Friday, 22 July 2011

A Prior Appointment


I walked out into the summer sunshine from the gloomy interior of the transport station.

It had been a few years since I'd last been here: that had been back in the days of 'trains' when the journey here had taken hours, rather than the quick ten minute hop I'd just made from the city.

I wasn’t surprised that the place hadn’t changed much. Recent developments in transport aside, most of the modern day conveniences we’d grown used to hadn’t made it as far as rural areas like this. I looked around; it still looked very much as I remembered it from my youth: mostly stone buildings, some of them hundreds of years old, with only the occasional modern structure of chrome and glass peeking out from amongst them to remind me that it was the middle of the twenty first century, and not the twentieth, nineteenth or even the eighteenth.

Even parts of the transport station behind me, the parts at ground level at least, seemed to have been built around the original single platform railway terminus that had been here when I was a young man. Looking around though, the one thing that stood out was that there were no longer the ranks of taxi cabs waiting in line for  train passengers to arrive, like there always used to be.

I strolled across the ornamental gardens that I remembered had once been a car park and glanced at the surrounding buildings. They mostly looked like private houses now; though in my younger days almost all of them would have been restaurants or bed and breakfast establishments. There were one or two restaurants still, but I couldn’t see a single place to stay, apart from the large hotel up the hill from the station. That was fine: I was only planning on staying for the day. That’s what most people did these days; when you could get just about anywhere in the country within half an hour, tourism didn’t have to involve sleeping away from home as much as it used to.

I reluctantly took my lens case from my pocket. I hadn’t wanted to use my lens today; I had really looked forward to dispensing with technology for the day, not relying on modern contraptions like that, but I had to get down to the lake somehow, and it was a little far for me to walk. I’d have probably enjoyed the six mile ‘stroll’ the last time I’d been here but now, in my late fifties, it didn’t seem such an attractive proposition.

I took my lens from its case, put it into my right eye then blinked three times quickly to activate it. The lens manufacturer’s colourful logo appeared in the air in front of me. I hate that, so I waved my hand in front of my face and it disappeared. I continued to wave my hands around in front of me. Passers-by didn’t even seem to notice. I’d thought at first that a heads-up AR personal lens computer would have appeared strange to them, but of course, I was forgetting that even country people weren’t tied to rural areas anymore, and most of them would have seen this kind of thing being used in the cities they visited. Hell, most of them probably even possessed one.

Eventually the application I was looking for appeared in the air in front of me: local transport for the area. With a series of blinks, finger prods, nods and waves of my hand, I eventually received a confirmation message that my taxi was on its way. I’d leave my lens in place until it arrived, just in case there was a delay, and I had to contact the taxi company again, but hopefully, when my cab arrived, I could put it away for the rest of the day and finally feel like I was really getting back to nature.

My taxi arrived in just over five minutes. It crossed my mind that my 200 mile journey from the city had taken almost the same time as my wait here had taken. I remembered that rural taxis, back in the old days had tended to be sleek saloon cars, rather than the big black box-shaped cabs of the cities. This one didn’t look too dissimilar from the ones I remembered, apart from the fact that it dispensed with wheels and tyres, instead hovering silently, just over a foot above the ground.

I removed my lens, popped it back into its case and then into my pocket as I climbed into the cab. As the driver turned to speak to me, the tell-tale purple glow in his right eye told me that he was still wearing his.

“Where to mate?” He asked.

“I want to be at the lake please,” I answered, “But don’t take me to the pier. I need you to find a little path that leads down to a particular quiet secluded area I remember from years ago. I’ll give you directions as we drive.”

“How long ago is it since you were last there?” asked the driver, “You sure your path is still there?”

“I haven’t been there for nearly 40 years,” I replied, “but I checked the aerial video online last night, and it was still there then; so unless it’s disappeared this morning, it’s still there.”

“You’re paying,” shrugged my driver, “You tell me which way to go and I’ll go there. You realize though that a lot of places here aren’t as well visited as they used to be, so it could well be that your path will be overgrown. Would you recognize your beauty spot from the water? I could always go directly to the lake and approach it over the water if you like.”

“I’d rather use the path if possible,” I answered, “Drop me there and if I have trouble getting along the path, we can try the approach from over the lake instead.”

I directed him to drive south west from the village and he frowned as I did. Of course he would at least know which general direction the lake was in. Once we were out onto the country roads, I told him to drive due south for at least three miles.

“So if you haven’t been here for such a long time,” he asked, “what brings you back here now? And why to such a specific out of the way location?”

“I’m meeting someone,” I said, “Or at least I think I am: if she turns up. Perhaps I’m being over-romantic, a little na├»ve and even a bit stupid to think she will.

“Did you arrange to meet there?” he asked, “Did she say she would?”

“We both promised we would,” I said, “but we made that promise forty years ago as of yesterday, and who knows what might have happened?”

“Forty years!” he chuckled, “That’s a hell of a long time in the future to make an appointment. I was only a baby on my mum’s lap forty years ago. I’d be surprised if she’ll have remembered, I’m amazed that you have.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I replied, “Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I have to be sure. If she doesn’t turn up, then she doesn’t, but I don’t want to be the one who breaks the appointment. I don’t want her to end up waiting there, and be as upset as the other lady was.”

“Other lady?” said the driver, “What other lady? I’m getting confused. Do you want to tell me about it as we drive?”

And so I sat back in the passenger seat and began to tell my story to this man I’d never met before. It wasn’t that my tale was in any way something to be embarrassed by, but it was personal, and it felt strange opening up to a stranger…

“I was sixteen when I met Holly. She wasn’t my first girlfriend, but she was my first serious girlfriend. I thought we’d spend the rest of our lives together, but Holly was a lot more practical than I was: she told me that the future held lots of possibilities and though some of them may lead to us sharing our lives, others may somehow cause us to be parted after a time. That thought made me miserable to begin with, but Holly told me that for now at least, we were together and regardless of what might happen, we should make the most of the time we spent together.

“Forty years ago, in 2012 when we were seventeen, we spent our first holiday together. It wasn’t that our parents allowed us that kind of freedom at seventeen, to go off on vacation together, but Holly’s family were spending a couple of weeks up here in a rented cottage; Holly and I didn’t relish the idea of being separated at all, and since they had a spare bedroom, they asked me along to join them for the fortnight.

“We spent some of the time with Holly’s family, but there were times when we wanted to be alone, so we’d go for long walks in the country almost every day: up in the hills or beside the lake. It was on one of these walks that we discovered a partially hidden path leading away from the road toward the lake. It wasn’t marked on the map, and at first we thought it might be part of a private entrance, but there were no buildings in the vicinity, so we risked it and wandered along it.

“What we found at the end of the path was beautiful: when we finally passed through the last of the trees, as the bracken and the long grass finally thinned out and the lake came into view, we were presented with what seemed like the most gorgeous view either of us had ever seen. As we reached the lake shore, we found an old wooden bench, on a small shingle beach overlooking the water. Sitting there we could see up and down the lake and the views in both directions were incredible.

“The place was so attractive, quiet and secluded, that we decided that we’d make it ‘our place’ and almost every day for the rest of the holiday, we spent time there, mostly just sitting on the bench, kissing a little and embracing each other as we took in the view, and talked about the future.

“A few days before the end of the holiday though, we arrived at our bench, to find someone else sitting there. It was a middle aged woman. Remembering back, even to my teenage eyes, she looked very attractive, though looking back with an older man’s more mature view, I realise now that she was really beautiful.

“We thought at first that it may be her place and that we might be trespassing, but she actually apologized for being there, as we approached. She said that she felt bad about encroaching on our privacy. We told her it was ok, and we sat beside her on the bench.

“Every so often, she’d stand up and wander over to the path and then return, with what looked like tears in her eyes. I thought something had upset her, but occasionally I noticed that her eyes became even moister when she glanced toward Holly and I, but when she did, I noticed that despite her tears, she was smiling.

“We got talking to her after a few minutes, and she asked us what we thought of the place. We told her we loved it and thought it was beautiful, and I asked her out of courtesy if it was hers.

“She just laughed and said that it wasn’t, though she’d felt like it was once. She said that just like us, she once used to come here with someone she loved. But that they’d separated since and they’d lost touch a long time ago.

“She told us how they’d arranged to meet here again forty years later, and that the reason she was there that day was because she hoped to meet her past love. She shrugged then though and told us that he hadn’t been here, and he’d obviously forgotten her after all these years.

“Holly and I could see that she was upset and we tried to comfort her. I suggested that he may have just got the date wrong, and Holly pointed out that anything could have happened to prevent him from turning up. There could have been an emergency to keep him away. Holly jokingly pointed out that they were a little bit careless in not considering that when they’d made their arrangements, that they should have arranged to meet again in forty years, and also to both be here in forty years and one day, just in case.

“The lady said that perhaps she’d return tomorrow, just on the off chance that her friend had got his dates mixed up. She shook our hands then and left us alone, making her way back up the hidden path to the road.

“Holly and I found ourselves alone then, but couldn’t avoid talking about the lady and how she’d been so upset to have missed the chance of being reunited with her lover. That got us talking about our own future again, and about what might happen, with the result that before we left, we made our own pact that whatever happened in our lives, that we too would arrange to meet in that very spot, at noon in exactly forty years time. Holly jokingly said that if I didn’t turn up, that she’d make sure that she'd come looking for me somehow.

“The holiday came to an end, and it turned out to be our first and last holiday together, so we never visited that spot as a couple again. Holly went to University the following year. I didn’t and though we kept in touch for a while, gradually we drifted apart. Our relationship ended up as the kind where we just exchanged greetings cards every Christmas, but eventually even that habit died out.

“I came back up here on holiday myself a couple of times in the years that followed, and once I walked back down to that spot and sat on the bench. It was only then that I realised how much I missed Holly, and remembered how much I had loved her. I felt devastated that I’d lost her and let her drift away from me, and I wished I could have had another chance to be with her again."

“And that chance is here now,” interrupted my driver, sensing that I’d come to the end of my tale, “but hold on: didn’t you say that it was forty years yesterday?”

“I did,” I replied, “And yesterday I thought about coming here, but got cold feet. I thought I’d be wasting my time. Anyway, why on Earth would she even consider keeping the promise herself? She has her own life now and probably hardly remembers me at all.

“But you’re here now,” my driver pointed out.

“Yes, because late last night, I remembered the tears in the other lady’s eyes, remembered the sadness she’d felt because she’d remembered, and her man hadn’t. I didn’t want Holly to feel that way. If there’s even a remote chance that Holly turns up, I want to make sure that I’m there too.”

“But you’re a day late.”

“I know. I’m hoping Holly remembers about what we told the other lady, and how she said she’d come back the day after, just in case. I’m hoping Holly will do the same.”

“I hope she does,” said the driver.

“Wait,” I said, “slow down. This place is beginning to look familiar. I think we’re almost there. Yes, just pull over to the right here, will you?”

The car moved to the right hand side of the road and then hovered silently onto the grass by the hedgerow. I got out and walked over to where I knew the start of the path used to be. I lifted a couple of branches and peered down it, and saw that though it was a little more overgrown than I remembered it, it was clear enough to allow me access.

“The path is still here,” I called out to the driver, “and it looks like I can make my way to the lake.”

“Do you want me to wait,” he said, “Just in case?”

He was making it sound like he meant ‘just in case you can’t get down the path’ although his smile and his eyes said ‘just in case you and your lady need a lift back to town’ though both he and I knew that he meant ‘just in case she isn’t there’ equally as much.

“It’s ok,” I called back, “I’ll call you when I’m ready to go back. Whatever happens, I intend to spend a little time here, for old times' sake.”

He nodded, turned his taxi around and glided off almost silently to the north again. I walked down the path, occasionally having to push back bits of the undergrowth or trample down brambles then use my foot to prevent them from springing back at me. Eventually I reached the edge of the shingle beach.  The view was every bit as stunning as I remembered it, and I looked a little to the north and noticed that the bench was still there. Sitting quietly on the bench, looking out toward the lake was a solitary figure.

I walked toward her and as I approached, despite the forty years that had passed, I recognized her. She'd changed a lot over the years, but when she heard me approaching and turned to face me, I knew for sure that it was Holly's beautiful bright eyes I was looking into, They were moist with tears, and she was still gently crying a little, though it seemed more that she was crying with relief at seeing me there, because she was also smiling just like I remembered she always used to. It was only then, when I saw the shine in those familiar blue eyes that realisation finally dawned.

I found myself looking at the face of the attractive middle aged woman we’d met for the first time forty years and one day ago. She stood and moved closer to me, holding out both her hands toward me.

“Holly?” I said as I took her hands in mine and drew her closer. I put my arms around her and we embraced, for the first time in almost forty years.

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