The east wind has washed the early dusting of snow off the trees and a few hours ago there was soft winter sunshine, but it has failed to warm the air.
I can see Leah. She’s early for once, blowing into her gloves, glancing at her watch. I wave and she smiles and hurries towards me and we link arms and go through the park gates and walk briskly, heads down.
It is spotting rain now, but more than anything I’m struck by an odd sharpness to the air – not cold sharp, though it is cold, bitterly cold, but it’s not that – it’s more of an electric tension felt on the scalp as if something is waiting to happen. I remember yesterday, how the pines glowed lime green against a yellowing sky; today they are blue, blue-green and fernlike, a child’s painting on deep mauve brushstrokes.
I listen. I’m all ears. If there is sound, I can’t hear it: no birds, none of the usual kids’ voices. I am reminded of a stage where the curtains have gone up and no actors have appeared, and I’m sure she feels it too. I tug my glove off and hold her hand tight. I am so glad I have hands so I can hold hers and for some time I’m simply glad for everything in my life that has led me to Leah. Countless ‘what-ifs’, hundreds of coincidences have tripped me along blindly until I’ve arrived. I am in love – in love! Could it be she doesn’t know? Could it be that she’s in some doubt – doesn’t understand that she’s the pivot upon which my fragile universe depends? She might not… she may not know that unless she’s with me till I die – I’ll die? How would she?
I pull her around. The air is charged with electricity, no mistaking it now, fizzing with it. I take centre stage, remove my other glove, clasp my hands together, bend a knee and wobble ungraciously to the ground.
She looks around – probably for help.
‘Leah, will you marry me, be my wife, my best friend and mentor. Please will you? Will you promise to continue to be my reason for getting up in the morning and my reason for going to bed?’ A low rumble – god’s orchestra probably, shakes the ground beneath our feet. Several people stop feeding the ducks, check out the sky and turn towards us. Some move away, imagining the rumble is a storm warning. But I don’t care – I have just been moved to ask the most important question in my life and all of a sudden I don’t feel anything but confidence and joy and excitement.
At the margin of my vision a rabble of ducks is heading over. I’ve always found ducks to be a bit threatening and persistent once you start feeding them, especially en-masse; any pause and they switch to automatic, robotically padding towards the food source. Their bodies may be little, but there’s something unmanageable and hard-core and pushy about them. And if pushy moves to attack and you grab them, their feathers, like alien limbs, come away in your hands – gives me the willies. But right now all they do is unnerve me to such an extent that whatever entrenched patterns I ignored thirty seconds ago, slam into my brain and almost knock me over. My knees are aching, early rheumatoid arthritis probably and it occurs to me that I am already married – okay okay, only legally, but still these things matter don’t they when you ask someone to marry you. And even if it didn’t, matter, this is merely the winciest pothole when compared to some of the massive roadblocks that are erupting like mines on the long desolate highway to hell, which for a few pathetic moments I had somehow smudged clean away…
Breathe man, breathe.
God – how could I forget, how could I do anything so dumb. My past races in front of my eyes, along with a lightning flash, I swear, lightening – real as you like – as with horrific clarity I relive my most poignant moments: I place her in impossible positions, make lunatic demands on her time and sympathy, virtually ignore the grief she is going through whilst demanding full attention to my own trail of unhappy dramas. I withhold secrets, misread our relationship almost entirely and without compromise, behave like a selfish prig and blame her for my depression. Pictures and snippets whiz by. Whilst avoiding looking at Leah, I prepare to bolt from the ducks who are barely six feet away and sneak a glance at the faces of our loyal but misguided audience, and it’s blindingly obvious that they are already feeling terribly sorry for me.
I can’t stand now anyway, my knees have frozen solid – how the hell did I get down here? I can’t look at her, because now I’m convinced she’s enjoying this, that her beautiful face has become a disbelieving sneer – and it’s all my fault. From now on, the Botanics and winter and gloves and even my knees will forever be associated with humiliation and shame… Oh God…
‘I’d love to.’
Little claps from the crowd, and Julia Roberts bends down to pick up the now prostrate Hugh Grant who has fainted, but despite being quite unconscious he is still babbling on like an idiot. ‘I’m sorry, I should never, I mean, I don’t know what came… Oh Christ, I’m a bastard, what an impossible position – please, just forget I ever…’
‘Oh do shut up, Nathan. I will, I’d love to. I’m thrilled you asked me – you left it long enough.’
I’m on my feet now, kicking wildly at the earth, trying to get my head around it. Giant blobs of sleet hide my tears and the ducks flutter about in feigned panic.
‘Come on, you lunatic. It’s about to turn nasty, I’m starving, and you’re due back for Jill in an hour.’ She wraps me in a hug and for a blissful moment we rock and turn circles under an opening sky. Thank you, God.