An awkward going-for-a-hug movement, aborted into a pat on the shoulder.
“What are you doing here? Out for a stroll?” He’s taking her bags from her, easy as breathing, like he doesn’t even notice doing it.
“I have to—” oh shit, she says to you, careful not to look, remembering he can see it sometimes. He looks so good. He doesn’t know anything. Look at his arms! “Um. I live here. My daughter’s at primary school, at Fitzjohn’s.”
“You have a daughter? And you—” He looks surprised, and a little confused. “You’ve moved up in the world, then. A bit pricey to live here, is it not?” He’s smiling, sort of, the way he used to when she baffled him.
“Sure,” a practiced shrug. “But it’s a good school, and she likes getting to walk to and from. ’S nice. You want to come with?” Why, she asks you, did I fucking say that? He didn’t nearly react to her existence like he did the pricey neighborhood, what the fuck’s his game? “It’s just a right, here, then a short bit. I can take that, if you—”
“Nonsense. Primary school? How old’s your daughter?”
Shit. “Seven. She’ll be eight soon.” Will he do the math?
“Oh.” His face turns inward for a few long steps. “Oh! Um—”
The woman holds up one empty hand. “Look, let’s not, right now. She goes to dance after school. I’ll send her with her walking group and then we can talk. Alright?”
“As you’d like.” Another long silence. “What’s her dance?”
She risks a glance at you, all relief and pride. “Oh, they’re doing half-arsed ballet for the moment. Claire used to, and it gave her an eating disorder, so I’ll probably pull her out of it after this year. No need for two Claires.” Although Bee’s more like me, she says to you, catching your eye again when he’s not looking, as well you know.
The flat cost a good amount, sure, and things are dear here. But the cafes are doing well, all three of them, and she bought the place outright. It’s hers now, for always, and that hadn't ever been something she’d expected but, it turned out, it was very much something she liked.
“Bee, get your dance things. You’ll walk today with Chandra and the others, yeah?” The dark-haired girl threw her satchel in the vague direction of the kitchen and ran, school shoes clattering, towards a closed white door. This one, unlike the other visible from the front, had a pattern of yellow polka dots painstakingly painted on it. She places the canvas bags on the kitchen island, halfheartedly starts to put things away: a half dozen eggs, mushrooms, a bag of apples, a bottle of wine. “You okay?” He’s gone a bit grey at the temples, hasn’t he? Devastating.
“She’s a terror,” he says, that same easy smile with a few more wrinkles.
“Yeah, a pain, always.” She smiles back at him, and for one long minute they just look at each other. The crackling is there, still, always, even softened a bit by time and strangeness. They could be in each others’ arms in two steps.
“Mum, where’s—”a cry from the other room.
“Don’t yell!” She looks to him, the smile turned wry. “Get whatever you’d like. Be right back.”
He watches her walk away, and the sun catches a few streaks of silver in her dark hair, and she looks like an icon, like a portrait of a saint on her way to glory. He can feel his heart speed up, and he looks away. The place is lovely, all big windows and clean Scandinavian furniture - no doubt her sister had the decorating of the place. Here and there, though, he sees her weird personality flicker around. A stuffed animal, an eel or a snake or something, draped over the handle of the oven. Swatches of a dozen different colors next to the door, not even on a theme: pinks and greens and goldenrods and blues, like she hadn’t managed to narrow it at all.
“She’s got a stuffed fox in her room, don’t go in there,” she says, taking the open G&T he holds out to her. “Just, for your own safety.”
He laughs. It’s been ages since he’s laughed with her. He misses it. “I’ve missed you.”
She doesn’t glance at you, but only just. The fuck? “I’ve missed you, too. Hungry?”
He shakes his head before she even finishes the word. “When have you known me to need to eat to drink?”
“Fair enough,” she strides away, long lean legs, and he allows himself to watch her for a moment. Joins her on the settee. “So.”
“So.” There is a long silence. It isn’t tense, or not so much as the situation might imply.
“I did come to tell you,” she says. “When I found out. Only—”
“I’d have been long gone by then,” he nods, the G&T in his hand mostly drained now. “Yeah, worked that out.” He hadn’t been motioning it at her, but she stands, walks to the fridge anyway, calls behind her
“And I mean, honestly? I took it as,” shit, shit, “a sign, I suppose.” Walks back, the rest of the cans in hand.
He snorts at that, a half laugh. “And then when you had her?”
“Well, I was all fucked up for a bit. Took some time. But it shook out, eventually.” I can’t. “I just, it wouldn’t have been fair. I’d half-asked you to leave for me once already and you’d made your choice, and while I fucking hated it, don’t get me wrong,” he smiled, he’s so—, “it was yours. And I wasn’t going to, to try and lure you again. Do one of those, ‘oh, I’m knocked up, haha, gotcha,’ you know?” She waits, but he’s studiously watching his drink sweat and drip, not even looking her way. “Or, the other option, that you’d think I was lying and go into a rage and never speak to me again, but angrier this time. Neither one sounded good.”
Bee gets home early, just as he’s woken up from a doze.
“Mum! Can I have an apple please with peanut butter and sprinkles please?” All one breath. You’re allowed to watch as Bee trips, kicks off her dance shoes, strides over to the man on the settee. “Are you dating my mum?” Bee is all serious-faced, and he laughs.
“Would that be a problem?”
“Are you an ass?” She has his eyes, it’s clear, seeing them together. Her mother’s nose and chin, his coloring and eyes. Stout, and frowning, and you can see him fall immediately and irrevocably in love.
He blinks. “Sometimes.”
“Are you mean?”
He frowns. “Rarely. Does she date people who are mean?”
Bee shrugs one shoulder. “What’s your job?”
“Currently, I’m a priest.” He laughs a little; at her confused glare, he shrugs. “Been thinking of a career change. What do you think I should do?”
She looks him up and down, makes him flex his arm muscles. “You could work in the grocer’s with Mister Pahlavi. He’s always complaining that the Wilmer twins are late.”
“What do the Wilmer twins do for Mister Pahlavi?”
“They put your things in bags and hand the bags to you. I bet you could do that.”
The man grins, crinkles around his eyes, and nods. “I’ve had few people tell me I could do something. Thank you, miss.”
“Bee.” She holds out one hand, stiff and formal.
“Pleasure to meet you, Bee.”
From the other room, “Are you going to come get your blasted apple, or did I stand here and cut it up for no good reason?”
Bee rolls her eyes theatrically and storms away, muttering to herself. He laughs, just a little, and stands to follow. The woman catches his eye, winks, and glances at you with something that, in the right light, could be hope.
A long, long time later, as the sheets around them cool, he turns over, looks at the woman. “What?” She asks, soft and easy.
“You know,” he says, “Anglican clergy can get married.”
She glares at him, glances at you, glares back at him. “You’re not an Anglican.”
He shakes his head. “No, I’m not.” He smiles at her, seems to bask in her indignation. “Anglicans are messy, and complicated. No single point of power like the Pope. But,” he leans forward into her space. “The thing about Anglicans is that I could learn to be one.”
She frowns. “I don’t want you to do that.”
“You don’t want me to convert, or you don’t want me to convert for you?”
His eyes are dark and deep, and she could fall into them. Grips her hands tight in the sheet, trying to keep herself still. “You know the answer.”
He snickers. Leans forward, pulls her into another searing kiss. “I know a lot of things. I know,” he punctuates every few words with a kiss, “how to wheedle a teen boy into not jerking off in the church’s toilet. I know how many times I can repeat the same line in the Mass when I’ve forgotten what’s next before anyone will notice. And I know that I, very much, want you, whatever I can do and however I can have you. And that,” he pulls away, looks her carefully in the face, “you’ve no obligation to let me. But for Bee, and for you, and for this. I will, if you’ll have me.”
She pushes you away; this isn’t for you to see.
“You’re really sticking with that? That horrid color for the walls?”
“It’s got to be the green!”
“No, no, the blue, you’re daft.”
Bee throws a sock at his head. “Daft isn’t nice to call people.”
He nods sagely. “True, true. But the green looks like you ate too many sprouts and then sicked them all up, so.”
Bee’s face creases, thinking. “The blue looks like a raincloud.”
“Do you like rainclouds?”
“Yeah. They make mud puddles. In the spring our garden gets massive mud puddles. Will you come over and play in them?”
He blinks hard, stammers for a long moment. “Oh, uh, your mum asked me to remind you to do your homework.”
“She didn’t. She never remembers I have homework.” Bee grins. “Do you want me to leave so you can talk to Mum?”
He snorts. “You’re awfully perceptive. Are you sure you’re not secretly a thousand years old?”
“If I was, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’d just pretend to be a kid so no one would realize I knew where all the treasure was buried.”
“From Atlantis! From when it sank.”
“Ah, yes. What if they’re still alive, the Atlantans? Atlantisans?”
They both smirk. “Them, yeah. What if they’re alive, and they don’t want you to take their treasure?”
“I’m a thousand years old, I probably built their houses. I’ll just eat them or something.”
“Are you also suddenly Godzilla?”
She looks confused. “Who? No, never mind. I’ll go definitely do my homework so you can’t talk to Mum about whatever you’re worried about. Call me for tea.” She stomps away toward her room, and he can’t help but laugh.
“Tell me again why Bee isn’t at university already,” he calls over his shoulder.
“Because,” the woman says, “she’d get drunk and you can’t drink until your age has two digits in it in my family.”
“Good rule,” he says, holding out one hand to pull her to him. “You’re beautiful. Come here.”
She slips into his lap. “What’s the matter?”
He buries his face in her neck for a moment. “I’d like to be here, in the spring. To see the mud puddles in the garden.”
“They’re massive.” She pets his hair, strong fingers scratching lightly. “You all right?”
“I can't imagine not being here. With you. Her. Most kids are horrors, you know.” He looks up at her, settles her more comfortably on his lap. “Not that Bee’s not a horror, but she’s interesting. Funny. A bit scary.”
“Takes after me.”
“She does, that.” He looks her in the face. “Really, though. I would. Like to be here.”
“So be here.”
He lights up, tucks her hair behind her ear. “I’ll be here, then.”
You watch them look at each other. Somewhere in the flat, Bee shouts unintelligibly. Wine cools, tea brews. They’ll get takeaway tonight, and figure the rest of it out tomorrow. No rush. It won’t be spring again for months yet.