David watched as news spread like televisual wildfire in his living room; flashing images of people fleeing for their lives, burnt-out cars and some of those bereaved interviewed at the scene, he thought insensitively and certainly sensationally. At that time the official death toll was seventy-four. It filled him with horror and sadness but at the same time made him think.
In nineteen-seventy-four David was at Manchester Grammar, a bright fifth-year student with his sights on a career in law. A place at Oxbridge was accurately predicted by staff and pupils alike. One of those, a sixteen-year-old Diantha, equally clever and stunningly beautiful, was David’s girl. They were never apart, kissing often like first-time lovers do, hand in hand around the grounds, laughing together, playing together and studying together. Peers would say they were joined at the hip, they’d never be apart, they’d end up at the same university, walk the same career path and one day down the aisle. Except that didn’t happen. David did indeed read at Cambridge while Diantha went to Edinburgh, where her Greek father lived. At first the two of them would speak to each other every day, write long letters saying how much they pined for that ‘first time’ back again, and sometimes spend weekends together when he or she had enough spare time or money. And then, one day, David met Caroline…
While many, not least her father, predicted Diantha would see out her three years at Edinburgh, pass with honours and go on to Masters and even beyond, it didn’t work out like that. Because when David met Caroline, Diantha changed. She began to find more interest in music, especially rock, and the once beautiful dark young girl gradually metamorphosed into a Goth, no less beautiful but well and truly Goth, so by year three of her degree she’d pretty much dropped out. Much of the time she spent listening to her Walkman, hanging out with friends, smoking pot, travelling occasionally down to Whitby to find peace at the Abbey or going to gigs in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Killing Joke, The Cure, Siouxsie, Sex Gang Children… Her father wasn’t happy, he strongly felt she was being led astray and said so, and they’d fight. He sometimes phoned his ex-wife in London to remonstrate about their daughter but she said she’s a grown woman, she can do her own thing… like he did before they got divorced. Defeated and chastened, and anyway off his feet with the restaurant he owned, Diantha’s father left Diantha to it, though secretly praying that in time she’d grow up, grow out of it and return to University.
When she was twenty-one and barely on speaking-terms Diantha moved out of her father’s house and in with some friends, drifting from part-time to full-time dead-end jobs or nothing at all, to eat. But her father was right… in time, like many things and many people, Diantha changed again, to someone wanting more from life than that, in other words a husband and a child. She realised that though in the company of many friends almost all the time, she felt deep down a loneliness almost all the time. And so came the hour when she decided to settle down, and the time when she metamorphosed back to the beautiful, slim and neatly-dressed woman that was always within her. She didn’t want to go back to University, that ship had left the dock, an ordinary life became more attractive, an ordinary life and an ordinary job that might not pay too well but it was money earned along with pride, respectability and simplicity. Which is how we would then find her in a flower shop, where she’d remain for more than thirty years, starting part-time, going full-time, working up to manageress then, having saved and saved, buying the business outright and winning back the respect and love of her father. And which is where, in 2018, David would find her too…
“But how!?” she exclaimed, hands covering her face in shock.
“I knew you’d gone to Edinburgh of course,” David said, “so as good a place to start as any. I saw your father through the window in his restaurant, he still looks well, so I hoped you were there too. But you weren’t, so I was heading back to the station and saw your name.”
It was true, when she’d bought the previous owner out, she’d re-branded the florists’ and called it by her name. “The eponymous Diantha,” he said.
“Sounds Greek,” she said with a laugh, “Sounds like a flower,” he said, earnestly.
By now they were in a sleek bar, lunching, catching up, laughing, joking, reminiscing, clasping hands in disbelief at all those years that passed between them and made him grey but not aged her skin or hair in the slightest, and that her face now was the same face that smiled over at him in the classroom in nineteen-seventy-one. English he believed it was.
“I saw the news and thought of you,” he said, “I had this horrible notion you were there, caught up in it all.”
“I’ve only been back to Athens twice in all this time,” she said guiltily, “Daddy goes sometimes to see his brothers, my aunts and uncles. It’s so sad what’s happening.”
“They’re all OK I hope?” he said, remembering them all because he and Diantha once went on holiday there when they were students.
“Daddy heard from them. He was very worried. I told him not to, they’d be fine. He gave me a hug, for the first time in years. We haven’t always got on that well.”
“Is that down to your rebellious nature?”
“Me? Rebellious?” she said, smiling widely with those teeth a beacon against the olive skin.
“You were so intelligent,” he said.
“Are you saying I am not now? That I could’ve done so much more with my life than own a flower shop?”
“I’m not saying that at all,” he said, “the shop is beautiful, successful it would appear?”
“I don’t do too bad,” she said, “the weather is so hot, some people are afraid of buying flowers lest they die too soon.”
“Like those people I saw on the news,” he said, “Dying too soon.”
There was a sombre pause at that, the first in their conversation since they sat down to lunch, and in which they ate a few more bites. And then he looked at her and took a sip of wine and said, “I didn’t think of you just because of the news. I’ve thought about you a lot.”
“Me too,” she said, and then described how she’d dropped out of university since they lost touch and, sensing this was a pointed remark, he said he was sorry how things turned out.
“Sorry?” she said, “You’re not sorry you met Caroline.”
“No,” he said, “sorry about what I did to you.”
“Did you marry her?” she asked, “Caroline.”
“I never married,” he said, “No kids either. She and I fizzled out if I can put it like that. Last I heard she’d moved to America. Boston I think.”
“And you lost touch?”
“Just like you lost touch with me. A theme in your life.”
“Which is true,” he said, “I can’t deny there have been others. And I can’t deny they were never more than ephemeral relationships.”
“Have you never lived together with a woman?”
“Oh yes. One or two, but things never worked out for one reason or another.”
“One reason or another being David Millington,” she said, smiling into her wine glass and peering over it.
“I guess. What about you? Ever married? Kids?”
“Me?” she said, “I also had many boyfriends, mostly when we lived in communes, great fun at the time but awfully fucking sad when I look back.”
“And recently?” he said.
“Recently…,” she said, and tailed off. He saw a moistness in her eyes now, and while part of him wanted to push for more, part of him didn’t for fear of stoking something unpleasant which would sadden him as much as her, and he was somehow relieved when the waiter appeared to take their plates.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Dessert?” he asked.
“Love to,” she said, “but I need to get back. Sophie’s young. She’s very good with customers but very young, sometimes not great with the till.”
“Of course,” he said. So as the waiter returned he told him they wouldn’t require the dessert menu and could he get the bill? And it was then that Diantha noticed his wallet, a black leather Pierre Cardin she’d bought him as a gift when he got the grades to get into Cambridge.
“You still have it? All this time,” she remarked.
“I do,” he said, “Bit dog-eared now, but yes.”
As they blinked their way out of the bar into the bright afternoon sun, he looked at the woman Diantha had become. Tall, slim, immaculately-dressed, long dark hair tied with a fiery yellow bow to match the flowers on her maxi-dress and the ones in her window. She was as beautiful today as she always was. And he loved her like he always did, the kind of love that got there first, that got to the ticker tape before any other.
“David,” she said, turning to him on the pavement, “Why did you come?”
He paused for a while. He’d thought about the “why” many times over the past two days since watching that news bulletin, and while there were many reasons, curiosity, nostalgia, impulse, it always came back to that one word, love. But it wasn’t the word he could say right now, because the years prevented it, she needed to get back to work and somehow and heart-breakingly it didn’t seem appropriate. So instead he simply said, “Because I wanted to see if you were still as beautiful as you were in the past.”
“And am I?” she asked.
“You are,” he said.
“Thank you. And now I must go.”
“Me too,” he said, “But will we see each other again?”
And she closed her wonderful eyes, shook her head and said, “David you’re as beautiful today as you were in the past also. Perhaps it’s best if we left it all there. Memories.”
“Sure,” he said, softly, “But please, at least take my card.”
As he reached again into that wallet, she hesitated for a few agonising seconds, before taking the card he proffered, then kissing him on both cheeks and turning her back to head down Princes Street.
On the train back to London David switched his mobile on and filed through the many missed calls and messages. Some of them were nuisance, others were important work things, including one or two relating to the Athens fire. Not that he would ever need it, the fire too would always be a reminder. There was nothing yet from Diantha. And as the train hummed smoothly through Berwick and the stunning Northumberland coast lit by glorious sun, the brilliant heatwave that had caused people here to head for the sea and taken others elsewhere to their death, he thought about her all the time and that face that was almost the same as the one who smiled back at him in the classroom in nineteen-seventy-one. He wanted to know why she’d cried when he asked what had happened recently and wanted to reach out and hold her. He wanted to know so many things that filled the years they shouldn’t have lost and for which he’d regret. But he may never know. No there was nothing from Diantha. Nor, he feared, would there ever be again.