Sunday, 20 October 2013

Petra by Brindley Hallam Dennis

Read by Sean Hebert

They say there are two black spots, right in the centre of our circle of vision, that we never see: where the optic nerves join the back of our eyeballs. We overlook them, don’t notice them, fill in the detail from what we can see all around.

When Steve told me that he and Jenny had parted I got straight into the car and drove over to see him. I could have phoned; I could have e-mailed; but I wanted to hear it from his own mouth. I wanted him tell me. I wanted to know what had gone wrong.

There was a For Sale sign on a post in the front garden. I said, you're selling the house. He said, yes, that's why there's a For Sale sign in the front garden.

I began to think maybe the e-mail or the phone call would have done as well. I said, where's Jen? He said, she's gone to stay with her mother, until things are sorted out. I wanted to ask what went wrong, but I wanted more for him to tell me without asking. What he didn't tell me was that he was planning to go away. The first I heard of that was about a fortnight later, when Jen called.

Steve's body had been found in Scotland.

This is a man, was a man, who lived in the south of England. He had no business in Scotland. He had business up north, unfinished business. Business isn't the right word. It was Petra who lived up north and had done for thirty years.

I knew that they hadn't been in touch for a decade or more, and that before that they hadn't been in touch for a decade or more. A decade before that we had all been great friends. I knew, when I thought about it, that they were due for another episode. Well, I knew that he was.

Petra and I hadn't kept in touch. There was nothing in that. She and I got on fine. It was just that she and I didn't need to keep in touch, not even once a decade. We certainly didn't think about each other all the years in between. When Facebook came in we all connected up again, one by one, except for Steve and Petra. Steve had been thinking of Jen, I supposed.

Steve thought about Petra though. I think he thought about her all the time. He thought about her every day. I saw him regularly. We met up several times a year. Caught up, as they say. He'd ask after Petra, as if he expected me to know.

I haven't heard from her, I'd tell him, not for ages. Petra preyed on his mind. I knew that. She never married. She came close to it once. I'm not sure if she ever knew how close. Well, of course she knew. The time hadn't been right though. Steve missed that boat and caught another one instead, and after that he was playing catch up for the rest of his life.

The last time I saw Steve alive was that time I went over to find out what the hell had gone wrong between him and Jen. Maybe I should have asked her, but I didn't, and besides, what difference would it have made?

There was an inquest. Misadventure was the verdict. Exposure was the cause of death. Jen identified the body. Like a paper doll, she told me. He'd been living rough, they said, but only for a little while. There had been no long, slow deterioration. He had found his way up onto the moors, or whatever they call them up there, had drunk a bottle of whisky, probably in the sun, had taken off all of his clothes, and walked a little further, and lay down, and gone to sleep, and, it being a clear night in May, had frozen to death during the hours of darkness. The S word had been mentioned, but there had been no letter. The balance of his mind had been mentioned. He was going through a divorce, after all. But the S word is a finding that inquests are reluctant to make unless it's absolutely certain.

How did he get there? Jen asked. Why did he go? I wanted the answers to those questions too. That was why I went to see Petra.

I haven’t seen him for years, she said. I didn’t know he’d moved to Scotland.

He hadn’t moved to Scotland, I told her.

What was he doing there? She asked. That wasn’t the question, I wanted to tell her. Was he on holiday? She asked.

No, I said. She didn’t seem very upset. In fact she didn’t seem upset at all.

What are you doing up here anyway? she asked.

I came to see you, I told her. I came to tell you about Steve. I could see the surprise on her face. I think she almost said, why? But she didn’t. I could see that she was thinking it though. Why would you come all the way up here to tell me about Steve? He was the love of your life, I wanted to tell her. That’s why you never married. You were the love of his life, I said.

Was I?

I didn’t believe it. Was she saying that she didn’t know? I didn’t know what to say. He’d told me so many times, over the years. He’d told me she was the love of his life. He’d told me he was the love of hers. Circumstances, he’d told me, were what had kept them apart.

Love, he used to say, isn’t about what you do. It’s about how you feel.

We’d get round to it at the end of our conversations, when we were on the last glass of wine, after the meal. We used to meet up a couple of times a year, go off somewhere remote; stay in a good hotel. Have a good meal, share a bottle of wine, a couple of whiskies after. We wouldn’t get drunk, just a little sentimental. Not maudlin exactly, nostalgic maybe. We’d talk about the past. That’s when he’d tell me, about walking away all those years ago. One little mistake, he used to say: a turn to the left instead of the right., and you’re off the path for good.

Love, he used to say, is something you only have to recognise. Once you’ve done that it never goes away. You only have to know.

You must have known, I said to her.

I haven’t seen him for years, she said. I’d only a seen him a couple of times in the last twenty years.

You hadn’t forgotten him though, I said.

No, of course not, she said. We had some good times, she said. Back when we were all together.

But since then, I wanted to ask her, hadn’t you thought about him? He thought about you all the time, I wanted to tell her. He thought about you every day.

I often remember those times, she said. Are you still in touch with Sandra and Jack?

She said no more, and I couldn't bring myself to ask her outright.

Petra's unblinking eyes have haunted me; and her mouth, as if she were about to whisper or to smile; and often I have thought since how easy it is to be mistaken.

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