1. Grow Old With Me (part one)
Every year it was the same thing; was it going be a big Valentine’s card (looks too needy)? A small Valentine’s card (looks too cheap) or a bunch of flowers?
She picked a large card and the most expensive flowers – if you wanted to make an impact, you had to spend large. It would impress everyone and keep her Mum off her back.
“Who are these to go to, madam?”
She felt embarrassed saying it, so she’d written it down and then quickly slid the card across the counter.
The flower woman picked it up and read it aloud.
“Miss Sophie Breckstaw, 19 The Gardens. Any message?” The woman asked and Sophie wondered if perhaps, the woman knew.
So what if she did? There were bigger crimes in this world than sending yourself a Valentine. Okay it was sad but hey, if it kept her mother thinking there was someone waiting in the wings to taker her daughter away, it was money well spent.
She laughed as she stepped on to the street. Another year, another lonely year. Nothing changed.
The following morning she opened her eyes to February the 14th. It was a blue sunny sky that would have a hint of winter laced through it. She loved those kind of days. Where you came home from a walk and felt that you had experienced something.
She planned to be out when the flowers and card arrived, so they would be left at her door. That way, the neighbours wouldn’t think that she was just an old maid waiting on an obsession with cats to kick-in.
Sophie was only 32, for goodness sake, but thinking back on it – several hundred years ago - that was probably a lifetime of living. There was possibly a time when 32 was the mark of an elderly woman. God, she felt depressed.
She decided she’d go to the library (where else?) – She’d hidden in there as an obese teenager (the bullies never went to the library) and she still found the place comforting. It was her church, her sanctuary.
She caught her reflection in a window and liked what she saw (well, kind of) – she was now the proud owner of a very svelte body and (almost) thought her face looked presentable.
Sophie never actually saw the admiring glances she got from men and some woman. In her head she was still that ugly child, still fat and still unworthy. The trauma that school kids inflict on other school kids takes some people a lifetime to get over.
The library was full of old men, old women, the unemployed and Sophie – what was she? - Sophie wasn’t quite sure where she fitted in. She was between jobs at the moment and had applied for a job in a bookshop just around the corner from the library.
“Miss Breckstaw,” whispered the librarian (the one with the wonky eye) to Sophie as she came through the door.
“That book, you ordered, is here,” in a tone that suggested they were both in some sort of secret society. It suddenly struck Sophie – surprisingly, for the first time - that maybe the librarian had picked that particular job because she was in hiding too. The whole damn world was screwed up by bullies.
Sophie was always ordering books since it gave her a legitimate reason to go to the library. Not that she needed one, but it seemed a more satisfying purpose than hiding from people.
“Which one?” Asked Sophie, in a rather similar tone. Maybe all lonely people talked the same way, she thought, then decided she was starting to become someone who talked to themselves.
“Positive Thinking and the Single Woman. It was the one I recommended to you, if you remember?” She didn’t, as it happened. She had read so many self-help books that their advice all seemed to roll into one. Mainly because they all had the same mantra ‘think good thoughts and good things happen’. That was the theory – at least.
“I’ll leave it under the desk, you can collect it on the way out,” then the librarian touched the side of her nose, the way she had done when Sophie had reserved ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. So she liked new-age books, so what, it wasn’t a sin.
Sophie decided she’d take a look over at the History section – she hadn’t been there for a while and there was a book on the Plantagenet family that she quite liked the look of.
That was when it happened.
She had walked through Religious Studies and was turning into Geography when she saw him. She was sure it was him. She actually let out a rude word but managed to swallow most of it back before it escaped.
She ducked around to the Religious section and moved two books on St Francis of Assisi to get a better view. It was definitely him. Alex Stewart. The love of her life, the man she had vowed to marry all those years ago. The last place she’d thought he’d be was be a library. After all, hadn’t he been the most popular guy in school? He had been head-boy captain of the football, rugby, tennis – you name it and he was captain of it. The only thing he had never been good at was spotting how much, a very (very) unpopular fat girl was in love with him. Sophie was being honest here – when she was a teenager, she spent the non-library hours eating on the sofa and watching the television. There wasn’t texting back then, so fat lonely girls like Sophie stayed fat and lonely (at least that was the way she saw it).
She moved a large book on The Apostles and tried to get a better look. She almost screamed out, that she had to bite her own hand to stop herself. It was him, it was that god formerly known as Alex Stewart.
He was just sitting down on his own, and reading a book. Sophie had never considered that he might read. Then she realised how stupid that thought was.
Sophie decided that being in the Religious section was probably the best place to be, as she felt like getting down on her knees and praying right there and then.
He had been the love of her life, ever since she’d first set eyes on him at the big school. She remembered telling her best friend, Annie, that one day she would be, Mrs Alex Stewart.
A couple of years later, when Sophie, Annie and the rest of the ‘untouchables’ had been watching the beautiful people from afar, Alex had wiped his tennis-soaked brow with a little cloth and had then thrown it away, Sophie had picked it up and had slept with it under her pillow for years. She still had it, somewhere.
She had to decide what she was going to do. Stay exactly where she was and hope he left, or stay put until the library closed?
She could have just gone back the way she came in but that thought didn’t cross her mind, because, when it came to Alex Stewart her mind went all mushy. She might be the wrong side of thirty but she could still feel like a teenager again.
What was the worst thing that could happen? The world wasn’t going to come to an end just because Sophie Breckstaw walked passed Alex Stewart – although right at this moment she felt as if it might.
She came out from her hiding area and started to walk ( something she usually felt was an easy activity - you just had to put one foot in front of the other) but this afternoon it felt like the most difficult thing she’d ever attempted.
Sophie started slowly as she had this awful feeling that her head might tumble off her shoulders at any minute.
She hadn’t meant to bump the table (at least not consciously) but bump it she did and it had caused him to look up. He was a little older looking – she’d expected that – but there was something different about his face; it was more gentle, if that was possible.
She giggled, just like thirteen year old Sophie would have done. Then he looked up with his laser blue eyes; they hadn’t changed.
“Hi,” he said, just like that and suddenly he was actually talking to her, fat Sophie Breckstaw. It was probably Sophie’s inane grin that kept him talking.
“Do I know you?” He asked.
You should, Sophie wanted to scream, I stared at you long from afar for years, but instead she said a very cool ‘hello’.
He kept looking. “I do know you, weren’t you in Stanley High School?” So he did remembered.
Sophie was happy.
“You’re...Sarah something or other?”
“Sophie Breckstaw,” she corrected him.
“Of course, you’ve changed, you’re…”
“Thinner,” Sophie added and at the same time that the godly Alex added “Taller.” Yep, she did feel a fool.
“Wow, Sophie Breckstaw after all these years. It’s good to see folks from the old days.”
Sophie didn’t mind being labelled as ‘folks’- as long as he was talking to her. He could call her anything, she didn’t mind, but her name had actually passed those lips; she could die now, very happily.
“Would you like to sit down?” He asked.
Sophie almost looked behind her to see if someone else had come in.
“Sure,” she said trying to sound as if she was one of the cool gang all those years ago. Then she thought about ‘cool gang’ and decided she was getting old. No one talked like that anymore, except for sad people in libraries.
Sophie found out that he’d been in the army but had been invalided out but for what reason, she wasn’t really sure. She didn’t have much to tell about her own life, so she added a few white lies to make it seem less depressing.
I mean, calling herself a ‘chef’ wasn’t too far from the truth. She did cook, it was just that it was in burger joints, mostly.
Then a funny thing happened, for the first time, in a long time, she started to relax and she started to enjoy talking to Alex. Normally, when she was in a position like this, she would feel as if she was a million miles away watching it all. But she almost felt as if she belonged here.
“I was fat,” she told him, but he told her he couldn’t remember her that way. Maybe he was lying, she didn’t really care.
He asked her if she perhaps wanted to go for a coffee as he wasn’t impressed with the coffee in the library. The words had hardly left his mouth, when she said ‘yes’. Perhaps a little too quickly.
She noticed he had a bundle of medical books in front of them, maybe he was studying medicine but she’d leave that conversation for later. At the moment she was still happy with things as they were.
She thought she might tidy herself up a little, I mean when she’d left home that morning, she hadn’t expected to run into the love of her life.
“Sure,” he said, and told her he’d get ready while she was away.
As she stood and turned the corner back into the Religious section, she wondered if it had all been a dream. She moved a few books and looked back, sure enough it was Alex and he was sitting there waiting.
When she went into the ladies’ toilet, she looked at herself in the mirror, then did a little dance followed by the loudest scream she had ever let out of her mouth.
A woman came out of one of the cubicles, telling Sophie that she was a nurse and just to lie on the floor.
“You can’t fix me, I’m beyond help ” she told the confused woman who smiled then quickly left.
Once she’d freshened up herself, she looked in the mirror one final time and said, “You’re going on a date with Alex Stewart”. So maybe ‘date’ was too strong a word, but still it was a coffee and there was only going to be the two of them.
She was just about to return via the Geography section when she noticed Alex lift himself off the library seat and into a metallic wheelchair.
He must have been in some horrific accident, she told herself. So what was she to do? Find out, or walk away?
Walk away to what? Meals for one in front of a television that neither cared if she lived or died?
So she slowly walked back. “Can I give you a hand?”
“Oh, you’ve noticed?” Alex said.
“Couldn’t really miss it,” she said, looking at his struggle. She moved to help but he said he was fine.
“It’s my brain, it doesn’t like me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ve got MS. Multiple Sclerosis. I have good days and I have bad days. Today is a good day.”
“Well, I’m pleased for you,” and she meant it.
“So?” She asked, but she knew what was coming.
“Are we still on for that coffee?”
“I’ve waited a long time for that coffee,” and she meant that too.
END OF PART ONE.