Bookmarked by Marilyn Messenger

Ruth spent Christmas day alone, but she has no problems with this. It has been a quiet but pleasant day and she is looking forward to the pleasure of a visit from her son, Mark, on Boxing Day. Ruth knows how busy he has been over the last few weeks and she is all set to  spoil him a little with his favourite food.

            Ruth props herself up against the pillows, steadies her reading glasses, and opens a paperback book. The novel is one of her Christmas gifts, sent by Mark. She reads until sleep approaches then continues to the end of the current page, as is her habit. She turns to the next page and is about to rest a bookmark there when she notices a dark hair stretched across the page. Ruth frowns. She considers the hair. She tilts the book a little and then, as if it were a birthday candle, she blows it from the book and leans over the side of the bed to see it land in front of the bedside table. She watches it for a moment, as if the small scene might rewind and so return the hair to the page. 

            Ruth sighs. Fully awake now, she contemplates the book anew. She imagines Mark browsing the shelves of his local bookstore. He would be attracted to this title, or that author or, as she herself often was, be drawn to the style of the lettering on the spine or to an appealing cover design. More likely, Mark knew exactly which book he was going to buy for her, she thinks, and smiles to herself; they know each other's tastes so well.

            From when he was a small child, teachers would comment on his gentle, quiet nature. They didn't understand him as she did. Mark was a thoughtful boy and preferred to observe life, rather than racket about, as other boys did. Ruth glanced towards the window and, though the curtains were closed, she could visualise the garden at the rear of the house and the broad branch of the old tree that Mark used to climb towards as soon as he returned home from school. Even as a teenager, he would sit up there for hours. There were times when Ruth had to walk out to the tree and call his name to bring him in for meals.   

            Ruth took another look at the hair where it lay, dark against the carpet. Not one of Mark's fair hairs, certainly. And not one of her own grey hairs. A stranger's hair then. Ruth is unsure of this thought but she follows it. Someone in the store took down the book, her book. They opened it at this page or that, but it didn't suit and so they returned it to the shelf. It was a woman, a young woman, Ruth decides, whose dark hair fell loosely over her slim shoulders. And a length of her hair caught, as she closed the book. She most likely frowned, thinks Ruth, and perhaps pulled her head back sharply.  No, this was a pleasant natured girl, Ruth decides, who smiled and gently freed her hair.

            Perhaps Mark was there too, waiting patiently for an opportunity to browse the same shelves when the girl moved away. Ruth leans back and smiles again. Mark would see what had happened and the two of them would share a look of complicity, as you do sometimes with a stranger. Then the look would linger, she decides, because Mark could be so charming, with his shy smile and blue eyes; the blue eyes that her grandchildren might inherit if only Mark were a little less shy.

            The events that follow the meeting of Mark, and the dark haired girl, progress quickly now. Ruth recalls Mark saying he had started his Christmas shopping early this year. Plenty of time then for the relationship to progress, from Mark's tentative suggestion of a coffee in the bookstore cafe, to proper dates; the cinema, dinner and the discovery of the interests that they shared. For Claire, as Ruth temporarily names her, is also a gentle, book-loving soul whose shyness has, until now, prevented her from meeting a future husband. Like Mark, she too is interested in interior design and also has an apartment that she has skilfully decorated and furnished. With both apartments sold, Mark and Claire would have the funds to find a small family property with two, or even three, bedrooms.

            And so another small boy, Daniel, would have silky fair hair that Ruth would comb and tidy, after he too had climbed the old tree in the garden. As she hugs this thought to herself, almost at once, a little girl, Rosie, takes shape. The girl has Claire's dark hair, tidied into two glossy braids, and she has been helping Ruth to ice the little cakes they have made together. Rosie sees her brother through the kitchen window. She passes on details to Ruth of how he has twigs in his hair, and they share comments about the silliness of brothers and of small boys in general. Oh, thinks Ruth, such delights.

            The thought now occurs to her that Claire might even have wrapped the book and she wishes she had taken more notice of the wrapping paper to see if it differed in any way from the tasteful paper and ribbon that Mark always chose. The gift tag had Mark's name alone on it, but he would not want to spoil his news, thinks Ruth, by including Claire's name. Mark and Claire wrapping Christmas gifts together. Soul mates, thinks Ruth, and next Christmas there will be teddies to wrap.

            She retrieves the hair and replaces it in the book, more securely than before. It lies now along the centre groove, as if uniting the two pages on either side. She discards the leather bookmark and settles herself for sleep.

            The following morning, she is in the hall when she hears Mark's car pull into the drive. Through the frosted glass of the inner door, she is not surprised to see two people enter the porch or to observe that the two figures merge into a single blurred shape. Ruth pulls open the door.

            The man, whose arm is around her son's waist, seems to fill the porch with his bulk and Ruth must step backwards to find a place from where she can take in all of it. She sees the heart tattooed on the back of the man's hand and the four letters of her son's name, black across crimson. She sees the oil stained t-shirt, the gold that pierces both eyebrows, and she sees the dark hair, tied back in a greasy ponytail.


© Marilyn Messenger, 2014

Marilyn lives in Cumbria; across the Solway Firth from Scotland. She is attracted to life’s quirkiness, unforeseen connections and consequences - especially if humour sneaks in. She has a degree in creative writing from the University of Cumbria and has had stories, poems and features published. The first chapter of Marilyn's nonfiction book Man of Stars was published in the Unbound Press Literary Competition Anthology, Loose Leaves.

Bookmarked was read by Andrea Marshall-Money on 5th February 2014