Just Not Mine(131)

By: Rosalind James

“I know,” his sister said. “And I was right. It is romantic. It is.”

She was still trying to tell him, trying to think of the right way, but he wasn’t listening. He was helping her pull off her wet things, and she was shivering with cold, and nerves, and exhaustion from two sleepless nights, and he had turned on the shower and shoved her into it.

“Stay in there,” he told her. “Stay in there until you warm up.”

She cried a little more in the shower, because she’d stuffed up utterly, and all she’d been was pathetic, and she’d never know how he really felt now, because how could a man be honest with a woman who was clearly too distraught, too needy to hear the truth?

She climbed out at last because she had to, her head feeling dull and stuffed but her body no longer shaking, toweled herself off and pulled on a warm dressing gown, combed her hair out and left it hanging, long and wet, and went out into the lounge to find him.

He was sitting on the couch, but he smiled at the sight of her, stood up and put out a hand to draw her down with him.

“I even made tea,” he said. “Sit here with me and drink it, and listen, because I have a few things to tell you.”

“I want to tell you too, though,” she said.

He shook his head. “I promise, from now on, you can go first. But right now, you need to listen to me. You’ve known what was right all along, and I haven’t, so I have more to say.”

“But I haven’t,” she protested, and her chest was filling, her throat tightening, and she could hardly dare to breathe, but with joy this time. With hope.

“Me first,” he said. “Please, because I’ve been waiting so long to tell you. I thought about the phone, but I wasn’t sure you’d want to hear it, and I thought, better to wait until I was with you again. I thought I had a better chance,” he said with a little laugh that didn’t sound very steady, “if I could hold your hand while I said it.” He took it lightly in his own, ran his fingers over the backs of hers. “This is my speech. It’s a bit corny, maybe, but it’s the best I’ve got.”

He took a deep breath and began. “There are these things you say in sport. People think they’re clichés, and I guess they are, but you say them so often, for so long, they sink in all the same.”

He paused, and she waited, her eyes on his face. “One of them is,” he said, “you play what’s in front of you. What it means is, yeh, you’ve got a game plan. You train, you study the other team during the week, you do your very best not to leave anything to chance. But then you turn up on the night, and you play what’s in front of you, whether it’s what you planned or not. Somebody gets injured, you’ve got a man in the bin, doesn’t matter. You don’t get to stop and ask the ref to start again because you didn’t plan for this. You just keep playing. You may win, and you may lose. But if you stop playing, if you stop trying, you’re sure to lose, aren’t you? So you don’t stop trying, not until the ref blows the whistle. Because even if you lose the game, you didn’t lose …” He stopped.

“Your self-respect,” she suggested.

He shook his head. “I guess … yourself. And your team. You don’t lose them, you don’t lose each other. Next time, you know they’ll be there. You know they’ll front up, be there all eighty minutes for you, the same way you will be for them. And if it’s hard, well, it’s always hard. Anyway, you’d think you’d want the easy game, and maybe you should, but you don’t. You want the tough ones. Those are the ones you want to play, the ones you want to win. That’s why you play, to put yourself to the test, see what you’re made of.”

“And that’s what this is,” she said. “With you and the kids. Since your dad and stepmum died. You’ve been playing what’s in front of you.”

Another shake of the head. “No. I haven’t been. That’s what this is.”

“But you have,” she insisted. “Of course you have. I see that now. When your father and stepmother died, you told me you were here the next day. You flew all night to get to your brother and sister. And you’ve been with them ever since, as much as you could be.”