James was driving east, sunsetting in the rear-view mirror. The street he had driven along, every day for the last three decades, was rapidly receding, watched over by the blood-shot eye of the weary sun. Accelerating, he had the uncomfortable feeling it was staring right at him. He pulled his gaze back to the darkening road ahead, passing his old college, keeping his eyes dead ahead as he drove past the office, memories of his retirement party bursting into his mind like the streamers they had thrown, thanking him for all those years of loyal service. Turning onto the motorway, the sun was half-hidden by the horizon, seemingly turning a blind eye.
His heart had begun to race in time with the speeding wheels. He considered switching on the radio but he didn’t want others to choose the soundtrack to this drive. Instead, he trusted to the old movie of domestic life which often played out in his mind, scenes which should be comforting in their familiarity: his wife Shirley, fetching the laundry in off the line, anxious that the dry clothes might turn damp. Next, a cut to her peeling vegetables, setting them to simmer; a shot follows of her settling down for the crossword, the cryptic one, that she always likes to puzzle over with a glass of wine whilst waiting for him to come home. She’d be trying to set her mind to one of the clues, her mind framing the habitual question instead: where is he? The place where he spends most of his time these days: off screen. Others would title this film Domestic Bliss; he often wondered what he should call it. As the red eye closed behind him at last, he realised the title for this- his life’s film - was blank; a space ended only by a question mark.
Exit signs flashed past on his right, each one triggering a flash of memory. Junction 32: the church where he’d married Shirley; Junction 33: the country hotel where they’d honeymooned. Later, he squeezed his eyes tight shut, just for a couple of seconds, when Junction 44 approached, the blue sign beckoning him to the woods and river where he still often went, to be completely alone, only memory stalking him with its long shadow.
The drive would be long and after an hour he knew he would have to pull over; the same burning urgent pressure which has accompanied his waking and sleeping hours these last months, jabbing him relentlessly- a painful reminder of more than his need to urinate. Pulling over, he relieved himself, for the time being at least, then climbed back into the driver’s seat for the next two-hour stint.
Darkness had always been his friend, he thought, speeding once more into the possibilities of night. Junction 44, the wood, how it called to him: to walk deeper into the dark, even when he knew he should be heading home, back to the homely light waiting for him; Shirley lighting candles, welcoming in hope, trusting they’d guide her husband home- just the once more.
He almost reached instinctively for the indicator to turn off, do a U-turn and head back to the place he felt calling him, but he didn’t. Tonight, he had a destination and it wasn’t the one he’d taken all his life. Tonight, there would be no detours and roundabouts and driving in the opposite direction from where he should really be going. Tonight, he was heading straight to the place he should never have left, 60 years ago.
The garden wall lies crumpled on the pavement as it has done for the last six days, ever since James swung the car into it, his pride falling harder than the bricks. He’d bushed it off of course, it was half falling down according to him and the twilight made the manoeuvre tricky. She had bitten her tongue, as usual, wondering when the entrance drive he has pulled into for all these years of marriage, became “tricky”.
It is getting late. The library - his usual hiding place- closed twenty minutes ago. Where is he? As the sun sets, her worries rise- filling the void. Shirley knows he can’t see so well anymore, and after last week’s close encounter with the garden wall, she wonders if he should be behind the wheel at all. Is he just driving around as he’s taken to doing more and more lately? - aimlessly running circuits about town. The empty forecourt glares back at her, as if to say well he’s obviously avoiding you.
The thought of his strange, furtive behaviour is enough to send her scurrying to the comfort of her routines, picking up the clothes basket and heading out into the gloaming. But even small familiar sounds seem to conspire against her: the pull of the backdoor in the frame echoes the sound which often wakes her at night: her husband shuffling along the corridor, the creak of the bathroom door, the hushed flush of the toilet, louder than any wake-up alarm. The recollection springs the lock of others, ones she has tried to hide away: how he never goes anywhere without knowing, for sure, a toilet is near to hand; yesterday afternoon, his lowered voice behind the closed bedroom door when he thought she was out, calling the doctor about an appointment: As soon as possible please, it’s urgent.
Not that he’s shared any of this with her; it’s just another one of the many things never to be confided. For if he told her, he might open up his own Pandora’s box, where feelings instead of the world’s woes leap out. Methodically, starting with the socks and smalls before working onto his shirts, she unpegs the laundry, wondering why she can’t gather him up just as easily into her arms. Over the years, the shirts have been worn to his shape; she wraps one sleeve then the other about her waist. It is the lightest of touches before the arms hang limply at her sides- no comfort at all. She lets the shirt tip into the basket with the others. The damp has got to them and they are cold to the touch; she’s left them too long.
Inside, she sets the potatoes on to simmer and pulls the cork from yesterday’s half-drunk bottle of wine. Pouring herself a generous glass, she glances out of the window at the drive, still empty, before pretending to make herself comfortable at the kitchen table with the newspaper and the ritual of the evening crossword. Ten more minutes, she tells herself, if he’s not back then, she’s calling the hospital.
Leafing to the puzzle pages, her mind on James, she almost mistakes the piece of paper for a circular as it flutters to the floor; but as she bends to pick it up, she recognises it immediately for what it is: a letter from her husband. It has been a lifetime since he wrote to her in that precise hand, each word printed with careful consideration. She struggles to recall his last personal correspondence, even the word sounds so cold; they have never exchanged so much as a birthday card, let alone love letters. Now she holds a whole side of paper, covered in James’s crabbed letters. The salutation is so odd, so unlike how he normally addresses her, that it is enough to make her blood run cold before she has read another word; for My darling Shirley, I hardly know where to begin, sounds like it will usher in the word she has long been dreading: goodbye.
James had arrived. Finally, he was right where he wanted to be. He left the car, closing the door as quietly as possible; it was hard, given how much his hands were shaking. So many times, on nights riddled with insomnia, he had pictured this moment and it was some relief that the house with its wide porch was just as he remembered it. Decades have passed since he was last here; it had been summer then, now winter was fast approaching- moonlight revealed trees bare of all but a few dogged brown leaves.
Each step was painful to him, the pressure like a fist in his groin, but he walked towards the familiar door, still painted sunshine yellow as it had been when he’d burst through it, the one and only time, over 60 years ago, when life seemed made of sunrises.
Resolutely, he rang the doorbell. With the gritted-teeth determination mastered these last months, he willed his buckling knees to iron as a light burst on in the hall and a figure made its tentative way towards him. Sweat burst in beads; the shadow-person stepped closer, and closer; reached their ghostly hand up, up from their side to the handle on the inside door.
Briefly he was blinded by the fierce hallway light, then the white blaze dimmed and he saw a woman, worry deepening the creases time had etched into her face. In her concerned expression, toothbrush in hand, pyjamas already on, he saw what he had become: a thing to pity.
“I’m really terribly sorry to disturb you at this hour.” He had planned the script for this dialogue, preparing lines over and over in his mind. Her response had been anticipated.
“Can I help you at all? Are you lost? Do you need directions?”
She looked like she might be about to head off to find a map and so he blurted out, in unscripted fashion:
“Is Richard at home?”
There, he’d managed to say his name.
The woman with the care-creased face looked pained; but hers was a scar, not a fresh wound. Carefully, she composed the line of her mouth into a small smile.
“I’m so sorry, my husband Richard died two years ago. Would you like a glass of water; you’re more than welcome to come in and sit down.”
It was an effort worthy of all the gods on Olympus to form the barest words.
“No, no thank you.”
“He’d been having chest pains for a while. Then a heart attack took him, quite suddenly. They said it would have been over ever so fast.”
The words ambushed his very soul; he managed only:
“I best be heading back. I’m so sorry to have disturbed you, and so late.”
Already turning away, ready to begin once more on life’s round of detours.
“Is there any chance your name is James?” She called out before he’d taken a step.
He nodded and she smiled.
“I had a feeling it must be. Wait there just one moment James, I’ve got something for you.”
Steps, the noise of a drawer opening, closing; the rush of life in his ears, rattling his heart.
“I found these only a few weeks ago. I’d finally got round to clearing out some of his things and I found this letter in an old photo album- a summer camp by the looks of it. He might have written the letter and forgot to send it. Would you like the album too?”
A letter bearing his name, the album for their camp: two gifts larger than the world and all within it.
“Yes, that would really be ever so kind.”
“Are you an old schoolfriend of Richard’s?
“No, not really. I met your husband one summer camp, so very long ago. It was just one summer and then life took us in different directions.”
Sadly, he wished to say; tragically he wanted to cry, but he did neither, bowing his head in resignation.
“That’s a shame, but I hope they bring some comfort.” She nods at the letter and camp album and he returns the gesture.
“Well, take care James. Safe drive home.”
And as he headed to the car, stowing his gifts on the seat beside him, he couldn’t shake the thought: it was like the pain in his groin, the pain in his heart- she knew of them both.
Junction 44: the woods, leading down to the river. He pulled the car up into the pitch- black of the clearing, the only place to park before the walks radiated off, all paths leading in diverse manners down to the river. Deep below, he heard it: wild, a roar of dark energy, rushing up to meet him as he stepped onto the soft mulch of wet autumn leaves.
He couldn’t read the letter inside. If the car was musty and confined, the night’s frozen air was a rush of cool clarity, clearing his head and lungs. Pulling out the torch he kept in the car, he turned it on and made his way to the bench under the huge oak, left there for old dodders like him; a final rest before the long descent to the raging river below. He rested the letter on his lap and, in the fierce beam of the torch, he read.
I can’t fool myself that you will definitely read this. I never did find out your address and so this letter will probably rest in my desk drawer, unposted. But, however slight, the chance still exists, for this to find its way into your hands, and so I write- in this hope.
Sixty years. Yes, it’s really been that long. Other summers I’ve forgotten completely, but that one- our one- never. That summer I discovered so much. The local camp taught me to love the great outdoors, but the biggest adventure wasn’t whittling or building bonfires, it was with you: the boy who came from so far away, who suddenly pitched tent in my heart.
I wish we’d been honest with each other; that ours wasn’t just a one-off “experiment”. Over the years I’ve realised fully what I only half felt at the time: our summer romance should have turned into a forever one.
More than anything, I wish I’d told you how I felt. Would our lives have been different if we’d been honest? Yes. Our lives might still have been lived apart, me with Linda and you probably with a kind and understanding wife, but they would have had one moment of truth- some honesty to counter the lifetime of lies.
I know my end is coming soon, the old ticker just doesn’t want to keep time anymore. So, the moment has come, to write in words what I could never say, and even if it's just a truth which will lie in an envelope, unread, it’s a truth nevertheless.
I love you James. I always have and I always will.
Forever yours, Richard
He switched off the torch; there was no need for it with the words scorched into his mind. In the cold wintery woods, he'd been turned to flame. Deep within him, the burn, the heat of what he'd always known, allowed finally to blaze: the truth of their love.
An hour later, when he’d finally closed the photo album, slowly turning the key in the ignition, he’d felt ready at last. He headed out of the wood, driving away from the dawn which would soon break behind him, towards the west and home.
There is the faintest glimmer on the horizon as Shirley, still sitting in the kitchen, re-reads the letter. She has lost count of how many times she has scanned, pored and cried over each word these long wakeful hours.
My darling Shirley, I hardly know where to begin.
No, that's not quite true, it's how to say what I must that is so hard; you know I've always been a man of few words. If you are reading this, you must be wondering where I am. The library would have closed many hours ago; I'm so sorry Shirley if you are worrying about me. I know how much you do, though you hide it from me. There's no easy way to write this: there is someone I need to see one last time. Before we'd even met, there was one other, and it's only in these last months that I’ve realised he never really left my heart.
Back then, when I was more boy than man, it was a love that dared not speak its name. It wasn’t just in my family that it was worse than a dirty word. It has taken me all my life to realise it wasn’t ugly; it shouldn’t have been shameful at all, for it was beautiful and true.
I haven't seen Richard in over sixty years. Now I must drive east and say goodbye. And then, finally, I can tend what I hardly saw germinate, let alone grow, it was so lost with all the guilt, shame and confusion I tipped on top of it: my love for you.
For I do love you, Shirley Wainwright. We both know I don’t have much time left, but from here on, I want to start cherishing what we have, for it is ours- to have and to hold- I’m coming home.
So many feelings, but one is the driftwood she clings to as the others surge about her: hope. For this is not a goodbye, the word she has been dreading the most. As the car pulls onto the driveway, the headlights stare like unblinking eyes through the windows, illuminating Shirley as she fetches another wine glass from the cupboard. It has been a long night; it will be an even longer morning. They have the whole of their lives to tell; secrets, yes, but then a future to share- together.
Opening the door, she crosses quickly to the car, embracing her husband, perhaps for the first time: with honesty, with feeling, with love; and over the darkened land, the sun breaks free of the night and rises.