It was the first thing we couldn’t agree on in six years together. Was it the end?
Delicious festive food
I wasn’t SO SURE, after he’d said it ALOUD, but it had been MY IDEA
Six months ago, precisely, Tom and I went our separate ways. Quite literally. He went east, I went west. The idea of travelling had been quite spur of the moment. That was Tom, a spur of the moment kind of guy. I’m more of a planner, if truth be told.
“We should do it. We should travel, Lizzie,” he said one evening when the credits rolled on a nature documentary set in a far-flung land. “Before we’re tied to four weeks’ holiday a year and are saving like mad to get married and putting a deposit together.”
That was the first time either of us had brought up the subject of marriage. I wondered if it was a proposal of sorts. Right then, I was more excited by the prospect of travel. I had no doubt we’d get married at some time. But travel was a new thing we’d not discussed.
We’d finished uni a couple of years before, both got jobs, but not permanent ones. A trip together before settling into proper careers sounded exciting. It would be so much harder, later, to take time off and travel.
“I’m thinking America. A road trip. Route 66, maybe?” I said, being bold, getting my suggestion out there.
“I’ve always wanted to visit Thailand,” he said.
My heart sank. We’d only just started talking about destinations and already we couldn’t agree.
Tom pulled out an atlas he’d had since he was at school and we flipped through the pages together. So many places, so little time, I thought. A lot of the names of countries had changed.
We’d been on camping holidays together, that kind of thing, but nothing big together. The decision about where to go camping hadn’t been too challenging. This was different.
I had always fancied Route 66, even though I knew it wasn’t exactly the original route from way back when.
”I’m drawn to the Far East,” Tom said. “Just think, all those temples.” “Not the Wild West, then?” I said. He’d made a face. I fancied digging away to find my inner wild child, hair flowing freely in the breeze, the sun warming my face. He fancied finding himself spiritually awakened. For the first time in our six years together, we weren’t reading from the same page.
Tom and I met at school. He’d joined our sixth form, and we’d got chatting on the school bus. We were soon insepara- ble. Friends first, then a couple.
We were so much in love we applied to the same universities and were lucky enough to get places at the same one. Different courses, though.
“You’re so young, love, I think you’re crazy. Uni is a time to be free, not to be tied down,” said my mum, who had met my dad when she was eighteen. They’d been engaged within weeks and happily together ever since. “That was differpwaraaytes
ent,” she said when I challenged her. “I didn’t go away to university. I didn’t have your opportunities.”
It wasn’t that she and my dad didn’t like Tom. They thought the world of him.
We were inseparable at uni. We had loads of friends, we weren’t daft enough not to mingle, but I never met anyone else I wanted to be with romantically more than Tom, and he felt the same.
Disagreeing over the destination of our trip was our first major argument.
Tom really didn’t want to go to America, it transpired. “It’s full of cowboys,” he said. “Which century are you living in, Tom?” I replied mockingly.
To be fair to him, I really didn’t want to go to Thailand and the Far East.
“It will be so busy, all that bustle in Bangkok. And the humidity. Ugh.”
Before that we’d bickered, obviously. Doesn’t everyone? He’s happy with own-brand beans, I like branded ones. That kind of thing. But this was bigger.
As we talked and talked and never agreed about it, I wondered if my mum had been right. Had we been too young? Should we both live a bit before settling down?
It had been my suggestion that we go our separate ways. “How about you go your way, Tom and I go mine? It’s only six months, after all. We’ve been together long enough to weather that, surely?”
He’d taken the suggestion better than I thought he might.
“Might be the best solution,” he’d said. “Do us good to be apart a bit. Give us a chance to find out that we really are committed. We’re still very young to settle down.”
I wasn’t quite so sure then, after he said that aloud, but I had made the initial suggestion, so I had to go along with it. We were still young – he was right. We’d still be the first of our friends to marry, if that’s what we did.
“I’ll miss you, though,” he’d added, holding me close.
“I’ll miss you too,” I’d said. Like crazy, I’d thought, wondering if this was the biggest mistake I’d ever made.
Our parting was very amicable. We gave notice on the flat, moved our stuff back into our parents’ lofts and packed for our trips. We kept everything bright and breezy. We weren’t splitting up, after all. Although it kind of felt like it.
“Kettle at your parents or mine?” I asked. Not that it really mattered. One loft was pretty much the same as the other. But it felt symbolic of something. The atlas definitely went with him.
My friend Mel joined me on my road trip, which was cool. She had family in Chicago. Her uncle kindly lent us a car. Not the classic Cadillac we’d dreamed of, more of an old banger, but it saved some money and suited us just fine.
It was a brilliant experience. We soaked up the atmosphere in the small American towns we passed through.
“We’re like Thelma and Louise,” Mel remarked as we drove. “I hope it’s a happier ending,” I replied. We got on really well. Mel was my closest girlfriend at uni; we started out in the same halls of residence. On Route 66 we had loads of fun, laughter, and the odd scrape or two.
Walking into a bar where it all went silent and there was that you-aren’tfrom-around-here feeling exuding from the group of Hell’s Angels who had turned to face us – that was one.
I emailed Tom to tell him about it, once we’d quickly downed a soda
each and left unscathed, finding our way back to our budget motel.
We kept in touch by messenger and email, Tom and I. Told each other about the sights we’d seen. I sent him photos of the restored motels, the petrified forest, the gas stations. In return he sent pictures of deserted beaches, golden-roofed palaces and street food stalls.
He’d hooked up with a group of people on the way. My heart contracted when I saw the group, arms around one another, grinning broadly. His left hand rested on the shoulder of a pretty, petite blonde woman. I wondered if there was any more than friendship between them. Mynewmates, he captioned the image. I regretted how we’d parted, bright and breezy, me waving him off at the airport. His flight was three days before mine. I had to wonder if this was the end and we’d become just good friends.
I knew we’d never lose touch; we’d shared way too much for that. But would we have a relationship when we arrived home? I, for one, couldn’t say.
“Love you,” I’d called after him, sobs choking me. Had he heard me?
“Love you too, Lizzie.” He’d turned, waved, blown a kiss and gone on his way.
Mel had a fling with a cowboy in Arizona. One of his friends chatted me up too, but I declined his offer to drive into the sunset together. I missed Tom so much that evening, and wondered what he would do if the pretty blonde flirted with him. Six months apart is a long time.
We arrived home in the UK a week before Tom did, tired and happy. Late October in the UK felt cold, damp and dark. There was no comparison to autumn in Santa Monica.
I wondered how Tom was faring weather-wise in Bali, his final destination on his Far East tour. Hot and humid, I imagined.
It felt strange to be back during the hustle and bustle of autumn – Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, and then the run-up to Christmas. I was glad of distractions, though. I had my new job to plan for – I was due to start as trainee manager in a big department store in a fortnight. I was surrounded by seasonal stuff – Hallowe’en costumes and fireworks.
I love fireworks. One of our first dates had been a bonfire party. I’d snuggled against Tom as the display lit up the sky. “Beautiful,” he’d whispered. “Aren’t they,” I said. Turned out he’d meant me. I emailed Tom with a suggestion. It was a spur of the moment thing, which had always suited Tom. I know I’d only just got back, but still. It was a date of sorts. A date of a lifetime. I just hoped he’d say yes.
Iwas as jittery as anything at the station. I couldn’t sit still, so I decided to get something to read while I waited. I was early, as I always am.
Tom wasn’t there yet. I hoped he wasn’t going to be a no-show. I couldn’t bear that thought.
“Can I help you?” The shop assistant nudged me gently.
“Sorry. Daydreaming,” I said, popping my magazines on the counter and digging for my purse.
The overhead sign told me which platform to head for. I glanced down at my phone. No messages, and it was almost time. I grabbed the handle of my overnight bag and started walking. “Lizzie – wait for me.” I turned and he was there, running towards me. He looked different. Longer hair, tanned face. Six months apart kind of different. More grown-up.
“You look lovely, Lizzie, really lovely. I’m so sorry I’m late.”
I bet I looked different, too. Travel changes you, doesn’t it? Hopefully for the better.
“Well, you’re here now,” I said, before we could greet each other properly, like boyfriend and girlfriend, if that’s what we still were. “Quick – we don’t want to miss our train.”
So, here we are, lying on our backs, gazing at the Northern Lights. We’re at the northernmost point of Scotland. Just for forty-eight hours. None of this East/West nonsense.
The show is spectacular. It’s as if the Aurora Borealis is performing, just for us. Shards of multi-coloured light dance across the sky.
I’m lying on Tom’s chest; I can hear his heart beat. He kisses my head.
“Love you,” I say as the lights skip, red emerging from below green.
“Love you too,” he replies. “I’m so glad we found each other again.”
I don’t ask if he discovered himself in the Far East and he doesn’t ask about cowboys in the Wild West. That can wait until later. We’ve got the rest of our lives, after all. We kiss, not for the first time today. “Makes you think, being apart, doesn’t it?” I say.
“Of what you’re missing,” he says. “Yes. I’ve had some great experiences during the last six months. But nothing like this. Being here with you.
“That marriage thing. Still up for discussion?” he asks. I don’t even pause. “Yes,” I reply. “Of course.” Right now, I’m so glad I suggested this trip, albeit brief and on a tight budget. And I’m so glad Tom joined me.
I’m quite sure there will be fireworks later. Then, tomorrow, we head south again. Back to our future together.
I GLANCED DOWN at my phone. NO MESSAGES, and it was ALMOST TIME