The Scars of Life
What good are tears
But let him weep
The time has come for him to weep
The time has come
But no sorrow here
We’ll sit here content to remember only happiness and summer days
We’ll see children playing and magic woods and smiles
Visit wild coasts and rugged hills and crystal streams
So sleep now
And I’ll sit with you until I’m sure
Until the tears have gone
…a year later
The woods enclosed an arena of anticipation. A stage set for a long-awaited performance. The players, those hostages of destiny, had been chosen to enact their part. Even now, they were approaching.
He was not alone. The silence, the stillness, the loaded emptiness around him, signified nothing. The air in his lungs was a memory from another breath. Beneath his feet, the earth still recalled other steps. Trees whispered of the wind’s reminiscences.
He walked on. There was no path. Branches formed a discord of obstacles on both sides. Ahead, an avenue of harmony emerged. A blockade of intimidation shadowed every step. There was no way back.
The sky was white and cold. Lifeless limbs clawed across it from grey trees. Inanimate replicas, painted without imagination on an unfilled canvas, each with haggard fingers in search of a spring that would never come. The earth below was hard and bare. Even the struggling green of winter blasted life was absent. The picture chilled him, as did the air beneath. It drained the warmth from his body that made him a living being: a raw, frigid cold of lifeless breath and pitiless death.
Yet there could be no mistake. He knew the place. Even this season of mortality left a haunted remembrance. Wasted and empty it appeared now, but it was the same place: a barren reminder of a once green and tranquil wood where children played in summer sunshine. Now life had been withdrawn.
But no, they were still here. The children even sounded happy. He could hear them laughing, the soft patter of their feet as they approached. The girl came into view first, long dark hair flying behind as she ran. And then the boy, shorter than his sister and of slighter build, hair thick and wavy, the colour of ripe wheat. It was hard to believe they were twins. But of course, he knew they were. He recognised them, their names, even their individual personalities he knew so well. They cheered his heart, and for a moment, he considered calling out to them, but they ran by, not even noticing him. Of course, they would not see him. This was their world. No one else was allowed.
He watched as they gallivanted between the trees, oblivious to the bleak scene around them. They were happy. Soon they would be out of sight. He was sorry they would never know how much joy they’d given that day. Even the trees breathed a sigh of long forgotten warmth as the children passed by. They too had memories of a vanished summer, never to return. He wanted to follow but felt ashamed, an intruder in their private playground.
Suddenly they were near once more, as if memory could transport him to their favourite spot. The girl stood still; her depthless stare immersed in the pool at her feet. The boy crept to her side and looked down. Something within the dark water had captivated their attention.
Slowly the liquid image formed in his mind. And there, an incredible representation of his thoughts, it was mirrored upon the polished blackness of the pool. He stared in wonder at the unnatural vision. A single image impossibly reflected by the water’s surface; not the faces of the children who stood at the edge, but that of a young woman, mature and alluring….
The face could be lost in a crowd. In the country pub, it was a burden upon concealment, almost a betrayal.
The features, as if sketched on the canvas of life, painted by the hand of fate. Though younger, to guess an exact age was difficult. Eyes misled many years by their depth of maturity. Scenes of grief and joy had passed before them. Laughter was there and bitterness, and a message of trust, or scepticism. The conclusion without familiarity was unsettling: a memory of something broken.
There had been no introduction. For the moment, Paul was grateful. Detachment made observation easier. His view was the same sightline as a TV perched on the bar. It was important that he monitored the local news for the weather forecast. An announcement of another programme reminded him, he had been too distracted to watch it.
The voice, audible for the first time, joined the conversation of others seated at the spot. Initially, a contradiction of Paul’s expectations, but soon extraneous phrases invoked the listener. He suspected their impact could dominate when required. A dozen random words reached his ears, captured like a recollection of a significant if forgotten theme. Their relevance, however, seemed incongruous to the group at the table. Out of ignorance, he speculated why the man wished to remain aloof.
When the man rose from the table and stood at the bar, Paul turned to some unfamiliar afternoon soap on the nearby screen.
“Do you live around here?”
The direct enquiry surprised him, so sure of the other’s reluctance to be drawn into dialogue. The stranger’s gaze focussed on Paul, its intensity reaffirmed.
“No, only passing through,” Paul replied, not meaning to sound vague. He had an excuse to look more directly into the man’s eyes, yet now they seemed practised at disguising the emotions that moulded them. A boom of laughter rose from a table behind him. He was grateful for a sudden distraction. Both heads turned towards it.
“That’s just sick, man! Hey Paul, this guy’s killing me.” Geoff Peterson represented a comedian’s ideal audience. “Paul, come and listen to this—my ribs are aching! Get us a beer mate, it’s your round.”
“Can I get you one?” Paul looked back at the stranger.
“Cheers, I’ll have a scotch if it’s okay with you.” The first smile Paul had seen melted onto the man’s face like a pleasant surprise.
He ordered the drinks, delivered the pint to his colleague, and joined the stranger in a scotch at the bar. “I’m not usually a lunchtime drinker but this miserable weather reminds me of home.”
“Yeah, some summer we’re having.”
The man’s detached manner resurfaced. Paul was not good at making conversation and something about his drinking partner ruled out small talk. There was another bout of noisy laughter from the group and Geoff Peterson’s was foremost.
The stranger faced him again. “Your mates seem to be having a good time.”
The unexpected comment solicited a reply, “Oh … Geoff’s the life and soul. We only stopped for a pint, and he makes friends easy,” he added, with instant regret, acutely aware that he did not.
“What do you do?” the stranger inquired.
The man’s eyes spoke so much more than his few words. It took Paul an unnaturally long time to answer. “Well … Geoff’s a journalist for Planet Earth Magazine and I do some freelance photography when I can,” he managed, relieved to return to a more comfortable topic. “We met when I was working on those bad storms in March, and he gave me a call when he needed help on this oil spill. I’m pretty grateful for anything at the moment….” Deciding to avoid babbling, and as the stranger’s expression didn’t seem to register much interest in the content of his reply, he turned back to his drink. “And yourself?” he inquired due to the embarrassment of the long pause, suspecting the stranger was still facing him.
“Me? Oh, I’m working down the road odd-jobbing for one of the local farmers. Nothing as romantic as journalism I’m afraid.”
“Journalism is pretty boring most of the time,” he admitted, trying to keep the conversation going, “you have to be pretty good or pretty bloody lucky to get involved in anything exciting in England—it’s so predictable here. I wish I’d got the guts to go out into the big wide world and do my own thing but I’m an insecure kind of guy….” It was happening again, only worse. Now the stranger’s aspect wore a look of curiosity that made Paul very self-conscious. He felt obliged to continue a conversation, which he hated dominating, however unintentionally. “This spill at the coast is a messy business,” he continued, returning to the more relevant subject. “You can’t imagine the extent of the damage to the environment, let alone the eventual cost of the clean-up.” Relieved he’d managed to steer the conversation away from emotional outpourings, Paul turned back to his glass only to find it empty again.
“Another one?” said the stranger, the slight up-curve of his eyebrows making Paul feel as though he’d blurted out his innermost secrets.
“God no! I’ve got to do some work this afternoon.” Paul was sure he failed to hide the look of disappointment he felt. “The minister for the environment arrives at three-thirty—maybe I should have a steady hand.” He turned to the group where his co-worker still entertained the locals. “Geoff, we’d better make a move you know.”
The effect on the group was predictable and another general round of giggles followed, then Geoff Peterson’s reluctant attempts to break away. “Okay, mate, we're on our bikes.”
The journey down to the coast with Geoff at the wheel was not much fun for Paul. He never felt confident as a passenger. As the driver had drunk a few too many, and was determined to relay all the jokes he’d missed in the pub, the seven miles down winding country lanes left Paul unimpressed.
An image of the man in the bar remained. The brief encounter implanted seeds of curiosity that grew into a tangled fascination. Paul was convinced he had never met the man before, yet felt a sense of familiarity, as though it was another kind of recognition. He was embarrassed about not introducing himself at the bar and wondered if anyone present knew the man.
“Who’s the guy in the dirty jeans?” Paul surprised himself by asking the question.
“What guy?” Geoff nearly went off the road.
“Shit! Geoff! I’m too young to die! I mean the guy sitting next to me at the bar.”
“Dunno Paul, these country bumpkins are all the same to me,” Geoff replied, shuffling back to a more practical driving position.
He avoided distracting the driver for the rest of the journey. His thoughts often returned to the stranger in the bar. During the photo shoot, detachment was mistaken for indifference, and Geoff was far from tactful about his professional handling of the situation. It was as close as the two had come to a clash, too close for Paul to handle in his present frame of mind. Back at their hotel, he soon sought the sanctuary of another bar.
The Far Tors, a twenty-minute coastal drive from major South Devon holiday resorts, was typical of many up-market country houses and frequented off-peak mostly by salesman types. The furnishings were comfortable if a little formal. It was not a bad place for serious contemplation. After a couple of scotches, Paul was deep in thought.
His photographic eye had come to the fore during the last few years at school. The determination to improve it was largely due to encouragement from one of his teachers.
Mr Bartlett’s amiable approach emerged from Paul being the most conscientious student in class. His marks were consistently good and his attitude towards the subject was serious. He appeared to be a loner, rarely involved in the adolescent pranks perpetrated by his classmates, and often ostracised because of it. Paul was punctual, neat, and almost a model pupil in the school, which drew most of its children from the rougher areas in the northern suburbs of Liverpool.
Occasionally, following an hour under Mr Bartlett’s tutelage, he would remain for a few moments chatting to his favourite teacher and both appeared to appreciate these congenial connections. Once Mr Bartlett enquired about out of school activities and his interest in photography drew keen admiration from the man, who generally steered clear of social contact with pupils. Next day his teacher offered a bundle of photographs, with the hopeful request of constructive comments if Paul had any spare time available.
Back home, Paul looked through the prints. There were various scenes taken around the city as well as some landscape shots and a few close-ups of flowers and insects. Most were well taken but not particularly inspiring. However, whilst thumbing through the photos, he came across an elementary shot of a riverbank, partially shaded by trees, through which sunlight was making a show on the surface of slow water. In the foreground, a young man lay on his side at an angle to the camera, his head propped by one arm as he gazed across the river. The man was naked, his clothes piled untidily nearby. Scattering light played across his body. The light and setting added a touch of the Greek god to the form and Paul noted how the man’s athletic frame complimented the scene. Lean, strong legs stretched pleasurably in the grass, taut muscles of a supporting arm implying hidden strength in an otherwise peaceful arena. The composition was sensual but hardly erotic, yet its inclusion in the selection was somewhat surprising. Returning the photographs after the next day’s class, and thanking his teacher for the opportunity to view his work, he added, a little untruthfully, that he considered many of the images were well composed.
With a smile of appreciation and modest disagreement with his pupil’s conclusion, Mr Bartlett enquired, “I’m taking a drive up to The Lakes on Saturday and there’s good subject matter up there for the budding photographer. Would you like to come along?”
“Wow! That would be great, Sir,” he announced, surprise soon replaced by enthusiasm, “I’ll have to check with my folks, but I’d love a chance to do some landscape shots. Wow!”
“You are very welcome, Paul. Why don’t you meet me here, let’s say half past ten? I’ll leave you in charge of packed lunches, hey. Let’s hope the weather’s fine.” The teacher smiled.
“Thanks a lot, Sir, and you can rely on my mom’s expert sandwich skills. I’ll see you on Saturday.” He was genuinely grateful for the offer though it was an unexpected advance in their cordial relationship.
An almost cloudless day found Paul and his teacher scrambling over the craggy slopes and through wooded coppices of the Lake District. Armed with cameras and an array of other photographic equipment, their progress from the road was slow and arduous at times. After an hour, they reached one of the smaller peaks overlooking a wooded valley through which ran a ribbon of sparkling water. The view from the summit, though not panoramic, encompassed the higher peaks and fells in the distance as well as sweeping lower perspectives.
The two sat on a rocky outcrop, recovering their breath after the climb, tackling their lunch whilst admiring the view. Paul checked through his equipment, finally looking up to a thoughtful expression on his teacher’s face.
“Go on then, lad. Get to work! Make the most of the light—the weather changes quickly here,” he added with an unexpected smile, as he watched his pupil line up a number of views with apparent precision. “I took some photos down in the valley a few years back,” the man explained, as he gestured down the slope ahead, “there’s a pretty stream winding through it.”
Paul had just captured the area on a wide angled shot. “Yes, I think I saw one of them the other day, Sir,” Paul replied. “It looked like a lovely spot. You caught the setting perfectly….” He’d meant to say more but, remembering the full content of the image, didn’t want to embarrass his teacher. To hide his discomfort he walked a few paces to one side to consider another view.
“Paul, I hope I didn’t shock you with that photo. I know my skills with the camera are fairly amateur, but it’s one of my favourites …” The man paused in reflective thought, “I only have a few photos of Adam, and it means … he meant a lot to me. I lost him … he died a year ago after … a short illness,” he added looking back across the valley.
The man’s eyes filled with sadness and Paul felt a pang of remorse for his involvement in the topic. “I’m so sorry, Sir,” he replied shyly, feeling embarrassed yet confused as to the relationship. His teacher did not appear old enough to have adult children. “Was he your—”
“Adam was my boyfriend, Paul … I loved him very much.”
The abrupt clarification elevated adolescent emotions to a point where Paul struggled to control them. Tears brimmed his eyes. The comforting arm around his shoulder only encouraged them to run down his face.
“Paul … please … you’ll get me started. I didn’t mean to upset you.” He turned the boy to face him, “I’ve cried enough tears. I only enjoy the memories now.” With a long searching look into the boy’s eyes, and a warm smile, “Thank you for being here with me today.”
Eyes that held sadness and a smile, they shaped his memory now. He’d seen them earlier that day. And he saw them now. A face reflected from a mirror behind the bar. Yet that was another face. All its details blurred by history: all but the eyes.
Time slowed to process thoughts.
Paul’s adolescent immaturity had eroded on that lonely hillside. Though his teacher had begun an important lesson in life, time left at school was too short to complete the course. He knew, even now, that his emotions lacked stability. Since then, he’d developed defences. They were about to be tested.
There was no doubt of both men’s awareness of recognition. Paul regained his composure, turned off the stool and walked over to the stranger. “Hi there, didn’t we bump into each other at lunchtime?”
“Yeah, at the Pipers, you’re the newspaperman.” The stranger took another swig of his beer.
“Photographer, actually.” He was annoyed at the man’s flippancy. “Paul Somerfield,” he announced and held out a hand, “I don’t think we were introduced.”
“Mike Stokes.” The man shook his hand briefly.
“It’s a small world,” Paul commented. Even now, he could sense the man’s reticence.
“What brings you to this neck of the woods?” he inquired, eager to have an explanation for the coincidence.
“Same as you.”
The man was able to make dialogue with very few words. Paul looked puzzled and tried to remember the lunchtime conversation to unravel the mystery. “I thought you worked at a farm near the pub?”
“I do, but I had the afternoon off so decided to come and take a peek at our local environmental disaster.”
Paul remembered his earlier words and now felt sure Stokes was being facetious. “Hardly something to gawp at I think.”
“What are you taking photos of it for then?”
Paul couldn’t figure out why the man was so clearly antagonistic, but suspected the hostility had nothing to do with him. It was almost as though Stokes was rejecting congeniality as self-punishment. “What’s your problem, mate?” he retorted, shooting a pointed glance towards the stranger’s face.
No response came. The man looked up at him and the intensity of his gaze almost made Paul step back. He could read words in the look, bewilderment, a silent appeal. Images of a man on a hilltop flashed across his mind again. The room hushed in anticipation as he focussed upon the man’s eyes. The vision soon defeated Paul’s resolve. “Shit! I need another drink—today’s been a real bitch! You owe me one from lunchtime mate—make it a scotch and we’re even.” His smile also requested a truce. He wasn’t in the mood to pick a quarrel and something about Mike Stokes told him it was the last thing either of them needed right now.
“Sure, mate. I’ll join you in a scotch.”
The two men returned to the bar and sipped their drinks. “You don’t come from around here if I’m any judge of accents?” Paul felt in the mood for conversation now the initial tension of their meeting had softened. “My guess is not far from Liverpool,” he speculated.
“Spot on, mate, though I’m surprised you got it. I’ve moved around a lot and most folks say I’ve lost my accent.”
“Once a Scouse always a Scouse,” he joked, “I’m from the right side of the Mersey myself—I can tell ‘em a mile away”.
Mike smiled into his scotch. Paul noticed the immediate softening effect on his features. The previous severity of the jaw melted into a fuller outline, the bristles of two or three-day’s growth highlighted below his bottom lip. He became conscious of watching Mike a little too closely. The smile faded soon enough, however. “So, what do you do down on the farm?” he asked, adding some congenial humour.
“I’m going through most of the guy’s vehicles at the moment. The old bloke’s got a heap of tractors, combines, and things—in a pretty sorry state most of ‘em. Poor old sod’s got more than he can handle—way past retiring age and over a hundred acres to keep going with bugger all staff. Anyway, it keeps me out of the soup kitchens.”
Paul had noticed a few spots of oil under fingernails; otherwise, the man’s hands were clean. Indeed, they didn’t look like the hands of a mechanic much, the skin was smooth and tanned, a few recent cuts and grazes the only evidence of manual labour. Clean jeans had replaced the dirty ones. “Have you always been involved with engines and things?”
“Sort of,” Mike replied, looking up from his drink, “I like working on motors, but I’ll have a go at anything. Even managed to get the old lady’s sit-under hair dryer going again the other day,” he added, grinned smugly.
“Your missus must be pretty chuffed having someone so handy about the place.”
“Whoa now! I ain’t got no missus. The old lady is my boss’s wife—a dear old biddy—has a pink rinse every week regular.”
Paul laughed and the conversation proceeded unhindered for half an hour. Both were more at ease and Paul was enjoying the man’s company more than he’d expected. It was always an effort for him to make acquaintances and he frequently avoided casual contact with strangers, but Mike Stokes had a curious way of drawing him out. It was by no deliberate effort on the stranger’s part, yet the man’s fellowship stimulated his own inquisitiveness.
Geoff Peterson walked into the bar and headed straight over to Paul. “Jesus, Paul, I’m starving! Sorry about the lecture earlier on, mate—just had one on me today. Let’s go and have a big steak and make up.”
“Geoff, this is Mike. We met him in the pub at lunchtime.”
“How’s it?” Geoff nodded at the stranger. “Why don’t you join us for a bite? Tell us everything you know about Devon.” Geoff’s insatiable appetite matched his love of socialising.
“Don’t mind if I do,” said Mike with a hungry look. “Afraid I’m no expert on the area, but I’ll give it a go, Geoff—can’t remember the last time I tasted a good steak.”
The table at the Far Tors was excellent and conversation wasted little time. At the end of the meal, Geoff reminded Paul of tomorrow being the last day of their assignment. “We have to do some blurb on the clean-up job—the crowd from Aberdeen arrives tomorrow with that magic potion of theirs. Then it’s back to the grindstone. Do you still want to use our lab?”
“Yes please, if you can swing it for me, mate, it’ll save me a hell of a trek up to Liverpool and back.”
“This won’t go in ‘till next month, Paul, you could have mailed them to me, you know—I doubt if I’ll touch this stuff for days.”
“To be honest, you’ll have better equipment and I’ve a friend in London—not far from your offices, so it fits in. See if you can pull a few strings for me, will you mate?”
“Me, pull strings—I’m a regular puppeteer. No problem.”
“I’d better be making tracks,” interposed their guest, “thanks for the grub.”
“Cheers mate, but we’ll call it an interview with a local concerned fisherman—it’s all tax-deductible you know.” Geoff grinned and winked.
“Thanks again,” Mike added, glancing at Paul, “for the chat. It’s been nice meeting you both. If you’re ever in the area again it’s my round.”
An hour later, lying on his bed, Paul reviewed the day’s events. It was one of the most critical days in his career, but the assignment was not the only significant topic in his mind. Mike Stokes occupied much of his thoughts. The man fascinated him for reasons he could not understand. Something about the man’s manner lodged in his subconscious. The tone of his voice, the rare but endearing smile, but mostly the expressions in his eyes; all touched a sensitivity he was unable to suppress. Speculating on what the stranger was like, what sort of life he’d lived, what pleasures and pains he’d lived through, and why he was working so far away from his hometown, he wondered whether anyone cared for him, loved him, or he them. Was life for this man good? Or, marked by scars beyond understanding? Sleep eventually erased his curiosity.