Nailing Neely Jordan - Part 7a
A dangerous encounter for Neely...
Extract from ‘Don’t Write Off Religion Just Yet’, a newspaper feature by Raymond Archer.
We secularists use caricature to dismiss modern faith. We’ve got our list of favourites. The frothing fundamentalists, pronouncing fatwahs and shooting abortionists. The pious traditionalists, mouldering in a cloud of incense and liturgy. The grating charismatics, happy-clapping their way through a world in pain. Deluded at best and psychotic at worst, the whole shower of them. It keeps things simple, writing them all off. It means we don’t have to engage, or question our own world view. In some cases our lack of one.
So what if the ‘faith-head’ we meet bucks those stereotypes, proving them all wrong? What if we let our guard down long enough to get to know the opposition a little and find them to be thoughtful, moderate and articulate? What if that person is better than us in every way?
I speak of course from personal experience, let me not pretend otherwise. The believer in question was inconveniently lacking in irrational prejudice and seemed too earnest to be true. I looked for hypocrisy and found none. I tried to undermine, Christ knows I did, and the only person whose shallowness I proved was my own. For a time I was their friend. I wasn’t pressured to embrace their world view or their God. But I might have acknowledged that it worked for them. And that through them, it really, genuinely worked…
* * * *
17/12/10 17:45 GMT
So Ray, you finally did get around to writing that article. After our first few dates it was never mentioned again. I thought at the time it was just initial enthusiasm on the part of someone who wanted to get to know me. It didn’t bother me that you seemed to discard the idea after that. Then later I looked back and realised it had all been part of your fiendish seducer’s plan, cue wicked laughter. Back then, at any rate, the other side of summer.
I appreciate your sending me a copy. That means something at least. You know I even bought a copy of the Tribune to check that they printed it for real. I’d like to feel sure that you meant it all, but when a girl’s fallen victim to as accomplished a liar as you, Ray, she’s wary where she puts her faith.
I hope for your sake more than my own that you felt what you wrote.
18/12/10 09:37 GMT
Thank you for reading and for acknowledging what I sent you, whatever your doubts over my sincerity. I didn’t expect ever to hear from you again, nor did I have reason to. The fact that you got in touch at all speaks volumes about the girl I remember. Sending you the article was to be my final attempt at staying in contact – I didn’t want to add stalking to my other crimes.
Neely, I could rehash all my apologies here in print and no doubt they’d sound as hollow as before. So I’m going to ask something I’ve no right to ask. If it’s a flat ‘no’ I’ll accept that and let it be. Will you meet up with me? Half an hour, cup of coffee in town. Not to ruin your Christmas – I’ve already caused enough ruin, I know. I just want to try and let you know that the summer didn’t mean nothing to me. And that I understand what I did. I want to put things a little bit right if I can. Your call.
* * * *
Neely loved Lemongrass organic café at Christmas. There was peppermint in the white-chocolate smoothies, nutmeg in the eggnog lattes. Shane McGowan’s voice was clashing sublimely with Kirsty McCall’s on the stereo in Fairytale of New York and the buzz from the thawing high-street shoppers was as warm as the winter’s day was bitter. It all combined into a festive richness which made Neely frisson a little, anytime the stream of customers saw a lull. She was basking in it, gnawing surreptitiously on a gingerbread cookie, when Leo apprehended her.
“Caught you, sweetheart!” He grabbed her around the middle and squeezed. “That adds thieving to your list of sins!”
“Bugger off, you big clown!” she protested. “There. That adds swearing.”
“Honestly… Call yourself a Christian…”
“I do.” She shoved the rest of the gingerbread into his mouth. “Bite on that and you’re accessory after the fact.” It made her smile when he chomped off the gingerbread man’s head.
“God, that’s delicious. This guy tastes nearly as good as Graham,” he grinned through a mouthful of crumbs.
“Too much information!” She swatted her tall, slender co-worker with a handy menu, then added: “So… You two spending Christmas tucked away together?”
“Mostly. He says he’ll accompany me chez Jarvis on the Day itself.” He looked a touch rueful.
“Wow, it’s ‘meet the parents’ time? How will that work out do you think?”
“Mum’ll be okay. She’ll fuss around him to hide her embarrassment, while Dad watches the television even more intently than usual. It’ll be fine I’m sure.”
Neely gave his arm a sympathetic pat. “It’s courageous of you. I’m proud.”
“Thing is…” He dropped his voice a little. “Look, Graham and I are tying the knot in January… I’ve been keeping it from them. Figured they should at least meet him before I drop that little bombshell.”
“What…?” A few years before, Neely would have not been altogether sure what to do with such a revelation. Now she was scandalised for a different reason. “And you’re only telling me now?”
“Do you tell me everything straight away?”
Neely felt a flush of guilt. “Well… no…” She’d felt reticent about sharing anything personal, following the widespread knowledge of her crazed Ray-crush. She hadn’t even alluded to the assignation she was planning later that afternoon a few streets away, most likely against her better judgement. “It’s true, I don’t.”
“I’ll be honest with you, Neely, I didn’t know how… Crap, customer alert.” A blast of chill air was herald to the new influx of shoppers; both of them were needed to absorb it before Leo could complete his thought. “I didn’t know how you’d take it,” he said, using the next respite to advantage. “I figured you might think marriage was a step too far.”
“Leo!” The ascending pitch of Neely’s voice alerted a few customers and she lowered her volume despite exasperation. “Why would I think that? Why would you think I’d think that? I’ve always been happy for you and Graham! Don’t you know that by now?”
Leo appraised her warmly. “You’re some kind of Christian, girl.”
“I’m my kind of Christian,” she insisted, still a little offended. She took her anger out on the coffee-machine filter she was replacing. “And… and Christ’s kind of Christian, I think. I hope. Most of the time.” She flushed a little at the visual and sensory memories stirred up by her words. “Well I’m not sure, to be honest. But one thing I know… I’ve never asked anyone other than me to live by my beliefs. And I’ve never judged you based on those beliefs. I just want you to be happy.” She clacked the new filter into place and rounded on him. “And if I’m not invited to that civil ceremony I’ll slap you around your daft head.”
“Hey, of course you’re invited! You’re number one on my list.” He wrapped his arms around her in full public view and whispered, “You and whatever sexy bloke you’re meeting after work.” She broke away and stared at him, a little bit flustered and guilty. “Well I assume that’s why you keeping checking your watch. I haven’t seen you do that since you were dating He Who Must Not Be Named.”
“No,” she protested, “it’s not like that. I’m meeting someone, yes, but… not in that way.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth. He’d be furious with her, give her a mildly camp telling-off in front of the entire shop. “Really.”
“Shame,” he said, smiling sadly. “Thought you might have had someone to bring home for Christmas. A sign that you were over Ray the Rotter.”
“I am over him,” she insisted. “Totally.” Did she protest too much? she wondered. It had been a fantasy of hers to bring Ray back to St Albans for Jordan-family introductions, long before Christmas. But that time of year would have been so perfect. “I wouldn’t have anything to do with him again.”
Leo stared at her, as though trying to discern her meaning. “I wasn’t suggesting you would. Neely, he hasn’t been in touch again… It’s not him you’re…”
“Leo…” She felt a little trapped.
Her friend was predictably appalled. “If you’re thinking of meeting him, that’s just a bad idea. I remember the state you were in a few months back, and…” His train of thought was momentarily halted, eyes flicking past her. “And in case you needed a reminder, you’ve got a customer…”
Neely followed his stare towards the entrance and her heart felt a little shock. Jasmin had set foot in her former place of work. The ex-work-and-roommate was standing furtively in the doorway, her sleek figure bundled up against the sub-zero temperatures in a padded red jacket. She seemed like she was shivering more from nervousness than the cold snap. It wasn’t like she and Neely hadn’t spoken since the July meltdown – a phone-call some weeks after had thrashed out at least some of the business between them – but face-to-face instantly caused a rush of unpleasant memory, for both of them Neely was sure.
“Timely appearance, I’d say,” Leo muttered, casually wiping the counter.
“I know it is. I asked her to call in.”
Neely watched silently as Jasmin approached the counter, hesitancy in the girl’s demeanour and her dark eyes. She pulled back her hood to reveal the pretty petite features which had no doubt helped enamour Raymond Archer. To Leo, in whose spare room she had spent several weeks before more permanent relocation, she nodded briefly. Then she smiled in rueful greeting at Neely. “Hi.”
“Hey there.” A difficult pause spooled out between them. Neely tried to muster up a tone that was more than just business-like. “Ehhh – glad you could make it. Get you something, Jaz?”
“Well…” Jasmin looked mournful, as though she were terribly out of her depth. “I… I’m a bit early. If you want I can come back in a bit…”
“No, don’t be silly,” said Neely, taking pity on Jasmin in her one-time friend’s embarrassed plight. “You’ll freeze your ass off out there. I’m clocking off in ten minutes, so get yourself a coffee and I’ll join you.”
They would have time for a much needed chat, she thought, before she set off for her other coffee date. She’s made the right decision. It was salutary for her to meet the girl with whom she had been cheated on by her ex, before she sat face-to-face with that same guy. The one who had popped up in her life again with such inconvenience. Her café-relief arrived on time, so on the dot of four she was able to go change into thermal leggings, jeans and sweater to guard against the cold-snap. By five past she was seated with the still-uneasy Jasmin.
“Sorry… I’m not trying to be anti-social by not joining you in a drink,” she said by way of reassurance. “I’m… dashing off to meet someone in a little while.” If Jasmin only knew… “But I really wanted to see you. Find out how you’ve been…” An ice-breaker. Weather conditions had been chilly between them long before this harsh December.
“Oh… You know, okay,” Jasmin shrugged. “Got myself a bar job in Revolution down near the market. But you knew that, right?” Neely had done. The little brunette had departed Lemongrass in search of another job within days of her great confession. “And I’m still living over in Broadmead with Annette, a girl I work with at the new place.” Gosh, I hope Annette doesn’t bring any boyfriends home, thought Neely, before chiding herself for lack of charity. “Thinking of maybe taking some classes…” Jasmin was continuing. “I’ve kind of been regretting letting my studies go. Something in design maybe…”
“That would be good.” Neely hoped she didn’t sound patronizing, but Jaz had always needed a bit more direction in her life.
“I’m staying here over the holidays, putting in lots of extra hours at the club,” Jasmin rattled on, as though scared to stop talking. “I was going to go visit some family in Thailand, but the weather’s put the kybosh on that. All flights grounded at Heathrow.”
“I know, I saw the news. That’s a shame…”
“I suppose I just wanted to get away for a while. I mean… I’ve no right to say that, because you’re the one who probably needed to get away.” She looked terrified, as though she’d accidentally rushed into the subject-area she’d been avoiding, but clearly decided she might as well plough ahead, as though she’d been offered a one-time shot at forgiveness. “Neely, I regret what I did every day. I just felt so rubbish about it, you’ve got to believe me.”
Neely couldn’t help feeling a sympathy which outweighed the pain of the memories. She reached out instinctively and rested her hand on Jasmin’s. “I do believe you, Jaz. I’ve already said so. I mean, let’s face it… It’s not like you stole an otherwise great guy from me. The thing was over, whether or not you’d told me what you did.” This was what she needed to remind herself.
“I know,” Jasmin moaned, looking as though she were about to cry into her caramel latte. “But I was your friend and I was supposed to be there for you when it all went down. I knew what a state you were in and I couldn’t do anything to help, because I’d gone and made myself part of the problem.”
“More by not telling me,” Neely replied a little gravely. It needed to be said. “The other thing I might have forgiven more easily. You could have given me fair warning, but you didn’t. That’s what hurt more than anything.”
“I know, I know… I got it all so wrong. I was such a shitty friend…”
Neely strengthened her grip a little. “Look, I had people to see me through it. I missed you, Jaz, but I had other friends. Good friends, some of them… unexpected. Leo was great. Got me through my working days here. And I’m doing okay now. I’m out of the woods more than I could ever have hoped to be.” And I’m going to stay there. I’m going to stay there. I’m not going to let anything confuse me…
Jasmin’s smile showed up tentatively for the first time since she’d come in. “I’m glad you’re okay. Really glad. Hey, hang on a second…” Suddenly she dug into her bag, retrieving a flat, slim item gift-wrapped in glittery-pink. “It’s your Christmas present. Emmm…” She looked uncharacteristically abashed. “It’s something you mentioned when we chatted on the phone, after I’d picked up all my stuff. Actually I think you were maybe being sarcastic, so it kind of seems a bit inappropriate now, but… it’s the thought that counts, right?”
“Hey…” Neely allowed a little warmth into her smile and took the parcel. She had a feeling she knew what the present was. “Inappropriate gifts from you to me are a tradition. Why stop that over some stupid guy? Thank you, I’ll look forward to opening it. Look… I’d better make a move or I’ll be late.” I’ve got a stupid guy to see. “It was… It was good seeing you, Jaz.” Surprisingly she found she meant it.
“It was good to see you too, Neely…” Clearly Jasmin believed her ex-roommate was opting out of the conversation as quickly as possible.
Neely paused. Jasmin looked even more diminutive than usual in her sadness. The truth in her earlier words occurred to Neely – she had missed her sassy irreverent friend. “Jaz… Since you’re around over the holiday, why don’t we meet up for a drink? Once I get back from St Albans…” It just seemed the right thing to do.
Jasmin’s face lit with a glow befitting the season. “Neely, I’d love that. You mean it?”
“Yeah. I do. Hey, gotta run. I’ll call you after Christmas, okay?” She gave Jasmin’s hand an additional squeeze before leaving her. Sometimes you just had to act on your instincts. Neely hoped those same instincts would serve her well a little later. She caught a glance of friendly warning from Leo as she departed the café and shivered even before the icy air struck her face.
Closure , she told herself, bracing her body against the cold as she trotted down the gritted High Street. That’s what this is. Didn’t think I needed it before those wretched emails, thought that whole chapter was closed. I need it to be closed, especially now. Look, stupid, it is closed. I’m just reinforcing the point today. Wrapping up loose ends. That’s all I’m doing…Oh Lord, it felt like the same denial in which she had dealt during the summer just past. But then that was the bastard’s power, wasn’t it? Luring you in with sincerity before the trap sprang shut. He’d done it once already. His betrayal with Jasmin hadn’t been the worst of his crimes.
The emails and newspaper feature so nearly convinced – he simply wanted to make amends. But maybe the truth was something else. He was seeking to trump his great victory. Break her heart, then prove he could win her back and do it all over again. Tell her he wanted to set things right, then when she’d softened a little, make his hawk-like move. Back in the summertime, this was the point when she’d have phoned Danny. Tonight she had to do this thing all on her own, face up to Mr Damage himself.
The last time her eyes had rested on him, she thought as she trotted gingerly along the icy pavements, it had been through tear-blurred horror. She had hated his treachery, despised his weakness… while never forgetting the intensity of that gaze as he speared her virginity. What a terrible fusion of thoughts with which to be left. But now those other images had come creeping back and already she felt traitor to herself. Those little moments of intimacy on picnics and theatre-nights, of emotion she could not believe had been feigned. And he had been appalled that night by her discovering his plan, hadn’t he?
How she had wanted to delete unopened those recent emails; but in spite of herself she had looked. Had let their words insinuate their way under her defences. So wrong. So doubly wrong… Damn it… Why did he matter anymore? He had no business in her head. Especially now…
Neely’s internal debate all but blotted out the December chill as she completed her jaunt. When she arrived at Debenhams, panting out clouds of vapour, the truth hit her like stone. He was here. Waiting for her. She should just run, shouldn’t she? Risk slipping on a patch of sheet-ice rather than meet with him. But no – this was necessary. Imperative. She needed to face up to Raymond Archer one last time. He wasn’t the Devil after all. Just a sad game-player. One who had played his final game with her. Right? Hadn’t he?
Her heart resonated through her like a kettle-drum as she walked through ladies’ fashions to the escalator. Dean Martin’s Walking in a Winter Wonderland barely registered in her mind; the place into which she was walking seemed one of only dread. She rode the stairs like they were carrying her to the Guillotine. He’d be there waiting placidly in the café, no doubt scenting victory the moment she strolled into his view. Only he’d be too damn clever to let it show. He’d cover it all up and sound so damn plausible. But as she wove her tentative path through Christmas shoppers towards the rich coffee smell, she knew she must steel herself against the honeyed sincerity of his words. Girl, you know this man. You of all people know him. You’re not going to be a fool here. You’re stronger – way, way stronger. Now… where the hell was he?
“Neely…” The hand on her shoulder made her spin around, an extra-hard percussive thump delivered to her heart.
“Shit!” She stared at her church co-worker for a moment as though it was supremely perplexing he be there. “Jonas! It’s you…”
“And you were expecting… Santa Claus?” The slim, spiky-haired youth-worker looked understandably taken aback at the violence of her response. “Neels, you okay?”
“Yes, yes… I’m fine. Sorry, was expecting someone else. Not Santa. Far from. Christmas shopping?” She nodded to the reinforced paper and plastic bags with which he was laden, eyes still casting about warily for Ray.
“That’s right. Trying to get all the important stuff covered before the final rush.” He had realised something scarlet and lacy was conspicuous in one of the bags and was tactfully covering it up in its coloured-tissue wrappings.
“That one looked especially important,” Neely commented, distracted momentarily from her panic. It was a temporary relief to have run into a friend. She sidled with him into the protection of a gift-wrap stand as harried customers continued to swirl around them. “Something pretty for Leona?” she pursued, eyeing him a little wickedly.
“Well… Yes. She deserves pampering.” His sheepish look called to mind the days subsequent to Neely’s church car-park discovery. Six months on, she could see the incident’s farcical humour.
“And it gives you something nice to look at, Christmas night.” She smirked a little at his blushes. “It’s okay, Jonas, don’t get embarrassed on me. We’re kind of past all that.”
He relaxed and broke into his customary grin. “Yeah, we are, aren’t we? Been quite a year…”
“That it has.” She still winced a little at the memory – the stormy days which had all but shipwrecked their friendship. Those wretched workshops, which Jonas had pretty much had to carry, so zombie-like had she been rendered. Danny cajoling her as far as the church gates, then the co-worker taking over once she hauled her aching self within the building’s austere-seeming walls. Jonas had blamed himself for her dazed mood, until she explained some of her story. After that they had been thick as thieves again, somehow united in their moral compromise. A new understanding, forged through both their altered circumstances.
“So,” he said, and she knew from his tone the conversation he was about to reference, “you still thinking of leaving?”
“Well…” Neely felt her own sense of honesty was being tested that day. “I’m considering my options, I won’t lie to you. There’s just so much I’ve been wrestling with. I mean the whole nature of what I believe, Jonas. But you know that. Come New Year we’ll go and have a drink in The Ship and talk it all out. Hey, keep your gift tucked away…” Leona had ascended angelically into view on the escalator in a belted red-wool coat and white knitted aviator-hat. She was waving and smiling to Neely, holding back, as though sensing Neely and Jonas were involved in an exchange of some import.
Jonas looked around and exchanged an affectionate smile with his girl. Neely could sense strength of connection between the two and it resonated with secret emotions of her own. “You want to join us for coffee?” Jonas asked her.
“I would, I can’t, I…” She would much rather have stuck with them, it was true.
“Of course. You’re meeting non-Santa. But you’re right, we should go for that drink…” His attention was arrested by something in the café. “Hey Neels, isn’t that whatshisname, the heartbreak guy?”
Neely’s whole body started in shock. Her gaze followed Jonas’ to the café, where Ray Archer had just walked into view carrying a tray. “Yes. Yes, that’s him…”
“Are you two…?”
“No.” Neely cut short the inquiry. “No, we’re not. We’re just… He’s…” She was sure Jonas had never seen her so helpless and lacking in assertion.
“Go talk to him,” said Jonas suddenly. She stared around at her friend. Leona had drawn nearer and he was holding his girl by the arm. “Neely, I know something bad happened between you two, but if you think you can put it behind you…” She went to protest, but he kept going. “Look, for once just forget about what Simmons preaches at you every Sunday. So he’s not a card-carrying Evangelical…” He nodded towards the distant Ray. “If he makes you happy, then go for it.”
You don’t understand, Jonas. Bless you, but you’ve no idea…
“He’s right,” Leona had strolled up close and chimed in earnestly. “You deserve to be happy. Go talk to him…”
Neely felt a guilty turmoil neither Jonas not Leona could appreciate. She attempted to smile. Looking over, she could see Ray had spied her. He was raising a hand, signalling.
“Why don’t we go somewhere else?” Leona was saying to Jonas pointedly.
“Good idea… Neely, we’ll see you later. So you won’t feel we’re watching. See you at the youth-group party on Friday?”
Neely’s head was swimming with sudden doubt and confusion. “Yeah… Yeah, that’ll be fun. Look, ehhh… Happy shopping. You two… be good to each other.”
They waved and left her, and then there was nothing left to do but walk over and join the man she suddenly feared more than anyone else in the world.
He was reclining in slacks and a dark vee-neck sweater, his blond hair longer than she remembered it. Clean-shaven with that same worked-out look, it appeared little else had changed about him – except that his demeanour was different. She recalled the casual poise he had exhibited from their first meeting in Lemongrass, something in which he had scarcely faltered, even when his romantic gestures had been at their most intense. Only when he’d given himself up to sexual passion had the attitude fallen away, that and in those final moments of desperation, trying to prevent her from storming out of his house. There was no poise here, rather a hesitancy which matched hers, combined with a certain eagerness to please. It was perhaps more disconcerting than the confidence she had expected. Two mugs already steamed on the table in front of him.
“Hey… I’m really glad you came.” He rose from his seat as he spoke and pulled out a chair for her. She unzipped her parka and stuffed her woollen cap into a pocket, already embarrassed by his solicitousness. “The queue went on a bit and I didn’t want you just sitting here waiting, so I took the liberty…” He indicated her drink – hot chocolate with extravagant amounts of whipped-cream, mini-marshmallows and a chocolate flake. “Winter favourite, I hope.”
“Yes, yes it looks delicious.” She sat down, Ray settling himself opposite her, and wondered how the hell she was supposed to deal with the whole situation. “We do them up at Lemongrass,” she said, resorting in her panic to small-talk. “Really popular this time of year.”
“You still working there then?”
“Yes. Still there, still at Alton Bridge. Fitting Christmas stuff in between. All busyness, really. Same with you?”
“Yup, pretty hectic. Few pieces for the Tribune, tedious stuff about effects of the recession. And some local crime reporting, which is an interesting development. As ever trying to get a piece picked up by one of the London papers…”
“Well I’m sure it’ll happen. You’re a good writer…”
“You look great, Neely.” The compliment-from-nowhere stopped her short. Her mug had been halfway to her mouth and she set it back in its saucer, scared that she would tip hot chocolate all over herself. “You’ve got a kind of a winter glow about you.”
“Th-Thank you. I…” He looked good too. He always looked good. She felt guilty even to acknowledge it.
“It’s just really great to see you. I doubt you feel the same way, but…”
“It’s just I never thought I was going to get to see you again and I’m… I’m really grateful that you agreed to do this. I know you could have…”
“I don’t want a speech, Ray!” she protested with a raised hand. It was threatening to be too much emotional verbiage way too soon. She tempered her outburst, however, with a half-smile. “I’ve just sat down and I haven’t even… Can I maybe just drink some of this? Please?”
“Yes, yes of course,” he pacified. “Enjoy it.”
He stirred his own flavoured coffee, dropping his eyes. She picked up her long teaspoon and scooped cream from the top of her drink to her mouth, so she wouldn’t smudge it all over her nose when she went to drink. “I will. It’s… It’s good. So tell me more about work…”
He did, and she reciprocated with news from her family and the Alton Bridge members he had met back in the summer, the two of them chatting like polite, if not terribly close friends. Trivia became a shield, protecting her against whatever emotional broadside might be imminent from Ray. She had no clear idea of his intentions or of the motivations which lay behind them. Maybe he did just want to round things off between them on a positive note; she had given him not the slightest reason to think she was seeking anything else. But she suspected he had more in mind, for good or ill. The problem was, as she searched her heart, she could not anticipate her own reaction. Anger perhaps, or renewed grief. Or maybe something scarier than both. Something she couldn’t afford to start feeling…
“I’m glad you appreciated the article. Whether or not you quite trusted all the sentiments.”
Neely set her mug back down again and wiped a chocolate moustache from her upper lip with her napkin. Ray, it seemed, was re-routing the conversation from the purely superficial. “Well it seemed you’d been thinking things through,” she ventured, unable to look him in the eye. “It was quite a refreshing perspective to read generally speaking and, you know…” She wanted this to be over. She wanted out of there, fast.
“I did think them through. I have been thinking. A lot.”
“Well… that’s good.” Playing with her spoon, still unable to meet his eye.
“I realise what I did. Start to finish. Neely, I was an asshole.”
“Yes. You were.” Now she looked at him. She had to. She couldn’t let his confession of guilt pass without unleashing some of what she’d stored up following that horrible, wretched night. A night that should have been, had almost been the most beautiful of her life to date. “You were an unutterable, advanced asshole. You… You were the crown-prince of asshole-dom, Ray. You messed up on every conceivable level and… and the worst thing is that all the time you were screwing me over – and… and screwing my friend – you were so completely convincing it’s a wonder I’ve got a grain of trust left in me. For anyone.”
“I know. I know.” To Ray’s credit, he didn’t flinch at her measured attack. He absorbed every word, a kind of understated sorrow about his face.
“You made me feel like no one has ever made me feel before in my life – cheap and wretched and used. And I felt like I was the latest in a long string of girls who must have been made to feel exactly the same way.” It was flowing easily now. She’d forgotten how much was there. “Ray, I wanted to feel like there’d been something else there, that it had all meant something more to you than a ‘game’…” The word brought back to her that horrendous moment of comprehension in Ray’s study. “That whatever way you’d played with my emotions, plotted and schemed and gone behind my back, whatever way you’d cheated… that you still felt something. Because that would have made it better. That would have made it easier to deal with. But I couldn’t know. I couldn’t be sure. And you see, Ray… articles and emails and apologies aside… I still can’t. Not that it even matters anymore.” She stared at him, her eyes pricking with tears, anger and sorrow ebbing from their high tide. The pause between them was long.
“What if you did?” Ray’s question was tentative. It made Neely swallow a little in vague trepidation. There was a gravity about him she was sure she’d never seen before. His face was maybe a little thinner than it had been on the night she fled from him, his eyes a little darker. “What if you knew?”
“What if you knew beyond doubt that I cared for you in a way that I’ve never cared for anyone before in my life?”
“What if you knew that I’d missed you every damn day, that I’d carried about with me a crushing fucking load of regret over what I’d done to you and what I’d done to us?”
“Ray, please, don’t do this. That’s not why I came here…” The tide was coming from him now, a sudden scary forceful tide that she needed to resist.
“It’s not why I came here either… Okay, well that’s not entirely true and there’s been enough fucking lying on my part in the past. It’s just I need to say this, Neely, I need to have said it for my own damn sanity, and I don’t deserve to have you listen, but I’m pleading with you, just let me say what I have to say and afterwards I will walk out of here and you won’t have to hear from me ever again. I promise.”
This was not why Neely had agreed to meet him – to be subjected to a protestation of his love. All she had desired and hoped for was to untangle to last of her confused feelings, to prove perhaps that the first serious romance of her adult life had not been a total sham. Then to draw a line under the whole messy business. But Ray’s words had sliced to her heart. She sensed a deep raw earnestness in him, in the face of which she let down her defences. “Okay. Okay, Ray. I’m listening.”
He paused before speaking, as though struggling to formulate his words. “I don’t have any great excuse for the way I treated you,” he told her eventually. “No sob-story about my childhood. Bit of a savage break-up when I was still in my teens, but nothing which explains let alone excuses the way I behaved. I just got used to sex as sport and Carlotta was a part of that.” Neely winced a little at the mention of the name. “She called me spineless for destroying the photo, Neely, but I was spineless for taking it in the first place. For not acknowledging what I’d been feeling from soon after we’d met.” Nat King Cole was crooning about roasting chestnuts and Jake Frost and a babble of conversation was weaving itself around them, but all faded into a distant background as she drank in Ray’s words.
“You’re amazing, Neely. Seriously – you don’t even know it and that’s part of why. You embrace life, you enhance it. There’s… There’s a joyousness about you that’s infectious. I started getting to know you for the most cynical of reasons and you just… mainlined into the better part of me. I was better when I was with you. And in doing what I did, it’s like I rebelled against all of that. Like I couldn’t believe I could be as good with someone as I was with you. I might have wrecked all the things I loved most about you, turned you into someone cynical like me, but the fact that you’ve even bothered to see me shows you’re better even than that.” He paused, maybe summoning up manly courage, or maybe preparing cynically to make his final play. “I don’t deserve it, but you’re here and I can’t not ask. Give me another chance, Neely. Don’t say ‘no’, not yet. Come out with me for a drink. Or we’ll go see a film together. We’ll talk – about whatever. You can decide what was real about me and what was bogus. I’ll try and prove to you that however much of a shit I was, I started to mean those things I said. I still mean them. I love you, Neely. I do, and I did. Long before I had the guts to say it or act on it. I just want a chance to show it now.”
He’d held her stare the whole time, his words seeping into her and melting away her doubts. She weighed them in her soul and found, unexpectedly, that she believed him utterly.
Ray rested his hand lightly on hers and stared deep into her. “So… What do you think?”