He sits at the back of the coach, his eyes turned to the window, squinting beneath his creased brow beneath the July sun. Today, the sky is a rich blue and the sprawling fields take on a golden glow, as if the landscape were trying to reassure him that everything is okay. But everything is not okay. Dan’s outgoing journey had taken him to the GP’s clinic in the nearest town, and now he is faced with a choice he had hoped he would never had to make.
At 16, he isn’t really old enough to make it. His exams finished, the summer is just beginning and life has never seemed more worth living. He has a holiday planned to Greece with his girlfriend’s family, and hours of relaxed happiness seem to present themselves to him. But the envelope he holds in his hand threatens to take so much away from him. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, trying to see out of the front window for any clue as to how close he is to home. He suspects there can only be a few miles to go. But he wishes the journey would last longer.
Naomi sits in her room, smiling at a mirror. She is preparing for dinner with Dan, as her parents eat downstairs. A Huey Lewis album plays in the background; like Dan, she has a fondness for music written before her time. As she listens to The Power of Love it strikes her, not for the first time, that there are very few boys like Dan. He is handsome and charming, sensitive and caring, smart and funny. Last month was their six-month anniversary; in just over a month, he would be holidaying with her. Her parents have warmed to him, and few people who see them together neglect to tell them how right they seem for each other. In short, she is happy. She feels they are united together and that nothing can undo their relationship.
There is a knock on the door and Dan’s mother opens it for him. They smile and exchange pleasantries for a few minutes as he moves about the kitchen. Then he goes upstairs. She can’t help thinking he seems a little quieter than usual, but she says nothing.
Dan gets changed, then takes a piece of paper from a drawer. He texts Naomi to tell her he will be late. Then he sits down at a desk to write. At first, he is uncertain, then the words begin to flow. As the ink flows from his pen, he begins to question his resolve. But there is right and there is wrong. Dan knows what he needs to do, and he intends to do it.
When he is finished, he takes a large, brown A4 envelope from one of his desk drawers. He writes the date on it with a pen. And then he puts the lid on his pen and places it in his pocket and takes the envelope and leaves the house. He is going to do the right thing. He is going to do the most difficult thing he has ever had to do.
Naomi is beginning to grow restless when there is a knock at the door. Dan has taken a train to reach her, but now he is here and, feeling around her head as she goes in order to ascertain whether her hair looks okay, she descends the stairs and opens the door with a smile.
It is all he can do to keep from smiling back and falling into her arms, telling her everything and waiting for her soothing words. But the soothing words would be followed by gentle nothings. He cannot escape the fact that they have no future in any direction.
At first, she is worried. He does not tell her where he has been all day, just avoids the question. She suspects the worst, though she cannot work out what the worst might be. Together they walk, up the hill and towards the city centre, and she notices that he looks tired, and edgy, and that he has a large brown envelope in his right hand.
She asks about his day, she asks about the envelope, and she asks what is wrong. He does not say, even though he dearly wants to. He asks himself how long it will be. How long she will wait to find out. He thinks a year, but he is uncertain. He feels the pen in his pocket and he waits for the moment. Though his legs are tired, he does not want them to reach the restaurant.
She desperately wants them to reach the restaurant. He seems tired, and is being evasive. She is sure he will open up to her once they are inside, away from the openness of the outside world. Sitting the pavement at the top of the high street, a black beggar in ragged clothing casts a hopeful glance up at them. At first, Dan looks as though he will walk past; then he stops, of a sudden, and plucks a fiver from his pocket which he drops into the grateful beggar’s lap, without a smile.
Eventually, he realises that the time has come to act. He tells her his legs are tired. She nods and they sit down on a bench nearby. Pigeons milling about move warily away as they sit down. They look blacker than usual to him today; but perhaps it is merely the fading light.
She sees him holding the envelope, and she hopes he will explain. Instead, he just holds out a thick black pen.
“Would you sign this, please?” he asks.
She smiles a little at him, uncertain. The envelope is a brown, unassuming A4 thing, sealed at both ends, with the day’s date written on it in Dan’s handwriting. “What is it?”
“I just need you to sign it.”
With a soft, nervous laugh, she signs it, just above the date.
He takes it back from her, looking down at her signature. The most beautiful signature in the whole world. And he realises that now, he has to speak.
She looks at him, uncertain, intrigued, worried. Worried about him.
He opens his mouth. “I, um,” he begins, faltering, then realising that there is no way to say it that is not clichéd. In fact, the clichés may be of comfort to her. “I’ve been thinking about us.”
She is confused by the statement, just as she is confused by the envelope, just as she is confused by him today. She wonders if she should feel scared. All she can think of to say is, as lightly as possible, “Oh?”
A shadow of a frown flickers across her face, as if his emotions are once again reflected in hers, as they so often had been. His love. His enchantment. And now his graveness. Would this be the last time? He struggles for the right words. He rehearsed this on the train. In the flesh, it is more difficult. His hands are clammy around the brown envelope. He realises he does not want to be comforting. He must be abrupt. He must be abrupt now.
“Our relationship has been good but I think we need to break up.”
The words seem to echo across the deserted street like a clap of thunder. To her, they are utterly unexpected. Now they are echoing in her head. She can think of nothing more to say than “What?” But she heard, perfectly.
Did she have to ask for it again? Somehow, in his rehearsals, he had known she would. But speaking the words had pained him. It would pain him again, but he must say them again. No pain, no gain. What is he gaining? Nothing. “I think we need to break up.”
Why had she made him say it twice? It didn’t sound any better the second time, but she heard his voice get softer towards the end. She looks now, into his eyes, as deep as she can. She wishes she could understand what is going on in his mind, but she has no clue. Her head swims. She can only utter one word: “Why?”
He has a response to this prepared, but it still hurts to say it. “You’re not the right girl for me. I want someone more fun. I want a change.” He thinks he feels a physical, searing pain up his right side. He cannot tell if he is imagining it. He did not bank on this sort of pain in the break-up.
“I thought… I thought… Dan, can’t we talk it through?” She extends a hand to place on his knee.
He realises he cannot let her touch him, but it pains him to slide her hand off his knee. She stares into his eyes again as he does, and he realises she is still in love with him, very much, that she will not let go easily. As he had expected. But this will not do. He recognises the need to be colder, crueller. “No, we can’t talk it through. My friends have always said –” He gulped. Could he say it? Why was he putting himself through this? He didn’t need to. He hadn’t done anything wrong – but here it came, regardless: “ – that I could do better than you. And now I think they’re right.”
She is shocked. Of all the reasons she had thought of… Only one question comes to her mind: “Have I put on weight?”
He wants to laugh, just like he always did when she asked. But this time, there is nothing to laugh about. Neither can he simply say no. He wants to grimace from the pain; for the first time he desperately needs something, a punch bag or stress ball, to allow him to let it out. It’s all an act, he wants to scream. In the end, he settles for just clenching the muscles in his legs until he almost feels cramp in one of them. Then he evades the question. He knows what his evasion will say to her.
He does not respond. She realises he cannot bring himself to say it to her straight. At the same time, she can’t quite believe he can be so fickle. She can’t have put on much weight… but when had she last stood on her scales? She casts the thought out of her mind, something in her head making her realise that he is being totally unreasonable, that this is not harder for him that it is for her but that she is the victim of this. She wants to be furious, but instead, she finds herself making one last, desperate attempt to keep him, to convince him not to do this. “But Dan, what about us? What about the holiday?”
He hadn’t thought about the holiday; not because he’d forgotten but because he hadn’t wanted to. He starts by saying, in a voice far removed from his own, “Us is over, baby.” But then he falters. He wants to apologise. I’ll pay my share. I’ll make it up to your family. But he can’t. He must be cruel. Twisting his lip up a little in a painful sneer, he simply adds, “And I’m sure your rich parents won’t be hit too hard by my plane ticket.”
And now she is breaking. Suddenly she wants to slap him, but she restrains herself. She feels hot tears running down her face, but there are none on his. She waited two hours in her house for him. She wasted six months of her life with him. And now it has come to this. She cannot think. All she can do is stand up and cry out, more shrilly than she would have liked, “What happened to you, Dan Whitford?” With a gasping sob, she walks away. Looking over her shoulder, she sees that he has not moved. Her tears redouble. She does not have a tissue.
He sits alone on the bench, resisting the temptation to go after her, to call out to her, to start crying himself. He sees her glancing over her shoulder, and he tries to look indifferent. He is shaking a little. He thinks she hates him. She walks down the hill and at last, when she is out of sight, he gives way to racking, grieving sobs.
Three months pass. Every single day, he wants to go to her and give her the envelope. He keeps it, safe at the bottom of his bottom drawer.
He can’t help wondering whether her heart is still broken. He hopes it isn’t. A part of him, which makes him feel guilty, hopes it is, or at least that she still thinks of him. But they haven’t spoken once. A brief call from Naomi’s parents to the house had been all. His mother had spared him the details.
He had been by their house once, not by coincidence but because he had needed to relieve his conscience. A cheque in a small white envelope. For £200. He had checked on the price of return plane tickets to Greece, then added a little extra for good measure and to remove suspicion. It was a lot of money to him, but it had seemed like the right thing to do.
There had been no more girls in his life since Naomi, although he thinks, quite modestly, that at least two have shown an interest in him. He had declined both. He supposes he will never love again. Sometimes he thinks of Naomi, plays back some of their conversations in his head. Thinks of them, together in a suburban house, with a boy and a girl and a dog. She had always wanted kids, he thinks, wistfully. And he had always wanted a dog. But in the end, every thought of her comes back to the break-up, and so now he tries not to think of her. But he never can. Perhaps one day, he will get a dog.
Three months later, her heart is still broken. She is still full of sorrow, and still confused. There had been the uncomprehending parents. The understanding friends. Some of them willing to abuse him on Facebook, on her behalf. He had never replied to anything. She had sat through it all, not knowing what to say or do. Dan had never seemed like a monster to her, but her friends were right; when she’d recounted the break-up to them, there’d been no denying that he’d been monstrous.
Can you judge a six month relationship based on one day? She doesn’t know. She increasingly feels that she never knew Dan at all, and it troubles her. Photos of the two of them on Facebook remind her of their familiarity, their intimacy. Where did it go? She does not know.
She has not seen another man since. There is one at her church who seems enamoured by her, but she keeps him at arms’ length and he seems to understand. All the time, she wonders what was in that envelope. More and more, she suspects that she will never find out.
And then eight months later, there is a knock on her door.
The warm sun of the new summer is setting as evening begins to fulfil its promise of arrival. The trees are whispering as a gentle southerly breeze runs through their leaves. But there are no cars going by behind them and the world possesses a profound tranquillity that seems thick and enveloping.
He hadn’t known what to wear or how to look, and now he doesn’t know what to feel as she opens her front door and looks at him. Just like eleven months ago, the last time. He feels a rushing love for her; he wants to take her in his arms and kiss her and run his fingers through her hair and pretend that everything is just like it was before. But he can’t. This time, there is no warm smile and there is no warm relationship. Everything has gone cold.
She keeps a hand on the door, nervous, and looks at him. She does not smile. In eleven months, she had perhaps forgiven him, but she didn’t think she ever wanted to see him again. Her glance is cold. His is uncertain, even afraid. She does not know what to say.
“Naomi. I brought you this.”
He holds out to her the large brown envelope. She looks at it, the night of the break-up rushing back to her. She sees her signature, tidily drawn with a shaky hand, and she sees the date. July 12th, 2011. She takes it without a word.
He studies her face as she draws the envelope back to her. He wonders what it is to her: a source of intrigue, or a perpetual reminder of a horrible, miserable day? He supposes that he will never know; but he is relieved that she is at least taking it. A thousand questions bubble to the surface; rising above them all is a burning desire to apologise to her. But he says none of them. He turns and walks away, up the garden path.
“Take care,” is all he says to her as he leaves. She thinks little of the comment, turning the envelope over in her hands. Her mother appears from the kitchen and asks who it was. She doesn’t respond, but carries the envelope up to her bedroom and sits at her bedroom desk, thinking.
Then she opens the envelope, draws out a single sheet of white A4 paper, and reads:
My dearest Naomi,
I wanted to write you a letter so that you’ll understand why I had to end our relationship. Today I went to the doctor’s and he told me that I have something called Cognar’s disease. He told me that it wasn’t damaging or infectious, but it means I can’t ever have children.
On my way home, I thought for a long time, because I know that you’ve always wanted to have a family, and I know that’s what you want from a relationship. I realised I couldn’t give you that. I want to make you happy and I know that you want me to be happy. And I realised that I can’t make you happy unless we can have children and that even if you were okay with that, I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t giving you what you really wanted. I don’t know if any of this even makes sense to you and I’m crying as I write because I love you and I know we have something really good together but I realised on the bus coming home that someone as amazing as you deserves something better than me.
I know that if I told you about it, you’d do the nice thing and say it didn’t matter and we could keep on going but I don’t want you to have to do that. I want you to find the man who’s perfect for you and to have the family you’ve always wanted. So even though I want you to understand, I know I can’t tell you and that’s why I’m just going to break up with you, as quickly as I can. The coldness of it will be my last gift to you, Naomi, because I know that after a break-up you don’t understand it’s easier to hate the person than to pity them and I want you to hate me so it will be easier for you and this doesn’t even make sense when I’m writing it but I want you to know that I love you so so much and that’s the only reason and I hope it doesn’t hurt for you as much as it’s hurting for me right now
I can’t write any more. I hope that when you read this letter, you’ll forgive me for what I’m about to do. I hope you find the man out there who is perfect for you and have the family you always dreamed of. And I hope the tear-stains on this letter will always be testimony to how much I love you.
Naomi sits on her bed and stares for a long time at the letter. Tears roll down her cheeks. Time seems to pass without her being aware of it. Everything comes back to her in a flash and she sees it all in a new, different light and it is all she can do to grab a pillow and press it to her face as she gives way to grieving, desolate sobs.
He is alone, but now he sees her coming towards him. There are tears on her cheeks but a smile on her face and a letter in her hand. There are caressing arms and tender kisses and a thousand apologies. And then there is silence, and then there is peace, and then there is love and everything is how it should be and none of what has happened matters anymore because love is love and now he is back in it. He leans back and he can almost smell her perfume and feel her breath against his face.
But his eyes are closed, and soon his mind is empty.
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