People who are meant to be together will find their way back to each other.
There may be detours along the way, but they are never truly lost.
I remember the very first time I ever saw him. That first moment our paths crossed. The memory is branded into my head with indelible clarity. As clear as fine crystal with bright sunlight shining through it.
I was ten years old when my brother Ian brought him home for dinner. He sat across from me at our family table. I probably looked like a total idiot gawking at him, but he didn’t seem to mind my staring. Good thing, because even then I couldn’t take my eyes away. Neil was beautiful to me when I laid my child’s eyes upon him for the first time. Purely and simply beautiful.
It didn’t matter that he was seven years older and totally uninterested in a gangly little girl with braces on her teeth who was definitely not anything close to beautiful.
He winked at me when he caught me sneaking a peek over a bite of Mum’s delicious buns. I remember that gesture of his made me feel strange inside, like everything was squished together and turned to mush. Feeling shy and self-conscious, I tried to come to grips with the knowledge that I had met the boy I had every intention of marrying someday.
Yes, it’s true. I fell in love with Neil McManus when I was a child. I am sure of how I felt, just as I am sure the feelings didn’t go both ways. I watched him go through plenty of girlfriends over the years, too. What I don’t remember is if he said anything to me that very first time we met. I do know he looked my mother in the eye with respect, and thanked her for the delicious dinner. That impressed me, even then. Even in my ten-year-old mind, I could read in him the deep appreciation he had for what Mum had easily offered to a guest in our home. I could tell that Neil was not accustomed to cozy dinners at the family table. He appreciated something I took for granted every day. He was just a young friend my brother had dragged home from God knows where, and from whatever trouble they’d been deep into, but he became something more than that from the very beginning. At least, for me he did.
Neil showed up for dinner quite often after that first meeting. Some days it felt like he was my new brother who’d just moved in with us. Other times, he’d show up after a few weeks’ absence, wearing a hollow look in his dark, dark eyes. His home life was shit, apparently. No mum, just a dad of some sort who didn’t care about him. My dad wasn’t around a great deal either, but it wasn’t because he didn’t want us, it was because he travelled a lot for his job. I missed my father, of course, so I suppose it was natural for me to connect with an older male figure that was always nice to me, and didn’t act like I carried the plague.
Neil called me Cherry Girl due to the colour of my hair. I’d have to agree with him on that. My hair was pretty much the colour of one of those dark cherries—nearly black with an undertone of deep red running through it. Neil told me my hair was very beautiful, and that small gesture was enough for my self-confidence to blossom. I took his compliment and ran with it.
I remember when he touched my hair for the first time, too. The memory is as perfect as day it happened and I couldn’t forget if I wanted to. Because it was also the first time he rescued me…
The cricket field stretched out to meet the forest edge a fair distance back. When I was eleven, on a summery Sunday afternoon, I had been sitting on the fence watching the local team play cricket. Neil and Ian were there too. I’d seen them strolling through talking to girls and other friends they knew. I was content to watch the match from my perch on the fence and blend into the background. The warm day brought out the crowd and space had become a premium, I guess. When a noisy, obnoxious group came through, being so small, I just got swallowed up in the melee that resulted.
A disputed call by the official started the ruckus. Then a fight broke out in front of me with two blokes pounding into each other, with no regard for who they might include with their misfires. I didn’t duck out of the way fast enough, and was shanked by a fist that relieved me of my front-row fence spot. And right onto my left forearm, which managed to find a large rock to land on. Lucky me.
I heard the crack of bone, felt the pain, saw the brutal blows of the two brawlers, and smelled the beer that’d been sprayed about when the first punch was thrown.
I clutched my arm and tried to breathe, crying through the pain, sure that nobody would ever see me, let alone help me out.
The sweetest sound was Neil’s voice in my ear saying, “I’ve got you, Cherry Girl, and you’re going to be just fine.”
“My arm hurts,” I told him through the tears.
“I heard a noise…like something snapped. Does that mean it’s broken?” I wailed.
He picked me up and shouted something to my brother, the anger in his expression darkening his eyes to a frightening black as he eyeballed the two who’d caused my injury. I wouldn’t want to be either one of those idiot blokes, confirmed by what I found out a day later.
Neil stroked my hair and sat with me until the doctor could cast my arm. And then when he actually set the bone. The bone setting hurt, but the gentle reassurance and soft touch of Neil’s hand on my hair almost made it cancel out. “Look at me, Cherry. Keep your eyes on me,” he’d said with a smile, his hand moving slowly down my head over and over.
The next day, Neil brought some visitors by my house. Armed with humility and the telltale evidence of a second round of beatings courtesy of Ian and Neil, the two fools responsible for my broken arm arrived with flowers and apologies for me, and my panicked mum. My dad had a go ‘round as well with them when he returned home from his business trip. Poor bastards didn’t stand a chance, and it was safe to say they were scared straight onto a much more righteous path after that.
Neil’s actions with me in my time of need cemented his place in our family for good. He basically became a second son to my parents and everyone seemed to understand and settle into this knowledge. I had to accept that Mum and Dad loved Neil too…which meant I had to share him with everyone in my family.
I wouldn’t even let my best friend sign my cast until Neil did first. My knight in shining armor.
When I was fourteen, and he was twenty-one, he joined the army and went away to fight for Britain. Mum and Dad had a goodbye party for him, and I remember how it seemed totally normal that we threw the going-away celebration for him and not his own family. Not that they had ever shown an ounce of interest that we’d seen expressed. It made me sad to realize that I could not recall even a single conversation where Neil ever spoke about anything personal in all the time he was around our family. The information I did know about him had always come from my brother, Ian.