Traces

 

While my friend and her family are on holiday I walk their dog (a Working Cocker Spaniel) twice a day through fields surrounding their house, a public footpath or bridleway always close by. (I have read that there are approximately 140,000 miles of these kinds of paths across the country.) It’s a rainy August here, though my friend writes to say temps have reached 45°C in Italy and wildfires blaze. Most days I grab a slicker from one of many on pegs beside the back door and slide my feet into the smallest pair of giant wellies I can find – these people all tower over me. I shuffle along, two pair of socks not enough to keep my feet from skidding front to back, not minding the rain after the first few minutes. Lottie races around in circles, tearing after hares and rabbits, real or imagined. She springs high into the air on all fours, a small silky pronghorn, then gallops up behind me like a horse, hooves thundering. She’s filled with the exuberance of being alive, of moving her body and engaging all her senses at full throttle. We walk until she begins to slow down, my cue to head back to the house where, after gulping water and eating her kibble, she will throw herself down in her bed or onto one of the armchairs where she’s allowed. Had I not had a dog so agreeable and low maintenance myself, I would say Lottie is the best dog ever. For the past two weeks I’ve marveled at how much comfort is to be had from curling up beside her, her head seeking out the curvature of my neck every so often, the gaze of her gentle brown eyes into mine. Beyond taking her out to walk and giving her food and water, she seeks nothing but affection, something I haven’t been called upon to provide regularly for over three years. She reminds me how much I miss loving and being loved.

I hear from Johnny England occasionally, by text or email mostly, and though we plan to ride together again at the end of this month when I leave here, he feels far away from me now in more ways than one. We were quickly growing close as we traveled through the Pyrenees in July, in the way that only prison, war and sudden continuous travel can accomplish between two people. When strangers are thrown together 24/7 they become intimate in a fraction of the time they would do so under ordinary circumstances. In fast motion they share stories, secrets and confidences, disposing of pretense and best-foot-forward mentality, they almost can’t help but care, trust and give.

He’s performing on Friday with some of the musicians I met last month and asks me if I want to come and see them. I say yes immediately, as if I didn’t realize until that moment that I missed him, that I’m anxiously awaiting the day when we’ll pick up riding together. It’s at a place called Iford Hall, he tells me, in a tiny village near Brighton, almost 200 miles from here, which means I’ll need to make arrangements for Lottie to spend the night with a neighbor and book a rental car. I’m eager to hear him play, to see him onstage in a live performance, and without knowing what to expect I envision a large space with tables and chairs, maybe gardens lit with fairy lights and roses in bloom, like a really big country pub. His 16 year old daughter and a friend will be coming also he tells me, and after we’ll go back to Max’s place. They’ll sleep in a small caravan on the property and he and I will sleep in the new tent he just bought. Thursday night I pack a small bag, and because I do miss him, but mostly because I want to feel hopeful again, I dig around in my backpack before my shower to renew what has lately been merely a passing acquaintance with my razor.

It takes me almost five hours to drive there on Friday because I mistakenly assume it will be less stressful if I take the back roads and avoid the highways. I’m anxious about driving on the other side of the road, but what really gets to me as it happens is shifting gears with my left hand. I’m not ambidextrous, and it takes effort and concentration again and again as I drive through small towns, windy roads and a seemingly endless series of roundabouts. I stop only once for gas and a cup of coffee I can’t even drink because my left hand is too busy grinding the gears in and out of place. It’s almost 7:30 when I arrive exhausted and nerve-wracked at Iford Hall. I park in the gravel lot outside the big stone building, step out of the car on wobbly legs, stretch my arms and inhale deeply. A putrid, acrid smell greets me. I walk toward the hall where I can hear music, growing louder and louder as I approach – they must be rehearsing. It’s dark inside so I take a moment and let my eyes adjust. It’s a small room, it turns out. There are no tables with chairs, no bar, no seating area, just a few chairs lined up in a row against the opposite wall, a long table in the back where a couple of men are setting up audio-visual equipment, and the naked floor in front of the stage upon which the band is now playing so loudly that I wonder if I’ll suffer permanent hearing loss if I go in; momentarily I linger in the doorway, considering my options. Then Carlos and Jerry, the bass player and one of the singers, see me and wave, and I notice two young girls sitting in the chairs closest to the stage looking at me. I can hardly back out now, so I walk across the floor to a chair close to the table in the back and sit down. I can’t see John, who’s at the back of the stage, but I can see his drums. I know this song, it’s one he has played for me in his car and sent me a recording of in an MP3 link. I’m amazed how different it sounds live – less smooth but more vibrant – how many more nuances the physical presence of the charismatic female singer lends it.

This is the end of the rehearsal it turns out, and once they finish the song John emerges from the back of the stage. He jumps down, stops to speak to his daughter, then sees me. I stand up as he nears me, and we hug. “You guys sound great,” I say. We chat for a moment (how was the drive? Fine, no problem) then he introduces me to his daughter and her friend, and together we walk outside and around to the back of the parking lot to a low building housing a row of offices slung together. “What’s that smell?” I ask on the way. “It’s revolting, isn’t it?” He says. “They sprayed the fields a few days ago, some kind of cow manure, fertilizer mix. You should have smelled it then. I mean, if you think it’s bad now, you would have been retching, I mean it, you really would!” His Scottish accent dances through my ears.

We enter one of the offices and find food and drink laid out in a small kitchen area off to the side. Gratefully, breakfast hours ago, I eat – salad, hummus, cheese, olives and bread. I take a small bottle of beer too, cold from the fridge. Soon the sound of cars entering the gravel lot becomes more frequent; people have begun arriving for the performance. John excuses himself to get ready, and his daughter and her friend leave with him. I wander outside, walking down the narrow road, not yet ready to go back in the hall where a DJ is playing records.

When I return to the hall intending to sit in one of the chairs along the wall as I’d done before, I can do no more than peek inside without a struggle, there are so many people, and I quickly ascertain it’s standing room only, the front of the stage already filled with people dancing. I know immediately I won’t go inside, and with that knowledge comes a wash of guilt: am I being disloyal? After the show when he asks me what I thought, if it was too loud, if I enjoyed it, will I be able to answer it was amazing, no, immensely, without feeling like a fraud? I’ve driven all this way to see him perform but when it comes down to it – the crush of bodies, hot lights, drunken strangers swaying, pumping, gyrating and bouncing – I just can’t do it.

I retreat to the fenced field right outside the hall and walk to the far corner. From here I can hear the music perfectly well, better even, without the distortion of close quarters, reverberations and microphones; suddenly I feel relieved, secure in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter what I don’t see. I’m here to listen, and I can honestly tell him when it’s over how wonderful they sounded. I lean against the dark wooden rails, invisible. In between songs I hear people hanging around outside yelling and laughing; I can see their shadows, black monsters looming into blur, receding into definition, taller than the trees in the next field over upon which they’re projected by a single green spotlight housed in a towering oak behind me. When the band plays I listen for the drums, for John, and think selfishly how nice it would be if these people were all gone and it was only the music I could hear, and in between sets silence, or maybe crickets or frogs. Then the breeze kicks up and I think I’d settle for the absence of this god-awful smell. The price we pay – those of us who can’t do crowds, groups, parties, events, socializing, without squirming and wrestling with our silent, suffering selves, furtively looking for exits and excuses to leave. The personality traits – shy, introverted, reflective, quiet, non-confrontational – responsible for these feelings are the same ones that make it so incredibly difficult to talk about my grief, though I can write about it, and the same ones exaggerated by my grief. I was these things to begin with, but I am infinitely more them now.

It begins to rain, softly, then hard enough that I trade my dark wet seclusion for shelter under the hall’s awning, where a few smokers linger in groups of two and three. Soon the live music stops and the DJ takes over. I wait for the people to start pouring out. Instead they trickle, and only one member of the band I recognize is among them. I think about going inside and looking for John, telling him how great they sounded, but clusters of people still stick to the doorways and I don’t feel up to scraping through them. Instead I walk out to the parking lot and try to identify which car is John’s. Twenty minutes later I haven’t found it and the rain is pounding down; I duck inside the office where we went earlier. Carlos is there rolling himself a joint, half eaten containers of food still scattered across the table. One bottle of red wine has been opened and half drunk, another full one sits nearby. I’ve just poured myself a glass when John walks in. “I’ve been looking for you,” he says, and I can see he’s all wound up with the tension that comes from being “on.” He picks up the bottle and tips it into an empty juice glass. “Cheers.” We touch glasses and drink. “What did you think?” he asks. “I loved it,” I say. “It was too loud, wasn’t it?” he counters, and before I can tell him that I had a great vantage point outside, before I can explain that crowds and small spaces and the singular sensation of glaring aloneness while enveloped by a hoard of people is simply more than I can manage these days, the door opens and his daughter and her friend walk in. They say it was fantastic, and John and Carlos both say they couldn’t hear themselves play, they had to feel it, and they bemoan the fact that one of the singers missed some cues. John asks Carlos if he saw the half-naked blonde dancing wildly at the front for the entire performance; they both laugh knowingly, in a between-us-guys way, couldn’t miss her. At this I feel a pang, something resembling envy but wiser, and less ambitious. More people come in, the saxophonist and the sound mixer and his wife, and small conversations break out. I ask John’s daughter about her recent trip to Africa, then she and her friend get up to go back to the hall where music is still playing and people continue to dance.

Soon John excuses himself to go talk to someone he’d seen earlier saying he’ll soon be back, but he doesn’t return, and it’s after 1am when I find myself alone in the office cleaning up the food mess. I turn off the lights, lock the door with the key Max left behind, and walk back over to the hall. I find John in the kitchen at the back with the girls and a couple of women who are organizing glassware and cleaning up. He moves back out to the stage where he had placed two video cameras to record the performance and examines them, then goes to talk to Max and the guys who set up the sound system, in the process of breaking down the set. I stand at the bottom of the stage, lurking in the shadows, not knowing where to put myself, if there’s something I could be doing to help, feeling awkward; an outsider and superfluous. After awhile John approaches me and I think good, we’re going to go now, it’s time; but it isn’t and he suggests I go back to Max’s place by myself, gives me directions with instructions to call if I get lost – “I’ll keep my phone on” – saying he’ll be along shortly.

I drive back to Max’s caravan, getting lost briefly but righting myself. I make a cup of tea and wait, thinking that I’ve hardly seen John this evening, that after our initial hug he didn’t touch me at all, even when we were alone – we touched often, small, inconsequential gestures when we were riding – wondering if it means anything, and wishing he seemed more pleased to see me. The sound mixer is outside in a small camper van, his wife taking a shower in Max’s bathroom. She emerges while I’m drinking my tea, wearing a long robe, her thick black hair wound up in a towel around her head. She asks me about my travels with John, previous and upcoming, and says she wishes me well. “You’re gorgeous, you know,” she adds, an afterthought to goodbye. “Just gorgeous.” She smiles at me, embracing me with this secret, then steps down out of the caravan leaving me to wish, firstly, that I could get my hands on whatever it is she’s been smoking, and secondly, that it wasn’t a fifty-ish married woman who thought that but a 59 year old single man. Soon I hear a car and think it must be John, but it’s Max and his girlfriend. Eventually John shows up with the two girls who retreat almost immediately to the small caravan where they’ll be sleeping. Because it’s wet outside and more rain is forecast tonight, we ditch the tent plan. John brings our air mattresses and sleeping bags into Max’s caravan; I set up a space for us on the floor in front of the couch and spread them out. He says he’s going out to the car to see if he can find pillows. I use the bathroom, brush my teeth. Long minutes pass but he doesn’t return. Finally I step out into the night and walk towards his car. I can hear his voice from inside as I get close. He says “hold on”, then opens the door and hands me a rolled up towel. “I couldn’t find a pillow,” he says, “but try this.”

“Are you on the phone?” I ask, unable to hide my incredulity: it’s after 2am. He mumbles, “Yeah, someone called me.” I leave him to it and return to the caravan, wondering who “someone” is and why he wouldn’t say. I expect it’s Linda and I feel my heart constrict at the same moment as I wonder if he knew this would be my reaction. Of course it might be someone else but that thought makes me equally uncomfortable, as it dawns on me that he may have started looking for an alternative travel companion. Maybe he’s engaged in “getting to know you” phone calls with my soon-to-be replacement.

When he comes back into the caravan much later and crawls into his sleeping bag, I roll onto my side facing the couch, the exact opposite of what I want to do, because I’m afraid of what will happen if he sees I’m awake and we start talking. He moves close to me and never mind my hopefulness in the shower last night, what I want more than anything right now is just to push back, to insinuate myself into his body so that he will wrap his arms around me, like I did so many times late at night in the tent last month. Instead I lie still and quiet, and when eventually he whispers, “Are you asleep?” I don’t pretend to be, but when he asks if something is wrong, I tell him I’m just tired. I want to ask who were you talking to, but I don’t want to sound like a jealous lover, nor do I want him to hear the hurt in my voice that I can’t disguise because even if it’s petty I can’t shake the fact that I drove five hours today to hear him play and will drive back early tomorrow morning, a mere four hours from now; that whomever he was talking with on the phone for so long, it was in lieu of talking with me in person.

When my alarm tings I get up quietly and gather up my few belongings. I look down at John’s sleeping face and feel a twinge of some murky, undefinable emotion, hovering between tenderness, desire and fuck-you. I wonder if he would forgive me if he knew this; if he would understand. I slip outside. The grass is wet from the rain and except for a few birds exalting the glory of daybreak it’s completely silent. I start up the car, plug in the sat-nav, and leave.

On the drive back, this time taking the fastest roads I can find, I’m overcome with a plethora of emotions ranging from fear to disappointment, sorrow to indignation, and I begin to cry. I’m struck by what seems like an obvious discrepancy between what I want to feel (aloof) and what I do feel (attached); by what I want John to feel for me (attached) and what he seems to feel (aloof). I realize that I don’t know anymore at what point two people are in a relationship. Can you be in a relationship if you haven’t had sex? If you have had sex, how many times does it take before it counts? Four? A dozen? A hundred? I think back to my previous travel companion whom I had sex with twice a day in the beginning, then less often but still regularly for the next 7-8 months, and with whom, according to him, I was never in a relationship. When is sex just casual, destined to remain so, and when is it the precursor to love, commitment, union?

I think back to late nights in the tent last month, taking comfort in John’s sleeping body next to me, from a wam beating heart in close proximity even if it wasn’t connected to mine in the way I long for. I wonder if “the right man” came along (surely there must be many such possibles out there for all of us, right, given the human population is pushing 8 million worldwide?), would I recognize him? I fantasize that he’d say things like:
— “You wrote a novel and it’s been published? I can’t wait to read it!”
— “Facebook? Nah, that’s just a huge time waster.”
— “I’d be happy to teach you to ride a motorcycle if you’d like.”
— “I wish I’d known Jackson. What can I do to help you learn to live without him?”
— “I’ve spent years engaged in wildlife research all over the world. I could really use someone with your intelligence and passion if you’d be interested in getting involved.”
— “Personally I think a woman looks better with hairy legs and a few extra pounds.”
And of course the clincher: “I’m madly, crazy in love with you.”

I have problems returning the rental car and it’s already 3pm by the time I collect Lottie and take her home. I close the front door and, exhausted, lean back against it, wanting just to sleep for a few hours. But I know if I do I might not wake up in time to take her for her evening walk. I text John, I’m back, etc, telling of my mishap with Enterprise. He writes back thank you for making such an effort to come. He appreciates it, he says. He signs it with an x. I never know if that means hug or kiss. I tell myself kiss. I call him later, before I go to bed, and ask him if he’s got an itinerary yet, any firm plans with regard to riding again, holding my breath while I wait for him to say look, I’m sorry, but I’ve found someone else I’d rather ride with, or I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to stay here and try to make it work with Linda. After all, we agreed before we ever started riding that either of us could bail at any time. But he doesn’t say any of those things; he doesn’t bail. He says merely that it will depend on his daughter’s schedule, and as soon as he knows where he’ll be on the 24th he’ll let me know so I can buy a bus, train or plane ticket to get from here to there.

After we hang up I turn off the light and lay down on top of the bed. I realize that I’m not ready yet to feel hopeful again, that I need to expect less of other people, less of myself. I can’t bear more loss yet, which means as unceasingly, supremely conscious as I am of the brevity of life, any investment I make in anyone has to be painstakingly, arduously slow. This is a sad, forlorn place to be, as far from a mother’s heart as it’s possible to travel. Three years out, and I’m still scrabbling, my fingertips torn, bleeding, barely hanging on. Words to a song by Cowboy Junkies come to me, and into the empty darkness, with no one to hear me except perhaps a six year old working cocker spaniel two floors down, I softly sing: Escape is so simple, in a world where sunsets can be raced. But distance only looses the knife; the pattern of its scar can always be traced.

If you’re looking for a good book to read, I highly recommend This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Did you know there are (a few, Asian) lions in India, and the gibbon is the only ape that sings?

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Lovely Lottie, competing for the title of Best Dog Ever

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