Eh? The love of my life? What’s that got to do with your thesis? Boy, if I went about asking my elders cheeky questions like that when I was your age, I’d have gotten the strap.
All right, all right. If it’s Ruthie you want to talk about… that’s Grandma to you. You’ll have to bear with me if I get a bit mixed up. She’s been gone a long time now, you see, and when you’re my age you’ll understand how the old memory gets a bit rundown. Things get blurry round the edges. But even if I forget everything else about her, the one thing I’ll never forget is her laugh. Nearly gave me a bloody heart attack, hearing her laugh for the first time. It was just like her brother George’s laugh. It’s because of George that I met Ruth at all, you see. I’d served in the war with George and we’d promised each other that if one of us copped it, we’d go pay our respects to each other’s family. That’s how I met Ruth, carrying out his last wish… Funny to think George and I were strangers before the war. And now here I am, still thinking about him. Missing him like hell.
Now don’t you look at me like that, boy. There was no funny business going on. You kids, you’ve got no idea what it was like during the war. When you go through something like that together… well, let me put it to you this way. If you met a man who would’ve died for you, who you would’ve died for, you’d miss him too, wouldn’t you? That’s all it was, all right? Just two normal blokes.
What kind of question’s that? Normal. You know what I mean by normal. I mean, back then, there was none of this ‘men staying at home to look after the kids’ nonsense. A man knew where he stood and what he was supposed to do, and he did it, no questions asked. It was easy. You didn’t have to wonder ‘am I supposed to be doing this? Is this the right thing to do?’ No, you just knew you were supposed to work hard and get yourself a wife and provide for your family. These are the things you have to do, and you just go away and do them. See? Simple.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to grizzle.
Well, I met George at boot camp. I can still remember the first time I saw him—on his bike, riding down a hill towards us recruits. Even from far away, I could see he was smiling. The widest grin in the world, had George. And bright, bright as anything. Smile like a crescent moon, he had… And then he whizzed past us all, laughing.
George was one of those people who was good at everything. A crack shot. Played the bugle. Hell of a runner. And boy, when it came to football, he could give those Greek chaps a run for their money. I remember once, we were stationed outside this wee Greek village, on our way to the frontline. The moon was so full and bright that night, none of us could get to sleep. It was like trying to sleep at ten in the morning. So I stick my head out of barracks and what do you know, George’s gone and started a midnight football match with the village boys! All those skinny little chaps running round yelping and yahooing, and George roaring with laughter and scooping them up under his arms. Even after all these years, I can still see it now. It’s like a photograph in my head. Funny the things that stay with you, eh?... Gosh, those boys were cheeky. One of them even booted the ball right at me! And it went soaring past me before I could catch it, and George and I had to run after it before it rolled into a pig sty or some such. And then…
Do you know, boy, I’m a bit tired. Do you mind coming back tomorrow?
The old man lies in bed, lost in a swoon of dream and memory. At his age, the two seem always intermixed, like milk in coffee, a plume of one billowing and blending into the other. He is back in that Greek hamlet, watching George, a lean silhouette darting between the children, cast in shadow by that round moon and its silken light. That much is memory, he knows for sure; but only dreams have this kind of sensory overflow. The edges of shadows have razor-cut clarity and the air is steeped in the smells of lavender and fresh bread. He himself is brimming over. The walls of duty and family and propriety he so carefully built and poured himself into like oil into a jar are now membrane-thin, and through them he senses both the bracing cold of the night, and the spike of lightning he always felt when George was near.
The boy has kicked the ball past him, and he and George chase it. It has rolled into the doorway of someone’s kitchen; through the open door he can see a woman sliding a loaf of bread out of the oven. George picks up the ball, and with that incandescent smile steps forward, offering the ball to him. George’s eyes have circles of light in them, reflections of the moon. George takes his hand and pulls him closer, says he may die tomorrow (the old man remembers George lying in a red puddle, eyes dull) and George doesn’t want to die wondering. This is the last thing he wants to do, his last wish. Over George’s shoulder, he sees the woman in the kitchen turn. Slowly, her face unblurs, her features sharpen. He recognizes her. It’s Ruth, the accusation stark in her hard eyes, as if she knows who was really the love of his life, knew all along the real reason why he’d married her.
But then he blinks, and he sees at last that Ruth is smiling, her smile so like George’s (but not quite, never quite the same). He looks back into George’s luminous eyes, and dimly he is aware that he, the old man in bed, is crying. He takes the ball from George, and George pulls him into his arms (and, as if through a loose-woven veil, he glimpses the memory of what really happened; how he pushed George back, how he struck him and walked away). But this time he recognises the swooping feeling in his belly for what it is—freedom; and he recognises that the normal and simple and easy thing is not to build walls, but to break them.
Under this warm full moon, George leans forward and kisses him, and this time, he doesn’t push him away.
About the Author
Feby Idrus was placed first by the judges in the 2010 NZ Writers' College Short Story Award.
The judges commented that her story "Tell Me About the Love of Your Life" was a "satisfying read", with "lovely imagery" and "real warmth".
Feby is a postgraduate student in Dunedin and has just finished her Masters in English. In 2009 Feby was shortlisted in the Novice category of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards, and the NZ Writers' College Competition marks her first win.
In 2009 she completed a creative writing course by correspondence, and her entry 'Tell Me About the Love of Your Life' was first written for an assignment for that course. The assignment called for a story that included 'fresh bread...a kitchen... and a ball', and also had to be told from a voice different from the author's.