by Laura Saunders, edited by Betty Doyle
The moment I see him is like a slap in the face. I literally flinch back. I can’t take it in. This isn’t real; none of it can possibly be real. My mind is playing some cruel trick and someone greater out there is laughing. He doesn’t see me, immersed in a crowd of people in bright evening wear. The Great hall is vast in size but still feels overcrowded. Elaborate paintings cover the grand walls. An enormous delicate glass chandelier dangling from the high ceiling flashes reflections of faces in every direction. It gives the impression of even more lavishly dressed guests than the hall could probably contain. In a flash he could disappear in the sea of faces. An extensive amount of silver-service splattered tables creates a maze. The scene around me becomes overwhelming at the best of times. So many people, so little in common. But every face becomes a blur in that moment of spotting such a familiar face. It’s like we are connected, drawn to each other in a time-transcending moment, linking the past and the present.
There’s chatter and laughter all around me but I can’t take anything in. It’s like in those films when something terrible is about to happen and everything slows down, voices deepen and then fade out and then BANG! Someone gets shot! I swear the shock of seeing him stood there is like a bullet straight through my heart, bouncing against my spine, lurching through my chest and suffocating my lungs.
I’ve thought I’d seen him before, lots of times. They say that’s what happens when you suddenly lose someone you love. Randomers in the street start to look like that person. A flash of brown shaggy hair and grey eyes and it could have been him. So many times I’d followed a guy across town, thinking it was Rupert, and every time the pain of the realisation that it was just a look-alike gets stronger. I’d stopped looking.
Yet this is not some similar-looking tall guy with Rupert’s shaggy hair and grey eyes. It can’t be but… That’s my Rupert. He’s too far away across the room, doesn’t seem to see me. I realise I haven’t even moved since my eyes fixed on him. Daniel turns to whisper in my ear but Rupert takes charge of my attention. I’m afraid to look away. Five years and he’s hardly changed. What am I saying? Five years! He is visibly older, his hair is slightly shorter, soft laughter lines shape his cheeks but it’s still him. Five years! He should be dead! He was dead! Bloody hell, I buried him. Up until last year I visited his grave almost daily…..
“Elle, can you see Charlotte over there? Supposed to be on diet she says but I don’t see her holding back on those scones…” Daniel sniggers and tucks my hair behind my ear, stroking the side of my cheekbone. My face warms, bringing me out of my thoughts. I keep my eyes fixed on Rupert’s ghost, afraid that if I turn away, he’ll fade.
I force a muffled giggle in response, turning my head in Daniel’s direction but still keeping my eyes on the figure from my past.
‘Elle, love, you look gormless. Are you feeling ok?’ Daniel’s gentle touch turns my cheek so that I’m forced to gaze back at him.
‘I thought I saw someone I…used to know,’
Daniel, bless him, doesn’t understand the significance of this…why would he?
‘Why don’t we go and say hello then?’ He lowers his voice,
‘I’m getting sick of hearing about Marvin’s latest sports car deal.’
A sudden eruption of laughter comes from our left where Marvin and some other blokes are exchanging the posh man’s ‘manly story’. I look back behind me, scanning the many made-up faces, searching for a glimpse of shaggy hair again. A few seconds and then I catch him – yes it is still definitely him – my heart falters. Alive? How is this even possible? He looks apologetic as he excuses himself from conversation with an elderly lady, probably the Dowager of some other great fancy estate, who gushes and jokes in response, though I can’t hear any of what he has said. And he subtly makes his exit.
‘I need to pee actually Dan,’ I turn back to Daniel and squeeze his arm, smiling with as much honesty as I can muster. Daniel pulls a face.
‘Have fun powdering your nose then. He’ll have sold me a Porsche by the time you get back.’ He winks and I giggle before pulling myself away and attempting to wage through the many backless dresses and black tie tuxedos as discreetly as possible, palms sweaty with anticipation.
In the grand corridor, I catch a glimpse of myself in the gold framed, diamond encrusted, nonsensely-priced mirror. Wine and nibbles, in fancy estates, small talk…really not my thing. I’m always afraid of slipping up in front of these people. Sooner or later, Lady Hampston will work out that I have absolutely no aristocratic background whatsoever. I’m sure she’ll have something to say to Daniel then. But this isn’t really Daniel’s thing either, to be honest. He just fell into a high maintenance social circle at Oxford – who are not a bad bunch really – but host some awful parties. I’ve often thought that Charlotte and Marvin could do with a few cheap beers down them to knock the edge off.
Anyway, momentarily distracted by my I-am-obviously-not-rich-enough-for-this-type-of-party-appearance, I pull at my fake-silk skirt, rub away some slightly blotched mascara from the corner of my eye and take a deep breath, exhaling my fears.
There are plenty of doors along the corridor but they all lead to private parts of the house. A tall, muscular, clean shaven bloke stands at one end of the corridor like some kind of upper-class bouncer, guarding the rooms. I head for the only exit not prohibited – the balcony.
The large balcony overlooks a monster of a lake at Hampston Estate. I think it’s the only feature of the estate that actually looks pleasing. I’m not one for fuss but the view from the balcony is breath-taking. On the rare occasions where Daniel is allowed a ‘plus one’ to attend one of Lady Hampston’s get-togethers, I’ve often escaped to this spot to get away from all the etiquette. Sometimes Daniel and I both need the break from small talk. It was against this background of the sun settling behind the mountains – the last gasp of its orange rays breathing on the pink mirrored lake below – where Daniel first told me he loved me. Yes, we were at Hampston Estate of all places, but maybe that was the beauty of it. It was almost too natural that we would be sniggering about how stressed the butler had looked when Charlotte had scolded him for offering her a cocktail sausage when didn’t he know she had become a vegetarian and was very sensitive and vulnerable at the time. But yeah, it was this balcony and it was Daniel. ‘I love you’ – so real and natural, it fell out among his giggling.
As I stand here now, I wonder if the significance of this balcony will change tonight, if, alive as he so clearly seems to be, Rupert might step back into my life again. A draft of cold air suddenly clings to my skin and an all too familiar voice breathes,