“We’re thinking of selling the house.”
William beamed at me with his disarming smile. He was still handsome at 40, with long salt and pepper hair, but I turned away from him to process what he had just said.
The three of us were sat on beanbags in their treehouse, drinking tea from a tea set laid out on the floor between us. Betty was flicking through a magazine propped up on her lap with one hand and holding a cup in the other. She was striking in the soft afternoon light, with short cropped hair and an easy smile. They made a beautiful couple.
A single thin curtain danced in the soft breeze that entered through the window. In the corner nearest the hatch, a kettle sat on the floor, plugged into the single outlet that William had wired up. When I was last here a year ago, it was on an occasional table alongside a flamboyant Art Deco lamp that we had found together in an antiques store when our paths had serendipitously crossed in New York City.
There had been rugs from Turkey on the floor and batik wall hangings from Sri Lanka across the walls. I had brought them a beautiful original painting from an exciting new artist from Mexico City and it had taken pride of place opposite the main window.
Now, apart from the beanbags, there were no other furniture or decorations left up here and the wooden boards were exposed again.
They had been more than just thinking about it.
Betty threw down her magazine, suddenly remembering something important, and pushed herself out of her beanbag. She walked over to the window and pulled the curtain aside, looking concerned.
“We should go and rescue him.”
“Rescue who?” I asked, thankful for the distraction.
“We don’t know,” William said, still watching me carefully. “He was taking a selfie and took one step too many backwards. Fell off the cliff edge.”
“What?!” I cried, lunging to the window.
I looked out beyond the hedge that marked the end of their garden, and across the rough and rocky dried river bed, where an imposing cliff face defined one of the walls of the valley they lived in.
Two long rope ladders hung in parallel from the edge all the way to the bottom. About half way down the left one, hanging upside down and tangled in the ropes and slats, was a figure wearing what looked like a tuxedo.
“He’s just hanging there?” I asked. The man looked like he was well held by the twisted ropes, and was wriggling and squirming as he tried to pull himself upright.
“We think he was a little drunk.”
“How long has he been like that?”
William glanced at his watch. “Three or four hours. We’ll go and get him soon. What do you think about the house?”
There was no getting away from it.
I absentmindedly walked back over and sat back down.
What did I think? I loved the house. I had visited the house, and their small Spanish village, many times. The easy way that William and Betty had with the village people and their incomparable hospitality had always made this weary traveller feel relaxed and welcome. For someone without a place of his own, it was synonymous with home, much more so than my parents’ end terrace house on a rainy Manchester street.
It was, not to put too fine a point on it, my house too and I was more than a little taken aback that they had decided to sell.
“Where will you go?” I asked, buying myself a little time.
“I’d like to spend more time in Italy,” said Betty quickly before turning back to the window. William opened his hand towards Betty, which left only the one unanswered question hanging in the small wooden space.
We looked at each other for over a minute, he and I, neither of us saying anything. William sipped his tea slowly, not breaking eye contact over the rim of the cup.
I looked down at the tea tray. None of the vessels we drank from were alike: a mismatched set, accumulated over years, every item complete with an attached story. The teapot was from Mongolia, a gift from a nomadic family that lived in a yurt. My mug came from Thailand; William’s from South Africa; Betty’s from England. The stories would go with them, of course, but this house felt like a suitable museum and it seemed a shame to remove these historical artefacts from where I thought they belonged.
Betty continued to watch the man out of the window.
“If I’m honest,” I began finally, “I’ve really enjoyed that house. I’ll miss you being there.”
“I suspect you’ll miss us not being there, too” said Betty from the window, without looking. “He’s waving again.”
I felt my face redden.
William smelled blood. “Is that it? Is that what you’ll really miss? A free place to stay?”
Of course not, William. Don’t be ridiculous. I love you both. As the years that have passed number greater than the years I have left, the time we have spent together will be something I return to as a defining feature of a well-spent life. I will think about our adventures and be satisfied. I have enjoyed my productive hours alone here, but those times pale in comparison to the vivid days we have enjoyed together.
My dear friend, the problem simply is this: our lives are so intimately tied to places that an ocean of memories can wash over us from the simple act of opening a door to a familiar place. Your house is one of those places for me: a portal to past lives and shared experiences.
But we all need to move on. I understand that. I want you to get the most from your lives. I will miss you here, that’s all.
…is what, after many hours ruminating, I thought to say later.
“No, that’s…listen, I love seeing you guys…it’s just that…sometimes with work I need a space…”
…is what I actually stammered.
There was a silence so cold the tea froze in my cup. Betty turned further away from me, towards the window. The gentle curve of her back an eloquent judge of my flawed character.
William’s eyes narrowed. A horrible chasm opened up between us, the gulf between my inarticulate use of words and the feelings that I was trying to convey. Despite what happened next, I would never quite get over that feeling of shame and incompetence. From that moment on, I was acutely aware of the distance between what I wanted the world to hear and what I was actually able to say. I was a frustrated infant, banging his toy against the side of the crib, trying to get the huge and beautiful and intelligent and godlike people that surrounded him to understand his base and barbaric thoughts.
I took a deep breath.
That’s when William smiled. The relief was instant, like falling onto the most comfortable couch after a long day’s walking. Betty turned around, finally able to let out the laugh she had been stifling for that painful, hour-long minute.
“You goddam assholes,” I said, and then we all laughed hard together.
I laughed to release the confusion in my mind. I laughed to cover the pain of my own limitations. I laughed at my shame.
William laughed at Betty’s razor-sharp barb. Betty laughed at William’s subsequent exposure of my inability to connect with my best friends. We all laughed together to take most of the poison out of what was said and what was not said.
As the laughter faded, Betty turned back to the window, still chuckling. She suddenly stopped and quickly stood up.
“Whoops, I think he just passed out,” she said.
William got up too, wiped his eyes, and lifted up the hatch.
“Let’s go and rescue him.”