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That couple by the river

This is a slightly-edited copy-and-paste of one of many story e-mails I’m writing about my everyday adventures to a friend, Cheryl, as she spends a year teaching English in China. It’s both my way of letting her know what’s going on back home, and an excuse for me to write more.

The assignment from the last writing group meeting was to come up with something to accompany 1 of 2 pictures, attached to an e-mail to the group. When I first got the e-mail, I couldn’t load the full images properly because I was on my phone. The thumbnails loaded fine though, so all I got was a tiny glimpse of 2 tiny images on my phone’s tiny screen. The first image looked like people holding their phones up to the sky at night. The second looked like an old couple posing for a photo.

I decided to write something about the second picture.

When I finally loaded the full image at home, I found the couple weren’t old at all, although the photo was definitely made to look like it was: the 2 people in the image wearing clothes and hairstyles from another era, and a light sepia/desaturated effect applied to the photo to give it a feeling of age. Those must have been what gave me the ‘old couple’ vibe.

The thing is, when I thought ‘old couple’ earlier that day, my mind already started writing bits and pieces of a story about an older couple in my head. So, regardless of the youthfulness of the 2 in the photo, I ran with the old couple idea.

I thought we had to write something on the night, just like the last writing exercise. Turns out we were actually supposed to write something beforehand, so while everyone else turned-up with their pieces, I showed-up empty-handed. Whoops.

But, with the narrative already occupying my head, I told myself to write about it afterwards anyway.

That couple by the river

“Henry, could you please do up your buttons?” shouted the lady, the annoyance in her voice somehow amplified by her Scottish accent. “You’re going to look ridiculous with your coat flapping all over the place in this wind like that!”

“Well if someone didn’t tell me to bring the thing on this fine sunny day, we wouldn’t be having this problem now would we Glenda?” replied the man in an equally strong Scottish tone.

“Oh? Did our vows all those years ago include that I’d have to be a weatherman too?”

It went like this for, what felt to Elizabeth like, 5 minutes. Drawing stares from all the other passers-by, she stood her ground nervously before this couple, likely tourists from the UK, waiting for them to finally organize and compose themselves so she could do what they initially asked of her: to take their photo.

It was supposed to be just another simple, quiet, and solitary day. It certainly started that way; she managed to sleep in, didn’t have any plans for the day, and so there was a good gap over lunch and the afternoon to do her usual mindless wandering: reading a book at the library, grabbing lunch from the nearby café, sitting down with said lunch on a bench by the river, then not moving from that spot as she ate and alternated between people-watching and staring into nowhere in particular, letting her mind sort through the multitude of thoughts that were weighing on her.

More recently those thoughts had been of negative things: 2 couples amongst her friends had broken-up, another couple had just filed for divorce, and all of a sudden it seemed like everybody was falling to pieces, humanity was driving itself to extinction, and love was right up there with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy - a myth you told people so they could sleep at night.

It was a pretty destructive line of thinking, but just as she was about to head home and do something stupid like dive into another pot of ice cream while watching Gossip Girl, an old lady with an accent came up to her with a phone in an outstretched hand and asked, “Hi, could you please take our photo?”

And now here she was, listening to Henry and Glenda (she learned their names pretty quickly; they liked to throw them at each other, invoking them as if to guide their latest sentence and make it home-in on the right target like a heat-seeking missile) bicker and argue about every little thing, going on tangents that led to even more bickering and arguing, in an effort to curate a “perfect” photo of them together.

Mmmhmm, love is a myth. I wonder how long have these 2 been together? Elizabeth wondered.

“Why Glenda, in all our 48 years of marriage!” shouted Henry.

Yup, there’s my answer. Why can’t I ever say ‘no’ and just walk away from these sorts of things? she thought, alluding to a recent personality test she took that basically marked her as a pushover: a strong sense of obligation and duty, and finding meaning in serving others; both wonderful traits on paper, but both having this terrible consequence of overriding her flight response and thus keeping her rooted to the ground while a couple she has no obligations whatsoever to, nitpick over everything.

“My God, our grandson Oliver is easier to dress than you!” cried Glenda.

Huh, they’ve got grandkids. Guess they did something right.

48 years? Grandchildren? At a time when Elizabeth’s thoughts were dwelling on recent breakups amongst friends and her own perpetual singledom, the idea that these 2 could stick together long enough to kick-off a decent family tree and go on this whirlwind tour of the world together was somewhat comforting, almost hopeful.

“We’re ready dear,” said Glenda, at Elizabeth. “Thanks for waiting.”

“Hmm?” mumbled Elizabeth, shaking off her reverie, only to be surprised by Henry and Glenda, standing, lovingly, side-by-side, as if none of the shouting just moments before ever happened.

“Haha,” laughed Henry, “it seems we’ve put the young lady to sleep.”

“That’s why you got to tell the kids their bedtime stories.” replied Glenda, turning towards Henry admiringly, without the usual bite in her voice that Elizabeth was hearing a few minutes ago.

“And here I thought it was because I was a fantastic story teller.” said Henry, returning the gaze.

Oh no, don’t…

Henry and Glenda leaned in towards each other and shared a few quick kisses as Elizabeth tried to shield the view with the phone Glenda gave her earlier. Looking away rather embarrassingly, she managed to take a photo just as the couple pulled-away from a kiss, capturing the adoration each had for the other in their eyes and in their smiles.