They had not see each other for more than fifty years. There was so much to talk about, yet they are sitting here, strangely quiet. He looks at the woman he had loved with an almost deadly passion, all those years ago, the kind of consuming, demanding and fulfilling love that only an adolescent can experience. Then, she seemed to him the most beautiful girl he had ever met. The face long and full, the nose, a little on the big side, but okay, deep violet eyes, and teeth so white. They almost seemed unnatural. She wore her long, brown hair loose around her shoulders and her figure was tall and slender, long legs, pretty little ankles, small chested. When she walked, she flung her hips forward in a certain way that made him feel she was boring her way through people, just to get to him.
On one of the many days they spent together, he had scored out a message on the trunk of an oak tree, in a park in the city. It read: TJ loves CR. He'd tried to fit it into a heart, but his carving skill was pretty limited and if didn't come out that good, more like an ellipse, but she thought it was cute and flung her arms around him and kissed him and told him she always would. They walked through the trees for a long time, holding hands and talking about the strange, meaningless things young people talk about when they are besotted with each other. It was late spring and the weather was unseasonably warm, with a light breeze rustling through the branches, rattling the leaves so it sounded like someone was playing castanets with the twigs.
The wood smelt like all woods do, damp and moist and hot and dry all at the same time, and they would stop from time to time to watch red squirrels race along the boughs searching for buds and kernels. They walked on and on, until they were deep into the trees, the oaks and elms and ash crowding in on each other, closing out the sky and the sun. They came to a stream and stopped. He slipped off his jacket, laying it down on the ground for her and they sat there, holding each other, kissing and caressing one another, two virgins unable to comprehend the signals they were sending , fumbling desperately with their passions and inhibitions.
He'd gone back to the wood yesterday, and found their message of love, still embedded into the bark, worn away by the passing of the years, but still visible. He touched it, running his fingers over the striation, feeling the roughness of the wood, but nothing else. Time is unforgiving, he thought, as he stood there, watching the crowds of people moving around him. For his tree, is one of only a few left standing here now. The rest have gone, removed over the years to make way for a shopping center and houses and roads. The stream filled in and cemented over, lost in oblivion like his dreams. All around him is concrete and brick and noise and activity. Why does this have to happen he thought, wondering how it is that all the time gone by has not only isolated him from a life he never wanted to leave, it has also led him into a future which has turned out so much less than he expected.
"Remember that woman," he says eventually, "the one you were close to, she lost her parents, killed in a car crash New Year's Eve, late forties, early fifties, can't recall the exact year. Lovely looking girl, raven black hair, long and wavy, and big lips."
"Susan," she says, "Susan Lipman."
"Yeah, that's it. Susan. She introduced us. Remember." She nods her head.
"Whatever happened to her?"
"She was killed. In another car crash."
"Oh. Jesus. I'm sorry to hear that. How did it happen?"
"She and her husband were driving home, late one night from dinner at some place in town. It was a drunk driver. T-boned them. The other car hit Jimmy's side. He was killed instantly. Susan was in hospital about a week before they turned off the life-support system. I'd lost touch with her, hadn't seen her in years. It's really strange you know. The accident. It was about 100 yards from where her parent got killed. And that's not all. It was exactly twenty-eight years to the day, or night as it was. Talk about deja vu."
He nods his head, wondering why these things happen to people. He remembered Susan as a kind of mysterious girl, a bit like a gypsy in some ways, dark, beautiful, alluring. She looked like Yvonne De Carlo, the old movie siren, who was a big name in Hollywood then. He thinks back to those days, and seeing her in films like 'Sea Devils' with Rock Hudson, and 'Battle of Powder River' with Van Heflin. Of course in his youth no one ever went to the movies. Then, it was referred to as going to the films. Only Americans used the movie word in their normal vocabulary. He's digging deep into a memory base that is clouded with fifty years of mental silt and softened by physiological degeneration, but he's pretty sure he went to see that western with both his old love, Cathy, and her best friend, Susan.
Like him, Cathy is getting on, now a senior citizen, or pensioner as the state calls them. The passing of time has softened out her beauty, age is dragging down her skin, surrendering into wrinkles and flaps that were never there before. Her long brown hair is now short and gray and her slim figure has filled out. Her eyes though, are still that beautiful, deep color of violet, and she has developed a kind of peaceful acceptance to the state of being old. The dazzlingly white teeth still flash when she smiles, and he notices the good legs have kept their shape and form.
They're having afternoon tea at the hotel, the best one in town. Cucumber sandwiches, little asparagus rolls, cakes and pastries and a choice of Earl Grey or Twining's Traditional Assam. He'd rather have gone a really good dinner, with some class wines, but she's preferred that they meet here, at this time of the day. He's not really sure why. Maybe an evening of wine and roses was a bit much the first time. Outside, the manicured lawns slope down to the river, fringed by weeping willows, and the gardens are filled with colorful flowers and lush, green borders. People are sitting at tables, drinking champagne and lunching on strawberries. It's such a civilized setting it looks as though it has been staged. Maybe someone's making a movie here, he thinks.
She nibbles on a sandwich then asks him: "Do you think this is a good idea?"
"What, us meeting here, getting together after all these years?"
She nods, brushing a crumb from the side of her mouth, feeling a seed stuck between her teeth. One of the joy's of ageing, the movements and disruptions in the body, miniature earthquakes that go off when you least expect it. Teeth, bowels, digestion, joints that rebel.
She tries to recall who it was said: 'Getting old ain't for sissies.' Was that Sinatra or Newman? She can't remember. Memory. Another thing.
She looks across the table, at the man who caused so much grief, all those years ago. He's still tall and well built. Showing a paunch, but not too big. His hair is thinning on top, although still thickly brushed back from the sides to the back. It's almost completely white now. When she last saw him, it was thick and curly and black, and he was thin like a whippet. His face has changed so much, all the youth long gone; a chin that's slowly falling in defeat, lot's of creases and wrinkles. His teeth are still straight and look good, although she has already detected in their conversation a weakness in his hearing. He leans forward at times, turning his head to the good side, too vain to wear a hearing aid-yet. His hands are firm and strong looking, little sign of ageing here, no liver spots, or senile purpura blotches, none of the puffiness denoting arthritis, nails manicured and clean. She likes that in a man. His accent has changed dramatically. That's from living all this time overseas, she thinks.
When he first telephoned her, she did not recognize his voice, and then almost fainted in shock when she realized who he was. All those years she had submerged him, lost the image in her own Sargasso Sea of memories long gone, and here he was again, reappearing into her life like the festival of Dionysus, a Greek play waiting to be performed for her edification and delight. It's all a bit much, she wonders.
"That's what I was thinking," she says, finishing off the sandwich, wondering where on earth this can possible go.
He puts down the cup he'd been drinking from, leaning back into the soft fabric of the chair, smiling at the essence of it all. He's thought about her, off and on, all of his life, since the day he dumped her and walked away from their relationship. It was all his fault, something had gone wrong with him, it was nothing to do with her. Maybe he was just too young to handle it. Maybe his hormones lost their turbo drive at the wrong moment. Perhaps, subconsciously, he couldn't handle the responsibility, and he ran away from an uncertain future. Yet, through all of the years that followed, his marriage, his success in business and the wealth that he has accrued, deep down, he has never forgotten that nymph he'd left in the woods. The memory of the soft skin and the delicate perfume and the eyes that fluttered when he'd held her close and kissed her cheek. The softness of her body, straining so hard to control itself and crying out to be controlled.
"Tell me about your husband and your family," he asks her, changing course, looking for a new tack, hoping it would lead somewhere positive.
She dabs at her mouth, hoping she's not smearing the lipstick, trying to compose herself, wondering why she is here, doing this.
"His name was Eric. He was a professor at the university. I was an undergrad, taking one of his courses. After you left," she stares at him here, hoping he understands what it meant to a girl to be deserted like that, "I worked a year at that job I had with the department store, then I decided to get myself a degree. I had the credits from college, so I applied and was accepted. He taught English Literature and I have to say, he was really good. I loved attending his classes. One thing led to another, and after I graduated and left uni, we just fell in love. We were married over thirty years. It was a good life, two children: Jimmy whose a lawyer, and Elizabeth a doctor, hoping to have a practice in Harley Street, one day." She pauses for a sip from her tea.
"Your husband?" he asks.
"Eric never went to the doctor in his whole life. So he never knew he had developed prostate cancer. Never went for a PSA until it was too late. He died ten years ago. He was such a good man. He loved me unconditionally and I felt the same way about him. They talk about a marriage made in heaven, well this was about as close as you could get. We had a really good life together. I miss him terribly, even after all these years."
She looks past him, down the period that represented the best part of her life, and feels so sad, tears start to form. She shakes her head, and looks back at Trent Jamieson, whose watching her intently, wondering perhaps, is she going to break down?
"What about you?" she asks him.
"When I left here, I went to stay with an uncle, my father's brother, Ben, who lived in Canada. It was essentially just a holiday, a couple of months perhaps, something like that. I'd been rejected by the army, because of flat feet, believe it or not, so I wasn't eligible to do the two years National Service, and consequently I could go anywhere I wanted. Ben and his family were really good, welcomed me in as one of their own and I grew to like living there, in Toronto. By the standards of here, at that time, it was a huge city, about one million people, give or take. To-day, the metro area has a population of over five million, so you can imagine the opportunities if you are prepared to work hard and grab them. I stayed on and I did. I went into the real estate business, eventually started my own firm and when I retired and sold out, I'd done alright for myself. I met my wife Linda at a realtor seminar in 1980, and we married a couple of years later."
"Do you have children?"
"No. It never came about. We tried, but it wasn't meant to be, I guess. In a way, I suppose it was a good thing. We were both getting on, into our 40s. There was a time when we thought about adopting, somehow it never happened. Linda died about three years ago. She had a stroke and was gone in a month. My life became so empty after I buried her. I went away, travelled across Canada, down into the States, searching for something, except I didn't know what I was looking for. Then, when I reached New York I found it. You ever been there?"
Cathy shakes her head. "No, Eric and I travelled a lot, but not in America; mostly Europe and Asia, and once we went all the way down to Australia and New Zealand. Such a long journey by air, it feels as though you are flying to the moon. Never, ever, going to arrive."
He smiles, thinking of a trip he once did to the Antipodes. From Toronto to Los Angeles and then non stop to Auckland, he was travelling almost twenty hours.
"Anyway," he continues, "one day, it was early June and the weather was so nice, I walked from my hotel on West 44th Street, up 6th Avenue and across Central Park to the Met. That's what New Yorkers call The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's a good hike that, about forty blocks, took me a while, stopping off for lunch on the way.
It was a Friday, so the galleries were open late, until about nine in the evening, and I really made the most of it. This is one of the premier art museums in the world, and their displays are absolutely fascinating. I wandered around, soaking in all these beautiful things, and then I came to a room displaying the works of this artist I'd never heard of-Tenko Eschbeden.
There were these six paintings, each exploring the sadness of things past or forgotten, and one in particular drew me like a magnet. It was called 'Love Lost' and showed this man looking out of a window across an endless sea, that ended in an amorphous shape, that may have been clouds, then again from a different angle of inspection, it could have been the shape of a woman, out of reach, tantalizingly close from one perspective, and yet seemingly beyond grasp from another. I sat looking at this painting for what seemed to be forever, and in fact I was turfed out by one of the security guards when closing time arrived. I went back to my hotel and sat in the bar drinking and trying to get over it, but I knew then what I had to do."
"You," he says, smiling at his reply. "Not literally, of course, but more like in a metaphorical way. I had to find you and see if there was any chance for me to try and connect back to that time, all those years ago, when I fell for someone who I realize now, was the only woman I ever really, really loved. I know I was young and full of spunk and it was all part of growing up and facing the future. But after all these years, you kept coming back, haunting me, reminding me that I never forgot you and the way I felt when I was with you. Things change, I know. We're not the people we were back then. You look different, even your voice is not the way I recall it, so what? What's important is that I know I can fall in love with you again, if you give me a chance. Will you?"
"Do you have any other family?" she asks, surprising him by answering a question with one.
"No. I was an only child and so was Linda. All of the closest relatives on my parent's side of the family are dead. There maybe distant cousins, but none I know of. Why do you ask?"
"I don't know really," she says. "It seems perhaps you are so lonely you are desperately seeking something, anything to latch onto, Trent. Maybe that's why you have these thoughts, these feelings about me. I have to be honest with you. There's nothing here for you. I'm not starting something with a man who walked out on his girlfriend fifty years ago, and expects to resume as though nothing has happened, because you have lost yourself. I'm afraid you'll just have to go and find yourself again, but without my help."
They sit there for a while longer, the man pleading his case eloquently, the woman rejecting his entreaties over and over again, and then they part company. They stand awkwardly in the reception area of the hotel, and then he hesitatingly leans forward and kisses her on the cheek, before turning, and leaving.
Almost a year after their meeting, the woman is sitting in the lounge of her home, reading the morning newspaper when she hears the sound of the mail dropping through the letter-box on the floor of the hall. She goes to collect it and stands there, sorting through the small bundle until she comes upon this envelope, addressed to Cathy Robson, that carries the logo of a prestigious law firm in town.
She walks back into the lounge, and sits in the wing-backed leather chair, opening the envelope. She reads it and then goes back over, word for word, scarcely believing her eyes. It is from the head partner, and in essence explains that she is the sole beneficiary of the estate of their client, Trent Jamieson, who has died two months before. The lawyers had been trying to trace her. She has inherited, after taxes and death duties and expenses, the sum of twenty million pounds. Would she please contact their office and arrange to call in to sign the necessary documents, and bring along her passport and birth certificate to prove evidence of her identity. Purely a formality, as Mr Jamieson has provided them with all the details necessary to conclude the transfer.
She sits there wondering. Is it possible?
Across the room is a long, heavy, mahogany dresser, covered with photo frames and knick-knacks. She goes across and opens one of the drawers taking out a small, blue tin box. She clicks it open and takes out the envelope containing passports and insurance policies, and the birth certificates of her dead husband and her children and one other thing. She opens this and looks at the passport of her identical twin sister Cathy.
The photo was taken five years before. The hair is a different colour, but a bottle of hair dye will fix that, otherwise it could easily be her. She looks at the photo on the dresser top of Cathy and herself, snapped when they were eighteen, laughing into the lens, their whole lives ahead of them, taken not long before her sister had met Trent Jameison, the man she loved so much she wouldn't even admit to having a sister, frightened to share him with anyone, although her sister had seen him on one or two occasions from a distance. The man who deserted her and left her broken hearted. Poor Cathy, never married; swore off men, became almost a recluse, living in this house, spending her time in the shadow of her sister Joanne, until she died two years ago. Grieving for the man who'd simply walked out of her life, forever.
And then he rings and says he's back and wants to meet up again. She'd gone along, curious to see what kind of person he was, what it was her sister had seen in him. She couldn't figure it out, herself. She's glad though that when she married Eric, she never adopted his name. She's still Joanne Robson, sister of Cathy. Both of their names are listed in the telephone directory at the same number. Something she never had somehow, found time to change.
The law firm had struggled with their search for her, as council records indicated that she was dead some years, which obviously was some kind of bureaucratic misunderstanding, as Mr Jamieson had spoken so highly of her when they had prepared his will only a few weeks ago.
Joanne looks at the letter and the passport, and then at herself in the mirror above the sideboard, and thinks to herself, why not?
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©Thom L. Jones. 2019