“Love Ends” by Stephen Busby

 

Love ends when the man says so to the woman, one blustery afternoon on the
far northern coastline the day after they have arrived there. It’s the end, he says
to her as they sit on a bench at the deserted seafront so that at first she thinks
that he means he won’t walk any further. She looks at him again: at the side of
his face which is set hard, determination writ large there along with the fear. He
won’t look at her. He says the same thing again and she sees that he’s never said
it before in the same way; there’s no question in it anymore.

She sees herself sitting alone in some bustling café, ordering her own food, her
own life, sees her own slide towards old age clearly, without pity: it’s feasible, not
inconceivable at all. Here it is, emerging from the fog of mutual recrimination and
unbidden silences which have killed off their two years together. It stands
revealed and she sees that she can cradle it and that she has no choice now but
to do this, that it will have to be held and that perhaps she will even be helped. All
this she sees in an instant as she looks out at the waves crashing against the sea
barrier and a pigeon stands there observing her, its head cocked, waiting. Now
she need not wait any more. She turns back to look at him with a new kind of
curiosity: he’s holding his face in his hands, he who was hers, whatever that has
meant.

The man has discovered that some emotion has come. It begins down inside,
wells up in his chest and throat and shudders out, the first of several long
wrenching sobs. So it wasn’t so far away in him, it was just waiting – for the
words and once they’d been uttered they were not so unthinkable after all. He
holds his head in his hands and shakes with it as each new surprise shudders out
of him. There’s nothing he need do, nothing he need hang on to; his body’s
doing it despite him, despite his determination to stay collected on top of
whatever was there. The sobbing subsides a little then – as if nervous that it will
die before it has really gotten going – then begins again with more vigour; the
sobs are being torn out of him: up through his chest; wretched, marvellous,
humiliating and alright, everything alright, all at the same time.

The woman watches him sobbing with this new-found abandon. She’s become an
observer and she has nothing to say to him anymore. She’s pleased for him and
it doesn’t matter very much. She gets up and walks to the edge of the sea-wall.
The pigeon removes itself to a safe distance; the waves continue to crash against
the new-found calm and settled waters right at the centre of her, and some
distance away a small boat struggles to make its way forward amid the heaving
seas, its progress is slow and determined.

Love ends then as soon as a decision’s been reached, as soon as he’s decreed it.
But they’ve just arrived at the coast; they’re at the beginning of the week in the
rented cottage that he’s found: the place where life and love were going to sort
themselves out. There are plane tickets, logistics, monies paid, keys procured,
foodstuffs and deliveries arranged; there’s life: planned, timed and anticipated,
there was a map spread out in front of them, holiday time taken, someone whom
the man knew who’d already been to the cottage by the coast and then there was
the going ahead and making all the arrangements while she looked on, knowing
they were talking about all the wrong things, this life: by turns loving, hellish,
reconciled, cautious and abandoned, split with longing, with ‘unmet needs’ as the
books put it and a great all-consuming fear that each is not being loved enough,
that a life is not contained within a timetable and that now they’re here, yes here:
sitting opposite each other at the table in the little kitchen in the cottage, the old
heating has been made to work, the candles have been lit so as to make the place
homey, she thought, and the week stretches long before them.

He has a sense of foreboding: what has he done? Not the wrong thing in
speaking – no, not that but the wrong thing he thinks in doing it at the beginning
of the week. The words hadn’t been his however: they’d spoken themselves out
and now they sit here heavily upon the table between them. Well, we have a
week, he says, a week in which to separate. She nods; they’ve become business-
like again. They’ve done the workshops, watched complete strangers expose the
intimate detail of their lives, wondered about self-awareness and learned that
maturity must be earned, that it isn’t some god-given thing. Now a call to
maturity or something like it has been served up on the table and it is not the
most appetising thing. Looking at him, she argues aloud that there’s a gift in it:
this time for talking, understanding, forgiveness, healing even. She’s surprised at
the sounds as she speaks them. Not looking at her, he fears she means a time
for reconciliation, renewal, hope and the birth of something new and he knows he
won’t have it, he must be stronger than he’s been before: he must honour the
impulse which this thing in him knows to be right: to end the constant torment of
togetherness. She knows this is what he fears: that because he’s the one who’s
leaving and not her, that she’ll resort to anything which might mend them, for
she has nothing to lose. He knows that she knows he fears this, they know each
other: they’ve fucked, cried, thrown things across the room and held each other’s
souls in their arms. Suddenly they can smile at this: something’s been shared and
they eat, talk even, cautiously, about everyday things; they see with relief that
they can be ordinary, that there’s washing-up to be done, cupboards to be
opened, drawers explored, an internet to be tested and a bed to be made. That
the end doesn’t have to hang over them like a sword every instant of the day,
that yes they’ll have time together this week to talk, bring understanding to what
has happened and time too to be apart: the coastline is long, it can contain them,
separately, as they separate, slowly as adults, and it isn’t the end of the known
world: there’s dessert to come which they’ve brought with them and the night
doesn’t yet need to be thought about, what’s a week after all – – it’ll be short;
they’ll savour it they say.

Love ends again as they lie in the bed later, listening to the wind, so ferocious and
to the silence between them. Like the shoe moulded through long use to the
shape of your foot they’ve fallen together into the centre of the bed and, as with
every night, are held hugging. This is what happens before sleeping: a way to end
the day, putting little disagreements behind them, feeling the familiarity, accepting
this embrace, their shared defence against the world. He’s lying on his back and
she’s laid her head against his chest while holding him. He has his arms around
her so that she’s pulled against him while lying on her side, one of her legs is laid
over his and she listens to his breathing. With his hand he strokes her back
because she likes this and she shifts her leg slightly against his thigh. He feels an
erection stirring unbidden as it is bound to do, thickening in anticipation and she
feels it too, warm and hardening, how could she not: she knows it, they both
know how it starts, but not, this time, how it stops. He could go there easily he
says to himself: he could shift his leg slightly so that his cock would come more
into contact with her, touch engendering desire which will seek its own satisfaction
in touching while he brings her with his arms closer to him or she presses herself
harder to him (the effect is the same). But something else is hard in him: the
memory of those moments this morning when the end came, sounding so
resolute, so much a surprise.

He feels the cost of it since the beginning: the constant warfare, the
reconciliations and resignation; it’s always been harder to stop than to go on. But
the lovemaking’s almost always been beautiful: in sex they’ve found each other;
there’s been abandonment, an offering-up and a release unknown in any other
tight corner of their togetherness and so they’ve sheltered there, been nurtured
there yes surely, but, he thinks, they’ve escaped there – he knows that he has.
He thinks he knows that she won’t admit this, can’t perhaps and then somewhere
in there, so far away, so tight and concealed in a little primeval masculine place, is
an old fear: that when she makes love it’s not really with him but is rather – in
that womanly-way – so abandoned and so free that she’s no longer there for
him; she’s gone, slipped away somewhere; how hard it is to explain it: like an
absence, as if he doesn’t count (and he needs to), as if he’s a way for her to
reach somewhere private inside: somewhere closed to him, as if it could be him or
any other man which procures this for her, as if he were no more than her means
to an end, that it isn’t him whom she loves but what he gives her and giving her
something is all he knows how to do.

He doesn’t squeeze her more tightly to him and his stroking of her back has
slowed down, his erection’s subsided and he lies still on his back in the bed. All
these are the signs, they both know, which signify sleeping. Soon they’ll extricate
themselves from each other’s embrace and he’ll turn on his side, his back to her,
for he can’t sleep any other way than really alone. And she’ll lie there, equally
alone if not more so, and wide suddenly to the knowledge of separation as the
fact, real and wide open and exposed to it now because it is here – not in some
future celibate life, not in resigned spinsterhood, not in resignation at all: it’s here
in the bed with her and it is presence – for he who’s loved me is still here she tells
herself – and it is absence at the same time; it’s the fathomless pit that lies
underneath all that she’s ever done for company, to occupy and distract herself,
to persuade herself that it – that which was born in her and which she’s never
shaken off – is threatening, finally, to catch up with her and to lay its hand over
her mouth. It’s not solitude really, she knows, it’s not even being alone – for she
is happy there sometimes, so what is it? It’s all and everything which she’s always
longed and yearned for and which has escaped her, everything that was ever
withheld from her and it doesn’t have a name because words came after it, and it
doesn’t have a home – it will never be still, will never let her go. It stabs at her
then: a spear straight into the heart so that she cries out despite herself. The
man stirs suddenly but he doesn’t turn round – so he’s decided then: will he
never turn around to her again, will she never be held, won’t the tears streaming
from her ever be witnessed, won’t there be a sharing of anything again?

Love ends again the next evening when the man shrugs, puts on his coat and
walks away from the cottage towards the sea-front. He’s going out for some air
he says in a way that means he will do it alone. He reaches the public telephone
box down a side-street: love ends a little more when he gets through to the
person at the other end of the line and says that he’s done it: he’s left her, he
says, or he is leaving her, or he will leave her – one of these three, and he says it
with urgency and some exhilaration; he’s jubilant and yet solemn for he knows he
must make it seem and sound a big thing. He feels release when he says this –
just to be able to talk like this – openly again, without reserve, after the two
hellish days in the cottage where he can’t afford to allow himself feeling, he has
only a few more days to get through he says and then he’s free (yes he does use
that word). He’s waited to share this with the person who has now gone very
quiet on the other end of the phone-line, what’s going on, he thinks – has
something gone wrong? Listen, I can’t talk now, the voice says to him, but I’m
really pleased for you, then after a few more moments’ silence: it says again:
really pleased. He can hear the restraint in the voice and with a stab of sudden
fear he says: But aren’t you pleased for us – for us? Then the silence is broken
again: No, the voice tells him, and it sounds suddenly harder: I’m pleased for you.
Just for you.

Love ends on a windswept beach where two people are running along the water’s
edge, where the little waves are lapping at their legs. Are they running together or
separately, it’s hard to tell because the woman goes on running for a long while
after the man’s stopped, standing with his hands on his hips, breathing hard. He
looks at the diminishing figure of the woman who has reached the end of the
beach now, where the rock-face suddenly rises up out of the sand and where she
has begun to climb – where there are foot and hand-holds carved into the rock,
and up she goes: higher, quick and confident. She climbs way up to the grassy
ridge above and sits there, looking out at the sea and grey sky; she doesn’t look
over towards him. The man sighs and walks to the rock-face, climbs up and joins
her, taking care to sit slightly apart. Do you remember… she says as she looks
out to sea, and she does then remember: other beaches, walks and holidays they’
ve had. She begins to remember it all and to speak it, as much as she can, from
first meetings through hands that touched, shared secrets, terrible wrenching yet
temporary separations, through lovemaking in new places – those woods high up
in the hills, where you got stung by those nettles and I kissed you better, that
awful restaurant, that retreat we both signed up for and where it was so hard to
sleep apart?

Slowly he begins too: he remembers and finds that gradually he’s freed by it, that
despite his caution there are no taboos to what can be remembered, whether or
not it all happened in exactly that way. He begins more cautiously – with primary
facts, dates and places as if afraid to wander too close to some edge with her:
the edge that is his experience of all these things and how they were felt, because
the gulf between his experience and hers has been so risky before. How did they
each live all these things then? This they’ve never discussed before – they’ve
never needed to because back then they were there inside it but some of it
festered there and infected them, he sees this now, and it ought to have been
shared. Now it begins to be spoken and he sees that there’s dignity in this, there
in the wind overlooking the northern sea: this speaking out of their time and their
life and their love. I remember the hotel in Sweden, he says, the wallpaper we
laughed about and that awful bed, we couldn’t sleep. She looks at him and smiles.
And I remember the shower, he goes on, where we made love (he’s looking out
over the sea now as he speaks this) and where you sang afterwards, after I came
out and I was in the corridor and I could hear every note, the whole hotel must
have heard us. And everyone at breakfast watching us when we came in. The
wind takes their words and carries them off out to sea as if to say: yes this, and
this, and this too – it all goes back into the waters and it wasn’t as important as
you thought, it was just experience: hard-won and bitter – yes sure but how
easily it is all shed now and given to the sea.

The man looks at the woman as they’re speaking. He’s constantly surprised by
her poise and her calm acceptance these days, now that they’re at the end of
their week. Has she really accepted it then? She no longer tries to approach him,
seems to have broken through something and – even now – is reciting what she
remembers without much emotion at all. He’s always known the many ways she’s
stronger than he, perhaps they all are: this supposedly gentler sex, and that
most of his problem may be the awe in which he holds them, he cannot see this
clearly somehow – it feels foggy when he goes there but there’s something in his
attitude isn’t there, something which means that in elevating her he’s
subordinating his own specialness and this isn’t right. But it’s hard to celebrate
who he is with her because there’s something there in her which would constantly
pull him over closer to where she sits, to her terrible emotionality, to the style of
sharing oneself which isn’t his but to which he’s always deferred. Now he watches
her profiled against the sky, the wind blowing hard and some gulls dipping and
floating in the breeze behind her. She isn’t proud, she isn’t hardened or resigned,
nor is she begging for anything anymore. She’s someone whom he once loved
fiercely with as much of himself as he could muster and whom he could still reach
out to, but he won’t.

Love ends on their last night in the bedroom when he, exhausted with it all, with
the week now almost behind them, with the constant see-saw of his thoughts
and half-decisions and regrets all so wearing, when he would simply retreat into
sleep. But this time, this last time, she won’t take his body’s refusal as final. She
moves more purposefully against him, she knows how to arouse, how to touch,
where to caress. She turns back the covers and moves slowly all over him with
her hands and her mouth and her hair and she’s whispering – it’s hard to say
whether to herself or to him – that she realises now how she’s never fully
appreciated his body before, that she sees how beautiful he is and she touches
and rubs and strokes him again. Then she sits up on her knees over him so that
he can see her full beauty: her full, brown and rounded body and she pleasures
herself. They’re both smiling but he with more sadness and his erection is hard to
sustain. Can desire come coupled with sadness, should he force himself toward
hardness, should he love her one last time, and how much might sex be removed
or removable from the rest? She won’t leave the decision to him and lowers
herself down onto his hardness for he is hard and it’s sufficient, and there is
wanting now in both of them, and when he’s slipped inside her – up so that they
are touching each other as fully as they can go – something else responds in him
and he’s there, more there than ever, as is she, and they’re looking into each
other and moving with a gentle pushing acceptance and sometimes a stillness in
which to savour, and a constant caress – of her back and buttocks, and she
sometimes of his hair and his face and his mouth which she leans forward to kiss.

Love ends finally in the train after their flight or on the station platform where
they’re standing, silent now, opposite each other. It ends in the cold climate which
separates them for they’ve not known how to experience these last hours
together – so unlike other journeys, other goodbyes. And how do you say
goodbye to someone whom you love – whom you always will (does love like this
ever die)? They stand there on the platform, their destinations very different,
minutes before the next train – his train – must take him away. She feels only
numb and – and this surprises her – a little bored: with him, with the situation,
with herself; now there’s just the longing to be alone, in bed at home, somewhere
safe, to move on to whatever’s waiting to be begun. The absence is all around
them as they stand there: it’s in all the people milling by, in the public
announcements filling the smelly station air. The absence was always there, I think
it was – and the constant covering-over of it lest its presence become too
palpable, probably it was this that won out, at the end of the day. We never said
goodbye on that platform, neither of us spoke. We kissed then I turned and
walked slowly away.

Love ends like this. It just walks away.

 

 

Stephen Busby is a traveler, writer and photographer based in the Findhorn Community, northern Scotland. His recent prose has also appeared in Cezanne’s Carrot. He also runs workshops and events on transformational themes in various countries.

 

 

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