Song of Love Chapter Two

Thank you for your encouraging comments on the first chapter of this novel. I'm glad to bring a little distraction to people with Nate and Lorna's story. Here is the next chapter.

Chapter Two

The restaurant was full of diners when Lorna arrived a bit early. Luckily she knew the owner who made sure that a table would be made available as soon as possible.
Lorna ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a bag of potato crisps and sat at the bar. She hadn’t eaten since her late brunch that morning and knew that the glass of wine would go straight to her head if she didn’t eat anything with it.
The warm glow from the shaded lampposts scattered around the café eased her nervousness, coupled with the faint hum of a foreign-sounding singer-songwriter in the background. Despite the crowd, the place wasn’t noisy. Each table had its own feel of privacy around it. One of the main reasons she liked the place so much. The food was always good, no matter what you ordered, and the staff were well trained and courteous.
She wiped her fingers on a paper serviette and watched as pearls of condensation formed on her wine glass. The sense of relief she had felt when Nate finally responded to her message had dissolved. A large sip from her wine did nothing to alleviate the sick feeling in her stomach.
This felt like a date, all of a sudden. A sports bar would have been a better choice of venue in case the meeting with Nate turned out to be a mistake. Now there would be no chance to hide behind loud music or glary TV screens.
She was so lost in her own thoughts that she only noticed him when he stood right in front of her.
“Lorna?” he said as if he wanted to make sure it was really her and not some clone.
“Hey, Nate,” she said. He looked just like in the video, minus the stubble on his chin, with short cropped hair, and his eyes clear and bright. He was skinnier than she remembered and a bit gaunt around the face, as if he’d been sick. His hair was so short it was hard to tell, but she thought she spotted a shimmer of grey in amongst his dark blonde hair she remembered from years ago.
They looked at each other for a moment, neither of them knowing what to do next. She leaned across to put her arms around him in a tentative hug. He returned it with a brief squeeze, then took a step back.
“Can I get you a drink?” she asked as she pointed at her glass of wine.
“Orange juice, thanks.”
She turned to the bartender, feeling Nate’s eyes on her as she put in her order.
Turning back to him, she said, “You still don’t drink?” It sounded like an accusation and she regretted the comment as soon as she’d said it.
“Hardly ever,” he said. They looked at each other in an awkward silence, then spoke at the same time.
“You still look the same,” she said.
“You look good,” he said.
She lifted her glass to her lips and broke into nervous laughter.
“Cheers,” he said as he took the orange juice from the counter.
“Cheers,” she repeated and then, on a whim, added, “To that video.”
He looked at her over the rim of his glass and smiled, his eyes glinting under the warm lights of the bar.
“Yep, that video,” he said.
A tall waitress in black jeans and a white blouse appeared by their sides with two menus in her hand. She hovered in the background until Lorna acknowledged her.
“Your table is ready,” she said. Lorna picked up her glass, handbag and coat and followed her to the square wooden table by the window. The waitress pulled the chair out for Lorna, then did the same for Nate.
She reeled off the specials for the night, but she might as well have talked to someone else because Lorna couldn’t take anything in. The dim lighting, the reflection of the small tealight in the window, the low hum of people’s voices and the music in the background were too distracting. Nate was looking intently at the waitress as if he too needed to cling to something tangible because everything else was overwhelming.
Lorna ordered another glass of wine and calamari for starters.
“I’ll have the bread selection, please. And a beer,” Nate said to the waitress. She tapped their order into a small tablet and left with a polite “Thank you.”
Lorna lifted her eyes at him. “You changed your mind?”
His voice was tense, almost defensive when he answered.
“I haven’t wanted a drink as badly as this for many years. Besides, I’m not a teetotaller.”
Maybe he’d been given a hard time over the years by friends and colleagues for not drinking. It would be hard not to drink as a guy, in this country.
“Of course,” she said. At the rate she was going, she would need another glass of wine soon.
“Sorry, it’s none of my business,” she said, feeling her face flush. “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”
“No.” Nate fiddled with the serviette in front of him, folding it, unfolding it, sticking it into a serviette holder only to remove it soon after. He avoided making eye-contact but kept looking at his hands and at the tealight on the side.
“I’m sorry,” Lorna said, unable to bear his obvious discomfort any longer. “Was it a bad idea to meet?”
“No. Why?” he said, this time looking at her like he had in that video, pinning her down with his clear eyes.
She hesitated. “You look uncomfortable. Like you don’t know what to say.”
He inhaled deeply, then pulled his lips into the craggy smile she remembered from way back. Her heart did a little flip.
“Do you know what to say?” he asked.
She gave a nervous giggle. “I don’t know how to start.” To her relief, the waitress came and brought over their second round of drinks.
“Your starters will be here soon,” she added before disappearing again.
Lorna watched as Nate took a long swig of his beer, put his glass down and let out a sigh of pleasure. She pressed her lips together, determined not to make another unnecessary comment about his drink.
“Well?” he said.
She took a deep breath.
“I remember the days before Uni just like you described them in your song. Endless days of summer, spending time with you. A level of freedom I didn’t fully appreciate until I’d lost it.”
He looked at her, nodded, and waited.
“I remember the guilt when I dumped you. The regret of losing our friendship. The look on your face when I said I needed to meet new people.”
She watched his face for a reaction that matched what she’d seen on YouTube, but it was as if this was a different man in front of her, closed off and detached.
“I also remember a few years later trying to tell you how sorry I was, after the birth of my second son. I sent you a card with the birth announcement and a personal note.”
He nodded, lowered his eyes and picked up the serviette again, folding and unfolding it.
“What I don’t remember is a guy who would take this pain and anger and carry it around for the next twenty years.”
He lifted his chin and looked straight into her eyes.
“I didn’t.”
Underneath its polished surface, his voice carried a defiance that surprised her.
“But your video was full of it,” she said.
He took another sip of his beer, savouring it as if it was the most precious drink he’d ever had. Then, just when she thought she couldn’t bear another second of silence between them, he spoke.
“I found the song last week in a box with a whole lot of other crap I wanted to throw away. The second time I played it, my niece recorded it.”
She listened with intent, careful not to miss anything.
“Was it a show? A ploy to sell more records?” She had no idea if anyone still bought records, but he would get what she meant.
“You can’t buy my music.” He said it matter-of-fact, with no emotion in his voice. “And my niece wasn’t supposed to upload that video.”
“Oh,” she said.
“It was private.” His voice was still flat, but she sensed that he wasn’t comfortable with the video’s public show of emotion.
She wondered why he hadn’t taken it down if it wasn’t meant to be uploaded. “So those emotions, they weren’t fake?” she asked.
“Of course, not.” His words were indignant, as if she’d insulted him.
A feeling of relief washed over her, followed by confusion about why this should matter to her. Nate took another sip of his beer and leaned back into his chair with a secret smile on his lips that only he understood.
“If it’s any consolation to you, I haven’t felt like that for many years now,” he said.
Lorna reached for her wine and took a large swig from her glass. By now she had worked out that Nate filled her silences if she was patient enough to let him find his words.
His eyes were focused on her, bright and clear when he spoke. “When I saw those words and picked up my guitar, it all came back, as if somebody had given me an injection of grief and anger from back then. It wasn’t fake.”
The waitress appeared at their table once again. “Your starters. One calamari, one selection of bread and dips.” Lorna was relieved about the interruption, allowing her to ignore Nate’s stare, and focus on the food.
“Thanks,” they both said at the same time and looked down at their plates. Lorna’s calamari was presented on a white rectangular plate garnished with parsley and two slices of lemon, and a small side dish with aioli.
“Let’s dig in, shall we?” Lorna said.
If Nate noticed her discomfort, he hid it very well. Maybe he too decided that while they were eating, they could park their discussion about his song and their past somewhere else, to be picked up later.
“This is delicious,” he said, pointing to the dark rye bread on the platter in front of him. “Do you want some?”
 “Thanks,” she said and took a piece of bread from his platter, dunking it in a small round dish of olive oil and dukkah. He watched her while she put it in her mouth. The olive oil was tangy, almost bitter, not to her taste.
“Remember how you used to share your food with me at high school?” she asked.
Nate smiled at her. “I felt sorry for you with your dry peanut butter sandwiches, your box of raisins and your bruised apple every day.”
She washed the taste of the olive oil down with another sip of her wine.
“Greasy hot chips from the canteen were definitely more attractive.” Lorna could still picture him licking his fingers, his glistening lips.
Just then, the waitress appeared by their table, out of nowhere.
“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.
Lorna lifted her glass. “Another glass of wine, please.” She waited until they were alone again, then smiled at Nate who wiped his fingers on his napkin. “You kissed me by the canteen when the duty teacher was out of sight.”
He dipped a piece of bread into the olive oil, peppered it with dukkah, and lifted it to his mouth.
“I think it was the other way around,” he said. “You kissed me.”
He pushed the bread between his lips and kept his eyes on her, almost staring.
“Maybe I did,” she said, hoping to sound flirty. She could feel herself blush as if she was a schoolgirl once more, talking to the boy she’d had a crush on for years.
Nate reached for his beer and took a sip while keeping his eyes fixed on her. Lorna couldn’t hold his eye-contact any longer and looked down onto her calamari.
“Want some?”
He shook his head. “No thanks.”
The waitress reappeared with a full glass of wine. Lorna nodded a thanks, reached for the glass and took a sip. The wine was chilled just the way she liked it with pearls of water running down the side of the glass.
“You always shared your food with your friends,” she said, picking up the lemon to squeeze more juice onto the calamari.
“Yep, to this day, I like to feed my friends,” he said.
Lorna lifted her eyes at him. That’s when you stopped feeding me, she thought, the day I told you I was pregnant to Lawrence.
They sat quietly and ate. Lorna relaxed with every bite she took, or maybe it was the third glass of wine that did the trick. She’d have to order a taxi to get home and leave her car behind.
After the starters, they talked about safer topics: work, where they lived, a brief summary of what they’d done in the years since they hadn’t seen each other.
“Tell me about your boys,” Nate said just as their mains arrived.
Lorna watched as the waitress put down a plate of ravioli smothered in a rich tomato and pesto sauce in front of her. The smell of the pesto sauce momentarily overwhelmed all other senses and she briefly forgot his question.
“Liam is nineteen and Zac is seventeen,” she finally said. A flash of worry crossed her mind. Was Zac okay? Maybe she should have stayed at home instead of leaving Liam in charge of his anxious brother. She dismissed the thought and focussed back on Nate. “Liam is home from Uni at the moment.”
Nate looked down at the steak and the potato stack in front of him. A dollop of herb butter was sitting on top of the steak. “What’s his degree?” he asked.
“Law.”
Once again, Nate looked straight at her, and Lorna found it difficult to hold his eye-contact.
“Like his father?” he asked.
She nodded. “I don’t think it’s his thing though,” she said. “He doesn’t seem very happy.”
Nate put his fork down and reached for another piece of bread. “He might just need more time adjusting?”
She stabbed a ravioli onto her fork and blew on it.
“No, I don’t think it’s that. I think he doesn’t like it.”
“So why is he doing it?”
Lorna chewed and picked up another piece of pasta. She was embarrassed about the pressure her ex had put on their son to study law. And that she hadn’t put her foot down out of some misguided attempt to show parental unity despite her divorce from Lawrence. Most of all, she didn’t want Nate to judge her son just because of his father.
This time, Nate was good at waiting through the silence. He was in no rush for her to answer, quite content to keep eating until she was ready to talk.
“His father,” Lorna finally said.
If he had an opinion about this, he kept it to himself and asked about her younger boy instead.
“Zac works at a cafe some weekends. He wants to train as a chef.” She wanted to tell him about Zac’s anxiety, but didn’t know how to start.
Nate cut a piece of his steak, scooped up some herb butter with it and lifted it to his mouth. She watched him chew, noticed a scar above his right eyebrow which she couldn’t remember he had, then realised that she was staring at him. She averted her eyes, finished her wine and looked into the dark street outside.
Nate spoke again. “It sounds like you have done a great job with your boys.” His voice was sincere, and Lorna felt her mouth turn into a warm smile.
“Thanks. It wasn’t always easy, but I did.” She knew that she had done a good job, but it was thoughtful of him to mention it even with the little bit of information he knew about her boys.
“How long have you been divorced?” he asked.
“Thirteen years.”
Lorna returned to her pasta and scooped up another ravioli. Nate looked down at his plate, no doubt working out in his head what he had been up to in that timeframe.
“And you’ve been single since then?” he asked.
She shook her head, still chewing.
“I was in a couple of relationships. One I ended, the other one I got cheated on.” He looked up and put his cutlery down across the plate. She was compelled to keep talking, as if he had a secret weapon that made it impossible to keep her thoughts to herself. “I decided to wait until my boys were grown up before I crossed that bridge again.”
He reached for his glass and clutched it as if he needed to hold on to something but didn’t lift it to his lips.
“And when would that be?” he asked with a complete lack of guile.
She felt her face blush.
“Soon,” she said. “Now, maybe.”

***

Nate took the last swig of his beer. He looked down at the cutlery in front of his empty plate, satisfied with the delicious meal. Lorna had excused herself to go to the bathroom a couple of minutes earlier. He was dying for another alcoholic drink to ease the tension in his shoulders, the cramps in his gut, even though he knew that the relief would only be temporary.
The thing was, this meeting with Lorna had turned into something much deeper than he’d expected. He thought they’d briefly discuss the video, then move on to less personal chit-chat. But she had been so focused on that song, on the way he’d presented it, that he couldn’t avoid the topic. And her openness about her guilt had thrown him. Of course, he remembered the card she’d sent, the apologies over the years, but at that stage, he’d still been so angry and hurt, he hadn’t been ready to accept her sorry words.
It was only now that he understood the extent of her regrets, the genuine sorrow about the break-up. She returned from the bathroom, her make up refreshed, smiling.
“All good?” she asked.
“Yep.”
“Do you want another drink?”
“When the waitress returns, I’ll have another soft drink. And a coffee,” he said.
She smiled, spread her hands out beside her plate and leaned back into her chair. She looked pleased with herself as if she’d come to some kind of understanding in the loo. The wine had relaxed her and the need to fill her silences had diminished.
He studied the soft lines around her forehead, her jaw, her eyes, then blurted out, “What was the real reason why you broke things off with me?”
The question had come from nowhere, but he needed an answer to this more than anything else tonight. She sat up in surprise, her back straightened, her hands reaching for the edge of the table.
“We hadn’t really committed to each other, remember? Heck, we’d only had sex once,” she said, frowning in concentration as if she were trying hard not to remember that one night.
As if that was the only measure of love, he thought. As if the weeks of stolen kisses in the cafeteria and forbidden afternoons in her room at her hall of residence counted for nothing.
“And?”
She lifted her chin up and looked straight at him. “First and foremost, we were best friends, Nate.”
He leaned onto his arms until he was half-way across the table and said, “I loved you for years, Lorna.”
She lowered her eyes, picked up her used paper napkin and folded it in half.
“And you loved me,” he added. “You told me so.”
The bitterness that came from nowhere surprised him. He swallowed and waited for her to respond, but she was still playing with the napkin.
Nate glanced around the restaurant to see if he was being overheard, but nobody took any notice of them. When Lorna remained silent, he carried on.
“You dumped me as a lover and a friend. That was the worst.” His voice sounded sharp and edgy, but he’d given up on masking his emotions. He had shown his pain in his song already. Anything else than being honest now didn’t make sense.
Lorna finally tucked the napkin underneath her cutlery and pushed the plate away from her before she spoke. “I had to look out for myself and my baby. I had to make sure we were looked after.”
Nate was surprised how much her words hurt even now. “I would’ve taken care of you if you’d let me. Instead, you said you had a new life now and needed to make new friends.”
She shook her head. “I had no choice, Nate.”
“We always have choices. You could have done all that and still remained my friend.”
“I was desperate to belong. To have my own family.”
He waited, took a couple of deep breaths. He didn’t want to end up in an argument with her, but it was hard not to be affected by her words, his memories.
“I would have given you that.”
She sat up, bristly. “Could you, though? You already looked after your mum and your sister. I didn’t think you could provide for me and my baby as well.”
Nate glanced around the restaurant again, worried that the waitress and bartender would pick up on their tension. But nobody took any notice of them and he turned to face Lorna again.
“Don’t you think I deserved at least a chance? I would’ve done anything for you.” He wasn’t going to apologise for the strength of his feelings. He wasn’t going to pretend that things hadn’t been bad for him after.
“I know, Nate, I know. I was just so bent on the idea of a ring around my finger, of stability and security. I knew Lawrence could give me that. With you, I wasn’t sure.”
He let her words sink in, then asked. “Did he love you?”
“At some point.”
“Did you love him?”
She picked up a couple of crumbs from the tablecloth and dispatched them onto her plate as if it were too hard for her to keep her hands still. “For a while. But it wasn’t enough.”
Despite the painful memories the discussion stirred, it was good to bring all of this out into the open. Hopefully, he’d soon be able to separate what he once had felt – anger, resentment, grief – from his feelings now. Nate sat up in his chair and looked around to see if he could make eye-contact with any of the waiting staff to clear their table. But before he managed to catch someone’s attention, Lorna spoke again.
“There’s something else, Nate. I never told you, but it’s only fair that I do now.”
He raised his eyebrows, wondering what came next.
“When you stepped up after your father passed away, you stopped drinking. You said you didn’t want to end up like him.”
It had been a way to distance himself from him, to make sure he would never end up as an alcoholic like his father.
“I admired you for that,” she continued. “But I couldn’t help wondering, what if you started drinking one day and couldn’t help yourself?” There was a sudden noise coming from the kitchen, like someone had dropped a large pot on the kitchen floor. Nate flinched, then shook his head in an attempt to stay focussed on Lorna.
“Because I was predisposed?”
“I didn’t know about that when I was nineteen. But there was this worry that you would turn out like your dad.”
He gasped as if he’d been punched in the stomach, then inhaled sharply.
There had been plenty of judgemental people in his life, people who cut all ties once his father had passed, people who looked down on his mum with pity and a suggestion that maybe she was at fault for her family’s predicament. But Lorna? He’d never expected her to be so prejudiced.
“I feel awful about it, Nate. You’re nothing like your dad. I knew that even then. But I was so hell-bent on doing what was best for me and my baby that nothing else mattered. The least of all your feelings.”
His throat was dry. The waitress still hadn’t collected their plates or taken their coffee orders. With a huge effort, he pushed his chair back to fetch a beaker of water and two glasses. At the counter, he gripped the bar for a moment to stop the room from swaying around him.
“Water?” he asked Lorna when he brought the beaker and glasses back to their table.
“Yes, please,” she said.
Lorna watched as a slice of lemon fell into her glass with a small splash while he poured the water. He passed the glass to her, then filled one for himself and emptied it in one go. He cleared his throat.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m sorry. I had to bring this up or else it would always remain unspoken.” She looked wary, as if she was waiting for him to take in the full meaning of her words, digest them, and then erupt in anger.
But he felt surprisingly calm now. “There is an ounce of truth in it. It’s why I don’t drink. Today is the first time in half a year that I had a beer.” He refilled his glass of water and took another sip. “You saw what my father’s drinking did to my mum, my sister, to me. I don’t blame you for not wanting that for your unborn child.”
Lorna relaxed into her chair, visibly relieved.
“You’re not angry?”
He shook his head.
“So, we’re good, then?” she asked, a hopeful lilt to her voice. “No ill feelings between us?”
“No,” he said, suddenly very tired. He wondered if she would be offended if he skipped coffee and dessert and asked for the bill instead.
Lorna, however, hadn’t finished.
“But what about that song? And that video? I can’t quite accept that it doesn’t mean anything.”
Nate sighed. “I never said that it doesn’t mean anything. All I’m saying is that when I sang it, feelings from that time came back. I’m able to go back to that time emotionally ‘on demand,’ if that makes sense.”
Her forehead bunched up in a frown that had once been familiar to him. “How do you do that?”
“The song, the music – it won’t mean anything if I can’t tap into those emotions. Or make myself vulnerable, as my lovely sixteen-year-old manager says.”
She moved to let the waitress clear away the plates, clearly relieved that she could break eye-contact with him. When the waitress returned, Nate ordered a ginger beer and an espresso. Lorna asked for a flat white and a tiramisu for dessert.
“What does it feel like, being adored by so many female fans?” she asked when the waitress was out of earshot.
Nate averted his eyes. “It’s not like that.”
“Oh, I’ve read the comments, the lurid remarks,” Lorna said, leaning forward across the table so that she was very close.
“I don’t pay attention to those. I only care about the music.”
“Everybody has a little dream about celebrity, fame,” she countered.
“Not me,” he said, wondering why he was so quick at denying any interest in fame or fortune.
The waitress brought the dessert and the coffees. Lorna stuck her spoon into the tiramisu and lifted it to her lips. A fine line of cocoa powder tainted them, and Nate was surprised by his urge to wipe it off.
“Ok, it’s flattering to read some of the stuff,” he finally said, aware that Lorna was an educated woman who wouldn’t be fooled by his denials. “But I can’t let it get into my head. It can’t detract from my music.”
“Did you hope I’d see the video?” she now asked, licking the spoon with great delight. Was she teasing him? Or was she truly so delighted with her dessert that she couldn’t help but eat it as if it were the most sensual experience ever?
“It never once crossed my mind that you would,” he said. And this time, he was truthful.
Lorna fell silent, sipping her coffee, scooping up spoonfuls of tiramisu until she pushed it across the table for him to finish off.
“Are you okay?” he asked, worried that the rich dessert had made her feel sick.
“It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, don’t you think?” she said instead, much to his surprise. He wondered what had exhausted her so much. After all, he’d been the losing part throughout all these years, not her.
“Sure has,” he said.
“But it’s good to have it all out in the open. Now we have a clean slate.”
That was the second time she had mentioned a clean slate that evening.

***

By the time they left, the restaurant had almost emptied. Lorna insisted on paying for the meal and Nate eventually gave in, under much protest.
It was a clear and cold winter night and she could just a make out a few stars in the sky despite the streetlights. The sound of her heels clip-clopped in the silent street and in the distance a dog barked. Nate had offered to drop her off at home when she told him that she wasn’t fit to drive.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asked, wanting to engage him in conversation before they’d go their separate ways soon.
“Lexi is coming over at lunchtime. We’ll go to the movies, maybe, then have dinner at mum’s.”
“How is your mum?”
Nate’s voice was upbeat, almost relieved to have something to tell her. “She remarried a few years ago. A nice bloke from England. Retired cop. She’s happy.”
What about you, Nate, are you happy, she wanted to ask him, but instead, she said, “That’s nice to hear.”
“And your family?” he asked in return. She couldn’t tell if his interest was genuine or if he only asked out of politeness.
“Mum’s not that well. She has Parkinson’s and is practically housebound. I try to help where I can, but she is not the easiest patient.”
“It must be difficult,” he said, his voice soft and understanding.
“It is.”
When they arrived at the car, he opened the door for her. The gesture was quite unexpected and seemed a bit old-fashioned, but she didn’t mind.
She told him her address and he drove off into the bleak night. It was cold in the car, but the windscreen hadn’t quite frozen yet. On the radio, a soft tune played, some singer-songwriter she presumed, just like Nate.
Suddenly, she knew what else she wanted from him before the end of the night.
“Can you sing for me?” she said into the dark.
“What, now?”
“Please, if you can.”
She expected him to say no because he took a while to answer. “I don’t sing without a guitar,” he finally said.
At least he hadn’t dismissed her unusual request. “My son’s guitar, it’s at home, in the spare room,” she said.
He stayed silent and she tried to fill in his blanks, not sure if she assumed correctly that he would be happy to sing for her.
“Why do you want me to sing?” he asked suddenly.
“I’d like to hear your voice for real, not recorded.” It was the truth. And it was a way to keep him for a little bit longer, but she didn’t say that.
She felt slightly drunk from the wine and the full meal and the delicious dessert. It had been an evening full of sensual experiences, too good to let go of, yet. And there was Nate. His broad shoulders, his vivid eyes, his delicate fingers that she had looked at numerous times.
They pulled up in front of her house. The windows were dark, but the light above the main entrance was lit. She unlocked the door, turned the lights in the hall on and said, “Come in.” She deposited her keys and wallet on the sidetable, took off her coat, and offered Nate a coat hanger for his own jacket.
“Come through to the lounge. I’ll make us a cup of tea.”
Nate hesitated in the doorway, as if he had second thoughts. She walked into the kitchen, filled the kettle with water and turned it on.
“Can you put a log onto the fire?” she called through the open kitchen door. “I’ll get that guitar.”
It sat exactly where she had pictured in the cupboard in the spare room. She took it down, blew off the dust, and gave it a wipe. The strings looked okay to her, but she had no idea if they were still good to play. Back in the lounge, Nate stoked the fire and stood in front of it, warming his hands. She passed the guitar over to him.
“How do you like your tea?” she asked.
Once upon a time, she would have known how he liked his tea, but like so many other things, she had forgotten.
“Milk, no sugar, please,” he said as he took the guitar off her. He sat down on the couch beside the fire, lifted the guitar up to his knee and strummed each string individually.
While she poured the tea, she heard the familiar tuning pattern, followed by a few chords and Nate’s voice humming a familiar tune.
It didn’t take long for him to immerse himself into playing. She watched inconspicuously, fishing the tea bags out of the tea quietly, fetching the milk from the fridge.
He sang a couple of Bruno Mars songs, followed by a funky tune and then a lullaby. He stopped abruptly and looked up at her when he noticed that she had joined him in the lounge.
“What about that other song? The one from YouTube?” She wanted to hear him sing it just for her. It had become part of their story already; a story she hoped would continue now that they’d picked up its thread almost two decades later.
She sat down beside him, her body slightly turned away, reached for her cup of tea and leaned back into the sofa. He was tapping his feet on the floor and breathed in and out a number of times in obvious discomfort.
He started with the now-familiar introduction, then sang the first verse, “Salty lips and your face covered in freckles.”
She closed her eyes and focused on his voice. Ever since she’d known him, he’d played the guitar, but singing was something he’d started after their break up. Now that she listened to his rich voice, she couldn’t imagine him not singing. He had a wide vocal range, judging from the limited musical knowledge she had.
Something stirred inside her, a spark of joy in a place that had been neglected for too long. An excitement shot from the centre of her body out to her limbs right into her fingertips and the roots of her hair. Opening her eyes, she wanted to fling her arms around him and pull him over, guitar and all, kiss him on those lips she had admired all evening.
But now the song changed. His voice became loud at first, angry, and then, as his desperation at their break-up increased, turned quiet, almost a whisper. He stared at her with that raw look she knew from the video. The excitement from before gave way to an ache in her chest that made her want to weep with regret. How was it possible that his voice had such influence on her mood?
Nate’s voice caught on a sombre part, and suddenly, he slammed his fingers over the strings and silenced them with his thumb.
“I can’t do it,” he said, his head dropped. He put the guitar down, ran his hands over his face, then took a sip of the tea in front of him.
“What is it?” Lorna asked quietly, not wanting to invade his privacy more than she already had.
He inhaled deeply, leaned his elbows onto his knees and said, “I’m not used to singing in front of an audience.”
She looked at him and a thought popped into her head with such unprecedented clarity she couldn’t believe it had never occurred to her before. This man used to love me unconditionally. In hindsight, it was such a waste that she hadn’t realised just what that meant.
“It’s that vulnerability your niece keeps talking about,” she said, trying to ease his discomfort.
“It’s not the right time.” He took another sip from his cup, then stood. “I’m exhausted. Time to go home,” he said and made his way to the hall.
“I pushed you too far,” she said as she passed him his coat. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he quickly said. “I can handle it.”
No, you can’t, she thought as she watched him zip up his jacket.
The door felt much heavier than usual when she opened it for him, as if it didn’t want him to leave, either. Nate stopped under the pale light, turned to her and said, “Good night, Lorna.”
She wanted to hold him by his hand, pull him back inside the door and take him into her bed to warm him up. Instead, she said, “Thanks for a lovely evening, Nate. I hope you don’t have any regrets about it.”
He smiled at her.
“I don’t.”
Turning around, he walked the few steps down the path and disappeared behind the hedge of pittosporum that lined her fence along the footpath.
Back inside the house, her phone rang. She hurried to fetch it from the kitchen counter, but by the time she got there, it had stopped ringing.
It was only then that she noticed the three text messages from Zac.
Rhubarb.
Rhubarb.
Rhubarb.
***

Nate started his car, checked the mirror to his right and pulled into the dark street. His hands were clutching the cold steering wheel as he drove down the road with very little vision. The windscreen was frozen, his heater was blasting out cold air and he couldn’t see where he was going. He swore under his breath, pulled over to the side and got out to scratch off the frost with an old credit card he kept in his car for that purpose.
Nothing else was more important than getting home and warming up under the covers of his bed. He was exhausted and emotionally drained and didn’t want to have to think about anything anymore. Tomorrow he would revisit the evening with Lorna. He would think about their moments of closeness and the fresh insights he gained from their conversations. And he could try to work out what had happened when he sang that song. Now, he was just cold, tired and lonely.
He had finished de-icing his windscreen, his fingers numb and wet, when he heard a voice calling through the silent street.
“Nate! Nate!”
Lorna was running towards him, waving her hands above her head. When she was close enough for him to see, he noticed she wasn’t wearing any shoes, but had run all the way to his car in her socks.
“Don’t go. Please.” Her voice was shrill, panicked. “I need your help.”
He met her on the footpath near his car. She bent over, panting.
“Zac.” She could barely talk through the gasps of breath. “Something’s happened. I need to pick him up. But I can’t drive. And I haven’t got my car.”
“Where is he?”
“At his friend’s house, Dan’s. It’s about ten minutes from here.” She told him the street address.
Nate took her by the hand and pulled her towards the car.
“Get in.” She stared at him as if to complain about her lack of shoes, then remembered the urgency of her son’s predicament and fell into his car, slamming the door. By now, the window wipers had cleared the windscreen and the heater was warming up.
“He won’t answer his phone,” she said, her feet up on the dashboard, leaving a damp mark. She wasn’t even wearing a jacket, only the thin blouse she’d worn all evening.
“How do you know something’s happened?” Nate asked as he entered the address of the house into Google maps before driving off into the dimly lit street.
“We have this code word, rhubarb. He texted it three times.”
“When was that?”
She inhaled deeply. “About ten minutes ago.”
Nate glanced over to her, then put his hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be there in no time, don’t worry,” he said. She remained silent, clutching her phone, and he pulled his hand away again.
“Zac suffers from anxiety,” she said. “He hasn’t been able to stay over with friends very often. Normally I pick him up at midnight.”
“But tonight, he was going to stay?”
“He was so confident he’d stay there.” Her voice gave away the anguish that she and Zac had been through over the course of his anxiety. Dozens of failed attempts, Nate imagined, hopes high, then dashed when Zac couldn’t go through with it. “Liam was supposed to be his point of call if things didn’t work out tonight,” she added.
Nate sped up now that they were out of the fifty-kilometre zone. “We’re nearly there,” he said, even though they were barely half way.
“What if something happened to Liam? What if Zac tried to get hold of him, but Liam is hurt, or worse?” Lorna’s voice had risen by an octave. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, running them through her hair, then over her face.
“Buckle up,” he said and briefly touched her hand. She ignored him, and he repeated himself. “Buckle up. Please. I don’t want you flying through the windscreen if I have to stop suddenly.”
Irritated, she reached for the seat belt over her shoulder and yanked it across her upper body.
“Have you tried to ring Liam?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
“He’s not answering,” she said, still fighting with the seat belt. She’d missed the buckle a number of times and was now banging the metal tongue against it. Nate thought she was going to smash it to pieces and pulled over.
“What are you doing?” she said, her voice almost hysterical. Nate turned the lights on and reached for her hand. “Let me do this for you.” He took the tongue out of her hand and pushed it into the buckle. The sharp click in the silence of the night reminded him of cocking a gun. He pushed the thought out of his mind and turned to Lorna.
“I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sure there’s a perfectly plausible explanation for it.”
Before she had a chance to counter him, he drove off at speed. He felt her eyes on him, then heard her voice, now quiet, but more desperate than before.
“You don’t know that.” She repeated the same words over and over, almost whispering, “You don’t know that. You don’t know that.”
He indicated, turned into a side street and pulled over. “Look, we’re here.”
She had opened the door before he’d stopped and was out of the car and down the drive in her socks while he was still turning off the engine. He hurried after her, nearly slipping on the frozen footpath, not sure what to expect.
It was a modest brick house with two concrete steps leading up to a door with frosted glass panels. Lorna banged on the door and pushed down the door handle to open it, not waiting for an answer.
“Zac?” Lorna called out, opening random doors to the left and right from the dark corridor they were walking through. Nate followed her, his phone in his hands, ready to call for help at any moment. They came into a solid wood kitchen with an oversized stainless steel fridge and a ceramic hob that looked out of place. The kitchen was crammed with decorative cups and saucers and knick-knack that cluttered every possible surface. It was stifling hot and Nate wanted to escape the claustrophobic feel after just a few moments.
A group of teenagers sat around an oval table on mismatched chairs. One of the boys was very still, wedged in between two others, while a woman in a purple dressing gown leaned against the kitchen bench, visibly relieved when she spotted Lorna.
“Zac!” Lorna cried. The boy barely raised his eyes. Nate would have only given him fifteen years. He had light blond hair with a fringe that fell into his eyes. His look was blank, and his face was pale.
“Lorna! I’m so glad you’re here.” The woman by the kitchen counter, Dan’s mother, he presumed, stepped forwards, but Lorna only had eyes for her boy. Three other teenage boys sat around the table with soft drink cans in front of them, their eyes now glued on Nate.
“Is everything okay?” Nate asked the woman as she stood in the middle of the tiny kitchen, relieved, but surprised about her sudden superfluous role, it seemed.
“He got a bit worried, that’s all,” the woman said.
Lorna reached for Zac’s hand across the kitchen table and the other boys stood up to let him through. When he stood in front of her, she pulled him into her chest and patted his back, showing no concern for Zac’s dignity in front of his friends, Nate thought.
“It’s all good. It’s all good,” she said with a calmness that surprised him. A minute ago, she had been fretting, unable to control her voice or her hands, and now she was talking to her boy in a low, calming tone. “Let’s go home, shall we?” she said, nodded to the teenagers in the room and whispered a “thank you” to the woman.
Nate smiled at the woman, said his own thank you and followed Lorna into the cold night. She put her arm around her son’s shoulder and guided him towards the car. Together, they sat in the back seat while Nate started the car and headed back towards Lorna’s house.
Nobody spoke during the drive. Nate glanced into the rear mirror every now and then, saw the boy’s head leaning against Lorna’s shoulder, and wondered what it would feel like to have your mother pick you up from your friend’s house as a seventeen-year-old because you couldn’t cope to stay overnight.
When he pulled up in front of her house, he was out before her, opening the door in the back to let them out. He walked them over the footpath to the front door, and watched Lorna unlock the door.
“Can you come in for a while? Please?” she asked as she gently pushed her son into the house and followed him.
“Sure.” Nate stepped inside and shut the door behind him. It had barely been half an hour since he’d left the house, but it felt much longer. He removed his shoes and jacket and walked into the lounge. The fire was still hot, and the room warm and cozy.
“I’ll just make sure he’s alright,” Lorna whispered as she popped her head into the door. “Help yourself to anything you need. I won’t be long.”
It felt odd to be in her lounge on his own, but he found his way to the kitchen and turned the kettle on to make tea. He added a couple of logs to the fire, took the cups over to the coffee table and sat down on the sofa. The guitar was still where he had left it earlier that evening, propped up against a seat, away from the radiant heat of the fire.
He sat and stared into the flames in front of him. The heat settled on his chest and crept into his limbs, making him sleepy. He took a sip of his tea, hoping for Lorna to return soon. She had been so calm when she’d finally had the boy, it was hard to imagine she was the same woman as before, beside herself with worry. He wondered if she’d heard from her older boy in the meantime because she had been so worried about him, too.
To stop himself from falling asleep, he picked up the guitar and started to play random tunes that didn’t need any vocals, some riffs he’d picked up from a video. He played them over and over, sipping his tea every now and then. At some point, he stood, opened the window to let in some fresh air, and turned on more lights in the lounge.
He was playing one of his old songs, quietly humming along, when suddenly, a young man stood in the lounge, much broader in the shoulders than Zac, with dark blond hair and clear blue eyes that stood out from his pale face. He stood slightly stooped, and Nate thought that he had the posture of an old man, not a teenager.
“Where’s Mum?” the boy asked, unperturbed by a stranger’s presence in the lounge.
“She’s with your brother.”
The boy frowned. “He’s staying at a friend’s house.”
Clearly, he hadn’t caught up with the latest developments about his brother.
“He texted your Mum,” Nate said, trying to sound gentle. “Some emergency code, she said.”
The boy looked puzzled, then the little bit of colour on his cheeks drained until he looked almost white. He fumbled for his phone in his low hanging jeans, read the messages and swore.
“Fuck! She’ll be so angry with me.”
A tonne of bricks had been added to the weight on the boy’s shoulders, pushed him down even more until Nate thought he might crumble.
“She won’t be angry,” Nate tried to reassure him. “She’s just relieved that Zac is here.”
The boy covered his eyes with his hands, inhaled deeply, then pulled his hands down over his cheeks. “I was meant to keep an eye on him.”
By now, Nate felt the need to make the boy feel better. The cup of tea he made for Lorna sat on the coffee table, untouched.
Nate reached for it. “Here, have this.” He pushed the cup into the boy’s hand and made him sit down by the fire. The boy took a sip, then another one, then closed his eyes.
“Your mum will be pleased to have both of her boys back. She was worried about you, too.”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe I fucked up!” He ran his hands through his hair, but even that gesture looked slow and laboured, as if he were very tired. “She should be able to go on a date without having to worry.”
Nate looked up. “She said she went on a date?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Going out for dinner with someone she used to know. Sounded like a date to me.”
Nate smiled, then put his hand out to shake the boy’s hand.
“Anyway, I’m Nate.”
The boy shook his hand. “Liam.”
They sat in silence. Liam finished his tea and sat very still with his eyes shut. Nate was convinced that he had fallen asleep when he suddenly spoke.
“You can probably go home now,” he said, barely opening his eyes.
Nate shook his head. “I told your mum I’d wait.”

***

Lorna woke up beside Zac. Her mouth was dry, and a thumping headache hammered against her skull behind her forehead. She pushed up, went to the bathroom to rinse out her mouth and wash her face.
In the lounge, she found Nate quietly playing the guitar, and Liam sitting opposite him, watching. It was stifling hot in the room, adding fuel to her sore head.
“I fell asleep,” she said to Nate as she stopped in the middle of the room, her head spinning.
Nate kept picking the strings in a quiet tune, briefly lifting his eyes up to her with a smile.
Liam was slouched on the sofa, small, as if he were trying to blend into the worn fabric. She sat down next to him and waited for an explanation. When none came, she put her hand on her son’s leg, thinking back to when he was little and his way of communicating with her had been through touch, not words.
His leg felt bony, thin. Liam had lost even more weight in the past few weeks, she thought. Soon, there won’t be anything left of him.
“I didn’t hear the phone,” he suddenly said in a small voice, not daring to look into her eyes.
“You were supposed to check it regularly,” she said, wondering what the point was now, when both of her boys were safe.
“I’m sorry, Mum. I really am.” He looked so deflated she reached out for him and pulled him in close, shocked at how frail he felt in her arms, so different to Zac who was solid, yet soft to the touch.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” she said. “Zac needs to be part of this conversation, too”.
Liam leaned into her for a bit longer than she had expected, as if he’d wanted to be back in her arms to reassure him that everything would be okay. Automatically, she ran her hands over his hair like she used to when he was little. Liam pushed himself up, suddenly aware that this was going too far, it appeared, but not before she noticed that even his hair felt limp and lifeless.
“Have you met Nate?” Lorna asked when she realised that Nate had stopped playing the guitar and was looking over to her.
Nate nodded. Lorna felt hot in her face, embarrassed about falling asleep and not introducing the two men to each other properly.
“I’m sorry, this wasn’t meant to happen, you coming home to a stranger,” she said to Liam.
The boy looked at her, amused. It struck her how much he looked like Lawrence these days.
“He’s not a stranger,” Liam said.
She turned her head too quickly to Nate, wincing at the pain in her head. “No?”
Liam looked down at the guitar on his leg. “You’re Nate Cooper,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if he was a celebrity.
Nate looked up, just a confused as Lorna felt. “How do you know my name?”
“From your music,” Liam answered, suddenly confident, almost arrogant, as if it couldn’t be more obvious where he’d know Nate from.
“From YouTube?” Nate asked.
Liam nodded and Nate picked up the guitar, strung a few strings. Lorna felt like she had vanished into the background and the two men had forgotten she was even there.
“Wow. Lexi will be over the moon,” Nate said, once again smiling in that private smile that she had seen at The Boathouse.
“Who’s Lexi?” Liam asked, still pretending to be bored, but Lorna knew that he was very interested in Nate’s words.
Nate smiled. “My social media manager.”
Liam’s eyes grew large in admiration. “You have management?”
This time, it was Lorna’s turn for a knowing smile. She liked how taken her son was with Nate. These days, not much held his attention, and she had a feeling that Nate quite enjoyed the attention, too.
“She’s my niece,” Nate said as he started to pluck the strings of the guitar again, quietly so as not to appear rude, but unable not to play, as if he couldn’t help himself.
“I used to play the guitar, make music,” Liam said out of the blue, to no one in particular.
“Why did you stop?” Nate asked.
Liam glanced at Lorna, then shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t know.”
Nate looked up at him while continuing to play. “You could always pick it up again.”
Liam didn’t show much excitement, but Lorna knew that Nate’s words got him thinking. “I suppose I could.”
It struck her how casually the two of them were talking to each other, as if they’d known each other for a long time. She moved away from Liam and got herself a drink of water from the kitchen. Back in the lounge, she sat down next to Nate, but with a big gap between them. She pulled her feet up, tucked them in and felt a great exhaustion sweep over her after all the tension had melted off her. Coupled with the heat that came off the fire, she was ready to curl up beside Nate and go to sleep.
“I liked your last video,” Liam said after a while.
Nate muted the strings of the guitar and looked across to Liam in surprise.
“Thanks,” he said and smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”
Lorna knew that her son’s modest compliment meant more to Nate than any of the comments on his channel. When Liam didn’t add anything, Nate continued his finger picking and played a quiet tune. Just when Lorna was dozing off, the boy pushed up from his seat and stretched his arms above his head.
“I’m off to bed,” he said and walked over to her, leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. She blinked and managed to say a stifled, “Good night, darling.”
He hadn’t given her a kiss goodnight since he was fourteen. He was so distant most of the time she had no idea what was going on in his head.
Even if she wanted to, Lorna couldn’t stop the tears that now ran down her cheeks, pooled in her ear before dripping onto the sofa. Nate kept playing quietly, not aware of her emotions, or maybe he was, but he was respectful enough not to make a fuss. Given the events of the night, Lorna was surprised her emotional exhaustion hadn’t caught up with her earlier.
She was vaguely aware of Liam talking to Nate, then disappearing into his bedroom. Nate played another tune, then started to hum, then sing quietly. She listened to Nate’s voice, slowly forgetting about Zac and Liam and her worries, and instead thinking that if she could listen to that voice every night before going to sleep, she would be the luckiest woman on Earth.
Every now and then, he stopped singing, and she worried that might be it, but then he started a new song, and she listened intently and eventually dozed off. When she woke, her arm had fallen asleep. She repositioned herself, moving closer to him and shut her eyes again. The warmth of his leg was seeping against her head and she imagined his arm on her, wondered what it would feel like to have him lie down beside her, to be wrapped up against his body.
She nodded off again, comfortable to feel him beside her, when suddenly the cushion beside her moved, the warmth disappeared, and she felt him get up.
“Lorna, I’m going home now,” he whispered, touching her shoulder lightly. She pushed onto her elbows, then sat up, blinking.
“Can’t you stay the night?” she asked. Hours ago, she could have never imagined asking such a question. Now, she didn’t mind if he knew how much she wanted him by her side, even if it was just for tonight.
He looked down on her, a little bit sad, but mostly tired. “No.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I can’t,” he said as if that explained anything at all. “You’ve got your boys to talk to in the morning.”
He bent down and kissed her on the cheek. Before she could say anything else, he was gone.

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