Elizabeth recognised Luke straight away, even after twenty years, even in a crowded café. He was sitting in the corner, the ghost of the beautiful young man who had broken her heart all those years ago, waiting quietly and looking at a copy of the Yorkshire Post which he had taken from the counter. She knew that’s where he had probably got it from because she did the same herself every Thursday when she came in for lunch with her friend Julie. He was sitting at the same table that she had sat at with him all those years ago. She wondered if he remembered that. She stood still for a moment to give herself a chance to have a good look at him. He had changed, of course, more flesh, less hair and the beginnings of a double chin. That skinny suppleness which she had admired had gone and the shine on the hair which had once been dark brown was no longer there, but she could still see him as he had been in spite of that. She could still feel the same irresistible pull of his charm. She hadn’t expected that. God help her when he put down the newspaper and directed it at her. She gave a quick sigh, braced her shoulders and walked up to the table. It was the cricket report that he was looking at. Well it would be, wouldn’t it.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late.”
She wasn’t late, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say. He put down the newspaper and grinned at her.
“Hi. How are you doing?”
“Great to see you after all this time.”
“I know. Can’t believe it.”
They told each other that they were looking well. Elizabeth sat down opposite him quickly, avoiding the possibility of a welcoming hug, and smiled back. She wondered how they could get past the meaningless pleasantries and prevent this meeting from becoming a dreadful mistake. She had told herself that after so long, since they both had families of their own, it was just going to be just a harmless piece of nostalgia but now that Luke was sitting in front of her she realised that she wanted more than that. There was unfinished business. Even after all this time.
Their three years together were still vivid in her memory, a time full of light and colour. She had never managed to live her life with that kind of intensity since. The simplest things had mattered just because he was there. She wanted to ask him about it, wanted to reassure herself that he remembered too, but instead she looked at the menu. She knew exactly what was on it but she gripped the piece of laminated card tightly and stared at the familiar list, giving herself time to breathe.
“What are you going to have?”
“Ham and cheese toastie and a cappuchino.”
He had answered very quickly. Elizabeth wondered how long he had been sitting there.
“I’ll have a bacon muffin and a latte. You have to order at the counter.”
He got up, stretching his back.
“I know. I remember. I’ll get this.”
She looked at his back as he waited for the order, wondering if she would have recognised him from that angle. Probably not, but she would still have known the loose easy going stride as he walked over to the counter. Suddenly she could see a scruffy young guy leaning carelessly against a bus stop, waiting for her to pick him up, a freeze frame of a moment from twenty years ago which had been waiting, locked inside her head, to jump out at her and reduce her to a quivering young woman of twenty three again. Where had that come from?
When he sat down again the real talking started. They began with families. This was safe ground, a way of finding connections and demonstrating the fact that they had made separate lives, lives which had survived each other. They had a lot in common. Two sons who were both heading off to university in three months time, a love of Nick Hornby’s books, a delight in gardening which they would both have found ridiculous twenty years ago and the same trouble with builders. They had both finally managed to make that trip to Morocco….. just not together. It was easy to find things to talk about because she remembered exactly what he liked. She remembered everything.
He picked up his toastie. She had always liked the uninhibited way that he enjoyed his food. She watched as he bit into it. He saw her looking and grinned.
“They still do OK sandwiches here then.”
Elizabeth remembered the first thing that she had ever cooked for him. She was a good cook now, a very good one, but twenty years ago it had been quite different. She had made some God awful potato salad- I mean how could you get that wrong?- and he had eaten it all. A few weeks later he had admitted that he didn’t even like mayonnaise.
“Do you still come in here then?”
That must sound sad. Mind you he’d ended up in Milton Keynes. Still she felt as though she should have done more, been somewhere. She wanted to impress him. She could tell him about John of course, but women who went on and on about their husbands were annoying. You ought to have something to say about yourself, not your husband and she hadn’t, not really. There were plenty of other things that she could have said. She wanted him to know what it had felt like after he walked out, how long it had taken her to get back on her feet, how much it had hurt. She wanted him to know that after she had smiled and waved at him from her car that day, returning his greeting, she had gone back to her flat and fallen apart. She wanted him to know that she had never stopped loving him.
He smiled at her.
“That’s nice. With John? That’s your husbands name isn’t it?”
“Yes, I mean no, that is his name but I come here to meet a friend.”
He still said that then…………
“Of course John and I do go out together, meals and things.”
Elizabeth didn’t want him to think she wasn’t happy. She was happy, of course she was. She wondered if Luke was happy with his partner. There had just been one thing that he said in the email………
“That’s the best thing about the kids getting older isn’t it? You get your life back.”
“I suppose you do. Miss those days though. They’re soon gone.”
She would have liked to have children with Luke, not that she would change her own children now of course, and John had been a great dad, but there would have been something very special about sharing that with Luke. Back then they had been too young. It had never been mentioned and she hadn’t suggested it, afraid that the answer might have been no. Not a no to having children obviously, since he’d had two since, but a no to having children with her. She had seen the end coming right from the start, looking back. Her eyes had been wide open.
“Miss them? Not sure I do miss them being small myself, but I try not to admit that. It was hard work.”
“You will do. Wait till your Jack goes off to Uni. I’m dreading the day our Simon leaves.”
Elizabeth frowned. Something about that word suppose reminded her what a complete waste of space Luke could be.
“How are they?”
“Oh they’re fine. I just try not to get in the way. Let their mother sort it out.”
Yes, Elizabeth thought. I bet you do.
“Why did you suggest meeting?”
“Oh, curiosity, old times sake. You know. Does there have to be a reason?”
“After twenty years? I think there probably does.”
“Well why did you come?”
She had come because she had wanted to see him again, to be in the same room, breathe the same air. She had come because he had made her feel like nobody else ever had, or ever would, but there was no point frightening him to death by telling him that. Also she had her pride. She wasn’t having him going back to his beloved in Milton Keynes thinking that she had wasted the last twenty years sighing over him. Anyway- she hadn’t, or not very often anyway.
“Just curiosity, like you said. Catch up. See how you were doing.”
He smiled at her. Elizabeth looked down, avoiding his eyes.
“We’ve done all right. Both of us.”
She wished that he wouldn’t say us like that. They hadn’t been “us” for a very long time.
“Yes we have. We’ve both done very well, considering.”
She had let the word slip out without thinking. Yes she had done well considering that she had sworn never to get hurt like that again. She had done well to be brave enough to trust someone else. Someone who meant what he said.
“Well when you get to our age you see people facing all kinds of stuff that you never think about in your twenties.”
She noticed the way he flinched at the words “our age”. He obviously still had delusions of youth. He really shouldn’t be wearing that jacket. He wasn’t the kind of man who was going to age well. Middle age was all about coping when life got all too real and earnest, not skating over its surface and pretending that you were never going to fall over.
“You sound like the wife.”
That was what finally made up her mind. The wife. A person reduced to a useful appendage. A convenience.
“She has a name.”
“I know. Use it all the time.”
He thought that was funny. She smiled tightly back at him while he laughed. Bad jokes were much more palatable coming out of the mouth of a rather gorgeous twenty three year old than when you heard them coming from the mouth of someone who really should have spent the intervening years learning better.
“Very funny. Anyway, I had better get going. Lovely to see you again. Thank you for lunch.”
She leaned forward as he stood up and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Send me that facebook friend request sometime.”
Elizabeth took one last long look at his face as she pulled away from him and the ghost of the rather gorgeous twenty three year old faded back into the past leaving only an ordinary middle aged man, a man like any other. She realised that she had got what she came for.