The Walk

I wrote this last year. It’s supposed to be quite sparsely written and largely dialogue-driven, and is a lot about what goes unsaid. How I feel about this piece changes quite a lot.

The last walk of someone’s life…

The Walk (written 2013)

You should know that Anna and I spent a lot of time working out the perfect place for her to kill herself. I wouldn’t want you to think that we rushed it.

It had to be beautiful and poetic. We wanted birds and vast skies and a light breeze, not the sound of car horns or watery eyes from swirling dust.

It had to be poignant. It needed to be somewhere that meant something to Anna, a place that held the sort of memories you want with you when you die.

And it had to be practical. Anna always loved the idea of France and wanted to throw herself off the Eiffel Tower, until we realised we couldn’t afford the airfare.

Soon before we made our decision, we read in the newspaper that a man had killed himself in the bathroom of our local fast food joint. At first this seemed an appallingly sterile death, but after a while, we decided that maybe that particular fast food joint had been his one true place of happiness. Maybe that was the place he met his wife or reunited with his son. Maybe his best summer had always been that holiday job he had with friends when he was sixteen. Maybe fries were his favourite food, and his final burger was the best meal of his life.

It’s different for everyone, and we certainly weren’t in a position to judge. We were happy with our own final decision. It seemed sincere without being cheesy, and it had just the right amount of gravitas.

Behind Anna’s house was a forest, and through the forest lay a large lake, and at one particular point the ground had grown tired of its lowly vantage point and risen slowly upwards as it curled around the water’s edge. At its peak it was almost a cliff, soaring high above the gravelly beach below.

In simpler times, Anna had come here with her family, with her dog, even with me. We sat together right at the top and threw stones into the water, shielding our eyes from the sun as we searched for the ripples we had made.

On a clear day, you could just make out the other side of the lake, but often it would be shrouded in icy mist. I liked to imagine our ripples freezing as they spread, carving lines in the water like the circles of a tree stump, each one a year of our lives.

Look, I would think, there’s the ripple that marks the year we started school, and there’s the ripple that marks the year we became friends.

There’s the year we went on the field trip to the farm and got lost in the cornfield and held hands until we were found.

There’s the year she made me a birthday cake, which tasted mostly of almonds but faintly of fish.

There’s the year we started separate secondary schools and she started dating boys and we had our first fight.

There’s the year she was diagnosed.

And there’s the last year, right out on the water’s horizon. It’s the largest ripple, but it’s also the haziest in the mist. It’s the year we turned fifteen and the year she told me she was going to die. It was the first and last time I ever heard her swear.

“Fuck,” I said, when she told me the news.

“Fuck you, Tom,” she replied. “Don’t swear.”

*

“Have you packed everything?”

This was the first thing she asked me when I knocked on her door.

“Depends on what you mean by everything,” I replied.

“The picnic?”

“Yes.”

“Including strawberries?”

“Including all sorts of berries.”

“Did you pack a blanket?”

“Yes.”

“Ginger beer?”

“Tastes awful.”

“Tastes amazing. Did you pack it?”

“Yes.”

“What about a jacket? You don’t seem to be wearing a jacket.”

“Neither are you.”

“Yeah, but I’m not going to have to walk back in the cold.”

I stared at her silently.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m only looking out for you. You’ll need a jacket.”

“It’s in my bag,” I said flatly.

“Then I guess we’ve got everything.”

I shrugged. “You’re the boss.”

She shoved me playfully and slammed the door behind her. We shuffled our way down the gloomy side of her house and out into the back garden, the rusting iron gate squeaking painfully as we slipped through.

“Do you remember – ?” she began, as I closed the gate behind us.

“When Rasta escaped?” I finished.

She giggled. “What was its full name? Rastapopo-something?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But it was a stupid name for a dog.”

“It was a stupid name for anything. And Mr. Laurence had no idea how to look after it. My mum should never have let it out of the house, but – ”

“But it needed to pee, and Mr. Laurence was adamant it couldn’t jump over the gate – ”

“And my mum was adamant it could, and they spent ages arguing over it, until he agreed to take responsibility – ”

“And then it escaped because the gate wasn’t even shut!”

We both laughed as we walked across the unkempt grass.

“Whatever happened to that dog?” I asked.

“Oh, it died.”

“Jesus, because it got out?”

“No, Tom,” Anna said patiently. “Because it got old.”

At the back of the small garden was another small gate, this one even rustier and harsher on the ears. It lay nestled between two overgrown bushes that we had to push through just to get out. The garden was different years ago: the gates gleamed, the lawn smelt of fresh trimmings and the vegetation stood in immaculate lines.

Anna’s parents had once been meticulous, and the change in the garden was mirrored in their faces every time I now saw them. Her father’s designer stubble had become a scraggly beard, and her mother’s blushed cheeks were pale and creased.

“How are your parents doing?” I asked automatically as we left the garden behind.

Anna’s face was turned away from me as she surveyed the trees before us.

“You okay with the backpack?” she said eventually.

“Of course,” I said.

“It’s not too heavy?”

“I’ll tell you when it is.”

The garden sunlight fell behind us as we walked into the woods, each step bringing the trees closer together and enveloping us in shade.

“You going on holiday this summer?” she asked.

I picked my way through damp bark and moss, my shoes squelching underfoot.

“Sure,” I replied. “Parents will drag me to the beach like always.”

“Nothing wrong with the beach. There’s always mini-golf and candyfloss.”

“I hate candyfloss.”

“God, you’re a downer, Tom.”

“Sorry. I like mini-golf.”

“No you don’t.”

“That’s true. I don’t.”

“Would you rather go with me?”

“What?”

“Instead of your parents.”

I squinted up at the sky, pretending to study the canopy of leaves.

“Well?” Anna prompted.

“Of course I would,” I said.

“Good,” she said.

We walked in silence, and all I could hear was the soft crack of foliage and an even softer wind.

“We’ll do that in our next life,” she added.

“Sure,” I replied lamely. “I’ll look forward to it.”

“Look forward to it now,” Anna said. “Tell me about it.”

I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Well we definitely wouldn’t eat candy floss.”

“Or play mini-golf.”

“Exactly.”

“What would we do then?”

“Donkey rides?”

Anna spluttered with laughter. “Oh that’s cool.”

“I never said any of it was cool,” I replied.

“Sorry,” Anna said, with mock-seriousness. “Keep going.”

“Okay, no donkeys. We’ll eat fish and chips… and go for a walk along the beach…”

“What will we hear?”

“We’ll hear… pebbles crunching… and seagulls squawking.”

“Will they try to steal our food?”

“Of course, but we’ll be too clever for them.”

“How will we manage that?”

“We’ll eat our food incredibly quickly. It’ll give us indigestion later but we won’t care because we out-foxed them.”

“Genius. What else will we hear?”

“Waves, I guess. And laughter.”

“Who will be laughing?”

“Children, I suppose. There are always children on the beach.”

“Maybe us too?”

“Yeah, us. Definitely us.”

“Who’s having more fun: the children or us?”

“Us. Definitely us.”

“Good,” Anna said. “I like having fun.”

We stepped our way through tangled roots and fallen trunks.

“What do you think it’s like not being here?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well think, Tom.”

I thought. “There’s a lot of times you haven’t been here. I suppose it’s like that.”

“I suppose so,” Anna said. “Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad.”

“That sounds like most things,” I said.

We walked and we walked.

And all of a sudden, far too soon, we reached the lake. The trees cleared, and we found ourselves standing in a stiffening breeze, watching ripples cascade across the murky water. The sun peered out reluctantly from behind a curtain of clouds, its light fractured as if scattered by the wind.

The mere sight of our destination stopped me in my tracks and I stood quite frozen, staring blankly at an uncertain horizon.

“Come on, Tom,” Anna said gently, and she took me by the hand and led me up the gentle path that wound slowly up the lake’s overhang.

We had managed just half the ascent when a thought hit me for the very first time. And when it came, I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t think of anything else. And I didn’t think of anything else, not until the walk was over, and not really for some time after that.

At the top of the overhang, we stopped in silence again. I could hear Anna breathing hard.

“You all right?” I asked.

“Remember when we raced down your road?” she said, by way of reply.

“Sure,” I said. “It was like miles.”

“It was like ten metres.”

“Ten metres is like miles when you’re six.”

“Seven.”

“If you say so,” I agreed.

“You were so angry when you lost,” she laughed.

I pushed her playfully. “I didn’t lose!”

“Well you didn’t win,” she retorted.

I pushed her again, and she pushed me back, and just for a moment we were touching each other, somehow more than friends.

Just for a moment.

“What about that ginger beer?” she asked.

“Tastes awful,” I said quietly.

“Tastes amazing,” she said even more quietly.

Our walk had ended. I put the backpack on the grassy soil, took out the blanket and spread it wide. It billowed briefly in the wind, a defiant tartan flag. We pushed it down, squashed it firmly into the ground and sat cross-legged atop it.

We ate and drank and watched the sky until the sun began to sink, until the lengthening shadows slowed down time, until every moment was sharpened to frozen crystal, like ripples of ice on a lake.

The sunlight drew a razor-straight line across the water. Ducks floated through the air until they crossed the divide, one moment illuminated, then lost in the darkness.

My hand gripped a tuft of grass by my side so that each blade bent in an entirely different direction. An ant paused on the tip of my thumb.

Anna’s hair lay diagonally across her face, covering her freckles almost perfectly. Each strand swayed ever so gently, and lines of shadow danced across her eyes.

Our shadows grew ever so thin, then crossed, then merged.

“Well,” Anna said. “I guess it’s time.”

“I guess so.”

She stood up.

“Anna,” I said.

“Yes?”

“We’re not going to the beach this year. We’re going to Paris.”

She laughed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I stared at my hands, picked at my fingernails.

Now all shadows had merged and it was quite dark, and quite cold. We packed up the picnic and gazed out over the gloomy water.

Anna shivered. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s walk home.”

I handed her my jacket.

“You should have reminded me to bring one,” she said.

“My mistake,” I replied.

We walked ever so slowly down the slope towards the lake. The forest lay before us, dense with trees and memories of walks long gone.

“What are you thinking?” Anna said as we turned away from the sky and the rising moon.

I studied the trees and their endless criss-crossing branches.

“I wasn’t thinking it until we started climbing,” I said. “And now it won’t leave me alone.”

“What’s that?”

“I started thinking you might actually do it.”

Anna was silent. I thought of the walks we had taken and the walks that might still be to come. And I wondered which one would be our last, and how I would know.

She hugged me tight and pulled away quickly. “I’m still cold,” she said.

“Me too,” I agreed. “We better walk.”

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