They moved in together for the first time not long after she got out of hospital. It had been his job to find them a place, based on long conversations as she recovered from her physio sessions that left her so drained she talked to him with her eyes closed. It wasn’t easy to find somewhere that fit their requirements, but eventually he found it. It was down in the south, in a new estate built beyond the ring road on the very edge of the city. At first glance all the houses looked different, but when he walked down the street he realised that they were all the same concrete box with something slightly altered from one to the next, such as the roof or a conservatory, a carport or a porch. Cosmetic changes, to differentiate them from their neighbours.
He didn’t mind that. And he didn’t mind the distance from the town, from his work and her university. There was a train station close to the entrance of the estate and, in any case, being out on the edge had its benefits. In the beginning, they were the last of the houses, with nothing built up beyond the back fence. From the patio doors that led out to their tiny garden, he could look across a level expanse of sandy ground with an uninterrupted view to the woods on the lower slopes of the hills that rose up right at the moment the city stopped and the countryside started. Even as the estate agent talked through him at the empty walls, he was imagining the walks they would take. It would help her get better, he thought. Help her build her strength. He took photographs to show her in the hospital, but he had already agreed to sign the contract before the next visiting hours began. He didn’t tell her that of course, but it didn’t really matter. She was happy. They were going to be happy there.
In the beginning things went well. He worked and she studied. They spent summer evenings in their small garden and walked out across the empty space beyond the back fence to follow the forestry tracks up through the woods to a lookout point. Sometimes they would walk up in the dark, so they could be there with the views back across the rooftops of the estate towards the tall towers of the city beyond as the sun came up. Her recovery was going well, and soon it was not possible to tell she had been in the accident. Not by looking at her. She was quicker up the path to the lookout point, often running from the bottom to the top for no reason other than the fact that she could. Slowly, they were leaving the hospital ward behind.
The first change came with the sight of a yellow digger, parked just beyond the fence. Notices had been posted on the lampposts of the estate to inform residents that the building works long approved by the local council were now about to begin. Another curved dead-end street was laid out on the sandy soil. Pavements and more lampposts. Concrete slabs upon which the houses would be built. Soon it was only possible to see the top of the hill from the back garden as it rose above the houses taking shape, and it required a fifteen minute detour to the official footpath around the edge of the estate to reach the forestry tracks leading up to the lookout point.
Still, she continued to walk. Her favourite time to go was on a winter morning after a fresh snowfall; to be the first to lay tracks to the top was to turn it into a first ascent every time. She walked through the snow and she walked through the mud. She walked in the height of summer and when the spring winds blew. Increasingly, she walked alone.
Later, he would try and work out when it was he stopped joining her on those walks. It was around the moment that the new houses were finished and the first of their new neighbours moved in. She didn’t seem to mind that he stopped. In any case, she said at the time, he was always with her. When she said it then he took it at face value, understood her to mean that she always held him close. But, as he would come to realise, that was not what she meant at all.
It was fitting that she told him when she came in from another of her walks, knocking the snow from her boots on the outside step before finding him in the kitchen. He was surprised at her words but not as surprised as he would have thought. There was no anger in the conversation, no blame or recrimination, just sadness from both sides. For most of the conversation his questions were almost entirely practical, about where she was going to go and how they would sort out the house and the things they had accumulated in their short time together. And it was short, when he thought about it.
Only once did he risk a question that touched on deeper reasons. He was still sitting on the chair at the kitchen table, where he had been when she came in from the walk. She was standing at the doorway.
‘You still see me as that girl lying in the hospital bed,’ she said. He was too scared to ask for more.
When her book came out, a couple of years later, he was living back in the city centre. She had moved completely, leaving that place and all its memories behind, memories of the university and the flatshares, the accident and the hospital, and the house between the city and the woods. He was surprised when a friend showed it to him. He’d never known she’d been writing. They had copies in the local bookshop, and he picked one up after work. Crossing the street outside the bookshop he went into a pub, ordered a beer, and began to read.
When she had walked those hills alone he had always been with her. That’s what she said, and he still saw no reason to disbelieve her. But when he read her stories, sitting in that pub, word after word, page after page, he realised that there, between those covers, he was absent. She had let him go.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig
With special thanks to Nadine Khouri