Sam stepped off the pavement and moved across the road. Drawing close to the opposite side he glanced up at the blue sky, the bright morning making him squint. His eyes passed over a road sign, a common enough sight in any town. A blue square with a white ‘P’ and below it the not unfriendly query ‘Have you paid and displayed?’
It was hardly an unusual query, placed as it was 30 feet or so from a parking meter on a road that had numerous spaces for street parking, but for some reason the sight of it stopped Sam in his tracks.
“Paid and displayed…” he murmured to himself, and the image of a woman burst into his mind. Pale skin, eyes bluer than the sky above and a cascade of raven hair tumbling over one shoulder. And with the image of her face, the memories came as well, filling his mind as he stepped up onto the pavement and carried on walking down the street.
She’d smiled at him first from across the room. Or so he’d thought, at least. After a furious twenty minute process of building up the courage to take the initiative, to go and, for once in his life, be brave and actually talk to a woman – to make any move, let alone the first one – he’d walked awkwardly over to her and asked if he might buy her a drink. She had looked slightly surprised, and just as she was opening her mouth to reply, her friend returned from the bar with their drinks.
It was, of course, her friend she’d been smiling at, not Sam. Her friend, who’d been standing at the bar behind Sam. So there he stood, before the beautiful woman who hadn’t smiled at him after all, quietly wishing the floor would open and take him to oblivion. He’d mumbled an apology and turned to go, when she reached out to touch his arm. He turned back to her, a second apology on his lips, when she told him he looked cute when he blushed. And that was all it took.
After six months they took the plunge, moved in together. It was rocky, as you might expect, but the evenings curled up together with wine and a film or music, made up for the misunderstandings, the occasional arguments. Sometimes they’d live in each other’s pockets, sometimes life and work would mean the only moments they would find would be in the minutes and seconds before sleep came. They muddled their way through, and perhaps against everyone’s expectations, they were happy.
He’d found the ring in an antique shop one day, six or so months later. It hadn’t perhaps been the most conventional choice, but as soon as he’d seen it he’d known it was the right one, the perfect accompaniment to one of the oldest questions. He’d bought it without a thought, and when the moment came and he asked, it fit her finger as though it had been made for it.
They didn’t change each other, as such. That was what two of his oldest friends had told him one evening as they sat about a campfire.
“She hasn’t changed you, and you haven’t changed her. But you’re both… more when you’re together.”
It was a wisdom born of whiskey, but it rang true all the same. They had found each other and were more because of it, and he couldn’t imagine a world without her.
He’d opened the door to see a man and a woman on the doorstep, their faces calm and composed, their uniforms neat and tidy, imposing in their lack of threat. An iron band closed about his chest as they sat on the sofa, speaking quietly. It began to tighten, slowly, inexorably crushing his lungs and his heart.
“…three others killed…”
The world shattered into pieces and the iron band grew tighter and tighter.
Time passed, in hours and then days, weeks and then months. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to breathe again, finding his way around the absence of her. Their friends were kind to him, understanding and patient, though they had lost her too. He had raged and roared, and wept and waited, but in the end he had finally paid his dues of grief. The scars were still there, but only those who knew him well could see them. The iron band had loosened, though it would never fully let him go.
His remembering had carried him down the street, into and out of shops where he scanned the shelves, not really seeing. He stepped once more into the sunlight and moved to cross the road again, heading to his favourite coffee shop. As he reached the far pavement, he saw a second sign like the one which had started his quiet reverie. He paused beneath it, reading again the not unfriendly query.
‘Have you paid and displayed?’
Standing in the sunlight Sam shrugged. He’d paid as best he could, and whether or not the scars could be seen by all, they would heal in time. He smiled a sad smile as her face flashed through his mind again, and then he lowered his gaze and walked on in the sunlight.