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He exited the front door of his bachelor pad with long strides strides, a middle aged, slightly stooping but still tall and broad shouldered man. The crinkles in the corners of his blue eyes and the slight crease at the corner of his otherwise well defined mouth were the only signs that the years had worn down on the stalwart front he presented to the world.
His pace slowed as he passed the birch trees, planted some twelve years ago outside one of the entrances to the railway; a touch of nature in the man made world that was London. A soft wind blew through the half empty street, and dim pools of light from the street lamps lit up the corners as the sun set. He loosened his coat as he passed the sign for the underground, realizing that it was almost summer, and the cool breezes had begun to turn warm and soft.
He had walked almost three blocks past the railway entrance, breathing in the coming of summer, when he saw her. She was working her way slowly down the street with a large knapsack, fit to burst and evidently as heavy as it was cumbersome. A handkerchief had been tied to try and tame unruly hair, and her clothes were rumpled but looked as if she would never have it any other way. Her features were indistinct from the distance between them, but it was obvious that she was having trouble with her luggage. She would get about ten feet or so and have to rest the bag on the cobblestones, leaning against it slightly to try and catch her breath.
As the man came up behind her, a thought flashed through his mind – Why, she’ll miss her train! The man couldn’t understand why he was so sure of the fact that she was on her way to the station, but forgot his question in a moment. She had turned toward the sound of his footsteps, and greeted the man with beautiful blue eyes that held such an obvious expectation and affection. “Awfully ripping of you, sir! I looked all around me but never thought to look behind me!”
A curious pang of hurt flashed through the man, overriding what the young woman had just said, which was curious in itself. He had to pause a moment and puzzle out why he felt almost – betrayed? There was something missing, something wrong with what she had just said. By all logical reasoning, there would be no reason to be addressed as any other title than what he had been given, but… The man shook his head at himself for the mixed emotions coursing through him and smiled down at the girl next to him.
“Bag a bit heavy for you, eh?” He reached down and seized hold of the handle of the bag, and almost fell over. He had overbalanced himself, thinking the bag weighed at least a few pounds, and found that it weighed as much as a feather. It made no sense – the girl had had seemed to have such a hard time carrying it, and now to find that it weighed less than a feather… But the girl noticed nothing, and stood beside him with a true grin of gratitude, while exuding the feeling that the proper thing had happened, since such jobs, of course, were for men. So, considering how the girl acted as though nothing had happened, the man decided to say nothing.
“Oh, thanks awfully, sir!” she repeated, and this time, though she used to objectionable word again, her voice betrayed recognition of the fact that she had looked to the right man for help, as if the particular man helping her was the only one who should have, and it was the only right and natural thing to have happened. The man was about to ask her something, when she folded her hands demurely behind her back and said ‘By jove, this is jolly!” And grinning up at the man, she set the pace for the railroad station - and the man followed.
He wasn’t quite certain how he was accomplishing the feat of following. For though the objectionable word was omitted, the man hardly heard the words at all. Something had cast a curious sort of spell over him, and a mist clouded his vision, and the street lamps grew distant and blurry. He was still aware of the warmth in the west and the bird singing merrily away, but the rest of the world grew dim. Reality and dreams played games, childhood games, through his heart. Memories of yesterday trooped across his inner sight, radiant and swift, searing his vision with blurry recollections, of his youth, and the first sonnet of Shakespeare flashed in its entirety before him,
“From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory….” There was more, but it was gone again.
Intertwined with these – in an instant of time, as men measure it - came practical, normal thoughts as well. This girl! The efforts he had made to carry this ridiculously light bag! The tenderness and yearning that had awakened in him! The happy face, the brilliant blue eyes, the trusting affectionate smile, and yet, at the same time, something was not there – some indescribable, unfathomable element that was missing. He felt this lack, so acutely in every nerve in his body. He felt hopeful, and tender, and shy, and hopelessly attached to this young woman that pranced so innocently beside him. She didn’t notice, of course, the expression that passed over the man's face, didn’t notice that the man beside her caught his breath and now walked uncertainly.
This girl, she reminded the man so much of all the boys and girls he had ever played with, in his childhood, in his adult life – his surrogate children, he called them in his heart. And suddenly she took his arm, moved close to the man as they neared the station. The sweet scent of a small, dependent, deeply loved human life, fragile in his own hands, floated past his face.
The man suddenly blurted out, “But you know, your bag weighs so little!”
The girl laughed, and it rang with a tone of true innocence, of carelessness that is only bestowed upon the youth. “Do you want to know what’s in it?” And she added, in a whisper, “I shall show you, if you like.”
But the man felt a chill come over him, and was suddenly afraid and dared not to ask. “Newspapers, or some trickery,” he said shakily, and tried to reinforce his words with a laugh that ended up sounding hollow. “You’ve been up to some mischief or other, I do expect.”
The girl turned and grasped both arms of the man, and taking a dancing step or two, stood on tiptoe to reach the man’s ear. With a smile of trust and delight and absolute love, she whispered, “My future.” And the man turned to ice.
They entered the station, where the last light of the day was shut out and was illuminated by the lamps. They had almost reached the ticket office, and were surrounded by the last dregs of people struggling to get home to warm homes and hot dinners. The man slowly set down the bag as the girl searched about for a moment of two, and then smiled up at the man. She stood on tiptoe, her arms on the man's shoulders, her face thrust close. “Hurry and kiss me, silly. I won’t take more than a moment.”
“Darling!” cried the man in a voice he could not control, and he opened his arms wide, blinking away the tears that threatened to blind him - and saw only an empty space before him. She had disappeared.
He walked home later on, back to his apartment, to dig through the box on the top shelf of his closet. He read over for the thousandth time the letter – its ink fading in the 12 years since it had been delivered - in which she accepted his love two weeks before death took her.