Note: Suitable for adults only.
Howie tracks me down over the Internet.
Man, I hadn’t even thought about the guy in maybe fifteen years. I guess I wanted to forget him. Last time I saw him he was standing over me, fists clenched, face twisted in fury. He knocked me flying, even though he was scarcely half my size. Can’t say I blame him.
When his email turns up in my inbox, I almost spam it, but then my mind holds up one of those little red flags, and I pause, cursor hovering over Spam.
Howard Hawkins. Double-H.
I pull my car into the car park in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a Saturday, a couple of weeks later. There’s only one other car there, a battered blue Volvo with its back bumper hanging half off. There’s no one in it, but it isn’t a Howie car. Howie would have something low and black and fast. Maybe it would be dented and a little old, but it would be hot. Nothing about this car says Howie. So I sit there, staring out over the estuary to the wading birds on the silver-streaked mud, enjoying the peace, waiting.
When I forgot Howie, I forgot this place too. I reckon if I just drove past, I wouldn’t recognise it.
They’ve paved the lane, flattening out the narrow, potholed track and replacing it with sleek asphalt. They’ve put in this whole damned car park, complete with information board and little padlocked iron donation box. Progress. It makes the whole place feel tired rather than fresh. Or perhaps that’s just me. I’m not nineteen anymore, and everything seems old.
I’d brought a map, but in the end, despite it being twenty years since I was here, I hadn’t needed it. Yeah, I’d forgotten it, but Howie’s email had brought it surging back like a tidal bore.
I put the steering wheel lock on–you can’t be too careful, even out here–then lever myself out the driver’s seat. We aren’t due to meet for almost half an hour. Might as well take a look around. See the old sights.
School books sprawl over the back seat of the Volvo. Dozens of them. Definitely not Howie. Howie would be–what? My brain suddenly can’t come up with what Howie might do for a job. The whole idea of Howie working nine-to-five just doesn’t fit in the space in my head that Howie occupies.
The pub’s still there, but it isn’t The Saracen’s Head anymore. It’s something called a Hungry Horse, whatever the fuck that is, complete with a new glass-walled extension containing colourful plastic structures and screaming kids. The peeling paint, cracked brickwork, and smoke-stained windows have been facelifted away. I walk past it, onto the towpath between the canal and the estuary.
Half a mile seems longer than it used to. I’ve been meaning to get down the gym more often, but this last year, things have been too busy, and anyway, there always seems to be something else to do. At my age, everyone gets a few extra pounds, don’t they? A couple of beers at lunchtime and a couple after work every day. They soon add up, even if you don’t eat that much. But what can you do? It goes with the job, just like the fags. My fingers are itching for one again. I pull the box (crushed) out of my back pocket and work one free. I let the wreath of stained smoke slip into the warm air.
At first I think I’ve remembered it wrong. Around the bend, past the first of the concrete boats dragged up onto the bank to act as makeshift breakwaters. I was sure I would find the windmill there. Isn’t that what we’ve come to see, after all? The scene of most of our triumphs and a fair few of our disasters? That damned windmill.
But it’s not there. There’s just a strip of grass, stretching to the bushes and heaped wild roses on the edge of the mud beach. And standing there, a small, middle-aged woman.
Her black hair is cut short and peppered with grey. She wears a thin, too-old jacket. Smoke rises like an emaciated, pale finger from her cigarette. Some people smoke with style and some smoke comfortably. I’m one of the latter. This woman is the former, in spades. I take a step forward.
She glances back. Her face is narrower than I remember, like it’s been drawn back by a pinching hand, and slightly yellower.
“Howie contacted you too?” I ask, then realise it’s a stupid question. Of course he has.
“All of us,” she said.
“It’s gone,” she says.
I step up beside her.
“Look,” she says, pointing with her chin at the grass. “You can’t even see where it used to be.”
She’s right. The grass is unmarked. I feel a hollow bubble press against the inside of my ribs then burst. The vacuum it leaves is shockingly painful. I force myself to ignore it.
“Twenty years,” I say. “Things change.”
She shakes her head.
Even back then, the windmill was old. Its sails were rotting ribs, stripped of the canvas that once drove them. In the wind, it sometimes creaked like an old man. There were cracks in the walls, and the dust and bird shit were thick on the wooden floors. But it still looked like it would last forever. Everything looks like that when you’re just a kid.
“Do you remember?” Sophie says. “Up there on the top floor, in the old straw? We fucked like rabbits.”
“Sophie!” I’m obscurely shocked that this forty-year-old woman would say fuck. Back then, she wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Back then, I probably said it every other word, and she was the one constantly shocked.
“It’s true,” she says. “I’d only slept with a couple of other guys before you, but you didn’t let that slow you down. You fucked my brains out anyway.”
“You told me I was your first,” I say. Shit. Now I sound like an offended teenager.
She shrugs again. “It’s a good line. Doesn’t really work after you pass thirty, though.”
I look around, desperately looking for something more normal to say. Seeing that cynicism in Sophie is like looking into an all-too-clear mirror and not liking what you see.
“So,” I say. “Got any kids?”
“I’ve got thirty different kids every hour, six hours a day,” she says. “You want me to take some of them home?”
Something clicks in my mind. The Volvo. “You’re a teacher?”
“Yeah. Gold star.”
“How about husband? Boyfriend?”
“Men are bastards.”
She blows out a cloud of smoke, then drops her cigarette and grinds it out under her heel. “Fancy a drink?”
“For old time’s sake?” I say, not able to stop the grin spreading on my face.
“No. It’s just a drink.”
I glance at my watch. “What about meeting Howard?”
“Fuck Howard,” she says.
I’m halfway down my second pint of Guinness when Howie finally finds us. I don’t know what I’m expecting, but it’s not this. Balding, frown lines, small, university-lecturer glasses. This isn’t die-young Howie. This isn’t the wild kid who almost got me killed half-a-dozen times. I just stare at him, unable to say anything.
Howie doesn’t have the same problem. “Where were you? I said the car park.”
“Hi, Howie,” I say. “Good to see you too.”
Trailing in behind Howie, a slight look of distaste squeezing her mouth, comes Trish. Of all of us, she is the only one who seems not to have changed. Yeah, I can tell she’s nearly forty, but she hasn’t changed, not past a few wrinkles at her eyes and skin that looks tired.
The wildness in Howie’s eyes subsides slightly.
“What? Yeah. Hi.” He shakes his head.
I squint at Howie and Trish standing there above our table, then I let out an incredulous laugh. “You married her, didn’t you? Even after she and I–“
“Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” Sophie drawls.
Probably just in time too. Howie had a mean punch back then, and he looks like he’s about ready to swing at me again.
I drain the end of my Guinness, feeling the black liquid slide thickly down.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Howie mutters.
“Mine’s a whiskey,” I say. “Double.”
That’s what we always had here, back when.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Trish says, eyeing the glasses in front of me.
I snort. “I’ve hardly started.” God knows, it was a bad idea agreeing to meet. But I was curious. I relax back in my chair and let my eyelids droop closed.
I remember lying there in the old windmill, Sophie half-draped over me, naked, while dragonflies darted through the air above us like little shards of rainbow. There were hundreds of dragonflies that summer, a whole damned Biblical plague of them. Sophie had some kind of whacked out theory about the dragonflies, didn’t she? I don’t remember what it was. I’m not sure I ever knew. I was more interested in Sophie’s body than her ideas. That and getting Trish out of Howie’s bed and into mine. I feel a grin spreading on my face.
Howie smacks my drink down in front of me.
“Something funny, Paul?”
I straighten. “Nah.”
I pick up the glass. A single. Tight-fisted bastard. I toss it down while he and Trish draw up seats.
“So what’s this about?” I say.
“Old times,” Howie mutters.
“The windmill’s gone, you know,” I say.
“We know,” Trish says. “We came down here a couple of weeks back.”
Right before Howie contacted me.
“That’s what it’s about?”
Trish shakes her head.
“Then what? You’re not going to pretend either of you wanted to see me again.”
“I’ve been having dreams,” Howie says, not looking up. “Bad dreams.”
“So see a psychiatrist,” Sophie says, lighting up another cigarette.
“Don’t be a bitch, Sophie,” Trish says.
This isn’t working out the way it’s supposed to. These people were my friends–my best friends, for those three summer months. When you meet up with old friends, it’s supposed to be all hugs and laughs and reminiscences and the occasional awkward silence. Not venom that could paralyse a cobra.
“Dreams about what?” I say.
I shake my head. “Howard, it was a long time ago. We’ve moved on. All of us.” I look around at them. None of them answer.
Haven’t we? I certainly haven’t been dwelling on the bust-up for twenty years. I don’t even really remember it. So Howie caught me in bed with Trish twenty years ago? So, big deal. We were young.
We sit in silence for a minute or two. I turn my empty glass in my fingers, wondering if I should get another. A pleasant numbness is sinking into my legs. If I wasn’t driving, I’d be at it like a shot. As it is, I’ve probably drunk far too much to drive on already.
A bar maid–can you still be a bar maid at seventy?–makes her way over and starts clearing the empties.
“You from around here?” I ask her, tired of sitting in this silence.
“All my life, love,” she says. She gives me a look like she thinks I’m flirting with her. I ignore it. Satudays aren’t my flirting-with-pensioners days.
“That old windmill?” I ask. “What happened to it? When did they pull it down?”
She frowns. “Windmill?”
“You know. Down the towpath. Maybe half a mile. Right on the edge of the estuary.”
She shakes her head. “Not around here, love. Never was. You must be thinking about somewhere else.” Now she thinks I’m drunk.
“There really was,” I say, feeling my neck turning slightly red.
She gives the table a perfunctory wipe, spreading around more dirt than she wipes off. “Not here.”
I watch her toddle off. “Daft old bat,” I mutter. I wish I’d got that other drink.
“She’s right, Paul,” Trish says. “When we came down here and found it gone, we asked around. No one had ever heard of it. We even checked out the old maps and borough plans. There’s never been a windmill around here.”
“I fucking know there was,” I say, my voice rising too high. If this is some kind of game, I’m not finding it funny.
We went to the windmill a couple of dozen times that summer, all four of us, or just me and Sophie (and me and Trish, that one glorious time, just before the end). I can almost smell the dust and crumbling brickwork, hear the creaking sails, see the dragonflies.
I subside. The other three are looking at me, not saying a thing.
I blow out a heavy breath, pick up my glass, realise it’s empty and replace it.
“What?” I say.
“What exactly do you remember about that summer?” Trish asks me.
I feel that stupid, drunk, juvenile grin start on my face again, and I force it away. That isn’t what she’s asking about. Which is more the pity, because she still looks pretty hot, even after all these years.
After another drink, we left the pub and now we’re walking along the tow path towards the windmill. It feels like old times. Except that now there is no windmill, and there never has been. So where the hell does that leave those old times?
What do I remember? I remember Howie running along the edge of the beach, long hair and leather jacket flapping wildly in the wind. Sophie in one of her skimpy little outfits, legs drawn up, showing pretty much everything. Trish standing watching the rest of us, all class and style and carefully-designed distance, a sardonic grin never far from her perfect lips. Piles of empty beer cans. Laughter. Smoke rising from our fire against the purple evening sky.
“The windmill,” I say. “I remember every last inch of it. Every crack and corner. I remember the way the sails creaked and groaned. I remember which of the steps up to the top storey were rotten. I remember the old millstone with that split across one side. I remember that damned grinding pattern cut into it.” The others are nodding, and I can tell they’re seeing it too. “I remember those half-rotten sacks in one corner, and the almost-gone paint, and the view out over the estuary from the top.” I look at the rest of them. “So does someone want to tell me how the hell it was never there?”
“Anything else?” Howie says.
“Yeah,” I say. “The dragonflies. I always thought they’d be brittle if I touched them. They looked brittle. They looked like flakes of glass. But one landed on me once and it felt soft.” I shake my head. “I never figured out where so many of them could have come from.”
“The estuary,” Sophie say. “They came up with the tide.”
She’s staring ahead, not really looking at anything.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say.
She shrugs, blows out smoke.
We were all at the end of our second year at university that summer. I was taking physics–something I’ve managed to avoid since, thank God–and I should have been revising, but summer had arrived gloriously early, so I was lying out by the lake sunbathing instead. I’d met Howie a couple of times before at Rock Soc events, so when he came wandering out with two gorgeous girls, I didn’t hesitate to go over and say hi.
“We should go somewhere,” Trish said, that life-kissed afternoon.
“Where?” I said.
So we did, and that was how we found the windmill. That same night, Sophie took me to bed, and the next three months were the best of my life, and then it ended as suddenly as a thunderclap.
“Tell me about the dreams,” I say.
Howie hunches his shoulders uncomfortably. The air is descending into evening chill. We’ve tried to build a fire–old times, old times. It hasn’t really worked, and there’s no windmill to retreat into. But the sky is that familiar purple, and no one has suggested leaving.
“Go on, sweetheart,” Trish says, surprisingly gently. “It’s why we’re here.”
Howie nods, but he doesn’t look at me or Sophie. Maybe we aren’t exactly what he was expecting either.
“We’re here,” Howie says. “Not now, but back then. Right near the beginning when we’d only just all got together.” He glances at me, then away. “Back when we were two couples, you know? We’re sitting on the beach in the late sunlight. There’s beers and a bottle of cheap wine. We’re talking about something. I don’t know what. Something. And behind us I can feel the windmill, looming over us like some black storm.”
He stops, and sits in silence.
“That’s it?” I say.
He shrugs. “Yeah.”
“Fuck it, Howie. You dragged us out here for that?”
He shrugs again.
Howie drops his head, and in that motion, I recognise the old Howie for the first time today, recognise him as clearly as if it was yesterday.
And I know he’s lying.
“How long have you been having these dreams?” I ask.
“Years,” he says. “On and off. Sometimes more often, sometimes less.”
“More. Much more.”
He removes his little glasses and squeezes his knuckles into his eyes.
“I’m not sleeping much. Not well.” He lifts his head again. “Am I the only one? Doesn’t anyone else dream about…about all that?”
The silence is broken only by the cry of a bird swooping low over the estuary, its silhouette sharp against the silver mud, and the dispirited crackle of our failing fire. Then Sophie flicks away the glowing butt of her cigarette, pulls another from its packet, and lights it with a match. She breaths in deeply.
“I do,” she says.
I blink at her.
“Yeah. Why not?” Smoke drifts from her nostrils, up past her eyes. “It’s like Howie said. We’re on the beach, just about where we’re sitting now, and I can feel the windmill behind us. So I get up and walk towards it. The last of the evening light is catching on the top sails. I walk up to the windmill, and it seems to be leaning over me, as though it’s a giant face peering down at me. I reach the steps and start up them, and just as I get to the door, I find myself wondering: Where have all the dragonflies gone? And then I wake.”
She’s telling more than Howie, but I can’t shake the feeling that Sophie isn’t letting on completely either.
The rest of them look at me.
I shake my head. “Not me. No dreams here.”
“Trish?” Sophie said.
“Why the hell is it just us?” Howie demands.
A look flashes between him and Sophie, and my eyes narrow. What did that mean?
No one says anything. The last flame flickering in our fire dies, leaving a weak collection of dulling embers.
“We should go,” Trish says.
“Where?” I say.
“Back to the pub. It’s late.”
We kick dirt over the almost-dead fire and pick up our beer cans.
Behind me, I think I hear a tired creak, like the sails of the windmill, but when I turn, there’s nothing.
Howie has booked us all rooms in a bed and breakfast not more than a mile away. Hasn’t bothered to ask, of course, just assumed. But, folks, I’m so hammered by then, I couldn’t have got my keys in the ignition let alone driven. We have dinner in the pub–fake Thai food, all chillies and not much else in the way of flavours, washed down with more beer than was strictly necessary–then Howie drives us to the B&B. Trish and Howie head off to their room as soon as we got in, leaving me and Sophie alone in the corridor.
“You’re a teacher now, right?” I say, even though she told me so earlier. I’m slurring my words and noticing it.
I pause. “I work in finance.” In finance. That’s not a job. It’s a fucking abstract. The phrase has never sounded so empty to me.
Sophie agrees. “Fuck, Paul,” she says. “You used to have dreams.”
That hurts. If you’ve never had someone take a look at your life and then kick it away like a kid with a sandcastle then you don’t know how much.
“Thanks,” I say.
She fumbles in her shoulder bag for another cigarette.
“You smoke too much,” I say.
“Fuck off,” she mumbles around the cigarette.
The corridor is dim, the wallpaper is seventies-patterned and textured, worn thin by a thousand brushing shoulders. The wall is hung with the kind of prints of horses you only see in cheap little guesthouses like this one. The whole thing depresses me.
I indicate the door to my room with a nod of my head.
“Do you want to…?”
She must see the spasm of pain on my face, because she lays a hand briefly on my arm.
“I’ve learnt one thing in these twenty years,” she says. “You can’t go back. Ever. There are gates you walk through, and they close behind you. You can’t storm them, you can’t break through. You just have to keep going forward, wherever it leads you.”
Then she unlocks her room and leaves me standing in the corridor. The last of us. Again.
My room has a view out over the estuary. When I can’t sleep, I stand there and watch the dark river slip by beneath the bright moonlight.
You can never go back.
I never wanted to. Until now, and all the doors are shut behind me.
The river slips by. It never turns back. Until the tide rolls in.
The beginning and the end. One at the start of that summer, the other at its finish. The days could have been swapped around with little change. Bright blue skies. A furnace of a sun. The canal choked with reeds and rushes. Birdsong in the trees and bushes. Sophie slipping her hand into mine.
No. That last bit only happened on the first day we were all together, not the last. That was a difference.
She slipped her hand into mine, and I was so startled I almost stumbled. Startled and heart-stoppingly delighted. Dragonflies hovered in and out of the rushes and reeds in the canal and over the towpath. I gave Sophie an astonished look. She winked at me and kick-started my heart again. I remember I found walking difficult that afternoon.
Howie looped his arm over Trish’s shoulders (that didn’t happened on the last day either–all those signs of the coming storm, and not one of us stupid kids realised).
We were all laughing at some crap joke when we came around the corner and saw the windmill for the first time, bulking incongruously from an expanse of grass between the canal and the estuary.
I had a good time at University. Okay, the lectures were mind-numbing, and the labs seemed to stretch on forever. But that was only the days–the mornings, mostly–and the rest of the time was mine. There were some bad moments, too, of course–some storming hangovers; being dumped at a party with half my friends watching–but it was a good time on balance.
On that first day with Sophie, Trish, and Howie, it seemed to take a step up. The sun seemed brighter, the colours more vivid, the sounds sharper and clearer. As though we’d opened a door in the clouded glass that had always separated us from the truth of the world.
Later, on that last day, when it all turned to ash, it was as though we stepped back out that door and shut it behind us.
I think Sophie must have seen the windmill first, because I heard her shout, “It’s perfect,” and then we all saw it, looming above us.
Pulling me along by the hand, Sophie raced towards it. Moments later, I heard Trish and Howie come chasing after. We all clattered up the steps, burst into the windmill, and stopped. The space was still, eerie. Light filtered in strands through cracks in the brickwork and between shutters. The windmill seemed to hold the ghost of an indrawn breath. A word struck me at that moment: potential. Not potential as in the mundane sense of this-could-be-renovated-into-some-yuppie-apartment-full-of-chrome-and-spotlights potential, but potential as in the physics I was half-heartedly studying. This place seemed to exist at a higher state of energy. An electrical potential difference drives a current around a circuit. This place seemed poised to drive…something through us. Enliven and quicken us. Power us.
“Yow!” Howie screamed, and a faint echo bounced back.
We laughed, and tumbled together into the potential.
I sleep eventually. Most nights I don’t sleep well, and tonight is no exception. I don’t dream about the windmill, even though I’m half expecting to. Instead, I dream of the slow river flowing on through the estuary to the sea. It’s not a restful dream, and sometime in the night I awake to find tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sobbing.
I left my soul in 1987. I left my heart and my love and my dreams, and I want them back. I want them back.
My tears taste of salt and whiskey.
Normally, I sleep badly–hangover sleep–but I’m hard to wake in the morning. I have two alarms, one by my bed and the other across the room, staggered by a couple of minutes. Most days it’s enough. When it’s not, I skip breakfast. This morning, it’s different. I’m awake and up by six, pacing my bedroom. It’s cramped and claustrophobic, even when I throw the window open and let the cold dawn air in, but breakfast isn’t until seven, and there’s nowhere else to go. I wonder what I’m doing here. These people aren’t the people I knew when I was at University, and remembering what they were–what I was–leaves me empty. There was potential, then, and now it’s gone. The people we were are gone. Sophie was right. You can’t walk back through those gates.
Suddenly it’s too much. I don’t want to see Howie or Trish or Sophie anymore. I don’t want to stare back at the past and see a future that should have been but never was. I thump out of the room, downstairs, and out the front door. My car is still parked where I left it the day before, but that’s only a mile or so away. I start to walk. I’m light-headed from lack of breakfast and dehydrated from drinking too much.
I intend to get straight into the car and head off, never look back, never see any of them again. I even slide myself in behind the steering wheel and fumble the key into the ignition. But then I sit there, staring out at the morning-painted river and silvery mud banks. We came here once in the early morning, Sophie and me. We snuck out of dorms while it was still dark, and Sophie drove. We bumped the car over the potholes then pulled it off the track, against the brambles. In the dawn, the windmill was a silhouette against a pastel-blue sky. We hung around, smoked a bit, then tumbled, naked and chilly, under the old sacking. The dragonflies were already there.
Trish and Howie turned up before we were dressed. Howie looked away while we crawled out, laughing, and pulled out clothes on, but Trish kept looking, watching me get dressed, with that sardonic curl to her lip. That was the first time I reckoned I might have a real chance with her. I don’t think Sophie noticed.
I decide to take one last look all on my own, before I leave all this behind forever. Maybe I’m hoping the windmill will be there.
It isn’t. There’s no sign it ever was. The grass is unmarked. There are no dragonflies.
I walk out to the edge of the mud banks and wait. I’m not sure what for.
“You’re a bastard.”
The sudden voice makes me turn. Howie is standing there behind me, his thin shoulders pulled up tight.
“Yeah,” I say.
“It was your fault it went wrong,” he says. “You and your fucking dick. So why the fuck aren’t you the one haunted by it?”
I shrug. “Guess it never bothered me. Anyway,” I glance at him, “she was a beast in bed. Why–”
I don’t get time to finish. Howie might be scrawny, but he’s still got that punch. He lashes out and catches me square on the jaw. I fall to the ground.
“She was my first girlfriend,” he shouts. “My only girlfriend. I loved her.”
My jaw hurts, and I’m lying in the mud.
“You’ve still got her,” I say.
He kicks me, hard, flipping me over.
“It’s not the same. It’s never been the same.”
He kicks me again. I feel something crack.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I don’t know where it comes from.
He pauses, foot drawn back, staring down incredulously at me.
“I’m sorry,” I repeat, and I mean it. I’m sorry for all of it.
Howie drops down beside me, sitting cross-legged in the wet mud, not seeming to notice it.
“I’m not going home with her,” he says, quietly.
I force myself up onto an elbow. My rib grates agonisingly.
“Shit, man,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
That first day, we drove out here fast in Howie’s battered old car. Howie had a new Whitesnake album. He played it over and over in the cassette deck and drove way too fast. He already knew all the words, and he belted them out, even though he couldn’t sing a note. I was breathless with laughter.
The last day that we all came up together (just a few days before the very last time any of us were here), we drove in silence. It wasn’t our worst day, but it was close. In truth it had been coming for a week. Trish and Howie were hardly talking. I was getting bored with Sophie. We drank a few cans, but no one said much, and we left before it was fully dark.
Two or three days later, I came out of my last exam–I’d failed it, I knew that; I’d known before I even went in–and Trish was standing there, opposite the exam hall, leaning on the wooden railing. Smoke drifted from a long cigarette. She levered herself off the railing, that sardonic, faintly-amused expression still settled on her face.
To be honest, the idea of getting Trish out of Howie’s bed and into mine had palled in the last week. Maybe even then I knew it was over. Maybe that was why I walked up to her anyway and took her face in my hands. I kissed her hard, tasting the tobacco on her lips and tongue, breathing it in from her hair.
“The windmill,” I said.
She writhed briefly against me, then stepped back with a laugh. “The windmill. Always the windmill.”
And that’s where Howie and Sophie found us, four hours later.
The sound of a footfall behind us makes me look back. Sophie and Trish are standing there together.
“The windmill,” Trish says. “Always the fucking windmill.”
And there’s not much more to say. There is no windmill. There never has been. Call it hallucination or magic or collective delusion. It doesn’t matter. We are all that there ever was. Our present defines our past as much as our past ever defines our present. If there was a windmill, once, a potential, then now there never was. It’s over.
We stand together, for a while, all four of us, as though nothing has changed, looking out over the estuary. The tide has turned and is coming in. Water eddies into the channels cut in the mud. It swirls against the river flowing out. A small tidal bore, no more than a couple of inches of water, makes its way up the estuary and is gone. A single dragonfly darts by.
Slowly we trail away. First Sophie and Trish together, then Howie on his own, not looking up from the ground, his thin shoulders hunched, until I’m left standing there on my own.
It’s almost a pain inside me, the regret. We could have done it. We could have done anything. But we didn’t.
The air is full of dragonflies now. They’ve come in with the tide.
I turn and walk away, heading back towards my car.
Behind me, I hear the windmill creak. I smell the dust and old sacking and rotting wood. But I don’t look around. We had our chance, and we blew it.
There’s no going back.
That night I dream of the windmill.
We’re sitting on the thin strip of sand between the grass and the mud banks that lead down to the water. There’s a small fire burning, more glowing coals than burning wood, and thin smoke rising into the still air. There are some empty cans on the ground, and an empty bottle. Howie is telling some wild, ridiculous story, and the rest of us are laughing. The air is thick and sticky, but, unusually, there are no dragonflies. The tide is on its way in, but there are no dragonflies.
I hear the creak of the windmill, and feel it lowering over us like a great, black storm. I turn, and there it is, as clear and real as it ever was. I walk towards it, climb up the steps, and then I wonder, Where are all the dragonflies?
I pull open the door.
My feet crunch on something. It sounds like very thin glass. I look down. The floor is covered in dead dragonflies. Under my shoes, they are brittle.
I press on. I walk around the cracked millstone to the wooden steps that lead, ladder-like, up to top level. I climb.
Up here, the dragonflies are thicker on the floor. They’re almost ankle-deep. I kick through them, like through autumn leaves.
I see us lying there in the corner, Trish and me. Naked. Young.
“Was that all?” I want to scream. “Was that all that killed it?” A bit of stupid, physical, meaningless sex. It wasn’t even that good.
I surge forward, angry, ready to pull us apart. To kick some sense into us, to tell us it wasn’t worth it. To change the inevitable. But it’s too late. The door is opening downstairs. Howie and Sophie are on their way up.
– End –