There is nothing as unsettling as the hospital waiting room. The banks of plastic chairs with their picked and pinched vinyl covers, the quiet hum of the vending machine, the collective intake of breath when the intensive-care consultant comes in with news, more often than not directed elsewhere—it’s as if every aspect of it is designed to keep you on edge. And that’s before you consider why you are there in the first place.
Maggie always said patience was my virtue, as if good qualities were something to be divvied out in a marriage, along with the weekly chores. I can see her now, waiting for a text or an email or a guest, one knee jiggling up and down on the sofa, the other stilled under my palm as I try to calm her down. So much energy compressed into such a small person. I often wondered how she didn’t exhaust herself entirely, worrying about everyone and everything. I never wanted to change her; I just wanted to make sure that all that nervous energy didn’t get her tied up in knots so tight that even I couldn’t unpick them. I had forty years of success in that regard, and now here we are. It’s never too late for things to change.
Above my head, the clock releases an extra-heavy tick as it announces the hour. Being kept waiting this long cannot be a good sign. Maggie would know. Four decades as a nurse and she would surely have a good handle on her own diagnosis. That and the sheer volume of hospital dramas she consumes. “Awful tachycardia,” she would tell me with great confidence as we sat side by side on the settee on a Saturday evening in front of the latest episode, reaching across for the remote and amending the volume to compete with the sound of her own commentary. “Shame, though, such a young man to be found that ill . . . It does always seem to affect those city-slicker types, doesn’t it? Awful stress they put up with every day . . .”
“Professor Hobbs?” A doctor is standing in front of me with his hand extended.
“Yes, yes, that’s me,” I say, beginning to rise from my seat. There is something sharply efficient about this doctor that radiates from the slick parting in his hair all the way down to the shine on his shoes. Even his name badge is pinned perfectly parallel to the seam at the bottom of his shirt pocket. I suddenly feel very aware of my own appearance and redundantly run a hand through my hair.
“I’m Dr. Singh, the consultant in charge of your wife’s care. Could you come with me, please?”
I follow him back through the double doors, and for one hopeful moment, I imagine I am being taken to Maggie. Instead, I am ushered into a side room opposite the lobotomy bays and feel the final dregs of my wishful thinking sink away. The doctor takes a seat at the computer and gestures me toward the other chair as he starts the machine and shuffles through a wedge of papers on the corner of the desk. A freestanding fan behind him tickles at the edges of the loose documents.
“Sorry. Bit hot today, eh? No idea when this will break.”
I feel the doctor’s understatement in the sweat that is beginning to pool under my arms. I don’t have the strength to make even a halfhearted remark about the weather and look down at my feet instead.
His computer burbles to life, covering up my awkwardness. After a minute or so, he exhales. “Professor Hobbs, I will cut straight to it. The prognosis is not good. When your wife arrived here last night, her central nervous system was shutting down. Fortunately, the paramedics managed to secure her airway, which was a feat, given how long she might have been unconscious by the time she was found. However, it is still too early to say what the effects of the oxygen deprivation will be. For now, she is in an induced coma. Once we have a clearer idea of the extent of the damage we can look at all our options, with your input, of course . . .”
This is my cue to speak. I have missed enough of those this past year, but I still know by rote the signs that come with it—the querying eyebrow, the tilted head, the impatient throat-clearing. The doctor settles for the latter.
“Ah, Professor Hobbs, I can appreciate how difficult this is for you, but please rest assured that we are doing all we possibly can for your wife. In the meantime, there are resources at your disposal. Our family-support team has—”
“I don’t need family support,” I cut in, my voice coming out hoarser than I remember, quieter too.
“Well, yes, Professor, I agree that it is not for everyone. I see from your records that you have had a referral before? To the support team here? Not followed up on . . .”
He looks up from his screen, and I reach for my glasses. I take one of my loose shirttails and begin to rub at the smears across the lenses, although I am not sure that I am improving the situation. “An avoidance tactic,” as Maggie always put it. She was right about that.
“Look, it is not for me to say what you should do. I can’t force you to see them. Just, well, bear it in mind, Professor? They are here for you and available twenty-four/seven. We see situations like this more often than you would think, and they are specially trained . . . The important thing is that you know you are not alone here.”
The irony. That is exactly it. I am alone. More alone than ever before. More alone even than before Maggie, because how can you truly know what it is like to be alone until you have felt complete?
“As I say, there is little we can do at this stage beyond observe Mrs. Hobbs’s progress, so we would advise you to return home at some point for some sleep, some food. First, though, if you would like to see her, we can bring you to your wife now.”
“Yes,” I murmur. “Yes, yes, I need to see her.”
“Professor, I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate this, but we do so to all relatives: your wife is in a very delicate state. Please do not be alarmed at how she looks, and if you have any concerns at all, please don’t hesitate to let myself or one of the nurses know. We have kept her in a private room for the time being, but there are a lot of staff around, should there be any problems.”
The doctor begins to stand, and I follow suit, knowing all too well that it takes a little longer these days but not wanting to draw his attention to my sixty-seven years any more than is strictly necessary. Do they give up earlier if they feel you are too old? If you don’t have enough grieving children at your side? For Maggie’s sake, I hope not.
I accompany the doctor out, filing past the queues of walking wounded, down a corridor of discarded wheelchairs and hurrying, harried staff navigating the endless complexities of eye contact with relatives. I wonder which other families are greeting their worst nightmares today. Soon, the curtained bays peter out and the doctor swipes us through to intensive care. Beyond, there is a series of single doors, each one with a metal handle to depress.
Maggie is behind one of them. I can tell by the way the doctor slows, reaches up to check he has his pager, looks left and right. I want to say “No,” pinning his arms to his sides and holding him stock-still. But what difference would that make in the long run? I cannot avoid facing up to what I have done forever. I try to tuck my shirt in as best I can and then shove my hands deep into my pockets to stop them from shaking.
There is a quiet click as he pushes the door open with both hands. He goes through, holding it ajar for me, only my shoulders are broader than he has calculated and there is an awkward moment when I have to shunt sideways to follow him, bending my head as I do so but still managing to knock it against the top of the door frame. I have never quite got the hang of being the tallest person in any given room.
At first, in the dim lighting of the room, it is difficult to make Maggie out. The bed is elevated and surrounded by an arsenal of machinery clunking away. It is hard to believe her life now relies on a machine not altogether dissimilar from the dehumidifier I would heave down from the attic on Maggie’s instruction for its annual winter stint in the cellar. I move closer, and as my eyes adjust to the half-light, I feel a breath catch in my throat. It exhales as a low moan that clearly concerns the doctor.
“Professor, I’m so very sorry—”
“May I touch her?” I ask, brushing over his apology and inching closer to her side.
“Yes, that should be fine. One of the nurses will be in shortly to explain more about the routines they have in place. They will be well placed to discuss Mrs. Hobbs’s day-to-day care. Here, let me give you some time alone together.”
For a second, it is as if we are newlyweds again, the B and B owners beating a hasty retreat in case we are about to jump each other before the door has even swung shut. I would give anything to be back there now—Maggie wild and impulsive, me straitlaced, awkward, yet somehow always enough for her.
She seems smaller here, propped up against those awful hospital-issue pillows. Her hands rest on the sheet, as dainty as ever, the cannula sitting flush against the prominent veins and her papery skin. There is no chair by the bed. Clearly I am not expected to stay. How can I leave her here? She would be so frightened, were she awake. Frightened by the situation, certainly, but more by having no one to speak to, no one with whom to share her observations and every other waking thought. I know I have let Maggie down. I know she has needed so much more than a silent sounding board over the last few months.
When I touch her now, slowly, as if trying not to frighten a skittish neighborhood cat, her hand feels warm. It is so horribly unnatural. Even on the warmest summer evenings, I could always rely on Maggie to place her cool hands on my forehead after the cycle home. I have spent a lifetime being called upon to act as a human glove and draw some circulation back into her palms. Now this? We needed each other. But more than that, we chose each other, we wanted each other—you will never know just how great that feels until it is taken from you.
Behind me, there is a shuffling. I turn gently, without breaking contact with Maggie. A nurse has arrived, the blue plastic covers over her shoes rustling on the linoleum as she takes readings from the screens at the back of the room. I have no idea how long she has been there, but she notices when I look round, and I sense she may have been sent to keep an eye on me.
“I can bring you a chair, if you’d like?” she asks, her Yorkshire accent warm and reassuring. “It can’t be good for you, all that standing.” She is clearly young. She can’t be more than, what, twenty-five? She has the sort of easy charm that Maggie always had, a way of lighting and lightening up a room all at once. It sends me right back to forty years ago, the drizzle and the streetlamps and a drunken rendition of “Good King Wenceslas” providing the soundtrack to our first encounter.
“Shall I?” she prompts, interrupting my trip down memory lane. “Really, it’s no trouble, I promise.”
“Thank you. I’d be very grateful.”
For the best part of twenty-four hours, I have kept it together, but it is at this very act of human kindness that I feel I am ripe to come undone. The nurse returns shortly and even goes to the trouble of folding the seat out for me. I suddenly feel like the guest of honor at the most unpalatable picnic of my life.
“What’s your name?” I ask, not bothering to try to decipher her name tag in the dimness or run the risk of scrutinizing another woman’s chest at my wife’s bedside.
“Daisy,” she says. “None too dainty like one, though, I’ll admit.”
I try to smile. The whole bottom half of my face feels as if it is cracking with the effort.
“I am sorry, really very sorry to see this,” Daisy says, noticing as the corners of my mouth begin to drop. For a minute, maybe more, we both watch Maggie, her chest rising and falling with regimented efficiency, her lips slightly parted as if in a permanent state of surrender. Everything about this is not her. The discipline, the hush, the fuss of nurses providing the sort of kindness Maggie spent a lifetime expending and eventually being punished for.
“You can speak to her, you know,” Daisy says. “It’s so quiet here, often people feel scared to speak aloud. But you have to push through that. Let your wife hear your voice.”
I gulp. I wonder what Daisy would say if she knew. She seems so much wiser than her years, and I’m sure she has seen more than her fair share of suffering in this line of work. Even so, could she understand?
I think back to the day my voice first failed me. I was so close to confessing what I had done. I’d seen the consequences laid out before me, and the guilt was so pure, so overwhelming, that I knew I had to tell Maggie. The words were on the tip of my tongue, or at least I thought they were. I had braced myself as I tiptoed up the stairs to our bedroom.
Then I rounded the corner and I saw her in the half-light, struggling to sit up to reach a glass of water on the bedside table, a shadow of who she used to be, and I knew I couldn’t risk hurting her any more than she already had been. She was barely hanging on; I couldn’t bring her more bad news. I couldn’t tell her what I had to, not when it meant she would leave me. Every day when I couldn’t speak, in the silence, I lived with that same guilt, the same burning shame. I was suffocating myself, but somehow anything was better than the thought of telling Maggie what I had done and losing her forever.
Daisy clears her throat lightly to bring me back in the room. “I’m no doctor, don’t get me wrong, but I can say what I have seen, and sometimes it is a familiar voice that will do it, more than these tubes ever will. The patient hears you. It reminds them of all the good things they have to wake up for. Spurs on the recovery, you know?”
I don’t know, but I nod regardless. I can see how much she cares about Maggie, even if she is just one of an extensive list of patients. Daisy has large fingers, long and thick, but they move so tenderly as she works to straighten the fabric at Maggie’s neck where it has bunched up under the tubes. It’s the sort of gesture I know Maggie would appreciate.
“You could tell her your news,” Daisy prompts. “You’ve probably got plenty to say anyway, after the day you’ve had. Or maybe there’s something that’s been on your mind that you want to share?”
“Well, I’ve certainly got that.” My attempt to sound lighthearted comes out as it really is—sheepish and forced.
“Pardon? I didn’t catch that. You’re muttering,” Daisy says, taking one final reading from the monitor next to Maggie and flipping her pad shut.
“Sorry—yes, I do have something I need to tell her. Something important. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her before.”
The understatement alone is enough to crush me. I press my fist hard against my lips and force myself to look at Maggie square on. How did I never realize just how small and fragile she has become? She has always been tiny—a good foot shorter than me. The first winter we lived together, I couldn’t wrap my head around the sheer volume of jumpers she needed to wear on her minuscule frame just to function around the rental flat. The dubious central heating didn’t help matters, Maggie hopping from one foot to the other like an aerobics instructor while I bashed at the buttons in the boiler cupboard to no avail. I learned early on that she brought her own warmth wherever she went.
“Now isn’t the time to be hard on yourself. Ease Maggie in. Don’t blurt it all out, mind—you don’t want to scare her away. Definitely not at first. Try to keep it positive. Remind her she’s loved. Tell her about all those times you showed her that.”
My face must read wild-eyed panic, as Daisy lays a hand on my shoulder, a subtle pressure that flattens the crumples in the cotton of my shirt.
“Don’t worry about it too much. Just talk to her. Don’t let this time get away.”
I don’t stay long that first day. The moment Daisy is gone, I feel my reserve creep back, despite my best intentions. It has only ever been Maggie who has had some way of cracking through it: my studious awkwardness, the well-meaning remark delivered always that bit too late, my inability to “just gel” with new people. In all our years together, Maggie has never felt as much of a stranger to me as she does here, a little, lined face among the network of taut tubing, reduced to a series of regular beeps and timetabled measurements.
There is so much I have to say that I have no idea where to begin. I can’t start with the reason why I stopped speaking. Not when Daisy has told me to go easy, to coax Maggie back to me. Talking has never been my strong point. “Not a man of many words,” my sixth-form tutor wrote on my university application by way of a character reference. My own mother used to describe me as a “quiet sort” to friends and relatives; even the traveling podiatrist got a version of that when she came to visit, every fourth Saturday, foot file in hand. It dawns on me now that I am about as much use here as an umbrella in a hurricane. I’m not sure I can do this after all.
I wait for the little bus that comes direct to the hospital. Pity on wheels. No one on board makes eye contact; it would tip us over the edge—the sufferers and the ones watching the suffering unfold in all its grotesque, undignified detail. What about those who inflicted the suffering in the first place? I doubt I would be welcome. I find a window seat and place my bag next to me.
At the traffic lights, a couple idling on the pavement nearly miss the green man as they cradle each other’s waist, their eyes intently focused on each other as they delve deeper into their conversation; behind me, a family with two children and a boisterous Labrador pack out a battered station wagon; a group of students ride their bicycles three abreast, unconcerned by the queue of angry, honking cars behind. I have never felt so alone. Wasn’t that what marriage, our marriage, was meant to keep at bay?
It has been swelteringly hot today, not that I felt it in Maggie’s artificially cooled room. When I get off the bus and stumble the short distance home, I feel as if I am being blasted by a hundred hairdryers, dry and intense, and wonder if anything will ever feel comfortable again. I get the key in the door after a few false starts with my faltering fingers. The last of this late August evening’s sunlight illuminates the hallway, a ribbon of dust dancing and swirling toward the scene of the crime. Hers or mine? I ask myself as I head up the stairs.
I can’t bring myself to go back to the kitchen, not yet. Without turning on the light, I head straight to our bedroom. Our. I hardly remember a time before I spoke in the plural. What I would give to have her back, here, on her side. In reality she had all the sides. I never knew how much space such a small person could demand, wriggling like an octopus throughout the night until I was squashed up at the precipice of the mattress edge, just a corner of duvet to my name. God, I never knew I could miss it.
I trail my fingers along the stack of books that has accumulated on her bedside table—some from charity shops, a slim gift book titled The Wife that I bought as a stocking filler a few years back, one in its plastic library jacket (firmly overdue). After she retired three years ago, she decided she would go and volunteer there, at the library in Summertown that was earmarked for closure. “In solidarity!” she’d said when she told me. I wasn’t sure if she meant with the books or with the overworked professionals who had enough on their plates without the threat of government cuts teetering over their heads. Either way, it was something to distract her until I retired a year later as well. She loved it there—the people, the sanctuary. She gave it up, though, when everything happened. I suppose you can’t help others until you are able to help yourself.
In recent years, she hasn’t been sleeping so well. She still tries to read but when I lean over, to plant a kiss behind her ear or to stroke the inside of her arm in the way she likes, I can see she’s still on the same page, her eyes fuzzy in the mid-distance. I make the call on when to turn out the lights, knowing full well neither of us will drift off easily. Instead, I draw patterns on the soft skin at the base of her spine, which is exposed by her pajama top. It takes me right back to our first dates together, when I was too scared to tell her I loved her but traced the letters out on her back instead, a coward’s compromise delivered with a trembling hand.
I kick off my shoes and lie down on top of the duvet. I am so desperate to touch her again, to spell out all the ways I love her. When I drift off, all I see is Maggie cocooned within it, one hand poking out to pull me in.
At the hospital the next morning, I am welcomed by my first name at the nursing station by a woman I don’t recognize in the slightest. I hope this is not a sign of how long they expect me to be visiting. At first, I don’t see Daisy and feel a rush of panic. She was so calm, so nonjudgmental. I can’t afford to lose her too. I scan the reception space with its bewildering array of staff, assessing their backs, their hair. Eventually I catch sight of her, busy at one of the computer booths in the corner, her back to me and her hips straining at the seams of her scrubs. My heart rate slows just a tad, and I clear my throat, loudly enough to feel like a nuisance. Loudly enough that a pregnant woman waiting five feet away covers her mouth with her scarf.
“Ah, Professor, good morning,” Daisy says, beaming as she wheels her chair round to face me and levering herself up, palms on thighs. She is even taller than I remembered from yesterday, only three inches or so shorter than me. She has the sort of build Maggie would have affectionately described as “sturdy,” as if she were assessing the stability of a tree in the back garden.
“Is that what you want to be called, eh? Professor?” she asks as she weaves herself out from behind the counter and leads me down the corridor. Her dark brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail that swings sleekly in time with her step.
“Well . . . er . . . ,” I begin.
“Cat got your tongue, eh? Don’t know your own name now?” Daisy smiles with the sort of easy complicity I always wished I could generate with my own family, let alone strangers.
“Frank,” I say decisively. “Please call me Frank, Daisy.”
Daisy turns to smile at me, and for a second I feel as if maybe, just for once, I have done some infinitesimally small thing right. Then we reach Maggie’s door, still closed, and I feel the weight of my own frustrated hopefulness crash down around me again. The blinds in her room have been opened, and I am able to take in the space fully. It is sparse, and I suddenly feel conscious of arriving empty-handed.
“We need to keep it all very clean here,” Daisy says, somehow sensing my embarrassment. “But I kept your chair, Frank, so you two can talk.”
Daisy moves behind me to adjust the blinds, lowering them slightly so I don’t have to squint.
“How did it go yesterday?” Daisy asks.
“Not well,” I admit.
“It’s hard, Frank. I get that. But our Maggie is going to want to know that you are here.”
“I’m scared.” The words slip out before I have the chance to think better of them.
“I know, but trust me, you’ll be more scared if you don’t talk. If you don’t, then you’ll have regrets. And regret is something to be far more scared of.”
I sense Daisy is about to leave, and I am overwhelmed by my desire to keep her here. She is safe—a reliable conduit to Maggie.
“Daisy,” I call, as she heads for the door. “What shall I say?”
Daisy’s face remains unchanged, bar a slight smile that breaks at the corners of her lips. Evidently, I am not the first visitor to need schooling on their bedside manner.
“That’s up to you, Frank. If you’re struggling, why don’t you tell her your story? You and her, huh? There’s a reason people tell you to start at the beginning. It’s easiest that way. Only this time, you can do it right. Tell her all the things you should have said before.”
“Not all at once now, remember.”
With that, Daisy is gone.
I pull my chair a little closer to Maggie’s side, careful not to knock the cables. I am struck by how much there is to say, how much I should have said, and yet how very little feels appropriate. And how do you start to talk again, when you stopped so long ago?
“Morning, Maggie.” My voice comes out as a croak. “The things I should have said before, eh? Well, you better get comfortable.”
In the silence, I remember her laugh, light as a feather and quick to humor me—my bad jokes, the dad jokes.
I see the cannula strain where I have grasped at her hand, and I quickly place it back down before one of the contraptions signals my disruption and I am unceremoniously hauled out by the staff.
“I . . . I . . . Can you hear me? Did you hear that, what I just said? No? Oh. Well . . . Oh God, Maggie, I’m terrible at this, aren’t I?”
For a minute I think of leaving, of making a repeat performance of yesterday’s nonstarter. Then I think of the house, each room achingly empty, a memory of Maggie imprinted on every chair and wall and light switch. What sort of husband would it make me to leave her here? Not a very loving one, that’s for sure. I have had plenty of failings over the years, but not loving Maggie enough has never been one.
I sit up taller, imagining each vertebra slotting back into its proper formation, and rise out of my half slump.
“Look, Mags, you are going to have to put up with me being terrible at this because I am here to stay. I will stay as long as it takes for you to wake up. See, I even have a chair.”
“You need to know what happened, Mags, why I switched off.”
I half expect her eyes to open wide at this. Finally, an answer. The answers that she spent six months looking for. The answers that nearly took Maggie from me forever.
“I can’t let you go without telling you that.”
It sounds so morbid, out in the open, and I kick myself. This wasn’t what Daisy meant about keeping it positive, quite the opposite.
“I can’t let you go full stop, Maggie. I can’t be without you. Really, Maggie, I can’t,” I whisper, reaching for her hand. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorrier than you can ever know.
“Do you remember that was the first thing I ever said to you, Mags? Do you? ‘I’m sorry.’ And do you know, I have spent the last forty-odd years thinking what better lines I could have tried out on you instead?”
The first time I saw you, all I could make out were your eyes and the very tip of your nose, ruby red like a beacon in the cold. You had a thick woolly scarf pulled up over your lips, your hair bunched up under it so that only a few wisps could escape. When you arrived, it was as it ever would be, like a cyclone descending, all flailing limbs and air kisses, a flurry of hugs and exclamations and the sort of warmth everyone in the vicinity could feel, even at three degrees below.
I hadn’t seen you around before, that much I knew for sure. I’d been in Oxford for five years by that point and I was knee-deep into my PhD; the lab was hardly swarming with women and it wasn’t as if I was dripping in them in my spare time either. No, I definitely would have remembered if I had seen a girl like you before.
With its cheap lager and large outdoor seating area, the Rose & Crown was a stomping ground for the developmental biology department, if such a thing could be claimed by a group of scientists who didn’t see much daylight, let alone the social evening hours. It was far enough from the Dreaming Spires to dodge the Canon-wielding tourists but close enough to stumble back to halls if anyone did manage to land it lucky at the end of the night. I know it is a cliché to say that I noticed you straightaway, but it would still be true, even if your elbow hadn’t half caught Piotr’s glass as you barreled past and into the arms of your equally excitable friends.
That close to Christmas, there were plenty of new faces in our local, some of them home in time to spend the week with family. Our group of academic exiles was either too far from home to enjoy the festive season in the comfort of our own front rooms or, as in my case, would rather prolong the inevitable awkwardness of returning to our parents at the age of twenty-six and without a bride in tow. So much for the social upheaval of the seventies: the liberal ideals of the decade had scarcely reached the Home Counties, let alone brushed the doorstep of my parents’ three-bed terrace in Guildford.
It was a relief to be free, really, as much as my family meant well. I loved them, and I knew they loved me; it was just that everything at home felt so very small. We didn’t really discuss things. Not the important stuff, the big questions that kept me awake at night. No, it was polite, and it was comfortable. There was an unspoken assumption that I would follow in Dad’s footsteps, take over the garage and shore up the business. As they saw it, science was all very well, but it was best left at the school gates in favor of a mortgageable career. My choices took some getting used to, but I knew they were proud, in their own way at least.
As for Oxford, well, I felt at home in a way I never had before. I made great friends, many as socially inept as I was, and no one at the back of the lecture hall shouted you down for sitting in the front row or taking too many notes. I did worry that I hadn’t made quite enough of it, though. In my mind, my time there should have been spent smoking cigars on the rooftops or attending parties with women called Camilla or Cordelia or something else that sounded suitably exotic to me until the sun shot through the curtains and took us all by surprise. In reality, the only place I pulled all-nighters was at my desk. That was my version of a good time. Until I met you.
I was looking forward to that evening, a Christmas party of sorts, only the budget didn’t stretch far enough for any sort of planning to have been required. Instead, the two supervisors had come and put a fistful of notes in a glass for us to buy rounds. I wonder what would have happened without the departmental Dutch courage? If I could have focused on the merriment on hand instead of mooning at your table, reading into your mad hand gestures and facial expressions as if I were at a mime performance, not in a pub garden?
You are, naturally, the center of attention, a habit, I will come to realize, holding court and magnetizing all eyes to you. To your left, a man with sandy hair and a tweed jacket hangs on your every word, laughing a little too loudly and a beat or so before the rest do. There is some distance between you, though, and I write him off as another acolyte, in thrall to your charms.
It doesn’t take long for the boys to cotton on that my mind and attentions are elsewhere, Piotr nudging me in the ribs and delivering the sort of crude remarks that make me thankful the last four years of his doctorate haven’t entirely thinned out his Polish accent. It is Jack, our lab technician, a man who dedicates forty hours a week to breeding newts, who makes the only sensible remark of the night.
“What have you got to lose, eh, Frank?” he says. “Another night in a cold single bed?”
When I see you stand up to get your round in, I know it is my chance, and the boys aren’t going to let me lose it. The moment you are up, squeezing yourself off the bench and holding the empty glasses precariously between your fingers, I am sent in with what is left in the kitty.
The pub is warm inside, and my glasses steam up quickly. I curse my eyesight and almost wish I had taken the risk of leaving my frames at home. I’d tried that once before, on the sole date I’d managed in the last two years, with a research assistant over from Glasgow. Let’s just say Fiona wasn’t too pleased when I came back from the bathroom and sat down at another woman’s table.
I blot the lenses on my jumper. It is one of Mum’s finest creations, a Christmas-tree scene, and the little glittery threads from the knitted baubles keep catching on the screws. Finally, I manage to clear away the condensation, but my resolve seems to have dissipated with it. I suddenly feel ridiculous—what was I thinking, hoping a girl like you would cast your eye on me, let alone agree to a date? I am about to concede defeat and send Jack for our next round when Piotr enters, en route to the loo, and he is as unsubtle as ever when he slaps me on the back, enough to turn me back around and, in the tight squeeze of bodies by the bar, knock me straight into you. For a second, there is terror that your stack of empties will fall, and I stick my hands out blindly, catching one, then steadying myself just in time to save some face.
“I’m so sorry—” My face flushes as red as my hair, my words pouring over one another. Blessedly, you cut me off.
“Thank you!” you shout over me. “I am always biting off more than I can chew! Here, can I get you a drink—token of my appreciation and all?”
“No. Thank you, though. I mean I’d love to, but”—I jangle the coins in the pint glass as a weak explanation—“I’ve got to stand my round!”
“I admire a man with principles.” You smile. I cannot tell if it is my imagination or if you are taking a step toward me.
Before I can analyze you any more, you turn around and make your order, winning over the barman, who laughs at something you say while you peruse the ciders on tap. As your drinks line up, it is on the tip of my tongue to ask if, actually, we could postpone that drink—another night, after Christmas, just us?
Instead, I burn up, my cheeks on fire, my palms sweating. In a bid to calm my flaming face, I think of the evolution and gene-mutation paper folded in half and rammed in my back pocket. “DNA Mutations in Xenopus Toads,” I seem to remember. But no data set or scatter graph on adaptive change is sufficient distraction from my crippling embarrassment. Not for the first time, it strikes me that if I carry on at this rate, it will be a biological marvel if I survive my twenties and have any chance of reproducing.
All too soon you have your drinks, and a tray this time too. You look up at me, pushing your curls behind your ear. “Well, thanks again . . .”
“Frank,” I offer. “‘It’s Frank.”
“I’m Maggie,” you say. “Margot, really, no thanks to my mother. It seems so old-fashioned, and besides, I’m not French, no delusion of being either.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“What? The not being French or the not being deluded?”
“Both, I’d say.”
You smile at that. “And how will I remember you?”
I am not imagining it this time. You take a step toward me, so close now that the lip of the tray brushes my chest.
“Frank, the man of principle. Despite what this jumper might say to the contrary.”
The garish metallic baubles flicker under the harsh light overhead. You laugh, head thrown back, and for a second there is nothing. The roar of the pub dulls to silence. My peripheral vision goes blurry. You become my foreground, background, and everything besides. This is my chance to ask, but it feels almost sacrilegious to break this moment.
It’s Piotr who breaks it. “Frank! Frank, get the drinks, eh?”
“You’re being called!” you shout over the din of some drunken carolers who have just arrived and slam their palms down on the bar. “Better get the round or they’ll worry where you’ve been.” And then, more quietly, as if it is a secret, just for us two, “Merry Christmas, Frank.”
And just like that, you were off, back to the garden. I’d missed my spot at the bar and I’d missed my chance.
What should I have said, Mags? Well, asked you on a date, that’s for sure. But that wasn’t enough. You would have had other men chasing you, I knew that as good as certain. I wanted you to know that how I felt was different. How, when my glasses steamed up, I knew exactly how far in front of me you were because there was something about you that felt programmed into me. I knew then that you were it, that you were my Forever Girl. I wouldn’t have said that then, though. I didn’t want to scare you away. But I knew then what I have always known. You were my Forever Girl, Mags.