Friday, 18 November 2011

The Distance Between Us by Chris McDonald


There are three things I remember about the letter you sent me four years ago.

Firstly, you hadn’t written my postcode on the envelope. The letter was meant as a surprise, so you didn’t ask for it. Secondly, you had doodled a makeshift border of stars, hearts and such around the letter’s body. In all the years I’d known you I had never seen you draw anything. Finally, at the top of the letter was a little note – Listening to: Kings of Convenience – garnished with little pencilled sketches of musical notes. I enjoyed that customisation.

We were living in different towns. You, at university not far from our hometown – still in sight of the sea. Me, inland and across the border from our homeland – over two hours away by train. We would visit one another every weekend that my work and your studies would allow.

Back then the ritual was always the same. During my journey’s final stretch the train would pass through a tunnel piercing the hillside, the station just beyond. As the train slowed I’d be stood by the door of the carriage, neck craned to find you stood on the platform. We could always spot each other quickly, and you’d always be waiting outside my door.

I’d step down and quickly pull you toward me. Kissing was consumption. We grasped and pulled at each other as though in hope we’d merge together in plain sight on the cold station platform. If I’d had any fingernails of note I would have tried to collect parts of you beneath them.

Our relationship had begun two days after Christmas. This time I was the one waiting for you on a train station platform. You had just returned from Austria, where you’d been visiting your mother over Christmas. We’d arranged to go for a drink while we were both in our hometown for the holidays. You were wearing a long blue coat with a fleece collar. I carried your bag to the pub, where we sat for hours and reminisced. By now we had known each other for over ten years, but had barely crossed paths during the previous seven.

As we prepared to leave at the end of the night we put our arms around each other’s waists. Our bodies tessellated perfectly. I’d never felt somebody grip into my side like that before. It was as though I was the only person of value left in the world and you were clinging onto me for dear life. You are still the only person to have made me feel that.

A mutual school friend offered us a lift and dropped you off at your grandmother’s house first. In the backseat of the car we tightly gripped our hands together – our thumbs and fingers’ movements threatening to peel back each other’s skin. When the car stopped to drop you off I carried your bag again, this time to the door of the house. We embraced once more and clashed teeth as I kissed you for the first time in eight years.

Our first kiss had been a cocktail of alcohol, hormonal confusion and the frustration of unrequited teenage affections. We were both 15-years-old. If clashing teeth on a freezing December evening had been awkward, then making out while lying in a puddle of your vomit at a house party was probably worse.

I didn’t care. I had wanted you since the day we met. You were my first kiss outright.

Two weeks later I rose up in adolescent anger at a perceived snub and didn’t speak to you for over a year. A truce was only called on the day you left our school. You looked thinner, paler. Before we were estranged I used to write you little notes with song lyrics on and hand them to you in class.

A few months before clashing teeth we got back into regular contact again. It was one of the rare occasions we were in the same town at the same time. You had come to see my band play. It was your birthday. I was wearing a red tie. You were out with your boyfriend, both of you at the tail end of an unhappy relationship. You introduced me to him as your best friend from school.

Over the years we had bumped into each other sporadically and offered hollow promises of keeping in touch. This time we did stay in touch, though it wouldn’t be until December 27th that we saw each other again. In between we exchanged messages. One day in August you contacted me while you were drunk.

You asked me about our past, whether I regretted how things had ended up between us. I had not thought about it at length in some time, and dismissed it to you as understandable teenage confusion. You countered by telling me you had always shared my feelings from the same young age. You told me I had been the yardstick by which all other men in your life had been compared – and fallen short.

I didn’t have the heart at that moment to inform you that I was at my friend’s house, drinking beer and dressing up in ridiculous clothes.

I was due to work on December 28th. This meant taking my two-hour train journey away from you. After we had dropped you off at your grandmother’s I got home and messaged you: WE CAN’T LEAVE THINGS LIKE THIS. I WANT TO SEE YOU TOMORROW.

The next morning you came to my mother’s house after she had left for work. We didn’t have long together. I joined you outside, standing directly behind you as you smoked a cigarette; my arms coating your midriff, my face buried in the blackness of your hair. The song Sunflower by Low could be heard playing in the front room.

That morning you sat curled up on me in an armchair. Your bra was bright pink; the skin where your neck curved into your shoulder everything I’d ever wanted. We didn’t clash teeth once, and not a trace of vomit in sight.

The rituals would remain the same for months. Days would be lost naked and wrapped around each other, trying to avoid burning our skin on the hot water pipes along the walls of your room. We couldn’t fail to be pressed against each other, practically symbiotic.

During the week we only waited to be pushed back together. The distance between us a challenge to be overcome. It was in the perfect pitch black of my room that I told you I loved you for the first time in eight years. You countered, repeating my words back at me. At that moment it was as though the bed enveloped us entirely as we spiralled about each other in the darkness. This time we were both sober, grown up. We lay on clean sheets.

After your exams you joined me over the border; the distance between us made narrow as we could manage. Weekend mornings were spent in your flat, lazing in bed, drinking tea, reading newspapers and listening to the radio. In the evenings we would eat well and drink wine, the cat wedged purring between us. I stopped biting my nails. These are the things I remember best of all.

But sometimes distance has its advantages. We were sharing a space all day, every day. Neither of us was great at communicating unhappiness, or frustration, or anxiety. Silence would permeate days when we were not at our best.

One night accumulative frustrations led me to raise my voice at you for the first and only time. We were out drinking. In my state I couldn’t remember what I was angry about. We stormed away in different directions and I slept alone in my own bed. I awoke to pleading, teary messages asking for my return.

We sat in silence on your bed. I was still feeling righteously angry, but confused and frightened by the fact I couldn’t remember why. You told me you were scared because you knew I was capable of walking away without looking back – my year-long teenage silence still as fresh as a paper cut. I thought I wanted to leave you, but sat thinking about it for twenty minutes instead of talking to you. I burst into tears, by now only angry at myself. My silences were worse than my screams, for both of us.

Over time we had both become unhappy people. We decided to move away to live by the sea again, but somewhere far from our hometown. You went ahead to settle into a new job. I followed two months later. You were already happy and at home. You had a dog that you adored like your own child.

I arrived under a cloud, having learned of my grandmother’s grave illness the day before my departure. But I was happy to see you happy. This place was to be our bright future together, and I wanted to be a part of it. The distance between us only widened.

I felt alone. I felt unwelcome in your new life. I missed my family and friends terribly. The dog didn’t like me much, despite my attempts to bond. Then he fell off a cliff. We were unable to find him anywhere below, and had to assume he had been washed out to sea. You were heartbroken. I had never seen a person more desolate, and nothing I could do or say was of any use.

When the dog was found and rescued from a ledge 60ft down a week later it was as though you had come back to life. His leg was badly broken and had to be amputated, but he recovered fully. I was happy he was alive but increasingly feeling as though I were missing a limb myself.

My mother had moved into my grandmother’s house to nurse her as she died slowly. My family was struggling and I was adrift far away and unable to get back to them. We were sleeping at opposite sides of the bed as though an invisible wall separated us. We slept facing away from one another. The distance between us a challenge I was unable to surmount.

When my grandmother died I was finally able to return home, my father driving for hours to pick me up. I spent the week of the funeral in a trance, barely able to process anything that was happening. I didn’t cry when I had heard of her death, and didn’t cry when I went to see her lifeless body at the chapel of rest. I only cried at the funeral when I saw tears in my father’s eyes. I had never seen him cry before.

That week I spoke to my sister about our problems. I resolved to try harder to make things right between us. I sent you a message: I KNOW I’M NOT ALWAYS THE EASIEST PERSON TO BE AROUND, BUT I JUST WANTED TO SAY THAT I REALLY DO LOVE YOU AND CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU.

You countered: I KNOW. I’LL SEE YOU WHEN YOU GET BACK.

A few weeks prior I had come home from work and gone straight to bed, exhausted and unhappy. You attacked me for my downtrodden state. I was an eyesore on your happy new existence. I apologised. I have always apologised, even if I’ve felt no reason to.

Shortly after my return I discovered you were planning to leave me. That night I spoke to my sister on the phone, crying as I walked alongside heavy traffic. “I tried,” I sobbed. “I tried so fucking hard.”

The next night I came home from work and told you I was moving back to our hometown. You cried, and apologised: “I just don’t love you.”

You had relinquished your grip from my side.

We spent another few weeks living together in the same house, but sleeping apart in separate rooms – our night time divide now real. We only broached the subject of our broken relationship once during that time. I told you I couldn’t have tried any harder to make things between us work, but felt you couldn’t honestly say the same. You told me that was probably true.

We each had a little box of keepsakes, filled with memories and sentimental notes. Shortly before I left I emptied my box of all memories relating to you and dumped them into yours. Your letter was one of them. I also left you a little note with a song lyric written on:

This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation.
It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.
Your love will be safe with me.

The day I left I was in such a hurry to go that I forgot to say goodbye to our cat. As the bus carried me to the train station it sped past you walking your dog.

We haven’t spoken in over two years now. The distance between us now set like quick-drying cement. I’m not angry or upset anymore, nor am I sorry. I hope you are well. I hear you have a baby girl. I’m living by the sea again – far away from our hometown, but also far away from you. I still bite my fingernails. I just wanted you to know that I’m listening to Kings of Convenience and trying to remember what you wrote in your letter to me four years ago.

About the author:

Chris McDonald is a freelance writer and sub-editor from Wales, now living in London. He is most influenced by a poor diet, a lack of sleep, the death of the classic No.10 midfielder and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He no longer owns any pets. http://cjmcdonald.co.uk Chris on Twitter

Photo (c): Min Zaw Mra