BY DAVIN IRELAND
Copyright is held by the author.
I BUMPED into my former wife coming out of the Pilkington Arts Centre recently, and boy, she hadn’t changed a bit. Our eyes met, there was that instant of mutual recognition, then her bicycle was braking to the kerb.
Finbar, my God, how are you?
Same as ever, I shrugged. You look great.
Thanks. Wow, this is kind of random, isn’t it?
It was the usual banter adopted by your average modern non-couple who unexpectedly cross paths following a traumatic split, and end up fumbling for the appropriate thing to say. Any sooner after the divorce and it’s likely we would have baulked at the prospect of a chance encounter such as that; any further down the road and the spark of recognition might have flashed too late. But as it was, six years proved the charm. Six years of divergent paths and no contact. Which meant we were left groping for words at a time when there should have been more to say.
“So, are still with that Welsh chap?” I ventured, not realising at the time how intrusive that must sound. Amy, bless her, took it with good grace.
“Doug? Oh, he’s my absolute rock. Strong, dependable. I’d be lost without him.” For the merest fraction of a second, she actually did look lost. “I’m allowed out for whole days at a time now.”
Allowed out? What did that mean? Was he keeping her in a cage somewhere?
Amy laughed at my bewilderment, made a rubbing-out gesture with her hand. “I’m on day release from Parklands,” she explained, and flicked a stray twist of hair from her cheek. “We’re getting married in September. A white wedding this time. I may as well, right?” She smiled shyly and patted the handlebars. “This is all part of the programme. Regular exercise, social reintegration, day release.” The smile faltered, and just for a moment the Amy I remembered from the separation period — the vulnerable, clingy child unable to deal with the prospect of impending divorce — rose to the surface. “I’m coming off the meds in two weeks, Fin.”
“That sounds like progress,” I told her, although how would I know? “If anyone deserves a bit of luck, it’s you.”
The truth of it was, I wondered about the quality of that luck. Following the break-up, Amy had become involved with our building’s newest tenant, a middle-aged loner who worked as an assistant purser for a midrange airline. Doug was twelve years her senior, and to be brutally honest it showed. I remember a rather gawkish man, overweight and awkward in thick-rimmed glasses and nondescript clothes. He smoked cigars and wore cowboy boots. He had a huge potbelly and bragged about stuff like airspeed and altitude. Ten weeks after the affair began, Amy’s sister phoned me in tears to announce there’d been an abortion. “They only did it, like, once,” Della protested, as if the first time didn’t count. Amy was admitted to Parklands in a profound state of psychosis later that same week and put on precautionary suicide watch. Was she really coming off the meds only now?
I thought of all that I had accomplished in the previous six years, and felt an uncomfortable twinge of guilt. “Well, give my regards to your fiancé,” I mumbled, needing to be away from her now, needing space. This was too much like before.
“Things happen for a reason, Fin,” she told me. “I’m getting fitted for the dress next week and everything.” Again, she flicked that twist of hair from her check — only the gesture was starting to look compulsive.
“You must be so excited. I’m sure you’ll be a knockout.”
I don’t know if it was the mention of the dress that did it or the realization that there was nothing left to say, but I had an awful feeling that Amy’s story didn’t quite add up. I couldn’t help noticing that her pupils were fully dilated in spite of the bright midday sun. Or how she worried at that imaginary strand of hair. And was it just me, or could the pale pink blouse she wore — so cheerfully dotted with prancing bears and antelope — be a pyjama top?
Where are you off to, anyway? I tried to ask, but the question was lost in a sudden backwash of hurried farewells and best wishes. Amy was like that. When it was time to go, she went. And the trigger was usually discomfort. It all happened so quickly, I genuinely don’t recall if we hugged or shook hands.
I hope to God we hugged; I really do.
What happened next will haunt me forever. As she pedalled away, I took a seat in an adjacent tea shop and ordered up a nice cuppa — more for the chance to sit and reflect, I think, than any particular need for liquid refreshment. No sooner had I done that than the unmistakeable squeal of rubber on asphalt reached my ears. The sickening crunch of bone impacting bodywork was next.
It need not have been Amy — that’s what I told myself as I blundered along the pavement, sick to my stomach with worry. Dozens of pedestrians and cyclists clog that roundabout every minute of the day. The churn of humanity is endless. But as I was soon to learn, events in my former partner’s life had a certain stoic inevitability to them. Take our relationship. Little more than a holiday romance that lingered, we were never truly happy. I broke her heart; the loss of Doug’s baby shattered her spirit. I later heard that Doug himself had slunk off back to Port Talbot the moment long-term psychiatric treatment emerged as the only viable option. And that was the end of that. No dress fitting, no celebration, no wedding of any description — white or otherwise. It was all a fantasy.
The police investigation that followed established a few more things I didn’t know. Like, for example, the fact that Amy was up for relocation. In dire need of space, the mental health facility had reviewed her situation and decided that a move to supervised accommodation was best for all concerned. The prospect was a grim one: a grey little flat in a tower block on the edge of the city, functional rather than welcoming, fringed with a mangy strip of lawn that saw the sun about as often as the occupants saw a friendly face. But it was a place of her own, they said. The means to a fresh start.
And so, she had slipped out one morning to spend a couple of hours visiting familiar haunts and hangouts around the old neighbourhood. A last grand fling, was how the note described it. Grand in what way, I wonder? She was without money, and the medication wasn’t due to wear off until lunchtime. But at least she’d had a taste of freedom — not to mention the good fortune to encounter her ex-husband, whose probing pushed her into concealing the humiliation of her failed relationship. That was all it took. Mind in disarray, Amy Dwyer had fled the scene in an agitated state when the full weight of her attention should have been on the road.
And the rest we know.
Incredible, when you think about it. Although it was never my intention to do harm, I was clearly the one who started Amy down the treacherous slope to mental illness all those years ago. Or, more probably, had triggered a process that had lain in wait for most of her life. Either way, when she finally mustered enough courage to seize herself one last day of independence, I was waiting right there with the definitive push into oblivion.
It’s been preying on my mind ever since.
If only I’d heeded the signs. If only I’d drank less the night before. Or kept poor Amy with me until reasonably satisfied with her answers, which were woolly at best.
If only …
But I did none of those things. Like a fool, I was so preoccupied with my own emotional wellbeing that I froze when nothing less than decisive action was required. So here I sit, biro in hand, contemplating missed opportunities. I reckon each of us could fill entire books about what might have been — whole truckloads of them, if necessary. Excuses are nothing if not elaborate. But somehow the truth seldom takes more than a page or two.
I’m so sorry, Amy.
Sorry I let you down.
Davin Ireland recently returned to the south of England after three decades in the Dutch city of Utrecht. His fiction credits include stories published in over 70 print magazines, webzines and anthologies worldwide, including Aesthetica, Here & Now, Storyteller Magazine, Zahir, The Quiet Feather, Independent Ink Magazine, and Reality Complex. You can visit his site at davinireland.com