The Abside café hung unceremoniously on the side of the abbey, and therein sat Harry Grant, sipping on a short black coffee. He looked out of the window into the icy Friday morning, shivered slightly, before returning to the bitter black liquid.
Harry was nervous, for today his high school sweetheart, Manon, would be passing through the town, and she had asked to see him. He had not seen her in sixteen years, and was simultaneously confused and excited by the prospect of meeting again. Why did she want to see him? He had told himself a hundred times that it was almost certainly just to look up an old friend while travelling on business, but the thought of her stirred passions which were near impossible to quell.
For the final two years of school, they had been inseparable, knowing each other inside out, and every one of their peers naively assumed, in the way that teenagers do, that they would grow old together. But after their final exams, relations became strained. Their dreams were so different; Manon wanted to settle and stay in East Anglia, whereas Harry had an unquenchable desire for travel, and a considerable distaste for England. Alas they came to clash on the subject, and Harry left for France, and Manon married two years later, informing Harry in a letter which he still kept, though he did not entirely know why.
Placing the cup down on the saucer, Harry stood up to leave the café and thought about his dreams and how they had played out. He had travelled for a while, but soon the money had run out, and he too had to put down roots and find a steady job, the same job from which he was currently absent. Even if he had settled abroad, he still felt like hadn’t quite succeeded in following his dreams. He had accepted a watered down version of them, and this galled him from time to time, particularly on days like today, where the paths of the past were to be walked once more. He had decided not to bother working today, just in case things came through with Manon. His job allowed him such freedoms, assuming that he made up the hours in the coming weeks.
He stepped out into the square and the cold bit into his uncovered cheeks. It was strange for it to be so cold in October, but the locals said that an early winter is usually a milder one. As he strolled to the station his heart began to beat faster and faster. He was going to see Manon again! Sixteen years, empty of any emotion close to what he felt when he was with her, were perhaps about to end. Why had she chosen to visit? Was she just changing trains, or was she here to declare love?
After ten minutes waiting on the platform the train pulled up. Harry’s eyes darted up and down, trying to spot her amongst the throngs of people leaving the carriages, but he could not. Her name was ringing in his ears. How exotic her unusual name had sounded in his sterile upbringing. Now, reverberating in his subconscious, it had lost none of its beauty.
Suddenly there was a tap on his shoulder. He jumped and turned round with great speed, and fixed his eyes on Manon. The years had been kind. She looked older, the skin round her eyes was darker and the faint imprint of a smile could be seen on her face, even when her lips were slack, but she still looked as fresh as when she was seventeen.
Harry tried to greet her, but found himself speechless. She smiled and pulled him in to a warm embrace. He quivered sharply from the contrast in temperatures, before relaxing, and uttering the words which had been buzzing around in his head for nearly sixteen years:
“I’ve missed you.”
She smiled, took him by the arm, and began to engage him in conversation. At first Harry felt foolish for his moment of unprovoked candour, but soon realised he could be himself around her, and that she was not fazed by the outburst. From the station they walked down to the riverside, and began to promenade the frosty banks, all the while reminiscing about their escapades of years past.
A lone mallard glided down to settle on the river, and their attention was drawn to its carefree actions for a moment or two. She then removed her arm from his, turned to face him, and lifted herself up to his height and kissed him gently on his cold lips. The warmth of her soft cheeks shot through Harry and he was once more speechless. She stepped away and said:
“If you’d have stayed…”
At this point she looked down. Her confidence had been enveloped by an unexplainable sense of sadness welling up in her. Harry was by now burning with regret and self-hatred. She started walking again, but he was transfixed.
“Why is it too late?” He blurted out.
“I have children, I have status. And my husband is a good man.”
“Then why are you here?” he asked with malice.
“I wanted to see if your dreams were what you thought they would be.”
Her eyes reverted to the ground once more and a dejected anger seized Harry.
“We must go. You’ll miss your train.”
They walked back to the station in silence, Harry’s hands rooted deep in his pockets, and hers crossed tightly across her chest. As she climbed on the train, Harry nodded a farewell, and forced an empty, meaningless smile. She sat down in a seat, and as the train pulled away, she began to gently weep.
That afternoon Harry walked up into the mountains, striding determinedly towards the peaks of the ridge which surrounded the little town. At first his head was reeling from the events of the day, but slowly he began to unpick and defuse them to the point at which only a mild distaste for the happenings was present. The next morning he woke, his legs aching from the hike the day before, and looked out the window to see an even heavier frost. The winter that followed was the coldest in over twenty years.
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