In the reception Kat holds out her arms in greeting but I still feel the warmth of Maria’s lips on mine and the passion that surged through me in the kitchen and I turn my cheek from her kiss.
A flicker of uncertainty crosses her green eyes.Her confidence wavers and she tosses her long auburn hair with irritation. Her mouth is set and to avoid confrontation I hiss.
“Come on, there’s a wine bar up the road.” I grab her elbow and steer her from the reception and into the street. I don’t want her to see where I work or meet any of my colleagues.
A few minutes later we are sitting in the window of thebar with a bottle of Shiraz on the table between us. Pain, resentment, anger are directed at Kat but more strongly the tenderness and passion for Mariaare hurling inside my stomach
“You look tired.” Kat reaches across the table and her fingers grip my hand.
Her hand seems foreign in mine. Her touch unfamiliar.
I glance out of the window, the rush of the afternoon traffic leaving work has calmed. Shops are closed: the hairdressers, the Estate Agent, the cafe/deli, and the art gallery are all shuttered up and secured.
We drink. Kat talks. I listen. Kat continues speaking, “I know that you’ll probably need time to forgive me but I’ll wait. I can be very patient.”
She strokes the lifeline on the palm of my hand and brings it to her mouth.
Her lips on my skin are surreal. I am in a trance-like state thinking of Maria. Only minutes ago I was kissing her. My lips still feel her warmth and a small groan escapes my lips.
With sudden lucidity I snatch back my fingers and glare at her.
She speaks but I am behind a veil, like a sheet of thin muslim and I struggle to understand her words and I turn my attention to the darkness of the street.
The weekend stretches ahead of me like a bleak, blank canvas belonging a struggling artist.
The wine bottle is empty.
Maria would be at home by now. She would be with Lily. What are they doing?
Kat buys another bottle of wine and returns with a ceramic dish filled with nuts and dried fruit. The wine is reassuring and it hits the back my throat, sliding downquickly.
Kat talks about our friends in London, our work, and the marketing and sales seminars we worked on.
“Peter hasn’t worked out as we expected and so your job is still open. I want you to come back,” she concludes.She sits motionless like a sculptured porcelain feline. Her auburn hair hangs loose around her shoulders and her almond shaped green eyes flash as she speaks.
“Come back, Elly please. We all miss you…”
“He was a dick! I told you before but you didn’t listen.” I gulp wine.It’s easier to drink than to think so I take another reassuring swig.
The bar is busy.Men in business suits and young giggling girls hug shaky tables with optimistic smiles full of weekend promises.The stress of the working week is dissipated by each glass of alcohol. A smile replaces a frown.
“I couldn’t believe John was working with you.” Kat begins nibbling an olive. “It was fate or I would never have found you. Jenny wouldn’t tell me where you went.”
“Thanks for telling John I was gay.”
“You did!” I pause with my wine glass at my lips.
“Well, we’d had a few drinks after the seminar and I was missing you.”She smiles. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me that one of our ex-employees had moved to Belfast and when he told me your name. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know you...”
Outside rain is falling in long striped sheets against the window distorting my vision of dirty puddles at the side of the road.
“I only stayed with Marcella for a few weeks. You were so bad tempered and you took the work ‘thing” so badly. I told you I was coming back once you calmed down. You know we belong together.”
Where is Maria?
“I don’t want to be here.” I look at my watch.In my haste I realise I have left my handbag and mobile phone in the office. I jump up and run out of the door and through the rain to the office. But the door is locked. It’s closed for the weekend.
I am swearing loudly when Kat appears beside me.
“They normally work late I have no telephone. No phone numbers….” my voice trails off. I pat my pockets and find the key to Auntie Annie’s house in my jacket.
“We’ll get a taxi. Everything will be all right. I’m here now. I’ll look after you.” Kat puts her arm around me and whispers, “I love you. I only want to be with you.”
The words are right but the accent and voice is all wrong.
I want Maria.
At Auntie Annie’s house I drink two cups of strong black coffee, eat a thick cheese sandwich, and take a hot shower.
It is midnight when I stand looking at the flickering lights across the Lough and I imagine Maria curled up asleep, her eyelashes flickering with a dream and the regular breathing of her chest.
I rest my head against the cold pane and sigh.Was she asleep with Michael? Cuddled together in bed? Making love?
Was it only today - yesterday I kissed her in the office?
“I’ve left it too late, haven’t I?” Kat’s voice cuts into my thoughts. She sits curled on the sofa, her eyes are large and green.
“Yes.” I don’t turn around but continue to stare across the Lough.
“You loved me once...”
I watch her reflection through the window. She unfolds her body, stretches and walks slowly to stand beside me.
She pushes hair from my face and strokes the outline of my cheek.
“You’re still very beautiful...”
I turn away. “Sleep in the spare room Kat and I’ll see you in the morning.”
In the quiet of my bedroom I watch a car’s headlight flicker across the ceiling. I imagine Maria beside me and I turn to press my nose to the white cotton pillow, imagining where she lay, trying to find a trace of her perfume on the sheets but a dull ache of foreboding begins to seep into my soul.
Lily is the most important person to her. She will protect Lily and keep her in a safe and happy environment. Maria couldn’t live life as a closet lesbian as I did. We would never have a normal life with her family. Her mother Brenda would be impossible.
As a dank dawn struggles to begin a new day. I listen to the rain lashing at the window. I watch the sun as it strives for survival in a pale liquid sky, fighting ominous cumulous clouds to be the victor of nature and I know how it feels to struggle and fight the inevitable.
An hour later I am dressed.
I booked Kat on the first flight to Heathrow and I am determined she won’t miss it.