We thought we’d do it right. If we’re ending things, let’s do it our way, we said. So, I charged the car and with one small duffel bag between us, we headed for the country.
I was watching the road as we worked our way around. A village shop to the left, a chapel to the right. I was thinking it was the last time I’d be driving us. How she’d be driving along with some other guy the next time she did this.
“Anna,” I said, “I’m glad we’re doing this,” I said.
“Me too,” she said. “It’s so the right thing,” she said.
We played some music. Help Me by Joni Mitchell. I’d started with Robert Johnson but switched when Anna had groaned.
Part of our problem was that Anna worked like crazy and I worked less. I ran a second-hand bookshop off Kingsland Road I opened four days a week. It barely made even and some days I’d sit for hours waiting for customers, reading myself stories and listening to jazz. Anna sold marketing space and was never off her phone. She was pretty much running the company. At thirty-three. It was impressive to watch. You’ve got another email, I’d say, when it was 10 p.m. and we were lying on the sofa and she’d fallen asleep on my chest. Then there were the weeks she’d fly out for business and I’d be home alone.
My dad made whiskey and I suppose you could say he’d passed that predilection down. I suppose you could say I’d work through some bottles while Anna was away. I knew Anna had a problem with it. I knew because she’d told me on several occasions that she had a problem with it. Anyway, after her last trip she sat me down in the kitchen and told me about this guy named Brad. How they’d met on a company meeting, some bar in Madrid. You don’t need the details. They’re boring and trashy. All you need to know is that it happened, and that she told me in the kitchen while we were eating sandwiches. Brad. A Spanish guy named Brad. I’d never heard of it. It was then I told her about Freja. I guess we’d reached that stage. I guess it was good we could talk about it and still be in a car together.
“I wish we had a place out here,” I said.
“Scott,” she said.
“These country roads,” I said. “Where’s the pollution?” I said. “Imagine living in a place with no pollution!”
Then I told her we’d have probably been happy out here. Not many Spanish guys called Brad around here.
I felt stupid for saying it. But sometimes I’m stupid.
“Not many Swedes called Freja,” she said.
We stopped off in the middle of nowhere. We were thirsty and needed a break and this place we chose belonged on one of those coasters little old grandmas like to use. It had tables and benches set towards a stream and by this stream, ducks and moorhens waddled beneath a willow. A two-storey inn stood the other side of the lane, and next to that, sheep and horses grazed behind a fence.
“Not bad,” I said.
“It’s beautiful,” Anna said. “This is exactly what we need,” she said.
The inn had two guestrooms above a small bar; ours looked over the street and behind that, acres of Hampshire country. We’d a wood-panelled ceiling and horse brasses decorating the walls. A couple of chocolate hearts had been left on the pillows.
“I just love it,” Anna said. “We couldn’t have picked a better place,” she said.
We got some drinks from the bar, then we sat ourselves facing that water.
“Look!” I said, pointing to one of the ducks. This duck’s head was underwater while its toes shook towards the sky. “Don’t get that in Dalston,” I said.
We watched as two more ducks joined in. I thought they may be searching for food. Then Anna spotted one of the horses by the fence. She said it wanted to be friends. I didn’t say anything to that. I followed her over and watched her as she stroked its thick, long mane. This horse was brown all over and made a soft, sweet, throaty sound when Anna touched her. I’d never seen a horse up close before and I’m not afraid to say it startled me.
“Hello, Horsey,” Anna said. “Would you like an apple?” she said.
“Maybe she wants some of my beer,” I said. “Would you like that, Horsey?” I said. “Some beer?”
I mentioned I’d heard something about horses bringing luck but then remembered it was rabbits.
“That would be nice,” Anna said. “We could do with some of that.”
She squeezed my hand.
“Let’s go out tonight,” she said. “Like we did when we first got together.”
“Sure, we’ll find a place,” I said.
I was thinking we’d keep it like this—the two of us, a horse, some ducks—but sure, we can go somewhere, I thought.
Towards the end of the village stood a small church and cemetery. Anna found cemeteries peaceful, so we worked our way around. We were the only people there until two greyhounds ran across a headstone, pulling in their owners from the street. Some of the stones dated well over a hundred years. They were tilted and barely readable but seeing something like that, it makes you think.
You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine. And that’s okay.
The farther we walked, the more this place opened up. Then we realised we were back at the car.
That night, we got to know the pubs of Lymington. We were a few drinks down when some heavyset guy decided to join us. He was working through a Guinness and told us he was from Australia even though we hadn’t asked. He kept talking about the area and then not leaving. He was saying he’d teach us how to dance.
“Sure,” Anna said. “You can teach us to dance,” she said.
“Anna,” I said.
A track was playing but the hubbub meant you couldn’t really hear it. Next, this Aussie shouts to the bar. “Turn it up, John!” he said. “Louder, John!” he went.
I looked at Anna. This is why I didn’t want us to go out tonight, I said with my eyes. “This always happens when we go out,” I said with my mouth.
This man told us to put down our drinks. Then he held for Anna’s hand. “May I?” he asked.
May I. I bet that’s something Spanish Brad would have said, I thought.
I didn’t know the music. It sounded stupid.
“First, you move your hips,” this man was saying.
I was holding my beer. I picked up Anna’s wine and hoovered it. Then I ordered another round and watched them from the bar.
He was moving her slowly and respectfully. He was harmless but I kept my eyes fixed. He was telling her to feel the music. He was saying he used to dance but now teaches at a school for kids who can’t get into college.
“You’ve got some moves,” I said. “Look at you,” I said.
“Hey, pal, don’t think you’re getting out of it. Put your drink down, pal,” he said.
I looked around the pub. Don’t you watch, I warned with my eyes.
This man jostled us into some position he probably learned in Sydney.
“Now, take her hand,” he said. “That’s it,” he said.
We began to move. We’d never really danced before, Anna and I. Not like this. I could feel her laughing against my neck. Her shoulders were moving up then down.
This is the way to do things, I was thinking. Everybody should do it like this. I was holding her tight.
It made me think of what we were in those early days when everything we did was wonderful and neither one of us got jealous.
Those days we would kill for each other. Steal for each other. Wake, sleep, and dream for each other.
I tried not to think of the arguments. How Anna wanted a bigger place that I couldn’t afford. How I held her back by wanting things to stay as they were.
We downed our drinks and took a cab. Then we made love and woke with the heads we deserved.
“Let’s stay here for a bit,” Anna said.
“I’ll get us some breakfast,” I could feel her heat and didn’t want to leave.
“Order it,” she said. “It’s our last day,” she said.
“Good point,” I said, but I didn’t have the energy to order anything.
I could see out the window. If I pushed the pillow up, I could see just about anything. So, with Anna keeping me warm I looked out at the country. I thought it seemed a fine place to live if a person ever tired of the city.
“That guy,” I said.
“My God,” Anna said. “We do attract certain types,” she said.
I didn’t say anything. I was looking out the window. A plane was flying way off in the distance and trees were shaking in a soft breeze.
“We didn’t thank him,” she said.
“I don’t know,” she said. I could see her thinking hard. She was frowning and crinkling the tip of her nose. “He taught us to dance,” she said.
“I suppose he did,” I said. Then she rested her head and her heavy earrings on my chest, but I didn’t mind the pain.
We’d lain beneath the covers for a while.
“What will you do next?” she said.
I hadn’t really thought about it. Freja was in Orebro and the bookshop wouldn’t last much longer. I liked the idea of having a flatmate again. Someone I could watch the football with on weeknights, but I also liked my space.
I could see her waiting for me to answer.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll move out here,” I said.
Anna scoffed. She said I’d lose my mind. Said she’d never met anyone more at home in the city.
“I’ll be single for a while,” she said. “I think I need to find myself again. I feel like I haven’t been myself in a long time.”
“Whatever makes you happy,” I said.
“What does that mean?” she said, pulling away.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I said, “Come here,” I said. “I want you to be happy,” I pulled her towards me.
“Maybe we should do this now,” she said. “I think the next few hours are going to be really tough and we know it has to be for good this time.”
It was her unpredictability I would miss the least. Or perhaps her predictability. I wasn’t sure anymore.
We were hours from home and I’d no plans to end the day before it needed to. I wanted to remember it. I wanted to remember it, even when those things I remembered changed and faded and blurred within my mind.
“I’d like us to do one last thing,” I said. “If that’s okay with you,” I said.
I’d pictured us driving to the coast. It was the kind of thing we’d do when we first got together. We’d walk round little seafronts that nobody else went to then, talk about our dreams and how we could never imagine ourselves with anybody else.
We drove towards this small fishing village outside Milford and sat out by the bay. We didn’t fish. Didn’t believe in it. But the pace of things felt so different from the city.
This place we found had a patch of woodland behind it. There were no houses anywhere near and the closest shop was some way back the way we came. It was a special part of the country, and I was glad we’d stuck around.
“What’s that sound?” Anna said.
“Cicadas,” I replied.
I looked at her. Her eyes were smiling the way only eyes can. I put my arm around her thin jumper, which she always wore even in the summer, then we faced the sea.
“Anna,” I said. “Look over there. My God, can you see that?” I said.
It sounds crazy because it was crazy, but tiny fish had started jumping from the water.
Anna pinched my arm. “What are they doing?” she said.
These fish were spinning and flipping way into the air. It made me think of those shows people watch at SeaWorld, with popcorn and beer and dolphins locked in cages.
“This is amazing,” Anna said. “Did you plan this?” she said.
“How the hell could I plan this?” I said. “We’re the only ones here.”
We watched these fish putting on their show. I wondered what they were doing. I thought about it being something to do with the climate.
“I feel like I could live forever and never see anything like this again,” she said. “I feel like a God, Scott,” she said. “I feel like Cain or Abel or one of those people from the Bible.”
I didn’t know the Bible well enough to respond.
I thought of us sitting there by the rocks, our car a short stroll away. I thought about just how small we were compared to the world around us. I felt finer than I had in a long time. I started to think of Help Me and the music we’d listen to on the journey back. About the way we’d barely argued all weekend and how we’d never forget this moment by the sea. Then I thought about how we’d always be there whenever we were needed, how we’d always stay good friends and how we’d both be on the phone to other people by the time the night was over.