The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 2

Back in the winter of 1996 I was in the small Lake District town of Alvermere, sitting at a rectangular desk made of dark oak. It was the largest piece of furniture in my tiny flat, squat and out of place. It sat beneath a solitary window overlooking a snow-laden street one storey below. I had found it in a nearby charity shop, the remains of its varnish etched and worn into cloud-like patches, and now its scarred surface was almost completely covered by a chaos of paper. Some sheets were typed upon, most were scribbled or doodled upon in pen and pencil, and a few were completely blank. They were all weighed down in the desk's dead centre by an old-fashioned manual typewriter that looked and felt as if it had been forged from black cast iron, and which sat obediently before me with a blank sheet of paper inserted and its round keys waiting.

I looked over it as I gazed out of the window at the snow outside. Up until today its surface had been gradually melting, shifted into grey and dirty ruts along the roadside, but now a fresh flurry had started to drift down from the heavy sky. Every once in a while the slush of passing cars sounded outside, swishing back and forth like a tide, breaking and receding in a slow and uneven rhythm, but the snow had been here so long that I barely noticed the noises it brought anymore.

I sipped black coffee from my faithful earth-coloured mug, glad for its warmth. My flat was only heated by a small and antiquated radiator in the cramped bedroom, and a slightly larger one here in the equally-cramped main living room. On freezing days like today, I sometimes lit the gas burners on the rickety old stove in the adjoining kitchen, but still I had to wrap myself in a thick, ragged woollen jumper that I had had since my early teens, and whose colour had long been forgotten and left to fade into a greyish slate-like blue.

I looked down and realised I had put yet another coffee-stained ring onto yet another page of writing, and sighed, wiping it with my sleeve. I wondered if the high rate of rejection among my manuscripts hadn't all along been due more to the sleeve-swept coffee rings than the quality of writing beneath.

Downing the last of the coffee still in my mug, I carefully set it down on one of the few small patches of visible wood on the desk's surface between all of the haphazard pieces of paper, and stood up from the worn fabric of my old office chair. I found my long, faded, once-black overcoat and matching scarf, left sprawled as always across the black leather armchair behind me, and hastily put them on. Nearby were the trusty dark-brown leather walking boots that had once belonged to my father, and I pulled these on too.

I looked back out of the window as I dressed, trying to see the sky beyond the bricks and glass of the shops opposite. The clouds were breaking, and I saw that the confetti-flutter of snow was now being swept and dazed by a gentle but insistent breeze. After living and sleeping in this refrigerated flat for so many months I now viewed the cold air outside as a challenge to be beaten rather than something to hide from, and I smiled with relish as I buttoned my coat and wrapped my scarf around me.

After I had donned my armour against the waiting outside, I picked up the letter that had come earlier in the morning and pulled it from its ripped-open envelope one more time, just to read it again. It was very brief, and it was from the magazine that had published several of my short stories so far. Just like the first time I had read it, it still thanked me for my latest offering and told me to keep up the good work. I smiled to myself, and in a small moment of absent-minded worry I checked my pockets to see where I had put the cheque that had arrived with it. Finding it in my jeans pocket I frowned briefly to myself, wondering why I had put it there, and with a shrug I headed noisily across the bare floorboards and out of my front door.

I was used to moving carelessly around the tiny spaces of my flat, walking heavily and dragging chairs across its loud wooden floors with impunity, as the shop downstairs had been empty ever since I had moved here. That had been over a year and a half earlier, in the April before last, and its reclusive owner still showed no signs of emerging from his slumber to rent or sell. To my delight this meant my living with no immediate neighbours, and being able to make as much noise as I pleased.

As I locked my door, my heavy footsteps were soon muffled by the thin brown carpet of the narrow landing and stairs, and I rushed down them and burst through the building's side door and outside into the cold. I paused for a moment to feel the sudden harsh chill hit my skin, watching it pull steam from my lips into swirling clouds that quickly rushed away into the breeze, then I breathed in deeply through my nose, savouring the crisp and beautiful smell of real fresh air that had rolled in from the hills and across the lakes. With a satisfied smile I stepped around the corner, out of the long shadows of the old brick building that was my home, and squinted against the sun. It hung low in the sky directly in front of me as I trudged carefully across the crunching layer of compacted powder that covered the packed ice beneath.

The bank was on a street corner in the opposite direction to the coffee shop where I worked, but I was always eager to pay my cheques in while they were still fresh. Having another short story published filled me with a kind of childish excitement, and each one pulled me closer to the ideal of spending all the hours of my days writing, hunched over my old typewriter as the chattering of my frozen teeth matched the endless click-clack hammering of the keys. I would churn out reams and reams of paper, all of them snapped up before they landed and printed for the world to see.

I smiled to myself. It may have been just a fantasy for now, but I knew that day had to come. I could taste its approach. If it didn't then all of these stories were for nothing, just knots on a rope leading nowhere, and I knew that wasn't how the world worked. Writing was in my blood, it pumped life into me and kept me vital, and for every piece of beautiful music and each powerful dream, I would capture it and lay it down on paper. In time they all grew into their own stories filled with odd and eccentric characters, all of them acting on the depth of that feeling, and it filled me with an unmatched satisfaction to see them accepted and printed in magazines for anyone to read.

I paid in my cheque, still smiling with that same satisfaction, then turned about face and headed to work. The coffee shop was the only one of its kind in the small town, its deep reds and earthy atmosphere attracting just as many people as the smell of coffee and toasted food that always drifted outward from its doors. Now enduring its first winter, it also had a series of hastily-laid mats sprawled across the wooden floor to soak the snow from the customers' boots.

It was just before lunchtime when I arrived, at the beginning of the rush of workers desperate for warmth and food. My co-worker was Steve, someone younger, blonder and more carefree than me, and as I walked in through the door he was dutifully serving a beautiful green-eyed girl named Kate.

She's early, I thought with a sinking disappointment. I swallowed the jealousy that I knew was unfounded, for many reasons, and hurried into the back to change. Within record time I quickly burst back out to join Steve as I slipped into my work apron. It was embarrassing to wear, a deep red in colour and subtly embroidered with the image of stylised coffee beans, and I struggled to tie its strings behind me as I scanned the tables to see where she had sat.

I spotted her in no time, as if my eyes already knew. She was sitting as she always did, at a small table near the panoramic front window with a book, grounding her own small world against the rush all around her. Her dark, chestnut-brown hair spilled in faint waves over her shoulders, almost the same colour as the dark wooden tables and chairs, and her hiking boots and thick green sweater suited her small frame far more comfortably than mine ever did on me.

“Seriously,” said Steve, shaking his head, blonde hair spilling over a pair of pale blue eyes.

“What?” I asked him, although I knew what.

“How long has it been?”

“How long has what been?”

“You know what.” He smiled the cynical smile that seemed to come so easily to his otherwise-open features. “She's been coming here every week for two months...”

“Six weeks,” I corrected him, “and I'm working my way up to a real conversation.”

“Working your way up from what? Do you have a plan?”

“Yes.” I was unconvincingly covering the chasm of uncertainty yawning inside. “When the time is right, everything will just...” I waved my arms in a vague gesture. “Everything will line up, just for a split second, and I will know that it's my moment, and I'll take it.”

“You'll take it?” he repeated. “How will you know when it's your moment?” He was still smiling, waiting to shoot me down, and deep down I knew I had lined up every target for him.

“I'll just know,” I insisted. “It's how the world works. Anyway,” I mock-chided him, “how old are you? Twelve? What do you know?”

He laughed. “Look,” he said, “I'm serious. My granddad always said, if you wait for perfect weather then you'll never climb that mountain.”

I nodded. “That is a good saying,” I admitted.

Steve laughed again. “You're nuts,” he said.

Kate left that afternoon with a smile and a wave of her small hands, jolting the delicate balance of hope and terror inside, but I let her go without a word. That night, I lay on my narrow bed, wrapped up against the cold air under layers of blankets and a thick duvet, thinking about Steve's saying from his granddad. I thought about Kate, coming in for coffee and lunch on the Wednesday of every week, who I'd had endless conversations with in my imagination. In those six weeks my daydreams of her had spiralled out of control until I'd taken her by the hand and flown away with her to show her the world, only to be interrupted and snapped like a rogue elastic back into the reality of the coffee shop and the gap between me and her. A few feet of wooden flooring had somehow become an insurmountable hurdle.

Or a mountain, I thought with a smile.

The moon was bright that night, and I rose and threw off my covers, the air already as icy as a mountain's as it quickly seeped through my tattered night-time clothes, an old white T-shirt and track-suit bottoms. Walking across the cold, bare floorboards and into the small living room, I saw the moonlight spread across the wall that I had painted. It had been against the terms I'd agreed to when I first rented the place, but no-one else had seen it yet.

Like all of the walls in this place it had been plain white, and it had looked to me like the daunting emptiness of a new page, a blank canvas of snow that ached to be moulded into something greater. At first I had wanted to fill it with words, but instead I had bought a tin of blue paint and begun to cover it, just to see what a difference in colour would do. It had reminded me first of the sky, and then of the sea.

Although I had never painted with any great talent or passion before then, I felt there were creatures trapped in the swirling blue depth of that wall, yearning for a glimpse into our world, and I began to paint all manner of things flying, swimming, floating either in clouds or in gentle currents, or sometimes both. It had been a playful time, and for a few weeks my paints had even swallowed up the stories that lay incomplete on my cluttered and worn desk. When I had finally finished, the room felt happier, and knowing that those strange flowing creatures behind me were finally free filled me with a relief that had unleashed a torrent of words from my typewriter, pouring out pages of poetry and stories that made me laugh with the joy of living.

Now, in the moonlight, I swore I saw movement across the wall, as subtle as clouds, or maybe waves, and I decided that it was time I became a mountain climber. This was my moment, and I resolved to take it.

I slept only a little that night, but when the sun rose I was there to greet its first pale light as it unfurled across every little thing in my room and made subtle drifting shadows out of their shapes. I sat at my desk, mug in hand, tired and happy, watching.

Later that day I put my arm around Steve's shoulder. “Young Steven,” I said to him. “Your words of wisdom have inspired me. This time next week, Kate will be mine, just you watch.”

Steve smiled a genuine smile at me. “There you go,” he said. “Congrats on growing a pair.”

I laughed, because he'd been right, and as we carried on working he shook his head. “You're still nuts,” he said.

My dreams and my daydreams ran riot over the following week, either flying with the ecstasy of her closeness or plunged deep into the gaping misery of her rejection. Or worse, falling in love with her only to lose her later. A million different lifetimes played themselves out as I soared and sank with the creatures on my wall.

Soon the week had heaved back over to Wednesday, with the snow still remaining solidly on the ground, and this time she wasn't early. In fact, she was just on time. Just as I stood ready with my apron freshly tied, she came walking up to the counter with her green sweater and her slim, self-conscious crescent of a smile shining from behind a tumble of dark hair. She always disconcerted me, threw me slightly off-centre, with her bearing and the aura of an old film star. I smiled back but with each of her footsteps against the hard floor I felt my mouth drying, sweat beading on my forehead, my hands trembling, vision blurring, heart pounding, chest tightening. I wondered what on earth I must look like, and I swore Kate was frowning slightly by the time she reached me.

She ordered her usual, a large mocha, placing a wrapped panini on the counter for me to toast.

“You okay, Silas?” she asked me.

I tried not to stare, but I wanted to make absolutely sure she was not frowning. This resulted in my eyes darting shiftily, which in turn made me more nervous.

“Yes,” I squeaked, then cleared my throat. “Yes,” I repeated. “I am very well.” I paused, then laughed in embarrassment, and only then did Kate let out a restrained chuckle as if she had been waiting for permission.

“Good,” she said.

As I prepared her food Steve winked at me and took care of her coffee. I smiled and turned back to Kate.

“So, er,” I began, desperate to stretch the pleasantries into conversation without knowing what to say, “why Wednesday?”

“Why Wednesday?” she repeated. “You're very observant.”

“Well,” I retreated, hoping she wouldn't think me a stalker and never come back. “I mean, I couldn't help notice...”

“Are you stalking me?”

I almost choked, the heat in my face turned up to maximum until I was sure I glowed like the coals at the bottom of a fire. She burst into laughter, one hand over her mouth as she looked at me.

“Your face,” she laughed, shaking her head and swinging more of her hair in front of her eyes.

I drew in a deep breath and smiled, feeling ready to pass out.

“Yes,” I agreed. “My face.”

Steve placed the delicate white mug containing Kate's mocha down onto the counter at the precise moment that I heard the toaster ping in its readiness, and I quickly swivelled around and went to fetch Kate's food. I wished there were some secret entrance here behind the counter, perhaps some small dark cupboard where I could hide for a few weeks. I put her toasted panini onto a plate, wondering if my red-hot cheeks had somehow sped up the toasting process, then turned and handed it to her, fighting my breathless shame to look at her and smile.

Her ocean-deep green eyes met my gaze and held it, just long enough to stop my heart for a moment and let the pause linger, time's passage dipping into slow motion as if tripped up by surprise. Then she turned and went to a small table, one that had been tucked in the corner opposite the counter, but that was still near enough to the large front window to let her look out.

“Smooth,” said Steve's voice, and I already knew before I looked that he was shaking his head.

I ignored him, beginning to feel the greatest swell of relief crash like a wave that has travelled the sea and finally found a beach, and yet it settled around a sharp rush of fresh adrenaline. I felt as though I had been miraculously rescued from the jaws of defeat, and was now placed ready to enact the next step of a plan which still lay in fragments of disarray. I sighed, and tried not to stare at her.

As the lunchtime rush swept in I prayed that she would stay long enough for me to find a gap in the crowd that would let me go to her and clear her table, to talk to her and find out the very thing that terrified me – whether or not she would ever want to see me outside of the coffee shop.

It built like the pressure in a boiler, and I swore the lines of workers waiting for their lunch were bigger than ever, far more than this small place could even hold, but when they finally parted to let me see her Steve literally pushed me forward.

“Go,” he whispered.

I walked out from behind the counter and over to Kate's table, each footstep resonating up my spine and around my skull, the distance suddenly stretching out over miles, and I felt like a condemned man walking to the gallows. I felt everything inside me tighten, all of my organs compacting into the black hole of anticipating rejection. My fists were clenched, I realised, my shoulders rock-solid and almost pressed into my ears, and I drew in a deep breath and consciously relaxed my muscles as I stood next to her table.

She looked up at me from an old hard-bound book she was reading, and smiled, and for a moment I forgot why I was there. I had planned to be nonchalant and charming and tell her that she had never answered my question about why she always came here on a Wednesday, but instead I picked up her plate and empty coffee mug with hands that shook them into rattling.

Still smiling, she put a small black leather marker in her book and sat back to watch the show.

“I...” I began. “I mean, you, never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“About...” I swallowed hard. “The Wednesdays?”

Her smile broadened into a grin. “What was your question about the Wednesdays?”

I put the rattling plate and mug back down with a clatter.

“Look,” I said, my still-tense shoulders dropping in exasperation. “I really just want to talk to you more. I want to see you somewhere outside of this place, when I'm not wearing...” I gestured to my embarrassing apron.

Kate leaned forward slowly, her grin turning into one of wonder as her eyes remained fixed on mine and glistened in a sunbeam that had sneaked its way in through the window.

“I only know your name,” I continued, my nerves and my tightened insides all screaming at me for not sticking to the plan, whatever that had been. “I want to know everything else.”

She stared at me a little while longer, the brief silence yawning out into infinity before me, a universe of uncertainty, my vision falling away until all that remained were her smile and her eyes, lit up by the sun.

“Okay,” she said.

The world rushed back in with a thud that was almost audible. I smiled as I felt like I was melting, tension seeping away and my insides now expanding back outward in celebration. I nodded.

“Okay,” I said back to her. “Can you meet me here at closing time at six thirty tonight?”

Her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“Tonight?” She looked out of the window for a few seconds, facing the sunlight that had found her, communing for an answer, then she turned back. “Okay,” she said.

“Okay,” I repeated, transfixed, now matching her grin with one of my own, and with the steadiest hands I had ever felt I picked up her plate and her coffee mug and took them back to the counter.

Steve patted me on the back like a proud father, and his only words were, “You're going to get a haircut first though, right?”

My hair was darker even than Kate's, and had recently just passed my shoulders, but still I didn't get it cut. Closing time came, and Steve wanted to know what my plan was, but I didn't tell him. I didn't make plans so much as mull over all the bright images that came to me and link them together into whatever order felt right, and the details usually dropped in between by themselves. The gallery I had created for Kate would never be understood by someone like Steve, as good-hearted as he was, and I only hoped that Kate would understand.

He wished me luck and left. It was dark, and after locking up I waited alone outside, huddled in the recessed front door, just one of many on the town's high street. I watched my breaths flutter in the air, lit by the angles of the street lights that lined the now-deserted and snow-swallowed road. My heart leaped into high gear every time I heard footsteps in the crunching ice, but each time it was just another passer-by, until the corner of my eye caught a small figure wrapped in a long dark coat and a thick grass-green scarf, standing on the opposite side of the road. I wondered if she had been there all along, but I said nothing as I went over to her, and without a word from either of us I took her arm. I felt my stomach fluttering with excited butterflies at being closer to her than ever before, at how small she seemed next to my six feet and two inches, at the colour in her wide eyes that was still visible in this dim light.

I led her in silence down a long and straight side road that was lined with shops set into old-fashioned buildings from the nineteen-thirties, and stopped at a bus stop. She looked at me, about to ask me what, why, and where, but the bus arrived with such impeccable timing that she never formed the words, and I only smiled.

We journeyed for a while longer, then I stood and led her from the bus and along a shadowy, unlit road carved into the snowy hills and farmland that surrounded the town. We were quickly swallowed by darkness until all we had were the sounds of our footsteps and breaths, and the subtle silhouettes of the distant mountainous horizon against the night sky.

We walked for so long in untouched snow that she looked up at me questioningly more and more often, but I only answered her with a smile each time, until we rounded a bend and she gasped and stopped dead. There was nothing but moonlight now, and it shone from behind a high ridge of rocky hilltops and onto the snow and ice by the lakeside, throwing a haunted silver blanket upon its frozen surface.

Kate held a gloved hand over her mouth as she detached from me and slowly walked over to the lake's frosted shore, reeds and rocks sprouting frozen from the snow.

“I had no idea this was even here,” she said in a whisper.

I followed her, and as we stood I felt her body leaning into me, pressing gently, and we froze as still as the lake and felt like we had become part of some great painter's imagination.

When the clouds passed by they cast huge shadows over the whole picture, and made us remember how cold our bodies were. With a synchronised shiver we looked at one another, and once again I took her arm and led her further on.

“Where are we going this time?” she asked me. “I hope it's warmer.”

“Yes,” I assured her. “We're going somewhere warmer.”

Soon we were in a darkness so complete that even though I had made this journey many times by myself, I felt the tug of uncertainty pulling me from one side to the other. After more walking, and just as the cold had seeped deep enough into our bones to rattle our teeth, the pale night sky lit up for us the silhouetted dome of a huge barn in a snowy and tree-lined field. A wooden fence skirted the field's edge, so old that parts of it had become embedded in the bark of the nearby trees. The barn sat next to a huge old oak tree, bigger than all the rest, its dead branches reaching upward to beg for the sun's life during the harsh winter days.

Reaching a break in the trees lining the field, I forced open the small and rotted wooden gate that sat camouflaged by smaller branches and overgrowth. I led Kate through, and we both hurried over to the barn as quickly as we could, laughing at our own clumsiness in the deep snow.

The barn loomed ahead of us, long and curved like an aircraft hangar. It was shaped out of huge rusting sheets of corrugated metal, with flat windowless walls front and back which were made of the same, and it must have been at least twenty feet tall at its highest point. The doors on the rear wall that now faced us had once opened wide enough to let in the farming vehicles that the barn would have housed many years ago, but its hinges had rusted solid long before I had found the place. Now they would not as much as budge.

We headed around to the front, where there was a small doorway with a padlock, and stopping there I reached into my pocket and pulled out my keys. Carefully selecting one in the pale light that was reflecting off the snow all around us, I unlocked its stiff barrel and pulled the door's fixed metal handle hard, juddering it open with the wincing scrape of metal. We went inside, into the darkness, the cold air as still as a freezer, and the smell of fresh wood hit us both immediately.

I flicked a switch next to the doorway, and one by one the series of long lights hanging high overhead struggled briefly, then crackled and popped into harsh fluorescent life. They brightly illuminated the curved, rust-patched walls that were covered in leaves of peeling off-white paint, and shone over the oil-stained concrete floor. I turned to Kate and watched her eyes widen as a laugh escaped her.

“What...” she began, wordless and breathless.

In the middle of the huge barn was a large wooden boat, propped up on an intricate scaffolding, and hovering over a flat metal trailer which sported four wheels that looked like they had come from a small aeroplane.

I took her hand and ran over to the side of the boat where a hefty wooden ladder was propped up solidly against it, and I climbed up onto the deck and stood at the top, holding out my hand over the freshly-varnished gunwale. Kate looked up at me for a moment from the bottom of the ladder, then with another laugh she came up and took my hand. “Welcome aboard,” I said to her, helping her up onto the deck next to me.

She paused, overwhelmed, running one hand over the old-fashioned wooden helm that I had rigged up to the rudder. She then went over and did the same with the wooden roof of the cabin, the whole of which was sunk into the deck, allowing me to see over it when steering. I stepped down to the cabin door, and we went through into the boat's interior.

Blinds were drawn down over the small windows that lined the upper walls at deck level, but another switch lit up the room with a soft light from an uplit bulb in the ceiling that made the walls blend with the shadows. It was sparse, and there was a fireplace embedded in the cabin's starboard wall with a pile of soft pillows and cushions opposite, and next to that lay a haphazard spread of books both old and new, some open and some closed. The floor was almost entirely covered by a thick, dark-beige rug that served as both carpet and mattress, and it often took on an orange hue when the fire was lit.

I went over to the fire and turned on the gas to light it.

“I wanted a wood fire,” I explained to Kate as she stood there, as frozen as the world outside in disbelief. “Most of the boat is made of wood though,” I continued, nonchalant, as if everyone owned a boat with a fireplace. “There would be nothing worse than burning to death when you're surrounded by water.”

As the flames sprang up and did battle with the freezing air I sat down on the pillows and took off my thick thermal skiing gloves, holding out my pink hands to soak in the warmth. I looked over at Kate who slowly came over and sat next to me. She just looked at me, and despite all I had seen, imagined, written and dreamed, she was in that moment so much more breathtaking than all of them. I felt like my old life had suddenly ended and a new life had just begun, and I smiled at her with a rush of disbelief to surpass hers.

The air finally warmed enough to let us shed our scarves and coats and sweaters, and as she picked up the scattered books and leafed through them I explained to her how up until last year I had lived many miles away, in a green and tree-lined suburb near Birmingham. I had been the only help and companion to my elderly neighbour when his family had left him alone, acting as his muscles and his mind as his own had faded. Sometimes I had read stories to him at night while he lay, his eyes closed and tears forming so slowly they took forever to navigate the cracks and wrinkles of his old skin to find their way to the pillow. Over the years the old man had slowly died, and then, the same day that I had returned home from his funeral convinced that his life was now sealed forever in my past, I had been told that my name was in his will. They told me that he had owned land out here where there were wild hills and lakes, and that it was now mine. When I had come to Alvermere to see if I could sell the land, I had found a barn with a half-finished boat inside. Whether the old man had started building it, or a hired hand, or even someone who he had never known, was something I never found out, and I had stayed here since.

“I read book after book,” I told her as she sat, her eyes still wondering if anything they saw was real. “I learned all there is to learn about building boats, and I began to finish what the old man had started.”

“Is it finished now?” she asked.

“It should be ready to sail,” I said thoughtfully, “but I keep feeling like there's something else I'm missing, something more obvious that's unfinished. I just don't know what it is.”

“How will you get it out of here?”

I smiled. “I don't know that either,” I said. “The big doors are rusted shut. But when the time comes, it will free itself somehow.”

She sat for a while, studying the detail and texture of the wood all around her.

“Maybe that's why it feels incomplete,” she finally said, as if to herself. “It's just not ready to leave here yet.”

I turned to her and met her eyes, their vivid green now flecked and dancing with the orange of the flames.

“Tell me about you,” I said, “and why you only drink mocha on a Wednesday.”

Kate laughed and leaned back into the pillows, half-lying and staring up at the ceiling, ready to collage it with the images of her life.

“I'm studying,” she said. “I grew up in York, and I'm studying at the uni there. I love it, but Wednesday is the only day I have off, and I come here on the train to wind down, away from the city.”

“York,” I repeated, slightly wistfully, imagining the sunlit walls and Roman columns as if they were a fairy tale. “How beautiful. What are you studying?”

“I'm doing an English Literature degree,” she said with a smile that immediately gave away her passion for the subject. “This is my last year.”

“Really? So you love to read?”

“I love to read,” she laughed, wide-eyed. “So do you, I see.” She glanced back around her at the books scattered everywhere.

“I do,” I nodded, “and I love to write even more.”

She gasped quietly. “Really? You have to show me some.”

“I will,” I promised. “But first, you have to tell me about York and your English literature.”

She told me everything and I listened, and I watched her hands gesturing, the expressions on the bright and rounded oval of her face, every line that formed when she smiled and frowned, and I filed them all away into their own spaces in my memory. She was immersed in every scene she described, recreating the world from her own memories and all the things she hoped for and wished were different. It was easy to see that she was intelligent, and confident in what she had, but she seemed to be searching for something she didn't have. Then, without so much as a pause, she redirected her words back to me, and waited for my reply.

“Me?” I asked in surprise. I had always felt like my life had been far too uneventful to warrant a story. “I was an only child,” I began after a deep breath, “I was born and raised in the same town near Birmingham, and I did terribly at school because I kept daydreaming. I could only get myself a part-time job in a coffee shop after I left, and even then it wasn't as nice as the one I work at now.”

“What about your family?” she asked. “Are they still down there?”

“My parents are both dead,” I said. The words alone stoked the sharp pain that had been planted so firmly there, just a few years before.

“I'm sorry,” she said quietly, her eyes staring into the fire.

“Well I inherited the house,” I continued, “and kept living there until I inherited this place too, and moved up here.” I gestured grandiosely as if we were sitting in the halls of an enormous mansion.

“I'm sorry about your parents,” she said again. “But you've managed to avoid telling me anything about yourself.”

When she turned to me she wore a slight smile, but it was painted over a more determined expression that I realised wouldn't stop until she had peered into me.

I told her about my father, wild-haired just like me, his great and hulking frame always moving so deliberately, and how a great energy seemed to be trapped in the intensity of his eyes. His love and enthusiasm for the earth and all things belonging to nature had inspired me as a child, and I had always felt just as trapped and restless by living in the city. I told her about my mother, a pale woman with long and golden hair, slight and retiring with rhythmic retreats in and out of herself, her moods changing like the moon. I told her that I was so jolted by their loss that I could only release what was inside me through writing, which I had done non-stop for many months. All manner of stories were born, some dark and some hopeful, and I promised to show them all to her. I told her all about how I had sold the house when I had moved here, and kept the money saved because I didn't want to buy another one until I met someone worth living with. I didn't really mind where I lived as long as I could write out whatever wanted to be written and sit in silence whenever I pleased. I told her I had huge dreams at night, and lived out whole other lives inside them, and that when I die I want to escape my body and see every square mile of the planet, all the seabeds and mountaintops, then fly away into the sky to play with the clouds, and finally settle back home into whatever I had lost with my parents.

I looked over at her, and she lay, smiling at me, her half-closed eyes trailing a damp stain of tears. I said nothing, and picked up her long coat and spread it over her as she drifted into sleep. I lay down and watched her for a while, but soon those other places called to me, and I slipped into my dreams and saw her, as brief as glimpses between passing trains, but always there.

When I woke she was still lying, unmoved and breathing with a gentle rhythm, and I slowly arose. I looked at my watch and saw that we would have to leave soon if she were to catch her train home. I crouched next to her and touched her shoulder, and she drew in a long breath and opened her eyes. For a moment she just stared at me, and then she slowly sat up.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Time to get you back home,” I said. “I'll take you to the station. There's just one more place to go first.”

She smiled, and didn't even ask what I meant as she stood and began to dress.

There was no moon to light the snow now, but the sky was subtly lighter than the shade it kept at night, and I led her back through the footprints of last night, both of us braced into waking against our sleepiness by the solid force of cold in the air.

We caught the early bus back into town, its rows of bright windows acting as pools of light for the outlying streets that had none of their own, and we sat dwarfed by the empty seats all around us. We rode far into the town centre and had almost reached its other edge where the small station lay before I had the bus stop for us, and I led us off.

As the bus pulled noisily away we stood, the horizon now starting to fade into its familiar blue. A few more minutes of walking just beyond the soon-to-be-busy streets took us down a narrow side road, until we reached a breathtakingly ornate old church. It stood, inset from the road, its spire thrust proudly into the sky, surrounded by snow-laden graves and dead trees.

Kate was close by my side, tired but wide-eyed and uncomplaining, and we entered through a gate and walked across the snow and around the church. When we rounded its tall corners there were fresh acres of white stretching outwards, punctuated only by ancient leaning headstones and statues that still wept for their dead, and I took her further in until we stood in the middle and faced the brightening east. All around us the dark tangles of branches and bare hedgerow bordering the pathways and edges of the cemetery all lay in peaceful hibernation under their pure white blankets, untouched, and it felt like a new land.

The sky paled over us in anticipation, the sun aching for the day to begin, and suddenly it appeared in swirls of pink and surrounded by an entourage of clouds mirroring its distant orange. When I looked around I saw expanses of snow-covered ground now coloured in angled panels of stained glass that appeared from behind the slow shadows and shone with the sky.

I turned to her and watched the colours glisten in flawless reflections from tears that welled in her eyes and never fell. The air moved around us, and I breathed it in and swept out everything I had ever been before, and in that moment I reached for her and, having known her for less than one day, I held her to me and kissed her. Her lips were dry and cold against mine, and filled with more life than the sun could ever hold.

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