Painting the Spare Room (revised)
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, the silvery cobalt shadows in her hair that, the dark cherry blue of the bruises on her right thigh, where she had cantered under an unseen oak bough earlier and the cornflower blue of her irises, with their little flecks of steely blue determination that remained as burnished prizes in his memory. 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 had all now faded into distant greys – but so many years later, only the blues, so many blues remain.
Each day in their long weekend had the same simple rhythm. Early morning, fetch the horses in from the field, groom, tack, then ride into the afternoon, until their limbs were numb. Then horses brushed, fed and watered, rugged and turned out in their field, a swim if they had the energy, then the pub. Repeat three times then back to the complexity of life in the city.
‘What will it be then – a 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 took them, wine and bitter in each hand, while he took his coat off. As he sat down next to her, and she still had her hands full of glasses, he lent across and kissed her. She did not pull away, but she did not respond either. He thought maybe he saw her cheeks flush, or perhaps it was just the fire.
‘What was that for?’ she said.
‘Was that a bad thing to do?’
‘Just unexpected. Maybe even surprising.’
‘Maybe I should surprise you more.’
‘Maybe you should.’
He felt he had said something, or done something important, but he could not decide what. The kiss was something, but there was something more. He thought he could taste candy floss in the brief kiss, sweet, but melted and gone as soon as it reached your togue.
He realised she was still looking at him, waiting.
‘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, wonderfully blue.’
‘Well, it’s a good job I don’t wear my cossie back in London, then. Might cause a bit of problem wearing in Camden High Street if it has that effect.’
He did not want to smile at the image, but he could not resis itt. He needed to be serious though, to somehow convince her, things had changed, and the past did not have to define their future. Maybe that was the something.
‘Yes,’ he said, and then was silent, still unsure what to say. In truth, he was a bit surprised he had kissed her too. The idea been in his mind for a while, even before they had started their long weekend. But then a kiss was easy message, there and gone in th the moment. Putting something into words, that needed a lot more effort.
He thought back to the afternoon, when they had walked the horses in single file along the bridlepaths that wound through the woods at the river’s edge. She was leading, as she always did. He followed, admiring the curve of her shoulder, watching the gentle sway of her body, as it moved in harmony with the horse’s gait. He had realised then he still wanted her, just as much as he had the first time they had come to ride those paths. They were both new to university then – she a medic, he hedging his bets with a liberal arts and science course. They had come in a group of a dozen largely insolvent students, loftily calling themselves the University Riding Club’s Official Easter tour, underwriting the cost from the University’s Social Club’s coffers with some traditionally dubious student accounting. Even then, they had to borrow tents from the University Officer Training Corps and had wangled a special rate from the local farm cum riding stables as one of the group was conveniently going out with the farmer’s daughter. The weekend had been quite a success until the moment he had thought it would be fun to see what would happen if he encouraged one of the farmer’s geese into the girls’ tent. There was a gratifying burst of frantic honking, hissing and barking from the goose. But then he realised he had not fully thought the plan through. An equally load squeal came from the tent:
'Where did that bloody goose come from? That bastard has shit all over my sleeping bag!'
Well, that was a bit unfortunate, he thought to himself, a bit unlucky really – it should have been okay - a one in six chance with six girls in the tent – hard luck it happened to be her sleeping bag. He kept a low profile for a day or so. It was only on the last afternoon that he managed to ask her if she would like to go for a drink when they got back to college. He was pleasantly surprised when she said yes. But then, he told himself, he had hardly expected the goose to grass him up. Still smiling, he was abruptly brought back to the present, as he realised she was waiting for an answer.
‘It wasn’t that funny – the Camden bit. And I’m not sure the kiss was funny either…’, she had said.
‘What – sorry, say that again?’
‘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, and I don’t expect the unexpected from friends.’
‘So, is that how it works?’, he said. ‘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’.
‘No, of course not. But you can’t say we are machines….’
‘Yes, exactly’, he said, ‘We aren’t machines’. Somehow his argument was turning inside out, but he did not mind that he was not making logical sense. The words he wanted were finally forming in his mind. ‘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 again.’
Needing a moment to think, she said, ‘Do you want to see what’s happened to the food? And maybe another round?’ and rummaged in her duffel coat for her purse.
While he was fetching the drinks, she let her thoughts drift back to the end of their last year at University. That was three years after their first trip to the moors. They had been sharing a flat for eighteen months by then – well more of a large bedsit really. Her course over, she had arranged a six month WHO placement in Tanzania, and he was going on do a teaching certificate, so they planned a going away celebration. They had fallen into a comfortable, companiable partnership in those eighteen months. She had enjoyed the convenience of those eighteen months, but now it was time to move on. It seemed a tidy endpoint to her. After here time in Africa, she expected that if they did meet in future, then they would simply meet as friends. No need for a messy break up, just let the embers gradually burn out.
The evening had started well with a carefully selected restaurant and an expensive meal, at least relative to their student budget. Then perhaps too much wine, and then certainly too much honesty. If only he had not given her that present.
‘I’d really like you to take this on your trip’, he said, as he gave her a small, neatly wrapped package.
‘Thank you – how cute – such tiny elephants’, she said, as she slowly removed the wrappings to reveal a small red, leather box. A small jewellery box. Maybe a watch, she thought. Or maybe some jewellery.
‘Oh, I really don’t think….’, she said, wondering how to finish the sentence but then he took the box out of her hands and opened it to reveal a small brass compass.
‘I think you’ll find this useful at some point’, he said. ‘Just keep going south – if you start seeing penguins then you’ve gone too far.’
She felt lightheaded for a moment, pleased that he had chosen something useful, something that was not obviously personal, and certainly nothing romantic.
‘That is such a nice thing, so thoughtful, and, well, so really nice’, she said. She put her arms around him and gave him a squeeze, ready to accept a kiss. But as she closed her eyes and waited, he pulled away.
‘I can’t believe it’, he said. ‘Look, the wretched thing is broken! North is that way, but the needle is pointing the other way’.
‘I don’t understand’, she said.
‘They’ve screwed it up - painted the wrong end of the needle red’, he replied. ‘I wanted you so much to carry it, and maybe think of me - perhaps it would even guide you back someday. But it’s no use now.’
She said something like it didn’t matter really – it was just kind that he had thought of a present at all, he did not need to give her a present at all, really.
He looked at her for a moment and then slowly reached into his pocket, saying
‘Well, actually, that was not my first choice – I did have an alternative and, er….’
At this point he gave her a very similar sized box, again wrapped in elephant paper.
‘Wow, that was good contingency planning then’, she said, trying to lighten the tone and knowing that he would be pleased that she recognised the effort he had put into making sure he gave her a memento.
‘What is it?”
Maybe another survival aid, she thought, or maybe a Swiss Army knife perhaps, or a portable mosquito net, that would be useful, or ….. She stopped abruptly when she saw it was a ring.
‘Oh. I’m sorry…,’ was all she could say.
He brought the second round of drinks just as their food arrived. They ate in silence for a while.
‘So, you think we could go back?”, she said.
‘No, but I don’t actually want to go back, even if we could. Would you? If I’m honest, it was all a bit puzzling then. I was just living in the moment. I don’t think, looking back I ever quite knew what was happening, I mean, how serious was it? What did you want? Indeed, what did I want? You were right when you said that was then, and this is now. Why can’t just start from here, in this moment, and simply go forward from now?’
He was right, she thought. They had been comfortable together. But had it just been simply a moment in time?
‘But I don’t want to stop being friends. I want to be friends and something more than that. Look, why don’t you move in again?”
‘What? Well, that came out of the blue!’ Then, she was silent, for a moment, before she said:
‘Why did we stop having sex, do you think?’
Wow, that came out of the blue, too, he thought.
‘Well, you didn’t have that blue swimsuit then’, he said. He realised it was him now that was skirting the issue, unsure what to say. But she said it for him:
‘Actually, it was more you than me that stopped it. I think it just gradually faded away. And then when you’re sharing the same flat and you’re not having sex, then you’re no different from any other couple of people that are friends. At that point, you might as well not be in the same bed. Or even in the same flat. And then once you are 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 the hundreds of other people in your life.’
‘You know it wasn’t really just me that stopped the sex. Not really,’ she said.
‘How do you mean – I seem to recall being quite keen at the time. You were too as I recall initially.’
‘Yes, I do remember that. But it wasn’t really the physical stuff that I started worrying about – it was when you gave me flowers and I didn’t like the showiness of it, or when we held s in the street, or when you gave me that running horse necklace. I don’t think I wanted that sort of relationship then.’
‘I never quite knew how to show – well, you know…. Then you got registrar and I was still stuck trying to sow some seeds of knowledge in the loutish teens in Peckham – it would have been 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, eventually.
‘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 life 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 the 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 a kingfisher – and probably are all the happier for that simple fact. They were blue too. I envied them their total absorption in the moment.’
They were both silent for a moment. He, in his thoughts thinking: We really could do it this time – I’m sure I can turn up the ‘surprise’ volume – but what sort of surprise? Maybe breakfast in bed? Or maybe I should chuck it in at Peckham, that would be pretty surprising. She was thinking: Maybe the clock has almost run down, I’m 35 now, more than half of my eggs have gone, and that clock spring can’t be wound up again’.
‘Can I kiss you again?’
And so he did.
‘You know, I’ve never told you, but that was me with the goose in the tent.’
‘I know’, she said.
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 – it showed an iridescence of subtle mixes of dark reds, browns and coppers and 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.’
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 maybe pink’, she replied.