Talking about himself felt a lot less uncomfortable than Ulf had feared.
Even though he really wasn’t the kind of person to open up his heart to anyone, not even to his wife during their long years of marriage, being with Christina forced him to accept the need to talk things over. In the end, however, he never said the words most important to her.
Amaya still hadn’t forgiven him for that. Criminal stupidity she said whenever the topic surfaced.
But right now she was out doing whatever a black ops agent did.
“Well,” Ulf said after he swallowed a mouthful, “what do you think?”
Noriko looked up from her food and faced him. “It’s better than your midsummer’s food.” Then her face lit up in a childish grin.
Ulf frowned, but in the end he swallowed the joke. Midsummer had been a disaster, only partially saved by Christina. He put fork and knife on his plate and smiled. “Thank you for your kind words.” He lifted his glass with sparkling water and toasted ironically. “That’s nine months of progress for you.”
“It’s good,” Noriko murmured. “A bit unfamiliar, but good.”
A bit unfamiliar. You’re funny, you know. Ulf watched Noriko gobble down another bit of almost raw fillet of beef.
“It’s the way we eat meat back home.” At least it is if you can afford burning the money. He didn’t say the last part aloud. Even though Ulf had grown fond of the Japanese way with thin slices of meat, sometimes he just wanted the thick slabs he’d grown up with. “The civilised version of the barbecue last summer.”
He coughed. Fillet of beef wasn’t exactly what he had grown up with, but thick slabs at least.
“Did I do anything wrong?”
Ulf looked at Noriko. A bit late he recalled that her background was one where appearances must be important.
“No, just a memory,” he said.
“It’s unfair, you know. Having all those memories and you’re still a teenager.”
“Again,” Ulf added. “Anyway, enough about me. You promised you’d hear me out about your situation.”
Noriko nodded glumly. Something in her eyes told Ulf she wasn’t anywhere near as desperate for the news he had, and that made him a little confused.
“Go on. I’m listening.”
Ulf poured himself another glass of water. “You know,” he said and sipped some, “I spoke with Nao earlier.”
Noriko looked down at her plate, but from what Ulf could see she did at least listen while she ate.
“He never slept with another girl. I doubt he as much as kissed or hugged one, well other than you.”
Ulf looked at Noriko’s head. Her face barely showed beneath her bangs.
“He said something strange about it was better if he looked like an arsehole before you dumped him anyway. Know what that would mean?”
Noriko didn’t answer. She just stared at her food while she slowly ate.
Talking to the top of someone’s head wasn’t Ulf’s idea of a conversation, so he leaned his elbows on the table and tried looking up under her hair.
With a jerk Noriko’s body rose and she backed away in her chair.
Ulf looked up, chin still cradled in his hands. Her reaction was a little more than he had expected. To top it off her face was beet red.
“You know, you’re being pretty impolite to me staring at the table like that when we’re talking.” With a sigh he leaned back in his chair and attacked his food again. Deep fried potatoes tasted better while still hot. Or rather while I’m talking. This isn’t a conversation at all.
“I didn’t mean to.” Noriko till leaned back in her chair, and she was flustered to a degree that Ulf’s teasing didn’t merit.
But I’ve just lived here for two years. Sweden is different. “Sorry, I forgot I tend to get too physical. I apologise.” He did feel remorse. Nao’s surprising non-betrayal was a topic that deserved Ulf behaving like an adult.
Noriko’s reaction was just about the last Ulf had expected. He knew he was a clumsy oaf more often than not, and an insensitive one at that, but what he had just done shouldn’t bring tears to her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I really am,” he said. “I never meant to offend you. I’ll keep my distance.”
And that brought even more tears.
I’m an idiot! Hearing the news about Nao like this, and then I drag her to my home and play pranks on her. I’m the arsehole here!
“Noriko, sorry.” Ulf rose from his char and walked around the table. Then he remembered his promise and backed away. He stood showing her both his palms to prove that he wouldn’t do anything stupid. “I’ll just stay over here.”
He looked at her sitting in her chair, half turned his way with tears brimming in her eyes.
How did it turn out this way?
Ulf backed into a book case to give her more room.
“You’re an idiot!”
Well I already know that.
Noriko put fork and knife on her plate.
Maybe I should move away a bit more.
She took a step towards him.
Ulf tried backing into the book case.
“How blind can a man be?”
She took another step.
There was no more room in the book case, so Ulf frantically tried to think of a way to disappear.
She took yet another one.
Then Noriko suddenly moved forward and threw her arms around him.
She was surprisingly strong.