Return of the Stranger

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,

‘Hello Elle.’

 

I take one last hurried breath in reality before turning around to face the dream. He stands before me, confirming what I longed for and feared. Rupert Everest. Not a ghost, not an enchantment, not even a dream, though seeing him here makes me feel like I can believe in fairy tales again.  He looks straight at me. Nervous, his eyes skim across my face, searching me. He had always hated not being able to know what I was thinking. He waits for me to speak first. I make him wait.

The balcony is deserted,  the chatter of the party guests inside is distant. I make my move. Two steps forward and I am touching distance from him. I don’t hold back. I reach out, touching his face, examining every detail, from the creases in the corners of his eyes that five years have given him, to the soft smile forming on his lips. He is patient. I reach for his hand next and pull it up towards my face, pressing along his wrist searching for a pulse, a sign that he is actually alive. When I feel the motion beneath my fingertips, I drop his hand in shock.  My own hands shake. He keeps his eyes fixed on mine, gentle and understanding. Finally, I take my hand and place it over his chest and feel the beat of his heart.

‘Elle,’ he whispers. His face blurs before me, as my eyes leak out emotions that I haven’t had time to make sense of.

“It’s really you,” he speaks more to himself than to me but his words send startled waves through my skin. How can he be so surprised to see me? He died, not me! Ok, I wasn’t there when the car hit him, but I was there to identify the body. I wince as the picture of my husband’s lifeless body, a bloody scrap on a stone slab that has haunted me all these years, jumps into my mind again.

And I crack. Pushing him sharply back, I run my hands through my own hair, pinching the skin on the back of my neck and my eyes swell up in pain and anger. My body becomes tense.

“What the hell Rupert?” I screech, my face burning. He reaches for me but l jerk back, wrapping my arms around my chest. The agony of the last five years falls upon me which such force that I can hardly remain standing. The memories of sleepless nights spent watching his empty bedside, reliving the moment the police knocked at my door to tell me that my husband was dead, that the ambulance hadn’t got there in time. The blasted insurance paperwork. The nauseating feelings of loneliness, regret, guilt. All the demons I battled with on a daily basis before I could even get out of bed, let alone carry on with life. All for nothing?

Some sick joke.

When I open my eyes, Rupert is still there. This is real. Five years!

‘Elle, I’m sorry. I wanted to come back. I didn’t want to hurt you. This was the only way…’ The sound of his voice, the voice I thought I would never hear again, startles me into silence. But these five years have changed me and I refuse to dismiss the pain that has become my constant companion.

“Did you think you could just reappear after letting me believe you were dead and expect me to welcome you back with open arms?” I sob.

‘I didn’t expect to see you in Oxford.’

‘I DIDN’T EXPECT TO SEE YOU EVER AGAIN!’ The growl escaped me before I could stop it and I notice the posh-bouncer-guy in the door way. His lips twitch simultaneously as his eyebrows raise. I cover my burning face and draw back towards the edge of the balcony, out of direct vision of the nosy onlooker. Rupert follows, his face pained.

I clear my throat. “I’m good pals with Lady Hampston, I’ll have you know.” I try to force a smile, to mask my embarrassment with bitterness. Rupert looks relieved, and gives a small empathetic smile.

“I guess a lot can change in five years eh?” he dares, trying his luck at humour but his face hardens as soon as he finishes, in anticipation of another outburst. I manage to rein it in.  Small talk fizzles out.

“You haven’t even got any scars? Your face,” I heave, swallowing back the gunk in the back of my throat, “Your face was all bust up!”  I stare at our feet, almost touching.

“Elle I’ve got so much to explain. I never thought I would see you again. They told me I had to leave everyone behind. There was no time. They said it would be better this way.” His voice gives way as he struggles to spill out apologies. I can barely take in anything he says. I close my eyes, focus on my breathing and just soak in the movements of his voice.

“I know you must hate me, but this way you would be protected.” He pauses and I slowly open my eyes. It scares me to see my fearless late-husband suddenly crumbling in the haste of his explanations. I wait until he finishes. The bubbling anger inside me dies down. Rupert’s hurting melts my selfishness into tenderness.

“You are alive though?” I touch his face again hesitantly as I dare to ask.

“I was supposed to be dead to all who knew me. It’s not what I wanted.”

I don’t know what I want. I would like to smack Rupert straight across the face. I would like to scream and break things, then leap off the edge of the balcony and plunge into the depths of the lake. I am afraid. Rupert smiles weakly. The anger dims. Of course I won’t forget the unspeakable agony that he has put me through. Pain like that cannot be undone and I will not let it go. It is this pain that pushed me to live and I will not let it fade so easily. But the love of my life stands alive before me. The words ‘for better for worse’ whisper through my raging mind, and for that moment I choose to push the fury to one side, letting my heart acknowledge that this is all I have dreamed of since they told me it was too late.

“There’s no way you’ll be able to answer five years’ worth of my questions here and now.”

I need explanations. I can’t forgive him just yet. There’s so much hurt, so much I don’t know.

And Daniel…

But I can’t let this moment pass.

I lunge forward, throwing my arms around Rupert’s waist, breathing in the all too familiar scent of spearmint and summer days, as real now as the day I lost him. I curl into him, welcoming the tears that come. I shake but his body remains firm and strong under my grasp. After a few moments the warmth of his arms cover my shoulders, stroking my back. His rough cheek comes to rest on the crown of my head and his hands lock into my hair. We are still. Moments pass, maybe hours. I hear the sound of the wind hissing through the trees and the sky darkens as the sun finally sets, granting us privacy to be alone in the dark. Only the dim light straining towards us from the archway back into the grand estate reminds me that we are not fully alone.

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