“I’m famished,” she said. “I can eat a horse.”
They were in the kitchen. Derek had proposed having lunch.
“Sorry, no horse. I made pasta.”
Oh my, he made pasta. This man is too much.
Derek smiled as he started preparing lunch. He told her to just sit and relax. She was wearing nothing but a shirt of his he’d handed to her in the bathroom. He himself had put on a long-sleeved grandad top and a pair of joggers. Carolyn noticed he did not wear anything cheap. The shirt she was wearing felt silky. The label said, 'Made in Spain'.
“You’re my guest, and a helping hand is strictly restricted to the bedroom later.”
Carolyn liked that. A meal made and served by a man with the promise of fucking later on. It couldn’t get any better. Sitting on a high stool next to the kitchen island, she enjoyed following his movements and listening to him as he explained about the mill.
“It’s from the nineteenth century. There are still a lot of them around in this area. These kinds of mills drained the polder for decades. Now most of them are part of the national heritage. This one somehow remained private property. That’s why we were allowed to renovate the extension like this.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“Not long. It’s a strange and sad story how it became my home. I don’t think you want to hear it.”
“Please. I’d love to. Really.” She liked his voice, his Dutch accent as he spoke English fluently.
“It involves my wife. And my online affair with Ziggy, me leaving The Box. All that.”
“You never told me why you left The Box. Or why you came back.”
“No. I guess not.”
“Where is she?”
Carolyn felt a streak of pain in her chest. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. But it’s in the past now.” He said it softly.
“What happened?” Carolyn asked, unable to restrain her curiosity.
“If you really want to hear this story, I’d better pour us some wine.” He smiled, took a bottle from the fridge and popped the cork.
“White okay?” he asked.
He poured the wine into two large crystal glasses. He held his up, ready to toast.
“May the past remain in its own space,” he said.
“Cheers, babe,” she said. “To The Box and to reality.”
Derek laughed, took a sip, and kissed her. She tasted the wine on his lips. It was fruity and fresh. She licked her lips, wanting more. But he went back to the counter and continued preparing a salad to go with the pasta. Meanwhile, he told his story.
“When I was asked to do this project, renovating the mill I mean, me and Eva were already drifting apart. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was extremely busy and hardly at home. It was a bit of a gamble saying yes to the mill because I actually did not know if I could manage it with everything else I was doing. But it was such a promising project, and I’d always wanted to do something like it. I was working my arse off day and night. The Box had been a place for me to unwind for some years already. So, especially in those days, nearly every evening before leaving the office I would spend an hour or two in there.”
“You never stayed long,” she said. “I remember.”
“Yes. But there was nothing left of me for Eva anymore. When I found out she was having an affair, I didn’t do anything about it. It was sort of a relief. I guess I thought it would all pass. I somehow thought we were indestructible as a couple. I’d hooked up with Ziggy, as you know. She was great fun, and running our own Home and all those people enjoying our hospitality there . . .”
He paused. Carolyn could see how he pictured all of it in his mind. She could see it herself too, as she’d spent many evenings in Stardust Memories.
“. . . Well, I don’t know. I guess I needed it like other people need to drink or snort cocaine to keep going.”
“Why did you leave Stardust? It was so sudden.” Carolyn asked it carefully. She sensed the story would take a bad turn.
“The mill was nearly finished. I was having a bit more time. Other projects had finished too. I’d already started thinking that I wanted to change things. I got more and more unsure about having this online relationship with a woman somewhere in Canada and behaving like we were married. It had nothing to do with Ziggy herself. It was me.”
He looked at her. There was sadness in his eyes. Carolyn understood.
“We’ve all been there,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. You were with that guy what’s-his-name for quite some time too, right?”
“Right, Cyrano. The name always made me laugh.”
“Three years we were together in The Box. We planned to meet for real too. He was American and said he got a job in Ireland. I was actually ready to leave my family for him.”
“I felt so stupid afterwards. He never showed up. I spent a whole day at Heathrow Airport.”
Derek came over to her and held her.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “That must’ve been tough. How the hell did you get the courage to meet me today?”
“I don’t know.” She laughed, and they kissed again. But she was curious to hear the end of his story.
“What happened to your wife?” she asked.
“She was in a car accident with her lover. A head-on collision with a truck. They died instantly.”
“Fuck . . .”
“Yeah. Total fuck. You can imagine how messy the funerals were. Turned out I was the only one who knew about their affair. Her lover was an old classmate of Eva’s. They’d met again at a reunion. I went to the same school, but I wasn’t there that evening. He’d married one of our teachers, who was quite young at the time. We all knew each other. They had kids. It was horrible.”
Carolyn stared at him with her mouth open. Derek picked up a cherry tomato and put it in her mouth.
“There. Chew on this,” he teased. She bit on the little tomato, and it popped open, filling her mouth with its sweet and sour juice.
“When all this was happening,” he continued, “the couple who had bought the mill and given me the assignment suddenly got divorced. Neither of them could afford this place by themselves, so they put it up for sale. I had to show the real estate agent around. I was still dazed and confused. It was the week of the funeral. But this place felt familiar and safe somehow. Tranquil. After the agent left, I stood here in the extension, staring at the landscape through these windows. That’s when I decided to change everything. I broke up with Ziggy and left The Box. I sold my share in the firm for a good price, bought the mill, converted the second floor into a small studio to work in, and here I am. I do only small projects now. Stuff I like, for people I like.”
“Wow . . .” Carolyn was amazed. How could it be that this astonishing man had invited her here? Suddenly, she got scared. Would she wake up in a few seconds with Tim snoring next to her? Looking at the ceiling that could do with a fresh coat of paint and finally realising she had taken a wrong turn in her life?
“Here.” Derek handed her a plate that looked like something out of a cookbook.
“I hope you like capers,” he said. “And anchovies.”
Carolyn stared at it. The plate looked real. So did the man who had just given it to her. She closed her eyes and smelled the capers and the salty anchovies. All of it was real. She would not wake up.
“It looks delicious,” she said.
He poured some more wine, and they toasted again.
“Here’s to us, then.” He smiled. “Being here. Finally.”
“Finally?” she asked. She didn’t quite understand what he meant.
“Yes. One thing I did not tell you.”
She got scared again. Here it comes. Brace yourself, Carolyn. You’ll wake up.
“The reason I came back to The Box . . .” He paused. He seemed unsure about telling her. “Is you. I came back for you.”
This Carolyn could not have braced herself for. She could hardly hold back her tears.
She was so taken by surprise that the only thing she could say was, “I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true. I never thought I would return to The Box, but one morning I woke up thinking about you. I remembered the conversations we had at Stardust. You know, when we were alone on The Lawn because all the Americans and Canadians were still at work. The first time we chatted you said something about time zones and how annoying they could be.”
“I remember. I liked talking with you on those late afternoons.”
“Me too. We clicked, didn’t we? It felt like we’d been friends for years. And somehow the memory of us stuck with me. I got curious, not understanding why you had suddenly returned to my thoughts. I even looked for chat logs on my old computer, but I guess I deleted everything after Eva’s accident. One night I downloaded the software and logged in again. I couldn’t help myself. I used another alias and went looking for you. For all I knew you were gone.”
“No. When I found you at Beasts of Burden we talked. But you didn’t know it was me.”
“What username did you use?” She was racking her brain trying to remember who he’d been.
“Yes.” He smiled.
“You cheeky bugger. I knew there was something fishy with that Chronicle guy.” Carolyn was excited. Derek had really come back just for her. The exact fantasy she’d had weeks ago, it was true. Suddenly, she remembered something else about Chronicle.
“Wait a minute!” she called out. “It was him who told me Brandon had been seen again. I mean, it was you.”
“Yes. I wanted to know how you would react to the news.”
“What did I say? I don’t remember.”
“You said that Brandon was one of the best guys you had ever met in The Box. So that was enough for me. I returned as Brandon the evening after.”
She leaned over to kiss him. She never wanted to leave the mill again. She wanted to stay. With him. For real.