She looks so beautiful. Her eyes close, her cheeks flush with adrenaline, the wedding ring she'd hung around her neck sparkles in the bright sun. I've never seen another woman so perfect. I've never seen another creature look so fierce and yet so fragile.
“Stop watching me.” She murmured, a smile darting across her lips. Even with her eyes still closed I could see the little twinkle of green that flicked across the otherwise opaque blue when she laughed or smiled. “You're a creep you know?”
“Happy anniversary darling.” I couldn't help smile back. Her eyes flew open.
One year ago we got married. We spent a week on honeymoon and then left everything we'd ever known and moved to London. Everyone told us we were too young to be married, too young to be certain – but, well, we knew something they didn't.
Our story doesn't begin with marriage, it doesn't even start when we fell in love.
Instead it goes back to a small village on a quiet Autumn day. A little girl stood on a beautifully maintained garden full of red English roses. Her hair had recently exploded out of a plait and her dungarees were undone all down one side. She had muck all over and her hands were placed on her hips casually as if they belonged there. In front of her was a slightly smaller boy. His hair was equally as scruffy, his jeans equally as dirty.
“I'm not playing with you.” He spoke slowly as if he didn't expect her to understand. “I don't play with girls. Girls have cooties.” He had the confidence of someone certain in their flawless reasoning.
“It's a good thing I'm not a girl then.” She moved her head when she talked as if to emphasise the point.
“You're obviously a girl. You're in Ms Linden's class. That's the girl's class.”
“Yeah, but I'm not a girl. I'm a tomboy.” Around them everything was quiet. The weather was mild and the day wasn't half over. It was clear to both that neither would find another companion that day. “I'll cycle down the hill with my eyes closed to prove it.”
The boy shrugged and went off to play with her.
I took little convincing. I was only seven.
Our story isn't simple though.
“Ha! Look at her walk. She's such a little freak.” His friends all laughed, easy and confident – the laughs of untouchable adolescents.
“That's not cool. Stop.” He kept his eyes down and scuffed the concrete with his feet. He was brave for a coward.
They shrugged and stopped. A book fell from the top of the pile she carried. He walked on with his friends
Popularity was important. I was fifteen.
“Hey, welcome back!” I sat down beside her. She'd returned from a year abroad but more noticeably she'd returned to the girl I used to know. She was fierce, fiesty, confident.
“Am I cool now?” She'd changed too. She was angry, rebellious, absolutely gorgeous.
I sat down with her everyday until she didn't hate me. I fell in love. I was 17.
I loved our shared past – I loved looking at her as she lay beside me and seeing not just a strong, sophisticated woman but instead the past that made her up. Sometimes her eyes would twinkle just like they did when we were small and hatched a plan together. I'd stop seeing her dyed, perfectly kept hair and her beautifully manicured hands and instead see crazy red curls bounce with every gesture of her mucky, rough hands. In her worst moment I saw her during those awkward years – when I was popular and she was not. I could see that little trace of self-doubt that was only recognisable in the tiniest of furrows between her brows. Her eyes would become those of a scared, uncomfortable little girl trying to find her way in a world she didn't seem to fit.
I knew her inside out. I knew every part of her body and every nook and cranny of her brain. With a simple glance I could tell what she was thinking, how she was feeling and what she was going to do. Until our first wedding anniversary, when she said something mad, something downright ridiculous that would change the course of our lives.
“I want to go to Australia. I want to jump off a cliff.” She didn't look up from her magazine. She didn't budge from beneath my arm. She pretended it was a perfectly normal request.
I waited until she couldn't resist looking at me. At first she took a hesitant glance and then, when I continued ignoring her, she glared at me – ever fierce, daring me to object.
“We're not going to Australia. You're not jumping off a cliff.” I smiled at her and hoped that she'd leave it at that. I knew she wouldn't.
“Why not? Danger hardly matters.” She barely whispered the last three words.
“Of course danger matters! You could die! You could not come back. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
“It's not. You know it's not. I want it more than anything. You need to stop pretending.” She had moved as far away as possible on the couch from me then. Her angry, defensive position stood out against the warm, neutral colours of the home we strived to make.
“I'm not talking to you when you're like this. This is our first anniversary, I'm not fighting today.” I tried to move down to her, she grabbed my hand but stopped me moving any closer.
“This is our only anniversary. I'm dying Ethan. I won't be here this time next year. I mightn't even be here in six months. Stop pretending it's not happening.” Her eyes were huge, she was fighting tears. I dropped my gaze. I couldn't look at her anymore. I couldn't admit it.
She was diagnosed with cancer when she was only 20. We went to the doctors together. She told me I could leave her, she said I didn't have to stick around for all the ugliness. In the middle of the oncology office, I got down on one knee. I had a ring in my pocket for the expected “all-clear” celebrations that night. Instead, surrounded by the disease that was attacking the woman I loved, I told her I'd fight alongside her and she'd never live a day without me by her side.
When we got married everyone assumed she was pregnant. They thought that would be the only reason two people our age would commit forever. We moved nearer to her hospital. We fought the cancer together believing there was strength in numbers. Her hair fell out – she missed putting mascara on most. She threw up morning, noon and night – it was weeks before I realised to stop joking about this being preparation for morning sickness. Sometimes we'd just lie together and I'd hold her and I'd breathe in her scent and I'd never even dream of life without her.
We found out it was terminal. There was nothing they could do. She blamed herself – questioned every sunbed she'd visited and cigarette she'd smoked. I blamed myself – she was my wife and I couldn't protect her.
She faced her looming death head on. Every day she tried to do something new and different. She wrote letters to everyone she knew and a special pile just for me. She arranged her funeral. She made me a collection of playlists. She told me there was a playlist for our happy memories together and one for me to wallow in self pity, there was music for when I liked to think of her as perfect and a whole set of songs just about her flaws.
I buried my head in the sand. I never said death or cancer aloud. I never talked about life without her. I made stupid remarks about the future and booked appointments for things I knew we'd never make it to. I acted as though if I ignored it it would have to go away.
Going to Australia became her dream. She wanted to soar through the air and fly. She wanted to hold my hand and just jump – take a leap of final faith together. She knew we had to do it before she was too weak and that is how I found myself on an aeroplane with the woman I loved and no return flight booked.
I'd always said I couldn't live my life without her. I always said it wouldn't be worth living. When we walked up to the top of the cliff I didn't know if that was true. I was giving up children I might have had. I was letting go of women I could meet. It wasn't definite, it mightn't kill me but I knew, for certain, that when I jumped I would be giving up any life I could have lived without her. I think, deep down, she knew as well as I did that even if we both survived neither of us would ever be the same – we'd be linked by a need to not only die for the other but to die with the other.
As we walked up to the top she started to panic. Her hand grasped mine tighter – the fingers digging into flesh as I'd imagined they would when she brought our child into the world. Her palms became clammy and moist, she shrunk into the side of me.
“I don't think I can do it.” She looked up at me, her eyes like a deer's caught in headlights.
“You can, I believe in you.” I was suddenly so in favour of this idea I hated.
“This is mad... it's ridiculous” Her voice grew quiet and her eyes still drilled into my head.
The sun beats down on us now we have gotten to the top. It makes me uncomfortable and red but somehow illuminates her. I think that maybe we would have moved here – she looks like an angel.
“Do you love me?” She's unsure. She's fifteen again, she needs my assurance.
“More than anything.” I imagine holding her hand as she drifted off peacefully in 60 years time. I know that even with a lifetime together it would have hurt the same.
I wrap my arm around her and kiss her one last time. She wraps her arms around my neck. She needs me just as I need her. Once I rejected her and once she rejected me and now we cannot live without each other. I let her go one last time. I smile at her one last time. I see our memories – every giggle, plan, dance and moment together. Our bodies become so close that we are one, our hands hold so tight never letting go and then – well then we jump.