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decline-and-fall-of-the-rroman-empire

I recollect her gloves because they first drew my attention to her.  Placed side by side on her library desk, she arranged them with such neat precision they might have been elements of a ritual, fingers pointing towards me across the centre divide between our respective spaces, in perfect orientation with the upper left-hand corner of her book.  They were black gloves, of course.   She could have countenanced no other colour.

Easily distracted, my eyes wandered further from the dry meat of Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ to her hands – and I saw how long they were, how sensitive – how the veins within them were no more than a grey trace and how they were suited so, to her porcelain flesh, to the white, neat blouse with its delicate lace trim, to the gentle curve of her shoulders, to her neck’s ennobled grace, to the close- wound curls of her auburn hair.

And then I remember her face: those eyes of startling blue ice, her slightly upturned nose and the prim set of her tiny mouth, so determined yet so ready to drift into a wisp of a smile when she caught my look of wonder – and how I curled with embarrassment as I buried my nose back into my book, only to feel I must make some gesture to excuse my gaucheness.  I raised Gibbons’ weighty tome to the vertical so she could see its title, giving one of those eyes-to-the-ceiling expressions which conveyed (or so I hoped) my boredom with its cumbersome prose.

In return, she exhibited the object of her own studies, Dostoyevsky, with a little twist of her lips that meant the same.   We shared a smile.  I fell in love.

It was so brief, that moment.  Yet in the obligation of study and the hushed discipline of a library it was all we had and enough, for my young mind, to fill my thoughts.  She did not remain long at the mercy of ‘Crime and Punishment’.   Embarrassed that I might be caught staring I heard, rather than saw her rise, slip her chair back almost noiselessly, find perfect balance on precise feet and move away.  Only then did I dare to look up, allowing myself to follow her departure – short clipped steps and liquid glide:  I indulged my fantasies in her retreating figure, and I wished.

At last distance consumed her.  I heard the brief rush of the street as she slipped out through the library doors.  Then I looked down, and saw the glove!  It was twisted, not as neatly posed as when she laid it upon her desk, leading me to imagine she made to pick up both gloves as she departed, but retained just one of the pair.   Racing between panic and hope, I snatched it up and ran for the door in pursuit; past desk and alarmed librarian, down echoing stone steps and back into a world of people of which she could be no more than a tiny part.  A part I would not see, could not find.

I looked.  Oh, yes, I looked.  I searched the street that day, I searched the streets every day.   I returned to the library at the same time every day for a month, every week for a year.  And every day I brought that glove, and every day was the same.  She never returned.

Once I saw her – or so I thought.  Upon my route to lectures in the North Town I had to take the riverside walk, and a little above the weir where the water is at its widest and deepest, there is a single span bridge of iron, a doughty testament to Victorian enterprise.   Was she standing there, by the rail at the centre of the span – and was she looking towards me?  But though I ran, by the time I reached the place there was no sign of her, and I knew I was mistaken, betrayed by my wishful heart.

Years would pass.  I would at last consign that little glove to an upper drawer and every once in a while expose it, and remember.    But after all, I was just nineteen that day in the library.  She of my memory was probably older than I, had a life somewhere:  perhaps a husband and children.  Every now and then I could persuade myself the fleeting engagement of our eyes had meant as much to her as to me, that she was out there somewhere, dreaming as I dreamed.  Of course, it could not be so, yet it was the matter of many a sleepless night.

Here I must explain a little about myself.  I am shy by nature, a savagely introverted soul with a disinclination to trust;  a deficit of character I put down to the knowledge I am an adopted child, with all the internalised uncertainties that brings.  My adoptive family kept this from me until my fifteenth birthday, and it scarcely rocked my world until I mistakenly shared  the information with my then girlfriend, who promptly revised her opinion of me on the basis that she ‘no longer knew who she was going out with’.  Thereafter I was wary of forming relationships.   I am, still.

I think I was twenty-five or twenty-six when I at last decided I must try to trace my original mother and father.  Who had rejected me before I had voice for my defence?  Of course, it would be difficult.  Agencies are careful to protect the details of those who, by choice or circumstance, offer their children for adoption, and it was quickly made plain to me that my success would depend upon the wishes of my natural parents.  Did they wish to meet me?  I signed several forms, made a number of pledges, and waited.

This was in the late summer of my twenty-sixth year.  I had work in another city at the time.  I suppose I was surprised that my request was resolved so quickly, because I had aimed to be back in my home town before word came.  After only three weeks I received a call from the Agency:  could I make an appointment as soon as possible?   I did so, and I will not forget my nervousness as I made the long drive to keep it.

The woman who faced me across her desk was kind, I think.  Her work must have made her so, must it not?    Yet to me she seemed harshly spoken; her words were snapped off at the final consonant and sharp, incisive to my eager ears.

“You cannot always expect a request such as yours to be successful.  I’m afraid in this case…”

“They don’t want to meet me?”

“There is only one traceable parent, your mother.   You cannot make contact with her because she died many years ago.  However we were able to trace her sister, and she has no wish to communicate directly with you.  She wants to make that very clear.”  The woman reached into a drawer by her right knee, producing a large manila envelope, with the words ‘For Kevin’ scrawled upon it in faded biro.   “Kevin was the name your mother gave to you.  Her sister has retained this in her possession ever since your mother’s death, in case you ever wished to make contact.  I advise you to take it home and examine it at your leisure.  We can be of no further help.”

The act of cutting away the seal of my aunt’s envelope took courage.  It contained a letter I shall not share with you, a confession of such sadness and loss it must remain hidden with me forever.   I will tell you, though, of the newspaper clipping, of the article with the photograph at its side, about a bereft young woman who ended her life by leaping from the iron bridge above the weir, and I will tell you that the picture was familiar to me.  It showed the face of the girl who sat facing my desk  in the library all those years before.

The envelope also contained, neatly wrapped, one black glove.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

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