About Time Too
The restaurant was dimly lit, each table had it's own small lamp at the centre leaving the ambient light level low. I didn't see her first of all, but then I suppose I was looking for that young nurse I remembered rather than thinking about how she might have aged.
"Duffy!" She'd come round behind me somehow, but when I heard her voice a little shiver of excitement went up my spine. I turned to see her properly for the first time, standing up as I moved.
Her hair was cut short, blonder than I remembered and carefully styled to frame her face. That, matched with a tidy trouser suit gave her a much more sophistcated air than Duffy of old. Her face had barely altered though, unlike mine, now chubby and wrinkled like a half deflated football. She was smiling, but her eyes betrayed a nervousness and I wondered if mine did too. It really had been too long.
"You're really here!" I said astonished, immediately feeling stupid for saying it.
"Yep. Happy birthday Charlie" She leant forward and placed a quick kiss on my cheek. "Sorry I haven't got you a present, I expected to be able to shop here but the flight was delayed and it was all such a mess. I didn't think I was going to make it. My fault for not planning things better".
"Doesn't matter, you being back in Holby after so long is a good enough present for me," i indicated for her to sit and then did the same.
"I can't believe you're sixty already! I suppose this means we should start planning the wedding then..." She laughed, but I have to admit I was too much in shock to do the same. She frowned, "You do remember that promise I made way back... That I'd marry you... You're not already married are you?"
I shook myself from my stupor, I hadn't really expected her remember that silly promise she'd made a good twenty years ago now, although to be honest it had played on my mind recently. I mean it would, wouldn't it? When you're still working in the same building you made the promise in, when you're still alone, and when you miss the person in question every single day. That was me though, not Duffy, with her new life Down Under. I'd promiosed myself that I wasn't going to bring it up and in that way I'd spare her the embarrassment of having to talk her way out of it.
"Me? Definately not. You're not either I take it?"
"I've had a few near misses. No one has lived up to my expectations. I've gotten fussy in my old age".
"You're not old".
"You're sixty Charlie, I'm not that much younger you know. On the wrong side of the hill as my darling children keep pointing out, but you know the thing about hills - it's always more fun on the way down!"
"You certainly look well on it."
"I feel well. These last few years have been kind to me. I've got to do a lot of things that I was starting to think I would never get around to. I've been travelling, Spent two months doing a whistle stop tour of Oz, last summer. Over the last ten years I've been to each of the continents at least once, well, except for Antartica - it's a bit cold - but never say never!"
I thought back over the last ten years of my life; I'd been to Canada regularly to see Louis but apart from that and a booze cruise to France my passport was rather empty. But then I didn't have a nice profitable little business under my belt.
I didn't realy know what else to say. On the one hand it was wonderful seeing her again, but on the other everything about her reminded me how far apart it seemed we'd drifted.
"So what about you?"
"Still at Holby. New title but same old same old really. Human nature hasn't changed, people are still getting drunk and beating each other up, someone's got to piece them back together"
She didn't look in the least surprised that I was still nursing in the hospital that she'd left a good decade ago, and I'll admit there was a part of me hurt by that, "I mean I could have gone globetrotting if I'd wanted..."
She smiled, "Of course", but she must have known that it wasn't true. I couldn't afford the lifestyle she was used to, travelling to see my son had financially wiped me out to the point of most of my peers having taken early retirment but me still putting in ten hour days.
I sipped at the whiskey I'd ordered whilst waiting for her and mentally kicked myself for killing the conversation, but as I replaced the glass and she clasped her hand over mine I realised that the damage hadn't, in fact, been fatal.
"I've missed you Charlie," She leaned in across the table, the nervousness in her eyes replaced now with what seemed to be great weight of sadness. Insinctively I turned my hand over to squeeze her fingers. "You want to know the truth?"
I frowned, "The truth?"
"All my business trips, all my holidays; they've all been really boring. At worst I've been milling about on my own and at best the boys have been there but they've all got better things on their minds than keeping their old Mum company. I've been lonely as hell ever since I left Holby".
"What about Ryan?"
"Oh come on! My marriage to him was a disaster, just like you said it would be".
I'm not totally sure why but I apologised at that point, Duffy laughed gently and straightened back up in her chair, removing her hand from mine as she did so. It's hard to explain but my skin ached at the loss of contact.
"It's hardly your fault. I should have known better than to ignore your advice. Besides, even without factoring in that you are always right, all the signs were there for me to see, I was just too stubborn to look at them." Her fingers were gliding up and down the embossed pattern on the knife handle, and as she spoke her gaze drifted away from my eye line and down the to cutlery instead, "I was actually shocked when things started to disintegrate, surprised that I found I couldn't trust a word Ryan said and when he finally left I was just so embarrassed..."
"You should have come back to Holby then".
Her eyes flicked up at my words, staring at me from beneath her lashes and for all she tried to explain that she had her business and the boys welfare etc etc to think about I knew a part of her at least agreed with me.
"Well I'm here now," she said, "And as it's your birthday I think we should get on with celebrating, don't you?"
The rest of the meal passed with idle chit chat, mostly about Louis, Peter, Jake and Paul and we both did the terrible parent thing of pulling battered old photos from wallets and gushing about them. What surpised me, although it didn't occur to me to note it at the time, was that I didn't have to fake an interest in her stories. I wanted to hear about her kids, her life, or maybe I just wanted to hear her voice.
We fought over who should pay the bill, an argument that for some unknown reason I insisted on winning while Duffy put down some money for a tip and reluctantly we left the restaurant and exited onto the street. It was pleasantly warm for a late February evening in Holby and despite the sun already having set it was clear neither of us were in any hurry to get home. She linked her arm through mine and we walked in comfortable silence down the street until by unspoken consensus we ended up on the edge of the common.
"I used to bring Peter here to play when he was little," She disentangled her arm from mine and trotted ahead, her shoes making dull thuds on the packed earth. "Just through here there used to be a little playground with swings and a slide..."
Without warning she slipped through a gap in the bushes and I lost sight of her, "Duffy!"
"Come on Charlie!" her disembodied voice called back, and I broke into the closest thing to a sprint I could manage as I followed the path she'd taken.
"Follow my voice... over here!"
I don't know about her voice but the sound of her giggling was more of a beacon. The path led away from the grassy adge of the common and into the wild wooded area, my eyes straining to compensate for the lack of light and my heart thumping with the frankly unprecedented exertion as much as the uneasyness of the unfamilar territory. The ground inclined gently beneath me but after a few feet I realised the edge of the incline was also the tree line and suddenly I was out in the comparative light of a wide clearing. Duffy held out her hand, and I took it as I tried to catch my breath.
"That was fun!"
"You're insane. Where are we?"
Two steps ahead of me and practically dragging me along she led me to a small fenced in section of the common with giant wood and metal structures growing tall out of the woodchip floor.
"Peter always loved it here, I practically had to drag him away kicking and screaming sometimes," she laughed to herself, "Actually you can scrap the 'practically' from that. He humiliated me on more than one occasion. In the end I worked out the best idea was to try to tire him out as much as possible so he really wanted to go home".
"What about Jake?"
"We'd moved away by then remember. God, it's hard to believe that he's in his twenties. Even little Paul's in secondary school - Oh you'll have to remind me to call them later, I just know Peter is letting Paul get up to all sorts!"
"It does. Seems like only yesterday that I was first starting at Holby".
"Really? It feels a lifetime ago to me. In fact I'm sure there are whole chunks of my life that I've already forgotten, they were so long ago".
"Not the important bits though I'm sure. Shall we go in?"
Duffy nodded toward the park. The locked park. I mentioned the large padlock and she waved her hand at it dismissively. "The fence is only three foot high Charlie!"
"Isn't that breaking and entering?"
"Well, I suppose it's entering..." She swung a leg over the fence, twisting slightly as she brought the other over and somehow making the whole endeavour look close to ladylike, "No one will know".
"When did you become such a rebel?"
"I'd hardly say I was up there with the great anarchists of our time, anyway, life's too short. We need to grab our fun when we can".
I conceeded to that point. Fun was a word I was familar with but increasingly as just an abstract concept. I heaved myself over the tiny fence, my body being quite emphatic about it's belief that I was too old for that sort of thing, but in my head I felt younger than I had done in years.
Duffy was already spinning slowly on the merry-go-round, her back against the centre pole, her hands holding the painted metal bars that spread out from the middle. I came up to her and gave one of the bars a generous push. I heard her gasp as the contraption sped up a little, but as she came round to face me I could see her grinning.
"I don't know if I can" I replied miserably if honestly, "Oh what the hell. If I break something you'll get me to hospital won't you?"
I waited until it had slowly a touch then jumped awkwardly aboard in the segmant opposite to Duffy's, she turned around to face me. Even though we were now moving at an unbelieveably slow speed the constant rotation of the scenery was making me dizzy and I concentrated on Duffy's face to combat it. She looked happy, her mouth, her eyes everything was glowing with happiness and she looked beautiful. Despite the clear madness of the situation I wouldn't have done a thing to change it. Spinning around like a couple of giddy teenagers, I thought it was perfect. Then she kissed me, and it was perfect.
Her arms snaked around my waist as her soft lips met mine, and although I hadn't been expecting it it felt absolutely right, I wondered fleetingly how long she'd been planning it, or if it really was a spontaneous idea but I didn't really care either way and gave up thinking in favour of enjoying the sensation.
As we finally broke the kiss, we still held each other tight, tighter even; her head against my shoulder and although we were quite stationary by now the world still seemed to be spinning to me.
"That was nice" I said, immediately recognising how pathetic that sounded and searching my brain for something romantic or poetic and failing on both counts.
"Yeah," she replied breathily, "It was, wasn't it".
"I don't want to let you go"
"I don't want you to either"
So I said it, the sentance I'd gone in to the evening actively intending to avoid, "Will you marry me?"
The words came out as little more than a whisper carried away on the nighttime breeze and when she didn't answer I imagined she hadn't heard, but far from thinking I'd had a lucky escape from embarrassment or worse I realised how much I wanted to hear her say 'yes'. Not to fulfil some daft agreement made years ago, not to save myself from lonliness but simply because I loved her and wanted to be with her.
"I heard" She pulled away enough so that she could look into my eyes. The blue of her eyes was lost in the darkness but the intensity of her gaze was unmistakable. "Ask me again".
"Will you mar-"
I jumped off the merry-go-round, and ran around the side, slipping on the cork chips and not caring. Meanwhile Duffy stepped down from her side and we embraced once more without the metal of the ride between us. I was so caught up in our private celebration that I didn't notice the torch beam until it shone at our faces and we broke apart blinking against the light.
"Oi" a voice from behind the light shouted, "Park's locked, clear off!"
I could see Duffy turning red even the very tips of her ears burning as she shrank back behind me, but I was far too happy to be ashamed of our juvenille behaviour.
"She's going to marry me!" I shouted back in sheer jubilation. Duffy tugged at my coat sleeve.
The light bobbed slightly as the security guard jumped the fence, then rested on us for a few extra seconds before its owner switched it off.
"Is she now? Aren't you two a bit old for this, eh? Usually it's teenagers that I'm turfing out of here in the middle of the night"
"We're very sorry, we'll go now. Sorry". Duffy piped up from behind me.
"Yeah," I agreed, nodding heartily, "She's going to marry me"
"So you said sir. Congratulations. But you do have to leave here. Now."
I finally snapped out of it and let Duffy lead me back over the fence and out across the grass once more, breaking out into fits of laughter at the absurdity of getting thrown out of a playground as soon as we thought we were out of the guard's earshot.
"So, you're happy then?" she asked as we emerged once more onto the street. In the lamplight I could see she sported the broadest smile I think I've ever seen, but I'm certain that mine was wider.
"Of course. But," she paused, the smile shrinking, and my heart thudded out a warning message to me that 'but' was not often followed by something good.
"But, you know that my life - my boys, my business - are in New Zealand. I can't uproot everything to Holby. Not now. You understand that, don't you".
"You want me to leave work?"
"I know how hard it'll be for you but-"
"I love you." I interrupted her, "It won't be hard at all". She looked incredulous; I suppose I wasn't that suprised considering my past record, but it was the truth. "England, New Zealand, Outer bloddy Mongolia, I don't care, as long as I'm with you. Anyway, I have it on good authority that it's quite nice there"
"Oh yeah. Some woman I knew emigrated there in 2003".
"Some woman!" she exclaimed in mock offense as I put my arm around her shoulders. She snuggled against me contentedly
"Yep. Shame really, 'cause I quite fancied her".
"I expect she quite fancied you too. Now come on, let's get back to your place, and we can celebrate properly. Deal?"
And we did.