Collision

WINNER :August 2013 entry for Telegraph Writing competition

“Ellie!”

I’d have known him anywhere, yet found it hard to believe he was in Dubai.  We had arrived three days earlier, out of a middling London winter, and plunged into temperatures in the high 30’s. We decided to buy a couple of Persian rugs and people had directed us to the Blue Souq, one of the most striking architectural features in the Emirates. A double row of vaulted, blue tiled buildings linked by bridges and cooled by windtowers catches the sea breeze from the nearby lagoon, for which you are truly grateful when walking in the boiling midday sun.

“Ross!” I laughed as he swung me off the hot ground in a bear hug. He was always so physical, his body telling you exactly what he meant.

“You, here…..?” He grinned at my husband, shook hands with him and introduced us to Laura, his wife. She was lovely; beautiful eyes with a light behind them. She was the same height as Ross, her face as open as his. They looked a pair.  The men started to talk and Laura turned to me.

“How long have you known Ross?”

“Years, we were at university together. I’d heard he married. It’s so nice to meet you.”

“Are you new in Dubai?”

“Yes, just this week. We’re overwhelmed by the noise, the colour, the life here.”

“We’ve been here two years. If you like, I’ll take you around a few places. Have you been to the fish souq yet?”

“No, that would be marvelous….”

“You won’t believe your eyes, but I hope you’re a lark, we’d have to go between 4 and 5 in the morning.”

“I’m game,” I said “anything for a good piece of fish!”

“Come for dinner first, then”.

“Ross”, she said laying her graceful arm on his,  “….let’s invite them to dinner.” I was charmed by her. We parted with swapped phone numbers and a promise she’d call us at the hotel to arrange a date.

“Nice people,” Bob said. “How do you know Ross?”

We were walking, so he couldn’t see me blush, as I had my head down. I could hardly say “I know Ross better than anyone else in the world. He was the love of my life”. Bob and I had been married eight safe, solid years, the last six devoted totally to parenthood and Izzy our daughter. Seeing Ross I’d been stunned into some kind of conventional reaction, but now it was beginning to sink in. We were going to be living in the same city and if we’d run into each other so easily three days after arriving…..ah, grow up Ellie, that’s all in the past.

 

The next weeks flew past, seeing apartments, setting up the household, getting ourselves organized. Izzy to school, Bob in his office routine, me holding the fort.

“There’s a farewell do for the Masons, a sort of disco for the old,” Bob said throwing the invitation on the table. Bob was replacing Paul Mason, so naturally we went.  The band was terrific and after a few drinks, the dancing started. Bob danced with Mo Mason, I with Paul. After two rounds of “Darling” Paul and I gave up and beat a path back to our table. Pushing through the throng, we came face to face with Ross and Laura.

“Hello again!” I was pleased to see them.

“Hello,” said Laura putting out her hand.

I remember thinking she’d forgotten me. Well, it had been weeks ago, brief, and the noise in here would disturb anyone’s train of thought. Ross looked white and drawn. Sort of mumbling, he took off in another direction, leaving Laura, Paul and me standing.  I introduced Paul to Laura but was taken aback when she said to me

“And you are?” she asked.

“I’m Ellie, an old friend of Ross,” I said confidently, jogging her memory.

“How long have you known Ross?” She was sincere and direct.

“Well, we were at uni together ……” my voice tailed off. Something was wrong. Turning to Paul, she said

“I can’t concentrate very well. I had an accident a couple of years ago and my memory sort of goes now and again. I was in hospital for ages and had to learn everything all over again. My name, how to walk, talk, everything. A car knocked me down, I don’t remember much.”

I tried to take this in and Paul, clearly not knowing what to say back, went off to get us some drinks.

“Come out into the hall, we can hear ourselves think out there,” Laura said and I followed her.

“How long have you been in Dubai? “ Those lovely eyes looked straight into mine.

“Well, a few weeks…..” I felt disoriented, as though I’d missed something, but wasn’t sure where. At that moment Mo Mason passed. I introduced her to Laura, and Mo – full of chat and interest – said “Maybe you can tell Ellie what you think are the best restaurants now, it’s all changed since we came here 6 years ago.”

“I’d be happy to,” Laura said. “Come for dinner!”  She was scrambling in her bag for a pen.

“I have to write it all down. I had an accident and my memory sort of goes. I was in hospital for ages and had to learn everything all over again. My name, how to walk, talk, everything…..” Mo was sympathetic, deeply interested. I felt numb and turned my head away to the dancing. Across the mass of movement, I saw Ross looking in our direction, perfectly still. He immediately looked away, but not before I caught the awful grief in his eyes.

_____

Sleep was out of the question.  Bob – nicely wined, dined, danced – said “Great party!” and flaked out on the bed. My mind could not get round this. Laura had had an accident, clearly not recovered her memory. She looked so down to earth, so lovely, but how did it affect Ross, their relationship? I went back in my mind to when he’d disappeared so abruptly that evening. I’d felt hurt, thinking perhaps he’d been trying to say “don’t make something out of the past, Ellie” as though I hadn’t grown up, got over it. When  he’d known exactly what was coming, just what Laura would say.  I wept then.

_____

Ross had been my first lover. Four years older, experienced, still the most direct man I’d known. He used to lecture me:

“I won’t be the only one, you’ve got to learn how to handle men and not give your heart away. If you do that, they won’t want you.”

Had he ever learned that you don’t have a choice where your heart goes? If I’d known then what I knew now – that he was the only one I’d ever meet who I belonged to. He taught me the cool behavior that beckons men on but keeps them at a distance too, the irony being that I’d never wanted any one of them after him. Did he believe that life was going to be plentiful, with love popping up all over the place, instead of the one shining thing that had ever appeared on my horizon?  We’d hiked from coast to coast over our green and pleasant land, he taught me to abseil and, best of all, to jive.  We’d been to three weddings of friends in a month, and I hoped we’d be next.  Is that why he just took off with a rucksack, after two years together, saying as he gripped my shoulders, arms fully extended, as was his habit

“Enjoy yourself, kid, don’t waste a minute waiting for me. Live!” It had killed me for several years, yet I did get on with my life, I even saw what he had meant eventually.

 

I must have slept, because Izzy carefully opened my left eyelid at 6 a.m. saying

“Is anyone in there?”

_____

Two weeks passed. I’d decided to put it to the back of my mind and keep my own counsel. I could have asked around about them but thought I’d handle it better if I put my back into building  our new life. It was hard going beginning again, learning new ropes. It took a month to find the apartment and then furnish it from scratch; pots and pans, beds, linen, curtains, light fittings, even the light bulbs. You name it, we had to get it. By now we were familiar with the Friday Market where we’d bought pots, plants, lots of household necessities. The Fruit & Veg market was my favourite – the spices, fresh, cheap and fabulous just thrilled me, I’d never had such a stock of fresh vanilla pods, really green cardamom seeds, Iranian saffron of the highest quality and all the curry spices……the smells in the market were so seductive.

We were even beginning to be less shy about bargaining. Bob, in particular, got into the swing of it immediately, and I swear he was more interested in the bartering than in what he was actually buying. He caught up with me and Izzy in the Old Souq once after triumphantly showing off an Indian silver trinket box he’d bought.

“That’s not very you” I told him and he said

“Yes, but I got him down to 50 dinar…..he started at 150! ”

I thought of saying “ Do we actually want it?” but decided to let him find out these things himself. He was having fun.

_____

Bob had gone to a school barbeque with Izzy. It was my first chance to catch up on the OU course I’d been ploughing through for two years, and I was late with a test.  So I was well mired in the industrial revolution when the doorbell went. Deep in thought, I opened the door and Ross was standing there.

“Ellie.”

He looked pale, nervous.  I stood back to let him in, somehow not surprised. He followed me to the kitchen, where I plugged in the kettle. I could feel him before he even touched me. My whole back warmed up. I just leaned back into his embrace. His arms came around me as easily as they ever had, I could feel his heartbeat. We stood like that, familiar and silent. I turned around, the better to see his grave green eyes. His mouth came down softly, it was already too late. His body had said to mine “You remember me” and mine had answered “As if I could forget…”

 

He walked me backwards to the bedroom, not letting go of me until we took off each other’s clothes. It was as though we’d never been apart. He didn’t rush me. I leaned into his chest and he put his hands on the base of my spine, in that magic place he knew my back would melt down to my toes.  His hand strolled and soothed until he laid me down.  We were felled by instinct.

_____

Afterwards, I said “Tell me about Laura.”

“Everything….?”

“Of course.”

“We met in India. Both travelling round. She was bright, funny, I didn’t even know I loved her until I found myself proposing to her in front of the Taj Mahal.”

He put his arm over his eyes and sighed. “She said no, it was the romance of the place making me ridiculous, which made me determined to get her. Am I upsetting you, Ellie?”

He wasn’t, but it was tough for him to talk.

‘”I loved her. We’d been married 11 months when it happened, the car came from nowhere as she was crossing a quiet road. I only wanted her to live. She did, but really she died that day, the real Laura. She can’t remember how we met, who I was even. She had to learn that I was her husband, what a husband was.  Even the wedding photos were a complete blank to her…..”

I held his hand. He said

“If we’d had a child, that might have focused her, pulled her back. Now it’s out of the question. I can’t reach her, she’s in a bubble. Sex – well, she can’t understand why I need it, when she dosen’t. It’s been over a year since we….her emotions have gone, our past as well.”

“What happened now, Ellie, it could only have been you.”
He pulled me up and looked at me.

“Say something.”

I couldn’t though, he was so unbelievably sad.

“ The doctors have said it can’t get better, only worse..”

“Ross, it’s hell for you both.”
“That’s the problem. She’s sociable, people like her until she starts repeating herself incessantly. She spends hours trying to find her way home, all her routes are fixed but still she wanders off…she’s severely handicapped and looks totally normal.”

He suddenly seemed fed up with it all and flung himself back, his head hitting the wall hard.

“Ah, shit!” he yelled, cradling his head in his hands.

“  God, I shouldn’t be dumping my misery on you. I’m such a pig. Are you happy?”

Though I’d never asked myself that question consciously, I knew the answer to be yes. I’d loved this man for many years, but we had committed ourselves well and truly to other people now.  When he left, he said

”I won’t call you, I just had to let you to know.”

I shook then, appalled at what we’d done – what I’d done – what if Bob had come home with Izzy? What madness let me risk losing them in a moment?

_____

Life got busier. We joined the tennis club and the Hash Harriers, so our social life started as well.  I blocked all thoughts about Ross, and felt grateful for what my own life was.  We didn’t run into each other again. Then five weeks later he phoned saying

“Ellie, can we meet for lunch, I’ve got news. Please.”

This was safe, in public, so I agreed.

 

That evening I said to Bob as I was clearing the table but not looking at him

“Ross phoned, remember him?”

“Yes, the people we bumped into that first week….”

“He said he had some news and asked me out to lunch tomorrow.”  Never any more secrets.

“Oh, nice, ask them round one evening……is there any pudding?”

“Not today, I didn’t have time.”

“Can we have chocolate, then?” Izzy yelled, leaping up.

Bob took a big bar of Cadbury’s off the top shelf of the fridge and he and Izzy set about demolishing it.

_____

“Shall we sit inside or out?” Ross asked.

“It’s such a luxury to sit in the sun in a windless city” I answered.

We sat on a packed terrace eating club sandwiches and drinking beer.

“I’ve quit my job, Ellie. Just wanted to tell you. “

I wasn’t expecting that, nor the flood of relief which washed over me.

“What?”

“ I’ve thought about us – you and me – what happened. I realise I’ve been putting off dealing with the real problem –  Laura and me. We can’t go on living in places where I just hope we don’t run into friends, people we know.  It’s surreal. We’re going back to London, they’ll transfer us.”

“But isn’t Laura more protected here than at home? You’ve got help in the house, far less of a rat race. You won’t have the cushion of the easy life any more.”

“That’s precisely why we have to go, Ellie. “ He looked at me.

“I’ll be 40 in a few years, I can’t live like this anymore. I don’t know what will happen, only that I want reality, a normal life. I’m going home to start living it. Do you think I’m selfish?”

“I can’t judge you, Ross. I don’t know what I’d do in your situation….”
“I want children, a real partner, a life. What you have.”

“…and what does Laura want?”

“She prefers London, to be near her parents. I thought we’d cope better away from all that, that she’d become more self-reliant but I finally know it just won’t happen. When I imagine the future, I can’t see us together anymore. Terrible, isn’t it.”

As we parted, he put his arms on my shoulders at full stretch – and I laughed until the tears came.  He said, perplexed,

“What are you laughing at?”

“Just you, always after your freedom, even in a clinch!”

“ Ellie, be happy.”

_____

That was almost three years ago. We’re leaving Dubai next week and the packing cases are ready, being loaded into the container which is being sent to Singapore. I see Izzy, the responsible older sister, pick up Matthew for a cuddle. He’s a marvel, this kid, we all love him excessively. Izzy’s dark head tries to get near his for a sisterly smooch but his fat two year old arms come out straight and grip her shoulders, keeping her at arm’s length. Even at this age he insists on keeping his distance.   I can already see the rucksack on his shoulders and his heels disappearing out the door as he sets out to conquer the world.

 

 

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