Love at first sight. It’s supposed to exist isn’t it? Eyes locking across a crowded room, wafting invisible chemicals, instant soul-mates and all that twaddle. When Brian and I decided to get married it was because we had lived together pretty amicably for four years and with me in my thirties we reckoned it was probably a good time to have a shot at kids. Not that we didn’t love each other…we did, but in the way I think love works best - as something one has actively chosen to do, rather than some sort of dodgy thunderbolt from the skies. The earth never moved when I was with Brian, not even at the beginning; but kissing was nice and he had kind eyes and I thought, here’s a chap who could look after me and be a decent Dad and frankly, after what had passed for parenting in my childhood those were pretty rare qualities.
We married in a registry office and had family and friends back for bubbly and sarnies. After knocking back a few my mate Shona gave me a telling off for not holding out for something a little more exciting than a computer programmer into tinkering with car engines and watching Formula One. Still, she married her idea of Mr Romantic and look where it got her - a single mum using most of her maintenance to drown her sorrows. While I’ve got a kind husband, two great kids, a lovely mock Tudor house on the edge of Bromley and a happiness so solid I’d have staked my life on it.
Then last year, with the kids at big school all day, I got myself a job, helping out in a charity shop in Norwood. It was good to get out to be honest and nice too to feel that with all the boxes ticked in my own life I had time to put something back. I even liked the train ride – a thirty minute excuse to bury my nose in a book. Anyway, on the morning after my forty third birthday, I was sitting just like that – head down, book open - feeling a tad hungover because Brian had treated me to a slap-up dinner the night before – when I get that strong burning sensation on the top of my head, like you do when someone is looking at you. (Funny that, isn’t it, like we’ve got invisible antennae sticking out up top?) Anyway, after trying to ignore it – my book was very good - I glanced up to find my eyes locking instantly with those of a man at the other end of the carriage. He had a briefcase on his knees and his hands were resting on top of it palms down. His hair was wiry black, very thick and cut so short that it stood to attention off his hairline. His eyebrows were two perfect dark hyphens arched across the most intense deep set grey eyes I had ever seen.
I should have looked away of course. A quick blink, a toss of the head –who do you think you are? But I stared back, like a dumb mute, my heart somersaulting, my lips dry.
Then he smiled. Okay, it sounds corny – like so much stuff does when you hear of it happening to other people. But this smile…I tell you…slow and quiet, showing off the fullness of his mouth, lovely large even teeth. My heart stopped somersaulting and fell of a cliff.
His stop was one before mine. As he got up, I literally had to grip the seat to keep myself from following. My legs ached from wanting to move. He stood on the platform outside my window, still watching as the train slid away, those grey eyes so steady it took my breath away.
At work I put the wrong price tags on an entire rack of clothes and spilt a cup of coffee across the stock list. When Brian called, as he always did, I was so jumpythat he asked what was up. I said I was paying for the champagne with a rotten head and he laughed and said quite right too. At the sight of his familiar face that night, peeking over the top of a bunch of daffs, all cheeky and pleased with himself (what girl expects flowers the day after her birthday?) it was all I could do not to burst into tears. Instead I pulled myself together and said I had decided to pack in the job. (No train ride no staring man, you see – not the most inspired logic but it was the best I could manage). Brian said I was a funny thing and why not think about it for a bit longer and what was for supper.
I thought about it – and about the man - all night, amazed at what could be extracted from an experience that must have lasted five minutes: a missed patch of bristles on his chin line, a tiny mole near his left ear, the sleek dark hairs of his wrists. By the small hours I had ricocheted so violently between self-chastisement and longing that my body felt physically bruised. Then Brian turned and reached for me in his sleep, his arms heavy and warm, and I nodded off at last.
Sluggish with exhaustion when the alarm went off a couple of hours later, it was almost easy not to get out of bed. I asked Brian if he could see to the kids. I told him I wasn’t well and would call in sick to explain that I didn’t want to carry on anyway; get it over with.
Alone, I lay on my side for an hour and watched the small jerking hands of my alarm clock. The man would be there, I was sure of it. He would get into the first carriage like yesterday, maybe even seek out the same seat.
I kept busy all day, shopping, ironing, cleaning out the broom cupboard. So it wasn’t until the evening news that I heard about the crash. A faulty signal, they said. Scores injured but only one fatality, a man in the front carriage.
Brian arrived home soon afterwards, puffing out his cheeks and waving the Evening Standard, exclaiming that he’d always known I had a guardian angel. He hugged me for several extra seconds and held my hand while we watched TV after dinner. When the lights were out I knew he’d want to make love – release some of the gratitude that I was still in one piece. I didn’t hold back either. I was grateful too - to be safe, to be loved. I held Brian, I smelled Brian, but I thought of the man – soul mate, guardian angel, phantom – it hardly mattered. Whichever ever way you looked at it he’d brought me back to life.