“No, screw it, or I’ll miss the train,” the tea was pushed back at her, a kiss planted on her forehead as an afterthought. Haylee watched the teabag, swollen with water, bob up and down precariously as the flat door closed just a little too loudly. The lock slid into place. She picked up the bowl with a sigh, noted the remaining Weetabix coloring the milk. Unconsciously, she smoothed the already smooth tablecloth. The tea, not drunk, went down the sink. She made sure to close the pop-top on the dish liquid when done.
The house was always so empty after Sheldon left and the bustle of the
Tuesday, two days before the much anticipated Thursday, was market day.
Thursday was escape. Thursday was King’s College and Victorian literature. Haylee lusted for books, haunting the library stacks from Dickens to Hardy to Wilde. The library smelled of old paper and was too cold with its vaulted ceilings. All noises echoed, and she would slide her feet from book stack to wide table where she would read. She would bring home literary criticisms, dog-eared copies of Vanity Fair and Emma. Sheldon would look at her a bit bemused. Every evening he would ask, not unkindly, “Haven’t you read that already?” A simple man who looked only to the crosswords in The London Daily for intellectual satisfaction – how could she expect him to understand?
But it was Tuesday. The grocery list was already jotted down. She yanked on her olive
Haylee ducked her head, darted water droplets, hunkered down into her coat to fight the chill the rain had brought with it. Pulled pork. Tomatoes. Apples. A box of Smarties for Sheldon. The listed circled through her brain blotting out intrusive thoughts.
“At least,” she thought, “I’m trying.”
She was unprepared for the hot, damp humanness of the market. It was uncharacteristically crowded. A bulbous looking woman bumped Haylee into a row of tomatoes, one splitting open into a gapping hole of seed filled fertility. The sharp and acidic smell of the tomato made her dizzy and a little nauseous. Haylee slid through the crowded market quickly and anxiously. She had to finish the shopping, had to get outside to the fresh smell of wet ground, had to clear her head.
On the walk home she decided to stop for some mint tea to settle her. The disorganized feeling from the market had made her queasy. She chose the shop two and a half blocks from the flat, a small and unpopular establishment filled with the smell of burned tea leaf and kitsch décor – teapots of a pumpkin or a couple dancing, a singing frog creamer, mismatched and unironed table cloths in bright geometrics under glass, pies with crumbled crusts, and a seemingly anachronistic jukebox. The place was virtually empty upon her arrival, affording her a pleasant window seat from which she could watch a small girl holding her mother’s hand and stomping puddles along the street. The mother looked down at her offspring with joy bordering on awe as if recalling her own youthful joy at something as simple as rain. Thus preoccupied, Haylee did not notice him until he had moved right next to her.
My, God! And it wasn’t Thursday yet.
She had not taken the kind of care that she ought to have, not anticipating seeing him here, not anticipating seeing him anywhere really outside of the small room they shared with half a dozen others on Thursdays in the Franklin Wilkins Building at King’s College. He was out of place here, an intruder in this moment of her life. It was as if he had been transported from that classroom. He looked exactly the same, light brown hair arching over his forehead and creating stubble all along his chin, heavy framed glasses, not unattractive but instead distinctive, his perpetual tired looking azure eyes. He had the look of a man who read too much and didn’t go out enough. He looked down at her from his standing position, clearly anticipating being offered a seat.
“I have to go,” she said, standing, leaving her tea cup, still warm, radiating a ring of frosty looking steam onto the glass.
Outside, she was sick. She dry-heaved holding the damp fence in front of Saint Clement Danes church. Rain water ran cold down her coat sleeves. She tried to breathe deeply and not shiver.
“Here,” he wrapped his coat around her. She had not counted on him following her out of the café. His coat smelled of his musk. Ironically, it began to settle her down.
“I think we ought to talk,” he said carefully.
The flat was only a block away, but she did not offer. Instead, he led her in the direction of the Aldwych Station, paid for their tokens for the Underground, and seated her with great care in the poorly ventilated train. When they began moving she felt for sure she would be sick again with the stale air. However, the presence of his hand on her back calmed her as much as his presence in the café had unnerved her before. Of course he would be kind.
“Charles,” she said his name experimentally, but he hushed her.
“I am taking you to my office. We’ll talk there.”
So all she could do was sit, wrapped in his coat, smelling of his musk and not think about her husband.
Things did not go as planned. Haylee had an eloquent speech in her mind about how this could not continue. Then his office door closed, and he was kissing her.
Had his stubble not grated against her face, had he not pushed her back into the doorknob with a bit too much force, had the smell of his musk not suddenly made her nauseous and the office not suddenly felt claustrophobic, she wouldn’t have blurted it out without thought.
If he had been more gentle and clean shaven she would have let him have her one last time just so she could hear him say the line of poetry he always cited upon completion: “If thou must love me, let it be for nought / Except for love's sake only.” If he had said it, she would have been able to leave easier, knowing that Charles was only an opposite – a man with glasses, an office in King’s College, and all that meant.
As it was, she turned her head away from him and pushed at the bulk of his chest.
“I can’t. I’m having a baby.”
Haylee did not look back to see his face – the beauty that would cross it as a result of awe, anger, confusion, and sadness. She raced for the door, feeling as though, if she didn’t get out of the College, she would die with emotion. She let the door close with a crack, leaving the world of Charles with it.