I'm late. Completely missed the tube stop. He was so engrossing. Holding my gaze, and my mind. Mesmerising. Time didn't matter, less than that, it didn't exist.
Outside, in the street, rushing towards the world. Dinner with the new friends. Misnomer. Dinner with friends of the new man. Sudden chilly darkness and clang of the world as I step back into the electric light of it, adrift from the soft glowing peace of his gaze.
Click clack of my own feet sounding surreal. In the back of my mind the resentment whispers, he should have met me. Calumny at my ear working up steam like a train. Should have met me. Then I'd not be late alone. Not walking in alone. Not walking in late alone.
What's the point of having a man if you have to walk into places alone.
The resentment in my head and the click of my heels takes me to fever pitch and I stop. I stop. Take a breath. Shoulders down.
No point getting there flustered. Resentment.
Sheep as a lamb.
I stop, breathe and remember his eyes. Those ice blue wolf eyes. Full of life. The joy of life. The mystery of life. In that moment, as he leaned over, tapped the top of my book and asked me,
"Tell me, what is it like in English?
Sudden bright light as the front door opens to a big, if forced, smile from the woman inside.
"You must be Laura.
"I'm so sorry I'm late, I missed the stop.
"Don't worry about it, Tom should have met you. Letting you come out here on your own like that, and you just new to London, not good enough if you ask me.
I like her. Gals together. Not good enough if you ask me either.
She opens the door wide and steps back to let me in. I'm always astounded at how narrow the hallways in English houses are. It adds to the claustrophobia. Living with narrow halls. But it's warm inside and I'm relieved to be here at last, as the hum of people chatting comes to a pregnant halt. The new girl has arrived.
He hasn't even come out to meet me.
These are the nails in the coffin. These tiny things. The end in the beginning.
I go through the living room door. He's there. New man. At least he's standing up. Everyone else sitting on the couch and chairs, sea of faces, five or six of them, all a whir of flesh, teeth and eyes, looking, smiling. The first checking out. I wish I felt naked, but I don't. I feel nothing. As he says,
"What kept you?
Sound of hammer on nail.
"I missed the tube stop.
My nose is running in the heat of the room, and as I struggle with paper hankies, I catch him from the corner of my eye.
He looks at his friends. Not at me, as he smirks and says, "How did you manage that?
It's not the saying of it. It's a reasonable question, made scalding by the smirk. The betrayal of a smirk that says to his friends, 'please don't think I'm dating a moron.'
If it hadn't been for the smirk I'd have lied, made a self-depreciating joke, got us over it at my expense. Politely. Not a moron, slightly scatty perhaps. A lot on her mind. The sort of thing that can get some slack cut on your behalf without upsetting any apple carts.
But as the hammer hit the nail of that smirk, the decision was made.
Nothing quite puts the wind up people like the truth. I'm always surprised by that. In the way you're surprised by a checkout opening up just as you walk up to the end of a queue. It fires me up. The truth. The eye-popping, sharp intake of breath of it.
"I was talking to the most fascinating man. A Russian man, and, well, he was so engrossing I forgot where I was nevermind where I was going.
I have blue eyes. Clear blue. Like the Russian's. When my eyes backup the truth, it can put the fear of God into a person. A person not given to saying what's true. I don't mean a liar. I mean the everyday compliances of resentments being born, of never saying what's true for you, even if it's just 'this soup is cold'.
Sudden hush. Eyes agog. Smirk from the brown haired woman in the corner, he's either had history with her or she wishes he'd had. Disinterested parties never get that look. Glee. That's what it is, and they can never hide it. That type.
The man beside her also wriggling in his seat, but with an open smile. Amused. In another situation I'd be thinking he likes me.
New man whipping round, facing me, no longer smirking. He's trying to say 'What?' but all that comes out are whisping sounds like he's had a stroke and the speech therapist has given him an exercise to practice pursing his lips.
"I was having a conversation with this amazing man and I forgot to look at the names of the stations. I'm really sorry, I hope I didn't hold anything up? I look at my hostess. She's smiling, shaking her head, of course not. She likes me. She's one of the people who find the truth refreshing, but find it so rarely it probably only comes out when she's angry and drunk so it never quite works for her. Not the same way it does for me. I live by it.
I didn't always. I spent years thinking it, running conversations over and over in my head of what I could have, should have, would have said. Now, I just say it. I love you. I love you not. It's all the same in the end. But at least I said it. The effect is similar to doing magic tricks. It draws people to you. Fascinates them. They don't see this everyday. You just have to be careful not to bore them with it. Not to scare them too much. Do it smoothly and only when it counts. Not for conceit. Not like I just did. Not as a rule.
New man finds his voice.
"Well, did you know him?
"No. But I do now. I smile.
"Well who is he?
"A Russian refugee. Can you believe, he's actually called Ivan.
They all gape like fish. Is this so extraordinary really? Speaking to a man on the tube?
"It means John. I add helpfully, smiling around the room.
Brown hair is squirming with delight, in her cheap nylon underwear.
New man is speechless, and I suddenly feel sorry for him. Compassion. Always my undoing.
I go over to him from my spotlight at the living room door and link my arm through his. "Speaking of which, are you going to introduce me?
He hesitates like a person who's just realised he's left the gas on, then introduces them all. I won't remember their names, but brown hair is Jacqueline. Of course she is. The man beside her, Colin. Too bad, he has smouldering eyes. Looks more like a Nicholas.
"Well, the hostess chimes behind me, "what would you like to drink?
I give the only sensible response for every new girl,
"Something non alcoholic please.
She bustles off through to the kitchen and Colin gets up and offers me his seat. I don't want to sit beside brown hair, I have a feeling she sprays perfume like she's crop dusting. I'm right. I can taste it. Feel it burning the hair in my nostrils. I feel sick. My feet are sore and wet and I just want fifteen minutes to myself. Gather my thoughts, sit in peace and quiet, like I'm used to. Hours of peace and quiet. The peace and quiet that drove me so mad I had to get out there and find this. A life. A new man. Be careful what you wish for.
Alas, the new girl on the block is never allowed to gather her thoughts. They come thick and fast, the what do you do's, how long have you been in London, what brought you here? What would be a good answer to the interview with the new girl questions? I so can't be bothered. My eyes are tired and I don't want the lovely feeling of the Russian man to disappear, so I do it again. I tell the truth.
"Would you mind if I just land for a minute, I'm feeling a bit bombarded at the moment. I smile, but it's fixed and I don't mean it. Shock horror, but they comply by embarrassingly turning and talking too fast and too loud to the person next to them like strangers at a workshop. The hostess is smiling at me as she hands me my juice.
"Well, dinner's ready when we are - are we? She holds her hands out like a benediction. Blessed be the skilled hostess.
They can't get out of there fast enough. Including new man, who doesn't wait for me, doesn't put his hand on the small of my back to guide me forward, and doesn't even look at me.
It's goulash and I spill some on my white blouse. Of course. Then brown hair, smelling blood, spuriously uses the goulash to bring up the Russian again. I want to correct her culinary geography, but I don't have the energy.
"So tell us about this spy then? "Was he awfully big and fierce with piercing eyes?
"I don't know what height he was, we were sitting down."
New man is looking despondent. Hammer of nails in my coffin. So I do it again.
"He did have blindingly piercing eyes for an eighty-three year old though.
New man pepping up like a meer cat as brown hair visibly sinks into her disappointment.
"Eighty-three? he sings.
"So he said.
"Oh! he's smiling.
He laughs but it's nervous release, no joy in it.
As I look at him, I see in his eyes, the fear that I'll hurt him, the seedlings of mistrust, I know that he's not right for me. That I'm not right for him. Not the one. Not even close. I like him, but that's not enough.
I felt more connected to the Russian. Or perhaps it was the book. The conversation. The romance of it, of the glory of love that can happen in life. If you have the courage. That he was the brother of Pasternak's second wife. That he knew him. Had danced at their wedding. He said, shrugging,
"Of course, he had a limp and couldn't dance so well himself. An accident when he was a child in Moscow. But he loved my sister. Left his first wife for her. He nods like this is proof of love, the actual leaving. The giving up, of a kingdom, of a wife, of a former life. The final proof. Of how men love, measured by what they give up. There is bravery in it. In the giving up. In the claiming. In the walking away. In the walking toward. Though often, it doesn't look like that, and never if you're the one being walked away from.
"Nine years married, but nothing could stop him loving my sister.
I can hear my heart beating as I ask him,
"Was she the inspiration for Lara? I was on the edge of my seat as the tube stations rolled by, sound of Strelnikov's train in my head.
He just smiled, and sat back in his seat, nodding, folding his arms in that oh so Russian way.
We sigh. The romance of it settling around us like the comfort of angels. No sound. Just hearts beating. The yes of it. Of love. Worth waiting for. Worth leaving for. Worth anything. Inevitable, unavoidable, inseparable love. The ultimate truth telling.
And it was real.
He sat forward, serious again,
"You know he won the Nobel prize for it? Tapping the paperback again.
"For the book.
He shook his head.
"The authorities made him refuse it.
He looked like he might have to spit a bad taste from his mouth, but then his wolf eyes twinkled and he winked at me,
"But he still won it. More nodding and tapping.
"1958. Two years before he died.
We're leaving the dinner party, new man and I. My story charmed them. He's relieved and proud. Just not good enough.