He looked much the same. A little less trim around the middle perhaps, and as he turned and saw me, his serious face breaking into a smile, I noticed that his hairline had receded at the temples, accentuated by a new, very short haircut. It made his face seem bigger, more open than I remembered. I felt his eyes upon me as I quickly paced the remaining yards of pavement to where he stood waiting, outside the old café where we used to take our coffee breaks together ten long years ago.
'Hi Abi!' he said as I approached.
'Jon! How are you?'
We gave each other a quick hug and a kiss, not quite on the cheek, but into the cool, winter air surrounding our heads. I caught a familiar whiff of aftershave.
'I'm good thanks. And you? Did you have a good journey into London?'
'Yes, it was ok, no problems. I hope you haven't been waiting long?'
'No, not at all.'
I noticed Jon's nose and ears were red from the cold.
'Shall we go in?' he asked. 'Is here ok, or should we go somewhere else?'
'No, here's great' I said. 'It's always nice coming back.'
Coming home is how it felt. Images of this street and this café, just around the corner from the office where I used to work, often drifted into my thoughts and featured in my dreams at night. I had only actually been back a couple of times since leaving: once when I met Jon after work for a quick drink, not long after I had started my new job, the wine and optimism for new beginnings taking the edge off my aching nostalgia. The second time was when I met up with him and another former colleague, Melanie, for lunch. We had all come to this café that time too, and I remembered how Jon had held the door open for me as I struggled to negotiate the small crowded space with Ellie in her pram.
'What can I get you Abi?'
'Oh, that's very kind, thanks. Erm…' I studied the drinks menu behind the baristas to see what they had to offer, quite pointlessly as I already knew what I wanted. 'I think I'll just have a …'
'White Americano?' smiled Jon. He had remembered.
'Yes! Thanks. Do you still drink espressos?'
'Yep, still need my caffeine shots I'm afraid.'
How nice to imagine that nothing had changed. Looking around I saw that here, in this little café, everything was as I remembered; only the baristas were different and very young-looking. The same tables, the same chairs, same huge prints of Italian scenes on the walls, same noisy coffee machines grinding out against a backdrop of mellow jazz, same dizzying aroma of coffee beans mingled with a morning smell of aftershave and perfume. I could almost pretend the clock had turned back ten years and I was twenty-five again. Then I thought of Ellie and felt a twinge of guilt.
We took our coffees and made a beeline for the only free place to sit - a small table for two in the corner. Shedding our winter coats and scarves, we settled down and I clutched my mug of coffee to warm my numb fingers.
'So, how have you been?' asked Jon. 'How's Ellie?'
Two big questions there, Jon, I thought. I decided to ignore the first.
'Oh, she's fine, doing well,' I gushed. 'She's five now. Loves school.' I took my phone from my handbag and showed Jon a photo of Ellie on her first day at school, looking all smart and grown-up and little and vulnerable.
'She looks just like you,' Jon said, looking at the photo, then fixing his eyes on my face.
I found my cheeks beginning to flush, annoyingly.
'I love it when people say that,' I gave by way of explanation.
I put the phone away. 'Of course she's with Mark this weekend,' I went on. 'She spends the first weekend in every month with him now.'
Jon nodded, his blue eyes still on my face. I stirred my coffee and wondered whether or not to go on. I could see that Jon still had his funny old habit of just looking instead of asking, as though he knew I would open up if he simply waited long enough.
I cleared my throat. 'I don't know if Melanie's said anything, but me and Mark aren't together any more. We still get on ok; it's just that things weren't working out, what with Mark's demanding job and everything. We were hardly spending any time together. We just sort of drifted apart.'
How lovely and peaceful that sounded, like two rowing boats gently drifting away from each other on a calm, blue sea. Nothing at all like the angry, repetitive collision of minds we had always ended up having when we did see each other, until Mark had one day decided to depart with the velocity of a speed boat, leaving me and Ellie behind, frantically trying to stay afloat.
Jon looked serious, and I noticed a thin crease in his forehead that didn't used to be there.
'So do you think this is going to be a permanent separation or a temporary thing?' he asked.
'Oh, it's definitely permanent, we've applied for a divorce.'
'Right,' was all he had to say.
It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, but I was glad that he didn't offer any trite words of sympathy or consolation. We both drank some of our coffee in silence.
'So, how's things with you?' I asked politely.
'Hmm, not bad.' Jon took a sip of his espresso. 'Work's a bit shite at the moment. Did you hear that Steve was made redundant? And we've all had to take a pay-freeze.'
'Have you applied for any other jobs?' I asked.
'Nope, there's nothing out there at the moment. And I'm not in a bad position now - you heard I was made Team Leader? Yeah, I'm just glad to have a job, the way things are.'
'Yes, I can understand.'
I was going to say something about how the company ought to value Jon's long-service - he had been there years now - but I decided not to say anything. I suspected that Jon would have wished for a more varied career.
'Melanie told me her news,' I continued.
'Oh, about kid number three on the way? Yeah, she's pretty moody at work at the moment, takes it all out on us. Barmy as ever.'
'Yes, good old Mel! She emailed me just last week to tell me.' It was in that same email that she had encouraged me to get in touch with Jon.
We fell silent again. I remembered how it used to be hard for us to stop talking some days at work, and the glares we had received from some of our colleagues as we tried to stifle our laughter over a shared joke. I looked around the café, absent-mindedly watching a mother trying to feed puréed fruit to her giggling baby, fidgeting in her high chair. The baby had sticking-out ears and reminded me of Ellie as a baby. I glanced back at Jon and saw that he was watching me, smiling. I smiled back, and suddenly felt a melting sensation in my stomach. I was sitting at my old desk again and it was Friday afternoon and I was desperately missing him already, knowing I wouldn't be seeing him till Monday.
I swallowed. It was time to ask.
'And how's Caroline?'
'Oh, she's fine thanks. We've set the date now. Yeah, I know - at last!'
I blinked and wondered if I had heard him properly. Yet, it was as if I had always known.
'Gosh, wow! Congratulations! Mel never said; I mean, I knew you'd got engaged, but…'
'Yeah, I don't think I've told Mel yet actually. She gave up asking - probably thought we would never get round to it!'
Typical Jon, keeping himself to himself.
'Well, that's brilliant news,' I said and forced myself to smile. 'So when is the big day?'
'Tenth of June. Hopefully we'll have a nice summer's day for it.'
'Yes, that should be lovely.'
I knew I should be asking lots of questions but struggled to think of them. Jon suddenly looked slightly embarrassed.
'I, er… I don't know if you're free around then, Abi, but you'd be very welcome… I mean, it would be a chance for you to meet Caroline and everything. You could bring Ellie.'
I wasn't too sure how Caroline would feel at having a stranger with a five-year old daughter on her guest list.
'Oh, thanks, that's really kind, but I don't think I'll be able to come.'
I took a deep breath. I was going to have to tell him now.
'The thing is, I'm going to be moving abroad soon - to France - with Ellie.'
The smile on Jon's face faded and I imagined I caught a fleeting look of panic in his eyes.
'Yes. We're going to Lyon - you know, where I spent my year abroad when I was a student? I've kept in touch with a couple of people there ever since, at the school where I taught English; they were recruiting new teachers and I've ended up getting a job. Teaching English.'
I garbled on. 'It's going to be a big change from the design world, but you know, I'm really looking forward to it. It's been so hard finding work here to fit around Ellie. But I used to love teaching when I did it that year, and it's a beautiful city. And I figured, now's a good time to do it, with Ellie being so young - she can grow up speaking French, and… well, it's going to be a whole new start for us. Just what we need.'
Jon nodded. 'Wow, that's.. that's great! Good for you.'
'So, I don't think I'll be able to get back in June, as we'll probably be busy getting settled and into things there. We're moving around Easter time.'
'But, tell me more about the wedding, Jon. Where's it going to be?'
Jon was busy drinking up his coffee. 'Shall I get some more coffees in?' he said, ignoring my question. 'Same again?'
He stood up.
'Yes, please, though I should really get these…'
But he was already on his way to the counter.
I took some slow, deep breaths and watched him standing in the queue, his back to me. I knew I should feel happy that he had his own life now. I had only come to say goodbye anyway. I knew that after today I might never see him again.
I checked my phone for any messages about Ellie but there were none. I wondered how she and Mark were getting on. Jon returned with fresh coffee and went straight into telling me about the plans for his big day - the Church, the reception venue, the surprise honeymoon he was planning for Caroline. He was quite animated (for Jon) and I was enthusiastic. We chatted some more about the old office and its staff, and he brought me up to speed on all the gossip. We talked about Jon's design projects, and I grumbled about the jobs I had attempted to hold down in recent years, and the struggles I had had trying to work and cope as a single mum. We discussed some of the Scandinavian thrillers that had been on TV recently. We were Jon and Abi again - chatting and laughing as if our lives depended on it.
Our coffee cups were drained, but still we lingered, warm and safe in our little world, as sleet and rain mingled and slid down the outside of the cafe's steamed up windows. As we chatted, my foot accidentally nudged against his in the cramped space under the table; he didn't move his foot away, and neither did I.
At last Jon looked at his watch and said he had to be going. He was meeting Caroline for lunch, then they were going to organise their wedding gift list. We stood up, slowly putting on our coats, and headed out into the wintry weather. I immediately started shivering.
'It's been really nice seeing you again, Abi,' he said.
'Yes, it's been lovely,' I replied. 'I hope the wedding goes really well. Give my love to Caroline.'
'Thanks, I will. And all the best for France!'
'Thanks. Let's keep in touch,' I said through chattering teeth.
'I'd like that. Bye Abi.'
We hugged and I closed my eyes, wanting forever to be able to remember the feel of his arms around mine. For a brief moment, I felt his lips rest softly on my cheek. Then, with a squeeze of my hand, he turned and we set off walking in different directions, the sleet raining down on us both.