A story in two parts
Part 2: The invitation
Towards the end of July 2016, an envelope with black borders dropped through Alan’s letter box. It was addressed, in neat, precise handwriting, to ‘Mr Alan Cooper.’ There was no stamp or any indication of where it came from. As Alan prised it open, he felt something stirring inside him. It was a sensation he did not understand and he was none the wiser when he read the contents of the piece of paper in the envelope. And yet he already had the feeling that there was a hand on his shoulder, telling him that he had to accept the invitation he had just received, for eleven o’clock the following Friday, even though it meant a substantial journey to attend the funeral of someone he had never heard of.
Friday the 29th of July 2016 was warm and overcast. As Alan put on his dark suit in front of the bedroom mirror, it occurred to him that, in spite of the unusual path he had taken in life, he had worn fairly well for someone in his sixty-second year. His hair was grey but he had stayed slim and at just over six feet tall he thought he cut a reasonable figure. At seven-thirty he climbed into his car and drove off in the direction of the Essex coast.
The crematorium was within sight of the sea. Alan had arrived early and took a short walk before settling down in the waiting room. He was surrounded by half a dozen people, none of whom he recognised. They were all elderly and all seemed to know each other.
‘It’s taken a long time to organise this,’ said the man sitting next to him. ‘I think the family had some trouble finding a priest to take the service. Lutheran, isn’t it? He turned to the woman on his left.
‘That’s right,’ she replied. ‘They were lovely people, you know. Germans, of course, but we never minded. Harry came over to England as a child before the war. It wasn’t his fault, any of it. Of course, his poor wife…’ She broke off and looked at Alan.
‘How did you know them?’
Alan looked a little embarrassed.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, hesitantly. ‘To be honest, I am not sure what I am doing here.’
‘What’s your name?’ asked the man next to him.
‘Alan. Alan Cooper.’ There was a short silence.
‘I know who you are,’ said the woman opposite. ‘You’re the boy who watched the World Cup Final with them in 1966. That’s funny, it’s fifty years ago tomorrow and you don’t remember? You see, we were their next-door neighbours in Walpole Avenue.’ She nodded towards to a rather doddery old gentleman sitting on her right, who was presumably her husband. ‘I recall that we had a get-together after the game, just to commiserate with Harry and his family, I suppose. I remember young Klaus mentioning your name.’
‘Their son. Goodness me, it’s strange how you seem to have forgotten all about it. I remember it as though it was yesterday. He told me about this boy, Alan Cooper, who he had seen on the pavement outside looking lost and had invited him to watch the second half of the match with the family. To be honest, I suppose that we would have forgotten all about you, if it hadn’t been for what happened. It must have been a horrible business for you and your mum. It was in all the papers. No one seemed to know what had happened to you after you both moved away.’
‘What “business”?’ asked Alan. ‘What are you talking about?’
Everyone in the waiting room was taken aback by his blank expression.
‘You don’t remember it all?’ said the man on his left, sympathetically.
‘German?’ Alan blurted out the word very suddenly.
‘Yes,’ replied the man, now a little uneasy.
‘Das war kein...’ cried Alan, ‘Das war kein….’.
‘Is something coming back to you?’ The woman opposite was clearly fascinated by what was happening.
‘Perhaps,’ whispered Alan to himself, because he knew that things were coming back, in a trickle of memories which was about to become a torrent. The events of that forgotten day were beginning to unfold, even if Alan was not certain that he wanted them to.
‘Where have you been all this time?’ asked the man.
Before he could try to answer, the hearse arrived, along with the rest of the funeral cortege. After the coffin was carried in, Alan entered the chapel last and took up a place at the back, at the end of a row on the right hand side, where he was away from the other guests and from where he could observe the congregation.
When he had received the invitation, he had no idea who Harry Smith, who had passed away on the 11th of July aged eighty-seven, was. Furthermore, he did not know anyone in this area of East Essex, where the funeral was taking place. And yet something had told him that he had to come, and now he was beginning to understand why.
The service was well attended, with probably about a hundred people present, Alan thought. The priest, alternating between English and German, recounted the story of the life of Harry Smith, or Hartmut Schmidt. How his parents, disgusted with the Nazi regime, had sent him to England in 1937, how they had subsequently been imprisoned and executed for their dissident activities, how Harry had got married and built a successful career despite the challenge of being a German in post-war Britain, how he had brought up his son Klaus and how he loved to watch and play football.
‘It is sad, though perhaps appropriate, that we are celebrating his life on the day before the fiftieth anniversary of the England versus West Germany World Cup Final of 1966. Harry always remembered that day fondly. Not for the result, of course. You certainly know that Germany has enjoyed many triumphs over England on the football field since then! No, it was because of the English boy whom his son Klaus saw outside on the pavement. He had got lost and was upset because he was missing the match. The family invited him in to watch the game, including the nail-biting extra time which contained the famous goal that we Germans still don’t believe crossed the line!’
There followed a slightly uncomfortable chuckle from the congregation.
‘In fact,’ the priest continued, ‘I have been told that the boy in question is here today.’ He pointed in Alan’s direction.
In that instant, everyone turned round and looked towards him. Suddenly, he had the feeling that this service was more about him than the deceased. He did not know what to do. Should he stand up and smile, or wave? Before he was able to decide, a tall, fair-haired man of about his age rose from the front row and walked over to him, shaking his hand.
‘It’s good of you to come, Alan. We had some trouble tracking you down but I’m so glad that you got the invitation.’
His still had the same bearing, the same natural authority, the same winning smile. And Alan was still in awe of him.
‘Hello, Klaus,’ he replied, without knowing why.
‘You know,’ said Klaus, ‘even though I say it myself, my father was a good man. As you will have gathered during the service, he had a difficult start to his life, having to leave his homeland at such a young age. It’s strange, really, because he wasn’t Jewish or anything like that. His parents were communists who detested Hitler and the national socialists and didn’t want their son to grow up polluted by the regime. Also, I think they must have realised that their own days were numbered. So they sent him to stay with some British friends in London, who introduced him to everyone as Harry. Because of his age, and his excellent English, he went through the war unnoticed. Afterwards, he began to work in publishing, and did well. He married my mother, Doris, who had come to England from Germany on a study trip, just before the coronation in 1953. And a little while later, I came along.’
Alan was trying to process all this. The old man whose photograph appeared in the order of service meant nothing to him, but an image of the family, sitting together that day in their front room, was beginning to assemble itself in his mind. And then he saw them, Mr and Mrs Smith (or Schmidt) plus the uncle and the grandfather with the menacing stare. ‘Das war kein…’ rang out in his head. ‘Das war kein…’
‘Your mother wasn’t here,’ said Alan, remembering that Klaus had been sitting alone in the front row and recalling the oblique comment about her in the waiting room.
‘No,’ replied Klaus, sadly. ‘She is no longer with us. I would rather not say any more. Let’s just say that my father was devastated. He was never the same man again.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Alan, assuming that someone would tell him what happened later on.
‘You know,’ Klaus continued, ‘they both remembered you. They talked about you a lot.’
‘But I was only at your place for an hour or two!’ protested Alan, still rebuilding his memory of the day.
‘I know that, but you were so refreshing. You were so natural. You weren’t hung up on the sort of false politeness that they were used to. You cheered for England, for heaven’s sake, in front of a whole family of German supporters, especially my grandfather! He was only visiting for a holiday, as was my uncle, and he could be quite severe.’
‘Yes,’ declared Alan. ‘I remember cheering the second goal, and especially the third..’
‘Which was not a goal,’ retorted Klaus, looking quite serious.
‘But I remember!’ said Alan, breaking into a laugh. ‘I remember everything. I know it sounds silly, but I had no memory of what happened on that day. And now it has all come back.’
‘I am glad,’ said Klaus. ‘I hadn’t realised that you had forgotten so much. ‘Do you recall my father driving you back in the car?’
‘Yes, yes!’ cried Alan, who was becoming more and more excited. He felt as though, all at once, he was reliving that Saturday fifty years ago. ‘It had wooden parts on it.’
‘The Morris Minor. And we dropped you off at your house.’
‘My house. My…’ Alan stopped in his tracks and went silent. For years he had been having a dream about a giant, with huge hands, hurling him against a column, on which he bangs his head, very hard. At that point, the dream always ended and he would wake up, usually in a cold sweat. He never understood its significance, until now, as he remembered the hallway, his mum and his dad, the giant with the beer breath. All at once, for the first time in fifty years, he could see his dad in front of him; he could hear the loud, angry voice, his distraught mother phoning the police, the huge hands grasping his collar. He could feel the impact of the staircase and he recalled the sensation of falling, into the darkness, for days, weeks, months on end, until he awoke in his hospital bed.
He recounted all these events in a stream of consciousness manner, oblivious to who was listening. By this time, he had dissolved into floods of tears. Klaus had his arms around him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, gently. ‘I didn’t want to bring back bad memories.’
‘That’s all right,’ replied Alan, resting his head on his friend’s shoulder. ‘I’m glad you did. All of a sudden, my life makes sense. I feel as though I’ve been living a lie for fifty years.’
‘You know, Alan, I went to your house again to try to see you. My parents had said that they would like to invite you round, perhaps with your mum and dad. Even at that age I could see that this was not a good idea. When I got there, the house was empty. A neighbour told me that there had been some “trouble” and that you were in hospital. I remember her saying “they haven’t been here long; we don’t know them that well.” I kept going back there whenever I was home but there was never anyone there. Then some months later we saw that headline about your dad in the local paper. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Everyone was talking about it. I kept on going to your place for almost a year but eventually another neighbour told me that you and your mum had moved away. After that, some new people moved in and I gave up all hope of ever seeing you again.’
‘I liked you,’ said Alan, drying his eyes. ‘I really liked you. I…’
‘I know, Alan,’ replied Klaus, briskly, ‘but it’s too late now. There are formalities to be observed. Let’s get in the car, there’s room for you.’
As the black funeral car turned out of the crematorium gates, Alan turned to Klaus and asked,
‘Do you know what happened to my dad, after he left prison?’
‘Alan,’ came the reply, ‘I understand why you have not tried to find out. Now you may feel able to.’
‘But do you…?’
‘As you have been so open with me, Alan, I should tell you what happened to my mother. She jumped off the top of a nearby block of flats, just over twenty years ago. Depression.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Alan, forgetting to pursue his original question. ‘She seemed such a nice person.’
‘She was,’ replied Klaus, quite sharply. ‘It can happen to anyone, even nice people.’
‘Yes,’ observed Alan, understanding the depth of his grief. ‘Did you ever marry, Klaus?’
‘No. I was too busy, I suppose. I’m an architect and quite a successful one. I’ve won a few prizes. I thought I would have enough money to retire on by now but somehow there are always things to spend it on. My father needed a lot of care to keep him at home in his last few years. And the job has a way of holding on to you. What about you, Alan?’
‘Oh, I got married but it wasn’t really a marriage, if you understand my meaning.’
‘I think I do,’ replied Klaus, without looking at him. ‘It’s a shame we never went to Southend.’
‘To the beach. I suggested it to you just before you went back into your house that day.’
‘Yes, you did.’ Alan’s eyes shone brightly at recalling their conversation. Then he began sobbing again.
‘I remember you saying that and I remember how much I wanted to go, how excited I was. Until a couple of hours ago, I had no memory of that day at all, yet now everything is as clear as a bell. I wonder if it’s a good thing. I’ve got through the last fifty years in complete ignorance of what happened. How is it going to help me now, knowing, at my age? It’s as though I’m going to have to start again. That’s it; I’ll turn the clock back. Let’s go to Southend, Klaus, let’s go today! What do you say? Klaus?’
But Klaus was not there. Alan realised that he was alone in the funeral car with the driver. The car began to move off again.
‘Wait a minute,’ he shouted, ‘Where’s Klaus?’
‘We reached his destination, Sir. He has got out.’
‘But what about the reception?’
‘There will be no reception, Sir,’ replied the driver.
‘So where are we going?’
‘The gentleman asked me to take you back to the crematorium. I understand that your car is parked there.’
With all that had happened, Alan had completely forgotten about his car.
‘Oh yes,’ he said, still in a rather confused state. ‘So there’s nothing else?’
‘No, Sir,’ came the implacable response.
‘What about all the people, all the guests?’
‘I imagine they have gone home, Sir.’
‘And Klaus? The gentleman? Do you have his contact details?’
‘You will have to ask the funeral director, Sir. I am just the driver. However, I understand that he is flying back to Germany today.’
The car reached the crematorium in a couple of minutes. Alan got out, feeling very alone. The next funeral party was just emerging from the chapel. People shed tears and hugged each other, relatives were supported and the mourners stared at the wreaths as though they had never seen flowers before.
Alan was dumbfounded. He did not know what to do.
‘Is that it?’ he asked himself. He felt as though some kind of practical joke had been played upon him and he imagined Klaus and all the guests sitting at a huge table and laughing at him in his absence. He did not want to go back to his car; emotionally, he was in no condition to drive. Memories of that fateful Saturday the 30th of July 1966 were flooding back, as if injected by the drip he remembered from his time in the hospital. A genie had been let out of the bottle and it could never be put back. He could not just walk away and retreat further into the loneliness he suddenly felt. He had to know more, but how?
He paid a visit to the crematorium’s toilets. When he went outside again, he noticed that the sky had darkened. It was one o’clock. Another funeral cortege was approaching. As the first car pulled up, a striking blonde woman of about forty, dressed entirely in black, got out. He assumed that she would go straight into the chapel but instead she walked over to where Alan was standing, about ten yards away from the entrance, and handed him an order of service.
‘We’re starting now,’ she said, in a cut-glass accent. As if on auto-pilot, Alan followed her and the rest of the mourners, about twenty-five of them, into the chapel. He took the same seat at the back. Almost at once, the blonde woman arrived with a sharp instruction.
‘Don’t sit there. You should be near the front. You are family.’
Once again, Alan followed her, not really taking it all in. It was only after taking his seat in the second row that he looked at the cover page at the order of service. It read, quite simply,
1.1.1929 – 21.7.2016
‘That’s right,’ nodded Alan. ‘His birthday was on New Year’s Day. Mum always complained that it was so close to Christmas. He looked at the brown, dazzlingly polished coffin, perched in the aisle and ready for the incinerator. Then he looked at the picture of the craggy, white-haired man on the front of the order of service and began to realise what it all meant.
‘It’s probably hard for you to believe, but he was a good father,’ she said.
‘I’m pleased to hear that,’ replied Alan.
Julie, the blonde woman who had guided him into the service, turned out to be Ray Cooper’s only child by his second marriage. They talked in the garden after the service, out of sight of the other mourners. It turned out that, after his dad had got out of prison, he had moved to a new house, got a new job and remarried. His second wife, Paula, had passed away a couple of years before.
‘He always said that he was lucky,’ said Julie. ‘They were good to him in prison. When he was released, he found an employer who was willing to give him a chance. Perhaps it was easier in those days, I don’t know. And then he met Mum.’
‘What was she like?’ asked Alan.
‘Lovely, a sweet lady,’ replied Julie, taking out a picture. ‘Much younger than Dad. She was only seventy when she died.’
‘Did he ever talk about me, or my mum?’ enquired Alan.
‘No,’ she said, a little sadly. ‘It was as though that part of his life never existed. I always understood that the subject was never to be raised. I mean, I knew what he had done, of course. Once I got older, it wasn’t difficult to find out, but I have to say that he was a reformed character. He gave up the booze and he was never violent with us, never. Quite the opposite, in fact; he was a very gentle man. He would have made a perfect grandfather, if I had……’
‘How did you know I would be here? I didn’t receive an invitation.’
‘Things have a way of working themselves out,’ she said. ‘I’m a well-organised woman, with plenty of contacts. It didn’t take long to find you.’
‘What if I hadn’t come?’
‘Someone would have brought you here. The driver in the funeral car, for instance.’ She smiled knowingly at him.
‘I hope you’re not angry.’
‘No. Not at all.’ He was still a bit bewildered by events. ‘It’s all a bit sudden. But I’m glad that I have found out what happened to him. Are you sure that he never asked about Mum and me?’
‘Quite sure. You know, when he was getting older, particularly after Mum died, I finally plucked up the courage to ask him about his first wife and son. At that stage, he had lost most of his short-term memory and so I thought that he might try to reach back to the earlier years. But there was never a flicker of recognition. It was as though he had blanked it out, that period of his life.’
‘So I’ll never know if he felt remorse for what he did,’ remarked Alan.
‘I’d like to think he did. As I said, he wasn’t a bad man. But he never said anything about it.’
‘Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt!’ exclaimed Alan. ‘God knows, life hasn’t been easy for any of us.’
Looking at his half-sister, he asked:
‘What about you, Julie?’
‘Me?’ she replied wistfully. ‘Well, I got a first-class degree and now occupy a managerial position in the City of London. I married a dashingly handsome man with wonderful prospects but it all ended a long time ago.’
‘I’m sorry. Why?’
‘I was working all the time and he struck up a relationship with a girl in his office. They now have three children and live in Surrey.’
‘Well,’ stuttered Alan, feeling out of his depth. ‘I’m sure you still have…’
‘What you are trying to say,’ she declared sternly, ‘is that I’m an intelligent, attractive woman who still has time to have a family. The truth is that I’m happy as I am. I enjoy having the odd fling but I’m forty-two now and don’t want children.’
‘It seems that we have both missed out on such things,’ mused Alan. ‘My wife left me as well. In fact, she just vanished.’ He laughed.
‘Why are you laughing?’ asked Julie.
‘It just occurred to me,’ said Alan, ‘that you are my sister.’
She corrected him briskly. ‘Half-sister.’
‘Even so, it’s strange. We are so different. You seem so sophisticated; I’m such a mess.’
‘It’s just the way things have turned out, Alan.’ She did not contradict him but did take his hand. ‘It’s a matter of luck and you were unlucky. Still, you seem to have made the best of things. You had a job and a wife. You didn’t have children but that’s not the end of the world. And you shouldn’t get too carried away by me. I may look glamorous with all this make-up but you should see me when I get up in the morning.’
‘I’m sure you look perfectly fine!’ replied Alan. He grasped both her hands and drew her towards him. ‘I always wanted a sister to play with.’
Immediately, he felt embarrassed and expected Julie to push him away, but she didn’t. She leaned forward onto him, obviously enjoying the intimacy of the situation. She was a few inches shorter than he was and her head came to rest on his shoulder.
‘I always wanted a brother,’ she whispered. ‘It’s funny, there are so many things we regret.’
‘Let’s go and play,’ said Alan. All of a sudden, this seemed the most normal thing for both of them to be doing. ‘I want to know everything about you.’
Looking over her shoulder, Julie saw that people were climbing into the funeral cars. She knew that she would be expected to come. She had a decision to make.
‘Let’s go!’ she exclaimed. Hand in hand they ran and ran, across the lawn, across the road at the back of the crematorium and across the fields on the other side, until they entered a nearby wood. It was mid-afternoon and the sun, which had come out from behind the clouds, was glinting through the leaves on the trees above them. It was a magical moment, unlike anything either of them had ever experienced before.
They found a small clearing and fell down on the ground together, rolling over and over beside each other. Both of them laughed continuously, descending into a fit of giggles. After a while, they stopped and lay still, gasping for air after their exertions. This was what they had been waiting all their lives for, and both of them knew it.
Julie put her hands against each side of Alan’s face.
‘Hello, brother,’ she said.
‘Hello, sister,’ he replied. ‘Shall we play hide and seek?’ He kicked his legs excitedly in the air.
Julie stood up and a look of anticipation had appeared on her face. The giggling had stopped. The sun suddenly appeared from behind her and shone on her blonde hair.
‘All right,’ she said.
For a short while, Alan stood alone in the clearing. He had never felt more helpless, more frightened or more exhilarated. The mixture of apprehension and excitement which gripped him was almost painful. There was still time, plenty of time, to run away.
Alan Cooper awoke some time later that afternoon. He was lying next to a bush by the clearing in the woods and was alone. Julie was gone, along with any traces of her presence on the site. His memory of what had happened was hazy. He remembered, or thought he remembered, floating far above the trees and slowly re-entering the world in descent, as though he had shed an old skin which was drifting away above him.
He walked back to the edge of the woods, having already adjusted to the new situation. He knew that he would never see Julie again. He had all but forgotten what she looked like, or hoped he had.
‘Goodbye, sister,’ he murmured.
A car horn sounded next to him. It was the same funeral car that had brought him back to the crematorium after dropping Klaus off, with the same driver. Alan got in and sat down on the back seat. The car moved off.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
‘Back, sir,’ replied the driver.
‘Back to where?’
‘Just back, sir. Is that all right with you?’
‘Er, yes,’ said Alan.
Alan had no idea why he had agreed but he suspected that any protests from his side would make no difference. It occurred to him that he had not so far seen the driver’s face, only the back of his head and the peak cap which he wore with his dark uniform.
‘Are we going to the crematorium?’ he asked. ‘That’s where my car is.’ The surrounding countryside was beginning to look unfamiliar.
‘Is that where we are going, please?’ This time he leaned forward, more insistent.
But the driver had stopped talking. He was looking straight ahead as the car accelerated. As it gathered speed, the view from the windows turned into a blur and the road seemed to both widen and darken, stretching out into the distance like an airport runway at night.
‘We’re going too fast!’ shouted Alan. But there was no reply.
He became transfixed by the road ahead and stared at it for what seemed like hours. Finally, the car slowed. Buildings came into sight. Now proceeding at normal speed, the car turned a corner. All at once, the surroundings became familiar again. He noticed a street name on the side of one of the houses. It read ‘Walker’s Road’ and the car was approaching a semi-detached house on the right-hand side. The driver slowed and parked a few doors away.
Another car approached in the opposite direction. Even before it pulled up outside the house, Alan knew what it was and who was inside it. As it stopped, he could see the wooden frames of the Morris Minor, he could see the smart, confident man in the driver’s seat and he could see the two boys getting out of the back. They walked slowly towards the house, then stopped and started talking.
‘No!’ cried Alan. ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘All part of the service, sir’ replied the driver, in his flat, matter-of-fact way. ‘Just doing as I’m told’.
‘Doing as you’re told? Who by?’
‘By you, sir.’
‘By me? But I didn’t ask you to come here.’
‘On the contrary, sir. I told you that we were going back and you agreed that we should.’
‘But I didn’t realise you meant this! Look, I know what’s going to happen. Something terrible. I have to get out and stop it. I must stop that boy going into the house.’
He pulled at the door handle but it would not open.
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible, sir.’
‘But I must. His life is about to be ruined. I must stop it. You must help me. Please! Please!’
‘We can’t interfere with the past, sir. What’s done is done.’
Feeling helpless, Alan once again pulled violently at the back door, without success.
‘Then why did you bring me back here? To torture me? Just to have a bit of fun at my expense, like everyone else has been doing for the last fifty years? What you’re looking at here are the last moments of happiness I ever had.’
‘I know, sir.’
‘You know? Who are you? Who do you work for?’
He leaned forward and tried to grab the driver, in order to see his face. But before he could reach his target, a glass partition was lowered, barring his access to the front part of the car. Frustrated, Alan sank back into his seat, resigned to his fate, whatever it was.
The two boys were still talking. Finally, the taller boy reached out to shake hands in a very formal manner. The smaller boy took his hand and then threw his arms around the taller boy and hugged him, in a rather desperate fashion. A few moments later, he let go and ran back into the house.
‘It’s funny,’ said Alan, almost involuntarily. ‘I don’t remember doing that. Mind you, until today I didn’t remember anything.’
He was not sure whether the driver could hear him.
‘To be honest, I don’t think I even liked him. I may have thought I did and I may have told him so, but I didn’t, not really. He seemed arrogant, too sure of himself. But I was drawn to him, no doubt about that. I didn’t understand it at the time. I’m not sure I do now. Can you hear me?’
Without saying a word, the driver started the car and they left Walker’s Road.
Alan Cooper entered his house in Barnet at about eight thirty on the evening of Friday the 29th of July 2016. He had been brought there in the funeral car. The glass partition had remained down for the whole journey and the driver had not uttered a single word, nor responded to anything Alan said. It had been a strange sort of journey, during which they passed mile after mile of unchanging verdant countryside before turning into Alan’s road. That was the first point at which he realised that he was on his way home. As the car pulled up outside his house, he noticed that his own car was parked in the drive.
‘How did it get there?’ he murmured.
There was no answer. The driver suddenly pressed a switch on the dashboard and the back door came open. At the same moment, the driver took off his cap and turned round, smiling at Alan. Too confused to respond, Alan jumped out and slammed the back door shut. The car drove off.
‘The driver’s face,’ Alan said to himself. ‘I saw the driver’s face.’
Two nights later, and then for each remaining night of his life, he would wake up soaked in a cold sweat after having a nightmare about the driver’s face.
As soon as he entered the house, he heard a voice from the living room.
‘In here,’ it cried.
Alan entered and saw Mary, sitting on the sofa and going through some papers in a shoe box. She seemed a little thinner and had a few grey hairs but otherwise looked the same as when she had walked out of the house six years before.
‘Hello, Alan,’ she said, briskly. ‘I thought it was about time I went through some old documents and photographs of mine. I’m so glad that you haven’t thrown them out. You don’t mind, do you?’
After such a momentous day, Alan could not bring himself to express surprise or to ask any questions.
‘No,’ was his meek reply. ‘They are yours. Please take what you want. How are you, by the way?’
The tone lightened.
‘I’m all right,’ she said. ‘And you look well, Alan. I hear you have retired. I hope you are finding enough to do. I still have to work for a few more years, of course.’
‘Where do you live now?’ he asked.
‘I can’t tell you exactly where.’ Her voice hardened a little. ‘It’s in the Midlands and I have to be back there by tomorrow afternoon. You don’t mind if I stay tonight?’
‘No,’ replied Alan, still trying to take everything in. ‘I’ll make up the spare bed.’
‘I’ve already done it,’ she said, with a smile that reminded him of all those years together. ‘You’ve certainly kept the place in good shape.’
‘It’s not the same without you.’
Mary looked down at the papers and did not look up again until Alan came back into the room with two cups of tea and two bowls of soup on a tray.
‘It’s the best I could do!’ he exclaimed.
‘It’s fine, thanks.’ She looked a little embarrassed.
‘We have a lot to talk about,’ said Alan, sitting down next to her on the sofa. But Mary did not say another word that evening. After the soup, Alan brought in some cake and they watched a detective drama on TV. In spite of her silence, Alan felt himself settling back into a familiar pleasant domesticity.
At about a quarter past eleven, Mary got into the double bed with Alan, wearing a pair of the striped pyjamas of the type she had favoured during their marriage.
‘Goodnight,’ she said. ‘I thought it would be a little rude to use the spare bed.’ She lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes.
Alan sat up and put on the bedside lamp.
‘Mary, do you have to leave tomorrow? I mean, don’t I have a right to know what has happened to you? What has been going on?’
‘Nothing has happened,’ replied Mary, without opening her eyes. ‘I live somewhere else, alone. There was no other man, or woman. I just don’t belong here anymore.’
‘But you could!’ cried Alan. ‘It doesn’t make any sense for us to be apart. We had something, Mary. Even just now, sitting together in the living room watching television, life seemed normal again.’
Mary leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
‘You can’t go back, love. It’s a bad idea. I have my life and you have yours. Things are better that way.’
‘We can try! You don’t have to leave. I was so happy. We were happy together. Mary, please come back, I’m begging you! I love you, you know that.’
Mary was not listening. In spite of his ranting, she had turned over and gone to sleep. Alan lay on his back for a while, crying. Eventually, he fell asleep. He expected that she would be gone when he woke up.
But no, here she was, presenting him with a breakfast tray of tea, toast and a boiled egg at nine o’clock the next morning. She was already dressed, in a green two-piece which Alan had never seen before. Yes, he thought, she has slimmed down a little.
She sat on the bed with him, drinking her tea.
‘I seem to remember that is how you like it,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ replied Alan. ‘I’m afraid I made a bit of a fool of myself last night.’
She stroked his hair.
‘No, it’s all right. It must have been a shock to see me again. You want to understand what happened. To be honest, so do I. I’m no wiser than you are, Alan.’
‘I do love you,’ he said. ‘I mean, well, you know, my kind of love. I don’t see why you can’t just stay here, Mary. You would make me the happiest man in the world.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘I can see that you mean it, Alan. You are a sincere man, I know. I suppose that I love you as well. It’s strange, isn’t it? But we can’t go back; we both know that. My train leaves at ten o’clock. I have just called a taxi.’
She looked sympathetically into Alan’s eyes and gave him one last smile. Suddenly, he remembered the day before and felt unclean.
‘I’m going to have a shower,’ he declared, jumping off the bed.
As he turned off the shower tap, he heard a car draw up. The doorbell rang. In a panic, he dried himself and put on his dressing gown. But it was too late. As he ran down the stairs he heard the door of the taxi slam and the engine start. The brown overnight bag in the hall was gone. The house was empty. It was the 30th of July 2016. Fifty years to the day. The rest of his life had started.
He went to the living room and stared out of the window. Like the day before, it was overcast. A few spots of rain were falling.
‘Walker’s Road,’ he thought. ‘I have to go back and see it for myself, properly. I must.’
‘You can’t go back,’ said a voice behind him.
Before turning round to see who it was, Alan Cooper corrected himself.
‘You can’t go back,’ he whispered quietly. ‘You can’t go back.’
Author Notes: This is Part 2 of the story "Going Back". The first part is entitled "The Corner Shop"