There is a special kind of time that exists between moments of speculation and revelation. The time between ordering a meal and its arrival, the last half hour before an interview, or the endless few seconds between anticipating a car crash and witnessing it. A time that seems of limitless value, yet utterly without use, both infinite and constrained. Time that lives long in the memory, but only as a dream, or the recollection of a dream. Inescapable yet beyond reach. It is in one of these moments that Brian finds himself, as he steps unsteadily through the pews of silent mourners, paper in hand.
He reaches the dais, and locks eyes with the priest. He is still handsome, Brian thinks, though the face has changed, lines worn across the forehead like an un-ironed shirt. Brian recalls he has been here before. The tall gothic ceiling and intricate rood screen recall a Christianity quite unlike that he had grown up with; the kind that with cheerful songs and bright smiles told Brian that he was a mistake, a victim of his own choices destined for an eternity of fire.
When Will had decided to marry here, insisting on a full nuptial mass, Brian had prepared like a soldier going to the front; crossed the threshold like a man behind enemy lines. He’d sat at the back with his head down, hoping that nobody would notice him.
He’d listened to the priest speak, a younger man then, only approaching middle age. In his mouth, scripture became poetry and liturgy became myth. The lawful diktats he remembered from childhood were absent, and in their place a gentle solemnity that both challenged and embraced.
Regardless, Brian left the church early. He sat a while by the brook that ran alongside, skimming stones until the happy couple emerged. Rather than join the confetti line, he watched them from a distance, sharing their smiles as tissue lodged in Will’s long curls. The priest came and sat with him awhile after they left. He’d thought something might come of it, but time moved on, and the moment was lost.
Brian’s mind drifts to the reception, where he’d been asked to give a speech.
“If my life were to be narrated by anyone,” Will had told him, years before, “It would have to be you. You’d tell it honestly, and you’d tell it well.” Will and Mary had been matched from the start, and when they took each other’s arms for the first dance, it felt like the climactic scene in an old film. The camera would zoom in on their faces, and slow music would play them out. Brian might find his own name, buried deep in the credits for an off-screen role.
He’d watched them long after the other guests took to the floor. Will had grown into the man he’d always promised to become, an easy smile for all who passed before him and a manner of holding court that made people feel grateful just for being near him. Nobody cared that he couldn’t dance; his clumsiness was accompanied by an enthusiastic confidence that drew the eye, and when you wore a suit that well, who’s watching your feet?
Only Mary equalled him, her wedding dress streaked with pale blue to match his jacket. She never left the dancefloor, refusing to play the hostess when there was so much fun to have. When she span her dress billowed, blue mixing with white until she became a cloud, drifting easily above them all. Brian never delivered his speech. Time moved on, and the moment was lost.
He sees her when he reaches the lectern, no less beautiful now than she had been then. Amidst the mourners, Mary stands out. She had eschewed a veil, just as she had on her wedding day, and her pale face seems to draw in the fragile candlelight. Brian didn’t hear from either of them for years after the wedding, though he thought of them often.
When Brian found someone who loved him so much he thought for a while that he too must be in love, he held on to his habit of holidaying alone. He would take a week in the summer and drive from the South coast to the Scottish Highlands, shedding his skin on the long drive that grew colder with every passing hour. He spent the time in solitude and seclusion, always the same town, always the same guesthouse. One year Will caught wind of his retreat and made his own plans. By accident or design, Brian never found out which, he booked a double room in the same house, for the same week. Delighted by his own ambush, Will insisted they all travel together. Brian listened happily from the back seat as they tested one another, playing out a pastiche of the arguments married couples have, safe in the knowledge that two people as remarkable as they would never in truth stoop to such banality.
It was August, and the heather turned the mountains purple. Only patches of green were left, spelling out indecipherable runes like messages from an ancient god. Brian wore a camera around his neck, which flew forward when the car screamed to a halt.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mary asked, calmly, but in such a way that Brian felt obliged to explain, even though Will was driving.
“I had to stop,” said Will, “It’s too beautiful not to.” Their altitude was so great that a cloud had come to rest on the valley below, obscuring the little town so that only the church spire poked through the fog. It lay as if it were sleeping, steeling itself for the journey ahead.
“That’s all very well, William, but you’re parked around a corner on a fast road.” She said. “If a truck comes and knocks us off this mountain, I swear to god, I’ll-”
“You won’t do anything, my love. You’ll be dead.”
“I’ll divorce you.” Mary turned to Brian with bright eyes and broad smiles. “Brian, you can make sure everyone knows. Don’t let him go around acting like he’s a widower. Make sure everyone knows he’s a divorcee.”
“He’ll probably be dead too. I had to stop so that Brian could take his picture.” Will turned around too, and under their combined attention he wilted like a flower left too long in the sunlight. “He likes to do that. So he can have something to look at in the future, and wish he were back in the past.” They laughed, but Brian never took that picture. Time moved on, and the moment was lost.
Brian had a lot to think about on the drive home. He tried to put into words how he had felt in that moment, but it was like trying to recite a poem that he hadn’t heard in years. He wished he had taken that picture, so he had something to help him explain. Brian didn’t know whether he’d explained it too poorly, or too well, but in either case the next morning his lover was packed and gone, and he hadn’t taken another since.
Brian can’t tell how long he’s stood at that lectern. On the paper before him, words swim in and out of focus. He opens his mouth to speak and finds he cannot breathe. He sees William at Mary’s side, dressed not in black but in navy blue, a sombre homage to his wedding coat. This is not the William who had said his vows in this very spot, not the William who had lain in a hospital bed whilst cancer ravaged his body. Now Brian wishes he had visited sooner, though he knows that if he had that time again he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to make that choice. He had waited until the final days, until the eyes were closed, and he couldn’t know he had come. Mary told him that Will had asked for him, not to visit, but to speak. To tell it honestly and to tell it well.
But this William was not that William. This William was the boy he had met, before the affected swagger, his hair just beginning to grow into curls. A single forelock hung over his forehead heralding the rugged mane it would one day become. The boy he had sat next to on their first day at a new school, two timid boys who didn’t know anybody else, thrown together by nothing but the alphabetical proximity of their surnames.
The resemblance is so striking that Brian can’t shift the notion that this boy is his father. The boy his father had been thirty years ago. It is like seeing William for the first time and now, just as then, he cannot explain the turmoil in his own mind. Though it seems farcical now, Brian remembers he is the boy’s godfather.
Will had asked him first. What had been a long summer turned crisply into an early winter. An October snow had driven him inside and he was sat in front of the television when Will called. Judging by the hour, Brian assumed it was his mother, enquiring as to whether he’d met anyone yet, and seeing Will’s name on the screen startled him. Twice in six months, this was surely a record.
Brian enjoyed the new solemnity in his friend’s voice. As a child he had come to know Will’s own father quite well, well enough to know him as a good man, and Will didn’t take his new responsibility lightly. At first, Brian declined on grounds of atheism, which he thought was reasonable. He was happy for them both, thrilled, couldn’t wait to meet the little chap, but he could think of a thousand better candidates.
“I thought you’d say that.” Will told him. “Personally, I respect your decision. However, Mary would like a word.” Brian had never spoken with Mary on the phone before. Her voice had a way of filling the cold room. It illuminated the dark corners, and Brian found himself laughing as she led him gently through the reasons why he would be a wonderful godfather, and why he would be accepting their offer with grace and good humour. It was a voice that reshaped the world according to its owner’s whims, and Brian could only lay back and admire her craft as Mary wrapped her coils around him.
He knows he’s been a terrible godfather. Late to the christening, forgetful about birthdays and milestones and still, in spite of their gentle cajoling, avowedly atheist. Only now, seeing in him the boy he’d once known, does he truly feel the twist of affection in his stomach. He wonders if he too will leave a trail of loyal friends and broken hearts in his wake, the human flotsam that great men and women leave behind.
Will and Brian had met in the classroom, but their friendship was made on the playing fields. In a rural school that aspired to faux Edwardian affectations, the Physical Education teachers were just as one might expect; hulking Neanderthals who exhorted their young charges the kind of careless language that has since fallen out of favour. The kind of brutal slurs that Brian wouldn’t encounter again for many years, until they were hurled against him with ruthless specificity.
Neither boy was athletic, but they weren’t slow either and held their place well within the middle of the pack. When their teacher was haranguing one of the larger children, Will caught Brian’s eye before glancing to a gap in the hedge. It was all the encouragement he needed. They darted through into the forest beyond, tasting freedom in the wind.
They laughed a lot but didn’t really speak. If they did, Brian can’t remember what had been said. They ran until they found a stream too wide to cross without getting wet and advertising their truancy. Will looked for rocks in the mud to skim across the water. Brian helped him search. He dug out thin, smooth stones that sliced through the air, before watching Will’s technique as they bounced onto the far shore.
As far as Brian can remember, that was the last PE lesson they ever attended. Every week at the same time they’d come to the same spot, separately or together, and while away eighty minutes alone. They grew older, Will’s hair grew longer, and they’d still come back to that same spot to skim stones and laugh at each other. Always older than his years, Will learned which dodgy corner shops would sell them tobacco. In the summer, they would find comfy trees to lie against, roll cigarettes and talk about the books they wanted to read. In the winter, they’d throw snowballs into the stream and watch the ice shatter. They would return to school in the darkness, Will leading the way with nothing but instinct and memory to guide him.
In their final year, Will wouldn’t always come. He’d learned that in the girl’s school down the road there were also students who liked to skip classes, and stroll amongst the trees with a handsome young man. Brian still went every week, rolled cigarettes if he had tobacco, skimmed stones if not.
One afternoon, Will joined him just as he was about to turn back. His trousers were muddy, hair tousled, and his expression betrayed the sombre contemplation that comes shortly after a moment of climax. The summer was turning to autumn, and the cool breeze kissed the back of their necks. Crisp brown leaves landed in the water and the stream carried them out of sight, as if it were hurrying the season along.
“We must savour these moments.” Will told him. “We won’t have them again.” Brian laughed at his sanctimonious tone, but the words stuck in his mind. Perhaps because they were so unlike Will, who acted without regard for consequence as if it were a matter of pride. For all the banality of the sentiment, he was proved right. Time moved on, and the moment was lost.
In the pews in front of Brian, the people have begun to fidget. He wonders how long they will wait for him to gather his thoughts before someone takes his arm and leads him back to his chair. He looks down at his speech and none of it is right. He has no way of explaining that the few moments when their lives intersected were the only times he had really felt alive. That without him, time lost its relevance. The years ahead seemed both infinite and constrained, inescapable yet beyond reach.
“William never wasted a moment of his life,” Brian says. “I’d like to tell you about a few of them, tell them honestly and tell them well.”
© James Ross
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read James’ interview]