Saturday, 4 May 2013

Twist in the tale

   The Perils Of Long Distance Love

    It happened a couple of years ago. Her name was Mandy. A pale, wisp of a girl hiding behind a thick fringe of mousy hair and heavy-duty glasses. Shy, awkward and withdrawn, she slipped in like a wraith, hardly ever looked up from her computer screen, munched a sandwich from a white plastic box at lunchtime, and slipped out when it was time to go home. Of course, she would talk if you spoke to her---that is, after she'd jumped a foot into the air. So after a while no one took much notice of her any more. No one bothered.
    And then one day it all changed.
    Actually the change had been happening gradually, only it hadn't registered in anyone's consciousness. And then it did. Because the creature that Mandy had become could not be ignored any more; the heavy glasses were gone to reveal eyes with the silvery blue sparkle of a mountain stream. The hair now cascaded in glossy chestnut waves around her shoulders. The pert lips had just the right amount of lip gloss........but all that was nothing compared to the real difference in Mandy.
    This was something from deep within, as if a light had been turned on inside. Mandy was vibrant and sparky with the sheer joy of being alive.
    In short, Mandy was beautiful.
    Everyone was stunned. No one had ever seen such a metamorphosis before--- a multihued butterfly, calm and confident of its glorious presence among lesser beings. Everyone was bewitched---especially us guys. But we were to be disappointed.
    "His name is Mark," said Mandy. "We met at the bus stop. He's the best, he is really something else," she enthused. "Of course we've got to be sensible. We mustn't rush things. It's important that we take the time to get to know each other properly. If you try to fast track a relationship, it will fail. Happens all the time," she finished with a superior air. But we didn't mind. This was Mandy's time. Even some of the more envious girls were forced to concede that it was time she had some fun. Because Mandy was a nice person. Always had been, now that they thought about it.
    Every day Mandy prattled on and on about Mark. We glanced at each other and smiled. She was in love. Utterly and completely. Good for her! Just look at the change. Just look!
    And every day she floated among us, speaking in this quietly excited voice, and all of us were happy to behold this radiant girl who made our own day a little brighter.
    So it wasn't too difficult to notice when everything wasn't quite the way it should have been.
    A slight tension in the air, the lightest of frown lines on Mandy's brow. We feared the worst, and nodded wisely. Haven't all good things a nasty habit of coming to an end? Wasn't it all just a matter of time?
    But no. Mandy and Mark were still together. Only now she had a framed photograph of him. On her desk, just a glance away from her computer screen. So she had no choice but to fill us in on that aspect of Mark which she had been reluctant to mention all along.
    Oh yes, Mark was a handsome, dashing figure of a young man, fresh-faced and so elegant even when standing quite stiff and straight in his brown soldier's uniform. "It's been my worst fear. And now it's happened," moaned Mandy. "He's been posted to Afghanistan. What's really worrying is that he'll be going to the Helmand province. One of the worst places to be, so I've heard. Terrible things happen there." Mandy's lips quivered. I noticed that her eyes had become dark-circled and haunted.
    We all made the usual reassuring noises.
    What else could we do? On the other hand if Mark had chosen to be a soldier, then he had to be ready to man up and take his chances when the time came. Duty is duty. I was careful not to say this out loud, though.
    But Mandy was tough, as are most people who are in love for the first time in their lives. It was true that most of her effervescent cheer had gone, but that deep down contentment was still visible. She was going to pull through this difficult time. Mark would be fine. Yes, it wasn't going to be easy, this long and agonizing wait. But it would be over one day. And then he would be back home again and they could go on making those wonderful plans for the future. All those plans that had been so cruelly cut short by his departure.
    And, sure enough, the days went by and there were only two weeks left to go of Mark's tour of duty.
    It happened around 11am one morning, as I remember. A day just like any other day, as the words of the song go. We were having a coffee downstairs, when some of us glanced up. A cell phone had started ringing. It was Mandy's, and she was standing right at the top of a long flight of stairs, about to take her first step to come down and join us in our mid-morning coffee break.
    Mandy had the 'phone out in one fluid movement, faster than you have ever seen any cowboy draw in a Wild West movie.
    "Hello?" she said.
    And then her face went blank, the way a creased shirt does when you pass a hot iron over it. She swayed, clutching the banister, her eyes rolled up, her mouth opened in a soundless scream. And she crumpled, her knees bending, pitching her forwards. A sickening 'thunk' and Mandy began rolling down the rock-hard flight of stairs, banging on each step, arms and legs flying like a demented puppet, even as we ran up to stop her.
    It was a very long flight of stairs. She was way up, and we were way down below. Somebody called an ambulance. Mandy's eyes were closed. Limp, lifeless limbs jutted out at unusual angles. We thought she was dead, but they revived her in the ambulance. And at the hospital she went straight into intensive care.
    None of us were fit for any more work that day. We were too badly shaken and were sent home.
    It wasn't until the next afternoon that we heard the news.
    And the news we had went like this;
Mandy had concussion, a fractured skull, several broken bones, bruises and ruptures. She would need at least three months in hospital and a series of operations to recover fully. But recover she would. Everyone was certain. Why? Because she had every reason to want to recover, that's why.
    The voice on her cell phone had been that of Major Calhoun, Mark's commanding officer in Afghanistan. Mandy had recognised him instantly, and collapsed, certain that the worst had happened. The shock had been too great, her nightmare suddenly a living, breathing, evil thing as it clutched her in its cold embrace. 
     Sure, Major Calhoun had been calling from base camp in Helmand province in Afghanistan, and yes, it was about Mark. He had taken a gunshot wound and was being flown back home that evening. He was out of danger but would need one month in hospital---compared to Mandy's three.
    Someone joked that it seemed you could get hurt worse just staying at home than you would ever get being sent to old Helmand. No one laughed.
    Well, there they lay, by special arrangement, side by side in their hospital beds in the same room. Bruised and battered young lovers, holding hands across the bed sheets and taking up from where they had left off planning their future together, surrounded by the big bunches of flowers we had brought in. "So romantic!" whispered one of the nurses.
    After all, it has been said that the path of true love never runs easy.
    Anyway, all the likes of me can do is to raise a glass and say, "here's to you, Mandy and Mark. May you live to be a hundred!"

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