Never Too Late?
The pub was next to empty, which surprised Charlie. He'd spent his fair share of Christmases in various pubs in the Holby area, and they'd all filled out at around lunch time with various groups of relatives, mostly men, escaping whilst the dinner was cooking, or relaxing after it with a nice cool pint. Today it seemed different. A couple sat by the window with their backs to him. They sat practically on top of each other, cuddled in close, whispering and giggling. It was a heart-warming sight, but one that left Charlie feeling the pangs of jealousy he was accustomed to feeling every time he saw a happy couple.
An old man sat hunched over at the bar, teetering precariously on the stool as he leant in to mumble something to the barman. Charlie watched as the man thrust his whiskey glass forward for the third time, and for the third time the barman politely returned it to it's former position.
"G'won, mate," he slurred, sptting slightly into the remnants of his turkey dinner and pulling a pocket full of coins out onto the polished wooden surface, "One more?"
The barman conceded, scooping the money up and counting it with his practised eye.
At his table, Charlie shook his head to himself, and drunk down the remains of his Guinness. Poor Sod. Fancy being an old man alone at Christmas, in a dodgy pub getting drunk... he was so busy pitying the other man that it took a good minute for him to realise his own predicament, sat in front of the hostelry's finest roast-for-one, empty pint glass in hand. He tried to gauge the age of that man, but it was a difficult job; his frayed red jumper was too big for him, his face obscured by a wispy white beard and moustache. Charlie imagined that the specimen in front of him would look rather similar to Santa Claus had Santa been evicted from the north pole and left to survive on a meagre pension; the image wasn't one to raise his spirits. In the frosted glass panels that rose up out of the pubs oak partitions between tables he could make out his own reflection. Not as shabby as the old boy at the bar, but far from healthy young man he'd once been.
The hospital was grinding him down, wearing down what little optimism and hope he had left. The latest CEO didn't like him one little bit, she wanted to sweep down the corridors of Holby Hospital with a very new broom; there was no place in her streamlined health service for a man pushing retirement age. What was more, Charlie felt no inclination to fight with her about it. He turned up, did his job, left the arguing to the others. His heart wasn't in it anymore. His heart hadn't been in it for a long time.
He resented the hospital for the hold it had over him, but deep down he knew it wasn't about the hospital at all. He'd made this particular bed, he had no choice but to lie in it, no matter how uncomfortable. He could have left years ago. He should have. He hadn't.
Disgusted with himself, he pulled himself up from the padded bench and yanked on his jacket. He had no where to go save for home and the companionship of the television and a glass or two of single malt, but at least in the sanctuary of his own flat he wouldn't become paranoid of other people appraising him the way he had been the poor old man at the bar.
Carrying his plate and glass to the bar he wished an utterly perfunctory 'Merry Christmas' to the barman, who replied in kind, and headed for the door. He had his hand on the long brass handle when he heard his name being called.
"It is you!" the woman cried, extricating herself from her lover's arms and approaching Charlie, grinning broadly all the while.
Charlie rubbed at his eyes, then the back of his head, trying to work just how much of an effect a pint of stout could have on his sanity.
"You do recognise me? Charlie?"
He took in her features, effortlessly pretty with medium length chocolate hued hair that brought out the hazel in her eyes. "Holly Miles!"
She laughed, "I was starting to wonder if I really am that forgettable!"
"No, of course not, I just didn't expect to see you here, of all places. Last I heard you were in..." He glanced up to the ceiling as if the answer was written somewhere amongst the polystyrene tiles. "Germany wasn't it, Berlin?"
"Frankfurt, but close, well, close enough. I've been back in England for a while though. Didn't you know?"
Now he really was puzzled. "Why would I know?"
Her companion, a tall blonde man, was now behind her, silent, waiting to be introduced and Holly glanced up at him, obviously caught off guard by Charlie's answer, he stepped in to help her out, offering his broad hand for Charlie to shake.
"I'm Hans Rosenburg, Holly's husband." He spoke with the clipped tones a German speaking in a foreign tongue, but if anything his accent sounded more American.
"Charlie Fairhead," Charlie replied. "Pleased to meet you."
"And you. I have heard lots about you."
"Really?" Charlie shot Holly a quizzical look. They'd worked together for two years but that was nearly ten years ago now, and flattering as it was to be remembered, it all seemed a little odd.
Holly took a little breath, unsure how Charlie might react, before explaining. "We work with Duffy, well part time. Hans and I do volunteer work at the hospice."
Stumped for anything more articulate to say all Charlie could manage was a confused, "Huh?"
"The Rainbow. It's a children's hospice in Weston-Super-Mare, Duffy runs it. Admirably, if I might say so," Hans ventured.
Charlie blinked. "I didn't know..."
"From what she's said I sort of gathered that you two hadn't parted on the best of terms, but she talks about you so much I'd never have guessed you hadn't spoken at all these last...?" she paused for him to provide a timescale.
"Eight years nearly."
"She still talks about me?"
Hans nodded. Holly smiled.
"Did she mention what happened?"
"Not in any detail. Just says you had a 'major difference of opinion'," Holly explained.
"It was my fault. I always intended to make it up to her at some point, but..." He shook his head. "I never really knew how."
"You should return with us! See her. A Christmas reunion!"
Holly and Charlie exchanged glances at Hans' enthusiasm, but neither could deny the logic to the comment.
"I wouldn't want to intrude, or spoil her day."
"I don't think you would. Trust me," she reached across the table and touched his hand gently. "And besides life's not long enough to leave things unsaid for too long. Trust me about that too."
A look of genuine sadness passed across her eyes, but she swiftly cleared it and Charlie thought better than to ask what her personal experience of it might have been.
The drive hadn't taken long, but Charlie was so nervous about arriving that it didn't really seem to take long enough. He'd felt there was much he should have asked Holly and Hans, not only about Duffy but all those general polite enquiries one's supposed to make after meeting with an old acquaintance, but his mind was too busy panicking to think like that, and he listened to Hans and Holly chatting randomly about work and holidays rather than join in.
It'd been so long since he'd seen her, but at the same time he could recall the day he said goodbye to her so clearly that it was hard to believe that any time had passed at all. It certainly hadn't dulled the pain.
"You could change your mind. It's not too late," she whispered. The leaving party was in full swing, music blaring, people shrieking with laughter, but her words, even said so softly sounded so loud to him. He'd wanted to say yes, to throw caution to the wind, but for some reason that's not what he said at all.
"I can't Duffy. My life's here..."
"Your job's here, outside of that what is there?"
"Name one thing worth staying here for." She crossed her arms over her chest, challenging him.
He had no answer, no reasonable answer anyway, but what she was suggesting was just too much, too big a step to take out of the blue.
"I'm not going to beg you, Charlie."
"I'm sorry, I can't just drop everything."
"You could. If you wanted to. If everything you've said over the last few months has meant anything to you."
"Of course it has!"
"You blame me for doubting it? You say you love me, then you say goodbye! Practically in the same breath, Charlie."
"You could stay..?"
"You know why I'm going. You know what this place is doing to me. I can't stand it anymore. Always filling in forms, and apologising for the wait. I'm a nurse, I want to care for people and at the moment I don't even get a chance to care for my own children 'cause this place has sucked the life out of me by the time the shift's over" She took a deep breath to compose herself. "I want a fresh start, I need a fresh start, and I'd love it to be with you."
"I can't just leave."
"Not even for me?"
"I'm sorry." He never managed to work out why he said it. It was a risk, certainly, they'd been dating, for want of a word that accurately summed up the change in their relationship, for only a matter of weeks before she'd dropped the bombshell about leaving. The hospital was home, and even if a life with Duffy promised so much more there was still the threat that it'd all go wrong. Then what? It wasn't a decision he came to lightly but nevertheless he regretted it ever since.
"Me too." She walked away then, but stopped after a couple of feet and turned back, "Look, it's an open invitation for you to come and start a new life with me and the boys, but that doesn't mean that I'll wait forever for you."
She was throwing him one last lifeline but he was to stupid to catch hold of it.
Until now. But was it too late?
The car pulled up in front of a large semi-detached house, and Charlie became aware of a creeping paralysis rising from his feet, freezing his legs, constricting his chest.
"She won't want to see me," he gasped.
Holly, who'd taken the passenger seat as her husband drove, leant towards Hans. "Go in. Give me a moment with Charlie."
He glanced over his shoulder at the nervous wreck behind him, kissed his wife's forehead and excused himself from the car.
From his stupor, Charlie watched Hans bound athletically up the pathway and knock on the door. Duffy opened it, greeting her guest warmly. He watched as Hans spoke to her, indicating the car with no subtlety at all. For a second Charlie's eyes met with hers, and he thought he saw her smile. But unlike in his dreams when she came running to see him, she backed into the house, beckoned Hans to follow her and shut the door.
"She doesn't want to see me," Charlie said softly.
"What makes you think that?"
"She didn't come over."
"You didn't go over to her..."
He thought about this comment of Holly's, and said nothing to contradict her. There wasn't anything to say.
"Look, you can stay here all night if you want, but my husband and son are in that house and I don't want to be stuck out here in the cold all Christmas afternoon."
"Jamie, he's nine now. Hans' and I thought we'd catch an hour's break, just the two of us, seeing as Duffy offered to babysit."
"I know what you're thinking. You'd be right. He's not Hans', he's Patrick's. I was pregnant when I left Holby, although I didn't know it then. I kept saying that I'd get in touch with him, then it was I'd get in touch once the baby was born, then next year when things got settled. Then I got a phone call from Spencer saying that I'd missed my chance. It's a horrible feeling Charlie, I don't recommend it. Go knock on that door."
Holly got out of the car, and opened the rear door for Charlie. Obediently he got up, smoothed down his clothes, gulped down a large breath of frosty air and strode purposefully to the door he'd seen Hans knock on moments ago.
The door opened and suddenly he was face to face with Duffy again, older, greyer, but as far as he was concerned still every bit as beautiful.
"Am I too late?"
Slowly she shook her head. He could see tears forming in her eyes and guessed she'd see the matching set in his. She stepped down on to the front path, reaching up to his face to trace the features she hadn't seen for too long, before drawing his lips down upon her own. It was a gentle kiss, tentative, too much having happened to let either feel comfortable with more. Yet.
"Let's just say Charlie, that you took your time."