This is how it begins.
You notice him across the small square of dance floor at a disco in the city. He is a blur, moving in time with the music, with his long arms splayed at right angles to his torso and his head bent low as if listening to the rhythm of his feet. He is a shadow, appearing and then disappearing as the disco lights move across the room.
He is dancing alone on the crowded floor with his eyes closed, and he breathes in the music and the euphoria of it of it all, like the music is physically in him. Occasionally, the bright disco lights pick up the shimmer of his inky-black hair, illuminating the top of his head like a halo, and you think in that moment that he is beauty and joy and life personified, and that you would give everything to feel those things too.
You don’t realise of course, that everything that follows is dictated by the next thirty seconds. You don’t realise that you’re on the cusp of a before and an after, and that when you look back in a week, or a month or in fifteen years’ time, you’ll remember that this was where it all began. You’ll consider that before this moment, this precise moment, the pair of you were nothing more significant than strangers in the same bar - pawns circling each other on a chessboard, satellites orbiting your own moons – and you’ll wonder why there wasn’t some sort of fanfare present to tell you this at the time.
Because no sooner than you draw your next breath, that man will appear before you at the bar, and offer you his hand and what feels like a purpose to your beating heart. He’ll smile broadly, in a way that makes lightning run through your veins, and he’ll introduce himself as Michael. He’ll ask you to dance, and you’ll try to surpress the grin that forms on your lips, and you’ll brush your hair with your hands for something to do.
“My friends…” you’ll start to say, but the end of the sentence will get lost in the music, as he takes your hand and leads you through the tight crushing of bodies on the dance floor.
And then you’ll be lost, in the music and the delirium, as they wash over you in equal measure. You’ll stay there together for the rest of the night, and you’ll throw your head back and laugh when he twirls and leaps and falls to his knees.
“You’re such a good dancer!” you’ll shout over the music, and though he knows you’re teasing, he’ll shout back, “I also do kickboxing, look!” and he’ll attempt to show you, in the tight confines of the dance floor. This will become a recurring joke throughout the night, when you tell him that he’s modest too.
You’ll notice nobody else, until the music stops and the lights come up and you look around, blinking wearily, when the cover of darkness has lifted. He’ll take your hand and lead you upstairs, out onto the street and into the crisp haze of the morning. You’ll notice the frost that has settled on the ground and draw your coat up around your neck. You’ll stand there, smiling and shuffling clumsily on your feet, unsure of what to do next, and it’ll feel like you’re looking at each other for the first time.
You will dance out on the street for a few minutes more, around the issue of where to go and how to get there and whether or not to go there alone. You’ll claw onto the few remaining threads of the night for as long as it’ll last. It will soon become obvious that neither of you can invite the other one home, and this will make your chest hurt like you’ve never known it before. “My mother would literally string you up!” you’ll say, and then smile sheepishly.
“Let’s walk for a while,” he’ll say and you’ll think to yourself that you would willingly follow him anywhere, and it won’t occur to you that this is dangerous or daft or absurdly naive. All you will think about is the impossible romance of it all, and how if you never feel this giddy again it will still be a privilege. You’ll link your arm through his and hold it close, and breathe in the musky smell of his coat.
You’ll walk through sleepy streets in only the vaguest direction of home, and watch your breath condense into clouds as you whisper through the night. Stripped of music and the jostling of shoulders, you’ll drink each other’s voices and allow each other’s soft words to fill your ears. He’ll tell you that the love of his life is his granny and that he hates the taste of asparagus. He’ll tell you tales from his childhood, of sliding down the chalk pits with his brothers and breaking his arm on a slide.
You’ll share with him your big dreams and plans; to move out of your mother’s house and get a place of your own, to go back to college and retrain as a vet, to save up and travel to Antigua and Grenada and Guadeloupe, or anywhere that’s far away from here. You’ll ask him if he’s travelled much and you’ll note how he pauses and clears his throat before saying, guiltily, “I’m at sea actually. That’s my job.”
He’ll tell you that he’s here just for the night, and if your heart has never known pain before, it certainly will do now, because you’re thinking that no sooner have you found this remarkable person, he’s lost again - actually lost at sea - and you’ll wonder if it’ll all be over before it’s even begun. He’ll see this thought wash over your face and feel the heaviness of your heart, and he’ll pull you close and kiss you hard on the mouth, like you’ve never been kissed before. And all the stars in the sky will be your witness, and in a few months’ time you’ll look up at them and ask, “You saw it, right? Tell me it wasn’t a dream.”
“Let’s not think about that right now,” he’ll say. “I know a place we can go.”
You’ll walk with him up a hill, a hill so steep you’ll slip and slide on the icy ground as you make your ascent. You’ll laugh and scream and shush each other as you struggle to the top. The night will still be deliciously dark, but not for much longer, and soon you’ll see the first hints of the morning as the birds start to sing and the roads become dotted with cars. But in that moment, when the two of you reach the top of the hill and you turn and look out on the city below, you’ll see it illuminated in all its dappled glory, and it’ll stretch out for miles and you’ll feel like the only two people in the world. From up there, you’ll see the sea and it’ll thunder and bubble and roar in the distance, reminding you both that nothing is ever forever.
You’ll sit, and you’ll hold each other close, looking out and looking up and looking at each other. You’ll talk some more and you’ll deconstruct the skyline. “Over there, that’s where we’re docked,” he’ll say, and you’ll point at the hospital over in the East and tell him, “That’s where I was born.” And sometimes you won’t say a word, and you’ll sit and you’ll think and you’ll listen to the sound of your heart and it’ll be so loud that you’re sure he can hear it too.
At some point you’ll fall asleep, and when you wake up, the sky will be pink and the sun will be a bright orange mound on the horizon. “I’ve got to go,” you’ll say, knowing it’s a long walk home, and he’ll nod in sombre agreement. You’ll think to yourself, it’s not quite the end, but nearly.
And that thought will be the only thing that keeps your legs moving as you make your way towards home, but thoughts like this can only last so long and when you reach the turning for your street and you point to the first house in the row and say, “This is me,” you’ll notice him swallow hard, before pulling you close to kiss you and kiss you and kiss you again. It’s not quite the end. But nearly.
“I’ll write to you,” he’ll say, and you’ll make plans for his return in eight long months, which will seem like an infinite amount of time that you already feel will never come.
You’ll kiss him for the very last time and your fingers will part and you’ll tell him to leave, and you know that he has to, but you can’t quite believe it when he does.
And then it’s the end.
You’ll turn on your heels and you’ll walk down your mother’s path and slip into the house and into your bed like a ghost. You won’t fall asleep, but an hour later, when your mother raps gently on the door and offers you a cup of tea, you’ll pretend that you are, and you’ll lie there in your childhood bed with your eyes closed so tightly that bright flashes of light appear in the dark.
It’ll be six whole months before you give up on the letters. You’ll accept in time that he didn’t note down the wrong address, and that nothing got lost in the post because there was no post to go missing in the first place. Your friends will laugh and tenderly say, “He’s a sailor. What did you expect?” and you’ll blankly nod and agree, and keep it to yourself that you expected the moon and the stars and everything in between, because he made it feel like that’s what was on offer.
You’ll move out of your mother’s house and into a flat in the old part of town that you’ll share with a friend. From time to time, when you pop back for a cup of tea, you’ll say, “I don’t suppose there’s been any post?” and she’ll say, “No, love. What is it that you’re waiting for?” and you’ll say, “Oh it’s not important really.”
And the disappointment will echo inside you for many more years to come, and it will be in these moments that you’ll think back to how and where and when it all began, and sometimes wish that it hadn’t. But deep down you’ll know that you wouldn’t change a thing. Because when you think of that night, when the city was a sea of radiant dots and you felt the warmth of a human hand, you’ll remember what it meant to be alive. You’ll reason that any amount of heartache would be a fair trade.
These feelings will temper only with time, and the memory of his voice and his laugh and his touch will fade like the colour on a photograph. You’ll bury it in a corner so far back in your mind that one day you won’t even recall his face when you try.
You’ll fall in the love again when you’re 43, for the second and last time, and it’ll be with the owner of a German Shepherd who turns up in your clinic one Tuesday afternoon. You’ll get married in a church in Whitstable, and you’ll look around at all that you have and think that everything is exactly as it’s meant to be.
And you’ll keep thinking this, until one day, when you’re clearing out your mother’s bedside chest soon after she’s been buried in the ground, and you come across an envelope that’s been stuffed down the back, where it’s been gathering dust in the dark.
And inside the envelope you’ll find more envelopes, where you’ll read your name printed on the front in an unfamiliar spidery scrawl. You’ll take out the contents one by one, and find letters – pages and pages and pages of letters – full of beautiful words and starry-eyed promises, and they’ll all be addressed to you. You’ll squint at them curiously, repeating the name that appears on each one, and you’ll wait for a glimmer of recognition to appear.
“Michael....?” you’ll say. “Who’s Michael?” and your voice will come out as a whisper.
And then you’ll see it - the photograph - the image of a man you’ve not thought of for years and you’ll become flooded with rapturous dejavu. It’ll all come back to you - the dancing, the lights, the frost, the hill - and you’ll remember that night as if it happened yesterday, and you’ll cry and you’ll laugh at the same time.
You’ll ask yourself questions that begin, how…? and why…? and how come…? and who on earth...? And you’ll tell yourself over and over again that it doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense.
Because you won’t know that she saw him, from the upstairs bedroom window the morning that he walked you home. When it got to eleven, and then midnight, and then each and every hour after that, and your mother hadn’t heard your key turn in the lock, she lay in bed staring up at the ceiling trying not to imagine all the terrible things that only parents can. And when she couldn’t not imagine those things, she got up and she made herself a cup of tea and she waited in the dark, with the lights dimmed low and the blinds titled down. And when she heard your footsteps several yards down the street, when the sun was already a dot in the sky, and she heard your voice as it shushed and whispered in the dawn, she leapt to the window and she didn’t know whether to jump for joy or go down there and ring your bloody neck.
But she didn’t do either of these things, because she saw that boy, and she watched you together and she recognised that dreamy look in your eye, and she made up her mind right there and then that she didn’t like him one bit. Not that slick mop of hair, nor the finely-trimmed moustache, nor the black leather mac, nor the exotic colour of his skin.
So when the letters came, which they did in abundance in the weeks and months that followed, she did what she thought any good mother would do in the interests of her only child. She took the letters one by one, and the photographs that came too, and she tucked them away in her dresser drawer, and she waited for the storm that was her daughter’s broken heart to pass.
And when he turned up on the doorstep, only a month after you’d moved out, looking sun-kissed and clean-shaven in his crisp, Royal Navy dress that he wore in the tropics, she looked at him blankly and said, “Sorry love, but she’s moved in with a bloke,” and he’ll nod politely and apologise, and walk away thinking he was too late.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with this tale. All of these things are a thousand and one other moments away, and they will all have their time, but it isn’t now. Right now, as he approaches you in the corner of the bar, the only moment that matters is this.
Because this is how it begins.