Alison rushed for the door, the atmosphere in the café suddenly heavy and humid.
Outside her legs trembled, her vision tunnelled. John held her, trying to channel his strength.
“I fought it too. I don’t want to unsettle your world but, I believe we have no choice.” Then quietly he added, “If you feel the same way, of course, because it doesn’t hold otherwise.”
“If I don’t feel the same?” She regained her composure, “If I decide to stay loyal?”
“I’ll disappear.” She felt the laden words sting her heart.
“I need time.” Without looking back, she walked briskly away.
Her eyes widened at their clasped hands.
“What’s happening?” she stammered.
“Don’t tease.” Alison seemed scared
“Nothing you don’t want. Who do you love?”
“Stuart…I don’t know, I feel so helpless.”
John tried for reassurance. “We’re all weak against love, nature; they’re irresistible forces.”
“I must do what’s right.” She said robotically.
He pulled both her hands toward him, her head shaking, her eyes pleading for respite.
“And what’s that? Right by society or right by love? The two are incompatible.”
Alison wrenched from his grasp and stood sharply, the chair squealing across the floor.
“I need some air.”
Alison played with her sugar sachet. “If things were different…”
“You mean if you weren’t married, if we’d met before?” He answered the silence, “You’re just confirming we’d be together without the accident of time. Past alliances were right then but now…”
“And you meet another in the future? Will this be a coincidence of timing?”
“This is real.”
“Amy wasn’t? Stuart isn’t?”
“They felt like it, but however safe and comfortable, they aren’t enough. That cocoon is a compromise that cannot endure.”
Her eyes rimmed with tears and she didn’t resist as John cautiously took hold of her hand.
Alison, planted her elbow on the table, sobbing, her hand across her lowered brow, she scoured the floor for answers discarded there.
John yearned to take her close, hold her tight and decant all her stress into himself.
He leant forward, peering under her tumbling hair, searching for words to ease her mind.
He’d kept away to make things easier but, Fate had scorned his efforts, their efforts.
Unwittingly, his hand had strayed to within a hairsbreadth of hers, across the table. Neither withdrew nor could they dare cross the final barrier. A spark now would weld them together forever.
Thoughts of guilt and despair crashed through her mind. Radio and daytime TV offered no succour. She needed to get out. She’d take her Kindle and treat herself to a cream tea.
Idling through town, woollen hat and scarf wrapped against the cold, she found herself outside the Diner. Remembering the music, milkshakes and good times, she regretted she couldn’t enter; John might be there. Head bowed, she hurried by. The doorbell tinkled as she stepped into the café, unwinding her scarf.
John looked up from a table, “What are you doing here?”
“Avoiding the diner,” she groaned with resignation.
John watched her stumble down the road, her shaky hand fumble the key. He waited until the door closed behind her.
Slowly he edged his car from the kerb and coasted silently down the narrow street. He didn’t know where to go but, home would be too soon.
He drove to a park overlooking the Christmas lit town, pulled a CD wallet from beneath the passenger seat and selected, Janis Ian’s ‘Have Mercy Love.’
Crackling fireworks chattered across the sky, interspersed with resounding, robust explosions.
“When love goes boom, it’s doesn’t work, if one of you hides from the blast.”
“You talk about love and my Stuart, but never mention Amy.”
John smiled, “We’re OK together.”
“But do you love her?”
He stared into the dashboard lights.
“It’s something that’s been taxing me, can you love two people? Are there degrees of love?”
She looked at him with consternation, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Love drops on you. Suddenly you’re consumed. So what was it before? A lower level of love?”
Alison caught her breath, “And what you have isn’t enough anymore?”
“How can it be?”
“Stuart’s a fine man, he doesn’t deserve this.”
“Does that make him enough?”