I remember everything about that night. Everything. I remember the waiter laughing at us when we told him our plan.
“You want to explore?” he repeated. He caught his mate’s arm and they discussed us in a rapid colloquial dialect I couldn’t follow, smiling and shaking their heads.
“What’s he saying?” hissed Phoebe and I shrugged. Laughter spread to the kitchen and some of the white-shirted cooks came to stare at us through the serving hatch. Phoebe turned away from them to roll her cigarette. Beautiful, disdainful Phoebe. How dare they laugh at her? She edged away from me, as though disassociating herself; as though the trip had been wholly my idea.
We drained our cheap carafe of wine and left the restaurant at seven, with the staff lining the porch to wave us off, as though we were aristocrats taking leave of our estate: two scruffy British students in shorts and battered walking boots, who’d settled their bill by counting out unfamiliar coins on the greasy tabletop. There was a nasty edge to their laughter, I thought. We travelled towards the outskirts of town, catching buses when we could. It grew dark too quickly. I held the map, but I couldn’t read it. My blisters hurt. I took Phoebe’s hand for a moment, until she shook herself free.
This is a true story. I must slow down. I must tell it just as it happened – although I do not understand what happened and I cannot fill in the story’s central blank. I cannot account for it. This story ends in silence.
We left the road and found ourselves in a forest. Well, we called it a forest, thinking of our native oak and ash, our nettles and beetles, and a watery English sun filtering through English leaves. Today, I would call that place a grove. Stars whirled between the branches. Narrow silver tree trunks closed and swayed around us, although there was no breeze, only a suffocating humidity. Our boots made the ground crackle.
“Is this on the map?” asked Phoebe, hitching her rucksack over the straps of her vest, chafing her reddened skin.
It was my job to navigate, to keep an eye on the time, to translate, to order the cheapest pasta dishes, to find bus stops and telephones and stamps and chocolate. I carried our water, plasters, ointment, spare batteries and bruised apples. I was glad to be needed. It was Phoebe’s job to be free – to race ahead, carrying only a book and a few sticks of gum. I noticed she was staring past me, her lips slightly parted in wonder.
“Look at that,” she said, pointing ahead at a vast silhouette. “What’s that? Use the torch!”
I trained the frail torch beam on the façade of a house. It was blue in the gloaming, pock-marked with black knots and cracks that might have been vegetation, or damage to the stone, or even a painted design that had faded. A green lattice of gates sprang into sight, rusted and covered in vines. As we moved forwards Phoebe gripped my elbow, making the torchlight buck and jerk. The windows of the house were black, and oddly matte.
“No glass,” she breathed and that frightened me. I didn’t like to think of us breathing air that had threaded through the ruin. It made the house seem closer, more integrated with the grove, as though only a few steps would unite us.
We spread the map on the ground and crouched over it. We argued about finding North. The house might have been one of several smudges and wrinkles on the map, hidden in denser folds of green. I suspect it wasn’t depicted at all. It was the sort of house that falls off maps and lives on in the folklore of those who know the land. Our flanks pressed so closely together that I could feel heat moving between our bodies, although the air was cooling. Phoebe sat back on her haunches. The blunt black edge of her hair traced her jaw-line and her skin looked phosphorescent. I remember that clearly – the blue-ish fizz of her skin; the white flash of her eyes. She was in her element.
“We could just re-trace our steps,” I said.
“Ye-es,” she said, a mist clouding her lips. “Eventually.”
I thought yearningly of the tatty room we’d booked for the week, back in town, with its two single beds that had to be pushed together, every evening, beneath a narrow window.
“Have we got any water left?” she asked.
“You tell me.” She reached into my rucksack and shook the flask.
“Loads. Come on then.” She stood up. “Let’s have a poke around.”
I clutched her shoulder. “Why?”
Phoebe smiled her roguish smile. She thought of herself as a transgressor, a daredevil. She’d wanted a story to tell – and here it was; an old abandoned mansion. The tale of her daring, and of my caution, my dullness, my cowardice. But Phoebe wasn’t angry with me and for a while I felt grateful. She wasn’t screwing up the map and throwing it in my face, or screaming at me. She wasn’t saying the words that had hovered between us for days – that she’d never wanted to come on this trip; that she no longer wanted me. I cupped her face in my hands and kissed her. She laughed against my mouth.
“Come with me?” she said, pushing me away.
“No,” I said. Instantly and instinctively, “No”.
“I’m sure. I don’t think you should go near it,” I said.
“Give me the torch,” she smirked.
“I can’t go in without it.”
She wrenched the torch from my hand and shone its light in my face, laughing at my expression. Her laughter sounded harsh and dangerous. I thought vast rookeries would be disturbed, and clap from the skies in fury. She tossed the torch into the air, causing a crazy switchback flicker among the trees, and caught it again. Then she turned and walked away, with the light leaping to one side of the house. And that was the last I ever saw of Phoebe – my Phoebe, the genuine one.
Alone in the darkness, I leaned against a tree trunk and considered my girlfriend, as I always did when she was out of sight. I thought of her long restless body and the jagged cut of her fringe. The redundant inch of silver chain that hung from the clasp of her necklace, rolling over the bump of one vertebra – and how I would sometimes stand behind Phoebe, my arms around her waist, holding that inch of chain between my lips. The tang of its flavour has stayed with me.
Nobody owns anybody, she always said. She laughed when I told her I loved her, back in college; she’d climbed off my lap and rolled one of her thin, photogenic cigarettes. Love is an illusion, she said. I wished I could hold one of her cigarettes, standing there in the cold grove. Even just a box of matches. I dared to walk a little way towards the side of the house, in her footsteps. The moon had risen and it cast a fierce, misleading light, picking out scars in the house’s façade and deepening its shadows into absolute darkness.
I thought I saw a moving glow from somewhere within, or behind, the house. I wondered if there was a garden, overgrown or entirely barren, leading down in terraces from the back of the house. There might be a choked fountain, with carved cherubs eaten away under lichen. If the sun had been shining, I would have explored – I would have joined Phoebe in the ruin; sat in its rotting satin slipper chairs, written my name in the dust of the rosewood escritoire…
How much longer would she be? It was the nature of our relationship I would wait for her, indefinitely, in darkness, with no message and no plan. She could take as long as she liked, knowing that I would wait.
I took a swig of warm water from the flask. The night life of the grove was underway – the scratching and scuttling of creatures joined in battle. I imagined the tunnelled earth teeming with insects and tiny mammals. I began to think something might be wrong.
“You want to explore?” the waiter had laughed, as he and his friends formed a ragged corridor, clapping us off the premises until all we could hear was slow applause, like a drumbeat, following us onto the road.
Phoebe was taking such a long time. What if she’d fallen? What if something had collapsed on her? This was an unstable structure, baked in the Mediterranean sun, windowless. Its staircase and floorboards would be brittle, worm-eaten. It looked as though it might topple over. It might crumble. Would it fall into ashes – quickly, soundlessly – enveloping Phoebe, so she could not cry out? My real fear, of course, was that she had encountered someone inside. I tried to erase the thought, but it presented itself to me over and over again. I thought of calling out to her. My mouth opened – but I had no breath, no voice. Would she call out to me? And if she did, could I help her? I could not. I knew, with a certainty that annihilated everything between us, that if she was in danger in that house I would leave her there to face it alone. Nothing – no love, no infatuation, no hope of reciprocation – would induce me to take one step closer.
Love is an illusion.
I stood there, alone. I’d finished it. I’d ruined it.
A darkness moved within the darkness. I swung around to face it. Clatter of stone; whip of scrub grass.
Phoebe! No torch. Phoebe running. She bolted past me through the trees. I followed her, fast. We ran silently out of the grove and into the fields, her body moving ahead of me, blue in the moonlight, her black hair like outstretched wings. She turned her head. I thought she was looking for me, but she wasn’t. She looked past me, back to the house. We ran without a break, the tall grass needling our legs, our lungs bursting. We came to a track that led to the road and stopped. Then we bent over, hands braced against our knees, gasping for air.
I knew better than to ask – then, or ever afterwards.
We made it back to the bar with our tatty room. Its patrons gave us suspicious looks – student girls; English – red in the face for some reason, our eyes bulging from our heads, our legs lashed and our hands shaking. They muttered. They laughed.
We went up to our room and drank what was left of the water. Our teeth chattered against the lip of the flask. Then we folded our stiff bodies onto a single bed, with me behind Phoebe, holding her around the waist. The silver chain was missing. We lay awake, all night, facing the window that faced the miles of wilderness leading back to the house.
In the morning, we packed up our stuff and made for the station.
I left the torn map on the bed.
On the concourse, Phoebe refused to join me in McDonalds. I walked to the counter as though entering a Paradise of colour and noise – of noonday life, school kids and families, tannoys and timetables. Some boys fell against me in a play fight and sprang back, apologising.
I bought two Cokes and walked out to find Phoebe sat hunched on the ground with her chin on her knees. She looked small and young. We were only nineteen. We had not spoken properly, or looked at one another. We would never meet each other’s eyes again. Our story ended in silence.
I don’t remember what happened after that. We returned to college and life resumed. Phoebe faded out of my life. She was around the next corner, in the next room; in some other lover’s arms. I didn’t mind. She lost her hold over me.
A girl had gone into the house; a different girl had emerged.
She moved to another college, at some point. There may have been an exchange of Christmas cards.
I must have seen her and heard from her. But the real Phoebe – the one I had known and yearned for – Phoebe of the black hair, the jagged fringe; Phoebe rolling her eternal cigarette – well, she disappeared. She just disappeared.