When Alex had shut the front door, heart still thudding in his chest, he let his gaze wander the room, staring back at the abandoned Play Station controller on the sofa, the paused game, and the soft dent in the sofa cushion where she had been sitting, and felt a sigh drawn from his lungs almost without his permission. Like a ghost, Sam had vanished. He could almost believe that she had simply slipped out of his field of vision, perhaps stepping into his right eye’s blind, blank void, but he knew damned well that if he turned his head, the room would still be empty. She’ll be back tomorrow though, for heaven's sake; don’t freak out, Norwood, he scolded himself as he switched the PS off and put the console on to charge again, bustling about the room, injecting some life and movement into it.
Will had been very silent all afternoon, and Alex thought he probably ought to check on him, knowing his brother was as bad as he was about forgetting that life continues to flow around you when you work. Sure enough, as he pushed the door to Will’s room open ajar, he could see a slightly frazzled figure tugging at the straw-coloured hair by his temple. “Hey, you going to stop to refuel any time soon?” he asked.
Will didn’t seem to hear him at all.
“Will?” he hissed insistently.
With a fond laugh, he repeated his question. “Are you going to stop to refuel, or just burn out?”
Will seemed to surface from his maths-induced trance and he turned his watery blue eyes on the clock behind him on the bedside table. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “It’s a bit later than I thought it was... I should stop. I just wanted to get this fixed...”
“What’s not working?” Alex asked, wheeling in and glancing over his shoulder at Will’s chicken-scratch writing.
Will made an indistinct grunt of disgust and poked his thin finger at a section, and the two brothers began to tease out a solution until finally, over an hour and a half later, they’d sorted it out. Alex eased himself back into the low backrest of his chair, regretting having spent that time leaning forward against the desk, his back dipping as he'd rested his weight on his forearms to see their page of notes and working. He glanced behind him at the clock and said, “Right, that’s enough. Come on, I’m doing chicken stir-fry and I’d say we’ve earned a glass or two of wine.”
Over dinner, Alex noticed how many times Will mentioned a woman named Eva. A Romanian PhD student, she had been writing a paper on a similar topic to him, and they’d apparently got talking in the small department coffee room. “Nothing like bad, over-brewed coffee and cheaply upholstered seats to bring two people together,” Alex joked.
Will’s cheeks burned red as a sunset for an instant. “Well, I mean, we were just… you know… we just got talking because we’re doing the same kind of thing… it probably won’t go anywhere, but we spent ages just chatting and she’s got a wicked sense of humour…”
A bright peal of laughter rang out from Alex’s chest as he tried not to imagine Will bumbling his way through a conversation, fumbling his way to a chat-up line as though it were a game of blind man’s bluff. “Well,” he chuckled. “If you like the girl, for heaven’s sake let her know, won’t you? Learn from your little brother’s experience.”
A pair of bright, nervous, blue eyes blinked back at him from across the table and their owner sighed. “I’ll try not to be such a schoolboy about it…” he smiled. “It’s hard though, isn’t it?”
With a wry snort, Alex replied, “The more you like her, the harder it is.”
Sam and Dan leaned over the pan looking dubiously at the contents. “Come on,” Dan said with a grin, as he poked at his efforts with the sauce. “How hard can spaghetti bolognese be?”
“It’ll be fine. This is one of the few things I can actually do,” Sam reassured him with a smile and a dig in the ribs. “Move over. Will you relax?”
“Only if you pass me that wine,” he said, nodding at the open bottle of Chianti that stood on the side. Most of it had already gone into the bolognese sauce.
“Don’t drink it all...” she chided him jokingly, passing it to him. “We’ll want that as a reward when we’ve served this lot up...”
He took it from her, poured a small glass for himself and said, “Yes ma’am.”
She rounded on him, brandishing the wooden spoon, “Don’t you ma’am me!” she laughed, hand on hip like an aggravated matron.
Dan saluted her comically, took the wine glass and said, “Yes sir, sorry sir,” and marched from the room with a distinctly ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ air about his high-step.
Sam’s laughter rang out above the sounds of the kitchen and she called, “Don’t you go away for too long, Private, I’ve got more work for you to do!”
His voice emanated from somewhere down the corridor. “I’ll be back in a second, don’t worry.”
Before they set dinner on the table, Sam tasted the bolognese sauce just in case - she didn’t think she could bear to watch Vivian’s face as she fell down another notch in her estimation - and it was actually not too bad at all. With a bit of red wine in their systems, they’ll think it’s fine, I’m sure, she told herself as she dished up and carried the plates out two a at time to the dining table in the living room.
Richard was very complementary about the meal, Vivian less so, but all in all, it wasn’t a total failure. Dan helped her with the washing up, and when they were done they headed into the living room to watch a DVD they’d rented.
As the title credits rolled, Sam stretched, winced, and then said, “Oh gosh, I’m so stiff now!” Vivian looked at her as though it was nothing she didn’t deserve for behaving like such a yob with all that taekwondo and running.
“When you’ve all finished with the bathroom, I think I’ll have a bath if that’s ok? I got soaked coming back from Alex’s earlier, and I don’t think that exactly helped my muscles recover from taekwondo.”
Richard’s ears pricked up at the mention of Alex, and he asked, his face and voice full of paternal concern, “Alex? That’s not a name I’ve heard you mention before - who is he?”
She felt herself flush crimson. “Um, he’s someone I met a while ago at the UL...” She had not expected to have to explain herself to Dan’s parents at all, and as she floundered awkwardly, she looked at Dan for support. Uncharacteristically, he seemed to be quite content to let her squirm, and he stayed quiet.
“Is it serious?” Vivian asked, straightening her already ram-rod straight spine a little in her recliner.
“We’re still getting to know each other,” Sam said diplomatically. “I’ve not told my mum and dad about him yet - it’s all a bit sudden after grandma... I don’t want them to get the wrong impression.” Or you, she thought, wondering how well Vivian would react if she knew Alex was technically not just her boyfriend, but her 'disabled' boyfriend. It was a label, she was only now beginning to realise, that would gradually fade from her vision, but never from the sight of others.
Dan’s head rose from his iPad and he said, “Aren’t you going round there tomorrow night?”
Vivian’s eyes widened in horror, as Dan had no doubt intended, as she assumed Sam would be staying the night. Sam was forced rapidly into damage-control and babbled, “Yes, I’m going round for dinner, so I’ll probably be home relatively late – I thought I mentioned it yesterday…”
“Oh yes,” Richard said, running his hand through his silver hair as he remembered, “You did say you weren’t going to be in tomorrow evening; I must have forgotten. I hope you have fun. And thank you for cooking this evening - I have to admit that Dan said you were terrible, bit that was delicious.”
Sam shot Dan a childishly hurt expression and turned back to his father. “I’m glad it was ok. It’s one of my limited repertoire of recipes...”
“Don’t you mind a word he says,” Richard laughed, standing up with a grunt and making for the door. “He couldn’t do any better, and he’d be lucky to do half as well as you did, my dear.”
Sinking into the softly crackling bubbles of the bath forty five minutes later, Sam let her mind meander and wander wherever it chose to go. It took her nervously to the upcoming graduation ceremony, and she wondered what kind of preposterous bowing and hat doffing there would be at this archaic rite of passage. It then turned to taekwondo, and to all the things she needed to work on before the grading which was also rapidly approaching. She ran through all her poomsae in her mind, enacting step by step the moves she needed to make – how and when and which way she needed to turn – and then she did the formal ‘one-step-sparring’ techniques as well. Mentally standing squarely in choon bi, the ready stance, she closed her eyes, floating in the blissfully warm water, and thought how she would counter the formal right-hand punch. Blocking it with a double knife hand in back stance, she ‘stepped’ her back foot through to the front, swinging her right elbow up in a smooth arc to her imaginary attacker’s temple, right fist meeting left palm on impact, before drawing back the elbow and aiming another ‘blow’ at the nose. Once she’d run through other similar one-step sparring and self-defence moves, the water had begun to cool, and she thought vaguely about adding some more and staying to soak a little longer, but she knew it would be wasteful of the hot water, and she was only a guest.
The big fluffy towel kept most of the cold air out as she darted for the spare room, but she still shivered a little as she wrestled her pyjamas on over still slightly damp legs. She still wasn't sleepy enough to go to bed, so she took a blanket from the shelves at the top of the wardrobe and curled up underneath it to devour another chunk of Game of Thrones.
Finally, nearing midnight, she began to feel sleep tugging insistently at her eyelids. As she curled up in the dark and listened to the rain, she allowed her thoughts to turn to Alex. As sleep claimed her, she imagined that the heavy duvet around her shoulders was in fact his arm, draped protectively over her, and when she woke the next morning, she felt safer and more rested than she had in years, and childishly excited at the thought of seeing him, meeting him in the pub and bending down to kiss his handsome face, and tell him – silently of course – with a mere look that she loved him.