They set off early the next day. Mandy had woken up when the light shone through the gap in the thick curtains and found herself alone in the bed; wandering out of the bedroom she saw James propped up on the sofa fast asleep. His reasoning, after she had roused him, had been that he was worried about waking her when he couldn’t get back to sleep. Although he got ready to leave quickly she couldn’t help but notice the bags under his eyes when they stepped out in to the cold grey light of the morning.
“I’m sorry about last night,” he said quietly when they were some way away from the cottage in the car.
“Don’t worry about it, James. Just… I’m worried you’re not okay.”
He shrugged, mouth turned down.
“I’m fine. Daryl will get over it eventually-” he stopped when Mandy placed a hand on him arm, looked at her quickly before focussing back on the road.
“I know you’ll be fine. I mean are you okay right now? Do you want to go back and nap? We can head out tomorrow instead.”
He seemed to brighten slightly, a smile playing at his lips.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll get a coffee on the way and I’ll soon perk up. Not the first time I’ve gone without sleep.” At this he winked at her and she felt her cheeks grow hot, although she wasn’t entirely sure why.
At the first chance they turned in to a estate full of restaurants and Mandy hopped out to get them both a coffee. On the way back, juggling two cups of takeaway coffee and a couple of warm pastries, she paused to watch James through the windscreen of the car. His head was lowered, eyes focussed on the phone in his hand, and he frowned slightly as he read. As usual, his glasses were falling down the bridge of his nose and when he reached to push them back up he spotted her and his expression changed to a grin.
He had perked up by the time they made it to the Loch and even when she loaded him up with a camera case, clipboard and their water bottles he still had a spring in his step that she found endearing. They hiked for two hours, James snapping photos at her direction and laughing whenever she grabbed the clipboard from him to write down something that had come to mind. At lunchtime they came to a convenient spot to stop and, despite the cold, threw themselves down on the grass to eat. James had most of the food in his backpack and made a show off acting like a great weight had been lifted when he pulled off the bag and threw it on the floor.
“You’re a pain,” Mandy laughed as she pulled her lunch from the pack, “And you’re not funny.”
“You’re smiling though,” he flopped down next to her, arm pressed against hers, and took a bite of his lunch.
They made their way back to the cottage after eating; armed with enough initial research for Mandy to jot down some ideas for her dissertation outline on the journey back. She caught James watching her with an amused expression whenever they stopped at traffic lights but she continued scribbling down in her note book until they turned in to the driveway that would lead them to the cottage.
Two hours outside had been enough for James, the weather had taken a turn and it was bitterly cold; but Mandy felt skittish, the sky was clear and it was still light enough outside for a run to clear her head.
Running was a habit she had developed in her first year of university, when the business of campus life got too much and she wanted an escape somewhere quiet and fresh. Even back home, she tried to keep a regular schedule- although patient needs often superseded her own- and she had packed her running shoes just in case. While James was busy fixing something for dinner she took the opportunity, reasoning that there were some spots she wanted to scout out before their bigger expedition of the surrounding area the next day, and he waved her off as she fixed her earphones in place and skipped out the door.
The cold meant that she was running quicker than usual in an effort to warm herself up and she soon came to a curve in the hill that crested to reveal an open expanse of river and fields. It was silent, up on the hill, and she took a moment to pause and let herself breathe.
There was something about the past few days that was troubling her and she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Unbidden, her mum’s words before they left came back to her and she wondered what it was she had seen between them that had passed her by. She and James had always been affectionate, never shied away from touching one another, and nothing had changed over the years. Sure, she had caught him looking at her more and more recently, but maybe she was just hyper-aware of something that had always been happening without her noticing.
She took a slow pace back to the cottage, running scenarios through her head as her feet pounded the frozen road. What if she she ran straight in and kissed him, would he kiss her back? Would she want him to?
A stabbing ache in her stomach told her what she had never let herself acknowledge just as she arrived back at the cottage and the the first fat droplets of rain fell down on the path.
She stepped through the door, closing it carefully so that the wind didn’t cause it to slam. Rubbing her frozen fingers together, she danced in place to warm up and glanced around in to the living area of the cottage for a sign of James. The bedroom door was pulled to so she threw herself down on to the sofa and pulled off her running shoes. Behind her, there was a sudden noise and she jerked up, twisting to glance towards the door. As she listened she realised it was James, voice low and angry, in the bedroom.
“You have to stop this!” he yelled suddenly and she was out of her seat before she realised he was on the phone. “It’s not going to happen. Ever.”
She flushed furiously and for a moment considered putting her shoes back on and giving him some privacy; but the wind was howling louder and the rain had begun to pour and the idea of going back outside was ludicrous. Instead she pulled her wet hair out of its band and headed towards the bathroom.
“Of course there’s someone else!”
James’ raised voice stopped her in her tracks and she felt her cheeks grow even hotter. He so rarely got angry around her that hearing the bitterness in his voice was an experience brand new to her. They had argued as kids, of course, but when they reached adulthood they largely managed to settle their problems with calm discussion. Her mum often joked that James should mediate family disputes.
The bathroom was next to their bedroom, so she crept carefully and slipped through the door. Thankfully, the thick walls of the old cottage were fairly soundproof and she was fairly surely she wouldn’t be intruding any more, especially with the shower running. Still, before she could ease the door shut to lock it she heard him again, voice calmer this time as if as a sudden weight had been lifted.
“I am in love... Just not with you.”
He said it in a voice she recognised and she could picture his face; lopsided smile and hair falling over his eyes as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. It was a voice she had heard many times in the past when he got quiet and thoughtful and determined; when he tried to placate her after a loss at the surgery, when he told her he was going to be okay after his parents divorce, or when she broke up with her university boyfriend and he reassured her that the loss was all his. A voice that was all him, her James, and she sighed a little. He would be fine
She ignored the knawing feeling of disappointment inside, though.
The lock stuck slightly when she turned it, the click loud and intrusive in the sudden quiet. She imagined him calmly hanging up the phone and blocking Daryl’s number, pausing reflectively, and turned on the shower to leave him in peace for a moment.
When she eventually emerged, warm and pink and wrapped in a fluffy towel, from the bathroom he was sat on the sofa reading. Without a word she walked over, wrapped an arm around his shoulder from behind and leant over to kiss him on the cheek.
“You okay?” she whispered against his ear. He nodded. “I heard you on the phone, didn’t want to intrude.”
He twisted in place so that their foreheads were pressed together. The frames of his glasses were cold against her skin and she shivered.
“Thanks,” he said finally.
Sleep wasn’t forthcoming that night either. Mandy woke up to the sound off a low moan, punctuated by a strangled gasp that had her out of the bed and rushing across the cold floor before she had even registered what was happening. The room was chilled, frigid without her duvet, but James had flung the covers off and was clawing at his face with his fingers. His back arched painfully, locked in fear, and she placed a hand on his chest and buried the other in his damp hair to soothe him.
“James,” she whispered, shushing gently, “I’m here. Hush, I’m here.”
At the sound of of her voice he opened his eyes- wide, terrified- and she pushed his sweat-soaked hair out off his eyes and pressed her forehead to his. Under her hand his heart pounded and she waited until he calmed under her touch as she whispered to him over and over again. For a moment she paused her murmurings, breath held, until he sighed and grasped her hand.
“Thanks,” he murmured; then, squeezing his eyes shut, “Sorry.”
“Who needs sleep anyways?” she joked weakly, but she felt sick with tiredness and her head was dizzy. “Move over.”
He obliged and she slipped in next to him. The irony was not lost on her when he wrapped his arms around her waist as if to soothe her and pulled her close against him. Soon enough, she fell asleep with the feeling of staggering of a cliff into the fog below.