This Dialogue of One
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
Small change, when we’re to bodies gone. John Donne
In a small café on an island off the coast, we waited for the ferry. It was late afternoon, a few of the tables already set for the evening meal. Warm sun shining through the windows, and a nip in the air as the night began to come down. January in far corner of Europe, on the Atlantic sea. No tourists around, except the two of us, reading our books in silence, tired out after our long day’s walk.
What was I reading? I can’t remember now. What I do remember is the way no one spoke in that café. The two men on the table behind us were playing cards. Sometimes they slammed a card down on the table, ending the round. Then they would sweep up the pack and begin to deal again. There might occasionally be a mutter, or an exclamation of surprise, but there was no talk between them.
At the bar, it was the same story. Fishermen stood drinking spirits in small shot glasses, or cups of espresso. They leaned their elbows on the bar, looking up at the television, which was on with the sound off, reading the tickertape of news that ran beneath the pictures. Or they gazed out to sea, looking for the speck of black on the water that would be the ferry coming in from the fishing port on the mainland.
At a table by the window, the women congregated. Old women with legs bowed from hard work, carrying plastic bags that they set down carefully on the floor. Younger ones with strong faces and broad shoulders, their dark hair scraped back, gold hoops hanging from their ears. They didn’t speak, either. Instead, they stared out, past each other, at the sea, fiddling with their lighters and cigarette packs, tapping their long fingernails on the table top. Like us, they were waiting.
From time to time, I stopped reading, shifted on my seat, turned to look at the television, the men playing cards. Looked at my watch, looked out to sea. But I wasn’t in a hurry for the ferry to arrive. The silence was companionable. Warm, even. We none of us spoke to each other, which made it feel as if we were somehow connected – not as friends, but as fellow human beings, with no need to make conversation with each other. The kind of rare silences that sometimes fall in families, when adults go about their tasks and the children settle to play, each engaged in the dialogue of one, unheard but understood.
I was happy, then. My companion opposite me,my life companion, immersed in his book, frowning as he read, as I had seen him do so many times and would do again so many more. The card players, the fishermen, the women, all of us savouring this moment of limbo when the world stopped turning, stopped churning. The words of a song came into my head:
This moment will never come again, what is now will soon be then …
And I was sad, too. Sad that the sun was about to set on another day, that there were just the two of us now, him and me, no children fidgeting beside me, climbing on the chairs, drowning out the dialogue of one, wanting this, wanting that, a coca cola, a can of ice tea, peach ice tea, a sweetie, please mum, please, please, no, now that’s enough, you can have one after tea when we get home … and no one waiting anywhere for us to come home, to be mother and father again. Sad that the ferry would come in, and the night would come down, and most of what was going to happen to me in my life had already happened, and would never happen again … and that one day, one day I could see now, waiting for me out there on the horizon, the night would come down on me for the last time and I would have to say goodbye to all this beauty, all this love, this world that every day, had been so new, so good, to me, however ungrateful and miserable and complaining I’d been to it …
The ferry came in late, as we all knew it would do. Only a few minutes, but late all the same. Just enough to make you wonder for a moment, but what if it never comes and we all stay here for ever, out here on the Atlantic seaboard, in the café at the end of the world? But, of course, it did come. A cheerful sight, its bright blue bow ploughing through the water, its tin roof shining in the sun. When we saw it, we all got up, collected our belongings, buttoned our coats, donned our hats. Then we filed outside and waited on the jetty while the ferry docked. People lit up cigarettes. The fishermen began to joke with each other, jostling in the queue. The women started chatting. The boat chugged to a halt, churning the water. The skipper threw over the gangplank, and as we stepped on, one by one, became passengers on a journey,people with a purpose once more.
On the way back, there was an atmosphere of hilarity among the fishermen aboard the boat. Not understanding the langauge, we didn’t know what the jokes were about, but they involved swinging carrier bags of wet fish about, hugging one another round the head, and roaring with laughter. The women, by now, were deep into their gossip. As we made our way back to the mainland, there was a spectacular sunset, which everyone but us, the tourists, ignored. To our left, we passed another island, a clutch of home-built houses perched drunkenly in the centre of it, dogs running about and barking on the beach in front, between the boats.
We came in to the town port. The fishermen shouted at their friends on the shore. The women talked faster and higher, laughing excitedly. The boat began to chug louder as it slowed, once again churning up the water behind it. In the commotion, the dialogue of one, of spirit with dust, was forgotten.
But we had heard it, each of us in the café, in the moment where the world stopped turning, stopped churning. I still remember it now, as if it were yesterday. And I know it will come again … though I hope not too soon.