From the table I had chosen in the coffee shop I could see the entrance of the train station. Already I had seen three trains arrive and the crowds emerge and disperse. Absolutely everyone that walked out of the station looked like they could have been the lead in a charming romantic comedy. I had bought a coffee, thinking I might have to abandon it when Kevin arrived, but by that time I was on my third, still watching people come and go.
I hadn’t seen Kevin in more than ten years. I was wearing my best jeans and my best jumper, and under those, my best t-shirt and best underwear. Kevin had been attractive in a deceptive sort of way. The first time I saw him I thought nothing of him, but over time I started to notice how subtly handsome he was, like a vague figure emerging from a thick fog. The first thing people usually noticed about him was his size. He was six foot five and tended to stand with his shoulders back and head up, so he seemed even taller than that. I noticed the size of his hands before I spotted anything else about him.
Another train pulled in and sixty seconds later another crowd spilled out of the station. I looked through it, wondering if I would still recognise him after all this time, but he wasn’t hard to spot. He was a full head taller than everyone around him and looked like he had barely aged at all. He walked out of the station and stood there like a moored boat in a moving tide, glancing around, trying to find me. I abandoned my third coffee and headed outside.
I weaved through the parked taxis, waving to catch his eye, and when he spotted me, he paused, almost as though he didn’t recognise me, then smiled and came striding over. He had a rucksack on one shoulder, his hair was cut short, and he had on a pair of glasses that he hadn’t used to need.
‘Stephen,’ he said, overpronouncing my name like he was enjoying the shape of it. I went to hug him, but he put out a hand to shake. We ended up doing both, hugging awkwardly with a loose handshake trapped between our stomachs. I looked up to see his face again from that familiar angle.
‘Come on,’ he said, looking around like he had no idea where to go. ‘Let’s get out of here. I want to get checked into the hotel and then go for some food. I’m starving and I want to hear everything.’
His accent had picked up hints of America in the years he had been there, mutating to contain little notes of it. Occasional syllables came out wrong. He was back in the country on business, staying in a south London hotel for a week and taking the time after to come and see me before flying out again. He hadn’t wanted to come back to the town where we used to live – too depressing – and didn’t want to stay in London either. We decided to meet in Cambridge. A location convenient for neither of us. I had arrived the day before, having nothing better to do, and spent the afternoon walking around the thin, cobble paths and looking up at the magnificent college buildings like all the other tourists.
Kevin and I were staying in the same hotel. A nice place overlooking one of the many greens, not far from everything. When he emailed me where he was planning to stay, I made a point of booking a room in the same place. He checked in, took ten minutes to drop his bag in his room and freshen up, then we headed out for food. We got a table in a restaurant, Kevin taking the lead magnificently, chatting with the waiter and confidently selecting wine from the list. I was impressed as this was something that hadn’t existed in him ten years ago. I wondered if I was supposed to have learned about wine in the intervening years. The waiter bought a bottle over, poured a tiny amount into a glass for Kevin to try, which he sipped, considered, then agreed to. ‘I don’t know a thing about wine,’ he said to me conspiratorially after the waiter had left.
It’s the charisma that does it, and the charm. His plain face changes shape once you have seen it.
He said he wanted to hear everything, which was reasonable given the decade that had passed but I was embarrassed by how little there was to say. Still in the same town, different flat, different job. Intermittent relationships but mainly single. I have a cat now. That’s new. He had a lot more to say. He told me about the apartment he lived in, sixth floor with a view, big TV, big fridge, big bed. The job he had gone over there for had taken off. Two promotions in his first three years, good pay rises with each. He didn’t elaborate on the pay rises but did make a sort of wide-eyed gesture that indicated they were maybe a little more than good. He liked America a lot. Lovely people, wonderful culture, oh, and he had a girlfriend.
‘Girlfriend?’ I said. Kevin took a big swig of his wine and swished it around his mouth slowly, like he knew what he was doing. The waiter came back and took our order. Kevin asked lots of questions about the food, checking on various aspects of the dishes before making up his mind. The waiter seemed slightly perplexed by Kevin and I thought I could see him trying to place his accent. There were certain words that seemed to come out with more of a twang than they used to. So, thanks, alright. It made it sound like he had lost something of himself in the years he had been away. I wondered how much else he had lost.
‘Her name’s Jennifer,’ he said once the waiter had gone. ‘You’d like her.’
‘Maybe,’ I said.
I thought Kevin might then tell me the story of how they met, but he didn’t. Instead, he turned away, leaned his hand on his chin and looked out of the window at the taxis and buses and cyclists that went by.
We drank two bottles of the wine over our meal, him slightly more than me, and then we walked back to the hotel slowly. Outside pubs, crowds of smokers took up most of the space on the narrow paths. In the sky was a bright half-moon, which I pointed out to Kevin. He looked up to see but didn’t have anything to say about it. When we got to the hotel we took the lift to our floor, said goodnight to each other and walked in opposite directions to our rooms.
I made a cup of mint tea from the little basket of teas and coffees that the hotel had provided. I took off my jumper and threw it onto the chair by the window, kicked off my shoes and laid down on the bed, listening to the oddly spacious silence of the room. Then there was a knock on the door. I stood, opened it, and Kevin was standing there.
‘She’s not just my girlfriend,’ he said. ‘She’s my fiancé.’
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
‘Can I come in?’
I hesitated but then stepped aside. Kevin walked into the middle of the room and looked around like he was appraising the place.
‘Our rooms are the same but mirrored,’ he said.
I didn’t reply to this. Instead, I joined him in the centre of the room and looked up at him. There was something about his face from that angle, just the shape of it. I felt a little sad for him, that he probably never got to look up at anyone like that.
‘Fiancé huh?’ I said.
Kevin put one hand on the back of my head and kissed me. I resisted for a moment, but then gave in. By the time he had finished, I was standing on tip toes.
Our sex was unconventional, same as it always had been, but we muddled through it, same as we always did. Afterwards, I went for a quick shower and when I was done Kevin was sitting on the edge of the bed, mostly dressed, pulling on his socks.
‘You’re leaving?’ I said, trying to say it as flatly as I could, not implying anything by the asking of it. Kevin seemed embarrassed and once his socks and shoes were on, he stood up. He looked the same as he had when he arrived, all put back together again.
‘It’s just I paid for a room,’ he said, gesturing with his thumb in the vague direction of his room.
After he left, I tried to listen for his footsteps walking back down the corridor, but I couldn’t hear them at all. I laid on the bed, over the covers. I went to take a sip of my mint tea, but it was perfectly cold.
The next morning we had breakfast like two colleagues on a business trip. I had fruit and yoghurt, which was worth significantly less than I paid for it. Kevin ordered eggs and hashbrowns and fried bread, and then had some fruit and yoghurt as well. We drank several cups of coffee each. Kevin had his phone out on the table and periodically checked it, though I wasn’t sure what he was checking for exactly. Messages, emails, sudden changes in world events. Nothing in particular.
‘Do you need to check in with your girlfriend?’ I said, deliberately avoiding the word ‘fiancé’ in a move which to me felt dramatic and catty, but that he seemed barely to notice.
‘It’s the middle of the night for her,’ he said. He opened the clock app on his phone, scrolled through to a screen that showed time zones. ‘Three forty-seven am.’
‘How long have you been together?’ I said. I didn’t really want to know the answer but did want to draw attention to the inappropriateness of his behaviour. He had had affairs before, but it was different back then. They hadn’t felt like affairs because his relationships never felt like relationships. There was a sort floaty, airy quality to the way he drifted around between lovers. It was never personal, and, in a way, he had never promised anything more to anyone. It was part of his charm. A vagueness that allowed you to feel like you had caught a butterfly in your hands, nice for a moment or two, but then, off it goes again. But this time I was cross with him, and it was only after my second cup of coffee that I figured out why. I had known he was engaged before we did anything. I was no better than he was.
‘Hard to say,’ Kevin said eventually, and the silence had been long enough that I had to think back to what I had asked him. ‘We never exactly started dating. We just sort of started hanging out and then it went from there. We broke up a couple of times as well. Few months, here and there. So, either one year or four, depending on when you start counting from.’
Kevin picked up his phone, started scrolling through something or other, and I had lost him again.
We walked along the river which was lined with moored boats and punts waiting for families or tourists. The morning sun caught on the water. Joggers and cyclists went by. Inside fenced off tennis courts, young couples tried to get rallies going, the men taking it more seriously than the women. Kevin took my arm, which surprised me. He had never done this in the past. Back then, all the affection had been private, and it dissolved if there was anyone around that might see. We had both been the same. But now we were that little bit older and that little bit less bothered. And there was something about a strange place and being completely anonymous that brought out a different kind of confidence.
‘Imagine living on one of those,’ Kevin said, pointing out a narrow canalboat, the curtains in the windows all drawn.
‘I think it’d be nice,’ I said.
‘The novelty would wear off,’ he said. ‘And then you’re just making do with a sub-standard bathroom.’
‘I guess you’re right.’
‘Did I tell you that Jennifer is pregnant?’ he said.
I pulled my arm back and stopped walking. ‘Obviously you didn’t,’ I said.
‘Right, yeah,’ he said. ‘She is though. I’m going to be a father. That’s not why we’re getting married. It’s not like that.’
Kevin looked embarrassed, like this wasn’t just some piece of news from his life. It was more like a confession. He looked down at the ground, shoulders rounding forward in a way they didn’t usually. He glanced at me, like he was trying to read my expression, which I was fighting to keep neutral.
‘Congratulations again,’ I said.
‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I knew you would understand.’
We carried on walking along the river, this time keeping our arms to ourselves.
We went to a museum with an audacious entrance, giant pillars at the top of a set of stairs which Kevin tried to photograph with his phone, but his pictures only succeeded in making it seem smaller and less impressive. Inside we walked around the art galleries, which I enjoyed but Kevin was less interested in. He preferred the incongruous Egyptian section in the basement, with a mummified cat in a glass cabinet.
In one of the galleries, I found a small wooden bust of the virgin Mary, a look of absolute despair on her face, glass teardrops set into her wooden cheeks. I crouched down to look closer, saw the moisture in her eyes, a tiny flash of teeth in her parted lips, and the way she seemed to look right through whatever she was seeing. There is something about sadness that is so much more compelling than joy. Kevin came over to see what I was taking so much interest in.
‘You’re not religious, are you?’ he said.
‘Not usually,’ I said.
Kevin squatted down to see it from the same angle I was. He was unmoved by it. He stood back up and wandered off, going from piece to piece, giving each a cursory glance.
In the museum cafe we tried to make plans for the afternoon, looking on our phones for other places of interest to visit. We speculated on tours of the colleges, a punting trip down the river, a movie.
‘About last night,’ Kevin said as we searched.
I didn’t answer. I just kept looking at my phone, thinking about what it might be nice to have for dinner.
‘I was just going to say I enjoyed it, because I don’t think I said so last night.’
‘I didn’t say so either,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘That’s true. You didn’t.’
In the end we toured Kings College with a group of European tourists then went to a Japanese restaurant for dinner where we reminisced, reminding each other of people we hadn’t seen for a long time and things that had happened just long enough ago that we felt like archaeologists digging through the sediment of our lives. It was fun, actually, picking back over it all and retelling stories that we both already knew every detail of. After our main course, Kevin flirted with the waitress, getting her to recommend him a dessert, asking which her favourite was. She suggested the yuzu ice cream and Kevin agreed, even though he didn’t know what yuzu was. When it arrived, Kevin started talking about his plans for fatherhood.
‘I have a theory,’ he said, ‘that it’s a parent’s responsibility to keep their kid as uncontaminated as possible, for as long as possible.’
‘Uncontaminated?’ I said.
‘Physically and emotionally,’ he said, ‘mind and body. Like, you can’t control what’s in there naturally, but you can try and stop the bad stuff from getting in and polluting the waters. TV shows, videogames.’
‘But you like videogames,’ I said.
‘It’s just an example.’
At another table, a man was seated alone. He ate his food quietly while reading a book. All around him were groups and couples, all talking loudly and laughing, but he seemed happy enough.
‘I think I’d make a terrible father,’ I said. Kevin decided not to respond to this.
‘I’m planning on reading books about good parenting. But not self-help books, decent ones. Psychology texts, that kind of thing. Honestly,’ Kevin said, ‘I’m scared shitless, but I guess that’s normal.’
I took the opportunity not to respond to this. I think he wanted me to tell him that yes that is a normal way to feel, but I had no idea what might be normal in that situation. I turned in my seat and looked into the kitchen where a man was frying vegetables, skilfully flicking the wok around over the flame.
Kevin took a spoonful of his yuzu ice cream. ‘Lemon,’ he said, pointing at it with his spoon. ‘It’s just lemon.’
I was in my hotel room getting ready for bed when Kevin knocked on the door again. I was wearing only a t-shirt and underwear. I had been expecting he would come and was listening for his footsteps while I laid on the bed, staring up at the swirl pattern in the cream-coloured ceiling, but I hadn’t heard him coming before he knocked gently on the door.
When I opened the door Kevin stepped forward to come into my room, but I stayed where I was, blocking his way.
‘It’s late,’ I said, ‘I have an early train in the morning.’
A flash of annoyance and impatience crossed his face. In the same way that, all those years ago, Kevin had become gradually attractive to me, in that moment his handsomeness receded, and he became a little uglier.
‘I thought we could, you know, again,’ he said.
‘I don’t want to. I want to sleep. We both have trains to catch in the morning.’
Kevin stood there like he didn’t know how to handle this, how to back out gracefully. If anything, he looked appalled with me. He had a look in his eye, like there was more he wanted to say but he seemed to be struggling to find the words he needed.
‘I’m not going back,’ he said eventually, and it wasn’t clear what he meant, whether to his room, to America, to his fiancé, to his unborn child.
‘What do you mean?’ I said. There was something different in his face than I had ever seen before, a kind of determined sadness, a hint of defiance, a glassy-eyed look like he was seeing through me into something else.
He reached out, put one hand on the back of my head like he was going to kiss me again, but I twisted away and swatted his hand down.
‘Goodnight,’ I said, and closed the door.
I stood there listening for his footsteps but heard nothing. I waited a minute or two, wondering how long he would stay there by the door, but when I looked through the peephole, he had already gone.
I tried to leave without saying goodbye but when I got down to the lobby he was already there. He had had breakfast and was sitting in one of the chairs with a newspaper. He offered to walk me to the station and even though I told him not to, he did anyway. I asked him when his train back to London was and he just shrugged. He said he was thinking about staying in Cambridge a little longer.
‘But what about your flight?’ I said. Kevin waved this away like it was trivial.
When we got to the station, I went into a coffeeshop and ordered a drink. Kevin interjected, asking for the same thing and then demanded he be allowed to pay. He swiped his card on the contactless reader before I had a chance to object.
I looked up at the board, trying to find my platform and saw that I had a full half an hour until the train was due.
‘Platform two,’ I said, pointing up at it, even though this piece of information was not important to Kevin.
‘Take a later train,’ he said. ‘It’s still early.’
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ I said. ‘When is your flight?’
‘Monday.’ Kevin stood tall with his shoulders back looking out over my head the same way the bust of the virgin Mary had.
‘Are you going to be on it?’
He looked down at me. ‘I haven’t decided yet. What do you think I should do?’
‘Do whatever feels least bad.’
‘Pragmatic,’ Kevin said, and pulled me into a hug.
Even though this time we didn’t have an awkward handshake trapped between us, it was still awkward anyway. He gripped me tight and I, as usual, couldn’t help but rise up on my toes to lean into him as close as I could. The hug lasted longer than social etiquette expects, but then eventually, as one, we let each other go. I said goodbye, he said take care, and I went through the ticket barrier heading out for platform two. I tried not to look back, but I couldn’t help it. Before stepping out onto the platform I turned to look one last time and saw that he had already left.
From the station I saw the distant people in the coffee shop, the friends and lovers waiting for a train to arrive. A woman weaved across the square on a bicycle, wearing a baseball cap and big sunglasses like she didn’t want to be recognised. A taxi driver got out of his car, lit a cigarette, and looked up at the sky while he smoked it. A heavy cloud passed in front of the sun, and a moment later was gone again.
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