She'd laughed and laughed when George told her about it.
'No, honestly,' he'd said. 'I'm not making it up. The Winter's Tale. It's there in the stage directions. One of the characters – Antigonus, I think he's called – has been ordered by the King to abandon a baby girl. I'm not quite sure why. Anyway, he has second thoughts about it, and puts the baby somewhere out of harm's way. Then a bear suddenly appears from out of nowhere and chases him away. Exit, pursued by a bear!'
When she stopped laughing, Ellen said, 'Oh, that's wonderful! Do you think they'd have used a real bear in Shakespeare's time?'
'I hope not! But, you know, there were dancing bears, and so on, so who knows?'
They were among a hundred or so enthusiastic members of amateur dramatics societies who were attending a study day at the city's university. During a break from the programme of role-playing exercises, talks, and discussion groups, they had found themselves sitting at the same table, and George had used his substantial knowledge of Shakespeare's plays in an attempt to impress her. To his surprise, it seemed to be working.
'In fact,' he continued, 'there's a production of it here next week. Would you…you know, if you like…we could go and see it.'
'Yes. OK. Let's do that.'
Over the next three years, they became a couple. Not romantically, but as close and valued companions who shared their hopes and ambitions, their fears and regrets, their successes and disappointments. They had much in common – Ellen, a finance officer in the Education department of the local authority, George, the sports correspondent of the town's local newspaper, The Signal – and rarely a week went by when they didn't spend time together. They never felt threatened by, or jealous of, the other's flirtations and affairs; if anything, the occasional ripples they caused seemed to bring them closer together. And the phrase that had brought them together became a part of their conversations, like a secret code or a private joke.
'You're in a rush today, Ellen! Where are you going? Not escaping a bear, are you?'
'George! What on earth's wrong? You sound as if you're being pursued by a bear!'
Their amateur dramatics activities continued, and one day Ellen announced that she was leaving teaching to take up the offer of a place at London's Central School of Speech & Drama.
'It's something I've always wanted to do, but I wasn't sure at first,' she told George. 'I'll be ten or twelve years older than most of the others on the Drama course, and I worried I might be the only mature student. But apparently, I'm not. So, I start in September.'
'That's wonderful news, Ellen.'
'We'll stay in touch,' she said.
'Of course, we will.'
And for a while, they did. But inevitably, they discovered new friends, new interests, and while their affection remained strong, contact gradually became confined to postcards and phone calls. After graduating, Ellen quickly realised that she was not destined to become a leading lady, and after two or three years of intermittent stage work, retrained as a teacher of drama. At around the same time, The Signal – like many other weekly and evening titles around the country – finally succumbed to the rise of online news sources and ceased publication, obliging George to reinvent himself as a freelance travel writer. Whether by accident or design, they lost touch. At their last brief meeting, Ellen revealed that she had left teaching to take up a position in the Pronunciation Unit of the BBC. For his part, George had just signed a three-year contract as a travel consultant to a TV chef embarking on a major series on global cuisine – a decision that defined much of his subsequent career.
Twenty years passed. Twenty years of gains and losses, triumphs and failures, upheavals, compromises, love affairs, betrayals, deep sorrows, and giddy delights. Time passed quickly, time passed slowly. Things previously out of reach became routinely available; long-cherished plans were discarded, new projects were introduced; the possible and the impossible jostled for prominence in their lives. They coped. They persevered. They persisted. In this respect, they were no different from every other person – although, of course, like every other person, they considered themselves unique.
And then her e-mail arrived.
I saw a repeat of one of your travel programmes a few days ago and decided to track you down. That's a very impressive website you have! You've done so much! I'm still here at the BBC – no complaints, but I'm beginning to think it's a life sentence! I see you're based in London now, not too far from my own home. I often walk my dog on Clapham Common. Do you know The Pear Tree Café, near the bandstand? I'm usually there between 10.00 and 10.30 at the weekends. If you have the time, it would be lovely to see you again. This weekend, perhaps?
After a little thought, he replied.
After all this time! Yes, of course. Sunday.
As Sunday approached, George re-read Ellen's e-mail several times in search of hidden meanings and sub-texts but found none. He wondered why she had contacted him now. What did she expect? What did he expect? On the one hand, he was naturally curious to see her again; on the other hand, he was aware that this Ellen might not be the same Ellen he had known in the past. They were mature adults, professionals, well into their fifties now – very different people from the eager youngsters of years ago. But his anticipation increased as he remembered how close they had been, how much they had relied on each other's support and encouragement, how their friendship had never been infected by jealousy or possessiveness – qualities all too rare through much of his adult life. For a few short years, the two had been, in the truest sense of the term, best friends. Perhaps they would be again. He hoped so. Too many of the people he'd known over the years had let him down, abused his trust, or failed him in some way; and he was in no doubt that there were occasions when he had been the party at fault. But his relationship with Ellen had always seemed immune from such events. Instead, it had possessed – or so it appeared to him now – an unconditional affection that was innocent, uncontrived, and resilient.
George didn't go straight to the café, but chose to circle it at a distance. In the bright May sunshine, many of the outside tables were already occupied, and a steady stream of customers was going in and out of the building itself. He looked for a woman with a dog and counted five or six. One he immediately dismissed as too old, another two as too young. Of the remaining three, none matched the picture of Ellen he had in his head: an overtly glamorous woman holding on to an annoying Chihuahua; an aggressive-looking figure in combat fatigues with an equally aggressive Dobermann; a track-suited jogger and her Labrador running partner. He glanced at his watch: 10.15. Perhaps he was too early. Perhaps she hadn't arrived yet. Perhaps she'd changed her mind. He completed another two circuits, his eyes locked on the cafe, and then he saw her.
He ducked back into the shade of a flowering cherry tree and watched as she strode quickly across the grass, a large Golden Retriever trotting obediently by her side. His initial thought was that her Barbour jacket, brown corduroy trousers, and Hunter wellington boots were more suited to the rural spaces of Derbyshire, Suffolk, or Gloucestershire than the urban sprawl of South London – but perhaps, unlike him, she had dressed to impress. Instead of going into the café, she sat down at one of the empty tables, her back to where he remained standing. He saw her take out her phone, check it for messages, and then replace it in her pocket. She brushed back her long grey hair, settled into her seat, and looked around expectantly. He made to go toward her but then paused and rehearsed what he might say. He could be polite and predictable: 'Ellen! It's so good to see you again!' or 'It's been too long!' He could be sentimental: 'Here you are – as lovely as ever!' or 'Ellen…my dear, dear Ellen.' He might even try to be amusing: 'I'm sorry, Miss…I was looking for an older woman!' or 'You must be my blind date!' No. Jokes, he reflected, were never his strong point.
Still, he waited. He seemed to have become incapable of movement. He was at a loss to explain or understand his timidity; he cursed himself for not having the courage to approach her; he regretted having come at all; he wished he had never answered her e-mail. His work had taken him around the world, from remote villages in Papua New Guinea to bombed-out houses in the backstreets of Kabul; on his last six-month assignment in central Africa, he had followed a potentially perilous route through Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo; he had spent time in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. All were without incident. And yet here he was, cowering beneath a tree on Clapham Common, apprehensive beyond reason at the prospect of meeting an old friend.
He tried to put himself in Ellen's shoes and wondered what his reaction might be if he were to look up and spot her hiding from him. Would he be angry, insulted, mystified? All of these. But most of all, he realized, he would be disappointed. Disappointed that someone once so close now felt, for whatever reason, unable even to say hello. A song from long ago came into his head: "Passing Strangers." George took a deep breath and stepped out into the sunlight. As he did, he saw that a couple with another Golden Retriever had stopped at her table and were chatting casually while the two dogs sniffed around each other. No matter: he would approach her from behind and, when he was within a few yards, call out her name. He carried on walking toward her, and as he opened his mouth to speak, veered away from the group and walked straight past them.
In the afternoon, he sent her an e-mail.
I'm so sorry I didn't make it today. I've been looking forward so much to seeing you again, but I tested positive for Covid this morning – no idea where I picked it up! I don't feel too ill (a few sniffles and a headache), and hopefully, it won't last too long. But better safe than sorry. I'll get in touch with you when I'm back to normal, and perhaps we can try again. I do apologise.
Her reply came within a few minutes.
No need to apologise! I was just about to e-mail you. I couldn't make it this morning, either, and didn't have a number to text or phone you. I had to cover for an absent colleague (Covid again!) and only got the call at the last minute. That's the BBC for you! We'll do it again, of course, in a few weeks.
Get well soon!
He felt strangely deflated. Both of them had lied. Foolish, silly lies that would fool nobody, least of all themselves. But at the same time, he recognised his relief – relief that a potentially awkward situation had been avoided. That's what he did all the time, he reflected. He avoided confrontations. He feigned interest where there was none: 'That's absolutely fascinating!' He issued invitations he hoped would never be accepted: 'Oh, you must come over for dinner.' He suppressed his true feelings: 'Don't worry about it…it wasn't valuable.' He said things he didn't mean: 'That sounds like fun…yes, I'd love to.' He knew all this, and yet he continued to do it. It was as if he couldn't stop, as if he would do or say anything to maintain an easy equilibrium. He never used to be like that. Especially when he was with Ellen. They'd always been scrupulously, even ruthlessly, honest with each other. Why couldn't he be like that now?
Her second e-mail arrived an hour or so after the first.
I've spent the last hour wondering whether I should write this or not. We were both there this morning, George. I saw you, and I know that you saw me. After all these years, at this stage in our lives, we ought to be able to behave better. But we couldn't. Isn't that sad? It was a mistake to get in touch with you. I won't try to get in touch with you again. Our friendship belongs in the past, where we can protect it, and where I'll always treasure it. This morning, outside the café, I sat there silently, stupidly, ashamed of myself, like a shy schoolgirl afraid to put her hand up in class. And then I lied about it. We both lied, although at least you had the good sense to leave before things could get any worse. You seemed in such a hurry to get away, to leave the scene as soon as possible. Almost as if you were pursued by a bear…