The following is the opening to a novelette.
Here I am. I am standing on the soft, wet bank of a beautiful clean loch, holding a bottle of twelve-year, single malt Scottish whisky and a glass. The air is crisp and fresh and cold; the sky is a beautiful, scalded pale blue. The icy wind whips inside my clothes and makes me feel alive and refreshed. I carefully place my bottle of whisky and my glass down on a mossy stump. I remove my boots and my socks and roll my trousers up to my knees. I pick up my whisky and wade carefully into the clear water; the coldness sends a wave of energy through my legs and into my spine. I focus very carefully on directing the rush of energy into a positive visualisation of myself.
‘I can achieve. I can be happy. I am the person I want to be,’ I say to myself quietly. The soft mud feels rich and luxurious as it gives way to my weight and swallows up my feet. A large piece of ice floats near to me; I scoop it into my glass and pour myself a generous measure of this wonderful, golden single malt. I take a nice big, peaty swallow and feel the warmth travel down my throat and into my stomach. On the far bank of the loch I can see a huge, proud stag with magnificent antlers. He turns his head and stares at me. I raise my glass to him; he snorts at me in respect, steam billowing from his wild, beautiful nostrils.
Life is like this, I think to myself and I feel enormously contented. I drain my glass and wade out of the water; I pick up my shoes and socks. My feet and calves are pink. I walk just a few yards back to the guest house: an appealing, cosy little building made of stone and slate. I enter the lounge and feel the soft red carpet on my bare feet and the warmth from the real log fire and I ask for two pints of ale and two venison steaks with potatoes, served medium rare. I ask for them to be sent upstairs to our room. The man behind the bar says something friendly in his charming Scottish accent.
I climb the stairs to our room and open the door, and Charlotte is there sitting in the big, ornate armchair made from rich, stained oak with her lovely dark hair in curls, and her lips are red and she’s wearing some really fantastic-looking lacy lingerie that I didn’t even know she’d brought; she looks very sexy in a very tasteful way.
And she has her right hand inside of her underwear and it’s moving very gently and slowly and she looks up at me.
And I say, ‘I ordered us venison.’
She says something positive, indicates that she is happy with this choice I have made, that it’s good that I have taken the initiative to order us venison and that she feels happy.
As I’m having sex with Charlotte, I am able to see through the window and take in the vast unspoiled expanse of heather and fern and pine and the shining water and clear sky and light mist and a mountain, and my muscles fix and so do hers and we just explode with love and passion and pleasure.
Afterwards Charlotte is eating her venison with some sort of primal hunger, just completely unashamed and natural, with meat juice on her chin, and she looks at me and puts her hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Thank you, I am so incredibly satisfied.’
And this will be our long weekend in Scotland and everything will be fine. And it will never really end because we will capture the positivity and the clarity and the hopefulness, and take it home with us and remember how to be happy together again.
I am driving us in the car to Scotland. I have the guest house set on Google Maps. Charlotte has fallen asleep in the passenger seat with her phone in her hand. A white Audi cuts across two lanes and forces me to apply the brakes.
It is taking a lot longer to get to Scotland than I thought it would. I have been driving for five hours. About an hour ago I passed Leeds. I think I am near Durham. None of these places are as far north as I had thought. I am very tired; I badly need to piss. I recently missed the service station that I had been planning to use for twenty miles. I swore rapidly and passionately but very quietly. I hit the steering wheel angrily but gently, to avoid waking up Charlotte.
Charlotte has been asleep for four hours. If she wakes up she will want to know how close we are; we are not as close as we should be. She will want to know how much longer and I will get the answer wrong. She will later remind me of how wrong my answer was. She will offer to drive, I will say no. I am going to get us there without any hitches. I am going to drive all the way.
Her friends will text her to ask how the weekend away is going:
‘Hey, how’s the weekend away going? x’
‘So lovely! He drove us all the way without any hitches whatsoever! x’
Or better yet, ‘Hey hey, how’s the big weekend away going? d x x’
‘Hi David, please stop texting me and fuck off now, please. I’m having a fantastic time in Scotland with my boyfriend who I am in love with. You are a creepy dickhead and we are not friends, stop trying to get in my pants. x’
The sun has gone down; I am driving in the twilight. I am hungry and thirsty. When we get to a service station I will take a long, luxurious piss. I will have a bottle of water from WHSmiths and a coffee from Costa or Nero or Starbucks or whatever they have and hopefully a fast food cheeseburger. I think about the cool water flowing into my mouth, rinsing my sticky tongue, priming my stomach for the delicious cheeseburger. The petrol seems to be lasting better than I thought it would anyway, which is a sign that everything is going brilliantly.
I hope that the guest house is easy to find from the main road. I turn on Radio 4 very quietly.
Charlotte shifts in the passenger seat.
‘Ugh. Sorry,’ she says. ‘I must’ve been really tired. How close are we?’
Charlotte and I are sitting in a motorway services branch of Costa. The chairs are bolted to the ground. I am drinking an enormous americano with milk. Charlotte is drinking an enormous americano without milk. She is reading Twitter on her white iPhone.
The music playing in Costa is an Amy Winehouse song; it’s one that I quite like. It has a jazzy little piano ditty and jittery drum beat and Amy is laying it on nice and thick as usual, and there’s that brass that seemed to go everywhere with her for a while. I think about saying ‘Classic Winehouse’ and making Charlotte laugh.
I’m ninety-three per cent certain that we’re going the right way. I am trying not to think about the possibility that Google Maps is telling me the wrong way, or that I have somehow failed to follow Google Maps properly, or that Google Maps actually has the wrong guest house set as the destination and has matched my keywords to a different place that is either fully booked or too expensive. My iPhone battery has been shit recently (I am due an upgrade in three months). This means that I can’t really afford to have the GPS on constantly. I can only check where I am occasionally. I have to keep resetting the Google Maps app for some reason; I keep pressing the wrong thing and losing where I am. If my battery dies after I leave the motorway I am completely fucked.
The amount of caffeine in my absurdly large coffee is giving me anxiety. I take a deep breath and puff my cheeks out. Chill out, I think. I breathe out slowly. Charlotte has placed her phone face down on the table and is looking out at the car park.
‘You okay?’ she says without looking at me.
‘Yep,’ I say. ‘Pretty happy with how it’s going. Very happy actually.’ Charlotte must remain in a good mood. Charlotte must have the longest ever uninterrupted period of good mood that she has ever had. She must be shielded from all negativity. She will associate this incredible period of unbroken good mood, as facilitated by me, with being in my company. This is the same thing as love. She will romanticise this period of her life, even this service station, even this horrible, expensive coffee. She will romanticise me. After I’m dead, she’ll tell our great-grandchildren how lovely I was, tell them about this weekend, mention my breezy, self-assured, friendly, charming attitude and how consistently attractive I always was to her.
Three days ago I told Charlotte that I loved her – nothing unusual, just a routine, maybe slightly overused ‘I love you.’ She didn’t say it back. I’m fairly sure that she just didn’t hear me; I think that’s possible. She was standing maybe four feet away, halfway through the door, about to turn around. Anyway, you can’t really repeat yourself in that situation. I’ve been a bit afraid to say ‘I love you’ since. She hasn’t said it either. Maybe it’s good. Taking a break from that phrase is good for couples. That’s probably the sort of shit people get paid to write in Cosmopolitan or whatever, but it’s probably true. You can’t just keep hammering away with that phrase; you need to take a break from it. When we say it again, we’ll have gained a new respect for saying it, a new pleasure. We’ll say it maybe once every couple of weeks and really mean it.
‘What was the sigh for? You okay?’ Charlotte is sipping her coffee.
‘Yeah, yeah, totally fine,’ I say, accidentally sort of sighing.
‘Hey beardy, come on.’ Charlotte uses a temporary pet name for me while I have a beard. I’m pretty sure Charlotte is attracted to men with beards: men with thick arms and body hair who can plane wood or whatever, who smell of damp and charcoal and wood-smoke and don’t say much and can pick her up in one thick calloused hand and are quitting their job at the sawmill to move to Tokyo and study Kawakami Hajime for a PhD or whatever.
I can grow a pretty good beard.
Charlotte is smirking at me. She is a very attractive woman. She is the only woman this attractive who will ever go out with me. She is my only chance to be loved by a nice person who is intelligent, interesting, has talents, is genuinely funny and is also somehow an attractive woman. She’s an anomaly, a freak. There is no way I can ever, ever let her go.
If I say that nothing is wrong, I run the risk of a) trying her patience and/or b) making her think that I am holding back my concerns about being able to successfully drive us to Scotland without any hitches. I need a diversion, something to dismiss.
‘Oh … it’s just …’ I’m not sure what I’m going to say. I think for a moment. ‘It’s just I can’t believe that Amy Winehouse is dead.’
The Amy Winehouse song is finished. Costa is now playing Fleetwood Mac.
Charlotte looks at me carefully.
‘Yep. It’s sad,’ she says.
I nod and look out at the car park. I really want to get going.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Such a waste. Such a complete waste.’