Everyone has those ‘special’ memories.
Those defining times when you realize that the world can be a magical place or the stuff of nightmares.
For me, it was the eighties.
This was a time where having a walkman meant that you couldn’t leave the house without a spare set of fresh batteries, at least two extra cassette tapes and a Bic biro in case you had to rewind said tapes without burning battery power, (If you are a child of this decade then you will know exactly what I am talking about).
Music had become exciting again, and the fashions reflected the mood of the day, and if you took politics out of the mix, it was a simple time full of innocence and adventure.
In short, this was my childhood and the gateway into adulthood.
For it was during this time that I realised that not everyone saw the world as I did, and one such incident that emphasised this will be forever etched in my memory, marked as it is now by the simplest of actions.
Sparking into life by the most mundane of things — Like a simple bus ride.
One late Saturday afternoon, in the summer of 1982, I was travelling home on the bus that took me from my place of work, (a small supermarket that was situated on the main road that led to Camberwell Green, London), and was accompanied by one of the checkout girls by the name of Donna. What her surname was then, or is now, is forever lost in the mists of time, and to a memory that is not what it used to be.
Donna and I very rarely socialized in, or out of work, and this impromptu accompaniment was by way of good timing for me, and bad fortune for another, for earlier that day there had been some sort of altercation with a rather drunk customer and one of the female assistants. Camberwell Green was the kind of area where drunkenness in the middle of the day was not uncommon, and the young lady on the receiving end of the inebriated gentleman’s advances felt the need to ask for an escort when leaving work to return home. I was the sort of young man back in those days that would offer his services as a chaperone, and Donna, who was a friend of the distressed girl, offered to come with us. It was after we had delivered her to the safety of her home, and to her very grateful boyfriend, that I found myself alone in Donna’s company.
As I have mentioned, I had not had any previous interaction with her, as our paths never seemed to cross, but she had not gone unnoticed to me. Many was the time I had seen her arrive at our place of work, and even in the foulest of weather and in the coldest of mornings, she always seemed to have a smile on her lips — cheerfully greeting everyone, myself included, as she made her way to the women’s changing area, in order to prepare herself for her working day.
Although I found her wildly attractive I never fancied or entertained the idea of any romantic notions as I regarded her as one of those girls who was way out of my league. As I look back now, my fading memories of what she looked like would probably be greatly contradicted by today’s reality, but in that time and in that place, Donna to me was a Goddess.
A standard to which my naive younger self would assume that all other women would measure themselves by — Never attempting to achieve, through fear of an ultimate and inevitable failure. And yet here I was, sitting with her on the top deck of the 122 to Lewisham, via Camberwell, Peckham, and New Cross.
An ordinary day clashing with an extraordinary situation.
We spoke in non-committal tones about this and that and I quickly found that Donna and I had nothing whatsoever in common, save our place of work. But still, I plowed on, probing every avenue in the hope that we would run out of journey before we ran out of subject matter, desperately trying to avoid the dreaded ‘awkward silence’.
As my stop approached Donna informed me that hers was a little further on, and I hoped that this was not an attempt by her to spend less time in my company by staying on the bus longer than she needed to.
As I stood up I suddenly felt the need to say something that circumstance and nerves had prevented me from doing in the past, and as I assumed that I would probably never get to spend this quality time with her again, this to me seemed to be the perfect opportunity to do so.
“May I say something?” I said with the sound of my blood pumping in my inner ear – Pushed by a heart that was driven by an access of adrenalin. My hands were shaking and clammy as that same adrenalin turned sour in my veins.
“Of course” replied Donna, smiling that smile that would melt stronger hearts than mine.
“Before I do” I continued nervously, “I would just like to point out that this is in no way a chat up line, or some sort of cheap come on — But I must say that you are really quite beautiful. I’ve always thought that”
My words were too fast and too clumsy, but having been released from their prison they were now free to exact their revenge on those who had incarcerated them or win over the hearts of those who would listen to their song.
I stammered my goodbyes and wished her a nice weekend, after telling her that I would see her on Monday morning, and as I stepped off the bus I stood for a while as the emotional storm in my head blew itself out, but not before playing out varying scenarios of the results of my actions. Would Monday morning bring ridicule or apathy?
Would an awkward hello replace the previous warm smile she had proffered me on a daily basis?
What had I done?
When I had composed myself sufficiently and chastised myself unnecessarily for my wanton release of words that should have been left unsaid, I took a deep breath and released a year of a sigh before turning to cross the street, only to find Donna standing next to me.
“Oh, hello again”, I said, “I thought you were going further on”
“What did you mean? – What you said back then” she said, and for the first time the confidence that surrounded her, so often reflected in her eyes, had been replaced by an uncommon look of doubt and confusion.
I tried to make a joke.
“Well I have nowhere else to go on Monday, so I guess I will see you at work. Unless you have other plans of course?”
I smiled – but it was met with further puzzlement.
“No”, she said, shaking her head as if to fit the last piece of a jigsaw in to hole that was clearly not meant to hold it “before that”
I was going to say something smart, but there seemed to be a hint of a tear in those huge light brown eyes.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you, it’s just that I have a habit of saying what’s in my head at the time”
I shrugged, and added; “It gets me into trouble sometimes – Like now possibly?”
It was at this point that my world stopped turning.
Everything around me faded into the background as the entire population of Lewisham held its breath, for at that moment Donna leaned in and lightly kissed me on the cheek.
I think my heart started beating again when I remembered something about me having to breathe in order to stay alive.
“Come with me” she said and led me by the hand into a nearby pub.
This impromptu and sudden physical contact caused me to take a sharp intake of breath, and for me time slowed a little as if giving me the opportunity to relish and enjoy the softness of her small hand in mine, only to be contradicted by the sudden, empty feeling of freefall when she let go, in order for her to sit me down at one of the tables.
“Stay there”, she said, “do not move”, and with that, she went to the bar in order to buy two glasses of beer. On her return she said,
“I assume you drink lager”
I nodded dumbly before saying,
“Thanks, but I don’t..”
She stopped me in mid-sentence by placing her finger on my lips, and when it was obvious to both of us that I had taken the hint, Donna removed her finger and said,
“Now, say what you said to me again”
I paused a little before saying,
“I said that I have always thought you are beautiful. Was that wrong of me?”
“No-one has ever said that to me before”
This time it was my turn to look confused.
“Come on”, I said, “You must get that all the time”
Donna shook her head and took a sip of her drink. A small amount of foam remained on her top lip until she wiped it away, and even that simple action made my heart skip. Her voice broke through my temporary lapse in the moment thus preventing me from any mental editing of the next few words that fell from my lips.
“Why would you think that?” she asked.
“Because you’re stunning,” I said simply.
With a frown on her brow, Donna leaned forward and looked deep into my eyes as if searching for something, some small hint of a hidden meaning behind my words.
“Blue” I said, as her gaze was starting to make me feel self-conscious.
“My eyes are blue, I am guessing that that is what you were checking?
Donna sat back in her chair.
“I am trying to see what I look like through your eyes”
“You could try a mirror” I smiled, and took a mouthful of my own drink. This was met with another smile.
“Your serious aren’t you?”
“Absolutely, mirrors are great – I have one at home, but it doesn’t reflect what’s in my head”
For the first time since we stepped off the bus, Donna laughed. It fitted her and was almost like music to me.
“How so?” she asked.
“Well, in here” I said pointing to my head, warming to my subject, and to the fact that the object of my wistful dreams of romance found my attempts at humour funny, “I look like Mel Gibson, but the mirror seems hell-bent on reflecting an image of this strange looking teenager with unmanageable hair. I am of the opinion that it’s broken”
Again Donna laughed.
This drew a few glances from around he bar, and I smiled to myself at the notion of how they would be so bemused as to why this Goddess of a woman would be happy to be seen in the company of this geeky, ginger-haired boy dressed only in black. And to be honest, I was just as astonished as them.
“Tell me” she said, “What does a Mel Gibson wannabe do on the weekend”
Her change in direction regarding the subject matter caused my brain to leap, and if you listened closely you could almost hear the grinding of gears as it crashed from first to third in an attempt to keep up.
I raised my eyebrows in resolution and released a long-held breath as I tried to think of something wildly interesting to say. But all I could come up with was,
“Not much actually”
This stunning reposte caused my inner self to shake its head in disbelief, and myself-worth to start packing its bags in preparation of finding someone else to live with – someone not so embarrassing.
“Friends?” she asked.
My sub-conscience started flipping through the script at this point, trying to find the part where I actually admitted to having no friends and coming up empty.
I was on firmer ground here, for any answer I would attempt to give in the positive would be exposed as a lie almost immediately, due to my previously stupid admittance to having no friends. I smiled and said.
“Girls seem to be affected with the same issue that plagues my mirror”
“Interesting,” she said, “You say you see beauty in me, and yet you cannot see it in yourself”
“That’s because you are beautiful and I look like a bulldog chewing a wasp”
Again she laughed, and again this drew glances from our fellow patrons.
“I tend to spend Sunday afternoons at the movies. It’s less crowded and it gets me out of the house. During the summer though I like to wander around Greenwich market”
“Are you doing that tomorrow?” she asked, her eyes lighting up at my last comment.
“Yes, would you like to join me?”
The question left my lips before I had a chance to stop it, and was the second time my heart froze between beats in the space of ten minutes, for the answer was obvious – the question being made rhetorical by its own absurdity. For even though Donna had, for some reason, chosen to spend time with me, it would be madness to assume that this would be the forerunner to an actual date, and even though the small part of my subconscious that resided within the land of the insane had dared to dream that she would jump at the chance, it was still just as perplexed as I by her answer. I can only assume that I must have had a mini-stroke at that point, or passed out maybe, for I imagined that the next words that left her lips were, “I would love to”
We spoke for what seemed like hours, but what was in reality only forty-five minutes, and found that we had less in common that I had first thought. Our music tastes differed dramatically, and what we both thought of as fashionable were poles apart. But our common point of connection seemed to be that we just enjoyed each other’s company – relishing in our diversity as we tried impossibly to connect raindrops to kittens. An hour later I walked her to the bus stop, the original one that she intended to go to before I had interrupted her day. The evening was still warm as the summer sun still sat low in the sky, but still, Donna felt the need to stand close to me as we waited for her bus. I felt her arm slip around my waist as she looked up at me.
I looked back into her eyes and lost myself for a moment.
I couldn’t remember the transition from eye contact to kissing or even making the conscious decision to kiss her, but there we were. To me, the Gods had smiled, and it was as if they had presented me with their only daughter.
The world made sense with only Donna and I in it.
I was at peace.
I didn’t seriously believe that Donna would meet me at the small coffee bar opposite the market the following day, but even if I were to be stood up, after she had reasoned that temporary insanity had taken over her that previous evening, all would be well, for I would live in that perfect moment for many a year to come. And as I write this narrative it is obvious to me now that I still do to this day.
However, arrive on time she did, and as I saw her step off the bus, dressed in a light summer dress and wide-brimmed hat, my heart seemed fit to burst with wonder and happiness.
“You came,” I said, trying to keep the astonishment out of my voice.
“Why wouldn’t I?” she smiled, “I love markets, and I’ve never been to this one. Come on, you can show me where all the bargains are”
We walked hand in hand around the market, stopping here and there to look at this, pick up that and laugh at the other, all the time receiving those same incredulous looks from passers-by.
“Do you see them?’ she asked after a while.
“I see them” I replied, “and to be honest I have asked myself the very question that they so badly want to ask”
Donna stopped and turned to me tilting her head to one side as if to ask a silent question.
“And what would that be?” she said, giving her actions a voice.
I cleared my throat in nervousness, for I feared that the mere asking of that question would somehow break this spell that seemed to have enchanted my date. A cure almost to some evil bewitchment that had been placed on one of this worlds most precious of creatures in order that some perverse punishment be acted out until released by that very act of realisation.
“Why is she with him?”
I shrugged and paused.
Donna put her hand to her mouth.
My heart sank, for I knew it was only a matter of time before she asked this question for herself.
“You really can’t see it can you?”
“See what?” I asked, for her question had thrown me off of my tracks a little. She took my hand once more and placed it on the side of her face.
“This,” she said, “This is what they see. It’s not enough that there is a little black chick walking around with a tall white boy, who I have to say reminds me a lot of Beaker from The Muppets”
“Not Mel Gibson then?”
“I afraid not” laughed Donna, “But if the truth be told, I never liked Mel that much anyway”
I nodded sagely.
“How does Beaker rate in the hot stakes?” I asked.
She brushed a loose hair away from my face.
“I am very attracted to Beaker”
The smile that crossed my face at that moment was so wide that it was in serious danger of meeting around the back of my head.
“Having said that”, she continued, “I am beginning to wonder about his eyesight, and maybe his sanity”
There was a pause that sat between us. Not an uncomfortable silence as such, but an unwelcome gap in the conversation. I bowed my head slightly and looked at the ground as I arranged my thoughts into something less than the bag of cats that seemed to inhabit my everyday thinking. I knew what she was talking about, but I honestly thought the world saw her as I did.
“Come with me,” I said with a sigh, and led Donna to a nearby bench that looked over the Thames River. I stared into its torrid and murky depths for a while as I composed myself for what I was about to say.
My first words were spoken to the water.
“I consider myself to be a little simple, but simple in terms of being basic, not stupid. I see that you are black, and I see that we must make a pretty odd looking pair, but this is the eighties and we all should be over that by now – God knows I am”
I turned to her and placed my hand on her cheek before carrying on with my words.
“I also see the burn scars on your face and neck”
Donna seemed to flinch at my outing of what was plain for all to see. It was as if she was hoping that I hadn’t noticed. I carried on regardless, disregarding her obvious and unnecessary shame. Holding her gaze as I spoke.
“But hear me now”, I said, “As I tell you what else I see. I see the smile you give to everyone who would do nothing more for you than to return that simple act of kindness with unnecessary looks of disgust.
I see you walk in a world that would turn away from you rather than get to know the girl behind the scars. I see the strength of a woman who has had to live with a disfigurement that, in truth, is only skin deep, but judged by people whose own disfigurements run to their very souls.
I see confidence.
I see love.
I see you.
This is your beauty, and this is what I have loved from afar since the first day I saw you. I have always figured you beyond me, Donna, because you are quite simply a goddess in my eyes, and my heart beats for you and you only”
As I stared into those beautiful eyes, I could see once more the tears welling up inside them.
“I don’t like that hat though” I added, “You need to know this if we are to go on any more dates”.
Donna half laughed which stifled the sob that partially left her lips.
I placed the tips of my fingers on her chin and tilted her face upwards.
We kissed – and the world watched.
After a while, we stood and walked slowly along the waterfront, hand in hand towards the Maritime Museum and I felt then that I would hold her hand forever.
“I was two years old”, she said.
“So was I”, I replied in an amazed tone, “What a coincidence”
“I’m trying to tell you a story”, said Donna as she playfully slapped my arm.
“Okay, please continue – and Ow! by the way”
The decision by her family to move, six months later, meant both Donna and I were forced to move on with our lives, creating a new scar — one that ran across my heart. Throughout the years I have often wondered where she had gone and what she had become.
My world moved on without her, and I eventually married and had children of my own – and last year, a grandchild.
My times with Donna became a part of the fond memories of my youth, clouded by the years and glamorised by time.
And then, last month I received a letter from her daughter. How she had found me after all these years or knew who I was must have been a feat of detection equaled only by the great Holmes himself. My heart skipped when I saw her name and I was instantly transported back to that time of innocence, but instead of an attempt at rekindling an old and lost friendship, she informed me that at fifty years old Donna, her mother, had been diagnosed with incurable breast cancer.
I sat alone for quite some time, staring at the letter, reading the words until they slowly became illegible by the tears that ran the ink into a blur. And as I mourned this loss of something I never really had, her words floated up through the spring of times lost.
‘How would you describe me?’ I asked.
‘I would describe you as uncaring — Uncaring of this world’s prejudice, and to what it thinks of others’
This morning Donna stopped holding my hand.