminent end. The shadows were lengthening, the light growing darker and golden, and I began to feel desperately sad again. Helen sensed this and smiled up at me. “It’s OK,” she said. “Not many people have been given the second chance we’ve been given. You’ll survive. You’ll be able to carry on now. You’ll be able to forget about me.”
We sat down for lunch the same way we’d done fifteen years before. This was the place we’d first really got to know each other. The first throwaway, meaningless comments had developed as that day had gone on. By the end we were inseparable. Our conversation had made the minutes speed by, yet at the same time had frozen them in place, etched them forever in my memory. I remembered kissing goodbye to her at Liverpool Street, waving at her for what I thought was then the last time in Durham. And then only the previous day holding each other while the crowds milled around us in London, frozen to the spot while they all moved on. A series of stills, like photographs in an album. Moments of sheer, delirious emotion amidst a lifetime of triviality. What happened between them was soon forgotten. The moments themselves never were.
Within seconds the theme park was beginning to close, and people were already heading for the exits. We queued briefly for one final ride, a log flume that wound through a quiet poplar grove where the noise and shouts of the park seemed a lifetime away. When it came to our turn to climb aboard, the woman attendant aid,” Just the one, then?”, addressing me. I paused, and turned to Helen, who merely smiled her brilliant smile and laughed.
“Yes,” I said, and we both clambered inside just before the travelling log climbed up a steep watery slope and wound its way through the trees. In silence we held each other. Only the steady rush of water and the distant hum of voices disturbed our reverie.
“It’s time to let go, Mark,” she said, turning awkwardly and kissing me.
“I know, sweetheart,” I said, and, bending forward, I buried my face in her hair. Within seconds she had gone from me forever. I cradled empty air, and cried painfully as the log teetered on the edge of a precipice before topping over and splashing me with warm water. But the tears had faded by the time the artificial river had led me back to where I started. The woman stared suspiciously at my bloodshot eyes, but I merely smiled weakly at her, and, dripping, started the long walk back to Lowestoft and the train ride home.
Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the crumpled newspaper cutting, reading for a final time the headlines that I once thought had ended my life. PARENTS, DAUGHTER KILLED IN ROAD ACCIDENT, they said. I turned away from her golden-haired image, crunched the brittle paper in my fist and hurled it into the nearest wastepaper basket.
She was right. It was time to let go, time to move on. I had always lived with the awful pain and regret that we’d never be able to know each other the way we were supposed to know each other. Yet somehow we had been given that chance, and while I knew that if I returned to her house at that moment, it would be lying in ruins and its gardens would be choked with weeds, I realised the regret had gone. Only the happy memories, the snapshots in time, remained.