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This sparkling wine is all but empty
Too late for trains and no taxis

She cannot be as beautiful as I perceive her to be.

She is no longer young, however you count the years. There are strands of white in her dark hair, and her skin, if you look closely enough, is traced with lines that map her experience, especially around the eyes. They tell me that she has spent a lot of her time laughing. She makes no effort to cover the signs of aging, but wears them comfortably like favourite clothes. She is at home in her body, at ease with herself.

Her long legs are tucked up underneath her like a teenager, and she is gazing deep into her wineglass, as if reading the future in the bubbles that rise and fall there. She looks up, to catch me staring at her, and smiles.

She is the loveliest thing I have ever seen. I have been waiting all my life for someone like her.

"It's late," she says, "I should go back to my hotel."

"It's very late," I reply, "you should stay."

I know the feeling seems all too contrived
There was no master plan, but the fact is
You must stay with me and learn the secret language of birds

I met her exactly nineteen hours ago. She literally fell off a train into my arms.

I was on the platform, she in the door, a man behind pushed her, and voila! She thanked me as I caught her, smiled and told me she was in town to see if she liked the place enough to take up a job she'd been offered, as I set her back on her feet properly.

"I probably wouldn't be able to make that decision if I spent the entire weekend in casualty," she went on, laughing, "so thank you again."

I looked into the wide grey eyes, and decided on impulse that I really wanted her to like it that much. And it was Saturday, so…

"Why don't I show you 'round a bit? The best and worst of the place are off the tourist track."

"Oh, I couldn't ask you to do that!"

"You didn't ask, I offered. I'm at a loose end, and it gives me an excuse to avoid the housework." Rather neat I thought, as a way to tell her I lived alone.

"Well, if you don't mind... Why not?"

We checked her into her hotel, and half an hour later we were eating spiced apple cake and drinking café royale at Katies. She ate with enthusiasm, and declared it divine. Between bites, she told me about herself "Thirty-eight, no kids, widowed (such an ugly word), a heart attack four years ago. He was forty-three." And about the job, "funding manager for a homeless charity, basically begging and blackmail, but for a good cause."

From Katies, I took her to the Lady's Garden, a small oasis dedicated to Agnes Fisher, once the mayor's wife. Walled and hidden behind an industrial estate, it is still lovingly maintained by the family, and her eyes misted with tears as she smiled. Her hand brushed over the honeysuckle that clung to the west wall, and the scent surrounded her.

We walked by the river, and I showed her the kissing willow, boughs reaching to the ground, where lovers had pulled their girls behind the green curtain for private passion since the days of Victoria. She peeked in, but told me, with mock sadness, that it hid no secrets today.

We ate lunch at a pub by the river, and this time I told her about me, finding myself falling into her own spare mode of speech. "Thirty-nine, logistics manager, one son, Ryan – I was seeing him off at the station this morning."

"Divorced?" her voice was sympathetic.

I smiled and shook my head. "Never married. It's a long story. I'll tell you sometime, but Mary and I are the best of friends. Ryan spends school terms with her, holidays with me."

She nodded, and didn't push for more, and I knew that when I told her, she'd understand.

She lifted her hand to push a lock of hair, that had escaped from its tie, behind her ear, and suddenly I wanted to do it for her. I almost felt like I needed to touch her. When she put her hand back on the table, I reached for it, and she didn't pull away. Her grey eyes looked at me, unblinking, and she was silent.

"Do you think you'll take the job?" I asked, trying to keep my voice light, because it would have been ridiculous to sound as urgent as I felt when I'd only met the woman that morning. I think she heard the urgency anyway. She smiled again, her eyes never leaving mine.

"I think I might. Show me more," she said.

We came to be here, at my house, via the fountain and the statues, but also via the slums and back streets where the people she would be working for shuffle into doorways to try to keep out of the rain. I held her hand all the way.

She was still saying "might" after the statues, but after the slums, "might" became "will."

"Let me cook you dinner," I said.

"No." She shook her head, definitely, "You've already done so much."

My hand tightened on hers.

"Please." I held my breath, not at all ready to part from her.

"No. Let me take you out for dinner, instead." I exhaled, relieved. It wasn't escape she contemplated.

"I'd like to show you my home."

"Okay then – but I'll cook."

I grinned. "You've got a deal."

So here she is, looking like my sofa was made for her. I haven't even kissed her yet.

A tentative dawn about to be breaking
on a Rousseau garden with monkeys in hiding.
The truth of the matter, yet to be spoken
in words on which everything, everything's riding.

"Don't go."

I whisper it, too frightened to say the words aloud, because they matter too much. She gets up from the sofa, unfolding herself elegantly, rising without effort, and comes to the window where I am standing.

"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."

"Don't go." My voice shakes. "Please Ally. I want you to stay."

Now stay with me, and learn the secret language of birds.
Now stay with me, and learn the secret language of birds.

I reach for her now, pulling her close and capturing her in my arms, and she leans against me.

"I don't do things like this," she says as she lifts her face and kisses me lightly. I'm not satisfied with gentleness, my mouth demands more of her, and she gives it.

"Maybe you should start."

We stand, her back to my chest and my arms around her waist, and she rests her head back against my shoulder as we look out of the window and see the first tendrils of daylight creep into the dark-blue sky.

"Maybe I should." Her voice is quiet, wondering. "I can't believe we've talked all night. I haven't done that since I was in my twenties."

"Are you tired?"

She shakes her head, still leaning against me, then she laughs as the birds begin the dawn chorus. I open the door and lead her out into the dew-laden garden, where the air is fresh and chill.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she asks.

Circled by swallows
in a world for the weary.
Courted by warblers; wicked and eloquent trilling.

"Not as beautiful as you."

There, I've said it. She laughs again.

"It's obvious you've been up all night, your vision is going."

Suddenly, I'm angry. It's commonplace of her to toss a compliment aside like that, not worthy of the person I thought she was. She senses it instantly, looks at me, and lifts a hand to my cheek.

"I'm sorry, Dave. This is new to me. I've never made connections with people easily, and I don't know how to react when things click into place so quickly and naturally."

There is silence for a moment, and then she says, "Thank you." It is little more than a breath, but I can see how much it costs her to say it, to accept herself at my valuation.

The anger is gone now, and I step closer to her, as we watch the sky lighten to grey, and the birdsong is exultant.

She stifles a yawn.

"Maybe I am tired after all."

I hesitate, take a deep breath or two.

"Then come to bed."

Her hand squeezes mine, and she watches a starling as it flies from treetop to treetop, singing.

"Yes," she says.

Lie in the stillness, window cracked open.
Extended moments, hours for the taking.
Careless hair on the pillow, a bold brushstroke.
Painted verse with a chorus in waiting.
Stay with me and learn the secret language of birds.

Lyrics: Secret Language of Birds, Ian Anderson, 2000

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