Part 5—The Apologetic Suitor
Continuing from Part Four. The next day…
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A rare bright sun warmed the October morning. It pulled a thousand perfumes from the Islington vendor booths—lavender, sage, and mint wafting from bundles hanging on overhead lines; roasting coffee; cod and eel exhaling from bunkers of ice; meat pies and kabobs sizzling and savory.
The complex scents stimulated, but the sights simply overwhelmed. Mounds of apples ranged in color from chartreuse to a figgy mauve. Lumpy, bumpy gourds piled atop each other like variegated aliens. Walls of chrysanthemums, some tiny as a fingertip and others the size of a baby’s head, ran from rusty chocolate, to clown-orange, to blood-red, to purest white. Tee shirts and garden flags fluttered in the cool breeze. And everywhere, people pressed in close—people in suits and burqas, people in jeans and sarongs, people speaking French and German, Urdu and Somali, Laotian and Mandarin.
John and Mary wound between the mothers wheeling prams and dodged tweens dashing like garden snakes through the tiniest gap. They passed a black lab waiting patiently, pink tongue lolling, and a dun-colored boxer straining at his leash. They pointed a lot since shouting proved useless. With sign language and tugs on each others jackets, they steered one another toward vintners, organic vegetable carts, and used books.
A fight erupted behind them in the street. Their faces inches apart, a vendor and his customer screamed in a language Mary couldn’t even place. Spittle flew, and a crowd quickly gathered. With proper English consideration, it left a wide open space in case the conflict became physical.
“What’s happening?” she wondered, peering around John. He had moved between her and the street.
“If I understand correctly,” he said, turning her around, “they’re brothers.”
It scared her a little the way John seemed to be maneuvering them back and out of the crowd. “You think they’ll hurt each other?”
“I don’t like the sound of it,” he answered. “Ah, here come the jacks.”
Uniformed police officers elbowed into the center, ordering everyone to stand away. John had already taken them to the edge of the gathering. She watched him watching the altercation, stunned by his command of the situation. She forgot sometimes that he had been a captain in the army.
“You understood them,” she said. “Were they Afghani?”
He nodded. “But from a region I’m not familiar with. I only caught a few words.”
The gawkers dissipated. Like good Londoners, they left the policing to the police.
“I’m starving,” John said, setting off toward the smoke of a sausage vendor’s grill.
Mary snatched at his jacket. “So, how many languages do you know?”
John held up two fingers to the vendor and reached for his wallet. “One. But I can cause international incidents in three more.”
Mary shook her head. It was second nature to him—assessing danger. It gave her an odd sense of both safety and vulnerability. He smiled, handing her a paper-wrapped link. The bright sunlight made him squint and turned his dirty-blonde hair into tarnished gold. She imagined her fingers in it, then pushed that thought firmly away.
Behind the sausage vendor, beyond the sidewalk, around the corner of the Chapel Market Bank, a back door to one of the shops offered a quiet set of steps. They grabbed them at once, shopping bags in one hand, paper-wrapped sausages in the other.
“I think these fairs are actually sanity tests.” John helped stow the bags under their knees. “Can you walk from Penton Street to Baron without going yampy? Yes? Cheers, have a sausage!”
Sanity tests. Mary took a big bite of her sausage. “O, haw! Haw!” She sucked air and rolled the steaming thing around in her mouth.
John grinned. “Think I’ll let mine cool a bit.”
“Guh i-e-a.” She chewed in short bursts, mewing in pain, but finally got it down. Tears weeped from under her big sunglasses. She pulled them off and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Nice touch, those,” John nodded at the glasses. “Keeps people from calling the jacks on me.”
“Oh, sure. I wore these to make you feel better.”
“This is the worst of it,” he said, touching the sorest spot on her forehead. “It’s already dissipating. By this time next week, you’ll be bile-colored instead of aubergine.”
Mary’s heart lurched. Even when John tried to be expressionless, he couldn’t. He said he wouldn’t apologize anymore, but his face couldn’t keep that promise. The slant of his eyebrows, the set of his mouth, the way his head ticked a little to one side all spoke of his regret and guilt. He might as well have said it out loud, like that other thing his face told her.
He kept trying to hide that, too, but Mary saw. She saw how his eyes turned soft and sweet when he looked at her. And the smile never quite left his lips. Then, there was that business of him protecting her.
He would say it out loud soon, especially if she kept encouraging him. The problem was she wanted him to say it as much as her fingers wanted to dive into the silk of his hair. But that would be mean. Mary didn’t want to hurt John, but she was afraid it was already too late.
“Bile-colored,” she said, eating the sausage in spite of losing her appetite. “By next week. That’s not too bad.”
“Maybe by then,” he smiled, “you’ll let me take you to dinner someplace where we won’t be monitored all night.”
There it was. The Future. Their future. Mary felt a real pain under her breastbone and wondered if it was her heart breaking. Oh, she didn’t want to do this.
An old man with a caramel-colored chihuahua walked by. The shoestring leash trembled in his hand. The dog’s tiny claws clicked against the sidewalk like crickets. Mary’s world narrowed to the sound of those little claws.
“I read your blog,” she said.
John’s face changed, then changed again. “And?” he said.
“I understand what you do now. It’s fascinating.”
“Hmm. Yes. And?”
“And you’re a very good writer.”
“I do quite a bit of writing in my work, too,” she said.
“You’ve never talked about your work.” He bit into his sausage. “I was beginning to wonder if you were the secret agent.”
He was teasing, but not really. She had side-stepped his questions about her job, but they had spent too much time together now. He would ask point-blank next time.
“I think I’ve had enough of Islington,” she said, wadding up the sausage wrapper. “Feel like heading back to the Tube?”
“All right.” He sat unmoving, chewing his sausage, waiting.
Mary tossed her wrapper at a garbage bin next to their stoop and missed.
“Dr. Bashir studies the effects of non-traditional treatment on patients with mental illness.”
Oh, that face! It popped open in surprise and a measure of relief.
“I’ve actually read something on that,” he said, “—veterans with PTSD treated with bio-feedback.”
Mary nodded. “Lots of researchers are interested in this field. Hard to get funding, though.”
Mary noticed her hands in fists on her thighs and relaxed them. She was off-track, still trying to wiggle out of it. Time to quit torturing herself. She felt the press of John’s arm against hers and swallowed.
“We’re working specifically with bipolar disorder. So far we have over 300 subjects in our control group.”
John made a little noise of appreciation. “I’m no researcher, but I know that’s a huge number of cases to follow.”
She managed to look at him, but her neck resisted. Her whole body resisted. “I’m case Number Three.”
His face grew still, then blank. Finally, he said, “You have bipolar disorder.”
She watched his brain kick into a higher gear—sorting questions, pulling up half-remembered medical texts, flipping through his own experience. It didn’t take him long.
“You seem very stable.”
It made her smile, that mild compliment. “Much of the study’s data comes from our journals. There’s a website we all have access to.”
She pulled a scrap of paper out of her jeans’ pocket. It was warm from being next to her all day. “I’ve made a list of some entries I’d like you to read.” She held out the slip to him. “After that, we can talk. If you want to.”
He took the folded bit of paper and sat staring at it a long time. He rubbed it between thumb and finger as if feeling its quality.
“You’re giving me an out,” he said quietly. “You think I’ll pitch you now, so you’re giving me an out.”
Mary ground her teeth, trying to keep the tears back.
“Wha–” He jumped up, mangling his words before they could escape whole from his mouth. He thrust the paper at her. “What kind of a man do you think I am?”
I know what kind. “Please,” she said. “Go home and read them.”
He was hurt and trying not to be. It made him stern and sharp. “May I at least walk you to the Tube?”
Mary shook her head.
He sputtered inarticulately. “And why not?”
“Because I have to cry a little.” She got up and gathered her bags.
His face crumpled. “Mary…”
She walked away from him, her breath catching on that sore place in her chest. She rounded the corner at White Lion Street and broke into a clumsy run. Past the old man and the chihuahua, past the Hobgoblin Pub, past Angel Tube Station, she ran until her breath burned her lungs. When her legs turned to rubber, she collapsed into a chair outside The Nag’s Head.
She covered her mouth and sobbed, but knew she’d be left alone. Public displays of emotion simply weren’t done, so she was practically invisible. And she needed to be invisible.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
John locked his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. Locks rattled behind the door’s peeling blue paint, then Rajen Sarswat swung it wide. John recognized the antagonism in his posture.
“So,” Sarswat said. “The face-smashing undoctor. It is late.”
“I’m sorry about the hour.” John kept his words clipped and business-like. “But I must speak to Mary.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Do you plan to upset her more?”
“That’s up to Mary.”
Sarswat’s dark eyes narrowed. He studied John with all the intimidation and gravitas of a field commander. John held eye contact with equal determination.
The door swung wider. “Step in, then.”
John lifted his chin. “I’ll wait here. Thank you.”
The door shut. He heard Sarswat call out and a confusion of voices. Then silence. A long silence. Finally the door clicked open again.
Mary stepped out onto the narrow stoop. She wore a weird hash of clothing—fuzzy socks, yoga pants, a short cotton nightgown, and an oversized sweatshirt splattered with dried yellow paint. She seemed composed, but John wondered if all the swelling and inflammation around her eyes came from the old injury. Old. He almost laughed. Five days seemed a lifetime ago with this woman. He could feel his control slipping and shored it up with bluntness.
“I read your research website.” The words sounded harsher than he intended. Nothing for that now. “All the bits you listed and more.”
Mary stepped down to the sidewalk, hugging her arms to her chest.
“Bashir came to you. He copied techniques you were already using for yourself.”
“The way you manage your illness is the model for Bashir’s whole study.”
She made a face, ready to deny it.
John held up a finger, stopping her. “You are the most courageous person I’ve ever known. And I know courage.”
She hugged herself a little tighter.
“I know what you tried to do today.” He shuffled his feet. “I’m a grown man—I can take care of myself.”
She opened her mouth.
“Shush.” He paused when she flinched. Sorry. I’m sorry. “There’s a café round the corner. Meet me there, nine o’clock tomorrow. We’ll have breakfast. And a chat.”
“A chat?” she whispered.
“A long chat.”
He turned on his heel and started back to the Tube, then stopped. Taking a deep breath, he swung around. Marching back to her, he grabbed Mary’s face and kissed her hard. In a flash, his anger evaporated.
“Oh, God,” he said, pulling away, “did I hurt your face? I—”
She grabbed his jacket and yanked him back, her mouth insistent and undeniable. They spent a long time in that place where their mouths melded. They gripped each other as if drowning. And when they finally broke the surface, John gazed into her topaz eyes and kissed them. He kissed her brow and her cheeks—all the hurt places—until Mary sighed and leaned into him. They spent more time in that place, locked together, but John was mindful of Mary’s stocking feet. He opened the flat’s door and handed her up into the entryway.
He took a step back, then another. He couldn’t quite turn away from her this time. He didn’t want to. But she nodded, and her lips curled up bravely, and that made it easier. He looked over his shoulder once before turning the corner. She watched him, hugging herself in the cold, small and half-hidden in the doorway.
No more apologies, he promised, from either of us.
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