How did he know this woman? He was positive he had seen her somewhere before. He studied her over the top of his Sunday paper; her eyes, oval and heavy lidded, were a light driftwood colour and the haphazard curls of her wispy hair caught the sun that beamed through the large window to their left. She was a beauty, no doubt about that. But, where had he seen her before? He knew it wasn’t here. He’d never been to this cafe before, preferring one further along the street that had been, for one reason or another, closed today. If she lived locally, there was every chance he had simply passed her in the street; he always did have an excellent memory, especially for faces.
As he watched her, she lifted the white, slightly chipped mug off the table, both hands wrapped around it, as though trying to warm her fingers on its heat. She blew across the surface of the hot liquid inside, sending steam into the air, before taking a delicate sip. She reminded him a lot of Fran. Maybe that was the reason why she seemed so familiar: her resemblance to his beloved wife. No, he didn’t think that was it. Although her facial features bore a similarity to his late wife, this woman was much older than Fran had been when she’d......., he cut the thought off and swallowed down the lump that always came into his throat whenever he thought of Fran. He tried not to think about her too much, which of course, meant he thought about her constantly.
He turned his attention back to the woman at the next table. The woman he knew, but didn’t know at the same time. She looked at him now over the rim of her mug and their eyes met for a brief moment. He lowered his gaze quickly, embarrassed that she’d caught him looking at her. He didn’t want her to think he was a seedy Casanova, trying to pick up random women on a Sunday morning. He closed his paper, folding it as neatly as his arthritic fingers would allow and laid it to one side.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
She looked up at him, putting her mug down on one of the tea stained doilies that the cafe utilised as coasters. There was an air of melancholy surrounding her and he wondered what was to blame. She smiled at him and although the sadness didn’t quite leave her face, it did take a step back, as though waiting in the wings.
“Sorry to trouble you, but you seem awfully familiar. Have we met somewhere before?,” he asked, keeping his tone polite and friendly, hoping to put her at ease.
She looked down at the table, the sadness taking centre stage on her face once again, clouding it almost instantly. When she raised her eyes back to his, he could see that there were tears sitting in them, threatening to spill over on to her cheeks if she dared to blink.
“Forgive me,” he said, apologetically. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Oh, you haven’t. It’s just been a long day, that’s all,” she replied, her voice doing an excellent job of concealing the sorrow that was all too evident on her face. The smile returned, this time a little brighter, almost reaching her eyes, but not quite, like an arrow just falling short of its target.
“Well, if you’re sure?”, he said and and she nodded in response. “You do seem awfully familiar though. Have we met somewhere before?”
She hesitated a second before saying, “In another life, perhaps.” He thought this an odd response and wondered if there was perhaps more to it, but she offered him nothing further.
“You look a lot like my wife, so maybe that’s why you seem so familiar to me,” he said. He regretted it, having only just put thoughts of Fran from his mind, but it had been out of his mouth before his brain had even had a chance to put forward an opinion on the subject. There was something bordering on hope in her expression then, but it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Now, why would him thinking that she looked like his wife give her hope? She was certainly behaving strangely, he mused. He felt sorry for her.
“Is your wife here with you?,” she said, her eyes scanning around, as though seeking her out.
He looked away. “No, she passed some time ago.” The words never got any easier to say, no matter how much time went by and he suspected this would always be the case.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she muttered, staring down at the Formica topped table once again. He could see that her ears had reddened, probably through humiliation. His pity for her deepened.
“It’s fine, Miss. Honestly, “ he attempted a brevity he wasn’t sure he felt. Thoughts of Frances now flooded his brain and, once again, drowning in them was all too real a possibility. Without knowing why, he said “She was the love of my life, you know”. She looked up as he spoke, interested, so he continued. “From the first moment I saw her, I knew she was the one I would spend the rest of my life with. I know, it sounds like a cliche, love at first sight, soulmates, but it really was that way. She made me want to be a better man every day that I was with her, but even then, that woman deserved a love beyond anything I could ever give her,” he blinked a few times in quick succession, hoping she wouldn’t notice that he was trying to hold back tears and think he was a soppy, old man. He risked a look up at her, but she was listening intently, fingers playing with the edges of one of the lace coasters.
“We would have been married 57 years this year. That’s quite the achievement these days, isn’t it?” It was a question, but he didn’t wait for a response. “I remember the first day we met, as though it happened only today, which I suppose it did. It happens every day in my head,” his words were touched with resentment; not for this woman, or Fran, or even for himself, but for the whole concept of memories; coming back to haunt you again and again, like a vengeful spirit that you had wronged, but didn’t know how.
He realised that he had stopped speaking and was now clenching his already painful, swollen hands into something that resembled fists. He made an effort to unfurl them and lay them flat on the table. He’d have to remember to take his pills when he got home. It was a good job his memory had never failed him, he thought. A fact which he now demonstrated by telling this pretty stranger, for the more he spoke the less familiar she seemed, about how he had first met Frances Richards, soon to become Mrs Frances Webb. The lady on the opposite table seemed happy enough to listen.
“It was 1957 and I was a 17 year old who thought he knew it all,” he chuckled. “I was a Teddy Boy and the snappiest dresser in town. That evening I had my usual drainpipe trousers on, coupled with a bright yellow, tartan blazer and socks to match under my mirror shined, slip on shoes. They’d laugh at such a style now, no doubt, but back then it was the height of fashion. I had my hair styled in an Elvis quiff; I used so much Brylcreem back then, I’m surprised I wasn’t on their Christmas card list. Do you remember the Teddy Boy style, Miss?”
She had a faraway, almost dreamy look about her, as she said, “I remember it well.” Perhaps she had a Teddy Boy of her own tucked away somewhere down her memory lane, he thought to himself.
“I spotted her almost instantly; it was hard not to with that blonde beehive she had. There were a few stray hairs falling across her eyes and she kept tucking them behind her ears. Her hair never did what she wanted it to, even years later.” The heavy, usually painful, cloud of nostalgia settled over him, but he didn’t mind it so much this time. There was something comforting in telling a stranger this story. “My pals and I were at a junior dance in the next town over from ours and the dance floor was filled with groups of girls. She was with a few of her friends, but I only had eyes for her. She had this light, see, that shone from inside her, like a lighthouse. And, I was a sailor lost at sea, drawn towards that light. I know, it seems like I’m soppy and romanticising the whole thing, doesn’t it?” He expected to see amusement or disbelief in her face, but there was none. Only that sadness. She didn’t respond to his question, but it had been mostly rhetorical anyway.
“I’m not though, you know. That is how it felt. Most people never get the chance to meet their soulmate, let alone fall in love and marry them. My heart breaks when I think of all that we never got to have, but I know I’m one lucky devil to have even had her at all,” his voice was etched with a happy misery that only those that have truly been in love can understand. “When our eyes met over that dance floor, she looked away, all coy and embarrassed, but she soon looked back up. She felt it too, see. Living Doll started playing, it was my favourite song at the time and I had to dance to it with her. Do you know the song, Miss?” She gave a small nod of the head, indicating that she did. “I walked over, my heart threatening to get there three steps ahead of me it was beating that hard, and I asked her to dance. She smiled as she she said ‘yes’ and if there were ever a point of no return, that was it. After that smile, I could have dropped dead where I stood and I would have died happy. Her teeth were a little crooked at the front, but that’s what made her so beautiful, those little imperfections, do you see what I mean?”
“I think so,” she replied, her eyes completely filled with tears now, one beginning to escape. He supposed it was a sad tale, especially knowing that Frances had since passed, but he still thought her reaction slightly odd. She didn’t know him, after all.
“She had absolutely no idea how beautiful she was, not even close. She asked me a few weeks later why I hadn’t been attracted to any of her friends. ‘They’re much prettier than I am’, she said to me. I’ll tell you what I told her that day, Miss. Her friends, who were all pretty enough, danced that night like the whole room was watching them, but Fran? Fran danced like there wasn’t even anyone else in the room with her. She didn’t really understand, but I couldn’t explain it any better. To be honest, I still don’t think I can explain it now.”
As he had been talking, the cafe had grown considerably emptier, only a handful of customers remaining at various tables. He looked down at his watch to see what time it was, but saw that he wasn’t wearing it. That was strange. He must have forgotten to put it on when he left the house this morning, which wasn’t like him at all. Maybe the old memory isn’t as sharp as I thought, he pondered to himself. Still, it confused him slightly because he always wore it. He looked at the woman, who now did not look familiar to him at all. She had real concern in her eyes, wondering what had caused his agitation, no doubt. He smiled at her, relaxing himself in the process. It was only a watch, for goodness sake, he thought. It’d be at home on his bedside table where he always kept it.
“I should get going now. It’s getting quite late,” she said, although she made no move to get up from her chair.
“I think I’ll stay for another cup of coffee. I don’t have anything pressing on this afternoon,” he scanned the room as he said this, hoping to catch the attention of a waitress. She stood up now, wrapping her bright yellow, tartan scarf around her neck and putting on her coat, which had been hanging over the back of her chair. Although it pained his knees to do so, he stood up also, ever the gentleman.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Miss, and thank you for letting me ramble on,” he said, standing in front of her with his hand outstretched. She looked into his eyes, as she took the offered hand. He was expecting a quick, perfunctory shake, but instead she pulled him towards her and threw her arms around his shoulders. He was too surprised to put up a fight. The woman had acted strange on a couple of occasions throughout their brief interaction, but this was on another level. Her embrace threatened to crush his age worn, fragile bones. Just before letting go, she pressed her lips against the dry, almost paper like skin on his cheek. He pulled away from her with an audible sigh of relief. Thank heavens for that, he thought. She stood there a second longer, then turned away from him and began walking toward the door of the cafe.
“What an odd lady,” he muttered to himself, as he painfully reseated himself on the chair.
She stopped just before she reached the door and looked back at him, but he didn’t notice her. He had opened his Sunday paper once again and was engrossed in some article or other. He always did love his paper on a Sunday, Fran thought. She studied the man who she had been married to for 57 years, the man who had given her four children, who had in turn given them nine beautiful grandchildren, the man who no longer remembered any of them. James had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s almost 2 years ago, not showing many signs to begin with - the odd bout of forgetfulness and confusion, but over the last 6 months he had deteriorated drastically and, although it tore every inch of her apart to do it, she had been forced to put him here, a care home specialising in Alzheimer’s. She knew he was safe and in good hands, but knowing that didn’t make it any easier.
She thought about the exchange that had just taken place between them, how hard it had been to have the man she had shared so much with act like she were a stranger he had just met. It had taken all the resolve she had not to break down in front of him, grab him and shout, ‘It’s me, James. I am Fran. I’m your wife’. It wouldn’t have done any good though, would have only confused and upset him. That was the last thing she wanted, but it was killing her knowing that he could no longer remember the things that she would never forget. She was glad that he could still remember her, who she had been when they first fell in love, but even that was becoming harder for him. She had noticed he was beginning to get distressed while he was talking and, even though she hadn’t wanted to, she decided it would be better if she left. That look of confusion on the his face, the face that had always shown such strength caused her such heartache. It was a heartache that you felt in your bones, like the deep chill you felt on a winter’s day that you just couldn’t shake, no matter how hard you tried to get warm. She knew that she would never be warm again.
She remembered it all, everything they had ever been through together, from the moment they had met to the last time he had recognised her as his wife. He was right, she had known they would spend their lives together that first time their eyes met across the dance floor, but that life was now over. She’d held on as long as she could, not being able to say goodbye to the man who’d had her heart from their first hello. She’d coped for a while, even after he had forgotten who she was. When the music changes, you just have to change the dance, after all. But, old and weary herself now, she had to finally admit that she could no longer give him the care he needed. She had failed the man who had done more for her than he had ever known. The kids did their best to persuade her otherwise, but she knew the truth and it broke her heart.
His last moment of clarity, three months previously, came to her mind, just to twist the knife in her heart even further. She had lived for those moments, the moments when he was James again and not some imposter trapped inside his body, but he had been having them less and less. He had all but forgotten everything, except the past of course, he never forgot the past. But, on this day, as they sat beside each other on their sofa, he turned to her and said, ‘By the way, I’m wearing the smile you gave me. Remember when I used to say that to you, Fran?’. The recognition in his eyes was clear, it brightened his entire face. ‘Of course I do, James, of course I do,’ she had replied. Then, just like that, the recognition had gone and he turned back to the programme they had been watching on TV. She couldn’t explain it, but she knew, deep in her heart, that this would be the last time he ever remembered who she was again and she’d been right. She’d gone into the kitchen and cried for the next 30 minutes; tears she didn’t even know she had. She was grieving for him, even though he was just in the next room. She wept for all the memories they’d no longer make together, she wept for James, for their children and grandchildren. But, she mostly wept for herself, for the 16 year old girl who had fallen in love and built a life with a man she adored. It had been a life well spent and, in that moment, she would have given everything she had ever owned to be able to turn back the clock and relive every perfect minute.
She watched him for a second longer; the man who walked and talked like James, but who was no longer him. Then she turned and headed out of the home and to her car. Not giving herself time to think, she started the engine and began driving away. She watched the care home recede in her rear view mirror, thinking of goodbyes as she did. Today, she had said goodbye to someone she had known and loved for most of her adult life. James had said goodbye to someone he had only just met, a stranger in a cafe. With her eyes full of tears and her heart broken beyond repair, she envied him that.