Then, as abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped and looking up, his eyes, still smarting from the rain, met hers. Mary. Flying black tendrils etched against the stark white of Aunt Lydia’s house. Black eyes, two large pools of darkness, made even darker by the drab Cape winter. Skin the colour of milky tea. A dark, tailored jacket covering a white ruffled blouse buttoned to the throat. Him. Suddenly at a loss for words, looking down at his shoes, saying a silent prayer of thanks that he’d polished them that morning before church. Him. Looking up into those unwavering eyes shining like coal, drawn by a magnet out of his carefully constructed self.
A memory fluttered to the surface of his consciousness and retreated, stillborn. He had an odd sensation of recognition, an echo reverberating from another place or time; yet he knew he’d never seen these features before. He stood staring at her while rivulets of rain streamed down his face and body. Had she seen him running? Had he looked a fool, losing composure by running from a bit of rain? He felt embarrassed, vulnerable in front of the piercing eyes that saw everything but gave nothing.
“Good afternoon, miss.” He stretched out a hand, hoping his voice, at least, sounded firm.
“Hello,” she replied.
Her arms remained folded around her slight body. He returned his untouched hand to his side.
“I’m Patrick de Leeuw.”
“Mary. Pleasure to meet you.” Her voice was cool as rain.
“Shouldn’t you be inside, drinking tea with the ladies? Why you out here on your own, in the cold?” he asked, gaining confidence.
“Could ask the same of you,” came her reply. “At least I have the sense to stay out of the rain. You should go inside and dry off.” He went inside then, leaving her on the veranda. He wasn’t used to women speaking to him like that. She hadn’t flirted, fluttered or acted coy. She hadn’t even smiled at him.
Inside the house he greeted Aunt Lydia and the rest of the family, toweled down and changed into one of his uncle’s old shirts.
He saw her again, when he went to get tea from the dining room where the women had congregated around a groaning table. She looked up at him, eyes burning with what looked like contempt, then averted them just a second too quickly, betraying herself. Caught looking, she blushed. Patrick knew then that the inscrutable façade was just that: a face put on for the world, armour that could be dismantled with the right combination of patience and skill.
Emboldened, he moved to the corner in which she was sitting, choosing a biscuit from the plate closest to her. Standing over her, he again extended his hand. “Patrick de Leeuw.”
This time she’d have to reciprocate; it would show up her rudeness to his entire family if she didn’t shake his hand.
“I’m Mary, Mr and Mrs Klein’s daughter.” A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
He remembered her now, in a much younger incarnation. The gangly, morose youngest daughter – hair plaited and ribboned, clothes always a shade less pristine than those of her immaculately clad older sister, mouth that could shame a gutter.
That was a few years ago. She’d been sent away somewhere, he couldn’t remember the details. Now, it seemed, she was back, being reintroduced to the community in a smart suit that hugged a filled-out frame, her hair in loose curls about her face, skin polished to a translucent glow.
“It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Klein.”
His voice was low and smooth. Her hand found his as her gaze settled defiantly on his face. This time he would not look away. He would make her look away. She was a woman; she would not dare challenge him a second time. But Mary Klein didn’t look sideways or down or away. She held him with eyes as steady as he wanted to hold her. Her palm burned into his. Not a single emotion stirred in her dreamless black eyes. Standing over her, anger stirred in him. He could not fathom why he was so moved by this girl. Her thin smile now seemed to be a sneer, mocking him. His grip tightened on her hand. She winced and he let go. Her spell broken, Patrick turned his back on her without a further word and left the room. The old ladies chuckled up their sleeves.
Two nights later, having first sought permission from the head of the family, Patrick presented himself at the Kleins’ door. He did not own a suit, but had pressed his trousers and
was wearing a crisp, starched shirt. His shoes were polished to a high gloss; his only tie was plastered straight down the middle of his proud chest. His sturdy frame filled out a borrowed blazer, only slightly mismatched in colour to his pants. Patrick knew that he looked good: clean, decent, reliable, solid.
Mr Klein welcomed him to their modest home with an offer of a drink. Patrick declined. As Mary entered the living room, ready for their evening out, she hesitated, gazing almost quizzically at him, before extending her hand in greeting. At the moment of hesitation, Patrick sensed some kind of force, a shifting, but after it melted into the next, he wasn’t sure. He convinced himself that it was nothing; that he had imagined the little movement he’d seen flutter across her soul.
He took her to see a film, some cheap Western which neither of them could remember afterwards. Then they took a long, slow walk down the main road, avoiding all shortcuts. Patrick’s hand rested in the crook of her elbow. When Mary stumbled he grabbed her and steadied her. They spoke about this and that; nothing and everything. When they reached her home, five minutes before she was due, Patrick knew with a certainty that death would be the only force strong enough to separate them. Three months later, on Mary’s eighteenth birthday, they were married.
Tell us: What do you think about getting married as young as Mary did?