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Joined Up - Section 4

‘Oh my God,’ she said, in exasperation rather than pleasure. ‘Oh, it is like making love to a virgin.’

I was on top of Izzy. I was naked, and her skirt and underwear were somewhere on the floor. What goes on behind closed doors I would, under normal circumstances, say should remain behind closed doors, but unfortunately, what happened afterward would make little sense without knowing what took place in that room. Plus, it hardly constitutes being crass or boastful if I am effectively externalising the single most humiliating sexual experience of my life.

‘Oh. My. God. Am I supposed to undress both of us?’ Izzy had said after having, I had thought seductively, lifted my t-shirt over my head. We did kiss, but there was no beaming smile as there had been in Katie’s room. Instead, she kept on the same scowl from the stairs.

I then mistakenly thought it would be erotic to start by kissing the inside of her thigh. As I did, she grabbed a fistful of my hair and pulled my head up. ‘Scott, can we please up the pace? It would be nice for something to happen sometime tonight.’

As I moved up her body, slightly reluctant to obey, we then kissed, and all felt forgiven. As she delicately and rhythmically put her mouth to mine, I tried to lift the white top she was still wearing. She snatched my hand away and pulled her top back down.

‘Oh my God, I’m lying underneath you. You’re lying on top of me. I’ve already removed my own underwear, and now you want to play with my breasts, like a fifteen-year-old! I’m seriously five seconds away from calling this off and getting the deed done by myself.’

Those romantic imageries of lovers gazing longingly into each other’s eyes came to mind as Izzy and I glared at each other. We had reached a level of intimacy unprecedented for two people who hardly knew each other: that of mutual loathing and disdain. My arms were outstretched on either side of the mesh of her long black hair spread across the pillow. As I reluctantly obeyed and moved my hips closer to hers, I muttered:

‘Well, I’m not sure how disappointed I would be if you did.’

‘Oh honey, I kind of already am!’ she said patronisingly.

‘Now, I’m not sure if you have ever done this before, but that teeny little part of you probably should not be rubbing against my leg. That’s call not having sex, Scott.’ She put her hand to my face and her fingers squeezed my bottom lip nodding it up and down. With her other hand, she then reached for my wrist.

‘Why don’t you take this hand and help move your little friend somewhere he might be a bit more useful?’

‘You know you could be a bit nicer.’

‘I’m starting to get bored now, Scott.’

So I did what she asked. Without saying another word we began a staring contest of who could glare at each other longest as our hips moved together.

‘Are you doing this deliberately? Making the experience as dull as possible?’

‘You’re not exactly breathing like someone bored.’ As we were doing the deed I could hear her breaths through the glare, usually a sign that at least something is happening. Even as I said my retort I could tell that I was not breathing normally either.

‘Is this your first time?’ she said, in a slight whimper, now biting her lip. ‘Should I be making allowances?’

‘You’re not exactly doing a great deal yourself to enhance the experience,’ I breathed, adjusting my arms to hold myself higher, conscious of my technique.

‘Oh really?’ she announced slightly louder, with a little more venom in her glare. I then felt one of her legs wrap around my waist. Then the other. The improvement was immediate as even staring down at Izzy’s surly face, I felt us starting to move together more intently. Then she kicked me. Hard.

‘Arrrggh! For fuck’s sake, Izzy!’ I keeled over. ‘WHAT THE HELL!’ Blinding pain was in my side. Izzy had just kicked me with the sharp three-inch point of her shiny black heel, which I had forgotten she was still wearing. She had managed to stab me straight in the fleshy part just below my rib cage – an area I’m pretty sure contains my kidneys. The pain was excruciating.

‘Oh, I am sorry,’ she said, smiling, sounding delighted. ‘I thought you could do with encouragement. Giddy up! and all that.’ She was on the verge of giggles, so not to give her the satisfaction, I closed my eyes to block out the pain and tried to carry on with what I was doing.

‘Could you breathe a little less loud?’ she said. I knew I was wheezing. I don’t know where she had kicked me but I was starting to feel sick and dizzy. She had already implied I was a wimp. I just wanted to get it over and done with. The good news was that, despite the sarcasm, she was beginning to sound out of breath too.

‘Oh my God,’ she said again, but this time more of a heavy whisper. Her nails dug into my arms. ‘Anyone would think you’d never done it before. That I’m taking your virginity. I’m not taking your virginity, am I, Scott?’ And there it was, the final piece to the evening’s festivities. Izzy bringing my sister into the proceedings by echoing the exact same taunt. Did I have to track down Greta Morgan and ask her to tell all my doubters that I lost my virginity to her during our last year of university?

‘Your rhythm is appalling.’ She then let out a moan, probably involuntarily. She closed her eyes and arched her head back. I felt her legs wrap around my waist again.

‘Oh my God, you really are a shit lay – I’ve honestly never had sex this bad. Ha! Congratulations, you are officially the worst sex I’ve… ever… had...’

‘Well… I’m sure half the male population of Oxford would be relieved to hear that.’

In light of the exchange, I had expected another insult hurled back. Instead, she slapped me. Hard. I looked down, and she was not just glaring up at me, but her teeth were gritted and her face slightly more pink versus her usual cold white.

‘Fuck you,’ she whispered, and then covered my face with her hand. I could just make out that her eyes were closed and her face scrunched up as she grabbed me and rose up.

‘Uhh!’ she squealed. And then again. Her arms were around my neck and her face was to the side of mine as she shuddered.

‘For Christ’s sake, slowly now, you idiot,’ she whispered. She lay back down and began to squirm. ‘Oh, my God. Oh, it is like making love to a virgin.’

I know I should not have been surprised, but with all the glares and insults, it was difficult to remember the purpose of what we were doing.

‘I told you not to stop!’ she yelled, arching her neck again and flinging her head back. I then felt another kick to my hip. Still hard, but this time more irritating rather than painful.

‘My God, have you still not finished?’ she then said.

I hadn’t. But I had had enough. I stopped what I was doing. ‘To be honest, if you’re done, I think I’m going to call it a night.’ Tired and deflated, I rolled off her.

‘Ahem! If I’m done? Well, thank you for your benevolence.’

I got out of bed and put on my jeans, clutching my side.

‘Where the hell are you going?’

‘To the bathroom, Izzy,’ I answered, slow and tired, my hand where her heel had landed.

‘Did I actually hurt you?’ she asked, not sounding concerned but surprised that I was being openly a baby about the incident.


‘Excuse me? Are you not at least going to offer me a t-shirt or something to change into? Or do you expect me to spend the night in my clothes?’

‘You want to sleep here?’ I assumed she was joking.

‘Oh, just pass me a t-shirt and go.’

By the morning I had a bruise that was pretty much covering my side, as I examined myself in the bathroom mirror. It had a solid dark centre and reassuringly looked quite the war wound. I don’t care how tough a man or woman thinks they are – try not being felled when a high heel is jabbed into your side. If Izzy had chosen a pointier pair, the mood would have been further spoilt by both of us having to sleep in blood-stained sheets. As it was, I was currently hiding in the bathroom with my surprise guest still asleep upstairs.

In my perhaps limited experience, the first time spending the night with someone could quite aptly play out to the soundtrack, ‘Will you still love me tomorrow?’ by The Shirelles. Obviously, with Izzy, it would be more a case of, would you still despise me tomorrow. Still, while I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, I could not help drifting back to my first night with Vicky. I had been awake for hours already, this ball of euphoria turning to nervousness and uncertainty, as I waited for her to wake. As I seem to enjoy pointing out, this was not my first night with a woman – Greta Morgan, please get in touch – however it was the first time I had been truly and overwhelmingly in love with the person lying next to me. Vicky stirred and gave me a sleepy quarter-smile. My mind raced, desperately trying to avoid an awkward silence. Did she have regrets? Was her quietness simply her knowing she had made a mistake and wondering how not to hurt my feelings?

I anxiously glanced at Vicky as she stared up at the ceiling. ‘I have so much to do today,’ she sighed. ‘I really should go to Jemma’s. I promised I’d carry some boxes to Tony’s.’ I did not know who Jemma and Tony were, but in that moment I assumed they were just characters in the brush-off. As we lay again in silence, she then surprised me by rolling over and laying her head on my chest. ‘Why is it so early?’ She yawned again, but then I saw her smile – a full, relaxed smile. She looked up at me and then placed a kiss on my mouth. It was just one kiss, but I felt the biggest weight lift from my shoulders.

There were going to be no such tender moments with Izzy. During the night, we unsurprisingly did not bask in the afterglow of our first time together. The only words we exchanged were, ‘move over!’ (Izzy), ‘stopped hogging the duvet’ (Izzy), ‘stop kicking me!’ (me), ‘stop being pathetic then’ (Izzy), and ‘seriously, perhaps you should call an Uber and go home?’ (me).

I put my t-shirt back on. What made the situation worse was when I had got out of bed, I saw her lying asleep in a blue t-shirt I had given her. In the night she had thrown the duvet off her, mumbling she was too hot. She looked peaceful, sweet, and unnervingly sexy, and despite all my protests, I was still a little awestruck about how beautiful she was.

I was still drying my hair as I left the bathroom, about to make myself a cup of tea, when I was greeted with a friendlier voice.

‘Hey, you’re awake,’ said Katie, in her dressing gown, clearing the coffee table and still looking half asleep.

‘I could say the same about you.’

‘Didn’t sleep that well. Had a nightmare evening with Izzy. I thought I would clear up the collateral damage before you woke up.’ She held up the two glasses and the bottle of gin. I suddenly felt a flash of guilt. ‘This is yours, isn’t it? I’m really sorry, I told her not to, and I will definitely replace it – God, yesterday was awful. And I’m so sorry for missing the gig!’

I was hovering at the door, not allowing myself to go in until I had unburdened my conscience, but Katie looked so worn out and preoccupied I just waited.

‘It’s fine. It was a great evening. Are you okay?’

‘Kind of.’ She placed the glasses by the sink and put the bottle of gin back in the cupboard.

‘I’m just reaching my limit with Izzy at the moment – to be fair, we usually have this once a year where we get a little bit tired of each other. Either I’m suddenly too boring for her, or I get to the point where I just don’t want to hear another mean-girl comment come out of her mouth.’

As I hesitated and failed to interrupt her, Katie picked up a cloth and began wiping down our small dining table.

‘It started with me mentioning the gig, and we had a brief falling out about her not dressing up to go hang around at, I quote, some dive with grungy middle-aged men – I’m so sorry. I then said I didn’t fancy going clubbing again, especially if she was just going to ditch me and hook up with some guy, which is usually true but was a low blow on my part. That pretty much unleashed the beast. She immediately brought up Ethan and said how if I didn’t want all men I’m with to go looking elsewhere, I should stop being such a prude and follow her lead.’

She finished with the table and placed the cloth back by the sink.

‘And perhaps she has a point.’ She sighed and leaned against the counter. ‘But then I think I’m quite happy not having the nurse at the local STD clinic know me by my first name and ask if I want the Izzy special every time I walk in. And she wants to have a go at me about life choices! You have no idea how relieved I was to wake up and find she’d not stayed the night. It’ll blow over, but literally, last night was so close to being the last straw.’

I eventually did enter the room. To belatedly face the music.

‘Actually, she did stay the night.’

She looked up at me, puzzled.

‘In here? Did you see her then? Before she left?’

‘She hasn’t quite left yet. She’s still asleep. Upstairs.’

It took Katie a few moments to compute what I was saying. It didn’t help that I was acting like a schoolboy, being as indirect as possible – after all, Izzy and I were both single. She then screwed up her face.

‘As in, in your room upstairs? In your bed? Seriously?’ She just stared at me, like she could not believe what she was hearing.

‘Well, you both don’t waste much time. And here was I quite enamoured by that spiel you gave about having nothing in common.’

She turned her back on me, pouring the kettle.

‘Well, I hope you had a nice time.’

‘Are you pissed off?’ I asked. She turned around, looking like she was weighing up the question.

‘No, not pissed off. You both are free to do whatever you want, but I am a little annoyed at the timing and the hypocrisy. If you like her, say that you like her, don’t just lie to me and pretend to be above it all. Or if you choose to go to bed with someone, perhaps not choose the one girl who was…’ Katie puffed out her cheeks and stretched her arms out. ‘Who was adamant about self-destructing and thought she had a personal vendetta against me.’

Katie then shook her head and brushed past me to the fridge.

‘As I said, it’s none of my business. But it is a coincidence that Izzy and I get into a fight and the next moment she jumps into bed with you. I’m not pissed off with you, Scott. I’m just pissed off at how typical this is.’

‘Care to elaborate on that, Spoiler?’

Wearing just the blue t-shirt I had lent her, Izzy stood in the doorway. Looking at neither one of us, she confidently marched past Katie to bring down a mug from the kitchen cupboards.

‘Oh, and Scott, in case you didn’t know, that door of yours is not exactly soundproof. There’s nothing quite like waking up to the World According to Spoiler. Quite the hour of morality.’

Katie’s look of exasperation turned to one of wide-eyed alertness as she then glared at me – a why didn’t you warn me look.

‘Izzy, I don’t know what you heard, but I was just a bit annoyed – ’

‘No time to chat, dear. What with the number of men I’ve apparently been shagging, the clinic has the full spectrum of testing in store for me today.’

‘I didn’t mean – ’ Katie put her hands to her eyes, looking like it was far too early to be having this three-person conversation. Izzy then turned around with her mug at her lips, the blue t-shirt barely hanging halfway down her thighs.

‘What I will say, though, is Scott’s version of last night did omit some crucial details. For one, as much as I would like to consider myself the seductress, it wasn’t me who got him all hot and bothered and ready to burst. More like those sexy wittle miss wabbit pyjamas of yours.’

Izzy looked over at me, smirking. Katie also turned to look at me.

‘It had all started so, so innocently. You were dead to the world, and I invited Scott in to see what normally goes on in these slumber parties of ours. Then we’re having quite the make-out session at the end of your bed. I don’t know if I should mention what we did with those fluffy slippers. Perhaps that’s one thing to leave to the imagination.’

Katie folded her arms and glared at me.

‘Is any of this true?’

‘Oh, don’t be angry at Scott, honey. Take it as a compliment. At least some guys find what you’ve got on offer worth the punt. I hear Tess Philips is more a French maid’s outfit type of girl – a bit obvious, but it must be comforting to finally know what makes Ethan happy.’

With that, Katie finally had had enough.

‘Seriously, you can both do what you want.’ Shaking her head, she brushed past me. Her bedroom door then slammed as Izzy just stared at me and winked.

Chapter 15: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

‘We’re not speaking,’ I told Camille. We were sitting in our usual chairs, and from the office window, it was like morning had bypassed the courtyard and thick dark clouds masked the winter sun.

‘It’s not like we’re avoiding each other,’ I tried to explain. ‘It’s like it was a month ago apart from we skip the polite inquiry into each other’s day – her door is more often closed than open now.’

‘Have you tried talking to her about it?’

‘No real opportunity. Our paths haven’t crossed in the last two weeks.’

‘No, Scott, have you tried talking? Knocking on her door, saying you are making a cup of tea and asking if she wants one? Small gestures. To test the water.’

‘I’m not sure I’d like the answer I’d get,’ I smiled. ‘Also, I’m not sure how much I want to apologise.’

I frowned and crossed my legs, squidging myself more into a ball as Camille sat patiently, her pen in one hand and her trusty notebook on her knee.

‘I want us to be friends, but two weeks of the silent treatment feels an overreaction. It’s like when I was trying to be just friends with Sarah – shouldn’t friendship not be this fragile?’

Camille smiled and flicked back her dark gold hair, a trait I noticed about her when transitioning from listening mode to analysis.

‘You and Izzy are both single adults and, hey, it is good that you’re noticing parallels with Sarah – shows you’re getting your money’s worth from our sessions. But remember, not every situation is like-for-like.’

She put her pen to her lip and chewed the end for a brief moment. I stared down at the carpet while she did.

‘The great thing about us human beings is that we are full of contradictions. We acknowledge that our lives are constantly evolving and changing. That we meet new people and seek out new experiences, all the while failing to recognise that we also live our lives through a series of parallels. That, emotionally speaking, we take these unique moments and respond to them pretty much in that like-for-like way you’ve just described.’

Camille flattened down her dress and leaned forward, her pen held out like a wand to emphasise her point. ‘What I mean, Scott, is too often all of us revert to repetitive modes of behaviour, and this can stem from a long way back.

‘If you were consistently screamed at as a child by your parents, you may develop a chip on your shoulder and revert to a highly defensive manner whenever any form of confrontation arises. This will then become your default mode in any relationship throughout your adult life. That’s just an example, but noticing when we’ve felt something before is key to understanding our triggers. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with what you’re doing but does this two-week period of not talking feel familiar? With Sarah? With Ellie? And if this is solely a case of Katie overreacting then why are you here?’

Things did not exactly improve after Katie had walked out on Izzy and me. As if nothing had happened, Izzy brought down the cafetière from the cupboard, tiptoeing as she did, her legs exposed beneath my t-shirt.

‘Don’t look so worried,’ she said casually. ‘If you’re wondering what nasty things you could have caught from man-hungry Izzy. Or exactly how many men have accessed that apparently revolving door down there.’

She opened a small pack of dark roast I vaguely remembered Katie was saving for a special occasion.

‘But then Spoiler’s definition of a lot, or sex for that matter, may have even my local vicar classified as promiscuous. Bit of a lay-back-and-think-of-England girl, truth be told.’

She took down another cup as the kettle finished boiling. ‘I suppose it’s just us for coffee now Spoiler’s gone off in a sulk. She does that. In her head she believes she’s taking the moral high ground, but a sulk is a sulk.’

‘That was quite heated.’

‘Oh, the white knight again! But whose aid is he coming to? His sanctimonious landlady or his slutty conquest?’ She plunged down the cafetière.

‘It was just the heat of the moment. She didn’t mean any of it.’

‘Oh, she did.’ Her smile faded, and she looked away.

I remembered my half the men in Oxford comment and felt a hard pang of guilt. As by way of an apology, I reached for her hand. She made a small, ironic snort and raised her eyebrows as she looked down at it. I was going to remove it, but she then held my fingers and smiled. She turned to face me.

‘I have mine black,’ she then said, turning back to the cafetière, pouring the coffee. ‘I’ll leave yours to you regards milk and whatnot.’

She picked up her mug and walked over to our sofa. From the side, she retrieved a small purse.

‘I’m going to get dressed. Oh, even though I was not under the impression references were required, you are only the second man I have slept with in the last nine months. It was…’ She lightly shrugged, her coffee in one hand and purse in the other, and left the room.

A few moments later, I heard the sound of heels running down the stairs and the door slam. I arrived downstairs to see Izzy getting into a car – I assumed Uber – ignoring me as I called her name, which then disappeared around the corner. I then felt that same pang of guilt burst forth again. For making Izzy feel like she needed to sprint out of the flat without a goodbye, and for the aftermath that it left.

One thing I left out when I relayed the story to Camille, was that I did knock on Katie’s door. Or at least I was centimetres away from doing so.

The last years of my life, working abroad, had brought many new people into my life and a wide, if sometimes rotating, network of friends. But there was also plenty of time to feel lonely. Over the last few weeks, I seemed to forget about this loneliness. Rather than wanting to hide away in my room, I had found a friend with whom I could talk.

Standing outside her room, I was about to knock when I heard her. It was not loud, so I understood what Izzy meant about our flat's lack of soundproofing. It was the sound of sobs, travelling through the cheap wood. There were no wails, just the unmistakable sound of someone crying as if we were in the same room. Lowering my hand, it felt like one breach of privacy too many. What I had done that morning – not telling Katie that Izzy was still in the flat while she was having her rant, standing by and letting Izzy say what she said about Ethan, holding Izzy’s hand after – was not the behaviour of a friend. Two weeks of the silent treatment was the least I deserved.

As Camille alluded to, confrontation has never been something at which I’ve excelled. I’ve probably had only two arguments with girls in my dating life, and neither were with Vicky even when she ended our short-lived engagement.

I knew she was unhappy. I saw the warning signs, but I ignored them and continued as I was, hoping I was reading too much into her silences and occasional distance. I could have confronted her about whether she did want to get married, but perhaps I should have confronted myself regarding whether I needed to do some growing up first. I asked her to marry me one sunny day at the top of Parliament Hill, and she said yes, probably because she cared too much for me to humiliate me in front of those glancing eyes when I popped the question.

We never spoke about the future. I just thought saying the words would lead to us living happily ever after. Unlike Vicky, I had not considered what it really meant: living together, having conversations about who would do the laundry or if we should take turns making dinner, or even whose flat we would move into. Instead, I took her yes as an affirmation that I had finally achieved something in life and carried on, blissfully ignorant that Vicky had greater self-esteem than ever to be someone’s achievement.

As a kid, it was Ellie who was the confrontational one. I don’t think I even had an argument with Dad, or Mum, for that matter. When she was shouting down the house, I was determined to be nothing like her. I would be the good one. And because she was so determined to make Dad’s life a misery after Mum had left, I was determined to be easier. I stuck with my Games Workshop, Barnet Football Club, and a bit of sport on the weekends – that was my bubble. As children, Ellie and I would have arguments like all brothers and sisters, but after the incident at the piano we stopped fighting. Bar the occasional insult, we basically ignored each other for the next two years.

So that became how I dealt with confrontation – to stay silent and watch my relationships either wither or implode. And two weeks of not speaking to Katie, I felt I was repeating this pattern. So for once in my life, I had to do something.

It was only a few days before Christmas, and Katie and I seemed to have developed an unspoken time-share agreement on the flat. I would come home to find evidence of her having spent the day working on the kitchen table with her notes, museum layouts, and printouts strewn about. But the closest we got to interacting was when I heard the careful opening of the front door long after I had gone to bed. In the morning, the house would be in silence, not even the sound of her radio alarm, as she seemed to be waking up later, and I would leave for the allotment before she had stepped out of her room.

I hoped it was her new promotion causing her irregular hours, not that she was so keenly determined to avoid me. The kitchen table always seemed to have multiple copies of leaflets advertising a Christmas Extravaganza at her museum. Exhibitions across the ages and late openings with champagne receptions in the run-up to Christmas were emblazoned. Katie had scrawled repeated notes and circled various events and rooms. So at the start of Christmas week, I bought a ticket to said Extravaganza and made my way to Bloomsbury – London’s museum district – just so I could ask my flatmate if she would be my friend again.

I didn’t approach her at first. I stood outside the room where I had finally found her. She was in the northeast wing in a collection she had circled as Flight – From Wings to War Planes. It was one of the paid exhibitions and guarded by two friendly-looking young people, probably students, checking tickets and directing people to a table immediately through the door where another young man was serving champagne.

I had not been to a museum in years. I had always found the high ceilings and white walls far more soothing and alluring than what was usually on display – pots, bronzes, and glittery rocks from what I remembered when dragged around them as a kid. But Katie’s was nothing like I had remembered. For one, people were drinking. Even before the table of champagne, there was a bar at the entrance. This then led into what looked and sounded like a dancefloor – it was actually a reinstallation of a 1970s fashion exhibition that had taken place earlier in the year. All over the museum, people were talking and laughing and paying no lip service to whispering. And in the room where I had found Katie, a crowd surrounded a middle-aged lady who smiled and joked, giving what appeared to be a talk regarding a series of model aircraft.

Katie stood back smiling, listening to the talk. She was holding a glass of champagne to her chest and looked serene – happy and amused. I noticed she had dressed up for the occasion. Her lips were redder, her cheeks a more subtle pink, and her eyes slightly darker along the contours. Her brown hair fell sleekly onto a very pretty dark green dress, very apt for the Christmas theme. The dress ended at her thighs – not too short, but eye-catching – and she was wearing black tights. She looked stunning. She reminded me of the girl I had met at Joan’s birthday all those years ago.

Standing next to her was a girl with strawberry blonde hair wearing a similar dress, but in black. They would whisper something to each other during the talk and smile delightedly. Suddenly the room, including Katie and her friend, began applauding. I jolted out of my trance and realised what a bad idea this had been. Looking down, I was the most underdressed person in the building in my jeans, old trainers, and, dangling at my side, was a plastic shopping bag I had brought with me.

And then something started to wash over me. A sinking feeling. Of dread and that I didn’t belong. Katie looked stunning. I, on the other hand, looked like I could barely dress myself. And was I not trying to repeat exactly what I had done with Sarah by saying I wanted to be friends with a girl who, at heart, I liked more than that? The only difference was that, in that moment, I could clearly see how large an idiot I was making of myself.

I have said it before, it is almost impossible to describe depression unless you’re in it. In that moment I felt this familiar spiralling sensation that glued my feet to the floor. I was not good enough for Vicky, I was not good enough for Sarah, I was not good enough for Izzy and I would never be good enough for Katie, this voice started telling me as I needed to breathe heavier. I could feel my face burning like it was about to crack and split, and could feel the air in my lungs chill and then stifle. And suddenly all I wanted to do was disappear, to not exist, to not feel.

To apologise for invading her privacy, I was intruding once more, interrupting Katie at work when she was meant to be focused and where she seemed to be happy. I needed to leave, to disappear, but when I looked up, she was staring at me.

The stare turned into a glare. Katie said something to her friend as I showed my ticket to a smiling girl at the entrance.

‘What are you doing here?’ she hissed, trying to keep her voice low and letting her eyes flick self-consciously around her.

‘I came to see the exhibition,’ I said, a tad defensively. I had rehearsed what I had wanted to say but had lost all train of thought. Katie scrunched up her face and looked at me like I was mad, or worse: like I was going to do something mad.

‘I was talking to Joan yesterday,’ I tried to explain. ‘He said you were off to Wiltshire. That you were spending Christmas with Ethan’s family, after all.’

‘Yes,’ she said sternly, not seeing the relevance.

‘And we’ve not seen each other around the house in a while – ‘

‘Scott, I’m meant to be working.’

‘Yes! Sorry!’ I put on a beaming smile hoping a burst of positivity would thrust me out of the awkwardness. ‘And that’s what I wanted to say. That I’m sorry.’

Katie was still staring at me impatiently.

‘I don’t have any excuses. In fact, I don’t have much more to say. I shouldn’t have been in your room with Izzy and should have acted a lot more mature both then and in the morning. I just didn’t want you to go without clearing the air. And giving you this.’

Even more awkwardly, I gave her the plastic bag. She gave me another confused glare and reluctantly took it.

‘Oh,’ she then said, softer, looking inside.

‘It’s a bit childish, but it’s one of those adopt-an-animal schemes, so they’ve sent you a certificate and a book telling you about a panda somewhere in China who you are now helping look after.’ As I spoke, Katie retrieved from the bag a small cuddly toy.

‘Like I said, it’s childish. I thought you might like the eco-wildlife idea…’

‘No, it’s sweet,’ she said, less impatiently. ‘Really sweet.’

‘There’s also chocolates as I wasn’t sure you’d like it.’

She then brought out a box from the bottom of the bag, but this time frowned.

‘Hang on, Scott. These are really expensive.’

I had gone to Bond Street to try to find something more grown-up than a cuddly toy, and panic-bought the chocolates from an actual chocolatier. She was right about them being expensive. I had not looked at the price before the shop assistant rang it up on the till.

‘It’s a lovely thought, but I can’t accept them. You’re meant to be broke…’

She winced, as we had now moved on to a different form of awkwardness – my financial situation.

‘It’s okay. I’ve got some new work. Part of the reason I’ve been making all the early starts recently. Plus, I really did want to leave things between us on a better note and say that I’ve enjoyed living with you.’

‘Listen, Scott.’ She raised her fingers to her face, pinching the bridge of her nose. ‘I may have overreacted. There are things about Izzy and me – we’re friends, best friends – but we’re not that similar and sometimes wind each other up. Deliberately, it feels like with her, and we definitely know where to land the punches. The night before, your name may have come up while we were having drinks, and it seemed to trigger a row that had been bubbling for some time. That I was somehow implying she’d been acting trampy with all the city boys she’d been seeing, and she didn’t need dating advice for me because my love life wasn’t exactly a shining light. It just blew up. And then I find out that she’s had a one-night stand with you, just to show me she could if she wanted to. No offence.’

It was a little bit offensive, but not surprising.

‘I kind of thought she was. Have you heard from her?’

She shook her head.

‘I am sorry for what I said about her, and I should apologise, but I’m sick of all the snide comments about my appearance, and my boyfriend, every time she’s feeling a little insecure, which has recently been all the time. Frankly, I’m enjoying a break from the drama where I can focus on nights like this.’

And she had a point. Around us, people were sipping champagne merrily discussing the models, maps and photographs precisely arranged to give the room a busy, excitable feel. If it had not been the need to have this heart-to-heart with Katie, I would have liked to explore the exhibition myself, such an impressive job having been done.

‘What about the drama with Ethan? Is that all sorted?’

I tried to ask the question casually, continuing to look about the room, hoping it would not come across as a taunt.

‘It’s okay, let’s just say that.’ She seemed to give me a relieved smile as she followed my eyes to the scaled-model buildings at floor level, which looked like something from LEGOLAND.

‘That’s JFK Airport. A bit geeky, but we had it especially made. And regarding Ethan, there’s no one else on the scene anymore. He says he’s been swamped with work and… well… I didn’t ask the question directly, but we agreed not to lie to each other, so I should take him at his word.’

‘Are you okay, though?’ I didn’t want to pry too much further. If I were Katie, I would not have appreciated the constant dissecting of her relationship.

‘Yes. Yes, I am. We’ll be at his parents’ from the 23rd. Me, Ethan, his family, and definitely no one else. Listen, I know my boyfriend’s been an arsehole, and I know what I’ve told you about him does not paint an awe-inspiring picture, but I love him. I believe he loves me, and I can’t constantly question his fidelity as that just makes the whole situation rather pointless.’

She drained the last mouthful of champagne in her glass and then looked back at me.

‘But thank you for listening. And putting up with me. It does mean a lot.’ She placed her hand on my arm and gave me a small smile, a much kinder smile than I had expected to receive when I was nervously floating on the edges of the room. ‘Now, you do realise there’s free champagne? How about I get us a glass, and you tell me if a night with Izzy was worth all this drama?’

Chapter 16: Last Christmas

Mike and I collected the tree on the morning of Christmas Eve. I had stayed at the house the previous night to rummage around for our old decorations and to do some light shopping for anything Mike could not get from the farm shop. I also wanted to be there when the four of them arrived and witness the moment of pre-Christmas excitement when the kids burst through the door. Millie ran in circles around the living room while Ed tried to waddle after her, and their combined exuberance managed to turn an otherwise cold grey December day into officially the season of goodwill and festivities.

Our Christmas tree was a specific tradition dating back to my earliest memory. Nowadays, it would have been far easier for the tree to have been delivered, but Dad always bought his from a small farm just outside the M25 where he would spend at least an hour chatting to the old guy who owned it about the state of the economy and how things were better in the days before big corporations ran everything. So Mike and I were morally obliged to empty the station wagon and spend an hour and a half in traffic and then trying to force a Norwegian spruce into the car.

‘Your dad not with you this year?’ said the farm owner as we eventually tied closed the boot with rope, allowing part of the tree to stick out. ‘Putting his feet up while you youngsters do the heavy lifting?’

It was a shock suddenly hearing someone ask about Dad. For a moment, distracted by the tree, I forgot he wasn’t there at the farm with us. The realisation, and then having to tell this man who we saw once a year what had happened, sent an icy feeling down my spine and seemed to take the wind out of him.

‘He was younger than me,’ he said, having to sit down on a stool. ‘You wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t believe it,’ he kept saying, shaking his head, and to be honest, I was not sure I really believed it either.

Back at the house, as we forced the tree through the door, we were welcomed by the sound of squealing and screaming.

‘Seriously? Did you both have to cut down the thing yourselves? You’ve been bloody hours!’ Ellie was carrying a very pink-faced and agitated Ed and thrust him into Mike’s arms.

‘What happened?’ said Mike, concerned.

‘Nothing happened. Obviously. He took her toy. She started crying. She snatched it back, and everyone’s been screaming their lungs out for the last hour. We call it Thursday.’ Ellie then changed her voice as she started stroking Ed’s hair as he remained silently sobbing in a bewildered-looking Mike’s arms. ‘It’s alright now. Because Daddy’s going to look after you while Mummy and Uncle Scott go and make sure dinner tomorrow is not only organic sprouts and nut loaf.’

She took the car keys from Mike and kissed both him and Ed.

‘Come on. The butcher’s closes at three.’

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ she said as we got into the car. ‘He knows I’m teasing, plus if I had another minute of pre-Christmas histrionics, I would lose my mind.’

Ellie put the Volvo into gear, and we set out on our road trip.

‘Were we like that?’ asked Ellie, indicating onto the high street. ‘Do you remember all the bloody fuss you caused accusing me of locking you in the downstairs loo?’

‘You did lock me in the toilet.’

‘I held the door shut for about ten seconds, as a joke. You’re the one who then got hysterical and broke the lock so you couldn’t get out.’ Ellie had a rare serene smile as we drove south down Green Lanes.

‘You also turned the light off.’

‘I asked if you were okay! And it was for two minutes, max! And I did run to get Mum, who just turned the lock from the outside with her nail. You came out, tears pouring, and said I had locked you in there for half the morning!’

‘I was six.’

‘And such a little backstabber even back then.’ She again grinned, reminiscently.

We were passing Newington Green. The traffic was light heading towards London and we were approaching Islington and another Roberts family tradition. Farrell’s was on the same road as Sadler’s Wells theatre. It was where Mum had bought any meat if we were having a special occasion, and Dad would do the same even after she left.

‘Seven,’ I then sighed, gazing out of the window. ‘Seven what?’ she asked, parking the car.

‘It would have then been seven more Christmases before she left. She seemed so happy at Christmas. We all were. Or maybe I’m imagining it. Were we happy, back then?’

‘For fuck’s sake, Scott.’ Ellie put the handbrake on and unfastened her seatbelt. ‘Oh, why not properly put us in the Christmas spirit by dredging up our parents’ breakup.’

‘I keep thinking about those days. More and more recently. It just seems more relevant all of a sudden.’ I was thinking about what Camille said about the events of our childhood influencing the adults we become. ‘Was she that unhappy?’

‘Tell you what, when we get back, I’ll let you tell Millie and Ed the story about Auntie Pam’s divorce. Let’s share these glad tidings all around.’

‘They’re just up here,’ I said as Ellie followed me up the stairs at Loughborough Road.

‘Scott, I didn’t exactly expect you to live in a palace, but this place is pretty grim.’ I turned around, and she was staring down, pressing her foot experimentally on the creaking floorboard as if it might give way beneath her. She reached out about to hold the handrail and then thought twice, wincing and then looking around at the faded wallpaper.

‘It’s just a bit… rustic. You should have seen it while Joan was living here. That was grim. Since Katie moved in, it’s really quite cosy.’

It was an unplanned visit, but coming out of the butcher’s, I had realised I had forgotten the games and the crackers for Christmas Day. ‘Are they that important?’ said Ellie. ‘The game’s half of Millie’s present. It’s meant to be a really good family one.’ I had assumed Ellie would say I could not be trusted to do a single thing and tell me to go find something from the Wood Green Sainsbury’s. Instead, ‘How far away do you live?’ she said looking at her watch.

As we reached the landing, Ellie still did not look impressed. ‘Seriously, Scott, I’ve seen squats nicer than this. Mike’s gigged with heroin addicts who live less out of squalor.’

‘Ellie, I get it, you’re not a fan.’ I turned my back on her, surprisingly more annoyed with her than I expected. After all, this was Ellie. I should be used to her shooting her mouth off.

‘I’m not being a bitch. I’m just a bit… taken aback. Your last flat was so… well, I’ve got gay friends who would have killed to have your skill at soft-furnishing.’

‘Do you want to see where I live, or do you just want to linger in the hallway?’

I walked into the kitchen preparing for more comments on the décor. I knew I wasn’t exactly living the life of a man my age, and that if I kept hold of my old flat I would be in better shape financially. But Loughborough Road seemed to fit who I was. Dishevelled on the surface and a mismatch of chaos and warmth. The place had begun to feel more of a home than when I had my own flat.

‘I was reading through the instructions on the sofa, so the game is just in here – ’

The first thing I noticed was a large canvas bag on the dining table. Then the sink full of dirty plates, pans, and mugs. Seriously, it does look like we live in a squat, I thought. I then realised I was the last one in the flat the previous day, and Katie had said she was going directly to Ethan’s parents from work. So who the hell was in our flat?

A laptop was open on the coffee table, a mug of what looked like tea next to it, and then beyond it, on our sofa, was a gigantic duvet covering so fully what was underneath I could only see tangles of long brown hair coming out the top. The duvet stirred.

‘Hey,’ said Katie, sleepily, emerging from under the covers.

‘Oh. Sorry, did I wake you?’

‘No!’ She crawled up into a sitting position. ‘I was just watching some rubbish.’ She had been curled up, head on a pillow, and as she rose, I could tell she was still wearing her pyjamas – at three o’clock in the afternoon.

‘I thought you were away,’ she said, still sounding slightly groggy and a little hoarse.

‘Just came back to collect a couple of things.’ I was conscious that I was still staring at her like I had found some weird homemade science experiment incubating in our living area.

‘Aren’t you meant to be in Wiltshire?’

Before she could answer, I saw Ellie enter the room and her eyes also landed on the sink full of dirty dishes.

‘This is my sister. Ellie. I was showing her the flat…’ From comments made by other guests, I was well aware that our flat was hardly soundproof. I assumed Katie to have heard Ellie’s words and expected a similar reaction to when Mike had referred to her as The Duchess. Instead, she smiled politely and stood up briefly to shake Ellie’s hand, saying it was nice to meet her.

‘You’ve got a nice place here. Very… cosy.’ I would have at least hoped Ellie would try to sound sincere when offering up a half-hearted compliment, but thankfully Katie still seemed too sleepy to notice. Or to see that Ellie was staring at her pink rabbit pyjamas, part quizzically, part concerned.

‘We didn’t mean to disturb you…’

Katie still had the duvet wrapped around her lower half and held it in place as she closed her laptop.

‘Scott, where’s your bathroom?’

I directed Ellie, and she left me and Katie, who now seemed to be anxiously glancing between the sink and the duvet wrapped around her legs.

‘Are you off to Wiltshire tonight, then?’

‘Change of plans. Ethan’s apparently working on a deal that needs to close by the end of the year. So he’s still in Berlin. There wasn’t much point going down to his parents by myself.’ She spotted something on the other side of the sofa; her dressing gown submerged under the duvet. ‘He said he would crash Christmas at a friend’s or at colleagues’. I can’t really remember the details.’

With her dressing gown now on, she moved to the sink and began running the tap.

‘What about you?’ I asked.

‘I might take Joan up on his offer to join him and Alison and Ali’s parents, though it is a bit of a pain what with the trains. Plus it’s been quite liberating to have a pyjama day and watch trash telly after a long week. What? Hey!’

She spun around, frowning. I had let out an involuntary snort and was holding a Marks & Spencer turkey meal for one I had pulled out of the bag on the dining table.

‘I think duvet days are what Boxing Day is for. Or New Year’s Day. Or any day in between. Not Christmas Day and definitely not with a ready meal for dinner.’

‘Scott, it’s Joan. And someone else’s family. Would you want to sit around a table with him and wait until he decides he’s bored enough to start telling complete strangers the details of your private life?’

‘Well, why not join us?’

‘Ha! Thanks!’ she laughed. ‘I appreciate the offer, but I am okay here by myself. Plus the last thing you guys want is a moody stray crashing your family event.’

‘Of course we would,’ said Ellie coming back into the room as if she had been part of the conversation the whole time. ‘We’re more than used to coping with one moody sad-sack so another just stops him bringing the rest of us down. Plus the more of us we are, the less time I need to spend with my dickhead of a brother. So you’re doing me a favour.’

Ellie absently wandered the room, still sizing up my living conditions and perhaps checking for damp and mould.

‘Seriously, it’s a kind offer, but I’m quite looking forward to some me-time. Work has been crazy recently, so this is a chance to unwind, read a novel, or watch some trashy films.’

As Katie began washing the dishes, Ellie moved over to her, leaning casually against the counter.

‘I know we’ve just met, but you don’t seem the stay alone and brood type, and believe me, I’ve had the misfortune of being related to one my entire life. We all get into ruts and think Christmas on my own would be amazing but take it from someone who knows, it gets pretty shit pretty quickly. It’s annoying and irritating, but it’s the one day a year you realise that you don’t want to be alone.’

Katie put down the pan she was washing and stared at the sink.

‘Plus, and I have to say I really like what you’ve done with the place – all the homely touches are lovely and that – but you can’t spend Christmas in a shithole like this. That’s just masochistic.’

It was an unlikely car journey back to North London; two parts of my life that I did not foresee intersecting, navigating through the traffic in the low afternoon sun. In the last of the fading winter sunlight, as the streetlights switched themselves on, we arrived back in Wood Green. The temperature seemed to have plummeted since we left South London, and I particularly felt an icy shiver trying to carry into the house the games, crackers and meat I had piled up in my arms to avoid a second trip to the car. Ellie led the way with keys, and as we reached the gate, I could see our Christmas wreath was now on the door, and soft light was coming from the living room window.

‘You have got to be bloody kidding me,’ Ellie exclaimed, peering through and then shoving the key into the lock.

‘You put up the tree?’ She stood in the doorway of the living room, staring at Mike. ‘And these two are sitting doing a jigsaw puzzle, like bloody angels? Are you deliberately taking the piss?’

As I joined Ellie we were then confronted with delighted screeches of ‘Mummy!’ as she picked up Ed, and Millie battering rammed herself into Ellie’s hip, hugging her like she had been gone a month.

‘Jesus, Mike, we were meant to do the tree together. You could have put your back out, and we’d all have ended up spending Christmas Eve in A&E.’

‘I bowed to peer pressure,’ he smiled, nodding at the kids. ‘It was the only way to stop World War Three, and the tree’s only half done, isn’t it, Millie?’

‘We left gaps for you and Uncle Scott, Mummy!’ Millie was beaming up at both of us. ‘And Daddy said we could do the angel when you were back.’

Mike’s grin got broader and then peered quizzically over my shoulder into the hallway.

‘I’m sure there were just two of you when you left.’

Ellie shuffled the kids forward to let Katie through who, understandably, looked somewhat hesitant at entering the surprise Christmas scene.

‘A Christmas stowaway,’ she said with an embarrassed looking smile, still clutching her overnight bag. She then gave a bigger smile and wave to Millie who had suddenly gone shy and was half-hiding herself behind Ellie’s legs staring wondrously at our new arrival. ‘My own plans went a tad wayward.’

‘The more, the merrier,’ grinned Mike and took the boxes from me.

‘Katie, you’ll be in Scott’s room. We’ll have Millie in my old room, Ed will come in with us, and Scott will be in the study on the camp bed.’

‘Oh no, I’ll take the camp bed.’

‘It’s fine, he’s used to it. Every time anyone would stay over, he would take that bed – he’s the outdoorsy one, so better him than us. Scott, why don’t you settle Katie in?’

Not being in possession of the meats, games or crackers anymore, I took Katie’s bag and led her upstairs. Or more accurately, I thought it would be chivalrous to let Katie go first, requiring her to awkwardly keep flicking looks back at me to ask in which direction she should head.

‘It’s to the left,’ I said as she giggled at my attempts to direct her, looking about the landing and stopping outside each room in case it was mine.

‘This one?’ she smiled and cautiously peered inside. As she was about to walk in, I hesitated and wanted to reach out and stop her, saying she should take the camp bed after all.

‘Oh wow, nice colours.’ At this point I should mention something about my room; the wall opposite the end of my bed was painted bright yellow, the two adjacent, sky blue; and the wall behind my headboard was black with brilliant white dots.

Katie stood, turning in a circle, mesmerised. I hung back at the door, one hand masking my face, hardly able to watch for what next she would notice. Obviously, when I left that morning, I would have had no idea anyone else would explore that room.

‘Oh my, these are all very cute.’ It was impossible for her not to see them. Nearly every wall had some form of shelving unit, either tall book shelves or low frontless cabinets, and along every stretch of wood lying arranged in meticulous order was my collection of Games Workshop models. Towards the end of my teens – yes, the end of my teens – I had got up to roughly 1,342 models. I would have dreaded to know what Katie was thinking as she realised where she was spending the night.

‘Oh wow, do you mind if I have a look?’ Her politeness was unnerving. We both just needed to acknowledge this was the room of a complete freak and take her back down to the car so I could drive her back to Loughborough Road where I’m sure she was wishing she never left.

She picked up one of the more grand pieces; a three-inch model of Orc Commander, Tiberius Olff, with his bloodthirsty eyes, emerald-green skin, sabre sword, and battle shield. He was at the head of his Orc battalion. Next to the orcs were Galactus Maximus III, the space travelling Roman general, and his legion of inter-galactic soldiers. To be fair to Katie, she was being very kind, examining each piece like it was from one of her exhibits, rather than what a teenage boy did during his spare time for six years.

‘You’ve got quite the collection.’

‘I like to keep it as a shrine to my virginity.’

‘And did you paint all of these?’

‘Me. Dad. Mum. Even Ellie did one on a day we weren’t being hostile to one another…’

‘Oh my! Who are these babes, Scott?’

Katie’s face lit up as she discovered and picked up Estella, the Warrior Queen. Obviously, in any form of marketing aimed at teenage boys and young men who prefer to stay indoors playing games, there is going to be at least one set of female warriors who have significantly larger than average breasts and do not believe in the virtues of clothes when entering battle.

‘My, she must struggle to find a cup-size to hold those in place.’ Katie was unashamedly smirking. ‘God, I would kill to have legs like that. Good taste, Scott. And I see she has friends.’

‘I know, it’s a little sad…’

‘No! I’m only teasing! They are wonderful. Each is so intricate. They must have taken you hours...’ She grinned again, putting back Estella and turning around her kinswomen, who had apparently chosen to wage war in a silver bra and matching pants. ‘And must have helped get you through those long winter nights… Oh! Wow!’

Her tone suddenly changed as she reached beyond Estella and the Coven of Magda. She brought out a large fragment of rock with a snail-like spiral embedded in it.

‘You collect fossils?’

‘I used to. It was something my dad and I did. We used to go camping out by the coast near spots where you could do fossil hunting – only small ones, mind. That one we bought in a fossil shop.’

I had hidden the fossils at the back of my shelves but, recalling the memory of Dad and me on the beach as the waves crashed around us, I remembered just how happy I had been and how much fun it was. I bent down and picked up some of the others we had found.

‘This was from the summer after GCSEs. Other kids at school were heading off on their first clubbing holiday to some Greek island, and I was somewhere on the foggy Kent coastline in a tent. Like I said, it’s a bit sad.’

‘There’s nothing sad about that at all! You’re talking to a girl who all she wanted to do when she grew up was work in a museum. Examining these is how I chose to spend the last ten years of my life. Plus, it must have been nice to spend time with your dad. I have two brothers for competition, and don’t get me wrong, I love my dad to bits, but he does switch off when I start talking about exhibits or anything feminine. Our way of bonding is when he insists on picking me up from the local village if I meet an old school friend for a drink whenever I’m home. It’s only a twenty-minute walk, but it’s the only time it’s just us, and then we take a detour and buy a burger.’

Again she smiled this wide, happy smile. Still holding on to my fossil, she went over to the bed and sat next to her bag.

‘So,’ she grinned, a similar grin to the Estella and Coven of Magda grin. ‘Does this mattress have a tale or two to tell? Any young ladies get their world rocked within these four walls?’

She stretched out her leg and leaned back, sexily. Provocatively.

‘Oh now I know you’re taking the piss. I think we both know the exact number.’ I smiled, rolled my eyes, giving her a mock glare.

‘I’m serious! You’d think listening to your self-deprecating nonsense that anyone who built models, liked fossils, or played role-playing games was doomed to be alone forever! For your information, a lot of the boys in my college at uni were into these wizard card games and Dungeons and Dragons, and I know a lot of girls who had sex with them. Present company included.’

She went slightly pink as her smile went very childlike.

‘Yes, I won’t divulge the details, but let’s just say in my first year, way before Ethan and me, and not exactly only once.’

She proceeded to get more scarlet as I leaned back against my shelves, wondering what not exactly only once meant.

‘Wood Green isn’t quite Oxford. We may have still been too middle-class to get mugged for our lunch money, but I cannot recall one girl who said two words to a member of the GWWA. Apart from maybe, piss off.’


‘Games Workshop and Warlocks Association.’

Katie almost somersaulted as she threw herself backward laughing. She had to wipe a tear away from her eye as she sat back up.

‘So, never? Not even post-school? It is a double.’

‘It’s a double because I was too tall for a single, even at thirteen. And post-school, well, Vicky did stay over a couple of times when we visited Dad, but I think the thousands of tiny eyes put her off, so we just slept. Besides, I did live elsewhere in London, so it’s not as abstaining as it sounds.’

‘Okay, point taken,’ she smiled and held her hands up. ‘I just saw it is a rite of passage, having your first illicit encounter under your parents’ roof. Mine was a boy called Toby Ludgate from the boys’ school sixth form.’

Still smiling, she had a faraway look that I was not sure was purely to give the story some extra colour.

‘It was…’ She put her hands to her face. ‘It was both disastrous and a relief. We didn’t really talk about it – I kind of assumed he’d done it before – but as we started undressing, he looked as terrified as I did, and I’ve never seen someone concentrate so much while we were in mid-act. Oh God, I can’t believe I’ve just told you that! I’ve not even been drinking!’

‘Well, it is five o’clock on Christmas Eve. I think we’re all allowed to start drinking,’ I said from the shelves. Her cheeks were rosy and she looked like she needed a minute to regain her composure. ‘You’re looking a bit brighter than you were an hour ago.’

‘I feel brighter. We should probably go back downstairs before they start wondering what’s happened to us.’

Mike and Ellie had started on the wine, and we found them with Millie and Ed on the living room floor in the midst of a game of Hungry Hippos.

‘Uncle Scott’s back! Uncle Scott’s back!’ cried Millie, almost sending Ellie’s wine flying as she leapt up.

‘Don’t let it go to your head,’ said Ellie. ‘We told her we had to wait for you to finish the tree.’

Millie ran up to us, holding out a bauble in each hand.

‘You’re pretty,’ she said to Katie shyly, grinning, looking up at the newcomer with awe.

‘That’s very kind of you,’ Katie said, squatting down, so she was at eye-level with Millie. ‘Would you like to help me put this on the tree? Where do you think it should go?’ Millie nodded and grabbed Katie’s hand, taking her to the tree.

Mike and I stood at the dining room table, pouring additional glasses and watching Millie and Katie, and Ellie and Ed, making the tree sparklier by the second.

‘I hope she knows what she’s getting into,’ Mike said, nodding at Katie. ‘I can’t imagine Millie giving her new best friend a moment’s peace.’

‘True,’ I smirked. ‘We should probably just leave them to it and go down the pub?’

‘What do you mean we? You’re on Ed duties, mate. Ellie and I are going to get shitfaced.’

Resisting the call of the pub, we spent the evening sitting around the tree. Christmas songs playing on the hi-fi and glasses being refilled, Mike was right about Millie not giving Katie a moment’s peace. But it was sweet to watch. Katie would have a wide grin or look playfully astonished when Millie would excitedly tell her one of a thousand different things. I then saw Millie hand Katie something and whisper conspiratorially in her ear. Katie whispered back and got up, walking over to me.

‘I need your height.’

She showed me a piece of mistletoe, and Millie began pointing eagerly at the door frame.

‘Put it there so Daddy can kiss Mummy, please!’

‘Why can’t Mummy kiss Daddy?’ called out Ellie from the sofa. She and Mike both slowly got to their feet and made a show of dragging their tired bodies to the mistletoe. They then kissed to the cheers of the kids and Katie, and laughter from me.

‘Now Katie has to kiss Uncle Scott!’ shouted Millie. I spurted out my wine.

‘I don’t think it works like that, Millie,’ I said.

‘Yes it does! You were standing underneath it and she was next to you. Katie has to kiss you!’

‘Yes, Scott. Please don’t defy such a well-explained Christmas tradition,’ Ellie beamed, not at all trying to hide her amusement.

‘Katie’s our guest, Millie, and we don’t ask guests to go around kissing people.’

‘But it’s not fair, Uncle Scott!’

‘Oh, come on, Uncle Scott,’ said Katie, holding my hand and then dragging me back to the mistletoe. ‘Don’t be such a Grinch.’

As I reluctantly stood under the doorframe, a clap began from our onlookers. I knew I had gone the colour of Ribena and I saw that now she was in front of me, Katie was going slightly pink too.

‘You don’t have to…’

‘I’m game if you are,’ she said and then jumped up and planted a one-second kiss on my mouth.

Millie was jumping with glee, as was Ed, though I was not convinced he fully understood what was going on. Katie then turned to Millie, scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue.

‘Yuck! Boys are horrible!’ She beamed at her little companion and took her hand. ‘I’m never kissing another as long as I live.’

I realise now how lucky I was growing up. Christmas was always the best day of the year by far. Church, carols, even little parties, we spent the day together and it felt magical. As kids, Ellie and I would race downstairs to see if Father Christmas had been. The night before, our tradition was to hang large embroidered stockings above the fireplace, which did happen to be electric but did not diminish any of the joy or wonder we felt. Each stocking had our name on it, and when we both reached the bottom of the stairs we could already see they were overflowing with bulky shiny presents. Under the tree were more wrapped boxes, and we would suddenly see Dad and Mum emerge from the kitchen wrapped in dressing gowns, cups of coffee in hand, smiling at our delight. Very clichéd, very stereotypical, and very much taken for granted.

But that Christmas morning, I woke up arid-mouthed, blurry-eyed and feeling like someone had been at my temple with a hand-drill. Wine, gin, apple schnapps, Baileys – it was quite clear that Dad and Mum had achieved their sunny disposition on Christmas morning by not getting shitfaced on Christmas Eve.

I wasn’t the only one. I stumbled off the camp bed and balanced myself in the narrow path of remaining floor space in Dad’s study. Downstairs was still quiet as I made my way to the upstairs bathroom so I could have a more comprehensive wash and get rid of the smell and taste of stale alcohol that seemed to have marinated my face and gums. On the landing, I heard the sound of the taps running, and after a second, the latch clicked and my sister emerged from the bathroom looking very much like I felt.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I said, in a gravelly voice, a more tokenistic gesture as I was unable even to force my face to smile.

‘Fuck off, dickhead,’ she muttered and shielded her eyes from the light, returning to their bedroom.

When we were kids, early morning present opening was followed by church. We weren’t exactly a religious family, but our school was tied to St Martin’s, and the parent-teacher association organised a Nativity play during the morning service. Mum practically ran the PTA so we were forced to get excruciatingly dolled up in our best and most unrecognisable clothes. One year, I almost cried at having to wear a red bowtie, and Ellie would not stop shoe-gazing from the embarrassment of having to wear a green velvet dress. At ten o’clock we would then line-up outside the church entrance and sing ‘Away in a Manger’ with half a dozen or so fellow classmates, hoping not a word got back to anyone at school.

At ten o’clock that morning the living room was covered in wrapping paper, and four adults were slumped in armchairs and across the sofa watching two small children run around the room with their new toys seeing who could scream the loudest. Earlier that morning, Mike bribed Millie and Ed to go back to bed by letting them open one present and offering them a selection box of chocolates for breakfast. A short-term fix – Ellie usually being ruthless regarding their intake of sugar, which bought us enough time to shower and feel human enough to sit upright in a chair.

‘Whose idea was it to open the drinks cabinet?’ groaned Ellie, huddled on the sofa nursing her coffee and letting the steam waft up into her ashen cheeks and pink nose. ‘Scott, want to take any responsibility?’

I was huddled in an armchair with a hot drink. Katie, by far the brightest looking of the four of us, was beaming away at Millie and Ed from our other armchair next to me. When the kids had been put to bed, we had gathered around the dining table to do the present wrapping. Believing we should save the remaining bottles of wine for Christmas Day, I suggested gin and tonics, which then turned into us sampling every other spirit and liquors that Dad had accumulated over the years.

Millie and Ed began chasing each other with flashing mini light-sabres.

‘You’ll be fine. I’ll go put the bacon on.’ Mike made to get up, but Katie bounced up before him.

‘I can do that,’ she said in a far perkier voice. Katie had stuck to wine the previous night while we wrapped presents and peeled potatoes and sprouts, hence how much fresher she looked in her sparkly grey and silver sweater.

‘Rub your youth and alcohol tolerance in our face, why don’t you,’ was Ellie’s groaning response.

Despite the hangover, it was enjoyable to drink with my sister again. No part of me wanted to go back to the days when one beer would have me going from bar to bar to club to who knows where in the search for deeper intoxication, but it did feel empowering to now have these one-offs and not feel a yearning for more. It was also lovely to sit around a table with my sister and my friends, not wanting to be anywhere else, and stop because it was past midnight and I was tired rather than because we had run out of alcohol.

And soon, the hangover faded. Largely due to the heat from the kitchen as I was placed in charge of cooking duties. However, it was not exactly the short straw considering the others had two hyperactive children to round up and pacify. From the living room came the sound of Louis Armstrong, put on by Mike to generate a calming atmosphere. A commendable idea in theory, however that soothing raspy voice was soon drowned out by two other high-pitched ones screaming in stereo.

‘Can I give you a hand?’ Katie had come in as I washed a lettuce in the sink. Millie’s voice was still screeching above Louis’ from the next room.

‘Is it finally getting too much in there?’

‘No! Well, maybe a little, but they’re only excited, and now they’re hitting the overtired phase. Ellie’s putting them down for a nap.’

‘I bet Millie’s thrilled about that.’

‘Oh, bless! She started crying! I don’t know how Ellie does it. I wanted to start blubbing just watching her, hence offering you my assistance. Where shall I start?’

I smiled as she stood soldier-like in front of me, awaiting orders.

‘Well, the beef’s just about ready to go in the oven – I don’t know if I said but that’s our traditional Christmas dinner as none of us like turkey that much. Kind of a more ornate version of Sunday lunch. Is that okay with you?’

‘Sure. Apart from, you know that I’m a vegetarian, right?’


‘Just kidding. I make a mean Bolognese, remember?’

From the clutter upon our breakfast table I picked up my to-do list and read out what had been done and what still needed doing.

‘Oh my God, how organised are you!’

‘You sound surprised.’ Katie took the list from me and ran her finger down the tasks.

‘Obviously! You’ve listed the timings to military precision; carrots go on at seven minutes past one? This from the man who has so far spent the winter wearing the same jumper.’

Playfully, she poked said jumper and me in the chest. Then, surprisingly she let her fingers linger, lightly stroking the cotton, letting out a small, faraway laugh.

‘Have you heard from Ethan?’ I asked, taking back the list. Katie seemed to snap out of her trance. Her smile fading as she sighed.

‘I’ve been ignoring his messages. Before you arrived yesterday, we’d been speaking on the phone and I ended up hanging up on him. When he had told me he had cancelled his flight, I thought that meant he had to work today. So when he said he was spending the day with friends, I accused him of deliberately messing me about, that he could have come back if he wanted and that there was one particular friend he wanted to spend time with. He accused me of being melodramatic, paranoid and unreasonable, so I politely told him to go fuck himself and hung up. Mature of me, right?’

‘I wouldn’t say immature, though. You are entitled to ask questions.’

‘Perhaps. But let’s not talk about it now? It’s Christmas, and not the day to pour your heart out over a boy – to kind of paraphrase your sister. Hence ignoring him.’ She smiled and took the lettuce from me.

‘What about you, then? If we are discussing each other’s love life. Have you heard from Izzy since your night of passion?’

Katie began chopping the lettuce. Considering it was the reason that we had stopped speaking for over two weeks, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about divulging details.

‘No. She was out the door as soon as she could. Didn’t stop to swap numbers.’

I went back to the to-do list, picking up another chopping board.

‘I never said you two shouldn’t date. It was her motives for that specific night I questioned. You’re nice. She’s sociopathic at times but somewhere under all that ego is a really kind heart. If you guys were to pair up, you wouldn’t need to worry about me throwing a fit or anything. That’s all I’m saying.’

‘Well, I don’t think there’s any danger of that being an issue.’

‘If she was up for it, would you?’ I could see a vague hint of a smile as I began peeling the little shallots I had set out.

‘Actually, no need to answer that. I think we both know the real answer.’ She grinned and flicked a piece of lettuce at me.

Still getting the vegetables ready, we heard the doorbell.

‘Auntie Pam’s early,’ I said, leaving Katie in the kitchen and meeting Ellie in the hall as the welcoming committee.

‘Seriously, we said two o’clock. Which means at least half two when you’ve got two small children to get dressed and get changed yourself.’

But it wasn’t Auntie Pam. On our doorstep in his usual dapper suit, tie and unflappable grin was Maxwell.

‘Merry Christmas,’ he beamed. ‘I was in the area and thought I would drop by seeing that you were both in residence.’

We retreated into Dad’s study. Fortunately, my camp bed was folded away, and I had been able to air out the room, so it was less pungent than it had been six hours earlier. Maxwell said yes to the formalities of coffee and mince pies, which had Ellie none too subtly staring at her watch.

‘You’ve engaged a good one, you’d be pleased to know.’ We both stared at Maxwell blankly. ‘Your solicitor. The new generation always seems to have a get-up-and-go to them that I do have to admit shakes things up.’

As he had done when conveying to us Dad’s will, Maxwell perched himself on Dad’s desk, this time cradling his cup of coffee.

‘I have to say, still, it was not the method I would have advocated for, and it could have backfired quite substantially. But it has certainly shuffled things forward. Orletta would like to meet.’

Neither Ellie nor I said anything. I sat myself on the windowsill sipping my coffee, and Ellie sat unmoved in Dad’s desk chair. It was like a stalled negotiation, and Maxwell’s brow soon furrowed, probably expecting more excitement than we offered.

‘When?’ I asked.

‘Whenever,’ he shrugged. ‘Conrad called me yesterday to suggest you both go down for a visit and spend a few days with your ma in the fresh air. He told me that they were putting on a small show at that retreat of theirs, and that would be an ideal opportunity. I do have to say, you could both look more cheerful. Your bluff paid off. You’ve won!’

‘How is this winning, Maxwell?’ Ellie said calmly. ‘How is a mother who hasn’t spoken to her children in years, asking her partner to put thirty minutes in her diary a win for anyone?’

‘I have to say, my dear, it does work both ways. You could have made that phone call yourself and not resorted to legal proceedings.’

‘Scott, are you going to say anything or are you going to sit in your corner and leave everything to me?’

Despite my not appreciating her rounding on me, as if knowing Maxwell would bat her accusations away all day, Ellie did have a point. I had stopped looking at them and turned away, gazing out of the window. Outside, two young children – probably five and eight – were running happily while their mother, in her 80s summer dress, delightedly chased after them in what would have been the August sun. Everyone was laughing and the mother caught up with the boy picking him up, telling him he was too big to be carried and asking him never to grow any older. This one’s like your mother’s arms… Where were those happy people now?

‘Scott! For pfff’s sake – ’

‘Yeah. Okay. We all know we’re going to do it, so we might as well just say yes and get on with it.’

I was still watching my 80s mother so I had no idea if Ellie was rolling her eyes, shaking her head, or giving me the V-sign – she preferred the V-sign to the finger. Ellie took after Mum, inheriting her blonde hair and smile, though with Ellie you would not know it. I took after Dad, being told that I had his jaw and nose. I had inherited my dark, black hair – the witchcraft gene, Ellie had called it – from our next visitor, who rang the bell, curtailing our conversation.

‘Great,’ mumbled Ellie as we both left Maxwell. ‘It’s now two o’clock, and I’m still wearing a coffee and baby puke stained t-shirt. Auntie Pam’s really going to think we’ve got this day under control.’

As we entered the hallway Ellie paused, took a deep breath, and put on a big forced smile, before opening the door to our aunt.

‘Apologies, dears, I know two o’clock means three o’clock and all that,’ she said, coming through the door and kissing us on the cheek. ‘But I didn’t want to faff about wasting Ahmed’s time as well as my own. Lovely boy, I use him every time I have to fork out for a journey, but he does assume every person north of sixty has some form of dementia. I reply, ‘better old than zombified by one of those mobile phone thingies.’ Look, you’re not even dressed.’

Ellie and I had not even had a chance to say Merry Christmas as Auntie Pam handed me her coat and Ellie her canvas rucksack, which she carried with her instead of a handbag. She then left us in the hallway and proceeded into the living room, continuing with her story.

‘Persian. Family is from a town outside Tehran. Left just after the revolution, around the time I was over the border doing my first dig in Iraq. Excellent driver. Punctual. He’ll pick me up too. Right then. Mill-Mill. Edward Woodward.’

She clapped her hands, and we caught up with Auntie Pam as she stood above an understandably daunted Millie and Ed. ‘Eleanor, bag please.’

From the rucksack she brought out a selection box of mini chocolate bars and a large tin of sweets.

‘Auntie Pam, you never gave us chocolates when we were kids. You said they were bad for us.’

‘You turned out alright, didn’t you? Oh, do stop whining, Eleanor, it’s unbecoming.’

As Auntie Pam crouched down to open the box, and coo over her grandniece and grandnephew, I smirked at Ellie. Her face had literally gone red with indignation.

‘Back then, you were both constantly stuffing your faces with E-numbers and commercialised rubbish. It’s a wonder you’re both not obese. These days it’s the nanny state and careerist bureaucrats telling you how to raise your children and how everything is bad for you. Oh, have another, dear, oh you are growing into quite the little lady.’

‘None of that remotely makes sense,’ Ellie said to me, as Auntie Pam was still talking to Millie and Ed. Mike, a lot more sincerely than his wife, got up and greeted Auntie Pam, offering her his chair. Ellie then glared at me, as if to have someone to glare at, or because it was too obvious I enjoyed the effect Auntie Pam had on her. She then took another couple of deep breaths.

‘Auntie Pam, would you like a drink? Mike was about to pour some bubbles.’ Ellie’s use of the word bubbles was also comic. Her voice had suddenly gone posh, as if she had recently graduated from finishing school.

‘Oh, don’t be such a suck-up, dear.’ Auntie Pam was smiling and grinning, focussing more on the children than the adults around her. ‘Of course I would like a drink. I didn’t spend fifteen pounds on a taxi to sit teetotal twiddling my thumbs.’

During that chaos, I had almost forgotten that Katie was still in the kitchen, let alone that we had Auntie Pam’s ex-husband squirrelled away in Dad’s study. Bringing in Katie to introduce her to Auntie Pam, I went back for Maxwell, but he was not where we had left him. Instead, I found him in the conservatory, standing there staring into space.


‘You never appreciate it, my boy.’ His voice was strange. The assertive cheeriness absent.

‘And you never know when it’s going to disappear like a puff of smoke.’ He nodded over to the large wicker chair, which used to be Dad’s. ‘Many an evening your papa and I would sit here, a glass in hand, putting the world to rights. Bloody awful year, this has been, I don’t mind telling you. Bloody, bloody awful year.’

I had never seen Maxwell that agitated before. Uncertainty had replaced his usual composure and he looked pained and angry staring at the chair and the drinks cabinet where Dad would make his signature gin and tonics.

‘There’s not many of us now, Scott. The male divorcees club. At a certain age you come to enjoy life on your own. The gentle solitude after a long day. But you do not realised until very much late in the day that it was never true solitude. True solitude is being in the car and thinking to yourself, ‘I’ll just pop in on old George,’ and then turning the car around because you realise he’s not with us anymore. Your friend has gone. That is true solitude.’

We remained as we were. I could hear murmurs from the living room – no shouting or screaming fortunately, so Ellie and Auntie Pam must have been kept at bay. Through the conservatory glass it was a lovely December day with bright sunlight shimmering off the lawn. Maxwell then abruptly seemed to snap out of his gloom.

‘Right, dear boy, I’ve taken up enough of your time. I better be off. Promised to drop in on a couple of colleagues and share a glass or two.’

‘Or you could share a glass with us?’ I found myself offering. ‘Auntie Pam’s just arrived and we’ve opened up some cava. Why not stay for lunch? There’s plenty.’

I had planned on dining in the jumper I had been wearing that day, and for the whole of winter according to Katie. But everyone else had gone upstairs to change, so I belatedly realised that dinner would have a formal vibe. I even had Katie anxiously take me to the side and whisper, ‘I was a bit thrown yesterday, so just packed the first dress I found. It might be a bit informal – like, a night-out dress rather than dinner with family.’ She flicked her head over to my aunt, who had a knack of putting the women around her on edge.

In the end, Ellie invited a relieved Katie to do hair and makeup with her. This did effectively throw all my Christmas dinner timings out of the window, but it gave Mike and me a chance to move Auntie Pam and Maxwell into the conservatory and have a pre-dinner gin and tonic just as we would have done if Dad was with us.

‘Friends and colleagues, Pamela. I really did promise to do the rounds.’

‘I’m sure you have, Max. Or, for once, you could refrain from being the life of a dozen different parties and stay where you are. He was like this when we were married, you know.’ Auntie Pam sat with her tumbler and turned conspiratorially to Mike and me. ‘Infuriating. Never one to settle. I’m sure there are at least two manila folders sitting on his passenger seat with documents awaiting signatures you were planning to get this afternoon.’

Maxwell rested his chin on the palm of his hand and smiled. He certainly looked more at ease than when we stood in that room moments earlier.

‘Pamela, age has certainly not blunted you.’

I can’t precisely remember Auntie Pam and Maxwell divorcing. Back then it seemed a case that one day he lived with her and then he didn’t. I assumed all was amicable as Maxwell did remain one of Dad’s best friends, and I did recall them both turning up to dinner parties Mum and Dad would host. As they began talking about Christmases and friends gone by, Mike and I decided to leave them to it and stepped outside for some brief fresh air.

‘The Duchess is taking her time. Maybe preparing for another mistletoe moment?’

‘We’re just friends,’ I said, ignoring his grin. ‘She’s got a boyfriend, and it was your wife who invited her.’

‘Yeah, spending Christmas with some random bloke’s family, completely platonic.’

We could hear Auntie Pam berating Maxwell about some trip he once joined her on and Maxwell cackling at the anecdote.

‘They get on well, don’t they? Considering they’re divorced.’

‘Probably better than when they were married. I guess it just didn’t work out. From what I remember at the time – or from what we overheard from Mum or Dad – Auntie Pam was constantly abroad with work and Maxwell was always at the office so they never saw each other.’

‘Tell me about it.’

Mike gently shook and swirled the ice in his glass, looking like he was trying to dislodge the orange peel I had been heavy-handed with.

‘Ell said you were having to rack up the hours lately.’

‘That’s the thing with the music industry now, you accept the work while it’s there and put up with the hours that come with it.’

Mike shrugged, rather more pessimistically than I could recall seeing him. It felt a bit invasive watching him, so I looked out onto our lawn, which I needed to cut at some point; everything looked wintery, slightly overgrown, and unloved.

‘But it comes to a point when you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it, or if it’s something you can see yourself doing for the next twenty years. And recently, I don’t think it is.’

He shrugged again, and I remembered my conversation with Ellie on the tube.

‘Either I’m in the studio all hours with session work, or if I get asked to play gigs, I’m on the road for a week solid playing riffs in a dark corner of the stage trying my best to look inconspicuous so the audience doesn’t question why their three-piece indie-rock band has a fourth member twice their age. It’s not exactly living the dream anymore.’ He gave a small laugh and sipped his drink again.

‘Ellie’s pissed that she’s the one who ends up doing the lion’s share with the kids, and I seriously miss the little menaces. I’m tired of all the bedtimes missed and having to say goodnight over the phone. So I’ve been taking this accountancy course and been looking around for full-time jobs back in Brighton. Something nine to five. Like a proper adult.’

He did smirk at the end. A light smile that was perhaps there to combat the fact that I must have looked completely crestfallen.


‘Joining the real world, man. Time to grow up.’


I honestly don’t know if I would have felt more shocked or devastated if instead, Mike had told me he was seriously ill. I just stood there, staring at the grass in disbelief. Mike was the Musician. He lived the dream for all of us. Accountancy was for people who never had any dreams – people like me! Those who left university and went straight into a bank because they did not know what else to do with their life and never bothered to think about it. We couldn’t lose Mike to that world. Not Mike. Not the Musician.

‘Jeez, dude!’ he laughed and put his arm around my shoulders. ‘It will be alright. We’ll still be friends, I’ll still write, I’ll still call.’ He then began cackling with laugher as he put me in a light headlock and rubbed his knuckles into my scalp.

‘It will all be okay. Plus they can’t be all bad, right? The dreaded accountants?’

It felt like Mike was literally and proverbially breaking up the band. If the Musician had to grow up and get a real job, what hope was there for the rest of us? At the end of the day, did we all have to wind up coming back to something that made us miserable? Would I myself soon be admitting defeat and hanging up my gardening gloves, crawling on my knees back to some faceless bureaucracy to spend my life filling in spreadsheets and writing the same report each month that no one would read? As Mike at least seemed in better spirits, still laughing at my despondency, we walked back inside and then, suddenly, I completely forgot why I had been so melancholic.

Black dress, deep red lips, and immaculate flowing hair, I would have been curious to see what Katie’s idea of formal was if that was informal. I kept saying Katie and I were just friends, so I really should stop staring at her the way I was; that star-crossed look of awe as she stood in the conservatory doorway, my eyes going from her mouth to her figure and then quickly back to her eyes, like she was my date to the end-of-year ball. Katie then smiled at me and mouthed, ‘do I look okay?’, and I tried to nod understatedly. From behind her then came Ellie with Millie and Ed, all of whom looked equally dressed up and made me feel that my effort of putting on a shirt might have been a bare minimum. Millie quickly grabbed Katie’s arm, dragging her away, and Ellie caught sight of Mike and me, rolling her eyes.

‘Jeans? Seriously? We spend an hour with curling tongs and hairdryers going full pelt, and all you both do is button-up a shirt. So much for gender equality.’ Mike and I both grinned but there was something about Ellie I had not seen before. She was standing wearing a long green and gold dress, elegant enough to outdo Auntie Pam, her hair flowing and the gold shimmering in the sunlight. I felt this bizarre sensation of pride. This was my sister, all grown up. I remembered what she had said about Mum leaving. It had not mattered in the end. She had done it all herself. I could not stop thinking how proud Dad would have been.

The table was laid, playing on the stereo was an ancient version of Now That’s What I Call Christmas, and assembled were the build-your-own crackers we had rescued from Loughborough Road. Unfortunately, I had put them together while I was more than a little squiffy the previous night, and I could not remember which one was booby-trapped, containing at least six times the amount of snappers as recommended.

I sat Maxwell and Auntie Pam at the heads of the table – I was never sure if that was the correct term as surely being the head, or the foot, was subjective. It felt right that Maxwell sat in the place Dad would have had, considering he was one of his oldest friends, and also considering none of the rest of us felt ready to take on the role. On the other sides of the table sat girls and boys respectively, with Millie wedged between Ellie and Katie, and Mike and me flanking Ed. And all could not have gone better. Well, apart from the inevitable blip.

Halfway through lunch Auntie Pam asked me if I wanted to finish the slice of beef on her plate.

‘It was far too large a portion. That would have fed us for a week in Ethiopia, as you can now testify too, young man.’

‘I was only there ten days.’

‘Scott tells me you’ve just come back from Oman, Mrs…’ Katie helped Millie with a mini puzzle from her cracker as she tried to address my aunt.

Dr Lloyd-Roberts, my dear, if you were writing me a letter but I told you, please call me Pam.’

I saw Ellie turn her head away from Auntie Pam and roll her eyes at me.

‘Not that I like using my prefix. Doctorate in Anthropology and Archaeology, you see. I had been with the Royal Society since probably when Edward Heath was Prime Minister, being sent to God knows where however many times a year – Max will vouch for that. I retired five years ago and am now seeing the world on my own terms. Oman, Ethiopia, Egypt, with former colleagues the last year, lending a hand wherever I can at some dig or the other. Amman and Jordan in January, so no rest for the wicked.’

‘Yes, Katie, Auntie Pam is really just like one of us at heart. Woman of the people.’

I’m sure I was not the only one who could feel the twinge of tension at that moment. With anyone else Ellie’s sarcasm would at least be subtle, but with Auntie Pam she seemed to take every innocuous comment as a personal dig. It might have been because Ellie had lived a lot of her life as a free spirit – her mother’s daughter, a musician following a path in the arts – and Auntie Pam for all her travels and worldliness was definitely not. She had always known what she wanted to do and pursued her career in one organisation with unwavering dedication. It might have also been that Auntie Pam was never one to mince her words, especially after Mum left, and especially about Mum.

‘Academia is not for all of us, I do know that, Eleanor, but this young woman seems to have a steady head on her shoulders.’ Auntie Pam then turned directly to Katie. ‘I have nothing but the greatest respect for curators, if not for you the wonders I unearth would never see the light of day.’

‘Auntie Pam, if I knew you were still keen to unearth wonders I would have asked you to help Scott and me sort through all the junk in the basement.’

Auntie Pam calmly let her face go deadpan. Like I said, usually Ellie’s jibes would be subtle and cutting. Here even Mike, who was trying to spoon feed Ed some carrot, was giving her an anxious stare as she was beginning to sound like a bit of a dick. Millie, obviously oblivious to the conversation, was trying to regain Katie’s attention by showing her the necklace she had on.

‘Maxwell tells me your mother wants to come to an arrangement with you for the house? That must come as some relief to you both.’

‘Not exactly a relief, considering she has no claim to anything of Dad’s other than trying to exploit a technicality.’

Ellie’s voice was slightly louder than normal, and there was a forcefulness about how she helped herself to another serving of Brussel sprouts. It was Katie’s turn now to give me an anxious stare.

‘That technicality being that this is now her house in the eyes of the law. My dear, I would have been as indignant as you, but you’ve had a year now. Perhaps you now need to think about what you would want to walk away with and finally put this to bed.’

Again, Auntie Pam looked undeterred by Ellie as she picked up the wine bottle and offered me a top-up.

‘Walk away? This is our house.’

Ellie dropped the serving spoons back into the ceramic dish with a heavy clutter.

‘Whose side are you on, Auntie Pam? Is it him whispering defeatist nonsense in your ear?’ Ellie threw an arm out at Maxwell, who up until that point had been trying to have a quiet side conversation with Mike and Katie, perhaps to distract his half of the table from the scene beginning to unfold.

‘Do not point like that, my dear, it is incredibly rude!’

I was transported back in time to when we were children and Auntie Pam had last used her stern voice on us. It seemed to attract Millie’s attention, who stared open-mouthed.

‘Now, I have never claimed to see eye to eye with your mother, but as your father told me more than once, I did not have to – that was his job. And until you can better understand his motives – it does pain me very much to say this – who are we to dictate who rightly gets what? It’s not like George was prone to bouts of carelessness at the end of the day.’

‘Well, it’s not like we can go and ask him, is it?’

I really wished Ellie had not said that. It was my turn to clutter my cutlery loudly onto my plate. I stared forcibly at Ellie, glaring at her so I at least caught her eye. No one said anything apart from Millie, who was still telling Katie about the charms on her necklace.

‘I mean, it’s been a year.’ Ellie’s voice was quieter, her more usual sulkier one. ‘If we knew why he hadn’t signed his divorce papers, or why he hadn’t drawn up a bloody will, well someone should have said. Unless you do know, Auntie Pam, and didn’t think it was worth mentioning?’

Ellie began stabbing a roast potato with her fork and didn’t notice what I did; Auntie Pam frowning and fidgeting in her seat.

‘Nobody benefits from wild speculation, girl. I’d only say George always had a reason, was a rational man, and definitely not a bloody fool. If he wanted you to be calling solicitors and dragging your own mother to court, well, that’s a side to him I’d not seen in my sixty-seven years, I can tell you that.’ She stared down at her plate.

‘I had naively hoped you would sort things out between yourselves, but instead we’re sat here dredging up the past no matter the consequences…’

‘Dredging up the past?’

Ellie’s voice tailed off as Auntie Pam threw down her napkin. She began squeezing the bridge of her nose. Ellie and I stared at each other wide-eyed, giving each other the look of we’ve broken Auntie Pam. We’d seen Auntie Pam annoyed over the years – to be fair, that was her norm – but we’d never seen her flustered. Or as tired as she suddenly seemed. I leaned over to her.

‘Auntie Pam, can I get you a glass of water – ’

‘And by Jove, that’s exactly why we’re here today,’ Maxwell cut over me. ‘To not dredge up the past but to raise a glass.’

He gently pushed back his chair and rose to his feet, picking up his glass of red wine.

‘I could not have been more fortunate to have had a friend like your papa, and we have all felt his absence acutely in our own way this last year. But he would not have been prouder to see his children, grandchildren, friends and family – all who love him and all who miss him – here today.’ He made the strategic pause of someone highly accustomed to making speeches, which allowed the rest of us to raise our glasses and look at each other – embarrassed in most cases. I half-smiled at Ellie, who returned it and looked over to Auntie Pam with a far kinder smile. Auntie Pam nodded, a far more peaceable, accepting nod. I then glanced over to Katie. I’m told the ancient Greeks had numerous words for the different types of love there are, so I find it strange that nowadays we seem to have so few. And for looks. And for smiles. Katie caught my eye and smiled this big reassuring smile, and in one moment, I suddenly felt that everything was going to be okay.

‘So here’s to all of you. And here’s to George.’

I have to say, I was delighted that after lunch we ended up playing the board game I had got for Millie and Ed, and they seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. I felt it slightly made up for my status of absentee uncle for so much of their life. I also had to thank Joan of all people who had recommended the game – board games were one of his niche passions and he subscribed to some newsletter saying which new ones had won awards. In the one we played, each piece was meant to be a camel that could connect to another person’s, forming a double-sized camel as you went around the board trying to unearth hidden treasure. I wasn’t sure Ed would be old enough to understand, but Millie’s expressions and leaps in the air every time she found treasure were enough to keep him constantly giggling too.

After, the adults played another game I had bought; this one very much charades-based and had us up on our feet, miming books and films in front of the Christmas tree.

Auntie Pam told Maxwell to collect his car in the morning and that Ahmed would drop him off on route. She told us she would keep in touch while she was in Jordan, and if we needed her, all we had to do was call her old office landline, and one of her old team would provide us with the number of whichever hotel she was staying, at which point I had to squeeze Ellie’s wrist to stop an argument regarding the merits of modern technology.

The excitement had all got too much for Millie and Ed, who fell fast asleep in adorable bundles on the sofa. Ellie and Mike picked them up and put them to bed before briefly coming back downstairs, looking exhausted on the sofa and eventually submitting to tiredness themselves, saying goodnight with some large yawns.

It was just Katie and me, each of us occupying one of the living room armchairs sipping our glasses of wine, just the Christmas tree lights on as the house seemed to slowly settle and the echoes of an epic Christmas day gently faded away.

‘Thank you,’ she said, curled up in her chair, looking over to me. ‘This has been a wonderful day. Truly wonderful.’

‘Thank you for joining us – seriously – you’ve been run ragged by children for two days straight, and I think you have captured someone’s heart forever.’

‘I have no idea who you mean,’ she laughed, and for a nervous moment I thought she might have realised I did not mean Millie.

‘She is so adorable. I wish I could keep her.’

‘Don’t let Ellie hear you say that. She’d have her bags packed and sent your way every school holidays.’

‘Well, I will then try to be the coolest aunt possible.’

As she giggled, my phone buzzed. Not wanting to interrupt the conversation, I just allowed my eyes to glance over it.

‘What is it?’

I must have outwardly looked puzzled. As the screen lit up, I quickly saw a message from an unknown number saying, So aren’t you even going to wish me a merry Christmas?

‘Anyone special?’ asked Katie.

‘I have no idea. Probably a wrong number.’

‘I may be able to help you.’ Katie uncurled herself and rose from the chair. She had her phone with her as she came over to me. ‘A Christmas present of sorts.’

On the screen was a conversation between her and Izzy that day. The messages were mostly from Izzy; I expected you to apologise by now; God you are a tedious prick; Can you send me Scott’s number? I should apologise to him too; Please; Merry Christmas btw. You know full well I miss you so stop ignoring me xxx. Then a reply from Katie with my number, and then five minutes later two small x’s, and a reply from Izzy with a smiley face.

‘You’d better reply. It would literally make her implode. She doesn’t normally ask for a guy’s number. You’re quite honoured.’

‘I thought you were pissed off about her and me?’

‘It’s Christmas. Not really the day to hold a grudge. Plus, if she does actually like you…’

‘If she actually likes me!’ I laughed, almost spilling my wine.

‘I didn’t mean it like that! I’m the one who tried to set you both up, remember?’

She was giving me a comically stern glare as I continued to beam back at her.

‘She is a lot nicer than she comes across. And you’re…’ She seemed to be taking longer than was complimentary to find a compliment. ‘Lovely. Really, very lovely.’

Katie began clearing away the remnant glasses and small plates of snacks dotted across the room.

‘It’s okay, I can do that.’

When she got to the kitchen sink, I gently tugged her arm to pull her away.

‘All that can wait until tomorrow.’

We went back into the living room and stood observing the evidence of all that had taken place that day; the toys and games neatly piled in the corner, the board game back in its box and placed under the tree. Katie yawned, a big yawn with her whole hand trying to cover her mouth.

‘I guess it’s time for bed.’

Katie nodded, suddenly looking dead on her feet, her hand still covering her mouth as if anticipating a second yawn. I watched her from the doorway as I flicked off all the light switches.

‘Thank you,’ she said again, stopping in the doorway and then reaching up to hug me. As I placed my hands on her back, she held me for longer than I expected.

As she finally let go, she then looked above my head and smiled.

‘Uh oh. Looks like someone’s found themselves under the mistletoe again.’

‘Well, at least Millie isn’t here to see it. We can probably get away with just the hug.’ I felt myself slightly blushing as I looked back at her beaming face.

‘No chance! Do you honestly expect me to betray my new best friend already?’

She smiled again, but this time it was different. It was less jokey, and soon it faded. She kept looking at me. I expected her to jump up and quickly peck me like she did the day before but she didn’t. She tiptoed up, and I leaned down. The next thing I knew, I had my eyes closed, and her lip was between mine as she tilted her head and let her mouth open.

Chapter 17: Crush

The thing about having a crush on someone is that we do not expect it to be reciprocal. We fantasise about that moment when the other person says it had been you all along, and you walk off into the sunset together. But at heart, we know that is all it is: a fantasy. After all, if we were so confident that something would happen, it probably would have already happened.

With Sarah, and one of the triggers to that whole Easter weekend saga, I did not think anything would happen. Sarah was pretty, athletic, trendy, and her previous boyfriends were one step below professional athletes. She told me that she had put her last boyfriend on a pedestal as he was a triathlete who had once cycled from London to Sydney. With Sarah and me, it was me who put her on that pedestal. It might have been my tales of life abroad that put me on her radar, but when we kissed – when she knew for certain I wanted her – her interest in me seemed to dissolve instantly. I’m not saying I know what lay behind her motivations, but for someone used to putting others on pedestals it must have removed the mystique and created that Groucho Marxist dilemma; if this club wants me as a member, could I not do better?

A lesson I learned from Sarah was that the most destructive attractions are not those that allow us to kiss our crush at once, as we soon take them for granted. Or those who we do not kiss at all – we inevitably forget the infatuation as soon as our love is gone from view. But instead, those somewhere in the middle. Those we kiss just the once and find ourselves perpetually lost in what could have been.

Katie was already awake, dressed, and curled up in an armchair writing in what looked like a journal as I emerged from the study.

‘Morning,’ she said, a little too awake considering that I was still bleary-eyed and my back felt like it had recently come out of spasm after another night on the camp bed.

‘Ellie and Millie are already up. I heard the distinctive sound of little feet scurrying between rooms being chased by bigger feet just before I came down. How did you sleep?’

‘Fine,’ I lied. ‘It’s very cosy in there. You?’

‘Yes, okay thanks. To be honest my head was spinning a bit as I got into bed. I definitely had more to drink than I thought.’

She went back to her journal, and I was left standing there – most likely in need of a shower, knowing my hair was probably a wild mess – feeling awkward. Just for a change.

When I had gone to bed the previous night, all I could do was replay that kiss over and over, not wanting to fall asleep in case the memory would diminish. I had thought she would relinquish as soon as our lips had touched. But instead of jumping down and grinning like she did the night before, she remained as she was. It was like a bolt of adrenalin as she then gently pressed her mouth against mine. She leaned back against the doorway taking me with her. I felt her hands rest themselves on my stomach as we stopped kissing briefly to look at each other. Neither of us smiling or giggling. And then we began to kiss again, this time my hands holding her hips and hers finding their way underneath my shirt.

‘It’s late,’ she whispered, bringing the kiss to an end. She gave me this sad-looking smile. ‘I really should go to bed. To sleep.’ She removed her hand from under my shirt, and I took my cue to let go of her hips. ‘I really did have a great day.’ And then, as if like contemplating an experiment, she furrowed her brow and placed another kiss on my mouth, watching me curiously as she did, before saying goodnight.

After brushing my teeth, tidying myself up, and then making coffee, I returned to the living room where Katie still had her nose in her journal.

‘Anything interesting?’

‘Just some ideas for work. I woke up with them forming in my head, so I wanted to get them down on paper. There’s a couple of work trips in January – Florence and Copenhagen. My boss would have gone, but as she’s on sabbatical, there’s an outside chance I might get the gig.’

‘Excellent news,’ I said, noticing that it came out rather downbeat. I was taking my place on the sofa opposite, coffee in my hand. I wondered how long she was going to be away as January was only a few days away.

‘Fingers crossed. I might even be able to pop over to Berlin and visit my long-lost boyfriend. Remind him I exist.’

She wasn’t looking at me but still gazing into her journal. I tried to disguise an involuntary sigh. I did not know if she thought she was being subtle.

‘You’ve heard from him?’

She nodded.

‘He kept bombarding me with messages as I was getting into bed. Nothing bad. Actually they were quite funny, quite self-deprecating. And then he called.’ Hesitantly, she closed her journal, put it to the side and picked up the coffee I had brought her.

‘Apparently he had spent the whole day at his boss’s house. They had a quick Christmas meal with his family and then spent most of the afternoon and evening trying to put the whole thing to bed so his boss could go skiing with his children.’

She pulled an it-is-what-it-is face, with a shrug.

‘So it was legitimate then?’

‘Apparently so.’

With that, she raised her eyebrows, looked down, and got on with her writing. I sipped my coffee, our conversation now over. From the subtext, I knew Katie did not want to talk about the kiss. The fact that the first thing she brought up was her boyfriend’s lack of infidelity probably said enough. So I probably shouldn’t have then been such a dick about it.

‘I probably should get going relatively soon. It’s been a fun few days, but I better get myself back into work mode.’

‘True. That way we can avoid talking about last night. Or how you seemed to have reconciled with Ethan minutes after.’

She didn’t say anything. At least not with her mouth. She finally looked me in the eyes with an incredulous stare, which simply said: fuck off you prick. And she held that glare as we heard adult footsteps slowly come down the stairs before Ellie entered the room, looking like she would have preferred to still be asleep in bed.

‘Katie, someone is asking if you would like to play dolls with her in her room. You’d be forgiven for not and hiding out down here.’

‘Of course, I’d love to.’ Her voice jumped into cheerful mode as she smiled and sprang off her seat. As a hardly appreciative Ellie gave a tired nod and went towards the kitchen, Katie made to leave the room and I opened my mouth to apologise. However, as I did she glared at me, shook her head and mouthed something; either get lost or fuck off, I couldn’t tell which.

‘We’ll pay you fifty quid,’ whispered Mike over the screaming. We were gathered in the hallway to see Katie off. She was standing at the door with her coat on and her bag at her feet looking entirely overwhelmed. Between us was the small figure of Millie, her eyes and face bright pink as tears streamed down her cheeks, staring down her mother, believing her the wicked witch of the situation.

‘I don’t want her to go!’ She stomped her little feet as hard as she could into our carpeted floor. Ellie raised her eyebrows as if saying, this is what it’s normally like. She then quickly stepped past the wailing Millie to hug Katie goodbye.

‘Don’t look so alarmed. This is a compliment. She hardly ever throws a tantrum when I leave the house, do you, Mill-Mills?’ There was more stomping until Ellie tenderly kneeled down to put her arms around her daughter, letting her wail into them.

‘Quick, run while you can,’ she whispered.

Closing the door behind us sealed a vacuum on the crying. I followed Katie down the path to the gate in silence, not trusting myself not to repeat something stupid. As we reached the gate, we both turned to each other, took a large breath, and simultaneously exhaled sorry.

‘Earlier was stupid,’ she said with an awkward quarter-smile. She puffed out her cheeks and looked around like she was searching the quiet suburban street for what she wanted to say.

‘The thing is, it’s been a while since my last drunken snog – not saying that’s all it was!’ She seemed to go pinker. ‘But I think the last time I’ve had a snog outside a long-term relationship was when some wasted guy accosted me at my brother’s birthday.’ She let a small grin slip across her face and seemed to them nervously look at me to see if I would reciprocate.

‘It was nice. The snog. And it was a really, really nice day with your family. I just…’

‘Feel guilty about Ethan?’

‘Yes. But not just that.’ She again puffed out her cheeks and frowned, staring at our low garden wall for inspiration.

‘It was a bit of a classless move on my part, using you to cheer me up and then hoping to brush it under the carpet – ’

‘You’ve got nothing to apologise for. It was Christmas, there was mistletoe, and I think we’ve both had such a time of it recently when a snog was a super-nice way to end the day.’

Snog? Super-nice? I don’t know why these words had re-entered my vocabulary for the first time since I was a teenager. Perhaps it was because I wanted to put both of us out of our misery as soon as possible with one push of casual positivity.

‘I’m sorry for this morning. I got caught in this moment of – do we talk about this, do we not talk about this, and just freaked out. I’m really no good at this.’

‘I don’t think anybody is.’

‘I mean the whole concept of polyamory. It’s just not possible to do what you want and not hurt other people.

‘We may be going too deep.’ I tried to smile, and even though she was now smiling too I still wanted to pull away from the conversation and have her just leave.

‘Friends? Still?’

‘Yes,’ I smiled. ‘Still friends.’

We hugged – a friends hug – and she stepped out of the gate. She asked if I would be back later, but I told her that Ellie and I had some plans, and I would be home the day after.

Mike took the kids to the cinema by himself in the afternoon, allowing Ellie and me to drive to Enfield cemetery. The last time we had set foot there we were caked in mud, wrestling like adolescents. I felt an enormous pang of guilt as we reached Dad’s grave – I had not been to see him in over a year.

I would have thought all those years of enforced Anglicanism would have shored up my belief in the afterlife, but somehow Dad’s departure felt all the more final. Plus, how could I bear to visit him when I had let him down so badly? The funeral, Sarah, Easter weekend, Watership Down, letting my life slip away and erasing anything he could have otherwise been proud of me for. It was now a year later, and I was looking down at his headstone, wondering if he was there in the ether surrounding us, feeling we had abandoned him.

‘Scott? Are you alright?’

Had I not known my sister, I would have mistaken this for concern.

‘Just a bit weird being here again.’

In the blur of memories, I do not think I properly looked at the stone or what we had chosen to put. ‘George Geoffrey Robert, Beloved Father, Brother and Friend.’ There was so much about him we could have also said. Such as all he achieved: all those many books and accredited papers; even the Radio 4 culture documentaries would instantly fill me with this surge of surprise and pride when I would hear his voice; the fact he did his best to make a shy, nervous, nerdy teenager come out of his shell without ever making him feel there was something wrong with him.

‘You’ve gone pale,’ said Ellie.

‘Probably still hungover. We didn’t pick a bad spot, did we? Look’s beautiful, even in winter.’

Even with the trees bare and the grass damp, it was spacious and peaceful. I could imagine that in the summer it would be green and full of light.

‘Are we really going to do this thing with Mum?’

‘I thought I was the flaky one?’

‘Well sorry for not being sociopathic but I’m not exactly looking forward to seeing my only surviving parent just after I’ve sent her a letter announcing my intent to sue her.’

Despite the clear sky overhead, it was bitterly cold out there by the grave. Ellie had her parka wrapped tightly around her and her thick gloves on. I buried my hands deep into my jeans pockets for warmth.

‘We can’t avoid it forever,’ I said, knowing it would annoy Ellie hearing me lecture her on avoidance. ‘Why keep putting ourselves through the crap of second-guessing her motives? Plus, I’d like to ask her why she’s doing all this. The house is our home, not hers.’

We stood quietly, staring at the memorial, and the wind began to pick up.

‘Mike says he’s giving up the session work.’

‘It’s something we’re discussing. Nothing’s final.’

‘Have you thought any more about starting composing again?’

Here I assumed I would receive the traditional snort of sarcasm with Ellie responding along the lines of, ‘oh yeah, like I get so much time at the moment with two kids under six years old.’ But instead, she sighed.

‘Thought about it. Thinking about it. It’s not like you can just rock up at the Albert Hall and throw down, though, is it?’

She shivered and wriggled her legs, for warmth I guessed.

‘But I don’t want Millie and Ed to grow up and one day hear how both their parents were once good at something that was rare to be that good at, and then both gave it up to become like everyone else. Even thinking about Mum, oh God, I despise her at times, but she went for it. She put her art first, above everything else. Above everyone else. I’m not saying I want to be like her, but I do want to show her it is possible to follow your dream and not abandon your children to do it.’

I suddenly felt a few droplets of rain. The clear skies overhead were not as clear anymore. Ellie looked like she was freezing. I could hardly feel my hands. I was going to suggest we go back to the car and perhaps get a hot chocolate from town – what we called Wood Green high street – while we waited for the kids’ film to finish, but just as I made to move away, Ellie called me back.

‘Scott, this thing with Katie… Be careful.’ I had expected her to goad me, as Mike had done. But instead, she looked genuinely concerned.

‘No one’s that perfect. Or has their life that together. I’d watch yourself with that one.’

It was a strange rhetorical warning and probably the first time Ellie had ever talked to me about a girl that didn’t merely imply I was and would forever remain a virgin. She also gave me this weird stare like she was making sure I understood before she too turned towards the car park.

The rest of our Boxing Day was pleasantly subdued as Christmas seemed finally to take it out of Millie and Ed. They spent the evening curled up on the sofa as we stuck on some old records and sat in the warm glow of the tree. Ellie was standing at the piano looking at the old picture frames. I was about to get up and put on another as Mike had both children lying on him, but instead, Ellie sat down on her old piano stool. Without a word she gently tapped the keys, like testing it still worked.

And then, it was like an incredible wave of soothing notes. She didn’t take a second to warm up or get her bearings. The silence was filled with this delicate movement that evoked this memory of staring out at the rain on a gloomy day. It both had a pitter-patter rhythm and something else going on, building, ascending. She claimed she never practised and not to have the technical ability of others, but she was a phenomenon. I could have been at the Albert Hall, or sitting in the cinema being moved by the soundtrack to a film. She was faultless.

The music stayed with me long after we all said goodnight. I went to bed ready to sleep for a week with the notes and tones gently swimming around my head. I closed my eyes and drifted off, gently and peacefully. Then, a message on my phone woke me. Despite what I had said that morning, my heart jumped hoping it was Katie.

So you’re not going to wish me a merry Christmas? It was the same number that Katie told me belonged to Izzy.

With the mistletoe and the kiss, I had entirely forgotten about her message. Obviously after what had happened the previous night it would have been a little bit insensitive to have kissed someone I claim to like and then start a text message conversation with her best friend. I then received another message. Well, more accurately, a series of punctuation marks.


I remembered what Katie said about Izzy not liking being ignored. I also remembered what Katie said she had done right after she kissed me and how she didn’t allow her phone to go unanswered.

Sorry. It’s been an epic couple of days. Merry Christmas. I knew it sounded dismissive but that was partly the intention. I wasn’t really sure what her motives were, but from our night together and the morning after, I was pretty certain it wasn’t going to be a straightforward, let’s be friends.

Haha obviously! Oh what a jet setting lifestyle I’m sure you lead. I should be honoured to have received a response at all.

The soothed state in which I had gone to bed was beginning to diminish. I put the phone down and closed my eyes. But my phone kept buzzing.

Are you pissed off with me? God you are a sensitive soul aren’t you?

No, it’s just strange to hear from you. You didn’t seem overly keen to keep in touch.

Who said anything about keeping in touch? I’m just bored. I thought you could entertain me. Or the other way around x

I assume for those born into what is termed Generation Z, the smartphone is more or less a necessity when it comes to seduction. When I was in my twenties, we would go to clubs hoping to swap numbers with a girl, text her a few days later and arrange a date. Now that all seems superfluous as countless apps exist to cut out having to walk up to another human being and make those introductions. Obviously, we did have photo messages, and friends of friends particularly in my banking days would pass on stories of sexting, but I never belonged to a crowd where late-night entertaining was anything but folklore.

When I was with Vicky our late night behind-closed-doors message exchanges would be of the intensely cringe-worthy nature – I would tell her how beautiful she was and how I missed her when she was not around. With Sarah, there were so many messages but they were all from the script of an incredibly clichéd Romeo and Juliet adaptation, telling each other how we mustn’t, that what we had was more than friendship, blah blah.

Am I not your type? Do I need to put on some bunny pyjamas and go to sleep cuddling my fluffy slippers? And there it was. As I held my phone in the darkness of my room, I would admit, I did want something to happen but not if she was going to do the whole Katie thing again. At least, that was what I tried to tell myself. I did, for once, want to create the pretence of not rolling over and doing what I believed the other person wanted.

No, it’s just a bit weird you bringing someone else into this.

Get over yourself. You know you are really starting to bore me now.

I responded that she was the one who initiated the conversation, determined to stay strong and have her at least say one nice thing to me before I inevitably succumbed.