Barbara Lawrence took the same bus into town every Wednesday. She got on the same stop, by the housing development that had been in progress for as long as she could remember. She picked up the same bits and pieces from Sainsbury’s. A pint of milk, half a loaf of bread and some bits to make tea throughout the week, and then, she went to the library. There used to be a group on, every Wednesday, for “older ladies” as Barbara had begrudgingly accepted she was, but after Covid, everyone just seemed to drift apart, and each time she went, there was one or two fewer “older ladies” until eventually, there was just one.
Barbara was always alone. She almost enjoyed the anonymity of being an older woman. Once a woman reaches a certain age, she becomes invisible to the whole world, and it allowed Barbara to get on with her day uninterrupted.
Well, it usually did, but that day was different. A young man had sat beside her on the bus. He was handsome, with shaggy black hair, and a bright, clean shirt covering his wide chest. He didn’t speak, but he stared. He wouldn’t take his eyes off her. She looked out the window, she looked straight ahead, she even closed her eyes, but as they opened, they were met with his face, his intense stare, and now, a smile.
At first, Barbara found him rude, and a little inconvenient, but as they got closer to the town centre, she began to find him intimidating. Why was he staring? Why did he sit next to her on an almost empty bus? What did he want? Who was he?
She pressed the buzzer to signal that she was getting off, in the hopes that he’d take a hint, but he didn’t move, and he didn’t stop staring until the bus came to a calm stop. He jumped from his seat with a flourish, his eyes still glued to her and gave her a little wave as she squeezed past and almost ran off the bus.
The doors closed and Barbara felt a strong sense of relief. Leaning up against the bus stop, she took a deep breath and tried to forget about him.
“Right then…” She muttered to herself, turning to head towards the shopping centre. She stopped, dead in her tracks. Her eyes wide and her throat tight.
It was him. There he was, large as life, bold as brass, with a stupid, slightly creepy smile on his face and his eyes fixed upon her once again. The man from the bus. He was stood across from her, just staring, staring and smiling and Barbara was speechless.
“What do you want?” There was no answer, only more staring and smiling. She wrote it off as a coincidence and pushed past him, but there was a little voice in the back of her mind that wondered if it wasn’t a coincidence. Why had he been smiling like that? What did he want?
She couldn’t help but turn back as she walked towards the shopping centre, and was met with the sight of the man, still smiling and following at a slight distance.
He followed her all day. Never getting too close, always smiling. She had pleaded with a passing police officer for help, but he just looked at her with bewilderment, his voice, unreasonably calm as he told her that he didn’t see a problem. She was used to that. Once a woman reached a certain age, that was it. She became invisible. All her problems were meaningless to everyone but her. Nobody cared. This was the downside of an older woman’s anonymity.
He followed her back onto the bus home. She put her bags on the seat, hoping that would deter him, but he calmly stood, with his usual smarmy smile, by the seat, as if passively ordering her to move the bags. For a while, she didn’t, and the bus whirred into motion, with him still standing, but eventually, she couldn’t stand the embarrassment of his gawping, and allowed him to sit beside her.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” Barbara was shocked to hear him speak. She turned directly to him, and noticed his smile had briefly fallen from his face, quickly replaced once he knew that he had her attention. “You never do, but that’s okay.”
“Who are you?” He placed his hand gently on top of hers, and looked slightly hurt when she snatched it away. “Why have you been following me?”
“If you must know, I’m bored and unemployed.” Barbara gazed out of the window to avoid his constant smile and bright, beautiful eyes. “You’ve got a picture of me, in your purse.”
“What do you mean?” She clutched her handbag tightly to her chest, suddenly aware of the possibility of a mugging from the strange man.
“You keep it at the back, next to the one of you and your husband on your wedding day.” Barbara hadn’t looked at the photo of her wedding for a long time. Since she had lost her husband, it had been hard to see him. He was so handsome, and they were so happy. It had been hard enough to accept that they’d never be seventeen again, as they had been in the photo, but even harder to accept that Michael was gone. She wasn’t sure she could take the pain of checking to see if the photo had been joined by another.
“Why would I have a picture of a stranger?” She was now opening her purse to check, despite her insistence that she didn’t want to look.
“Because I’m not a stranger.” His smile remained, making her slightly uneasy as she took a deep breath and looked down at the photo. Her wedding, the beautiful white dress, her handsome husband, the bouquet of white roses clasped tightly in her hands. She sighed, about to turn to the nosy young man to inform him that he was wrong, before she noticed another picture. There he was. It was a small picture, but his smiling face beamed up at her. He wore an army uniform and suddenly seemed familiar in a way that frightened her.
“I don’t…” She began. She didn’t know what to say.
“I told you I’m not a stranger.”
The rest of the bus journey went by in silence. Barbara was too stunned to speak, and the young man seemed to understand her need to process everything. There were a million thoughts running through her mind. Who was this man? Why did she have his photograph? Why had he been following her? How could he know so much about her when she knew nothing about him?
She didn’t want the answers, she just wanted to be alone. As the bus reached her stop, Barbara pushed past him and ran, not stopping until she reached her front door.
Once again, he followed her. Taking the shopping bags and pushing the door open for her.
“You just leave me alone!” She cried, snatching the bags and trying to force him back out of the door, to no avail.
“Just calm down, okay?” He was beginning to look upset, which she found particularly galling.
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” She said, thumping her fists on his chest in frustration. “I want you out of my house!”
“Mum, please!” Barbara froze, her eyes meeting his, with that frightening familiarity she had felt earlier.
“Mum?” She was almost afraid to ask. It seemed to slip out. He nodded, taking her hands in his own tenderly and nudging the front door shut with one of his broad shoulders.
“This is the part where you always remember.” His voice was quiet and calm as he lead her into the living room. Barbara was bewildered, staring at him blankly as he helped her into an armchair.
“What do you mean?” She asked as he wandered across to the kitchen and began putting away the shopping.
“I call you Mum, and I start to seem familiar.” He was putting every item in the right place, as if he’d done it before. “Just wait.” He began filling the kettle as Barbara furrowed her brow.
“I don’t understand.” She wanted to understand, but she just couldn’t. The man had finished putting away the shopping and was now busy making tea.
“They sent you away, because you got pregnant.”
“I was fifteen.” Barbara was beginning to understand.
“But we never met.” Barbara grabbed her purse, checking the photo of him again. When she looked at it now, she felt a warmth, deep within her heart, like she had always known him. “And I come back every day to look after you, because Dad’s gone.”
“But you’re…” He turned to her with a reassuring smile as the kettle boiled. “Maggie sent you to war. I tried to find you but your mother said…” Barbara stood from the chair, walking towards him. She just stared for a moment, looking at him as he slowly seemed to change in front of her eyes. No longer a stranger. He was a slowly unfolding memory. Something precious that she had pushed away, but now needed close to her.
“She said that I had read your letter and was going to write when I got home.” He smiled, turning to pour the water into the tea pot.
“But you never came home.” As she spoke, Barbara felt cold. It was like all the happiness of the last few moments had left her body. She turned away for a moment, her breath caught in her throat.
“I know Mum.” There was a hint of regret to his tone. Barbara looked at him again, he was so familiar, as if she had always known him. She couldn’t understand her earlier confusion, but she no longer cared. There was an urgent feeling that seemed to shake old memories to life. “But I’m here now.”
“Nicholas?” He smiled brightly as she said his name. “You’re here every day?”
“Every day.” He nodded, handing her the tea.
“I didn’t want to give you up.” She said quietly, her voice tinged with a hint of shame that she’d never been able to shake.
“I know Mum.” He said, taking her arm in his own and guiding her back to the armchair. “It wasn’t your fault.” He kissed her cheek gently as they sat down next to one another.
“I knitted you a blanket.” Barbara’s eyes were hot and full of tears. “But they took that too.” She could see it all so clearly now.
“It’s okay Mum.”
“It’s not okay.” She saw herself, still so young, held back by her red faced father as she reached out for her son, pleading with the nurse to let her hold him, just once. “You were my son.” The tears began to fall, slowly and steadily down her cheeks. “I’ll get your dad.” She exclaimed, brushing the tears away and standing up so quickly that she felt a little dizzy. “He won’t believe it.”
“Sit down Mum.” Nicholas sounded a little exasperated, but still patient.
“Michael?” Barbara called out, looking around the small flat. “Michael, you won’t believe it.” There was silence. Nicholas pulled her back to her seat, as carefully as he could. “Where is he?” Barbara’s voice was just a whisper, the defiant tears approaching once again as she surveyed the tiny, lonely flat.
“He’s gone mum. Do you remember?” Barbara was staring across at the empty arm chair by the television set now. “During the lockdown…” Her tears fell and she stared, transfixed, her eyes glued to the empty arm chair across from her. “He got sick, with Covid, and…”
“Gone where?” She had heard everything Nicholas had said, but she didn’t want to. She asked, in case the answer was different, but it never was.
“Where has he gone?” There was panic on her face. Somehow, she did remember, but she desperately tried to avoid what she knew. It was a clouded thought, like a picture that had blurred and faded, with ripped edges and no caption to give context. “I need him to drive me to the shops, I haven’t got enough in for all three of us.”
“Mum, he’s gone.” She noticed the wilted lilies in a vase on the window sill, and suddenly, everything was so, painfully clear.
“You’ve all gone.” Her voice was choked. She felt like she couldn’t breathe, but she needed to get the words out because it was all so unfair. “You’ve all gone and left me on my own.” Her tears were relentless, her eyes red and wrecked with stress. She fell to the floor, defeated and speechless. It hurt in a way she had never felt before, except she had. She had every day for months.
She could smell the lilies, as if they were fresh, like the day she saw her stolen Son’s grave for the first time, sobbing in the arms of her husband. She took lilies to her husband’s grave too. Barbara hated lilies.
“Mum.” She could feel his arms around her, but she knew he wouldn’t stay. “Mum, I’m here.” He wasn’t. He never was. Nobody ever was. She closed her eyes and hoped he would be, but she knew that he wasn’t. Nobody ever was.