FATE

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A 4500 word (15 minute read) romantic story about what could have been ...
1


The year was 1950. Andrew and Libby were late, which meant they both had to take the only available seat left in the train-coach. It was the one that faced the wrong way. Andrew heaved their suitcase onto the overhead rack and they both sat down and made themselves comfortable.

They would now be staring self-consciously into the faces of another couple, all the way to Glasgow, unless they put up a barrier of a newspaper or a magazine.

Andrew didn't seem to mind. But that was a little bit disappointing to Libby. Usually they experienced their moods in common. That, Andrew claimed, was why he remained sure that he had married the right girl.

Andrew often would say, "We suit each other, Libby, and that's the key thing. There are no other possibilities, and, of course, there are no other girls."

Libby would laugh and say, "Yeah, but if you hadn't been on the bus that day, you would probably never have met me. What would you have done then?"

"I’d have remained a bachelor. Naturally. Besides, I would have met you through Aileen another day."

"But that wouldn't have been the same."

"Of course it would have." he says

"No, it wouldn't. Aileen would never have introduced me to you. She fancied you herself, and she's the type of girl who knows how to get what she wants.

"That’s just plain nonsense."

Libby then asked him her favourite question: "Andrew, what if you had been one minute later at the bus-stop that day and had taken the next bus? What do you suppose would have happened?"

2

But they both had caught the same bus, that was the point, and now they had been happily married for five years.

Libby then remembered the present problem. "I wish we could have found some other seat."

Andrew says, "Sure. So do I. But no couple had taken this seat yet, so that is why we are sitting in it.”

Libby was not amused. She felt herself justified when a little man walked down the central aisle of their coach. Now, where had he come from? The train was halfway between London and Glasgow, and if he had had a seat, why hadn't he kept it?

Libby took out her vanity-mirror and considered her reflection. She had a theory that if she just ignored the little man, he would pass by. So she concentrated on fixing her light-brown hair which, in the rush of catching the train, had become a bit dishevelled. She was quite happy with her blue eyes, and her little mouth, and plump lips, which Andrew said looked like a permanent kiss.

Not bad, she thought.

Then she looked up. The little man was now in the seat opposite. He caught her eye and grinned widely. A series of lines curled around the edges of his smile. He lifted his hat and put it down beside him on top of a little black box he had been carrying. A circle of white hair could be seen surrounding his large bald spot.

Libby could not help smiling back a little, but then she caught sight of the black box again and her smile faded. She yanked at Andrew’s elbow.

The couple across from them got off at Crewe. The little man, jumped up, and took over the departing couple’s seat, and he was now sitting opposite Andrew and Libby, with his box.

Andrew looked up from his newspaper. He had thick dark eyebrows that almost met above the bridge of his nose, giving him a formidable first appearance. But his eyes beneath had a look of pleased, and somewhat amused, affection.

He said, "What's up?" He did not look at the little man opposite.

Libby did her best to indicate what she saw by unobtrusive gestures of her hand and head. But the little man was watching her and she felt a fool, since Andrew simply stared at her blankly.

She pulled him closer and whispered, "Look what's printed on his box?"

Libby looked again as she said it, and there was no mistake. It was not very prominent, but when the light caught it at an angle the flowing script said, “Fate”

The little man was smiling again. He nodded his head and pointed to the words on the box and then to himself several times over.

Andrew said "It must be his name."

Libby replied, "Oh, how could anybody have a name like that?"

Andrew put his paper down. "I'll show you." He leaned over and said, "Mr. Fate?”

The little man looked at him eagerly.

"Do you have the time, Mr. Fate?”

The little man took out a large watch from his vest pocket and displayed the dial.

"Thank you, Mr. Fate" said Andrew. And again in a whisper, "See, Libby"

Andrew would have returned to his paper, but the little man was now opening his box and waving his finger about to attract their attention. He took out what appeared to be a slab of frosted glass about six by nine inches in length and maybe about an inch thick. It had bevelled edges, rounded corners, and was completely blank. He then took out a little wire stand on which the glass slab fitted comfortably. He rested this item on his knees and looked at them, proudly.

Libby said, with excitement, "Heavens, Andrew, it's a picture of some sort."

Andrew leaned over close. Then he looked at the little man. "What's this? A new kind of portable television?"

The little man shook his head, and Libby said, "No, Andrew, it's us."

"What?"

"Don't you see? That's the bus we met on. There you are in the back seat wearing that old hat I threw away three years ago. And that's Aileen and myself getting on. That fat lady's in the way. Now! Look! Can't you see us?"

Andrew muttered, "It's some sort of illusion."

"But you see it too, don't you? That's why he calls this “Fate”. It will show us what could have happened …"

She was sure of it. She was very excited. As she looked at the picture on the glass slab, the late afternoon sunshine grew dimmer and the chatter of the other passengers around them began to fade.

Oh how Libby remembered that day. Andrew knew Aileen, and had been about to surrender his seat to her, when the bus swerved and threw Libby into his lap. It was such a ridiculously clichéd situation, but it had worked. Libby had been so embarrassed that Andrew was, forced first into gallantry, and then into conversation. An introduction from Aileen had not even been necessary. By the time they got off the bus, he knew where she worked.

Libby could still remember Aileen glowering at her, sulkily forcing a smile when they themselves separated. Aileen said, at the time, "Andrew seems to like you."

Libby had replied, "Oh, don't be silly! He was just being polite. But he is nice-looking, isn't he?"

Six months later, Andrew and Libby were married.

3

And now, on the train, on the little man’s screen, they saw the same bus again with them both onboard. This time Aileen got on at the previous stop and stood beside her friend Libby.

Libby shifted her weight, with the swaying of the bus, as did many others, sitting and standing, all to the same rhythm. She said to her friend, "Somebody's motioning at you, Aileen. Do you know him?"

"At me?" Aileen directed a deliberately casual glance over her shoulder. Her long eyelashes flickered. She said, "I know him a little. What do you suppose he wants?"

"Let's find out," said Libby. She felt a little mischievous.

Aileen had a well-known habit of hoarding her male acquaintances, and it was rather fun to annoy her this way. And besides, this one seemed quite … interesting.

Libby snaked past the line of people standing, and Aileen followed without much enthusiasm. It was just as Libby arrived opposite the young man's seat that the bus lurched heavily as it rounded a curve. Libby snatched desperately in the direction of the straps. Her fingertips caught and she held on. It was a long moment before she could breathe. For some reason, it had seemed that there were no straps close enough to be reached. Somehow, she felt that by all the laws of nature she should have fallen.

The young man did not look at her. He was smiling at her friend Aileen and rising from his seat. He had distinguished eyebrows that gave him a rather competent and self-confident appearance. Libby decided that she definitely liked him.

Aileen said to the young man, "Oh no, don't bother. We're getting off in about two stops."

They did. Libby said, "I thought we were going to the cafe"

"We are. There's just something I have to attend to here. It won't take but a minute."

"Next stop, Carlisle!" the loud-speakers were blaring. Andrew and Libby’s train was slowing and the world of the past had shrunk itself into the glass slab once more. The little man was still smiling at them.

Libby turned to Andrew. She felt a little frightened. "Were you seeing all that, too?"

Andrew replied, "What happened to the time? We can't be reaching Carlisle yet?" He looked at his watch. "I guess we are." Then, to Libby, "You didn't fall that time."

"Then you did see it?" She frowned. "Now, that's like Aileen. I'm sure there was no reason to get off the bus early except to prevent my meeting you. How long had you known Aileen before then, Andrew?"

"Not very long. Just enough to be able to recognize her at sight and to feel that I ought to offer her my seat."

Libby curled her lip.

Andrew grinned, "You can't be jealous of a might-have-been, surely? Besides, what difference would it have made? I'd have been sufficiently interested in you to work out a way of meeting you."

"But you didn't even look at me."

"I hardly had the chance."

"Then how would you have met me?"

"Some way. I don't know how. But you'll admit this is a rather foolish argument we're having."

They were leaving Carlisle. Libby felt a trouble in her mind. The little man opposite had been following their whispered conversation, with only the loss of his smile to show that he understood. Libby said to him, "Can you show us more?"

Andrew interrupted, "Wait now, Libby. What are you going to try to do?"

She said, "I want to see our wedding day. What it would have been if I had caught the strap."

Andrew was visibly annoyed. "Now, that's not fair. We might not have been married on the same day, you know."

But she said, "Can you show it to me, Mr. Fate?" The little man nodded.

His magic slab of glass was sparking into life again, glowing a little. The light collected and formed into figures. The sound of organ music was playing in Libby's ears without there actually being sound.

Andrew said with relief, "Well, there I am. That's our wedding. Are you satisfied?"

The train sounds were disappearing again, and the last thing Libby heard was her own voice saying, "Yes, there you are. But where am I?"

Libby was well back in the pews. For a while she had not expected to attend at all. In the past months she had drifted further and further away from Aileen, without quite knowing why. She had heard of her engagement only through a mutual friend, and, of course, it was to Andrew. She remembered very clearly that day, six months before, when she had first seen him on the bus. It was the time Aileen had so quickly snatched her out of sight. She had met him since on several occasions, but each time Aileen was with him, standing between.

Aileen, she thought, looked more beautiful than she really was. And he was very handsome indeed.

She felt sad and rather empty, as though something had gone wrong- something that she could not quite outline in her mind. Aileen had moved up the aisle without seeming to see her, but earlier she had caught Andrew's eyes and smiled at him. Libby thought he had smiled in return.

She heard the words distantly as they drifted back to her, "I now pronounce you …"

The noise of the train was back. A woman swayed down the aisle, guiding her little boy back to their seats. There were intermittent bursts of girlish laughter from a set of four teenagers sitting halfway down the coach. A conductor hurried past them with purpose.

Libby was frozen but also aware of all this going on around her. She sat there, staring straight ahead, while the trees outside blended into a fuzzy-green and the telegraph poles whizzed by.

Then she says, "It was Aileen you married."

Andrew gazes at her for a moment and then one side of his mouth quivers a little. He says gently, "I didn't really, Libby. You're still my wife, you know that. Just think about it for a few minutes."

She turns to him. "Yes, but you married me, only because I fell in your lap. If I hadn't, you would have married Aileen. If she hadn't wanted you, then you would have married someone else. So much for there being no other possibilities."

4

Andrew says very deliberately, “I don’t think so!” He puts both hands to his head and smoothes down the straight hair over his ears where it had a tendency to stick out. At least it gave him the appearance of trying to hold his head together. He says, "Now, look here, Libby, you're making a silly fuss over that little man’s stupid magician's trick. You can't blame me for something I haven't done."

"You would have done it."

"How do you know?"

"You've seen it."

"I've seen a preposterous piece of … of hypnotism, I suppose." Andrew’s voice raises itself into anger. He turns to the little man opposite. "Off with you, Mr. Fate, or whatever your name is. Get out of here. We don't want you. Get out before I throw your little TV thing out the window and you after it."

Libby yanks at his elbow. "Stop it. Stop it! We're in a crowded train."

The little man shrinks back into the corner of his seat, as far as he can, and holds his black bag behind him. Andrew looks at him, then at Libby, then at an elderly lady across the aisle who is looking back at him with disapproval.

Andrew turns pink and bites back a stern remark. They now travel in silence. Fifteen minutes pass. Andrew says "Libby!"

She stays silent. She is looking out of the window but she sees nothing but the glass.

He says again, "Libby! Libby! Answer me!"

She replies, feebly, "What do you want?"

He says, "Look, this is all nonsense. I don't know how that silly man does it, but even granting it's legitimate, you're not being fair. Why stop where you did? Suppose I had married Aileen, do you think you would have stayed single? For all I know, you were already married at the time of my imaginary wedding. Maybe that's why I married Aileen."

"I wasn't married."

"How do you know?"

"I would have been able to tell. I knew what my own thoughts were,” she says

"Then you would have been married within the next year."

Libby grows angrier. She says, "And if I did, it would be no business of yours, certainly "

"Of course it would be none of my business” Andrew says, “We can't be held responsible for the what might have happened". Libby's nostrils flare. She says nothing.

Andrew goes on, "Look! You remember the big New Year celebration at Debbie’s place the year before last?"

"I certainly do. You spilled a pint of beer all over me."

"That's not the point, and besides, it was only half a pint, and I had already drunk most of it. What I'm trying to say is that Debbie is just about your best friend, and had been, long before you married me, right?"

"So. What of it?"

"Aileen was a good friend of hers too, wasn't she?"

"Yes."

"So you and Aileen would have gone to Debbie’s party regardless of which one of you I had married. I would have had nothing to do with it. Let the man show us the party as it would have been if I had married Aileen, and I'll bet you'd be there with either your fiancé or your husband."

Libby hesitates. She feels afraid of this.

He says, "Are you scared to take the chance?"

That, of course, decided her. She turns on him furiously. "No, I'm not! And I hope I am married. There's no reason I should pine for you. What's more, I'd like to see what happens when you spill the beer all over me. Libby faces forward and crosses her arms angrily and firmly across her chest.

Andrew looks across at the little man, but there was no need to say anything. The glass slab was on his lap already.

Andrew says, tensely, "Ready?" Libby nods and lets the noise of the train slide away again.

The scene plays out on the magic slab. Libby stands, a little flushed with a recent cold, in the doorway. She has just removed her coat, which was covered with a dusting of snow. She walks inside.

She answers the welcomes that greet her with her own "Happy New Year!". She has to raise her voice to make herself heard over the squealing of the big radio. Aileen’s shrill tones are almost the first thing she hears upon entering, and now she’s headed towards her. She hadn't seen Aileen, or Andrew, in weeks.

Aileen lifts an eyebrow, a mannerism she had lately cultivated, and says, "Isn't anyone with you, Libby?" Aileen’s eyes sweep around the immediate surroundings and then return to Libby.

Libby replies, indifferently, "I think, maybe, James will be around later. There was something or other he had to do first." She feels as indifferent as she sounds.

Aileen smiles. "Well, Andrew’s here. That ought to keep you from being lonely, dear. At least, it's turned out that way before." And as Aileen speaks these words, Andrew, appears on cue, and saunters in from the kitchen. He has a full beer-glass in his hand.

Why, Libby!" He walks towards her, grinning his welcome, "Where have you been keeping yourself? I haven't seen you in twenty years, seems like. What's the matter? Doesn't James want anyone else to see you?"

"Fill my glass, Andrew," says Aileen sharply.

"Right away," Andrew replies, not looking at her. "Do you want a cocktail too, Libby? I'll get you a glass." He turns, and everything happens at once.

Libby cries, "Watch out!" She sees it coming; she even has a vague feeling that all this had happened before, and it plays itself out unavoidably. Andrew’s heel catches the edge of the carpet; he lurches, tries to right himself, and loses the grip of his beer glass. It seems to jump out of his hands, and all the beer pours over Libby.

Libby stands there, gasping. She makes futile brushing gestures at her gown, while Andrew’s keeps repeating, "Oh God!" in rising tones.

Aileen says, coolly, "Aw, that’s too bad, Libby. Just one of those things. I imagine your dress can't be very expensive."

Libby turns and runs. She is in the bedroom, which, fortunately, is empty and relatively quiet. She pokes among the coats on the bed, looking for her own, using the low-light coming off the fringe-shaded lamp on the dresser.

Andrew comes in behind her. "Look, Libby, don't pay any attention to what Aileen said. I'm really terribly sorry. I'll pay …"

"That's all right. It wasn't your fault." She blinks rapidly but doesn’t look at him. "I'll just go home and change."

"Are you coming back?"

"I don't know. I don't think so." Libby says.

"Look, Libby . . ." His strong hands are on her shoulders …

Libby feels a queer sensation deep inside her, as though she were …

The train noises are back. It is twilight outside now. The internal train-lights are on. Andrew is rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger.

"What happened?"

Libby replies, "It just ended. Suddenly."

Andrew says uneasily, "You know, we'll be arriving at Glasgow soon." He looks at his watch and shakes his head.

Libby says, wonderingly, "You spilled it on me."

"Well, so I did, in real life."

"But in real life I was your wife. You ought to have spilled it on Aileen this time. Isn't that queer?" But she was thinking of Andrew’s hands on her shoulders …

She looks up at him and says with warm satisfaction, "I wasn't married."

"No, you weren't. But was that James Rowlands you were going around with?"

"Yes."

"You weren't planning to marry him, were you, Libby?"

"Jealous, Andrew?"

Andrew looks confused. "Of that? Of a slab of glass? Of a trick of the light? Of course not."

"I don't think I would have married him." Libby says

Andrew says, "You know, I wish it hadn't ended when it did. There was something that was about to happen, I think." He stops, then says, slowly, "It was as though I would rather have spilled my glass over anybody else in the room."

"Even over Aileen?"

"I wasn't giving two thoughts to Aileen. You don't believe me, I suppose."

"Maybe I do." She looks up at him. "I've been silly, Andrew. Let's … let's live our real life. And not play with all the things that just might have been."

He catches her hands. "No, Libby. One last time. Let's see what we would have been doing right now! This very minute! If I had married Aileen."

5

Libby was a little frightened. "Let's not, Andrew. She didn't want to know what happened afterward. She just wanted this life now, this good life.

Andrew says again, "I want to try, Libby."

She replies, "Ok, if you want to, Andrew." She decides that it wouldn't matter. Nothing would matter. Her hands reach out and encircles his arm. She holds it tightly, and while she holds it she thinks: "Nothing in the make-believe can take him from me."

Andrew instructs the little man, "Start it up again."

In the dim yellow light the process seems to be slower. But, gently, the frosted slab clears …

Andrew says, "There's something wrong. That's just the two of us, exactly as we are now."

He was right. On the screen, two little figures are sitting on a train on the seats which were farthest toward the front.

"It's the same train," Andrew says, his voice now beginning to fade, "The window in the back is cracked just as …"

On screen, Libby was blindingly happy. She says, "I wish we were in Glasgow."

He replies, "It will be less than an hour, darling." Then he says, "I'm going to kiss you." He makes a movement, as though he is about to begin.

"Not here! Oh, Andrew, people are looking."

Andrew draws back. He says, "We should have taken a taxi."

"From Carlisle to Glasgow?"

"Sure. The privacy would have been worth it."

She laughs. "You're funny when you try to act passionate."

"It isn't an act." His voice was suddenly a little sombre. "It's not just an hour, you know. I feel as though I've been waiting five years."

"I do, too." Libby says.

"Why couldn't I have met you first? It was such a waste." he says.

"Poor Aileen," Libby sighs.

Andrew says, impatiently. "Don't be sorry for her, Libby. We never really made a go of it. She was glad to be rid of me."

"I know that. That's why I say 'Poor Aileen.' I'm just sorry for her for not being able to appreciate what she had."

"We’ll, see to it that you do," he says. "See to it that you're immensely appreciative, infinitely appreciative, or more than that, we’ll see that you're at least half as appreciative as I am of what I've got."

"Or else you'll divorce me, too?"

"Over my dead body," says Andrew.

Libby says, "It's all so strange. I keep thinking; 'What if you hadn't spilt your beer on me that time at the party?' You wouldn't have followed me out; you wouldn't have told me; I wouldn't have known. It would have been so different . . . everything."

"Nonsense. It would have been just the same. It would have all happened another time." Andrew says.

"I wonder," says Libby, softly.

Train noises merge into train noises. City-lights flicker outside, and the atmosphere of Glasgow Central was about them. The coach becomes awake with travellers sorting out their belongings.

Libby is lost in thought. Andrew shakes her.

She looks at him and says, "All the pieces fit after all."

He says, "Yes."

She puts a hand on his. "But it wasn't good, just the same. I was very wrong. I thought that because we had each other, we should also have all the possible each others. But all the possibles are none of our business. The real is enough. Do you know what I mean?"

He nods.

She says, "There are millions of other ‘what could have beens’. I don't want to know what happened in any of them. I'll never say 'What if’ again."

Andrew says, "Relax, dear. Here's your coat." And he reaches for their suitcases.

Libby says, with sudden sharpness, "Where's Mr. Fate?"

Andrew turns slowly to the empty seat that faces them. Together they scan the rest of the coach.

"Maybe," Andrew says, "he moved into the next coach."

"But why? Besides, he wouldn't leave his hat." She leans over to pick it up.

Andrew says, "What hat?"

And Libby stops her fingers from hovering over nothingness. She says, "It was here … I almost touched it." She straightens up and says, "Oh, Andrew, what if …"

Andrew gently puts a finger over her mouth. "Darling …"

She says, "I'm sorry. Here, let me help you with the suitcases."

THE END