Title: Out of Season
Disclaimer: The characters of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan belong to Val McDermid. I write them because I love them, not because I'm making money from them.
A/N: Proof of my eternal procrastination- I began this just as summer was turning to fall, and just finished it!
Summary: Tony reflects on the turn of seasons.
A sharp gust of wind swirls around my feet as I descend the stone steps of the university, and even though I see it in my head before it happens, I am unable to stop the inevitable- papers piled loose on a stack of books balanced precariously in my arms scatter before I can use my chin as a weight. Reflexively, I shoot a hand out in a feeble attempt at… what, catching them all? Instinct overridden by logic, and balance overridden by gravity. The books tip and hit the ground with various thuds.
"Damn!" I curse with enough volume to attract the stares of several passersby, none who bother to stop and help. I paste a smile on my face and nod at them as they walk on while I continue my shepherding of the wayward papers and books. In my haste to shove the essays into my loyal blue plastic bag, one handle rips and it's all I can do to muster up a sliver of decorum and not leave everything on the ground and walk away. No, I gather myself and everything else, make it as far as my car and throw everything in the backseat, oblivious to and uncaring of the disorder that will face me when I get home.
Dropping into the front seat, I slam the door and gaze out my windscreen at nothing. Autumn. I hate this time of year. No, that's not true. Hate is a strong word. I'm not fond of this time of year. The days are too short and it always makes me feel like there's not enough time to do everything. Too much left undone.
I shake my head. I'm lying. I actually quite enjoy this time of year. For all the horrors I've seen, it's the only time I feel a sense of beauty in the cycle of life and death. To watch the leaves change from green to yellow to orange to red is to watch Nature unfold from beginning to end. No, I'm enjoying autumn a fair bit. It's me I'm not fond of at the moment.
I called Alex by your name today.
I close my eyes at the memory, but of course, it only serves to replay the moment behind my lids. She had come to visit me at the university; stopped by at lunch to tell me Ben had invited me over for tea. Would I accept? Of course I would, I told her, once again appreciative of the way she allowed me into her life. Pleased with the arrangements made, she turned to leave, and I tripped over my social cue. I had meant to thank her and instead made a mess of it. I called out your name, and Alex stopped in mid-step, not because of my voice but because of my word. She turned to face me, and had I not been acutely aware of my own private mortification, I might have asked her why she looked almost… bemused. As it was, before I had a chance to dig out my voice from the pile of embarrassment, she simply told me she'd see me at five.
I have been so aware, so careful of avoiding this very situation. In the early days, I didn't avoid calling her by her name as one might think. Quite the opposite, in fact. I called her 'Alex' as many times as I could without getting strange looks. (Though I've grown so oblivious to such looks, maybe she gave me more than my fair share and I simply didn't notice.) I wanted to get used to the name, the sound, the feel of two very different syllables rolling off my tongue.
And I was doing so well until today. Why today? It's been nearly two years! It's not your birthday or mine. Not a holiday. No event to make me reminisce about old time and old friends.
The wind billows the limbs of a nearby tree and a handful of its red and orange cast offs flutter on to the bonnet of my car. Autumn. Nature going about its business, living and dying, unmoved by the plights of Man. Days that are too short and nights that are much too long for people who would prefer not to be reminded that they are sleeping alone. Things left undone. Too many things.
The car is silent but for the thin whistle of wind that has found a crack somewhere. And the berating voice of "I told you so" in my head. I told you it would never work. I told you you weren't enough. I told you she'd leave you.
I recognize the social cues when I miss them. So why was I so horribly blind to us? Or maybe I simply chose to ignore it. Us. Hoping things as they were would be enough. A caress, a gentle word, your mere presence. A black leather bag you gave me to celebrate my promotion, still in the boot of my car. Knowing in my heart of hearts we were slowly dying on the vine. Careers, forgotten promises, a presence –and presents- taken for granted.
The rap on the window nearly makes me jump out of my skin, and when I gather enough composure to look, I see a young man, smiling with his palms held up in sheepish apology. Over half a decade has passed since I broke the handle for the window and I've yet to have it repaired, assuming by now I'm more likely to get a new car than a handle. I open the door a crack.
"What can I do for you, David?" I recognize the twenty-something as one of my students.
"Just checking to make sure you're all right, Doctor Hill."
"I walked by about 10 minutes ago, and you were staring off into space," he explains. "I came back for a book I'd forgotten and you hadn't moved." He ducks his head to look into the car, then does a cursory glance around it. "You don't have a garden hose attached to the exhaust, have you?" he jokes.
At least, I assume he's joking. I muster a well-practiced smile. "No, I'm fine. Just admiring autumn."
I'm not sure my answer completely satisfies him, but it seems to be enough. He shrugs his shoulders and looks at his surroundings. "I suppose. I've always seen it as a precursor to a bleak horizon."
"In what way?"
"Winter. A moment of beauty," he spreads his arms out to the picture of nature unfolding around him, "for an eternity of grey days and cold nights."
"That's a wonderful synopsis of life, David," I inform him flatly.
He laughs and good-naturedly backtracks. "Maybe I was a bit too harsh. Life's more than a single moment of beauty, Doctor Hill. Or at least, it should be."
I hum at his assessment. "I suppose it's the space between the moments that makes the days seem longer."
He looks at me oddly and I sigh, a bit melodramatically in the hopes it will end the conversation. He seems to contemplate several responses but settles for, "Are you sure you're all right, Doctor Hill?"
"I'm fine," I repeat my earlier refrain. "Thank you."
It's still not quite enough to satisfy him, but mercifully, he doesn't quite know what to say. Instead, he gives one last look at the contents of my car and taps the roof. "Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow, Doctor Hill."
I nod my reassurance. "I've got your essay," I tell him as I thumb towards the back seat. "I look forward to reading your paper."
"If I were you, I'd be more inclined to looking forward to finding it," he quips, but when he receives my wan smile, he meekly shrugs and turns away.
I watch as the young man walks off and I pull the door shut. Alone again. A chill settles in the car and I wonder if you miss it- the weather, the turn of seasons. And yes, I do wonder if you miss me. How do you mark the passage of time when the seasons run together in sunny Johannesburg? Or do you have someone marking the time for you? Have you moved through the space between holding onto the past and embracing a new future? If you have, I wish you were here to tell me how to do the same. Wish you were here to help me move through the spaces.
I wish you were here.