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She held an apple in the palm of her hand, twirling it around and observing it for defects before her lips touched its reddened skin. She delicately stroked away the juice from the side of her mouth with a forefinger before smiling wide and handing the apple to a young boy to try. He blushed and shook his head. If any man, be him young and nimble or old and weak, were put in the same position as the boy, he too would blush. It was no sign of weakness. You see, my Annie, she held an unbelievable warmth that could rose any cheek, but she did not know me yet and I did not know her.
I was watching her from across the road until my morning tram blocked the view. She had continued to paw at the apple with those gleaming teeth of hers and it seemed she ate the fruit as if it were her last – savouring every bite. I pulled myself into the carriage and peered between the crowded, hulking and coated shoulders to get one last glimpse of her. There she was, standing in a single sun beam, her own spotlight. She turned her head towards the tram as the bell rung. For the first time our eyes met and I said to myself: Do not look away – Don’t.
But it did not matter. The tram pulled our eyes from each other for us and it trundled on its track until stopping sometime later to let an old fading man on. He was being helped by a young child. The boy’s pink skinned arm turned grey where the old man held him. I thought: One day I will fade. One day she will too.
The following morning I stood at my tram stop tracing the wires above with my eyes. They led me down the bustling street and along the crumbling red bricked buildings where whitened arches covered green doorways. Pale window shutters with small iron fenced balconies housed vivid flowery potted plants that swayed in the breeze. I watched an old fading lady lean out of her window to smell a flower. As her nose touched the petals, they lost their colour, but the smell – I could tell the smell was still there. I could see it in her face. As she returned inside, the flower sprung yellow again.
The tram pulled up in front of me and my Annie alighted as I boarded. She was on my right and we locked eyes if only for a brief moment. My heart fluttered. No eyes should be that blue, they would drown worlds.
I turned and watched her go through the tram window, her hazel hair shimmering – no – basking in the glow of the sunlight. She glided. My god, how she glided. I looked down to a shuffling at my waist to see the same boy she handed the apple to the other day. He stood there adjusting his flat cap and pulling at his collar, watching my Annie skate through the crowds until the tram bell dinged. I swear I heard our hearts break as we pulled away from the stop.
The boy looked up at me and saw I held the same gaze as he and he grinned.
“Oi.” He said.
I looked down intrigued.
“She’s a right catch int-she?”
I nodded but did not entitle him to an answer. I knew the boy would have much more to say.
“You know I see her everyday n’ everyday I do, the day gets brighter.”
“That’s a lovely thing to say.” I reply.
“But cor! I’d give her one!” And he laughed and I furrowed my brow before sharing his laughter also.
“Who taught you how to speak like that?”
“Wot you mean?”
“Bit rude is all.”
He crossed his arms. “Just expressing me-self.”
The little tyke glanced away from our conversation to ogle at a lady pulling herself onto the tram and the boy let out a ‘cor’ and whistled.
As I got off the tram I peered at the retirement home nearby. It was built with red-brick, three stories and semi-detached from the neighbouring residential building. Some elderly men sat on the outside steps smoking. The sun did not reach them, but the warmth did. The light hit them, but the colours could not. The grey they held seeped out like a blightous aura, sucking away vividity like blood from a thorn-struck thumb. Above on the high levels of the building, it was apparent where an old man was leaning against the wall as the outside brick would dim. An old lady was knitting a colourless sweater on the top floor and people-watching through her window.
One of the elderly men who sat on the steps glared enviously at me. How selfish that I decided to wear such a bright scarf. I took it off in shame and stuffed it into my bag that hung leathery at my side. Even the rich brown of its material made me question if any of the men remembered holding such a colour.
The next day, my Annie was stood on the opposite side of the street play-fighting with another apple. The boy was there being a little trickster. She was wearing a tan brown trench coat that she gripped with one hand across her stomach as if hugging something unknown while her other held the bright fruit. Its growling red was telling me to stop what I was doing. But it was too late, my legs had taken me halfway across the street before my brain could tell me not to and I began to lightly perspire as I came closer to my Annie. My chest thumped and my stomach felt as empty as it had ever been. I stood next to the pair now and she turned to me and smiled. She had recognised me and I smiled back but as I tried to speak no words would come. Say Hello you fool. Say How do you do. I looked down at the boy and he squinted up at me from under his cap holding its tip between his forefinger and thumb – the sun was behind me and in his eyes I must have looked quite intimidating to him in the silence. But instead, he grinned at my embarrassment and I clenched my satchel’s handle, my knuckles turning pure white. The leather squeaked, and then the boy did too.
“He fancies you he does, miss.”
I could not help but smile, and she saw the smile and she would say years later that it was that very smile. I breathed and relaxed and I introduced myself as James Hodger of Mulberry Lane and she introduced herself as Annie Serum on Harbour Road. I skipped work for the very first time that day.
If it wasn’t for that little bugger.
The boy, his name being Cheek because I named him as such, followed us around and he would play with the stray cats nearby and tease the pigeons that would land nearby pecking at the crumbs my Annie and I threw from our table outside the cafe. She told me she was a waitress on the floating casino in the harbour. That she served drinks to high-rolling socialites in well-fit suits paired with polka dot pocket squares and facial hair to match the extravagance in their gambling endeavours. That she lit cigarettes in cigarette holders between deep coloured lips of hourglass women with feathers in their hair. They donned mascara so thick it looked as if it were a fourth skin – and would never bat a phony eye-lash after losing hundreds in a single bet too!
The boat itself was laid with vivid, red carpeted floor and its white walls lined in golden patterns. She would pace up and down the swerving spiral staircases enriched with darkened wood and be blinded by chandeliers of crystal twinkling so heavily you thought you could hear them go ting-ting. I was entranced. I wished she would have never stopped to ask me what I do. “Well, I’m an optician. But I’m afraid to bore you as it is nowhere near as extraordinary as what you do.”
“I serve drinks to rich people.” She said bluntly. “They blur the world. The drinks and I suppose the money also. At least you make people see clearly.” She smiled that smile of hers. We drank another coffee and we walked through the cobblestone streets her arm in mine, the boy behind us leaping up and down and sneering at other city urchins.
Now I think back about the boy and I wonder why he followed us so. Perhaps he thought himself Cupid and having shot an arrow through both our hearts he was reveling in his victory. Observing his masterpiece. He certainly deserved it I thought. Good little chap, I do not know what became of him. After my Annie and I had married and had both a daughter and son, we saw him less and less throughout the years. We eventually left the city of Newport to live in the country where there would be space for the children to be raised. I would search for Cheek for days before we left, but he could not be found. Not in the dim alley where he meticulously planned schemes with his brethren, not behind the baker’s, not panhandling the patrons at the cafe or outside the floating casino. He had but disappeared to me and I wished incredibly how he could know how thankful I was in him playing matchmaker.
I set up a new clinic in the country, our home surrounded by rolling green hills. My Annie insisted I charge less as people in the rural areas had little money compared to the cities. We set up a charity scheme for those who needed glasses but did not have any money to spare. It was good work, and we felt good about it.
Our daughter Amy grew up and she must have been twenty four or five when she had returned to the city to try her wits on stage. My Annie and I would read through the newspaper clippings she would send home of her performances. She did very well for herself later on in life and although I do not hear much from her now, apart from what I read in the news, I am terrifically proud. I do enjoy her films immensely.
Some days I would walk into our bedroom to show my Annie the latest news of our Amy, but the bed would be empty. There were times when I forgot that she was gone, which only left me to remember. I would crawl up into our bed trying to smell the scent of her through the grey bedsheets.
Our son Eric had joined the navy and he sailed somewhere in the Pacific waiting vigilantly like the perched gargoyles on the nearby chapel. I was excited to receive a letter from him one Sunday. It had been quite lonely since my Annie had gone and those days Amy was always busy. The letter was not from Eric however, but from some high ranking official and it was not a letter I would have ever wanted to read. I wished how my Annie could have read it with me. How selfish a thought is that. I remember folding the letter up and sitting in the quiet of the house staring at the broken grey wax seal of the envelope.
Towards the end of her life, my Annie and I sat watching the shimmering blue of the television set. I noticed we had started to fade as those elderly men outside the retirement home had done years ago. What we touched no longer retained its colour and we watched the greyness spread from our limbs like a plague. The green pattern of the couch, spindled with patterns of flowing flowering stems turned a grim black and white. I asked if she missed the colours and she turned and held my hand. She said: Beauty is not necessarily colourful. I mean, do we not kiss with closed eyes?
Soon after that, my Annie left me too. I eventually returned to the city and was put into the retirement home. It was understandable of Amy to do so. We discussed it and it was good for me to meet new people my age.
I am talking with my old smoking friend and we are sitting on the stairs of the home. I follow his gaze to glowing headlights pulling up to the nearby curb. A lady flows outwards in a delicate blue, her pearls against her pinkish hue. A man takes hold of her arm and eases her gently under an amber lamp. They shine and talk quietly and closely to one another. Oh, to be in his shoes! His brown leather shoes!
I remember that age and I miss it. I look down at my grey calloused hands. My grey jacket. My grey trousers. And I look back up at my grey, old smoking friend. He is watching them too. And I miss following the ember of his cigarette.
“I am going back inside.” I murmur to my old smoking friend and he nods.
With each step the grey follows me and I am one dimness and I am one shade. Inside, I hang up my jacket and it turns green as I walk away. I think of the couple under the amber lamp as I pour grey whiskey and then I think of her. My Annie. I too once held you as if I had captured beauty, but you faded as I am now.