Chapter 10: August and everything after…
Being a summer baby made me one of the youngest in my year. While this meant I was the last one to get legally served in a pub, by the time I turned eighteen, my A-levels were done, and I had a lazy summer in store of computer games, camping trips, and doing what at the time was my dream job – working as a steward at Barnet Football Club. And on such a lazy summer day, while Dad was at work, I answered the door to a stranger. A young woman, a bit older than me, with short spikey hair and a nose stud. And she stared back at me, her cautious smile turning into a frown.
I let her in, and she wandered first into the hallway and then the living room very much like a stranger would – slowly, and glancing around her, at the walls, the framed pictures, the ornaments and clutter, taking everything in just for a second, appraising and acclimatising to her surroundings. I followed and then waited at the doorway, giving her the room. There was so much that I could have said or asked but because I could not decide on my first question – ‘what are you doing here?’ seemed a little hostile, ‘how are you? How’s university?’ too trivial – the accumulated silence made it more difficult to say anything at all to the sister I had not seen in three years.
Ellie then reached her piano. The baby grand. The focal point of the long room. As it had been when she used to practise, the top was covered in photo frames, but with some additions since she had last sat there. She picked up one of me and Dad at the football – me in my Barnet top and him wearing their orange and black scarf – both of us beaming. She kept looking at it, examining it as if there was some hidden meaning in something that was essentially a selfie in a silver frame, and then placed it back down.
‘Still not lost your virginity?’ she called over her shoulder.
When I retold this story to Vicky while we were dating, she was borderline horrified. She sat up and accused my sister of being typically deliberate, cruel and emotionally bullying, looking to cull my self-esteem as soon as she had walked in the door. But the reason I told Vicky the story was not to chastise Ellie or for her to pity me, but to explain to her why Ellie was none of those things. Ellie had remembered. It was no coincidence that her first words to me echoed her last words before she left. Standing in the doorway, I watched her gradually turn around. She looked at me without any of the fierceness or the dismissiveness of the seventeen-year-old Ellie. I walked over to her, and for the first time in probably a decade, I hugged my sister.
Millie ran to hug me and asked me to throw her up in the air. It was easier to do when she was smaller, but I very much tried to oblige. It still overwhelmed me how much Ed had grown since I saw him. But no sooner had Mike brought them home, than the house began to fill with fellow parents and five-year-olds darting everywhere at once.
Ellie was in the garden with the other mums watching the kids. The sun was bright and warm. Even though it was the first day of December, winter had seemed to be put on hold for Millie’s party. I caught Ellie’s eye and smiled. That morning, by the time it took me to put away my sleeping bag and have a shower, Ellie and Mike had transformed the whole house with decorations, present wrapping, and baking. Ellie then excused herself and walked over to me.
‘You’re missing out,’ she said, a paper cup of what looked like juice in her hand. ‘Angela’s just been enlightening me on the firmness of her nipples since she stopped breastfeeding.’
I sipped my beer, looking at the group of women standing cradling wine glasses on the patio as their small children chased each other around Ellie and Mike’s garden.
‘Is that normal? Do all women say such things to each other? Am I now meant to share details of my body parts with these strangers that I am now bonded to until Millie turns eighteen?’
‘Don’t forget about Ed. You’re probably plugged into the matrix until he’s finished college.’
‘Thanks,’ she said as we stood back watching the other mums. I felt bad for deserting Mike in the kitchen with the other dads. They were interrogating him about being a rock star in the noughties and Mike was trying his best to understate the fact, while looking slightly cornered.
‘Jeez, how is it possible to have two children and still have a body like that?’ Ellie nodded to a brown-haired woman bending over, pulling exaggerated faces and nodding overly enthusiastically at two toddlers. To be honest, I had already noticed her. She was wearing tight-fitting jeans and a loose top, which emphasised both the slimness of her waist and the fullness of her chest.
‘Yoga?’ I smiled as Ellie raised her eyebrows.
‘Rumour is she and her money-bags husband have an arrangement. I should probably introduce you. Maybe she can be the one to finally pop that cherry of yours.’
I couldn’t help laughing. After all, it was as heart-warming a moment as it gets for us. The sun was shining, I was wearing a t-shirt in December, and for the first time in recent years, my sister was taking the piss out of me in a non-emotionally hostile way.
‘They’re all going to fuck off home in about an hour. I’ll get Mike to do the clearing up, and we can go for a drive. Talk about that letter.’
We parked up along the coast. The sun was setting over the sea as we climbed down from the road to the pebble beach. We were one of what looked like a dozen small groups enjoying the unseasonable warmth. People had come with picnic blankets and were staring out at green waves under a sky that was orange and red. Ellie sat down, and I settled myself into the smooth round pebbles next to her, my knees against my chest. We both looked out at the sea and the apocalyptic horizon.
Neither of us said anything at first. We just sat there as the tide rolled in, gulls screeching above our heads and other people around us doing all what normal, happy people do.
‘I don’t know what I’m meant to say,’ she then said, massaging her eyelids. ‘I’m not even sure I remember what you wrote in that stupid little note. All I know is my carefree, feckless younger brother was telling our dead father that he couldn’t handle life anymore, so was throwing it in like he’s done everything else.’
Her tone was less harsh than her words. She sounded more matter-of-fact and weary than typically sarcastic.
‘Don’t hold back then,’ I tried to laugh it off. But rather than looking at me, Ellie was still staring into the distance, looking bored and irritated
‘You’ve got no big commitments. You don’t have kids. You’re able to travel all over the world. Life for you is idyllic. It always has been.’
‘Yeah the Middle East was a real cakewalk at times. Seventy-hour weeks, active gunfire, not being able to leave the compound without an armed guard, people who have lost everything resenting you being there – ’
Ellie then started slow-clapping me.
‘There’s Golden Boy selflessly saving the world. Desperate to be everyone’s favourite.’ She mock-saluted the sea and put on a sardonic voice. ‘Scott! The steady one who did what he was told. Got his degree, settled down into a job, and his one act of rebellion was to announce he was off to save humanity, but you weren’t, were you? Turns out you were just a fucking hypocrite.’
With that, she turned and stared at me. A couple passed by in front of us. They were holding hands, both in shorts and sandals.
‘Secret alcoholic and drug user,’ she said with apparent delight. ‘“Dad, I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of”.’ She deepened her voice, which I assumed was to mimic me though she sounded like a cartoon bear.
‘“The only relationships I’ve had since Vicky have been with dancers and girls I’ve bought drugs for.” By dancer I take it we’re talking ballet? Experimental modern? And using drugs to pay for sex!’ She gave a triumphant ha!. ‘Good loophole. Classy. Our father would be proud.’
I cringed, having had the latter years of my twenties replayed in front of me. Ellie leaned back, casually satisfied. Down the beach, some small kids, wrapped up still in winter coats, were playing chicken with the shoreline running back to their parents, laughing loudly as the tide rushed back at them.
‘Have you paid for sex?’
‘Oh, so just bribed girls for it?’
I wearily rubbed my head. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. It might sound as if I was clutching at straws to make myself less pathetic than I was.
‘I was the type of guy who hoped spending a lot of money on drugs, and doing them with girls would make them like me. Would make someone like me.’
Like Vicky once liked me, I wanted to say. Ellie was right however – I was meant to have been the nice one. That was what Vicky had said she liked about me. And then I became the man who spent his evenings in dodgy strip clubs. Among my broker colleagues at the time, it was called Pretty Woman syndrome – falling in love with the girl who danced for you, believing in their eyes you were special and that you were the one to rescue them and ride away into the sunset. The same happened in the fancy, high-end clubs. My broker friends would take the VIP tables and groups of women who would join us, champagne flowing on expense accounts. I would fall under a spell with any girl who would speak to me.
‘I had a therapist back then. His name was Anthony, and we spent all our time talking about all this. I got into this cycle where I needed all the nights out and drugs because I didn’t know what else there was. I didn’t like spending time alone, and I wasn’t very good at talking to people – girls. Christ, Ell, there were so many times I would leave my real mates and go on to a club to get high because I didn’t want to go home. I did loathe myself. For both not having the willpower to stop, and not being like the other guys who had girlfriends or were genuinely popular without the need for drugs.’
Ellie was staring at the sea. A large wave was coming in and splashed the small children. They all burst out laughing as one of their parents ran out to bring them back up the shore. There was a group of twentysomethings just down the beach. They had just let out a cheer, and I could hear them clinking bottles as I looked across to see them celebrating something – their joyous voices full of possibilities.
‘Ell, the whole reason I wrote that letter was that I am ashamed. You were right. Everything was a lie. I tried to go away and redeem myself, but everything I did was to make myself feel better. And when I was finally ready to come home, it was too late. Dad was gone and I didn’t seem to have anything left that was worth anything.’
Ellie still looked bored, staring into space.
‘How much did you spend? In total.’
I shrugged. ‘Enough not to have a flat anymore.’
‘And now the money’s gone, that’s you fixed, is it?’
‘Being popular with women doesn’t seem important anymore,’ I half-snorted. A revelation that took me far longer to realise than it should have. ‘Ironically, I just miss everything I used to have. My old friends. Sunday lunches at Dad’s. I took for granted all those nights and deemed them not enough – you have no idea what I would now do for an evening in a warm pub playing a board game.’
With the sun dropping, the warmth of the day was starting to fade too. Ellie must have wanted to get back to Millie and Ed – I recalled just how happy Millie had been with her party. Ellie and I even seemed not to mind each other then. She had now said what she needed to say, and with it, could walk away knowing she was right about me all along.
‘When Mum left you got it easy,’ she suddenly said. I looked back at her, surprised. She was still simply staring out at the water.
‘You didn’t feel it as hard.’ Her voice was quieter. ‘Mum leaving brought you and Dad closer together. I, on the other hand, gambled on the wrong parent.’
She rubbed her eyes and rested her chin on her knees.
‘What you said to me at the funeral, you were right. I spent years blaming him for Mum going and treating him like shit – ’
‘Elle, I lost the plot that day. I didn’t mean anything – ’
‘And it doesn’t stop there. You did make him proud. All the fucking time. All my life I used to look at you and I was so fucking jealous. You were the Golden Child and I was the screw-up – ’
‘Ellie, you’re a trained concert pianist, for fuck’s sake. I think you won regarding who was the more talented one.’
‘Scott, I’ve not played in public for a decade. I’ve become a middle school piano teacher. This is what I’ve achieved in life. The musical equivalent of fuck all.’
Another family, this time the one nearest to us, began to pack up their belongings. Ellie folded her arms over her knees and hugged them.
‘I used to want to compose, to write film scores, concertos, to one day write a symphony. When I was seventeen, I had interviews at music colleges where I would get to play on a Steinway. A Steinway, Scott. Now I play on that electronic piece of shit at home. At seventeen I was asked to join some really good schools, probably the best schools, but I moved to Bristol to be closer to Mum, to be able to visit on weekends or stay during the holidays. And I did. At first. And it was great.’
‘You stayed at Mum’s?’
This, I did not know. Orletta would come to London, and we would meet her at a gallery. When it came to visits to her new house and life down in Devon they always got postponed. I felt my brow furrow.
‘She was in her element – queen of artists! Teacher, patron, the one everyone looked to for inspiration. And then she was either abroad all the time or having some exhibit dedicated to her, and we could never cross paths, which,’ Ellie gave one of her ironic snorts, ‘never seemed to be that great a hardship to her. I even suggested she come and visit me, but she never found the time.’
‘You and Mum?’ I frowned. ‘In Devon? Without me?’
I felt a sharp pang. After being on the defensive so long, I was suddenly taken aback.
‘Like you and Dad spent all that time without me.’
‘Ellie, that is not the same,’ I said, surprisingly steadily. ‘You see that, right? You chose not to come back and spend time with us. I begged Mum to let me visit her…’
I suddenly felt cold. Like someone proverbially walking over my grave.
‘I never told anyone this, but during my first week in Bristol, I was standing outside the practice rooms and heard Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 32. It was Son Jii, a Korean student from my group. Sonata 32 is next level. It requires composure, patience, this clock in your head for the quiet parts and then impossible hands to keep up with it as it explodes. And Son Jii crushed it. It was so beautiful I wanted to cry. We had had this lecture the day before when a pompous stiff had put a slide up with the amount of hours practice done by amateurs, professionals, and those who won awards. My hours were below that of an amateur. Three to five hours was the standard, which I scoffed at as a typical university scare tactic. When Son Jii came out, I asked him how many hours a day he did. He said eight. I just looked at my hands and knew I would never be able to compete. While I was out at the bar with my housemates, Son Jii and the others would be in those practice rooms, doing more hours a day than I did in a week. Scott, I took up journalism because I wasn’t a good enough pianist. I was not even a could-have-been. I was an anonymous never-could-be.’
Ellie closed her eyes, and as the sea breeze picked up, wound herself tighter into a ball.
‘I guess what I’m trying to say is that none of us are that happy.’ She screwed up her face and then threw a hand out, gesturing to the sea. ‘We all screw up and have regret after fucking regret. And no matter how much we would like to blame others for screwing us up, a lot of the time, it's because we chose the easy way out.’
Ellie then pushed her knees down and shook her head, sitting cross-legged.
‘And when I feel like that, the next thing I feel is this massive sense of guilt because I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m so lucky for what I do have with Mike and Millie and Ed, and I am ashamed of how resentful I am for wanting these other things. And I am so resentful at you, my brother, who got the career, got to travel, and lived the life so many people could only dream of, and then suddenly decided to end it.’
‘Ell, it was just a letter – ’
‘Scott, I was there! You put a date on it! Easter Sunday. The day before I found you passed out on the floor, sick everywhere, and two empty bottles of pills in the bin. You did try to kill yourself. You tried to leave.’
I couldn’t respond. She was staring at me so intently I felt both flushed and suddenly cold and sick. It was not that she knew my secret. It was that she knew something I had erased from my mind. I closed my eyes and tried to remember, but I ended up just shrugging even as I imagined the family bathroom.
‘I don’t know, Ell,’ was all I could say. ‘It may sound a cop-out, but I don’t. I wanted to feel numb and I took them to see if I could. But I just thought taking a load of pills would make things go away. Just for a bit.’
Neither of us said anything more. We just sat watching the sea and listening to the waves until Ellie raised her eyebrows and pushed herself up and off the pebbles. We walked silently back to the car, leaving the twentysomethings to the beach.
‘We all have our shit, Scott,’ Ellie said. ‘We all fail. That’s what life is. How do you know it’s not going to happen again?’
We remained there, Ellie not yet starting the engine.
‘I’m seeing a therapist again. This one’s Californian, a bit New Age, makes me talk about stuff. How I feel. Why I feel the way I do. Where it all stems from. I know that no one is perfect and that no one has that perfect relationship or career or life, but it's difficult to remember that. When things were really bad she made me write this list of ten things I like doing. Just really little things, like going for a walk in Hampstead, playing a record on my turntable, having a really good Chinese in Chinatown. I don’t know, it just helped.’
The waves looked bigger from the car park. I felt my own one wash over me.
‘It might sound stupid, but I forgot how nice all those things were. That I could just close my eyes on Primrose Hill and feel what warm sunlight felt like. Or how uplifting the taste of really good Chinese food is.’
After another moment of silence, Ellie finally turned the ignition. She reversed out of the parking space and then put the brakes back on. She turned to look at me.
‘Scott, just because I think you’re a dickhead doesn’t mean I don’t give a shit.’
Chapter 11: Friendship
‘Scott, what do you think should be the role of a therapist in the client-therapist relationship?’
Camille had asked me that question early into just our third session. It was early May with English springtime well in bloom, so it was only appropriate that through the window, I would see low black skies looming over the courtyard below and hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance.
‘To talk things over?’
‘That’s what we use bartenders for,’ she smiled, looking down, making a note. ‘At least we do back in the States. Why have you come to see a therapist? It’s not the cheapest way to have a chat after all.’
It was also the first time I heard Camille’s terrible British accent. It was so terrible that I let out an involuntary laugh. Because I’m going crazy and I’m scared this might be permanent, I wanted to say.
She then closed her notebook and placed it on the side table.
‘Freud’s legacy when it comes to psychoanalysis is that we as therapists play a similar role to archaeologists, excavating the catacombs of the mind and the subconscious. What lies behind awareness and what is the root cause of our drives, desires, and ambitions. Our job is to be neutral – some would say withdrawn – to offer no judgement and provide an uncensored sounding board.’
Camille shuffled slightly in her seat before casually crossing her legs and leaning back.
‘But, one of the first things we also learn at therapist school is that Freud is not one hundred percent applicable to all cases, and there is no one size fits all manual for the human mind. Let’s do a quick exercise.’
Camille sat back up straight and reached again for her notebook
‘Word association. No time to think, first word that comes into your head: Time.’
‘Love.’ The others had been quick-fire but I hesitated.
‘Trust,’ Camille carried on.
‘Thanks, Scott. Exercise over. We’ve got pretty much half the session left. How about we put on hold trying to make that all important psychological breakthrough?’
She got out of her chair and walked over to her desk at the back of the room.
‘Are you a fan of good old Java Joe, or should I be making you an Earl Grey?’ She came back with two mugs of coffee.
‘Trust and friendship,’ she smiled, sitting back down. ‘Not very Freud, but then if you lined up every client who made an appointment with me, and asked me what proportion came back for a second session, I would have to say…’ She blew out her cheeks and did an elaborate shrug. ‘…twenty percent. Perhaps twenty-five if I’m feeling self-generous. And then there are those that go beyond the magic third session. We’re down to single digits then.’ Camille picked back up her mug, smiling.
‘So, Freud may have given us the keys to the kingdom, but what use is it if nine out of ten clients turn back around and walk out the door because they have no interest in baring their soul to a non-emotive sounding board?’
It’s probably not important, but I did get a half-price discount for that session.
It was weird at first, but we drank our coffee and had that chat. Camille asked about which part of London I was from, and when I said Wood Green she told me that her husband grew up in Barnet. I asked if he happened to follow, as I called them, the Great Barnet Football Club.
‘Oh my God! So you’re the other one!’ Camille beamed, quite uncharacteristically for the calm, professional therapist I had known up until that point.
‘I constantly goad him about his relentless devotion to a sport that won’t let you drink a beer at the ground and to a team followed by only one other bloke and his dog. And, here we are! The other bloke! Please tell me you have a dog, Scott.’
It was unconventional and would definitely have had Freud turning in his grave, but I did come back the next week.
‘Scott, I’m going to pick you up on two points,’ Camille said as I tried to convince her of the merits of my adolescent passion. ‘First, the game is called soccer. Football is a sport where the participant does not fall over crying when someone taps them on the shoulder.’ She then leaned forward, shaking her head.
‘Second, is that this is not Monterey Bay! Where I grew up, my whole school would rock up to the kick-off carnival with a cup of SoCo and Lime in eighty-degree warmth. You guys stand outside for two hours in this!’ She gestured to the window where outside it was now pouring with rain. ‘Watching a game that, from what Paul tells me, usually finishes one-to-nothing to the other team.’
Camille handed me the usual mug of warm coffee as we both settled into our usual seats. Since that glorious weekend of sunshine and warm weather at Millie’s party, the temperature had plummeted, making a Thursday morning in December more of an ordeal.
‘We’re spending Christmas together,’ I told her, feeling something unburden as I said it. Camille was still wearing her giant knitted cream scarf, this time being juxtaposed over a light pink blazer. I was suddenly conscious that I was wearing the same jeans I had been wearing to dig the Joneses’ allotment and could not guarantee the mud stains would not be rubbing off onto the armchair.
I told Camille how when Ellie and I returned from the beach, rather than collecting my things and going to the railway station, she said I could stay another night. The kids had fallen asleep on the sofa, and once they were carried to bed, Ellie ordered a takeaway. A Chinese.
‘It is good, isn’t it?’ she said as we sat around the table.
‘You’re probably right about the house,’ Ellie then said, sounding annoyed as she served Singapore noodles. ‘We do need to get a solicitor. This whole thing is ebbing away from us.’
We spent much of that meal with chopsticks in one hand and our phones in the other Googling probate law.
‘We can contest probate, even before it’s granted,’ I said, finding one link that delved deeper into inheritance law. ‘It puts a caveat on Dad’s estate, which means nothing can be sold or got rid of for at least six months, with an option to extend for another six.’
Mike leaned over, examining the website with Ellie, holding his bowl and chopsticks out of the way.
‘This is what I hate about the bloody law,’ sighed Ellie, scrolling through the information. ‘There’s no common sense involved. You can’t just get on with it – tell someone what the problem is and have them just sort it out. Instead, you have to pay a solicitor to dig through archaic books, and whoever has more money to spend usually wins. How is that fair?’
‘Christmas?’ smiled Camille, trying to bring me back to the point.
‘Realistically, from all we read that night, we could end up having to sell the house even if we do win,’ I said, trying to keep my hands warm as icy cold air radiated from the windows. ‘Just to cover the legal fees. So Ellie suggested we spend Christmas Day at Dad’s. As one last hurrah.’
It might have been the wine. There was a lot left from the party, and we had been refilling our glasses throughout dinner and the researching of solicitors.
‘We should do something,’ said Ellie, getting more animated. ‘It’s our house. If she’s allowed to have valuers trample around, I’m allowed to have a last family bloody Christmas. The one that Dad tried to give us last year.’
‘So, yes,’ I smiled back at Camille. ‘It looks like we’re having a family Christmas.’
Camille sipped her coffee, still smiling. ‘Congratulations,’ she said, crossing her legs and flattening down her skinny black trousers. ‘Those types of discussions are a lot easier to avoid than face head-on. I know it is early days, but you are allowed to pat yourself on the back.’
I wanted to say I was still feeling cautious rather than exuberant. After all, I had proved to Ellie that I was the feckless hypocrite of a brother portrayed in the letter.
Camille put down her coffee and flipped open her notebook, pen in hand.
‘Scott, when was the last time you spoke to your mother?’
I puffed out my cheeks.
‘Five years ago.’
‘That’s a while. And there’s been no contact since your father passed away?’
‘No. No, we’ve not.’
‘Relax, I’m not criticising. I know it’s sometimes best to allow time to run its course before picking up the phone. But a lot of our issues do stem from our younger selves. And, again, not to get too Freudian on you,’ she gave her characteristic smirk whenever she mentioned Freud, ‘the events of our childhood and the actions of our parents do shape us as an adult.’ Camille then picked up the carafe of water and refilled both our glasses.
‘Scott, in those initial months after your parents split up, what was your relationship like with your mother?’
Again, I puffed out my cheeks, trying to shift my train of thought from Brighton and Ellie to something that happened twenty years ago.
‘Those visits to London would always coincide with a gallery exhibition featuring her. We had to get dressed up and when we arrived she ran up and greeted us like we were royalty, everyone in the room looking at us. We were then paraded around and had these well-dressed people telling us how proud we must be of our mother. Ellie and I would be the only children, and everyone else would surround Orletta hanging on her every word. Even Ellie, who worshipped her, looked bored, and no one would notice if we wandered away and waited outside.’
I shuffled about in my seat and picked up my glass of water.
‘It was not like we weren’t proud of her. We always loved our mum, but that woman at the gallery was not our mum. It was the artist Orletta Roberts.’
‘Did you ever talk to your mum about these experiences? Did your sister?’
I thought back to the last visit of that era, and gave a small snort. I was sitting in the atrium of the National Gallery by myself, and Ellie had gone off to smoke outside. It must have been an hour until Dad arrived and collected us. He took us back into the exhibit to say goodbye and we both reluctantly accompanied him. When Mum saw us she beamed like she always did, like we were the most important people in the world and came over and hugged us both saying how lovely it was seeing us and she could not wait until the next time. Neither Ellie nor I replied, and Orletta Roberts, the artist, continued beaming and returned to the people in suits and fancy dresses who were surrounding us. In what had been a two-hour visit, those had been her only words to us.
‘It’s just a small gig,’ Mike had said when he dropped me at the railway station, the day after Millie’s party.
‘It’s flattering, but the promoter does need to have his head examined. The only crowd we can muster these days are fellow staring-down-the-barrel-of-fortysomethings, who can get a babysitter and want to spend a Saturday night pretending we’re still in our twenties.’
His band had been invited to headline at the Blues Café in Brixton. Typically Mike played it down and I assumed that was partly because in their heyday they were regulars at the Hammersmith Apollo and Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Still, for a band that Mike said only played for friends and family, this was one of London’s popular new music venues, and a quick look on its website showed Mike and company prominently.
‘Yep, why? Expecting another nocturnal visit from young women in short dresses?’
No, I wasn’t. But I did find that I was not dreading returning to Loughborough Road. It was usually only for a moment, but I would approach the house and instantly feel a sinking in my stomach if I saw Katie’s bedroom light on. It was the politeness that got to me over those months. The scripted niceties underpinning small talk as I would have to pass her open door. I did know this was largely in my head and some form of transference for what had happened with Sarah, but for the first time I actually looked forward to going home and having someone to talk to.
‘She’s not that young,’ I said, trying to divert attention away from my newfound cheeriness.
‘Yeah, perhaps not lead with that when you walk in the door.’
However, I did not have much chance to tell Katie of my weekend. Really want to catch up, she was kind enough to message when I had not seen her for a couple of days. We’ve got a thing at work this week so I’m trying to redeem myself by staying late. Are you around Thursday?
I too had been up to my neck in my own work – literally – as I shovelled trenchfuls of mud all week in the allotment. ‘Hmmm, so you’re going to do patch by patch?’ said Ronny Jones when he stopped by at the start of the week to have a cup of tea and check on progress. He was looking at the plot pencilled in for turnips which I had rotated and replanted. ‘It looks very nice, lad. But you do realise one at a time means you’ll be having to dig up the latter beds in January? If I was you I’d make the most of the wet weather and dig up as much of this place as you can before a frost sets in.’
I had been up each day before sunrise and struggled to stay awake long enough to hear Katie return from work. All for what I calculated to be around half that of minimum wage due to the fact my gardening business still only had one client – not many potential customers were thinking about their gardens while it was cold, wet, and dark the majority of the day. So, on Thursday, as I returned from my session with Camille, I bought a bottle of wine from the Loughborough Junction off-licence, hoping to have that long-awaited catch-up with my housemate.
However, it was not Katie with whom I had that first conversation. When I arrived upstairs, I saw the bathroom door closed and heard the shower running. As I put the kettle on I heard the door of the fridge open behind me.
A woman, Katie’s age but taller, skinnier, and with black hair as opposed to Katie’s dark brown, was bending over rummaging around the bottom shelf. She was wearing what looked like a tennis skirt, had slim tanned legs and a now noticeably small bum – a fact that made me swiftly turn back around and stare resolutely at the kettle. Without a word, Katie’s friend Izzy then brushed past me with a small bottle in her hand, opening the kitchen cabinets.
‘Anything I can help with?’ I asked.
She didn’t elaborate or look at me. She just stood on tiptoes and sifted through our glasses until she brought down two small tumblers. Over the six months I had lived with Katie, I had met or been in close proximity of Izzy probably a hundred times. And that was the first word she had ever spoken to me.
‘Have you and Katie had a game?’
‘Game of what?’ She opened the bottle and poured a thick lemony liquid into the glasses. ‘Tennis. I assumed from the outfit.’
‘I play. Katie doesn’t.’
She quickly shut the cabinets, picked up her glasses, and marched out of the room, not once even looking in my direction. If that was the behaviour of someone who Katie thought fancied me, then I would hate to see what she thought despise and loathe looked like.
‘Hey!’ then came a friendlier voice. In her dressing gown and towel wrapped around her hair, Katie put her head around the door.
‘Don’t go anywhere! I’ll just put some clothes on.’
As I heard the bathroom door close and the shower run again, a fully dressed Katie joined me in the kitchen. She was wearing a blue dress with tights and a thick black belt. She had a towel in her hand and was applying it to the tips of her hair.
‘It’s an annoying work thing,’ she said, throwing herself down onto the sofa. ‘A private exhibit for one of the high-end donors, so we’re all dressing up and losing our Thursday night to pretentious chatter about three-thousand-year-old antiquities.’
‘And Izzy’s your plus one?’
‘Of course, she would have killed me had I not invited her. If there’s an excuse to dress up and be pretentious, she’s first in line.’ She gave a mock eye roll and smiled.
‘So, are things okay with you and Ellie?’
I tried to give a light-hearted smile.
‘I think we’ve still got issues to work through. We’re not the best at communicating.’
‘Scott, you? Uncommunicative? Surely not.’ Katie laughed, finishing flattening out the kinks in her hair. The room suddenly seemed a lot brighter with her in her blue dress, and I was about to ask her if she fancied a quick glass of wine when we were interrupted by the sound of heels on our wooden floorboards.
In front of us stood the embodiment of an Egyptian princess. A white sleeveless dress, bronzed tanned skin, gold necklace, and painted green eyes made her the second coming of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.
‘I’ve ordered an Uber,’ she said to Katie.
‘Oh. I’m not quite ready. We’ve still got a bit of time. Perhaps we could have a drink with Scott?’
‘No,’ Izzy said impatiently. ‘I do actually want to see this exhibition. I’m not the one who works there and can view it any time she wants.’
Katie unsurprisingly looked a little perplexed by the sudden outburst.
‘Okay… I didn’t know you were that keen. I’ll just find a pair of shoes and get my coat.’ Rather than saying thank you, Izzy rolled her eyes and stomped back out of the room.
‘She doesn’t want to see the exhibit,’ Katie then smiled and whispered as we heard the same heels walk downstairs. ‘She just wants to make sure she’s there on time to be seen by any eligible men. Rain check on that drink?’
‘Unless you want to ditch your friend and just hang out here?’ It was rhetorical, but I was half hoping she might say yes.
‘Don’t tempt me,’ she said, slowly rising from the sofa. ‘Seriously, she’s been ratty all afternoon. I really do not have high hopes for tonight.’
Chapter 12: Boiler
The thing about therapy is, at times, not only does it have to get worse before it gets better, but it also unravels the stitching above forgotten scars. It was five, maybe even six years, since I had a conversation with my mother. The last time we spoke had been over the phone. Though I say she had been absent pretty much since she left that day twenty years ago, there would be an occasional glimpse of the woman who we loved more than anything.
I last saw her when I was twenty-nine – it was my birthday – and it was lovely. It was at another art gallery, another of her fleeting visits to London, but it was different from when I was a kid. She was not exhibiting but had come to give a fellow artist moral support, and for the first time it felt like it was just us. I was typically hungover, unshaven and unkempt, but it was perhaps the residual alcohol in my system that made me less guarded, awkward, or resentful than I normally was when I saw her. And when I saw her waiting for me, beaming at me at the gallery entrance, I could not have been happier.
We went to the gallery’s little café, and she asked me my news, and we sat for over an hour just chatting. She bought me a slice of cake, calling it birthday cake, and I saw her again: Orletta Roberts, the mother. Again, it might have been the hangover, or it might have been me having my own life, but it felt a new start. There was something less of a whirlwind about her. She was content just to sit and hear about my job and my friends, like we were something like equals. For the first time since I was a child, it felt like I had my mum back. Even if it was just for a fraction of one day.
I stirred and woke to the sound of clicking and light metallic banging. I then shivered. It was freezing in the room. My nose and cheeks were icy cold and I wrapped my duvet and throw tighter around me. I looked to my skylight and there was no trace of daylight, only the familiar orange of the streetlights coming through the blind. However, there was something different. A supernatural glow seemed to be emanating from the glass, and I sat up on the bed and pulled up the blind. It was snowing. Flakes were slowly coming down and had already settled around the perimeter of the skylight’s frame. Then I heard the banging again and, putting on a jumper, went downstairs to investigate.
The kitchen light was on and I heard what sounded like whispering.
‘Oh, why now, you stupid thing?’ Cautiously, I looked around the door. ‘Oh come on!’
Katie was standing across the room next to our sash window wrapped in an enormous brown dressing gown. The boiler cupboard was open, and she was agitatedly and repeatedly pressing knobs and buttons. She then spun around.
‘Please don’t tell me I woke you?’ She didn’t look as bright as she normally did. Her shoulders were slumped and she spoke more as a sigh than a question.
‘A little bit, yes,’ I grinned. ‘But the cold would have killed me in my sleep otherwise, so I should be thanking you. What’s going on?’
‘Don’t get me started.’
She turned, and we both looked outside the window where the snow was tumbling down. Standing together, we watched it settling over our downstairs neighbour’s garden.
‘It is pretty,’ I said.
‘Not when you’ve got a one-to-one with your boss first thing in the morning, and you’ve not had a wink of sleep because the bloody boiler your arsehole brother was meant to fix has decided to pack it in!’ Katie then thrust her hand through a circular hole and the clicking noise started up again.
‘He said this was meant to restart the pilot light.’ She looked either in deep concentration or extreme pain as her hand disappeared. ‘What kind of sadistic engineering requires you to do this?’
She removed her hand, grimacing, massaging her wrist.
‘Stupid, useless thing!’
‘Do you want me to try?’
I did not know what I was hoping to accomplish. Joan had shown me too how the boiler was meant to work, and Katie had pretty much done everything. So it was more for moral support that I stepped in front of her and examined what lay inside the ancient device.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a calmer but slightly croaky voice. ‘For all I know I’m getting fired in the morning, and I don’t really fancy it happening on zero hours’ sleep.’
‘Fired? What?’ My hand was now also inside the boiler, pressing whatever it was that made the clicking noise. Katie ruffled her hair.
‘I don’t know. That might be an exaggeration, but you know how I said that I’ve been a bit lax at work? I’ve been trying to catch up, but my manager’s still asked to see me tomorrow and won’t say what it’s about.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean trouble?’
‘It’s annoying. If I had got my act together two weeks earlier, this chat may not be happening.’
She pressed herself next to me, trying to peer past my wrist through the hole. ‘The light’s not coming on. This is useless. Let’s give up.’
We both stepped away and stared defeated at the cold, lifeless machine.
‘Do you have an electric heater?’
She shook her head. ‘Energy sapping.’
‘Why don’t you just take that?’
We had a heater in the kitchen. It was an enormous old thing, definitely pre-1980s, which Joan had inherited from one of his and Katie’s great-aunts. It had a dial at the side which worked like an egg timer causing its mesh front grille to glow bright red with raw heat. Standing too close for even a few seconds would lead to burnt calves and ankles.
‘Bertha?’ That’s what we called it. ‘You’re kidding. I’ll be afraid she’d ignite my room while I was sleeping!’
Katie bent down to switch it on and we stared at its unpredictable red glow.
‘Also remember Joan’s wired that himself. I’m not touching the plug.’
‘I’ve got an old sleeping bag I’ve been using as an extra duvet. You can have that?’
‘Thanks. But what will you use?’
‘I don’t know. I might just stay up down here. Sit in front of Bertha and read while watching the snow. If you ignored the inconvenience, it is quite mesmerising.’
We turned back to the window. It was a proper snow globe out there coming down in droves. I then felt the soft fluffiness of a dressing gown against my arm as Katie stood close watching too.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ she said and left the room. She returned a moment with her duvet.
‘This is totally girly, but let’s just camp out here for a bit. It’ll be just like being back at uni. Izzy, Sophie, Tara, and I used to do this all the time. I can make us hot cocoa, and we’ll at least be warm.’
She had this bizarre eager smile. I couldn’t help but look at her like she had lost her mind. ‘Oh, come on! This is the first time all day I’ve not been a sad-sack about this bloody meeting. We’ll stay awake, we’ll both be warm, and neither of us will die in a house fire.’
We sat at opposite ends of the sofa. I had my legs stretched on the coffee table and Katie sat cross-legged turned towards me.
‘Do you really think you’ll be in trouble tomorrow?’
‘Honestly? Probably not. But I feel I should be. I’m just so, so pissed off at myself at the moment. I love my job! I’ve loved going to museums since we all went on a family trip to London. I must have only been six or seven, but for a country girl, I was absolutely awestruck. And I still have that feeling now. I just haven’t been showing it.’
‘You have had other things on your mind.’
‘Ethan?’ she smiled. ‘You can say it. I’m not going to burst into tears again. Oh God, we spoke last night, and he actually brought up kids.’
She rolled her eyes. Her understated reaction somewhat annoyed me.
He sounds like such a complete dick, I wanted to say. Ethan came across as the stereotypical arrogant, had-it-easy posh boy who thought he was God’s gift to women. To be honest, not much more than a week ago, I would have said they were relatively well suited as Katie was the typical shallow, overachiever whose life went according to a set plan. But I did not know her then.
‘What do you see in him?’ I found myself saying.
‘Scott!’ She stopped smiling and stared.
‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ I tried to brush it off quickly. ‘You’re kind. And understanding. Fun and independent…’ I was trying to be nonchalant, staring out in the direction of the dangerously glowing red heater. ‘Like you’ve said, you’ve got a career of your own you want to focus on. I don’t think he’s that supportive, that’s all.’
I glanced over at Katie. She still looked pissed off as she sipped her cocoa.
‘Easier said than done, Scott. I do love him after all.’ She looked away from me, into the red glow.
We sat in silence as the heater made a faint buzz. I looked at the window, at the snow.
While still staring at the window, I felt Katie move. I expected to feel the duvet dragged off me and see her walk back to her bedroom. Instead, I felt a soft mesh of hair on my shoulder.
‘Sorry,’ she said. She had put down her cocoa, and stretched her legs onto the coffee table. ‘You have just told me I’m going out with a useless twat, which effectively makes me a useless twat. But, it was sweet of you.’ Katie then raised her head from my shoulder and I felt her wriggle back onto her side of the sofa.
‘Oh my God.’ She wriggled. ‘Sorry, I’m taking up all the space with my oversized bum. You wouldn’t have this problem if it was Izzy here rather than me.’
‘I think you might have a warped opinion of what constitutes oversized,’ I grinned, noticing her light brown locks fall in front of her hazel eyes. ‘And I hardly think that Izzy and me ever sharing sofa space is likely.’
Katie picked her cocoa up and looked at me.
‘You know, you and Izzy have more in common than you realise.’ It was now Katie’s turn to grin as I saw her try to mask a smirk while sipping her hot cocoa. ‘Your physiques, for one. You and your constant gardening and, hmmm, how you seem to choose when my friends are round to come back all sweaty and manly, muscles bulging…’
‘I do not!’ I almost spat out my cocoa, unsure whether to look horrified or burst out laughing.
‘At least Izzy doesn’t deny she goes to the gym every single day. Plus she plays tennis twice a week. And she doesn’t even like tennis! She only plays because she enjoys thrashing people and because she can legitimately wear short, tight skirts that show off her amazing legs and bum. Oh! Sorry! You’re still adamant you’ve never noticed them.’
Katie smiled and rolled her eyes. The frostiness in the air was starting to thaw due to the heater. In fact, I cautiously checked how close Katie’s duvet had got to its grille as my toes were beginning to cook even if my heels were still blocks of ice.
‘Oh come on, you and Izzy are two sides of the same coin. You both outwardly dress like you don’t give a shit – you with your I’m-Definitely-Not-A-Hipster indie-kid clothes and her with her deliberately provocative skirts. Because you both want to be seen as different.’
‘I guess you’ve seen right through me,’ I smiled. Katie just sighed.
‘I’m just saying that Izzy isn’t the shallow mean-girl people make her out to be – she’s got a First from Oxford despite not having the easiest time of it.’ Katie frowned and turned on the sofa. ‘Her parents split up just as we got to university. She puts on this cold, frosty exterior, but there have been times where she’s not been able to stop crying. When it comes to guys, her type seems to be pathological arseholes. Either the member of the college rowing team voted most likely to become a sex pest, or someone heavily into drugs and who sees nothing wrong with screaming abuse directly into her face at parties or physically putting her hands on her. She’s been out with some real winners.’
I sat up further to be closer to Katie’s eye line.
‘I just thought, he’s not as bad as we first thought.’ She gave a childish grin. ‘And she’s… well, at times she’s a total pain in the arse, but actually one of the kindest, most loyal, most fun best friends I could ever have.’
Katie’s grin had turned into a warm smile. She sipped her cocoa, the steam rising over her nose and eyelashes.
‘Thanks for saying I’m not as bad as you first thought. That’s probably the nicest thing a woman has ever said to me.’ We both smiled. ‘And I’m sorry your friend has had a hard time. They really do not sound nice guys.’
We listened to the faint hum of the heater. The flat still had an icy chill, but it was a lot warmer than when we were standing by the boiler.
‘Scott?’ Katie said, in a tired sounding voice. I suddenly realised how heavy my eyes had got. ‘Thanks for this. I was freaking out.’ She paused to yawn. ‘But now… I’m…’ I looked over to see that, instead of finishing her sentence, she had her eyes closed and was breathing deeply, fast asleep.
I stirred just before her. I felt her warm face on my shoulder, and her smooth hair had crept against my mouth. Our feet seemed to have entwined in our sleep as had our arms – I was hugging her arm as in the night she must have rolled over and laid an arm across me. The problem was where her hand had ended up and what she was cupping.
I lightly picked up Katie’s wrist and placed it on her own leg.
‘Urrrrrgghhmm,’ she groaned. I felt her face turn and press into my upper shoulder. Her hand then shot to her mouth. She jumped up.
‘Oh my God, how long have I been asleep?’ She stared around the room and looked to the window, squinting as if trying to get her bearings.
‘Oh. I am so, so sorry.’ She stared down, horrified, at my shoulder. Across my upper arm was a large wet patch.
‘I can’t believe I did that. I’ve drooled all over you. Scott, I honestly do not know what to say.’
Looking further at the patch, she had gone to town. In places her saliva had sunk through my top. I couldn’t help but laugh.
‘Why didn’t you wake me?’ she then said, sounding irritated.
‘I was asleep! I had no idea you were even here, apart from this weird dream I had that I was drowning at sea.’ As I grinned, she shoved my arm. She then jumped up and turned around, her dressing gown flicking the side of my face. She reached up to our stereo on top of the fridge, which had a clock on it. She sighed.
‘Half six,’ she said and sat back down. ‘I’m not late. We’ve been asleep for almost five hours. So much for staying up and making sure neither of us died in a fire.’
We both sat up and looked down at Bertha, who was still glowing raw red. Katie seemed to cautiously push the duvet off her as she shuffled away from me. The belt of her dressing gown had come undone sometime in the night and, noticing, she began tying what looked like a double knot. I felt it best to leave the sofa.
‘How about a cup of tea?’ I said, crossing the room to the kettle.
‘Thank you,’ she said as I returned, handing her one of the freshly made teas. I looked out of the window. The neighbourhood gardens were a sea of white. I sat down in our dilapidated armchair as Katie remained sitting upright in the corner of the sofa.
‘Sorry for being grumpy,’ she said, taking a sip. ‘A bit disorientated.’ She gave a small smile, glancing at me briefly before returning to her tea. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve woken up next to a strange man.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it. At least we both survived the night.’
‘No thanks to my dickhead brother.’
‘I’ll call him today and tell him we’re going to get someone in.’
‘No, I’ll call him. I could do with shouting at him,’ she smiled, looking a bit brighter. ‘I should be getting dressed. Get today’s meeting over and done with. Urrrrgh,’ came another groan, but she broke into a smile.
‘Thanks for keeping me company. I was a complete pain. Again. Hey, what are you doing tonight? I can make you dinner as a thank you – I do a mean bolognese.’
‘I’m actually going over to our old house tonight. There a few things of my dad’s I said I’d look for and sort out.’
‘Oh. Okay. I don’t think I’ve been stood up for an empty house before. I guess it will be a whole a lot warmer than here anyway.’
The steam from our tea formed spirals through the atmosphere right up to the ceiling. I felt a pang of gnawing guilt.
‘I’m going to see my brother-in-law’s band tomorrow. Why don’t you join us – Joan and Alison will be there too!’ I found myself hastily adding the last bit.
‘I told Izzy I’d spend Saturday with her – I’ve been putting her off all this week. Maybe I can bring her? I promise it won’t be a setup.’
We both smiled. I felt this weird shyness just like when I was sixteen and first asked Vicky to the cinema.
‘I better get dressed. I could do with getting in early and mentally preparing. Thank you again for last night. I probably would have spent it wide awake both freezing and freaking out in my room.’
As Katie left, I couldn’t help feeling something familiar. Her large dressing gown reminded me of an old unfashionable raincoat Vicky used to wear. Vicky said she knew it was hideous, but it was almost essential over the British winter and served as a comfort blanket. To me, it made Vicky look beautiful, especially as she assumed she looked the opposite. She would have forgotten that I had fallen in love with her back when she was the maths geek sixteen-year-old without makeup on, her shiny yellow hair bundled back, and her face screwed up in concentration as we tried to solve refraction problems. As Katie and her enormous dressing gown left the room, I couldn’t help thinking of Vicky and that day she and that raincoat left my life for good.
Chapter 13: Bruce
When Vicky and I broke up what now seems so many years ago, it was not a case of no guilty parties. While Vicky was the one who eventually pulled the trigger, I would be first to admit that I had not given her much of an incentive to stay. Part of me still thinks that our relationship might have solely served as the wake-up she needed. She had swapped charismatic but controlling douchebags for what she thought was safe and stable. However, neither proved themselves emotionally capable of making her happy.
I should have been Vicky’s knight in shining armour. But, by the end of our relationship, I had become both too insecure to feel comfortable in an adult relationship, and too drunk on the success of having one girl like me that I forgot how lucky I was to have Vicky in my life. What I did was not a question of fidelity, but something more pathetic. I had begun to question whether she was good enough for me.
When Vicky and I first started dating, I was the competition winner who could not believe his luck. When I was away from her, I would feel this sense of foreboding that she would come to her senses at any moment. I would dread those birthday parties with her friends – the glamorous, well-spoken, self-confident set that I had attended university with who seemed so much more mature and sophisticated than me. They would surely see what a charlatan I was. But then, away from this crowd, with my own friends and workmates, my ego got the better of me.
I started having these thoughts, about which I am frankly aghast when looking back now. They would be when the lights were out and Vicky and I were being intimate. I would be stroking her face and find myself suddenly thinking about the blonde girl working on reception at my bank. This girl had finally remembered my name after years of working there, and I would suddenly look at Vicky and feel I was settling for second place. That, in that bedroom twilight, Vicky was rather plain.
Or it would be a small redhead who I started talking to while out at work drinks. Until Vicky, I rarely had the confidence to approach women at bars. Suddenly I was all smiles.
Nothing happened between me and any of these women. But looking back at my twenty-seven-year-old self, that does not excuse any of it or make it any less of a fortunate escape for Vicky. I stopped appreciating her. I had made the cardinal mistake of believing that just because one girl was foolish enough to believe in me, I must be irresistible.
Broker drinks, networking drinks, team building drinks, I would be out up to three nights a week, and on the occasions that she joined us, I could tell Vicky would rather have been anywhere else than having my drunken banking friends repeatedly offer her Jäger-bombs and tequila slammers. I lost sight of the qualities Vicky probably saw in me in the first place. She had liked the wallflower in me, the fact that I was not full of myself like her other boyfriends, the fact that I listened to her, that I was her friend. And eventually, she realised she had no desire to continue dating someone still going through an extended adolescence.
I had lied about having to go to Dad’s house. When Katie offered to make me dinner, I instinctively hit the panic button. I had spent the first part of the year as a shoulder to cry on for Sarah, so I did not fancy repeating the experience. But sitting on our sofa, drinking cocoa together, was an image I could not get out of my head while I stood at the allotment trying unsuccessfully to dig frozen ground. I kept thinking back to the feeling of her head on my shoulder.
But as I returned to Dad’s and descended into our dark, dusty basement, torch in hand, to bring old boxes out of storage, my phone buzzed. It was a message from Katie:
OMG – I’ve been offered a promotion! My boss is taking a sabbatical and she asked if I would like to fill in. Temporarily, obviously. But it means I’m not getting fired!!! xx
Obviously she was not going to get fired. From what I had started to learn about Katie, her definition of slacking off was doing the standard forty-hour week instead of her usual sixty. Putting the storage boxes on the dining table, I felt this sense of guilt and missing out. Dinner could have been celebratory. I pictured Katie’s beaming smile sitting opposite me, holding a glass of wine. I wondered if she had already told Ethan. I hoped she hadn’t. I found myself hoping I was one of the first people she told. I found myself suddenly hoping for a lot of things.
‘Hey!’ Katie beamed a huge, surprised smile. She was coming out of her bedroom as I reached the top of the stairs. She was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and what looked like pyjama bottoms. I smiled back at her, taking off my gloves and then my coat, catching my breath and letting my face regain feeling from the icy conditions outside.
‘I thought you were staying somewhere snug and warm?’
‘That wouldn’t make me much of a team player.’ I smiled a bit of a nervous smile. ‘Abandoning you in a time of crisis. Is it me, or is it warm in here?’
‘Oh, yes, Joan came round. There’s a trick with the pilot light. Another stupid trick! I swear, he’s deliberately done things to this house to make it impossible for normal human beings to inhabit. But seriously, why didn’t you tell me you were coming home? I would have made dinner!’
‘Well, it’s late. I thought you’d either be asleep or out celebrating.’ I smiled again.
‘No, not out. Trying to be good and limit nights out to once a week.’ She had on an intoxicating grin. I didn’t need to ask about the promotion for how ebullient she looked. ‘And as for being asleep…’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Scott, it’s nine o’clock on a Friday night. I think we can both stretch to staying awake until at least eleven.’
I was about awkwardly ask if she fancied opening a bottle of wine when Katie stepped forward and then put her arms around me.
‘Oh, thanks for coming home,’ she said, mid hug – a prolonged hug where I felt the warmth of her body pressed against me and her arms on my back.
‘I have to admit, it was starting to feel an anti-climax hanging out here by my lonesome. Come on.’ She then released me and led the way into the kitchen.
I watched her and waited behind for just a moment. Nothing was going to happen, I told myself. Ever. She was my friend and purely just my friend. But after what had felt an entire year under a cloud, I had a sense of awakening. Like I could breathe again. For the first time in I did not know how long, I had looked forward to coming home. As Katie tiptoed up to collect two wine glasses from our kitchen cupboard, I wanted to bottle up that moment. The next time those dark clouds descended, I needed to remember that feeling of warmth, contentment and belonging of simply drinking wine with a woman I can call my friend, to quote the other great American poet, Mr Bruce Springsteen.
Chapter 14: Will you still love me tomorrow?
The first time I met Mike, Ellie had uncharacteristically omitted to say what he did for a living. It was toward the end of my Exmouth Market years when she had been working in music journalism, and we would end up having a night out together almost twice a month. My sister was usually never shy about name-dropping. Or at having my awestruck friends hanging on her every word as she regaled stories of partying with the indie and rock bands they were obsessed with. She was also the master of throwing choice titbits that would have us all look at each other, sufficiently wowed, and say, ‘you know James Hetfield? From Metallica?’
Some of it was embellishment, some of it bullshit. Obviously, James Hetfield from Metallica did not have my sister’s name in his iPhone contacts list. Rather, she had been in the same room as the band at a press event and had the moxie to approach him and have a three minute conversation – an achievement in itself considering I would have been star-struck to the point of paralysis. But at that stage in our lives, Ellie was the cool one, always going places and meeting iconic people. And she knew full well her stories would make her the centre of attention and a superstar by association.
Therefore, dating the lead singer and guitarist in a pretty decent and well-respected band surely should have made her unbearable, right? But when she brought him down to the Exmouth Arms, and we sat around our usual table drinking pints with my flatmates, she just gave a spiel about having met at a gig and that Mike just worked on the music circuit rather than, according to articles in Melody Maker, that he was the frontman of ‘Britain’s answer to the Black Keys’. It was only when I was travelling through Oxford Circus tube station and I saw him staring back at me on a poster advertising their new album, that I had an inkling who Mike was and how well respected he was as a musician – four stars, Q and NME had rated it.
In that respect, it was not a surprise that when I arrived early to see his band step out of their hiatus, the Blues Café was completely full with barely even any standing room left for the sea of people who Mike was certain did not know who his band was anymore. It had the vibe of a mini arena with tables piled up at the side, making room for the crowd in front of a stage. From a far corner of the room I saw two arms wave to me, one eager like it had not seen me in years, the other – Joan’s – disengaged performing a public service.
‘Hey, stranger,’ said Alison. They were on stools at one of the few remaining small, tall tables against the far wall. ‘We thought we’d get here early and find somewhere to sit. Is it getting old that the thought of standing for a whole gig sends you into a cold sweat?’ As a couple, Alison’s natural enthusiasm gelled well with Joan’s genuine disinterest. Her petite bubbliness, and free spirit with multi-coloured hairstyles, paired well with his tall, skinny lethargy of succeeding through minimizing efforts.
‘How’s you?’ asked Alison. ‘How’s the house of horrors? Sorry I haven’t been round to visit. That place still gives me PTSD from when Joan and what other life forms were living there.’
‘You’d be pleasantly surprised,’ I smiled. ‘Katie’s transformed it. There was a spell when you could smell nothing but disinfectant, but it is quite cosy now.’
‘How is Katie?’ she smiled. ‘How are you both getting along?’
‘I think that’s Alison’s way of asking if you’ve tried to get into her knickers yet.’
Joan briefly smirked but then went back to staring at his phone.
‘That’s your sister!’ Alison stared up at him, looking truly appalled. Joan shrugged.
‘Well, you’re the one so interested in how they’re both getting on.’
‘She’s fine,’ I interrupted. ‘Actually, she’s had some good news at work. And things between her and Ethan seem on the mend…’
I tried relay the last piece of news without visibly sneering. Waking up that morning, I could hear Katie downstairs rummaging around in the kitchen and talking to someone. It was not an unpleasant sensation, being woken up by a very cheerful tone and a lot of enthusiastic laughter. When I ventured down to the kitchen, she had made breakfast, spooning poached eggs onto a plate, with a huge smile on her face as she pressed her phone to her ear.
‘It will also be more money, which always comes in handy,’ she grinned.
I walked past her to put on the kettle as she gave me a quick smile and mouthed good morning before laughing again into the phone.
‘Thanks!’ she beamed, sounding mock-sarcastic but happy. ‘I’ll try to remember you think your girlfriend is basically a ninny.’ She grinned again, this time her cheeks going pink as I pretended not to be glancing at her and busied myself making tea.
‘I better go. I’m starving. Plus, I need to speak to Scott about this music thing with my brother. I’ll call you back in an hour or so. Love you. Hey! Sorry about that – Ethan called. Wanted to hear about the new job.’
‘Ah, okay. Things sound better?’
Her eyes rolled up to look at the ceiling thoughtfully before she answered.
‘Yes. He’s being quite considerate at the moment.’ She then sighed, shook her head, and ran her hands through her hair, scrunching it up, but all the while smiling what looked like a very relieved smile.
‘It is still early days, but he’s been a bit more attentive this week. It’s…’ I saw the pink glow return to her cheeks. ‘It’s encouraging, anyway. So tonight,’ she then said, picking up her plate of eggs and the mug that was next to it. ‘I’m meeting Izzy for drinks first, so we might have to meet you guys there. What time is Mike on?’
Katie said she would try to get to the venue as close to nine o’clock as possible with the caveat of Izzy being Izzy, so who knew what would happen. In turn, I spent the day glumly moving between record shops and cafés half-heartedly trying to expand my 1960s Motown collection while scribbling some basic equations of how many new clients my fledgling gardening business would need before I went bankrupt. My conclusion being a lot more than the one client that I currently had.
It should not have been so disappointing to overhear Katie’s joy when speaking with Ethan. Nothing had changed in the status quo – she had a boyfriend whom she loved. But I did find myself walking from Loughborough Road to the Blue Cafés with less of a jauntiness than I had the night before.
‘It’s great you’re getting on,’ said Alison. ‘Katie really is lovely, which is surprising considering who she’s related to.’ Alison nodded to Joan, who had stopped listening and was looking out to the stage. He then raised his hand to get someone’s attention. Through the mingling crowd, Mike was coming towards us, and just behind him a woman who looked identical to my sister.
‘I didn’t know you were coming,’ I said to Ellie as we hesitated, then hugged awkwardly as everyone else was hugging.
‘Mrs Rawlins said she didn’t mind having the kids. Apparently, they are little angels for her…’ She frowned as Mike smirked. ‘Plus, I deserve the occasional night out, and why not treat myself to an evening chain drinking flat lager and ruining my new boots on a sticky floor.’
‘She’s been looking forward to it, really,’ smiled Mike. ‘I better go back to the band. We’re meant to be on in five. See you all after?’ We said yes, and Mike went back to the stage. Joan then offered to buy a round and took Alison with him to the bar.
‘It’s like old times,’ Ellie said. ‘Basement bars, bad lager, sweaty people jumping up and down. To think this was how I made a living, writing up gigs of bands who thought signing their first record deal would make them the next Stones. I really don’t miss this.’
We stood watching the activity of music technicians moving leads around and fiddling with equipment.
‘What about playing? Have you thought about composing again?’ Ellie just snorted.
‘I think that ship has sailed. Plus, when am I going to get a chance? I seem to spend most of my life either teaching scales or running around after Ed and Millie.’
At that moment, I felt my phone buzz. Assuming it was Katie, which it was, I quickly read the message as Ellie looked on at the stage. So so sorry. It doesn’t look like we’ll make it. Izzy is being a nightmare! Will tell all tomorrow. Have a great night!
Putting my phone away, I felt relief cancel out some of the disappointment. Her conversation with Ethan was still in my head. It was going to be strange especially in this awkward ‘group hang’ setting I had engineered that would have included the eclectic mix of her brother, her best friend, my sister, my brother-in-law, and Alison. But I found myself lost in my own world, staring down at the soon-to-be sticky floor as the packed crowd got even more packed.
I then realised where I was. I was on a night out with two of my best friends and my sister, watching my brother-in-law’s band play to a full house. I had not had a night like this in years. I listened to the noise, the eager conversations around me, the sound system in the background, and felt the brushes of people coming through with drinks, jostling for space. I turned around to see Joan and Alison being served drinks at the bar and then looked at my sister next to me, dressed up for what she said was her first night out in months. I then closed my eyes and let myself appreciate that moment.
‘The piano at Dad’s is just there not being used,’ I said to Ellie. ‘If we’re going to be spending Christmas there, you might get a chance to… I don’t know, pick up where you left off.’
Before she had a chance to answer, the lights dimmed and I felt a plastic pint glass of lager being thrust into my hand by Joan. There was a roar as my brother-in-law and his band stepped out onto the stage.
What I have come to find incredibly unhelpful in my relatively short life is how people with drinking and drug problems are portrayed by films and media. On the screen, people struggling with the lure of all-night benders only kick the habit after attending a weekly meeting in a church and confiding to a group of strangers that they are an alcoholic and stating how many days or months they have been sober.
In fact, during my late twenties, the one thing that drove me further into the arms of drugs and alcohol was trying to give them up completely. I could go through the day without the need for a drink. I could go three weeks without a drink. But if I saw my friends, I would run out of things to say while sober and feel an outsider, unable to join in the merriment. And then all it would take was one beer to have me craving more and leading me to order cocaine and making my way to the nearest strip club.
It was Alison who recommended therapy to me. I was a tired, sad kind of drunk, and we had found ourselves sitting on a booth in a quiet corner of an indie club while our other friends were on the dancefloor. It had been my third night drinking in a row, and the previous two had involved a lot of white powder, meaning when it came to seeing my actual friends, I was typically hungover and jaded. ‘How are things?’ I asked her. ‘Pretty shit, to be honest,’ was her reply, but with her characteristic warm smile. ‘I’ve been feeling a bit lost recently. Work, life, men. It’s been a bit shit for a while now – probably why everyone thinks I’m such a head case.’ I turned to her and noticed there wasn’t the same zany spark. Instead, she sat back subdued, sipping what looked like water from a plastic glass. ‘It’s okay, you don’t have to be kind,’ she said after I tried to reassure her that we all thought she was wonderful. ‘I drink way too much on nights like these. I wake up hating myself as I usually finish the night having a stand-up row with someone off my face, or bursting into tears for no reason at a random bus stop.’ She gave a little shrug as ‘Parklife’ by Blur kicked off a mini-riot on the dancefloor. ‘I’m seeing someone now. No, not another man,’ she smiled. ‘A therapist. Someone to talk things over and help me realise what this all means.’
Two months later, I had my first session with Anthony, a middle-aged Scottish man with a soft, patient voice. I wanted to blame my drinking on my split with Vicky. I wanted to blame going to strip clubs and doing cocaine on my drinking – as if it was the beers and beers alone that made me some kind of fiend. But the first thing Anthony pointed out was everything usually ran a little bit deeper.
Anthony and I spent six months talking through my recriminations and relapses to why I wanted to do cocaine or go to strip clubs. The hardest thing to admit were the words ‘because I was lonely.’ I also stayed out in part because I did not want to go home. I had no hobbies, I had no purpose. Somewhere along the line, I had started believing that I needed to drink to speak to other people – to have confidence, for people to find me interesting, and to meet someone new. Anthony and I then gave it a new word. Rather than addiction, we used dependency.
It probably sounds like an excuse, and maybe with hindsight it is, and the truth was that it was easier to pay for stimulated confidence and for women to talk to me.
‘What do you like about drinking?’ Anthony then asked me, but not in a sneering, what-on-earth-do-you-see-in-it type of way. ‘Socialising is a big part of our lives. Think back to when you enjoyed a drink for what it was, and you did not have those recriminations the next day.’
I recalled those nights at indie clubs and dancing until the early hours of the morning. I remembered the taste of a cold beer after a long day and also standing in a warm pub on a cold night with my friends, just enjoying being there.
‘It’s not simply a case of stopping drinking and then life becoming better. You also need to find what you’re passionate about, slowly filling your life with other things and experiences.’ Anthony then let out a small laugh. ‘Then, you will find yourself both enjoying those beers with your friends and wanting to return home to, who knows, bake banana bread in the morning.’
Rather than baking banana bread, I found myself spending more time in Dad’s garden. It began one Sunday when I arrived for lunch and saw him sweating, trying to unearth what looked like the whole front flowerbeds, and as Anthony described, I found myself gradually coming home earlier so I could spend the next day learning to plant things I had no idea the name of yet.
And returning to Loughborough Road after the Blues Café, I had that similar sensation. Instead of wallowing about Katie, I spent the evening surrounded by people I truly loved. It had been completely euphoric. Mike’s band had the venue erupting, and the crowd were whooping and jumping like they would have done a decade earlier. There were times on stage you could see Mike lost for words as his vocals were drowned out by a thousand voices singing over him. After the set, Ellie embraced Mike, and neither looked like they were ever going to let the other go, and we all stood around basking in the glow as random people would come up to the band asking if they could take a selfie with them.
As we all hugged outside and said goodbye, I was reminded of the heyday when we would go indie clubbing and, at the end of the night, stand on the pavement about to go home, just waiting that little bit longer so we could keep absorbing that natural high. I hugged Joan, Alison, Mike, and even my sister, with a giant bear hug – Ellie did groan but squeezed me back just as hard. And then I let the buzz carry me home, back to Loughborough Road.
As I climbed the stairs up to the landing, I hoped that Katie might be back from her night out so I could share with her how euphoric the night had been. There was a soft light coming from the kitchen, but otherwise, the house was still and quiet and I could see Katie’s door was shut. It looked like one of us had left a lamp on. As I entered the kitchen and went to switch it off, I was startled.
‘Yes?’ said a voice from the sofa. Lying across it was a girl in a short black skirt and small white top staring at me through shiny fresh makeup – Izzy. Her legs were nonchalantly stretched out, her shoes off, and her head was resting on a pile of cushions sitting up just enough to sip from a small glass tumbler.
‘Can I help you?’ she then said, not overly politely considering who lived there and who did not. She raised her eyebrows and gave me a ‘well? I’m waiting’ stare.
‘Is Katie here?’
‘In bed,’ she said, rolling her eyes and looking away. She raised her tumbler to her lips and let it touch the bottom one. ‘She said the gin was yours.’ She tilted her head to a bottle on the coffee table. It was about half empty, which was not the case the last and only time I had poured myself a glass.
‘You’re both back early,’ I said, walking to the sink to pour myself a glass of water.
‘Well, Spoiler didn’t fancy the club.’ I assumed that from the look on my face Izzy saw that I didn’t understand her reference.
‘It’s what we used to call her at Oxford,’ she said lazily, stretching out one of her legs fully so her bare foot dangled off the end of the sofa. She started making circles with the tip of her toe, staring absently as she did.
‘‘Spoiler of all things fun’. The sensible one who said no to anything remotely interesting. Weed, pills, house parties at random men’s houses at four o’clock in the morning. Threesomes.’
With the last one, Izzy glanced over with a hint of what might have been a smile – the first time I had seen her do so. ‘Probably for the best. At least it meant she was there to hold back one’s hair when one was throwing up stoned. Or hold one’s hand when freaking out on acid. Shame about the threesome, though.’ Again, another glance and smile as her eyes kissed mine.
I tried to smile politely, not quite sure of the etiquette for a random girl drinking alone in my living room. She was still absently making circles with her toe as I tried not to glance at her long legs. Izzy was attractive, very few could argue the contrary, but there was something off.
‘You can join me. I don’t bite. It is your gin after all.’ Again with minimal effort, she waved a hand to the bottle.
‘I was going to bed,’ I said, picking up my water. Izzy then let out a sigh and impatiently flicked her hair to the side. ‘At midnight? On a Saturday?’
I knew I shouldn’t be so easily goaded. I also had a feeling that having a drink with Izzy was not the thing to do, and the safe play would have been to smile politely and go upstairs to my duvet. After all, it was not the friendliest invitation, and sitting at an arm’s length drinking with a girl who seemed in a strange mood was unlikely to be a jovial experience. But I didn’t go upstairs.
‘Have you got any tonic?’
‘It’s your house,’ she shrugged.
I turned around one of our dining chairs and sat opposite Izzy. She was staring at her toes, indifferent to me taking her up on her offer.
‘Spoiler’s having a sulk. In case you’re wondering why I’m here by my lonesome.’ She sipped her glass of neat gin.
‘We had a tiff. Her fault, but Little Miss Morality decided she would still offer me the benevolence of her room as a place to crash. I’d rather enjoy the remainder of the evening out here.’
The tonic we had in the fridge was flat and had a bitter aftertaste, but I sipped it anyway as I looked at the strange girl with nice legs.
‘We’re meant to be at a party. Friends of mine from work, but Spoiler is apparently above all that now.’ Izzy then did look at me. A non-friendly accusing stare. ‘You know about Ethan, I take it? Of course you do. You both are so chummy now.’
‘Is that what your tiff was about?’ I made the mistake of smiling. After all, it did sound a little trivial. But Izzy then smiled too – the first full, irrefutable one I had seen from her. However, it was not a kind smile.
‘No, Scott. It was because Spoiler doesn’t want mean old man-eating Izzy to fuck her sweet, sensitive housemate.’
She made a sarcastic pout, holding eye contact. Through its modern overuse, rarely does the word fuck tend to shock. But put so deliberately, in her public school accent, it hung in the air.
‘Don’t look so worried.’ She then rolled her eyes and lay back again, sipping her gin. ‘I don’t fancy you, if that’s what you’ve been led to believe.’ She narrowed her eyes, staring at me uncomfortably closely. Things had started to feel weird – or at least weirder than they already were. I gulped down more of my gin and tonic so I could politely leave.
‘Katie hasn’t led me to believe anything. She might have been overzealous on the matchmaking front but that’s just because – ’
‘Spoiler’s got a big mouth,’ she continued, cutting me off. ‘Big, and unfortunately disappointing, I’m reliably told. In case you were wondering. What with all your late-night chats and that.’ She finally broke her stare and looked away, now irritated. She suddenly looked a lot younger, like a teenager having a bout of petulance. A lot less sexy. She reached over for the gin to top up her glass.
‘Do you think you may have had enough?’
‘I have a certain type, Scott, you see,’ she said, ignoring me. ‘And sadly, you don’t fit the bill.’ She seemed genuinely happy relaying the news. ‘You see, all this,’ she waved her hand around in a circle, ‘the shabby chic lifestyle is not my thing. Just thought you should know.’
I could only smirk and let her go on.
‘I’m not one of the Katies of this world who finds charm in a man-of-the-people or someone who goes to festivals or watches has-been bands. And let’s face it, spending an afternoon record shopping – Scott, I hate to be the one to tell you, re-enacting the past is hardly sexy.’
She wasn’t exactly offending me – I don’t like the word, but there was something about her being too much of a bitch to be a bitch. Rather, it was weird how she seemed to know so much about me. Weird and irritating.
‘You see,’ she said, sitting up. ‘I like men who don’t act like boys. Who achieve, take what they want, and have something to show for it. If that makes me shallow…’ She simply shrugged to end the sentence. I had come to the end of my gin and tonic. Placing the glass down on the coffee table, I stood up to leave her.
‘Thanks very much for the heads up, Izzy. I’ll make sure I cross your name off my list of potential girlfriends.’
I felt a cushion bounce off my face as I was about to walk out the door.
‘Oh, grow up,’ she said with a snort of laughter. She reached over and picked up my empty glass and the gin bottle. She poured another and then offered it to me.
‘You are quite the sensitive soul.’ She made the pouting face again. Did she think her childish, demeaning gestures were sexy? Obviously, they were. I tried to at least scowl as I took the glass.
‘And you’re a little bit hostile.’
‘Oh, really?’ She smiled, this time without an undertone. ‘Well, then. Here’s to neither of us wanting to fuck each other.’
Even before I could decide if I wanted another drink, let alone sit down, Izzy flung herself to her feet and said,
‘Come on. I want to show you something.’ She stepped past me and surprisingly took my hand. She led me into the hallway and to Katie’s door.
‘Oh, what do you think?’
There were a pair of shiny black high heels on the floor, and she put her toe into one. ‘I just got them. The effect is greater when on.’ Still holding my hand, but this time for balance, she bent down to do up the straps.
‘Well?’ she said.
‘Yes, great,’ I said, unsure why my opinion on a pair of shoes was needed.
‘Cost a fortune.’ She spun around, apparently enamoured with her new purchase, looking down at them at all angles. Then, she opened Katie’s door and wandered in.
‘It’s fine. She’s asleep. Come on,’ she smiled, pulling me by the hand. This time it was a different smile – conspiring and happy. I took one step forward, Izzy’s fingers soft and delicate in my grip. I stopped just on the threshold.
‘I’ll wait here,’ I whispered
Izzy shot me a look – a huge smile – and then playfully tugged me forward.
‘Look.’ She then said softly and pointed at the bed. There was Katie, unsurprisingly sleeping. What was surprising was despite the cold, she had her duvet kicked off and was lying on her side in her pyjamas, deep silent breaths coming from her. I quickly turned away and made to leave but felt Izzy’s hand grip mine more forcibly, and her arm yank mine hard like it was a child’s game.
‘Don’t worry,’ Izzy smiled again. ‘She’s dead to the world when she’s asleep. We used to have a lot of fun with that at university.’ I felt Izzy’s breath on my ear. Her heels made her taller so her lips were at my earlobe. She then turned back to Katie and stepped towards the bed, kneeling in front of her.
‘Look at Little Miss Maturity. Thirty years old and still wearing rabbit pyjamas.’ The streetlight was illuminating Katie, casting a glow through her curtains. They were full-length pyjamas and had some pattern on the front. She also had on thick socks, so I could not see any skin at all, which I tried to tell myself made this situation less pervy.
‘I’m going to go,’ I said, releasing myself from Izzy’s grip.
‘Ooooh, look at her white knight!’ Izzy beamed up at me, again looking manically happy.
‘She won’t even stir. Oh bless! Such an untroubled mind.’ Izzy’s hand lightly stroked Katie’s face.
I felt I now needed to stay and get Izzy out of the room, making sure she didn’t do anything like draw on Katie’s face with mascara pens or put her hand in a bucket of water. Or worse. I had a vision of an unhinged Izzy pinching Katie’s nose to impede her breathing and Katie waking up gasping for air. But Izzy then got up, walked past me and around the bed as I partly stood frozen, her accomplice, but still noticing the pendulum swing of her hips.
‘Matching slippers!’ She reached down and turned around with what appeared two large balls of fur. ‘So Little Miss Wascally Wabbit can be a bunny. Not quite what Ethan imagined when he suggested cosplay, I’m sure.’
At that moment, I was not sure who I despised more. Izzy, who seemed to enjoy the cruelty she was inflicting on her best friend, or me for being complicit. I glared at Izzy, who was still beaming, and then put her hands together and made a scurrying pawing motion with the slippers. I stepped over and took the slippers off her. She gave me a pouting face and dramatically fluttered her eyelashes.
‘You are her white knight,’ she whispered and stepped very close.
She raised her arms and put them around my neck. She smiled once more as she leaned her head to the side, and I felt her mouth on mine. Her teeth pressed my jaw open. Her tongue playfully brushed mine, and I felt it push against the inside of my cheek.
I had let go of the slippers and had my hands on her waist. I felt her take one and move it behind her onto what Katie termed her impossibly small bum.
‘The zip’s at the back,’ she whispered, biting my neck. Her hand had rolled down my chest and was at the top of my jeans. My eyes then glanced to the sleeping Katie, and I quickly let go of Izzy.
‘We shouldn’t,’ I whispered. ‘Not here.’
‘Oh, stop talking,’ she said. She angled her head again to kiss me, but when I didn’t return the gesture she dramatically dropped her arms. ‘Seriously?’ She put her hands on her hips and stared at me. She was actually looking angry.
‘Fine,’ she said. Both her hands pushed into my chest as she shoved past me and marched out of the room. I was alone with the sleeping Katie – somewhere I definitely should not have been, so I turned around and followed Izzy out. I had expected Izzy to return to the sofa, and I would awkwardly say goodnight – most likely get ignored – and go to bed. But instead, I found Izzy waiting five stairs above me, on her way up to my room.
‘Coming?’ she scowled.