The first time she looked vaguely familiar, someone I had seen in the past but couldn’t place in my mind. It had been as I turned onto the path towards my apartment block, glancing at a woman on the other side of the road, walking slowly and looking in my direction. For a moment I scratched at my memory, then let it go. It was hours later that I realised that she looked like Elaine. Or how Elaine would look if she hadn’t died.
The thought lingered over a few days, creeping into quiet moments and there when I woke in the night. It was with me as I sat in the café near the office, my attention wandering from the book, when Fiona appeared. She greeted me with that hesitant smile, suggesting she was keen for my company but didn’t want to intrude. I asked how she was doing, the sign that she was welcome to share the table. We chatted for a while – “What’s the book?” “Did you see …?” “Are you going to …?” – with her usual hints, and my usual polite deflections. I liked he; she was friendly, interesting, pretty and just a few years younger than me. But I had come to accept what I was; a widower for twenty-seven years with enough friends, particular tastes and living alone without feeling lonely. I would probably have enjoyed a night out with her, if not for the feeling that she was looking for a lot more. We parted as usual, with a smile and knowing we would see each other in the café soon.
The following day I saw the other woman again. I was almost home, about to turn from the pavement to the building’s garden path, when I noticed her coming towards me. This time I stopped. She looked in her mid-fifties, the same height as Elaine with the narrow chin, delicate lips, and grey hair in a bob with a streak died black and hanging over an eyebrow. I couldn’t remember Elaine with a style like that but could imagine her choosing it as she grew older. She noticed me and I immediately looked away and hurried along the path, embarrassed and opening the door to the building without looking behind. I couldn’t help thinking that she had stopped to watch me. That evening I couldn’t enjoy my book, TV or any music, and although I slept it was unsettled. I woke up in the night with an idea that if someone dies young they go to an afterlife and carry on ageing. At dawn I went out for a five-mile run.
Over the next couple of weeks I pressed friends for nights out – a movie, a pizza with a bottle of red, a blues band in a club with a line of craft ales – and thoughts of the woman subsided. I ran into Fiona in the café again and noticed she seemed under a cloud.
“Nothing serious. Had a blind date set for yesterday, but he didn’t turn up.”
“So he’s an idiot.”
I realised it was a clumsy comment, with an implication of something I didn’t mean, and an awkward moment hung between us. Then she did me a favour and changed the subject. Afterwards I felt annoyed at myself.
The following day I lingered at an after-work drink, left the pub slightly sozzled and felt in danger of dozing on the bus. Someone boarded, I looked up and saw Elaine. She seemed to recognise me, pausing beside a seat as if waiting for me to speak or wave, and I turned my head to look out of the window. I felt tense, wondered if I was more drunk than I had thought, and waited almost a minute before looking to see she had sat three rows in front and was looking straight ahead. The bus was approaching a stop, and I rang the bell and hurried to the door. As it pulled away I saw her looking at me through the window, surprised, knowing that I had got off the bus early.
I walked home and collapsed into memories, not so much of Elaine but of the grief addled time after she had died. We had been in love for five years, three of them married, planned for a family, then came the illness that killed her in weeks. For two years I survived in misery then took another two to recover a life. After that there had been a handful of women, odd dates and half-hearted efforts to find something special, but after a while I chose a life without all that. I was more comfortable as the guy who never got over his wife’s death but had friends and was good company. That had been me for a long time. But now I sat on the floor and tumbled in a wild idea that someone could come back, not as the person you remembered but the one they would have become, and want you to ….. I didn’t know.
I stayed home for the weekend, barely tried to read or watch TV, but allowed my mind to drift in and out of the thought that Elaine was watching me, waiting for the chance to approach. I didn’t know if I should be excited or scared.
On the Monday I went to work, frazzled from the lack of sleep and eager to get clear of the office at lunchtime. I walked to the café, saw Fiona through the window, and walked on.
My mind got back on track, marshalled by routine and an important project, and by the following weekend I was somewhere near normal. I left on time on the Friday, got home quickly, and resolved to get out of the flat over the next couple of days. I had been home fifteen minutes when the doorbell rang, I answered, and found myself staring at Elaine. She said hullo, smiled, then must have seen the look on my face as hers froze. There was a silence, a hint of anxiety in her eyes, then I spoke without thinking.
“Elaine. How can you …. be here?”
Now she looked worried. I spoke again.
“It’s been years. Why now?”
Her mouth opened and she took a step back. Now she looked a little scared. I pressed a fist to my mouth. Then she spoke.
“My name’s Julie.”
I didn’t reply.
“I work for the building’s management company.”
I realised she was carrying a clipboard. My legs weakened but I moved my hand to rest on the doorframe and stayed on my feet.
She showed me an identity card, with a photo I wouldn’t have mistaken as Elaine. Then I noticed unfamiliar details in her face: a slight turn of the nose, a little more flesh on the lips, and her eyes were brown, not hazel like Elaine’s. I had been looking at a stranger. She stared at me, clearly worried.
“Sorry,” I said. “You reminded me of someone. I think I’ve seen you around.”
“I’ve been checking a maintenance job here. And I live close by.”
I shook my head and forced a smile.
“I’ve been daft.”
“I can come back.”
“No, let’s do it.”
I pulled myself together, answered a couple of questions and assured her I had seen no signs of leaks or blockages in the plumbing. She was satisfied, and we parted as if my wobble was already forgotten. Then I went inside, sat on the sofa and burst into tears.
I went back to the café every day the following week, but it was Thursday before I found Fiona. She was at a table, reading something on her phone. I hesitated, but she looked up and said hullo as if I was welcome to sit with her.
“Sorry,” she said. “I was reading a film review.”
“Anything worth seeing?”
“The new Coen Brothers. It’s meant to be good.”
“It’s on my list.”
“I might see it, if I can find someone to drag along.”
I gave it a couple of seconds to reply.
“I’d be game to see it at the weekend. If you’re up for it we could do that then go for something to eat.”
A broad smile appeared on her face, and my heart rose a little.
Image by Keema Keur, CC BY-SA 2.0 through flickr