A man and woman were walking ahead of me along the autumn leaf-strewn path, not hand-in-hand - the woman was a step behind the man - but I presumed they were a couple. They matched like two figurines on a mantelpiece; their coated backs giving them the appearance of having weathered many storms. Together.They were linked somehow, by blood ties, vows or reciprocal liking, which their amble seemed to me to confirm all the more for its pace and deferential air said they were used to one another, in fact leant on each other. Even in heated disagreements or misunderstandings, and I imagined their silences were companionable. Comfortable pauses without the usual awkwardness strangers might feel. No urge to ramble words to fill the empty spaces, but each completely at ease until one had something to say: a said out loud observation, a thoughtful question, a clever remark to a previous comment, a firm opinion or to moot an idea.
Yet, despite this naturalness there was a hint of reservation; a self-preservation in their turned backs. A stiffness, an oppression, as if certain subjects were not to be broached, to be verbally expressed. Feelings may have been one of them for I judged them to be of that class where emotions are constantly and purposely skirted. It wouldn't have been proper under a roof or out in the open. The past shouldn't be raked up no matter what impact it has on the present; the future would take care of itself if stones were left unturned. What's done is done; the consequences must be lived with. There's no turning back, no reversing the hands of the clock or the years torn off the calendar.
How could I possibly discern all this from two such faceless characters? Because this is what practised observers do. We notice the smallest disturbances in communication, the tiniest gesture; we interpret the language of the body and conjecture. We store an encyclopedia of unspeakable knowledge. The non-verbal clues in the study of animals and people, of which animals are the easier of the two.
Up ahead, a narrow gap had formed between this middle-aged couple, one which seemed to widen half an inch to every ten of my measured strides and which emphasised their incommunicable divide: adrift yet choosing to remain by each other's side. The woman in her fur-trimmed collared coat who had for all this time kept herself a pace behind appeared to be intent on meandering until she was out of arm's reach of the man, yet with her head still slightly turned in his direction. He would have to look round if he wanted to assure himself that she followed, but never once did he attempt it. He continued to tap along the path with his walking stick. He was the parent in this relationship: her childishness was grudgingly tolerated.
It's possible he may have voiced some urge to hurry her up, to harness her again to his side, and I did not overhear it as the distance was too great, but I think not. I got the distinct impression that this was a game frequently played: a natural tailing-off in their conversation, then a hesitation to commence a new sentence. The man impatient and the woman buying time to find the right word to begin. Both sought attention and reaction from the other, and both were reluctant to give it for an inner part of them shunned this dependency. The fact that it was mutual was neither here or there, but perhaps they could not see it? Or perhaps after so many years it was ingrained?
As the trees pressed closer, the woman answered the man's signal: reduced the gap to less than it had originally been; her eyes searching his I'm quite sure for some recognition of her docility, though of course that could merely be my own fancy, for to me it implied they had assumed and could resume their faithful roles. Drifting apart, yet bound together by some ungovernable secrecy.
Picture Credit: Couple Walking in the Woods, Leo Lesser Ury