‘I said may I help you?’
I look up. There’s a young guy standing beside my table, pen poised waiting to take my order.
‘Sorry,’ I mumble. ‘I didn’t see you there.’
‘No problemo,’ he says cheerfully, flashing me a friendly grin. ‘Would you like something to drink? Wine, beer, cocktail?’
‘Mineral water please.’ One part of me wants some alcohol, needs some alcohol, but at the same time I must keep my wits about me.
‘Still or sparkling?’
He goes off and I check my watch for about the tenth time this evening. Seven minutes to go. If he’s late I’m not waiting. Not for a second. I’ve done enough hanging about for Andrew for one lifetime.
I glance around the restaurant. Well actually, I wouldn’t call this a restaurant. It’s more a café/bar/eatery of sorts. Giant posters of revolutionaries adorn the terracotta-coloured walls. The glasses are old tumblers, the chairs don’t match, some are stripped pine, others peeling paint. The music’s lively – Latin American. There’s a kind of a bohemian feel about the place. Not Andrew’s cup of tea. He prefers more upmarket places, quiet smart exclusive venues with fawning waiters. Places that I don’t feel comfortable in. Well this time it was me that had done the choosing. This time we were seeing each other on my territory.
I didn’t have to come here. Nobody forced me or anything. I could have carried on as before, letting the memories fade even further until there was nothing left. But Simon thinks if I did that, there would always be a blank space in my life.
‘I think you should go, Beccy,’ he’d advised last night over supper. ‘You never know, it might even help you with your decision.’
Eight years. Or to be precise – eight years, three months, two days. Would Andrew have changed that much in that time? Does anyone really change? Simon believes in the theory that everybody is born with their personality already formed and although it may differ slightly due to circumstances, we’re basically the same all throughout our lives, ruled by our genetic structure. The old nature/nurture argument. But are people actually born kind, cruel, generous or selfish? Can it be that we’re all just slaves to our biological make-up?
I look up. Andrew’s just walked through the door and is whispering something to the young waiter who took my order. He indicates my table and Andrew waves in acknowledgement before striding confidently towards me.
My stomach turns a thousand somersaults, my nerves are totally giving way and I’m starting to shake all over. Damn it. I promised myself I was going to be cool and collected today. Miss-in-control-of-everything. Even I’m surprised at the strength of my feelings.
I take a deep breath to calm myself and stand up as he approaches. He smiles and we do a kind of awkward kiss dance. I have this sudden idiotic compulsion to fling my arms around him and hug him tightly. Never let him go. But of course I hold back. It’s not appropriate.
I wonder what Simon would think if he could see us now?
He removes his coat, and looks around as if expecting someone to take it from him.
‘Back of the chair,’ I say.
His blue eyes survey the room. I feel increasingly uneasy and I’m regretting coming. Regretting sending him that letter. Why did I do it? What did I hope to achieve? I curse Simon. It’s his fault. Him that put the suggestion forward to begin with.
‘Thanks for the letter.’ He throws me a warm smile. ‘I thought you’d never write.’
‘Well you didn’t.’
‘I did,’ he protests. ‘It came back to me. Return to sender.’
‘I wrote to you many times.’
‘How’s work?’ He changes the subject.
‘So you’re a Partner now?’
‘Yes, last April.’
‘That’s good. A lawyer. Phew. Impressive.’
He summons over the waiter with a quick snap of his fingers. He hasn’t changed much physically. A few extra wrinkles maybe, but still devastatingly handsome, immaculately dressed. Today he’s wearing what the fashion guru’s might call ‘smart but casual’. Gunmetal grey jacket with a thin round-necked black sweater underneath, white collar just peeping over the edge, black trousers. All carefully chosen and co-ordinated. Mind you he always did dress to perfection. You’d never catch Andrew in a high street store. No, for him it was pure designer label only. Totally the opposite of Simon. He’ll throw on anything in the morning, be it some old discarded jumper of mine, tatty jeans, holey t-shirt anything.
‘Clothes are functional.’ Simon always says. ‘Purely functional.’
He orders a large glass of dry white wine and plucks a menu from the next table. Suddenly he looks across and catches me watching him. For a split second our eyes lock.
‘How’s your job going?’ I ask. There’s so much to talk about yet I come out with that. A stupid tongue-tied inarticulate twenty-nine-year-old.
‘Not bad. In and out of the country as always. Lots of travelling.’
‘Wine, woman and song, huh.’ A hint of sarcasm enters my voice. A twenty-nine-year-old lawyer acting like a child.
He smiles in acknowledgement but lets it go.
We carry on chatting, nothing important though. We’re like strangers discussing trivialities, passing polite niceties and although I’m making the appropriate responses, I’m not really listening to what he has to say, not really having a proper conversation. Instead I’m just sitting here miserably wondering how it all went so very wrong.
I realize it’s gone quiet. He’s looking at me, smiling, expecting some sort of reply.
‘I asked what was good here. You know, to eat?’
‘Oh right.’ I turn to the menu. ‘I usually have the sausages and mash.’
‘Sausages and mash?’ He laughs. ‘Is that the best they can do?’
I shrug. ‘It’s a bit of a mixture . The curries are also great though. If you don’t mind them too hot.’
‘OK. I’ll have the curry then.’
The waiter returns with the wine and takes our food order. Andrew’s telling me about his new apartment in Miami. ‘I’d love you to come over. Maybe stay a while…?’ He raises a questioning eyebrow.
A conversation from long ago echoes around my head.
‘But what about me?’ I’d cried. ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t just uproot. Leave everything behind. And why now?’
‘I didn’t plan it.’ Andrew had tried to calm me down. ‘It wasn’t as if I’d been applying for jobs overseas behind your back or anything. I was headhunted. It came out of the blue and… It’s just too good an opportunity to turn down.’
‘And you don’t want to miss your opportunities, do you?’
‘I’m going to be working long hours, moving around all the time.’
‘I know, I know. And I’d only get in your way,’ I’d countered icily.
‘Look Beccy, I do understand. I honestly do.’
But I didn’t want him to understand. I wanted him to protest wildly, pull me towards him and say, ‘Not another word. You’re coming and that’s it. And if you don’t go, I won’t go myself. I won’t leave you.’ But instead he’d taken my hand in his.
‘We’re not going to lose touch, I promise,’ he’d said softly. ‘And we’ll meet up. All the time. All over the world. It could be fun. Perhaps when I’m settled…’
The music’s increased in volume and now there’s a couple of dancers at the back of the room in sequined costumes, a young girl and her older male partner, doing some salsa-type moves. They come every Friday evening – slightly surreal in a small place like this – but good fun.
‘It’s um kind of…different here, isn’t it?’ He raises his voice above the noise. He’s like a fish out of water and I’m kind of glad in a funny sort of way. Glad I made the choice. Andrew always made the decisions in the past, you see. Which restaurants, which hotel, even which country. And we did meet up as he’d predicted – many times, many hotels until one day, I don’t know, I think I just got fed up with it all. I’d had enough. He hadn’t seemed as keen or delighted to see me as he had when he’d first moved to Florida and somehow I felt like I was in the way, cramping his style. So I told him. I wasn’t going to chase around after him anymore. I was going to get on with my own life, independent of him. That day at the airport saying goodbye for the last time, I remember feeling strangely cold. Cold but also overwhelmingly relieved – as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
‘I’ve missed you Beccy,’ he says suddenly.
‘So much that you lost touch.’
‘You’d moved away. ‘
‘True.’ I shrug.
‘No forwarding address, no telephone number. What was I supposed to do?’
‘Search for me. Google, Facebook. Check the electoral role, contact friends, relatives. I wasn’t so very hard to find.’ Move mountains Andrew. That’s what you were supposed to do, that’s what I needed you to do.
He looks hurt. Different now to the suave confident man that walked through the door tonight.
‘So how’s your love life?’ He’s doing it again – changing the subject.
‘Fine… Well, more than finally actually.’ I find myself blushing. ‘I’ve met someone. His name’s Simon. We live together.’
‘And does he treat you well, this Simon? Does he look after you?’
‘Better than you did,’ I quip.
‘I’m sorry.’ He leans across the table, takes hold of my left hand and covers it with both of his. It’s strangely comforting. ‘In your letter… I never knew how much I’d hurt you. How selfish I’d been. I didn’t realize. I didn’t think you wanted to see me anymore.’
‘You were right I didn’t.’
‘So why this? Why now? After all this time?’
‘I had this decision and… I don’t know. Simon says I needed to go back, confront my past, face my fears. And then let it go – if I want.’
‘And do you want to let it go?’
‘I don’t know. But Simon says that it’s like a river, and I’m creating a dam and if I’m not careful…’ My voice fades.
‘Sounds pretty clever this Simon.’
‘He is.’ I swallow hard.
There’s a moment’s silence between us.
‘And in a way,’ I continue, my eyes welling up, ‘it’s because of him that I wrote.’ My throat feels constricted but I manage to hold myself together. I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry.
‘Carry on,’ he says seriously.
I take a sip of water. ‘I got in touch again because I didn’t want to be looking at him and thinking about you. Always comparing.’
‘Did I have that much of an influence on your life?’
‘Of course you did,’ I say simply. ‘You were my father.’
‘I still am,’ Andrew says tenderly. ‘And perhaps I should have been around more and done more, and I know I messed up with your mother, but all of that it doesn’t stop me loving you, Beccy. Doesn’t stop us from staying in touch in future. And if I’ve let you down – I’m sorry. So very sorry, darling.’
‘I’m sorry too.’
It’s no use. The tears are flowing down my cheeks but I can’t stop them. I’m always breaking promises, especially to myself. But I’ve had too many years of blocking out my feelings to worry about that now.
He hands me a tissue. ‘Do you love this Simon?’
‘Yes,’ I gulp. ‘Yes I do.’
‘And are you going to marry him?’
‘Yes,’ I whisper. ‘Yes I am. Although he doesn’t know it yet.’ And as I say the words, I know for sure I’ve made the right decision – to accept Simon’s proposal.
‘He’s a very lucky man.’
‘Simon says he’d like to meet you.’ I dab at my eyes.
‘Simon says a lot, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes, I guess he does.’
‘Well you say to this Simon, that I’d like to meet him.’ Andrew grins broadly. ‘The sooner the better.’
‘I will dad. I will.’
We both stand up and move towards each other, oblivious to the other diners. He opens up his arms and I walk into them and snuggle up as he squeezes me tightly and kisses my head. No, he’s not changed much over the years. And no, I still wouldn’t call him the perfect father by any means, but he wasn’t the only one to blame. I hadn’t been the perfect daughter either. We were both quite selfish in our own ways, both stubborn, both lazy, both not bothering to make that extra effort needed to maintain our relationship.
As Simon says the same genetic structure.