Strawberries and champagne

The silvery tone of the harpsichord splits the air. Helen cranes forwards and sits very still, savouring each individual note of the aria, trying to fix the experience in her memory. She knows the Goldberg variations so well, yet hearing them live for the first time entrances her. She's never seen a real harpsichord before: the black and white keys are exchanged, and she watches how the performer uses the second manual to pick out notes in the later, more florid, variations. She knows that Paul, sitting by her side on the narrow chapel pew, shares her enthusiasm - it's one of the things she loves about him.
A jolt of the train interrupted her reverie. The memory fled, leaving her with only the rapidly passing scenery. She glanced at her watch - three thirty-two - must be somewhere in that stretch of industrial landscape that surrounded Doncaster. It was several years since she'd last been to Cambridge, many more since she'd left, yet her memories were still startlingly vivid and events since seemed somehow grey in comparison. Now she was headed there again: a symposium. She was staying in her old college, the college where, implausibly, Paul was now a Research Fellow. His name had been on the list of new Fellows in the Alumni's newsletter that Lady Margaret Hall still e-mailed. It had probably been this that had given her the idea to contact him again. They had exchanged business-like letters, and had arranged to meet for dinner the evening that she arrived. This evening. The prospect now seemed rather worrying: maybe it had not been such a good idea to meet after so long - it must be, what, more than ten years now? She knew that he'd been married for years now, she'd even met his wife - a friend of a friend - though a long time ago.
Unanxious to pursue this line of thought, she tried to force back the memory that had come so easily and so vividly just a moment before. After the concert, they'd walked back to her room through the quiet college courts - yes, that's right. As they take the short cut behind one of the buildings, by the pond, he takes her in his arms as she ducks, off-balance, to get round the apple tree. With no windows on this side of the block it's completely dark. He pushes her against the wall, kisses her mouth, her hair, her neck, his arms around her waist under her coat. His slight stubble feels surprisingly unpleasant against her neck. Torn between pleasure that the music had such an intense effect on him and fear that he won't stop, will go too far, she breaks away, hurries back into the relative light then turns to wait for him. They climb the two flights to her room in silence, drink the inevitable black coffee and discuss whether the tempo in the 'Cabbage' variation might have been just a little too fast. Everything is normal again.
'Coffee, ma'am? Tea?' She opened her eyes to find the stewardess offering her refreshments from the trolley. Could she face a Virgin Trains coffee? She decided to give it a try, ordered a chicken tikka sandwich to go with it.
'Granary bread, please,' she said, 'low-fat mayonnaise. And I'll have a serviette if you've got one.' But the plastic-encased sandwich was frigid, unappetising. She balanced the triangular packet on the inadequate ledge, settled back into the plush upholstery, closed her eyes.
One of those legendary Cambridge summers, the sun beating down as she tries to revise sitting on the grass in the Fellows' Garden, creating bright spots that make nonsense of the organic chemistry mechanisms that she's trying to memorise. Eventually she gives up the pretence, lays back, gives a little wriggle of pleasure at the warm glow on her bare arms. The weather always breaks as soon as the exam season is over.
Paul wakes her by stroking her hair. 'Tried your room. Thought you might be here.'
She automatically moves out of reach, then sits up. 'Don't do that, it's embarrassing.'
'Look what I've just got.' He holds out an envelope addressed to him.

She opens it. 'By courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity...' She feels the embossed crest with the tips of her fingers.
'It's a May Ball ticket. Will you come with me?'
She tries to look as if the answer could be 'no,' gives up and says, 'Yes. If you want.' She sprawls back in the grass, tries to freeze that moment, fearing he will spoil it.
He lies next to her. 'I want,' he says, then turns towards her, propping himself up on one elbow, his red hair almost beautiful in the sun. Leans in and kisses her mouth gently. 'You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.' This time she does not pull away: it's more how she has been taught to expect love to be.
That evening he takes her punting. It's still warm even after sunset. Somehow they manage to get the punt over the rollers and set off towards Grantchester. She lies facing him as he punts, watching the train of drops from the pole fall back into the black water. He's silhouetted dark blue on pale blue against the evening sky. It's quiet apart from the water splashing and occasional sleepy ducks alarmed by their approach. After some time, when pale blue has turned to dark blue and dark blue almost to black, he stops the punt, anchors it against the pole and comes and sits by her, putting his arm along the bench seat behind her shoulders. She's uncomfortably aware of his body, hot from exercise, and his arm, cold from water. Subtly, his arm stops being on the back of the seat - its chilly length rests lightly on her shoulders. She shivers as he draws her towards him. Sweat mixed with the greenish smell of Cam water. She stares ahead at the almost invisible trees. 'I love you.' It's uncomfortably close to her ear and his breath tickles. She doesn't know what to say and says nothing, which seems to satisfy him. After a while she escapes with, 'I'm cold. Can we go back now, please?'

The snub-nosed train flew through the countryside - England passed by in the wide windows. Cocooned inside amidst pictures of British heritage, so stylised it was hard to tell Cambridge from Manchester, surrounded by those innocuous Intercity blue and lilac colours, and over everything, the grinding whine of the train. It sounded more like an automatic car than the clickety-clack noise a train is supposed to make. She had the carriage almost to herself after Peterborough - no more stops now before Cambridge itself. She retrieved the glossy conference programme from her briefcase: 'Malaria in the New Millennium: From Genomics to Vaccines' - whatever would they think of next? - took out a pink highlighter pen and started to circle the presentations that she really must make time to attend. 'Dr Helen Barlow, Manchester, UK,' it said, 'Drug targets uncovered by the Plasmodium falciparum Genome Project.' Luckily, she'd already prepared her talk, a repeat of the one she'd given in San Francisco only five weeks ago, and the slides were safe on her laptop. In fact, she soon realised that she'd seen most of the presentations before, at San Francisco or at Lisbon, earlier in the year. The interminable list only made her more inclined to stare out of the window and dream.
She'd been so young, so unsure of herself, even for an eighteen year old. Transplanted to a university where she knew no-one, she lacked even the cosy familiarity of schoolwork coming easily to sustain her self-image. Those around her - thin blonde girls whose clothes somehow came from the right shops and who seemed to form alliances automatically, like recognising like - either didn't share her fears or hid their self-doubts adequately to fool her. Was she thin and blonde to them?
Paul seemed to have everything she lacked - a graduate, doing a PhD in pure maths, a subject enviably different from everyone else's, unlike her own, biology. He knew where all the good cheap restaurants were, knew where to buy a Mars bar at 2 am. Her horizons - and those of all the other men she knew - went little further than college, lectures, Sainsbury's.

The train pulled into the familiar yellow-brick station and disgorged its passengers. She took a taxi to Lady Margaret's, even though it was only just over a mile down Hills Road, telling herself it was because of her heavy bags. As she was collecting her key, she asked, 'Where are Dr Franklin's rooms?'
'D8, First Court, ma'am,' the porter replied. She glanced up at it as she walked past.
Why, of all the men who'd wandered into and out of her life, did she still remember him?
Even after she'd unpacked, hung her suits in the wardrobe and changed, several hours remained before their rendezvous at Caffe Fresco. But, with the whole memory-laden city in front of her, she could think of nothing to fill the time.
She found herself walking rapidly to First Court, up D staircase, till she stood outside his door. His familiar diminutive handwriting stared at her from the noticeboard. Once he'd filled a page with 'I love you's in the writing that now said 'Please put supervision work for Dr Franklin in this in-tray. PAF.' She was out in the sun again in a moment.
Back in the guest-room, she slumped into the armchair, let her mind wander again. Her memories of the May Ball evening were a blur. She knew she'd worn that perfect ball-gown - slinky and strapless, its silk the same blue as her eyes - while they'd ridden fairground rides, eaten pizza slices, crêpes and cream cakes, drunk Pimms, champagne and cocktails, danced in hot and sweaty tents to anonymous bands, gambled imaginary money in casinos listening to a bored pianist, watched strolling minstrels and jugglers, and punted under water-cannon arches along a floodlit river with fireworks exploding overhead.
But only one detail stood out now.
They walk along the tree-lined avenue on the far side of the river from the main entertainments, step down the rounded stone stairs into the gardens, gently floodlit with a green light. They avoid the others sitting at plastic tables in the better-lit parts of the gardens, only stopping to pick up two bowls of strawberries and cream, and enter a sunken formal garden, enclosed by hedges and trees, its low stone walls covered with cascades of alpines, its perfect lawn unsullied by tables. They sit down side by side on the grass by the pool, its water lilies and irises in flower. She eats the strawberries whole, greedily, yet slowly enough to taste each one's individual strawberryness, then stretches out on the cool black grass and bathes under the outsized moon, saving the moment forever.
'Back to the present,' she said to herself. 'That's a tape you don't want to play any further.'
That's how she had taught herself to deal with it, afterwards. Afterwards when she lay on her bed, staring, disfocused, at the ceiling, CD player on repeat, replaying it in her mind over and over and over. She concentrates on the counter of the CD player: 6:32, 6:33, 6:34, 6:35 ...
'You don't want to remember that, either.'
Ashamed now of her earlier indecision, she walked slowly back to First Court, stood outside Paul's door again and knocked almost inaudibly, a habit she thought she'd grown out of. Would he even recognise her? The black hair that had once reached half-way down her back was now cropped to shoulder-length, her once-slight figure had filled out more than she cared to admit. He was bound to be out. He'd probably forgotten all about her arrival.
She stood at the open door while the silence surrounded them. She longed to turn and walk back to her room, back to the train and her comfortable memories.
'I didn't expect you so soon,' Paul said. 'Coffee?' They both laughed nervously, and he disappeared into the kitchen.
She stepped down into the room: floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a couple of engravings, Escher of course, a large circular table and, hanging from the college light-fitting above it, an Archimedean solid constructed from blue and white plastic straws, not the drinking kind, the sort that Mothercare sells for children's modelling. She sat on the window seat, stared out: First Court lawn, you could be sent down for walking on that grass, the ancient wisteria smothering the Master's Lodge, the heraldic animals adorning the archways, their red and white and gold paint slightly faded, the clock tower with its pale-blue clock face, ten minutes slow. As an undergrad, she'd savoured most that entering Great Gate from the busy shopping street you left behind the noise and crowds - it was like entering another world. Paul returned with the coffee, an inch of espresso at the bottom of an oversized black octagonal mug.
'It hasn't changed much,' she said.
'Ah, but now I can walk on the grass!'
They both laughed again. She studied him covertly over the rim of her cup. Tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses had replaced the granny glasses he had affected not to need to wear. His once unfashionably short hair was now unfashionably long, but it suited the more muted dark-red curls. Still wearing those black cords. What had then made him verge on ridiculous now merely looked the part of a rather eccentric Fellow. She suspected that the eccentricity was more calculated than accidental: his biggest worry had always been of being normal. Why else choose a subject like group theory to devote one's life to?
She examined the nearest bookcase, coffee mug in hand. On the top shelf, three dark-blue copies of what must be his thesis, 'Moonshine and the Monster: some investigations in finite simple group theory'. He'd explained what it was about more than once, but she never quite grasped what exactly it was, this so-called 'Monster'. The rest of the shelves were ordered alphabetically, with a monograph by E. Müller entitled 'Group theoretical and structural analysis of the Moorish ornaments from the Alhambra of Granada' next to what looked like the complete works of Iris Murdoch. Once she'd said arbitrarily that Iris Murdoch was her favourite author. Before she next met him, he'd got out six of her novels from the library - and finished them. He'd insisted on reading all the others, ticking them off against a list photocopied from one of the dust jackets.
'You must spend a lot of money in second-hand bookshops.'
'Yes,' he said. 'They attract me in, then the books clamour to be let out-like going to the Cat Rescue.'
'I only go for new shiny paperbacks. Much more expensive, but not so difficult to house. You don't get given bookshelves like this in Manchester. Biologists don't read, I suppose they think.' She fingered one of the volumes of Iris Murdoch, and added, 'But then, I don't keep all my books in my office.' She wondered why he did.
'How d'you end up in Manchester? I rather lost track.'
'Oh, I was very lucky.' She put the empty coffee mug down on the table and settled back onto the window seat. 'Did a Part Two project with a guy on sabbatical from the Glaxo-Wellcome research centre in the States. He wangled me a PhD at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina-'
'You haven't picked up an accent, thank God.'
'I can switch it on and off, y'know whaddimean?'
He laughed. 'Then you went straight to Manchester?'
'I stayed on for a year or so. Persuaded GW - somehow! - to fund a post-doc place at their site near Mac-Macclesfield, I mean,' she added at his look of incomprehension. 'Got offered a junior lectureship in Manchester when they set up the PFGP.'
'Oh, sorry, the malaria genome project at the Christie Hospital.'
'What's it like? I feel I've missed out, just staying here.'
'Rather drab by comparison, in some ways,' she said. 'When I arrived I didn't like it much. My office looks out onto a car park, the students there all seem very hard-working, not as eccentric as the Cambridge mob.' She paused. 'And of course there's no music except the Hallé-and the good acoustics of the Bridgewater only highlight how dreadful they sound.'
'At least Manchester has a proper concert hall-unlike here, for all our musical snobbery.'
'But now I rather like it,' she said. 'It has no pretensions: everyone works hard and it's easier to be accepted, there's not so much rivalry and interdepartmental warfare as there is here.' She looked away, and added, 'But somehow Cambridge still has that magical attraction.'
'I know what you mean,' he said. 'The skies are always blue here.'
'Except when it rains!'
They both looked out at the overcast sky.
'Speaking of which, where d'you want to eat?' he asked. 'Caffe Fresco's always a bit crowded. Somewhere else might be better?'
'I don't know. What do you recommend?'
'I could easily cook something here, if you liked?' he said. 'The kitchen's a bit basic-no fridge-but it might be interesting?'
'Why not?' she said, afraid that moving to a restaurant might spoil the fragile atmosphere between them. 'I don't think I've ever seen you cook before.' Then they'd eaten pizzas or Greek take-aways at the start of terms when the grant cheques were freshly deposited, college meals in hall on buttery credit at the end of term when the money was running out.
The kitchen was small for two people. She sat on the windowsill, her shoulders squeezed into the space carved in the sloping roof by the dormer window, and put her feet up on the radiator. He took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and examined the contents of the larder, the only cupboard in the room apart from the one under the sink. Soon he was pushing round a mixture of bacon, onions, tinned tomatoes and dried oregano in a battered frying pan on the single electric ring, his bare freckled arms surprisingly dark against the cream paint of the walls. They ate off their knees. Perversely, manipulating spaghetti at such a disadvantage made her feel more comfortable.
'It's hard to know what to say to you, after so long,' she said.
'Getting on for twelve years.'
'Not quite so long - I was thinking about it on the train.'
He twirled a last strand of spaghetti round and round his fork. 'Yes, I was thinking of you, while I waited.'
'Thinking what?'
'About when we first went out together - that concert in the chapel here.'
'Yes, I remembered that too!'
'What was it, now?'
'Goldberg, I think.' She was rather surprised that he didn't remember.
'Yes, that's it,' he said. 'Was that the first time I kissed you?'
She felt herself flush, stared down at the faded green carpet. 'Won't your wife be expecting you?' she said, after a long silence. 'I'm sorry, I've forgotten her name.'
'No. Thought you must know.' It was his turn to look embarrassed. 'Actually, Liz left me, what, three years ago now. I live here in college now.'
'Oh, I'm sorry.'
'All the usual clichés,' he said. 'Inevitable, really.' Another silence.
'We could change the subject if it upsets you?'
'I don't mind so much. Not now,' he said. 'Liz's remarried, she's got the baby she always wanted. She mentioned a "bump", as she put it, on her Christmas card, so I guess there must be two of them by now.'
'I never really knew her.'
'She wasn't much like you,' he said. 'Maybe that was the point.' There was a long pause. 'I mean, I was looking for someone who wasn't much like you. And she wasn't.'
'What was she like?' Why did she want to know?
'Not sure I know,' he said. 'PA in a law firm. Rowing and squash always seemed to come first. Hated Bach. Didn't even pretend to listen when I enthused about group theory. You met her didn't you?'
'Not the kind of person I'd have envisaged you marrying.'
'No,' he said.
It became clear that he wasn't going to volunteer anything further. 'What did you do?'
'Nothing really. Got obsessed with work. Even more obsessed.' He took off his glasses, polished them on his shirt sleeve. 'Waited for life to catch up with me. I always feel as if my life is waiting out there to happen to me-nothing I can do will influence it.'
'What are you waiting for?' she asked, in an attempt to drown the feeling that she ought to change the subject, evade that still-hanging question of why he was looking for someone who wasn't like her.
'I don't know.' He looked up at her, then away again as soon as he caught her eye. 'I don't know.'
The silence prolonged. She carried the plates into the kitchen, turned on the hot tap.
'Oh, don't bother,' he said. 'My bedder'll do them in the morning.'
'Do you have any washing up liquid?'
He followed her to the door of the kitchen. 'Cupboard under the sink.'
'Thanks for the meal,' she said brightly, when the dishes were ranged on the drainer. 'Perhaps I'd better go and review my slides. I'm supposed to be giving a talk first thing in the morning.' It felt like a lame excuse, but he didn't comment.
Back in her Third Court guest-room, she lay down on the bed without bothering to open the covers. The familiar texture of the bed-cover - the tufted, ridged sort that pervaded all colleges, but otherwise was only associated with grandmothers; what was it called? Chenille, that was it - made the memories she'd suppressed earlier come flooding back.
After the May Ball, they walk back across town, the sky an early morning steel grey. The breeze across her bare shoulders makes her shiver. She feels a bit unsteady on her high heels, keeps having to clutch at his arm. Six o'clock. Silly time to be drunk. Her dress has got askew somehow, never did fit properly really. There's an oily spot down the front where she's spilled some mayonnaise or something.
Back in the welcoming warmth of her room, she sprawls on her bed, kicks off her sandals. Waits for him to go so she can sleep. The room seems odd somehow, distant, out of focus. Like peering through a thick pane of glass. She closes her eyes. Squeak of ancient bed springs as he sits down by her feet, strokes her legs through her silky stockings. 'I love you,' he says, and lies down next to her on the bed, his arms round her. Smell of damp grass in his hair. Kisses her urgently. Stale beer in his mouth. Grate of stubble on skin. Rucks up her dress, strokes higher on her thighs. It tickles. He's going to ladder the stockings that cost fifteen ninety nine only yesterday. 'I love you,' he keeps saying. 'I love you.' Something about his intensity frightens her. She's too tired and drunk to work out exactly what. She opens her eyes. Face unrecognisable at this range. So close she can count the pores on the chin, the blackheads on the nose.
Hands fiddling with the dress behind her back, and suddenly everything's loose. The dress slips from her chest entirely-oh God, he must have undone her bra too. She tries desperately to cover herself with her hands. It's hopeless. No coordination. He keeps repeating 'I love you', a charm to soothe a rabbit caught in a snare. Everything in slow motion, sharp-edged black and white and red, like those old TV adverts for safety belts. Clunk click every trip. She hears someone sobbing a long way away, then realises it must be her.
When she awakes, it's evening. She pulls on a pair of jeans and her big mohair jumper, goes out to the phone box in the Porters' Lodge, calls her parents, asks them to come down in the Rover and pick her up. Back in her room, she empties the drawers into her trunk, dumps her dresses on top. She leaves the ball-gown hanging by itself in the wardrobe.

Helen woke late, stiff from the unaccustomed softness of the sagging single bed. By the time she'd dressed and retrieved her notes, she'd missed breakfast and had to hurry to catch the first presentations. No time to think. When the talks had finally finished and she'd whizzed round the poster presentations in the hall, she hurried back to Lady Margaret's, her feet aching. She'd met Jane and Chris from her old GW lab in a coffee- break, and they'd invited her to join them for a drink and a catch-up in the conference bar. 'Join you later,' she said, 'I'm just going to pop back and change into some more comfortable shoes.' Back in her room, a note had been tucked under her door. 'I've borrowed someone's punt for this evening. Would you like to join me? I'll be at the Anchor at 6. P.' Drinks forgotten, she pulled on some pumps, delved in the drawer for a jumper. If she hurried, she'd make it there in time - if she remembered how to get there!
Haste made the Lion Yard crammed full with returning shoppers carrying John Lewis bags and pushing disaffected children with comforters in their mouths and cuddly toys clutched in their arms. They all seemed to be eating: chips, McDonald's, chocolate bars, health-food snacks, ice- cream. The streets were strewn with sycamore leaves and empty cigarette packets. Every corner housed beggars with their rat-like dogs, and in Market Square, a greasy-haired juggler occupied the spot where she remembered busking string quartets. Ten minutes' late and very out of breath, she hung over Silver Street bridge and spotted Paul below her outside the pub.
'I've already got it over the rollers,' he shouted, and scrambled up the steps to meet her. 'Thought it might be a good evening to punt to Grantchester?'
They had the river almost to themselves as the university buildings rapidly gave way to steep nettled banks with occasional willows. She shivered as the drops of water scattering from the pole hit her. By the time they reached the 90 degree bend with its 'Danger: deep .ate.' sign - still not repainted, she noticed - the sky was overcast and it was rather chilly. She put on her jumper, wished she'd thought to bring a coat. The end of September was slightly too late for punting at this time in the evening.
'There's a coat behind you,' he said, 'if you don't mind borrowing one of mine.'
She reached over, pulled on the black greatcoat. It was strange to be wearing his clothes again, still only slightly too large because, she had always maintained, he was too thin. She could smell his faint scent around her, and her brain was busy noting its effect on her. 'Stop being so analytical,' she said to herself. She was beginning to wish that he'd stop somewhere - it was hard to talk like this, when every exchange had to be pitched abnormally loud - when he punted towards the bank.
'Thought you might like some food,' he said, 'before it gets too dark to see it. There's a picnic in the back.'
'You've thought of everything!' She reached round and brought out a stick of French bread and a big lump of cheddar.
'There should be some plates and knives somewhere. There's a bottle of Chablis too. And a couple of glasses. Even some strawberries. Punting should be very genteel, don't you agree?'
'Oh, frightfully, frightfully,' she said, and they both giggled. She set out the picnic, poured two glasses of wine and balanced them on the floor of the punt. He wound the chain a couple of times round the thick trunk of a willow, lit two nightlights. The candles cast more shadows than illumination. A few spats of rain broke the surface ripples of the grey river. She ignored them.
'Do you remember when we first punted together?' he said. 'We stopped just here, under this tree.'
'Did we? I don't remember the river well enough to know.'
'I've often come here,' he said. 'I like this place. Reminds me of you. Of being happy together.'
'Were we happy together, though?-I don't know.'
'I thought so. This is where you first said you loved me. I'll never forget that.'
'I don't remember it like that-You said that you loved me, but I don't remember saying anything very much.'
'Surely you remember that, if nothing else! I could never forget.'
'I just remember being cold and uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed,' she said. 'I don't think I really knew what to do.' There was a long silence. Under the leafy canopy, it was too dark to see his expression. 'It doesn't matter anyway. It was a long time ago.' She picked out a strawberry and placed it in her mouth.
'Yes. I suppose it was,' he said. 'More wine?'
'Oh, yes please.' She stared out over the river, through the green curtain. The rain was more persistent, harder to ignore.
'Looks like we're trapped here-There's going to be a storm.'
Moments later, sheets of rain hit the placid water. Paul manoeuvred the punt as close to the bank as it would go. Invisible tree caught in her hair.
'I don't remember any nettles here,' he said. 'Have to talk now - if we move, we'll get soaked, and there's only one coat between us!' He groped for the wine in the bottom of the punt and refilled their glasses.
'What'll we talk about then?'
'I don't know.' He was serious again. 'I was thinking about the May Ball last night. The one we went to. Together. Do you remember?'
'I remember.'
'I think that was the most magical night of my life. You were beautiful then. Well, always. That blue dress of yours.'
'Must have been magic.'
'Why did you leave me?'
'I don't know.'
'What do you mean?'
'I don't know.'
'How can you not know?'
'I don't know. I don't know. I just don't know.' Her repetitions increased in volume, till she was shouting at him.
'Oh, never mind. Like you said. A long time ago.'
The silence stretched out. The rain continued to batter the river. What did it matter anyway, what she said. Might as well. well, just say it. 'Guess I still find it hard to talk about.'
'I thought maybe.'
'Go on.'
'Well, I thought. I didn't, well, we didn't take any. precautions. And I thought. I thought maybe.'
'You thought I'd got pregnant?' She laughed. 'No, it wasn't even that.'
'Well, what then?'
'Nothing. Just nothing.'
'What do you mean, nothing?'
'Nothing happened.'
'Then why did you leave me?-Why didn't you answer my letters?'
'I guess. Oh, I don't know, I guess. I just couldn't cope.'
Why had it mattered so much? Had it even been all his fault? Had he been as inexperienced as she, but more honest about his feelings, his wants?
'Acted like a spoiled child. Ran back to mummy and daddy. Well, I was a spoiled child. I guess. I played at love. At being in love.'
In love. Those magical words. But why? Because it was fun? Felt adult? Because she was flattered by the attention of someone older than herself? Or was it just because it went with the strawberries and the champagne, the ever-blue skies?
'Then it hurt and I didn't want to play any more.'
'I told myself you'd raped me. I taught myself not to ever think about it, it hurt too much. Like picking and picking at a scab.'
'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I just . didn't realise.'
She was staring into the water. 'I thought about it last night. But I don't remember saying no even.' She looked up briefly, then back at the water.
'I'm sorry.'
'It wasn't really your fault. I just didn't understand. Didn't understand anything. I'm sorry too. It seems an age ago.'
He took her in his arms, held her tight. The tree was sodden now and they were getting wet, but it didn't seem to matter. 'I didn't understand either. I loved you,' he said.
'I don't think I even knew what love meant.'
'Love you,' he said, as if trying it out.
'Yes,' she said. 'I know.'
'Helen, Helen, Helen.' Rocked her gently in his arms. 'I love you.' Stroked her wet hair gently as she sobbed into his shoulder. 'I've waited a long time for you to come back.'
'I'm back, am I?' she said. 'Maybe.'

16 November 2001