As the spring slid into summer, Jenny found herself very much enjoying Mike’s undemanding company and looking forward to what became regular dates at Luigi’s by the river. He never pushed her boundaries, seeming content to get to know each other and giggle a lot. He turned out to have an almost inexhaustible fund of stories about his eclectic band of mates from his schooldays at Gordonstoun. They ranged, as far as Jenny could stop laughing enough to compute, from a horny-handed giant who worked as a trouble shooter for an oil company to a waspishly camp film maker named Will whose hysterical emails were not to be read whilst drinking.
On the surface Mike was an amiable bumbler who lived only to amuse, although it was obvious that he had to be brighter than he chose to appear. He was a doctor of medicine and you don’t get those letters after your name as a prize for being thick. The other thing that gave a lie to ‘big thick Mike’ was the shadow of sorrow that clouded his eyes when he didn’t think she was looking. Half of her wanted to see if she could dig out the root of his troubles and maybe even help. But the half life had kicked hard bade her mind her own business.
Jenny was a bit surprised to find out that Mike and her irrepressible lump of a brother had become fast friends, but unphased by the information that her mum had added him to the list of large young men she thought needed feeding up.
Broaching the subject at the end of one evening she raised an eyebrow. “Have you told Mum we are seeing each other?”
“No. I didn’t figure it was mine to tell. Though I sometimes wish…”
Jenny felt a brush of guilt. “Sorry Mike. I will tell them. Soon.”
He smiled. “No bother. Don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.”
Then he handed her into her taxi and was gone.
On a breathless evening in August they sat at what had become their usual table with not even a breath of a breeze to fan their hot cheeks. Jenny had her hair piled high on her head, to keep her neck as cool as possible and on impulse she had pushed the ‘pencil’ in the haphazard pile of hair. She knew Mike had noticed because his eyes warmed, but he said nothing.
Their meal was over, but they had foregone cappuccino in favour of icy-cold limoncellos. As they watched the river slip past them in the moonlight, Jenny felt bold enough to talk about more than generalities.
“Mike. Where do you go when you leave here on a Saturday night? I’m pretty sure you don’t drive home. So…”
“There’s a Travelodge out by the motorway. I get a room there. Leave the car, and taxi in and back.”
For some reason she was groping around the edges of understanding, that made Jenny feel guilty. So she fixed him with a stern look. “What a waste of money, when I have a perfectly good spare room, and a parking space.”
He smiled, but his eyes were sombre. “Think before you make offers like that, Jenny. You might hate having me in your personal space.”
“I won’t. I trust you. Although I do have a question.” She stopped speaking, suddenly back in that place where asking the wrong questions called for punishment.
Mike seemed to understand her predicament. “It’s okay. You could never ask me anything that would make me angry.”
Jenny felt her eyes fill with tears. “That’s it. That’s the question. How is it that you understand me so well?”
“Before I moved to the South Hams, I worked in Bristol. I did six months in a unit that specialises in treating victims of spousal abuse…”
Jenny tasted the burn of bitterness and gall in her throat. Another betrayal, another wound on top of so many. When would she learn?
“So then,” she said, and her voice sounded thin and sour in her ears. “Does that make me a ‘case’ for Doctor Mike? Or perhaps I’m to become a pity fuck.”
“Stop that, Jenny. That’s unfair and unkind. You mean more to me than that. And you know it.” His voice was kind, but implacable, and for a moment Jenny teetered on the edge of being afraid enough to run away.
If he had tried to touch her she was sure she would have fallen to pieces like a broken doll, but he didn’t, he just leaned back in his chair and gave her the space she needed to regulate her mind. For quite a while she could neither speak nor move, but his monumental patience was hugely calming, although the bleakness of his eyes revealed how deeply she had hurt him. When she reached out an unsteady hand he put his warm fingers around it.
“Sorry. That was a pretty shitty accusation to throw at you,” she whispered.
He smiled his kind, reassuring smile and gestured to a passing waiter.
“Two large brandies please, and a plate of hazelnut gianduiotti.”
Jenny concentrated on her own breathing until the brandy and chocolates came. She managed to lift her glass to her mouth and take a sip or two, before picking up a chocolate and nibbling it.