"Let's do lunch," he'd said, and she'd said fine, she'd look forward to that. Once she was off the phone, she wasn't sure she was ready for this, or that she wanted to meet him like this, but she'd agreed, so now she feels committed. All morning she's been considering calling him and saying that she's required at work, and can't make lunch, but even inside her head that sounds lame. Of all the things she is, she is not a coward.
She's late. She hates being late, but she almost always is. In her own mind she's punctual as a mark of respect for the other person, but in reality, there is always some last minute distraction which prevents her from being on time – the phone call which she must make before she leaves; a last minute clothing change; touching up her mascara; checking her messages to see if he's cancelled. He, on the other hand, true to his military background, will be there as the clock strikes the hour.
He'd told her very little, but he's like that. It's a while since she's seen him. She's been away, and he is always busy. Her memories of him all have him working too hard and for too long.
He'd rung late last week, and after catching up with all the superficial details people talk about on the phone (and he's never been good at superficial, social chit-chat), he'd asked her to meet him for lunch.
"I'm with someone," he'd said. "I'd like you to meet her. I think you might like her. I hope you like her."
"But will she like me?" she'd said.
"Oh, she'll like you. You're so easy to like, and she's wonderful."
"Have you known her long?" she asks, trying to keep her voice light, meaning to sound keen and interested, even though deep inside her where her real self lives, she is scared shitless.
"Yes, but we've only just …... we've only recently made it official." He gives an embarrassed little laugh, which tells her that he's quite new at this.
She feels happy for him, of course. He's been single for such a long time. But she can't help the stab of `something' as he talks about how happy he is …... and he does sound happy. Last time she'd seen him he'd been depressed and morose, but that had been months ago. She's been used to him being single. When she was away from the UK for a long time, she'd imagine him at home alone, and hoped he spared a thought for her, even though they'd lost contact for a time. It was not long after she came back to London that she'd - on a whim - drop in to his house at breakfast time, knowing that she'd not be interrupting anything. There had been several occasions when she'd found herself on his doorstep at ten or eleven at night. If she saw a light on inside, she'd knock, knowing almost for certain that he wouldn't be entertaining a woman. She'd thought he may have given up on that part of his life. Part of her liked him being available when she needed him, while another part of her truly wanted him to find happiness with someone. She couldn't bear the thought of him growing old alone, with no-one to share his life. She wasn't able to tell him that she is really nervous about meeting his new love.
The restaurant he has chosen is down one of those alleys near the Thames. It's too quiet and conservative for it to be attractive to the young business crowd, and too light and cheery for it to be a trysting place for lovers. It serves Italian food, and Italian has become her favourite. She wonders if he remembers her love of Italian food. She opens the door, and immediately sees him striding across the restaurant to meet her. It is only then that she realises that he hasn't told her the name of his girlfriend, or if he has, she's forgotten it. She determines to listen carefully, and to not talk out of nervousness. It is not attractive at all.
"It is so good to see you," he says, embracing her, and holding her to him. "Christ, it's been far too long," he adds.
She smiles up into his face. He has a few more lines, even another scar – above his right eyebrow. So, what else is new? Fifty-six years old, and he still fancies himself a field spook. She wants to ask him about it, but she'd only be stalling the inevitable. "It's good to see you, too. It's been too long."
"Well, you know my phone number," he says cheerfully. He really seems very happy. She wants so much to be happy for him, but – truthfully? - she's dreading meeting the new woman. He loves women, but he's never been good in long-term relationships with them.
She holds her face in a smile as, with his hand lightly holding her elbow, he guides her across the room to the back of the restaurant. She looks around for the kind of woman she thinks he might be with, and there is no-one fitting that description in the whole of the restaurant. Willowy, blond, blue or green-eyed, elegant, tailored clothing, expensive jewellery, manicured nails …... nope, no-one like that where they're heading.
"Here we are," he says, as he shows her to a table where a woman sits.
Suddenly, she is sitting down, and he is introducing them, and she doesn't hear a word he says. So much for her listening skills. She is stunned by this woman. She is almost the antithesis of what she'd expected.
"Hi," she says lamely, "It's really good to meet you at last. I'd like to say I've heard a lot about you, but I haven't." She cringes inside, realising that her words could be misunderstood as being bitchy.
"I've heard quite a lot about you," the girlfriend says. "Harry has told me all about you. He's very proud of you, and the work you do."
"That's good. He's been somewhat secretive about you. Obviously he's been keeping you to himself."
Despite herself, she likes this woman. She's not tall, nor is she blond, she's neatly, but not elegantly dressed, she wears minimal jewellery, and her fingernails are short and not painted, but there is definitely something about her which is warm, compelling and intelligent. Perhaps it's her eyes. This woman has the bluest eyes she's ever seen, and they follow him wherever he is, and whatever he's doing. She's obviously crazy about him, and that makes her glad. He needs to be loved like that – with abandon and passion, no holds barred. It's clear to her that she'll no longer be able to turn up at his front door at all hours, expecting to be welcomed. From now on he'll have company.
Ruth. That's the name he said. Her name is Ruth. The name rings a bell, and she's sure that he's talked before about this woman. It's the way he says her name; she's never heard that reverential tone in his voice when he utters other names. She smiles, and nods when he offers to pour her a glass of wine. She sips her wine as she watches them over the top of her glass. They only have eyes for each other. She could stand on the table and strip, and they'd barely notice. Ruth puts her hand over his and with her fingertips softly caresses the back of his hand. She is shocked by how intimate such a simple action appears when Ruth does it. He gazes at her openly, and she can see how much love they have for one another. Were it not a decidedly inappropriate thought for the daughter of a middle-aged man to be having, she can swear that he is undressing her with his eyes.
"So," Catherine begins, determined to participate in this meeting in more than a voyeuristic capacity, "how did you two get together?"
Harry's eyes look startled by her question, and Ruth smiles at him, a knowing smile. It is a smile which says that these two have a long and complex history, and their separate stories are interwoven in a blanket which they will wrap around them to warm them as they grow old together.
"We have worked together for – how long is it Ruth …...?"
"Yonks. We've worked together for forever, and we've loved one another for much of that time, but in a weird, secretive kind of way." They smile at each other knowingly, perhaps remembering some of that `weird, secretive' loving.
"So," Catherine continues, needing to be the conversation prompter, to ensure her father and his lady love don't spend the lunch making love to one another with their eyes, or anything else for that matter. "So, why now? Why not …... back then?"
"Now that," he says, "is an extremely good question. Had I had my way, this beautiful woman would have been my wife four years ago."
"Oh, Harry. If we'd married then, we'd have been among the divorce statistics by now. We're like a bottle of very good red wine, Catherine. We had to be laid down for a few years for us to mature. Only now are we ready for drinking."
Despite Ruth's very apt metaphor, Catherine noticed her father's eyebrows lift at the words, `laid down'. "It sounds like you have marriage plans," she says, and only with those words does she notice the sapphire and diamond ring on Ruth's finger.
"Yes," he replies. "That's one of the reasons we've invited you for lunch." He looks at Ruth, his eyes adoring her. "Darling?"
"Harry and I would like you to be at our wedding," Ruth says. "If you'll still be in London on Thursday fortnight, we'd be thrilled if you could be a witness. It will only be a small gathering of friends and family."
"I'd love to," Catherine replies. "I'm so pleased you've asked me." She is still trying to get her head around this. Her father in love, and so demonstrative with it. She'd never seen him this way before. Not only that, his woman of choice is intelligent, thoughtful, a little self-conscious, perhaps a little odd, and so very perfect for him.
"And Graham is invited, too," Harry adds.
"Of course. He's my son, and I'd like him to share this day with us all."
"How did you …... get from colleagues to …... this? It's quite a leap, and I know the service doesn't encourage it."
"Shall I tell her about Ros's funeral?" Ruth asks Harry.
"If you must." He looks shy, embarrassed. Another first.
"Well," Ruth begins, glancing quickly at Harry, "one of our colleagues – Ros – was killed in a hotel bombing." As you do, Catherine thinks. "And after the funeral, while we were still in the churchyard, Harry asked me to marry him."
"Dad, you didn't!" Her father rolls his eyes and nods.
Ruth continues, excited now. "I said no."
"You said no?"
"Yes, I said no. Then a few weeks later, we'd both got over the shock of losing Ros, he came around to mine one night quite late, and he begged me – on bended knee -"
"I wasn't on bended knee, but I did beg you. Catherine, I begged this woman to change her mind. Wouldn't you?"
Catherine heartily agrees that begging Ruth had been one of her father's better ideas.
"I said that I'd consider his proposal, but first we had to spend a minimum of three months in getting to know one another outside work, beginning with dinner. We had to determine if the chemistry was still there."
"And I see that it was."
"By the end of the first dinner date, we knew, didn't we Harry?"
"I knew as soon as she opened the door to me when I went to pick her up for our dinner date. Had I had my way, we would have skipped dinner."
"Harry!" admonishes Ruth. "Catherine, I apologise on Harry's behalf. He can be a little …... enthusiastic."
Catherine sits back and enjoys herself. Her dad has found his muse, and for that she is grateful. She just hopes that they can make it together, since the odds are most likely heavily stacked against them, given the job they both do.
Later that night, Catherine rings Graham.
"I met her today," she says.
"And? Another model has-been?"
"On the contrary. Ruth is perfect for him, and she's a spook. We won't have to worry about him any more."
"As if I would!"
"Come one, little brother, you were as concerned as I'd been. You're invited to the wedding, by the way."
"Christ! He's getting married. It must be serious."
"It's serious. You'll come?"
"I'll have to think about it." He thought for a bit. "Okay, thought about it. What do you think I should wear?"
Catherine laughs into the phone. She can't wait for Thursday fortnight. It should be a hoot.
A/N: I'm not sure if that worked in the way it was intended. I'm curious as to whether you were fooled, or whether the identity of the woman meeting Harry for lunch was obvious. From where I sit, I just can't tell.
Thanks for reading...