The Passage of Time
“Alex?” Will poked his head around the bedroom door and held a mug of tea out for him.
“Cheers,” he said in the voice that Will had grown used to hearing these days. It was quiet and a little bit disconnected.
In the first month after Sam had left for Canada, Alex had withdrawn, almost reverting like some kind of freakish bug to a younger, chrysalis state, reminding Will of how he’d been in rehab. He’d lost a bit of weight, but recently had begun to put it back on again, started going to the gym again, and eating sensibly, but all the spark had gone out of his eyes.
As he watched Alex coding, his eyes trained on the screen like his life depended on it and his Android sitting blankly on the desk beside the keyboard, Will recalled a phone call he’d overheard between Alex and Rachel shortly after ‘The Incident’. Since that call, Alex had made no mention of her, and he’d not seen her again as far as he was aware.
He returned to the kitchen, where the rain was hurling itself against the panes, and picked up his own mug, nursing it between his long fingers. Would things ever get better? Was this what Alex was going to be like from now on? Sam’s masters course must be nearly over by now, and what would happen when she came back to England? He sighed and let his eyes trace silver paths down the windows; Cambridge in the rain was really a very depressing place.
The Centre for Medieval Studies in Toronto was as welcoming to a foreigner from across the water as Cambridge had been to a native student. Within weeks, despite her jangled nerves and disenchanted spirit of romanticism, Sam had begun to forge the beginnings of some friendships, and she had been delighted to discover that her housemate was also unfamiliar with the city.
The graduate apartment that she had found was tiny, but since her budget was equally miniscule, it suited her fine. The only real worry she’d had was whether she would get on with the other girl she’d met through a forum linked to the CMS. Claudia was from elsewhere in Canada, from Quebec City, and when Sam met her, she was nothing like she expected. Her online persona had given the impression of a calm, quiet, reserved, even old-fashioned, young woman. Claudia and her friends, Harry and Tyler turned out to be vivacious, fun-loving, gregarious people, who welcomed their latest addition into their group with open arms.
The wheel of the year turned slowly for Sam. The Canadian winter was a highlight, especially since she’d lived all her life on the south coast of England, with its rows of beach huts along the sea fronts, all queuing up politely, waiting their turn to dip their feet in the cold English Channel. In England, ‘snow’ meant a tame flurry of five snowflakes one day in February that melted as they hit the ground. In Canada, the thick, fat flakes fell like Japanese sakura blossoms, and when Claudia and her friends took Sam out around New Year to a small cabin they’d all rented for a week, she was shown real snow. Not having had enough money to fly home over the winter vacation, Sam had been more than grateful for their kindness. But the novelty of snow deeper than she could stand up in had worn off after a month or so of slipping and sliding, and one badly sprained ankle, and she was glad to be in the city where it was at least managed, if not always contained.
It was a cold day towards the end of April, and as she sat in her room, typing up her masters dissertation, there was a soft knock on her bedroom door. “Cherie?”
“Yeah?” she looked up, blinking as she focussed on something that was a bit further away than her computer screen for the first time in over five hours. “Everything alright?” she asked.
Her blonde flatmate grinned and said, “Of course. I just wondered if you’d like a cup of tea?”
To Sam’s delight in her very first week, she had discovered that her flatmate had a love of tea that had made Sam question her own Englishness; Claudia Lafleur’s collection of real leaf teas that had nearly given Sam a heart attack on first seeing them in the cupboard in the tiny apartment’s kitchen. Where they were going to put the packets of dried pasta and tins of chopped tomatoes was anybody’s guess, but they had enough loose-leaf tea to see out a nuclear winter. Sam also kind of liked that Claudia had called her ‘cherie’ from the first time they’d met. It had given her a sense of belonging in such a strange yet also familiar country. “I’d love a cup, thank you.”
Claudia had her shoulder-length, wispy, dyed-blonde hair half tied up in a bun with two pencils speared through it to hold it in place, and her blue eyes smiled gently at Sam’s tired looking face, and she said, “Take it easy, won’t you? You always work so hard.”
She smiled. It had been a long six months in Canada, and indeed she had spent so much of her time in the library that she might as well have bought a camp bed and moved in. It would have saved on rent, certainly. She’d come top of their small class of graduates in every test and moderated essay, though possibly at the expense of her social life and even her health. In six months she had gone from a healthy, sporty figure to a rather more waif-like creature. She had managed to find a taekwondo club, but went once a week at most, and her desire to go running had been somewhat frozen by the harsh winter snows – who wants to recreate that scene from Bambi in a world where the only outcome would be a lengthy amount of time in a cast? When Sam looked in the mirror, a pale-skinned and tired looking academic blinked back at her; in other words, she’d become a graduate student. Not that she’d really noticed, other than that her jeans didn’t really fit her too well any more.
As Claudia set down her tea about fifteen minutes later, she said, “You coming out tonight? Harry and Tyler have been asking about you…”
“My dissertation is due in about a week,” she sighed. “I can’t go out tonight. Next week, when it’s all done, I promise I will make up for all the fun I’ve not been having lately…”
“Steady on, cherie,” she smiled, “You haven’t had any fun since New Year, I’m pretty certain…”
Sam barked a laugh and said, “Yeah, well, I think I had enough fun then to last me until next New Year.” Sam had never drunk so much vodka in her life, even as an undergraduate in her first week, and she had very little idea of what had really happened that night.
They both shared a look which said, ‘best forgotten’ and Claudia smiled. “Ok, well, just take it easy. I know it’s nearly time for final submissions, but still…”
“Yes, mum…” she grinned, rolling her eyes and taking a sip of her tea and returning her attention to her nearly conquered dissertation.
When final submissions were eventually in, the sense of relief that washed through Sam was immense. Claudia was still in the apartment exactly as Sam had left her, sitting cross-legged on the sofa with her netbook in her lap. When she stumbled through the door in a daze, Claudia called, "Sam, is that you? Have you finished?"
"Yes!" she shrieked, "The dissertation is slain!"
"Great! Just that one exam to go, and we'll be finished with the masters!" She crossed the tiny kitchen to the fridge and drew out a couple of bottles of beer. "Come on, Sam," she said. "Have a drink to celebrate the almost-end."
She drew deeply on the bottle and sighed. "Ah, that's good." Leaning her body against the counter, she suddenly thought of the way Alex used to prop himself up in the kitchen at his apartment, wearing his braces, and she felt a twang of pain, even then, seven months after she'd last seen him or spoken to him. God, she missed him. She pushed herself off the counter and sat at their little table instead. She didn't really want to think about him.
As if Claudia had read her mind, she said, "You've got that face on again..." She paused tentatively and then said, "Have you seen Jake at all lately?"
Sam laughed an empty laugh. "Noting is going to happen between Jake and me. We had a nice time at The Duke of York the other night, but we both knew we were being set up with each other. I think that was the only thing we had in common, aside from the fact that we were both in the same bar together... He is cute though…"
Claudia shrugged. "Well, you can't blame us for trying... You have been single all the while you've been here..."
"I just haven't really wanted anything more. I'm happier on my own, and not in a drama queen kind of way. My last relationship ended badly, so I'm very happy just being me... You know?"
"Ha," barked Claudia, "I hear you. My last boyfriend, Kyle, cheated on me, and that was it for me. I thought 'no more guys'. I'm sure Jenny and Mel just wanted to see if you and Jake would get on..."
Sam smiled. "They're sweet," she said. "And so is he, but…” she abandoned the rest of that sentence in favour of a mouthful of beer. She’d been about to say that Jake was sweet but he didn’t measure up to Alex. Couldn’t measure up to Alex. To his broad, all-encompassing smile; to those glittering intelligent eyes; to that exquisitely kind touch… That was something she wasn’t even comfortable admitting to herself silently, let alone aloud. “They were only being thoughtful." She looked at the time on her phone and said, "Well, I've got my exam tomorrow, so I think I'll take this beer and do a last bit of reading and note-cramming. Then when it's all over tomorrow, we can all go out to The Duke or wherever, and have a really damned good evening."
"Sam Fey planning fun? Surely not?" Claudia laughed. "Take it easy with all that revision - you already know everything anyway, and I mean that in the nicest way possible."
She smiled, and turned to leave, beer sloshing comfortingly in the bottle. As she bent over her books that afternoon, she found it particularly hard to concentrate. Her mind kept leading her back to various memories with Alex for some reason. Maybe it was the date with Jake, maybe it was the end of Toronto, but whatever it was, she couldn’t shake his face or all the fun they’d had from her mind. However long she lingered on their trip to Anglesey Abbey, though, or on their perfect cinema date, she kept coming back to the end, to him on the sofa with her, which made the memories curdle in her mind.
Taking a step back from her notes for a moment, since Alex clearly wasn’t going to remove himself from her thoughts, she allowed herself a quick five minutes of poking at old wounds. She recalled the last time she saw Alex, in his apartment, as clear as though it were yesterday. His gaunt cheeks and haunted eyes flashed in her mind, and she remembered how he'd told her that it was only Rachel 'ironing out the kinks' in his shoulders. She wanted to believe that that was all there had been, and she thought it probably was, but why hadn't he told her about Rachel sooner? She wouldn't have been jealous, or at least, she could have pretended not to have been, both to herself and to Alex, and things might never have gone wrong if he hadn't hidden her from Sam. The deceit had been the clincher. He'd kept things from her, and that made her feel like she'd never known him at all. They'd spent so long taking those halting steps towards openness, honesty, towards being comfortable in their own skins around each other, and then she walks in on Alex getting very comfortable with someone Sam has never seen before. Her stomach turned over and the beer fizzed with her anger, and she forced her mind back to more academic topics as she picked up her pen again and scribbled a few more illegible notes.
The exam itself wasn't too bad, though by the time she'd scrawled her last paragraph, Sam's hand was cramping and sore. Leaving the hall with all the other graduate students, all seasoned exam-takers, she was swooped on by Claudia, Harry and Tyler, all shrieking and whooping and yelling.
She threw back her head and laughed. "I've finished!" she shrieked, leaping into their collective embrace. "I've finished, I've finished, I've finished!"
"No more bookworm Sam," Tyler said, his gravelly voice seeping through his thick, dark, close-cropped beard. "You can actually leave the apartment without being riddled with academic guilt..."
She slugged him lightly on the arm with her fist, and said, "You won't get me back inside now."
Claudia turned to her and said, "We want to take you out tonight. Your flight back to England is next weekend, isn't it?"
"What?" Harry interrupted, "I thought you were staying here longer than that!"
"No," she said sadly, shaking her head and wriggling free of his python-like grip. "I had to book my flights way in advance to make them as cheap as possible. I didn't have my timetable then, just an email from the secretary saying they were usually over by then."
"Well, since we have so little time to spend with you, we're going to make every minute count," Claudia said.
"I think you mean 'every minute drunk'," Harry grinned, his blue eyes glittering with mischief.
"Let me get changed," Sam said, "And then we can head out."
They walked back along the broad sidewalks and below towering, glittering skyscrapers, towards the apartment, joking and laughing, each full of absolute, soaring elation. “I didn’t know grads got this excited about finishing study…” Tyler laughed as Sam gave a little skip. “But now we have to go out and face the real world and get jobs…”
Claudia giggled and said, “Well, Harry’s going to be doing his PhD soon, and I’ve got a job here in the admissions department, so it’s just you out of work, Tyler.”
“I’ll be hard pressed to know whose couch to crash on when you’re all earning the big bucks,” he grinned. “What about you, Sam?”
“I’m thinking maybe a PhD in the UK,” she said, “Or an internship and getting into curating and exhibitions in the big museums in London…”
They looked impressed.
Talking non-stop all the way back, she closed the door to her room with a ringing in her ears. She could hardly believe that eight months of studying was all over now. Lowering herself down onto the bed, she picked up her iPad and opened up the mail app. As she began to tap out a message to her mother, feeling like a soldier on the front as she wrote, 'All done now, exam went pretty well I think, time to relax and have some fun, will write properly soon, lots of love Sam x', she heard the distinctive 'ping' of an incoming email.
She sent the one to her mother and then returned to her inbox, and saw one from Dan.
Hope you're well and that it's not too cold over there. I had a quick look at the weather forecast and it looked kind of grim...
It's been raining a lot over here, but that's no surprise, I suppose. Work at the company has been boring too, but it's all good experience. They asked me to write some new code for an app their designing, which was nice, but I’m hoping for something a bit more ‘mathsy’ soon… Mum and dad are away on business, so I have the flat to myself for a bit. Lots of GTA V on the PS and lie-ins at the weekend, but don't tell mum what a slob I've become while she's away...
When's your flight home? You did tell me, of course, during our last FaceTime, but I left the bit of paper somewhere and I think mum chucked it... Mothers! Anyway, really looking forward to seeing you when you get home, but let your jetlag fade away first, otherwise you'll be too tired to tell me about all the fun you've been having after your exams are over.
Looking forward to hearing back from you,
Sam's smile broadened as she thought that England wouldn't seem quite so friendless with Dan there waiting for her. Half of her hoped Alex wouldn’t have waited for her, but the other half, the half that knew him well and, if asked, probably still missed him, knew that he was the kind of guy that might just wait forever for a girl that wasn’t ever coming back… She shook her head, dissolving her thoughts of the past with a swirl of her thick dark hair. She replied to Dan, in haste, that she was headed out to celebrate with a few friends, and that she was flying back on Sunday, but would arrive in the UK on Monday morning.
She slipped into something a little less slobby than the ancient comfy jumper she'd been wearing for the greater part of a fortnight, and headed out into the chilly April air with a smile on her face, and with mixed thoughts of home in her heart.
The clinking and grunting carried even over his headphones, and he thought he was going to snap. The giant of a man in the weights section of the gym was huffing and blowing like a constipated rhino, and he was making Alex positively nauseous. To his astonishment, Will had come with him to the gym, and was bounding away on a treadmill somewhere behind him.
Alex was sitting in his chair, wearing a pair of ancient, black trackpants and a tight-fitting grey vest top. He'd not worn his braces for months. Couldn't face the memories of trying to stand tall for Sam, made all the more bitter by the fact that he hadn't needed to in the first place.
His tough, calloused palms gripped the heavy dumbbell as he resumed his bicep crunches, and when that was done, he moved to the cable machine to wrench a few more muscles back into shape. He’d slipped a bit in the months after Sam’s departure, but he was getting back on track again. Physically, at least.
The grunting rhino finally moved away, but not before he gave Alex a derisive glare and muttered with a shake of his head, "Give up, gimp, you'll never look like this."
"Well thank fuck for that," he challenged back. "Nothing screams steroid abuse louder than you."
Luckily, and more for Rhino than for Alex, a personal trainer walked over and, smiling nervously at Alex, approached Rhino and said, "Phil, I haven't seen you in a while, how's it going?"
He led him away to a different part of her he gym, and as the boasting roars of Phil the steroid-pumped rhino faded into the background blur of panting, clinking, grunting and pounding, Alex heard his brother's quiet voice in his ear.
"I'm beat," he said, "I'm going to head down to the pool and have a quick swim, ok?"
"Sure," Alex replied, his deep voice sounding a little detached. It had been that way for eight months now, and he barely noticed how numb it sounded.
"You don't fancy coming too?" Will asked, knowing the answer already.
"Not a chance," he smiled grimly. "So if by some miracle I'm finished in the showers before you, I'll wait in the lobby for you, ok."
"Yup," Will said, slinging a little white towel over his shoulder like a Wimbledon finalist. He was skinny, but far from unfit, and while Alex had always been built like a bull, Will had inherited some lanky genes from his real parents, whoever they were. He had never talked about finding out, "You're my family," he had said once when Alex had asked if he'd ever wanted to trace them. And he was glad of it.
Without Will, he wasn't entirely sure how he'd have made it through the last eight months. He'd really put his brother through the wringer, and guilt flared up in the pit of his stomach like acrid bile when he thought how self absorbed he'd been in his misery.
As he made his way out of the showers three quarters of an hour later, with his black hair dripping into his eyes, he caught sight of a short, slender figure with long, dark hair. His heart flipped over when he saw her. “Sam,” he breathed to himself. Her hair was even plaited into a thick braid, with the weave visible on the outside like hers used to be. Her hips swayed a bit like Sam's did. But then she laughed, and the spell was shattered. It wasn't really her. Sam didn't laugh through her nose like an old drainpipe.
It was a few seconds before he realised that he'd actually crossed the lobby and was only a few metres from where his 'not-Sam' was standing beside the counter of the coffee bar.
She turned around and the disappointment was almost painful as he discovered that she bore no resemblance to his Sam whatsoever from the front. Not my Sam, he thought sadly, manoeuvring his wheels over to a quieter area of the lobby, wondering for the millionth time what she was up to and whether she'd met anyone out there in Canada, some able-bodied lumberjack or something. He sighed, beginning to fight the urge to begin another email to her that he'd never send. Her academic year must be drawing to a close, and he was so tempted to write to her and tell her properly, calmly, when he wasn't lying in dirty sheets in a stuffy bedroom, looking awful, exactly what Sam had actually seen and who Rachel was, and why she had meant so much and yet so little compared to Sam. Maybe I should, he thought, drawing up to a table and setting his brakes. The shower-hot skin of his forearms rested blissfully on the cold glass of the table-top, steaming the surface, somehow proving to him that he was alive and still had hope, and as he cradled his phone in his hand, an idea began to form as to how to begin writing something to her.
He soon found himself beginning to type a rough copy of what he might send her. As the minutes ticked by, and the letter grew in length and feeling, his confidence grew, so that by the time Will came over and interrupted his fast-flowing stream of words, Alex had nearly formulated an entire letter.
"Sorry to keep you," Will said, his golden blond hair dark from the shower, "What are you doing?" He slung his small bag onto the back of Alex's chair out of long-practised habit, though he still asked, "May I?" before doing so.
Alex nodded, his own much larger bag waiting on the floor to be hoisted onto his knees until they reached the car. "I'm writing to Sam," he replied calmly.
"What?" Will was stumped by his answer. Clearly he had not expected that, of all the possible responses.
"I've wanted to send her this for a while," he continued, ignoring Will's look of mingled surprise and concern, "And she'll probably be coming back to the UK soon. I just want to write and explain stuff a bit. She doesn't have to reply if she doesn't want to."
Will was looking at him like he'd just suggested a mission to Mars in the morning. "Are you sure it's what she'd want?" he asked as Alex stowed his 'mission plan' back in his pocket and picked up the duffle bag, putting it down on his legs and making them shiver. “I mean, after all this time?”
"Nope," he said, almost cheerily as the bag juddered up and down on his lap for a while, "But last time I tried to second-guess what she wanted, I ended up doing the complete opposite - I thought she'd want me all the upright and normal-looking, but it turns out she didn't mind at all. I figure I just do what I want this time, be honest, and see what happens. You ready to go?"
Will stood blinking for a few seconds and then shrugged and said, "Er... yeah, I guess."
Alex felt certain that this was going to be right. All alright. Something in his little soft gut told him that Sam couldn't possibly be too upset by a calm, self-controlled, honest email, and he couldn't think why he'd talked himself out of doing it before.
The door to the apartment swung open as Will pushed it, and he rolled in after his brother, heading for his room. He didn't even stop to fish his damp, sweaty gym clothes from the bag as he dumped it on the floor. He just rolled over to his computer, fired it up, and began to type up a fair copy of the draft he'd begun earlier.
Tension and adrenaline flared briefly in the pit of his stomach, and his right leg somehow still had the energy to bounce nervously as he hit the 'send' button.
All I can do now is wait. And hope, he thought as he pushed himself backwards from the desk and breathed a soft sigh into the still air of his empty bedroom.
To be continued...