This story is by Kellie Smith and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On the first day of fall, when the cold cracked across the sky, I went to our usual place – mine and Sophie’s. A nice spot by the river.
We met every morning, at 7am, and spent an hour together. It was our ritual.
But today, she wasn’t there.
I scratched my head – balding in places, true – and paused to think. Be logical, Roger, I said to myself.
I am not usually a nervous man. I am fifty-four years old, single, and inhabit a flat that quivers every time a train rumbles past. Sometimes, when the loneliness of it gets to me, I like to perform little rituals. Habits, if you like. When I keep habits, I curb my nerves. I drink coffee at the same time every morning; I do the crosswords (not bragging, but objectively speaking, I’m good at it), I watch the news, I brush my teeth, and gel back my greying hair.
Always in this order.
But all of a sudden, nervous is exactly what I had become. Like my body knew something terrible had happened and my mind was yet to catch up.
My heart began to pound. An erratic rhythm, out of time.
‘Sophie!’ I suddenly shouted, looking about. A few ducks glanced at me, then carried on their mindless floating.
I was not expecting to meet someone like Sophie. It happened entirely by accident. As the Beatles sang, I saw her standing there. She was staring out across the lake. She wasn’t ostentatious – a plain girl, as it were. She was very quiet, and very still. I marvelled at how still she was.
When I approached her, many moons ago, in the thrush of summer, she said not a word.
An instant attraction.
And it wasn’t long after, a few hot nights later, that I realised; I had fallen in love with Sophie.
For the first time in my life.
For the only time in my life.
Sophie wasn’t exactly high maintenance. She would sit and listen to me – and I, like a blushing fool, would talk. For hours. I told her things I was ashamed of. I told her about my failures. I told her about the tricks I’d play as a boy.
At some point – I don’t remember when – I realised I couldn’t live without her. I didn’t tell her this, exactly – I assumed she just knew.
‘Sophie!’ I yelled again.
‘You alright?’ a voice asked.
I whipped around and saw an old man peering at me. He had shaky hands and his nose looked like someone had belted him in the face.
‘Sophie,’ I replied, trying to stay calm. ‘She is meant to be here – but she’s not.’ I was walking around in tight little circles, unable to stop myself.
‘Alright. She might be running late,’ the gentleman said. He was trying to be helpful.
‘No, she’s never late,’ I said.
‘Have you got her phone number? Can you call her?’
Sophie and I had never exchanged numbers. I didn’t own a mobile – I refuse to give in to modern technology. We humans had gotten on fine without them for centuries.
‘Alright,’ the man said. ‘What does she look like? I might have seen her.’
‘She’s plain. And … quiet.’
He shook his head and put his hands up as if to say what, what do you want me to do then? He eyed me for some moments; opened his mouth to say something – but then shrugged and shuffled off. I could hear him muttering about ‘loons’ and ‘weirdos.’
I was now breathing very fast – something I wasn’t used to. I tried to regain focus.
I had to find Sophie.
I raced home, pulled out a heavy and tattered address book, and looked up ‘investigators.’ I would have to find someone to track her down – someone who was used to this sort of thing. A professional.
When I called Dutton’s Detectives, a tired voice answered the phone. Presumably this was the man whose name was bequeathed to the business.
‘Dutton’s Detective agency,’ it said.
‘I’ve lost Sophie,’ I said quickly. The man sighed, and I could imagine him getting out a notepad and a scratchy lead pencil. Maybe he had leant back in his chair; extended his feet out onto the desk, and loosened his tie. He must get these calls all the time.
‘Go on,’ he said.
I tried to recall the events in sequence – Sophie was not at her usual spot, and I had no idea where she’d gone.
Mr Dutton asked me details about her.
How tall was she?
Was she a relative?
What was her last name?
I slowly realised, as the questions came thick and fast, that I didn’t really know anything about Sophie. Oh, the important thing – that we connected, and that she was a tireless listener – was covered. But nitty gritty details – were these the sort of things that lovers shared? Is that what a real relationship was? Details about each other’s height?
I tried to answer – I really did. But it was futile.
The numbing realisation that I was useless to finding Sophie made me hang up.
I felt bitter. Surely, if I was really close to Sophie, I would know the answer to all of these questions.
But I didn’t.
I had spent all my time talking. Never listening.
I had failed her.
That’s why she was able to leave without saying goodbye. The detective was right – it wasn’t that she had been kidnapped or killed – I looked at the news, and there was nothing in any of the bulletins, just stories about speed tickets and a pop-star with a new face lift.
Slowly, so slowly, I went back to my pre-Sophie life. It took me a few days to get over the shock. I drank bottles of vodka, smoked packets of cigarettes. I assessed my pockmarked face in the mirror, my vision blurring with hot tears of self-pity.
The only way to get over this is to move forward I said to myself.
So the next morning, now a few weeks into fall, I slowly walked through the park. I wandered to our place – our former place – and steadied myself.
And what I saw surprised me.
She was standing there – silent and withdrawn. Looking out over exactly the same spot of river. A shiver crawled up my skin.
But it wasn’t Sophie.
It was someone else.
I approached carefully. Why was she standing on Sophie’s spot? Literally the same spot. Was this some sick sort of game?
I stood next to her, glancing at her. She didn’t move, didn’t react.
I was at a loss for words – so I simply stood, and looked out at the water, too.
After an hour or so, with the two of us souls just standing still, I heard footsteps behind me. It was the old man from before. The one that had given me the side eye when I was simply trying to find Sophie. He was standing, watching me, along with one of the park wardens.
‘Hello, mate,’ the park warden said. I looked her up and down – a squat woman with algae green shorts and a nametag that read Janice. ‘You alright?’
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ I asked quizzically.
The old man gave Janice a look, like I told you so.
‘Did you find Sophie?’ the old man asked me.
‘No,’ I said quietly.
I turned my back on them, continued looking out over the water, watching the new girl from the corner of my eye.
‘Well then. I suppose you’ve met Clemence?’ the park warden said, smiling at me.
Then they pointed to her.
‘Clemence Rose, to be exact.’
I glared at them.
‘See?’ Janice said, coming closer.
She pointed again, and then I saw it; right across the new girl, the following inscription was branded into her; In Memory of Clemence Rose, 1998-2017.
‘What happened to Sophie?’ I asked, shocked.
‘Sophie had been there for some while,’ Janice said kindly. ‘Twenty years, to be exact. It was time for her to go. It happens – when new donations are made, they want to upgrade the names on the benches.’
I stared at them.
A whole heartbeat.
Janice smiled at me. She looked at the old man again, and I heard him mutter, ‘I told you he was an objectophiliac.’
‘You like objects, don’t you?’ Janice asked, peering at me with the same look my mother used to give me, when I was holding onto one of my toys and not letting go.
I stared at her, dawning comprehension on my face.
‘They’re not objects to me. They’re – more than that,’ I explained.
I realised how I must look to them now – a stupid middle aged man with beige trousers, balding head and an obsession with a park bench.
‘Alright. Well, now you can fall in love with Clemence,’ Janice said.
‘Perhaps even sit on her,’ the old man said. ‘She wouldn’t mind.’