Home seems a long time away now. I can see pictures and I hear noises but they have no connection. But that day, that special day, that last day, plays and plays in my mind with such clarity and such pitch-perfect colour that I feel as if I am there once more.
And still it goes round and round and round. In a circle. In a loop.
We sit on the bench – our bench – by the statue of Robert Burns in Victoria Embankment Gardens. We always start our journey here; have done since we were kids. The very first time we came here, Rick said that the poet reminded him of our class teacher Mr Thomas. I couldn’t see it, but I remember Rick getting very worked up saying,
“Look at his piggy eyes and his pointy nose. It is Mr Thomas. It is!”
I was fond of him even then and just went along with it, pretending that I saw the resemblance, but I never did. We always joked about it. Every time. Even this time.
We sit quietly, holding hands, listening to the early morning city sounds. The murmur of the distant traffic, the boats’ horns from the river opposite, the snatched pieces of conversation as people hurry by to work. Their words change but the sounds never do.
That first time had been on my twelfth birthday. It had been a perfect spring day and we spent most of it chasing each other round and round the gardens. When we were tired, we sat eating our jam sandwiches and drinking stewed, lukewarm tea out of a green tartan coloured flask. We laughed as we watched the squirrels fighting for the tiny titbits of bread that we threw them.
It is autumn now. We have sat for some time without saying a word. We both know what the other is thinking. But I sense a sudden sadness in him and turn to see a tiny tear trickling down his cheek. I squeeze his hand tightly and kiss it away.
Still holding hands, we get off the bench and climb the gentle slope behind the statue to the London plane that we have watched grow tall over the years. With his free hand, Rick brushes the moss from the trunk. It is still there, faded but quite visible:
Ricky loves Jenny.
He had carved it as a present for me on my fifteenth birthday. I remember him saying;
“When we are really old, we’ll come back here and show our kids this and even our grandkids.”
As we look at that soppy tree now, I hold his hand to my face and kiss his palm. I know then that we will never again stand here together, never bring our children to this place. He knows it too.
Rick puts his arm around me and pulls me close and I bury my head hard against his chest to hide my tears. I feel that dark, gnawing, emptiness in my stomach as we leave the gardens. A feeling I thought had gone forever.
We make our way back on to Villiers Street and head towards Trafalgar Square. We walk to the little cafe at the back of the square near the lift. Fortunately, our usual table is vacant.
There were so many pigeons here once. We used to buy cupfuls of seed from the old lady on the square and watch the birds swooping and squealing and squabbling when we threw handfuls of it on the ground. Now, we just sit quietly and sip our drinks and watch the children clambering over the bronze lions and the last of the summer’s tourists taking their pictures of each other in front of the column. It was here, on my nineteenth birthday that Rick asked me to marry him.
Our drinks finished, we retrace our steps across the Square and make our way on to Whitehall. We walk silently, deep in our own thoughts, deep in each other’s. At Whitehall barracks there is the usual horde of happy snappers posing in front of the mounted soldiers. Their helmets and breast plates sparkle in the autumn sunshine, exactly as they had done when I had stood here as a little girl holding Daddy’s hand, just as I am now holding Rick’s.
Past the Cenotaph now and further along Whitehall, we cross, as is our custom, to the Red Lion. I remember back then the look in his eyes when I told him. He was sad but clearly not surprised.
“But you’re only sixteen”, he said, “have you really thought it through?”
“You know I have otherwise I wouldn’t have told you, silly,” I had said, “besides, I won’t be starting training until I’m eighteen.”
“Women in the army. Where will it all end?”
I loved him more then than I had ever done. He knew what it meant to me. And I knew then that he would never stand in my way, never complain about the long absences or the fact that when I came home on leave, all I would ever talk about was army this and army that. Oh, how I miss him. I want him here beside me now. This moment. This instant. This second.
Leaving the pub, we walk the short distance to Victoria Embankment. We have done this journey so many times it is as if our feet are programmed to know where they are going. By the time we reach the boat we have fallen silent. Across the street is moored the Tattershall Castle. A few early drinkers are on deck and the aromatic smoke from the newly lit barbecue is already spiralling into the air.
I had been back for about six months from a tour of Afghanistan. It was a blissful time. When we found out that I was pregnant, I don’t think we could have been happier. I said that I would come out of the army but Rick said he knew how much it mattered to me and, now that I had my captain’s pips, I would be certain to get a desk job.
That night on the Castle is still so vivid. I couldn’t concentrate on the show. Rick took my hand and led me up the stairs to the deck. Darkness was beginning to fall, and a light spring breeze blushed our cheeks as we came out into the night air. We stood by the guardrail and watched the pleasure boats with their happy diners floating by on the river below us. On the far shore, the Eye turned slowly on its axis, its neon blue lights illuminating the darkening sky.
He put his arm around my shoulder and held me close to him.
“It’s the baby, isn’t it?”
I nodded. My eyes started to sting. I felt empty.
He gently kissed the top of my head and pulled my hair back over my ears.
“I love you,” he whispered. “I love you so very much.”
It was my birthday. I was twenty eight years old.
We walk under Hungerford bridge, this last time, as we had done so many times before. Overhead, the noise and the vibration of the train rattling into Charing Cross, startles the dosing gulls on the high rafters above us, making them flee their roost in squawking distress. We climb the few steps that lead to Embankment station and turn and look towards the river one final time. As we do so we hear the familiar and comforting sound of Big Ben striking up the start of the Westminster chimes at noon.
Across the river lies the concrete confection of the South Bank. In the distance, the jingly-jangly cacophony of sound of the children’s carousel eddies tentatively across the water. To our right, back under the bridge and behind us now, is the Castle. But to our left are our gardens. Our own special sanctuary. And in there, that bench where we spent so many blissful hours as children, as friends, as lovers and as man and wife. We have come full circle. Rick squeezes my hand once more. We know that we are saying goodbye to our beloved city, to our precious London walk and to each other.
Home seems a long time away now. I see pictures and I hear noises but they have no connection. In the distance I can hear small arms fire and a drone overhead. There are people talking, but I don’t know what they are saying.
“Afraid so. Took out half the platoon. Mostly with minor injuries though. But this one took the full brunt of it.”
“Bastards. When did they bring her in?”
“About half an hour ago. Poor bitch. M.O. says she won’t make it through ’till morning. Mercifully, she’s unconscious now so won’t know what’s going on.”
And still it goes round and round and round. In a circle. In a loop.
We sit on the bench – our bench – by the statue of Robert Burns in Victoria Embankment Gardens. We always start our journey here; have done since we were kids. The very first time we came here, Rick said that the poet reminded him of our class teacher Mr Thomas.
Kit Samuels is a retired teacher who has lived and worked in London most of his life. Since joining the course, he has particularly enjoyed the playwriting module. He is currently working on a play for his final assessment about the development of radical socialism in North London at the start of the First World War.