Bill looked up from his paper and saw that Mary was staring at nothing, with a faraway look in her eyes. “What’s up ol’ girl?” he said.
“Oh nothing much, just remembering the old days, and the good times we’ve had. Look, they have a new journal, what shall I write?”
“I’m surprised they still keep up that tradition!” Bill replied with a chuckle. “Yes, we’ve certainly made some memories over the years, haven’t we? And maybe we can make some more tonight!”
“Bill!” Mary shouted, trying to sound annoyed, but smiling at the same time. That was her Bill, a lot older now, but still a kid at heart.
She remembered back to her 16-year-old self who had come with her parents to join in a family party. They had had smaller vacations before, but nothing as grand as staying in cabins in the woods. As an only child, she spent much of her time alone but was just at the age where she was starting to come out of her shell emotionally.
Bill had been with another family party, and the two groups kept running into each other, as they hiked the trails, played on the sand, and swam in the sea. Bill told her later that he had spotted her right from the start, but she certainly had not been looking for anything other than a fun time with her family. One evening Mary was walking alone along the “sunset trail” when she caught her heel on the overgrown path and found herself slipping down a grassy bank towards the stream. Mary was sure that nothing could stop her fall when suddenly strong hands grabbed her, and there was Bill. He had seen her stumble as he was fishing the stream and ran to help her, getting there just before she would have fallen in the water.
She had been totally embarrassed; not only to fall, but by the fact that this handsome young man had saved her, and was now holding onto her, maybe for longer than was strictly necessary. However, she felt safe in his arms and gratefully agreed when he offered to walk her back to her cabin.
The rest of the vacation seemed to fly by. Mary discovered that Bill was a year older than her, and was going to join his father at the family manufacturing company in the East End of London. They took long walks together and talked nonstop. The younger children in both families giggled when they saw them hand in hand, and Mary’s Mum remarked how her little girl was growing up fast.
Soon, however, they were packing up to go home, and Mary was convinced in her heart that they would never meet again. After all, he lived in London and had a job to go to, while she was in a tiny village in Yorkshire. She was still at school and was sure that the attractions of London would soon divert Bill’s thoughts from her.
But Bill said he would write to her, and Mary relented at the last moment, and let him kiss her on the lips, a parting kiss as they embraced for what Mary was sure would be the last time.
“Do you remember our first kiss?” Bill’s words broke into her thoughts, and once again she was surprised at how her inner reflections and Bills words seemed to sync together.
“I was just thinking about that,” Mary replied. “What if I hadn’t let you kiss me, I wonder if you’d have written every week like you did.”
“Of course I would ol’ girl!” Bill replied, “You had me hooked the moment I first saw you!”
It was an odd sort of game they often played; “what if” this or that had happened, what would their lives have looked like. What if Bill’s father’s business had not gone bankrupt just six months after he started there, leaving him out of a job. What if he hadn’t traveled to her little village for a visit, and fallen in love with the place. What if he hadn’t found a job in the local car repair shop, which came with a caravan out back where he could live? What if he hadn’t been asked to go with her family again to Silver Oaks, and they hadn’t walked that day along the path by the stream?
“Tell you what ol’ girl, why don’t we talk a walk to our stream and the bridge? It’s early yet, and it’ll help us get an appetite for dinner.”
Mary agreed, and they put on their hiking boots and set off along the old familiar path.
“Remember when we came here that second year?” Bill said as they walked. As if Mary could ever forget it.
Her Dad was doing well on the farm, and for once they were in funds. Mary was due to head off to University in Brighton, and her Dad offered to talk them all to Silver Oaks again. By this time, Bill and Mary were “an item,” and he was invited to come along. Bill got to share a room with one of Mary’s cousins, and she had a cabin to herself.
Mary remembered how they had taken this walk all those years ago, and how when they reached the bridge, Bill had gotten down on one knee and asked her to be his bride.
“I wonder what would have happened if I’d said yes to you back then,” Mary said as they started down the path.
“We would have lived happily ever after,” Bill said without missing a beat.
“But we were happy anyway.” Mary countered.
“Yes, but it’s a different happy. And you broke my heart when you said no.” He said it without bitterness or self-pity. It was just a fact from the past, one that they had discussed often.
“Yes, but, I had been accepted for a degree course, and I wasn’t going to give that up. And before you say it, I know you didn’t ask me to give it up, but I knew it wouldn’t have worked.”
Bill stopped by a rustic fence to look down at the winding stream below, sparkling in the afternoon sun. “Well, what would have happened if I hadn’t fallen for Linda?”
“By ‘fallen for’ you mean ‘got her pregnant’ I think,” Mary said lightly, but still with an edge of hurt from years before.
Mary still remembered her feeling of betrayal when she heard the news that Bill was getting married, and the shock when, just five months later, they had their first child.
“That’s not fair,” Bill replied, but without the heat that these discussions had generated in years gone by. “You had turned me down and gone off to your studies, and Linda was, well, she was there. I admit we hadn’t planned on getting wed, but when we had to, we made the best of it.”
Mary’s heart softened as she heard the real concern in Bill’s voice. “I know,” she said, “and you did make the best of it. You were a great Dad.”
They walked in silence for a while, and then Mary said: “OK here’s a thought, what if I hadn’t gone to London to work in that bank, but came back home after I finished my degree.”
“Well, then you wouldn’t have married Robert, and you wouldn’t have had his babies. Of course, you might have had mine.” He looked over at Mary, worried that his words, although meant in a light-hearted way, might have hurt her.
“Ah yes, my Robert and your Linda, now if ever two people should have met,” she left the sentence uncompleted.
“They were just looking for different things.” Bill paused again. “If it hadn’t been for our vacations here, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Robert had been a senior executive in the Merchant Bank that Mary joined, and after the initial passion had faded away, their marriage became one of convenience for both of them. She got a lift up the social ladder, and a nicer place to live, and he got a smart and intelligent wife to stand by him at cocktail parties. The first time Mary found out about one of his affairs she cried for a week and threatened to leave, but she was already six months pregnant, so she resolved to accept the situation.
“If I had divorced him, I’m pretty sure he would have pulled out all the stops to get sole custody of Billy, and he had the money, he would have won.”
“Yes, that’s one ‘what if’ that we don’t want to think about,” Bill said.
“On the other hand, what if I’d not come to visit Mum and Dad when I did?” Mary wondered.
It had been when Billy was 3 and her second child, Jessica, just six months that their paths had crossed again. Robert and Mary had planned to take the children to visit with Mary’s Mum and Dad, but at the last moment Robert had ducked out. He said that there was a significant deal that he had to be in London to supervise. Mary suspected that the “deal” was, in reality, the young female intern that had just started at the bank, but she was past caring by that stage, as long as they were reasonably discreet about it.
On the drive down her car started to overheat, so she took it to the one repair place that was in her parent’s village to get them to look at it, only to find that Bill was now the owner. They caught up on the events in each other’s lives as Bill looked over the car, and he let slip that he was going to Silver Oaks in a couple of months, to do some fishing. Linda was staying home with the children, three of them now, and this was to be Bills first solo vacation for many years.
They reminisced about the place, and Mary started to feel wistful about the Norfolk coast. Her house in London was beautiful, but something about the woods and the open spaces seemed to be calling her. Without really knowing what she was doing, she got details of the dates Bill would be there and booked herself a cabin too.
Back in London, she started to question her decision. What was she doing, chasing half way across the country for some fantasy of a country idyll? But when she broached the topic with Robert he was all for it, and even suggested that they employ a nanny to look after the children while she was away.
“I remember that phone call I had from you!” Bill chuckled at the thought.
“Well, I wanted to be open and not raise your expectations.” She had thought it through and realized that Bill might have been expecting them to sleep together, so she called him and told him that they were just going as friends only, nothing more. She had meant it too; she had no intention of breaking her marriage vows or cheating on Robert, no matter how many times he cheated on her.
At Silver Oaks, they had a wonderful time of walking and relaxing, and each evening before going to their separate cabins they exchanged a kiss. Then on their last day, they went for one last walk. When they got to the bridge where Bill had proposed, they both stopped and stood wordlessly for a while. Then Bill let out a deep sigh and started to speak.
“Mary, I have to tell you something. I’m in love with you. Always was, always will be. I know it’s hopeless, you have your life in London, and I have my work and Linda and the children, but all you ever need to do is say the word, and I’ll come to you, whenever or wherever.” Bill stopped, trying to judge what Mary would do or say next. What she did blew him away.
“Oh, you silly man.” She said with tears starting to fall “I love you too, more than I can say.” She reached up and kissed him, and they stayed locked in that embrace for a long time. Then wordlessly they started to walk back to the cabins. Bill saw Mary to her door and kissed her briefly before turning to go to his cabin.
“What if I hadn’t invited you into my cabin that night?” Mary broke into their mutual thoughts.
“You know I often wonder that!” Bill replied. “I was so churned up inside that I might have come and pounded on your door in the middle of the night. Or maybe not, maybe I would have put it down to the magic of the setting, and we would never have seen each other again.”
As it was, she had called him back, and they spent that night together, their first night. In the morning they packed up and went their separate ways.
“You know, it amazes me that we didn’t even make arrangements to meet again!” Mary said.
“But we knew we would!” Bill replied, and Mary knew that it was true, neither of them could have lived with the thought of never seeing the other again, any more than they could with the idea of leaving their spouses.
And so it was that they got into a routine. Once a year, Bill went on a fishing trip, and it just so happened to be the same time that Mary would be having her break from town on the Norfolk coast. At first, they were circumspect about it, booking separate cabins and making sure that they were rarely seen in public together. After a while, they started to be more open, even reducing the cost by booking just one cabin. They never tired of Silver Oaks, and the place grew to have a special place in their hearts.
Eventually, Robert found a younger woman who was not content to be a mistress, and he divorced Mary. She moved back to Yorkshire to look after her father, who was now a widower. Only six months later, Linda got tired of the solitude of the small town and ran off to London. There she was swept off her feet by a young executive type, and soon Bill was single too. There was nothing to stop Mary and Bill getting together after that, except that there were different people, and had gotten used to living alone. Even so, once a year they took their trip to Silver Oaks.
“You know, I was thinking,” Bill said as they neared the bridge over the stream. “I’m 58 now, so we’ve been coming here for almost 40 years.”
Mary just smiled, there didn’t seem anything to say. No time for regrets no time now for ‘what-if.’
Then they were standing on the bridge, their bridge, side by side with the water trickling below them, and the trees making a silent canopy above. It truly was a magical place. Bill routed in his pocket and produced a small box, scuffed and slightly the worse for wear.
“39 years ago I asked you to marry me,” Bill said, and Mary gasped as he unsteadily got down on one knee, and opened the box to reveal a faded interior, with a ring sparking inside. “Do you think, this time, you might say yes?”
Cabin 22 Journal.
Oh, how exciting! I get to be the first person to write in the new journal for cabin 22!
Well let me see, what can I write? Well, Bill and I have been coming here almost every year for 40 years, and both of us just love it! It truly is a small piece of paradise that God left on this earth!
Bill and I met here, and he courted me here. He proposed to me on the bridge over the stream, but it was the wrong time, and I said no.
This time I said yes.