Amyas took up the invitation and travelled back to Nick and Kate’s flat. Though Nick may not have been awed by domestic life, Amyas idolised Nick and Kate as a couple even more since they lived together. The best looking, wisest, grounded, most suited pair imaginable. Nick tall, dark haired, always with rugged stubble or full beard, practical and able to debate current affairs with the best of them, and Kate golden haired, high cheek-boned and always ready to take on a charitable or political cause. In their living room Kate sat at the small two-person dining table getting directions to a Hampstead flat from her laptop whilst Nick continued Amyas’s YouTube education by finding obscure Seventies French pop videos on his laptop as they sat on the sofa.
In Hampstead Amyas remarked the party should have been termed a mansion-warming rather than the understated housewarming. The apartment, taking up the entire second floor of a concierge’d townhouse, did not constitute what he would call a flat. In fact the two-bedroom bungalow in which Amyas had grown up could have fitted quite easily within the confines of the kitchen. Amyas intended to stay a couple of hours, mainly to keep Nick company, as he dreaded events organised by Kate’s friend, Helen. Helen had grown up in Yorkshire with Kate before rising high through the ranks in an investment bank.
“Last time she had us walking around half the night searching for a restaurant when we were opposite a perfectly nice Italian. She goes ‘Oh we can’t eat there because Pascal’s personal trainer says he can’t have carbs after nine o clock’.” Nick rolled his eyes. Amyas thought he did a very amusing impression of Helen, perhaps making her more northern and higher pitched than she was. Pascal was Helen’s fiancé. Amyas had met him on numerous previous occasions and contemplated pointing this out to Pascal as he again introduced himself to Amyas with no hint of recollection in his eyes.
“Oh they’re awful,” Nick confided to Amyas as they stood in the living room generalising the majority of Helen’s party. “Helen’s mainly invited her hockey club. Present company excluded but I don’t know how much more of this I can stand.”
Nick eventually found contentment in the kitchen where Helen’s fiancé was pouring samples of rare ales and stouts. Nick’s eyes had lit up, and Amyas and Kate thought it was best to leave him to his passion.
“When are you seeing this girl again, Amyas?” Kate said as they dipped Doritos in salsa, laid out on an expensive looking dining table.
“Next week I hope. We were meant to be doing something tomorrow but she has to work.”
“Oh. That’s a shame. But then again, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Have you made any special plans?” She looked at him excited and expectantly. Amyas was flattered by Kate’s keenness that his fledgling relationship might grow. She had briefly met his girlfriends, but it was more in passing in a pub or at his and Nick’s old flat. Of the girls Amyas had dated, no one had really lasted long enough to require more formal introduction with his circle of friends.
“No, I haven’t. I think I’ll end up doing what I normally do. Watching football with friends back in Ealing.”
“Oh, what does Hannah have to say about this?” Kate asked, surprised with the hint of a frown. “I think she might want you to do something with her. Come on, Amyas, you’re not that naïve. Oh please don’t tell me you’ve been taking dating advice from Joan…”
“Relax, Kate,” he smiled. “Hannah’s at a wedding that day. A really good friend of her and her ex-boyfriend’s is getting married and they’re both driving somewhere in the country to stay over with friends.” Kate stared at him. She slightly furrowed her brow as if not hearing Amyas correctly.
“Hannah is going to a wedding with her ex-boyfriend? On Valentine’s Day?” Hearing the words aloud, Amyas recognised it did not sound as normal or natural as when Hannah had announced it.
“It’s fine,” he tried to say confidently. “They broke up years ago and have been best friends ever since. He was around when she and her mum were going through a hard time so he’s pretty much one of the family now.” He glanced nervously at Kate. He could tell she was thinking something to herself. Family? What, like a son-in-law?
“Well,” Kate breathed in diplomatically. “As long as she’s not on the rebound,” she added, tactfully. “And she’s making you happy. Now, what is keeping Nicholas?” And with that she changed the subject.
9. August 2008, the end of youth…
He liked Dr Stella. She was warm and she listened. He liked all the doctors he had previously met at the Amwell Street Practice. It was the deciding factor that led him to following Nick’s advice and speaking to a GP. He was also very glad it was Dr Stella who had seen him rather than one of the male doctors. He would have felt uncomfortable – ashamed even – retelling the events of Vegas and his and Nick’s visit to A&E to a man he did not know. It had been bad enough in front of the male doctor at University College Hospital. Dr Stella looking not much older than him and with a kind, patient smile made him feel he could trust her. She described what tests for sexual transmitted diseases they would do and the timeframes involved. She told him more about the medication he was taking. How it would make him drowsy at times and how it may make him feel quite ill with nausea. Amyas said he did not care, he just wanted to reduce the risk of serious long-term consequences as much as possible. Whilst he was with her, Dr Stella researched therapy and support group options, giving him the name of one near Paddington station. He appreciated what she did. She could have prescribed him anything or everything but it was that extra time and understanding that really helped ease the pain.
The Amwell Street Practice was opposite Kate’s old flat where Joan still lived, finally migrating out of the box room to take Kate’s old room. The flat was in an eight-storey block – an anomaly on Amwell Street where the rest of the houses were beautiful three-floor terraced mini-mansions. Amyas remembered the directions Joan had given him the first time he had visited; “Just look up. If you see a big fuck-off tower block you’re here.” It was two streets away – down Amwell Street and up Rosebury Avenue – from Spa Green and the estate of 1930s council flats where Amyas had previously lived. Kate had told Nick it looked more like a group of happy Spanish villas than an estate with all the buildings being tiled in terracotta and having a balcony. His and Nick’s balcony overlooked a small park which separated the estate from Rosebury Avenue. It was not an intimidating tower block like the other inner city council buildings sharing the EC1 post code. It only had six floors but was long, stretching down a good part of Rosebury Avenue if you looked beyond the trees and railings of the park. And for Amyas it had become a home. As he stood on Amwell Street those days, those beautiful carefree days, suddenly felt so distant.
He was a minute’s walk from Exmouth Market and he knew if he walked through an alleyway between the coffee shop and the French patisserie he would reach another small park called Spa Green Fields. In the park he sat on a bench and keyed into his phone the number of his HR manager, Andrea. Overnight and during his time in the GP waiting room his mind was constantly thinking what he had to do next. Work was already a mess. He could not be mysterious. He was too exhausted to lie and he had no idea how he could keep up a charade constantly in front of so many people. When Andrea picked up the phone he did the only thing he could. He told her everything.
10. February 2008, we were a work in progress…
He stood outside the building waiting for her. He did not know whether go inside and wait for her there so he hovered, looking through the tinted glass, undecided. If it was a bar he would just order a drink and sit at a table. If Hannah was taking the tube he would have met her at the station. But there he was outside a cinema in Bayswater, somewhere he had never been or had planned to go that night. Up until five o’clock he was meeting Hannah at Embankment. They were going to cross over the bridge and then walk down Southbank till they reached the National Photography Gallery. There they would have a drink at the bar overlooking the Thames. Jordan at work had recommended it. Amyas thought it perfect and an ideal way to reignite the romance that recently seemed to have faltered.
The cinema was on a busy high street with cars and buses going by, and him on the pavement trying to keep out of the way of other pedestrians. A light drizzle had started and umbrellas were already up. The last time he had been to the cinema it was the VUE multiplex in Angel. He thought all cinemas now were multiplexes, but apparently not. This was an old building that if he was honest looked a bit dark and depressing. In her text Hannah had asked if they could change plans. She said she had got waylaid at Ladbroke Grove and asked if she could meet him at Bayswater instead as she could just hop on a bus.
Apparently the cinema had a bar and they could take wine into the film. When he first saw a message from her he thought she was going to cancel again. The last time they had seen each other was when they were half undressing each other in the Covent Garden bar arranging to get tattoos and have sex. That was almost two weeks ago, cancelling midweek because of a friend’s party, on the weekend due to work, then work. After Covent Garden they had planned to see each other in just forty-eight hours. She said not to be disappointed if she had to cancel because of work and not to give up on her. That fourth date would have been them consummating their relationship… Amyas wanted to think sex was not the be-all and end-all in a relationship but in reality it was the milestone that separated just dating from actually being in a relationship. Now, he was struggling just to get an evening of Hannah’s time, let alone remind her that they were about to do something he considered really important. There seemed to be something off which he could not put his finger on. Perhaps she had changed her mind and wasn’t as enamoured of him as he had hoped.
Amyas checked his phone for messages and to see the time. He was still a few minutes early. He did not fancy walking round the block again in the rain and he could not see the bar she had referred to inside the cinema so he stayed where he was, hoping the drizzle would not strengthen.
He didn’t really want to go to the cinema but he did not want to make a fuss or let her know about the plans he had already made. I’m still seeing other people, she had said to him so he thought it best he played it cool or at least try to give her that impression, even if inwardly he was beyond smitten. And suddenly after not seeing her for two weeks he felt he was on a first date again, standing trying to keep out of the rain, checking his phone for a message from her and unable not to fidget, waiting for her. He then saw her, getting off the bus. She ducked her head and walked quickly through the rain. “Hey,” she said. Amyas beamed. Seeing her again melted all his neuroses away. He was about to kiss her on the cheek when she said, “shall we go in?” and walked through the door.
“Hmmm,” she frowned. “Nothing starts for an hour.” They were in a foyer with a box office in front of them and film listings above it. There seemed to be just two screens. Hannah was looking at her watch. “Raj suggested this place when I saw him this afternoon. It’s meant to be very in at the moment. I really should have looked up film times before I suggested it though. Actually do you mind if we go to the bar and decide what we’re seeing later? I could do with a drink.”
They were sitting at a long counter against the window, overlooking the road. The bar was on the second floor. Begrudgingly Amyas had to admit it was nice – many armchairs surrounded circular wooden tables, all however occupied so they sat on high stools at the window. Outside the rain had got heavier and the sight of raindrops in headlight beams and buses splashing through puddles had a melancholic comfort to it. At least for Amyas. Hannah was looking unsettled – she gave a couple of sighs as she adjusted her seat. She then looked at her phone and gave a small groan. Amyas placed a glass of wine in front of her and tried to give her a cheery, encouraging smile. She gave him a half-smile in return.
“Sorry,” she said. “This Valentine’s wedding is turning into a nightmare. Work had me booked in for an Early the following day so I’ve just agreed to do one tomorrow instead. So now I’m due at work in eleven bloody hours. Great.” Amyas had not seen Hannah irritated before. It was not an unpleasant sight. She still looked incredibly pretty frowning and rolling her eyes. He just had planned a romantic night which did not seem to be go according to plan. Especially as their present location was suggested by Hannah’s ex-boyfriend.
“So Raj is still driving you there and back?” he said. Since Kate had spelled out that Hannah was spending Valentine’s Day as her ex-boyfriend’s wedding date, it had not sat comfortably with Amyas. But according to Hannah they were still casual, so what could he do? Act like it was normal and gradually try to win her over with dates that went as well as their previous ones.
“Yeah,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “I’m having to cram all my stuff into the back of his Porsche.”
“He drives a Porsche?” Of course he does, realised Amyas. He was a trader. Amyas looked around the room. The majority of men were in suits. This seemed to be a cinema-slash-wine-bar. Somewhere the wealthy could watch films and feel superior to the masses by paying more and drinking wine while doing it. He realised he was just feeling bitter. Amyas sighed and then quickly smiled, hoping Hannah would not have seen any irritation on his part this time. Raj’s Porsche – it’s probably only a Boxter, he thought and smirked, this time naturally.
“Yeah, it’s one of those with a turbo engine or something. Not really practical. It broke down a couple of months ago. Apparently you’re meant to take the high performance ones for a motorway drive every month. Give it a run at high speed.” Fuck, Amyas thought. It’s not a fucking Boxter.
“So you saw him today too?” Amyas asked, as casual as he could, remembering what Hannah had said earlier. Hannah had said they were best friends. But he was jealous. He wanted to be Hannah’s boyfriend and he did not know how much of an impediment Raj was. Hannah nodded and then rolled her eyes again.
“I went to see my mum this afternoon. Raj had the day off too and gave me a lift to my brother’s after.” Hannah’s face screwed up into a scowl. “They’re meant to be grown adults,” she suddenly said, throwing her arms out. “But they want me to run messages between each other because she thinks he doesn’t listen to her.” Hannah was shaking her head, looking exasperated. She then shifted her gaze from the window and looked at Amyas. She gave him another half-smile. “Sorry. Typical family stuff, mothers and brothers behaving like children. Here, I’ll shut up now and stop unloading my dramas onto you.”
There was a leaflet on the counter with the details of the films playing. She picked it up, looking at both the front and back. “I hope it doesn’t run too long. I could do with an early night to be honest. So I’m less of the incompetent zombie at work tomorrow.” Amyas looked again over his shoulder at the men and girls his age sitting in the posh comfortable chairs with their glasses of wine, wearing their suits and nice clothes. This was not him, he frowned. He was in someone else’s world. On a date arranged by someone else. Raj. He wanted to take Hannah to the river and sit watching the lights of London. But that too had been someone else’s idea. That was Jordan’s date. If he thought about it most dates he had with Hannah involved him dressing in his best clothes, trying to portray an image of smart and sophisticated with an edge of cool – was that a real thing? He took her to places he hoped would impress her. He was trying to be Raj, or at least a Raj equivalent. That was not him. Now Hannah was looking at her watch, staring out the window appearing bored and waiting for the date to end so she could go home to bed. As he felt the energy level creep out of the evening, he realised he needed to do something.
“Actually, do you mind if we don’t go to the cinema?” he said, taking her hand. “Here, come with me.”
They had their coats on walking out of the cinema into what had become a downpour. A taxi with its light on was approaching. Amyas stepped out about to raise his arm, but then stopped. “Can you run in those?” He turned back to Hannah, raising his voice over the noise of rain and traffic, staring at her shiny black heels.
“Err, probably?” she said, looking confused.
“Great. We can just about make it.” Holding hands they ran to the bus stop where a bus was about to pull away.
“Where are we going?” she asked, wiping the rain from her face as they made their way to the back of the bus. “Oxford Circus,” he replied. “Well, Cavendish Square to be exact. There’s a pub there. It’s got something I wanted to show you. Me and friends of mine used to go there all the time. It’s been a while but hopefully it’s still on.”
They got off the bus and ran again, only to the shelter of the John Lewis shop front. “It’s pretty much under cover all the way to the door,” he told her. “It’s okay,” she smiled. At last, a proper smile. “It’s not as heavy now.”
The pub was on the corner of the square nearest them. Through a set of double doors was a traditional bar and even though it was a Tuesday night it was busy. “Down here,” said Amyas, leading Hannah to a staircase. “Now, I probably should have asked earlier,” he said grinning, “but what do you think of live music?”
Through another set of doors they entered a basement room. Immediately noticeable was the sound: a singer and an acoustic guitar strumming. He took Hannah to a cloakroom where they took off their damp coats and then went to buy drinks from the bar. “What can I get you?” he asked. “What are you having?” she asked back. Amyas was still cautious how she was taking the sudden shift in the date – from classy, high-end cinema to indie-band basement. But he had to keep going. “I’m going to be really classy and have a pint of Red Stripe. Served in a plastic glass, of course.”
“Well, I’ll be classy too then and have the same.”
They turned to face a stage. There was a crowd of twenty to thirty around them in the dimly lit room whose main light was on a man, probably late thirties or early forties, sitting on a high bar stool, cradling his guitar and singing into the mic.
“It’s unplugged night,” said Amyas. “This place is kind of big on the indie music scene. My friend Joan drags us to club nights where we dance along to stuff normal clubs don’t usually play. When I was a teenager no one I knew liked that sort of music so it was pretty cool meeting Joan and Nick, no matter the flack we give Joan. We’ve had so many good nights dancing and jumping around like idiots.” Hannah laughed.
“I’m trying to imagine you jumping around.” She looked around the room and then up at the stage. “This is nice. He’s really good,” she said as the singer continued with his ballad, his eyes closed. As he came to the end the audience applauded, and the singer thanked them and continued into his next song.
“Oh my God,” said Hannah, suddenly turning to Amyas. “He’s playing Damien Rice!” Amyas stared at her.
“You like Damien Rice?” he said.
“Obviously,” she smiled, a big, happy wide smile. “Oh shit, if I start crying I’m blaming you entirely.”
They stood listening. Hannah started swaying to the rhythm. Amyas could not stop glancing at her. The girl he liked was a fan of his favourite singer. The haunting Cannonball rang out and he watched her mouth the chorus. When the song finished Hannah put down her beer and clapped loudly. The lights came back on and the singer gave his crowd a wave and smile as he left the stage.
“This is cool,” said Hannah looking again around the still dimly lit, despite the lights being back on, basement. There were a few tables and booths to each side of the stage, one side though taken up by people with guitars. She seemed enthusiastic and that surprised Amyas. He was relieved. “I can’t believe he played Damien Rice. That was amazing.”
“I never pictured you as a Damien Rice fan,” he grinned.
“Why?” she said.
“Well, I assumed it was only tortured souls and loner only-children, like me. People whose guilty pleasure is locking themselves away and listening to the whole of 9 on a Saturday night.”
“What’s your favourite song of his?”
“Honestly? It’s called Grey Room. It’s not that well known but it’s sad and talks about feeling lost and sitting alone and writing. Reminds me of my teenage years.” Hannah laughed, slapping on his arm.
“Mine’s I Remember. I love that album. I love his music. I like how it makes me feel. I play it when I feel sad.”
“Do you feel sad often?” She sighed. He realised it was probably a personal question to ask in a public space.
“I think we all feel sad. But it’s sometimes nice to have an outlet. Anyway, who else do you like?”
Hannah had a radiant smile as she talked about bands and albums her friends at work had played for her in the quiet moments of the night shift. The girls of indie, as she called them, were her current favourites. She loved The Pippettes, and Kate Nash was her new idol. Amyas laughed, not at her choices, but that beneath the cool, sophisticated, wildly popular, attractive surface was the heart of an indie girl. It was the best conversation he had ever had with a girl. As they stood sipping beer out of their plastic cups, like the others around them in the basement as the stage was set up for another band, Amyas told her of the new bands he was listening to; The National, The Decemberists, The Cribs, were all some of his latest finds and Bon Iver’s Skinny Love gave him goose-bumps. He was loving being able to talk about what he loved with a girl he was fast becoming crazy about. As she smiled, glowing, the lights dimmed again and three guitarists got on stage and immediately started playing a faster beat – an acoustic folk-rock – that had Hannah swaying again but this time upbeat and ready to dance.
The rain had stopped as they started walking back to Oxford Circus tube station.
“We’ve still got time,” said Hannah. “Last tube isn’t for ages.”
“What about your early start?”
“Another twenty minutes isn’t going to make much difference,” she smiled. “Shall we do a quick walk? Let the awesome music ring out in our ears a bit longer?”
They set off on a loop around Cavendish Square, with its old, grand London townhouses on one side and the back of John Lewis on the other.
“Sorry about before,” said Hannah.
“For the moodiness. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice because you did a pretty good job of getting me to get over it.” Amyas gave a slight smirk, not wanting to comment. “Things can be a bit difficult at times. The family, after Dad. We are getting somewhere but things get hyper-sensitive and it can be a bit draining.” Amyas reached out for her hand. He gave it a squeeze and held it as they walked. “I love my job but it’s always been my shield when things get a bit emotional at home. I could put myself forward to cover a double shift and now the guys there pretty much depend on me so I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to let the kids down either, little cheeky bastards though they are. It’s not fair on them for people to keep coming in and out of their lives. You can’t just drop them when it’s not convenient or something better comes along.” Amyas stopped her and turned her to face him.
“I find what you do amazing. I don’t know how you manage to cope being around so much hurt and pain. It’s what I adore about you.” From sad eyes staring at the ground, Hannah gave a smile. Quietly she leant forward and put her arms around him, her head to his chest. They stood on the quiet street, under the yellow light of the street lamps, holding each other.
“So you wouldn’t advise me to give it all up and follow my dreams as an indie girl band singer?” she grinned. “Probably a good thing. I’m shit at karaoke.”
“You could give it a go. Nick and I are talking about starting up our old university band again, and we were terrible.”
“You were in a band?”
“Technically. I played drums. I wasn’t very good but there is a shortage of drummers. I did it mainly because I liked writing songs. I would write the lyrics and Nick would put chords to them. Some were bloody terrible but recently I wanted to take it up again.”
“Well I am impressed,” beamed Hannah as they headed towards Oxford Circus. “You never told me you were a drummer.” She held his hand and their walk became almost a happy skip. “Tell you what, I know exactly what I’m going to wear for your first gig. I’ve seen these boots which are ridiculously expensive and I sooo shouldn’t buy them but they would go great with a rock-chick outfit. Perfect for the girlfriend of a rock star. I’ll invite everyone from work. See, you’ve got a massive fan base already.”
“So, you would say you’re my girlfriend?” grinned Amyas.
“What do you think?” she smiled. She stepped towards him and on tiptoes kissed him. Coming back down, she made that half-smile-half-frown again. “Just because we haven’t had sex doesn’t mean I haven’t wanted to or don’t want to.”
“Hannah, I never said that. We don’t have to…”
“No, I know you didn’t but I know what it must look like. Me constantly talking about it, mentioning one-night stands, arranging dates and then cancelling. I’m not meaning to be a tease.” She looked sad again. It had ended up being a perfect night and Amyas really did not want it to end on a negative note. “It’s seriously okay,” he begun. “I love being with you…”
“And I love being with you!” she suddenly beamed and grabbed both his hands. “But it’s because of all those stupid one-night stands and the fact I flirt any time I’ve wanted attention from a boy in the past I wanted it to be different this time. I used to think sex was the be-all and end-all in relationships. And then when things ended with Raj and things with the affair went badly I realised sex was more the problem than the solution. And when I met you I realised I liked you and I didn’t want it to be a whirlwind few weeks of sex, sex, sex and then you get bored and leave like everyone else.” Amyas hated seeing her like that: that mix between sad, exasperated and suddenly so very tired. He placed one of his hands in hers and with his other he placed a finger under her chin, lifting her face so she would look at him.
“Listen, I want to have sex with you. Yes, that’s true. But because I really like you and it feels real with you. I don’t like dating around. I haven’t met anyone I want to be with as much as you, ever. I like you and sex is not the be-all and end-all. You are. Trust me. I am having the time of my life. And I’m so glad it’s with you.”
She didn’t say anything; just looked down and slightly away. Then she looked up at him and gave a light snort, breaking into a smile. “Good answer,” she said.
11. August 2008, the end of coping…
The next day a tall, blonde, well dressed lady in her early forties arrived in a taxi at Amyas’s flat. In their small office Andrea occupied the office at the end of the trading floor, next to London Head of Operations. She was the Head of Finance and Head of HR in one, but even more, she was a mother of two, organiser of Christmas parties and as far as Amyas was concerned, a lovely woman.
Amyas was off work again, at her insistence. Andrea sat on the sofa as Amyas stood at the kitchen counter placing teabags into cups. He started telling her about the last couple of days. As he described the cut on his shoulder he could not maintain his matter-of-fact manner. The cut seemed to make everything real, proof that it was not a dream.
“Here, I’ll finish that. You sit down.” Andrea led him away from kettle, across the room to the sofa. He was wiping his eyes as he felt the warm cup in his hands.
“Take as much time as you need. Don’t worry about work and don’t worry about anyone else. No one needs to know if you don’t want them to.” Amyas knew there would be questions and speculation so he said he would prefer if she did tell Kamran, John and two other heads of the London office.
“Are you going to tell your parents? They live in Cornwall, don’t they?” Amyas said he was not sure.
“Speaking as a mother, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be but if it was my son I would want to know.”
But Amyas could not. He tried and thought of the words but knew it would end his mother’s world and he could not face that pain too.
12. February 2008, we were stumbling…
A fortnight before she had invited him to her social networking page. In early 2008 Facebook was new enough to be quite spectacular. Jordan at work, the office’s connoisseur of cool and the up-and-coming, said it came out of the Ivy League American colleges and was geared to graduates like themselves. MySpace covered the teenagers and schoolkids and FriendsReunited was for their parents, so this Facebook thing provided a private space exclusively for their generation: all his friends and work colleagues suddenly having the equivalent of their own website, sharing photos of wild nights out and posting hungover banter akin to satire.
However, now it felt distinctly voyeuristic when he clicked onto her page. He was invited in the sense that two weeks ago she had sent him this little friend-request icon that popped onto his screen: Hannah Chambers would like to be friends. But that week, since Valentine’s Day and the wedding, he saw himself as an unwelcome guest. He was sitting at home, on his laptop, reading her last posts – the latest only an hour before saying hi to a friend and on the previous night she had commented seemingly jovially about a film she was watching. She was okay – nothing had happened to her. Amyas need not fear the worst. So he needed to accept the second worst. It was over between them.
As a picture of what looked to be the wedding came into view he immediately closed the page and his screen. He did not want to see any further. Since the morning of the wedding he had heard nothing from her. No replies to his texts. No answer to how she was enjoying the reception, how the wedding was, how her probable hangover was. She could have lost her phone, he supposed, but then why didn’t she let him know by some other means? Facebook was the most obvious. There was even a message function. Surely she would think he would be worried not hearing from her for days? The last time he had seen her she had said she was his girlfriend. They had had a wonderful evening together. And now nothing.
Amyas had been lying on his old bed, in his old room, in his parents’ house. It was Saturday afternoon, and years before he would have been sitting at the desk in the corner listening to the football commentary on his stereo while revising for exams and perhaps lining up albums he wanted to play later in the evening. The room had changed since then: the desk was no more, the posters of bands had gone, the sheets and linen more suitable to a guest bedroom, which was what it was. There was someone else, he thought. She had been to a wedding on the most romantic day of the year with someone else. If she did not reunite with her ex-boyfriend then she may have met someone new. That seemed without doubt the most obvious explanation for her silence. Each time she would receive a text or listen to the voicemail he left she would cringe, reminding herself that she needed to put him out of his misery. It had happened to him before, it had happened to his friends and, he was ashamed to say, he had done it himself. The unmistakable delays between replies. The no rush to respond. The mid-ground of not wanting to lead someone on and not knowing how to best say you did not want to see them again.
Perhaps she had been about to tell him when they were at the cinema. The signs had been there: all the previous cancelations, how she had bypassed his kiss when they met, her lack of enthusiasm at the start of the night. And her choice of a cinema probably deliberate so as to keep conversation to a minimal.
He lay on his bed. He paced the room. He put a vinyl on his retro record player hoping to drown out the noxious cocktail of foreboding and disappointment swilling around his insides. But he could not keep his eyes off his phone, willing her to put him out of his misery. With any other girl he would have liked to think he would have accepted that she was simply not that into him and moved on. But with Hannah it had felt different. He wanted to it be different. Eventually he realised that if it was possible to be bad at moping he definitely did not have the patience for it. Sitting around, pacing, constantly looking at his phone was not helping. He picked himself up, left the house, went to a house party and at the end of the night found himself in a suite of the Waterloo Hotel with a girl called Lisa.
“My ‘gay best friend’ booked us a suite each as we were both in town for the weekend,” Lisa said as the taxi turned into at the Waterloo Hotel. Amyas wondered whether it had suddenly become unfashionable for a woman to be best friends with another woman. What was this fad about male best friends? “I opened a bottle of champagne earlier. Do you fancy coming up for a glass?”
Amyas had probably had five girlfriends in the last five years. Five, or one, depending how he defined the variable – girlfriend. The exchange student who went back to America; the girl from Cambridge; the girl from his first job who he dated for two months, slept with once and then she decided she did not want a relationship; plus two others that petered out within a month. Then there were one-off girls kissed in bars and on dancefloors and more recently, as seemed the London way, girls kissed at a bar and who he would have a one-night stand with. On the face of it Amyas had probably kissed more girls than most in his early to mid-twenties but he saw this as a massive failing. Why did none of them want to stay with him long term?
And Lisa had been one of these girls. Dark hair and dark eyes, attractive curvy body. Met at a party a year ago. A friend of a friend. Kissed, swapped numbers, and she never replied when he had asked her on a date. Another blow. And then when arriving at a house-party, being dragged along by old school friends, he saw her. He smiled at her, a little awkwardly. She gave a hint of recognition. “We’ve met before,” he said. “I think we’ve kissed before,” she replied. “You never called me,” she accused him, though smiling. Either she had given him the wrong number or he had taken it down wrong. Whichever way, it was some way into the night they found themselves sitting on a sofa together, glasses of vodka in front of them, sharing a bottle Lisa had bought as all the beers had run out and the off licence was closed. She laughed every time he made a bad joke and was leaning close to stare at him with those dark eyes as he spoke.
“You can sleep on the sofa if you like. Saves you going all the way home,” she said casually as they entered the suite. When Lisa said she needed to order a taxi Amyas realised he needed to make his way home too. The problem was that he didn’t know how. The party was in Kent and by talking to Lisa he had turned down the offer of staying at his friends’. He needed to get back to London and when Lisa said she was staying at Waterloo, sharing a taxi with her seemed logical.
Just past the bed, one side of the room was its own lounge – sofa, armchair, plasma television and a panoramic view over London. Amyas did not know whether it was impolite to ask what Lisa’s best friend did to whimsically book two luxury suites at a London hotel. However, he was glad for the offer of the sofa. It was two o’clock in the morning and the outside temperature was well below zero.
“I can’t believe you don’t have a jacket!” she said. He was only wearing a thin black hoodie over his t-shirt and as she passed him a glass of champagne she smiled, lightly placing the palm of her hand on his chest. “You’re freezing!” she smiled. “Maybe I can help warm you up.” Between the tips of her two fingers she slowly slid down the zip of his top, placing her hands underneath onto his t-shirt, against his stomach. As she did he placed his hands on her waist. They moved closer and as he felt her lips against his he closed his eyes. They never drank the champagne.
It was five in the morning when Amyas eventually arrived home, almost numb with cold. The night bus took an age, and that was when he finally found one. He had circled Waterloo realising he had no idea where he was and he should have just got a taxi from outside the hotel. But since he had been most unceremoniously thrown out of the room by Lisa, he deemed loitering in the lobby waiting for one to be rather tactless.
“I have a girlfriend,” he said as Lisa removed her lips from his. “What do you mean you ‘have a girlfriend’?” she said staring at him. “Why are you telling me about this now?” “Where was your girlfriend while you were chatting me up and taking me home?” Soon she was glaring at him. Then she was calling him a two-timing bastard. And then she was opening the door asking him to leave.
It was almost midday when Amyas woke up, in his own bed, by himself. By his bed was his phone. There was a message. It was from Lisa – he remembered the first thing they did when they sat down together drinking vodka was swap numbers, so as not to risk another misunderstanding. It simply said ‘bastard’. She had a point, he thought. The previous night had been incredibly stupid, even by his standards. Firstly, it showed a lack of class flirting with Lisa when merely hours early he had been moping about Hannah. He was weak and needed attention. And secondly, if things with Hannah were over and he had met a girl who actually seemed to like him then why not pursue it? What he shouldn’t do was a complete half measure and pull out with limited explanation, embarrassing them both.
Then a sick feeling crept into the pit of his stomach. Hannah. He had barely known her a couple of months and the evenings he had spent with her could be counted on one hand. But he could not explain why the thought of not seeing her again was so gutting. Had he exaggerated his feelings for Hannah? It was clear to him that he had exaggerated hers for him.
As he stayed in bed wrapping himself in the covers his phone again came alive with a message. He rolled over, expecting more abuse from Lisa and contemplated sending her a long apology with the whole story. But it wasn’t from Lisa. It was from Hannah. He winced at her first words and looked away. It started with ‘Sorry’. He anticipated it being the long awaited ‘sorry for not being in touch… something happened with someone at the wedding… I don’t think we should see each other anymore’. Years later he might have wished it had said those things.
“Sorry its taken me so long to text. My phone stopped working and I have just got a new one. Wedding was good but immense hangover the next day and work was atrocious. How has your weekend been? What you been up to? xxx”
He sat up in bed, throwing himself off the mattress and dispensing with his blanket cocoon. He reread the message. It was okay. It was all okay. He smiled, and breathed. Large deep breaths. That was his initial reaction anyway.
Amyas got out of bed frowning. He was in an empty house – his parents now permanently on the southeast coast and him squatting till the house sale went through. He still frowned as he entered the small kitchen. Hannah’s explanation was not wholly satisfying. She did not owe him an explanation. If they were not serious he could not expect much more than she gave. But he wanted something more. He wanted Hannah to take them seriously as a couple and every time he thought that was about to happen it would be like a first date all over again. And now he had cheated on her. Or had he? Amyas was pouring boiling water into a mug as he scrunched up his face and began stirring a teabag with a teaspoon repeatedly. All he had wanted was Hannah to get in touch earlier. He looked downcast into his mug seeing his reflection in his tea. If he was her boyfriend she would have got in touch through that Facebook message thing at least.
Taking his tea into the living room, he sat in a blue cosy fabric armchair. His dad used to sit in that chair doing crossword puzzles and his mum used to occupy the one next to it reading. Amyas had always laid himself out on the sofa opposite to watch the television in the corner. That was now all the furniture left in that room. His parents had bought a new “three-piece-suit”, as they called it, for the new house. Nearly everything else was down in Cornwall. The house seemed so quiet. Sitting drinking his tea, Amyas frowned again, this time at the quiet. He was not used to it. There had always been sound of some description: the television, the radio, music, conversation. Now he huddled himself into a ball in his dad’s chair realising even as an only child, he was not used to being alone. From their chairs his parents would make plans and decisions steadying their little family through two and a half decades of life, not letting recessions or political changes impact a genuinely happy family unit. Amyas smiled at the thought of his dad and mum now taking a long walk on a beach, buoyed rather than daunted by strong winds and freezing sea air. They were survivors and grinders and here was he curled up like a lonely child because of a girl.
He replied to Hannah, trying to be nice though a little reserved. He didn’t want her to know how he really felt. And almost immediately got a long reply telling him how her weekend had been, the highlights from work and how she had had her first lie-in in what had felt months. She even asked him how his packing was going – she remembered about him moving house. She now did not seem like a girl who wanted to break up with him.
He had had a plan with Hannah. He was finally moving into his new flat the coming Friday. He was going to invite his friends over for a housewarming party that night. He was going to invite Hannah, introduce her to his friends and that was going to be their first event as a proper couple. He was still going to ask her – in fact he already had weeks earlier, if she would remember – but if she cancelled on him he would take that as over. There was no point getting sad about someone who did not have feelings for him.
13. August 2008, the end of denial…
He had been taking the pills five days. The problem with the pills was that he did not know what his genuine emotions were and what should be attributable to the pills. He would have to lie down in the middle of the day, close his eyes and drift into a short exhaustion-fuelled sleep. He was battling constant drowsiness but at night, after three or four hours in bed he would wake up, feeling nauseous with the room spinning.
Those were the physical effects but the emotional ones verged on indescribable. It was like someone had taken the pain and grief he felt when Hannah had said she didn’t want to see him anymore and amplified it one hundredfold. He would lie alone almost in tears at the searing pain. He was so desperate to talk to her, to tell her what had happened, for her to know and then tell him everything would be okay, and that she would be there for him. She was the only one who could stop the pain and he needed her so much.
And then the wave of pain would go. He would be able to breathe again and suddenly think what a relief it was that he didn’t call her or text her or tell her everything that was trying to burst its way out of him. He would stand up and walk around his flat feeling so embarrassed and ashamed of his emotions, and blame the tiredness and the pills for the feelings of emptiness and dejection.
Nick and Kate visited each day. Kate looked a bit shell-shocked, he thought. He must have looked a mess, he could feel how heavy and sagging his eyes were. In fact his whole face felt saggy – a smile was physically too hard work to raise. They asked if they could go with him to the hospital for his appointment. It was kind, he said, but it was in the middle of the day and he should do it by himself.
In the hospital he spoke to doctors, had blood samples taken, got vaccines and then got properly examined. It was strange, he thought as he lay on his side wearing only the gown which opened at the back, it was less intrusive and humiliating than he thought. The doctor who did the examining was male, looked of Indian origin and reminded Amyas of his dad’s best mate Rohan Manjrekar, and was so calming in how he explained the procedures that Amyas’s fears of feeling humiliated in front of another man were unfounded. The examination did not hurt, in fact it felt soothing as something was being done, a proactive action was taking pace. And the doctor said in what Amyas judged a very positive tone, “this is good, everything looks in good shape.”
What that actually meant Amyas did not fully know, just that what he felt when he examined himself in the Vegas airport bathroom was not permanent. Then another female doctor sat with him and talked him through further appointments and the tests they had already done, and to Amyas she was the loveliest human being he had ever met. There was so much uncertainty he felt in what had happened, due to the memory loss and absolute black holes he was told he would never get back. He wondered at times if he was making this all up. He just could not deny what he felt and he did not know, nor could imagine anything else that would make him feel the way he felt all that week.
When he left the hospital he felt the best he had since waking up in Las Vegas that day. He had to accept what had happened and start the journey moving forward. Outside the hospital he took out his phone and wrote a text to Hannah asking if she was free that evening for him to call.
14. February 2008, we were real…
Friday the 22nd of February was a rare event for Amyas – he had the day off. And he spent that day packing up his room in his parents’ house – the small wardrobe of clothes, the duvet and pillows, and box after box of CDs and LP records which though superfluous due to MP3, were what he deemed all his worldly goods. Into his Ford Fiesta they were placed – he felt a strange twinge as he locked the doors to his parents’ house knowing he had just spent his last ever night there, and drove across London to Highbury.
Arriving at the leafy street – the estate agent had marketed it as one of Highbury’s most sought after postcodes – Amyas just sat on the bonnet of his Fiesta looking around him. What the estate agent said may have been spiel but it was truly lovely. The street was quiet, lined with tall Edwardian terraced houses and tall trees with huge trunks. His was a middle floor flat, mid-way down the street. It was the smallest flat in his building – of the other two flats the top one went up into a converted loft, he was told, and he was able to see the ground floor one had its own basement and garden. But that did not matter to Amyas. His parents were going to visit in two weeks to close up the Ealing house and they would see his flat then. But as he stood looking up at his big sash windows he wished they were there then to share the moment. He was not a child anymore. He owned his own flat. He was a real grown-up. Amyas ran up to the front steps with the keys in his hand. He beamed, looking at the front door with its shiny silver knocker and colourful stained-glass window. And opening the door he walked into the pristine white common hallway with the beautiful chandelier, leading to the carpeted stairs up to his flat. His flat. He wanted to punch the air. Not bad for a boy from an ex-council house on the rough side of Ealing.
That week Hannah sent him a string of text messages asking how the packing had been going and wishing him luck for the move. It was strange, she was bubbly and flirtatious again, no trace of the apathetic girl from the week before. Every time Amyas read one he was torn between feeling delight – the girl he liked was liking him again and taking an interest in his life – and wanting to stay annoyed with her. Was she his girlfriend? Did she want to remain casual? He invited her to his housewarming party as he had planned, half believing she’d find an excuse not to make it. He even told Hannah she could bring her friends to make it sound more of a casual invitation. Thanks hun, no need for me to bring anyone, really looking forward to meeting your friends. Also, is it ok if I stay round yours? Saves me catching last tubes back to Streatham x. When Amyas read those words he instinctively smiled so widely his colleague John Stamler shouted over, “Dude, you just got a booty call?”
The girl he liked was coming to his party and wanted to spend the night with him. So as he was unpacking and taking delivery of sofas and furniture he had ordered over the previous months it was slightly concerning to receive a phone call and be told his new bed was on a motorway in southern Scotland being delivered to the wrong address.
With the last delivery taken and last box hidden in a corner to be unpacked another day, Amyas walked into his new bedroom. It had all the furniture it needed with built-in wardrobe and bedside tables – all except a bed. With his existing duvet and throw plus the additional ones he had quickly run out to buy, he created his own makeshift bed. It was the centrepiece to the room and with the lights dimmed low he was almost glad the actual bed had not arrived. To Amyas, it had the potential of being the perfect romantic moment, everything he could want for his first night with Hannah. Despite what had happened the previous week he was feeling incredibly nervous and overwhelmingly excited. He hoped Hannah would like it.
At seven o’clock friends started arriving at his flat. First was Donny Tabasco, arriving straight after work. “Need a hand setting up?” he had asked the day before. “Half the office is coming along,” he said as Amyas gave him the guided tour and they proceeded to set up the hi-fi and speakers. “They went to the pub for a couple, a few are bringing the girlfriend so it should be a decent crowd.” Amyas’s old school friends were next to turn up – Ollie, his girlfriend Ellie, Dave and Nathan. Ollie and Dave had been two of his best friends since he was twelve. Even with school long behind them they would meet up weekly – long-term drinking buddies who graduated from beers in the suburbs to discovering the bars and clubs of London. Nick, Kate and Joan came soon after, Joan saying he had compiled an MP3 playlist if he needed to liven the party up. Over Joan’s shoulder Nick gave a shake of the head. It was all his friends and more. It felt so civilised to be hosting his own party.
Bottles of champagne had been opened and he left Ollie in charge of putting pizzas in the oven whilst he stepped out of his own party to collect Hannah from Arsenal tube station.
She had got there before him. She had joked about him not keeping her waiting. He was on the phone to her as he approached telling her to walk towards him so they could meet halfway up the quiet residential road. She was beautiful, wrapped in her white winter coat, her radiant beaming smile and rosy pink cheeks. Any rigidity he wanted to maintain melted.
“Hey, good to see you,” she said and kissed him warmly. “How did the move go?”
“On the whole, smooth. Slight hitch with the bed.”
“Oh this sounds interesting,” she laughed.
“Let’s just say I hope you’re able to see the romantic side of improvisation. The mattress and frame are still probably somewhere in the north of England so I’ve had to be imaginative.”
“You’re not telling me we’ll be sleeping under the stars, are you?”
“Not that far, but I’d be lying if the words duvet and floor were not a full description of what I can offer you. I will understand if you want to get the train back to Streatham.”
“Oh I think I’ll be able to survive.” She slipped her hand into his.
“Now which way to yours? I’m going to memorise it.”
“Let’s turn here, I think it’s a short cut.”
“Plimsoll Road. I like that name.”
“It’s lovely around here,” Hannah said as they walked up Amyas’s street. “Is this it? It’s beautiful! Ha! It sounds lively up there.” The sash windows were open, with music and the sound of people flowing out.
“That’s the latest in German hip-hop. It shows we’re ‘down with the kids’.” She laughed at him, still holding his hand.
Inside the flat he poured Hannah a glass of champagne.
“Did you say that I could bring a friend because you thought I’d be nervous meeting your friends?”
“I didn’t want you to feel overwhelmed and have no one to talk to.”
“Ha! That’s kind of you, honey, but you don’t have to worry. I can mingle with your friends, they seem really nice. You go make sure everyone is having a good time.”
“Alright, mate,” Amyas said to Ollie, who was just taking a pizza out of the oven. Amyas took two beers from the fridge and passed one to Ollie. “German hip-hop is going down well. Brings back memories of Heidelberg.” After university they had a tradition – an early December city break to the hardly heard of German town, Heidelberg. Ollie was half German and Dave had been an exchange student there. They had enjoyed the first time so much they kept going back. And in England, German music, German beer and German Christmas markets were all bonding experiences for the three young men.
“Cheers,” he said. “Hannah seems nice. Ellie explained things to Lisa, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks. I could have handled things a lot better.”
“Wouldn’t worry about it. Ellie said you probably did the right thing. Glad you sorted thing with Hannah.”
“I hope so.” He lowered his voice. “If she didn’t come tonight I would have thought that was it – things were over. But, I don’t know, she’s here and she’s meeting my friends. It feels real now, if you can understand.”
“So Hannah,” Nick started as he and Amyas took another bottle of champagne from the fridge. “She’s very attractive.” Amyas smiled. Nick, despite going out with the beautiful Kate Willis, rarely commented on another girl’s looks.
“Thanks, dude, have you spoken properly?”
“Well it depends what you mean by properly. We both agreed that we already knew each other vicariously via you. She seems lovely, well done, dude.”
On the other side of the living room Amyas’s other best friend from his West London school days, Dave, was deep in conversation with an American girl from Amyas’s work, who seemed to have started early on the wine.
“Oh is that right,” she said swirled her glass carelessly, putting the carpet in danger of being christened. “Well then, show us.” She stumbled back to give Dave room.
“Amyas will tell you,” he called over, getting Amyas’s attention. “Amyas, I was telling your colleague that I was the United Kingdom under-fourteen breakdancing champion. She doesn’t believe me.”
“It’s true,” Amyas lied with a straight face. “Dave is one of the leading breakdancers in the country.”
“Seriously? I’ve been challenging him to a dance off but he won’t.”
“That’s because he always gets asked at parties,” added Joan also in dead seriousness. “He deserves a night where he can just relax.”
“Plus he charges a performance fee and I’m not willing to pay it.”
“Here, come with me. I’ve got something to show you.” Amyas took Hannah’s hand and led her out of the living room to his spare room.
“This is my new smoking room. What do you think?” Another set of large sash windows were open and an ashtray had been placed on the sill outside. The view overlooked the immaculate back gardens and conservatories of the large townhouses of the street behind, that backed onto them. They could see into grand kitchens and even grander extensions as Amyas wondered if the richer you were the less inclined you were to hang up curtains.
“I take it this is going to be a second bedroom. You were thinking of getting a lodger, weren’t you?”
“Maybe, we’ll see, but tonight it means you and everyone else who gets ostracised doesn’t have to go outside. We can sit here and enjoy the view.” They sat on the floor and Hannah lit a cigarette.
“I was talking to your friend Nathan. He seems, a bit, well…”
“Weird. Yeah sorry about that, I should have warned you.” Everyone has a friend like Nathan, thought Amyas. Nice enough when you were at school but then suddenly hits a phase in life where he becomes socially awkward and deals with it through displays of ridiculous boasting or resolving to not say a word.
“It’s okay, we were talking about mental health. He was telling me about issues he thinks he has. I think he might have got the wrong idea and asked me out.”
“Yeah, he tends to do that. He can be a bit of a dick,” Amyas said plainly. “He’s a decent guy at heart but has some social issues at times. He genuinely thinks he’s from inherited wealth and all women fancy him because of his money. In reality his grandfather owned a tobacco shop in Ealing and he works in tech support for an accounting firm. But Ollie, Dave and I have been friends with him so long we’re used to him – he’s one of us so we’re allowed to take the piss out of him. Though feel free to ask him to reset your laptop password. In that he really is an expert.”
“Ha! You’re so mean!” she said, slapping his arm before turning to the window and leaning back into him so he naturally had his arms around her with his chin resting on her shoulder as they looked out the window. “Have your friends been talking about me?”
“Yes.” He kissed her neck. “They think you’re lovely. In fact they are a little stunned at how gorgeous you are.”
“Seriously, Nick was a little smitten, I think. My workmates were shocked too, they didn’t know that I was seeing anyone.”
“You didn’t tell them?”
“No, I didn’t want to jinx anything. I guess I wanted to see if you actually liked me first.”
“So what do you think now?”
“I hope you do. It means a lot you’re here.” She turned slowly around and looked at him. First into his eyes and then at his mouth, and placed her hand gently to his cheek. She smiled as if relieved or had suddenly recalled a fond memory. “I guess meeting each other’s friends is pretty important,” she said quietly. “It means we’re not just…” She smiled, not finishing the sentence. Instead she leaned in and kissed him. Her mouth stayed at his and with her body pressed into his. Amyas closed his eyes and felt warmth, softness and total wondrousness in that one kiss. If it was a film fireworks would be erupting in the night sky. Cupid’s arrow would be hitting its mark. With the view from the window, overlooking the lights from neighbouring Islington houses, it was the most romantic moment of Amyas’s life.
When the last taxi arrived and Amyas had walked his remaining guests out, he climbed back up the communal stairs into a now silent, post-party, flat. Hannah was in the bathroom. He closed the sash windows and pulled down the blinds. He then went to his music system. Over the previous weeks he had thought many times about this night – his first night with Hannah – whenever it would occur. He had wanted the moment to be perfect and had a specific song that summed up what it meant to him. He scrolled through his iPod and set the song to play.
If we’ve just tonight
In all this time
She stepped into the living room, stopping at the doorway. They said nothing, just looking at each other.
Maybe we dreamt this
If we dream when its’ over
He walked towards her, slowly, till he was barely a breath away. She looked at him and her eyes were pools of green and blue.
Every kiss it leaves
A mark that can’t be brushed away
She looked up into his eyes with her mouth slightly parted. Still without a word she lightly placed her hands on his chest.
And it was only the one time
We’d say to our future selves
In that second he could see everything he wanted. It was her. He knew that she was solely the girl for him. He loved her. Truly and only.
If we’ve just tonight
As the album finished, they kissed and she laid her head on his bare chest, wrapping her body to his and closed her eyes. He felt her deep silent breaths as she started to sleep. He was still, her body’s rises and falls soothing, till he felt the cold goose-bumps of her pale skin and, moving gently from beneath her, he leant over and picked her up in his arms. He stepped over their discarded clothes and carried her out of the room into the hallway to his bedroom door. Sleepily she opened her eyes and smiled at him. As he held her she let her lips roll onto his and kissed him. He opened the door to the improvised bed and as he laid her down their kissing recommenced more vigorously as her sleep melted away. As they kissed she moved her hips so they were directly under his. Their two naked bodies became one as the door finally swung gently closed.