I glanced across the hall again. I couldn’t help myself; seeking him out was compulsive, had been from the moment he entered the room.
He was still in deep conversation with Vickie Lange, the attractive PhD student who had just given a paper on Manipulative “weak” women in the works of Gaskell and Eliot. I had come this evening to hear her talk on this subject, but could only hope that my flat-mate, Jed, had listened. In the morning I would pick his brain and borrow his notes. My agenda for the evening had been abruptly changed by the appearance of the stranger I was stalking through the crowded room. Dare I draw nearer? Approach Vickie? Interrupt her tête-à-tête with the object of my obsession on the pretext of asking her — what? I hadn’t listened to a word she had said. I might ask the wrong thing, end up looking like a complete idiot!
Casually sipping my wine, I sidled closer, a shifty crab on a spy mission. I strained to hear what was being said, felt a rush of guilt as my ears tuned in to his voice. Guilt, followed instantly by shock, short and sharp, like an electric charge. His voice was deeply pleasant. And strangely familiar. As if —
I forced myself to focus on his words. He was going to mail her an attachment of something or other — I wished I knew what — as soon as he got home. He pocketed Vickie’s business card. She lingered a moment, before turning to pursue her next conversation.
His eyes scoured the room. I ducked to study the programme clutched in my hand. Symposium, I read, followed by, The Forces of Change: Rural England in the Nineteenth Century. And after that everything turned into a jumble of letters, their shapes growing blurred, as his jeans, his shoes, his jacket, tugged at the periphery of my vision. He was moving, coming closer, filling the space beyond my pale yellow programme. I stopped breathing and steeled myself to look up, right into his eyes. I knew they would be brown; I knew they were intense. Not in vain had I observed him all evening — I was prepared for a close encounter with intense, brown eyes. There was nothing to it.
Oh hubris! Rural England fluttered to my feet and I stood electrified: up close his eyes were bitter chocolate. Darkest Arriba cocoa, my favourite kind. The casual “hello” I was about to utter extinguished in a puff of air.
His pupils dilated, a ripple of mesmerising blackness. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
“You — do?”
“Oh, yes.” He leant in, and with an almost apologetic smile, whispered, “My tastes run darker than yours, though.”
In that split second, I knew what it felt like to be a deer caught in headlights, my limbs bursting to run, explode, vanish. Instead, I stood frozen in the unreality of the moment.
“You mean — are we talking about — chocolate?” I stammered. “That is, your eyes, but . . . just a silly thought.”
He looked amused. “You’re too cerebral.” He said this kindly, a gentle comment rather than a criticism.
I took a step backwards.
“You need to let loose a bit. Trust what you feel. And there’s no need to eavesdrop.” I caught a glint of mischief in his smile.
“Oh!” I gasped. “I wasn’t! Right, I’ll — I’ll just —” I raised my empty wine glass as an excuse to retreat from the strangest and possibly most disturbing conversation I’d ever had.
And hesitated. Was I waiting for a reaction to my impending departure? Permission to leave? His dark eyes were fixed on mine, and I couldn’t move. How was he holding me fast, reading my thoughts? And why was I allowing this to happen?
“Write it,” he demanded, a note of urgency in his voice.
“Write — what?” I asked, bewildered.
“How you feel when you’re with me.”
I stared at him, struck dumb by his audacity. He laughed softly, and then he was gone. Not in the sense that he had disappeared in a puff of smoke, though that probably wouldn’t have surprised me. In fact, such magical trickery would have been a welcome diversion at this point. No, he had merely slipped away into the crowded room, leaving a void so tangible, I felt bereft. Clutching my glass, I worked my way towards the buffet table. But my eyes strayed to seek him out — as they had done all evening — and aware as I was of his presence, I caught sight of him almost immediately. He was speaking to Professor Robertson. My heartbeat accelerated as he looked up. I glanced away, but my traitorous eyes returned to his, as though answering the pull of a magnet.
“Mara!” Jed flung his arm around my waist, momentarily eclipsing my view. “Let’s scoot,” he whispered. “Quick! Before Old Robertson begins another monologue!”
I glanced past him at Professor Robertson, who now stood alone, looking about for a new conversation partner. Jed swept me towards the buffet table, deposited my glass by the wine bottles, and pulled me out of the room.
“Whew,” he breathed dramatically. “Narrow escape.”
In the state I was in, I wondered whether Jed was referring only to Professor Robertson, or if he somehow knew what I’d just been through.
“Shall we eat out, or go home and cook?” he asked.
“That depends,” I replied, zipping up my jacket as we stepped into the chill evening air. “Do you know who’s staying in tonight?” I suddenly didn’t fancy seeing our other flat-mates.
“It’s Friday,” Jed reminded me. “Jacintha and Marc are going to the cinema and then they’re off clubbing, and Merridee said she was going home to her Mum’s for the weekend.”
“We’ll cook,” I decided, hooking my arm through Jed’s as we turned down the high street, heading for the tube. I was grateful he was with me, grateful for the down-to-earth conversation about dinner.
“What are we cooking, then?” he asked, a sly look on his face.
“Oh, I — don’t know. What have we got?” Jed usually cooked, at least for the both of us, which meant I didn’t even have a clue what was in the fridge. “Lasagne?” I added hopefully.
“Not a chance. You’ll have to make do with grilled chicken wings and salad.”
I gave him a broad smile. “I’ll happily settle for that!”
“Good, ‘cause you have no choice. So, who was that you were staring at in there?”
“Where?” I asked innocently.
“You know very well where, wily vixen. At the faculty do. That bloke talking to Vickie. And Robertson.”
“Oh.” My feeling of well-being vanished instantly. “I wasn’t staring at him, was I?”
“Gaping,” Jed assured me. “Open-mouthed. All evening.”
“What?” I stopped walking, turning to him in horror. Had it been that obvious to everyone?
He grinned at me. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell on you. Richard won’t hear of your fatal attraction to another man from me.” He placed his hand over his heart. “I swear it! So it’s quite safe to spill the beans. Who was he?”
“Good question,” I replied, following Jed onto the escalator.
“You mean you don’t know? You were speaking to him at one point. Didn’t he introduce himself?”
“No. That is — he never told me his name.”
The escalator dipped into its downward journey. Jed stood travelling backwards on the step beneath me. It was hard to avoid his eyes, now level with mine.
“So what did you talk about?” he asked, frowning.
I frowned back. “Chocolate, I think.”
“Chocolate?” His eyebrow arched as if to punctuate the question.
I turned to study the flight of posters on the opposite wall, hoping to evade Jed’s curiosity. But I could feel his sharp look dissecting me. “What?” I asked, unnerved. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Well, you look rather pale, and I’m wondering if you’re feeling okay.”
“I’m fine. I just need to eat, so let’s get home.”
We had cooked and eaten, and were sitting at our kitchen table, silently sharing a bar of chocolate I’d bought from the college shop that morning. Finest Arriba Cocoa from Ecuador, I read and re-read on the wrapper. 70% Cocoa. Had he seen me enter the shop that morning? Watched me buy the chocolate bar?
My tastes run darker than yours.
“Sorry?” I said, suddenly aware that Jed had spoken.
“I asked if you would like me to find out who he was.”
“Mystery man at the faculty do.” Jed sounded exasperated now. “You know, the one you couldn’t take your eyes off.”
“Why do you suddenly bring him up again?”
“Because you’ve barely spoken all night. You answer my questions — but you’re not here. My guess is,” he touched my forehead with his finger, “you’re locked in there with mystery man.”
“Alright,” Jed responded. “I’ll make some inquiries. I’m intrigued now too.”
I shook my head. “No, don’t! Please! I’ll have forgotten him by Monday, I’m sure.”
Jed raised an eyebrow, the look on his face both mocking and disbelieving.
“Really, Jed. It’s just — our meeting was so odd, it disturbed me a bit. That’s all. I’ll forget about it soon enough.”
“You said you only spoke briefly — of chocolate! Now why would that be disturbing?”
I looked at the wrapper entwined around my fingers. Arriba Cocoa. There was no way I could share this experience, not even with Jed. “I don’t know,” I said lamely. “It’s hard to say.”
“You’re doing an M.A. in Fiction Writing, and you can’t put a mere meeting into words? Really, Mara, you’re going to have to do better than that!”
“I really don’t want to talk about it. Can’t you just let it go?”
“No,” Jed replied, a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Not after I’ve seen you like this!” And to my horror, he jumped up and struck a pose I knew was meant to ape mine at the faculty party, his eyes boggling, his mouth agape. Jed was an excellent mimic, but I wasn’t about to compliment him on it now.
“You bastard!” I roared, leaping up from my seat. “You horrible, beastly —” I spluttered, realising words weren’t enough to convey my outrage. Grabbing a magazine Jacintha had left on the table, I rolled it up and charged at Jed, swiping at him with my makeshift weapon. He dodged my first attack, side-stepped the second, but the third landed squarely on his shoulder with a satisfying smack.
“Ow! I surrender!” he yelled, laughing, his hands raised to signal defeat. But my anger was real, and I was too mortified to let him get off so lightly. I hit him twice more, once on the side of his head, and then on his arm, as he reached out in defence, grabbing hold of the magazine. With a cry, I relinquished my weapon and stormed off towards my room.
Jed must have stood rooted in shock. Had he moved sooner, he would have caught up with me. As it was, I heard him follow me, felt him gaining on me, and ran the last few steps to my room, slamming the door quite literally in his face. I slid the bolt into place.
“Mara! Open up!” Jed demanded, his voice angry. I didn’t reply, but — to my own astonishment — tasted tears on my lips. “Mara! Don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit? I tease you all the time! I just wanted to — oh, damn!” In the hallway, the phone had started ringing. “That’s probably for you!” Jed called through the door.
He retreated down the corridor, answered the phone with a curt, “Yes? Oh, hello, Richard.”
I flung my door open. Jed was already on his way back to me with the phone, but I shook my head at him, mouthing the words, “Not now.”
“Um — didn’t she tell you about the symposium?” Jed asked, frowning at me. “Someone’s giving a talk about Gaskell and Eliot, and — sorry, you’ll need to repeat that.” He grabbed hold of my wrist, preventing me from slipping back into my room. I couldn’t protest. Richard would have heard me. So I stood still, quietly waiting for Jed to end the phone call.
“Well, yes, she’s probably had it switched off all evening,” he was saying now. “Alright, I’ll remind her.” Jed hung up, still frowning at me. But when he spoke, his voice was gentle. “I’ve just lied to your fiancé for you,” he said, handing me the phone.
“I know,” I replied, looking away.
“He’s been trying to reach you on your mobile all evening, wants to remind you that you’re viewing two houses tomorrow.”
“What’s wrong, Mara? Something is. Spit it out.”
I was staring intently at the door to my room, wishing I could shut myself away for a few hours. Jed was right. Something was wrong, but it was beyond me to explain what that something might be. I didn’t even know where to begin explaining it all to myself, let alone another person, however good a friend they may be.
Jed sighed and let go of my wrist. “I’m sorry. I —” He gave me a searching look. “I’ll go out for a while,” he finished. “Give you some space.”
And before I could reply, he had flung on his jacket and left the flat.
I didn’t see Jed anymore that night. About five minutes after he left, I decided to go and look for him, not wanting to be alone with my thoughts after all, and feeling a bit guilty for the way I had treated him. Totally over the top! I needed to apologise. I needed his company. I threw on my jacket and walked down our street, peering into the bars and restaurants along the way. I entered his favourite Tex Mex at the end of the road, searching the tables for him, backing away with a shake of my head when the waitress came forward to seat me. Finally, I squeezed into our local pub, packed out the way it usually was on a Friday night. There was no sign of Jed. He tended to avoid our pub on weekends. He didn’t like it that crowded, hated having conversation partners shout whiffs of beer and crisps into his face, while they stood on his toes. And yet, I had hoped to see him there and left heavy-hearted. I decided to head for home. I could use my restless energy to tidy up a bit. Merridee liked the house clean, she’d be happy to come back to a tidy place.
I had the Hoover out within seconds of arriving home and allowed its monotonous thrum to drown out my thoughts. I was thorough in the living room, stacking books and magazines into neat piles, fluffing up cushions and dusting any exposed surface I could find. All the while, I kept glancing at the front door, but it remained firmly shut. I collected a number of stray mugs onto a tray and went to tackle the kitchen, clearing away our abandoned dishes and scrubbing the sink till it shone. I glanced at the clock in the hallway, glared accusingly at the front door. It remained stubborn in its refusal to bring back Jed. I attacked the bathroom, polishing away rings of ossified soap that marked the levels to which we habitually filled the bath. Tired out at last, I ran myself a bath and indulged in the rare luxury of lying back for a soak, without having to feel the grime of past ablutions rub against my skin. I closed my eyes.
And that was a mistake. The sudden cessation in physical activity left a quiet zone in which my thoughts came alive. The fog that sheathed my brain, cocooning me from the perils of my past, grew thin and tenuous. Nebulous memories unfurled. Long confined spectres stepped through the mist, beckoning for me to join them. I sat up with a cry, tearing the plug out of the bath and reaching for my towel in one fast-flowing motion. I dressed quickly, ran to the living room and flung myself onto the couch. Brandishing the remote control at the telly, I searched for oblivion. Advertisements. A game show. Another game show. Advertisements. A cooking programme. The Movie Channel, scrambled. Advertisements. A talent competition. Oh, good, MTV: perfect limbs pumping away to pulsing rhythms. That should be enough to exorcise the apparitions in my head.
I gave up after twenty minutes. Turning off the telly, I went to bed, hoping to be distracted by a book. An old book. A trusted friend. I picked up Wives and Daughters, skipping forward to one of my favourite scenes. I was trying to read the opening paragraph for the third time, when I heard the front door open. My heart leaped with joy. Jed was back! It must be him. Late as it was, it was too early for Jacintha and Marc. I flung back the duvet and had half risen from bed, when I was suddenly overcome by doubt. Was it alright to accost him with an apology at this time of night? Morning, to be precise — I had glanced at my clock often enough to know it was past 2:00 a.m. Perhaps he was in no mood to have me fling myself in his path, battered and raw from the flood-tide of memories that had burst their banks. He paused in the hallway. For a moment I hoped he would knock on my door. But he passed my room, ascended the stairs to his bedroom. He stumbled half-way up the flight, cursed, fell heavily against the wooden steps, and I was glad I hadn’t popped out of my room to speak to him. He was drunk! I lay back in bed, pulling the duvet up to my chin. Above me the floorboards creaked as Jed moved around — his bedroom was right over mine — and then there was silence.
Feeling even more lonely than I had done before his return, I switched off my light and lay quietly hugging my book. I tried to focus my thoughts on Jed, on what I would say to him in the morning. The apology I was concocting sounded trite, and I had to admit to myself that I was annoyed with him for being drunk, annoyed I couldn’t speak to him at once.
Eventually I drifted off to sleep. And my worst fears came true: I dreamed of Selden.