There was never any question of me leaving. There was no train in the timetable I could take, no car in a garage, not even a bike, and more importantly – now that we’d travelled far enough North – not a single road name on the map that would flag anything in my memory. But that’s not to say I was lost. Our position was always clear; we were a slow-moving pin on the veins of England, and this houseboat that smelled of oiled wood and time, and whose window shutters I’d painted green the day we moved in, was what constituted home now. Its decor of pine-panelled everything was hardly to my taste, but I’d learned to live with it and make my mark with white curtains, houseplants and a sparkling sink. I knew exactly where I was; only the outside kept changing.
There wasn’t much room, and when we left London we’d had to be pretty strict about what to keep. Getting rid of stuff was difficult for Tommy who, unlike me, attached his memories to objects. Mine would cling onto temperatures, smells, and certain kinds of light, so it was only natural for me to feel under-represented in the spaces we shared sometimes. We did have a wall full of books on the boat, almost exclusively mine, but even so I’d got rid of far more than I had kept.
Yes, it could feel a little crammed inside sometimes, and I was still getting used to the low ceiling above the bed. The trick was to close my eyes as soon as my head hit the pillow — just pretend the ceiling went on and on, as it used to in our flat in London, and make love elsewhere. The first winter had been nothing short of cruel, but for the rest of the year we had the deck flooded with birdsong, green light and the tang of nettles in the wind. Summer evenings smelled of chance, and sometimes in autumn months, the smoke from bonfires in the gardens we passed would remind me of home.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of a house every now and then. When the weather was good and Tommy was away with work, I would walk for miles near wherever we were moored and look at houses and gardens. It was really more the latter that I longed for – a place where I could root things. Tommy used to say that the whole of England was our garden now, but I, who grew up with trees all around me, couldn’t help wanting to plant my own. When I was little, and a sick tree had to be cut down near our house, I’d fight a hopeless war to protect it. Afterwards, I would count its rings and mourn for months, until the stump had been fully covered in moss and the trunk had turned into ashes, log by log, in the living room fireplace. All I had now was dead pine around me – on the walls, on the ceiling, and under my feet. Maybe that was it, the reason I didn’t like this rustic wood-panelling thing. Like staring at ghosts, day in day out.
We never kept the door locked, apart from those first few weeks we had stayed moored in Camden. After we left, it took a while to dismantle the London mentality – that constant swaying between love and fear towards strangers. The anonymity that sets you free but never quite lets you forget how easily others might use theirs against you. Once we were on the move, with only a vague sense of destination, locking the door started to seem like a minor concern. We were out of it, on our way to trust the world again.
Even when Tommy went away for longer trips, sometimes for weeks on end, I would leave the door unbolted. The lock itself was a bit tricky, so at first it was just a question of not bothering with it. Later on, I started to enjoy the feeling of not carrying a key with me. It meant freedom from a relentless sort of anxiety that had been the stuff of my nightmares most of my life: losing keys, being locked out. Now, in this new life, I was free to come and go as I pleased, and so was anyone else.
And then one day you came.
You set up your tent on the bank, not two hundred meters from the boat. I found it a bit odd that anyone would camp out there and started to wonder if you knew what you were doing at all, and whether I’d soon have you knocking on the door, asking for help. But that didn’t happen – you seemed to be managing just fine. In the first two days, we exchanged friendly hellos and what-a-nice-days from a distance, and that was that.
On the third day I was making a curry and, knowing you’d be able to smell the cooking, walked up to your tent and issued an invitation. You looked delighted, I remember, and not a little hungry. It turned out you were more in need of conversation than a meal, and seeing how slowly you were getting through your food made me wonder if I’d overdone the cardamom again. No one could ever quite understand my obsession with it, or that I would add it to anything – biscuits, porridge, my morning coffee, and always to curries, never mind what the recipe said. Where I grew up cardamom was a spice for sweet things, buns and cakes and the like, and even now it would faithfully bring me back a frail piece of my childhood: the feeling of waking up on a Sunday morning when mum had been baking. It was the smell of safety that, unlike the people and dogs and trees I grew up with, hadn’t died.
You told me you’d come to these parts to do some wild camping. Your girlfriend had meant to join you, but she’d been forced to cancel at the last minute due to some emergency at work. She’d insisted that you’d still go, though. You had a job that called for patience, friendliness and resilient eardrums all day long, so eventually you’d agreed that a few days of absolute solitude might do you good. This was the sixth day, you said, and despite the arsenal of reading, music and podcasts you’d taken with you, you were, by now, desperate to talk to someone.
You said you weren’t much good on your own.
The evening was mild, humid, and singular. A westerly breeze was tousling your hair, cut – or uncut – like George Harrison’s in the seventies. As we sat out on the deck, I noticed you gazing in through the open door with some curiosity, perhaps sharing my obsession to see what strangers keep on their bookshelves. Still, I didn’t invite you in. The conversation was a little intermittent, and I thought we could do with some music, so I lifted the speakers out on the deck and went to put on a vinyl.
A month or two before Tommy and I had decided to move out of the flat – and should really only have been getting rid of things – we’d bought a turntable and scoured the charity shops in our leafy suburb for good records. Amongst our finds was a compilation album of hits from the sixties, which I now put on. When the needle hit Itchycoo Park, you smiled with recognition. We started talking about Small Faces and how the BBC had initially banned the song due to its overt drug references. The ban was promptly lifted, though, when the boys put out a story that the song was about an East London park where they used to play as kids, Itchycoo referring to it being full of stinging nettle. You said you thought it was wasps. We went on to list all the things that can sting: pins, needles, pencils, spices, words – even pure water if you’ve cut yourself. The world was a pretty sharp place, we agreed, and between the words you smiled at me – once, twice, dozens of times – proving over and over the point you were making: given the right circumstances, anything could sting.
Mosquitoes appeared, as if by invitation, when the night fell neatly between the trees. We shared a spliff and after all the wine was finished drank tea from small wooden cups. You sat opposite me, in the green chair I usually sat in and which Tommy called mine simply by virtue of never sitting in it himself. You hardly moved, except to stretch your legs from time to time, but every time I looked up you seemed a little closer. I guess it was a trick of the eye – what happens to our senses in the dark, when the blurred contours of things make the distance between them seem smaller.
I told myself there was nothing to worry about; you were the one who still had miles to walk and a job you didn’t particularly like to go back to, whereas all I needed to do was to stay. I placed my cup on the small table made of a cross-section of a tree trunk and slowly counted the rings. I’d done it before, dozens of times – counted fifty-seven, always – but now it seemed to me there were fifty-eight. Had I, all this time, missed one? I lifted my feet off the deck and curled up, floated upon your stories like a buoy.
You went as far back as your childhood somewhere in the North, in a place whose name I’d soon forget – not on purpose, but because I didn’t write it down. Most of this would be gone in weeks, I told myself, if only I managed not to touch it. I knew how to, how not to: as a child who was allergic to everything I’d had to learn how not to scratch an itch. Clipped my nails as I was told to. Managed it when I was awake, but at night I became unaccountable, and mum would tie my fingers together with strips of soft linen so they were unable to move. She did it out of love.
I floated towards and ebbed away from you, reminding myself that this was only the surface. And it worked, it made you seem like the stranger you were, until the moment you noticed I was shivering, took off your jacket and offered it to me. It was getting colder now, even though the sky was still clouded and somehow purple under the darkness. Stretching over us like a lid, it seemed to have only one thing to say – I can keep secrets, and I do – and all night we went on talking, listening to Nina Simone, John Martyn, Miles Davis and Abbey Road till we were blue to the soul. The damp night air hung on my throat like a blade, and when at 6am you crawled back into your tent, I hoped that by the time I woke up the next day you’d be gone.