Christine looked younger than Nicholas had anticipated. True, there were streaks of grey in the auburn hair, but she was nearly 60, after all. She doesn’t dye it, he thought. Of course. He should have expected that.
He stood as she approached the table, wondering whether he should offer a handshake or go to kiss her. How many years was it since he had last done this? What was appropriate, at their age and in these circumstances?
She rescued him, clasping his proffered hand with her left, placing her other on his upper arm and air kissing him. He felt her breath wisp his cheeks.
“Hello Nick,” was all she said, as she stepped aside and took her seat.
Without asking, he poured water. He hadn’t ordered wine, unsure whether she would want to drink. It was lunchtime, after all. Different rules applied, at least here in town.
He fiddled with the knot of his tie. Too formal? At other tables, suited men – presumably talking business - sported open collars. No, she would have expected a jacket and tie. Had she dressed up for him? He tried to study her clothes without being obvious. The dress wasn’t new - he could see tiny signs of wear around the tips of the collar – but she would surely be aware of how it flattered her.
They skimmed their menus while scrabbling for ways to begin the conversation. Yes, she had found the restaurant easily; no, he hadn’t been waiting long; no, she didn’t need to be away by a particular time; yes, he’d have a starter - if she was going to. She would have some wine, thank God. He suggested a Sancerre; she agreed.
“Small or large?”
“I booked a taxi from the station. Why don’t we share a bottle?”
He felt the coil in his stomach unwind a couple of turns. It was going to be all right. She wanted this to succeed as much as he did. They ordered and began to put flesh on the bones of what each already knew about the other’s life.
Home for her was a converted barn - chosen because the huge windows flooded it with light for her paintings, some of which had been sold through a local gallery. There were dogs, cats, even a horse; she grew vegetables and played violin in an amateur quartet.
He lived on a modern housing estate, a functional purchase when he had been tossed into civilian life at 55 and needed somewhere with enough space for himself and three daughters, should they all choose to visit at the same time. He kept himself busy with the neighbourhood watch, the bowling club committee and the Conservative Association.
As they began their main courses, he brought up the wedding, a little over a month away. Nicholas wasn’t entirely sure about his daughter’s choice – a bit lefty for his liking – but everything about the day still had to be perfect.
“Organising it all reminds me of being back in the service,” he said.
“Emily isn’t at all interested in the details but, as I say, if you fail to plan…”
“You plan to fail.”
Something flirtatious about the way she caught his eye as she finished his sentence made him uncomfortable. He didn’t want to do or say anything inappropriate.
“I suppose all those years of moving soldiers around the world have come in handy, then.”
“Exactly. It’s essential that everyone knows where to be, what to do and when to do it.”
She smiled, teasingly. “No room for a bit of spontaneity?”
Nicholas looked away, discomfited. Being spontaneous 35 years ago had led him to propose to a flame-haired beauty he had met only a month before. She had captured him with her free-spirited passion for self-expression; he had imprisoned her in the claustrophobic cage of the army wife.
“You should always be prepared to be spontaneous,” she said, draining the last of the wine. She took out a tissue and dabbed her lips.
She caught his slight hesitation and looked at him questioningly.
“Are you worried that I’ll misbehave?”
There was a long pause before he replied. Memories flooded him: married quarters devoid of children’s voices; wardrobes emptied of clothes; a regretful note propped up against the kettle.
“No,” he said softly.
“The girls say your days of misbehaving are long past.”
He smiled as he spoke, trying to reassure her, but stopped, seeing dampness at the corners of her eyes.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was clumsy of me.”
Christine patted her eyes with the tissue. It was shredded at the edges; he hadn’t noticed her wringing it as he spoke.
“Are you sure you want me at the wedding? Since you’re paying for everything.”
“Of course I do. More importantly, Emily does. All the girls do. That’s why they arranged this, isn’t it?”
“Well, it sounds as though they’re not being allowed to do much of the organising. Emily is taking me shopping, though, to choose an outfit.”
“Well don’t pick anything too flattering,” he laughed.
“You’re not allowed to look more beautiful than the bride.”
He cursed himself. He hadn’t meant to say anything like that. But she was beautiful. Still.
She smiled away the compliment and steered the conversation back to his schedule of ushers’ duties, seating plans and food. The care with which he approached even the smallest detail, the love that it signified, reminded her why she had first been attracted to him.
They drained their glasses and, with a conspiratorial raising of the eyebrows, she called for two more. This time, he didn’t hesitate. When she got up to leave, he stood too and this time took the initiative, kissing her on each cheek.
He sat down, gesturing for the bill, and watched her go. As she walked away, he ached for her to look back towards him, just once. But she didn’t and, finally, after 25 years of thinking about this moment, he understood that she never would.
This story first appeared in the Ellipsiszine anthology, She Cries Honey, in March 2020. The print edition is now sold out but the digital version is still available and contains some wonderful pieces –
Image by Jiri Kraus on Pixabay