Her face was older, yet her eyes were as clear as they had ever been when he had looked into them all those years ago. She stepped down from the bus, looking only where she was treading, and holding onto her soft overnight case. Only after she had composed herself that she looked up and around her, taking in the surroundings of the busy bus station with its transient population. He saw at once the look of half recognition, as her blue eyes fell upon him. Louise recalled the face, and then she recalled the man that she had once loved
They had not planned to meet; each had separate cause to be within the same bus terminal. Robert was waiting for his wife, returning from her mother’s 80th birthday party. A family affair which spanned a weekend, the very same time when Robert needed to remain in the city, to attend the opening of his latest exhibition, “Cotton, a Thread of Soul.” An imaginative title for his collection of photographs, a title he hated, but his agent loved. Hence his wife had left on the Friday, to help entertain her mother and equally elderly guests, leaving Robert to smile, sip champagne and listen to people praise his evocative black and white images of cotton workers in the deep south of America.
Now here on Sunday afternoon, waiting for his wife to arrive, Louise stepped from the bus and the years that had passed since they last meet evaporated in a moment.
Louise thought she had recognized him, when the coach turned into the terminal. His hair was a little greyer, there was less of it, his face showed more laughter lines, his course chiselled chin unchanged. As she stepped down onto the pavement, she deliberately avoided his stare, waiting until she was composed, only then looking directly at him. It was the Robert she had once known, many years ago, the person she had etched in her memory, was now standing before her in reality. She smiled, as if they were still lovers.
With an instinct borne out of intimate moments and shared experiences, they walked towards each other, uncomfortably yet politely Robert offered his hand to her. “I think we passed the stage of handshakes many years ago Robert.” She stood on her toes and kissed him once on each cheek, allowing her lips to linger a little beyond what might taken to be social etiquette, she breathed in his aftershave, “you no longer wear Brut?”
“I might look old, I reject smelling old, until I have no choice. You haven’t changed a bit Louise.”
“Your eyes must be wearing out, I am full of lines and dry skin, the aging process is rapidly consuming me.”
He reached forward and held both her hands, loosely as all those feelings he thought had long since sunk under the weight of time, welled up and flooded through his body. He wanted to pull her close run his hands through her hair, squeeze her close to him. He could never get close enough to her. The realization that it was actually Louise standing before him only increased his sense of elation and pleasure, all of which he suppressed behind a middle aged mask of respectability.
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
“Can you? I would do almost anything for a real Latte. Instant coach coffee in polystyrene cups, I can assure you, has no enjoyment value whatsoever.”
“How many years has it been Louise, 15, 20?” As Robert stirred his coffee, he knew it was a little over18 years since he had last seen her. He would never forget that bleak Wednesday morning. He tried to remember exactly what had started the conversation; many times he had sought the root of that fateful day. However hard he searched the corridors of his memory, he could not point exactly to what it was. He only recalled with despair the consequences as she just walked out of the door and out of his life. Louise she was 33, just three months younger than him, she had closed the door on the small rented flat and on his life. He watched her walk along Kensington Park Road and out of his life, until today. She was now sitting opposite him as if nothing had happened, nothing had for 18 years.
“I forget,” she lied, she could recall that day with total clarity. “The years just seem to glide by with no effort. Are you still married?”
“Two children, and a large mortgage, proof enough?”
She laughed. Her eyes sparkled, her lips, that he had kissed many times, remained as attractive and inviting as they had been 18 years ago.
“How about you?”
“Marriage you mean?” Louise smiled, “Never got around to it. There have been relationships, I even once managed to live with someone for the best part of a year, it just never seemed to be what I imagined it should be.”
Robert wanted to say so much, he wanted to tell her how deeply he had loved her, express the pain he had felt when she had left.
How during the past 18 years of missing her, she regularly slipped into his thoughts. At times a simple remembrance, others moment’s deep consideration as to what might have been, had they still been lovers.
“It must be your wedding anniversary soon Robert?”
“Two weeks time, plus as if I would forget seven days before your birthday. Is that a way of ensuring I send you a card.”
“That would be fun.”
“Our silver wedding, it might be better if you refrained from sending me a card.”
“I just cannot imagine you being married fortwenty five years, it sounds like a lifetime. Maybe that’s why I never married, the thought of being contained.”
“I always regretted you going.” Robert had not intended to say that, he had meant to think it; it just slipped out across the table. Louise did not answer at once, maybe she hoped that he would continue speaking, avoiding the need to answer. She conceded.
“Maybe we both regretted separating. Maybe at times we regret ever meeting. At other times, maybe, just maybe we wish we had met earlier in our lives. The past cannot be changed or even fine tuned; we have to learn to live with it not in it.”
“I think now, when I look back I was weak, or maybe I was more indecisive. I wanted you, not the trauma it would have brought to my life.”
“You were always an honest man, even if that honesty hurt others; your feelings were there for all to see.”
“I wish we had more time together, catch up remember”
“We’ve had our time Robert, all those years ago, that was our time, and we made the most of it. They were good times, stolen moments that only you and I can relate to. Our time has gone; past, now those moments live in our memories, where we can revisit them from time to time.”
Robert looked into her eyes, those warm inviting eyes and his hand touched hers. “It’s still good to touch the memory from time to time, recall the feel of your skin.”
“What time does your wife’s coach arrive?”
Robert looked at his watch and with a sombre tone informed her. “Ten minutes.”
“Maybe I should go.” Louise stood up from the table, “Thank you for the coffee. It was good to see you again, who knows, maybe we might bump into one another again.”
Robert looked up at her, in silence regarding her as one regards a statute. “Can I call you?” he said on an impulse.
She stood, looking down on him like a mother looking down at a child who had just asked for his pudding, before finishing his main course. “It wouldn’t work Robert, we’ve had our time. To start all over again, would only open old wounds and they would have to heal all over again. That healing can be a painful process, I know”
“I always loved you, it just I never realised how much until it was too late.”
She smiled, “That was always the problem, we both loved each other, we just never really knew how much.”
Lousie picked up her soft overnight bag, kissed him on both cheeks and left him alone once again with only memories to cling onto.
Robert spoke as she turned to walk away. “Why did you leave me?” It was a question that he had often asked himself, yet he had never been sure that he wanted the answer. Louise stopped, with her back towards him she considered the question, and she knew the answer all too well, unsure if she should share it with him.
Before she could reply, a voice called to her, a young man had entered the warm busy café, and he waved then strode confidently towards Louise, embraced her and kissed her.
“I thought I had missed you, the traffic around Hyde Park was atrocious, I do hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
Robert watched the couple from the table, he felt as though he was intruding on an intimate reunion, yet his eyes held onto them both.
“Don’t worry darling, I have had some wonderful company. Let me introduce you. Robert, this is Christopher. Christopher this is Robert.”
The men shook hands, Louise interrupted their edgy greeting, “My son, Christopher is studying at University College London. So I thought I would pop down to the smoky city and celebrate his eighteenth birthday.”
“Your son?” Robert asked.
“Yes.” Louise answered.
At that moment, he heard his own name, being called out, by a familiar voice; it was his wife she walked towards the table, a trolley suitcase trundling behind her.
To ask even one of the many questions he wanted to ask Louise, he knew would bring his marriage tumbling down around him, just as it had been eighteen years ago. His wife hugged him, into silence.
“It has been a pleasure talking to you, my son and I will do our very best to see the exhibition, goodbye.”
Louise politely shook his hand and walked away with her son. Robert watched as they left the café, at the door Louise turned once more and looked at Robert with a deep look that spoke a thousand words to him. It was as if they were still lovers.