‘I can’t help it,’ he said, and he lowered his head, his hands together over his face, his breathing deep and irregular, racked by sobs which slowly increased until his whole body was shaking.
Sandra leaned towards him and held him tightly, deeply concerned, of course, but determined to help him in this crisis, steadfast in her love for him. Harry, clearly upset by this show of emotion, edged closer and leaned against his knee, looking up at him. Sandra put one hand down and Harry licked it. She knew exactly what he meant.
Reggie sobbed and sobbed, and Sandra patted and hugged him and told him that it was alright, she understood, she was there for him and Harry leaned harder against Reggie’s knee and kept looking up at him, concerned.
Slowly, finally exhausted, Reggie’s sobs eased and his shaking reduced until, eventually, he could lower his hands and turn to Sandra, his grief still written plainly on his exhausted face. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered.
Harry licked Reggie’s hands as though this was a universal solution to all troubles, the hands together between Reggie’s open knees, lying listless.
Sandra smiled to herself as she sensed her husband come down from the pinnacle of his emotion, loosened her hold on him and instead caressed the back of his neck, her head touching his. They had been through so much together. She was confident that they would weather this, too. Exactly how, she was as yet unsure; but come through it together they most certainly would.
Reggie sighed deeply, and raised one hand to hold hers in his lap. ‘Thanks,’ he said quietly, turning his face slightly so that he could see the side of hers.
She patted his hand and smiled. ‘Cuppa?’
‘Not just yet, Love. Just hold me.’
She pulled him to her more tightly. Men are such fools, she thought.
After, sitting at the table with his big mug of thick brown tea and three sugars between his hands, leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he gave her a rueful smile. ‘I can’t help it.’ he repeated. ‘If I could, I’d stop. But it’s something deep inside me. It won’t go away.’
‘Yet,’ she said quietly.
‘Yet. It won’t go away yet.’
He raised his head and looked at her, his smile vanishing, his face hardening. ‘Don’t,’ he said coldly.
‘You know what I mean. Don’t try to make it small, silly. Temporary.’
She kept her eyes down, knowing that if her eyes met his they would fight, as they had so often before. ‘I’m not doing that. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.’
‘So it isn’t going away.’
This time she raised her eyes and looked deeply into his, her own softening. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘It’s not going away.’ She paused. Then: ‘So... what?’
He shook his head slowly from side to side. ‘I just don’t know. I don’t know what to do. Don’t really know what to think. I just… want her.’
It was Sandra’s turn to sigh. She took his hands from around the mug, moving it to one side, and looked at him. Patiently. Helpfully. ‘You’re a little long in the tooth, aren’t you? For that, I mean.’
‘I know, Love,’ he said, and the rueful expression returned to his face. ‘No fool like an old fool, is there?’
She released his hands, recognising that the worst of the crisis was over, and picked up her own mug and sipped the tea. It wasn’t really warm enough any more, and under normal circumstances she would have taken it to the sink and thrown it out. ‘You’re not that old.’
He harrumphed. ‘Old enough to know better. I’d have thought at my age I’d have been saved from this sort of thing.’
‘“Age is no saviour from love”,’ she said. ‘I read that somewhere. I’m not sure it’s true, but some people clearly believe it.’
He shrugged. ‘Anyway, Love, what I don’t want is to lose you.’
‘Want your cake and eat it too?’
He paused and looked at her, as though trying to see if she was fighting him or making fun of him. ‘It’s not that, and you know it.’
She help up both hands as though surrendering. ‘Okay. Okay. You want to keep what you’ve got, but to get her as well.’
‘No,’ he insisted. ‘It’s not like that. I just want… hell, I don’t know what I want. But I know what I don’t want, and that’s to hurt you. Or to lose you. You know that.’
She looked at him for a long moment, her head cocked to one side as though gauging him, measuring him. ‘Let’s just leave it there, shall we,’ she said. ‘For the moment. You do what you’ve got to do, and we’ll see.’
Despite himself, his heart leapt a little, his blood rushing.
‘I can’t believe this, Dad,’ Eric said. Eric was their youngest son, the only one of their four children in whom Reggie could confide.
They were fishing, sitting on folding seats beside a wide brown river which glided soundlessly before them, thick and oily. They were in the shade of a big willow, the branches drooping almost to the ground all around them. Fishermen had trimmed the branches on the river side so that they could cast in that direction, an annual task undertaken by the local club.
Reggie didn’t answer, just shrugged.
Eric looked at his father, saying nothing. He had said enough, he thought.
Eventually Reggie looked at his son. ‘I thought you might understand,’ he said, as though disappointed.
‘You’re in love with someone else,’ Eric said with more than a touch of ridicule in his voice, a tone he had never used with his father, ‘and she’s twenty five? Christ, Dad, I understand all right. She’s not even a third of your age.’
Reggie smiled. ‘I know. Silly, isn’t it?’
‘And Mum doesn’t mind?’
‘That’s not what I said. She knows about it, and she’s supporting me. Well, she’s not fighting me, anyway.’
‘And what does she say, this Fiona?’
Reggie looked taken aback. ‘Fiona? Oh, she doesn’t know about it.’
‘This is getting more and more ridiculous. What do you mean, she knows nothing about it?’
‘I haven’t said anything to her. Not yet. It’s just not that sort of thing.’
‘Dad,’ Eric complained, ‘you’re not making sense. You reckon you’re in love with her but you haven’t told her, but you’ve told Mum? What are you, going senile?’
‘Not yet. Loosing lots of things, but not my marbles. Not so far.’
‘Dad, you’re seventy six years old. Christ, she’s half my age. What are you going to do, elope?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not that.’
Eric threw down his rod in disgust, stood and walked to edge of the water, taking off his hat and scratching his head as though seeking an answer. He turned and looked at his father. ‘So okay, Dad, what are you going to do?’
Reggie pointed. ‘You’ve got a bite,’ he told his son.
Eric looked down in surprise, and saw his rod being dragged slowly across the grass. He picked it up, and the rod bent. ‘It’s a big one,’ he said. ‘About time.’ He started reeling in, the rod bending further. ‘Get the net, Dad.’
She didn’t laugh. She didn’t really know what she should do, but it seemed important not to laugh. She reached her hand across the table and placed it on his, a large, brown hand, a little rough at the knuckles and with a scattering of grey hairs on each finger, and along the outer edges.
Having made his declaration, he kept his eyes down, not sure of what she would say.
‘Well,’ she said. That was a start. She needed time to think. Oh, sure, she liked him well enough. They had spent plenty of time together, but he was the boss and she the employee.
She liked her job. She liked the cameras they sold, she liked the people who came into the shop. She liked the Photoshop jobs they undertook now and then, fixing up other people’s problems. She liked the rest of the staff, too, Billy the Kid, Sarah and even old Arthur. She liked the time spent in the darkroom, often with Reggie himself, moving together in the red gloom, and never, ever giving her a hint of how he felt.
And now this!
‘Is it because I haven’t got a boyfriend at the moment? Is that what’s made you think I might be… available?’ She looked at his eyes, which were turned away in defence, she thought. Look at me. Look at me!
Reggie kept his eyes averted. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing like that.’
‘Well what, then? I’ve never encouraged you, have I?’
He looked up then, quickly. His eyes were red-rimmed, his face gaunt. The hand she was holding was shaking ever so slightly. ‘You’ve always been bloody nice to me,’ he said.
‘I’m nice to lots of people,’ she said quietly. ‘It’s just the way I am.’
He sighed deeply. They were sitting at a table in the main street, a coffee untouched before each of them. People passed in both directions, but she could see people noticing the holding of hands from the corner of her eye. She didn’t care.
‘I’ve told Sandra,’ he said.
She was surprised. ‘And what did she say?’
He smiled as though to himself. ‘She said she understands, but I think she believes I’m dopey or something.’
‘What did you tell her, exactly?’
Again that deep sigh. He knew it sounded bloody silly, an old sod like him claiming to be in love with a twenty-five year old woman. A girl, really. ‘I just told her the truth. That I find myself, unwillingly, but absolutely, in love with you. I can’t help it at all. I think about you all the time, I can’t sleep without dreaming about you.’
‘And she said she understands?’
‘Just like that?’
‘Well no, not just like that. She thinks it’s an infatuation, that it won’t last.’
She looked at him carefully. ‘It is, though, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘This is real. I’m not a kid. I know what I feel.’
‘And what do you feel for Sandra?’
‘She’s my wife.’
‘And what do you feel for her?’
He gave his biggest sigh. ‘I… well, Hell, I love her too.’
Fiona took her hand from his. ‘So you’re hoping for what? A threesome? A ménage à trois?
He looked at her helplessly. ‘It’s not about sex,’ he told her quietly. ‘Nothing like that. This is… pure.’
She couldn’t help it. She giggled. Just a little, stopping abruptly as she realised that she was hurting him.
‘It’s not funny,’ He said, turning his head away. ‘Can’t you understand?’
She paused, looking at him, weighing him up. ‘Not really, no,’ she said. ‘But this is so not going to happen. It’s just not. I suppose I’d better leave and find another job. Another place to live. I’m so sorry that I’ve got to hurt you, because I don’t want to. You’ve been so nice to me, you all have. Your wife, too.’
‘Somewhere neutral, I’d suggest,’ said Sandra.
‘Okay, I suppose,’ Fiona said hesitantly.
‘How about the park. Say, by the big pond?’
‘D’you mean in five minutes, or just for five minutes?’
Fiona laughed. ‘In five minutes,’ she said.
And that’s where they met. ‘I know this is a bit awkward,’ Sandra started…’
‘Well, sort of,’ Fiona butted in, ‘but I’m completely innocent, you know. I did nothing to encourage it.’
‘I know. That much is obvious. I sort of feel I have to apologise for Reggie. He’s never done anything like this before.’
‘I thought that might be so. He’s such a nice man. But, you know, he’s so old!’
‘He’s the same age as me.’ She smiled.
‘I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant…’
‘Yeah, he’s so old. I just can’t explain it. No fool…’
‘… like an old fool. That’s what I said to him. Anyway, I’m leaving. It’s the only way, now.’
‘I’m really sorry you feel you have to do that. But where will you go? And won’t that just make him try to follow you?’
‘I know. But I can’t be responsible for that, can I? Look, I won’t tell anyone where I’m going. I know that won’t absolutely prevent him from tracing me if he’s really desperate, but I’ve told him there is no chance of anything between us, so perhaps…’
‘Mmmm,’ said Sandra doubtfully. ‘I suppose that’s the best we can do.’
‘Okay, so that’s it. Goodbye, and let’s hope for the best.’ She leaned toward the older woman and kissed her cheek.
Sandra watched Fiona walk away. She really was a lovely young woman, lovely in every way. She could see why Reggie had fallen for her.
Eric came round on the Saturday, bringing his rods but not really expecting to go fishing. He looked into the sitting room to find his father staring fixedly at the Saturday papers, a congealing coffee on the table before him. ‘Where’s Mum?’ he asked.
‘Dunno. She's not talking to me.’
‘Not surprised, really,’ Eric noted. ‘She gone out?’
‘Well, she’s not here, anyway.’
‘How about a spot of fishing?’
Reggie looked at Eric for the first time. ‘Not really in the mood for it.’
His son looked at him, slumped in an armchair in a darkened room, holding up a paper but obviously not reading it. 'She's left, I heard.'
Reggie turned to him. 'Heard right,' he said quietly.
Eric sat in the second armchair. 'Right,' he said. There was a moment's silence. 'Best thing, I suppose.'
His father stood abruptly, glaring at his son. Then turned and stamped out of the room.
The door slammed behind him.
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