Runner Up: Julie Evans
Tom knew that he had proposed on a whim, one born on the ocean breezes that wafted warm across the Aegean, fanned by the smoky wisps that rose from the restaurant’s golden candles. He had taken himself by surprise. But afterwards, he was not sorry. He loved Alex.
Alex had laughed out loud. ‘It’s only taken you twenty years!’
‘Four!’ said Tom. ‘You can’t count before that. Anyway, you could have asked me.’
‘Let’s do it properly,’ said Alex. ‘Extravagant flowers, morning suits, all that’.
Alex was an organiser. In the weeks that followed, Tom was happy to have decisions taken out of his hands and to give Alex free rein to organise their perfect day. They were well-off, middle-aged and childless. What else did they have to spend their money on?
The engagement announcement appeared in The Times.
‘I like formality,’ Alex said.
But nobody reads those pages.’
‘Some people do’.
The announcement said they were ‘of the village of Wisselton, Wiltshire,’ which sounded as though they and their forebears had had their feet firmly planted in Wisselton soil since the beginning of time, although actually they had only been there a year. Tom stared at the print, at their names, at his parents’ names. ‘Thomas William, only son of the late Mr and Mrs Ian Trevelyan of Angmering-on-Sea, Sussex.’ ‘Late’ seemed a strange adjective to be applied to Tom’s father, who had never been late for anything in his life. Tom felt a pang at the alien word. ‘Dead’ was better than ‘late’ – ‘dead’ was nobody’s fault.
An only child, Tom had no family left at all, apart from once-removed cousins in Canada who he couldn’t remember and an aged aunt in a nursing home who couldn’t remember him. Otherwise, he didn’t know a single person on the planet to whom he was blood-related. He imagined the ceremony, friends scurrying to fill the embarrassingly empty seats on ‘his side’ of the aisle. Alex was his only family. But Alex had other family – parents, two sisters and a brother, nieces and nephews, a never-ending supply of cousins and uncles and aunts. Even a granny was still clinging on.
They sent out ‘Save the Date’ cards early. ‘Do you have a gift list?’ their future guests asked. The question of gifts hadn’t occurred to Tom and Alex at all. They were too old to ask for nesting items to set up home with. They already had all the tableware and bedlinen and gadgets any couple could possibly need.
‘Except,’ said Tom, scrutinising the booklet they had picked up in a department store, ‘we don’t have a fish kettle, or a waffle maker, or an ice-cream machine…’ He turned the page….’or a shoe warmer! Come to think of it, there’s a lot of stuff we don’t have.’
‘And a lot of stuff we don’t need!’ said Alex.
‘A shoe warmer!’
‘Toasty toes for the man who has everything.’
‘Well, that’s not me apparently. There’s pages of stuff I don’t have here. Look, we could get a USB-powered tiny fridge, just big enough for a can of beer, for my study. Or a hammock to rest my feet on under the desk.’
‘It’s the work-from-home economy. Sweetmeats to tie you to your computer.’
Tom’s head was in Alex’s lap on the sofa. It was late Saturday afternoon and rain was drumming hard on the windows. Mavis, their ammonite cat, was curled in front of the wood-burner.
‘What are we going to say then, about presents?’ asked Tom.
Tom shook his head. ‘Only the receivers like that, not the givers. Can you imagine your mother’s face…?’
‘Charity donations? People do it all the time at funerals.’
‘It’s not the same, though, for a wedding. Unless you’re a royal. It’s not personal enough. Anyway, I’m not that noble.’
‘Books? Or pictures?’
‘I’d love an original Modigliani.’
‘Dream on! But you know what I mean. Personal gifts. Items that say something about us. It’d be fun to know how people see us.’
‘That’s actually not a bad idea,’ said Tom.
So, a note went out with the invitations: No obligation, but if anyone would like to buy us a gift, may we suggest something small and personal that reflects how you see us. Go on, surprise us!
Over the next few weeks, items seemed to arrive every day. The weather had warmed up, and Tom, who worked at home – or more precisely, in an un-air-conditioned home-office shed in the garden - was beginning to crave the tiny USB fridge with the can of beer in it.
‘This is so much fun!’ said Alex, as they unwrapped a Kalamata olive tree, “Knowing how you love Greece,” the note read. There were elaborate strings of fairy lights, a pair of authentic dreamcatchers from a tribe in Minnesota, matching straw fedoras. Rod’s gift was a year’s supply of pies – two a week, savoury and sweet - a deliberate wind-up for Alex, since Tom had a penchant for pies that Alex distinctly disapproved of.
Three weeks before the wedding, the postman knocked on the shed door and handed Tom a package. Strangely, it was addressed only to Tom. Perhaps it wasn’t a wedding gift? He tore it open. Inside was a photograph frame and inside the frame was a picture of a baby - a boy, he guessed. Tom didn’t know babies, knew only the cartoon images of oversized heads and those strange frog-like legs, splayed and bent at the knee. There was nothing else in the envelope, no message, no sender’s details. The postcode was stamped W1. Who lived in W1? Wasn’t that Regent Street and Oxford Street, Soho and Mayfair? Shopping and clubs. Nobody lived there.
Tom removed the picture from its frame. Nothing on the reverse. No clues. Was the frame the gift, the photograph a random one, to fill the space? But from whom? He wondered if it was a baby photograph of himself or of Alex, but it didn’t seem quite old enough for that, didn’t have that grainy look, the washed-out early Seventies colour. Surely, it must have been sent to him in error? Such a shame that he didn’t know who to return it to. He was a sweet baby actually, meant something to someone.
But the next day, another package arrived, addressed in the same rounded handwriting - another photograph, this time of a small boy of four or five in cowboy fancy dress, drawing his guns and beaming. He was a dark-haired child with those little teeth children have, all the same size. Again, no note, no explanation. Well, they had asked for surprises! But what could it mean?
Tom wondered why he didn’t want to share the mystery with Alex. Alex always had a rational solution to any issue. But he didn’t. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he kept the photos to himself.
In the days that followed, more gifts arrived - opera tickets, a beehive, an antique ink stand, a rhino-adoption and a wall-sculpture of crumpled boxer shorts made of beaten copper. Tom wondered what these things said about himself and Alex. That they were smug, middle-aged, middle-class professionals with too much money, a penchant for interior design, a pretence of being ‘cultured’, a passing interest in eco-friendliness? They had requested such gifts, but he wasn’t sure he really liked like the self he saw reflected in them.
‘What’s the matter? asked Alex, watching Tom’s enthusiasm wane.
‘Nothing,’ Tom replied, ‘I’m just getting nervous, that’s all.’
‘Not cold feet then?’ said Alex anxiously.
‘Of course not.’
It wasn’t cold feet. He wanted to marry Alex. But the wedding felt shallow, as though something vital was missing.
More photographs arrived. The boy was growing up. He was seven at his own birthday party, seven blue candles on a soldier cake; nine-ish in a baseball strip, eleven-ish, wide-eyed on a rollercoaster. It was a little unnerving. Tom felt as though he was being secretly watched as he opened each package. He kept the photographs in his desk drawer and found himself poring over the boy’s quiet features at moments throughout the day.
Five days before the wedding, a new picture arrived. The boy had become a man. It was his graduation, the shade of an incipient beard dark against the bright scarlet of the academic gown. He was smiling – the top teeth had reformed into a perfect tiara-like row. (Days before, a surly fourteen-year-old had stared out of the picture, lip curled revealing the flash of grey metal beneath).
Events were hurtling into sharp focus as the days went by. Alex was enjoying the rush of last-minute organisation, the table plans, wet weather contingencies. Tom felt that he would be glad to have it done. All their friends would be there, and Alex’s vast and noisy extended family, and Tom would be embraced in the bosom of them all, but he would miss being the absolute apple of somebody’s eye. They had been so proud of him, his parents, of his place at Oxford, his doctorate, his first successful historical biography. What would they have made of this? Of Alex? It would have been hard for them. That’s why he had never told them. In truth, he didn’t want to lose his place on the pedestal.
It was the day before the wedding and Alex’s family were descending on them overnight. Beds were plumped, barbecue food prepared. The air buzzed with Alex’s excitement. In his writing hut, Tom waited for another photograph. Late morning, the postman handed him a pile of cards, a couple of bills and a package with familiar handwriting. He felt himself heave a sigh of relief. He didn’t know why he was reacting in such a way – it was like anticipating the next chapter in an un-put-down-able book. Inside the package was a wedding picture, the boy/man a groom, walking through a shower of confetti in a garden, hand in hand with a beautiful blonde bride.
Tom took all the photographs out of the drawer and lined them up along the length of the desk. A young life was laid out before him. It touched him deeply. He had to know who it was, and why he had been sent the photographs. He rummaged in the drawer to find a magnifying glass and scanned the pictures for clues. Three letters could be made out on the little boy’s birthday cake – S E P or S E B. Joseph? Sebastian? On the wedding picture, a board was visible in the foreground. Tom zoomed in hard with the magnifier. “Welcome to the Curl-Schoenberg wedding.” It was an American-style wedding, white seats on manicured lawns, an arch of blowsy pink roses.
Tom put Joseph Curl and Sebastian Curl and Joseph Schoenberg and Sebastian Schoenberg in to the search engine, excitement breeding bubbles in his stomach. They were unusual names. Surely there couldn’t be many of them in the world? But there were. Both the Curls had Wikipedia pages! With each name, Tom clicked on images. Pictures appeared of men who looked nothing like the one in the photographs, until at last, with his very last shot, he found him. Sebastian Schoenberg. The picture was from a business networking site. Sebastian Schoenberg was thirty and worked in Central London, but by birth, was American.
As his fingers dialled the office number, Tom realised he was trembling. What exactly was he afraid of?
‘Just putting you through,’ said the receptionist.
Three rings. ‘Seb Schoenberg’, said a deep American voice.
Tom slammed the car door.
Alex stood in the drive, on the gravel. ‘But you can’t go now! They’ll be here any minute. I don’t understand, Tom. What’s happening?’
It was officially an ‘out-of-season’ honeymoon. Occasionally, without the tourist throng, a solitary pelican wandered the back streets and alleyways as if it owned the place.
Alex poured them both another glass from the bottle.
‘I can’t explain it.’ said Tom. ‘I just had to know. He said, ‘Let’s meet sometime,’ and I said, ‘Let’s meet now.’
‘And screeched off to London!’
‘I had plenty of time to get back.’
‘Well, you had me going there, Tom. I really thought you didn’t want to go through with the wedding.’
‘I’m so sorry. It was just……compelling.’
‘And the photos were nothing to do with the wedding?’
‘No. He said, when he knew where I was, he was desperate to make contact, but didn’t know how. I suppose it was a sort of test, to see if I could find him.’
‘To see if you wanted to find him.’
‘And I did, I really did. The relationship honestly didn’t cross my mind. Why would it? There was just something in those photographs.’
‘You recognised yourself.’
‘How did he find you?’
‘His wife, Julia. She saw the announcement in the Times. Apparently, she likes all that stuff – royalty, tradition.’
‘And he knew because of Angmering?’
‘Yes, that was where his mother always said he would find me. And he’d tried.’
‘And what exactly did the letter say?’
Tom took out his wallet. The letter was folded neatly inside. His mothers’ looping writing, her old-fashioned, curlicued flourishes. He read aloud.
‘October 20th, 1987.
Dear Miss Schoenberg, I am afraid my son Thomas has left for Oxford University. I have taken the liberty’ – she’s right, it was a bloody liberty! – ‘of opening your letter on his behalf. I am afraid to say that I think you must be mistaken. Perhaps it was another boy from the same party? You see, my son is – how can I put this politely? – only interested in other boys….’
Alex exhaled noisily. ‘So, she knew all along, ever since you were eighteen! And all those years pretending…’
‘And Maddie was sure it was you? Not that there is any question about the resemblance.’
‘It was me. I only half-remember. I was eighteen. It was the night I finished my A-levels and I was pissed.’
‘Not that pissed!’
‘She was over on vacation, had come along to the party with some random guest. It’s funny, I don’t remember much about the sex. I remember her fascination with my eyes, the heterochromia.’ Tom mimicked an American accent. ‘One blue and one green. Amazing! Like Bowie! …….and all the times I stared at those photographs, I never even noticed his eyes.’
‘I saw him at the blessing, sitting at the back. You looked right at him as we walked out. I noticed his eyes then.’
Tom placed a hand over Alex’s across the table. ‘You’re okay with this?’
Alex smiled. ‘It was all a long time ago. It’s late, but not too late, to find someone of your own. Apart from your gorgeous husband, of course! And Seb is the best wedding gift of all – family.’
Slowly, they walked back across the cobbled square towards their taverna, a middle-aged married couple, arm in arm in the moonlight.
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