I set off for home, walking alternately in white streetlight and pitch-black shadows cast by elm trees and tall fences. It’s nearly midnight and windy. The clouds scurry along overhead; the moon rose early and has now nearly disappeared in the south-west.
It’s only a twenty-mintue walk, which is why I told her not to call a taxi. Also, I knew that if I sat around with her much longer something would have happened. She was beautiful tonight. She’d done her hair up all curly, with a diamanté pin that shone when she moved. The eyeshadow she wore smudged slightly under her bottom lashes as she cut onions and wiped away the tears. After dinner, we sat on her faded sofa and she played with my hands, asked me if I knew palmistry. I shook my head; she smiled and told me that I could learn from her, that she was very good at it.
I felt old when I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, saw the way my hair’s getting thinner at the front, how the lines across my forehead are deeper than they used to be. Lucy’s only five years younger than I am, but I feel like we might never catch up to each other. She’s still got that softness in her eyes—the look of never having lost anything.
‘Please, David,’ she said when I tried to talk to her about it, ‘you know my life’s not perfect. Don’t make things worse.’
Walking away, I’m gripped by the urge to turn and see if she’s outside. I feel like that for a hundred metres or so, until I round the corner and am distracted by flashes of lightning over the hills. After each one comes a muffled clap of thunder. It’s not long before the first big drops hit my shoulders and I stuff my hands into the pocket of my jacket, start jogging awkwardly. There was a time, before this started, when I ran for fitness. Up before dawn, always challenging myself to go faster. How ridiculous it all seems now.
As I get closer to home my chest starts to heave. My feet, in their thin dress socks, slip into the front of my shoes. I make it to my front door just as the rain stops. Looking up at the sky, my hair dripping, I see a low band of mist disappear to reveal a few dim stars. The air smells like overturned soil, wet brick, laundry powder. The phone is ringing as I turn the key in the lock; the answering machine takes it. Walking to the kitchen I hear Lucy’s voice.
‘It’s me,’ she says. ‘Just wanted to thank you for coming around tonight. I had a nice time.’ A pause. ‘David,’ she goes on, quieter now. ‘You know you can talk about what’s bothering you. I think I can help.’
The receiver is gently replaced. I go to the sink, rinse one of the mugs that’s there and fill the kettle. Looking out over the dark yard, all I feel is exhaustion. For a moment, I let myself pretend it’s just from the exercise. But in my bedroom, shirt and shoes off, I give up. I pull open the first drawer of my nightstand and stare at the blue velvet box. The muscles around my shoulder blades tighten. Memories fill me with their familiar ache, and I sit there thinking about everything that’s happened since Sophie left, everything she’s taken with her. I remember the way her footsteps sounded as she walked from the house, and the note she tucked under the engagement ring. I can’t be what you need, she wrote. One day, you’ll know this was the right thing to do. It’s been nearly a year and I still find myself repeating those words, just trying to believe her.*
The pawn shop door groans open. A skinny man in a white shirt is leaning against the wall, studying his fingernails. He glances up as I get closer.
‘Hello,’ he says, forcing a smile. ‘Help you?’
’Maybe,’ I reply. ‘Thought you might like to buy a piece of jewellery.’
He walks around behind the counter, bends down and pulls out a large folder which he sets down on the glass counter.
‘Let’s have a look,’ he says.
I wait a second before taking the box out.
‘It’s a ring,’ I say. ‘An engagement ring.’
He’s already busy scanning the index for the right page. ‘Diamond?’ he asks, lifting his eyes.
I nod, then open the lid and put it in front of him. ‘Half a carat, two sapphires.’ I can’t help but remember how it looked on her hand.
He gets out a pair of glasses from a drawer, puts them on, and studies it. ‘Got a few flaws,’ he says. ‘Couple of spots I can see here.’
I don’t reply.
‘But,’ he continues, taking off the glasses and placing the ring back, ‘not too bad. We can offer you eight hundred.’
‘I paid two grand,’ I say, hating how my voice sounds. ‘And it hasn’t been worn.’
He shrugs. ‘Best offer. Nothing more I can do.’ He starts to put the folder away.
I can’t face driving from place to place, pleading for a few hundred more bucks. ‘Fine.’
‘Good decision,’ he replies. ‘Don’t reckon you’ll get any better than that.’
I look him in the eye. ‘You might be right.’
He nods. ‘I am, mate,’ he says. ‘Seen it all before.’