I don’t know what it was about the city, but from the instant I stepped off the plane I loved it.
“You’re just infatuated with the idea of a European man falling madly in love with you,” he grumbled, crankier than usual as I gushed about the architecture racing by the windows of the taxi.
“A European man is already madly in love with me,” I teased as I grasped his fingers in mine.
Expecting a snide comment, I was surprised when all I got in return was a sad sigh. I frowned and pulled his sunglass from his face so I could see his eyes. They were dark and expressionless as they focused on the window just behind my head.
“Everything looks the same,” he said, his voice as expressionless as his eyes.
A sudden chill caused me to shudder involuntarily. I pushed his glasses back onto his nose before the cold in his eyes could seep any further into mine. The back of my hand brushed against his chin before it settled back into his grip. “You need to sleep, love,” I said softly.
“I need…” His voice trailed off, and I knew whatever he was thinking was best left unsaid. I let my fingers twist into his palm and said nothing else for the remainder of the taxi ride.
I studied the landscape intently from behind the smudged glass. I wanted to remember every dormered window and every flower-laden arbor that arched over every gate. I wanted to remember every crack in every sidewalk and every twig on every ancient tree. For whatever reason, it seemed crucial that I remember everything and I kept a silent commentary as we drove deeper into London.
...the trees are blooming…pink flowers…that window has blue curtains with yellow stripes…the sun is shining but dully…remember it all, experience it as thoroughly as possible…it’s so important…
I was overloaded with sights, sounds, and smells and desperately trying to regain my sense of where I was when I felt him tense next to me. The taxi slowed into a turn and came to a halt in front of a row of houses, each as neatly kept as the next. Green was the predominant color – touches of it showed everywhere from the trim on one house to the perfectly manicured patches of lawn growing in perfectly straight rows.
“It’s lovely,” I murmured.
“I assure you it is not,” he said.
I opened my mouth with every intention of saying something calming, but instead what came out was, “Who is that man who looks exactly like you? And why is he glowering?”
He followed my gaze and took in a deep breath as his eyes settled on the man standing in front of one of the perfectly kept houses. “My brother,” he said from between clenched teeth.
We climbed out of the taxi and he pulled our bags from the trunk. I stood on the curb staring silently at the man I knew only as “that bastard Graham” as he paid the driver. As the taxi sputtered away I heard him cursing under his breath.
“What the bloody fuck…”
Graham took a step towards us. I was the only one who noticed.
“…and that fuckwit is just standing there…”
Graham took another step towards us, and still I was the only one who noticed.
“Baby…” I said again.
“…damn him why is he here…”
“Hey!” I said as I reached behind me to grab his arm.
I gently grabbed the hair at the nape of his neck and gave it a tug, turning his head in the direction of his brother who now stood just a few feet away. He was instantly in front of me, his hand reaching back and resting protectively on my hip. Before I had a chance to utter a word of protest, Graham was practically on top of us.
“What’s this?” he said, sneering as he looked at me.
Geoff narrowed his eyes and put two fingers firmly into Graham’s chest. “You are much too close,” he snapped.
Graham turned his sneer towards his brother. “And I thought you’d greet me with a hug.”
I felt Geoff's fingers wrap themsevles around my side. His thumb dug uncomfortably into my hip as he pulled me closer to him. He didn’t say a word as Graham took another step in our direction. He just tightened his grip on me and glared back at his brother.
“No hug?” Graham said, reaching for my shoulder.
“Don’t you dare,” Geoff hissed, and I was suddenly glad for his hand on my hip....every detail…every blink, every challenge, every sneer…capture it…it’s important…important…important…
I shook the voice from my head and met Graham’s sneer. Stepping out from where I stood I extended my hand. “I’m...” I said, feeling grateful that my voice didn’t waver.
Graham reached for my hand, but before I could grasp his, Geoff knocked my hand out of the way. “I said don’t you dare,” he said to his brother.
I protested, but he ignored me.
“Inside making tea for that one,” Graham said, nodding his chin in my direction.
Geoff picked up two bags and shoved them at me. Still off balance from the taxi ride and the bizarre greeting we’d received from his brother, I didn’t complain when Geoff wrapped his arm tightly around my waist and pulled me along with him.
“Darlin'…I…why haven’t you spoken to him in five years?” I whispered when there was distance between the two of them.
“Don’t let him near enough to touch you,” Geoff replied in a short voice.
“That’s not an answer to my question, damn it.”
His hand tightened on my waist, his thumb again digging uncomfortably into my hip. “Do not. Let him near enough. To touch you. I mean it. Do you hear me?”
“Everybody living within a two mile radius can hear you,” I said, trying to make light of the situation. What I didn’t say, and what I hoped my body language didn’t betray, was that a sudden sense of impending doom had settled over me.
“I feel it, too,” Geoff said quietly, startling me.
“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” he said sadly.
I stopped walking and turned to face him. “You absolutely should have brought me here,” I whispered as I kissed his chin. “I’ll remind you of why later.”
“You’ve just reminded me,” he replied, breaking into the first smile I’d seen since we’d boarded a plane half a day earlier. “But I’m still sorry I brought you here.”
I kissed his chin one last time and then continued along the path to the house. I stopped at the front door and took a deep breath, bracing myself for…
…Charlotte. I plastered on a smile, but it was wasted effort; Charlotte was too busy pressing my face into her shoulder to see it. The smell of cigarettes and perfume overwhelmed the more subtle scent of the flowers that bloomed in big pots on either side of the front door. I gagged and tried to find a pocket of fresh air.
In an instant Geoff’s hands were on my shoulders. Relief washed over me as he carefully extricated me from her grasp and she turned her attention to him, but it was short-lived when I saw his face go pale and his back stiffen at her touch.
“Darling,” she said.
He leaned down to brush his lips against her cheek. “Mother.”
She ushered us into her tidy kitchen and placed a tray laden with biscuits and fruit buns in front of us. I watched cautiously as she poured tea into delicate cups and wondered why she was bothering to pour for Geoff...he hated tea.
“Surely she knows…?” I murmured.
“Surely she doesn’t care,” Geoff said out of the corner of his mouth.
Charlotte stopped pouring and straightened up to her full height. “I’m sorry?”
“Nothing,” Geoff muttered. “Thank you.”
Charlotte nodded and went back to pouring. We sat for an hour, the uncomfortable silence broken only by intermittent, forced conversation. Graham sat in the next room, fully visible but silent.
“Hey, baby?” I said softly when Charlotte turned her attention from us briefly. “Maybe we should stay in a hotel…?”
The rest of his family arrived just then. Small children burst through the front door and galloped towards him. I stood when he did and backed out of the way.
“Uncle!” a little girl shrieked as she leapt into his arms.
“Hello, Anne,” Geoff replied, smiling warmly. “Where’s your mum?”
“She’s getting Sean from the buggy,” Anne said. She was a strikingly pretty girl with dark hair and eyes the exact shade of green as her uncle's. “Must you leave again?"
“Eventually, yes, but not today. Now turn around,” he said as he placed her back on the floor. “Say hello to my friend.”
“Mim says you’re going to marry him,” Anne said to me.
“Mim?” I said, confused.
“Charlotte,” Geoff whispered.
“Oh," I replied. “Well. Of course."
“Are you going to marry him?” Anne asked me.
I stared at her, unsure of how to respond. “He hasn’t asked me yet,” I finally said, and thankfully, that seemed good enough. She nodded, snatched a biscuit from the table, and started chattering at Charlotte.
I could see by the tenseness of his jaw as he spoke to his sister that he wanted to leave, and I wondered how much time would have to pass for our exit to be considered graceful. When he stood abruptly and announced, “I’m done, damn it,” I knew that there would be nothing graceful about our exit.
He wove through screaming children and grasped my wrist gently. I knew better than to protest then, so I allowed him to pull me from the house. His mother followed us out, badgering us the entire way to the taxi he'd called for without my knowledge.
“You know I don’t approve of you two sharing a room. I don’t know why you’d disregard my feelings like this…”
He was impressive in his restraint as she continued to yell at him, ignoring her as he tossed luggage into the trunk of the waiting taxi. When she grabbed his elbow, though, he yanked his arm away and spun to face her.
“You should not
touch me,” he hissed, the rage I’d been watching build all day finally breaking surface.
“Let's just go," I pleaded, tugging on his sleeve. “You’re on a big cliff, baby…come back here, okay? I'm right here…"
your pardon,” Charlotte sniffed at me, but I ignored her and concentrated on getting out of there.
"I don’t care the door is still open!” I yelled at the taxi driver when he refused to move the car. “Go, just go, JUST BLOODY GO!"
I pulled Geoff into the car and reached across him to close the door. “What was that?” I asked him as the car finally surged forward.
He shook his head and stared stonily ahead. His breath was coming in short, ragged gasps. "Not now."
I sighed. “Yeah, okay.”
He looked at me, the anger flashing in his eyes disappearing when I met his gaze. He sighed and reached for my hand. "Just bloody go?" he said, and I heard the hint of a smile in his voice.
"I really need to stop spending so much time with you."
"Don't you dare."
We found a hotel with a vacancy near the American Embassy and checked in. When we were showered and lying across the bed in our pajama pants and sweatshirts, I started to laugh.
“Nothing can possibly be that funny,” Geoff snapped.
“The embassy is across the street,” I giggled.
“What’s funny about that?”
“It’s very convenient, don't you think? I mean, when you kill her...”
"Sod off, love."
“And just a few hours ago you were madly in love with me,” I said, still giggling. “Such a fickle boy..."
“Sod. Off. Love.”
I turned off the light and crawled under the blanket. I heard him yawn and soon he was crawling under the blanket next to me. I searched out his hand and held it tightly.
"I'm sorry," I heard him whisper.
"Let's just go home," I whispered back. "We'll send an announcement about our very private wedding. It doesn't matter what they know and don't know..."
"No," he replied, sighing, and I knew he was right.
“What happened five years ago?” I asked softly.
He was silent for a long time and finally he said, “I can’t, darlin'.”
“You know I'm not going away, right?"
"Promise?" he whispered, and I swore I heard tears in his voice.
"How long have you been awake?" I asked.
When I heard him take a breath to answer, I shushed him, knowing he'd lie to keep me from worrying. And when he finally started sinking into sleep, I whispered, "I promise."
I worry every day that I didn't do enough to keep my word.