Hitching north from Hendon, the two of us get up to Wetherby in a couple of long lifts. The first is in a lorry returning to Harrogate after delivering washing machine parts to a factory in Edgware. The driver is a soft-voiced Yorkshireman. Face down on the engine cowling is a tartan-bound copy of Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter. As he barrels up and down the A1 he reads it, stanza by stanza, consigning each to memory. The next is a black USAF helicopter pilot returning to the submarine base at Holy Loch. Slung under the dashboard of the Lincoln Continental is a tiny record player. He plays John Coltrane and Roland Kirk albums at deafening volume, singing along, note-perfect, with all the solos. He drops us off at the end of the school drive and, dazed, we stand by our duffle bags, the Kerouac rising from us like dust.
Gerry and I left school a year ago last summer. Since then I’ve been working in a factory manufacturing and repairing spectacles and Gerry has begun a catering course. The rickety bridge that for so long had me stepping across dark channels between home and boarding school, holiday and term-time, has been revealed as a continent, vast and imponderable. We have returned now from the edge of the real world to bring word and confirm rumour to the old outpost. The mode of the music has changed; the walls of the city have begun to shake.
Fags on, we trudge the half-mile up the meandering drive. A corner turned and the school’s sandstone bulk rises to port. Flattering to deceive at this distance across a wide field, its portico looks as noble as it did the day I saw it first. Informed by raw and recent memory, I blush to recall sobbing against a pillar on that last day of term when all childhood suddenly impacted behind me like a train on emergency brakes and I saw the future before me as a vast, white, trackless space. I draw hard on the cigarette and flick it into thistles.
Shyly, she crosses the courtyard towards me. Worldly from provincial clubs and bars, I lounge against the old mounting block. But my heart skips a beat and then starts again louder. Snaggle-tooth grin and bare arms and legs for early June and hair much longer, honey-coloured, hanging loose. Hardly fashionable in that peasant blouse, but the skirt’s pulled high over her knees and rolled at the waist – a peasant’s mini. And now I can recall only that first elemental kiss two years before – a seated collision in the evening shadows of the unlit Art Room, her reading glasses trapped between our foreheads, the desk beneath us both tipping back, the wordless passion so right, the physics of implementation so wrong. And the brief time apart – a night’s staring into crackling darkness, rocking on the weird hydraulics of exhilaration and terror. The following day a Sunday. A morning short on breath, fast on pulse and long on time. Then the early afternoon tryst in a locked outhouse to which only Gerry and I have keys. A canvas camp-bed crammed against hot water pipes and it all being so different from the received wisdoms and fevered imaginings. No streamlined symmetry, no sinewy dance, but maybe all the more magnificent for its urgent collisions, its grunted apologies, its laughter, its callow reaching towards a surprised and delighted mutuality.
Now, shy all over again, she wants to know about the music. Not The Beatles, she insists, but The Rolling Stones. What does it mean for us all? How must we respond? Who must we become? And later, in her dorm illicitly, close but not touching, whispering, with the only sound the ambience of distant Sports Day beyond courtyard and building, she tells me of life after my times. Drunk, she danced on tabletops and she sang the solo in the Allegri Miserere in York Minster and she wrote her first poem and for three nights she was Antigone in a bedsheet and under a laurel crown, and she scree-ran all the way down Gordale Scar on 6th Form Camp.
She pauses for breath and looks sideways at me steadily. Deep-set myopic blue eyes. Did she miss me? She nods slowly and a hank of hair falls across her cheek. Just the nod with that heartbeat second delay before it.
It’s dark when Gerry and I leave. Brief celebrity gives way to anonymity in the huge summer night. The lights in the distant building flicker like marsh gas as we turn the corner in the drive. A prospect dissolving even as we watch and walk. Which now is the real world and which the fantasy?
No lorries passing on the York Road so we catch an empty late bus to the edge of the A1. Gerry sleeps on his drawn-up knees. I stare into the window. My reflection against passing buildings; the steady pulse of streetlights against the soughing and grumbling of the engine; the immediate past a jukebox of 3-minute cameos. But this is the road back into the real world. The other side of this darkness it stretches away on all sides, endless and implacable. I came up here wrapped in its colours, trailing its fumes. Now I return, troubled, through a dreamscape. Love still, lust now, longing or maybe just connection changed forever. In this imponderable world, the match-flame burns so brightly but so briefly…