A fresh long-stemmed red rose lay in the middle of a narrow tarred road winding through a heavily populated, though leafy, suburb. It was early on a Sunday morning and the rose was largely unscathed by the traffic: only one of the leaves bore the imprint of a tyre…
Emma leaned forward to check her reflection in the mirror. The bedside lamp cast a soft glow over her fine features, picking out her high cheekbones and well-shaped eyebrows. She picked up the bottle of perfume to spray on her wrists and at the nape of her neck, where she was certain William would nuzzle her later on in the evening.
The perfume spray sparkled in the lamplight; its aroma tickled her nostrils and transported her back to the long wait at the airport in Paris. Six hours it had been since her arrival from Heathrow until her return flight to South Africa.
“Spend the time in Paris,” Abbey had encouraged her. Easy for her to say: people with British passports had no idea how difficult it was to get around when visas were required at every turn! Emma had walked around the airport shops for hours until her legs felt they could no longer hold her upright. She had defiantly tried out various nail varnishes, face creams and perfumes and found herself returning to the same perfumery for the fifth time. Buying that bottle with the last of her Euros had seemed so liberating at the time – it was wickedly expensive!
Paris was out, but memories of her glorious three-week holiday with Abbey and Briony there were aplenty. William had been disappointed about her going without him; the memory of his serious demeanour and the hurt look in his eyes at the airport in Cape Town remained an indelible one.
Several times she had found herself longing for the sound of the husky timbre of his voice or the gentle feel of the way he caressed her arms whenever they sat together. Nonetheless, at twenty-nine, Emma had embraced her independence and willingly followed the lure of travelling abroad with friends where, as promised, the ten-day barge trip had been magical.
Abbey and Briony shared a flat in Wimbledon, where so many former school and university friends crammed into impossibly small living spaces. Going to some of the local pubs had been almost reminiscent of being back at their favourite student watering hole in South Africa.
It had been strange too the way Ian Symonds appeared to be such good company compared with the moody teenager he had been at school. Most girls had been attracted by the exaggerated swagger of his hips and melted at his apparent indifference to them while he strummed the electric guitar in the school’s rock band.
Emma had seen little of him at university, where he had opted for a commerce degree while she majored in History and Modern Fiction. Then Ian had taken to wearing tight jeans, turtle-necked sweaters and the oversized jacket from one of his father’s cast-off business suits.
Abbey and Briony had left Emma to her own devices for the last ten days of her stay, having returned to their respective jobs. As both tended to come home late, usually having stopped off at a pub or gone somewhere for supper with friends before boarding the train back to Wimbledon, Emma took to frequenting The Green Frog, a small pub only three blocks away from the flat.
She had felt very self-conscious at first, sitting on her own with only a quiche and a Guinness or a glass of white wine to keep her company. One of the regular waitresses, a girl from Harare, recognised her accent one evening and exclaimed, “One can feel very lonely on this island as I know only too well. Let me introduce you to a chap who hails from your neck of the woods.”
Ian approached her table, beer mug in hand, and sat down with a welcoming smile. He later confessed to having paid the waitress for her opening gambit. That was days later though, long after he had taken her to a series of clubs, to shows on the West End and that most glorious afternoon and evening spent at a country hotel.
“I must save you from the Alphabet Twins,” he had murmured into her hair late one evening when she was feeling replete with food, wine and culture. “Come over to my place,” he had whispered fiercely into her ear.
That she may have hurt her friends by summarily decamping never occurred to her. Briony’s gentle warning to “Just be careful Emma” went unheeded. Had she not known Ian since they had been in Grade Eight after all?
Ian worked for a ‘finance company’. His vagueness about the nature of his job contrasted with his now handsome appearance with a short haircut, dark blue shirts and a variety of well-tailored suits. It was from the comfort of his enormous double bed that Emma would watch him dress in the mornings before he gulped down a mug of coffee and strode off to the station, bearing his softly-worn leather briefcase.
William? “What about William?” Abbey demanded during dinner on their last evening together. “Are you going to leave him?”
Emma knew better than to challenge the steely glint in her friend’s eye. Instead she twirled the glass in her fingers and watched the legs of wine make their way down the sides. “William is William,” she responded finally. She swallowed the last of her wine and lifted the glass for a refill. “He doesn’t have to know. Even if he finds out, he’ll simply appreciate I am human.”
They had all laughed then at their combined recollections of Ian in his younger days. “He really fancies himself these days. Mind you, he earns a fortune.” Briony brought in the dessert. “Ian will only be satisfied with the very best. He has set his sights on London’s ‘inner circle’, you know.”
“Are you suggesting I’m not good enough for him?” Emma couldn’t help the hurt showing. She had imbibed far too much wine and was aware of a fuzzy edge around her field of vision.
“He’s been using you.” Abbey unfolded a newspaper to reveal a photograph of Ian in the company of a beautiful young woman at the opening of an art exhibition.
In her inebriated state, Emma found it difficult to focus. She stared at the paper for some moments before looking up at her neglected friends. “This was last night,” she whispered. “He never mentioned a word.”
“That exhibition would have been in his diary for weeks,” Abbey murmured while downing another mouthful of dessert. “That’s why he was so anxious for you to come back to us.”
“He said he had business in Brussels.” Emma could barely get the words out.
William was there to meet her as promised. Even though her flight had been delayed by an hour, he showed no sign of impatience. Instead he gathered her in his arms, nibbled her ear and whispered, “I’ve missed you so!” She felt a warm bubble well inside and delighted in the way he took charge of her luggage: solid, dependable William.
Emma clipped on her gold earrings and eyed her slim figure in the full-length mirror near her door. She approved of what she saw: tanned legs and arms, shining dark hair, a pretty peach dress drawn in at the waist with pleats creating a floating effect below. She had purchased white heeled sandals after work the previous day and felt pleased with the way they showcased her freshly varnished toenails.
Tears pricked at her eyelids and she willed them away, not daring to blink or to use a tissue to dab at them. Nothing was to ruin the evening; she was determined there would be a successful outcome. There had to be – her future depended on it.
Force of habit led Emma to check her e-mails. It had been weeks since she had mailed her suspicion to Ian. He had never parted with a phone number, always preferring to arrange each meeting at the end of the one before. Even now Emma felt a rush of emotion at the thought of what had transpired between them. She scanned the list: still no reply from the urgent one she had sent that morning – there wasn’t even an acknowledgement of her message. Nothing!
Glancing at her watch, Emma clicked onto Facebook: nothing new there either. She smiled at William’s status for the day, “Big night ahead” it proclaimed. ‘That means me,’ she thought, feeling a tremor of relief that left her legs feeling weak and her heart thumping loudly to her ears.
The mantle-clock chimed 7.30 p.m. Emma listened to the sound echoing through her flat while her heart continued to pound uncomfortably. It was unheard of for William to be late. What had happened? She checked her cell phone: no new messages.
A car drew to a halt in the quiet street below. Looking over the balcony, Emma could just make out William’s figure as he emerged, his white shirt gleaming under the street light. Emma wanted to call out to him, but knew he wouldn’t be able to hear her. Instead, she watched him shrug on his dark jacket and retrieve something from the back seat. He disappeared from view.
Emma reapplied her lipstick and forced herself to take a deep breath and to relax into the fullness of the armchair in her sitting room. If she played her cards right tonight, no-one would know the truth – least of all William. She gave herself a mental pat on the back for the crisp new sheets on her bed as the doorbell rang at last. Emma opened the door eagerly, her eyes widened in anticipation and a broad smile fixed on her face.
“William! I thought something had happened to you. Do come in.” Emma leaned forward for the usual kiss and immediately noticed the single long-stemmed rose held awkwardly between the fingers of William’s right hand. The other held his cell phone.
The tradition of a red rose stemmed from their dances at school: all boys gave the girls roses then. William had maintained the tradition all through university: for their formal balls; exams; welcoming her back after vacations spent apart; graduation; and always on her birthday. All the important times had been celebrated with a single deep red rose. That William had brought one tonight definitely signalled a move in the right direction. Emma stepped closer, “William?” She sounded frightened. “William, has something happened?”
He stared at her, his face pale and drawn. The rose was held limply at his side; the cell phone remained tightly clutched in his left hand. “Have you ever counted the stairs up to your flat?”
No greeting then. “Counted them? Oh William, don’t be silly. You said our table booking is for eight. Come in while I fetch my bag.” She was anxious to get moving.
“There are sixty. Actually sixty-five if you count the ones from the pavement.” He stared at her unsmilingly, his body held rigid. Emma stared at him wildly as he continued impassively. “And in those sixty-five steps my life changed irrevocably. I left the car filled with hope, concerned that I was late. It took a while and some extra cash to convince the flower seller to remove a single rose from his carefully bound bunch.” William swayed a little. “You might have seen my Facebook status today,” he continued softly. Emma nodded, feeling numb at this side of William she’d never experienced before. “Big night.” He gave a rueful laugh. “After all these years – how long have we known each other Emma?” His low voice carried a bitter undertone.
“Since we were in Grade 11.” She couldn’t help looking at her watch. “William, what are you playing at? They won’t keep our table for long you know.”
“Big night,” William continued as if he had not heard her. “After all these years I finally plucked up the courage to do what I wished I could do the first time I saw you in that sparkly white dress at your ante-matric dance. There’s never been anyone else for me since then Emma.” He looked at her and scoffed at himself. “Big night indeed!”
In a flash Emma recalled the excitement of receiving her first red rose from one of the most good looking boys in her grade; their slow walk to the dance venue; his gentle support as she tottered on heels far too high to be comfortable; the warmth of his jacket over her shoulders during their walk back; their first kiss in the shadow of the school chapel before they parted with a chaste hug at the lighted front door of the girls’ hostel where the duty teacher ticked off the names as each girl crossed the threshold. That is where it all began. William had always been there for her: always.
“It was at step thirty-seven that I received your e-mail.” Emma saw the face of his cell phone light up.
“What e-mail?” Her pulse quickened. “I haven’t sent you an e-mail.”
“I read it on step thirty-eight. By step forty-four I knew I had to face the truth.”
“William, what’s happened to you? Why are you behaving like this? I don’t know what you are talking about. Please come in.” Emma couldn’t help sounding frightened.
To her relief, William moved forward, his arm outstretched to show her the message on the screen:
Ian I’m pregnant. If you are not going to acknowledge your part in this I will have to make a plan. I am seeing William tonight. Please answer me urgently. We had such a good time together. Emmakins.
Her hand trembled. How? “William, how did you get hold of this?” Emma swallowed hard. She needed William’s arms around her; she needed to hear his comforting words; she wanted him to bury his lips in her hair and to whisper that he would take care of her, that he loved her no matter what. She reached out to touch his arm, but he recoiled as though scalded.
“From the great ‘James Dean’ man himself.” His voice cracked as he turned on his heel. “Goodbye Emma.”
“Wait! William, I can explain everything. We can make a plan. William!” She called futilely into the darkness then ran to her balcony in time to see his car driving away.
The single long-stemmed red rose lay discarded on the road in the pool of light cast by the street lamp.
It was early on Sunday morning when Susan and Allan came across the rose while out on a jog. Allan picked it up and showed it to Susan. “How strange,” she puffed. “I wonder how it got here.”
“Dropped by some revellers I expect,” he laughed good-naturedly, sticking the rose into his sweatband. “Come on love, only two blocks to go and we’ll be home and dry.”