I must have been about eight or nine years old when we first met. You were a couple of years older, a big difference when you’re that age. I took an immediate liking to you, which I guess had something to do with your appetite for adventure and propensity to get yourself into all manner of mischief but never be found out. You’d mastered all the essential schoolboy skills, climbing trees and making campfires and building dens and making bows and arrows. What you saw in me I shall never know. I was a scruffy, tomboyish little girl with muddy fingers and tangled hair. I cannot remember the first time we went exploring together, but I do have many fond memories of random incidents from those early days. You used to knock on my door, and politely ask whichever parent opened the door whether I could come out to play. Sometimes we would go to the park with the other children, but usually we would venture farther afield, to the woods and beyond. One day you borrowed your Dad’s toolkit, and we constructed a rather solid tree house in an old oak tree, which remained our base for a time that was seemingly immense, but whose exact duration was made indeterminate by the distortion of childish memory. There we kept all the interesting things we found, of which there were many. To our young eyes they seemed so exotic, although most of them were simply bits of junk. We made a fabulously dangerous go-cart out of some logs and an old pram, and I once remember rolling you down a hill in a huge barrel we’d unearthed from a hedge.
I cannot remember much about what you were like in those days, or the things we talked about. We barely noticed each other, but fell in love with the wonders we discovered. Once we stumbled upon a large agricultural show just outside Oxford, where you insisted upon nosing around the poultry section. I still have a vivid image in my mind of the creature that so enchanted you, a pristine little white duck with a bright orange bill. “Quack,” she said to you. She said it as though she really meant it. At three pounds, you decided she was a bargain not to be missed. Having fumbled through the rubbish in your pocket, you produced three coins, which you proudly presented to the duck’s owner.
“Can I speak to your mummy or daddy first?” he asked in a gentle voice, crouching down to your level. We skulked away, and approached several kindly strangers of the appropriate age, asking them to pretend to be your parents. None of them were obliging. That was the first time I ever saw you cry.
Then there was the time I became fascinated by a derelict farm building we found on the edge of the woods. It was a solid stone structure with no roof, and only a small window, which was obscured by a board. I could see the branches of a tree protruding from the top, but aside from that had no idea what was inside. One day, you gave me a leg up, and I niftily manoeuvred myself into the space between the walls. It was smaller than I’d expected, and apart from the tree the only contents were dead leaves and an old white porcelain toilet.
“What’ve you found?”
“You’ll never guess!”
“What is it?”
“A dead toilet!”
“I think I’m stuck in here!”
“Awesome… in that case I may need to rescue you! We’ll be like a medieval knight and a damsel in distress!”
There was something strangely attractive about the idea of you rescuing me, even though I was so stubborn in those days that I usually refused help from anyone unless it was vitally necessary.
“You just hang on there a moment… I think I’ll be able to use the tree to climb out!”
After a while of ineffectual scrabbling around, I eventually managed to clamber up the tree and emerge triumphant from the building.
Our adventures continued until we grew out of them as the inevitable adolescent dulling of the imagination set in. As teenagers, we would spend hours browsing second hand bookshops, and explore the world by reading through the thoughts and perceptions of others. Both of us had an unquenchable thirst for philosophical questions, and for a time sank into our own little world of conceptual thoughts.
I cannot remember you going away to university, although you’ve later assured me that I gave you a fine send-off. You went to Cambridge of all places, which provided an endless source of amusement to your father, who was a Fellow of History at Christ Church here in Oxford.
My memory of the first time you returned from Cambridge is still incredibly vivid. It was the Christmas holidays, and your knock on my door was somewhat unexpected. What followed took me completely by surprise. You cannot have changed much in the few months you’d been away, but my perception of you had become entirely different. From that moment on, I saw you not as merely a boyish playmate, but as a man, and a very handsome man at that. The way you perceived me must have also altered, as a few days later you took me out to one of Oxford’s finest restaurants. The suddenness of our metamorphosis from partners in childhood mischief into an engaged couple never ceases to amaze me. Throughout your time at Cambridge we kept in touch frequently with long letters, and as soon as you finished we were married.
Following your graduation, we embarked on a gap year together. You had a battered and decrepit old car with a mind of its own, which we drove around Europe. We discovered beautiful cities, Paris, Venice, Bruges, Copenhagen and many others. We wandered around the countryside and had picnics in fascinating derelict buildings, which I still enjoyed exploring despite the aforementioned incident. My mind to this day contains a vast memory album of the countless forests and castles and beaches and streets we journeyed through, our travels enhanced by their accompanying flights of imagination.
Once we had landed back in the chilly reality of autumnal Oxford, you accepted a teaching post at Pembroke College, where you became a prolific historical writer as well as a tutor and lecturer. Whenever I tried to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your work, you always thought I was only saying it to be nice. The truth is that I found your articles almost as inspiring as our travels because of the amazing gift you had of bringing history to life. Although you always showed the utmost interest in my career as a nurse, I often find myself wishing I’d done something more inclined to stimulate the imagination, but in those days life was difficult for women in academia.
One rainy afternoon, we wandered around a museum, where both of us became fascinated with a collection of very old maps. This was the beginning of your study of cartography, which continued for many years. The ancient maps you studied were things of beauty, but your interest in them extended much further than their intrinsic qualities. You were forever speculating about the courageous explorers who discovered the far away lands depicted, the people who designed the maps, and those who were to later use them as instruments for navigation. The thing that intrigued both of us was that attempts to create images of the world from above so massively predated mankind’s ability to fly.
One of your projects inspired us to journey through Africa during one of your sabbaticals, taking with us an ancient and bizarrely misshapen map. This proved to be frighteningly accurate in a peculiar sort of way. The bits that were obviously drawn too large took a disproportionately long time to negotiate, whereas the shrunken bits tended to be flat, empty expanses of land. When we returned to Oxford, you presented a highly entertaining paper on your findings, and later wrote a book about it.
Shortly after you finished your book, our adventures were cruelly cut short. It pains me to write much about what happened, but it will suffice to say that I was amazed by your bravery. I’ll never forget that day in the hospital when you took my hand and said to me, “I really wish I didn’t have to leave you, but please try to think of it as my next great adventure. It’ll be the first one I’ve ever been on without you. Make sure you live life to the full, then I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about when we meet again”.
I’ve planned a few expeditions on my own, but haven’t quite plucked up the courage to go on them just yet. My initial project was to decide upon something I could do in your memory. I thought about revisiting all those places we’d been to, albeit travelling more comfortably than we did when we were young. Then I remembered something one of your academic friends, a physicist, had said to me many years ago at a college dinner. He told me about how his perception of the world had altered when he acknowledged that the universe consisted of four dimensions, one temporal and three spatial. Our adventures took place not just in space, but also in time. They are embedded in their unique points in the past, reachable only by memory. I could travel back to the places, thus revisiting the images from my memories in three of the four dimensions, but it just wouldn’t be the same. Not only do places change, people’s perceptions of places change, as do memories. I am content with my vast collection of remembrances, and as a tribute to you I hope to publish them in the form of a light-hearted travel book. I know that’s what you would’ve wanted.
Some people dedicate a bench in the park to their loved one, others plant a tree. My memorial to you is noticed only by the observant, a quirky tribute to the quirkiest person I’ve ever known. It is an inscription on the wall outside our house.
“We walked everywhere. We discovered places.”