‘Ready?’ she said.
Of course I wasn’t ready. Not then. Not now. But it was Angie. Turn your head; make you weak at the knees Angie. How she ended up in my bed, my life, is still a mystery to me. Angie was open as the sky, a fearless, superhero who overpowered everyone with her charm. Me, I lived in a carefully constructed box. Once she ripped the lid off, life was never the same. I was never the same.
‘Let’s go to Paris,’ she said.
Paris? Doing a quick calculation. We could do that. Everyone should go to Paris at least once right? But Angie meant the toss it all in’ kind of let’s go to Paris that churned my stomach. What about my job? The flat? What would we live on? Angie banished my fears with a flick of her wrist.
‘We have savings,’ she said.
Savings? Angie had savings? Surprised she even understood the concept. Ah, my savings. ‘What would we do there?’ That was the point. We wouldn’t do anything.
‘It’ll be an experience,’ she said.
You need to know this about me. I’m an accountant. I deal in known quantities. I don’t do experience, yet despite the fact that I felt as if I were jumping off a cliff, it was Angie, the girl who’d stolen my heart, and just in case the gods realized they’d made a mistake and whisked her away, I said yes.
Paris was predictable. Cafes, bicycles, policemen with moustaches and funny hats and every street a living, breathing catwalk. Where I was blasé, Angie was giddy. ‘Smell it,’ she said. ‘Taste it,’ she said. ‘All that history, the romance, the color, the flavor of it all.’ I found myself caught up in the pure joy of seeing the streets of Paris through her eyes, sipping lattes in the predictable cafes and watching artists on the left bank. This was Angie’s world and I bathed in the glow of her.
Our third floor apartment was no more than an alcove at the top of the stairs, our limbs all tangled together in the three quarter bed where we did our bit to help Paris maintain it’s reputation as the city of love. Days merged into weeks into months. Then Angie handed me a small plastic stick I mistook for a thermometer. Two pinks lines. I didn’t understand. Then it hit me. I walked the streets in a daze. Me. A dad. It seemed like hours but Angie said I was gone all of ten minutes until it dawned on me that I’d walked out without a word. She was waiting for me at the door. I scooped her up, both of us laughing and crying. We lay in the dark for hours not able to sleep.
‘We’re having a baby,’ I whispered.’
‘I know,’ she whispered back.
Ben changed everything. Seven pounds of wonder that fit in my two hands. Numbers are my world. Numbers are safe. They are grounded in simple truths. As a numbers man I understood exactly what seven pounds meant. As a father I couldn’t begin to fathom of the weight of responsibility I felt when I held my son for the first time.
Difference matters. At least it did to Angie and me. Maybe we could have made a go of it in Paris. Angie’s right, I never gave it a chance. Like a homing pigeon, I winged my way back to familiar territory, back to London and a job in finance. It wasn’t sexy but it was safe. That was the beginning of the end. Angie didn’t want safe. She wanted fire. She wanted edge. She wanted alive and the more secure I tried to make us, the more it tore us apart. Five years we lasted.
‘It’s over,’ she said, and although it broke me in two, I knew she was right.
Funny thing is we flourished in our separate worlds. Me, Mr. Feet on the Ground, threw my hat in with two young guns in a new start up in innovative healthcare. They came up with the ideas. I crunched the numbers. Angie went from part time assistant to manager of a local gallery. Ben spent three weeks a month with Angie, one with me. We both cried the day he left home to study architecture. There were other relationships, but neither of us found anyone to fill the gap that was us. Life was good. We thought it would last forever.
‘Dad?’ My heart did its usual back flip whenever Ben or Angie called. It turned to ice with his next words. ‘It’s mum.’ I heard only fragments of what followed. ‘Biopsy. Rare. Too many white cells. Not enough platelets.’ The words came thick and fast. Leukemia. Angie had Leukemia. The bad kind. Ben crying. Me too stunned to speak. I hung up the phone in shock only to ring straight back. Both of us crying now. There’d been bruises on her arms and legs that she couldn’t account for. She’d ignored them. I wanted to scream at her. Didn’t she know every second counts.
The first round of chemo we all came through more or less in tact. The second took her hair and her curves. She turned bandanas and wigs into an art form but that didn’t hide the bruises under her eyes or the fact that she had to sit down after five minutes of walking. By the third, we knew the odds were stacked against her, but somehow, she managed to conjure up a ghost of her killer smile that made us feel good even when we were falling apart.
Summer turned to autumn turned to winter. The first buds of spring began to form and we began to hope, but the numbers ran out. Angie slipped away one late afternoon with Ben and me beside her.
There are days it still catches me by surprise. I’ll think about calling her to talk about work or what Ben’s been up to and it slams into me and I’m all hollowed out again. Those days I forget to eat dinner and I don’t bother to turn on the lights when it gets dark.
Today is okay. Today I remember. Today me and Ben will scatter her ashes and he’ll make sure I eat tonight. I hear the front door slam and turn my head at the sound of his footsteps. He puts a hand on my shoulder.
‘Ready?’ he says. The same question his mother asked a lifetime ago.
Of course I’m not ready. Not yet. Maybe never.
‘Ready or Not’ by Leonie Harrison won the I Love Writing Competition 2020 Open Category.