The remedy for a bruised heart may be closer to you than you think. Are you ready to let love have a second chance? (This could be a "George"-story, but only the rose - the Christmas rose - has a name.)
"You have a lot of kids, don't you?"
The question came out of the blue and out of the darkness. I was working late on a Tuesday evening in November. I thought the place was deserted; the car park was empty apart from my car. The cleaners and the watchmen on their rounds wouldn't be here for hours yet.
So I leapt a foot from my chair. Well, it felt like a foot. "Huh?" or "What?" or something similarly intelligent may have escaped my lips.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," the youthful voice laughed.
I turned around to identify my intruder. The daylight had been gone for hours so the only light was that coming from my desk lamp - and my computer screens. But I recognized her at once. It was one of our graduate students. We may be a University department these days, but originally we did pure research. We are located hundreds of miles away from the main campus - although only 30 miles from the capital - so we don't have all that many students. Only the very keen. And the very bright. This one was both.
"Hi Katrine," I replied. "You sure succeeded anyway! How come you're here so late?"
"I have to get my mid-term report finished," she said darkly. "It's due next week and my model calculations are playing up."
"Poor you," I said with sympathy. Her department was notorious for allocating next to no funds for the students' computers. I knew Katrine's workstation was almost bin-fodder.
"Poor me if my report is late," she agreed. "My grant will be suspended until I get the report approved."
"What's the matter with your calculations?" I asked. Modelling is not my area of expertise, but I do know a fair bit.
"Oh, I had problems making it converge," Katrine replied. "I've cracked that and set it running. Or crawling - it goes so slowly on my workstation that I don't think I will have enough material by the end of the week."
"Perhaps I can help," I said. I connected to a new super host that I had just installed. It was going to boost our virtualization environment, but so far it hadn't been deployed. The only guest it had was a Linux test-server. "What's the name of your workstation?" I asked
She told me and I connected to it. "Where's your code?" I asked.
She directed me to it. I copied it to the new machine and recompiled, then I set up pointers to her input and output folders and started the job. Katrine's eyes were nearly popping out of her head - the new machine ran more than a 15 times faster than the crap on her desk. When I told her that we had only used an eighth of the host's capacity and we could simply clone the virtual server she was ecstatic. "Jeez! With that machine I can survey my model with all the scenarios and run a selected one in high resolution - and still have it ready in time" she exclaimed.
"Well, do it then!" I said.
"Can I? I mean, doesn't this belong to somebody else?" she asked.
"It does, but they don't know that it is ready yet," I replied. "I shan't tell them until next week. You prepare 8 input folders and I will make 7 clones of the test-server. Then we'll set it cracking and you will have your material by Friday.
30 minutes later the new host was getting a serious work-out on all cores. "You won't get into trouble with the owners over this, will you?" she asked.
"No little love, I won't," I replied. "I will tell them that I ran a 3 day burn-in test at maximum load to get realistic performance numbers. They will even appreciate that."
She had looked a little sceptical when I called her "little love", but I got a blazing smile anyway. "You're sweet," she said and rushed out into the darkness to catch her bus.
I resumed my work, finished up in an hour or so and drove home to two of those "lots" of kids
"You never told me about all those kids, did you?"
Katrine was there again the following Tuesday. I was working late again as I usually do on Tuesdays.
"Hi Katrine, how is the mid-term report coming along?" I asked - not quite so startled this time.
"It's finished!" she said with the blazing smile. "I have just put a copy in my supervisor's pigeon hole and sent a PDF to my external supervisor."
Katrine looked little-kid happy. Although in her mid twenties, she does look childish in some respects. She is not tall and her body is very slender. Her angular face is not beautiful in a classical sense, but when she is animated her face comes alive. I find that attractive. And her eyes are always alight with intelligence.
"That's great," I said. "Right on time. Your grant should be safe."
She smiled again. "Yes, thanks to you. Anyway, what's the deal with all those kids?" She was studying my notice board. There were twenty or so A3-sized photographs. Unlimited access to a colour laser printer is a great thing.
"There are actually only 3 of them," I said. "But the pictures go back over many years." I pointed out who was who.
"Gosh, she has changed a lot, hasn't she?" Katrine said. She was referring to my middle child.
"Did you never have a 'black period' soon after you discovered make-up?" I asked
"God yes!" Katrine laughed. "I used it by the bucket."
"Well, there you are. Realising that 'less is more' takes some time. You'll agree that she's developed a more restrained style since," I said and pointed to the latest picture.
"She has, and she's very pretty," Katrine agreed. "How old is she?"
"19," I replied. "Her sister is 22 and their brother is 10."
Katrine looked sceptical. "Your oldest is only two years younger than me," she said.
I didn't get it. "And?"
Katrine looked mysterious. Yes, mysterious. That was new. "Oh, nothing," she said and rushed out into the darkness to catch her bus.
"Is that your wife?"
Katrine was there again the next Tuesday. In a mild way I'd been hoping she would be. I couldn't really explain why. But the question threw me a little.
"Yes. No. That's my ex-wife," I said - possibly with a sigh.
Like everyone else, Katrine consider most IT-staff social misfits and borderline autistics. People never miss an opportunity to say so - all good natured fun, they think. It can get a little tiring. But Katrine was clearly genuinely astonished. "How come you have a picture of your EX-wife on your desk?" she asked in a tone of voice almost dripping with incredulity.
"Well, it was her that stopped loving me, not the other way around," I replied - holding Katrine's gaze with an effort.
She blinked first and looked away. "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry on your private life," she said miserably.
"That's OK," I said - as one does. "Besides, you have a point. After nearly two years it is fairly obvious she isn't coming back."
"Do the kids live with her?" Katrine asked.
"No, we don't know where she is," I replied. "My oldest has an apartment in town; the two younger ones live with me. But I dare say my middle one will move to town when she starts uni next year."
Katrine may not even have heard the second part of my reply. Her eyes had opened wide at the first bit and she was gaping at me. "What do you mean you don't know where she is?" she asked. "What happened?"
"She grew up in an abusive home and struggled with depression and low self-esteem for the nearly 25 years we were together," I replied. "I tried to help her, but 2-3 years ago it got so bad I feared she would harm herself and I finally got her in therapy. The therapist told her to 'break free' and one day she was gone after having emptied our bank accounts. By way of explanation there was a brief note telling me to phone the therapist."
"Did you?" Katrine asked.
"I did," I replied tersely. "And how! I now have a court-order against me forbidding further contact."
Katrine smiled wryly. "I don't blame you. Personally I would have strangled the therapist."
"That's exactly what I told her I intended to do," I said with a reluctant smile. "Thus the court-order."
"How do you work out practical things?" Katrine asked.
"We don't," I replied. "What little contact there is goes through lawyers."
We were silent for a while. "What do your kids do when you work late?" Katrine asked.
"They are with my oldest in town every Tuesday when I am here late. In that way I can have shorter days during the rest of the week and make things work," I said. "Or at least function after a fashion."
"It can't be easy," she said.
"Thousands and thousands of single parents do it," I countered. "Most of them are women, but there are actually also a fair few single fathers around. And in a way I was used to it already - my wife's career had her away quite frequently. Besides, my daughters are so old they've been a real help. I could really feel it when my oldest left home and it will be difficult when her sister follows suit, but so be it."
She was looking at me in a strange way. I think she was just about to say something, but then her eyes flickered to the clock on the wall.
"Blast!" she exclaimed. "I've missed my bus, and thus my train - I can't make it even if I run."
"I can drive you," I said. "I am going into town tonight to have dinner at my oldest daughter's place and then drive her siblings home. Where do you live?"
She mentioned the address. "You're kidding!" I exclaimed. "It's just a few blocks from where I'm going. Get your stuff and we'll head off."
It was blowing a gale with driving rain that was turning into sleet. A gust of wind nearly knocked Katrine over. "There's not much of you, is there?" I yelled over the wind and locked my arm in hers.
We got into the car and drove off. She was shivering, but the car got warm quickly - and it has electric heating in the front seats. She liked that.
She told me about her apartment on the way. She lived there with her boyfriend who was also a student; although I got the impression he had not taken any final exams yet, much less progressed to post-graduate studies.
I enjoyed her company and was almost sad to drop her off outside her front door. "This is so neat," she said. "I don't have to be outside in this dreadful weather and I am home more than half an hour early. Thanks heaps!"
I got a peck on the cheek. I was pathetically pleased about that. I waited until she was 'safely inside'. That was my excuse anyway, and I only drove off to my oldest daughter's place about half a mile away when I couldn't see her on the stairs anymore.
My oldest is a great cook and she had excelled. Nothing fancy or expensive - she's on a student's budget and I can't help out very much - but it was imaginative, well-prepared and delicious. I enjoyed being there, but my mind was straying.
"Dad, you seem to be miles away!" my daughter said.
Half a mile would be a better guess. I apologized and rejoined in the conversation.
"Working late again are we?"
November had turned into December. It was darker and colder and wetter. The misery seemed to have crept into Katrine's voice. It didn't have its usual sparkle. Come to think of it, I hadn't heard her since last week. The shared student offices are just up the corridor from IT and I would usually see her - and especially hear her infectious laugh - several times a day. But not for the last week.
"Yes," I said trying to smile and hoping it didn't look too forced. "The usual."
She was looking at me in a sort of tentative way. Thinking she was trying to work up the courage to ask for a lift, I had to disappoint her. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I can't drive you home today. I am not going to town; I am going straight home and only stopping to pick up the kids at the train from town."
"That's OK," she said miserably. "I don't live there anymore."
"Oh! When did that happen?" I asked.
"Last Tuesday," she said.
"You mean the day I drove you home?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied and the bitterness was clear in her voice. "That day."
"What happened?" I blurted out - I was so surprised,
"Turns out coming home early was not such a crash hot idea," she said with forced little laugh. "My boyfriend and my best girl friend were just finishing a cosy shower together after having fucked themselves silly all afternoon. They were stark naked."
Her face crumbled. "They've been at it for months. He said he was working out every Tuesday and that was why he had always just showered when I got home." She sniffled. "Well, it was a work-out I suppose." There was a brief reluctant smile on her face. Even in the midst of her deepest misery her lively wit refused to be suppressed completely.
"I must have been so blind," she continued. "He would always change the bedding on Tuesdays - I thought that at least on that one point he participated in the house keeping chores."
"Why was it you moving out and not him?" I asked.
"Turns out that he had conveniently 'forgotten' to get my name on the lease too. I was busy completing my Bachelor Project when we got the apartment so he handled all the paperwork. Except the money; I paid the deposit." She looked despondent.
"Is he paying that back?" I asked. She would need her deposit if she was to get another place.
"Nothing so far," she replied. "He claims he's been paying more of the running costs so he doesn't believe he owes me anything."
"Charming specimen," I said almost to myself, then looked her in the eye. "Listen, I know it doesn't help much right now, but you're better off without him - a two-timing bastard."
"I know - that's what my girl friends, well other girl friends, tell me," she said. "But he was my first and one and only boyfriend." She started crying.
I don't know how she ended up in my arms, but she cried it all out there. "He said he was so tired of sleeping with someone who looked like a boy," she sobbed.
Sure, she is small and slender and somewhat angular. But I was in no doubt that it was a girl I had in my arms.
I sat with her like that for God knows how long. She finally calmed down, wiped her grimy little face and got up - shy and embarrassed she seemed to be.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I needed to cry."
"One does sometimes," I said - mostly to myself.
She left to go 'home'. I don't know where to. I saw her through the windows in the weak light from the lamp posts on the car park. A dark shadow in her winter coat. She looked so small and forlorn.
I finished up some admin work and drove home. There was a letter waiting for me from my ex-wife's solicitor. It essentially said that in lieu of child support for my son for the past 2 and next 8 years I could keep the house. And the mortgage we took out to buy the apartment for our daughters of course. And there was no mention of the year where our middle daughter had been a minor. Or the emptied savings accounts. But at least I was out of limbo. I was free. Skinned but free.
"Have you got a minute?"
Katrine's voice was maybe not quite as miserable as last week, but the sparkle was still absent. I felt angry. It was like something beautiful had been deliberately destroyed. I had seen her quite a bit since last Tuesday. The personal interlude had not been mentioned; our interaction had been purely professional.
I had launched a new initiative that would give the modelling people access to 'spare CPU cycles' during nights and weekends. Most of our central computers do exactly nothing outside normal working hours. With a bit of tweaking I had made it simple to have dormant virtual machines 'come alive' and soak up the unused capacity.
Top management had been ecstatic: It looked really good on so many levels - more capacity for no investment and this could go straight into end-of-year reporting on 'green' initiatives too. I was in line for a much needed raise.
I had made sure to mention the 'close collaboration with the staff and students of the modelling group' in the 'development of the concept' and the 'stress testing of the system'. The group leader had been all smiles. The fact that only Katrine was able to utilize the system this side of Christmas was lost on him. I diffidently asked him if he would act in the role of Chairman of the Allocation Committee. He collects honours and titles and looked liked Christmas had come early.
But enough of academic egos. Yes, I had seen a lot of Katrine in the preceding week, but we hadn't 'talked'.
Did I have a minute? "For you always," I replied. That is a hardy old bromide and rarely true. But I realized this time it was.
"First of all, thank you for, for, you know, caring last week. I..." she trailed off. There were tears in her eyes again. And a hint of annoyance with herself. She seemingly felt she should be able to handle this without crying.
"Thank you for trusting me to care," I replied as gently as I could. "Yours is not the first broken heart I've helped getting on the road to mending. Remember I have two daughters not much younger than you."
She nodded, biting her lip. I got a vague suspicion this was not quite the reply she had wanted.
"I was wondering," she said, but got no further.
I tried to smile encouragingly. You read that all the time; I have no idea how you do it. "Yes?" I prompted.
She started again. "I know it's fresh of me since you've already helped me so much, but there is no one else that helps me and..." Once more she was stopped by tears and failing voice control.
I put a hand on her shoulder. "Out with it!" I said.
The physical contact helped. "I have been squatting with friends for the last two weeks," she said, "but I'm out of options. I even brought my sleeping bag here and used the lame excuse that I wanted to check on my calculations over night, but the guards told me it was illegal. Do you know anyone that has a room for rent? Cheaply?"
All this was delivered in a voice barely above a whisper and she could not look at me.
"Yes," I said. "I do."
"Who?" she asked, finally looking up.
"Me," I replied, having made up my mind on the spot.
"That's not what I meant," she started to protest. I held up a hand to silence her.
"But it's true," I said. "My middle daughter has just been told that she can start pre-med on the first of February. She had a stand-by application and it came through. She'll move in with her sister in town in the New Year. That leaves my son and me alone in a large house. You are very welcome - and you can get a lift to and from work every day with me."
She cried in my arms once more. To my shame I had a physical reaction, but the way we were sitting I hoped she wouldn't notice.
"It's time to go home!"
The sparkle was back in Katrine's voice. She had been staying with us for a week now and it had gone amazingly well. We had collected her few personal belongings, stored in a leaky loft room belonging to a friend in town, already last Wednesday. She had all of her work books in her office and her modest collection of literature had fitted easily into the bookshelves in the room she got in my house. Her clothes also fitted in the wardrobe and chest of drawers; unlike my daughters she didn't have all that many.
The bed and chest and desk were nothing special - just what I had put in the room to convert it to a usable guest bedroom when my oldest daughter moved out. Katrine was reluctant to take a fight with her ex-boyfriend over furniture, but I urged her to get at least something. She promised she would 'think about it'.