Adeline, Treading Water – First Chapter

 

 

 

FIVE DAYS AGO

 

Adeline focused on the seven specks of white brilliance as he pulled the ring out of the red velvet and slid it over her chewed nail. There was no Rubik’s cube moment as her mum would have said, no silver balls rolling into their slots, no sense of arrival after her one confusing detour. She attached a smile, and spread her fingers out to ‘admire’. 

He’d picked Stockholm’s new hot spot—an Old Town cellar with stone walls, dripping candle chandeliers, and brocade-upholstered chairs. The place oozed with soft jazz and the scent of herbs. Magnus was being romantic. She was too tired. Hours of movie dialogue through earphones, and the noise of her grinding thoughts, plus the constant thrum of aircraft engines—it was like someone had stomped on her head and rubbed sand in her eyes. And there was the ache in her heart as if it was inflamed, as if every disappointed cell in her body had dumped its toxic waste right there and given it a new density.

Talk about melancholic drivel—Niina’s voice in her head, loud and clear.

Adeline picked up the empty box, pulled the old ring off the other finger, and slotted it in. The blue zircons were their past and once she’d slept, it was their past she’d revisit to find her way back.

No, you won’t. 

Yes, she would. She would.  

Magnus touched her hand, leaning forward. They met in a kiss over the table. For sure he’d like a bit of tongue, but she made it swift, pretending the stretch was too far for her neck. He smelled of her Christmas gift, Pursuit by Don Diego. Adeline had an urge to touch the smooth skin of his jaw, wanting to know if it would stir something in her, but didn’t act on it.    

The waiter, who must have been keeping tabs on them, appeared next to the table, uncorking the bubbly, congratulating and filling their glasses.

Magnus handed her a flute. ‘To us,’ he said.

She offered a tightlipped smile, barely wet her lips. Then they reposed into their seats. Away from the immediate light with a little distance between them, it was easier to look at him, her handsome, energetic, and persuasive fiancé. No flu-leftovers, colour in his cheeks how he always had, his thick short crop of hair blow dried and textured as if he’d just walked out of the barber’s. Next to him she was beyond the usual bland—dishevelled inside and out. 

‘What?’ he said, furrowing his brows. 

‘Nothing.’ Adeline faked another smile.

He was wearing the suit and tie he’d worn three days earlier, on her phone screen, when she was still in the Southern hemisphere, when she didn’t know her holiday delusion was about to come crushing down. Seeing Magnus waiting for her at the airport, in that same outfit, she’d understood he was taking up exactly where he’d left off. If only she’d contacted him before flying out of Sydney, insisting he didn’t meet her, but she’d not envisaged he’d show up at Arlanda, and she’d not been in the frame of mind to put the darn sim card back in. It might have meant more messages from him. At the time, she couldn’t face that. The card was still floating around in her handbag somewhere.

‘Not so thrilled to be back in boring Sweden. Are you?’

‘No, I am.’

I should have insisted on a bus home?

She knew why she hadn’t. His arms around her, the comfort, the familiar size of him. Teary and annoyed, hating him for showing up and thankful for it, she’d gone to the ladies for a quick splash down and change of clothes. Had she thought that he could somehow make everything all right? Delusional. Magnus was sipping away, gazing at her from across the table. Apart from the crinkled top and dry-shampoo-hair, what did he see?

To Adeline, the betrayal was imbued on her irises and tattooed on her skin. Guy—the weight of him, his hair tickling her forehead, her palms on his smooth buttocks, another man’s tongue in her mouth. There was a fault in the linen weave where her fork rested, a stitched mend. Adeline touched the undulation with her fingers. How many hours would she have to endure before she could leave?

‘So, about the wedding,’ said Magnus, dropping the glass back on the table.

‘Wedding?’ 

‘I’ve booked a celebrant.’ 

‘You’ve set a date?’ 

‘I did.’ He licked his lips, how he always did when he was serious or thinking, always his bottom lip, back and forth, half open mouth. ‘South Hamlet. Thought you’d prefer that.’

‘Shouldn’t we discuss—?’

‘Look, I know, I spring this on you, but I’ve had time to think while you’ve been away.’

He’d been sick, and he’d been thinking about her, about them while she’d been busy making a fool of herself only thinking about Magnus in brief spurts, mainly during her regular emailed fabrications. 

‘We’ll keep it small and intimate. How you like it.’

When were you thinking?’

‘We’ve waited long enough. Time to do what’s good for us.’

Adeline didn’t detect bitterness, but a certain determination. This was Magnus, the insurance man. This was him persuading a client to take the company’s life, home and personal accidents package, plus all the extras. No, that was something Niina would say. That was unfair. He’d been sick. He’d missed her. If not for… she would have missed him. 

‘I thought, have it at yours, some of my family, a few friends, nice and chilled.’

‘Are you thinking a summer wedding?’

‘Found a great deal on the Greek Isles. Spring’s the best time over there. You’ll love it.’

‘Spring?’ Adeline drew her fingertips across the linen, landing her hands in her lap.  

‘I know you’ll think it’s madness, but it’ll be great.’

His words fed the jitter in the pit of her stomach. Guy’s face interrupted. There he was, smiling at her, checking his sails, checking the horizon, the two of them flying across the water, the boat moving beneath her; him moving beneath—

No.

It was the leftovers from a bumpy flight. A nail was between her lips. 

‘It’s booked and paid for.’

‘When Magnus? When?’

‘Thursday.’

Adeline took the thumb out of her mouth. ‘Which Thursday?’

‘This one, coming.’ Magnus picked up his glass again, on edge. And why wouldn’t he be? What man books a wedding a week in advance without his fiancée’s consent? 

Watching him drink, Adeline struggled to comprehend. She really was too tired for this. If she’d insisted on catching the airport bus, she’d be halfway home.

‘Thought you’d be all for it,’ he said. 

‘I’m just, you know—It’s sudden.’ 

‘Says the girl who once wanted to elope. Come on, Adeline. Seven years. Isn’t that long enough? What’s there to wait for? Let’s do this. We’ll go shopping for a dress tomorrow. I’ve got a place sorted for tonight, around the corner.’

Of course he has. 

‘A mate’s Airbnb. Dennis. You’ve met him. Overlooks the water, the city, even the royal castle. He’s had it refurbished. Wait till you see the bed.’ Magnus winked at her. ‘I can’t wait to see the rest of your tan.’

Oh shit! 

‘Why do you shake your head?’

‘I’ll cover any cost. I think I need to go home.’

He laughed contemptuously. ‘You’re not serious? I had to squeeze his arm for it. Dennis had a date tonight. They’re in my flat and you know it’s nice, but it’s not Old Town deluxe. For F’s sake, we just got engaged.’

‘I know. But we sort of already were’

‘You expect me to put you on the bus after this?’ 

Squinting, she nodded. 

‘Why Linny? It’s been almost a month.’

It had. And the sex had been average. He wasn’t always average. Adeline tried to dig up a good session with Magnus. Instead, there was Guy again. She longed to crawl into bed and cry herself to sleep. ‘I’m so sorry, but I don’t think I’m up for it.’ 

‘You’ll sleep like a baby in that bed. Tomorrow we’ll go find you a dress.’

‘I already have one.’ There was heat behind her eyelids. Adeline bit down hard on a finger.

‘Even better. We’ll have a lazy Sunday.’

She wasn’t winning this one, wasn’t making sense. He was. There was no plausible excuse for a two-hour bus ride this late. But go to bed with him? No. She needed more time between him and Guy, needed to find her bearings, process in peace. He’d gone out of his way and she was both deceitful and an idiot for putting him, as well as herself, in this situation. She was a bitch.  

‘Tomorrow we could brunch with Mum and my step—’

‘I’m taking the bus.’ Her words were loud and sharply blunt. Adeline sunk into her seat, stretched her fingers, and breathed. ‘It’s the jet lag,’ she said. ‘I feel off.’ 

He considered her, licked his bottom lip. Awkward silence. To Adeline’s relief, the waiter arrived with their entrees—a delicate tower of seafood and black caviar sprinkled across the white porcelain. Magnus switched back to his charming self, doing his usual small talk while she was figuring out how to soften the vibe. 

‘What’s going on?’ he said once they were alone again. 

‘You know what could be romantic?’ she said, ignoring his probing. ‘We wait until our wedding day. It’ll make it more special.’

‘Extreme, don’t you—?’ 

‘And getting engaged and married all in the same week, isn’t?’ 

Magnus raised an eyebrow.

She’d interrupted him again. Hadn’t she?

‘I’ve taken a few days off. Was going to come down early.’

‘No,’ she snapped, and he flinched. ‘I mean, thanks, but better not. I’ll be sleeping for a few days.’

‘It seems you haven’t missed me,’ said Magnus, picking up his fork and knife. 

‘I’m sorry. I know you’ve had a plan, but it’s kind of overwhelming. If our wedding is in five days, I need to go home tonight.’ She found a tiny sliver of nail to bite off. Shit, that hurt. Her eyes watered over the pain, and Adeline looked away, blinking. Five days. Was that enough? And what about Niina? She wouldn’t exactly be enthusiastic. She’d deal with Niina on Monday. Tomorrow would be for sleeping. And then there was only Tuesday and Wednesday. 

‘All right. Forget it, go on the bus,’ said Magnus. ‘Will you be able to stay awake for the meal or should I drive you to the bus stop right now?’

A bit of sarcasm dished out was only fair. Adeline shook her head. The words were on the tip of her tongue, ready to slip out—I’ll stay. So she forced down some of the Champagne to keep herself from giving in. 

That’s it. Then come see me and I’ll talk you out of the shemozzle. Niina, always Niina.

In chilled silence, he ate while Adeline picked up caviar eggs with her fingertips. It looked delicious, but she lacked appetite and needed to bring the message home.

‘You can have mine,’ she said after he’d finished his plate. 

To abet believability, Adeline asked for a cup of chamomile tea to ‘settle her stomach’, then watched him work his way through the main and dessert.

Magnus hid his shitty mood with his professional good manners and put on enthusiasm over the wedding. He named the people he’d invite, his parents, his closest friends and their partners, no kids, asked who she’d invite. Only Niina. He’d already booked enough rooms at the South Hampton Guesthouse. Had he organised catering? No. That was so Magnus. Could she do it? After all, it was her hometown, not his. With four days’ notice, they would have to settle for simple. Not that she’d let that trouble her. A simple smorgasbord with finger food was fine and their local baker would whip a cake up if she didn’t want something too outlandish. Before he paid the bill, the Greece arrangement slipped out. He’d borrowed money to pay for it. Would she mind covering for it? That didn’t trouble her either. The thought of having her house full of people and meeting his family for the first time did. Having a best friend that didn’t approve, that troubled her. And what about her? She wasn’t feeling it.

But she would, wouldn’t she? Her three weeks away couldn’t possibly interfere with her and Magnus’s history. All she needed was to sleep for a few days, and find the Adeline she was only days ago, before everything went to shit and without the stupid Guy-crush. That Adeline would breathe the northern air and embrace her ordinary life in a new way. She would move on. Come Thursday, Guy would be nothing more than a smudged memory, and she and Magnus would finally tie the knot.

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