I met my Juliet when I was fourteen. And like in Shakespeare’s tale, we died together, though that’s subjective. We became something else, something more, and something you know. And, sometimes, we come back.
My family used the school holidays to have excursions from the city to the countryside for a work-nine-to-five detox. The village was called Still, and was somewhere in the north of Scotland. “It’s between places and cairns,” I would tell my friends to describe it like an adventure to a place that wasn’t of the Earth. But really, disappointingly, it was.
My Juliet, whose name was actually Jenny Pine, was also generally quite typical. A box of chocolates girl. She wasn’t stunning and she wasn’t gifted with the usual ideals of a woman’s figure. The single attribute she had that could be considered beautiful were her eyes, which were a murky watercolour dark blue. Her brow was always steeped in a constant, intense daydream, living fantasies elsewhere. She was short, but not petite; you could tell her days were spent wandering and hiking from the wooded hills where we visited, and where I first saw her.
I’ve caught myself many times remembering and huffing at the cliché of it, which I didn’t realise at fourteen. My parents, older sister, and I were trekking when I saw her wandering amidst the sweet sap scent of the woods looking for the blackbird that sang in the softness that comes after rain. I only saw her for a few moments before I lost sight of her. If I hadn’t met her later in the village I would have thought her to be a whimsical creature of the forest; a myth told by locals. The full fairy-tale cliché. I laugh at it now because moments like that actually happen, and they’re not just a fiction you read about. If you’re in the right place, at the right time, it happens.
I spent the rest the of the walk doing what any hormonal fourteen-year-old would do who believed he had just fallen love: I imagined the story of the rest of our lives. Obviously, that story was never lived, but, we lived another tale that even my imagination could never have conjured.
The village Still sat on the top of a hill, surrounded by a natural moat and circle of hills. Though, the moat was empty, filled instead with tall thick grass. I have a vague memory as a child that it was once a lake. But it’s one of those feathered memories that tempers between reality and fiction, like dreams in the morning. The village was small and designed to be Victorian so as to attract tourists; thatch roofs, pubs, b&bs, and a single cobbled main street. It made the perfect escape for city dwellers such as my family. When we returned to Still after my sighting of Jenny, my mind was filled with an imagined life, from my first sighting of her, to my death-bed with Jenny Pine holding my hand and surrounded by our children and family. Then, I saw her again.
She bounded into the cottage opposite ours and I remember being happier than when I’d finally been allowed to watch the original Star Wars films. She was greeted by her smiling father, who didn’t seem to mind that she’d been out wandering by herself all day in the woods. Her cottage, I thought, was much like her. It was quaint, petite, and the door was a simple but magnificent piece of knotted oak, embellished with black iron hinges and a twisting door handle. For the rest of the week, I made excuses to sit outside on the steps of our own rented cottage. It didn’t take long for my sister to find out what I was doing.
‘You can’t just sit and stare and wait for something,’ she said, surprising me with advice rather than a jibe, ‘do something to get her attention.’
‘What should I do?’ I had no idea. Honestly, though, I was scared of her dad and what he would say to a pursuing young man. Ultimately, I believed I faced rejection.
‘Figure something out,’ she said, then stepped over me and went to the pub with my parents. For the rest of the day, I sat, mulling over what I should do. I was so absorbed in my thinking that I didn’t see her appear in front of me.
‘Sorry,’ was the first thing I said to her. I’ve no idea why, but I just did.
‘Why?’ She asked, frowning. I panicked.
‘Do you know any cool places in the forest? I saw you wandering around,’ I felt pleased with this response.
‘Yeah. I’m Jenny.’
‘I’m Glen.’ Good. I’ve got this far. All my imagined plans flashed through my head and I thought of the next step to take.
‘Want to see a cool tree?’ she asked.
We left together and hiked up through the forest towards the top of the hill. Every turn through a garden or hedgerow felt like I was walking through her secrets. Finally, I was living the lie I’d been fronting to my friends. I wasn’t as quick as her, but I forced myself to keep up, trying to hide my struggle beneath my boyish pride. The tree she took me too was near the top of the village hill, overlooking the strange circular valley.
Before I could catch my breath she started climbing, following a route she’d done a thousand times before, reaching one hand over another in perfect practice. In the city I’d never really had anything to climb. I don’t think I should have been excited as I was to climb a tree, but I’m glad I was. I like the childish excitement that isn’t quite justified by the situation.
It took me longer to climb the tree and reach the branch she was waiting to share with me, but I didn’t care by this point because I was having too much fun. For the next five years, we climbed that tree together until it would no longer support our weight. The white scar on my collarbone proved that point from when I fell and broke it in the fifth year.
The tree wasn’t the centre of the full cliché, however. We first kissed in a tent in the forest two years after we first met, and had sex the next. Each time we met it was for no longer than a week, but in that week I learned more about myself that I did the rest of the year. Though, we never really deemed ourselves in a relationship. We both knew and understood what the distance between us meant. If we had flings or relationships between the time we saw one another, we didn’t speak about it. That was the rule.
There are some nights that bring with it all the thoughts that broke the rule; who else has she slept with? Is she doing this with anyone else? It was this big black book, waiting for me to get into bed so that we could be alone and it could list all the things she might be doing that would want to make me curl up and sob. At the time, I didn’t realise that this was a kind of love. Nor did I realise that this is what puberty does to you.
But when I returned to the village, these thoughts vanished when I was with her. I believed she had absolute freedom, and I was jealous. Her parents were so kind and let her do whatever she wanted, and were always so welcoming. Every time I visited, they said I could always stay for however long I liked. As kind as they were, I felt they were a little odd. Too perfect in a way. Too quick to say yes.
This year, just after November, she stopped replying to my texts. I thought it had been because her phone had got lost or something menial like that. But then came Christmas and New Year, Chinese New Year, Pancake Day and the end of my university exams. I didn’t hear a word.
I decided to travel there myself to see her. On the train to the village, I realised I loved her. I had for a while, but on the train, thinking about where I was going and what I was doing and why I was doing it, the moment came. I said it over and over and over in my head and I agreed. I hadn’t been able to take my mind off her for months, or be with any other girl. Somewhere along the way I had committed myself to her.
Before I arrived at the station at the next village over, I knew there was something wrong, one of those gut feelings. I got a bus from the station to get to the village, and the feeling was confirmed as soon as the trees cleared at the top of the circular basin above the town. There was now a lake surrounding the entire village, turning it into a Victorian, scaled down version of the Mont Saint Michel.
A new bridge crossed the divide as the old road had been submerged. The forest still carried on down into the water, not stopping where there was now a shore and the treeline gradually disappeared into the waters until they rose up again on the other side of the shore, some two hundred metres away. The day was bright and the water was a mirror of the sky. There wasn’t a breath of wind. God had stopped time for the village.
I walked up to her cottage, knocked, waited a beat, then her dad answered.
‘Hi Tom, sorry to suddenly appear like this, but is Jenny here?’ I asked, trying to keep the nerves from shaking my voice.
‘Excuse me?’ he asked, genuinely confused. Whilst it was indeed her dad in front of me, it wasn’t. His inexplicable perfection was gone.
‘Ben Altman. I think you have the wrong house. I’m going to say goodbye now, sorry.’ And he shut the door. I stood looking at the beautiful oak door for a breath, then turned walked around the village. I asked around for Jenny Pine. No one knew who she was. Suddenly the village felt like a strange place to me. I didn’t recognise myself in any of the memories that the village held for me over the years I had been visiting.
I began to search for her, but I had no idea where she might have gone. All our spots apart from the tree at the top of the hill had been taken by the water. I ventured out to explore the forest, which had been reduced to a three-mile radius around the village.
I followed every footpath I could until I had circumnavigated the village. I methodically swept the entire island, off track and on, until I finally came across something I didn’t recognise; a ruin of a small cottage. What was left was barely higher than my knees and only one of the high walls that steepled to the roof remained. Moss and soft grass carpeted the weather rounded stone. Curiosity pushed me to explore the small ruin. I stepped through the threshold and felt my foot collapse through rotten wood. I assumed it was the door, but when I brushed aside the moss and dead pine needles, I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing. It was Jenny’s door. A magnificent piece of oak, embellished with black iron hinges and a twisting door handle. However, now the wood was swollen with water, blistered and splinting, and the metal hinges puffed red with ugly rust.
As I looked around, more of the ruined cottage seemed to match the exact layout of Jenny’s cottage. Then it was real, and she was in front of me. I wasn’t sure whether I blinked or what was happening, all that I knew was that I was there and I was stood in the warmth of her country style living room. I didn’t react to the sudden appearance of the house as the relief of seeing her in front of me halted every other sensation.
‘I want you to come with me,’ she said. I wanted to ask her to explain herself. Anger battled my curiosity, but it was all too confusing to pick one emotion to satisfy its question.
‘Where?’ I asked. A calm washed over me, a gentle cool running from the bottom of my spine and up to my neck. The place where my collarbone was broken tingled like ice.
‘I had to leave to become the water,’ she said. I didn’t quite understand what she meant by this and she could see that.
‘I’m the Lady of the Lake. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to live and love like the many that visited me. I became Jenny and made parents for myself and the village know me. But I’ve made them forget now. I don’t have the strength to be Jenny anymore.’
‘Why?’ I accepted the words regardless of the fantasy she spoke of.
‘Mother needs me back to what I was, for her and the land. I can’t be Jenny anymore. But I can take you with me.’
‘I can make you the wind,’ she said.
‘I’m not sure,’ our words were slow but my whole life was passing before me in the stillness of the moment. Everything that I had ever thought blinked. This felt like death.
‘But I heard you say you love me?’ she said.
She knew. The logic of reality disappeared the moment the cottage sprang up, so her knowing didn’t surprise him in the least now. But I was glad she knew.
‘I’m going to turn you into the wind. When I’m strong enough to be Jenny again, I’ll make you Glen again.’
‘I can’t. I have a life to live.’ But my voice was already the invisible breath that knocks windchimes. She couldn’t hear me.
Before I could tell her I loved her; before I could tell her I didn’t want to be the wind; before I could explain the impracticality and hurt and confusion of abandoning my life; before I could tell her love was not meant for a single person and she was being selfish; the coolness seeped into my bones and flesh and stole away the strength of my tongue.
I felt my legs turn into a morning breeze. My arms thrust out and became the cutting gales of a winter storm. My chest exploded out into the howling force that sculpts mountains. And finally, my head dissipated into a soft cushioning summer breeze that turns fields of wheat into rolling seas of gold. I was gone.
The cottage returned to ruins, and the hills had the sound of my voice. I whipped the surface of the lake in my anger of love and angst that she had decided my fate. I rattled the windows of my parents’ house to tell them I was still there, that I wasn’t gone. Becoming the wind was inevitable from the moment I had fallen for the beautifully typical girl Jenny Pine; Lady of the Lake. I am known as the Gales of Glen. We became the known contemporary and temporary suicide of Romeo and Juliet.
The Lady of the Lake never told me when she would have strength to be Jenny again, or when I could be me again. But, on the days that there is no wind, and it feels like God has stopped time for the world, you’ll know that I walk again and Jenny is at my side.
This story just happened. I didn’t mean to write it. I was on the ferry from Mull to Oban at about nine in the morning and I had the idea of a boy turning into the wind, and I just went with that. It took me forty minutes to finish the first draft, then about a week of editing.