As a girl, I can’t see her now. Sometimes, I think I can see her back then. But memories are fuzzy things. They are elusive or become mixed up with something else. Some of my reminisces are concrete. They are set in a strong emotion like the first time I was mesmerized by a spaceship on the big screen. Others are composites like a cut-and-paste photo-shop. Try as I might, I cannot take myself back to my school days. I can’t see Marie in the school dinner queue as she ritually pays for her daily sausage roll and beans. That is the only constant from all those years ago. That we both ordered the same for our dinner each day. I didn’t know this, then. It’s only since talking with her that we realised we ordered the same school dinners. I look back.
Marie says she was quiet at school. It’s hard to imagine her like that. She did well and she didn’t like boys. They were too angry all the time. She is a lot more confident now in her mid-40’s. I still see her vulnerabilities, at times, but mostly, she finds an answer to most problems. I look at our recent photos. We are always happy together. And I tell Marie that she could pass for three or four different women depending on how she wears her hair or the angle from which the snap was taken.
She’s changed a lot since how I vaguely remember her outside the classroom in her school uniform. Her hair is longer and she’s a lot chattier. Marie is a manager at a fashion company. I think that has brought her out of her shell a bit. That, and the passing of time. She’s had children too. So have I. Two girls who are now at secondary school. They’re at the ages when I first knew Marie. I can’t really picture her.
We eventually left school and went our separate ways. I joined the army and Marie went to college. I never thought I’d ever meet her again. Nor did that question even enter my mind. I didn’t think about her. Then, she came back into my life 30 years later as I try to recall how she was at school. But I can’t really. I must have bumped into the teenage Marie. I’m sure I did. I just can’t think of a concrete situation where that happened. I just vaguely recall seeing her sometime, from recognising her back then, from an old school photograph. I want to think that I’ve always been there for her. But I’m sure she existed for 30 years without me. She probably didn’t even give me a second thought as I went through army basic training.
Now she has come back into my life, I don’t want us to go our separate ways again. I want to think that she is my one constant in this ever changing world. All those years ago, we ordered the same school dinners.
Scrambled eggs and mushrooms
I remember Marie seeing my newspaper article on social media. That’s when she contacted me and offered her help. She lives down South. But she could organise a supermarket delivery if I was short of food. I felt really blown away by her generosity. She always helps other people and she tries not to judge.
I remember us, much later, walking past a homeless guy. I was in pain and wanted to go home. I felt angry with myself because I had little patience. Sometimes, I give someone in need some change. But I was skint. He was the public face of the government’s social policies. I wanted to feel angry at the politicians yet they are faceless. So, the vulnerable people, on the streets, take the wrath instead. It’s not usually their faults. The notion of a meritocracy is a myth. I had to be reminded of this as Marie found time for him.
The homeless guy was called David. He had been a successful musician until he went bankrupt because of a few accidents at a gig. He hadn’t seen his children for six years. He said it was tough. Marie made him smile. She gave him some change too and never questioned whether he’d spend it on drugs or alcohol. “Live and let live,” she said. I agreed.
That’s the trouble with people nowadays. They don’t realise that a smile can make a difference. I try to smile and say, “Hello,” even when I’m in pains. It might be the only warmth someone has received that day. I try to make a small difference to others. Marie agrees. It’s the small gestures that make a big difference. I just get really annoyed that people see my pains but don’t make allowances for my unseen disability. They carry on talking even as I’ve lost the thread. I can’t keep up.
Marie saw past the difficulties reported in the newspaper article. She said I wasn’t weak at all. I was strong because I was standing up for others as I added my ‘case study’ to the mounting evidence. Those with disabilities are struggling like the increased homeless folk. Marie said, “don’t look at what you can’t do. Look at what you can.” Her understanding was like a ladder that lifted me out of a pit of unending days. I could look forward to her video calls. She made me feel sexy again. She genuinely listened and I was her sounding board. She never judged me. Her scrambled eggs tasted good. I wasn’t in the dark like a mushroom. Marie gave me my appetite back. I learned to love my world again as I adjusted. And Marie expanded the premature end to my travels by taking me with her when she video phoned.
It feels like fate. She is exactly the right woman to come into my life at exactly the right time. I began asking questions. I am still in pains but the world is new as I have lost my preconceptions about other’s appearances. Marie has awoken me. Her interest makes me question and listen again. It feels like a good thing.
Veggie Supreme Pizza
She doesn’t like the ways animals are treated. I went without meat for two days but wanted to gnaw someone’s leg off. I said I’d never eat meat if we ever lived together. I felt trepidation after saying this. I’m not sure I could stick to Marie’s principles. I like pork too much. We share a veggie supreme pizza for tea.
Marie tells me about cows that are constantly impregnated to produce milk. I find that horrifying, too. And she is nervous about confined spaces. We didn’t dwell on battery hen conditions. That can’t be a good life. Being cooped up in a small cage. I’m not sure chickens know any different though. We should be more ethical towards life.
I agree that all life is equal. But I believe in God. Man was made flesh to rule over the earth. So, I think all lives are equal. But only mankind was made in God’s image. That makes us his highest creation. But with knowledge comes responsibilities. So, just because we can cage a bird, it doesn’t mean we should. There is plenty of space to let farmed animals roam. It’s about maximum profit, I tell Marie.
“You believe in God?” I tell her I do. Nothing is an accident. There’s too much order about for our universe to just be the effect of a random explosion. You only have to look at the beauty of a rose to see that there’s a creator behind it. And I don’t think that when our physical body dies that that is the end. We live on, I’m sure. We have the capacity to love and think up poetry. I’m sure those attributes don’t die when our proteins wither. Einstein said that energy can not be created or destroyed. I think we just take on another form.
I said to Marie that if I go first, I’ll look out for her. In death, I will order her toiletries and find her car keys. I’ll fold her clothes and stop her if she doesn’t see the car as she’s crossing the road. I will always watch over her. She thinks that’s sweet. “But don’t you think it’s a bit creepy?” I think.
It’s true that I’m quite a private chap. I struggle to use public loos if there’s other people about. And I’m quite tactile in a relationship. But I don’t need to see my girlfriend’s ablutions or watch her shave her legs. I think about this. Or rather, I try not to. “OK,” I say, “Then I’ll always be within ear shot.” We both laugh.
Marie thinks there’s something more but she hasn’t made her mind up as much as I have. She asks me to explain God and I struggle. Not everything can be explained. If I knew all the answers then I’d be God-like. But I’m only made in his image. I’m not totally sure what that means. God is male. And yet women are made in the image of our Heavenly Father too. I think it’s more to do with the Trinity. So, it’s less about appearance because our eyes can deceive us. We rely too much on our eyes at the expense of our other senses. I think ‘in his image’ means we have a spirit and a soul as well as a consciousness. But I’m not all knowing. I don’t need to know everything. Love doesn’t need to be quantified to be looked on with awe.
Marie looks beautiful as we go on our first date. She calls it dinner even though she’s a Northerner. It sounds more formal than tea. She knows I have my dinner at mid-day. This is an on-going joke as I begin to sound ‘di…’ before I mock correct myself with tea. We go out to eat anyway. She chooses a Mexican restaurant.
She is wearing a short sleeved dress that I say looks oriental. The eatery is busy. We find a table for two near the window that looks out onto the street. I already know I’ll order a latte. Marie looks at the vegetarian options. I watch her as she traces the menu with her index finger and looks flummoxed. “I’ll order the same as you,” I say. She smiles. “You don’t have to order the vegetarian option. You like your meat.” She decides on a green mojito and a vegetarian enchilada made with mushrooms.
“But I want the same experience,” I remark. I talk about travelling alone, which is fine, although there is no-one to share the experiences with. Photos only go so far in painting a conversational picture. She listens. “Well, we can order the same or taste each other’s,” she suggests.
I order a latte and a burrito filled with ground beef. Marie won’t try mine. The portions are large and we end up taking half of it with us when we leave. It is really busy and I’m in pains. She helps me through the weave of tables. I think about the connotations and we laugh at something private.
Marie orders smashed avocado on toast for breakfast. I quite like them. I’m not sure if an avocado is an aphrodisiac but I really don’t need a chemical high to feel aroused when she’s about.
There’s a mother berating her kids. She seems unaware of other customers as she swears and tugs at the boy’s hood. I tut. Marie says that she’d never talk to her girls like that. “Some people lack empathy and awareness for those around them.” I say it’s because everyone wants to be a celebrity. But, in truth, it’s probably more to do with socialization and parents. Either way, social media pulls people away from parenting and promotes people who are famous just for being famous. I drift.
“Have you ever had a car accident?” I mention the time a woman pulled out in front of me from a junction. She said she didn’t see me because the sun was in her eyes. Luckily, I was only doing 30 miles per hour. But she wrote my car off. I was alright. But the lady had popped home twice whilst I was waiting for the recovery vehicle and she didn’t even offer me a drink. “Again. That’s a lack of empathy,” I say. I ask if Marie has ever had a car accident.
Marie tells me about the time, in her twenties, before having children, that she skidded and her car left the ground. Her scarf had been cut in two by the shattered windscreen. She was lucky not to have more than a few cuts from glass shards. My mouth goes dry. I can see her back then. I go quiet and think about my own mortality and hers. I don’t know what I’d do without Marie. I don’t know why I picture her smashed up car when she’s alright. I ask her why we put ourselves through imagining past events that make us feel uncomfortable. “Why do motorists crane their necks to look at accidents?”
“People want to feel.” We are so unfeeling in our everyday lives as we rush about. We are taught to use our heads more than our hearts at work. I think people look at those less fortunate because it gives them reprieve from their own worries. We can feel better about our lives.
Marie makes me feel better as she says she takes less risks with driving now. “I’m more experienced and more responsible now I’m a parent,” she comforts. I smile. Being a parent does make a lot of people think of others outside of their own difficulties. It’s nice to care about others. The smashed avocado is a winner!
Pre-packed Salmon sandwiches
I hate travelling backwards. I tell Marie that the little boy I look after has never been on a train. “Well, he loves buses. Maybe you could take him. A train should be smooth on your neck.” This sounds like a good idea. I’m stuck in a chair every day on tablets. I could pace myself. “As long as they aren’t salmon sandwiches,” I say. She looks puzzled.
We talk about ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates. I always get them mixed up, I say. I don’t really. I just like listening to Marie being the confident expert as I pretend to be helpless. It’s a great way to flirt.
I was on a train once, coming home on leave, and a woman stank the carriage out with some supermarket sandwiches that were out of date. She was trying to describe the greyish salmon, over the phone, to customer services. Everyone was changing their seats as they held their noses. She opened the window. It was freezing on the train.
Marie wrinkled her nose. “I like trains,” she said. “I like the feeling of not being in control. You have to totally trust the driver. There’s nothing you can do if it crashes.” I think about rollercoasters and shudder. I think about staying sober on nights out. “I like to be in control,” I surmise. “Maybe your world is safer than mine.” We talk about ontological security. How safe are we in the world? “It depends on your safety net,” she says. “Whether you have people around you that are dependable.” I think. I say that past experiences definitely shape how you react to adversity in the present. She agrees. Then she asks me why I’m smiling.
“It just sounds like something a woman would say. Enjoying the feeling of not being in control, on a train, as the scenery hurtles past. Is it a sexual thing?” Marie smiles. “Most things usually are,” she winks.
I remember the first time I saw Marie since leaving school. It was dark when she finally parked in the street. It seemed to take forever as she had a long drive. I could hardly eat my shepherd’s pie because I was so excited. Marie even had the confidence to pick me up from my ex-partner’s. We had texted and talked for almost two months over the phone.
I should have asked her what car she was driving as she announced, by text, she was here. I grabbed my bag of medications and felt anxious. I didn’t want to tap on the wrong car window in darkness. She saw me first. The distance between us seemed longer than it was. My chest was somersaulting. We hugged after thirty years. I wanted to remember every detail.
Marie drove smoothly. She eased her clutch instead of snapping at it. I didn’t even need to remind her about my neck. I asked her to turn the radio off. “Why?” I said that I wanted to focus on her with the least distractions. “You are funny!”
She parked in what was to be christened ‘her parking spot’ outside my flat. We held hands. We always do. “You looked like a rock star as you walked up the street,” she remarked. I laughed and offered her a green tea. We put some music on and she kneeled down at my feet. I leaned forward and rubbed her slight back. I couldn’t help laughing. “What are you laughing at?” I said I was just pleased to see her and that my mind was in neutral. “I wasn’t thinking of anything,” I said. Then, I laugh again. “A rock star? Well, what do I normally look like?” We laughed.
Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. He graduated from The Open University with a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences. His writing has appeared in Spelk, Nymphs, Fevers of the Mind and others. In 2020 he is due to appear in Horror Anthologies published by Eerie River and Red Cape Publishing. ‘Hearts of the matter’ is available on Amazon.