"O absence, what a torment..."
At least the train doors had the courtesy to beep a warning before they rammed themselves closed, sealing her inside the chilly, air-conditioned carriage, but, no matter how politely they were going about it, they were still cutting her off from him. There on the platform, standing with his crutches braced securely against his weight, head slightly to one side, eyes full, dark and wide, was Alex. Gorgeous, handsome Alex, she thought with a smile. Sam pressed a hand against the glass and blew him a shy kiss. She rolled her eyes and chuckled, knowing full well what a corny cliché they were turning into, but she was falling so quickly in love that she didn't even care. He closed his eyes slowly in response, moved his chin upwards by a centimetre or two, and said silently with his whole body, "I’ll miss you too."
She had made the journey to London from Cambridge countless times before, but it felt entirely different this time. Her thoughts scrolled back through the past couple of days after graduation, to spending every waking hour in Alex's company; yesterday she had either been folded in his arms on the sofa or strolling slowly along the river with the sound of his soft voice and his quiet crutches for company. But before she’d left that day they hadn't ventured from his flat, and when she hadn't been helping him cook a light lunch, or playing Portal 2 with him, she had been on the sofa, holding him, running her hands over his shoulders, his arms, his chest, his hips. He hadn't let her go any further south this time. "Don't... don't think about this if you think of me, will you?" he had whispered hesitantly when her hand strayed too far down the denim that covered his still, slender thigh and the struts of his braces.
Glancing up and seeing how vulnerable his face had become in that moment, she had smiled gently and murmured enigmatically, "I will think of you, when I think of you." She wasn't about to go promising things she could not keep. "And I'll probably be thinking of you every waking minute," she had added with a laugh.
"Tickets please," the inspector said, rudely awakening her from her daze. On returning her tickets to the wallet in her bag, she glimpsed the screen of her phone and saw a message: a simple little "<3" from Alex which made her own lurch with happiness.
After a while, she found herself in need of a distraction, and decided to text an old friend from school who lived in London, and asked if she might be free for drinks or dinner somewhere that night. "Hey Bella, it's been a couple of weeks since we've spoken and I'm on my way down to London now for my internship. Drinks/dinner/both tonight? Xxx." When Bella's happy text confirmed that Sam now had something to look forward to when she arrived, she tried to read her book and forget that she was acting like some love-struck teenager about not seeing Alex for five days. Five days, for heaven's sake, she chided herself. You can go back to Cambridge next weekend and see him then. It's only five flipping days!
As the train pulled calmly into the station, she took a breath for courage. She was not a city girl. This is going to be a long couple of months, she thought as she stepped out into the seething hoards of Sunday tourists, with her enormous bag in tow. The new building at King's Cross station was a huge, echoing, metal tent, full of teaming, scurrying people and the occasional dirty pigeon, but, she thought as she headed towards the Underground, it was probably just her sad mood that was painting it all a rather dull shade of grey. Like a memory from an earlier time, the old, previously external, shop fronts and building facades had been preserved beneath the permanent 'lean-to' design of the new extension, and it leant a magical quality to the space, like studio film set. As if on cue, two young Hispanic-looking teenagers approached her and asked, in exquisite and almost undiscernibly thick Mediterranean accents where they could find Platform 9¾.
The Underground was less of a fairytale than the world above, and she heaved her unsociably big bag down the escalators and entered the network of tunnels and corridors below the city. The rounded tunnels and strange lighting made her think of Fallout, and she allowed herself a smile as she wondered whether there were any radroaches scuttling along the tracks of abandoned train lines. Staring into the darkness of the tunnel ahead and trying not to imagine a feral ghoul lurking just beyond the reaches of the light, a flash of bright colour caught her eye as the crowd on the platform beside her moved a little and revealed a poster on the wall. It was a perfume advert, and her eyes moved over the white curly writing of a quotation, and she recognised it instantly. The company was appropriating a Shakespeare sonnet for its own gains, and she smirked a cynical smile. The line did make her think of Alex though, and the dull ache in her chest that she thought she'd left behind on the train resurfaced as her brown eyes skimmed over the words, "Summer's lease hath all too short a date".
Brushing that aside, before she lost herself in wistful thoughts and knocked some unsuspecting tourist off the platform with her bag, she turned up her headphones, blasting Alex away with her song of the moment. Hopping onto the train, she sang softly under her breath, "In the night, the stormy night, she closed her eyes…" And as the train thundered into the station and the crowd surged forwards for the doors she tried to shut them all out.
She made it to South Ken station and surfaced from the horribly stuffy Underground to a balmy London evening and the contrast made her want to go for a run, despite her travel-weariness.
The rooms which the museum had provided for her as part of the internship belonged to the halls of a nearby university, and having got her key card for entry, she trundled up to her floor in the lift and when she eventually reached her bland and blank-walled room, she flopped on the bed and took a moment to herself. As her eyes traced blind swirls on the white ceiling, she wondered what Alex was doing. Was he just getting on with his life, almost as though the past few weeks had never happened, or was he spending every single second thinking of her too? She couldn't know, and it was madness to lie there in the quiet, guessing. Reaching for her phone, she checked the time and saw that she had a couple of hours spare until she had to head out to meet Bella.
"All settled in now," she texted Alex. "Meeting a friend for dinner tonight. Miss you. What are you up to?"
His instant reply brought some comfort. "Working, and trying forget about the fact that you're not here..."
Her heart leapt wildly with a mixture of relief and pity. "Aren't we soppy? I'll probably come back up to Cambridge and see you this weekend if I can."
"T minus 120 then."
His reply puzzled her. "Huh?"
"Roughly 120 hours til I see you."
She had to laugh. "Ohhh," she replied. "Wow, the timer’s already set then?"
"Has been since you left. Enjoy tonight. Take care. xxx"
Hyde park wasn’t far away from the university halls, so she fished her ancient and much-loved running shoes from her bag and headed out for a quick exploration of the territory. With a couple of months of city-time booked, she'd need somewhere to run and let off steam.
Neat rows of slender trees bordered tidy paths as she wove out of Knightsbridge and towards the wilder patches of the park, where dogs roamed and frolicked between thicker ancient trees, and the sunlight glittered on the water of The Serpentine. It wasn’t the green freedom she could really have done with, but it would have to do for now to recharge her batteries after travelling. It was such a beautiful day, and she couldn't help thinking she was going to plough straight into someone famous, maybe an actor shooting a new film. They were always filming in Hyde Park. Maybe she'd jog past the next Bond actor, she thought as she made to leap over a fallen branch. As she caught her toe on it and nearly went flying, she thought that maybe meeting Renee Zellweger or Colin Firth, filming the next Bridget Jones, would be more appropriate than Bond, and she began to laugh. If they ever need a Bridget Jones Junior, I'd probably be perfect...
Deciding that she ought not to get carried away and run too far when she still had to get back and rehumanise herself before dinner, she wove her way back through the trees and the tall grasses til she came to Exhibition Road, where a small cluster of museums huddled together for shelter like nerds in a playground: The Natural History Museum with its dinosaurs and rock specimens conferred quietly with the Science Museum just behind it, while the rather more hipster Victoria and Albert Museum stood slightly aloof over the road. Barrelling down the hill through the tourists and early evening wanderers like an escaped raptor from the Natural History Museum, Sam pushed herself hard until she reached the little square of gardens in front of the university halls. As she stretched herself out and cooled her muscles off a bit, she looked at the time on the small running watch that Dan had given her for her birthday, and saw that she had just over an hour before she was due to meet Bella.
Since her friend always commented on the fact that she never wore anything 'boy clothes', as Bella called Sam's endless series of baggy shorts, faded jeans and scruffy t-shirts, she thought she'd surprise her by turning up in a floaty white dress, which showed an unusually large amount of flesh both at the top and the bottom. Though it was far from indecent, it still made Sam feel a little self-conscious. As she left the close air of the Tube station platform behind and poured out of the Underground with all the teaming hoards of people heading for Leicester Square or Chinatown, claustrophobia loomed above her and she missed the wide open spaces of her parents’ home by the sea.
She smoothed the front of the mid-thigh length dress and took a moment before beginning to look around for Bella. It was a good ten minutes or so before Bella turned up, during which time Sam kept an eye out for a tiny, blonde-haired, ditzy-looking cheerleader-type. Eventually, one such person hurled herself at Sam. Bella drew her old friend into a mad, warm embrace and squealed, "Oh my god, Sam, you look amazing! What's changed? You have to tell me everything!" From 9-5 Bella was the sensible, well-organised PA to the CEO of a software company, but off the clock she was the crazy, fun and bleached blonde girl she'd always been at school.
"All in good time, Bels, all in good time," she said, trying to calm her down, as much to lower the danger of physical harm to herself as to reduce the stares of passers by. "Come on, let's go and eat."
"Fine," the pretty blonde pouted with a glint in her blue eyes. Bella flicked her hair back from her face, ran her fingers under her eyes to erase any stray eyeliner, and then adjusted the strap of her enormous handbag. She was the kind of girl John Mayer might say 'poses for pictures that aren't being taken'. When she was happy with her appearance, which had been fine to begin with, they made their way to Bella's favourite little Chinese restaurant, round the back of Leicester Square. It was the kind of place where the menu was entirely in Chinese and there wasn’t a fork to be seen. As Sam's eyes roamed warily over the indecipherable menu and over the tricky looking chopsticks, her heart sank a little, and she just asked Bella to order whatever she normally ate when she came here. "I don't have Chinese very often," she said. "I wouldn't know what to pick..."
As their plate of dim sum arrived, Bella leaned forward conspiratorially and said quietly, "I've got it. There's a man in your life, isn't there?" And when Sam blushed, she shrieked, "Oh my God, Sam, why didn't you bring this up sooner?!"
An elderly Chinese couple in the corner shot Bella a dirty look and Sam's blush deepened. "I didn't want to tell you until I knew it wasn’t just some crazy crush, you know, that he and I at least had a chance of working out..."
"Yeah, but Sam, this is a big deal!"
"It's not that big a deal, Bels," she countered, hoping their wine was going to come soon.
Bella fixed her with a look, but toned her intensity down. "Ok, so tell me about him - what's his name, where'd you meet, what are his vital statistics, you know, all the usual stuff."
Sam couldn't help but laugh. "You haven't changed a bit since school, you know that?"
"I'm forever young, what can I say? Now focus. Spill."
So Sam began to tell her all about meeting Alex and how it had all begun in the tea rooms of the UL. She tried to play down quite how much she'd enjoyed getting close to him - in more ways than one - at their cinema date and at the pub afterwards. Bella's reaction to Sam’s putting the creep in the arm lock was much the same as Ollie's had been. "You did what?" she laughed. "You're hopeless. I'm surprised you didn't scare this guy off!" she smiled fondly.
"I've already had that lecture, Bels..." she smiled, trying not to let her irritation show through. "Anyway, I obviously didn't scare him off, because we went on this adorable date to a beautiful old house just outside Cambridge, and we spent basically the whole day just wandering around in the sun. It was amazing."
Bella mostly listened quietly while Sam finished telling her a bit more about their blossoming relationship, a smile dawning in her sapphire-blue eyes, its strength increasing with each accolade Sam uttered about Alex. "Oh girl," she giggled when Sam had finished. "You got it bad..." She paused and said, "You got a picture of this guy?"
"Alex," she smiled, "His name is Alex. And no, no photos on me, because I don't have a smartphone..."
"I've got mine..." Bella said, fishing in her cavernous handbag for iPhone, handing it to her with a smile as their wine and main course arrived.
There weren't many photos of Alex on Facebook, and he almost never used it anyway, but one picture she found was of him standing in crutches, laughing, wearing a tux at a May Ball during his undergrad. Not bad, not bad at all, she smiled to herself. "It's a year or so old, but..." she said, handing it back to Bella and forcing herself to take a mental step backwards while her friend considered him.
"Yummy," Bella said, in obvious surprise, and Sam tried not to think of what Bella might have been expecting. "I promise I'll sign you out when I've finished drooling over this..." She paused, her eyes snagging on something. "What happened? Why was he on crutches?"
The topic she'd been hoping to avoid was now looming over her like a crane with a twelve ton weight of cargo. "Er... he was in a car accident," she said, pouring herself a massive glass of wine and taking an unladylike gulp that nearly made her cough.
"Shit," Bella swore, looking serious. "Is he ok?"
Sam's stomach was churning for some reason. "Well, kind of," she finally said. "He was hurt pretty bad. It was about six years ago I think. He hasn't told me much about it – we have only been together for a few days shy of a month after all - but he has to use crutches to walk, or... or a wheelchair." There. She'd said it. Alex uses a wheelchair. No. Big. Deal.
The Atlantic Ocean could not have been wider than Bella's blue eyes in that moment. "Oh," she said, looking back at the photo. "Damn," she said.
"What do you mean?" Sam challenged.
"I mean it's a shame," she said.
"What, that he's disabled?" Sam suspected that her huge glug of wine probably wasn't helping.
"No," Bella returned evenly. "Just that something like that happened to him." She pinched the screen to zoom in on his face. "He's gorgeous, Sam," she smiled. "Seems you've hit the jackpot on your first shot back in the dating ring. Lucky you," she said, sipping her own glass of wine rather more demurely than Sam, who was most of the way through hers already.
"Too many mixed metaphors in that, Bels," she grinned, feeling the sweet, cool trickle of relief roll down to her stomach. A few seconds later though, she thought she picked up a little swirling eddy in Bella's blue eyes. "What?" she asked quietly. "You think I'm doing the right thing?"
Bella's big eyes were clouded for a second and she pursed her lips together in thought. Finally, she spoke, "Yes, but… Sammy,” she began hesitantly. “I've known you since school, and I've never seen you this happy -" she held up a perfectly manicured hand as Sam began to smile. "But you do need to be careful.”
"Why?" she blurted defensively. If she was about to get the sex talk from Bella, she might as well walk out then and there. She was not fifteen years old.
"I know you've only known each other a few weeks, and that it's obviously in its early stages but... but..." she sighed, "I have to ask this, so please don't hate me for it..." Again, she faltered, and Sam, breathing deeply, silently bid her go on. "Is Alex the first guy you've dated since Laurence?"
She'd not been expecting that name, and the lights seemed to flicker for a moment, as hearing it on someone else's lips filled her with a sudden, plunging dread. "Yes." Her response sounded small, almost childlike, to her in its simplicity.
"Ok,” Bella said kindly, “Just promise me you won’t rush into anything with this guy, ok?”
Sam knew she was only looking out for her, but it was starting to feel like an inquisition against her. Her friend obviously saw that, and backed off gently, steering the conversation onto herself, but Sam never really let that last comment lie. It haunted her all the way home.
Should she have dated someone who didn’t have any kind of issues so that at least one person in the relationship was undamaged by their past? Should she have tested the waters a long time ago with someone else? Someone like Doyle? It was obvious that he was fond of her, and he wasn't a bad guy. Perhaps it was the wine playing the devil’s advocate, but, as she walked up the stairs to her dorm room, she realised that this was the first time she'd been able to step back and assess her feelings from a distance since she and Alex had made their relationship 'official', and, as her hand pushed the door open, she began to feel ever so slightly uncertain about whether she would be able to handle a relationship at all, let alone one with Alex.
Knowing she had to be in work at 9 am for her initial meeting with the Exhibitions Coordinator, her immediate boss, she showered and headed to bed, chastising herself for the kind of thoughts that were whirling round her mind.
After surviving survived almost a whole week, Sam found herself feeling more like a Londoner than she had expected. The gritty, busy, bustling city had opened its arms and welcomed her into its fold more swiftly than she had expected. She felt grounded in her little patch, with her running route round Hyde park. If it was tracked from above, it’d look like the travels of a cockroach on crack, as it included almost every corner of the park in the widest set of intersecting loops possible, but she was beginning to fall a little bit in love with the wide tracts of meadowy land and huge, old lime trees, and she looked forward to her daily run after work to clear the museum dust away at the end of the day. All in all, it was a nice little routine she'd got going.
That Thursday night Bella was sitting on her bed at the end of the working day, just like she had when they were sixteen, only this time she was ranting about some guy who'd felt her up by the photocopier at work instead of some guy who'd felt her up by the lockers at school, and suddenly she turned to Sam and said, "You know what? Let's go out tonight. Let's go clubbing."
Sam rolled her eyes and pulled a face, flumping back into the pillows with a dramatic sigh. "Urgh, Bels, you know I’m not really into that..."
"You are tonight," Bella said, her eyeliner smudging slightly beneath her eye after a long day at the office. "I need a good dance with music so loud I can't hear my own thoughts. How about Tiger?"
She raised her head and said pointedly, "Last time you took me to Tiger I almost put a guy in a headlock..." Grinning all the while she spoke, she'd already caved in and decided to go, and Bella had seen it, pouncing on the opportunity like a cat at play.
"Oh my God, that's right," she shrieked, giving a real cackle of delight at the memory. "That was the funniest thing I think I've ever seen. Maybe not Tiger then…"
Sam made a gesture that relinquished all control to Bella, and flopped her head back onto her pillow with another big sigh.
"What's the matter? I thought I’d convinced you but now I’m not so sure…"
"It’s nothing," she breathed.
"You're worrying about Alex, aren't you?" Bella asked quietly.
"Maybe a bit." Bella sighed, and Sam added, "I just don't want him to think that because I'm in London, I've turned into some floozy, drinking and dancing until the small hours without him."
"You should be able to go out and do what you like, without being worried about upsetting the other person..." she said pointedly, "As long as it's not something that is going hurt them, of course, which this isn't, Sam."
"Fuck it, let's just go," she said, sitting up quickly. "You always say I over-think everything..."
Bella laughed. "You do. You want to come over to mine or meet me there? We could go for a drink somewhere first - no one even gets to these places til at least eleven - what do you think?"
She agreed, beginning to look forward to the idea of losing herself in a dark room with strobing lights, pulsing lights and dancing strangers.
"You want to bring anyone else along?" Bella asked, standing up and fiddling with her bracelet. "I was thinking of inviting a couple of guys I know..."
Sam only really knew a few people in London, Doyle being one of them. He was big on the club scene, spending almost every night at one or other of the popular London clubs, so she knew she wouldn't need to ask him twice. "Er, not really, no. Feel free to invite whomever though," she smiled.
Pounding bass. Strobing lights. Arms raised high. Body moving. Hips swaying. Even Sam had to admit that it felt amazing to give herself up to the mass and become just one of the seething crowd, and she laughed freely as she saw the same expression on Bella's face. "I knew you know how to have fun!" Bella shrieked gleefully. Sam couldn't deny that she was right as her hair swung freely down her back. She still poked her tongue out her for her rude comment though. They had been dancing for nearly three hours, and they were all exhausted, sweaty, and very much on the blurrier side of happy.
A few of the guys Bella had invited had turned up for drinks beforehand, and they were all dancing in a knot together. Sam had an escort of two tall guys on either side of her: a blond-haired graduate student called Seth on her right, and some privately-educated entrepreneur, who was probably fiftieth in line to the throne or something, called Hector on her left. Seth had just put his hands on her waist, where her dark teal top melted into the very figure-hugging and very short black skirt, and as she did a sort of dancing step sideways to indicate politely that that was not acceptable, she thought she saw a flash of a familiar face illuminated in the rapidly changing lights. Suddenly as one track melted seamlessly into another, a gap opened up in the figures as someone made their way from the dance floor to the bar. Her suspicions were confirmed; it was Doyle. Instinctively, she nearly ducked back into Seth's for cover, but it was too late; Doyle had seen her and he ploughed slowly through the dancers, and he bent and swept her into a massive, sweaty hug. "Sam!" he said his big, Irish-accented voice booming. "I had no idea you'd be here! I didn't think this was your scene?" he said, still leaning in close to speak in her ear above the bass. Bella’s blue eyes were locked onto them, and unusually, Sam couldn’t read her expression.
"It isn't normally my kind of thing," she chuckled, pulling herself back out of his enormous, crushing bear hug and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
His eyes ran unabashedly up and down her body in a rapid but appreciative sweep. "You look amazing! How's it all going?" he asked, his voice carrying easily above the music as he stood close by.
She stopped swaying her hips at that point; the last thing she wanted was for someone else to get the wrong idea, him most of all. "Thanks," she smiled graciously. "I'm just relaxing tonight to celebrate almost a full week at the V&A..."
"Oh yeah, that's right!" he grinned, his head nodding a bit with the beat. "How are they treating their newest intern? Have you graduated from making coffee to stapling forms yet, or is that still to come?"
Laughter bubbled up from her chest, her chin tilting back, her hair cascading down her neck and back, shivering in the neon lights. "I've skipped that stage entirely... gone straight to writing display labels for objects in an upcoming exhibition..."
He made a comically impressed face, his eyebrows dancing high on his forehead, "Oooh, get you!" he chortled. "Well, if you're not too important for the rest of us these days, how about we get lunch some time and catch up?"
"Sure," she said, a little warily, "Sometime next week?"
He nodded. "Love that."
"Ok. My lunch hour is 1-2."
"We can go somewhere nearby, perhaps Federico's..." he was thinking aloud.
Doyle was pretty wealthy, and given that Harrods' was just around the corner from Federico's, she was worried that he might be thinking of going somewhere that her pitifully empty wallet would not cover, and she did not want to be under any kind of obligation to him. The hugely-overpriced cocktails which had replaced a lot of the blood in her veins threatened to tell her to ignore that and make the most of a free lunch in a posh restaurant, but she managed to shut that idea up and say instead, "Nowhere too posh, Doyle. I'm on a budget..."
It was his turn to laugh, and he waved his hand with a carefree gesture. "My treat, Sam," he breezed.
"No," she said, "I couldn't. Let's just get something light somewhere..."
He laughed dismissively, and said, "We'll work something out."
It seemed like only the previous day that he’d stood on that platform watching his beautiful Sam pulling away in the train carriage, his heart skipping more than a beat or two when she’d pressed her tiny hand against the glass of the window and blown him a kiss. Working solidly from early morning til well into the night for the rest of the week had knocked the starch out of him, and it was certainly a relief to be back in his chair after crutching around with Sam for so long. He sighed as he wondered why he felt the need to be on his feet as much as he could around her - she clearly didn't mind about the chair. This was an issue of his own making and he had to get out of it: the fit of awful spasms which had descended when he’d got back to the flat was concrete evidence that he’d definitely been too ambitious in staying on his feet for that long.
By the time Thursday afternoon came around, a certain string of numbers had been burning a hole in his mind intermittently all week. The little scrap of paper with Rachel's phone number on was sitting on the kitchen counter amid a pile of receipts and other shreds of paper. It was nagging at him like a whiny little dog that wants a treat and won't go away.
He'd been reminded of her number again on that particular morning because he had just about had enough of his cramping, jumping, grumpy legs, and decided to go and do some targeted exercise and physio at the gym; the routine R.O.M exercises clearly weren't enough.
However, it had only been as he'd finished his last set of tricep dips and lowered his tired body back down into his waiting chair, that he remembered his meeting here with her, and how she had ambushed him, assuming he was still the same vulnerable boy she'd known in rehab. He'd been so wrapped up in his own surprised offence that day that he'd not noticed the real emotion in her eyes. After further reflection as he had pumped a dumbbell up and down in a quiet corner, resting on a soft bench while his chair sat quietly waiting for him to return to it, he'd realised with a small jolt of shock that in fact Rachel had been the one with the 'vulnerable' eyes, and not him. There was something in her, in that look, that had been reaching out to him in the same way he had once reached out to her all those years before: a wordless, expressionless cry for company. She had done too much for him, given too much of her time and of herself, for him not to phone her back and tell her he wasn't angry, not really.
Sitting exhausted in the car after a very long, hot shower, he was pleased to see that his exertions appeared to have cured the near constant jumping in his legs, but having forgotten all about Rachel in the intensity of his new relationship with Sam, the recent re-emergence of her presence felt all the larger in Sam's absence.
He ran the little piece of paper through his fingers as he sat in the kitchen when he got home, and he cautiously leaned backwards a little in his chair, the sinews and muscles of his abs stretching almost painfully, reminding him of his workout. He couldn't work up enough courage to call her yet though, and he shoved the scrap of paper back into the mountain of other paper and rubbish on the counter and began to turn his mind to work.
Before he started though, Alex glanced at the big Swiss Mondaine clock on the wall, ticking efficiently with its clean black lines and authoritative, red second-hand, and he rolled to the bathroom to cath and take his afternoon meds, and returned to the kitchen and began to make a cup of tea. "If I were as good at coding as I am at procrastinating, I'd have created a whole knew language by now or something… " he chuckled to himself. Will would be back from seeing Eva shortly, and he ducked into his bedroom, where his bank of three monitors spread their arms out like a triptych on a church altar. He knew Will would be wearing that smile that reflected complete inner happiness. He’d seen it on his own face when Sam was here, and not once since.
When Will’s keys did eventually jangle in the lock however, Alex had been coding in his room for a solid three and a half hours and in fact he welcomed the distraction. Releasing the brakes and pushing his rims backwards, he freed himself from his desk, with its heaps of notes and sheaves of paper scattered everywhere forming a kind of choppy sea at the base of his cliff of monitors. He had been right - the grin on Will's face made his cheeks and eyes positively glow.
Alex couldn't help but smile too. "When do I get to meet her then?" he asked as he watched Will put the kettle on and lean his lanky frame against the counter.
"I was thinking of inviting her over for dinner..."
"Surely you'd want me out for the evening if that's the case..." he flashed a grin, fiddling idly with the rims of his chair, rocking himself back and forth.
Will's blue eyes crinkled. "I knew I wouldn't have to ask..."
Alex laughed. "I should probably text Max and see if he's around then. It's been about a month since we last met anyway."
"How's his job going? I thought he was in London?"
"He's shuttling between the two offices in Cambridge and London. He's still got his house here, and Steph's here too..." He smiled, thinking of the nerdy, computer scientist he’d become best friends with in their very first week of university, and Max's lovely, crazy, purple-haired, tattooed, pierced, girlfriend, Steph. "Last I heard from him, he was the lead programmer on a text adventure RPG project going up on Steam soon, and he's designing a new Minecraft mod in his spare time."
Will made an shrugging sort of expression, and turned to pour the freshly boiled water into his favourite mug. "Impressive stuff," he murmured. "You two should get together and do build more of your Minecraft maps. Anyway, Eva said she's free on Monday or Tuesday next week..."
"I’ll see if Max is too," Alex laughed softly.
He sighed. Living with his brother did have its advantages, but he couldn't ignore the tingling beginnings of that sinking feeling; that sinking feeling that accompanied the old, familiar feelings of disappointment, dependence, and maybe even depression.
He shoved his hands to the rims again, but Will tossed a quick comment at him before he could leave, "It's not important if Max isn't free," he said. "You're welcome to stay and join us, or just do your own thing, you know, whatever."
Alex gave him a reluctant smile, and then muttered, "Thanks." A strange and unnerving sense of guilt descended around his shoulders and trickled down to his stomach, and he realised it was because Rachel had flashed back into his mind. He said, "Oh, yeah, I was going to ask you something..."
"Fire away," he said, sipping his tea.
"I've got Rachel's number from James, but... but I'm still not really sure if I should call her or not."
"I thought we decided it was a good idea?" Will asked good-naturedly, his already skinny frame seeming to deflate a little more, as though Alex had punctured Will's happiness with his question about Rachel.
He sighed. "Yeah, I guess."
"Up to you," Will commented. "Just... it might be nice to catch up, and it might be nice to have someone understanding to talk to..."
Alex blew the air from his lungs and nodded. His hands moved around the rims and he tipped back into an absentminded wheelie, which made Will grind his teeth in silent apprehension. He set the little casters back down again and said, "It's not that Sam isn't understanding," he began.
"But she doesn't... understand..." Will finished, pointing out the difference with a mere inflection of tone.
"I'll probably do it some time next week..." Alex shrugged, agreeing with his brother by saying nothing more about it. He jests at scars that never felt a wound, was a line from The Bard that dropped unbidden into his mind. Sam certainly didn't mock his disability, but she couldn't truly understand what it meant to him.
He pushed his way towards the door, making his way back to his desk, which was slowly sinking into a marsh of impenetrable, hieroglyphical notes. "Anyway, I've got some more tests to run so I'd better get back to it,” he added by way of an exit cue.
Texting Max before resuming his work, he saw that it had been nearly a month since they'd messaged. He wondered how they sustained such a close friendship despite the lack of contact, but that was probably a guy thing. His message too was typically male: "Dinner out on Monday or Tuesday? My turn this time."
Max's reply came within fifteen minutes. "Sure. Free Monday - usual place at 7?"
"See you then."
Turning his thoughts back to his code, Alex felt a slight thrumming pulse in his thigh. Half-heartedly pushing his palm into it, he scrolled back through the lines of functions, searching out the bug that had caused his last test to fail. With the grinding movement of his arm, he became aware of just how tight his shoulders were, and he longed to feel Sam's fingers digging into the muscles. They’d set like concrete since the last time she'd pulverised them for him.
Thoughts of that particular massage reminded him of his body's surprise reaction, and he allowed himself a self-satisfied smirk at the thought that maybe the old Alex wasn't quite so far removed from the present. Maybe he could make Sam happy in some way after all? Running his flat palms up and down his un-braced thighs which leapt in a brief reaction beneath his touch, he thought, I wonder if we'll both ever let go enough for that?
To be continued...