Sam's graduation day started inauspiciously. As she shuffled into the bathroom to shower and wash her hair, she glanced into the mirror and saw, to her utmost horror, that her face, compliant and considerate as it had never been, had broken out into a proper acne storm. "Oh fantastic," she drawled slowly at her reflection. Caking her face in foundation and concealer was not the look she generally went for – too Paris Hilton – but it beat a constellation of zits the size of the solar system appearing in all her graduation photographs.
Hair washed and face concealed, she slid into the strict 'dress-code-approved' outfit of black pencil skirt (not a single millimetre above the knee), black tights (ladder free and very dark), and freshly ironed and gleaming white blouse. Dan snorted affectionately from the doorway as she paused in front of the full length mirror in his bedroom, hands nervously flapping as she smoothed the shirt down. "What?" she challenged, spinning on her foot as though she were about to deal a roundhouse to his face.
Laughing, Dan stepped back and said, "You look like a waitress." He paused, raising a hand in front of him. "I'll have an Americano please, no milk."
"Why, you!" she exclaimed with a grin, lunging for him.
"Daniel!" came Vivian's sharp admonition from somewhere along the hallway. "Leave her alone or you'll make her rumple her clothes."
Sam and Dan exchanged a wicked glance that communicated just how little Sam really cared about rumpling her clothes, and they made their way out into the hallway.
"You look very smart," Richard said, his eyes glowing as he seemed to sense the silent conversation that had just taken place between his son and her. "Are you heading off into town now?"
She nodded, having agreed to meet her parents for breakfast at their hotel before heading over for her ceremony in the ornate and rather pompous Senate House building. "Yes, I'd better get going. I'll see you later, and thank you again for having me to stay for so long."
Richard's expression was warm and kind. "It's been our pleasure to have you here. You've even got this one off the sofa and out on a couple of runs, and even got him cooking, so we couldn't possibly complain!" He had nodded his head at Dan, who gave a comically disgruntled little sound, but said nothing. "Give your parents our regards."
The walk from Dan's flat into town was beautiful. The last days of June had blessed her at least with a gorgeous day. The sky was a stunning pale sapphire, and the scent of the freshly mown grass billowed up in lazy clouds around her. A bee hummed contentedly past her ear, blundering through the air as though drunk on sunlight and nectar.
Her father was waiting for her in the foyer of the modern hotel and when he saw her he beamed a smile, made a similar comment about her looking like a waitress, and ushered her through the sliding glass doors to the dining room. Her mother was sitting at a table in the furthest corner of the enormous room, looking like the subject of an Edward Hopper painting, full of loneliness and isolation. "Dad," she quizzed, stopping so abruptly that a waiter had to make a little dive around her to avoid a collision. "Sorry! How’s she been? After grandma, I mean."
A cloud descended over her father's brows, and the light went out of his eyes for a second. "Probably best you don't mention it. She's mostly ok, but, well, she has taken the loss of your grandmother very hard. I'm hoping that today will keep her distracted from her grief..."
"Roger, roger," Sam said with a brave smile. "Come on." And she wove through the sparsely occupied tables with their pristine white cloths, over to her mother.
She looked mostly the same, perhaps a little thinner, a little more pinched around the eyes, with a little more grey peppering her hair, but as her mother stood and hugged her daughter, Sam remarked inwardly how special it felt to be loved like that. Being loved, Sam mused in the moment of that embrace, is not something to take lightly, and nor is loving. Alex had earned the beginnings of her love through his kindness and his quiet understanding. Her mother had earned Sam's love through all the tireless and selfless acts of parenting that had culminated in what, Sam hoped, was a well brought up and balanced individual. Only her taekwondo instructor could really make legitimate comments about either her balance, after a hard session with the kick pads, but if he was the only one who could complain, well then, her mum must have done a good job. Before the hug reached embarrassingly long lengths, she released her mother and sat down.
"Sweetie, you look beautiful," she said to Sam as she also sank into her soft seat. A little frown ghosted across her features and she said, "You didn't bring Alex with you? We were hoping you'd take us up on the invitation to breakfast."
Her father chimed in, "Yes, we had hoped to meet him."
Their wide, expectant eyes were almost too much to bear. "I... I..." Oh gosh. "I wanted to tell you something first." She shuffled her seat, smoothing her skirt out with her hands. "There's something about Alex which I didn't mention when I phoned to ask how you'd feel about him coming along for some of today." Her mother blanched visibly but she ploughed on before they could ask if she were pregnant by him or something equally horrifying and inaccurate. "He was in an accident six years ago," her father's eyes were a hard, dark grey, and she knew he was cautioning her silently not to freak her mother out. Too late for that, she thought. "And he was hurt pretty badly. So he has to use either braces and crutches to walk, or... or a wheelchair."
There. It was done. She had said it. Her mother blinked, obviously shocked.
"Why didn't you say this on the phone?" her father asked, his voice steady, calm and unruffled.
She ran a hand over the top of her thick braid, checking for errant strands, stalling a reply. After a sigh, she said, "I wanted to tell you face to face. It's not a big deal - I mean, it is, but not in that way - and I just thought it was something I needed to tell you in person, and before you saw him." She paused, then added, "I hope it won't change your opinion of him before you've even met him - I really want you to like him; he's so kind and sweet and funny." She stopped, sinking her teeth into lower lip in case she started babbling about how handsome he was.
Her mother had begun to frown in confusion, but she couldn't seem to think of a way to express whatever question had knitted her brows together.
It was her father who broke the silence. "Will he be coming along to the ceremony later?"
She gulped, feeling fresh adrenaline mingling with her pre-existing nerves about graduation. "He doesn't have a ticket, but he was going to meet us on Senate House lawn afterwards..." Her mother looked wobbly, and anger suddenly welled up Sam's throat, coming out in a sharp remark, "But if you're not ok with the idea of me dating him, then I'll tell him not to come. I don't you to embarrass him, or me, or yourselves by making a scene."
"Honey," her mother crooned, eyes wide and watery. "Of course he can come. You have to understand that this is a big deal though. Not only is he the first boy you've got close to since school, but he's also... well he's..."
Sam raised her eyebrows, a clear throwing down of the gauntlet. "He’s' what? Go on, say it."
"Well, he's disabled," her mother uttered the final word as though it were the worst kind of taboo.
"He might need a wheelchair sometimes," Sam fired back in a hoarse whisper, "But it doesn't define him. Don't think he can't do almost anything that you could, or that he is in any way incapable." She knew her eyes were blazing, bulging probably, but she couldn't help herself. She was damned if she was going to let her parents judge Alex, or her, based solely on the wheelchair he used. It did occur to her though that this was not the first time she had found herself having to defend her choices. Would it always be this way? Would she always be met with a stern wall of prejudice, armed only with a stone pickaxe?
Her father's steadying hand rose between mother and daughter, and he began talking like a horse whisperer trying to calm two skittish mares. "Sam, we'd love to meet him later. It isn't going to be an issue. Thank you though, for telling us in advance; you're right, knowing now will alleviate any tension because we won't be surprised when we do see him."
His platitude didn't convince Sam entirely, but she smiled in appreciation nonetheless. She drew a deep breath, held it, and let all the strain rush from her shoulders as she let the breath out in a quick blast. "Ok," she said. "Thanks for being open minded. I really like him."
Her mother smiled. "Shall we order some breakfast? Otherwise we won't have time to get to the ceremony comfortably. Have you picked up your gown yet from the hirer?"
Sam knew what her mother was doing. Denying it until the last possible moment. Knowing that if she were in her mother's shoes, she would probably have reacted the same way, she decided to play along, for now. "No, I was going to swing by the shop and pick it up en route."
A definite atmosphere still hung above them while they ate, and Sam felt subdued and slightly sullen. After breakfast, she excused herself and darted to the bathroom to touch up her makeup before the ceremony and the photographs began. She drew out her phone while she stood in front of the mirror by the sinks, and began a message to Alex. "Hey, I told my parents you would like to meet us on the lawn afterwards, if you're still up for it... xxx"
Alex's response bounced back to her immediately. "Do they know about me?"
"Yes, they know."
"I'll be there then. How did they take it?"
"They were surprised, I think, but that's all they said... I can't wait to see you."
"Nor I you. Not sure if I'll be tall or short today - I hope that won't matter..."
"Not to me."
"<3. When are you likely to be finished? When do you want me to meet you?"
"Half eleven-ish? They're not very precise about their timings..."
"If I remember rightly it works on a kind of time slot. They block off 11-11.30 for your college and they feed you through in alphabetical order. Once you're done, you're free to leave the hall. At least your name is fairly far up the alphabet - you should be done pretty quickly."
She smiled, thinking fondly that he was ever the practical scientist. "Since you've done this before, I'll trust your judgement. See you later, handsome. Xxx" She had to admit to her spotty, nervous looking reflection as it stared her down and judged her silently that it did feel a bit weird writing cheesy things like 'handsome', but she needed him to know - especially that morning - that she wanted him for him, regardless of anything else.
"Gorgeous girl. Look forward to seeing you too." Her heart skipped at that, and she made her way back to her parents in the foyer and out into the bright sunny day beyond with a smile back on her face.
The ceremony was all the pomp and circumstance of eight hundred years of university tradition condensed into a short time slot. Officials in billowing black gowns stood on either side of the doors outside the high, neo-classical building, wafting students inside with haughty waves of their mortarboard caps and flowing robes. The thought occurred to her that the students were a bit like cattle at a market as they were herded inside and then lined up at the back of the hall. Sam found it hard not to snicker at it all as she stood in alphabetical line next to people from her college, most of whom she'd never met, waiting to go in. Every single one of them was expecting some Hogwartsian kind of ritual, and they were hardly disappointed.
The marble chequered floor and high plaster ceiling inside echoed with the voices of a couple of hundred parents, eagerly trying to pick their own offspring out of the crowd of black-robed, soon-to-be graduates waiting at one end of the hall. Sam picked her parents out after only a few seconds of searching. Her mother's cobalt blue jacket stood out a mile in the summer spectrum of pastel shades worn by the other mothers. She didn't mind though. Her mother looked beautiful, and Sam felt oddly proud to be her daughter, graduating with a 2:1 in Archaeology from Cambridge. Sure, there were more 'useful' degrees she could have got - the boy next to her, Henry Ferguson, was a medic who would probably go on to cure cancer, but it was too late to dwell on that now.
As the rows of students in front of her filed forwards, called one by one like the characters of a Terry Pratchett novel to take the hand of the master of the college, she heard the Latin phrase spoken by the master repeated over and over like some kind of mantra in a magical ritual. A grad student in college had told her that it essentially meant something like 'you've worked hard, well done, bla bla bla, and I now confer your degree...' And as she crept forwards in the line to have her own degree conferred, enduring the scrutiny of two hundred or so pairs of eyes, she prayed she wouldn't slip over on the shiny floor. Being the one who graduated on her arse wasn't something she wanted to be known for. Then it was her turn. Her heart shrank a little smaller as adrenaline clenched its fist around it, and she paced over the stone floor and knelt on the cushion before the master like a knight about to be bestowed with an honour. It must have been the nerves that made her think of Monty Python at that moment, and as her knees hit the velvet, she felt a smile tweaking her lips up, and a mischievous light kindling in her eyes. Just in time for the photographer to capture the expression, she was pleased to note.
Remarkably she made it through her tiny section of the ritual without making an idiot of herself, and while her parents had to sit inside and endure the rest of the ceremony, Sam was free to slip outside onto the lawn and find Alex. She had strutted and fretted her minute upon the stage, and was more than happy to leave it all behind. As she stepped out into the bright, dazzling sunlight, she caught the flash of bright sunlight on metal spokes, but it was only someone chaining their bicycle to the railings on the other side of the wall from where she stood. She gazed around the emerald green lawn, dotted with people waiting for emerging graduates like her, and she began, somewhat desperately, to seek the face of the person she needed most right then. But he wasn't there. Only once she had searched every single face, and ascertained that he really wasn't there, did she glance at the clock on the church tower opposite. It was only quarter past eleven. He wouldn't be there yet. They'd agreed half past.
Knowing that his apartment was only just across the street, she was so tempted to flee the whole of the rest of the day and bolt to his apartment for refuge, which had evolved into a Romantic little garret in her little fantasy, but she was more grown up than that, and decided just to wait where she was. She turned her eyes on the great edifice behind her and let them wander over its exact geometry. She thought it was a building that would have looked more at home in the gigantic, pale architecture of Washington DC, and looked like it felt a little awkward in the medieval city, like the one person who got the dress code wrong, and stands in the corner wearing a tux without a hope of being overlooked.
As she allowed her eyes to trace the mathematically elegant roofline, she heard a distinctive sound behind her, rising from the general murmuring clamour of the milling. The soft whisper of crutch-tips being set down. She turned. Standing behind her, wearing a forget-me-not blue shirt, open a button or two at the top, and chinos the colour of dark sand, with his hair perfectly and neatly tousled, was Alex.
Her whole body seemed to melt when she saw him. "Alex," she breathed. "Wow," and drank him in with her unabashed gaze. He also wore a very tiny rucksack on his back, the black straps breaking up the blue of his shirt, and she could just, if she searched for them, see the ribs of the KAFO's and the slight bulge of the hinged joint at the knee below his thick trousers, encasing his legs and holding him up like the hidden supports of a bridge or building. She didn’t dwell on those though; his face was just too gorgeous, and she needed to kiss it. Immediately.
A shy, lopsided smile worked its way across his face, the scar creasing his lips so that her heart skipped a beat or two. He had set his crutch-tips down, bracing his weight on them, and he looked pretty stable, so she threw her arms around his neck, kissed him once on those smiling lips, and held him close. He smelled incredible; the faintest aroma of his citrus, sandalwood cologne with the sunlight warming his skin made her want to cling to him and never let go. She forced herself to be dignified though, and released him after a very short few seconds. "I'm so glad you're here."
Over his shoulder as he beamed down at her, she glimpsed the first wave of parents leaving the hall, her own blue-jacketed mother amongst them. Sam saw her turn to her father and utter something into his ear, to which her father responded with a little shake of his head. Sam sighed. "Last chance to duck and run," she murmured darkly.
"Not something I'd be doing, even if I could," he said with another lopsided grin. "I've been working up my courage all morning; I couldn't bail now..."
She poked her tongue out fondly between her teeth for a fraction of a second. "Incoming. ETA 26 seconds..."
"Brace brace brace," he whispered, pivoting on the spot as deftly as a quarterhorse with his crutches. She stepped around him, moving out a little, just into her parents' line of sight, exactly as the sun disappeared behind a cloud, plunging them temporarily into eerie, colourless shadow. Praying that wasn't a sign, she took another small step forwards so that there would be a bit of a visual buffer between Alex and her parents.
"Hello, darling," her father said as they got nearer. He pulled her into a tight hug, arm draped around her shoulders, and said, "Well done; I'm so proud of you." He waited for half a heartbeat, looked into her face, and then added, "You didn't fall over."
"Oh ha, ha," she grinned, extricating herself from his embrace to introduce Alex. "Mum, dad, this is Alex. Alex, these are my parents, Helen and Paul."
Sam noted that Alex had subtly shuffled the crutches across so that his right arm was already free of the cuff, and he extended his hand to greet her parents. "Pleased to meet you," he said in his deep, velvety voice that made Sam shiver inside.
"And you," her father said, clearly trying to get the measure of him.
As if to reassure her that it was all going to be alright, the cloud that had covered the sun drifted on its way, re-saturating the scene with spring colours, and the warmth returned to the air and to their faces again.
Alex raised his eyes to the sky and said, quietly moving his crutch back to his right hand, "At least you have a lovely day for it. When I graduated it was pouring with rain."
Sam suddenly realised she'd neglected to tell her parents that he was older than her. Her mother's eyes snapped to his face, narrowing protectively, and she said, "When you graduated? When was that?"
"This time last year during all that unseasonal wet weather," he said. "I've just finished the first year of my PhD." He shot a look at Sam that clearly said, ''I thought you told them about me?'
She flashed him an apologetic smile and supplied, "He did Natsci, physics."
"I'm now a geophysicist," Alex clarified.
Paul's eyes widened and his mouth puckered; clearly he was somewhat impressed. "My brother's a geologist. Works in oil." Clearly this boy has career prospects, was the look that Sam was delighted to find on her father's face, his confidence in him growing like a waxing moon.
Helen seemed less convinced, but at least she was being polite as she listened to Alex's reply. "Yeah, the company that's sponsoring my PhD does some oil stuff, like fracking and so on, so there's a good chance that if I don't stay in academia, I'll be doing something industrial." Sam's parents nodded, both now apparently impressed.
Paul drew out his little point-and-shoot camera and said, "Come on Sammy, let's have a photo of you in front of Senate House." And the two of them moved away to get a shot in before too many people had the same idea.
"Would you like me to take one of all three of you in a minute?" Alex asked her mother.
Sam caught his question just before she was out of earshot, and chimed, "Yes please!" and she was nearly bowled over by his answering smile just before a gaggle of other parents and graduates jostled up beside them, elbowing their way to a good photo opportunity.
"Alright then," Alex smiled.
Sam could not be sure exactly what passed between Alex and her mother while she and her father moved away to snap some photos for the album, but she could tell Alex was being politely warm, and her mother politely inquisitive. When Sam and her father had finished with their own short photo shoot, she took the camera from him and crossed to Alex. Her mother trotted almost nervously over to her father's side while Sam paused a moment to speak to Alex. "I think it's on the right setting," she muttered, keeping half an eye on her parents.
"I have taken photos before, you know," he whispered, leaning forward, chin jutting out as though he might poke his tongue out like she had earlier, but he didn't. Eyes glittering, he straightened up and said authoritatively, "If you all stand over there, I can frame you with that doorway behind..." He looped the string of the camera around his wrist, and, holding it between his thumb and index finger only, he crutched forward with all the grace and elegance of a dancer.
Sam was transfixed.
"Sam?" he asked with a confused, fond expression.
"What? Oh, yes, sorry..." And she scuttled back and slotted into place between her parents' sheltering arms.
It was easy to smile that day, looking at Alex all smart and handsome in his forget-me-not blue shirt, the pale shade of which brought out the glimmering darkness of his eyes.
"Thank you," Helen said as he held out the camera in the general direction of the party once he'd finished, clearly hoping one of them would take it off him and relieve him of the task of crutching over to them with it clasped - however expertly - in his hand.
"Will you join us for lunch?" Paul asked suddenly once the camera was stowed in its case.
Sam was astonished. She turned her head, probably more sharply than was subtle, to look at him; if it had been a cartoon, there would probably have been an accompanying 'whoosh' sound to the movement. They had booked at a restaurant which Sam knew had a flight of four steep stairs to get into. He'd managed the two shallow steps to The Eagle; maybe he could manage more? What did she know?
Alex swallowed, only the single bungee-jump of his Adam's apple betraying his apprehension, and said, "Thank you, I'd love to. Is it far?"
Paul shook his head. "We've got a table at La Luna, the Italian place just around the corner from here."
A sigh filled Alex's lungs for a moment. He knew it then. But he smiled, somewhat bravely, she could see, and said, "Sure, I'd love that. Thank you."
Her mother wasn't a quick walker, and Alex, crutching about as fast as Sam gauged he could go, legs stiff but swinging smoothly, matched her mother's pace perfectly, so that they all arrived at the restaurant in a little gaggle. As the stairs came into view, Helen stopped abruptly, and turned to Alex. "Oh, my dear, will you be alright with all these stairs? I hadn't thought..."
He nodded patiently, and gave her a hearty smile. "I'll certainly give it my best go..." he joked, but Sam was nervous. "You go on up," he said reassuringly to Helen, while begging Sam to stay with him with silent, wide eyes.
"Why don't you go and find our table and tell them we've got an extra person?" she suggested to her father, who nodded and turned around up the stairs.
As her parents had walked through the glass doors at the top, she heard her mother hiss, "This was a mistake."
Praying that Alex had not heard that, Sam turned her gaze to his face, only to find written there the expression she’d been dreading. It told her all too clearly that he had heard it; his steel jaw was set, his brows stern, his eyes cold. She brought her hand briefly to his giant shoulder in a single gesture of apology and affection. He looked away for a moment, as if for privacy, and then he turned back to her. "Come on," he said. "Let's start getting me up these stairs, otherwise your parents will be looking at the dinner menu instead of the lunch one by the time I eventually get there..."
She marvelled at his ability to make a joke out of a tricky moment, and blessed him for it too. He wasn't going to let a flight of stairs ruin her graduation day, clearly, and she admired is dogged determination.
"Just..." he halted for a moment, crutch tips on the first step, arms waiting to pump like pistons and raise his entire body up, encased legs swinging from the hips, and he said, "Stay behind me will you. Just in case...I'm not so good on longer flights of stairs, and it's hard for me to keep my balance well." He gave a little snort and eyed the slender black railings, saying, "Ironically, I could probably do this way better in my chair than on my crutches."
Saying nothing, though wondering how he would tackle the stairs in his wheelchair, Sam smiled and waited for him to begin his ascent. Maybe she'd get to see him do that another time. His progress was steady and sure, but excruciatingly slow. On the third step, his right toe snagged on the tread and he wobbled precariously, but he caught himself and let out a couple of panting, almost fearful-sounding, breaths. The fourth was taken much more carefully, and when he reached the top, his strong arms looked drained. He rested his weight on his wrists and ran his fingers over his palms as though they were tingling , and she was afraid the gargantuan effort would have made him hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable in the warmth of the summer day. He paused for a while at the top, inhaling just a single shaky breath with closed eyes, before they rolled open again, kind and somehow still smiling. "I'll nip to the bathroom and join you at the table in a minute or two, ok?" he said.
A few light beads of sweat dusted the dark shadow on his clean-shaven upper lip, and Sam smiled. "Of course. See you shortly." She held the door open for him automatically and he thanked her with an almost imperceptible nod of that noble head of his as he swung through into the restaurant. She actively had to bite back the words 'thank you; you're a hero', which she longed, ached, to say, but she knew how it would sound to his ears after toiling up those stairs. She did not want him to think she found him heroic for struggling up the steps; the heroism was in the effort he was putting into their relationship, and into today to make it a good one for her. The two were massively different in her eyes, but probably not in his.
Sam's steps slowed slightly as she watched him go in the opposite direction from her, away towards the disabled bathroom, backpack sitting snugly in the middle of the blue shirt. She wondered what was in it, deciding it was probably something he needed that she didn’t know about yet; up until then, he had only hinted that he needed things to help him in his daily routine.
Her parents had just taken menus from a really beautiful waitress when she joined them. Her mother looked up at her, her face strained and a little grey. "I'm sorry sweetie, I should have thought..."
"Don't worry about it," she said, drawing out her chair, "Please don't bring it up again though. And... don't be weird about it or his scar or the crutches... I found pretty quickly that if he does need help, he'll ask for it, but... until then, don't venture any." Listen to me, lecturing other people on how to treat Alex, she thought sourly, when I don’t even really know what I’m doing.
Her father nodded understandingly. "Of course."
After a little pause, her mother sighed, smiled, reached for Sam's hand and said, "He seems lovely," giving her a gentle squeeze.
She searched her mother's eyes, looking to see if it was just a veneer of truth, but, perhaps to Sam's surprise, her mother's sentiment appeared to be genuine. "You like him?"
In the way that only a mother's smile can, Helen's tried to reassure Sam. "I do, and I look forward to getting to know him better."
“What about this being ‘a mistake’ though?” she fired, perhaps cruelly knocking the smile from her mother's face.
Helen flushed. “You heard that?”
“I just meant about the stairs, not about him.”
She sighed. “I just don’t want you to scare him off. I really like him…”
Her father grinned and chipped in, "I'm so glad you found someone at Cambridge - I thought if you were ever going to find someone like you, it would be here. But it was only in the nick of time though!"
Their shared laughter covered up Sam's comment about an eleventh hour hero. She realised that she hadn't known what had been missing in her life til she'd found Alex: the physical closeness that reflects a deeper kind of closeness. She suddenly felt the presence of the void, the empty chair, next to her and allowed herself to search the room, even a little frantically, like a lover at a crowded train station, for his reappearance.
With her back to the wall, she had a commanding view of the whole restaurant, with its dark hardwood floor, big light-loving windows on one wall and huge mirrors on the other, and she felt her heart hammering against her ribs as he took longer and longer to appear. She remembered his comment about spontaneity and how nothing paraplegics do is ever spontaneous. This was, though. Had they screwed things up for him by inviting him here? Will you stop it, she chided herself. He's a grown man and he could have bailed at any point. He didn't. Shut up, stop worrying, and wait for him. And only another minute or two passed before she saw his shoulders, hunched, high, and impossibly tight looking, bearing him round the corner on his black sticks. His feet dragged a little on the smooth floor, his right barely leaving the ground at all, while his left hitched up with his hips but fell back a fraction too soon, making his gait short, staccato and stiff looking. His face became soft though when he saw her, and she smiled across the room at him. For a heartbeat, it was just the two of them in that restaurant until he was standing beside the table. It was only as he parked himself in the free chair, made his apologies to her parents, and surrendered his crutches willingly to Sam who put them quietly on the ground between her and the white wall behind her, that the noise returned to her ears in a rush.
Sam was secretly astonished, and deeply grateful, that her parents didn't keep staring at Alex's face or make any awkward remarks. And she could have kissed him right there and then for being so good with them. He talked animatedly throughout the whole meal. As they nibbled smoked salmon starters, he told her father all about his grandfather, who had taught him carpentry, and how when he went down to Cornwall to see him - "Not as often as I would like, regrettably," - he always had a project Alex could help him with. He convinced her mother while she tucked into her fettuccine not to buy a Kindle but that, for various reasons, an iPad would probably suit her better. And, as though saving the best for last, in Sam's mind anyway, he told them a bit about their visit to Anglesey Abbey, leaving out some of the less parent-friendly details of course. When mother seemed a little too impressed that he had driven there, he gave a sly grin and said, "Hand controls, don't worry Mrs. Fey, I didn't attempt to drive your daughter there by prodding the accelerator with a crutch or anything."
Paul seemed to find that idea hilarious, and he laughed loudly with a hand on his belly, which only made Helen blush more fiercely. "I'm sorry," she flustered.
"It's ok," Alex chuckled. "You're not the first person to be a little surprised that people with spinal cord injuries can still drive.”
“You have your own car then?” her father asked, and Sam wasn’t sure if he looked impressed or concerned that this boy had his own car.
Alex’s eyes were calm but Sam recognised a secret pride in their depths.
“Yeah,” he said. “My brother and I share it.” Again, there was a hint of Schadenfreude in the air as he watched Helen try and work out if Will also drove a hand-controlled car, and what that might mean about his brother. Alex only left them wondering for a second or two too long, as he added, “You can take the hand controls off.”
“Useful,” Paul remarked, shuffling in his seat. “Now, who wants a coffee?”
Sam accepted, but she noticed that Alex declined. With a quick surreptitious glance at his leg, she saw that it was spasming slowly with the rhythm of an old grandfather clock. His pale hand had slithered subtly down to his right thigh and his fingers had clenched around it, avoiding the struts of the brace. His face remained impenetrable as usual, and she assumed all was well. He turned to her and asked, “Did you say you were heading home tomorrow?”
“Yes I did but...” she said, feeling her heart lurch and then plunge. “Well, I was going to, but we've talked about it – ” here she included her parents with her gaze, “And it seems more sensible for mum and dad to take my stuff home and for me to stay here, instead of driving all the way home with them for just two nights and then getting the train all the way up to London for the internship. Dan said it's fine to stay a few days longer.” She nodded to her parents, and they nodded their ascent. Alex read in her face the real reason for her wanting to stay, and he fixed her with a look that was the visual equivalent of blowing her a kiss.
Helen said, reaching for Sam’s hand, “We're so proud of you for getting that internship.”
Alex was positively grinning. "I might get to see a bit more of you before you go then. What will you be doing during your time at the museum, do you know yet?" he asked.
With the feeling of a dark cloud gathering on her day as she talked about things which wouldn't involve spending time with Alex, she added quietly, "I'll be doing a range of stuff really. Learning about and helping with curating exhibitions, display of items, conservation of artefacts, and admin stuff too I guess..."
He smiled. "That sounds pretty interesting."
The beautiful waitress returned at that moment with their coffee and, plonking Sam's cup down in front of her so that some of it slopped onto the saucer, she turned to Alex and said, "Are you sure I can't get you anything?"
Sam was reminded of the way he'd treated the waitress at The Meadows, but that had been because she'd treated him like a halfwit. This waitress had no idea about any of that, and was plainly just flirting. Alex smiled charmingly at her, and Sam's heart sank with slight and unexpected horror. His lips parted slowly, invitingly, and then he said, "Thank you, but I have everything I need here."
If he had raised his hand and planted it over Sam's, he could not have shut the waitress down more effectively. "Right," she blustered, and bustled off.
Alex flashed Sam a look and she felt the glow expanding inside her until she felt sure she must look like a 100W light bulb. The fact that Tom Odell’s song ‘Can’t Pretend’ was playing softly in that moment just made everything fall into place in a way that nothing had ever done before. As he sang in his harsh yet mellow voice, ‘my skin is rough…’ she reached for Alex’s hand and, were it not for her parents sitting there, she would have climbed straight into his lap and kissed him, and never let him go. Instead she just gripped it tight, and let him hold her back. ‘I guess that’s love,’ Tom narrated for her. I guess it is, she thought with a happy little smile.
To be continued...