I was travelling, on Sunday, from Huesca to Zaragoza airport, watching the unfamiliar landscape and thinking about how I had come to be there. As I pondered, thinking my contemplative thoughts, tracing the recent path from overcrowded London to near-deserted Spain, tracing the longer path of a life whose route I know but whose destination I do not, Mozart was playing in the tape deck of the car. A piano concerto, the twenty-first of his twenty-seven, the second movement in particular, the Andante, Elvira Madigan.
The theme of that second movement is a theme that exudes contentment, or so it seemed to me, as it perhaps was bound to do, at that particular time, in that particular mood. It rises, falls, returns, repeats itself, begins as strings and then reinvents itself as the piano: and, doing so, turned my thoughts inwards and outwards. Inwards, in search of memories buried, memories evoked, memories left behind until such time as I could pick them up, look at them and compare them to a present I preferred. Outwards, to the journey I was making. Then inwards again, to journeys past. Journeys past and journeys reinvented. The repetition of the past, but past distress remade, instead, as the present contentment.
It was the first journey of seven in a row. Twice that number, bearing in mind that I had made the opposite journey just the day before. A bus from home, in freezing air to Forest Hill. A train to London Bridge. Two tubes, each journey of a single stop, another train from Liverpool Street to Stansted Airport, a flight to Spain from Stansted and a car to take me down the final stretch to Huesca. Seven journeys, seven exhausting stages of a journey: and setting off on the first leg of the reverse leg of this relay, immersed in Mozart and his second movement, meditating on things past, on things redeemed and overcome, I recalled another journey I had undertaken. Another journey of too many steps, another journey in another country, another journey in another time.
Six summers past, that journey was. It began in Glengarriff, on the western coast of county Cork, on the edge of Ireland, where, at the end of patience and the edge of sanity, I broke up with S, in the morning, in a bed and breakfast up above the bay. She snapped at me - once too often, I might have said, had I thought, if she had not, that it would have made any difference in the end. But, once you have told yourself that one more is the end of it, then you are past the end of it already: and in that sense, it didn't matter. Our time was up, and should have never started.
But in another sense it mattered all the world. She was vocally, distressingly, entirely in love with me, though she would have been far better off if it were otherwise: and I was not in love with her, though I wanted it otherwise as well. We were both sick, both smashed-up and in need of anything but further hurt, and being sick, we made each other sicker still. Each resenting the other and resenting ourselves for our feelings, each postponing the time when we would have to admit it. When we would have to admit it in the open.
So we proceeded with a holiday, begnning in Cork, moving west to Glengarriff, further from home, further from reality, quarrelling in a restrained manner, snapping and reconciling without great energy or passion. Till finally, in the morning, in our B&B looking over the bay and towards Garnish Island, she snapped at me, not nastily but unhappily, full of a wretchedness for which neither of us was to blame. And I looked up and said to her:
I think we'd better stop now.Quietly, as if she had expected it, and without either hope or rancour, she looked back at me and said:
I don't suppose I can have another chance?I looked back and shook my head, as she must have known that I would. As she must have known that I had to. We had to stop.
The stopping was the easy part, or so I thought: it proved much harder, drawing lines that neither of us, for different reasons, wanted to draw. Drawing the line itself was hard enough: drawing it so it as meant, and understood. But harder still was walking across the line and yet staying upright, continuing to walk.
There had been too much, and too little time for recovery. Too many disasters, all piling up on top of one another and impossible to carry any further. Too many lines drawn unexpectedly: too many collapses and not enough recoveries. So, rather than walking across a line and moving on, I was walking, as it were, in a series of smaller and smaller circles, each one traversed more swiftly than the last, until it seemed that I was spinning round, dizzy from exhaustion and my own impossible itinerary, waiting only for my own momentum to run out so that the dizziness could take me down and stop, stop, just close my eyes and wait for everything to stop.
But first I had to get myself home, to Hertfordshire from the west coast of Ireland, in a series of small and smaller steps. From Glengarriff on a local bus to Killarney, then back almost the same direction that we had come, from Killarney on a coach through Waterford to the ferry at Rosslare. From Rosslare to Pembroke Dock and then the coach again, to the side of the motorway by Cardiff, and then a taxi in the small hours to the Cardiff flat that S was living in.
Then, in the morning, from Cardiff Central, a train which S got off at Bristol Temple Meads, on her way to her parental home in Southampton, while I continued, to Didcot, then changed for Oxford. And finally, more than a day after I had begun, a coach from Oxford to my mother's home in Letchworth, the last spin, the last effort before my momentum was exhausted and I collapsed, from dizziness, exhaustion, temporary and permanent, closing my eyes and lying on a bed, opening my eyes and looking at the ceiling, closing my eyes again and waiting for the time to pass, my head to clear, my thoughts to drain away.
Even as I travelled, even as the journey of eight parts was taking its gruelling course, it was obvious to me that the physical journey was no more than a reflection of the mental journey that had preceded it - but which shared with it a common culmination. That, at the end, when body collapsed into rest, like a cross-country runner unable to stop until the tape and then unable to start again, the mind would do the same. Exhausted, functioning just long enough to get home, just long enough for the movement to stop so that it could stop as well. I thought about it, but not hard. Not with the will or the desire to think it through. That facility was gone. Those reserves were exhausted.
Mostly I looked out of the window, seeing mountains between Glengarriff and Killarney, seeing the Irish Sea, seeing the landscape flatten as I moved east from Wales towards the Home Counties, seeing all these things as background, seeing them all the same. Stop, stop. You draw a line and stagger over it, as if it were a finish line, and then you stop. I stopped, and stopped. I knew that one way or another I had come to an end, and that any further movement was futile, nominal, was movement without meaning, without purpose. I could move no more of my own volition. I could do only what others or events might make me do. Within a year - within less than a year - I could not do even that.
I recalled that journey, like an elegy, on Sunday, as Mozart's reprises bid me reprise as well. Like an elegy, like a poem whose phrases I could half recall, like a poem for somebody departed. I picked it up, where I had left it, carried it with me for a while and set it down again. I listened to Mozart's theme rising and falling, much like the breathing of a lover, as it seemed to me, as it perhaps was bound to do, in that particular mood, at that particular time. It was the first step of a journey that would, after that step, be taken on my own. And while I travelled I thought, for a while, and for a while only, of another journey I had taken years before.
But this time everything was different, everything was turned upon its head. This time I travelled not to stop travelling, but to start again. This journey was not the exhausted end, but the beginning. But not, but not entirely a beginning. Nothing is entirely a beginning. Because, to get to that beginning, I have travelled. I have travelled very far.