Painting the Spare Room
Blue. So many blues. That’s what he remembered. Not the pale, washed watercolour blue of the evening sky that quickly deepened into ultramarine as dusk fell across the moor, nor the cold chilled blue of their breath in the April air as they bathed in the valley stream, washing the mud and sweat off, scrubbing the rich perfume of horse from their bodies. No, it was the deep azure blue of her costume and the silvery cobalt shadows in her hair that remained as burnished prizes in his memory. The dark cherry blue of the bruises on her right thigh, where she had cantered under an unseen oak bough and the cornflower blue of her irises, with their little flecks of steely blue determination. Those, and his recollection of the kingfishers they had seen earlier, flashing and flaunting their blues and purples as they swooped and dipped over the water, a thrilling, ephemeral moment of colour. They had ridden many times across the moors, and deep amongst the valley woods and streams – the viridian and emerald greens, the burnt umbers and siennas have all now faded into distant greys – but so many years later, only the blues, so many blues, still remain.
‘What will it be then – the usual dry white?’ he asked.
She had taken her duffel coat off and was sitting on a bench next to the fire. When he brought the drinks there was no table to put them on so she held them, wine and bitter in each hand, while he took his coat off. As he sat down next to her, he leant across and kissed her on the lips. Not a peck, but not a full snog either. She did not resist, but she did not turn away either. He thought maybe he saw her cheeks flush, or perhaps it was the fire.
‘What was that for?’ she said.
‘Was that a bad thing to do?’
‘Maybe. Just unexpected.’
‘It was your swimming costume – it was so blue.’
‘I don’t know – when we were swimming in the river - it seemed such an achingly wonderful blue.’
‘It’s just M&S. Hardly Versace. You always see me wearing M&S.’
‘Yes, but that’s when we meet after work. You’ve been seeing your clients. They like to see you in something posh but recognisable – but not too expensive – it reassures them you are part of the establishment. A male consultant wears a three-piece suit. A woman wears M&S. It’s like a uniform – a badge of office – I don’t see you in a swimming costume – it was … it was sublime’.
‘A good job you don’t normally see me in a cozzie – that would hardly blend in in Regent’s Street. Anyway, I also wear Primark and Next to work, so you’re not really making a convincing argument – and you’re getting off the point – why did you kiss me, just then – it was unsettling – not something I was expecting.’
‘I’ve kissed you before….’
‘But that was then, and this is now. Then we were students – we did all sorts things – but things change, now we are friends. I don’t think you can ever go backwards, once you are friends.’
‘So, is that how it works? – the clockwork runs down, the library ticket expires? The passion subsides never to be seen again. The universe starts with a big bang and ends with a whimper’.
‘Well you’re the scientist – you know the theories….’.
‘Yes, but that’s it exactly. That’s how science works, not how we work – I don’t see why we should be bound by Newton and Einstein – we can make whatever choices we like. And I chose to kiss you because, when we swam this evening and I saw you in that costume it was like the clock had been wound up again and was ready to run once more.’
‘So, you think we could go back?’
‘No, probably not – but why couldn’t we go forward in a different way – why don’t you move in again?’
‘What? Well, that came out of the blue!’
‘Well, yes it did in a sort of way.’
She was silent.
‘Do you think it would be more sensible to have sex, before moving in?’ she said.
‘Well, we used to have sex – and I seem to recall it was pretty good – at least initially. Surely, we don’t need to have another driving test – I don’t think the license expires for that sort of thing – we just haven’t used it for a while. It’s like riding a bicycle – or roller skating – you don’t forget once you’ve got the hang of it.’
‘You're muddling up your metaphors, as usual. I know we did have sex. But then we stopped. Or rather you stopped. And then when you’re sharing the same flat and you’re not having sex, but then you’re no different from any other couple of people that are friends – so you might as well not be in the same bed. Or even in the same flat. And then once you're only friends, then one friend moves out. Once you stop having sex with someone, they stop being the one special person in your life, they become just like all the tens or hundreds of other people in your life. And then why do you need to be in the same bed or even same flat with them at all once the clock has run down?’
It was his turn to be silent, for a moment.
‘You know it wasn’t really just me that stopped the sex,’ he said.
‘How do you mean – I seem to recall being quite keen at the time. You were too as I recall initially.’
‘Yes, now that you mention it, I remember that. But it wasn’t really the physical stuff – it was when I gave you flowers and you didn’t like the showiness of it, or when I held your hand in the street, or when I made you that running horse necklace. I never quite knew how to show – well, you know…. Then you got your consultant position and then you were a partner and I was still stuck trying to sow some seeds of knowledge in the Peckham’s teenagers– it would be easier to dam the Red Sea and irrigate the Sahara than teach them maths. Now you go to work in Prada, I go in jeans.’
They were both silent now.
‘I saw a pair of kingfishers today when we were swimming,’ he said
‘Yes, I saw them too.’
‘They were nesting upstream, in the riverbank just downstream of the big oak. They caught my eye and made me think. Two little birds – one moment they were perched on a branch, then they were rushing here and there, hurtling along the stream as if their lives depended on it. I wondered what they were thinking – why did they choose that moment to fly off downstream? Why not wait a little longer and go upstream? How could they possibly know what would be best?’
‘I don’t think they do know. They just look for fish. And if they can’t see any, then they fly to another perch and look again. They don’t plan, they just act. Fish, nest, raise their young. They don’t need to know why – they just are – well, what they are – they are just kingfishers – and probably are all the happier for that simple fact. They were blue too. I envied them their total absorption in the moment.’
‘Can I kiss you again?’
The following morning, he was up first, fetching their horses in from the field, pulling their rugs, brushing the mud from their legs and tails. He led the horses up the lane to the campsite and brought a morning feed out of the barn. Hers, a chestnut gelding, its coat still slightly steaming from his vigorous brushing and rubbing down – showed an iridescence of subtle mixes of dark reds, browns and coppers as it glinted in the early morning sun. His, a skewbald Welsh cob, a riot of patches of brown and white, its rough, thick coat.
‘Chalk and cheese,’ he muttered, ‘That’s what we should call them – just like us.’
The horses were actually called Sarah and Fred. Not that they knew or cared; they were simply content to munch on their hay in companiable horsey silence, living in the moment, as they had always done.
She was cooking bacon and eggs as he came up to the tent.
‘So, were we wrong about the friendship theory last night?’ he said.
‘Seems like it.’
‘I think I’ll paint the spare room blue then, when we get back.’
‘Or pink,’ she replied.