It was a changeable kind of day. The warm June air seemed unable to settle; it gusted fitfully through the drying grasses of Hyde Park, ruffling the feathers of the Canada geese lining the Serpentine. Dark, thunderous clouds shifted expectantly above, like examiners moving between desks in a crowded hall.
He was nervous as he walked towards the lake, towards her.
He saw her first, coming around the corner by the railings near the water’s edge. They were both late and fumbled into greetings.
‘You look well.’
‘Thanks you too, unemployment suits you!’
She didn’t seem pleased to see him. He was too overwrought to feel pleased to see her, and out of desperation fell back on process and politeness.
‘I think it’s just up here, shall we go?’
Together, they set off up the hill.
‘I’m going to get an ice cream,’ she said idly, her necklace with the golden bee catching the light as they walked. He felt a stab of annoyance. He had been going to get an ice cream, and make a joke about it tempting the ominous weather. Rather than say anything he simply nodded and they kept walking.
At the top of the hill they found a cafe and joined the queue, standing too close to be friends but too far to be lovers.
‘They have a sign for ice cream, so that’s a start,’ she said, turning away to look up at the hoarding. ‘I’m a complete child so maybe I’ll have Double Chocolate. What’s stracciatella?’
‘I think it’s one with vanilla and chocolate bits.’
‘Ooh they have twisters!’ Had she even heard him?
‘I love them,’ he ventured, ‘how about we get two twisters?’
‘I think I’ll just have a vanilla.’
All at once, in a single sentence, the gap between them became a chasm. Staring at her across it, he opened his mouth to answer. The air remained stuck in his chest, his tongue impossibly dry. What on earth was going on? She looked at him with mild confusion, waiting for him to speak.
Later, he would think back to this moment to ask himself why had it got so complicated, to wish he had stepped closer, taken her hand in his, pressed it to his blue linen shirt so she could feel the incessant, aching beat of his heart. Only with simple physical gestures like this could the gap between them be bridged. Instead he only stood there, mouthing.
‘What would you like’ came a voice from behind the counter, forcing him to turn, to speak, to decide. ‘Double Chocolate,’ he managed at the second attempt.
‘I’ll have stracciatella please,’ she said.
‘We don’t have stracciatella in today, have a look at the choices here.’ the server said, indicating a row of shining metal tubs behind a plastic screen.
‘Erm, vanilla then’
She wished she had said yes to the twisters. Why was she so hungover? When could she leave and meet Flora so they could laugh about this and forget the whole thing?
Before she could extract the money ready in her purse he tapped his card and passed her the cone. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ she said, ‘my hands are full of ice cream at the moment.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Let’s go?’
Walking along the path down to the water, both seemed rather more intent on their ice creams than each other. Without relish he shaped his into a smooth dome, tidying stray drips with small, neat licks. Eventually they came to a piece of dry grass which she said had fewer goose droppings than others nearby, and sat down.
He glanced at her, lying before him eating her ice cream rather distractedly. ‘Congrats on finishing uni,’ he said. Immediately he wished he had gone for something more interesting, something less predictable, but he also felt singularly unable to meet the challenge of doing so.
‘Thanks, I guess the same to you! Though I never know with you, because you doctors seem to have simply endless exams.’
‘That’s true, though I actually have 5 months holiday before my hospital placement starts, so no exams for a bit.’
She nodded, seeming to accept this without really registering what he’d said. She nibbled round the top of her cone neatly, her pink and green parrot earrings dipping in and out of view behind her sun-kissed hair.
Also clearly not at her ease, her gaze would not settle. Every now and again she hugged her crossed knees closer.
He couldn’t think of how to go on. His mind was filled with how the day before she had texted to say it was over, how when he read it the wind outside had battered and blustered, seemingly in sympathy, stripping leaves off young branches and pinning them against his window. He thought of how that morning he had woken gaunt and queasy and eventually made his way to meet her as if still in the clutches of a nightmare.
He felt a heavy drop on his shoulder. ‘It’s raining,’ he said.
‘I hadn’t noticed,’ she replied, somewhat ironically, peeling off the paper round the bottom of her cone. She gave no suggestion of moving. More drops fell. Shortly it was unquestionably raining and they stood and took refuge under the branches of a nearby oak. Other groups were also rushing for cover but they seemed somehow to set themselves apart sitting alone in a circle of clover near the edge of the trees’ reach.
‘Here,’ she said suddenly, her face a little flushed, ‘for the ice cream.’ She reached into her purse and passed a rather grubby £5 note. He took it and met her gaze as she glanced up at him. For a moment there was no space between them and they saw each other anew. ‘I hope you realise, that comes with a £1 tip,’ she teased.
‘I do provide an exemplary service.’
‘Oh, do you think I should it should be more?’
‘That’s up to you.’
They lapsed into a more companionable silence than before, their thoughts accompanied by the steady timpani of raindrops on the leaves above.
She looked at him, sprawled on the clover next to her. His face was currently rather serious, so unlike its normal kindly expression. How was he still licking his ice cream? She’d finished hers long ago. She looked at his brown suede boots, his jeans and pale blue shirt. He was just near enough for her to see the raindrops caught in his curly brown hair. She wondered almost fondly what would happen if she reached out and felt it.
After a while the rain thinned and a weak sun broke through the clouds, throwing dappled spots of light on their faces and the wet grass around them. ‘You win the prize for world’s slowest ice cream eater!’
He looked at her laughing at him out of her hazel eyes and, suddenly, felt sick. ‘Let’s go,’ he said, rising, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m going to feed the cone to the geese.’
‘That’s a fun idea,’ she said, suddenly chilly, ‘I hope it isn’t past it’s use-by date.’
The geese cackled and shoved in the shallows, vying for scraps of bread from passersby. As he approached they gathered expectantly. ‘Give it to that one,’ she said, pointing out an especially beady-eyed goose.
‘I want it to eat it from the top, like a person,’ he said, proffering the cone. As one, the geese shrank back, eyeing him suspiciously. Frustrated, he threw the cone. It lay there suspended, turning slowly in the limpid water. Melted ice cream curled into the lake.
‘You’ve just littered,’ she teased again.
He half-smiled. ‘Well I’m not going to fetch it, so don’t ask,’ he said, almost daring her to. For a moment he felt a thrill of excitement, but then in a rush of disappointment knew it didn’t much matter whether she did or not either way.
They turned back to retrace their steps along the bank, not speaking much, and parted a short time after. As they did, her eyes seemed to question him, to ask him to say more, even to cross the gap between them. He, too crushed by anger and apathy, could not meet her there.
He turned and left, not wanting to linger, only looking back over his shoulder when it was too long for her to catch him.
He left furiously, leaves falling across his path, hating himself and her. What had he done wrong? It was too unfair. How could she have so little respect? What was she doing, opening doors to her heart only to push him back from the threshold?
He kicked a stone, hard, feeling angry, confused and lost.