The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 5

Less than a year after I met Kate, in the following summer when the ground had surfaced from beneath months of snow, I decided I wanted to marry her.

It was, of course, a Wednesday, and we were sitting at a table in the coffee shop where I was now a supervisor. It was the middle of June, and the muddy mats had been taken up for the dark wooden floor to once again shine.

We sat near the same window where I’d first asked her out. The streets outside were vibrant, lit by restless shades of sunlight that was filtered by the swaying trees that now lined them. Over our small lunch of coffee and paninis I watched her and listened, and she spoke with a raw enthusiasm about the old English literature she was studying, her hands tracing wild shapes in the air as she talked. I watched her eyes changing with every word, now wide with surprise and now narrow and darting, and that's when the moment came when I knew I would marry her. We had simply fit together so surely that it seemed odd to think we had ever been apart, and the realisation hit me that I could not even conceive of spending any longer without her. Without saying a word to her, I merely listened while a whole new life bloomed into colour in my imagination.

“What are you smiling at?” she suddenly asked me, her head tilted quizzically.

I felt like a child caught lying, and I shrugged, feeling myself blush. “I was just watching you, that's all.”

“Watching me?” She looked at me thoughtfully as she picked up her mug in both hands and took a sip. “You have that distance in your eyes,” she said, studying me over its rim. “Like you're planning something.”

I laughed. “Don't worry,” I told her. “I rarely plan things.”

“You plan things,” she corrected me. “You might have ideas on a whim, but you always plan how to do them.”

I nodded defeatedly. She'd got me weighed up already, and she was still a mystery to me. I laughed and shook my head, and sat back in my seat as she smiled broadly at me and carried on talking. I knew for a fact that no matter how perfectly we fit together, I would never fully know what was really going on behind those eyes.

After work the next day, when she had gone back into the walls of her distant city to her studies, I set out to look at rings. Within minutes I left the town's only jewellery shop heavy with the realisation of how long I would have to save my meagre income just to ask her to marry me, never mind what came afterwards if she said yes.

I walked on, worries clouding my mind and casting stormy shadows over that bright new life I had dared to watch unfold, and I decided that today I would buy something for her that I could afford, the first milestone on a path she knew nothing of. I roamed the small streets and even smaller side-streets, hurrying as everyone's closing time approached, peering into windows and stepping into places only to step back out simply because they didn't feel right. I'd had what Kate had called an idea on a whim, and there was nothing else but the feeling in my gut to guide me.

Just then, that very same gut leaped up with anticipation. I was halfway along a narrow road of small shops on Alvermere's outskirts, its skyline a panorama of hills, when I spotted a small and dusty-looking place that seemed to beckon me. It was tucked away as if hiding, its flaking wooden window frames stubbornly holding out against the white plastic on the buildings that flanked it. I walked over to it and saw second-hand books lining the sills behind the large windows each side of the door, their covers and hand-written prices now faded under weeks of sunlight.

I pushed open the door and stepped into the dimly-lit and cramped inside. I knew straight away from its smell of old pages that this was the one. The carpet was thin and dark – whether by design or by decades of neglect, I could not tell. High wooden shelves packed almost to bursting lined all the walls, and they ranked up to form small aisles on the right. The left part of the shop was reserved for disordered tables of random and odd-looking books, and was home to a large and unkempt man who sat behind a makeshift counter that was really just an old desk. His hair and beard were uncut, and his black polo-neck jumper was worn to the point of rotting, peppered with holes. As he sat slumped over a book of his own he seemed too engrossed to even notice me. I imagined him being young and clean-shaven when he had begun reading, but he had never looked up from his book to realise where all the years had gone.

Walking further in and stepping past him, I made my way around the tables and over to the shelves in the far corner. I glanced back at him behind his desk, but he paid no attention to me at all. I might as well have not even been here. He just slowly and deliberately licked one thumb and turned another page in his book.

His indifference was oddly entertaining, and I smiled to myself and scanned the shelves, squinting at the white cardboard labels that were written in black felt-tip and taped on, now peeling away at the edges. I slowly read each one and stopped to pull out all the books that captured my eye, and I quickly understood the way that time settled in here, and why the man behind the counter was content to just sit and read, page by slow page. Each and every book in here was an era of its own, complete and sealed in paper and bound by covers, and it defied age like an old building. The passage of time must have given up on places like this. I saw why Kate was so in love with old books, and in my mind I saw her surrounded by them while she grew old, and seasons changed all around her while she stayed beautiful forever. Somewhere in here, I knew, I would find what I was looking for. It would draw me, as inevitably as Kate had drawn me.

A cough from the man behind the counter brought me quickly back down to earth, and I drew in a deep breath and wandered into the aisles of shelves that looked so full that they would bulge and explode into splinters at any minute.

I paused when I reached the last shelf, opposite the front window. The glass was letting in a perfect shaft of sunlight that lit up the dust from the yellowing pages, projecting itself in a flawless bright rectangle across the uneven spines. I stopped and looked, and saw one small book toward the top, almost on the edge of the light, and I reached up and took it down to look.

It was about the size of a small notebook, and was covered in a beautiful material, like canvas that had turned the colour of aged leather. Holding it in the sunlight I ran my fingers over it, just to make sure it was real. The front cover was completely blank, and I knew that whoever had bound it had not been able to bring themselves to sully the material with print.

I was sure that it was somehow magical, the kind of book that undiscovered genius children always found hidden away at the backs of mysterious disappearing bookshops in fantasy films. I held it in my hands, smiling at it, fingers poised to open it and yet somehow afraid. I half-expected its cover to be some sort of doorway into another land, but with a deep breath I opened it up to a page in the middle and saw flowing poetry hand-written over its beautifully textured pages.

I closed it, now firmly decided, and took it over to the man behind the desk, but its blank cover seemed to confuse him. He simply frowned and handed the book back to me after he had flicked through its pages.

“Have it,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “Looks like someone's diary.”

I enthusiastically gave him the few coins left in my pocket as a thank-you for something that I felt sure was priceless, and left. The book held a life of its own and had found me, that I was sure of.

That night I sat in my narrow bed, wrapped in sheets beneath the window, reading the poetry under the light of a clear moon. Many of the poems were named as being written by well-known poets, but some of them were simply left written and uncredited. Whoever had penned them in flawless flowing black lines had left traces of their own poetry, fragments of themselves, some of them as dark as trapped smoke, and some of them soaring and brighter than the summer afternoons had been.

I fell asleep and dreamed of who the mysterious writer had been, a lovelorn man long since dead, forging onwards into all of the most beautiful places on earth. There he would stand alone and look out over all the world’s expanses, holding some unspoken hope that perhaps chance would show her to him in one of those endless empty spaces, knowing none of it was equal to the richness of what lived inside him.

I awoke inspired, and hoped that my dream had somehow tapped into the truth, that this man's despair had lingered, waiting, and without the return of the one he loved it had instead wandered and settled in my dreams to find its home on new pages.

Leaping out of bed into a cool summer morning I dragged myself, still sleepy-eyed, across the cold floorboards and to my desk by the window, where a sea of paper lay lit by a pale sunrise. I wrote down hundreds of lines by hand while the dream still remained and held on strongly enough to be defined in words, and only when it stopped writing itself did I dare to sit up straight and stretch myself ready for the solid world outside.

Sitting next to my typewriter was a silver mechanical alarm clock, brand new but made in the old style, with two round bells perched like ears on top. I sat for a while, staring at its shape and the distorted reflections of the desk around its edges, before realising what time it was. The idea had been to keep a track of time while I wrote, so that I would not be late for work, but I had forgotten to set it.

With a yelp of panic I leaped up and hurried out into the bathroom to shower and dress. As I dropped and spilled things and left a trail of clothes in my wake, I thought to myself that at least longer working hours meant I had less time to miss Kate. Being a supervisor meant near full-time hours and better pay, and I hoped that between this and my stories, I would be able to build up some savings. Writing was now relegated to the sidelines of early mornings and weekends, but I had found that compressing their outlet in this way only made their release even richer, as everything unnecessary was discarded and only what was meaningful survived to surface on the paper.

Once dressed I rushed out of the door with untied laces and half-ran, half-walked, and mostly-tripped my way to the coffee shop where I managed to get into uniform just in time for the start of my eight o'clock shift. Most of the customers at that time in the morning were suited businessmen on their way to the new office park on the edge of the town. They took their drinks to go, sealed in our new branded cardboard cups that matched the aprons, and their hasty retreats back to their cars left me spaces of time where I still thought about her.

In those quiet moments, when my attention was allowed just for a few minutes to bounce from the outside back in, I would furiously try to work out what it was about her that had captured me so completely. Perhaps it was precisely because I didn't and couldn't work her out. Perhaps she was a mystery I would spend forever trying to decipher.

Steve arrived at lunchtime, ready to work the part-time shift that had once been mine. Kate's enthusiasm had inspired him to begin studies of his own, ready to join York's grand university later in the year, and he had reduced his hours to fit. I was leaning on the counter near the tills when he interrupted my daydreaming.

“You're so into her,” he said as he walked past and slipped into his apron.

Since his studies he had somehow begun to look older and more responsible, his hair cut shorter and his eyes more focused, but this had not tempered his teasing.

“You're thinking about her right now, aren't you?”

I smiled at him. “Hello, Steve,” I said.

“I'm serious,” he continued. “You're staring at the empty table where she was Wednesday, with the same look on your face. Like she's still there.”

I nodded. “It feels like she should be,” I admitted.

“You must be serious about her,” Steve said, leaning on the counter next to me. “I bet you've thought about marrying her. You're the marrying type.”

“The marrying type?” I asked quizzically, turning to face him.

“You're thinking about it, aren't you?”

I watched Steve's mischievous grin return, resenting how he read me so easily.

“I'm saying nothing,” I finally told him.

Steve just laughed as he straightened up, picked up a broom from behind the counter, and went out to sweep the wooden floor.

“That's the biggest yes I've ever heard,” he said.

The next day the weekend arrived, and I read back to myself one more time the story that I had scrawled down so wildly. It had been edited numerous times, my eyes closed, reaching back for the dream, and now that it was finished I fed paper into my old rickety typewriter and carefully typed it out into a manuscript, and sent it on to be published.

Its main character was the man I had dreamed, with his vague dream-essence now solidified through the filter of my own experiences and memories, and focused into printed words.

Sometimes I wished for the pain of his loss in return for his journey's purity. It was the disappearance of his fiancée that had driven him to fly to every continent to climb their mountains, and after many years he had eventually ended his life by a careless accident, frozen in the Antarctic surrounded by blinding ice and miles of sunlit snow. By seeing how vast the world was, he had hoped he would see how small his heart was, and forget its tendrils that still wrapped the love he had lost. It was not until he died that he realised the world was not bigger at all.

Like all dreams however, any thought of my latest manuscript faded like mist hit by sunlight as Kate arrived back in town that afternoon to stay for the weekend. I had been saving for a small car, and as yet still could not afford one, but Kate never spoke a word of complaint at having to catch buses and walk. Her pace was so steady and slow that I found it hard to reconcile with her bright darting eyes, like those of a puppy, hungry for things and hesitant to blink in case she missed one.

“What's in the bag?” she kept asking me, trying to grab the plain shopping bag in my hand as we made our way from the station to the boat, but I wouldn't let her.

“You'll see,” I told her each time.

Once her things had been taken safely aboard, we headed back into town. I had patiently and thoroughly trained the weekend staff at the coffee shop, and whenever I took Kate they gave us each a free coffee by way of saying thank-you. Still, she always said her mocha wasn't quite the same as when I used to make it.

That evening we went back to the boat and let the fire burn a low flame to stave off the night's chill, and as we sat back on the cushions I held up the shopping bag and slowly took out a small bundle, badly wrapped in plain paper and sticky tape. I would have apologised but her eyes were once again wide with wonder as she took it from me, and she carefully unstuck every piece of tape without ripping the paper, then took out the book.

I watched her lips part in a silent gasp, and her fingers barely touched the cover as she reverently felt its texture just as I had done.

“It's beautiful,” she said.

She opened it up with a growing smile and slowly flicked through the pages, stopping to read some of them, and then looked up at me.

“It's really beautiful.”

I told her about my dream, and how the poems had been penned by some remarkable stranger, whether or not they had in reality climbed mountains, and all the while she sat reading pages and smiling at the stories I invented for the mysterious author, some ridiculous enough to make her laugh and others so sad she shed a tear as she read the poems inside.

We fell asleep happy, as we did every weekend. If there had been anyone nearby to see us spending our Saturday nights together in a barn, perhaps they may have rushed to conclude stories of their own, but the reality was that we sat by the fire on our soft cushions, surrounded by the scent of the boat's gently creaking wood, and talked until we fell asleep.

Sometimes, as we lay together, I kissed her, and when her face was so close to mine and her lips were warm against my own then all the other things disappeared, and I felt like giving up my body to share her soul in here with me. There were nights when I awoke next to her and every one of her breaths matched my own perfectly, my nostrils pulling in the dark air as her chest slowly fell, our two bodies achieving effortless equilibrium. I imagined that somewhere, on some mad planet, the yin-yang symbol of completion was a circle formed of Kate and me.

“I'll be taking my final exams soon,” she told me the next morning as we stood under the huge old oak tree next to the barn to watch the early sun streaming through the leaves like spotlights.

There was dew on the long grass, stretching on as far as we could see, lit up in blinding silver until it looked like we were standing on the surface of a lake.

“I'll be set free.”

I turned to her. “I'll have to make this boat ready to live in,” I said with a smile.

She turned to me and smiled back, silent for a while. “There was so much I'd missed before you.” she said.

I was transfixed by her, the reflections in her eyes more perfect than the things they reflected. “It's the same for me,” I told her.

Later, when the drops of dew had all evaporated and left the grass far below them, we set out for another free coffee. Although it was growing, Alvermere was not a large town and many places were closed on a Sunday, but the coffee shop stayed open. It proved so popular in the warmer weather that the pavement outside was packed with enough tables and chairs to push the pedestrians into the road in order to walk past.

We sat outside, basking in the heat and the breeze, and Kate asked me if I would like to come to York and meet her mother once her studies were finished and she had returned back home. I agreed, filling with excitement both at peering deeper into Kate's life and at seeing the city of York with its grand walls and history. I looked into her eyes as she smiled.

“Tell me about your dad,” I said.

Kate's smile disappeared. She said nothing for a while, looking right back at me, then she looked down at the ground beside her.

“He broke my heart,” she said. “He left when I was fourteen, and I changed.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. Just please, don't ask me again.”

She drew in a deep breath then looked back up at me. “But I'm excited for you to meet my mum,” she said.

She smiled as if another phase had been enacted in a plan only she knew about. I did not want to skew its momentum by asking anything about it.

I never mentioned her father again.

The following day, after she had left, the cheque arrived for the story from my dream. I had slept a long and heavy sleep as deep and peaceful as a grave on the ocean floor, and had awoken later than usual. With no time to write anything, I rushed to wake myself more fully with a cup of freshly-ground coffee. As its scent filled the small rooms as completely as the daylight, I opened the envelope that had been hand-written with my name.

I paused in disbelief as I pulled out the cheque. The previous week, I had seen a ring for Kate that was perfect, its shape crafted as if for her alone. It was made from gold, with the subtlest patterns imprinted along the edge, and with a diamond that was small but surrounded by a vanguard of tiny deep-green gems that lit it the colour of Kate's eyes.

With my meagre savings I had even contemplated the unthinkable, of dipping my hand into the money from my parents' house that I had locked deep away in a long-term savings account. However as I stood that morning, envelope in hand, the amount scrawled onto the cheque in blue ink was just a little more than the amount written on the ring's price tag.

As soon as the cheque had cleared, the ring sat in its box, wrapped in a simple paper bag, and it remained untouched and hidden for many more weeks before I even looked at it again.

During those weeks I visited the town's outlying scrapyard and the local garage many times, and salvaged so many pieces of metal and piping from both that their owners would stand looking at me, scratching their heads. However when Kate came to stay for a week in the summer after her exams were finished, the boat now had a small camping stove and a sink with a water heater, fed from the tap in the barn.

At the end of the week, I took the few days of holiday I had been allowed off from my work, and I went with Kate to catch the train into York. It was a long and beautiful journey, with three hours of lakes, mountains, small towns and farmland. When we arrived at York's cathedral of a station Kate had to drag me by the arm to keep me from stopping and staring up in wonder. Huge arched ceilings bowed over us like the branches of trees lining a leafy path, and I laughed with childish glee.

We carried our small suitcases through the crowds, out of the station and into the currents of people streaming through the bright streets. They collected briefly in pools beneath the shades of leafy branches wherever trees had pushed their calloused trunks through the cracked paving by the roadside, then they were whisked away by taxis or by relatives in cars.

A bus took us toward the house on the city's outskirts where Kate had lived with her mother since she was a little girl, and she apologised for the noise and the confines of tall buildings that hid the sunlight and created shadowy alleys out of wide streets.

“Does it remind you of when you lived in the city?”

I shook my head. “Not my city,” I smiled. “This is different.”

“It's so peaceful where you live now,” Kate said. “I never wanted to leave here until I found Alvermere.”

I stared out of the bus window as avidly as a tourist from a foreign land as we drove on. The city looked as if it belonged in the sun, and was not designed to be seen any other way; yet as beautiful as it was I felt a subtle power over it, knowing that it could never confine and hold me prisoner as the city I had grown up in once had. It was like falling asleep and visiting some familiar place, only being able to fly over it with the unique freedom only found in dreams.

A taxi took us the remaining two miles to the city's edge, down a long and leafy lane and off into a quiet crescent where the small semi-detached houses all curved obediently around the road, lined up neatly as if ready for inspection. Prim hedges and meticulous lawns were laid out on display in front of many of them, but when the taxi pulled up outside a house with a cracked and overgrown front driveway and a barely-mown lawn, I felt a smile of relief that Kate's mother was not like the rest.

Hers was the rightmost of the two attached houses, and we climbed out and carried our cases over the uneven paving to the plain wooden front door. Kate fumbled for her keys in the large leather bag that hung from her shoulder before finding them and letting us in. Stepping in ahead of me, she visibly relaxed as she entered, and she called out, “I'm home! Silas is with me!”

I went in behind her and we both let our bags fall to the floor. The carpet felt soft and new underfoot, a beige so light in colour that it looked like no-one had set foot on it before. I closed the door behind us and looked around at the small hallway where we stood. The faint smell of fresh paint lingered in the background, hanging off the soft magnolia walls.

“Mom's been redecorating,” Kate explained as she saw me peering up the flight of stairs that ran up and out of sight.

As if on cue, I heard the tentative whistle of a kettle beginning to boil, quickly becoming almost deafeningly shrill as the kitchen door opposite us opened, and a kindly-looking plump woman hurried toward us. She was a little shorter than Kate, and despite not looking any older than fifty, her short and curly hair was a bright silvery white. She wore a cardigan that matched the carpet perfectly, as well as a pair of loose trousers that were too short, and great big smile.

“Welcome home,” she said, her voice like that of someone trained to sing in her youth. She hugged Kate tightly, and then turned to me, pausing for a moment as she looked me up and down.

She raised an eyebrow. “He's tall,” she said to Kate, then added, “and handsome.” She laughed and gave me as big a hug as she had given Kate. “I'm Rose,” she said.

Her accent made her sound well educated, but she had a down-to-earth manner, and I could tell she had been attractive in her younger days. Her eyes and smile were not so bright as Kate's, but she had an appeal that made it easy for me to warm to her. She turned back to Kate and nodded her approval.

“You've done well,” she said. “Now, have a sit down you two – and first thing's first, you need a cup of tea.”

She disappeared back into the kitchen, and the kettle's whistle died down as I followed Kate into the small living room. The redecorating had evidently not reached here yet, but the green-themed carpet and furniture were all well-kept despite being worn. A small, seldom-used television sat on a wooden stand in one corner, and right in the middle of the room was a large coffee table, a substantial rectangle of dark wood that stood on four sturdy legs, each as thick as a bulldog's.

Kate shook her head as we sank down into the soft comfort of the sofa. “Mum's obsessed with tea,” she said, almost in apology. “I swear she's getting old before her time.”

“Tea is good for you,” I said in Rose's defence. “It's full of antioxidants.”

Kate turned to me with an exasperated frown. “Don't you start,” she said. “You'll be getting that speech from her soon enough.”

Rose soon came in with a round tray that carried a comically rotund pot of tea under a knitted tea cosy, and three cups of white china, together with milk and sugar. I would have found the look of excitement in her eyes to be slightly disturbing had Kate not already warned me.

She placed the tray down on the table before us and poured out three cups of milky tea, dutifully handing them to us on their saucers. Sure enough, as Rose sat on the armchair nearest us, the first words out of her mouth were regarding the magical properties of antioxidants and tannins. I began to feel afraid of telling her that I worked in a coffee shop.

“Silas works in a coffee shop,” volunteered Kate.

“Oh really?” Rose asked, undaunted, her eyebrows raised. “I have to admit, I do love a nice coffee now and again. Nothing like a kick of caffeine in the mornings is there?”

I smiled as she winked at me and laughed, and while we all sipped our tea I felt like I was just as at home as Kate.

After our tea I was shown to the spare bedroom, a large room at the back which overlooked the grass and evergreens in the garden below. Being the largest bedroom, it had become the epicentre of all the things that could not find a home anywhere else in the house, and space was scarce. The endless boxes and rolls of years-old wallpaper and carpet had thankfully been tidied enough to allow me enough room to sleep and dress, and I actually enjoyed being among such a diverse array of haphazard hoarding.

Over the course of the week I realised that Rose was in many ways as sweet a lady as her daughter. She seemed to warm to me, and she immediately picked up on the naturalness of me and Kate being together.

“You love writing, Kate loves reading,” she’d said to me with a proud smile one evening, and I had felt a swell of joy at her approval.

However she was just as silent about Kate's father as Kate had been, so I still said nothing, just as she had asked.

Each day they took me out and showed me a new part of the spacious city, with its ancient walls of enormous brick, old riverside cafés, and the dramatic Minster in all its majesty. Just like back at the station, Kate had to keep dragging me with her when I stopped to stare at the fragments of sunlight splintered through the cathedral’s old stained glass, reaching out to them with my hands until I was sure I could feel its colour, and when I looked up at the lattice of the vaulted ceilings I heard my own laughter echo around its sinews.

Even when we stood outside in the sunlight I was captivated into stillness by the building's imposing face, with its spires quietly dominating the whole city, and its solemn permanence rooted itself in me for the rest of our stay.

When the week was over I felt a sadness at having to pack my things and leave. I wished I could be a rich old tycoon with a house here as well as back home, so that I would be free to fly between them in my private jet.

As I stood in the hallway ready to go I thanked Rose profusely, and stooped for her to kiss my cheek before setting off for the station.

“Take care, now,” she said to me. “Don't forget to put more tea on your menu.”

“I'll see what I can do,” I laughed. “If not then I'll have to set up shop by myself.”

Kate and I left together, and she came with me to the station and stood with me on the platform.

“Thank you, Silas,” she said in the small silence granted between trains. She stoop up on tip-toe and kissed my lips, grabbing the lapels of my long overcoat to pull me closer. I felt her warmth against me, the inexplicably perfect fit of us both together, how it had a logic of its own and simply made sense.

“I love you, Kate,” I said to her, and somehow I meant it more than ever before.

She smiled, and the long train arrived on cue. “I love you too, Silas,” she said as it squealed to a halt next to us.

The doors opened and I climbed aboard, finding a seat and hurriedly jamming my suitcase overhead. I sat by the window, waving to her as the engines roared, and she was slowly left behind with the platform and the arched ceilings until they were all gone.

Filled with cups of tea and the simple joy of having tasted a small part of the life Kate led when I wasn't with her, I slept through the train journey home, dreaming of high castle walls and endless cathedrals.

After that week, despite the hours between us, we still saw one another as often we could. When the summer passed and the first of autumn's dead leaves appeared in showers, Kate settled back home and began to look for work, and could once more only visit once or twice in a week. As I watched the sky grow more distant each day and the ground outside was slowly buried, the time neared to unearth the ring.

November came, the nights advanced their boundaries first into the evenings and then into the afternoons, and the streets fought back with increasing numbers of Christmas lights. When December arrived I bought myself an old and rusting little car which, like a faithful dog whose owner has died, still had enough life to serve a new master. It was a Ford Fiesta that had once been white, but the faded paint and flecks of rust made it stand out against the drifts of snow that were now returning to shore up against everything. The elderly man who sold it to me had been sad to let it go, and he had even cried while telling me of the journeys it had taken him on before his eyesight had faded too much to drive anything.

When he had seen how I’d treated it on our test drive, he had been immediately happy to let me look after it, and I’d driven it home as if it were still his.

One week later, the snow was thick and the sky was growing dark, and I took Kate on her first journey in the car. It was a slow and treacherous trek through ruts carved in the snow by tyres younger and more confident than those I had fitted, and our breaths clouded the air and stuck to the insides of the glass as we drove along to the roar of the heater, as excited and full of laughter as adolescents.

“Have you named it yet?” she asked me. “The car?”

“I don't name things,” I told her. “It's not fair, they can't talk.”

“They talk,” she said defensively, “in their own way.”

“So I don't need to name them in my way,” I argued. “I talk with them on their level, so they don't need a name.”

“Everyone needs a name if you’re going to talk to them,” she insisted. “Where are we going anyway?”

I smiled but said nothing. I knew that she knew that I'd have something planned. It was, after all, exactly one year after that first winter morning, and had I waited until the sun was sinking before setting out.

When we finally slid to a crooked halt outside the old church and climbed out of the car, I took Kate by the hand back across the same snow-covered graveyard, to the same spot as before. There we stood still in the last shadows under ragged and pale clouds, and I sank to one knee in the snow and asked her to marry me.

The world was a perfect white, acres smoothed over and deserted, carved out just for the two of us. I looked up at her, standing above me against the sky ripped apart by sunset. Its vivid light was a deep blood red, and cast long patterns through the dark branches behind her. I would always remember the way it caught the rush of her breath as she said “Yes.”

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