She sees him first. A figure through the steamy window, waiting to cross at the lights, looking diminished by the modern-day traffic, and still unaware of her gaze. He is adrift in the noise of the street, fresh from the Remembrance service and too smart for round here in his blazer and medals, his polished patent leather shoes.
Shorter than she remembers but he walks well. There’s a spring in his step, just like the Bernie of old. She recalls watching him marching in parade at the airfield. So many lovely young men but he always drew her eye. So many of them died. She remembers them all and feels a surge of regret despite the fifty-seven years in between.
She is excited to see him again. At seventy-eight, she wonders if she should feel like this. It feels odd and a little inappropriate in public. As if anybody’s watching, she tells herself. She finds herself considering if she looks attractive, if it really matters now. Then he’s through the door, and they greet each other and embrace. His voice is shaky – perhaps with nerves – but the same tone, steeped in the years but still familiar. His face, his blue eyes, the way he lightly holds her at arm’s length and smiles at her. She remembers the New Year dance and the kiss of the younger man.
“Oh, Bernie. How lovely to see you again.” She cannot stop smiling. Inside, her heart fuels the fires of expectation and she turns the corner into a widening memory lane. She could talk for hours, and she will.
* * *
He sees her first. He’s hesitating behind the pillar box over the road, watching her sitting in the misty window opposite, concentrating hard to see her well through the patchy clouds in his eyes. He searches his memories, leafing through the synapses that store faces and places, finding broken links and voids where there was once history. The angle of her nose, her jaw, it seems wrong. He cannot be sure.
He stands confused in the rush of passers-by, the air booming with the noise of traffic. He adjusts his hearing aid and smooths his blazer, checks the medals are hanging straight, but at last admits to himself that this is not the Mary he thought it was. He has surnames muddled, her married name on the website, too much time passed. She is not his Mary, not Mary from 1944.
Yet their correspondence says she knows him. Who then? He has no recollection. Nothing.
It does not occur to him to not turn up. Despite the years, there is such a thing as duty and he moves to the lights and crosses when the traffic stops. Now he thinks she has seen him and he walks as straight as he can without his stick, and he tries to inject a youthful swagger. He’s not sure why it really matters now. But his bad hip hurts like hell and he’s glad to reach the café door. He goes inside and she rises and he embraces her as if she means something, murmuring her name, holding her at arm’s length again to look at her while his smile hides the truth.
No, this isn’t who he hoped it was. His heart rings hollow with the disappointment and a desire to distance himself settles in. Still, he’s here now. One coffee and half an hour won’t hurt.
MARK LEFT writes stories and sometimes poetry. He has been published in @EllipsisZine and was highly commended for his entry in the BIFFY50 Microfiction Contest Autumn 2018. He lives with his family on a hill in the middle of England and can be found on Twitter: @ottobottle
Image via Pixabay