Song of Love Chapter Eight
Thank you for sticking with this story! I hope you've enjoying reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Here is the final chapter. You might need some more tissues.
Here is the final chapter. You might need some more tissues.
Liam was back at Uni, excited about the prospect of starting a music degree after his first year of law. Zac scored himself an apprenticeship as a chef at The Boathouse, of all places, and Lorna was convinced that his friendship with Lexi was fast developing into something more than just friends.
It was ironic that Lorna’s boys were on track to happiness for the first time in months, yet her own life had become painful and full of longing for a man she had sent away with her stuck-up ideas and need for control.
One night, she missed Nate so much she went on YouTube to watch him sing the song he wrote for her. Even as she waited for her search to provide the links, she wondered why she hadn’t thought of that earlier. She could have listened to his songs and watched his videos a hundred times by now, taking some comfort from the sound of his voice and his words. But the search didn’t yield any results. She couldn’t find any of his videos nor his channel.
This confused her more than anything else. Had someone hacked into his account? Lexi wouldn’t have deleted all that hard work. And neither would Nate, not when he’d been so successful in the last few weeks.
She texted Liam, but of course, he didn’t respond. In the semi-dark lounge, she found Zac in front of the family TV, fast asleep despite a blaring show flickering over his face. She gave him a gentle nudge.
“Zac, wake up.” When he didn’t move, she shoved him a bit harder. “Zac!”
He opened his eyes and cricked a stiff neck. “What?” he asked through blinking eyes.
“What happened to Nate’s videos?” she asked.
Zac stood up and stretched, then traipsed past her to go to his bedroom.
“Dunno,” he said on his way. “One day, they were gone. Lexi didn’t tell me why, but she was furious.”
Lorna didn’t bring it up again, but the questions burned through her mind every week. One Wednesday, when she underwent another futile search on YouTube, weeks after the disappearance of his videos, weeks into trying to ignore the ache she felt every time she thought of Nate, there was a garbled phone call from Dunedin.
Nate took a while to figure out where the irritating noise beside his head came from. It had been the first time since his relationship with Lorna ended that he’d been asleep before midnight. He fumbled for his phone in the darkness to see who was calling so late at night. When Liam’s name popped up on the screen, he sat up in his bed and answered.
At first, there was silence. Nate rubbed his eyes, blinking against the bright screen. He reached for the light on his bedside table.
“Liam?” he asked again, screening his eyes from the bright lamp. He’d replaced the bulb after his antics throwing around the pillow and knocking the lamp off the bedside table. There hadn’t been a spare frosted forty-watt bulb in his hardware cupboard, so he used a clear bright bulb that now hurt his eyes.
“Aimee’s dead,” Liam’s blurted out.
Nate hardly recognised the flat grey voice as Liam’s. He waited for him to say more, but there was complete silence and Nate thought for a moment that the line had gone dead.
“I’m so sorry,” Nate said, suddenly realising that he needed to respond because Liam wasn’t going to say anything else. “I’m so sad to hear,” he added.
He waited for Liam to offer more detail, but he didn’t, and Nate didn’t want to ask, not now. The silence stretched out between them, as if they’d both agreed that there was nothing to add. Aimee was dead. What else could possibly be said?
The bedroom suddenly felt very stuffy, void of any fresh air to breathe. Nate pushed the duvet off his legs and walked over to open the window.
He imagined the boy somewhere in a flat in Dunedin, surrounded by his mates, hopefully, or on his own in his bedroom, in shock.
“I want to sing for her. At the funeral,” Liam said so quietly that Nate could hardly hear. He thought of the song that Liam had written for the girl and wondered if he’d ever had a chance to sing it for her.
“That would be a very nice thing to do,” Nate said. His heart ached as he pictured the boy with his guitar slung around his neck, singing a song for a girl he’d only just fallen for, at her funeral.
“I can’t do it on my own.” Liam’s voice was fragile, frayed around the edges, threatening to break.
“I’ll help,” Nate said. “When do you want me down there?” There was another long silence. Nate imagined the boy sitting on his bed, wiping away tears, and swallowing hard to loosen the tightness in his throat.
He barely managed a whisper. “On Sunday,” Liam said. “The funeral is on Monday.”
“I’ll be there Sunday afternoon,” Nate said. Then, because he felt he had to offer Liam the opportunity to talk about Aimee, he asked, “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
The line remained silent for such a long time he was convinced that Liam had hung up. Chilled from the cold winter air that had filled the room, Nate shut the window, slid back into bed and pulled the duvet up to his chin.
“An accident.” The boy’s voice was weary. “She ran a red light on her scooter. Got hit by a car.”
‘No!’, Nate wanted to cry out, but he stopped himself and said, “I am so sorry. This is so sad.” He waited for the boy to reply, but he had already hung up.
Nate sat in his bed, a thousand questions swirling in his head. Who was with Liam now to keep him safe? Would any of his flatmates know how depressed he’d been when Nate first met him? The music and Aimee’s song had been Liam’s way of getting better, but surely her death would put him at risk of falling back into a depression.
He reassured himself that Lorna would be there for the boy. And Lawrence, his father, hopefully. After all, he’d agreed that Liam would be better off switching to a music degree, so he must have some understanding of his son’s needs.
He switched off the bright light, rolled onto his side and cried for Liam and Aimee, whom he had never met.
On Sunday, he left Christchurch early to travel down to Dunedin. On the way, he stopped a couple of times for coffee and lunch. South of Oamaru, he pulled over at a rest area by the beach. The parking area was covered by trees growing at a slant away from the prevailing easterly wind. When he took his shoes off, he gasped at the cold of the sand between his toes and walked along the sandy beach for half an hour.
It was a clear and brilliant winter’s day with bright sunshine warming his face. A sweeping bay extended in front of him over to a headland with a small settlement visible from the distance. Flax bushes grew on the dunes between the beach and the road and debris of driftwood, seaweed and shells covered the high tide mark. Nate dug his toes into the sand, watching as tiny sand particles reflected the sun in a golden glint. His toes were soon cold and clammy, so he pushed on and walked for another hundred metres before turning around, eager to get back on the road.
He texted Liam to say that he would meet him at his flat in an hour’s time.
With the help of his phone, he found Liam’s flat, a light-blue art deco house with a small garden and a separate garage. He parked his car on the side of the road and fetched his guitar case from the boot.
A tall guy with blond dreadlocks and a ripped T-shirt opened the door before Nate had a chance to knock.
“I’m here to see Liam,” Nate said.
The guy looked at his guitar case, then shook his hand. “Pete. Come in.”
Nate introduced himself and stepped into a surprisingly bright and cheerful house. Colourful animal prints adorned the walls and calico curtains in pastel colours softened the light that shone down from dated halogen lights recessed in the ceiling.
“Liam,” Pete said as he knocked on a bedroom door. “You’ve got a visitor.” He turned to Nate apologetically before pushing open the door. “He’s a bit of a mess,” he whispered.
Stale warm air hit Nate as soon as he entered the room. The curtains were drawn, and it was hard to find a clear space on the carpet to put his foot down. Clothes were strewn all over the floor, empty soft-drink cans and fast food containers were scattered, and his bedding was rumpled into a ball of sheets and blankets.
Liam lifted his eyes when he saw Nate, made a feeble attempt at getting up, then slumped back onto his bed.
“Give us a hug,” Nate said and pulled him up into a tight hug. He felt the boy’s shoulder bones through his shirt, the narrow back and wondered when he had last eaten. “I’m so sorry about your girl,” Nate said.
Liam fell back onto his bed and sat, unmoved. He would need a shower and some clean clothes, Nate thought, before they even considered practising a song.
He looked around to find his guitar on the floor, covered by textbooks, used tissues and marked by a large scratch across the front.
He opened his mouth to complain, then cast a glance at Liam who hadn’t moved at all. Why was no one here to take care of this boy, he wondered. Didn’t Lawrence live in Dunedin? And where was his mother?
Reaching for the guitar, he stood on a half-eaten apple hidden under a pair of jeans. He removed the guitar, gave it a wipe with a T-shirt he picked off the floor and took it through to the living room. It was a different world in the rest of the house, clean and tidy.
“Come on, boy,” he said to Liam back in his bedroom. “Let’s get you cleaned up. Then we can look at this song.”
When Liam refused to move, Nate lost his patience.
“For fuck’s sake, Liam, get a grip!” he said. “You want to sing at Aimee’s funeral tomorrow? You better get your act together. Nobody wants a smelly boyfriend at a funeral. They’re depressing enough without the sight of you.”
He pulled the boy up by his wrists and shoved him gently out of the bedroom, catching Pete’s glance from the kitchen.
“Shower?” he asked and followed Pete’s directions. He turned the shower onto a warm setting and watched Liam disappear behind the shower curtain, still wearing boxers and a T-shirt.
“Thanks, mate,” Pete said when Nate came out. “We’ve tried a number of times. He refused.”
Nate looked around the living room. “You must be horrified by his room. Is it always like that?”
Pete shrugged. “It was bad before mid-term break. Then he came back, and he was like a different person. Happy, creative, tidy. He met Aimee and the two were like this.” He crossed two fingers in front of him. “And then she died.”
Nate waited, but Pete didn’t offer any more detail.
“Do you think he’s depressed?” Nate asked.
“He’s worse than ever,” Pete said. Nate looked at him, and remembered the conversation with Lorna about his dislike for law.
“Can I put on a load of washing?” he asked. “His bed and clothes stink.”
“Go for it. The laundry is just out here.”
So instead of practising, he spent the next hour cleaning up Liam’s mess. He started by pulling off his bedsheets and collecting all the clothes on the floor and stuffed them into the washing machine. On his way back to the bedroom, he stopped at the fogged-up bathroom, checked up on Liam in the shower and fished his dripping boxers and T-shirt from the shower tray.
“Use plenty of soap and shampoo,” he said to him on the way out.
The bedroom didn’t take too long to clean up. Pete brought over a recycling bin for the empty cans, and the rubbish on the floor was quickly tidied away. Nate vacuumed the floor, opened the windows and tidied up the messy desk as much as he could.
On top of a skinny silver laptop, Nate found a printed photo of a young woman with strawberry blonde hair and silver earrings. Her nose was covered in freckles and she had large white teeth. He turned the photo over and found her name written in black ink. Aimee.
Liam stepped into the bedroom, dropping his towel by accident. He wasn’t fazed by his nakedness but stared at the photo that Nate still held in his hand.
“She looks like a very nice person,” Nate said, passing the photo to Liam. He knew how corny that would sound, but he was at a loss what else he could say to the boy.
“She was.” It was the first time he’d spoken since his arrival.
“Let’s find you some clothes,” Nate said, and Liam looked down at himself as if he only now realised that he was naked. He pointed to the chest drawer beside the desk.
Nate found some boxers and chucked them at Liam. “You can find the rest yourself,” he said and left him in his bedroom. In the kitchen, he made three cups of tea, found some chocolate biscuits and set them up on the coffee table in the lounge.
When Liam finally joined him, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Nate was strumming the guitar he’d given to Liam. He hadn’t played any music since the fallout with Lorna and his fingers were a bit rusty, but he soon felt his way around the instrument.
They sat in silence, drank tea and ate biscuits. After a while, Pete joined them.
“Do you have a dryer?” Nate asked when he heard the washing machine beep to indicate the end of the cycle.
“We don’t usually use it,” Pete said.
“Today will have to be an exception, for his bedding. It won’t dry otherwise,” Nate said. He could tell that he was breaking a house rule on power consumption, but he didn’t care. The boy needed a dry clean bed to sleep in, and that was all he was concerned about.
Liam sat still, sipping tea. Nate pushed a biscuit into his hand. “You’ve got to eat,” he said. “No point practising a song if you’re going to collapse tomorrow.”
Liam nibbled on the biscuit, then dunked some of it in his tea. Nate picked up the guitar again and started to play a soft song, humming along. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Liam close his eyes, sitting very still. Soon he would fall asleep and spill his tea.
“Don’t go to sleep,” Nate said to him and gave him a nudge. “Here, I’ll swap you.” He took the cup out of his hands in return for the guitar. Liam took it reluctantly and sat it on his lap, not moving.
Nate stood to get his own guitar out of its case and sat back down next to the boy.
“Tune?” he prompted, but Liam didn’t react.
“Come on!” Nate said, louder this time. “Give me your E.”
Liam picked the top string, and Nate tuned his one to match it, then they tuned the rest of his guitar the same way.
“So, what are your chords?” Nate asked.
Once again, Liam didn’t react.
“What are the chords, mate?” he asked again.
Liam straightened, put his fingers on the fret and played his chords. Nate didn’t take long to pick up the chord sequence, and soon they were strumming and picking, Nate improvising a little within the bars. It became clear that Liam hadn’t played at all since Aimee had died.
Nate couldn’t imagine singing for someone he loved at their funeral. But despite his clumsiness, Liam managed to get through his song a couple of times, with chords that were a bit out of sync, albeit.
“You’re doing really well, Liam,” Nate said after their second run-through. “Every time you sing it, it sounds better.”
Pete had left them sometime during the song. Liam rested the guitar on his knees and ran his hands through his wet hair, then over his face. Dark shadows shone through the pale skin under his eyes that sat deep within their eye sockets from a lack of sleep.
“What if I can’t do it tomorrow?” he asked.
Nate wanted to take the boy in his arms, croon a comforting tune and tell him that everything would be alright. Instead, he studied the boy’s translucent face and wondered if this death would throw him back into depression. He pictured him alone in his room, days and weeks after the funeral, trying to come to terms with the loss of his girl. If he couldn’t look after himself properly before, there was not much hope for him now.
“You do what you can. I’ll help when you need me,” he said.
Liam stared at his hands, then looked at Nate with red-rimmed eyes that had filled up with tears.
“The important thing is to be there,” Nate added quickly. “Everyone will understand if you can’t go through with it.”
“It’s in a church,” Liam said as if that had any bearing on the song he would play.
“That’s fine,” Nate said. “Hopefully, it’ll have good acoustics, at least.” The tribute to Aimee would need all the help it could get to be the best considering the circumstances. It had to be a thing of beauty to counter the sadness of her death.
They played the song a couple more times and Nate scribbled down the lyrics and chords on a piece of paper so he could practise them overnight. When he looked up through the large windows in the lounge, darkness had settled outside.
“I’m off now to catch a good night’s sleep,” Nate said and gave the boy a pat on his shoulders. “Tomorrow will be really hard, so get some sleep, eh?”
Liam didn’t respond, so Nate left him sitting on the couch. He saw himself out of the flat, picked up his car and bought take-aways from a Thai restaurant on his way to his motel. He sat in front of the TV and ate the spicy green curry dish, then picked up his guitar and played Liam’s song a few times.
Just when he thought it would be time to go to bed, his phone dinged with a text message from Liam.
“Can u pick me up from The Quag?”
Nate remembered The Quag from his sister who had studied in Dunedin and had frequented the student bar on a regular basis.
“I’ll be there in 20,” he replied. “Wait for me at the door.”
Nate parked in a side street and followed the sound of loud music to the crowded pub. But Liam was nowhere near the door and Nate had to scramble through sweaty bodies leaning over tables, congregating around pool tables and dancing on a tiny dance floor. When he finally found Liam standing around a tall table with some mates, the boy was handing out tequila shots.
He pushed one across the table to Nate, but Nate didn’t touch it.
“I’m your sober driver, remember?” he said, glad to have an excuse for his refusal.
“Come on, Nate!” Liam shouted. “One shot. One shot for Aimee, then you can take me home.”
Would it really matter if he had one shot, Nate wondered. It couldn’t do any harm, not like last time when he drank two bottles of wine.
“For Aimee, then,” he said and downed the drink before the others had even noticed. As soon as the liquid hit his throat, a chaser turned up in front of him. Nate thought that one more would still be okay to drive, just the one, and emptied the shot.
He didn’t remember much else after that. At some stage, he thought that he should take Liam home, but the shots kept coming and everyone was having a good time. Even Liam was laughing, and wasn’t that what he wanted more than anything today, to see Liam happy again?
Lorna sat in the modern church with colourful abstract stained glass windows and craned her neck to see Liam near the front waiting for someone, it seemed. He kept checking his phone, half-sat, half-stood on the edge of his seat. She had offered to sit with him but he said that he would sit right at the front with Aimee’s family and closest friends.
Now she regretted that she hadn’t insisted on sitting with him, just like she regretted not immediately coming down to Dunedin the minute she heard about Aimee. Instead of asking Liam if he wanted her there (which he denied), she should have just packed her bags and travelled south.
The clock neared eleven, then went past the hour. She wondered what the delay was, because surely, everybody wanted to get this funeral underway, and out of the way.
People in the front row were now craning their necks too, shifting in their padded seats, and the pastor came up to Liam and whispered something into his ear, pointing at his watch.
And then Nate Cooper arrived out of the blue in dark jeans, a white shirt and black jacket, trying to make himself smaller by walking hunched over, clutching a guitar case in his arm. The smart clothes couldn’t distract from the fact that he looked a wreck, she thought, with baggy eyes, a blotchy face and a rash on his neck that she could see even from where she sat. Even so, her heart started to race, and a feeling of excitement shot through her, funeral or not.
As soon as Nate was seated, the service started. As tragic as Aimee’s death was, Lorna had never met the girl, so she wasn’t emotionally involved. She was doing okay, hadn’t even used her handkerchief yet, until Liam and Nate got up.
They walked to the front of the audience and quickly tuned their guitars. Liam looked up, then started a slow strum, and Nate joined in after a couple of bars. Liam began to sing in his beautiful voice, even more beautiful than when she’d last heard him sing. But even to her untrained ear, she heard the strain in his voice and saw the tension in his posture. With his eyes closed, he tried so hard to keep his grief inside of him, but after the second verse, his voice broke and he couldn’t carry on.
Lorna wiped her eyes with her tissue at the sight of her boy, so utterly lost and devastated. It took all of her self-control not to get out of her seat and take him into her arms.
Nate only missed a couple of bars, then continued the tune, first a bit croaky, then in rich mournful tones. His voice absorbed the audience’s loss, it seemed, and lifted it up to the high slanted ceiling, where it reverberated in the space above them.
Watching Nate beside Liam, supporting her boy whom he hadn’t even known until a few weeks ago, brought her to tears. Lorna averted her eyes and stared down on her knees, trying to blink away the tears that were now coming, without much luck.
There was no escaping Nate’s voice as she clutched her stomach, and the song seemed to go on for a very long time until finally, Nate finished on a warm shimmering tone that carried a hint of hope in it.
There was a stunned silence in the church, only interrupted by a stifled sob that came from the front row.
After the funeral, Lorna made her way outside and stood on the paved area beside the church, looking for Liam. She found him standing on his own beside a dark wooden bench in the well-kept gardens surrounding the church. She walked up to him and pulled him into her arms.
“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered and held him tight. After a while, he pulled back and wiped his eyes.
“I wanted to sing for her, Mum, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t get through it.”
He fell back into her arms and wept.
“It’s okay, darling,” she said. “You started the song off and played the guitar, didn’t you? You were there in front of everyone, showing your love. That’s what matters, nothing else.” She held him tight and swayed with him just like when he was a little boy, then stopped when Liam straightened his body.
“Where’s Nate?” he asked.
Lorna scanned the throngs of people milling about the gardens and the front of the church. “I’m not sure, darling. He’ll be here somewhere.”
“Can you find him for me? Please? I want to thank him,” Liam said. Lorna tried to spot him in amongst the many teenagers who were clinging to each other, and the people who stood with Aimee’s grandparents, she presumed.
“I’ll see if I can find him,” she said.
Walking past small groups of people who spoke in subdued voices, she looked for Nate’s familiar face and his guitar case in amongst the many strangers. It felt like she had been looking for ages and she wondered if he’d already left when she found him just outside the church, talking to an elderly couple.
“Your singing was very moving,” the woman said to him as her husband held her close by his side.
“Thank you,” Nate said and shook the man’s hand, then leaned over to quickly embrace the woman. They turned and moved away in slow, measured steps, the man’s feet slightly dragging across the paving stones underneath.
Nate lifted his head at that moment and spotted her.
“Lorna,” he said and took a step towards her.
She wanted to say how sorry she was. How much she had missed him since they had gone their separate ways, how much she regretted pushing him away. Instead, she blurted out, “Liam’s looking for you.” Nate lifted his head and looked around him, trying to locate Liam.
“Where is he?”
She pointed towards the trees. “Over there.”
Lorna hung back, watching the two men hug. Their arms stayed around each other for a long time. A lump rose in her throat and she fought back tears. When other people approached to talk to Liam, Nate returned to her.
“How are you?” he asked.
The longing she’d felt back at his house all those weeks ago was nothing compared to the longing she felt now when she looked into his eyes. This time, the ache was profound, anchored in her insides, and amplified by regrets. She looked up into the trees, blinking.
“It’s terrible. I don’t know what to say to her parents. What do you say to someone who has lost their child?” His voice was brittle, so unlike when he sang a short time earlier. He seemed at such a loss Lorna had the urge to reassure him that everything would be alright in the end.
There was a rose garden next to them with edges carefully cut into the perfect lawn and a thick layer of mulch covering the soil. Some of the roses were already sporting small buds, ready to burst into bloom anytime soon.
“You already gave them so much,” she said. Nate looked at her as if she were talking in a different language. “With that song. The way you carried on after Liam lost it,” she added. He looked intently at her as if each word she said was very important. “And the way you sang was beautiful, Nate. It was very touching.”
He gave her a brief, sad smile that made her want to reach up and touch his face. “You know Liam wrote it?” he asked.
She nodded. “I’m very proud of him.”
“You should be,” Nate said. He was fidgety, playing with the zip of his jacket, tugging at it, releasing it, tugging again. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees around them. It carried a hint of spring; a promise of warm days and sunshine.
“You did well to carry on when Liam couldn’t,” she said.
Nate looked into her eyes. “I thought if I can’t get through this, how can Liam ever get through it? I did it for him, singing that song, you know? It was for him so he could say farewell to Aimee the way he wanted to.”
Lorna lifted her hand to touch his arm. She nearly reached up to his face but pulled back at the last moment.
“You’re a good man, Nate. A kind man.”
He shook his head, and she was surprised by the look of disdain on his face. “I’m a fool. I nearly missed it.”
“I saw you come in late. Did you get lost?”
“Not the way you think,” he said, his voice heavy and deflated. She waited, wondering what he was on about, and when he carried on, he looked into the bed of roses beside them instead of her eyes. “I drank myself into a coma last night.”
“You drank?” She couldn’t hide her disbelief, even if she tried.
“Just a few shots, with Liam and his mates.”
“Liam took you out drinking?” she asked with a sinking feeling in her stomach.
Now he looked at her with a self-deprecating smirk on his face that made her want to look away.
“It was nothing. A few shots. Everyone could handle it,” he said.
“But not you,” she said.
He shook his head. “Not me.”
Sunlight broke through the clouds, warming Lorna’s face. She suddenly felt hot and quickly fumbled with the buttons on her coat to open it up.
“I have no recollection of how I got back to my motel,” Nate added.
“You are a fool,” she said, then, as soon as the words were out, regretted them. She was meant to tease him, but this wasn’t a joke, not to him.
Nate looked around him to see if they were still out of earshot. The crowd had started to disperse, but a core group of family members were still standing around in small clusters.
“I can’t be trusted with a drink. I can’t be trusted with anything,” he said, his voice full of self-loathing.
Lorna put her hand on his arm again. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve done so much for Liam. I trust you.” She might as well have talked to a wall.
“I’m a fucking idiot,” he said as he shook his head and lifted his chin to look up into the trees as if he couldn’t bear her eyes on him any longer. “Do you realise that I woke up twenty minutes before the funeral? That I drove like a maniac to get here, even though I’m probably still over the limit?”
She looked at the rash on his neck, his puffy face, his red-rimmed eyes and picked up the scent of alcohol coming off him, sickly and sweet.
“Go and sleep it off, Nate.”
He looked lost, deflated, and didn’t respond.
“You’re not going to drive home now, are you?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ll take you to my hotel room. You can sleep there,” she said. She couldn’t stand the look on his face, a mixture of self-pity and disgust. Taking him by his hand, she pulled him away from the bench.
“Let’s talk to Liam and see if we can find the girl’s parents. Then I’ll take you to the hotel.”
They found Liam who introduced them to Aimee’s parents, a couple in immaculate clothing, straight out of a fashion catalogue, it seemed, clutching each other’s hands. Lorna thought that they looked far too young to have a daughter at Uni.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Lorna said, barely able to contain her tears.
“Thank you for your beautiful singing,” Aimee’s father said as he shook Nate’s hand. His wife looked vacant, as if she were heavily medicated.
“It was the least I could do. I was only meant to be the backing vocal,” he said and looked at Liam who stood beside him.
They retreated from the family and Lorna asked Liam if he wanted to come with them.
“I’ll stay here. There’s a cup of tea and some nibbles at the community hall across the road,” he said.
Lorna took Nate to her car behind the church gardens. They drove in silence, stopping briefly by Nate’s car to pick up his bag. At a tastefully restored Victorian villa, a boutique hotel where she had booked her room, she directed him past the reception, before briefly chatting to the lady owner who was a distant acquaintance of hers.
“I’m happy to pay for an extra person, Sharon,” she said while keeping an eye on Nate, who had moved on towards a staircase with carpeted stairs and hand-crafted wooden handrails.
Sharon, a middle-aged woman in a colourful dress with a floral theme, gave her a motherly smile.
“Don’t even think about it, Lorna.”
Lorna smiled at her and followed Nate, who was making his way up the stairs. She directed him to her room across the landing on the first floor.
When they stepped into her room, he dropped his bag and his guitar and stood, not moving. It was a large, bright room with a plastered high ceiling featuring an elaborated, decorated central rose. Pale yellow curtains hung either side of the original windows and a large bed in matching linen stood in the middle of the room.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I just want to disappear.”
She came up behind him and took his jacket off.
“No need to disappear, just sleep.” She pulled him around by the shoulders.
“I can’t be trusted,” he said. She looked up at him, decided to ignore his self-deprecating ramble and told him to get undressed.
When he stood in front of her in his boxers and singlet, she steered him towards the bed, lifted the covers and tucked him in. She put a glass of water on the bedside table.
“Sleep. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Nate sank into the soft bed with thoughts of Lorna and the scent of freshly pressed linen in his head. It helped push away the queasy feeling in his stomach and he drifted off into a deep sleep quickly.
He woke up to a weight on the mattress beside him and of cold feet pressed against his. His brain tried to make sense of the warm hands on his arm and the smell of pizza floating over the bed. It took him a while to work out that Lorna had cuddled up to him, her body moulded into his, but he couldn’t make sense of the smell that made his stomach churn.
He rolled away from her and sat up, rubbing his eyes. The room was in semi-darkness now with a dim light from the bedside table casting a glow over her face.
“What are you doing, Lorna?” he asked.
She pushed herself up onto her elbows. “Holding you. Comforting you.”
Her words took a while to process in his brain, as if he was still under the influence. He looked at her, the woman of his dreams, lying in bed beside him and wondered why she would torment him like that.
“I can’t do this, Lorna,” he said. “You here, so close, when everything between us is over.”
She shifted into a sitting position and looked at him with clear eyes.
“Is it the sex you’re after?” he continued. “Just tell me, so I know.”
Lorna crossed her legs and spoke with determination, her hands moving in jerky motions while she talked.
“No.” Then, after a pause, “I want you to know that I have regrets, too.”
He looked at her, still feeling like he was listening and looking through thick fog.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said briskly and left her sitting on the bed. On the way to the bathroom, he spotted a cardboard pizza box on the table which explained the revolting smell.
He shaved and cleaned his teeth in the shower, lathered his body and hair in fragrant lavender body wash three times, turned the shower knob onto a tepid setting, then as low as he could bear, then slowly back up to a more pleasant temperature.
When he came out, the mirrors in the bathroom were fogged up. He dried himself off, wrapped the towel around his hips and stepped out into the hotel room.
“I wasn’t sure if you’re up to eating yet, but I’m hungry, so feel free to tuck in with me,” Lorna said as she spotted him from the table where she had set up a couple of plates and two glasses of water.
She had changed into a pair of cotton trainers and a bright blue sweatshirt with a hoodie and eyed him up, trying hard not to look at his bare chest. Pleased to find the smell of the pizza appealing now, Nate quickly found some clean clothes in his bag and got dressed.
He sat down beside her and they ate in silence. After a first tentative bite, he realised how hungry he was. It was a cheap pizza from one of the many take-away shops in town, but it tasted perfect to him.
“Thank you for this,” he said, motioning at the pizza, the bed, the whole room.
She gave him a warm smile that he didn’t think he deserved. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Better.” The fog in his brain had cleared and he finally felt like himself again.
He let out a breath of air. “I can’t trust myself anymore.” He stacked his plate on top of Lorna’s. Between the two of them, they had polished off the entire pizza.
“That’s harsh just because of one slip-up.”
He would have said the same to anyone else, but there was no room for leniency in his case.
“Two, actually,” he said. “First the bottles of wine, now the tequila shots.”
“So do something about it! Put strategies in place.” She sounded frustrated with him, as if she’d heard it all before and was sick of the self-pity his words.
“No more alcohol for me,” he said. “That’s the only safeguard.”
“So, what’s the problem?” she asked as if it was the easiest thing to achieve in the world.
“The problem is that I am an alcoholic, Lorna.”
There, it was out, the truth he had been denying to himself up until now. It hung in the room between them, black and threatening, like a storm cloud brewing until it was ready to rip through his life. He waited for her to withdraw from him, to put up a shield that said, ‘Stay away from me’, but instead, she reached for his hand and held it.
“But you aren’t, Nate. This is just fear. Just because your father was an alcoholic doesn’t mean that you are one.” She said it as if he suffered from hayfever, not some earth-shattering truth that he only just admitted to himself. “This is just a blip,” she continued. “It’s obviously really shaken you.”
They sat in silence, Nate thinking about her words, and Lorna twirling her empty glass in her hand. Could she be right? Had the bottles of wine and the tequila shots indeed been blips?
“See,” she said, pulling him out of his thoughts, “I haven’t seen any signs of you craving a drink, of alcohol taking over your life. Besides, I have to take some blame for your drinking, too.”
He looked up, shocked.
“I questioned you about your drink when we first had dinner, remember? I made a big deal as if it were of any importance whether you had an orange juice or a beer.”
He laughed out loud.
“That’s ridiculous! You didn’t force me to have a beer. You didn’t make me buy two bottles of wine or drink myself into a coma with tequila shots.” Lorna looked exhausted, he thought, when he reached for her hand and leaned forward. “It’s my responsibility. My burden, not yours.”
She gave him a wan smile, but he wasn’t convinced that she had understood. “My drinking has nothing to do with you, okay?”
“Okay,” she finally said and gently squeezed his fingers. Nate looked around the hotel room, feeling a little closed in.
“Do you want to go grab a coffee?” he asked, suddenly craving the kick of caffeine in his system.
She shook her hair. “I’m exhausted. I’d rather have one here if you don’t mind,” she said. He noticed her lacklustre skin, the hair that hung down from her head in strands, and the tired look in her eyes. She must be worried sick about Liam, he thought.
“I’ll get us some decent coffee somewhere. I won’t be long,” he said, but as he got up, Lorna put her hand on his.
“Do you really think you have a drinking problem, Nate?”
He looked at her, wondering if she was just trying to make him feel better. Or could she be right?
“I didn’t have any issues with drinking at all, until a few weeks ago.”
She relaxed into the chair and gave him a warm smile.
“See? You have nothing to be ashamed of, Nate.”
He quickly put his jacket and shoes on and fetched coffee from an espresso bar a few blocks down the road. He could have ordered it at the hotel bar downstairs, but the fresh air was invigorating, and the walk gave him an opportunity to stretch his legs and clear his mind.
He returned to the hotel room with two take-away cups stacked on top of each other, pushing the door open with his hip. Lorna had showered during his absence and sat in one of the lounge chairs looking comfortable and snug. Her face had softened around the edges and her hair was falling into her face in damp strands.
They drank their coffee in silence, interrupted by the odd comment about the hotel’s tasteful decor or the delicious home-baked cookies that Sharon had given to Nate on his way back with the coffees.
“How is Liam?” Nate asked when he had finished his coffee.
Lorna’s eyes filled with tears and when she spoke, her voice was heavy with sadness.
“He’s staying with a friend,” she said. “He said he didn’t trust himself to go back to his flat on his own.”
Nate leaned forward to put his hand over hers.
“He might slip back into his depression,” he gently said. “I wonder if he’d be better off coming home for a while where you can keep an eye on him.”
Lorna straightened her back and lifted her chin. He expected her to refute his implication about Liam’s mental health, but she just looked at him with deep sadness.
“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” she said. He opened his mouth to say that he would be there for Liam if she wanted him to be, then closed it again. He didn’t know if he could cope having contact with Liam, but not Lorna. It might be too hard on him, and he didn’t want to offer support he couldn’t provide in the end.
“I’m sorry for the way everything turned out with us, Nate,” she said into the silence, surprising him with a clarity in her voice that didn’t match the look of exhaustion on her face. “I overreacted about the video. The boys, Liam, especially.”
He listened intently, clutching the empty coffee cup in his hand, worried he might miss a word.
“I should have trusted you instead of being so overprotective of my boys. Today, at the funeral, it was as if I saw you for the first time. The kind, loyal man you are. The way you made yourself vulnerable when you opened up to Liam, when you stepped up when he needed you.” Her voice was very quiet now, almost too soft for him to hear. Leaning forwards, he strained his ears. “I’m embarrassed about how I treated you,” she said. “You deserved so much better. I’m sorry.”
He wanted to dismiss what she’d said, tell her that it wasn’t that bad, that it didn’t matter, that he’d put it behind him. But the truth was, he needed to hear this from her more than anything else today.
He opened his mouth to say thanks, but his voice was stuck in his throat and he looked at her, knowing that she understood him better than anyone else. She reached for his hand and squeezed it, then brought it up to her lips.
“I’m sorry I pestered you about Liam being my son.” He felt the familiar flush in his face every time he thought about it. “When I saw Lawrence and Liam together today, I realised how stupid that thought had been.”
“There was a possibility that he could have been yours. No need to feel bad about it,” she said.
He ran his hands over his face, then looked up. “I got so hung up on it. I was convinced that he was mine.” Shaking his head, he closed his eyes, as if he could hide his embarrassment that way. Lorna held her breath, he was sure of it. He opened his eyes again and stared in front of him, picking up a biscuit crumb with his index finger and depositing it on the empty plate. “And then he wasn’t. And I felt like such a fool.”
“Why? You obviously wanted it to be like that. I don’t see anything bad in it.”
He could no longer avoid her gaze. “I wanted it so badly, to be part of him and you. I pushed myself onto you, your boys, your family, as if I could have ever been part of it.”
Lorna held her hand up as if to say stop. “No! I initiated most of our time together. My boys invaded your studio. You didn’t push yourself onto us, it was the other way around,” she said. She moved her chair closer to his so that she faced him eye-to-eye. She took a long time studying him, as if she had to take him in all over again, seeing him for the first time after all these years. There was a strange calmness in him now. He’d told her about his worst fears, yet she hadn’t pushed him away. She already knew him at his lowest, and she was still here, looking at him as if he was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“I wished that you’d been part of my life, Nate. I wished I’d seen you for who you are back then. I wished our paths had crossed again ten, fifteen years ago.”
She reached for his face and ran her thumb across his cheek, then rested her hand on his arm. Nate inhaled deeply before speaking.
“I want to belong, Lorna. To be connected, not live this lonely life anymore. I didn’t know how badly I wanted this until I met you again. And your boys.”
She picked up his hand, ran her fingers over his calloused fingertips. “My sons, they’ve already adopted you,” she said, then paused.
His throat tightened until he could hardly breathe anymore. Lorna leaned forwards, running her fingers over his face, down to his throat, knowing that he couldn’t talk.
“As for me,” she said, “you had me after that first night, when you stayed with me and Zac and Liam.”
She kissed him on the cheek, then pushed up from her chair and pulled him along by his hands.
“Come on, let’s go!” she said, suddenly smiling, as if for now, all sadness had been pushed aside and she could only see brightness around her.
Nate looked around him in confusion, wondering what he had missed.
“Where are we going?”
She took him by the hand.