It was cool here even on the brightest mornings with the row of tall conifers shading the front drive of the house. Mick packed his tools into the back of his van, took in the sound of birdsong that filled the air. He left for work early, always amid the dregs of the dawn chorus. He stepped for a moment into a patch of sunlight, felt the air suddenly warm despite the hour and the warmth was good, in his knees especially. He lifted his face to the sun and watched the deft black birds flying and banking hard and fast high up in the air above his house. Were they swifts or swallows? He remembered something he had heard onceâ€”that swifts spend almost their entire lives in flight, mating, sleeping, eating. They never come to rest except to nest.
Mick pulled out of his drive and onto the neat little street and then out again onto the main road, drove up through the high street and over the roundabout at the village edge until finally there was no longer any village left. Passing by the last couple of houses, the land fell away from the left hand side of the road, the whole magnificent sweep of the valley below yawning wide and open. When he was young he often saw people along this stretch, parked up on warm evenings to get out of their cars and look across this unexpected view, this surprise of scale in this small and insignificant bit of country. He had never stopped there however and he didnâ€™t do so today. He drove on, up into the hills that ran south of the village. They were hills covered in deep conifer woods and when the view opened up here and there along the road, it looked like you could dive into the thick bank of greens. There must be hundreds of thousands of trees, the tops of them running smooth like a cut lawn along the crests and dips of the hills. They communicated a sense of infinite distance, a feeling that here was your own country, familiar and yet entirely secret. Miles of forest floor untrodden in the shadow of the canopy. You think you know a place. You know nothing. A sensation like breathlessness rose in Mick as he drove, as he looked out at the trees, monuments to their own silent history. The road continued to rise up into the next village, which was made up of just three or four streets, a school, a Chinese restaurant that had clung on for years in its own shabby way and a few large houses by the side of the road. Mick turned left after the last of these, down a long straight road that led north. He crossed the Yeoman roundabout and onto a road he hadnâ€™t driven down in years. A row of detached houses ran alongside it, sunk down slightly from the height of the street.
The first of these houses came into view and Mick could see a scene of some kind was playing itself out. Up ahead, a Toyota four-wheel drive had stopped halfway through pulling out of a driveway. It was stationary, blocking the road on Mick’s side. A black saloon car had been forced to pull up behind it as traffic streamed steadily the other way. There was a man, presumably the driver of the four-wheel drive, standing in the middle of the road. He was dressed only in a deep red bathrobe and for a split second looked to Mick like he was dancing but he was not dancing. He was staggering in the road, gesturing to the driver of the black saloon, trying to say something to him and then finally leaning, heavy and desperate, across his bonnet. As Mick slowed to a halt behind the black saloon, he made a dim association that he was near to the Coopers’ old house and he felt the sharpness and unease of a faint memory. The saloon pulled out and away as a gap opened up in the on-coming traffic. Mick could see the Toyota clearly now, its back end raised out of the incline of the drive like a promise of something vaguely erotic. His van was idling, his foot hesitant on the accelerator. He saw the man pitch towards him now, the heavy bathrobe falling open to reveal a muscular chest. He was wary of moving, aware of something fraught about the situation. Was it this stranger’s presence there in the road or the sense of his own safety that was causing his anxiety? Somehow the man’s lack of clothing made him seem powerless and vulnerable. He had no shoes on his feet. The man’s hand slapped hard against Mick’s window, the palm flattened and discoloured by the glass, pale yellow like the hand of a sick man. He was shouting and Mick made out the word please. Mick sat there blankly, taking in the image in front of him, the man’s forearms extending out of his robe, tanned and covered in light blonde hair, his
eyes, deep pure black circles like cups of coffee, the bright dapple of the early morning light playing through the canopy of the tall trees that flanked the road. All this took on a disproportionate weight in his consciousness. He could sense it doing so as he sat there, as if his sitting there had taken up months or years of his life, not seconds, watching a man he knew nothing of acting in a way he could not understand. Even if he could at that moment have seen inside the manâ€™s house, seen the champagne bottles on his coffee table, seen the little plastic bags with their film of white powder now sticky from the wet fingers which had tried to wipe them clean, seen the crumpled bank notes and the ashtrays, even then he could not have understood what it was he was seeing. There was another gap in the oncoming cars and Mick pulled away tentatively. The man jerked out of the way and Mick heard a thud against the side of his van as he passed him. He looked back for a second in his wing mirror. The man was not looking back at him. He carried on driving across the hill line, through a small market town and when the time came, he turned into a wide street lined with large plane trees. The houses on this street were big and grand and proclaimed their grandness from their setting, a hundred or so feet from the road, back behind walled front gardens with ornate black security gates across broad driveways. He had always liked looking at houses, liked their windows and neat drives, liked garden paths and peculiar door knocks. He had loved home as a child and hated going away. He pulled into one of the driveways and reached out of his window to punch in the security code, which he had written on the back of his hand, the gates opening slow and stately.
He worked all day, as he did every day, with the radio on for company. He stripped a wall of ancient looking woodchip, the stiff paper coming off in thick strips, sodden from the steamer and re-heated glue. The wall beneath was smooth and brown and he watched as it cooled and the darker brown of the wet patches left by the steamer slowly shrank. He took pleasure from things like this day after day. Some small satisfaction or other, not in the routine but in the action itself, the way the paint felt on a roller, or being stirred in its tin with his old screwdriver, or the way old glosswork on a wooden door or window frame sanded down like velvet. These rituals felt ordinary and general and very physical and because of this they made Mick feel at ease. At lunch time he made tea and ate his sandwiches. He started to think of what had happened that morning and what it might all have meant. He felt oddly like he had seen or heard something he shouldnâ€™t have done, as if he had become privy to a profound and private moment which belonged to somebody else. Like overhearing your parents arguing or having sex. Strange how certain images remained so vivid in your recollection while whole other stretches of time could just disintegrate. What exactly did all that forgotten time amount to? Was it all still there, still real, still your own history even if you could no longer recall it? These small daily actions which he had repeated so often over the years, could he now remember exactly the first time he opened a tin of paint? Or cleaned his brushes in another personâ€™s kitchen sink, trying to ensure there was no trace or residue of watered down off-white paint left behind? He could not and yet they must have occurred, as precisely as anything he could remember.
He felt he would remember the man in his bathrobe distinctly and forever. He had felt time itself change in the instant he had seen the man. He felt it cease to move onwards without deviation, from a start somewhere distant and irretrievable to a final, definitive point, and instead open into a single, slow, ripe moment. He thought of Andrew Cooper. It was the same with him. Their friendship. There were certain stories that he could have told in detail even now, and there were other things that were lost to him entirely. For instance, he could not remember when the two of them met. Why not that? Somehow it was simply as if he hadn’t known him and then, at a certain point in his past, he had. There was no spark or perception of a beginning, no image held fast, no first vision of this other boy. He had remembered the Coopers’ house this morning, suddenly and out of nowhere, as if from a dream. But it wasn’t just that which made him think of Cooper now. He thought of him for another reason, too. A reason that he knew and not vaguely but with an acuteness that has been denied for so long and with such strength of will that the denial has blunted the sharpness of the feeling, made it smooth against the surface of his other feelings like a wooden plug in an old piece of furniture that has been worn down true over time and is now no longer noticeable. Mick’s mind took a sharp left turn and he realised that it had been two whole days since he had spoken a word to anybody. He felt self-conscious about it, even though there was no-one in the house, but he had a strong compulsion to say something. Just to hear his own voice. To feel the reverberations of it in his own skull. He spoke Andrew Cooper’s name slowly and the sound felt strange. He said the words again and again and again until he felt sure of his voice, the timbre of it, the volume. He was aware of his cheeks flush with heat. He knew that this was how much alone he was, sitting here in a house belonging to
someone else, someone he’d never met and never would and who did not even live there yet.
Normally Mick would have driven home a different way. He liked to stop at a certain supermarket and get his modest groceries. He bought food every couple of days so as not to waste anything. It was easy enough when there was only himself to cook for. But that night he drove back the same way he’d come that morning. He knew he was being nosey. He wanted to see if there was any sign of what might have been going on that morning, but there wasn’t. The Toyota wasn’t in the drive, though. He noticed that, whatever it meant. He took a detour and drove slowly past the Coopers’ house and then after that he passed the little dirt track that ran down to the start of a footpath into the woods. Years ago he and Cooper had taken their first cars down there and found that particular section of the track where you could stop the car and look out of your window and it would appear for all the world that you were still moving, only backwards, and uphill.