The first time Emily North showed anything other than indifference toward Raymond Burris was on her 25th birthday, nine years after he'd married her elder sister, Maureen. The whole family of Norths plus Raymond had driven down to the beach at Porthcawl, even though it was March. The parents decided to walk along the seafront and Maureen took herself and little Adam onto one of the fairground rides. Burris and Emily watched them rotate in the grey sky. They didn't say much. Then Emily saw a dog and said, 'Oh, how gorgeous. I'd love one.'
He followed her gaze. A St Bernard, jowly and slobbering, eyes as if they'd seen the years to come. Burris said, 'I'd rather a dog than a child, to be honest.'
Emily laughed. 'Me too.'
'Ah. That came out all wrong.'
'Sounds to me like it came out right.'
'Please don't tell Maureen.'
'Ooh. So now you and I have a secret.' She was grinning, he perceived it as flirtatious and like a cut to a camera at a different vantage point, his perspective changed and he found her attractive. He chuckled. 'Can I trust you?'
'Wait and see.' She shrugged, her face leaning left, still smiling at him.
Just the dog, the banter, the smile.
He'd rarely seen her over the years. Sometimes she visited Maureen, but that was infrequent and usually when he was out of the house. He'd always thought of her as a kid. Now, when he and Maureen and their son got home to Cardiff, he sat alone and wondered where it came from, this tickling sensation of emptiness. He didn't at this time connect it to Emily. He carried on with his life and in a day or recovered his equilibrium.
They next met in May. A wedding. Maureen's childhood friend, Briony Bertrand marrying some man in a tight-fitting suit and thick spectacles. Briony, red hair and red cleavage, barrelled into Maureen at the reception and swung her into a dance. Burris laughed and went alone to the cold meat selection.
'You see? I kept our secret.' Emily. Her hair was pinned up and her top was cut low. Burris weakened at both.
Rallying, he said, 'How do you know I didn't tell her?'
'Don't see anything awkward between you two.'
'Maureen would know it was a joke.'
'Ah, but I know it wasn't.' They both looked at Adam, playing with the other children.
Burris tried to break out of the moment, said, 'May I get you some luncheon meat?'
She looked at him. He felt they both knew how stupid this question was and that by not addressing it directly, they had some kind of unspoken communication. He felt a foam slide into his bones and looked away from her. But when he looked back, it was worse.
She glanced over at the dancefloor, at Maureen and Briony stepping stately together. 'No,' she said. 'Not hungry. Is there wine?'
There was. They found a table and sat on their own and talked and by the time Maureen came back, Burris had come to the opinion that Emily found him attractive and because he knew he found her attractive, he'd decided something had to be done.
He knew she worked in a department store in town and, making excuses at his office, contrived to moon around outside at what he assumed would be her lunchbreak and home time. He couldn't go inside, because that would telegraph that he was looking for her. They had to find each other as if by accident.
It took a fortnight. He'd started by loitering at midday and five o'clock. After several days of this, he adjusted his times by half an hour, then half an hour again, all the while repeating to himself his age ('You're forty-one years old!'). As if that were some kind of buttress to the heart's ruin. He learned later that she took lunch inside the store and left most days at seven o'clock. He saw her that day at six only because she'd arranged to leave early.
'Mr Burris.' Her hair was down. He knew he was in trouble when he found himself focussing on the way individual strands dragged across her cheeks, catching on the skin's irregularities, touching her face constantly.
'Miss North! Oh, of course, you work in Seccombes don't you? I was wondering what might bring you to town this evening.'
'Just work. Nothing interesting.'
'Is this the time you normally finish?'
She explained her work hours. He walked with her. He'd planned what to say, but saying it was physically challenging in a way that surprised him. He shook. He stammered. His mouth dried, his stomach seemed to poke actual fingers into his throat. And even as he got the words out, she looked doubtful.
'Maureen's birthday?' she said. 'Why do you need my advice? And anyway, it's two months off. You've got plenty of time.'
'Nevertheless, it'd be such a help if we could meet and-'
'Just buy her a dress. Come into the shop and I can get you a discount.'
'Oh yes. What a good idea. Yes, I'll do that.'
He left her at the end of Queen Street, scared that to walk any closer to her home, they'd bump into Maureen or Briony. Emily smiled, waved.
Burris watched her. Drew breath. Went into the nearest pub.
He made more excuses to turn up at Seccombes to buy the dress. He told himself not to go, that his previous conversation with her had constituted a rejection, but he went anyway.
She wasn't there. He still picked a dress and didn't get the discount.
As he was leaving, all but determined to bin the damn thing outside, he saw her. She waved, beckoned him over, studied the dress. Frowned.
'I'm not sure Maureen'll like this,' she said. 'She's quite finicky.'
'Do I think I should get something else?'
'Come on. Let's have a look. I bet you didn't get the discount, either?'
They spent thirty minutes browsing and selected a new item. Emily wrapped it, bagged it, held it out to him. The interaction was over. Burris, strangled with analysis, saw himself with one last chance. 'You always seem to be at work. What do you do when you're not here?'
She grinned. 'Girls like to go to the pictures, don't they?'
'So do I. Maybe Maureen wouldn't mind if we saw a film together. After all, she doesn't like them.'
Silence. He realised she'd agreed and the onus was now on him to set a time. He said the first cinema he could think of and arranged a day. When it was settled, she grinned that grin again and said, 'Cool. Film friends.'
He didn't tell Maureen and neither did Emily. They went to the cinema once, twice, three times. He didn't remember the films, didn't care about the films.
After the second one, they went to a pub. They didn't do anything, just sat drinking but they were looking at each other, this eye contact that made him shiver and her smile and her hair across her face. He felt like he was losing a battle he didn't even know he'd been fighting, losing all the things they said had value. No, not losing them. Throwing them away. Happily. Throwing his gifts into the fire because without her they were nothing.
Because he couldn't stop himself talking of her, he even told Maureen little anecdotes of things that'd happened with her, how a man fell off his bike right in front of them, how the landlady's dog shook water over them, but he changed the gender of his companion in the anecdote to make it a work colleague.
He knew they mustn't be seen, but he longed for the exact opposite - to be seen and talked of by everyone. For the whole town to know, to be jealous of him.
After the third film, she took him to her flat. They danced to the radio and drank and he put his arms round her and she kissed him.