I cower in a deserted park with my hands thrust deep in my trouser pockets. As I fend off icy winds, my eyes squint out over a small, hazy lake. My rigid body remains motionless, except for my left hand, which gently strokes the small object skulking in the lower reaches of my pocket. I drag my reluctant hands out momentarily to check my phone, not surprised when there are no messages. As I’m switching it back off, I glimpse the time and realise I’ve now been waiting over two hours for my wife to arrive.
The lock-screen photo remains scorched into my mind once my phone is tucked back away. It’s my favourite picture taken on our wedding day. I love the beaming smiles plastered onto our squished faces, the look of unbridled joy radiating from four sparkling eyes. A tremor runs up my spine and I try not to think too much.
Except now I’ve started, I can’t stop. My mind races back uncontrollably to the early times we spent together, times when we were as inseparable as in the photo. I think of our plans, projections, our joint bank account; the three blissful years where we thought of nothing but sharing everything with each another.
A couple of ducks waddle out of the lake towards me. I’m pleased to have company and tell my new friends so. They quack back in a caring sort of way and I make the most of my captive audience to go back over the past.
“Our marriage was the stuff of fairy tales until one day it wasn’t” I tell them. “I don’t know what happened. There was no major fall out, nor any broken promises. We never really discussed it; we just realised that one day everything that had made so much sense was no longer working.”
They don’t look convinced so I pause, trying to choose the words to explain our situation. “We came to the most grown-up arrangement possible: we remained Facebook friends, drew lots to divide up shared possessions – she won both cats, but I got the DVD player – and, most significantly, we stayed married. That was my idea: if the romance could fizzle out as abruptly and with as much mutual comprehension as it did, what’s to say it won’t one day come back?” My question hangs in the air, unanswered. I sense my audience getting restless so don’t let the silence linger too long.
“I moved to the other side of the country. We agreed it was the best way to minimise the risk of bumping into each other whilst eating in a restaurant or shopping for groceries or working out in the gym.” One of them snorts, but I take no notice. “Adjusting to my new life wasn’t easy and I missed my wife. It was especially the little things that left the biggest absences: the warmth in her voice first thing on a morning, her silly smile, having someone by my side to look out for me – I’m sure you two understand?”
They quack their agreement. “However, on the whole, things went surprisingly well: I found work in a local café, made friends with my new neighbours, and felt like the pieces of my life were slowly fitting back together…”
When they hear that, the ducks shuffle away, splashing back into the lake and swimming off together. They must like a story with a happy ending.
Left alone, I check my phone again, and this time, after seeing there are no new messages, I start scrolling further back through old ones. Since I moved away, we have kept in touch, although the daily texts of the first few weeks soon became weekly catch-ups and recently nothing more than sporadic checks that we are both still alive. Despite this dwindling contact, I’ve always remained faithful to my wife.
After a couple of minutes I stop scrolling back and return to the message that brought me here today, which she sent two days ago: Meet me where it all began, Friday morning before sun rise. I knew immediately she meant this park, the place where fate had chosen to bring us together that snowy January morning, where we had walked hand-in-hand for the first time, and where I had proposed to her on a stroll around the lake on a beautiful summer’s evening.
I’m stood in the exact spot where I proposed, in front of the willows that witnessed tears of joy evaporating off our joyful faces in the setting sun. Today, they are melancholic, their scraggly hairs drooping lifelessly into the freezing water.
The hush of the park has been restored since my friends floated off and for the first time a doubt that has been bubbling away for a while finally wins supremacy in my head: she’s not coming. As soon as this thought has materialised, a veil is lifted and I realise how single-minded I have been in not questioning if I was right about the meeting place.
Accepting that the time has come to look elsewhere, I decide to start with a final, thorough check of the park. I set off on a lap around the lake, unable to stop my mind roaming back to that evening, to the harmony between our movements and the trees, the birds, the lake; the way our steps aligned with each other, our interlocking fingers fitting together seamlessly. I see her striking face, sweet nose, curved lips and most of all her smooth, golden hair; I see… my wife, here, singular elegance shining off her glowing skin and radiating all around the illuminated park. The darkness is over, the sun has risen; everything is going to be alright.
“Hello, Jack” she stutters, raw emotion spilling over, as gentle tears roll steadily down her cheeks. During my years of exile I have dreamt of this moment so many times that it almost doesn’t feel real seeing her here now, moving closer and closer until she is standing right in front of me. A warm joy courses through my frozen body and, before I can stop it, my shaking hand is back in my pocket, anxious to pull out its burning contents and put this awful nightmare behind us.
As I start to withdraw the small box, she too moves her hand abruptly. My legs wobble as I watch her extract a familiar stack of papers from her bag. No, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I close my eyes, the pain too sharp, too bitter, too penetrating.
“Please, Jack. I want to move on with my life…”
As she pleads for me to sign, the box slips from my hand, cracking open with a deriding crunch. I crumble to the ground, frantic quacks ringing in my ears, whilst a single lock of hair, the golden sunset I have carried with me for three long years, floats away in the wind.
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What a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it. It is so descriptive and touchingly written, and the ending so heart-wrenching. There are two tiny typos/errors I spotted, but it is otherwise very well-written. You say in one place "with each another" instead of "with each other" or "with one another". Also, you are missing a period after wasn't in "... one day it wasn’t". What a wonderful short story. :-) Best wishes, Lee