When paths cross, Ben Warden

There she is. It feels like something icy has reached inside me and grabbed my heart. She’s rooting through bags of salad and my fists clench around the handgrip on the supermarket trolley.

I’m not scared of monsters, ghosts, or demons. I’m not scared of the dark, drowning, or even death. The thing that scares me is people. I was about as social as I could be, when I was young. Brought up in an extrovert family, with parents who supported me. All in all, my upbringing made me a pretty popular kid. I knew how to make people laugh and they liked me for it. It’s not that I can’t deal with people. I’m not a shut-in and I don’t have social anxiety. I have a good job, work hard and do my best. When I was at school, my Dad would say that he’d never be angry with my grades, as long as I’d tried. My Mum would tell me that if I made good choices, something bigger would look after me. I was lucky to grow up always feeling safe. When I say I’m scared of people, I don’t mean what you think. I’m not talking about murderers and rapists. I’m not even talking about the people who say they’re your friend and then screw you over.

I have two older sisters and a younger brother. That amount of family gives you plenty of chances to witness the good and bad in everyone. I’ve seen love, lies, protection, betrayal. It’s made me a good judge of character. My Mum is a teacher. I love that about her. She works, day in and day out, drawing out the best in people. My Dad is a theatre director, who does accountancy in his spare time. Weirdly, it’s the accounting that brings the money in, but, if you ask him what he does, he’ll say he’s a theatre director. He’s not lying; he’s just prioritising the job that doesn’t pay as well. People don’t understand that.

I can see her turning and heading off down the aisle. Finally, my feet unlock.

When I say I’m scared of people, what I mean is that I’m scared of Beth. Not just her, but people like her. I was the manager in the HR department when we met. She was grilling one of my staff and I stepped in to calm her down. The first thing that struck me was her passion. It was a straightforward situation; the type of bureaucratic nonsense that we all deal with, but she wasn’t taking any of it. She didn’t care what I thought, as long as the policy was changed. I don’t think I’d ever seen that in a person. She was intelligent, beautiful; my world from that moment on.

We lived together for two years and it was perfect. We were people with real goals, and we were willing to balance them. We were both going to get what we wanted. Sometimes her things would take the front seat, sometimes mine. Then life took a turn, as it does. Her Dad died of aggressive cancer, after three horrible and tiring months. The funeral was a small affair. She’s an only child and so were both her parents. I’m used to huge family gatherings, for good or bad. The small crowd looked heart-breaking. Afterwards, I told her that he’d be okay and that he was still watching. She told me not to treat her like a four year old, said she didn’t need fobbing off in an attempt to make her happy. I wasn’t talking about some notion of God, or quoting scripture. I was just saying some part of us doesn’t leave.

That day was a mark. Something about the way we approached life was different. I wanted to pick the right path, she wanted to snatch the best options from the anarchy. I wanted to be the best person I could be, she wanted to live life to the full. I wanted to protect the people I loved, she wanted for us to be happy. For two years that all seemed like the same thing. When I realised it wasn’t, we didn’t shatter. It broke down slowly, flaking away. We both saw each other’s underpinning and, while I struggled with hers, she couldn’t understand mine. She needed me to know it was wrong. She lived by one thing; life is chaos.

What really scares me is that some people not only believe in chaos, but need me to believe it. That is why I struggle now, why I keep my friends and family close. I took one thing away from those two years. What you believe is permanent. One day you’ll see the divide.

Now things are steady again. I have a wife and we have two kids. Tim is eleven. He’s the oldest in his class and starts secondary school soon. I’m worried for him, because he’s quieter than I was and he might get picked on. Shelly is seven. She has her mother’s eyes and doesn’t know what worry is. I found her up a tree yesterday, with her mum stood laughing at the bottom.

Having seen you, it all feels rocked again. I don’t know if I should turn right. That’s where I need to go, but it’s also where you are. Or do I turn left and leave. We’re holidaying in Cornwall. I forgot the toothpaste and Shelly needs hair bobbles. I know I need to make a decision and I know that our paths must have crossed for a reason. All I can feel is the panic, no matter how much I try to breathe or tell myself it’s okay. I picture bumping into you and I can hear what you’ll say.

Hey, Tom. What a coincidence.

I hear the words in my head. They bite at me. Coincidence! I leave, because you make me question. Later I’ll see the reason.

Copyright the author and first published by Friends of Rowntree Park 2014.


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