By David, United Kingdom"Mrs Atkins?" said the young man on the doorstep. "I'm Sam Marsden. From the university. The archaeology department."
"What?" She looked preoccupied. "Oh, yes, we spoke on the phone. You'd better come in."
"Thanks." He followed her into the living room. "Professor Atkins told me exactly where in his study I can find the papers I need, then I'll be out of your way."
"Don't worry." The woman smiled ironically. "Since James left, I don't exactly have a hectic social calendar. I don't suppose he ... Well, I mean, when you talked with him, did he ask after me?"
Marsden looked apologetic. "It was a very brief conversation. Long distance, of course."
She gave a humourless laugh. "Yes, he'd have been speaking from his cosy little love nest in America. And you're trying to be kind. A simple 'no' would have been enough. He's probably forgotten all about me. After all, he's blissfully happy with the new woman in his life, isn't he? What's twelve years of marriage compared to that?"
Then she thought, this isn't fair. Marsden was a total stranger, and whatever had happened certainly wasn't his fault. Yet it was always the same. She would talk about it, over and over, as though that would make things better, whenever anyone visited, though in her calmer moments she knew that was why friends and family were calling less often. Anyway, what was fair about the way things had worked out for her?
"Come to think of it," she went on, "I suppose you must have known ... known who he ..." she still couldn't bring herself to say the other woman's name.
Marsden said, "Miss Reynolds worked for the department. I didn't know her very well."
Another bitter smile. "Not as well as James did, that's for sure! But come on, I'll show you where the study is. You don't want to waste your time listening to a silly old woman like me."
"Old?" he said. "Come off it! You're about my age."
He looked directly at her, without smiling, as he spoke. She found it disconcerting, yet somehow not unpleasant. His eyes were grey but not in the least cold.
"You!" she laughed. "You're a baby."
Marsden shrugged. "I'm thirty-three."
He's right, she thought. He's only a few years younger than me. But since it happened, I feel old. Finished.
She led the way to the study. "One thing, whatever you're looking for will be exactly as he left it. I haven't touched anything in here." But not to make things easier for anyone else. The room was all she had left of James. A shrine. Except that he wasn't dead - surely that wouldn't be as hard to accept ...
The clutter in the small study meant they had to stand close together as Marsden sorted through papers on the desk. She was suddenly aware how tall and broad he was. Broad, but he didn't look at all fat ... She felt a stab of guilt at being aware of such things; since Professor Atkins left, it was as if men had existed in another dimension. Marsden seemed comfortable in the silence, but she said, "I'll wait in the living room, out of your way."
He shook his head. "You're not in my way. Stay in here."
She thought, Now this is silly. I'm reacting like a schoolgirl, trying to read things into what he says.
And what about James?
For the first time, her husband had been an afterthought.
"Mission accomplished," Marsden remarked as they walked back into the sitting room. "I found some of Professor Atkins's notes from the '97 Cretan dig, and then there are the records of the Mainland Greece excavations - "
"Spare me all that mumbo-jumbo!" she interrupted. "I could never be bothered with any of it. All those dusty dry old names and places, gone for thousands of years." She paused. "When we were first married, James said that's what he liked about me - I was a breath of fresh air after his work. Maybe if I'd shown some interest, if we'd had more in common, he wouldn't have - I'm sorry, you must think I'm dreadful, talking like this."
Another shake of the head. "No, it's okay. There are some things that hit you hard. It was the same for me after I lost my wife."
"Oh," she faltered. "I hadn't realised. I didn't think you - "
"Looked old enough to be married?" He grinned mischievously. "Us academics always look young - it's the sheltered lives we lead!" Then for a moment he seemed serious, and faraway. "She died in a car crash. It was a few years ago. "
"I'm so sorry."
"It's all right." He glanced down at the notebooks in his hand. "I'm interested in the past, but I don't live in it. Not anymore."
Suddenly he looked straight at her in that disconcerting way. "I'm also interested in Spanish food and good guitar music. And I know a restaurant that supplies both. I'd like to prove it."
She was lost for words. He went on: "Tell you what. Unless I hear from you, I'll call for you tomorrow evening at seven. If you find something else booked in that hectic social calendar of yours, leave a message at the department. Okay?"
She was trying not to look flustered. "Um, well ... all right."
"And if we're going to be wining and dining, I can't keep calling you Mrs Atkins, can I?"
"My name ... my first name is Stephanie."
"Stephanie." He pronounced the word as if he were already in a restaurant, ordering exotic, unfamiliar food.
Realising she was blushing, she looked away at the papers he'd placed on the table. "Anyway ... I'm glad you found what you were looking for."
"You know," he said, "I think that may just be exactly what I've found."
After he'd left, Stephanie made herself a cup of coffee and sat in the living room. It was strange. She was nervous, almost panic-stricken, yet there was no denying she felt much better than at any time in the past few months. The phone rang.
"Steph? It's Angela here. A few of us are having a girls' night out tomorrow evening, and you're invited. Don't make excuses, we won't take no for an answer."
Mrs Atkins took a deep breath. "Angela, it's lovely of you to invite me, but I've already got something planned for then."
She could have predicted the derisive snort from the other end of the phone. "Now don't you lie to me, Stephanie Atkins! The only thing you were planning tomorrow or any other night is what you always do - sitting in that house by yourself and brooding about James."
For almost the first time in months, there was nothing forced or bitter about Stephanie's smile. "James? You know, Angela, you really should keep up to date. James is ... ancient history!"