FORGETTING THE FISH

Nick's first sensation is one of pain, followed almost instantaneously by regret. He attempts to swallow, but it appears someone has been in during the night and carpeted his entire mouth.

This is the reason he doesn't drink much anymore. Heart condition or no heart condition, it's the hangovers that really tip the scales in favour of sobriety.

He gingerly peels open an eyelid. The harsh lights of the Gander Academy gymnasium blink back at him.

Gander. Stuck. Plane People.

Pieces of the puzzle gradually flash to the front of his consciousness, like images in a kaleidoscope, hovering in the foreground of his vision. All green and gold.

No, wait, that's a letter jacket. Someone is waving his borrowed letter jacket in his face. Another one of the plane people – a nice, pretty plane person, his brain supplies. What was her name? – is standing over his cot, peering down at him with a mixture of concern and amusement.

That particular piece of the puzzle thuds suddenly into place.

"Diane!" Nick gasps, sitting up suddenly before folding right back up again with a groan of regret.

"Good morning, sleeping beauty!" she greeted him, the laughter in her voice sounding musical, even through the fog still clinging to his brain. "You were snoring," she informed him.

"Was I? I am sorry, I… it only really happens when I drink. By the feel of things, I did quite a bit of that last night," he glanced up at her from under his brows, shamefaced.

"You and half the town, myself included!" she replied, still grinning down at him with that look on her face that could almost be called, dare he think it, affection.

Flashes of a small but crowded bar come to mind, packed with locals and plane people alike. Nick tried to catch onto each image as it arrives, but it was like clutching at sand; each memory fizzling to dust almost as soon as it arrived. That is, until one image appeared that stuck in his brain like toffee.

A cod, slimy and dripping wet, its mouth agape and lips turned out in some grotesque parody of a pucker.

He turned to Diane.

"Did I kiss the fish?" he asked.

The grin on her face faltered as her brow began to crease.

"Don't you…" she looked puzzled for a moment, then sighed, "Yes, yes you did."

Well, that might go some way to explaining how awful he felt this morning, he thought.

Diane gently placed the letter jacket on the bed beside Nick before retreating.

"We'd better start getting ready to go, our pilot said it could be any time now," she blurted, continuing to take small steps away from Nick even as her eyes were locked on his, a twist of something folorn in them that Nick couldn't quite place.

"Diane…" he began, but at that she turned and hurried off towards the bathrooms.

Nick sighed and set off for the kitchen in search of water and the largest pain killers they had on offer.

Inside, he found a Kevin (he's still not sure which one) who seemed to be in about the same shape he was in.

Kevin raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement over the rim of his coffee cup.

"You look like you could use some of these too," he says, sliding a packet of ibuprofen across the table towards him.

Nick murmurs his thanks and swallows two pills with some water. As he tips his head back to welcome the sweet relief of cool, refreshing liquid over his parched throat, another memory clicks into place.

Nick hovered nervously by the bar. He'd never been one for crowds. Tipping back his beer bottle, Nick caught the last few dregs with surprise. Hmm, that one disappeared quickly. Better take it easy there, Marson.

It had been a long time since he'd been in a bar. There were some colleagues from work who'd regularly go to the pub of a Friday night, but they'd long ago learned to stop asking him. It wasn't his kind of place and they weren't his kind of people.

Nick's eyes drifted once more towards where Diane stood, chatting jovially with that couple called Kevin (who hated him) and a man Nick believed to be the mayor of Gander. He hadn't really been able to keep his gaze away from her for very long. If he was being honest, Diane was the only reason he had come along tonight, just for a chance to keep talking to her.

Yes, and fat lot of good that's done, now she's over there talking to everyone else and you're quietly panicking by the bar. Get it together, Marson he chastises himself before ordering another beer and gathering the courage to go and join her.

Just as he turned towards her group, some of the locals who had brought their instruments along struck up a fast jig and Diane immediately jumped up with a Kevin to dance.

A momentary pang of jealousy swirled up in the part of Nick's mind that he didn't like to examine too closely, but then he got caught up in simply watching her dance. She was beautiful.

He leaned back against the bar, mesmerised, and went to slip a hand into his pocket only to find the disposable camera still sitting in there from their walk earlier.

Seized with the sudden urge to capture this moment, Nick pulled out the camera and carefully framed Diane in the perfect snapshot, a whirl of limbs and beaming smiles. Nick pocketed the camera and took another sip of his beer.

Despite Diane's urgings, it didn't appear they would be heading home that day after all. As had become their custom over the brief duration of their stay, Nick and Diane took off on a walk. The fresh air helped to clear his head and the gentle exercise (coupled with the company) meant Nick was feeling more and more like himself.

In fact, he felt more like himself than he had in years. Here, in this strange town filled with strange people, he felt alive in a way that he hadn't realised he'd been missing all this time. He wondered if it had something to do with the small Texan woman by his side.

She was beautiful, that much had been clear from the moment Nick had sat down beside her on the plane, but it was her kindness and her gentle humour that had most drawn him to her. The way she put to rest his nervous mannerisms and social awkwardness with easy laughter still seemed to him to be nothing short of miraculous.

As they walked, she had talked more about her son, his studies and their recent trip to London. ("I'll have to go back again and have you show me the sights properly!" she'd laughed, at which something in the region of Nick's stomach had done a somersault. Hangover? Possibly. Diane? More likely.)

Nick found himself just watching her speak, the flutter of his heart too persistent to be his arrhythmia. He was starting to accept the feelings he'd initially tried to ignore. It was easier to push them down when he thought she was married, or when they thought they would be flying out the next day.

But here, in the cold light of a Newfoundland day, Nick was beginning to realise that his feelings for Diane went beyond mere attraction. He hadn't felt like this about somebody in a long time. Ever, if he was being honest with himself.

They had climbed several flights of stairs ("about a million" he had wheezed to Diane, doubled over with his hands on his knees. She had laughed at him and told him she loved the way he always tried to lighten things with a joke. I wish I was bloody joking! he muttered under his breath, or would have done if he had any breath left to mutter under.

Diane had been absolutely enthralled by the scenery. Nick couldn't honestly remember taking much of it in. His eyes had a funny way of sliding back over to Diane.

He felt drawn to her. Wanted to get to know her better, be closer to her. But there was a strange sense of awkwardness, of reserve, that had crept in since the previous night. Things between them had altered slightly and he couldn't quite put his finger on why.

He wished he could remember what happened the night before.

"So, what part of Texas are ya from, buddy?" Claude asked.

"Oh, no, no, I'm not…" Nick began to stammer.

"No, I'M from Texas, he's from England," Diane clarified.

The mayor glanced back and forth between them, his brow furrowed in confusion.

"Now, how does that work?" he asked.

"How does what work?" Nick replied.

"Well, how does your marriage work, what with her being in Texas and you being in England?"

Nick felt his cheeks flush crimson.

"No, we're not…. that is, I'm not….." damn it, Marson, finish a sentence!

"We're not married," Diane finished simply.

The mayor laughed. "Oh, I'm sorry, I assumed you were married." He paused, considering. "Well, would ya like to be?" he offered.

Nick hadn't thought it was possible to turn any redder than he assumed he already was, but the fresh burst of warmth now rushing to the tips of his ears would suggest otherwise.

But that was nothing compared to what was to come.

"Well, why not!" shouted Diane, turning towards him and slapping her hands down high on his chest, either side of his collar. For one insane moment, Nick thought she might have been about to kiss him and to his eternal dismay, felt his arms rising up to gather her to him.

But before he knew it, she had spun on her heel, shouted a "yahoo" to the rest of the bar and taken her seat in the Screech-In procession, giggling something about never having had more than one beer at a time before.

Still a little giddy, even if it was tinged with disappointment, Nick went to buy them two more beers, steadfastly refusing to examine his motives at this point and instead determined to enjoy the rest of the evening, whatever it may hold.

Returning to their ceremonial seats, Nick couldn't help but pause and take in the spectacle of the three nearly-Newfoundlanders in their yellow hats. He snapped a quick photo before joining them, donning a hat in preparation for his own initiation.

It appeared that this time when the pilot told them to gather their things, it was for real. Nick and Diane had clasped hands at the beginning of the bus ride out to the airport and hadn't let go until boarding time.

Thankfully, the flight crew were not enforcing the original seating plan and so the two were free to find some empty seats near the back of the plane.

The awkwardness that Nick had felt at Dover Fault seemed to have reached a fever pitch, with neither speaking nor even making eye contact with the other.

Nick felt awful. His hangover had mercifully receded, but he was left with an even worse taste in his mouth. There was a heaviness in his heart at the thought that their time together was nearly over and whilst it had been wonderful, part of him wished that it could be so much more.

Nick felt a kind of dread had settling in the pit of his stomach at the realisation that he was running out of time to make a move, to make something of this fragile connection.

He turned to face Diane, steeling himself to speak up, to find the words to tell her everything he felt and everything he desired. And the words died in his throat.

She was crying. Tears were silently tracking down her cheeks and every now and then she would take in a shuddering, yet silent breath, as though trying to mask her sorrow.

Nick wanted to comfort her, but he had no idea what to say. He'd never been good with words. His hand itched to reach out to her, and he thought about putting his arm around her shoulder or kissing her on the forehead.

But he can't bring himself to do it.

"I'm not kissing a fish!" he cried.

"Come on, I just did," Diane replied, in between the coughing and spluttering and wiping of her lips after what couldn't have been a pleasant experience.

Nick was jolted awake by some minor turbulence. That's odd, he didn't usually fall asleep on planes. He wasn't quite sure if he'd been dreaming, it had felt more like another burst of drunken recollection thudding back into place.

If it was a memory, then that was where it fizzled and faded. He recalled Claude giving him an alternative to kissing the fish, but he's not sure what it was.

He also had the strangest sensation of a, a sort of touch memory, like a tingle in his fingertips. It was as if they had been wrapped around something, stroking something, but he wasn't sure what.

Nick glanced down to where his fingers lay, mere inches away from Diane's on the armrest. The urge to reach out and take her hand was so strong that his fingers were almost flexing of their own accord.

Nick wanted to reach out and take the hand of the woman he loved.

But he did not move.

And neither did she.

At the airport, Nick and Diane exchange addresses and promise to write to one another as soon as they each get home. And just like that, Diane had disappeared through customs and Nick was alone once more.

He sought out the line for international departures. The flight crew had informed him to present his original ticket and explain the situation and the airport staff should be able to arrange him a seat on a replacement flight home.

Nick wandered back and forth, struggling to find the departures desk in the sea of people milling about the airport.

When he realised he had passed the same café, newspaper stand and 1 hour photo kiosk, he paused to get his bearings.

Then, with a groan of dismay, Nick realised that the sea of people in front of him was in fact the queue for the international departures desk and that he was in for quite a wait.

The disposable camera was still jiggling away inside his pocket. With a sigh, Nick decided to drop it off at the kiosk to be developed. Might as well do something productive while I wait, he thought, before trudging his way to the back of the line, resigning himself to what would surely be a lengthy wait time.

It wasn't long before Nick's mind strayed to thoughts of Diane, as it had been doing increasingly often of late.

He wondered what he would write in his first letter to her.

Dear Diane, I miss you…

Dear Diane, I love you…

He shook his head. Even on paper, he didn't think he had the courage for that.

He wished he'd had the nerve to say something up at Dover Fault, or on the bus, or on the plane, or at the pub or somewhere, anywhere before it was too late.

But, as always, words had failed him. He'd never been good with words, either stammering or going too fast, the words tumbling over themselves and never coming out in the right order.

He'd never been good with words. He'd never been particularly good with actions either, but – given that he was daydreaming and it couldn't hurt any – Nick let himself imagine what he might have done to show Diane how he felt.

He pictured reaching out to hold her hand, intertwining their fingers and giving hers a gentle squeeze.

He pictured gently cupping her cheek, running his thumb over her soft skin, before leaning in and gently planting a kiss on her lips.

His imagination started to get a little carried away with itself and he pictured wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her close as he kissed her passionately, moaning her name.

"Diane," Nick gasped, pausing to draw breath before returning his focus to her soft lips. They were wrapped up in each other against the brick wall of an alleyway behind the bar, Nick's arms encircling Diane's waist and her hands toying with the short hairs at the back of his neck.

He tucked a finger under her chin, tilting her jaw up to meet his for a deeper kiss, barely swallowing back a moan when he felt her tongue dart out to taste him.

She pulled back and smiled up at him.

"It's amazing how much can change in an hour, isn't it?"

He grinned back at her in agreement before nuzzling into the delicate patch of skin below her earlobe.

"I know. An hour ago, we weren't Newfoundlanders, for example," he replied.

"Mmm. And I'd never seen you dance before," she added.

He groaned and let his head fall forward to rest against her shoulder.

"I don't know that I'd ever seen me dance before, either! You know, Diane, some might say you're a bad influence on me," he chuckled before drawing her closer into an embrace.

Wrapped up in each other close like this, unable to see each other's faces, it felt easier to be truthful. Easier to say what he wanted to.

"I've never met anyone quite like you before, Diane. Before you, I'd never been the kind of person to get up and dance in bars, or to take part in public ceremonies as the centre of attention, or to kiss fish…"

"But you didn't kiss the fish, you kissed me!" she interrupted.

He grinned.

"And for that I am eternally grateful. But I wouldn't have done any of that before I met you. You've had an… an impact on me, Diane and I … well, I guess what I'm trying to say is…." Darn. Even now the words are failing you, old boy.

Diane pulled back, resting one hand over his heart, and as she met his eyes she whispered

"I love you too."

"What?" Nick stared.

"I love you too, you silly thing!" Diane giggled.

His heart soared. Scooping her up in his arms, he swirled them both in a circle, before abruptly remembering just how much alcohol they'd had to drink and therefore what a bad idea this was.

As they staggered to a standstill, Diane shivered. Nick hadn't registered the cold (partly due to the alcohol, but mostly due to the way they'd been occupied for the last few minutes) but immediately shrugged off his letter jacket and draped it around her shoulders.

"Shall we head back?" he asked.

"Mmm" she nodded in agreement, leaning into his side.

As they walked, Diane tried to wrap an arm around his waist, but couldn't reach around the confines of the letter jacket. She stopped with a huff, before removing it completely and donning it around his shoulders like a cape. She then threw both arms around his waist, sighing in contentment as they began to walk again.

"Better?" he asked with a grin.

"Much," she asserted, satisfied.

On the way back to the schoolgrounds, they paused under a large fir tree for one more kiss. As Diane disentangles herself from him, Nick feels the camera jostle in his pocket. He pulls it out and snaps a photo of the two of them, arms around each other, Diane's lips pressed to his cheek in a kiss.

They walk back into the school, hand in hand and don't let go until it is time to collapse into bed.

Nick was right about the wait time. Over an hour just to find out "there'll be no flights for three days and that you'll have to find a hotel" he thinks to himself in frustration.

On his way over to a phone booth to find some nearby hotel listings, he noticed the photo kiosk again. Glancing at his watch, Nick wondered if his photos were ready to be collected.

A short detour told him that they were. As he began to amble back towards the phone booths, he started to rifle aimlessly through the photographs.

There were a couple of blurry shots at the start, including one of his thumb, taken when he was still figuring out how to use the thing. Then there were a few scenes from the original flight, including his meal and some shots out of the window.

Then there was the outside of Gander Academy, his cot and then….

Nick froze.

There they were, as vividly as in his imagination. Or, well, maybe not his imagination, according to the photographs.

There was one of Diane dancing, her hair swirling around her, framing her wide smile.

There was one of several wannabe Newfoundlanders, all sporting yellow hats and nervous grins.

And finally, there was one of the two of them, Diane's kiss pressed against his cheek and a look of pure devotion in his eyes.

It was all real. It all happened just as I remembered it.

With a start, Nick lurched back into motion, all at once a frenetic bundle of limbs as he rushed for the exit and hurled himself into the nearest taxi, practically shouting Diane's address at the driver.

Nick fidgeted with his luggage the entire length of the (mercifully short) taxi ride and flung a handful of god knows what denominations into the front seat before sprinting up her driveway and knocking, breathless, on her door.

Diane opened the door, her mouth dropping open in surprise as well as she stared up at him.

Nick panted, frozen for a moment, before finding the words to speak.

"I didn't kiss the fish," he said.

"What?" she responded, still hardly believing her eyes.

"I didn't kiss the fish, I kissed you," he went on. "At the Legion that night, I drank the Screech and I became a Newfoundlander and I danced and I didn't kiss the fish. All because of you, Diane and I…what I'm trying to say is…." he took a deep breath before finally, finally, finding the words.

"I love you too," he finished, before he stepped forward and, taking her face in his hands, he kissed her passionately.

As the two stumbled back over the threshold, Diane reached out blindly and managed to swing the door shut behind them.

Nick paused to gaze down at the woman in his arms, letting the full depth of his feeling show on his face, beaming down at her.

She smiled back at him before taking his hand and turning to lead him upstairs.

No more words were spoken that night, but none were needed.

They had said the most important ones already.