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I’m here again, at the water’s edge, the pier floating into view through the morning haze. Standing where we stood, all those years ago. Where you proposed, where I said yes and where we danced like idiots till our heads spun.
Tomorrow, everything will change. But today, I’m here for one last goodbye, the waves beating out the tide’s relentless rhythm. Pitching me forward into tomorrow.
We’d known each other for ever. Friends all through school, an item by the time we hit sixteen. Dad didn’t approve. You lived in Camden Town on the council estate that nudged the army barracks; we lived on the edge of Chalk Farm, in a house with a mortgage. These things mattered to my Dad. He kept telling me I could do better, but I knew he was wrong. Because you were kind, gentle and loving, and because you made me laugh until my face hurt.
At seventeen, you bought a motorbike. Dad didn’t approve of that either, which only added to the appeal. We used to bike it down to the coast on Friday nights; buy chips and cheap beer and tear onto the pier, laughter spilling out of us, and you’d take a little transistor radio out of your pocket and you’d say, come on let’s dance, and we’d whirl and spin around pretending to be drunk - although the beer was mostly water - and you’d kiss me, gentle, salty kisses, with a warmth in your eyes that could have melted an iceberg.
And you’d make me promise not to tell anyone that you’d danced on the pier like a girl.
A year passed. School ended. I left for university, you found work in a bar in town. We made promises that you kept and I didn’t. You cried when I told you. Like a fool, I’d hoped you’d forgive me. Sensibly, you didn’t. You broke up with me on the spot. Then we both cried.
Your family moved away and we lost touch. No internet back then. If you wanted to disappear from someone’s life, you just did.
Until out of nowhere, there’s a friend request on Facebook and it’s you. I stare in shock and surprise at your profile picture and time spools back, crushing in a heartbeat the years in between.
We message back and forth. A few days later, we speak on the phone. You sound just the same; the warmth, the humour, all gloriously intact. You’re sorry to hear I’m divorced, but you sound far too cheerful to mean it. You were widowed four years ago and that’s a difficult and sad thing for anyone to go through, so I am genuinely sorry to hear that.
Something reignites. Like a match, flaring. That ancient familiarity. It’s unnerving.
You invite me for coffee. It feels like the start of something but I swallow the hope down. Besides, I’ve let you down before. It mustn’t happen again. But it’s only a coffee - what harm can it do? Two old friends, meeting for coffee. I resolve to keep it light. But coffee becomes lunch and lunch becomes a glass of wine and promises to meet the next day and long, languorous walks and it’s thrilling. And I’m terrified. Because I’ve had relationships since my divorce but they never worked out and I just don’t think I can face any more disappointment. I joke about my poor track record and you ask whether our relationship had been on my list of epic fails and I say no, you’re the one that got away, remember? And that seems to make it all right.
We fill in the missing years. You tell me about your two daughters, about the joy of becoming a grandfather, about your business, the bankruptcy, the low years of depression and too much booze. You’re sad that I gave up my dream of singing in a band for the safe harbour of a teaching career; you listen in sombre silence as I tell you of the miscarriages, the years of IVF before the birth of my beautiful son who came along in time to save me, but not, as it turned out, my marriage. Later, you ask me to sing for you but I can’t. I gave all that up long ago. The confidence of my youth is gone. I can see that makes you sad. But you don’t push.
It’s a few weeks before we talk, finally, about the past. You admit without any shadow of blame it took you ages to get over us, that it was a year before you even looked at anyone else, and when I apologise and tell you how guilty I’ve felt all these years you look surprised and say, I was just talking, don’t worry, we were only kids after all…and you smile and squeeze my hand and I feel a wave of relief, like an outbreath.
Later, we make love and it’s warm and passionate and, crucially, good humoured. You exclaim with delight when you re-discover a mole in the curve of my spine. It’s almost as if you’ve run into an old friend, or happened upon a place you visited long ago. You know my history, and it seems, my geography. We trust each other in that way people do when they’ve bonded in childhood. As if a connection was made before the ink had dried.
I sense you want more, but you know I want to keep it light. You’re patient, which I’m grateful for.
A month on, we drive down to the coast, back to the beach of all those summers ago. It’s raining and windy but we don’t care…we eat chips and drink beer (better quality now) and as the light fades, we run onto the pier and dance like the kids we were once. Then you put your arms around me and I want more than anything for you not to say it. But you do.
And I don’t say it back.
The drive back is excruciating, our messages over the next few days cautious and painfully polite. I wish more than anything I was as brave as you but I’m not. Until, after a week of what feels like forever, I can’t bear it any longer and I call you to say the words out loud. And in that moment, it feels like the only thing I could have said. It feels like the only thing I’d ever said.
We move in together. Tentatively. Just a rehearsal. We’re both older now, we’ve both lived alone for a while. But it works. Even our dogs get on. Not that there aren’t bumps in the road. You’re spontaneous. I’m a planner. You think filling a pan with water and leaving it for two days is a coherent washing-up strategy. I, apparently, time my liveliest conversation to coincide with the sports news. Even I realise how annoying that must be. But we love each other. So we make it work.
A year goes by. I never thought I’d get married again but this feels right. Small ceremony. Our family and friends are thrilled. Dad doesn’t really know what’s going on but he can see I’m happy, so he smiles and laughs. I think, at last, he may approve of you. At the reception I surprise you by singing, ‘Wichitaw Lineman’, the song that was playing when you first told me you loved me. You see? You’ve made me brave again, and the smile on your face says it all.
Twelve amazing years.
And then. And then. Another bend in the road that nobody spotted, least of all me. There are two policemen at the door and that’s never good, is it. I can see their mouths moving but I can’t hear a thing above the sound of my heart hammering and what haunts me is the memory of this neat little policewoman’s cap on the kitchen table as they tell me you have gone. Heart attack. All over in seconds. I threw up right in front of them, apparently.
But suddenly, there’s so much to do. Barely time to feel the raging fury at your sudden and savage exit from all our lives, to cower from the encroaching fog of grief that will engulf and exhaust me in the months and years that follow. That will come later.
In a few years, I will take comfort from what you had always understood. What did you always say? Life is random, the misery as unpredictable and unexpected as the happiness. To live fully, you have to be brave enough to face both.
Now, though, at the water’s edge, just two short weeks on, I am making this one final pilgrimage. You are gone, and yet your presence is so tangible I can practically feel your hand in mine. We will spend this one last day together, you and I, my grief held briefly in suspension.
For tomorrow I will go to your funeral. I will comfort your daughters, hug your brother, cry with your mother, who should never have had to face this. But today is ours.
And as the light fades, I will run onto the pier and take out your photo and hold it close, and we will dance one last time, you and I.
And I will promise to tell no-one that you danced on the pier like a girl.
Elaine Miles writes short stories for the page and for performance. She has performed at the Bath Festival of Literature and is a regular performer at Story Friday, a storytelling event in Bath run by A Word in your Ear and Kilter Theatre. Her stories and monologues are regularly broadcast on BBC Radio Bristol and Bath Radio, and Tempest Productions have just released an audio recording of two of her stories.
Her website address is www.elainemileswrites.com
Twitter handle: @elainemilesk2