At six o’clock, just when the sky turned the color of an Anjou pear, he took a willow-basket from its nest above the bureau and thought of her. Not that she was ever far from his thoughts, but a keener, wilder-edged memory of their time together dwelt among the weave of this basket.
He took it down the long, white passage into the kitchen. A long, white loaf of bread, crusty as a slow oven could make it, descended into the basket first and, with his usual care, Brian tucked over it a counterpane of speckled muslin. Beside this, he laid a wedge of cheese from their sheep. Nella loved the dairy and he often thought that, if she hadn’t stayed for him, she might at least have stayed for the cheeses and yoghurts and creams. He could remember it so achingly, the marigold-smell of herbs crushed under her knife, the white curds clinging to her fingers as she kneaded flavor into the blind cheeses.
To the cheese, a small testimony of his stinging faith that she would come back--Someday, someday when Nella had got tired of running and have forgiven him for not being different than he was, she would come back--he added two apples.
Maybe when she came, she’d bring the smell of vanilla with her and he could hold her in his arms with her honey-colored hair sliding against his clean-shaven cheek. He always shaved clean around Nella, for she disliked beards and refused kisses till he’d slicked it off. Her refusals, even, would be welcome now.
Oddly, or perhaps not, it was the comfort of their ordinariness he missed most.
Even in his most loquacious moods, Brian spoke little, and he was conscious that when he did, his voice came out like a banjo-twang. But tonight, hope burdened him and her song crawled to his lips:
“As I came down through Dublin city at the hour of twelve at night,” he sang, just a stumble under speaking volume and not so tunefully, “Who should I see but the Spanish lady washing her feet by candlelight.” He took the apples out of the basket and shined them on his stained jeans, one by one.
“First she washed them, then she dried them o’er a fire of amber coals.” He turned the rosiest apple to end-light of day, then rubbed it again. “In all my life I ne’er did see a maid so sweet about the sole.”
He replaced the apples and tucked beside them a paper-wrapped stack of molasses cookies, the kind they’d made together when November ground his horse-teeth with a silver frost.
Molasses reminded him of her as well. Really, everything did, and he couldn’t wish to help it.
His song snipped short by the sharp hope, Brian laid to rest a stone bottle of new cider and covered it with a blanket the shade of fresh-turned loam. There was his picnic: there were his hopes, layered between the foodstuffs in a half-edible tiramisu he might regret tomorrow.
The question, “Would she come?” haunted him tonight with its tangible promise. Because if she did come, if her answer to that question was affirmative, then there’d be sandwiches for two and a feeling like tears.
His ring-hand trembled but Brian ignored this; if he felt nervous, it meant he doubted and doubt was alien to him when he thought of Nella. Hard-won, that alienation, but he’d learned to kill it with the memories. She’d come.
Slowly, as the Anjou sky dip-dyed its cloth in a vat of pomegranate, Brian took his basket, locked his door, and pocketed the key. Their flock bleated from beyond the barn, behind his battered red pickup. He opened the passenger door, set the basket in the space where, tonight, Nella’s lap would surely be. Then, not bothering to go around the other way, he climbed across the empty seats and blasted the evening quiet with a diesel benediction.
Out the gap between the stone walls, down the road that serpentined between juniper and plum-colored hills, and ten miles further till he reached the river.
Brian parked, cranked the windows down so the darkness would cool the interior, and dragged his picnic out the driver’s side door. Heart squeezed for the thousandth time with the curved hollow of her absence, he headed to their spot. He’d never taken off his wedding ring and he’d never forgotten that here, in the fern glen near the bike path, she’d promised to love him forever. Well. He didn’t know what she felt, though he had hopes, but he’d never broken that troth.
Layer by delicate layer, Brian dismantled his hopes and the basket until he stood on the verge of the soil-colored wool looking down on a small banquet. A late firefly or two winked at his faith. Laughing, he imagined, that a man would continue to celebrate a forgotten anniversary.
He sat down with his back against an auburn-haired maple and waited.
After a time, far down the trail, he heard the tell-tale sound of a vehicle pulling into the parking lot.
Its engine guttered. Stopped. Was it staying? Was it her?
The smell of vanilla wafted in and out of his subconscious and he tensed like a stag scenting danger.
A step crackled on the gravel of the bike path and certainly it was like her step. Hers was gentle and measured, though not usually so very slow. But perhaps she felt shy; it had been a painful while.
Still, he had no thought that she might not come. If Nella returned, she would know, somehow, to meet him here. In their place.
He let one ragged breath and then another between dry lips and waved off a cloud of midges.
The step came closer down the trail filled with light like forgotten amber.
It would be her. It must be her. It--
The hair was white, the frame bent. The face belonged to an old man. Frailer than frail he looked, but in his pale eyes was enjoyment of the dusk’s glory. For it was quite dusk now and getting darker every moment, like a paintbrush dipped in Prussian blue, twirled in a water-glass.
The old man paused, half on the trail, his body twisted in a question mark as if wondering whether he ought to leave. “Hello, there,” he said at last.
“H--” Brian’s voice cracked at the sudden impact of doubt’s ram-horn. He tried again. “Hey.”
“Waiting for someone?” The old man’s voice seemed knit of August husks.
Once more, Brian’s throat closed and the smell of vanilla drifted away. He shook his head, quite certain now. She had never liked the dark. She would not come. He stood, extended a hand, and gestured to his banquet. “Care to join me?”
After all, there were still sandwiches for two and a feeling like tears.
It was his fourteenth picnic.