They had been married on a wet Sunday afternoon. It had rained all through the morning and a brief respite had allowed them entry into the modest chapel on Pretoria Street. They had narrowly missed being soaked to the skin by the deluge that broke free of the heavens the minute they stepped through the heavy wooden doors of the old church.
Lilly had worn a veil fashioned of fine Italian lace, yellowed with age, given to her by her grandmother –dead just two years before, while Jacob had sported a red rose placed in the lapel of his new suit, and a wide smile.
They’d said their vows, conscious of each word as it passed through mind then lips and then mind again. The small congregation had been just a handful of friends, both bride and groom having no other family to speak of. It hadn’t been anything remarkable, except that the day had been marked and a promise had been made.
Theirs’ had been a marriage of convenience, of necessity really. She had debts to pay on the floundering haberdashery she’d inherited from her grandmother, and he had money to invest in a business he thought had potential. Marriage seemed the obvious solution in protecting their vested interests and thus saw the birth of their union.
They had no qualms about telling whomever would listen about their arranged partnership. In fact, they were quite entertained by the expression of marvel on the faces of those who lapped it up.
“Arranged?” They would be asked by the curious many who would walk through the doors of their little shop on 7th Street.
The street had changed its look quite a few times during the 28-odd years they’d been there. The premises next door had started off as a tobacco store, was taken over by a video and then DVD outlet in the late 80s, claimed by the bank and now housed a small Chinese import store. Somehow the Love Knot had survived, perhaps therein lay the remarkability.
Weekends would lately see a fair flow of patrons. But only a trickle of pedestrian curiosity would be the bulk of the walk-ins on quiet weekday mornings.
“Arranged? In this day and age?” They would be asked when the topic of their marriage came up. Incredulity.
Then inquisitive eyes would wander again toward what had brought them through the doors of the quaint old haberdashery – what had started the conversation in the first place – the love knots.
Lilly would look at Jacob then and they would share a knowing smile, the kind of smile that two people of one mind would share.
“But what about love?”
“What about it?” He’d say, as if it were the only thing he could say. The strings of colourful bows – each fastened with a glass button – would flutter about in the breeze. The pleasant sound, like the tinkle of cutlery on fine crystal, would fill the shop.
Later, she would mention it in bed with the duvet cover pulled right up to her armpits – she on the right and he on the left side, she with two feather stuffed pillows propping her slightly higher up and he with just the one.
“Isn’t it silly that they would think our marriage unique?” She would say as she reached for one of the romance novels on her bedside table.
“I can’t understand why they would. I’m sure there are many like ours, borne out of necessity but true and good nevertheless,” he’d say.
“They seem hell bent on knowing our secret, though. As if the concept of marriage is new.”
“Yes, it does seem as if they think marriage is a novel idea. And they need an instruction manual. Can’t figure out some people.” He’d chuckle, then turn toward his side and switch off his bedside lamp.
She would laugh softly too, then try to immerse herself in the newest Danielle Steele. But her thoughts would wander to repeated conversations.
“What about love? Love at first sight… surely that must have been a big part of your decision to marry?” They would be asked as curious eyes took in the strings of coloured bows, each embroidered with two names.
Love at first sight! No, not at all. That had most certainly not been part of Lilly’s decision to marry him. If truth be told, and she would never ever divulge it to him, she had not quite liked the look of him the first time she set eyes on him. He’d come to the shop, she’d hardly even glanced at him and she’d seen enough. His face was supported by a rather poor chin and it could scarcely compete with a too large forehead, and then there were his small ears that protruded peculiarly from his head. But she had also, in a glance, taken note of the nice clean shirt he wore – good quality without being pretentious and the tidy, neat finger nails. And while his face had not benefitted from a single handsome feature, his smile had been sweet and his eyes were honest. No, she could not say with any verity it was love at first sight, if that were the thing of good marriages. She had been a little disappointed, if she were to be completely honest. But she’d never tell him that.
Jacob knew and had known all along. He’d seen the fleeting look pass her fine features the first time they’d met. It had not been the first time he’d received such a look. She’d been gracious to hide it well ever since. But he was often reminded of it every time he glimpsed his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He’d see what she would see every day. Cursed with a receding hairline, his forehead had swelled with time; his chin had all but disappeared in the folds of his neck and his stomach had bulged over his pants. Age had not been kind to him.
But he could never say the same of her. He would say without hesitation and perhaps a modicum of pride, although he was by no means a proud man, that age had been kind to his wife. She was as beautiful as that first day. Maybe more so. The shiny wavy hair that she pinned back off her face and let fall on her shoulders was a little longer and softer now. Her honey-gold skin was still smooth and her pretty teeth still white. Her small slim body still kept its neat stature. Yes, she is beautiful. He’d been so struck by her beauty that first day. Perhaps frightened by it. So much so that he did not have time to fall in love with her at first sight. They’d be disappointed to know, that it was not the secret to their marriage.
“What about passion?” Attention would be divided between them, and the promise of endless love, hastily tied in a love knot. An embrace of passion. “You’re not saying that these bows have anything to do with it?” Row after row of bows would be carefully scrutinised.
Jacob and Lilly would study their inquisitor patiently while they eased into their places beside each other. He would place a gentle palm on her shoulder, her hand would slide into his. And both would don smiles, his would be slightly strained.
Later, Jacob would think about passion as he clutched the edge of his pillow and she turned the pages of her romance novel. She’d spend precisely three minutes on each page. He would know because he’d timed her. The digital clock stood on his bedside table. He had counted each flash of the colon. On precisely the 180th flash, she would lick her forefinger and delicately turn the page. He liked the sound of the muffled rustle and the hushed sigh that would escape her lips. He didn’t think she was actually conscious of it, but he knew when she enjoyed a book and when she didn’t. The soft pleasurable sigh would sound like a whisper, and then sometimes he’d hear the rush of air slip through her teeth like a hiss when she didn’t.
She would read about love and passionate lovers in those books of hers. He wondered if that was the thing of a good marriage. Perhaps, he thought, he should induce a little passion and spontaneity. Wouldn’t that be the thing? He could turn to her, remove the book from her small hands, pull her toward him and kiss her ferociously. He could whisper then, maybe not whisper … he’d tell her then in his deepest voice that he wanted to kiss her until the sun came up. Instead he clutched the pillow tightly again, anchored himself to his side – not from the urge to control himself, but rather from the lack of motivation to carry it out. What would she think of him if he were to suddenly pounce upon her? No, she would not like that. She’d say he was being ridiculous. Ridiculous!
As the night would deepen, her eyes would wearily skim the words on the page. Although the minutes flashed away, she had not read the requisite 20 pages as she had every night. Distracted by the bother of stray thoughts, she had found concentrating on the mundane plot, a chore. Passion? Was that the thing of their marriage? No, she could not, by any stretch of imagination, say they were the passionate type. She’d smiled and dismissed it as phish-posh when they had asked. And again the incredulous look would pass across nameless faces.
“But then how do you keep the romance alive… after all these years.” They would be asked as hopeful fingers curled around a particular love knot.
Lilly’s transparent face would flash red like the neon lights over the bar just twenty metres from the shop. The question would hang in the air. She would tell them then of the bridges over the Seine, where lovers would pledge their undying love in the city of romance.
Romance. She would inhale deeply at the mention of romance. Oh, she had a pretty good idea of romance. She’d read thousands of books on the subject. In fact, had she not come up with the idea of the love knots?
Sure, she had been inspired by the little article in the local newspaper. And maybe the young girl, who’d run in to escape the rain that very day the love bridge had been closed down, had unintentionally planted the suggestion. Because it had been on that day, two years ago that the Love Knots had really been reborn.
They’d been distracted by the girl’s rounded belly at first. It had seemed strange that one so young would be so heavy with child. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen. But when they heard the hardened voice, they had known the girl had lived life beyond the years of looks.
They’d talked about the article as they had sipped on strong hot tea. It had seemed the only thing to do, to break the uncomfortable silence while the summer rain, with drops as large as the palm of one’s hand had pounded the pavement outside. The love bridge over the Emmarentia Dam had been doomed to be taken down, a fate it had shared by their struggling haberdashery.
The fence along the bridge with the old rusted locks would be removed, the article had said. She had thought it had been the saddest thing. He had agreed. They’d lived not too far from the dam but they had never ventured to the love bridge, never even considered the possibility of placing a lock with their names scratched into the hard metal on the iron fence. Of then throwing the key into the dam once it was locked and pledging their love to last forever. No they would never have considered such a gesture. And never had. But countless others had, which had come as a surprise to them.
“Love is a risk, not so?” The girl had said when they’d taken turns to read the article out aloud. “And it cannot last forever.” The words had saddened them, more because one so young had uttered them. But deft young fingers picked up a small remnant of yellow ribbon, tied it in a neat little bow and placed it on the counter. An unconscious caress on a ripe belly and the last words before the girl left had been, “Romance might be memorable, they’re gestures, but love?”
Lilly would remember that moment every time a new bow would be added. And when the pertinent question of romance would be brought up. Romance?
Throughout their years together there would have been trinkets of romantic moments in their partnership. She would justly admit though, they’d not been as memorable. Theirs’ had not been the holding-hands-in-the-sunset-while-they-sipped-on-champagne type of marriage. He’d not liked the outdoors much. Neither had she for that matter.
They went out for dinner regularly, but it’d been more about the meal than the event. As often as possible she would cook his favourite meal. French beans, rib-eye steak – medium rare – and lemon-butter sauce. Would that be considered romantic? She did not see why not. She would think then of other romantic gestures. So she’d not written him love notes, but she’d always get his favourite cereal and toothpaste at the shops. He’d not strewn petals on their bed, or showered her with expensive gifts but he’d always bring her a large bouquet of star lilies on her birthday and on their anniversary. She’d laugh every time with surprise as he’d try to get the lavish arrangement through the front door, with a sheepish smile rounding off his face.
Perhaps there’d been moments; she thought hard about them. But her thoughts had been scattered. She would resume reading again, as hazy memories would float just out of reach, and the romantic hero in the book screamed attention. But the questions would linger. What’d be like if he were like the heart throb who’d set the pulses of the heroine racing? She would imagine him then. Jaws clenched around the stem of a perfect red rose while twirling her with deft expertise on the dance floor… then with dramatic flair, dipping her over his agile knee while one hand removed the rose from pouting lips and feathered it down her velvet bosom. Would he whisper words that would vibrate through her like rumbling thunder? A little wild, a little frightening? Oh! It would be just ridiculous. Ridiculous!
Jacob would hear her soft snort as he feigned sleep. She’d done that often enough. He had liked it the moment he’d heard it the first time. That her laugh was not perfect, but the best thing he’d ever heard, was perhaps endearing.
Then he’d wonder about any endearing qualities he might possess. After a deep analysis, he would shift a little closer to the edge of the bed. Perhaps, he would think at last, I could get her flowers, her favourite kind. She’d not be expecting it, that’s for sure. Star lilies would not be in season at this time of year. But he knew a florist who’d make a plan. He could take the stroll down the sinuous lane off Jacaranda Street to the stall where the old man traded in lilies, roses and asters. He could make the request and be transfixed as the florist’s brown lined face would stare off into the distance as if summoning the lilies from an invisible flower God. And just as oddly, the man would turn toward him, filmy eyes aimed straight into his and tell him it was no problem, just a bit extra. He could place the order in the morning. Yes, that’d count as a romantic gesture. He smiled into his pillow then, the flame of… could he dare call it passion, or maybe romance… well whatever it was, it felt like an accomplishment of sorts, and it leapt in his chest.
But, doubt would float in like dandelion on a windy day and settle in the smallest corners of his fragile confidence. What would she think when he presented her with it? Would she scoff off the gesture as silly? Ridiculous?
He would shift uncomfortably then, tugging a little at the duvet, while she would continue to read. Best to leave things as they are, he would think as he’d wait for her to turn twenty pages. Tonight, it would seem longer than the mandatory hour.
“But then, what could possibly be the secret? How do you stay in love?” The question would be insistent. But a length of ribbon would be purchased, and a button and even a yard of cloth or a pack of glitter and sequins. An order of embroidery would be made, a hopeful scribble of names and shy exchange of a fervent wish as the customer would walk out the door and promise to return. And they would.
She would think about it as she would bookmark the novel and place it back on the bedside table beside the others. She would hesitate, her finger lingering on the bedside lamp. She’d listen carefully to hear if he was indeed lost in repose, although, she would know, he would never completely succumb to sleep until she cast the room in darkness.