‘It’s so quiet here.’
‘But there’s the wind, and the waves hitting the shore. They’re very loud tonight. There must have been a storm out at sea. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so big.’
‘But that’s what I mean. Everything sounds louder because it’s so quiet here. There’s no background noise. No traffic. No people talking in the street. This house doesn’t even make creak.’
‘It’s built of stone. That’s all that was available on the island until recently.’
‘Recently? But there are old houses in the village built of wood.’
‘Well, recent meaning my great-great-grandparents’ generation. The late nineteenth century. That’s when this house was built.’
‘Even time is different here.’
‘ “Silence and slow time”?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Does it bother you?’
Chris took the pillow from beneath his head and propped it against the headboard. He pushed his torso up so that he was sitting. Nick lifted his head and stared at him, his eyes reflecting the moonlight coming through the open window. He waited for Chris to answer his question.
Chris reached over and took a lock of Nick’s hair between his fingers and rubbed it gently. ‘No, not after last night. Now, that was silence.’
Nick laughed. ‘ “O, King of the Bright Glory, give us last night again.” ’
‘A line from an old love song.’
* * *
‘Can we rest for a second? I can’t take much more. How much farther is this place?’ Chris clutched at a bush to keep from sliding back down the steep hillside. The ground underfoot was muddy and slippery. ‘We’ve been climbing for two hours. It’s going to be dark soon. How will we get back if it’s dark?’
‘No. We haven’t been walking anywhere near that long. An hour at most. We’re almost at the spot I want to show you. Another ten minutes, and we’ll be there. And there’s a full moon tonight. We’ll be able to see.’ Nick stopped several paces ahead of Chris. He was half hidden in the brush that covered the hill. Only his head and shoulders were visible. He turned back and stepped carefully down the hill until he was standing next to Chris. ‘Are you warm enough? I should have thought to tell you to bring a windcheater. I forgot how cold it can be up here. Would you like to borrow mine?’ Without waiting for Chris to answer, he unshouldered his backpack and pulled out a red cagoule and shook it out.
‘What about you? Aren’t you cold?’
‘No, I have the genes for it. My ancestors adapted to this climate. This feels comfortable to me. Here, put it on.’
Chris took the jacket. As he threaded his arms through the sleeves, a faint smell arose from the cloth. A lived in, comfortable smell compounded of the sea and driftwood fires and Nick. When Nick turned around and started back up the hill, Chris lifted the collar of the jacket to his nose, but the smell had already disappeared. He didn’t know whether to trust his memory. Perhaps he had just imagined it. He had to hurry to catch Nick up. The evening walk that Nick had suggested was turning into more exercise than he wanted, but he didn’t want to be stranded in this unfamiliar countryside. If he got separated from Nick and became lost, he could always walk downhill, he supposed. Eventually his path would cross the road that led to Nick’s cottage. But he wasn’t sure how long ‘eventually’ would take and the path down was steep. It wasn’t a risk he was willing to take. The sun was setting and it was growing darker as he followed Nick walking up the hill, more by sound than by sight.
The clearing at the top of the hill took him by surprise. One moment he was struggling uphill through the dense undergrowth, and the next step he was in open space. Nick was already standing on a large flat boulder near the crest of the hill, his head and body ruddy from the late evening glare. He held out a hand to Chris and pulled him up onto the rock. ‘Look, you can see the open ocean.’ He put an arm around Chris’s shoulders and swung him around to face west. His other arm transcribed an arc through the air, offering the view to Chris.
‘Oh my god, it’s beautiful. Is this why you brought me up here?’ Before them the ground dropped steeply away for several hundred feet before flattening out to a narrow ribbon of land by the shore. The waves shoaled soundlessly, the only record of their passage a swiftly moving shadow that ended in slim band of white foam against the beach. Far out in the ocean the sun was setting.
In the fading light, Chris examined the scene before him. The were no boats in the ocean, and the valley had no roads, no houses, no sign of human passage. ‘There’s no one here?’
‘No one,’ said Nick. ‘I’ve never seen anyone here since I found this place fifteen years ago. I was ten or eleven, somewhere in there. As far as I know, I’m the only one who ever climbs this hill. The valley’s probably been deserted for years, if it ever was inhabited. I’ve seen fishing boats passing by, but they would have no reason to stop here.’
‘Did you come here often?’
‘Yes. All the time. It was a place I could be alone and think things out for myself. Where I could be myself and drop the mask. This place was my refuge from all the pressures I felt to be someone else. Someone other than who I am. I always make sure to come up here at least once every time I visit.’
‘It’s an important place for you then.’
‘Yes, that’s why I wanted you to see it. You’ve done so much to free me. You’ve built this space where we can be together, in the way we should be together. There was a time when this was the only place where I could be with myself, with the real me. But you’ve shown me that place can be everywhere I need it to be.’
Chris reached up and clasped Nick’s hand that lay upon his shoulder. He held on to it as he turned around to look east, back the way they had come. In the distance lights marked the location of the village. The valley between him and the bay on which Nick’s cottage sat was already dark. The sea surrounding the island was visible in all directions. At the end of the peninsula north of the village was a white building. ‘I can see your house.’
Nick nodded without looking around. ‘Don’t worry. The moon will be up shortly. Once our eyes adjust to the night, we’ll be able to find our way back.’
‘I’m not worried about that. Not about the way back in any case. The way forward perhaps, but not the way back.’
‘The way forward? With me, you mean?’
Chris nodded. He didn’t want to say anything. Words would have destroyed the magic he felt growing around them. He watched the light fade from the ocean as the sun disappeared. At that latitude, the sky far above them remained light long after the land had turned dark. The night seemed to creep upward from the land into the sky. He felt Nick and himself merging with the stillness of the air, of the night, as if they were growing light and insubstantial, joining together. ‘Even the sky is silent here.’ He spoke quietly, barely disturbing the air with his thoughts. The words seemed to float out of him. ‘It’s as if there will be no tomorrow. No dawn. No world. Nothing but us. This place is like you. I understand why you wanted to show it to me. It has silences in it just like you. Fierce, elemental things that don’t need to be spoken in order for them to be. The world before words.’
But even as he spoke, he felt himself becoming separate from the scene, once again an observer of it and not part of it. Once he started speaking, he wanted to say more and more. It felt comforting to disturb the silence, to impose himself on it, to reassert the fact of being Chris. And what he had said about Nick wasn’t true. He wasn’t even sure what he had meant. It was just something that felt right to say at the moment. It should be true, he thought. Maybe it would become true because he had said it. If not with Nick, then with someone else.
He put an arm around Nick’s back and drew closer to him. He suddenly felt he had to touch Nick, to reassure himself of his own physical reality against the silence around them. He pulled the tail of Nick’s shirt out of his trousers and touched Nick’s back. The skin was warm and smooth and firm beneath his fingertips.
Nick didn’t move at first, as if he sensed what Chris was thinking. ‘I’m here. I’m not going to go away.’ He turned toward Chris and embraced him. ‘We can say whatever words we like. Bring whatever world we want into being.’ He pointed over head. ‘Stars, I want thousands of stars. And a bright moon that’s always full.’ He gestured toward the east where the moon was just rising. ‘You see, we can have whatever we want. I will make you a world. A tranquil sea and a green land and a blue sky and warm temperatures and gentle breezes. A garden in paradise. All for you.’
‘Don’t forget good beer.’
‘And good beer.’
They kissed and held each other for a long silence, swaying gently.
‘You’ve never brought anyone else to see this place?’
‘No, you’re the first person I’ve ever shown it to.’
‘So you’ve never made love up here?’
Nick smiled and shook his head no. He touched Chris’s mouth with his fingertips. ‘What are you thinking? These rocks are hard, and the ground is damp.’
‘We’ll manage. We just have to be careful not to roll off this cliff.’
‘Always so practical.’
* * *
‘An old love song?’
‘Yes, it’s a prayer to keep love as wondrous and magical as the first time. To keep it forever fresh. To keep it like last night.’
‘That would be nice. But this time without the rocks and bushes. Those I will willingly abandon for a comfortable bed.’
‘Funny, I didn’t notice at the time how hard those rocks were.’
‘Nor I. But we’re going to remember them. We’ll both have bruises and scratches for days. I don’t know what I was thinking. You got me drunk on your words. Offering me paradise and galaxies of stars.’
‘You can still have them. Let me conjure them up for you.’ The faint pleading note in Nick’s voice hung in the air.
‘I don’t think they would survive London. Speaking of which, we had better get some sleep. I want to start back early tomorrow. I’ve some errands to run before the shops close. I’m afraid it’s back to the mundane world for us. Do you mind if I close that window? I’m not used to all this fresh air.’ Chris didn’t wait for Nick to reply. He hopped out of bed and shut the window.