Next time, Stonehenge

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 24 October 2017

A wise old man, who has seen a lot of the world, gives our writer some timely advice.

Stunning view of the Stonehenge. Photo by Neil Howard.

I was sitting with my Uncle John, telling him about my trip to England.

Uncle John is 101 and has travelled the world. He has seen the sunrise over Pacific islands and watched the Northern Lights ripple and crack in the Arctic sky, and he likes remembering sights grand and small, and the smells and sounds of the places he has been, and the feel of the wind or the sun or the snow on his skin. He says he can close his eyes and it’s like being alive all over again.

I tell him, ‘You’re alive now,’ because he is – he is alive and clear of mind and can still walk unaided – and he just smiles and nods with an air of, ‘You’ll see…’

I told him I’d driven to Devon via Dorset and had stayed over in Salisbury, and he sat back with his eyes closed, travelling the route in his mind. I told him I’d caught a glimpse of Stonehenge across a field from the car but I hadn’t stopped. He opened his eyes and frowned.

‘Why not?’ he said.

I told him I’d been behind schedule, and I hadn’t felt like spending the money, and I’d be back that way one day and I would definitely go see it next time.

My Uncle John is a gentle and thoughtful man, but I could see he was unhappy with this. His brows knitted and he drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. I asked him what was wrong.

‘If you’re lucky,’ he said, ‘life is long. But it’s not that long.’

I didn’t understand, so he drummed his fingers some more and told me about Berlin.

My Uncle John had fought in the Second World War, and he had always been curious about Berlin. In the 1970s and 1980s his work took him often to Hamburg. His wife would accompany him and they’d take walks around the Alster in the evenings and boat rides on the river. Berlin was only a few hours away by train, and they intended to go at the end of each trip. Each year they returned to Hamburg and made plans to go to Berlin, but something always happened.

One year he came down with flu, another year there was a rail strike. It became a running joke with them: whenever he promised to do something around the house, like change a light bulb or fix the dripping tap, she would roll her eyes and say, ‘You’ll take me to Berlin before that happens.’

One year they had the hotel in Berlin booked and the train tickets in hand, but his work in Hamburg extended longer than anticipated. She had had enough. She took her ticket and went without him, and returned with stories of how exciting Berlin was, how you could feel the energy and life of new beginnings. She couldn’t wait to return; she couldn’t wait to show him what she’d seen, and to walk down a certain lamplit street together. There was a bar she’d found, and a shop that sold spooky dolls, and she wanted to sit under a linden tree with him and sip beer. He promised he would go with her next year. He would cut Hamburg short so that they would have more time in Berlin.

Next year they didn’t go to Berlin, or even to Hamburg. Next year she fell ill. They travelled once more, to London to see their grown children, and then she died.

He had opportunities to visit Berlin after that, of course, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, to walk down those streets without her, wondering which streets were the right streets. My Uncle John patted my hand with his weak, thin hand.

‘There is no such thing as next time,’ he said.

This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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