The Retreat came upon us suddenly, although she’d been preparing me for it for a while. We came to a curve in the path and suddenly there it was, looking something like a Highland castle converted into a school or a hospital, or an asylum – a mix of ancient stone turrets and battlements and Victorian sash windows and gutters. It was raining hard again. Autumn was moving in fast and Miranda would have to leave me here before the winter. She didn’t know exactly what would happen but she was optimistic. She didn’t expect to see me again. That’s how it is in the afterlife – people and places are very rarely encountered a second time – though sometimes, in a future life, people recognise each other at a party, in the street, and can’t think where from. But not Miranda – she said she wasn’t going back, ever.
The last few weeks, I suppose it was, had been blissful for us. After that last encounter it was like we were free at last. Maybe more so for me – I didn’t know what was coming. I did notice that every time we came across signs of recent human activity again she was distant and preoccupied for a while, but then she’d perk up quickly and be even more lively and sexy than ever. The land was a green and rolling and full of life and the road was broad and easy to follow. We were relaxed and cheerful and it seemed like she might choose never to say goodbye. What was more, there were moments when she almost seemed to be a normal size. I began to think there might be a future for us somehow. I kept trying to bring up the subject of her finding somewhere, maybe somewhere she could settle, be happy maybe, but she wouldn’t have it. She didn’t belong anywhere she said, and she never would.
It was late summer, an Indian summer almost and we’d not had the tent out for quite a while – it had been too hot. We just slept under the sky and marvelled at the lack of stars and moon (and yet there was that clear silvery moonlight). There were late summer storms too, which drenched us and made us laugh and dance. Her silk wrap became completely transparent and she looked at me challengingly, biting her lip.
Our feelings for each other were getting irrepressible. We watched each other intently. She seemed to be waiting for something, but what could I do? I didn’t even like to touch her because I was afraid I’d damage her.
I needn’t have worried. One night we were both lying out on our bedding. It had been raining heavily and everything was steaming. I just had a cloth over my hips, but it was clinging to me. Her sarong was clinging too and I could see every curve of her. Neither of us could sleep. She got up and came over to me. ‘Turn on your back’ she said softly. I did and she stepped onto my arm, climbed onto my belly and lay down on her side facing me, looking at me. She seemed unsure what to do next. I pulled some of my clothes over to put under my head so I could look at her properly.
‘You’re afraid to touch me, aren’t you?’
‘Shhh...’ she said ‘It’s ok. I trust you. I’m not that fragile. Give me your hand.’ and she sat cross legged against the palm of my hand, and let the silk fall down around her waist. I tried not to look too obviously at her sweet pointy breasts but it was hard, in every sense. It was very hard.
‘You can look’ she said lightly. ‘I don’t mind. You’ve been looking at me all this time. Do you think I’m not flattered?’ and she settled down lower against my hand, and I could feel the silk ride up and expose her cool bottom on my belly. ‘I’ve been looking at you’ she said, mock coyly. ‘You’re a very handsome young man you know’ and she leant forward and lay there, looking with curiosity at the curved blond hairs above my navel. ‘Your skin is so soft. Perfect skin’ she said, a little breathlessly, then paused. ‘You look worried’ she said and propped herself up to look into my eyes, still stroking my skin with her hands, still breathing deeply. ‘I do understand’ she said.
I was in agony, trying to hold myself in. Nothing could possibly happen between us. Why was she doing this to me?
‘I do understand’ she said again, sitting up. ‘I know what you want, and it’s not possible, obviously. But there are other things. I’ve thought about this a lot, as you can imagine.’
‘Me too’ I say, almost inaudibly, croaking slightly.
‘I know, and I didn’t expect this to happen – you know that. All I know is we must have each other, somehow.’ And with that she got up, turned and walked toward my hand. ‘Move your hand’ she said.
I felt reluctant and ashamed, but I couldn’t refuse. I put my hand on my thigh and she looked at my cock there, like a stranded manatee under a tarpaulin beside her diminutive figure. She walked down toward it and peeled the cloth back, knelt down and touched the swollen purple knob delicately with her hand and I groaned. She turned and grinned at me.
‘I’ve seen this before you know’ she said, and I gestured silently (for I couldn’t speak) that of course, she must have seen many men’s... ‘No, I mean I’ve seen yours, like this’ pointing at mine, ‘every day actually. I did my best not to watch...’
I’d guessed this but I’d been suppressing the knowledge. Shame and embarrassment overwhelmed me, but also pride, actually – there was no hiding it. She knew everything about my daily habits (although thank whoever we didn’t need to crap in the afterlife.) She’d been there when I’d got myself off, every day, sometimes more often than that, sometimes several times a day. She’d seen the expression on my face, heard the noises I made when I came, and yet here she was. She smiled wickedly as the news sank in.
‘So...’ she resumed, standing up, posing a little, making her breasts look extra perky. ‘It’s not very fair is it?’ she said, pausing for dramatic effect ‘Would you like to watch me?’
I won’t go into the details. She’s gone now, my gorgeous nymph, and I am here. This is the next part of the journey and I have to accept it, alone.
They’ve given me quite a big high-ceilinged room – I think it used to be someone’s study. Two of the walls are lined with dark wooden bookshelves, but most of the books are gone. The ones that are left look like the ones nobody would ever want to consult ever again. The whole room has a long-unused smell to it. Little dust has settled because no one has kicked any up recently. The walls are painted off white and I have a desk, a single bed with a shiny green quilt and a faded green candlewick bedspread on it, and there’s a small cupboard. It’s all a bit like the stuff my grandparents had. There’s also a lot of metal chairs stacked up, a huge easel and a big old brown leather arm chair by the enormous floor-to-ceiling bay window. They tell me they’ll find homes for some of the excess clutter soon. The spiders seem friendly enough.
Autumn is here. It’s cold. I wish she was here. I feel like a patient but I don’t know what I’m sick with.
Those last days together play in my head incessantly. After that first time everything was a bit awkward for me, not to mention weird but she seemed relaxed enough about it and although I never really got comfortable with the situation I accepted her lead. She told me a lot about women and sex and so on. I think, although of course nothing much physical could ever happen between us, in a way, that was a good thing. It made me think about it, and ask questions, and it made it not such a big deal. We watched each other all the time, played little games. It was fun. It had never really occurred to me before that sex might be fun. I guess I’m still technically a virgin but I don’t feel like one.
I look around the room, wondering if anyone will watch me having a wank here, some musty academic gnome perhaps. I don’t care.
It wasn't such a bad place. That first morning after I arrived I went down to breakfast and met some of the other residents seated along the trestle tables that occupied only a corner of the huge old dining hall. They seemed friendly enough, but not very talkative. That was ok, I didn’t feel like talking either. I sat for a while before I realised the food was on a counter at the other end of the room. I went and got some porridge with spiced stewed fruit. It was the first real food I'd had in what seemed like years and exactly what I needed. After I’d eaten most of two bowls I leant back on the bench and looked around. The others were mostly sitting eating quietly. People left, others arrived later, all had the same sort of hooded gowns on, although the colour of the material varied. Mine was a faded grey mauve felt, and was obviously not new but it kept the draughts out. I looked at the faces of the others along the table. Some had their hoods up. There were both men and women but I was relieved to see that everyone seemed pretty sexless. I didn’t want to think about anyone that way for a long time. No one said anything to me except when one of the staff (I guessed she was) came over to ask if I’d go up to see Theodore to sort out my duties when I’d had enough to eat. She gave me directions.
I sat for a while anyway. I had very little clear idea what I was here for, except that Miranda had told me that this was the next settlement on the route and I should take advantage of their hospitality for a while, at least until next spring when I could move on. There was no coffee so I sat with my warm fruit milk for a while, trying not to think about her, feeling cold and empty, like a cast-off skin where the living animal has gone elsewhere.
Theodore seemed a nice enough sort of chap, a professor at some American university he said he'd been. He made vague perfunctory noises about settling in and getting to know the ropes and tossed me a list of jobs that needed doing, asking what I fancied having a go at. I wasn’t feeling very motivated and he clearly wasn’t that interested in me. His room was thick with books and papers and various other bits and pieces. I never did find out what he did but he clearly wanted to get back to it. I didn’t want to think about work and I suppose I wanted someone else to make the decision for me so I stood there as he looked at his desk and muttered. I tried to look like I gave a toss but it was a feeble pretence. Finally, I think he got fed up with me dithering and said go and see Jim and he gave me directions, the only parts of which I remembered was ‘down the stairs’ and ‘through the kitchens’.
Asking around, it turned out you had to go through the kitchens, which were in the basement, to get out to the gardens, which was where Jim was in charge. Gardening. Great. Not at all what I had in mind, but I couldn’t be bothered to complain. Instead, I took my time finding my way around. The kitchen was down some stairs from the dining hall, and the dining hall, I knew, was off the central quadrangle – a broad square of cobbles with the entrance on one side, and some very ancient looking trees set into it. Everything was grey and wet and hushed. The trees were beginning to lose their leaves. Few people were moving about as I found my way – I had no idea how many lived here. Maybe it was me, but there was a definite air of sadness about the place, or perhaps not quite sadness, but something else that made people slow and silent and distant. Maybe they had all recently lost the loves of their lives too, or maybe it was the time of year.
The kitchen was livelier, and certainly hotter, but dark and wide with a low ceiling, and a very palpable sense of it carrying the rest of the building on its fat, stone pillars. Still no one said anything much. I asked the way to the gardens and someone who was cutting up vegetables pointed with his knife to a large doorway at the far end of the room where I could see cool daylight leaking in around a corner. I went through and found myself in a wide chamber with huge stone sinks, and various gardening tools leaning up against the walls. Dark empty doorways lead off into storerooms on either side but it was completely open to the outside ahead and I could see greenery beyond.
I walked around the garden, deliberately not asking about Jim immediately so I could take my time and look around. It felt good to look at the trees and feel the misty rain fall on my face again. The garden appeared to be laid out with long rectangular borders with grass paths in between and a high buttressed wall all around. Many of the borders were freshly turned over and just bare earth, but in places there were rows of sprouts, cabbages, leeks and the straggling remains of bean vines still hanging onto their canes, and a whole range of smaller herbs and salads in rectangular patches. The walls all had trees trained up against them – strapped onto ropes in disturbingly strict horticultural bondage. All the fruit had been collected. No windfalls lay about. Occasionally I would come across a gardener, hood down, obscured by a waterproof cape, kneeling on a mat, doing something in the dirt or lugging something about. The rain was not hard but it had made the soil sticky and it stained everything black. The gardeners ignored me or nodded expressionlessly. My dad would have loved it. He’d have been in his element.
Further on I discovered this was just the upper terrace, and wide stone steps lead down to at least two more levels of walled gardens with fields and sheds with goats and ducks and probably all sorts of other things. I decided it was time to find Jim and ask him what he wanted of me.
Jim, I have to say, I took to immediately. He was where they said he’d be, with the goats, showing someone how to arrange their bedding. ‘Jim?’ I said, and he turned, hugging a mass of hay and smiled at me. ‘Gabriel’ he said, dropping the hay and striding forward in the mud and the manure to shake my hand. ‘Good to see you’ he said cheerfully. ‘Just let me get Annie started here and I’ll be with you’ and he turned and carried on with that as I waited. I couldn’t help noticing that he was wearing shorts and sandals under his cape.
I’m not sure anyone else really liked Jim. He was always cheerful and helpful and full of energy, and he didn’t often wear the gown, because it would only get wet and muddy and need washing all the time. ‘Nobody’s forcing them to wear the bloody things’ he told me as we headed for shelter. ‘People are strange’ he said once we get to his “office” – a shed among the dung heaps and wheel barrows.
‘Stunning bloody weather hey?’ he added, grinning at me.
I nodded and shrugged, not sure if he thought stunning was good or bad.
‘Good weather for ducks’ he went on, ‘although, actually if you take a look, the ducks are hiding in their shed, under cover. Sensible creatures.’
Jim seemed to have got the idea from somewhere that I knew something about gardening. I didn’t like to disappoint him. His passion was food he said. His life was food and how to grow it. He talked about everything growing in the garden in terms of how much food it could provide, but this was no bland commodity he was talking about. When he said “food” you could almost feel it nourishing you. He looked at the huge heads of cabbages and sacks of spuds as raw sustenance – for work to be sure, but also for philosophy, music, art, love (‘although there’s precious little of that around here’ he confided in me, stagily.) and of course, for growing more food. But he wasn’t interested in mere bulk. He showed me the modest greenhouse where he had managed to get ginger and lemon grass to grow. The ripe vapour of tomato, coriander and basil was pleasantly stupefying. Lemon trees stood in pots, ready to be brought under cover for the winter, and fig trees, trained against the walls, were already screened off so the frost wouldn’t interrupt their setting fruit.
Over the weeks that followed I was introduced to compost heaps and beehives, carp ponds and wells, dovecots and vegetable clamps, wild rocket and good-king-henry.
‘So animals do breed here’ I said to him one morning, looking at a clutch of jostling, newly hatched chicks. He just smiled at me like I was a little dim.
‘Well there always seem to be more of them here when we need them’ he said cryptically.
Jim’s main ally in all this (although her attitude to the system was more amused aside than out-and-out ribaldry) was Jo, who ran the kitchen. Jim and Jo conspired together on the menus and crop rotations well into the night, aware that most of the residents would have been equally happy with boiled veg and bread but determined to spring culinary excellence on them anyway. The delight of the few that appreciated their efforts was enough, and really, they didn’t care if no one but they enjoyed it. It was what they did. Over the three and a half years I was there I managed to split my work between the kitchen and the gardens, so I got the best of both worlds, and I saw the whole process from soil to groceries to plate to belly to fertiliser and back to soil. All that winter I was out in the gardens, digging, repairing, mulching and harvesting or in the kitchen if the weather was rough. And Jim had been right. I did have a feel for this stuff. I guessed it must have been watching my dad in the garden all that time. Something must have stuck.
It did take me quite a time to accept the situation however. For a while after I arrived I spent all my time in my room, looking out of the window, or wandering around wondering where everybody was. It was not a big place, with just two stories of bed and bathrooms on two sides of the courtyard, plus the kitchens below and attics above, but the corridors were badly lit, took odd turns, went up and down small staircases, and were just generally very hard to work out. In short I kept getting lost and ending up in all sorts of dusty corners, looking out at unexpected views. I very rarely saw anyone up there, and then only fleetingly. Sometimes it seemed the place was haunted. It was certainly very creepy. At night I avoided leaving my room if possible even though the tall dark shelves and piles of random furniture (which were never taken away) cast odd shadows and made the room feel strangely occupied. I never felt quite alone at night, but I got used to that. Outside my door was much worse. The sounds of things moving or being moved about in the corridor in the small hours kept me awake for several nights at the beginning. I asked, but no one seemed to know what had been going on, and they changed the subject.
Daytimes in my room though were a different matter. I took my food up there and spent a lot of time, as I say, looking out of the window which had a phenomenal view out over the gardens to the land beyond which was nothing but trees as far as the eye could see – an endless rolling forest landscape.
Back in life, when I was in the sixth form and had some free afternoons, mum took me into work a few times to see some of the old folks homes she had dealings with, to meet the matrons, and see if maybe care work might interest me. Actually, it had nothing to do with what I was interested in. It was about finding some way I could earn my keep. The other people at school were surprised that I didn’t run a mile when I told them what went on there – the shit and the dementia and the dribbling, but it interested me, the way people end up, what happens to them. In particular it was the tranquility of the place, the dim routine, the gentle squalor, life breaking down and letting go. I particularly remember one afternoon in the sun room about tea time, with the geraniums half dead on the windowsill there, and the budgie chirruping to itself, and the old ladies (there weren’t any old gents) dozing in their chairs, and it was warm and there was vaguely unpleasant but somehow comforting smell of beef stew, toiletries and just a hint of excrement, and I sat in one of the chairs, with its floral print and wooden legs and began to drift off, and I remember thinking that it was actually quite nice here, and you could drift off and fade into the upholstery and it would be an ok way to go.
That’s what it felt like in my room those first few weeks – peaceful and dull, warm in the sunshine (but chilly at night), and just looking out the window, paying occasional attention to a bird in the trees below, or having something to eat. Actually it was better because I had no need to get up to go to the toilet, or to eat, for that matter. I could just sit there, and not be missed, fade away, with just the ghosts of my predecessors for company at night. I sat in the stiff old leather armchair and drifted. Sometimes I went for a little stroll in the garden and Jim tried to tempt me with chores and I fiddled about obligingly in the dirt in a half-hearted sort of way until I got cold or wet or bored and I went inside again.
I did think about Miranda over this time though, up in my room especially, of an evening, because nothing much else happened after dark, after dinner, and I made up fantasies and stories about her, and us, together somehow, which always ended up with me finishing myself off in the way I knew she would have approved. She wasn’t just a sexual fantasy though. During those last few weeks we’d talked about so many things – we got on so well I thought, and I began to think about how we’d be together, permanently. I knew that wasn’t possible, but I dreamed of us living together, travelling together, doing the normal things couples do. I had to ask her what she thought of that and her only concern was that she’d have been fifteen years older than me. I said I didn’t care about that and she said she didn’t see why not then, and smiled happily at me. That was when I knew I loved her and I suspected she might feel something similar about me, but I never told her. I wish I had. Maybe things could have been different somehow.
Now, to be honest, I’m not even sure she wasn’t just a hallucination all along. Now, in the cold light of day (a phrase that seems especially – what was the word she used? – apposite, in this place) I find I can’t quite believe she even existed. I realised this forcibly the other day when I discovered I wasn’t going to tell anyone about her (even if anyone here had been prepared to listen) because I knew how bizarre the story would sound. And also how predictable – a young man’s sexual fantasy, a young man who had been alone in the wilderness for who knew how long, and was close to losing it, to getting completely lost. (For hadn’t she conveniently appeared at just the moment when I was most in danger?) I could see their expressions, part sympathy, part knowing smirk, part bafflement at the fact that she was the size she was. (What the hell did that mean? Was this a fixation on my sister’s Sindy dolls?) And then I look at the rucksack, bent and stale in the cupboard, and it does have little transparent ‘windows’ in it. It occurs to me that they might be there so the traveller can see what’s inside. It doesn’t seem a very plausible explanation until you consider the alternative. Maybe they’re just for decoration.
To continue reading, either go to Lulu to buy or download the book, or let me know when you want to read the next bit and I'll post it on the blog.