“So how’s the teaching going?”
His new position in uni is number one in your list of ‘topics safe to discuss with John when you’re stuck in his car for four hours, your nose is full of his cologne, and you distinctly remember shagging in it about a dozen times.’ Oh, and there is the ‘you broke his heart – literally – and were no better to wear afterwards’ sidenote.
All you can hope for is that the definite break up and seven months of zero contact of any sort have helped you to develop resistance to anything John Thorington.
“I’m starting in September,” he answers, driving out of the yard of your building.
Right, so this topic is out. The next one is Graham’s RSM award nomination, with a subtopic of his wonderful, fastly progressing romance with a visiting Canadian gyno, Candice Toews. You are of course planning to avoid all the puns and fanny related innuendoes that this pairing is just asking for.
You actually did make the list. It’s in your kitchen – in the rubbish bin, though. You’re old enough to remember how Bridget Jones left her diary lying around, and then had to run after her Mr Darcy in knickers only. In the Hollywood version, that was, of course, not in the book. Given, the chances of Dr Thorington ending up in your kitchen and seeing that bullet point list are less than zero.
“I won’t be offended if you don’t sustain a small talk with me through the drive.” His tone is impish, and he looks at you askance. “Have you prepared the list?”
You puff air out. He knows you too well.
“So, you suggest we sit in complete silence for four hours, brooding?” you bite back. Or bite the bait, depends on how you look at it.
“We can sing.” You can see the left corner of his lips curl up.
“You hate my singing!” He reacts to your outcry with a chuckle.
“Because you’re awful.”
You are. It used to be a running joke: you threatening him with singing to him. You theatrically roll your eyes and turn on the radio. Aerosmith blares out of it, and you twitch.
“Same can be said about your taste in music,” you mutter under your breath, making sure he can hear you. Another low chuckle follows, and he blindly pushes next button. Some French chanson collection starts, and the two of you settle in your seats.
The city is already bustling with activity, and ten minutes later you’re definitely stuck. He starts drumming his fingers on the wheel. You remember how annoyed he’s alway been by traffic jams and red lights. Driving was one of the things that would set his temper off the quickest. You start searching for a conversation topic to distract him, and then you remember you’re not his girlfriend anymore, and his moods are none of your business. You pull out your mobile and start scrolling through Instagram, trying to ignore the tension coming off his in waves.
“Wren, could we talk about something? I hate traffic,” he asks softly, and you look up at him. He gives you an apologetic smile.
“There isn’t even any assigned time we are supposed to arrive at,” you remind him, and he nods.
“I just can’t stand inefficiency. We are stuck, and it all depends on some imbecile somewhere couple miles ahead, who…” He stops himself, and exhales loudly through his nose. “Sorry. I’m being a prick.”
“Do you want to talk about Graham and his award?” you offer. He smiles lopsidedly.
“Is it the next point in your list?”
“Yes?” you mumble, and he gives you that side glance from under his lashes that you adore. ‘Used to adore,’ you correct yourself.
“Do you really want to talk about the award, or you’d much prefer discussing a perky Canadian blonde I walked on straddling him on his desk, fondling his mutton chops?”
You croak in surprise. Not from the thought that someone might be fondling Dwalinson’s mutton chops – he’s a poppet once you get to know him; but from the obvious pleasure with which Dr John Crispin Thorington is gossiping like a middle aged woman at a village picnic.
“She’s here for at least couple years, isn’t she?” you ask.
“Yes, and as far as I understand she has little to go back to. We’ve had lunch the other day. She was carefully inquiring about positions in his hospital.”
“When is working together ever a good idea?” you exclaim, and then bite your tongue. That was rather insensitive considering your shared history. He shakes his head and throws you a cheeky grin.
“Well, he wouldn’t be her boss. They have different fields. And besides, Graham isn’t an overbearing paranoid bellend with trust issues. They’ll be fine.”
You are completely in the dark regarding how you’re supposed to react to this new manner of his. So you swallow the knot in your throat, and try to remember the third point in your list.
Nothing comes to mind, and you squeak, “So, how are you feeling?”
It’s so sudden, and you sound so unnaturally cheery that he bursts into loud laughter. It’s that open kind that you got to see from him so rarely, and as you suspect, few people have seen at all. The crinkles in the corners of his eyes make him look so careless, so charming!
“Thank you for your concern, Wren.” His shoulders are still shaking in the last rumbles of his whole body laughter. “I’m alright. There are medications to take regularly, and I have to cut down the gym time, but I’m still allowed to jog. Less work, more rest. All the classics.” You nod, once again with nothing to say. You hope ‘less ex fiancee related stress’ wasn’t among the prescriptions.
“To think of it, I was rather jammy,” he continues, the car finally starting to move. “Out of the possible evils after a tragic break up, a mild heart attack would have least consequences.”
“As opposed to what?” you can’t help but ask.
“Well, I could have developed a debilitating addiction of sorts. Painkillers, cocaine, bird watching. Take to drinking, at last. Smash my car into a wall killing myself and couple unsuspecting passers by. I could have started golfing!” He dramatically widens his eyes, you’re gawking at him, once again speechless. “Can you imagine me golfing?”
“Me neither.” He shrugs. “But give me some credit here, Wren. I took the blow like a posh, stiff upper lip wanker you always thought me to be.”
“Is this self-deprecating joking your new thing?” you blurt out, and he guffaws.
“It’s only called joking, love, if it’s not true.” And then to finish you off, he gives you a wink, his white teeth gleaming in a wide grin. “C’mon, Wren, I demand to be praised for stoically bashing on and then fainting like an Austen heroine, almost killing a patient.”
“Well done you,” you mumble, giving up on understanding his mood.
“Thank you. How have you been doing?” His tone is perfectly nonchalant, and you consider a stiff drink.
“I have been well. Work, the new grant I’m sure you heard of, postgrad schools applications… You saw the flat, so this is happening… I got a new ficus. His name is Toby.” You decide that going along with these frolics of his is the best you can do. He snorts, and then throws you a look askew.
“And here, of course, I’m dying to ask whether Toby is the only man in your life, but I will shut up since it’s none of my business. So, should we clumsily change the subject and talk about Elvig’s birthday?”
You’re too shocked to answer. He’s driving, his eyes on the road, fingers relaxed on the wheel.
“He’s still hoping to steal me for Rivendell…” you mumble. He makes a thoughtful low sound in his throat.
“I’m sure you’ve wisely considered your options, and I doubt you need my opinion. Hm…” He hums in exaggerated pensiveness again. “What else was there on your list? Goodness me, a conversation with you is like a minefield. No topic is safe.” He’s smirking and theatrically shakes his head. “Is it always like this with exes? I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had one.”
“Do you really find it funny?!” Hello, Wren’s lost her bottle. All the confusion from his behaviour collected in you like fizz in a soda can, and pop! A ginger snap!
“I’m sorry, Wren. I’m nervous, and I missed you like mad,” he answers, and gives you a quick direct look. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“You didn’t offend me, I just don’t know how to… deal with this…” You vaguely gesture around him in the air. To be honest, he’s in danger of you taking his eye out, you’re properly bedraggled. “I expected awkward silence and decorous exchange of banalities.”
“I’m sorry…” There’s sincere remorse in his tone.
“Stop apologising, please. You’re only making it worse. I feel like I kicked a puppy.” He’s pressing his lips, stifling a snortle now, and you groan and rub your face with your hands. “It’s just excruciating… And strangely OK at the same time… Do you know what I mean?” You sound desperate.
“I know exactly what you mean.” His voice drops into the smoky, velvet baritone. You were right – it’s going to be a long ride.