Perhaps, he thought, there is such a thing as too late. Perhaps he ought not to have gotten his hopes up. It is a dangerous thing to get one’s hopes up, especially when hope is all that one has left, he reflected.
Well… not all, he decided, reaching down to scratch Minouche behind the ears the way he liked. The basset hound looked up at him with sad eyes. He always had sad eyes – such is the nature of the basset hound, he supposed, but today they seemed particularly questioning.
‘What are we doing here?’ the sad eyes seemed to ask. ‘When can we go for a walk?’
And more than likely, knowing Minouche, ‘Where’s my treat?’
The hound was getting a little chubby in his old age. So, Frederick supposed, was he himself. Too many treats for both of them. Minouche, poor thing, had been so foolishly named by a granddaughter with a temporary fondness for all things French. But, silly name aside, he was a good, reliable dog.
And Minouche sat quietly, perhaps a bit lazily, waiting for the old man on his fool’s errand. Minouche had never been to the train station before. Perhaps a younger dog would have been exploring, seeking out new scents and new adventures. Minouche, growing older and stouter, was content to lay on the bench by the old man’s side.
‘Did promises have an expiration date?’ Frederick wondered.
He supposed they must. He was foolish even to come here. She would not remember… Would she?
Forty years. It seemed such a very long time. Minouche had not been born yet. And he’d been a different man. Had been a different man? He’d been a younger one, anyway, and that was different enough.
He remembered the beautiful girl he’d met on the train. Sparkling eyes and a beautiful smile. Long, slender fingers tucked into his stubby ones. He had never had particularly impressive hands, but hers had been lovely. He wondered if they still were.
And, of course, he remembered the sparkling engagement ring on her hand. That part was impossible to forget.
It had started when he’d looked across the aisle and realized that the girl sitting across the way was reading the same book he was. And a question turned into a conversation. And a conversation turned into hours spent side by side as the train rolled through empty countryside. Small towns and ancient trees.
And then the conversation turned back into a question.
Do you throw it all away? Do you give up everything you have built, everything you have loved, for what could be?
He would have, he knew, even now. Looking into those sparkling eyes, he could forget the sweetheart waiting for him at home, knew he could face down his mother’s disappointment, if he could have forever with her.
But she would not. Or could not. He was never sure which.
“I’ve made promises,” she said. “Promises need to be kept.”
“Do you love him?” he had asked.
“I thought I did,” she said. “Perhaps I still do.”
“I love you,” he said.
“How do you know?” she smiled sadly up at him.
“I just know,” he said.
“All we’ve had is one day,” she said.
“I would give you a lifetime,” he said.
“You say that now,” she said.
“I’ll say that always,” he said.
“How can you be sure?” she said.
“How can you be so unsure?” he said.
He had told her, bravely, that he would love her forever.
“How long is forever?” she had asked.
He remembered the last moments, holding her hand before she had to run for her connecting train home.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said. “Never see you again.”
And that’s when she’d said it, on a whim, he supposed. There are few things worse than being hated by someone, but being a whim is one of them.
“Meet me here,” she’d said, all those years ago. “If it was meant to be, it’ll be again, right? I’ll see you again. And you can tell me how much you missed me.”
He hated that he was a whim. That he was an as-yet-to-be-determined, maybe, kind of choice for her. And as much as he hated it, he knew that he was going to take what he could get – that you didn’t let someone like her go if you didn’t have to.
And they’d agreed to meet, then and there, forty years from that day, under the old clock at the train station. Even then it had been old. Neither of them even thought to think if the clock would be there in forty years, or even if the train station would be, but somehow, miracle of miracles, it still was.
The clock ticked down. Three o’clock they’d said. It was 2:55, by his watch.
He gave Minouche another scratch behind the ears.
It had been years. There had been lots of loves after her – marriages, children, grandchildren. He was a widower now. The word still felt foreign on his tongue.
Why was he here? Was she so very important to him? The girl he’d known for a few hours all those years ago?
She must be, he reasoned, or he wouldn’t be here, staring nervously at the enormous clock, like it was the alligator and he was Captain Hook, just waiting for it to swallow him whole. She must be, or he wouldn’t have remembered, all these years later.
He found himself holding his breath as a woman walked up to the clock. It was 2:58. She was not the girl he’d met so many years ago, but neither was she so completely different. Her hair had silvered, but it still gleamed in the light, in almost the same way the golden-blonde had years before. She pushed a pair of glasses up her nose – glasses she had not worn before, but they did not dim the sparkle of those still-familiar eyes.
With a bit of creaking, he pushed himself up from the bench and he and Minouche walked over to meet her. Minouche, seeming to realize that this was not a frivolous occasion, remained quiet for the moment, but was rewarded anyway as she bent down to pet him.
“Hello,” he said, unable to think of what else to say. It seemed like a good enough start.
“Hello, William,” she said, smiling up at him in almost exactly the same way she had before. A few more lines on her face, perhaps, but still the same smile.
He was at a loss. His imagination had gotten him only this far – he’d imagined seeing her. He’d just thought the words would come. They didn’t.
“You came,” he said.
“Of course I came,” she said. “I promised I would.”
“Yes, you did,” he said. Only, at the time, he hadn’t quite known what a promise what that promise had meant. Did he know now? He still wasn’t sure.
He stared down at his scuffed loafers for a moment.
“So,” he said. “Read any good books lately?”
She laughed and it was the same laugh he remembered, echoing in his mind.
“Come on,” she said, sliding her arm through his. “Let’s get some coffee and we’ll talk about it.”
His heart leaped in his chest as he walked with her, through the train station, out into the open air, with the click-clack of paws scooting obediently behind.
Was this the same? He wondered. Were either of them the same people they had been?
Most definitely not, he decided. He was different and so was she.
He smiled, walking out into the world and out of the musty old train station, into the beginning of something new.
Watch, joy, expire.
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