When the sun shone on Karrie’s hair, I believed she might turn to gold. Her eyes, the colour of the sky on the clearest summer day, sparkled like sunshine on the sea.
And her voice. It played like wind chimes on the breeze. Whenever she laughed, I pinched myself to see if I was in heaven.
We were inseparable. At that age, our perception of time hasn’t yet straightened itself out. A year can feel like an hour and a minute akin to a lifetime. Often both at once. Our affair only lasted six weeks, but it defined my life to date.
I was six months older. At that age, it feels like a lot. After school, we met outside the good record shop in town and took turns having tea at each other's houses. On Saturday and Sunday, I scrubbed away the newsprint from my paper-round and raced to the other side of the park to whisk her as far away as our bus fare money allowed.
From this distance, I define my life as before, during and after Karrie.
I was a shy and miserable teenager. My wardrobe contained only black, long before it became universally and permanently fashionable. It matched my state of mind, letting me blend into the dark corners I gravitated towards on the rare occasions I left my room.
Then, unexpectedly, my world exploded into full Technicolour, an experience so dazzling I wore shades until my eyes caught up. Or at least until she said I looked like an idiot.
She probably used another word. Sometimes I struggled to hear her from her pedestal.
From the highest hill in town, we gazed at most of the geography we knew. Up there, I felt closer to her level. We came here to see the sun at its height on Midsummer's day. We didn’t call it the solstice then. People might have mistaken us for hippies.
I remember it clearly. That was the day she broke my heart.
Since then, I just get on with life. Mostly, things work out, although often I feel I’m gazing into a grey, hazy twilight through a dirty window. The weather has been wet and dreary for what feels like an age, but this morning the sun shone again with enough attitude to reawaken every hibernating soul in the northern hemisphere.
Since she left me, I return annually to mark the day.
My preparation begins with checking the long-range weather forecast two or three weeks in advance. I only remember one year when rain forced me home after setting out. That was crazy, like nothing I ever saw. I don’t mind drizzle. That’s England for you. Today is glorious. It might be as close as I ever get to perfection.
The ritual begins soon after dawn.
I walk to the charity shop on the corner of Cardigan Street, where the newsagent used to be. From there, I trace out what I remember of my paper round. I’ve long forgotten most of the houses I called at, let alone which papers they took. Losing data like that used to bother me, but not anymore. I might be slightly obsessive, but even I can’t hold on to that level of information for two decades.
Then, I come back and take a shower.
My parents never had one, not until I left home. In the mornings, my sisters would fight one another for the bathroom. That was a battle I'd never win, so I usually boiled some water and used the kitchen sink to freshen up.
I don’t mind peripheral changes, as long as I stick to the spirit of the day.
Without a sack of heavy newspapers, and not climbing all those stairs in the flats by the print-works, I get around much quicker. I use the time I've saved for a leisurely breakfast. I rarely bothered when I was young, but my body complains now if I skip it.
Then I go to my parents’ place, walking straight past, and from there to Karrie’s house.
They moved away long ago. I suppose I could have asked the neighbours where they went. Either I was too shy or never thought of it. Possibly, they amounted to the same thing.
I stop at her door, imagining walking up to the bell. It was an old mechanical device and very temperamental. I had to press my ear to the glass to hear whether it rang. Sometimes, it kept playing until whoever got to the door first tapped the chiming mechanism with a broom handle they kept nearby.
The new owners changed the door when they moved in. It’s white now. The old one was dark green. They soon got a new bell, too.
Walking along the road, I feel the weight lifting from my shoulders. There are fewer hydrangeas than there were, and wild poppies spring from verges that used to be clipped almost weekly to within half an inch of the ground. Otherwise, not much has changed.
I look forward to doing this every year. More than my birthday, almost as much as Christmas. For the last five or six years, I’ve played Santa at St Luke’s for their Sunday school party. I love doing that.
Children are amazing. They seem to like me. I adore them, although I don’t really know many. I hope one day to have some of my own.
I invariably feel a rush of adrenaline when I find myself faced with the view from the hill, unchanging apart from the height of the trees.
For twenty years, I’ve arrived hoping to find something which makes sense of that day. Doing so could be the key to finding love without messing it up again. The years between then and now have been unkind in that regard. I’ve had friends who were girls, and women, of course, but have lost touch with most.
Recently, I’ve considered dislodging her from my thoughts. So far, she’s refusing to leave.
I decided on my way here that this should be the last time. It feels like the biggest decision I ever made.
What on earth? There’s someone on my bench. I expect she’s with that guy over there, the one kicking the ball around with a couple of teenagers. It’s never happened before. Perhaps that itself is surprising. It gets busy here when the weather’s fine.
This is all wrong. I need to be over there. I’m getting agitated and need to bring it down.
I read a pile of books about changing messed up thinking, and at least one said you can get people to do practically anything through visualisation and bloody-minded willpower. With sufficient faith, the author assures us, it works about three-quarters of the time.
In less than five minutes, the clock will chime and everything will start anew. If I sit and think hard, she’s bound to move by then.
On our third or fourth Saturday together, I took her to London. She wanted to visit the National Gallery and see great art. We sat before a picture so detailed and busy it would take forever to decipher. She told me all about the artist, and he sounded crazy to me. We walked and walked, losing all track of time. When the sun went down, we realised we didn’t know where we were. Our last ride home went without us, so we waited on the platform until dawn for the milk train.
Karrie nuzzled her cheek into my shoulder and fell asleep. I watched the station clock ticking away the minutes and hours, all the while thinking I must be the luckiest man alive and hoping the morning might never come.
I’ve been back to see the gallery on many occasions. Alone, of course. I always hope she’ll join me in spirit. On an early visit, I tried to project myself into the picture. To my surprise, I found I could transport myself there with little difficulty. Later, I realised I could apply the same technique to films. It only works at the cinema, and I need to sit in a direct line with the centre of the screen, between three to seven rows from the front.
Last year, sitting on my bench - our bench - I tried to rerun our last date and found myself immersed in the most vivid dream I ever had.
Damn that woman. No, you fool, clear your head and focus.
There she is. I'm following about forty yards behind, slightly out of breath. We sit down just as the clock chimes, and I count the hours rising from the valley.
That’s them now. One, two, three. Oh my, it’s warm today. Nine, ten, eleven. And we’re rolling.
I’m such an idiot, I could kick myself. Why didn’t I think of sitting here before? This is obviously the best place to take in the action. So, I made all that fuss for nothing. Thank you, you beautiful lady. If I didn’t think you’d set your husband on me, I’d run over and ask permission to kiss you.
I forgot Karrie wore that hat. Is that the one I found in the Salvation Army shop? Or was it Barnardo’s? And oh, that pale green summer dress. You bought it because it reminded you of one we saw in a painting on our day trip. If you turned around now, it wouldn’t surprise me to see wings.
Hey, what are you doing?
The sun’s in my eyes.
Get off, you don’t even like them.
They’ll suit me better than you, just you see.
You’re right, of course. I always wondered what happened to those shades and thought they must have fallen out of my pocket.
If I didn’t know how this is going to end, I’d say this feels like it could be the happiest hour of my life. Every year, you look more amazing than the last. You could walk out of my tiny production and hold your own on the set of any movie in the world.
Big mistake. Even my broken heart couldn’t distract from the pain over my arms and the back of my neck.
You’ll regret it.
I’ll have to ask you to kiss it better.
I used to think you smiled when I said that. From here, it’s hard to tell.
Sometimes I get so engrossed in a film at the cinema that I don’t realise somebody came and sat beside me until it’s over. Unless they’re eating popcorn. I can ignore the noise, just not the smell, although I’ve learned not to let them bother me.
Right now, I can smell the perfume that your parents brought back from Paris. Or was it Belgium?
You wore it the first time you fell asleep on my bed. I didn’t wash that pillowcase for years.
That, and the scent of the suntan lotion, is overwhelming. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were…
Sitting beside you?
How sweet of you to remember. Damn, I forgot you hate me calling you sweet. You were though, and I don’t think you’ve changed that much.
Are you real?
Does it matter? It’s too full of ghosts for my liking over there. She’s not me, you know. The hair’s wrong. And I was wearing jeans. I was practically cooked when we got here. I’m flattered you imagine I was that skinny. But why are you here, anyway?
I could ask you the same.
I don’t know if I should tell you. If you’re as intent on torturing yourself as I think you are, I can’t stop you from watching and finding out. You look terrible. Do you ever eat or sleep? I take it you’re alone?
At the moment, yes.
Were you ever not? After, well, after that over there?
Is there any point in lying to someone you’ve made up who just moved into your head?
No, I said. Not really.
I suppose you blame me?
Why did you go?
I could say it was complicated. But it really wasn’t. It just happened. I’m sorry. Here, take my hand.
Glancing down, I see her hand is now as grown-up as mine. My eyes return to the young couple we once were.
I wanted to make you happy. You’re not, though, are you?
I waited for a reply, which came as a gentle squeeze of my hand.
Is this the bit where I go for ice cream?
Yes, I think so.
To our left, I hear the man and the teenagers kicking the ball around. At least, I thought it was them. A couple of lads run past, chasing a football. I guess that’s their motorbikes over on the corner. Nothing special, just a step up from the ones the Prog-kids in the sixth form started out with.
Hang on, those machines are way old.
Other me gets up and walks to the cafe. The queue is insane. It’ll take an age. I watch myself exit stage left and understand it’s not my story any longer.
One lad stops and says something to Karrie, who plays with a loose lock of her hair. It’s the first time she’s smiled since we got here.
His name’s Pete.
And you know him?
What’s going on?
He just invited me for a ride on his bike.
Without a helmet? What did you say?
I said yes. And he borrowed his friend’s. This is where we met. Twenty years ago. It’s why we’re here, in the real world. Why don’t you come and join me?
I open my eyes and gasp at the sheer gush of colour flooding my brain. There, at the centre of my sensory explosion, sits the lady on the bench.
I approach. She’s engrossed in her book and doesn’t see me until I’m just feet away.
She raises her eyes, puzzled. Then, recognition. And, finally, that smile.
We talk like friends who last saw one another yesterday. The clock chimes mid-day and soon signals the quarter. At half-past, her youngest comes and asks when he can have lunch. He’s about fourteen, with his mother’s nose and chin. Then her husband approaches. Karrie introduces us and we shake hands.
I wonder if she’ll fill him in with the rest of the details later. Her daughter hangs back. Perhaps she’s shy. I know what that’s like.
I say hello. Alice regards me with suspicion and offers the limpest handshake I ever experienced. I notice she looks quite like me. Perhaps she sees it, too.
I ask if I can take a picture of the family. Pete sits beside Karrie and throws his arm around her. Thomas perches in front and Alice stands behind. Pete invites me to join them for fish and chips. I want to hate him, but I can’t.
I thank him, but decline. They have an anniversary to celebrate, myself a life to reclaim.
And then they walk away.
I’ll stay a bit longer and think things over. They’re almost out of sight now.
Going around the corner, Alice glances back, then Karrie turns and waves goodbye. I go back to the bench and see she’s left her sunglasses behind. They’re pretty old.
I put them on. They still fit me just fine.
Perhaps I’ll get myself an ice cream now. The queue isn’t too long.
Yes indeed, why not?