Owen hung around outside waiting for Willow to appear. He kicked the dead leaves and said a prayer that she would be the next person to leave the library. For a brief moment, he contemplated rolling a cigarette, then decided against it. Willow hated to see him smoking.
The afternoon was reaching evening, with the last of the daylight ebbing away. Owen hated the autumn and winter months. He’d feel the sadness seeping in, the Black Blanket, he called it.
Willow was holding the door for the girl behind her, smiling, giggling. She skipped down the steps, her grey military coat buttoned up to the neck, her bag swinging like a pendulum.
- Were you waiting for me?
- Yes. I don’t like you walking home alone.
- How thoughtful of you.
- I am thoughtful, aren’t I? My halo needs polishing.
Willow ruffled Owen’s hair and stuck her tongue out at him. He smiled back.
He sometimes tried to pinpoint the moment when he fell in love with her. The exact day he knew. He remembered the outfit she wore, black jeans and a red jumper, but the precise moment was not clear.
They’d been early for their lecture and bought some lunch to eat together in the park. Owen recalled how Willow had dropped her sandwich on the grass. She laughed and threw it to the birds. He’d offered her his sandwich instead, which Willow halved and gave Owen his share.
Was it then? Or perhaps when Willow asked if birds would eat the chicken from her sandwich, and were they cannibals for doing so? Owen didn’t tell her she had mayonnaise on her bottom lip. Owen decided this was the moment he lost his heart to Willow Clements.
- Seagulls eat fish.
- You’re right, they do. Vultures eat carcasses. Silly me.
More birds congregated around them near their bench. The sparrows were Willow’s favourite. She warned Owen never to trust robins. Vicious little sods, she said. Bullies. Definitely not as sweet as they’re portrayed.
Owen leaned in with his napkin and wiped the mayonnaise from Willow’s mouth. There was a tiny window of opportunity when they looked into each other’s eyes. Willow giggled.
- I’m such a messy minx. That’s what my mum used to call me.
The day with the birds was a year ago.
Owen wanted to take her hand as they walked home to her flat, He wanted to hold it so tightly that she’d never be able to let it go.
- Have you finished your essay on Coleridge?
- Yes. It was due in today. Oh, Willow…
- What? I just wanted to ask.
She’d ask him questions all the time, about history and music and art. She asked his opinion on films and books they’d both read.
Owen walked on the outside, next to the kerb, a habit quickly formed from their first walk together. He found it more natural for him to be nearer the traffic than her. Willow never noticed and Owen never mentioned it.
- I’m supposed to be going out tonight. You know my friend, Laila, who studies Spanish, well, her boyfriend’s mate is having a house party. I’m being set up with the mate. I hate set ups - and blind dates. Laila thinks I need a boyfriend. The trouble is, every guy I meet disappoints me.
Owen bent down to tie his lace and touched Willow’s leg as if to ask her to stop and wait. He looked up at her and, for a second, he imagined them in years to come, a diamond solitaire ring in his pocket, then Willow’s shock turning to squeals of joy, as they hugged and kiss on the pavement. Yes, yes, yes. I will marry you, Owen Cheever.
Willow pulled Owen up by his coat sleeve and looked at him.
- Do you think I should go to the party?
- Why are you asking me?
- I don’t know.
- Do you want to go?
- Yes. And no.
They carried on walking until they reached the park gates and Willow stopped again. The sky had closed over. The purple flecks of evening were lost to blackness.
- I don’t like walking through the park when it’s dark.
- But we’re together.
- Will we ever be?
Owen followed as Willow took the route around the park. The amber glow of the street lights made Willow less nervous.
There was nothing Owen could say that wouldn’t mean risking it all, and he wasn’t ready for that. He knew what he desperately wanted to say, he’d rehearsed the speech in front of his mirror countless times.
- Willow, I need to ask you something.
- Do you like me?
- You know I do. You get my crazy jokes, and I tell you everything… We’re friends--
- Friendship is a sheltering tree… It’s just that…
Willow’s phone rang. What he would have said was left hanging as he waited for Willow to end her call. The call didn’t end, though. It went on and on until Willow asked Owen if he wanted to walk on ahead. He didn’t. He wanted to wait. He stood by a red car and thought about the words that he heard and what they probably meant.
Listen, I don’t see the point. I won’t like him… Because I know, that’s why. Because I already like someone… No, you know all this. I told you. I don’t know… I hope so… I want to. I will… I need to go now. I’m with someone… He’s waiting…
Willow turned her back to Owen and then carried on talking.
What, now…? No, I’m not.
Owen felt crushed by three words, ‘No, I’m not’.
- I’m so sorry, Owen. Laila’s really working on me to go out with the guy at his party. It’ll never happen.
- What you said, was it true? I wasn’t eavesdropping, it’s just I couldn’t help but hear. Do you like someone already? You never told me.
Willow pulled some gloves out of her pocket and put them on, complaining about the sudden drop in temperature.
- I do like someone, yes. It’s more than like. Laila knows, but she says it’ll never come to anything, and it’s not - love - if the other person doesn't even know how I feel about them.
- So you haven’t told the someone you love them.
Willow laughed and stopped suddenly.
- God, no. You see, it’s kind of perfect as it is. I don’t know if he feels the same so I don’t want to risk losing him.
Owen looked at Willow. She was still and beautiful.
- What was the last thing Laila asked you on the phone?
- Just tell me. What was it?
- It’s not important. Why do you want to know?
Owen was aware of the need to pull back, to change the direction of their conversation. They walked on. The moon was bright, unobscured by cloud. They approached the road where Willow lived. Owen looked up at the sky.
- They’re there, we just can’t always see them.
- What are?
- The stars.
Willow, stood in front of her house and gave Owen a hug, as she always did when they parted company.
- Enjoy the party.
Owen had only gone a few yards when he heard Willow call out his name. She ran up the road and stood directly in front of Owen.
She smiled and took a deep breath before speaking.
(c) Liz Breen