She surrounded herself with objects, with little things that mean nothing. She told herself that they were important, essential, that they held deeper understandings of things an outsider could not possibly understand.
She told Zaf about them, at two or three in the morning, when they'd been up all night worrying about one thing or another.
“Am I an outsider, Ruth?” He propped his head up with one hand, rubbed his eyes with the other.
“I guess some part of me thinks of you as an outsider. Still.” She looked down, away from him.
“You're going to have to let go of that notion, Ruth. Things are always changing in the service. People are always moving on.”
Ruth looked back up at him, her eyes suspiciously bright. “He didn't move on.”
She hid her things away in drawers, classified them in some system which even she was unable to decipher on the bad days. She told herself to forget about them, to pretend she had never picked them up, never picked them out. She told herself to pretend she hadn't pulled them out everyday, for weeks or months, running one finger over them, then two or three. That she'd never allowed her head to fill with images and memories of people and events that had disappeared into the atmosphere.
Pretending that a part of her hadn't disappeared with the others.
Zaf told her that it was foolish, that she was being foolish. “You're still you, Ruth. You don't just vanish when other people leave.”
“Don't I?” Ruth tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, before leaning her head forward so the hair covered her eyes again.”Don't I just disappear into the background? Into some dusty history of better days.”
“Were they really better days?”
Ruth sighed and tried to collect her thoughts. “They were good people, Zaf. I miss them.”
She had hid herself away, buried herself in obscure references and dark shadows. She wrapped herself up in the past, protecting herself from the new faces that flooded through the corridors.
She clung onto the old, onto Malcolm and Colin and Harry. She stayed back later and later, reassuring herself that there was still some stability in the world.
But then he made her laugh. And made her cry. And managed to throw her whole world into disarray.
She couldn't understand why she let him through.
He was charming, she supposed, in a boyish sort of way. He reminded her of the boys who ruled the streets of her adolescence, the ones who were handsome and cool and just a little bad, who all the girls were meant to fall in love with.
He was different from anything she'd been pulled towards before. He was a collection of quirks and characteristics, that somehow fitted together to make something she wasn't sure of; something that put her on the back foot, permanently off balance.
But he stayed back and helped her when he didn't have to, when he'd spent a long day working on one operation or another. He flirted with her when she'd drunk ten or eleven cups of tea, when her head was buzzing and she would have clung to anyone who'd wanted to be with her. He tried to make her laugh with jokes that were actually funny.
He offered to walk her home one night. “You used to be frozen, Ruth.”
She laughed. “Psychology? You're going to use psychology on me? Is that why you offered to come home with me?”
He smiled, the quick sheepish smile he indulged in when things weren't quite going the right way. “You were frozen though, after Danny. You let yourself freeze over.”
“I had a jolly good reason to be frozen.”
“And my witty jokes and banter thawed you out.” He whipped around to face her.
Ruth bit on her lower lip, feeling the heat rising in her cheeks. “You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?”
He reached for her hand, holing it between both of his. “That's what makes me so good at what I do.”
She couldn't help but invite him inside, couldn't help but ask him to stay for dinner. He drank her wine and ate her food and smiled when she told stories with no real punchlines. He followed her to the front door, holding her hand for a moment before he walked out the door.
She thought that would be the end of it.
But then he walked her home again, telling jokes about the Spartans and the security services. Then he held her hand again, and kissed her as he walked out the door.
“Are you still frozen?” he asked, as he traced the line from her ear to her chin.
“You're too young for me, Zaf.” She stepped back away from him, “I mean, I like you, you're really nice, but you're too young for me.”
He stepped back towards her, wrapping his hands around the back of her neck and pulling her gently towards him. “Is that really a problem?” he whispered as he pressed his lips against hers. “Or is it something else, Ruth?”
She started collecting pieces of Zaf; a T-shirt he'd left behind, a receipt from a takeaway meal they'd shared, a letter he'd written and then thrown away. She told herself that it was insurance, protection for the future. She hid them away in one secret drawer or another, telling herself to forget about them, telling herself that she didn't need them.
They lay in bed together, limbs entangled and voices low. They talked through the night, of history and present, or dreams and speculations.
“You're not going to leave me, are you Zaf?” Ruth rolled over, tracing patterns on his chest.
“I can't make those kind of promises.” He grabbed her hand in his own. “We can't make those sort of promises. Not in our line of work.”
“So, you're going to leave me then?”
“Maybe you'll leave me first. Maybe you'll fall in love with Malcolm or Harry and you'll run away with them to the Greek Islands.”
They laughed and wrapped themselves in each other and pretended to sleep. They pulled themselves away from each other in the morning, and Zaf walked away with a bouncy step and a whistle.
Ruth walked through her empty house, her mind filled with objects and curios. With things that reminded her of people and events long gone. With things that reminded her of Zaf, and the future they could never promise each other.