The last time I had heard that voice was on a bleak October day when I was twenty-nine years old. My heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was going to burst. I was on the train from London to Devon with the carriage to myself lying across the seats, my head resting against the cold fogged-up window. Beads of rain trickled down as we made our way toward the southwest.
At Paddington, the station crew was still clearing up the concourse from the night before and there were just a handful of early Saturday morning passengers waiting for the first train. I had self-consciously approached the ticket office knowing how much I would reek of alcohol and other substances, and was at that stage of intoxication where one part of my brain was thinking clearly but the rest of me was yet to catch up. I could hear my deep, drunk voice echo as I asked for a single ticket to Devon.
Having time to wait, I sat on one of the benches and hunched forward so I would not fall asleep. I then took out my phone, cleared my throat, hoping my voice would, this time, come out more normal, and called her.
‘Mum, it’s Scott. I know we never set a date but I have some time off and thought I should go get some fresh air.’ I tried to keep my voice level and less wobbly as I left that first message on her voicemail. ‘I’m actually at the train station now and should be down in Devon by midday. It would be good if I could stay a few days. Or I could book into a hotel. Either way, it would be good to see you.’
In the sixteen years since she had left for Devon and her artists’ colony, this was the first time I had made the trip to visit her. Or been invited to visit her, I should say. I had seen her those months earlier for my birthday and left feeling we had turned a corner in our relationship. No other people were vying for her attention, and she was the one who suggested the visit. In the years after Mum left, when she would visit and regale us with tales of her new life, the Colony of hers became this mystical place where artists found themselves. At age thirteen, I got the impression that we would have to be older to visit so not to disturb the magical forces.
Years went by, Orletta’s exhibitions became occasions I would dread and hence I would make the odd excuse not to see her. She would also take extended trips to the Continent, meaning she would be away for months at a time. Very subtly, the trips to London and her visits became fewer, as did the phone calls. As I told Izzy, it was a case of us drifting apart. But despite this, as I had left an impromptu house party with so much cocaine in my system hours earlier, all I could hear through the anxiety and paranoia was this small voice calling, Mum.
This particular night seemed to sum up everything in my life at the time. Money, drugs, emptiness, and me hoping I would find something in between those late and early hours that would make the rest of my life worthwhile.
We had finished in the club and my broker friend who had arranged the night – the charming, hugely popular, James – had invited us all to his flat for more drink and drugs. I had made excuses to forgo the wraps being passed back and forth at the club, contenting myself with a steady stream of alcohol. James was on very friendly terms with the club hostess who had shown us to his usual table, and soon we were paired up with a group of young women who all either knew James or our hostess.
As we piled back to James’s, our host immediately made a beeline for the bedrooms, his arm around the waist of the hostess, and waved the rest of us through to his palatial living room. At that stage everyone else was paired up or in small groups – one couple heavily making out in an armchair, the rest at the open planned kitchen doing lines off the island. Helping myself to a beer, I started examining James’s CD collection for something to do and feel less awkward among people I largely did not know. The only other person who didn’t seem to have someone to talk to was a girl standing by a lamp casually thumbing through James’s bookshelves.
‘You work with Jim?’ she said when we were too close to ignore each other. I said I did and politely asked her how she knew our host.
‘I don’t really. Not very well, at least. I’m a friend of Sadie’s. She’s just…’ She flicked her eyes to the bedrooms and rolled them.
I think it was love at first sight.
We sat down on the floor, our backs leaning against the sofa. She was pretty, softly spoken, and told me she worked in PR but her dream was to work in publishing. Something about her or the occasion made me think of Tiffany. If only I had stayed with Tiffany, I would not have been as lonely as I was. We ended up sharing my bottle of beer as we talked. When it was finished, she apologised for hogging it and went to the kitchen to fetch us another. When she came back, she held in one hand a newly opened beer and a small bag of white powder.
‘They’re still going strong over there, and who knows how long Sadie will be.’ She poured an amount of the powder on the coffee table and then reached into her purse for a credit card and a banknote.
Slightly disappointed, I watched her gently snort a line in front of me. She then sipped the beer and handed me the note, dabbing her nostrils gently with her fingertip. I hesitated, thinking I should just pass it back and say I was happy to stick with the beer. But with it laid out on the table and the girl just sitting there waiting for me, I didn’t want to do anything that would break a connection that had felt such a long time coming. I tentatively leaned over and inhaled.
I don’t know for how long we talked. We finished the bag and a new one appeared. A doorbell rang, and the kitchen lot were distributing more wraps. Some people left, some people arrived, some went to the bedrooms, some fell asleep around us, but we kept our spot on the floor, drinking beer and making lines on the coffee table. It reached the point where I could hardly stop staring at her mouth, wondering when I should kiss her. Then it was no longer just the two of us.
Sadie, the hostess, appeared from behind us, wearing only a towel. She smiled down at the girl – whose name in hindsight I do not think I asked – and bent over to do a line. Her blonde hair draped over the edge of the towel, and she then started whispering animatedly to her friend. At first the girl seemed annoyed, and Sadie seemed to be pleading innocence before smiling and taking a swig of our beer. Sadie then gently brushed the hair away from the girl’s ear and smiled again, reaching for the girl’s wrist.
Holding hands, they walked around the sofa and towards the bedrooms, neither looking back at me. I waited for ten minutes, probably longer, but the girl never returned. I scraped together the remaining powder and finished it. I went into the kitchen where the crowd was still talking, drinking, and preparing lines. I opened another beer, drained it, and realised I was essentially alone. High and alone.
This had become my life. Nights out with strangers I called friends, getting drunk in a group, hoping to talk to someone who I could relate to who would save me from I-did-not-know-what. I left the flat. I was somewhere on the Thames and everything was silent and still. I then began running, as if I could run off the stimulants or run away from my weaknesses. I hated my life, and I hated myself, so I kept running and by the time I eventually found the main road, I wanted to run all the way back to somewhere where I felt safe again. When everything was going to be okay. And that’s when I realised how much I missed my mum and how much I needed her to help fix whatever it was that was broken inside of me.
On the train to Devon, my phone then rang. It was Orletta calling me back.
‘Scott? Scott, what is this about you visiting?’ She sounded agitated, very unlike her usual calm, charming tone.
‘That’s not possible. It’s just not. You should really have given me some warning.’ Again, it was a voice I had not heard her use. It was shrill, annoyed, flustered. ‘We have guests already. And then we’re travelling and, oh! The Colony is already so busy!’
‘I can stay in a hotel. I don’t mind. When we last spoke, you said to visit any time I wanted.’
It was childish saying that last bit. There was then a moment of silence.
‘Scott, it’s just not a good time with all we have going on. I would not be able to give you my undivided attention.’ Her voice was softer, but it also came with a deep sigh. Like it was what it was, and there was nothing she could do to change it.
‘You haven’t actually left yet, I take it?’
‘No,’ I lied, trying to stare out of the window but it was too fogged up.
‘Good. Let’s do this properly. Give me a few days, and we’ll set an actual date once everything has calmed down.’
But it wasn’t a few days. I waited for her to call. She never did.
The foyer or entrance hall – definitely not a hallway – reminded me of entering the Tate Britain or National Portrait Gallery. It was a spacious oval room covering the same square metres as my entire Loughborough Road flat, with stone-tiled floor and a circular table at its centre with an ornate vase of flowers. Thirty years ago, her house had a regular hallway whose walls had coat upon coat coming off pegs and muddy trainers strewn everywhere.
‘We’re gathered in the conservatory,’ Orletta said, guiding us through the room and towards the light.
‘We’re?’ mouthed Ellie to me as we were half-blinded by the sun shining into what appeared to be a long, glass function room. Men and women my mother’s age stood drinking from champagne flutes, which were being poured by what looked like a team of caterers.
‘I’m glad I wore my best trainers,’ I mumbled to Ellie as we stopped following Orletta and just observed.
‘It’s like the fucking 90s.’ As we stood there, I felt our hands touch. I don’t think we had held hands since I was probably eight years old but I could tell she felt as overwhelmed as I did, being suddenly transported to our repressed teenage memories.
‘There they are!’ The typically ebullient Maxwell marched purposely over to us. I put my hand to my eyes to block the low January sun.
‘Quite the little do, eh? Your ma has really pulled out all the stops.’
‘Maxwell, what the f–- What the hell is going on?’
‘Oh, wait a moment, my dear. Speeches.’
There was a tapping of a glass with a small knife. All eyes were toward the centre of the room and our mother. She was looking over at us, holding a glass of white wine.
‘Everyone, may I please present our special guests. They’ve come all the way from London and, though I am completely biased, are here to make today and this occasion even more special. My daughter Eleanor and my son Scott.’
We were greeted with enthusiastic applause, which had me wanting to run for the exit. I turned to Ellie, who had a glass of wine in her hand. She then had a third of a glass.
‘Go easy. You’re the one who wanted to do the driving.’
Orletta was beaming and laughing with another of her guests. I could feel all these smiling eyes on me like I was the show-stopper to one of her exhibits.
‘It was good for your ma to do this. To answer your earlier question, these are the Board, my dear. Of the West May Artists’ Colony and Retreat. Quite a big thing in these parts.’
‘I thought you said she wanted to see us? To come to some deal?’
‘Plenty of time, my boy. I doubt this will take all day, and besides, you get to see your dear ma in her element. In my experience, such things are far more successful in reaching an accord than sitting around a table hashing out terms and conditions.’
Maxwell wandered away to speak to another grey-haired gentleman. When I looked towards Ellie she was gone too, leaving me by myself while the others were mingling. I felt a spectre, trying not to be seen and just observing. Ellie had gone to our mother, and our mother smiled brightly, introducing a reluctant Ellie to her fan club.
‘Sparkling wine, sir?’ said a voice awakening me. A girl in a smart outfit stood with a tray of champagne flutes.
‘It’s from a local vineyard. The soil is comparable to the Champagne region.’
‘Do you work here?’ I think it came out as an accusation rather than a question as I felt my face screw up, suddenly concerned that there was a significance at being told the provenance of the wine.
‘Sometimes. Probably once a month, when Ms Roberts and the Colony hold events.’
I might have been imagining it, but she seemed to be staring at me rather intensely. I felt obligated to take one of the glasses.
‘I used to study Orletta Roberts at university. She’s a huge name around here, so I ask especially to work these occasions. You’re her son?’
Again, she continued to stare, but the mention of my link to the Orletta Roberts had me looking back over in the direction of the woman in white who I had not seen in six years.
‘Kind of.’ I took a large sip of wine, still staring over at Ellie and Mum. ‘I mean, yes, but you’re probably more familiar with her work than I am.’
‘You must be very proud,’ she suddenly blurted out quickly. I felt myself again shoot the girl a look. She seemed so young and enthusiastic and so wholly ignorant about my mother or me.
‘Not half as proud as my dad was when she abandoned him and their two children for all this bullshit.’
She gave me a polite quarter-smile and walked away far less cheery than when she had come over. I stared back at her, feeling a complete arsehole.
‘You certainly seem to have a way with women.’ Ellie was standing next to me again. I was about to say I should apologise when she handed me a fancy looking A5 piece of card. ‘Maxwell was right. It’s some special meeting. It says something about a presentation on the future of her little shithole.’
‘I’d hardly call this a shithole.’
‘She did something similar last time I was here. Wheeled me out for the opening of that barn-thing Queen Bitchface stormed out of.’
‘When are we going to talk about the house?’
‘Why don’t you ask her?’ she said, trying to mimic my voice from earlier. Despite the sarcasm, I was soon to have my opportunity as from across the room, I saw Orletta smile at us and then excuse herself.
‘Right then, you two,’ she beamed and held both our wrists. ‘We’re going to make sure everyone is sufficiently fed and watered and then take a short walk down to that little colony of ours so our friends can see our artists’ works. I’ve been very much looking forward to introducing you to everyone – Ellie, Hans has spent twelve years with the New England Philharmonic Orchestra. And, Scott, you need to meet Millicent. She runs a hedge fund. Who knows, you could be her new rising star!’
‘Mum, I’m a landscape gardener.’
‘What are we doing here, Mum? Why invite us to this?’
‘To talk, of course, Princess.’ She stared at Ellie’s hair and gently moved and dabbed the strands as she spoke. ‘But it’s been such a long time I felt a party would be appropriate. And I wanted to show you something which I hope will make everything a little clearer.’ She then stood in between Ellie and me and linked arms with us. ‘But first, please, tell me about those grandchildren of mine.’
While Orletta introduced Ellie to a tall Austrian man I took my opportunity to escape through the conservatory door. To give Orletta some credit, she had chosen a beautiful part of the world to leave us for. They had a large patio, which I imagined would be idyllic for summer drinks and barbecues, but, more so, beyond it was the view from the top of the hill, looking down on acre upon acre of rolling farmland. It was beautiful. Peaceful and serene.
I then caught sight of what was growing immediately in front of me. Their land led straight into rows of vines with little bunches of grapes descending the hill, and I scrambled down to examine them. They didn’t look the healthiest of grapes. They were rather small and brown but still in these interesting compact little bunches that looked so satisfying and camouflaged between the leaves and vines.
‘Our pet project,’ said a man’s voice behind me. At the top of the slope was Conrad, my mother’s partner. It was the first time I had seen him that day as I could not recall him being with the others in the conservatory.
‘I assumed this belonged to one of the farms.’ I was still examining the vines and smiled politely at the man I had always found intimidating.
‘Vanity project, I should say. Just this slope, but we’ve been cultivating for the last few years. With a little help, obviously.’
I let go of the grapes and stood up, feeling like I was trespassing.
‘Please feel free to try. Those are chardonnay. The same grown in Champagne. The soil and weather here is very similar.’
It was an intensely sour taste. I didn’t want to spit it out so reluctantly swallowed it down. I saw Conrad smile for the first time.
‘Yes, not quite what you get at the supermarkets, but I’ve been reliably told it makes good wine. We’re getting a few dozen cases out of this lot. Not a huge amount, but not a bad little experiment.’
‘Does it… taste alright? Where do you do the fermenting?’
I was casually looking down the slope, counting the rows, wondering what it took to maintain and harvest a crop of grapes. I did know that English wine had become increasingly popular in recent years, but I assumed it was a little bit of a fad or gimmick.
‘It does. Many French houses have been buying up land in this part of the world. Some neighbours of ours do the clever duties. Your mother and I are part of a cooperative – a group of small producers of which we are by far the smallest, and it all gets processed and stored at a facility a few miles away. Very civilised. I’ll pour you a glass back at the house. We hold it back for special occasions rather than these types of dos.’
In over twenty years of Conrad being my mother’s partner, I think this was our first conversation. We had spoken at Dad’s a year earlier, but that was a business meeting rather than a conversation. This was the first time we had chatted, if Conrad could be described as the chatty kind.
I looked again at the rows of vines and felt this little thrill, like being back in the hills of Burundi when I had been taught the foundations of planting a crop.
‘Could you make a living doing this?’ It was more a hopeful question. I had this vision of me in my own little vineyard, away from everyone and everything, in the peace and quiet of just me and nature. This one’s like the wilderness…
‘It depends. Why? Can you see yourself giving up the City to come out here and work the land?’
Conrad chuckled as I climbed back up the hill, and we began walking back to the house. I tried to briefly explain that I had not worked in finance in a long time and that since I had given up international development, I would mainly be found clearing out allotments and other people’s gardens.
‘Ah, entrepreneur then?’ Again Conrad laughed as we crossed the patio and the sound of mingling became louder. ‘I began life trying to be a restaurateur, if you would believe. Complete disaster. But I saw it was a better deal to buy rather than lease the premises, and broke even by renting the flats above. Gradually I learned that the real money was in bricks and mortar rather than the businesses themselves. It doesn’t come easily or quickly but the only way to learn is to go out there and do it. Keep your chin up.’
He patted me on the back and I found myself smiling for the first time that day. As we went back inside, I looked across the room for Orletta or Ellie, to see if there was any danger we could leave for the Colony, and get that part of the day over with. I saw Ellie by herself, staring at me, and walked over to join her.
‘You two seem very pally.’
‘He’s alright. Why?’
‘No reason. Just interesting how you give it all this about lawyers and Mum being the devil, and then you cosy up to stepdad over there hoping he might buy you a train set.’
Ellie was back to her sarcastic best, nonchalantly sipping her wine and glancing around the room while I felt the familiar sensation of resentment rise up. We hissed passive-aggressive insults under our breath at each other, and then Ellie walked away, saying, ‘once a daddy’s boy, always a daddy’s boy.’
I guess it was too good to be true that our relationship had gone a whole month without reverting to pettiness and acrimony. As I saw her stand next to our mother and be introduced to a lady in a red dress, I felt overcome by her hypocrisy. She spends the whole day at our mother’s side and has the nerve to question my loyalties.
Eventually, we did leave the house. The entire entourage in their coats and hats, descending a path down the hill, leading to the buildings we were ordered to not park in front of. Ellie was at the front with Orletta, and I was at the rear, again with Conrad, trying not to feel this sudden shame for in some way betraying Dad.
‘I still feel a fraud at these occasions, no matter how many I have found myself at over the years. The uncouth businessman among the cultural elite.’
As we walked slowly, letting the rest meander ahead of us, I did wonder if this was a deliberate charm offensive put in play by Orletta to divide and conquer. After all, Conrad was a businessman, and perhaps he saw soft-hearted negotiation as the key to getting what they wanted. Alternatively, and from what my gut feeling was, he saw in me the only other person with who he did not have to hold a conversation about the virtues of the neo-classical versus Pre-Raphaelite movement.
‘My late wife was the art lover. She would force me to accompany her to gallery after gallery, and I would impatiently look at my watch rather than the paintings, eager to leave and get to a telephone so I could hear news of whichever deal I was pushing through.’
The route had taken us through a field and was far more direct than that of driving, though I could not help wondering if the dozen or so sixty-somethings would struggle to make their way back up, especially with the sun due to set in a couple of hours.
‘We moved here when we received the diagnosis. She wanted to spend whatever remaining time we had together out of the city and trying her hand at landscapes. After she passed away, I found myself visiting those same galleries where I had so clearly not been present. This time I could not help but be moved by a force I had learned to appreciate too late.’
Above us was what could have been a kestrel circling the clear blue winter’s sky. The crunching of gravel accompanied the sound of Conrad’s voice as we approached the Colony.
‘All this somewhat began then. There I was, the businessman who knew nothing about art morosely in the company of art dealers, gallery owners and curators, trying to be close to someone I had lost. And then I met your mother. A rare thing among the rest: talent. And soon all this evolved. She wanted to be somewhere where she could solely paint, and escape the gallery set to somewhere she was not constantly surrounded by sycophants. So we formed the Colony, as it's come to be known. But not with some heavy sacrifices along the way.’
‘Like my sister and me.’
It was not meant as a slight. I hope my quiet tone implied that. We were in the horseshoe courtyard, and Conrad stopped to put his hand on my shoulder.
‘It’s easy to have regrets. And it’s easy to bear ill will. But from someone who knows, it does not bring you any peace of mind.’
Orletta led everyone into the art-block-type construction we had unforgivably ‘photobombed’ with our Volvo. The red-haired woman was at the entrance, and our mother was introducing her to Ellie. I saw her mouth an enthusiastic, how do you do, as if Ellie’s threat of a drugs charge had not happened. We were in a long spacious room with light wood flooring, plenty of sunlight, and white walls. It was an ideal gallery space to display the vast collection of paintings, artwork, and sculptures before us. And then the sycophants gathered around Orletta, eagerly awaiting some form of announcement.
‘Friends,’ she beamed, her white clothes glowing in the light. ‘I know many of you have become more than acquainted with these speeches of mine over the years, so I thought I would divert from tradition and be succinct. Which I am sure some of you will be pleased to hear.’
There was a light rumble of laughter among the bright smiling faces around me.
‘Soon I will be leaving you in the capable hands of one of our most talented artists, Sylvia De Vale – ’ There was warm enthusiastic applause as the red-haired woman stepped forward smiling. ‘But before I do so, I would also like to say a huge thank you to two very special people who I am honoured to have here today with me…’
‘Oh kill me now,’ I heard Ellie’s familiar whisper behind me.
‘West May prides itself as being one big family and my only regret regarding what we have achieved together at our little colony, which has benefitted so many talented wonderful people over the years, is that we could not do more. Host more artists. Work with more people who see art as a sanctuary. Who need space to find themselves…’
‘Like she found herself?’
‘I thought you weren’t talking to me?’ I whispered back.
‘It’s not all about you, dickhead. It’s all about us apparently.’
I had not noticed that my mother was standing in front of a small table. As she moved to the side, she revealed what I first thought was another sculpture. However, it turned out to be an architectural model.
‘We are delighted to announce that the West May Art’s Centre – our Colony – will see its first significant expansion since Conrad and I first converted those dusty old outbuildings into what we are standing in today. It will see a second gallery space, an extension to the artists’ barn, and expanded quarters so we can welcome new friends – ’
Another round of applause interrupted Orletta, this time even more enthusiastic.
‘And none of this would have been possible without the generous support of my daughter Eleanor and my son Scott… Champagne? There should be more champagne going around. Do we all have a glass?’
And glasses were being passed around. In front of me was the girl from the house. She briefly turned in my direction to offer me a flute from her tray, but as I tried to smile apologetically, she simply ignored me.
‘Please raise your glasses. To Eleanor and Scott.’
‘Oh fuck off,’ I heard both my sister and me mutter beneath our names being cheered.
My reunion with Ellie was short-lived. She was gone as soon as the cheering squad dispersed. Surprisingly I saw her back talking to Sylvia De Vale – or more accurately, Sylvia De Vale corner my sister – who seemed a lot less hostile, laughing delightedly with Ellie, her hand earnestly placed on her arm while Ellie seemed awkwardly forced to take the attention. There were a few people gathered around the model of the Colony. I approached feeling what I can only describe as numb. I wouldn’t say we had been played or manipulated – there did seem to be a genuine look of pride as Orletta made her toast – but the result was that we had been played and manipulated. She had her legacy laid out on that little table with all the buildings beautifully crafted, and we had endorsed it by being present with all her cronies. I had two people come up to me and shake my hand, again telling me how proud I must be. I mumbled thank you and tried to step away feeling like I, ironically, was the only sane person in a house of fantasists.
It all seemed so calculated. We had been invited not to negotiate but to concede defeat, and our compensation was… what? The gratitude of some posh people we did not know. But I wasn’t angry. Nor was I disappointed. Instead, I felt like I was about to let her down. What I had come to accept was Orletta’s behaviour did not spring from any malice. More like a misplaced sense of joy. If she was happy, then everyone else surely must be happy. She seemed genuinely delighted to have us with her and so excited about her project, which would not happen. At least not immediately. Dad would not want his house sold so she could expand the cult for whom she left him. Surely she could see that?
Across the room, Ellie was now being given a tour by Sylvia De Vale. My sister’s redheaded nemesis had her arm linked around her, and they were standing in front of a Jackson Pollock style canvas with splatterings of paint all over it. In front of me was an industrial metal sculpture of what could have been a horse about to gallop skyward.
‘Do you remember when you were a boy, and you would love making up stories about monsters and heroes at every museum we took you to?’
Next to me, for once without an entourage, was my mother, quietly smiling, staring at the creation with me. I did not know whether it was a rhetorical question or I needed to scan my mind back to earlier childhood memories. I again mumbled something like, kinda.
‘You were probably too young.’ Like none of the last twenty years had happened, I then felt her arm link around mine, and for a brief second, her head was on my shoulder.
‘You’re all grown up.’ She then looked at me, examining my face and then my hair. ‘Obviously you were when I last saw you but more so now. An adult. Not a boy.’
I wasn’t sure what to say. Instead, I just let this warm, soothing sensation wash over me as she again scanned my face as though I was a precious artefact and could not quite believe it was real. A small distant voice called out why did you go?
‘We will talk. Soon,’ she then whispered, putting her hand on mine. ‘Once everyone has gone. I promise.’
I walked back up to the house with Conrad and Maxwell as the winter sun set over the hill.
‘Charming young lady, that Sylvia. Charming! Had us all in absolute raptures. Quite the artist too by all accounts.’
I heard a low hum from Conrad as I saw his brow furrow.
‘Yes, she is a favourite. Or at least she believes herself to be. There are some very talented young people here who perhaps go slightly under the radar because of Sylvia’s… enthusiasm for the limelight.’
Everyone else had been driven back to the house, and when we arrived we were greeted by warmth and candlelight. This time we were corralled into a large dining room with a buffet laid out on its table. As I heard Maxwell regale the tale of our walk back up the hill as if we had been on an expedition in the Antarctic, I surveyed the rest of the room. Ellie was at my mother’s side once more, sipping what looked like mulled wine, surrounded by the impeccably dressed hangers-on. Sylvia was laughing and beaming with two other guests across the room, and I began staring at the walls. Or what was on the walls. They were all works by my mother – when she was still my mother, and not the Orletta Roberts.
‘Mulled wine, sir,’ said the girl who had earlier offered me the sparkling wine. This time she had a tray of steaming Christmassy glasses and was distinctly curter, staring straight past me as she made the offer.
I looked over at Ellie, who was still sipping hers.
‘Thanks. Actually, do you know how strong this is? My sister is meant to be driving, but I think she had a couple of glasses earlier and – ’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ the girl said politely, cutting off my rambling story. She looked around a little impatiently and gave me that same passive-aggressive quarter-smile.
‘I’m sorry about earlier,’ I said, taking a glass so she could go. ‘I was a bit preoccupied. I haven’t seen Orletta – Mum – I don’t even know what to call her – in a long time, and I wasn’t expecting quite so many people to have been invited to the reunion. It’s still no excuse for taking it out on you when you were nice enough to talk to me.’
I sipped my drink, hoping the dark red liquid would mask what I knew would be my pink cheeks at having had to apologise to a stranger. I turned to focus on the painting so she could quickly leave. But she didn’t.
‘I guess successful families have their issues too,’ she said in a softer voice. I saw she had on a kinder smile this time.
‘Successful? Perhaps Orletta. You’re talking to someone who had to pay for the weekly shop from the jar of change and coppers he’d been collecting the last year. Costcutters were thrilled.’
‘I guess you’re the prodigal son then,’ she then beamed, with this warm youthful glow.
I laughed, immediately covering my mouth in fear I might spray wine either in her face or over the painting.
‘She painted this when she lived with us. Before she was successful.’ I was gazing back at the painting, suddenly remembering how it had sat on her easel in our conservatory. When it was her conservatory. I did not know if the girl was still listening. I was talking aloud, recalling a memory that had flickered to life in front of me.
‘It’s our local churchyard, but the scene as you come out of the church. I remember she would take us there for a walk, and she would stand at the top of the steps looking out. I’d ask what she was looking at, and she would say, ‘Everything,’ and smile at me like she knew something magical that we had not yet learned.’
It was autumn in the painting. The people were blurs, but the fallen leaves were vivid, as were the stone wall and headstones and the trees at the back.
‘It’s my favourite,’ said the girl now standing next to me with her tray. ‘She only exhibits these ones at the annual show in the town. It’s probably one of the reasons I’m still a waitress. I get to spend once a month doing something related to my degree rather than doing admin at a solicitors or working at a vets.’
‘Does my mother know she’s got quite the fan?’
‘God no!’ she laughed. ‘I think she’d take out a restraining order. I’ve never even spoken to her. Who knows what I’d say!’
I turned around, looking for Orletta. She was at the back of the room, still surrounded by her minions.
‘I know exactly what you mean.’
Lydia, as she introduced herself, skilfully balanced her tray as we shook hands.
‘I better get back to work. It was lovely chatting.’
She smiled, and I went back to gazing at my mother’s painting, now a well-known artwork, exhibited to a community one hundred and fifty miles from where it was painted.
‘Finished flirting?’ said Ellie joining me.
‘I wasn’t. We were just looking at St Michael's.’ I nodded to the painting.
‘Who knows, if you made the trip sooner, you probably wouldn’t have to have waited until you were thirty to lose your virginity.’
‘I’m being kind.’
We both then seemed to let the conversation tail off as we gazed at Mum’s painting.
‘I had forgotten about this one,’ Ellie said quietly. ‘It was her breakthrough piece. I thought she sold it.’
‘Me too.’ For some reason, I felt that icy cold sensation of someone proverbially walking over my grave.
When I next looked away from the painting, I saw some of our mother’s guests with their coats on and goodbyes being said. Conrad was then at our side, telling us we would retreat to his study while those leaving left and the catering team set up for dinner.
‘It’s quieter in here. You can finally talk. Your mother’s been wanting that for a very long time.’
Maxwell was already there waiting as we entered a full-sized drawing room rather than a study. At one end was a large desk with big leather chairs opposite, rather like the chairman’s office at a large bank. At the other end of the room was a small lounge with four more leather chairs surrounding a circular glass table. Maxwell had taken his usual place perching on the desk and in his hand was another manila folder.
‘We’ll do all the goodbyes and be with you momentarily.’
Conrad left us with the perennially beaming Maxwell, who I’m sure would have been in his element with all the networking and the presence of southwest England’s elite.
‘Fun day. Good of Orletta and Conrad to do all this. Explain things properly.’
‘Yes, such fun. Next time perhaps we could throw in a colonoscopy. Really get the party started.’
Maxwell smiled to himself, showing no sign of registering what Ellie had said.
‘Listen, you chaps, before they come back, I should say it is very decent of your ma and Conners to sit down face to face with us like this. I know you believe you did the right thing getting that fancy solicitor of yours involved, but usually, once that happens, things get very tedious with letters exchanged and writs drawn up. I think you would agree this way is, if not better, decidedly cheaper.’
Ellie and I exchanged a look as we had gathered another chair to put in front of Maxwell, forming a crescent. I knew that if even a half-decent sum was discussed, Ellie would have us pull our claim on the house. A small part of me hoped it would happen. The fight would be over, Ellie would take the decision out of my hands and we would have closure. But what would I do then? My life would remain transient, and I would no longer have the only thing that anchored it.
The door of the study reopened. Orletta seemed to sparkle as she entered the room, the all-conquering heroine. The small child within me retreated back behind the sofa to watch her smile and glow.
‘I’m so sorry, darlings, you’ve been so patient! A little bit of organising is still needed out there. We have a little soiree every Saturday for the artists, and obviously tonight’s will be a little bigger with yourselves and our last few board members.’
Conrad followed my mother into the room. Maxwell was still beaming from the desk, and everyone else took a seat in the crescent. Apart from me. I had gravitated to the window at the side of the room. I was only a few feet away from Ellie, and I could see Maxwell fine. I found something soothing about the cool windowsill and cold emanating from the glass.
‘Sylvia has kindly taken up the baton regards entertaining, and the agency girl is setting up the dining room. Such a pleasant girl, only a slip of a thing. They get younger and younger, don’t they?’
‘Young enough to give you a whole host of grandchildren if Casanova over there gets his way.’ Ellie smirked mischievously at me.
‘Oh don’t talk such nonsense, Eleanor,’ snapped Orletta, quite suddenly, quite jarringly. It definitely surprised Ellie as she stared back at our mother, a mix of shock and hurt in her eyes, who then distractedly flattened out her white trousers and, in the briefest of moments, let her serene smile return as she looked up at our family solicitor.
‘Max. The floor is yours.’
‘So, the business end of proceedings.’ Maxwell opened the manila folder. Like Orletta, he smiled pleasantly as if this was all a formality before the real main event – another dinner party where he could work the room and network.
‘Eleanor, Scott, your ma would like to make you the following offer regards your challenge to probate on your father’s estate.’
The light from the house helped illuminate the darkness I was looking out into from the window. I could just about make out the vastness of the hills and fields. They had a beautiful house in that Devon countryside of theirs. Idyllic, picturesque, and with their own vineyard and artists’ retreat thrown in. Mum had certainly gone up in the world since she had slummed it in middle-class suburbia raising us. Her conservatory dwarfed our conservatory. Conrad’s study dwarfed Dad’s. And now I was being handed a piece of paper that would swallow up our whole life into this already palatial estate, expanding that pretentious little colony at the expense of every happy memory I associated with my existence. As I stared into the night sky, my eyes firmly away from the room I was in, I thought about the apple tree in our garden and the swing Dad had built for us when we were small enough not to break it. I thought about the bookshelves in Dad’s study. I thought about my Games Workshop pieces cluttered about my room and spilling out onto the landing, and then about Ellie’s sheet music and music biographies. Mum left, but we didn’t. She was the one who became Orletta Roberts and no longer our mother.
I had the piece of paper in my hand but did not look at it. By the feel of it – the thickness, its higher gsm weight, the not quite smooth texture – I could tell it was an official, formal offer and not just a number they had written on the back of an envelope.
‘As you can see, it is very generous, all things considered.’
Still staring out of the window I heard someone rustling the paper. Of it being turned over multiple times.
‘I think there’s some kind of mistake. This is some sort of joke, surely?’
I quickly flicked my eyes across and saw Ellie staring perplexed at the paper as if she was near-sighted and it was advanced nuclear physics. I then saw the number she was struggling to comprehend.
‘You can’t honestly think this is an offer, let alone a generous one? Maxwell, I do understand that people once bought their first house for not more than this but things have moved on from the 1960s…’
‘My dear, it is a substantial sum considering the circumstances and your rights under English law.’
‘We are owed more than this! We’ve put in more than this. This is nonsense. It’s… it’s – ’
‘It’s one percent of the value of the house,’ I said, peering back out into the black. I could then see a small light in the middle distance moving steadily across the horizon. ‘I guess two percent if the offer is to each of us. Which is probably the same as you’ll end up paying the estate agent.’
‘This is… ludicrous. Did you honestly think we were going to accept this?’
Ellie’s voice was steadily rising and becoming slightly more high-pitched. I was used to her cutting sarcasm. Here, she sounded panicked. My sister was not one to panic.
‘Eleanor,’ said our mother, eventually, in her calm, soothing voice. ‘I wanted you to come here today to see what could be achieved with this money. The good the money could do. If it was simply for my own gain, I would be more than happy for you both to split the house between you – ’
‘No you wouldn’t!’
The light in the distance got a little brighter as it moved nearer. With my eyes adjusting to a dark not experienced in London, I began to make out the outlines of fields and the road cutting across the landscape.
‘Eleanor.’ Orletta’s voice began to sound less patient. ‘The expansion we intend to do here will not come cheap. Conrad has already been incredibly generous with his own money and his company’s resources. This is simply a realistic, and not unsubstantial sum that represents the maximum that can be spared – oh darling, can’t you see the good we can do? This will be your legacy. Yours and Scott’s. You will have something here that your children will be proud of. Perhaps even their children. We will bring art and hope to the masses irrespective of people’s income or situation.’
‘Mum, with respect, you’ve never even met my children, so have no fucking idea what they will be proud of.’
The use of the F-bomb seemed to send the room into a silence as frosty as the cold radiating from the window. I then let my eyes adjust from what was outside the window to a reflection of the room. Ellie looked like she had been sitting forward in her chair and was now staring at the floor. Our mother was sitting back looking unmoved. Conrad had the same impatient expression he would wear when we would meet him at Mum’s exhibitions. And Maxwell seemed to be studying his manila folder, oblivious to events around him. Eventually, the silence was broken, and I stared back out, trying to spot where the light went.
‘Thank you, Eleanor,’ said Orletta. ‘I can see we have some ground to cover. Scott, you’ve been awfully quiet over there. Is there anything you would like to add? What do you wish to get out of this situation?’
I heard Ellie mumble something like, like he’s going to say anything, fucking waste of space.
‘I wish it could have been you, rather than Dad.’ I said it into the dark, to those fields disappearing into the horizon.
It took me a moment to realise all eyes were on me. I turned back to the room. Ellie was giving me this wide-eyed glare. Maxwell’s brow was intensely furrowed, looking between me and his folder like I had gone drastically off-script. Conrad looked both disappointed and yet reconciled. Orletta, however, stared at me with this small, slightly amused, untouchable smile. Like she had just realised who I was. I kept eye contact with her. I heard myself them mumble,
‘If it had been the other way round, we wouldn’t need to be here.’
I don’t know if I felt I needed to justify myself or apologise or just fill the silence. I knew what I said was terrible, but all I could feel was that I meant it. Not in the way it came out, but in that I missed my dad and didn’t want to be in that room.
I stared into those amused, patient, triumphant eyes of my mother.
‘It’s been a long day,’ she said calmly, her smile still fixed. ‘On top of that, you’ve both had a long journey. Perhaps we should come back to this in the morning.’
Maxwell heartily agreed and cited everyone’s tiredness once more. Further excuses were made, and outside the room, Ellie and I seemed to gravitate to the front door. Our mother and Maxwell were elsewhere as it felt like the aftermath of an explosion, and I seemed to be walking with tinnitus in my ears. Ellie hugged Conrad – I do not recall seeing either of them do that before – and he shook my hand and gave me a nod.
‘Jesus, Scott. Jesus.’ She stomped through the gravel to the driver’s side of the Volvo. She had turned the ignition before I belatedly realised I should get in or she’d leave without me.
She spun the car around, and suddenly we were speeding away from the house, the Volvo bouncing down the rough road.
‘Ell you might want to slow down a bit.’
‘What the fuck was that?’
We swung around a corner, and Ellie threw us onto a country road, perhaps leading to the village.
‘Are you even okay to drive? I’ve not drunk anything since – ’
‘Seriously, you arsehole. What the fuck? You sit there saying nothing in your introverted little world, and then you tell our mother you wish she were dead! What are you, some kind of sociopath?’
She was going seriously fast. I could hardly see where the road ended and the stone walls began and I clung to the passenger door handle as the car ricocheted from side to side.
‘She asked. I was just being honest.’
‘No, Scott, that was not being honest. That was a negotiation with someone we haven’t seen in years and who happens to be our only living parent. How could you say that?’
‘You’re the one who stopped seeing her too.’
‘I was angry at her for not seeing Millie. I’ve never said I wanted her…’
The car flew round another corner. I don’t think we were even on the correct side of the road.
‘Seriously Ellie, slow down. SLOW DOWN!’
She was scaring me. I’d seen her angry before, I’d seen her pissed off, but I’d not seen her manic like this. Whichever road we were on was not built to take the speed we were doing as we continued to bounce and somehow avoid careering off into a ditch.
‘What’s wrong, Scott? It’s alright to wish someone dead but driving a bit fast on a country lane turns you back into a mummy’s boy? You’ve ruined everything. As usual.’
Our headlights hit a sign saying ‘bend ahead’, and I tried to warn her, but she yelled across me.
‘We’ll get nothing now. My kids will get nothing. She’ll never talk to us again. You’ve effectively got your wish and included me in it. Thank you!’
Be it the fear, the high octane of having to cling to the car for dear life, but something inside of me then snapped.
‘Oh my God, Ell, think of all the shit you said to Dad over the years. All the shit we had to put up with from you. I may have said I’d prefer if Mum and Dad swap places but you’re the one who…’
‘I what?’ She turned her head to glare at me, challenging me to complete the sentence.
Chapter 21: Paint
It was lovely seeing her. It was that morning of my twenty-ninth birthday, I had barely had four hours of sleep and was still high on good indie music, my favourite lager, and a kiss from a stranger. I had celebrated my birthday the night before as I was due to have a proper birthday meal with Dad that evening. It had been a great night. Joan and Alison had organised it, and a dozen or so of my university friends had stayed out drinking and dancing. The stranger I had kissed was a girl I’d met in the smoking area outside, away from the speakers and heat of the dancefloor. It wasn’t exactly a Shakespearean love story – she was about to leave and had said she wanted to make her ex-boyfriend jealous – but it was spontaneous and left me with an excitable buzz that I woke up with that morning.
And when I met my mother at the gallery, I still had that buzz, making me immune to my usual dread and awkwardness. And what was even more bizarre, so did she.
‘Scott,’ she called across the lobby. She beamed and walked over to hug me.
‘Look how handsome you are,’ she said, examining my face perhaps for signs of age or wear since we had last seen each other.
‘Is it just us?’
‘Of course! Who else were you expecting?’ As she laughed, I did not want to explain that it was never just us. There were only two other people were in the Monmouth Square gallery lobby at that relatively early hour. Usually, the curator would be attached to Orletta’s hip telling her who she next needed to speak to, and there would be numerous hangers-on awaiting a moment of Orletta Roberts’ time.
‘I stayed over at The Dorchester last night. Conrad is in the midst of one of his deals and needs to remain in Devon, so I thought why not make an early start and see my darling boy before it all gets hectic later.’
It felt like our first conversation in adulthood. The first time she seemed to put either Ellie or me at the top of her agenda as she squeezed my hands and kept staring at me, smiling like I had not seen her do in years.
She led me to the café, ordering enough coffee, juice and cake to keep us there the whole morning.
‘So tell me about that very clever job of yours, are there any young ladies who have caught your eye?’ She asked me questions that made the schoolboy inside me giggle and blush and seemed to have a rather optimistic opinion regarding my attractiveness to women. She then told me about her work and life in Devon.
‘You have to come and stay with us,’ she said, squeezing my hand once more. ‘We have nine resident artists, and then there are the others who travel to join our little workshops. Oh, Scott, it is so peaceful. You would love it. I do not know how we have gone so long without you visiting.’
Her first meeting was at midday, and at five minutes to the hour, we walked back to the entrance.
‘Promise me you will visit. Before the year is over,’ she said as she hugged me. I promised and left the gallery having had the best day with my mother in a very long time.
‘You were bloody lucky,’ said the guy from the AA after towing the car out of the mud. ‘Suspension seems fine. Brakes appear in working order – you might want to go easy on them though and take it to a garage for a quick once over – but, yeah this bog here pretty much saved you. Could have been very nasty otherwise.’
We were standing at a large gap in a stone wall, which Ellie and I had driven straight through, not noticing the sharp bend immediately in front of us.
‘Can we drive it back to London?’ I asked.
‘Officially, I should say take it to the garage first. But,’ he grinned, staring at the Volvo, a little browner and sadder than before, now back on the road with its headlights on, ‘she’s a tough old girl. Take it round the block and if she’s handling well you should be fine. Just maybe do it in daylight and leave the Grand Prix driving to the experts.’
He smirked and handed over a clipboard to Ellie, who had hardly said a word since we came off the road. There had been a brief moment when I had thought we were both dead. I just remember our lights reflecting off a sign or something dazzling me, and then we seemed to shoot through the air into darkness and suddenly come to a standstill. Neither of us said anything for at least a minute. Ellie then groaned, ‘shit’ and I opened the door to put my foot in a foot of mud.
After, while we waited for the breakdown service, I surveyed the scene. We had pretty much carried straight on through what should have been a hairpin turn. Incredibly fortunately, the stone wall which previously had lined our journey had ended, leaving a runoff into an open field.
‘It’s been here a while,’ said our AA man. ‘Farmer leaves it open for access. Slope of the hill means it collects water so not much use for much else.’
I think something in our shell-shocked manner gained his sympathy as he offered to lead us into the village. Ellie had no objections to me driving.
Our bed and breakfast was a posh-looking pub with rooms. It had a very quaint Tudor look with its hanging baskets and then beams going across the ceiling as we entered. A young man in uniform stood at a small reception desk and smiled at the dishevelled strangers.
‘The kitchen will be closing in ten minutes. If you’re hungry you’re welcome to go straight to the restaurant while I check you in and take your bags up.’ I looked at Ellie, she nodded, and we wandered zombie-like straight through into the bar and were kindly placed in front of a roaring fire in a quiet corner of the pub.
Ellie was still silent and seemed transfixed by the menu, so I just scanned the room while we waited for our food. It was cosy and warmly lit – there was a light buzz of music in the background, and it had more of the feel of a fancy restaurant than a traditional country pub.
As the food arrived, Ellie picked up a chip, took the smallest bite, and seemed to chew it for an age staring into the fire. Her shoulders were hunched and she looked pale, though her eyes were a lot darker around the outside than I think I’d seen them.
‘Fuck.’ She said it in more of an exhale as she hunched further over, gazing into the fire.
‘Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck. What the hell was I doing? I could have killed us.’
She pushed her meal to the side and slumped, elbows on her knees, head in her hands.
‘Seriously, we should both be dead. The last thing I saw was the wall and then…’
She was still staring out at the warm flames and crackling logs. I put down the chip I was eating, feeling it might be inappropriate to keep stuffing my face while my sister for once looked vulnerable.
‘I was driving like a lunatic. What about Millie and Ed? What would they have done if something had happened? What about Mike? How would he cope?’
‘You were angry. You’re entitled to be angry after what I said.’
‘So my response was to wrap us both around a tree at eighty miles an hour?’
We sat in our chairs listening to the fire. I could hear the light hum of the pub behind us, the glasses clinking, the low rumbling of faraway voices.
‘I’m sorry about what I said. About you and Dad. That was a stupid, low blow.’
‘He was more proud of you than he was of me.’ I picked up my pint and another chip. I was suddenly starving but still didn’t think it appropriate to tuck into my steak while trying to engage Ellie in a heart-to-heart.
‘You made him happy. You gave him grandchildren. I made him worry. If anyone drove him to having a heart attack, it was me.’
Ellie still sat motionless while I hunched forward too. We’d never really talked about Dad dying. We talked about Dad and everything that came after but not the fact that he actually died and left us. That he had a heart attack and had to call an ambulance himself, or that it was a neighbour who let the paramedics in around the side and they apparently found him sitting in his chair in the conservatory fighting for what would be his last breath. We didn’t talk about the fact he died alone, and surely if there was one thing we both owed him it was to have not let that have happened.
‘Sorry about how I reacted. About what you said to Mum,’ said Ellie, softly. ‘It is as understandable as it is fucked up. Something you might want to discuss with that therapist of yours.’
‘Fuck off, Ellie.’ I surprised even myself at how defensive I got hearing my mental health brought into the conversation. The effect, though, was for Ellie to smile at me.
‘We’ve made a mess of all this, haven’t we?’
I don’t think she was just referring to the trip to Devon.
‘With Mum,’ I reluctantly began. ‘It felt like the last twenty years had not happened. She was that amazing, radiant woman who had once sat us on her bed and told us how wonderful we were. But if we were so wonderful why didn’t she try harder with us? Keep us in her life? I wasn’t saying I wished she was dead, I’m just not too thrilled with how the present has turned out and having to reconcile with someone who will reject us again once she gets the house.’
We ordered another round of drinks and eventually made a start on our steaks. We agreed not to take Orletta’s offer and ask for some legal advice from someone less biased than Maxwell.
‘I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to have our house subsidise a bunch of Sylvia De Vales getting high in a circle painting bowls of fruit.’ Ellie took a large sip of her red wine to wash down her last bite of steak.
We had turned our chairs away from the fire to eat. Ellie would occasionally glance over my shoulder, staring absently at the bar while talking. She at least looked a lot cheerier. She then smirked.
‘So why didn’t you ask for her number?’
‘Pretty young waitress from up at the house. The one who was giving you the puppy dog eyes of ‘oh, your mother’s my favourite artist, I feel wet just talking to you’.’
‘Ellie,’ I frowned. Even my most laddish of male friends did not have the vocabulary of my sister. It was part of her charm, in a way. When she would visit me in Exmouth Market she held legendary status among my friends for her turns of phrase.
‘For one, she’s a bit young. I think she’s only just graduated. And two, I’m not really over Katie.’
‘You were never really under Katie.’ She burst out laughing, ignoring the fact that I was partly confiding in her my heartache.
‘Well, after the whole Izzy thing, I just don’t fancy being the type of guy who claims to like someone but then chases anyone else who shows him attention.’
‘You Casanova, you!’
Ellie was almost in stitches, having to lean back in her chair as she laughed.
‘One question for you. Since you arrived back in England, how many people have you slept with?’
This was not the type of conversation we tended to have.
‘One,’ I said a little defensively. ‘Just Izzy. A couple of times.’
‘And how long was it before her?’
I thought back, looking up to the ceiling, trying to recall when exactly it had been.
‘Seriously, if you have to think about it that long I’m guessing it’s not recent history.’
Here it came, some joke about being reclassified a virgin.
‘That’s not exactly the track record of a sleaze or chauvinist. You may like Katie, but she’s with someone else.’ Ellie shrugged her shoulders like it was just the way of the world. ‘You are allowed to date other people. To sleep with other people. This isn’t a Disney film, there isn’t going to be a thunderbolt, and the girl of your dreams isn’t going to appear suddenly in front of you, letting you carry her into the sunset. Best way to find someone to love, is date enough people to appreciate someone special when they arrive.’
I was a little bit taken aback by this sudden openness and advice with no trace of sarcasm.
‘And, pretty young waitress is hardly a kid either. Very much a woman, from where I’m sitting.’
Ellie nodded to the bar. I turned around. The girl – Lydia – was standing there with another girl. As our eyes met, she quickly turned away, and her friend began laughing.
‘So are you going to go over there or what?’
When I didn’t, Ellie rolled her eyes and got up from the table.
‘I’ll get us another round then. See if liquid courage can get you to talk to a girl who has been staring at you for half an hour.’
I couldn’t see what Ellie was doing or saying. She returned a good five minutes later with another pint and a glass of red wine.
‘I forgot to order dessert,’ she said, sitting down, this wide smile on her face. ‘Off you go then, you can take your pint with you.’ She shooed me away. I hesitated, then rose to my feet.
‘Oh, and Scott? She’s twenty-six. I think that’s fine regards who’s mature enough for who. See you in the morning.’ She winked, sipped her wine, and turned her chair back to the fire.
As I approached Lydia, her friend smiled and wandered away. She had changed out of her waitressing uniform, put on more makeup, and her hair was down rather than up.
‘Hi again,’ I said, reaching the bar. She smiled back, looking as awkward as I did.
‘I was telling your sister that I had wondered where you both had gone. I didn’t realise you weren’t staying for dinner.’
‘Yeah, things didn’t pan out as we hoped. Lovely pub, is this your local?’
I tried to move the conversation away from what would have been matricide and car crashes – both figurative and literal. She again gave me this giggly smile.
‘Kind of. This is where we go to escape the local. It’s kind of for tourists or those who can afford the wine but the girls and I used to work here back in the day so we still get a staff discount. Plus, it’s an excuse to wear something nice once in a while.’
I glanced down. She was wearing a smart black blouse and a black skirt, shorter than the skirt she had been wearing at the house.
‘Your sister’s quite forward.’ Lydia’s face went slightly pink as she grinned.
‘What’s she said?’
‘Oh, nothing bad. Just that you’d had a fling recently that didn’t work out and – ’ She hesitated, going a little pinker. ‘Nothing. She was just being kind. You’re staying here, right? Rather than at West May?’
‘Yes,’ I said, slightly distracted by what Ellie might have said. I thought we should move off that topic and asked if I could buy her a drink. ‘So you used to work here? You can probably give me the guided tour then.’
‘What, of the bedrooms?’ she laughed. ‘Sorry, I’m not usually as bad at this,’ Lydia said as her drink arrived.
‘At talking.’ She smiled again and tried to stop herself from laughing. ‘To men.’
She had a beautiful smile, and I liked how she’d glance at me, seriously, just for a split second before beaming again or sipping her wine. It felt so strange having this conversation after the day I had had.
‘We’ve actually come here for a bit of girl-only escapism. We occasionally chat to some tourists but normally we come here to avoid being hit on by locals – ’
‘Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to – ’
‘No! You’re not. It’s just… I paint too, you see.’
My furrowed brow must have amused her as she laughed and turned pink once more.
‘I waitress mainly so I can paint. Frustrated artist, you see. There are a few of us from uni who have a West May of our own. We gather every fortnight or so for weekends away, but unlike your mother’s, ours is more what we envisioned the sixties to have been – drinking, smoking, free love.’
She bit her lip. Her cheeks were bright red, and she took a large gulp of cooling wine.
‘It can all be a bit incestuous at times. What I’m trying to say, rather badly, is that it is nice talking to a single man for a change.’
Lydia pushed her brown hair away from in front of her face. She was gorgeous. She had this free, youthful exuberance that both felt infectious and seemed so excitedly hidden away in the softly lit pub.
‘So you’re not seeing anyone at the moment?’
Lydia shook her head. ‘No one serious. Like I said, my circle of friends can be pretty tight-knit. In fact, the last time I had sex was with Emily and her boyfriend when we all got stoned together just before Christmas.’
She turned and flicked her head to the girls who had been at the bar with her. They were now at a table at the back, looking over at us, giggling. I had put my pint to my mouth and was taking a long drink, trying to force away the mental images of what I had just heard.
‘Free love.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not usually this forward. Your sister said you were only staying one night. I told her I’m living in the village back with my parents while I save up to move to London, and… I don’t know… She seemed to imply that I might not want to be backwards when coming forwards.’
Again, she smiled at me, both enthusiastically and innocently.
‘I don’t normally go home with guys I’ve just met. Or to their rooms. But if you’re only staying the night we could just hang out?’
Ellie was still sitting by the fire making notes on her phone, her sticky toffee pudding finished, as I sat back down with a bottle of red wine and two fresh glasses.
‘What are you doing?’ She turned and looked back at the bar. Lydia was sitting at the back of the room with her friends. ‘Seriously, Scott, how have you managed screw that up?’
‘I didn’t. I just told her that there was someone else, and it wouldn’t really be fair on her. She said she understood. We swapped numbers. We may meet up if she comes to London for a gallery exhibit or something.’
‘Scott,’ Ellie said, glaring at me. ‘There is no one else. You’re allowed to have sex with other women. And she was going to have sex with you! Oh, Christ, it’s like we’re back at school and poor, sad Scott was blissfully unaware that there were girls who were interested in him, if he would only take his head out of his arse.’
‘Well, I guess I’ll just have to live with it.’ I poured the glasses and passed one to an exasperated-looking Ellie. ‘But for now, how often is it that I get to hang out and get drunk with my cool older sister?’
Chapter 22: Semantics
I received a message from Camille asking me to meet her at Coffee and Records on Exmouth Market instead of coming to her office. They were only a short walk from each other, and I knew Coffee and Records well from my years living in the area. Its concept probably does not need explaining. The only element I could not say for certain was whether it was a small takeaway coffee bar that decided to fill the remaining space with records, or whether it had been a tiny independent record shop who then decided to sell high-end espressos and flat whites.
Either way, I arrived to see Camille at the counter staring up at the menu board.
‘Decisions, decisions,’ she said before ordering a Peruvian Americano.
‘Or coffee, as we call it over here,’ I smirked.
‘That’s enough of your cheek, or you’ll be buying your own fancy-beans latte or whatever you’re having.’ I had my wallet out about to order when she said, ‘this is on me, the least I could do dragging you down here so I can fulfil my caffeine addiction. Damn cafetière’s stopped working.’
I ordered the same as her, and while we waited, Camille thumbed through the shelves of records.
‘Scott, what I like about this place is they have taste.’
From the stacks she pulled out Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
‘Nothing quite like The Boss to make a Cali gal feel at home.’
When our coffees were ready, Camille led the way out and said, ‘how ‘bout we go all Good Will Hunting and do our session in the fresh air? Make the most of the fact it’s not pouring down for once in your fair city?’
We made our way down a narrow alleyway to Spa Fields, just behind Exmouth Market. It was a hidden away park, and at that time of day in winter, it was deserted. We sat on a bench facing the grass, and the warm coffee compensated the relatively mild chill.
‘Normally, I don’t like to stray too far from my office. Some of my more New Age colleagues in Cali would take their clients down to the beach and get them meditating to the sound of the surf, but sessions can rapidly go downhill if you make that breakthrough and your client starts bawling their eyes out in a public place. Not that I’m saying you’re not allowed to bawl your eyes out – hey, do what you want to do. I more thought the change of setting might induce a catch-up session.’
And it did. Spa Fields was peaceful, and at midmorning it was secluded with no one around.
‘Ellie has a call with our solicitors later. To talk about what our options are regarding Mum and the house. She’s barred me from taking an active role in talking to anyone at the moment.’ I made a light snort thinking back to the drive home and that compromise we made.
‘You had no luck in Devon?’
I briefly brought Camille up to speed on the trip, including my last words to my mother before we left.
‘We received a call in the morning from her partner, Conrad, saying that she was feeling under the weather and it was best we head home, and we pick things up the next week.’
‘So you didn’t hold back then?’ Camille smiled.
Sitting hunched on the bench, I shrugged, watching some pigeons land opposite and start pecking the patches between the grass.
‘I know you might not be feeling the best about yourself right now, but what you said was a minor breakthrough. I’m guessing that is the most honest conversation you’ve had with your mother in a long time?’
I sat staring out over the grass to the empty benches on the other side of the park. I felt I should have at least said something to my mother the next day to explain, but I still was not sure what that explanation would be. Or whether I was actually sorry. Because she showed no remorse either, for all the times she was not there and for now trying to take away all we had left – our house and memories.
‘Scott, you spent the whole of last year deliberately avoiding one big thing – grieving for your father. It may be strange to hear this, but what you said might have been quite healthy, though perhaps you may want to consider how you vocalise further epiphanies.’
I noticed Camille watching me, giving me a moment to digest. She crossed her legs, and it looked like she was wearing black denim jeans under her long red coat.
‘And what about Katie? And the situation with her friend? How are things working out there?’
I told Camille about Katie being away in Florence. I also told her about Lydia and how I could not stop thinking about Katie when talking to this beautiful girl.
‘Oh my, you are in demand,’ she laughed.
‘Exception to the rule. It was only one kiss with Katie, and now she hardly even returns a message, considering I slept with her best frenemy. With Izzy, we were just in the same place not wanting to be alone on New Year’s Eve. And with Lydia – she’s more interested in who I’m related to – ’
‘Oh wow, this gets cheerier and cheerier! Scott, think back to how things were when you first came to see me. You’ve spent the last two months building relationships – something you were deliberately shying away from. As for this you-Katie-Izzy triangle, which may or may not be in play, people do have ex-partners and one-night stands. There are always pasts and shadows in the background. It comes with the territory these days. And also, women don’t just sleep with men they are not attracted to purely because of who their parents are, or that they don’t have a date for a party. That puts both you and them down. It may not come up in many Jane Austen novels, but you are allowed to let yourself go with the flow occasionally.’
Camille then hunched over to match my pose, holding her takeaway paper cup in the tips of her finger.
‘Scott, you’re a nice guy. You’re a good-looking guy. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen with these women, remember that you have qualities that make you very likeable to others, so you don’t need to be surprised when that person you keep putting on a pedestal actually sees you at eye level.’
After the self-pity shaming from Camille, I returned to Dad’s that afternoon, feeling it the appropriate setting to take Ellie's call after she got off the phone with our solicitors. It was also Jane’s day reading through Dad’s books and journals, and we sat in the kitchen as she put the kettle on.
‘Thanks for continuing to do this,’ I said. ‘If it was left to Ellie and me, the whole place would be caked in dust.’
‘It’s my pleasure. George was always house-proud, and with me, it’s more compulsion than any effort to give the place a once-over before I sit myself down and read through his collections.’
Jane poured the kettle into our old teapot and placed it in front of us.
‘Margery has been very impressed with your work, dear. It seems to be coming along very well.’
‘Early days.’ I smiled as Jane poured the milk into each cup.
‘I hope you didn’t mind that I told that young lady your whereabouts. Since retiring I’ve always struggled with the art of keeping schtum. Decades of secret-keeping for Her Majesty makes you quite the chatterbox when the Official Secrets Act no longer dictates your every move.’
‘Do they… monitor you? You know, make sure you’re not divulging anything you shouldn’t?’
Both Ellie and I had so many questions about Jane’s life at MI5, which Dad forbade us from bringing up. He simply said it was not polite to ask a guest such a thing.
‘Heavens no,’ Jane laughed. ‘You’ve been watching too many of these appalling thrillers they keep making. Real life is far more mundane. For one, both agencies have a front door at a not-so-secret address a stone's throw from a public underground station. And for another, while I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, I am hardly the holder of any juicy conspiracy theories. I was a bureaucratic civil servant like any other.’
At that moment my phone rang. It was the call I had been awaiting from Ellie.
‘Scott?’ I heard her say. It might have been a bad line as she sounded like she was in the middle of a storm.
‘Ellie? Where are you?’
‘Walking down to nursery to pick up Millie. It’s just started chucking it down and I’m already late.’
‘Do you want to call me back?’
‘No, I’ll be quick. There’s a way we can sort things out quickly and maybe even cheaply. They advised that if we want to avoid the courts and having our life savings sucked into the void of legal bullshit-blah-blah, we do something called adjudication. Have you heard of it?’
‘When someone adjudicates for you?’
‘Yes I had gathered that for myself, thank you. I’m a piano teacher not a fucking idiot – sorry Ed-Ed – seriously, I really need to stop swearing in front of the kids.’ I could hear Ed giggling as the sound of rain seemed to be diminishing.
‘Listen, I’m getting close to the nursery so might have to call you back, but it’s basically handing over all our arguments and documents to a third party and have them decide and let that be an end to it.’
‘So, like a judge?’
‘No. Or yes. I don’t know. It means we don’t go to court and someone sensible decides if Dad actually did mean to leave the house to Mum or us. The solicitor says it’s probably our best option as probate law is technically with Mum, but just because Dad didn’t sign those bloody divorce papers doesn’t now give her the right to everything. If we can look through Dad’s finances and show Mum received some form of settlement for the house when they split up, then that would work in our favour.’
‘She did, though. We know she did. Remember that was half the reason why Maxwell was round so often when we were kids, trying to sort that out.’
‘Yeah, but we were kids. What did we really know? The solicitor said to get our bank records – yours, mine, Dad’s – going back as far as we can remember and prove she never paid us or Dad anything for maintenance or university. The solicitor was saying how because she was earning more than Dad that’s important, especially as she was the one who walked out.’
I had stepped out of the kitchen while taking the call. I glanced back over my shoulder at Jane sipping her tea.
‘I’ll call you later and we can discuss,’ Ellie said. ‘The solicitor said it can be a bit of a lottery and once we submit our argument we don’t get a second bite at it. But it will be over. One way or the other.’
She sounded out of breath and I assumed she must have reached the nursery as she hung up. Or she was as exhausted as I was by the whole process. I knew we were going to go for it, lottery or not, we couldn’t afford to go through the courts, and negotiations had failed epically.
I could tell Jane had heard something of the conversation as I returned to the table.
‘There are worse options, dear,’ she said, placing her cup down. ‘Adjudication has become popular, largely because this legal system of ours is up to its eyeballs, so something had to give.’
I told Jane about my mission to unearth Dad’s bank statements and finances.
‘I was going to spend some time here next week anyway while I was working on Mrs Elsop’s. I’m assuming we need this stuff sooner rather than later though I have no idea where to start.’
‘If you like, I don’t mind casting my eye over your father’s papers. Your generation probably wouldn’t have a clue what to do if something originates away from that internet of yours.’
‘You don’t have to. You’ve been more than enough help already keeping this place habitable.’
‘Nonsense, your father and I are from the same generation when it comes to storing old paperwork. I see you’ve collated most of his boxes already. Give me a week with what you have and perhaps we can see how much further along we are.’
Jane checked to see if the teapot was still warm and then topped up our cups, adding another spoon of sugar to hers and two to mine. It felt slightly disloyal to say she was a soothing, motherly presence considering we also had Auntie Pam. But with Auntie Pam’s globetrotting antics, we hardly saw her, and, besides, Ellie and I were far too intimidated by Auntie Pam to ever refer to her as motherly.
‘You’ve enlisted Miss Marple?’ said Ellie, over the phone, as I let myself back into Loughborough Road. I had it to my ear as I placed Mr Jones’ tools on the newspaper I had left for them by the front door. I was panting for breath and mentally chastising myself for not owning a car to making working on the other side of London less of a time-consuming, arduous pain on public transport.
‘Jane offered. And it used to be her day job.’
‘So to make up for the fact we don’t have the cash to argue our case in court, we’ve brought in a retired government spy to do our admin?’
‘I’m going back to help. Jane just seemed to know what she was doing. As opposed to me…’
Kicking off my shoes, I climbed the familiar wooden stairs, noticing one floorboard was creaking and sinking more than the others. I thought about messaging Joan but realised that was a waste of both our time. I made my way directly to the bathroom and put the phone on speaker, placing it on the sink while I changed out of my mud-stained clothes.
‘When’s Miss Preppy Knickers coming back?’
‘Next weekend,’ I said, letting the water from the shower warm-up and then staring at myself in front of the mirror. Again, I had somehow managed to get mud into my hair. I wondered if, if Katie was single, would she overlook the state of me. I didn’t know what I’d say to her when she got back. Part of me just wanted to see her again, and overwhelm her with as much platonic positivity I could muster so that we would inevitably go back to being friends.
‘How long before she’s off properly?’
‘No idea. Maybe a couple of months.’
‘So, are you two just going to sit around in awkwardness pretending nothing’s going on? Or are you at least going to try to get your life together and get out of that shithole?’
‘Nice pep talk, Ell. Thanks, cheered me up no end.’
‘Scott, if Mum agrees and we’re able to sort out the house in the next few months, you’ve got no more excuses for all this dossing around.’
‘Just remember, Ell, we made a pact. You get back out there with the music, and I’ll… well, I’ll do something. Maybe.’
‘A pact means one of us actually does something, not use each other’s uselessness to make excuses,’ she mumbled, finishing our conversation on a positive note.
I checked the water temperature and was about to remove the rest of my clothes when my phone rang again. Expecting Ellie, I was surprised to see Izzy’s name flashing back at me.
‘Hello, handsome,’ said a voice I didn’t initially recognise. It was nicer, slightly more mellow, and definitely sexier than what I would have expected from when the caller usually addressed me.
‘You are an arsehole, you know that? A complete arsehole. Terminal, in fact.’ It was definitely Izzy.
‘You’ve called to tell me that?’ I could hear some low-level activity in the background, the low rumble of conversation, and plates and glasses clinking. It was not loud enough for a bar so I presumed she was at a restaurant, though I had no idea why she was calling me from it. Perhaps she had misdialled and referred to every male she knew as an arsehole? It was not unlikely.
‘I called to say – firstly – you are an arsehole for not telling me you’d been to reconcile with your mummy. And – secondly – that I’m bored and want entertaining.’
I was reminded of our first conversation when her responses were barely one word. It now sounded like we were old friends, and she seemed to be flirting with me.
‘I’m on a date and he’s taken me to this to-die-for place with the most amazing wine, but the problem is he’s turned out to be a complete dullard.’
‘You’ve called me to tell me you’re on a date?’ I turned off the shower and saw my face in the mirror crease up into a what-the-fuck expression.
‘To give him his credit, he does know his wine. And he does know how to treat a girl. Unlike some.’
‘Is that why you’re on the phone to me rather than talking to him?’ I smirked, picturing Izzy at a fancy bar with some young toff in an expensive suit.
‘He’s in the little boys’ room if you must know. He’s been plying me with alcohol the whole night hoping I’ll be drunk enough to find his knowledge of Chippendale sideboards interesting. Mmmm, great wine. Not great enough to offset the dullness.’
‘I’m surprised to hear from you,’ I smiled and had a quick glance out of our bathroom window as if making sure there were no eavesdroppers to our conversation. ‘I was going to call after New Year’s but – ’
‘But you’re an arsehole. And to give you credit you did fulfil your purpose. Now, I need something from you. What are you doing, by the way?’
I put my t-shirt back on as the only way to make the conversation even weirder was to have it semi-naked.
‘Nothing. Just house stuff.’
‘My, what an exciting life you must live. Spoiler’s away and I need you to fill a role she normally plays.’ The flirtiness was suddenly gone. I imagined her with her game face on. She then began whispering.
‘It’s pretty simple. I just need you to talk. About anything in your sad little life. Like one of those gardens of yours. Ready? Okay. Oh, babe! I’m so sorry!’
‘Gardens of mine? Izzy? What the – ’
‘She must be feeling rotten.’
‘Who are you talking – ’
‘It’s my gay best friend. Our friend’s partner’s just dumped her. She’s in bits, the poor thing!’
‘I’m your what? That’s quite flattering, to be fair – ’
‘Oh shush, babe, I’m on my way to relieve you. He’s over there with her, but he’s got a date, you see, sorry I really should go. Babe, I’m on my way. See you soon.’
‘Izzy, this is ridiculous even for you – ’
She hung up and I was left half bemused, half impressed. My job was apparently done. I waited for a minute in case she was going to call back and then turned the shower back on. It was a strange diversion, though I could not help smiling as I took off my t-shirt once more. It was flattering to be thought of, even as an excuse. With Katie moving out, I was soon to be as anonymous as I had been when I entered the flat. So it was nice to be thought of as, well, a gay best friend, I guess.
I was treating myself to a second glass of wine, hoping the melatonin would give me a good night’s sleep, when the doorbell rang for the first time. By the time the ninth ring had sounded, I realised the wine might have been stronger than I thought, as I felt a little light-headed, having to run downstairs barefoot in my pyjamas to see what the emergency was.
‘Izzy? What are you doing here?’
There on the doorstep was the girl I had been having a quasi-flirtatious conversation with half an hour earlier. Though, I say a girl, screen actress or model would be more apt. She stood there with this sharp accusatory smile in a short frilly black dress that sprang out just below her hips in an obtuse triangle – a sexy obtuse triangle, that is. Her lips were blood red, and she could quite easily have been on the red carpet of a Hollywood premiere rather than a back street in South London.
‘I told you. I’d been plied with wine and was too drunk to guarantee I would not end up letting that poor sweet dullard have his wicked way with me.’
She beamed and then kissed me on the mouth before gliding past and walking inside. Her lips tasted sweet. Like expensive wine.
‘I mean, what are you doing here?’
She was rubbing the goosebumps on her arms as I closed the door.
‘Maths,’ she shrugged and then walked up in what I noticed were the same heels that had pierced my side a month earlier. I saw her stumble slightly as she reached the landing. Perhaps it was the ridiculously high heels. Perhaps not.
‘I told you. It was dullard’s and my first date. Can’t get drunk and do something desperately slutty on the first date.’
She continued into the kitchen and spun around in the middle of the room smiling at me, with this strange slightly wonky intense smile that – while making her no way less attractive – scared me by its intenseness.
‘Us, on the other hand, this would be our fourth. Perhaps, if I’m generous, our fifth date. Nothing wrong with doing something slutty on a fifth date, is there?’
‘Izzy, I was actually about to go to bed…’ Rather than fully comprehending what she was saying, I was still a little unnerved by her smile. ‘And, you kind of made it clear you wouldn’t be interested in me – ’
I cut myself off, still staring at this completely different person in my living room. My first thought was that this was some form of trap. It was her elaborate game to prove to Katie what a creep I was and then humiliate me – Katie was on some other end of a hidden camera, though there wasn’t an obvious place on her she could conceal it.
‘And I thought you said – ’
‘Scott!’ she interrupted me, still beaming. She slowly walked forward and put her arms around my shoulders. ‘What would you prefer? We could stand here arguing about semantics. Or you could put your cock in my mouth.’
At school, being born towards the end of the summer made me feel a bit of a late developer growing up. It wasn’t just being one of the last ones to be legally served in pubs or be allowed into clubs – obviously, everyone was drinking and smoking well before the respective legal ages. There was something in being almost a year younger than all the cool kids which kept me a little in my shell, and less likely to develop my own coming of age narrative.
When it came to women, I have always felt at the younger end of my peer group even if this peer group could now be classified as twenty-two to mid-forties. And associating myself as the fresh-faced young man who was naïve with women resulted in a self-fulfilling prophesy: I worshipped them, I put them on pedestals, I did everything but consider them as normal human beings with the same flaws, insecurities, and the same needs as me.
So it was certainly not the norm for attractive women – two in a week – to seek me out and ask to see my bedroom. And for all the pretence of believing Izzy to be shallow, arrogant, dismissive, and rude, it was me who put her on a pedestal based on her looks.
‘You should see your face!’ Izzy then laughed, her arms still on my shoulders. ‘You know you aren’t bad-looking. There’s something quite sexy about this lost-boy innocence.’ She stared at me and then placed another quick kiss on my mouth, kind of childlike, like she was doing it to see what my reaction would be. She then stepped away. I assumed this was her drunk, but then she did a perfect pirouette in front of me. It was a full three hundred and sixty degree spin in high heels, with complete control and more than a touch of grace.
‘After all, I did say I was coming over to relieve you.’ She gave me an over-elaborate wink and then flung herself down onto the dining chair smirking. She picked up the bottle of wine, topped up my glass, and drank as if it was her own.
‘Oh that’s awful,’ she said, pulling a face. ‘I should give you dullard’s number. Perhaps he could teach you a thing or two about wine.’ The lack of vintage did not stop her from taking another sip.
‘Scott, I miss Katikins! And it’s your fault, so the least you can do is drink with me and cheer me up. I promise I’ll won’t keep you up much past your bedtime.’ She then slid the wine glass towards me.
‘Oh, and nice PJs! I saw something similar when I was baby shopping for my cousin’s daughter. Very sexy. Oh, and you might want to make sure that you don’t have an erection when you try to look all serious like I’m such an inconvenience.’
‘You’re very chatty,’ I said, reluctantly sitting down and making sure the table concealed any outline emerging at the front of my pyjama bottoms.
‘That’s probably the line of coke I did before the date.’
We had a strange conversation. Izzy called me a hypocrite for asking why she was doing cocaine, especially before a date. ‘I am allowed. I don’t do it often and it’s been a bit of a shit week. It’s not like I’ve let the occasional line fuck up my life like it did yours.’ I replied, ‘Well then, I know it doesn’t help. Either short term or in the long run.’ ‘Were you always this boring and judgemental?’ ‘I’d like to think we’ve become friends and think you might be upset about something.’ ‘You are such a fucking arsehole,’ she then said, both glaring at me and running her fingers over the back of my hand, which was on the base of the wine glass we were sharing.
‘Do you have any orange juice, then? It’s meant to neutralise the effects. Acid combats the alkaline apparently.’
I did have orange juice and got up to get it from the fridge. When I turned around, she was gone.
One of my blues albums began playing at a deafening volume from my room above me.
Quickly ascending the stairs, I was apprehensive of what she was doing in my room. I imagined record sleeves and easily-scratched vinyl thrown onto my bed. She also genuinely seemed like she needed to talk, at least until the cocaine was out of her system.
As I walked in, my lamp was on low and Izzy was standing in front of the bed staring at me with that same strange-looking, piercing smile. She lowered the volume.
‘Let’s play a game,’ she said, walking over to me. In front of me, she again put her arms on my shoulders, smiling. She then dropped them and raised my pyjama top up my stomach.
‘Izzy, I don’t think this is a good idea.’ Rather than taking notice, she mock-pouted and then kissed me.
‘Be a sport. Like I said, it's only a game.’ This time felt the tip of her tongue touch mine. She started kissing my neck. She lifted my top further till it was also at my armpits.
‘Izzy, I want to but – ’
She made her typical pouty face and then mimicked my voice, ‘Izzy, this is bad. What would poor Katikins say?’ I half raised my arms and then stopped abruptly.
‘Scott, be a good little boy. Just one game and I’ll go home like a nice girl.’ I then felt the top yanked up over my raised elbows. It was an old top and was narrow around the neck, meaning it wasn’t the easiest to take off at the best of times. Now it was hooked under my chin and stretched over my face like I was an old-fashioned bank robber with a stocking as my disguise. She then seemed to stretch it further and hook it around my elbows, somehow immobilising my arms above my head. I couldn’t see a thing. I just heard her laughing as I stood like I had just surrendered to armed police, unable to free myself with my shoulders locked.
‘Oh, hello. Someone’s enjoying this more than he’s letting on.’ She was still giggling, and I felt the tip of her finger tap the part of me where all my blood had been involuntarily flowing.
‘Izzy, stop messing around. This isn’t funny.’ I felt suddenly claustrophobic, anxious hearing her laugh like this was the joke she had planned all along. A weird game of dominance and very much her style.
I then felt my pyjama bottoms yanked down. My hands were still stuck above my head, and I anticipated her laughing more at the school ground pantsing. I felt their cord tighten and tied so I couldn’t shift my legs.
‘Seriously?’ I muttered. In the darkness, I pictured her getting out her phone and taking a video of me in that ridiculous position, then blackmailing me with it the rest of the night. But then she stopped laughing. I first felt her hand. I then felt something that was definitely not laughter.
Chapter 23: Sex dress
‘Well, that wasn’t humiliating at all,’ Izzy eventually said, her hand covering her eyes as we lay under the covers. I’d forgotten to close the blind, so early morning daylight shone brightly on both of us. ‘Thanks for not being a complete, utter arsehole about it. Much appreciated.’
We’d both been awake for some time. I knew that because of several factors: the sighing; her pinching the bridge of her nose and then elaborately throwing her arms down; the kick to my shin as she turned her back on me; and the fact she had rolled on top of me like I wasn’t there to drink the whole glass of orange juice I had brought her the previous night.
‘You weren’t exactly yourself,’ I mumbled, half embarrassed, half annoyed with her. I was suddenly very conscious about how naked we both were under my duvet.
‘So, what? You thought you’d be taking advantage of a drunk slut who throws herself at arseholes when she’s high?’
Both our voices were still low despite the content. I hadn’t slept much, and Izzy sounded hungover.
‘It all seemed a little bit sudden, that’s all – your interest in me. We’d hardly said anything since New Year’s and – ’
‘Ahem, there’s no interest, Scott, last night was just…’ She covered her eyes and shook her head. ‘And I think you being stalkerishly obsessed with my best friend may have something to do with our lack of chat. Failed to mention your little eavesdropping session, didn’t you?’
She rolled onto her side and gave me a piercing stare.
‘Not that it matters.’ She then rolled back, seemingly content her blow had landed. ‘She seems just as obsessed about not hurting your feelings, if that’s what last night was about? A belated show of worthiness?’
On the floor next to the bed lay Izzy’s dress, my pyjamas, and the remains of my floor lamp. With Izzy still glaring at me, I thought back to what had been our latest ‘night of passion’.
Naively, it had first taken me a moment to realise what was happening, as I still struggled with the straitjacket Izzy had created out of my top.
Puritanical, perhaps, but with my t-shirt blindfolding me, the sensation I was feeling caused a face to pop into my head, and it was not Izzy’s. What are you going to tell Katie? said a voice somewhere. Suddenly freaked out and guilty, I tried to lower my arms. I have no idea how Izzy managed to create such a tight bond and I couldn’t move them. I tried to slowly back away, but the cord to my pyjama bottoms still tied my legs together. I then felt a new sensation, one I’d not felt before, slightly lower and beneath where it had been. I thrust myself away. Or at least I tried to.
‘What the fuck, arsehole?’ I heard Izzy jibe.
I tripped. I first wobbled backward and then swung myself forward to counterbalance. As she swore at me, I tried to jump away and turn my back, beginning to panic from sensory deprivation and the inability to free my arms. I then stumbled, careering toward the only light in the room.
There was a loud snap, then a pop. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ came Izzy’s shrill voice as the light went out and I free-fell to the floor. The crackle of electricity then followed as I lay on the broken pieces of metal and glass.
On the floor, in the rubble, I finally threw off my top and then tried to pull up the bottoms, but I couldn’t – Izzy had tied a tight double knot in the chord, so I kicked them off too. I lay on the floor completely naked, letting my eyes adjust to the dark.
‘Izzy, I don’t think this is a good idea.’ I suppose my words would have had more potency had they been less monotone and I not been prostrate at her feet staring up at the ceiling wheezing. I felt a toe prod me. Twice.
‘For fuck sake.’ At some stage during the experience, Izzy must have undressed. She was naked, and furious, and I then saw her legs flip onto the bed. When I eventually got to my feet – it took at least a few minutes – Izzy was under the covers with her back to me.
‘You can get in. I’m not going to bloody pounce on you,’ she mumbled, now sounding sleepy.
I delicately placed myself at the edge of the mattress.
‘Hand,’ she then ordered. Before I could do anything, she reached behind her and grabbed mine, bringing it to her waist. ‘Just hold me,’ came a softer voice.
Izzy rolled back over, bringing our conversation to an end. Without another word I collected some clothes and left her. In the kitchen, I put on coffee, set the table for two, and raided the fridge to make scrambled eggs.
‘Just you. I haven’t had a chance to do much of a shop recently but what I do have is a lot of breakfast things.’ I had my back to her, gently stirring the eggs. ‘I’ve poured you some orange juice and the coffee’s on the table.’
‘I’m going. I’ve already ordered a cab.’
‘Shame. There’s toast too. I’ve already buttered it so you can take it with you.’
I was still deliberately facing away from her, cooking the eggs. I transferred them onto a serving plate, and as I turned around, I saw I had an irritated-looking breakfast companion resentfully pouring herself coffee.
‘I didn’t eat anything last night,’ she mumbled and took a small bite of toast.
‘Just the excellent wine?’ I tried not to grin.
‘I don’t normally eat breakfast.’ She prodded at the eggs with the tip of her fork before scraping a small amount onto her toast.
‘I was drinking neat gin by myself when we first had sex. If you could call it that. You didn’t seem to have any issues taking advantage of a drunk girl then.’
I put my knife and fork down. Apparently she did not do small talk either.
‘I was drunk too. And you seemed like you could more than handle the gin. Last night seemed different, that’s all.’
‘I’m not saying I’m not relieved and completely over the moon not to have had sex with you, but I think I might have preferred that ignominy to the knight in shining armour routine, saving me from myself.’
I smiled. The Izzy I had come to know was back, and there was something very reassuring about it. Izzy then glared at me.
‘If it was a straight choice between Spoiler and me, both single, both wanting you, who would you choose?’
‘I… I don’t know you that well enough,’ I sighed. Izzy was staring, open-mouthed.
‘And I’m meant to be the brutal one! I had you at least sitting on the fence. Good to know where I stand, Scott.’
‘You said it was a hypothetical.’
‘Interesting though that you’ve slept with me a selection of times and not even slipped your hand beneath Spoiler’s chastity belt, but apparently, you don’t know me well enough.’
‘You don’t want me, though, Izzy,’ I smiled. ‘You don’t even like me. You’ve made that quite clear. You just seem to come round when you need…’
‘Need what?’ She stared at me sharply. Her mouth curved into what could have been mistaken for a smile had her nostrils not been flaring.
‘Someone to listen to you,’ I mumbled. I was beginning to think breakfast had been a bad idea. And her description of me wanting to be her knight in shining armour was, embarrassingly, not off the mark. It was like I could not solve my own problems, so I had hoped a plate of scrambled eggs would fix hers. Like they were trivial.
Izzy went back to nibbling a small amount of egg off her slice of toast. She did, however, gulp down most of the orange juice.
‘I need to go home and change before work. I can’t go in like this.’
She glanced down at her black dress.
‘You look fine. Surely you’re allowed to wear a dress two days in a row?’
‘Scott, it’s a sex dress. You wear it on nights you want to have sex. Wearing it into work means you’re coming in after a one-night stand.’
We ate the rest of breakfast largely in silence – the majority of sounds were either sighs or the breakfast things being moved around the table. Izzy then turned over her phone and put down her toast. For a second I thought she was about to leave.
‘That guy I told you about, at New Year’s? I saw him last week. Nothing happened between us. He was with his girlfriend.’
She was leaning against the wall, her arm draped along the back of the chair.
‘I can already imagine what my therapist would say. Izzy sees well-known heartbreaker. Izzy tries to convince herself she can be happy with dullard instead. Izzy then goes and drops her knickers for some pleb she’s already drunk-screwed twice. Shit, I really have to stop calling Otto a dullard. He was more relieved than disappointed when I said I had to leave.’
‘But it’s okay to call me a pleb?’ I smiled, hoping it might cheer her up.
‘A pleb who’s my go-to fuck-buddy when drunk. Or at least he was until he turned me down.’
We had both moved on to our coffees. The atmosphere in the room felt delicate, though considerably less tense than it could have been.
‘Do you need a fuck-buddy?’ I found myself asking, looking at Izzy. Her dark hair draping down past her shoulders, those intimidatingly sharp cheekbones, and fierce, sexy eyes surely meant she would be immune to the insecurities as the rest of us? I was slowly learning it did not.
‘You’ve got everything going for you. I guess what held me back yesterday was that there was no need for you to be here.’
I wasn’t sure if I was rationalising the situation to Izzy or to myself as I continued to look at her. ‘I knew that neither of us would get that feeling of wow, I want to spend my life with this person.’
‘And you get that feeling with my best friend?’ It was a challenge rather than a question as she sent me a piercing stare.
‘I just didn’t expect to feel so guilty when I last saw her. Even though I knew she was back with Ethan.’
‘So your strategy is abstinence? Interesting. For your whole life or just until you meet Miss Wow?’
I knew she was ridiculing me but I didn’t mind. If anything it was refreshing just talking to someone. Even Izzy.
‘She’s only here for another couple of months, max. I’d rather enjoy them. Even just as friends.’
‘Interesting.’ She sipped her coffee again. ‘Men and women being friends and not having sex. Is that possible? Where’s the fun in that?’
A trace of a smile flashed over the rim of her coffee mug.
‘Who knows. I’m not exactly an expert. But I’m up for it if you are?’
I had fallen out of the habit of checking my emails, not having an office-based job. But having a fledgling business that can’t afford an app or website meant I did at least have to log on once a week to see if I had any responses from my gardening leaflets. So while Izzy was in Katie’s room changing out of her sex dress, I fired up my old laptop.
‘This is alright, isn’t it? Librarian enough to counter the amount of leg I’m showing off?’ Izzy had changed into one of Katie’s work dresses – a black and white corduroy dress that, only later I realised, made her look like she was going to a fancy dress party as a clichéd, sexy librarian. She even picked up a pencil from the table and used it to tie her hair up. ‘I only need the glasses,’ she said as I guiltily closed my laptop, hoping my face didn’t betray what I was looking at. Only when the coast was clear and her Uber had left the street did I rush back upstairs and return to the screen that I wanted to read in total privacy.
Hey stranger. Conferences have gone really well, thanks. Lots of discussions on Florentine art and I have duly kept my mouth tightly shut, just nodding sagely so people won’t know what a fraud I am. Arrived in Copenhagen a couple of days ago. It’s lovely here! So wintery but a nice cold compared to the bone-chilling ones we get. I actually got very drunk last night at a work dinner in this amazing restaurant and ended up boring some elderly professor rigid about all I knew on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Had such a hangover this morning.
Sorry for the lack of replies to your messages. Things have been so hectic, a bit overwhelming if I’m being honest. Even tonight I’ve had to go to another reception and have been force-fed more wine. Oh it’s a hard life, I know! Anyway. Just wanted to say I miss our chats and sorry we didn’t have more time to hang out before I left. I’ll be back Saturday afternoon, perhaps we can have a cup of tea and catch up then? Take care.
I felt the universe was finally with me. Like in Old Testament bible stories, I had been sent a test, and this was my reward for not succumbing to temptation. I then had a panic that Katie had sent the email days earlier, so I checked the timestamp. It was five minutes past midnight that morning. Just after Izzy’s and my fumble had resulted in me lying in the sad remnants of my lamp and my dignity. I then looked back at the time. It was late, and she had been drinking wine, and she was thinking about me enough to write. I knew I should not read any subtext into the email. Or let it give me false hope that she did think about me when she was alone, like I did her. But it was too late. That false hope was bubbling away ready to erupt.