The next two weeks after the trip to the seaside drifted by in a steady stream of exhibition labels and documentation spreadsheets, and while she sat inside, in the air-conditioned, hermetically sealed storage rooms of the museum, the wheel of seasons outside turned around to high summer.
Something in the tone of his voice and the style of his messages since that weekend told her that Alex had worked out that there had been a bit of an incident 'behind the scenes' with her parents, and she couldn't help getting that sinking feeling of being caught out. He had mostly been as open and warm to her as he always had been, but occasionally Sam would notice him drifting away from her, retreating into his inner strongbox whenever his doubts would catch up with him and puncture his happiness. She could guess the reason for his withdrawal, but not with the pinpoint accuracy she would have really liked.
He smiled, thinking of Sam as he wheeled out of his room to make himself a morning cup of tea and a bowl of cereal. He tried to imagine what she might be wearing on such a hot day, which made his lopsided smile stretch a little higher: probably something modest and timeless that went in at the waist and swirled at the bottom. She always looked stunning though, he thought with a smile as he waited for the kettle to boil.
Glancing at the clock, he realised she would probably be leaving the pokey little student room right about now, and making her way along Exhibition Road towards the V&A. He could picture her walking with her confident stride, a slight bounce to her step, a bright shine in her hair. He ached to see her again, though it had been no time since he'd said goodbye. He’d had briefly entertained the idea of a surprise trip to see her, but getting a wheelchair onto the trains in the UK was a bit of a logistical nightmare - it was possible, but the Underground was certainly not. If he crutched it and got tired, he might get stranded somewhere, and that thought filled him with panic. If only I wasn't in a chair, he thought yet again. He rubbed his knees and watched sadly as his hands ran over the surface of his trackpants. He closed his eyes and felt nothing. He moved them again, over a place of sensitivity and his right knee shivered briefly in protest. Opening his black eyes, he wished he were more able to go down to London and surprise her, maybe take her out to the theatre or something.
As the kettle boiled and shut itself off with a decisive click, like a snap of the fingers, it dragged his attention back to the present. He poured the water into the ceramic mug and drowned the teabag, stabbing at it bitterly with a spoon. As the water changed from clear to a swirling, rich, dark colour, he thought he heard his phone vibrating on the table, but just as he looked round, he saw it fall quiet. He zipped across the room with the skill of a basketball player and saw a missed call from Sam, returning it immediately.
When she picked up he said, “Sorry,” aware that he sounded a little breathless. “I didn't quite make it to the phone first time. What’s up?”
“I was just ringing to tell you that I’m off to Canada in September…” she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth in a rush. There was a ringing harmonic of excitement in her voice which disguised the true meaning of her sentence for a few pounding heartbeats. Their true impact hit him though a moment later and all the initial elation went out of him like a burst balloon: the unvoiced echo of those words as they reverberated around his head was, ‘I’ll be gone for eight months’.
“Congratulations, Sam,” he said, hoping she could hear the smile in his voice as it returned to his face. “I’m so proud of you. I knew they’d love you, but then maybe I'm biased...” This was a huge deal, and he knew he had to be happy for her, and he was, but Canada was a bloody long way away, and it hadn't seemed real until that morning. Now, that gossamer possibility of separation had solidified, and become tangible. Inevitable.
“Thank you,” she grinned. “Listen, I’ll have to dash in a minute, as I’m meeting Linda in half an hour to talk about a new show, but I wanted you to know that I’ve got it. I’ve literally just got off the phone with mum and dad.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly but genuinely. “You coming back to Cambridge this weekend?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“We should celebrate. I’ll cook, or we can go out somewhere.”
“I’d love that,” she smiled, adding quietly, “I miss you…”
The way she said it, he imagined her shyly tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I miss you too.”
“What are you up to this week?” she asked, clearly not wanting to hang up a moment before she had to.
He again smiled at that. “I’ve got a couple of meetings with people from the department, and there are some talks I want to go to which are related to my PhD, but other than that, not much. Your week sounds far more exciting…” He only realised as he finished his answer that he had kept back the coffee date he had planned with Rachel for later that day. In fact, she was coming over to the apartment. No more meetings on neutral territory. It seemed suddenly too late to include that, so he bit it back.
She smiled. “I don’t know about 'more exciting',” she said. “But the artist I’m off to meet shortly is from Glasgow but he’s done a lot of youth work in London, so he should be interesting, and we’ve got an exhibition opening on Thursday on Sargent, Sickert and Spencer, and –” she broke off when she realised he was chuckling. “What?”
“I think you just proved my point,” he laughed.
“I guess you’re right.” She paused and then swore, “Crap, I’ve really got to motor now or I will be late… talk soon?”
“Sure. Look forward to it. Take care of yourself in the big city, won’t you?” he smiled.
“I will. And you take care of yourself as well,” she said, her voice leaning emphatically as she said it.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly.
“Ok, bye,” she said softly. “I miss you.”
“You too,” he replied.
After he'd hung up, he sat wondering in the silence about why telling Sam of Rachel had snagged on his tongue. Perhaps he wanted to keep Sam as part of his new life, he thought, cradling his mug between his fingers, and the Alex that Rachel knew, or at least had known, was definitely the old Alex. If he could be confident, capable, charismatic now, then Sam might never need to know that he had once been the antithesis of all those things.
With nothing planned until Rachel was due to arrive at 3pm, he gathered his belongings and shouted vaguely at Will that he was going to the department. Grabbing his car keys, he pushed through the front door and closed it with a bang behind him. The hallway beyond was dark, almost forbidding, with the white stair lift looking in the gloom like the bleached spine of a dinosaur skeleton, but he set his brakes, reached for the seat, and swung his body over, beginning to descend, the practiced sequences made easy by mechanical familiarity.
Bullard Laboratories sat just outside the main city of Cambridge, and as he pulled up the leafy drive towards the boring, brick-made box, the BMW lurching over the speed bumps, his legs jostled each other and he realised he hadn’t crossed them. It was only a small thing, but he always crossed his legs when he got in the car. He wondered what had made that day different from any other. Scolding himself for behaving like such a superstitious old man, he pulled into the disabled bay and began to concentrate on assembling his chair.
As he slotted the second wheel on, he heard a male voice call his name. Frowning, he hung onto the door and pushed himself up and was surprised to see Max walking over, wearing a slate blue hoodie, light grey cargo pants hanging loosely around his skinny legs.
“Max!” he called. “What are you doing here of all places? Isn't this a bit out of your comfort zone...?”
The short, skinny, mousy-haired boy grinned as cheekily, and the effect made him look like a mischievous macaque stealing fruit from a street vendor. “You’ve got computers here, right? You write code, don't you?" He joked. "Then I should be ok." He ran a hand through his dark, scraggy hair, and said. "Actually, I came to meet up with Tim whose got an idea for my Minecraft mod… this seemed like the easiest place to meet, as the man is so extraordinarily busy." He ran his small, smooth hand through his hair again and added, “I just texted you to see if you were in today, but I guess you were driving. You heading inside?”
“Yeah,” he said, locking the car and rolling smoothly forward over the pavement towards the long, gently sloping ramp to the door.
Max held it open and they headed inside, both instinctively making for the coffee room like it had a magnetic pull. A stocky man in his late twenties was perched on the arm of a scruffy old sofa, an Android phone held between his huge, powerful fingers.
He turned as the two friends entered the room, and called out, "Max!" and when he saw that Alex was with him, his white grin widened and he said, "And Alex - two for the price of one. How are you both?"
"It's been a while, Tim," Alex said, shaking the strong, thick-fingered hand that was extended to him and trying not to wince as it clenched around his own. Tim's passion for rock climbing was written large in his hand, just as Alex's daily roll was on his palms. "Still scrambling around in the dusty wastelands of Iceland?" he asked with a cheeky grin.
"All in the name of science," he smiled, sitting himself back down onto the arm of the sofa, rubbing his stubbly jaw with his hands. "Got back from the field trip a couple of days ago. We were out around Mývatn and Jökulsárlón for a month, and we didn't see civilisation til we got back to Reykjavik."
"Yeah, I can still smell the sulphur on you," Alex grinned.
"Geothermally heated water is technically greener than electrically heated," he countered playfully, ruffling his short-cropped and tightly curled hair with his hand.
"You mean 'yellower' - you still smell of eggs..." Max chimed in and the three friends shared a smile.
Alex glanced down at his watch and said, "I'm just going to try and catch Bob before he scuttles off to some meeting or other. Leave you two code-monkeys to your Minecraft project."
Wheeling away, he just heard the two nerds begin their conference, and smiled fondly. There was something comforting in hearing genuine passion for a project. It reminded him of the way his grandfather's eyes would light up when he got talking about the boat he'd made for his wife when they were still only engaged. It had all the comfort and familiarity of the 'a place for everything, and everything in its place' mentality.
The lift doors rolled open, and Alex cruised along the corridor to Bob's little shoebox of an office. That he was a geologist was written clear on the walls in the rows of rock samples on shelves and in the photographs which dotted the walls of him in remote corners of the world, standing on volcano calderas or in great river canyons, rock-hammer in hand, hiking boots on his feet and those floppy canvas hats that only the kids who collected butterflies and beetles at school wore, perched on his now white-haired head.
That snowy-topped, academic head snapped up as Alex knocked gently on the open door, and the professor smiled. "Alex, good to see you. Come in."
"Have you got a sec? I wanted to run my latest chapter by you," he said, pushing through the doorway and over to the cluttered desk.
After a heated debate about the terminology of a particular function, Alex finally managed to convince Bob that what he was doing did make sense, but that with his background in physics, he'd used the name given to it by mathematicians, not the one geologists used. Same function; different names: endless room for confusion. With the meeting over, Alex thanked his supervisor and headed up to the small computer lab where he and a group of other PhDs had their workspaces.
Firing up the computer, he prepared for a long session of debugging, which was always dull. He fitted his comfy headphones over his ears and cranked the volume up and began.
An hour or so later, the harsh beep of his message tone cut through the little bubble of academic isolation which he'd created for himself, and he broke off to deal with it.
Rachel's name looked somehow out of place on his screen these days, but he unlocked the phone and read her message. It was a simple enough 'looking forward to seeing you/casually just checking we're still on for later' kind of message, but it was a few seconds before he connected the excited buzz in his chest with seeing Rachel again. In the wake of the memories she had dredged up, Alex had had some time to think about his reaction to their last meeting. His immature response had seemed to indicate that he wasn't entirely ready to face his past, but the fact that he had been so affected by the re-emergence of it told him he wasn't exactly dealing with the present all that well either. Stuck between the old and the new, he fiddled with the rims of his chair, a single thought ringing in his mind: I would not be feeling this way if I wasn't in a chair. I'd have nothing holding me back from taking my future with Sam and running with her all the way into the sunset.
He'd been so caught up at first with the excitement of a new connection, with her apparent acceptance of his disability, with her tenacious spirit and vivacious personality, that he'd never dared stop long enough to think about an actual future with her, beyond those first few weeks of wonder. He wasn't thinking of getting down on the proverbial knee any time soon, but he did want a long-term, steady relationship, and he wanted that to be with Sam more than anyone, but Rachel 'got' Alex on a level that Sam might never. Rachel had a disability too. It certainly didn't help that Rachel's recent AB relationship had gone down the pan in such spectacular fashion. A dark little voice in a corner of his mind was pressing him take that as a warning and end it with Sam to save them both the pain of failure.
With a heavy sigh, he turned back to the computer and while he waited for it to come out of sleep again, tried to turn his mind to code once more. As if from nowhere, Rachel's unnerving yet intoxicating laugh kept bubbling into his mind like a leak in a sea wall that cannot be properly plugged. Why did she have to have dropped back into his life and brought all her baggage with her just as he was forging a new and exciting relationship. You can never outrun your past, on foot or on wheels, he thought as he lowered his fingers to the keyboard and punched in his username and password.
If only life's problems could be fixed with a few simple lines of code. He ran them through in his mind to amuse himself while it loaded.
inputText = raw_input ('Do you love Sam?\n')
if inputText == 'Yes':
print "There's your answer then!\n"
elif inputText == "Yes, but Rachel is my safety net.":
print "But you really love Sam though.\n"
print 'Sort yourself out, Norwood.\n'
He sighed again.
"You've finished all that already?!" Linda asked in amazement at Sam cautiously laid a tray of freshly-scanned coins back down on her desk. "I thought that would take you to at least tomorrow lunchtime. I was planning to let you go home early and get an extra half day for your weekend."
"Darn it," Sam said, less than half joking, "I knew I shouldn't have been so efficient."
Four days had passed since she'd found out about her formal acceptance to Canada, and it had all been a bit of a blur. Nonetheless she now found that everything at work captivated her just that little bit less because she had something so huge to look forward to.
Linda laughed. "I guess I'll just have to let you go tonight instead and give you the whole of Friday off."
"Are you serious?" she gulped.
"Absolutely. Think of it as my 'congratulations for acing your Toronto interview' gift. You've earned an extra day off. You won't be in the country much longer with time to spend with your loved ones anyway, as it's probably only a month or so til you have to leave for Canada isn't it?" As Sam nodded, Linda shuffled a stack of papers in her hand and said, "You've been an absolute godsend here. I won't be happy to give you to Dr. Gilles," she grinned, "But he will be very lucky to have you."
"Thank you," Sam mumbled, blushing. "I've only got the first half of next week left under the terms of the internship agreement," she said, "So I just want to say that I've had the most wonderful time, and I've met some really great people." Linda waved a hand dismissively but Sam said, "No, seriously, these kind of opportunities don't come round very often, and interns are never treated as well as I've been. You and the team here have really gone out of your way to include me in everything, and especially you with this Canada thing."
She smiled maternally. "Well, I think I've been given this position so I should try and give someone one else a helping hand up. Goodness knows, jobs in the heritage sector are hard enough to come by."
Sam agreed, and thanked her again. Then she picked up her leather messenger bag and made her way out of the museum.
She discovered that in the short time it took her to get back to her student rooms, shower, and pack everything except the few things she needed for that night, Linda had sent her an email.
After you left today, I had a little think, and I've looked at what I was going to get you to do next week, and I've decided that, unless you desperately want to come back in, you should stay at home. It's only three days after all. You've been a joy to have here, and if you ever need anything in the future - a job reference or another internship - we'd be only too happy to help you out.
Keep in touch, and it wish you all the very best with your masters in Toronto. Please let me know how you're getting on, won't you?
All the best,
Sam was touched by her kindness and said so in her reply.
With an extra half a week of freedom, she was keen to let Alex know, but with a cheeky little smile, she decided that she would surprise him. Reaching for her phone, she texted Will and asked if he would be up for helping her surprise Alex by turning up the next day, a whole day earlier than planned. When he said that he would, she grinned and began to plot. Nothing elaborate, just a sudden appearance. Will said he could pick her up from the station and let her in if she told him what time she would arrive. After a quick surf through train times on the National Rail website, she picked a train, booked a one way ticket, and then thought about grabbing something to eat. There was only the pondweed-like remains of some salad in the fridge, and besides, she was feeling in the mood for something more celebratory, so she grabbed her key and wallet and made her way out of the student halls, phone in hand.
It was still light outside, and the evening air was warm and sleepy. She called Bella and asked if she was around. "I'm off to Cambridge tomorrow as they've let me go early as a thank you for all the hard work I've done," she smiled.
"They're paying you til the end of the internship though, right?" her friend asked.
"Still looking out for me?" she smiled. "The big sister I never had..."
"Damn straight I am," she said. "You were always so innocent. Seriously though, are they?"
"Yes, they've already paid me the full whack, so I'm good. Linda was really nice and said if I ever needed anything like references or whatever..."
"Good. Someone needs to take care of you, little Sammy. Anyway, in answer to your first question, yes, I'm free if you want to meet for a farewell supper. My treat. Let's go to that Carluccio's."
"Sure. See you there shortly?"
"I'm actually just round the corner, so if you take too long, I'll start on the wine and I'll need you to walk me home..."
"Wouldn't be the first time," she chuckled. "Ok, see you soon then."
Winding her way through the streets of London on such a gorgeous evening, Sam felt like there was nothing in the world that could possibly go wrong.
She fairly giggled with delight the next day as she stepped out of the station and saw Will waiting in the ticket hall entranceway. As she neared him, she noticed that his blond hair was all ruffled and he looked pale and stressed. His expression was that of most graduate students; that of perpetual tiredness. "Hi Sam," he said as she joined him. "Your timing with the trains was perfect," he added, stretching out his hand to take her bag from her. "I've spent all morning in the department crunching numbers, and I am more than ready to go home and have some lunch. This morning I left Alex with his head buried in a dense-looking seismology book, so he'll definitely be extra surprised to see you after a morning of that."
She smiled in answer and followed him outside to the car park. It seemed weird to see Will driving Alex's car, using the pedals and not the hand controls. They were nowhere to be seen.
As they wound their way through the city, following the same route as the first time Alex had driven her, Sam was positively fizzing with excitement, which threatened to make her squeak with glee as they pulled up in his usual parking space. She followed Will up the stairs, nattering away about this and that at the museum, neither of them concentrating on it very hard, each keen to see Alex’s surprise.
As Will slid the key in the lock, Sam thought she heard laughter from inside the flat.
It was as Will pushed the door open, bumbling through and then crashing to a halt, that she realised something was wrong. That laugh had meant someone else was there. That laugh had been high; too high to belong to Alex. It belonged to a woman.
She stepped around the newly petrified form of Will, who had shuddered to a halt and rooted to the spot like an ancient standing stone, and tried to take in the scene in front of her.
Alex was sitting on the sofa, with his chair sitting empty, quiet and abandoned, in front of him. He was shirtless, and there was a tall, beautiful blonde girl standing behind him, leaning over the back of the sofa, running her hands over his bare shoulders and chest. The girl froze when the door opened, and Alex's expression, so peaceful and smiling only seconds before, curdled into a look of sheer horror, eyes dark and wide.
The room began to spin. Will had dropped her rucksack at his feet, and in a moment of panic, Sam picked up the bag by a strap, slung it onto her back, and turned on her heel from the room, the sight of a shirtless, blissful Alex burned into her retinas, with another girl rubbing her hands over his half-naked body. Who the hell was she?
She heard Alex bellow, "Will, go after her! I won’t get into my fucking chair and down those fucking stairs before she vanishes!"
There were feet on the stairs behind her, but she was out of the door and across the road like a thief in the night, before Will had even had a chance to see which way she'd gone.
Sam ran. She ran until her lungs burned and her blood boiled, the heavy rucksack thudding into her spine with each blindly blundering step. The streets of Cambridge flooded past in a watercolour blur as she sped with no particular direction in mind until she realised that she was at Dan's doorstep.
She punched in the door code and climbed the two flights of steps. She stood breathing heavily on the landing, her mind spinning wild circles like a city car in a quagmire, before she stepped forward and began to hammer on the front door of Dan’s apartment until she couldn't see straight. "Please," she begged. "Please let me in." There was no answer.
She slid down the door frame, tears flowing freely down her face. Her phone was ringing but she knew it would be him and she didn’t want to talk to him. Not now; not after he’d gone and cheated on her with some other girl. She collapsed into a small and knowingly pathetic puddle at the bottom of the door and sat hugging her knees while the light changed slowly outside.
Footsteps eventually sounded on the main staircase. Dan's voice sounded muffled as he reached the top and said in surprise, “Sam? Is that you?” He rushed to her side, kneeling down beside her and putting his hand on her shoulder. She looked up and gradually his face came into focus. "Sam? Sam what are you doing here? I thought you were still in London." He looked more closely at her tearstained face. "What happened?"
"I wanted to surprise him. Came down a day early. But he was..." she murmured. "With someone..."
"Oh, Sam," he said, needing no more explanation. "Come in. Come in, I'll run you a bath, and you can sleep here. Stay as long as you need."
She was steered into the apartment, with that awful image flashing repeatedly across her mind. "I knew it was too good to be true. Too good."
Somehow, about an hour later, she was curled up in a spare pair of Dan's pyjamas, right in the middle of his big double bed, but how she'd got there from Alex's apartment had become all very vague. "I knew it’d be too good to be true,” she sniffed. “He hurt me," she kept chanting to herself, with the half naked image of Alex seared into her eyeballs with that other girl there behind him, steering him like a puppet master. "He hurt me. He said he wouldn't but he did.”
Dan stroked her hair while she sobbed into the pillows, and he stayed until eventually she began to stop, but as she dozed off into a fitful sleep, he heard her murmur the words, "I hate him. He hurt me… Hurt."
To be continued...