GAIL WOULD NEVER FORGET the moment she first saw Howard. Something about him insisted itself on her consciousness in a way she’d never known. Without needing so much as an introduction she sensed him destined to be a pivotal force in her life. No one had ever had that effect on her before. And she knew no one would ever have it again. The first few weeks at Westbourne University had been a nerve-wracking experience. She’d never been good at making new friends, and loathed studying. Now, in a single glance, she felt she’d been thrown a lifebelt.
An Indian summer had lingered long into October. Stubborn, green leaves clung to trees all over campus, refusing to turn yellow or brown, as though the seasons had revolted. Windows that had remained shut tight since their last coat of paint had to be forced open to gain relief from the antiquated university heating system. Fired up during the first week of October, and not designed to pander to the perversities inherent in the English climate, the ancient boiler took no notice of the stifling heat. Neither did the ancient head caretaker. Both gave Gail and all the other freshers something to grumble quietly among themselves about. Far too new, and far too intimidated by the unfamiliarity of their surroundings to dream of complaining out loud, they sweated through lectures without so much as a whisper of dissent. Eventually, mounting protests from seasoned students coaxed a cringing letter to the bursar’s office out of a group of lecturers. After keeping everyone waiting for an appropriate length of time, the bursar stirred into action. Weeks of Victorian pipes clanking and clanging succeeded one the other, as a gang of recalcitrant plumbers struggled to reassert dominion. Serious study became virtually impossible. It was one of those shared experiences first-time students joke about in the years to follow. One of many events that would bind them together for the rest of their time as undergraduates; some of them well beyond.
He didn’t have to do anything to capture her attention. Walking across the university playing fields one late afternoon, she pulled up short, the sound of nearby cheering having yanked her out of a daydream. A small knot of male students stood watching a game of rugby from the far side of a pitch. She cupped a hand over her eyes against the glare of a late afternoon sun. Her interest was caught by a lone figure at the group’s fringe. From that distance, he appeared as much blue-grey silhouette, as three-dimensional form. While not near enough to convey a sense of real belonging to the other spectators, neither was he far enough away not to be considered a member of their party. Not that he seemed particularly interested in the rugby. Perhaps, that was the difference that grabbed her attention. His hands stuffed in his trouser pockets, his head inclined towards the earth, as one foot slowly traced circles in the grass. Stalled in one of those long seconds that briefly defy the theory of time, she stood transfixed, unable to drag her eyes away. He didn’t fit.
She didn’t mean to stare so long. She wasn’t even sure how long it had been. She hadn’t meant to stare at all. His invisible aura had locked her gaze in his direction.
A haze of azure-tinged cigarette smoke billowed up from the group before wafting his way on a breath of tardy autumn air. Winter was coming. Closing her eyes, she inhaled; the scent of mulching leaves and garden bonfires filling her nostrils. She set off again with a sense of renewal. As she approached the group, finer details began to establish themselves.
He was a lot slimmer in those days, the remnants of a summer tan still discernible on his lean face. Clothes draped the narrow form like flags on a windless day. The logo of some band or other had all but disappeared into the fabric of a shabby, faded T-shirt, while a pair of washed-out jeans showed rips at the knees. A touch on the large side, they slopped over a pair of dog-eared espadrilles on sockless feet, before brushing the earth with their frayed cuffs. His hair was uncut, rather than long, hanging over his face in the oily corkscrews that would always make it look as though he had just been for a swim.
As though sensing her gaze pierce the aura she had devined, he raised his head to look straight through the scrum, right at her. She liked to think of it as the moment they fell in love, despite the fact his eyes didn’t dwell on her for more than a couple of seconds before moving on.
From then on she would spot him from time to time in the way such things become inevitable at schools and universities. Their paths would cross between lectures, at the canteen, or in the Union coffee bar. Occasionally, they would exchange, what appeared to Gail as tentative glances. But they were too far away, and she couldn’t be sure. It was as far as contact went in those first few weeks.
It wasn’t until about a month later she was returning from an errand in town when she literally bumped into him. She thought it a timely coincidence; coming at a moment she was thinking she hadn’t seen him in quite a few days.
If summer had lasted well into autumn, winter came early that year. A grey, November afternoon, with the scent of snow on the air, icy blasts blew piles of dead leaves from here to there. Occasionally spiralling them into the air it dumped them in doorways, round ankles, in gutters, and along roadsides. Where, some would be crushed by the flow of traffic into rotting, fibrous pulp, heavily scented of the earth they were destined to become in the eternal cycle that would one day make them leaves again.
Gail’s English tutor had been raving about D.M Thomas’ The White Hotel and Yerevan, which she’d never heard of. Flipping through a few pages at W. H. Smiths in the town centre, she wasn’t impressed, but bought the book anyway. Carrying it round might win her a few more points in whatever race she was supposed to be competing. Now she was hurrying to get back into the warmth of the Union Building for a cup of coffee. A bright, red wool scarf wrapped round her neck reached right up to her nose. As she arrived at the main door a hand shot out to open it for her. She looked up. It was him; his grey eyes smiling down into hers. She returned his smile, forgetting half of her face was concealed by the scarf and he wouldn’t see it. Realising in the same moment, she offered her thanks before laughing at her muffled voice. Once inside, he helped her unwind the scarf, and she thanked him again. And then again, and again. Too many times, but she could not, for the life of her, think of anything else to say in the excitement of that first contact. Neither did she want it to end there; feeling she had to fill the vacuum with something. She became hot and flustered. For his part, Howard hardly spoke a word, his gentle eyes smiling with amusement. Finally, he asked her to join him for a cup of coffee.
“That’s just what I was about to do,” she said.
“Then I’ll join you instead,” he said. Noting she had The White Hotel sticking from her bag he plucked it out and leafed through its pages. When he said how amazing it was the book shot to the top of her list for best books of all time.
Never again did he tell her as much about himself as on that first occasion. She learned that he and an elder sister had been brought up by their mother in a large, old, Victorian house in the Yorkshire Dales. His parents had divorced whilst he was still a baby, his father returning to his native Canada, where his side of the family owned several large paper mills. Howard couldn’t even remember what he looked like. His sister and he only ever heard from him at Christmas and birthdays, when envelopes bearing Canadian stamps would arrive with cards and cheques.
His mother hardly spoke of her ex-husband, and Howard learned early on in life not to bring the subject up. It was as if he never had a father at all. Except for the fact he’d made sure school fees always arrived on time, that the mortgage was paid, and the family never had to worry about money.
At the same time, it was obvious to Gail he resented his father’s absence from his life. Which parent he blamed most, it was hard to fathom. Though she got the distinct impression he held his mother responsible, she felt uncomfortable about saying so.
He went on to tell her how he had only managed to scrape into university by the skin of his teeth. Had it been left up to him he most likely wouldn’t have bothered. His mother insisted on him studying for a degree, as she claimed to have left Oxford with a first, which he doubted. His true love was his guitar, and he wanted to record in a studio as soon as he could get enough money to hire one for a few days. That wasn’t going to happen stuck in a small room on campus in a seaside resort full of holiday flats and old people’s residential homes. He was trying to pluck up courage to ask his father for money. Only he’d have to do that without his mother knowing.
Gail’s eyes roamed his face. He had the faintly, ruddy complexion and pale blue eyes of a Celt. He spoke softly, in a breathy sort of way. Almost as though someone close by was fast asleep. He smoked continually; one after the other. Puffing each as though it was his last, he snatched a few short, sharp intakes as they reached the filter, before stubbing them out by grinding them into the ashtray till all signs of glow and smoke had disappeared. Then he ground them some more to make sure. He would soon light another. When he wasn’t staring intently at the table top, he smiled a lot; his eyes crinkling and sparkling, spreading joy outwards. His face creased making his young cheeks round and fleshy like a baby’s.
One coffee had led to another, then on to bed. Simple as that. Nothing like it had happened to her before. It seemed the most natural progression of events she’d ever experienced. She’d been looking for him all her life without knowing it till the moment of his arrival. His body fitted hers to become the one as life had intended them to be. Yet, with this realisation came the shocking insight to the pain parting would bring. The prospect of being half of what was finally made whole was already too terrifying. Life without him would be unbearable. They had only met hours beforehand, yet she knew this as much as she had known they would come together once their eyes had traded glances across a playing field.
So it had been; and so did it become. Time and time again during their relationship he strayed. Time and time again she forgave him. Not that the pain lessened any the more he deceived her. If anything his mounting infidelities increased the aches that bored into her heart and soul with their growing frequency. The days of uncertainty gnawing at her stomach and plaguing her mind threatened her sanity. There was no turning back, things had reached the stage where it became impossible to imagine a time he’d not been part of her life. It was as if the past without him had never existed. Life before Howard had dissolved into dream.
The first time he went off with another girl she really believed she would die. She never felt so miserable in all her life. There was no point to living. She couldn’t sleep at night. Her insides became so knotted she forgot about eating. Every waking minute she imagined what Howard might be doing without her. Without him the future became such an impossible notion her mind no longer considered it, dwelling only in the past; their short past. The few months they had spent together. It only made things worse. Nights she would pace up and down her tiny room in the hall of residence, talking aloud to herself; going through the same events over and over in the forlorn hope she might find some divine logic to it that would make her feel better.
For three days and three nights she never left the confines of her room. She attended no lectures; read no books; saw no one. There no longer being point to any of it. In the short time they had known each other Howard had become as much a part of her as her most vital organs. Without him she could not function. In her mind, they had become indivisible. The fact he might see it any other way was completely and utterly beyond her.
When he finally called at her door she fell upon him weeping as she had never wept before. And then they were back together again, just as if nothing had happened. She was too happy at having him back to feel or show any anger. As for Howard, he seemed incapable of showing remorse. Both behaved as though he had never strayed. Neither of them mentioned that first time ever again. They simply and conveniently forgot about it.
Too many times to forget had passed since then, each time longer; each interval between, shorter. And still she couldn’t get used to them; each one more painful, and as unexpected, as the last. Each feeding on her; driving her to the brink of madness. They impelled her to phone his number late at night, just to hear his voice; to know he was there; that he existed. But she would replace the receiver as soon as someone picked up the other end. In the event, she was too afraid to listen. The thought she might hear a strange female voice asking who it was over and over again was unbearable. The vicarious thrill the power of anonymity gave was all too swiftly supplanted by paranoia, depression and self-disgust.
There were the trips to places she thought she might see him. The endless waiting; always punctuated by too many cigarettes. The poisonous taste of nicotine they left in her mouth; her empty stomach feeling even emptier. The disappointment; the disbelief when he failed to show, the endless pain it caused.
And then, each time he finally did return, the feeling that yet another piece of her had gone; another piece of him. Soon there would be nothing left.
He was gradually withdrawing into himself; becoming perceptibly more distant. Not just more distant from her; more distant from everybody; more distant from everything. He became distracted far more easily. His powers of concentration waned. He drank more, smoked more, and experimented with more drugs. And yet, she still loved him. No more, for that would’ve been impossible, but no less than she had done from that very first day; that Indian summer. The day of youth so far behind them. So out of reach. Though she realised things were never going to go as she had first believed they would, not for one moment did it occur they might get even worse.
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming
Chapter four to follow soon.