When Will walked into Holly’s classroom for the first time, almost two years ago, he felt like he had been transported in another world. A serene place where time stood still. Nothing but the sound of brushes being dipped in water, clinking against glass and pencils stroking paper. A dozen little heads bent over their projects, flowing with ideas. It smelled like clay and gouache and souvenirs of primary school came back to him.
Jamie had taken refuge in her art club class after being bullied by older members of his football team. She’d given him a sheet of textured paper from her pad and a few charcoals without asking questions. And he’d taken to sneaking in every week after that.
“Can I help you?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“I’m Jamie’s dad, Will Burton,” he shook her pastel-stained hand.
“Oh yes, Kate said you’d pick him up today. You’re a bit early.”
The boy was lost in his own artistic world, his tongue poking out at the corner of his mouth, so focused he hadn’t even noticed his dad come in.
She’d showed him Jamie’s work, talking fondly of his progress and imagination. She enjoyed working with kids much more than she did with teenagers. Her finger had followed the lines on the canvas revealing shapes and emotions he hadn’t perceived at first. He could have listen to her dulcet tones for hours.
He’d walked around the room, examining the rest of the artwork on the walls while she helped out the children, gently guiding their work. A watercolor painting of a hummingbird in flight had caught his eyes. The only signature was a small, curly H at the bottom.
The next day, he had sat at his desk and stared at his diploma, hanging lonely on the drab wall of his office, and it had occurred to him that he should buy some paintings.
“Did you paint the hummingbird?” he asks, the next time he picks up his son.
“She made it when we went to the park,” Jamie explains.
“Do you sell your paintings? I mean, I don’t know much about art but I like your style.”
She smiles with her lips pressed together.
“Thank you but I’m not interested in married men.”
Will steps back.
“Oh no, happily married. I’m asking because my wife, she likes art, and she’s redecorating the cottage.”
She hides her blush behind her fingers.
“I’m so sorry, s’just, some dads they… Anyway, I do have an exhibit coming up in two weeks, it’s at the gallery on Bayswater Road, across from Kensington Gardens.”
It’s the first time he enters an art gallery for non-work related reasons. Holly’s minimalist watercolours and portraits hang on the tall, white walls. She stays a few steps behind him, tugging on the sleeves of her floral shirt while his whiskey eyes contemplate the canvases.
“Someone you know?” he points at a blue-eyed, dark-haired girl that appears on several paintings.
“We were together for a while,” she smiles fondly, “she’s studying in New York now.”
They’d been together longer than anyone had expected. But Karen had gotten a grant to study abroad not long after they’d moved to London and how could she not encourage her to pursue her dream. Holly was back at square one now but at least there were more interesting men and women in the city than in Margate.
Will buys two paintings, abstracts in shades of blue and grey. They stand out among the more popular seaside landscapes and wildlife sketches.
“You don’t have to,” she says.
“But I want to, I like them.”
He thinks they have a musical quality to them, the way the shapes curve and the occasional burst of colour. Somehow it reminds him of Sigur Rós. He will only tell her that months later when she drops by his office and she’s comfortable enough to ask why he chose these. “Seems appropriate,” she replies, “seeing as how I painted them when I was in Iceland.” He hangs the frames in front of his desk and finds himself staring at them whenever he needs to calm down, the colours soothing his overworked mind.
Over the course of a year, they go from chit chats in the classroom doorway to lunch at that Tibetan place, halfway between the Royal Courts of Justice and the school. It’s a dodgy place in a basement and they won’t give you a receipt but they make the best momos. She laughs at him when he can’t eat with chopsticks and drops rice on his tie.
“Good thing I have to wear a gown in court this afternoon.”
Eventually, she stops wondering what he wants from her and just enjoys his sense of humor and brilliant mind. Hereafter, she invites him in her home, a tiny place with red brick walls and worn out wooden floors that smells like mint and chamomile. It’s more two rooms than the advertised three but she fell in love with the loft bedroom. She can afford it only because she works at such a posh school and her online art prints shop is doing quite well.
He smokes on her balcony, overlooking the weeping ash trees of Rosemary Gardens, while she nibbles on custard creams. She steals the Malboro from him with her paint speckled fingers. The smoke rises in the cool May air and clouds her hazel eyes. So much of his job relies on talking that he revels in not having to say anything. It’s nothing like the tense silence of a court room, more like the peacefulness of being underwater, the outside world muted and a feeling of being suspended. They smile at each other.
Of course, he spends most of his spare time with his family but he doesn’t like the empty penthouse when Kate and Jamie are at the cottage and somewhere along the way it becomes a habit to spend those evenings at her place. They play cards or watch a movie. Sometimes he sits at the semi-circle table while she cooks. She never drops what she’s doing just because he’s there. She makes him dice the carrots and soon the homey smell of soup fills the apartment.
Most of the time they read, sitting on her overstuffed grey couch. He goes through his case files and she takes them away from him when she hears him sigh one too many time. She’s reading Jane Eyre again. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” she reads aloud while her toes casually seek warmth under his thigh. Sometimes she lets him fall asleep on the couch and covers him with a down quilt. And he wonders if any other 30-somethings have sleepovers.
Kate doesn’t mind, or if she does, she never says, she sometimes even tags along. But he can tell she’s a bit relieved when she invites Holly over for dinner and she brings a date. Jamie simply adores her, monopolizing her attention when he comes over with Will. He never tires of looking through her photo albums while she tells him about her travels.
It’s a friendship unlike any they’ve ever had. They couldn’t be more different, in fact they rarely agree. She sees strength in scars and beauty in a broken world. And sometimes, as brilliant a lawyer as he is, he’s all out of arguments. He likes that she could be right, that it may not be all as bad as it seems.
But, it’s like that game you play when you’re a kid, when you skip on the sidewalk and you can’t step on the lines otherwise some terrible thing will happen. You thread carefully but sometimes there’s a crack in the concrete and you can’t avoid it. And when you step on it you pretend it doesn’t count because it’s not a proper line.
On a sunny June Sunday he follows her around the Portobello market, walking along the colourful houses of Notting Hill and the stalls overflowing with knickknacks. They arrive early to avoid the crowd but there are still too many people to his liking, tourists and sellers and he grabs the bottom of her green vest so they won’t get separated. She looks for vintage buttons for her mixed media project and he looks at the swallow tattooed on her shoulder blade, its wings flapping whenever she moves her arm. She also helps him pick out milk glass bottles for his mother’s collection. Back at her place, she offers to wrap them for him and she draws pastel peonies on kraft paper while he makes grilled cheese sandwiches à la Will.
“That’s beautiful, I think she’ll like the wrapping paper more than the gift itself,” he comments.
She smiles but keeps her eyes downcast, uncomfortable with compliments. Wisps of chestnut hair fall from her ponytail and brush her cheeks. Without thinking, he reaches out and tucks the soft strands behind her ear. Her hands still. The back of his fingers grazes her jaw. And his breath catches in his throat when she turns her head just enough for her lips to caress his fingertips.
It’s a dangerous game they play. He loves his wife but he’s only human and yet he thinks he’s invincible.