“I wish you were dead.”
“Well at least then I’d be rid of you!”
The first thing that struck Peter on his return to London was the weather. It was much better than he remembered it to be. Perhaps the weather was always this good and I was too busy or too depressed to notice. The cool air was invigorating and the sunny autumn afternoons calmed his overstretched nerves and poured a new thirst for life in his veins.
Consequently he spent his first weekend back in London breathing in the sanguine mood of the city, visiting art galleries and museums, walking through parks, lunching in beer gardens and engaging in his favourite pastime: people watching.
His second favourite activity was making lists.
Monday: Early breakfast at hotel.
Get morning paper. Half an hour to return phone calls, answer e-mails and finalise schedule for the rest of the week.
Tuesday: Attend induction meeting for lecturing post at UCL.
Wednesday: Give paper at political theory conference hosted by the college.
Friday: Master-class on Marx. Last details still to be ironed out.
All in all it was going to be a very busy week.
He arranged to meet a former colleague for a coffee at eleven o’clock; and because it was such a beautiful day and the air so refreshing he decided to avoid the confines of public transport and walk to the cafe instead.
The company was pleasant, the conversation engaging and the coffee very poor. Accordingly, the meeting was deemed a success. Coffee became lunch.
After lunch however Peter had the rest of the day to himself. He checked his list. There was nothing particular planned for the afternoon. He decided to take another walk.
This time he directed his step to the underground and navigated his way to Hampstead Heath.
He made his way around the park at brisk pace, digging his heels into the softened earth, as if the weight of his feet against the muddy paths could somehow ground him. Every now and then he stopped to admire the views and breathe in the earthy scent of freshly mowed grass and decaying leaves.
At times an unexplained feeling of exhilaration would grip his breast until he wished for nothing more than to jump up and down like a madman and scream at the top of his lungs. What has come over me? There is something afoot. It must be the air or the sun. Perhaps I am getting too much of both.
Peter did feel as if he had overdosed on liquid sunshine or that a bout of viral happiness had got him unexpectedly. He felt a little lightheaded too. Checked his watch and realised that he had roamed for three full hours. Was at a loss to explain where the time went.
A sudden thirst came over him and he headed towards the gates of the park and then to a nearby old pub. This would be just the thing to end the day on: a cool pint of Guinness under the shade of leafy trees in the garden of one of the oldest pubs in London.
Cynthia woke up very early on Monday morning sweating profusely. She felt disconcerted, shaken even: a nightmare. It was a recurring one.
She was adrift at sea on a small boat. The waters were a dark blue and had the consistency of gelatinised ink. The air was denser still and this made it very difficult to breathe. The light was very poor. This liquid universe appeared to have succumbed to a continuous dusk. There was no land in view and days disintegrated into nights without any change of scenery. After an eternity of nautical travel the boat reached a wall of a very strange constitution. It had no sharp edges and it felt soft and sticky to the touch. Somehow Cynthia knew instantly upon inspecting it that it was not a wall, but rather it was flesh, the innards of a giant fish.
How she could know this was another mystery entirely, but this realisation came with an immediate sense of purpose. She had to cut the fish open in order to escape. As soon as she thought this, a hefty knife materialised in her hands. She dug its jagged edge into the fleshy tissue, digging deeper and deeper, panting and sweating, determined to make her way out of this grotesque organism. At long last, after a super-human effort she broke free. The wounded fish dived deep into the murky waters at some distance from her boat. She watched for a while the patch of sea into which the monster had disappeared and then set sail once again.
At times she thought she could distinguish the contours of an island against the gloomy line of the horizon. These visions kept her hope alive. She thought it was only a matter of time before she would reach civilisation, but then the story repeated itself. Once again she would be cutting flesh. Once again she would break free; once again she would find herself confined to the bowels of a giant fish.
What could all this mean? She got out of bed, threw on an old baggy robe and headed for the kitchen. She lived in a small ground floor flat in North London. It wasn’t much, but it had a beautiful fireplace in the living-room and a perfectly formed (if miniature) garden where she liked to take her morning coffee and did so in all weathers.
She had furnished the rooms lovingly with old, comfortable pieces of furniture. Soft rugs, bought on impulse on holidays abroad, or discovered on some stall in Camden market, showcased the original floors. A few original paintings by little known local artists adorned the walls that had escaped the colonising inroads of her books. Of these she had a considerable and very eclectic collection.
The water boiled. The coffee made. The mug in her firm grip and the packet of cigarettes secure in the pocket of her shaggy robe, Cynthia opened the French doors and stepped out into the garden.
After an unpromising start, the day turned out rather well. By noon, Cynthia finished the final version of her article critiquing the coalition governments’ new education policy, had a meeting with the editor to discuss the next assignment over lunch, spent most of the afternoon researching and drafting the article for the following issue and set up an interview with a top government official for the following morning.
By the end of the day she was exhausted, but had completely forgotten everything about the bizarre dream that had unsettled her sleep during the previous night. She decided to reward herself for the successful completion of a demanding working day by taking a detour on the way home to dine at the Spaniards Inn.
A smile etched in the corner of his mouth as Peter entered the pub. It wasn’t as busy as he had expected, but then it was only a Monday afternoon. He ordered a pint of Guinness and asked for a menu. The long walk had taken its toll and he was famished.
A few minutes later, cold pint in hand, he exited through the back door into the beer garden. It had been years since he had last had a drink here, but the place felt somehow frozen in time.
He navigated his way around a few tables towards his favourite spot. As he got nearer he noticed that it was already occupied. A young woman, not yet in her forties was enjoying the evening air and a glass of Chardonnay.
He stopped in his tracks, standing unnaturally still for a moment, struck. With some determination he continued his way towards the table. As he approached, the young woman looked up from her book and in that instant their eyes met.
At first she looked baffled. It took her another split of a second to come to the same realisation to which the man advancing unwaveringly towards her had come to moments before. She observed him as he drew nearer and at last he stood erect, in his full height, which was considerable, before her.
“Hello, Cynthia,” said Peter now smiling broadly, “Fancy meeting you here! May I join you?”
“For a moment there I thought I was hallucinating,” Cynthia indicated the seat across from her.
“Flesh and bones, grey hair and all,” Peter catalogued the subtle changes that familiar face underwent in the ten years since he had seen it last. She was thinner now, slight shadows framed her almost-oriental eyes. Her hair was tamer than he remembered it, but otherwise she was the same Cynthia. No doubt about that. He would have known that stubborn chin anywhere.
Cynthia was similarly occupied. He had aged well. One could not have guessed him to be in his forties. Faded jeans, retro t-shirt and trendy Converse trainers contributed to this youthful image. His eyes still had that playful hazel glint, and besides a wrinkle or two, his appearance was unaltered.
He blinked. She tried to smile.
“When did you get back?’ she asked.
“I would have called, but…”
She didn’t say anything.
“I do not have a UK number yet. I was going to sort that out at some point this week,” Peter added weakly.
She continued in silence.
“I’m back for good,” he said, paused, then added, “certainly for a while.” When Cynthia did not engage once again, he felt compelled to continue: “I’ve accepted a post at UCL, so…” he shrugged. “How about you? Still a writer of fiction?”
“That was a stupid dream. One of many I cherished back then.” Her tone was bitter. She couldn’t help it. She tried to make light of it: “Full-time journalist now. Still writing fiction: British politics.”
Their food arrived and for a few minutes they ate in silence. It was vaguely surreal and concurrently natural that they would be sitting here, in an old pub in Hampstead Heath, sharing a lot of dinner and a little conversation after a decade apart.
Peter wished they could pick up where they left their friendship ten years before.
Cynthia knew it to be impossible.