This might sound slightly stereotypical, but having grown up in a house with two women, I have been exposed to my fair share of romantic comedies and period dramas. Before Mum left, Friday evenings would be movie night, and during the summer, we would host the Roberts Film Festival, which was a tradition started by Ellie, and had all of us gathered around the television to watch a film of each of our choosing over a week. Even though I did inflict such classics as Space Balls and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey on my family, romcoms won out three to one – Dad’s favourite films included Nabokov on Tolstoy, an old black and white interview with the Lolita author sharing his thoughts on Russian literature, so his choice was vetoed and taken by Ellie. Therefore we had to watch something that had her and Mum in tears and Dad snoring heavily in his armchair.
But having sat through Hollywood-esque love stories such as The Notebook, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Brief Encounter and some of The English Patient (I fell asleep through that one) it had become clear to me that the key to true happiness was not wealth (The Thomas Crown Affair), status (Overboard) or a high-achieving career (How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days…) but rather through finding true, all-encompassing love.
So then, by that logic, the reverse must be true: that if you are not lucky enough to find someone to love and who loves you back, you will never be happy. Therefore, my quietness as a teenager would have been nothing to do with my parents splitting up or my sister occasionally using me as an emotional punching bag, but was purely because I had not yet met the girl of my dreams. And then, at age sixteen, as in those Hollywood films, she suddenly walked into my life.
Vicky joined our school midway through the first term of sixth form. Our school was not exactly typical compared to others. Amberton Grove was a fee-paying independent school, but where to many this would conjure up images of blazers and collared rugby shirts, Amberton was founded in the late 1970s, part-funded by the Arts Council, shunned uniforms, and was determined to be so nonconformist it probably became the same as everywhere else.
It began life as a small arts school. If your child was gifted at drawing or music, or wanted to dedicate more lesson time to sculpture rather than maths or science, Amberton was the place to send them. It was founded, and then governed, by a Parent Teacher Association which comprised of London and Home Counties artists, actors, classical musicians and patrons who wanted the school to become a haven for nurturing talent at a young age. An arts college, but from the age of five. Away from those who would burst the creative bubble. Some of my friends ask what my creative gift was that needed nurturing. That was easy: a sister who was a musical prodigy and a mother whose name even back then carried some weight in the arts community.
However, by the time the 90s came around, having a private school developing Britain’s next generation of Turners and T.S. Elliots had become a pipedream. I suppose this was because there were already numerous academies in Central London dedicated to either music or drama, so sending a child all the way to Wood Green when they were barely three foot tall might have been considered excessive. When I joined Amberton, I was not the only student who lacked in musical or artistic accomplishment. The PTA had to balance out wanting to attract the crème de la crème of the next generation’s artists with being able to stay in business, so it became a relatively cheap posh school who would just about take anyone.
We did have to keep up the pretence, though. Amberton paid far more attention to the humanities, art, and drama than STEM subjects, with exhibitions and readings held in greater esteem than, say, afterschool sports clubs. Our school play was the social event of the year, with parents even attending in black-tie, as they would to the opening of a West End show, which coincidently shared a similar budget. To give it its due, it was impressive with its post-modern set designs and a symphony standard orchestra. And by necessity rather than design, each three-hour epic performance had a reverse-Elizabethan quality, with the majority of male parts being played by girls due to a lack of talented boys. We did have Christoph Koller and Owami Tskinae, who between them were Amberton’s equivalent of Affleck and Damon, and were able to stage-snog – and real snog – probably every girl doing drama, hence ninety percent of girls at our school. However, even they were upstaged by Julia Hudson and Amelia Montrose from the year above, who in their performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, pushed boundaries with a very heated and tender love scene in the middle of the stage. It lasted in excess of five minutes and brought both a standing ovation from the PTA, thrilled that Amberton would be seen as ground-breaking, and a jaw-dropping silence from an audience of teenage boys who unsubtly then spent the rest of the play queuing for the toilet cubicles.
When I chose my A-levels, the published class list told me I would academically come into contact with just four girls, all of whom were in my economics class. However, Christoph and Owami were also in the same set and, in a school where somehow the drama kids had become the American high-school equivalent of jocks and cheerleaders, it was needless to say that the GWWA was pretty much the bottom rung on the social ladder.
Then one day, as my all-male maths class climbed the stairs to Room 4.B at the top of our Modern Languages and Sciences block, we all had to do a double-take as in that usually sterile classroom was the unthinkable: a girl. She was sitting at the front of the class, her exercise book and pens already out, working away as we lingered outside. Unsure what to do, whispers went back and forth, as none of us had seen her before. We silently looked among ourselves to gauge who dared to tell the pretty girl with shiny blonde hair and who seemed to be wearing another school’s uniform she was in the wrong place. Instead, we just bundled our way in, everyone navigating to their own desks talking louder and with deeper voices than normal, ignoring the new girl. All apart from me. She was in my seat.
‘Sorry, do you usually sit here?’ she said, looking up at me as I nervously hovered.
‘Oh, here, please.’ She pushed her books and stationery a few inches to her left and squeezed her legs together, tightly wrapped in a grey pencil skirt, slipping her bum off her current chair and onto the next one, offering me the seat next to her. I have to say, I watched this movement very much as closely as my classmates had watched Julia Hudson and Amelia Montrose.
‘Mr Trioski just put me here. He said most of the desks were free. I guess it’s bad luck I took yours.’ She smiled this glowing, perfect smile as I forced myself to stop looking at her pencil skirt.
‘Are you… new?’
‘Yes!’ Growing up with a sister should have made me far less awkward around girls than I was. But, as Ellie had both devoted herself to being an uber-bitch since I hit puberty and left for university the previous year, my exposure to girls had eroded completely. I felt this strange lift as she answered my question so enthusiastically. ‘First day! First class! In fact, this is my first week back in England and living in Wood Green.’
The girl told me her mother was a diplomat in the Foreign Office, based at the British Embassy in Cape Town for the previous two years, and before that their family had spent time in Malawi, Thailand and Mexico.
‘I actually grew up in Hertfordshire, at least until I was eight. It’s been fun but I’m a bit nervous about being back – I’ve been at international schools and there are so many of us with nomadic parents, this definitely now feels like I’m the odd one out. I’m really far behind. I have no idea how I’m going to catch up.’
And so began our friendship. She didn’t need me tutoring her. Vicky had already covered most of what we had done at her previous school. But she didn’t seem to mind having me as a study buddy, and her work ethic was such that we spent every single lunch break together in the library with our maths books out. And as in most love stories, I fell more and more in love with Vicky with each second we spent together, and I resolved that one day I would win her heart and marry her. And I came so close.
Then, one evening after school, I thought that day had come.
‘I can’t make lunch break today, I’m afraid. But how about this evening? I have netball, so if you don’t mind waiting around, maybe we could go for dinner or something?’
As I have already said, my position in Amberton’s social pecking order was pretty much firmly at the bottom. The actors and drama kids ruled the roost and us Games Workshop junkies were pretty much shunned. But unlike my GWWA counterparts, model building was not my only hobby. From age fourteen, I was a regular starter in our school football team. Not just for my age group, but for the ENTIRE SCHOOL. But being the best footballer at a school like Amberton was like being the best golfer on the moon.
I was the best because Amberton did not play football. Or any sports. On Wednesday afternoons, priority was given to art and drama and those not gifted, like me, were lambs to the slaughter. As a box-ticking exercise, we had to have one school sports team and hence our oddball XI were pitted against eighteen-year-olds who were at a county standard. Our best result was an 8-3 mauling by Muswell Hill. I won’t describe our worst result.
So when Vicky told me that she played netball, I thought this again was fate bringing us together. We together would be the sports geeks. I had never been more nervous and excited as I arrived at the local leisure centre to watch Vicky’s match, already mentally preparing all the superlatives I would tell her about her performance. I sat in the front benches brimming with pride, seeing my beautiful, almost-girlfriend sprint from one side of the hall to the other. That sense of euphoria then melted away as Christoph Koller suddenly appeared. ‘Hey,’ he grinned, that confident grin of his, and took the seat next to me. He then nodded over to the girl on the court who I thought was the best-kept secret at Amberton. She beamed up and waved enthusiastically back at him. As it turned out, Vicky and Christoph were the best-kept secret, and that night was their first official date as a couple. And what better way to make it official than to invite another couple. So I did end up going on my first ever date that evening. But not with Vicky. Rather as part of a double date, and with a short, redheaded girl from Vicky’s netball team called Tiffany Matthews who went to Wood Green High and I had only just met.
Considering the events of later, I should be a lot more respectful when I think back about Tiffany. After all, she seemed just as enthralled to find out I would be joining her and Vicky at the American-style diner Christoph had suggested we go to. It ended up being four of us in this red leather booth, Vicky and Chris on one side, his arm around her and his jacket covering her shoulders. Christoph would make Vicky giggle, and she didn’t mind how he would monopolise her attention, turning her around so she would only face him. On the other side, Tiffany was slumped with her elbow on the table, looking thoroughly bored as I entertained her with philosophical banter such as, ‘Have you been playing netball for long?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s Wood Green High like?’ ‘Like any school, I guess.’
We left the diner with Vicky and Christoph holding hands, and then Vicky made it clear to us why she had chosen netball over drama by doing an elaborate fake yawn and saying how tired she was and that we should call it a night. Christoph, most gentlemanly, offered to walk her home and the two then left, leaving Tiffany and me alone outside the diner with the neon signage making up for the lack of stars in the night sky. Or at least I thought we were alone. It turned out I was alone. While I was debating whether I should ask to walk Tiffany home, she had already departed and was a hundred yards down the road walking quickly by the time I realised she was gone.
With such an inauspicious of evenings, it might be hard to believe that in addition to being my first date, Tiffany Matthews also ended up being my first kiss. This was also largely set up by Vicky, and at a house party just before the start of final exams. Over the two years of sixth form my relationship with Vicky became very much owner and pet. The geeky new girl was soon one of the most popular in the school, but she still kept her study sessions with me and did her best to integrate her weird, loner friend into her new scene of cool arts kids and drama stars. She invited me to parties with her and Christoph, at the majority of which I would drink juice and stand in a quiet spot putting on this big fake smile whenever Vicky found me and asked if I was having a nice time. I have to say, in hindsight, this was incredibly sweet of Vicky, and though at the time I quietly resented having to hang out with people I hardly knew, I see now it would have been easier for her just to ditch the awkward hanger-on.
But one night I was not the only wallflower at the party. Vicky had invited Tiffany, and perhaps acknowledging that having two socially awkward friends at the same party was a challenge even for her optimistic nature, she reintroduced us and then quickly disappeared off with Chris. In all honesty, our second meeting probably went just as well as our first.
‘Any idea where Vicky’s gone?’ I tried to shout over the shit music.
She just turned to me, nodded at the stairs and made a circle out of her finger and thumb on one hand, and then made the motion of inserting two fingers into it with the other. After what felt like an hour of silence sipping some terrible wine from plastic cups, Tiffany then turned to me, scowled and unexpectedly pressed her tongue into my mouth. We continued to do that for pretty much the rest of the party rather than bore each other talking.
I never saw Tiffany Matthews again after that evening. Or at least that Tiffany Matthews. When I asked for her phone number, she just scowled again and left the party. Soon we were all leaving for university and I was to say goodbye to Vicky and the Amberton crowd forever. Or so I thought. Christoph and all her other friends at Amberton were going to drama and arts colleges. I expected Vicky to join a fancy London university, somewhere near Goldsmiths to be near Christoph. However, when I shyly showed her my admissions letter to a far less fashionable institution she seemed strangely interested.
A few weeks later, she came into school and excitedly told me we would be ‘university buddies’. As she jumped to hug me in the common room I remember feeling intensely flattered and thinking that fate might have another twist in store for us. Sadly, what I also remember about that day was that it was the first time that Vicky had hugged me in such an enthusiastic way and I could feel her bra and breasts press into my chest. She squeezed me tight, euphorically continuing our conversation as I had my hands on her sides, up until the point at which she stopped talking, slowly let go, and gave me an embarrassed smile. She said she should get to class, leaving me to, as subtly and quickly as I could, rush to the toilet cubicles to do something about what Vicky had unmistakably felt pressing into her.
Sadly for me, university caused Vicky and me to drift further apart rather than bringing us together. We ended up in entirely different scenes as her worldliness had her thriving among all the societies and social events. Christoph was long gone, but there were others, and soon she and Paul Gross, the student union president, became the glamour couple. She still made an effort with our friendship, and bizarrely we did share some friends in common – Joan, strangely being her friend first – but my infatuation with her fortunately diminished.
And then came the years after university and the night I met Tiffany again at a London party. We would have been graduated four years by then, and Vicky and I had finally drifted apart, only seeing each other every few months at parties hosted by our university friends. Vicky was still with Paul and it very much looked like they were set for a life of success, marriage, and then beautiful successful children. I had found a bit of a niche of my own too at the bank, enjoying earning money and a widening circle of friends due to the fact that I enjoyed drinking, nights out, and staying up late, talking nonsense with anyone who would listen. For me, post-university was the one big party that university should have been, and suddenly I did not feel as insecure around those who had run societies or student unions. In fact, after a couple of drinks, I did not feel insecure around anyone.
At that particular party, a group of friends and I had barged in late and declared the party had officially started, passing around bottles of gin and vodka and then taking over our host’s sound system.
‘What you playing?’ smiled a girl as I was on the decks. I think it was because she was smiling I had not recognised her. She then laughed.
‘‘I know! It’s been years!’
Tiffany Matthews was now a woman, and what’s more, a rather charming woman and definitely not the girl I had kissed what would have been a whole decade earlier. We were not moody, melancholy teenagers anymore at a teenage party. I asked what she had been doing the last ten years – university in Scotland, moved to London only recently – what she was doing now – she was copy-editor for a magazine – and what she wanted to drink.
‘I was about to go. Vicky and Paul are having one of their deep philosophical conversations in the kitchen and I don’t really know anyone.’
‘You know me!’ I was smiling so hard I hoped it was infectious and I took her glass from her and made her an excessively strong gin cocktail.
The South London flat we were in got more and more crowded as we moved away from the decks to find a quiet corner to talk. She returned from the bathroom and said that it looked like Vicky and Paul had left and perhaps she should too. Again I tried to convince her to stay, but instead, she suggested it would be easier to talk back at her flat. So we did. And so we became the unlikely couple.
What came next is uncomfortable for me to admit. I’ve always tried to portray myself as the nice guy with geeky tendencies, however what I did to Tiffany really wasn’t that nice. We had been invited to a dinner party. Tiff and I had been dating a couple of months and were at the stage where she had asked me to go visit her parents with her in Norfolk. The dinner party itself was hosted by a close friend of Vicky’s whom I also knew from our incestuous post-university scene.
On that particular night Tiff had a deadline and didn’t manage to leave her office before midnight. Under more normal circumstances, being the only single surrounded by couples would have unnerved me. However, I was not the only single. Vicky was there too. Without Paul. We were hence sat together and what I immediately noticed was how quiet she was. Vicky and I were still friends, but we had long since stopped meeting at lunchtime to do our maths homework together. But that night, I managed to stop her in the hallway before she was about to sneak out the door. She told me about Paul and their breakup. We had our first real conversation in years.
‘How long has it been going on?’ Tiffany screamed at me when we returned to her flat after another dinner party weeks later. This time both of us had been in attendance as well as the newly single Vicky.
‘Do you think I’m an idiot?’ She had found out about coffee meetings and a dinner between Vicky and me, which I had neglected to tell her. I tried to shrug it off, saying we’d been friends for ten years and it was pretty normal for us to meet for coffee. I had never seen Tiff angry before. Her face literally went as red as her hair.
I was adamant I had done nothing wrong. Even at that dinner, all I had done was sit next to Vicky and make her laugh a couple of times. At one point, she did put her hand on mine while she laughed and then hastily removed it, looking over at Tiffany, who was staring daggers at us.
‘Everyone knows! You’ve made me look a fucking idiot!’ At this point she was shouting so hard her voice broke. I tried to maintain this look of astonishment like what she was saying had come completely out of the blue. I was not cheating on Tiffany with Vicky, I was adamant about that. Nothing had happened with Vicky while I was seeing Tiffany. Apart from the secret meetings. And that I held her hand as we drank wine, and she told me about Paul’s repeated attempts to diminish her confidence. And that we had a rather prolonged hug after getting a bit drunk and emotional together. And that I had gone to Tiff’s straight after, told her I had been at work drinks and had sex with her thinking entirely of Vicky.
‘Seriously, Tiff, nothing’s going on. Vicky would never look twice at me.’
I don’t think the absolute stupidity or hurtfulness of that remark really dawned on me until years later, which said a lot about me at the time. She looked at me in disbelief. Her anger then seemed to crack and she burst into tears. Tiffany and I had been together for nearly three months and in that time, had never argued or really faced any set of trying circumstances. We got on, she seemed accepting of my company, seemed to like having sex with me, and altered my social calendar to do more grown-up things like brunches and dinner parties rather than just hanging out with my flatmates and going to bars. And then, my last memory of her was this sobbing young woman, covering her face and screaming at me to get out. As I said, it was not until years later when I truly appreciated what an arsehole I was, or the irony of then having my heart broken by Vicky.
Vicky had told me that while at university, Paul was passionate, articulate and always determined to get things done, but when they moved to London, she began to see another side of him. One that left her dreading to be alone with him. Behind closed doors, his smooth and suave exterior turned into a moodiness every time he could not get his own way. At university, he was top dog. And suddenly, he wasn’t anymore. He had to start again in London like everyone else, but this time all the stars were not revolving around him. Vicky said he hated her work friends and, though always charming at first, if the conversation moved into work-related topics, he would roll his eyes looking bored, keep telling her they should leave, and the minute they were out of the door, go off on a rant about every one of them. Then came the tirades in public.
The night I had held her hand and she had given me that prolonged hug was when she had confided in me that he had started acting aggressive toward her, especially in the bedroom. He began mentioning her previous boyfriends and once, in the middle of the pub, joked with their friends that her popularity at Amberton was because she had given oral sex to the whole drama department.
I knew I was falling back in love with Vicky the evening she had told me she had broken up with Paul. After Tiffany and I had broken up, Vicky and I waited a few weeks before meeting at a restaurant. Sorry about Tiffany. She told me it didn’t work out. Either Tiffany felt too humiliated to tell her best friend her boyfriend was obsessed with her, or Vicky and I were each as delusional as the other. I wore my best shirt and shoes, and she wore full makeup and a heart-stopping red dress with a low neckline. Rather than hugging, as we had always done when we saw each other, she kissed me on the cheek, like a woman would a man.
We reintroduced each other to our parents. Her dad seemed to look bemused when I turned up, wondering why Vicky’s hanger-on, Scott Roberts, had suddenly turned up at his house after all those years. I didn’t mind this, though. It was Vicky’s mum who perversely made me feel awkward. She was friendly, polite, complimentary, and offered me seconds of apple crumble, all with this knowing, contented smile. Like she knew she would be repeating this exact dinner in a few months with Vicky’s real boyfriend and that I was just the warmup act.
But Vicky and I were very much still together those months later. Just long enough for me to take what we had for granted and, in Vicky’s eyes, become just another version of Paul. Whereas Paul had ridiculed Vicky in front of his colleagues, I treated her like she was my star prize. When she would see her friends, I would have nights that finished at three o’clock in the morning – my reward for making a success out of my life. And after nine months of not seeing the warning signs, believing I was God’s gift to women, of fantasising about other women while sleeping with Vicky much as I had fantasised about Vicky with Tiffany, I asked Vicky to marry me.
I chose to do it at the top of Parliament Hill. Vicky was surprised, to say the least. Everyone around us saw what was happening and with all eyes on her, she said yes when in fact, that was the evening she knew she had to break up with me.
The strangest thing about our ‘engagement’, to be frank, was the amount of sex Vicky and I started having. Instead of talking or making wedding plans she’d just quietly lead me to bed. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that she would not kiss me. Just lightly on the lips to start and then kind of getting on with it as she gave me the same somewhat embarrassed smile she had done when we were teenagers and had felt my erection stab her in the thigh. It was like as long as we were having sex, everything was fine. Talking and planning could wait, as could telling other people that we were engaged. But when I suggested we throw an engagement party, she went quiet. I told her I had already told my dad, and for the first and only time, she got angry with me. She said I hadn’t consulted her, and my dad would tell her parents, and then she told me that I had ambushed her at Parliament Hill and she needed time to think.
‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ she said in the kindest cliché possible as we sat on a park bench. Even a prick like me knew it was coming. We were on Primrose Hill on a cold overcast day, so there were not many other people around. I remember that she was not wearing any makeup and looked sombre in an old boyish jacket and plain turtleneck. We both knew it was a lie and it was me. I tried to negotiate saying we should just have a break and catch up in a couple of weeks. She said she loved me very much but as her best friend and she was being unfair to me. And then she left me alone on the bench where I probably stayed for the next three hours. And even though I knew it was coming, I could still feel the bottom fall out of my entire world.
My only consolation was that I deserved it. For how I treated Tiffany, and for treating Vicky like she was a prize rather than a human being with her own dreams and aspirations, which I never bothered even thinking about. And in a way, the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life. That I deserved to be alone. I complained so long about girls not noticing me and implying they were too shallow to see beyond my geekiness. And when two incredible women finally did, it turned out there wasn’t that much worth seeing. I hence deserved to fall in love with someone like Katie and have her not like me back, and I deserved to desire Izzy and have her point out how wanting I was to my face. I want to think there is a happy ever after out there for each of us. But not for a prick like me.
Chapter 18: Hello Ethan
I had regressed to the twelve-year-old who thinks it okay to be mean to girls he actually fancies. And I resented the fact that it was Izzy who was contacting me, not the girl who over the last few days had genuinely made me feel something other than alone and the geek who collects fossils and model orcs. But either way, why would Katie trade in Ethan for someone in their mid-thirties who had had only one proper relationship in their adult life? And why would a girl as attractive and materially centred as Izzy be interested in a recluse who spent his days caked in mud digging allotments?
We all bundled out of the house at midday the day after Boxing Day. Ellie and I broke the habit of a lifetime and voluntarily hugged as we said goodbye at the car.
‘I’ll call you about Mum.’ Millie and Ed were fastened into their car seats and placated by games as I waved the four of them off. Mike had offered me a lift, but I told him they could get stuck in traffic for hours getting through South London. We both also glanced into the back where Millie and Ed were having a contest of who could shout loudest to get Ellie’s attention, and Mike gave me a look that he might have preferred to join me on public transport.
On my way back to Loughborough Road, I felt both apprehensive and, if I’m completely honest, a little crushed. Soon that kiss between Katie and me would be forgotten, and we would go back to being as we were. It would be a little awkward at first, but I would eventually return to being Katie’s weird flatmate who was too busy running a failing business and playing average guitar to fancy her.
But when I arrived home, the first thing I heard was voices – plural – coming from the kitchen. I had assumed Joan was still at Alison’s parents’ as there was definitely another man in the house. On the landing, I saw a suitcase outside Katie’s room.
‘Hey!’ said Katie, staring up at me, a bit startled, across from me at the head of our small dining table. ‘I didn’t hear you come in.’ She had a mug in her hands and some papers in front of her. A boy, probably her age, was sitting next to her. Katie hastily got up.
‘Scott, this is Ethan. You’ve met before, right?’
I shook my head. Ethan, slim, good-looking in a boyband kind of way with well-styled hair, had his phone in front of his face and did not immediately look up at me.
‘Hey.’ He swapped his phone to his left hand and leaned over to shake mine.
‘I told you, babe, we were at Fish’s and Bel’s last time I came back and Dan and Dani’s before that.’ He then put his phone down and looked at me with this all-too-comfortable grin. ‘Hope this one’s not been too much of a pain in the arse.’
‘Well, you are.’ He smirked to himself and then went back to his phone. I said it was really good to meet him, but I’m not sure if the prick noticed from his phone-based reaction.
When I was sixteen, my dad tried with minimal success to tutor me in English literature, perhaps hoping if I understood more about what went into writing a novel, I would appreciate them enough to at least take English for A-level. Most of it went over my head, apart from the term unreliable narrator. I liked it because it sounded perverse for an author to tell a story from the point of view of someone untrustworthy. ‘It’s because we all see things from the way we want to see them. Not necessarily the way they actually are,’ Dad had tried to explain. I mention that because when meeting someone for a maximum of thirty seconds, referring to them as a prick probably says more about you than it does about them.
‘Scott, Ethan’s visiting for a few days. He finished the deal he was doing at work, so he thought he’d surprise me – ’
‘Here, that’s the train we need, not the one you were saying.’
The prick flipped his phone around and held it in front of Katie’s face as she gave one or both of us an uneasy smile, her eyes darting between the two of us. Taking that as agreement, he then crossed his legs and rocked back on his chair, his eyes back on his phone.
‘We’re probably going to be travelling around the next week or so, so we won’t be in your hair, hopefully.’
‘Yeah, I’m not sure this place could handle a third person. Your brother’s really screwed you over.’ Again, Ethan smirked and chuckled to himself.
I felt my eyes narrow. Okay, the flat was a shithole, but it was mine and Katie’s shithole. I realised it was weird me loitering in the doorway. The original plan was just to say hello, act positive and normal, excuse myself, and go to my room, all of which I could still do. I looked at Katie. She was giving me the sympathetic smile I felt I had seen so often.
‘Okay, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I’m a bit shattered from today, so…’ It all came out monosyllabic, and I stopped because no one was listening to me. Ethan showed Katie something else on his phone that held her attention, so I left them to it.
So that was Ethan. The strange thing was I think I would have liked him if I met him three months earlier, before Katie and I had become friends. He seemed to have a high opinion of himself and probably grew up too entitled to understand the concept of manners. A perfect match for the up-herself Duchess I tried so hard to avoid. But as for the woman who I had recently come to know, I felt a little bit disappointed in her. Ethan was good-looking, confident and, from both meeting him and hearing Katie talk about him, a bit of an arsehole. What did that say about her?
I knew it was probably envy turning me sour. I was the one determined to be the arsehole, so I thought it best all round to stay in my room. Having spent three nights sleeping on that old, uncomfortable camp bed, I closed my eyes and let fatigue take over, falling asleep fully clothed.
I awoke to hear the house in silence and find a substantial patch of drool on my pillow. Desperately needing a wee, I groggily stumbled to my feet and cautiously opened my bedroom door. Downstairs, all the lights were off, with only a glow coming from beneath Katie’s door. I quickly used the bathroom and was just about to go back upstairs when I heard it. It was a yelp of pain. I stopped where I was – between the bathroom door and Katie’s. I heard it again. It wasn’t loud, but it was undoubtedly a high-pitched yelp, followed by another, and another. Was Katie alright? I instantly thought, looking at her door. Is that bastard hurting her? I can only blame the cocktail of sleeplessness and grogginess for taking even longer than a split second to guess what the sounds obviously were. Perhaps part of me did not want to put the sounds I was hearing into context. So I stayed rooted to the spot, suddenly thinking back to Izzy’s assessment of our flat’s soundproofing.
‘Fuck, babe, I’ve missed this. You’re so fucking doing it…’
I raised my foot quickly to get away from Katie’s door. As I did, an ear-splitting creak sounded from our ancient floorboard. I pushed my foot immediately back down, looking horrified at the door, paranoid they had heard me. Fully aware now how even the lightest muttering of noise could travel between rooms, I stood frozen, trying not to make another sound. There was silence. Oh fuck, they had heard me. I felt a coldness shooting through me as I tried to lift my foot again gently. This time the creak was slower and more pronounced. I squeezed my eyes closed, anticipating Katie’s door being thrust open and Katie glaring at the creepy pervert listening outside. Instead, I then heard more yelps. And then a little more commentary.
‘Yeah, babe, just do that. I’m so fucking close.’
I had to go. I seriously had to not be there. I slid my foot back quickly, unable to avoid another creak, but thrust myself onto the next floorboard. I then did a weird dance taking enormous, wide strides on tiptoes to the stairs, hoping the boards' edges would creak less than the middle. I got back to my room, closed the door, and stood with my back against it, horror-struck at what I had ear-witnessed.
Chapter 19: Barnet Football Club
Barnet. The Up n’ Under. Football at its most pure. The art of bypassing flair and skill and instead hoofing the ball from midway inside your own half into the opponents’ penalty area every single time one of your players wins possession. There was something to admire in our commitment to it. Even when we had one of the most skilful players in the world – admittedly aging – Dutch master Edgar Davids, we would throw bodies forward, aim to jump higher with more gusto, and bundle the ball into the goal. But even for Barnet Football Club, as I stood at the North Stand with my orange scarf around my shoulders close enough to the action to audibly hear our centre-half say, ‘piss off, you wanker’ to their forward, this was football at its most dire.
It was a freezing cold December afternoon, and we had just had forty-five minutes with no reason to shout, cheer, jump, or remove our hands from our pockets. Those around me were moving towards the exits for a half-time pie or warm drink. We were two-nil down to… to be honest, I had not even heard of the other team – we had been relegated the previous season all the way out of the football league and were playing against teams I was pretty sure were still of an amateur status. And to make things more humiliating, it was their fans who were singing at us, who are ya? who are ya?
Something I’m pretty sure most football fans are aware of is that usually when your life is shit, your team typically chooses that moment to pile the misery on, and that day was no exception. I was well aware that Katie and Ethan were both consenting adults, and they had not seen each other for months, hence the only surprise should have been that they were still fully clothed at the dining table.
At that exact moment, Katie would be on the train to Ethan’s parents, huddled in his arms, thoughts of me highly unlikely to flitter across her mind. Apart from maybe how much she hated me and how seethingly angry she still was. In my defence, I didn’t exactly walk into the kitchen and tell her that I had spent part of my evening listening to her having sex with her boyfriend. It just kind of came out.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, looking up from a rucksack on the dining table as I entered the kitchen that morning. For the briefest of moments, I thought she was apologising for me having heard her lovemaking. I had not got a wink of sleep. I had stayed awake the night watching my watch move closer to dawn, feeling more and more tired yet unable to close my eyes without seeing them both doing what they were doing.
‘Ethan takes super long showers. I meant to remind him that he’s sharing the bathroom.’
‘Oh. No problem,’ I mumbled a little groggily as I moved to the kettle, trying my best not to look at her. ‘I guess he probably needs it.’ I caught a quizzical expression on her face, but she returned to her rucksack.
‘We’re catching the eleven-thirty train. With all the changes we need to make, it will probably take us most of the day. And I think we’re coming back the week after New Year as some uni friends are doing a barge trip. I had time off booked anyway, so we might as well do something fun. Do I have everything?’
She stood up staring at the bag, frowning and then rubbing her head.
‘While he’s in the shower,’ she said, lowering her voice. ‘I wanted to say, I hope this isn’t weird, Ethan staying over? Because of Christmas. We’ve become such good friends recently, and I didn’t want there to be any awkwardness?’
‘Don’t worry about it.’ I turned my back, pouring the kettle. ‘Can you pass me the milk?’ I don’t think she expected such a matter-of-fact reaction. She went back to her rucksack, hunching over to stare into it. She then stood back up, covering her mouth with her hand while she stifled a big yawn.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. I’m so tired I can’t think straight.’
‘I bet you are,’ I said, kind of under my breath but audible enough to hear.
‘Scott, is there something you want to say?’ She turned toward me as I put the kettle down. Her hands were on her hips, very similar to the stance she gave Joan and me for another invasion of her privacy. For some reason, I thought honesty was the best policy.
‘No. It’s just the flat’s not soundproof, remember.’ I gave a raise of my eyebrows, which I think might have been to indicate that I was trying to be subtle. Perhaps I thought she would laugh about it and then say something like, I’m so sorry! I didn’t realise. Even if I had had just two hours of sleep I think I would have known that that was not going to happen. Instead, she pretty much let me have it.
‘Excuse me. If you have something to say, please come out and say it and not make a series of innuendos that I am somehow meant to understand.’
‘Well, I think you might already know what I’m talking about, so there’s not much point in me saying it.’
It was a cartoonesque moment where her jaw actually did drop.
‘Were you… listening? To me and Ethan… Urrggh! You creep!’
‘I didn’t have much choice. Like Izzy said, sound travels.’
‘No it bloody doesn’t. Not if you don’t want it to and not all the way upstairs. What were you doing, getting your little thrills while you snooped on us?’
‘It wasn’t like that.’
It was all a déjà vu of the whole dating profile fiasco. She was both livid and hissing things at me, probably keeping her voice low so the conversation didn’t reach Ethan in our non-soundproofed bathroom.
‘Oh this is low even for you.’
‘What’s that supposed to bloody mean?’
For some reason, that really touched a nerve. It was like the last couple of months had not happened, and I was still the flatmate who had once snogged her against her will. I tried to screw up my face to look both hurt and annoyed. We then locked eyes and stood silent, each of us glaring at the other
‘I’m not doing this. You’re not worth it. We can discuss this when I get back.’ She started thrusting a series of items from on the table into her bag, including our dishcloth and my vitamin supplements. ‘We can also discuss which of us is moving out because I really can’t stand the sight of you right now.’
They deserve each other, I petulantly thought, slumped on the terrace as Barnet’s subdued North Stand got emptier. If she still thought I was the creep she had met six years ago, then I was determined to see her as the shallow snobby-nosed little girl whose life revolved around nights out and an arrogant pretty-boy boyfriend. But I didn’t think that of her. I was actually thinking about how I could apologise again. For two relatively mild-mannered people, this was our third fight. I only had two ever with women prior to moving in with Katie, and in both I mainly stood back, made one dumb comment, and watched while the other person got upset.
It began to feel even colder without as many people around me. I looked out at the pitch and saw a couple of our subs doing line drills, perhaps going to come on at halftime. Usually, the banter around me would be boisterous, but our team's lacklustre effort seemed to be infectious. I knew I should get a tea to warm me up, but the queues would have been ridiculous, so I stayed slumped on the terrace railing, wallowing in regret, hoping it was an empty threat her saying one of us should move out. I knew I should leave it a day or two to let her cool down, but I got my phone out anyway.
Listen, I got up in the night to use the bathroom. I was disorientated and heard weird noises as it’s usually dead silent. That’s all. When I realised I went straight upstairs and put my headphones on.
I wasn’t going to apologise. She was at least half to blame for the argument. And I was not going to be called a pervert. In hindsight, the headphones bit was a bit much.
I then slumped further, feeling as empty as the stand I was standing in.
‘Howdy, stranger,’ came a familiar and yet completely surprising voice. Standing behind me with an uncharacteristic orange and black Barnet scarf wrapped around her, and linking arms with a smiling man in thin silver-framed glasses and a smart black coat, who I vaguely recognised, was Camille, my therapist. I did a double-take. I had never seen her outside her therapist’s office before, let alone at the last place I would imagine her – a Barnet football game.
‘I told Jim we might bump into you. After all, how many of you guys could there be?’
‘Excuse Cammy’s sarcasm,’ smiled the man, offering me his hand. He then gave me this look of faint recognition. ‘You drink at the Dog and Duck, don’t you? Post-match?’
‘Yes!’ I said, suddenly cheering up at being recognised by a fellow Bee. It was surreal seeing Camille in a non-workplace setting. Like two different worlds colliding.
‘This is my Christmas present to Jim. Buying the tickets and sharing the experience. I have no idea why I did not do this earlier. Just think of all those cafés, museums, and galleries I’ve been wasting my time at.’
‘I’ve been trying to tell her it isn’t always this bad. The midfield’s been non-existent, and Underwood’s had an absolute shocker even for him.’
I instantly liked Jim. He was very much the gentleman football fan and would look more suited to a corporate box at Twickenham than alongside the rest of us rabble.
‘Right. Coffee?’ He pointed at me. ‘I told Cammy the steak and kidney pie would make all this worth the ordeal. One for yourself, too?’
‘No don’t worry, it’s – ’
‘Yes he will. If I’m getting food poisoning, I’m taking both of you down with me.’
Leaving us, Jim joined the queue for the exit and Camille joined me at the terrace rail.
‘So here’s a first. The therapist stalking her client. This could be that screenplay I always said I’ll write.’
She had on her usual beaming smile and was bobbing on the spot. Her hands were deep in her pockets as she stood.
‘I thought you were ardently against coming to a game?’ I smiled.
‘Sometimes you have to spice it up. Step outside the comfort zone. Plus, dinner will be his treat, and I fancy something very stereotypically American that would have Jim cringing at the cheesiness.’
Around us, a couple of fans were coming back to the terraces with drinks and pies.
‘So, I feel I’m going to end up donning my therapist’s hat, or we’re just going to stand here awkwardly while you pretend to be all cheerful. So let’s cut to the chase?’
She was still smiling while I stared back blankly.
‘I saw you a while back. I have to say, Scott, even considering what we were watching, you looked pretty miserable.’
‘I didn’t realise.’
‘And why should you? It’s not every day you have a health professional spying on you. You’re entitled to look and be miserable. It’s healthy. In a way.’
I gave a small laugh and then leaned with my hip on the railing.
‘What, again?’ she said kindly, a touch jokingly which made me feel a little more at ease. ‘New issues or still related to you and your night of passion with her foxy best friend?’
‘Shocker!’ beamed Camille.
‘I’m sorry, Scott, I’m not the kind of therapist who can shift back and forth into my highly professional manner at the drop of a hat. You may have to deal with a hybrid of Camille, the obnoxious Yank. But that’s generally a good thing, isn’t it? To kiss a girl who you like a little more than just as a roommate.’
‘Not when her boyfriend then comes over for a conjugal visit.’
I briefly relayed details of Christmas and the events after. Camille listened patiently with a slightly off-putting amused smile.
‘I’m sorry, I am sympathetic, but this is progress. You’re getting back out there. You’ve made it clear to someone you care about what your feelings are. That’s brave. And if it is any consolation, we don’t normally have these arguments or fights with people we’re indifferent to. I guess the next step of the journey is dealing with it when our bravery hasn’t quite paid off. Letting it hurt for a while. But knowing it will end. And that with each one we get a bit closer to finding the person of our dreams just as long as we don’t give up. But, yeah, it takes a lot of work, so I’m booking you in for another six months of sessions at least.’
Camille grinned at me and then looked over my shoulder, waving to who I assume was the returning Jim. She then, surprisingly, punched me on the arm. ‘But for now, cheer up! You got to first base with a hot chick. Worry about the rest tomorrow.’
I tried my best to let Camille’s advice resonate. The problem was, and I have found this before with therapy, that while you can have these Eureka moments of emotional understanding, rogue feelings and unhelpful monologues do not come with an off-switch. Just the thought of going back to Loughborough Road reminded me of the idiot I was, so I made my way back to Wood Green and revisited another area of my life that was slowly going downhill.
‘Margery would be very pleased to see this,’ Jane said, handing me a cup of tea as I removed the weeds from her front lawn. ‘She will be back from France next week and asked me to tell you that you can start work on Tuesday.’ Bringing with me from South London a hoe and set of medium-sized trowels and forks which I knew Dad did not have in his shed, I spent the first afternoon down the road from the old house, in the garden belonging to Dad’s best friend.
Jane was in her mid to late sixties, I think, retired and had probably been our family’s one point of continuity over the previous year. She had a large house with a spacious suburban garden just a few streets away. However, she would still be the one to attend Dad’s house on almost a weekly basis and make sure the junk mail had not built up, the dust had not accumulated, or burglars had not ransacked the place. All in exchange for access to Dad’s study and library of books.
Jane had also become my agent regarding my gardening business. My door-to-door leafleting campaign was not having the response I had hoped – or having any response at all – so Jane had spread word amongst her friends, which had resulted in two phone calls, and I was set to start work on one the following week. In return, I offered to de-weed and restore her flowerbeds, partly as a thank you, and partly as a distraction.
Sorry for being an arsehole, read the apology I finally sent Katie – I received no response from my blunt explanation message. I had sent it while the Piccadilly line was still overground as I completed my three-day North London hiatus and returned south to spend New Year’s Eve crop planting on the allotment.
That day I spent eight hours trying to make up for my time in North London, busying myself physically so I would stop checking my phone to see if Katie had replied. I also wondered if I should just call her, remembering the days before mobile phones when you had to dial someone’s number and wait in anticipation to speak to somebody. I could still call her – I’m pretty sure phones did still have that function – but it would tell her it was me calling, and if she didn’t answer my message, why would she pick up my call? So, standing over a trench I had just dug, and my foot on my garden fork, I dialled her number.
It took only two rings before my call was diverted to Katie’s answerphone message. I had my answer. The light had faded entirely by the time I decided enough was enough in the allotment, but not before stabbing myself in the foot with the fork, tearing my trainer up in the darkness.
I tried to console myself with the thought that Katie was on a barge with friends and, in such close proximity, taking such a phone call would have been somewhat uncomfortable. So, limping back to Loughborough Road, I tried to push away all unhelpful, disheartening thoughts.
Our flat had been in darkness for almost four days when I unlocked the door and climbed the stairs. There had been a light rainstorm in the afternoon, and my now bloodstained trainers were caked in mud. My forehead and hair were in a similar state from when I kept trying to wipe the steady mist out of my face. There was also something of the wet dog odour to me as I immediately went to the bathroom for a much needed hot shower.
‘Nothing’s happening, mate, it’s just clicking away,’ I then had to say to Joan, phone pressed between my shoulder and ear, my clothes back on and my hand inserted into our boiler.
‘Hold it down for three seconds. Let go. Wait. Do it again. Wait, and then press and let go. I’ve already told Katie twice. It’s not difficult.’
‘How did you even come up with this? It’s not the most logical thing especially if you’re bloody freezing and can’t feel your hands.’
‘Don’t be such a baby. And it’s fucking obvious. Same principle to starting a car. If you flood the engine nothing’s gonna happen.’
‘Jesus!’ I suddenly heard a mini combustion and felt an intense heat on the back of my fingers as I tried to get my hand out of the boiler as quickly as possible.
‘Oh yeah, you might want to watch out. Too much gas and you’ve got a fireball.’
I looked into the boiler and saw a blue flame. Though it would be at least an hour until I had hot water or a warm flat.
‘How are you guys spending tonight?’ I asked Joan, a little more grateful as if not for him, I’d be washing in a bucket of water and then spending New Year’s Eve trying not to freeze to death.
‘Some lame party. Alison and I are still at my mum and dad’s. We thought it would be cheap, plus Ali now knows a couple of Katie’s old school friends who will be there, so she’s happy.’
I couldn’t help thinking that this was as selfless as it could get for Joan.
‘At least Katie’s out of the house now. She came down yesterday with twat-face – I forgot what an annoying suck-up she can be.’
‘He’s not grown on you?’
‘Nah, but who gives a fuck. I’m not the one doing him.’
I stopped smiling. I could hear some background noise on Joan’s end as I perched on our windowsill, not wanting to get mud on any of the chairs. A hairdryer was going and someone seemed to be calling out to Joan as he replied muffling the phone.
‘And she’s back to thinking you’re a total nob-end again, so well done on that front.’ I could picture the smirk on his face as he chuckled. I asked him what she had said.
‘Nothing, just did the typical Katie thing and rolled her eyes, shaking her head like it was too beneath her to discuss, like she does with Niles and me. So I assumed you’ve not been using coasters for your tea or something equally barbaric.’
It probably says something about me when a conversation with Joan cheers me up. I had confirmation that Katie was openly pissed off with me – enough to tell other people. But I at least had someone on my side – because he was a complete prick too. She and Ethan would be on the barge getting ready for what, truth be told, sounded quite a romantic New Year’s.
I paced the flat, tapping radiators waiting for the water system to warm up. I could hear music coming from somewhere down Loughborough Road. Someone was probably having a party. However, I had my night planned: shower, then reread Essays in Love, hoping a bit of modern philosophy would help plug that hole I was beginning to feel somewhere within my chest. But before that, I picked up my phone again, went to my unanswered messages to Katie, and wrote one more.
Sorry for how we left things. I really didn’t mean to act the way I did. Hope you and Ethan are having a good break and hope you have an enjoyable New Year’s.
I then dropped my phone on the sofa cushions and let it disappear from view.
I had just taken off my mud-stained jumper, relieved at the sight of warm steam coming from the shower, when the doorbell rang. I thought it was just belated Christmas carollers or someone with the wrong address for a house party, so I ignored it. Whoever it was then rang again. And again. And again.
Irritated at my long-awaited shower being postponed, I ran down the stairs gritting my teeth and telling myself not to tell whoever it was to fuck off.
‘Oh. You are home.’ Izzy was standing on my doorstep arms folded, staring at me, looking annoyed.
‘Thanks for picking up your phone.’ She gave me a surly look and then turned around and waved to someone. I saw a car flash its lights and pull away.
‘Katie wasn’t sure if you’d be in but I was in a cab anyway. I need one of my dresses back. Ahem, can you let me in?’
It wasn’t a request. She stepped close and glared at me for being in her way. As I eventually moved, I noticed she wasn’t exactly dressed for standing outside on a cold night. From what I could see, she was only wearing a black skirt – no tights – and whatever was underneath a thin-looking green leather jacket.
‘I wasn’t sure if you’d be out doing whatever it is you do,’ she said, climbing the stairs. ‘I would have given you more warning but I didn’t fancy wading through another gulf of sarcasm.’
She twirled around to look at me as she reached the top.
‘Drunken error over Christmas, by the way. Katie implied I may have hurt your feelings, so my present to her was to say sorry to her wittle fwiend. Very much not happening again.’
She made her way into the kitchen and unzipped her jacket, throwing it onto the sofa. She stood in the middle of the room, looking around with a sneer, like she didn’t know what she would catch if she were to touch anything. She then stared at me, really scrunching up her face as she examined mine.
‘Is that mud?’ It came out like this was the first time she had ever come across it. Which would not have surprised me. ‘It’s on your neck. And in your hair!’ She stepped forward looking borderline horrified, and really began peering at my mesh of dark locks. With the heels she was wearing, we were at eye level.
‘Oh my God, and you smell. You actually smell.’ She stepped backwards making, to me, a rather tedious show of recoiling.
‘Like a hockey field, or a friend’s mangy wolfhound. You realise that, don’t you? You’re covered in dirt and smell like a dog?’
I stood as I was, close to the door. Cold, muddy and hungry, I regarded having a surprise visit from Izzy as one of the last experiences I was looking to have that evening. It was also rich that she accused me of being sarcastic. I tried my best to maintain eye contact and look as passive as possible. Eliciting no response, she rolled her eyes and walked to the window, glancing out. Seeing that she was only supposed to be picking up a dress, I wondered how long we were going to have this stand-off.
‘You know, I was spending Christmas at my father’s when I messaged you. Well, his place in Chamonix. Me, his girlfriend, a couple of cousins. Standard Christmas – drinking wine, remaining on best behaviour, getting a bit bored late into the evening so I thought I might have a bit of fun with you. Be a bit of a prick-tease. Turns out I wasn’t the only one.’
She spun back around, arms folded and grinning – a wide, slightly psychotic smile rather like The Joker in Batman. She then marched up to me and shoved her phone in my face.
‘Will Scott be in Katikins?’ she read, seeming to have memorised a WhatsApp exchange she was showing me. ‘That’s my pet name for her. Well, one of them. Sorry I don’t know.’ She put on a girly voice to mimic Katie. I thought you were BFFs, was Izzy’s response. Just ask him if I can collect my dress, or better still tell him which one it is and have him leave it in a Selfridges bag on your doorstep so I don’t have speak to the cretin.
‘Things are a bit complicated between us right now. We’re not exactly speaking.’ Izzy had taken back the phone and was narrating, beaming away, apparently wholeheartedly entertained. She placed her hand on her wide open mouth to emphasise the drama.
‘Here, read the rest yourself.’
Self-satisfied, she thrust the phone into my hand.
OMG! You slept with him! You total slut and hypocrite!! – there was then a series of smiley and winking faces.
No! Nothing like that. We just had a moment.
Shame. We could have compared notes. He was pretty dreadful to be fair though. I couldn’t help scowling but also needed to read on.
We kissed. While Ethan and I were having a fight. And now it is super weird. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Please don’t call him or go over.
There were more messages but I held the phone out for a delighted Izzy to collect.
‘You seem really pleased at yourself for someone who has just found out her best friend is feeling like shit.’
‘It’s called vindication. This is the same best friend who called me a slut for doing exactly what she’s almost done but was too lame to go the whole hog.’
‘I thought you had both made up?’
Izzy’s smile diminished slightly. Instead she folded her arms and then, still standing, crossed one leg over the other like a ballet dancer.
‘Perhaps I was a little bit hasty. After all, what’s worse, occasionally doing something sketchy and apologising for it after. Or making someone feel like shit for a month and then doing exactly the same thing? Like, which is worse, Scott? To be the slut, or the prick-tease?’
The smile had now fully disappeared.
‘You know she’s boning his brains out?’
It was a sudden shift. No belittling sarcastic reply, as per last time. Straight on the offensive.
‘They’re with the old Oxford set. Apparently it’s been quite the giggling point. You see the walls on a barge aren’t overly thick apparently and the happy couple have been at it like rabbits morning, noon and night. Wouldn’t have taken Spoiler for a nooner. I assumed it was birthdays and Christmas only.’
‘I think you’ve made your point.’
‘Oh, touched a nerve, have I?’ The big, wide grin returned. And for the first time, I think I surprised her by doing the last thing she might have expected. I smiled back. Not a huge, I’m-having-a-wonderful-time smile, but neither was it false or sarcastic. I leaned against the wall, just observing her. It was all a game, or at least she wanted to make it one so there was a winner and loser and she could prove she was the former. But that might have been my own pop psychology at work. One of the mindfulness exercises I had learned over the last year was to take myself out of my head and be fully present, observing what was physically in front of me. And what was in front of me, if I tuned out the noise and the context, was Izzy.
Objectively, she was still very, very beautiful. The teenage version of me would have been flattered that a girl like her would even notice me. But then again, that was the same teenager who put women on pedestals as something to attain, rather than get to know and understand. I had liked getting to know Katie, I thought, as Izzy remained standing triumphant in front of me. It was a pleasant unexpected highlight of a forgettable year. I did not need to feel admonished by Izzy for liking someone whom I had enjoyed getting to know.
‘No. Not touched a nerve. Katie’s been miserable for months about the whole Ethan thing. It’s nice to know things are back on track, and she’s feeling happier.’
Again, I smiled a small, sad smile, thinking of my friend and how grateful I was to have had her enter my life. I don’t know why Izzy was that desperate to get a reaction, but it was New Year's Eve and a time for reflection, and I did not need to let her diminish my one positive of that year.
‘I was about to use the shower before you came round. And I’m assuming Katie’s dresses are in her bedroom rather than in here, so it might be best if you see yourself out when you’re done.’
I took a step backward, out the door. Izzy remained glaring at me with that piercing stare of hers.
‘I don’t mean to be rude, but like you said, Katie isn’t here and we’re not exactly friends. I’m sure it will only take you one minute to find what you’re looking for.’
The light in Katie’s room was on when I got out of the shower. Her door was ajar and I caught sight of Izzy’s shadow moving as I went upstairs. While in the shower, I tried my best to listen to the running water, think of descriptions of how it felt against my skin, look down at the muddy pool that was flowing into the plughole – all these things to be in the moment and not miles somewhere else on a barge watching Katie lie on her back while a skinny pretty-boy was naked on top of her thrusting away, making her cry out with pleasure. I did agree with Izzy on one thing – I too thought Katie was a birthdays and Christmas type of girl. Not intending to be disparaging, but I had built her up as the Disney Princess, a romantic ideal who only made love on her wedding night and was too busy thinking about ponies and unicorns to have her own sexual desires. It was like Vicky all over again. Did I even like Katie, or did I want this fantasy of chaste love? All the women I had claimed to love or care about, perhaps I didn’t. The real pattern seemed to be me using them to create unrealistic ideals and not bother to get to know them as human beings.
Entering my room, I hoped Izzy did not stay much longer. I had meticulously planned my New Year’s Eve so as to currently be lying across the sofa re-reading Essays in Love, treating myself to a hot chocolate while all the parties and fireworks displays around me kicked into full swing. However, as I opened my door, I saw two items that should not have been where they were. A white shirt lay on my bed, and next to it, a piece of notepaper.
OMG, you own a shirt! A grown man in his thirties who only owns one shirt… I’m sorry for storming into your house and being the Uber Bitch. I found wine in the cupboard. Please come downstairs and join me? Please.
There was a smiley face. She had used the word, please. Twice. And the word, sorry. I suddenly examined the note for traces of anthrax or similar poisons. I then looked down at my shirt.
P.S. Give the shirt a go, who knows, you might look quite handsome…
On the kitchen table were the bottle of wine and two glasses. I then heard my name called in a voice I didn’t recognise.
‘Scott, can you pour me a glass? It’s a merlot I had bought when I came over a while back, so it’s technically mine.’
The voice was Izzy’s, but there was no sharpness or sneer. It wasn’t condescending and didn’t even have that public schoolgirl twang. What was left was a calm flat accent, like mine. She actually sounded older i.e. not like a spoilt brat, and I strangely didn’t mind pouring wine for her.
‘I’m just trying on a dress for tonight. I’ll need you to tell me what you think.’ Again, it was like walking into The Twilight Zone. Or a trap. I poured the wine, sat down, and took a sip.
‘Does this look okay?’
I looked up. Izzy was in the doorway in a green dress with a wide black belt, which I vaguely recalled Katie wearing to work. But Katie would wear leggings under it as its hem would fall an inch above her knees. Izzy was bare-legged and taller, so, on her, the hem hardly touched her thighs.
‘It’s probably the nicest one she owns, and I want something that goes with my eyeshadow. What do you think about the length?’
I also remembered that Katie would wear a long-sleeved top underneath it too. Casually, she then twirled, showing me the back and then her side. It was certainly eye-catching. It was difficult not to stare at her long, toned legs.
‘It’s more a belt than a dress, isn’t it? Shame, but judging from your expression, for the best. Can’t have the boys popping their corks before midnight.’
She came back wearing the skirt that Katie had worn when she had sat drinking wine on my bed. I refrained from pointing out that it wasn’t that much longer. Instead, I sat with my wine, trying not to feel unnerved by the sudden shift in dynamics.
‘So,’ she then said, sipping her wine. ‘You’re still the last man I’ve slept with. Make of that what you will.’
I didn’t know what to make of it. She said it matter-of-factly like she was telling me a train had been cancelled.
‘I had a boyfriend before you. Someone I met through the gallery. Total stud. Bit older than you. Very successful. And fucking amazing in bed.’
She smiled, a more natural, quite sweet smile, with a small laugh.
‘Actually, tell a lie, we never did it in a bed. Our first time was at another gallery in Shoreditch. We’d been flirting and I told him I needed to get my coat. He went with me. Kissed me. And before I knew it we were in a quiet corner of the cloakroom, my dress around my midriff and him just fucking me senseless against the wall. The last time we had sex I told him I had to work late at my gallery and offered him a behind the scenes tour. It was fun. Quite naughty. It’s quite liberating being completely undressed in the centre of your workplace having some man doing pretty much whatever he wants to you. Within reason, that is.’
She crossed her legs and sat side-on on her chair, sipping her wine with another self-satisfied smile which looked more like the Izzy I thought I knew. I kept listening, not sure where the story was going. I would have liked to believe it was her way of flirting with me, but I really didn’t get that vibe. It was more like she had stopped seeing me as a man, and instead, I had become a sounding board or confessional.
‘Oh, tell another lie. I kept my heels on. As I said, we never had sex in a bed. One reason being that his long-term girlfriend was tucked up in his. I guess, according to him, boning some skank he met through work is no more cheating than it is sport.’
She let her eyes kiss mine briefly and then gazed away.
‘Shame though. He was a fun lay. I was also a little in love with him, so when he turned up again expecting to screw me in the storage vaults, I politely declined. Hence, slutty Izzy, whose friends are quick to condemn her for sleeping with quasi-married men, had her heart broken. And said friends never bothered to notice.’
Still sitting side-on, she drank from her glass again, this time for a little longer as my silence had become somewhat awkward.
‘Do you still see him?’ It wasn’t that great a question, but I wasn’t sure what to say.
‘You could say that. Messages. Drunken phone calls. He came to our client Christmas party. I tried to ignore him but that didn’t work. He knew the quiet corners of our gallery by then, and I was the drunk girl who gets felt up over the photocopier. Or in the refinement room, in our case. We didn’t have sex but… well, let’s just leave it there shall we?’
‘Does Katie know any of this?’
She shook her head.
‘Just the sex stories. Not the feelings bullshit. As I said, she assumed it was just sex, and I can’t be bothered correcting her.’
‘How come you’re telling me?’
She gave a big elaborate shrug. She then put her glass down, smiled, and leaned over to me.
‘Because it is exhausting being the Queen Bitch twenty-four-seven. Can I have just one night where I get drunk and pour my heart out to a total stranger?’
‘Mine split up when I was thirteen.’
‘Oh! My parents split when I was eighteen! First year of Oxford!’ Izzy clapped her hands together, bouncing up excitedly. ‘At last! Something we have in common.’
I was side-on on my chair, leaning with my back against the wall, a grin upon my face. Izzy reached over and poured the dregs of wine into our glasses.
‘Right, there’s one more.’ She got up and went behind me into our larder cupboard.
‘Don’t you have to leave soon? What time’s your party?’
‘Scott, by the fact you’ve just asked that question says it all entirely. The party begins when I arrive and ends when the most gorgeous boy kisses me and begs me to go home with him.’
She came back with another bottle. It had been a strangely enjoyable evening. When she wasn’t being herself – or at least the person she wanted people to think she was – Izzy was good fun. She was a lot more bubbly and animated than I had seen her. And she could smile without irony or malice. She might have considered smiling made her look less attractive, but it did give her a sweet, adorable quality, which I’m sure she would have been thrilled to hear me say. She began pouring the wine, but rather than going back around the table to her seat, she sat at the chair nearest to me. One that had successfully acted as neutral ground between us and had my foot resting against it.
‘I also wouldn’t mind a relatively mellow one. Duck in at midnight. Quick snog. Quickish sex with someone hopefully rich, handsome and single, and then catch the train tomorrow in a relatively more sober state so I can spend some quality time in my mother’s greenhouse working on some pots I’ve got going.’
I was unable to keep a straight face.
‘You like gardening?’
‘What’s so funny? Is it really surprising to imagine me getting my hands dirty and fiddling in the soil?’
‘A little. Considering what I do for a living, and your earlier advice to me.’
‘Well I do. I even take off a week a year just to help Mummy replanting the phalaenopsis, alstroemeria and rosa. What? Surprised I speak Latin? I do have a first from Oxford in Art History and Classics.’
‘No, I’m surprised to hear a grown woman use the word Mummy.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘Oh, don’t be an arsehole. I’m actually starting not to dislike you at the moment.’
She then reached for the bottle and topped up both our glasses slightly. ‘How do you refer to your mother then?’
‘I don’t. We haven’t spoken in about six years.’
‘Ouch! And I’m meant to be the heartless one.’
I told Izzy about Orletta going off to find fame and fortune as an artist, and how, as our meetings became more sporadic due to her other commitments, we eventually drifted apart. It was a bit like referring to an old school friend. I briefly described what we had learned after Dad’s funeral and how Ellie and I had let things drift, probably a bit afraid to sit down with her. To be fair to Izzy, she was a surprisingly good listener.
‘I sold one of your mother’s paintings once. One of my first sales. Katie mentioned you were related a few months back. Obviously, it’s a common surname and you do not remotely look like the son of a successful artist. Successful binman or lorry driver, maybe.’
She casually sipped her wine as I felt my jaw drop.
‘Hey!’ I frowned. If anything, it was derogatory to binmen, who were always helping me out taking my garden waste from the allotments.
‘Oh, you know what I mean. If I knew you were Orletta Roberts’ son, I probably would have let you see me naked a lot earlier. Perhaps that night you tried to grope my best friend in that disgusting little club.’ She shuddered, apparently at the thought of the indie clubs Joan and I would frequent.
‘Mummy and I probably grew closer after the divorce. God, she hated Daddy. For years. So every holiday I had with him, she had to surpass it. Right up until the point where we were practically sisters going out to bars together at five-star resorts, us giggling eyeing up very, very cute boys. In hindsight it was a little bit odd – not us holidaying together, more that I wasn’t exactly subtle about my nocturnal activities while we were away. My therapist calls it my acting-out phase and said Mummy’s enabling of it was a subconscious dig at Daddy: I was definitely not his little girl anymore. Which is a charming way of calling me a ho and her my pimp, don’t you think?’
She poured more wine and gave this incredulous look.
‘I actually see a therapist too.’
‘There’s a shocker.’ She didn’t even look up from pouring our glasses. ‘Artist’s son, former aid worker, now gardener, who is madly in love with his poor, tortured little flatmate, I can’t imagine what issues you would have to talk about.’
In a way, I was beginning to enjoy her cutting comments. There was an honesty about how she saw things.
‘Anyway, back to my story,’ she grinned, sitting back in her chair, one leg stretched out so that her bare foot was resting on my shin.
‘You and many others may be surprised to know that I lost my virginity pretty late, comparatively. All-girls school, you see. I did have a boyfriend when I was seventeen but it was more like having a boyfriend for the sake of one. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t a prude or the other way inclined – I can see your male mind working away.’ She smirked and placed down her wine glass, putting both her elbows on the table. ‘I’d give the occasional blowjob when I had to, just to stop him trying to hump me every time we were alone. He would try to return the favour but literally had no idea what he was doing – it was basically someone drooling on your nether regions and then being intrusively probed. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have sex. More like I wasn’t in a hurry to make him my first.’
Izzy had this slightly faraway look as she turned her head and rested it on the palms of her hands.
‘Meredith Mason’s boyfriend, on the other hand. Now he was something I definitely would not have minded.’
She let out an audible purr and quickly took another sip of wine before turning her body to face me, giving me this seductive little smile.
‘She was so annoying. This spoilt American bitch. Joined our school late but got made deputy head girl because she was so insufferable. Anyway, she was very quick to rub our noses in the fact she was dating a second year at Bath, or wherever, and had him come along to help us prefects set up for our leavers' ball. While she was barking orders to the other plebs, I gave him a bit of a look and let him follow me to a study room no one ever used. I was expecting just a bit of a make-out session but… Well, I’ll let you fill in the blanks.’
The self-satisfied smile was back, but this time I noticed the backs of our fingers were touching.
‘Was it worth the wait?’ I asked. She didn’t answer. She just gently swirled the last of her wine. I then lightly placed my fingers in hers. She turned, looked at me, and rolled her eyes, but still held my hand.
‘What about Little Miss Perfect?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘She’s made it clear nothing’s going to happen, and she seems to be having a blast on that boat thing.’
Izzy’s smile had gone as she stared at me more seriously. I suddenly felt sleazy. She had confided in me as a friend.
‘So you don’t have any feelings for her whatsoever?’
I smiled, lightly letting go of her fingers. But as if catching me in a lie, Izzy gripped them back and glared at me.
‘I do. Probably very much so. To be completely honest.’
‘Good.’ She brought my hand to her lap.
‘At least we then both know exactly what this is.’
We both leaned forward. I closed my eyes and let a wave of adulterous guilt be offset by the feeling of her mouth on mine.
It was different to the first time. Largely because there was far less commentary. Only a couple of words here and there – ‘leave it,’ she said when I was fiddling with her bra, ‘sorry,’ I said climbing on top of her in the dark, and ‘a bit harder, I won’t break.’
But also because we said more. After it was done, staring up at the skylight above the bed.
‘Do you have the time?’ she asked rather formally.
‘Just gone quarter to.’
‘So the cork did pop before midnight.’
I looked over, and she was smiling.
‘Would you have preferred if I held out?’
‘God no, I hate it when guys do that. Like they are earning some form of merit badge. I was just about done anyway.’
After a moment, either one triggered the other, but we both began to laugh. It was definitely the first time I heard her laugh.
‘I’ve never been in bed this early on New Year’s. Not sure what to do now. All initial objectives successfully completed.’
I glanced quickly at her and then smiled.
‘Oh look, he is proud of himself! For the record, I wouldn’t exactly call that having my brains fucked out. But I will give you your due, it was perfectly adequate. Not in the same league as Meredith Mason’s boyfriend. God, I could hardly walk afterwards. Is it bad I have no idea what his name was? The boy who took my virginity?’
Surprisingly I felt Izzy wriggle and her head was then on my chest. We lay looking up at the blueish black sky and I felt her shiver. I offered to get her a t-shirt.
As I got out of bed, she sat up from under the covers, her hands to the side of her breasts.
‘So what do you think, by the way? You didn’t get to see them last time. Nothing to write home about, but they are what they are.’
I looked at her, confused as I got back into bed, and she put the t-shirt on.
‘No-tits Izz, Meredith Mason and her little friends would call me. Witty, weren’t they? Even these I developed late on. Probably part of the reason I enjoyed having sex with her boyfriend so much. He didn’t seem to mind.’
‘I would have imagined you were queen of your school.’
‘Hardly. I was probably close to being nice once upon a time. God, I hated that place.’
Izzy wrapped her arm around me, and we were cuddling. I just lay there not wanting to move but unsure how we had ended up in this situation. This was not the same young woman who, on a bad day, could probably make me cry.
‘They were just jealous. You’re incredibly beautiful. You realise that, right?’
‘Oh fuck off and stop talking,’ she said looking up at me, actually annoyed before putting her head back on my chest. As she did we heard the first pop. Then a bang. And then the skylight started to glow orange and red as one firework flew into view.
‘That’s pretty,’ she said, sounding surprised. She raised her head as another one exploded above us.
‘I suppose we are close to the river. And there are the displays in the parks. Wow, there are a lot of them.’
Izzy joined me kneeling, looking out at the South London sky, towards the north. We said nothing. Izzy then looked at me, staring into my eyes like she was waiting for me to reply to a question.
‘You realise this is a one-off? Like, it’s just the moment and circumstance. I’m not going to suddenly start dating you tomorrow or become your fuck-buddy, you understand that?’
I nodded. Her head was tantalisingly tilted. Her mouth was so close to mine, and her hands had already pushed away the duvet.
‘Good. Well, I’m not going to send you a written invitation if that’s what you’re waiting for?’
After months of continuous therapy and a reading list designed to dispel the myths of love and unbundle infatuation, it is difficult to look back at the romantic moments of my life and not consider them false notes or misplaced lust. I would have placed at number one my first night with Vicky. As Vicky and I sat on her sofa with our coffee, both of us in our smartest date clothes having just taken the taxi back to hers from the restaurant, I had still expected her to peck me on the cheek, hug me, call me a good friend and offer me the sofa on which to sleep. I wasn’t quite prepared for her to kiss me or for her to gently unbutton my shirt.
There were other moments too, stored away in my memory, such as women I met on my travels when I had finally begun to get over Vicky and my one long-term relationship. But then, in that vein, probably leaping into the top three, would now be kneeling beneath a skylight with Izzy, kissing under the multi-coloured glows. The only issue was, as romantic as these memories were, I suddenly thought back to my number one memory. This was no longer my first night with Vicky. Instead, it was talking to a friend, curled up together on a sofa for warmth on an unpleasantly cold night at Loughborough Road. And how she had exhaustedly let her head drop onto my chest.
Izzy took me to a small café for brunch the next morning. It was both a light-hearted apology for jibes she had made while we sat in bed drinking coffee, and a bittersweet goodbye meal considering, as she put it, our paths were less likely to cross in the future.
‘I suppose I should say thank you,’ she said, sitting up with her coffee as I joined her under the covers. ‘For making an effort last night. I wouldn’t say it was a huge improvement, but we got there in the end.’
‘That’s quite the compliment. It’s a relief you don’t feel like you have to be nice to me.’
‘I think we’ve established it's not necessary. Clicking my fingers will suffice.’
She partially suppressed another smile and gestured to the coffee, water, and toast I had fetched for her when we had woken up.
‘It’s not like we’ll be seeing that much of each other going forward. Now that the happy couple have resolved their differences. Ethan will be back permanently in a few short months, and I’m assuming three would be a crowd here.’
Again another smile, this time less suppressed, and not very welcome. I was trying hard not to think about Katie and Ethan.
‘What disappoints you more, not having sex with me again or not seeing her downstairs for tea and toast? See, I may not say nice things, but I’m not the arsehole in this scenario, am I?’
I looked at her, not exactly finding our pillow talk riveting. After Vicky, sleeping with someone new came as a temporary tonic to prolonged heartache. But what I was doing with Izzy, in the light of day, felt a little clinical. Perhaps my feelings for Katie were not as strong as I thought?
‘You don’t need to look so depressed. As I said, it wasn’t too bad as sex goes. And you prevented me making a fool of myself at that party or worse, calling someone I shouldn’t, drunk at three o’clock in the morning.’
She sat back up. I saw a slight frown come across her face.
‘Are you still in contact?’
She merely shrugged. ‘Now and again. If I’m feeling a bit… I don’t know. Sex seems to help, though. Blows away a few cobwebs for a while. What about you and Little Miss Wabbit Ears? Going to be pining away still?’
Izzy laughed, beaming delightedly at me. She made a show of pouting and fluttering her eyelashes. She then rolled over on to me and took my wrist looking at my watch.
‘To make up for hurting your feelings, I’ll buy you brunch at this place Spoiler and I found. Would that make things all better?’ Again the pout, but this time her body draped over me and her negligible weight pushed onto my chest. ‘Or are you still annoyed with me?’
‘A little,’ I said, trying not to sound sulky.
‘Good,’ she smiled and then kissed me.
Outside the little French café, Izzy and I parted company on an amicable yet final note.
‘Thank you for not being too much of an arsehole about this whole thing. I don’t normally cry on people’s shoulders, so this was quite liberating.’ She smiled, zipping up her green leather jacket. ‘You’re not going to fall for me, right?’ She then gave me a piercing frown, looking slightly concerned. I smiled back and said I would try not to. ‘Good, because I’m also sorry about rubbing your nose in the whole Katie thing. We’re an odd bunch, us Magdalen lot. Cliquey, incestuous, and completely absorbed in our own problems. You’ve had a lucky escape.’ She then rubbed my arm like she was telling me it would be okay, and we hugged – a strangely prolonged hug. ‘Well, goodbye then,’ she said and spun around toward Brixton tube station, and as she faded into the horizon, I felt that all too familiar sinking sensation. I was left alone, and if Izzy were right, that would be something I would have to get used to once more.
Chapter 20: The Colony
I found myself spending entire days in the Jones’ allotment and whole evenings sitting alone in my old tattered armchair back at Loughborough Road. I would occasionally glance down at my phone to see if Katie had responded to any of my messages. However, it was Ellie who called, lifting me out of that post-holidays gloom by bringing impending doom.
‘Hey,’ she said. I then heard a shriek in the background and Ellie tell Millie to leave her brother alone. ‘Feeding time at the zoo over here.’ I smiled, picturing Millie and Ed at Ellie’s dining table, starting a food fight with each other.
‘Maxwell’s come back with a date to see Mum. Two weekends from now. He’s coming along too, so it will be quite the little reunion.’
‘I’ll have to check my diary. I just got offered some work…’
‘This was your f…!’ She stopped herself and lowered her voice to a hiss. ‘You’re the one who said yes so readily. Whatever else you’ve got going on, leave it. I’ve not spoken to my mother in over four years, forgive me if I’m a little bit anxious and don’t want a pr… Don’t want you messing us about.’
‘Okay, okay. Weekend after next, got it.’
‘Apparently we can stay over. They will make a couple of spare rooms. Fu… that, I told him.’
I heard her mumble the word, as did Millie. On the other end of the line, Millie began shouting, ‘Ummm! Mummy said a bad word!’ I had just returned from the allotment when Ellie had called, so I started looking through my fridge, deciding what to have for dinner.
‘We could split the driving, and I drive us back straight after.’
‘Scott, that would be over six hours in a car with you. I don’t think I could do that.’
She didn’t sound like she was joking.
‘Besides, they want us to stay for dinner – they have it all planned!’
It was a bit of a relief to hear the obvious sarcasm, as I heard more mumbling of children’s voices.
‘At least we’re getting our money out of Maxwell with all the go-between stuff. If we asked our solicitor, I think it would bankrupt me.’
‘Yes, Scott, well done us for having our ex-uncle broker a conversation with our own mother because we’re both too emotionally incapable.’
And that was what was bonding us. This newfound siblingship that went beyond our many petty resentments was based not on either mutual loathing or mutual animosity for the woman who had largely raised us but given up at the final hurdle, but on mutual fear. Neither of us hated her. That was not why we had stopped speaking to her. My reason went back to my last conversation with her. Mum’s love for us was complimentary but different to Dad’s, and I don’t know if I was ready to be rejected again by someone who was meant to love me unconditionally.
At least the date was set. I would travel down to Brighton in the early morning, and Ellie would pick me up from their local station and drive us down to Devon. There was a pub doing bed and breakfast where we would stay, and perhaps by the end of the weekend we would have all our problems resolved, become one happy family, and be able to move forward with our lives. Or not.
‘So, how’s everything else then? Your latest career choice, flat hunting, life with Miss Preppy Knickers?’
I hesitated before answering. It sounded like we were about to chat. We didn’t really chat. I heard Millie’s and Ed’s voices fade.
‘The latest career choice might give me enough to pay my rent, if these jobs Jane recommended me for come off. I’m not flat hunting at the moment so I’m not sure where you got that from – ’
‘From the fact you live in a shit-hole with a girl you are obviously besotted with. Seriously, you really need to get your act together.’
‘And how’s the music going, Ell? Done anything to get back in the game?’
‘Yeah, headlining the Albert Hall on Monday. Apparently you can just ring up and they give you a slot.’
‘See, it’s not so easy, is it?’
I had opted for beans on toast and was pouring the baked beans into a bowl. Perhaps I had gone too far. I admired Ellie for wanting to go back into composing and playing again – hugely admired her. I didn’t mean to be belittling.
‘I mean, you at least are talented. The only people that are currently better at what you want to do are world-famous musicians. That’s not a bad place to start.’
I heard a door open over the line and then what sounded like a breeze. I could no longer hear Millie and Ed.
‘Well, I guess we all have to do what we can. Neither of us have got it bad. I wouldn’t swap those little monsters for the Sydney Opera House. But… yeah.’ I heard a small laugh. ‘I know it’s meant to be the other way around but I’d really like them to be proud of me. Give them that Albert Hall moment. See their moody bitch of a mother doing something that is not just making egg and chips.’
I took my dinner to the kitchen table, about to say goodbye to my sister when Ellie’s tone changed.
‘Scott? We’re going to have to settle with her, aren’t we? As much as I think Maxwell is a pompous windbag, we can’t afford to keep forking out for solicitors – Mike and I are broke enough and you’re not looking too flush yourself.’
‘But it’s our house, Ell. Remember what we said. What we can do with it. The solicitor’s fees will pay for themselves when we win.’
‘Just think about it.’
I knew she was right. For all our plans, there was not a clear way forward for us. We had had our Christmas there – we had had the Christmas Dad would have wanted, one that could perhaps allow us to let go. But part of me still wanted to fight on and keep hold of all those old memories. And also one new one. Mistletoe in the doorway.
I took my phone back out and went back to my messages to Katie. Still no responses. The Christmas break would almost be over. She must be coming home soon.
Are you back soon? I’m working up in north London for the next few days but am back on Sunday. Perhaps we can have dinner?
Looking at what had become a string of unanswered texts, I put my phone back down, feeling my latest attempt as futile as the others. However, this time before even cutting into my toast, my phone lit up. I saw her name and a response.
Hey sorry for the late replies, lots of traveling around. Yes back late on Sunday. If you’re awake we can have a cup of tea or something.
It was something. At last, and at least.
That week I began my new project. Mr Jones had offered me the use of his tools to take to North London. ‘You’ll need a car, you know,’ he said to me, arriving to survey my work on the allotment. ‘Ideally a van, once you get a few more jobs. Won’t be convenient lugging all this stuff around with you by bus. And God knows how you’re gonna mow a lawn.’
He found it funny, as did I, in a way. I have to say, it had been a slow start to my career as a landscape gardener but it was my career. When I was a kid I loved playing football in the rain. I loved sliding in the mud, skidding through the turf. I preferred it to those sunny days of July when the ground was hard and baked. And I felt a similar excitement when gardening in January, in the cold and in the damp, embracing the elements. And back in North London, up in Oakwood, I found one of the reasons I had taken it up in the first place.
Jane’s friend, Mrs Elsop, had what I would describe as grounds rather than a garden. Her large detached house went backed onto what could have been accurately described as a football pitch. She told me that her previous gardener had just stopped coming and it was now overgrown and an eyesore. It was non-flashy, had no flowers or plants bar weeds and wild shrubs, and therefore had so much potential. As I walked it with Mrs Elsop, ideas began to sprout. I suggested a kitchen garden in a patch that would catch the sun. I could get her lawn growing again for the start of the summer and I could plant bulbs and seeds and make use of the wet weather to get as much growing before March as I could.
It was ambitious. I would have imagined a real landscape gardener would have had a team of at least three, but being just me, and inexperienced at that, I was cheap, and that was my comparative advantage. So I got on with it and spent the week digging the outlines of what would be flowerbeds and the vegetable patches.
The hours that the garden needed meant I had to stay at Dad’s like I had told Katie. As she was not going to get back until late Sunday evening, my plan was to work until the early afternoon and then shower at Dad’s, stop at the supermarket for supplies, and then return to Loughborough Road to make Katie what would have looked like a spontaneous, effortless dinner. However, these plans were made redundant as on Sunday morning, instead of looking up to see Mrs Elsop bringing me a cup of tea, I saw a figure very much juxtaposed to my surroundings.
‘Hey,’ said Katie as I let my garden fork sink into the earth. I was slightly out of breath, having tried to reach some deeply embedded roots.
‘The lady at your house gave me this address.’
‘Ah, Jane.’ The explanation made sense – kind of. Jane had come round that morning, but Katie was still in a very much alien London borough.
‘Margery asked me to give you this.’ Katie handed me one of two cups of tea she was holding. Rather than wonder why Katie was one hundred miles from where I had expected her to be, I instead looked at her, curiously wondering how she had managed to get onto first name terms with Mrs Elsop so quickly. I was suddenly conscious of how muddy my fingernails were as I took the tea, especially looking at how immaculate Katie looked in a shiny body warmer over a white sweater.
‘This is a bit of a surprise.’
‘My parents gave me a lift. We’re heading to Stansted. I told you about those work trips? I’ve been asked to fly out a week early to do some meetings, but I wanted to see you before I left.’
I looked back at Mrs Elsop’s house, imagining Katie’s parents in a car waiting for her.
‘They’re driving you to Stansted from Wiltshire?’ I thought it was a rather long round trip.
‘No, they’ve been staying at the flat. They drove me up on Friday so they could do some London stuff with Joan and me for a couple of days.’
I found myself automatically folding my arms. I tried hard to un-scrunch my face.
‘Oh. So you got my message about staying up here those nights?’
I put the cup up to my mouth to disguise my annoyance at her not telling me she was back. ‘Listen, Izzy told me about you and her on New Year’s…’
I felt my stomach churn. It was none of her business, but also I wanted it to be her business.
‘It’s cool. I’m not going to be all judgemental like before. She said she was having a shitty day, and you were really sweet, so I can’t exactly deny two of my friends having a nice time together.’
Strangely, while Katie stood a little away from me on one of the less muddy patches, I felt disappointed. She seemed genuinely relaxed, close to being matter-of-fact, like me sleeping with her best friend again was no big deal.
‘So, I’m likely to be away most of this month, and when I’m back… well, Ethan and I have decided to move back in together. His contract finishes in March now, so when I get home I’ll be flat hunting and then moving out. I didn’t want to tell you over text or email so…’
She shrugged her shoulders and gave me a frowny, quarter-smile.
‘You drove all the way to Oakwood to tell me that?’
‘It’s kind of on the way. But that’s not the point. Flats go super-quickly from what I remember last time we were looking, so I wanted to give you proper notice and do it face to face.’
Like a breakup, I thought. Again, I put the tea to my mouth and took a rather prolonged sip as Katie stood holding hers. All her clothes looked new – the body warmer sleek and shiny, her jeans a rich blue, her white sweater a lot more white than my white clothes ever looked. She looked so… proper. So complete, and ready for a big adventure.
‘Maybe I can come with you,’ I said. ‘You can adopt me, and I can stay in a small box room.’
I tried to smile so she would smile too.
‘I’m not sure what Ethan would say about having a lodger… It would depend on how much rent you were willing to pay.’
And there it was. Just a small smile.
‘I’ll miss you,’ I said, for the first time feeling I could speak openly. ‘I’m glad you’ve reconciled with Ethan, but I’ll miss our talks and having someone to complain about Joan with.’
‘Well there’s always Izzy. My matchmaking skills weren’t too far off the mark, were they?’
‘I think we both know why that’s not going to happen again.’
I knew it was hypocritical. I claimed to like Katie – to have feelings for her – but I still fancied Izzy and hardly hesitated when it came to spending the night with her. And if Izzy had said she wanted to make it a regular arrangement, would I still have spent my days moping around thinking about Katie? I honestly didn’t know. I just knew that the moment Izzy and I had parted, I had begun to feel sad, and that feeling had just intensified.
She said goodbye, and we agreed not to hug as I would get mud all over her, so she walked back up the garden, and I just watched the shiny body warmer and those rich blue jeans enter the house and disappear.
‘What are you doing?’ yelled Ellie, leaning across the passenger seat to shout at me through the window.
‘I need to stretch my back out,’ I called from the station exit. I was standing with my back against one of the pillars doing an exercise I had been taught by a doctor years earlier when travelling. I had just arrived at Ellie’s local station. It had just gone nine o’clock and it was freezing. I could see the condensation on my breath. Ellie then began beeping the horn.
‘You look like shit,’ she said after I had got in the car.
‘Yeah, pulled my back digging a trench and I’ve not been sleeping that well recently either. Plus I was up at five to catch the train.’
‘Wait till you have kids. That’s – ’
‘That’s when you’ll know about backache and blah blah being tired.’
‘Very funny, Scott. That’s gonna make the day go a whole lot smoother.’
When we reached the main road my phone buzzed. It was a message from Mike.
Go easy on her today. She’s not been looking forward to it. If you could do me a favour and drive back I’d owe you one.
‘Who was that?’
‘Izzy,’ I lied. ‘A friend of Katie’s. She’s being her envoy regarding flat stuff while she’s away.’
It was a more sympathetic noise made by my sister. We had been in the car together only two minutes and we had naturally settled into our passive-aggressive gripes. At least Mike knew us both well enough to foresee it playing out. I looked over at her as we waited at a roundabout and she inched forward. Her hair was slightly different. Blonder than usual, a bit like the colour it was when we were kids, and a bit sleeker. Compared to her, I did look like shit. She had on a blouse rather than one of her old sweaters, and wore trousers rather than jeans. I hadn’t shaved for a few days, I still wore my old tattered jacket, and the most effort I had made was putting on a clean pair of jeans and not wearing my gardening trainers.
‘Is she still moving out?’
‘Looks like it. We’ve been exchanging messages – she was worried about leaving me in the lurch regarding notice. And about sorting out things like bills while she was working all hours on this trip of hers. I told her not to worry and we could play it by ear when she got back, so…’ I shrugged to complete the sentence. ‘Hence, Izzy also stepping in to help.’
‘Very gentlemanly of you. Izzy’s the friend of hers you keep sleeping with, right?’
Previously my sister and I would speak on the phone perhaps once every three months on average. In recent weeks it had become every other day. I don’t think this was a sign of us getting any closer. More like it was through necessity and our mutual struggle to express our feelings to other people. We needed to talk about Orletta, to come up with a strategy, so instead I told her about Katie and Izzy and she told me about the kids, Mike’s job and anything that wasn’t our mother.
‘Have you thought about dating someone who was single, or not closely associated with your flatmate? Or is that a deal-breaker? An agoraphobic’s prerequisites and all that.’
The journey took three hours zig-zagging along the coast. Avoiding mentioning our mother, we turned our attention to other important subjects and philosophical debates, such as who had the worse taste in music and whether, if Ellie was driving and if it were her car, did I have any right to even look at the stereo?
‘How’s Mike’s accounting classes going?’
‘First exams next month,’ she sighed.
‘You don’t sound too excited at that.’
We were only a couple of towns away, according to the map, and were in the land of green and yellow fields, which I could imagine being mowed by those giant harvesters you saw on television.
‘Now it’s less hypothetical it seems all the more unfair. He already has a skill. He’s been playing guitars for twenty-five years, producing probably for the last twenty, and there’s literally nothing he can’t do. If he had taken up the cello, he would be good enough to play for the Royal Philharmonic, and we would be living in a posh flat in Notting Hill probably. But as it is, he’s having to go join the ranks of those who never had the balls or imagination to follow their own dream and whose whole life ambition was to own an Audi and find someone to stick their dick into so they could stop jacking off into their hand.’
‘Nice image, Ell.’
‘And this Izzy girl? Still using her to relieve yourself of those pent-up fluids you were saving for Miss Preppy Knickers?’
I saw a small smile emerge across Ellie’s face.
‘Nothing’s going on. The occasional message about Katie. That’s it. We’re just…’ I was going to say we were just friends, but we weren’t even that. I had obviously lied when I told Ellie that Mike’s message was from Izzy, but we had maintained contact after our New Year’s liaison.
Me: I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say ‘thanks for the other night’, but it was good talking. That guy you were seeing is an idiot btw. You deserve a lot better.
Izzy: Ha yes definitely appropriate to thank me. You’re quite the beneficiary from my lapses in judgement.
Izzy: Katie told me about her and Ethan finding their own place. I won’t say I told you so. But, buck up? I probably shouldn’t have been as blasé about it.
Izzy: Thank you, regards that not-so-single young man of mine.
We wound our way through country roads, the sun high in the sky as we approached midday. There were signs for West May Artists’ Colony guiding us away from what looked to be the village where our bed and breakfast was. We were then directed onto a narrow dirt track off the main road, with crop fields to our left and right. Ahead we saw what looked like working farm buildings – a horseshoe of them as we got closer with one side made up of a large barn and the others more modern structures, which reminded me of the new art labs they had built at Amberton. Just beyond, as the track wound around a stone wall, there were what looked like beach huts on a green lawn.
We pulled up and parked in front of one of the art lab-type buildings, next to an old muddy Jeep and an immaculately clean Range Rover. The ground was cream gravel and in the centre of the horseshoe was a very un-farm-like water feature – a large stone fountain with a tall sculpture of a woman who looked like she was emerging out of the waters beneath.
‘Can you not park there? This is private property.’ Ellie and I stepped out of the car as a voice shouted out of the barn. She had long – seriously long – red hair and an even longer dress that she seemed to be pulling up to not drag across the gravel.
‘You are in the middle of my scene,’ she called out again as we just stared at her. ‘New and potential students should go up to the main house. And call in advance.’
‘Who’s this bitch?’ Ellie turned to me.
‘Why don’t you ask her?’
‘Who the fuck are you?’ shouted Ellie.
The woman stopped in her tracks, glared at us, and then sped up over the gravel.
‘I’d ask you to leave such language back wherever it is you have come from,’ she hissed. ‘West May is a place of calm study which you are ignorantly in the middle of.’
I would have assumed the woman was around Ellie’s age – her sharp, authoritative tone had the quality of a headmistress and, on closer inspection, her dress was something out of the early Tudor dynasty. Before I could ask where to find our mother, Ellie reached into her handbag and brought out a small leather wallet in which she carried her cards.
‘Metropolitan Police. Narcotics division.’ Ellie put on a slightly deeper voice and quickly flashed the wallet open and closed. ‘Are you Mrs Orletta Roberts?’
Our antagonist’s eyes burst wide open. ‘She’s up at the house.’ She pointed, a lot less assured, to the pathway we had been on and an offshoot we had driven past. ‘They have an event today. This is just the Colony. We just paint here.’
‘Well, don’t go anywhere. I’m sure we’ll have some questions for you too.’
Getting back in the car, Ellie threw me her wallet.
‘Metropolitan Association of Libraries.’ Metropolitan was in big letters over a black and white photo of Ellie. ‘You realise that’s an actual criminal offence. Impersonating a police officer.’
‘Oh relax, Queen Matilda was the one actively engaged in roleplay. Plus, did you see her face? She and the rest are probably running around trying to flush away their hippy supplies. Nice to see Mother breeds loyalty among her minions.’
After our false start, we drove up the aforementioned path coiling up a small hill behind the buildings. As we did, my view was of farmland as far as my eyes could see. There were also the occasional working and non-working farm buildings – one large tatty disused barn and one operating with a tractor and another of those large harvester-type machines at its entrance.
I wanted to ask Ellie how she was feeling as we approached what could have been a National Trust country home. More cream gravel led to cream walls and pillars, but more immediately noticeable were the twenty or so cars competing for space on a not unsubstantial driveway.
‘What the Hell is going on?’ said Ellie as we crawled up to the front door – the only place to park. ‘Is this the event… oh, for fuck’s sake.’
As Ellie wrenched up the handbrake throwing me forward, I assumed the same childhood memories were coming back to her as they were to me. Galleries and her sycophants hanging on her every word as we were paraded as proof Orletta Roberts was not just a successful artist but also a doting mother, before being discarded to the side as said sycophants swallowed her up.
‘How many bedrooms, do you reckon?’ I tried to change the subject as we sat staring ahead.
‘Oh, just the seven. But three are technically day rooms and rooms for her correspondence.’
I had forgotten that while this was my first time, it was not Ellie’s, though from the way she was hunched over the steering wheel, angling her head up to stare at the upper floor, she seemed as hesitant to leave the car as I was.
‘No wonder she wants the cash from Dad’s. Butlers’ salaries alone must be a fortune.’
We both stopped talking. The door to the house was already open, and from it emerged a woman with silvery blonde hair. She was older – obviously, yet it still surprised me – and elegant, wearing a stylish contemporary white blazer over a long flowing white skirt. A silver shawl around her neck gave her a celestial quality as she smiled this wonderful beaming smile that made me suddenly forget that the previous twenty years might have taken place.
Ellie was out of the car first as I scrambled to undo my seatbelt. I did not hear what was said but saw them embracing, Orletta engulfing Ellie as my sister looked awkwardly rigid. She then let go of Ellie and turned to me. That smile, those eyes, no different to when I was thirteen.
‘Mum,’ I said weakly.