Romantic Short Short – In London Gardens

 

In London Gardens

 A short Story

I was in London, photographing Kensington Park, when Ryan’s late night ultimatum finally hit me and I developed an unholy ache in my gut. I decided to ignore the pain, it was just stress after all. When it spread to my heart, I knew I’d I have to deal with it. If I didn’t, I was going to take some really bad photos, and I didn’t want my last international shoot to be crap. If I was going out, I wanted to go with a bang, not with a bunch of maudlin photos influenced by a broken heart.

I knew what the damn pain was about. Having to choose. My life as a photo journalist versus my life with Ryan. The hell of it was I swore I’d never be caught like this, that I’d never give my heart to a man who couldn’t support my career. Only it turns out I had.

“The job or me,” Ryan had said. “I can’t stand waiting around while you’re jaunting across the world.”

“So come with me,” I’d countered.

“I hate to travel,” he’d said. And that had been the end of the discussion. It was him or the job, and I wasn’t ruthless enough to choose the job, although in my heart of hearts I knew it would have made me happier. Besides, I loved him, didn’t I?

So I sat on a bench in Kensington Park looking at my shoes, focusing on my breathing and willing the tightness in my chest to go away. Rain drops started hitting the gravel path, and instinctively, I drew my camera bag under my jacket. Tears mingled with the rain drops on my shoes as I pushed my hand against my heart in an effort to contain the pain.

“Excuse me, but are you okay? You look ill.”

I hadn’t noticed the well-worn running shoes that had appeared on the path in front of me. The shoes were topped with faded jeans. His voice was kind, but I didn’t look up.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Listen, I know I’m being intrusive, but you’re holding your chest and I’m a doctor. I can’t really walk away from someone who is in obvious distress.”

His English accent charmed me and I looked up. I immediately wished I hadn’t. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, and definitely too tall, dark and boy-next-door for my taste. I tend to like golden surfer boys. But his face was kind, and the concern in his eyes made me feel ashamed of myself.

“Really,” I said, “It’s not physical, I’m having a minor emotional meltdown. That’s all.”

“Sorry,” he said, and sat down on the bench next to me. “That isn’t a compelling reason for me to leave you. You’re in obvious pain, you sound American, and you’re alone on a bench in Kensington Park crying in the rain. I’m afraid if I leave you here, you’ll do something drastic, and I’ll see it on BBC Two and recognize you. I don’t want to live the rest of my life knowing I could have prevented a horrific act of desperation, but didn’t. So do me a favor, ease my conscience and tell me about it.”

A bark of laughter escaped me. “You really aren’t going to go away, are you?”

“Not until I’m sure about you.” He held out his hand. “Jonathan Westerville.”

I shook his hand awkwardly. “Natalie Stevens.”

Up close, he had particularly nice eyes. Brown with dark lashes. And he seemed genuinely concerned, his brows drawn together and his mouth serious. It was the kind of face you could easily pour your heart out to, a bonus for a doctor, I thought. His patients probably willingly spilled their guts at every visit. I tried to feel cynical about it all, but the truth was I wanted to cry on his shoulder too.

“Natalie,” he said. “Nice name.” He smiled, and I reminded myself I was attached.

“Can I at least ask what you’re doing in London?” he asked. “You have a massive camera bag.”

“That would be because I’m a massive photographer.” I found myself smiling at my own lame joke. “I take pictures for travel guides and magazines. Well I did, this London Garden shoot will be my last.”

“Why? Are you tired of the travel?” He leaned back a little, giving me room I think, but he was still watching me closely. Like he was worried about losing the patient.

“No. I love waking up in new places. Or even familiar places with a new assignment. It’s exciting and there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes it’s not even the beauty. Sometimes it just how alien the landscape is, or how bizarre a way of life seems to me. It’s exhilarating.”

“So why are you stopping?” He seemed genuinely interested. “Why stop doing what you love?”

“It’s a personal thing,” I said. “A choice, that’s all.”

“But a choice you didn’t make willingly. Natalie, whatever or whoever you made this decision for, it’s not worth it. It’s causing you physical pain. No. Don’t deny it, I could see when I approached you that you were hurting. Had you been older I would have called an ambulance. Do you understand me when I say that whatever it is that’s stopping you from doing what you love, you will come to resent it, and it will affect your health? There’s always a price for ignoring our passions.”

I nodded mutely. I blinked furiously and swallowed, willing myself not to cry again.

Doctor Jonathan Westerville reached out a brushed a tear off my cheek. “Have courage,” he said. “You’ll work it out.”

The touch startled me and my face warmed. His compassion was almost enough to start the tears again, and when he smiled ruefully, I dug my fingernails into my palm to keep my composure. Just when I thought I would have to get up and run away, Jonathan stood and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Take care of yourself, Natalie Stevens, I hope we meet again.”

I watched him walk away, much too aware that he had touched me, twice. When I looked away, back over the Round Pond, the sun was streaming through the raindrops, creating a once-in-a-lifetime photo that I already knew I’d call Raindrops and Rainbows, or something similarly obnoxious. I didn’t have time to pull out my big camera so I thrust my hand in my inside pocket and pulled out the little digital I kept there for just this purpose and started clicking away. The pictures wouldn’t be quite as good, but it was better than not getting them at all.

The following day the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show was on my schedule. The magazine that hired me for the shoot had gotten me a press pass for the pre-opening and a membership so I could attend the first day of the show that was open to members only. My plan was to photograph flowers and displays the first day and then the Royals with flowers and displays opening day. The third day, I was going to come back to walk around and talk to people. Just for kicks. I’d scheduled more fun into this trip than I normally would. Even though I planned on talking Ryan into traveling with me at least once every couple of years, it might be a while before I made it back to London again. God, I hoped he had that much flexibility.

I arrived early and was ready when the gates opened. I wanted to catch everything at the beginning when the flowers were fresh and the people were still waking up. Some would have been up all night, fussing over their flowers and making things right.

The place was fantastic, of course, eleven acres of gardens designed by the best gardeners in England. I was photographing Princess Alexandra of Kent roses when I heard a voice behind me say “Natalie Stevens” in slightly surprised if very English tone. I finished a close-up of water on the petals before I stood and turned to see Dr. Jonathan Westerville leaning on a stone wall watching me.

He was wearing what had to be a Savile Row suit complete with waistcoat and bowler. He was taller than I remembered, possibly because I’d been sitting when I met him. He’d relaxed against the stone, legs crossed, apparently unconscious that stones might be smudging his suit.

“You clean up well,” I said.

“Doing better today, I see.” He smiled back at me and my face flushed, I looked away to hide my confusion.

“Yes, I’m fine. I was just jet lagged yesterday. I feel silly now.”

“Crying is a sensible way to release stress. If the English could leave off the stiff upper lip, we’d be much healthier for it. Sometimes you Americans do get things right, you know.”

“Yes, I do know. I’d just never considered crying to be one of those things. What are you doing here on press day? Didn’t you say you were a doctor?”

“Press day brings out all kinds of people. One of my patients is here and I’m checking in on her. Wouldn’t want any scandalous fainting, you know.”

“I’m sure not. It must be nice having famous patients.”

“Why do you assume famous?”

“Don’t be stupid,” I said, a little surprised at my own bluntness. “Everyday people don’t cause scandals when they faint, nor can they afford to pay their doctors to hang around all day, just in case. So, either a Royal or famous or both. Though I suppose calling someone royal and famous is redundant.”

“Quite.” Jonathan pushed himself off the wall. “Do you mind if I follow you around a bit? Otherwise some old biddy will find me hanging about the gardens and regale me with a list of her ailments.”

“Sure. Follow away. But you may find yourself wishing that you had an old biddy to talk to. This is the boring part. I tend to be introverted and brooding while I’m working. Don’t take it personally.” This was true. I’d alienated several friends before I figured out they needed to be warned about my antisocial tendencies. It was a concentration thing. I wasn’t good at expressing what I was doing while I was doing it, although if you hung around long enough I was more than happy to explain later.

Jonathan, it seemed, was willing to hang around. He stood off to the side as I shot garden after garden, focusing first on the flowers and the colors, and then on the people. The devotion to their work was plain on their faces. The naked joy they took in their gardens was almost painful and reminded me of the passion I’d be leaving behind. Not really leaving behind, I reminded myself, I’ll still be taking pictures, just closer to home.

I took some final candid shots of young women in costume carrying bouquets of roses before turning to Jonathan in his usual spot some feet behind me.

“I’m done for the day,” I said. “Were you amused?”

“Amused? No. Amazed. Your subjects seemed so relaxed with you.”

I opened my mouth to make a smart remark but he stopped me.

“No. Not the flowers. The people. Not one of them froze up. That’s unusual. Celebrities are used to being photographed every moment of their lives, regular people, not so much.”

“It’s easy here. I don’t have to ask for permission and I have a powerful enough lens that I don’t have to get too close. They know I’m there, but I’m not in their face. After a while they just get on with what they need to do and that’s when they’re most interesting. It’s the emotions that people pay to see. Magazines will pay for pictures of flowers, of course. But my freelance work is all about emotion. That’s what my reputation hangs on. The ability to catch what’s going on in people’s heads.”

He stood by me as I packed up my equipment, and I couldn’t read what he was thinking no matter how many surreptitious glances I tossed in his direction. I stowed the last lens and camera and stood up. I offered him my hand in farewell but he didn’t take it.

“Would you like some lunch?” he asked. “My treat. No that’s a lie, my housekeeper’s treat. And fresh tea as well, I have free rein in the tea room.”

He looked rueful and optimistic all at once, and I knew I should refuse him, but I couldn’t bring myself to say no.

“As long as you understand it’s not a date.” I knew it probably was, but what would it matter? Ryan wouldn’t be jealous of a little tea with a guy I would never see again.

“How can it be a date when I’m not paying?” he asked. “Isn’t that a prerequisite?” He led me to a bench in a shady spot across from a pensioner’s garden. “Sit yourself down here and I’ll be back in a minute.”

I had serious doubts about my sanity, but obediently sat anyway, watching a red-jacketed pensioner puttering around in his garden. It was a riot of color and I reached instinctively for my camera. I was taking close-ups of foxgloves when Jonathan reappeared with a plaid blanket under one arm, an unwieldy square basket over his shoulder, and a large metal Thermos in his other hand.

“Boy you never stop working, do you?” He nodded his head toward an open piece of grass around the bandstand. “Shall we go sit.”

I re-stowed my camera and joined him on the path, sliding the blanket out from under his arm before it dropped to the ground. We found a dry spot in the shade and I shook out the blanket, spreading it shiny side down on the grass.

Jonathan set the basket and thermos on the ground, lowered himself to the blanket, and tossed his bowler aside. My lips were twitching with suppressed laughter, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but I felt like I’d been transported into a BBC miniseries. Jonathan made a very good Darcy, but I was much too round to make a convincing Elizabeth Bennett. Round and terminally modern in black capris, rubber-bottomed flats, and a white sleeveless blouse under my rain coat. An outfit that wouldn’t even have passed for underwear in Jane Austen’s era.

Jonathan looked up and answered my twitching mouth with a full-out smile.

“I know. It’s ridiculous what we’ll do for tradition in England but someone’s got to make the effort.” He smiled as he popped open the woven top exposing a jigsaw of food packed solidly in the container. Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper were flanked by apples nestled in cloth napkins that were the same golden wood color as the satchel. Jonathan slid the inner liner filled with food out and set it on the blanket. Then he extracted two tea cups, flipped the lid shut, and set them on the basket.

“Tea?”

“Sure, but I’m not really dressed the part. Aren’t there rules about what should be worn while drinking tea?”

“Granted there are rules, but we’ve always been flexible about them when dealing with Americans. We may talk about you later, but while entertaining you, we will discreetly say nothing about your uncouth apparel.”

“Very kind of you, I’m sure,” I said and sipped my tea with my pinky tucked under like a proper English lady. I had to laugh when he passed me a tiny sandwich with the crusts cut off. “Please tell me you didn’t make this,” I said.

“My housekeeper made them. Is there something wrong?”

“No, I just couldn’t imagine you carefully trimming the crusts off and slicing them into tiny triangles, that’s all.”

“Wait until you see the other shapes. And I can trim crusts when necessary. Our cook felt every child should be able to produce tea for guests.” He turned one of the little white squares in his fingers. He peeled it apart. “What’s in them? Fish paste. Oh, but look there are some cucumber ones as well. He took one of the cucumber sandwiches and combined it with the fish paste one, stacking them together and popping the whole thing into his mouth.

We ate in silence until the sandwiches were gone. Jonathan wiped his mouth and fingers and then turned to me. “Are you really going to give up your career?” he asked. “I looked you up on the Internet, you’re quite famous. You’ve gotten an award for practically every photo you’ve taken.”

I was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might Google me. I started to stutter but he held up his hand to silence me.

“It’s none of my business, but someone who truly loved you wouldn’t ask you to give up such a big part of who you are. When you realize that, come back to London and look me up. I’d be happy to see you work again.”

‘It’s not like that at all.” The blood rushed to my face. “For all you know I could have an ill parent or something.”

“You put your career on hold for an incapacitated parent. You don’t give it up forever.” He lifted his hand again to stop me. “It’s not my business and you should enjoy your tea, so forget I said anything.”

But I couldn’t enjoy my tea. Jonathan had voiced what I’d been feeling all along.

“So,” Jonathan distracted me from my brooding, “What’s next on your itinerary? More London gardens or are you going to branch out into the country?”

“The Royal Botanical Gardens—is it in Kew, or at Kew? In Kew I think. Anyway I’m going there tomorrow morning. Tonight I’m riding the London Eye, I’ve been looking forward to getting some pictures from the top.”

We talked a while longer about London and how one becomes a doctor to royalty at such a young age. I thought thirty-five was young. Any movie I’d seen about it showed doctors at death’s door treating kings even older. I helped Jonathan pack the bits and pieces left from our lunch back into the basket and strap it closed. He stood and gathered the blanket. We didn’t move for a few minutes, knowing this was goodbye. I held out my hand for a farewell handclasp but he didn’t release me after the regulation two shakes.

Instead he pulled me into him, kissed me gently on the mouth, and ran his fingertips down my cheek. “I’m here every year at the Chelsea Flower Show. I’d love to see you again, to know how you are doing. I’ll look for you. Don’t give up who you are for what someone else wants you to be, Natalie. It’s not worth it.”

I nodded, tears spilling over my lashes, and left him there. My reaction to his touch and his kindness had me more confused than ever.

 

A year later I was single and back in London, and just like the year before I waited impatiently for the gates of the Chelsea Flower Show to open. Only this time I wasn’t looking for flowers.

I hurried through the gates as they opened walking the paths, looking everywhere for a tall dark-haired man in a bowler. I backtracked, looking in the tea tent, the med station, and the garden where I’d first discovered Jonathan watching me the year before. Not there. My heart dropped. What if he’d forgotten? What if he hadn’t really meant what he’d said? I sat on the edge of a fountain, not far from where we’d sat the year before. Jonathan had been so kind at Kensington Park, not wanting to leave me. My hand moved unconsciously to my heart. It wasn’t pain like last year, only the ache of disappointment. I looked at my shoes blinking back the tears and breathing deeply.

“Pardon me, but are you ill?”

A pair of worn athletic shoes topped with faded jeans had appeared in front of me.

I glanced up surprised. “But you’re not wearing your bowler!”

“I said I’d be here, I didn’t say I’d be working. I wasn’t taking the chance that you would come and I would be called away to listen to some old biddy complain.”

He took my hand and drew me up to standing. My breath was ragged and my heart pounded, but it wasn’t from the running. Jonathan’s eyes searched mine and I couldn’t help but smile. “So,” he said, “you’re single?”

I nodded. “It didn’t work out with Ryan. Turns out he was a bit controlling.”

“Imagine that,” Jonathan said, leaning into me, his lips a hairbreadth from mine. “Does that mean you can come on a date with me?”

I started to say “of course,” but my lips brushed against his and I forgot everything, lost in the heat of his kiss.

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