For twenty-eight years she has told this story: how they, two Americans, had met on Hampstead Heath, in the gardens of Kenwood House, sitting at adjoining tables. She had watched him, intrigued by the fact that he was three-quarters of the way through The Magic Mountain.
How, the instant before he pushed a jam-laden scone into his mouth, she had shrieked “Stop! Stop! A bee! Don’t swallow it!”
And then she would tell about the famous walk—how she, with no sense of direction, and he, who never got lost, had spent the afternoon walking—across the heath and on into the clamoring city. How, at her suggestion, they had tossed a coin at each intersection to determine where to go next, he never letting on that they had walked in rough circles, or that many of the places they stumbled upon were not new to him.
She ends the story, always, exactly the same way. “That was one of the great conversations of my life.”
Three decades later, he doesn’t remember what they talked about. He remembers her shining red-gold hair and her breasts. Her breasts under the thin white muslin of her dress.
But that evening, he had shut her down before she started. She leapt up from the table, the story unlaunched, away from him and the reproachful soup, sat down at the computer, and, over his objections, started looking for cheap flights to London.
And now, after a week of silent anger, his, and secret excitement, hers, a week of scrambling to put off work meetings, resentful packing, a long and uncomfortable—and in his opinion, not cheap enough—flight on a budget airline, after stale sandwiches in Reykjavik, here they are in London.
In a cheap Airbnb room in Kentish Town—patchwork quilt, African striped rug and tasteful botanical prints, all imbued with the very faint odor of cats. “Cheaper than the Oregon Coast for the weekend,” she had told him triumphantly.
He longs for the anonymity of a hotel. Their hostess, a retired social worker in straitened circumstances, is sleeping just on the other side of what, he is sure, is a very thin wall. The bed groans at his every cautious attempt to stretch his legs without touching his wife. They have their backs to each other. It is 5 a.m. They are wide awake.
He gets up and starts to dress. He needs to get out of this tiny room.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Going to find coffee.”
“There’ll be nowhere open. I’m coming, too.”
He wants, badly to go on his own but cannot bear the thought of the hissing and whispering that will ensue if he says so. The landlady would be awoken by the fuss.
He sits back down on the bed and sighs. He reads his phone while she dresses, making sure not to meet her eyes.
Out on the street, well-lit before dawn, he is struck by the changes on Kentish Town High Street. When they met, she had been working in an Irish pub near the Tube Station—fruit machines, smelly carpet, and serious drinkers. The High Street’s sad parade of convenience stores and scruffy fish and chip shops—“We have mushy peas, the only green vegetable on the high street!” was that the slogan?—has been transformed.
The Irish pub is long gone, smart condominiums in its place. They pass boutiques with pearlescent lighting, ironically named cocktail bars and organic grocers whose windows boast in copperplate that samphire, mâche, and frisée are in stock.
All the coffee shops are closed. It is still dark. The intersection at the top of the hill has a multipronged sign with directions and distances for cyclists and walkers.
“Hampstead Heath is only three-quarters of a mile,” she says, grabbing his arm. “Let’s go.”
He shrugs her off. “What about coffee? And I want to shower before starting the day.”
“Oh, come on. We’re bound to pass a coffee shop on the way there—or back. We’ll come straight back. Let’s go watch the sun rise from Parliament Hill.”
Her relentless enthusiasm, he feels sure, is calculated to annoy him. She is determined to goad him into a confrontation—about their being here, about her impulsiveness, anything. He will not be goaded.
By the time they reach the Heath, she too, has retreated into silence. She has gotten better at aggrieved silence over the years. She has learned it from him. He does not feel guilty. Better than the yelling, the tears.
There is a mist hovering over the Heath. As they enter the woods and lose the glow from the streetlights, she turns on the flashlight on her phone.
But soon the darkness starts to fade. They can see the ground in front of them. She is walking fast now.
He bends to retie his shoelace and notices something glittering in the dry mulch. It’s a woman’s hairclip—bright blue glass on a silver frame. The sort of thing, slightly gaudy, that she loves. He picks it up, turns it over.
“Hurry,” she calls. “Let’s get to the top of the hill to see the sun come up.”
He stands up slowly. Pockets the barrette without showing it to her and looks around to get his bearings. “We won’t make it,” he says. “Parliament Hill is way across the other side of the Heath. The sun will rise long before we get there. And then we’ll have to walk all the way back.”
He hates to retrace his steps. She used to find this endearing.
They are on a rather scrubby section of the Heath. The roar of traffic from the main road is growing louder and she clicks her tongue at a used condom in the middle of the footpath. It’s early October and the leaves are fading but not yet brilliant. The wind feels malicious.
He knows her every instinct is to plunge deeper into the Heath, to get away from the road, but they came out for coffee, and he is determined to get it.
“Let’s skirt the edges till we get up to Highgate—the coffee shops might be open by then,” he says.
“And walk back across the Heath?” she says.
“Or we could take the Tube. I’m tired.”
They both know she is likely to get lost on the Heath on her own—walk in frustrating circles.
“Fine. Whatever.” She hitches up her fanny pack—the one he hates, that he once asked her not to wear, the one the kids tease her about, and, he has to admit, the one she is self-conscious about, despising it while loving having both hands free and shoulders unencumbered. She adjusts it again, and marches off in front of him.
They’re on a wider path now, in a part of the Heath he doesn’t recognize. The path becomes a track. Milford Lane says a sign. Trees, tallish, on both sides, lean toward each other, leaves absolutely still. At this early hour it seems like a secret corridor.
She stops suddenly, looking to find the source of a tapping sound. At the base of a sign, two ravens peck at something lying in the grass. The crust of a sandwich perhaps. Their beaks tug energetically and click against the sign’s wooden pole. It says, in large black letters:
HIGHGATE TOWN COUNCIL
WOMEN ONLY PAST THIS POINT
There is no pond visible from the road. A footpath leads off the main track, deeper into the trees
She laughs. “Oh my, I read about this. It’s been here a hundred years. There’s a men’s pond as well. Separate, of course. Let’s go and look!”
“I’m not allowed past this point. Women only.” he says. “And anyway, what’s the point? There’ll be no one swimming. It’s too cold. Let’s go get some hot coffee.”
“Seriously?” she shouts, the explosion that’s been threatening all morning. “What is your problem? Let’s go see this pond. It’ll take five minutes.”
He sees over her shoulder, someone, a young woman, coming up the path. “Shh! You’re yelling,” he tells her. “And waving your hands around. Watch the gestures.”
“Here we go with the fucking gestures again! I’ll gesticulate if I want to, Mr. What-will-the-neighbors think. I’ve had it with you.”
“Shh,” he says again. “Someone’s coming. She’ll hear you.”
She throws off his restraining hand, flips him the bird, and sets off up the path to the pond.
The young woman, who, he sees now, has a towel over her shoulder, reaches him just as his wife turns around to say, “Piss off. Go get your goddamned coffee.”
The young woman gazes coolly at him and walks by without speaking.
He is angry now. And, perversely, determined to see the pond. He will walk around and see if there’s a vantage point from the other side. And then he will find a coffee shop and get the underground back to Kentish Town.
He follows Milford Lane until he sees the glint of water through the trees. There is no path so he scrambles through the undergrowth until he comes to a fence. The ladies pond is large and dank and weedy. There is a duck swimming on it. Opposite him, across the water, is a wooden platform with a structure on it. Probably a change room.
As he watches, the door creaks and the young woman from the path, now wearing only a bright red racing swimsuit, steps onto the platform.
She is beautiful, tall and clean-limbed and rosy. He darts behind a tree. He has no wish to be a voyeur, but it is hard not to watch her.
She walks over to the edge of the platform and stares down into the water. Bows her head suddenly so that her hair cascades in front of her face, and quickly, neatly makes a bun. She straightens and raises her arms in a stretch. He gasps in appreciation.
And then the change-room door creaks and slams again and his wife is on the platform. She is completely naked. He gasps again.
She is so much shorter and rounder than the other woman. Her iron-grey curls do not cascade. He quails for her. He sees the pouch of her belly, and can feel, now, beneath his fingers, the raised lines of the caesarian scars that trace the slackened muscles.
But she is not self-conscious. She, it is clear, will not hesitate to take the plunge.
She dismisses the staring young woman with a brief glance. And heads farther down the platform, moving fast.
She flings her arms into position—a ripple of quilted flesh—jogs three steps and takes off.
He follows her through the cold air—her serviceable body, transformed by long-remembered skill, soars in a graceful arc, and enters the water cleanly. A small miracle of grace and efficiency.
She surfaces, her hair sleek and close to her head, panting against the shock of the cold water. She swims a decorous breaststroke, towards the middle of the pond. Towards him.
“Miranda!” he shouts. “Miranda, I’m over here!” He raises his arms to give her two thumbs up. But instead, when she looks up, surprised, he kisses each of his palms, smack, smack, and flings his arms out toward her in wild, extravagant approval.
And she, as he knows she will, throws her head back and laughs, full-throated.
Rebecca Koffman’s fiction has appeared in the MacGuffin, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Colere, and Literary Mama.