palmistry

Just keep following the heartlines on your hands...

- Heartlines / Florence + The Machine

You have such fine hands.

They're miner's hands, crafter's hands, lover's hands; they're agile and long-fingered, made for skating over a piano in the in-between hours that are too quiet - but they aren't pretty.

Like its owner, these hands aren't soft and pampered, aren't used to the finer things in life: your careful fingers are rough at the pads from the wear and tear of the days, and there's a scar on your palm.

It's from that day when you were five, when you were a little too curious about what kitchen knives could do; I remember you telling me, your awkward, rough little laugh and your eyes on the setting sun - embarrassed, as if your instinct for caution hadn't progressed since then.

The scar, pale but noticeable, cuts your lifeline in half, the flow of the pleasant little crease interrupted too early - I run my thumb over it, hoping (even knowing that it's superstition, that, yet again, I'm being foolish) that it isn't an omen.

Your fingernails are short, practical, a little rough around the edges; they bring back memories of you visibly wilting, stumbling through the door, all five o' clock shadow and dishevelled hair, and tired, small, just-a-little-bit-beautiful smile. Trying to pretend you weren't carrying the printouts, the facts, the stupid little things you'd forgotten to study; those hands, so precise at times, almost fussy, smoothing out the sheets and reciting the names of conditions, of symptoms, lips moving without sound. All the times the others were going out, getting drunk, exhausting themselves on club floors and strangers' beds, trying to coax you into joining them, and you declined with another of those awkward, understated smiles.

I remember wondering who the quiet one was, remember knowing your face from my course, and I remember offering to keep you company. I was your only company, aside from your stacks of paper - haphazard but with some sort of mysterious order, judging from the frown that crossed your face, the pause and moment of consideration every time you stopped to put materials down.

Yes, there was a reason I suddenly began to enjoy studying so much.

You always were "the quiet one" or "the boring one" - said in joking tones, but with a horrible, niggling grain of truth in it, at least for them - until that night Jake finally made good on his threat, got you drunk (impressively, wonderfully, lyrically drunk) and made you sing. I had to wonder where you'd been hiding that voice all your life; Jake just smiled at me, with an almost unnoticeable, devious little gleam in his eye, and I'm sure that he knew, even then.

I trace your heartline - you did the same to me at that table in the corner, pointing it out, mentioning (in tones that were beginning to slur) this little, silly superstition that had always interested you: palmistry. Reading hands, that was all, nothing too complicated. Smiling in half-embarrassment, liquid courage perhaps making the words slip out more easily, you told me about palmistry, ran your fingers along each of the little lines on my hand. You explained every one of them, touch light and cautious - a surgeon's touch, a lover's touch, each meeting of fingertip and palm almost a kiss in itself. Your words were slightly stilted, your voice advancing as your eyes did, as your fingers did, expecting me to be bored, I think, waiting for me to wander off.

Instead, I took your hand - you looked up at me, eyes widening slightly in surprise - and recited the names back to you. That's when I noticed the lifeline scar, and how wonderful you looked when your smile wasn't timid.

You weren't the only one who had had a few drinks too many, and maybe it was that that made me suggest that maybe we could... go back to my place, if you wanted. See where the night took us.

I nearly jump when your hand curls around mine, your grip warm and strong, as it was when you stood up, introduced yourself with a shake of my hand, on the night I stayed behind to study with you.

As it was - but gentle, hesitant, as always, even when you were nowhere near sober - on my shoulder, when you shook your head and told me, your tone absolute and certain, that I'd regret it in the morning. The Smirnoff talking, you said.

I looked at your hand, and thought about all the little lines on your palm - because I knew all the names now, didn't I? - then back at your face, and didn't say anything. You seemed almost sad, even though you were smiling; you wouldn't look at me, not even when you stood up and left.

I wondered what I'd said to upset you. Certainly, you were the only one in the group that wouldn't have taken me up on the offer.

I smile as my fingers brush yet another inkstain, another penmark: you have writer's hands, too, though you'd never admit it. You're too shy about the scribbled sheets, the typed pages, to ever show me many - just one or two that you pretend not to be proud of - and you always maintain that there will be time when you're old and grey, retired on a little island somewhere and finished trying to save the world one patient at a time, to work on it properly. Maybe send it off somewhere, hope it doesn't get laughed at too much.

You have a gift, you fool; both of us know it, and both of us know you'll never admit it.

Your hands are large, even as agile as they are, and your skin is a little rough: you were a farmer's son before you were ever a doctor, handled a shovel long before a scalpel. In another life, maybe they would have been delicate and powdered, instead of made rough by work and pain. Or maybe they would have held a sword well, been calloused and trained. I suppose neither of us can know.

Your father didn't understand your ambitions at first, hadn't been expecting you to have them; his father, and his father's father before him, had relied on their land and their crops for their money, prioritised it above all else. You, you wanted to rely on books, and letters after your name. He was worried, of course: how would he and your mother pay for the university, for the textbooks? How were you meant to fit in with the rich brats, the toffs who'd never done a day's work in their lives?

Your brother already had the farm, though, and he said you should go. Spread your wings, and all that. It was your choice. You reassured him with talks of grants and scholarships and changing class systems, and he waved you off with a smile, in the end.

I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if you'd stayed on the farm, if we'd never met, and I can't help liking your father for letting you go, unfair as it probably is. I've wanted to meet him - wanted to meet both your parents - for a long time, but you've always muttered a distracted, "Later."

It always surprises me, the strength of these hands - surprises everyone else, too. They forget where you come from.

You did a lot of the heavy lifting when we moved into the house, though I did my fair share. You're strong enough to hold a cheap pine coffee table; easily, always strong enough to hold me.

I run my thumb over your knuckles, counting them silently in the dim morning light, and I remember...

Things were different after the night you turned me down - you met my eye less, spoke to me less, and I wondered what I'd done wrong. Jake told me you were being an idiot, of course, as always, blind and dumb and deaf to everything but your books, and I shook my head; I thought of your singing and your fingers tracing over my palm, gentle as the touch of a feather, and how sad your eyes had been. I said he was wrong, that he didn't understand. He was the angriest he'd ever been, and there was something ugly, truly ugly in his face as he spat accusations, spouted lies about the two of us and what we were doing when we were "studying". He was wrong, of course - that night had been a one-off, a stupid, drunken offer that hadn't meant anything and hadn't led to anything, and after that I'd started things with Jake so how could I be interested in you?

The blow took me by surprise, I have to admit. I'd never seen that side of him before, never suspected it was there. I felt something cold trickle on my face, knew it was blood - there was something else, too, from my eyes, and it took me a moment to realise that it was tears. I distantly remembered that he'd been wearing a ring.

He tried to stop me when I ran, but it was half-hearted; he couldn't even look at me, and I think it was because he knew what he'd done.

I didn't quite realise where I was until you opened the door, and looked at me, actually looked, for the first time since that night. Your face was horrified, and you took my hand - your grip warm and rough on mine, fingers clenched tight but you didn't seem to realise - and led me inside, sitting me down at the kitchen table. When you came back, it was with warm water and a cloth, and you spent what felt like hours - though it could only have been minutes - wiping away the blood and the tears and the mingling, salty-coppery in-between liquid from my face. Your hands were soft, slow and careful; almost like the feather-light touch you used teaching me the lines, but - for once - not shy, a caress without joy or lust behind it. I hissed in pain when you applied the antiseptic, and you looked up, seeming to wake, eyes sympathetic as they met mine. Then you carried on, your demeanour changing once again. Your eyes were hard, your teeth gritted, and I think it was then that I finally realised why you hadn't accepted my drunken offer, why you'd seemed so sad. I should have done something, taken action from this strange, small epiphany, but I simply sat there, watching you watching me, and trusted your hands.

It was only when the bowl of water and cloth were dumped in the sink that you crouched down, cupped my face in your hands, and asked softly, "Who did this to you?"

When I told you, you stood up with a swiftness and an uncoiled anger that made me jump, and all I could do was watch you leave, my legs seemingly paralysed and my breath having escaped from me.

Your knuckles. I look at them, inhaling, remembering. The same knuckles that you apparently used to take out several of Jake's teeth; that nearly broke his jaw and certainly broke a friendship of several months.

Marie told me, several months later, that he'd looked at you, leaning on the wall and spitting out blood, and said, "For her?"

You had nodded, not said a word, and walked away.

I was still sitting at the kitchen table, only standing when you came in and asked me if I was going to go back to Jake, though I'd have to be mad and you didn't think you could let me...

When I asked you why exactly you didn't want me patching things up with him, you looked away, said that it was only because of what he'd done to me.

You were lying. I pretended not to know, and started the walk back to the halls of residence.

You turn to look at me, almost as if you can tell what I'm thinking, and lay a hand on my cheek, that small, uncertain smile on your face again. I remember the same touch...

It was a few weeks before things were settled with Jake; he was now afraid to come near me, though no-one would tell me why, and kept telling me to ask you. An obvious and quite hideous cut had formed across my cheek from the ring, a vivid and equally awful bruise accompanying it; I tried using makeup to conceal both, or wore wide-brimmed hats, eyes on the ground, when I went out.

I didn't bother using the makeup when I went to see you - you'd seen it all, cleaned off the blood. I remembered how your hands felt.

We made awkward small talk, seemed to hope that cups of coffee would chase away the ghosts in the room, but it wasn't like all the other times I'd sat here, surrounded by piles of paper, the two of us reading comfortably.

It was the only thing that could come from said awkward small talk, the lack of eye contact and the things floating unsaid around us, clogging the air. Yet I still don't think you were quite expecting the kiss, even though you must have known, surely, you must have. I felt your surprise, felt it in your hands - unsteady, for once, like your breath, and everywhere: on my cheeks, in my hair, at my waist... Too much to do, too little time.

I made the second offer perfectly sober, and no words were needed when you accepted.

You whisper that you think they're up, and I nod, sitting up, pushing aside the unfamiliar sheets, taking a familiar hand and pulling you with me. You grumble good-naturedly, digging around in the room until you find the pyjamas you never wear (for modesty, you say), but put an arm round me as we wander down to breakfast.

Your parents look surprised when we walk into the room, say that they thought we'd sleep in. "Been awake long?" your mother asks me.

"Only a little while," I say, and smile, reaching up to my shoulder. I clasp your hand, tracing your heartline.

I know exactly where it is.