The phone rings in the midst of a busy morning. “Can you get it?” I say.
“Sure.” Paul’s voice comes back clear and strong.
I come down five minutes later, dressed for my day, ready for a quick kiss goodbye and dash for the door. Paul is standing by the sink, gazing out, the cordless phone still in his hand. “Who was it?” I ask.
He turns and I see his face and the world turns too.
“It was Karen,” he says, his eyes flicking up to mine and away. Blood drains to my feet and weighs them to the floor. “Karen Sanderson,” he clarifies, unnecessarily. “The Foreign Office has been in touch.”
His hands clutch the edges of the kitchen-countertop as he leans back, seeking support. “It may well be nothing…”
And then he tells me, talking quickly, blankly. There are unconfirmed reports. Karen wanted him to know before he saw it on the news; she still feels she owes him that. A woman turned up at the British Embassy and talked of the foreign woman — a journalist — she had been held with in a narrow windowless cell. Alexandra Sanderson, she kept insisting. Alexandra Sanderson. The Foreign Office are doing everything they can to check out the story and Karen is thinking of flying out there to investigate the possible whereabouts of her sister.
We stand and look at one another and I have no idea what he is thinking.
“And you?” I ask.
“Karen is the obvious person to go,” he says.
But that wasn’t what I meant. “How do you feel?”
He shrugs. The years have been hard on him. He has been dragged through the depths of helpless terror and uncertain grief, together with the cruel spikes of hope which shimmered and then shattered to razor shards. Until he could not feel much of anything at all.
“Obviously it would fabulous if it’s true,” he says now, and his face — which had seemed to regain its youth in the months we have spent together — has aged once more.
“Obviously,” I say. And I mean it. Of course I do.
I watch the rise and fall of his Adam’s apple as he swallows. He stares down at the floor. “It doesn’t change anything,” he says quietly, repeating the promise he made to me when those friendly chats over coffee and lunch deepened to something more.
I walk over to be close to him, but with every step he seems more distant. I lift my hand and lay it gently on his shoulder but he does not seem to know I’m there. Then he jerks away and his voice is brisk and false. “Anyway, may well not be true. Would be fabulous if it is. Not that it necessarily means anyone would get to see her. And it doesn’t change anything.”
“No,” I say. How could it not change everything?
“You’re going to be late,” he chides, as if I might not have noticed.
“Yes.” I lean close and my lips press against his cool, rough cheek. “I should go.”
I’m already late, but I can’t face the office, not immediately. I stop by my favourite coffee shop, where the air is warm and fragrant, and I order a large cappuccino and sink into a comfortable chair with a view out over the busy street.
I remember another coffee shop and another conversation.
“I can’t wait, not forever,” Paul said. It was the morning after we’d had dinner and he first kissed me, and my first instinct had been to back away. Not because I didn’t like him, but precisely because I did. “Alex wouldn’t expect me to put my life on hold forever,” he continued, his eyes focussed on the table, his fingers playing with the scatterings of someone else’s crumbs.
It was over. Even if Alex was alive, even if she returned, they would both be changed; they could not expect to resume their intimacy.
He hadn’t given up on her, but he had given up on them. They’d been together a year; she’d been gone for two. He looked up at me and smiled ruefully. “Not a great ratio,” he said.
I sip my coffee with chocolate-sprinkled froth, tasting its bitter edge through the sweet indulgence. I think of promises made that cannot necessarily be kept, and how I always knew the risks, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I think of a woman — courageous and charismatic — pacing a windowless cell, wielding still her invisible hold. I think of distant political powers, dispensing their terror and their lies. Of their hold on her. And on me.
I can’t wait, not forever. But neither can I break free.
I think of my life on hold.
Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press, Tonto Press, Writers’ Forum and here on Every Day Fiction. Most recently, her story “Stuck” was published in Unthology no. 2, “The Tipping Point” won the 2011 Rubery short story competition, and “Loving someone else” won the Glass Woman Prize, and can be read here: http://www.sigriddaughter.com/GlassWomanPrize.htm.
This story is sponsored by
Hydra House — Publisher of Pacific Northwest science fiction and fantasy, including K.C. Ball’s collection of scifi shorts “Snapshots from a Black Hole & Other Oddities” and Danika Dinsmore’s middle-grade fantasy “The Ruins of Noe,” sequel to “Brigitta of the White Forest.”