Instalment 24: pages 97-101 [Elliot has dinner with Danielle and learns a few home truths]
Saturday night and Sunday morning
There are moments at the start of a date when I’m certain I’ll never speak again, when each sentence leaving my mouth precedes a hideous pause, stretching interminably onwards. It’s a good time to be busy with a menu. Reading also gave the weak gin and tonic Eva had poured into me time to percolate into my veins. “Honestly,” she’d said, “are you were trying to scare her off? Tense up any more and you’ll pop a tendon.” Eva had been a good sport, even dropping me off at the restaurant as it was night and I wouldn’t be driving.
As a new academic Danielle had been happy meeting me for Chinese in Dickson: a simple option, inside both our budgets. I liked this place, behind a tiny shop front sprawled a large L-shaped restaurant, with tables and chairs scattered muted orange walls. I’d brought wine, she’s brought an appreciative smile.
Still, for the first time, conversationally, we were treading water. Danielle’s usual quicksilver flirtation was missing and I didn’t seem able to make the running on my own. My jaw ratcheted up a few notches. We managed to order, and get the Riesling opened.
“So, you never said why you took that time out at the coast,” I said, after a first sip. “Seems the job’d be something to really celebrate.”
There was a silence.
“It’s a bit mixed up,” she replied uncertainly. Suddenly, I saw that what was hanging over us wasn’t my hesitation, but hers.
“Try me,” I said.
“Well, it was my PhD supervisor, Monty …”
“You mentioned. What actually happened?”
“This wasn’t what I’d planned for tonight. But, well, I – I got involved with him.”
My evening imploded with a muffled thud. From date, to shoulder to cry on in fifteen words. There was a soft, nasty pang as my suppressed hopes began to deflate.
“When you think there’s only one person who understands your ideas, who’s on your wavelength …,” she continued, drawing on the wine for support. I reached out to do the same.
“And you were working hard, no social life outside the thesis?”
I sat back, my thoughts grinding through the gears. She was upset, and I’d be a bastard to push the evening towards anything, even just kissing her again. But there was another disappointment: Danielle had always seemed so alert, knowing, in charge, and this was so – stupid. So ordinarily fucked-up.
“You’re shocked,” she said.
“Trying hard not to be. But, I mean, Monty.”
She flinched – just slightly, but enough.
“It’s all still a bit raw. I didn’t want to bring it up at the coast. It was great having you there for a bit.”
“Look, you don’t have to –”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This was a bad idea.”
I pulled myself together, stopped the idiot back-pedalling. I liked her, she trusted me. She deserved better than this.
“Look,” I said, “if you want to talk, I’m listening. I just didn’t want to pry.”
She ventured a smile.
“Thanks. You probably think it was bloody stupid.”
“Well, it could have messed up your career.”
“And ruined his – and his marriage.”
“He was married.”
I sat, thinking, This is too much. I’ve had enough to deal with since the trial without this. Bloody hell, Danielle and Monty Brackenridge. It was stomach curdling. I managed a nod, she carried on.
“It was a brief thing, in January. I’d lost confidence in my thesis – and mum was in hospital.”
I winced, Danielle continued: “She’s doing really well now though. Good recovery. But it was rough – minding the empty house while she was in hospital. So, I didn’t want to burden her, and everyone else seemed – preoccupied, getting on with new jobs. He was just there. It wasn’t for long, or that many times. But it was … comforting.”
Her blue eyes looked up at me, naked and unblinking.
“I think I can understand that,” I said.
“Well, you can’t undo that kind of mistake, can you? Things really soured between us. I just felt trapped. I really felt that I had no support in the department without him, no-one who’d help me through the last leg. And I didn’t want to tell anyone that I couldn’t work with him anymore. I’d known he was married. I didn’t want to crucify him.”
I nodded, slipping in scarcely tasted mouthfuls, filling my own silence.
“Marina eventually convinced me I had to do something, rather than just give it all up. But the Department Head had already cottoned on. She stepped in as replacement supervisor, and interviewed me for the teaching position.”
“Must be hard, though. Working there now.”
“Could be worse. He left. His wife got a job in Canada and he went with her. She knew what was up. There’s been other new recruits this year too, which helps. But there was a moment when I thought I’d never work as an academic, that I’d just tossed away three years grad work for nothing.”
“I kinda know how that feels.”
“That’s what Marina said. She told me about last year, thought it might help if I knew what someone else had ... I hope you don’t mind …”
“It was in the papers Danielle, lots of people knew. Anyway, in the end, you got the job.”
“Yeah, same day I got the thesis back. Three weeks ago. I should have been elated, but I just felt relieved. But I guess you’re … well, still living with it. I’m sorry, do you want your turn?”
It had just registered that Danielle had her PhD now, that I was dining with Dr Danielle McCubbin.
“Some other time. Now, are you eating? I can’t finish all this on my own.”
Danielle looked down at her empty glass and full rice-bowl and laughed.
That laugh changed the evening. Sliced it in two neat pieces, leaving us the better half. With everything out in the open, none of it really mattered. I refilled her glass, and the conversation opened up happily. We soon had empty serving plates in front of us, and a two-thirds empty wine bottle. I picked the bottle up and gestured towards her glass.
“Not if I’m driving,” said Danielle. “Why don’t we drop my car back at my place and head over to All Bar Nun?”
“Great,” I said, taking the bottle. “I’ll see if they’ll cork this up.”