Last February, we visited the island of Ruegen on the morning after a great storm. The usually calm Baltic had raged for a day and a night, trees were torn out of the cliffs, and firefighters in the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern had been called out two hundred times.
Next morning, the coast looked pure and innocent, the sand beaches, white rock, and grey sea as unruffled as two hundred years ago when Friedrich had painted his view of the chalk cliffs, jagged as canines, snapping at the inverted blue triangle of water, while three deranged travellers tottered, elegantly, on the lips of the maw.
The only signs that violence had been committed were the wounds left in the cliff face, and the broken limbs of trees. The sea whispered indifferently. We took photographs.
One day, a few weeks after our trip, I caught up with myself, nine months into my term, time to have a baby instead of bearing sorrow like a malignant tumour.
You reach a time when you realize you’ve stopped falling in the chasm and you should drag yourself up to peer over the edge for everyone else’s sake, if not your own.
Even the dreams have quietened down. There was one last night that took me somewhere new, not into the turbulent darkness of a bottomless well, or boxed up in a suffocating, windowless room, but outside into the sunlight of a boundless landscape.
I was looking for her; I’d lost her. In my dreams I was always losing her. It was my fault. We were supposed to be doing a roleplay job together as simulated patients in a hospital, and she’d gone missing. It was unlike her to miss a job.
She must have left the building to go out for a walk, and I panicked because she was supposed to be under medical supervision, though she did not know, or at least admit to me, how ill she was, and I would have died rather than let her find out.
After a frantic search through dressing rooms rigged in crowded corridors and on staircases blocked by actors putting on their makeup, and, on landings further down, by wounded soldiers being evacuated in the middle of a war. They were real soldiers, not actors, or, if they were, very good actors, because of the pain in their eyes as they shared jokes and smoked their cigarettes.
I ran until I reached the auditorium of a shabby Victorian theatre, dusty and ashen with disuse. It was a cavernous husk, where no human voice would speak again, so I knew she would not be there.
I ran to the first exit I could find, and opened a door expecting to see the concrete paths and dejected trees of the hospital grounds. They weren’t there. The world had shifted on its axis. In front of me was Richmond Park, on a bright summer’s day, packed with people having picnics under a cloudless blue sky.
I knew it was Richmond Park; it was as familiar to me as our own back garden from the days I had played there as a child, in the primordial time before my father got ill and died.
When we are children, we see moments of transition, from one era to the next, as physical objects like boundary stones; or we draw our own lines under time. Children are instinctive autobiographers with a sense of destiny. They see the tiny marks in rock, the shift of sand, that tell of events in places that other people do not want to see. Children thrive on awakening self-consciousness. Older people grow sick of it; to live happily, you must forget; memory makes you mad.
She used to take me to the park every weekend. I did not know it then, but it was her escape from the spider’s web at home, the house owned by my grandmother, enmeshing us all. We went for long walks in the woods, or sometimes sat with our sketch pads, while the deer, half-concealed by ferns in ancient hunting ground, tolerated us.
In my dream, I recognized the tower blocks of Roehampton rising on the left of where I was standing, just as we used to see them on our way from Sheen Gate to Adam’s Pond. I thought the buildings were ugly, but that was before I had travelled further in the world.
Once we’d been chased round the pond by a rutting deer. I did not understand what we had done to earn his hatred when we had done nothing knowingly to offend him. The park was not mine to be perfectly happy in, after all.
Another time, we had stood on the water’s edge admiring my new toy yacht on her maiden voyage. We watched the little vessel take a straight course to a nest of duckweed far out of our reach in the middle of the pond. She did not waver; she did not sink; she bobbed to catastrophe with perky white sails while I stood powerless on the shore.
That is how the slow, sickening unreeling of inevitability always replays in my mind. We left her stranded and walked home, complicit, I thought, in a crime of neglect.
Secretly, I used to hope that someone would care enough to rescue my sailboat and bring it back to me, but they never did. If she hadn’t had those little white sails, if she had been a plain bark of wood, or a plastic hull, I would not have yearned so much, but those beautiful pristine wings of hers, no bigger in memory than fingernails, or flecks of white paint dropped from an artist’s brush, they slither through my eyes to lodge in my mind, they flag carefree innocence and blissful ignorance, and I never stop wishing I had saved her.
It was odd that in my dream of Richmond Park, Adam’s Pond was not there, and there were no deer in their grassland, only an undulating green carpet littered with garish knots of people on what looked like a convention’s awayday.
I stood still for a moment staring at the view, disappointed that Elysium looked no better than a suburban heath. Then I realized that it was not the fields of the dead, or Arcadia or a spiritual recreational ground of any kind, but nothing more nor less than Richmond Park. I despaired of ever finding the woman I had lost, as I knew she could not be there, not now, not among the living.
I was sure that what I was seeing was a real place, not a vision, because there would be no point in having an unconscious mind at all if this was the best metaphorical heaven it could make up.
After a long journey through disease and war, after so much travail, even the uninsured traveller expects to see gardens hanging over an Italian lake, or golden beaches licked by a turquoise sea, or waterfalls sparkling in northern dales, but not Richmond Park on a Bank Holiday jamboree.
Watteau, Gathering in the Park 1716-17
Oil on wood, Musée du Louvre. Image source: WGA
Then I spotted her. She was kneeling on a blanket she had laid out on a sunlit mound of grass. I had a shock of joy when I saw she was dressed in her own clothes, not in a hospital gown any more, and, unlike anyone else there, she was not in a group, she was on her own, waiting for me.
The people I love are never exactly like themselves in my dreams, but I could tell it was her, even at a distance, because of her short, dark, curly hair and the way she held her back straight, and her head high, vital as a dancer preparing to leap.
She looked young and radiant again, as if she had never been ill, and she was smiling and waving to me to come and join her.
I knew I would not reach her in time, because the horizon suddenly tilted behind her, and the sky darkened and bulged as if the planet was being compressed, shut down by a giant’s eye closing.
Sails photograph by Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014
They are not really sails at all, merely light reflected on to a wall by the windows of a car.
Origin of the word TRAVEL:
Middle English travailen, travelen meaning to torment, labor, strive, journey, from Anglo-French travailler.
First Known Use: 14th century.
TRAUERARBEIT: German, literal English translation”griefwork”. First known use: in Trauer und Melancholie by Sigmund Freud, 1917.
Pippa Rathborne © 2008, 2015