"It's going to be okay." Audrey feels the warmth of Daniel's hand on hers.
Outside the car the sun is setting, the sky is pink and orange and looks like it's been set alight. Audrey imagines the colours colliding like that inside her, in her stomach where the nerves feel sharp like knives.
"Did you hear me, Audrey? It's going to be okay."
She turns to look at him in the driver's seat as they stop at a red light, the trees and buildings howling in the wind around them. "Sorry. I hope so."
Daniel looks sort of disappointed, like she's been leaving his words just hanging in the air. But there's something else. She notices his posture, he is sitting up straighter than when she met him. His eyes are darker; his face distinctly changed. There is something behind his eyes. A question he has not asked. Something heavy.
"Are you okay?"
Daniel smiles, his eyes on the road. "I'm with you, I'm okay."
Audrey feels a warmth inside her. Takes a deep breath, counts to five, and breathes out.
"This is a nice house," Audrey whispers the words.
Daniel looks over at her. Dressed all in black, her blonde hair messy and un-brushed, lipstick bleeding out over her lip line. For a moment he imagines her from his mother's point of view, and for a worse moment he wishes she looked like she belonged in front of his old home. Instead, she looks small and damaged with the house looming over her, gripping his hand like a child.
"Come on," he says. And the two walk forward, but Audrey drags her feet a little.
Daniel's mother is wearing a light shade of pink lipstick and has a new set of fake nails. She sort of looks Audrey up-and-down without giving herself the go-ahead.
"Hello. You must be the letter-writer."
It hits Audrey and Daniel like a bombardment of enemy fire. The pleading handwriting. The hidden letter. Audrey bites her lip hard. When Daniel looks over at her next a fleck of red lipstick is on her crooked tooth. He wants to wipe it off, but can't bring himself to.
"Hello. It's nice to meet you. You must be – " the thief. Audrey wants to say it, but can't bring herself to say it. "Daniel's mother."
"Mathew, you mean."
Daniel wants to leave the bitter cold of the doorway and the air around them, and go home with Audrey. He is disappointed in his mother.
"Yes, Matt. You must be Matt's mum."
He feels Audrey's hand shake in his, turns to look at her, and she is tiny and trying so hard. He feels a surge of emotions then: pride, and something else that makes him sad.
"Audrey," he says to get her attention.
When she looks over at him his smile says something she doesn't understand and he reaches up and wipes the lipstick from her tooth. He sees his mother look away in disappointment. He is almost sorry for her, that he could not fall in love with someone she would have liked, but he is not really.
"Audrey and I have been good enough to come here, after you purposely kept us apart. So please be good enough to not mention it."
It shocks his mother, he sees it in her faltering smile, that he is a man now and protecting the one he loves. She looks at Audrey again; he loves her - this ruined thing.
Audrey and Daniel sit in the large lounge room. His mother offers him and Audrey tea, is careful not to offer Audrey a drink because she looks like that type.
"I'd like some tea, thank you." Audrey sounds polite, unsure.
"Where's dad?" Daniel asks without answering.
"He's working late, but wants to know if you'll go fishing with him Sunday."
When Audrey is handed a large cup of tea some time later it burns her hands but she endures it, not sure of the appropriate thing to do or place to set it down.
"You have a lovely son," she says, too softly.
Daniel's mother smiles. "I hope you don't break his heart."
Audrey swallows the burning tea, her eyes water because of it. "I love him too, you know?"
Daniel's mother puts on music, Coldplay, and serves dinner.
The room is filled with the smell of barbeque chicken, the taste of roast vegetables and gravy and the sound of cutlery clinking. The table is too big for just the three of them. Daniel remembers sitting here and telling his mother about the road trip. It seems a lifetime ago. He wonders about time, what he'll be doing a year from now. Wonders if this dinner will drag on for two years. But he looks at his mother, he's missed her, he has. She was his first ally, she was his best one.
"So, what do you do Audrey?"
"Um, I dance currently."
"And you get paid for that?"
Audrey nods, "you do."
Audrey chews the chicken, watches Daniel's cutlery move across his plate and fleetingly imagines that dark-haired girl sitting at this table, the easiness of it. She doesn't look up.
Daniel hears Coldplay's lyrics, stares at Audrey with her head down, and imagines her heart beating under her ribcage. And I just got broken. Broken into two. Still I call it magic, when I'm next to you. And I don't want anybody else but you.
"Thank you for dinner," Audrey says later, picking up her handbag from beside the lounge chair.
"Don't be a stranger," Daniel's mother says, and Audrey is not sure which one she means.
Daniel and his mother disappear into the kitchen and Audrey hears their muffled voices. She stares at the paintings on the walls, tries to imagine Daniel's mother as a real person. They are gone for so long Audrey hesitantly wanders to the kitchen but stops. Through the open door Audrey sees Daniel's mother holding him tightly, their eyes closed.
Audrey retreats to the lounge room, touched, feeling like an intruder of sorts. She is sorry she is not the one Daniel's mother had wanted.
It is dark outside and the air is bitter with a chill. The light from the streetlamps line the block, the houses loom large like personalities. When Daniel walks to his side of the car his mother tells Audrey to "please look after him," and she says it softly with such warmth in her eyes it makes Audrey realise they aren't so different after all. The same heart connects them.
Days pass slowly, in a happy sober blur with nothing remarkable to set them apart: hot cups of tea (stained by red lips) left to go cold, words whispered to the sleeping other, saying "I love you" to your own reflection to help with a moment of fear, holding hands in front of the television to ensure it was only a moment.
Daniel wants to tell Audrey he knows, but he can't bring himself to ruin this, what they have right now. Instead, he talks to her sister to organise things and calls his mother to keep anchored to who he used to be. It seems time is folding over onto itself and maybe he has never really changed after all.
Audrey is stealing a book from a local bookstore when Daniel, watching her from afar, decides to tell her of the surprise himself and her sister have planned. Her hair is falling from the bun on top of her head but her winged eyeliner is neat, drawn by a sober hand. Her hands – they are tiny. He watches the expert way in which they take the book and conceal it within moments. He watches her tiny frame rise with a sharp intake of breath.
"So what one did you take?" he asks later, sitting opposite her in a busy café. He talks to his cup because of his nerves. Déjà vu.
"Lady Chatterley's Lover," she says, wiping her mouth with a napkin. "Because someone wrote something nice on the inside cover, seems it was a Christmas present. I like that."
Daniel looks up at her and smiles, reaching over to hold her hand. He can't help thinking of the note he'd placed in one of her own books, the note to remind her of him if a new heart should forget their love, heaven forbid.
"Audrey, I need to tell you something …" and he forgets about the surprise and wants to tell her he knows her secret, until she looks up at him. "Your sister and I have arranged for you to dance at the dance school you love so much."
Audrey freezes, her cup held halfway to her mouth. "The dance school."
"The one you took me to, when we first met."
"What do you mean?" her hand grips her cup tighter.
"The school is putting on a dance performance and we've arranged you to dance solo."
"But that doesn't make sense … how did you –?"
"Audrey, Audrey, Audrey. Is this your way of saying thank you?" Daniel says it with good humour and Audrey remembers herself and smiles.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you. I don't know how you did it, but thank you."
Her chair scrapes against the floor as she gets up to hug him.
"How long do I have to work on the dance?" she asks to his hair pressed against her face.
"A week. Sorry, it's all we could get."
"Well I guess I've got a lot of work to do," she says. And there's an excitement in her that has not been felt for years. Something trying to bloom in a garden brown and overgrown inside a small girl in a coffee shop.
The week was hard for Audrey and many times she felt she would let everyone down. Herself, worst of all. She'd find herself crying in the shower, deep frame-shaking sobs that hurt her chest. And she worried about her heart then. It was a heavy burden to bear, and sometimes she wondered what the good was in keeping it from Daniel. Whether it was actually killing her faster.
"I can't get my steps right." She told Daniel one night as he held her in bed. She was both glad and disappointed when he didn't notice the tears in her words.
"You're going to be great," he said, kissing her forehead. And she felt sort of empty then. She knew she was being unreasonable in being upset at his response. What did she expect? For him to see inside her very soul? To take her to the lake lit by streetlights and watch her dance against the black midnight water until she felt it was okay to sleep? Daniel couldn't behave like a character in a stolen book on a shelf. And Audrey tried to feel okay as she lay in her dark room, surrounded by a real love that didn't help sometimes.
Audrey had to do this herself. She had to take this chance at being alive for herself, stuck with herself, and trying to meet a challenge that was small compared to the big things she couldn't see. She had to own her sleepless nights, her sore body and her mistakes in trying to put the dance together. It was hard for her to realise during that week that when it came down to it she was always going to have to be with herself in the hard times. And it wouldn't be okay sometimes, even when everything else was okay, even when she had a love that made her content for the first time.
It was important, that week, that lesson. It was important for Audrey to find some sort of strength for herself – without Daniel's help. She felt it sort of happen in the empty dance hall she rented, every time she swore at herself and replayed the music, every time she cried against the hardwood floors, every time she caught the bus alone.
Daniel is mildly surprised when Audrey does not ask him his opinion in choosing her dance outfit or her makeup. Usually she would ask him which lipstick he prefers, but she walks into the lounge room and is ready to dance three hours before she is due onstage. There is a confidence to her, Daniel observes, even with her nerves. She does not even ask Daniel if she looks okay. She just sits smiling to herself, opining Lady Chatterley's Lover.
"You look beautiful," Daniel finds himself saying because of it, in spite of it.
"I'm so nervous," Audrey says in the car, taking his free hand. "I hope I remember the steps."
"You're going to remember the steps," Daniel is always sure of her, sometimes it sounds like he's challenging her.
"Audrey reaches into her bag, pulls out her copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover and reads the written message, her mouth moving silently like a prayer. She reads it for luck. She reads it to remind herself that even if everything goes wrong life will still go on. Here, proof! Something written ten years ago.
Who was she ten years ago? She can't even remember. Proof!
Author's note: Hope you guys enjoy this ... more updates to come shortly. :)
Songs for this chapter:
Magic - Coldplay
Take me to church - Hozier