Steve and Tracy had known each other since they were five years old. Her family had moved in next door to Steve’s when Tracey’s parents moved to the Midlands after her dad’s job was relocated from the South East. They started school on the same day, sat next to each other in the same class and went home together when one of either set of parents collected them at the playground gates. It wasn’t really surprising then that they grew to become close friends.
They weren’t inseparable, and each had their own set of school friends and activities, but outside of that environment they invariably spent much of their spare time together. They had similar interests, ate the same kind of food and spent increasingly longer periods of time at each other’s houses. As they progressed through the school system their academic records showed very similar levels of achievement and on one occasion both sets of parents were invited to a meeting with the headmaster to discuss the possibility that they had been cheating at one of their exams.
The allegation proved groundless and the matter was quietly forgotten, but for a while Steve and Tracey were kept apart outside of school. This caused both children severe distress and both sets of parents relented, allowing the friendship to develop once more although now under much tighter supervision. As they progressed through the education system their grades maintained the early high levels, and public examinations at both GSCE and ‘A’ Level revealed exceptional performances resulting in top grades in all subjects taken.
Both of them knew that eventually there would come a time when their academic choices would force them in different directions, both physically and from a career point of view. Tracey had been awarded a place at veterinary college, while Steve’s abilities in the subject of information technology gained him access to the top university college in that field. They still spent all their free time in each other’s company and despite a number of other opportunities for relationships, kept to a promise they had made to each other at the start of their first undergraduate year.
Seven years later, with Tracey now a highly qualified veterinary surgeon specialising in small animals and Steve at the top of his profession and working for a major player in IT system development, they took stock of their situation. They both believed that marriage and a family life was the obvious way forward and Tracey was prepared for the inevitable career break at some point when children came along. What neither of them anticipated was the phone call Steve received from a high profile recruitment agency head hunting within the IT field.
His name had come to their attention as one of the top ten graduates, and they had been retained by the largest software developer in the world to recruit and hire the best young talent available. He was offered the chance to develop his career in the US, working at the client’s head office in Seattle for a six figure salary plus benefits. He was stunned. The agency said that they would need an answer within a week and gave him a direct line to the recruiter dealing specifically with the matter.
Steve’s excitement at the opportunity dissolved immediately he explained the situation to Tracey. They would both have to live in the States for the foreseeable future, and although finding another job for Tracey would not be a problem, it would mean pulling up roots which had been steadily growing for over twenty years. It was only now that Steve realised the strength of Tracey’s family ties. She told him quite clearly that she could not possibly go.
Steve was angry and accused her of denying him the career opportunity. She called him selfish and greedy, and asked if he had given one single thought to her wishes. They argued long into the evening and parted without any agreement whatsoever. The following day Steve discussed the offer with his mum and dad, and whilst they were pleased for him, both were very concerned at the rift which had appeared between the two young people. As the deadline day approached for his answer to the recruitment agency, Steve became more and more determined to go for the initial screening, and made the appointment without even mentioning it to Tracey.
He had to travel to Birmingham for the meeting and explained his absence to Tracey by telling her that his employer had scheduled a brain-storming session for a new operating system planned for release within the next eighteen months. It required an early start and he wouldn’t be back home until late that evening. He had never lied to her before and it made him feel extremely uncomfortable – a feeling that was to stay with him during the whole day. He knew that he hadn’t given his best at the interview, but the recruitment agent must have picked up on it and asked him if he was feeling unwell. Steve thanked him and said that he had been under the weather for a day or so – another lie, and this one was easier than the first. He hoped that this was not the start of a trend.
He arrived home to find the place empty and a note from Tracey to say that she had gone to her parents and would be back the following day. It was late and after a shower and a bite to eat he went to bed, but sleep did not come easy and he spent the whole night tossing and turning as he wondered how he would explain it to her if he were to be offered the position. He slept in the next morning and didn’t hear the front door open and close as Tracey returned from her visit. When he got up she was in the kitchen sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, and it was clear that she had been crying. She said that she had tried to contact him at work the previous day and had asked to be forwarded to his mobile messaging service. They told her that this would not be possible as he had booked the day as one of his annual holidays, and that as the mobile was company issue it was still on his desk.
She asked him if he was seeing someone else and his evasiveness only made the matter worse. When he did eventually tell her what he had been doing the previous day it must have sounded like some kind of excuse, and she called him a liar, went to their room, packed her things and left. He was devastated and wished now that he had told her all about the appointment - at least that would have got the matter out into the open and he could have dealt with her anger on the spot. As it was there was now the added complication that she neither believed nor trusted him any more. There had to be a way around this.
Over the next few days he tried to reach Tracey at her mum and dad’s but she had left instructions with two obviously distraught parents that he was not to contact her and that she would not be returning to him. At the end of the week the agency rang to offer him a position in the States with their client company and that an answer was required within the next seven days. The starting date for the new job was in three months time and all travel arrangements would be made for him along with temporary accommodation whilst he found something more permanent. It really did seem to be the kind of opportunity which comes along just once in a lifetime and he made one last attempt to see Tracey and discuss it with her.
He called at her parents’ house a few days later and although they were pleased to see him, there was an uncomfortable edge to the meeting. They explained that they could not persuade Tracey to change her mind and that she wouldn’t tell them what had gone wrong. Steve showed them a letter from the agency which had arrived only that morning confirming the offer of the position in Seattle. He said that Tracey would not believe his explanation of the events surrounding the interview and that she suspected that he had been cheating on her. She was due back later that evening and they said that he should leave and let them talk to her when she arrived.
Steve went home and waited. Time was running out and he now had only two days left before his deadline for accepting the offer. There was no reply from Tracey, and he wrote to the agency confirming all the arrangements for the new position. He saw his boss the same day and gave three months notice – plenty of time to hand over all his project work to other members of the software development team. From that day on there was no contact from Tracey or her parents and Steve concentrated on tying up all loose ends at home, saying his farewells to friends, reassuring his mum and dad that he would keep in touch and making preparations for the journey to America. When the day of departure came he still expected some late call which would have stopped him from going, but it didn’t come and a vast emptiness filled him through the ten hour flight to the north west of the USA.
To say that Steve made a success of his career in Seattle would be an understatement. He rose quickly through the corporate system, heading up several teams involved in critical software programming and progressed to the position of Regional Head of Software Development. After a few years in this position the company asked him to head up a new division in Washington looking at security systems for the US Government. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and was very soon living in one of the best neighbourhoods on the kind of salary which he had never even dreamed of. It was here that he met Sadie.
He had never forgotten Tracey, but letters from home indicated that she had settled down with someone else, was married and had two children. Her career in veterinary practice had taken her to the position of partner in one of the top local practices and all seemed to be fine. It was a thinly veiled message to leave well alone and Steve had no reason now to go raking over the past. After an uneventful courtship he and Sadie were married but over the years it became clear that they were not destined to have any children of their own. They adopted Jason, a three year old whose parents had died in a plane crash and loved him as if he had been theirs all along. They watched him grow and develop and when he passed out of West Point with an officer’s rank, they were very proud. His death in the first Gulf War came as a devastating blow and Sadie never seemed to recover from it.
Their lives carried on and Steve’s career peaked with the position of company Vice President over the entire eastern software development division. His professional life was now complete, but when Sadie developed a brain tumour in late 2002 their world started to dissolve again. She died in February 2003 leaving him once more alone and Steve took this opportunity to retire and come back to Britain. His pension settlement was extraordinarily generous, and the company awarded him a final bonus payment in gratitude for the years of work he had devoted to the corporate cause. At the age of 52 he wound up his affairs and prepared for his return ‘home’.
His parents were now in their early eighties and still living at the same house where he had said his ‘goodbyes’ years before. He had installed a computer and showed them how to use it to keep in touch before he left, but it wasn’t the same as being there and their meeting up again was full of emotion. He stayed with them until a suitable house could be found and conversation inevitably got around to Tracey. The room went very quiet and he sensed that there was something which they had been instructed not to reveal to him. Despite his insistent probing, it was nearly a week before he got the merest hint from his mother that Tracey was no longer around, and when they both caved in and told him about the car crash three months earlier he sobbed uncontrollably.
Tracey, her husband and their son had been returning from a day out at a theme park when an articulated lorry crossed the central reservation of the dual carriageway and collided with their vehicle. They were all killed instantly along with several other motorists behind them. Their daughter Samantha had not been with them that day, choosing instead to go shopping with friends. Steve sensed something else from his parents’ uncomfortable manner and pressed home the issue of the girl. It was his mother who broke the news that Samantha was actually his daughter and had been born seven months after his departure for Seattle. Steve was speechless and asked why no-one had told him over the years. The explanation was that Tracey had met Bill, her husband, shortly after Steve had left for the States and had made it clear to everyone that he was not to be told about it.
Bill had been delighted to bring Samantha up as his own and they arranged formal adoption proceedings to prevent the possibility of Steve returning and taking her back to America with him. Samantha had been kept in the dark about her natural father and his whereabouts. Steve’s parents cautioned him against contacting her, advising that it would be best left alone as Samantha had her own life and was still trying to come to terms with the death of the family. Steve agreed to their wishes and set about finding somewhere to live and something to do in order to occupy his time.
Old friends from his days at the UK software company got in touch, and one of them offered him part time work in a medium sized software company in Birmingham. Steve was pleased to be involved at grass roots level again and relished the challenge of setting something up from scratch. His search for a house had produced nothing concrete, so telling his parents of the new situation he accepted the position, packed up his stuff and made the travel arrangements for the following week. There was one last thing he felt that he needed to do. Buying some flowers from a local shop, he made his was to the cemetery which his mother had told him was the location of the grave of Tracey and her family.
He stood before the headstone placed there by Tracey’s parents, reliving the early part of their lives together, going over once again the events leading up to his departure for the States, and wondering what would have happened if he had not made that fateful journey to the recruitment agency in Birmingham. He found all the old feelings returning to the surface and knew there and then that he still loved her, and that he should never have gone to America despite all the success it had brought him. Placing his flowers carefully on the ground he stepped back, wiped the tears from his eyes, said a silent ‘goodbye’ and walked slowly away. He made his way to the cemetery gates and turned for one last look. The scene was silent – there wasn’t a breath of wind and he couldn’t even hear a bird singing. He shook his head, took a deep breath and a moment later was gone.
A woman in her mid to late twenties entered the cemetery from the opposite gateway and noticed him walking towards the far exit, but gave the matter no thought as she approached the headstone with her own bunch of flowers. Her disinterest turned to curiosity when she read the message on the card with the flowers – ‘So sorry for all the things we never did. Steve’. She looked from the flowers to her own bunch. They were both pink carnations, her mother’s favourites. Who was this man and how could he possibly know of Tracey’s preference? She ran to the end of the cemetery where Steve had disappeared only to find him getting into a taxi some two hundred yards down the street. Her calls went unanswered and the vehicle pulled away, turned the corner and Steve was gone.
© Copyright 2016 Phil Neale 1952. All rights reserved.