She was sitting at a bench on the wide pavement outside The Eagle, nursing a St Clements and watching the late commuters straggle out of the tube station when he arrived. A large folder was on the seat beside her. Something had shifted inside her last night and things had become clearer, one of the clearest was that she wanted to see Nick again. She’d called this morning and arranged to meet.“I haven’t been exactly… truthful with you,” were the first words she spoke. “I know I’ve been strange, behaving oddly, but there is a reason why.” Her staccato words regulated into andantino then andante as she showed Nick her birth certificates, baby picture and Kate’s photo. Feeling calmer by the minute, helped by the pressure of his arm against hers, she told him things she didn’t even know she’d been thinking until the words were said.
He let her finish speaking. “Hey.” His fingers caught a curl beside her ear and twisted it into a ringlet. “That’s the first time you’ve said all of that aloud, isn’t it?”
She looked at Nick and wanted to fall into his eyes.
“I think what you’re doing is very brave.”
That was the last thing she felt. He thinks he knows me, but he doesn’t have a clue.
“You’ve got the courage to ask difficult questions that others have hidden or ignored since you were born. You’re facing a brick wall of things you’re afraid of. Other people would back off or try to find a way around it, but you’re climbing it all on your own even though you know the answers will be hard to hear.”
Rose could hear the ‘but’ coming a long way off.
“But before you ask the questions you know will be hurtful, you need to think about what sort of answer you’re expecting and if it is worth the pain.”
He was beginning to sound like Mrs Greenaway. “I have thought about it, Nick. I’m not stupid.”
“Be honest, at least with yourself if not with me.”
Her words of retort came out as a yawn. “Oh, I’m so tired.” And suddenly, she was. Exhausted. She stifled a second instinctive grab by her brain for oxygen. “But that’s good, at least I’ll sleep tonight. I’ve got to be so physically exhausted that my mind stops spinning.” A third yawn. “At least I won’t have to go running tonight to tire myself out.” The last was a mutter, a thought verbalised.
He sat up straighter. “I never put you down as a runner. How many miles do you do a week?”
Miles a week? What? And then Rose remembered the orange Lycra t-shirt. “Erm, I’m not really into record keeping. But I run a fair distance once a week.”
“Oh,” there was a slight shrug to his shoulders as he spoke, “you’re a jogger.” The tone of his voice said that jogging was something only unfit people did. “You do stretch properly first, don’t you? It’s particularly important to stretch the hamstrings. This is the best prep.” And he was standing, squatting down and demonstrating the exercise. “Push down and hold, here, count to ten, then the other leg. Whatever you do, don’t jig up and down. That stresses the muscle too much.”
Rose nodded, never having stretched before exercise in her life but appreciating the way his denim jeans tightened around his ass. Perhaps she should stretch next time she went out. The riverside path was becoming quite familiar now. Last night she’d stood for a while beside the white brick wall outside River Reach and watched the Thames, its water churning and spitting as upstream met downstream at the turn of the tide. Then she’d jogged 400 yards back around the corner to where she’d parked her car.
“It must be great, living by the riv…” she stopped, horrified at her gaff, “… I mean, it’s great, jogging by the river, at night.” Now she was babbling and he was staring. “There’s no-one about, no traffic. It gives me time to think.”
He stared at her, like he was seeing her for the first time. “You jog at night? Rose, that is a bad idea. A really bad idea. You don’t know who else is out there…”
No-one, thought Rose, I never see anyone.
“… burglars, muggers…”
Next he’ll be saying ‘druggies.’
“… druggies.” He leant towards her, concerned. “Rose, when you can’t sleep I want you to promise me you’ll drink peppermint tea. If that doesn’t work, ring me and I’ll talk so long you’ll fall asleep through boredom.”
Rose liked his concern, the way his eyes smiled when he looked at her, but she didn’t like being told what to do. On the other hand, she doubted he would ever bore her.
“Okay?” His eyes were not smiling now.
“Okay.” He sat down again, their legs touching from hip to knee.
“So, let’s examine the facts.”
Great, facts. Rose was comfortable with facts.
“We’ll clarify your objectives and prioritise them. Is that okay?” He took her pen and pad and wrote ‘Action Plan’ at the top of a blank page.
Rose tried to ignore the combined heat generated by their legs which was flooding up her body. “I want to know about my real family. I’ve always felt out of step with the Haldanes, always liked different things, had different ambitions. I want to know why my birth parents didn’t keep me. I realise they didn’t give me away because of something I did, I was too small, but were they in trouble, or just very young? I know bits about Kate but zero about my father. Who is he, where was he when Kate was pregnant. Did he know? Why didn’t he marry her or at least help her. Where is he now?”
It was like a strategy meeting at work and the familiarity calmed Rose. Nick identified the tools and skills she had, time required, possible sources of help and information. Thirty minutes later he’d written a one page plan, the action points were initialled either R or N. Rose looked at the N’s and opened her mouth to say she could do it all. Then she shut it again.
“Is this what you did when you decided to do the management buyout at Biocare?” asked Rose, nodding at the action plan.
“Yes, it is actually.” As he bent forward to add a note to point 11, his ear dipped towards her, just within reach. It was more a cockle than a mussel, definitely not a limpet. If she stretched forward just a little she might be able to lick it…
Nick sat up straight and Rose drew back just in time. “I use this approach with any problem I face.” His expression darkened for an instance but the moment passed so quickly that Rose fancied later that she’d imagined it.
“Well, thanks for helping. You’ve made things a lot clearer.”
“You’re welcome.” He leant down to straighten the papers.
It was now or never. Rose leant towards him and kissed his left earlobe.
She kissed each corner of his mouth and then his lips. And just as she was losing herself in their soft warmth, just as she tasted beer on the tip of his tongue, he took her gently by the shoulders and pushed her away.
“Time for me to go. I’ve got an 8am meeting with the bank tomorrow and I have a presentation to prepare.” He stood up and was gone.
Rose sat on the bench and felt suddenly alone, sitting amidst the crowd of summer evening drinkers.
I thought he wanted it too, I thought he liked me.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #47: when every story in the morning’s paper reminds her of Nick when all she wants to do is forget him…
This is the 46th instalment of ‘Ignoring Gravity’ about identity detective Rose Haldane. To start reading from the beginning, please click on the category ‘My Novel: Ignoring Gravity’ in the right hand menu.