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One Day in December / (by Josie Silver, 2018) -

One Day in December /     (by Josie Silver, 2018) -

One Day in December / (by Josie Silver, 2018) -

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One Day in December / (by Josie Silver, 2018) -
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2018
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Josie Silver
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Eleanor Tomlinson and Charlie Anson
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upper-intermediate
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10:27:26
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

One Day in December / :

.doc (Word) josie_silver_-_one_day_in_december.doc [887 Kb] (c: 15) .
.pdf josie_silver_-_one_day_in_december.pdf [1.49 Mb] (c: 22) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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2008 ? 21 December Laurie Its a wonder everyone who uses public transport in winter doesnt keel over and die of germ overload. In the last ten minutes Ive been coughed on and sneezed at, and if the woman in front of me shakes her dandruff my way again, I might just douse her with the dregs of the lukewarm coffee that Im no longer able to drink because its full of her scalp. Im so tired I could sleep right here on the top deck of this swaying, rammedfull bus. Thank God Ive finally finished work for Christmas, because I dont think my brain or my body could withstand even one more shift behind that awful hotel reception desk. It might be festooned with garlands and pretty lights on the customer side, but step behind the curtain and its a soulless hellhole. Im practically asleep, even when Im awake. Im loosely planning to hibernate until next year once I get home to the nostalgic familiarity of my parents house tomorrow. Theres something soothingly time warp-ish about leaving London for an interlude of sedate Midlands village life in my childhood bedroom, even if not all of my childhood memories are happy ones. Even the closest of families have their tragedies, and its fair to say that ours came early and cut deep. I wont dwell though, because Christmas should be a time of hope and love and, most appealing of all at this very moment, sleep. Sleep, punctuated by bouts of competitive eating with my brother, Daryl, and his girlfriend, Anna, and the whole gamut of cheesy Christmas movies. Because how could you ever be too tired to watch some hapless guy stand out in the cold and hold up signs silently declaring to his best friends wife that his wasted heart will always love her? Though is that romance? Im not so sure. I mean, it kind of is, in a schmaltzy way, but its also being the shittiest friend on the planet. Ive given up worrying about the germs in here because Ive undoubtedly ingested enough to kill me if theyre going to, so I lean my forehead against the steamy window and watch Camden High Street slide by in a glitter of Christmas lights and bright, fuggy shop windows selling everything from leather jackets to tacky London souvenirs. Its barely four in the afternoon, yet already its dusk over London; I dont think it got properly light at all today. My reflection tells me that I should probably pull the naff halo of tinsel from my hair that my cow of a manager made me wear, because I look like Im trying out for Angel Gabriel in a primary school nativity, but I find that I really cant be bothered. No one else on this bus could care less; not the damp, anoraked man next to me taking up more than his half of the seat as he dozes over yesterdays paper, nor the bunch of schoolkids shouting across each other on the back seats and certainly not dandruff woman in front of me with her flashing snowflake earrings. The irony of her jewellery choice is not lost on me; if I were more of a bitch I might tap her on the shoulder to advise her that shes drawing attention to the skin blizzard shes depositing with every shake of her head. Im not a bitch though; or maybe Im just a quiet one inside my own head. Isnt everyone? Jesus, how many more stops is this bus going to make? Im still a couple of miles from my flat and already its fuller than a cattle truck on market day. Come on, I think. Move. Take me home. Though home is going to be a pretty depressing place now that my flatmate, Sarah, has gone back to her parents. Only one more day then Ill be out of here too, I remind myself. The bus shudders to a halt at the end of the street and I watch as down below a stream of people jostle to get off at the same time as others try to push their way on. Its as if they think its one of those competitions to see how many people can fit into one small space. Theres a guy perched on one of the fold-down seats in the bus shelter. This cant be his bus, because hes engrossed in the hardback book in his hands. I notice him because he seems oblivious to the pushing and shoving happening right in front of him, like one of those fancy special effects at the movies where someone is completely still and the world kaleidoscopes around them, slightly out of focus. I cant see his face, just the top of his sandy hair, cut slightly long and given to a wave when it grows, I should imagine. Hes bundled into a navy woollen reefer jacket and a scarf that looks like someone might have knitted it for him. Its kitsch and unexpected against the coolness of the rest of his attire dark skinny jeans and boots and his concentration is completely held by his book. I squint, trying to duck my head to see what hes reading, wiping the steamed-up window with my coat sleeve to get a better look. I dont know if its the movement of my arm across the glass or the flickering lights of dandruff-womans earrings that snag in his peripheral vision, but he lifts his head and blinks a few times as he focuses his attention on my window. On me. We stare straight at each other and I cant look away. I feel my lips move as if Im going to say something, God knows what, and all of a sudden and out of nowhere I need to get off this bus. Im gripped by the overwhelming urge to go outside, to get to him. But I dont. I dont move a muscle, because I know there isnt a chance in hell that I can get past anorak man beside me and push through the packed bus before it pulls away. So I make the split-second decision to stay rooted to the spot and try to convey to him to get on board using just the hot, desperate longing in my eyes. Hes not film-star good-looking or classically perfect, but there is an air of preppy dishevelledness and an earnest, who me? charm about him that captivates me. I cant quite make out the colour of his eyes from here. Green, Id say, or blue maybe? And heres the thing. Call it wishful thinking, but Im sure I see the same thunderbolt hit him too; as if an invisible fork of lightning has inexplicably joined us together. Recognition; naked, electric shock in his rounded eyes. He does something close to an incredulous double take, the kind of thing you might do when you coincidentally spot your oldest and best friend who you havent seen for ages and you cant actually believe theyre there. Its a look of Hello you, and Oh my God, its you, and I cant believe how good it is to see you, all in one. His eyes dart towards the dwindling queue still waiting to board and then back up to me, and its as if I can hear the thoughts racing through his head. Hes wondering if itd be crazy to get on the bus, what hed say if we werent separated by the glass and the hordes, if hed feel foolish taking the stairs two at a time to get to me. No, I try to relay back. No, you wouldnt feel foolish. I wouldnt let you. Just get on the bloody bus, will you! Hes staring right at me, and then a slow smile creeps across his generous mouth, as if he cant hold it in. And then Im smiling back, giddy almost. I cant help it either. Please get on the bus. He snaps, making a sudden decision, slamming his book closed and shoving it down in the rucksack between his ankles. Hes walking forward now, and I hold my breath and press my palm flat against the glass, urging him to hurry even as I hear the sickly hiss of the doors closing and the lurch of the handbrake being released. No! No! Oh God, dont you dare drive away from this stop! Its Christmas! I want to yell, even as the bus pulls out into the traffic and gathers pace, and outside he is breathless standing in the road, watching us leave. I see defeat turn out the light in his eyes, and because its Christmas and because Ive just fallen hopelessly in love with a stranger at a bus stop, I blow him a forlorn kiss and lay my forehead against the glass, watching him until hes out of sight. Then I realize. Shit. Why didnt I take a leaf out of shitty friends book and write something down to hold up against the window? I could have done that. I could even have written my mobile number in the condensation. I could have opened the tiny quarter-pane and yelled my name and address or something. I can think of any number of things I could and should have done, yet at the time none of them occurred to me because I simply couldnt take my eyes off him. For onlookers, it must have been an Oscar-worthy sixty-second silent movie. From now on, if anyone asks me if Ive ever fallen in love at first sight, I shall say yes, for one glorious minute on 21 December 2008. 2009 ? New Years Resolutions Just two resolutions this year, but two big, shiny, brilliant ones. 1)Find him, my boy from the bus stop. 2)Find my first proper job in magazines. Damn. I wish Id written them down in pencil, because Id rub them out and switch them over. What Id ideally like is to find the achingly cool magazine position first, and then run into bus boy in a coffee shop while holding something healthy in my hand for lunch, and hed accidently knock it out of my clutches and then look up and say, Oh. Its you. Finally. And then wed skip lunch and go for a walk around the park instead, because wed have lost our appetites but found the love of our lives. Anyway, thats it. Wish me luck. 20 March Laurie Is that him? I definitely got a bus-ish vibe from him just now. I follow the direction of Sarahs nod and sweep my eyes along the length of the busy Friday-night bar. Its a habit weve fallen into every time we go anywhere; scanning faces and crowds for bus boy as Sarah christened him when we compared Yuletide notes back in January. Her family festivities up in York sounded a much more raucous affair than my cosy, food-laden one in Birmingham, but wed both returned to the reality of winter in London with the New Year blues. I threw my love at first sight sob story into the pity pot and then immediately wished I hadnt. Its not that I dont trust Sarah with my story; its more that from that second forth she has become even more obsessed with finding him again than I am. And Im quietly going crazy over him. Which one? I frown at the sea of people, mostly the backs of unfamiliar heads. She screws her nose up as she pauses to work out how to distinguish her guy for my scrutiny. There, in the middle, next to the woman in the blue dress. I spot her more easily; her poker-straight curtain of white-blonde hair catches the light as she throws her head back and laughs up at the guy beside her. Hes about the right height. His hair looks similar and there is a jolting familiarity to the line of his shoulders in his dark shirt. He could be anyone, but he could be bus boy. The more I look at him, the more sure I am that the search is over. I dont know, I say, holding my breath because hes as close as weve come. Ive described him so many times, Sarah probably knows what he looks like more than I do. I want to inch closer. In fact I think I have already started inching, but then Sarahs hand on my arm stills me because hes just bent his head to kiss the face off the blonde, who instantly becomes my least favourite person on the planet. Oh God, I think its him! No! This isnt how its supposed to happen. Ive played out variants of this scene every night as I close my eyes and it never, repeat never, ends like this. Sometimes hes with a crowd of guys in a bar, other times hes alone in a cafe reading, but the one thing that never happens is he has a girlfriend who he snogs to within an inch of her shimmery blonde life. Shit, Sarah mutters, pressing my wine into my hand. We watch as their kiss goes on. And on. Jeez, do these people have no boundaries? Hes copping a thorough feel of her backside now, wildly overstepping the mark for a busy bar. Decency, people, Sarah grumbles. Hes not your type after all, Lu. Im crestfallen. So much so that I pour the entire glass of chilled wine down my throat, and then shudder. I think I want to go, I say, ridiculously close to tears. And then they stop kissing and she straightens her dress, he murmurs something in her ear, and then turns away and walks straight towards us. I know instantly. He brushes right past us, and I almost laugh with giddy relief. Not him, I whisper. Not even very much like him. Sarah rolls her eyes and blows out the breath she must have been holding in. Jesus, thank fuck for that. What a sleaze-dog. Do you know how close I came to tripping him up just now? Shes right. The guy who just sauntered past us was high on his own selfimportance, wiping the girls red lipstick from his mouth on the back of his hand with a smug, satisfied grin as he made for the loo. God, I need another drink. The search for bus boy is three months old. I better find him soon or Im going to wind up in rehab. Later, back at Delancey Street, we kick off our shoes and flop. Ive been thinking, Sarah says, crashed out on the other end of the sofa to me. Theres this new guy at work, I think you might like him. I only want bus boy, I sigh, costume-drama melodramatic. But what if you find him and hes a twat? she says. Our experience in the bar earlier obviously hit home for her too. You think I should stop looking? I ask, lifting my heavy head off the arm of the sofa to stare at her. She flings her arms wide and leaves them there. Just saying you need a contingency plan. In case hes a twat? She raises her thumbs, probably because its too much effort to raise her head. He could be an A-class, top-drawer super-knob, she says. Or he could have a girlfriend. Or Christ, Lu, he could even be married. I gasp. Actually gasp. No way! I splutter. Hes single, and hes gorgeous, and hes somewhere out there waiting for me to find him. I feel it with all the conviction of a drunk woman. Or maybe hes even looking for me. Sarah props herself up on her elbows and stares at me, her long red waves the worse for wear and her mascara end-of-the-night smudged. Im just saying that we, you, might have unrealistic expectations, and you, we, need to proceed with more caution, thats all. I know shes right. My heart almost stopped beating in the bar earlier. We look at each other, and then she pats my leg. Well find him, she says. Its such a simple gesture of solidarity, but in my boozy state it brings a lump to my throat. Promise? She nods and draws a cross over her heart, and a great snotty sob leaves my throat, because Im tired and pissed and because sometimes I cant quite bring bus boys face to mind and Im scared Ill forget what he looks like. Sarah sits up and dries my tears with the sleeve of her shirt. Dont cry, Lu, she whispers. Well keep looking until we find him. I nod, dropping back to gaze at the Artex ceiling that our landlord has been promising to repaint ever since we moved in here several years ago. We will. And hell be perfect. She falls silent, and then waves her pointed finger vaguely over her own head. He better be. Or else Ill carve twat, right here in his forehead. I nod. Her loyalty is appreciated and reciprocated. With a rusty scalpel, I say, embroidering the grisly image. And itll go septic and his head will drop off, she mumbles. I close my eyes, laughing under my breath. Until I find bus boy, the lions share of my affection belongs to Sarah. 24 October Laurie I think weve nailed it, Sarah says, standing back to admire our handiwork. Weve spent the entire weekend redecorating the tiny living room of our flat; were both covered in paint splatters and dust. Were pretty close to done now and Im feeling a warm glow of satisfaction I only wish my crappy job at the hotel would make me feel even half as accomplished. I hope the landlord likes it, I say. We arent really allowed to make any material changes, but I dont see how he can object to our improvements. He should be paying us for this, Sarah says, her hands on her hips. Shes wearing cut-off dungarees over a Day-Glo pink vest that clashes violently with her hair. Weve just increased the value of his flat. Who wouldnt love these boards more than that threadbare old carpet? I laugh, remembering our comedy sketch struggle to lug the rolled-up carpet down the stairs from our top-floor flat. By the time we reached the bottom we were sweating like miners and swearing like sailors, both plastered in chunks of loose foam underlay. We high-fived each other after we slung it into a neighbours skip; its been there half full of junk for ever, I dont think theyll even notice. The old oak floorboards have come up beautifully in years gone by someone had obviously gone to the trouble of restoring them before the current landlord hid them beneath that patterned monstrosity. Our arm-aching efforts to buff them up all feel worth it now that were standing in our mellow, light-filled room thanks to the fresh white walls and big old sash windows. Its a tired building with glamorous bones, Artex ceiling notwithstanding. Weve added a cheap rug and covered the mismatched furniture with throws from our bedrooms, and all in all I think weve performed a shoe-string miracle. Boho chic, Sarah declares. Youve got paint in your hair, I say, touching the top of my head to show her where and promptly adding a whole new splodge to mine. You too, she says, laughing, then looks at her watch. Fish and chips? Sarah has the metabolism of a horse. Its one of the things I like most about her, because it allows me to eat cake guilt-free. I nod, starving. Ill go. Half an hour later, we toast our newly fabulous living room over fish and chips eaten off our knees on the sofa. We should jack in our jobs and become TV home-makeover queens, Sarah says. Wed kill it, I say. Laurie and Sarahs Designer Do-overs. She pauses, her fork halfway to her mouth. Sarah and Lus Designer Doovers. Laurie and Sarahs sounds better, I grin. You know Im right. Besides, Im older than you, its only fair I should come first. Its a standing joke; Im a few months older than Sarah and I never miss a chance to pull rank. She splutters on her beer as I lean down to pick my bottle up off the floor. Mind the boards! Ive used a coaster, I say, grandly. She leans down and peers at my makeshift coaster, this months supermarket offers flyer. Oh my God, Lu, she says slowly. Weve become coaster people. I swallow, sombre. Does this mean were going to grow old and have cats together? She nods. I think it does. Might as well, I grumble. My love life is officially dead. Sarah screws up her finished-with fish-and-chip paper. Youve only got yourself to blame, she says. Shes referring to bus boy, of course. Hes reached near-mythical status now, and Im on the very edge of giving up on him. Ten months is a long time to look for a complete stranger on the off-chance that theyll be single, into me and not an axe murderer. Sarah is of the vocal opinion that I need to move on, by which she means I need to find someone else before I turn into a nun. I know shes right, but my heart isnt ready to let him go yet. That feeling when we locked eyes Ive never had that before, ever. You could have trekked around the entire globe in the time since you saw him, she says. Think how many perfect men you could have shagged doing that. Youd have had tales of Roberto in Italy and Vlad in Russia to tell your grandkids when youre old. Im not going to have kids or grandkids. Im going to search vainly for bus boy for ever and have cats with you instead, I say. Well start a rescue centre, and the queen will give us a medal for services to cats. Sarah laughs, but her eyes tell me that the time has come to pack my bus boy dreams away and let him go. Ive just remembered Im allergic to cats, she says. But you still love me, right? I sigh and reach for my beer. Its a deal-breaker, Im afraid. Find someone else, Sarah, we can never be together. She grins. Ive got a date next week. I clutch my heart. You got over us so fast. I met him in a lift. I held him to ransom with the stop button until he agreed to ask me out. I really need to take life lessons from Sarah she sees what she wants and grabs it with both hands. I wish for the millionth time that Id had the balls to get off that bus. But the fact is, I didnt. Maybe its time to wise up, to stop searching for him and drunk crying every time I fail. There are other men. I need to make What would Sarah do? my life motto Im pretty sure she wouldnt spend a year of her life moping. Shall we buy a picture for that wall? she says, looking at the empty space over the fireplace. I nod. Yeah. Why not? Can it be of cats? She laughs and bounces her screwed-up chip paper off my head. 18 December Laurie Try not to make any snap decisions when you meet David tonight? You probably wont think hes your type on first sight, but trust me, hes hilarious. And hes kind, Laurie. I mean, he gave up his chair for me the other day in a meeting. How many guys do you know whod do that? Sarah delivers this speech while on her knees pulling as many dusty wine glasses as she can find from the back of the kitchen cupboard in our tiny shared flat. I cast around for an answer and, to be honest, its slim pickings. The guy from the bottom flat moved his bike out of the way to let me through the front door this morning. Does he count? You mean the same one who opens our mail and leaves trails of cold kebab on the hall floor every weekend? I laugh under my breath as I immerse the wine glasses in hot foamy water. Were throwing our annual Christmas party tonight, which weve held every year since we first moved into Delancey Street. Though were kidding ourselves that this one will be much more sophisticated now weve left university, its mostly going to involve students and a few colleagues were still getting to know descending on our flat to drink cheap wine, debating things we dont really understand and for me it would seem getting off with someone called David who Sarah has decided is my perfect man. Weve been here before. My best friend fancies herself as a matchmaker and set me up a couple of times when we were at uni. The first time, Mark, or it might have been Mike, turned up in running shorts in the depths of winter and spent the entire dinner trying to steer my food choices away from anything that would take more than an hour to work off in the gym. Im a pudding girl; the main thing off the menu as far as I was concerned was Mike. Or Mark. Whichever. In Sarahs defence, he bore a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt, if you squinted and looked at him out of the corner of your eye in a dark room. Which I have to admit I did; Im not normally one to sleep with guys on a first date, but I felt I had to give it a go for Sarahs sake. Her second choice, Fraser, was only slightly better; I can at least remember his name. He was far and away the most Scottish Scotsman Ive ever met, so much so that I only understood about fifty per cent of what he said. I dont think he mentioned bagpipes specifically, but I wouldnt have been surprised if he was packing a set underneath his jacket. His tartan bow tie was disconcerting, but none of that would have mattered. His real downfall came at the end of the date; he escorted me home to Delancey Street and then kissed me in the style of someone trying to administer CPR. CPR with an entirely inappropriate amount of saliva. I made a dash for the bathroom as soon as I got inside, and my reflection confirmed that I looked as if Id been snogged by a Great Dane. In the rain. Not that Ive got an impressive track record at choosing boyfriends for myself, either. With the exception of Lewis, my long-time boyfriend back at home, I seem to somehow keep missing the mark. Three dates, four dates, sometimes even five before the inevitable fizzle. Im starting to wonder if being best friends with someone as dazzling as Sarah is a double-edged sword; she gives men unrealistic expectations about women. If I didnt love her to pieces, Id probably want to poke her eyes out. Anyway, call me stupid, but I knew none of those men were right. Im a girl given to romance; Nora Ephron is my go-to answer for fantasy dinner party guest and I yearn to know if nice boys really do fucking kiss like that. You get the idea. Im hoping that amongst all these frogs will one day come a prince. Or something like that. Who knows what David is going to be like, perhaps it will be third time lucky. Im not going to hold my breath. Maybe hell be the love of my life or maybe hell be hideous, but either way Im undeniably intrigued and more than up for letting my hair down. Its not something Ive done very often over the course of the last year; weve both had the upheaval of moving out of the cushioned world of uni into the reality of work, more successfully in Sarahs case than mine. She practically walked into a junior position with a regional TV network, whereas Im still working on the reception desk at the hotel. Yes, despite my New Years Resolution I am decidedly not working in my dream job yet. But it was that or go home to Birmingham, and I fear that if I leave London Ill never get back again. It was always going to come more easily for Sarah; shes the gregarious one and Im slightly socially awkward, which means interviews dont tend to go so well. None of that tonight though. Im determined to get so drunk that social awkwardness is a complete impossibility. After all, well have the buffer of New Year to forget our ill-advised, alcohol-fuelled behaviour. I mean, come on, that happened last year for Gods sake. Move on already! Its also the night that I finally get to meet Sarahs new boyfriend. Shes known him for several weeks already but for one reason or another Ive yet to lay eyes on him in the apparently incredibly hot flesh. Ive heard enough about him to write a book, though. Unfortunately for him, I already know hes a sex god in bed and that Sarah fully expects to have his children and be his wife once hes the high-flying media celeb hes clearly on track to becoming. I almost feel sorry for him having his future mapped out for the next ten years at the age of twenty-four. But hey, this is Sarah. However cool he is, hes still the lucky one. She cant stop talking about him. Shes doing it again now, telling me far more about their rampant sex life than Id ideally like to know. I scatter bubbles in the air like a child waving a wand as I hold my soapy fingers up to halt her flow. Okay, okay, please stop. Ill try not to orgasm on sight when I finally clap eyes on your future husband. Dont say that to him though, will you? she grins. The future husband thing? Because he doesnt know that bit yet and, you know, it might, like, shock him. You reckon? I deadpan. Far better if he thinks its all his own brilliant idea in a few years time. She dusts off the knees of her jeans as she stands up. I nod. If I know Sarah, which I do, shell have him wrapped round her little finger and more than ready to spontaneously propose whenever she decides the time is right. You know those people that everyone gravitates towards? Those rare effervescent birds who radiate this aura that draws people into their orbit? Sarahs that person. But if you think that makes her sound insufferable, youd be wrong. I first met her right here, the first year of uni. Id decided to go for one of the university rentals rather than halls and Id picked this place. Its a tall old townhouse split into three: two bigger flats downstairs and our attic perched on the top like a jaunty afterthought. I was utterly charmed when I first viewed it, my rose-tinted glasses jammed all the way on. You know that shabby-chic little flat Bridget Jones lives in? It reminded me of that, only more shabby and less chic, and I was going to have to share it with a total stranger to meet the rent. None of those drawbacks stopped me from signing on the dotted line; one stranger was easier to contemplate than a crowded, noisy hall full of them. I still remember carting all of my stuff up three flights of stairs on moving-in day, all the time hoping that my new flatmate wasnt going to crush my Bridget Jones fantasy dead. Shed tacked a welcome note to the door, big, loopy red handwriting scrawled across the back of a used envelope: Dear new housemate, Have gone to buy cheap fizzy piss to celebrate our new home. Take the bigger room if you like, I prefer being in stumbling distance of the bog anyway! S x And that was it. She had me in the palm of her hand before Id even laid eyes on her. Shes different to me in lots of ways, but we share exactly enough middle ground to get on like a house on fire. Shes in-your-face gorgeous with waves of fire-engine red hair that almost reach her bum, and her figure is amazing, though she doesnt give a toss about how she looks. Normally someone as gorgeous as her would make me feel like the ugly sister, but Sarah has this way of making you feel good about yourself. The first thing she said to me when she got back from the corner shop that day was, Fucking hell! Youre a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. Were going to have to get a deadlock on the door or else were gonna cause a riot. She was exaggerating, of course. I dont look very much like Elizabeth Taylor. I have my French maternal grandmother to thank for my dark hair and blue eyes; she was quite a celebrated ballerina in her twenties; we have the prized programmes and grainy press cuttings to prove it. But Ive always thought of myself as more of a failed Parisian; I have inherited my grandmothers form but not her grace, and her neat brunette chignon has become a permanently electrocuted mass of curls in my hands. Besides, theres no way Id ever have the discipline for dancing, Im far too fond of an extra chocolate biscuit. Im going to be a goner when my metabolism catches up with me. Sarah jokingly refers to us as the prozzie and the princess. In truth, shes not got an ounce of slut in her and Im nowhere near ladylike enough for a princess. Like I said, we meet in the middle and we make each other laugh. Shes Thelma to my Louise, hence the reason Im disconcerted that shes suddenly fallen hook, line and sinker for a guy I havent even met or vetted for suitability. Do we have enough booze, do you think? she asks now, casting a critical eye over the bottles lined up across the kitchen work surface. No one could call it a sophisticated collection; its pile em high and sell em cheap supermarket special offer wine and vodka weve been hoarding for the last three months to make sure our party is one to remember. Or not remember, perhaps. More than. People will bring a bottle too, I say. Its going to be great. My stomach rumbles, reminding me that neither of us has eaten since breakfast. Did you hear that? I say, rubbing my middle. My guts just asked you to make a DS special. Sarahs sandwiches are the stuff of Delancey Street myth and legend. Shes taught me her holy breakfast trinity of bacon, beetroot and mushrooms, and it took us the best part of two years to settle on our signature dish, the DS special, named after our flat. She rolls her eyes, laughing. You can make it yourself, you know. Not the way you do it. She preens a little, opening the fridge. Thats true. I watch her layer chicken and blue cheese with lettuce, mayo and cranberry, an exact science that Ive yet to master. I know it sounds hideous, but trust me, its not. It may not be your average student food, but ever since we hit on the winning combo back in our uni days we make sure to always have the ingredients in the fridge. Its pretty much our staple diet. That, ice cream and cheap wine. Its the cranberry that does it, I say after my first bite. Its a quantity thing, she says. Too much cranberry and its basically a jam sandwich. Too much cheese and youre licking a teenagers dirty sock. I raise my sandwich for another bite, but she lunges and pushes my arm down. Wait. We need a drink with it to get us in the party mood. I groan, because I realize what shes going to do when she reaches for two shot glasses. Shes laughing under her breath already as she reaches into the back of the cupboard behind the cereal boxes for the dusty bottle. Monks piss, she says, pouring us each a ceremonial shot. Or Benedictine, to give the old herbal liqueur that came with the flat its proper name. The bottle informs us that its a special blend of secret herbs and spices, and on first taste not long after we moved in we decided that one of those secret ingredients was almost certainly Benedictine monks piss. Every now and then, usually at Christmas, we have one shot each, a ritual weve come to enjoy and loathe in equal measures. Down the hatch, she grins, sliding a glass across the table to me as she sits back down. Happy Christmas, Lu. We clink and then knock our shots back, banging the empty glasses down on the table and wincing. Doesnt get any better with age, I whisper, feeling as if its taken the skin off the roof of my mouth. Rocket fuel, she rasps, laughing. Eat your sandwich, youve earned it. We lapse into sandwich silence, and when weve finished she taps the rim of her empty plate. I think, because its Christmas, that we could add a sausage. I shake my head. You cant mess with the DS special. There isnt much in life that cant be improved by a saveloy, Laurie. She raises her eyebrows at me. You never know, you might get lucky tonight and see Davids. Given the last two blind dates Sarah set me up on, I dont let the prospect overexcite me. Come on, I say, dumping the plates in the sink. Wed better get ready, theyll be here soon. Im three glasses of white in and definitely very relaxed when Sarah finds me and literally drags me from the kitchen by the hand. Hes here, she whispers, crushing the bones of my fingers. Come and say hi. You have to meet him right now. I smile apologetically at David as she pulls me away. Im starting to see what Sarah meant about him being a grower. Hes made me laugh several times already and hes kept my glass topped up; Id just been considering a tiny exploratory snog. Hes nice enough in a vaguely Ross from Friends kind of way, but I find Im more intrigued to meet Sarahs soulmate, which must mean that Ross from Friends would be a regret come tomorrow. Its as good a barometer as any. She tugs me through our laughing, drunk friends and a whole load of people Im not sure either of us even know, until finally we reach her boyfriend standing uncertainly by the front door. Laurie, Sarah is jittery and bright-eyed. Meet Jack. Jack, this is Laurie. My Laurie, she adds, for emphasis. I open my mouth to say hello and then I see his face. My heart jumps into my throat and I feel as if someone just laid electric shock pads on my chest and turned them up to full fry. I cant get any words to leave my lips. I know him. It feels like just last week I saw him first and last. That heart-stopping glimpse from the top deck of a crowded bus twelve months ago. Laurie. He says my name, and I could cry with the sheer relief of him being here. Its going to sound crazy but Ive spent the last year wishing, hoping Id run into him. And now hes here. Ive scoured countless crowds for his face and Ive searched for him in bars and cafes. Id all but given up on ever finding bus boy, even though Sarah swears Ive banged on about him so much that shed even recognize him herself. She didnt, as it turned out. Instead shes presented him to me as the love of her life. Green. His eyes are green. Tree moss vivid around the iris edges, warm amber gold seeping in around his pupils. But its not the colour of his eyes that strikes me so much as the look in them right now as he gazes down at me. A startled flash of recognition. A dizzying, headlong collision. And then its gone in a heartbeat, leaving me unsure if the sheer force of my own longing made me imagine it had been there at all. Jack, I manage, thrusting my hand out. His name is Jack. Its so good to meet you. He nods, a skittish half-smile flickering over his lips. Laurie. I glance towards Sarah, crazy guilty, certain that she must be able to sense something amiss, but shes just grinning at us both like a loon. Thank God for cheap wine. When he takes my hand in his, warm and strong, he shakes it firmly, politely almost, as if were meeting in a formal boardroom rather than at a Christmas party. I dont know what to do with myself, because all of the things I want to do wouldnt be okay. True to my word, I dont orgasm on the spot, but there is definitely something going on with my heart. How on earth has this colossal fuck-up happened? He cant be Sarahs. Hes mine. Hes been mine for an entire year. Isnt she fabulous? Sarah has her hand on the small of my back now, presenting me, actually propelling me towards him to hug because shes desperate for us to be new best friends. Im wretched. Jack rolls his eyes and laughs nervously, as if Sarahs obviousness makes him uncomfortable. Just as splendid as you said she was, he agrees, nodding as if hes admiring a friends new car, and something horribly like an apology creeps into his expression as he looks at me. Is he apologizing because he remembers or because Sarah is behaving like an overeager aunt at a wedding? Laurie? Sarah turns her attention to me. Isnt he every bit as gorgeous as I said he was? Shes laughing, proud of him, as well she should be. I nod. Swallow painfully, even as I force a laugh. He certainly is. Because Sarah is so desperately keen for us to like each other, Jack obligingly leans in and touches his lips briefly against my cheek. Its good to meet you, he says. His voice matches him perfectly; coolly confident, rich, shot through with gentle, knowing wit. She never shuts up about you. My fingers close around the familiarity of my purple pendant, looking for comfort as I force a laugh, shaky. I feel as if I know you too. And I do; I feel as if I have known him for ever. I want to turn my face and catch his lips with my own. I want to drag him breathlessly to my room and close the door, tell him that I love him, strip off my clothes and climb into bed with him, drown in the woody, clean, warm scent of his skin. Im in hell. I hate myself. I take a couple of steps away from him for my own sanity and grapple with my wretched heart to stop it banging louder than the music. Drink? Sarah suggests, light-hearted and loud. He nods, grateful to be thrown a lifeline. Laurie? Sarah looks at me to go with them. I lean back and peer down the hallway towards the bathroom, jiggling as if Im in dire need of the loo. Ill catch you up. I need to get away from him, from them, from this. In the safety of the bathroom, I slam the door and slide on to my backside with my head in my hands, gulping air down so as not to cry. Oh God, oh God. Oh God! I love Sarah, shes my sister in all but biology. But this I dont know how to navigate safely through it without sinking the ship with all of us aboard. Hope flares bright in my chest as I fantasize running out there and just blurting out the truth, because maybe then Sarah will realize that the reason shes so drawn to him is that, subconsciously, she recognized him as bus boy. God knows Ive all but drawn him for her. What a misunderstanding! How well laugh at the sheer absurdity! But then what? She graciously steps aside and he is my new boyfriend, easy as pie? I dont even think he recognized me, for Christs sake! Lead-heavy defeat crushes the delicate, ridiculous hope as reality creeps in. I cant do it. Of course I cant. She has no clue, and Jesus, shes so happy. It shines from her brighter than the star of fucking Bethlehem. It might be Christmas, but this is actual life, not some crappy Hollywood movie. Sarah is my best friend in the entire world, and however much and for however long it kills me, Ill never silently, secretly hold up signs to tell Jack OMara, without hope or agenda, that to me he is perfect, and that my wasted heart will always love him. 19 December Jack Fuck, shes so beautiful when shes asleep. My throat feels like someone shovelled sand down it and I think Sarah might have broken my nose when she smacked her head back in bed last night, but right now I can forgive her anything because her scarlet hair is strewn out around her shoulders on the pillows, almost as if shes suspended in water. She looks like the Little Mermaid. Though I realize that thought makes me sound like a pervert. I slide from the bed and fling on the nearest thing to hand: Sarahs dressing gown. Its covered in pineapples, but Ive no clue where my own clothes went and I need headache pills. Given the state of the stragglers last night I wouldnt be surprised to find one or two of them still strewn across the living-room floor, and I figure pineapples will offend them less than my naked arse. Shit, its pretty bloody short though. Ill just do a quick dash. Water, Sarah croaks, flinging her hand out towards me as I skirt round the edge of the bed. I know, I murmur. Her eyes are still closed as I lift her arm and carefully tuck it back under the quilt, and she makes a noise that might mean Thanks and might be For Gods sake help me. I drop a kiss on her forehead. Back in a sec, I whisper, but shes already slid under the fog of sleep again. I dont blame her. I plan to climb back in there and do the same thing myself within the next five minutes. Glancing at her again for a long second, I back quietly out of the room and click the door shut. If you need paracetamol, theyre in the cupboard on the left. I pause for a beat, swallowing hard as I open the cupboard door and root around until I spot the small blue box. You read my mind, I say, turning to Laurie. I force a casual smile, because in truth this is really fucking awkward. Ive seen her before before last night, I mean. It was just once, fleetingly, in the flesh, but there have been other times in my head since: random, disturbing early-morning lucid dreams where I jolt awake, hard and frustrated. I dont know if she remembers me. Christ, I hope not. Especially now Im standing in front of her in a ridiculous pineapple-strewn ball-grazing dressing gown. Her dark hair is piled high on her head in a messy bun this morning and she looks as if shes as much in need of medication as I am, so I offer her the box. Sarah has banged on about her best friend so much that Id built a virtual Laurie in my head already, but Id got her all wrong. Because Sarah is so striking, Id lazily imagined that her choice of friend would be equally colourful, like a pair of exotic parrots perched up here in their cage. Laurie isnt a parrot. Shes more of a I dont know, a robin, maybe. Theres a contained peace about her, and a quiet, understated sense of being okay with herself that makes her easy to be around. Thanks. She takes the tablets, popping a couple out into her hand. I run her a glass of water and she raises it to me, a grim bottoms up as she knocks the pills back. Here, she says, counting how many are left in the packet before she hands it over. Sarah likes Three, I jump in, and she nods. Three. I feel a little as if were competing to prove who knows Sarah best. She does, of course. Sarah and I have only been together for a month or so, but Christ, its been a whirlwind. Im running to keep up with her most of the time. I met her first in the lift at work; it jammed with just the two of us inside, and by the time it moved again fifteen minutes later I knew three things. Firstly, she might be a fill-in reporter for the local TV station now, but one day shes likely to take over the world. Two, I was taking her for lunch as soon as the lift got fixed, because she told me so. I was going to ask her anyway, for the record. And lastly, Im pretty sure she stopped the lift herself and then released it once shed got what she wanted. That mildly ruthless streak is a turn-on. Shes told me a lot about you. I fill up the kettle and flick it on. Did she tell you how I like my coffee? Laurie reaches for some mugs out of the cupboard as she speaks, and I hate the reflex that sends my eyes down her body. Shes in PJs, more than respectably covered, yet still I observe the fluidity of her movements, the curve of her hip, the navy polish on her toes. Erm I concentrate on hunting down a teaspoon, and she stretches across to tug out the drawer to show me where they are. Got it, I say, reaching in at the same moment as she does, and she jerks her hand away, laughing to soften the suddenness. As I start to spoon the granules out she folds herself on to a spindle-backed chair, one foot tucked underneath her backside. To answer your question, no, Sarah didnt tell me how you like your coffee, but if I had to guess, Id say I turn and lean against the counter to study her. Id say you take it strong. Two spoons. I narrow my eyes as she watches me without giving any hint. Sugar, I say, passing my hand across the back of my neck. None. You want to, but you deny yourself. What the actual fuck am I saying? I sound like Im coming on to her. Im not. Im really not. The last thing I want her to think is that Im a player. I mean Ive had my share of girlfriends, a couple even edged towards serious, but this thing with Sarah feels different somehow. More I dont know. I just know I dont want it to end any time soon. She pulls a face, then shakes her head. Two sugars. Youre kidding me, I laugh. She shrugs. Im not. I take two sugars. Two and a half sometimes, if Im in the mood. The mood for what, I wonder. What makes her need more than two sugars? God, I really need to get out of this kitchen and back to bed. I think Ive left my brain back there on the pillow. Actually, Laurie says, standing up, I dont think I want coffee right now after all. She backs towards the door as she speaks, and I cant quite read the expression in her tired eyes. Maybe Ive offended her. I dont know. Perhaps shes just knackered or maybe shes on the verge of hurling. Ive been known to have that effect on women. Laurie Well? What do you think? Its just turned four when I slump next to Sarah at the pale-blue Formica kitchen table. Weve finally got the place back to something resembling normal and now were both nursing huge mugs of coffee and the remnants of our hangovers. The Christmas tree we lugged up the stairs between us a couple of days back looks haphazard, as if a gang of cats has attacked it, but aside from that and a few broken wine glasses were pretty much as we were. I heard Jack leave around midday okay, I failed miserably in my attempt to be cool about the situation and watched him walk away down the road from behind my bedroom blind like some kind of horror-movie stalker. It went well, didnt it? I say, deliberately misinterpreting Sarahs question to buy myself some thinking time. She rolls her eyes as if she thinks Im winding her up on purpose. You know what I mean. What do you think of Jack? And so it begins. A hairline crack has opened up in our relationship that Sarah isnt even aware of, and I have to work out how I stop it from widening, how to prevent it from opening up into a chasm were both going to tumble headlong into. Im conscious that this is the one and only chance Im ever going to get to come clean; this single, solitary opportunity is mine to take, or not take. But because Sarah is looking at me with such hope, and because by now I dont even know if I was imagining the whole thing, I silently promise to for ever hold my peace. He seems nice, I say, deliberately choosing a bland, mundane word for the most exhilarating man Ive ever met. Nice? Sarah scoffs. Laurie, nice is a word youd use for furry slippers or, I dont know, chocolate eclairs or something. I laugh lightly. I happen to really like furry slippers. And I happen to really like chocolate eclairs, but Jack isnt a chocolate eclair. Hes She trails off, thinking. Snowflakes on your tongue, I want to suggest, or the bubbles in vintage champagne. Very nice? I smile. Is that better? Not even close. Hes a hes a cream horn. She laughs, dirtily, but shes gone all dreamy-eyed on me and I dont think Im ready to listen to her try to convince me of Jacks merits, so I shrug and wade in before she can speak again. Okay, okay. Hes well, he seems like fun and hes easy to talk to and hes obviously wrapped round your little finger. A snort-laugh escapes Sarahs throat. He is, isnt he? She crooks her little finger and we nod over our coffee mugs. She looks about fourteen; her face is scrubbed clean of make-up and her hair hangs in two long plaits over her My Little Pony T-shirt. Is he what youd imagined? Oh God, Sarah, please dont push. I dont think I can for ever hold my peace if you do. Im not sure what I expected, really, I say, because that much is true. Oh, come on, you must have had some image in your head. Ive had Jack OMaras image in my head for twelve clear months. Um, yeah. I suppose hes sort of what Id imagine your perfect man to be. Her shoulders sag, as if just thinking about his fabulousness has sapped the small amount of energy from her tank, and shes lapsed into that glassy-eyed state again. Im relieved were both still hung-over, its a ready excuse not to over-enthuse. But hes hot, though, right? I glance down quickly into my coffee cup while I try to pull the panicked, guilty truth back out of my eyes, and shes looking straight at me when I lift my gaze. Her uncertain expression tells me that shes seeking my approval, and I both understand why and resent her for it in the same breath. Sarahs generally the most striking woman in any given room, a girl accustomed to being the centre of attention. It could have made her precocious or precious or pretentious; it hasnt made her any of those things, but theres no escaping the fact that shes lived her life as the girl who can bag any guy she wants. More often than not thats meant her boyfriends have been outlandishly good-looking, because, well, why wouldnt you? For the most part it amuses me, and up to now its meant that our romantic paths havent crossed. But now What am I supposed to say? There is no safe answer. If I say yes, hes hot, I dont think Ill be able to make myself sound un-pervy, and if I say no, hes not hot, then shell be insulted. Hes different to your usual type, I venture. She nods slowly and bites her bottom lip. I know. You can be honest, I wont be offended. Hes not the obvious kind of handsome you expected him to be, is that what youre trying to say? I shrug. I guess. Im not saying he isnt good-looking or anything, just different to your normal. I pause and give her a knowing look. Your last boyfriend looked more like Matt Damon than Matt Damon does, for Gods sake. She laughs, because its true. I even called him Matt to his face once by mistake, which was okay because he only lasted four dates before Sarah decided that, however handsome he was, it didnt make up for the fact that he still called his mum three times a day. Jack just seems more grown-up, somehow. She sighs as she cups her hands round her mug. As if all the others were boys, and hes a man. Does that sound ridiculous? I shake my head and smile, beyond forlorn. No. Not ridiculous to me. I guess he had to grow up early, Sarah says. He lost his dad a few years ago cancer, I think. She breaks off, reflective. His mum and his younger brother depended on him pretty heavily for a while afterwards. My heart breaks a little for him; I dont need telling how devastating that mustve been. He seems a pretty cool guy. Sarah looks relieved by my assessment. Yeah. Thats what he is. Hes his own kind of cool. He doesnt follow the crowd. Best way. She lapses into contemplative silence for a few seconds before she speaks again. He likes you. Did he say so? I intend to sound nonchalant, but I fear I might have hit something closer to desperation. If I did, Sarah doesnt flicker. I can just tell. You two are going to be best friends. She grins as she scrapes her chair back and stands up. Just wait and see. Youll love him when you get to know him. She ambles from the kitchen, giving my topknot an affectionate waggle as she passes. I fight the urge to jump up and pull her into a fierce hug, both by way of apology and as a plea for understanding. Instead I drag the sugar bowl towards me and stir extra sweetness into my coffee. Thank God Im heading back home to spend Christmas with my folks soon; I seriously need some time to myself while I work out how the hell to play this. 2010 ? New Years Resolutions Last year, I made two resolutions: 1)Find my first proper job in magazines. Well, I can safely say Ive failedspectacularly on that front. Two near misses and a couple of freelance never-got-published articles ranks as neither glittering nor fabulous really, does it? Its both depressing and scary that Im still working at the hotel; I can see how easy it is for people to get stuck in a rut and let go of their dreams. But Im not giving up, not yet. 2)Find the boy from the bus stop. Technically, I guess I can tick this one off. Ive learned to my peril that you need to be super-specific when you make New Years Resolutions but how was I supposed to know I needed to specify that my best friend in the world must not find my soulmate first and fall in love with him too? Thanks for nothing, Universe. You suck big donkey balls. So my only resolution this year? To work out how to fall out of love. 18 January Laurie Its been a month now since I discovered that Sarah and I have inconveniently fallen for the same guy and, despite my resolution, I dont feel a shred less wretched about it. It was so much easier when I didnt know who he was; it allowed me the luxury of imagining him, of fantasizing about stumbling into him again in a crowded bar or spotting him drinking coffee in a cafe, of his eyes finding mine and us both remembering and being glad that the stars had finally aligned again. But now I know exactly who he is. Hes Jack OMara, and hes Sarahs. I spent all of Christmas telling myself that it would be easier once I got to know him, that there were bound to be things I didnt like about him in reality, that seeing him with Sarah would somehow reset him in my head as a platonic friend, rather than the man who has broken the beats of my heart. I stuffed myself with food and hung out with Daryl and pretended to everyone that I was okay. But since we got back to London its been worse. Because not only am I lying to myself, Im lying to Sarah too. God knows how people have affairs; even this paper-thin layer of deception has me constantly on edge. Ive kept my own counsel. Ive heard my own case, Ive listened to my own plaintive cries of innocence and misunderstanding, and still Ive delivered a damning verdict: liar. Ive made a liar out of myself by omission, and now every day I look at Sarah through my liars eyes and speak to her with my forked, serpent tongue. I dont even want to admit it to myself, but every now and then I burn with miserable jealousy. Its an ugly emotion; if I were of a religious bent Id be spending more than my fair share of time in the confession box. I have moments of a different perspective, times when I know I havent done anything wrong and try my best to still be a good friend even though Ive been backed into a corner, but those moments dont last long. Incidentally, Ive also discovered that Im quite the actress; Im one hundred per cent sure that Sarah has no idea theres anything amiss, although thats probably because Ive found reasons to be somewhere else on the couple of occasions when Jacks been at the flat. Tonight though, my luck has officially run out. Sarahs asked him over for pizza and a movie, but the subtext is that she really wants me to get to know him better. In fact, she said it, as plain as that, when she handed me a coffee on the way out of the door this morning. Please be around, Lu, I really want you to get to know him so we can all hang out together more. I couldnt think of a decent excuse off the cuff and, moreover, I realize that avoiding him isnt a long-term solution. What bothers me most of all, though, is that while ninety-five per cent of me is dreading tonight, the other five is sparking with anticipation at the idea of being close to him. Im sorry, Sarah, I really and truly am. Let me take your coat. Let me take your coat? What the hell am I, the maid? Im just glad I didnt call him sir for good measure. Jack walked into our flat thirty seconds ago and already Im acting like a moron. His smile is nervous as he unwinds his scarf and shrugs out of his winter coat, handing them to me almost apologetically even though I asked him for them. I have to work hard not to bury my face in the dark navy wool as I hang it on the already-packed coat hooks beside our front door, almost laying it over my own jacket before pointedly hanging it as far away from it as possible. Im trying, I really am. But hes half an hour early, and has managed to arrive just as Sarah ran down the fire escape off the kitchen, as if they are theatre actors in a farce. Sarahs just nipped to the shop for wine, I flounder. Its round the corner. Shell be back soon. Five minutes, I should think, unless theres a queue. Or anything. Its only round the corner. He nods, his smile still hovering despite the fact Ive repeated myself at least three times. Go through, go through, I say, bright and overanxious, flapping my hands in the direction of our tiny living room. How was your Christmas? He perches on the end of the sofa, and I momentarily falter over where to sit before choosing the chair. What else was I going to do? Join him on the sofa? Accidentally press myself against him? Yeah, you know. He smiles, almost bashful. Christmassy. He pauses. Turkey. Too much beer. I smile too. Sounds a lot like mine. Except Im more of a wine drinker. What am I doing trying to make myself sound sophisticated? Hes going to think Im some kind of pretentious knobber. Come on, Sarah, I think. Come back and rescue me from myself, Im not ready to be on my own with him yet. Im horrified as I find myself wanting to snatch this chance to ask him if he remembers me from the bus. I can feel the question climbing up my windpipe like its being pushed from behind by a determined colony of worker ants. I swallow hard. My palms are starting to sweat. I dont know what I hope to gain from asking him if he remembers, because Im ninety-nine per cent certain that the answer would be no. Jack lives in the real world and has a super-hot girlfriend; hed probably forgotten about me before my bus turned the corner of Camden High Street. So, Laurie, he says, clearly casting around for something to say. I feel the way I sometimes do when I get my hair cut; as if the stylist finds me hard work and Im shortly going to need to lie about where Im going on holiday. What did you study? Media and Journalism. He doesnt look surprised; he must know that Sarah and I were on the same course at Middlesex. Im a words person, I elaborate. Magazines, hopefully, when I can get my foot in the door somewhere. I dont plan on a career in front of the camera. I stop myself from adding unlike Sarah, because Im sure he already knows that Sarahs life plan involves presenting the local news before moving up the ranks towards the national broadcasters. Theres a trite quote I see bandied around on Facebook every now and then, Some girls are born with glitter in their veins, or something similar. Sarah is that, but theres grit mixed in with her glitter; she doesnt stop until she gets what she wants. How about you? He lifts one shoulder. Journalism at uni. Radios my thing. I know this already, because Sarah has tuned the kitchen radio into the station he works at, even though hes only ever on it if the late-night presenter isnt there, which has been next to never. Everyone starts somewhere though, and now Ive heard his voice I know that its only a matter of time before he moves up the ranks. I have a sudden, hideous vision of Sarah and Jack as TVs golden couple, the next Phil and Holly, shining out of my TV at me every day with their in-jokes, finishing each others sentences and winning every Peoples Choice award going. Its so realistic that Im winded, and Im relieved to hear Sarahs keys clatter in the lock. Honey, Im home, she calls out, slamming the door so hard she rattles the old wooden sash window frames in the living room. Here she is, I say unnecessarily, springing up. Ill just go and help her. I meet her in the doorway and take the unchilled wine from her hands. Jacks just arrived. You go and say hi, Ill stick this in the freezer to cool down for a bit. I withdraw to the kitchen, wishing I could climb into the freezer drawer too as I shoehorn the bottle in beneath the bag of frozen berries we use for smoothies when we feel like we might die from lack of nutrients. I open the bottle of wine weve already chilled in the fridge and pour out a couple of decent glasses. One for me, one for Sarah. I dont pour one for Jack, because as I already know, hes more of a beer kind of guy. Im warmed by the fact that I know what hed prefer without needing to ask, as if this one tiny snippet is a new stitch in the quilt of our intimacy. Its an odd thought, but I run with it, imagining that quilt as I pull out a bottle of beer for Jack and flick the lid off, then close the fridge and lean my back against it with my wine glass in my hand. Our quilt is handmade, carefully constructed from gossamer-thin layers of hushed conversations and snatched looks, stitched together with threads of wishes and dreams, until its this magnificent, wondrous, weightless thing that keeps us warm and protects us from harm as if it were made of steel. Us? Who am I kidding? I take a second mouthful of wine as I catch hold of my train of thought and try to reroute it along safer tracks. I force myself to see that quilt on Sarah and Jacks king-size bed, in Sarah and Jacks gorgeous house, in Sarah and Jacks perfect life. Its a technique Ive been testing out; whenever I think something inappropriate about him, I make myself counter it with a sickly, positive thought about them as a couple. I cant say its working all that well yet, but Im trying. Come on, Lu, Im gagging in here! Sarahs voice runs clear with carefree laughter as she adds, Dont bother with a wine glass for Jack, though. Hes too unsophisticated for our five-quid plonk. I know, I want to say, but I dont. I just shove Jacks beer under my arm and refill my glass before I go back through to join them in the living room. Pineapple on pizza is like having, I dunno, ham with custard. They just dont go together. Sarah shoves two fingers down her throat and rolls her eyes. Jack picks up the offending piece of pineapple that Sarah has flicked disdainfully into the corner of the box. I had banana on pizza, too, once. Trust me, it worked. He squidges the extra pineapple down on to his slice and grins at me. You can have the casting vote, Laurie. Pineapple yay or pineapple nay? I feel disloyal, but I cant lie because Sarah already knows the answer. Yay. Definitely yay. Sarah snorts, making me wish Id lied. Im starting to think that getting you two together was a bad idea. Youre going to gang up on me. Team J-Lu. Jack winks at me as he laughs, earning himself a good punch on the arm from Sarah that makes him groan and rub it as if shes broken it. Easy. Thats my drinking arm. Thats for trying to split up team Sa-Lu. Shes the one winking at me now, and I nod, keen to show that Im on her side even if I do like pineapple on my pizza. Sorry, Jack, I say. Were wine sisters. Its a stronger bond than pineapple on pizza. And I have to say, the wine is definitely helping me get through this situation. Sarah shoots him a suck on that look and high-fives me across the gulf between the mismatched sofa and armchair. Shes curled into the end with her feet shoved under Jacks ass, her long red hair plaited round her head like she might nip out the back and milk her herd of goats at any moment. Ive deliberately gone effort-light with my appearance; Ive aimed for a making a bit of an effort to be sociable look without obviously looking any different to normal. Im dressed in leaving-the-house clothes, which definitely isnt a given for a night in front of the TV. Jeans, soft, dove-grey sloppy jumper, slick of lip gloss and a flick of eyeliner. Im not proud of the fact that I put more than a few minutes thought into my outfit, but Im trying to be reasonable with myself about this too. I dont actually own sackcloth and ashes, and I dont want to let Sarah down. Besides, she added her own silver daisy hairslide to my fringe earlier because it kept flopping in my eyes and she knows I covet it, so I reckon shes pleased that I look presentable. Which movie are we watching? I ask, leaning forward to grab a slice of pizza from the box flipped open on the coffee table. Twilight, Sarah says, at the exact same time as Jack says, Iron Man. I look from one to the other, sensing that once again Im about to be asked to play adjudicator. Remember which team youre on, Lu, Sarah says, her lips twitching. Seriously. I couldnt make this stuff up. I havent read the books or seen the films yet, but I know enough to know that Twilight is about a doomed love triangle. Jack looks pained, then bats his eyelashes at me like a seven-year-old asking for money for the ice-cream man. Jesus, hes lovely. I want to say Iron Man. I want to say kiss me. Twilight. Jack Fucking Twilight? Everything about this evening screams of awkward. And now were watching one of the most cringe-worthy films of all time, about some moody-mouthed girl who cant choose between two guys with superpowers. Sarah leans into me, and I kiss the top of her head and train my eyes on the screen, not allowing myself to slide even an occasional glance towards Laurie on the armchair unless she speaks directly to me. I dont want things between me and Laurie to feel awkward, but they do, and I know its my fault. She probably thinks Im some kind of exceptionally dull weirdo, because my conversational skills dry up around her. Its just that Im trying to establish her place in my head as Sarahs friend rather than the girl I saw once and have thought of often since. All of Christmas which was terrible, by the way, my mum was so sad, and as usual I didnt know what to do, so I just got drunk I kept seeing Laurie in her pyjamas in the kitchen, gazing at me with that strange look on her face. Jesus, what a twat I am. I take solace from the fact that its just the way my blokeish brain stores away a pretty face, and from the fact that she doesnt have a blokeish brain and so hopefully has no awkward memory of me gawking at her from a bus stop. So far Ive managed quite successfully by just avoiding spending any time with her, but Sarah came straight out with it yesterday and asked me if I didnt like Laurie, because I seemed to say no every time she invited me over. What the fuck was I supposed to say to that? Sorry, Sarah, Im currently trying to reprocess your best friend from fantasy sex partner to platonic new friend-in-law? Is that even a phrase? If it isnt, it should be, because if Sarah and I ever split up, shell spirit Laurie away with her. The thought makes my gut churn. Of losing Sarah, I mean. 14 February Laurie Who was St Valentine anyway and what made him such an expert on romance? Im willing to bet his full name is St Smugbastard-threes-a-crowd Valentine, and he probably lives on a candle-lit island where everything comes in pairs, even bouts of thrush. Can you tell that 14 February isnt my favourite date in the calendar? It doesnt help that Sarah is a fully paid-up member of the hearts and balloons brigade this year. To my shame I realize Id been hoping shed get bored of Jack or something, but its quite the opposite. Shes already bought three different cards for him because she keeps seeing a new one that sums up how happy he makes her or how ridiculously hot he is, and every time she shows me the latest one my heart shrivels like a dried prune and it takes a good couple of hours for it to plump up again. Thankfully theyre going to the local Italian, where theyll no doubt eat heartshaped steaks and then lick chocolate mousse off each others faces, but at least it means I get to commandeer the living room tonight for a pity party for one. Bridget Jones has nothing on me. Im planning on lying flat out on the sofa, inhaling ice cream and wine at the same time. Lu, have you got a sec? I close my laptop yet another job application lay the reading glasses I dont really need but wear to concentrate on the table, and wander into Sarahs room with my coffee mug. Whats up? Shes standing in her jeans and bra, her hands on her hips. Im trying to decide what to wear. She pauses and picks up the Coca-Cola red chiffon blouse she bought for Christmas dinner with her olds. Its pretty and surprisingly demure until Sarah lays it on the bed beside a black micro-skirt. These? She looks at me and I nod, because shell look undeniably fabulous in the outfit. Or this? She pulls her killer LBD out of the wardrobe and holds it against her body. I glance from one to the other. I like both. She sighs. Me too. Which one says hot Valentine more? Has Jack seen the red? She shakes her head. Not yet. There you go then. Nothing shouts Valentine louder than lipstick red. Sartorial decision made, she hangs the dress back in the wardrobe. Are you sure youll be all right on your own tonight? I roll my eyes. No. Take me with you. I lean on the door frame and knock back a gulp of too-hot coffee. Because that wouldnt look weird at all, would it? Jackd probably like it, she laughs. Make him look like a stud. You know what, on second thoughts Ill have to take a rain check. Ive got a double date tonight with Ben and Jerry. Theyre sweet. I wink as I back out into the hallway. Were going to work our way through the Karamel Sutra. Its going to be a thrill a minute. Of all the ice creams in all the world, I happen to know that B&Js Karamel Sutra is Sarahs favourite. Im actually jealous, you know, she calls after me, unbraiding her hair in readiness for the shower. Me too, I think, miserable as I drop down heavily into the armchair and flip my laptop open again. Whoever the hell is in charge of TV scheduling needs a bullet between their eyes. Surely they could work out that anyone who needs to resort to watching TV on Valentines night is single and potentially bitter, so why they thought The Notebook would make suitable viewing is beyond me. Theres romantic rowing on the lake and theres Ryan Gosling, all wringing wet and shouty and in love. Theres even swans, for Gods sake. Hang on, Ill just pour some salt in my wounds while Im at it, shall I? Thank God theyve had the good sense to schedule Con Air to follow it; Im going to need a good dose of Nicolas Cage saving the day in a dirty vest to recover from this. Ive made my way through two-thirds of Ryan Gosling, half the tub of ice cream and three-quarters of a bottle of Chardonnay when I hear Sarahs keys in the lock. Its only half past ten; I expected my party for one to still be going strong at midnight, so frankly, this is something of an interruption. Sitting cross-legged in the corner of the sofa, I look towards the door expectantly, my wine glass in my hand. Have they fallen out and shes left him to eat his tiramisu alone? I try not to hope so as I call out, Grab a glass, Sar, theres enough wine left in the bottle if youre quick. She appears swaying in the doorway, but shes not alone. My party for one has segued swiftly into a m?nage ? trois. Thats a thought I dont want to process, so I abandon it in favour of wishing I was wearing something other than black yoga pants and a mint-green vest. Id optimistically dressed for the Davina workout I knew I wasnt really going to do. It could be worse; I could have gone for the checked flannel PJs my mum gave me because she worries the Delancey Street flat gets too draughty. Youre early, I say, stretching my spine and trying to look like a serene yoga guru, if thats at all possible while clutching a glass of wine. Free champagne, Sarah says, or at least thats my best guess at what she says. Shes laughing and leaning heavily against Jack; I think his arm round her waist is the only reason shes still standing. Lots of free champagne, Jack adds, and his rueful smile tells me that although Sarah has had too much, he hasnt. I meet his eyes and for a moment he holds my gaze. Am ver, ver tired, Sarah slurs, with long, exaggerated blinks. One of her false eyelashes is making a run for it down her cheek; its usually me that has that problem. Ive tried and failed with them twice over the last few months; I look like a drag queen, much to Sarahs amusement. I know you are. Jack laughs and drops a kiss on her forehead. Come on. Lets get you into bed. She pretends to look shocked. Not until were married, Jack OMara. What kind of girl dyou take me for? A very pissed one, he says, hanging on to her when she sways again. Rude, Sarah murmurs, but she doesnt fight him when he catches her behind the knees and lifts her into his arms. Shit. Watch and learn, Ryan Gosling. This man didnt need to wade into a lake to melt the fair ladys heart. For clarification, I mean Sarahs heart, not mine. Shes passed out. I look up when Jack appears in the living-room doorway again a little later. Ryan Gosling has by now wooed his girl and rowed off into the sunset in favour of Nicolas Cage being all dependable and heroic on screen. Jacks eyes light up and his face cracks into a broad smile. Best action movie ever. I cant argue. Con Air is my go-to movie; when the shit hits the fan in my real life, I invariably opt to watch Cameron Poe have a much worse time of it and still come out on top. However bad my day has been, I can generally be fairly certain that Im not going to have to crash land a plane full of murderers and rapists on the Las Vegas Strip. Everyone needs a hero, I say, disconcerted by the fact that Jack has decided to flake out on the other end of the sofa rather than leave it to me. Thats such a girl thing to say, he mutters, rolling his green-gold eyes. Piss off, I shoot back. Im practising for my long and illustrious career writing greeting card verses. Youll be in great demand, he says with a grin. Tell me another. I laugh into my glass; Im definitely feeling uninhibited by the wine. I need to know the occasion, at least. He considers the options. I really hope he doesnt go for the obvious and say Valentines Day. My dog died. Cheer me up. Oh, okay. Well, I pause and cast around for a snappy first line. Im sorry to hear about your dog who passed away, I hope that you remember the way he used to play. I draw out the last word with an upward inflection for emphasis, impressed with my own wit, before I carry on. And how he always liked it when you used to stroke his head, yes, Im truly very sorry that your precious dog is dead. I gather pace towards the end, and we both laugh. I think Id probably prefer a beer to any more shite jingles. Oh. I feel suddenly rude for being an ungracious hostess, but in my own defence, hes caught me out. I didnt expect him to emerge from Sarahs room again tonight. Id just pulled the remainder of the ice cream from the freezer for a second sitting and sat back down when he reappeared. Go for it, theres some in the fridge. I watch him as he leaves the room, all long legs in dark jeans and lean-limbed in an ink-blue shirt. He obviously made the effort for Sarah earlier in the evening, and at some point hes loosened his tie. He drops back down with an open bottle of beer in his hand and holds up a spoon hopefully. We didnt get as far as dessert in the restaurant. I gaze down into the ice-cream tub and wonder if hes going to be shocked by the fact that Ive already eaten two-thirds of it. What flavour is it? he asks as I hand it over hesitantly. Karamel Sutra. Why couldnt I have just said caramel? Is that so? He raises his eyes to mine, amused. Do I need to put my leg behind my head to eat it? If I was flirting with him Id probably suggest he assume the downward dog or something, but as Im not flirting with him, I just flip my eyes and sigh as if Im terribly grown-up. Only if you think it might aid your digestion. It might, but Im fairly sure itd ruin my jeans. Best not then, I say, my eyes trained on the TV. This is one of my favourite bits. We both watch as Nic Cage goes into manly overdrive in order to protect the female guard on the plane full of convicts, Jack eating the ice cream, me nursing the last of the wine from the bottle. Im pleasantly relaxed rather than roaring drunk, because a handy after-effect of student life is that it has given me the drinking capacity of your average rugby player. Sarahs the same, usually. There must have been a heck of a lot of free champagne for Sarah to get like that, I say, recalling the way shed reeled into the flat earlier. Im not a big fan of the stuff so she had mine, he says. They kept topping us up. She was drinking for two to save me from the embarrassment of saying no. I laugh. Shes all heart, that girl. Shes going to have a headache in the morning. We lapse into silence again. I cast around for something to say to fill the chasm, because if I dont, Ill do the unthinkable and ask him if he remembers me from the bus stop. I really, really hope that at some point I stop having to consciously fight that particular urge, that it stops being important, or even relevant, to me. Its a work in progress. She likes you a lot, I blurt. He takes a long, slow slug of his beer. I like her a lot too. He looks at me sideways. Are you about to warn me that if I ever hurt her youll come after me and black my eyes? Dont think I couldnt, I say, and then I make this ridiculous karate chop motion because Im all bravado and no conviction, and what I was actually thinking was that I like them both a lot and its giving me the mother of all problems. My loyalty lies firmly with Sarah, of course; I know where the line is and Ill never cross it, but its just that sometimes the line feels like its been drawn with chalk on the grass, like at a school sports day, easily rubbed out and redrawn, but never in quite the same place as before. On nights like tonight, for instance, it has inched forward, and then on mornings like tomorrow, Ill diligently push it back again. Your secret ninja skills have been duly noted. I nod. Not that youre going to need to use them on me, he goes on. I like Sarah more than enough to not want to hurt her. I nod again, glad for Sarah that hes kind, sad for me that hes Sarahs, and mad at the world for being shitty enough to put me in this crap position in the first place. Good. Then we understand each other. Spoken like a true mafia moll. He leans forward to slide his empty beer bottle on to the table. A mafia ninja. Youre turning out to be a dangerous woman to be around, Laurie. Especially when Ive had a bottle of wine and I half love you, I think. I really should go to bed now, before I scrub the chalk line out and move it forward again. Jack Youre turning out to be a dangerous woman to be around, Laurie. What the bloody hell are these words coming out of my mouth? It sounds like a cheap pick-up line in a naff made-for-TV movie, when all I was trying to do was say were friends. You stupid Jackass; I berate myself using the nickname I carried through school like a badge of honour. My school reports were littered with variations of the same comment, though more politely put: If only Jack applied as much effort to his studies as he does to acting the fool, hed go a long way. I like to think I proved them wrong; when it came to the crunch my grades were just about decent enough to scrape into my first choice of uni. Truth is that I was lucky; Ive been gifted with a near photographic memory, so those textbooks and theories only needed to go in once and they stayed there. With that and an ability to talk crap to anyone, Ive done okay. Though for some reason my ability to talk doesnt seem to extend to Laurie. So, Laurie. What else should I know about you, besides the fact that youll beat me black and blue if I hurt your best mate? She looks startled by my question. I dont blame her. The last time I asked anyone a question like that was my one and only hideous attempt at speed dating. What am I doing, interviewing her? Umm She laughs, music-box light. Theres not really very much to tell. I try to bring it back to normal, shooting her a try harder look. Come on, throw me a bone here. Sarah wants us to be best buddies. Give me your three most embarrassing facts, and then Ill give you mine. She narrows her eyes and her chin comes up a little. Can we take it in turns? Go on then. As long as you go first. I tell myself that Ive suggested this because Sarah is so keen on me and Laurie being friends, and that honestly, genuinely, is partly the reason. Partly. But the other part just wants to know more about her, because she intrigues me, and because Im comfortable here on the other end of the sofa, and because I find myself relaxed in her company. Maybe its the wine shes drunk, and its probably the beer Ive sunk, but I think I could be good friends with this girl. Thats okay, isnt it? I know some people dont believe that platonic friendships can happen between men and women. Im going to trade truths with Laurie, and were going to become the best of friends. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my grand plan. She drums her nails against the edge of her glass, thinking, and I find Im really interested to hear what shes going to say. She looks down into the dregs of her wine, and when she raises her eyes, shes laughing. Okay, I was fourteen, fifteen maybe. She breaks off and presses her hand to her red cheek, shaking her head. I cant believe Im going to tell you this. That giddy laugh again, and she lowers her lashes, making me duck down to catch her eye. Come on, youve got to tell me now, I cajole. She sighs with resignation. I was with Alana, my best friend at the time, and we were at the school disco trying to pretend we were super-cool. I think we might even have had a box of cigarettes, although neither of us smoked. I nod, wanting to hear more. And there was this boy, as there always is, and I really fancied him. Half the school did, in actual fact, but by some miracle he seemed to like me too. I want to butt in and tell her that its not a miracle or even a surprise really, but I dont. So he finally asks me to dance at the end, and I nonchalantly accept, and its all going really well until I look up sharply just as he looks down at me, and I full-on headbutt him in the face and break his nose. She looks at me, wide-eyed, and then laughter bubbles up in her throat. Blood everywhere. They had to call him an ambulance. No way. I shake my head slowly. Wow, youre a really shit date, Laurie. I wasnt even dating him, she protests. I wanted to, but it never got off the ground after that. No surprise, really. Knocking her knuckles on her skull, she shrugs. Iron hard, by all accounts. Okay, so now youre a ninja mafia moll with an exceptionally hard cranium. I can understand what Sarah sees in you. She plays it straight. I reckon I must make her feel safe. Ill say. You really should think about charging protection money. Pay your student loan off in no time. Laurie puts her wine glass on the table and leans back, tucking her dark hair behind her ears as she settles cross-legged, facing towards me. When I was a kid we went on annual family holidays to Cornwall, and my mother had a thing for those tiny little pixies you could buy, usually sitting on toadstools or something equally twee. Something in the neatness of Lauries lotus position and the point of her chin when she smoothes her hair behind her ears reminds me of those pixies now, and for a second I experience a jolt of homesickness out of the blue. As if she is familiar, even though she isnt. Your turn. She grins. I dont think I have anything that measures up, I say. I mean, Ive never even headbutted a woman. What kind of man are you? She feigns disappointment, and even though she is joking, I consider her question seriously. A good one, I hope? Her laughter dies in her throat. I hope so too. I know she means for Sarahs sake. How about this one I change the subject abruptly. Let me tell you about my sixth birthday party. Imagine a small child who got buried in the ball pit and then got so scared that his dad had to navigate the jungle of slides and scramble nets to find him. I was three foot under the balls and crying so much that I threw up. They had to clear the place. I have a vivid flashback to the faces of the horrified parents of the kid whose party dress got splattered with my chocolatecake puke. Funnily enough, my party invitation rate dropped off sharply after that. Oh, now thats a sad story, she says, and I dont even think shes taking the piss. I shrug. Im a man. Im made of tough stuff. She raps her knuckles on her skull again. You forget who youre talking to here. I nod, solemn. Ironwoman. The very same. We fall silent and assimilate what we now know of each other. For my part, I know that shes awkward with men and likely to cause injury. For hers, she knows I scare easily and am liable to throw up over her. She takes the empty icecream carton and spoon from me and leans sideways to slide it on to the coffee table, and despite my best efforts, my man brain observes the movement of her limbs, the sliver of breast I can see under her arm, the inward curve at the base of her spine. Why do women have to have all of that going on? Its really not okay. I want to be platonic friends with Laurie, yet my brain is filing away her every movement, storing her up, building a map of her in my head so I can visit her every now and then in my sleep. I dont want to. When Im awake, I really dont think of Laurie in that way, but my sleeping brain doesnt seem to have received the memo. In sleep, Ive observed that her skin is creamy pale and that her eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Lauries eyes are a fucking summer hedgerow. And now I can add that pronounced curve at the small of her back, and that she gets giddy after wine, and how she bites her bottom lip when shes thinking. Times like this, my photographic memory becomes more an impediment than advantage. Of course, Lauries not the only woman I have dreams about, but she seems to warrant a more regular walk-on role than most. Not that Im dreaming of other women all the time. Im going to stop now, because Im making myself sound like a closet sleazebag. Right, I guess that makes it my turn again, she says. I nod, glad that shes derailed my train of thought. Youre going to have to go some to top the headbutt story. I started too strong, she agrees, chewing her lip again, struggling to dredge up something suitable. To help her, I chuck out a few prompts. That embarrassing incident when you went out in high winds without knickers? She smirks but shakes her head. Poisoned someone with your cooking? The time you accidentally snogged your sisters boyfriend? Her features soften, a sudden study of nostalgia and other emotions I find hard to read as they slide over her face. Christ. I must have said something really wrong, because now shes blinking hard, as if she has something in her eyes. Like tears. God. Shit, Im sorry, she mutters, dashing the backs of her hands furiously across her eyes. No, no. I am, I rush, still not sure what Ive said to provoke such a reaction. I want to hold her hand, cover her kneecap with my palm, something, anything to say Im sorry, but I cant quite make my hand move. She shakes her head. Its really not your fault. I wait for her to gather herself. Want to talk about it? She looks down, pinching the skin on the back of her hand, small repetitive motions; a coping mechanism, using physical pain to detract from emotional upset. My pain-in-the-arse brother, Albie, wears an elastic band round his wrist that he snaps for the same reason. My little sister died when she was six years old. Id just turned eight. Shit. I take back that description of my brother. Hes four years younger than me and its true that he can be a right royal pain in the arse, but I love the fucking bones of him. I cant even bear to think of the world without him in it. Jesus, Laurie. This time I dont think twice. As a tear rolls down her cheek I reach out and swipe it away with my thumb. Then shes properly crying and Im stroking her hair and shushing her as a mother soothes a child. Im sorry, I shouldnt have blurted that out, she gulps after a couple of minutes where both of us say nothing, pushing the heels of her palms into her eyes. It caught me right out of nowhere. I havent cried about it for ages. Must be the wine. I nod as I lower my hand, feeling hideous for being so unwittingly insensitive. I always say I only have a brother whenever anyone asks. I feel disloyal not mentioning her, but its easier than telling people the truth. Shes calmer now, drawing in slow, shaky breaths. I have no real clue how to say the right thing in this situation, but I try; I have at least a small idea of how she might be feeling. What was her name? Lauries face floods with warmth, and her vulnerability sears straight through me. Piercing, acute longing, bittersweet, as if something has been missing from her for too long. She sighs heavily as she turns to lean her back against the sofa beside me, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms round them. When she speaks again her voice is low and measured, like someone giving a rehearsed speech at a loved ones funeral. Ginny was born with a heart condition, but she was bright, and God, was she smart. She ran rings round me. She was my best friend. She pauses for a brief second, bracing herself for impact, as if she knows that telling the next part of her story is going to physically hurt. Pneumonia. She was here one moment and then she was gone. I dont think any of us have ever got over losing her. My poor mum and dad She trails off, because there arent really any suitable words; parents should never have to bury their child. She isnt pinching her skin any more; I dont think theres a coping mechanism in the world up to the job of distracting you from something like this. On TV, Nicolas Cage is crashing around on a motorbike, all action and brawn, and here in this small living room I put my arm round Lauries shoulders and squeeze her against me. Her body judders with deep breaths, and she lays her head against my shoulder and closes her eyes. I cant pinpoint the moment she falls asleep, but Im glad she does because its what she needs right now. I dont move, even though I probably should. I dont get up and go to bed, even though a wiser man would have. I just sit and keep her company while she sleeps, and it feels I dont even know what it feels. Peaceful. I dont press my face into her hair.? 15 February Laurie When I wake up, I know theres something I need to remember but my brain feels as if its wrapped in fuzzy felt. Thatll be the wine, I think groggily, and then I open my eyes and realize Im not in bed. Im still on the sofa, but my bed pillow is beneath my head and Im snuggled under my duvet. A long squint at my watch tells me its only a little after six in the morning, so I lie back and close my eyes, working my way through the evening from the bit that comes most easily to mind. Ice cream. Wine. Ryan Gosling rowing a boat. Swans. There were definitely swans. And, oh my God, Sarah had had a skin-full! Ill check on her in a minute, its a good job Jack brought her home. Jack. Oh shit. Jack. My mind sprints straight into panic mode, convincing myself that I must have said or done something terrible and disloyal and that Sarah is going to hate me. He was talking to me, and we were laughing and watching the movie, and then Oh. And then I remember. Ginny. Sliding deep back inside the cocoon of my duvet, I screw my eyes up tight and let myself remember my sweet, beautiful little sister. Slender fingers, her nails so fragile they were almost translucent, the only other person in the world with eyes just like mine. I have to concentrate really hard to pull her childish voice from my memories, the excited joy of her giggle, the shimmer of her poker-straight blonde hair in sunlight. Fractured memories, faded like sun-damaged photographs. I dont allow myself to think of Ginny very often in day-to-day life, or at all, really; it takes me a long time afterwards to reconcile the fact that she simply isnt here any more, to not be furious with everyone else for breathing when she isnt. I remember last night clearly now. I didnt do anything morally wrong with Jack, nothing that I need to feel compromised over in the traditional sense this morning, at least; I definitely didnt show him my boobs or confess true love. Yet still I cant let myself totally off the hook, because in truth I did cross a line, albeit a fine and almost invisible one. I can clearly feel it tangled around my ankles like fishing wire, ready to trip me up and make a liar out of me. I let myself get too close. All it took was a cheap bottle of wine to lower my guard; for one unwittingly misjudged comment to make me crumble like an abandoned sandcastle when the evening tide comes in.? 5 June Laurie Happy birthday, old biddy! Sarah blows a streamer in my face to wake me up and I struggle on to my elbows as she breaks into a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. Thank you! I give her a half-hearted round of applause. Can I go back to sleep now, please? Its eight oclock on Saturday morning. She frowns. Youre kidding, right? If you go to sleep now youll miss out on golden birthday hours. She sounds like one of her favourite Disney characters. Last time I checked, we werent American teenagers on some cheesy TV show, I grumble. Stop moaning and get out of bed right now. Ive got big plans for you. I drop back on my pillow. I already have a plan. It involves staying here until midday. You can do that tomorrow. She nods towards a mug on the side. I made you coffee. Youve got ten minutes before I come back and really wake you up rudely. Youre too bossy, I grumble, flinging my arm across my eyes. Im twentythree now, and youre still twenty-two. Im old enough to be your mother. Go and clean your bedroom and do your homework. She toots on her streamer again as she leaves, laughing, and I shove my head underneath my pillow. I love that girl. There are two clothes carriers hanging in the lounge when I emerge exactly nine and a half minutes later, and Sarah is practically hopping on the spot. Even more worryingly, the carriers are emblazoned with a fancy-dress hire company logo. Umm, Sar ? Im starting to realize she wasnt kidding when she said she had a plan. Youre going to die when you see, she says, her fists bunched with excitement like a kid on school-trip day. I place my coffee down slowly. Should I look now? Yes. But first you have to promise me that youll do exactly as I say for the next few hours, no questions asked. You sound like an undercover spy. Have you and Jack been watching too much James Bond again? She holds one of the carriers out towards me, but clutches on to it when I go to take it from her. Promise first. I laugh and shake my head, intrigued. Go on then, I promise. She hands it over with a little clap, then flaps her hands for me to hurry up and look inside. Holding it out at arms length, I give it a shake and then slide the central zipper down a few inches to sneak a glimpse. Its pink I say, and she nods, fast. I whoosh the zip all the way down and shrug the plastic cover off, revealing an instantly recognizable candyfloss-pink satin bomber jacket and black satin leggings. You want me to dress up as a Pink Lady for my birthday? She grins and whips her own outfit out. Not just you. Were both pink ladies. I speak slowly, because Im somewhat confused. I mean, I kind of love it already as a birthday theme, but what are we going to do once were dressed? Because were going to stick out like sore thumbs down The Castle. Were not going to the pub. Sarahs eyes gleam with anticipation. Can I ask where we are going? She laughs. You can ask, but I wont tell you the truth. How did I know you were going to say that? She unzips her jacket and slides her arms into it. You have seen the movie, right? Once or twice. I roll my eyes, because everyone on the planet has seen Grease at least a dozen times, usually because its on TV on New Years Day and you cant physically bring yourself to move and find the remote. I hold up my satin leggings doubtfully. The waistband is about six inches across. I hope they stretch, I say. They do. I tried them on at about six oclock this morning. Her words make me realize how hard shes trying to give me a fun birthday; and the part of my mind thats constantly feeling guilty at the moment gives me a hefty dig. Whatever it is she has planned for us today, I need to give her my one hundred per cent best. Pink Ladies it is then, I say with a laugh. She looks at her watch. We need to leave at eleven. Go and jump in the shower, Ive already been in. Ill do your flicky eyeliner for you when youre out. Its midday and were on a train out of Waterloo, and its fair to say were getting our fair share of odd looks. Im not surprised. Were the only Pink Ladies on board today, and we definitely have the most fabulous hair and make-up. Sarahs gone with a high, flippy ponytail that seems to swish around independently of her head, and between us weve wrangled mine into bubble curls Olivia NewtonJohn herself would be envious of. Sarahs thought of everything: gum for us to chew, jaunty black neck scarves, white-rimmed plastic shades perched in our hair and gin-in-a-tin for the train to get us in the mood for wherever it is were going. Should we assume fake names? Sarah considers my question seriously. What would yours be? Hmm. Tricky. I think it needs to sound kitsch and American and fifties, so how about Lula-May? She looks at me thoughtfully. I like what you did there. So if youre LulaMay, that must make me Sara-Belle. It sure is nice to meet you. Nice to make your acquaintance too, Lula-May. We incline our heads to each other graciously, then clink tins and neck our gin to cement our new friendship. Will you tell me where were going yet? Just trust me, little lady. Youre gonna love it. She attempts a really terrible Deep South drawl. You sound more like John Wayne than Sara-Belle, I laugh. I think I might fancy you. Sarah stashes our empty tins in the back pockets of the seats in front of us. Its my sexual energy. I cant hold it in. She glances up as the electronic voiceover tells us that were approaching Barnes. Come on. This is our stop. The first thing I notice when we get outside the station is that were not the only people who look like extras in a Grease remake. Swing dresses and Teddy boy suits are interspersed amongst the regular sunny Saturday lunchtime shoppers, and the occasional flash of pink satin tells me theres going to be quite a gang of Pink Ladies. Sarah! Jacks voice rings out and my heart jumps. Ive been doing my best to avoid spending any time with him and Sarah lately, and luckily theyve both been so busy with work I think theyve been quite happy to not have a third wheel on their nights together. And I really feel like Im starting to think about him less. Perhaps my mind-control efforts are working. Then I notice whos with Jack Billy, one of his friends who Ive met a few times at various parties. Please God dont let this be a set-up. The boys walk up to us and break into slightly bashful grins as we exclaim over their T-Bird black drainpipes and skinny-fit black T-shirts. Theyve rolled their sleeves up into shoulder caps to accentuate their biceps and, looking at their quiffs, I shouldnt think theres much hair gel left in the tub. Wherever were going, it appears were going as a foursome. Its not that I mind; I just wasnt expecting them, and Sarah and I have had the best morning in ages. Well, if it isnt our dates for the prom. Sarah laughs and plants a kiss on Jacks lips, leaving traces of red lipstick on his mouth. Hes wearing mirrored aviators that obscure his eyes; he looks more James Dean than John Travolta. Billy, you look cool, I say, and he flexes his muscles obligingly. Hes got one of those bodies that looks like he sculpts it carefully in the gym for two hours every day. The kind where you cant help but admire, at the same time as feeling complete disdain. Popeyes got nothing on me. He takes the lollipop stick hes chewing for effect out of his mouth and dips to plant a quick kiss on my cheek. Happy birthday. I notice Sarah looking at us and roll my eyes at her. Trust her to set me up with someone whos so obviously not my type. He probably loves his women all blonde and toned and docile. I wonder what Jack had to promise him to come along? Shall we, ladies? Jack crooks his elbow for Sarah to take, and after a moments awkward hesitation, Billy does the same to me. We shall, Sarah grins, slipping her arm through Jacks. Laurie still doesnt know what were doing, so dont say anything. I laugh, self-conscious as I take Billys proffered arm. I think Im getting the picture. Oh, youre really not. Her eyes sparkle as she looks over her shoulder at me as we move with the throng of people. But you will. I cant quite believe what Im seeing. What is this place? I say, fascinated. Were in a zig-zag queue of people in various Grease costumes, everyone buzzing and overexcited. A prim American school radio voice crackles through speakers telling us not to run in the halls, and that heavy petting in the queue will get us detention, and as we reach the entrance we pass beneath a huge, arched college sign welcoming us to Rydell High, poppy-red, lit up with old-fashioned light bulbs. Do you like it? Sarah has my arm now rather than Jacks, and she half smiles and half grimaces, holding her breath as she waits for my verdict on my big birthday surprise. Like it? I grin, giddy at the scale of the event unfolding before me. I dont have a clue whats going on, but I bloody love it! Barnes Common, usually home to dog walkers and Sunday cricket matches, has been transformed into a magical wonderland of American fifties kitsch as far as the eye can see. Roller-disco queens serve Coke floats to tables in the open-air marquee and gleaming silver Airstream diners line the edges of the field. All around, people lounge on picnic blankets, girls in frilly dresses and sunglasses basking on their backs in the sunshine, propped up on their elbows blowing bubblegum balloons. Music is everywhere; a live brass band belts out fifties rock and roll for the energetic couples on the wooden dance floor in the marquee, and elsewhere familiar songs from the Grease soundtrack ooze from tall speakers set all round the perimeters. I even glimpse a pop-up Beauty School where you can get your nails painted or your eyeliner freshly flicked by girls in fitted pink overalls and matching wigs. People shout and jostle on cherry-red bumper cars, and a huge, glittering Ferris wheel presides over the whole affair, its gleaming ice-cream pink and white seats swinging lightly in the warm breeze. If we do nothing else, I want to ride that wheel, I sigh. Its the biggest, craziest birthday surprise Ive ever had. My heart feels feather-light, as if its tied to a helium balloon. Jack This place is off-the-scale weird. I dont know how Sarah does it; most people buy someone a cake or take them out drinking for their birthday. Not Sarah. Shes managed to find this extravaganza, and somehow shes roped Billy and me into being their T-Bird escorts for the day. There arent many women Id do this for; I grumbled and almost backed out because, to be honest, it sounded like a bit of a nightmare, but actually its kind of cool now were here. Secret Cinema, she said its called. I expected an open-air cinema with a burger truck or two, and there is a huge screen set up for later, but jeez, this place is something else. I feel as if Im actually in the movie rather than at it, and I reckon weve bagged ourselves the two best-looking Pink Ladies at the whole gig. Sarah Christ. She never does anything by halves. Shes walking a little way ahead of me; her legs seem to be twice as long as normal in those spray-on black leggings. Ive always got off on the feeling that Im running to keep up with her, it keeps me on my toes, but lately shes sprinting so fast that sometimes I feel like I lose sight of her altogether. Its disconcerting, a low-level niggle that I stamp down every time I catch up again. Laurie looks cool too; its like a magazine article about how the same outfit can look completely different on two different girls. Sarahs high heels and ponytail say most popular girl in class, whereas Lauries Converse and bouncy curls are more low-key cute. If we were high-school kids, Sarah would scare the pants off me and Laurie would be my best mates sister. I dont even know where Im going with that thought. Theyre just different, thats all. What do you think? A snog on the cards for me and the birthday girl? Billy says, strolling beside me. Reckon Ill try my luck at the top of that thing. He nods towards the Ferris wheel. I flick my eyes towards Laurie briefly and feel a bloom of protectiveness. Billys one of those guys who will do anything to add a few more notches. I dont really know why I asked him other than he was the only one of my friends egotistical enough to spend a day playing dress-up. No heavy petting, Bill. You heard the rules. This is high school, where rules are made to be broken, my friend. Billy winks at me as Sarah turns to us and points across the field, interrupting before I can say anything else. Come on, you two. I want to go on the bumper cars. Im starting to wish Id asked anyone other than Billy to come today. So far hes rung the strong-man bell three times when no one else on this whole common could manage it even once, and now hes got his arm round Laurie as he expertly manoeuvres their bumper car around like an F1 driver. I mimic him, slinging my arm round Sarah as I glance back over my shoulder and reverse right into them, sending them spinning away in a fizz of electric sparks. Sarah screams, laughing beside me as Billy comes straight back at us, jolting our car violently into the wall of tyres, subtly giving me the finger over Lauries shoulder as he drives away. What would John Travolta do right now, I wonder? And who is Sandra Dee in this scenario? Sarahs too sassy by far; Frenchy all the way. Not that Im saying Laurie is Sandy to my Danny, because that would be fucked up. Maybe Billy is more Danny anyway, with his Popeye muscles and leader-of-the-pack mentality. I watch him help Laurie clamber out of their car as the engines cut out, the way he hangs on to her hand and spins her against him, a blur of dark curls in pink satin. I hope she isnt fooled by him. I mean, its her business, but he can be a bit of a bloke everythings a lark and a laugh. Maybe thats what she likes. Fuck, what if he decides to come back to Camden with us? Ha! Her mobiles just started to ring in the pocket of her pink jacket. Phonus Interruptus, mate. Laurie This is shaping up to be one of my favourite days ever. Im squiffy on Pink Lady cocktails, Ive laughed until my sides ache, Billy is more fun than Id anticipated and everyone is in a silly, carnival mood. Even the weather has played ball, bathing us in the best kind of lazy English summer warmth, the sort that always brings freckles out across the bridge of my nose. If Id thought the event looked good in daylight, it looks even more razzledazzle now that the evening is beginning to draw in. On the T-Birds stand a show plays out; a bendy troupe of male dancers in black leather are bouncing all over the impressive line of imported muscle cars, singing into chrome microphone stands as they dance across the bonnets. Everywhere people dance and loll under the rainbow haze cast by the glittering pastel lights from the fairground rides, and theres a growing sense of anticipation for the movie itself to begin around ten. Sarah discovered just now that she has a natural talent for rock-and-roll dancing (well of course), and after Jack laughingly backed out, claiming two left feet, Billy has been cajoled into taking part in the master-class competition as her partner. As Jack and I stand on the fringes of the crowd watching them, I see that glitter-grit crackle through Sarah; its there in the extra sassy flick of her ponytail and the high jut of her chin. Thank God Billy seems to have hidden snake hips. I dont know if its all the cocktails Ive sunk, but hes starting to look a lot more attractive than he did at the beginning of the day. When we were queuing for the bumper cars he showed me photos of his little brother, Robin, a very unexpected surprise to his forty-something mum. Not that Billy minded going from an only child to a big brother so late in the day; he proudly flashed me a shot of Robin blowing out the birthday candles on the cake Billy had made him with his own bare hands. It was no masterpiece, but any girl wondering if Billy might make a good father himself one day would only need to hear him talk about Robin to know there is marshmallow beneath those muscles. I watch him up there with Sarah, pure concentration on both of their faces. Theyve got their A-game on for sure; I feel almost sorry for the other contestants. Sarah loves this kind of stuff, I say, sucking lemonade through a red-andwhite-striped straw because Im taking a cocktail break. I just hope they win, Jack laughs. I know what he means. A happy Sarah means a happy all of us. My phone vibrates; thats the second time Mums tried me today. I already told her that I was out all day, but I think she finds it difficult now me and Daryl have both left home. I consider calling her back, but I dont want to interrupt this moment. I look out towards the Ferris wheel. It looks even bigger illuminated. I hope theres still time to ride the wheel before the movie starts, I say. Jack frowns, checking the time. Were cutting it fine. I nod. Especially if they get through to the dance-off. Which they will. Hes right. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Sarahs dancing shoes will see this thing through to the end. He pauses for a beat, looks away and then back at me. I could take you on it now, if you like. He half laughs, embarrassed. Call it a birthday present, seeing as I forgot to get you one. Its curiously old-fashioned of him to offer to take me on it, as if I need to be escorted, but the question works perfectly in this curiously old-fashioned setting. I stand on my tiptoes to catch Sarahs eye to let her know well be back in ten but shes fully engaged in listening to the master-class host. I look behind me again at the beautiful Ferris wheel. Id like that very much, Jack. Thank you. A guy in white chinos with a Rydell High college sweater knotted casually round his shoulders lowers the chrome bar across our knees, raising his eyebrows at us as he gives it a rattle to make sure were secured. You might want to put your arm round your girl, fella. It can get a little scary up there at the top. Im sure he must say variations of the same to every couple he loads on to the ride, but all the same we both wade in to correct him. Oh, were not I stammer, at the same time as Jack rushes in with, Shes not my Were just friends. Sweater boy winks knowingly. Pity. You look good together. The wheel lurches a little to move round one place for the next car to be filled, and I close my eyes for a second because I have no clue what to say next. Dont tell me youre a scaredy-cat, Laurie? No, siree! I laugh. Curling my fingers round the bar, I settle back into the deep raspberry-vinyl padding of the swing seat, my feet resting in the chrome footwell. Youre not scared of heights, are you? He leans into the corner of the car and glances at me sideways, his arms flung out across the top of the seat, hands upturned as if Ive asked a stupid question. Do I look like someone who scares easily? Danny Zuko eat your heart out; but the way he drums his fingers on the top of the car close to my shoulder tell me hes not as relaxed as his outward appearance might suggest. I dont know what it is thats making him uptight; being on the wheel without Sarah, or being on the wheel at all, or being on the wheel with me. I sigh, about to ask him, and then the familiar, swoony opening bars of Hopelessly Devoted To You strike up and the wheel begins to rotate. I shelve my question. Its my birthday, after all, and I love Ferris wheels, and Im with Jack, who I cant help but genuinely like more and more each time I see him. And thats good. I mean it, hand on heart, I mean it. Its good, because he and Sarah are undeniably great together, and because I love her like a sister. For the most part Im pretty accepting of the situation. It is what it is. Perhaps if things had been different, if Id found him first maybe, then hed have his arm round me right now and be about to kiss me stupid as we crest the top of the wheel. Maybe wed be deliriously loved up. Or maybe we would have been a terrible romantic match, and the very best outcome for all of us is exactly whats come to pass. Hes in my life and Im glad of him. Its enough. Wow, I murmur, distracted by the view as we climb higher. Barnes Common is festooned with bunting and lights: neon writing over the Airstream diners, disco flickers from the dance tent, tea lights on trestle tables as early settlers claim their spots on the grass close to the huge screen. We go higher still, and we can see beyond the common, over the spindly streets of South West London picked out by creamy street lamps. Stars, Jack says, flipping his head back to look up as we near the top. I do the same and stargaze with him, and for a few seconds we hang there right on the brow of the wheel, the only two people in the world. Happy birthday, Laurie, Jack says, quiet and serious when I turn to look at him. I nod and try to smile but find that my face muscles cant do it, because my mouth is trembling as if I might cry. Thank you, Jack, I say. Im glad I got to spend it with you I break off, then add, you guys, for clarity. Me too. Our car crests the summit and jolts over the brow of the wheel, rocking as the breeze catches it, making me squeal and grab hold of the bar with both hands. Jack laughs easily and puts his arm round me, the side of his body a warm press against mine. Its okay, Ive got you. He gives me a brief, bolstering squeeze, his fingers firm round my shoulder, before he lounges back and lays his arm along the back of the seat again. My stomach backflips slowly as I sit back too, and Im ashamed to say it had nothing to do with the fact that were suspended high in the sky over Barnes Common and everything to do with the feeling of being alone on this beautiful old Ferris wheel with Jack OMara. Vintage pink and mint-green bulbs light up the spokes of the wheel as it turns, dancing shadows over his features as we slowly move. Olivia Newton-John sings her hopelessly devoted heart out. I know how she feels. My fingers close round my pendant, sliding over the familiar shape of the flat purple stone for reassurance. I had a five-minute meltdown this morning because I couldnt find it; I cried when Sarah finally spotted it wedged between the cracks of the floorboards in my bedroom. Of all the possessions I own, my necklace is my most precious. Ginny and I both had one; I know its silly but I feel more connected to her whenever I wear it. Damn. Another missed call from Mum. I feel like the worlds worst daughter as I click open the text message shes just pinged across in lieu of a chat, and I resolve to call her first thing in the morning. Laurie darling, Im so sorry to put this in a text and even more sorry because its your birthday, but I know youd want to know as soon as possible. Its Dad hes in hospital, sweetheart, hes had a heart attack. Give me a call as soon as you can. Love you. Mum xx And just like that, one of the best days of my life has just become one of my worst. 12 December Laurie I feel like someone lined my Uggs with lead. Its been full-on bedlam at work with back-to-back Christmas party bookings over the last few weeks and my feet ache as if Ive run a marathon. Im thoroughly bloody knackered. Dads recovery has been slower than the doctors hoped; it seems to have been one thing after another with his health ever since. Hes gone from being my robust, no-worries dad to looking frail and much too pale, and my mum seems to have followed suit because shes worrying herself to death over him. Theyve always been quite the glamorous couple; Dads got ten years on Mum but its never really shown up till now. I cant say the same of late. My father turned sixty last year but looks ten years older again; every time I see him I want to bundle him on to a plane to sunnier climes and feed him up. Not that my mum isnt doing her best; their lives seem to be one long round of specialist appointments and dietary restrictions, and its taking its toll on them both. I go home as often as I can, but Mum is inevitably bearing the brunt of it. Christmas insults my eyeballs everywhere I look; Ive been shopping for the last few hours and Im at that point where I want to bludgeon Rudolph, bump off Mariah Carey and strangle the next person who pushes me with the nearest string of tinsel. Ive been waiting in this never-ending, barely moving queue in HMV for the last twenty minutes, clutching a box set Im not even sure my brother will ever watch, and I could genuinely fall asleep on my feet. For a music store, youd think theyd manage to come up with something more cutting-edge than Noddy Holder screaming Its Christmas! at the top of his lungs. What kind of name is Noddy, anyway? I find myself wondering if he was born with big ears and his mother was just too whacked out on gas and air to come up with anything else. Laurie! I twist at the sound of someone calling my name and spot Jack waving his arm over the heads of the queue snaked around me. I smile, relieved by the sight of his familiar face, then roll my eyes to transmit how I feel about being stuck here. I look down at the box set and realize that my brother would prefer a bottle of Jack Daniels anyway, so I turn and push my way out of the queue, annoying pretty much everyone by going against the tide. Jack hangs around by the chart CDs while he waits for me, bundled inside his big winter coat and scarf, and I sigh because Im caught by the memory of him at the bus stop. Its been a couple of years now, and for the most part I dont think about that day any more; my diligence in my mission to replace all of my errant thoughts about him with safer ones has paid off. They say that the human brain likes to follow repetitive patterns, and Ive found that to be quite true. Jack now inhabits an appropriate place in my life as my friend, and as my best friends boyfriend, and in return I allow myself to enjoy his company and I like him. I really do like him so very much. Hes funny, and hes incredibly caring towards Sarah. And he was a complete life-saver on my birthday, taking charge of the situation when I went to pieces there in the middle of Barnes Common. We were in the back of a taxi in the blink of an eye, my train tickets home booked before we even reached Delancey Street. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you what to do, and on that day Jack stepped up to the mark. You look as impressed with this Christmas shopping malarky as I am, he says, sliding the CD he was idly looking at back on to the shelf and falling into step beside me as we leave the store. Although youve clearly been more successful than I have. He eyes my bags. Here, let me. I dont argue when he takes the heavy carriers from me; the handles have bitten red welts into my palm and I flex my sore fingers with relief. Theres grey slush underfoot as we step out on to Oxford Street, remnants of the snowfall from a few days ago still hanging around because the arctic wind is blowing straight down from the north. Jack pulls a woolly hat from his pocket and jams it on his head, shivering for effect. Have you got much to get? I ask. He shrugs. Sarahs, mainly. Any bright ideas? He looks at me sideways as we walk, blending our pace with the bustling crowds. Please say yes. I rack my brain. She isnt hard to buy for, but her gift from Jack should be something particularly personal. A bracelet maybe or a pendant? We pass a High Street jeweller and pause to look, but nothing in the window really shouts Sarah. I wrinkle my nose and sigh as we shelter inside the doorway. Its all a bit too I dont know. Not individual enough. Jack nods, then narrows his eyes and looks at his watch. Do you need to rush off? Not really, I say, not looking forward to the trudge home. Good. He grins, threading his arm through mine. Come with me, I know just where to go. Jack Shopping is so much easier with Laurie than on my own. Weve just hoofed it round the corner from Oxford Street to Chesters antique emporium; a place I vaguely remember and hope is still there. Wow, Laurie murmurs, her violet-blue eyes widening as we step inside the tall terracotta-brick building. I came here years ago as a kid to help my father find something special for my mums birthday. Its a vivid memory; I think it might have been a special birthday, one to mark. We found her a slender silver bangle set with amber stones, and my dad had them engrave all of our names round the inside. She wore it sometimes when he was still alive, at Christmas and on special days. She wore it to his funeral too, and I dont think Ive seen her without it since. Im pleased to see the emporium hasnt changed much in the intervening years, that its still the same Aladdins cave of vintage stalls. This place is amazing! I never even knew it was here. Proper London. I shove my hat into my coat pocket, pushing my hand through my hair because its plastered against my head. Where do you want to start? Her eyes glitter as she laughs, delighted as she takes it all in. I have no idea. I want to see everything. Steady on. Well be here until Christmas. I follow her as she moves amongst the stalls, stroking her fingers over the head of a carved leopard, exclaiming over locked cabinets full of beautiful, topgrade diamonds, and then shes just as excited by the paste and costume jewels at the next store along. She smiles, shy when the owner of a retro hat shop takes one look at her and pulls a heather Harris Tweed baker boy cap out for her to try; the old boy clearly knows his hats because shes transformed into a sixties waif as soon as its placed on top of her wayward curls. Lauries hair is only ever sixty per cent tamed at best, and right now she looks like a street urchin from Oliver Twist. The lavender shades in the tweed bring out the colour of her eyes, but they also highlight the dark, bruised circles around them. Shes tired, I notice with a jolt, and its not I just need an early night tired; its Ive had the shittiest few months of my life tired, the eyes of someone whos worried and has been for a fair while. I realize I havent even asked her how shes doing. She takes the hat off after examining herself from each angle in the gilt hand mirror the shopkeeper obligingly holds up, turning the tiny label over to look at the price before she hands it back and wistfully shakes her head. Its a shame. It was a good look on her. How about in here? she asks a little while later. Weve considered and discarded a little water-colour painting and earmarked a 1920s turquoise pendant as a definite maybe, but as soon as we step into the little perfume paraphernalia shop I know this is where were going to find the perfect thing. Lauries like a little girl let loose in a sweet shop, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over elaborate gilt bottles and exotic scents, and then she breaks into this sunshine-slash of a smile. Jack, over here, she says, calling me to her side to look at something shes just unearthed from the back of a shelf. I gaze over her shoulder to see what shes holding, and I thank my lucky stars I havent bought the turquoise pendant already. The golden clamshell powder compact lying in Lauries hand is so very Sarah that it would be wrong for any other woman in the world to own it. Art deco, Id say, from my extensive viewing of Antiques Roadshow, sizeable enough to comfortably fill Lauries palm, with an enamelled mermaid inlaid into the lid. Theres something of Sarah about the auburn waves cascading over her shoulder and the pronounced, coquette dip of her waist. Laurie hands it over to me with a sparkle-eyed grin. Job done. Im pleased by the weight of it. Its Sarah-worthy, something that says I notice everything about you and youre valuable to me. Call off the search, I say, praying its not going to cost more than a small mortgage and breathing out with relief when I flip the tag. I can still afford beer after all. Am I glad I bumped into you. We browse as the woman who owns the shop packages up the compact, taking her time to find a velvet pouch that fits and encasing the package in tissue and ribbons. I think she probably took one look at me and concluded that, left to my own devices, Id wrap it in tinfoil or something. I wouldnt, but shes not that far off and Im bloody glad I havent got to wrangle with the Sellotape myself. Its almost dark even though its barely four when Laurie and I make our way back out on to the street again. Celebratory beer? I owe you one for helping me out, I say. She looks like she needs a good sit-down and a chat. God knows what Sarah would have ended up with without you. Petrol station flowers and a dodgy pair of knickers from a sex shop. Or something. Laurie laughs, pulling her coat sleeve back to check the time as if she has places to be. Okay, she says, surprising me. I was sure she was going to dash off. Good girl. Theres a place I know just round the corner. A proper pub, not some trendy bar where you can never get a seat. I duck my head against the beginnings of snow on the bitter wind and spread my hand against her back to steer her down a small side street. Laurie As soon as we step inside the stained-glass doors of the pub Im glad I didnt say no to a drink. Theres the reassuring smell of a coal fire and beeswax polish, and the dark-green leather button-back booths are deep and comfortable, built for long, relaxed drinking sessions. An old man and his snoozing Jack Russell are the only other patrons. Its one of those unpretentious, end-of-the-world pubs that you know hasnt changed much in decades, ruddy quarry tiles and a brass surround running the length of the well-stocked bar. Glass of red? Jack asks, and I nod, grateful as I take my shopping bags from him. You go and find a seat by the fire, Ill bring the drinks over. I bag the best booth in the house, closest to the warmth of the fire. I drop down and stow my bags under the table, shrugging out of my damp winter coat and hanging it on the newel post at the end of the booth to warm through for later. Warmed coats remind me of home; when we were kids my dad fitted an extra radiator behind the coat hooks so wed always have a warm jacket on winter school mornings. Wine for the lady, Jack jokes, appearing with a glass of deep-ruby wine and a pint. He follows my lead and hangs his coat on the other newel post, as if weve marked our territory, claimed this tiny lounge for two. Best thing about winter, he says, rubbing his hands together briskly in front of the fire before he slides along the leather seat opposite me and pulls his pint towards him. God, do I need this. He drinks deeply, smacking his lips appreciatively. The wine is blood-warm in my mouth, pepper and rich blackcurrants. Thanks for helping me today, he says. Id never have found anything so perfect without you. I smile, because I know how much Sarah is going to treasure the compact. Shes going to be super-impressed with you. Ill claim its all my own work, of course. Your secrets safe with me. I drink a little more, feeling the alcohol begin to work its magic. Have you heard from Sarah? Not today. Jack shakes his head. She called yesterday. Sounds like shes having a ball, of course. I could hardly hear her. She called me from a bar yesterday too, probably straight after speaking to Jack by the sounds of it. She headed back to her parents a few days ago to celebrate her sisters eighteenth birthday. She put Allie on the phone, sounded drunk as a skunk. He laughs, halfway down his drink already. Have you met her sister? Theyre like two peas in a pod when theyre together. Double bloody trouble. I look towards the fire for a second and nod. I know. Their mum and dad must have had their hands full over the years. Jack pauses, clearing his throat. Sorry, Laurie. I didnt mean to well, you know. He doesnt say Ginnys name but I know thats why hes apologizing, and I wish for the hundredth time that I hadnt told him. This is precisely why I dont talk about her; people feel the need to offer sympathy or platitudes when there really isnt anything helpful to say. Its not a criticism. Its just a shitty fact of life. Are you heading back to see your mum for Christmas? I change the subject on to safer ground and he visibly relaxes. Not until after my last shift on Christmas Eve. He shrugs. Winding things up, winding things down. You know how it is. A couple more red wines later and Im finally relaxing. Id forgotten how nice it was to just sit and chat to Jack. Will you stay in radio for ever, do you think? Absolutely. I love it. His eyes light with interest. Plus no one cares if youve brushed your hair or still have yesterdays T-shirt on. I laugh softly, because despite his attempts to sound laissez-faire, I know that Jacks fiercely ambitious. Whenever he isnt with Sarah hes either at gigs or working, producing mostly, although he still occasionally gets to fill in for the regular late-night DJ, cutting his presenter teeth. I have no doubt that his voice will be on the airwaves somewhere as I eat my cornflakes or drift off to sleep over the years to come. I find the thought strangely comforting. I, on the other hand, have not got any further with my magazine job. The last few months, it hasnt exactly been my top priority. We get more drinks, and I can feel the heat in my cheeks from both the alcohol and the fire. This is nice, I say, resting the weight of my chin in my hand as I look at him. The fire, the wine. Its what I needed. Thank you for bringing me. He nods. How are you, Lu? Really, I mean. I know it hasnt been easy on you these last few months. Please dont be perceptive, youll unpick me. It doesnt help that he called me Lu; only Sarah does that, and she doesnt know it but the only other person in the world who ever shortened my name to Lu was Ginny. She couldnt manage Laurie when she was a baby; Lu was easier and it stuck. Im okay, I shrug, even though Im anything but. Most of the time. Some of the time. I gaze into the fire and try to keep the lump in my throat down. It feels as if someone pulled the rug out from under my familys feet, you know. My dad is our cornerstone, he always has been. Is he getting better? I press my lips into a tight line, because the truth is were not really sure. A bit, I say. Hes over the heart attack for the most part now, but looking back, that seems to have been just the beginning. Hes taking so many pills that he practically rattles, and my poor mum has had to take over everything, really. Therapy appointments, dieticians, consultants, not to mention getting a grip on all of the bills and household things. It just seems endless. I swallow a large slug of wine. You know how some events turn out to be the big stepping stones between one part of your life and the next? I dont just mean the steps you intend to take, like leaving home or starting a new job or marrying the person you love on a summers afternoon. I mean the unexpected steps: the middle-of-the-night phone calls, the accidents, the risks that dont pay off. My twenty-third birthday turned out to be one of my unexpected stepping stones; a step away from the solid foundations built by my indomitable parents towards quicksand where they are fragile and too human and need me as much as I need them. Its knocked my world off-kilter; Im sickly nervous every time the phone rings and theres a permanent cesspool of fear sloshing around in the base of my stomach. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, Id say I feel hunted. Im caught in the crosshairs, waiting for the bullet that may or may not come, running, looking over my shoulder, braced for impact. I dream of my sister more nights than I dont: Ginny cheering me on from my fathers shoulders at my primary school sports day, Ginny holding tight to his hand as they cross a busy road and leave me behind on the other side, Ginny sleeping on Dads shoulder in the pub garden we used to go to sometimes in the summer when we were kids, her blonde hair half covering her delicate face. I just want my big strong dad back to normal, you know? I hate that I can hear the thickness of tears in my throat. And that Jack must be able to hear it too. Oh, Laurie, he says, low and soothing, and then he slips round the booth and puts his arm round me. Poor you, you look so knackered lately. I dont even have the energy to act annoyed at that comment. I cant deny it. Im bone-tired. I dont think Ive even registered how low Ive been because you have to keep on keeping on, dont you? But right here, sitting in this pub feeling insulated from it all, it hits me like a shovel to the face. Im so exhausted I feel like Im disintegrating inside my clothes. Life can be really shit sometimes, he says, his arm still warm and reassuring round my shoulders. Itll come good again. It always does. You think so? It sounds so stupid but I just feel like Im failing at everything. Life here, no proper job. Perhaps I should just go back home. I should be with my parents, help my mum out. Dont say that, Laurie. Youre down, but youre not out. Your parents will be okay, and theyd want you to follow your dreams. Youll get there, I know it. Do you think so? Come on. Look at you. Youre clever and youre funny; you wont be stuck behind that hotel reception for ever. Ive read some of your freelance stuff, remember? Youll get your break soon, Im sure of it. I appreciate the generosity of his praise, but I know that what he actually means is that hes read the scant couple of articles Ive had published because Sarah has pushed them under his nose. Shes worse than my mum whenever I place anything, which is barely ever. Jacks looking at me now, really studying me, as if what hes about to say matters. I dont think Ive ever met anyone in my life with as much I dont even know what it is that you have. Warmth, I guess, although that isnt exactly it. He looks pissed off with himself for his inability to find the right words. You just have a way about you, Laurie. Being around you makes people feel good. Im surprised enough to stop feeling sorry for myself and look up. Do you really mean that? Yes. His smile is slow, crooked. Of course I do. Right from the first time we met. I catch my breath, trying to keep my thoughts inside my head, but they seep out, like water through my fingers. The first time we met or the very first time? Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. Jack Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. She remembers. You mean at Christmas? Were sitting closer than we were, almost thigh to thigh, and close up I can clearly see the toll recent months have had on her. Those dark circles, the high set of her shoulders as if shes always got her teeth clenched. She looks in need of a hot bath, chicken soup and her bed for a week. On the bus? she breathes. Her cheeks are pink from the wine, and her eyes more animated than they have been since the summer. Do you remember? I frown and arrange my features into what I hope suggests puzzlement. If theres one thing Im sure of, its that to acknowledge my memory of those few moments at the bus stop would be a monu-fucking-mental mistake. Our entire friendship is built on the dynamics of my position as her best friends boyfriend. I wait in silence and she withers in front of me. The jittery shimmer in her eyes dims and I know she wishes she could suck those words out of the air between us and back inside her body. If I could, Id blow them back in there myself rather than have to hurt her with a lie. At your party, I say gently. No. Before then, she says, pressing me. I think I saw you sitting at a bus shelter. Months before. A year before. Oh, Laurie, why is it never the cowards way out for you? Trust me, its an easier path. Until you get called on it, that is. I feign complete ignorance, my best Hugh Grant nonplussed impression. I think the wines gone to your head, Lu. We first met at your Christmas party. She holds my gaze, silent and unwavering, and right there in front of me I see her slowly reach her limit and raise the white flag of defeat. Ten seconds. Fifteen, maybe. It seems longer, and I feel like the worlds biggest cock. Shit, I think shes trying not to cry. Im a complete fucking bastard. Should I have said I remembered? Would it have been better? For Laurie in this exact moment, probably kinder, but for Laurie next week or next month or next year? I dont think so. Im sorry, she says, compounding my position as the big bad wolf. Ignore me. Id never do that. Three pints in and it seems that Im struggling to maintain the lie too. She blinks a few times and tears spike her lashes. Maybe you should. I look at her, really look at her, and I dont want to tell her any more lies today. Shes all kinds of vulnerable, and weve both had a drink. Maybe I should, I acknowledge. But I dont want to. I like being with you too much. Christ. I know, okay? I shouldnt have said that. Its on the edges of inappropriate, and its selfish. I like being with you too much too, she whispers, and a single, desolate tear slides down her cheek. Dont, I breathe, my voice rough even to my own ears. Please dont cry. Only a hard-faced bastard would let a girl cry like this without comforting her, and despite the fact that Ive told her lies, Im not a hard-faced bastard, so I brush her tears away with my fingertips, my other arm still round her shoulders. Its okay, honestly it is, I murmur against her temple. How can she smell of wild summer flowers even in winter? Her skin is delicate under my fingertips, and although every atom of my being knows I should drop my hand, I hold her face instead, following her jawline with my thumb. For a moment we stay like that, until she moves slightly to look up at me and her mouth is suddenly dangerously close to mine. I dont think shes breathing. I dont think I am either. Jesus, she has the most beautiful mouth this close up. Full and trembling. I can taste the wine on the warm heat of her breath. She moves forward, I think, and I swear there isnt any air between our lips. Im anguished. Torn. I cant kiss you, Laurie. I cant. Laurie Ive drunk too much wine, and Im the shabbiest person in the world, but I couldnt move away from Jack now even if this pub was burning down. Were caught in a tiny capsule of time, this unexpected booth at the end of the world, and there is just his generous mouth and his kind eyes and his warm, comforting hands. If this were a TV show Id be shouting stop, because Id know that however good they seem together, the shit would hit the fan further down the line. But this isnt make believe, its real life, and in real life people make mistakes. I raise my head, and if he kisses me I wont have the power to stop myself from kissing him back, because to me he looks exactly as he did that day at the bus stop, and for a second Im that girl on the bus in 2008 again. My dad isnt sick, and Jack isnt Sarahs boyfriend, and theres tinsel in my hair. I can almost hear the whirl of time turning back, whooshing past my ears like the sound of an old-fashioned tape recorder being rewound or a vinyl record being played backwards. God, I dont think I can stop this from happening. I cant kiss you, Laurie. I cant. His words land on my heart like hailstones. Shit. What in Gods name am I doing? What kind of hideous lowlife am I? I need to get away from him. Christ, I whisper, panicked, pressing my shaking fingers against my lips. Im on my feet, scrabbling for my bags and half running out of the pub before I really know what Im going to do, and its only when the bitter-cold air hits me that I realize I dont have my coat and its snowing steadily. Laurie! Laurie, wait up. Hes out of breath, my coat clutched in his hands as he catches hold of my sleeve. Please, just stop a second, will you? I pull away, too hard, spilling the shopping from one of my bags over the quiet backstreet. He helps me to shove it back in and wraps my coat round my shivering shoulders, then he wraps his arms round my coat, holding me until the heat penetrates my clothes and my bones. Its so very, very warm from the fire, and I close my eyes because Im inexplicably in tears again. Im not generally a crier, yet today my tear ducts seem to be bursting their banks. Laurie, he whispers, raw, his eyes star-bright in the street lamps. The last thing I ever want to do is hurt you. Im such a fool, I whisper. I dont even know why Im crying. Jack sighs, exasperated, kind. Because youre tired, and youre worried, and you feel as if youre always swimming against the tide. He rubs my back as he speaks low and steady against my ear, his body sheltering mine from the snow. My back is turned to the wall, and my fight is gone because hes saying such incredibly comforting things and hes holding me close. Im so very tired of swimming. Most of the time I feel like the tide is going to pull me under, but here in Jacks arms I feel as if hes just reached over the side of a life raft and hauled me to safety. I realize, bleakly, that I dont think there will ever be a time when I dont have feelings for this man. I wanted you to kiss me, Jack, I say, bereft. Its not as if he isnt aware what I wanted back there; to be coy would be pointless. I dont like myself for it. He strokes my hair, cups my chin, looks me in the eyes. If I tell you something, do you promise to never tell another living soul, not even a goldfish? I swallow, eye to eye with him as I nod, and he takes my face between both of his hands. Whatever hes about to say, I think its something Im going to remember for ever. I wanted to kiss you back there in the pub, Laurie, and I want to kiss you even more right now. Youre one of the loveliest people Ive ever met in my whole life. He looks away, down the length of the deserted street and then back at me again. Youre beautiful and kind, and you make me laugh, and when you look at me like that with your summer hedgerow eyes only a fucking saint wouldnt kiss you. Then he leans me against the wall with the weight of his body, and because he isnt a fucking saint, he kisses me. Jack OMara dips his head and kisses me in the snow, his lips trembling and then hot and sure, and Im crying and kissing him back, opening my mouth to let his tongue slide over mine as he makes this low, injured animal noise in his throat. I feel the relief of him in every follicle of my hair, and in every cell of my body, and in the blood in my veins. His breathing is as shallow as mine, and its so much more than Ive ever imagined, and trust me, I used to let my imagination run riot where Jack OMara was concerned. He holds my face as if Im precious and then pushes his fingers into my hair, cupping my head in his hands when I tip it back. This is the only time we will ever kiss each other. He knows it, I know it, and its so achingly melancholy-sexy that I feel tears threaten again. I cling to the lapels of his winter coat, our kiss salty with my tears, and I open my eyes to look at him because I want to remember this kiss till the day I die. His eyes are closed, his snow-damp lashes a dark sweep on his cheek, all of his attention focused on our once-in-a-lifetime kiss. We break off at last, the spell broken by the engine of a car crawling slowly past because of the inclement weather. Our breath almost crystallizes on the icecold air as it leaves our bodies in sharp, painful bursts. Lets be kind to each other about this, he tells me. I expect he wishes that his voice were more steady than it is. We both know it shouldnt have happened, but it doesnt have to mean anything, and it doesnt need to change anything. Its such a searing understatement that I almost laugh; the sigh that leaves me as I look away from him is rent with longing and self-loathing, and quiet no one will ever kiss me like that again distress. Maybe if wed met under different circumstances, I say, looking at him again after a while, and he nods. In a heartbeat. On cue, a taxi trundles slowly along the side street towards us, and he raises his hand to flag it down. Its a good decision. Not a soul, he reminds me quietly as he opens the door and puts my bags inside. Not even a goldfish, I whisper as I climb in. I dont smile to make light of it, because its not even slightly funny. He hands the driver a note. Take her home safely, he says. His eyes hold mine for a few long seconds as he slams my door. Im reminded of the last time I watched him disappear into the night. I didnt know him then; I had no control. It isnt like that tonight. I know who he is, and how he tastes, and for a split second I long to open the door of the cab, to stop history from repeating itself. I dont. Of course I dont. Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isnt Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating. I watch him recede as the taxi lurches cautiously away, and he watches me too, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, his shoulders bunched against the wind. I lay my head against the cold glass as we turn the corner, my heart and my conscience lead heavy in my chest. I wish Id never laid eyes on Jack OMara. 2011 ? New Years Resolutions Im not sure I should even write this down in case anyone finds it, even a goldfish. 1)I resolve to never, ever kiss my best friends boyfriend ever again. In fact,Im never going to allow even one errant thought about him to enter my head. 2)Im putting all unplatonic thoughts of Jack OMara into a crate, sealing itwith bright yellow toxic stickers and chucking it into the hinterland at the back of my head.? 1 January Jack Happy New Year, mermaid girl. Sarah laughs as I pull her into my arms. Im sorry, I whisper into her hair, making a silent resolution to not kiss anyone other than Sarah this year. What for? She holds me at arms length, her eyes narrowed slightly. Shit. For eating so much garlic last night. God knows how youre able to come anywhere near this pong, I can smell it every time I yawn. She looks kind of amused and kind of confused. Its a good job were both more than halfway towards being rat-arsed, because its exactly the kind of comment that could land me in all sorts of trouble. Honestly, its as if the truth is trying to leak out of me. Im a petrol can riddled with holes, an accident waiting to happen. Laurie HNY, Lu! Love you! I trace the letters of Sarahs text with my fingertip as I lie in bed. The New Year is less than two hours old, but nonetheless, I kissed Jack last year, not this one. This one is a clean sheet. Love you too, Sar, hope youre not too drunk! HNY xx I press send, then click my phone off and lie facing the ceiling in the darkness. Im grateful that my parents didnt rush to reclaim my room as a study or a spare room when I left for uni; its pretty much as I left it, comforting and familiar. Ive never been one to stick posters on the walls, but my childhood books line the shelf over the desk and the lilac dress I wore to my high school prom still hangs in my wardrobe. I cannot put a value on how much these things mean to me right now. Being in here is like stepping into a time capsule, or into my own protective Tardis, perhaps. Where would I have my personal Tardis fly me to, I wonder? I know the answer. Id take it back to 21 December 2008 and Id make myself miss that bloody bus. That way Id never have seen Jack OMara before Sarah introduced us, and everything would have been okay. I dont for a second think that Id have allowed myself the luxury of anything other than platonic feelings for him then, and I wouldnt be lying here now feeling lower than a snakes belly. Before the kiss, Id been able to uneasily square things with myself. Id struggled with my feelings for him and Id felt like a crap friend because of it, but Id stayed on the right side of the line. What Ive done now is unconscionable; I cant even attempt to justify it to myself. I havent seen either Sarah or Jack since that afternoon in London. I know he swore me to secrecy, but he didnt have the right to ask it of me. Im not blaming him, we carry the burden equally. And I dont know if telling Sarah would be the honourable thing or just a way to make myself feel better and her feel worse. Id lose her. I know that much. Shed probably ditch Jack too; there would be no winners. I dont feel worried that hes someone who will be a serial strayer, constantly ratting around behind her back; if that were the case Id tell her without question. Perhaps Im flattering myself, but what happened felt more personal than that, a few minutes of madness that will weigh heavily on both of our consciences. Im not going to tell her. I made myself a promise to for ever hold my peace about my feelings for Jack OMara, and theres never been a time when that promise mattered more. 28 January Jack Sarahs sleeping, Lauries working late at the hotel and Im sat at their kitchen table drinking neat vodka at half past two in the morning. Ive never been a big drinker but suddenly I can see its merits. Its been weeks now since I kissed Laurie. Weeks, and Im making a right royal fuck-up of pretending it didnt happen. Literally every time I look at Sarah I wonder if todays the day I should come clean. Every. Bloody. Day. Ive been over it and over it in my head, trying to pinpoint the exact moment I was unfaithful. Was it when I asked Laurie to come for a beer? When I held her when she cried? Or was it way back, the very first time Sarah introduced us and we both made the decision not to mention the fact that wed actually met before? Not that we had, exactly, but we werent strangers. I know that much for sure now. It was easier when I could tell myself that Laurie didnt recall those few moments at the bus stop, but now I know thats not the truth. I know for a fact that she remembered me, and because she remembered me twelve whole months later, I know that means something else too. Maybe just that shes like me, blessed and cursed with an excellent memory; but Im not sure. Ive been unpicking all of the times weve spent together, examining fragments of remembered conversations, trying to see if Ive missed an undercurrent. Its not that I think shes harbouring a crush on me or anything. For fucks sake. Im not being conceited; I just feel like Ive missed something here. I mean, it was just a kiss. Its not like I screwed anyone, is it? But I kissed Laurie, and somehow thats worse than screwing my way through the whole fucking Playboy mansion, because theyd be forget-me-tomorrow strangers. Laurie isnt a stranger, and I didnt kiss her out of anything as basic and easily explained away as stupid, vacuous lust. But I didnt kiss her to restore her dignity either or because she was fragile and she needed me to make her feel better. Im not that noble. I kissed her because she looked fucking ethereal under the street lamp with snowflakes clinging to her hair. I kissed her because Id lied about not seeing her on that bus and I felt like a dick, and I kissed her because the need to know how her soft, vulnerable mouth would feel against mine floored me like a goddamn express train. And now I do know, and I wish I didnt, because you cant un-remember something as spectacular as that. Lets be kind to each other about this, I said to her afterwards. It shouldnt have happened and it doesnt have to mean anything. Of all of the things Ive ever said, that ranks up there amongst the most crass. But what else was I supposed to say? That I felt as if shed just kissed fucking stardust into my mouth; that of course I saw her on that bus after all? I knock back the contents of my glass and refill it. Its no good. I need to speak to Laurie. Laurie I knew I couldnt avoid Jack for ever. God knows Id like to, but this is my complicated, messed-up life, and Ive just come in from a late shift to find him sitting at my kitchen table in the dark. Wheres Sarah? I say, dispensing with any form of greeting because Im knackered and Ive lost the art of talking to him about inconsequential things. In bed. Hes nursing a tumbler water or vodka, Im not sure. Shouldnt you be too? I glance up at the kitchen clock. Three in the morning isnt a healthy time to be drinking alone. Couldnt sleep. I dont quite believe him. This is only the third time Ive seen him since that afternoon we I dont even like to repeat in my own head what we did and its the first time Ive been alone with him since then, by both of our choices, I think. He scrubs his hand over the stubble on his jawline, backwards and forwards again, a nervous tick. If I had stubble, Id probably do the same. I pour myself a glass of water. Im going to call it a night. He reaches for my wrist as I pass him. Please, Laurie. I need to talk to you. I want to tell him that it wont help, but the bleak look in his eyes softens my resolve, so I sit down wearily at the table, taking in his tired face and his rumpled T-shirt. Is that what you were doing? Waiting up for me? He doesnt do me the disservice of lying. I feel like the worlds biggest shit, Lu. I dont know how to get past it. I cup my hands round my glass. I dont know how to help him. What am I supposed to say, that it gets easier? So trite, and not even especially true. Why is he doing this, anyway? Because he thinks Im the more practised liar and wants some tips? Ive turned our conversation from that day over and over in my head. Jack doesnt remember me from the bus stop. He has no recollection of me before Sarah introduced us to each other. Its crushing, because Ive spent months and years being defined by that moment, and yet its freeing too, because its as if hes rubber-stamped the fact that I need to let it go now. And thats what Im trying my hardest to do. It was a really awful mistake, Jack, I whisper, staring at my hands. More my fault than yours, if it helps. Fuck that, he says, sharp, loud enough for me to cast a warning look towards the doorway. Dont you dare do that to yourself. Im the one whos been unfaithful here. Sarahs my best friend, I say pointedly. Shes like a sister to me. However unfaithful you feel, trust me, Im up there with you on the feeling lousy scale. I swallow a mouthful of water. There isnt a pecking order for guilt here. We were both wrong. He falls quiet and takes a sip of his drink. From the smell wafting my way, Im guessing it isnt water. Do you know what I hate most of all about what happened, Laurie? I dont want him to tell me, because if its the same thing that I hate about it, then were both only going to feel worse for acknowledging it. I hate that I cant forget it, he says. It wasnt supposed to mean anything. Was it? Im glad he doesnt raise his eyes from his drink as he speaks, hollow, too emotional. Did it did it mean anything to you? His quiet, explosive question hangs there, and I swallow hard. For a while I cant look at him, because hell see the truth all over my face. I know what I have to do. Ive lied to Sarah for two years straight now. Lying to Jack shouldnt be as difficult. It shouldnt be, but it is. Excruciatingly so. Look, I say, finally meeting his troubled, beautiful eyes full on. I was upset and horribly low, and you were kind and lovely, because thats who you are. Were friends, arent we? I break off to swallow the painful tears in my throat, and he nods, his hand pressed against his mouth as I speak. Were really, really good friends, we had too much to drink, and it was Christmas, and we stupidly blurred the lines between friendship and something else. But we stopped and we both knew it was awful, and its done now and it cant be undone. What good can come of letting it rip Sarah apart too? Youre sorry, God knows Im more sorry than Ive ever been about anything in my life, and itll never, ever happen again. I dont think of you in that way and Im damn sure you dont harbour secret fantasies about me, either. If we tell Sarah, itll only be to salve our guilt. And do you think thats a good enough reason? Hes been shaking his head slowly all the time Ive been talking, his hand still over his mouth as if he feels nauseous. Nowhere near good enough. I nod. Just go to bed, Jack. Go to bed, go to sleep, and when we get up in the morning, were both going to get on with the rest of our lives without ever mentioning this again. Not to Sarah and not to each other. I take a breath. Not even to a goldfish. He looks away from me, pushing his hand through his already messed-up hair. Ive been flailing around so much in my own guilt that I havent really stopped to wonder how Jack was handling it. Not all that well, so it seems, and I almost resent him for needing me to teach him how to carry the burden of his guilt. I sit at the table for a long time after hes gone. I make a coffee and let it go cold as I look out of the dark kitchen window over the rooftops of Delancey Street. I think of Sarah and Jack asleep down the hall, and of my parents back at home, and my brother and Anna, his new wife, tucked up in the smart new house they bought after their wedding in the springtime. Two, and two, and two, and me. Maybe Ill buy myself a goldfish.? 3 May Laurie Its gone by too fast. Were slouched next to each other on the sofa, Sarah and me, feet up on the scratched coffee table and wine glasses in our hands. Were all packed up and ready to go, almost prepared to hand our Delancey Street bolthole over to its next lucky inhabitants. Five years, I sigh. Youre right. I dont know where its gone. Sarah takes a massive gulp of wine and frowns. I dont want to leave this place. I wish we could stay for ever. We sit in silence and gaze around the living room, the scene of our student parties, our drunken nights, our traded secrets, our late-night laughter. We both know that we cant stay; this phase of our lives is at an end. Sarah has bagged a new, glitzier job at a start-up cable TV station over on the opposite side of the city and commuting from here to there just isnt possible. Ive taken this as my cue for a shake-up too. I cant afford to keep this place on on my own, and Im going nowhere fast career-wise. The hotel is transient, the publishing trade resistant. Im heading home to see my family for a few weeks, and then onwards to Thailand for a while. I know. How fabulous does that sound? Im daunted by the idea of going alone, but spurred on by my dads renewed zeal for getting out there and grabbing life by the balls. My mother was deeply unimpressed when he used that very phrase; they gifted me and Daryl some money at Christmas. Its not something theyd usually do, but they said Dads heart attack has given them a fresh perspective. They cried, so we did, and we both agreed to do something a bit special with the gift. Daryl and Anna are going to buy their marital bed for the new house, and Im going to spend mine grabbing life by the balls in Thailand. I wish I could pack Sarah in my suitcase; I dont have a clue how to do life without her next to me. At least Ill have some respite from the malingering guilt. Youre the best friend Ive ever had, I say. Fuck off, she mutters, starting to cry. I told you not to say that. And I told you not to bloody cry, I say, dragging the end of my sleeve across my eyes. Now look what youve done. We hold hands, really tightly. Well always be friends, right? Her voice is small and shot through with vulnerability. Even when you go to Thailand and join a hippy commune, or whatever it is youre going to do over there? Even then, I say, squeezing her fingers. How about when you become a bigshot TV presenter? Will you ditch me for your celebrity friends? She laughs, pretending she needs a second to think it over. She went to see the new station about a behind-the-scenes role and wound up being asked how shed feel about taking on maternity cover for their roaming reporter. They obviously took one look at her and saw what we all see: star quality. Well I reckon Amanda Holden can hold her drink. I thump her on the arm and she sighs, faking disappointment. Fine. I wont ditch you, even for Amanda Holden. She pauses for a second. Weve had a laugh though, havent we? she says, leaning against me. I close my damp eyelashes and lean my head on hers. We have. You know what my favourite memory of you is? I dont answer her, because there are tears rolling down my cheeks and my throat is aching. Its a recurring memory, actually, she says. I like how you look after me when Im hung-over. No one will ever hold my hair back like you do when I throw up. I laugh despite my tears. Youve got a lot of bloody hair, too. Its not easy. And how you make my morning coffee just right, she says. Everyone else gets it wrong. Even my mother. You have four grains of coffee, Sar. You cant even classify it as coffee. I know that. But you do. You ask me if I want coffee, and then you make it how I like it. Four grains. I sigh. Youve probably made me more cups of coffee than Ive made you. And youve definitely made the most sandwiches. You always forget about the mayo. You know how crucial it is. She sags. How are you going to survive out there in the big wide world without me, Lu? Its not as if were never going to see each other, I say, wiping my face. Ill be able to see you on the TV if nowhere else. Ill be waiting for the day they make you slide down a firemans pole. But I wont be able to see you when youre on the other side of the world. I put my arm round her shoulders. Im not going for ever. You better bloody not, she sniffs. Dont go shacking up with some yogic monk and knocking out a dozen Thai babies or anything, will you? I want you back in London by Christmas. I dont think monks are allowed to have babies. I laugh shakily. Ill only be gone a few months. Ill be back in time to spend New Year together. Promise me? She links her pinky finger with mine like a little girl, and those damn tears threaten again because she reminds me of another little girl from a long time ago. I promise Ill come back, Sarah. I promise.? 20 September Laurie Youre sure youve got everything? Insect repellant? Disinfectant spray? I nod, squeezing Mum as she and Dad prepare to leave me at the airport. Her perfume and the jangle of the bracelet she always wears are so dear and familiar to me; Im choked up at the thought of being so far from home. Torch? Dad says, ever practical. Got it, I say, and he puts his arms round us both. Come on, you daft things. Lets make this a happy send-off. Its an adventure. I untangle myself from them and wipe my eyes, half laughing and half crying as Dad lifts my backpack on to my shoulders. I know it is! Go on then, he says, kissing me on the cheek. Be off with you. I lean in and kiss Mum too, then step back and take a deep breath. Im going now, I say, my lip wobbling. They stand together, Dads arm round Mums shoulders, and they nod. Im sure it would feel less of a wrench if I wasnt going alone; I feel about fourteen as I turn round at the gate to give them one final wave before I lose sight of them. Mum blows me a kiss and Dad lifts his hand, and then I turn away and walk determinedly towards the gate. Thailand awaits. 12 October Laurie Sawatdee kha. I raise my hand in greeting to Nakul, and he grins and throws me a thumbs-up as I take a rickety seat at an equally rickety table at his cafe on Sunrise Beach. It sounds bizarre to say that my time here has been a hectic blur of Buddhist temples, but thats how it feels a weird juxtaposition of absolute serenity amid happy, noisy chaos. No one could ever call Thailand boring; my head is in a spin and Ive got muscles where I never had them before. I travelled north after I arrived in Bangkok, intent on getting my shot of culture in early; I feared that if I headed straight to the south Id spend my entire trip in a hammock on the beach. But now Ive seen enough to allow myself the luxury of resting, and Ive hit the eye-wateringly perfect castaway beaches of southern Thailand. Ive set up temporary home in a cheap-as-chips beach shack; its one room, but its my room, and there is a veranda to sit and read on overlooking the beach. I dont think Id realized how much I needed this break from reality. When I first got to Thailand I cried for almost a week straight as I trekked through jungle terrain with a small group of other travellers. I didnt cry because the trek was so strenuous, although it certainly was. I cried with sheer relief, hot, salty tears, releasing my heavy burdens into the earth as I walked. A few weeks before I came out here my mum and I caught Eat Pray Love at the local cinema, and though I havent got anywhere near to finding love, I am having some kind of mini epiphany. Im like an in-patient in recovery, learning how to forgive myself for the mistakes Ive made and acknowledging that Im still me, still a good person and still a true friend to Sarah, despite what happened with Jack. Perhaps one day I might even deserve to be happy. Coffee, Lau-Lau? I smile, pleased by Nakuls adulteration of my name as he picks his way across the warm, powder-soft sand to my table. Ive been here on each of the four mornings since I arrived on Koh Lipe, and the island is working its laidback magic into my skin and bones. It is as if Im finally standing still for the first time in years. Khop khun kha, I say when Nakul places a small white cup down in front of me, still hesitant over my Thai manners. He grins nonetheless, hopefully because my clumsy attempt at his language is better than not at all. Your plan for today, Lau-Lau? Hes asked me the same question each morning, and every time my answer has been the same: I dont have a plan at all for today. Koh Lipe isnt a place for people with big plans. The entire point of the island is to chill out. He laughs as he walks away to speak to new customers whove just ambled up from the beach. No plans on a beautiful day like this? I turn towards the distinctly English voice and a guy drops down at the little table on the other side of me. He catches Nakuls eye and raises his hand in greeting, his smile easy and relaxed as he stretches his long legs out in front of him on the sand. The Thai sun has baked my own skin honey gold, but this guy has been more serious altogether on the sun-worshipping stakes. Hes chestnut brown, his almost blue-black hair flopping in his dark, amused eyes. I smile and shrug a little. Nothing beyond floating in the sea and reading my book. A fine plan, he says. What are you reading? Please dont say The Beach. Its a good book, I joke. Not that it isnt, but no self-respecting traveller can admit to such an obvious choice. The Great Gatsby, actually. I dont elaborate and tell him that my reading matter is completely dictated by the small stack of books someone left behind in my shack. Much better that he thinks me educated enough to carry F. Scott Fitzgerald around the world in my backpack. Shack find? I roll my eyes and laugh. Busted. You could have lied and Id have believed you. I find that lies encumber me. He stares at me, as well he might. I sound as if The Great Gatsby has gone straight to my head. Im Oscar, he says, stretching his hand out formally across the space between our tables. And my plan for the day is to spend it with you. You look like a starfish. Oscar prods me idly with the oar of the kayak, and I let him spin me slowly on my back with my eyes half closed against the glare of the sunlight. Brilliant blue above me and below me, bath-water warm over my blissed-out skin when he ladles seawater over my belly with the paddle of the oar. I feel like a starfish. True to his word, Oscar has spent his day with me. I wouldnt usually warm to someone who sounded so horribly self-assured, but something in me is determined to do the opposite of what Id normally do. Hes been in Thailand for a couple of months longer than I have, choosing to stay on in Koh Lipe for a while after his travelling companions returned home to the UK. It explains his native tan, at least. Have you ever eaten one? They sell them on sticks like lollipops on Walking Street. I open my eyes, appalled, and find him laughing. Very funny. Hes lounging in the boat, his chin resting on his forearm as he looks over the side at me, his fingertips trailing in the sea. I flick a little seawater at him, speckling a shimmer of droplets over the bridge of his straight nose. Ill admit it. Hes bloody good-looking in a classic, chip-off-the-old-Greek-god kind of way. He has the confident aura of wealth about him, louche and debonair. I know, I know. Who uses words like that any more? Me, apparently, after a day spent drinking local beer and reading The Great Gatsby in a hammock. Theres something about living in a different place that allows you to be whoever you want to be. Can I take you to dinner tonight? I lay my head back in the water and close my eyes again, floating. As long as it isnt starfish. I think I can promise that much. I roll on to my front and swim the few strokes to the kayak, curling my wet fingertips over the edge. His face is inches from mine. Lets not make each other promises, I say. He gives me the same perplexed stare he did when we met at the beach cafe this morning, then leans in and brushes his warm, sea-salt lips over mine. I like you, Starfish. Youre interesting. 13 October Laurie Oscar Ogilvy-Black. Its quite a mouthful, isnt it? I dont think he and I would have crossed each others paths in the normal course of things back in London, but here in Thailand the dating rulebook has been ripped up. He tells me hes a banker but not a wanker, and I confide my hope of gaining my first foothold in the world of magazine journalism one day soon. I have to admit that I judged him when we first met. But underneath the undeniable poshness, hes funny and self-deprecating, and when he looks at me theres a kindness in his eyes that warms me. Youre not going to be one of those awful gossip column queens, are you? I gasp, mock offended, and then sigh, a little giddy because his fingers lace with mine as we walk along the cool sand after dinner. Do I look like I care about worst- and best-dressed celebs? He takes in my denim cut-offs and black vest, then the lemon toggles of my bikini top visible around my neck. Umm maybe not, he laughs. Cheeky, youre hardly suited and booted. I raise an eyebrow as he looks comedically down at his ripped shorts and flip-flops. Laughing, we reach my shack, and I kick my shoes off on the deck. Beer? He nods, leaving his shoes outside beside mine before he flops down on my huge beanbag, his hands folded behind his head. Make yourself at home, I say, and I drop beside him with the cold beers. Are you sure about that? he asks, rolling on to his side, propped on one elbow to look at me. Why? What would you do if you were at home? He reaches down and drags his T-shirt over his head, leaving him in just his shorts. The moonlight shades his skin coconut-shell brown. Id get more comfortable. I pause for a beat, considering just laughing at him I mean, what a line but then I follow suit and pull my vest off. Why not? Oscar is everything that my life is not: light-hearted; uncomplicated. Me too. He holds out his arm for me to settle in beside him, and when I do his body is warm and vital. I am as free as one of the small, blush-pink birds that wheel through the sky above my shack at dawn. Through the window I can see the black spindle outlines of the long-tail boats anchored just off the shore in readiness for the morning, and the pitch-dark sky overhead studded with a myriad of diamond stars. I cant remember the last time I felt this peaceful. Oscar takes a long drink then puts his beer bottle down on the floor before he replies. I think I might be insulted. I was hoping you were outrageously turned on. I laugh softly into his chest and prop myself up to look at him. I think I could be. One arm still bent behind his head, he slides his free hand round the back of my neck and tugs slowly on the string ties of my bikini top. It falls when he lets go, and he doesnt take his eyes from mine as he reaches lower between my shoulder blades to finish the job. Now Im outrageously turned on, he says, tracing one fingertip from the dip between my collarbones to the button on my shorts. He swallows hard as he looks at my bared breasts. A breeze catches the wind chime hanging from the corner of my shack, a soft glitter of bells as he shifts slightly, pressing me back into the beanbag as he draws my nipple inside the heat of his mouth. Jesus. Aching, spiralling lust unfurls octopus-like inside my body, its tentacles licking fast along my limbs, heavy in my abdomen, fast in my chest as I push my hands into the thickness of his hair and hold him to me. I never thought I could feel like this for someone other than Jack, but something about being here with Oscar has freed me. He reaches for the button of my shorts, lifting his head to look at me before he goes any further. Im relieved hes that kind of man; even though his breathing is shallow and his eyes are begging me not to stop him, I know that he would, and thats enough. Do you have a condom? I whisper as I stroke his hair, praying he says yes. He moves over me, his chest on mine, and his kiss is so unhurried and exquisite that I wrap my arms round his shoulders and hold him to me. I think so, he breathes, then laughs shakily. I just hope its in date. He reaches into his back pocket, kissing me some more. Laying his wallet on the floor beside the beanbag, he flicks it open and pulls out a silver foil packet, checking it before he presses it into my palm for safekeeping. He sits up, and this time he doesnt pause over the business of unbuttoning my shorts. His fingers are sure and steady, working them down my hips until I have only my small, yellow bikini bottoms left. He spreads my thighs and kneels between them, then splays my arms wide and pins me lightly in place. Do you know what you are? I stare up at him, unsure what hes going to say. A fucking sexy starfish. I close my eyes and laugh, and then I gasp, because hes lowered his face between my legs and I can feel the heat of his mouth moving over the silky material of my bikini. There isnt one atom of me that wants him to stop as he discards whats left of his clothes. For a second we hold a silent conversation with just our eyes. I tell him that I know hes running away from the responsibility and stress of the city life awaiting him back in London, and he tells me he can paper over the cracks in my heart and make me better again. We make each other promises even though we pledged that we wouldnt, and then he settles over me and I forget about everything but now. Later, I wake and find him sitting on the steps of my shack watching the beginnings of another pink and purple dawn. I sit beside him, an elephant-patterned throw pulled round my shoulders, and he looks at me sideways. Marry me, Starfish. I laugh softly and get up to make coffee. 29 November Laurie Id planned to go home a few weeks ago, yet here I am still in Thailand, still with Oscar. Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. Who knew? I think were both living in denial, completely unprepared and unwilling to return to the world we belong to. But whos to say that you have to belong to somewhere for ever, anyway? Why do I have to belong to England, when everything there is grey and confusing and difficult? Were it not for the people I love, and my promise to Sarah, Id stay here on this beach and have a dozen little babies, though not with a Thai monk. Back in England, Mum reports, the rain has settled in for the long haul, like an unwelcome relative at Christmas, but here when the rain comes its fast and furious and then gone in a blink, shoved aside by the sun. I dont think Ive ever been colder than the day Jack kissed me on a London backstreet nearly twelve months ago, and I dont think Ive ever been warmer than I am here on Koh Lipe with Oscar. My blood is warm, my bones are warm and my skin is warm. Sometimes, when were lying on our backs on a beach or reading in a hammock or falling asleep in bed, I lie and listen to the gentle rush of the sea meeting the shore and I imagine were castaways, washed up on a desert island, left to spend the rest of our days eating fish weve caught and having sweatfilmed sex. Every now and then wed hear the petrol rumble of a planes engine in the cornflower sky above, and wed hide in the shelter of the treeline rather than write SOS in the sand. 12 December Gday from the bottom of the world, lovebirds! Hope youre not freezing your tits off too much up there, ha ha! Australia is heaven on a stick. Jack has gone completely native, Im going to buy him a hat with corks on and call him Crocodile Dundee. He even went and checked out a radio station in Melbourne; seriously, if they offered him a job I dont think hed ever come home again. Except, ha, get this! Hes MORTALLY TERRIFIED of snakes. I didnt know until there was a tiny one on our balcony last week and he practically screamed the place down. I had to coax him down off a chair with a brandy. Its a good job hes got me to protect him. Oscar! Take care of my girl, cant wait to meet you! Laurie, lets all get together as soon as we can, dying to see you. Lots of love and kisses, Sarah xx PS Jack says to say hi! :) 2012 ? New Years Resolutions 1)By hook or by crook, Im moving back to London this year to start myfantasy job in publishing. Ive let my ambitions simmer on the back-burner for too long now because of Thailand and Oscar, and most of all because I wanted to spend some proper time at home and be around for Mum and Dad. There are lots of reasons and explanations, all excuses; what Ive really been doing is avoiding Jack. Ive decided Im not going to do that any longer. I miss Sarah so much, and I miss the buzz and crackle of London life too. Im going to hand in my notice at the hotel Ive been temping at lately; my CV so far is all hospitality-based, stopgap jobs and temporary positions to keep money in my pocket while I wait for the rest of my life to kick in. Well, Im done waiting. Im going to pull on my boots and kick lifes butt, instead. 2)And then theres Oscar. Oscar Ogilvy-Black, the man who found me on abeach in Thailand and jokingly asked me to marry him at sunrise the next morning. Hes asked me to marry him dozens of times since, mostly after sex or when weve had a few drinks its become our standing joke. At least I think its a joke. I dont actually know what my New Years Resolution is about Oscar. Just to try and keep hold of him, I think, and keep hold of the feelings I have for him now that were going back to reality. 3) Oh, and Ive decided Im ready to give false eyelashes another go. Because gluing your eyes shut once in a lifetime isnt enough for a woman like me. 3 January Laurie Im so nervous, I mutter, straightening the collar of my woollen winter coat as we walk hand in hand along the pavement. Im wearing a brooch. I know, who does that? Nobody sane under thirty. Im just desperate to make a good impression. Is this too much? I touch the little jewelled daisy and look up at Oscar, who just laughs. Youre being ridiculous. Its my mother, Laurie, not the queen. I cant help it. Everything seemed far simpler in Thailand; we got to know each other while stripped back to whatever basics we could fit in a backpack. Here amongst the trappings of our usual lives, our differences seem more stark. Im back to being socially awkward, doubly so today, and Oscar is far more man-about-town than I imagined. Here we are, he says, leading me towards a patent-black front door in an elegant sweep of townhouses. Stop fidgeting, you look fine. I swallow hard as we wait for the door to be answered, hoping that Oscars mother likes the bunch of winter white roses I bought on the way over. God, what if shes allergic? No, Oscar would have said. I tap my foot, nervy, and then the door opens at last. Oscar, darling. Lucille Ogilvy-Black may not be actual royalty, but there is a definite regal air to her straight back and white, perfectly blow-dried hair. Shes dressed all in black, a sharp contrast to the lustrous circlet of pearls round her neck. Mum, this is Laurel, he says as he steps out of her hug, his hand on the small of my back to encourage me forward. Afterwards, I realize that I should have read more into the fact that he called me Laurel rather than Laurie. I put my best foot forward and smile, and she accepts the flowers with a gracious incline of her head. She doesnt look at all like Oscar, and she certainly exudes none of his natural warmth. I follow them into the immaculate hallway, awkward as we hang our coats. I compliment Lucille on her beautiful home, and then start to worry because thats my small talk quota used up. She serves us tea in her formal sitting room, and I cant help but feel as if Im being interviewed for a job I dont stand a chance of getting; as if Im the Saturday girl going for a managerial role. What does your father do, Laurel? He retired recently, I say, not wishing to go into his health woes. He owned a cleaning company; my brother, Daryl, runs it now. I cant be sure, but I think Lucille just flinched. Mum works there too, she keeps the books. The expression on Oscars mothers face is crystal clear; she thinks were a bunch of Brummie cleaners. I reach for my pendant, following the outline of the purple stone with my fingertip for reassurance. My mum and dad started their company more than twenty-five years ago and employ more than fifty people now, but I dont feel like justifying my family. The more Lucille Ogilvy-Black looks down her nose at me, the less inclined I become to impress her. She excuses herself from the room momentarily; I wouldnt be surprised if shes gone to hide the good silver in case I slip it in my handbag. The lid of the grand piano in the bay window is covered with photographs, and I cant help but notice (probably because its been pulled to the front) the large photograph of Oscar and a blonde; theyre dressed in ski gear, suntanned and laughing into the camera. I see it for what it is: a gauntlet being silently thrown down by Oscars mother. We talked about his family when we were in Thailand, one of our many latenight shack conversations. As a consequence, I probably know a lot more than Lucille would like to think I do. I know Oscars father was a bounder; work-shy and handy with his fists towards his wealthy wife every now and then behind closed doors. My heart broke a little when Oscar told me how much hes tried to protect his mum and how close theyve been in the years since his parents separated; he was around a lot more than his older brother and as a result he and his mum are incredibly tight-knit. I was, and am, impressed with him for being his mothers rock, and I naively expected her to be warm and, well, motherly. I thought shed be glad to see Oscar with someone who makes him happy, but if anything she seems hostile to my intrusion. Perhaps shell warm to me. 10 March Laurie God, Ive missed you, Starfish. Come inside and let me do sinful things to you. We only get to see each other every few weeks now Im living back at Mum and Dads; its been ages since I was last here. Oscar pulls me over the threshold of his flat, taking my weekend bag from me and slinging it aside so he can haul me into his arms. Yes, weve become one of those loved-up couples who call each other ridiculous names like ickle-pickle and dinky-toes. We. At last there is a we. And its amazing. Ive never felt this wanted or cared for in my life. Oscar makes no secret of how into me he is. He has this intense way of looking at me that makes me feel the need to glance over my shoulder just to check if Jennifer Lawrence is lurking behind me. Let me get my coat off! I laugh, and he unbuttons it for me and peels it down my arms. I was rather hoping you were going to be naked underneath. He pauses to eye my practical jeans and warm sweater. I thought about it. Didnt want to shock the cabbie. This is London, remember? he grins. Youre not in the sticks now, Laurie. You could have been naked with four legs and no one would turn a hair. His eyes glitter. Except for me, of course. Id notice if you were naked. I dont live in the sticks, I bristle, because he always refers to my home back in Birmingham as if its some kind of straw-chewing backwater. Its on the very edges of suburbia, a typical greenbelt village. I get it. Hes London through and through; the open spaces and lack of black cabs came as a shock to him when I took him home to meet my family over Christmas. It wasnt the smoothest of meet the parents visits, to be honest. He was perfectly lovely and they were super-polite, but common ground was difficult to find. Dad tried with football, but Oscars more rugby, and Oscar tried with malt whisky where my dads more of an ale man. Its early days, but I think we were all relieved when it was over. So much green, hed muttered, and it hadnt sounded like a compliment. I shake off the memory; this is our big reunion after six weeks apart, I dont want to feel out of sorts with him for no reason. Can I just use the loo? I ask, and he reaches behind me and pushes a door open. Voil?. Wait right there. Ill be back in a sec. Inside the magazine-perfect bathroom, I throw the lock, strip naked and then belt my coat back on again. The silky lining is slippery against my skin, making me feel suddenly sexy and ready for Oscar to do his worst. Come on, Laurie, he wheedles, and I swing the door wide and look at him, my head on one side. Without a word I walk the length of the hall and step back outside the front door, then after pulling it closed I rap my knuckles lightly against it. Who is it? His voice is low and amused, laced with bad intentions. Its me, Laurie, I say, attempting husky. Open the door, I want to show you how much Ive missed you. He takes his time, leaning on the door frame with his arms crossed even though his eyes tell me hes anything but nonchalant. I let my gaze sweep over him, assessing, taking in his dark jeans and expensive shirt, his bare feet somehow still tanned. Youre overdressed, I say. Can I come in? He doesnt step aside, just reaches out and tugs my belt open. I dont move to stop him when he unbuttons the coat with slow deliberation, his tongue snaking over his top lip, an unconscious tell. Promise me youll always visit me like this? I smile. We dont make each other promises, remember? He tugs me inside by my lapels, then presses me against the back of the door as he slams it and slides his warm, searching hands inside my coat. I remember, he whispers, half laughing, half groaning as he palms my breast. Now stop talking and come to bed. Jack Come on, Sar, were going to be late at this rate. Sarah always does this. She operates on an elastic timescale, imagining that time will stretch to accommodate however long she feels is necessary to get ready for a night out. How do I look? When she appears in the lounge doorway I look up from the newspaper her flatmate must have left on the table and give her my full attention. Any man would; she looks incredible. New dress? I get up and cross the room, running my hands over the soft oxblood leather. It tracks the flow of her body like a second skin, ending mid-thigh. My fingers linger there on her bare leg, slowly rucking her skirt until I skim the silk of her underwear. A tiny, knowing smile plays over her mouth. Ill take that as your approval, shall I? I kiss her neck. You do that. When I slide my hand behind her head and press my mouth into the dip between her collarbones, she sighs and takes a step back from me. Dont, Jack. Were late enough already. I look into her smoky, perfectly made-up eyes. I could be really fast. I know you could. Theres an edge to her voice. What the hell is that supposed to mean? She pauses too, glancing down at her black skyscraper heels and then back at me again. Just that nothing. She sighs, shaking her head. Lets not fight. Were both really busy. Lets just go. She can say that again. My life is bloody full-on and Sarahs the same, pulling us three ways at once and usually in the opposite direction. Ive had to switch stuff around at work this weekend so we can finally catch up with Laurie and the much-talked-of-but-not-yet-met Oscar Farquhar-Percival-McDougall. Or something like that. And where are we meeting them? At his fucking private members club, naturally. Are you going like that? I look down at my clothes as if I dont know what she means. My jeans might look battered but thats purposeful; I paid a lot of money to look this casual. Perhaps its my T-shirt with Star Fucker emblazoned across the chest thats got up her nose my attempt at subtle irony. Im finally gathering a bit of a rep as an up-and-coming radio DJ, and you have to dress the part, though theres a fine line between hipster and wankster. Yes, Sarah. Im going like this. I reach for the battered vintage leather jacket she gave me last Christmas and shrug it on, just to reinforce the point that Im not going to change. She double-checks her immaculate lipstick in the hallway mirror, then picks up her handbag and coat with a shrug. Okay. I follow her down the stairs and, as I watch her skip down confidently in heels no one should be able to look so comfortable in, I roll my shoulders to shake off my dark mood. Hey. I catch her hand to slow her down as she reaches the pavement. Lets not fall out. Ive missed you this week. I trail the back of my hand down the smoothness of her cheek, then hold her delicate jaw. Id rub my thumb over her full mouth if it wouldnt ruin her lipstick. You really do look knockout in this dress. Im already thinking about peeling you out of it later. She softens, as I knew she would. Smooth talker. You know it. I do. She turns her face into my hand and nips my thumb. Now flag us a taxi, fool-boy. Im freezing. Laurie Does it sound crazy to say Im nervous? Its only Sarah and Jack, for Gods sake, my oldest and best friends. I just want them to love Oscar as much as I do, thats all. Its been too long since we saw each other; our pact to meet at New Year fell by the wayside with the advent of Oscar. This is the first date since New Year that weve all been able to make; life is pulling everyone in different directions, it seems. They havent arrived yet, and hes deep in conversation across the other side of the room with the barman, because he wants to have the perfect first round of drinks ready for them when they come in. He shoots me a smile when he catches me looking his way. His eyes linger on me for longer than is polite, a look that telegraphs that hes remembering our afternoon in bed. I look away first, my eye drawn to the door by Sarah and Jacks arrival. Joy blooms hot in my chest at the sight of Sarahs familiar red hair, although shes warmed the shade down from fire engine to rich mahogany and its been styled into lustrous, tumbling waves rather than the Princess Leah plaits of Delancey Street. I touch my own messy bun, self-conscious for a moment, but then her face cracks into a huge grin when she spots me and her gait goes from uncertain to almost skipping across the bar to get to me. Im glad, actually, that Oscar isnt beside me right at this moment; it gives me a couple of seconds to just be myself, for it to be me and Sarah, like old times. Her grip is fierce when she hugs me. Its so good to see you, I say, at the same time as she says, Bloody hell, Lu. Its been too long. We stand back at arms length and check each other over. I take in her screamingly sexy leather dress and she takes in my standby black dress that shes seen countless times before; I think she may even have worn it herself once or twice. Ive jazzed it up with a skinny snakeskin belt and the small gold and diamond starfish pendant Oscar gave me at Christmas, and up to the point of Sarahs entrance I felt pretty glam, in an understated way. She looks like herself after a TV makeover, which, I guess, is effectively what shes had. Her job seems to have transformed her from my beloved potty-mouthed friend into someone who could easily have walked out of a magazine. Until she opens her mouth, and then, thank God, shes still exactly as she always was. Fuck, she says, wiping one fingertip under each eye so her mascara doesnt run. I dont get this upset over my own sister. I bloody love you, Laurie James. I laugh, squeezing her hand. Love you too. Im so glad youre here. Jack steps out from behind her then, and I brace myself for impact. Ive no idea if Ill be able to act casual around him. Ive put off even thinking about seeing him again, a tactic which has worked right up to this very second where I now find myself wholly unprepared. He looks right into my eyes, no shifty gazing off over my shoulder, and for a moment Im knocked off-centre by that aching, familiar longing. Old habits die hard, it would seem. Good to see you, Laurie, he says. For an awful moment it seems as if hes going to shake my hand, but then he holds it and pulls me close into a hug. The scent of him fills my head, warm spices and lemon, probably something expensive Sarah has given him, underscored with that inimitable essence of him, a smell I can neither describe nor reimagine when he isnt there. But hes here now, and for a second I close my eyes and feel the heat of his body through his inappropriately worded T-shirt as he kisses my forehead. Its a casual embrace, I tell myself. Of no significance to me now Im with Oscar. Happy New Year, he says into my hair. He sounds self-conscious, and I half laugh as I step away. Youre three months late, you plonker. Where is he then? Sarahs excited eyes scan the half-full bar, and Jack stands at her side, one hand resting on her waist. Im struck by how much theyve changed in a relatively short time, or perhaps how they seem to have grown up without me. Its subtle: a gloss on Sarah, a layer of self-assurance on Jack. Oscar has it too, to an extent; hes now firmly entrenched in his role at the bank alongside his brother, and although we speak most days Ive become aware of something edging between us. Its an inevitable consequence of living separate lives, I suppose. Hes here in London making new friends, eating at cool places, and I am back living with my parents in Birmingham. Its possible that Im imagining it because Im anxious about my lack of job. Or maybe Im just plain old jealous. Not everyone can make it, can they? Some do, and others settle for less. I think all of this in the split second between greeting Sarah and Jack and catching Oscars eye as he moves towards us across the bar bearing a tray of impressive-looking cocktails. I wink at him subtly as I step aside so he can deposit them on the table, and Sarah catches my eye and gives me a little thumbs-up behind his back. I dont look at Jack as I catch hold of Oscars hand when he straightens and steps back. I love that Sarah doesnt stand on ceremony; she lunges straight in and kisses him on the cheek, catching hold of his other hand. You must be Sarah, Oscar says with a laugh, and for a moment they silently size each other up. I wonder if she is what he expected; whether he measures up to her idea of him. No one speaks for a second. I think Sarah, Jack and I are each trying to decide where Oscar fits into our trio. Will he be given equal billing? Or must he be assigned a temporary spot in the corner, holding space while hes assessed for permanent residence? And you must be Oscar, Sarah says, still holding on to his hand. Come on then, let me get a good look at you. She pretends to scrutinize him, and he obligingly holds his breath and waits for her verdict, solemn-faced, like a schoolboy in front of the headmistress. I approve. She grins, looking from me to him and back again. Belatedly, she turns to Jack and draws him into the circle. This is Jack, she says, presenting them to each other, and now its my turn to catch my breath. I watch as Oscar is first to hold his hand out and note how Jack allows a deliberate beat to pass before reciprocating. Look at you, all big-brother posturing. Sarah bumps shoulders with Jack to lighten the atmosphere. Laurie has her actual brother to do all of that stuff for her so you can stand down, soldier. Youre not going to ask me about my intentions towards Laurie, are you? Oscar deadpans. Because theyre all very, very bad indeed. Oh, I like you already, Sarah laughs, delighted, and Oscar rewards her with a champagne cocktail, and the same for me. Jack sniffs the tumbler of iced amber Oscar passes him, practically turning his nose up. They call it Penicillin, Oscar says. Whisky. Ginger. Honey. He grins at Jack. Almost a health drink. Jack raises his eyebrows. Im more of a beer bloke, to be honest, but Ill give anything a go once. Oscars smile falters a fraction as he raises his glass. We all follow suit. What shall we drink to? he asks. Old friends, Jack says. And new ones, Sarah adds pointedly, her megawatt smile all for Oscar. We clink glasses and I shoot Jack a micro-look that I hope sends a macromessage. Dont you fucking dare, Jack OMara. He appears to receive it, because he turns to Oscar and engages him in a question about Thailand, leaving me and Sarah free to catch up. This is fancy, she whispers, her excited eyes flickering around the private members bar. I grin, because I knew shed get a kick out of it. It is a bit, isnt it? Oscar wanted to make a good impression. Any man who orders champagne cocktails and makes my best friend smile gets the thumbs-up from me. I flick a glance towards Jack and Oscar as Sarah speaks. They share a similarity in height, but very little else. Jacks sandy hair always looks as if hes been scrubbing his hands through it, whereas Oscars freshly cut blue-black waves flop perfectly over his eyebrows. He debated for longer than I did over what to wear tonight, wondering whether his striped shirt was too banker, his tweed jacket too headmaster. In the end he settled for a chambray blue linen shirt; it reminds me of our days in Thailand. To be honest, it doesnt really matter what Oscar wears. He comes from wealth; there is an undisguisable whiff of establishment about him that would show through even if he was wearing a hoodie. I find myself wondering again whether Id even have spoken to him if Id met him anywhere other than on a beach, where all bodies are more or less equal. It certainly came as a culture shock to see him so well-heeled when we met again for the first time in England; it really rammed home the point that we come from two different worlds. Im hoping Jack will be able to see through the polished exterior. Jack has gone for the just tumbled out of bed after shagging a hot model look that comes off as slightly arrogant. If I didnt want to think better of him, Id wonder if it was a deliberate move to undermine Oscar. But because I do want to think better of him, I let it slide and just absorb the sight of them standing together. So different. Both so important to me. I gulp down a mouthful of cold champagne and refocus on Sarah. So am I likely to see you sliding down that firemans pole anytime soon? She laughs. Ill have you know they see me as a serious reporter. They only send me to cover the most important stories. She sips her drink. I met Gok Wan last week. No way! Way. And he told me he liked my shoes. Were you interviewing him? She nods, and then caves and shakes her head, laughing. I was behind him in the queue in Pret in Covent Garden. He did really like my shoes, though. I grin. Lorraine Kelly better watch her back. Im only half joking. So Oscar. She leans in and lowers her voice, her eyes lingering on his profile as he bends to catch something Jack said. How serious is it? Well, its early days still, I say, because although it feels like longer, weve only been together for five months. But I like him a whole lot, Sar. I wouldnt have thought hed be my type, but somehow we just seem to work. She nods, watching him with Jack. Will they have much in common? she asks. Besides you? Im momentarily blindsided by the thought that she knows about the kiss. She starts to laugh. Do I take that as a no? I smile, faltering. No, of course not. I mean, theyre pretty different, but I cant imagine how anyone wouldnt get on with Oscar. Hes well, hes pretty easy to like. Sarahs smile widens, and she sneaks her arm round my shoulders and squeezes me, her cuff bracelet cool against my skin. Im so happy for you, Lu! You just need your dream job now and then you can move back to the city where you belong. Her eyes shine. You are coming back, right? Because now theres the four of us we can do all that double-dating shit. She laughs and rolls her eyes, but I know shed love it. Im not sure. I hope so, I say. But you know I shrug. Rent and all that. Its just so expensive. I need to stay at home until I get a proper job, not waste my time earning money in a crappy job which leaves me no time to get a new one. I think again about Oscars much-repeated suggestion that I move in with him, even if its just as a practical stop-gap while I find something else. He lives in a flat owned by his mother, rent free of course. But something makes me want to do it myself. Not depend on anyone too much. Mum and Dad always impressed on us the importance of making our own way in life. Imagine if we could go back to Delancey Street, she says wistfully. Im sharing with a woman from work now and shes a right bitch-bag. Fanatical about keeping everything separate, even our loo rolls. Shes drawn up a rota for when we get to use the lounge. Can you believe that? Says she doesnt like to feel Im watching her watch the TV. Its my turn to slide a supportive arm round Sarahs shoulders. What about you and Jack? Will you look for somewhere together soon, do you think? Sarah flicks her eyes sideways, the tiniest of eye-rolls, but I dont miss it. Its not on the cards yet. Hes super-busy at work and he house-shares with Billy and Phil, one of the guys he works with. Snake-hips Billy? Its been his unofficial nickname since the day he revealed his Greased Lightning dancing skills. Though just the thought of it reminds me sharply of the awful way the day ended. She nods. Im not sure Jack enjoys it all that much but its the right side of town for the station and affordable, so hes kind of stuck there for a while. She watches Jack lean in to look at something on Oscars mobile. Im starting to worry about him, Lu. He hasnt seemed himself lately. My stomach turns over with dread. In what way? Sarah folds her arm across her slender, leather-clad midriff and stands closer to me so we cant be overheard. I cant put my finger on it. Hes distant? It comes out as a question, as if shes asking herself rather than telling me, and she lifts one shoulder, biting her bottom lip. Or maybe its me. I dont know, Lu, Ive asked him if hes happy and he just brushes me off as if Im going crazy or something. She half laughs, sounding anything but amused. Just busy, I guess. I nod, wishing I had something useful to say. Im massively unsettled by the idea of trouble in their paradise. In the early days of their relationship I selfishly hoped their romance would be short-lived, but over time their love has become an integral part of the map of my life; a bloody massive island Ive had to reroute my own path round, yet rely on to locate myself all the same. Did you show Sarah these, Laurie? Oscar says, turning to us with his mobile in his hand. He tilts the screen our way as he steps closer and scrolls through images of our perfect ramshackle beach shack, the endless blue ocean and the pink-and-purple-streaked Thai dawn that I know so well. Some of them, I say quietly, and Oscars eyes are tender when I look up at him. Can he see that I wish with all of my being that we were back there right now, sitting on the steps of the beach shack, burying our toes in the cool sand? They are my favourite memories, those shoulder-to-shoulder hours, those hushed conversations and languorous kisses. Its unexpected, this stab of longing through the ribs, more so because Im with Sarah and Jack, who Ive never wanted to run from before. Im surprised by the heat of my anger towards Jack. I want to yank him out of the bar by the sleeve of his cool leather jacket and tell him: Be happy, you stupid, stupid man. And let me be too. God, it looks so amazing, Sarah sighs. Id love to go there. Jack drains his cocktail without disguising a mild shudder. Ill get the beers in. Sarah looks as if shes going to say something, then smiles tightly, catching Jacks hand as she offers to help him. We watch them pick their way across the busy bar and Oscar slips his arm round my waist, his still half-full glass in his other hand. Okay? I ask, hoping he and Jack have hit it off. He nods. Sarahs just how I thought shed be. From this, I deduce that Ive given him the impression that Jack is kind and easy-going, and that so far hes coming across as guarded and uptight. Did I get it wrong? Oscars dark eyes cloud with consternation as he studies his drink. We could have met them somewhere else, you only had to say. Im suddenly furious with Jack for being so unfriendly. What the hell is he trying to prove here, with his offensive T-shirt and lightly veiled disdain at the exclusivity of the bar and Oscars cocktail choice? That he wins at being cool, even if Oscar is wealthier? I put my empty glass down and slide my arms round him, relieved when the troubled look in his eyes clears. You got it exactly right, Oscar. This is you, I skim my eyes around the bar, and youre lovely, and I want them to know you just as you are. Theyre going to love you, and you them when you get to know them better. His hand rubs up and down my arm as I speak. Just relax and enjoy the evening. I spy Jack and Sarah coming back, two beers in his hand, more champagne cocktails in Sarahs. She definitely looks as if she belongs on TV, Oscar observes. I try to see Sarah through his eyes as she heads our way, all golden tanned legs and Hollywood curls. Are you sure you chose the right girl? I joke. I hate it, but theres always a part of me wondering why why would this gorgeous man want to be with someone like me? He shows a mild flash of annoyance, and I wish Id just kept my mouth shut. Youre so wrong that I dont know what to say. He softens and his hand moves to cup the back of my neck. Youre always the most spectacular woman to me, Laurie. In any room or any bar or on any beach. He dips his head and kisses me, gentle but sure. I close my eyes and for those seconds I feel like the most spectacular woman. Get a room, kids. Sarahs laughter spins light and bright, and I open my eyes again and smile. Blame me, Oscar grins. I cant keep my hands off her. He runs his hand from my shoulder down to my hand and catches hold of my fingers. Behind Sarah, Jack manages to laugh while frowning at the same time, a feat of facial engineering. A proper drink to cool you off, mate. Oscar accepts the beer, laughing, good-natured despite Jacks inference that Oscars cocktail hadnt made the cut as a proper drink. Sarah hands me a glass of champagne, her eyes giddy with delight about me and Oscar. Jack lounges against the wall, beer in hand. So what do you do, Oscar? Besides bum around on Thai beaches picking up girls? He softens his comment with a wink, but all the same it feels like hes having a dig. Living with Billy seems to be rubbing off on you, Jack, I say, throwing in a none-too-friendly wink of my own. He shoots me a tiny not bothered shrug, then looks away. Banking, Oscar says with a self-deprecating smile. I know. Typical posh wanker, right? Whatever floats your boat, mate. Okay, now that was rude. Sarah looks at Jack sharply, and quite honestly, I could tip his beer right over his annoying head. Oscar, however, is very used to derision around banking, and it rolls off his back. Dull, I know. Not like you, from what I hear? Radio, isnt it? Crisis averted. Jack finally finds the grace to pick up the conversational baton that Oscar has passed him, entertaining us with stories about the radio station and telling us about a more high-profile job hes ninety-five per cent certain hes in line for in the summer. He lights up like a flare when he talks about work, more himself, more relaxed, and Im finally able to relax too. Perhaps the evening might not be a disaster after all. Jack Tonights all about making a point, isnt it? Oscar posh-boy double-barrelled twat face. Let me buy you expensive fucking cocktails in my private members club, let me drop that Im a banker casually into conversation, let me stick my tongue down Lauries throat when I know youre both watching. Well, Im on to you, posh boy, with your floppy black hair and your deck shoes (because who knows when you might need to step aboard someones yacht at a moments notice). I think all of this with my cock in my hand at the urinal. Ive been hiding out in here for the last five minutes, mostly because I know Im acting like a dick and I dont seem able to reel myself in. Sarahs flashing me daggers; I wont be peeling that dress off her anytime soon. Shes more likely to peel my scalp off, and I cant say I blame her. I dont know whos winding me up more tonight, Oscar with his unshakable good nature and refusal to be needled, or Sarah for the way shes practically jumping up and down begging to be his new best friend. I cant help but wonder if she wants to force the same relationship with him that I have with Laurie, and I want to tell her that Im sorry but you just cant fake that kind of thing. It took me and Lu years. I pause to stare at myself in the mirror over the basins as I wash my hands and think about that for a second. Laurie and I hardly have much of a friendship left these days. I havent been alone with her since that night back in the kitchen at Delancey Street more than a year ago. Sarah accused me of acting like an over-protective big brother, but shes wrong. I cant claim to feel brotherly towards Laurie, I forfeited that when I No, Im not going to think about that now. I step out of the gents intent on winding my neck in and run smack bang into Laurie. She doesnt waste any time. What the hell are you doing, Jack? I dont think Ive ever seen her this angry. Her cheeks are flushed pink and her shoulders are braced. I glance over my shoulder towards the door Ive just come out of. Pissing. Her violet eyes spark with annoyance. Pissing me off, more like. Its good to see you too, I say, flicking into defensive mode. Dont, she hisses. Dont you dare do that, Jack OMara. Were in an upstairs corridor with people milling around us, and she leans in to make herself heard. What point are you trying to make out there, exactly? That youre cooler, better, funnier? Is it too much to ask that you just be happy for me? I shrug. I would be if he wasnt a twat. He isnt a twat. Hes good and hes kind and I think he might even love me. I hear a sound of derision, and I realize too late that it came from me. What? She shakes her head, her eyes over-bright with fury. Is it so improbable that someone might actually love me, Jack? You barely know him. She reels as if Ive punched her. Who made you the expert all of a sudden? she comes back. Who are you to tell me if I can fall in love in a minute or a month or a year? We stare each other down, and I realize with a sideways jolt that she isnt the girl from Delancey Street any more. Shes a woman with a life that Im by and large no longer a part of. Do you love him? She looks away, shaking her head because I have no right to ask her. Especially not like this. He matters to me, Jack, she says, softer now, and the vulnerability in her eyes makes me feel like a dick. Okay, I say, and I mean it. I wish I could pull her into my arms and put our friendship back where it should be. But something in me knows that hugging Laurie isnt the right move. Instead I grab her hand and look into her stormy eyes. Im sorry, really sorry, okay? And I feel as if Im apologizing to her not just for this evening, but for everything thats gone before. For lying about not seeing her years ago on that damn bus, for kissing her in a snowstorm, for always getting it so fucking wrong. Finally, after what seems like ten minutes, but is probably about ten seconds, she nods and releases my hand. I smile. Go back downstairs. Ill be right behind you. She nods again and walks away without glancing back. Laurie has grown up when I wasnt looking. Its time for me to do the same.? 14 May Laurie Pick up, Oscar, pick up, I murmur, reading and rereading the letter in my hand as I listen to his mobile ringing out. This is the voicemail service for Dammit! I hang up and try again, and once more I get that bloody annoying robot woman telling me that shes terribly sorry but Oscar Ogilvy-Black cant come to the phone right now. I stand in my parents quiet hallway, my fingers absently wrapped round my purple pendant. I wore it for the job interview last week and havent taken it off since in an attempt to summon good luck. And it worked! Desperate to tell someone my good news, I scroll through to Sarahs number instead. I dont try to call her because she invariably cant answer at work, so I compromise and send her a text. Guess whos FINALLY got herself a proper job? Me! Brace yourself, Sar, Im coming back to London! I press send, and its less than thirty seconds before my mobile vibrates. HANG ON! Going to loos to call you. DONT call anyone else! Right on cue, my phone starts to ring. Its another thirty seconds before I can speak, because shes shrieking and clapping; I can see her in my minds eye right now, locked in the cubicle doing her happy dance, bemused colleagues listening outside. Come on then, I want to know everything! she says, and at last I can officially tell someone my news. Its that job I told you about, you know, the one on the teen magazine? You mean the Agony Aunt job? Yes! That one! As of three weeks time, Im going to be the woman that our nations teenagers turn to for advice on hair straighteners, spots and dodgy dates! Im laughing, borderline hysterical at the prospect of working on a magazine at long last. It wont be all of the nations teenagers of course, just the small percentage who read the not-all-that-prolific magazine, but its something, isnt it, its real. Its my much-longed-for stepping stone into the next part of my life. I wasnt at all sure Id be offered the position. The interview wasnt particularly conventional, two women who couldnt have been more than twenty-one firing make-believe problems at me to see what answers I might give. Emma has an awful spot the night before her prom, one had said, pointing at her own unblemished chin for emphasis. What would you suggest? Luckily, even at the interview stage, Sarah was my saviour; our Delancey Street bathroom shelf came straight to mind. Sudocrem. They sell that stuff for babies bums, but its also a secret weapon for spots. Theyd both written that down really fast; I got the distinct impression theyd be running out to the chemist as soon as the interview was over. A run in your tights on an important day? the other interviewer asked me, her eyes narrowed. Clear nail varnish to stop it spreading, Id shot straight back. Standard sixthformer tip. By the time theyd finished I felt as if Id been grilled by the Stasi rather than for a prospective job with a magazine. Christ, I hope no one asks you for advice about false eyelashes, Sarah says. Youll get sued. Tell me about it. Im relying on you to be my main research source. Well, you know me, Im the font of all knowledge on all things false and glittery! She sounds giddy. I cant believe youre finally coming back, Lu, its the best news Ive had all year. Wait till I tell Jack! She rings off, and I sit on the bottom step of the stairs and grin like a loon. Is ten in the morning too early to drink gin? 9 June Laurie Oscar reaches behind the sofa and pulls out a ribboned box. Ive got something for you. He lays the large square gift on my knees and I shoot him a surprised look. Oscar, Ive only just had my birthday. I know. This is different. Its for the new job. Its Saturday night, were full of Chinese takeaway and halfway down a bottle of champagne, and come Monday, Ill be gainfully employed by Skylark, the publishing house who put out GlitterGirl magazine. Open it then, he says, nudging the box. You can change it if its not right. I look from his excited eyes to the box, and slowly tug the lime-green ribbons open. Hes already made a big fuss of me on my birthday, so this feels like real extravagance. I shake the lid of the smart gift box free and fold back the striped tissue paper to admire the black Kate Spade tote inside. Oh, Oscar! Its perfect. I smile, tracing my finger over the discreet gold logo. I sense Sarahs involvement, seeing as I admired a very similar one on her arm at the restaurant where we celebrated my birthday. But you know you shouldnt have. Its too much. Making you happy makes me happy, he shrugs, as if its a no-brainer. Look in the inside pocket, theres something else. I reach into the bag, curious, and unzip the pocket. What is it? I laugh, pushing my fingers in until they touch cool metal. And then I know, and extract the set of keys dangling from a silver Tiffany padlock. How will you come and go as you please if you dont have your own set? he asks, going out of his way to make light of the fact hes giving me the keys to his home. Or to our home, as its going to be for the short-term, at least. It was pretty much the first thing he said after Congratulations when I told him about my new job: Youll stay with me for a while, wont you? I have to admit Id kind of hoped hed offer, seeing as Im starting on not much more than a paupers wage. Weve agreed its an interim measure while I work something out. But as I look at the shiny set of keys, I see the huge set of expectations that come with it and I falter, wondering if Im doing the wrong thing. Weve only been together for eight months, after all, and Ive always been determined to do this my own way. I dont want you to think Im taking advantage of your generosity, Oscar. And you know me Miss Independent, I say. His dark eyes brim with amusement. Trust me, I plan on taking advantage of you too. He takes the keys from my fingers, raising his eyebrows at me. Besides, how else will you be able to let yourself in to have dinner ready and waiting for me? I punch him on the arm. I hope you like baked beans. He drops the keys inside my fancy new bag as he sets it down on the floor, then presses me back into the deep leather sofa and kisses me. Lets not talk about dull stuff any more. I can think of better things we can do.? 4 August Jack Id rather punch myself in the face than go to a dinner party at Laurie and Oscars tonight, especially since theyve invited his brother as well. Another banker wanker. What are the odds? Sarahs all but tattooed the time I need to be there on my head. Bring flowers, she said. Ill take wine, she said. I think shes been googling dinner-party etiquette. Shes just sent me a text Think of some good questions to ask Oscars brother tonight. Im tempted to send something pissy back, but I just switched my phone off. Im at work, I dont have time for this shit. Im grateful to have playlists to draw up for the next seven days, and a meeting with the producer tabled for this afternoon to discuss a new quiz were thinking of introducing. Reaching for a biro, I make a note on my hand of the latest possible time I can leave and still scrape in on time. God knows I dont want to be early. Laurie Are you sure it looks okay? I stand back with my hands on my hips and cast a critical eye over the dining table. Oscar slings his arm over my shoulders. Looks fine to me, he says. I was hoping for more fulsome praise than that; this is my first ever grown-up three-course dinner party, a far cry from pizza on our knees at Delancey Street. I wish Id had the chance to just invite Sarah and Jack, a trial run before extending the invite out further. Not that I did, actually; it was only meant to be the four of us, but then Oscar invited his brother, Gerry, and his wife, Fliss, last weekend when we ran into them at Borough Market while buying artisan chocolate for the mousse. I know. Could I sound any more like a middle-class twat if I tried? Indulge me, this is my first dinner party and Ive watched back-to-back episodes of Nigella snapping artisan chocolate into a pan while batting her eyelashes at the camera for weeks in preparation. Ive only met Oscars brother once before. All I can recall is that Gerry doesnt seem to be much like his easy-going younger brother, and his poker-thin wife, Felicity, looks as if she exists on fresh air and Chanel No. 5. She reminds me of someone famous, I just cant put my finger on who it is. Anyway, thats how my cosy party of four became a scary party of six, and Ive spent the whole day in the kitchen painstakingly following a complicated recipe for coq au vin. Its no ordinary coq, either. This lucky bird was corn-fed and pampered and folded into waxy brown paper by a butcher, and I hope to God this is reflected in the taste because it was triple the cost of its shrink-wrapped supermarket brethren. Ive whipped air into the chocolate mousse, tossed the salad, and now Im gagging for a glass of wine. Would it annoy you if I kissed your lipstick off? Yes. One of the perks of working on a teen magazine is the plethora of beauty samples that flood the office; teenage girls today clearly spend a hell of a lot more on cosmetics than I did a decade ago. Tonight Im testing out a trendy new brand of lipstick; the case looked more like a space-age dildo than a lippy and while it doesnt quite give the promised bee-stung look, the product is creamy and rich and makes me feel that tiny bit more confident. Oscar looks momentarily crestfallen, but the sound of the buzzer cuts the conversation dead. Someones here, I whisper, staring at him. That is the general idea of a dinner party, he says. Shall I get it or do you want to? I creep towards the door and peer through the peephole, hoping Sarah and Jack are first. Im out of luck. Its your brother, I mouth, tiptoeing back to Oscar. I take it that means Im answering it? he asks. Ill go in the kitchen and you call me when theyre inside as if I didnt know, I say, heading for the kitchen. Can I ask why? he asks mildly. I pause in the doorway. So I dont look over-eager? What Im really thinking is that I want to neck a glass of wine for Dutch courage; my socially awkward streak is suddenly alive and kicking again. I reach for my mobile as I pull the wine from the fridge and fire off a quick text to Sarah. Hurry! G&F already here. Back-up required! I check the coq au vin, and Im pleased to report it looks quite a lot like the picture in the recipe book. Hey there, Jamie Oliver, my coqs better than your coq. Im laughing to myself as my phone vibrates, and I grab it quickly as I hear Oscar calling my name. On my way, 5 mins max. Jacks running late, be there when he can. Sorry. Dont drink all the wine without me! Five minutes. I can do that. Bloody Jack, Sarah was practically in tears right here in our kitchen last week after hed missed another of their dates because he had to work late. And its going to get worse when he starts the new presenting job in a couple of weeks. Pretty soon the only way well be able to keep up with Jack is to tune into his radio show. I shake off my annoyance and plunge the opened wine bottle into the ice bucket as I plaster a smile on my nearly beestung lips and head through to the lounge. I dont think I can hold off much longer without it drying up, I say. Sarah and I gaze down at the already slightly less impressive coq, then she looks at the clock and shakes her head. Im really sorry, Lu, hes acting like a complete twat lately. He knows how important this is for you. Jack is more than an hour and a half late, and aside from a text to say hed be here soon, just after Sarah arrived, its been radio silence. Shall I text him too? He might be too scared to open your messages, I say, filling up her glass. She shakes her head. Dont bother. Come on, lets take this through and eat. Its his loss. It might be better all round if Jack decides to swerve coming tonight; hes already late enough to look horribly rude, and theres every chance Sarah will knock his head off his shoulders. Its after ten, the coq was a triumph and Gerry isnt so bad after a couple of drinks. Fliss is hideous teetotal and a fucking vegetarian (not that I would have minded, but she never bloody said until I put a great big chicken limb in front of her! And its come to me who she reminds me of Wallis Simpson, proper waspish). And Jack still isnt here. Not only that, he hasnt even called. Sarahs so pissed off that shes started to refer to him only as shitface while swigging more than her normal helping of wine, and poor Oscar is doing his best to defend him, even though Jacks done nothing to earn such loyalty. Chocolate mousse, anyone? I say loudly, to change the subject. God, yes, Gerry groans as if Ive offered him a blow job, at the same time as Fliss makes a hissing sound similar to the cry of the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy doused her in water. I look from one to the other, unsure what to do, when Sarahs mobile starts to trill and we all stare at it expectantly. Over the course of the dinner Sarahs gone from having it tucked under her bum for a sneaky check every now and then to having it in full view on Jacks empty dinner plate. I think she might be making a point. There we go, Oscar breathes, relieved. Tell him its fine, Sarah, theres food left if he hasnt eaten. Her mobile rattles and bounces on Jacks white china plate. Personally, I wouldnt dream of answering that. Fliss looks down her nose, full of haughty disdain. Bloody cheek. Sarah looks at me, wavering and uncertain. What shall I do? Get it, I say, mostly to piss Fliss off, and after a second Sarah grabs it and stabs at the button. Balls. Missed it, she says, disappointment in her eyes even as she adds, Serves him right, shitty shitface, and lays the phone back on Jacks plate. Lets have dessert. As I push my chair back, Sarahs phone rattles again to alert her to the fact that Jack has left her a message. Odds-on hes in a pub somewhere, Fliss says, even though she has no right to an opinion having never even met Jack. Hell be stuck at work. Gerry bats for Team Jack, God knows why perhaps he dislikes his wife as much as I do. Sarah picks up her phone. Lets see, shall we. A hush falls around the table and we can all hear the tinny voice informing Sarah that she has one new message in her inbox. She huffs and clicks again, and I cross my fingers under the table that Gerrys on the money. Hello, this is a message for Sarah, someone says, fast and loud, traces of an Australian accent. Sarah raises her eyes to mine, frowning at the unknown male voice. Im calling because this phone has fallen out of the pocket of a guy whos just been involved in a serious road accident on Vauxhall Bridge Road. Your number comes up as the one he dials most often were just waiting with him for the ambulance crew now. I thought youd want to know as soon as possible. My names Luke, by the way. Let me know what to do with his phone when you can. Sarahs already crying hot, panicked tears before the end of the message, and I drop to my knees beside her chair and take the phone from her shaking hands before she drops it. What do I do, Laurie? Shes breathing too fast, clutching my hand. All of the colour has drained from her face; she cant keep a limb still. We go to him, I say, trying to keep my voice steady. Im calling a cab now, well be there in a few minutes. What if hes Shes shaking so violently that her teeth chatter. Dont, I cut across her, my eyes nailed to hers because I need her to listen to me. Dont say it. Dont even think it. Its going to be okay. Lets just get there first, you and me together, one step at a time. She nods, still dithering, trying to get a hold of herself. You and me. One step at a time. I hug her, fast and fierce, and Oscars bleak eyes meet mine over her shoulder. I look away.? 5 August Laurie Hes alive. Thank God, thank God, thank God. Were huddled on nailed-down metal chairs drinking something lukewarm Oscar got from the vending machine. I cant tell if its tea or coffee. The doctor came to see us a couple of hours back; we cant see Jack yet. Hes in theatre, she said, in a quiet, reassuring voice that actually frightened the hell out of me. Head injury. Broken ribs. Fractured left shoulder. I can handle broken bones, because I know bones can mend. Its the head injury that terrifies me; theyre going to get him scanned, or whatever it is they do, then they should know more. I couldnt digest everything she said because my red-alert panic button was screaming inside my brain. Head injury. People die from head injuries. Dont die, Jack. Dont you dare die on us. On me. We sit on either side of his bed, Sarah and I. We tried to get hold of his mum in the confusing minutes after we located him at St Pancras Hospital, but then Sarah remembered that shes in Spain with Albie, Jacks brother. I left the message rather than Sarah, so we didnt frighten the life out of her. And so we watch over him together, and we wait, because weve been told thats all we can do for now. Hes out of theatre, out of immediate danger, but they wont know the extent of his head injury until hes conscious. Hes shirtless and pale and absolutely still aside from the rise and fall of his chest. A mess of bandages and tubes cover him, hooked up to all kinds of machines and drips. Ive never been this frightened. He looks too fragile, and I find myself worrying about what happens in here if theres a power cut. They have back-up, right? Because I dont think Jacks keeping himself alive right now, hes beholden to the national grid. How ridiculous. Across London people are boiling their kettles and nonchalantly charging their phones, using up precious energy when it should all be saved up and sent here to keep Jack alive. Please stay alive, my lovely Jack. Dont leave us. Dont leave me. Intensive Care is a strange place of quiet industry laced with panic; the constant soft footfall of the nurses, the clatter of patient notes against the metal bed-ends, a background symphony of bleeps and alarms. I watch Sarah re-secure the plastic fingertip peg monitoring his oxygen levels as a nurse writes Jacks name on a whiteboard over his bedside cabinet, bright blue capitals. I close my eyes and, though Ive never been remotely religious, I pray.? 10 August Laurie Dont try to move, Ill call the nurse. I look over my shoulder for help as Jack struggles to pull himself up in bed, even though hes been told in no uncertain terms by the ward sister to press his buzzer if he needs help. For fucks sake, Lu, stop fussing. I can do it. He wouldnt pull this kind of stunt if Sarah was here; shed kick his sorry ass. Hes only trying his luck today because its Friday and I got off work early to come and visit on my own. He regained consciousness a couple of days ago and the doctors were, thank God, able to confirm no lasting brain injury, although theyre still running tests because hes struggling with his hearing on one side. Since then its become apparent that hes the patient from hell. His streak of independence is generally one of his better qualities, but his refusal to ask for help is borderline dangerous in his condition. Hes catheterized, and he has a cannula in his hand administering pain relief; every time he acts up and tries to do stuff for himself he sets off a furious series of alarms and high-pitched wails that bring nurses running. I sit down as the staff nurse stalks down the ward and hoicks him into position against his pillows. Your pretty face is starting to get on my nerves, OMara, she says, in that nononsense way experienced medical staff have. He grins, apologetic. Thank you, Eva. Sorry. Can I offer you a grape? He nods towards the fruit basket on the side, a gift from his colleagues. Can you imagine how many grapes I get offered in here? She looks at him over her glasses. If you want to do something for me, just press the buzzer next time you need help. She doesnt hang around, leaving us alone again. Im sitting in one of those fake leather, wipe-clean armchairs next to Jacks bed in the corner of a ward of six beds, mostly older men. Its afternoon visiting time, although you wouldnt know it from the fact that most of them are snoozing in their pyjamas on top of their rumpled white sheets, no relatives to be seen. The window behind me is pushed up as far as itll go, and fans whir on some of the bedside cabinets, yet still theres hardly a breath of air. Hot out there today, I say. Ive taken care to sit on the side that he can still hear properly from. He sighs. Is that what our friendship has come to? Were reduced to talking about the weather? What else do you want to talk about? He shrugs his unbroken shoulder, then winces. Youre the agony aunt. Tell me what the youth of today are worrying about. I unsnap a hairband from round my wrist and pull my hair back into a ponytail. Okay. Well, its mostly girls who write in, so I get a lot of periodrelated questions. He rolls his eyes. What else? Spots. They have a lot of spot issues. Someone asked me last week if dog saliva was good for acne. He brightens at the absurdity. What did you tell them? Cat saliva is better. You didnt. Of course I bloody didnt. Shouldve. I pour him a glass of iced water from the jug an orderly has just deposited on his side table and stick a fresh straw in. Here, have a drink. Its difficult for him to lift the cup with one shoulder broken and his other hand tethered by the cannula, so I hold it in place while he sucks from the straw. Thank you, he says, laying his head back on the pillow, closing his eyes with a huff of self-annoyance at the effort and the fact he has to ask for help with something as basic as a drink of water. Tell me some more. I cast around for something that might catch his imagination. Oh, I know. A boy wrote in a couple of weeks ago because the girl hes mad about is moving to Ireland. Hes fifteen and shes from a strict Catholic family who dont approve. He wanted advice on how old he had to be before he could legally move there alone. Loves young dream, Jack says, his eyes still closed. What did you tell him? I look at his too-pale face, the pronounced hollows of his cheeks. Hes never carried any spare weight, and the toll of nearly a week of barely any solid food is apparent. I said that I know how painful it can be letting someone you think you love go, but that I dont believe theres only one person in the world for each of us. Its too fanciful, too limiting. I said he should give it some time and see how he feels, and hell probably find that he stops thinking about her so much, because thats just how it goes, especially when youre fifteen. I told him that there comes a point where you have to make the choice to be happy, because being sad for too long is exhausting. And that one day, youll look back, and youll not be able to remember exactly what it was you loved about that person. Jack nods, his eyes closed. But I also said that sometimes, rarely, people can come back into your life. And if that happens, you should keep those people close to you for ever. I lapse into silence. Hes sleeping. I hope his dreams are good ones.? 15 September Jack Fuckers. I chuck my mobile on top of the mess of dirty mugs and food detritus on the coffee table and sink back into the lumpy sofa. The weather can piss right off too, the bloody suns right in my eyes. Id get up and close the curtains if I could be arsed. I cant though, so I just shut my eyes. I may as well go back to sleep, seeing as Im now officially unemployed. Thats what happens when you get too cocksure and hand in your notice at your old job before starting your new one, then get blindsided by a bloke who has a stroke at the wheel of his Volvo. At least Im alive, everyone keeps telling me, look on the bright side, or some other equally trite shit. Where is the bright side of not being able to take up the job youve been working towards for your entire bloody career? I went through endless meetings and interviews, had the handshake, all but signed on the dotted line, appointment to be announced in the press within days. My dream contract was in the post for me to sign, and then bang, Im busted up in a hospital bed and Jonny Fucking Nobody cant wait to jump into my shoes instead. Ive fallen between the gaps, and now Im the nobody, and the way its going I wont even be able to pay my rent in a couple of months time. The doctors cant even tell me if Ill get my hearing back in my right ear. I dont think theyll be queuing round the block to employ a DJ who cant fucking hear. What happens then? I move in with Sarah and that cow-bag of a woman she works with? Thats not even an option. Cow-bag would be right on to the landlord about illegal subletting; she already begrudges the fact she has to share with one person, and she seems to especially detest me. Im sure theres nothing shed like better than to see me in a cardboard box by the Thames. I dont think shed even toss me the money for a cup of tea. Oh, deep joy, I can hear keys rattling in the front door. I wish to God Id had the forethought to stay in bed and put the bolt on. Billys away at a family wedding somewhere up north, and Phil, a sound technician from my now exworkplace, is in Goa, which means theres only one person it can be. Sarah. Sarah, with her ever-present smile and undiluted zeal for life, when all I want to do is plough my way through an out-of-date ready meal and watch the Saturday afternoon football. And I dont even like football. Jack? Im back. Where are you? In here, I say, as grouchily as possible. She appears in the doorway, all legs in a pink summer dress, and somewhere in the back of my head I feel ashamed at being slouched on the sofa in three-day-old joggers with curry stains. Shes been down in Exeter or somewhere on an assignment for a couple of days; if Im honest, I didnt think she was home until tomorrow. Bloody painkillers have fried my brain. Id have changed my trousers, at least. You look as if youve been on an all-night drugs binge, she says, trying for funny. That or youre reliving your student days. Which is it? Great, remind me of what Im missing, Sarah. Neither. Its just me, the remote control and a chicken vindaloo, I say, not looking at her. Sounds like the title of an arty film, she laughs lightly, gathering up the dirty coffee mugs. Leave that stuff, Ill do it. Its no trouble. All the same. She looks at me, that sunshine smile fading fast. Let me take care of you every now and then? Please? Resigned, I close my eyes and lay my head back against the sofa as she clears up my mess, feeling like a resentful teenager whos mum just rocked up in his bedroom when hed been about to knock one out. Jesus, Im a dick. I can smell Sarahs perfume, distinct and exotic, and it reminds me of nights out on the town, and even later nights in bed together. We havent had sex since the accident. In truth, we werent having all that much of it before it happened, either. I open my eyes as I hear her clatter the plates and cups into the kitchen sink. Her perfume lingers, layering over the smell of last nights curry and my stale sweat. Its not a good combination. I thought we could head out in a while, she calls through, flicking the kitchen radio on. Its gorgeous out there today. I sigh, though not loud enough for her to hear. I feel rancid, and too worn out to bother doing anything about it. I dont think I have any clean boxers left. My shoulder still hurts and my ribs still ache, probably because Ive been neglecting the exercises given to me at the weekly physio appointments I sometimes attend. God knows why. My bones broke. Theyll mend. There isnt any physio for my ear; the only thing I really care about them mending is the one thing thats damaged for good. Oh, theres talk of hearing aids and such stuff, but to be honest whats the bloody point? The real problem is that my career broke, and theres nothing the doctors can do to mend it. What do you think? Sarah appears in the doorway again wearing the mintgreen Marigolds she bought a few weeks back. That you look like a fifties housewife? She rolls her eyes. About going out, Jack. Just for a walk to the park or something, get some lunch at that new cafe on the Broadway, maybe. Someone said its very Californian. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Wheat juice and kale? Maybe. Shall I put the shower on for you? Irritation streaks through me. What are you, my fucking mother? She doesnt answer me, but I see the hurt settle in her eyes and feel like a cock again. Im just sick of everyone fussing over me. If its not Sarah, its my mum turning up twice a week with food I dont feel like eating. Sorry, I mumble. Off day. She nods slowly. If I could see inside her head, I expect shed be having a good old rant, calling me all kinds of well-deserved names. I can clearly hear her shouting selfish bastard even though she hasnt said a thing. Just go and take a shower, she says eventually, turning back towards the kitchen. I get up to do as shes asked, and as I pass by the kitchen I consider wrapping my arms round her where she stands at the sink, kissing her neck, saying sorry properly. Then I hear the perky radio jingle, someone I used to consider a rival, and the acrid burn of jealousy wipes out any passing desire to be civil. Fuckers. 24 October Laurie I dont know what to do, Laurie. Sarah swills her wine around in her glass, looking thoroughly miserable. She texted earlier to see if there was any chance of meeting up for a drink after work; although I still had a bunch of emails to get through, I could tell from the tone of the message that she needed to get something off her chest, so I dropped them and went to meet her. I wasnt wrong. I knew that life with Jack hadnt been a bed of roses since his accident but from what shes told me over the last hour or so it sounds as if lately hes making things almost intolerable. And now hes decided that hes not going to take any more painkillers, she says. Flushed them all down the loo last night. He said they were making him numb, but I think hed rather be in pain so he can moan about it. If she sounds uncharitable, dont judge her harshly. Shes been trying her best to put a cheerful face on ever since the accident, and I know for a fact theres been precious little coming back from Jack in the way of gratitude. Its been almost three months now, and every time Ive seen Jack since he got out of hospital hes been borderline rude, particularly to Oscar. Its got to the point where Im almost avoiding him. I take it hes not had any joy on the job front? I know the answer to the question before I ask it. Although hes well enough now physically, emotionally hes far from out of the woods. Of all of the injuries he could have sustained, partial hearing loss seems particularly cruel given his career. She shakes her head. I dont know if hes even been looking and Im damn sure he hasnt been in contact with any stations. She eats a cashew from the bag open on the table between us. Im worried, Lu. He just seems so bloody angry all the time. And he doesnt want to do anything; its a massive palaver to get him to even leave the house. She sighs. Im worried hes becoming a recluse or something. I try to choose my words carefully. Hes been through a big trauma. I guess its his coping mechanism? But thats just it. He isnt coping. Hes sitting and staring at the wall and growing a fucking beard that doesnt suit him. I top our glasses up from the half-empty bottle of white in the cooler beside our table. You could try talking to his doctor? Jack says Im smothering him. She frowns into her glass. Hell be lucky if I dont, the way hes going. He never calls or texts me any more. Ive had more texts from Luke than Jack since the accident. Thats how bad its gotten. Sarah has stayed in loose contact with Luke, the good-natured Aussie who found Jacks phone on the night of the accident. Is it bad that I cant wait to go away next week? I shake my head. Not bad at all. You must be desperate for a break. Her sisters hen party in the Canaries couldnt have been more timely. It might do Jack good to stew on things without you there to jolly him up. Hell have to fend for himself a bit more. She sighs, shrugging. Youre so lucky with Oscar. I dont think Ive ever seen him in a bad mood. I have to think really hard to remember the last time we clashed. Yeah. Hes a pretty steady guy. I dont suppose youd call in on Jack while Im away, would you? She looks at me as if Im her last hope. He might open up to you. God knows he wont talk to me. What am I supposed to say? No isnt an option. Do you think hed talk to Oscar? Maybe hed be better with a man? Even before I say it I know its a ridiculous idea. She shakes her head, downcast. Please dont be offended, Lu, and dont repeat this to Oscar, but I dont know if he and Jack are on the same wavelength. I mean, he likes him, but I think he struggles to know what to say around him sometimes. I dont really know how to respond to that, so I just nod and knock back a mouthful of wine. Because Im left with no other choice, I reach down into my Kate Spade bag and pull my diary out. Okay. I flip it open and run my finger down next weeks page until I get to Saturday. Looks like Oscars going shooting in the morning. I laugh when Sarah raises her eyebrows. Dont ask. One of those gift experience things someone gave his brother, I think. I could call round to see Jack while hes off doing that? Sarahs shoulders sag with relief. I dont know how to get through to him; Im at the point now where everything I say pisses him off. He might not think he can get away with being so rude to you. My mobile goes off on the table between us, and I feel almost guilty as a loved-up image of me and Oscar in Thailand flashes up. Its just Oscar checking about dinner, I say, scanning his text quickly. Im terrified of ignoring messages in case theres anything wrong; not surprising really given what happened to Jack. Very domesticated, Sarah says. I cant deny it. Ive made no headway at all with looking for somewhere else to live, partly because of what happened to Jack, but if Im honest mostly because Im enjoying playing house without the onerous responsibility of a mortgage or bills. Its a ridiculous way to live, I know, but for Oscar its just how life has always been, and I have to admit its amazing to feel so safe. Every now and then I wonder if its too safe, too steady, but sitting here listening to Sarah, I know I should thank my lucky stars. Right then. Sarah nods towards my phone, where a picture of the Bolognese Oscars just made is flashing up. Looks like you need to make tracks. I pause to hug her tightly as I get up to leave. Hell come good again, Sar, I know he will. Hes been through a lot. Just give him time. Its all I seem to do, she says, shrugging into her jacket. The weather has been getting colder for the last few days. Winter coats suddenly fill the streets of London. Enjoy a bit of sunshine. Im hit by an intense longing to go with her, to dance, to laugh, to be carefree and silly the way we used to in Delancey Street. Ill have a cocktail for you, she grins. 3 November Jack Visitor for you in the living room, Jack mlad, Billy shouts through from the hallway. Im in the bathroom, half-heartedly brushing my teeth. I know it cant be Sarah, because shes off sunning herself in Tenerife. And I know its no one from work, because, oh yeah, I dont have a job. And I hope to God its not my bloody mother again, because if it is and Billy has let her in on his way out to the footie with Phil then Im going to fucking kill him. I should have accepted their invitation to go with them. Oh, wait. They didnt ask me. I dont blame them, to be honest. Theyve pretty much stopped asking me to do anything any more because they already know the answer will be no. Maybe its Mila Kunis. Shes in luck, Ive had a shower. Laurie, I say, surprised enough to come to a halt in the doorway of the living room. Shes perched on the arm of the chair, still buttoned into her red woollen coat, her bobble hat in her hand. Jack. Her smile is hesitant and doesnt quite make it as far as her eyes. I look over my shoulder towards the kitchen suddenly, struck by the possibility that she hasnt come alone. Wheres posh boy? His name is Oscar, she says, testy. I shrug. I dont really want to pass the time of day talking about that tosser, so I change the subject. Coffee? She shakes her head. Wine? A beer? Another refusal as she takes off her coat and I go to the kitchen and grab myself a beer. Its good to see you, she says as I head back through and drop down on the sofa. Hows things? Peachy. I raise my bottle. Down the hatch. She sits quietly as I swallow half the beer. You sure you dont want one? Its half past ten in the morning, Jack. Im hoping the beer will be hair of the dog for my hangover. Im starting to regret ditching all the painkillers in one go and using vodka instead to medicate. I know this cant go on; Im still half-cut from last night. Did you come round here just to tell me what time it is? Because I have a watch to do that for me. I look at my bare wrist and belatedly realize its been a while since I last saw my watch. Probably somewhere amongst the piles of stuff in my room; Billy and Phil insist on being neat freaks out here, so my room is the dumping ground for all things Jack. Laurie looks thrown by my question. God knows why. She started it with her pious observations about my drinking. No, I came because Im worried about you, she says, sliding from the arm of the sofa on to the seat, her knees angled towards me. Well, as you can see, theres no need to be. I gesture grandly down at my fortuitously clean T-shirt. Contrary to what Sarah has no doubt told you, Im not wallowing in a stinking cesspit of my own self-pity. Ive showered and Ive eaten breakfast, so you can stand down from your suicide watch or whatever this is supposed to be. A clean T-shirt isnt enough to convince me that youre fine, she says. Im always here if you need someone to talk to, okay? I laugh. Go and volunteer at the Samaritans if you want to listen to someones problems. Just stop, will you? she says, staring at me. Thats enough. Thats enough? I hope the razor-sharp derision is enough to cut. Enough? Her chin comes up, her round, wary eyes watching me. Yes, Jack. Enough. I havent come here to fight with you. Theres no reason for you to be so damn rude. I glance at her. Hows work? She looks for a second as if shes having trouble keeping up with my swift change of direction. Umm, yeah, she says. Its fine. I like it. Good for you, I nod, pointing at her with my beer bottle. Although I always imagined youd find something a bit more, you know, grown-up. Im not proud of myself right now. I know how much landing that job meant to Laurie, and that shell be damn good at it. I cant think of another person more full-hearted and kind to answer teenage problems without belittling their worries. I see how my offensive remark hurts her. It would be better for both of us if she just left. Is that so? I nod. Everybody has to start somewhere though. Yes, I suppose they do, she says. Hows the job hunt going? Oh, clever. Just when I was already feeling like a tosser, she throws that one in. Oh, you know how it is. Theyre queuing round the block but Im keeping my options open. You should probably buy yourself a new razor if you get called in for any interviews. I run my hand defensively over my stubble. Okay, so maybe its gone past stubble into minor beard territory. I think I can carry it off. Did you come here for a row? Because youll get one. No, of course not, she says, exasperated. Look, Jack. Everybody is worried about you. Sarah. Your mum I know the accident must have been incredibly tough, and that losing out on your job was really crappy, but you cant just sit here and rot. Thats not who you are. I watch her as she speaks; the way her mouth moves, the even line of her teeth. The beer must be going to my head. Youve barely changed at all over the years, I surprise myself by saying, and her expression slides from concerned to wrong-footed. You still remind me of a street urchin or a Parisian waif. She looks startled, as if shes going to say one thing and then rejects it in favour of something else. Sarah said youve thrown your painkillers away. They were numbing me. Thats what theyre supposed to do, Jack. Numb the pain. I huff, because it wasnt just my pain they were numbing. It was my brain, too. Ive been walking like a man in lead boots, too tired to raise my bones from my bed, too fuddled to think any further ahead than my next meal and how long it is until I can go back to bed again. A small part of me acknowledges that the booze is doing pretty much the same thing. I miss you. The words dont register as my own, so much so that I almost look behind me to see if there is someone else here. Her demeanour changes, and she drops to her knees in front of me, her hands over mine. Look at me. Jack, listen. Please let us help you. Let me help you. Let me be your friend again. Shes looking at me sincerely with those big violet eyes of hers, as her fingers squeeze mine. Its always been like this with us, hasnt it? I dont have any control over the words spilling from my mouth. When you look at me, I know that you really see me. I dont think anyone ever has, Lu. Not the way you do. She swallows and looks down, frowning and confused by the direction our conversation has taken. I am too. How can I help? she says, meeting my eyes again, staying doggedly on message. Shall we make a list of all of the stuff on your mind and work through it? The only thing on my mind right now is Laurie. You always smell like summer flowers. Its my favourite smell in the fucking world. What am I doing? Jack I cant not do this. This is the first time Ive felt like a man in as long as I can remember, and it feels so damn good, like waking up from a coma. Her hand is warm and fragile in mine, and I do the only thing I can do, or perhaps the one thing I cant not do. I lower my mouth over hers and kiss her, my mouth trembling, or perhaps its hers. I catch her off guard, and for just a second its perfect, my hand on her face, her lips warm under mine. And then it isnt perfect any more, because she wrenches back and away from me, stumbling to her feet. Jesus, Jack, what are you doing? Shes breathing fast, one hand on her hip, bending a little as if shes just stopped running. Isnt this what you came for? I say, spiteful in my shame, wiping the back of my hand across my mouth as if she tastes rancid. While the cats away and all that? She gasps and presses her hands to her flushed cheeks, horrified by my implication. Weve been friends for a long time, Jack OMara, but if you ever say anything like that to me again, were done. Is that clear? Oh, so high and mighty, Laurie, I mock, getting to my feet and pacing because the room suddenly feels claustrophobic. Ive been cooped up in here for months, and now all I want is to open the door and get out. Id walk to the edges of our island, and then Id walk into the sea, and not stop until its over. It hasnt always been like that though, has it? Everything was different when it was you who needed comforting, wasnt it? When you were sad, bone-tired and wallowing in your own misery? Shes shaking her head slowly and her eyes have filled with tears. Please dont say any more, Jack. Its not the same and you know it. Yeah, I spit. It was different because it was you who needed me back then, and I wasnt so fucking high and mighty as to turn you down. I jab my finger towards her in the space between us. I took pity on you, and now the tables have turned and you cant lower yourself to return the fucking favour. Its not true. Not a word of it. I dont recognize the vicious loser Ive become. I take a step towards her, to do I dont know what, and she backs away from me, horrified. I see the person Ive become in her eyes and it makes me sick. But then, as she moves, that bloody starfish pendant catches my eye and I reach out to grab it. I dont know why, its irrational, I just want to do something to make her stop, but she jerks away from me and it snaps from round her neck. I stare at it for a moment, then throw it to the floor, and we stand stock-still and glare at each other. Her chest is heaving and I can hear my blood rushing in my veins like water crashing against rocks. Slowly, warily, she stoops down and retrieves her necklace, never taking her eyes off me, as if I am an animal about to attack. Run on home, Starfish, and dont come back, I say, choking on the pathetic endearment Ive heard Oscar use when he thinks no ones listening. She sobs, full-on sobs, then she turns and runs, out of the door, out of the flat, out of my life. I watch her go from my window, and then I lie down on the floor and stay there. Laurie Jack scared me this morning. No, he horrified me. I dont know what Im going to tell Sarah when she asks how my visit went. Id no idea the state he was in, hes dangerously low. God knows hes not a man given to violence or vicious words under normal circumstances; it scared me to see him like that. I tie my hair up in the bathroom and twist to look at the back of my neck. As I thought, theres a mark, a small red graze where the catch on my necklace dug into my skin before it snapped. I place a cold flannel on it and then I sink down and sit on the edge of the bath. I dont care about my neck; I know Jack well enough to know he would never hurt me intentionally; the chain was delicate enough to snap easily. But it was what it meant. And his words. Dont come back. 12 November Jack I need to order some, er, flowers, I say. Ive been loitering in the florists for the last few minutes, waiting for everyone else to leave. Its fully Christmassed up in here already, decked out with ribbons and holly wreaths, and one whole wall of shelves is covered with those huge red plants that everyone sticks on the fireplace and battles to keep alive until New Year. The forty-something florist is bundled into a puffa jacket, her fingers red and chapped. Its cold enough in here to see my breath. Any idea what kind you want? she asks, still scribbling on the previous customers order slip. The kind that say Im sorry Ive been an idiot? Her pencil stops moving, and the look she gives me tells me shes been here before. Red roses? I shake my head. No, no. Nothing, you know, romantic. She narrows her eyes. Chrysanths go down well with more mature ladies mums, for instance? Jesus, what is she, a florist or a therapist? Theyre not for my mum. I just want something that says Im genuinely sorry. To a friend. She disappears into the back and comes back carrying a glass bowl brimming with fat peonies, creamy-white and lavender blue. Something like this? I study them. Theyre almost the exact same colour as Lauries eyes. Just the white ones, I say. I dont want the flowers to carry a jot of unintended meaning. Do you have a card I can write to send with them? She hands me a shoebox thats been divided by hand-written labels. One of the biggest sections, tellingly, is Im sorry; clearly Im not the first and wont be the last guy in here whos been a shmuck. I flick through the designs for the simplest, make a snap decision and pull out two. I need to order two of those please, I say, nodding towards the peonies shes placed down on the floor behind the counter. Two? She raises her eyebrows. I nod, and this time her look suggests that shes distinctly unimpressed. You dont want me to vary them even slightly? No, exactly like that, please. She can think what she wants to think, I dont care. If I order the same then I cant get it wrong when Sarah mentions them. She shrugs and attempts to look neutral. I just deliver the flowers, she says. Your business is your business. She hands me a biro and walks away to help another customer whos just come in with a Santa Stop Here sign and a bunch of mistletoe from outside. I look down at the tiny card and wonder how on earth Im supposed to say enough in such a small space. Ive acted like a headcase for weeks. Lauries visit was the final straw; I lay on the floor after she left and it occurred to me that all of the people I love are in danger of giving up on me. Its frightening how easily your life can spiral out of control; one day I was on the up and up, the next Im face down on the carpet dribbling. I havent had another drink since, and Ive seen the doctor for some milder pills to manage the pain. He suggested counselling; its early days Im not sure Im quite ready to get all touchy-feely yet. Sarah, I write, Im sorry Ive been such a twat lately. Youre an angel for putting up with me. Ill change. J xx. I seal it inside its envelope before Judge Judy can read it over my shoulder, writing Sarahs name and address on the front. The other card stares up at me, blank and intimidating. Dear Laurie? Laurie? Lu? I dont know what note to strike. I hesitate, pen poised, and then I think to hell with it and write without thinking too much, in the hope that its going to come out right. The worst that can happen is Ill need to spend another 20p on a fresh card. Hey Laurie. Im sorry for the way I behaved. I didnt mean a word of it. Not one. Except that I miss you. Im so sorry I fucked our friendship up. Jack (shithead) x Its not perfect, but its going to have to do because the florist is all keen-eyed as she slides behind the counter to finish serving me. I put the card in the envelope and fill out the front, then push them both across the counter towards her. She doesnt say a word as she rings up my bill, but as she hands my credit card back she smiles. An acid smile that says youre a very, very bad person, and Ill take your money but that doesnt mean I approve of you. Ill take care not to mix the deliveries up, she says, sarcastic. You do that, I say. Im all out of smart comebacks, because shes right. Im a very, very bad person, and I dont deserve forgiveness from either of them. 13 November Laurie Theres another man sending you flowers? Tell me who he is and Ill challenge him to a duel. Oscars just come in from work and is hanging up his overcoat when he notices the bowl of peonies on the hall table. I seriously considered binning them when they arrived earlier, because he was bound to ask whod sent them and I didnt want to tell him a lie. I didnt chuck them in the end. Theyre so beautiful, they deserve to be admired; its not the flowers fault they were sent by Jack OMara. I smile at Oscars light-hearted comment; I dont know if hes just so secure in our relationship that he isnt concerned or if hes too damn nice for his own good and always ready to jump to the benign conclusion. Though I wouldnt be surprised if he owned a duelling pistol. Jack sent them, I say, fiddling with the starfish pendant I had mended without mentioning anything to Oscar. He pauses as he lays his keys down beside the bowl, a fractional frown, the tiniest of double-takes. We had a bit of a falling-out a few days ago, I say. Ive been struggling to decide what to tell Oscar ever since the day at Jacks flat; how much information constitutes the truth, how much omission constitutes lying. Now I wish Id just come out with it. He follows me into the kitchen and sits on one of the breakfast stools as I pour us both a glass of red. Its a pattern weve fallen into on the evenings when hes not dining out with clients; its a little fifties housewife I know, but he works late so often that I normally have dinner ready and a bottle open by the time he gets home. It feels like the least I can do when Im staying here for free. Still. Anyway, I dont really mind; as long as he doesnt ask me to warm his slippers or stuff his pipe, Im good. Theres something soothing about coming in and chopping vegetables, especially after long days like today. Being a teen agony aunt isnt all prom dress stress and period advice. My inbox has been particularly heavy-going this afternoon; Ive been researching bulimia to try to help a fifteenyear-old boy who wrote to me about the struggle hes hiding from his family. I just wish I could do more; sometimes I feel hopelessly underqualified for this job. What did you and Jack argue over? He was upsetting Sarah, I say. His self-destructive behaviour had reached a point where hed crossed the line into wallowing. She asked me if Id mind trying to get through to him, and it didnt go so well. My speech pattern sounds unnaturally fast, as if Im a child on stage, rushing to get my rehearsed line out before I forget it and screw up the play. It strikes me that Ive been lying about Jack OMara to different people for different reasons for almost as long as Ive known him. Even if only by omission. Oscar tastes his wine as he watches me pull the stew Ive prepared out of the oven. Perhaps a change of scene would do him good, he says, his voice unreadable. I nod. A holiday might be an idea. He loosens his tie and pops his top button. I was thinking of something a bit more long term. A new start. He breaks off, watching me carefully. A new city. I mean, everywhere has a local radio station, right? Whats the collective noun for bats, I wonder? A hoard? A plague? And then it comes to me. A colony. I have a colony of bats behind my ribcage, their claws hooked over my bones as they hang upside down, and the mention of Jack making a fresh start somewhere outside of London has them fussing and stretching their eerie paper-thin wings. It makes me queasy. Would it be for the best if Jack were to leave? Where would he go? And would Sarah go with him? The thought of losing them makes me swallow a mouthful of wine rather than the sip Id intended. Itd be too tricky for Sarah to leave London with her job, I say mildly, pulling bowls from the cupboard. He watches me, sipping his wine. Therere trains. She could stay in London. Oscar has never voiced an overtly negative opinion of Jack, and I sense that hes stopping himself short of it now. I know full well there are trains, and they could commute to see each other if they lived in different cities. I just dont want them to. Its a thought, I say, hoping its a thought neither of them ever has. Is that selfish? I can see merit in the idea of Jack kick-starting his life somewhere without any of the negative connotations dogging him here: the accident, his stalled career. These days I think Im one of those negatives too. Our friendship is brittle, fire-damaged; as I look back on it I cant discern if its ever been as genuine as I thought it was. It appears real, but its been built for purpose because we both love Sarah. Oscar holds his tongue; theres an unusual atmosphere between us tonight, a weight in the air, a storm warning. How was your day? I ask, smiling, at least on the outside. Noisy, he sighs. Pressured. Peters still away so Im doing most of his job as well as my own. I sometimes wonder if banking is Oscars true vocation. Theres a cut and thrust to it that isnt his natural vibe, although perhaps I underestimate his chameleon-like ability to switch character the moment he snaps his red braces over his shoulders in the mornings. Who is the real Oscar? My bare-chested Thai love or the starched city shirt? If youd asked me a year ago, Id have said the former without hesitation, but now Im not so sure. Despite the pressures, theres no doubt he enjoys what he does. He starts early and stays late, and hes never happier than on the nights when hes landed a deal. What will I say in five years or ten? Will he have been so sucked in and chewed up by the corporate world that I can no longer see my Robinson Crusoe? I hope not, for him even more so than for myself. Why dont you go and jump in the shower? I take the lid off the stew and add a little more wine, then slide it back in the oven for a few more minutes. This can wait a bit longer. At the end of the evening, I walk through the flat and turn out the lights before I join Oscar in bed. I linger in the hallway, my finger on the switch of the table lamp that bathes the bowl of peonies in a creamy glow. Theyre stunning, but already a petal has fallen from one of the blooms and landed on the wooden floorboards. Thats the thing about flowers, isnt it? Theyre lush and extravagant and demand your attention, and you think theyre the most exquisite thing, but then in the shortest time theyre not very lovely at all. They wilt and they turn the water brown, and soon you cant hold on to them any longer. I head into the bedroom and slide naked between the covers and into Oscars open arms, pressing my lips against his chest. 2013 ? New Years Resolutions For the last few years Ive started my resolutions with a wish for my first job in publishing. Officially, I dont need to put that this year, although I will secretly express a desire to move into something slightly more taxing than replying to teenage girls about boys and how to plait their hair like Katniss Everdeen. Its not that I dont enjoy it; its more that our readership is relatively modest and I cant see how Im ever going to progress there. Plus I dont even like Justin Bieber. Technically, I should write down finding somewhere else to live as a resolution, because Ive been living with Oscar for six months now and it was only ever supposed to be a temporary arrangement. But I dont want to live anywhere else, and he doesnt want me to go, so Im not going to. We seem to have leapfrogged several conventional stages in our relationship, but its been that way for us from the very first moment he spoke to me in Thailand. Whos to say whats right and wrong with love, anyway? This isnt romance by numbers, its real life. Yes, I find his adoration overwhelming sometimes; he wears his heart on his sleeve with my name scored through it. He still asks me to marry him at least once a week, and although I know hes ninety per cent kidding, I think hed book the church if I shocked him and said yes. Hes a gift giver and a considerate lover and a steady ship. So I dont really know what my New Years resolution is. Just try not to fall overboard, I guess. 8 February Laurie Are you sure the recipe said to put the whole bottle of rum in? I splutter a little into the glass teacup of punch Sarah has just passed me to taste. I think its taken the roof off my mouth. She laughs wickedly. I might have adulterated it a tiny bit. Well, at least everyone will be too pissed to notice if its not a very good party, I say, surveying the flat. Oscar has been away in Brussels for most of this week with work, which has left me free to spend my evenings getting everything surprise-birthday-party perfect. Hes twenty-nine tomorrow. Ive carefully packed away anything of his mothers that looks expensive or breakable, cooked and frozen Delia-worthy canap?s, and Sarah and I have spent most of this afternoon rearranging the furniture to maximize on space. Were lucky to live in the garden flat; we can always let people spill out there if it gets too full. Hopefully not though, as its freezing and the weather forecast mentioned the possibility of snow later. Itll be brilliant, she says over her shoulder as she heads for the loo. Youve bagged the coolest DJ in town, after all. I cant quite tell if shes being sarcastic or not. Its been three months since that hideous Saturday-morning showdown at Jacks house, and thank God it seems as if hes finally getting himself back on track, including agreeing to DJ at my boyfriends birthday party. And much more importantly than that, his old station have taken him back on, albeit in a slightly less prestigious slot than the one he had before, and Sarah mentioned earlier that hes already scouting around for something better. Ive only seen him once or twice since Christmas, and never alone. The first time, back in January, was incredibly awkward; despite the beautiful flowers he sent me, I hadnt really found it in myself to properly forgive him. But when Sarah went to the loo he grabbed my hand and apologized, begged me, almost, and the intense, broken way he looked at me put a crack in my heart. I knew he meant it. Hed hurt me, but hed hurt himself more. Im heartened to report that his beard has finally bitten the dust and the spark is returning to his green-gold eyes. I cannot tell you how relieved I am; for a while I wasnt certain how hed find the strength to pull himself back from the edge. Sarahs left her mobile on the kitchen work surface while shes in the loo, and when it bleeps I look at it out of habit. The message is from Luke. Dont suppose youre at a loose end tonight? Last minute plan fail, am Billy no mates. Save me, Sazzle! I look at it for a few moments, my mind whirring, then walk away and stand gazing into the fridge. I dont want Sarah to think I was snooping. It was an innocent-enough text; friendly, not flirty. Ive only met Luke once when I bumped into them in a cafe close to where Sarah works, and hes not Sarahs usual type at all; hes huge, all muscles and floppy surfer hair. But Sazzle? Shes told me that theyve chatted, of course, and that hes super-easy to talk to about things. Is there any more to it than that? I watch her out of the corner of my eye as she comes into the kitchen and picks up her phone, then laughs softly and slides it into the back pocket of her jeans without comment. It takes me by surprise, but then I dont tell her about every text I get, either. Not to mention the other things Ive never told her. This is a long way from our Delancey Street parties, isnt it? she says, pouring us both a glass of wine as we admire the smart, gleaming kitchen. Youve changed, Lu. I laugh at her sarcasm. We both have. You know who I genuinely had a drink with last week? She slants her eyes at me, up to no good. Amanda Holden. No! I clutch my stomach as if shes stabbed me. I knew it. She brushes her shoulders off with her fingertips and arches her eyebrows at me, then relents and starts to laugh. We were in the same bar, anyway. I roll my eyes. One day. And I mean it. She was promoted over New Year to a regular spot on the lunchtime news bulletin; shes becoming someone who people know theyve seen before but cant think where. Give her a few years and shell need to wear a baseball cap and dark glasses to meet me for coffee. What did you get Oscar for his birthday? A flicker of excitement licks through me. I cant wait for him to see his gift. Ill show you, I say. Come on. I lead her down the hallway towards our bedroom and push the door open. There. What do you think? Hanging in pride of place over our bed is a large canvas painting. Carly, one of the girls at work, painted it for me from a photograph I gave her. Wow. Sarahs soft exclamation tells me that shes as blown away as I am by the way Carly has managed to capture so much more than just the dawn colours and the dimensions of our little shack on the beach in Thailand. The painting vibrates with life and serenity; as I look at it I can almost hear the gentle rush of the sea and smell the strong-but-sweet black coffee as we sit on the front step and watch the sun come up. I nearly cried the first time I saw it. I know, I say, not wanting to take my eyes away from it. God knows why she works at the magazine. People would queue round the block if they knew how good she is. I wish I had a talent like that, Sarah sighs. Youre kidding me, right? I say, ushering her from the bedroom and clicking the door closed. I have to shade my eyes when youre on TV. Piss off, she says, but I can hear in her voice that shes bolstered by my words. Sarahs always been a funny mix of brilliant and insecure; one second shell be prancing around the room like an overexcited show horse and the next shell be agonizing over a word she got wrong in her last broadcast. What time is Oscar coming home? I look at the clock, working out how long I have to get everything and everyone in place. His plane touches down just after six, I say. So around half seven? Ive asked everyone to be here for seven just to be sure. She grimaces. I really hope Jack remembers. She doesnt add this time. But I think both of our thoughts turn back to that other night a few months back, and I send up a silent hope that tonight will be memorable for all the right reasons. Jack Im pretty sure Sarah is expecting me to be late. I cant seem to win with her any more, despite my almost-constant apologies. She banged on and on about me finding a job, and now I have one again shes on at me because Im always at work. Its not as if it matters whether or not Im there for the big jazz-hands surprise when Oscar arrives at his party. Who has those anyway? I thought they were the domain of American sit-coms. Sarahs perfectly able to manage the Spotify playlist without me, and Im pretty certain I dont feature on Oscars its not a party until youre here list. Thats okay. He wouldnt feature on mine, either. But despite all that, for some reason Im here just about on time. I can see the gracious terraced house they live in as I turn the corner on to their road. My breath mists on the cold air in front of me, but still I drag my feet to make the most of the last few minutes before I have to go inside and pretend to like his braying friends. Or their braying friends, I suppose I should call them, seeing as he and Laurie are joined at the hip these days. I sometimes think she would have been better off hooking up with Billy. At least hes a laugh, and he doesnt pretend to be something hes not. Every now and then Sarah and Laurie drag us into the hell of a double date, where they laugh like sisters and we make civil chat like neighbours who dont especially care for each other. Not that we could ever be neighbours, because he lives in Wankerville and I live in Stockwell. And whatever world we live in, were just not similar enough to be friends. The only thing we have in common is Laurie, and shes becoming more like him and less like us by the day. Im outside the house now. I consider walking straight past, but Laurie is framed in the open doorway welcoming someone I dont recognize, and she spots me and half raises her hand in greeting. I loiter until her guests gone inside, then I saunter up and try for a grin. Lu. Jack. You made it. She heroically resists looking at her watch, and I try, and fail, not to look at the starfish nestled between her collarbones. Her fingers move to cover it, as if she fears I might fly into a hulk-rage and rip it from her neck again. You look nice, I say. She glances down at her dress as if she hasnt seen it before. Its an unusual style on her; black and vintage-looking with blue piping and a skirt that flips around her knees. It takes me back to Barnes Common, to drinking beer in the sunshine and riding the Ferris wheel. Thank you, she says, a wavering, uncertain smile on her lips as she brushes a kiss against my cheek. Come through. Sarahs in the kitchen. She leads me across the tiled lobby to their door. Shes made rum punch. Has she put too much rum in? Her laughter over her shoulder jolts me; its the first time she has genuinely laughed at anything Ive said in a long time. Of course she has. We pass through groups of people I mostly dont recognize and a few I do, including Oscars florid brother, whos name escapes me, and his wife, who looks like she sucks whole lemons for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sarah and I met them on Boxing Day at a pub not far from here. True to form, Oscar had hired a room for a Christmas get-together because why mix with the riff-raff in the bar when you can kill the mood by putting too few people in too large a room? Oscars brother pumps my hand as I pass. Good to see you looking well, fella, he says, and to give him his due I recall that hes not all that grim. I cant say the same for his wife. She looks as if her pencil-thin smile actually hurts her face and her narrowed eyes tell me to keep on moving along. Fine. I wasnt planning on talking to her anyway; I dont know anything about quinoa or how to perfectly poach a quails egg. Jack, in here. Sarah. My saviour. Perhaps shell be nice to me now were in company. Laurie lays her hand on my arm and excuses herself, and I head into the relative safety of the kitchen. Sarah looks her usual knockout self in a dress I havent seen before; its yellow and tight and contrasts with her hair. What happened to the music? I say, cocking my head to listen as she hands me a beer from the fridge. This definitely isnt the playlist I painstakingly curated. One of Oscars friends has commandeered my phone. She grimaces, just as an Oscar lookalike swaggers in. This one. Boyfs messaging you again, he says, holding her phone out. Boyf? I reach out and intercept it. Cheers, mate. Ill sort the music from here. The lookalike glances at Sarah, and she takes his empty glass and ladles punch into it. Hes in charge now, she says, smiling to remove the sting as she nods in my direction. I shake his hand because its dangling limply in the air between us, but behind him Sarah looks panicked. Boyf? I say quietly, passing her phone back when were alone. Theres a message lighting up the screen. Its from Luke. He wants you to know he wishes he could see you tonight. She meets my eyes and opens her mouth to answer just as Laurie claps and calls everyone through. Apparently Oscar has been sighted getting out of a cab. We should Sarah looks towards the kitchen doorway, apologetic. Someone reaches a hand round the door frame and flicks the light off, plunging the kitchen into darkness, and she slips from the room. I stay where I am, processing what just happened. Laurie Surprise! We all wave and clap as Oscar comes through the front door and switches the light on. His expression goes from concerned to shocked to incredulous as he looks around at the unexpected collection of people in his lounge. Everyone crowds in to wish him many happy returns, but I hang back and watch, smiling as he starts hugging his friends and air-kissing their girlfriends. Keeping a surprise party a surprise is no mean feat these days, what with mobile phones and emails ready to trip you up at any moment. Hed have been within his rights to wonder if I was having an affair over the last few weeks; Ive been jumpy and grabbing for my phone every time the message alert has gone off. I have his trusting nature to thank for the fact that he hasnt thought to question me, and Im glad of it tonight because its allowed me to pull off this surprise. Hes so very good to me; unstintingly generous and thoughtful. I cant repay him with expensive gifts, but I hope that gathering together people hes fond of to help kick off his birthday weekend in style goes some way towards showing him how much I appreciate him. Is this your doing? he says laughingly, when he finally makes it out the other side of the scrum. Might be, I grin, standing on tiptoe to kiss him. Did we surprise you? He nods, surveying our crowded living room. You certainly did. Punch? Sarah asks, appearing beside us with two brimming cups. Oscar kisses her cheek and relieves her of one of the glasses. Im guessing you made this? he says, sniffing it. Its a special gift from me to you. She gestures for him to drink up, and to his credit he does, opening his eyes wide and nodding. Its, er, certainly punchy, he says, amused. I sip mine and wonder how anyone is going to be able to walk out of here later if they have more than two cups of it. I might just go and get out of this. I feel like a stuffed shirt amongst you all. He looks down at his business suit. I hang on to his hand; I hadnt thought about the fact that hed want to get changed. Hell see the new painting as soon as he goes in the bedroom. Ill come with you, I say, catching Sarahs eye, feeling flustered. He looks down at me, surprised. Saucy. He squeezes my waist. You should probably stay out here though, hostess with the mostest and all that. Sarah wades in to help, on the ball as ever. You two sneak off for five minutes, no onell notice. Ill create a punch-related diversion if anyone asks where you are. I dont give Oscar time to say anything else, just tug him round the edge of the room and into the hallway. Before I open the door I whisper, Close your eyes. Heroically, he just goes with it, probably expecting some kind of sultry surprise. I lead him by the hand into the bedroom. Keep them closed, I warn, shutting the door and edging round him so I can see his face when he opens his eyes. Okay, you can open them now. He blinks, looking at me first, shocked perhaps that Im still fully clothed. God, I hope hes not disappointed. I smooth my hands down my heavy skirt. I fell in love at first sight with this dress, it makes me feel like Audrey Hepburn. Not me, I say, nodding my head towards the painting as he starts pulling off his tie. That. He turns to stand at the end of the bed and his eyes settle on the vivid scene in pride of place. Its like looking through a window to the other side of the world, and for a few seconds we stand together, hand in hand, and gaze at it. He squeezes my fingers, and then he climbs on to the bed so he can study it closer. Who did this? he asks. A friend. I kneel alongside him. Do you like it? He doesnt answer me straight away, just stares at the painting, then runs his fingertip over the raised oils. Lets go back, he whispers. Okay. I smile, wistful. We could be there by this time tomorrow. I slide my hand inside his unbuttoned shirt and lay it flat over his heart. You make me so happy, Oscar, I tell him, and he puts his arm round my shoulders and kisses my hair. I mean to, he says. This is the second-best gift you could ever have given me. I look up at him. Whats the first? Maybe I should have gone for racy underwear instead. He puffs a breath out, and out of nowhere I feel nervous, because his eyes are intense and hes moved from kneeling beside me to facing me. I know Ive asked you this a hundred times before, Laurie, but this time Im not joking or laughing or messing around. His dark eyes are damp as he holds my hands. I want to take you back there. But this time I want it to be with you as my wife. I dont want to wait any longer. I love you and I want you with me for ever. Will you marry me? Oscar Im reeling. He kisses the backs of my hands and then looks at me fearfully. Say yes, Laurie. Please say yes. I look at him, and there in front of me, on his knees, I see my next stepping stone. Oscar Ogilvy-Black, my husband-to-be. Yes. I say yes. Jack Why did he think Luke was your boyf? I make twatty air quotes round the last word, my back against the fridge. Sarah shrugs it off. I dont know. It was just a mistake, Jack. Forget it. I look away from her, nodding. Maybe it was. But lets face it, Sarah, you and my Aussie hero have become pretty pally of late, havent you? She sighs and looks at the floor. Not now, okay? Not now? I half laugh as I parrot her words, turning them over out loud for consideration. What not now, Sarah? Lets not argue at Oscars party or lets not talk about the fact that youre spending so much time with some random bloke who picked my phone up while I was unconscious? Im not proud of how ungrateful that made me sound or how seedy it probably made Sarah feel. Im not. Her chin comes up, but her eyes tell me shes not being completely honest, with me or with herself. Get down off your high horse, will you? she says. I havent done anything with Luke or with anyone else and you damn well know it. I wouldnt do that to you. But, Jack Her eyes fill suddenly, unexpectedly, with tears. This isnt the time or place for this conversation. Its too important. Sure, I say, but Im not ready to let it go, because that text did not sound innocent. Would you like me to leave the room so you can reply? I know I should leave it, but weve been tip-toeing around the truth for a long time now and, for whatever reason, tonight seems to be the moment its finally going to trip us up. Its not just about the text, its everything. You know something, Jack? I will reply to him. Ill reply because, unlike you, he actually takes the time to message me. I message you, I say, although I know Im on shaky ground. Once in a blue moon if you want a shag or youve forgotten something at work, she says. What do you expect, love notes? I know I sound like a cock, but surely she realizes I dont have time at the moment? Shes hardly much better. You know what? Fine. You want me to be honest, Ill be honest. Ive thought about it, about Luke, in that way. He makes me laugh and he listens to me. He notices me, Jack. You dont, and you havent for a long time now. All you notice is yourself. Lukes a fucking hyena, I want to say, waiting to pick over the bones of our relationship. I notice you. Im suddenly breathless, because one careless comment from a stranger at a party has turned out to be the lit flame to the last thread tethering us together. Slow, threatening slicks of realization that this is it slide through the soles of my boots, up my legs, into my body, freezing me to the spot when I know I should reach out and hold her. This has been coming for a long time, hovering on the seat beside us when we watch a movie, at an empty chair at the next table when we go out for dinner, standing in the corner of the bedroom as we sleep. You need to actually be there, to listen, she says. You havent been there for a long time, Jack. Not before the accident, and certainly not after. We stare at each other across Oscars fancy kitchen, afraid of what happens next, and then Oscars brother rolls in waving his empty punch cup in Sarahs direction. Ever the trained professional, she switches her smile on and says something chirpy to him as she reaches for the ladle. I press pause, watch her in action, and then let myself out into the garden for some air. You shouldnt be out here without a coat. Sarah sits down beside me on the garden bench ten minutes later and hands me a beer. Shes right. Its bitter tonight and Ill know about it in my shoulder tomorrow, but right now its preferable to the heat and forced bonhomie inside the flat. We could just forget all about our conversation back there, she says, her knee touching mine on the bench as she sips her red wine. Thats my girl. She might be plying everyone else with punch, but shes sticking to the good stuff. Shes one of the most stylish women Ive ever known, and one of the very, very best. But do you want to, Sar? I ask her. Something in me cant help it. I dont want to ask her and yet I have to. Do you want to pretend? She stays silent for a while, looking into her wine glass. Then she closes her eyes and I study her profile; so dear to me, so familiar. Tears glitter on her lashes. Sarah, its okay to say it, I say, gentle now because this is going to hurt us both. You dont throw yourself over a cliff and walk away uninjured. How will it ever be okay? she says. She sounds about twelve years old. I put my beer down on the floor and turn to face her. Because youre you. Her hair falls over her face and I smooth it back behind her ear. Youre marvellous, beautiful you. Tears run down her face. And youre you. Stubborn, gorgeous you. For a long time now I havent felt like a good man; this might be the most decent thing Ive done for Sarah in months. I just wish it didnt hurt so damn much. We were good though, werent we? She reaches out for my hand, her cold fingers wrapped round mine. I can see her now, leaning on that stop button in the lift until Id agreed to ask her out to lunch. Really good, Sar. Close to perfect, for a while. Close is enough for some people, she says, for a lot of people. The world is full of close-to-perfect couples. Shes wavering, searching my face. I get that. Im wavering too. I cant imagine what my life will be like without her in it. Who I will be. Is it enough for you? I ask, and I swear if she says yes then Im going to take her home, take her to bed and let it be enough for me too. She cant answer me. Not because she doesnt know what to say, but because she knows that once the words are out there they cant be unsaid. She leans against me and rests her head on my shoulder. I always thought wed love each other for ever, Jack. We will, I tell her, and I feel her nod. I dont want to say goodbye, she whispers. Lets not do it yet, I say. Just sit here with me for a bit longer. I hold her for the last time. Ill always be proud of you, Sar. Ill see you on the news, and Ill think there she is, that dazzling girl who changed my life. Im not too proud to say Im crying too. And Ill hear you talking on the radio, and Ill think there he is again, that brilliant man who changed my life, she says. See? I wipe her eyes with my thumb. We cant leave each other, not even if we try. Ill always be in the background of your life, and youll always be in mine. Weve been friends for too long to stop now. We sit there for a while longer, huddled together, watching as the first flakes of snow drift down from the midnight sky. There are no rings to give back, no possessions to tussle over, no kids to hand over in blustery car parks. Just two people, about to part ways. One of us has to be the one to do it be the one who gets up and leaves and I know it needs to be me. Shes been the strong one for too long; I have to leave her here under Lauries protection. For a second I hug her to me, feeling the absolute impossibility of it. Every part of my body wants to stay here. Then I kiss her hair, and I get up and walk away. 16 February Laurie I made us some sandwiches. Its been a week since the night of the party. Since Oscar proposed, and Sarah and Jack split up. The party was a roaring success, much aided by Sarahs punch of course. Even Fliss had a cup for the birthday toast, then half an hour later she shook her hair out of its neat chignon and asked if anyone had a cigarette. Gerry almost broke his leg in his haste to fetch her another cup of punch. I hadnt intended to tell everyone about our engagement until wed told our parents, but as soon as we stepped out of the bedroom, someone called We know what youve been doing! and Oscar couldnt hold it in. Yes. Proposing! he shouted, and everyone clapped and kissed us. Sarah was the first person I wanted to tell, of course. She cried; at the time I thought they were happy tears, punch-induced emotion. Even the fact that Jack had left the party early wasnt alarm bell enough, probably because I was too caught up in my own happy bubble to realize the devastation that had occurred out in the garden. Heroically, Sarah didnt mention that she had some big, devastating news of her own. In fact, she didnt tell me at all. Jack did. He called me yesterday to find out how she was because she hadnt been answering his calls and when I asked why he had to tell me. I waited for her until she stumbled out of work, brought her home with me, and now shes here huddled on our sofa under a blanket. Delancey Street Special, I say, handing her the plate of sandwiches while I slide under the blanket next to her. Oscar has tactfully made himself scarce for the weekend, leaving us free to watch rubbish movies, drink restorative red wine and talk, if she wants to. She looked as if shed barely eaten all week when she came out of work yesterday; a ghost Sarah. Its been a long time since we had these. Years, I say. Shes right. All our dates in London seem to have been rushed meetings in fancy restaurants or cocktail bars I miss our cosy nights in. I havent forgotten how to make them though. She opens one and peers inside. You remembered the mayo, she says in a small voice. I wish shed pick one up to eat. Jack never really liked them. Not a blue cheese fan. I nod, unsure what to say because Im more than a tiny bit furious with Jack OMara. He didnt make a great job of explaining to me what happened with Sarah, something about realizing that good enough is not enough, that they were each others ninety per cent. I was probably sharper than I should have been; I said that holding out for one hundred per cent was unrealistic, a dangerous and childish experiment which was highly likely to result in a lifetime of meal deals for one. Sarah still hasnt told me exactly what happened, but Im trying to let her tell me in her own time. All the more for us. I take the plate from her, but hold it towards her so she can help herself before I do the same and put it down on the sofa next to me. She slants me a dont think I dont know what youre doing look. Im not going to stop eating and wither away, she says, even though she doesnt take a bite. You dont need to worry about me. You know thats one of the dumbest things youve ever said, right? I eat and nod towards her sandwich that she should too. She rolls her eyes like a teenager, but obliges me all the same by taking a tiny bite. There. Happy now? I sigh and give up on the sandwiches in favour of wine. Alcohol is more useful than cheese in a situation like this anyway. You should probably speak to Jack. Or text him at least, I say, because for the past hour hes been lighting my phone up with endless messages to see if shes okay. Ive told him youre with me. Hes worried about you. I dont know what to say to him. She puts her head back against the sofa and tucks the blanket underneath her armpits as if shes in bed. Given that Oscars sofas are the reclining type and were close to full tilt, we pretty much are. More than three years together, and I have no clue what to say. You dont have to talk to him. Just text him. Let him know youre okay. Though I realize I dont know the full story yet; he might deserve to wallow in it instead. I will, she says. Ill do it later. She sighs, then asks me how he seemed. Worried? I say. He didnt tell me very much, probably thought it was up to you. I dont want you to feel stuck in the middle, Lu. You dont have to cut him out of your life too. The irony of her words isnt lost on me. Ive been stuck in the middle of Sarah and Jack for years. Are you going to cut him out? She picks at a loose thread of cotton on the blanket. I think I have to. For a while, at least. I dont know how to be with him as anything other than us, you know? I seem to have spent the last twelve months resenting him for one thing or another, and now I dont have to do that any more and I dont know what to do with myself. Twelve months is a long time to be miserable, I say, surprised that shes been unhappy for a whole year without me realizing. I mean, I knew they were both busy and stressed before Jacks accident, and that Jack had been a jerk at times, but dont all couples go through a bad patch? I feel like a crappy friend, floating around obliviously in my own love bubble. Ive blamed him in my head for everything thats gone wrong, Lu. For the fact that we saw less and less of each other, for how much wed grown apart or been pushed apart by our different lives, perhaps. The accident should have been a wake-up call, but it just made everything worse. And then I blamed him for that too for wallowing, for not bouncing back. She looks so downcast. Easier than blaming myself, I guess. But Ive hardly been around much either. I wish Id tried harder to get through to him. I realize Ive lumped the blame squarely on Jacks shoulders myself since he called; he said nothing to suggest the break-up was in any way Sarahs choice. I mean, I know these things are never black and white, but he left me with the impression that hed called time because she didnt quite measure up to his mythical one hundred per cent. Im both relieved and disquieted to know it wasnt exactly like that. I dont suppose blame is really whats needed right now, I say. You just need to look after yourself, make sure youre okay. I miss him already. I nod and swallow, because I miss him too. Its odd because I dont see him all that much these days, but hes always been there in the background. Sarah and Jack. Jack and Sarah. Its become part of my vocabulary, forced at first, inevitable in the end. And now its just Sarah or Jack. The idea of him drifting away now they are no longer together makes me sadder than I know how to articulate. Maybe after a while youll both feel differently? Maybe you just need a bit of a break? I say, feeling like a kid whose parents are divorcing. She half smiles, far away, as if she knows its fanciful. We wont. Or I wont, anyway. She swirls her wine before drinking some. Do you know how I know? I shake my head. No. Because theres a part of me thats relieved. She doesnt look relieved. She looks more bereft than Ive ever seen her. Dont get me wrong, I feel as if someone literally cut my heart out of my body. I dont even know how life works without Jack in it, but theres this bit of me she breaks off and looks at her hands this bit of me that feels relieved. Relieved, because being in love with Jack has always been, to one degree or another, bloody hard work. I dont know what to say, so I just let her talk. Oh, hes so lovely and, God, hes good-looking, but when I think back our entire relationship has been a million tiny compromises, his or mine, so our differences werent big enough to pull us apart. Its been a constant effort, and I dont know if love should feel like that, you know? I dont mean making an effort for each other I mean making an effort to be someone ever so slightly different to who we really are. I watch you and Oscar together, and it seems to come so naturally to you both, as if you dont have to try because you just fit. Its in that moment I know theres no going back for Jack and Sarah. I never realized they made their love look so easy. And Im quietly devastated; for them, mostly, but for me too. It feels as if part of my life is splintering away, floating off into space. What can I do? I ask her. Her eyes fill with tears. I dont know. I wait and let her cry it out on my shoulder, stroking her hair. You c-could d-do one thing. Yes, anything. Im desperate to do anything I can; I hate this feeling of powerlessness. Will you still be his friend, Lu? Please? Im scared hes going to shut everyone out again. Of course, I say. Youre my best friend, but I care for him too. Ill keep an eye on him. If thats what you want. I put my arms round her and she rests her head on my shoulder. I hear her breathing slow as she falls asleep. As I close my eyes too, I remember the first day I met Sarah, and the first time I saw Jack, and how very tangled and complicated our lives have become over the years. We are a triangle, but our sides have kept changing length. Nothing has ever quite been equal. Perhaps its time to learn how to stand on our own, rather than lean on each other. 20 April Laurie You have to be on my side in here, I say, clutching Sarahs arm before we push the door open at the bridal boutique in Pimlico. My mum is all over the meringue dresses and I just want something simple. Its a small church. Dont let her bully me into something that wont fit down the aisle. Sarah grins. Im quite partial to those big sparkly numbers. I think you could pull it off. I mean it, Sar. Shes one step away from ringing up that woman off Gypsy Weddings to see if she can fit me in at short notice. Dont encourage her, for Gods sake. We step inside the boutique, still laughing, and I spy my mum already deep in conversation with the sales assistant, a glamorous fifty-something with a tape measure slung round her tanned neck. Here she is now. Mum beams at me as we approach and I see the assistants eyes light up at the sight of Sarah, and then dim a little when she realizes that Im the bride. Im sure she has a million dresses in here that would suit someone tall and curvy like Sarah, whereas my shorter, more regular-girl body needs more skilful dressing to make the best of it. The assistants glasses are balanced on top of her auburn up-do, and she reaches for them and slides them on to study me as I hang my coat on the hanger shes holding out. So, youre my bride! She says it as if shes the one Im getting hitched to, all panto over-emphasis. Im Gwenda, otherwise known around here as the fairy godmother! My smile is thin; if theres one thing Ive come to realize about weddings, its that pretty much everyone who works in the industry has perfected a false air of perpetual excitement, like nothing delights them more than making your every wedding wish come true. I get it. More gushing equals more money spent. The mere fact that something is wedding related seems to make it instantly three times more expensive than it might otherwise be. You want a couple of bay trees to put either side of your front door? Sure. These beauties are fifty pound a pair. Wait, you want them for your wedding reception? Ah, well, in that case let me tie ribbons round the pots and charge you double! But Ive got their number now. I try not to throw the bridal bomb in until the very last minute, if at all. Not that Oscar is interested in cutting corners; he and his mother have gone into a fullscale wedding mania. Im having a hard time reining them in. What Id really love, if they cared to listen to me, is a small wedding and unlike most people who say that, I really mean it; something intimate and special, just for us and our very dearest. The only people I really want there from my side are my immediate family, Jack and Sarah, and the couple of old school friends Ive stayed in touch with. As for my colleagues, I like them well enough, but not well enough to want them at my nuptials. Not that it matters a great deal what I think. It seems Im going to end up with something lavish and public. I mean, I dont have a religious bone in my body, but apparently a church wedding is non-negotiable, preferably the same church Oscars parents married in. A family tradition to uphold, even though Lucilles own marriage was hardly one to aspire to. Im just glad Ive managed to ring-fence choosing my own wedding dress and Sarahs maid of honour dress believe me when I say that it wasnt a given. My mother-in-law-to-be has been sending me dress links for weeks, all of them suitable for Kate Middleton, or perhaps more accurately, Oscars previous girlfriend, Cressida. Oscar rarely mentions her. I wish the same could be said for his mother; she keeps their photo in a frame in their sitting room, on the piano, naturally. I say naturally, because Cressida was is a concert pianist. She has long, skinny fingers. She has long, skinny everything, to be honest. I find that a sweetheart neckline makes the most of a more modest cleavage, Gwenda says, eyeing my chest with something like pity. Sarah turns away into the wall of dresses because shes laughing. This is the second time today Ive been made to feel as if my boobs leave something to be desired; weve just come from an equally depressing shopping experience being measured for a bridal bra, which of course was twice the cost of the non-bridal underwear beside it. Im now wedged into this eight-way basque one-piece that Im not sure Ill ever be able to get off or have a wee in, so Gwendas unimpressed reaction to my assets riles me. My mother, bless her, steps in. I quite agree, Gwenda, she smiles. Laurie takes after me in that department. Mum rolls her eyes down towards her own chest. Perhaps if we could have a bit of a glance around first and then come and find you? Gwenda smarts a little, fast flutters of her eyelashes behind her horn-rimmed spectacles. As you wish, ladies. Your appointment is for the whole hour, so take your time. She steps behind her counter, then looks up again. Just so you know, we do all of our adjustments in-house, no sleepless nights for you worrying your dress might get misplaced while its away being shortened. Lovely. Now Im flat-chested and short. Some fairy godmother shes turning out to be. How are you doing after all that business, Sarah, my love? I hear my mum whisper her question as she puts an arm round Sarahs shoulders over by the rack of meringue dresses Im purposefully avoiding. Mums met Sarah several times over the years, and they share a sense of humour mostly at my expense that bonded them from the outset. Not too bad, Helen, thank you. Im just trying to get on with things, keep myself busy. Sarah chucks in a small, grateful smile to reinforce her words. Me and Sarah have drunk more wine together than is healthy over the weeks since it happened, but all things considered shes holding it together. Jack, Im not so sure about. Weve met up a couple of times for coffee; Sarah knows, of course. I promised her Id tell her whenever I saw him. I didnt tell her the nitty-gritty that the first time we met he looked like hell, the second time even worse, as if hed done the walk of shame to get to the coffee house. I guess everyone has their own way of coping, but seeing him like that left me feeling uneasy. Im wondering how to get my mum away from the five-foot-wide frocks when Gwenda comes unexpectedly to my rescue. Mum, she calls loudly, peering over her specs. I find that the fuller skirt can swamp my more petite brides. Its my turn to put my face into the nearest wall of dresses to hide my smile. Gwenda calling her mum is another symptom of the wedding industry. Everyone is referred to by their role in the proceedings. Bride, groom, mother of the bride. Sarah puts her head on one side and nods slowly. You know, I think Gwendas right there. We dont want Laurie to be all skirt, do we? Shed be unbalanced, like one of those toilet-roll-holder dolls. She laughs breezily and links arms with my mum, throwing me a wink as she steers her towards me. I smile, but shoot her a few tiny daggers too. Its not that Im ungrateful for the intervention, but a toilet-roll holder? Anyone else want to chuck a few insults my way today? The wedding magazines assured me this would be one of the most memorable shopping trips of my life. Im sure they mentioned tears and champagne. Given the way this days shaping up, Im not too hopeful, although there may well be tears of pain and the need for a very stiff drink. How about something like this? Sarah says, holding up a silvery white shimmer of art deco material. Its beautiful, but very detailed and looks like it fishtails at the bottom. On Sarah, it would be stunning. Its on the tip of my tongue to say how fantastic shed look in it herself, like a mermaid-bride, but then I remember the compact Jack and I found for her that Christmas and I hold my tongue. To be honest, that afternoon is the last day I want to think about either. Im proud of how shes refused to sink into self-pity since she and Jack split; shes out there putting her best foot forward as always, and I know shes been out a couple of times with Luke, though she doesnt talk about it much. I think neither of them are in any hurry to put a label on whats happening between them, its too early but all the same, Im glad hes there in her life. I was thinking something more simple, I say, slowly sliding the dresses along on the rail to look at them. We spend a happy ten minutes pulling them all out and laying aside the ones I like, or they like so much I agree to try on. Although its not my favourite experience ever, I cant think of anyone Id rather do this with than Mum and Sarah. I was a little bit low last night, imagining how it would have been to have Ginny with me for this, but Sarah somehow makes it all okay. Gwenda glides over and claps lightly. Looks like were going great guns here, she says, her eyes moving over the dresses weve hung on the special gold rail she ceremonially wheeled across to us earlier. Mum, matron of honour, this way. She grasps their elbows and ushers them through a curtain with the steely force of a prison officer. I stand on the spot for a sec, then my curiosity gets the better of me and I poke my head through to see whats happening. Oh, I see. This is where the champagne happens. Mum and Sarah are sitting on dusky-pink velvet thrones being handed chilled champagne flutes by a younger assistant. Chloe will be here if you need a top-up, ladies, Gwenda twinkles. Sarah catches my eye, and the unadulterated humour in her eyes makes the insults Ive endured up to now worthwhile. This is the happiest Ive seen her in weeks. Id dithered over whether to even ask her in case it upset her, but in the end she invited herself, as she does. Looking at her now with her legs crossed, swigging champagne, Im glad she did. Gwenda does a little bow, as if were actors about to pop back behind the curtain. Im going to spirit the bride away now and create some magic! Well be back anon. She glances at her assistant. Tissues at the ready, Chloe! I sense a well-oiled performance as Chloe picks up a floral padded box of tissues and lays them ceremonially on the glass table between Mum and Sarah. I cast a slightly panicked glance over my shoulder at them as Im steered away and they both raise their glasses in toast and do absolutely nothing to help me. Gwenda has chosen the dress my mum picked out for me to try first. I dont argue; this is her rodeo. Shes made me strip down to my eight-way one piece, and shes standing behind me in the changing room with the dress over her arm. When I say changing room, I dont mean a cubicle at the back of the shop with an ill-fitting curtain to pull across. I mean an actual room surrounded with mirrors. Im like a ballerina in one of those mirror-lined music boxes. This one is called the Vivienne, she says, pronouncing the name in a French accent and shaking the dress out so the sequins send shivers of light around the room. Its fussier than Id choose, with a heavily beaded bodice and layers of netted skirt. I follow her instructions, stepping into it carefully as she unbuttons it. I watch my reflection as she fastens me in, fixing all kinds of clips along the back so that it pinches in at the waist, then fanning out the layers of netting. As I stare into the mirror, the weirdest thing happens. I slowly turn into a bride in front of my own eyes. Its a shock. Ive been swept along with the tide of Oscar and his mothers enthusiasm, and somewhere along the line Ive forgotten that this is my wedding day were planning, my once in a lifetime. Gwenda is watching me, shrewd blue eyes over my shoulder. Your mother was right, perhaps, she says, suddenly more serious. Its not that, I say, still staring at myself as if Im looking into one of those magic mirrors where a different you is reflected in the glass. I half expect the bride in the mirror to wink at me, shes so alien. Its me Im A bride? She smiles sagely. A lot of women feel a bit of a shock when they put their first wedding dress on. Its certainly a special moment, isnt it? Im not sure Gwenda totally understands, but then I cant quite articulate it either, so I just nod. My goodness! If it has this effect on you, imagine how your groom is going to feel, she coos, probably as she has to many other brides standing in this exact spot. There hell be, the man youve always dreamed of waiting for you at the altar, about to turn round and get his first glimpse of his blushing bride. She sighs, pure theatre. Its a precious moment. I stand completely still, her words swirling around my head so clearly its a wonder I cant see them in the mirror. I see myself as Oscar and all our guests will see me as I walk up the aisle. I dont like it, I say, suddenly breathless. Please, Gwenda, just get me out of it. Its too tight. She looks at me, shell-shocked; she obviously thought she had me wrapped round her heavily jewelled finger. And she sort of did, right up to the moment she mentioned the man youve always dreamed of. Back at home, hours later, I strip off in the bathroom and turn the power shower up to full-on assault. What a bloody disaster. I managed to pull myself together in the bridal boutique enough to try the other dresses on, but none of them were the mythical one all of the magazines bang on about. Gwenda tried to coerce me back into the first dress at the end of the session, but that wasnt going on my back again for love nor money. I turn the water temperature up to a tiny bit hotter than is comfortable and stand there with it raining down over my head. Im so achingly disappointed with myself. Its not that I dont love Oscar or that I dont want to marry him. Its nothing like that. Its just crushing to know that its still there, like a muscle reflex. That when someone says the man youve always dreamed of, I think of Jack OMara.? 23 April Jack Shes standing looking into a shop window when I see her. Im not here by coincidence, Ive been hanging around close to where she works for a while now hoping to catch her coming out for lunch, and there she is, her black-and-pinkstriped brolly sheltering her from the rain. I move quickly in case I lose sight of her on the bustling street. She turns up a side street and I hurry after, nearly bumping into her as I round the corner. Laurie. She turns, frowning at the unexpectedness of my being here, then smiles and half laughs. Jack, she says, bobbing up on tiptoe to kiss my cheek. What are you ? She trails off, looking at me. Belatedly, I realize that were standing in front of a vintage clothes shop, and the dressmakers dummy in the middle of the window is being used to display a wedding dress. Were you I nod towards it, aware that for some reason were only able to talk in half-finished sentences. No, she says, shaking her head as she looks back at the dress again. Well, yes, kind of. It caught my eye. Youre going to need one, I say. Have you set a date yet? She nods as she looks back at the window. December. Wow, this Christmas, I say softly. Thats great, Lu. Its really great. Where are my words when I need them? Great? How come I can talk for hours on my show, but find myself dumb-struck now? Have you got time to grab a coffee somewhere, get out of the rain for a bit? As we stand there, someone inside the shop leans into the window and turns over the price tag on the wedding dress to get a look at it. I see Laurie flinch and I realize she wasnt idly gazing in the shop window; she really loves that dress. Im no expert on these things, but even I can see that its very Laurie. Theres something unique about it; its nothing like the Disney princess dresses most girls seem to go for. Unless you were going inside? I nod towards the shop door. She looks at it too, her teeth sunk into her bottom lip, undecided. I can wait for you, if you like? She looks from me to the dress again, a tiny frown tugging her brows together. Its stupid really. Ive tried loads on already and none of them look right. This one just seems different somehow. As she speaks, the customer looking at the dress gets her phone out and takes a photo of it. I think I will just go and have a quick look, Laurie decides. Have you got time to hang around? Because the most pressing thing on my list today is to speak with her, I say yes. I loiter, unsure what to do as she folds her umbrella down and pushes the shop door open. She looks back at me and then up at the dark skies. You should come inside. This rain isnt going to stop. Shes right, of course. It just seems an odd thing for me of all people to be doing with her. I hold the door open for the woman whod been looking at the wedding dress, and relief flashes through Lauries eyes as she steps into the shop. I follow her gingerly. Its not what I expected. Forties swing music plays unobtrusively in the background, as if someone has their wireless on. Wireless? Ive slipped back in time too, it would seem. The yesteryear clothes are arranged in huge old open wardrobes, and jewellery spills carelessly from drawers tugged open on dressing-table tops. Its like walking into a wartime dressing room abandoned mid air-raid. Laurie is over by the dress now, her fingers turning the label over to read it. I hang back as the assistant approaches her, and after a moment lifts the dummy carefully out of the window and sets it down for Laurie to take a better look. She circles slowly round it, a tiny, wistful smile on her lips. I dont have a shred of doubt in my mind; shes going to buy that dress. The assistant must have asked if shed like to try it on, because she looks suddenly nervous and turns to me. Are you okay for time? she asks when I make my way over. This isnt the kind of shop where anything is hurried, but were the only customers in here on this grey, wet afternoon, so I nod. Go for it. You can hardly buy a wedding dress without trying it on, can you? The assistant directs Laurie towards the changing room at the back of the shop while she cautiously removes the dress from the dummy, and I wander away to look around. Italian suits fill one mahogany wardrobe, sombre colours and sharp, old-school cuts. They shout Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I turn from them and look through the hat collection, trying on a Fedora for size in the mirror. You should probably head outside now, the assistant smiles, slowing to straighten a gleaming pair of patent brogues. Its bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her dress before the big day. Im reminded of Lauries birthday years ago when the Ferris wheel attendant made the assumption that we were together. Im not the groom, I say. Were just friends. Ah. Her expression clears, although her eyes linger on me. Shes pretty, in a bold kind of way. Shes lucky to have a male friend willing to go dress shopping with her. Most men would run a mile. I shrug. Its not just any dress, though, is it? I guess not. That one is lovely, from the twenties I think. Cool. I get the feeling shed like to chat, but Im well out of my depth with wedding dresses. You should take the hat. It looks good on you. I laugh and touch the brim of the Fedora. You reckon? She nods. It says man about town. Youre selling it well. I grin. Sorry. She smiles. Pushy sales women annoy me. Ill stop. You werent pushy, I say. I think Ill take the hat. Good choice. She moves to refold shirts, then looks up at me, hesitant. Look, I honestly dont do this kind of thing usually, but would you I mean, do you fancy meeting for a drink sometime? I could say yes. Shes definitely attractive, and Im single. Thats an offer only a madman would say no to or one whos moving out of town tomorrow. I smile ruefully. She smiles too, and I hope that shes not offended. Pity, she says, moving away. Youre leaving? Lauries voice is quiet behind me, and I turn slowly towards her, taking the Fedora off. Shes standing in front of me in the wedding dress, wide-eyed and beautiful. More beautiful than Ive ever seen her, or anyone else. The dress has come to life around her, turning her into a barefoot wood-nymph bride. But her eyes are glistening, and Im not sure if its happiness or sadness. You dont look that bad, Lu. I try for humour, because no one should cry in their wedding dress. You said youre moving away. I am. Im leaving for Edinburgh on the overnight train tomorrow. I glance over my shoulder to make sure the assistant is out of earshot, the Fedora in my hands in front of me like a prop. Lets talk later, Lu, its not that big a deal, honestly. For now, you have to get this dress. You look like the fucking fairy queen, I say. Shes watching me with those big, vulnerable eyes of hers. Are you lying to me, Jack? I shake my head. No. If all brides looked like you, thered be no single men left in the world. I know that wasnt what she was asking. She shakes her head and turns away from me to look at the dress in the fulllength mirror. Im glad of the chance to compose myself, and perhaps shes doing the same thing. I watch as she turns to consider it from all angles. Its your dress, Laurie. It looks as if its been waiting for you to find it. She nods, because she knows it too. As she steps back inside the changing room, I resolve that I wont ruin this day for her. I want her to have only happy memories of the day she found that dress. Laurie Were in a coffee shop a few doors down. I cant believe Ive stumbled upon my dream dress by accident; Jacks right, its as if it was waiting patiently for me. When I was standing there looking at myself I knew that Oscar would love it, and that I would love him loving it. Its the most special dress Ive ever seen, slim fitting with tiny capped sleeves and a scooped neckline. I imagine its the kind of dress Elizabeth Bennet would have worn when she married Mr Darcy. Theres a tag included in the box, scraps of information about its previous owners. I know it was made from parachute silk and French lace in the 1920s, and worn first by a girl called Edith, who married an American businessman. In the sixties, someone named Carole wore it for her barefoot wedding, and they held their reception in the park because they couldnt afford a venue. There must have been others too, but now its mine, for a while at least. Ive already decided that Ill return it to the shop after our honeymoon, adding our name and wedding date to the tag. Its a dress with a history, and though Im its latest custodian, its journey doesnt stop here. Whats going on, Jack? I dont beat around the bush when he sits down opposite me with two mugs of coffee. I realize that Ive been caught up in the wedding plans, and in being a good friend to Sarah, and somewhere along the line Ive relegated Jack to the subs bench. He stirs sugar into his cup slowly. I wanted to tell you myself. So its true? You are leaving? He hands me a slim paper tube of sugar, and then a second one just in case. Ive got a new job, he says. I nod. Where? Edinburgh. Scotland. Hes moving away, to a different country. Wow, is all I can think to say. Its a promotion. Too good a chance to pass up, he says. My own evening talk show. He sounds excited. I realize its the first time Ive heard him sound positive in a long time, so Im furious when my eyes well with tears. Its good news, Jack, it really is. Im thrilled for you. I know that my face doesnt look thrilled. I expect I look as if Im being tortured, as if someone is drilling holes in my kneecaps beneath the table. I dont want you to go. The words blurt from me. He reaches across the table and covers my hands with his own, warm and real and soon to move miles away. Youre one of the best friends Ive ever had, he says. Dont cry or I will. Around us, the cafe is bustling with office workers grabbing takeaway lunches and mothers bouncing babies, and we sit amongst them, letting each other go. He asks me to let Sarah know because he cant do it, and he tells me that he needs to do this, to start again somewhere where the past isnt all around him. I have something for you, he says, letting go of my hands to reach inside his coat, pushing a brown paper parcel towards me. Its soft, and I pick open the taped edges and fold the crumpled paper back to look inside. Its a hat, folded in half. A heather-purple tweed baker boy cap. I smooth out the paper with my fingertips, reading the familiar Chesters stamp embossed inside it, remembering when I tried it on. Ive had it for years and never really found the right time to give it to you, he says. It was for Christmas, really. I shake my head, half laughing. Its always been like this for me and Jack. Thank you. Ill think of you when I wear it, I say, aiming for decisive and hitting desolate. Youre doing the right thing, I tell him. Be happy, Jack. You deserve to be. And dont forget us were only a phone call away. He rubs his hand across his eyes. I could never forget about you, he says. But dont worry if its not for a while, okay? It might be a good idea to find my feet for a bit. I try to smile but its a struggle. I understand what hes saying; he needs time to start over, to build his new life without us in it. He picks up the hat and puts it on my head. Just as perfect as I remember, he smiles. I realize too late that hes leaving; hes on his feet before Ive gathered my things together. No, dont come out with me, he says, laying his hand on my shoulder. Finish your coffee, then go back and tell Oscar youve found your wedding dress. He leans down and kisses my cheek, and I catch hold of him, an awkward half-hug because I dont even know if Ill ever see him again. He doesnt push me away. He sighs, his hand gentle on the back of my head, and then he says, Love you, Lu, as if hes exhausted. I watch him shoulder his way out through the cafe, and when hes gone I take the hat off and clutch it. Love you too, I whisper. I sit there for a while, the hat in my hands, my wedding dress at my feet.? 12 December Laurie In two days time Ill become Mrs Laurel Ogilvy-Black, which is going to take a lot of getting used to after twenty-six years as Laurie James. I cant even say it without sliding into the Queens English, all plummy and clipped. Oscar left for his mums this afternoon and my parents are arriving here tomorrow. Theyre staying with me in the flat, and then well be going together to the church from here on Saturday morning. Once they arrive its going to be all systems go, so tonight is officially the calm before the storm. Sarahs coming over any time now, and were having a mani-pedi and movie night with champagne cocktails to celebrate. I dont have the kind of nails that grow; only women with the same kind of nails will understand. They get to the end of my finger and consider their work done, flaking and breaking. Ive tried all of the oils, serums and creams known to man in the run-up to the wedding, because all the bridal forums tell me its essential that my hands are in tip-top condition. Well, Im forty-eight hours away from the altar and theyre as good as theyre going to get; Sarahs going to French polish them for me. Everything about this wedding is planned, controlled and listed on Lucilles spreadsheet. For someone who thinks her son is marrying beneath him, she sure has invested a lot of her time in dictating how its going to happen. To be honest I realized quite early on that she was going to steamroller her way through proceedings whether I liked it or not, so Ive gone for the path of least resistance. By that, I mean Ive agreed graciously to eighty per cent of her decisions, and held the other twenty per cent close to my chest and refused to be moved on them. My dress. My bouquet. My matron of honour. Our rings. Theyre the only things that really matter to me anyway. I dont mind which champagne is served for the toast, and though Im not a huge fan of salmon mousse as a first course were having it anyway. Oscar has been grateful for my unterritorial approach; as he and his mum are so close, it would have made waves if Id been difficult about things. Thankfully, Sarahs been there the whole way, allowing me to vent. Let me in, Lu! Ive got no hands to knock! Sarahs voice rings down the hall, and I jump up to let her in. When I open the door, I see what she means. Shes dragging a hard silver suitcase behind her, has two bags hanging off her arms and a large cardboard box in her hands. She peers at me over the top of it and puffs her fringe out of her eyes. Travelling light? I laugh, taking the box from her. This is light for me. She smacks my hand when I try to peak under the flap of the box. Thats my box of surprises. Wine first? No arguments here. I shut the door with my foot before I follow her down the hall. I didnt want a traditional hen night, its just not my thing, but this is perfect. Are we alone? she whispers, looking for Oscar. Yes. She busts out a disco chest pump and then falls flat on her back on the sofa with her arms spread out wide and her feet in the air. Youre getting married in the morning, ding-dong the bells are gonna chime! she sings out of tune. Youre a day early. Better than a day late. She sits up and gazes around. Are we having a seance? Ive lit scented candles everywhere to create a calm, Zen-like atmosphere. Its supposed to be spa-ish, I say. Go on, sniff. She smells the air. I think my nose would work better if I had a glass of wine in my hand. I take the hint and head into the kitchen. Wine or Oscars mothers champagne? I call through. Oh, HRHs champagne, please. Sarah comes into the kitchen and perches on one of the breakfast stools. Is it disloyal that Ive grumbled to Sarah on numerous occasions about my mother-in-law-to-be? Everyone needs to unload to someone, dont they, and Sarah is as good as a sister. Which reminds me I spin round and pull a small, wrapped parcel from the cupboard. Im going to give you this now before we get too drunk and I forget, or before we get too drunk and I cant do it because Im crying big snotty tears. I uncage the champagne as she looks at the gift bag, her eyes narrowed. What is it? Youll have to open it to find out. She tugs the grey ribbons as I pop the cork on the bottle of Oscars mums expensive champagne. I wanted to give Sarah something really special, and after hours of fruitless internet searching I realized that I already owned the perfect thing. Im nervous in case I dont like it, she says, making light. You know Im a terrible liar, youll know straight away. I push a glass towards her and lean against the breakfast bar, facing her. Im pretty confident. She has the threadbare velvet box in her palm as she reaches for the stem of her glass and takes a sip for courage. As she goes to open it, I reach out and lay my hand over hers. Before you do, I want to say something. Shit. I didnt need a drink to get over-emotional about this after all. Tears are already pricking my eyes. Fucking hell, she says, drinking a good half of her wine and topping