When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fuckin’ special
Creep by RADIO HEAD
As he wandered down a dark and misty Charing Cross Road just after 7.30, the brake lights on the buses diffusing a red haze through the fine drizzle, he ducked onto Garrick Street, avoiding the afterwork revellers hurrying to and from bars and late comers to the theatres hurrying to take their seats. It hadn’t been a great day – he had started early, staking out Ordnance Mews in St John’s Wood and then got a call from Barclay saying that he was sick and wouldn’t be in. This meant a second stake out which had ended in pursuit on foot mid afternoon in London Fields, covering for Barclay. He had been obliged to miss his regular swim – by now something that he looked forward to and that had helped him start to regain something of his former SIB physique. The swimming also helped him think – it was a moment away from the noise, the pressure on his leg, the confusion he often felt when he was around Robin. He had come to recognise that he was in love with her – these feelings had been intensifying over the years – he had put any prospect of a relationship with her in a padlocked chest during her marriage to Matthew but now this was over, the familiar longing had come back with a vengeance. The comfortable ease of their working relationship – she was a sounding board, a sparring partner, brilliantly empathetic with clients and whip smart – made the risk of crossing the line with her even more perilous. He turned left into Rose Street and into the crowded entrance to the Lamb and Flag. Why had Ilsa chosen this pub, he sighed inwardly as he ducked his head. It had an 18th century charm, nicknamed the Bucket of Blood for its bare knuckle fighting back then apparently, but it was low ceilinged and always packed, due to its proximity to Covent Garden. He moved to the left of the bar, trying to avoid the low dark wood beams, and spotted the group – Ilsa talking to a besuited young man and smartly dressed woman with short blonde hair (other lawyers Strike guessed) and Nick looking casual in jeans and relaxed in a light denim shirt, chatting on his mobile. “Pint?” said Strike to Nick. “You made it, Corm!” Nick said with a grin as he finished his call, “Yes please – another Seafarers.” “Ilsa,” Strike shouted over the noise – “happy birthday – what are you drinking?” “Thank you, Corm – she leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Lime and soda please.’ Strike handed over a Waterstones bag that had been buried deep in his coat pocket. “Last Words!” Ilsa exclaimed as she peered into the bag and saw the unwrapped gift – “how did you know? That is perfect!” she said. It had been Robin’s suggestion – something that Ilsa had mentioned a couple of months ago at curry night. Strike hadn’t registered it but Robin – ever thoughtful – had stored this nugget of intelligence away, knowing that Isla’s birthday was coming up. “Are you sure you don’t want something stronger?” Strike said – “it is your birthday!” Ilsa came closer and spoke conspiratorially, “we’ve done our first round of IVF – we didn’t want to mention it when we last saw you as you never know at each stage whether you can move to the next but now the embryos have been transferred, it is just a waiting game.”
Strike stopped in his tracks and looked at her sincerely with his dark hazel eyes, “Good luck,” he said. “If anyone deserves this, it is you and Nick.” She smiled at him and mumbled “Let’s see.”
Strike moved through the crowd towards the bar, ordered a pint of Doom Bar, Nick’s Seafarer’s and Ilsa’s lime and soda. The pub was starting to thin out a little bit and Strike could move more easily back to the high bar table next to Nick. “Ilsa told me,” Strike shouted in Nick’s ear over the noise of the pub. Nick nodded, understanding at once what he meant. “She has been an absolute trouper, I know I’m a medic but the number of blood tests and injections she has had to endure – being told her eggs weren’t the right size, possibly because of her age… It has been tough. Anyway, we’ll find out in two weeks!” As they chatted, Strike saw Robin’s familiar red gold hair ease through the crowd as Robin moved in to greet Ilsa. The two lawyers were still there and after a while he could see that the young man had gone to the bar to get Robin, Ilsa and the other woman a drink. Robin waived at Nick and Strike on the other side of the table but soon got immersed in a chat with Ilsa (probably about the IVF, Strike thought).
When Strike looked over again he could see the male lawyer, who Nick had told him was called Oliver and worked for Clifford Chance, chatting animatedly to Robin and Ilsa chatting to the young blonde woman on her right. The man looked a bit like Matthew, he thought, confident, expensive suit and boyish good looks. Strike thought about going over to chat to Robin but the man was half blocking her with his body – there was a look of chatting up Strike thought uncomfortably and, judging by Robin’s expression, she didn’t look displeased by the encounter. Fuck, thought Strike – he knew that letting her know how he felt could seriously affect their professional relationship and also that – as a woman in her twenties, it was inevitable that she’d want more sexual experiences than just with Matthew (and, but he couldn’t quite admit it to himself – the one he sought with her) but being a by stander to this and just watching it happen was fucking awful. Jesus – she looked incredible too – effortlessly casual, in jeans that showed off the gentle curve of her soft hips and a fitted red top just low enough to give a glimpse of the alabaster swell of her breasts.
“I’m going to head off now,” he said to Nick after a few more minutes – downing his pint. “Long day.” He saluted Robin by way of goodbye as he passed her and bent in to kiss Ilsa, “I’m knackered – need some kip – but let me know how you get on, won’t you?” He moved quickly through the assembled suits before Ilsa could even reply. He turned left into Lazenby Court, a narrow passage that ran alongside the pub – so narrow that you couldn’t fit two abreast at points. A relic of old London from Georgian times, Charlotte had once told him, where the poet John Dryden had been attacked by thugs dispatched by the Earl of Rochester. The high spirits of revellers and low hum of tourists did not improve his mood, nor did the cobbled surface that he momentarily stumbled on when he crossed Floral Street. “Corm – wait!” shouted Robin breathlessly – footsteps running up behind him from the passage. “You go back and enjoy yourself,” he said, half turning to look at her. “I’ve had a bastard of a day and my leg is killing me – I just need to get home.” He hesitated momentarily then added – taking in her flushed expression – “… and your lawyer will be wondering where you’ve got to.” So that was it, she thought to herself. “Are you jealous,” she uttered, with incredulity “No – you go back, you deserve to have a bit of fun after the last few years,” he said more gently, softening noticeably as she held his gaze with her grey blue eyes “I’ll see you on Monday – you have a good night.” He tried to muster a smile but the day he’d had had eliminated his ability to dissemble. Robin hesitated, then moved towards him and gently placed her hand on his arm as he started to walk away. “Are we going to do this?” she asked, looking him directly in the eyes. He hesitated – things once said can never be unsaid, he reminded himself – but knew better than to pretend he didn’t know what she meant. They were at the entrance to another alley now, just off Floral Street, that would take him through to Long Acre and the busy thrum of a Friday night. “Look – you’re 28 years’ old and you have just got divorced from your childhood sweetheart– we’re business partners – you need to live a bit and we need to not fuck up the partnership we’ve worked so hard to build up. However much I …” his voice trailed off.
She looked a bit abashed and flushed. “So that’s it, is it? You’re going to just hang around while I hook up with various men until I have had my “quota” – what’s considered to be enough these days Cormoran – 5, 10, 20?! And then what? If I am still unattached, are you going to try your luck?” People had started to notice the tall man and the striking young woman as they walked passed them now – Robin’s raised voice causing people to stare. “What is the problem – do you think you wouldn’t be enough?! That I would still be curious about other men afterwards. Or am I just not enough for you – not Charlotte-enough!” He was angry now. “No – that’s not what I think,” he faltered, taken aback by her outburst, “The truth is…” he hesitated, “…I think that I would never want to be without you – I think that I would worry about you constantly (more – even – than I do already if that is possible), I think certainties about how I live my life would be completely overturned. ”
“What do you mean?” Robin asked. “Like what, Strike?” she said angrily.
“Like children.” he said soberly. “I’ve never wanted children. When Charlotte told me she was pregnant I was stunned – I knew in my heart of hearts that it wouldn’t work – it would be chaotic, just like with my mother… And yet, and yet… with you, after what you’ve said to Ilsa I know that is what you want at some point, and I can imagine it, I can see it and more than that, at times I almost want it too. But how would that work with the agency…”
She had moved towards him now, imperceptibly. The distance between them had disappeared. She leaned up, running her fingers through his dark hair, and held his gaze for a moment before kissing him, gently at the first and then with intensity. He yielded to her after a moment’s hesitation and relaxed into the thing he had wanted to do most since he had first met her. She pulled away and and rested her head on his chest shyly and he enveloped her tightly in his arms. He looked down, kissed the top of her head and smiled, “Let’s go home.”