For Life: a novella in progress 9

Nine: mid-October

Eager to watch the release of the prisoners, Manda had barely arrived home from the café when the messaging began on Twitter. Adam had seen the footage from outside the prison and wanted to know how she felt, so she told him, You can imagine because he sounded like an emotionally illiterate on-the-spot reporter with no actual news.

   I’m imagining YOU. But I’d rather see you. Shall I take you out to dinner to celebrate? x

   On a Wednesday night? I thought you were too overworked to go out to play on a school night.

  Good point.  I could get to you for ten, if that’d be worth staying up for. A late takeaway?

   Manda frowned, and not just about the unnecessary foil – or worse still, Styrofoam. There was a teenage side to him that was only appealing when she wasn’t exhausted. And since they hadn’t had sex yet, she couldn’t really tell him that was really what he wanted. Besides, she wasn’t sure she did, not at this point, when there was so much about him she didn’t know or understand.

   Not tonight, Adam. It’s a nice thought. I’ll see you on Saturday.

   Twitter seemed to Manda a strange way to conduct a relationship if that was what they were in together. She suspected that when anyone on Facebook announced that they were in a relationship it meant they’d just had sex, whereas up to this point all she’d enjoyed with Adam – and she really had enjoyed it – was kissing. Snogs: increasingly long and adventurous ways to say goodbye when really they were bed kisses now. So when she mentioned her day off on Saturday, she couldn’t blame him for assuming he could stay over, but she held the invitation back, reserving the right to choose.

   For now, she was going to make a salad, catch up with emails and then read in bed at a ridiculously early hour. She might even allow herself a gin and tonic in honour of the country’s most celebrated lorry surfers.

   While she ate she tried to call Libby, impatiently cutting off the answerphone because she hated to hear her sound so upbeat, like a kids’ presenter, when she could be so morose face to face. The day they met, Adam had asked how close they were, mother and daughter, and she’d felt so sad all of a sudden. He’d read it at once. “I don’t want to talk about it now,” she said, afraid of what she might verbalise. Not that he could object to that because he said so little about people or feelings. But he kissed her cheek instead – the first kiss, which felt kind.

    Libby was a mystery but she couldn’t give up. Shouldn’t Rob’s death have brought them closer? Mightn’t James’s infidelity have created some kind of solidarity, regardless of differences?

   It was almost six o’clock now and she must catch the TV News in case they saw fit to report an item related to climate breakdown – even if they only ever called it change: neutral and to be expected. She was extracting some rocket from her teeth when her phone rang. Libby.

   “Mum, sorry I’ve been quiet but work’s shit. I can’t stand it any longer. Can I see you at the weekend? You said on a message a while back that you had a day off coming, on a Saturday?”

   Ah. Yes she did. “Um, yes. But don’t do anything reckless, darling…”

   “Coming from you that’s like a joke, right? Ironic? I’m off out soon but I’ll come round on Saturday, yeah? About two?”

   Manda said that would be lovely. Libby wouldn’t stay long; she’d have plans for Saturday night. Like Adam.

On Friday she called as she left the café to let him know.

   “Sorry to mess you around,” she added at the end.

   “She messes you around.”

   “Sorry?” Sometimes he spoke quietly on the phone, and there was a fair bit of rush hour traffic on the high street but he sounded cross.

   “I’m talking about your daughter, Manda.” He might be talking to a student with behaviour issues. “We had a date. And you haven’t told her about me, have you?”

   “Not yet. Look, Adam, I can see it’s not a good time. If you still want to see me and the eco-house you were so fascinated to investigate, come at four – no, four thirty. If you’re too annoyed with me to come at all, then you’re probably not much of a father.” She’d suspected that anyway, because he hardly mentioned his grown-up kids.

   She waited as she unlocked her bike. It was starting to rain but she didn’t want to cut him off or she’d be the unreasonable one.

   “I’m sorry. Ignore me. End of the week grumps. See you at four thirty tomorrow.”

   But he’d gone with no goodbye so she didn’t really feel forgiven. As she straddled her bike the phone rang.

   “Why don’t I come at ten, and then disappear by two – I know a nice café where I can hang out and do some marking – but come back when you call with the all clear?” He sounded chirpy again. “I’m sorry, Manda. I’ve been looking forward to spending time with you.”

   “Mm, me too,” she said, more upbeat than she felt but relieved all the same. It was just the sex getting in the way. Maybe he’d been celibate for even longer than her; she’d have to ask. “Sounds like a plan.”

   Now that made two of them who hadn’t been themselves.

   She didn’t sleep well, and then spent too long next morning cleaning the bathroom and changing her sheets before walking to the market to search for veg with no air miles AND no plastic. Arriving back at the house with a bulky backpack she’d be glad to discard, she saw a substantial figure in a long black coat looking the place over and peering around the side.

   “I’m not selling,” she called.

   Adam turned and held up both hands, smiling. “I’m a bit early. I hope that’s all right?”

   He kissed both her cheeks and she told him it was. “I hope you noticed the solar panels are oriented south.”

   Once inside, he asked for the tour while the coffee brewed, and took dozens of photos: the condensing boiler “and TVRs on all radiators, I’ll have you know”, the sunpipe that served the landing where she made him stand , and the mechanical ventilation with heat recovery “which is way more exciting than it sounds.”

She barred the bathroom door. “Even though it’s ultra low flush,” she told him, “no need to photograph the loo.”

She added the solid wall insulation and censored a remark she almost made about how sexy this stuff was. Adam wanted explanations more detailed than she could manage with conviction. In the kitchen he viewed the glass jars full of nuts, seeds, pulses and grains like an art work to be captured from different angles. She smiled as he made notes on his phone, and said she was glad he approved.

   “You live it,” he said.

   “With plenty of compromises. And thanks to James’s money. What I earn in Peace would pay for diddly squat.”

   “It’s impressive. You’re impressive.”

   “I’m trying, that’s all.” She smiled. “And Libby would second that.”

She poured coffee and they sat on the sofa, a small space between them. Manda felt suddenly awkward. This was such a strange way to spend a Saturday morning, the pace both slow and rushed. People did this with alcohol inside them, in darkness.

   Adam reached down to sit his mug on the carpet and as he leaned to kiss her she had to do the same.

   “Is there any reason,” he asked, almost like a Victorian with a marriage proposal, “we can’t go to bed now?”

   Manda was sure her mother would supply a few but if it was going to happen, and the doubt seemed to be ebbing away now, then it might be easier…

   The second kiss was deeper. Perhaps she should feel something else, besides the panic that kept the elation at bay. Perhaps her body, cooperative as it felt, should know better than this, because what was there to wait for? Who? And maybe when it began, she would need it – in practice as well as theory. Because she didn’t want to pretend.

   “Let’s,” she said, and as he followed her upstairs she couldn’t quite imagine his face.

   She’d already determined not to apologise for her body, since she didn’t suppose it would occur to him to do the same. Trying to banish memories of James declaring love well before he saw her naked, she hurried under the duvet before Adam Browne could lie. It was good to feel skin against hers. He was warm, and he’d washed his hair for her, which was touching. Like the way he found her so much more interesting than she felt.

   “I want to know everything about you,” he murmured. “Afterwards.”

   Not as much, she thought, as she wanted to know who he was. They kissed, and touched, and quickly, quickly, he was heavy on top of her, big inside her. So she let go and when she came, a moment after him, her smile overwhelmed her.

   The last time she’d felt this was the evening Rob died, all those miles away. James had wanted it unexpectedly, for the first time in weeks, and she had been worried that it wasn’t love anymore – and he’d known, accused her of going through the motions. And Rob crashed the car while she lay there wishing one of them was a different person, maybe both.

   There were things Adam wouldn’t want to hear, not now.

They laughed, disbelieving, at the two hours that had passed before they returned to the kitchen and she found him a knife to prepare salad.

   “So you don’t actually know the people behind this Extinction Rebellion?” He’d known about the rally in Parliament Square at the end of the month; it was already in her diary.

   “I know them to identify in a line up. They’re not my friends. And there won’t be any leaders.”

   He seemed doubtful about that. “And civil disobedience is built in? What will that mean?”

   Manda smiled. “I don’t know yet. But it will be non-violent.”

   “To start with.”

   She turned, shaking her head. “How can it be anything but peaceful? This will be a movement of people who want a better world. And if it takes off, it could be global by next year, massive. I’m trying not to get too excited…”

   “You succeeded upstairs.”

   His smile was a little too late and she hoped she didn’t sound wounded. “You like me for being authentic.”

   “I do,” he protested. “And I don’t blame you. I worked until two a.m. to get things out of the way. So I’m not at my best – in any department. And you’re quite obviously way too good for me.” He put his arms around her. “I’ll come with you to this declaration of rebellion. It’s Half Term.”

   Pulling away, she said, “Great.”

   “Rob would have been there.”

   “Oh yes.”

   “But you won’t get Libby along?”

    Manda shook her head. “Not even for Hollywood royalty.”

   “I’d like to meet your Libby.”

   “Brave man,” said Manda, and reached for the pasta as the water began to boil.

Part 10 will be posted on Friday 15th March at 5:30 UK time.

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