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South Africa

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“So, you’re not going to believe this,” Shelagh turns to the voice behind her, “the ship carrying everyone had to stop off in Casablanca for an unexpected crew change. They are not expected here until two days from now.”

“Oh no! I hope all is well.” She glances around the busy port, numerous people weaving in and out, the prospect of their final destination making their feet quicken. “What shall we do?”

“We can either make the trip out to Hope Clinic ourselves or we can wait here in Port Elizabeth. I asked the gentlemen the name of a hotel and he told me that there are quite a few within a few kilometers of here that are geared more towards English tourists.”

She bites down on her bottom lip, worry knotting her stomach ten folds over. “If we go out to Hope Clinic then we will not have all the supplies needed, however, I have no money to buy a few nights in a hotel.”

“Despite our choice on the matter,” he captures her shoulder with his palm, “you will be provided for.”

She keeps her eyes trained on the blend of rushing people, trying her best to ignore the fluttering butterfly wings in her belly. “I don’t know.” She curses how breathless she sounds. “What do you think?” She looks back into his hazel eyes and instantly regrets it. Their lips are so close that she can feel his short breaths on her cheek, his pulse beating as wildly as hers.

“I say we stay for a few days,” his hand falls back down to his side, his body taking a blessed step back. “Come along,” turning to their luggage cart, he pushes it towards the exit.

Having no choice but to follow him, she mentally curses herself for the slip-up as she stares at his retreating backside.

 


 

“You know,” Patrick glances around the dinky room, “for a little shack on the side of the street, this food has been the best food I have had in a long while.” After settling in their separate rooms and making sure the trunk of medicine was still in one piece, they had decided to get dinner.

“I promise not to tell Mrs. Turner that.” Shelagh had said it in jest, he knew she meant for it to be a joke, however, it had the opposite affect on Patrick.

Just the thought of his wife wrapped in the arms of a faceless man has him furrowing his brow, a silent prayer that she will use the protection he provided her. The idea of her being pregnant when he comes back from his trip is a rather daunting weight pressing down on his shoulders. But none of that matters now, not with the papers signed and dotted.

“I’m sorry,” her quiet whisper brings him out of his rumination.

He shakes his head, “Why?”

“You obviously miss your wife and children.”

“I miss Timothy and Angela with all of my heart. Leaving them, especially for this long, is the hardest part of this trip.” His last night before leaving, Angela had drawn him a picture. She had told him that it was ‘dada and Ella’. During their free time before dinner, he had went out and bought a frame for it. Timothy, understanding why he had to leave, had made him promise to write postcards and to bring a cool animal skull back. “I’m sure you miss Jack.”

“Yes,” she gives him a sad smile.

“Did you enjoy your dinner together?”

Her lips thin into a depressing, white line, “He actually had to work late.”

“Oh,” anger sears through his veins at her downcast eyes, yet he flushes it away, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, no need to ruin our nice dinner now.” She takes a deep, steady breath. “I was able to call Jack. He will wire the money down here and I will be able to pay you back for buying my room.”

“There was no need,” he lays a few bills on the table when their plates have been taken away before standing up. “The hotel has many visiting doctors staying there, so I was able to acquire a better deal.”

As he pulls out her chair and she stands, she glances over her shoulder, “No matter, you will be compensated.”

For some reason, his eyes focus on her lips, dusty pink and plump from all of her worrying, parted every-so-slightly to take in oxygen. For a flash of a second he wonders how they would taste on his own lips. But I shouldn’t, I promise myself that I – the tip of her tongue dips out to wet her perfectly beautiful lips. Squeezing his eyes shut, he shakes his head, trying with all his might to calm his excited body, “A chap I met in the shop told me that there is this pub on the water that has spectacular views of the sunset in the harbor.”

She rights her sweater and steps aside to allow him to open the door for her. “It sounds splendid, but afterwards, I would like to return back to the hotel.”

“Of course,” he gives her a playful smile as he ushers her out.

 


 

“Patrick, may I ask you a question?” Shelagh plays with the stem of her wine glass, her third of the night and its contents being the liquid courage needed to ask what has been weighing heavily on her mind.

“I think you just did,” his smile is easy going, brighter than the smiles she is used to seeing stretched along his cheeks.

“When we were at dinner, you had mentioned that you missed your children, but not your wife,” she had said it so quickly, she was afraid that he was going to ask her to repeat it. Yet, his eyes grow dark, stormy, just like they had been when she had mentioned his wife by name earlier. Losing her courage, she shakes her head, “I’m sorry. It’s none of my busin—”

“I don’t miss the fights.” He gulps down the rest of his drink, his glass slamming down onto the table, “They have turned quite vicious after Angela was born.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” she bites down on her bottom lip, worried that she has overstepped her boundaries with him.

“Don’t be.” He holds up his empty glass towards the bartender, signaling for another refill. “No one has been brave enough to ask, however, that doesn’t stop the gossip.”

She had noticed how Marianne never comes to community events with him anymore. And how their newest one had taken none of his features. She had always kept these observations to herself, chastising herself for even having such thoughts, yet, with the pain searing through his eyes at the moment, she can’t help but think of them again. “Gossip can be rather cruel.”

“You had a good dose of it when you had left the order.”

She finishes her wine, the dry sweetness loosening her tongue. “Yes, well being called a harlot and a whore was rather cruel.”

“Not to mention how Angela looks nothing like me.” The bartender sets another round of drinks on their table.

Her heart breaks for him. Being called names is one thing, but for people to imply that his wife had forsaken their marital vows is gut wrenching. “That is horrid. You should—”

“The gossip is true.” His eyes widen in shock at his own confession. He pushes his full glass away from his reach. “I’m sorry, I should not put any of this on you.” He stands and turns away from her to pay their bill.

She stares at his back, the revelation of his words settling heavily on her muscles, numbing them from moving. When he returns, his smile is weary, his heart sitting open and vulnerable on his sleeve. “Have you thought about divorce?” She abruptly stands from her chair, her fingers covering her blasted mouth, “Goodness! I’m so sorry.” She notices some people looking at them with curiosity. Walking out onto the sidewalk, she leads the trek back towards their hotel. “I should not even pry into such matters.” She twirls around and nearly bumps into him. “Please forgive me. I shouldn’t have had so much wine.”

“Shelagh.” He grabs her shoulders. “Stop! You don’t need to beat yourself up over your curiosity. I said something rather shocking to hear and it’s natural to ask questions.”

For the third time that day, she finds herself so close to him, his lips within easy reach. “Please,” she has to small step back, “don’t make an excuse for my appalling behavior and equally abhorrent question.”

“It’s not an excuse. I just…,” he sighs, his expressive eyes ticking back and forth, “I can’t talk about this to other people, so when I find someone open to the conversation, it flows out with no will to stop.”

She captures his forearms, his warm palms pressing into her shoulders, “I’m sorry that has happened to you. To be on the receiving end of such news is…,” the image of Jack’s secretary comes to her mind, choking her with memories of late nights and perfume-soaked clothes, “it is devastating.”

His brow furrows, comprehension of her words and expression coming to light on his face. She’s not ready to divulge in such information, the need to keep it locked away still claws against her throat.

She gently pats his arm, “Come along.” When she lets go, his hands fall back down to his sides. Resuming their walk together, she mentally chides herself on losing her self-restraint. In London, it had been easy for her to push images of him away, his wife and children being all the reasons she needed. Even during the lowest point in her marriage, her thoughts never had strayed to him. Yet, they had always been there, hiding amongst scriptures and patient files, ever since he had commented on how pretty my new glasses were all those years ago.

“Many times,” his pained voice pulls her from her own musings, “we had thought about getting a divorce, both of us had even gone so far as to hire a solicitor. However, in the end, we had come to the agreement that it wouldn’t be right for the children.”

Even when one child is not biologically his? She pinches the side of her leg for thinking such horrid thoughts that are none of her business.

“I know, it doesn’t make sense when Angela is not even mine, but, since the day she was born and I held her in my arms for the first time, I have loved her as if she is my own.” He runs his fingers through his hair, “I would appreciate your confidence on the matter.”

“You don’t even need to ask.” They walk into the lobby of their hotel, towards the lifts. Just as they see their respective rooms, Shelagh turns towards Patrick and captures his hand. “If you ever need to talk about it, I will always lend a listening ear.”

“Thank you. That means so much.”

She squeezes his fingers and gives him an encouraging smile. She is about to slip her hand away when his thumb sweeps along the edge of her palm. All at once, her heart bursts into an erratic beat against her throat while her stomach flutters.

It has been a long time since she had felt that same feeling; the last time being in a tiny kitchen at the old community center with the same man in front of her wanting to examine her scraped hand. Although he had gone no further than to look at her injury, she had assumed, through the same look he is giving her at this very moment, that he had wanted to do more. A fool’s thought.

Slipping her hand from his, her stomach gives another tug when his fingers trace the bumps and curves of her own fingers in a last-ditch attempt to stay connected. “Good night, Patrick.” Her voice sounds raspy, breathless, under the heaviness of those three words.

“Good night, Shelagh.” He gives her a small smile before turning towards the direction of his own room.

 


 

“Good morning, Patrick,” the lilt of her voice somehow soothes the thumping of his headache.

He slowly turns to her, the brightness of the African sun throwing him off of his equilibrium, the need to clear his stomach pressing against his throat. “Good morning, Shelagh.” He swallows down the bile that threatens to come up when he hears her giggling.

“From the looks of it, it’s been more of a rough morning for you,” she opens her handbag and produces a pair of sunglasses. “Here, to help ease your troubles.”

“That is very kind, but I—”

“Will graciously accept them as an apology for my ridiculous behavior last night.” The memory of their time at the bar creeps along his skull; her questions, his confession, the way her skin felt so soft in his palm, the pout of her pink lips. “I bought them in the gift shop and the sign specifically states that there will be no refunds or exchanges.”

Timidly, he takes them and puts them on, the dim light helping to take the edge off from the pounding in his head. “There is no need to feel guilty,” he pulls out the seat next to him before reaching for his glass of Alka-Seltzer water, “you asked a question and I simply answered it.”

“I was rude and I hope you can forgive me.”

He sighs, their words going around and around making him dizzy. “I will forgive you if you forgive me for being so blunt.”

She looks as if she is going to fight him, yet at the last minute, she caves in, “Very well. You are forgiven.”

He smirks, her fighting spirit is what he finds most endearing. “You are forgiven as well.” Taking a sip of his water, he catches his reflection in the mirror. Other than his pale, pasty skin, he quite likes the glasses. “These are rather fashionable,” he turns to smile at her.

“Yes, well, you do look rather dashing,” she blushes as his laughter bubbles out from his chest.

“Now that is something I have not been called in years.” He finishes his water, his stomach finally starting to settle. “My plan for today is to acquire any more supplies or medicines as possible as well as to check the status of the ship with the rest of our caravan on.”

She slips off of the chair, the colors of her dress catching the sun, brightening her features. “Lead the way then.”

Shoving his hands back into his pockets, they both walk out onto the street together.