Once it was June it was hard to remember the despair of March. The winter was always slightly too long, the dark skies and short days lingering just past what was reasonable for any human to endure. It was a despair which infused all former pleasantries with an unexplainable sourness; you could hardly bother with hellos or how are yous. You could barely answer the phone politely, taking deep breaths to keep yourself from roaring at the stranger telling you about your unclaimed PPI. And you'd ask if all PPI was unclaimed, or if some had found their forever homes, finally freed from the massive Lost and Found which always seemed to be populated purely by ever-multiplying PPI. But the strangers on the other end didn't appreciate your mocking tone; perhaps they thought you were just another rude Englishman. You envied them. They weren't suffering from the malady of winter which made good men like you go crazy.
And then, by the time it was becoming truly agonizing to wake up in the mornings, the sunshine would arrive to scorch the south of England like it had been missing the land all those long months, like a lover scorned and then flirting with forgiveness. That kind of love that would never be the same. Its shine was harsh, blitzing the dead grass into yellow tufts before it had the chance to grow anew. Spring became lost. This year was the hottest year on record just like every year before it, and you furiously Googled news about global warming in an attempt to cure your guilt for wishing the winter away. It didn't work. Global warming would one day turn the south of England into a savannah, scorching not only the grass but the roads, and the people who were now just various shades of pink and red would become crisp brown and burnt. You imagined them as walking embers, smoking and dissipating into the arid air like flies. If only things would hurry up, if only it would all end now. You felt guilty, still. You regretted your thoughts and you added that regret to the heap that you had meticulously accumulated throughout your regretful life.
You went cycling with your new lover every afternoon to escape feeling stifled in her flat which was too small and smelled of cat. Your arms and face tanned and you secretly worried about wrinkles. 'Stop fretting! Wrinkles look better on a man,' Charlene said in her French accent which you told yourself you adored along with her temper and tiny waist and crooked, smoke-stained teeth. But you were proud to be getting fitter, and you showed off your physique to your eldest daughter—your precious firstborn, the same age as Charlene, but worlds apart with her husband and baby. She built you up without disdain or disgust: 'You look good, Dad. I'm glad you're getting outside.' Your ears stung with joy whenever she was kind.
And so that was the summer you began planning how to quit your job, because you felt you had spent your entire career inside—all those offices and board rooms and hotels—and you hated being inside. You hated it more so since you'd moved to a country where people were inside so often that they often talked longingly of the barbecues they had enjoyed during summers past, of the days wasted in the pub gardens and at the local lake and round the park and in any small square of outside that anyone they knew was lucky enough to own. And so often you were down, moody and muddled from the greyness and the drizzle which elbowed its way into every new morning, every dark day another dampener on your soul, and all you could do was wait patiently along with everyone else for the sun to bless you with its glow. An opportunity, finally, to escape the permanent inside. A breath of fresh air, quite literally, and in the most profound of ways.
You used to lay claim to your own square of outside, attached to your four-bedroom new-build in a typical middle-class estate in the suburbs, where every house looked so much the same except for the colour of the front door and perhaps what kind of climber grew up the facade. But now that house belonged to your wife, the one you were trying to divorce with some shred of cordiality, who lived there with your younger daughters who all hated you for a myriad of things and with varying degrees of intensity. And to some extent, you didn't mind. You hated new-builds: they had no character.
But you loved Charlene, you were certain. You loved that you were both foreigners, both navigating a strange land where you looked the part but were truly unwelcome—perhaps navigating badly, drunk on selfishness and poor decisions. But you loved her, you were sure of it. In particular, you loved her gasps and generous kisses, her sarcasm, her intellect, and a peculiar warmth she reserved only for you. But more than that, you loved that you both hated the same things with a fiery passion: the disguised patriotism of Great Britain, the endless rules and regulations, the brazen resurgence of the right-wing, and the fact that ordinary people would judge you cruelly for simply living, but never dare say anything to your faces. You called it The Scourge of English Politeness. No matter how much you blended in with your pink cheeks on your white skin, your raincoat and reusable coffee cup, your shiny work shoes caked in mud, your stutters and handshakes and awkward hugs... you knew deep down you weren't English. In fact, you revelled in it.
So you made sure you spoke your beginner French any chance you got, your ouis and bonjours a running joke at work, your tickets to Disneyland Paris booked for a quick break in March; you knew that Charlene was your shield against sameness. But more than that, she was kindred. You watched her taut body sway from side to side as you rode your bikes around town, down Burford Road to the gloomy forests of Minster Lovell, along the River Windrush which could take you all the way to the Thames. Oh, there were just too many weird and wonderful ways in which you loved her! You loved her wild red mane and her hazel eyes and the quaint size of her and her slim arms which glistened with sweat as you rode alongside her. You loved her laugh, a wondrous and free laugh which filled up the space between the two of you, as you lost speed and relaxed and hung back, as she sped down the path to the end of the track, laughing, laughing like happiness was really all both of you ever wanted—and why should you not have it? Why should you sacrifice any more for your miserable family? All those years spent indoors in a place that you hated, with a wife who never laughed authentically, and daughters who couldn't stand to be kind to you. You sped up then to catch your new lover—to grab your key to paradise, the antithesis to tedium you'd so pathetically longed for, the cure to your mid-life crisis and beyond—and you felt yourself in that moment being a man free and youthful and full of the life you had spent so many years utterly wasting. It was true, then, you decided, that you had done all this in pursuit of happiness. Simply, honestly, just to be happy. And this was the thought you were mulling over when you crashed.
Do people ever describe blood as sticky? You thought about it, as you lay in it, and it was smeared underneath you, gurgling from your injuries and seeping from them too. It seemed at the time: sticky. It stuck to you all over, like the glue you used as a boy in school in Bulawayo, like the honey you licked straight from the jar lid as a young man in your house share in Harare, like the dodgy lube you furiously wiped off the sheets in a fit of laughter on honeymoon in a lodge somewhere along the Zambezi river—when you were happy. Never before had you heard the word, when your EMT friends had told their tales of saving mangled people from crashed cars, when your wife of thirty years tended to the girls and their scrapes, their cuts, their bent and broken bones. No one described blood as sticky, and you wondered why, when it stuck to you that day like a brand-new second skin, like shame, like guilt and like the unstoppable process of becoming old. You felt the blood was a metaphor for so many things: for your many failures and stubborn decisions, and for so long allowing your hurt and rage to remain unspoken. It stuck to you: like glue, like honey, like lube.
Later, you cried in the bath thinking of how you'd limped to your bent bike and Charlene had come running, shouting, screaming, probably worried half to death that the old man she'd destroyed her reputation for was broken in some way: physically—the only way that really mattered at your age. And as you lay in your little puddle of bright red and nursed your furious welts from the nettle which had swamped your body as you fell, you thought of the crash as a manifestation of your regret. You thought, Look at what I've done to myself. Your love for this wild woman had gifted you the most curious injury: one that brought blood to the surface, one that oozed and stung with potency, one that oddly made you feel alive.... One that hurt like hell, but still, you weren't supposed to cry. And yet here you were. Not really a big man after all.
You couldn't help replaying the moment you pedalled into the great green growth—oh, how it seared! How it lashed at you as you tumbled. How the pavement clung to you as you careened into the feral plants, dragging at your skin, viciously grappling with your limbs. But why had you led yourself astray? It was a thought you couldn't shake. Perhaps you needed to be humbled, to be brought back down to earth. And so you felt a new sense of your worth, after that day, and for the following weeks, as you waded through that murky summer. You found it wasn't very much worth at all. You'd royally screwed up, and you really started to miss your daughters. And you couldn't believe it, but you missed your wife, somehow, you missed the simple presence of her: her smell, her voice, her hairs in the carpet, her imprint in your bed, and in your life. Things were different after that awful day: lonelier—and harder. You'd given up the titles Husband, Man of God, and Father. Your eldest called you Granddad now, which you wore with pride, but once or twice she faltered, she slipped a little as she said, 'Don't be silly, Dad! You'll always be welcome round ours.' It didn't faze you to be losing her as well. It only hurt to see yourself becoming unnecessary. Unwanted. Old.
As the heat wave wound down Charlene made beef bourguignon and baked brie and camembert, but it wasn't as tender as before, it wasn't as gooey or as fun. The excitement of sneaking around had been lost, and so you wasted time working out on your own—remember when you'd tell your wife you were hitting the gym? Now you really were. You found yourself indoors just as often as before. It was a way to escape the heat, the din. In September, someone nipped the mirror on your new BM. You thought of all the saved money you spent. You thought of the times you and your wife planned those retirement trips. Italy, Spain, Portugal in a camper van. Now you waited out the sweltering days in a small flat with your angry French lover and her cat (who you knew you were mildly allergic to), and your bicycle remained broken until November, and by that time it was too chilly to go cycling and besides, Charlene had taken up swimming and you hit the gym after work and sometimes visited your eldest daughter whose husband and baby demanded nothing from you but authentic laughter. It was always a chance to tap into your youth, into the boy who loved performing and pulling faces, who never missed an opportunity to climb a tree or get lost in nature, and even though you were closer to sixty than childhood, you were still that boy. Really, you were still just a boy. And that was the tragedy of aging.
The cusp of winter finally arrived. The leaves all fell and the roads grew slick with mist and the world became small with fog and shadows. Your regret had made a home deep inside your heart, and now that you'd accepted it was never leaving, you were happy in your own way, in the only way that really mattered at your age. Life carried on, once the unbearable heat was gone, once the new winter became another one of many—and just as meaningless. You continued to age, regardless of how much you hated it. Your eldest daughter, her husband and baby moved away, and your other daughters stayed polite but distant. Once when your wife went on holiday with her new partner, you went to work on your old garden in the back of the new-build that you always felt lacked character. And you filled it with bougainvilleas, with red hot pokers, with peach and fuchsia roses, with anything you found in the garden centre which vaguely reminded you of home—your other home, the home where you were happiest, at the bottom of Africa with your large backyard, where your small daughters squealed and ran bare-chested through the sprinklers, your dogs yelped and jumped and always wanted to be scratched, your car was freshly cleaned because it was the weekend and all you had on your hands was time. So much time. Back then, when you were young, and you were in love, with your wife and your life and the world outside which was yours to live in, and you hid from nothing. Not your old age, or your tears, or your regret.