Polly is five, like me. I’m five too. Polly is my friend, I like her very much. We’re playing at the beach, we’re playing a game with little stones and shells in the sand, drawing a house for us to live in when we’re big. Sometimes a wave comes in and takes the house away. So we build it again: the shells are the roof and walls and the stones are the windows and the door … another wave comes up over the wet sand and drags our little house back down with it. I kiss Polly. Never mind, I tell her, we’ll just build another house further up the sand so that the sea can’t get at it. Later as mum is putting me to bed she reads me a story «… and the prince and princess got married and lived happily ever after». And I’m going to marry Polly I whisper as I drift into warm sleep.
She stood at the kitchen sink, staring out at the back garden with unseeing eyes; she automatically folded and refolded the damp cloth before eventually hanging it up in its usual place on the oven-rail. Angie, her friend and neighbor, was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking nervously and biting her nails. Neither women spoke. The situation was just too sad, too tragic – the only thing one could say about the accident was that Robbie hadn’t suffered much, and people did say that after the funeral, clasping the cliché, hoping that it would comfort her. Angie broke the silence:
– How are the children bearing up, Pol? Here, sit down and have a glass of wine; they’ve all gone now and your sister-in-law is with the two kids. You’ve got to slow down, you haven’t stopped all day … don’t beat yourself up about all this, it’s not your fault you know.
– Chloe is being very adult about it all but poor little Josh doesn’t really understand what’s going on … I should be feeling grief or anger or something but I don’t feel anything, just numb. You do realize that we were going to separate, don’t you? The papers didn’t mention that, did they? Only the Other Woman…
Polly closed her eyes; most of the papers had run the story, the broad-sheets with a discreet paragraph on page two: PROMINENT MERCHANT BANKER IN CAR CRASH or SIR ROBERT MACKENSIE IN FATAL ACCIDENT, but the tabloids featured it on the front page WHO WAS BANKER’S BIRD or CRASH MYSTERY WOMAN!
– Look Pol the funeral’s over, the guests have all gone and you’ve given Immaculada and Magda the rest of the weekend off. Everything went as well as could be expected and now you’ve just got to try and relax …
(The front door bell goes).
– I wonder that who that is; I thought all the Press had gone, oh of course Magda’s not here, I’ll go …
I hadn’t exactly forgotten Polly, far from it but we’d drifted apart in our teens. Her family moved away to a more expensive part of the city and she went to a posh boarding-school while I slogged on at the local comprehensive, and so we never saw each other again. I heard about her from to time to time. After university she drifted from job to job before writing a best-selling cook-book, so I couldn’t avoid seeing her glamorous face on the cover – in fact I bought a copy in Waterstones. (The recipes were not really to my taste, being a fussy reworking of traditional dishes in the Nouvelle Cuisine style). Marriage to a highly successful business man put her completely out of my reach. The years went by and I pursued rather unenthusiastically my career as a teacher, eventually becoming the headmaster of a school in the suburbs. I married another teacher but it didn’t work out, and after about a year we parted, amicably enough. There was no passion in my life: I was loveless, childless and middle-aged.
And it was so was until last week when I read in the newspapers all about the death in a car crash of Polly’s husband. The effect on me was surprising; I was inordinately stirred and moved with empathy for my childhood friend. After brooding about it for several days, I decided to travel by the underground to her Chelsea address, which was splashed all over the papers. Her imposing house was in a discreet street just off the King’s Road. I loitered outside her door, dithering and wondering if she was there and what on earth I would say to her. I noticed some press photographers on the side of the road and beat a retreat, with beating heart and eventually returned, crestfallen to my home in south London. That was yesterday. Now today I’ve come back again and, plucking my courage, I climb up the steps and firmly press the bell; I hear steps crossing the hall (probably a maid, I think, or one her children) and the door swings open – it’s her. A neat stylish woman (but with the story of the last months written across her beautiful face) is standing, looking at me enquiringly:
– Please excuse this intrusion on your grief, Lady Mackensie. I’m sure that you don’t recognize me but we used play together when we were children living in Hastings …
– I’m sorry I can’t quite place you … oh yes of course I remember, we used to play on the beach together?
– Yes, I’m glad you’ve remembered, it makes it less embarrassing for me.
– Won’t you come in for drink, we’re in the kitchen?
– No, I won’t bother you any further now, but maybe we could go out some time next week or something?
– Yes Ok, I’d like that.
Polly returns to the kitchen.
– Who on earth was that? Asks Angie.
– Oh just a ghost from the past; we used to build sand-castles together when we were kids. We agreed to go out for a drink, sometime next week.
– Surely you’re not going!
– Why not. It’ll take my mind off all documents I’ve got to sign; besides he looked rather sweet, a in a pathetic helpless sort of way. There’s only one problem, though.
– What’s that?
– I can’t remember his name!