By Charlotte Derrick
I hadn’t seen you in years.
You’re walking down Royal Avenue with your mobile cradled between your shoulder and ear, and a little boy clinging onto your hand. He’s swamped in your jumper. One sleeve is pulled up over his stickly elbow while the other pats the head of a lion toy in the Disney bag he’s carrying. The glassy eyes of the lion peak over the handles, staring blankly at the passing shoppers.
He must take after your wife. The only thing that relates the two of you is his hair—a mop of wild black curls that resemble the springs of a busted sofa. You always acted offended when I made that comparison with your own hair. ‘At least it’s a nice sofa, a proper DFS job,’ you’d say, patting your curls proudly.
Your son drags his feet and whines, “Let me say hi, Daddy! Mummy! Mummy!”
What happened to us? What happened to those nights where we lay in your bed in that shoebox you called a room in the Elms Village, listening to The Symposium on your beat up record player and passing a bottle of Jim Beam you’d nicked from your parents’ drinks cabinet the weekend before? We’d have a 9 a.m. lecture the next morning, but that was a problem for Future Us. Right then, we were wrapped together, mumbling the lyrics of “Red River” into each other’s skin, half-considering nipping down to the off-licence for more whiskey and fegs.
Do you remember the scare we had in second year? We celebrated our close call with a spliff and Emily Dickinson. God, we were so sophisticated. To think we’d come to celebrate something like that—the thought makes me chuckle.
It never crossed our minds that we would become our parents. Up at 6 a.m. to shower and dress and make piece and jam for our children’s breakfasts, coffee for us. We’d get a meal deal out of the Tesco Metro on the way to work. After the bags are packed and ties are knotted, we all pack into the car and make our way down the rain-slicked streets on a cold November morning with a creeping dread of the chock-a-block traffic of other mothers and fathers dropping their kids at the school gates. A little one cries in the back seat, pretending to have a stomach cramp that could absolutely kill them and our minds drift to our beds, an hour or two of peace and quiet. Even a half hour will do. But we drop off the kids and trudge into the office, spending the better part of the day googling the planets of the solar system for a diorama that the kids had to make for class, but really it was our job to work late into the night gluing painted Styrofoam balls to coat hangers and giggling, near hysterical, at Uranus.
No, we never accounted for those things. Our hearts were big and full of promise. Those monotonous, blending days were for other people, not us.
And yet here we are on Royal Avenue, you with your little boy and me with my two girls.
There’s a flash of recognition. You don’t seem to hear the phone’s chatter in your ear or your son’s growing tantrum. You lift your hand, half-hearted, my name between your furrowed brow— is it me? No, it couldn’t be. But, maybe…?
I take my daughters’ hands and dodge down Castle Lane.
My eldest stares at me curiously and asks, “Who was that man, Ma?”
The answer comes quicker than I expect:
“I don’t know, love. He must’ve mistaken me for someone else.”