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The Distance Between

As we approach it appears like a giant mouth: a huge mechanical sluice gate. Spanning the top of the Rijnkanal. The bicycle path is straight. It stretches both behind and in front of us, always seeming to define an infinity of distance. Last time we cycled here, it was a summers day. Then the sun felt heavy on my shoulders and she talked and talked and I felt weak. We had come from Berlin that morning and I was struck by the difference in feeling. Not only the flatness of the land, the planed outlook, but something else. It was the curious sense of earth being absent. Here the trees seemed fragile, as if growing from water, as if somehow they were pushing up through the water. They had yet to reach air. It was the overpowering sense of the sea. She is a little way ahead of me and I call out to her to stop. Her feet touch the ground as I dismount. My eyes fix on the gates size. It appears to silence all around it. Against the dyke, the water laps. The swell from a passing barge pushes against the knotted, grassy edge. The trees, straight, their leaves not yet fallen, rustle lightly in the breeze. Into the air, the sluice gate rises. Ugly in its way and yet my eyes do not leave it. The sun is falling and reflects off the water. It is the sea that offers the opening. I think of all the distance it suggests. I imagine ships sailing the oceans: through time. Then I think of the coldness of the north, the far north, the crushing vastness of the Arctic. Into my mind spring names, names I learned at school. The Bering Straits, Archangel, Nova Zembla, Spitsbergen. In these names there is something of the desolation, the harshness of parts of the world. I cannot imagine people being there, let alone living there. Yet here in the depths of the canal, in the choppy water that leads to the port is some tiny part of their struggle to survive. I turn to her and she is looking at me. Her eyes are curious, questioning. For a moment the space between us, the actual distance, the metres, seem to exaggerate, to become greater than they really are.

Where she stands, waiting with her bicycle to where I have stopped, appears to elongate. I feel that distance strike me harshly. What if that closeness is not in fact closeness? What if the connection I feel with her is nothing other than a deceit? What if all there is, is the bareness of our existence; the simple, relentless biology of our lives? For those moments I feel fixed to the spot and immobile. It is as if I have frozen, as if the great gate of the Zeerburgerdijk is descending and closing me out. Then I step forward and pick up my bicycle. I find her eyes. She smiles but I am not sure if I can believe. I feel the incessant rushing forward of time and a growing fear of nothingness. I want to pull her close, the way I did one night on a metro train. I want to feel her arms around me, my head against her, my fingers in her hair, smell her against me, be touched by her warmth. That night it seemed the stars, the moon, the swirl of nebulae, the spiral of galaxies were just outside the roof of the fluorescent-lit carriage and the tunnel was in fact a long, winding journey we had always been on. Now I want only to step back inside the city. The path with its line of trees appears suddenly precarious. Perhaps the ground on which it is cut is about to slip away. Again I look into her eyes, searching for the confirmation, for the assurance. The anxiety increases. Then I hear her voice ask if I am all right. I recognise the familiarity, feel her words carry the closeness back: the intimacy of all of our life together returns. I see the home we share, the bed unmade in the morning, the sunlight falling across her uncovered shoulder. We are in the kitchen together, cooking. There is the ruby glow of a bottle of wine and vegetables cut on a wooden board. Above our heads a yellow lamp hangs. Its glow details our bodies in an unending play of light and shadow. She looks at me, an expression of puzzlement crossing her face. Her head falls to one side and then she turns. I see her move away. The length of her back is straight in the sunlight. The mouth of the harbour stands still. To my side the sound of the water rises above the noise of the afternoon, above the constant murmur of the city. It rises and rises and then I am alongside her. My face is set against the cool afternoon air and I am cycling.

Copyright Peter Millington. October 1998.

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