A short story inspired by and dedicated to my dear husband John from Cowes
It was a cold, dull weekday in February.
The seafront was virtually deserted. Only the occasional well-wrapped-up figure could be seen braving the elements ; there a tall young man with two grey dogs, both loping ahead of him along the sea wall, and in the distance an elderly couple, out for a stroll despite the weather, perhaps driven from their small quiet cottage by boredom, or just habit.
The Solent was rough and forbidding. This busy stretch of water, which on other occasions teemed with colourful yachts and pleasure boats, was today bereft of vessels, apart from the valiant ferry making its way over to the Island from the mainland, and one distant tanker, grey and massive and half obscured by mist and sea spray, creeping slowly into Southampton docks.
The man who stood alone in the blue and white shelter, looking out across the sea, could remember days from his childhood, some fifty years ago, when he had stood in this same place, or very nearby, and looked out at passing boats and ships with excitement. There had been liners – huge ships, the like of which hadn’t been seen in the Solent for decades. At night sometimes, he had watched them sail past, all lit up with myriad lights, and wished he could be on board –not so much so as to partake of the affluent lifestyle they promised, but to see the world! To sail away on board one, to wherever it was going – to feel life moving on, instead of just watching it go by.
And smaller boats, and yachts – he had know the names of hundreds of them, and looked out for particular ones. His father had been a blacksmith, and some of the ironwork he had seen and recognised on vessels moored or sailing offshore, had taken shape in their own back yard, in his father’s workshop.
Looking out over the rough, empty sea, his father long buried in a graveyard just over the hill, himself now far older than his father had been when he died, the man wondered if any of those yachts, that ironwork, still existed. He doubted it. All that seemed part of another life now, a dream.
And yet here he was, on Cowes seafront again, after having lived away from this place for so many years. And to be back here for such a reason!
He pulled his long coat tighter around him, and turned up his collar, feeling the cold. He looked along the promenade in both directions, but could see no-one at all now. He could have sat down – the small, quaint shelter, one of two which had stood here for over a century, had a comfortable bench – but his bag was resting on the bench, and in any case, he felt like he wanted to be on his feet. Ready to face what he had come here to face. Ready to meet the person he had come here to meet. After such a long wait!
The man’s name was John, and as he contemplated the inside of the shelter – the cracked glass, the flaking paint – he could picture before him the scene, imagine happening before him the event which had started all this, and had resulted, after so many years, in him being here today.
A warm day in late summer, two young people – John and Anna, walking hand in hand towards this place, their heads full of significance. One knowing, one guessing. Both happy.
A few years they have been together, and now it feels like time to cement the relationship, prove the commitment, make clear and public the feelings.
Anywhere, such a thing can be said, but nevertheless he has waited for a more significant place – this place in his hometown, which he remembers, and which he knows they will remember together.
They claim the shelter for themselves, sit and kiss, looking out over the water, their arms around each other.
It was a busy day – did anyone see them sitting there, did anyone witness the special moment? Did they wait for a lull in the by-passers, wait for a moment of privacy?
Neither John nor Anna know or remember, for their eyes were only for each other that day.
Does any man ask that question, in today’s world particularly, without being sure of the answer? Was John sure that day?
Whatever the case, he need not have feared, for she was sure – and hopeful, and willing.
The moment came and the shelter bore silent witness.
John fell to one knee. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” Anna said, and they kissed, so happy.
A few minutes later, strolling back towards the centre of the town, they would meet some friends and be able to announce with pleasure and pride – ‘we’ve just got engaged’.
So it was that John Smith of Cowes acquired a wife!
What other moments had that shelter witnessed?
More kisses, no doubt, both romantic and passionate.
Secrets shared, confidences whispered, promises made.
Arguments and turmoil, also part of life, had probably often resounded there.
Ah, what a sad reminder that sometimes love dies, that the passing years cannot sustain it, that slowly, bit by bit, it trickles away, until suddenly, there is not enough left, and parting is inevitable.
For many years the young couple who had made their vow in this place had lived and loved together, but eventually, life had chipped away at their union, and they had parted, to live different lives, and to spend many years remembering, and sometimes regretting, what had passed.
But there was once another vow made – a parting vow – that on a particular anniversary of that sad day, on a particular date long in the future, if things had not worked out for each of them, if the regret had been too much to bear, or even, perhaps, if this weren’t the case, but just for old time’s sake – they had agreed to meet again in the shelter on the seafront in Cowes, where John had proposed. Meet and sit together as they had before, on the bench overlooking the sea, to reminisce about their lives – together and apart.
Now that once distant date had arrived. Hours had passed, and the man standing alone in the shelter had felt so many emotions, had so many profound thoughts!
He had waited and wondered, hoped and prayed. Prepared himself for happiness and steeled himself for disappointment
Would she come?
Would she remember? Would she care?
The day was passing, and he had begun to consider how long he should wait.
What sadness, to wait all day for someone who was not coming – who was perhaps not even thinking of this place, who had forgotten its significance and was at this very moment engaging elsewhere in some frivolity, oblivious.
But then, at last, and just as he had turned for a final time to look in that direction, a figure emerged from around the corner of the yacht squadron, a female figure in a long beige coat, carrying a bag.
Yes, he thought. This must surely be her.
Her walk was slow but purposeful, her eyes seemed glued to the shelter and to himself – never once did she turn her head to look out to sea, as someone just out for a walk might.
As she came closer, he could see that her hair was fair and pulled into a bun, though a scarf partially obscured it. Her eyes remained fixed on him and her reddened lips were set in a smile.
As she came closer, he was amazed by her youthful appearance – she looked somewhere in her fifties, but surely not sixty.
She slowed as she came towards him – for a moment almost hesitating, an expression of uncertainty on her face, but then only certainty, and purpose.
She stopped before him, and placed her bag on the floor.
They looked into each other’s eyes.
“Hello,” he said.
Her journey had been long, and the final part of it – the crossing to the Island on a ferry in rough seas – unpleasant and tiring, but she was so pleased now to have reached her destination, so relieved that this moment had come.
She turned to look around the shelter, taking in the windows, the bench, the peeling blue and white paintwork. She signed deeply, and smiled. “Such a special place!”
“Yes,” he replied, suddenly choked with unexpected emotions. A special place with a forty year secret – years of happiness and separation and tragedy, and now this special moment.
His emotions were stirred, he knew he could delay no longer.
“Anna,” he said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment – forgive me if I don’t express myself well, or upset you.” He took something from his pocket, and gave it to her.
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is John Barnard, of Barnard & Pearson Solicitors in Newport.”
The woman took the card and stared down at it.
“We were executors of Mr Smith’s estate – forgive me, but I really don’t know whether you’re aware of this already, or if I’m bringing you the bad news – I’m afraid John passed away over ten years ago. We tried to trace you, of course, but didn’t get anywhere with the contact details we had – I believe you went abroad. We only had Mr Smith’s instructions, incorporated in his Will, that should he die before today’s date, someone fulfil this task for him, of coming here today to meet you –honouring the parting arrangement you made all those years ago. I’ve taken it upon myself to fulfil his wish – I have this letter for you, and of course – I don’t want to upset you…” He threw a glance towards the bag which sat heavily on the bench still, felt his eyes fill with tears. “Forgive me for being the one to have to do this – I really am so, so sorry.”
The woman’s hand trembled, and her eyes also grew moist as she looked up at the Solicitor. She made to speak, then seemed to change her mind about what to say. She gave a little laugh – a sad laugh. She shook her head. She took a tissue from her pocket and dabbed her eyes.
Then she seemed to recover herself, and held out her hand to the solicitor.
“Mr Barnard.” He took the proffered hand and clasped it warmly in both of his own. “Mr Barnard,” the woman continued. “I can’t tell you how moved I was by your sentiments and kind words. Such a sad and poignant moment. But I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding.”
She reached into her pocket again and took out a card.
“I’m Martha Blakewell from Clarke Blakewell Roberts Solicitors of London. We acted for Anna, who died four years ago in a car accident. Her last Will and Testament included the wish that – well, I’m sure you understand the rest.”
John Barnard and Martha Blakewell looked at each other for a long moment. Then, seemingly both at the same time, they turned their eyes to the bags each had brought with them.
“Am I to assume that you have also brought – ” John Barnard began.
“Yes,” Martha confirmed. “Her Will requested that her ashes be brought here, to give to her ex-husband John, today.”
“Then it seems that their love for each other remained true.”
“And that they have been reunited in their special place after all.”
Martha opened her bag and, bringing out its sad cargo, placed it on the bench, in the spot where, so many years ago, a girl called Anna’s dreams had all come true.
John opened his bag also, and, withdrawing the urn within, placed it on the bench next to the other.
There was no-one else around now, no-one but these two interested strangers, to witness this reunion. Only the old shelter added this moment to its history of human experience, only the sea and the wind lent their presence to the moment.
“So,” Martha commented after a while, “was there anything in your client’s Will to say what should be done with the ashes, should Anna not be here to receive them?”
“Yes,” John replied. “He asked that his ashes be scattered on the sea nearby.”
Martha nodded. “I have the same instruction. Shall we?”
And so the urns left the shelter together and made the short journey to the edge of the sea – and there John and Anna Smith’s ashes were strewn and mingled in the wind and on the water, and their souls were together at last, and for always.
Afterwards the two solicitors sat together in the shelter, watching the daylight draw to a close – John speaking of how the story of a fellow townsman had inspired and moved him over the years, and Martha telling of the research she had done on the case, and of how she had insisted on making the journey to this place alone today – of how the whole experience had reminder her of a personal loss of her own, and how much she had hoped to find John Smith waiting here for his old love, as she had always imagined he might be.
As the light faded, John Barnard stood up and offered Martha his hand.
“Perhaps,” he ventured, if you have time, you would care to go for a drink with me?”
Martha Blakewell, who within a year would be Martha Barnard, smiled her acceptance, and they left together.
The shelter on Cowes seafront would see them again, on a future anniversary of this special day!