First Love

book cover for short story

Mary moved to a small village on the coast within a year of Vernon’s death. Her friends told her it was too soon, that she ought to wait and not make decisions so hastily but, if anything, she had waited too long.

They never had children and Vernon hadn’t been interested in identifying the cause or seeking a solution. In later years she was convinced that he thought more of his garden than he did of her. He treated the lawn with the attention he had conferred on her, when they were first wed, and fussed over his chrysanthemums with a tenderness of touch she had once enjoyed.

The town house was sold within days of putting it on the market and, once settled in her new cottage, Mary decided to take up painting again. She had the time, the freedom, and no one to belittle her attempts. She was free to express herself in ways that would previously have been criticised as frivolous.

Never having considered herself as particularly talented, despite two years at art college, Mary found the courage to contact a local art group. They met twice a week in an old chapel, now the community centre. The first time she walked through the doors she felt comfortable. The group was comprised mostly of women, but there were also three men there. They were quiet, almost apologetically so, and didn’t command the space as some men seemed to have done during her life.

The teacher, Sam, the woman Mary had spoken to on the telephone, welcomed her and made cursory introductions to a few of the other members, but soon excused herself in order to set up a still life on a central table. 

Only a few members of the art group positioned themselves to attempt to capture the rather dreary assembly of apples and pears spilling off a glass dish. Mary tucked herself away, near the back of the room, and turned the cover on her new pad of cartridge paper. The room had a high vaulted ceiling with dark beams against white plaster. The lower half of the walls were clad with rich pine planking, polished to a rich lustre by generations of women. She wondered whether it had always been women who gave rooms a sense of welcome and of cosiness.

Mary hesitated, not sure whether to attempt to draw the two people immediately in front of her, their backs hunched in concentration, or try to capture the sense of space in a room which was taller than it was wide. She knew she needed to make a mark, to break the spell that a pristine sheet of white paper presented.

No paint today, just pencils, soft pencils that would glide over the paper and react with the subtle texture of it. A line appeared, as if by its own volition, and she began to retreat from her surroundings, not really aware of what she was drawing, lost from the present to a place in her past where life had held promises, mysteries and passion. The spell was broken by a voice at her shoulder

“That’s excellent Mary?”

The voice of the teacher made her start. Mary hadn’t been thinking about what she was drawing, but on the paper in front of her was the face of a young man, one she recognised even though something about the nose wasn’t quite right.

“It looks very much like Peter Duncan. Have you bumped into him at the pub?”

Mary didn’t know who Peter was. The face before her had been buried in her memory for fifty years. It was David, a boy she had dated and fallen in love with when she was sixteen years old. He moved away with his parents when his father was offered a promotion. For a few months they had exchanged letters, but the interval between each communication lengthened. He never replied to her last letter. She had enclosed a drawing of him and a pressed flower, a silly gesture from a teenage girl that had probably made both him, and his new friends, laugh. What would a boy do with a dead flower and a sketch drawn by a teenage girl.

The comment from Sam drew others to her drawing. Mary wanted to cover it with her hand, but she hesitated, and then it was too late. She let her fingers rest on the table.

“It does look like Peter,” said a woman she thought was called Anne. “You must have met him?”

“It’s just a face I imagined,” Mary whispered.

Everyone agreed that it was an astonishing likeness of Peter and someone said that she must show it to David.

“David?” She repeated. Her breath snagged.

“David owns the Three Ducks. Peter is his son, he’s around at weekends sometimes with his partner. You must have seen him there.”

Mary hadn’t been in the village pub. She had no objection to alcohol and enjoyed a glass of white wine, but Vernon had not been one for socialising and the idea of going into a pub by herself was unthinkable.

“Oh, I couldn’t. I don’t even know him.”

“Come with me,” Anne said, “We can pop in today. I often go there for lunch after class.”

Mary wasn’t sure but found herself accepting.

She put the drawing to one side, thinking about David and where his life might have taken him. Would they have stayed together had he not moved away? Might they have married, had children? 

After a cup of tea and biscuits, Mary made an attempt at capturing the still life, but it didn’t offer inspiration and her efforts were stilted and awkward. The portrait she had half-finished remained tucked in the back of her pad.

Four of them headed for the pub at lunchtime, after the class has disbanded. Anne had given her no chance to refuse and Martin and Jayne were equally enthusiastic to see David’s reaction. All were certain that there was a striking resemblance to Peter in her drawing. 

“Has David owned the pub for a long time?” Mary asked.

“He was there when I moved into the village,” Jayne said.

The other two confessed to being incomers too later additions to the village than David.

“There’s not that many locals left,” Anne said. “David’s not from round here either, but I know he must have bought the place over twenty years ago, because Peter went to the local primary school.”

“And Peter’s mother?” Mary asked.

“As far as I know they split up when Peter was quite small, but neither of them ever mention her. I don’t think she moved here with David.”

When they entered the Three Ducks there was a man with thinning grey hair behind the bar. He had his back to them but had heard the door open and could see who it was in the mirrored glass behind the bottles.

“I’ll be with you in a moment ladies,” he called cheerfully. Only when he turned did he notice Martin. “Sorry old chap, didn’t spot you there amongst the lunch brigade.” 

It wasn’t the boy Mary remembered and had drawn, but the man he had become. Behind his shoulder, propped on a shelf, was a small frame that held, behind glass, a pencil sketch and a dried flower. So many years had passed, but the flower had retained some of its colour, hinting at a life that might have been or, hopefully, one that had merely been delayed.

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