‘Who can say if the present will be kind ?
History is a torment long gone
while Time plays tricks;
he warps for lovers until careworn flesh is smoothed
and a heart dried black regrown
with the rush and swell of promise.’
He swept the leaves and remembered how she had written of that when she was gone from him the year before. First he wielded the broom, then the rake, and finally the paddle; it was the best part of a morning’s work to clear the latest drifts of sweet chestnut and oak from in front of the house. And as he laboured, as his blood pumped and warmed his body with the good feeling of hard physical work, his thoughts ran free. They ran to her. They always turned in her direction.
A day without her felt like a month to him, a week a season, and a season a decade. Time flowed differently for them both when they were apart. For her, because of her business and her busy-ness, and there being more of a social whirl, it rushed and roared, and let-ups were the exception. For him, because he had now been thrown back on his own company more than ever, it drifted and dragged. Though it was only half-true in his case, he kept remembering the Paul Valéry quote he had stumbled across all those years ago in France. ‘A man alone is always in bad company’. Valéry could no more turn off his overwrought brain than he could. In a way his condition was worse than the poet’s, because even when among people, he found he could not stop churning the milk of his thoughts into the butter of conclusions, or at least set or unsettled reflections, unless he constantly made the effort to rejoin the room he was in. And though he made that effort, though he could lose himself in the ebb and flow of playing cards and anecdote, he could not help arriving at this final destination – what was the point of any conversation if he could not converse with the one person he most wanted to, if he could not tell her about the conversations he was having with everyone else but her?
And yet simultaneously, time glided by so fast, because his life was far from empty, and he had the panic-inducing feeling that he was running out of days; that they both were. His love fought a constant battle, between its greed and its selflessness, as hers fought one out between her own greed and a guilt so much greater than that he felt himself, which was, he knew, also a kind of selflessness. He waited, even though for any number of good reasons he suspected she would not come. He toughed out the time without her, because it was only if he did so as patiently as possible that their always precarious balancing act could be maintained. But that never stopped him from yearning for the time when they might be together, if not fairy-tale forever, then for as long as they honestly held each other in their respective hearts. He didn’t want to be old before they might have what they might have; even though he knew it was next to impossible, he couldn’t help wanting it now. And if he couldn’t have it now, then he wanted the next best thing, which was for her to be his Charlotte sometimes. Charlotte a lot of the times, if truth were told.
However sure he was of her love, the waiting tested it, because he knew her own was being tested, against the judgment calls in her own head. He wanted her there as much as she could be, certainly every day, for that’s what love was to him. And when she didn’t appear, when there was no sign that she was his, and even when she let him know that she couldn’t make it for reasons he necessarily accepted, he couldn’t help but wonder, has she turned away from me again? Was she already regretting this latest coming back together? Does she no longer want me?
He pressed the chestnut leaves, hulls and smashed cupules down into the bin, enjoying the wet and the dirt and the prickle of them. Breathe, he told himself. Sleep better. Do what you do best, and when you’re not doing it, try to be present in the moment. Love those in your day-to-day, the one unconditionally, the other as best you can. And wait, with as much patience and grace as you can muster.
When she told him stories from her day-to-day, the one he was not in, and though he had long fought against thinking or feeling this way, he couldn’t help finally succumbing to a kind of jealousy. He wished that her day-to-day was his, that he was trying to get to grips with yoga with her, that he was watching it turn her on, that he was the one who was able to take advantage of that afterwards. That he was going out with her and her friends for drinks and meals and to see a favourite singer (the one whose record she had put on during the onewholedayonewholenight together, he wondered if she remembered that?), that they could then come home to dance together. That he was the one going to sleep and waking up with her. It would make her sorrowful to hear it, he knew, but he also believed that she would understand, because she had often described feeling the same about him, and his life. As things stood, all he could do was wish for as much as was possible, and wait for his Charlotte sometimes.
He was nearly done. He spot-checked the grass and courtyard for the serrated edge of any sweet chestnut leaves that had got away, then stopped to stretch and look about, admiring his work, and the puffs of cloud against the blue in a favourite kind of sky. It had been a morning well-spent, and that was something.