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The next two weeks pass in a blur. You move to the flat that John’s agent suggested, and study; revise; and study again; write proposals, outlines, reviews; you hardly sleep, and try really hard to eat regularly. Every evening you write a short email to John. Sometimes you send them right away; sometimes you rewrite it the next day, add more, and then send. He answers in a line or two. You don’t get any impression of apprehension from his answers; and if you had a moment to ponder it, you’d feel excruciating gratitude. But you properly don’t have time or energy to.
Once you’re out of the torture chamber they call your studies, you take a week of your vacation days; and you spend it in the rented flat.
In the previous fortnight you didn’t even unpack the small bag you came with, and now you wash your clothes; clean the fridge; buy groceries. The flat is tiny. The bed in on the mezzanine; the ground floor is an open plan flat. It’s very clean; the location is perfect. It’s generally perfect, because it’s so faceless – with all this light beige furniture, and Scandinavian style decour – that it’s impossible to feel that it’s anything but a hotel. You aren’t trying to make it a home – you have one. You just need a shelter.
On the fourth day of your third week away from home, in his usual quick response email that comes to your Inbox around eleven in the evening, John asks you to ring him up ‘whenever it’s convenient’ for you.
You tumble off the sofabed you’re sitting on with your Mac, and rush to your handbag on the kitchenette’s table.
He picks up after couple tones.
“What’s wrong?” you ask, your heart beating in your throat.
“No, no, nothing’s wrong.” He gives out a soft chuckle on the other end. “I’m sorry, I should have phrased it better. I was just hoping to… chat. Nothing happened. Everything is OK.” You exhale loudly. “Sorry again.”
“Jesus, John…” You give out a shaky laugh. “The things I’ve imagined…”
“Everything is fine,” he reassures. “I should have explained better.”
“No, no… It’s OK! And… I’m glad to chat.” You climb back on the sofabed, and pull your knees to your nose.
“I just… needed to hear your voice,” he says after a pause. You smile in the empty flat.
“And here it is.”
“Yeah… How are you doing?” You imagine how he’s lying on the bed, legs crossed in his ankles. He is such a large man, he always takes a lot of room. And he always feels as if he can pounce to his feet at any moment. Must be the fluidity of his movements.
“I’m… resting. I took a few days off work as well.”
“Oh?” He sounds a bit surprised. “Good idea.”
So, he didn’t check. You realize you had a tiny doubt that did he would. Perhaps, you’re still a bit cautious. Perhaps, you still expect something manipulative and controlling from him.
You both are quiet, but it’s not tense, nor uncomfortable.
“Thank you, John,” you blurt out with a loud exhale, and he chuckles on the other end.
“You’re welcome, Wren.”
“I mean, for understanding that I needed it, and for not taking it a wrong way… And I know how it could look to someone else, not that you ever care what others think… But I know that it was bloody unorthodox, and…”
“Wren,” he interrupts your increasingly nervous blabbering. “You took time off. You didn’t deprive me of anything. Well, shag… But you’ll just have to repay me later.” He clearly signals with his tone that he’s joking. “Things you’ll have to do…” he draws out, in that purry shag voice of his; but you don’t let him distract you, and hide behind the flirting.
“John, I feel guilty. I asked for it, and I truly believe I needed to do it, but I still feel…”
“Guilty,” he finishes your sentence. “Love, you need to learn to… actually hear me when I say something. I haven’t felt you had anything to apologise for because of your studies. I have the same judgement regarding you staying away for a bit. You need it. You can have it. I miss you, but I’m not dying here. More hot water for me in the shower.” You can clearly imagine the smile, and the crow’s feet, and the soft expression in his eyes.
“I’m almost done,” you mumble in a pathetically small voice.
“Good. I’m starting to get bored here.” His tone is light.
“And I miss you too. In case you doubted.”
“I did a bit, but now we talked, and you can go back to your hermit existence.” You lean back on the sofabed, with a relieved exhale, realising how tense your muscles were.
“If you ever need something… of the sort,” you start clumsily, and clear your throat. “If there’s something you need, something just as mental as this feat of mine, I’ll be very understanding.”
“Wren, as much as I hate bringing this up, you have been understanding regarding Eva. I consider us even.”
“No, no, John! That’s not the same.” You shake your head though he can’t see you. “Eva was your business. It was just the wrong time, and I couldn’t… think straight. Nothing happened, but I let it add up to my stress…”
“I wouldn’t have been that calm in your place,” he says darkly. “If there was some wanker making eyes at you, and bringing you your coffee, and…”
“Picking up lint off my lapel?” you supply.
“What?” You snort. It’s not a funny conversation, but he sounds utterly shocked.
“Nothing. Just something from films. But what I’m saying, me being away has nothing to do with Eva. Nothing in my life has anything to do with her. I trust you. You said it’s nothing – it’s nothing. So, how about if you ever need some time off away from me, I’ll be understanding. And if an Eva starts bringing me coffee, you’ll give me the same benefit of the doubt?”
He’s quiet for a few seconds. You were half joking, of course, but he’s apparently giving it a proper thought.
“Wren, I talked to my therapist yesterday. He says ‘Eva’ happened because of my fear of old age and death. Which one properly doesn’t need a PhD to suss out,” he adds venomously. “So, if some young git starts circling you, I…”
“You will ask me whether I’m having an affair, or considering an affair, or compensating for something lacking in our relationship. And I will tell you the truth, just like you did. Deal?”
He gives out a long exhale, that tickles your ear. You suddenly remember how such exhale feels on your skin, on your nape.
“Honesty for honesty, Wren,” he says, leaving the question hanging in the air. “You going away did cock me up. I’m… worried. I’m not taking it as well as I say…” His voice dies out.
“I didn’t take the Eva thing as well you think I did. I had doubts. I had… a melt down on the tube once. We’re human, John. We’re trying. We’re doing our best.”
“We are indeed.”
“And… we’re good, John. We really are.” You’re sure. You sound sure. He exhales again.
“Well, then… Deal, Wren.” You snort, and he joins you with a velvet chuckle. “By the way, unlike some cute gingers here, I do listen. And I did hear that you’ve just suggested that I let Eva behave this way because I felt something was lacking in our relationship.” You bite into your bottom lip. Oops, Wrennie, how about watching what you’re saying, love? Bugger. “And that’s just rubbish,” he continues. “I let it go on for so long because I’m having a midlife crisis, and many would say she was fit.”
“Would you not say she was fit?” Oh look, Wren, just can’t shut her gob, can she? “I’m not into the dominatrix thing, but she has an exceptional arse.”
“I’m not a serial killer, Wren. I’m not interested in a woman in parts.” You laugh. It’s a rather half arse joke, but you both are coming down after an intense conversation. You’re both entitled. “And thank you. Now I’m thinking of your arse.”
You can ask. Or elude. Or hint. And you’re bloody sure that in three minutes the two of you will be having a phone sex. And then he’ll jump in his car, and then you’ll be shagging on this very sofabed.
“Um… John… I think I should go.”
“We aren’t good at staying apart, are we?” he asks impishly. Damn him and his knowing tone. Well, yes, you are now thinking about shagging him into every possible surface here, so what? It’s a good sign. You’re getting back to normal.
“We don’t really need to be,” you answer softly. “And we’re doing well enough.” You bet he just nodded.
“Alright. Go to sleep. And email me soon, please.”
“I will,” you promise.
You say your goodbyes, and you throw the mobile on the coffee table. You then climb the sliding ladder onto the mezzanine, crawl in the bed, and fall asleep in seconds.
By the evening of the second day after the conversation, it becomes absolutely clear that you have nothing to do in this flat. You spend the day after it packing, cleaning, and wandering the neighbourhood you still hadn’t had a chance to explore. You find a nice coffee shop, and read a book in it for a couple hours. You buy a scarf, eat in a small Chinese place, and then have an ice cream watching children play in a park and a funny old lady chat with her dog.
And then in the evening you text John that you’re coming home. You take a cab, and drum your fingers on your lap through the drive. It feels like the cabbie is doing it on purpose, and the cab is basically a snail; and as soon as the car stops, you shove the money in his hand, grab your bag, and rush to the entrance of your building.
You’re jumping over steps, and then you’re in front of your door, and you bang into it with your fist, somehow forgetting that you’ve got a key, or at least that there’s a bell. And it flies open immediately, and he scoops you in his arms.