Gabrielle pivoted with a genial smile for the voice that tugged at the strings of her heart’s lyre.
“Dominick,” she began, expecting to sink into his arms and mould into his warm body if the word she spoke was sweet and elongated enough.
But no strong limbs seized her and no chest pushed at hers as it expanded with a breath. She let her smile fade, and turned to her beloved, detecting hurried anxiety, hard as dried clay, in his usually soft aura, which had always welcomed her as its other self, its other half. She and Dominick slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle – without a snag or a jerk. It was perfect.
But today, he had a distinct nervousness quite contrary to that faultless fit. Today he seemed like a little boy, once again – a short wily grey-eyed twelve-year-old with hungry cheeks and a distrusting stare. A boy half-crazed and scarringly damaged by the contortions and temptations of honest poverty.
The words of rapture dried on the surface of her tongue, and a gentle well-meant inquiry noosed by uncertainty, Gabrielle drew her small feet together, and looked, green eyes worried and roaming. Dominick was the first to speak, and Gabrielle was scarcely comforted by the blank words wafting down from above.
“Gabrielle, I need to speak with you.”
The heaving high street slowed and paled into insignificance, and Gabrielle instinctively took a step backwards.
“Will you come out tomorrow night? On a punting trip? There’s fireworks in the village down the canal – maybe we might be able to see them. I dunno.”
Gabrielle relaxed suddenly, and people and colour began to move in the distance once again.
“Of course I will, Dom,” she said with a smile, though she was a little put out that it was not mirrored, and he betrayed no recognition of the gesture; he merely glanced downwards and flicked a stone with his shoe at an innocent passer-by. “What should I wear?”
“Nothing fancy – it’s just a boat trip,” he said with a slight scoff. “Besides, I’m punting, so I can’t guarantee that you won’t fall in.”
Gabrielle let a small frown crinkle her pretty brow. “What is the purpose of this, am I permitted to know?”
“Nah, nothing much,” he shrugged. “I’ll come at six.” – and Gabrielle was sure she could see an invisible blush blossom on his pale cheeks.
She considered posing herself to ask further questions, but as she wondered, she suddenly realised that she was alone, and a very rude personage with a shoal of shopping bags and a gaggle of children was pushing her from behind.
“Hey! Mind!” she cried indignantly to the lady, who looked rather bad-tempered, but Gabrielle thought, should not have been venting her frustration with the rowdy children out on a guiltless stranger. The bantering procession swallowed into the crowds, Gabrielle let her head swing on the end of her neck, her eyeballs in search of a tall solemn-looking man.
But Dominick was gone.
She tried to recall the particulars of her errand on the high street.
* * * * *
They walked down to the canal the following evening hand in hand, but Dominick’s body was stuff and his palm clammy; he squeezed her small fingers far too tightly for comfort, but as he was so unresponsive, and did not glance down at her once, Gabrielle felt safer in gritting her teeth and skipping on in unbalanced sync with his purposeful strides.
The rented punt was padlocked to a nearby set of iron steps, and though Dominick helped Gabrielle down with a shaky – yet implicitly gentle – arm, the raft glided over the water a minute later with a false smoothness simply rattling with tense silence.
“So…why did you bring me here?” Gabrielle ventured once.
Dominick did not alter his gaze, which was fixed on the river ahead, but said something unintelligible in a half-strangled tone.
“You’ve recovered fine, I take it?” she said a while later.
“I’ve been recovered for months,” grunted Dominick more definitely, and though Gabrielle thought that an understatement, for he had been out of hospital a mere eleven and a half weeks, she was satisfied that he was not leading her on some feverish wild goose chase.
Half an hour later, the punt swung round a corner in the canal, and Dominick, grabbing the painter, dropped the punting pole and swung the rope to a nearby jetty-post. It caught easily, and the punt slowed, the gentle tug of the slow current placing it at just the right angle for a great view of the landscape from below.
Chartreuse green in the halflight, with the universe spread out above, Gabrielle thought she had never seen such a strange sight.
She gazed for a while before speaking. “So, why did you bring me here?”
She eyes to her companion slightly after speaking the words, so that she missed the half-guilty start of his shoulders.
“The fireworks, of course,” he said, rubbing his nose and refusing to look at her.
Making a quick decision, Gabrielle began to shuffle along the punt, crawling slowly so as not to upset the balance.
“What’s wrong?” she crooned. “You’ve been avoiding me for three days now. What’s happened, Dom-dear?”
Reaching out in the limp darkness, she felt her white hand make contact with his sharp jawbone, which lay in shadow. She tilted his head like a lever, and he did not resist, till she could see his face in the graceful light of the moon.
This time, he forced himself to look her in the eye, and Gabrielle was startled with the intensity of emotion in his grey eyes. For a moment she struggled to recognise it. But as he edged towards her, so that they were sitting together in the centre of the punt, she realised that he was consumed with some form of nervous passion.
Silent and beautiful contemplation unfolded as they sat in the bottom of the boat, clothed in chartreuse green and rocked by black satin waters. Almost imperceptibly, Gabrielle watched Dominick’s lips purse in a low whistle.
With scarcely a second between the whistle and the appearance, a flash of lemon-yellow flitted into her line of vision, and she blinked in delight. A bright yellow canary bird perched on the side of the boat.
As if words were unnecessary, for perhaps they were, Dominick reached over, ever so slightly, and brought Gabrielle’s hands out before her, uncurling the fingers and squeezing them quickly. The canary bird hopped onto her fingers with a tiny chirp, as if the whole act had been rehearsed.
Gabrielle felt the alive little talons in her palms, and her lips parted as if to keep pace with the swelling of her heart.
And then, with a great thrill, she felt something cold and round burning into her skin, and her gaze dropped to see that the little bird had been carrying a ring.
“Oh, Dominick!” she breathed.
And then the fireworks began.