You thought it over. In the balance: responsibility, reliability, pressure, the unspoken. Offset: anger, despair, futility, release. You made your choice and turned right, instead of left. They'd be annoyed and maybe even worried, and they might struggle, so you set them aside. You'd gotten good at that – partitioning bits of life away. Still time to go back, but you kept walking. Doublethink was familiar to you by now.
You welcomed the clear skies. Neither warm nor cold, this would have made for a good holiday. Open road and N17 on the headphones, as you sat in the back of the car. Simpler times, you thought, or a simpler you, maybe. You considered turning off your phone. Another balancing act – could be a relief from duty, could be a reunion. Either would hurt. You postponed that decision, but another was needed: which direction to take. It'd take a while before you were somewhere you didn't recognise. Stick to the known and you might be found, but you knew this place too well. That meant going a little further, then you'd take another look.
There was always her road. Why not torture yourself a little? She might be in (not that'd you knock), and if you were really lucky you'd hear those cacophonous piano-songs drifting from her window round the back. Then you could stand and maybe cry a little, and go back to work. But you weren't that self-aware back then, so you did what you really wanted to do, and walked on.
The thought of where she lived settled in, as usual, inescapable in its intensity. You could all but smell the kitchen and the salads she taught you how to make. You'd never have been interested in greens and mushrooms, had it been anyone else piling so much on one plate. A little lettuce to go with the pizza, that was your usual limit. But she'd challenged that and you'd given in and she was right. When you'd first heard Girl Anachronism with its jangling, jarring chords, you hadn't really understood. She'd played the Jeep Song over and over, while you sat in her room watching her dress, wondering what the two of you had, and still not really getting it. You'd even wondered whether there was some message for you in the way she kept that song on repeat. Years after you'd last seen her, you'd turn to listening to it in longing, finally able to appreciate the music for itself and not just for the wave of emotion it still caused. Much later, you decided that she didn't understand any better than you did.
You walked on, downhill. As the far side of the valley became visible, you selected a destination – that copse, with the one taller tree and a shorter one beside it. You'd no idea how long it'd take to reach, but it seemed possible to get there inside the afternoon. It was too much commitment to go somewhere further. You let the anger start to build back up, filling you with a pressure for which you had no vent. You remembered when you'd thrown your phone against the wall after one text. She'd met up with him again.
Steam in the boiler: the box she'd shown you for keeping her drugs in.
A shovel of coal: the casual way she'd told you of how she joined in with her best friend and her boyfriend, one night.
The brakes, locked off: that time she'd given a hand-job to a friend because (she said) she felt expected to.
The wide-open regulator: when she all but begged you not to go back to her house while she finished her shift at the pub, so you niggled the key out of her and went back to her house, and you went upstairs and you found the ripped-open condom wrapper on her bedroom floor and the bed in disarray, and her parents were away for the week.
So you asked. Like a fucking idiot you asked, so fond of your little iconoclastic cliché buster: what you don't know can't hurt you, but what about the sniper watching you? Better to know than to guess. But for you, better to guess and to know and to be right. And of course she told the truth, just as you did for her when she asked if you thought she was fat.
So you walked.
Down in the valley you dimly recognised the police station and the dual carriageway. This wasn't a good part of town. Your mate had driven you up here a couple of years ago to pick someone up, and you'd looked in fear and wonder on the boarded-up windows and untended gardens.
You checked for the trees and thought that it would do. Time to switch off the phone.
You started the uphill climb. That was what it had been like with her. You'd never had that easy confidence her other boys seemed to possess so calmly. When it came to it, you needed guiding and encouraging. It wasn't for lack of wanting. That was part of the anger and the torment – those nights you'd spent lying next to her in bed, half-clothed, on the living room floor. You in boxers and her in underwear. Once, you'd asked about the scars and she got angry and you got angry because how could someone so perfect do that to themselves? It wasn't clear how you'd missed them before. You'd seen her in bra and pants, or just a towel, enough times. And once, naked.
Why? The one question you couldn't answer even as your older, wiser, self. Parading half-dressed in front of you; lying with her head in your lap while you watched the TV; phoning you and asking you to come over at half eleven at night while her house was empty; sleeping on cushions next to you on the floor, and cuddling in the night. All for nothing but this moment where you walked up a hill towards a wood and hoped someone would notice you were gone.
And 'why' was the question you never asked when she did those things, because it never entered your mind. Her need, and your hope and need was enough. That need was fire. That need was petrol. That need was the wind. In the best of days, when things had been clear-cut, she'd stroke your arm and put her arms around you and you'd tingle with the most longing bliss you'd ever felt, even more than your first. When she lay across you that day, with her bare legs over your jeans, as you watched DVDs of Friends (which you didn't even like apart from that day), she was the perfect shape. You'd never figured out how to express that to her.
Anger again, as you thought of the things you hadn't done, that others had. You'd stopped her, when you were on the brink, because you thought it was too soon. You'd gone upstairs, leaving everything else downstairs, and laid down together, and there was nothing. You've forgotten the rest of that night, but you know there was no more than that, because you'd both needed something the other couldn't give. But others had found it, in themselves or in her, and now you were really raging, nearly crying as you walked and fought that contradiction of wanting her, but needing her to take that away from you.
Rounding a corner you saw the trees. Maybe not the ones you'd intended but you were getting nervous now. That corner of your brain you couldn't switch off, the part that said you needed to do what was expected, was getting restless. You spotted a park and sat down. There was no-one around. For some time you stayed there, until you had to turn your phone back on, half-hoping, half-fearing. It was peaceful. Leaves and white traffic noise. Nothing to do.
Your phone buzzed in your hand. Nothing from her. Something from work. Something from your friend. Something from your mother. You sat a while longer, reaching a decision. You answered one of the messages. It was time to switch off again. You can't remember how you got home.