An Unsung Song

I am sitting on a wall next to the steps of the National Gallery and am searching avidly for a familiar face in the crowd. He’s already an hour late, frustratingly delayed by train timetables and a long ride in from Stanstead.

Once again I call his phone, “Where are you?” and he answers, “We’re just coming round the corner now. I see you.”

We? WE?

I see him then. He’s twenty years older than when we last met, twenty kilos heavier, hair flecked with grey, the same silver framed glasses, dressed more fashionably now and then he sees me and smiles and suddenly the years melt away and he hasn’t changed a bit. As he opens his arms I fall into his hug and it feels at long last that I am surfacing again, coming up for air, so we stay like this, old friends, watched on by tourists and a bemused 13-year-old girl.

“I brought my daughter”, he says, an imperceptible shrug hunching his shoulders, gracefully saying the unsayable. What else could I do? they say. You knew we’d need a chaperone. We are introduced, her halting shy english a jarring reminder of her father from when we first met. She doesn’t know. How could she even suspect? What has he told her?

While I’m still struggling to think of something to say, he drops to his haunches and opens up a backpack, rummages around and removes a camera. “I was given it for my 40th birthday,” he says, smiling, his eyes saying  Did you ever think we would be this old? Did you ever think we would meet here, like this? How is this possible?

He pulls out a small cardboard box, hands it to me. “For you”, he says simply. “If you ring it, I’ll hear you”. Inside is a tiny Bohemian crystal glass bell, no bigger than a golf ball. It tinkles in the sun, catches in my throat.

Struggling to make sense of this, of anything, I say the only thing in my head.

“Let’s walk.”

He re-arranges his pack, hands his daughter the camera and then on impulse grasps my hand. He looks at me intently, his eyes serious, loaded with meaning. This is how we will stay all day long. Walking, the way we first walked, before we grew up.

Without asking where they want to head to, I walk down the hill, skirting tourists and pigeons, towards Whitehall. Horseguards Parade. They will like it there. It takes about ten minutes before I can relax into his stride and throughout it all he’s telling me about his journey, the endless holding pattern over Essex, technical details, shop-talk, recognisable to me from years of listening to Dad talk about work. I know all about holding patterns.

We walk and walk, past the horses, on down to the Cenotaph, a quick glance to the right into Downing Street (his daughter taking lots of photos), then round the corner into Parliament Square just as Big Ben is ringing. It’s the perfect tourist moment.

“I never thought I’d be here” he says, a simple comment loaded with meaning, of old jokes, of simple acknowledgement that we have lived through huge changes, beyond our reckoning. If only we could have imagined it then. As if by telepathic agreement we start walking again, round the corner and almost fall over a man who is lying face first on the pavement, his arms behind his head, spread-eagled legs being patted down by two policemen. He’s bellowing about his rights. Across the road from the bellowing man is a large and angry demonstration right out the front of Parliament. Anti-war protesters with large banners. These are the last days before the US will enter Iraq and the sense of urgency is inflaming everyone.

I stop, mid-sentence, just to take it all in. Beside me, he laughs. “I love it”, he says, “Democracy in action.” For the first time, I smile. He remembers.

We would joke as we walked in the snow around your beautiful city, capitalist girl, communist boy. The fine art of shopping in an empty department store with hard currency. The pock-marked buildings along the Vltava River, a permanent reminder of Soviet tanks and mortar shells, still camped on the outskirts of the city. How you stopped me from taking photos outside the Soviet embassy.

You explained, so matter-of-factly, how you couldn’t leave your country except on business, not without leaving your family behind. How every movement I made in that fortnight would be reported. Oh yes Sandra, there’s a file about you somewhere. Don’t they have files on you in Australia?

You risked your life that night, so scared you would be reported by spying neighbours for climbing down a freezing ladder in sub-zero temperatures. All for the love of a capitalist girl. All for love.

We wander into Westminster Abbey, partly to get away from the noise, partly to get into some warmth. I still can’t breathe properly, so channel my inner tourism guide. Here’s the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I, there’s the coronation throne, I’m sure Henry VIII is here somewhere, oh, there he is. We wonder, wandering through the stone walkways. What might have been. If only. It’s better this way.

Released back into the sunlight, we are still walking but getting hungrier by the second. We make our way through back streets to the vast stretch of green behind Horseguards. St James’ Park. The lunchtime rush is over but the sandwich shops are still open, so we make our selection, I spread my huge scarf on the chilly grass and we sit in the spring sun, the three of us chewing and chatting about schools and boys and what-I-will-do-when-I-leave-school. She’s charming. Friendly. Has her father’s eyes. Her mother’s mouth and hair.

He tells me about his job, the struggles with adjusting to a new way of life, of  his wife’s tyrannical boss, his grumpy mother, ungrateful children, the joys of unrestricted travelling every year with his family, the burden of managing the old crumbling house he’s lived in all his life. His father, dead just three months ago. Perhaps he’s spoken this story before, but it catches in his throat, makes me tear up. Such a lovely big bear of a man, I say. The loveliest blue eyes, the kindest of men. Your mother must ache for him. She does, he says and that’s all he can say for now, so he turns to me.

Now you, he says. Now you.

Where to start, I say.

At the beginning, he answers.

And with that, a lock is suddenly released and the words finally come tumbling out. My marriage is ending, I say. We can’t talk. Sleep in separate rooms. He won’t come to counselling with me. I came here for my uncle’s funeral, such a sudden death of a much-loved man, all I wanted was some strength from my husband. He’s met my uncle, how could he not see how much this meant to me to be here, to show my family some support? My poor father, so bereft of his brother, so alone now his rock has gone. And I’m here, all five of us came here, left our children and partners behind and I’m doing this for family but right now I’m on my own and heading back to a very uncertain future. Oh …

He is holding me and we are crying into each other’s shoulders in the park in front of a bemused 13-year-old girl. I had to fly 13,000 miles for the comfort I could not get at home and the agony of it is unbearable. I haven’t come here for a funeral. I’ve escaped the death of a marriage. I tell myself I’m being strong for my family, that now is the time to be there for them, but what I really want is to escape into myself. And I can’t, so this will do. Let this comfort from my oldest, dearest friend, on a perfect, cloudless day, be enough.

A week ago I rarely ever thought of you. Then the news from my cousin, sobbing into the phone. “He’s gone.” Just like that, on a Friday night. By midnight the entire family had come together, agreed to fly home for the funeral, be at Dad’s side. And I thought of you then, after yet another angry conversation about abandoning family and how much will this cost. God help me, I thought of you then. Picked up the phone. Breathed out as you answered.

I don’t know how long we stay like that, but when we finally stand up, I realise that for the first time since I woke up this morning, I can breathe again. We keep walking, holding hands, past the palace then back up Pall Mall. We are quiet now but suddenly he asks, “What would your husband say if he could see us like this?”

“He would be jealous.”

“My wife too.”

Dear God, let it be enough.

When we get to Trafalgar Square, he suddenly huddles into his daughter, talking quietly, their language still utterly unrecognisable to me. “She would like to ride on an open top double-decker bus” he says. So we get on the next one coming past, up the stairs, daughter sitting right up the front, still snapping away, the two of us towards the back. He puts his arm around me and as we roll over the Thames he turns to me and says, “I feel like I am in some romantic movie”.

Kill me slowly.

We get off near St Paul’s. It’s late afternoon and I’m gagging for a coffee. The city seems so quiet now, where is everyone? We are the only ones in the café. By now he’s looking at his watch. We have to be on the train by five he says.

An hour. So little time left to navigate the spaces in between.

I want to tell you that I know why you did what you did. I know you told your mother. You told her everything, your proposal, our letters, our plans. She advised caution, really, what else could she do? It was dangerous to even think about. Your family would have been disgraced, your father ruined, evicted from your lovely old home, made to de-camp to some awful outpost. Too terrible to contemplate. All for the love of a capitalist girl.

I want to tell you that I know she told you to find another, to find a safer option.

So you did.

I want to tell you that I found happiness again.

Instead I say, “He was the only one who got past you. Such a grounded uncomplicated man, he walked right in, stood next to me, stayed there.  He knows about you of course, but it’s never spoken about. I never speak about his former girlfriends either, it’s just not talked about. It’s not because you’re a secret, just that you simply became smaller. He came and stood next to me and became the centre of my world. I hardly ever think about you.”

Never think about you except at Christmas when your letter arrives. If he asked, I would never be able to explain to my husband how you fit into the back of my heart, how you fill the space like an old unsung song. That’s how I think of you. An unsung song.

I look up and he is looking at me with such tenderness and he is nodding slowly and I realise that, at long last, we have finished our song. Here at last, the years have been spoken for, the account finalised.

With that, the lateness of the hour crushes back in, so we finish our coffee and head to Fenchurch Street station. “I’m in a Monopoly game!” he says, delightedly. The peak hour has started, suddenly people are everywhere and we are pressed together in the surge and pushed around a corner and there are the ticket gates.

Here. It will be here.

Don’t let it be another twenty years, he says, then he draws me in, kisses me full on the mouth, long enough that I can feel it, too brief for me to respond. Then he is gone and I resort to the one tactic I have always used at these times. I turn my back, not daring to look behind me, frantically searching for the exit that will lead me home. From where I am standing, home seems impossible to find. This time, I have escaped to such a distant place that I don’t think I will ever find my way back.

***        ***        ***        ***        ***        ***

POSTSCRIPT: Escape, even on a cloudless perfect spring day, is never the wisest option. It only delays the inevitable storm you have left behind. Three weeks later, my husband walked out.

Over the years that followed, I would ring the bell from time to time, in part to sound my way back home. He hears it. I know he does.

The last letter I received was in January this year. He complained that I hadn’t written in ages. I owe him a long, long letter. There’s so much to tell him.

This is a post for the Kidspot 2011 Top 5 Blogger competition, a series of weekly posts. This week’s theme: Escape

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25 thoughts on “An Unsung Song”

    1. The daughter is a lovely young woman and it was a pleasure to meet her. I told her at the end of that day that it felt as if I had made a new friend. She’s a credit to her parents.

  1. what a life you have led – beautiful story. I can only write in monotone – you’re pure surround sound.

  2. Oh my gosh. I don’t know you, haven’t read your blog before, stumbled here from another blog, lured by the title of yours.

    But your writing, and this story, have touched me this sunny morning. As another comment above says, you have left me speechless. I have been to England, seen the spots your write about, could “see” your story as it was unfolding. See the sites, hear the sounds . . . feel the feelings. Amazing. Truly amazing.

    1. Thank you Sabrina, you are very kind. I think everyone has a story and have spent some part of my professional life listening to others tell me theirs. Everyone has an unsung song, whether it be romance, or unfulfilled ambition, or a sudden turn of events – everyone has one.

  3. That is one of the best (if not THE best) short stories I’ve read in a longtime. And its true. Would love to read your memoirs one day Sandra. And you’re right, we do all have an unsung song, maybe that’s why your story is resonating so much with us all?

  4. Read this,then read it again ,then spent rest of day imagining the film. Screenplay structured in 3 timeframes,political themes(throughout it all ‘democracy’ as a sort of mobilizing metaphor);and BIG questions. And the casting! Now all it needs is a Mike Leigh or Tom Hooper to direct it. My ravings aside, the best writing leads to the most far reaching and intriguing reflection. You provide a wonderful springboard. Thank you.

  5. Oh my God. I have teared up and I’m in work! Embarrassing, but that was so beautiful that it is worth it. You touched that part of me that has felt that deep, deep love and pain over the years. I was lost in your words – a real escape

  6. No need to stop with a blog & cookbook. You have real talent.

    With regard to your recipes, I like that you sometimes write why something is necessary or should be done a particular way. While I’m still a rather anarchistic cook I find your information helpful. I’ll never get over the memory of blackberry nip destroying the taste of beautiful fresh prawns when as an 18 or 19 year old I substituted it for some kind of wine. It was long ago, and in my advanced state of knowledge, alcohol was alcohol!

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