Wednesday, March 27

PART V: And That’s That

1. Hungover

‘I ASKED STEPH IF we could leave Oxford so I could get back to meet you and she started crying. We have to stay.’ She couldn’t meet me on Saturday so I caught a bottle of wine and, for the first time in a week, wrote. To write again! She had distracted me from writing – previously the only thing that kept my size nines on the ground. Unusual to return to it after such time. I drank too much and then I finished off my whiskey and when I woke up very early on Sunday to meet her I was still a little drunk. It was Paddy’s Day. People were wearing stupid hats and I ignored my ancestors. The train pounded on the tracks and the station was bustling with people. A family asked me for directions as I waited for her; I wasn’t much use; their androgynous daughter with piercings and eyes like fireworks asked to borrow my lighter and gave me a wonderful smile as thanks.

2. Breakfast

WE SAT IN the window seats for breakfast. The market was going on outside, busily, stalls being minded by sellers who looked like they’d rather be in bed, or at least somewhere warm, where no one could find them. The last day. Table for two; I so seldom sat at a table for two. She was going to order what I was going to order, so I went for something else. The people around us were sleepily staring at their phones. She liked my smoothie and washed down another small pink pill with a glass of iced tap water. The pink was the pink of strawberry ice cream. The food – a spicey egg & chorizo burrito and a black coffee – chased away my hangover and I felt much better. She was her. She was her on a Sunday morning. I don’t see very many people on a Sunday morning. She was spending her last bit of time in this country of sixty-million with me.

3. Magazines

I TOOK HER TO my favourite newsagent, they stocked many magazines I thought she might enjoy. I went there with another girl before and she didn’t give a damn. But Helen gave a damn. Just there, across the road, we had caught the taxi to the hotel where we had had sex. That seemed like so long ago. Usually I was still in bed at this time on a Sunday, sleeping off the entrails of a hangover, but now I was with her as she heavy-handedly leafed through magazine after magazine and we discussed all the different editorials and articles. ‘But if I buy it I won’t read it, I’ll just look at it.’ ‘Yeah, I do that, too, but it didn’t stop me.’ The rain fell and the wind took the rain for a ride. A grey Sunday. Her last day. Sorrow was upon me. I knew that this was it, and I tried to ignore the fact that this was it.

4. Walk

OUR ROUTE TO the Tate – a stop she wanted to make – was windy but I knew the way and it was through the city, so dead at weekends and ghostly. The city at weekends is satsuma peel peeled off a satsuma. I tried to cherish every moment as best I could. I tried not to think about her leaving as best I could. The odd shop opened its doors on a Sunday down Cheapside; shoppers inside; a cool yellow hue on every product; women scouting new clothes; families in the bookshop; most of it, though, was dead and glad for the rest; turning my head this way & that; holding hands down a road that so often forced my hands into separate pockets.
She saw a tree she liked and took a light-reading. I had to encourage her to take the photograph. Light-readings, not photographs. She spent a while lining up the shot, a delicate and complex assessment of the frame; enough time for me to take many photographs of her; stretched over by bows, by tiny buds, by the grey intimidation of St. Paul’s.

5. Tate

WE FOUND THE toilets first, dodging tourists. Some men were joking in the gents’. There were three of them and they went out laughing. When I emerged she was behind me and put her hands around my waist; I jumped, then her smile.
There was something in my bag I could not afford to forget to give her.
We looked around the shop and its long wall of precious books. Sometimes I lost her and would look all around for her and she would only be a few feet away. In her arms was a shifting collection – as one book was found, another was considered then discarded, weighing up the merits, the print, the cost, the weight. She talked me through the wonders of Japanese photographers. No one had talked me through the wonders of Japanese photographers before. There was so much I wanted to buy, but I could not afford any of it. Again, she heavy-handedly leafed through everything. A whippet turning over loose soil for a bone. I liked the way she was with everything.

6. Doughnuts

WE WERE HUNGRY after our walking and there was a stand offering TEN DINKY DOUGHNUTS FOR £2 so we bought some. As they were cooking, Helen asked the man – ‘Can I photograph your cotton candy, please?’ And they said – ‘Yeah, sure!’ And she told me – ‘I love cotton candy’ even though I already knew she loved cotton candy. ‘I ate a whole bag of cotton candy and now I feel sick’ she had told me on Tuesday. She took another light-reading. It amused me just to watch her take light-reading after light-reading. I placed bets with myself whether she would actually take the photograph after. She did.
We walked along and ate the doughnuts. Sugar rustled in the bag. They were warm soft uncooked in the middle, wet batter, hot. They were good. My dad always liked those doughnuts. They weren’t as good as those served in my hometown, though, on the coast.

7. Bridge

IT WAS DIFFICULT to walk because I knew that every step was taking us closer to where we would have to part. Would we see each other again? I had never taken her for granted and now I was trying to enjoy each moment even more. From the bridge the whole city was in grey, interminable grey, long sheets of drizzle falling when it wasn’t raining. We passed a happy family out on a day-trip. Two-thirds down the bridge we paused and looked out over the water, smoking cigarettes. We kissed. The family passed us. And we must move on on onwards to Embankment where she’d go her way and I’d go mine. The cold weather made everything that much worse, the good-by more painful. She was worried about me catching a chest cold, with my throat all exposed. The clothes she wore; I never realised until she undressed herself for me; one piece at a time; endless layers; she left a few for me; the final unwrapping – ‘This bra strap is particularly difficult … well done!’ Big dark eyes. Holding hands. Less than a mile now.

8. Embankment

GARDENS PLANTED BY the road were hibernating. The palms had been uncovered of their polyethelene. So striking to see palms here, beside the Thames, pulled from one place and put in another. They bent and folded in the wind just like every other struggling shrub. Buses, evacuated of tourists and day-trippers, slept in lay-bys as their drivers read the paper or finished off packed lunches, slightly stale sandwiches and home comfort thermos flasks of tea or coffee.
There it was.
There, it peaked out of the ground, a mouth into the earth. People went towards Embankment station and went away from Embankment station. We went toward it. I still had to give her the gift. Last moment. It was a last moment kind of gift. I was very solemn and sad and felt like I did not know what to do. Insufficient preparations had been made.

9. Gone

I PUT THE BOOK in her hand, a book I had inscribed the night before when I was drunk. I wrote the note out twice before I copied it into the book. I gave her it outside of the station, by the map of the Underground, telling her the route and the trains she should take, just to kill time, to prolong having to say good-by.
We went through the gates and my stomach tensed up. Holding hands. Face to face. Her platform that way, mine that way. Noses an inch apart. I said something but I felt my voice crack, so I stopped talking. She seemed sad, too. We kissed. We had a dozen last kisses. Eyes closed. And then she walked off and I watched her walk off. And I watched her walk off. Down the stairs. I watched her walk off.

10. Gone

THE MUSIC IN my ears did its best to distract me. A couple were stood in front of me, laughing and playing with each other and kissing softly. I thought I might cry but tried not to, successfully. The stations blurred me back to Monument. A couple of female tourists asked me the directions to somewhere I had just walked with Helen not three hours ago. I told them it’d be quicker to walk than to take the train. I went back down the streets, the rain falling again and the thought that she had left trying to settle in my head. There was nothing left. A lump of joy – fleeting and brief and brilliant – had been taken away from me. And that’s that.

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