The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 8

Back in 1998, on the first day of my new job, I caught a reflection of myself in the curved, glass-lined front of the impressive six-storey building, and saw that the cool April wind had unpicked and retangled my hair back into its natural wild state. I had cut it short just a few days before, but it grew so fast that no barber could tame it. I paused and pressed it back down with both hands, then muttered silent curses as I looked down at the slime-trails of gel it had left behind on them. Impatiently wiping them on a piece of tissue from my suit pocket, I walked through the wide front doors into the minimalist reception room. My new shoes clicked loudly against the grey tiled floor, and I smiled and said hello to the woman behind the wooden semi-circle that was the reception desk. Confidently striding past to the back wall, I threw open the door next to the lift and jogged up five flights of stairs to the top floor.

The office building where I now worked sat in the small business park on Alvermere's western edge, a short car journey away from where I lived. It was a growing company whose clients were national, and part of my job was to travel out and meet with those clients, making sales pitches and reviewing contracts, things that made me feel suddenly and overwhelmingly responsible.

When I had applied for the job, a company who manufactured all manner of hardware parts and components seemed like something so unimportant that nothing I could do would ever have any noticeable impact, and the thought had given me a small sense of freedom. Just like the coffee shop, it could wink out of existence one day and its absence would barely be noticed outside this small town.

I was placed in a large and brightly-lit open-plan office that must have occupied around half of the top floor, its rough grey carpet underfoot matching the tiles in reception. The desks were all faux-pine flat-packs, evenly spaced around the plain walls and broad glass windows, and lined up in a rectangular block in the middle. Some were piled high with papers while others had a large and clumsy computer monitor taking up most of the space, each one spewing a tangle of wires to and from the machine tucked beneath it. Phones rang and were ignored or answered, screwed-up balls of paper were tossed toward waste bins only to miss, and my heart was lively with excitement at the prospect of settling into my first real job.

It was quickly tempered, however. During those first few days I felt like a hot-air balloon must feel when it is tied with heavy ropes to the ground and laden with weights, aching to soar. Every day I had to wear a smart suit and tie, and so much paperwork was generated that I often found its words and figures all jumbling together and building up into a tangled dam that no other thoughts could pass. Several times a day I would have to make excuses to spend a few minutes outside in the air to let it all collapse and flow once more.

I kept to myself and rarely spoke to my co-workers, finding their world of football and nights out to be alien to me. Instead I used my upcoming wedding in August as a reason to appear constantly occupied, beginning to secretly long for the simple coffee-shop days of writing out of my small flat. With each passing week those days were receding fast behind me, and their lazy playfulness glowed fondly in my memory. It was only when the payments appeared in my bank account each month that I felt renewed by the sight of more money than had ever sat in there before.

I was grateful that my wedding date stood ahead of me proud enough to outshine even those memories of the past. In the meantime, I was assigned a desk facing the large windows looking east, with no computer monitor to block my view. I could see the whole town, laid out like a model village, and the farmland beyond it. Sometimes, on clear days, I could even see the distant lake that I had once taken Kate to and whose frozen surface we had watched pouring with moonlight. It was many miles away and barely visible, but first thing in the morning the sun rose up over the water and was spread in blinding gold across the whole horizon.

Whenever I found myself staring out of the window, the girl on the next desk along would often regard me with a quizzical look, and would always ask the same question.

“What are you thinking about?”

“What?” I jumped, snapped back into the present. I swivelled in my chair to face her.

“Your face was blank again,” she smiled.

Her name was Joanna and she was pretty, but in a slightly too conventional way. Her dark-blonde hair was tied back into a professional ponytail to match her glasses and grey suit. Like everyone else here, I felt that she and I had come from worlds too different to meet, magnetic poles that could never connect.

“My face is always blank,” I said to her. “It's this job.”

Her brief laughter turned to concern as she watched me rise, without a hint of a smile, and walk out, down the stairs, and back outside to breathe.

There was a multi-storey car park by the business park, and sometimes I would get up early and drive to its roof and stand watching until it was almost time to start work. I'd stand and feel how quiet it could be, how wide and peaceful the water and the sun were, so far away from all of this. I would take that feeling inside, protected as a mother would cradle a newborn, and try to keep it with me as I walked back upstairs to the office and started working.

Kate knew how much I had given up, even though I only spoke of it once.

“I just loved writing so much,” I said in a wistful sigh as we sat amongst the cushions in the boat, after the job had swallowed up many months of my time.

“Don't worry,” she said, resting her head on my chest. “You know soon I'll be able to bring in an income.” Her words and the warmth from the flames lulled me into dreams of freedom. “You can forget that soul-destroying job,” she murmured comfortingly, “and you'll have even more time to write than you did before.”

Not long after that night, the day came when I finally released the money from my parents' house and bought one just a few miles from where I worked, a large detached house in a quiet road with only a few neighbours. Its floors were all boarded with the same dark and shiny wood as the coffee shop, and Kate had fallen in love with it immediately. There were imitation timbers in the walls and ceilings that made it look like it had been built in the middle ages despite being only a few years old. The front half of the downstairs was entirely open, bathing in the sunlight from two large windows, while the back half was sectioned off into a kitchen and a dining room, complete with a large patio door onto the garden. The view from there was what had captivated us.

Long and east-facing, the garden was walled off on both sides by high panelled fences, focusing the eye along its downward slope. Despite ending in a hedge which separated the garden from the adjoining fields, the view unfurled into a verdant panorama of green beyond it before levelling out into the distant town centre which lit up at night. This was only a dip in the middle before the land rose up again into the rocky hills and unkempt farmland far on the other side. It was the same view as from my office window, only not so high up, but although the lake was not visible from here, we would soon discover that when the morning came its surface sometimes shone up from behind the hills like a second sun.

The house cost more money than I had, but my income was good enough to borrow the extra, and it was things like this that I kept in mind each day when I worked, blank-faced and held down. Sometimes I felt like my old life was the real life, with the earthy taste of coffee and the texture of paper on my tattered desk, and the smell of freshly-planed wood swirling upward from my boat. Day by day I was varnishing over it with the sheen of a more comfortable, more normal life. I even replaced the trusty, rusting old car with a newer model. It was still called a Ford Fiesta, but its flawless silver paint and sleek new lines bore little resemblance to the faithful little dog that had carried me so dutifully this far. It might just have been the last symbol of simpler days, and now it was gone.

I found little time to reminisce, however. The days shot past us like wind in a tunnel, until with a dizzying sense of unreality we reached the fifteenth of August, and suddenly we were about to be married. Kate had gathered her few friends and her mother together in the small register office, and she shone in her white dress while I stood alone and overwhelmed almost to tears by her as she approached.

Everything was blurred, my own voice resounding in my ears like someone else's, while a suited minister conducted a brief ceremony that pronounced us man and wife. When I leaned in and kissed her, it felt like that first ever time, back amongst the snow-capped graves.

Although it was a subdued and quiet wedding in Alvermere's town centre, its intimacy made it mean all the more to me. Outside, the shadows were just beginning to grow longer and the leaves on all the trees were losing their shine, tired from months of jubilance and heat and colour. When the wind blew, some of them gave up and fell like confetti, and the earth celebrated with us wherever we went.

With the money I had saved from the new job we took our honeymoon abroad, flying out to stay in an old white-walled stone cottage near the bright rocks skirting Italy's Apennines, and looking out over a clear blue sea. On our first day we emerged out into playful, pure air, and filled with its life we ran through the long grass to climb up the nearby rocks so that we could better see the ocean. I felt like a force unleashed, as wild and mighty as the mountains that reared up from the ground all around, and I climbed higher and higher, delirious with joy.

We finally stopped, breathless atop a huge boulder, with a panorama of water spilling out and over the horizon. Our cottage was just one of many distant dots near the winding snake-line of the road far below, and I kissed Kate hard, knowing nothing could be more perfect than now. Kate held onto me and laughed and said that we were living out the story I had written, only we had no-one to look for out here because we'd already found each other.

We climbed further, until the sheer rock face made it impossible, and then we admitted defeat and retreated back to our cottage, exhausted. When the sun sank far enough to throw a bright orange glare off the sea and through our windows, we sat on the simple sofa looking out. Kate turned to me.

“I can't shake that story from my mind,” she said.

“Really?” I felt a measure of satisfaction. “Well that's the sign of a good story.”

“No, I like all of your stories,” she assured me. “It's just that one seemed so... hopeless somehow.”

“It is,” I agreed. “I suppose there was just nowhere for his heartbreak to go, so it stayed with him.”

“And only death could save him?”

“In the end, yes.”

“Would death save you if you lost me?” she asked with a smile.

I held her close. “Nothing would,” I told her. “I didn't write that story, remember. It crawled out of that notebook and found me.”

“You wrote it,” she insisted, leaning her head on my shoulder. “It was your dream, and your pen.”

I relented unconvincingly. I was still sure that the book I had found for Kate was infused with a soul of its own that still lived on even now. I wondered if it had given her any dreams, whispering its stories to her, which she would dismiss as the ramblings of her own subconscious upon waking.

“We're going to be something special, you and I,” she told me as we closed our eyes against the light.

As much as we wanted it to last forever, it seemed we were back home in Alvermere in no time, rushing like a whirlwind back into our lives. Everything had changed, even the little routines and schedules of getting up in the morning, eating meals, and sleeping at night. Sharing space that had always been my own was a delightful and sometimes difficult catalogue of tiny, endless adjustments, but our new house welcomed and nurtured us, and we both felt as if it had been built just for us.

Life with Kate was so new, so wonderfully alien to my existence before, that I would sometimes pause and try to recall its beginning, just to assure myself it had really happened.

Despite the thrill of the new life that I had merely dreamed just last year, each day at work I found myself staring into the drawer in my desk. It was filled with gleefully disordered and unevenly-torn pieces of paper, all of them covered in hasty scribbles of my handwriting. It served as the overflow for everything I could not do while trapped into working, and most of them were unfinished poems that I would write as I thought of them, whether on the road, in a restaurant in some strange town, or simply sat here at my desk. A few were elated, nonsensical odes to being surrounded by the wild elements of the great outdoors, but almost all of the poems were about Kate. I wrote them all on whatever surface I found, and then put them in the drawer before they were ever finished.

Sometimes I would look in there and wonder why I had started writing them, and wonder if anything in that drawer really mattered. All it had done was take what was inside me and start to soak it up, like pieces of blotting paper. Maybe when they were all finally finished, everything would be soaked up from out of me and I would be a clean surface, ready to start again.

I never told Kate about them, because when I came home to her every day she would hold me and banish anything still lingering from work, and there was no need for any outlet other than sitting with her and listening. I watched her follow in my trodden path, slowly emerging from the passion of her studies and out into a world that demanded she abandon them and trade the infinite possibility of books for a meaningless job. Although it daunted her, she wanted to see me cut back my own work so that I could write again. Sometimes her sacrifice caused me to withdraw back inward from her and feel as alone as I did before her, because I did not deserve her support.

Months rolled on, and even the city that had educated her had turned its back on her out of spite for her leaving. There was no work for her there, and eventually she landed my old job at the coffee shop, wondering if she could slip back into a piece of our old life, like a key unlocking a hidden door, to conjure possibilities she never would have dreamed.

“You never warned me,” she complained after her first day. “It's a lot harder than it looks to serve a hundred thousand customers their lunch at the same time.”

“A hundred thousand?” I asked her. “Business has boomed since I left.”

“It seemed like more,” she sighed, looking exhausted as she collapsed onto the sofa. “How did you do it?”

“You'll get used to it,” I assured her, sitting with her and holding her close to me. “You might even start to enjoy it.”

“I hope not,” she groaned, resting her head on me and closing her eyes. “I want to move onto something that pays a little better. We need to get you writing again.”

Our first anniversary arrived and went, our celebration flaring briefly before being swallowed by the monotony of life. After a few more months, although she had grown to enjoy her work, Kate could still find nothing else, and things never quite worked out the way we saw them.

Instead I found myself late arriving to work one day in December, and I drove to the very top of the car park, on the roof away from all the others, just like before. I drove slowly across the roof until the car was directly in the middle of all the deserted spaces, and I thought about how small and fragile the railing along the edge looked.

The sun was coming up over the water again, and from the top of the car park I could stare through the windscreen, through the railings, across the water, and feel like I was there, like I should be there, not trapped here in this car, behind that cramped desk, in that house, in my tiny little life on this strange world. Everything in between just melted into the pale winter sky.

I didn’t even think as I floored the accelerator, feeling the seat pressing into my back as I flew forwards, all the noise and movement gliding past like I wasn’t there at all, and soon the ground was gone, the railing was gone, and I was flying. For that smallest perfect moment there was only ecstasy, the water and the sun, and I was weightless. All I felt was gentleness and floating, and I closed my eyes and fell.

I didn’t remember hitting the ground. All I knew was that I woke in a strange bed, in a room all by myself, with wooden walls and white linen curtains gently moving in front of an open window. Outside the window I saw blue skies and fields that surged out into such flawless distance they could have been imprisoned in a glacier. Everything was so quiet, serene and beautiful, and I knew that the golden horizon had been holding a magic for all of those months, that it was the doorway into a new world. There was nothing from my old life left, and I soon forgot everything that had happened before, and I fell asleep.

There was a girl I had once loved, back in my teenage years at school, with skin the colour and texture of porcelain before it is glazed. There was always mischief twinkling in the darkness of her eyes and she had long, dead-straight, jet-black hair that looked like a patch of the night had settled on her. She moved with steps so light I always swore she was just as free as a breeze to lift away and settle wherever she pleased. I had fallen for her immediately with all of my soul.

She sat next to me now in a wicker chair by the bed, and held my hand as I woke, and my eyes met hers in such a pure silence that it felt like there was not even air between us. She hadn't aged one hour since the afternoon I had seen her for the last time, walking easily away from me under the school's line of oak trees, and now she was back, sitting by my bed, smiling, and I said nothing. I smiled back at her and closed my eyes, listening to the curtains move softly. I felt her holding my hand, and in that restful peace everything was perfect.

I remembered that her name was Rachel, and how I had thought of it as such an ordinary name for someone who, in my innocence and adoration, I was sure was unique in all the world and all of history.

Before long there were voices, muffled at first but becoming louder, and suddenly there were others in my room. I opened my eyes, annoyed by the disturbance, but found that they would not open as readily as before. They were sluggish and heavy, and my vision was now strange and blurred. I saw a large white room with people all around my bed, wires and tubes hanging across me, and then Kate holding my hand next to me.

“He’s coming out of it,” a voice said.

“No,” I protested, but no sound came out. “Where is she?” I tried to ask. Only a whisper of air passed through my throat.

Seeing Kate was like returning to a whole other lifetime after having lived on another world, and now the bright, harsh real world felt unreal. She had been left so far behind back that in the other place I had not even remembered her to miss her.

There was a lot of bustling and activity around me all of a sudden, and Kate withdrew behind the chaotic sea of nurses and doctors who came in to peer at me and flip through charts while glancing at the machines out of sight either side of me. I slowly became aware of an intruding dull ache that started in my head and seemed to somehow spread beyond its boundaries until it encompassed everything around me. An awareness of sensation settled back into the shape of my body, filling me with a curious restlessness that fought against the leaden lethargy holding me against the bed, and when I felt Kate's hand leave mine I wanted more than anything for her to come back and hold it again. I didn’t like this new place, and I let my eyelids close as voices and noises jarred through my ears, and the bed moved and swayed with the current of people all around me. I wanted to take Kate back with me.

I took a deep, slow breath and sank away, leaving it all behind, and when I opened my eyes again I was back in my tiny room, alone, and the sun was shining in through the window. I watched the curtains, and before I knew it Rachel came back in through the door and sat down and held my hand again. I smiled at her and she smiled at me.

When I lay back I saw that the roof had gone and all I could see was the sky, and I lay there and watched the cotton wisps of clouds floating past high up above until it began to get dark. I felt Rachel leaving me but I still lay there and watched all the stars come out, feeling the cool night air drifting in and settling like a blanket.

When I woke there was a young woman’s voice asking if I could open my eyes, and when I did I saw the horrible white room again, and everything was blurred. Someone was peering at me, and then there was a bright light being shone at me, so briefly I barely had time to blink, but it made my eyes ache and I closed them again.

“Thank you,” said the voice, then she was gone. I felt myself drifting in and out of sleep, but whenever I opened my eyes I was still in the white room.

After that day I was changed. They said it was the impact against my brain, but I became sure that I had found the door to a different world out there, a secret entrance in that infinitesimal event horizon between the sky and the water. I had found it and I wanted to go back, but all the people from my old life slowly returned to my dull memory instead, all of the places I had been and things I had done.

I didn’t want to come back. All I wanted was to go into my tiny room where I could watch the curtains and the clouds, but no matter how much I yearned for it, I couldn’t go. Every day Kate came and held my hand, and once I saw Joanna come from work to see me, but I never saw Rachel again.

I lay there, feeling torn and helpless as the weight of life settled back around me, and then all of a sudden I remembered the poems. Like the missing pieces that had just fallen into place, I felt them waiting for me, and yet they were keeping me here like an anchor. They cried out to be completed, all of those torn and uneven pieces of paper finally forming a mosaic of stained glass for the sunlight to shine through and take me back. Perhaps whoever had written Kate's book had done the same, and now through the words of his poetry he lived in that other place too.

I smiled as I joined the pieces of the puzzle and the dots connected like bright constellations, like the colours in those ancient windows in York’s old Minster, and I realised that in their own holy way they had been calling me to that other place too. The muscles of my face were weak and reluctant to smile, but I was happy because now I knew how I could get to go back. I went to sleep, and instead of my special room, I dreamed of Kate.

After a month of resting and being assessed by doctors with tiny torches and strange questions, I finally came out of hospital. They told me I had been in a coma for the whole first week of that month, but I knew it was more than just a coma. Every time I had slept after that one week, every time I had closed my eyes when things were quiet, there were glimpses, hints of feeling and texture brushing like fingertips across my eyelids, and I had felt how it could be to go back.

Each time though, the feeling dulled and the sense began to disperse, becoming fainter and more fleeting, a memory slowly drained of all meaning.

I had wanted so badly to climb out of the bed and run to those broken poems and finish them before that other world disappeared completely, but they wouldn’t let me out when I begged them, and by the time I got to go back home with Kate, that other place was gone.

I arrived back with a paper bag filled with medication that I did not want, and stood in our bedroom, looking around at how empty it was. There wasn’t much left of me here, and now that I had lost the other place too I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I felt a strange sickness inside, like I had to escape, but there was nowhere to go and I was confined in the middle of an endless expanse.

“Where are you?” Kate asked me as I sat on the edge of the wide bed, creasing the smooth, pure-black duvet that was spread across it. There was no anger and no concealed hysteria, just curiosity. “Why did you do it?”

I sat and quietly inspected the thick carpet like it was some distant mountain range I could see from space, and I didn't know the answer.

“Is it the job?” she asked me as she sat down next to me. “If it's the job then maybe we should think about moving into the city and finding something for you there.”

“No,” I smiled, suddenly feeling drained by the painfully mundane details of living. “That's not it.”

I lay back and closed my eyes and floated, but my shallow sleep didn't take me far, and I felt just as imprisoned as those pieces of paper in my drawer at work.

I was not allowed back there until a psychiatrist back in York cleared me to return, with whole days set aside for the long train rides, and in the meantime the poems were trapped inside that drawer. Nothing else could match their call. Not the bright, high curves that ribbed York's railway station roof, nor the cathedral that had so captured me before, nor the history set in the city's stones. None of it was enough to lure me back into belonging in this world again.

I spent many weeks out in the countryside, in the freezing barn miles from home, distracting myself from the frequent headaches by slowly working on the boat to make it ready to sail. Sometimes I would sit inside and cry silently at the concern and care that Kate showed me, because for the longest time I felt nothing. It took two months before I sank deep enough into the mundane world to rediscover its charm and its colour, waking in parallel with the slow emergence of spring.

The sounds of the cool air and the smell of wood gradually cleansed me like the wind from the sea, and I felt the repetition of planing and shaving the boat's curves and contours hypnotise me. Soon it had shaved away the dullness and haze I felt, and one day I woke before the sunrise, Kate still sleeping soundly next to me, and I was able to stand straight. As I looked down at her I was filled with the most gentle feeling of pure love, and I realised that somewhere my passion for living had been reignited.

Careful not to wake her, I went downstairs and into the garden, and stood watching the morning break. Just as the sun appeared in spectacular orange over the distant hills Kate came to stand by my side, and we watched it together, my heart feeling as open as the day we climbed the rocks on our honeymoon.

“It's still beautiful isn't it,” she said. “Even though it happens every day.”

I held her and told her I was sorry as she clung to me. “I love you more than anything,” I whispered to her.

After that morning my headaches and medication began to slowly dry up, gradually reducing into a trickle over the weeks while the small, bespectacled man who was my psychiatrist became more pleased with each weekly visit and spoke of returning to work soon. The idea excited me, but I was still not sure whether it was the return to responsibility and order that drew me back or the gravity of those waiting poems.

In the middle of May, on the day that I was finally cleared to return, I came home from the station that evening to tell Kate, but as I opened the front door and stepped in she was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs with a smile so wide her face barely held it in place.

“I've got something to tell you,” she said, before I could say a word. One hand was on her belly and the other held up a strip of white plastic.

I stood, now unable to say anything, a fierce swirl of every feeling ever experienced by a human being racing through my stomach and locking my body into a shocked stasis. Kate came over and threw her arms around me, and I felt my eyes well up as I laughed and hugged her.

“Hey mommy Stanley,” I said into her shoulder.

I walked to work that following week with a new suit, a new haircut, and a new hope. Gone was the dream of working just enough to pursue a real life's passion, and I knew those days of scribbling down words as they came to me and then beating them into shape with my old typewriter were now swept irreversibly into my past. It had been dismantled to make way for a new dream, something I would devote my every living cell to.

I felt the first embers of that new fire within me as I walked with purpose, the wind whipping my face and the sun shining out in angles from the rows of office windows above me.

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