FOR LIFE:16

Chapter Sixteen

April 14th 2019

James realised he might have to invest in an apron.

   “Why don’t you bring Leo to Sunday lunch?” was so easily said, with a kind of bravado that declared maturity, generosity, confidence in his culinary skills as well as his single status. A sign that he was unintimidated by the flamboyance of Manda’s romance or plant-based menu.

   The hardback book he’d bought just before closing the day before was propped open with his phone and glasses case, and spattered with greasy smears. He wished Libby hadn’t declined but then she was probably spending Sunday in bed with this Marc she hadn’t mentioned to Manda. James knew he wasn’t good at secrets after half a bottle of wine, and as Leo didn’t drink and Manda might not be satisfied the Shiraz was vegan, he could be obliged to put away rather more. Especially if they banged on about the International Rebellion that according to the press was intended to wreak chaos in the capital tomorrow.

   Not that he cared the way he would have done, before the sabbatical. Maybe he should spend some of the time that stretched ahead of him on cookery classes.

   The sauce seemed too thin and oily. Perhaps he’d misread something. What would Manda add to thicken it, without lumps? He’d ask Libby but if she wasn’t eating out she took her meals home from M and S. Besides, he wouldn’t want to interrupt anything. And he hoped Manda and Leo… well, they weren’t teenagers, for God’s sake.

   Aware that he was feeling grumpy now, James searched online for ideas and tried ground almonds, hoping the result tasted better than it looked. He wondered whether Leo was a new or reluctant vegan and had allowed Manda to show him that Cowspiracy film he’d successfully refused to watch himself.

   He’d forgotten the salad! And the oranges the recipe claimed went so well with baby spinach!

   “So what?” he challenged aloud. Manda improvised; she called it ‘imagination’ and the secret of her success.

   Was that the doorbell? Were they early and what did that mean? Too much sex had made them hungry? James washed his hands too quickly and splashed his new jeans, anticipating Manda’s smile.

   He opened the door and saw that with his pale, torn jeans, single earring and patchwork sweater, Leo was shabby-cool. Was that a phrase? Manda would think it should be. His greying hair gleamed and his smile was wide.

   “Hey, James. Good to meet you.”

   And had he in fact heard so much about him? He didn’t like to guess at the exact words she’d use. No hug, thank goodness – just a hand to shake that caught him off guard a moment before he took it. Remembering that Leo was a musician, he hoped he wasn’t too good – at that or anything else. But Manda’s face suggested otherwise. Then she kissed both his cheeks and he felt the familiar texture of her hair flung against his skin. She was too warm for the weather.

   Behind them James saw two bikes with helmets over the handlebars. According to Libby, she lived mostly at Leo’s place now.

   “A good clean ride on a Sunday,” Leo said.

   “Relatively clean,” said Manda. “Did you know in London kids’ lungs are actually smaller now, as in shrinking?”

   “That’s pretty shocking,” he admitted. “If it’s true.”

   “Google it,” Manda suggested. “Do your own fact-check.” But he didn’t think she was irritated. She was losing weight, though. Leo took her hand.

   James suggested that they hid the bikes round the side into the back garden, even though their combined value didn’t really warrant such a precaution. Leo grinned but wheeled them both, one on each side. Manda watched him a minute, like a proud mother, then stepped inside.

   “How are you?”

   James wanted to ask her how anyone could answer that question meaningfully, but instead claimed, “Fine,” and echoed it back as revenge.

   “Me? Excited more than anything. You know we’re going to block London tomorrow, bring it to a standstill?”

   Kicking off her Doc Martens, she hadn’t made it further than the hall.

   “So I gather,” he said. “I’m glad I won’t be disrupted.”

   “Tell me a better way of achieving the goals, James. Seriously. Everyone would love to know how to make headlines and force the government to their senses without disrupting poorly paid workers at rush hour.”

   She ran her fingers through hair that had been crushed, and shook it out. It used to be more resilient, and vivid too. The thought made him feel old and rather sad.

   “Of course the well paid workers deserve all they get,” he deduced. There had been a time when she loved the character of this unnecessarily spacious house almost as much as the garden and its tulips.

   “Let’s not make it political,” she suggested brightly. “This is about the survival of humanity and everything else. In which context, a few delays…”

   “Good luck explaining that to Libby.”

   Leo returned in his young dude’s sneakers and shone a smile around. James noticed the way Manda touched him at once: just a quick, light hand on his thigh. Leo reached for her hand and they followed James together, their socked feet padding in unison behind him in a silence that left him imagining looks, squeezes…

   At least Leo hadn’t brought a guitar.

   “How’s the sabbatical, James?” he heard as he turned into the kitchen, which looked a lot messier than he’d thought he’d left it.

   “Oh, I’m adjusting,” he said. “I’d forgotten how to sleep. I’m reading a bit. Investigating classes. I did sign up to a gym.”

   He could tell Manda knew what that meant: more or less diddlysquat.

   “You could join us,” she said. “Rebel for life.”

   As he focused on pouring drinks, Leo asked him about the courses he was considering. James sounded vague, forgetting most of them. He thought better of apologising for the food before he had served it.

   “Smells good,” said Manda.

   She could still read him and now it made him awkward. All those years they were married, he cooked for her once a year maybe, on her birthday. What had he been trying to prove, playing host? Maybe he’d just tired of waiting for them to invite him to the love nest.

   “You two can go and canoodle on the sofa while I focus in here,” he suggested.

   “It’s a great garden,” said Leo.

   “I’m managing to fit weeding into my hectic schedule,” James told them. “The tulips seem to be thriving.”

   Still her favourite, he wondered, especially the straggle-topped ones? She didn’t say because they’d gone.

*

Regent’s Park was bright, its perfect grass a deep, slightly damp green, but in spite of the sun Gem felt shivery. She’d need more clothes on Waterloo Bridge. Nick never wore enough. She glanced at the snatch of bare skin between his jeans and hoodie as he pushed the buggy and imagined him as a stringy boy, his feet and chest bare on a bitter British beach.

   Gem preferred the park in the summer when the delphiniums rioted deep purple and cobalt blue, but Skye liked the ducks and geese and looking down on water. In fact she had nodded off, her head tilted and her hat slipping. Gem smiled with Nick at the small mouth hanging open and shiny with dribble. Sometimes the newness of it, of her skin and fingers, made her soft inside – a softness she’d resisted for years, to be alone.    

   Nick spread out the picnic blanket and they sat. She’d brought a flask of coffee and poured him a cupful.

   “I know you’re disappointed but I can’t turn down paid work,” he said.

   She wanted to ask why. Some rebels had given up jobs for this. He looked good in his sunglasses but she couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed too.

   “But you’ll come on Wednesday?”

   “Sure, if I can. I want to be with you.”

   “But you’re not sure about it, are you?”

   “It’s beyond ambitious. Four sites to hold all week! Do they think the police will just give them up?” He paused, retrieving hair brushed free by wind. “And do they really think there’s the remotest chance the government will meet those demands?” He touched her hand a moment. “I’m not trying to burst your bubble.”

   “I believe in this,” she told him. “Time’s running out, Nick. I know the whole thing is ridiculously big and bold but it has to be.”

   “What love requires of you?” He smiled at her favourite Quaker phrase.

   She nodded.

   “But don’t get arrested.”

   “How can I, with Skye?”

   “I’d cry if I had to watch them carry you off.”

   She looked at him, surprised. A pigeon landed in a flurry even before she had thought about the sandwiches in her backpack.

   “You won’t have to,” she said.

   “Ducks!” cried Skye, straining in the buggy.

The next chapter will be posted on Friday 24th April at 5:30 UK time.

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