Having recounted the past I can get to snippets of the present. Day 13 was the man with the van. He didn't speak English and I don't speak Slovenian but I can point in a variety of European languages and he was well versed in the concept of moving things, so it all went without a hitch.
I am constantly amazed by how much stuff one person can accumulate, so I'm going to be constantly amazed by a factor of four when Tat moves her stuff on Friday. I didn't know, for instance, that I own a carpet. I found it in a black bin liner under the bed. Frank and Sally lent it to me when they decided that my life didn't need a relationship but something once crafted by Axminster and Wilton. They didn't want it back. I put it in a bag and now it follows me like a hungry dog. It's now in the new house, in the bag, where it will remain until it finally dies or recovers and will once again be of value to society.
Day 14 began with multiple rings on the doorbell because I'd forgotten to reset my alarm to compensate for Tat's unnaturally early mornings. She was here to learn French, which she did with greater success than I managed with waking up. But after coffee I was almost human and it was a lovely start to the day. Marta, my landlady, caught a rare glimpse of her as she set off for work and she said how happy she looked. She does! It's so good to see. She's positively glowing.
Then it was Russian number two because Elena came for her English lesson. She said she'd miss this apartment because she feels relaxed. Sleepy is another way of putting it. I told her that she wouldn't feel quite so sleepy in the new house due to half the population of Moscow being in it.
I then set about organising some paperwork that I have to send to the UK and, it transpired, I needed a witness to my signature. Slovenia is a bit short on choices when it comes to UK-acceptable witnesses so I went into town to find a notary. It was like spring today, 18 degrees and cloudless, and after seeing Tat the day was looking to be perfect. I found the notary.
The two girls in the office spoke English and I explained that I needed a notary to witness my signature and they busied themselves with the task in hand. Then they took it all into the notary's office and he came out, wanted to see all of the forms and my passport and my ID card, looked them over, checked that I was, indeed, me, and did all the necessary stamping and whatnot. The girls then photocopied my rare and precious documents just in case they were lost at sea, tied the whole thing up in legal string, added a seal and stamped that too. I ended up with a very official-looking parcel.
"How much?" I asked after thanking them all profusely.
"The notary said no charge."
"Yes, it was no trouble."
"But the string! The little seal thing. The photocopies. The man himself coming out and organising it properly. And did I mention the string?"
I love this country. I don't speak their language, I ask them to speak mine, I ask them to solve my problems for me and they do it all with the most gracious and pleasant manner and then charge me nothing at all. Could the whole world be a little more Slovenian please?
I then went to the post office where I had the most pleasant chat with the girl who once again couldn't have tried harder to make sure my documents wouldn't get lost at sea, spoke wonderful English and generally did her part in making a great day better. So that was that. Forms, my least favourite part of being a human, were completed, signed, witnessed, the whole string thing, posted and done. And the sky was still blue and cloudless.
This evening my new landlord wrote to wish us the best of luck in our new life in his house, and then I went to see Joze and Marta to thank them for being brilliant landlords and wonderful people. They were always there when I needed them, and they left me alone when I didn't. They would bring me food, and always at a time when I was too busy to cook something and was nibbling on cheese. Marta works for my insurance company and over the past almost 2 years she's simply done it all for me, coming around with the paperwork whenever something needed renewing. I never had to remember. She did my remembering for me.
We had a nice evening and went out to see the full moon shining down from a cloudless sky. Slovenians are very much in touch with the moon, it seems. I heard one story of a woman who had a sick dog that needed an operation and the vet said it couldn't be done that day because it was a full moon, so he did it when it wasn't. I don't think vets in the UK consider the phase of the moon when scheduling surgery, but obviously some Slovenian vets do. Sick dogs or no, the moon looked so good that Joze went off and came back with a telescope! He told me when I first moved in that he had one and now, on the last day, I got to see craters. I even learned some Slovenian and we joked that we're doing everything on the last day.
The last day. Tat phoned and we chatted while she did her long journey back from Ljubljana. She is indeed as happy as she looked this morning and it's incredible to think that emails and chatting on the phone won't be our only lifeline. Tomorrow I pack my remaining things into the old green car and head off. But first I'm having my hair cut, because when you find a hairdresser in a foreign country who knows how you like it, it makes sense to stick with them for as long as possible. And then it's lunch with Joze and Marta and the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
The man with a van arrives tomorrow and I haven't packed a thing yet. Oh, yes I have. Six bottles of wine and a bottle of gin, which I did on day 1.
I don't have a great deal of stuff but I do have some things that are too big for the car, hence the van. He might as well take it all. I'll then be here for a day and a half and I can get down the to real job...documenting it in amusing daily snippets.
Which brings me back to the end of the past, if that isn't too tortuous a phrase.
Tat and I set off for the seaside to collect her Dad. We discussed the seating arrangements -- she drove down there, and I would drive back with her Dad in the passenger seat with Tat leaning in to interpret from the back seat.
We stopped when almost there to collect our thoughts. "It'll probably be a bit like a job interview," she said. Yikes. I haven't had one of those since about 1985 and I didn't get the job.
He was staying at a nice little apartment in Porteroz, and Tat went inside to ferry out his gear and I waited outside wondering what might happen. And then he appeared, a broad smile, hand outstretched before him and I thought wow, I like this man! I immediately felt comfortable. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I wasn't expecting such a positive greeting.
On the way back the interview began, and over the course of the next 90 minutes I answered questions such as "Can anyone interpret Dostoevsky or Shakespeare without reference to the Bible? Will Russians and the British ever be equal? What should be on every child's reading list? Why did English become such a dominant language? Why write books in the modern world?
I enjoyed it, I have to say, and when we got back here I invited them both inside for tea despite having only two cups. They sat on the balcony while I made tea and Tat said one of those things that makes me laugh and he laughed too, not because he understood it but I caught his expression. His daughter was laughing. With me. And it was good. Yes, he has opinions about how life should be and it's sometimes caused Tat some problems but at the end of the day all fathers want their kids to be happy. That trumps everything. When he left he shook me warmly by the hand and asked if he would have to learn English or will I learn Russian? That was a very positive comment, and later, Tat wrote to me and said, "You've got the job!"
Now she calls him my mate.
Later in the year her mum was finally granted her first passport and came to Slovenia. I met her, liked her, and all the pieces were in place. We were happy and good and all we needed now was to...well...do something about it!
She had been looking at house rental ads for over a year but there wasn't anything suitable. Price, size, location, all wrong. By the end of 2018 I thought we'd never crack that little problem and we'd trundle along for ever as we were, seeing each other twice a month. But at least we were solid and everyone knew what was going to happen. Sometime. Probably.
For simplicity, I had remained a kind of secret over the past 3 years. I didn't write about us. I didn't tell the world when we went to Venice, to Salzburg, to the Grand Hotel in Budapest, to my son's wedding, or even to Corfu where we went last summer. I wanted to, but I couldn't.
I certainly was a secret to the neighbours because people talk and the stories are never very accurate. One of those neighbours was Don, the man I went to see way back in the very first week of 2016. He used to live up a mountain but had sold his house and now lived within spitting distance with his adopted Slovenian family. Technically he was a neighbour and therefore couldn't be party to the tale. Now of course, he could, and at Christmas I told him all about it. He said he was pleased for me.
More than that, he actively threw himself into the house-hunting business. He has a Slovenian friend who manages properties and therefore has his ear very much to the ground. Don contacted him and he swooped into action and I ended up going to see the History Professor from Ljubljana University. He inherited a house and had been trying airbnb for a year but it was hassle and not much income. He thought maybe long-term tenants would be more cost-effective.
The house is near Bled, the tourist trap with a lake and castle and whatnot. It has four bedrooms and two bathrooms, a basement and garage and garden. It isn't perfectly decorated which means that he's happy for plenty of cosmetic changes to be made. The rent is good. All in all it seemed like exactly what we were looking for, apart from it being slightly too far away from the schools in Bistrica.
"I shall drive them!" I said, heroically. Well, maybe not so heroically because she works Monday to Friday and gets up at 5:30am for a long drive, while I mostly watch youtube and eat chocolate. I even told her that if we didn't do it this year I'd leave her for a younger woman. This was funny because there aren't any, but it worked. I said I loved the place and two days later Tat and her oldest daughter joined me for a viewing. There were lots of smiles and plans and excitement and all in all, this was going to be the place to begin what had started in a cow shed at Sabina's farm, then that magical moment in the bell tower on New Years' Eve, I had known then that she was the future.
I signed the contract. I move on Wednesday. Tat and the kids move on Saturday. Her parents arrive for a month too. I shall be in a house with six Russians, of whom only two and a half speak English.
That is why I want to write about this new phase of my life, because it's going to be unlike any phase yet (and there have been several). My life will be completely different and it cries out for daily updates! I shall start tomorrow. Today me and Tat went to Italy to IKEA and had a wonderful day, as we always do. We've been buying stuff for our home and it's all rather...lovely.
From here on out, it's live. I hope you tune in to see what life has in store for us.
Today was long and busy. Up early, lots of shopping, still work to do. I need to finish the past so I can get to the present.
On January 6th 2017 I arrived at the airport in London and met up with my first wife and her husband, and my daughter. I was expecting awkwardness and I was wrong. It was quite pleasant! The weather wasn't. It was flirting with snow and as we began to board I texted Tat to see how her journey was going and she was stuck in Warsaw. They had put them on the plane to Gdansk and removed them again because the snow was too bad. I panicked, thinking that I would have to make some dramatic dash to Warsaw, presumably by horse, to rescue her. I was then herded toward the plane and wouldn't know what was happening until I arrived.
When I arrived in Gdansk there she was, waiting for me next to the taxi driver who was holding up my name. She looked completely stunning. I'd told her to wear fur because my limited knowledge of Russians is that they wear fur in some world of permafrost. So she did. And she looked like a model. When I made eye contact with the taxi driver and he arranged himself to be my driver, I hugged Tat and he said said...and...??? looking at the woman who had been standing next to him. I nodded. He looked surprised.
We took a hotel in the old part of Gdansk for the night before the wedding and it was completely wonderful. A hotel picked at random can obviously be hit or miss and this one was in a snowy old square, bedecked with oak-panelled spleandour. We walked though the old town in the snow, still decked out for Christmas and it was all rather special.
In the morning we went by train to Sopot and to cut a long story short, the wedding was perfect and everyone treated Tat like a member of the family. Even David's mother told her she was glad I had her and to make me happy. We felt a bit strange because we didn't know what would happen after the wedding, but I appreciated the comment. All in all, it was a complete success and I was so grateful to her for being with me. I would have loved it anyway, but she made it so much better for me, personally.
A few days later I went with her to the airport and watched her disappear toward security and then, with a wave, she was gone. If I saw her again it wouldn't be for five months.
A week later I was on a plane to Bali with too many clothes for too many climates. I've written a few posts about my travels but never mentioned how much I missed her. I plodded my way from Bali to Kuala Lumpur, up through Malaysia by bus and boat and into Thailand, across to Cambodia and all the way down the country to eventually end up in Kuala Lumpur again. After five months of plodding, I was more than ready to return to Slovenia.
One story of my trip is worth mentioning. The long and miserable bus trip from Thailand to Cambodia was made more pleasant by sitting next to a large thoracic surgeon from somewhere in America. He and a friend were revisiting the area after being in the Vietnam War. The bus ride was about 13 hours so we had plenty of time for chatting. Mid-journey I told him about Tatiana and how I didn't know what would happen to us. We loved each other, we had Christmas and Poland, and now...I didn't know. He said he might tell me his story if he was up to it and if I was interested, and once we'd managed the awful "Getting into Cambodia" ordeal he finally did.
He had been with a woman for years but she lived in another state. They wrote a lot and saw each other when they could, and one day she said she was ready to live with him. He hesitated, mainly because it would have interfered with his work, and he decided that waiting another year would be best. After a year he realised that he couldn't live without her and said he was ready. They were excited and began making plans for the big move. One evening she went to the local store to buy cat food and it was robbed. She was shot dead.
He said he still can't get over it. He regrets the year that he could have had with her and now never will. He told me to go back to Slovenia and do anything I could -- anything -- to be with her, because we don't know what tomorrow will bring.
When I got back to Slovenia she was waiting for me at the airport and unlike the post-funeral occasion she was the girl I knew. Those five months had given everyone a chance to stand back and settle what needed to be settled. It was now official. She could see me whenever she wanted and her husband would do whatever he wanted too. Eventually it would all be resolved.
I found this place to live and Tat said she could come see me often now! Things were looking positive. What actually happened of course is that her husband got to do what he wanted more, and Tat had less time to do anything. We saw each other less and less, simply because life for her was now more difficult. But our communication was sound and solid and we made plans.
Her father still didn't want to embrace the idea of us, but when Tat went home for a week she sat talking about me with her mum and aunt, while her father busied himself in the kitchen. Apparently she made a joke about how I pronounce the composer Khachaturian and her father said "Okay, we get it, he's not a farmer!"
Her parents had invited the kids to stay with them for a month in the summer and so Tat returned to Slovenia and promptly came to stay with me. We had a whole month together, which seemed to involve incredible amounts of mountaineering. This is what I remember of that month. We got on incredibly well and climbed an awful lot of mountains.
But the year was largely quiet. We went on adventures when we could and we were in daily communication but Tat was eternally busy. Perhaps the quantity was less, but the quality was more.
And then it was 2018, the year that her father came to stay with them and something happened at home that I don't quite understand but he said, at last..."I want to meet Peter."
A man who used to work for the KGB, was a staunch supporter of the status quo and had grown in my mind as someone who would be very difficult, had decided it was time to see who this Englishman was. This was going to be not only interesting, but major. Tat's demons had always been rooted in the needs and wants of those around her and her parents were not a trivial part of that. His request to meet me was a major development.
He had been staying by the sea for a week, so I went with her to collect him. I was, I recall, a little nervous.
Today was a day of work and I made no progress toward my move on Wednesday. Things will start in earnest on Sunday.
Meanwhile, back in November 2016, I flew to England and stayed with my brother Tone and his wife Sharon. He helped me to find clothes suitable for a funeral and I told him about the situation with Tatiana. Tone and Sharon have had more than enough real, actual tragedy in their lives and yet they remain positive. Tone was generous enough to send some positivity my way.
"You haven't lost her," he told me while making one of his magnificent breakfasts.
"No, you haven't."
I went to the funeral, very conscious of the fact that Nick's wife and kids, his twin sister, his whole family were experiencing a sorrow I could barely imagine. It put my Victorian Romantic Poet sadness into perspective and I concentrated on the real and permanent loss of Nick being gone. He had done wonderful things in his life and I was proud to have known him, but he never travelled. He didn't want to and now he never would. I began thinking about the time we have left, and what we should be doing with it. I began to think about South East Asia again.
I was in England for a week and checked my emails constantly but the usual cheery messages were no longer coming. Tone reassured me, but with every email that wasn't there I pretty much decided they never would come again.
When I got back to Slovenia she was waiting for me at the airport and for a moment my heart sang and I thought that Tone was right. She was back. But it took only a minute to see that she wasn't. She was just picking me up. We had a coffee in Bled and I wasn't enjoying the experience very much because she had turned into a Stepford Wife. Not the remake, I hasten to add, but the original, dark, disturbing version where women were replaced by robots who said the right things at the right times. All hint of life was gone. She didn't seem too upset. She didn't seem too not upset either. She was just moving and saying things and it was almost as if the past year was no more than a collection of events that she could remember but which held no weight. I became angry, and by the time we reached the magic house I slammed the car door and told her that I'd bundle up any of her stuff and leave it out for her to collect. She drove off.
The reality was different of course. I couldn't see it then, but now I can. She was as hurt as I was. She had made a decision that she hated, but having made it, she was going to uphold it, no matter how hard it was. No histrionics. No drama. No...anything. A walking dead. I should have been a bigger and wiser man, but I wasn't.
Being in the Magic House and knowing she'd never return to it was more than I could stomach, so I decided to leave it at the end of December and go on my aborted travels. I was running away.
I sent an email to Tat after about a week and wanted to know what to do about her things. "Just throw them away," she said.
It wasn't long after that email that we wrote again. I honestly can't remember why, but it wasn't a deep and meaningful exchange, just fairly business-like. I said that I was going to South East Asia, and she thought that was a good idea. She had been pleased that I hadn't gone before, but also felt responsible for it. She also had some news. Our two attempts to go to England had failed for one reason or another and the visas ran out the day after Christmas, so she and her daughter had decided to go.
Once again I was upset. It was going to be our trip. I was going to show them the land of my birth, to drive them around and introduce her to my family. It was going to be wonderful, and now they were going without me. I swallowed that bitter feeling and asked how she would feel if I came too, just as friend. I had been looking forward to it more than she had, I think.
She said that, to be honest, she had only told me because she had hoped I would want to join them. We could have Christmas together. It seemed like a nice way to end an incredible year. I agreed.
"I think that you should come here and collect your things first," I said. "I want to know that we are okay enough to do this. It would be awful if we weren't."
And so she came, for the last time, to the Magic House. I made her coffee and we sat at the table and we talked. That's how I know how she really felt. That's when I got my first real insight into her life before, and the choices she'd had to make now. The girl I knew appeared, albeit briefly, as if afraid of what she might find, and disappeared back again. We had a plan. This incredible year would end with Christmas in London.
We took separate planes to England because life was complex enough, and I met them at Stanstead. Off we set for London, her 14 year-old daughter's first trip to England, and we had a hotel about half an hour's tube trip from the centre. The ladies had a room downstairs and I had a room upstairs. On that first day Tat had to work via Skype, so I took her daughter into the city for sightseeing. I didn't know her and wasn't sure how good her English was. The last time I'd seen her was up in the bell tower on New Year's Eve.
We began in Trafalgar Square and then the houses of Parliament and she took a thousand photos and then we discovered...Oxford Street. Now we're talking. Lights and shops and street performers and everything a girl could want. On the tube I nearly lost her in the crush and our hands had to reach over commuters when it was time to get out. I was not about to lose Tat's daughter!
We were gone for hours and when we got back we did a spontaneous high five in the corridor. She may have loved the shops and the lights, but the high five I will always remember. It went very well indeed. A few hours later a tired Tat came to my room, absolutely beaming. "She had a great time!" she said.
It was a wonderful week. We got tickets to a pantomime, because you have to show foreigners a panto, and that turned out to be a great success. We went on a boat trip up the river and got a guided tour of London, even a Harry Potter walk and photos on the famous platform 9 and three quarters at King's Cross. We had Christmas dinner in a wonderful old pub in the West End, which was perhaps the most expensive but most memorable Christmas dinner I've ever had. Tat would come to my room when her daughter was settled. We were in love with each other. We had always enjoyed every moment together. We just didn't know what to do with that knowledge.
On Boxing day, they flew back to Slovenia and I went back to my brother's house. I wasn't sure if I'd ever see her again.
My son David had obviously learned to ski so well that year that when he asked his girlfriend to marry him she had said yes. She's Polish and the wedding was planned for January 7th in snowy Sopot on the coast near Gdansk. My packing for this trip was therefore fairly complex. I had given up the Magic House and packed for Christmas in London, a wedding in Snowy Poland, to be followed immediately by five months in the tropics, flying out of Heathrow. I was trying to repack my things in my brother's living room when I got a phone call. SPY.
"Do you still want me to come to the wedding?"
I could hardly breathe. It had been a running joke. I'd asked her long ago if she'd be my date to my son's wedding and she had said she'd love to! But that was so far in the past it was only the audacity of youth that caused me to ask. It was never actually going to happen, but oh how I wished it would.
"YES!" I said.
"Okay. I'll be there."
I ran back to wherever my brother was. "Guess who's going to be my date to David's wedding!"
"I TOLD you it wasn't the end."
He did, and I began to think he was right. Tatiana and I had often laughed at the notion of her being my plus one. How would David's mother -- for years happily married to a farmer and living a good life and probably quite cheerful that I was living alone in exile -- how would she react to me arriving at the wedding with a beautiful girl who is only 18 months older than my son? Would she have some kind of fit?
It was time to find out.
Today has seen my cardboard box collection grow to an impressive size, and yet more work came in. I'm starting to hyperventilate. Once you tell people you'll be out of action for a few days it comes in from all directions. I am, however, available to continue the saga.
About four months before the bell tower on New Year's Eve, I'd hatched a cunning plan. I love winter in Slovenia because it's like Narnia and you can go skiing. The summers, well, not so much. It's beautiful and there are lakes for swimming, but most of the entertainment is based on exercise and walking alone isn't so much fun. So I thought I'd make Slovenia my home but spend several months a year living somewhere else in the summer. I thought of Spain or Greece, but saw an article on the BBC about digital nomads in Bali and plumped for that. I quite fancied sitting in a wicker hut for the summer swatting flies or whatever Balinese people do. Then it transpired that you can only stay there for a month and my 6-month trip morphed into a different plan -- to yomp along the back-packer route of South East Asia, presumably in dreadlocks.
As time went on I became less enchanted with the idea, and then I fell in love.
When I got back from that incredible weekend in Venice I had only a couple of weeks before my flight. I wouldn't return until October. October! I had told everyone that I was going and somehow felt morally obliged to see it through, but I preferred the idea of seeing Tatiana.
As it turned out, I was meant to go take care of a dog for a week and when I got there, the house had no electricity. Puzzled by this, I set off to find an English couple who lived nearby. Ralph gave me coffee and set about trying to solve the missing electricity problem.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "You look a bit ill."
"Yeah, I'm okay."
"Hmmm. You don't look it."
I wondered whether I should tell him. It was a secret but after some thought I decided that I needed help. I reached into my bag and pulled up a picture of Tat that was hidden in my tablet. She had sent me this some time back and it was, I have to admit, quite stunning. It was a portrait taken professionally at a time in Russia when "she needed to feel better about herself." I took that to mean that she was having a hard time. I showed him the photo.
"Wow!" he said. "Who's this?"
I told him that I had just spent a perfect weekend in Venice with this young lady and I was soon to go off to the jungle for 6 months, and I really didn't want to go.
"Then don't go," he said.
Was it really that simple?
"But I have nowhere to live. I gave up my apartment to go travelling."
"One of our holiday apartments is empty. You can have it for a month or so. Find somewhere else to live."
And so that was that. I was now going to live in another village. Bohinjska Bistrica and the church and the cow shed, that was all behind me now. And what of Tat? What would she make of this decision?
I called her and said that we needed to talk.
"Tore it up?
"You tore up your tickets to Bali?"
I asked her if she was okay, and she didn't look happy, but she also didn't look sad.
"I have to say, I'm pleased that you're not going, but I also think you should have gone. You should just do what you think is right, for you. I was going to miss you though."
I explained to her that it wasn't because I was expecting something in return. Ralph didn't believe this but actually it was true. I have no reason to lie about such things. Yes, getting something in return would have been nice, but my main reason was that I knew, with absolute certainty, that as soon as the plane started moving down the runway I would have wanted to get off. I would have been the crazy passenger who tries to open the door as the thing was leaving the ground. I would have been tasered and banned from anything with wings. I would have been arrested. It would have been a huge mistake, so I tore up the tickets. I had no idea what would happen next in this story, but I really wanted to find out.
What happened was a glorious summer. After Ralph's apartment I found the Magic House, a place built almost into a rock face with home-made wooden furniture and murals of flying cats in the bedroom and stuffed owls and witches heads and it appeared to have been created from the febrile imagination of the Brothers Grimm. It was indeed something from a fairy tale and Tatiana would visit me regularly and that golden summer was ours. It was our house. We were Hansel and Gretel.
And not just us. We'd go swimming in the lake with the her two younger children, or they would bounce for hours on the trampoline down at the camp site. I went to several of her son's ice-hockey matches. Tat enjoyed the company of an another adult while entertaining the kids and it was extra time to be together. At one point her father came to stay with them, a man who always made Tatiana slightly low because of his strong ex-Soviet insistence that family was the bedrock of society and nothing, certainly not unhappiness, should jeopardize it. She had told her mother about me and her mother was at first understanding and then almost quite positive, but she hadn't told her father and neither had her mother. During his visit Tat's youngest daughter was telling her grandfather what she had been doing all day. "We went to see a man!" she said excitedly.
"Oh?" he said, less excitedly.
One day, while sunbathing in the garden of the Magic House, I asked her if she had told her father of the life she had lead. "No," was her reply.
Tatiana doesn't tell people things. She made her bed and she would lie in it, partly because of her upbringing and partly because of her character. Sometimes I wondered if this wonderful romance would end because of upbringing and character and the fact that she had no allies other than her aunt would finally condemn her to the inevitable. I told her to tell him, and after some thought she picked up the phone and called Russia. I heard "Russian Russian Russian Russian Russian...Pete...Russian Russian Russian..."
The cat was out of the bag in the halls of the ex Soviet Empire, and on his next visit she did tell him about her life.
"How was he?" I asked.
"Quiet," she said.
One plan we had that summer was for me and Tat and her eldest daughter to go to England. Tat had been to London many times on business trips but had never seen the outside of hotels and conference rooms. She wanted to see the country and I wanted to show it to her. To them. Her daughter was incredibly excited. They applied for visas and after a small fortune and 6 weeks, we had the paperwork.
Two weeks before our trip, Tat's school friend died of cancer and she had promised her, before leaving Russia, that she would make sure her two little daughters were okay. So Tat flew to Moscow and I went to England alone. While I was there I visited my old school friend, Nick, a man who I had always admired and he was the incarnation of my childhood. The day I met him turned out to be his birthday and I had lunch with him and his wife Liz in a wonderful pub. It was an unforgettable day.
On my return, Tat had airlifted the two children from Moscow and was spending a month giving them some mountain air while things were resolved back at their home.
When we attempted a second try for England, Tat's car died and cost her 5,000 euros. We couldn't go. Her daughter decided the England trip was cursed.
In November I woke up one morning thinking about Nick. I had promised to keep in touch and he had promised to keep in touch but neither of us had written since August when I saw him on his birthday. I got out of bed thinking that I should write, and when I looked at my emails there was one from his wife Liz. Nick had died of cancer. I was devastated. In August he had been well. Now he was gone and a big part of my youth gone with him. He was a fine man, and an inspiration.
I bought a ticket to England to be at the funeral and Tat came to see me at the magic house. We had a lovely day and she said she would return in the morning to take me to the airport. When she left, she looked different. She looked...content. Some internal fight that she'd been having for almost a year had finally been won. She was a different person; stronger, more in control of the storms that battered her. She looked at peace and I remember still how she looked as she blew me a kiss from the car, heading back to her other life. Something had been resolved inside of her.
The next morning I went down to the small car park and instead of her being her usual five minutes late, she was parked there. As soon as I saw her, I knew it was all over. She was white, cold, empty. I don't think she had had any sleep at all.
She truly had been different the day before, not just full of life but full of hope too. She had fought those demons and she had won. She had left the magic house with a song in her heart and a clear road ahead of her. She had gone home and told her husband about us, but after a long night she was empty and defeated. Gone were the dreams, the plans, the whole idea of a new life. Just as Celia Johnson had discovered in Brief Encounter, those dreams are foolish. The walls are too high. She told me that she hadn't chosen between me and him. She had chosen me a long time ago. But in the end, what do choices matter.
We drove to the airport mostly in silence, and I flew off to England to say a final goodbye to my old friend.
I am one week away from moving. After a very slow year, work is coming in at an alarming rate and all the jobs are difficult. I'm getting it done but soon I'll be packing and then trying to set up an office somewhere else. Why does all the work have to come in now?!
I have put it away for the evening and at last, I can continue my quest to tell a tale I've been wanting to tell for three years. The posts are getting longer because there is much to tell and so little time to tell it.
I had just got a text, the first ever, and it came from the Gods via the hand of a girl who hadn't left my mind for almost a month.
The Trypich is a hotel in Bohinjska Bistrica which has a nice restaurant and bar. It's popular with locals and another very public, very non-furtive place to have a beer. I decided en-route that coffee might be more sensible. Second chances and alcohol don't mix.
I pulled open the big heavy door and headed right, away from the restaurant and to where tea might be drunk. I saw her in the corner behind a tea pot, and three years later I can remember how she looked. Beautiful, with a top with sleeves that covered her hands like a young model. I said hello and she poured some tea and the waitress asked me what I wanted and I said beer. I needed beer. I was in the presence of someone other-worldly and nerves needed to be calmed, not caffeinated.
This was the first time I had seen her in weeks, but we had been exchanging emails about life. In those emails I had asked if we could have coffee some time, but she had always said no. Writing was okay, but coffee wasn't. I said that I had coffee with Sabina all the time, but she didn't fall for that. "You know this is not the same as Sabina," she had said, and I had gone into a tailspin of incredulity. Chaucer Level Two had not been lost on her.
So why now? Why the heart-stopping First Text?
She explained that she had some translation work -- from Russian to English -- and she wondered if I might help polish the final work. She had told her husband and so this was all legal and above-board. We would meet in the Trypich, chaperoned by a laptop, in full view of the good people of Bohinjska Bistrica. I loved this plan and I felt that she did too. No longer would I wonder if I'd ever see her again. All I needed to do was tweak her already perfect English and gaze at her whenever things Russian had to become things English. Thank you Universe.
And so it began. Her with her tea pot and me with my beer, adding definite and indefinite articles whenever she lapsed into the Russian habit of never using either of them, which wasn't very often. She had been a translator for a time, before working in the oil industry. She had been sent all over the globe and had been in Saddam Hussein's palace. Her English is incredibly good and that made me even happier. She didn't need me to make her work shine.
Once or twice we met and she didn't bring any translations at all. "I was lazy," she said. But still, she was there.
Some weeks later she texted me to say that she was in Bled after taking her son to ice-hockey and had 90 minutes to wait. I met her by the lake and we walked for an hour in that beautiful place. That was the first time I realised how funny she is. It's not easy being funny in a second language. It was a good walk and with each meeting, we felt more and more comfortable.
Soon after that we went for a walk in snowy Bistrica and I said something stupid. I don't remember what it was, but she was upset and decided to cut the walk short. For the first time I saw her when she wasn't smiling. I caught up with her and we spoke some more and found ourselves near the church. And then a car drove up, slowed down, and the window in the back lowered. It was her husband and three men going to a bar near the railway station. He said hello to me, spoke to her in Russian and the car sped off. I asked her what he said and apparently it was just about what time he might be back. There was nothing about me, or her, or the fact that we were out for a walk together. I put that away, mentally, for further analysis. It didn't make Tatiana any happier and we parted ways.
It only took one email to get us back. She told me why it had upset her and I understood. It wouldn't be the first time I upset her, or that she upset me, but we always found a way to solve it.
Winter in this part of the world means skiing, and while I'm terrible at it, I do enjoy it. My son David came out in February to learn how to ski because his girlfriend can, and he can't. When he was here I found myself dropping Tatiana's name into conversations and tried hard to stop doing it, but she was always foremost in my mind. David was so determined to learn how to ski that he came out three times, and toward the end of the season, in April, he arrived at the same time as Tatiana's aunt.
Her aunt can ski, obviously, so we hatched a plan for all four of us to be on the slopes at the same time. David and I weren't as good as the Russian ladies so we arranged to meet for coffee up on the piste. The coffee place was busy so we sat outside, me next to my son and Tatiana next her her aunt and we chatted for a while. I was so glad David was meeting her. I hadn't told him anything, not that there was anything to tell except coffee and emails and walks, but it was obvious that every other conversation included her name.
After a short while we moved inside when a table became vacant and this time, I sat next to Tatiana, facing our nearest and dearest. I remember very clearly her aunt looking at me, and then at Tatiana, and then at me again. Finally a pair of very clear, very intelligent Russian eyes fixed on me and she almost nodded, sagely, the way Presidents probably do when making a decision with global ramifications. I wondered what she might say.
"Would you like to visit Moscow?" she asked.
"Yes. Very much."
Another slow Presidential nod.
"Then I will help arrange the paperwork."
A wise woman indeed.
The ladies left and my son, with a hint of incredulity in his voice, said, "Er...Dad...Tatiana is really attractive." He said this as though I had decided to walk to Algeria and might not realise how far it is.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me or my incredulous son, Tatiana was having a perfect day out on the snow. She told her aunt how happy she was with the mountains and the life in Slovenia and all things Slovenian and how lucky she was to be having this life and...
Her aunt, apparently, told her that it wasn't just mountains that was making her happy. It was that man. And it was so good to see her happy.
Maybe Tat knew that, maybe she didn't, but something happened during her aunt's visit and on the day that David flew back to England she sent me a photo of herself and her aunt on a ski lift and she said...I have an idea, and I think you'll like it."
I had watched Brief Encounter over and over again during the first week of January. I had seen poor Celia Johnson looking miserable when the chance of a new and exciting life had ended, as it always would. But in the telling of her story she had looked incredibly happy, talking of all the mad things she would do in this new life:
I saw us in Paris,
in a box at the opera.
The orchestra was tuning up.
Then we were in Venice, drifting along
the Grand Canal in a gondola...
with the sound of mandolins
coming to us over the water.
I saw us traveling
far away together,
all the places
I've always longed to go.
I saw us leaning on the rail of a ship,
looking at the sea and stars,
standing on a tropical beach
in the moonlight...
with the palm trees
sighing above us.
Celia Johnson could only imagine such things, because life was a trap from which she could never escape. I cannot speak about Tat's life. It would be wrong of me to do so, but duty and upbringing and society and a sense of right and wrong, love for others, responsibility and that stoic Russian character can still trap us into corners from which there seems no escape. Celia Johnson could only dream, but with an aunt who can surely stop the sky from falling down, some dreams can come true.
A few weeks later we were floating down the Grand Canal in Venice, with two days stretching away ahead of us. She had gone from a far-off impossibility to the most important aspect of my life, and for some reason I knew it would happen. In a blinding moment of absolute clarity in the first second of the first day of the year, I knew it. I couldn't explain it and the water taxi on the Grand Canal was surreal. We hadn't held hands, she had refused to hold my hand, and now there we were, arms wrapped around each other as the majestic buildings floated past and who knew what lying ahead of us.
Fun and romance aside, there was a very grown-up necessity for us to find out what we were doing and why we were doing it. She needed to know if this was real, because the sky would surely fall in, and was I man enough to protect her and her children if it did? She needed to know if I was serious, because you don't make jokes about such things.
I wasn't joking. And we had the best weekend ever.
It was when we got back that life shifted for me. It was my turn to think deeply about what was going to happen. We went to Venice by train, with me catching the train a little further up the track so we weren't both seen by the good people of Bistrica travelling together. So she got off at Bistrica and I watched her go, returning to a life of which I knew very little. At the beginning of the weekend I thought it was incredible that she was getting on the train at all, to be with me. Now it seemed incredible that she was getting off the train to not be with me.
And my other problem? In ten days I was going to catch a plane to Bali and I wouldn't return for six months. I had arranged it long before the bell tower. I had my tickets. I had rooms booked. I even had a flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur to satisfy Indonesian immigration that I would leave. I had known her for four months and I was about to leave for six. I didn't want to go.
Here we are, seven days since I signed a contract for a new place to live. Most of the activity so far has been seeing new people visit what has been my home for 18 months, and discovering that I had six bottles of wine and some gin. There's been some shopping and the arrangement of a man with a van for next Monday, but mainly it's been waiting, working, and trying to get you up to speed.
So without further ado, we last found me trying to use a pen and waiting for the next day, when the girl in my head would be the girl in the coffee shop.
The Ronda Bar was half full. I pretended to read my book, looked again at my handwritten note and wished it was more clear. She's Russian. I'm English. I wrote the inscription and even I could barely make out what it said.
It was five minutes past noon. She wasn't coming. I sipped my coffee. People looked at me as though I were a man waiting for a married woman who had become the world and all that's in it. I was so glad I was in a place that no furtive couple would ever choose; it gave me the strength to wait. I picked up the book again and through the window, there she was.
There she was.
She walked with a determined stride toward the cafe, unravelling a scarf in preparation for the warmth of a coffee bar.
I want to tell you how I felt at that moment, and I've been thinking about my choice of words but there seem to be too many, or too few. I was excited, naturally, but also there was a strange calm. She was real. That is a strange thing to say but it's oddly true. The image of her in the bell tower had morphed into some kind of total immersive experience. To see her walking toward the cafe made her the girl I admired from afar once again, the girl in the cow shed, the girl on the bike, and that was such a relief. But it was also her. HER. The-Girl-In-My-Head. And she was coming to this cafe specifically to see me. ME. It was surreal and exciting, calming and good. So many things.
She entered, I stood, she smiled that smile, we said hello, she took off her coat, settled, ordered coffee, asked if I'd been waiting long, caught sight of the book, smiled again and something passed between us that said this wasn't just about the book. There had been emails. Contact. Hints. Geoffrey Chaucer and his magnificent seven levels.
A little small talk and coffee and when she looked again at the book I slid it toward her. She grinned.
"Did you do the cover too?"
She flipped it open to read what I had written.
Who lit up the sky,
And caused all the bells to ring.
She flipped the pages, closed it, squared it up in front of her and ran her hands over the cover as though it was something more than a book. Her smile made me happy.
And then Don arrived!!!
Don arrived with the daughter of his adopted Slovenian family and they sat in the seats right next to us. Don, the man to whom I had so recently poured out my feelings and sworn to secrecy. Don, the man who did not know the secret identity of the woman who had so completely dominated my every waking moment. Don. In the seat. Next to me. A foot away. Don, the man who had told me to enjoy the memory and walk away.
"Hello," he said. He took a look at my coffee companion and was good enough not to say Aha! I know exactly how he feels about you! He's head over heels in love with you! I know. He walked up a mountain in the middle of winter to tell me and didn't sit down even when eating dinner.
No, Don the Gentleman smiled politely and left us to talk, awkwardly, not two feet away. I cannot tell you what we spoke about in the remaining 20 minutes because I felt supremely awkward. I do remember when Tatiana said she had to be home to make lunch for the kids and I went pay the bill while she put on her coat. On my return she was chatting to Don and I introduced them properly before we made our escape.
Tatiana had to go into the post office so I stood outside and waited for her. Don came over while I waited and said, "I assume that's the lady in question?"
"It is," I said, simply.
Then I walked her home.
I'm not sure if I had decided previously to do this, but I had a burning desire to tell her how I felt. I hadn't done so in an email because we were still on Chaucer Level Two and dancing around any mention of feelings, but I was worried that I would never see her again, would never mention such things in an email. The word "never" loomed large on my horizon. I was convinced that this cup of coffee -- her acceptance of my book -- was a form of closure for her or worse still, an apology. A wrapping up of whatever that moment in the bell tower was. It was a small kindness on her part, and this would be my only chance.
She was quiet as we walked. I told her that the opera invitation was never meant to be anything other than wanting to go with the most incredible person possible. To be there with someone I was proud to sit next to. It was never meant to be an overture for something more. But the bell tower? That moment in the bell tower? I hadn't recovered and it was likely I wouldn't recover from it for a long time. The book was just about seeing her again.
We got to her house and she smiled, said goodbye, apologized for not having more time, and I walked home.
January was a long month. I hadn't kissed her on New Year's Eve because something far more important was at stake. I was certain of it at the time. I don't know why, but I was certain. To kiss her would mean the story would end, right there, right then. Now I wasn't so sure about my premonition. The month dragged on without bells or fireworks. The church glared at me from my one window. Mocking. A constant reminder that I had been given one chance and I'd blown it.
She wrote to say she'd been offered a job in Ljubljana dealing with private planes for the uber-rich. I wrote back to congratulate her, but my undocumented reaction was that now I would never see her. When she spent all day in the same village I hardly saw her. Now she would be in the city, surrounded by tall dark handsome sophisticated uber-rich city types. I had no clothes. These people had private jets. I had lost her.
Could I just go back in time please?
I sat on my balcony, looked at the church, and made a wish. This wasn't just a throwaway casual wish, you understand. This was a massive full-throttle give it everything you have wish. I put everything I had into it. Every thought I'd ever had about her, every emotion, every regret, every desperate yearning and what-if and why-didn't-I and this-girl-is-the-world-and-all-that's-in-it desperate certainty went into it. I asked to turn back time. I wanted as I've never wanted anything to be back up that bell tower and change things. I wanted that moment again with a life-threatening desperation. Up the bell tower I had seen the future, and the future was clear. Now it was growing thin and uncertain as if she were a boat drifting slowly away. I wished for a chance to start again.
I gave it all I had. All I had.
A few days later, on January 27th, in the middle of a chatty email about her first day at work, she wrote:
"I've found out that I don't have your phone number. I have your brother Frank's but not yours. They approached me once saying someone had told them we were looking for a house to buy (but we weren't). Lots of people want me to either sell or buy their property simply because I'm Russian! It's good that you don't have a house to sell. But it isn't good that I don't have your phone number."
I put hers in my phone for the first time ever, under the name of "Spy." I never thought it would ring. About four days later it made the noise it makes when a text comes in and I assumed it was Sabina. It said "Spy" and I literally yelped.
"I'm drinking tea at the Trypich if you'd like to join me."
The Universe hadn't given up on this. I had asked, and I had received. Cartoon-like, I was out the door and heading toward my second chance.
The days are slipping past quickly, it seems. Marta has helped me by finding a man with a van and he'll be here next Monday. A week! And then two days later I'll be there. I spent today driving to Ljubljana in search of a desk, then working. It is the calm before the storm.
In the flashback, just over three years ago, I had made nocturnal contact with Tatiana's email address and sent it off to do its thing in the ether. I went to bed feeling like someone else had done it. I had been so determined not to, had undergone miles of frost-bitten walks, had suffered like someone going cold-turkey. And then, without a moment's hesitation, I simply wrote to her. To HER.
I woke up the next morning afraid of what I might find. I avoided the PC as though last night we had had an argument. I didn't look at it and I didn't want it to look at me.
Would I get a simple no? I doubted it. She's too polite for that. But negative, especially harsh negatives, contain coded information, right? I mean, we are polite to people we don't care about. A “No”, would, in fact, tell me something about how she feels.
Would a I get a simple, “Yes, send me an e-book”? That, I decided, would be the worst reply. Cheerful, unconcerned, forgotten about it perhaps, thanks for reminding me and I'll read it when I have time, have a nice day. How awful would that be?
Would there be no reply at all? What would that mean?
CHECK YOUR GODDAM EMAILS PETER!!!!
I mean, all I'd done was ask if she wanted to read my novel. She had no idea that I'd gone insane and therefore she wouldn't read anything into it. Nothing to be afraid of. Really.
I made coffee and thought of going for a walk. I wished I hadn't sent the email. I wished emails were only one way, like giving money to homeless people, or hitting send was a purely therapeutic exercise with no real consequences. Unfortunately emails get replies and replies can be quite terrifying when the words were typed by someone who had consumed you for a week. When you had thought about nothing else and immersed yourself in Rachmaninoff and Celia Johnson looking sad.
I sat down, brought up the screen, clicked the email window and prepared to die. Bomb disposal experts are less gentle than I was with the mouse. I looked. Dear God, she had actually written back.
Pete, of course I would!!!!!
I even seem to have found where to order from your website. I was just thinking whether I should try to find my kindle (I haven't seen it since we moved here) or give up with kindle and order a paperback when I got your e-mail. Probably paperback is better because I can ask you for an autograph then:)
I was a bit ill after the New Year but almost ok now.
Please take care of yourself. Sleep is important. It sounds so commonplace, sorry:)
Is it possible to wear an email thin by reading it too often? Is it possible to stand up and sit down at the same time? Can typed words really affect a grown man so much? There was relief, euphoria, disbelief, chest pains, something akin to malaria, new cups of coffee before old ones were drunk, the extraordinary feeling that an image in my head was made real by written words, that she wasn't a mental aberration but that girl I remember in the bell tower, now typing in the cold light of sober day. Real. Wonderful. Terrifying.
I replied and the girl of my dreams wasn't just in my dreams but took on form enough to type emails. Those emails were careful and polite and contained the slightest hint of...something. I was careful not to read too much into the...something. The English language is capable of great nuance and is akin to drawing faces. A tiny change can alter the mood, the tone, the expression. She is Russian and I had to remember that. But ignoring the actual words for a moment, I was enthralled by the idea that she had sat down in some unknown room and, however briefly, was thinking about me and putting words to her thoughts and hitting send.
I didn't want her to buy my book, I know that. She shouldn't spend money on this desperate need of mine to see her again. I didn't want to email her a digital version because the next time she had reason to write would be when she'd read it, if indeed she ever did.
We established that she likes turning the pages of a real book. We established that I had a copy, safely hidden away unread and probably covered in flower and doodles and macaroni sculptures in Sabina's kid-filled farmhouse kitchen. We established that I should retrieve the book and would hand it over in person. Spy-like, she chose a cafe in the busiest part of the village where anyone who is awake and mobile would undoubtedly be. The Ronda Bar, next to the checkout of the madly busy Mercator supermarket, was a good choice. If you want to meet someone, you'll find them there. If you want to give the impression that all you are doing is making idle chit-chat, you meet them there. Nothing underhand, immoral, furtive or prone to misunderstanding would happen at the Ronda Bar in the middle of the day. John Le Carre, author of numerous high-quality spy novels and a former spy himself, would have chosen just such a place.
She said no more than, "How about the cafe at Mercator?"
Spy-like? Or was it really just interest in my novel and a chance to get out and drink coffee?
I didn't know, so I read into it what I wanted to read into it. We would be hidden in plain sight. Spy-like.
My book was indeed buried under piles of Sabina-kid and cooking stuff, and I lied pretty unconvincingly that Tatiana wondered about the offer to read it. Sabina, Swedish, permanently busy, energetic and talkative, simply dug out the only copy of my only novel and didn't care one little bit about what I intended doing with it. She chose instead to tell me that her house nearly burn down.
"After we left on New Year's Eve," she said.
What shall I write in my book when I give it to her?
"I woke up, maybe four in the morning..."
Should I write something friendly or romantic?
"And I went to the house to find it on fire!"
Romantic seems like a good idea.
"I called the fire fighters and four engines turned up!"
Although romantic might be a terrible idea. I'd like to have coffee more than once, after all.
"They said if I hadn't woken up and called them when I did there'd be no house left and all the cows would have died."
No, I'll go for romantic. This might be my only chance. I looked around the fire damage and left, already thinking what I'd write in my one and only novel. Geoffrey Chaucer came to mind.
In our brief email exchange, I had mentioned that some things I wrote were a bit..Geoffrey Chaucer.
There is an old English author called Geoffrey Chaucer, sometimes called the father of English literature. Those who study such things refer to "The seven levels of Chaucer." His stories can be read as one thing, but dig deeper and you find something else; a whole new meaning. To write on seven levels is impossible. So far with Tatiana I was managing two.
She already knew I was hinting at something in my polite emails and she liked the idea of writing on more than one level. She had read Chaucer, of course. So I decided to blame any romantic inscription on him, partly in case she hated it, and partly in case someone stumbled upon the book and wondered what it all meant.
I have not used a pen since Jimmy Carter was the US President and on those rare occasions when I have to sign my name I get it wrong. So I practiced. I had only one book and only one page to write on, so it had to go well first time. I still have the practice pages. Eventually, when I was confident that my penmanship didn't look like the EEG of an epileptic I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and wrote an inscription in my book to the girl who had not left my thoughts since the first second of the first day of that year. I was going to see her for the first time since the bell tower at noon the next day.
Day five has been one of work, of chatting with Joze, of greeting another couple coming to visit the apartment and of thinking about this next post. Things will be easier soon, as far as this blog is concerned. I'll be on a roll. But it's important to me to document what happened over the past few years and to do that now, before the real job begins of telling you how a new life feels.
This part is difficult, for many reasons. I haven't told you about my life. Not really. I have been chatting about this and that in sporadic blog posts while more profound things were happening. Now is the time to write about them without my usual need to make light of everything. I realise that I'm going to write about someone else's actions without giving you their side of things, but I will. I have to out of fairness. So keep reading and all will be revealed.
Twas New Year's Eve...
After talking to Tatiana and her husband in the hallway we went into the living room and joined in the festivities. It was a full table and I remember very clearly that Tatiana sat next to me. It felt like the opera that never was, sitting next to each other with a chorus of food and children and farmers and booze, the libretto written in Slovenian and Russian. For me, I couldn't imagine anything better. But then something better did happen. Matea arrived and told me he was ringing the bells in the church for New Year. I asked if I could go and he said of course. And Tatiana asked if she could go too, and no opera has been written to match it.
When I wrote The Refreshment Room at Milford Junction I made it all about the bells and the fireworks and New Year, but really it was about doing something wonderful in the company of someone wonderful. We were a select group of slightly drunken explorers in that church, finding our way through the darkness and up a tight little wooden staircase to the belfry. My surprise at being in a house full of people with Tatiana now became amazement that I was with her and only five or six other people in a place I never thought I'd see. The bells are huge and loud and they make you feel insignificant. The floor shakes. The walls shake. People are herded together.
As the clock struck midnight Matea opened a bottle of bubbly and handed us plastic cups. He filled them and then, time-zones aside, he did what every man in the world was doing at that moment. He was going to try to kiss the most beautiful woman in the room. He kissed her on her left cheek, and then on her right cheek, and when he went for the real kiss she froze in polite horror. Inwardly I smiled at her reaction and looked to the floor, while Matea wandered off, bottle in hand, with a "Well, I tried!" sense of disappointment. I liked her stoic resistance.
And when I looked up, she was looking at me. The bells were ringing and the sky was full of fireworks and everyone was cheering and wishing each other happy new year and all I knew was that the only person who had any affect on me was standing there, looking at me as if wondering what might happen next...
...and I knew exactly what to do. It was a blinding moment of absolute clarity, and I mean total and absolute clarity, quite unlike me. If I tried to kiss her I would be another Matea, another drunk man on New Year's Eve trying to steal something he could blame on the occasion. There would be no opera. There would be nothing. Ever. And for some reason I cannot explain, I knew the risk was far too great.
So I looked at her and hoped it said that I want to, but I'm not going to, and eventually she said, "I think it's time to go."
We found her daughter and the three of us set off down the tiny staircase and through the dark church. On the road back we linked arms and I sang Auld Lang Syne. We broke formation and stopped singing as we neared the farmhouse, where I stood outside with some others and watched Tatiana disappear inside the house. I went in to see if she was okay but couldn't find her. Soon afterwards the family had bundled up their things and gone home, unseen by me.
It was nearing five am when I got home and I couldn't sleep. The next day I couldn't concentrate on anything except that look, and found myself going for long walks in the snow just to prevent some kind of insanity. I walked for miles. What did it mean? Nothing. Why? She was drunk. What should I do? Nothing. But I'm going mad! Tough. Did she want me to kiss her, or was she simply wondering why I invited her to the opera? I...don't....know! She was probably just drunk and in one of the most romantic settings ever. So I walked some more. For days on end. In the snow.
I wrote the Refreshment Room at Milford Junction on January 2nd, after two days of thinking of nothing but one brief encounter. You may or may not know that the film Brief Encounter is set largely in the refreshment room at Milford Junction. I watched the film over and over again because I turn to Rachmaninoff in times of crisis (his second piano concerto is used for the film music) and poor Celia Johnson is utterly miserable and confused over just such a situation. She says:
"This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days."
Poor Celia. And so terribly terribly English. But my heart went out to her.
The only view from my apartment was the church, looking directly at the window where Tatiana had turned my world upside down. Brief Encounter became the theme to my life and it came out in the blog post. Honestly, I have no reason to lie to you, I was turned inside out by one look.
After four days of madness I walked a few miles up into the mountains where I knew that Don would be sitting alone amid a pile of books and I needed to talk to someone. He gave me dinner and said that I'd had a very pleasant evening, and that was that. Enjoy the memory and then get on with life. I agreed.
Tatiana had been given New Year's Eve off and had been drinking, so I was sure she wouldn't even remember looking at me, but I was on the verge of joining the circus or the French Foreign Legion. I had to do something other than walking for miles in the snow all day.
After a week I was no better, but had done very well in not trying to communicate with her. On our first cow-shed meeting I had asked her if her husband knew where I could learn to paraglide and so she had written to me with contact info, ending the email with Best Regards, her name and phone number. It was 100% business of course, but I was in possession of her email address, her phone number and I even knew where she lived. I cursed the modern world for giving us so many ways to communicate. We now have a whole orchard of forbidden fruit from which to pluck.
And then one night, around 1am, I decided to watch a film that contained no romance, no Rachmaninoff, no Celia Johnson looking sad. I would go back to a normal life! Half way through the film, quite without thinking about it, as if the Gods took control over me and were worried that I might screw up all their hard work by watching something light-hearted, I got up and typed, "I hope you're okay. I was wondering if you still wanted to read my novel? I thought I'd write because I'm finding it hard to sleep these days."
I didn't think about it. I didn't plan it. I didn't agonize over it. I just got up and did it and sat back down again.
I went to bed thinking...what did I just do?
There were three visitors to the apartment today but I saw none of them because I was out wrestling with wallpaper shops. My rampant autism makes it impossible for me to tell you the nitty-gritty because there's a timeline I want to stick to here. Suffice it to say that my day began early with a trip to my future home, followed by a marathon shopping expedition where women held up fabric expecting an opinion and I loitered around the power tools looking manly. I move a week on Wednesday and time, tide and fabric wait for no man, no matter how many power tools he's looking at.
Meanwhile, back to the flashback. If you recall, Sabina thought -- quite sensibly -- that asking Tatiana's husband if I could take his wife to the opera was a terrible idea.
Sabina had become my friend, cheese-making buddy, vegetable-growing guru and all round good egg. She helped me with fuel in the form of wood, coffee in the form of, well, coffee, and gained much amusement from my attempts to help her and her husband Igor get cows up a mountain in the spring. We would chat and walk the dog and all gather in the cow shed of an evening. She would often call me and demand my presence when she suspected I was dead. All in all, if I was going to tell anyone that I had a soft-spot for Tatiana, it was her.
Sabina had told me that they had taken over a B&B in the village for the summer. This meant that at last I knew where they could be found at any given moment.
This was the given moment and off I set.
He was serving coffee to a variety of tourists and looked like he'd rather be doing something else. We had met before and he regarded me as low on the serving order, so I waited for perhaps fifteen minutes before he came over and said he didn't have time to chat. With that, he was gone.
He isn't terribly loquacious at the best of times and triaged his conversation to the point of dismissal. I left, thinking that Sabina was probably correct and it was indeed a terrible idea.
And then, some two weeks later, I saw Tatiana in the local shop. We said hello and found ourselves checking out in tandem and I asked if I could accompany her home.
"Do you like opera?" I asked.
"Yes. Well, I went to a lot as a child. My parents were keen to introduce me to such things. Why?"
"Would your husband kill me if I took you to the opera?"
She laughed. "No, of course he wouldn't. He'd be glad it wasn't him who had to go. He's going paragliding for a month in October so when he gets back I think I'd deserve one night off."
We got to her house and said our farewells and I all but floated home. I had a mad idea of one wonderful evening at the opera with an incredible person and that incredible person had said yes. I could hardly believe it. I was struck at the time by her comment. He was going paragliding for a month and she deserved one night off. I didn't give it too much thought, but it did make me wonder.
To prove how amazed I was that she had said yes, I did nothing about it. Nothing at all. September turned into October, and before I knew it, it was Christmas.
In the dying days of that fateful 2015, Sabina rang my doorbell. She assumed I was coming for New Year but Igor suggested that she checked. I was going there again and that thought made me happy. I felt very honoured to be among a close group of Slovenians (Sabina is Swedish but you know what I mean) and this year would no doubt be the same as the last; Sabina and Igor and the kids, the two old twins and the fun collection of guys who helped around the farm. I was very much looking forward to it.
I bought wine and nibbles and on New Year's Eve, off I went to the old farmhouse for some traditional Slovenian cheer.
And the first person I saw when I entered the house was Tatiana's husband. She's here, I thought. Actually...here! This I did not expect.
I said hello to him and then she appeared in the hallway. That moment was how I imagined the opera to be. In the presence of someone very special.
"We still haven't been to the opera!" she said. He was standing with us so obviously she was right. He didn't mind the idea. "We must make a plan."
"Yes," I said. "We must."
And so began an evening that changed my life. I wrote about it at the time and you should read it (the Refreshment room at Milford Junction) because what I wrote didn't contain the things you need to know. I left them out for so many reasons. Now I can tell you and it's interesting to read an account of something so important yet so seemingly innocuous. Suffice it to say that everything that has happened in my life since then has flowed from that one New Year's Eve, from moving out of Bohinjska Bistrica to Bohinjska Bela, from wandering around South East Asia for five months, living where I live now and even going to visit my old landlord in Corfu. Everything. Even my lack of blog posts can be traced back to that night. I called it "The Refreshment Room at Milford Junction," but it could as easily be "It's a Wonderful Life," with George Bailey standing on the snowy bridge. There is a moment in everyone's life that shifts it in a completely different direction. I know exactly when it was for me: The very first second of the very first day of 2016, when all the bells rang and nothing would be the same again.
Slovenia, writing, other things