IT had been a lousy Friday and a very long one. The clock had just turned nine by the time Jack pulled into the pub car park. He was knackered and desperate for a drink.
At 52, the drive and ambition which was once part and parcel of his make-up, had long since diminished, but with no-one to return home to, staying at work until late in the evening provided an acceptable alternative.
The pub was bustling and Jack quickly realised he’d made the wrong choice. He should have gone to The Red Lion, which was nearer his home and contained more like-minded and older folk, but it was another 30 minutes drive away and he really needed that drink.
The Railway Inn was packed full of young, vibrant people embarking on a weekend of fun and jollity.
Jack forced his way through to the bar and ordered a pint which he quickly set about devouring.
He always thought that ‘cackle’ was the perfect word to describe the noise made by a bunch of intoxicated young women and there was a group of five just a few feet away from him, swaying in unison like wheat in the wind, dressed up in all sorts of garish outfits, a hen party in full swing.
Jack’s eyes set upon one of the girls. A bitter divorce followed by a string of highly unsatisfactory and unsuitable relationships had dulled Jack’s interest in the fairer sex but this girl immediately caught his attention.
She was wearing the all-purpose short black dress into which she fitted perfectly and sported slender, long, tanned legs. The girl had short, black hair in a bob and a memorable face. She was, thought Jack, stunningly beautiful. A fluffy red scarf draped her body and she wore a yellow Noddy hat but that ‘costume’ was subdued compared to the attire of some of her friends.
The volume of the chatter amongst the girls was rising by the minute and so it wasn’t hard for Jack to determine that the girl was called Maggie.
After a while she went to the bar and stood next to where Jack was propping himself up.
“It’s rude to stare, you know, especially at your age, people will get the wrong idea,” she said with a mischievous smile.
“Sorry, it’s just…” he replied.
“You’re the spitting image of someone I used to go out with a long time ago. That’s why I was staring,” said Jack.
“Hmm, never heard that line before, come on you must be able to come up with something better.”
“No, no, it’s true, honest, that’s why I was staring at you, the likeness is remarkable.”
“So who is this old flame then?” asked Maggie.
“Her name was Suzanne.”
Maggie put down the tray of drinks she had just picked up from the bar.
“Suzanne? What…. what was her surname?”
“Mason, Susanne Mason.”
“That’s my mum,” said Maggie. “You went out with my mum? When?”
Jack paused because he could hear Maggie’s friends calling for her, frantic for alcoholic replenishment. She took a tray of drinks to them and quickly returned to stand in front of Jack.
“So?” she demanded with an angry, piercing look in her eyes.
“We were an item in the 80s, early 80s.”
“What’s your name?” said Maggie.
“Jack, Jack Cartwright.”
She slapped him fiercely across the cheek and stormed out.
OVER the next few days, Maggie’s face dominated Jack’s thoughts and dreams. But was it Maggie he was seeing or Suzanne?
And what did Suzanne tell her daughter that made her deliver such a stinging rebuke?
He couldn’t let it rest, so for the next three Fridays he parked up outside the Red Lion and waited in vain to see if she would turn up. On the fourth Friday Maggie arrived with two other girls at about 9.30pm.
Jack sat in his car for about half-an-hour trying to summon up enough courage to go in, but chickened out and went home.
A week later he was back again and this time, he followed her in his car when she drove home to a small, semi-detached house about three miles away, after dropping her two friends off.
He sat outside for about an hour contemplating whether to go and knock on her door but eventually drove home. The next day Jack cried off work and instead followed Maggie to an industrial estate where he watched her park her car outside the offices of an I.T. firm.
He had a camera with him and, from a safe distance, took photographs of her as she entered what he presumed was her place of employment.
Back home he examined the photographs on his computer.
“This is sick,” he muttered before quickly deleting them.
The following Friday Jack again visited the pub but this time followed Maggie in. There were questions he needed answering.
He spotted her sitting at a table with another young, attractive woman.
“What do you want?” she glared.
Jack’s heart wobbled when he saw those explosive eyes, so reminiscent of passions of long ago. Not only did Maggie look like Suzanne but her mannerisms were also almost identical.
“I just wanted to talk to you for a moment that’s all.”
Maggie turned to her friend and said: “I’m just going outside for a fag, I won’t be long.”
Like a faithful puppy Jack trailed after her.
When they got outside, Maggie said: “You’ve got the time it takes me to smoke this and then I’m going back inside with my friend and I would be grateful if you then left us alone. If you don’t I’m going to call the police”
“I just wanted to apologise for when we met before,” he said. “I don’t know if I upset you. Why did you hit me?”
The tension in Maggie’s body seemed to subside. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Don’t know what?” asked Jack.
“Mum’s dead, she died last year.”
ALTHOUGH they had split up nearly 30 years ago, Jack had never forgotten Suzanne, she had been his first love. He had never made any attempt to contact her after the break-up, but had always hoped that they might bump into each other one day. Now, that wouldn’t happen and he was devastated. He slumped against a wall and started to cry, slowly at first but then uncontrollably.
Hesitantly, Maggie put a hand on Jack’s shoulders in an effort to subdue his sobbing.
“I loved her, I truly did,” he gasped.
They stood there in silence for a few minutes before Maggie produced a pen and a piece of paper and scribbled on it.
“Look, I’ve got to get back inside. Here’s my number, ring me.”
THEY met up a couple of days later for coffee and as soon as they sat down Maggie explained that Suzanne had died from a brain tumour.
There was no denying that, just like her mother, Maggie was a captivating presence. As they talked Jack was transfixed by her beautiful face and beguiling brown eyes.
He quizzed Maggie about her mother, trying to build up a picture of how her life had evolved but she wasn’t giving much away.
“Was she happy, you know, before her illness?” asked Jack.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I’m so glad, I wished it had been me who made her happy but that just wasn’t to be. Her husband, your father, was he there with her when she….”
Maggie looked at her watch. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
Jack took hold of her hand. “Maggie, could I see you again?”
“I don’t know.” She looked anxious.
“I know I’m a complete stranger but it would mean so much. Your mum was very, very special to me and there’s so much more I want to know. It will help me to come to terms with her death.”
“But you hadn’t seen each other for years, she was a different woman to the one you knew,” said Maggie.
“Then let me learn about that woman.”
OVER the next few weeks they met up occasionally for a coffee, and Jack began to discover more about Maggie’s childhood and what sort of mother Suzanne had turned out to be.
And Maggie started probing about Jack’s relationship with her mother.
“It was passionate, even fiery at times,” said Jack.
“I can’t imagine mum as being fiery, she always seemed so calm, so controlled.”
“We …. we had that effect on each other.”
“Was it destructive? Were you bad for each other?” That was a question that had nagged away at Jack over the years. It was Suzanne who had ended the relationship, suddenly and without warning and had refused to offer up an explanation.
“I don’t know Maggie, I honestly don’t know, she never told me why she dumped me. It’s strange but as individuals neither of us were that temperamental but something happened when we got together, there were fireworks which I suppose was the attraction and maybe in the end the downfall.”
Maggie wanted to know if they had ever discussed settling down together, getting married, having children.
“It never came up, we were too young I suppose.”
Maggie continued to be very inquisitive about the time Jack had spent with Suzanne and for a moment he wondered if she could have been his child but she was born well after he and Suzanne had parted.
Which was just as well because even though there was a massive age gap between the two of them – Maggie was 24 - Jack could feel himself being drawn more and more to her.
I’m a well preserved 52, he thought, it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she could find me attractive. But was it Maggie or the memory of Suzanne he coveted?
At last he summoned up the courage to ask Maggie if she would like to go out for dinner with him and to his surprise and delight she agreed.
They enjoyed a splendid meal and then Maggie invited him back to her flat. By now Jack was feeling that the attraction was mutual and he concluded the time was right to make his feelings known. But first . . . .
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to get clear in my mind,” he asked.
“That time when we first met, in the pub, why did you slap me across the face, you’ve never really explained?”
“And I’ve never really apologized have I. I’m so sorry for hitting you, it was stupid of me, impulsive, I just jumped to conclusions.”
“About what,” asked Jack.
“Jack, I think there’s something you need to see.”
Maggie went over to a cupboard in the corner of the room and brought back several photo albums and spread them out on the floor. She opened one up to reveal a wedding photo of Suzanne and a man Jack presumed to be her husband.
“That’s my dad, Rupert.” Maggie had always shied away from giving up too much information about her father and Jack had never pushed her. To some extent, he didn’t want to know anything about the man who had finally won Suzanne’s commitment.
“Good looking bloke, can see why she married him,” said Jack.
“Yes he was,” answered Maggie. “But he and mum split up just before she became ill.”
“Mum just said she’d fallen out of love with him.”
“Did he visit her when she was in hospital?”
“No, he never went.”
“She didn’t want him to come, she didn’t say why but she was adamant that he shouldn’t visit. When mum got really poorly, you know, towards the end, dad came round and said he needed to start getting all her affairs in order. They had never started divorce proceedings or anything like that, they hadn’t done anything legal. Dad was going through all the papers when he came across this.
Maggie produced an envelope from inside one of the albums.
“It’s a letter addressed to you.”
“Me? I don’t understand.”
“It was sealed and stamped, but never sent apparently.”
“Yes, he opened it and then he showed it to me. You’d better read it.”
I hope you don’t mind me writing to you after all this time. I know you were upset when I left but at the time I thought it was for the best.
I had to make a decision as to whether you and I were right for each other and I felt that things were always too dramatic, and it got to the stage that it frightened me.
I need you to know that I have never forgotten you, how could I, but now I have decided to get in touch again and I’m sure you’re asking why? I met this man called Rupert and we have been going out for 18 months and he has asked me to marry him.
He is a marvellous man, kind and generous, loving and very attentive and I have said yes. We are due to get married next week – it’s a grand wedding, marquee on the lawn, posh hotel reception, the lot. Costing a fortune but mum and dad don’t mind, bless them.
But for some unknown reason for the last few weeks all I have been thinking about is you. I keep seeing your face and my mind is full of memories of our time together. They were exciting times and I realize now that I miss that excitement, I miss you.
Rupert is very kind and he is a very gentle lover but – and I realise this is a shameful thing to say –there’s something missing. I want, I need, that frenzy I had with you. I don’t think I can settle for the safe option, the one that I know will sooner or later become a chore just like washing the dishes.
If all this makes you think I’m a callous, spoilt bitch, then please throw this letter away and banish me from your thoughts forever.
But just one word from you my love and I will call off the wedding and come to you.
Your darling Suzanne
“I never…she never….” said Jack.
“She obviously changed her mind and never posted it. They got married seven days later.”
“Dad never spoke to me after reading the letter. He left immediately afterwards.”
Maggie’s face flushed and her lips began to tremble.
“He hung himself the next day.”
Jack held the letter in his hand and read it again and again. Maggie sat watching him, never saying a word, her eyes searching for some emotional response from him.
Eventually he leant across, pecked her gently on the cheek and handed back the letter.
“I’ve got to go, my girlfriend will be waiting up for me.”
With that, he walked out of the room leaving Maggie sitting on the floor surrounded by the family albums and holding the letter.
© Patrick O’Connor 2010