Where I'm Going
“And she might die before you. And she might die before me.”
It has turned out, in the end, that a train journey would suffice. An entire life’s valuable possessions – necessary possessions – fit into one suitcase. And even now he could manage a suitcase by himself.
He felt as though he should shout from the windows that even at his age it was possible to begin anew, but it had been so long since train windows opened that most people on the train wouldn’t be able to remember. Besides, it wasn’t as though he’d been unhappy. It had been a strange life, a selfish life, but a good way to pass the time and he’d learnt to live well with his daydreaming, the gentle yearning. All for the sake of his nod to convention.
But the synonymy of bravery and folly…it must follow that cowardice may sometimes be sensible.
It had never seemed to matter so much at university, even in the early 50s. People were so busy watching Charles, as though his casual conversation was a stage show, that they never seemed to notice him unashamedly reaching for the hand of the man of diminutive stature standing next to him.
Drinking together in the early hours was common; the surface assumption if they left each other’s rooms the next morning was that they’d fallen asleep in armchairs; the highest risk of sitting between Charles’s legs in the punt was Charles’s cigarette absently being ashed on the crown of his head. It was well worth it for his company, for the honour of his regard.
Underneath it all, he was a spoilt little wretch. But that was underneath an affectionate heart, underneath a keen awareness, underneath a strong, graceful form, underneath old-money good looks.
“He makes everywhere brighter,” someone commented to Jonathan. Who couldn’t have agreed more.
It was worth it to be loved with the power with which Charles was capable of loving, which Jonathan knew he didn’t deserve. No one could deserve.
Two men came and sat on the train, at a table so the one with the flowers could put them down, resting next to a black folder. The taller poked him in the arm, whispered something in his ear and kissed his cheek. The smaller turned to smile at him, but caught Jonathan’s eye on the way and his eyes darkened. Murmuring something, he stood, gathering his belongings, and his boyfriend, with a quick, surprised glance at Jonathan, followed him out of the carriage.
Jonathan couldn’t imagine what his face had looked like as he’d watched. He wanted to stop them, wanted to prove to himself that in this day and age those two men would have no reason to make that assumption, but he didn’t have the words.
They lived together for five years in Charles’s house in St John’s Wood. Jonathan dutifully went to work in the City every day. Charles giggled over the articles and cartoons he wrote freelance, his only ambition to become a troublemaker on a larger and larger scale.
Jonathan played the piano in the evenings and begged money off his father for a suit and wore it to cocktail bars with his colleagues, wishing himself home. Charles wore pyjamas to bed and the most beautiful shoes and, not having any family, was under no pressure to marry.
The subtle changes in the landscape when travelling from south to north were less in evidence in the rain. What was pretty looked drab, the industrialization looked romantic.
Jonathan wished it wouldn’t rain. Nervously shuffling his music case in his hands, he prayed that it wouldn’t be raining when he arrived.
He could see, in the patina of the piano, Charles in all his elegance, still besuited from wherever he’d been turning heads, holding a Martini and leaning back against the wall. He looked a far lovelier thing to have on his arm than any woman Jonathan had ever taken out, a man of such dazzling charisma, such unusual intelligence, that anyone should be proud. It wasn’t entirely unheard of, not in Charles’s circle.
Charles had remained quiet with never more than a slightly wistful expression whenever Jonathan mentioned he was going to be back late. Never referred to how he’d taken Jonathan everywhere with him at Cambridge. Never called him pathetic, never called him a coward, never even questioned his regard, although Jonathan felt he deserved all three as that beautiful man of quality slid onto the piano stool next to him and rested his curly head on the shorter man’s shoulder.
“You’re drunk,” Jonathan tutted, winding a curl around his finger.
“Blessed was it that day to be alive, but to be drunk was very heaven,” Charles muttered back at him, turning his head so his face was buried in Jonathan’s shirt.
“If you were cursed to only speak in pretentious bon mots, my love…” Jonathan broke off to turn to Chopin’s Nocturne no. 1. “No one would ever notice.”
The train journey was too slow, making him fidgety. If he’d taken the car, he would have at least have had something with which to occupy himself, although he was no longer as confident driving as he used to be.
But as every station was announced, every station took him closer to his destination, his fingertips tingled with panic. Wishing that he could somehow push the train back. Wondering if he should get off and just take the next one back to London and squeeze his eyes shut to the possibility…
But what if Charles was there, waiting, and Jonathan never arrived?
“It might have been polite of you to let me know,” he said over a Armagnac-stained edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, when Jonathan returned from giving Caroline dinner. For all the world as though he imagined their association followed the usual rules of courtship.
“I’m telling you now,” Jonathan had replied. “I’m telling you that we should stop.”
Charles was smoking and later that, above all, made Jonathan nervous of the passage of time. Nothing made it seem like ancient history, another lifetime, than someone unashamedly smoking in bed.
“In that case, you’re in a very questionable location.” Jonathan looked away, catching the cuff of Charles’s pyjama top and rubbing the material between finger and thumb. He could see Charles’s eyes without looking, studiedly neutral, beautifully dark and deep
“Tomorrow,” he said. “We should stop tomorrow.”
He’d rarely been to the north of England, rarely travelled around Britain at all. He’d wasted the country he lived in while exploring others, an eclectic collection of places to visit. Searching for his lover under the guise of making business trips. Never bothering to explain why his business would take him to Botswana or Siberia, anywhere Charles had ever mentioned. And Jonathan would have sworn he remembered every conversation they’d ever had.
It had been kind of Charles to disappear; kind to Jonathan, not only himself. Caroline never had reason to think she had competition, to whom she had lost years before. Jonathan had always derailed his mind before wondering whether, if he’d known what Charles was planning, if he’d known how long it would be before they would meet again, he might have had second thoughts.
He’d never known if Charles had thought through how he would coincide being settled in Yorkshire with Caroline’s death. All he could do was push every ounce of willpower he still possessed to try and force his old friend to be there in time to receive him in fewer than two hours.
His grip on Charles pulled him onto the chaise-long he’d pushed his lover over the top of, pouncing and pressing their lips together. “Who. Are You. To bring other men here?” he growled, biting the boy’s lower lip, his cheekbone but Charles’s wiry arms overpowered him, shoved him off, tumbling them both to the floor.
“Bloody audacious,” he muttered, Jonathan’s collar-pin flying as Charles ripped it off, the buttons melting under his deft fingers. “My fucking house!” He pulled Jonathan up by the shoulders and slammed him back down against the floor, his too-long fingernails scraping down his upper arms as his teeth clamped onto the familiar neck.
Afterwards, Charles lay on top of him, his breathing shaking slightly. Jonathan, still mostly dressed for dinner with his future in-laws, could see the humour in the situation and thought he might cry. Charles pushed himself up on his forearms and stared down at him with flushed cheeks and brilliant brown eyes.
“Yorkshire’s beautiful this time of year.”
There had still been a decade to wait until 1967. If it had been a month, six months, Jonathan wondered, would it have made a difference? At what point would he have felt that his commitment to Caroline was breakable – and that the expectation to find a wife could be ignored – and spend every day with Charles? He couldn’t bring himself to regret it. He couldn’t believe that it was possible for anyone ever to have such an unimaginably wonderful life.
“Yorkshire – what?” Startled, Jonathan went to push a curl behind Charles’s ear, but withdrew his hand.
“I’ve been left a house. A remarkably unattractive house, but it has a garden and there’s a beach and places to walk.”
“When have you ever wanted places to walk?”
“Never. Not yet.” He pressed his forehead against the smaller man’s collarbone, giving him no choice but to wait and see if that conversation was complete. “I will not congratulate you on your marriage,” Charles continued. “I will not politely greet you at the dinner parties of common acquaintances and I certainly will not share regretful gazes with you over sub-standard port. I will not wait in my house year after year for your occasional phone call granting me, in your condescension, an hour or two here and a night on my birthday when convenient.” The cold fear of Charles taking control of the inevitable froze Jonathan into place.
Charles glanced at him, ran a hand through his own dishevelled hair, and sighed.
“Look, at some point, she’s going to die.”
Jonathan sat on the bench at the end of the road for far, far too long, but he hadn’t aged well and residents casually imagining him to be a bit dotty was all too easy. He couldn’t bear to be the one who was seen first, to lose his advantage.
At 5 past 5, the door opened and without any sense of occasion or drama, as though this was any other day, he stepped out of the door.
Stooped under a bin bag – stooped anyway, Jonathan could see. Thinner, frailer. A good head of silver hair, but his skin had the aged look of having been drained of all moisture. The bin lid shook under his hand, the hand of a man whose only company for most of his life had been hope and whiskey and whose eyes were now rimmed with red. He looked old, sad and tired.
He looked glorious.
He checked his pocket for his wallet, unlatched the garden gate, and looked up.
Thirty years before, they might have run. There was a romance peculiar to two people hobbling towards each other as quickly as they could manage.
Charles caught him somehow, withered arms that had once been able to throw him around the bed straining to hold him up as his cane fell to the floor. Long, arthritic fingers slid into what was left of Jonathan’s hair, his breath struggled in and out of his lungs with emotion that Jonathan’s Charles certainly wasn’t used to expressing sober.
“Don’t rush, no need to rush. I’m here, I’m here now.” Jonathan spoke softly, as Charles’s dry lips pressed to his, rubbed his papery cheek against Jonathan’s unshaven one. “Hello, old friend.”
“I’ve waited so long.” Charles’s voice was hoarse, smoked. “I’ve waited so long for you.”
All the paths where I'm going
look jagged, as if they erupted
from the twisted grass,
spraying sand grains.
So many tiny bits of grit,
the white cliff’s broken-off cells,
its roar reduced to beige
whispers over time.
I see the Offing, where the sea
comes closest to the sky,
partly from the Greek for
I grew my loops
around you, in the middle
of myself, I’d accommodated
you in my own being,
When you shoved me away
did you hear the echoes inside?
The rip of flesh, my wound
Life’s circular, I tell myself, circular
I must choose a path, just walk
forward and I will find
all that you took from me
and what I simply left behind.
“Are you sure I can’t persuade you to stay?” she asked.
Anton regarded her solemnly for a moment, then went back to securing his bags.
“Afraid not,” he said.
He could feel her gaze burning into the back of his head and thought he might just give in and agree to stay if he raised his eyes to meet it once more.
The evening before had been an unusual one, and no mistake. Anton had arrived in the small town around dinner time after a long day’s travel, and had stopped at the first place that looked like it served food. It had proved to be a decent quality saloon, and he had secured a table in the far corner.
The barmaid hadn’t drawn his attention at first; there wasn’t anything striking about her appearance, and she had served him competently but without embellishment. The food and drink he had consumed had been above average in his experience, and he had thought he would find somewhere to stay and move on in the morning as usual, his visit entirely without incident.
But, as the evening wore on, Anton had started to notice an interesting vibe to the place, and found himself watching the clientele more carefully. It was clear that most of the people there (nearly all men) were locals and frequented the bar enough to be familiar with each other and with the serving staff. There were friendly exchanges called out across the room between the customers and the barkeep, and the barmaid kept up a running banter with some of the men as she moved about the space. What made it interesting was that their interactions with her weren’t crude or suggestive, as Anton would normally expect. They treated her with respect and courtesy, and she responded with kindness and genuine affection.
It was obvious that the men really cared for the young lady, and Anton even caught a few throwing him suspicious looks whenever she approached his table. He took a closer look at her and found that her sparkling green eyes and bright, friendly smile lifted her fairly nondescript features into a whole new level of attractiveness. He smiled back and was rewarded with a slight pinkening of her cheeks.
They passed a few remarks back and forth, she establishing that he had only arrived in town that day, and he discovering that she was the barkeep’s daughter and had lived there her entire life. Anton ended up staying much later than he had intended, until only one or two customers remained besides himself, and the barkeep started looking pointedly at the clock mounted on the wall above the bar.
Eventually, the barmaid came back over and asked him if he had anywhere to stay. When he answered in the negative, she straight out invited him up to her room for the night.
Anton glanced nervously over at the barkeep, but she just laughed and tossed her hair.
“I live my own life,” was her response.
Turning up in a new town and finding company for the night with ease was how Anton’s days often ran, so the invitation didn’t surprise him in the least. He knew he was very attractive, and saw no reason not to enjoy the fruits of that. If a woman was willing, who was he to refuse?
Once they were in the girl’s room, away from the bustle of the bar, Anton found himself wondering about her. She wasn’t the usual type of vapid creature that normally threw themselves at him, batting eyelashes and exclaiming over his muscles. He discovered he wanted to know more about her, an unfamiliar desire for a deeper connection washing through him. So, rather than immediately moving to kiss her, he instead seated himself at her dressing table and starting asking her more about her life.
As the hours went by, Anton talked about himself as well, revealing things he wouldn’t have told his closest friend, had he had one. He and the girl eventually moved to the bed, entwining themselves in each other’s arms as they continued to learn as much as they could about one another. It was an experience of an intensity that Anton had never encountered before, a depth of intimacy he had previously thought beyond him.
They never even got round to having sex, just falling asleep together as the first light of dawn touched the sky.
Now, Anton couldn’t help but look up, no matter the consequences. Those green eyes regarded him steadily, not pleading, just expectant.
“I could come back,” he said, hating the banality of the words even as they passed his lips.
She stepped forwards and laid a hand on his arm.
“Don’t say that unless you mean it,” she said simply.
And he realised that he really did mean it. For the first time in his long travels and countless hook-ups, he wanted to come back, to spend more time with this girl, to find out what there might be between them that could give his life meaning.
Anton reached up and pulled the leather thong he wore around his neck up and over his head. He took her hand and pressed the metal object on the thong into it.
“Take this,” he said. “It’s a luck talisman. It was the last thing my father gave to me before he disappeared, so you’ll know I’ll come back for it.”
She searched his face. “Won’t you need it?”
Anton thought about the map that was rolled up in his knapsack, and how he had shown it to her the night before, tracing the route he had taken, and where he was going next. At the very edge, far away from where they both stood now, there was an intricate drawing of a terrifying monster. Underneath were inscribed the words: HERE THERE BE DRAGONS.
He gave her a smile full of confidence and bravado.
“Where I’m going, luck will be the least of my worries.”