Chapter 1: Chocolate
I started seeing Camille six months ago when she replied to an email initially intended for Anthony. The email was more of an enquiring nature: a ‘top-up’ and to catch up with Anthony five years after our last session. As I wrote it, I told myself I didn’t need therapy again; it was more a one-off because I could do with the advice and for someone I trusted to reassure me. However, by the time Camille and I sat opposite each other, I had known nothing like it. Halfway through our first session, she handed me a questionnaire. The last question asked if I had considered harming myself or ending my life. My answer, ‘Yes, most days,’ triggered the start of a beautiful friendship.
The thing about depression is that it is a little bit depressing. In a corporate presentation, my friend Jeff once confidently used the immortal closing line, ‘in the end, people are people.’ The clients loved it but we, his closest friends, would use that line to rib him for the next three and a half years. Jeff ‘People Are People’ Martin now lives in Seattle and still receives emails from former colleagues asking, ‘how’s work, buddy, how are the people, are they still people?’ The point I make is that to anyone else depression must seem a cop-out – a made-up thing that can be fixed by giving someone a bag of Minstrels and telling them to cheer up. And that can work to an extent. But when you’re looking for hemlock online or writing suicide notes to your dead father, then there is probably something deeper going on.
It was Camille who suggested that I meet with Ellie face to face. Before, I would have hidden away and hoped we could brush the situation under the carpet like we had done with every other problem in our family life. I arrived at the café an hour early, partly to mentally prepare and partly because I could not keep my mind on anything else all morning. I had woken up at five. I had tried lying in bed with my eyes closed. I tried reading, meditating, even counting sheep. I ended up going downstairs to make a cup of tea, tiptoeing on our creaky wooden floorboards not to disturb my flatmate. And long before there was any sign of life, I was out the door, unable to bear another torturous second of waiting.
No one should feel that nervous about meeting their sibling for coffee. Nervous, guilty, and if I was completely honest, more than a little bit resentful. Your older sister finds out you’ve been contemplating killing yourself, and instead of ‘Oh my God, Scott, what’s wrong?’ she destroys your most treasured possession and calls you a selfish prick. ‘Thanks, Ellie,’ I wanted to say with cutting sarcasm. But I reverted to the fourteen-year-old boy who had become overawed by the whirlwind of rebellion and anger that was his seventeen-year-old sister and said exactly what I would have said back then – absolutely nothing. Even when she walked out, all I could mumble was ‘don’t call me a prick.’
The café was on Exmouth Market, or what used to be Exmouth Market before it succumbed to gentrification. Rather than a café, I was in one of the numerous bar-slash-restaurants serving coffee, cocktails, and overpriced ‘artisan dishes’ which could neither be considered a meal nor a snack. Menus were divided into Salads and Grains, Small Plates, Large Plates, and included modern classics such as London halloumi and Dingley Dell Farm pork schnitzel. Did being inside the M25 improve the taste and texture of cheese, or did above average diesel emissions and lack of space enhance the quality of dairy farming? Was ordering schnitzel more satisfying if you were forced to know the origin of the pig whom you had caused to be slaughtered? This might make me sound pedantic, but sometimes I think less is more when it comes to knowing where my food comes from. And perhaps about modern human existence in general.
I chose that specific café because when Ellie would visit me in London ten years ago, it used to be one of our favourite hangouts. Al’s Bar, it used to be called, and served lager in plastic glasses at two in the morning and had a tiny basement with an absolutely rammed dancefloor. Now it had a strict policy that a parent or guardian must accompany all twentysomethings and when I popped downstairs to the toilets, I found a giant wood-burning Aga had replaced our dancefloor.
I sat on a long white leather booth with an immaculate, dazzling white table in front of me, surrounded by healthy-looking, presentable, middle-class people in their thirties or forties. Okay, my gripes against gentrification and the middle-class are more than a tad hypocritical. My sister and I grew up in a large detached house in the North London suburbs, and both of us went to a fee-paying, private school. We were probably the first generation to start spending close to five pounds on Starbucks coffee, and years of sheltering from life’s problems meant we grew up comparatively healthy looking too. However, what I was not, was presentable. I looked down at myself, and compared to other men around me, all sporting incredibly well-groomed beards and the smart-casual-Sunday-shirt-and-pullover-combos, I genuinely looked scruffy. There was nothing designer about my five-day-old stubble (I was rationing my Gillette Mach 3 as was loath to spend ten pounds on four new blades), and I was still wearing my torn and tattered ten-year-old coat because the jumper I was wearing had some of Tuesday night’s curry down the front.
There was another big difference between me and those men with the well-groomed beards and the winter tans, which I imagined resulted from a recent visit to a European ski resort. At that moment in time, in that café on a Sunday morning, none of them were alone. Sitting in the corner with an airy and sunbathed room in front of me, I could see groups of men and women sitting around their tables, all engaged in conversations, laughing, smiling, gesturing, apparently content and unashamedly proud of their place in the universe. And that’s where Big Sis should have come in. Stop me looking like a loser in front of the cool kids.
I had brought with me a copy of The Great Gatsby. More as a conversation starter than me rereading it. And when I say conversation starter, I mean an elaborate ploy on my part to start us off on a united front and talk about Dad. Obviously, naming me after the author, he was a fan, but Dad also wrote his doctoral thesis on Fitzgerald, and many of his literary review papers centred on the great American novelist who only wrote four novels – to paraphrase a quote from Ellie to Dad from my wonderfully tension-filled teenage years. I then realised that perhaps the book was a bad idea. Our childhoods were privileged. Dad provided us with a big house, good educations, intellectual stimulus, and love and attention. But his one mistake was having Mum leave him and unfortunately, that was something Ellie would not forgive or let him forget. She was a kid, she was angry, but she was deliberately and relentlessly hurtful, and though it might sound trivial, continuous little digs at the great American author were her way of getting back at Dad.
I left Gatsby in front of me with my glass of hot chocolate next to it. An ashtray of sugar cubes sat behind them both. I’ve never claimed to have very adult tastes, and there is probably nothing sadder than a thirty-five-year-old man drinking a child’s drink, but it soothes me. The sugar rush and serotonin were comforting, and let’s face it, being addicted to sugar and chocolate is a lot less of an issue than me relapsing on gin for breakfast and cocaine as my powder of choice. Well, unless I suffered from type 1 diabetes.
And during my time waiting for Ellie, I had made it to my third hot chocolate – three was too much of a sweet hit even for me so I let the last go cold – and did end up rereading half of Gatsby.
We were due to meet at eleven, and it was noon by the time I finally got my phone out to text her.
Are you coming? I wrote. I was cradling the phone in front of me, staring at the screen, trying to avoid the fact I could see a rather sheepish, downcast face reflecting off the glass back at me. Immediately, I saw a text bubble appear and the dots of a response being composed.
I waited a few seconds to see if there would be another text bubble. There wasn’t.
Where are you? I sent back.
Brighton. Back home.
Thanks for telling me, was my reply.
I like to think I leaned back on the leather booth and rolled my eyes at her distant reply, but I’m guessing I didn’t. I do remember that with the sunlight directly flowing into the café and the heating on to combat the cold November day, it had started to feel stuffy, and my face began to feel warm and flushed. I then received another text.
Scott, I really don’t care.
It was probably no more than half a minute that I was staring at my phone when I decided I should probably go home too – not much point drinking cold hot chocolate waiting for someone who was in a different county. So I called for the bill. Or at least I tried. When I tried to catch the waitress’s eye, I felt my own quickly swell with tears. I looked down and tried to hide my face, pretending to be fixated by Gatsby. I could hear people around me continuing to chatter, cups knocking on saucers, and a coffee machine powerfully exhaling steam. But all I could feel were tears involuntarily streaming down my face and a lump developing in my throat. I had not had either sensation in about twenty-five years and had no idea how to stop them. Keeping one hand covering my face, I fumbled for any cash to cover the bill. I then pulled up my jumper to wipe it on the inside and made a rush for the door.
But I didn’t make it.
Halfway through my run, I tripped over the leg of a chair and fell crashing to the floor, face first. The next thing I knew, three of the men with well-groomed beards were helping me to my feet and asking me if I was okay. Someone else had passed me a tissue to stop my nose bleeding – at least that was one positive, blood being so less embarrassing than tears. I heard the waitress also say she would get some ice for my lip.
‘Thank you. It’s okay. You’re all very kind,’ I repeatedly said before finally managing to back out of the café and walk briskly away with none of my dignity intact and my sister nowhere to be seen.
I didn’t realise how much I needed Ellie until then. To be frank, I don’t think I even liked her that much, and feel I’m the one with ample grounds for calling her a prick for the shit she’s done over the years. She was the world’s worst sister. Vicky, my ex-fiancée, despised her. She said she was volatile, selfish, and had a pathological need to hate me. Ironically, Vicky had primarily known Ellie when she and I were probably at our closest – those Exmouth Market days of late nights and bar-hopping, when I was twenty-six. It was perhaps the best year of my life. I was engaged to the girl I had loved since sixth form, and my super-cool, music-journalist older sister, finally wanted to hang out with me.
When I was fourteen, she couldn’t wait to be away from us – me, Dad, and our house in Wood Green, North London. Ellie had been offered places to study music at the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and Guildhall School of Music, and she turned them all down to leave London for the West Country and Bristol. At that age, I hadn’t fully understood the implications of this shunning. I had thought her university choices in keeping with her subversive nature and anything elitist she would duly turn her back on. That was why, on the day she left, when she was packing up her room, I had quietly hoped that she would be back at weekends and tell me about all her new adventures. But as her younger brother, I thought it was my duty to mask any acknowledgement of missing her with nonchalance and inane banter.
I remember the moment well. I was standing awkwardly in the doorway of her room, staring at all the crates and boxes, surprised that Ellie was taking absolutely everything and leaving a shell behind – no evidence of her whatsoever. She had her back to me, standing at her bookshelves, taking down her biographies of Cobain and Dylan. ‘You know, I think I might turn this into a games room when you’re gone.’ In my head, I thought it a way to break the ice. Ellie would laugh, sit me down on the stripped bed, and give me an inspiring, heartfelt pep talk – she would tell me that she would miss me and that I would be alright, like in an American teen drama. Instead, Ellie kept packing up her books.
‘If it makes up for the fact you’re never going to lose your virginity. Sure.’
With the pep talk pretty much over, I went back to my room and sat on my bed. On it, I had placed a newly made wooden box – by me in woodwork class – with a sliding lid and ‘Ellie’ engraved on it. I knew it was lame but I had spent the previous four weeks trying to craft it. It was for her to carry her pencils and pens for when she would compose music. I just sat there staring at it, thinking how stupid I had been to make it for her. Then I heard the front door slam. I got up and ran to the window seeing Ellie getting into the movers’ van. I ran out of my room into hers. All the boxes were gone. I ran downstairs, opening the front door, but the van was pulling away with Ellie in the passenger seat. Our eyes met. She then looked away and put her hand to cover the side of her face. I was fourteen years old. The next time I saw Ellie, I was seventeen. So much for weekend visits.
In hindsight, Ellie might have had a point about never losing my virginity. When I had suggested a games room, I wasn’t talking about a pool table, table football, or even multi-player shoot ’em up video games. I was talking about Orcs, Druids, Dwarfs, and Elfin Warriors, all hand-painted miniature models, laid out across a board on the floor that my dad had helped me paint so it resembled Middle-Earth. Yes, in my early teens, I was heavily into Games Workshop and fantasy-adventure strategy games. I like to think I’ve grown as a person since and developed some less ‘introverted’ and more outdoorsy pastimes. I’d also like to think that my and Ellie’s relationship has also evolved over time, perhaps taking longer than it should have, to the point that now in our thirties, I am godfather to both her children, Millie and Ed. Though the honour is a slightly dubious one seeing that both Ellie and her husband, Mike are agnostic and, as Ellie put it, ‘we only took part in the façade as Dad said he’d pay for the do and Millie would get some less shit presents than the crap we can afford.’
The do was lovely, to be fair, both for Millie and then for Ed two and a half years later. Millie is now four and what I remember most was Ellie arriving at Dad’s in a mood after a drive in heavy traffic, trying to force the pram and Millie’s stuff through the door single-handedly while virtually kicking off Mike’s attempts to help. She then walked into the living room, saw all the balloons, cake, and the piled-up immaculately wrapped gifts, and burst into tears. I think that was the second of only three times I had seen her cry. I guess that was one of the few things we had in common. The Roberts kids – Ellie and Scott Roberts – waiting until their mid-thirties before letting out a show of emotion.
And perhaps Ellie also had a point about not showing up to the café. The last year had not been the easiest for either of us. As I left the café on Exmouth Market, I felt my feet moving faster and faster, not just taking me away from the scene of my lost dignity but breaking into a run and running away from… the past? Myself? Ellie? I honestly did not know. And that was extremely frustrating since I was hoping that these were the types of questions I would find myself answering after six months of therapy. But whatever animosity I held for my sister and what grudges she held for me, were not merely a case of suppressed resentment from our formative years. Obviously, that was a contributing factor, but the roots of our current difficulties resided in the events of the last twelve months.
Where my feet did find themselves running to that day, at least eventually, was Stockwell allotments in South London, where I was late for my first day of work.
The Joneses were there already, Mr Jones – Ronnie – out with his fork digging up the turf.
‘There you are!’ he called over to me as his wife, Judith, looked up with a string of weeds in her hand. ‘I thought you’d stood us up!’ They chuckled to themselves as I tried to smile apologetically.
‘Sorry, got stuck at something north of the river.’
‘Where? North of what? Never heard of it!’
I had met the Joneses during that summer, just down the road at Ruskin Park Community Gardens. After a lifetime living in the part of the world which Mr Jones had claimed never to have heard of, I had found myself living for the first time in South London. I shared a flat with a flatmate I hardly knew, and who seemed quite happy to maintain that set of circumstances, and as already alluded to, I was not in the healthiest of mindsets. I found myself spending a lot of my free time wandering Ruskin Park. I would while away the evenings and weekends sitting on a bench in front of a hidden set of gardens, carefully secluded by hedgerow, so I could be alone. Until one day, I wasn’t alone. A dozen or so people of my parents’ generation had gathered out among the flowers and shrubs, with gardening gloves on and trowels in hand.
‘Might never happen,’ shouted a voice from among the plants. A man with short white hair and tanned, muscular arms stood mopping his brow, looking over at me. I looked to my left and right to see who else he could be addressing.
‘Kind of already has.’ I tried to smile back politely.
‘Don’t tell me. Lad your age, must be girl trouble.’
And he was right. Though my relationship with my sister was not exactly rosy back then either, my descent from depressed into depression was triggered by an affair of the heart. Her name was Sarah. And not only had she broken my heart, but she managed to flip a switch in my brain that I could not seem to un-switch.
I say she broke my heart, and she flipped the switch. In reality, one person rarely holds that power over another. And I can’t even say she was the love of my life, considering I was engaged eight years earlier to the real love of my life.
The entirety of our physical relationship consisted of one kiss.
‘Nice garden,’ I called back. ‘Is this…’ I was just trying to make polite conversation and avoid his question. ‘Is this all your work?’
‘Friends of Ruskin Park. Community Gardens. These, and the veg and herb ones round the back. Giving these a tidy today.’
‘I like the hibiscus shrubs.’ I nodded to a small bush of yellow flowers by his feet.
‘Good eye, lad. Planted those myself. You much of a gardener, then?’
I would not say it was from altruistic motives I took Ronnie up on his offer of putting on a pair of gloves and giving the Friends of Ruskin Park a hand that day – I felt too socially awkward to say no. And when Ronnie asked if I wanted to come along the next day I started showing up every day, even skipping out on work early to do so, largely because it also meant avoiding Sarah.
‘So, it’s pretty much gone to pot,’ said Ronnie, resting his foot on his fork and looking around at the large patch of allotment. ‘We really should have been able to do both this and Ruskin, but refurbing the community gardens got a bit out of hand – saying that, I’m not complaining about the result.’
‘I bloody am, Ronnie. This should have been us unwinding in your retirement, not you working yourself up into another heart attack!’ Judith stood up.
‘Oh, you do exaggerate.’
‘Scott, what my husband and I would like is if you took the reins here over the winter. Ronnie can keep Chair of the Committee at Ruskin and lay down the law there, but I don’t want him coming back here till at least the spring. There’s beds needing building, soil needs replacing, weeding, pretty much everything, and I don’t want this one sneaking back here. Three afternoons a week, and we’re paying you the going rate. No charity needed here, thank you very much.’
Judith was not one to argue with, and Ronnie stood there, grinning like a schoolboy.
‘I guess we’ve been told, lad.’
The first thing the Jones showed me was the shed. Anyone who spent their childhood watching old VHSs of Dr Who would be familiar with the acronym TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimension In Space. But as there are fewer and fewer of us who admit to being old school Whovians, let’s just say their shed was surprisingly bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. As well as containing every form of gardening implement imaginable, there was also a kettle, two armchairs, and what looked like a home brewing kit in the corner.
‘Also, Scott, feel free to borrow anything you need to take around with you. If you’re to get your business off the ground, you’re going to need a few more little patches. We’re happy to help any way we can.’
Judith had a point. One that should keep a person awake at night. Today was my first day self-employed – no more working for someone else. And no more being paid for forty hours a week, sick pay, holiday allowance, or job security. At that moment, I had a total of one customer and ten hours’ worth of work to get me started.
‘I’ve designed some fliers,’ I said quietly.
‘Well, get them out there, lad! Me and Judith’ll put the word around. Don’t underestimate the value of good old word of mouth. Though, I can’t guarantee you it will compare with your fancy-arsed banker wages.’ He gave me a nudge and chuckled to himself as we stepped back out of the shed.
On that first afternoon at the Ruskin Park gardens, Ronnie had asked me,
‘What do you do then? A well-spoken lad like yourself? Lawyer, banker, poncey beer maker?’
I didn’t consider myself that well-spoken. Ellie and I had gone to a private school but it was down the road from our house in Wood Green and was more arty and weird than posh. But Ronnie did have one thing right.
‘I used to work in banking. But quite a few years ago. I’ve been abroad the last few years.’
‘Abroad? I’ve heard of that. ‘Em foreigners come from there?’
‘He’s pulling your leg,’ shouted a lady I would come to know as Judith. ‘We’re all very multicultural around here and very much proud of it. My parents were both Polish.’
Ronnie was practically bent double laughing as Judith shook her head and went back to her flowerbed.
‘The Middle East and Africa. Doing some… charity work.’
I hated the term ‘charity work’. It sounded more selfless than it was. For the last four years, I worked in international development, doing project work for an organisation that technically was a charity. It was a job that got me out of London at a time I was struggling with a series of temptations.
‘So where does a banker learn about hibiscuses? Your parents keen gardeners?’
‘I helped run a farming project in Burundi. There’s a lot of hills there. Surprisingly cold and wet at times. Like here. And before that, I would build little rooftop gardens and courtyards wherever I stayed in the Middle East. I did an online landscaping course to help pass the time.’
‘So what brings you back here?’
We packed up at the allotment as the November sun began to set, the tools back in the shed, the large padlock on the door.
‘So, is this you done with charity work?’ Judith was fastening up her coat as we prepared to leave. ‘You could always go back, I assume, if you get fed up doing other people’s gardens.’
‘I don’t think so. It was surprisingly corporate, the charity sector over here. A lot of office politics. I don’t think I really enjoyed one day of it.’
‘And that girl?’
Six months ago, even alluding to Sarah would have been enough to send me into a spiral. Now, at last, a weight felt like it was slowly lifting.
‘It was a relief,’ I said. ‘Knowing it was the last time I would see her.’
I thought briefly back to my last day, and Sarah doing the usual flick of her long brown hair and marching past me, determinedly ignoring me, as she crossed the office brightly telling someone how she was off to the south of France the next day.
‘She didn’t sound the right sort anyway,’ Judith said diplomatically.
‘It all works out for the best, lad. And take it from someone who knows, there’s more to life than working in an office. People pay too much heed to computers and that these days. I don’t know how you can stand being indoors all day everyday clicking and typing. It would do my head in!’ Ronnie chuckled as the three of us walked up a path, away from the shed.
‘In my day, work was about having a laugh with the lads. Out in the fresh air, the radio on and beers after. Didn’t need a degree or memorising the works of Shakespeare. You just did what you enjoyed doing.’
And with that I thanked the Joneses, said goodbye – telling them I would keep them updated on progress – and set out back to my solitary flat and even more solitary life.
Researchers now say we should plan for up to five career changes over our lifetimes. I’m sure this would have shocked our grandparents' generation, who fastidiously stuck to one through wars, strikes, and recessions. I had turned thirty-five over the summer and, as of that day at the Joneses allotment, was already on to my third while everyone else I knew remained happy with their first.
I should explain how I arrived at my present situation. The first transition probably takes less of a leap – an investment banker who regularly partook in illicit substances giving it all up to do good causes, is perhaps a cliché these days. But then giving up charity work, both in the hills of Burundi and then at home, to become a one-allotment gardener in South London, perhaps takes some more clearing up. The crux of the matter began eleven months ago.
It was the run-up to Christmas and I was due to fly home. As I have said, for the previous four years, I had been doing various jobs around the Middle East and East Africa. Or to put it more honestly, I had not been living in London since I had woken up on the morning of my thirtieth birthday and decided to quit my stable, better-than-averagely paid job in the City to become a ‘hippie do-gooder.’ At least that was what my dad called it anyway. A sentiment shared by my sister though she preferred the term ‘attention-seeking cock’. It was the first time in my life when I witnessed them actually agree on something. On the surface, everything in my life probably looked ideal, even aspiring. The thing about growing up playing strategy board games is, despite significantly diminishing the probably of losing your virginity before you are at least forty-one, it does make you better than average at calculating probability and the maths behind each roll of the dice. I, therefore, spent my twenties working for an investment bank, got paid enough to afford the mortgage on a nice flat in North London, and to most people – my dad (happily), my sister (begrudgingly), my friends from university and my friends from work – I must have seemed set to continue climbing the corporate ladder for the next twenty to thirty years.
My dad was in the same job his entire life. And he loved it. He was an academic and writer who wrote books on Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, lectured at a London university, and would occasionally be asked to appear on Radio 4 for some literature-themed documentary. ‘How can you write books – i.e. plural – about Fitzgerald when he only wrote four, of which two were shit?’ said Ellie one time, I think at a school parents’ evening when her sixth-form English teacher had excitedly introduced himself to Dad. Anyway, Dad’s field of study was early twentieth-century novelists ranging from E.M. Forster to Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, but it was Hem and Scott where he received most of his plaudits.
And Dad thought I loved my job too. I had always thought that neither Ellie nor I pursuing literature at a higher level would have disappointed him, but he seemed genuinely proud when I came home from university and told him I had been offered a job in a City bank. I guess it meant I would never be too far away, which I think he found comforting as I could tell that rattling along alone in the old house would bring him down at times. And when I would visit for Sunday lunch, always hungover, he would chuckle, ‘Too much living the high life, eh?’ He would then mix me up a Bloody Mary, grinning through his beard. ‘Only one, mind you. Don’t want you bankrupting them come Monday.’ I still vividly remember those lunches. Three of us around the six-seater dining table, with Dad’s sister, Auntie Pam, joining us, and both of them interrogating me on the ups and downs of the stock market.
So when I used Sunday lunch to tell Dad that I was becoming an aid worker and moving to Lebanon to work with an organization responding to the Syria crisis, he was understandably bemused. ‘Since when were you interested in helping other people?’ Ellie said indignantly, throwing down her napkin. Ellie and her husband Mike had joined us on that occasion driving up from Brighton ‘just for something to do’ as Ellie put it. I had naively seen their presence as an ideal opportunity to make my announcement with the whole family in one room. How was I supposed to know Ellie had her own announcement planned? That she was three months pregnant with Millie? In hindsight, Ellie saying no to wine, Mike not even allowing her to carry the weight of a plate by herself, and the fact that while Ellie’s relationship with both Dad and me was vastly better than it had been in my teenage years, she had never previously made a spontaneous four-hour round trip visit for Sunday lunch just for something to do, all should have been somewhat of a clue.
Ellie walked out. Mike brought her back. Ellie begrudgingly told us she was pregnant. We were elated. I was also relieved at not having everyone staring at me like I was insane. And then gently after lunch, after Auntie Pam had gone home and Ellie and Mike had decided to stay the night rather than drive back to Brighton, we sat down in the living room and Dad and Ellie brought back up the subject of my new career.
I told them I wanted to travel. That apart from the occasional city break, I had never left London. I told them I wanted to do more with my life than enter numbers into a spreadsheet and read investor reports. I told them countless different reasons, all skirting around the real truth – that I was in therapy for drug and alcohol dependency and desperately needed a clean break from it all. And then I tried to appease Dad by saying it would only be for three months, I was only volunteering, I would be only on the border of Syria and in completely safe hands as, after all, who would let a maths geek from London anywhere near actual humanitarian aid? I would get the wanderlust out of my system and be back at a bank in no time. Three years later, I was making a Skype call to Dad, little Millie, and a heavily pregnant again Ellie from a town six miles from the Syrian front lines telling them ‘Red Zone’ status by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was a considerable exaggeration.
And then came that December day, eleven months ago. I was due to fly home for a family Christmas at Dad’s. Millie would have just turned four, Ed was one year old. It would have been Dad, me, Ellie, Mike, the kids, and Auntie Pam all under one roof for a week, the house properly full for the first time since I was a child. Dad had even given me a call the week before, asking if I minded giving him a hand with the cooking. ‘The Roberts men taking control of the kitchen,’ he laughed, his voice sounding huskier as he got older. ‘And The Musician has volunteered himself on procurement. He says farm shops in Sussex are saving the planet. Organic, and all that nonsense.’ The Musician. That was Dad’s name for Mike, an in-joke at having a professional rock musician in the family, which I thought perfectly summed up Dad’s humour. It also, to my amusement, infuriated Ellie no end because a) she was also a musician herself – a classically trained pianist – and b) Dad was not scornful, sarcastic, or ironic. Ellie had been sure that bringing home a rock musician would have shocked and appalled our old-school academic of a father and further enhanced her ‘wild-child’ status. However, within the first hour of their meeting, Ellie took me into the kitchen to let Dad and Mike ‘bond’. We were then suddenly greeted by a deafening wall of sound. Rushing back into the living room, we found Dad with a trumpet at his lips, and Mike with an acoustic guitar in hand, loudly accompanying a jazz recording that was turned up to full volume on the stereo. Ellie and I, Dad’s children, who had lived in the same house as him on and off for almost three decades, had no idea he even owned a trumpet, let alone played jazz. I don’t think I’ve seen Dad happier than that day. He was never one to be pigeon-holed, was Dad.
Even before making the trip, I had decided that I was ready to come home for good. I had spent each of the previous four years in a different country. Aged thirty, I was in a small set of apartments in Lebanon with its own little courtyard which I began beautifying with plants, shrubs and the help of an online landscaping course. Thirty-one, I shared a house in Jordan with an actual garden and learned what a kitchen garden was. Thirty-two, I was inside Syria, in a secure compound which we hardly left but had a rooftop which we gradually transformed into a mini oasis, again with the help from my part-time landscaping course. And then, aged thirty-three, I was offered the opportunity to leave the Middle East and project manage a very different project for one year. An agricultural farm in Burundi.
After the Burundi project was complete, I found myself in Nairobi, Kenya, with a plethora of other expats who had been given cushy office jobs in a tropical climate, put in charge of and doling out advice to vastly more experienced African colleagues, while they spent evenings and weekends at fancy bars or restaurants and exploring the African savanna. It had been a similar story in Lebanon and Jordan and was something I didn’t really feel that comfortable with. Hence the amount of time spent gardening. I was ready to come home and make a life back in London.
Not that I had told anyone. That was going to be my surprise to Dad. Be back with all my luggage, and let him know he might have a houseguest for a month or so while I found my feet again. The day before I was due to catch my plane, I got another phone call. This time it was from Mike. There’s no good, appropriate, or less horrific way to convey bad news but sometimes the act of telling becomes superfluous. ‘Scott?... It’s Mike…’ was all he had to say. His pauses, his reluctant tone, the fact it was him calling me. In addition to being my brother-in-law, I do count Mike as one of my best friends but the only reason he would ever call me while I was away was if it was bad.
So I came home. To an empty house. Ellie and the kids stayed back in Brighton until Christmas Eve, the day of the funeral. Mike met me at the airport and briefed me that Ellie hadn’t taken it well. He, strangely – or not strangely as grief affects all of us in different ways and all families are intensely complicated – acted as a go-between for Ellie and me. We didn’t speak a word to each other until the funeral. I sat in Dad’s – our – old Wood Green house with Auntie Pam making arrangements, and Mike would call asking what he could do. For some reason, it felt natural for this wall to develop between Ellie and me suddenly. Without Dad, what were we? After years of us gradually getting closer, it was no surprise that I had not heard from her. And neither did I want to. The longer her silence, the more justified mine, until the absolute horror show which was the day of the funeral.
Chapter 2: This one’s like your sister’s best friends…
‘Coffee?’ Camille asked me as I put down my bag. She was at her desk facing the back of the room, moving stacks of papers around to create space for the cafetière and two mugs.
‘Excuse the mess.’ She said it in that comforting American twang with which I had become familiar. ‘It’s the once-a-decade day of admin where I shift through all my crap and finally give up on reading that paper I bookmarked back in ’08.’
Camille’s office was a small homely rectangular room with just about enough space for two armchairs and a desk behind them. Squeezed between my chair and the window was a compact side table with a carafe of water, two tumblers, and a box of tissues, which I very much hoped not to need. The walls were a happy cornfield yellow, and as I took my seat waiting for Camille, I glanced out of the third-floor window onto a tucked away old Victorian courtyard.
Camille’s office was on the top floor of one of those grand London townhouses. Victorian, Georgian, Edwardian, I had no idea how one could tell, it just had a timelessness that reminded me of a period drama. Down below, a man wearing a crisp gun-metal suit and carrying an old-fashioned brown leather briefcase marched quickly into the building adjacent to us. He had no coat, hence the quickstep, I assumed. It had been below zero overnight and the frost left a shimmer on the cobbles.
‘It’s bloody freezing in here,’ Camille said in an exaggerated British accent. She picked up the coffee pot and began pouring. I watched the steam flood out colonising the room’s chilly air.
‘Oh, the joys of working in a Siberian paradise. Why I gave up Monterey Bay for your eleven and a half months of winter, God knows.’ Camille turned around, her shoulder-length blonde hair bobbing on what might have been a small animal cuddling her neck.
‘Nice scarf,’ I said, unable to suppress a smile. Camille was wearing a ridiculously thick cream woollen shawl the size of a poncho that had the home-made quality of a poorly designed child’s safety blanket.
‘My mother-in-law knitted it, douchebag.’ She handed me a mug and looked down at the knitwear, lightly fingering it with her free hand. ‘She’s a lovely, lovely woman whom I adore more than anyone else in the world, but unfortunately, she has no concept of fashion whatsoever.’ The scarf was an obvious juxtaposition to the rest of Camille’s outfit – a smart navy blue dress with wide leather belt. She wore no tights despite criticising our English weather, instead opting for tall suede boots that reached the top of her shins.
In every way, Camille personified my mental image of the typical Californian. Tall, attractive, stylish, immaculate blonde hair, sun-kissed skin with perfectly toned limbs – probably from waking up each day to go surfing – and impossibly straight, white teeth.
‘Oh, and if we are calling each other out on personal appearance, you may want to check the mirror. Jeez, Scott, what happened to your nose?’
Isn’t there some kind of rule that says therapists are not permitted to call their clients douchebag or delve into open sarcasm as a treatment method? If so, it obviously did not apply to West Coast Americans. ‘It’s a Freudian term,’ she smirked the first time she called me it. There was a spell at the start of our sessions when we were professional. I was polite and wanting to make a good impression as if it was a job interview. When Camille first stepped into the little waiting area and called my name, I have to admit, I was unnerved by how young and attractive she was. My previous therapist was a middle-aged man called Anthony. I had been seeing him for over six months, right up until the day I left for my new life as an aid worker.
‘Anthony was my doctorial supervisor,’ she had explained. ‘We’ve known each other, God, nearly fourteen years. Five of which was working at the same practice right up until he moved back to Scotland.’
I am not saying an effective therapist cannot be young or attractive; however, Camille was a sharp contrast to Anthony’s patient, coaxing approach. I also knew it would be strange talking to someone who was not Anthony about my thoughts, issues, the things I’ve done. So I was quiet, polite, determined to sit up straight and make a good impression. And if we continued that way, I very much doubt we would have made any progress.
‘It’s natural to want to be liked, to be polite, to be the version of ourselves we deem most appropriate in the specific situation,’ Camille remarked probably after session two, ‘but in the words of a great American poet, ‘that ain’t getting us nowhere’.’
As Camille sat down opposite me, she reached over to the side table to pick up her notepad and pen.
‘How did it go with Ellie?’ she asked.
‘It didn’t.’ I felt myself sink into the chair.
Camille reached over and poured me some water, a lock of blonde hair falling in front of her face as she did. I briefly retold the events of Exmouth Market.
‘Have you tried calling her? Having the conversation over the phone?’
‘Not really had the time,’ I lied. ‘With work, and that.’
Camille pulled a slight smirk as she made a note.Looking at her, I guessed Ellie and she would be around the same age. When I first met Camille, I felt strangely reminded of my sister’s friends growing up. A three-year age difference was like dog years back then. They were the confident, worldly, mysterious girls who would hang out at our house, and the instant I hit puberty, I would place them on pedestals, afraid to make eye contact let alone be in the same room. I say worldly – more in the sense that they could come and go as they pleased and did not have to ask permission to go to Brent Cross shopping centre.
Camille then smiled at me, this calm, soothing therapist’s smile of hers. If it is not something directly learned, it must be an art developed. How to reassure a patient without saying a word.
‘Not to cast aspersions on someone else’s workload, but do you think there might be another reason you’ve not called Ellie?’
I exhaled and automatically shrugged, shifting around in the soft chair. There were probably many reasons but even to me, saying, because I don’t want to, did not seem the most constructive of answers.
‘Shame? I still feel guilty, I guess. But I’m also seriously pissed off with her and don’t see why it is always me who has to make the first move with us.’
Mature, I know.
‘I’m pissed off at her and frustrated at myself – I know I didn’t handle things well in the café. After six months of therapy I would have hoped I would have responded differently.’ I sank further into the chair as if self-disappointment was like quicksand. ‘I could have called her. Either when I got there to check she was coming or when she was ten minutes late. I didn’t need to wait until she was an hour late to text her. And after, I should have done something other than run away.’
Camille smiled again.
‘Scott, I tell a lot of my clients, therapy is not a vaccine. You don’t take a six-week treatment and suddenly become immune. It’s about working on something and allowing yourself more than a few stumbles along the way.’
I let out an ever-so-small snort.
‘I had tried your idea of treating myself to a hot chocolate for each step of the way, you know, when doing things I would rather avoid. Like with the whole Sarah thing.’
‘Hey, sometimes it does help.’ Camille went a tad pink as she broke into a beaming smile. ‘We all do need something just to get us through the prolonged bad times. Though I will take note of your critique of my therapy techniques.’
I laughed but also heard Ellie’s shrill teenage voice in my head: so this is all my fault? She was yelling at Dad. She was standing, her arms by her side, her fists in balls, and positively livid. But the exact situation I could not recall. Memories all seemed blurred and hazy from back then.
I looked out of the window. In the courtyard below, a young woman was walking her bicycle across the cobbles. She was dressed in leggings and a fleece top and fiddling with the strap of her helmet. Suddenly I felt this pang of comfort or familiarity. I was recalling Tender is the Night. Dick Diver looking out the window of the bar watching riders of the Tour pass and dismount, resigned and determined not to pay attention to the scene unfolding in front of him: his wife and her lover telling him she was leaving him. I smiled, recalling just how good that novel was and how it alone would justify Dad’s obsession with Fitzgerald, despite Ellie’s taunts.
‘I don’t know if it’s relevant,’ I began, not sure if I was really addressing Camille or thinking out loud. ‘Or why it’s now suddenly on my mind, but recently I’m remembering this memory from years ago.’
Camille was still – patient. She stared calmly and gently with her brown eyes, and her blonde hair had fallen again past her cheek. She gave me the floor.
‘As kids, Ellie was the talented one in the family. Like really talented – a musical prodigy. She was able to play Bach and Chopin at the age of seven. Her instrument was the piano and Dad and Mum ended up buying her a baby grand for the living room. It satisfied Ellie’s tutor’s conviction that she needed the best to practise if she would be the world-famous concert pianist she was destined to be, and Mum liked having something stylish on which to display family photographs. But the most remarkable thing about Ellie’s talent was that it was a natural gift – she was one of those infuriating people who hardly needed to practise. Growing up, she would always have to be nagged to do her one hour of practice, though when she got into it, it was frightening how effortless she made everything.
‘And then this particular summer – I think I was thirteen and she would have been sixteen – she wanted to practise all the time. But it wasn’t effortless. It was loud and angry and constant, thumping the keys as hard as she could. One Sunday, I was studying for a test when she started up. I was getting more and more annoyed the longer she played hoping Dad would do something rather than just hibernate in his study as usual, or that the neighbours would complain. It felt like she was even louder, with all these crashing notes, and I just wanted her to give it a rest. So I went downstairs into the living room and tried to shout over the noise: “hey, Ell, can you quieten it down? I’m trying to do my homework.’ But either she couldn’t hear me, or she ignored me as she kept playing with just as much intensity and ferocity. I shouted a couple more times, ’Ellie, Ell, can you give it a rest?’ but if anything, she just got louder until I had enough and marched over and grabbed her wrist.
‘The next thing I knew, there was this primal scream. I then had this sharp blinding pain above my right eye and was lying on my back unable to breathe – Ellie’s knee was pressed into my chest, her fist wedged into my mouth, and her other hand repeatedly slamming my head into the wooden floor. ‘Jesus Christ!’ I then heard. Ellie was suddenly off me, and there was the sound of her screaming and shouting and furniture being kicked. My dad had finally entered the room and was dragging her away, but I couldn’t see a thing. My eyes were closed and I was curled up in a ball. I just felt myself shaking, unable to move, and willing myself not to cry while the gooeyness of the blood started to spread.’
I gave Camille a matter-of-fact half-smile to signal the story was over. There was a small carriage clock also on the side table where we put our coffees. It let out a low chime for the half-hour. Camille was still staring at me with that gentle stare of hers. Her notebook sat closed on her lap. She then straightened up.
‘Scott, where was your mom during all of this?’ she asked in a more serious voice.
‘Devon. It was September. Mum had left at the start of that summer.’
Camille leaned over and refilled my water glass from the carafe. My mouth was so dry I almost finished it in one gulp.
‘What happened next, Scott?’
‘Dad called Auntie Pam – his sister. She lived up near Alexandra Park – she still does – and came round to stay with Ellie while Dad took me to the hospital. The sharp pain above my eye was from a metal photo frame. When I had grabbed Ellie’s wrist, it must have been the first thing within reach. Luckily, Dad wasn’t into claw-hammers…’ I tried to smile but Camille was unmoved. She was looking at me, waiting for me to continue with her hand covering her mouth.
‘Well, the doctor said I was lucky. I had stitches where the corner had embedded into my eyebrow, and they cleaned some fragments of glass that had shattered around my eye. I had another couple more stitches in the back of my head where it had hit our wooden floor and Ellie had hammered it back down repeatedly. Dad was worried my nose was broken due to the blood, but it was just a nosebleed from a glancing strike.’
I let out another snort of laughter describing the war wounds. I also reached for the tumbler and finished the solitary last sip before turning to the window. It was getting darker, and a storm looked to be setting in. Suddenly, as I got lost staring, the blackness seemed to flicker and transcend into a brilliant white. I closed my eyes, rubbed them, and then everything was back to normal. I suddenly had a craving for a cigarette.
I can’t find a lighter anywhere. I’m going crazy. But I’m not crazy…
It took me a moment to notice Camille, her eyes also closed, her thumb and fingers rubbing her lids too.
‘Sorry, Scott. I meant what happened between you and Ellie.’ She gave another small encouraging smile.
‘Nothing,’ I said matter-of-factly again. ‘Some lady did come to the house the next day and asked me what had happened. I didn’t know why at the time, but I guess it was some kind of child-welfare thing. But it was nothing major, and after Dad took me down to the park for ice cream while the lady spoke to Ellie and Auntie Pam. And then that night, Dad and I took a trip for a few days, a writers’ conference – a trip he normally took a couple of times a year but usually we would have Mum there looking after us back home. I should have been at school, but they weren’t as strict about that stuff in those days – it was actually the first time Dad and I had done a trip together, just the two of us.’ I smiled – this time for real.
It became our thing, taking trips together. It started then, and it was just a few days in a nice hotel, but it transpired that when Dad was younger, he would do a lot of camping and orienteering – something else that did not fit his image as the bookish academic. You also wouldn’t have got Mum anywhere near a tent, hence the lack of those activities until then. It also got me out of the house and away from my Games Workshop sets.
‘I think I had already forgotten about the piano incident and wondered why Ellie had not come with us, or why she didn’t kick up more of a fuss about having Auntie Pam stay with her and not being allowed to remain in the house by herself.
‘And when we came home, everything was normal again – at least the new normal after Mum. The only thing slightly odd was that first afternoon back. When I got out of the car, I saw Ellie looking down at us from the upstairs window, but when I caught her eye, she disappeared – Ellie was never one to back down from a staring contest. Back then, she was – ’ I looked around the room for the word. I was going to say surly, or moody, but no. ‘She was a bullying arsehole. Anyway, that day she was quieter, no slamming of doors or sighs of exasperation or calling me stupid every time I said something. And at dinner, with the four of us, me, her, Dad, and Auntie Pam, around the table, she said nothing until after everyone had finished when she asked in this weird soft voice, ‘please may I leave the table?’ I can’t recall her saying please until then.’
Camille had picked up her notebook and was writing. After, she hooked the pen to its side and placed it out the way on the side table.
‘Scott, I want you to do an exercise for me.’ She sat forward, so my attention was only on her. ‘Close your eyes.’
I did, letting her and the room slip from view. I also tucked my hands under my thighs as I became more acutely aware of the cold.
‘Go right back to you and Ellie at the piano. Go back to that day and that specific moment.’
It was only on Camille’s advice that I had even downloaded a meditation app. Visualisation exercises did not come naturally to me at first, especially if they placed me somewhere I did not want to be – in the same room as my older sister. If this was meant to be an exercise in how to get in touch with my resentment, it was working. I had thought Camille might pick up on the last bit I said about Ellie looking sheepish when Dad and I came back from our trip, and I could then point out that she never actually said sorry.
‘Okay? Tell me exactly what is happening.’
‘She’s sitting at the piano, glaring at me as usual.’
‘Okay. What happens next? What do you see?’
‘Nothing. She sucker punches me and I’m on the floor.’ The imagery slowly began to solidify. I could see our old living room. I could see Ellie kicking and screaming above me as Dad had his arms around her waist, restraining her as she tried to pounce. And then all I could see was the floor. I was huddled in a ball, cowering like a weakling.
‘Scott, this is important,’ I heard Camille’s voice fluttering in as I nestled under the piano. ‘What exactly are you feeling right now?’
‘Nothing,’ I heard myself say. I was looking down at the smooth, glossed wooden floorboard of my childhood home. I could feel the stickiness of the blood. A girl had just kicked the shit out of me and I had done nothing to defend myself.
‘Ashamed.’ My hands weren’t as cold anymore, and instead of clasping them under me, I let my finger press my eyelids down, keeping them closed, maintaining the image.
‘Ashamed at letting her have that power over me. And betrayed for her doing it.’
I had not started seeing a therapist again to talk about Ellie, Dad, or well-buried childhood memories. I had begun therapy because of a girl called Sarah and how her ending our very brief relationship had sent me into an emotional tailspin. I could not sleep, I felt humiliated, I was hurt that someone I had grown close to could so easily cast me aside. I had felt ashamed with Sarah. I had felt betrayed. Suddenly I cringed at how Freudian the interconnectedness began to feel.
‘It should have brought us closer together. It wasn’t my fault that Mum left, so why was she so determined to take it out on me? And now I’m on the floor, unable to fight back, overpowered, relying on my dad to stop her.’
I could feel the cold floorboards and the dull, heavy throbbing at the back of my head.
‘Everything had to revolve around Ellie,’ I heard myself whisper.
Chapter 3: Idealism, Marxism, Romantic Fatalism, and Sarah…
It was a breakdown. Part of me wants to say it wasn’t, and that I was just down in the dumps like I usually get for one to two months every year. And part of me still feels ashamed for allowing it to happen. Ashamed and weak for not being normal and taking rejection on the chin.
But I did not allow it to happen. That was the whole point. The harder I fought, the longer I ignored it and I carried on, the stronger it became. It was like it fed off hubris, knowing I was too afraid, or too English, to admit there was a problem and do something about it.
Breakdowns are more complex than one single event, incident, or person. There has to be something else at work that makes you susceptible. They are like love in that respect. And a lot of the time the trigger for a breakdown is love, or what you had engineered to believe was love, because you were susceptible enough to fall.
Early into our sessions, Camille gave me a reading list, and on it was Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love. I found myself lying in the bed of the Airbnb I had been staying at reading it from cover to cover. It was like all the mysteries of the universe suddenly revealed. It essentially listed the symptoms of infatuation and the three critical ingredients to believing you have fallen in love. And then points out how easy this is to do – but not so easy to undo.
Almost immediately after Dad’s funeral Ellie and I received the news that everything was not straightforward with Dad’s will. Again, this could have been us trying to pigeonhole Dad, but within days of arriving home with all my belongings and having planned to crash at Dad’s for a few months while I got myself on my feet, we essentially found out the house was not wholly his. To cut a long story short, I was asked to move out while our family lawyer sorted through what was soon to become a messy situation.
I accepted the first job I was offered – working with a charity from its London office – so I wouldn’t dip into the rather meagre savings I had set aside to afford the jaw-dropping London rents. The work was fine, the majority of the people were alright, but it was office work at the end of the day. I was sitting at a monitor for eight hours a day, just like I had done at the bank, and despite my being away for four years, nothing had really changed. And then came Sarah, to save me from it all.
Idealism: Something in mind, spirit or will is the ultimate foundation of reality. That our reality is actually what we make up in our own heads and a reflection of our own ideas. To badly paraphrase Kant, if we want to fall in love, reality be damned, we will make that someone worth falling in love with.
Not meaning to be unkind, but I would not describe Sarah as conventionally beautiful. Not in the Hollywood, immaculate features, turning-all-men’s-heads-when-she-walks-in-the-room type of way. She had this slightly wonky face and this peculiar smile, of a girl not well rehearsed in the art of smiling. She would be dress pristinely around the office, with perfectly ironed blouses and pencil skirts always finishing an inch below the knee, and always looking serious. She had an unsmiling focus, like she knew she was going places, and combined with her immaculate clothes, she was distinctly unattainable.
Marxism: Groucho rather than Karl. The anecdote goes that Groucho Marx had been furious at being refused entry to an elite club he desired to join but would, in turn, consider it an insult to belong to the club who would have someone like him as a member. Even if that club had originally been the one that refused him. Or to quote the old phrase, we want what we cannot have. Even in love.
Sarah had never worked abroad. In fact, I was one of only a few in my new office who had. I assumed that this was what first put me on her radar. So when I found myself sitting opposite that unattainable girl at work drinks and she first smiled at me, that strange, goofy smile, I was smitten. And soon began the secret meetings – the walks at lunch, the drinks after work – and then those countless text messages and phone calls. I became her confidant. The only person she said she could be herself around.
Romantic Fatalism: Or, put simply, the intervention of fate. After all, what else could kick-start love more than the firm belief that it was our destiny? For Sarah and me, that came one February evening as I walked through the snow to Dalston station. I had on my travelling backpack and was carrying a crate of all my worldly goods – a digital radio, Bluetooth speaker, a series of paperback novels, and a print of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night Over The Rhone’. Admittedly, not a massive haul for what had been thirty-four years on the planet, but at the time, I was in between my third Airbnb so needed to travel light.
‘Scott!’ I heard a girl call. I looked up to see in the distance a girl beaming at me. Scott is not an uncommon name, and not immediately recognising the girl, I quickly glanced over my shoulder. I continued forward to avoid the embarrassment of misrecognition. ‘Scott!’ she called again, and this time stepped out in front of me. It was then I recognised her, but still only just. She was smiling this huge, beaming smile, like she was thrilled to see me. How strikingly different it made her look. Up until that point we had only spoken that once, at the work drinks, but there she suddenly was – the girl who I would glance at as she strode across the office – standing randomly in front of me at Dalston railway station, miles away from where we would normally see each other.
Sarah said she had met a friend who had just left to catch his train home. Later she told me she had been there to meet a guy from a dating app.
I told her about my living situation and she laughed. A wholehearted giggle of a laugh, and looked incredibly pretty as she did so.
‘Are you off home now?’ I asked, finding myself hoping she would say no.
‘I’m stranded!’ she said, again beaming. ‘I cycled here but just had two glasses of wine. They won’t let me take my bike on the train for another hour!’
So I asked if she wanted to go for another drink. Purely to kill time. Sarah led me to the same pub she had just left, just around the corner from the station. I assumed we would have one drink, talk about work, and then we would leave, Sarah able to travel home with her bike. But it was past closing time when we both stumbled out of the pub.
My preconceived notion of Sarah was the ambitious, must-be-involved-in-everything young woman I saw at work. She was recently promoted, was about to manage someone for the first time, and seemed to be going places. But in the pub, with me, she was suddenly endearingly girlish and youthful.
We had taken two sofas in the corner of the pub and lounged about like it was our living room. She sat childlike, her legs crossed beneath her and feet on the sofa, laughing at everything I said and giving me a virtual tour of her life through the photos on her phones. In my day, it was considered a little bit rude to take your phone out while having a conversation but since returning to London this seemed now the norm, and her relaxedness in this brave new world added something to her charm. We were not hugely apart in age – six years – but she was very much the millennial and I was Generation X.
‘I know I will never be a pretty girl,’ she suddenly confided after telling me about her breakup with her ex-boyfriend. ‘Not pretty like the other girls. But I would like the man I end up with to find me pretty. Just a little.’ The other half of the Marxist (Groucho) view of love is, ‘if that person wants me, there must be something wrong with them because no one beautiful or remarkable could ever love someone like me.’ For me, this self-deprecating lack of awareness of how attractive I found her was like being struck by the proverbial thunderbolt. Idealism. Marxism. Romantic Fatalism.
Chapter 4: Loughborough Road…
One thing Sarah said to me in the short window when we still spoke to each other was,
‘I might go out with you if you still owned your flat.’
She meant it as a joke, but every little joke has that element of truth at its core, and that particular one seemed to epitomise the reason why I would never be good enough for her. I had owned a nice two-bedroom flat in Finsbury Park. Nothing fancy, but it was home, at least for a while. I had probably been happiest during my mid-twenties, just after my Exmouth Market years and when I was with Vicky. In the end, it just became a place where I woke up hungover and with feelings of paranoia and self-loathing from whatever I had done the night before.
I sold it when I decided to leave London, fancying a clean break and new start. I just about broke even after I repaid all the credit card debt I had accumulated from my banking lifestyle, and in my head I reasoned that when I did come home I would do things differently. How was I supposed to know that London property prices would skyrocket and four years later I would rent seven Airbnbs in four months before gratefully accepting a room in a former squat?
After my session with Camille, I found myself again going against my ingrained instincts and taking the overground south of the river. I would leave a therapy session in one of two moods: a little calmer, more resolute, and slightly more confident of getting through the day; or completely drained and just needing to be by myself and process my thoughts. Alighting at Loughborough Junction, I made the short walk along the reassuringly quiet side streets back to Loughborough Road and the row of terraced houses I had most recently started to call home.
My plan was to sneak quietly up the stairs, throw some pasta into a pan, and then take a long hot shower to wash away everything on my mind. The only issue was avoiding my housemate, who had an annoying habit of leaving her bedroom door open – both an extension of halls at university, I assumed, and, also likely, a passive-aggressive gesture that this was more her flat than mine. Our usual protocol was to put on a fake smile and make twenty seconds of niceties before I disappeared. But lucky for me, my housemate was usually contented with a quick ‘hey, how was your day?’ using a big, polite smile to mask the fact that I was literally the last person with whom she had wanted to live. Fortunately for both of us, it was Thursday night, and she would usually be out with her posse of attractive, severe brunettes doing whatever it was that normal young people did with the weekend in sight.
Trying for a third time to unlock the front door, I finally felt the key connect with the ancient mechanism and engage. I rammed into the panel of red peeling paint with my shoulder, hoping not to take the whole thing off its hinges, and bundled myself inside. Our flat was the upper of essentially one house converted into two flats, and my room was right at the top, in what had been an attempt to convert the attic.
‘Scott!’ I heard my name called from above. Katie was in. I looked at my watch, and suddenly my heart sank. If Katie was still in then she had probably invited her entourage of female friends over, and as with so many evenings that summer, there would be a troop of three girls sitting drinking wine in Katie’s room with her, preparing for a night out and, perhaps legitimately, staring daggers at me every time I passed that open door.
A pretty, petite brunette appeared at the top of the stairs. She was dressed in jeans and a large knitted sweater, not the type of outfit if she had been planning a night on the town – night on the town? When had I started talking like my dad?
‘I thought you’d be home ages ago?’ She had on a strange fixed wide smile.
‘I had a doctor’s appointment. Was I meant to put the bins out?’
‘That doesn’t matter!’ she then yelled, strangely loud. ‘It’s just great to have you back!’
It was not like Katie and I did not get on as flatmates – we communicated well enough to make sure the bills got paid and did offer to make the other a cup of tea, though seldom drank it in the same room – but it had never been her habit to greet me at the door.
I carefully squeezed through our artificially narrowed hallway and onto the bare floorboards of the stairs. It would be no exaggeration to say that our flat had seen better days. The landlord had been quite happy to keep the same décor as during the Blitz, and the hallway was currently doubling as his private storage facility with boxes, books, kites, bicycles and even a 1970s storage unit that had been originally salvaged from a skip.
As I climbed the stairs, Katie remained at the top, her smile very unnerving and, upon getting closer, worryingly manic. ‘We’ve got company!’ she beamed, again theatrically brightly. As I reached her the smiled faded. ‘Save me,’ she mouthed and before turning back around and calling, ‘Joan, Scott’s here.’
Inside our kitchen, sitting at the end of the small dining table nonchalantly flicking through an old copy of The Observer Magazine was Joan, our landlord and currently by default, my best friend.
‘Joan came by to check on the boiler,’ said Katie, walking back into the kitchen, past the table, and then around the sofa, coffee table, and dilapidated armchair to the boiler cupboard in the far corner of the room. Here I should make known that when I say kitchen I mean the one room in our flat that served as kitchen, dining room, living room, and utility room in one. At the far wall were the kitchen cupboards, washing machine, small pantry, and stove. On the near side, immediately next to the door was the fridge, on top of which was a lava lamp and old hi-fi system. The sofa that Joan and his previous flatmate had rescued from the side of the road, a hand-me-down coffee table, and free eBay-acquired armchair, just about fitted in the remaining space. And last we had our large sash window, where Katie stood, which scarcely halted the flow of cold air over our barely functioning radiator.
‘Prognosis?’ I said, standing in the doorway, trying my best to raise a smile.
‘Yeah, it’s fucked,’ he said, without looking up from the magazine.
Joan’s real name was Jonathan, and I had known him since university. Since those days, very few things had changed about Joan. I was pretty sure the Beck t-shirt he was wearing over his skinny frame as he rocked back on his chair was the same he would wear to indie nights at the students’ union. The only noticeable difference between Student-Joan and London-Joan was probably his hair. Now sporting long floppy brown hair, he had originally been given his nickname because of a short, pudding-bowl, Joan of Arc haircut. A nickname he seemed not just to tolerate, but when he brought his parents along to one of our pub lunches during the Exmouth Market days, I was surprised to hear them refer to him as Joan too.
We weren’t exactly close friends at university. We were more friends of friends. Also, I didn’t really like him that much, to be honest. He always came across as aloof, would mumble rather than talk to you and had such a remorseless way of taking the piss out of people that it surprised me he had any friends at all. It was only when we graduated and lived on the same street with our other university friends at Exmouth Market that I actually got to know him. And it was only at a party when Aurora Vivic drunkenly burst into tears and threatened to cut his penis off with a kitchen knife that we first bonded. ‘The room is gravitating to your arse,’ Joan had whispered to Aurora as she was dancing. When the commotion had died down Joan looked genuinely confused. ‘I thought it was a compliment,’ he said.
‘So any idea when you’re going to have it fixed?’ said Katie, now stretching up to the cupboards above the cooker and bringing down three wine glasses. Oh fuck, I thought. We were going to have to do entertaining.
‘Meh,’ he shrugged.
‘Joan?’ Katie was holding the glasses, her brow starting to furrow.
‘I don’t know, it’s been like that for years. Leon never complained. Just deal with it.’
‘I don’t want to just deal with it. I want a landlord who actually bloody does things when you ask him and not just take my rent because he knew I was desperate.’
Katie’s own relationship with Joan was slightly complicated by the fact that, in addition to being her landlord, he was also her older brother. She put the glasses down on the table. Eyes still on the magazine, Joan reached into a bag at his feet and brought out two bottles of cloudy white beer and slid one across the table to me. Katie looked unamused.
‘Okay, well I won’t then open the wine if it’s going to be just me. I’ll have gin instead or something.’
‘You don’t like beer anyway,’ he said, lacking any real concern as Katie left the room.
I sat down opposite Joan, pushing off my coat onto the back of the chair.
‘Did you really come round to look at the boiler?’
‘Nah. Alison’s got her book club round. I was bored so I thought I’d come round here. Katie’s obsessed with this boiler thing.’
In a way, it was warming to have a friend who felt comfortable enough to pop round when he felt like it. So many of my friends had left London during my years abroad, and arranging to meet would take months of arduous planning. To give him credit, as a friend Joan was relatively low maintenance. At university, he was cool for not being cool. He did his own thing, went to obscure music nights, and when we all graduated and moved to London, it was he who knew the best clubs that were refreshingly not filled with other investment bankers but rather twentysomethings dressed in t-shirts and jeans, drinking lager out of plastic cups and jumping around a dancefloor. One of my original struggles with Joan lay with me, and that I have always been a people-pleaser. Any silence or lull in the conversation, I would deem a failing on my part. For Joan, these trivialities seemed to have no effect. Now, if he chose to put minimal effort into a conversation, it made him refreshing company, especially when you yourself were unable to be good company.
‘Okay, I’ve got someone who can come by next week,’ Katie said, returning with her phone against her ear. Both Joan and I looked at her blankly. As if to emphasise her point about the heating, she was now wearing a scarf. ‘The engineer. He can look at the boiler next week.’
‘It’ll cost a fortune. Plus, you’ve got that.’ Joan nodded down to the electric money-guzzling heater we had on.
‘It’s your responsibility! Scott and I are not putting up with this for the whole winter. I’ll even contribute if it’s excessive. I’ll let them know next week is fine.’ With that, she walked back out of the room.
It was not the most obvious pairing – Katie and me. It stemmed from us both being desperate for somewhere to live just when Joan chose to vacate his flat. Joan and his girlfriend Alison, another friend of ours from university, had been in a relationship for over a decade; however, it was only in the last few years that Ali had understandably owned up to the fact and then allowed him to move in with her.
All I really knew about Katie was that she was a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, she worked in a museum, and her long-term boyfriend was on a yearlong work placement at a Berlin law firm which meant she had also vacated their previous flat and took up her brother’s generous offer of renting his. Though, like me, she was led to believe it was the whole flat she was renting.
I had no idea Joan even had a sister until we had known each other for about ten years. I knew he had a younger brother, Niles, who had visited him frequently when we lived on Exmouth Market, but Katie was an unknown. ‘Well, she was a bit of a swot when we were kids,’ Joan had said. ‘Proper goodie-goodie teacher’s pet and got sent to the posh girls’ school. She was only twelve when I went to university, so we never really had that much in common.’ And I felt that too summed up my relationship with Katie.
‘You have to be fucking kidding me,’ were Katie’s first words to me as a flatmate. It was probably the only time I had heard her swear and was on a Saturday morning in late April. We had both arrived at Joan’s flat with all our possessions and found out we were moving in together.
She came across as someone who did not swear a lot even then, as we stood on the street, Katie staring at me dumbstruck. We were outside on the pavement, glorious spring sunlight beating down on us like it should be a day for the beach rather than the strange stalemate we were having at the old red door. Our respective entourages stood looking on, also wondering what was happening. On Katie’s side was a large white van and three pretty girls, all staring daggers at me. On my side was Mike, Ellie’s husband, who had rung up and offered me the use of him and the family car – an ol- school Volvo station wagon.
It had all started out friendly enough.
‘Oh. Hello again,’ Katie had cautiously said as we pulled up and were at the steps up to the house. ‘Are you looking for Joan? You know he’s living at Alison’s now?’
‘Yes, I know,’ I said, about to have said the exact same thing. ‘I’m actually moving in. Joan gave me the key yesterday…’ I was taking the keys out of my pocket as proof, wondering why Joan’s sister was then standing outside his old address.
‘I think there’s been some kind of miscommunication. No, you’re not.’
She said it adamantly. Rather fiercely, in fact. I then told her of Joan’s offer and the fact I had paid him the first month’s rent, which seemed to trigger a slight explosion somewhere in her brain.
To be fair to Katie, I would not have been in the mood to have a calm discussion with me either. Considering the only time we had previously spoken, I had drunkenly put my tongue in her mouth.
Mike and I stood back as she paced the pavement on the phone to Joan. At one stage she seemed to be literally pulling her hair out, and as she did, one of her friends would give her a consoling rub on the back, hug or lay their head on her shoulder in support. Every now and then, a taller, skinny friend with sharp, attractive, but not the friendliest of features would make a point of looking directly over to me and glaring. Eventually, Katie put away her phone and announced to the tall, skinny girl and her other friends,
‘My brother has properly screwed me. I can’t afford the rent without him, and I really can’t do another week sleeping on someone else’s sofa. So this is it.’ She then gave me a raised-eyebrows, it-is-what-it-is look, and proceeded to move in.
Mike and I decided it would be best to leave them to it and found a pub which did burgers and had a pool table. Katie told me that she and her friends were going out after they finished so we should ‘have a chat on ground rules’ the next day. While I stood outside waiting for Katie find an alternative to living with me, a thought began running through my head. If I didn’t have Mike with me – joking around, telling me about an album he had recently watch mixed – it would have been humiliating. Six years ago I had done something stupid, and I felt awful and a complete idiot both at the time and after. Every time I would then see Katie, as she and her same friends attended more of Joan’s birthdays, I felt rightly embarrassed and avoided even eye contact. But I was twenty-eight back then. Okay, that is the same age as Katie is now, perhaps twenty-nine, but I was a broken, immature twenty-eight. A drunken idiot. Not that I am now in any way wiser or sager. And not to entirely deflect the blame away from me, I am pretty sure she knew it was a misunderstanding and that I was set up by her twat of a brother.
I also quietly resented having to have a conversation on ground rules when I had no interest in Katie whatsoever. That might sound bitter, if not an exaggeration, but there were too many parallels with Sarah. They were both the same age and members of what I had deemed the superficial generation who lived their lives through their phones and social media – obviously, living my life sitting on park benches alone staring absently at communal gardens and spending my evening hiding in my room listening to vinyl, makes me the antithesis of shallow.
I just wanted somewhere to live, store my records, and spend my evenings alone brooding and playing acoustic guitar. So the reason why Katie and my relationship has not strayed any deeper than a polite hello was not solely because of her animosity to me or because of the ground rules we set out. But also because I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of wanting to live with her.
To make things worse, after the first awkward few weeks, Katie became quite friendly and polite. We weren’t best friends, but she didn’t have any reservations about leaving her door open, offering to make me a cup of tea, or waltzing into the kitchen while I was cooking and briefly tell me about her day. Whereas I would always gauge in the most cowardly way whether the coast was clear before even leaving my room.
Katie remained in her room, still on the phone trying to sort out more of the structural issues with our flat as I sat with Joan drinking the beer he had brought. To be fair, she had already transformed it from when Joan lived there. When he had first rented it the estate agent had called it ‘a fixer-upper’. It was a one-bedroom that had been on the market some time due to the previous tenants being squatters. However, the agent hinted that it could be turned it into a two-bedroom flat by simply throwing all the living room furniture into the kitchen, so Joan and our other mate, Leon, took it, happy to overlook its defects in exchange for cheap rent. One day, a letter arrived informing them that their landlord had not been paying the mortgage, so Joan ended up buying the flat himself, probably at a knocked down price. However, homeownership was not a thing to suddenly make Joan house-proud. Everything else remained as it was – worn down, in disrepair, and with no surface looking like it had seen a cloth or vacuum cleaner.
In our first week, Katie had somehow managed to blitz the previous rustic and chaotic living room-cum-kitchen with cushions, place-mats, and artistically draped throws to give the flat an almost homely feel. She even brought with her enough rugs to hide away the exposed wood floorboards through which light from the downstairs squat would shine through.
‘Oh, Mum wants to know what you’re doing for Christmas,’ Joan called out.
Katie walked back into the room, gin and tonic in her hand, and put her phone into her jeans' back pocket.
‘Now Ethan’s… doing his own thing.’ Joan stifled a laugh.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Well, Mum says she and Dad will be in France. But if you book your flight now, you could join them. Since you won’t be spending it with Ethan’s family anymore.’
‘Ethan and I haven’t discussed where we’ll be spending Christmas yet.’
‘Doesn’t Tess Philips need to be involved in that discussion too?’ Joan said quietly with a not too pleasant smirk as he sipped his beer and went back to The Observer Magazine.
There was obviously some private joke going on as Katie just stared at him, eyes slightly narrowed like she was sizing him up. She then rolled her eyes, muttered what might have been ‘grow up’ and brushed past my chair, walking out.
‘How’s Alison?’ I asked, breaking what was not an uncomfortable silence.
‘The same, I guess. She’s got a lot on at work so I’ve been on dinner duties. How’s whatshername?’
‘No idea,’ I said, and with it felt a small flicker of relief.
‘Shame, I was enjoying the updates,’ he said without any sincerity. ‘By the way, my friends mean everything to me too?’ And as if to prove it, he gave me a doe-eyed look and reached across the table to place his hand on mine, before doubling over laughing at his own joke.
I had forgotten I told him that. I think we had been in the pub at the time, and I was bitterly, drunkenly, having an embarrassingly indiscreet rant about Sarah to my only friend who would listen. Her overuse of platitudes had come top of my list. Well, my friends are everything to me, she had said, a little bit patronisingly, it felt. Her being young and arrogant, a close second as she described a weekend spent in the company of others at theatre matinees, ballet workshops, picnics, posh London bars, etcetera, and I remarked where did she find the time. What I wanted to say, as she flicked her hair to the side, and sipped her house white wine, was it didn’t matter if they were everything to anyone. When kids came along, and the need for houses rather than flats, gardens rather than window boxes, those friends would disperse far and wide, no matter how important they were to her. But then, maybe she was right and it touched a nerve. My best friend was currently sitting opposite me, and I was counting down the minutes until he would fuck off.
Joan then smiled and took out his phone. He flicked through the screen and handed it to me. ‘Here, I might have found the perfect girl for you.’
Guardian Soulmates was showing on his browser. ‘Apparently the more pretentious girls who are sick of Tinder are on it.’
‘Just back from living in Paris for four years and looking for someone to enjoy readjusting to London life with,’ I read aloud and scrolled up to a picture of a smiling girl in a floral dress standing in a park.
‘See, practically made for you.’ Joan then took back the phone and started scrolling again. I had to ask the obvious question.
‘Joan, if you’re happily living with Alison, why are you on a dating site?’ Joan grinned – a grin that definitely did not look without ulterior motive. ‘It’s Niles’ account. We found the link last weekend when we were back home for Dad’s birthday,’ he said, referring to his brother, and handed me back his phone.
‘Okay, this one. Like I said, probably your ideal woman. Be a gentleman and make sure you read her biog first.’
He had scrolled so that I could see only a highlighted passage of text. I began reading aloud again.
‘I work in the museum sector which should tell you that I’m very clever and highly creative. I am very proud of what I have achieved so far in my professional life and also hold an MA from one of the more exclusive colleges in Oxford…’ I looked up at Joan. ‘This girl does not really sound my…’
‘My friends and family are everything to me…’ I raised my eyebrows, feeling more uncomfortable than amused. Reading someone’s dating profile for sport actually seemed pretty low.
‘Keep going. Just till the end of the next line.’
‘I’ve been described as an English rose and am a Home Counties girl growing up with two older brothers now living in the shabby-chic Bohemia that is Loughborough Junction…’ I immediately stopped reading and scrolled up but not quickly enough.
‘What the hell are you doing?’
Katie was suddenly at my side staring down at me, livid. Her feet were apart and her hands balled into fists upon her hips. As I glanced back at the phone trying to see if I could quickly get rid of the evidence I saw Katie again, this time in the photo above the profile, standing in an identical pose but smiling and wearing a black bikini. Real-life Katie grabbed the phone from me.
‘Where did you get this?’ she demanded. I literally could see her nostrils flaring. When I gave no answer she turned to Joan, who had picked back up The Observer Magazine and was contentedly smiling, taking another sip of beer.
‘Is this you?’
At getting no response from the smirking Joan she threw the phone at his chest.
‘You are such an arsehole! How the hell did you… why are you even on a dating site? I’m seriously going to call Alison and tell her she’s got a perverted creep as a boyfriend.’
‘I’m not,’ Joan smiled. ‘Check the login.’ Katie looked down at the phone. Her face suddenly went bright pink, as had probably mine.
‘This is my account.’ She stared at him open-mouthed. ‘How…’
‘Niles saw you checking it at Mum and Dad’s last weekend. He said it wasn’t difficult to figure out your password. Nice username, by the way.’
‘You’ve hacked my account? My two older brothers have hacked my account and have been showing their pervy little friends my internet dating page?’
‘To be fair, we hacked Foxy Kitty’s dating page. And if you were so precious about being looked at, you probably shouldn’t have put a half-naked picture of yourself online begging men to go out with you.’
Joan didn’t seem to see the need to even fake remorse. He kept sipping his beer and went back to the magazine with a self-satisfied, highly amused grin.
‘Were you part of this too?’ She turned back to me, still glaring. ‘I know he’s a cretin but we’re meant to be housemates…’
‘Oh, give the self-righteousness a rest.’ Joan let out an exasperated sigh. ‘He thinks you’re a bigger nightmare than I do.’
All I had wanted at the start of that evening was to go home and lock myself in my room. Now I had somehow found myself in the middle of a brother-sister spat. Katie’s voice was a lot louder and higher than I had heard it before. Her eyes were wide with pure indignation, and while I knew that she was entirely in the right, all I wanted was to retreat to my bedroom and fall asleep listening to The National.
Katie was still glaring at me, her face scrunched up. Before I could reply, Joan rolled his eyes and muttered,
‘Oh, what’s not to like? The bossiness, the sense of humour by-pass, and the Douchebags of Eastwick always in tow, you’re the world’s greatest housemate.’
Considering the circumstances, it was admirable how relatively calm Katie was. Well, compared to how I imagined that Ellie would react. She just stood there, like she was counting to ten. She then snatched the magazine out of Joan’s hands.
‘Right, I think this session of family bonding is well and truly over. Thanks for coming round, Joan, a pleasure as always.’ Joan just rolled his eyes, picked up his beer, and took his phone back out.
‘Alison’s book club’s still got an hour to go.’
Katie waited, hands still on hips, until it was apparent Joan was going nowhere. So she stormed out of the room. I saw her on the landing putting on her dark green coat, hat and gloves.
‘We got it, Joan,’ she said, standing in the doorway. ‘It’s your flat, you can come round whenever you want, stay as long as you desire and there’s nothing I can do! So next time let me know, and I can make sure I’m somewhere else.’
She spun around and disappeared out of view. Before reappearing a second later.
‘And, Scott,’ she turned, looking at me far too passively not to be eerie. ‘Terribly, terribly sorry for being such a complete bitch, I don’t know how you put up with me.’ Joan and I then heard the sound of her shoes thundering down the stairs and the door slamming shut behind her.
‘What’s her problem?’ said Joan, sipping his beer.
Was it wrong that I found the whole brother-sister fallout both excruciatingly uncomfortable and yet entirely mesmerising? And was it wrong that while firmly believing Joan to be an arsehole, I was slightly envious of Katie for having an older sibling who cared enough to go to such extremes to make fun out of her?
Since we moved in together on that not exactly auspicious morning in early June, what I knew about Katie was the antithesis of what I knew about Joan. What I think sums Joan up is his inability not to laugh at anyone who takes themselves too seriously. At first, you find him a complete prick. But then, a bit like a deep therapy session, you gradually come away with something you did not know you were looking for – truth.
Joan’s idea of a joke was cutting, but it was also honest. So honest, that the majority of us would virtually crumble at having our egos punctured. In the pub, we were all subjected to his casual smirks and one-liners. When Alison had experimented with an eighties hairstyle, it was Joan who pointed out she looked like a racoon. When Leon announced he was being promoted, Joan questioned if being asked to do more for the same money was just being told that everyone thinks you’re lazy. And I won’t even begin to relay what Joan has said about my love life over the years.
But when it came to the big things, he knew where to draw the line. When my dad died, he called and asked if I wanted to go for a drink. While I was in the Middle East, he posted so many genuinely supportive things about my work on his social media to his massive following – yes, Joan’s ability to ridicule and take the piss had essentially made him an online influencer. That said, I would not have made such a generous character assessment of him six years earlier when we were out at a basement bar for a Northern Soul night on his twenty-ninth birthday.
That night, as was my tendency at the time, I had arrived much later than planned and everyone was already there sitting around a crowded table while the dancefloor was just about getting going. Nights like those would usually get busy after the nearby pubs had called last orders, so apart from our friends, the only people I did not recognise were a group of four girls who Joan was talking to at the bar. It was not entirely against the norm for Joan to hold court with good-looking girls – Alison being a prime example – but there were numerous juxtapositions about the scene that immediately caught my eye.
First, Joan seemed to be having a normal conversation with the girls just by himself. In as long as I had known him, I had never seen Joan ever make any effort with a women, let alone try to chat up a group of girls. He would usually hang back, laughing at people like me making nervous, awkward approaches in a club and then be in hysterics when it went sub-optimally. He would only engage when he could not resist making a comment that either cuttingly took the piss out of either one of us or the girls themselves. However, these girls seemed to genuinely not look that offended talking to him. And, if anything, he looked a bit bored talking to them.
The second juxtaposition was what the girls were wearing. These types of nights would normally attract those into vintage fashion with 1920s flapper dresses or waistcoats and flat caps. Or those who did not want to make too much of an effort but wanted people to know they were not making too much of an effort. So almost half the dancefloor, boy and girl alike, would be wearing chequered lumberjack shirts, or t-shirts with an ironic slogan. What those nights usually did not attract were four classically attractive brunettes in sleek black dresses who looked like they had mistakenly wandered into the indie scene.
Joan saw me and waved me over, and I suddenly felt the icy cold sensation of nerves as I joined the five of them. Anthony, my first therapist, had once told me that attraction was more about acceptance than beauty or sex. Unfortunately, I was not due to meet Anthony for another six months. Then, my life was a weekly collection of heavily drunken nights out in the hope of meeting someone who could replace the woman who a year earlier had agreed to marry me.
‘This is Scott,’ Joan said to the girls, over the music from a speaker just above us. ‘He does banking stuff. He’s single and loaded. Scott, this lot were just saying how they were looking for rich boyfriends.’
Two of the girls gave me an awkward smile and began fiddling with the straw in their drinks. Another tallish, skinny girl, probably the most attractive with sharp cheekbones and almond eyes, simply turned away to look across the bar.
‘Don’t listen to him. We weren’t saying anything like that,’ then said the fourth girl, giving me a warm, friendly smile.
‘I’m Katie,’ she said, offering me her hand. ‘My brother thinks anyone whose wardrobe includes more than four t-shirts is a shallow egotist.’
As we shook hands I could not recall what surprised me most, that Joan had a sister or that he had a sister who was so ridiculously pretty. It might have been because I had not had a promising girl smile at me in what seemed an eternity, but I found myself smitten even before Katie had let go of my hand.
‘I didn’t know Joan had a sister.’
‘We keep it well hidden. He thinks I’m a geeky swot, and I still hold a grudge against him for locking me in our downstairs bathroom when I was six years old.’
She was pretty, she was funny, she had referred to herself as a geek, and she was talking to me. She was perfect.
‘Can I get you guys a drink?’
‘We’ve just ordered actually. They don’t do mojitos, unfortunately.’ One of the other girls then said something into her ear and she nodded.
‘We’re going to dance. It was nice meeting you.’
As the girls left, Joan nudged me.
‘I thought you’d get overly excited.’ He nodded in the girls’ direction. ‘You do realise it’s just a lot of hairspray and makeup? Most women also have legs and bums.’
‘I wasn’t looking – ’
‘Sure you weren’t. They are also ridiculously dull. Katie’s been inviting them to stay at my parents’ every bloody summer since they all started at university together. Niles and I can’t go to a single thing back home without one of them being in tow.’
‘The tall one’s alright,’ I said, hoping to divert attention from who I was actually staring at on the dancefloor – she was smiling and trying to dance the best she could to Joy Division.
‘I’ve got nothing against the Oxford lot, but with Katie it was like when the iPhone came out – you had to remind her that she just goes to Oxford, she didn’t invent it.’ He then tilted his head as he looked over again. ‘The small, chunky one is pretty cute, I guess, if a little bit braindead. I’d go for her. The tall one’s a complete up-herself bitch. What am I saying? That’s exactly your type these days, isn’t it?’
Joan had a point. After Vicky told me our engagement might have been a mistake, I began swapping indie nights for the clichéd nights out I had initially avoided while working at a bank. I would get invited out by brokers on expense accounts to the posh clubs of Soho and Kensington, ordering rounds of champagne to impress Sloaney girls and part-time models.
As I sat with my friends, my eyes would still flick back to the bar and the pretty brunette girl who was somehow related to my dickhead mate. It did feel a little bit disturbing knowing that this girl would probably share so many genes with Joan – up close would they have similar ears, the same nose, the same mannerisms around the dinner table? To be honest, I soon began to get quite drunk and forgot most of these reservations and just honed in on how much I had liked seeing her smile at me.
‘Why don’t you just go up and talk to her?’ said a voice next to me. It was Alison. At that time she had bright pink hair, two lip rings, and a nose stud.
‘Do you like Katie?’ she said enthusiastically. ‘She’s super nice!’ She grabbed Joan who had been having a separate conversation. ‘Joan, Scott and Katie would make a cute couple, right?’ Joan looked thoughtful for a moment and then laughed.
‘Nah, I don’t see it.’ Alison slapped his arm. ‘Well, she’s high maintenance, and Scott’s a bit little-boy-lost.’ He motioned to turn away, but Alison caught him.
‘By high maintenance, do you mean she washes up and hoovers more than once a century?’ Joan simply snorted and smiled.
‘Fair point. I don’t think she’s seeing anyone at the moment, and I suppose Scott actually talking to her would make a decent change than him just leering at her and her friends all night.’
Joan then turned me around to face the girls who were standing at the far end of the bar.
‘Just offer to buy them drinks. They’re technically still students so should be grateful.’ I then felt an array of hands push me off towards them.
I stumbled forward, conscious that I was not entirely steady on my feet. I wished I was drunker to have more confidence, but also soberer so I could walk in a straight line. Four pairs of eyes were then on me as I interrupted them, taking Joan’s advice, but shouting it at close range, ‘CAN I GET YOU SOME SHOTS?’
‘It’s okay, thanks,’ said Katie. She was sitting on a barstool, smiling serenely while her friends looked slightly alarmed at the random man shouting at them.
‘We’re good with these,’ she smiled and raised the drink she was resting on her thigh.
‘Don’t worry, we’re all doing them. It’s Joan’s birthday!’ I felt my voice edge overly ebullient. Obviously, she knew it was her brother’s birthday. I also noticed I was slurring a lot more than I could recall five minutes earlier.
‘We don’t want a crazy night,’ she leant forward to shout over the music. I took Katie’s response as an invitation to step through her friends and lean in closer to hear her.
‘We’ve got to catch the nine o'clock coach back to Oxford tomorrow. It was the cheapest ticket.’ She gave me a polite smile and tried to turn back to her friends. Two of the girls had backed away, laughing.
‘Four vodka tonics and a round of tequilas.’ The attractive tall, skinny one had pushed herself in between Katie and me and shoved her empty glass into my chest as she waved to the barman.
‘You don’t have to – ’ Katie tried to say, but her friend kept blocking her and staring at me with a severe glare until the tequilas were poured. The tall girl and her two friends downed their shot while I did mine, and the shorter two ran off giggling to the dancefloor. Katie was about to get off her stool, tequila untouched, but the tall girl pushed her back down, mouthed don’t be rude, and gave her a slightly villainous smile before leaving.
My banter did not improve. I asked any random question that came into my head as she politely answered, staring back at her friends, who were laughing as they danced. The music seemed to get louder and I could not hear her answers, so I had to lean in closer and occasionally shout, ‘SORRY?’ I knew it was not going well. I just needed a way to style out my exit, to seem like less of the creepy drunk guy who wanted to ply her and her friends with alcohol.
‘How did it go?’ said Alison excitedly as I rejoined her and Joan on the other side of the bar.
‘Apparently the River Cam is in Cambridge. Not Oxford. Hence she does not go punting on it often.’
‘Oh. But Leeds Castle isn’t in Leeds, either,’ Alison replied with an earnest smile. ‘You were talking for ages, though. That’s good. Surely?’
I ordered myself another drink and rejoined my circle of friends. However, I would still occasionally look over at the girls. I then saw Katie walk over and say something to Joan. They both then seemed to look directly at me.
‘What did she say?’ I asked Joan.
‘She asked if you were going to ask her out or what,’ he said, deadpan. ‘And if her friends can go back with me if you and her go on somewhere else.’
I have to be honest. Only a complete idiot would have believed Joan. Even drunk to the point of teetering dangerously, I should have known better.
‘That’s great!’ beamed Alison. ‘I can help look after the girls and set them up in your front room.’
‘I’m guessing that’s your cue to join her, then.’ And if I had been just one more drink sober, I would have noticed that not even that duplicitous arsehole was able to keep a straight face as he shoved me toward the dancefloor. All I remember was suddenly being on the dancefloor, standing in front of Katie, who was swaying to the music and looking away.
In the periphery of my vision I recall seeing Alison striking Joan on the arm repeatedly and angrily as he was positively wetting himself with laughter. I then looked down at Katie who had her eyes closed and head tilted to the side, still moving with the rhythm.
I was kissing her for about five seconds before I felt her pushing me away, and then I suddenly had three angry attractive girls all yelling at me and shoving me, hard, away from their friend and off the dancefloor.
At the Jaqueline Celeste, one of the nicer pubs in the flat’s vicinity, Joan and I finally found Katie.
‘Well, she’s not going to be at the Red Lion, drinking cask ales,’ Joan said as we spotted her through the window. ‘She used to do this all the time as a kid. Go off in a strop and sit under a tree at the bottom of the garden.’
‘Yeah, but she’s not a kid. She’s a grown woman, and you’ve been a prick.’
We watched her through the glass sitting at the bar nursing what looked like another gin and tonic. Joan pushed the door open as I grabbed his sleeve.
‘Actually, maybe we should hold off.’
‘Make up your mind!’ Joan let go of the door, looking exasperated. ‘You’re the one who suggested this.’
‘Because we should apologise. But now she looks quite…’
She looked sad. She was slouched, had an elbow on the bar, resting her chin on the palm of her hand, and was looking through her glass at thoughts unknown.
‘She looks like she might want to be alone.’
Joan then also studied her.
‘Nah, she’s just a moody cow.’
The Jaqueline Celeste was a low-lit, upmarket bar, rather than one of the old-fashioned boozers or unrelenting craft beer pubs that were springing up. Candles lit the wooden tables, all of which were occupied, and the clientele looked too young and far too trendily dressed to be in jobs which paid enough to afford to drink there. In addition to a wine list upon a chalkboard behind the bar, was a craft beer menu complete with tasting notes, even stating which specific community in the British Isles the yeast came from.
‘For fuck’s sake, do you ever shut up about it?’ Joan then said to me as we stood looking up at the board. ‘Boohoo gentrification’s a bad thing, we get it. But seriously, how many working men’s pubs do you think either of us would seamlessly blend in to?’
We were just far enough away to be out of earshot. Katie was still staring through her glass at some distant spot behind the bar.
‘The sour is quite nice. They have that at Alison’s local.’ As Joan was about to order, I held him back once more. This time because the sad-looking girl sitting at the bar was now glaring at us open-mouthed, in total disbelief. She then turned away, shaking her head.
‘Scott thought we should apologise,’ Joan said, taking the stool next to her and also ordering two lagers.
‘So it’s Scott’s fault you’re deliberately a bastard?’
‘As much as it’s his fault you’re very clever and went to one of the more exclusive colleges in Oxford.’ There was a third stool next to Joan. I didn’t take it. Instead, I opted to stand rereading the beer menu intently, pretending I was not listening to what I hoped would have been a more sincere heart-to-heart than Joan’s opening gambit.
‘Also, you know I’m a bastard. I’ve been taking the piss out of you your whole life, and the only time it’s actually justified you throw a tantrum.’ A blonde girl behind the bar put our pints in front of us as Joan pressed his phone onto the card reader.
‘Justified?’ she hissed sharply. ‘How is it justified to show your friends private stuff about me?’
‘First, I would describe him as more of an acquaintance than a friend.’ I automatically felt my mouth open as I took my eyes off the board and stared at them.
‘And because it’s not private. That’s the whole point of the internet, isn’t it? And, because it’s not even you. Either you’ve finally learnt what satire is, or you’ve totally got stuck up your own arse. Come on, even you have to see it’s ridiculous?’
‘I didn’t even write it! Or sign up for it! If you must know it was Izzy, for me. To get me back out there.’
‘Obviously. She even Photoshopped your head onto someone less flat-chested and boyish.’ Katie made a grossed-out face and slapped Joan on the arm. Not affectionately. Hard.
‘Listen, I’m not saying we weren’t not being arseholes. And I guess I am sorry you got so pissed off. But you should either write something normal, yourself, or delete the thing. Otherwise, you will only get losers like Scott checking you out. Plus, the fact you haven’t taken it down and were checking it at Mum and Dad’s probably says something about you and Ethan too. Other than everything being fine.’
From looking like she was quietly listening to Joan’s initial apology, Katie then rolled her eyes and looked away. I had finally decided to sit down though I still tried my best to look more interested in my pint and the bottles lining the bar than the scene next to me.
‘How is it any of your business? What has our relationship got to do with anyone else?’
‘I don’t know. Because he turns up at family gatherings? Because you’ve hardly shut up about him for the last however many years? Because I keep getting asked about this fucking Christmas thing and the fact Mum’s heard from Ethan’s mum that twatface is probably working or some bullshit, so is not likely to spend Christmas with them after all. Hence Mum doesn’t want you spending it alone.’
Joan let out a long sigh and took a large drink of beer. There was the jangle of a small bell as the bar's door opened and one of the young hipster couples left.
‘So I said you could come with Alison and me to her parents if you didn’t want the fuss about going with them to France.’
‘You’re asking me to spend Christmas with you and Alison?’
‘It’s more her asking. Plus, it would be the easiest thing all round.’
They didn’t say anything for a minute or so. Katie just stirred her drink with a small black straw, and Joan then took out his phone and started scrolling. I glanced around the Jaqueline Celeste and its pleasant early twentieth-century soft furnishings, the well-polished wooden bar, and the other customers who all seemed more engaged with their conversation than we were with ours.
‘You could just be supportive about the Ethan thing,’ Katie then said quietly, still staring at her drink while she stirred it. ‘You are meant to be my brother.’
‘Why, though? Katie, you’re the most mature person in our family, if at times predictably so with the whole five-year plans and overachieving. So what if one part of your life isn’t working out like you expected it? Welcome to what it’s like being one of the rest of us. Fuck, look at Scott.’ Joan then leant back to let me into the picture. Hunching over the bar, playing with a beer mat, I looked up reluctantly, knowing it would be a tedious joke at my expense.
‘When it comes to relationships, you’re looking at someone who had one snog with a girl from work and as a result, spent six months having her wage a hate campaign against him. To the point that he’s been unemployed a week digging holes in an allotment rather than see her again.’
For the first time one of us smiled. It was Joan, as he glanced my way. Katie furrowed her brow. ‘You’ve told her about Sarah, right?’ Katie looked puzzled and I shrugged.
‘Scott gave up being a millionaire to save the world and now is digging up gardens for a living because he befriended some bunny-boiler who wanted him to come round and watch her getting railed by dicks she met on Tinder.’
‘That’s not remotely true, Joan.’
‘It’s all true! That’s what makes it hilarious.’ Joan then turned back to Katie.
‘Scott dated this psycho who kept sending him risqué photos of herself mixed in with screenshots of guys from Tinder whom she was also seeing.’
I looked at him, unimpressed, but this time gave him the glare reserved for when he had gone too far.
‘But you are still working, right?’ asked Katie, this time looking at me puzzled. ‘At a charity? That park garden thing is what you do in your spare time?’
‘Do you two seriously never speak to each other?’
‘No, I left the charity. I’m just doing some work with people from the community garden fixing up their allotment.’
Katie still had her brow furrowed. ‘I thought you liked your job. You always seemed, I don’t know, like you had a good day when I asked you about it.’
‘No one likes their job, little sister. At least those of us not clever enough to work in the museum sector.’
Joan smirked again, but this time was standing up and pushing his pint away.
‘Alison’s done with book club, so I can go home. If I leave now, I can get in an episode of Race Around the World so tonight won’t be a complete write-off.’
And with both Katie and me still sitting there with half-full drinks, he simply walked out.
Over the course of the night, we’d hardly had a two-way conversation. Joan had primarily been the focal point. In a way, that summed up our relationship to date. Now that it was just us, I had no idea what to say to her. I was about to ask her whether she wanted to leave the drinks and head back home, but she broke the silence first.
‘It’s not like he’s autistic.’ She picked up her glass and stared at me like she was intently trying to work something out.
‘He’s fully aware of what he’s doing, and he does know when he’s being a jerk. But I also genuinely believe he doesn’t do it for pleasure or sadism. It’s like he was born with the arsehole gene.’ She sat up and swivelled on her stool, so she was fully face-on to me.
‘I spoke to Alison about it drunk one night and ended up asking her what she sees in him. And she confided that she thinks they’re still together because he pissed her off so much once that she punched him in the testicles. She said it was meant as a joke, but must have done it harder than she thought, and it ruptured something, so he had to go to the hospital. The worst part is when she told me we were both practically wetting ourselves laughing. I do love him – I must do, right? – but he doesn’t make it easy. I think if he and Alison got married, I would cry all through the ceremony, not because it’s what you do at weddings, but for Alison and how she’s throwing her life away.’
For the first time since our initial meeting at that indie basement bar years earlier, Katie actually smiled at me. A real one, brightly and laughing, rather than out of politeness. She then half-frowned, a smaller, more apologetic smile.
‘Do you really not like living with me?’ she said.
‘No! Not at all. It was just a bit of a weird start – I knew you thought you’d be living alone, so I thought I’d give you your own space. And I then had other stuff on my mind.’
‘This Sarah girl?’
‘To a less extent now. Now that I don’t work with her. It’s not a bit deal, I actually do enjoy garden stuff and have some savings to pay the rent still – ’
‘Scott, I’m not interrogating you! It’s totally up to you what you want to share. But it would be nice if we could feel we could chat occasionally.’
We sipped our drinks again, a little bit more comfortable than when Joan had left us, as my lager and Katie’s gin and tonic came close to their end.
Things with Sarah and me came to a head on Easter weekend. We were going to a gallery together on the Thursday. The trigger came a few weeks earlier after, having dated without openly acknowledging we were dating, she asked me, ‘so what is this?’ Perhaps I should have told her I thought us just friends, but considering I had taken her to a candlelit wine bar, I think we both knew there was something more going on. We started holding hands across the table and as we left the bar we stood under the streetlamps and had our first kiss.
But we work together,
What would people say if they found out?
I’m not sure how I’m feeling.
This is more than friendship but I don’t know what this is.
It was not quite Romeo and Juliet, but rather two work colleagues both in a bit of a rut making much ado about nothing. Well, at least that is how I would describe our relationship in hindsight, without acknowledging what I was actually feeling at the time. I wanted her. Part of me craved the attention she gave me – all the text messages, the secrecy, our self-importance. And then a week after the kiss, Sarah finally came to a decision.
I’m not sure it is just that we work together. I don’t think that would stop me. I just don’t think I have strong feelings for you.
At least it was a twist on the it’s not you, it’s me cliché.
What Joan had said about the photos of herself and the screenshots from Tinder began happening soon after. We fell back into a situation where she wanted me to play the older brother role. At least the majority of the time. This is more than friendship but I don’t know what this is, she repeated as she would still message me late at night, sending me pictures of herself; with friends earlier that night, and then of herself in her bedroom. Then, the next day I would receive screenshots from her Tinder account. What about this one? What do you think?
I tried to ignore her once when I realised it was not going anywhere. Why are you ignoring me? This is not cool. So we continued on, agreeing to remain as friends and even go to an exhibition together, one which she told me she went to every year but this would be her first time with a boy. Again, in hindsight, I don’t know what is more embarrassing, the fact this whole melodrama caused me to spiral into depression, or the fact me and a grown woman were carrying on like we were in a poorly edited episode of Dawson’s Creek.
I then made her cry. And I caused her to storm away from me down the length of London’s Southbank. We had not yet reached the gallery, and she began telling me of a date she went on the previous night. I tried to act unaffected and asked how it went. She said promising. I stopped asking questions. We wandered further toward the gallery. ‘Are you going to see him again?’ ‘Maybe tonight,’ she said. ‘He asked if I was free, so depending how long this goes on for.’
I can’t remember how it started but she accused me of being passive-aggressive. I think I said something about not fancying being a warm-up act. She said she had made it clear to me we were just friends. And I said she might want to read through her countless messages to me and look up the definition of friendship.
As I have said, this was after work on Easter Thursday. By the time Tuesday morning had come round I was sitting in the waiting room of a therapist’s office about to meet Dr Camille Pendry.
‘Do you know what the most annoying thing about tonight was?’ Katie said as we walked back. ‘I was really looking forward to opening that bottle of wine. I guess any incentive will do when having to sit through an evening with my brother, but I was genuinely quite excited when spending the extra money on it in the shop.’ Under the dim streetlamps, I stared down at the uneven pavements trying to make sure we avoided the usual neighbourhood dog shit.
‘I’m ashamed to say I chose it for the label,’ she said, still talking about the wine as we stood on the landing, taking off our coats.
‘I shouldn’t admit it but that’s how I choose. Despite being told countless times it’s all just marketing and that I truly know nothing about wine.’
She quickly stepped into the kitchen and turned to face me with the bottle she now seemed obsessed with.
‘Never judge a wine by its label. Never judge a book by its cover.’
She handed it to me and went to the kitchen cupboards.
‘It’s still relatively early, and I’m kind of feeling like I need to de-Joan myself – is it wrong to come back from a pub and then need a drink?’
She brought down two small tumblers. I might have been overly harsh about her obsession with the wine bottle. After all, she was the one making an effort. If left to me, we would have walked the whole way home in awkward silence. And it was a nice bottle. There was something quite stylish about the symmetry and colours – a light cream background with rows of embossed shiny circles, five across and down, the colours changing gradually from red to blue.
‘What do you reckon? It is still quite early. One drink? Without Joan. A very belated moving-in toast?’
Her relaxed smile faded as I groaned.
‘I’m completely wiped out, to be honest. Another time?’
‘Oh, yes, sure,’ she said as I handed back the bottle. Early, to Katie, I assumed meant any time before two in the morning, when she would usually come home from nights out. For me these days, a late night was what I had endured that evening – the clock just past ten, and me not yet in bed listening to depressing indie music. I did feel guilty, though, as despite smiling, she looked disappointed.
‘Can I ask, who said that you weren’t a good judge of wine?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said absently, returning the glasses to the cupboard. ‘Probably Izzy. If there’s an excuse to be snobbish, she’d be first in line. Ethan too, come to think about it. But then his parents do own a wine cellar, apparently enabling him to form a critique of anything he desires. My taste in wine, my taste in music, my overall qualities as a girlfriend apparently.’
She turned back from the cupboard and gave me a raised eyebrows look.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘About my bad taste in wine?’ she said, tiptoeing to the top shelf.
‘About you and Ethan. I know Joan just stirs things up most of the time, but if you did want to chat…’
‘You don’t have to. And besides, my brother has the arsehole gene. We’ve established that.’ She then bit her lip.
‘Are you asking me because you already know? Joan’s told you that Ethan’s sleeping with someone else, hasn’t he?’
The wine was pretty bad, it turned out. And it was ages before I got to go to bed. ‘It’s been going on for a month or so,’ Katie said as I set back down my glass. ‘Or at least that’s the one I know about. Ethan had said that while he was away we should try to be non-exclusive. Still be together, but less intense. See other people while we were still young and before things became serious.’
‘How long have you been together?’
‘Long enough for me to assume things already were serious.’ She finished her glass and slowly pushed the base back and forth. I picked up the bottle and topped each of us up. We both sipped and winced at the taste. Letting it breathe seemed to make it worse.
‘So I said yes. But only because there wasn’t much choice. That’s really the conversation you want to have with your boyfriend who you have been with for over six years. Not, “let’s talk about the future and the fact that we’ve been living together a year so maybe we should think about the M-word.” No, instead, “I kind of want to get my end away but still have you as a backup”.’
I was a little out of my comfort zone. When Sarah first told me about her breakup, I had held her hand. At the end of the night I hugged her and told her it would be okay. With Katie, we were strangers until an hour ago, and our only form of physical contact was when I had kissed her against her will.
‘It’ll be okay,’ I said and found myself reaching out and patting her upper arm, a bit like I would have with my old friend Jeff Martin for a good presentation.
She had both elbows on the table, cupping her chin, looking thoroughly miserable.
‘Thanks, but I’m in a relationship that I’m too embarrassed to get out of, and I spend my weekends clubbing and partying like I was a twenty-year-old trying to show the world I enjoy not being exclusive too. Things are not okay!’
She stared down at the table and put her face in her hands. Awkwardly again, I reached over, and this time tried a soft rub on her arm.
‘It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t love him, but I do, and it’s all so…’
I had honestly thought she was just having a rant and needed to blow off steam. But it was so sudden. Her voice cracked, I saw her lip briefly wobble, and the next thing I knew, she had burst into tears. It wasn’t crazy crying. It was worse – the heartbreaking kind. Her face quickly went pink as the tears started to stream down her cheeks before she could catch them.
I got off my chair and moved next to her crouching down, this time my arm around her shoulders, still a little worried she would push me off.
‘It’s… shit. And he sounds… well, like a bit of a dick.’ She started wiping her eyes. She just nodded and gave a half-smile acknowledging the attempt at reassurance. I tried to soothingly rub her back until I realised my fingers were rubbing the clasp on her bra strap, so I decided to stop.
‘It was Joan who told me,’ she said, pulling out a tissue from her pocket. ‘In front of our parents. Mum had asked how Ethan was enjoying Germany. Joan just snorted and said she was better off asking Tess Philips.’ She shook her head, tried to gently dab away a tear from her eye, which was futile – her running mascara made her look like a panda.
‘He said after that he heard from… oh, you wouldn’t know them. That’s the thing when you grow up in a village. Everyone knows everyone. He now seems to take genuine amusement in making sure it is common knowledge that my boyfriend prefers regular sex in Berlin with someone who was two years below me at my school, rather than having a relationship with me.’
Katie finished drying her eyes. The crying was over, though I thought it best not to mention the huge mascara circles. I didn’t think telling her it would all be okay really fitted the context. Again, I hardly knew her and had never even met Ethan. In hindsight, I perhaps should have seen it strange that he never visited, and she had only travelled to Berlin a handful of times since we began living together.
‘I don’t know him. Or Tess Philips. But I have got to know you a bit, and I think you’re incredibly kind and friendly and warm-hearted. And pretty! Really, really pretty!’
This might have been too much. But complimenting her personality made her sound like the consolation prize. I was being weird, and Katie seemed to give me an odd sideways look to confirm this.
‘What I’m trying to say is that he’s making a huge mistake. And it’s because you’re kind, warm-hearted, and beautiful that he’s doing this.’
She gave me another quizzical look.
‘Once this beautiful girl agreed to go out with me and suddenly I was all Mr Self-Confidence and thought every woman on the planet must also adore me. I quickly forgot how much a chance that beautiful girl took, that it was her benevolence that plucked me from obscurity, and how lucky I was. Until I lost her, that is.’
We sat in silence for a bit until she smiled and said it probably was time for bed.
‘Sorry to ruin your evening,’ she said as she stood.
‘Hey, it was not ruined.’
‘Liar,’ she smiled. As she left the room she turned. ‘That girl. The beautiful one who took a chance on you. Is that the one from tonight? Sarah?’ She smiled again, causing me to reciprocate.
‘No,’ I said. ‘That was someone else.’ For a split second, I saw Vicky sitting on a picnic blanket on a sunny afternoon at Regent’s Park, smiling at me as if for the first time. ‘She deserved better. And she found better.’ Katie smiled sympathetically back before saying goodnight and leaving.