The accomplished author entered the room to rapturous applause. Many had turned up to watch him talk about and read from his best seller. Just as many had turned up to substantiate a claim to fame – “I’ve seen him in the flesh”, “I was so close I could’ve touched him”.
The author lapped up the applause. He was contented, if a little smug. He had the right to be – his bestseller had sold over half a million copies to date. Selling books was a difficult thing to do. He had worked hard to be in this position: from a middle class family, of which his father was a lawyer, he could have easily followed in line. Studied law at a good university. He had instead taken the hard option, which many had thought to be easy at the time. By choosing writing, the author had followed his heart.
He sat down and read aloud to the gathering. It was funny, the author thought, as his lips formed the sentences he had so painstakingly etched and edited: before he had found fame and success, few had taken him seriously. If, as a twenty six year old aspiring (i.e. not successful) writer, he couldn’t write without first consuming a pop tart, he would be called weird, childish. If this were the case as a twenty seven year old successful writer, people would laugh; emulate; write about it in magazines. Anything, everything, added to his genius.
It was the same with coming to universities and doing these book readings and signings. The author was far from a good orator, and was fully aware of this. Yet since his writing had taken off it didn’t matter one jot. He talked; people listened. If the author was to stumble over his lines, people would provide an excuse. It was because “he possessed so much knowledge and wisdom that it was difficult to put it into layman’s terms”. If the author made little eye contact with the audience, or seemed slightly awkward, it was as a result of the many solitary hours he had spent writing, working, slaving.
Once the author had finished, he sat at a small table, head protruding from between two great piles of his newest book. Before, his casual demeanour might have had people asking him why he was bored, why he couldn’t cheer up a little. Now it exuded nonchalance, class. People crawled up to murmur their obsequious platitudes and get the author to scribble in their copies of his book. He had always been told in school that he had terrible handwriting. Now people actively scrambled to get his scrawl onto paper.
The queue went from long to short, until there remained just one figure. This woman sidled up, unsure, and the author studied her. Chiming’s, from a distant past, sounded in the author’s head.
“Hey Paul, I don’t know if you remember me? I’m Emily, we were both-”
Her sentence went unfinished; the author dived across the table and embraced her tightly. He knew this woman from a different life.
“Of course I remember you Emily! We had some great times in Tanzania,” the author eventually said to the woman, detaching from embrace. The author had forgotten where he was, who he was supposed to be. The photographers in the corner of the room loved it. He kept on, oblivious. “We have to have dinner!” he cried. “Tonight?”
The woman nodded, pleased. It was a date.
The author stood outside the front of the restaurant. Emily, back in his life! They’d first, and last, met over a decade before on an inter-school charity trip to Tanzania. He had been sixteen, she had been fifteen. It was the best time of his life. When he’d seen her at that book signing, it had been as if his past and present had collided. The author was still in shock. But here she came now. Twenty six, still making his heart leap as it did a decade previous. The author stumbled his greeting, the sweaty sixteen year old reoccurring. He shook himself, admonishing. He had to be on top form tonight. He was a man now.
The author had always found that a sure way of knowing whether you still hold feelings for someone is whether you feel bigger, prouder, when you are in their company. This was certainly the case as the pair entered the restaurant. He looked about him confidently and smiled broadly as the maître d’ came across to them.
“Table for two,” the author stated, handing the man their coats. The man nodded politely, took their coats, and showed them to a table. The author thought he saw a hint of admiration in his eyes.
The author sat at the table, serviette across lap. He looked at Emily. Clearly she still looked fantastic. But, surveying her from above the top of his menu, he had to admit she looked, not surprisingly perhaps, noticeably different from all those years before. Her hair was not as he remembered: whereas before it flowed down to her shoulders, now it stood sterner about her scalp. Before, her make-up had been subtle; now it seemed more rigorous: blusher against cheeks, mascara hiding eyes.
He internally told himself off. Yes, she looks a little different, but this was Emily. He stopped contemplating insignificancies.
He asked her what she thought she would order.
“Umm… Probably the coq au vin off the specials,” she replied. The author jolted. Should he say it? A decade earlier he would’ve done, made a cock joke and Emily would have responded with a naughty smirk and endearing chide. Was this her now though, the author thought? Was this the sort of thing you said to a twenty six year-old Emily?
She asked him what he was ordering; the opportunity had passed.
“I’m not sure… Probably the steak,” the author replied.
“You and your steak!” she laughed. “Remember at the Safari Lodge, when we had a buffet on the first night? You ate so much steak you almost made yourself sick!”
He remembered. Following the beautiful but barren first week, those three nights spent at that Safari Lodge had been bliss. They had slept and eaten in excess. They had had tours across the Tanzanian bush, spotting elephants, rhinos, baboons, gazelles, hippos, leopards. He and Emily had soaked up sun beside the pool; talking about everything and nothing.
“Yes,” the author replied. “That was a fun time.”
The meal proceeded about them – waiter coming to table to take their drink orders; waiter coming to table with their drinks; waiter asking if they were ready to order food; waiter bringing food out with a flourish; waiter coming back to ask “is everything alright with the food?” Amidst this, they talked of the two weeks they’d spent together, reminiscing over anecdotes. He knew them well. He had written them down on their return, fearful of forgetting them.
He reminded her of the time their friend Isaac had inadvertently knocked over a guitar so that it landed about a metre away from a puddle. Unaware of the sheer distance between guitar and water, a desperate Isaac had screamed “the guitar!” For the remainder of the trip, any silence, tension, or tedium was broken by a joyful shout of “the guitar!”
They also talked of Jamie. The boy who had paid the author obscene sums of money to make him hot chocolate when he couldn’t be bothered to leave his bed. The boy who, on the evening he was due to do the washing up, had drank some water containing cannabis leaves acquired from one of the local markets. Within minutes he had claimed he was “too high to do the dishes”, and had promptly fallen asleep on the dormitory floor.
Jamie had made a staunch argument for an anarchist society; claiming that a “great occasion” would be to behead the queen and parade her entrails about the streets of London. The author had tried to reason with him by saying what he was advocating was a Darwinian society, in which the roughest and most ruthless of us rose to the top. Jamie had responded with the quip “and what do you think we have now?” before strutting off; an intellectual giant.
“Whatever happened to him?” the author asked as he cut up his steak. Jamie had attended Emily’s school.
“I’m not actually sure,” she laughed, hand politely held over mouth. “But I bet it was a boring job like accountancy, after all his talk of punk rock and revolution!”
The supply of Shiraz had run dry, as had the talk of Jamie. The author ordered another bottle. As he drank, he considered that that may well be the last they would ever speak of that boy. It felt strange: a topic that had provided countless laughing hours, gone in minutes.
Emily coughed. The author had been silent for a little while, and she wanted to move the conversation on. He reluctantly left aside the subject of Jamie.
The author asked her about her current life. Emily responded, sweet and eloquent enough, and as she talked the author looked on. He listened and ate and found himself becoming less and less engaged with reality. It wasn’t just the wine kicking in, but the recollections.
He remembered when she had told him that she’d never kissed a boy before. How, at fifteen, she was embarrassed about it; that none of her friends back home knew. He remembered how much then he wanted to kiss her, how he should have kissed her. When a joking girl – unaware of possible skin scarring – had put paint on his face, he remembered how it had been Emily who had sat there, touching an acid soaked cloth to his face, flinching with him.
He recalled an evening from the Safari Lodge quite clearly. An evening spent beside each other, atop a jeep in the African bush, as the sun went down. As they made their long, winding way back to base, she shivered. She had no jacket. She accepted his, and managed to become the first person he’d ever seen pull off a puffy jacket. He remembered how, atop that jeep, as she had leant her now puffy shoulder into his side, he had looked before them as the Tanzanian sun set and prayed the moment would never end.
These were moments and memories that would never leave the author. Yet they lay out of word’s reach, inexpressible.
There was a guitarist playing light fiddly music in the background as they ate. What had become of Emily the Guitarist? The girl who with simple chords had one night, post-dinner, turned a room from restless to reverential. The girl who at fifteen had sang love songs so resolute and bold (prompting raised eyebrows and elbows in the ribs from those about the author). What had happened to the girl who had told him with steady assuredness that she was going to be a musician when she was older?
She had not played the guitar for several years now, she told him. She had not got the big break she so thought she would receive, and had slowly become tired and frustrated with music. It was difficult, she said, when something that had been the source of such joy and love comes to have darker associations. It was difficult when rejection made good things bad.
They finished their food. The waiter came over to take their plates. Dessert rejected, coffee ordered. Having finished these, the author waved the waiter over; received and paid the bill. He collected the two coats and handed Emily hers.
The evening was clear as they stepped out into it. The moon was an African sun, bright and full.
The moon had been full eleven years before, when the author had sat warming hands by the foot of the fire. It was the last evening of the trip. Friends made from surrounding villages had come to share one final evening with them. Schoolchildren they’d given lessons frolicked about the fire. He had glanced beside him at Emily, hunched into the flames, clearly ill. She had dragged herself from her bed to spend these last hours with all of them. She still looked great, pale skin or not.
They ate; laughed; danced. The night drew to a close, and all went to bed.
They had been the last two figures to recede to their rooms. They sat, on courtyard steps atop a hill, looking across at the stars, the city lights, the horizon. The future.
“Look Paul, I know what you’re thinking, and I know what you’re about to say,” she had begun, turning to gaze at him, voice steady, planned. “But I don’t think it’ll work. We’re great, and we’ve had a great time these last two weeks, but will it work when we get back to England? We live like an hour away from each other. Yes, you’ve said you’re gonna take your driving test when you get back, but is that fair on you, trekking across to see me? And you’re two years above me: you’ll be going off to uni in a year’s time I expect. I just don’t see how we can make this work?”
The scene had so often after replayed in the author’s mind: it was only then that he shouted “I’ll make it work, we’ll make it work!”
Then though, on that hilltop, he had remained silent, gulping back tears. They had hugged. They both went their separate ways, back to their respective dorms. And there ended the two weeks for him. That was the last time they would spend together, just the two of them.
Until now. The author gazed up at the full moon, considering himself; his next move; life.
The evening had been strange. They had talked so much of the two weeks, had spent so long reliving, bringing them to the fore. Yet they seemed more distant than ever. Like their talking of the decade old “the guitar” joke. Sure, it had been trivial, but it had been jokes like these that had helped them through the fortnight’s difficulties: on days when it was too hot; when they’d seen scenes of such destitution; when they were homesick, ill, tired, hungry. As they had sat in the cool restaurant in comfortable clothes having food made for them, their old shouts of guitars seemed strange and out of place; joking between two different people.
He considered that the girl from that hilltop now stood beside him in the cold street, her breath appearing in clouds. The girl he had thought of so much since those two glorious, golden weeks. Who he had so wanted to introduce to his parents and friends. After introductions he would have forced them to listen to her play the guitar, listen to her sing. He would have made them see her beauty.
But that was not the girl who stood beside him now. The guitar playing girl had gone. In her place a woman he didn’t know, almost independent of the memories and intricacies of those two weeks.
The perversity of it all occurred to the author. Over a decade after he had known and loved her, he still felt an intense want for her. Even though he saw quite clearly that she had changed. That she was not the same person. He considered that perhaps it had never been about her. That perhaps instead she was an icon, a symbol of a better time. A better him. A time seen through egalitarian eyes, perceiving himself as one of a happy mass; teaching children football tricks, learning Tanzanian dance moves on cobbled yards. Mingling with Africans and Cornish alike.
How much had changed. The author thought about his fans. They appreciated his writing. His response was to view them with disdain.
When he’d known her, he had been happy. And excited – his first foreign outing! But he’d also felt overwhelmed, scared. Leaving his family for a fortnight. On their return to England, he had hugged his mother, father, sisters, and told them he loved them. He considered himself now. In London. Alone. Un-reliant on his Cornwall-bound family. Stopping, only occasionally, to offer them a phone call. He had viewed this as independent, impressive. Only now did he see what it was. Ignorance. A stupid disregard of those who loved him, as he strived to become a lonely success. A success in only conventional form.
It struck him how this symbolism was a farce, a charade. She was largely what those two weeks had been, but that was all that they were: two weeks. They were not to be regained, relived. All that lay left of those two glorious weeks were photographs and happy memories and a feeling that they had been the best days of their lives.
He had thought of her as a way back to the past. A past that he wanted to relive, over and over; parents dropping him off at the school, him throwing his bags into the hull of the coach and taking the six hour journey from Cornwall to Gatwick. Taking the plane from Gatwick to Qatar, Qatar to Dodoma. Nerves jangling, strangers introducing, laughter exchanged. Maybe he thought he could achieve all this and more, achieve the impossible; turn back time. He just needed her.
Was it this simple? Could he not look at it a different way? Instead of reaching, grappling with his past, could he not find a better life from his future?
“Hey,” she said, grazing his arm with her fingers, interrupting his thoughts. Forcing him into the present. “I don’t suppose you remember that coffee we had in Tanzania? From that farm first week? You said it was the nicest coffee you’d ever had?” He nodded. That had been great; their first week spent next to a coffee farm. They had sat, shaded from sun; drank; laughed. He had bought and taken home half a kilo. He had made it last months. “Well I found out a few months ago that you can get it online! I’ve got some at mine now if you want to come back and try some?”
They had just had coffee. He no longer wanted it.
What stood next to him was a stranger, holding memories. They were distant memories of a golden two weeks – there was no chance of rekindling them because that’s all they were. Memories. Unattainable; elusive. The author, having realised this, declined the offer of coffee, gave the stranger before him a quick embrace, bidding her goodnight and wishing her well for the future. The author then strode away from his past, off into the night.