For some reason he has had a lifelong desire to see the Northern Lights and to Teresa’s repeated question as to why he could find nothing more to say than that they were beautiful and that anyway wasn’t she supposed to be a lover of nature, a lover of beauty, the ephemeral, the transient? Scotland had always held a fascination for him, the Isle of Skye, a beautiful name, he thought, Inverness, The Firth of Forth. Magical places. He had heard about the Northern Lights when he was a child, seen them on TV perhaps or in a film and his mother said, didn’t she, he remembered it suddenly now, that she had always wanted to see them but that his father would never take her.
Yes. Perhaps that made him feel that when he had a child or a wife he would take them and that somehow became a sense of obligation that concretized over the first few years, that they must go, it was in some way vital to their survival, it would heal things, make things right between them if they stood together, he and Teresa arm in arm, Joanna up on his shoulders no-one around for miles, mutually enraptured, entranced. He imagined it as though he were viewing the three of them from behind, from a distance, silhouetted against the sky and its enormous otherworldly weft and warp of multicolored lights. Not facing each other of course but outward to some spectacle so enormous and overwhelming that it would fuse them, they themselves were one interlinked single entity, the contours and boundaries of their own bodies lost, their focus on what lay before them intense and wordless.
He didn’t know why he believed this.Except that Nick was not a quitter, he didn’t just give up on things, on people. And so they had doubled down at every point in their relationship, after their first night together when it seemed they were incompatible, had little in common, he had insisted on a further date, when they had conducted a fraught, lacklustre affair he had decided that they should move in together. When that rapidly became unbearable the solution was marriage and when they could no longer tolerate that, a child. Each time he held out the hope that the next stage, rather than compounding the errors of the past would magically sweep them away. Deeper and deeper, and the more they were sundered together the greater the distance between them became. Still. He wasn’t a quitter. And this was the proof.
Yes, yes, they had to go. He had believed, hadn’t he, that it would change everything,that there was some key, some cardinal image, some attainable moment that would bond them, the three of them and though he was generally happy to give way on most matters in this he was quite insistent. Of course it took the best part of a year’s weedling and cajoling and even then it almost fell apart at the last minute when Teresa came down with a cold two days before they were due to leave and immediately took to bed telling him that he would just have to cancel their plans, there was no way she was going to be dragged up to Scotland in October in this fragile state of health. When she found out the hotels and B and Bs were non-refundable though she reluctantly relented and agreed to go, then spent the whole holiday dictating every move they made, demanding stops and refusing outings, constantly complaining about the weather and what a ridiculous idea it was to bring them somewhere so wet and cold, to have booked such inadequate or such overpriced hotels.
First they drove up for the twice yearly nightmare of the visit to her mother in Harrogate. She was a generally sympathetic and decent woman whose interaction with Nick and Joanna Teresa watched like a hawk, killing everybodies’ spontaneity and the chance that a relationship of any warmth might develop between them, everyone so attuned to the micro shifts in Teresa’s voice and demeanour. The year before she had caught them exchange a sympathetic, pained smile at one of her outbursts and then had to endure a two day fit of sulking and door slamming, long periods of absence as she stormed around the town with Joanna in tow, wild, sometimes obscene accusations that even now it pained him to remember. The next year they were ultra cautious, but of course the more cautious they were the more intense her scrutiny became, the more irritated and angered that she was by obviously affecting them until everything was ratched up to a point of almost transcendent tension and the slightest move or gesture became so fraught that a slip or an unintended thoughtlessness or an aside seemed potentially deadly, evidence that somehow they were siding against her.
From Harrogate they drove North to spend the night in Aberdeen, a long drive up through increasingly mountainous countryside that Nick found bracing but which seemed to do nothing for Theresa’s sunken hostility and the moment they got to the Hotel she went to bed early, left Nick under a strict injunction not to go out and then a volley of complaints that he would wake her up when he came back, repeated accusations of selfishness for leaving the two of them especially when Teresa was ill. Despite it all he went out to meet up with Rob.
Nick was shocked to see him after a decade of intermittent emails. He looked to have aged twenty years in the space of ten. How was he doing? Rob looked at him intently. I am skint, he said. I have been doing a bit of work here and there for B.P. would you believe, covering Maternity leave, after that I will be out on my ear. I don’t blame them. He took a sip from his pint. Looks like we are all about to eneter the shitzone anyway, am I right? Big financial problems heading our way. Nick shrugged. Maybe. Always maybe, with Nick. But he didn’t want to talk about that, he wanted to talk about the Northern Lights. Scotland. We are up here hoping to catch the lights he said. Aye well, you want to head up the coast a bit more for that I reckon. Yes, yes we are going to go up to Inverness tomorrow. You still love driving then? He nodded. I still haven’t learned, can't afford a car anyhow. He paused for a second. The Merry Dancers he said with a wry tickle at the corner of his mouth. That’s what they call them you know. The Lights. The Merry Dancers. Then there was a pause while both of them allowed the moment to fill up with shared past.
After an hour or so and three or four pints in and a few whiskey chasers as Nick sipped his J20, Rob became more intense and difficult to understand, trying to explain something to Nick about time and radicalism and he excused himself earlier than was really necessary, found himself on the streets of Aberdeen at dusk, free for a few moment, suspended between the pressure of the past, its meanings, its old associations and commitments the claim he still felt those relations had on him in some way, and those of the present. The incommensurability of any two people’s lives, of any one life even, over time, the eternal and inevitable non- coincidence that haunted everything, how Rob no doubt viewed Nick’s life, with its routines and responsibilities as a failure, just as he couldn’t help but pity David Ferris’s obsessive pursuit of theory and mysticism.The way his wife viewed him as an emotional cripple of sorts while for him she was simply a hysteric and on and on it went and that moment he realised in an odd way how close he was to suicide, not that the thought had ever directly crossed his mind, that indeed was the whole worry of it, but wordlessly, thoughtlessly one day having reached a pitch of concentrated blankness and stoical remove he would, without volition almost automatically take the final step in cancelling out either the effect he could have on others or the effect he had on them.
Was this what happened to Vernon?
When he got back to the hotel he got quietly into bed. Teresa was not asleep but made a great show of being disturbed by his return.
He lay facing away from her, sensing that she was sniffing the air to see if there was alcohol on his breath.
If only they hadn’t had a child.