This is a short story, from a group of collected works.
After meeting a mysterious stranger in a pub, a story unfolds that the man could only ever have imagined.
He opened his wallet and took out a piece of paper. Upon revealing this piece of paper, I saw that it was a photo, or at least half of a photo. It was torn, presumably down the middle, and old. It was yellowed with age but the picture was still clearly visible. It was a girl of about 25 years of age with long dark hair and bright blue eyes that seemed to shimmer in the light from behind the bar. In front of her was a little girl of 4, maybe 5 years of age, wearing an oversized straw hat. They were standing on a beach, clearly having a good time.
“Who’s she?” I asked, pointing to the woman.
The old man took the photo back and stared at it for a minute before replying, “She was the only girl I ever loved. This was taken a long time ago, long before you were even born I’d wager.”
“So what happened?”
“We fell in love too young. I never knew that was possible but apparently it is. We met the first summer I came to America. I came trying to seek my fortune, make a name for myself with all the hopes and expectations of any young wannabe. But of course I thought I was different to them. Thought I knew the risks and steered well clear of them but who was I kidding? At 19 years old I didn’t have what it took to make it as a musician and so within six months I found myself working in a bar, just like the rest of them.
“It was a steady job and I was making enough money to keep up with my rent so I didn’t complain too much. Just gritted my teeth and got on with my work. Wasn’t long before the owner came to trust me. It was an Irish bar, see? So being an Irishman myself he took a bit of a shine to me and started giving me more responsibilities- opening up, locking up, and dealing with the money, that sort of stuff. Well I was gonna say no, that I had dreams and expectations and didn’t wanna be stuck in a bar for the rest of my life, but with the extra responsibilities came extra cash, and who doesn’t need a bit more money in their pockets right?
“So I stayed on full time and it was then that I met her. She’d just moved to the city from a little farm not too far away and was looking for a place to stay, said she saw an advertisement for the flat above the bar that seemed to be in her price range. The owner tried to talk her out of it; said a bar was no place for a young lady to live, but she was adamant- it was close to the city centre but was a reasonable price compared to anywhere else in the area and eventually she won him over.
“She paid two weeks rent in advance (which is probably why he eventually gave in, I suppose) and asked if she’d be able to get a hand to move her things up to the room. I offered my help immediately of course,” the old man chuckled. He was clearly reminiscing about that first moment that they met and I didn’t want to ruin his recollection, but time was pressing onwards and I wanted to hear how the story ended before I left.
“So you helped her move her stuff in,” I said, “and clearly you had fallen for her from the word go, so what happened then? How did she come to love you back?”
“All in good time my boy, all in good time. She was working as a journalist for some small time newspaper but was hoping to break her way through to a bigger company. In other words, she was in the same boat I had been when I first moved over here, but I realised that she had the drive to do it, whereas I gave up when an easier solution came along, i.e. the bar.
“She had been living upstairs for over a year when I finally saw my opportunity. I may not seem it, but I was terrible shy with the ladies when I was younger and any of the lads I saw her with were all sportsmen- big muscles, tiny brains. I was the runt of the litter, with a mop of dark hair that came down to my shoulders, and the most exercise I’d ever got was walking from one end of the bar to the other.
“Anyway, she had just broken up with a lad she had been seeing for a while and was in the bar telling me about it while I cleared up at the end of the night. She told me all about how she was sick of the wrong sort of guys asking her out and wished that just once someone like me would come along. Ha-ha! I remember it like it was yesterday. She chuckled then and started to walk towards the door leading up to her flat and my world went into slow motion. A voice in my head said ‘For Christ’s sake would you ask her now while you’ve got the chance- it might never happen again!’ and I ran after her and blurted ‘Well how about I take you out for dinner some time and show you what you’re missing?’
“Or at least that’s what I tried to do. What actually happened, I found out two days later, when I woke up in the hospital. Apparently I managed to say ‘Well how about...?’ before I stepped in the mop bucket and went head over heels, cracking my head off the floor. I was in the hospital for the next four days and she came and visited me along with the bar staff and even a few of the regulars. On the day before I got out she stayed behind after the others had left. ‘What was it you wanted to ask me?’ she said.
“There it was. I couldn’t ignore the question, because it was a direct confrontation and since I was the only other person in the room, it had to be me she was speaking to. So I mustered up the courage and said ‘Sara would you like to have dinner with me some day next week?’
“And that was the start of it all. I took her out on a few dates and I knew that she was the one for me. I was only 22 years of age, her only 20, but I was ready to spend the rest of my life with her and after only a year of dating, I asked her to marry me. She said yes without even thinking about it and things just got better from there. Old Tom, the owner of the pub was getting on in years and even though I’d only been there a few years he promoted me to manager. Around the same time Sara got promoted as well, same newspaper but she didn’t mind as long as she was doing what she loved during the day and returning to the man she loved at night. We bought a flat together, not far from the bar and it wasn’t long before she told me the good news- she was pregnant.”
He paused for a long drink of his beer, the first time he had touched it since I had coerced him on to the story of the photograph. I knew the story was only going to build from here, but I didn’t want to rush him. I had come here to let him tell this story.
“This was great news of course,” he continued, “and we had some money saved away for just such an eventuality. The wedding could wait for another time, but the baby was on its way now. So we went out and bought all the little things we thought we’d need for a baby. We even went to parenting classes. Everything was to be perfect for our little bundle of joy.
“9 months later, there she was. The most perfect little angel the world had ever seen.” He smiled longingly but tears started to form in his eyes. Were they tears of joy at the memory, or tears of sorrow at what was yet to come? It was impossible to tell. “We named her Donna.
“For a few years, our lives were perfect. That photo was taken on our first real holiday as a family. We went to Hawaii when Donna was about four and a half years old and it was the first and only time we got a picture of all three of us together...”
Aha. So there was another half to the picture. I started to get more excited, but I could see the sorrow building up in the old man’s eyes and hear it in his voice, so I tried to collect myself.
“What happened to the other half of the photo then? If you don’t mind me asking that is...”
“We took the photo home, and stuck it on the mirror hanging above the mantelpiece, so that every day before going out we’d see it. But to me, it was more than just a photo. It represented us as a perfect family group; that nothing would ever come between us... How wrong I was...
“Sara was working from home now as a freelance journalist so that she could mind Donna and I was still managing the bar, which was only two blocks away so if anything ever came up that Sara had to go to the office for, she’d drop Donna off at the bar with me where she was treated like royalty by the staff and customers alike. Old Tom spoiled her, called her his ‘Little Princess’ and always gave her chocolate.” He smiled again at the memory of Old Tom. I could scarcely hide my excitement now and my nails were digging in to the palms of my hands to stop myself from shouting out.
The old man sighed. “It was one day I was minding Donna that it all went wrong. Sara got called in to work and came to drop Donna off with me, said she’d only be a few hours and that she’d probably be picking Donna up just after lunch. I didn’t mind. The bar was always quiet enough during the day anyway. But it got to 5 o’clock and still no sign of Sara so I finished off my shift and took Donna home.
There were messages on our answering machine. Casually I knocked them on and took Donna into the living room to play when I heard it- ‘This is Dr. Maguire from the general hospital. If you’re there Mr. Logan, your fiancée is in a critical condition and we need you to come and see her at once.’
“I was in shock. I didn’t quite know what to do. I felt a tugging on my sleeve and heard Donna ask ‘Is Mommy going to be ok?’ I said ‘Of course. Daddy just needs to go and see her. I’m going to drop you off at the bar with Uncle Tom until I get back ok?’ ‘But Daddy I’m scared. I wanna see Mommy too...’ ‘Don’t worry angel, everything will be ok. I’ll bring you up to see Mommy as soon as I find out what happened ok?’
“I remember smiling at her, trying to encourage her, but my heart had dropped as soon as I’d heard the doctor. What could have happened? I left Donna down with Tom. The bar was almost empty now anyway so he wouldn’t have too much hassle with her and I ran the ten blocks to the hospital, gave the nurse my name and was directed to Sara’s room. She’d been mugged on the way to work. Three men attacked her as she turned the corner from the bar, leaping out of an alleyway only halfway down the street- a mere 20 seconds from where she had just left me. They had demanded her purse and anything else of value and of course being in a state of panic she handed everything over- purse, jewellery, coat, everything. But that wasn’t enough for the muggers.” His voice grew cold. All sense of emotion had been replaced by pure rage, bubbling away inside him even now. “They beat her. With baseball bats and 4x4’s. A helpless woman, who had already given them everything they had demanded.
“I was furious. I remember asking her who they were, what they looked like. Apparently I was roaring the questions but I was too consumed by my own rage to even notice. She begged me not to do anything foolish but I couldn’t stop myself. I raced from the hospital with only Sara’s vague description of her attackers to guide me. I raced to our house and got a baseball bat from under the bed. Then I stopped into the bar and quietly explained everything that had happened to Tom. He said I was a fool, that I shouldn’t do anything, and that I should let the police handle it. But I didn’t listen I pulled away from him and on my way to the door I heard a little whimpering voice say ‘Daddy, please don’t...’
“I faltered; uncertain of what to do, but then the image of Sara lying on the hospital bed, battered and bruised came to me. I turned and knelt down ‘Listen angel, I know you’re scared but Mommy’s gonna be alright, and Daddy’s gonna make sure that this doesn’t happen again.’ With that I turned and ran off into the night, searching for the bastards that had hurt the woman I loved. I was in a blind rage, running down all the back alleyways, asking the tramps on the street if they had seen anything or anyone matching the description Sara had given me.
“I searched long into the night, my anger gradually subsiding. I was tired. It was 2 o’clock in the morning by the time I decided to go back to the bar and fetch Donna. And that’s when I heard the scream, just two blocks from the bar. I ran towards the noise and found three men assaulting an old lady. What she was doing out at that time of night I’ll never know. She was dead by the time I reached them. But I knew these were the men that had hurt my precious Sara and raising my bat I charged at them, yelling at the top of my lungs, swinging left and right in the hopes of hitting something. I hit one man in the stomach and he fell to his knees. I cracked another man on the back of the head and he went straight to the ground. But the third man circled behind me, and took out a flick knife. I didn’t stand a chance. He stabbed me in my lower back and I screamed. I fell to the ground, saw the other two men standing up again and thought I was done for. I blacked out, never expecting to wake up again, and then I heard a shot. Old Tom had heard my scream of agony and rushed from the bar with his shotgun, firing a warning shot above their heads. The three men fled and Tom got some help to carry me back to the bar and call an ambulance.
“I was in hospital for just over a month. Old Tom looked after Donna until Sara got out of hospital, which was about two weeks after I was admitted. When Sara came to see me she came alone. An old fool she called me. What was I thinking leaving our child like that? she said. Nearly got myself killed she said. And I didn’t have any answers. It was reckless, I knew that, but I was only trying to defend my family. Is that so wrong?”
The old man sighed again and took another long draught from his beer. Uncertain as to whether or not he was expecting a reply, I remained silent. He wasn’t even looking at me anymore, but off into the middle distance, presumably replaying the scene over again in his head for the millionth time.
Eventually he continued. “I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said, “Thought I was being a good husband and father. But I was wrong. I lost more than just a month of my life that night. When I was finally released I rushed straight home, eager to see my little girl for the first time in a month, to see the glow in her eyes when I said ‘Daddy’s home’ but on my way past the alley next to our apartment something caught my eye. It was a piece of paper, floating down from an apartment high up. I turned into the alley and lifted it off the ground. It was the photo from our mantelpiece, or more correctly this half of it.” He stared again at the photo. “I knew what this meant. Our perfect family had been ripped apart by my anger that had nearly cost me my life, and seeing the photo torn up proved it. I couldn’t go back to a family that hated me so I came up with a plan to fake my own death. Some of the lads at the bar helped me do it, in those days nobody really looked into things too much. I moved down south for a couple of years but every time I was back in the city I’d take a walk past our old apartment and just stare up at the window for a time. I’d call in to Old Tom’s and we’d talk for hours and he’d tell me how Sara and Donna were getting along.
“Eventually my life insurance came through and they moved to a little house just outside the city limits where it was quieter. They still kept in touch with Old Tom and he offered me the address so I could call out and see them but I refused. They had started to move on with their lives. Donna was growing up and didn’t need an old ghost coming back stirring things up. Sara had probably never forgiven me, and more importantly had probably moved on to someone else and I didn’t wanna go interrupting her new life. But I did move back to the city, and I found work in a little office job under my new name, but every day I still walk past those old apartments and look up at our little window, and I think of the good times we had together.”
He smiled and finished his beer, the hint of a tear had formed in his eyes again and this time I knew that his story had come to an end. “That’s an amazing story,” I said. “Why have you never told anyone before?”
“No-one’s ever asked me before. Frankly I don’t see why you’re interested either, but now you have your story. What were you doing outside those flats anyway boy?”
“Oh I was just trying to look up an old friend, but I think I must have got the wrong address.”
“Well instead you just found an old loved up fool with a story to tell. I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time, but thanks for listening anyway.”
“Not at all, it was my pleasure, but now I really must be going.”
I ordered the old man another beer and walked out into the rain. I walked down the street for a bit, letting my feet lead me while I mulled over his story in my head. A man who’s life had been changed by finding a photograph on the ground. Who had sacrificed his own happiness for the good of his family and had never looked upon those that he loved again. I looked up to see where I was and smiled when I found I was outside Old Tom’s pub. It had been closed for some years now, but it had never been torn down. It was something of a local landmark and nobody wanted to see it go.
Finally deciding what to do next, I hailed a cab and gave the driver the address. I was still thinking over the old man’s story and the one question that hadn’t really been answered when we arrived 20 minutes later. I paid the cabbie and knocked on the front door of the house, before letting myself in.
“Anyone home?” I called.
“Thomas? Is that you?”
“It certainly is,” I replied.
“What brings you all the way out here on a day like this?”
“Well I wanted to ask you a question, if you’ve got the time?”
“Of course, of course! I’ve got nothing but time on my hands nowadays. I’ll put the kettle on.”
She left the room and went into the kitchen. I stood up and went to the fireplace. “What was it you wanted to ask me dear?”
I retrieved half of an old photograph from its place on the mirror above the mantle. “I’ve always wanted to know how this picture got torn.”
“Oh it was a terrible accident. I was tidying up and it must have wound up on the floor by accident and I ripped it in half with all the other papers. I threw them out the window, to the bin in the alley below, but that piece stuck to my hand and I realised I must have thrown the other piece away. I was terribly upset because it was the only picture we’d had of all three of us together- your mother, your grandfather and I. I scoured the streets below but the other half must have gotten carried away on the wind.”
So it wasn’t a sign of the family unit breaking up after all... But how could I tell her that the man she had loved was still alive? And how could I explain it to him, who was naught but a stranger to me really? Well before I could tell her all that I knew, I thought I should hear things from her point of view.
“So Grandma, tell me about the man in the photo. I mean, why have you kept that scrap all these years?”
She took the photo form me and looked at it, a smile already forming on her lips. “Well Thomas, your Grandfather was the only man I’ve ever loved...”