September came with a new batch of students, a new fresher's week that didn't concern me this time. Rooms were newly allocated, and Amy and I were lucky to end up on the same floor. Jack moved into a flat in town. It took me a while to suss out where Alan stayed. He was in another building, across a courtyard from me and two storeys up. I couldn't look into his window but I could tell when the lights were on.
He remained implacable. Another long epistle of mine with an account of my efforts and a plea for reconciliation elicited a four word response: I don't think so. He said hello to me now when we happened to see each other around campus, but only in the manner in which he'd greet some random acquaintance. In class he was as brilliant as ever, and he made absolutely sure never to be in the same discussion group with me.
I went on walks, revisiting all our former haunts. It was dreadful to think how happy I'd been back then, even whilst lugging my terrible secret around. Jack kept saying I'd get over it eventually and meet someone else, but I couldn't see it happening. All the men in the world were nothing but booby prizes.
At least Amy was doing better. Freed from Gemma's poison, she finished her first assignment well in time and got a B minus. That evening we went out to celebrate.
We arrived in town early and made a beeline for our favourite pub. It wasn't busy yet, so we got seats at the bar. I must have been looking the other direction when we walked up, because there's no other way I could have missed that Alan was sitting next to me. When I suddenly noticed him, I nearly dropped my glass. He turned his back on me. I turned my back on him and talked to Amy. She was so pleased about her assignment I could see that was going to be the topic for at least half the evening. I tried to listen, but my mind drifted off. A few yards away stood a group of men around thirty, all with pint glasses in their hands. One of them kept waving and nodding at me. I looked away.
Then Amy went away to the loo. She was not gone one minute when the same guy sneaked up beside me and slid onto her bar stool.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"No, thanks, I buy my own."
"Oh, come on!" He nudged me.
"What's up with you?"
"Nothing, I just prefer to buy my own drink."
"You've got a boyfriend or what?"
"So, tell me, you've got no boyfriend and yet you turn down a friendly offer from a handsome chap like me?" He pointed to his chest with both hands. Goodness knows how much drink he'd already had. "What's wrong with you?"
I was ready to kick him. Would it feed the shadow if I didn't?
"Nothing's wrong with me."
He made a sarcastic face. At the far end of the room, I saw Amy coming out of the ladies' but she saw some friends and started talking to them, no doubt about her assignment. I glanced over my shoulder. Alan was so close behind me that I'd only need to lean back a couple of inches to touch him.
"I may not have a boyfriend," I blurted out, "but I'm in love with someone and it's none of your business, so get lost!"
"Ooooh," he mocked. "Did someone break your heart? Come on, let me comfort you."
He tried to put his arm around me. I pulled away.
"I said, GET LOST! What do you care about my broken heart?" God, I sounded like such an idiot.
"Hey, I'm a nice guy, really, come on, give me a chance!"
"Not if you were the last man in the world."
"Why so stroppy, hen? I think you need –"
I noticed a movement behind me and then Alan appeared between us like an avenging angel. He slammed his good hand on the bar. The guy's glass tipped over and beer spilled on his lap. He jumped up.
"Hey, man, what was that for?" he wailed.
"You heard her," said Alan in his there's-a-storm-coming voice. "She prefers to buy her own drink. No woman needs to explain to any man why she rejects his advances. So piss off and stop bothering her."
"Who are you, her boyfriend or what?"
"I said, PISS OFF!"
Alan clenched his fist with the three skull rings and raised it slowly. The guy shrugged, pulled a face and moved away, swearing under his breath. He rejoined his friends and started ranting to them.
While the bartender wiped up the spillage, Alan sat down on the empty chair and ordered another beer. He didn't look at me. I put my hand next to his on the bar.
"Thank you," I said quietly.
Damn, why couldn't I think of anything else to say?
"How are you?"
"I'm okay." He sounded softened.
I looked over to Amy and signalled her to stay away. She gave me the thumbs-up sign.
Slowly, I let my hand slide across until my pinkie touched his. He didn't move away.
"Broken heart, eh?"
"I'm nosy," he said, his eyes fixed on the rows of spirit bottled behind the bar. "Who is it you're in love with?"
"With you, of course."
I felt his fingers tensing up next to mine. Strong emotions, but of what kind? I took the plunge and grasped his hand. The muscles were so cramped I fancied I could feel the pain. I stroked his poor, distorted fingers. He neither moved nor said a word. So we'd come this far, and now I didn't know what to do next.
At long last, he turned around, but he still didn't look at me. He looked at his hand in mine.
"Oh, what the hell," he said. "I'm done. I can't be mad at you any longer. Come here, you fricking nutcase!" And he wrapped me in his arms.
I didn't cry, though I almost did. I think he may have cried a little, at least when we finally looked at each other, he was wiping something off his face. Or maybe my hair had tickled him, who knows.
He really had the loveliest eyes. Clear and unflinching, he saw me fully and he loved me still. So there, here's our happy ending. You knew this was coming, obviously. Otherwise you wouldn't be here.
I won't say we never looked back, because we did and we do to this day. From time to time, we need to talk it all over once more, to confirm it was real and to reassure each other that it can't happen again. And it can't happen again. Even if I met another Gemma, my judgement, I dare say, is a hell of a lot better.
I'm still in the business of repaying my debt to humankind, though it's so much part of my life now that I barely notice. You can teach yourself to be kind from the inside out - it's the difference between being a good girl and being a good person. It wasn't always a smooth journey, but I had help from the best of men. I eventually told Amy everything and she forgave me. She keeps in touch and so does Jack; as you know, we get together every couple of years or so. Kevin and Louise each have their own family. You've not met them, but they still send us Christmas cards. None of us ever heard anything again from Gemma.
Lucy McNeil, April 2035