Cover Image
David Dumouriez
23 Years

They were in a shop together. It was Ryman in the Strand, opposite Superdrug. She had spent the day shopping in the West End. He had been at work. They hadn't seen each other for more than twenty years.

     'Fatima? … Is it you?'

     'Daniel? Daniel? I thought …' She couldn't finish.

     'I saw someone in front of me, and I thought she looked familiar. Then she turned her head just slightly, and I knew. I knew it was you.' His smile was wide.

     Fatima's smile was even wider. 'I can't believe it. I really can't believe it! I finished paying at the counter, and then as soon as I turned round … I knew as well. I recognised you instantly. Daniel, you've hardly changed.'

     'Neither have you. You-' He began to mumble something that never quite took shape. Fatima seemed to sense what it might have been and looked down towards the floor like a shy schoolgirl. This action recoloured a hundred fading memories for Daniel. 'But we can't talk here,' he said. 'Let's go outside.'

     'Had you finished shopping?'

     'Oh, no, I was just looking. Not sure what for, to be perfectly honest. I'm pretty certain I wasn't going to buy anything.'

     'Ah,' she said sagely, and they exchanged smiles. What they both really wanted to do was to stare at each other in total wonderment, but neither dared to. Instead, they left the shop. Daniel went first and then held the door open for Fatima. As they looked at each other again, they still couldn't believe what had just happened. It made them laugh.

     'The chances of us bumping into each other, after all these years …' he said.

     'I know.' Her mind was in such confusion that all she could follow up with was a louder, even happier, 'I know!'

     'Do you want a drink?' Daniel said. He then corrected himself and said with a smile, 'I forgot. You don't drink, do you? Or, at least, you didn't.'

<  2  >

     Fatima looked up at him and returned his smile. 'No, I still don't drink.' This seemed to have some kind of private meaning for them.

     'I don't mind having a juice or something like that …'

     Daniel's face expressed mock disapproval. He made another offer. 'Perhaps something to eat?'

     'Well, I …'

     'A stroll, then?'

     'Yes. I'd like that.'

     They walked on a bit before Daniel said, 'Down here?' He pointed down Villiers Street. She nodded. 'We can sit in the gardens.'

     'I'd like to have something to eat with you, but I'm having dinner in a couple of hours, so I'd better not.'

     'Very sensible.'

     They walked close together, though they were not actually touching. A slight break in their conversation made them look at each other. Again there was disbelief in their faces. They briefly stopped walking, and Fatima said, 'It's been so long.'

     'It must be, what, twenty-three years since we last saw each other?'

     'You've got a good memory,' she said. Neither of them was laughing now. Instead, they walked on, absorbed in thought. Every time Daniel sneaked a look at Fatima, it was the moment Fatima had chosen to sneak a look at Daniel. Each knew what the other was doing and why.

     Daniel led Fatima through some iron gates and into Victoria Embankment Gardens. It was a warm early evening in August, and the garden was in glorious bloom. Fatima looked around keenly. 'This is nice. I've never been here before.'

     'Really? I often come here. It's one of my favourite places. Very well kept. Very quiet.' They walked along the path, passing a long-haired man who was asleep on the grassy bank in a faded blue sleeping bag. A few paces along, before they came to the war memorial, they stopped and sat on a wooden bench that was underneath a tree. On the bench next to them, on one side, was a youth drinking a milkshake. On the bench next to them, on the other side, an old woman was staring into space.

<  3  >

     'Twenty-three years …' Fatima repeated as if it were the last thing Daniel had said.

     'I know.'

     'I can't believe I'm old enough to be able to look back that far.'

     'You certainly don't look old enough to be able to do that.'

     Fatima was flattered. 'Thanks, but I wasn't fishing for compliments. What I meant was that I don't feel particularly grown-up. I feel …' she thought about it '… well, just the same as I've always felt.'

     'Time creeps up on us. I've always known it would do. It's still a shock when it does, though.'

     They smiled at each other. They couldn't stop smiling at each other. Finally, Fatima said, with a shake of her head, 'Daniel, you haven't changed a bit,' forgetting, perhaps, that she'd already said it before.

     'You're very kind, but I think I have changed. For one thing, I don't have quite so much hair now as I did.'

     Fatima looked at his hair. It was true, he was going a little thin. In her excitement, she hadn't noticed this. 'It's shorter than it used to be - more tidy.' They both laughed. 'And you've still got the same lopsided grin.' This made him grin even more lopsidedly. He couldn't help it. She was about to continue. 'And you-' but he stopped her.

     'Wait. Wait there. How can I possibly let you go on telling me how brilliant I look when you sit there looking like you do?' He lowered his voice and said seriously, 'You've aged just as I thought you would.'

     This remark caused Fatima to bow her head again. 'Thank you …' There was a short silence. When they resumed, they seemed determined that their conversation should be general rather than specific.

     'There's so much to catch up on,' Fatima said. 'I don't know where to start.'

<  4  >

     'I know what you mean. How can you condense two lots of twenty-three years?'

     'I know you were at university,' Fatima said. 'But after that, well, it's all a mystery.'

     Daniel smiled. 'I sometimes feel the same way.' This amused her. He was pleased that he could still make her laugh. 'After university, I dossed around a bit, dossed around some more, thought up some foolproof schemes to enable me to doss around forever, and then when all the foolproof schemes had come to nothing, I finally had to work.'

     'Work!' Fatima said with distaste.

     'I know. It's a terrifying thing. And you? Did you get to university?'

     Fatima laughed. 'No. I was too stupid.'

     'No, you weren't. You were bright. Maybe your teachers weren't very good.'

     'No, I can't blame anyone else. I was thick.'

     He protested. 'Rubbish!'

     Fatima ignored him. 'You were the one with brains.'

     'I was earnest and boring. That was all.'

     'Stop being modest.'

     'No, I'm telling the truth. I had one good year, but when I got to university, I realised that I was nothing special academically. Solid, but nothing special.' He paused. 'The last I heard of you was that you didn't do all that well first time around, but that you were going to another college to do resits. What happened there?'

     'Oh, the same thing. I didn't get the grades. I just wasn't up to it, I suppose.' She smiled.

     'That's a pity. You wanted to be a doctor, didn't you?'

     This made her laugh. 'My mother wanted me to be one, but it was never really on. It was way beyond me.'

     'What did you do after that?'

<  5  >

     'The same thing you eventually had to do.'

     'Work!' he said, in a voice which was just as full of distaste as Fatima's had been.'Do you still work?'

     'Yes, but in a different way.'

     He immediately knew what she meant. 'Child-rearing.'


     'How many have you got?' Daniel asked with a thin smile.

     Fatima replied, with perhaps an overabundance of cheerfulness, 'Two, a boy and a girl.'

     'Really? I've got two as well. Two boys.' They smiled at each other and carried on asking the obvious questions. 'How old are yours?'

     'Nadeem is thirteen. Yamine's eleven. And yours?'

     'Tom's seven, and Alex is four.' They took out their phones and compared children. Daniel was taken with Fatima's girl, and Fatima was taken with Daniel's boys. They looked at the pictures with a much greater interest than most people do when studying other people's children. 'How long have you been married?'

     'Oh …' she thought it over '… fifteen years?' She settled it in her mind. 'Yes, fifteen years.'

     'Anyone I know?' Daniel said with as much cheek as he could summon.

     Fatima smiled. 'No. No one you know. He's from Birmingham. That's where I live now.'

     'Birmingham? I see. Have your kids got Brummie accents?'

     Fatima laughed. 'I'm afraid so. Slightly. I'm trying to get them to speak "proper," but it's difficult.'

     'Your marriage was arranged for you?' Daniel asked. He almost certainly knew that it would have been, but he wanted to be sure.

     'Yes, my husband is someone my uncle knew.'

     'Is he rich?' Daniel said, never afraid to ask the pressing question.

<  6  >

     Fatima said, without expression of happiness or regret at the fact, 'Yes. He's got his own textile business.' Then she added, for no obvious reason, 'He's fifteen years older than me.' Both seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but, ultimately, nothing came out. Fatima returned Daniel's earlier question. 'How long have you been married?'

     'Six years. Six years last month.' Fatima smiled. Daniel also smiled. 'Abi and I used to work together.'

     'And then you fell in love?'

     'Yes.' Their smiles were slightly strained.

     'Do you still live in Essex?'

     'No, no, I moved away years ago. First of all, I lived in London, and then I moved to Surrey. That's where Abi's from.'

     'Ah, right. And you work round here?'

     'Yep. Just round the corner.'

     'You never told me what you do.'

     'Well, to give me my full title, I'm a Senior Financial Advisor. Though I'm not so keen on the senior.'

     Fatima laughed. 'Is it an interesting job?'


     'Is that all you want to say about it?'

     'That's all.'

     'Right.' They were so much happier when away from the subject of their families. But still, Fatima wanted to know more. 'I'm not keeping you from your wife, am I? She'll be expecting you.'

     'Oh no. It's okay, it takes a while for me to get back anyway. I'm usually late. What about you? Are you just down for the day, or are you staying anywhere?'

     'I'm staying with my brother. You remember him, don't you?'

     'Yes, I remember Mo. How is he?'

     'Oh, he's fine. He's married, and he lives in Islington. I've been stopping with him for a couple of days. His wife's very nice.' She added, 'They're the ones I'm having dinner with tonight. Them and my little nieces. I'm supposed to be back for eight o'clock.'

<  7  >

     They both looked at their phones. It was now quarter past six. They looked around and tried to remain composed. Daniel said, 'You know, this reminds me of when we used to sit outside the sports hall at college in summer.' They both took their minds back over the years.

     'Is it really twenty-three years?' Fatima said gently.

     'I know, it's frightening. Such a large portion of our lives.'

     'Do you ever see anyone from those days now?'

     'No, never. I thought at the time that I'd always stay in touch with the people I knew then - that we'd be friends for life - but it just doesn't work out that way. When you leave, you drift apart - even if you don't mean to. I haven't seen Ken or Dave for years. And in a way, I'm glad. I doubt if we'd have much in common anymore.' He looked at Fatima. 'Do you ever see any of your old friends?'

     'No, it's pretty much the same story. Good intentions going to nothing. And as I live so far away, I'm never likely to run into anyone now either.'

     'Does your mother still live in Essex?'

     'No, she died four years ago.'

     'Oh …'

     'I hardly ever go back now.'

     'We go and visit my parents, but that's about it.'

     'Do you miss it?'

     'No. Not really. Do you?'

     'A bit. I'm not particularly fond of the Midlands. I don't feel as if I belong there. I don't think I ever will.' They looked at each other and smiled. They kept looking, but they didn't say anything. They remembered how it had been when they were teenagers, and they had looked into each other's eyes. In the canteen. In the corridors. In the library. On the grass. There was always that look. And here it was again. Twenty-three years on.

<  8  >

     It took them a while to return from daydreams to conversation. When they did, all they wanted to talk about was their time at college. Daniel said, 'Do you remember Jimmy?'

     Fatima hadn't thought of him for years, but now, suddenly and miraculously, he was almost there in front of her. 'Yes, yes, I do.' She was excited to be revisiting her former life. 'He was creepy, wasn't he?'

     'Yes, he was. I remember that evil look he used to give us.'

     'I can see it now.' She paused. 'I wonder what happened to him …'

     'I wouldn't be surprised if he was serving a life sentence as we speak.'

     'Very likely.'

     'I remember your two friends as well.'

     'Safia and Saeeda?'

     'Yes. They didn't approve of me, did they?'

     'It wasn't you they didn't approve of, it was me. They didn't think I should be friendly with you. Because you were …' She trailed off.

     Daniel finished it for her with a cheerful, 'Because I wasn't one of you?'

     'Yes.' They looked at each other.

     Daniel couldn't help saying, 'Gorgeous.'

     Fatima looked away. She repeated quietly, 'Gorgeous …' Then she added, 'You know, you were the first person who ever told me I was gorgeous. And I remember where we were when you said it.'

     Though it was so many years in the past, Daniel recalled it too. 'Yes, it was by my locker one morning before lessons.'

     Fatima was astounded. 'How can you remember that? I thought I would be the only one who could remember that.' Daniel smiled. 'It meant so much to me. It was just one little word, but it made me feel so proud!'

<  9  >

     They couldn't look at each other. They could look at the path or the grass or at the flowers or at the sky, but not at each other. They didn't know what would happen if they looked at each other.

     Daniel spoke. He was looking down at the ground. 'I remember the first time we spoke to each other.' Fatima said nothing. Daniel prompted her. 'Do you?'

     She said in a croaky voice, 'Yes.'

     'You were trying to give me your friend's phone number because she wanted to go out with me. I, being the horrible little snot I was then, couldn't bear the sight of her, but when I saw you … well, that was it for me.' They were getting to the stage where they could almost look at each other again. Daniel smiled. 'Love at first sight.' Now they looked at each other. 'I can't honestly say whether I saw you again the very next day - although I must have looked for you - but I can remember seeing you around the corridors and talking to you. I liked you more every time I saw you.' Fatima blushed. 'Quite short, with thick black hair, huge brown eyes, and the widest smile I'd ever seen.' She smiled broadly. 'And there it is again.'

     'And you,' she said. 'I thought you were wonderful. You were two years older than me - you must have been eighteen - and I thought you were so sophisticated. And good-looking. And funny. That was what I really liked about you. You always made me laugh.' It was Daniel's turn to blush. He hadn't blushed for years. Then, she added, 'I was in love with you too.' Here, now, in this garden, was the first time they had ever admitted to loving each other.

     'The first day we really spent time alone together was in the library at breaktime. It would have been sometime in March.' Transported back in time, she nodded. 'I'd spent lots of time with other girls, but with you, it was different. Obviously different. I thought you were incredible!' He paused. 'It would only have been about ten minutes - probably less than ten minutes - but I'd never been happier.'

<  10  >

     'I remember it too. There was no one else in the library that afternoon. We were sitting downstairs by the window that looked out onto the hockey pitch, and the sun was shining on the table.' Her recollection was perfect, and for a moment, it seemed as if there was no time in between them. 'I remember you telling me that you were going to be a poet.' He groaned. 'You pointed at one of the bookshelves and said, "That's where I belong."' Daniel laughed. 'Do you still write?'

     'No. I stopped years ago.'

     'Have you got any of your poems left from those years?'

     'No, they were terrible. I tore them all up.'

     Fatima was disappointed. 'Oh!'

     'Believe me, they were terrible. I was terrible. I didn't have the talent to match the ambition.'

     'Did you ever …' She broke off.

     He guessed at what she was going to say. 'Did I ever write a poem about you?'

     She smiled. 'Yes.'

     He smiled sadly. 'Yes, I did.' They were briefly silent. 'I remember that when the bell went to end that break time, we stayed in the library for about half a minute longer than we should have done. Then, as we went up the corridor and you went your way, and I went mine, I touched your arm. Just lightly, as we said goodbye.'

     'I remember.'

     'When I went home that night, I went up to my bedroom and played some music and just thought about you non-stop. It was the first time in my life that I'd ever properly been in love. I stretched out on the bed, and I was happier than I'd ever been before - in my whole life. And when I got up, I found out that I'd been lying there for hours.'

     Fatima was touched by this. She said, 'When I went home, it was like I was in a world of my own. I didn't hear anything that anyone said to me - I just nodded at them and smiled like an idiot. I was so happy and so preoccupied that I couldn't concentrate on anything. And I didn't eat a thing. Everyone thought I was ill!' She added, 'I couldn't tell anyone how I felt.'

<  11  >

     They fell silent as joyful memories gave way to bitter ones. They looked at each other with searching eyes. Fatima said, 'It's just so …'

     Daniel shook his head. 'It was all very innocent. We never really said anything, did we? Everything - with me, at least - was happening under the surface.'

     'I know what you mean. I've had years to think about it.' She smiled. 'We never made any declarations. We just kind of took it for granted that … we knew.'

     Daniel said spiritedly, 'I knew.'

     'And I knew too.' They reached for each other's hands and held them tight. They looked at their hands as if transfixed by this simple (and groundbreaking) contact.

     Daniel said it first. 'To think that we never even kissed.' They laughed very gently, but they could easily have cried. 'I once kissed your hand-'

     Fatima interrupted, 'I remember. It was in the science block, right in front of everyone. I was embarrassed. And delighted.'

     Daniel looked around the garden. 'Oh, I was such a dreamy youth! Always thinking ahead and never concentrating on the present. It was always the next time that I was going to kiss you or tell you I loved you or ask you out.'

     'But you did ask me out.'

     He laughed. 'Yes, but it took me about a year! Can you believe that? Tell that to the kids today with their bloody mobile phones. If we'd had those, you'd never have stood a chance! I'd have bombarded you with messages. What a game-changer!' She couldn't stop smiling. 'It was all so laborious then.' He looked pained. 'I remember coming back to college at the end of your second year after my exams, just to see you. Just so I could ask you out and see you over the summer. Well, luckily, I did see you, but in the five minutes I had to talk to you, I completely fluffed it. I talked about everything except what I really wanted to say.' He paused. 'When you'd gone, and I realised that I wouldn't see you again for at least six weeks, I was on the point of violence! I couldn't believe how stupid I was!' Fatima laughed. 'Exactly a year later, at the end of your third year, I was in the same position, and I did ask you out. And we both know what you said.'

<  12  >

     'I couldn't. I wanted to. I really wanted to. But I couldn't. It would have killed my mother. Anyway, I just wouldn't have been allowed.'

     He smiled. 'But you took my phone number anyway. That was very generous of you.'

     She made a sorrowful face. 'Oh Daniel, don't! You know I wanted to!'

     'Alright, I know.' He patted her hand.

     'I would have been disowned.' She looked distracted. 'I think you just didn't realise how strictly controlled our lives were. We dressed like you, played the same games, and laughed at the same things, but it was like another world when we went home. There was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go, without my mother or my extended family knowing about it.'

     Daniel looked thoughtful. 'Maybe I just didn't want to believe it. Or I was naive. Or plain stupid!'

     'No … I think you couldn't really know unless you lived like that. Evolution hadn't gone as far as you thought …'

     Daniel took time to digest her words. 'As I remember, we didn't see each other for a while after that romantic setback.' The lopsided grin didn't express genuine amusement this time. 'Somehow, though, I just couldn't believe we'd reached a dead end. I really thought persistence was the answer. And I was encouraged because, when we met again, we seemed closer than ever.'

     Fatima said quietly, 'I remember.'

     'We were in a car park, and we agreed I would come back in two weeks and see you.' He added, 'As we stood there, I almost kissed you. I wanted to, but - fool that I was - I didn't think the time was quite right. So I went off and made plans for our next meeting. In two weeks' time, I was definitely going to kiss you and tell you that I loved you and wanted to be with you forever. And, you know, the strange thing was that I think I actually would have done.'

<  13  >

     This was too much for Fatima, and she turned away and started to sob. Daniel put his arm round her, and she cried into his shoulder. Daniel spoke gently. 'I came home from university two weeks later, and I was so excited about seeing you again and telling you all this.'

     Fatima tearfully continued the story. 'But I phoned you up the night before and told you that I couldn't make it …'

     'And we never saw each other again.' They were silent. He still had his arm round her. 'What happened that night? Can you remember why you couldn't see me?'

     'Yes. Someone I knew found out that I was meeting you and that the two of us were getting close, and they told my mother.'

     'Oh, I see …' This solved a twenty-three-year mystery. 'You certainly sounded fairly strained on the phone.'

     'I know. I wasn't supposed to be speaking to you.'

     'It was so brief. You were there, and then you were gone.'

     'I know … I know.'

     'What you don't know is that I tried once more to see you.'

     Fatima sat up and looked at him. 'You did? When?'

     'A month later. I knew what day your last exam was and when it ended. I knew that this was the one day when you would definitely be there - if I could get there on time.'


     'Of course, I didn't get there on time. I just missed the bus I needed. But, even so, I still thought I'd make it. I got to college maybe five minutes after the end of the exam and looked for you everywhere, but it was no good. I'd missed you.'

     Fatima was appalled by this revelation. 'Oh …'

<  14  >

     'I didn't know where you lived. I didn't know your phone number. But even if I had've known either I couldn't have phoned you or called on you. I was afraid of getting you into trouble.'

     Fatima was even more upset. 'Oh …'

     'During the next couple of years, I paid visits to your area in the hope of running into you, but I never did. Eventually …' he faltered for a moment, '… eventually, I gave up.'

     Fatima was crying. She put her head on his shoulder again, but this time he didn't speak. They merely sat there in silence.

     Finally, Fatima said, 'Do you think I led you on?' And then, before he could answer, she added, 'I honestly never meant to, but I can see now that I did. I'm so sorry …'

     Daniel comforted her, calling her by the name that he had always called her at college. 'Come on, Fats. Come on.' He said in a whisper, 'No, I don't think you led me on. I think we were both confused. We just never had that vital discussion, that was all.' He couldn't prevent himself from saying tentatively, 'Would you have married me?'

     Fatima considered this for at least a minute before saying, 'No, I don't think I could have done.' But then she said, almost immediately, 'Oh, I don't know … I just don't know.'

     'I never gave up hope, you know. All the while I was at university, I still couldn't imagine us not ending up together.' It seemed as if he wanted to say more, but he stopped himself.

     In the quiet moments that followed, they were both compelled to think and then talk about their partners. Daniel said seriously, 'I've had a good life. Abi is a happy, kind person. And the boys … they're so much fun. I love being a dad.'

     Fatima took up the theme. 'And I've been lucky too. Aslam's looked after me and gave me everything I could have wanted. And having children has been wonderful.'

<  15  >

     'But still … despite everything …' He shrugged. 'There was always something. It was there in my mind, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not. The life that was, and the life that never was …'

     'I know that feeling too. I've lived with it like a punishment. A sense of something missing, and I always knew exactly what it was.'

     'Sometimes …' but it wasn't worth saying. Fatima didn't ask him to finish. Maybe she was too afraid. He made an effort to be cheerful. 'Funny thing is, though, whenever I think of you and try to remember your face-'

     Fatima interrupted, 'You can't!'

     'I can't. I just can't. No matter how I try, I can't make a complete face for you.'

     'I can't put you back together either. Not properly. Sometimes I think I'm almost there, but I know it's not right.'

     'Maybe that's no bad thing.' He winked. She remembered his wink. Now she realised that she'd found it sexy before she even knew what sexy really was.

     'But even stranger is that even when "our thing" was at its peak and I thought about you, I still couldn't see you. Maybe I was trying too hard. I really can't explain it. Usually, my memory is embarrassingly accurate. Other people - even people I've seen only once - they stay in my brain, and I can conjure them up at will. But not you. I can't explain it.'

     They smiled. This silly chatter had calmed them. Daniel still had his arm around Fatima as she said, quite collectedly, 'We can never see each other again.'

     Daniel's response was instant. Without looking at her, he said, 'I know.'

     'We've been so lucky to meet again. I never thought we would.'

     'Maybe fate owed it to us.'

     Fatima smiled at him. 'Yes, I'd like to think so.' She paused before saying, 'Now it's not so bad. Not knowing, I mean. We're up-to-date with each other, and we've said some of the things that needed saying.' Daniel squeezed her. 'I'm so pleased that you looked for me that last time, after my exam. I would never have known that. I always thought we'd ended on a bad note after that phone conversation.'

<  16  >

     'No, I knew you couldn't say much. It was good of you to phone at all.'

     'You're just as nice as you always were. Considerate.'

     Daniel laughed. 'I don't think so. The trouble is that you've only seen the best of me. If we'd been married, you would have grown to hate me.'

     Fatima said sharply. 'Never!'

     'No, you would. You would have lost all your illusions about me.'

     'I could say the same thing about me. My terrible temper.'

     This amused Daniel. 'You never had a terrible temper. Did you?' He thought it over before concluding, 'No. Not that I remember.'

     Fatima smiled. 'Well, I do now.'

     'The pressures of motherhood?'

     'Sometimes, yes.' She changed this to: 'Often.' They laughed. 'They're at that age. You've got it all to come.'

     Daniel shook his head. 'Don't tell me!'

     They enjoyed this moment, and then Fatima looked at her watch. 'Gone seven.'

     Daniel looked at his watch. 'Hmm.'

     'I'll have to go soon.'

     'So will I.'

     They said nothing more but looked around, willing the time to go as slowly as possible. Leaving the garden, and each other, was the event they feared more than any other at that moment. Everything else was forgotten. All that mattered was them.

     Fighting valiantly to present tranquil exteriors, they allowed their conversation to be guided by what they saw. Fatima said, 'Have you got a garden?'

     'Yes. Have you?'


     'I'm not really into gardening,' Daniel said. 'That's more Abi's thing. I do appreciate a nice garden, though. Like here. This is a pleasant, understated place. Nobody ever makes any fuss about it, but I like it very much.'

<  17  >

     'So do I. I'm glad you brought me here.' She surveyed the scene. 'Do you know the names of all the flowers?'

     Daniel smiled. 'No, I'm useless at all that. How about you?'

     'I know some, but I'm not really into gardening either. We have someone in to do ours.'

     'Oh yes, I've read about people like that …'

     They traded cheeky looks, and, just for a few seconds, the years fell away. At first, it was invigorating, and then it was painful. Unable to look at each other, they looked at the colours in front of them. Whites, reds, pinks, yellows. The borders were immaculate. They knew that time was running out, but they were determined not to acknowledge it in speech. Instead, they took in a wider view of the gardens, looking at one man in particular.

     'He looks like he's had a few,' said Daniel.

     'Mmm. I think we know how he's spent his afternoon.'

     'And his morning too, by the looks of him. That's how I'll be in a couple of years.' Fatima gave him a push. His humour, his bantering, hadn't changed. He was still the same person to her. They kept looking round. Daniel said, 'What a beautiful evening.'

     'It is. It is. I'll always remember it.' This simple statement was enough to set them off.

     Daniel said, as if desperate to fill in a few extra gaps, 'What do you want from the future?'

     'Oh, so much. Too much to say.' She paused. 'I want my children to be happy. I want more years for Aslam. More years for me. I want everything!' She was speaking quickly. And she was shaking. 'Daniel, what do you want?'

     'The same. The same.' They looked at each other. 'Will you make your children have arranged marriages?'

     'No. I'd never do that. It's not so important anymore. Things have changed.'

<  18  >

     These words were kind and liberal, but for that very reason, they couldn't have had a more wounding effect. He said simply, 'Life defeated us.' This required a pair of stoic smiles, but neither came anywhere near to smiling.

     Fatima checked the time. This was, in plain terms, the beginning of the end. They tried to be brave, to be grown up, to be British. Daniel said, 'We won't leave together.'


     'You can go first. I'll give it ten minutes, and then I'll go.'


     By now, she was sitting at one end of the bench, and he was at the other. They weren't touching, and they were both facing away from each other. They knew that they had to stand up and quit each other properly, but they tried to hold it off. If they could only hold it off! Every second that they didn't get up was another second together. They were both in tears, completely oblivious to whoever was around them.

     Finally, and without consultation, they both rose. They stood as close together as was possible, with their arms on each other's shoulders. He looked down at her. She looked up at him. They just stared. That initial sense of disbelief came back, replacing the sadness. Then there was joy. Just joy. They knew that everything they might have been was beyond them. There was no point pining for it. Now they could only be happy and thankful that they'd met again.

     Fatima, still crying but now crying happy tears, said, 'Now I know I'll never forget your face!'

     Daniel, crying happy tears, said, 'And I'll remember yours, always.'

     They kissed. Twenty-three years went into that kiss. It was the kiss they should have had but yet should never have had. It went on and on. It attracted attention. Some people were amazed. Some were delighted. Some were jealous. And some - teenagers - were scornful. Just like they themselves might have been all those years before.

<  19  >

     When they'd finished kissing - they both instinctively knew when to stop - they had one last, breath-expelling hug, before Daniel kissed her hand, they smiled brightly, and then Fatima turned and left the gardens.

     Daniel stood and watched her go. He knew that she wouldn't look round, and she didn't. When she had gone, he sat down on the bench, looked down at the ground, and put his hands on the back of his head. So much had happened. There was so much to take in. A large part of his life was altered.

     When he finally left the gardens and walked, almost dazed, towards Embankment tube station, it was some while over the designated ten minutes. Fatima, hidden behind a pillar halfway down Villiers Street, had stayed to watch him walk away. Her face was still wet.

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