I once knew a girl who gave her shoes pet names. There is not much more to say about that – it was just something she did. Our relationship came to an end in King’s Cross railway station. In those days the station’s concourse was almost deserted on Sunday evenings. We sat on one of the benches arranged in rows in front of the destination board. She explained why our relationship had not worked and I told her why it never would. Not for the first time we occupied the same space but communicated with each other from different time zones. We did love each other: just not very much and never coincidently. In those days rejection and contempt were all I craved and she was no longer providing either.
The metal plates on the destination board came to life, the names of towns flicked over like cards dealt out in a game of chance. People sitting around us got to their feet as the narrative of a journey north out of London rippled down the board. We watched the passengers walk towards the waiting train. We welcomed the distraction, we did not do intense conversation – or at least did not do it very well. For myself the female passengers were of special interest. This had always gone unremarked but never unnoticed. She locked onto a woman who had caught my eye, cataloguing her clothes. Potential sources; Next, C&A or Biba, were identified and, in a matter of minutes, a mental shopping list was compiled. Who knows, maybe she had already chosen pet names for the shoes. At some point in the near future, usually days rather than weeks, she would change, chameleon like, into a facsimile of the perceived, and transitory, object of my desire.
However, on this occasion, I would miss the transformation. Rather than return to the debate over how much or how little we still meant to each other I stood up and walked away. Perhaps I should have looked back, because the image of her sat alone in the middle of an otherwise deserted station concourse, head in her hands and tears welling up in her eyes – which most likely only existed in my imagination – stayed with me. In reality it was me who was disappearing alone into the void – to be buried alive in the city, never to be seen or heard of again. She was returning to the countryside and the welcoming bosom of her family.
On rare occasions, over the years, we would pass each other in the street. I could never bring myself to look her in the face but, instead, cast my eyes downwards – wondering which one of her fur lined boots was called ‘Sooty’ and which was called ‘Sweep.’ Perhaps we could have sat down and, over coffee, discussed the past in a ‘Friends Reunited’ sort of way. Exchanged details about our new lives until we had nothing in common again. But no one really wants to renew a relationship with someone they last spoke to when they were twenty – they just want to be twenty again. Even this, if they really thought it through, is illusory.
When I finally escaped from London I met you. We arrived in Köln without baggage: meeting by chance and thrown together by circumstance. In the Statwald, after watching Effi Briest in that airless cinema in Lindenthal, I lay on my back staring at the sky and you, sat, feet pulled close to your body, arms wrapped around your legs, gazing out over the lake. We remained silent, reacclimatising to a world of colour after two hours twenty minutes of monochrome Fassbinder. Then, for no particular reason, I said “I once knew a girl who gave her shoes pet names.”
You continued looking out over the lake at the old couple standing on the other side, together but somehow separated from each other. At first I thought you had either not heard or were ignoring me. Perhaps you were engrossed, waiting to see if when the couple starting walking again they would stay together or leave in different directions.
“Perhaps it was something from her childhood.” You said. “Perhaps she wouldn’t tie her shoelaces and her parents said something like ‘let’s tie up Mini mouse’s and Mickey mouse’s tails.’ Perhaps when she was under stress she retreated into the secure world of her childhood.” Then you were silent again, because you guessed, correctly, that I had been the cause of that stress.
“Why didn’t you stay with her?” You said eventually, looking down at me, now with your head to one side and rested on your knees.
To make light of it, because of the stress thing I suppose, I told you about her dressing up as passers by. Despite you suggesting this may have been some sort of compliment on her part, I sighed and told you the combination of Disney World and déjà vu had been too much. Then you smiled, and somehow I finally felt free from guilt, or obligations – I am still not sure which.
I sat up. We both watched the two old people, who by now had become a couple and were walking, hand in hand, at the water’s edge. We stood and did the same. Two hands of a clock slowly marking time around the edge the lake.
We dined at a restaurant in Rudolfplatz and like most evenings shared collective experiences of a world that was still new to us both. Slowly these experiences crushed us until we became one person. Over time, like diamonds in water, we became invisible to each other. So that night when we kissed and embraced at the Universitätstrasse S-Bahn stop it was unimaginable we would never see each other again.
Standing in the tramcar as it pulled away – and I did watch you leave, because there was little danger tears laced with eyeliner would be dripping from your cheeks and soaking like inky blobs into the suede leather of ‘Daisy’ and ‘Ermintrude’ – you seemed unbowed and ready to accept the challenge of whatever lay ahead. We both grew stronger with every metre the tram receded into the night. Completeness and independence came at the expense of a chance of lifelong happiness. Although over the years, during which time I have often reflected on the difference between throwing a relationship away and simply letting it slide through my fingers, I have met couples who did find true happiness and console myself that it is somewhat overrated.
There are days, however, I would like to freeze time. Stop the tramcar, walk down the tracks and prize open its doors at some destination removed and separate from the narrative of the journey my life became. With no thought as to how we had arrived there, or where we would travel to when we left, we would dance again in the Rheinpark on some random evening, dealt to us on the turn of a card. Seeking refuge there from a city that had become hot and edgy, as Köln was in the summer of 1976. The sound of jazz band and the voice of Beryl Brydon would echo across the river and I would remain, stuck in a moment with you.