Sunlight streams in through the stained-glass window of the old, stone church. Marissa looks at Nigel dressed in his top hat and tails. He cuts a dashing figure, what with his aristocratic good looks, his aquiline nose, his eyes – hazel, flecked with green – and his Byronic blond curls. She remembers weaving her fingers into his blond curls, kissing those Mick Jagger lips. Nigel turns to look at her and his radiant smile slices through her. Suddenly she feels vulnerable, lost and remembers the day she first met him at the students’ bar at Bart’s Hospital. Will she be able to keep up this masquerade of exotic ex-lover, ever the best of mates?
Memories flood back of their first meeting all those years ago. She had left Trinidad to train as a nurse in London in the 70s. She remembers the cold, wintry nights, the loneliness of being away from her family and friends. Would she ever get over this sense of loss, of the emptiness deep within? Then she had met Nigel, the medical student whom all the nurses raved about.
She remembers him walking up to her at the bar at Bart’s, with an air of disguised nonchalance.
“I say, my friends have just made a bet with me. They insist I would not be bold enough to ask you for a date. Will you go to the theatre with me?”
Marissa looks up at his beaming face.
“A dare is a dare. But can I trust you, Oh smiling one. Tell me, have we met?”
“Nigel Carmichael, at your service, Ma’am.”
“Alright then, Nigel, what about the opera, Madam Butterfly, Saddler’s Wells, Saturday. I come off night duty on Friday.”
“Friday, it is then, Marissa Samson. I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“I thought you already had,” said Marissa, her laughter echoing across the crowded bar room.
She sees Nigel looking adoringly at his beautiful bride. Samantha is an English rose if ever there was one. Her auburn tresses are weaved with little white flowers and looped round her head. A veil held with a single strand of pearls encircles her forehead. Her wedding gown, Victorian lace of the palest ivory, clinched at the waist, accentuates her slender figure. A classic Jane Austen design, the cost of which would have kept Jane in the manner befitting the wife of an English aristocrat. There is nothing plain about the dress. Samantha’s violet-blue eyes and her peaches and rose complexion exude an aura of love and devotion to Nigel. She and Nigel are locked in an intense gaze as they exchange marriage vows.
The sun goes behind a cloud and one is reminded again of those autumn days in England, when the beauty of a summer’s day is for a moment masked by the sudden gloom that descends briefly. Nigel looks up and sees Marissa. She sees the shadow that flits across his face, before he smiles at her.
His mind registers the gold clutch bag and the flamboyant Prada stilettoes. Marissa always knew how to make an entrance. She certainly stood out in this genteel gathering, with her Afro curls, her Rubenesque figure and her kohl-lined almond eyes. Marissa shrugs her shoulders, waves to Nigel and Samantha and turns her attention to Christos, her partner. A striking man in his forties, with hair greying at the temples and film star looks that belie his credentials as a distinguished scientist and professor of medicine.
In the 1980s Marissa, bored with the routine and hierarchy of the large London teaching hospitals, had on impulse applied as a volunteer with Médecins Sans Frontières in Zambia. She was convinced that travel would be the antidote to the emptiness and lack of challenge in her life. Do we choose the life we lead or does destiny play a hand?
The wedding party is celebrating with champagne and there is laughter and much joy. The gods have a strange way of disrupting the best-made plans, Marissa muses.
She remembers her first date with Nigel, and the nights they spent together in his flat in Hampstead. They had become an item. Often he would pick her up on his motorbike after her night shift and they would spend the weekend with his parents in the country.
The relationship became more complicated when she had to move to Devon to do midwifery. Nigel was specialising in neurosurgery and often worked late into the night. They spent weeks not seeing each other because of her shifts and his study commitments. Life was lonely then with weekends apart, endless phone calls, writing letters and anticipating holidays when they could be together. It was then that she saw an advertisement for Médecins Sans Frontières, for nurses to work in Zambia.
“Nigel, it will only be for a year, by which time you will have finished your studies, and we’ll be together for all time,“ she had said.
Well, the gods had deemed otherwise. Do we choose the life we lead, or does the silent hand of time move on within the trajectory of the planets, she ponders.
Marissa smiles to herself as she looks at her husband Christos. She had gone to Africa, and met Christos. His friends had joked that Christos was a man who before he met her had only been interested in microbes and plasmodia. She remembers his firm handshake and the look in his honey-brown eyes as she stretched out her hand to introduce herself to him. Within three months she had written a “Dear John” letter to tell Nigel she had fallen in love with a man, 15 years her senior but whom she felt was her soul mate.
She and Nigel had remained friends, but it took Nigel a long time before he could forgive Marissa for the emptiness he felt within. The invitation to the wedding was his way of letting her know that he had finally forgiven her.
For a moment, time stands still as Marissa and Nigel look at each other across the crowded churchyard. Both are caught in a time warp, of years gone by and of the innocence and pain of first love. A line from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s My First Marriage flashes through her mind:
“But I know – and that is how I go on living the way I do, and even enjoy my life and be glad – that one day I shall succeed and I shall see that face as it really is. But whose face it is I shall see in that hour of happiness – and indeed, whose face it is I look for with such longing – is not quite clear to me.”
Marissa feels an involuntary shiver down her spine. Will she always experience this sense of betrayal and loss?
The sound of popping champagne corks and Moet overflowing crystal flutes breaks the spell, as laughter like a running brook fills the air. Marissa reaches out for Christos’ hand as they toast the happy couple. She smiles at Christos. Deep within she finds the truth she has been searching for.
No regrets. She has no regrets. Everything is as it should be.
Bhama Daly was born in Kuala Lumpur. New horizons beckoned and, in the 1970s, she pursued a career in nursing in London. She migrated to Cairns with her husband Simon in 1978. They have two sons. Bhama’s career has embraced not only nursing but also academic work at the University of Queensland and the James Cook University, Cairns. Her research and writing are informed by stories, myths and legends and the way in which they provide explanations for being in the world. Bhama’s interests include writing, reading, Yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba and, a topic of endless procrastination, how not to write the best-selling novel.