Gail's first day at this new department in the Foreign Office was an uneventful day that did not come as any surprise to her. She had seen a lot of ministerial and government departments before. She had been seconded, from the Home Office where she had been working, since leaving Cambridge, for some twelve years. A typical classics student, and an ambitious young lady, Gail had given most of her time to her work and progressed quite quickly for a woman in such a chauvinistic regime. Perhaps it was her progress as a woman that made her superiors nominate her for the secondment? Gail, a senior staff officer in the Home Office, found that most in this new department were also very experienced, ambitious people and senior officers. The people were carefully chosen to form the best liaison group between the two ministries. There was no competition in this department, which gave all the staff a less pressure role. For Gail, this would mean that she could spend more of her time on her social life. A new experience for her, as most of her time, had been with her job. What spare time she had left spent on the arts in London.
After finding her desk and a brief nod from the fellow staff, Gail spent the next two weeks organizing herself and getting to know as many of her fellow workers. The most interesting of her colleagues was Jim, a quiet man, but with a serious look. She first met him while carrying too many books to her desk. She bumped into him as he was entering the office. The books and Gail found themselves on the floor as she crashed into his muscular frame.
She remembered sitting on the floor looking up at this well build serious-looking man staring down at her as if to say, "What are you doing down there?" His face travelled from that distant faraway look to a warm and generous smile as he bent down to help Gail to her feet. She particularly noticed how his eyes lit up and illuminated when he smiled. Knowing full well, she could not have been able to look where she was going.
Jim excused himself for knocking her over in a tender gentlemanly manner. Whatever his motive was, if any at all, he had captured her interest in him. During the summer months, Jim was mostly out of the office. When he was there, he would always spend time talking and smiling at Gail. She had come to enjoy his happy face brightening up the office on these occasions. Twice Gail had invited Jim to the theatre, but he had to postpone due to his assignments. In the later part of August, Jim was in the office more frequent and agreed to take Gail to a new play that was to open in late September.
As September slowly drifted by, her expectations about the night out with Jim grew more intense. Yet she noticed he grew more withdrawn and spent a lot more time in deep thought. The date was set, with the announcement that the opening night would be the 23rd of September. Gail arranged the tickets and dinner afterward, having first researched his favourite meal and wine. As the day came closer, Jim seemed to become more isolated and distant, using the old excuse, "I have lots of things on my mind."
Then the day before their date, he asked Gail if they could postpone until the next week. She explained it was too late to change the arrangements, and the only alternative was to cancel altogether. Thus, losing the money already paid out. Jim knew of all the effort she had put into this date and how excited she was about going. So, he agreed to go as arranged and withdrew his request for the postponement.
Gail had not realized that her feelings for Jim were more than that of colleagues, who shared the same tastes and enjoyed each other's company. She knew that evening when she showed him, and the rest of the office, the dress she had bought to wear to the theatre. It was a black evening dress with a low-cut front and even lower at the back. It was a complete change from the dull traditional business suits she wore for work, as the dress showed off her firm shapely figure. "Wow!" Exclaimed some of the men in the office, and the other women told Gail how lovely she looked. Jim was also taken aback by her beauty and made an unusual gesture, especially for him. He held her hands tenderly, gave her a gentle kiss on her cheek, and told her how lovely she looked. Shortly afterward, a sad expression came over his face, and he turned, picked up his jacket, and walked out of the office.
Gail, dressed in her new evening dress, went after him and saw him turning into Saint James's Park. After a short search, she found him sitting by the lakeside staring aimlessly at the water, and she sat down beside him at his left-hand side. "Whatever is the matter?" She asked him as she held his hand with both of hers and continued, "if you tell me, I may be able to help."
Jim turned quickly and looked at her. He was not so much looking at her but looking through her. His eyes were cold without love or hate, and a complete lack of expression was upon his face. She had never seen anyone with such an expressionless face. The look resembled a machine rather than a human being. It frightened her, and she let it show. Jim could now see the fear in her eyes and realized it was he who was disturbing her. He lowered his gaze, and his face warmed, but the sad look still showed in his eyes.
Jim gently placed his right hand on top of Gail's, saying, "I'm sorry to have frightened you, but please don't ask me to explain." He had been used to getting his way once he told someone what to do. Gail was also a determined person and was used to getting her own as well; she was not giving in that quickly. As the fear withdrew from Gail's face, Jim took Gail in his arms, pulled her to him, and held her tight for a while. They looked into each other's eyes, smiled, and then kissed gently. For the first time in the past few weeks, Jim felt at peace once more. Gail pressed him repeatedly to tell her what has depressed him these last weeks. Jim resisted, but Gail persisted until he gave in.
Jim began and told her the reason. "Tomorrow is the anniversary of the death of a great friend of mine, and it just upsets me this time of year. I am so sorry it has upset you as well, forgive me.”
"Of course, I will. Your friend must have been a very good friend. Tell me what happened," Gail replied.
"Let's walk," Jim said as he stood and took Gail's hand. "He died 17 years ago tomorrow, but it happened the year before," Jim began as they walked. Holding hands, they walked along the lakeside, dodging the people and children who were feeding the ducks.
"It was a hot summer day, as I recall. Jay and I were on one of those operations, sponsored by nobody, in a place without a name. His real name was Julian, but we used to call him Jay for short, and the fact that Julian was considered a sissy’s name at that time.” Jim felt more at peace as he spoke and often squeezed Gail's hand, allowing her to become closer to him. "We had completed the operation, taking out some undesirable target, and was returning to our pickup rendezvous. We thought we were in a safe country, but the remains of a previous conflict were still there. Jay had stood on an old jump mine. The mine itself would have done enough damage. It also exploded some ammunition he was carrying in his pockets that made his injuries far worse. We gave him first aid and a generous dose of morphine to alleviate the pain, but no one could repair the damage done."
Jim paused for a moment, sighed deeply, and then said, "It might have been better if we had let him die out there. Anyway, we didn't, and as helicopters, rather than road vehicles, took us out, Jay got to the medics in time. They stabilised his condition and flew him back to the UK. I saw him next, three months later, in the hospital, and although he didn't say, I got the feeling he wished we would have left him to die in the desert."
"Nobody would want that," Gail interjected and thought to herself, "I'm glad it wasn't you."
Jim released his hold and stood in front of Gail. His strong arms held her by her shoulder. "Look at me; even at forty-three, I'm fit and in good shape. Can you imagine how fit I was then? Well, Jay was three times fitter and a great athlete, and then he was now paralysed from the waist down. Half his guts blow out, and both his hands badly damaged. He didn't want to live like that.” He said, with his arms out to make his point.
Playful children bustled past them. Jim held Gail's hand again as they continued walking towards the palace. "I visited him several times until they sent him home early in the summer to give him something to live for, but it didn't work. It was in early September that year when his sister wrote to me for him.”
"I went to his parent's house where Jay was living on the weekend of 22 and 23 of September. It is a big country house, set on large grounds with magnificent gardens. A beautiful house, in what I used to consider a beautiful time of the year in England. I arrived Saturday afternoon in my old MG sports car, and I was met by Jay's sister, who introduced me to their parents. We had tea, and they gave me the 'Julian has told us so much about you' line. They were nice people who meant well, but I think they did not know him or what he wanted. Jay had been sleeping, and after tea, he came down to meet me and spoke about old times, pretending that all will be well and his time in the wheelchair would soon be over. Sooner than I knew, as it turned out." Jim walked on in silence for a while. Gail waited patiently, listening to life in the park around her.
The children's playful calls, the chirping of the birds, and the quacking of the duck, competing for the bread thrown, filled her ears. Blooms of the carefully maintained gardens, along with the bandstand's bright colours, filled her eyes with the joy of life. She was glad to be here with Jim today and disregarded the cool evening air, even though she was wearing such a reviling and light dress.
"I awoke late on Sunday morning and came down to find all the family, save Jay, had gone to church. Jay called me to his room and asked me to bring down a box from the top of his wardrobe. The box was full of souvenirs from the service, including his service pistol and ammunition hidden at the bottom of the box. He asked me to clean and load the pistol, and he explained why he could not live the way he was anymore. His explanation became quite heated at times, as he admitted that he wished we had left him out there. I asked if he was sure, over and over again, then finally gave in to his wish when I saw that determined look in his eyes and the frustration in his voice with my appeals. It was a long day as I waited for the inevitable conclusion. His father had mowed the lawn late in that afternoon. The sent, of the newly cut grass, held in the still air of that warm day.”
Jim took another long pause, as he collected his thoughts. Then he continued, "We had a light tea about six o'clock. I vividly recall Jay wheeling himself down the long rear garden path towards the small water garden, hidden by a big hedge of conifers. I followed him shortly. I was carrying the equipment that I had cleaned and loaded earlier in the day. The sun was low in the sky, and the light clouds gave its light that warm orange glow. I remember his mother playing Findel's cave as I walked, slowly, very slowly, after him.”
In her attempt to console Jim, Gail said, "You should not reproach yourself for helping your friend.”
Jim smiled warmly at her and replied, "Thank you, but you don't quite understand. I took the pistol to the water garden, cocked it, and gave it to Jay. No words were exchanged between us, as we both knew what the outcome was to be. He just nodded his approval and then, with his eyes, beckoned me to go. I took one last look at this wreak of a man, told myself this was best for him, then turned and walked away."
Another long pause made an interlude as they walked. "As I walked back up the garden path expecting to hear the report of a pistol firing, I was surprised to hear him call me back." Gail thought of only the happy outcome, forgetting already that she had been told Jay had died.
"When I got back to Jay," Jim continued, "he looked angry and frustrated with himself as his hand was not strong enough to pull the trigger. 'Help me end this,' Jay said in a definite and determined way. I looked down at his deformed hand but could not bring myself to guide it to his head and help him to squeeze the trigger."
"Did you take it from him and encourage him not to kill himself," Gail asked, hoping for a solution to fit her ideals and value set.
Jim stopped, placed his hands on her shoulders, and looked straight into her eyes as he told her, "I picked up the pistol, and as Jay turned his head away, I ended his misery and blew his brains out."
At that moment, Gail could not hear any sounds. She stood, shocked in silence, her eyes still open, but she could not see, her heart still beating she could not feel. A numbness had filed her being; a look of emptiness had filled her face. Was it the cool evening air that caused her to shiver or the search for truth that one does not want to find? Jim seen her shiver and took off his jacket and wrapped it around her. His eyes filled with tears, then they flooded over and ran like rivers down his face with its sad-like expression. He kissed her gently on the forehead, then turned and walked away, leaving her to recall those warning words he spoke before, "Don't ask."
"Why did I open my big mouth?" Gail thought to herself, "I've messed this up." She considered why he had killed his friend and could she have done the same in similar circumstances. Had this knowledge compromised her principles?
Those principles she held so high with pride.
Those principles that had kept her from so many relationships?
Those principles that had kept her from being a woman?
Now she just wanted to be a woman, his woman.
Jim did not know why he walked away. The second time he had walked away from a friend he cared about deeply. The first time he walked away was with the expectation of a loud report, but this time he walked with only despair and no expectation at all.
"Jim!" Inside his head, he heard the sound but could not tell if someone had called or if he had only wished it. Nevertheless, it was as though he had walked into a brick wall, and he stopped in his tracks.
"Jim." This time he heard it softly and knew it was not his imagination. He turned around, and through his tears, he could see Gail calling him. Jim walked towards her, slowly at first and then faster at almost a run, and as he came closer to Gail, she ran towards him, holding out her arms to welcome him. He rushed into her arms, sweeping her off her feet, and kissed her passionately. Gail held on to Jim to avoid falling over, and Jim held on to Gail as though he would never let go of her.
Nobody took any notice of the two lovers kissing in the park, and they did not care. When they had both came down to earth again, Gail and Jim walked back to the office to collect her coat. They then went to dinner and afterward enjoyed each other's company as only lovers can.