The Girl in the Red Coat
I once heard someone say, “It’s never pretty when love dies.” I think, if I’m not mistaken, I saw it in a movie once, in another life. The life I had with her. It’s true I think, at least most of the time. When love ends, it’s an ugly, cumbersome affair. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of crying, pleading, bargaining and failed attempts at reasoning, but in the end it’s always the same; they walk out of the door and your world crumbles before it closes. You fight so desperately, with everything you have left just to keep the person who for so long was your entire world for just a little while longer. When they’re gone, you’re left with the fallout, the heartache, the sleepless nights; endlessly staring at the ceiling in a bed that feels out of place with just one person. The questions come, slowly at first as you doubt everything you’ve ever known, everything you’ve ever felt. They swell, breaking the banks of your mind, growing into a torrent, a maelstrom of doubt, guilt and heartache until you can’t take it anymore.
What did I do? Why have they done this? How can I go on without them? People cope with it differently. Some drink, others plunge into a stream of one night stands, desperately seeking some kind of connection with another human being, trying to fill the void they left. Only with the sun rising on every cold, awkward morning, that void becomes a little deeper, and it goes on like that; sacrificing whatever self-respect and dignity you might have once had just to avoid another lonely night. Some people bottle it all up, completely shutting themselves off from love, never venturing out into the world of relationships for fear of being hurt all over again. Sometimes when it ends its worse, screaming at one another, sifting through the dregs of the past and throwing some ancient skeleton of a mistake into their face.
Your words are meant to hurt them, and you say things you would never have dreamed of before, going for the throat and wanting to break their heart like they broke yours. You want them to feel the same cold shadow of pain that they abandoned you to. You’re only satisfied when you can see the pain in their eyes; the eyes are dead giveaway for the breaking of someone’s heart. The light within them fades for a moment, and they turn grey, ashen, in the cold throes of defeat and betrayal. It’s only afterwards, when they have gone that you realise the gravity of the mistake you just made. The guilt that follows is swift and heavy, another weight on the chains wrapped around your heart. You didn’t really want to hurt them, no matter how much they may have deserved it, but it’s what happens when the person you loved and trusted the most hurts you; it’s in your nature to defend yourself. That love you once felt can’t live without the light of another, it becomes warped and deformed until all that is left is seething, black hatred.
It wasn’t like that for me and her. There was no fighting, no arguing, no crying or pleading, we didn’t drift apart, nor did either one of us commit an act of fidelity. It just ended. One moment we were together, the next it was over, just like that. One thing I’ve learned, Hollywood lied to us, it certainly lied to me. It isn’t about the huge gestures, the sweeping declarations of love. There are no last minute dashes to the boarding gate, or the train platform. There aren’t kisses in the rain, or marriage proposals to a window from the top of a fireman’s ladder. That kind of stuff is for the fairy tales.
What we had was better, and any couple will tell you, especially in the early days of a relationship, that what they had, what me and her had, was perfect. What makes it so perfect isn’t the grand gestures you see on the big screen, far from it, it’s the little things that make love what it is, the things the people on the outside consider to be trivial. For me it was her smile, and I’m not talking about her smile in general, the smile she used in her day job, or when she greeted family and friends. I’m talking about the smile that was meant only for me. The first time I saw it was the first time we met, at a work Christmas Party, a friend introduced us. That smile first made an appearance in the midst of our conversation, I remember the exact moment; as I told her that I loved Radiohead too. It was subtle at first, her lips flirted with the air for a moment, and her whole face seemed to light up as that smile spread. It was the kind of smile that made your heart forget to beat for a moment, and I knew right then that she was special. It was as if the God I didn’t believe in had hand-picked an Angel and sat her next to me.
That was it for me, and I was almost converted to believing in Him on the spot. I lost count of the times I saw that smile in the five years we were together. I saw it when she would break away from a conversation whenever we were out with friends or visiting family to look at me, or when she would come home from work. I saw it every time I told her I loved her, and she didn’t have to say it back to me for me to know, that smile spoke more than anything she could ever say. Two years on from it ending and I’m sat on a bus, realising that of all the things I missed, that smile is the thing I miss the most. Other memories flood into my head as I sit on the back seat, doing my best to ignore the heavy stench of coffee, and the wordless wailing of a small child. I missed the cigarette she used to have first thing in the morning; I missed the smell of smoke that haunted my room for days on end. I missed the way she would laugh at terrible sitcoms, the way she looked as she slept. I miss the way she felt in my arms, the tattoo on her right shoulder that peered from behind her bra strap when she would turn on her side. I missed the way her skin felt against my lips, the way her red hair fell across the pale curves of her shoulders after sex. I missed those nights we spent together in our bedroom, comfortable with one another, content to the point where speaking wasn’t necessary, just happy to be with one another as the world stopped and everything else that was going on faded away for a precious few hours. I missed all of that, and so much more.
The bus did its obligatory stop at the next shelter, behind it was a row of non-descript terraced housed, lipped with a grass verge dotted with poplar trees. An old woman was the first to board; she wore a blue rain coat and carried a couple of bags of shopping. She waved her pass over the sensor on the ticket dispenser before thanking the driver. The woman instantly fell into conversation with a dark haired woman on the first seat, taking a spot beside her and jumping feet first into her spiel of weddings and problems with the post office. The next was a tall man with fading brown hair; he muttered a fare charge and dropped change into the tray with a chatter of dull thuds. He wore a dirty high vis jacket and carried a blue hold all over his shoulder. I guessed he was either going to, or coming home from work, given the fresh look on his face it was probably the former.
It was shaping up to be another beautiful day, the sun beams that poured through the grubby windows weren’t warm enough to turn the bus into a sweat box, but were just enough to let the world know that summer was here. Two years to the day that it ended and all of a sudden, there she is, stepping onto the bus. . I knew it was her straight away, as I sat on the back seat, suddenly wanting to shrink away and hide. She fumbled in her bag for some change, that girl was never prepared for anything, always in a hurry, never thinking two steps ahead. She wore the red coat I bought her the first year we were together. She’d gone on about it for weeks, every time we passed the shop window. I didn’t make a lot of money at the time, but I cut out a few nights out with the boys here and there and after a few weeks I had enough to buy it. The look on her face was worth it, hell, she was worth it. I remember the way she wrapped her arms around me, so happy I was sure she would burst into tears.
Now it was just a coat, a gift of love that had become a mundane item of function. I heard the impatient grumbles of other commuters as she gathered a handful of change and plonked it into the tray in front of her. She sat down quickly on the front seat, I saw the flash of red embarrassment on her face, but she didn’t see me, or maybe she did but pretended otherwise. She was carrying a small bouquet of flowers, white lily’s wrapped in soft green paper that crinkled and crunched as she sat. Her red hair was a lot shorter than I remembered; bangs framed the delicate lines of her cheeks. A million thoughts suddenly raced through my head, my skin grew hot and my heart felt heavy. A rush of emotions hit me all at once, she looked incredible and it was almost impossible to resist the urge to go over and talk to her. But what would I say? The girl in the red coat had once been the world that I had held in my arms, and the few seats that separated us on the morning bus may as well have been a few million miles. She sat with her head hunched, probably texting on her phone, but who was she texting? Was it another guy? Was it her new boyfriend?
Paranoia threw jealousy gloved fists into the sides of my head as I sat there, wondering what I should do. I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of somebody else holding her in his arms at night, or picking her up when she cried. My insides lurched at the thought of her looking into somebody else’s eyes and telling them that she loved them, in my mind I tried to build a picture of the face that had stolen my smile. I hated him already. But what if she’s still single? Maybe she’s texting her mum, or her friend? Somewhere in my head, amidst the chaos of the jealousy I suddenly felt, the voice of reason stepped up, like a lighthouse in a storm. Suddenly I realised that whatever was going on with her, was none of my business. Not anymore. And that realisation killed me all over again.
As the bus trundled along, I struggled to remember why I was on it. Rows of houses, trains of shops all rolled past, but I didn’t recognise any of them. It was one of those moments, when your emotions are overwhelming you that you suddenly lose touch with reality for a few seconds, as if you are dreaming with your eyes open. Again that urge to get up and go over to her hits me, and again I resist, even though it’s all I want to do. But what would I say to her? Hi, I know we haven’t spoken for two years but how have you been? Are you seeing anybody? Do you still love me? I couldn’t do that, those questions are an awkward and broken road to madness, and making an arse of myself isn’t on my list of things to do today. I miss you, I love you, and it’s what I think I would say what I really want to say. But it’s neither the time nor the place, if there ever was one at all.
Suddenly the bell rings, she’s up and making her way to the door. I half get up, but the words are caught in my throat and my legs can’t decide what to do and as the bus pulls up at the stop. She thanks the driver and slips through the doors and I watch her as she walks back along the bus, I’m hoping that she sees me and praying that she doesn’t. She doesn’t. I crane my neck as the bus takes off, watching her for as long as I can before her delicate frame disappears into the gates of the park. As quickly as she came back into my life she is gone. And I slump into my seat, defeated, feeling my heart begin to fall apart again. The bus trundles on, its engine chugging tiredly, resigned to another day of running the same loop, and for a second I understand how it feels.
After a few minutes the old lady with the blue raincoat says her goodbyes and presses the bell, gathering her shopping in her ancient hands and as the bus slows I suddenly find myself on my feet, almost running along the gangway. The old lady takes what feels like a decade to get off the bus, sharing a joke with the driver who laughs heartily and replies,“See ya love,” as she steps off. I thank him as I leave but he doesn’t reply and I don’t care. I break into a run along the high street, back towards the park, towards her. It takes me a few minutes to find her, but eventually I do. The red coat is a giveaway, something so impractical for a summer’s day I think, even though there is still that cold snap of the morning in the air. She’s walking along a concrete path that cuts straight through the middle of the park. Already the morning air is alive with the buzz of children’s voices, enjoying their summer freedom from school, and the conversations of birds are songs in the trees that flank the path on either side.
To my left, a skate park is filled with young teenagers, some gathered around, faces lost in the screens of their phones, others navigate the dips and bends with their boards. A young mother pushing a pram with a toddler walking at her side passes, smoking a cigarette, not looking at me as I pass. On a bench an old couple are talking and sharing what I think is tea from a thermos. I say good morning, but they don’t reply.
I know what I am about to do is foolish, but I have to do it. I have to tell her how I feel; even if there is no chance of reconciliation, I tell myself that I just want to know if she is okay. She is making her way towards the gates at the other end of the park, behind the lip of trees a church stands proudly against the cloudless blue sky. I wait a few moments, trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my heart which is trying it’s best to punch its way through my ribcage. I peer around the fence, trying to dispel the voice in the back of my mind that is telling me I have gone mad, and what I’m doing is borderline stalking. I catch a glimpse of her disappearing around the side of the church and practically leap through the gap in the fence. So many things are running through my mind at that moment, as I traverse the curved gravel path. On the grey church steps two suited men suddenly burst into guffaws of laughter at a joke I didn’t quite catch. I’m excited, terrified, exhilarated and nervous all at the same time. It’s such a wonderful cacophony of emotion, the very building blocks of what makes us human and I realise that I haven’t felt this alive in two years. I see her as I turn the corner and all of a sudden it hits me, a dizzying sense of déjà vu as I realise that I’ve been here before, twice. I cut across the grass with my hands in my pockets, careful not to disturb the flowers that are dotted here and there. She doesn’t hear me approach, as she kneels and begins to sob. I can feel her pain; I can feel each tear on her face. I want to hold her and tell her that everything will be okay but I can’t. We were both here last year, on the same day and the year before. Only that time there were others, my parents, brothers, friends and other relatives too. I remember the rain that first year. I remembered the sadness, and the darkness. I remember saying goodbye but nobody could hear me. She is sobbing, just like she was last year, and the year before. She pulls out her phone and opens her music files. She picks Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees and Thom Yorke begins to sing, “She looks like the real thing, she tastes like the real thing.” That was our song, at the sound of it she sobs even louder. I want to comfort her, put my arms around her and tell her that I love her and that everything will be alright. I want that last kiss, the feel of her skin, I want to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder.
But I can’t. Because the truth is that I’m not here. Not really. There is only her, amidst the headstones, laying the flowers at the foot of the one with my name on it.