I made her coffee.  She likes it bitter and strong, without sugar.  She thanked me…and she sat on the edge of her chair across from me and said nothing.  I waited, as Nicky is the sort of girl who will tell you what’s on her mind only when she’s ready.  You can’t force her. She decides for herself…every aspect of her life.  And that’s why I couldn’t really understand her relationship with Larry.

I have had a soft spot for her for many, many months now.   Let’s stop kidding myself. I’ve been in love with her for nearly all of those months. But of course, she is Larry’s girl.  More’s the pity.  At least, she shares an apartment with Larry, and often goes to functions with him…I’m not sure how far that situation has gone, come to think of it. Perhaps it’s one of those things I should not try to find out.

There was something different about Nicky last night.  When she accompanied me to my flat, her hands were trembling, and I knew her well enough to realize that something serious must have upset her. She was not crying as such but her face was pale and she was unable to settle.  She wandered about fiddling persistently with the knick-knacks strewn through my homely pad.  She avoided the leather lounge chair where at other times she would perch herself and make outrageous comments about her life at the office and in fun, mimic her friends with merciless precision.  It wasn’t at all like that last night.  Something was disturbing her, something that she couldn’t handle, something she needed help with but was too shy to ask.  Timidity never sat easily upon Nicky’s shoulders, and this made her visit even more curious.

Larry has been around for a number of years, but I have no illusions about him. To be perfectly blunt, he is a slimy individual.  I have known him to take advantage of girls like Nicky, possess them and carelessly walk away, never considering that he, at least partly, might be to blame when a girl’s world is shattered.  Larry thinks of himself as a man that no woman would want to be without.  He is a very handsome man, more than 180 cm tall with a frame that is knotted with muscle. His face is the colour of a pale mahogany, a product of long hours exposed to the sun. There is more than a modicum of vanity to Larry. I remind him whenever the occasion arises – and I make sure that it comes up often in conversation – that his skin is drying out. I have only to place a wizened prune in a bowl on the table for him to storm off in high dudgeon. Of course I never know what I’ve done to cause such an extreme reaction. We play often on the squash courts where each game is a ‘fight to the death.’  Larry hates losing and my superior prowess with the racquet fills him with an implacable hatred for me at such times.  That I have known him for so long makes no difference.   That we remain friends afterwards is a matter of little more than idle curiosity to me.

Nicky is nothing at all like that.  She has a snub nose, a little short one that curls up at the end in a never-ending endeavour to catch sight of her eyebrows.  Freckles dust her cheeks below her liquid brown eyes, pools of Scottish marsh water caught by the sun. She has a long blonde mane which swishes as she walks, and when she leans across and gives me a friendly hug, I feel her hair upon my face like freshly spun silk and I have to force myself to remember that she is just being friendly, and that there is nothing more for me but friendship.  I’ve been Nicky’s confidante for what seems like years, but has really been only a few months.  She comes just to my shoulders.  Admittedly I’m 193 cm tall, so I guess that makes her 160 something, maybe 166 cm. She has the most beautiful figure I’ve ever seen on a girl, yet somehow, it’s not her figure that attracts admirers to Nicky.  It’s the lovely bubbling personality of the girl, always looking for a means of finding something humorous in a situation however dark and unsettling it might appear.  That’s my Nicky…but last night, somehow she was different.  Something had switched off the glow within.

She was three parts of the way through her coffee before she began to open up.  It was as I had anticipated, a fight with Larry.  Once again he had not listened to her.  She told me how he had pressured her, and how disappointed she’d felt when Larry had treated her as someone who was just around and could be walked away from.  She went into specifics of the argument.  Essentially, Larry had tried to force himself on her and would not listen when she told him she wanted to be a virgin on her wedding day.  He’d laughed at that and she had stormed out.  I won’t bore you with how great I felt that no one had as yet known her.  She asked me if she could stay.

I looked at her.  I wanted to be sure that I understood exactly what it was that she was asking.  She must have recognized my concern, because she reached across the table and patted my hand and said that she needed a friend for the night…just a friend she could trust while she tried to get her head together.  She compounded my pain by commenting how she had always felt comfortable with me.  Of course, I assured her that she could stay; she could have my bed and I would use the sofa.  But she wasn’t having any of that – the sofa was good enough for her.

Nicky asleep in my flat.  Who would have thought it?   I don’t mean to imply that I disliked having her spend the night.  I’d dreamed often of little else. But Nicky was hurting, Nicky needed a friend, someone on her side in the fight. I would be that friend much as I would have preferred to be her lover. Nicky, so innocent and loveable, a girl not to be taken advantage of.  So Nicky stayed.

We headed off to bed I suppose at one o’clock in the morning, something like that. I passed out some blankets and a fresh couple of sheets and I managed to find some spare pillowcases and she arranged a bed on the sofa.  And then she went to the bathroom.  I could hear her cleaning her teeth and…I wasn’t sure what she was going to change into.  As it happened, she borrowed one of my T-shirts I’d shoved in a cupboard and forgotten about.  She used it as a top that came just below her cute little bottom, and I had difficulty in keeping my eyes from continually wandering in that direction.  I think she knew the effect she was having on me.  But she just smiled fleetingly in her usual sweet fashion before climbing between the sheets, snuggling down into the sofa and wishing me good night.

I did not sleep much that night. I tossed and turned as I thought of Nicky on my sofa in my apartment and I kidded myself that that was my girl down there.  She was here for me to love but, of course she wasn’t…she just needed a friend.  But my body betrayed my logic and I had an uncomfortable night.

In the morning I rose early as I could tolerate the discomfort no longer. I put on my jogging gear, crept quietly down the stairs and passed close by the sleeping girl in the sofa bed.  I reached out and ever so softly touched her golden hair.  I could not help it. Then I let myself out and tried to run and run and run away my fears, my hankering after what was not mine.  I tried in urgent desperation to run from my loneliness, but of course I failed miserably.  It just didn’t work, as I had known it wouldn’t.  I had always told my clients to face up to their problems, to overwhelm them, but I could not defeat my own.  I staggered back to the flat.

When I returned, Nicky was in the shower.  When she came out, she busied herself with the cereal boxes and the breakfast dishes.  I showered swiftly and we settled down and ate together like an old married couple. We chatted, and we did the cleaning-up, and I went to my room to change into my suit, my working clothes.  I thought I heard the front door slam while I was pulling on my trousers, and I knew then that she had gone.  A brief interlude in my life, which I had hoped could have been so much more.  But her stay was just a passing shadow under the flickering fluorescents, two friends who shared a shelter for one night. I had helped her through a moment of trouble but I felt envious rather than gracious.

Work that day was a horror.  There were clients who would not understand that their lawyer could not wave a wand and relieve them of responsibility for the trouble they’d caused themselves.  That day, I saw greed and pain and evil, and I offered no sympathy. I went home, wondering where my life was taking me and how long I could continue when Nicky was so close to me, but yet so far away.  I let myself in and knew instantly that something was different…there was someone in the kitchen.  I put my bag down carefully and picked up the squash racquet I had forgotten to put away last time I played Larry.  I crept inside.  A snub nose beneath two brightly, twinkling eyes turned towards me.

Nicky looked at the racquet I had raised above my head and I quickly threw it behind me.

I heard her soft voice asking if I minded if she stayed a bit longer.  And then she added, “A whole lot longer.  Like forever.”

I stood, unmoving.  I was unable to take in what she was asking.  She moved towards me and my arms closed around her as though she belonged within their grasp.  I hugged her to me and I heard her say, “Really, Charlie, if you’re not going to ask me to marry you, I’ll just have to ask you myself.”

Our first kiss.  And suddenly the gloom of the day was swallowed up by the vivid light of the sunshine that Nicky always brought with her wherever she went.  It was dark outside, but in my small kitchen in my tiny flat, a flash of heaven had vanquished the night.

I put her from me.  “Why, darling?  Why now?  When I’ve wanted you for so long?”  My throat was very dry as I waited for her answer.

Nicky smiled.  “I’m a bit stupid really.  I’ve known all along that you love me.  But last night, when you let me into your life without question, I stopped seeing you as the brother I always wanted.  I lay awake for ages until I looked at you from a different place, and I knew then that I loved you, that you were always the one for me.  When I realized that, I slept like a baby.”

It seemed the most natural thing to fold her in my arms and just hold on.