By Fungai Chigumbura, Zimbabwe:
“Will you remember me? On those days when he’s gone off to one of those other girls and you’re left alone in the big, lonely house…will you remember me? Will you remember the times we had and that you will always have my heart?”
She winced at my question, almost as if it caused her physical pain. Cheryl looked outside the small window of my tiny one-room flat. The sun was setting in the distance and the orange gleam cast a shadow on her face that made her expression hard to read. I looked at her — Cheryl, my Cheryl, the only woman I had ever loved. I looked at her, and for the first time since she had told me she was marrying him, I saw the Cheryl I had fallen in love with back when I was a dust covered child in the township where Cheryl’s grandmother lived, and my beloved visited during the school holidays. It had been nearly fifteen years and she had grown into an astonishingly beautiful woman. Her features had morphed themselves into that rarest of beauties: both alluring and frightening.
“Do you love me still?” I asked.
She remained stoic, and the embers of the sun on her placid face took on a haunting appearance. I waited, looking at my reason for life, hoping for something – anything – for me to hold onto. She sighed and turned slowly to look at me and, in the fading light, I saw a glistening in her eyes that I had seen only twice before in my years of loving this woman. When she spoke, her voice betrayed the faintest of cracks.
“I loved you before my heart knew that it could love, and I shall love you long after my life with him has turned it hard and cold”.
I looked into her eyes, and she into mine, and in that moment, I would have given what little I had in this world to be able to command Father Time to stand still for us.
“Then if you love me,” I said, “why are you marrying him tomorrow?”
“Him” was what we had called her fiancé since that day five years ago when he had walked up to Cheryl, bouquet in hand and asked her out on a date. I had thought that he would be as unlucky as the others, for Cheryl’s heart belonged to me and me alone, but she had said yes. When I had objected in private, she had assured me that she was only doing so in order to ward off any possible suspicion about our relationship. I had accepted this explanation, but as the years went by, I came to find that Cheryl was perhaps a little too good at her pretence of loving him. I had remained silent all this time, content with the knowledge that I was her true love, until it had dawned on me suddenly, what everyone else had seen from the first day: these two were going to get married. “He” would make sure of that.
“Even if we overcame all the opposition to us being together, even if by some miracle my parents accepted our love, what would we live on? You barely make enough to feed and shelter yourself, how would you find a way to care for the both of us? And you know how powerful my fiancé is; he would make sure no one in this stupid town would ever hire you again. Not that they would if they found out about you and me.”
“You haven’t even tried!” I blurted out “We have loved each other since we were children, and I know you feel nothing for him but contempt. Please, just… just come away with me.”
I took her soft hand and held it in mine. “I’ve been saving money. We can leave on the noon boat tomorrow and go away forever and have our love.”
She smirked and that lone expression was enough to shatter my world because it was her preamble to ridicule.
“And just where would we go?” she asked, her voice three shades colder.
“Anywhere!” I cried, “Anywhere… just as long as we’re together; our love is all that matters and–”
“No its not!” she shouted. “This is what matters!” She stood up and walked over to the light switch in the corner of the room and flicked it on and off so many times that my eyes started watering.
“And this!” She walked over to my little sink and turned both taps on to the maximum. The rusty taps merely screeched and choked, betraying my outstanding debt with the city council.
She slumped at the sink.
“You do not even have running water… how can you hope to take care of me?”
She turned to look at me, and the tears were streaming down her face. I was taken back to fourteen years ago, when my Cheryl was only a little girl and had scraped her knee; and six years ago when her grandmother had died. Both those times, the tears had flown freely down her face soundlessly,as they did now. She never wailed, simply allowed her emotions to pour out and pool themselves at her feet like liquid pains.
I moved to embrace her, but she pushed me away.
“No…I am marrying him tomorrow and you can either come and be happy for me or you can stay away and never see me again.” She turned towards the door and hesitated for a moment before walking out and leaving it ajar. The sounds of my neighbour’s wailing children filtered in and reminded me that this was no dream, but reality: the love of my life was gone.
The next day, at a quarter to twelve, I stood at the docks and watched the old steam engine as it made its way to the boarding dock. In the distance, I heard the sounds of cheering and celebration at Cheryl’s wedding and the joy in the shouts only weighed me down with sorrow even more. I could barely make out figures outside the church on the hill overlooking the dock. As the screams intensified, I wondered to myself how long it had taken everyone to notice that I was not there. I wondered what lie my dear Cheryl had conjured to explain why her maid of honour was not at her own best friend’s wedding. I imagined Cheryl putting on one of the fake smiles she had become so adept at flashing, “Melissa had to go away…family emergency”, she would probably say. And everyone would simply put it out of mind and forget about me, the lonesome girl of whom Cheryl had always been fond of despite the differences in background. I was the girl that had always made Cheryl’s rich friends uneasy…the one whom her parents had always mistrusted. They would gladly forget about me and return to making merry at the wedding. Yes, they would forget this wretched girl, this soul who had never fit in. They would forget about me, and in time, Cheryl would forget me too.
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