They made breakfast together in Blair’s kitchen. She knew her way around now. There were lots of gadgets. Blair loved that kind of thing. He had a huge coffee machine that made noisy cappuccinos; a juicer that took the whole fruit, skin and all; and a toasted sandwich maker that looked as though it had come from the next century. She watched him making ham and cheese toasties with English mustard. His hands were elegant, like the hands of a piano player. There were tiny crinkles around his eyes that made him look as though he were always about to smile. Now, with his head bent forward, he looked vulnerable – the soft down of hair on the back of his neck gently curled, his long intimate eyelashes fluttered against his cheek. Sarah thought him beautiful this morning. But she kept him back a little, knowing that she was not in love.
“Shall we go out somewhere after breakfast?” He handed her a toastie.
“Okay, if you want to.” She sat on the small sofa, with one leg tucked under her. She hadn’t planned on staying all day.
“How about a spot of shopping in the King’s Road?”
“Bit skint at the moment. The agency’s always late with my cheque. Do you know how much they make out of it?”
“A disgusting amount, inevitably.” He watched her talking about things that didn’t matter and thought her all the more enchanting.
“You wouldn’t believe it! But it’s not forever. They only get commission until the end of the year. Leeches!” She had the impression he was not listening to what she was saying. “This is a great toastie!”
“I noticed. Want another?”
She had shoved the rest of the sandwich into her mouth and started laughing because she couldn’t speak. She covered her mouth with her hand while Blair shook his head and grinned.
They had more breakfast and drank strong coffee, sitting close together on the couch, looking out at the leaves of the trees scintillating against the blue of the early spring sky. Sarah’s mouth was greasy and she wiped it with the back of her hand. It was something she would not normally have done, but she knew that Blair would be shocked, and so she was brazen. It made him giggle like a schoolboy.
He took the plates and cups and tidied everything up. Sarah watched him and thought him obsessive. He wiped the sideboard with a new cloth, lifting the jars and cleaning underneath them. He unplugged the toastie machine and cleaned it carefully so as not to get water on the electric cable. He even swept the floor, twice. Sarah wondered how long she could stand all this if they lived in the same house together. Did he have equally fastidious habits in the rest of the house that she hadn’t noticed yet? Certainly, the bathroom was spotless and the towels were always clean and folded. Blair folded the dishcloth and clapped his hands together.
“Finished?” she asked.
“Practising to be old?” she laughed.
He stared at her, not knowing what she meant.
“Who ever folds the dishcloth?” She stood up and dangled the cloth in front of his face.
“Oh. Ha! Ha! Very funny.” He didn’t want her to make a fool of him.
“Here!” she dropped the cloth into his hand, bored by his lukewarm reaction.
She imagined what Andy would have done in the same situation. Not that he would have tidied up in the first place. But if she had held a dishcloth to his face he would have snatched it and chased her, finally rubbing it in her own face and holding her down until she begged to be let go. She couldn’t imagine Blair doing anything like that.
“Hey, it’s sunny, lets go out, see what happens.”
His optimism was unkillable. But the day was bright and it would do her good to be in the fresh air for a while. There was no rush to get home, after all.
It was springtime in Hyde Park, and there were people out together enjoying the sun. Sarah wore a red floral dress and sandals, feeling a little cold in the shade. The trees in the park were huge and she wondered what kind they were. They should be something magnificent, like oak. Blair would know. He knew a lot of things that she didn’t. She didn’t want him to tell her, though. The trees did not need names.
They walked along the path next to the Serpentine. There were boats, ice-cream salesmen, even a restaurant by the lake. It had everything.
And it had nothing.
Sarah was on the outside of this world, where colours were bright and gaudy and sounds rang out audaciously across the park. She watched a child throwing a stick for her dog, a group of boys playing football, a woman reading on a bench. It was like looking into a fairytale, or a painting, it wasn’t real. She thought about Andy. Where he was, there was a different sun that hardened the earth and cracked the skin on her brother’s face. His heavy boots blistered his soft flesh and his weapon pressed hard into his shoulder where it dug in as he moved. The weapon that he used to fire at the soldiers of the Taliban. Men of flesh and blood who were themselves sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. This world was real. It mattered more to her.
“What’s on your mind, beautiful girl?” Blair had stopped walking.
“Nothing,” she lied. “I wish I hadn’t worn these sandals, that’s all. They’re pinching.” As she said it, she noticed the pettiness of such a complaint.
“Take them off, then,” he said, laughing.
“Oh, they’re not that bad. I’ll get used to them.” She looked at him and was suddenly moved. “Kiss me!”
“Here? With all these people watching?” He was laughing still.
“Yes, why not?” It was already too late.
He looked around and took her hand to lead her away from the path. They sat under the branches of a huge tree and Blair kissed her. She could not lose herself, but for a moment the sunlight glinted through the green canopy and made a part of her brain spark. She felt warm and wanted. She felt Blair’s love, even if she was not able to return it.
“What kind of tree is this?” she asked, her voice distant.
“It’s an oak,” he said looking up through its branches.
“I thought it was.” She leaned her head against his shoulder and felt a shudder run through her.
“Are you okay, Sarah?” He drew back from her.
“Yes. Yes, just cold in the shade. Can we go back to the path? We could get a coffee if you like?” She was babbling.
Blair stood and held out his hand to help her. He was a handsome, kind boy. She could see the damage she would do to him when she left him.
“Maybe I should go home. I’m spoiling your day,” she said.
“Don’t be absurd. Come on, let’s get a coffee.”
Inside, his chest constricted. He knew that she did not love him as he did her. But it was a passive knowledge and he chose to keep it unspoken, even to himself. There was still more he could do to win her; he would not give up easily. He thought of his own parents. Of how they had married, not for love, but because their families had brought them together. They were suited to each other. He saw that their love for each other now was enduring, based on respect and compatibility. It was not what he wanted for himself though, and when he looked at Sarah he knew that he had found the girl he wanted to marry, only for love.
“Do you think you’ll stay at Firth’s forever?” she asked him, to break the silence.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“I won’t,” she said.
He was glad she had turned her face away from him when she had said it.
It was almost dark by the time Sarah got back to the flat. Wendy had gone away for the weekend and the place was quiet. She sat in a chair and got out Andy’s letters. He would be coming home at the end of June, in just over three months. He was almost half-way through his tour of duty, but this gave Sarah little comfort. She was not at all sure that he would not decide to go back. She would do everything she could to stop him.