Once googling people became possible, I googled him every couple of years or so, in odd idle moments, or at times when I was about to undergo, or had just undergone, life-changes such as moving to a new city or getting a new job or breaking up with my partner. His name, it turned out, is not an uncommon one, but even after I’d filtered out the people who were obviously not him, or proved on further investigation not to be him – the children’s book illustrator based in Arizona, the veteran of the Falklands War, the homoeopath – there was never any trace, until the last time I did it.
It wasn’t boredom or indeed a life-change that prompted me on that occasion. I found myself driving, on the way to a work appointment, past a sign that pointed to the village where his family had lived when he and I first met. I remembered the name because I used to send long and usually unanswered letters to him there during university vacations. No sooner had the idea of making a diversion and going to see the place where he grew up occurred to me, than I’d missed the turning, and by the time I went past the next sign, which offered another opportunity, I’d told myself that of course the idea was a stupid one, because what did I expect? That I’d bump into him in the shop? There probably wasn’t a shop there anymore, if there ever had been one. His parents most likely upped sticks or turned up their heels years ago. And it wasn’t as though he’d done anything to merit a street named in his honour, or a blue plaque, though he’d have appreciated one of those.
He wanted to be a poet; he was a poet, he wrote poems, exceedingly obscure ones that he couldn’t get published, not even in the student magazine. He’d always maintained that the people who rejected them just didn’t understand, but he wasn’t going to give up, he’d find his audience eventually. An audience that comprised of more people than just me, I supposed he meant. I never had the heart to tell him that I didn’t really understand his poems either, but just liked to listen to the sound of his voice. I’d sit on the rug, leaning against his single bed and he’d sit in his desk chair, and read the latest ones aloud by the light of his angle poise lamp, and when he’d finally finished, I’d assure him that they were brilliant and he’d sigh and say my interest meant a lot to him, though it was never quite clear to me why what I said mattered.
Remembering that – me down on the floor on the grubby rug, him on the chair, his neat suede shoe occasionally coming into disconcertingly close proximity with my face – I felt gratified, as I had when those google searches failed, that, as far as I could tell, those early hopes of his had come to nothing.
When I got to the hotel that evening, I googled again and there was a hit that I hadn’t seen before, a link that took me to the website of a merchant bank and a few more clicks took me to a two-minute video clip, and I lay on the shiny bedspread among the many cushions and saw him for the first time in almost thirty years. He’d thickened at the waist, the lines around his eyes made them seem sunken, and his hair was receding, though he’d kept it parted at the side. His feet were hidden, so I couldn’t see whether he still favoured suede shoes. But his voice was unchanged. It was the same voice that had read those poems to me; I’d have known it anywhere. He was being interviewed on a satellite channel I’d never heard of that seemed to be devoted solely to business news, and he was explaining something about borrowing rates that was utterly incomprehensible to me, no matter how many times I replayed it. I wonder whether all that stuff about tapering and the Libor and fixed premiums is what counts as poetry to him now.
Victoria Stewart lives near Liverpool and has had stories published by Reflex, Bath Flash, Flash Flood and Ellipsis.