Alex's rims bounced down the little step from the apartment, and he took a deep breath, inhaling the rich, summer air, feeling the heat of July ballooning in his lungs. His legs bounced a bit as he made the little jump, and his knee began to bob quietly in response to the jolt. He rested his hand briefly on it, smiling in relief as the movement dwindled away to nothing. The movement reminded him of his weekend of mixed emotions with Sam. One minute he'd been eaten away by his own shame and self consciousness, the next, Sam was semi-naked in front of him and they were getting closer than they had yet been. He could recall in perfect detail Sam's beautiful body stretching out away from him as he'd sat in his chair, trying to keep his legs calm enough to allow him to lean forward and taste her. He grinned, taking a certain pleasure in the contrast between his dirty thoughts and the highbrow research he knew was taking place all around him in that ancient, learned city.
It was Tuesday, hot and sticky with very little breeze, and town was full to bursting with summer tourists, and he had a good thirty minute wheel ahead of him to The Belfry from their apartment in the centre. Hoping he wouldn’t arrive too sweaty, he moved along the pavement at a fast but economical pace, parting tourists and students alike with the mere sight of his wheelchair. The hoards of swirling, faceless tourists dwindled as he moved further away from the popular attractions like King's College and the Corpus Christi Clock, and it began to feel more like a normal city and less like one enormous, endless tourist attraction as he rolled eastwards towards the restaurant.
The Belfry was far enough off out of the centre that it was not particularly busy on a weekday lunchtime, and as he drew up outside the large windows, Alex had no difficulty in picking out Rachel's pretty face. She sat calmly at a corner table at the back of the restaurant, checking her phone, with her blonde hair swept back off her face into a long ponytail. He took a brief moment to himself, and inhaled. From this distance he thought she was beautiful as she had ever been; the kind of girl you might describe as an all-American girl, with the blonde hair, the gorgeous figure, the wide, white smile.
With practised ease, he pulled open the heavy door and wheeled through before it could swing back and bash him on the back. When Rachel looked his way, the impact of her gaze hit him almost as powerfully as it had the very first time, way back whenever at The Laurels. He swallowed down the effect of her stunning blue eyes, and smiled as she stood to welcome him over. He couldn’t help but give a snort of laughter though as the dark blue, wide-legged linen trousers and white vest top showed her arms and chest to such spectacular advantage that a waiter stared so hard he almost tripped over his own feet. Alex was in no such danger, not any more, and besides, he had Sam now.
His chair wove smoothly over the dark floor between the tables, and although his heart clanged in his chest like a great church bell, he kept his face cool and composed. His knees behaved themselves demurely too, he noticed with gratitude.
"Rachel," he smiled as he slowed his wheels with the calloused brake pads of his palms.
She bent down and wrapped her arms around him in a brief, spontaneous hug. The tip of her golden ponytail slipped over her shoulder and brushed his right cheek. She drew back suddenly with a girlish giggle, and said, "Whoops, sorry."
It was only as she stood up straight and took a step backwards, sitting herself down again, that Alex noticed she no longer carried a cane. He’d been so shocked by her appearance last time, he hadn't had a chance to notice, but now that he had more than two seconds to think about anything other than his own astonishment, he knew it shouldn't be that surprising. She'd worn a prosthetic for as long as he'd been in a chair; no wonder she was without a cane. "You're looking really well, Rachel," he said, without commenting on the empty space opposite her where a chair had obviously been removed before he'd got there.
Her blue eyes sparkled like cut sapphires as she laughed again, and said, "You too, Alex."
He noticed however, as he looked more closely at her wide eyes, just how much makeup she was wearing. He couldn’t remember her troweling it on back when they were at the centre together. It made her look much older than she was.
Her voice changed a little as she added, "Listen, I know we spoke about it on the phone, but I'm really sorry about the way I acted before." A sheepish expression of guilt crept over her face as she said, "When James told me he'd run into you at the gym, I suddenly remembered just how easy it was to be myself around you. After finding out that my fiancé - " she fairly spat the word, full of contempt, "- was cheating on me, I kind of just wanted to feel that I was actually ok. You used to make me feel like that. I shouldn't have been so impulsive though. I've always been impulsive..." she trailed off thoughtfully, and Alex's heart went out to her.
"You have," he smiled. "And I know what you mean," he added shyly.
She glanced up at him from where she had been staring at the embroidered bell logo on the white silk napkin. "Oh?" she asked.
Some emotion plunged into Alex's stomach like a handful of ice cubes, but he couldn't identify it precisely. It felt like guilt, and also like apprehension. He'd thought of Sam, and how wonderful the first few weeks of their relationship had proved to be, and especially that weekend, but the more he got to know her, that hovering shyness about his disability seemed to come in increasingly strong peaks and troughs, like a ragged weather front over the ocean. Sometimes it was hardly there, but other times, he’d overthink everything, and get his wheels in a twist. His lips gave a twitch at the thought. "Listen," he said, not bringing any of that up with Rachel, and saying instead, "Since we're doing apologies, I'm sorry I told you that I'm seeing someone in quite the way I did," he said, remembering the way he'd flung the news at her as a reproachful retort.
A laugh fluttered from her lips and she said, "I deserved it, don't worry." She had clearly seen the mental leap he'd made to current partners from her comment about feeling secure with people. She changed the subject and added, "Well, shall we order something before we get too wrapped up in all this?"
"You still read me pretty well too," he said with a wry smile, remembering her comment on the phone.
She returned the same knowing gesture with a twitch of her eyebrows. “You been with your girl long then?”
“Just over a month I guess,” he said with a genuine grin, but one which faded quickly.
And then she said with a surprising amount of nonchalance while looking around for a waiter, "I know that look. It's the 'I'm in love with this person but what if they find out I'm actually disabled?' look..."
He snorted. "It's pretty darned obvious that I'm disabled," he said, smacking his palms to his rims.
"Oh they can cope ok with the wheelchair, the crutches, the canes..." she said derisively, still turned away and looking to attract a waiter. “Because that's what disabled people have to make them not-disabled.” Alex stared at her in astonishment. They’d not been back in contact more than five minutes in total, and she was as direct and impulsive as she had ever been. There was no front, no veneer of politeness with her. She said exactly what she thought, whenever she felt like it. "In my case, it was actually seeing the disability itself, the stump –” she raised her left leg in a brief gesture “ – and stuff like the medication and the strange routines that got to Calum." She turned back to him and saw the expression on his face. Her eyes widened and she gasped, her cheeks flushing, "I'm sorry, don't listen to me. I'm a bitter old hag. My opinion's skewed, remember?"
He offered a weak smile in return. "You are not a hag, Rachel."
"But I am bitter though," she joked. "So tell me about her? Don’t let me motor on along my Highway of Broken Dreams, fuelled only by sour grapes…" she flashed a naughty smile, and he gave a sympathetic kind of snort in response. Finally, they caught the eye of a waitress as she left the kitchens. Rachel took Alex's temperature with a hasty glance, saw that he was conflicted, and added with a friendly grin, "But only if you want to talk about her, that is. I'm just curious to hear about the kind of girl that would capture your heart these days..."
He laughed. "Well she's certainly done that, I can tell you." He rubbed his quads briefly with two nervous palms, and then brought his hands up to the table cloth and asked, "What do you want to know?"
She giggled again, like a nosy schoolgirl. "How you met, what she's like, you know, the usual curious stuff," she smiled.
The waitress came over with two menus and asked if she could get them any drinks. Alex was tempted to ask for half a gallon of whisky to quieten his nerves, but felt the result might be socially unacceptable, so settled for a small glass of white wine, and Rachel had the same.
"Ok," he said, "Well, we met in the UL tea rooms, of all places. I hardly ever go there, but my supervisor had been pissing me off all week and I was avoiding the department, and I hadn't really been in the mood to work at home. Anyway, I'd been there no more than half an hour, when I saw this gorgeous girl with a long, thick, dark plait coming over to my table, and she sat down and opened up the world's most boring book on the uses of isotope analysis in osteo-archaeology or something. She looked about as thrilled as you'd expect..." Rachel laughed softly but let him continue. "So we got talking and suddenly I found myself asking her for coffee somewhere. I didn't expect her to say yes, but she did, and it kind of took off from there really."
"How romantic," she grinned. "She's an archaeologist then? What's her name?"
"She studied archaeology, but she's hoping to get into museum and exhibition curating I think. She's away on an internship at the moment with the V&A in London. Her name's Sam."
"Sam," Rachel repeated, and Alex got the impression she was letting the word play around her mouth to see if she liked the taste of it. She said, "Well, archaeology's a bit different, isn't it?"
"Different from what?" he asked quietly.
"Well, from physics, I guess..."
"It's good," he countered, seeing them heading down the familiar trajectory of friendly but heated discussion. "It's sciency enough that we can understand each other's subjects, you know, similar background and all that, but it’s different enough to make things interesting."
"She understands what you're working on?" Rachel asked, not entirely incredulously, but still, he sensed a slight whiff of a territorial-female vibe coming from her, especially since Rachel would most definitely understand his research. In fact, her background in maths would probably mean she could do it better than he could as a physicist, but there was no way he was about to admit that aloud.
"No," he replied. "But we haven't really discussed my PhD in any great detail. She knows I'm working on developing a method to get more accurate plots out of multiple micro-seismometer readings, but we've not discussed the ins and outs of my code or anything." Rachel started to fire something off about how annoying it is that most girls don't know how to code, but he forced his sentence through to its end and said, "But honestly, it's nice to be able to talk about anything but work with her. I find it so hard to switch off..."
"Yeah, I remember." she chuckled. "You’d get that far-away, glazed look in your eyes when you’d been coding, and you’d take forever to answer...! I'm glad she helps you switch off. It's important." She sighed. "Calum was never interested in what I was doing at all... I guess that's why I feel so strongly about it. I didn’t mean to start an inquisition on you about it."
"It’s not the Spanish one, so I was expecting it. And it is important, you’re right." he conceded as Rachel smiled prettily. As this wasn’t the first time she’d brought the conversation round from relationship difficulties to her and Calum, he got the feeling she wanted to talk about what had happened, so he probed gently. "How long where you two together?"
She took a sip of the wine almost as soon as the waitress had set the glass down on the table. Once their food orders had been taken, she began to tell him about her broken relationship. "We met way back when I was training to be a physio - that was before I decided that teaching maths would be much more 'me' than treating fat old men who snap their Achilles playing squash and pretending to be younger than they are..." Alex had to laugh at that. "Anyway, we were living together after a year, and engaged after another two, but then about six months after he'd asked me to marry him, I found out that the bastard had been cheating on me."
"That's awful," he said sympathetically, raising his glass to his lips and regarding her over the rim.
She gave a little snort. "He’d left the room and I'd borrowed his iPhone to look something up, and the internet and mail apps were next to each other. I just hit the wrong one, opened up mail by accident, and sitting there in his inbox was an email thread called 'RE: Hi you...'." She made a melodramatic face of disgust, and then carried on. "I knew who the other girl was as well - we had all been on the same physio course together. I saw messages from her like 'Rachel's so pretty, you'd never know she's missing half her leg' and stuff from him like 'Yeah, it's a shame. It's a real turn-off if I see her stump or touch it in bed. Not like you, hotstuff...'." She made a gagging noise and then added flippantly, "Why the fuck he asked me to marry him, I don't know."
"Maybe he just thought it was what was expected at that stage of your relationship?" Alex ventured, risking the wrathful intensity of those blue eyes.
"But if he didn't find me attractive - if he found me such a god-dammed turn off - why didn't he just bugger off a long time ago and save us all the effort and pain?"
"It's probably more than black and white," he said carefully, monitoring those eyes. "Don't get me wrong, the guy's an asshole of the highest degree for cheating on you, but he probably did care for you, and he'd have known that leaving you because of your disability would be really hurtful. So he took the easier option and was just a coward instead..." he shrugged. "I'm no psychoanalyst, but I do know guys..."
She smiled sadly.
Their food arrived and as Alex tucked into his Thai green curry, he asked, "So what are you up to now? You said you were living with your parents. Is that a temporary thing?" He hoped she wouldn't realise that it was his secret prayer that it would only be a temporary situation.
"I was teaching GCSE and A-Level maths up in Nottingham, but I haven't found a post down south just yet, so I'm teaching English as a foreign language at a summer school for a bit. It's not too bad I guess..."
"... but it's not maths..." he finished with a grin, shovelling the hot curry into his mouth with the fork.
"Right," she smiled.
Her steaming poached salmon was a delicate pink, and it almost matched the glow in her cheeks as she flashed her white teeth at him. She fell silent as she began to eat too. He took the opportunity while she was focussed on her food to let his eyes scan her face again. She was still beautiful underneath the thick foundation and heavy eye-makeup, he observed, trying not to choke on a surprisingly spicy piece of chicken.
She swallowed, looked up, and began to speak again. "Once I get a more permanent job, I'll be able to afford a place to rent, and I can get myself back on my feet. We'd been renting in Nottingham, and it was a bit above what we could really afford, so I had next to nothing saved when I came back down here. Are you still living with Will?" she asked.
He nodded, eating his food with the oblivious speed particularly common among young men. "Yeah, it's a money-saving thing - I mean, it makes sense if the two of us are both doing our PhDs here and we own the apartment outright - it'd be stupid for one of us to rent..."
"I can see that. Must make things awkward with girlfriends though..." she smiled, her eyes flashing.
Alex barked a laugh. " We’ve been living like monks until fairly recently, so it’s not really been much of a problem before now. Will's just started dating someone from his department though, a Romanian girl called Eva, who I have yet to meet, and I've not seen anybody since you."
She looked surprised and also flattered. "But that's like, four, five years," she spluttered. "Surely there must have been someone?"
He laughed at her confusion. "No," he said smiling amiably. "There wasn't anyone that I felt that way about, and I didn't feel like I needed a girlfriend, you know, just for the sake of having one, so I never made the effort."
"But the closeness," she started to say. "Didn't you miss having that?"
He stared thoughtfully into what was left of his curry for a moment. "Not really," he said. "I mean, when we drifted out of contact after The Laurels, I guess I just kept drifting."
"I'm glad you've got someone now," she smiled, almost sadly, but not quite. "We kind of touched on it earlier, but can I ask what she's like about your disability? I'm presuming she's AB..."
"Yeah, she's not disabled," he confirmed. She's perfect, he thought with a wry grin, picturing her as she had been that weekend. He rubbed his chin to disguise the nature of the smile, and caught the line of his scar beneath the pad of his fingertip. "She seems ok with it. I mean, I haven't really done Crip Mechanics 101 with her yet or anything."
"But…?" she probed, clearly sensing that that sentence was longer in his head.
He toyed with the idea of telling her. He knew it must only look like a tiny thing to other people, but it was such a big deal to him, and that contrast made him feel small and stupid. "Well, you probably remember how awful my spasticity used to be?" Rachel nodded. "It's nowhere near as bad as that these days, but it's still... well, I'm still kind of embarrassed about it."
"Why?" she demanded, waving her fork around. "Why should you apologise for your body?"
"Because I can't control it," he said immediately, his head snapping up, his black eyes defensively meeting hers. He sighed, shoulders slumping, eyes returning to the table. "Anyway, I'm worried that my embarrassment is going to make her awkward about it, which only makes me feel worse."
"You're still hung-up about it?" she asked, the intensity in her tone dropping. "That kind of embarrassment is a natural thing for someone at rehab, but this is six years on, Alex."
"Hey," he said, a clear warning in his voice. "I know we were close, but we've not been back in contact long enough for you to start making those kinds of comments again..."
"Sorry," she said sweetly. "Old habits die hard."
"It's ok," he smiled in forgiveness. "You and Will were the only ones who could call me out on all the kinds of crap I used to try and pull at The Laurels." Rachel had had free rein with him in rehab, but she'd lost that privilege when she'd dropped off the radar.
"Will was pretty good at that too, I seem to remember..."
"Still bloody is," Alex snorted, scraping up the last of the curry. "It's good though; he gets me doing my R.O.M. stuff when I don't want to..."
"You think you can see Sam doing that for you one day?" she asked warily, clearly testing the waters and how far she could push Alex for information. "When you're not sharing with Will any more?"
The thought of not having Will around sent a jolt of adrenaline blazing through his rib cage, but it subsided as quickly as it had come. He’d survived most of his undergrad alone, and that had been only a year after the accident. Before the events of the previous weekend, the thought of Sam doing his R.O.M. with him would have terrified him, but everything had changed, or should have done, that weekend. She had seen him now, practically naked in his wheelchair, and instead of running a mile, or coming up with a thousand excuses, she'd crossed the room and whispered in his ear that she wanted him. She wanted him. Of all the men on earth, she apparently wanted him. A smile dawned on his face without his really realising it. "I guess... maybe one day... not yet though, we're... we're going kind of slow on that front..." if not on every front, he added silently.
Rachel’s grin was a knowing one. "Well, get her to handle your chair first, and see how you both feel about that, and take it from there,” she advised, elegantly scraping the last of her salmon up.
"Been there, done that," he said with a quiet smile, taking a certain delight in being able to surprise her.
Her fork froze and her eyebrows soared high on her forehead. Her mouth puckered in an impressed gesture, and she said, "Already? Alex, if she's comfortable handling your equipment, she can take the rest. Trust me on that one. Calum wouldn't go within a six yard radius of my prosthetic if I'd taken it off, and he would never watch me remove it. I should have taken that as a sign early on..."
Her words were comforting to him, and he pushed the plate a little way away from him as he finished, sitting in his chair. "I'm sure it's all in my head," he said softly, and he began to breathe a little easier as they sat there talking in the quiet restaurant.
He couldn't help but feel strange though as they sat there in the half-empty restaurant. It was like they’d stepped out of time together, like she’d travelled forwards from the past to meet him, and when he went back outside and looked over her shoulder, he’d find only an empty table with an empty chair, and no plate and glass where she now sat. Despite the lively, borderline-heated debate about the Syria crisis, the animated discussion of a couple of articles they’d recently read on El Reg, and her vivacious confidence, he couldn’t help feeling that it was easier for her than for him to be that close again. But then again, she’d always taken everything in her stride; even losing her leg to cancer hadn’t taken much of the proverbial spring out of her proverbial step.
As Sam sat in her bland room in London after work, computer open at the desk in the window, typing out the last few boxes on the application form for the masters programme in Toronto, she felt the warm, sultry breeze of city air drifting in from the window. Her heart was pounding in her ears at the thought of spending so much time away from England, and she couldn't tell if it was terror or excitement, or a healthy mix of both. To her astonishment, her parents had been fully in favour of her going away for eight months or so, and had even agreed to help finance it, as long as she put in bursary and grant applications too. "It'll be a fantastic opportunity, Sam," her father had said, quoting his experiences of a year abroad in Heidelberg during his university days as evidence in favour of challenges oversees.
Finally, when she could no longer even see the contents of the boxes because she’d checked them so many times, she hit the 'submit' button with a quaking hand, and when it was done, she let her breath go in a rush. “I need a drink,” she said to the empty room.
Her go-to girl was not free though. 'Sorry hun, I'm stuck at home tonight with a massive project, but I'll be around on Friday though? xxx' was Bella’s reply.
'I'm back down to Cambridge on Friday evening,' she replied. 'No worries. We’ll catch up whenever. Take care. xxx'
Doyle had sent her a vague invitation a couple of days ago to go out drinks, and a potential reply had been buzzing around the back of her mind ever since, but she’d not messaged him back. She was torn about whether she should go, and she let her eyes wander over the mosaic of green, heart-shaped linden leaves visible from her window as she weighed up the two sides of her dilemma: while it felt kind of wrong to be going for drinks with someone she knew was into her, she also knew that she'd be spending an evening in really good company, with good chat and good laughs too – good ‘craic’ he’d have said, being Irish. Eventually she came down in favour of a good evening, and replied to his text, saying, 'Sorry for delay – been crazy busy all week. I'm free tonight if you're around? S.'
She didn’t have to wait long before her phone announced his reply. ‘I'm heading to a gallery opening tonight, but if you'd like to come, I can get you in?"
That was a surprise, but as she was attempting to forge a career in the arts and heritage sector, a gallery opening might just be ideal for making London connections. 'Sounds great. If you're sure it won't be any trouble to bring me... Where is it?'
'You can't possibly make more of a tit of yourself than any of the pretentious hipsters who’ll be there tonight,' he replied. 'It's near Oxford Circus – meet you outside the station at 7.30?'
'Sure. Dress code?'
'Smart I guess. Cocktail dresses for girls?'
'Got it. See you there.’
It was only as she put her phone down and allowed herself a little giggle, much like she’d imagine Cinderella had made when the Fairy Godmother said ‘you shall go to the ball’, that she realised she did not have a dress that was suitable. Where's a bloody fairy godmother when you need one? she thought with a mildly-panicked sigh. She snatched up her Nokia and typed furiously, ‘BELS! I need your help! Been invited to a gallery opening with Doyle and don’t have a dress!’
‘Come over to mine and borrow. Don’t panic. Xxx’
‘You’re my hero. Be right there… xxx’
She flew across London in record time, and darted up the stairs to Bella's tiny, tidy apartment, nearly falling through the door as her friend opened it up at the same moment Sam reached the top. "You sounded like a herd of galloping horses coming up that staircase," she chuckled as she stepped aside and let her in. "What time do you have to be there?"
"Seven thirty," she panted, trying to compose herself again.
Bells looked at the time on her phone. "Forty minutes. We'll find you a dress and get you there by then."
You shall go to the ball…
Sam smiled. Her friend looked stressed and tired so she said, "Thanks, listen, I don't want to keep you from your project. You could just point me at the dresses and leave me to it..."
"And have you come out in something as unsexy as my onesie? No way. I'm choosing." Sam's feeling of worry must have translated itself to her face, as Bella added with a mischievous grin, "You don't trust me, do you? When have I ever given you cause not to trust me?"
She smiled back. "Sartorially speaking, you do not want me to answer that one..."
After she'd vetoed the first few options for being too tight or too short, Sam was finally presented with a cobalt blue dress that was a little too big for Bella, but fitted Sam perfectly. She emerged from her friend's room and stepped into the living room where Bella was working at the table with her laptop open on the desk and floating like a technological Buddha on a sea of paper lotuses. She watched Bella's blue eyes widen as she exclaimed, "Yes! That's the one. I don’t care if you protest, you’re going to wear that one, and you're going to drive all those artsy angsty gallery boys wild tonight. And it’ll be all the sweeter because they can’t have you."
Sam barked a laugh and wondered what Alex would think of her in that dress.
With Bella's makeup darkening her eyelids, a delicate shade of borrowed rose on her lips, and a pair of Bella’s comfy black flats, Sam left the apartment and headed for the Tube feeling like she looked more grown-up than she was. The black coat she wore over the top was a bit too warm for the crowded Underground, but she felt she might look a stitch overdressed otherwise. Save the attention for the party, she thought.
Doyle was twenty minutes late to meet her. Grateful that she’d not chosen the killer –almost literally when she’d tried a few steps in them – heels that Bella had tried so hard to push on her, Sam waited, growing ever more frustrated with him. Her frustration flared to mild annoyance when he sauntered over in his smart, dark suit and embraced her like nothing was the matter.
"You did say seven thirty, didn’t you?" she asked sharply, her last remaining ounces of tact having been chipped away by the hoards of people bashing and bumping into her while she'd waited around like a spare part outside Oxford Circus.
"I'm sorry, Sam," he smiled, drawing her into a quick hug. "I got held up, and then I was on the Tube so I couldn't text you. Let's go - it isn't far from here."
They moved off and Sam’s nerves suddenly rose to fill the space where her annoyance had been. "Tell me a bit about the gallery," she demanded softly as she walked by his side, her hard soles clicking on the pavement. “I mean, what kind of event will it be?”
"Well, the gallery is owned by Rupert Finlater, the millionaire who made his fortune valuing paintings –" he broke off with a wry smile, and added, “Which you and I both know means he's spent his life telling stupid rich people they’d parted with millions of pounds for a fake Matisse or something…”
She grinned, knowing it was probably true. "So how did you get an invite?"
"My dad did some legal work for him about six months ago," he explained, gesturing vaguely with his big hand. She saw it had a row of callouses along the top of the palm like Alex’s did, and the sight of them made her insides tingle. Doyle’s, she knew, came from rowing up and down the river with the university crew every morning for years, while Alex's were the result of using his chair without gloves.
Forcing her mind back to the present, before she fell over her own feet thinking about Alex, she replied, "I see."
"Should be a pretty good show," he smiled. "This guy is into really cutting edge art, so there’ll be some brain-teasers there…”
“Yeah, and a load of bullshit too, I bet,” she mumbled to herself as Doyle held the door open for her.
The faint buzz of background ‘jazz’ music filtered down the staircase, accompanied by the soft babble of voices, and she paused a moment at the bottom of the deserted stairwell to shrug off her coat. Doyle, sensing that she had stopped, halted a few steps above her and turned. His eyes widened and he gave a low, yet still somehow not entirely disrespectful, whistle. “Wow, Sam,” he breathed, his sweeping gaze taking in her whole body in the silky, cobalt blue, figure-hugging dress.
Sam couldn’t help but feel pleased, even though that feeling was tinged with guilt. She knew she should not really be dressing up for anyone other than herself and Alex, but this was chaste, on her part at least, and it was nice to be appreciated by others. She’d just have to watch herself that night and make sure she didn’t do anything stupid to give him the wrong idea.
As they entered the main gallery, with its pale, echoing, hardwood floor and whitewashed walls, Sam began to get a little nervous again. The combination of not knowing anyone, and the pressure to make a good impression suddenly seemed to weigh down on her and fill her chest with fear like a sudden snowstorm. Her hand tugged nervously at the perfectly decent hemline of her dress and she felt the additional prickle of self-consciousness creeping into her cocktail of emotions.
Her peripheral vision had swept over a knot of young men in a corner, and her subconscious had clearly taken note, and, with her being bright, beacon-blue, they had seen her immediately. Inhaling deeply, she straightened her dress and saved herself just in time from tripping over her own feet. Doyle sauntered in beside her as if it were his gallery, and instantly made his way over to the group of guys, who all looked about his age and who were similarly clad in snappy grey suits. He had left Sam behind like a piece of litter ditched at the doorway, and somehow she didn’t fancy following after him.
“That’s ok,” she murmured to herself as a tray of smoked salmon blinis wafted past, swiftly followed by a second tray full of fizzing champagne flutes. She reached for a glass before they all disappeared, and drank deeply from it. Only when she thought she was more likely to choke on the bubbles than relax from the alcohol content did she slow herself down.
A voice beside her said, “Hey, it’s not that bad already is it?”
The husky, gravelly, voice belonged to a young man, maybe a few years older than her, with the kind of floppy curtains, which probably went out some time in the mid-nineties, flopping into his murky green eyes. He held out his hand to her with an attractive smile and said, “I’m Felix.”
Thinking she ought to be a little more sophisticated than the seven year old tomboy that her nickname implied, she adopted the kind of sultry voice she wished she had, took his hand and said, “I’m Samantha.” She regretted it instantly. She had adopted a fake persona in a heartbeat, and she now would now have to keep it up for the rest of the evening. Far too much effort. Taking a swift change of tack, she added, “But most people call me Sam.”
“Alright, Sam,” he said, “Nice to meet you.” He tipped his glass towards hers and said, “The evening’s only just got going, and you’re already downing the drinks?”
She smiled. Nodding at the small knot of guys on the other side of the room, all of whom were braying like a small herd of donkeys, she quipped, “My friend ditched me on arrival for some cooler acquaintances…”
He grimaced comically, understandingly, as though he had been an outcast nerd at school who’d only recently grown into his good looks, and said, “I beg to differ. I’d say you ditched him for a cooler acquaintance. Shall we wander round the gallery and snicker at the crap that my father seems to think is art?”
“Yup.” He looked almost embarrassed and turned away. “Come on, what do you say? How can you resist the charms of high art?”
She smiled and jabbed her chin at the ceiling, where a dark green chair was pinned upside down in a corner, and said, “Putting it on the ceiling, doesn’t make it high art…”
“Try telling that to the artist… or my father...” he said, quietly though, in case the monstrosity’s creator or purchaser were nearby. Felix sipped his champagne and walked slowly around the room. “Mmm, what do you make of this?” he asked with a glint in his eye as he neared a plastic bag that inflated itself with the rhythm of a heartbeat. A sign beside it said, “The Breathing Lungs of Consumerism.”
“Pretentious much?” she half snorted.
He returned the gesture and said, “Yeah.” After another few seconds, he asked, “So, what do you do Sam? You work in London?”
“Internship,” she said. “In the exhibitions department at the V&A.”
“Nice,” he said. “Though when you’re curating your own exhibitions, I hope you’ll have better taste than my father did – half of the stuff for this belongs on the tip…” She smiled as he continued to talk. “As for me, I work for my father, which is not very imaginative.” He turned away and continued his slow walk around the gallery, with Sam at his side.
Sam looked into her glass and watched the bubbles dancing on the surface of the wine. Something was missing. She had the dress, the shoes, the location, the handsome men… but not Alex. A smile crept across her lips as she recalled how forward she’d been with him last time. That got her thinking about what he’d done to her, after he’d got over her appearance like the ghost of yuletide torment in his bathroom doorway. The way he’d softened, relaxed, let go, as she’d landed in his lap…
As she made her way around the gallery, talking with Felix, she was only just able to keep Alex off of her mind. After a further couple of hours of making fun of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ style of artwork that lined the walls of the contemporary gallery space, she had left Felix and moved off to speak with a plethora of curators, collecting almost a complete deck of business cards, and just as she said goodbye to the director of Tate Britain, Doyle reappeared at her elbow.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he breathed in her ear, making her leap in shock, her fifth glass of champagne slopping against the sides of the flute and onto her fingers a little. It fizzed on her ring and she looked at the thin silver band. Its shape brought Alex’s rims to mind. She rolled her eyes. Oh my God, does everything have to make me think of him? she groaned silently.
Doyle’s hot breath on her neck brought her right back to the moment. “Hello,” she said testily, stepping slightly to the side and out of his confident aura.
“Having a good time I see,” he said, looking at the retreating backs of the curators. “Lots of schmoozing gone on tonight then? Aren’t you glad I brought you?”
Fighting the urge to make a remark about being left at the door, she said, “Yeah, I’ve met some really interesting people,” she smiled. “And Neil MacGregor, as in the director of the British Museum gave me his personal email address and said that when I’m done with my internship, I should get in touch.” She waved her hands enthusiastically and added, “But of course, then I told him about Canada, and –”
“Canada?” Doyle asked, nearly choking on the remnants of his wine. “What about Canada? You’re going to Canada?”
She swallowed a satisfied laugh. “Well, I… there’s a masters programme in Toronto… I’ve got a pretty good chance of getting on it – I’ve got a Skype interview here in London in a few days – and… well… it could really open some doors for me, academically speaking. I mean, it’d set me up perfectly for a PhD or something…”
“What’s wrong with doing a masters at Cambridge? The best university in the world isn’t good enough for you?”
Alcohol amplified his voice, and suddenly she didn’t feel like being there. The room was hot, stuffy, smelled of cheesy canapés and now the floor was sticky with wine, and she wanted to go home. “Of course it is,” she said, trying to pacify him a little. “I just think this will be a wonderful opportunity to see a bit more of the world – and it isn’t every day you get the chance to go half way round the world to study with amazing professors – even if they aren’t quite the finest in the world…” she smiled as she said it, and his expression softened.
“I’m just surprised, that’s all,” he said. “Sounds awesome.”
She sighed and then yawned.
“Princess Sammy getting tired?” he joked, pouting playfully, “Is it past her bedtime?”
“I turn back into pumpkin at midnight. Better get me home.”
“I thought that was the coach,” he grinned, leaning right in to whisper in her ear, “What happens if I’m riding the coach at 11:59? What happens at midnight?”
Her eyes widened and her wrist twitched. She was not going to make a spectacle of herself by throwing her wine at him here. “Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m going now.”
“Come on sweetie,” he hissed, following after her as she made her way through the door, her heels clicking like a tap-dancer’s on the hardwood floor of the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, he finally caught up with her, and touched her lightly on the arm. “Hey, I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “It was only a joke. It was in poor taste, I know. I’m sorry, I’ve had too much to drink. Let me call you a cab home in penance?” And before she’d had time to react, he stepped outside the gallery doors onto the street and hailed a passing black cab.
That offer was so tempting when she thought about taking the Tube, with the champagne fizzing around her brain cells, but something knotted in her stomach when she thought about a cab ride with Doyle. As if he read her mind, he said to the driver who had reacted to his raised arm, “Take this young lady to Princes Gardens, off Exhibition Road.” And he handed Sam a twenty pound note for the fare, turning to her with a comically stern expression and adding, “Run straight home, don’t talk to strangers, and text me when you get there…”
“That’s Red Riding Hood, not Cinderella,” she said, taking the note from him with a smile. “And thank you.” He grinned. “And thank you for inviting me out tonight. I had a really good time, and I met some really interesting people.”
“And a load of boring old farts too, by the look of your face at a couple of points. Though I did see you cosying up to the son of the owner…”
She stepped into the taxi, and said with a smile sweet enough to rot teeth, “Hardly, Doyle. He was nice to me, is all.” And she closed the door. As the taxi pulled away, she thought, and you, by contrast, ditched me at the door. Alex would never have done that. She rustled around in the pockets of her coat for a panicked few minutes before realising that she’d left her phone at home before bolting to Bella’s. She suddenly felt adrift in the big city. Ordinarily she would have whipped it out and sent him a message about how stuffy some of the people had been, and how much more fun an evening with him would have been, and … more obsessing… she rolled her dark eyes and sighed again.
Thanking the taxi driver, she entered the university halls and, as quickly as she could in Bella's slippery-soled heels, made her way up the stairs to her room. Her phone was lighting up a little corner of the room when she pushed the door open, and she ran to it, but as she picked it up, it stopped ringing. Her eyes widened as she saw just how many missed calls she had. And they were all from Alex. There was an answerphone message too. Dialling and holding it to her ear, she listened to his voice and frowned. He sounded strange, his words a little slurred and vague as he spoke.
“Sam, listen, I just called you… well, I called you like a bunch of times, but… I guess you’re not there. I just wanted to hear your voice, you know? I… had a… well, it wasn’t a bad day, it was just… difficult… stirred up some stuff… and I just wanted to hear your voice. I already said that… listen I’m sorry. Just forget I called. Hope you’re having fun.”
Her heart was hammering. Was he drunk? She hit redial immediately, but he didn’t answer. She tried hard not to sound too ‘mother hen’ as she typed him a message once she’d got his answerphone three times in a row. ‘Hey, I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier. I just got back from a gallery opening I was invited to last minute. Hope you’re ok – sounded like you had a rough day. I’ll leave my phone on if you still want to hear my voice. Ring me at any time. Talk soon? Xxx’
As she closed her eyes and waited for sleep, Bella’s dress hung on the back of her door and its dark shape suddenly seemed to be taunting her. You were out having fun while Alex was miserable and needed you, it seemed to say.
Her heart went out to him and her mind raced through a million possibilities. What had gone wrong? Why was he hurting? Would she have been able to do anything about it even if she had known? That tirade of questions led on to another, more fundamentally disturbing one: why wouldn’t he open up to her about stuff? She nearly exploded mentally as her reel of questions flickered across her sleepy brain in fits and starts like an old film tape. With the possibility of Canada – a significant obstacle in itself – looming up ahead, imagining rifts and holes in a relationship that had only just got going was the last thing she needed. On the edge of sleep, she smiled, deliberately bringing to mind lying next to Alex, spent, exhausted, grinning, and ever so slightly sweaty.
The hangover landed on Alex next morning like a landslide after a monsoon. The moment he opened his eyes and rolled over, he remembered just how much whisky he’d had the night before, and the nasty taste in his mouth only compounded that. A nasty smell reached his nostrils too, and as he sat up, he knew it was also connected to the whisky. “Oh fuck,” he cursed as he put his hand down on the sheets. They were wet. He screwed his eyes shut as he vaguely remembered rolling drunkenly to bed without cathing. He would be lucky if he didn’t have an infection brewing now, as well as a migraine. It felt like a small troll was attempting to hammer its way out of his frontal lobe, using only its fists.
He sighed and attempted to heave his body into action. He knew the drill; it wasn’t the first time it had happened after all. The room spun as he moved, but he hauled his damp arse into his chair and began to sort the sheets.
Eventually, with everything cleaned up, bed linen in the wash and fresh sheets on, the damage had been controlled and all before Will was even awake. All he needed now was a nice fry-up and the hangover would be semi-slain at least. As the bacon hit the frying pan and began to sizzle, he suddenly remembered calling Sam. Multiple times. “Oh fuck,” he said again, rolling like a freight train across the room and snatching up his phone from where he’d left it the previous night. Her message was proof that he had called her, and it made him gasp with disgust. “I did. I fucking called her. And now she thinks I’m a fucking nut-job.”
“What’s the matter?” Will’s voice carried across the room and made him jump.
“I… you got in late last night… I didn’t hear you…” he said evasively.
“Yeah, you were out of it when I got home.” He ran a hand through his bed-scruffy hair and grinned. “Eva and I were up pretty late.”
“Ok, gross,” Alex said, feeling extra queasy. “My stomach isn’t up to that kind of imagery…”
“What?” Will’s face paled. “You ok? You’re not coming down with something are you? Infection?”
He hitched a lopsided grin and said, “The only thing I’m coming down with, I hope, is a hangover. I got a little heavy with the whisky after seeing Rachel. It kind of stirred up a shitstorm of memories…”
“But you said it went great when you got home yesterday… I don’t understand.” He rested his elegant fingers together calmly.
He sighed, hands floating gently down to his rims and tipping him back into a wheelie. He very rapidly decided that making the world rock and sway like a pirate ship ride was a very bad idea, and lowered his casters to the floor and said, “It was nice.” He puffed the air from his lungs and added, “Maybe a bit too nice.”
Will looked taken aback. “Too nice?”
“It made me question a lot of stuff. Like whether I’m really ready for a relationship with someone who isn’t disabled… and that scares me, because I love Sam. I really do, I –” he broke off suddenly and gave another smile. “That’s the first time I’ve said it out loud.”
Will looked stern, but secretly pleased. “If you love the girl, why all the alcohol? You didn’t do anything with Rachel, did you?”
“God no,” he said. “I’m just torn, Will. She…” he sighed again, “She just represents a kind of safety blanket, but Sam… she’s scary. I mean, nerves jangling, skin tingling –” he brought his hands to his injury line, “Everything above here, anyway… What?” Will was laughing, really laughing, and it made him uncomfortable; it was directed entirely at him.
“You’re in love, Alex,” he chortled. “It’s nothing to be scared of…”
“Easy for you to say,” he mumbled. “I’m just not sure I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Going to her parents’ house next weekend. Remember? I told you about it on Monday after Sam and I had Facetimed. Anyway, it just feels rather… sudden… rather serious…”
“You up to it?”
“Should be ok…” he said. But suddenly his stomach turned over and the remnants of the whisky seemed to boil up in the pit of his belly. Bile rose in his throat and he made a dive for the bathroom, pushing roughly past Will as he went.
Before the door closed behind him, he heard Will say, “You know, opening up to people is never easy, no matter what you’ve been through. Just give it time, and relax. Once you’ve finished throwing up, that is…” Alex just heard him laugh above the splattering sound, and he couldn’t tell any longer if the acid in his stomach was hangover or adrenaline. Either way, he didn’t like it.
To be continued...