’m here, Sarah.
I made it, all the way. Two taxi rides, two shuttle flights, one long-haul, one city train, one national train with three connections and a fifty-minute walk. I’ve been awake for about thirty-eight hours. The last time I slept it was fitful, worrying about not being able to sleep. It feels like there are tiny spiders with scratchy claws wriggling around behind my eyelids. My head is compressed, packed tight; I’m so exhausted I feel nauseous. I haven’t had a proper meal in two days. My veins are filled with caffeine and my throat is raw from smoking too much in a dry environment. I’ve walked down airport concourses, underground steps, pedestrian walkways, through these ramshackle streets that I know you remember. My feet are blistered and I feel sorry for myself.
But I’m here now, at our beach. I travelled halfway around the world. I made that ‘big effort’. (I thought you might appreciate the irony.)
‘Our’ beach. Isn’t it funny how we appropriate a public place, an ancient, indifferent place like this, the silent sand and murmuring sea, simply because it holds some specific memory for us? We first expressed love for one another behind that sand dune so now it’s our sand dune; nobody else’s. It has passed to us by some indeterminate right. Never mind all the other people who smoked a joint there, or made love there, or sat and closed their eyes against the wind’s caress. They play no part in our history. They are erased by our arrogance and innocence; by me, and by you.
I’m writing in a notebook I bought when we landed here, however many hours ago that was. It’s blue, with a picture of that shitty television star on the front. You know the one: the quiz show host with the buckteeth and sleazy sunglasses. We used to watch that programme in the apartment, ironic, amused or drunk. I passed the apartment on my way to the beach. It’s not on the route from the train station; I detoured, I strung it out. (Why am I telling you this? You know the layout of things.) There was a line of washing hung out the front: big jumpers, floral dresses, the clothes of someone younger than you, less affluent. The outside of it, the balcony, had a homely air: potted plants and disembodied bicycle wheels, a dirty dog basket. I didn’t see the new tenant. The area hadn’t changed as much as I presumed it would.
I’m putting this on paper, as opposed to merely running through events in my mind, because writing helps me to structure things properly. Because I may send this to you, my distant valediction. And because I have decided to kill myself.
I have a confession: I borrowed your personal stereo. I must look ridiculous, at my age, those foolish plastic earphones looping around my crown, but I wanted to listen to something while I wrote. That’s my second confession: I’m listening to Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah. I know, I know; I can picture your smile right now, a smile of sadness and vindication. You were right, Sarah, in all of it. I am that self-indulgent caricature I denied having become. My life is a bad TV serial on constant replay in my head, a paperback repository of cliché. I’m an indifferent observer of my own fall, and I hate it and love it at the same time.
Admitting this gives me a sickly power and makes me curse myself with a violence that surprises me.
The volume is turned down low – I wanted to hear the sea also. That roiling, soft-grey sea we remember, rearing horses trampling one another into oblivion, the sibilant call of the deeps and the leaks an accompaniment to the music. I have sand in my hair and spray on my cheeks. The sea can make you feel dirty and clean all at once. It’s a huge, beautiful thing, an exhalation of the moon. The melody of the song floats over the secret pulse of an ocean rhythm and I remember when you first played this for me. I laughed and called you pretentious; you had his novel in your bookcase and the album in vinyl. You got us cold beers from the kitchen and we listened to this song three or four times. It seemed to fit: the sweet aching, the cruelty and yearning for love.
What was that novel called? I could never remember. You had to remind me several times.
I’m counting back to when we knew this place together. Eight years… three months…however many days, I don’t remember exactly. If this were a movie, I would wistfully declare in voiceover, at this point, how life was almost perfect then; how I now realise, looking back, that things could never be the same.
But that’s not how our lives went. Our time here was good, it was exciting and airy; we were delirious on infatuation and poverty, on endless possibility. But going home was better. That formalised and concretised, it gave a shape to our feelings. The house, the dog – no kids, but that was a sensible decision, I think, at our age – the good jobs and beautiful furniture, the invigorating hikes and lazy nights watching old movies… These things sound boring, like the tired excuses of someone saturated with life. But they were all nice. I thought they were nice. I was too self-absorbed to realise that nice was not enough for you.
I found this in an old wallet, stashed at the back of my wardrobe, a few weeks ago, purely by chance. (Now, there’s a sign…) I’m sure you will remember these lines: ‘Dust and sand in whispers dance on the wind like a slim ballerina.’ It’s dated October 23rd, ten years ago. You always admired the haiku as a form – another pretension I teased you about – and wrote that here, on this beach. Here, where I sit now. The same dust and sand, and I swear, Sarah, I hear the same whispers.
This place is empty now and I am alone, alone with the song and the whispers, that sharp grass jerking into the wind. There are no funfairs, no rifle-range or bumper-cars, but it still feels like a seaside town: dirty and lonely, with the smell of nostalgia and the sweet sound of faded laughter. You would laugh if I were to say that in your presence. You’d tell me I was sentimental, I lived in the past. You’d shout to make me understand how the present was rotting like over-ripe fruit in a bowl because I refuse to eat the fruit, I just want to observe it. I want to write about the fruit, paint it, take photographs, discuss it, formulate theories as to why it was putrefying, anything to fill the days until nothing was left but a nauseous, syrupy mess, and I could indulge myself in the one act for which I still feel passion: the embrace of regret. I would regret the disintegration of the fruit.
I miss you. I hate myself and ran from you and miss you.
It’s dark enough now. I’ve removed my shoes and socks, my shirt and jacket. I’m sitting in light cotton trousers, a t-shirt, barefooted. (Yes, the t-shirt also makes me look ridiculous.) I have no cigarettes left. The air is that murky blue of gathering dusk; the sea is slate-grey, flecked off-white on the wave-tops. I’m scared of the cold, the thought of that heavy water sluicing down my throat. My lungs rebelling, rejecting, acid and diaphragmatic heaves, more salt-water pouring down. The immensity of it doesn’t frighten me, just the all-enclosing cold.
Sarah, I’m sorry. You were right to leave me. I am narcissistic and brittle. I’m the malevolent three-year-old despot observing the universe as it revolves around him, the seasons for my changing. I would have broken your heart, sooner or later, or dragged you down into my mire, or made you bend so much to accommodate me that you would no longer have been you, but a parody of yourself, or of me, it doesn’t matter. This is my final stupid, selfish, wicked act. I know it is all of those things.
It’s shushing me now. It’s soothing me, a fortifying lullaby. Hussshhhh…
I have done bad things, but they seem insignificant when I listen to it; all the bullshit and pettiness, all the times I turned traitor and tore the heart from your dreams, don’t seem to matter when I stand on the cusp and give myself up to it. I can’t forgive myself for this, and you shouldn’t forgive me either. But the sea… It is too great, too terrible, too impassive; it is sublime and dangerous, whipping the breath from me. It breathes clemency over my forehead in divine clouds of grey. I close my eyes and the spray kisses my eyelids.
I will go towards it now. I am forgiven.