You Sweeten My Hours

by Sheena MJ Cook

I sat in my rented kitchen with a third glass of wine, and dialed the number. A grown-up sounding boy answered the phone.

“Would you be able to start straight away? My interview is in two weeks. I could come to you if it’s easier,” he said.

Something in his voice, I wasn’t sure what, turned my joints a little liquidy.

At four o’ clock the next day, my doorbell rang. A blonde boy, grown too long for his school uniform stood in the doorway. He leaned forward, on the brink of something, his wrists poking out from his jacket sleeves. He seemed familiar, somehow. Or did all eighteen-year-old boys look like this?

He wrote with his left hand, bending it inwards towards his elbow, pulling words from the crook of his arm. Writing made his hair flop onto his face.

“Just speak out loud,” I said. “Walk around and tell me what you want to say and I’ll tell you what you’re telling me.”

“I have to shine in my interview,” he said. “Can you make me shine? I have to be calm and not cocky. That’s what they want. That’s who they want to teach.”

“When they ask questions, you’ll shine from inside, because you’ll be talking about stuff you love,” I said.

“I’m not sure I know any stuff like that.”

“I’ll teach you things you won’t be able to help loving.”

He got up and helped himself to a glass of water and talked and talked and used longer words than when he wrote. “Incidentally,” he said. And “juxtapose.” And “egregious.”

“No, Mum, I can’t meet you tonight,” my son said, when I phoned him that night. “I thought you’d gone back to the States already.”

I made a cake the next afternoon. My son’s favourite. A Victoria sponge: two thick layers with strawberry jam and whipped cream. It was still warm when my doorbell rang at four.

“I’ll read you a passage from Colette,” I said, “then you walk around and talk to me in her style.”

He ate cake and listened while I read.

All sorrows of the heart can be healed with food, Colette had said.

Then I ate my son’s favourite cake and listened while he spoke. “We’ll go to an unknown country where we’ll have no past and no name, and where we’ll be born again with a new face and an untried heart,” he said, paraphrasing Colette.

A few days later we ate pizza and watched a movie: Dinner in Rome. I wanted this boy to understand that in English, one would say to one’s son, Thanks for reading to me. You are sweet. But in Italian, they said, addolcisci queste ore; you sweeten the air between us, you sweeten these hours.

The middle-aged son in the movie sat by his mother’s bed and read by lamplight. She asked her son to read until she had fallen asleep. Addolcisci quest ore, she said. And he did. He kept reading long after he was sure she was asleep.

I wanted this boy to watch Lolita, to show him what verbal adventures a native Russian speaker could have with another language, but I stopped myself. The boy might think I was sending a message, Lolita in reverse; an older woman with designs on a male nymphet. What would that be? A nymphoma? Sounds like a disease, for which there would be no cure.

I left my son alone for a few days, then phoned to say goodbye.

“Tomorrow is my last night here,” I said. This was an almost-truth.

“I’ll let you know if I have time for dinner,” he said.

My doorbell rang at four. I had made millionaire’s shortbread for the boy. Another of my son’s favourites.

“My mother wants to meet you,” he said, through a mouthful of dark chocolate and sweet caramel and salty shortbread.

“Why? I’m leaving the day after tomorrow.”

“She wants to thank you in person.”

“Where’s your father?”

“Away on some lawyerish business. Can you come for dinner tomorrow?”

What if this boy was who I thought he was? But how to explain this to him? If his father wasn’t going to be there, that would be okay. I would be an ordinary woman, tutor-ing a boy, having dinner with his mother. And I would be on a plane out of here before I could do any damage.

Next day, I saw him smile to himself as we made chocolate mousse together to take to his mother.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“I’m imagining an Italian film with Colette in it. She meets Nabokov in Rome and reads her books to him until he falls asleep: a French girl reading her own work to a Russian novelist beside an Italian fountain, sweetening his hours,” he said.

You’re shining from within. You’re ready, I thought, but didn’t say.

We caught the bus together and sat on the top deck, watching Edinburgh unfold. We sailed over George IV bridge, down the steep curving hill of the Mound, over Princes Street, up Hanover Street and all the way down Dundas Street towards the water. People emerged from offices, unbuttoned their jackets and stopped at the corner shop for sausages, a bottle of wine and a single red pepper to take home for dinner.

I want to be with you for the rest of my life, but I’ll never leave this town, the boy I had nearly married had said.

I had kept on travelling alone to the next job or language: Paris, Rome, Moscow. Each time I came back, the distance between us had grown. Once, he came to Europe with me to sit on French beaches and break chunks off baguettes and drink wine straight from bottles, but the return crossing over the English Channel was so choppy, he vowed never to leave his country again.

I kept traveling, further and further away.

The boy’s phone buzzed. He looked at the message.

“Dad’ll be back for dinner tonight after all,” the boy said.

My stomach flipped and I wished I didn’t know why. The boy lived with his parents in a terraced house on the same street where the boy I had nearly married had lived.

The boy’s parents weren’t home yet, so he poured me a glass of wine, then left me in the sitting room while he went to change. I wandered around the room looking at framed photographs. There, in a tiny frame, was a smiling woman who wasn’t me, holding a blonde baby, standing next to the boy I had nearly married.

You’re like a butterfly, never staying in one place for long. It’s difficult for people to take you seriously, the boy I had nearly married had said.

I heard shoes on the concrete path closing in on the house then the front door bang shut. I slid the photo into my pocket.

The door opened, and there he was; an older, better-looking version of the boy I had nearly married. He tried to stop his lips moving into a smile. His son appeared behind him.

“Dad, this is my English tutor, Mrs. Appleworthy. She’s here from America. Her son’s come here to university.”

The boy I had nearly married stretched his hand out towards mine and looked amused. “Mrs. Appleworthy. I’ve been hearing about you. Our son thinks the world of you.”

I took his hand. Still the same feeling, like putting my hand in a leather glove that has languished in a drawer all winter.

“Your son is an astonishing young man,” I said.

“Glass of wine, Dad?” The boy poured his father a glass then left the room to get another for himself. We both sat. I felt the picture frame jab my thigh. He drank some wine. His hand shook.

“Coincidence or not?” he asked.

I put my glass down and pressed my hands to where my thighs were making my dress quiver.

“I had no idea who your son was. I answered an advert I found in a newsagent. Although when I first saw him, I knew.”

“It is lovely to see you.” I thought he meant it. He did seem a little delighted.

I wanted to stay and watch him being delighted some more. “I should go,” I said.

“Have you been happy, Shiney?” I hadn’t heard him call me that for thirty years. His secret name for me, because he said I shone from the inside. He had only used it when we were alone.

“I have found a way…,” I said. I took a long swallow of wine, “… of being happy. And you? What about you?”

Before he could answer, his wife arrived. I stood and brushed myself, expecting her to interview me for the position of English tutor, dinner guest and former lover of her husband.

Their son walked back in as my phone buzzed.

A text from my son:

Dinner tonight?

No, got plans.

Who on earth with?

I didn’t reply.

“Mum, this is Mrs. Appleworthy,” the boy said. “She’s come to sweeten the air between us tonight.”

Sheena MJ Cook

Born and raised on her family farm in the north of Scotland, Sheena MJ Cook has a law degree from the University of Edinburgh and an MFA in Literature and Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in St Louis, Missouri with her brewery-owning husband. Her two children have gone to college and beyond. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming in, The Southampton ReviewGutter MagazineThe Potomac Review and Inertia. She is working on her first novel, A Month in the Country, set on a Greek island and in a Scottish village.