Now I See You
You’re standing just inside the park when I arrive and I know before you say it that you want to go to the river. You always do. Sometimes I think it’s the only place you feel OK. The railings are between us, casting shadow on the grass, and it’s so bright I have to shade my eyes to see you. You’re there, and then for a second you’re not, but when I move into the shade of the tree you’re visible again. You’ve got sunglasses on, a scarf, although it isn’t cold, black trainers, your long grey coat.
“Morning!” you call.
In the old days, your dog would have been here. She’d run up and circle me, sprinting between me and you and back again, with her chin tipped up towards the sky. Today, though, you’re alone. It’s just me and you, but you walk over and we hug and start to walk the old route, skirting the hill, crossing the road, slipping through to the other park, through the bright yellows and reds of spring flowers, past the big house and down the alley to the river.
The gate at the weir is open. Recently, it’s been locked because of flooding, but today we walk straight onto the path. There’s a huge branch blocking the river; water runs faster on either side and the ducks skirt past it, gliding for a moment until the river opens up and calms again. You’re talking a lot. You’re telling me about your childhood, about how much you miss the north. All of it, but most of all the hills, with their wide endless skies, the paths that peter out to vast stretches of untamed bracken, and the grouse that hide there, flying suddenly upwards with a hoot of shock as you approach. You’re talking and talking, immersed in detail, deliberately trying to distract yourself from the other things, the things you know I’d rather talk about.
We walk on, up the river. I won’t ask where we’re going. I’ll just walk with you, silently, as far as we can. I think of all the times we’ve walked this route together and all the ways in which things have changed since we first came here. We’ve changed, too. I look at you carefully as we go, taking in every detail. You look almost the same, but your cheeks are gaunt and there’s a darkness in your eyes that I don’t understand. It worries me to think about what you might have seen.
Now that you’re here, I want to say that I miss you. I want to demand answers: how you are, how you feel, how you got here, whether you’ll come again, but I know better than to ask. For a while, we walk on in silence and it just feels good to have you there. Then you say, “How long have you got?”
“All day.” It’s Saturday. No one’s expecting anything of me, but even if they were, I’d stay here with you.
“Cool,” you say, and you laugh slightly, as though it’s normal for me to be alone at the weekend, with no one to notice where I am. Or perhaps you’re wondering, but don’t want to ask why. I can’t tell whether you’re being sensitive to my discomfort or oblivious to it, but either way I don’t have to explain, so we walk on through the tall metal gate, which pushes open just wide enough for one of us at a time. You’re through it first. You stand and wait. I’ve wanted to see you so much. I’ve dreamt of it, I’ve wished for it and now that you’re here it feels so normal, so matter of fact, that it’s almost funny.
“We should cross over,” you say when we get to the bridge.
I follow you up the steep arch of it, pausing in the centre for a moment to look down at a passing boat and the barefoot young woman in jeans who glances up at me from the low wooden boards at the back for a second, before she twists the long metal pole between her hands and lowers it back down into the water, saying something to her passenger, who’s lying flat on the raised wooden platform at the front, languidly trailing a hand through the water. It’s warm for April. Then I look up and see that you’ve gone. I’m angry with myself. I think I must have made it happen, that that moment of inattention pushed you away. I should have focused on you completely, but there’s nothing I can do. I wait for a moment, then carry on to the other side and start walking beside the river, close to the long grass, grasping at it as I go, letting soft handfuls of seeds drift through my hand and float to the ground.
“Are you there?” I ask aloud. I listen, but there’s no answer.
I walk on for five minutes, ten. No one else is around, but sometimes there’s movement on the water. Birds landing, geese massing by the opposite bank, the ripples they leave on the surface. I keep talking anyway. I’m used to you disappearing. You’re still not here and I’m talking to myself, both question and answer. A family coming the other way overhear. The woman calls her daughter closer, reaches for her hand. I smile, to reassure them, but they look steadfastly at the path, avoiding eye contact as they edge past.
“See?” I say to you. “See what happens when you disappear like that?” I’m half joking, but anger overtakes me, pushing everything else away. I want to roar at the meadow, at the blue sky, even at the willows leaning down over the river. “Come back! How is this fair? How can you be gone?” But I don’t. I walk on, smothering my fury within my chest. It’s jittery and urgent at first, like a trapped bird, wings flapping frantically behind my ribs, but I manage to subdue it and it falls hopelessly still. Suffocated. Then suddenly you’re back, in your brown sun-top and boot-cut jeans. You’ve ditched the coat and scarf. It’s warmer now.
“How’s Nick?” I ask. I don’t know why. It isn’t the main thing I wonder, not the thing I thought I’d ask if I ever got the chance to talk to you again. But I said it, so I wait for you to answer.
“He’s OK. I see him too.”
“Like this?” I ask. I don’t know why. After I’ve said it, I think perhaps I’m jealous.
“Yeah, kind of.”
I wonder if he talks to you much, if you visit him often. I wonder whether you tell him what you won’t tell me, but I don’t ask any of that. I’m just glad to see you. We walk on, chatting from time to time, as though nothing has changed. Just about random things. My work, mutual friends, my job, my plans. None of it’s what I want to say, but you keep asking questions. I want to ask them, too. I have an endless spiel of them ready. I want to know if you’re happy, if you’re safe, if you’re scared or in pain. But you might leave if I ask. I’m always so scared that you will that I never say more than “Are you OK?” and you never answer more than “Yeah,” and I’ve noticed that you don’t meet my eye when you say it.
“I’m going to climb that mountain,” I tell you suddenly. I’m changing the subject, partly to keep you engaged, but it isn’t just that. Without you I’m lonely. Most people I talk to don’t get excited about the things I love, but you nod, as though climbing the mountain is the obvious thing to want.
“The whole thing?” you say. We’d talked about it a lot. “We should have done it together.”
I think so too. But there’s so much I wish that if I started on my list, I’d never stop. We’ll still do it, we decide. I imagine us walking up the side of the hill, the lambs behind dry stone walls contracting into separate white dots, cottages shrinking as we get higher and the landscape spreads out behind us, green and brown as far as we can see. I’ll go and you’ll come with me, your voice in my ear.
“Good,” you say. “That’s settled, then.”
But there’s something else. I can tell there is. You’re glancing at the ground and you start to speak, just half a word before you stop yourself. I want to ignore it. I’m afraid of what it might be.
We walk on a bit and I’m hoping that if I don’t address it directly, it’ll go away. I don’t want you to ask, whatever it is. After a while, though, I can’t stand it. I look at you, and see how uncomfortable you are, and I love you, so I have to ask. “What is it?” I say.
You smile. “You always know.” You’re embarrassed, though. Your cheeks are flushed, high up, near the bone. You’ve always been so sensitive.
“Go on, try me.”
“Can you help my brother?”
It’s the thing I’d been dreading. But I’ve known him since we were kids, after all, since I started going to your house, so I just nod. “I’ll do my best,” I say.
You smile. Relief spreads across your face, making you look even younger as you start to explain. He’s drinking too much, losing his temper, missing work too often, might lose his job. If I could just talk to him, find some way of helping. You feel guilty, you say. If you were still here, he’d have been OK.
“Of course,” I say. I start to think about him, and you’re here, smiling at me in those big sunglasses we bought together in New York, but then suddenly you’re gone and I want you to come back. I wonder whether it’s hard for you to stay, whether you have to fight to be here, whether you flicker out when your concentration fades. I wonder whether it’s just my grief that brings you here, just my endless longing, whether there’ll ever come a time when we don’t talk. I know I might look back and be embarrassed that I ever thought you were with me. I keep talking anyway.
I say, “Come on, stay for longer. You can’t just go as soon as I say ‘yes’,” and I laugh, and you would too, if you were here, but you aren’t. It’s just me and the river and the sky, and some cows gathering on a mudflat opposite to lap at the water, and your absence is fierce and painful, but I say, “Bye, then,” and your face in my mind is clear, amused and cynical, your mouth moving slowly up into a smile, just as it always did. I sit down on the bank and stare at the water for a moment, trying to work out what to say. Then I take out my phone, and text your brother.
Sarah Turner’s short stories have been published/are due to be published by: J Journal, The London Magazine, Litro, Fictive Dream, Shooter Literary Magazine, The Phare, After Dinner Conversation, and others. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Short Story Award in 2023. You can read more of her published work at www.scturnerfiction.com.