Missed Chances And Forgotten Romances, a short story by JJ. Date added: 2009-11-01. Times viewed: 5296.
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- Intro: When you look back on your life do YOU regret the missed chances that could have taken your life along different paths?
Missed Chances and Forgotten Romances
He shuffled downstairs and put the kettle on with an effort that taxed him more than it should. The dull ache from his arthritis he could cope with but it was taking longer each day for his joints just to start working. He picked up his cup of coffee and slowly made his way to the living room chair. It was an old armchair that had shaped itself over the years to fit the contours of his aging body. It was one of the few comforts he had left. He sipped his coffee and tried to remember what day it was but for the life of him, he couldn't. ‘Blasted memory', he thought. These days he couldn't remember from one day to the next what day it was, who he spoke to or even what he watched on television. What surprised him was being able to recall with complete clarity his life, his energy, his love. Memory was a strange thing he thought. Its the only real record a person has of their life and when you die, your memory (or at least what's left of it), dies with you.
‘Life', he thought, ‘less of it in the account now'. He considered himself to be a product of what he'd spent. He was a widower, a father, a grandfather, he was alone. ‘Did life shape you or do you shape life? Now there was a debate for the younger generation'. Would he have this life now if he'd chosen other paths? If he'd gotten different jobs, different loves? ‘So many crossroads', he thought.
A compunction took him, he remembered a moment a long time ago, a snapshot of his life, a missed chance to walk another path. He felt he had to write it down. He didn't want all his memories to die:
I: The Matchbox Girl
It had been a stuffy evening, humid they used to call it. It was a long time ago now, he'd been seventeen. Could he really remember being seventeen? A young man full of angst and misery, he'd been so serious back then. He used to write very bad, suicidal poetry. If he hadn't, he was sure he'd have tried to kill himself back then. His best friend was Bobby. They were like chalk and cheese, he never seemed to take anything seriously, always laughing and joking no matter how bad things got. Those years had all gone now, ‘Whatever happened to Bobby MacLean?' he wondered. They had been going out on a Monday night in May. In fact, it was the May Day bank holiday. It was also party night at the Capricorn, a pub he and Bobby used to go to. Not only was the pub not there anymore, the building itself was gone. The whole block had been rebuilt as exclusive and very expensive flats about thirty years ago. ‘Damn shame', he thought, ‘that was a good pub, a good place for the young and the brash'.
They went there to mingle with all the other bright young things. Bobby was quick-witted and had an eye for the ladies. How they loved him. He couldn't be funny if he tried - far too serious. He fancied himself more as the James Dean type, surly and rebellious but he was just shy. They had quite a few beers that night, singing along to all the party tunes the DJ played from his secluded glass room. When they had had a few, they considered themselves to be pretty good singers.
At some point during the night, he remembered turning his head and in that moment, he saw her. She was sat on what he presumed to be her boyfriend's knee. She took his breath away. Her hair was long and styled with one of the loose perms that were popular in the day. He remembered her eyes were brown. She looked bored sitting there. Her boyfriend was all nose and chin, a sort of long-haired Jimmy Hill and he wondered how she managed to work her way round all the protruding angles that made up his face to kiss him. He was busy trying to engage her in conversation and she appeared to be ignoring him. He caught her eye and there was a definite connection, an electricity. She held his gaze for only a few seconds but the spark was there, he'd felt it. His heart quickened as the realisation that she liked him struck home. He was stunned. In all his forays with the opposite sex, Bobby had always come out best. Often he was left to walk home alone after lending Bobby the taxi money to escort his latest conquest back to her place. He nudged Bobby and told him what had happened. Bobby looked over at her and saw her sitting on her boyfriend's knee. ‘Forget about her Jack, she's spoken for'. Considering the discussion closed, he returned to his pint.
‘But I'm telling you, she's giving me the eye!' he'd persisted. Bobby turned his back to the bar once more and casually scanned the crowd. While he was taking in his surroundings, Jack caught the girl's eye again. She smiled at him so he smiled back.
‘Okay, your right she fancies you'. Jack was startled, he was sure Bobby had been looking in completely the wrong direction at the time the girl had smiled at him and yet he'd spotted it. He wanted to ask Bobby how he did that but he didn't want to get too distracted from the problem at hand. ‘So what do you want to do about it?' he asked him. That threw Jack; he had been hoping that Bobby would provide a solution. Instead, the onus had been put back on him.
‘Go over and talk to her I suppose'. Bobby made a clucking sound with his tongue as he gently shook his head.
‘There are a couple of things wrong with that plan. One; if you approach her while she's with him, he's going to object and you'll be forced to defend your actions. Result? Fight! Then we'll be barred from the only decent pub in town'.
‘You don't think I'd let you get into a fight without me do you?' Jack shook his head. ‘Two; for all you know, that's what she wants. Some women like to see their men fight and they engineer trouble just so they can get what they want'.
‘She doesn't seem the type'.
‘You're thinking in stereotypes. There is no such thing as "the type" for anything, not on a first impressions basis anyway'.
‘I thought first impressions count?'
‘On an attraction basis, they do but you can't make assumptions about what a person is like based on looks. How many times have you read about neighbours of murderers and rapists saying "They just didn't seem the type"?'
‘And three?' Jack was bored now and concerned that they were moving away from helping him get the girl.
‘Can't think of a three besides, I'd have thought the two I gave you were reason enough not to approach her'.
‘You know with all the stuff you know about picking up women and dating, you should write one of those "how to" books'. Bobby shook his head solemnly.
‘You know who'd read a book like that? Women! Ultimately it would negate the point of the book'. Jack was a bit annoyed, he wasn't being serious and yet Bobby seemed to be looking at it without a sense of humour. The role reversal was not lost to Jack's sensibilities. Jack forgot about it when he caught her eye again and they both smiled at one another simultaneously.
‘Okay, so I need to wait until he goes for a piss, then I'm free to talk to her'. Jack was determined to drag Bobby back to the subject.
‘You can but you'll never know how long he's going to be. If he comes back while you're still talking to her then we're right back in the fight scenario'. Jack knew he was right. He thought long and hard about the problem but he couldn't find a solution.
After another pint, Bobby turned to Jack, ‘Hand me one of those book of matches'. At the end of the bar, there was a small wicker bowl full of them. Jack wondered why he wanted one when he didn't smoke. Puzzled, he reached over, took one and gave it to Bobby. ‘Okay, we're going to leave now. Write your name and phone number on the inside of the matches'. The penny was beginning to drop.
‘How do I give it to her?'
‘We walk past them to get out right?' Jack nodded, ‘So as you reach her, bend down as though your picking something up off the floor, stand up, hand her the book of matches and tell her you think she dropped them'. It was brilliant. ‘If she really does like you, she'll phone. If not, you've avoided making a fool of yourself'. Jack wondered why he never thought of these schemes, they were always so simple.
The plan went like clockwork and Jack left the pub like an excited puppy. He couldn't wait to get home, sit by the phone and... well, wait. Bobby eventually stopped trying to instil in him the need to be cool. A million thoughts raced through Jack's head and he had difficulty keeping hold of them. He felt dizzy and energised at the same time.
Jack still lived at home back then and for the next three days he made everyone's life hell. No one was allowed to answer the phone. Every time it rang, he raced from wherever he was at the time to answer it. He stubbed his toe once and banged his head on a doorjamb twice, much to the amusement of his family. On the second day, Bobby phoned five times. Jack was sure Bobby was just trying to wind him up. After three days of waiting, Jack became disheartened and agreed to go to the snooker club with Bobby. Neither of them had been any good at the game and Jack still couldn't understand why they went so regularly. It certainly wasn't because the beer was cheap. On his return home, Jack discovered she'd called. His mum had answered the phone. Interrogation told him that a female voice had asked for him (who else could it be?), when his mum told this female that Jack was out, she hung up. She hadn't left her name or her number. Jack was desolate. He berated himself for not sticking to the original plan of staying in until she phoned. His mum tried to console him. She told him that she reckoned the girl would phone again. She also thought that it was good that he'd been out; it showed he had a social life. Jack was convinced however that she'd never phone again.
In order to fight his despair, Bobby took him out drinking the following night. They had a laugh remembering their school days and some of the guys they used to hang around with. Both of them got very drunk and it wasn't until the next morning that he found out she'd phoned again. When his mum told him over a coffee and a slice of toast, he was too tired to care. It wasn't until the day wore on and he grew weary of the conveyer belt life of factory work, that he began daydreaming of what might have been and cursed his luck.
He stayed in that night and watched a movie. Every so often, he glanced at the phone, willing it to ring. It remained resistant to his attempts at mind control however, staying silent. Much the same happened the following night. The phone did ring once but it was his mum's friend. His mum stayed on the phoned for about an hour. Every agonising minute was another engaged tone for the girl should she try to phone. For Jack it was torture. Once his mother finally said her goodbyes and put the phone down, it returned to its dormant state.
Deciding that he couldn't continue to torture himself in this manner, he took himself off to Bobby's house. He left strict instructions with his mum to get a name, number, anything, if she should phone again. The Gods were clearly laughing at him. She did phone again but hung up when his mum said he wasn't in. Jack had gotten angry at his mum for failing to get any details from the girl at all. He stayed in for a week after that refusing to budge from the living room just in case it rang and he couldn't reach it in time to answer it. It was not to be however, that had been the last time she phoned. Jack went back to the pub on numerous occasions on different nights, hoping to bump into her but he never saw her again.
‘Memory's a funny old thing', he thought as he sipped his coffee. He could almost smell his mother's cooking yet he didn't have a clue what clothes he'd worn yesterday. ‘Friday' he said aloud, more to hear a voice in the room than anything else. He decided it was Friday, he liked Fridays. His son was born on a Friday; he wished the boy would visit more often. ‘Perhaps he does and I've forgotten', he pondered with a chuckle. His laughter brought on a prolonged bout of coughing which caused him to spill some of his coffee down the right leg of his trousers. ‘Bugger', he thought. He was thankful the coffee wasn't burning hot.
He shuffled around the living room in a vain attempt to dry his trouser leg. He stopped for a rest by the window and looked out gazing at his neighbours gardens. Two lawns down, one intrepid neighbour was growing roses. The buds were already beginning to open. He liked roses. He'd always bought roses for his wife. His lucky flower, ‘Apart from that one time' he thought and he was already gone, drifting into the clarity of his past...
II: The Rose
He'd been living in London for three months, the big smoke. It had been a dream of his since he was a kid to travel to London and make his fortune, now he was finally there. He shared a house with a couple of students who seemed to spent all their time partying. He didn't like them much; he never felt he had anything in common with the educated. He worked in a local hardware store and felt he was finally getting to grips with the difference between a woodscrew and a plain one. He didn't earn much and what he got went on rent and food mostly. Still, it was a living.
Living away from home had been an adjustment. It was the simple things he found he missed the most. Like his mother making him tea and toast in the morning before going to work. Waking up to the smell of bread toasting was one of the most wonderful smells ever. Now, in the morning, he barely had time for a cup of coffee before dashing out to work. He had been surprised to find that he was the envy of his workmates. With the exception of young Dan, they were all married. And wanted to be single to live out their fantasies of what his bachelor existence must be like. Dan was sixteen and still lived at home. He longed to be able to move out and away from parental control. Jack couldn't understand the attraction; he rarely had enough money to go out and led a rather sparse existence. Unlike them, all he wanted was to live as part of a family again. He couldn't go back home though, to do that would be to admit defeat, to accept that he really couldn't cut it out in the big, bad world just like his dad had predicted. So he wore unconditioned, un-ironed clothes and ate a variation of charcoaled or undercooked food (sometimes he was such a good cook, he managed to burn and undercook his tea at the same time) and worked every hour available to him.
He'd just been given an extra hour's work each morning to assist with stock replenishment, which meant an earlier start. The extra hours meant extra money in his pocket; extra money meant he'd be able to go out more often. Needless to say, he was feeling pretty good. It was on his first early morning that he first saw her. He and the girl were walking towards each other. He had plenty of time to appraise her as she approached. She was quite tall and shapely with a round but pretty face. Her hair was black and cut short, her eyes dark, her lips were full but not too big. She was smiling. He said good morning to her as she passed and she reciprocated. It gave him a bounce in his step for most of the morning. He found himself thinking about her, wondering if he'd see her again the following morning. In fact he saw her every morning that week. Each morning, they said hello to each other and he was set for the rest of the day. He didn't see her on the Saturday though; he figured she must have been a Monday to Friday kind of girl. Not seeing her sapped his energy and Saturday went slowly at work. Everything was a chore and he couldn't concentrate, more often than not, he got the customers orders wrong. His colleagues thought he was just hung-over from some fictional Friday night party and he got a ribbing about it all day. He was feeling too apathetic to correct their misconception.
That night, he found himself thinking about her. He imagined himself kissing her and wondered how her lips would taste. He knew he had to ask her out, he just didn't know how. He'd always been pretty shy with women over the years and red had never been an attractive colour on him. He thought they'd made a connection but maybe they hadn't, maybe it was all in his imagination. Sure they'd said hello to one another, he reasoned, but he had instigated that. Perhaps she was just being polite. Doubt came easy to him and by the time Sunday night came along, he wondered if he'd be able to even say hello to her on the Monday morning.
His weekend had been yet another boring affair and he struggled to get out of bed on the Monday morning. He knew he was going to see her on the way to work but he felt nervous, edgy. When he eventually saw her, he had to fight the urge to cross over to the other side of the road. As they got closer to each other, she said hello. He smiled at her and said hello back. He was walking on air once more, this time she'd been the one to say hello first.
He puzzled over how to approach her for a date. He recalled the time when he'd written his name and phone number on the matchbook. If he'd actually stayed in his house afterwards it could have worked out great, he might not even have left Glasgow. He couldn't afford to go out now so trying that should work like a charm. A plan was slowly taking shape. He couldn't just walk by her and hand his phone number over, that would be crass and would have "shy boy" written all over it. When he finished work, he was still trying to find a solution that wouldn't leave him looking like an idiot. It was as he passed the florists that he had a brainwave.
That's how he found himself leaving the house the next morning clutching a rose. He'd attached a label to it with his name and phone number on it and left the house. Jack found he was both excited and nervous at the same time. He considered it to be a pretty smooth plan; he just wished his hand didn't tremble so much. He tried to predict her reaction but each time he thought of the possibilities, it kept ending with her slapping his face. ‘So much for positive thinking', he muttered. He walked down the street where their paths had always crossed but she was nowhere to be seen. He checked his watch in case he was early. ‘No, I'm bang on time' he thought, puzzled. Deciding to hang around in the street in case she was running late, he stood, rose in hand for almost thirty minutes but she didn't show. Feeling foolish, he made his way to work dumping the rose in the first bin he passed on his way.
By the afternoon, he'd reconsidered his negativity regarding that morning's events. ‘Perhaps she was ill' he thought, ‘a twenty-four hour bug or something. When his working day was over, he'd managed to convince himself that she'd just taken the day off and would probably be back passing him on the street in the morning. On his way home, he stopped at the florist and bought another rose.
The whole week was a disappointment. She didn't make an appearance once and all his fantasies dissolved faster than a stock cube in a cup of boiling water. He never saw her again, never knew what happened to her. At the time, he cursed his indecision and his shyness. He spent hours considering the ‘what ifs'. What if he'd just asked her out? What if they'd actually gone out together? What if? What if?
‘What if I'd never had that coughing fit? I'd have dry trousers for a start' he thought to himself. His legs had begun to ache from standing so long. Shuffling back to his chair, he noticed the clock on the wall; it was eleven-fifteen in the morning. If it was actually right for a change, he only had another hour and a half before the meals on wheels ladies arrived. At least then, he could find out what day it was. At moments like those, he considered fate to be a kind mistress. It wasn't always so; there were times when he called out in the night cursing loudly for not being allowed to sleep because of the pain wracking his feeble, broken-down body.
‘Life always has a nasty habit of steering you in the right direction' he thought sadly, ‘No matter how hard you try to veer off into another road you end up right back where you're supposed to be'. He knew this to be true; he'd tried to beat the fates often enough in his time. Back when he was too young to know better. When he had more energy and thought he still had control over his life...
III: When Trains Still Ran on Time
It had been six months after his disaster with the rose and by now he'd completely put it out of his mind. His life had changed so much in that short period of time; he was a sales consultant now for a building supplies company. If he'd been able to drive, he'd have been given a company car. Still the transport system in London was second to none; he could get to wherever he wanted to go by bus, train or tube. The students had moved out and he was looking to leave himself as he couldn't afford to pay the equivalent of three rents not even with his much-inflated pay packet.
He'd been working in his new job for about two months; the nature of the job, talking to complete strangers trying to get business off them had given him a new found confidence. He had money in his pocket, new clothes and a social life. These had been the foundations stones upon which his self-assuredness had been built. He'd even made a few friends over the period and now he went clubbing with them every weekend with the sole purpose of picking up women. He was still fairly shy with the opposite sex but three or four pints of lager often gave him an illusion of confidence when he was out on the pull.
He was rushing for a train the day that the fates tried to play games with his life again. He was a bit hung-over from having a few drinks at the snooker club with his mates and as a result, he'd slept in. Of all the days to sleep in, he had to choose the day he was meeting a rep from a very important company in the building trade. If he secured the contract as their new supplier, he'd be on easy street. The commission he'd get would be enormous and regular. He was not so modest as to ignore the possibility of a promotion in the pipeline as a result. Luck was on his side that day; he made the train with seconds to spare. It had already started moving before he got the chance to close the door. Out of breath, he looked through the carriage for an empty seat. Finding a fairly empty compartment (there was just one other commuter), he sat down.
Looking up, he found himself opposite a very attractive young woman. She had long brown hair, brown eyes and a long thin mouth. Although she was sitting down, her crossed legs looked very long and shapely. He smiled at her instinctively. ‘You look rushed' she said.
‘Er... yes, I am', he managed to reply. He instantly rebutted himself for not being able to produce a witty remark.
‘The trick is to always aim for the earlier train. That way, when you just miss it, you're in plenty of time for the train you need to get on'.
‘Eh... Thanks, I'll remember that Miss...' In trying to sound disinterested, he'd succeeded in making himself sound about forty. He winced.
‘Julie'. She didn't offer up her second name.
‘Jack', he replied with a smile.
‘No, Julie' she replied. There was no expression on her face as she corrected him and he laughed nervously. He didn't know if she had a quirky sense of humour or mental health problems. ‘I'm making you nervous, aren't I?'
‘Not at all, in fact...'
‘Is it me or do all women make you nervous?' she interrupted.
‘It's me isn't it?' she interrupted again.
‘What is it about me, that's making you nervous? My smile? My friendliness? My...'
‘Look, if you could just let me finish a sentence or two then perhaps you'd find out' he interrupted loudly. He imagined the ears of other commuters prick up at the sound of a raised voice in another carriage. Thankfully, she shut up. He decided it was a definite improvement.
Despite the bizarre introduction, they actually seemed to get on well. He told her more about himself than he intended to. She, on the other hand, didn't appear to be hindered by self-restraint. He liked it; it made the conversation flow and gave it an air of normalcy. Listening to her (he found out it was impossible not to) he learned she lived in Eltham, worked as a hairdresser and loved going to the cinema. He was surprised to find himself enjoying her company. All too soon however, she announced they were approaching her stop. She collected her things and headed for the door. On the way out, she turned to him. ‘Bye, good luck with your meeting. Hope I bump into you again some time'.
He waved to her from the window and sat back smiling. He hoped they'd meet again too. He perused their conversation while it was still fresh in his mind. Then it hit him. All he knew was her first name and the street she lived on. The chances of just bumping into her again in a place as big as London were remote at best. He could have kicked himself for not getting her number or at least, give her his. ‘Of all the train carriages in all the world, I had to walk into this one' he thought. In his mind, his Bogie impression was perfect. He knew from experience that it lacked something in the verbal translation.
He returned to the office later that day with a verbal agreement for the contract. His boss congratulated him and he spent the rest of the afternoon working on the paperwork to fax to his new best customer. It would only have taken about an hour normally but drink was flowing in celebration and he kept losing his concentration as he thought about Julie. He'd let a few potential relationships slip through his fingers before and he wasn't prepared to let it happen again, not without a fight. ‘Seize the day' he thought. He tried to remember what it was in Latin but his teacher's best efforts had failed in Jack's case.
He re-considered what he knew about her and kept coming back to her name and the street where she lived in Eltham. If he was that desperate to meet her again that he couldn't get her out of his mind, he was just going to have to go round every house to try and find her. He knew he couldn't just go round knocking on everyone's door asking if a Julie lived there. He'd probably get arrested before he reached halfway. He was going to need a better plan. Slowly and after fighting back the seeds of doubt, he thought of one.
That Saturday, he was up early. He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a denim shirt, brushing his teeth; he checked his hair then grabbed his leather jacket and left for Eltham. He didn't know the south of London that well and had to depend entirely on his A to Z to show him the way. A couple of false starts later, he finally arrived at her street. ‘Somewhere in one of these buildings, Julie's watching telly waiting for me to knock on her door' he thought, building it up as a mantra to motivate himself.
He walked up to the first door and pressed the bell. A short, fat, balding man opened the door. ‘Yeah?' he growled.
‘Hello! I'm from the local scout troop, assistant leader? We're going to be holding a jumble sale to raise money for scout funds and I'm just calling on local households to ask them to look out their unwanted bric-a-brac, clothes, etcetera for our boys to pick up next week'.
‘Jumble sale?' He nodded as earnestly as he could muster. ‘I'll tell the wife, we're bound to have something, we've got shit all over the place. Hang on'.
‘Uh sir? We'll be coming back next week to pick it up, this is just an inquiry'.
‘Oh! Right, fine. Come back next week then. We'll have something for you then'. He said goodbye and moved onto the next house.
He considered it a stroke of genius coming up with the jumble sale ruse. He'd been a boy scout himself when he was younger and they'd collected for jumble sales regularly. Making it just an inquiry saved him from having to carry other people's rubbish all day. The only problem was; he had no guarantee that Julie would be the one to answer the door but then no plan was perfect and it was the closest he had come to a solution without a much higher risk of the police being involved.
As it turned out, of all the doors he knocked on, only three were answered by women and none of them were Julie. He looked closely at everyone who answered their door but he didn't see any resemblance to her, no genetic quirk or family trait to guide him into asking if she was there. She was just going to be another one that got away. Another thing to think about on lonely nights...
What if? There were a million of them in anyone lifetime, these were just the ones that came to mind as he sat there pondering what day it was. He wondered how different his life would have been if the road he'd travelled on had been one of the ones that fate had not allowed. Would he be dead now? Leaving a widow instead of being a widower? A bachelor maybe or divorced? He could have had twenty children... or none at all. He supposed the big question was, would his life have been any happier? Would he have changed the laughter and the tears he'd endured in this life for a chance at laughter and tears in another one?
The thought brought a smile to his face as he drifted off to sleep. His breathing became less laboured in sleep and his heart slowed. For so long now, he'd slept only to waken in pain, unable to move for long periods but now he was to enjoy his last sleep. After a while, his breathing stopped altogether and his empty body was left sitting there, hands clasped together, paper and pen trapped between them. He didn't manage to write a single line to keep his memories alive. Now he was in no position to care. He was, to all intents and purposes, at peace. The meals on wheels staff found him there, sitting on his favourite chair, a wet patch on the right leg of his trousers and a smile on his face as though he was laughing at fate's last joke.
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