Chapter 24: Notice
Ellie was driving up to meet me at Dad’s house. She informed me that Mike had finished a series of session projects that had him losing most of the previous weekends, so he would have the Friday off and spend it with the kids. ‘Our equivalent of giving me a spa day,’ she had said over the phone.
‘Your ma has agreed to adjudication,’ said a less enthusiastic Maxwell, also over the phone, the day before, and was the reason why I was making my way back to Wood Green the day before Katie was due back. Maxwell said he would come over and drop off some of the paperwork we had to sign. ‘If you’d come to me first, I would have advocated you first go through the negotiation and arbitration routes…’
We had also asked Jane to join us to go through Dad’s paperwork, and she could let us know what she had found in all those boxes of jumbled statements and invoices. After everyone else had gone home, I then planned to spend the evening familiarising myself further with all the forms and papers and try to be of more use than I had so far been in proceedings. I would stay the night and then return to Loughborough Road in the morning, having already cleaned the flat both to the best of my abilities and to what was possible considering what it was.
Arriving at Dad’s, I could hear the sound of the piano. The keys were crashing down quickly and a wall of sound was building up as I let myself in. I entered the living room and silently joined the already present audience of two; Maxwell and Jane. Ellie was sitting at her stool and continued undeterred, ascending the scales, driving the volume. Her hands were positively flying through the keys. The notes were both thunderous and deliberate – a melody controlling a storm. It built and built and then, just like a giant wave, suddenly broke and crashed to the shore. Suddenly came something calming – soft and beautiful and perfectly controlled. As the dust settled, I was transfixed, in awe at what I had witnessed.
Jane, Maxwell, and I applauded as Ellie took her hands off the piano.
‘My final piece from university. The way it should have sounded if I wasn’t doing whatever it was I was doing instead of practising.’
‘Dear, that was wonderful. You should be very proud of yourself.’
‘Well, I guess that’s what happens when you only get five hours of sleep a night raging away on an electric piano while the kids are in bed.’
‘Five hours is plenty. Margaret Thatcher thrived on just the four, it is said.’
Ellie closed the lid of the piano and looked up at me. Before she could say anything Jane addressed me.
‘Eleanor’s been telling us she has an interview.’
‘Not an interview. Just a meeting.’ My sister got up from the stool and joined the rest at the sofa and chairs. ‘Small amateur orchestral group in Worthing. One of the yummy mummies plays the viola and told me they were looking.’
She didn’t look overly enthusiastic, but then again, this was Ellie, Queen of Sarcasm. On the other hand, I was surprised and a bit daunted by the fact that she had done something already. I tried to give her an impressed look, which she ignored and instead turned to Maxwell. ‘So, she’s agreed then?’
‘Well, from a purely legal standpoint she would be a fool not to.’ The tea set was arranged on the coffee table and Maxwell had a cup and saucer in his hand. He looked rather vexed.
‘My girl, I wish you would have talked to me before doing this. I would have at least like the opportunity of talking some sense into you.’
‘Maxwell! We followed your advice last time and ended up with an offer that pretty much equated to nothing and a plaque in our names over a barn conversion.’
Apart from Jane, we had all shuffled forward in our respective seats. Jane and Ellie were on the sofa, and Maxwell and I took up the armchairs, looking very much the circle of conspirators.
‘My dear,’ Maxwell sighed but straightened his back, looking more business-like. ‘The reason why I myself had not suggested adjudication is that it has every means of taking the power completely out of both yours and your ma’s hands. For every winner there is a loser, and something your solicitor may have failed to divulge is, practically speaking, it is no less hard work than proceeding through the courts.’
‘But, Maxwell, you’re the one who advised us against going through the courts,’ I tried to counter, mainly to appear of use. ‘Jandice and Jandice, and that. It would cost a fortune. This solves things quickly and gets it done.’ Maxwell gave me a tired look, like I was being the opposite of use.
‘Scott –’ another sigh – ‘the original intention of adjudication was that the process would be fairly informal. Something for the everyman. However, as with most of our legal shortcuts, it has developed into a formal process involving detailed submissions, witness statements, and often even expert reports. There is no wise King Solomon on the other side who will judge sagely and fairly. In my humble opinion, the system is as bureaucratic as any other and prone to far greater misunderstanding by whoever is charged with adjudicating your outcome.’
Unlike me, Ellie looked unmoved as Maxwell tore our choice down. She just sat listening like she was waiting for him to move on to the ins and outs of what came next.
‘If you had come to me, I would have asked you first to consider negotiation and then arbitration. Our meeting with your ma…’ I’m sure there was a sideways glance in my direction. ‘It perhaps could have gone smoother, but it was only step one. Slow and steady wins the race. We could have gone back to the negotiating table, we could have brought in a third party to arbitrate, all while building bridges, not tearing them down – ’
‘Maxwell, we see what you are saying. But every morning I wake up and get two small children dressed and fed, take them to nursery, go to work, collect them, find some time to try to plan my future and then curl up on the sofa with my husband discussing who is more permanently exhausted. For me, slow and steady doesn’t win a thing. All this is time spent away from my husband and children, and if I can get anything out of this for them, that is the only thing I give a shit about.’
I’m sure I saw a slight wince from Maxwell again as Ellie swore, but she calmly put her teacup down and stared up at him, resolute and steady.
‘So why don’t you tell us what my idiot brother and I can do to get things moving, and in your humble opinion, come out of this with something more than nothing?’
And as if calm assertiveness was the primary language that Maxwell understood, he briefly detached from Ellie’s stare to peer down at his cup. He then chortled to himself before smiling and looking back up at us.
‘Very well, my dear. Very, very good point.’
Commencement, Notice of Adjudication, Appointment, Referral Notices. To give Maxwell his due, he did know the law backwards and forwards and had no qualms about offering up a tutorial. Our solicitor had briefly told Ellie and me what to expect, but as more tea was poured and biscuit selections opened, we were given the full virtual tour of what we had embarked upon. If I was completely honest, Ellie’s downplaying of my role did slightly irk me, considering it was my idea to bring in a solicitor in the first place. But then again, if Ellie had started praising me for my efforts, I would have known something to be drastically wrong.
I was also quite proud of myself for enlisting Jane, despite my sister’s lack of enthusiasm. With Jane in the room, it felt we had the grown-up we needed to prevent the combination of Ellie and me reverting to childish, impulsive ways. She sat and listened with us, but I could not help feeling she had heard what Maxwell had to say before. Jane would casually comment, ‘and the adjudicator will abide with the standard 28-day period?’ and ‘and you both need to wait until said adjudicator is appointed before you discuss fees, so bear in mind you’ll still have some negotiation to do.’ I suddenly felt for the first time in the process we were not be totally out of our depth.
Maxwell left us with a document called the Notice of Adjudication. He said it kicked off the process, and from that, our adjudicator would be appointed. This then gave us seven days before something termed the Referral Notice would be served. ‘Now, listen carefully,’ Maxwell said, sitting so forward in his armchair he was virtually squatting. ‘This sets out your whole case. Everything you want to say – your argument in detail, the evidence backing up your argument, any supporting documents or expert reports – must be submitted here and here only. As Jane has already divulged, all will then be decided in just twenty-eight days.’ Maxwell then triumphantly held up the Notice.
‘So, in total the process takes just thirty-five days, and bosh! All is decided! How’s that for a turnaround?’ Maxwell then gave us a very much villainous grin. ‘Now tell me, what could possibly go wrong in trying to resolve within just thirty-five days a matter that has so far taken all parties one full year to even arrive at the negotiating table?’
I guess I could not begrudge Maxwell one I-told-you-so moment. Preferably there would not be another one after this was all over. As we walked him to the door, he did however show some sympathy. ‘My boy, my girl, you still have time to think this through – and I am not talking about backtracking before you accuse me of further one-sidedness. Get your Referral Notice done, dusted, and one hundred percent refined before submitting your Notice of Adjudication. Do not leave out a thing. Seven days is hardly any time at all, and you can be assured old Conrad’s lawyers will do your mother’s as a courtesy, meaning a lot of associates spending a lot more hours than your solicitor who will give it a once-over if that. Use Jane – that lady puts us all to shame with her knowledge of the workings of the world – and for Christ sake, use me! No matter what you believe, I loved your pa, and I love you both as you were my own. I won’t have you going into this unsightly thing underprepared or underrepresented.’
He then did something rather bizarre. He hugged us both. Ellie had the same what-is-he-doing expression as I am sure I did as he squeezed each of us in turn. Three non-huggers hugging. He might have been sincere about his offer to help.
By the time Ellie and I finished giving each other a what-the-hell-was-that-about look, Jane was at the dining table where four dusty old cardboard boxes had been left by me weeks earlier.
‘Listen, dears. Eleanor, I know you have to get back to your young family of yours, so I will keep this quick.’
From one box, she took out a bunch of papers.
‘He does raise an excellent point regarding this whole process,’ Jane said, I assumed referring to Maxwell as she took out another stack and then another, arranging them side by side. ‘From the current legal standpoint, your mother is the incumbent. Probate should side with her. Therefore, our job is to lay out the argument that our case should be considered an exception to the rule. In evidence as well as for fairness.’
Like watching a science demonstration, Ellie and I stood at the piano while Jane conducted her presentation. First, she passed us a series of old letters. They were bank statements.
‘As I told Scott, your father and I are the generation who would keep such records well stored, fully aware of the faff and bureaucracy involved at not doing so. Hence, please look at the name on the account and the dates.’ Jane stepped over to place her finger where we should be looking. All the statements were from the 90s, before and after when Mum had stopped living with us.
‘Exhibit A, so to speak, your parents’ joint account becomes your father’s account solely.’ We could see the names of the account change. ‘Exhibit B.’ Jane then took some of the statements from us and drew our attention to some of the itemised transactions. ‘Some hefty sums being paid from this account to another, this time in your mother’s name. You can argue in that Referral Notice of yours that even if your father did not confirm definite legal termination of his marriage, he definitely demonstrated separation of financial assets. This in itself should be enough to open the door regarding whether your mother will be financially compensated twice if she were then to receive the house.’
Jane brought out copies of the house deed with just Dad’s name on and then copies of council tax declarations.
‘You will be painting a picture to the adjudicator. Explaining to them that this is not a straightforward case of probate and that your mother was absent from George’s affairs.’
I then felt a cold tingle seeing our evidence laid out in front of us. I don’t know if I expected vindication at being presented what could have been a winning position, but what I did feel was a cold sweat coming on. It all seemed so clean. Orletta had disappeared from our lives without a trace.
‘So we can package this all up and write an argument about how she had nothing to do with the house or Dad?’
Ellie wasn’t saying anything. I assumed she had a similar feeling to me, more so considering she was less openly detached about our mother, and there was still part of her who was that sixteen-year-old girl crying into her arms.
‘She’s also a relatively wealthy woman. I do not know how lucrative the world of art is, but you could very well use those statements to illustrate a lack of financial support going the other way – ’
‘It was all being sunk into that cult of hers,’ finally mumbled Ellie, taking the bank statements from me. Jane then frowned. She reached back into one of the boxes and brought out another set of letters.
‘We should leave it there. After all, it is best to state your case with as much clarity as you can muster and not rely too much on challenging the other person's actions. However…’ She handed us over the series of what, on closer sight, were invoices.
‘These papers tell a slightly different, more ambiguous story.’
Jane’s frown scrunched up further as Ellie and I shared and shuffled through the invoices between us.
‘Medical bills?’ said Ellie. ‘For what? Dad used the NHS for everything. I’ll testify to the amount I’ve heard about Dr Randel prescribing him whatever over the years.’
I too remembered those conversations – Dad and his various ailments and his chats with Dr Randel. We knew about his blood pressure, but Dad was super careful. In this day and age, he should have surely lived until he was at least ninety, right? I started hurriedly reading through the invoices, suddenly hoping to make more sense of Dad’s passing, like there was something we did not know. Something we should have known.
‘These aren’t even his,’ Ellie then said, a little indignantly, first staring at me and then at Jane.
‘They’re Mum’s. Mrs Orletta Roberts.’ She pointed to the billing items, which, for all the invoices, clearly stated our mother’s name. ‘What have these got to do about anything?’
‘Cross-reference these with your father’s bank statements. You see, he paid them. They start the year after your parents separated and carry on for over a decade, up until five years ago. The invoices show a split payment. Each for half the respective treatment.’
Jane paused and let us further examine the numbers and the dates. Ellie and I passed page after page between each other.
‘Like I said, it shouldn’t affect your case – ’
‘Oh bollocks to the case. These are for thousands,’ said Ellie, her voice a little higher than normal and still staring at the invoices. ‘In one year alone there’s ten grand. That’s just Dad’s share.’
‘This one’s for three thousand in just one go,’ I added.
‘She was never ill, though. She was always too busy to be ill. She would be exhibiting here, travelling there. If she was ill we would know.’
‘Maybe it was diabetes or something medication-related.’
‘It’s not diabetes, dickhead, she’d have that off the NHS. It’s not the fucking Dark Ages.’
‘I said something medication related. I know as much as you bloody know.’
Jane nipped the bickering in the bud. Ellie’s voice was becoming strained and mine becoming sulky as she snatched the papers away from me and I tried to claim them back.
‘I was in two minds even to mention these – in some ways despite demonstrating more financial compensation by your father it rather goes against our assertion that their assets were completely independent after their separation. But… well, George rarely spoke of your mother to me except in a nostalgic manner.’
I leaned against the piano as Ellie wandered away with her share of the paperwork, trying to detect as many clues as possible from pages with very similar entries.
‘Do we know what type of hospital this is?’
‘They are from a standard medical services company. No details of the hospital or the treatment.’
Jane did not have to say what we already knew.
‘We can’t just ask her. Mum, we think you might have been seriously ill over the last twenty years. Do you mind telling us what’s been wrong with you? Especially as you’ve already said it was your preferred outcome.’
‘We don’t know she was ill,’ I said, trying to ignore Ellie.
‘Because healthy people spend a fortune on medical bills. It’s not likely to be an ingrowing toenail.’
‘I mean, the frequency, the fact it was not one huge sum but a lot of medium sums, it doesn’t sound like… I have no idea. But you saw her, Ell. We both did over the years. She never seemed lacking in energy and, if it was serious, Dad would have told us.’
I was convinced of that last bit – my only certainty. Dad had passed away in a lot more mystery than he had ever lived his life, but there was no time at all that I believed he was hiding something.
Ellie dropped the papers back down on the dining table. She sat back at the piano, looking deflated. ‘What type of parents don’t tell their children when one of them is ill? What type of children don’t even notice?’
Jane and I convinced Ellie there was nothing to be gained by her staying and that she should drive back to Brighton to spend time with her own family. I then took Jane out for dinner at the Argyll Arms. Once a Beefeater, then a Harvester, briefly a Weatherspoon’s, and now a gastropub, it seemed to represent the changing eras of Wood Green High Street.
‘She doesn’t mean it, you know.’
I stared back at Jane over my Herefordshire burger with locally sourced mustard and Dalston-brewed-beer-battered chips – a greater mouthful to say than it was to eat.
‘We’re always rattiest with those we’re closest to.’
‘I know,’ I said, dunking a chip into the homemade ketchup.
‘It’s all a bit much for her what with how she worshipped your mother.’
‘I get it. I just feel a bit useless at times. Like, you’ve done all the research from boxes I should have looked in months ago.’
‘You’re doing what you can. Things are moving quickly now, and do not be afraid to ask other people for help.’
I had lost my appetite and regretted choosing the burger as it was ungraceful to pick at. A few weeks ago, I had wished for my mother’s early demise, and it turned out it could have come true.
‘It just seems to matter less now. If she was ill and we weren’t around. And now we’re fighting her for an inheritance. It proves Maxwell right – that we look like spoilt brats who could not get their own way.’
I slumped in the wooden chair, wondering if Ellie was feeling the same on her drive back. Jane sighed in a calm, motherly manner.
‘I can tell you one thing from my many years on this planet. There is no manual or correct decision-making process to all this. This may not be the easiest time for you and your sister, but it has had you in the same room together. And, that would have delighted your father. Believe me, he would not stop bending my ear about you both, and if there was one thing he did confide in me, it was how you both were the world to him. Seeing you together getting on well, despite all the upheavals from your childhood, was his greatest pleasure. Who knows, perhaps this was his hope all along. Without a will, you would be forced to sit down and thrash things out. He was never one without a plan, was George.’
I had thought we were finished second-guessing Dad’s motives, but apparently not. Maxwell had left me instructions of how I needed to lay out our case, and Jane had spent part of dinner talking me through a legal argument. ‘Also,’ Jane had said, ‘do not feel too invested not to backtrack if needs be. If you want to take some time and talk further with your mother – to ask about those medical bills – perhaps that would give more peace of mind than even settling on the house.’
But Ellie was also right – we could not simply just ask our mother after all that had gone before. But there was someone who might know. Someone who had been uncharacteristically quiet on the subject of our mother and someone even Dad would not have dared keep in the dark about something important.
The thing about Auntie Pam is that she gets in touch with you, not the other way around. Even before Christmas, Ellie blew her top trying to contact her and invite her to lunch. ‘What type of person doesn’t have a mobile phone in this day and age? How am I supposed to WhatsApp her if there’s no means to send her a bloody message?’
‘Is Auntie Pam really the type of person who would ever use WhatsApp?’
Instead, our aunt had left us a series of clues as to her whereabouts, the first being another landline number for someone called Jean-Luc at the Royal Society. Unsure if it was a work or home phone number, I dialled it hoping I could at least leave a message asking where to find my aunt. To my slight panic, a man’s voice answered within three rings and I had to explain to a gravelly sounding stranger the cryptic nature of my mission.
‘You are Scott!’ he cheered loudly down the phone in a French-sounding accent. ‘I have been waiting months for your call! Your auntie told me I should command her itinerary.’
He had such a powerful laugh that I had to remove the phone from my ear, and he seemed to find great joy in the use of the word command.
‘I was Pamela’s private answering service before she retired. ‘If you need me call Jean-Luc, he knows how to get hold of me’.’ Again, the booming laugh. I quickly apologised for the inconvenience and interrupting his evening.
‘It is no bother. I used to call her Madame Ministre, she was such the top dog. We miss her very much at the Society.’
Jean-Luc passed on the name of the hotel where her expedition was staying. They had left Amman three days ago and were at a town halfway to Petra. As I finished the call, I thought about calling Ellie next. I wanted to keep this a solo mission and prove to her I could do something useful and get to the bottom of this mystery. But it didn’t feel right interrogating Auntie Pam on my own. We were still meant to be a team, and it was also clear how personally she had taken the news about Orletta. If there was someone who deserved to be the one asking the questions, it was her.
So I waited until the morning.
‘Urrrrgh…’ was all I heard when I mentioned calling Auntie Pam. A long groan that overwrote what had been a more optimistic tone when she had answered the phone. She had initially told me she had a good evening with the kids and had then sat on the sofa with Mike watching a film and trying to take her mind off the whole medical bills business.
‘We could Skype her? Together. Now.’
‘According to this Jean-Luc guy, they keep moving about so it could be a different hotel tomorrow or later.’
We had tried Skype with Auntie Pam once before. And it was a total pain. I assumed Auntie Pam would have retired before video calls were the primary mode of contact when abroad. Or else she ignored the fact it existed and left the technology to Jean-Luc and her team. When I was in the Middle East, Dad arranged a family Skype call including Auntie Pam’s landline. It was probably one step too advanced for all concerned as the entire call was spent yelling out questions about technology. ‘Scott, I can’t see you, can you see us?’ asked Ellie. ‘Eleanor, what the devil are you doing in Lebanon?’ ‘She’s not Pamela. I’ve added your number to this call thingy. It’s like a teleconference.’ ‘Having to teleconference one’s own family now, are we, George? Times do move on.’ ‘We can see you! Wave to Uncle Scott, Mill-Mills.’ ‘What on earth is your daughter on about? How can we see young Scott if he’s in the Middle East and we’re on a teleconference?’ And so on. So I waited for Ellie to fire up her laptop and told her just to press the mute button when she felt like screaming.
‘Scott dear, splendid to hear from you. What can the matter be?’ Auntie Pam did have a way of getting the conversation straight to the point.
‘Auntie Pam, we’d like to ask you some questions about Dad’s – ’
‘Eleanor? Are you there too? Come closer to the phone. You sound a little echoey.’
‘I’m in Brighton. And we’re calling over the internet – ‘
‘Scott said you were calling from your father’s?’
‘I am. I’m here with Dad’s things – ’ I instantly wished I hadn’t tried to explain as the conversation seemed to turn a corner and go down a detour. Auntie Pam exclaimed how preposterous it was that we were in two different places calling her in a foreign country and then lectured us for the phone bill we would be racking up. While this was happening, I received a separate message from Ellie: 4 FUUUUUUCCCCCCKKKSSS SAAAAAKE!!!
Eventually, I managed to get us back on track, taking the lead as I could see Ellie’s Skype was now on mute.
‘Auntie Pam, it’s about Dad’s estate. There’s been a lot of money going out on medical bills. But not for him. They’re all invoiced for our mum. Do you know anything about this?’
Auntie Pam didn’t say anything. I could tell she was still on the line as I could hear the tinny echo of a public address system and a prayer in Arabic being sung – the call to prayer, I knew it to be.
‘Scott, I know you mean well, but I do not appreciate the ambush here while I am working. Surely this could be asked once I am home.’
‘Ambush? Auntie Pam, we’re just asking a question,’ said Ellie cutting in.
‘It is not a pertinent one. And why would you assume I hold any answers? Your father had his own motives for his actions. God help me if I could understand them at the time.’
‘So you do know?’ I said. ‘You know he acted? That something did happen?’
Again the prayer rung out in the background and I could imagine Auntie Pam’s hotel looking out over an arid landscape with ancient white stone buildings, similar to photos she had shown us of her trips when we were kids.
‘Because it was a shock and a little confusing for both Ellie and me. Like, if Mum was ill, or is still ill, it doesn’t really say a lot about us. And we can’t ask her because of the house, and you’ve been so quiet regarding what we should do… Without Dad here you’re really the only person we have left…’
I cut myself off. I was rambling and laying it on a bit thick to someone who saw sentimentality the same as frivolity. With no reply and the call to prayer now at an end, I checked the Skype app on my phone screen. Ellie was still on mute, and we still had Auntie Pam on the line.
‘I can hear you loud and clear, Scott.’ Another pause. If I was beginning to find the conversation frustrating, I would have liked to be a fly on the wall in Brighton.
‘Oh very well,’ then came an equally frustrated sounding voice. ‘But not over the telephone or whatever this is you are dialling me on. If we’ve waited this long another two weeks until I return will not hurt you. I’ll be in touch regarding arrangements.’
‘Auntie Pam, we’d really appreciate it if you could at least…’ No sooner had Ellie unmuted herself than Auntie Pam hung up.
‘Auntie Pam? Auntie Pam!’
‘She’s gone, Ell.’
‘What a fucking bitch.’
Chapter 25: Homecoming
Neither Ellie nor I were delighted, but the call did have us breathing slightly easier. Despite Auntie Pam saying very little, it was what she did not say that I think both gave Ellie and me an inkling of relief. She was annoyed, frustrated and a little angry. It might have been the reaction of someone keeping a secret but not of a person who knew something of life and death. Or at least that was my hunch. If our mother were ill, I would have expected her to be more solemn under questioning. Instead, Auntie Pam gave the impression that we’d found out something we were not meant to know, and she had hoped to wash her hands of it.
‘Maybe they’re not medical bills. Maybe it’s a shell company or a holding company that Dad’s been paying into for tax purposes.’
‘Dad’s a tax dodger?’
Ellie’s tone was rightly dubious as we carried on our conversation while I locked up the house and began my walk to Wood Green station.
‘Well, medical insurance comes with a tax break. And so does putting assets in the name of your spouse,’ I remembered from my financial exams.
‘Very plausible. I should have suspected as much when he asked me to be the signatory on his Cayman Islands bank account. Come to think about it, that gold bullion I found under the floorboards was a bit suspicious.’
She wasn’t even making an effort to be sarcastic.
We could wait until she got back from Jordan. That was not too much of an issue, just another inconvenience in the whole stop-start process. But, it would probably also take us two weeks to get the Notices, which I had spent the night writing, into a decent enough shape that an adjudicator would consider, that is, if Maxwell kept his word and helped us.
‘I’ll take the train up again next week. I have to be in town anyway, and I wouldn’t mind having a look over things again. In the meantime, dickhead, please stop watching Netflix, gangster films or anything with a money laundering subplot.’
With that arranged and affirmed, I finally made it onto the tube with just a few hours to mentally prepare myself for seeing the woman I had an almighty crush on and with whom had an undeniable habit of screwing things up.
When I arrived at Loughborough Road, the door was wide open. I heard voices upstairs. They sounded like Joan and Alison’s. There seemed to be some activity going on as I walked up the stairs, wondering what on earth people were doing in my flat at barely eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning.
‘If we could put the plates and cutlery at the bottom of the crates, we can use the tea towels as cushioning,’ said a voice I had not expected to hear for another couple of hours at least.
I was on the landing, and all the commotion was coming from the kitchen.
‘I don’t know why you don’t just get rid of this tat and buy everything new, now that Ethan is head arse-kisser at Nobhead and Nobhead.’
‘Noble and Noble. And I want to keep this tat, Joan.’
Even our flat had not seen such a state of mess and chaos. Half-empty and empty packing boxes were strewn on the landing resembling the morning we first moved in. A suitcase was open in Katie’s doorway with a tower of clothes piled on top, not even a remote chance of it closing.
As I entered the kitchen, my three friends were all in one room with crates in their hands. All our cupboards and drawers were open as if I had interrupted a burglary.
‘Scott!’ Alison was the first to notice me and put down her crate to hug me.
‘It’s about time,’ said Joan. ‘She’s had us at it for hours.’
Katie stood silent, the furthest from me. Her eyes had shot wide open.
‘It looks like you’re moving out,’ I joked weakly.
‘Yeah, and leaving me and you both in the lurch,’ Joan said while dragging a large box of tinned and dried food out of the pantry.
‘We’re good in here if you both were to start on the bedroom?’ Alison looked from Katie to me, picking up one of the throws from off the sofa and folding it. Katie was still staring at me.
‘Okay,’ she then said and navigated her way past the crates, giving me this awkward-looking smile.
As we left the room, I heard Joan say to Alison, ‘I guess she’s not told him.’
Katie’s room looked like a bomb had hit it. Clothes were everywhere, the duvet and bed had been stripped, even her lamp lay disassembled on the floor.
‘I didn’t think you’d be back so soon,’ I said quietly, wandering around the bed to the other side of the room.
‘I took the earliest flight in the end.’ She picked up some of her clothes, began folding them and then dropped them down.
‘A friend of Ethan’s is subletting his flat and it's ideal for us. It’s also an amazing bargain. But he needs it taken this weekend, so hence the rush. I was hoping to tell you all this in person when I arrived, but you were…’
She seemed to leave this open for me to state my whereabouts.
‘I thought Ethan wasn’t back until April.’
‘That’s still the plan, but this is a really good deal. And as Joan has been screwing us both over on rent since we moved in, I called him and said I needed to move out early. You know the mortgage is only a third of what we’ve been paying combined?’
I was completely ambivalent to that news. I stood trying to keep a passive face and process how different the current scene was to what I had played out in my head over the previous weeks.
‘And I can’t do the move tomorrow because I have to go into work for an event. And then I’m doing debriefings from the trip all next week…’
She took a deep breath and then put her hands to her face. She looked tired and exasperated and my chance to say anything to her had realistically evaporated. It was now a case of parting on good terms. That was all I could hope for. All I could now do was push my face into a smile and look happy for her and less completely deflated.
‘So…’ I took a large breath. ‘How can I help?’
With less time to organise than when she had moved in, Katie had said she had opted for a man with a van who was on his way. We made steady progress, and boxes had migrated downstairs to go in said van when it arrived. Alison and I were at the kitchen counter wrapping Katie’s glasses in newspaper.
‘Joany, is there anything in this house you actually own? At the moment you’ve left Scott with one plate, a bowl and a water glass.’
After an initial spell of packing, Joan had spent a lot of time creating space to bring the sofa and fridge forward so he could lie on the floor behind it and start unplugging and untangling wires that had connected up his old hi-fi. With Katie’s throws packed away, the sofa was left exposed with yellow foam protruding from tears in the worn black leather.
‘Yeah, I need to talk to you about that, mate,’ he said, I assumed to me, still behind the sofa messing about with wires.
‘I don’t know if I can be arsed with the landlord stuff anymore. Boiler nonsense, repairs, furniture, and that.’
‘It was one repair, Joan,’ Katie said, coming back in with another empty box to scoop up what was left in the room. ‘All you had to do was call someone. Or let me call them. Not exactly taxing.’
‘Still, I don’t want people whining at me at all hours.’
Katie then put down her box and stood staring incredulously at Joan’s protruding body, her hands on her hips.
‘It’s not exactly whining when you’re politely asking someone to do something that is their obligation.’
‘Whatever,’ he said, Katie’s complaint hardly seeming to register as he threw a speaker wire up over the top of the sofa. I was going to ask if he needed a hand, but it then dawned on me that the stereo was not even Katie’s, so I wasn’t sure why he was removing his property too.
‘I was talking to Alison’s dad the other day, and he was saying it was probably a good time to sell.’ He wriggled on the floor, and I could still only just about see him.
‘He’s done up a few houses over the years, and he’s given me a couple of numbers of people who could do a relatively cheap job plastering the walls and sanding down the floorboards. He reckons with a couple of cosmetic touches this’ll go for a mint.’
‘When did all this happen?’ Alison joined Katie side by side, her hands on hips too, staring down at Joan.
‘Christmas. I’d been too busy to do anything about it until now.’
‘What do you mean until now?’ Katie glared down.
‘I mean, as you’re moving out, I might as well get on with it. Ali’s dad said his guys are free next week, so, mate, if you could also sort yourself out somewhere new too, I’d be grateful.’
I guess what I do notice about myself over the years is that I’m a bit of a processor rather than a reactor. Joan was finally sorting his flat out – that was surely positive news as it was long overdue. Joan was also implying I needed to move out, perhaps within the next two days – less good news. Luckily I could process away to my heart’s content because I had two reactors in front of me who definitely did not share Joan’s optimism about the situation.
‘You’re evicting Scott? Because I’m moving out? Where’s he going to live? Where’s he going to store his work tools?’
Joan shuffled up onto his knees so I could see him. ‘Mate, can you pass me that screwdriver?’
He shrugged and shot Katie a scowl back. ‘How should I know?’
‘To be fair, I should be putting them back in the Jones’s shed every night but – ’
‘You capitalist bastard,’ suddenly shot Alison, open-mouthed. ‘This isn’t bloody Property Ladder. Houses aren’t assets flipped by the middle classes so they can price out normal, hardworking people. This is everything we despise!’
‘Scott has rights, brother of mine. He could sue you. He should sue you.’
Just the word sue had triggered a headache. Had I not taken legal action against enough of my loved ones so far that year? Joan got to his feet, looking neither amused at nor ashamed of the accusations thrown at him.
‘Listen.’ He stared at Alison. ‘I know you think you’re a socialist but you’re happy to buy clothes from Topshop, have girly shopping trips to department stores and spend four quid every morning on a branded Starbucks latte. Hardly what Karl Marx envisioned when he was writing the manifesto.’
Alison visibly took an intake of air and glared, but before she could respond Joan had already turned to Katie.
‘And let’s not talk about rights from the person who is now fucking off to take up some wanky banker’s flat in Brixton because her polyamorous boyfriend has finally had his fill of getting his end away with Tess Philips every – ’
‘Mate,’ I said, stepping forward probably too late. Katie was glaring even harder. Her eyes went big and her jaw appeared to be trembling as she stared at him.
‘Plus,’ Joan said, in a lower voice. ‘Village gossip back home is she’s moving back too. Coincidence, I’m sure.’
Alison luckily saw it happening first and wrapped her arms around Katie’s waist. Part of me was tempted to unlock Ali’s arms so Katie could have a free run at Joan – her arms were flailing around as Joan stood naively bemused – but then Ali suddenly let go. I briefly saw her mimic a classic Joan shrug and a livid Katie was allowed to stumble forward, her arm swung back either in a punch or almighty slap. As Joan then flinched for impact Katie hesitated. Her face was screwed up in concentration and then rather than unleash a right hook she shoved him hard in the chest.
I say hard. Joan is the same height as me, a skinnier build perhaps, but at almost a considerable height and size disadvantage Katie’s shoves had him looking more confused than at risk of his life. -After shove number three, each accompanied by a light tennis player’s grunt, she resorted to a double palmed slap making Joan’s chest sound like a set of bongos. Alison and I stared at each other uneasy. I think we would have preferred a fight to have broken out rather than watching this prolonged awkward scene. I decided to step forward and hold Katie back. But not by grabbing hold of her. Instead, it seemed more appropriate not to touch her, so I hooked her away from him by pinching hold of a belt loop on her jeans. It was, however, effective as I didn’t have to step in between them and her jeans were high enough for the loop to be central lower back. She did, unfortunately, look like a toddler on a leash. With a last flailing slap, she stopped.
‘Oh, screw you, Joan, you’re not worth it.’
She then turned and grabbed up a set of keys that were on the dining table.
‘Where are you going?’ Joan called after her, still looking bemused. We heard her feet descend the stairs, and the front door slammed.
‘The van will be here in five. She’d better be back to load this crap up.’
‘If she’s anything like me, she’s gonna leave it to the man who needs this place spotless because he can take advantage of the capitalist system.’
Alison grabbed her coat from the back of a chair.
‘But what does a fake socialist like me know!’
‘You’re going to leave Scott and me to clear all this by ourselves?’ he called to her as she left the room.
‘Actually, I’m off too, mate.’ I suddenly rushed past Joan, past Alison, and was out of the flat looking left and right for where Katie went.
I just caught a glimpse of her black coat turning the corner at the far end of the street. She was heading in the opposite direction to the pub Joan and I had previously tracked her to. I eventually caught up with her on Stockwell Crescent, grateful I had not flipped arse over tit the two times I had skidded on a January frost-lined paving stone.
She ignored me as I called her name, and I had to run up and get in front of her. We were in front of one of the area's posh houses with a small front garden, cream front, and a set of stone steps leading up to an ornate glossy back door.
‘Joan told me Eliot Alms lives there,’ I panted. ‘The author. Not the comedian who does all those panel shows. I think he’s at number thirteen.’
‘Scott, I don’t want to be rude, but I am honestly not looking for a guide to the local area.’
I was surprised that I was still panting and suddenly had to hunch down to catch my breath. The amount of outdoor work and running I do, I assumed would have made sprinting three and a half streets around the Camberwell-Stockwell borders a piece of cake. Katie began to look agitated while I got my breath back.
‘I know. But getting pissed off at Joan for being Joan is like getting pissed off at a dog for urinating on a lamp post. It’s what he does.’
‘I’m not pissed off at him!’ she hissed, like someone who was now pissed off at me for invading her personal space. ‘I’m sick of him and sick of his opinions on parts of my life that are nothing to do with him!’
She flung her hand to her brow and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and suddenly looked like she was about to fall asleep standing up. I remembered that she had begun that day still in Denmark.
‘And why are you defending him? He’s evicting you and it’s me and Ali who are fighting your battles for you!’
‘You sound like my sister,’ I smiled, misjudging that it would lighten the mood.
‘It’s because he’s the one who did me a favour in the first place. I had spent so long living out of a rucksack in between Airbnbs that my head had started to spin.’
She did have a valid point, and in truth, I wasn’t too sure why I was more relieved than unhappy at being kicked out of a flat I had come to regard as home. But looking into her fierce brown eyes, despite the glare or perhaps because of it, I was reminded how much I was going to miss seeing that face. How much I would miss being in this proximity to her and talking to her whenever I wanted.
‘And besides, with your stuff packed away it already has somewhat of the abandoned drug den vibe.’
Despite her assertions to the contrary, she still looked pissed off. Her hands were still on her hips, and her face seemed to rest into a scowl. I was starting to feel a bit self-conscious, having this head-on conversation on the neighbourhood’s poshest street with its immaculate townhouses staring down on us disapprovingly for disturbing the peace.
‘Do you want to get a coffee? There’s a café on Love Walk that does a really good chocolate twist. We could take it to Ruskin Park, hang out there for a bit? Ali’s forcing Joan to pack up the van by himself so hopefully it will teach him a lesson and give me a chance to ask you about your trip.’
Chapter 26: Ruskin Park
They would close Ruskin Park at sunset during the winter, so with my days taken up either at the Jones’s allotment or Mrs Elsop’s garden, I had not had the same opportunities to wander or sit at the community gardens as I had done during the summer. In my opinion, it looked even more beautiful in January. It was more or less empty, bar an occasional dog walker or couple in thick jackets circling its perimeter, and the grass had been allowed to grow and looked lush green and wet. When it came to the other London parks, come one relatively warm day, you would not be able to find an unoccupied patch of grass for the amount of twenty or thirty-somethings that would descend with their bottles of prosecco, Frisbees and sound systems.
In Ruskin, kids were still allowed to play football, rather than hipsters colonising it with mini barbecues and hacky sack circles. But there was also a labyrinth of trees, hedges, and gardens where you could just wander unseen and even find yourself on a bench in the middle, discovering our Friends of Ruskin Park Community Garden. It was the perfect place to mend a broken heart. Unless it was where you chose to have your heart broken.
With our coffees, Katie and I proceeded to circle the duck pond and then take a path through the trees. Katie reluctantly told me about her trip. I say reluctantly because it seemed like she had such a wonderful time seeing art and sculptures she had only read about during her degree and having dinners with such high profile colleagues that her glum demeanour somewhat took the gloss off it. Why do we do it to ourselves? Let a comment from another person ruin something that should otherwise be an untouchable happy moment.
‘Yeah, and Copenhagen was alright. They took us on a night tour last night, and we drank warm cider in the frosty air lit up by the lights of the city.’
‘Sounds better than just alright,’ I laughed. She didn’t laugh back.
We walked through the passage of hedges that flanked the community garden. There was a small clearing just behind with a bench overlooking the grass and trees. We sat down, and suddenly there was a lull in the conversation as we just held our takeaway cups looking into the distance. I found myself awkwardly catching glimpses of her. She looked drained. Glum and tired. And still really pretty.
‘He didn’t mean it,’ I said.
‘It doesn’t matter. Some support would just be nice for a change.’
‘Well what?’ She turned and looked at me with the same scowl she had on at Stockwell Crescent.
‘He said it in the worst way possible, but he did have a point.’
I didn’t know if I was attempting to defend Joan or shunt Katie out of her self-pity, but there was something that sat uneasy with me. Perhaps I owed it to Katie not to spend our last conversation as flatmates lying to her?
‘It is a bit sudden, moving back in with Ethan after some of our conversations before Christmas.’
Or perhaps I was pissed off at her and fancied being an arsehole and twisting the knife further?
Katie stared at me, now wide-eyed and mouth opened in disbelief. She then smiled the type of smile I would have associated with Izzy.
‘Really? You think that, do you? Well, lovely to hear where your loyalties lie. I’m going to miss these little chats of ours.’
The smile crashed into another scowl, and Katie crossed her legs and swung her head away from me. I could have taken this as a hint that she did not appreciate my opinion, but the words our little chats stung.
‘Is that why you’re running out the door at the first opportunity?’
She turned back and gave me a what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about frown.
‘You didn’t have to move out today. You could have done it next weekend. Like, Joan’s a dick, but he wouldn’t screw you over if you wanted to keep your room here and still take on the new place.’
‘Is that so?’ she snorted.
‘And even if things are going well with Ethan, you only spent a week with him after Christmas, is cheap rent in a new flat really the best reason to – ’
‘Scott?’ she said suddenly. ‘Fuck off.’
She took a long drink of coffee, apparently draining the cup. She then uncrossed her legs and got up.
‘I think that’s the first time you’ve sworn at me.’
‘I hadn’t wanted to tell you to go fuck yourself until now.’
It sounded strange coming out of her mouth. In her voice, it sounded too well-spoken to be an insult. She started to walk away, and I jumped to my feet.
‘I don’t want you to go.’
She had only gone about five yards, but I yelled the words nonetheless.
‘I told you I was moving out,’ she turned back to say. ‘I even did that face to face, crossed half of bloody London to do it. You can’t accuse me of being unfair or rushing into this. He’s my bloody boyfriend, after all.’
‘He doesn’t have to be.’ Her brow furrowed as I said the words.
‘You were going to put things on hold. You had put things on hold. You kissed me!’
As she stared hard at me, realisation seemed to suddenly dawn on Katie as the scowl-slash-frown that colonised her face softened into something closer to embarrassment.
‘Listen, Scott, about that kiss – ’
‘This is not about the kiss. This is about the fact that I like you, I have feelings for you, and maybe… I’m falling in love with you.’
There was still that five yards of damp grass between us. I saw a squirrel dart across the clearing behind her and shoot up a tree. I felt my eyes staring at her a little wider, slightly terrified by what I had done and what would come next. I had known all the way throughout that day such a declaration would be fruitless. The best I could expect was a sympathetic acknowledgement. Instead, she began to laugh.
‘You love me? You’re kidding, right?’
‘No!’ It was now my turn to scowl.
‘So you’re asking me to break up with the boyfriend I’ve been with for seven years – who I am about to move back in with – and what? What are we supposed to do?’
She gave this big fling of the arms and started staring around her like she could not believe what she was hearing. I suddenly felt like I needed to be still. Really still and focus my face into a frown as I had said too much, I looked an idiot, and could feel the same sensation the day I had waited for Ellie drinking three hot chocolates at Exmouth Market.
‘Scott?’ came a softer voice. ‘I’m sorry about Christmas.’ She was still the same distance away, but there was something more sympathetic about her stance. ‘You were so nice. And so welcoming. And I was so relieved to have one day away from my own drama. I encouraged you when I was feeling a bit lonely and completely lost, and I’m so sorry if I led you on. But I love Ethan.’
I was finding it difficult to do much more than just stare back at her. Katie looked more inconvenienced than pissed off now, her eyes trying to remain on me to compute I had understood what she was saying, but with every breeze and noise she would do a sideways glance. This was not how I planned the day and how I would have wanted to have the conversation. But thanks to my impromptu questioning and declaration, I would likely never see her again. So if I had anything more to say, it would forever otherwise remain unsaid.
‘I know this isn’t the best timing,’ I offered weakly. ‘But for me, it started well before Christmas.’ I took a step towards her and saw the faintest glimpse of panic flash across Katie’s face. I took another half step just so I didn’t need to shout. ‘I come home every evening excited and relieved to see your light on. I’d get to spend the evening just talking to you, and it somehow felt all I’ve ever wanted.’
To this declaration, Katie put the palm of her hand to her head. She closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh.
‘Scott, you’ve been sleeping with my best friend.’
Before I could respond, I heard the name ‘Elsa!’ called from the hedges behind me. A small dog, maybe a Jack Russell, ran up to us and stared up at Katie with a big smile on its face, wagging its tail. The voice shouted Elsa! again as the dog jumped up and put its front paws on Katie’s shin. Like a police officer trying to placate a mad gunman, she slowly crouched down, not taking her eyes off me, to stroke the dog. It must have been for more than a minute that Elsa darted back and forth like she had joined some happy game between the two strangers standing silently in the middle of the clearing.
When Elsa eventually found her way back to her owner, Katie was already looking at her watch, her thoughts likely on her new flat, the van, and all her belongings entrusted to someone she did not trust.
‘Scott, it’s not just Izzy. Or Ethan. The idea of you and me is… well… weird.’
She gave this shrug-like gesture, an apologetic it-is-what-it-is expression.
‘Yes, even if I was not still with Ethan, you having slept with Izzy, not just as a one-off, would be a pretty major impediment.’ She narrowed her eyes as if examining hard that I was fully comprehending what she was saying. ‘But it’s not just that. We are meant to be friends. There shouldn’t be this grey area. I told you all those things about Ethan as a friend. Not to make you feel I needed rescuing… It’s just weird us now having this conversation. Plus, you’re my brother’s best friend. Probably his only friend. We’re close partly because I see you as the surrogate older brother I would have actually wanted… see, it’s weird!’
I had let out a small laugh as she described me as a replacement Joan.
‘And what’s also weird is that despite me knowing what huge courage it must have taken for you to say what you’ve said, I’m feeling so, so pissed off with you right now for doing it. If you want me to be honest, that’s how I’m feeling. That you thought now was the right time to do this.’
Silently, we agreed to differ. I agreed to stand fixed to my spot and mumble something like okay. And she agreed that she would stop ripping my heart out and walk away across the clearing and disappear through the tree-lined path beyond.
Chapter 25: The Depressed Person
It’s impossible to describe depression when you’re no longer in it, to quote myself. What I meant was when you’re out of depression, you’re out of it – you’re no longer one of the Depressed – and hence it’s so contradictory to describe. The feelings and emotions you were going through would only make sense to someone else who can see the rationale behind what causes you to act so entirely irrationally. Therefore the first thing to note about falling into depression is the fear that comes over you stemming from a complete lack of confidence.
I only ate cereal the first day after Katie left as I was too paranoid to leave the house, not wanting to face anyone. Even venturing to Tesco Express would have me passing people on the street and just the very thought of their presence made me feel so anxious I retreated to my duvet. It was like they were all judging me, looking at me, seeing me for who I was and what I had done.
I postponed Mrs Elsop and the allotment, citing flu symptoms. I exchanged messages with Ellie about the house, Auntie Pam, and the Referral Notice and got told I was a lazy dickhead for not going back to the house to send her more information about the company that did the medical invoices.
Joan’s builders and decorators arrived, and I could sense them laughing at me – they somehow knew of the events of Ruskin Park and that Katie was out of my league. Every smile and attempt to make conversation was their way of subtly saying, ‘what the fuck did you think was going to happen?’ So I stayed in my room and could hear them whispering about me through the floorboards – about the loser in the attic. Even long after they had left for the day.
‘He didn’t tell us he’d have someone still living here,’ was what Frank, the heavyset leader of the bunch, actually said. ‘We’re pretty much stripping this entire floor and we told him he needs a new bathroom doing as no one is going to spend the money he wants for this place on those fittings. Luckily for him, we’ve got a decent one returned to us. Not exactly cheap, but if he wants the job done quickly, it is what it is.’
Not even the thought of Joan quite obviously being ripped off had me registering a smile, and I was given a bucket for each time I needed the toilet. All this probably sounds like I was just feeling sorry for myself. And I was, I won’t deny that – self-pity all the way, baby. But that is what, I feel, makes mental health still a taboo even though now you’ve got the whole world advocating how it isn’t. Because from the outside these symptoms look like I’m just having a sulk and am being a little tedious, so talking about it to a trained professional would surely be self-involved rather than appropriate. Oh, she’s just going through a breakup, compared to; oh, she’s having a breakdown. As an outsider, how do you tell the difference? As an insider, how do you know, yourself? The answer in most cases is: too late.
What I did know while spending days with no heating or running water wrapped in my cloud of a duvet was a lot of the wounds I was feeling were being self-inflicted. With Sarah my internal monologue was the killer. What made you think a girl like her could ever like you? You are not enough for her, you are useless, you are worthless, you have nothing to offer, if she’s seen through you what hope do you have with someone else? Who would have known my subconscious would turn out to be such a bullying prick?
I guess from an outsider’s perspective perhaps you should try locking yourself away in a small concrete cell and have a group of people acting as your jailers constantly shouting those accusations at you for five days straight. Doesn’t sound much fun, does it? With Sarah, that voice didn’t shut up for five months.
‘I like the bed hair,’ smiled Camille, not too sarcastically.
With the builders in situ even over the weekend, I was eventually forced out of the house. I had initially postponed our appointment during the week following my run-in with Katie. I don’t know if Camille sensed something was wrong, or it was her trying to balance her calendar, but she asked if I could come in the next week. So I arrived, with a small bag, as I had just spent the early hours of the morning having a long, unpleasant bucket shower – a different bucket from what I was pissing and crapping in – and thought enough was enough. If I were to continue hiding away from the world, it should be at Dad’s where washing facilities and a toilet were present.
‘Hmmm, normally if they’re doing a bathroom they reinstall your toilet straight away,’ Camille said, coming back from her desk with our coffees. Thinking about it, it seemed Joan was not the only one the builders were taking for a ride.
‘Are you disappointed by what she said?’ Camille said, immediately bringing up Katie and Ruskin Park. I gave her a puzzled look as I thought that was obvious.
‘I knew what the result would be. I just didn’t expect her to be such a… dick about it.’
I winced. I felt name-calling unfair, but I had done it in lieu of a more elegant answer. Camille smiled.
‘You’re beginning to sound like me. What makes her a dick?’
‘She’s not. Or she wasn’t. To be fair to her, she took me seriously when other girls would have probably cringed. But then she got pissed off like she had expected better from me. Which then made me feel like shit because I had let her down.’
‘But letting her down isn’t your responsibility, Scott. Remember that critical side of you that manifested itself with Sarah? The voice saying you’ve not done this, you’ve not done that. Scott, you’ve done the best you can and that voice needs to shut the fuck up for once.’
Camille sat forward and looked focus – mean even. Like a heavyweight boxer staring down her opponent, perhaps staring down my critical side.
‘Scott, I know it must hurt. You know it must hurt. If this was happening to a friend of yours, if this was you aged twelve or sixteen, what would the you present in this room now say to him?’
‘Don’t worry about it?’ I offered, unsure where Camille was going.
‘And? More realistically. Imagine yourself now aged six. Picture young Scott sitting where you are and how sad he feels. Are you really going to just say ‘don’t worry about it’ and walk away? Imagine this is his first broken heart. What do you want to say to him?’
I reluctantly closed my eyes and reimagined one of our holidays when I was a child. I was chasing after Ellie, and Dad and Mum were laughing and giggling on some picturesque patch of green overlooking a calm beautiful coastline. I took that version of me and placed him in my old bedroom, on the bed looking so small and sad.
‘It will be okay,’ I said again. ‘That she is just a kid too so what does she know. Just because she feels that way does not make him any less special or… less loveable.’
I suddenly felt a different type of sadness. And a huge pang of shame. A sadness for that little boy and how alone he was and how much I wanted to give him a cuddle.
‘I’d tell him he was fine – great even – just as he was, and one day he’ll find someone who loved him just for being him, and who would feel as excited and happy to spend time with him as he was to spend time with her.’
I imagined myself sitting on the bed telling myself that and wondered what happened to that boy and why no one told him this before. I then thought about all the name-calling and bullying I had done to that boy over the years – for calling him a geek for playing World of Warcraft and chastising him for not being cooler and more charismatic in front of women. I was the dick, not him.
‘And what would you tell those critical voices?’
‘I’d tell them to get lost.’ My voice was a lot less self-pitying. I was suddenly angry at those voices, those ugly bullying pricks picking on a kid. Fuck them, was what I wanted to say.
Chapter 26: Auditorium
I don’t know if I felt any better after my session with Camille, or any stronger or energised, but as I got on the tube heading for Wood Green I at least felt more protective of that side of me who wanted to hide away under a duvet. And I needed that protection because I was about to face another woman who I had pissed off.
During my duvet week I had received a series of messages and voicemails. Maxwell had responded about the notices, giving me some reluctant waffling feedback about it being a ‘dutiful attempt’ but I still needed to work on my evidence layout, and my legal argument was a pile of shit – I am paraphrasing, of course. He said he would drop the notices back at the house with notes so I could have another go. He also left a similar message with Ellie, who left me a somewhat different message,
Where the fuck are you and why aren’t you doing anything? You’re the one who said you’d sort it.
I did eventually reply to her, saying I’d been feeling under the weather. She then made the suggestion – no, the order – that I meet her at the house and we go over Maxwell’s notes together so I wouldn’t fuck it up again – I am not paraphrasing this time.
On my way to the house from the tube station, I tried to get this new protective side to ignite my angry side so I didn’t get steamrolled by whatever sarcasm and thinly veiled abuse Ellie had planned for me. She had told me she was going to drop the kids off at nursery – Ed having just started one day a week – and be on the first off-peak train. I put my key in the lock and braced for impact.
‘Hey!’ she said, surprising me. Ellie had been standing hunched over the dining table when I entered the living room. She was smiling. No, not just smiling – beaming. This weird fixed smile that I’d seen her use at her children’s christenings when people we didn’t know came up to her telling her how proud she must be. There was something seriously wrong.
‘I was just leaving you a note.’ She had on her black parka with the fur hood – the one she wore when she just started out in music journalism. She was staring at me like someone had a gun aimed at her, and I stared back to see if I could work out what covert message she really was trying to relay.
‘How are you?’
She never asked that question. I slowly put my bag down.
‘Alright. Sorry I’m late. I had a thing to go to. Were you about to leave?’
‘I’ve got a thing in town but it’s not for a while still.’
‘Look at us with things to do. Anyone would think we’re normal people.’
I followed her to the kitchen, my heart beating as if this was the quiet scene from a horror film. This was not normal unless she was trying a new branch of sarcasm that had her delay the impact of her blow for maximum effect. But even switching on the kettle and getting out the mugs, she seemed almost chirpy.
‘How was your week?’ she asked over her shoulder, arranging the tea things.
‘Alright, I guess. Still a bit flu-like.’
‘Your friend Joan called us,’ she then said calmly, still with her back turned so she couldn’t see my face twist.
‘Joan? How does he have your number?’
For the briefest of moments my mind shot back a decade to the days of Exmouth Market when Ellie would get drunk with my friends and me. They’d not swapped numbers then, surely? They’d not done anything else… My eyes sprang wide open in terror.
‘He called Mike. He got his number at Mike’s last gig to do promotions in exchange for free tickets or something. It doesn’t matter,’ she said firmly, letting a moment of silence go by while the kettle boiled. Still with her back turned, she said,
‘He said you and Katie had some big falling out or something. He said she was pretty upset.’
I heard myself groan. She’d told people. And now I was being accused of being some weird obsessive who needs the girl’s brother warning me off.
‘Did you tell her how you feel about her?’
‘No!’ I replied resentfully. ‘Okay, perhaps a little.’
I saw Ellie stirring the tea and carefully remove the tea bags. I was still hovering, too on the defensive to take a seat.
‘He also says you’re living in a building site. That the builders have told him you’ve locked yourself in your room and not left it in a week.’
‘So he’s called you to evict me?’
The whole world seemed to know my business, and my duvet at Loughborough Road was now a goldfish bowl. I was about to tell Ellie that Joan didn’t know what he was talking about. He was a slumlord, and all he could now see were pound signs, and I was more than happy to tell him where to stick his room – as long as I could get my deposit back.
Ellie turned around with the mugs. She placed them down on the kitchen table and before I knew what was happening I was being hugged. A silent, long hug.
I’ve said many times that we were not huggers. Brief embraces were largely all we had stretched to over the years to show others we had a human side. But this was the first time since we were kids I could recall her putting her arms around me and squeezing me. I was unsure whether to engage back but as she held me, something inside felt like it had started to break. Despite a week in bed I suddenly felt tired to the point of collapse and did not want her to let me go.
‘He’s a shit friend. And I’m a shit sister,’ she said, still hugging me. ‘But we’re not that shit or that selfish you can’t just be yourself around us. You don’t have to hide away and scare the builders.’
She eventually released me and looked as awkward and embarrassed as I felt.
‘Oh Jesus, I’m late.’ She put down her mug, splashing it on the table, and started scrambling around in her pockets.
‘I’ve got this stupid bloody thing at Guildhall. I’m speaking to an old professor of Mike’s.’ She began putting on her coat and checked her watch again.
‘Listen, do you have anything planned today? We’ve not had a chance to talk about Maxwell’s notes, so perhaps you can come with me?’
I didn’t know if Ellie had invited me because she deemed I needed further adult supervision rather than to talk about Maxwell’s notes, but we travelled together into town regardless.
‘I’ve not told Mike I’m doing this so don’t let anything slip – he’s picking me up later.’ We exited Barbican tube station and I scurried to keep up with her, until we reached the entrance of the Barbican theatre.
‘I thought we were going to Guildhall?’
‘The Guildhall music department is in the Barbican.’
We pushed through these insanely heavy metal and glass doors and were in a cavern of vast indoor open space. The ceiling stretched up to the heavens and there were colourful fabric chairs and sofas with people sitting with MacBooks everywhere like it was a dystopian open-plan workspace.
‘The music department’s less grand and mad,’ Ellie said as I followed her past a coffee shop and away from the crowds. ‘Keep up.’
We eventually found ourselves sitting in a corridor outside a series of offices or tutor rooms.
‘It’s like being back at school,’ I said. ‘Being summoned to see the Head.’
‘When did you ever get summoned to see the Head, you swot? What, did you forget to do all of your extra credit maths homework once?’
As I laughed, it felt comforting to drop back into a memory of simpler times. Behind us was a wall of glass looking out onto a courtyard. There were a couple of empty benches and a few green plants and small trees trying to balance out the grey paving stones. I appreciated Ellie bringing me along and giving me the distraction of a change of scenery, but I had no idea why we were there. Roaming the halls were students who looked no older than teenagers carrying cases for their violins or clarinets, bypassed by quickstepping adults purposefully moving from room to room with an aura of self-importance that I would associate with the world of academia.
Ellie started crossing and then uncrossing her legs like she had some itch she found impossible to sate. She sat forward, hunched over, sat back, sighed, frowned.
‘This was such a stupid idea. Mike’s going to kill me.’ She flung herself back, crossed her legs once more, and shook her head, looking thoroughly annoyed.
‘There’s a chance of a job here,’ she finally said. ‘I saw it in the papers when I was daydreaming about what I could do. It’s lecturing contemporary music and specifically looking for someone with production experience – the Guildhall and the other poncey London music colleges finally acknowledging a world exists beyond the nineteenth century. And Mike pretty much said the same when I told him he should apply. He laughed and said technical colleges have already been teaching production for donkey’s years and if Guildhall wanted to do something actually contemporary they needed to do what the techs weren’t doing: merging it all together.’
The door next to the one we were waiting for opened. Out walked a tall skinny girl who had to duck when coming through the doorframe. She was followed by an older, shorter woman with curly black hair and horn-rimmed glasses. They spoke what sounded like German and walked away down the corridor.
‘He was still laughing it off, but we ended up opening a bottle of wine while he described how technology was now there to bring musicians together anywhere in the world. You didn’t need people to be in one studio. Instead, you could play live down video calls and pretty much live mix. Guildhall could then have their classical students working with contemporary musicians at the technical colleges or recording studios, and move away from all these endless strings samples and computer-generated orchestras and have real-life collaborations instead.’
I could imagine Mike advocating this case. For someone who was looking to leave music for the high-flying world of accountancy, he seemed to genuinely love what he did more than anyone I had met across the range of occupations I had taken up. In banking, you did what you did and waited for bonus day. In aid work, everyone was as disillusioned as each other. But The Musician was a purist. He loved his family and he loved his work. Why couldn’t he have both?
‘So I told Mike he should then apply and tell them all this. He’s an ex-student, he has a degree, he’s completely qualified! But he just laughed again saying he’s got no teaching experience and they wouldn’t even read his CV. So…’ Ellie looked at the closed door and nodded. ‘So, I’m doing it for him.’
The door we were waiting for then opened, and out walked a grey-haired man with a short stubbly beard wearing a thick cardigan.
‘Ellie,’ he beamed as she jumped out of her seat. ‘Lovely to see you again.’ The two embraced as I got to my feet too.
‘How’s young Mike? How are the kids?’
There seemed to be a familiarity between them that Ellie had not yet told me.
‘This is my brother, Scott. He’s come along to keep me company. Day out in London and that. Scott, this is Professor Hains, Mike’s old mentor.’
‘Emphasis on old,’ he laughed, shaking my hand. ‘And please call me Richard.’
‘Richard is also a family friend and basically runs the show around here.’
‘Not true! At least about running the show, but I do feel honoured that Mike’s kept in touch. And speaking of running the show, I’ve asked Josephine to join us.’
Stepping out of the office behind the professor came a woman dressed all in black, her top and trousers emphasising how lithe of figure she was. She must have been around my age, if not younger, and her tied-back, sleek blonde hair was a sharp noticeable contrast to the rest of her outfit, including a black-framed set of glasses. She shook hands with Ellie, with a nod rather than a word.
‘Josephine heads up our contemporary music department and leads the majority of our more challenging collaborations. Scott, will you be joining us too?’ I quickly responded that I’d just come along for the ride and would wait here.
‘In that case you might want to go straight to Auditorium C, down the hall to the right.’ Professor Hains pointed me in the direction. ‘Your sister’s promised to play me one of her new pieces so I’ve taken the liberty of booking it out. Perk of the job!’ He had an infectious, energetic grin, and I could perhaps see from where Mike’s love for music stemmed. ‘The seats are a lot more comfortable, and just between you and me, I find it the perfect place to have a coffee and read the paper.’
As the professor and his colleague both turned to re-enter the room they missed the look of pure terror and confusion that shot across Ellie’s face.
‘You’re playing?’ I mouthed. Ellie’s response was to screw her face and mouth back, ‘what the fuck?’
I bought myself a hot chocolate. It was my first in months, and I was glad I did as Auditorium C, with its drama-studio low lighting and cinema seats, provided the perfect atmosphere for comfort drinking and wallowing. I chose a seat in the bleachers looking down on the room, hoping being high up would somehow keep any demons at bay. There was a small stage at the front and on it was a black grand piano, its lid open and ready to be played. I didn’t need the newspaper – I was more than happy to replay my own misery inside my head.
Katie and I had kissed only once. We had been friends barely two months in total – we had almost spent just as much time ignoring and avoiding each other. The maths, therefore, did not make sense. I should not be this heartbroken about her. To feel like I felt would make me somewhat weak – prone to attachments, easily obsessed, un-resilient, and any other undiagnosed psychological defects you wanted to throw at me. But how did acknowledging any of this help?
Camille’s last words to me that morning were: ‘Would you say any of that to that small version of yourself who is feeling hurt and sad? No. So why scream it now?’
Eventually, I was interrupted by the auditorium door opening and Professor Hains and Josephine entering. While Professor Hains gave me another beaming smile, his counterpart had her head buried in a notepad in which she was busy jotting away.
‘Your sister’s just using the facilities,’ he called up to me, taking a seat in the front row. He then turned around to continue the conversation. ‘Truth be told, I’ve known Ellie longer than I’ve known Mike. In fact, she’s the one that got away.’
While the professor was engaging me, his arm draped over the back of the chair, his colleague was still keenly writing.
‘I interviewed her, twice, for the undergraduate and then the postgraduate programme. Turned me down twice, unfortunately.’ He chuckled again and shook his head like it indeed was on his list of life regrets. ‘She does occasionally indulge me with a recital when I drag the two of them up to Norwood for dinner. Unique talent, I’ve been singing her praises to Josephine ever since we set up this little meet.’
Josephine was still scribbling away and did not even look up when Ellie walked in. She gave her audience a raised eyebrow look of ‘alright’ and then took her seat in front of the grand piano.
An ability Ellie had, and I would associate it as the difference between the professional and the intermediate, is to make her music sound like two people were playing simultaneously. What I mean is when all eyes descended upon her, two pieces were playing in harmony. One was powerful with aggressive overtones, and then the other, waiting in the wings, shy at first, and then ascending through, light and beautiful, the two somehow forming the perfect duet. Angry and loud, soft and melancholic. There was a sense of sadness but such a fluidity about her playing I had no time to realise I was sad. I was simply swept up.
I could see only the backs of her assessors’ heads so I had no idea if they were as moved as me. I had not heard Ellie play this piece before, and though I knew little about the technicalities of classical music, what I did notice was that Ellie, despite the intervening years, was better now than when she was considered a musical prodigy. On that lonely stage, the little spotlights shining off the grand and her brownie blonde hair, she was not the angry young woman who would either hit the keys with such force you feared for your eardrums or the girl who would play with a nonchalance which, while impressive, did make you wonder if her heart was really in it. Instead, amidst the waves and flows was a control. A determination I could see in her posture – more upright and less slouched than that girl of sixteen or seventeen I once knew.
And then there was the music itself. The transformations and emotions which I do not think my kid sister would have known how to convey. Anger had made way for sadness, but as she suddenly flew through the keys with rapid speed, out of nowhere I could feel hope and joy, and suddenly my life did not seem as it was. I was sad, but I was grateful to be sad. There was something inside me that was a gift. That as the music played, I was living it, and with each melancholic note there would also be joy, and it was notes of melancholy which made the joy that little bit sweeter.
I felt the tears roll down my cheeks as the piece gathered and gathered momentum, pushing its peak higher and higher to the point I couldn’t breathe. And there it stopped, suddenly but just for a second, and with an unexpected subtlety, smoothly shifting down through the gears, bringing me back to the auditorium as Ellie set down the last note.
I was not sure that applauding was the done thing. But I did so anyway. I wanted to jump to my feet and give my sister a standing ovation. The others gave little away from their seats down at the front. It did sound strange – my one-man clapping – until Professor Hains eventually joined me, perhaps realising this was not a formal interview, and he was allowed to show appreciation.
‘Ellie, thank you for that. Can you tell me where you found your inspiration for that piece?’
Josephine had not joined in our applause. Instead, I could just about see her sitting forward and placing the tip of her pen to her lip as she questioned my sister. I had half-expected Ellie to shrug and say dunno like she would when asked almost anything back in the day.
‘A lot of what I write these days is an accumulation rather than a Eureka moment.’ Her voice was thoughtful. Again, uncharacteristically calm and poised. ‘I have found becoming a mother had transformed what was an impulsiveness in my early work into something more… life-affirming. I have realised I am still on a journey and will be for two glorious more decades, and can relate to those around me – other parents, grandparents, our Audience.’
She was definitely using her posh voice. The one she uses with Auntie Pam to disguise when she’s taking the piss. She also had this subtle look of confidence as she engaged with Josephine from her stage. Like she was Elton John doing a Q&A with adoring fans.
‘And you graduated from Bristol? At bachelor’s level? Before pursuing a career in journalism?’
Ellie hesitated. I had not fully grasped the importance of this performance at first. Rather like a pushy recruitment consultant plugging a job that you’re not altogether interested in, saying, ‘just go in for a chat.’ It is never just a chat.
‘Yes, studying under Ugo Nemongoma, who at the time was resident lecturer, lecturing contemporary composition from Yale. Very few other colleges were quite as advanced on contemporary composition back then. So I ended up turning down offers from the Royal College and Royal Academy, and, yes, I moved into rock journalism straight after to fund my freelance composing, which is how I met my husband and, obviously, Professor Hains.’
From my seat in the gods, I could just about see the tell-tale smirk of someone who knows they have crushed it. I also noticed from up there that Josephine made a note in her pad with each answer.
‘Life-affirming? Journey?’ I could hardly contain my excitement as the metal and glass doors of the Barbican flew open before us.
‘The more bollocks you spout, the less bullshit questions they come back with usually. Throw in the mother card and it has someone like her scrambling into uncharted territory.’
‘Nice answer on Bristol.’ We were almost skipping back to the tube station, a far cry from the anxious shuffle that was our first leg.
‘Bar Richard, the majority of them are complete snobs. Bristol actually has better facilities. Fuck, you’ve seen Guildhall now. It might be joined to the Barbican, but no one’s touched those rooms in fifty years – no exaggeration. It looked dated even back in the 90s when I was given a tour. And the students were just as capable, if not more with the overseas guys who came over – Suki Jimamoto and Tari Gibbs play for the New York Symphony, you know. I should have told that to Little Miss Look-How-Pert-My-Tits-Are.’ Ellie put on a high-pitched voice and wiggled her chest, not noticing the look she received from the attendant at the ticket barriers of Barbican station.
‘Can’t say I noticed,’ I smiled, casting my mind back to Josephine’s black top and alluringly dismissive nature.
When we were on the more familiar ground of the northbound Piccadilly line, Ellie told me that Dr Josephine Kim was a creative director at Guildhall and, according to Professor Hains, she worked closely with television and film production studios, including the BBC.
‘‘Oh it’s such a tough game to get into. If I had a penny for every want-to-be musician who thinks they can compose…’’ Ellie fell back into her high-pitched posh mimic of Josephine’s voice. ‘We weren’t even meant to be talking about me. I think Richard thought he was doing Mike a favour pitching my composing to the snotty-nosed bitch. Definitely the Royal College type.’
‘It went pretty well, though. Better than well.’
We had just seen two seats together and moved across the tube carriage to take them.
‘I’m too knackered to think about it. Richard likes Mike’s ideas, but it’s Pert-Tits’ show, apparently. But she’s also too high and mighty with all the time she spends deciding what will make stage and screen, so who knows.’
‘I guess all you have to do now is tell Mike that you’ve gone behind his back and effectively interviewed for a job on his behalf.’
It was a little bit harsh, but I knew Ellie could take it. If I wasn’t feeling as positive as I was in that moment, I wouldn’t have ribbed her. However, it did turn out to be closer to the bone than I intended.
‘It was a throwaway comment.’ Mike looked genuinely annoyed when he met us back at the house. At least Mike’s version of annoyed: a deep sigh and slightly confused expression at not understanding why Ellie had done what she had done.
‘No it wasn’t. It was an idea. A bloody good idea. A commercial idea and they loved it!’
It wasn’t exactly an argument, but as the three of us sat down in the living room, I did feel an invader to what should have been a private moment. Ellie defended her stance and even went on the offensive, telling Mike he needed to stop being so hesitant and had to put it all down in writing before Josephine Kim stole the idea for herself.
‘You could have at least looped me in,’ I heard Mike say as I left the room on the pretence of checking the mail.
Jane had stacked post and bills in the letter rack by the front door. I could just about hear Ellie giving an enthusiastic pitch of how Mike should see this as an opportunity as I flicked through them. I stopped at a handwritten envelope unexpectedly addressed to me.
Inside was a smart-looking card. An invitation. From Vicky, my first love.
Chapter 27: Middle England
A week of moping set me behind in my work. The next week forced me to rise early and dig trenches in the dark to get Mrs Elsop’s back on track if it was to look like anything resembling a real garden come spring. If hiding away under my duvet had failed to take my mind off Katie, perhaps continuous physical labour would.
I did that all week, and then on Sunday afternoon, I was on a train to Cambridgeshire, dressed in my only suit, even wearing a tie and footwear not designed by Adidas or New Balance. Even a short distance outside London, it was wonderful to see the rolling fields of green and yellow under a fairly blue sky.
The address was a village just before the world-famous university city. Stepping off the train, I was in Middle England. I was at a small, quaint station which, apart from a couple of overhead signs, had all the characteristics of an Agatha Christie novel. Wooden benches lined the platform, and as I exited, I saw its ticket office – a wooden booth with a closed sign dangling at the window.
There was no town centre or main road. Instead, a refreshingly quiet walk up a country lane and only a line of Range Rovers would break the mystique of in which era I was. The lane then turned into scattered cottages, and I was soon at my destination, a large detached house with balloons fixed to the front door. It was then I decided to go back home.
It had been a mistake and was clearly a token invitation. ‘Let’s not leave it so long next time,’ Vicky had said as we said goodbye after the wake – over a year ago. ‘Yes, and perhaps something in more cheerful circumstances,’ was my reply. Now I was standing on her doorstep, at her daughter’s christening, with a small wrapped present in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. What about this had made me think it was a good idea?
I blamed Camille entirely for this lapse in judgement. All those sessions encouraging me that I needed to face adversity, handle anxiety – notice, acknowledge, and find a peace to move on – lay as the underlying behaviour manipulators.
I was about to leave the present anonymously on the doorstep when I heard a tapping. To the window to my right was Vicky, smiling, waving, and with a baby on her shoulder.
‘You made it!’ she smiled, opening the door. She looked amazing. Positively glowing. Her smile was bright, as was her blonde hair, as was her white and blue dress. Vicky then carefully turned her child around to see me.
‘Mary, this is my oldest friend, Scott.’
As she led me through a massive open-plan downstairs – it looked like something from a design magazine with everything so immaculate and literally shiny – Vicky explained that the christening proper had taken place that morning at a church in the next village.
‘It was going to be such a faff asking people to show up at half-past ten on a Sunday morning and then come all the way back here. We thought we’d keep it to just us and the grandparents and then have everyone rock up to something fun at a more decent time.’
We were heading towards a set of French doors and the garden where a marquee was erected.
‘Plus, we felt frauds. We’ve had nine months to do this but prioritised renovating this place over the spiritual wellbeing of our child.’ I took another look back at the room before stepping outside and, yes, the spaciousness, smooth walls, and untouched surfaces all sung out expensive ambitious refurb.
Opening the doors, we stepped out onto the patio. If I had thought the inside was massive I had no words for their garden. The marquee might have been the size for a wedding venue, but it took up just a fraction of the space as the grounds stretched all the way down to what appeared to be their own woods at the bottom.
‘I know, a garden party on the first day of February! Martin’s idea. He says if we wait for spring Mary would practically be a toddler. Plus we do have heaters, and at least it’s brightening up!’
Her optimism reminded me of our teenage years and how she had led me by the hand through our adolescence, encouraging me to go with her to parties and festivals, saying how much I would enjoy myself if I just gave them a chance. I rarely did enjoy myself, but I appreciated her misplaced faith in me. Vicky told me that she needed to change Mary, but she waved over to a thickly bearded man inside the marquee before leaving me. He bounded over and was wearing a highly noticeable tweed suit and flat cap.
‘Hello! You must be Scott, from Vicky’s Wood Green days.’
The world’s biggest hipster was shaking my hand eagerly. In his other hand was a pewter tankard.
‘We’ve met before, briefly. Years ago. Tom O’Neil’s birthday.’
‘Really?’ He looked genuinely perplexed at the oversight. ‘Ah! Yes! What’s Tom doing now? Hey, you don’t have a drink. Come with me.’
It was unnerving how unnerved Hipster Martin was. And it slightly pissed me off. I was meant to be the elephant in the room. Vicky’s ex-fiancé, the former love. Not her mate from Wood Green. I just about realised that Martin was telling me something about microbreweries doing eighteen or so versions of some craft beer when we reached a makeshift bar at the end of the marquee. As he poured me the beer he recommended with a ratio of malt to wheat that was meant to be significant, I struggled to take in what a cliché Vicky had ended up with. And the fact that I kind of liked him.
‘Are you a craft man, Scott?’
‘Normally lager. But it makes a nice change.’
‘That’s the spirit!’ He thumped me on the arm. He was quite a bit shorter than me, which I think helped my incredibly feeble ego – he might be rich, have my dream house, my dream woman, my dream life, but at least I was taller. That was what truly mattered.
I know I am a broken record regarding the hipster thing. What I don’t get is the fact that it was quirky at the time – hip even – but it has now been done to death. You can make wine from mangos – we get it. Beards are fashionable again – yes, you’re a rebel, or at least you would be if everyone else wasn’t dressing exactly the same. But Martin did seem to have a genuine love and enjoyment for it all, and he was so comfortable in his own skin. So what did it matter that I deemed he was not unique or if he was. There was a lesson I could learn there, and I could see why Vicky had married him.
‘So if you know Tom O’Neil then you must know Jon-Boy, no?’
I shook my head. I was warming to Martin, but I did not fancy a game of which person he knew that I knew.
‘Oh, I could have sworn they were as thick as thieves. What about Alison? Ali, Vicky calls her.’ And saying her name, he waved across the room to a pair of traitors I would have hoped at least had the decency to hide from view as I had entered the marquee.
‘You have to be fucking kidding me.’
With my drink poured, Martin left me to rejoin his bearded friends, and I made my way to have words with my soon-to-be ex-best friends.
‘So, how long has this been going on, you two-faced bastard?’ I said to Joan with the self-righteousness of a lover who had just spotted his partner with another. At least they had had the decency to hide from my view as I found them both huddling behind a pillar.
‘Someone been taking their melodrama pills?’ he said, sipping a bottle of beer casually, averting eye contact with me.
‘You told me you lost touch with Vicky years ago.’
‘We did!’ said Alison with a huge, fixed smile like she was summoning every ounce of positivity she had so that I would not make a scene. ‘We just kind of got back in touch. At parties… And weddings?’
‘You went to her wedding?’ I knew my horrified, jaw-dropped glower was hardly reversing Joan’s initial assertion.
‘Well, you were out of the country at the time, and it didn’t seem the thing to write an email about – ‘hey mate, know you’re in a war zone right now but guess who we ran into.’ Plus, she’s Ali’s friend more than mine.’
Alison spun around, her big smile flipping into an even bigger scowl before returning to me.
‘We were worried you’d take it to heart. That you’d think we were taking her side – not that there are sides to be taken, we were all friends back then. Me and Vicky. Joan and Vicky.’ She swung her elbow into Joan’s ribs which temporarily had him grimacing.
‘Yeah,’ he groaned. ‘You have to admit you didn’t exactly take it well when she, you know. Telling you seemed a bit, you know… harsh.’
I wanted to be still livid at them both. I wanted to maintain my narrowed-eyed scowl and see them squirm uncomfortably, especially Joan. But Joan’s defence was like an arrow to my chest. He wasn’t exactly squirming, but he did look embarrassed, and I do not think he was embarrassed for himself. He was there when I was making an ass of myself drinking every other night, chatting up girls who were obviously not interested, and disappearing off to toilet cubicles to partake in my newfound powder-related hobby. I know our friendship does not seem the most, well, friendly at times, but there were so many times back then I found myself waking up on his sofa hungover and unable to remember how I had got there. Don’t get me wrong, he acts like an arsehole and still took the piss out of me at every available opportunity, but he never judged, and a lot of the things he did do were a lot kinder than anyone else had done for me in my friendship group.
My cheeks began to feel warm as Joan’s embarrassment transferred to me. ‘Well, you could have said something,’ I mumbled quickly and then looked away taking an overly long swig of my beer.
‘You guys taking the train back then?’ I said, trying unsubtly to change the subject.
After a far more civilised catch up with Joan and Alison – we deliberately skirted the more controversial subjects of Vicky, Martin, Katie, the flat at Loughborough and him having called my sister – I decided to wander the garden by myself, part of me at least wanting to feel superior for being a better, more creative gardener than Martin even though his was rather impressive.
Vicky was right, and the day had brightened up. It was still a good day to be wearing the layers of shirt and jacket, but it allowed a mob of small children to run up and down the long lawn away from the marquee heaters. I guessed a little blonde girl who kept running up to Martin was Vicky’s eldest. In a way, I was watching what my life could have looked like: the big house, big garden, a shiny-haired daughter running up to me demanding I pick her up and swing her about. Five years ago, such a sight would have crippled me. Eight years ago I think I would have completely imploded. Now all these years on, it just made me feel this sad but soulful pain. It was bittersweet, rather than simply bitter.
‘I’m glad you came.’ I heard Vicky’s voice next to me, on the sidelines of the children’s game.
‘Sorry I didn’t reply. The invitation had found its way into a pile of mail I have been lax at checking.’
‘I wasn’t sure where to send it. I hoped it would get forwarded to you if you had sold the house already.’
I let out a spontaneous laugh.
‘That’s become a long, arduous story.’
‘Well, I do have time. The only stories I get to hear now involve a nosey blonde chick and three justifiably put-out bears.’
I gave another involuntary snort, still looking at Martin and their daughter playing a game with the others. ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ was being shouted out by Martin as he and the others sneaked up on the little girl, who then spun around and began chasing them.
‘Nah, this is a better story,’ I smiled. ‘This is lovely, Vic. Really lovely. You’ve done so well for yourself.’
‘Remind me of that at three a.m. when Mary’s screaming the house down.’
‘Well, lucky this place is detached so you don’t have to worry about the neighbours.’
She slapped my arm lightly. It was funny, it all felt so comfortable.
‘I meant what I said. About you being my oldest friend. I’ve missed that.’
We still gazed over at the running, squealing children, both of us keeping up the Englishness of acting like we were discussing the weather.
‘Thanks,’ I said quietly. ‘I guess I have too. I was too busy thinking about everything else I forgot that bit.’
‘Everyone does to some extent.’ I then felt an arm wrap around mine.
‘I know I said it at the funeral, but I am sorry. I didn’t mean – ’
‘Vicky, you have nothing to apologise for.’ I turned to face her and found I was smiling. I then gestured around us to the marquee and the kids running around. ‘All this should not come with an apology. Not to anyone. It’s far too special for any regrets.’
‘But I do have one.’ Vicky then had this strange expression, like she was sizing me up.
‘I was really angry for a while after we broke up. Angry at you.’
This, I did not expect her to say. I felt myself frowning, wondering if I had misheard her.
‘This is going to sound so entitled, but I was angry at you for not letting me have my cake and eat it. That we couldn’t go back to the way it was. Back to being friends. I couldn’t call you up to go for a walk or tell you about my bad days at work. When I needed a shoulder to cry on. I forgot how much I loved you for that. For being my best friend.’
It felt a bit weird hearing those words from her, and seeing her eyes slightly glisten as I too found my focus impaired by moisture. The kids were playing a new game with Martin and the other dads. The dads seemed to be pretending to be sleeping and when the kids ran close would transform into monsters. Again, Vicky and I looked on side by side, pretending not to have had a heart-to-heart. Anything I could have responded with would have been a cliché so we just stood watching the game. I’ve never denied not missing her, but until recently I had forgotten about our friendship. That she was my oldest friend too. I wasn’t sure if I would ever completely stop loving her as my first real love but did feel relieved at just being able to talk to her again. So I reached over and squeezed her hand.
‘Come on, let’s join them.’ Together, we ran into the throng, waving our arms and making big monster faces at the kids.
Joan, Alison, and I filed out of Vicky and Martin’s front door late that evening to catch the last train back to London. We were the last to leave, having turned the christening into more of a piss-up. Infuriatingly, pretentiously but also satisfyingly, hipster Martin even knew a thing or two about wine, and we had huddled around a heater in the crisp winter air sipping from various different bottles.
‘It was so good to see you,’ said Vicky with red pinot lips, squeezing the life out of me with a bear hug. ‘Next time, perhaps feel free to bring someone? Or will that be too strange?’
It felt very much like we had wound the clock back fifteen years and the four of us, plus Martin, were outside our student union at the end of the night saying how much we loved each other.
‘That side of things is currently a disaster.’
It was probably the copious amount of wine that had been shared, but Vicky looked genuinely disappointed and clutched my forearm.
‘There’s always time to – I don’t know – say you’re sorry or buy her flowers. No. Don’t do that. Don’t listen to any advice I give after two or more glasses of wine. But it’s her loss, you realise that, right?’
I nodded more as a thank you than in agreement, and in true student union spirit, I had Joan’s arm around my neck, putting me in a headlock dragging me away so we would not miss the train. Freeing myself on their driveway, I turned back for one last word.
‘Vicky,’ I called as she stood at the front door. ‘I’m really happy for you.’ And to my surprise, I really meant it.
Chapter 28: Turner
On the train back to London, Joan had drunkenly promised me I could move back into Loughborough Road once the refurbishments were done. ‘I’ll even keep the rent the same, even though it will be nicer and just be you.’
‘He’s only saying that because my dad neglected to tell him it could take months to sell, and he’d be having to pay the mortgage,’ smirked Ali.
‘I could put it on Airbnb.’
‘Yeah, right. While you’re doing house viewings. Those white walls aren’t going to look so white once you’ve had six Aussie backpackers couch surfing in your living room.’
I would probably take him up on his offer. What other choice did I have? The next week would bring the return of Auntie Pam, and hence there would be nothing else stopping us submitting our adjudication notices. But with a wine hangover, I found myself in Dad’s study with a pen and his notepaper and took up the advice I’d been given the night before.
I’m sorry, I began. I should not have put you in the situation I put you in… I should have been more supportive about you and Ethan… I realise how much I miss you as a friend…
It was a little bit mushy, in all honesty. I kind of got caught up in the moment of going back to paper and pen rather than posting an Instagram video or whatever you were meant to do in the current age. I just remembered how I felt when Vicky and I had discussed our lost friendship, so I told Katie how I missed laughing with her while sitting around Loughborough Road in the freezing cold.
As simply as I could, I finished the letter by saying that I missed her and my life felt poorer without her. I placed it in an envelope and put that within a small bundle of mail for Katie I had brought with me from Loughborough Road. Alison had offered to pass it on for me – Joan could not be trusted for such a mission. And with that, I just had to wait, hoping she would read it and not detest me anymore.
However, I did not have much time to go back to brooding about Katie. Not only was Mrs Elsop’s garden in the critical phase of having its new plants and shrubs delivered, but Mr Jones also wanted me in South London to discuss how we were going to win the blue rosette for best allotment. And just to add a little bit of spice to the mix, I also had to play go-between for the inevitable Ellie-Auntie Pam family feud.
‘What do you mean she wants me to pick her up at the airport?’ shouted Ellie at me down Dad’s house phone. I had taken to using Dad’s landline as Auntie Pam was determined not to call my mobile from abroad. This meant that I had to wait in on evenings for her to call at prearranged times.
‘Why can’t she get a taxi?’
‘Because she’s a seventy-year-old woman who is having to fly into Gatwick. And she wants to spend time with you and the kids. So she’ll be spending the night at yours too.’
I’m not going to lie. I was delighted by these events, and the sound of panic and pure belligerence in Ellie’s voice did make me feel more at peace with the world. The plan was set and Auntie Pam would travel with Ellie and Mike to Dad’s, where we would have our long-awaited conversation. I just had to keep fielding the phone calls in the meantime and wait for the house phone to ring so I could receive an updated itinerary from Auntie Pam.
And on Saturday morning, as I was waiting in just in case she should call, the house phone cordially rang.
‘Good morning, the Roberts’ residence,’ I said in my most appropriate telephone voice so that Auntie Pam would not criticise my manners. The only problem was, it wasn’t Auntie Pam.
‘Hello?’ said a soft, faraway voice from the 90s. I felt my heart literally skip a beat. ‘Scott? Scott, it’s… it’s Mum.’
Perhaps she did not know how to refer to herself either after all that had passed.
‘Hi,’ I said, off guard like it was someone calling from the gas board. I felt a rush of panic. I suddenly thought back to what I had said the last time we spoke.
‘Scott, can you meet me? I’m in central London today. Now. It’s nothing urgent, but I would like to see you. It won’t take long.’
Her tone made it impossible to tell her it was inconvenient – so soft, not reproachful or summoning. Very much not what I deserved.
I think it was the lack of time that prevented me from dwelling or overanalysing. I had to leave immediately and make my way from Wood Green to Russell Square. There I had to find the Fulsham Gallery. And arriving at the stone steps leading up to its entrance, I tried to clear my mind and keep moving forward and not think about what on earth we would say to each other.
She told me to meet her in the Turner room. Inside the gallery were the tall ceilings and red-carpeted stairways I would associate with a period house. When I found the room, there was no sign of Orletta but on a plain white wall, I discovered why the room was given its name. A work titled Peace hung in prime view painted by arguably the greatest British artist of the nineteenth century.
It was not a massive overbearing canvas that bored down on you. Instead, it was a compact square with a single ship sailing into a light that poured from the paint. This contrast between light and dark was mesmerising. I stood, allowing myself to feel the awe it was there to aspire.
I then saw her. There was a small doorway at the end of the room, it looked more like a fire exit than a public entrance, and she was just there watching me for I did not know how long. Seeing me notice her, she gave me this delicate half-smile. I felt myself brace for impact.
‘This room felt appropriate. Neutral ground. And common ground.’ There was no hug or greeting. She came up to me and began staring with me at the Turner.
‘You had very refined taste as a child. Other children would want to visit the science museum, but you would be placated sitting in front of the Great Briton who stopped us fixating on horses.’
It was unnerving how peaceful it was. My mother and I stood together as we had done twenty-five years before, allowing the brilliant sun and sky to shine out of the canvas, and the sails and water hold our attention. Yet it was unmistakably clear that we were guests in its company. We just stared, silently, Peace superseding the awkwardness.
‘You do not like me much,’ she then said. Again, not a rebuke, but with a smile in her voice which shocked me even more. My eyes flicked right and I saw a little upward curve to her mouth.
‘No! I mean, I do…’ I stumbled. I wanted to deny the accusation, a cold sweat materialising as we touched on my shame. But I also could not wholeheartedly argue the opposite.
‘I don’t really know you,’ I ended up just mumbling.
And that pretty much said it all, as she continued to gaze at Peace with her half-smile, and I stared forward, trying to hide my disappointment at not being able to muster the human emotions to talk to my own mother.
‘That’s it,’ she said as she turned to me. ‘That’s all I wanted to ask.’ She smiled at me with this warm, kind smile as if she was telling me how proud she was of me.
‘I better get back, I’m an honorary board member and we’re having a terribly dull meeting.’ I felt my hand being squeezed. ‘It was lovely to see you, Scott.’
My mother, Orletta Roberts, or Orletta Roberts, my mother – I could not tell which at that moment – turned to walk back to that fire exit door as I remained frozen.
‘I didn’t mean what I said,’ I called after her. She turned and looked at me with the most amazing patient, non-judgemental look, again putting me completely on the back foot.
‘I didn’t mean what I said in Devon. Obviously, I didn’t mean it.’ I lowered my voice and stepped a yard closer so those staring at the paintings around us would be less inclined to eavesdrop. ‘But this. This being the whole extent of our relationship. How often we see each other. It is not down to me. You see that, don’t you? Mum?’
I felt the last word hang as she continued to look at me, just as she did when she had called me handsome in Devon. She then tilted her head and gave me a fuller smile, perhaps her way of telling me she understood, or telling me that I would not understand. But she said nothing more and left the room.
‘What do you mean it didn’t come up? How could you not talk about the house?’
Ellie wanted answers and wasn’t overly happy by the impromptu meeting.
‘She just said she was in town. It’s not like I could say no.’
At least I had Ellie at an arm’s length by relaying events over the phone while walking to my next meeting.
‘Was she angry? Was she upset? What the hell were you doing going by yourself after last time?’
I knew she wouldn’t be pleased, hence why I was making the call on the move through the crowded frosty streets of Oxford Circus, dodging other pedestrians, making my way down to Green Park.
‘I think that was the point. Just me and her after last time.’
And that was pretty much all the information I had to pass on as despite being a first-hand witness, I had little idea of what actually took place. The only thing I did know was that I had come away feeling both relieved and a little sad. When I had called out to her, I hope she might come back. I hoped she might have stayed with me a little longer. She remembered our visits to see the Turner collection and that meant something to me. But I had little time to dwell as I was almost at my destination, and I could see my unlikely date coming in the opposite direction.
‘Cheer up. People would think you were the one doing me the favour,’ said Izzy, smiling that confident, slightly wicked smile of hers.
‘I guess I’m not used to being summoned.’
‘We both know that’s a lie, sweetie.’ She leant forward and placed her cheek next to mine twice. ‘Look at us both with our clothes still on. Shall we?’
She had asked me to meet her for coffee. She gave me a time and a place and little else, so I followed her into the fancy-looking coffee shop on St James’s Street.
‘I was going to tell you all about my day and having to spend my precious Saturday overhauling an awful display put together by my cretin underling. But I wouldn’t have your full attention, would I?’
‘Just some unexpected family stuff.’
Izzy raised her hand, and a young smiling waiter came over to take our order.
‘My gallery is a short walk from here. We occasionally take the odd client for lunch, you know, the ones we want to keep sweet but not sweet enough to buy champagne for at James’s Place.’ From my walk, I knew she meant the expensive-looking wine bar next door.
‘You do have my full attention,’ I said, and smiled feeling a little more at ease knowing coffee was on its way. ‘It is good to see you. How have you been since…?’
‘Since you ruthlessly refused my advances? Ha!’ It was a strange laugh. She seemed to glow a little pink. ‘Yes, well, best not dwell. Let’s just say I still think you’re an arsehole, but at least one I might be able to trust.’
She sighed and then slumped slightly. Her immaculate posture dropped to become elbows on the table.
‘And how are things with…’ I don’t think she told me his name.
‘Over,’ she exhaled. ‘He’s not going to leave her, and I need to have more respect for myself than throwing myself at him every time he fancies a quick fuck. Or jumping into bed with anyone with a relatively adequate penis and is grateful to get laid. No offence.’
‘None taken. Glad you found it relatively adequate.’
‘Don’t smile. Thanks to you, I’ve given up sex for the time being. You are essentially my rock bottom.’
I laughed and told her she was welcome. I have to say, there was something different about Izzy. Or perhaps it was something about me. Either way, I felt more comfortable in her presence.
‘She’s well. That’s the question you want to ask, isn’t it?’ She stared at me again with that same smile. ‘You obviously didn’t think I’d invited you here to seduce you again? I honestly don’t think there’s enough alcohol in the world for me to tread that path for a fourth time, so let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we? You’re quite the letter writer, I hear.’
I felt my heart plummet into my ankles. Katie had shown someone else my letter. I was like a schoolboy with a pitiful crush on the head girl, and now the whole school had found out. My shoulders dropped, and I exhaled one long, defeated breath.
‘I was just trying to say sorry. It’s not a big deal. She doesn’t have to worry about me doing – ’
‘She’s broken up with Ethan,’ Izzy interrupted casually. ‘Well, they’re having an extended break, and him moving in is now indefinitely off the cards. Apparently, you also have a way with words which I’m not overly happy about. Calling her an idiot for staying with him, very nice, Scott.’
She looked more serious as she sipped her coffee. I was now confused regarding the reason for our meeting. Was I being accused of harassing Katie into ending her seven-year relationship? Surely nothing I could have said would have that influence.
‘Izzy, I don’t know what she told you, but – ’
‘This is how it works between her and me. I’m occasionally a little mean, she puts up with it until I overstep the mark, she gets pissed off, I flutter my eyelashes and tell her I really do love her, and we’re all sweetness and light again. I don’t like other people upsetting her. I won’t accept it.’
‘I didn’t mean to upset her – ’
‘Oh my God, I’m not talking about you! I’ve asked you here to discuss how we both will fix this mess and have Miss Disney Princess stop moping about like she’s lost the family pet. Personally, I would have stuck it out with Ethan and done the whole play-him-at-his-own-game thing. She’s already snogged some cretin, might as well let said cretin unfasten that chastity belt.’
Izzy smirked, picking back up her coffee cup.
‘Tell you what, why don’t I write you a reference? It wouldn’t exactly be five stars, but you did get the job done, and perhaps that’s what she needs to snap out of it and come to her senses.’
She continued to stare at me with big eyes as if daring me to be shocked. I wasn’t going to rise to it.
‘When did it happen?’
‘Pretty much the week after she moved out of that hovel you shared. Didn’t surprise me. The reconciliation was a little bit too good to be true. I absolutely adore Ethan, but she did make herself a doormat.’
The waiter came over and cleared the table next to us. He smiled a flirtatious smile at Izzy, who just rolled her eyes.
‘I don’t want to encourage him,’ she said after he left. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’d definitely sleep with him. It’s just a question of timing. After all, I don’t want the inconvenience of having to change coffee shops if it makes him think too much of himself.’
‘Thanks for letting me know.’
‘My pleasure!’ She then beamed with I assumed all the irony and sarcasm she could muster, grabbing my hand. ‘Seriously though, I’m not altogether having a terrible time. It’s nice talking to a boy for a change. You know, I have had a lot of boyfriends but not actually one boy-friend. All-girls school and that. This is fun!’
‘And that’s why you’ve asked me here?’
‘Of course not!’ It was like Izzy was drunk. She was so giddy and merry, laughing at her own jokes and theatrically making fun of me. ‘Well, yes, kind of. With Spoiler all wrapped up wallowing, it would be insensitive to bang on to her about my life or dilemmas. Dullard and I have had a second date and, well, it was quite nice.’
Izzy stared to the side and smiled as a flash of pink lit up her cheeks.
‘Dull. Definitely still dull. Terribly, terribly dull in a very, very sweet way. And so naïve! In fact, Otto is so dull and naïve he can’t see what a complete bitch he is being so lovely to.’
Izzy sighed and screwed her face into a frown. She then sat up straight, more business-like.
‘Anyway, your job is to prevent me screwing this up. I take it you have no meaningful plans this Thursday?’
Chapter 29: Déjà vu
What should you do if after not speaking to your mother for years, you explain to her that you would have preferred your other parent to have outlived her, and then your next conversation cordially lasted four sentences, and you refused to deny the accusation of disliking her? It’s not one hundred percent a no-brainer, is it?
Or perhaps it was. For the first time since standing at a London railway station in the early hours of the morning, high as a kite, I picked up the phone to call my mother. It went straight to voicemail. I just called to see that you had got home safely, is all I could think of saying. Anything else would have probably been too much considering I was still taking her to court – or at least adjudication. And considering I had effectively told her that my disdain for her was also her fault. Part of me wanted to apologise for everything that had transpired between us, but when she had asked me that question in the gallery, and as she had walked away, I think that was the most honest I had ever been with her. And until she apologised for all those years of being Orletta Roberts, then I couldn’t just tell her I loved her and wanted to start over with a blank slate.
And, no surprises, she didn’t return my bloody message.
After our initial conversation about our mother’s surprise visit, Ellie did not seem to have much inclination or time to dwell on its meaning either. Over the next week, I relayed six messages to her regarding Auntie Pam’s arrival in the country. For me, after receiving my last call from Auntie Pam – who told me she was at the airport and everything was going according to plan – I was then free to take on my next convoluted mission.
When Izzy had communicated the favour that she wanted from me, she had also offered up the incentive, ‘well, what else have you got to do in your boring little life?’ This was true. Though, while I was beginning to enjoy aspects of said boring life such as seeing neglected landscapes transform into something more promising, there were just so many nights I could spend reading old graphic novels on my childhood bed.
The plan was for me to act as Izzy’s chaperon. Her gallery was hosting an event at their premises just down the road from the St James Street café, and there was a chance Izzy’s ex would show up. ‘We both know how it will go,’ she said, her elbows on the café table, her hands twirling a sugar dispenser. ‘I will ignore him, he will see it as a challenge, and before we know it, we’ll both be in the storeroom boning away. But not this time!’ Unexpectedly, she swung her fist down onto the table like a gavel. She smirked gleefully as I looked around us. ‘You are to be my wingman and remind me that I owe it to Dullard, if not to myself, to keep my desires at bay.’
In my defence, I was initially sceptical, especially considering what happened when I last helped her out in a dating situation, and it did seem a lot of effort for her to make. ‘Like I said, I can’t exactly ask Katie. Misery guts will kill the mood of the entire event. You will have to do.’ And, in hindsight, that should have been a clue.
Izzy’s gallery was one of those long white spaces on a Mayfair side street. I would walk past such places in my banking days and see a few pieces hanging sparsely across the walls and one solitary person clicking away at a Mac. However, this evening it was full of designer clothes tailor-fitted to very elegant-looking people holding champagne glasses. I cast a look around for Izzy as I stood awkwardly one yard inside the entrance, feeling I should at least offer up an explanation for my presence. However, it did not take long for me to catch someone’s eye.
‘Can I help you?’ came Izzy’s voice from another woman’s mouth. She was stout, most probably in her late forties, and looked both curious and alarmed as she made her way to intercept me.
I stammered, saying that I was Izzy’s guest.
‘Oh, Isabella,’ the lady sneered. ‘She’s not here this evening. She called in sick, something about a migraine. Are you a client?’ It was not a question but a steady interrogation, causing my tongue to feel swollen as I braced myself for the humiliation of being kicked out of somewhere I didn’t want to be at in the first place. I then felt a hand upon my shoulder.
‘Scott!’ said a friendly but unfamiliar Italian accent. A young man in a crisp black suit and sporting a short, cropped beard was beaming at me like we were long-lost friends. I nodded suspiciously.
‘Clarisse, this is Scott. I promised Isabella I would show him the Killian collection. Scott, please, come with me. Isabella tells me you are looking for a contemporary, stylistic piece.’
I was led away from the suspicious-looking Clarisse, through the clusters of champagne drinkers, to another room.
‘Lorenzo,’ the young man shook my hand and then laughed. ‘Do not look so scared! She is like that with us all. This is Clarisse’s gallery – she is queen, Isabella is princess, and you and I mere peasants. Come, there is someone I have been told you should meet. Ordered, in fact!’ He laughed again, a full-bellied laugh, appearing a lot more comfortable with the situation than I was.
It was then I saw her. She was staring at me wide-eyed before masking her face with her hand. For a split second, I didn’t recognise her. Or at least I didn’t recognise her as my former flatmate. I did, however, immediately recognised the dress. It was the same one that Izzy had worn the night she turned up to Loughborough Road after her date with the dullard. But Katie’s hair was different. Drastically different. It was shorter and lighter – a wavey, layered auburn bob. Combined with the short dress, the effect was striking. If it had not been for the all-too-familiar glare she was giving me, I would have had no idea who she was and just stared at the beautiful woman standing by herself.
‘Ciao! Bella Katie!’ Lorenzo then beamed with his arms outstretched and approached Katie, kissing her on each cheek. As our eyes met, I sensed her gritting her teeth, and I wanted some hole to bury myself in, knowing she had not remotely forgiven me for Ruskin Park.
‘You know Scott, no?’ While Lorenzo was now grinning at some in-joke only he was privy to, Katie looked decidedly unamused and turned her head away from me. I was still trying to get to terms with her new look. I had always found Katie beautiful, but there was something quite breathtaking about her, dressed in what Izzy had termed her sex dress. I then felt guilty for not looking adequately chastened.
‘Katie, Isabella just messaged me – she is sick. She will not make it. But she has told me that Scott will be your chaperone. He is Mr Art! Isabella tells me.’ Still smiling away, his arm was then around Katie’s shoulder. ‘Katie is my wing-woman tonight in Isabella’s absence. We will go to the club and I will find her a nice boy and she will find me a not-so-nice girl. Drink, drink, I see you both later.’ With one more pat on my shoulder, he laughed again and left us.
I did not need to say anything at first. Katie had her hand to her forehead, pinching her eyelids. I felt the déjà vu sensation of pre-Christmas at the museum. But this time, I also felt the injustice of it being forced upon me. Not that I am saying I did not owe her an apology. I just didn’t want her to think ambushing her at events was my go-to M.O.
Katie then turned away from me. She lowered her hand and began staring at a small painting on the immaculate white wall. I had to stop myself staring hard at her – she looked so different with her new hair, and even the way she held her champagne close to her chest had me staring at her figure, which I am adamant I had never done while we lived together.
‘I used to go to these sort of things all the time when Izzy first started working here,’ said Katie, not taking her eyes off the underwhelming series of dots on a white canvas. ‘Lorenzo’s very sweet. Very young, very boyish. He’s become a younger brother to both Izzy and me, the number of years they’ve been working together. Her, him, and Clarisse – who is Izzy’s idol and openly shows disdain for anyone who doesn’t earn at least six figures or drive a sports car. Though, I never saw you as a lover of contemporary art.’
She put her champagne flute to her mouth, still not looking directly at me.
‘I think I’ve had my fill of galleries, to be honest.’ I thought back to the Turner room and wondered where I felt less at ease. We were side by side, perhaps looking like we were giving a critique.
‘What did she tell you?’ Katie then asked, still staring intently at the painting.
‘Something about being her wingman and stopping her succumbing to temptation.’
‘Mine was the reverse. I should dress up and get drunk with her on enough champagne to let my inhibitions go, for once in my life. According to Izzy, the best thing for a breakup is rebound sex with pretty, well-groomed men.’
I was tired of gazing at paintings while trying to have a conversation, so I just spun back around to face her.
‘She told me about you and Ethan – ’
‘Great! Good news travels so quickly among one's so-called friendship group.’
‘I’m as comfortable about being here as you are,’ I whispered, staring back at the painting as this wave of heat smacked me in the face.
‘Well, I guess neither of us has to be here considering it’s all been such an amateurish setup.’
It was the first open sight of irritation. Around us, the laughter was getting louder. I glanced and the gallery space was filling up. The lady who stopped me at the door – Clarisse – was now smiling and cackling with a group of more smartly dressed art lovers. I then leaned my head closer to Katie’s and whispered again,
‘I miss spending time together.’ My voice was low so as not to attract more attention and recreate another Ruskin Park moment. ‘What I said that day, I don’t know why I said it. I guess I knew once we stopped living together, we’d just drift apart, and it freaked me out.’
Katie’s response to this was to remain as she was. Her feet did shift slightly as she seemed to contemplate the painting more.
‘So you don’t have feelings about me?’ she said and looked at me, calmly, mildly curious. ‘So, if anything were to happen with us, like tonight, you would see it purely as a one-off – like with you and Izzy – no awkwardness after?’
She looked at me deliberately passively. As if she had asked which I preferred, tea or coffee.
‘Maybe,’ I said, a tad annoyed, sticking my chest out like we were teenagers and she was goading me regarding if I had ever smoked weed – which I never had.
‘Okay.’ Katie finished the last of her champagne. She then looked around us, just as controlled and steadily as when she was studying me. ‘Follow me.’