<Please take the time to read this, and let me know what you think! I would really, really appreciate the feedback.>
It was a baking hot day. Too hot for my liking; the sticky heat uncomfortable. Still, it was good to finally be rid of a four-month winter; good to be able to sit in the park and not have to wrap up like an Eskimo and not be stuck indoors twenty-three hours of the day. Good to see some life about this tiny mountain town.
A town that, like many towns in this country, made no sense architecturally. No uniformity, both hideous and mesmerising in equal measure in terms of colour. Just walking up the high street, the only main road through town, was a visual assault on the senses. Three-storey townhouses with their undersized windows, old wooden bungalows with their painted façades, grand, high-ceilinged colossi that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in the market squares of Copenhagen or Amsterdam. There was a market square here too, one that used to resemble a small park with a few magnificent oaks; one currently being ripped up and soon to resemble a concrete monstrosity devoid of any character.
As I was wont to do on days such as this, dressed lazily in flip-flops, shorts, t-shirt and open shirt, I ambled up the high street with an open book in my hands. The latest Jack Reacher novel. Gripping stuff really; I’d read over a-hundred-and-fifty pages in just a couple of hours. I occasionally glanced up, just to make sure I wasn’t blindly walking out into the middle of an intersecting side-street, but generally I dodged oncoming pedestrians without as much as glancing up from the page. No doubt I was getting funny looks from the locals. I always did; for being a foreigner, for my dress sense, for reading. Just for existing, really. Not that I cared.
The auto-pilot in me made a left at the crest of the hill onto the market square, headed for my usual café. Coffee was needed, as it was every day before work. Routines were important to my sanity. Nose still in the book, I walked through the sliding entrance doors of the retail passage that housed this particular establishment, headed straight past the counter to my usual table. The one with the perfect view of the café entrance and out the window onto the square. It was all about angles.
And it was occupied.
It’s hard to imagine a more tranquil place than where I am sitting right now. Sitting on the stone portion of a run-down jetty by a lake somewhere in the centre of Poland. I couldn’t point it out on a map if I tried. It’s relatively early in the morning on May 2, a day sandwiched between two public holidays (and ‘Flag Day’), so a lot of people have a long weekend free. I have the whole week, and I need it. People are only just starting to stir, but I’ve been up for a few hours now, having done the dishes from the night before, tidied up a little, made tea and come to sit by the lake with a book.
It’s a beautiful little lake. Nothing too large, perhaps a ten-kilometre circumference, which makes for a cosy atmosphere. This is not the kind of lake that tourists come to in their droves, to occupy hotels and guest rooms at the water’s edge; instead it’s surrounded by what I assume are holiday homes. I can easily imagine some of them to be permanent residences, though. They’re quaint buildings, a mixture of pastel colours and wooden veneers peeking out from among the trees, tall ashes and birches that are regaining their lustre after a long winter. They each have their own jetty; on one there’s a couple of elderly men fishing, on another, more distant jetty two people look as if they are preparing to take a boat out. Above me the sky is overcast, but it’s not too cold. There’s a breeze that keeps the surface of the lake shimmering.
The tranquillity of this place does not come from what I see all around me, though. It comes from what I hear. I close my eyes and in the darkness there, my hearing seems to be heightened.
There is the collective sound of several species of bird; occasional twittering, constant, melodic song, that kind of scratching sound that some birds make, and the sinister cawing of a raven. There’s the sound of dogs barking from all around the lake, sounding something like a canine version of communication in Morse code. If I listen carefully I can hear the croaking of a frog among the rustling reeds off to my left, and the small ‘pop’ of a fish breaking the surface of the water. There’s somebody working on the other side of the lake, his power tools an unnatural disturbance to the natural order of things. There’s a small bird, a sparrow perhaps, crashing through the reeds looking for food. I hear the beating of wings as a pair of what look like gulls or terns rush by, perhaps ten feet above my head. There’s the sound of a pair of ducks launching themselves forward and bathing in the water. The breeze carries sound from the far sides of the lake, too; the elderly gentlemen have been laughing and joking together for a while now, and I can hear every word as if they were standing twenty metres away. There’s a tractor doing the rounds somewhere, and the hum of a generator – that one’s annoying.
I can also hear the sound of my stomach rumbling, and I feel a little cold now, which means it’s time to leave this haven and head inside to see if the others have awakened.
I’m heading back inside feeling incredibly at peace. It really is beautiful here.
He is torn.
One the one hand, he enjoys the life of freedom he lives, alone in a small town a thousand miles away from home, without any of the pressure of living up to people. Being able to spend his days sitting in the park, reading and being bathed in sunlight, or trudging through the snow to the forest under the cold blue skies of winter. Of being able to sit in a café and spill his thoughts onto a blank page each day before work. Work that involves doing something he considers meaningful, helpful to society and the future. Educating children the best he can so that they may have the tools to make something of themselves in the years to come. The freedom to truly be himself, after all his demons have been purged. The freedom to get out into the world and learn about all the wonderful things out there, languages and cuisine and history and customs.
On the other hand, seeing all those mothers and fathers with their children in the park ignites something deep within him, and recalls memories of a not-too-distant past with an ex and her daughter, playing at happy families. He wants that too, for real. Teaching his own little one to ride a bike, telling her to kick her legs to make a swing go higher, or showing a son how to kick a football properly. Age is catching up with him, and it’s like an alarm clock constantly going off in his head and his heart. A desire to settle down and make something of himself, and share it all with a special someone. To come home to her after work, to help her with dinner, to potter around the house doing odd jobs and chores. To admire his handiwork afterwards, proud at having turned a house into a home for himself and his family.
He doesn’t know what to do going forward. He has the option of staying put, trying to study in a local university to finally get the piece of paper he needs for employers to stop judging him. But that means two more years at least in this tiny town, where nothing ever changes. Or, he could up sticks and leave, heading off for the adventure of somewhere new, delaying all these grand and important decisions for another twelve months. But sooner or later, he has to face the music and work out what the hell he really wants in life.
For the first time ever, he’s genuinely afraid of the future.
“It’s you I want.”
Those were the words I’d never expected to hear. Pushing me through the doorway as soon as I opened it, she kissed me, long and lustful and full of that raw kind of passion that comes after months and months of tiptoeing around each other wondering whether or not the feeling was mutual.
The moment took over, and in seconds her hands were ripping my shirt open and my hands were loosening the catch on her pencil skirt. A few seconds more and there was a pool of clothes at the foot of my bed, and the air thick with animalistic sex.
It was exactly what I’d been dreaming of, and she said as much the same. We stayed in that room for a day or more, emerging only to eat and use the bathroom. We were wrapped up in each other, and couldn’t have been disturbed even if a small army stormed the building.
Things changed after that.
Things got serious. The tension fell away, and we became a couple. We spent our weekdays working while distracted and speaking to each other on the phone each evening, digging into each other’s lives and loves and losses. Getting to know every nook and cranny of our minds, our personalities, our very being.
We spent every waking minute of our weekends together. Walking lazily through town hand-in-hand, looking in the windows of home furnishing stores or boutiques full of the kinds of dresses I loved to see her in. Sitting on the banks of the river as the sun set and silhouettes danced before us, taking turns to describe hopes and dreams. Not caring about the passage of time, or whatever ills surrounded us.
Eventually we moved in together, things serious enough to start planning to fulfil those hopes and dreams. Being all excited about decorating our apartment, taking holidays in sun-kissed places and crumbling capitals. Enjoying train rides to nowhere in particular, watching the countryside amble on by. All the while being hopelessly in love with one another.
We had eyes for nothing but each other, and it was a sense of bliss I hadn’t ever experienced nor ever expected to. To me, life had become the fairytale I’d always dreamed of.
Of course, as the weeks and months and years went by, we had our disagreements and our fights, but they were never really serious. Just petty things, but as life is wont to do, those petty things soon began to add up. Small fights became bigger fights, and bigger fights became terminal issues that I never could work out, not even with the help of others. Something was pulling us apart, and there was no way I could control or influence it.
I left, just over five years to the day of her knocking on my door.
I came home from work early one day, to change into a suit before an important meeting, one that could have solved a lot of the financial problems we’d had. I found her in the bedroom, entwined in another man as we’d once been. She had that same look in her eyes, that carnal desire, and that was what hurt me the most. She made no apologies for her actions, simply saying that it had been coming for a while. I disagreed, would never have done that to her, but in some way it was a good thing.
It brought me closure. Instead of fighting against the tide to save things, borne of nostalgia and sentimentality, I could now move on. I did just that, moving into a new apartment. A clean break.
Rather ironically, I ended up closing that deal. Made a lot of money from it. Some days later she turned up at my door. To this day I still have no idea how she found out the address. It wasn’t so unexpected, though. I opened the door, and wearily asked her what she wanted.
“It’s you I want.”
“Not this time, Louise. Not this time.”
I closed the door on her, leaving her there to ponder her next move. She rang the doorbell again, but I ignored it. She eventually went away.
A clean break had to be just that.
He crouches, watching me intently. His eyes are big, green and full of curiosity, and he has a somewhat rugged look about him. Like he spends all of his time outdoors, stalking through the uncut grass and dusty earth of the farmyard. Hunting the chickens that run away at the first sign of movement and the birds that fly down just to tease him and fly off again when he attempts to pounce upon them. That doesn’t usually stop him trying, though, over and over and over. The little fellow has an almost-limitless supply of energy and enthusiasm for this kind of thing.
I smile at him. He doesn’t smile back.
I crouch down myself, and make a coaxing sound. He doesn’t move. I stretch an arm out and beckon him. He still doesn’t move. I pick up a small twig and throw it towards the kitten. He lazily watches it glance past his head.
I head inside, and rummage through a drawer in the kitchen for some string. Back outside, I find a stick and tie the string around it, tying a feather around the other end to act as a rudimentary ‘fishing rod’.
I ‘cast’ the rod, and this time the kitten bites, wiggling his behind as he prepares to pounce. I pull it away at the moment he does, and he looks at me indignantly. His mouth opens and he readies to pounce again. Again I flick the feather towards him, and this time he’s ready. He leaps at it almost as soon as it lands on the ground just before him, tearing and biting at it.
Soon it’s a tattered mess, and he gets bored of the ‘kill’. I beckon him again, and this time he comes padding towards me, proud of himself. I scoop him up in my arms and he just lies there as I tickle his chin. He purrs loudly, content. He doesn’t struggle as I carry him inside, placing him on the kitchen floor as I seek out food from the cupboard. He’s on me like a shot as I scoop some into his bowl, nudging me aside with his head.
He feeds greedily, enjoying his reward, and I watch him with a grin on my face. He finishes within seconds, and stalks off to find a place to lie down. I plonk myself down on the sofa in the living room and flick on the TV. There’s classic cartoons on the channel that comes up first. I don’t bother changing it. Twenty-nine years old, and yet some things you just don’t grow out of.
Sometimes I wonder who is the bigger kid; me or him.
Walking barefoot in the orchard in the afternoon autumn sun, her light summer dress floats in the breeze and her shaded eyes take in the wonder of the greenery around her. The trees are in full bloom, their long branches bearing the treasures she is seeking. She wanders among them, slowly, purposefully, taking her time to choose the right one.
She stops at one with one of its lower branches within reach. She tiptoes up and delicately plucks an apple from it, bright green and luscious-looking. She takes a bite, the initial bitterness soon replaced by a succulent sweetness. The apple is perfectly ripe.
She sits at the base of the tree, opening a novel that she’s been carrying, a tattered paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451.The pages still carry the marks of folded over corners and swathes of sentences she’s underlined as inspiration, and are yellowed with age. She’s read this book countless times yet she never gets sick of it. It’s easily her favourite book.
She looks down at the half-eaten apple in her hand. There’s just something about a hand-picked apple that makes it taste so much better than one bought in the local supermarket, something that’s more than just it being a piece of fruit.
For her, the hand-picked apple is a sign of freedom, of a life in the country that one can’t replicate among the hustle and bustle of a city. A sign that she feels defines her in a deeper kind of way. The blue skies, the clear water of the river by her home, the sun shining brightly and people going about their business with a cheery spring in their step; all of them reminding her of the beauty of the everyday.
Sitting there under the apple tree, she feels at home.
There’s a dream I have, in which there’s nothing before me but the open road.
In it I don’t drive, just as in the waking world, but I’m in the front seat next to a friend, who is unknown to be but whose sunglassed eyes are firmly focused on where we’re going. He’s focused, but we’re still chatting and laughing jovially. There’s music playing, nothing too upbeat, nothing too downbeat, and the windows are cracked slightly to allow some air in. It’s a lovely day, the sky is blue and the countryside is, as always, mesmerising. The lush green fields and rolling hills go flying by, glistening rivers are crossed and towns and villages are ambled through. There’s no hurry at all; our destination not going anywhere anytime soon.
Hours pass and borders are crossed. There’s not much more thrilling than leaving one country and entering another; being stopped by customs for the obligatory passport check, suspicious questioning and the feeling of intense relief when you walk off on the other side without having been held in a small, secure room and accused of espionage. And then we’re back on the road.
The funny thing with this dream is that we never actually get anywhere. The destination is undetermined, as are the countries we pass through. Just the small things are seen, heard, remembered. Just the sheer pleasure of being out on the road, away from all the stresses of everyday life.
Perhaps it means something deeper. A subconscious longing to hit the road, live according to my own terms, learn more about the world in which I live. Perhaps the fact I am not driving means that despite this longing, I am still shackled by others, still dependent. Perhaps the lack of a destination means that I am supposed to focus on the here and now rather than the end of days. Or perhaps it’s simply that I need an adventure of sorts to reinvigorate the fires of life that have been reduced to merely smouldering embers of late.
Whatever it is, I just know that I always enjoy this dream. Whatever fears I have about the journey or the effects of it, they never actually supersede the journey itself.
It’s cold. So bitterly cold.
I’m not used to these winters, coming from the UK. There we just have a lot of rain and wind, that whips around violently and leaves the skin on your face raw. But that’s all it is, just an inconvenience. That can always be countered with a decent coat and a scarf, and a hurried walk with your head down.
Here that’s not enough. The temperature drops to something you only imagine in connection with names such as Siberia or Antarctica. Three hot showers a day isn’t enough to warm you up; you feel like you want to immolate yourself as a last resort. You spend more energy shivering in a day than you can possibly consume in food and drink.
However, there’s something beautiful about a winter such as this. Days upon days of snowfall, millions of individual flakes falling to leave the land feet-deep in a blanket of white. Then, when the snow stops, the skies are a perfect shade of blue and it’s a pleasure to trudge around without a care.
But it’s still cold.
Huddling under several duvets at night, it’s hard to sleep. Hours pass before you warm up enough to finally drop off. You’re often angry at the lack of heating in the building; an unnecessary problem that a portable electric heater you’ve been given cannot solve. Sleep is also fitful, it’s hard to get any real rest.
Dreams come and go; dreams in which you’re a wolf or a bear or snow leopard, with a degree of natural protection from such harsh climates. We humans were never made to survive this, really, but what we are is a hardy bunch. We adapt, we change, we’re stubborn enough to take whatever is thrown at us and find a way to overcome it. Stubbornness that leads to us enduring despite all the odds.
Of all those dreams, the one in which I’m a wolf is the most pleasing. The woods have always been my friend, in the conscious and the unconscious; trees a haven in which I feel free of mind. Stalking through the undergrowth silently, being left to do whatever it is I want to do. The rich smells, the magical sights, the knowledge that I am the hunter and not the hunted. I am wise and respected, and that’s something that cannot be bought or fought over in any world.
And then one is woken by the shrill, piercing sound of an alarm clock. Time to rise and go about that daily routine that sometimes thrills yet often leaves you unfulfilled. Chasing dreams that aren’t really within your control to achieve, instead dependent on a plethora of people you either know or may never meet. All work and no play; no stalking the woods and always answering to those above you.
Today I wake up and do the same thing I do every day. I fire up my laptop and check my messages in a sleepy haze, not quite aware of where I even am. I make breakfast, cereal with ice-cold milk, yet something about it doesn’t taste right. I go to the bathroom and relieve myself, before turning the shower on to let the water heat up enough to feel soothing and invigorating.
And that’s when I see it, as I pass the mirror. It rouses me from my semi-conscious state, a hammer of fear and confusion and bewilderment. I stretch out my arms before me, turning my hands over and over; look down at my half-naked torso, at my legs and my feet.
I am covered with a silvery-black fur, thick and majestic. I realise that I don’t feel as cold as I usually do first thing in the morning, that there’s a fire coursing through my veins. I realise that my sense of smell is heightened; I can smell the bread baking from the store around the corner, and the fumes of vehicles commuting to the nearby city for work. I realise that the reason my sight is blurred is not because of my sleepy state, but because everything seems too close to be able to focus properly. I feel unsteady on my feet, and drop to all fours in order to steady myself.
I panic, and rush out of the building as quick as I can. Some people freeze in fear, others run. This is a town, a community, I am not supposed to be in its midst. I belong in the woods, stalking prey, and I start running. It’s the only place I am safe; these humans will surely kill me if I stay here any longer. I feel a pang of sorrow; all that I leave behind is dear to me, I realise, but that doesn’t stop my instincts, nor my flight from a world I once called my own.
I race up the hill I know leads to the forest, and at its brow I stop. Looking down on the small, mountain town I have called home for three years, I howl balefully. Behind me, in the distance, another howl answers my call, imploring me to come join it.
My new home awaits; a home where there is always warmth.
She stands there, blonde hair flowing over her shoulders and fluttering in the slight breeze. The sun shines above her, and the sky is a shade of blue ideal for the pursuit she has planned. By her side hangs a camera bag full of accessories, and around her neck is slung her pride and joy. A hefty black box of magic that calms her mind and sets her free when her fingertips run over its hard ridges and smooth buttons and play their special tune.
She stands there, gazing out at life before her. People mill about, some hurried and some not, some dressed smartly and some casual. There are some basking in the heat of the day, sitting on wooden benches, under trees, on the grass of the perfectly-manicured park she is in. Kids run around happily, playing ball or chase or cops and robbers, while their mothers lazily watch and gossip to each other.
There’s so much for her to point the camera at and capture, but none of that is what she’s looking for. She’s looking for more than just another daytime scene, a sliver of magic that captures a feeling or tells a deeper story. There are plenty of parent-child pictures to be taken, young lovers tousling one another’s hair, birds sitting on tree branches. None of them capture the wonder with which she sees the world. None of them have her eyes, big and bluish-grey and beautiful.
And then she sees it. They sit there, sharing a sandwich and a cup of tea, whiling away the time without a care in the world. They’ve seen it all, been through it all, and survived. The way his eyes wrinkle as he smiles at her, the way her cheeks dimple when she smiles right back. The way their lips linger just a second longer when they meet, the same affection there was way back in the day when they were just high-schoolers sitting on the same bench. The way his hand lingers on her knee, protective.
She crouches down to steady herself, and reels off three or four shots. She knows that despite her considerable skill in photography, her camera can never really do the justice to this scene as her own two eyes do, but it’s a scene that she feels deserves to be captured for an eternity.
She gets up, and approaches the couple, apologising for the intrusion but informing them of the pictures she’s just taken. She shows them on the camera’s digital display, but they don’t see so well. She’s worried that they will be offended, and explains that she thought the moment just so wondrous she had to capture it, but they’re not – they just smile sweetly at her, and ask her if she could possibly give them copies. They tell her that they are here most days, just enjoying their retirement and watching the world go by. She’s rapt as they tell of how they have been coming here for decades, and somewhat envious. She hopes that she gets to feel what they feel.
She promises to bring them the photos the next day, and then she takes her leave. She has a spring in her step, and cannot wait to go immediately home and develop her shots. She smiles to herself happily, another perfect picture immortalised.