Harry parked at the end of the street, swallowing his nerves as he tried to reconcile the geography of memory with how things were now. The Oxboroughs still lived at 43, marked by the rusting Ford Escort in the front garden and the sagging green wire fence that never seemed to maintain any integrity, often reverting within days of the council replacing it.
Funny, he thought, the things you remember.
He put his car keys in his pocket, checked his reflection in the mirror. Time had not been too harsh on him. The beard had a little salt and pepper in it, and his thinning hair had long since been defeated by the regular scrape of a razor. All his awkwardness had been defeated, or so he had thought. Success had been on his terms, but the past always held it’s own allure.
Steeling himself, he stepped past a pair of teenagers sat together, impossibly thin legs in tight, soft jeans, both of them transfixed by their phones. Harry wondered if they were talking to one another. He had put similar sentiments in the last book, worried at the same time that it was a herald of old age, calcification rather than maturity, but you only wrote about what was around you, even if you added ingredients to pretend it was simply entertainment rather than therapy.
He had googled her, but the last time she had updated her facebook was three months ago, and so here to attend a cousin’s wedding, he had decided to look her up again.
The book sat in his pocket, not the original paperback, that was still upstairs in the attic of his mother’s house, but a pristine new edition, ordered with a few clicks of the mouse and delivered the day before he drove down. The original still had her notes, the tiny, delicate insertions and underlined passages that he had treasured all these years. He stopped outside her house, the time passed reflected in the bright clean upvc windows and the garden that was neat in an uninspired way. His heart pounding, and his mouth leeched of moisture, he knocked on the door.
The burka came as something of a shock. He saw them regularly around London, intrigued and amused by them, but also, having read a bit about them outside of the angry editorials in the media, and also patiently listening to the heated debates with some of his more political friends, had an awareness of the meaning. He thought that it was a bit of a shame, but his working class manhood had always seen a pretty face as having it’s own magnetic pull. Lives and careers dashed upon the rocks of a beautiful smile or inspired by him. In London, he saw a face that he could spend his life looking at every day, his libido and appreciation of female beauty was after all, his livelihood in a sense so he took that appreciation to be fuel for his ambitions as well.
It was silk, the colour of dark coral and he began to make his excuses when she spoke. The voice, softer and more reserved but still her.
He thought he hid his surprise well and when she invited him in, he chuckled to himself that his fevered dreams of reconciliation would ever have worked out. Still, perhaps he could get a story out of this. He had the knack of that down pretty well.
She offered him tea and he accepted. When she asked if he still took sugar, he was absurdly touched by it and told her no. He did not even drink tea, really but he was gripped by an increasing reluctance to impose upon her in any way. Like nudging a moth so as not to break it’s wings, his memories were held up and made, if not ugly, then honest.
She knew about him, of course. A few pieces in the paper, the movie adaptation and the displays in the WH Smith. He focused on her voice, in lieu of not being able to see her face. He understood that there was a prohibition against showing her face and he recalled the list of acceptable witnesses, knowing that he was not amongst them. When the conversation reached an acceptable break in the cycle, he remembered the book and retrieved it from his pocket.
In his head, it would have met with tingling appreciation at the profound act of remembrance, perhaps even some athletic, hungry sex but Harry had lived by the Lennon quote that life was what happened, when you were busy making other plans. He ached for how she was, the way that she would hold his face and stare into his eyes, goading him to go harder and faster until they both exploded and collapsed atop one another.
She turned it over in her hands then passed it back to him.
‘I’m sorry, Abdul won’t allow books like this in the house. He’s very devout.’
Harry gritted his teeth as he took the book back from her. He was irritated at how she dismissed the gesture, but his knowledge of himself, as cold and capable as a scalpel showed him how petulant that was.
‘It’s okay, just I was in the area, and I remembered you.’
Harry wanted to be generous, even as he seethed with embarrassed defeat. He could not resist the urge to dig at her, to find some recompense for his time and effort.
‘Does he make you happy?’
The burka shielded her face but her body language was still expressive as she sat upright.
‘Is that what you think this is about?’
There. That was his Karen. The tone was immediate, a trumpet call, an alarm that told you that you had said something really fucking stupid and even as his cheeks turned red, Harry was reassured by it. He shook his head, spluttering assurances and apologies like cake crumbs from his lips.
‘Because I reverted before I met him, Harry. Jesus, you’re such a sexist pig.’
His eyes narrowed, even as part of him knew that this was a good time to leave. Still, he had his pride.
‘No, Karen, I don’t think that you wear a veil because your husband tells you to. I just thought that you would have been doing something -‘
He knew as soon as the words were there, that he needed to be leaving. The past was a foreign country, leavened by memories of strange music, spice and laughter but it could also be water so thick with bacteria that you could cut it into blocks and your wallet being pinched by smiling ten year olds. Meeting people that you wouldn’t talk to at home but abroad became fast friends.
‘Better? More? Come on, seeing as you are the bloody arbiter on how I should live my life, you tell me.’
He got up and smoothed down the front of his trousers. Then he picked up the book and tucked it into his pocket again.
‘I am sorry, Karen. This wasn’t how I hoped things would go.’
She shook her head but remained sat down.
‘You think I’m weak for this? That this was a reaction to us splitting up? Jesus, Harry that was nearly twenty years ago. Move on, will you?’
It was eighteen years, three months and four days. He smiled as the fact came to him.
‘Jazâ-ka-Llâh.’ he said.
He left but she did not get up from the chair. Her head snapped up at his use of the phrase but he would never know her expression. She did say something to him though, that it took a little while to translate, later when he had dropped the book into a charity shop and decided that the past was perhaps there for a reason. He decided to remember her as she was, and hope that she was happy even as the sensation of being thwarted and routed so utterly burned in him like a hot coal dropped into milk.
Innâ li-Llâhi wa innâ ilai-hi râji’un which translated to mean a sentiment about a major loss. A few lines above was something that he found himself saying to himself, comforting in the way that some phrases in other languages were to him. It joined schadenfreude, l’esprit d’escalier and one that seemed, in light of his visit, most appropriate, jayus.
He sat in his hotel room, drink in one hand and staring out at nothing, saying it over until it was stripped smooth and bland of meaning.