George sat on the park bench, holding his head in his hands. He’d already turned away a couple of concerned passers-by, assuring them, between sobs, that he would be all right.
And he would, he knew. Experience told him that. But it didn’t make it any easier. It was always tough saying goodbye.
It hadn’t helped that he’d broken one of his cardinal rules. Seven years: that was his limit, no relationship to last longer than that. But he’d been with Ellie for nine blissful years before the bolt-out-of-the-blue, before the “I can’t be with you anymore,” triggering tears from both and bewilderment from Ellie.
“What have I done wrong?” she pleaded, and he hung his head and admitted she had done nothing wrong.
“It’s not you… it’s me,” he lamely muttered.
“Is it a younger woman?” she asked, face blotchy and red, fists balled in anger. He choked back his response, shaking his head.
He had left it too long. And they were all younger – than him, anyway. That was inevitable when you were as old as Methuselah.
Seven years was just about right. Any longer and niggling doubts crept in. Comments about pictures in the attic turned from wry amusement to sullen fear as one of the pair put on a few pounds, found a few more grey hairs, a few new lines permanently etched on their face.
And the other? The other looked exactly the same as the day they’d met.
Though he still didn’t know exactly what the truth was. He thought of himself as immortal, and indeed, he hadn’t aged these last 900 years, but only an infinity of time could ever prove his supposed immortality.”
So, though it hurt – every single time – George knew to break up before the discrepancy between his claimed age and his looks morphed from “lucky you!” to “uncanny”. It was for the best, in the long run.
And George knew a lot about the long run.
Sometimes, he daydreamed about the conversation he might one day have, if and when he could finally open up and tell the truth. Though he still didn’t know exactly what the truth was. He thought of himself as immortal, and indeed, he hadn’t aged these last 900 years, but only an infinity of time could ever prove his supposed immortality. Perhaps he just aged very, very slowly.
Many times slower than poor, distraught Ellie.
Sometimes, he wondered if it would be better to be caught cheating. To give her anger something tangible to focus on, to justify a “good riddance!” as well as a “goodbye”. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. That would be dishonest.
Sometimes, in the raw aftermath, he thought about never being in a relationship again. But George’s ‘never’ was a bigger, scarier thing than a normal person’s. And he knew the perfect balm for the hurt that he felt – that he caused – was to find new love.
And so, as the afternoon light began to fade, he took out his mobile. George was careful to stay up to date. Oh, he ignored the passing fads, the addictive and pointless games. But he’d had a smartphone even before he’d met Ellie and had upgraded as each new generation rolled out.
He knew the principles of internet dating apps. Up until now, he’d had no need of them, but he was well aware that they had become the norm.
The day was virtually over by the time he’d set up his account and begun browsing, the park lights flickering on. His finger paused above the screen. He’d been swiping left, though not at an unseemly pace, letting each image soak into his consciousness and, as often as not, delving into the bio and any other photos before sadly dismissing the profile. The problem was one of memory: nearly everyone he saw reminded him of someone. Someone he’d once been close to. George had the best part of a millennium of baggage to avoid.
But the face that stopped his finger in its tracks did more than remind him. He half thought he recognised her.
Zahira: the profile name was unfamiliar, but there was definitely something about her. The face almond-shaped, the chin stronger than might be considered beautiful these days. Her skin was a warm, Mediterranean tone, eyebrows black and arched. Looks that wouldn’t have been out of place on a bust of Queen Nefertiti…
And then he remembered. He’d seen her – or rather, someone who looked just like her – standing at the entrance to a recently opened tomb in the Valley of the Kings, while he’d been in the employ of John Gardner Wilkinson, one of the early British Egyptologists. The girl had fascinated him. Though he never heard her speak as she carried drinking water for the surveyors and she had, alas, vanished by the next day, he quickly twigged that she was far more knowledgeable than any of the native guides, most of whom seemed not to have left the bazaars of Luxor before.
The way she carelessly slopped her ladle, revealing the faint inscription on an overlooked stone. The way her lips moved as the archaeologist struggled to translate the hieroglyphs. The way she wandered to the top of a small rise, forcing an irate engineer to follow, his angry protest stillborn in his parched throat when he saw the evening shadows playing across the valley floor, the depressions there, and there, two more potential sites to investigate.
Ah, happy memories from another age! Funny how this Tinder picture brought it all flooding back. At least she didn’t remind him of someone he’d once had a relationship with.
For the first time since the Enlightenment, George found himself tongue-tied. The way she gently smiled, the way she held herself erect…”
Idly, he read her bio. A curious girl, this Zahira; interested in the Classics, efficient and precise with her English while admitting it wasn’t her first language.
George laughed. Nor, strictly, was English his. Or rather, not this English. An older one; only just beginning to absorb the words of the conquering Normans.
It would, he decided, be fun to find out what other memories this girl with the timeless looks sparked. Carefully, deliberately, he swiped right. Though there was every chance she would not reply. In his long lifetime, he had been rebuffed many times, the hurt inconsequential compared to that he had to go through every seven – or nine – years.
There was an echoing chime from directly behind him, and he turned startled to see a woman holding her mobile phone.
“Hello George,” Zahira said, smiling at his shocked expression. “Sorry. I’d already worked out there couldn’t be many other Tinder users in the park at this time of night. It’s probably very rude of me, but I’ve been waiting to see what you did next.”
For the first time since the Enlightenment, George found himself tongue-tied. The way she gently smiled, the way she held herself erect. This was not a girl who reminded of him of another, glimpsed for one surprising day two centuries earlier. This was that girl.
“Are you… immortal?” he asked, hardly daring to hope.
She reached out and took his hand, her skin warm and the touch… the touch was like coming home after a long journey.
“I’m not sure,” she laughed into the dusk. “Ask me again in a hundred years’ time.”
From Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed
Liam Hogan was abandoned in a library at the tender age of 3, only to emerge blinking into the sunlight many years later, with a head full of words and an aversion to loud noises. He is co-host of the award winning monthly literary event Liars’ League, and winner of Quantum Shorts 2015 and Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2016. His steampunk stories appear in Leap Books’ Beware the Little White Rabbit, Flame Tree Publishing’s Swords&Steam and Steampunk Trails II. His science-fiction stories appear in DailyScienceFiction, Sci-Phi Journal, and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. His debut story collection Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is published by Arachne Press. Read more.
Author portrait © Mike Hogan
to 4 June
Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed tour
Liam is reading from his story collection at bookshops, libraries and cafes around London (and one night in Oxford) from April to June, including the Stoke Newington Literary Festival (2–4 June).