Sunday, 16 October 2011

Prologue Opening from Work in Progress (American Daughters)

After all this time John’s self-possession deserted him. He wanted to make sure that he saw her before she saw him. He just wanted that one momentary advantage, to be able to look at her. A moment of discovery. He knew she would be more beautiful than any of the photographs he had seen.
Like a guerrilla commander readying himself for a skirmish he sized up the lay of the land for an advantageous position. The weather, timing and topography had joined together to provide him with a perfect place. He’d done it so many times before on battlefields from La Haye Sainte at Waterloo to Touro at Lake Trasimeno looking in on the past, but this reconnoitre was more concerned with the present and the future.
He’d dressed meticulously for the occasion, not in camouflage but more in an attempt to be inconspicuous. Over a plain, dark blue button-down shirt he’d added a light, crewneck lambswool sweater and his dark grey jacket with the elbow pads. The navy blue cords fitted his well-proportioned physique snugly and the new brown shoes he’d had to go out and buy at Saks completed the effect. He grabbed his dark blue and brown leather outdoors coat from the back seat and struggled into it. Although a watery sun shone insipidly through a thickening cloud cover it looked like the temperature would drop below freezing after dark. It was already noticeably colder this much further north.
He’d followed the directions he’d been given and without too much trouble he’d pulled up in front of a modern residence hall on the upper side of the clinically manicured campus at Middlebury. As he hobbled from his rental car he cursed the crutches he had to use. The journey from New York City, with only the use of his right leg, had been tiresome, although inside him there was an exhilaration he couldn’t quite repress. Finishing his work in Manhattan in the early afternoon the previous day, he’d avoided the commuter rush and, guided by the ‘eye in the sky’ traffic reports on the radio, had headed uptown and out on to I87, the Adirondack Parkway. He’d noticed the air altogether crisper and cleaner by the time he’d left the environs of the city and it certainly felt brisk when he stopped off in a rest area in the dark of the early evening north of Albany. He’d eventually called it a day when he found a small modest motel open for business, one of the few in the off-season on N7, just across the state line in Vermont. And the following morning he’d been uneasy after a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and coffee as it had tried to rain and he’d watched a flurry of raindrops run down the window mixed with a sleet of deformed snow crystals that melted on contact with the glass.
As John worked his way with some effort up the pathway to the dorm, a pretty co-ed emerged from the building, wearing a fur-lined khaki parka, her small beanie and grey scarf struggling to confine her long blonde hair. For a moment, a heart-lurching moment, he had thought it was Hilary, as the girl strode towards him, her head down, carrying a file folder and a couple of books. She barely stepped aside for him as he continued his unsteady progress towards the door. Reaching the lobby he’d realised Hilary was not there to meet him at the appointed hour.
He glanced at his watch and smiled to himself. He was a few minutes early. She’d said she would be working at the library in the morning, so he asked the next student coming down the stairs for directions. Not that he was going to walk all the way there. Better, he thought, to let her come to me. It was a new century, a new beginning, but inevitably, for John, it felt as if he was doing what he knew best, digging something up from the past which, he hoped, would give a different perspective, however small, to events back then. He knew it was not going to be easy.
He did, however, manage to walk round to the other side of the dormitory, which stood above a large expanse of grassed quadrangle surrounded by grey limestone and white marbled buildings. It was an almost treeless open space reinforcing the cold, pristine, Calvinist feel of the older buildings. He didn’t much appreciate the austerity of Colonial Revival architecture. The campus harboured nearly two thousand college students with a healthy appetite for partying or the outdoors, or possibly both, to say nothing of the excellent educational and support staff. There was an almost inverted snobbery in that Middlebury was just a college and had no postgraduate faculties. Before him, cut through a grassy bank, a dozen stone steps led down to the gravel paths that criss-crossed the bare landscape.
It was that brief industrious academic interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when students were buried in classes or finalising assignments before the winter break chores of reading and revision for their end of semester exams. Certainly they were spending most of their time indoors, unless preparing for the winter sports season and the glories of the winter semester. That one month one course interlude allowed for an afternoon of skiing to reward their attendance at morning classes, topped off by an evening of study and socialising in their cosy dorms with plentiful helpings of hot chocolate before the parties started.
John stood back from the top step looking down to the corner of a building some sixty yards away, round which he was certain she would come. The stiff breeze coming out of the northwest from Canada was cold, the sky suddenly leaden, as if confirming his earlier appraisal that snow was imminent. He was glad he’d remembered to put on his coat before leaving the car. He turned the collar up, feeling the cold air on his neck and regretted he’d forgotten his scarf.
At last a hatless figure marched into view in a royal blue parka and black turtle neck, jeans and loafers, her helmet of dull gold hair swinging from side to side as she strode forward determinedly against the wind carrying a pile of books. Her parka was unfastened so that the breeze caught at it and made it flap against her body. John had an irresistible desire to run to meet her, only held in check by his incapacity.
She involuntarily hesitated as she turned onto the gravel path that led up to the steps, suddenly aware she was being watched. John had succeeded in capturing the moment. Many mixed emotions surged through him. He swallowed to clear his throat. Hilary came on methodically up the path and climbed the dozen steps, the faintest of smiles playing at her lips, her eyes moving from his face to his crutches.
Good, he thought, at least the injury has been useful for something. However she must have envisaged their meeting, she would not have put anything like that into the frame.
At last she was with him, the shadow of her smile broadening a touch, as she reached the top step and burrowed into his coat. The moment of their embrace, when she would physically connect with him, was something he’d dreamed about time after time, feeling the weight of her firm body pressed against his. It was never going to be long enough whenever she pulled back.

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