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Love in a Lost Wallet II

by  McAllerton

Posted: Saturday, March 20, 2010
Word Count: 2293

Love in a Lost Wallet by Mark Allerton

Bodies are pressed around me and when I look up from my morning newspaper, all I see is clothes and bags. A brew of perfumes, chewing gum and body odour floats in the tepid air. Just another journey to work on the London Underground.

Someone standing too close breaks my morning trance. I can see a man in an expensive leather jacket carrying a shiny leather man-bag. I clear my throat, shift in my seat and rustle my newspaper, the usual warning that there is an invasion of personal space. Oblivious, the man is staring at the map above my head. He speaks urgently in Spanish to a woman next to him and they push through the crush of bodies, making it out of the train as the doors close.

At the next station people go through the rituals of getting off: bag closing, newspaper folding, ticket checking. I stand up and my foot rests on something. Looking down there is a wallet. I hold it up and ask if it belongs to anyone. But they’re all intent on leaving the train or they look at me shaking their heads.

I stuff the wallet into my coat. The station is heaving with people, funnelling into tiled tunnels and onto escalators. At street level, there is a long queue at the ticket office and I keep walking.

I work through the morning and it’s lunchtime before I remember the wallet. Looking through it, I lay out the contents on my desk. There is some cash, bank cards, a driver’s licence, receipts and family photos. In one of the compartments there is an old envelope folded into a small square; the date on the letter is 1972.

I now have parts of a stranger’s life spread out in front of me on the desk: a date of birth in 1949, a photo on the driver’s licence, receipts for some London restaurants. Staring blankly at me from the driver’s license is a handsome man with thick wavy black hair and black moustache. The photos are two group shots of the same people; one of the man with a woman and two young boys, the other is of the same couple with the boys grown up. The woman looks out from the earlier photo with her hands proudly on the boys’ shoulders. Her hair is black and tied back, she holds her head up and looks out from dark beautiful eyes. In the later shot she is wearing more expensive clothes and her hair is elegantly styled.

I should hand in the wallet, but I’m curious. Especially about the letter. I try to work out what it says from my evening-class Spanish. It’s a love letter from the man’s wife all those years ago.

The last paragraph says something like: “We are now so close but it could have been so different. So many things changed forever that day and our love might never have happened.”

One of the receipts is from a restaurant near Goodge Street, not far from the police station on Tottenham Court Road. I decide to walk round there after work and show them the photo, thinking that maybe the tourists had been back to look for the wallet. If not then I’d take it to the police station.

Walking through the dark winter streets, collar up against the cold, I look for the restaurant. It’s in one of the lively side streets with little shops, a Victorian pub on one corner and several small restaurants. Taxis are queuing to nudge into the thick traffic on Tottenham Court Road. I spot the restaurant on the other side of the street and, threading between the slow moving taxis, I cross towards it. A man and a woman are looking at the menu board and I recognise the couple in the photos, the man is still wearing the leather jacket and carrying the manbag.

“Excuse me. Senor,” I say, holding out the wallet.

“Ah senor,” a broad smile spreads across the man’s face and he turns to his wife exclaiming in excited Spanish. He smiles at me saying, “Thank you, thank you very much. Muchas gracias, you are so kind”.

“De nada,” I say “I am sorry I didn’t hand it in earlier.”

There is no mistaking him as the man from the photos in the wallet. The thick black hair is now wavy and grey, the moustache is neatly trimmed. He is not tall but he is broad shouldered and makes effusive motions of his hands as he speaks. He kisses the wallet and clasps it to his chest in a melodramatic gesture.

“You have saved our holiday,” he says, “we have been to the police, the train stations, everywhere, it’s been a terrible day. My wife has been so upset.” He looks over to the woman and smiles, holding up the wallet and speaking to her again in Spanish.

I can’t help smiling along with them; glad I’ve been able to help. Then a twinge of shame reminds me that I could have helped them more if I’d handed in the wallet straightaway, instead of hanging onto it and going through its contents.

“Senor,” he says “I am Juan and this is my wife, Maria, please you must join us for a drink. Come in with us.”

“Thank you, no, I must get the train home.”

But Juan is ushering me towards the door of the restaurant and the dreary underground journey home to my bachelor flat holds no appeal next this charming man and his beautiful wife.

We sit on barstools drinking chilled aperitifs. They both speak fluent English but they are impressed that I can put some sentences together in Spanish. Maria is a few years younger than Juan, she is groomed expensively, and her jewellery is gold and discreet. Juan is acting the host, asking how I learned such good Spanish. I listen but my gaze keeps returning to Maria. I ask about their visit.

“We love London,” says Juan, “but not the Underground. This morning was our first and last journey after losing the wallet. Taxis only from now on.”

Maria’s phone rings and she searches for it in her bag. Looking at the screen she says, “It’s Miguel, one of our sons. He has been worried about us.” She gets down from the barstool and moves a few steps away from Juan and me. The restaurant is noisy now and she cannot hear, she waves over to Juan and steps outside to take the call. Juan watches her go and turns to me .

“I am a lucky man, don’t you think?” Juan smiles and leans back against the bar.

“Yes, you have a beautiful wife,” I sip my drink, “ You are a very lucky man.”

“I believe in fate,” Juan says, “I met Maria by chance. I was on National Service in the 70s. Our plane to the base was delayed. Maria was in a school party waiting at the airport, aged seventeen and beautiful.” He pauses and thinks back.

“My friends were laughing and joking with the girls. But I only had eyes for her. I fell in love with her there and then. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and months later I found her school and waited outside. She came out and I walked her home. We were married two years later.”

He pauses again and looks away, “I don’t understand why it happened, how could I have been so lucky and all by chance? One tiny detail, the delayed plane, made my life complete. It could have been so different. Is this what life comes down to, twists of fate?”

Turning back to me, he looks into my eyes, “Look out for these moments, Tom, and if they feel good, follow your heart. I am sixty years old tomorrow, the happiest man in the world.”

For a moment I think of my own life; my untidy flat, my dull job and my ex-girlfriend.

“Listen Tom, I have a plan to make a special moment for Maria on this trip. I have bought her all the jewellery and gifts she could ever need, so I have done something different to celebrate our love. A long time ago Maria wrote to me, a love letter, a beautiful love letter. I have kept it in my wallet ever since, next to my heart. I am not good at saying what I feel, in my heart. So now I have written a love letter to her.”

I feel my face colouring as I think back to reading Maria’s letter a few hours ago. But the restaurant is dimly lit and Juan does not notice as he warms to his theme.

“I planned to give it to her later, but now I have an idea, will you read it to her Tom? It would make it more special, like a performance. She always says I am a bit of a showman, and I would like you to read it to her.”

Juan reaches into his jacket and holds out an envelope with Maria’s name on it.

I protest, “No, it’s too personal. I hardly know you and Maria, wouldn’t she be uncomfortable?”

“Trust me Tom. I have a feeling, you are like a lucky charm for us, returning the wallet as you did. It will be OK,” he insists. The letter it is in my hand before I can think again.

“OK, I will make an excuse, walk round the block for ten minutes, then make my grand entrance.” He pats me on the shoulder and smiles his broadest smile.

Seeing Maria coming back, he says, “Not a word, quick, hide the letter in your jacket.”

Maria sits back on her barstool and he picks up where he left off before giving me the letter, musing about life and fate. She rolls her eyes and smiles in a way that says she’s heard it all before. Juan makes an excuse to phone the credit card company about his wallet, winking at me as he goes.

Maria turns to me, “I must thank you again Tom for returning the wallet and saving our holiday. Juan was so upset about losing the wallet.”

“Don’t mention it, it’s been a pleasure to meet you both,” I say, smiling and taking out the letter. “This is a little bit odd, but Juan has asked me to do something. He asked me to read this to you.” Maria smiles, “Ah he’s always up to something, what’s this?”

She watches as I open the envelope and read the letter in my faltering Spanish accent.

It is only a few paragraphs on one side of notepaper. It mirrors her letter to him from all those years ago when she was a young woman, marvelling at their good fortune, thanking the fates and expressing his undying love. I read it without looking at her then hold out the letter to her, smiling to myself at how strange the situation has become.

Maria takes the letter and I look at her, expecting her to meet my smile but there is a look of horror on her face. She passes the letter back to me.

“But I don’t love him anymore. I know he is a good man. I know Juan loves me,” she pauses and looks around. “There is another man. I thought my feelings for him would pass. I don’t love Juan any more. The man is here, in London, it was him who phoned just now.”

Maria looks straight at me and I realise what has just happened behind those beautiful eyes. She has listened while a stranger reads out her husband’s words of undying love and this has helped her to make up her mind. Her eyes are full of pain but I can see a steady resolve. Juan’s letter has been the catalyst fusing her growing doubts, spinning thoughts and feelings. I am stunned. She stands, elegant, poised, turns away and leaves.

I put the letter on the bar. A few minutes ago I felt part of a heartwarming romantic drama. Now I am helpless as things begin to fall apart around me.

Juan makes his entrance, looking around for Maria. Assuming she has gone to the bathroom, he sits on his barstool.

“Well, my friend, how did it go? Where is Maria?”

He has no suspicion of anything wrong, carried along by his confidence in himself and in Maria’s love, he looks invincible. Why would anyone not love him forever?

“Did she like the letter?”

What should I say? Nothing? Or everything?

I begin with “She’s gone.”

Juan is confused. Like the first stab of the knife, that comes from nowhere and disorients. He says nothing, for once uncertain, but the ground has shifted beneath his feet.

“What? What happened?” I read the confusion in his face, “Did you read the letter to her?”

I thrust the knife again. “I read the letter to her and she left.”

But Juan cannot understand yet.

I realise I’ll have to tell him everything. And I do. Plunging the knife right up to the hilt.

Juan reels as the awful facts begin to take shape in his mind. He staggers away and runs through the door. I see him looking left and right and he disappears into the cold London night.

I stay on my barstool, my hands spread in front of me, incredulous, bewildered. I look around, aware for the first time of other people. I wonder what to do with the letter lying in front of me. But there is something else lying next to it. Juan has left his wallet on the bar.