Alex felt the heat from the scorching midday sun beating down on the back of her head. It was a dizzying hot summer’s day and the flashbacks flickered through her mind just as she took a small step forward.
First came the school playground. A place where lifelong friendships are forged and where moments shape a person into what they later become. There stood a 7-year-old boy and a slightly older girl. The boy stood quite still, wearing little round glasses with brown plastic frames. He lifted his hand and shielded his pretty blue eyes from the sun. He was a skinny specimen in grey shorts with elasticated waist, a crisp white shirt and knee-high socks.
Alex observed her childish self; she was somewhat taller and thicker set than the boy, her curly red hair forced back into a bunch with a bright blue bobble. She was wearing her blue gingham summer uniform and she carried a purple skipping rope, which dangled down from her right hand.
‘Move’ she said forcefully, standing directly in front of the boy. She stood firmly, hands on hips, her pretty face contorted with contempt. The boy stood still, rooted to the spot. Alex relished the feeling of power she had over him especially since everyone else teased her for being freckly and ginger. She was taking back control. This was the first time she had picked on him; it felt good for those few seconds. ‘Are you deaf as well as stupid’ she said meanly, poking him in the chest with the plastic end of the skipping rope.
‘You could go around me’ he answered bravely, standing up straight, growing just a fraction in height and confidence. ‘The playground is big enough for everyone’.
Alex’s face reddened and screwed up with anger. She took a step forward and leaned in towards him spitting in his face as she spoke ‘Give me your lunch money stupid. You look like a monkey with your messy hair and your sticky out ears. Do it now or you’ll be sorry.’
The boy thought for a moment and chewed his lip. He fiddled with the shiny coins in his pocket and with a considered look on his face he finally held them out in his sweaty hand. He breathed deeply to stop the tears that threatened to fall from the corners of his eyes. As Alex went to snatch her spoils he curled his fingers back around the money, silently put it back in his pocket, turned and walked away.
Without hesitation Alex flung her rope out and whipped the back of his legs quickly with a sharp thwack, the cheap nylon leaving red welts on the backs of his knees. ‘That’ll teach him’ she thought as she waited for his response. The boy didn’t falter, he kept walking and he didn’t look back. She was momentarily puzzled. Why hadn’t he cried? Why hadn’t he challenged her? He had turned the other cheek. This was bravery.
Another memory quickly replaced the first. It was a cold and crisp autumn day. Alex’s dad was pushing the rusty red bike through piles of red and brown leaves on the pavement outside no. 47. The stabilisers had finally been taken off. ‘If you believe in yourself you can do it’ he called encouragingly, his hand cupped by the side of his mouth, as she began wobbling down the street on two wheels for the very first time. Dressed in warm clothes and wearing elbow pads and helmet Alex started pedalling, unsteady steering giving way to confidence. ‘Yes!’ Her dad shouted ‘Yes! I knew you could do it’.
As the bike gathered pace down the gentle hill Alex noticed the familiar face of a boy wearing glasses watching her. At about the same time, she realised that the brakes were failing and as her concentration lapsed both bike and rider clattered in a heap on the pavement. Alex stood up and brushed the leaves from her woolly jumper. She was embarrassed having fallen but she waved at her dad from the bottom of the hill and grinned despite the bruised knees and grazed knuckles. She looked around for the boy. He was standing beside his own garden-gate half way up the hill, craning his neck to see if she was ok. They exchanged shy smiles as the boy gave her the thumbs up to congratulate her bike-riding success. With an extraordinary feeling of self-belief never previously experienced, Alex ran back up the hill with the bike. This was confidence.
The fleeting memory of confidence dissipated as the desperate and unnerving whining sound of an animal in pain flooded through Alex’s troubled mind. Like a tidal wave it swept the optimistic feeling of the previous memory crashing to one side.
Barnaby lay on his side, wrapped up in a thick red jumper. He shivered, his eyes opening now and then as a tiny whimper escaped his mouth. The elderly black Labrador foamed gently at the mouth while the boy and the girl sat cross-legged on the floor, side by side and tempted him with water, squeezing a sponge between his lips one last time. Barnaby was the boy’s dog and he was leaving. He had been poorly for weeks and nobody could bear to see him hurting any more.
The lady in the green veterinary nurses uniform picked up his weary body and gently carried him to the table. Family and friends crowded round, each one holding a paw, stroking their friend Barnaby’s grey chin or his velvet ears. Salty tears rolled silently down the faces of his people as Barnaby slipped gently away from one world, and unseen by the family, bounded into the next released from pain and suffering. Twelve year old, red headed Alex reached out for her best friend’s hand and squeezed it gently as his tears trickled down behind his glasses. Through the dream-like haze, Alex felt the prickle of new tears forming at the memory shared by two childhood friends. This was loss.
Another quick flash and she was looking through the picture window of a small cottage. The man before her was big and strong, much changed from his awkward younger self. He was tall, manly and wearing a smart suit. The woman matched him in height, her demeanour displaying a gentleness brought on by maturity. Her thick red curls were pulled back from her face with a headband of blue flowers. She wore a pretty white cotton dress and no shoes. A ceiling fan above them gently circled, cooling the oppressive summer night.
The familiar scene was a memory from a life filled with remarkable moments. As the sultry tones of At Last by Etta James filled the room, the man took off his glasses to reveal his pretty blue eyes and pulled his love towards him, his lips gently brushing hers. Their eyes locked as they moved slowly back and forth in time to the music. He took her hand in his as they edged towards the door and he tenderly touched her cheek. Electricity filled the air as a storm brewed outside. She smiled at him, an unmistakable look of adoration and longing. He led her into the bedroom and gently closed the door as thunder grumbled and lightning struck. This was love.
One memory merged into the next as the sound of thunder intensified. Suddenly trapped in a harsh memory of war that had played over and over in her mind a thousand times Alex remembered a baking hot day in the desert. The air was dusty and dry, so dry it caught in her throat. The muffled sound of gunfire and exploding grenades in the distance was replaced suddenly by an almighty intense flash of orange and a deafening boom. The full force of the explosion threw a dirt-covered truck carrying military personnel upside down. Panic ensued. Sound became muted, barely audible.
The medic with the thick red hair ran to the aid of the soldiers in the truck. Others ran the other way, their arms gesturing her to safety. Alex was alone as she reached the silently smouldering truck and frantically searched, hands desperately clawing at the wreckage for signs of life. Initially there was none. And then she found him. Once so big and strong, he now lay there broken and bleeding, barely breathing. She gathered every ounce of strength she could muster and pulled him to safety, dragging him away from the wreckage like a doll. The truck exploded and the man’s glasses fell from his pocket and onto the dirt. With one final explosion shrapnel flew through the air and life ebbed away. This was death.
The flashbacks stopped as Alex gulped air into her lungs frantically, her heart beating wildly against her rib cage and her eyes flew open. The pavement rushed up towards her face, her red curls flying out behind her.
In the last moments of her life he was there. The awkward scrawny boy, her best friend, her lover, the broken man in uniform. He had reached out to her from beyond life to remind her of an extraordinary existence of shared moments. They had grown together, the awkward little boy and the feisty red head. Alex had loved him more than life itself and life had tortured her with his loss.
In that split second as the pavement at the foot of the tallest building in the city greeted Corporal Alexandra Stone, she remembered love, she remembered bravery, she remembered all that she had learned with him and from him. She knew he had made her a better person and as her life drew to a close she wished she could have taken one step back instead of forward. This was regret.