Parallel

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At some point we were apart
together,
running tracks along the same line,
traversing the spine
of the world
and as we lay and curled
through all the good
and the bad weather,
through time
those tracks
in the distance merged
as close
as they possibly could

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The Leper Colony

The air.

It whistles through my lungs. Fresh. Freeing.

The sun.

It beats down benevolently. Caressing. Indulging.

I turn and the look back at the rustic gates, lodged in lairs of trodden soil. They look weak. Penetrable. As if they were never anything but. Padlocks and chains, worn and weary, hang limply from the gate’s iron bars. They speak of escape; they tell of emancipation.

I sink pointedly to my knees. Exhausted yes, but determined. Sure of the next stage. Convinced by the path set out before me. But a glimmer. The slightest of glimmers. It ricochets off a segment of railing, sending shards of light into my vision, blinding me only momentarily. Forcing me to turn away. To shield my eyes.

It shunts me into one final act of remembrance. A sullen dip into the murky pool of nostalgia.

The hillside once so full of promise. So etched in beauty. And so rapidly consumed by aberration. By ugliness. I recall the shackles. The restraints clawing at my skin. Digging into the bone, infusing my veins with poison. I remember the claustrophobia. The sickening, unending feeling of being trapped. Of being suffocated. Fully, completely and relentlessly, as each day turned to night, and night into day. The gasps punching angrily from my lungs. Dying out weakly in amongst the acrid miasma of despondency. I remember the snuffing out of hope. Easily. Indifferently. As if dampening a single match in one of the world’s great oceans. I remember the fences, the bars, the railings. I recall the barbed wire, the electrical current, the concrete. All conjoined and contorted to spell out the underlying, all-consuming and over-riding message that escape was futile. Fleeing was not an option.

Above all I remember the gates. Steadfast. Robust. Overwhelming. Their image flooded my mind, their shadows swamped my every step. They bullied me, punished me, taunted me. For my hopes, for my daring to dream, for my affliction. They seemed to pull, prod and pry at my riddled frame. Daring me to even consider attempting to scale their frame. And subsequently drowning me in scorn when my resolve inevitably dissolved. Come rain or hail, or even on the days when the sun would peek its head nervously through the gloom for nothing more than small fragments of time, the gates remained overbearing. An obstacle unable to be crossed. One not even prepared to be negotiated.

I would pick at my affliction. Scratch at my skin through nothing other than frustration. Anguish. My hideousness became an accepted fact of my life. My complexion nothing more than a cross to bear and a fact to live with. To endure. One that would, to all intents and purposes, accompany me to the grave.

I became isolated. Cut off from society. Quickly and efficiently. Cut off from contact. From consideration. From feeling. As the months grew painstakingly into years I became alone. Alone in this fortress of gut-wrenching seclusion. Out of mind. Out of sight. Scorned, forgotten. Surrounded by the impenetrable walls and gates. Travelling slowly into the darkness with nothing but my own thoughts and self-loathing as my travelling companions.

I was beaten. Broken. Used. By all accounts, done.

But then one day, the sun lingered. Not too much. Not enough to radiate the entire day with light, no. But it lingered, a fraction more than it would usually care to. It infused me with something resembling hope for the first time in a long time. Careless, thoughtless hope perhaps but hope all the same. Lying there, at that moment, in that time, soaking in the stench of my self-inflicted filth, I endeavoured to drag myself up and attempt escape at least once more. My skin, my veins, my bones, for so long so bereft, were now pulsating with energy. With resolve. Limping, stumbling, shuddering I dragged myself towards the gates. Trudging through the barren colony, forgotten and unnoticed, towards those symbols of oppression and restriction.

With a long drawn out sigh I pushed…

And the gates gave way. They opened. Just like that. Unlocked. Unshackled. Unbound. As they had been the entire time. Gates. Nothing more. Ready to be opened. At anytime. Willing to accept my courage and resolve should I have had the means to call upon them.

Opened. Just so. As if the act was the most simplest of acts a man, woman or any other creature upon this earth could have performed. And the colony, awash in all its bleak, downtrodden greyness shrunk away behind me as the freeing, sun-kissed expanse opened up before me.

And the air.

It still whistles through me. Touching each ember of my being as it travels nonchantly, and confidently, through my body.

And the sun.

It still shines. For now. At times it may retreat. Naturally, of course. But its presence will always be known to me. Will always be felt.

I pull myself up from my knees and glance back through the gates for the final time. I pity the scene, scolding myself slightly for not making the move, taking the step, far earlier than I had done. I jut out my chin as a final farewell. Confidence beginning to ooze through me. I find myself free from disease, free from affliction. Reborn. Lazarus emerged from his slumber. Daylight breaking free from a prolonged, punishing nightfall.

I turn and skip lightly down the remainder of the mountainside, confident and unafraid, ready to launch myself into arms of humanity once more.

Benches

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It was perhaps the 15th bench she’d pointed out as he carefully tried to move her away.

“This one is dedicated to ‘Mr Peterson of Comely Bank’. I wonder who he was and why there’s a bench dedicated to him, it doesn’t say.”

“1917”, Eric pointed out the date just below the inscription. “Perhaps he died during the First World War.”

“Oh that’s too sad”, Moira said, rubbing her nose slightly with her left hand and sniffing gently. She clasped her right hand tighter into Eric’s, intertwining her fingers through his, locking him to her, and pulled herself closer to him so she could lean against his shoulder. “Do you think his wife, or whoever dedicated this bench, came here often to sit? Maybe his sweetheart? Maybe his children? Maybe his grandchildren still come here and sit here and think of him?” Her voice almost pleaded for positive affirmation of her thoughts.

“Unlikely”, Eric said. “Like most of the benches here they’re probably forgotten. You can tell by the state most of them are in. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just some scam by the council to get people to pay for benches so they don’t have to.”

“Oh don’t say that”, Moira exclaimed, “I’m sure that’s not true.” They stood in silence for a moment before Eric managed to start moving further down Prince’s Street towards the Mound, carefully pulling Moira with him. However, they soon stopped again.

Moira was reading another plaque. “See this one, ‘To my dearest Johnny, I will think of you always when the Cherry Blossoms, Your Margie, forever and always.’ Isn’t that so sweet?”

Eric sighed, but imperceptibly. It had taken over half an hour to walk from the West End to this point and at this rate, they were never going to get up the Mound to the High Street where he had a small student flat, only rented of course. You couldn’t buy property in this part of town for love nor money. He still had a little packing to do and could do with an early night.

“Do you think”, Moira was saying, “that you’d like me to dedicate a bench to you when you’re gone?”

Eric stared at her incredulously, “But I’m only going to Stirling!” he exclaimed.

Moira pulled at him using their locked hands, jolting his arm quite suddenly and a little painfully. “No silly, when you’re dead and I’m left all alone in the world, pining after you as a wee old white-haired widow, remembering my famous husband, the bio-chemist Eric McDonald.”

Eric looked up at the castle, now lit up in shades of red, noting how like Stirling Castle it looked. Would he think of this night as he looked at that different castle in the years to come? Would he remember it at all as he ventured out on a new life, a new University, his PhD course, his career, his future? He smiled sadly at Moira who was still staring at the bench. “Come on”, he said, “I’ve got to pack. I need to be away by ten.”

(Just After) Midnight In Edinburgh

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A man shivers. An isolated icy blast roughly stabs at his exposed face. The remnants of a winter stubbornly refusing to end, one splaying its insidious limbs into the realms of spring and beyond. The fibreglass of the tram stop surrounding him fails to act as an adequate defence against the elements. His shakes his body. Lazily. Indifferently. A feeble, half-hearted attempt at generating heat.

The man looks up at the electronic display. Where once expected arrival times would flow and flicker with frequency, now sits only stony resolve. No trams will arrive now or any time in the near future said stony resolve tells the man. The last has been and gone. Carrying all who stumbled into its guts back to their respective abodes. Back to warmth. Back to comfort. Another icy blast strikes at the man. The chill numbs his toes before beginning the slow, creeping ascent up both legs. The man remains still. Caught in paralysis. His bones, his thoughts; neither urge him to move. A reason, a motivation; in absentia.

He shifts his gaze, glancing up at the castle sitting resplendent as always – this time bathed in a red glow, whether for commemoration or celebration the man knows not – as it watches, or rather rules, over the city that surrounds it. The crag of the much-vaunted crag and tail. A crooked, yet robust, image carved into the still night sky. It warms him, if only briefly. He’s warmed by its beauty. By its singularity. And, above all else, by its familiarity. Edinburgh; the castle. The castle; Edinburgh. The two are indivisible. Entwined. A source of unbreakable togetherness. Of constancy. No matter the chaos that surrounds it or him, thinks the man, no matter the unmitigated mess wrought upon him or the world, he can always be certain that the castle remains. Sitting atop the Edinburgh skyline. Spilling its beauty into his mind. A fulcrum of dependency as the rest of his existence crumbles into dust.

His shifts his gaze once more. Wrested from the beauty of the castle and its red hue by the vision of a couple walking, arms linked, on the pavement across from him. They clutch each other tightly. Defiant against the cold. Their smiles teeter resiliently against the accumulating blasts of gale and, now, fledgling fragments of sleet. But the temperature seems to bother them not. The world they cohabit, the bubble they exist in, protection enough against the negativity and gloom threatened by the elements. They laugh. A chittering laugh, one that rattles shakily through their smiles. Then kiss. An affectionate kiss. A loving kiss. The man looks down at his feet. Disheartened. His mind drifting. Back to that place. Back to the darkness. Back to the familiar.

That was him, he thinks. Or rather, he corrects himself, that was them. Back then. At the start. Entwined. Oblivious. Resilient. Walking along arm-in-arm, the city’s silhouette sketched out behind them, the backdrop to a burgeoning love story. The city’s lights twinkling demurely as fleeting love-soaked thoughts skipped by in his mind; ‘Does she love me? Is it too early to tell her I love her? Will she say it back?’ And now here he stands. Alone. Enveloped by nothing more than the cold taunting blasts of the wind. Forgotten. Rejected. Consigned and condemned to an eternal solitary vigil. The man’s eyes start to glaze. Widen. All focus and conviction draining from them as his mind returns to the relentlessly questioning, poking, prodding, taunting, mocking, stabbing, piercing darkness. The castle’s red glow tints the blurred periphery of his vision.

He reaches, almost subconsciously, for his pocket, fishing out the iPod from within. His oft-repeated and played heartbreak playlist already forming in his mind. The Modern Leper, Start A War, Love Letter et al; the songs flash meekly in his mind, tuning up their instruments in preparation for another round of their residency at the man’s self-constructed heartbreak hotel. But then he stops. His finger hovering over the Play button. A thought trickles anxiously into his head. Less a thought, in fact, and more a memory. Or, at the very least, the slither of a memory. The feeling. The colours. The moment. The song. Of a time long before. Long before now. Long before her. He scrolls through the list of artists and lands on the one he wants. The one he needs. He finds the song. With a breath, he presses play.

He smiles.

Gently, yes. Slightly, absolutely. But he smiles, the man. That feeling, the one he sought so desperately, returns to him. However briefly, however watered-down by the years, it matters not. A semblance of the feeling invades his mind. A semblance of what he used to know. Of what he used to crave. Of what he used to be. Of whom he used to be. He looks up again, suddenly regaining his focus. The castle glimmers back. It now, confidently, signals beauty. Celebration. Its red glow instantly devoid of all clunky metaphor and depressive insinuation. The man glances along the pavement and sees the couple disappearing into the sleety horizon, their huddled mass wavering under the strength of the onslaught.

The man turns away and glances back down to his iPod. A flash of white nudges into his sight. On the ground, by his shoe. It trembles as the wind contemplates sweeping it into the night air. He leans down instinctively and reaches for it. Paper. A receipt. His receipt. The one from the book shop he had visited earlier that day. It must have fallen out when he had wrestled the iPod from his pocket. He stares at the damp, dirt-flecked, receipt. And smiles once again. A knowing smile. A pleasant, knowing smile. His thoughts drift back to the bookstore. And the girl behind the counter. A few lines of conversation, that’s all it was. A few generically everyday bookshop-worker to bookshop-customer words and sentences infused by one little moment. A bad joke. A shared smile and laugh for said bad joke. And a look. A transient, barely-there look. But there was a look. A smile that hints at something more, a flush of the cheeks that suggests a connection of sorts.

Or maybe not. Thinks the man, still smiling. Probably not, in fact, he decides as his own reddening cheeks gasp against the chill. But it was enough. It is enough. His smile widens. Not enough to ask her out, or declare love, or anything as ridiculous as that. No. But enough to remind himself. Enough to tell himself that he was, and is, still here. Still alive. He was still him. In amongst all the memories and the cultivation and ruination of quirks and character, he was still in there. And so were they. His next great love stories. Or not. But they could be. That’s what makes the man smile. The ‘coulds’, the ‘cans’ and the ‘maybes’ that now flash through his mind like a whirlwind of change and reassurance. The broken heart still beats, after all. And maybe, he thinks, just maybe, I need to add a few more books to my collection. I certainly could, he decides. Tomorrow? Maybe not. But soon, he smiles. Soon.

The man glances up at the blankness of the electronic display one last time and shakes his head. Smiling. Still smiling. The song, the thoughts, the feelings of rediscovery and resurrection flickering through, and warming, his mind as he turns and walks confidently off into the Edinburgh night.

Flesh

Looking so long at these pictures of you

But I never hold on to your heart

 

Pictures Of You. By The Cure.

That was the song. That was our song. That was the song we danced to. Slow danced to. In that club. The indie club on Sauchiehall Street. God, when was that? 1990? No, no. It was 89, that’s right. Disintegration. That album came out in ’89. That dingy fucking nightclub. Jesus, what I’d give to see a photo of that night. The state of us. The state of all of us. Punks, rockers, mods, goths, freaks, geeks. Fuck. What a sight. What a time.

I’d noticed you almost as soon as I stepped into the place. You were there with Marie. As always. You and Marie. Marie and you. That was always the way. You looked good. You both did in fact. But you, you looked good. Better than good. Incredible, truth be told. Who was I with? Fuck, it’s not important is it? Probably some local scenesters at the time. Transient waifs and strays that used to congregate around that street, that scene, the gigs. Their names, their faces long ago lost to my memory. Forgettable. Unmemorable. As are most of the surrounding details from that night. But you. You were everything. As soon as I saw you, that was it. You infected me. Swirled into my pores, raced through my veins. Your hair hair-sprayed to within an inch of its life. Your dress, gothy, morbid, and yet slit perfectly, showing off that unbelievable body of yours. The bright red lipstick, shining like a beacon in the murk of that club.

The chat was easy. Of course it was. When people speak about relationships it’s always the first part that seems the hardest isn’t it. The initial stages. The introduction. The holding of interest. The not letting the conversation fizzle out. But it isn’t hard. Not when it’s right. Never when it’s right. When it’s right it’s easy. Every single word, every laugh, every look; they spill out effortlessly. It feels warm, familiar; right. And that was how it was. I wanted you and you me. We liked the same music. Had the same sense of humour. Fuck, even the same movies. I mean where else would I find a girl that thought Labyrinth was the greatest movie of all time!? Just as I did. Something just clicked. Something aligned. Fate, astrology, luck; whatever the fuck it was, it was just meant to happen.

And then Pictures Of You came on. It wasn’t even towards the end of the night, was it? It must have been well before midnight because we still had time to walk past the canal after leaving the club. But the DJ put it on all the same. A slower one. A change of pace. And just like that, so naturally, we merged together. And danced. Swayed. Embraced. Your hair, your perfume, your scent. I was drunk on it. I’d only just fucking met you and yet the words ‘I love you’ were already fighting a fierce battle with my sanity, trying to trickle from my lips. Your eyes were closed. You were content. Satisfied. On the same level, the same everything, as I was. That song. It’s not even a love song. It’s a great song, one of the best, but it’s not a love song. Maybe about as close as you’ll get for The Cure but still, it’s not. Maybe we should have taken that as a sign. Falling in love with each other whilst dancing to a song about heartbreak. That tells you something doesn’t it. Or maybe not. Does it fucking matter now? Of course not. And it hasn’t for a long, long time.

 

There was nothing in the world

That I ever wanted more

Than to feel you deep in my heart

 

It was good. Really fucking good. It had taken me, what, 28/29 years but I’d finally found you. Finally found the girl. The one that made me complete. Completed the circle. You were cool. Intelligent. Educated. Well-read. Very fucking well-read. We went to gigs, festivals, special film screenings, tried out pretentious-as-fuck new restaurants, tried out greasy-as-fuck cafes, went camping, visited museums, art galleries, went hiking, travelling, driving, walking, dancing; fucking everything. And no matter how exciting, boring or downright shite these things were or would be, they were always enjoyable, always worth doing, with you there. You. With me. Together. You genuinely made the world that much brighter to wake up to. You were worth waking up for. Life was good. The music was brilliant, the laughs were great and the sex was even better. I’d cracked it. I knew I had. Meeting you. Meeting someone like you. Someone like you who actually fucking wanted to be with someone like me. Sometimes it nagged at me. How the fuck could you – I mean look at you – how the fuck could you want to be with me. You must have had suitors at every turn and juncture. That’s what I thought anyway. But in the early stages, the early years, that didn’t matter. You were enough. To know you were with me was enough. It was. Truly. And yet. And fucking yet…

 

If only I’d thought of the right words

I wouldn’t be breaking apart

 

Why? It’s something you asked time and again that night. And believe me, I’ve asked it of myself. Again. And again. Over the years it has gnawed at me. Drilled into my mood. My soul. Why the fuck did I do it? I can tell you why I did it, I’ve always known that. But it’s not a reason. Not an excuse. Not an actual valid reason or excuse for single-handedly burning everything to the fucking ground. But why? Because it was easy, that’s why. Because she’d made it plain she was interested in me. Her. The other. And that was enough. We’d argued a couple of times, me and you, and I thought I could feel it. I could feel my star diminish in your eyes. I thought I could at least. I was no longer the man you so adored back at the start. That nagging feeling returned. Daily life had nudged its unwelcome way into our relationship and telling you about this new band or that new band, or this new film or that new film, had paled into the shadow of insignificance against the dreary shite of bill-paying and flat-cleaning. Music, film, food were all no longer the things that kept us glued together. They were no longer the things that defined our life. Life was our life. Reality. Where once we drifted aimlessly and happily along the clouds of blissful ignorance we were now fighting it out in the swampy marshlands of the humdrum and tedium. And one argument too many (I forget what about, again, does it even fucking matter?) pushed me to make an easily reciprocated move on her, the other, fuelled by drink, at a work night out one time and that was it. It meant nothing. It felt of nothing. She was nothing. To me, to us, to any part of my life. All words and clichés from a tired and haggard cheater’s playbook but they’re all true. She did nothing for me. She was just there. She just wasn’t you in that moment. She was just, well, you called it right…she was just flesh.

 

Remembering you fallen into my arms

Crying for the death of your heart

 

‘Flesh’ that’s what you said. ‘That’s all we fucking are. Flesh. It’s the feelings that so rarely come along with that that separates us from each other. That separates those that you care about in this life and those that you don’t. There are those you love and those you don’t. The ones you don’t are all just flesh. Flesh with varying features. To varying degrees. But still just flesh. Just flesh. No more, no less. And you threw this, all we have together, all we were together, you threw this all away for fucking flesh! Nothing, insignificant, easy available fucking flesh! That’s all she is. She’s nothing to you? Seriously? It meant nothing? Just flesh. We built a fucking life together! A fucking life! Years. Five years. More than that. And you’ve fucked it all away on some meaningless bit of fucking flesh. When things get tough you don’t just turn to the first different person to show you fucking attention, you don’t just jump on the first person to make you feel validated. No, when you’ve built a life together, you fucking well fight to preserve that. You don’t throw it all away on the first bit of banal available fucking bit of flesh that moves into your eye line. You don’t! If someone’s worth having, if something’s worth loving, then it’s worth fighting for!’

Every word. Give or take. I can still remember every single word you said to me that night. Every word correct. Every word needed to be said. You were gone. That night. Left. That was it. Everything we’d built together, gone. Just like that. Like you said. Flesh. You know, what are we, almost thirty years on, and I can’t even remember her name. Flesh. That’s all I can remember. She’s there, forever etched in my memory as ‘flesh’. Nothing more. That’s even with the month long relationship I had with her straight after you. I never wanted that. Of course I fucking didn’t. I felt absolutely nothing for her. I was doing it to prove something I think. To prove what I don’t know. To prove that she was worth throwing our life away for? To validate my mistake? To validate me? Who the fuck knows. I could barely stand the sight of her. Her company, her smile, her flesh. It was dead before it had even begun. It was you I wanted. It was you I needed. It was you I loved and always would. But you were gone. To where I didn’t know. It killed me. But you were right. I had betrayed you. Betrayed us. For nothing. I deserved nothing from you ever again. I had nothing left of you. No letters, no pictures, no anything. Forced away by me. By my actions. By my pathetic, brief lust for someone else’s flesh, for someone else’s adoration. Someone else’s attention. Nothing.

 

Hold for the last time then slip away quietly

Open my eyes

But I never see anything

 

And now here I am. Drunk. Or at least on the way to being drunk. Sitting playing this song on repeat. Endlessly. Pictures Of You. Pictures Of You. The memories flooding back. The regret, the mistakes, the stupidity all still raw. All still real. My own flesh failing. Withered by the years. Withered by the betrayal.

And now here you are. In my hand. Your obituary. All that I have left of you. Taken before your time. The only thing I’ve had of you since that night you left. Even all these years later it still hurts. The memory of you. There was always that hope. A glimmer. It faded significantly over the years but there was still something there. Unextinguished. Barely. But there. The glimmer of hope, one that defied all sense and logic, that we would find our way back to each other once again. All the women I’ve been with over the years, they always, always, cowered in your shadow in my thoughts. As much as I tried to move on, as much as I tried to force through the restraint, the memory of you kept pulling me back. I thought, many times over the years, of tracking you down. Laying my heart out for you. Begging for forgiveness. Begging for your love. But I had no way of finding you. You could have been abroad for all I’d known. Little did I know you were living on the other side of the city all along. In your own bubble. Living your own life. But, truth be told, even if I had known where you were I likely wouldn’t have had the courage or conviction to make the move. I didn’t have the courage to fight for us back then so what in the fucking world would have given me the courage to seek you out then or now. Your obituary says you were happy. A big player in the local music industry. A mother of three. Married for 20-something years. You always wanted kids. The family. The big house in the West End. They could have been mine. They should have been mine. They should have been ours. The whole set up.

You died young. Too young. But you died happy. Or so it seems. And I’m glad. Glad that you didn’t allow me to ruin your life. Glad you didn’t allow the betrayal to stain your life. Glad that you left the memory of me behind. Left me. Alone. Nothing more now than a forgotten memory. Nothing more than flesh.

Swan Song

Two swans.

Gliding.

Graceful, poised, entwined. Their movements choreographed. Telegraphed.

The pond is theirs. Their canvas to paint. Their stage to perform. Their own private world to sculpt and finesse. The water is cold but there is hope. A glimpse, the merest glimmer, of spring has edged its way into the weather in recent days. Defying the cold, signalling an end in sight to the tortuous, prolonged winter. Even the trees surrounding the pond, branches serrated and bare, drip gently with the dew of an earlier frost.

Suddenly both swans burst forward, their wings raised, their feathers flustered, as they dart towards a discarded piece of pastry thrown into the far side of the pond.

‘Don’t do that for god’s sake!?’ Julie turns to her partner Andrew sitting on the opposite end of the wooden bench. ‘Swans are vicious things! They’ll come looking for more now! Just wait and see!’

Andrew looked at her, his half-eaten sausage roll peeking out of the baker’s bag currently hovering mere millimetres from his mouth. He shrugs. Turns away. A familiar spark of fury blazes in Julie’s eyes.

‘And wipe your beard you bloody tink, there’s pastry in it! Bloody disgusting!’ Julie, too, now turns away. She reaches down to her own baker’s bag and pulls out her sandwich, carefully biting into the ham and cheese concoction only inches above the strategically lain napkins placed on her lap.

Andrew discreetly swipes at his beard in an effort to remove the offending segments of his lunch, careful all the while not to let Julie see this and, in turn, giving her the satisfaction that she craves. He sighs and looks at the pair of swans before him. Tussling, bartering over the diminishing piece of pastry thrown seconds earlier. Their grace, their beauty, their kinship, momentarily gone as their individual desires conflict. He flashes a look across to Julie. She stares straight ahead, giving him no quarter. Chewing. Her eyes look glazed, fixed on nothing in particular. He turns back.

An anger invades him. Well, no not anger, he decides, but a confusion certainly. This bench. There was a reason they were sitting on this bench. This particular bench. He’d taken Julie here on one of their first dates. Mind you, to put it like that it sounds planned. But it wasn’t. They were walking together, hand in hand (despite only having known each other for a matter of days), and came upon the bench. They had sat down, his arm around her. And it had felt right. Natural. Like so much did in those early days. There was never any question in his mind that she was the girl, the woman, for him. And he was certain she felt the same. It was easy, it was right, it was true. And they had returned to this place, to this bench, time after time throughout their relationship. Always hand in hand. Always entwined. But now, he thought, to look at them you would think they were strangers. Her at one end of the bench, him at the other. Both squashed against the ornate steel armrests. Now nothing but twelve years of animosity and shit left between them. Unspoken words, threats left hanging.

Andrew takes the final bite of his sausage roll and crumples up the paper bag as he chews. The crumpling process is loud, cutting into the otherwise idyllic scene. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Julie twist her head towards him, disdain no doubt clouding her eyes. She twists back. He feels resentment start to crackle on the tip of his tongue. Words, insults, beginning to form. He looks toward her, ready to verbally strike, when his attention is caught by the swans.

Gliding.

Slowly. Gracefully. Beautifully. Their movements mirrored. Seemingly of one mind. They glide in circles; in small half-circles, in grand sweeping circles. Their soft white plumage immaculate, unsullied, glistening in the mid-afternoon sun. Andrew is transfixed, his mouth hanging open slightly. The majesty of the moment paralysing him. His eyes rise and fall with every swoop and glide, every twist and turn. He feels Julie’s eyes on him but still, he’s unable to wrest his gaze from the glorious creatures before him. In unison the swans seem to turn towards him. Inching forward. They crane their necks. Their orange beaks part. And then it happens. A sound. So gorgeous, so translucent even that it seems unreal. Within the world and, yet, not of the world. The swans’ voices harmonise, rising and falling, rising and falling. Each note, each twist, flooding Andrew’s ears with beauty and warmth. A song, he realises. A beautiful, gorgeous swan song.

‘Do you hear that…?’ he whispers.

‘Hear what?’ asks Julie.

‘The swans…the swans…’

‘Don’t be bloody silly, these are mute swans! They barely make any sound at all!’

He cares not for her dismissive words. Nor for her admonishment. His body exhales, relaxes. All the anger, the resentment, the annoyance spilling out of him. Replaced by comfort. By calm. By acceptance. The swans turn and glide to the far end of the pond. The song, the sound, fades into the ether as they do so. Andrew collects himself. He rubs his eyes slightly. He continues to stare at the swans as they glide alongside each other. Then they part. One suddenly taking flight, fumbling from the water and into the air. The other notices, halting briefly, before continuing its regimented laps of the pond.

Andrew glances up at Julie, all trace of anger or resentment gone. He see’s the image of the girl he once loved in her brief hint of a smile. He see’s the face of the woman forever lost to him in the look of indifference that quickly replaces it.

‘Julie…’ he says, ‘I think we need to talk…’

‘Yeah Andrew,’ she turns to look at him. A sadness in her eyes. ‘I really think we do…’

Valentine’s Day

(Written Feb 2016)

What do you write in a Valentine’s Day card after all these years together? I mean, honestly. What can you write? I’ve personally always been of the opinion that, if there’s love there, you shouldn’t need a cheap Hallmark Holiday card to say it or know it. It’s perhaps the emptiest gesture of all, isn’t it? A long-term couple exchanging a Valentine’s Day card complete with a banal, beige poem or ditty likely written by a low-paid worker who has to churn out dozens of similar messages a day, with only a line or two plucked from your own imagination scrawled below it. And if you don’t quite feel the full weight of regimented, manufactured display of love then here’s a small raggedy teddy bear clutching a love heart, lovingly purchased at the last minute from the local supermarket. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, in fact I know I am, but I just don’t get the whole telling-your-loved-one-you-love-them routine on a particular day of the year just because some card company has decided it should be so. Much like Mother’s Day. Or Father’s Day. I’ll tell my parents I love them or appreciate them when I like, thank you very much. In the same way that I’ll tell the man I love that I love him when I choose to. I don’t need Valentine’s Day to do that. But then, of course I do it. We all do it. Every single one of us in a relationship participates in this hollow charade. Simply because not doing so would hurt your loved one. It would come across as uncaring for the sake of being stubborn. At least you think it would.

In the early days, when we first met, we used to do it differently. We weren’t going to be like all the other couples. You always tell yourself that don’t you. Me and my man, we’re different. That’s what you say at the beginning. We won’t play by the standard romance rules. You’re convinced that no-one has felt love as strong, as blinding as this before. Look at the other couples, look at their expressions. Boredom, frustration, exasperation. That won’t be us. That won’t ever be us baby, you say. Of course it is. It always is. We all settle into the standard routine, all us long-termers. The lavish romantic, love and lust-filled gestures of the early weeks, months or even years slowly erode into a functional, ‘comfortable’ routine. So the horse and carriage rides, or the expensive meals, or nights in five star hotels become a card and a box of chocolates. The same chocolates you eat throughout the year, yes, but which extracts of strawberry wedged in them to give them Valentine’s Day relevance. But anyway, yes, we did it differently. For those first few Valentine’s Days Luke and I would dress up as 1920’s Chicago bootleggers, or gangsters, in homage to that other reason to remember the 14th of February. Al Capone and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Pin stripe suits, hats; the works. We would go to a restaurant, politely eat our meals and, with only a handful of food left, we would descend into a loud, riotous food fight with one another, the more ketchup the better, right there in front of an array of stunned on looking diners. The result would always be chaos, a hideous mess of stains and food strewn around our table, our faces, our clothes. Often we would be chased out by outraged waiters, occasionally we could walk out calmly simply due to their onset of bewildered paralysis. It certainly limited out restaurant options for future date nights anyway. But that was us. We were different. And of course one year, with both of us crazily busy at work, we couldn’t do it. And that was it. Never again. A simple card, chocolates and maybe a movie became the standard template for the night thereafter.

To be fair, for the next few years, we did try our best to be different with the cards aswell. Often we would have a competition to find the worst Valentine’s Day card we could for one another. Sometimes the funniest. Occasionally ones in different languages. The messages we wrote each other would be different. Always laced with in-jokes, private sex jokes, or silly facts about Valentine’s Day we would find on the internet. At first he would always sign off my card with the note ‘P.S. You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright, and that’s alright with me’ as a joke. That line from Thunder Road, the Bruce Springsteen song, OUR song. And then I would sign his with ‘Tramps like us, baby we were born to run’ or some other Springsteen lyric. And then one year, because life is like this of course, we weren’t exactly feeling all loved up towards one another, arguing about something so trivial that I forget now, and the messages disappeared from the cards. Replaced by the ‘To blah blah…Love from blah blah’ standard. And that became the way it was. The way it is. The way it always is for almost every couple on the planet once you ‘settle’. And then one day even the cards stop. It’s nothing malicious, or unkind. Once again, it is just the way things are. The way it is.

So, once again, I’ll ask; just what do you write in a Valentine’s Day card after all these years together? He knows all my quirks, every piece of my humour. An Al Capone reference maybe? A Springsteen line? No, we’ve done that to death. It’s a sad thing to say but after so long together most couples run out of ways to surprise one another. The element of surprise, of ‘new’ becomes lost in familiarity. In fact, no, it doesn’t have to be a sad thing but it just is what it is. It’s a fact. There’s nothing wrong with familiarity though, with comfort, with partnership. So, in all truth, and as corny as this may sound, all you are left with, all I am left with, is the truth. With honesty. Honesty stripped of quirkiness, stripped of anxiety, stripped of all the calculated bullshit. Just love.

With that in mind I gently rip the plastic off of the generic couple of doe-eyed cuddly bears hugging one another card, pick a pen out of my handbag and write carefully;

Luke

My husband, my best friend, my life, my everything.

I still love you, I always have loved you and always will love you.

You loving wife.

I place the pen back in my handbag along with the unused envelope. I pull myself up off the bench and walk across the gravel path before stepping onto the sodden grass. I lean down and delicately wedge the card in between the vase of withered flowers and the marble, placing it alongside a handful of faded cards. I gently kiss my gloved fingertips before pressing them against the top of his gravestone. Light raindrops begin to fall.

‘I love you darling,’ I whisper, ‘I always will.’

I pull myself back up, edging along the grass before stepping back onto the path. I button my coat up, shooting him one last lingering look, before turning and walking away through the February rain.