They met in Athens, on the steps of the Parthenon. He was an Olympic athlete, the favourite for several cycling events. She was a reporter, straight out of school on her first big assignment. They were soul mates, though they didn’t realise it at the time.
When the Games ended, they left the city, never looking back. She returned home, got a promotion, and married a hometown boy, her best friend’s brother. He soon lost his job, but found another with a large, multinational corporation. Several years later, he was promoted and transferred to the company headquarters in London. She found a good job with the Standard, and the entire family moved to Streatham.
On the first day of her new job, she walked into the office only to find a very familiar face sitting at the cubicle next door. It was Him. The Athlete. Her soul mate.
Little Penny Pratchett ran to the door, struggling to unbolt the lock. “Mummy! Mummy! You’re home!”
The door eventually opened, seemingly of its own accord, and the girl threw her arms around her mother’s legs. “Mummy, I missed you!”
The woman looked down, surprise filling her eyes. “Home already, Penny? Did you finish school early?” And then, “Penny! What have I told you about opening the door to strangers?”
“But you’re not a stranger, Mummy! I saw you coming! And, besides, Mrs Townsfeld was watching me.”
The woman’s eyes travelled to a older lady sitting on the day bench. “Much obliged, ma’am, for watching my little girl.”
“Please don’t mention it, Helena. Penny’s a darling.”
After politely declining a cup of tea, Mrs Townsfeld was showered with thanks and praise as she returned to her house next door. The newfound lack of company left Helena Pratchett with nothing to do other than sitting at the kitchen table, resting her head in her hands.
“Mummy.” Penny crawled into her mother’s lap. “Mummy, you look sad.”
“I’m not sad, sweet pea. I’m just thinking.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Adult things, sweetie.”
“Can I help?”
“Actually…” Helena thought for a moment. “Penny, lovey, do you believe in…true love?”
“Yes, of course!” Penny bounced in her mother’s lap. “Everyone has true love! Cinderella and the Prince, Ariel and the Prince, Snow White and the Prince, and you and Daddy!”
Helena’s smile disappeared as the last couple was mentioned. “Yes…yes, your daddy and I love each other…very much, don’t we?”
Penny frowned. “Mummy, have you and Daddy been fighting again?”
“No, no, lovey. Daddy’s done nothing wrong. Nothing at all.”
Helena Pratchett lay awake that night for a long time, thinking. The man snoring next to her was everything a woman could ask for. He was kind, gentle, and understanding. He had a good job, a good mind, and a good heart. A way with children, a way with words, and a way with, well, everything.
Why, then, did she feel this way?
Parry was safe.
But Manuel felt…right.
Parry was where she belonged.
But Manuel was…different. Special.
Perhaps they were siblings. Or cousins. That could explain the connection, couldn’t it? So she searched. She called older relatives. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. She looked at family trees. Visited genealogy experts. But there was no trace of any “Manuel Ortega”, or even any Spanish ancestry, in her blood.
But they were good together.
She told jokes, and he laughed. Parry never laughed at her jokes.
They could finish each other’s sentences, predict each other’s lunch preferences, even choose clothes and accessories they knew the other would love.
Parry could do none of those.
But what could she do? She was married. She had a small child. She was a good woman. She wanted to be a good wife.
So she did the only thing she could. She came home and cried. Every night. When Penny was in bed and her husband was asleep, Helena Pratchett would let the tears wet her pillow, drowning the soft down in a deluge of heartbreak.
This pattern continued for a few years, until, one day, Helena went to work only to find the cubicle next to hers was cleared.
“Where’s Mister Ortega?” she asked the only person in the corridor, a cleaner.
“He’s gone, Missus Pratchett,” said the man. “Said somethin’ ’bout seekin’ a fortune in ‘merica. Cleaned out last night an’ left.”
Manuel was gone. Left for a different country.
But what could she do? She was a married woman. She had duties. Responsibilities.
More time passed. Penny grew into a beautiful young woman. She went to college, earned a degree in English, and followed in her mother’s footsteps. Helena was proud.
At least there’s one thing I did right…
One day, Penny brought a young man home. His name was Toni.
He was a very nice young man, Helena thought. He’d make a good husband for Penny.
It wasn’t until the wedding that Helena realised why Toni Ortega was so familiar.
“I never realised you had a son,” she said to Manuel during the reception. “He looks a lot like you.”
“They’ll be happy together,” was the reply.
“Yes,” said Helena. “Yes, I think they will be.”