I've chosen one song as a soundtrack for this - hope nobody minds it's a contemporary song as this story is set in the 50s: "Sigh No More" by Mumford & Sons.
My favourite line always reminds me of the kind of love Mick and Evelyn share:
Love - it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you,
it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
Mick is lounging leisurely on the old wooden bench, his face turned into the salty air that's blowing up from the sea, eyes closed, his lovely thick black hair, now shot through with silvery grey threads but still full and wavy as ever, ruffled in the wind, basking in this year's first warming sunlight, relaxing from some gardening he's done. A perfectly everyday sight in his faded old working clothes, there's nothing special any outsider would notice, except perhaps for the fine structure of his face with these high chiselled cheekbones and the sharp aristocratic nose. What's most striking about him and what fascinated me from the very first moment is not visible now, those eyes with their particular hue of vivid golden green, interspersed with a few flecks of brown.
To me, the mere fact that he is there is a miracle in itself, and has been every single day in those past years.
Even today my stomach tightens into a hard little knot when I think of the horrible day when I cried my heart out over a nameless tombstone on a tropical island, certain that I had lost him forever. I had never felt so alone in my life, not when my parents died, as we had never been close since I had grown up, and surely not when Philip died – for then, he had been there. Now there was no one around to look after me, to gradually bring me back to life, doing the right thing at the right time instinctively, never obtrusive, always sensitive and tender, more of a kindred soul than Philip ever could have been. Thinking of the golden ring inside the pearl shell that day on the beach made me sob even harder, thinking how this love, our love, that should have lasted forever, had been cut short so cruelly.
Running a hand over my face, I shake off those morose memories and walk over to the bench, our favourite spot in the garden because of the magnificent view over the bay. A sudden desire to simply feel him is surging inside me. After all these years I still have moments when I need some kind of proof that he is really alive, here with me in this life that seems so totally normal.
As I settle on the wooden seat close to him, leaning against his shoulder, he doesn't open his eyes, keeps his face turned into the sun, just tilting his head sideways until it rests on mine in one of those gestures of loving acknowledgement, born of long-time familiarity, that make any words unnecessary. I move even closer, snuggling up against his strong body, deeply inhaling the scent of sun-warmed skin mingled with the faintest trace of sweat, and the feeling how much I love this man washes over me like a giant wave. How can I ever thank whatever powers there may be for giving him back to me on a rainy day on the platform of a small-town train station?
Had such a thing happened in a novel, I certainly would have thrown it aside scornfully for being all too corny and far-fetched. People don't rise from the dead and you don't meet the only person you've ever really loved again by pure chance.
But then, it hadn't exactly been chance, as I learned later.
He had seen the advertising for my reading at the communal hall and finally decided to go there just to catch a glimpse of me one last time before going back to the States and let me have the pearl I'd won in our bet, hoping to come and go unnoticed, though. He had managed to sneak the pearl in its creamy white envelope into a corner of the table while I was busy signing books and answering questions from the readers who were milling around, leaving quickly long before the last of the audience had gone. And had his train been on time, I would never have known who had finally let me have my winnings, the beautiful Teardrop from the Moon.
I'm shivering a little, not sure if it's the wind that has become quite cool as dusk starts to fall or the memory of that moment of recognition. A mind-blowing mixture of utter disbelief, shock and joy had hit me in the pit of my stomach almost physically when I realized that the tall man who was leaning heavily on a pair of crutches in the corner of the platform wasn't just one of the many war invalids that had become a familiar sight in the streets, eliciting a fleeting pang of compassion the moment you passed them, forgotten the next.
I have never forgotten the look he gave me when our eyes met, a multitude of conflicting emotions, shocked and surprised and above all sadly apologetic. Always proud, always independent, always self-reliant, he couldn't bear the thought that I should see him like this, so utterly changed from the man he had been when we parted, brimming with strength, adventurous, seemingly untroubled by the world, now maimed by a war that had never been his but had taken away both his physical integrity and his light-hearted, easy-going attitude towards almost everything.
It was hard work to convince him that it wasn't pity or some sense of duty that made me want to stay with him, as he felt he couldn't possibly still be attractive to me in any way with one leg missing and a rather bleak prospect for the future not only in terms of health but also with regard to working. What kind of job could he possibly get with his handicap? He had never had to rely on anyone for his livelihood since he'd left home at seventeen and hated the thought of living at my expense when he couldn't offer me anything in return. He just wouldn't understand that it was more than enough for me that he was alive and here with me.
We had some very hard times in the beginning, when he was often bitter about having lost so much, not just the leg but also the occupation and the adopted home country he had loved. Sometimes he retreated into his shell for hours or even days, either hardly speaking at all or, if he did, with a scathing sarcasm that hurt me badly many a time.
On the other hand, it wasn't only his struggle with his horrible experiences. I didn't have the patience he'd had with me after Philip's death nor the instinctive feeling for what exactly he might need from me in a certain moment, finding it hard to understand that he seemed unable to just be content with what we had, with having survived.
Gradually things improved. Somehow he slowly began to cope and developed a stubborn determination to regain a life as normal as possible in any respect. And, knowing Mick Carpenter well enough, I was certain he would succeed.
Which he did, for sure.
There are still nights when he cries out in his sleep and I know he's there again in his dreams, in one of those places, reliving wartime horrors he never talks about, not even to me, and there are bad days when the bitterness about what could have been grabs hold of him. I think this will happen again and again for the rest of his life.
Yet over the years he has come to terms with his loss, settling into the new situation better and better, making the best of a life very different from what he had imagined before he got dragged into that awful war after all. I simply have to admire the way his vigorous, wilful, determined nature has managed to make its way back to the surface, both leading him towards a new fulfilling profession and helping with his physical recovery.
Dusk is descending on us quickly, the moon already rising full and round in the sky. Mick holds me even tighter against his side for a moment, plants a tender kiss on my forehead, then gets up to take the few steps over to the edge of the cliff with his characteristic uneven gait. I rise, too, repressing the urge to steady him when he walks, knowing that he hates when I try to because he hasn't needed this kind of help for a long time now.
Instead, I join him to look out over the wide dark expanse of the sea, slightly rippled by the wind, faintly mirroring a silvery trace of moonlight. The evening breeze carries a whiff of salt that reminds me of a pearl shell, freshly opened.
I feel him pulling me close from behind with his strong arms, chin resting on the top of my head, his warm breath in my hair and soft, deep, rough voice whispering, as if he's read my thoughts, "Remember that day I gave you the shell?"
I do not answer, just reach up behind me to touch his cheek. He knows I do. He knows I always will.