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.
Slovenia, writing, other things