My name is James Briggs, and I have a story to tell. My life was changed forever by a set of carefully chosen words, spoken in a carefully chosen manner. Those profound words were to influence the path I chose. In life, we all make choices; some of these are wiser than others. Only with the vision of hindsight do we know which was which. My story begins after I left university.
Actually, I couldn’t wait to leave university; I only went to keep my parents happy. It’s only in later life that I realise what a wasted opportunity it was. If only I had put in the work, things may have worked out better for me. In truth, I was just a tad lazy, no excuses. I was supposed to be studying chemistry, but instead, I spent most of my time sneaking into other lectures. Philosophy was a particular favourite of mine. There never seemed to be any right or wrong answers. Perhaps I should have chosen that field of education. I remember one lecture where the subject was all about life’s choices and the different paths we take. It told of an old woman who lived alone. She kept a caged bird for company. A visitor once asked her why she kept the bird in a cage. The old lady explained that she loved the bird, looked after it, and it gave her company on lonely nights. The visitor remarked that if she really loved the bird, she would let it go.
The old lady pondered the subject for a few days. She was unsure what to do. She wondered if the satisfaction of doing what was right would make up for the loss she would feel by releasing the bird back into the wild. The only way she could know for sure was to release the bird. Several days later, she did just that. For her, the knowledge of knowing that she did the right thing did not fill the hole left in her heart by the loss of her bird. Not long after, she replaced the bird, and for her, life returned to normal. I didn’t know it at the time, but that story was to have a profound effect on my life.
Eventually, my time at the university came to an end. Even though I did badly in my finals, I still decided to reward myself with a year off to travel around Europe. What a year that was. My first stop was Paris. I had intended to spend a few weeks there before going on to Belgium. Moving from hostel to hostel, I managed to see most of what I wanted to see. On my last night in Paris, I stopped off at a small bar for one last drink of French beer. That’s when I met her, Rose, the girl who would change my life forever. She was playing the piano in the corner. I wasn’t familiar with any of the tunes she played. Everyone else in the bar appeared to be taking little or no notice of her. When she finished her first tune, I was the only one who clapped. After a few more beers, I’d built up the courage to go and speak to her.
It was then that I realised just how beautiful she was. She looked like an angel. My new-found beer courage was fast leaving me. Unsure of what to say, I asked her if she knew any modern pop tunes. In a strong French accent, she said, "Sorry sir, no English, no English."
Part of me was sad, and another part was relieved. It was obvious that I was in way over my head. This girl was far too good for me. I just smiled and said, "That’s a shame, I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are and how lovely you play." Of course, it didn’t matter what I said, as she couldn’t speak English. But it did matter; she looked back at me, smiled, and blushed a little. It took me a second or two to realise that she understood every word I’d said; now it was I who was blushing.
After a moment or two of silence, she said, "I know some Beatles songs. I will play one, but only if you sing the words."
If there is one thing I’m worse at than chatting with the opposite sex, it is singing. My choices were limited. Walk away and look like a fool, or stay and attempt to sing. It was obvious that she could see the panic on my face as she said, "Don’t worry; I’m only messing with you. I will start, and you can join in if you want." With that, she started to play, Let it be, by The Beatles.
Not only could she play, but she also had the voice of an angel. Listening to her sing a Beatles song with a strong French accent was an experience like no other. If there were such a thing as love at first sight, this was it. I was completely smitten. I wanted that moment to last forever, but it was getting late. People were leaving, and the bar was closing. This most magical of times was coming to an end. The thought that I would never see her again was too much for me. In my pocket was a train ticket to Belgium, a trip I no longer wanted to make. As the barman began to usher people out, I asked her if I could see her again. "Sure," she said, "I play here every Tuesday and Friday."
My heart was in a flutter, and Friday was a lifetime away. Any thoughts of travelling on to Belgium were gone. I had to stay and see her again. The people in the hostel I was staying at were very kind. They allowed me to remain for another few days—the longest days of my life. When Friday did eventually arrive, I was just about as excited as I’d ever been. The thought of seeing Rose again filled my heart. The clock in my room was going so slowly that it hurt. My mind was racing—what if she doesn’t show up? Was she just putting me off? Is this what she says to all her admirers? After all, a young girl with such beauty and talent must surely have many. Why on earth would she want to spend any time with someone like me? I spent the day torturing myself with what ifs. As slowly as the clock turned for me, the evening eventually arrived.
I arrived at the cafe a little after it opened, I didn’t want to seem over-eager by waiting at the door. My heart sank a little as Rose was not sitting behind the piano. By the time I’d finished my second beer, she was there. I couldn’t believe it when she smiled at me and gave a little wave. I felt at that moment that I had known her forever. She was even more beautiful than I remembered.
Her first number was a light classical piece that I vaguely knew. About halfway through, she played a few bars of Let it Be before returning to the original tune. As she did, Rose looked over at me and smiled. My heart melted, she remembered. Missing my train to Belgium was now the best decision I had ever made. It may sound crazy, but I was in love. When the time came for her to take a break, she went to the bar and picked up a coffee. I was desperately trying to build up the courage to go and talk to her, but she came over and sat with me.
She asked me what I was doing in Paris. I explained about taking a year off after university to travel around Europe, and that Paris had been my first stop before moving on. She wanted to know where I’d been in Paris and what sights I visited. After telling her about the various monuments and museums, the usual stuff. She told me that there was a lot more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower. There were plenty of cool places that tourists hardly ever visit. And then came a moment that would change my life forever.
Rose told me that she wasn’t working the next day and would be happy to show me around if I had the time. I didn’t care if I had been invited to the queen’s tea party; I was free. Rose returned to the piano and finished her evening set. After, we chatted for what seemed like hours. At that moment, I was the happiest man alive. I didn’t think that life could get any better, but it did. Rose came the next day, as promised, and took me on a magical tour of Paris. We got on really well. I was starting to believe that Rose was just as fond of me as I was of her. Over the next two weeks, we met almost daily.
At the end of the second week, Rose said that she was moving out of the apartment she shared with two other girls. She had found a small place at the edge of the city. This would be good for her as she wanted her independence, and it wasn’t too far to walk to work. Rose asked me if I would go with her to have a look. It was a very small apartment, consisting of one room. Only basic furniture was supplied, along with a kettle and a two-ring cooker. There was also a small table, a sofa, and a pull-down bed. It wasn’t much, but it was affordable.
Even back then, Paris was a very expensive place to live. Rose asked me what I thought of it. I said it was a bit small but plenty big enough for one. That’s when she dropped the bombshell. She asked me if I thought it was big enough for two. And so we moved in together. That really was the start of the happiest time of my life; I couldn’t wish for anymore. I was in love with a beautiful girl, and she was in love with me. As time went on, Rose found herself a better job in one of the more upmarket hotels. My French wasn’t very good, but I still managed to get a job working in a kitchen, washing dishes.
Between us, we made enough money to get by. The days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. It wasn’t long after our first anniversary that our idyllic life was shattered. Rose was an extremely talented pianist. Her ambition was to one day play in an orchestra. After several failed auditions, she was about to give up. Then the letter arrived. It was the letter that would bring my whole world crashing down around me.
Following a recent audition, Rose was offered a scholarship at the Berlin School of Music in Germany. She was to receive a small but adequate bursary and accommodation on campus. I felt very selfish when Rose told me that she would rather stay in Paris with me. She felt sure that something better would come up in the future. When we went to bed that night, we made love for the very last time. As Rose was sleeping, I started crying in silence. I remembered the story about the old lady and the caged bird. The voice in my head kept saying, "If you really love her, let her go."
When Rose woke in the morning, I was gone. I left her a note saying that it was probably for the best that I ended it. I told her that I did love her, but not enough. Of course, I didn’t mean a word of it. I felt as though my heart had been ripped out from my body. Even though I knew that I was doing the right thing by giving her a chance to achieve her life’s ambition, it wasn’t enough to fill the hole left inside of me. Unlike the old lady who found a replacement bird, I knew that there would never be another for me. And so I returned to England, a broken man.
They say that time is a great healer, but not for me. My wound was too deep. Living day to day was a struggle. Wallowing in self-pity was not a good look on me. I began to look dishevelled and old. Finding a job proved to be something of a challenge. Struggling to pay my rent, I ended up on the streets for a while. After a year or two I ended up living in a homeless shelter. They were very good and helped me to get back on my feet again.
Time and tide wait for no man, and soon ten years had passed. Ten years, and I still missed Rose as much as ever. I had often wondered how she was getting on. It wasn’t until I had a dental emergency that I was to find out. Whilst sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I picked up one of those glossy magazines. The kind of magazine that nobody seems to buy, and yet are always found in waiting rooms. As I flicked through the pages, looking for something of interest, my heart nearly stopped.
There she was, Rose, a rags-to-riches story of a girl who started out playing piano in a small Paris bar and was now lead pianist with The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She looked even more beautiful than ever. It was only then that I started to feel a bit happier about my decision to leave all those years ago. After I had my tooth fixed, I took the magazine with me. I must have read it a million times or more. Although the article was quite in-depth about her music, it said very little about her private life. I guessed she was a private person. I often wondered if she ever thought about me.
Another ten years would pass, and once again I was down on my luck. Despite knowing that Rose was doing so well and that I had made the right decision, I could never fully settle down. I did have a couple of relationships, but nothing lasting. No matter how hard I tried, they could always see the ghost I carried around with me. At the age of forty-one, going on eighty, I was once again living in a homeless shelter. It seemed incredible that a path I had chosen twenty years earlier could have turned out so different for two people. There was me, at or near rock-bottom, and Rose, fulfilling her life’s ambitions. I know that I could have chosen a different path and stayed in Paris with Rose. Maybe we could have both been happy with that choice. As much as I would like to think so, I knew deep down that it wouldn’t have lasted. I would have always known that I had held her back from reaching her full potential.
One evening, as I returned to the shelter, Stan, one of the men in charge, called me over. He said that he had seen a poster of the woman I was always talking about. Of course, he meant Rose. I have to admit; I did speak about her a lot and would happily show my magazine to anyone willing to look. Apparently, she was about to put on a show in London. The following morning, I went down to the theatre to find out more. I don’t think the man at reception believed that I was really interested in the show; he even said as much. To be fair, I wasn’t looking my best in my old clothes, and my hair needed cutting. He believed that I only went in to get warm. However, I did persist and eventually managed to prise the necessary information out of him. It was to be in a week’s time, and for one night only. It didn’t really matter; the ticket prices were way beyond anything I could afford. Besides, I didn’t have anything even remotely suitable to wear for such an occasion.
I decided to take a walk around the building, looking for the stage door. It was a bit of a long shot, but perhaps if I stood there after the show, she would appear. No amount of pictures could replace seeing someone in person. I knew I’d be safe, as she would probably not recognize me. She may not have changed much over the years, but I certainly did. I looked nothing like the young man who ventured out to Paris all those years ago. This would almost certainly be the last chance I’d ever get to see her. No matter what, I had to get to that stage door on the night.
On my return to the shelter, I told Stan all about my day and my predicament. Being the kind-hearted soul he was, he offered to help in any way he could. To this end, he offered to loan me one of his suits. Although he was a bit bigger than me, it would look a lot better than what I had. He also managed to get me a good discount with a barber he knew.
That week seemed to drag on and on. The closer it got to the night of her performance, the more nervous I became. When the day did arrive, I was more nervous than ever. Stan could see that I was agitated, he tried to calm me down but instead, he just made matters worse. He told me the one thing that I didn’t want to hear, I may not see her. She could leave by another entrance or hidden within a group of people.
The thought of not seeing her for the last time saddened my soul, but I knew he was right. Sensing my despair, Stan, suggested that perhaps if I went there earlier in the day, I may see her going in. At least it would double my chances. A new sense of urgency came over me, it was a long walk to the theatre so I would have to leave much sooner. It wasn’t long before I was all washed and shaved; even my hair looked reasonable. However, once I put on the blue suit that Stan had loaned me, I realised that he was a bit bigger than I had previously thought. Although the trousers were close enough, the jacket was a little too big for me. I had to fold the arms in a bit and leave the jacket undone. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than anything I had.
With butterflies in my stomach, I set off for the theatre. I arrived much too early, it was all locked up. The large windows had a mirror-like finish and I could see my reflection. I wanted to see the young man I was in Paris; instead, I saw the old and dishevelled man I had become. As I gazed and lamented, at my reflection, I noticed a small coffee shop opposite. That would be the perfect place to sit and watch the theatre. It had been a long time since I’d been inside a West-End London cafe. The prices were quite shocking. A single cup of coffee would cost most of what I had, but it would be worth it if I could only catch a glimpse of Rose. As much as I tried to make my coffee last, I could see that the staff was growing impatient with me. It was obvious they wanted me to leave and give up my table for customers willing to pay more than I had. As I didn’t have sufficient funds to cover a refill, I left.
That’s when I saw her, Rose. Amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy London street, I could hear a woman laughing. The sound of her laughter had been indelibly imprinted on my heart from the first time I met her. She was walking towards me, arm-in-arm with a handsome young man. Although he was obviously younger than Rose, he looked like the sort of man I imagined she would end up with. Well-dressed and somewhat dashing, it was clear to me by the way they looked at each other that they shared the kind of love I once had. I couldn’t help but wish that her young man was me. As they drew closer, we made eye contact. I quickly turned my gaze to the coffee shop window. Once again, I found myself staring at my own reflection. I could see Rose as she passed, looking in my direction.
“James, is that you?”
My heart sank. I didn’t want to turn around, but it’s almost an unconscious response to look at someone calling out your name. The moment I thought would never happen, happened. For the first time in twenty years, I was face-to-face with the woman I loved. As much as I tried to reply, my whole body was paralysed.
“That is you, James. That is you.”
All I could do was murmur a lightly whispered, “Yes,” like a naughty schoolboy standing in front of the headmaster. Rose moved her hand over her mouth as if she’d just seen a ghost. The young man she was with looked confused by this whole encounter. As well, he may, he had no idea who I was. At this point, I felt that anything I said would only make matters worse, so I said nothing.
After an agonising moment of silence, Rose grabbed me by the cuff of my jacket and led me across the street towards the theatre's side entrance. Her man, still in a state of confusion, followed silently behind. My mind was racing at a million miles an hour. Why was she taking me to the theatre? Perhaps she was going to tell one of the doormen that I was stalking her and insist that I be taken away. Of all the possible scenarios playing out in my mind, none would come anyway close to what was about to unfold. Once inside the theatre, Rose led me into the bar. It was completely empty apart from the three of us. She whispered something into her man's ear, and he went and sat at another table.
Opening her purse, Rose removed a small envelope and slammed it down in front of me. The sound of her hand slapping on the table made me jump. Her man stood up, but Rose, silently gestured to him to stay where he was. “Well?” she said, as she pointed at the envelope. “Don’t you think you owe me an explanation?”
I hadn't ever seen Rose angry, certainly not that angry. Not knowing what was in the envelope; I picked it up and removed a letter from inside. It was the letter I left for Rose twenty years earlier. I started crying as I realised that Rose had carried it with her all that time. She must have, as there was no way she could have known we would meet that day.
Twenty years of heartache and emotion spilled out of me as I explained about university lecture. The dilemma of keeping a bird in a cage. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I told Rose that I never stopped loving her and regretted every day I spent without her. I told her everything, how I could never settle down or have eyes for anyone else. By the time I’d finished, Rose was also in tears. Gently lifting a hand, she beckoned her man to join us. As he sat down, Rose put her hand on his and looked at me through her misty eyes before saying.
“The letter was not all you left behind.” After a brief pause, she said. “James, this is Louis. Louis, this is James, your father.”
I couldn’t be too sure at that point who was more shocked, me, or Louis? The enormity of what Rose had said was still sinking in. Less than thirty minutes earlier, I had been standing outside a coffee shop contemplating the possibility of even seeing Rose. Now, I was sitting with her, and her son, the son I never knew I had. As I was attempting to compose myself and think of something to say, Rose spoke first. In her wonderful French accent, she said, “I suppose this has come as a bit of a shock to you, no?”
She went on to tell me about the many times she tried to trace me. A task made almost impossible considering my lifestyle. It isn’t easy to find a person who had, for so many years, fallen through the cracks. I believe that after giving my explanation, Rose could see that I acted with the very best of intentions, however misguided they may have been. She could see that my love for her was so strong that I was prepared to sacrifice my happiness for her future.
Once the dust had settled, we chatted for at least another hour or two until it was time for Rose to go on stage and begin her rehearsal. Before she left, Rose said that Louis had a box overlooking the stage. I was to stay with him and watch the show. I told her that I would have to go back to the shelter first to wash and get changed. In a stern voice, Rose said, “James Briggs, you are going nowhere. Now that I have found you, I’m not letting you out of my sight. You can have a shower in my dressing room. It’s a black tie affair so Louis will find you something to wear. I will tell the doorman that if you try to leave he has to shoot you, bang, bang.”
I did as she asked. Louis was very good. He took me to her dressing room and found me some suitable clothes whilst I showered. He also managed to get me something to eat. It wasn’t long before the show started. Sitting next to Louis, I watched Rose as she played. As usual, I didn’t know many, if any, of the tunes.
As her recital came to an end, Rose stood and bowed to the audience as they gave her a standing ovation. I was so proud of her at that point; I was welling up with emotion. A moment or two after leaving the stage, Rose returned for an encore. As the orchestra put down their instruments, Rose sat back at the piano. A single spotlight shone on her as the audience fell into total silence.
My heart completely melted as she started playing, Let it Be. In that one magical moment, I was transported back in time to our little cafe in Paris. Twenty years of sadness and regret were erased from my being with a single song. I turned to Louis and told him how happy I was that she played it. He shook his head and smiled before saying the words I will never forget. “Mother always plays that song at the end, it has become her signature. She does it in case you were ever in the audience. It was her way of saying hello to you and reaching out. She doesn’t have to wonder any longer, you are here.”
Rose was as good as her word. From that day on, she never let me out of her sight. That was thirty years ago. Although you can never truly make up for lost time, we certainly did our best. The last thirty years have been the happiest of my life. I have a wife, a son, and three wonderful grandchildren. Louis has followed in his mother’s footsteps and now plays all over the world. I still see my friend, Stan. He was the best man at our wedding. He’s still looking after people like me who fell through the cracks. I to do what I can. Everyone has a story to tell if we only listen. If I may end my story with some words of advice, it’s this. Should you ever find yourself totally in love with a woman, and you just happen to get some crazy notion in your head that she may be better off without you, just let it be.