Husband. The word felt as cold and as uncomfortable as falling into the pond at Regent's park. Was she married?
She was climbing the stairs in front of him, Perdita already on the landing, and it took a nudge from Pongo on the back of his legs to snap him back to attention.
So, she was married. What did it matter, really? Many people were married. Most of the people his age was, at any rate.
Only, he had not realised he had been wishing she were not. Now that was a very silly thought. They didn't know one another, and after their wet situation would be fixed in minutes' time, they wouldn't meet again. And yet he had hoped-
"Pardon me?" Roger realised she had been saying something, after opening the door.
"I said 'wait here for a moment'," she pointed at a small sitting room he barely registered, her left hand still on the door handle.
He stepped in, distractedly. There was something… "You're not wearing a ring," he blurted out, and he immediately wished he hadn't. That was impertinent to say the least.
"I… oh!" Anita blushed, and looked down at her own hand. "No, I don't anymore. I'm a widower."
"Oh… I'm so sorry… I shouldn't have asked, what a silly thing-atchoo!" He was sure his blush would more than match hers. At least he was making a terrific work of acting like a blabbering fool.
"Never mind," she looked back at him, with an unreadable expression. "Wait here for a moment, I see if I can find…"
"I… I can start the fire for you, if you don't mind," he pointed at the chimney.
"Would you? That would be lovely, thank you so much."
"Don't worry about me, really. Get yourself sorted out. We don't want you to get a cold, now, do we?"
She smiled for a moment, and he couldn't help but notice the way her blue eyes sparkled, for a brief second, before she disappeared through a door that she carefully closed behind her.
At his feet, Pongo gave a small whimper.
"Now you've done it," he murmured half-heartedly. What "it" really was, he was not very sure. Or even if "it" was a very good or a very bad thing.
It took her some long minutes to get dried and dressed, and it was with some difficulty that he forced himself not to think about whatever might be transpiring at the other side of the door. It was good that he had something to do.
The moment the fire started, Perdita settled in front of it. Pongo crouched right next to her, first cautiously, but since she didn't seem to mind, he finally settled, almost as if he had done so for a lifetime.
"You, cheeky beggar," Roger mumbled. Pongo didn't even look at him.
A moment later the door opened, and Anita emerged with a bundle of clothes. Only, that was the last thing Roger noticed. She was wearing a skirt and a blouse, and her hair was still wet, over one of her shoulders. His throat suddenly dry, he thought he had never seen somebody as pretty in his life.
"The washroom is the second door on the right," she said, handing him the clothes.
"Wha…? Oh. Right," he managed.
"Would you like some tea, Mr. Radcliffe?"
"Oh yes, thank you."
She gave a tiny nod, and headed to another door, giving the dogs a passing glance. What she thought of it, he couldn't tell. Another sneeze made him hurry and change.
The owner of the clothes had been much bulkier than him, so much was clear. And a tad shorter, too. There were two inches of ankle clearly visible, and there was just too much shirt around his shoulders, but at least it was dry and he could ignore the faint smell of old drawers.
He couldn't help but wonder about the man, though. Would it be too forward to ask her about him? Was she a very recent widower?
In the small sitting room, Anita was busying with his tweed jacket, hanging right next to the fireplace.
"I had to take off my shoes for a while, or the socks would've gotten wet," he said, feeling that he had to excuse his strange appearance.
"Put them here, next to the warmth," she said. "And your clothes, too."
"I hope we could prevent that cold from happening," she smiled at him, while taking his vest out of his hands and very carefully hanging it on the railings in front of the fire, too.
"I stopped sneezing," he smiled at her.
"I… I hope you don't mind. I tried to rub your dog with a tower while you were there…" Pongo was lying next to Perdita again, and he looked almost dry. "He could've gotten ill, too, you know."
"Thanks. That was very thoughtful of you. Didn't he put up a fight?"
"He got a little restless, but it's nothing I haven't handled before," she grinned. "I know Perdy hates getting wet. I thought-"
The whistle of the kettle interrupted her, and she ran through the door again.
"Milk? Sugar?" She called. He walked to the door, to find a very small kitchen. There was barely room for her to move inside it and yet she was doing so with ease.
"Two lumps, please."
"Two lumps it is," she smiled at him over her shoulder. "I'm sorry the clothes don't really fit."
"Don't be. It's lucky you had them, to begin with,"
She turned around and gave him one cup, "I guess it is."
He took the cup with slightly trembling hands as she pointed at the sofa. Both sat and for a moment nobody spoke. The tea was scolding hot, but he drunk it nonetheless, to have something to do other than fidget awkwardly into these unfamiliar clothes.
At some point their eyes met and she smiled at him, but he thought it was half-heartedly. Was she regretting her hospitality and wishing he would leave her alone? He was not being the best of guests, but then again, he suspected he rarely was. For some reason, he never knew what to say. Small talk was definitely not his thing. Somewhere a clock was ticking, and he had the impression the sound was getting louder with each passing second.
"How long have you had Pongo," she finally said, and he almost dropped his cup in surprise.
"I… er… three years… and a couple of months. My mother gave it to me after… after I came back from the war."
"Oh. What did you…? I mean, if you don't like to talk about it, I understand."
"RAF. But I was one of the lucky ones."
"My husband wasn't," she said so low he thought for a moment he had imagined it.
"Was he RAF, too?"
She nodded, and then shrugged. "He passed in 1942. It's been a while now. So, that's why I don't wear a ring anymore."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't- It was not right for me to have asked that. Forget I did, please-"
She gave a tiny laugh. "Doesn't matter, really. You might have noticed those clothes are not exactly fresh from the wash."
"You won't hear me complaining."
They looked at one another for a moment.
"What do you do?" she finally said. "Besides walking your dog and landing yourself in ponds?"
He had to laugh at this. "That's cheeky. I'm a composer."
"You never! Really? A musician?"
"At least I try to."
"That's unusual. What sort of music?"
"Half of it is what I like, half of it is what might pay the bills. Jazz is my one passion."
"I haven't heard much of it, I must confess," she said, placing her empty cup on a side table.
"You might want to give it a try someday." He could ask her to go to a concert with him. Why not? He could. Only… it seemed too… too quick, and strange after just talking about her husband-
"I'm a secretary," she made him jump back from his own musings.
"That's nice," he said, at a loss of something better.
"It's not. It's quite boring, really, but it helps paying the rent and it gives me some free afternoons."
"It makes you happy," he stated.
His cup was empty, and he had run out of reasons to stay. "My clothes should be warm enough now… I… let me give this back to you and I'll be on my way."
"Oh, don't be silly," she said with a wave of her hands and a smile. "Keep them on. You can return them some other time."
Some other time. At this, his heart gave a couple of funny jumps. This, whatever "this" was, would not be over just yet then.
"That's… that's very kind of you," he said. "I'll… thanks for the tea and… well…" he looked around, at a loss of what to say, until his eyes rested on the dogs. "Pongo," he called. He and Perdita raised their heads. "Come on, old thing. Let's go home."
At this, both dogs whimpered.
"It's such a shame to separate them," Anita commented, walking to them and crouching, to scratch them on the back of their ears.
"Yeah," Roger muttered, his eyes fixed on her hands. "We should… they should… we can take them to the park some other time. So they can be together…" he trailed off, but she stood up smiling broadly.
"What a wonderful idea. We should do that."
Her enthusiasm was contagious, and he beamed at her. "What about tomorrow? We could meet at the south entrance? 5 o'clock?"
"Could we make it 4.30? It's just, I'd rather be back home before dark."
"Certainly," he replied, making a mental note of accompanying her home whatever it'd take and deciding that he really didn't need to work until 5 anyway.