I had taken the short cut to work, you see; it was a cold morning — one with all that first, chill crispness of winter — and I was running late.
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I hurried the last hundred metres or so to the corner of Johnston Street (the traffic was abating but still hectic), and stood around edgily as I waited for a break in the line of cars. To no avail; after a few impatient moments, I started looking about, and noticed I’d stopped outside a photographer’s studio. You know the type — all huge, fashionable prints: disdainful brides on sepia beaches, grooms sombre as black shadows in too-bright rooms. Everything had been framed in ornate gold, as brash as possible — all in the name of Good Taste, of course.
Anyway, I stood there, as I said, sort of glancing around, running my gaze along the photographer’s window, and then...
Well, there she was.
I hadn’t seen her for years — ten, maybe fifteen — but even that first glimpse of her, hung so conspicuously above the street, sent a cold thrill of panic through my veins.
My eyes locked onto the photograph. I blinked hard, trying to clear my field of vision (it couldn’t be her, I must be mistaken), but I found myself at once unable to focus properly, yet incapable of seeing anything else.
It was her.
I stood rooted to the footpath, unwilling to step any closer, or to turn and walk away.
Of course it was her. I’d have known that expression anywhere, I’d seen it so many times. She wore a look of playful gaiety that, somehow, masked a question. Her glowing smile seemed to whisper, ‘Is this it?’ Those eyes (mesmerising, still) sparkled uneasily: ‘This is a great moment, isn’t it?’ Asking — yes — but in a fearful way, suggesting that she didn’t really want to hear the answer, lest it be in the negative.
Of course, as with all the photographs in the display, this particular bride was pictured in the loving arms of her groom — some quite normal-looking chap; brown hair, I think... or blonde — but for some reason, I was caught in her gaze, couldn’t tear myself away. I studied her eyes, her pose, her face... and suddenly noticed the dimple.
I’d forgotten about it, I suppose, because you didn’t notice it normally, not in real life. But in photographs — black and white, in particular — it appeared in her right cheek, just below the eye. She’d always thought it a fault (despite my comments to the contrary), and I knew she’d be embarrassed by the photo. She’d deliberately pick others from the photographer’s proof sheet. They mightn’t project such glorious abandon, nor sing with such ecstatic laughter (a garish, affected happiness that practically rang in my ears as I looked at the shot), but she’d choose them all the same, because they’d hide this "fault".
Strange, to see her now. Like this.
That inability to accept herself was innate to her person in the way that patience or a musical ear might be to others: it had lain at the heart of everything (though I’d only realised this later, of course, after the fact). And if this assessment was too harsh, then I could say with confidence that her insecurity had, at the very least, shifted us apart. She had been unable to accept my faults — my own proverbial dimples — let alone to love them. I had got the impression that I had never quite been good enough for her; she had never accepted me for who I was. She had an idea of who I was, certainly — and, I think, an image to which she would have liked me to conform — but, at heart, she didn’t like me.
I did, of course, and it was this difference of opinion that eventually proved problematic.
But in a way, too, I realised now, it was that insecurity that had attracted me to her in the first place. I could tell from the picture that nothing had changed. She still had no understanding — not the slightest inkling — of how beautiful she was. Men’s jaws would drop before her and she’d look past them, oblivious, lost in her own concerns. She was narcissistic, but in an unconscionable sort of way that left her equally ignorant of both her powers and her worshippers.
Ignorant of me.
That was the thing, you see: as she’d never believed in her own beauty, she’d never developed any of the bored condescension that the attractive set invariably cultivates (usually by adolescence, the bastards). And I found this honesty disarming, exquisite, irresistible. The ease with which she’d seemed to accept me (me, with my unprepossessing exterior, my bad jokes and too-frequent, ham-handed attempts to impress) made me feel as if I’d won the lottery. It was as fantastic as it was impossible.
But her inability to accept herself had made life unbearable. She’d always coveted the social position of the glamorous people, the fashionable crowd, even though, in many ways, she held that position, lead that crowd. For some reason, it never rang true for her. She had always remained unsatisfied - inconsolable, really - had striven endlessly to live up to her own imaginary ideal. Had striven to make me live up to it, too.
And now? Well, she seemed happy in the photograph — she really did. But still there lingered about her expression that insatiable need for approval — even now, displayed as she was in the window of one of the most fashionable photographic studios in town, on show in all her finery for the whole world to see. Still, those eyes seemed to plead for attention, the tilt of her head begged a compliment. Her husband, gazing adoringly at her profile, was forgotten. She did not want what she already had. Again I heard her laughter; it pierced me to my very heart.
I turned back to the traffic. I would not come this way again.
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