True love

“I’m taking the dog out for a walk, back in an hour or so,” called Michael from the hall as he attached the lead to Megan’s collar. Closing the front door, he just heard Gaynor’s “Ok” response from upstairs. As soon as the door clicked shut he breathed a deep sigh of relief. The combined weight of grinding misery and repressed anger had miraculously lifted – but he was then immediately struck by pangs of guilt and remorse. Why did he feel like this about his wife of nearly 40 years? Why was he always boosted whenever he was not in her company? She was not a bad person, she had been a good mother to their two children, she worked hard, she never did him any harm…

The early morning was chilly, still and cloudless. Pulling on the lead with the boundless enthusiasm of a typical terrier, Megan led the way westward along the pavement of the main road. Knowing exactly where they were going, she stopped at the usual crossing point, waited for Michael to give the all clear and then dragged him to the other side. They quickly negotiated the bridge over the rippling waters of the tree-lined river, skirted the deserted recreation ground and cut past the last few houses on the lane to Draethen before arriving at their destination. They entered the wildwoods of Coed Cefn-pwll-du and Michael took Megan off her lead.

They wandered off the well-worn tracks into the deep dark heart of the ancient forest, accompanied only by the lyrical melodies of echoing birdsong. A fairly large bird suddenly rose, wings flapping, from the undergrowth in front of them. Unable to identify it, Michael wished he had bothered to learn more about the natural world. Now safe from the possibility of encountering another person, he sat on a fallen tree trunk while Megan, never straying far from him, nuzzled, sniffed and investigated the carpet of leaf-litter and microscopic life of the forest floor. The first green shoots and unfurling buds of early spring were evident everywhere. The dawning sun cast ethereal spotlights through the branches. Michael, becoming relaxed and unstressed, turned his mind back to his relationship with Gaynor. He had loved her once, or thought he had, long ago when they were young. But now, with the mortgage paid off, the kids independent adults fending for themselves and retirement pensions being received monthly, it all seemed so hollow and pointless. They were still together only because it was too much hassle to be otherwise. There was no love, just familiarity, habit, apathy, and a steady lowering of expectations. Was this how all marriages end up when you reach your 60s, unless you’re some ruthless, shallow, dirty-old-man millionaire trading the wife in for a younger model?

This train of thought was rudely interrupted by the tell-tale sound of twigs snapping underfoot. Someone was approaching! Megan scurried to his side, tightly glued to his leg. A figure appeared out of the shadows. Michael braced himself for the unwanted intrusion while pretending to be preoccupied with Megan’s tangled coat. Then, to his shock, a man’s voice said: “Hi Micky, long time no see.”

Michael, adjusting his vision in the half-light, looked up at him. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure who you are. Do I know you? I’m really bad at names and faces,” he said haltingly. The man was wearing thick winter clothing, his face barely visible under a woolly bobble-hat.

“What a nice dog. Does he bite?”

“He’s a she, called Megan,” replied Michael abruptly.

“Will Megan mind if I sit next to you?”

“No, she loves people, be my guest,” said Michael with contrived casualness.

He sat down on the log and took off his hat. Just a couple of feet away, Michael could now get a good look at the man. He was around the same age as him, short, balding, gap-toothed, weather-beaten and bashed about a bit, but somehow striking with his prominent nose and pronounced bone-structure. “I’m sorry, but I still haven’t got the foggiest idea who you are,” said Michael.

“I didn’t think you would. It’s been over 50 years since we last met. I wouldn’t have recognised you either if I hadn’t found out already. My name’s Richard, does that help?”

And, in an instant, the decades dissolved. It was the eyes that told him. Eyes somehow don’t change. They were big and penetrating, one was blue the other was green. Oh yes, he remembered those eyes. Michael was stunned into silence as he processed the information. Recognising this, Richard spoke. “You’re a hard man to find Micky. Google you and you don’t exist. Telephone directories, electoral registers, death searches and so on reveal nothing. You’ve got more or less no internet presence – except for the Companies House archives. They delete nothing and that includes two businesses you owned in the 1980s and 1990s. From there I found Gaynor, your wife I presumed, who was a co-director of the companies. Via her social media visibility, backed up by phone-book records, I was able to find an address.” He paused for a moment to carefully look at Michael’s reactions, and then continued. “One day a few weeks ago I parked my car near the address and waited. To my amazement you came out of the house with a dog after just half an hour. I knew it was you straight away. Guess how I knew it was you even though you’ve bulked out significantly, you’re as bald as a coot and you bear no resemblance to the boy I last saw 52 years ago?”

To his own surprise, Michael responded immediately and without a shred of reticence: “I don’t know. How?”

“The way you move. We played football in the same side every week for over five years. You get to know gait, balance, proportions, small individual quirks, all as unique as a fingerprint. That doesn’t change, no matter how much weight has been put on. So, being sure it was you, I followed you by foot from a distance one dark morning last month. and you came into these woods. I didn’t approach, too shy probably, but since then I resolved to bite the bullet and say what I’ve been wanting to say to you for over half a century.” He stopped and stood up. Through Richard’s fur-lined anorak, heavy-duty jeans and muddy hiking boots, Michael had a flashback of a slippery, tricky winger chipping accurate crosses onto his head from the by-line. He smiled for the first time, revealing his own dodgy teeth in the process, and stood up too. Attentive and alert, Megan did the same, tale wagging.

“What I want to say Micky is simple,” Richard gulped nervously, “I love you.”

Michael couldn’t help laughing out loud. It wasn’t a mocking laugh or an amused laugh, it was more a laugh of delight.

“I’m not mad, I’m not a stalker, I ask for nothing from you,” continued Richard. “If you want me to fuck off, that’s fine, I’ll wish you all the best and you’ll never hear from me again. I only wanted to tell you something I should have told you long ago. That I loved you. Yes; I really did. And it was the purest love. Not religious love. Not sexual love. Not romantic love. Not parental love. Not familial love. Not humanitarian love. Not philanthropic love. Not the love of friends. Not the love of comrades. Not contingent love. Not acquisitive love. Not socially indoctrinated love. It was true love: the unconditional, non-judgmental, irreducible, indefinable, untarnished and uncorrupted love of the pubescent teenager…”

Michael, still smiling, interrupted: “You haven’t changed Rich, you always sounded like you swallowed a dictionary!” They both laughed.

Absent-mindedly, Richard stroked and patted Megan and tickled her under the neck. “She doesn’t let many people do that,” said Michael, “Scotties don’t like a lot of fuss.” He looked at those big eyes again. “You know what? I loved you too.”

In the deep heart of the forest, they hugged. Out of nowhere Michael started sobbing. He didn’t know why. Richard hugged him tighter and whispered “You’re not alone. You never have to be alone again.”

Confused, disorientated and slightly embarrassed, they simultaneously separated. Seeing Michael’s sudden discomfort, Richard spoke first: “I’ve got to go now, Micky. I’ll give you my mobile phone number and leave it at that. You can phone me anytime you want, or not at all.” He handed him the number on a scrap of paper and, noticing that Michael was struggling to formulate a reaction, continued. “My car’s parked near the bridge, I’d better be on my way. It’s been great to see you. I’ve squared a circle. Whatever happens I can die a happy man. Never let the bastards grind you down.” And with that he was off, disappearing quickly northwards into the shadows. Michael sat down on the log again and Megan, most unusually, jumped up on his lap for a cwtch.

“You know what, Megan,” said Michael in all seriousness, “He forgot the greatest love of all. The love of a dog.”