“That will be two pounds, six pence.” The shopkeeper glared at me as she stood expectantly, arms folded across her chest. Her index finger tapped out a message of annoyance on her forearm.
Counting out money one handed with a child on your hip was an arduous task and it seemed to take forever. Rather than assisting me, the woman continued to stare, boring holes of hate into my forehead. She sighed loudly, clearly wanting to communicate her displeasure further.
My fingers fumbled self-consciously.
At last I handed her the required change and she set about wrapping the purchases. She was deliberate, taking her time as Ann squirmed impatiently in my arms, reaching for the canisters of bright candies that lined the far side of the counter.
“How do you even know what those are, baby girl?” I whispered into her ear. “Maybe they are poison. You never know about pretty things…”
Eventually the woman was done and she unceremoniously shoved the parcels across the wooden countertop. She turned her back to me, pretending to rearrange the bars of soap that already rested in orderly and pristine rows on the shelves behind us.
I gathered the brown paper wrapped bundles and placed them into a large brown fabric sack I had brought from home. The cook had sewed it some months ago and had used it for this purpose. Thankfully, she had left it behind…
Anne sneezed as she always did from the bright sunlight as we stepped out of the dim shop and into the street. We started the journey back home.
After several blocks I caught a glimpse of the back of a deep scarlet dress as the wearer rounded a corner. I picked up my pace. I had recognized it.
The beautiful woman in red.
What were dreams anyway? Ephemeral taunts from on high; gauzy, misty things impossible to grasp.
But I had just seen her.
Back home in New England dreaming of a beautiful woman dressed in red meant a move. But here now, across the world, was the meaning the same?
I knew that I needed to speak to her. Somehow I knew the key to my happiness lay with her.
The corner loomed just ahead. I picked up my pace, the bag slapping hard against the crinoline with each step. I quickly dodged around a man in a grey waistcoat to make the turn, breathless. Anne laughed with the sudden evasive movement. She enjoyed this game of pursuit.
There she was.
Her back was to me. She was across the street, listening intently to the Reverend Drummond. Curls of dark hair peeked from beneath a matching bonnet decorated with velvet and wine colored roses.
He looked up at the sound of Anne’s happy gurgling.
My heart stopped beating.
The man paused in mid sentence as our eyes locked across the cobblestones for a split second.
I could turn and walk obviously away sending a message of disdain or keep going forward as if none of this chance meeting mattered to me at all.
Forward. Always keep going forward…
A carriage rattled by. I shifted Anne to the other hip and kept walking, one foot in front of the other. I wanted to turn and look over my shoulder, to catch a glimpse of the woman’s face, but that would be too obvious. I resisted.
I made a long loop around the neighborhood, moving deliberately as if I knew exactly where I was going and why. My arms felt like rubber from Anne’s weight as what had started out as a quick trip to the grocers had turned into quite the journey. Eventually I ended up back in my own neighborhood. As I closed the gate and walked through the small garden to the house with the bag of goods on my arm, I found myself stopping short again.
She was sitting there on the steps at the front door, clearly waiting for me.
She stood, smoothing the red silk of her dress absently.
I was haunted in so many ways. Every smile from Anne’s face was his. I had wrongly believed that it would only be a joy having some small piece of him here with me. A miscalculation to be sure. I loved her dearly but I was tortured by her at the same time. Guilt. Shame. I carried all of these with me every day.
The woman on the porch smiled at me.
It was Anne’s smile.
“Who are you?” I asked.