Sophie is looking at me as though she loves me. She has not looked at me with this expression for decades, certainly not since we separated, and most definitely not after the divorce. It’s probably just gratitude for helping to save her – our – children. I cannot be sure. But it is good to see it again. 

I let Clara go, let her turn to her mother and her brother. I wonder what was so important that I couldn’t come to the park with my children today. I have lived with the loss of my children – and my wife – for three decades. Whatever caused my absence, was it so important that I would ruin nearly half my life for it? 

Then I remember.

“Thank you,” I say to the man. He is startled, as though I’ve interrupted his thoughts. But I have to show my appreciation for what he has done. Impulsively, I step forward, giving him a hug. I am about to pull away – he is a stranger, after all – then I catch the scent of him. I rest my head on his shoulder, and let the memories come. Holding George like this after he’d said hello to the twins after a day out at work: I’d draw the smell of him – sandalwood and musk – into my nose, as though I could hold it there like a perpetual memory.

Gradually, understanding dawns. It makes no sense, no sense at all. But I know that this man is George. I just know; it’s as clear to me as when Clara tells me that Harry has a tummy ache; the knowing of twins; the knowing of husband and wife.

I whisper his name like a question, and he pulls me closer. “My Sophie,” I hear, an almost silent murmur against my ear. I do not understand this. He is older, greyer, leaner, and he carries grief and regret with him, they are as tangible as the wool of his coat against my cheek. 

I clutch at him, my knees weakening. This is a George I will never know; an old George whom I have left behind. The words are in my mind, but I don’t know where they come from. They are real, they are truth – I feel it – and I don’t know what to do.

I hold Sophie to me. How can I let her go? This is the last time I shall be allowed to feel her heartbeat against mine. After this, she will leave me. She will cry and rail and shout and grieve, then she will close me out. Then the accusations: I should have been there; I shouldn’t have gone out; I must be having an affair. She will say I am responsible for shattering her life. It will be my fault. She will refuse to discuss it with me. 

It will be horrible. 

I forgive her. 

should have been there. We were a family, and I should have gone to the park, instead of to my uncle. I should have handled our finances better, then I needn’t have approached the banks for a loan. The shame of their refusals – our income is too low, we are not a good risk. Uncle Norris was my last chance; he was, to all intents and purposes, a loan shark. And he enjoyed his power, and he kept me there for hours before condescendingly offering his terms.

I should have been with my family. 

As it turned out, we didn’t need the loan. Within weeks of losing the children, Sophie had left me, moved in with her sister, and I was in a small flat with only my pain for company. The solicitors arranged for the sale of the house, and our debts were cleared. 

My Sophie: I forgive you. 

I hold her to me, needing to keep her in my arms.

This is George, a George I will never know, and being with him feels strange: as though I have been missing him for years, instead of since just this morning. The distance in his manner has gone, and he is holding me as though he will never let me go. 

Then Clara tugs at my arm, pulling me away, and I remember the twins need me. I look up at George’s face, his beloved face, and I rest a hand on his cheek, willing my tenderness and my love and my gratitude into his skin, into his bones. His eyes are sad, but there is a light there, behind the regret, and I know that it is time to part.

“Thank you,” I whisper just before the children drag me away. I have one child in each hand, holding them tight. I want to make sure George knows that I recognise him. I mouth “I love you” and am both heartened and heartbroken to see him whisper it back to me. 

Whatever this is, however strange this meeting, my children are safe, when I thought that they were lost to me. Something has shifted in me, but it may be some time before I fully understand what, how, or why.

We cross the bridge to the other side, and I am relieved, and I take the children home.

I watch them go, my Sophie, my Clara, my Harry. I watch them until they disappear from sight, and I commit the image to memory, branding it into my brain, determined I will not forget. Sophie knew me, loves me, and that will have to be enough.
The sun has passed beyond the trees; time is moving again. I check my watch. The second hand is moving forward, and it is only a few minutes short of seven. I hurry across the bridge, back to the gap between worlds, between time. I can see it gleam and flash, an irregularity hanging in the air like a brightly-coloured flame.
I have only seconds to go. Part of me wants to remain here, but I fear that if I do, I will ruin Sophie’s George. Here, in this parallel space, she has her family intact. That is all I can do; that is what I promised when I bought this watch from the pawnbrokers eleven months ago. I vowed that I would heal my Sophie, that I would forgive her, that I would grant her peace.
I step through the gold and violet light and hear it snap closed behind me. I walk back into the mist, feeling the pain in my fingers return, the ache in my bones. I feel the cold, and the damp, and hear the rook cawing high above me. This tree, its skeleton is as spare as mine.
I turn to look at the bridge. It is empty. It holds no ghosts for me now. I have saved my children, my Sophie, and somewhere, they are happy. Somewhere, they are with me. I have kept my promise and I smile.

~~~ THE END ~~~

We hope you enjoyed this serialisation of one of the short stories from our “Dark Perfume” collection.
Here are the links to the earlier sections:

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

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