Despite everything he did, Alastair was the most debonair man she had ever met, Amber would often say; with his Prussian blue eyes, and a charm that invited you in like a whirlpool. They had met in university halls one empty autumn evening when neither expected to do anything, least of all fall in love — each turning a corner with a pile of books, both side-stepping in the same direction until the books fell.
Amber was still delicate after her split with John. The beginning of the end had started a month earlier with an argument on platform eight at Birmingham New Street, and was finished by John’s short, unenthused text — ‘CBB GB’ — while Amber was barely halfway to Bristol Temple Meads.
But Alastair’s shadow soon obscured any memories of John. And grew darker in the winter. When she looks back on it now, it seemed almost warlike, how it happened; the way he came onto her, gentle at first like a pioneer, but then the aftermath was that of a ruined, divided nation. The slow imposition of a foreign culture, causing the demise of another — the little bathroom laws, and kitchen rules, the bedroom dictates — until she felt nothing but the chains around her arms and legs and mind moving towards her heart.
It had happened so quickly — a quiet night in, some rosé, a romantic movie, then Alastair had other ideas. But by then Amber had grown tired of the chains, wanted to stretch her arms, find her own feet again, discover her own words. Alastair insisted, called her a few things, which he said he later regretted. The dangerous thing with love is it can kill a heart as equally as it can mend it. Lucky for Alastair then that the knife was blunt. She didn’t want to hurt him, not that way. But he had hurt her. So had John. And they were both blind to it.
There was no going back after that. The fall was liberating — like someone on a ledge who has no other release but descent. ‘I was crazy in love,’ she would later joke in hospital.
When they discharged her in the spring — the shadow of chains fading around her heart, some medication for her mind — she stood beneath the cherry trees in the hospital grounds watching a stream of people going in and out of life; the branches shifting in the breeze as the blossom snowed; she closed her eyes and thought of all the things beyond her control, of how we are all chained to something, while trying to expand her notion of forgiveness to include herself.