There was a lump in my throat, and I could see tears in his eyes. I didn’t know what to do. The child in me - that long lost child - wanted to step towards him and hold him and comfort him. There was even a small part of me that wanted to tell him the truth, that I was, at some point, Arianne. But the timing wasn’t right. I didn’t know if the timing would ever be right. But most of all, I didn’t want to tell him. I had spent a long time not being Arianne. I’d buried everything that had ever been associated with her somewhere deep in my stomach, and I didn’t want to re-live that excruciating pain. Even if it meant seeing Alfie upset. So, instead, I stepped towards him and reached towards him and reached my arm out, my hand resting on his shoulder. I felt him stiffen for a moment, but then he relaxed slightly. I stroked his shoulder reassuringly with my thumb, wishing that I could do more to help him. The moment was suspended in time. He looked away from me, and just stood there and stared into his coffee, swallowing and breathing deeply and shakily. I yearned to hold him. I felt Arianne in my chest reaching her slender fingers towards him, but I buried her deeper down. I didn’t need her to help me help him. I needed to help myself.
After a moment, I pulled my hand away. The lack of contact made me feel colder. He looked me in the eyes, and the sharp colour softened with something that resonated as gratitude in my heart. I grimaced and stepped back, hoping that I hadn’t overstepped the mark.
“Sorry,” he smiled, as though nothing had happened. “That got too deep a bit too fast... I hope I haven’t scared you off, Olivia, because it’s nice to finally have someone to talk to who understands.”
The way he said Olivia didn’t have the same effect on me as it did when he said Arianne’s name. It didn’t roll off his tongue and it wasn’t filled with affection, but I felt my heart pound just the same. I smiled.
“You haven’t scared me off. It takes a lot more than talking about an old friend that both of us miss to scare me off, trust me,” I joked. He chuckled, and I decided in that moment that I loved that noise. Suddenly, we were both laughing, although I was not sure what we were laughing about. “I’m being serious. I met a guy who’s opening line was something like ‘I’m a necrophiliac, so you better drop dead and I’ll think about it.’ It was terrible, but I really had to give him points for creativity.”
That was what I missed. Being able to connect with someone and talk about everything and laugh about everything and nothing at all. After what had happened, the only lasting relationship I’d had was with my therapist, and even then, our conversations were terribly one sided and I only ever saw her every Monday. We got on, but it wasn’t the same as having a friend. I’d spent my time alone, distancing myself from other people and living off of a small inheritance and tiny part time jobs that only ever involved interacting with people I’d never see again. I knew that I wasn’t ready for prolonged contact with anyone. I didn’t know if I would ever be ready for prolonged contact, but I also enjoyed spending time on my own. It didn’t upset me whenever I had sudden realisations that I was alone, in fact, it gave me a sense of peacefulness that spread through my chest with a warm sensation that comforted me more than I could ever think another person could. I kept it buried inside me like an inward smile, hugging it as I slept at night. Which was rather sad, in a way, but I had nothing else to comfort me. But suddenly, there was someone in front of me who wanted to interact and bond with me, and I didn’t know what to do.
We stood there in an awkward silence, drinking our coffee and scanning the room for something invisible to talk about. I watched him sip, noticing the way his face creased slightly, possibly at the bitterness. I remembered that his mum always drank black coffee, sat at her desk with a mug and a cigarette, pencils working rushed and rapidly, creating works of art out of nothing but paper and graphite. It was phenomenal. I smiled slightly at the memory, but continued to study Alfie. His jaw was lax, his eyes soft and contemplative, and I could feel another flash of warmth creep through my body as I looked at him. It was strange, I didn’t understand it. It was as though I wanted to be pressed against his side, for no reason other than a need for a type human contact that I hadn’t had in years. Just innocent touching, his bare arm on mine, as we sip at coffee and stare out into the overgrown garden. Something that would make me feel more like a human again, as if nothing had happened and I was her again. Arianne.
Alfie coughed, finished his coffee, and put his mug in the sink. I glanced down at my mug and quickly finished my drink, following suit and putting my mug beside him. As I went to the sink, I brushed past his arm with my shoulder. Stood beside him, I noticed the height difference, and marveled at how much he had grown since we had last seen each other. He had grown well over a foot, whereas I had only grown a few inches, so he towered over me. But it didn’t feel intimidating, it felt comforting, as though he was capable of protecting me. In that moment, he smiled at me, and I smiled back, and it felt like everything was right in the world.
Even if it wasn’t.
We spent the morning together, first stood around talking about Arianne, and then, as we grew more and more comfortable with one another, we sat on the floor in the living room. I had taken off my boots and my wet coat, my clothes drying but continuing to stick steadfastly to my skin. I didn’t care that my hair had probably dried as an unruly mess, or that my face was shiny from drying in the air. I just sat against the sofa opposite Alfie, smiling and talking. Every so often, one of us would stand up and wander around the room, wanting to take everything in as though we needed to absorb it all to understand what had happened. At first I didn’t want to. I was afraid of the memories coming back, revisiting me at the worst possible time, but the longer we stayed there the more I wanted to remember. Alfie’s presence made me want to remember. I stood before the bookshelf and ran my fingers along the spines of Julia’s old books, my fingertips creating paths in the layer of dust that coated them. It made me feel sad to think that whilst everything was left as it was, it was all in such a poor condition. No one had tidied anything, dusted, even cleaned the windows. It left my heart heavy.
At one point, Alfie came and stood beside me. I was looking at old photos, faded pictures in dusty frames that reminded me of a time when Arianne was happy and didn’t need to worry about anything. She had people to look after her. There were pictures of her when she was 9, 10, 11, 12... And then she didn’t get any older. She was forever 12 years old, stuck in time after everything that had happened. I could feel tears starting to sting at my eyes when I felt him next to me, his presence overpowering in my emotional situation. I could sense awkwardness, so I wiped at my eyes and turned away slightly.
“It just all happened so fast,” I whispered. “I don’t want to think about it, but when I think about her, it’s all that sticks in my mind.”
Talking about Arianne - myself - in the third person had become easy for me over the years, because all I’d wanted to do was distance myself from my own bad memories. So I created Olivia, and thrust Arianne down with the memories of other people who had let me down or worse; my parents, the care system... Julia.
“I know, Olivia. It’s hard,” I could tell that he wanted to put his arm around me just as much as I wanted to lean into him, but neither of us acted on it. It was understandable, since for all he knew, I was a stranger. “But coming here every day has helped me. It helps to surround yourself with the things that remind you of people. It’s to do with the stages of grief, I think.”
I nodded, not wanting to talk about Arianne anymore. It hurt. I looked at my watch, and noticed that it was changing from morning into afternoon. It was a Monday. I needed to leave, even if it meant dragging myself away from the newfound thing that made me feel somewhat okay.
“I... I have to go,” I smiled sadly. “It was really nice meeting you, Alfie. I hope I get to see you again.”
“Oh, okay, do you want me to walk you into town?” he asked, and it seemed to me that he was struggling for words to say.
“No, it’s fine, I know my way. Sometimes you just never forget the way to places that were like home to you.”
He nodded. I pulled on my boots and coat. They were still wet, and cold, but I needed them. I nodded at him, opened the door, walked out, and shut it.
When I got outside, the mist was gone. Replaced by a pale blue sky.