Pulling back, breathless and flushed, from the kiss, Laura couldn't quite believe what had just happened.
"What's the matter?" Paul's voice was concerned, but tinged with a sardonic amusement.
"I can't do this – I can't believe you want to... it's just, I don't know – this is just the last thing I expected."
"I don't know why, I thought we'd connected. I thought you wanted this. I wouldn't have kissed you if you hadn't wanted me to."
Blushing with silly pleasure she turned away, smiling. "I did want you to, Paul, I did, but we shouldn't. There are so many reasons and it's not fair on you..."
"Stop it. If you want to kiss me then there isn't a problem, because I want to kiss you, too."
Looking into his eyes, earnest and clear with intent, she couldn't believe this boy actually wanted to kiss her, her, when he must have dozens of girls falling over themselves to be with him. She traced the soft roundness of his cheek, savouring the slight rasp of his stubble and the dip of his dimple, then she closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift away as his mouth touched hers...
"Mum, hello? Mum!" Laura opened her eyes with a start, a coffee cup dropping with a splash back into the tepid soap-scummed water. "I've been calling for ages, didn't you hear me? What's the matter?"
"Sorry love, I was just... day-dreaming, that's all. I was in another world entirely. What did you want me for?"
"Well it's nearly lunchtime and Dad's saying he's hungry."
"Is he? Oh, OK, right, I'd better get on with things then. I don't suppose you'd mind finishing the washing-up for me, would you Kay?"
"No, I don't mind." Kay looked at her mother curiously, her eyes narrowed as she considered something. "Are you sure you're alright? I mean, you really haven't been yourself the last couple of weeks."
"Really darling, I'm absolutely fine. Nothing a bit of activity won't cure, I'm sure."
Taking off the rubber gloves and hurrying over to the 'fridge, Laura took a deep breath and hoped the frigid air would cool her cheeks. The last thing she needed was for her daughter to guess her thoughts, it would upset her so much if she knew what Laura was thinking about. No, she'd have to be more careful, make sure she maintained the got-it-all-under-control Mum act and keep her day-dreaming to moments when she could be certain of her solitude.
* * * *
Hot sun beat down on their bodies through the open window, the breeze merely stirring the warm air instead of providing any relief from the heat. Laura felt languid, her face soft and happy as her usual cares and concerns disappeared into the haze of everyday life – something completely separate from this dreamlike existence. The smell of Paul's hair as she held him was clean and sweet, like grass that had been cut and left to dry in the sun, and she inhaled it in great, greedy gusts, trying to get her fill of him, making sure she had something to remember when she went back to her real world.
"I wish we could stay like this, in this moment, forever." Her voice was soft as she murmured into his hair, but she wanted him to hear her. Wanted him to give her the answers that would release her, one way or another.
"Why can't we? I love you. I want to spend my life with you."
Tears stung her eyes as she bent forwards to look at him. "I love you too."
The words seemed too simple and meaningless to convey how she really felt, especially after hearing him say them first. It seemed inconceivable that he could love her, but she needed to believe that he did, because she loved him so much.
"Then let's do it. Let's run away together, spend our lives together. I love you, I promise I'll look after you."
"I want to, I really do, but it's not as simple as that, you know it isn't."
"It could be if you wanted it to." Paul had sat up to look at her, his body pulling away from hers and leaving her skin cold and clammy where he had been pressed to her.
"What would everybody say?"
"Who cares what they'd say? We'd be long gone and far away, living our lives. Just leave him, he doesn't love you like I do. He just wants someone who'll look after him, a housewife, something to possess. I'd cherish you and look after you. I promise."
"He made me promise not to leave."
"Did you? Did you promise him that?" A sly smile slid over Laura's face. "I had my fingers crossed."
They grinned at each other, their faces alight with love and trust.
"Then you'll leave him? You'll come and be with me?"
"Are you crossing your fingers?" She giggled and wriggled into his arms as he took her hands and held them up to his lips. "Promise again."
"I promise." And she stopped giggling and watched him kiss her fingers, one by one, as if she were something very precious, something to be cherished. "I promise."
* * * *
The days seemed to be passing very slowly and very fast all at the same time. Every time she turned around the hands of the clock seemed to have raced 'round the face again and yet each minute trickled by like treacle. This week was an agony of waiting and yet there was a strange pleasure in it. She savoured each moment, dragging out little chores into lengthy processes that gave her time to think while her body undertook the mindless physical work.
Her thoughts were thick with memories, moments distilled like aromatic oils until they were just the essence – a resounding emotion or a few fractured words. One day the man next door took it into his head to cut the grass on the front lawn and the smell of it, baking in the sun, set off a tidal wave of memories that left her aimless and distracted for the rest of the day.
It was obvious that Kay suspected something now. She and Laura knew each other too well for there to be such big secrets kept for any amount of time. Thankfully she seemed to think discretion was the way to go, leaving her mother to her secrets, drawing back from her a little to allow her the space. Whilst Laura desperately wanted to spare her daughter the pain she knew was coming, there was very little that she could do and hiding things wasn't going to make it any easier.
Whenever she got the opportunity she would pull Kay close to her in a hug and hold her, smelling her smell, taking comfort in her familiarity, waiting for everything to change.
* * * *
"I've told him."
"Yup. I told him I was leaving. That I'd met someone else and we were in love and I was leaving him."
"How did he take it?"
"Do you really want to hear about him?"
"Not unless you need to tell me."
"I don't need to tell you. It's over now. I'm free. We can spend the rest of our lives together."
"And you'll never leave me?"
"I'll never leave you."
"I promise." Giggling as he checked her fingers, she let him draw her close for a kiss. She was so happy. This moment, this memory, she would treasure it forever. To be loved by someone she loved so much seemed an impossible sort of happiness and she mentally traced every contour of the feeling, seeking to preserve it for always.
* * * *
"Mum! Don't go!"
There was a panicked urgency in Kay's voice which broke through all of Laura's carefully maintained insensibility.
"Why? What is it?"
"It's Dad, something's wrong, he's getting worse. Please, come back and just wait."
"OK. Alright darling, I won't go. Why don't you put the kettle on and I'll go and see to him, OK?"
Kay nodded, her eyes swimming with tears. "Do you want some time alone with him?"
"Just a few moments, if that's OK. Wait a few moments. I love you."
"I love you too, Mum."
Hurrying into the sitting room at the back of the house Laura quaked at the thought that Kay might be right. She had no idea what to do or say – nothing could prepare you for something like this.
"Are you OK?" OK seemed like such a stupid word to use, but there were a lot of words that seemed stupid in this sort of situation. 'Comfortable' was another one, 'dignified' – words that just didn't apply, but were the best you could find.
He beckoned her closer, indicating the side of the bed next to him.
"Can I have some water?" Laura reached for the glass and carefully tilted it against his lips.
"Is that better?"
"Yes, thank you. I'm glad you didn't go to the shops, I wanted to ask you something. How are you?"
A laugh broke unexpectedly from Laura's mouth. "How am I?"
"Yes. Kay said that you've been distracted, away with the fairies. What's the matter?"
Looking at him thoughtfully, Laura wondered how best to respond. At such a moment, only honesty seemed good enough.
"You never made me any promises." His face, taut with pain, seemed to crumple a little as she said it. "I promised you I'd never leave, but you didn't promise me it back and I just keep thinking about it, and thinking about it, and wishing that I'd made you promise – then maybe you wouldn't be leaving me now. I love you so much Paul, I don't want you to go."
"I don't want to go, either, but I think we both know I'm not going to be around much longer. If I had made you that promise then I'd only be breaking it. I did make you one promise, I promised to look after you. "I wish that I could have done a better job of that over the years. I wish that I had taken your advice and looked after myself better, then perhaps I might have had a chance of surviving this, but I've done my best to look after you and Kay, and you won't go without once I've left, alright my darling?"
"No. I don't want money, I want you." Laura felt her daughter's hand on her shoulder and took it in her own as she leaned forwards to kiss her husband. "You can't leave us, we love you."
"I love you too, both of you. You have no idea how much I don't want to go."
"I'll always love you, always remember you."
He took her free hand in his own, felt for her fingers and interlocked his own through them. "Promise?"
She couldn't help herself – this old, familiar gesture to check that she wasn't crossing her fingers made her laugh and she spoke through laughter and tears together as she watched him go.