At a loose end

Much later, and with the benefit of hindsight, Lia Jordan thought it would have been better had she been more aware, taken more notice of the day her life changed. Instead of seeing omens and portents she saw her email account with the latest batch of papers submitted from the summer school historiography class. Not the most thrilling work, but it paid the bills and, if she was honest, it was a good excuse not to go back to her family after the end of the last degree course. Dr Pullen was no harsh taskmaster – everyone knew that the summer schools were aimed at the dilettante set rather than the apparently ‘serious’ scholars of the University’s main academic intake – and she had time on her hands to think about what she wanted to do next.

This summer things were even more relaxed as Rachel Pullen was winding her work down before taking maternity leave. Lia found she was available to help Gihon Plaisir sort through the applicants for the new research post that had come up as the faculty reorganised around the temporary loss of the popular tutor. Unexpectedly, Plaisir had even asked Lia to put herself forward. Having had little direct contact with the deputy head of the faculty of cultural history before this, Lia’s first thought was that he was only being polite. She’d finally acceded to his wishes after gentle hints had become something rather more insistent.

Though definitely the least formally experienced of the applicants she had been encouraged after seeing some of the more unusual selection criteria. In addition to the standard requirements a number of the candidates were known to type rather than just letting word processors put their ideas together, but fewer seemed able to respond in kind to the handwritten notes he had asked her to send out to them. Even less had fully independent driving licences. Hailing from the shambolic, blasted plains of the continental mid-west where self-reliance was everything, Lia had been more than happy to demonstrate her ability and had enjoyed driving the big man’s unnecessarily large, and outrageously macho, off-road vehicle on errands around the city.

Whoever the unnamed replacement turned out to be she thought that working for them had to be a better option than returning home. Her father may have brought her up to be strong minded but, since going to the city, whenever she made the long journey back that very independence always seemed to cause friction between them. And now, of course, Lia also hoped that the position offered the opportunity of spending more time with her imposing new acquaintance. A tall figure, he was an immediately recognisable silhouette with his long hair and flowing clothes that left only his large, and she thought dangerous looking, hands exposed. Plaisir’s origins somewhere in the depths of Fortress Europe made him simultaneously exotic and intriguing, irresistibly alien to someone unimpressed with most of the men she had met in the soft and civilised city.

Intent on the screen before her Lia was only vaguely aware of people coming and going in the quiet of the library. Not wanting to work in Dr Pullen’s office since hearing the news that she was leaving, and not feeling able to concentrate in the usual domestic chaos of her shared house, Lia found the library as safe and comfortable as on every visit in the previous four years. The availability of real, physical books was one of the establishment’s claims to fame, and the division of the huge floors by miles of shelving brought the scale of the vast building down to a human and manageable level. Though the building was busy all year round the impression of tranquillity and privacy had always been one of the library’s most appealing features for her.

Stretching to ease knots in stiffening muscles the woman glanced around and noticed Plaisir striding through the nearby stacks. With no fanfare, no intimation of the workings of fate, she simply smiled an acknowledgment in his direction then quickly turned her attention back to a particularly convoluted and impenetrable section on Herodotus. She had found herself getting distracted recently if she spent too much time looking at the dark haired man. Today she did not want her mind to wander and force her to keep re-reading the same dismal paragraph. Getting a grip on her wayward subconscious, she told herself that he had more than enough reasons to be in the library, the visit was probably nothing to do with her.

“Ms Jordan.” His final approach had been silent. Surprised, Lia looked up again, this time straight into eyes that today were a deep ocean blue. When she’d first met him she thought he swapped coloured lenses until she’d actually seen his irises change from one shade to another without seeing even raise his hands to his face. His eyes were like the moods of the sea – changeable, magical and entrancing. A light azure sky in his gaze could transform into a greenish hue or, rarer, the leaden grey of an oncoming storm. She tried not to think of the days when he hid them behind dark glasses, she guessed those were not good days for him. Today seemed to be a good day. “Lia. I’m glad I found you. Your handset was replying with DND so I thought I might catch you in here. If you could come back to my office, I think we’ve got time to run through the red tape on your new contract and get everything signed off before I throw you in at the deep end.”

He checked the time on his anachronistic and over-sized watch. On someone else’s wrist the broad leather strap would look out of proportion, on Gihon she thought it matched the landscape. As ever, the empty twin to the wide strap circled his other wrist. “To be honest, I’d hoped for something slightly more formal but I’ve just heard that our new man has called in favours and hitched himself a lift on a military ‘copter. He’ll be here soon and I’d like it if you could go and meet him.” He smiled his big easy smile, the one that made his face light up, the one she liked so much. She seemed to have been on the receiving end of that smile quite a lot in recent weeks and she still marvelled at the effect it had on her.

Of course she would go and meet the new man. Not for the first time she wondered if Plaisir was even aware of the effect he had, or if he discreetly chose to ignore it. How she, like quite a few others, hung on to his words as if hypnotised, trying to work out the original accent in his deep voice, hints of his unknown birthplace rolling beneath the North American acquired inflections. Logically she knew there was nowhere her new-found interest could go but she was aware enough to admit he fascinated her.

Like most people in the city his actual age was not an open topic of conversation but she knew he had to be older than his apparent age – somewhere in his late forties – and way too old for someone of only twenty-eight years. He’d become a fixture at this campus a few years before her arrival. Before that, and adding extra layers of confusion to his tones, he’d made his name in Luxor at Temple University. Before that? If anyone knew, no one said anything.

There was no way she thought she could attract the kind of personal interest from him that some of her friends were far too keen to speculate on. She knew she was too young. She also knew that her friends were ascribing attributes to an image of him rather than the real man she had begun to know. And there was, of course, the crucial fact that if he was ever going to give up his celibate condition it would only be with a man, and probably only one man at that. Given the notoriously heterosexual behaviour of the object of the big man’s desires she was not surprised that their unusual relationship was one of housemates rather than lovers. That was the official line anyway, in private she knew many people often wondered otherwise.

So much she wanted to ask him about. So much that politesse didn’t allow to such a recent acquaintance no matter how friendly he seemed. Like others before her Lia had first assumed that the pointless fixation was to blame for his occasional melancholy moments. As she had spent more time with him she recognised that was too simple an explanation. Some days she saw age, hard experience and unknown hurts from previous lives – lives that were not mentioned in this present incarnation. Too soon to ask her questions, all she could do was smile back at him as she closed up her computer and rolled it back into her bag. No, never any doubt that she would be happy doing whatever he asked.