Dark Nights and Stage Lights
As she sat down at the table to her ‘graduation’ dinner with Vivian and Richard, Dan's rather over-bearing but well-meaning parents, she couldn't help but let her mind wander forwards to Wednesday and backwards to her text conversation with Alex earlier. She was so distracted that she missed half of what was said.
Dan's voice cut through her thoughts of Alex and she flushed, feeling like a daydreaming student in class. "Hmm, I'm sorry, I was miles away there. What did you say?"
He laughed gently, while his grey-haired father said, "Must be nice to have finished."
She smiled and said, "Yes and no... Now I've got to think about what comes next…"
"What do you think you'll do?" Vivian asked, setting an enormous side of steaming salmon down on the centre mats. Her short black-dyed bob haircut jiggled and shimmered when she walked and her pink skirt and top were hidden behind the endless folds of a frilly pink apron. There was something obnoxiously and uncomfortably '1950's housewife' about her, Sam had always thought.
Replying with her standard paragraph on graduate job applications and internships, she told them how she intended to get on her chosen career path of museums and curatorship.
"Well," Richard said, "It sounds like you know what you want to do at least, which is more than can be said for this one," he poked his son jovially on the arm and received a sullen glower in return. "And I think now would be a good time to tell you what we have planned for you for tomorrow..." Sam's curiosity rose like a puppy with a new toy. "Dan did tell you not to book anything in for tomorrow didn't he?"
Richard continued, "We want to take you to see a show in London as a graduation present," he said triumphally.
Dan beamed at her, his grin matching hers.
"Seriously?" she found herself asking like a gawping seven year old. "I mean, that's so generous of you! Thank you!"
Father and son laughed in chorus and Richard said, "Dan told me you've wanted to see War Horse for a while..." He gaffawed as her eyes almost bulged out of her head in delight. "Take that as a yes then!"
"I loved the book as a child," she babbled happily. "And I've always wanted to see how they manage the horses with puppets on stage..." Vivian rose gracefully, smiling, and began to clear the plates. "Let me help you with that," Sam said, rising to her feet, narrowly avoiding upsetting a water glass, and collecting up the crockery around her.
The television in the living room was enormous, and with all the washing up done, Sam and Dan curled up at either end of the sofa while Vivan chose an episode of a BBC costume drama. The sofa contingent each immediately drew out ancient phone and iPhone, feigning an awareness of what was going on on the television.
1 message received. Sam opened it and grinned.
Dan flashed her a curious frown from his end of their fort of technology, and she mouthed 'Alex' at him. He grinned, appearing genuinely pleased for her.
"How was the dinner...? Xxx"
"Would it be too corny to say 'it'd have been much better with you'?" she typed, trying not to laugh aloud.
"Original, I like it," he replied. "I really need to see you. Fancy a walk along the river tomorrow - I think the weather should be good. Xxx"
Her heart rose ecstatically and then sank like a flung stone into a pond as she realised she couldn't. "I would love to, but Dan and his parents are taking me to London to see War Horse on stage tomorrow - their graduation present to me. Tuesday?" She wondered why he needed to see her so much. Were they that far into their relationship already? It gave her a happy buzz to think so, but she couldn't help wondering if everything was ok.
"Tuesday afternoon is fine - got a meeting with my supervisor late morning. 2pm ok? Enjoy War Horse - it's supposed to be brilliant. Xxx"
"Great, really looking forward to it. And thanks - really excited - only just found out today! Xxx"
As she hit 'send' the young lady in the costume drama let out a melodramatically shrill scream, and Sam shot a glance at Dan, who rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to his iPhone.
That night as she lay curled up in the tiny spare bedroom, she felt more alive and full of hope than she had dared in a long time. She'd been numb, and hadn't realised what was missing, until her chance meeting with Alex in the tea rooms. That night, as sleep rose up to meet her, she wasn't afraid of the nightmares, and drifted towards unconsciousness with Alex's deep voice and rough "wheeler's" hands filling her imagination, while anticipation of the next evening added an extra, glittering thread to her tapestry of excitement.
The wicker-puppet stood out as a stark, chesnut-red body against the black backdrop of the stage. An ear twitched in the darkness. Hooves clopped across the boards and a tail swished realistically at the rear. The puppet horse, Joey, tugged at their heartstrings from the moment he skittered onto the stage as an awkward and unsteady foal, so that by the time he was requisitioned by the army from the little boy's working farm, tears sprang to the eyes of many an audience member. As the boy had taught him to accept and pull a plough, Sam's eyes had sparkled, and she laughed along with the small child in the seat next to her as the two friends grew together. When the terrifyingly convincing German tank drove the adult horse mercilessly across the wasteland of no man's land, she cried along with everyone else as the panicked horse thrashed in the tangles of barbed wire. Finally at the end of the play, she, Dan, Vivian, and Richard all cheered and clapped at the curtain call.
"That was incredible," she breathed to Vivian, grinning as they filed out of their row with the rest of the audience. "Really amazing, thank you; I've had a wonderful time."
"I'm glad, my dear," she said. "It was very good, wasn't it." She gathered her brood with a sweeping glance, and added, "Richard, are we going to get The Tube to the restaurant, or are we walking? Is it far?"
Eventually, and after a circuitous discussion that took the entire route out of the packed building to be resolved, they walked down London's balmy summer streets to the nearby restaurant.
Richard turned to the waiter once they'd ordered their food and drink and said, "And can we have a half bottle of Champagne as well please?"
"Certainly sir," the French waiter said, eyeing them scrutinizingly as though not sure whether they deserved it, before mincing off to the kitchens.
Sam was awkwardly embarrassed, and Dan said laughingly, "I hope I get Champagne when I graduate next year! Do I get a whole bottle for surviving four years of undergrad instead of Sam’s three?"
"Don't push your luck, young man," his father smiled. "Yours may be a four year course, but Sam has worked just as hard in her three years of Archaeology."
They raised their glasses to Sam, congratulating her on graduating from Cambridge, and wishing her all the best for the future. She blushed as heads turned on tables nearby and people stared. "Thank you so much," she mumbled, staring into the curtain of silver bubbles that streamed up the inside of the flute. Give me a nice pub meal and a pint any day though, she thought, feeling as awkwardly out of place as a dirty city pigeon in a dovecot in that expensive restaurant. She hoped she hid it well enough though.
As she dipped the silver fork into her seafood risotto, she couldn't help but wonder what Alex would cook for her on Wednesday. The simple fact that he was offering to cook a meal for her was impressive enough, but she did wonder if he'd be any good. Dan often cooked if she went over for an evening of Top Gear and laughs, but he wasn’t all that good, but since she absolutely hated cooking, and could probably burn a pan of water with very little effort, they made life easy for themselves and got takeout or pizza more often than cooking.
With that 'full' feeling you only get after an evening well enjoyed in good company, and absolutely exhausted, Sam slumped into her seat on the train back and immediately began to doze. For only a moment she was aware of the scratchy fabric of the upholstered seats, the creak and groan of the scruffy carriage, the nasty smell coming from the heater grill below her feet, and then she closed her eyes and it faded into the soundtrack from War Horse that was still playing in her mind. What felt like only a moment later, Dan's gentle touch on her shoulder was waking her, and she discovered that they were already in Cambridge; the forty-five minute journey from King's Cross had passed quite literally in the blink of her eye.
She stumbled blearily through the door of the apartment and thanked them all again for a wonderful day. "It was such a thoughtful thing to do; I loved every minute of it," she said as she slipped her coat off and hung it on a peg in the hall.
Richard paused, leaning his weight on the wall with a manicured hand, levering his shoes off with the other, and said, "It was a good evening, wasn't it? I'm pretty tired now though." He seemed to think for a second, and then gave a chuckle. "I expect you are too, if the way you nodded off on the train is anything to go by!" He laughed heartily and wished them a good night. Vivian trotted along the hall in her court shoes and with a motherly kiss on both their foreheads, she closed their bedroom door behind her.
In the steaming stream of the shower, Sam wondered what Alex would have made of her day. She had never before been so aware of steps as she was now. The tiered seating of almost any auditorium in the world would probably have prevented him from enjoying the view that they had been blessed with that evening. She'd gazed around during the interval and had seen one wheelchair user shoved right at the front, craning her neck up to the stage which must have been even more uncomfortable than having to sit in a wheelchair all day. As she washed the grime of London from her body, muscles aching from the taekwondo session the previous day, she wondered how Alex managed in the shower. He would have to sit, she presumed, as he surely couldn’t take his chair or his braces into the shower, and she started to wonder if he needed help of any sort. If they took this any further, would she ever have to do anything for him? Maybe it's time to start surreptitiously researching things on the internet, she thought.
She woke next morning to the soft whisper of rain on the window, and opened the curtains to see a steady drizzle falling. Reaching for her phone, she turned it on and opened up messages. "Looks like our Great British Summer is in full swing," she texted to Alex, "Still want to meet up for this walk later? I'm happy either way. xxx"
She didn't hear back from him immediately, so shuffled into the kitchen for a mug of tea and some breakfast. She encountered the Neanderthal form of Dan, standing by the sink with his brown hair knotted and tangled and sticking up all over the place. "Morning," she chimed as she joined him. Her tartan pyjama bottoms dragged on the floor and she trod on one slightly, making her stumble.
"Morning yourself," he muttered back with a snigger.
"Shh," she said, punching him lightly on the shoulder. "Is the kettle on?"
“Yes, it’s on,” he said, feigning fear, “Just don’t hurt me!”
“Shut up,” she grinned, adding jokingly, "Make me smoked salmon and scrambled egg on muffins, and then I won't hurt you..."
"Um.." he returned, "No, I think I'll take my chances..."
They laughed, ate their cereal, and headed for the living room as the rain intensified outside.
They spent the first part of the morning chatting in their pjs on the sofa, something Dan which observed that they'd not done in ages, and when his parents had gone out to work, Dan suggested a round of Portal 2, which she was more than happy to agree to.
A couple of hours later, as Dan yelled, "Fire your blue one up there so I can jump through!" she heard her old phone's raucous text message tone blare out from the kitchen.
Risking the rude in-game computer lady's snide remarks about player two being a complete failure, she said, "Here’s my controller – I’m sure you can figure stuff out for the both of us... I'll be right back. I left my phone in the kitchen and I think I got a text."
As she disappeared around the corner, Dan's words made her laugh as he called, "The text is a lie!"
"Don't you misquote Portal at me to distract me!" she returned, and, leaning against the kitchen counter, she read Alex's message.
"If you wanted to come over and watch a film or whatever this afternoon instead of going out and getting soaked, we've got plenty of stuff here. Don't mind if you want to skip entirely and avoid getting all soggy coming over though :) xxx"
Thinking to herself how he already made her wet, and grinning a little wider at that dirty thought, she typed her reply as quickly as she could. "A relaxing afternoon with you sounds lovely. I'll be there."
Just after midday, Dan set down his controller and suggested a run in the rain. "I know you're crazy, and love running in the rain, and it's been a while since I've actually done any exercise. How about it?"
She grinned, and a short while later, they were both charging through the countryside together, Sam easily out-pacing Dan.
As they headed down a muddy path that led from a car park to the fields, Sam felt the little stinging pellets of rain hitting her cheeks a little harder, running down her face and making her top stick to her body as though she'd been in a wet-t-shirt competition. She didn't care; there was only Dan to see it, and she wasn't trying to look good for him. She wondered as she laughed inside at how unattractively hervhair was plastered to her face, when she was going to tell Alex about him, and everything that had happened four years ago. The desire to open up to him burned with an alchemically bright glow in her chest - to tell him how she had let herself get close to someone only to have him break her down piece by piece, finishing with the ultimate betrayal - but a quiet reluctance kept her tongue from talking. Soon, she thought.
When they were nearly back, Dan decided that he was too bloody tired to bother to run any more, and told her to go on ahead. Feeling only a little guilty, she powered through, and just got faster and faster. The lush, green meadows through which they had just been running, led to the quaint village of Grantchester. As it was about as English as country villages get, most of the tourists who had a spare couple of hours would tramp down the path to visit The Orchard tea rooms in the village made famous by the war poet Rupert Brooke. Chairs and tables were tucked away in little thickets and corners of the apple orchard, gnarled bark, red apples and soft, green grasses forming the textures of what was possibly the prettiest setting for tea anywhere in England. When Rupert Brooke had penned his poem about the Old Vicarage at Grantchester, he could have had little idea of the effect that his poem would have on the economy of the rural village, and even on a day like that one, with the rain falling in steady sheets from the heavy, leaden sky, one or two intrepid tea-drinkers were battling the elements in the hope that there would be a space inside where they could warm their fingers around a cup of Earl Grey and nibble a shortbread while the weather groaned and complained outside.
Cows were munching nonchalantly down by the river, oblivious to the elements, and Sam took the narrow footpath which the feet and paws of walkers and dogs had flattened out along the banks. One lone man was busy catapulting the bobbing lure at the end of his fishing rod into the murky waters of the River Cam, but apart from him, no one else had taken this path. Leaving Dan way behind her by a gatepost, she pushed her heart, lungs and limbs to maximum capacity, doing sections at full sprint, taking a period of recovery of only a few seconds before starting the next and feeling the burning, clenching feeling of going half a heartbeat beyond her furthest capability.
Sam leaned her throbbing feet on a rotting fence rail and began to stretch, feeling her hamstrings zinging and her quads shaking. Five or ten minutes of stretching saw Dan come puffing along the pathway. When he saw her, he panted, "Bloody hell, I thought my fitness wasn’t all that bad until today. Do you always run like such a flipping maniac?"
She laughed. "No, only on days when I've not run in a while. I'll pay for it later when I'm all stiff and sore," she grinned. “Add in taekwondo from Sunday, and I’ll be about as mobile as an eighty year old before a double hip replacement!”
"I call dibs on the shower!" Sam screeched as they barged each other up the stairs to the apartment.
"No!" Dan howled, "Girls take bloody ages in the shower!"
"You haven't stretched yet though. I have while I was waiting for you, grandpa," she cried as Dan unlocked the front door and tried to keep her from going through first with a well-placed arm braced against the frame. She tickled him and he let out a squeal like a startled piglet.
"No fair!" he grunted as she slid past him, cackling victoriously.
Grabbing her towel, she closed the bathroom door, peeling her damp clothing from her body, endorphins still coursing through her, and stepped into the bath.
The shower was mounted on the wall over the bath, and a glass barrier prevented the rest of the bathroom from turning into a swamp every time it was turned on. Steam rapidly settled into thick condensation on the surface of the glass, and it billowed out around her too as she worked her fingers through her hair. She found herself imagining they were Alex's fingers, strong and rough. In no time, she realised she was moving her hips a little, her lower body writhing inside, begging for the touch of a man who wasn't even there. Sam was so surprised to feel these sparks of desire, even lust, again after so long, that it frightened her. What if he broke her heart? She didn't think she would survive another betrayal of trust. Doubt quenched the lust and the endorphins in one cold rush, and as she combed her dripping hair through, she wondered if it was all worth it really. Just as she sat down heavily on the bed and began to feel really crushed, she remembered Alex’s smiling eyes. Those kind eyes, she thought fondly to herself. Who are you kidding? You’ve already convinced yourself to give him a chance.