We were walking together deep in the countryside. It was a bright, but chilly, autumn day. The wind was blowing, twisting the dead leaves into the air. We both were wearing thick heavy coats and scarves. I wished I had a hat.
Helen’s hand was deep inside the pocket of my coat, her arm wrapped around mine. I turned to look at her and she smiled at me. I noticed she had a few dead leaves sticking to her hair. I picked them off with my free hand. I was about to drop them.
“No.” Helen took the leaves from me and put them in her coat pocket. “I want to keep them.”
We trudged up to the top of the hill. The wind was stronger up there. Helen had to keep one hand up to her face to keep her hair from whipping into her eyes. From up there we could see out over the forest, spread out like a green sheet thrown over the hillsides, and the small village seeming almost insignificant from that height.
“Let’s go back down, out of this wind, Martin,” she said, turning away without looking at me. She walked on in front of me, looking down at her feet as she stepped carefully down the steep path. I hurried to catch up with her.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“You know,” she said, not looking up.
I stopped walking. “But what can I do?”
Helen stopped a few feet in front of me; she turned and looked back up the hill at me. “You can choose. Choose…? Shit! I’m not something in a shop, you know. I’m me! A person. You shouldn’t have the power of choice over people – it’s disgusting really.” She looked away from me, over towards the woods on her right, staring hard. She brushed her eyes roughly with the sleeve of her coat.
“I can’t walk out. Just leave,” I said.
“Why not? You strolled into my life. Why can’t you walk out of hers?”
“I have obligations. I owe her something, something more than a sudden empty space in her life.”
“But what about me?” Helen said quietly. She turned away from me and ran towards the trees.
She was sitting on the ground with her back against a tree when I found her. I knelt down in front of her and took her hand.
“You’re cold,” I said. She nodded without looking up at me. “You always used to say you didn’t want me to leave her. You said you wanted to be independent, free. You said you didn’t want to live with anyone ever again.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t like waking up in the night and finding no-one there, not any more.” She turned her hand so it was holding mine. She looked at my hand as though she was trying to read something in its palm.
“I had my palm read once,” she said. “The gypsy said I was going to be happy. But I think she only said what people expected her to say. I don’t think lines on someone’s hand can mean anything. Do you, Martin?”
I shook my head. Helen pulled me towards her, she kissed me on the lips and I sat down beside her. I put my arm around her shoulders.
“I want to wake up next to you,” she said. “Every day.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes…. No…. How should I know? It just feels right, that’s all. That is all we can ever know, isn’t it?”
“Do people ever really change?” I said. “I don’t know if Claire and I have changed, moved away from each other, or whether we have not changed at all and so become bored with each other. I think that if people do change, it happens so slowly that it is unnoticeable.”
“Does it matter?” Helen said.
“I don’t know. I just like to try to understand why and how things happen, that’s all.”
“What is there to understand? You don’t – you say – love her any more. You say she doesn’t love you. Wouldn’t you rather be with me? You used to say that one day we would be together.”
“Yes, of course I want to be with you. But it is just not that simple.”
Helen stood up and walked away. I sighed and followed her. For a moment or two, as I followed her down the steep path, I wondered what it would be like, waking up next to Helen each morning – every morning – for the rest of our lives.
In the beginning, several months before, her unpredictability, her mood-swings, her sheer vibrancy had seemed so exciting. It was a stark contrast to the staid routine that my life with Claire had become. But, watching Helen as she scrambled down that path, I was starting to regret it all. I wished I’d acted differently that first time, when the new village schoolteacher had dropped into my second-hand bookshop.
It had happened with almost clichéd inevitability. A young, idealistic, enthusiastic teacher arrives at a sleepy village, deep in the countryside. At first, her enthusiasm for her new job is enough to sustain her, but when the inevitable inertia, the simple endless day to day slog, begins to wear her down, she has no place to turn. She has nothing except her growing friendship with the owner of the village bookshop. He is the only one adult she has met in the village that she feels she has anything in common with, any rapport.
It began last summer, during the long school holiday. Helen began hanging around in the shop, just half-hearted browsing at first. I used to watch her leafing through the books, the almost sensual way she would delicately turn the – sometimes fragile – pages like a mother sweeping the hair out of her child’s eyes.
Then she started helping out. My main trade is by post – rare books ordered through my web site. She used to love to help me sort out the books. She enjoyed packing them like the delicate objects they were into the well-padded boxes ready for shipment all around the world.
But it wasn’t until about six months ago that we first kissed. Spring in the air and all that, I suppose. By that time, I had reluctantly given up on my vague half-fantasies about the good-looking teacher in her mid-twenties falling in love with the forty-two year old balding bookshop owner. So when she leant forward over the box she was taping up and kissed me I… well… I just stood there, not quite believing it had happened and half-expecting to be woken by the alarm clock.
Funnily enough, no-one in the village seemed to regard it as a remote possibility either. There had been one or two looks when Helen first started hanging around my shop. But the idea of the sexy young schoolteacher and the bookshop owner having an affair was so obviously absurd that even village gossip could not sustain it.
Anyway, any such notion received its deathblow through Claire’s absolute conviction that Helen had far more sense, more of a life, to consider an affair with someone like me. “That girl’s got far too much about her to want to bother with someone as dull as ditch water as my Martin,” Claire had said when interrogated by the Farnborough-Jones sisters in the butcher’s one Tuesday morning in early April.
“No, it is because you are like you are,” Helen had said to me when I asked her the inevitable “Why me?”
“I’m so fed up with the egotistical selfishness of young blokes. So tired of men who only want to be the hero in the film of their own life,” she said sadly. She was sitting naked in the wicker chair by her bed, smoking a joint. “You seem so… so calm.” She watched the smoke curling up towards the ceiling for a moment. I had the sense, the feeling that there was some pain, some memory. When she turned back I could see the beginning of a tear in her eye. She swallowed, then smiled. “That’s what I like about being in your shop, the calm, the peacefulness. I always feel there is something solid, safe, secure about being surrounded by books. So much silent wisdom.”
“But you’re still young,” I said. “You should be out grabbing life by the balls, instead of getting stuck in this backwater with a dull old stick like me.”
She stubbed out the joint and stood up. “No, come back to bed. I only want to take you by the balls.”
I was bought back out of my reverie by the realisation she had taken the wrong path down the hillside.
“Helen! Helen! Stop! Wait!” I called; I could see her coat, the dark brown sheepskin, through the trees and the flash of her blonde hair. But she did not wait. I tried running, but slipped on the wet leaves. By the time I had struggled to my feet she was out of sight. I ran after her, wiping the mud from my hands onto my coat.
I had almost caught up with her. I caught a flash of blonde hair through the trees. I sighed with relief. But then I heard her scream as she dropped from view.
The story I had heard, when I was a child, was that during WWII a German bomber had crashed into the side of the hill. It had been on its way to the industrial heart of the midlands with a full bomb load. As far as I know, it is a true story. But whether it was the cause of the, almost cliff-like, sheer drop that makes up most of the south side of the hill, or not, I have no idea.
I crept forward, towards the edge, slowly. I’ve never been very good at heights at the best of times. But the thought of looking over the edge and seeing Helen a hundred and fifty feet or so below….
At first, I could not make out what I was seeing. The mud-covered fingers holding onto the edge of the cliff didn’t seem – somehow – quite human. But when I realised what they were, I knelt down, wrapping my left arm around a nearby tree trunk.
“Hang on, it’s me. I’m here. Helen?”
“Martin? Oh shit… fuck…. Help me!”
I leant out over the edge, grabbing her arm around the wrist. “I’ve got you,” I said. She was heavy, so heavy, staring up into my eyes, pleading, desperate. I was having trouble holding on to her, I could feel her slipping through my fingers. I knew that this was it, the deciding moment. When I had saved her, I would have no choice. I would have to leave Claire and go with Helen. This act of rescue would bind us together far more deeply than any mere marriage vow.
“Hell. Oh God! Come on, I’ve got you.”
At first, I didn’t recognise the voice. I could not move. I was just staring at my empty hand stretched out over the edge of the drop. I knew if I stopped focussing on my empty hand and looked down, I would be able to see where Helen had fallen.
“No, don’t look. Come here. Sit against this tree. Here, drink some of this.” It was Brian, the landlord of the Goose and Chickens. He pressed the flask of brandy against my mouth. I swallowed, choked and coughed.
“I saw everything,” he said. “I saw exactly what happened. Drink some more. I’ve got my mobile.”
I sat against the tree, sipping the brandy. Usually I don’t touch spirits, but I was incongruously wondering if I would get the chance of another drink before they sent me away to prison, and just what was the difference between manslaughter and murder.
“Hello, Ian? No I don’t care if you’re off-duty. No, shut up! This is serious. There’s been a… an incident. I’m up on Barrow Hill. That new teacher from the school, Miss… Thomas, yes… Helen. No.” He glanced down, over the edge of the drop. “No… there’s no chance, no hope at all. She… at the bottom of the sheer drop. No, Martin…from the bookshop….” Brian looked over at me as he spoke. “Yes. No, he was holding her by the arm… I saw everything… all of it… he nearly managed to save her…. Yes, a bloody hero, he deserves a medal. He nearly got himself killed trying to save her. Five minutes? I’ll wait here for you here then. I think Martin is in shock anyway.”
I opened my mouth, trying to say something.
“No, you drink that. Best thing for shock, brandy. Anyway, you deserve it. A bloody hero, that’s what you are. A bloody hero.”
[This, and other stories can also be found here as well]