The telephone on the bedside table rang. You pulled the covers up demurely; to cover our bodies, as if afraid that someone might see our nakedness down the phone. You lifted the receiver.
"Oh, hi there Lisa! How's it going? Mm-hm. Yes. Oh? No, really. Aye..."
My eyes adjusted slowly to the blaze of another day's sunlight. The last day of your holiday, just one of the many in my long stretch of idleness now. I seemed to have been on a continuous binge since my redundancy, that last handshake with the boss outside the office door as we locked up, shy tears in our eyes, then the numb walk home alone through the pouring rain. Since then, I hadn't remembered much in the weeks that followed, except the taste of beer and tobacco and the urgency of your body and mine: pressing together at night, moaning in distress, like searching desperately for something lost in the fading embers of another summer.
"That was Lisa," you were saying now "Brendan's taking the day off, they're thinking of taking a run up to Balmaha, and she wondered if we'd like to go... I said yes. What do you think? She's going to phone back in about half an hour just before they leave, to confirm."
I struggled to pull the words together, my neurons bombarded with sound and light. I found the right muscles in my face and mustered a smile, and finally speech:
"Mm... what, drive up to Loch Lomond... in Brendan's taxi you mean? That sounds fairly surreal actually, one hell of a boundary charge. I hope he doesn't leave the meter running..."
The feeling was one of inflated self-importance: the four of us travelling in regal splendour, windows down in the crisp morning sunlight, puffing away in flagrant contempt for the no-smoking signs, laughing at a taxi-fare we would never have to pay. As we rattled in our big black carriage through the badlands of Possil then out and northwards into the open country where no ordinary city hackney cab is ever seen...
Brendan wore a suave pair of sunglasses in the front, this single fashion-accessory somehow converting him from honest-joe working-man into a dangerous renegade not to be approached by members of the public, as they say in newsreels. He talked and laughed, the happiest he had ever appeared, looking at us through his mirror, delighting in the concept of what might happen if his employer found out he was SKIVING.
The cab heaved and purred up and down the many hills heading north; country roads of twisting tarmacadam snaked over the shoulders of ripe fields, neck-height grasses swaying as we passed, escapees from the city, cast adrift on some mischievous voyage.
On a steep hill we passed three walkers on the West Highland Way, and slowing down Brendan quipped through the window: "Hey there, d'you want a lift? Taxi for Fort William?"
On a sudden impulse, Brendan headed down a farm track:
"Listen," he shouted from the front as we rattled insanely over the bumps. "Who's ever been to The Salmon Leap? It's just about the right time of year, it's pretty spectacular if you see them jump.
We parked the loony carriage, and scrambled down a steep river bank, more of a mud cliff in fact, peppered with useless concrete steps designed to kill tourists. We stepped out carefully towards a waterfall, a broad cascade of rapids. We sat on the edge of some huge smooth boulders, watched the sunlight playing on the dizzying onslaught of water. We waited for the fish to appear, to leap spectacularly, floundering at first on the lower rocks, and then through incredible stamina and patience, leap ten, fifteen feet into the air and upriver back to where they were born, to breed just once, breed and then die happy. Or so they say. But we just sat and waited. And watched. And waited. And nothing happened.
Approaching Balmaha, Lisa pointed curiously out of the window, asking: what's that bit of water out of there?
I winced. Then you asked the same question. Can such ignorance be countenanced? Thirty seven years on the edge of the last unspoilt wilderness in Europe.
I was surprised by Brendan's continuing inspiration: "Let's go get a boat," he said. But he meant it. I had the momentary sensation that I might be about to lose my life, stepping off the ramshackle wooden pier into an old rowing boat of even more dubious integrity. But no one else seemed worried: and of course, I reminded myself: Life's a joke and I don't care if I live or die. Time to prove it.
But there was a relief: Brendan and Lisa were expert at rowing. Loads of practice they said. Relax.
Then Brendan started singing.
As we sailed out backwards from the little harbour and jetties, serenaded by a hideous pseudo-celtic wail, I finally conceded defeat to myself, and admitted inside the privacy of my own head that Brendan really couldn't sing. Was always out of key. And more to the point, was probably a complete asshole.
Wasn't there something, just one thing, that this man wouldn't claim to be good at? Couldn't sing to save himself. Could he row to save himself ? Swim to save himself ? Swim to save ME more to the point ?
But there it was. On the last day of September, four figures drifted in silhouette, in a small wooden rowing boat, on the still blue waters of Loch Lomond.
I still wore the same clothes, unchanged now for three days; my head still numbed from the alcohol of the night before. My turn at rowing must surely be over now, I thought, the boat seemd to be going nowhere. I brought the oars to rest , and standing up carefully, changed places with Lisa. I lay back full-length in the prow of the boat, and lit a cigarette in the shelter of the hull.
Gazing up at the perfect sky, I watched the lonely puffs of white cloud sailing overhead. Like thoughts in the mind of God, I reflected silently.
Around me I heard the gentle lapping of the waves, punctuated by the moving oars. Brendan and Lisa were talking quietly at the stern. But why were you so distant from me then? At opposite ends of a boat, no communication. From the shore we must have been visible only as shadows at that moment: four ciphers shifting into the haze of heat and light, a veil of obscurity.
"Yes, it's an Indian Summer alright," I said, "A lucky time to be redundant," I laughed mischievously or even bitterly; "it's enough to make you believe in God".
Then from the boat's stern, you fixed me with your questioning stare, which I knew meant DON'T DESCEND INTO SELF PITY.
I spoke out loud again from my repose on the boat's floor, saying: "isn't there a law against enjoying yourself this much?"
Brendan laughed in reply, "Yes, I better cross myself a few times for absolution..."
Looking up at the sky, I knew my life was suspended then: at the still-point where the strands of destiny meet and interweave. Behind me, three slow years in an office decaying into bankruptcy. Friends lost or dead, others made redundant, emigrated; and I the last survivor of recession, now finally set free.
Around me watched those many wooded islands whose leaves were turning blood red and gold; between whose rocky shores I drifted with my disapproving lover and her friends. And ahead of us all, what? To the north the purple mountains rose up and fell, floating reflected on the water's mirror, upon which we would leave no trace.
Some big boats passed us: yachts, playthings of the rich and idle. And each time we frantically paddled sideways, so that turned end-on, our little boat would not be swamped by the monstrous waves of their passing , their wake. Their treacherous, careless, afterswell.
Brendan pointed to the south and we slowly turned the boat into the sun, and sailed towards the source of the burning, incoherent light that both warmed and blinded us. We moved, impossibly slowly, so that all progress was abstract, imperceptible, towards one of the larger islands of the loch.
The hull made a worrying tearing sound, as it finally bumped and scraped onto the small rocks of the shore, strewn in the soft sand visible beneath the shallow water; rippling in the sharp light, transparent and perfect as glass. Brendan, trouser legs rolled up, hauled and steadied the boat, as each of us stumbled to dry land. Strange: the comfort of firm ground there, yet made ambiguous; the giddy isolation of castaways.
Tying the boat to a rock, we picked our way along the rubble shore. Thin young trees leaned across our way; the island's vegetation spilling over water, straining to escape its confines. We stopped and sat by a little bay; tossed stones, skimming across the loch, ripples quickly lost, absorbed effortlessly by the water's vastness. Our shirts, my city jacket strangely out of place, were hung up on a young sapling. Transferred magically from the drinking dens of city night; did our clothes become new leaves, fruit on those boughs -or did the tree become a coat stand? Man and landscape collided with rival definitions.
Lisa screamed when a wasp circled around her. You crouched in terror. I considered everyone else from my stance; enthroned on a solitary boulder cast out from the shore. Lisa's sadly overweight form, still over-clad in city garments, would probably have felt happier in Blackpool, I mused, or on a couch in her living room, drugged by television. How the centuries of comfort have turned the masters of this planet into its imbeciles, dysfunctional apes.
Returning to the boat, I just leaned over and kissed you, suddenly; like the only form of communication I could find now. There was always such an inexplicable wall around you when the four of us were together. I might as well have turned gay and gone out with Brendan, I sometimes thought, since we seemed to have more to say. Perhaps you were ashamed of me, or of yourself, regressing to childlike giggles with Lisa, excluding me, subtly, constantly.
Back on shore, we strolled up to the Inn, ordered food and drinks. Brendan challenged me to a game of snooker. To my amazement I found I was nearly winning; not a good idea. Might as well lose, let that voracious ego add yet another string to its creaking bow. But Christ, hold on, I was starting to like the man, there's an innocence after all to such enthusiasm; the seriousness of a child at play. As we sat down to eat, I was surprised to find myself turning to bring Brendan's pint over to him, placing it down on the table for him, with a feeling of magnanimity.
Outside in the beer garden, the four of us languished in bright heat. I held you then, my arms around your waist, as you pushed back against me warmly, your blonde locks flickering in a light breeze from the bay. And the masts of the many boats there: sails furled, nodded and nudged together, with the gentle motion of the waves. We laughed and smoked and drank, the lager raised in sparkling glass, effervescing; transmuting into gold.
On the way home that feeling of chauffeur-driven decadence resumed. Lisa tried to lie out flat on the two fold-down seats. You lay down, with your head right across my lap, until Lisa shattered this charming gesture with a single comment:
Followed by some obscene actions, akin to the licking of lollipops. You went rigid and prudish, sat up with clickings of disapproval, as I laughed aloud. A hang-up no younger woman would have bothered voicing, I reflected to myself. And hypocritical too, from the woman who had once asked me to TAKE HER on the back seat of a bus.
Travelling south, we drove through the hometown of my childhood, where my parents still lived in suburban retirement; submerged in a haze of eternal Sundays, coffee mornings and garden-centres.
"What if they see us? I laughed, "In a hackney cab of all things, coming back from the country, that would blow their minds."
You nudged me, angry, uncomfortable with your role as The Older Woman, The Secret Mistress. Lisa searched my eyes as I made these comments, looking for embarassment, awkwardness, even fear: but there was none. I really didn't care.
Then, incredibly, as we moved along the dual carriageway out of town, my parents were suddenly, really there. Ignorant, dreamlike, surprisingly grey and walking back from the park. I looked at them from the taxi, and knew at that moment that I was somehow invisible now, as if existing in a different dimension from them; as if dead, and come back as a ghost to watch them. We passed them by, unseen. I marvelled at that screen of glass which seemed to seperate me from myself now, this dislocation, an aquired inability to take life seriously. I told the others quietly, incredulously, "That's them, that's my parents walking home there".
You didn't even turn around, only Lisa, half curious, peered over my shoulder in doubt.
This bizarre moment reminded me of an incident of a month beforehand, when seeing you on the street on your way to work, I had simply walked by, invisible to you, reluctant to plunge into the awkwardness of a brief meeting with your colleagues who were walking with you.
That feeling of not existing, of numb dislocation from those we love: this seemed like a metaphor for my life so far: and a prophecy for the strangers that you and I would soon become.
(First published in Northwords Magazine Issue 8).
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(Illustration: "Three For A Girl" by Andrew Coulthard, used by kind permission of the artist).