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May 2008, we were alive…

And when they had been through all the events, games and demonstrations they sat on the fourth floor in one of exhibition rooms which had nothing occurring, just a large white space with glass cabinets built into the wall and glass display boxes in the middle. It was quiet, low-lit, away from the rest of the crowds, and Hannah and Amyas were sitting on a white cube, holding a glass of wine and beer respectively.

“I wish we could stay here forever,” she said quietly, resting her head on his shoulder. “I wish we could do this and hide away. Neither of us go to work. Have to do twelve-hour shifts. Have people being constantly demanding. Families being families.” She manoeuvred herself so he was holding her. In front of them a guy and girl were leaning over a small model of what looked like an aircraft hangar. They finished with it and made their way to the pictures and cabinets on the walls. Hannah was tranquil in his arms, just smooth deep breaths. They were in the Science Museum. It was approaching ten o’clock at night and the evening had been his surprise for her. He had asked her to meet him at South Kensington. They had dinner at a wine and cheese shop – a continental blend of Parisian café and small restaurant – where they and other young couples ordered bottles of wine and then dined on focaccia, hummus and cured meats at small tables hidden around corners, up little flights of stairs, and in every available space.

Hannah had thought that was the surprise. “This is lovely,” she had said, dipping the focaccia into a small bowl of creamy white hummus. “And the wine is amazing!” she grinned. “Thank you for this,” she had said suddenly, reaching for his hand. She said it was nice to do something different, something fun. That he had a habit of making her smile. Since London Bridge something had changed between them. They would see each other more. It all became suddenly easier. Rather than specifically arrange a date Hannah would turn up at his flat after work, they would drink wine and talk about each other’s day. They would wear jeans and casual tops, laugh about random films and play songs on Amyas’s stereo. There was a comfortableness. No need to pretend to be other people. As Hannah said thank you across the table, Amyas asked what for. He said it was his pleasure. “Thank you for doing this,” she said. “Surprising me.” He said they had not reached the surprise yet.

Amyas led them up Exhibition Road. He stopped outside the Science Museum. “Here we are.” Hannah looked up at first, confused, and then down at all the couples and people their age that were entering the huge glass doors. “It’s open late tonight and for over-eighteens only. As you liked the idea of drinking wine at a cinema I thought you might like this. There’s a bar and you take your drinks wandering around all the exhibits. It might be a bit geeky though…” He liked science and statistics and history and museums. They made him feel like a child again. He had spent summers playing with chemistry sets, and the Christmas children’s lecture at the Royal Institution was the highlight of his year. He was a geek and now Hannah would know it. She looked surprised, still looking around the South Kensington building and the numerous people who were now passing on their way in. And then suddenly, this big wide smile appeared on her face. “You’re kidding?” she said. “I love the Science Museum! It was my favourite place growing up.”

The lobby was huge. They could see all the upper levels from it. “I’m a nurse, remember,” Hannah said. “Science is why I got into the job. I was so good at it at school. Until everyone started calling me a swot.” She grabbed Amyas’s hand and the huge smile returned as she looked up and around her. She started bouncing on her heels, Amyas noticed. “Oh my God, you can do experiments! This is brilliant. Come on, let’s go!”

They ran between rooms. They built bridges out of straws and elastic bands, they danced with headphones on under a jumbo jet, they laughed at a comedian describing the science in male and female attraction, and they blew multi-coloured bubbles and watched test-tubes foam and bubble.

As Amyas held her in his arms at the end of the night, on the white cube, in the big white, low-lit room, Hannah took his hand again and turned to look at him, brushing his dark hair away from his forehead. “I’m having a great time with you,” she said.

25. June 2008, we were happy, truly happy…

“Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Oh I can’t believe you haven’t got a single one right. You’d make a terrible nurse. Horrific in fact. If a teenage girl asks you to keep a secret you can’t be her best friend and just keep it. There are rules about that stuff. You report to the appropriate management, my dear.” She smiled dizzily at him from across the pub table. He had not seen her that genuinely delighted throughout their dating, especially in relation to work.

“You see it involves psychology and ethics but I think it’s mainly common sense. What to do in a crisis, what to do when a teenager has a history of acting out and is suddenly detached and moody. It is about what to expect but not just that. It’s about what you can do to help in the long run. We all want to be the hero, honey, but these kids have not just suddenly woken up with these problems. Some go back years and have been in and out of our ward for as long as they can remember. Way before I came on the scene. You can’t just make things right overnight.” As Amyas looked at her she was positively radiant. There was a glow about her, a brightness that was unmistakeable. The Islington pub was starting to fill with fellow mid- to late-twenty-somethings also looking to unwind after a long day but as they sat at their wooden table and Hannah straightened her posture, smiled and animatedly explained her point of view, everyone else blurred into the background and it was only her Amyas could see.

“It takes patience and proper protocol. Doing what has been proven to work even if the result is not immediate or obvious. That’s the hard part, what brings me down a lot of the time. But then, very, very, occasionally there are these really small things where you think ‘Hang on perhaps I might be making a difference’.” Her eyes were sparkling.

“That sounds inspirational,” he smiled. “Incredible even. You sound incredible tonight. Did something happen at work today?” He smiled again at her luminosity and took her hand.

“Well,” she smiled. “Such a little thing in the grand scheme of things but there has been this boy I’ve been working with for weeks, and sessions always go the same way. I talk, he’s silent, moody and when he’s had enough, acts out. But today.” She paused, unable to stop her smile getting wider. “Today, he came to me, by himself, saying he wanted to talk. And we did. Oh God, it sounds so lame hearing it out loud. It’s really not revolutionary but, well, I just had a good day.”

26. December 2011, the room at one hundred and eighteen…

Anthony and Amyas sat opposite each other as usual in the leather armchairs. The mantelpiece stood next to them above the old, ornamental fireplace and upon it the carriage clock Amyas would glance at each session, fearing the hour was about to end when he had so much he needed still to say. Anthony’s desk was in the periphery of Amyas’s view – behind where Anthony sat, at the back of the room – and Amyas heard the light hum of an electric heater, glowing amber, next to it in the corner of the room. The heater was working to counteract the slight chill in the air, not an unpleasant feeling, caused by the room being at the very top of a Georgian townhouse, with its period thin single-paned window with wooden frame doing nothing to keep out the cold, and the small iron radiator doing even less bring warmth. Amyas liked that about the room. He liked that it was in the Georgian terraced building without much to tell him which century they were in. Even if it did mean him having to tuck his hands under his thighs. Anthony was wearing a scarf and his beard seemed bushier than usual. Amyas supposed what he thought quaint for an hour session Anthony would find rather tiresome having to work in that chilly room the entire day, five days a week.

Anthony had a soft voice. It made it easier for Amyas to talk. He was about ten or so years older than Amyas and had a patient manner: sitting with his notepad, listening, only jotting something down intermittently, otherwise giving Amyas his full attention.

“We would sit talking and drinking wine together on the sofa,” Amyas began. “I had stopped wearing my best shirts and shoes that I always wore on our early dates to impress her – I guess it stems from being insecure but I thought if I did not look my best she would realise she could do better. I would have on a black hoodie and trainers and then I’d notice my foot automatically stretched out and resting against the edge of the coffee table, as laid back as could be. I was being completely myself and she was smiling, laughing, happy and loving being with me. I showed her myself fully and completely, what I’ve never done with anyone else, and she would want to be with me.”

Anthony gave him a friendly smile as he made a note. Amyas felt encouraged to keep talking, telling the stories he had kept in his head for three years. Stories which he could remember in exact detail: every word said, the top she was wearing, how she crossed her legs, her tiny looking plimsoll-style trainers, and her big happy smile.

“I told her about being an only child. I told her about all the time spent alone living miles away from school and not being able to simply walk to someone’s house like my friends all did. I told her about not having a best friend until Nick, when I was eighteen. I told her that I always felt the odd one out, different to everyone else. I’ve never talked to anyone about that before. Mainly because I thought there was nothing to tell, it was what it was, but with her it all felt more poignant, like I was telling her I was glad I wasn’t alone anymore. She would then talk about her family and the happy times when they were all together. Then she would talk about her hurt and anger at the Church for not doing more to help her mother after her father died and how they were practically thrown out onto the streets. “Whoa, this is getting deep!” she said when we finally paused for breath – I still remember her arm draped over the top of the sofa as she sat, facing me, and me doing the same, stroking her wrist. She would give this massive sigh with a smile like she had just come out of a meditation or something. In hindsight I think those talks were as rare for her as they were for me. At the time though I assumed everything new was me and she was her with everyone.”

There were other moments too. Stored in his heart, just for himself, that would sometimes revisit him in a dream-slash-nightmare or if he was trying to write. It had been three years so he couldn’t tell anyone. Everyone would have expected him to be over Hannah long ago so how could he explain why those memories hurt so much still? He could not tell people why he would still get lost in them or why knowing they would never occur again caused so much pain.

He could not tell other people why he knew he would never love anyone like that, like he loved Hannah, or be loved like she loved him. And he could not tell other people, not even Nick, why he replaced those emotions the ways he did. Why he had sex with the girls he did. Why he had stopped dating. Why his life had become what it had.

“One night we had the iPod playing in the background. We were talking about flowers, I think some boy had tried to impress her friend at work by sending her this huge bouquet. Hannah said some of the nurses were saying how sweet it was while she and her friend both agreed it was the epitome of lame.” Amyas found himself suddenly smiling. That had been the exact phrase she used. “She said she did not think flowers were romantic. They were too contrived and far too easy, more an afterthought when you’re just trying to win brownie points. I told her I agreed with her. That real romance was subtle and was all about the details. I told her it was remembering the little things, bringing her a single specific flower because she said she grew up with a garden where they flourished. Knowing her favourite shampoo, favourite book, favourite chocolate and favourite song. On parting, as we say goodbye and walk away, stopping and turning back just to catch that one last look and hoping she’d do the same and catch her smile. I told her the true romantic gift involved thought and a little bit of soul. That my idea of romance was making her an old fashioned mix tape, on a cassette deck despite them and the technology being obsolete because romance was sticking to the old fashioned boundaries, and that I was halfway through making a mix tape just for her.”

Amyas had the memory in his head as vivid as if he was sitting on the sofa with her. Hannah wearing her blue jeans, her cute girls’ socks he noticed for having pink hearts, her small white top emphasising her breasts and that big, pure smile. He even remembered the colour of her bra. It was green, and she had been wearing a matching thong. That was what she wore to bed and he remembered the feel of her breasts in his hands as he undid her bra… He needed to stop those memories. The fantasies did not help. They were him escaping reality again. He needed to be present, back sitting in the armchair, Anthony opposite him listening, holding his notebook and pen. Amyas did let himself remember how Hannah smiled as she sat facing him, with one leg crossed under her, her back cushioned against the inner sofa arm, and her glass of wine resting on her thighs.

“She said, if I could play one song for her right then, what it would be. I got up and put on a Dire Straits cover performed by The Killers, Romeo and Juliet.” Amyas recalled Hannah listening as the words rang out: A love-struck Romeo He remembered how he thought the song was perfectly executed. Brandon Flowers’s voice providing a modern take on a classic. It seemed to sum him and Hannah up perfectly, how he felt for Hannah: I can’t do everything but I’ll do anything for you. I can’t do anything except be in love with you.

“She was listening really intently and she beamed saying she loved the song – that it was from some film she loved – and I honestly did think at the time she was in love with me. I guess no one ever felt like that about me after and nobody has ever asked me to play a song for them. Maybe that’s what I miss.

“I also miss the girl who became my best friend. She used to say she adored me and I was perfect. That I was perfect for her. I guess I believed her.”

And all I do is miss you, and the way we used to be. And all I do is keep the beat and the band company. The irony was not lost on Amyas. The song was more about loss than it was anything else. Juliet moves on and leaves Romeo behind. Oh Romeo yeah, you know, I used to have a scene with him.

27. July 2008, we were in love…

“What am I going to wear?” said Hannah as Amyas put his Nokia back in his pocket having told her of the double date. “I can’t just wear these.” She gestured to her jeans and cotton top. “If I am going to meet your best friends I need to raid my whole wardrobe – in fact I probably have to go shopping. Oh, Amyas, I can’t believe you just sprang this on me!” He couldn’t tell if she was joking or genuinely worried.

“Sprang it on you? You were just arranging the exact same thing with Mary! How is this any different?” he grinned.

“Because I don’t need to impress Mary. You do.” And with that she broke out into a huge smile. She curled up next to him again on the sofa and picked up her wine. He leant back, enjoying having her rest herself on him. She then gave him a light kick. “This doesn’t mean I forgive you. I’ve hardly spent any time at home recently either being here or at work. I’ve got so much washing to get done I actually might have to go out and buy something new.”

“Well maybe, if you’re spending most of your time here you could bring some of your clothes round. And any other stuff you need.”

“What, like have a drawer for me?”

“A drawer, a wardrobe, my desk has practically become your dressing table. It’s not like there’s no space, I think you now know I only own about ten items of clothes.”

“Amyas.” She got off him and turned to look at him, seriously. “Are you asking me something here?” She had a rather shocked smile, like she was assessing if he was serious. Amyas suddenly wasn’t sure if he had said too much.

“Well, let’s see it as something that’s practical. Something that saves you time and gives us a bit more freedom in case, for example, we get invited to a celebrity party at the last minute and you want to wear a dress.” She raised her eyebrows. “Or you spill something on your top and want to change it.”

“I liked the idea of the celebrity party better.” She raised her eyebrows again but this time smiled and gently turned back around into his arms. “Well. Maybe I should think about it. I’ll just say that.” She then kissed him on the mouth. “Thank you,” she smiled. “For being considerate. Not many men think about a girl and her spontaneous celebrity party invitations.”

And when they went to bed it was different. Normally Hannah would say “no sex”, grinning at him before undressing to her underwear and then being playful as they kissed and rolled on top of and under the covers having everything but sex, at least until they could resist no longer. Or she would fall asleep in his arms exhausted from work and he would carry her to bed. But that night she switched off the film and without a word stared at him and kissed him. She then got up, switched off the light and led him into the unlit hallway, stopping just outside his bedroom. In the stillness of the dark Hannah leant back against the wall staring up at Amyas. He put his hands on her waist, her arms linked over his neck. She just stared at him, into his eyes, her mouth half opened. She then kissed him. Her mouth pressed into his and he feel her tongue rolling against his as she kept kissing him.

She peeled away from him and walked into the bedroom, turning at the bed to face him. Still without a word, still in the dark, still staring him, she unbuttoned her jeans. She pushed then down and kicked then aside. Amyas decided to take his t-shirt off. He then saw Hannah reach under her top, at the back, where her bra would fasten. She then pulled top and bra over her head and threw it to the floor. She looked incredible, standing in front of him, letting him stare at her, completely naked. She then walked over to him slowly, still staring at him, mouth still half opened. She undid his belt. He undid the rest, forcibly pushing down both his jeans and briefs, kicking them away too, now standing naked with her. She kissed him, she ran her hands up and down his chest, over his stomach and then kissed more and more as he ran his down her sides and lightly touched her curves. Hannah started leaning back, bringing them onto the bed, him on top of her. In the half-light coming in from the window they were physically well suited – both toned, slim bodies, Amyas having filled out muscularly in his twenties. Hannah wrapped her legs around him, kissing him frantically. “Why did you ask me to move in?” she said as she kissed him. “Because I want to be with you,” he replied. “Why do you want to be with me?” she asked again, as he kissed and bit into her neck and ran his hand over and underneath her body, wanting to touch her everywhere at the same time. “Because I’m falling for you.” Normally it would just be foreplay, Amyas and Hannah still having their no sex pact, until it got late into the foreplay and they broke it. But suddenly Amyas felt foreplay had been foregone as Hannah’s thighs were pressed around his hips.

She made a small squeaking cry and smiled up at him, encouragingly. “You’re in lust with me,” she said. Amyas looked down at her. “I’m more than in lust with you,” he moaned. He felt her wriggle and saw her smile as she settled in place. He paused for a second feeling the adjustment. They were definitely not having foreplay. She rocked encouragingly under him and he put his arms out to hold his weight. “I’m in love with you,” he said, breathing harder. “I’ve loved you for ages.” She craned her neck up to kiss him and he kissed her back. She dug her nails into his shoulder and then plunged her teeth into his bicep as they rocked together. He ran his hand over her breasts and she took it, putting his finger inside her mouth, sucking. “Tell me again,” she then said. “Do you love me?” “Yes,” he said. “I love you, more than anything.”

28. September 2008, the end of niceties…

Soon after Amyas joined his fund in 2007 he went out for dinner with Kamran and John Stamler. The big boss was in town – the Head of Credit and one of the firm’s senior partners. As the four of them sat around a table in the fancy Italian restaurant the big boss told them of an investor meeting he had just attended. “They see us as the equivalent of a Treasury Bill in the hedge fund world. Sure, some funds will soar some years hitting twenty-five, thirty percent, but we give stability. We never leverage too high, we always keep some funds back so we never have to panic sell. Sure, we are conservative, but we yield ten to fifteen percent year in year out, with minimal risk.”

One of the reason for these clockwork returns was the diligence of fund managers like Kamran who ran through all the risks and took into account the whole picture when investing. “It’s about investing in good companies,” he told Amyas when asked what he looked for in a bond. “Don’t get caught up in all the technicals or gimmicks the sales people bring to you. If the company has good, solid fundamentals it will do well whatever is happening in the market. It’s about doing your research and making sure it’s solid.” And Kamran taught Amyas how to do his research. Together with John Stamler, they taught him how to build a model and what questions to ask when he eventually got to sit down face to face with a company executive.

Sadly though that was not the philosophy of everyone at the fund. The other reason for this seemingly “no risk” return, as Kamran sceptically once said coming off a fund manager’s call, was “Dallas’s obsession with easy money”. In the fund’s headquarters, which housed three hundred people over four floors of a shiny skyscraper in the prime business district of the Texas Heartland were a group of traders who had been making money for years. They followed the market and piled cash after more cash into investment products that could never lose. These were called Asset-Backed Securities, or as the papers in September 2008 were saying, Sub-Prime. Asset-Back Securities were, in simple terms, the hundred and one ways to make money out of a mortgage. As the proverb went, they were deemed to be ‘as safe as houses’, largely because they were houses. They were effectively insurance against hundreds of thousands of American homeowners all waking up one day and collectively realising they could not pay their mortgage and would have to foreclose. One individual home owner having to foreclose was not an unlikely event. It happened all over the world. But several hundred thousands of homeowners? Millions of American homeowners, all foreclosing within the same year? The probability was less minimal. One trader in particularly had done so well in these guaranteed money-makers over 2005 and 2006 the firm entrusted him to amass a position worth well over one billion dollars.

But what this trader failed to consider was that the probability of a million people having to foreclose on their mortgage at the same time was not one million random individual events all occurring at the same time. All those millions of homeowners had two things in common. First, their repayments were all based on the US Federal interest rate. Second, they all took out their mortgage when US Federal interest rates were rock bottom, in 2002. In 2007, interest rates were back to being sky high. They had risen steadily. And virtually overnight, these millions of homeowners were being told that their initial 5-year low interest rate deal was over and their mortgage repayments were suddenly six or seven times what they previously were. So those millions of American homeowners simply said, “we can’t afford this shit,” and all foreclosed. And Amyas’s company, and nearly all other banks he traded with, lost billions.

That was how John Stamler explained it to him, anyway. “They didn’t think it would happen. Kamran’s been cautious all this year and saying the equity guys should have been buying puts and the shit was gonna hit the fan. And here we are. It was obvious.” He turned back to his screens, shaking his head. Everyone in the London office had been at their desk for the best part of week watching markets capitulate on their screens and trying their best to mitigate the impact. “It could have been worse. Thanks to those idiots in Dallas we saw all this coming. They’d lost us a billion even before Christmas and were crying ‘we’ll make it back!’ Bunch of cowboys. I hope Kamran can sort some of this shit out.” Kamran and all the heads of department had flown to Dallas for emergency talks. The sub-prime position had hit them big and now with markets in free-fall investors were knocking on doors asking for their money back. John Stamler was right though, it could have been worse. Other funds were going bankrupt. Before he left Kamran had said that the firm had got out of sub-prime months ago, taking a huge loss. But they had been one of the first to lose money. Kamran said the only thing investors cared about was that they were down big at the start of the year and were still losing money because everyone else in the market was losing money.

But as everyone else made urgent phone calls and yelled out for more information on bond prices, Amyas just sat quietly. He could not stop thinking about Hannah and what he had done.

There had been a glimmer of hope. They had spoken one more time. “I wanted to apologise,” he began, calling her a week later. “I wasn’t myself. I put you on the spot and that was unfair.”

“I thought you were pissed off with me,” she replied in a tone far softer than the abrupt voice that he had been greeted with on their last phone call. “I’m sitting at my dressing table getting ready for work. Another night shift. You sound a lot better. Happier.”

“Yeah, some days are better than others.” He smiled, knowing how true it was. He had felt ashamed and humiliated when they last spoke. He had done exactly what he told himself not to, show Hannah him at his lowest. That afternoon he felt stronger and wanted to redeem himself, so he did. And the conversation was everything he had wanted. She was lovely, friendly, kind, and they talked warmly with no need to rush, as two people who cared about each other. As they said goodbye he felt a lift, finally able to walk a little taller. But that lift was nothing more than false hope. She stopped replying to his messages. She cut off all contact.

John Stamler got up from his chair and put on his jacket. “Got a meeting at Goldman Ball-Sachs, buddy.” He squeezed Amyas’s shoulder as he left. As Amyas continued to watch the markets his phone rang.

“Hey,” said Kamran. He sounded tired. “Keep this to yourself for now but I wanted you to hear it from me first. There’s a good chance they’re going to close us down – you, me and John. We’re small compared to the US lot and most of the investors don’t even know the European business exists. A new guy is taking over the team in Dallas. They initially wanted him to take charge of us too but, to be frank, I don’t want to work with him. So it leaves us a bit out in the cold.”

Out in the cold seemed appropriate. And with that conversation Amyas’s dream job came to an end. As he placed down the receiver he felt no sadness, anger or loss. He felt as he did before the call. He felt nothing.

29. July 2008, we were happy… weren’t we?

“But, Kate, I don’t know how you have the patience. If I had to deal with bureaucrats I think I’d end up drowning myself in a vat of wine. Give me psychotic teenagers any day!” ‘Amyas and Hannah’, double dating with Nick and Kate…. “It was love at first sight, my dear,” said Nick…. They said goodbye outside The Green, hugging each other, Hannah telling Kate they had to arrange a girls’ night out and Nick and Amyas turning their manly hug into a drunken wrestle.

Hannah said all she wanted to do was kick her shoes off and crawl into bed. She was lying on her side, still in her dress, head on the pillow and breathing deeply, already asleep. Amyas flicked off the bedside lamp and placed a kiss into her hair. He felt her stirring, waking him. She kissed him, hard and then frantically. His t-shirt… her bra… he felt her leg wrapped around his hip… She rolled onto her back. He looked down from upon her. Her eyes half-closed. Mouth breathlessly half-open. I like to be taken from behind… be forceful with me…

The morning sun poured into the room illuminating her scarlet hair and freckled skin. She lay on her side facing away from the light. She was wearing the t-shirt she always wore when sleeping at: his Heidelberg one, from the little German town where he and his old school friends would spend early December. He had told her of the ruined castle, the fairy-tale old town, the student area, the bars – he thought it best not to mention the girls – and above all the Christmas markets which he could not wait to take her to see. He was standing by the window finishing getting dressed, buttoning up his shirt. He had taken the morning off work so they could have a romantic morning together. Unfortunately it was not going according to plan.

She had been quiet for the last hour, her back to him either looking like she was trying to sleep or then using her phone. “Just too much wine, that’s all,” she had said. “It’ll pass, just need to lie down till it passes.”

It had started with a phone call as soon as they were waking up. “It’s Sam, about the party,” she said a little groggily. “He needs me to get Carl to pick up some crates. He said he was planning to ask R…” She stopped herself. “He just needs them moving to the venue and Carl’s got a van.” But she did not seem happy. When she was speaking to her brother he noticed her silent for some time. She had shuffled herself from under the duvet into a sitting position and then shifted herself around so Amyas could not see her. She said nothing, holding her phone to her ear with one hand and the other covering her eyes. She then suddenly said, “oh whatever,” and put down the phone.

There were texts, as she lay back down. Every time she received one she would huff and then aggressively press the buttons in reply. Amyas began looking through his BlackBerry as she was engaged, the pattern only breaking when she received another call: “Listen,” she whispered, “can’t you just deal with her? I’m trying to have just one day off. Oh thanks very much.” And she hung up again, this time angrily. “Just my brother being an arsehole,” she said when Amyas asked if she was okay.

She did not touch the tea he had made. She just said thanks, lying in her same position cradling her phone. The toasted bagel also remained on the bedside table and Hannah said she would try to eat it later when she felt less nauseous. And then Amyas noticed her phone going off again, this time on silent – all the lights flashing – and her just holding it, not answering.

He wanted to ask what was wrong. But he didn’t. He just lay down next to her asking again if she was okay. “Yes,” she said shortly. She then seemed to notice her abrasiveness and said more softly, “it’s just family stuff. Drama before the party. Mum throwing a typical melodrama and Sam wanting to fob it off. Don’t worry about it. What time do you have to go to work?” She turned back around to look at him. He wanted to delve deeper. When she mentioned family drama or issues she always then changed the subject. He liked making her smile and laugh so thought it was his job to take her mind off these matters. In their late night conversations she would talk about the happy times – growing up with her dad and mum had sounded idyllic: the perfect parents; her dad always there for advice, her mum there to listen, they gave her and her brothers freedom and always seemed there for them. It seemed a stark contrast to the source of stress when now her mother’s name was mentioned.

But Amyas had never been through those emotions: grief, anguish. He would be meeting all her family soon enough and things were bad; she would not have previously been so excited about the party. Moreover, what Amyas knew he should be worrying about was his self-doubts paralysing him the closer they got to the day. He had already begun to feel nervous and anxious and knew the worst was yet to come. He just hoped a couple of drinks beforehand would steady him and he wouldn’t end up standing around lost for words, embarrassing Hannah in a room full of people she loved and he had never met.

“Relatively soon,” he said answering her question.

“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed. “I thought we had longer.” She then turned back around but this time snuggled into him, taking his arm and putting it around her. “Let’s just enjoy this then. The quiet, while it lasts.”

He held her, kissed her neck and lightly bit her little earlobe. She turned around and kissed him slowly. They just lay holding each other, kissing like they were the last two people on Earth and it was the only thing to do. To Amyas it made up for the rest of the morning. It was slow, it was subtle, it was quiet and it was everything he had wanted. Just him being with her. It felt exactly what romance should have been. Just lying with the girl he loved taking time kissing slowly, over and over and over.

30. September 2008, the end of time…

Lehman Brothers was no more. How could one of the world’s biggest investment banks go bankrupt and why did it seem to happen overnight? It was chaos from the TV screens in the office with hundreds of people walking out of the Lehman’s building with cardboard boxes of their belongings, all angry, some in tears. The news was talking about something called a ‘bailout’ for the banks. Apparently investment banking was like a massive cooperative – one bank falling meant dire trouble for the others and could have a domino effect. John Stamler tried to explain: “Liquidity ratios, dude. There wasn’t any real money in the whole bullshit system. One bunch of fools have said ‘we’ve got no cash, we’re just a bunch of white guys in expensive suits talking crap, we’re not really a bank’. And the others are going ‘well, if they’re fucked we’re not much better’. Hopefully we’ll ride out this storm and live to fight another day. Do it right next time. Fucking disgrace though.”

Amyas had sat in a meeting with Andrea and Kamran that morning. Andrea’s eyes were glossy, he noticed. “We’re having to follow a script for the first part,” she said as she proceeded to formally tell him he was being made redundant. After the script was over Kamran then said, “Hey, you’re family here. These are tough times but the cream always rises. You are going to bounce back and if there is anything we can do, let me know.”

Amyas was to serve only three weeks’ notice. Kamran too would be leaving. He told Amyas he had no immediate plans but was sure something would turn up sooner or later. Amyas wished he could have shared that confidence. To him, when he left the company it would mean he could go back to his flat and stay in bed, not worry about getting up in the morning or carrying on the exhausting work of putting on his outward face. He had come back to work too soon. He had finished his month on the pills and was so tired. Redundancy had come at the right time and he could go away and have the world leave him alone.

As he sat back at his desk, very little work was going on around him. Everyone was watching Lehman Brothers on every news channel possible. ‘Should there be a bailout?’ one panel discussed. A left wing MP was adamant the banks needed to pay: “The fat cats have had it good for far too long. Why should the taxpayer have to step in and keep these people in one-hundred-thousand-pound sports cars and multi-million-dollar yachts?” On the face of it he had a point, Amyas thought as he sat in his chair, John Stamler now pulling up next to him with Jordan too joining them around the screen. Amyas had always considered himself left wing, despite his occupation. In fact, his left wing principles were why he liked working where he was. John and Kamran invested in companies that were in financial trouble and provided funds to finance a plan which would turn those companies around and keep people in jobs.

“Bullshit,” John Stamler yelled at the screen. “Lehman’s employs twenty-five thousand fucking people. Is he telling us they are all millionaire traders? That woman probably earns half his fucking salary, has three kids, a mortgage and a load of debt just like every other human being in this country.” The TV cameras were back outside Lehman’s and were panning in on a woman, probably in her forties wearing a light blue blouse, carrying her cardboard box of possessions and tears streaming down her cheeks. “This is a disgrace. These are normal people who earn a pay cheque trying to get by and do the best for their families. They don’t get the big six-figure bonuses but they’re the ones we’re now saying had it coming. Jeez, I used to work in that building. Some of them were lovely people. They don’t deserve this horror show.”

It was sad, Amyas thought as he watched. The whole world seemed suddenly a mess. Just a few months ago everyone was so happy. Now people everywhere were being told their job was at risk. Kamran had told him the world was built on credit and if the banks took away credit then there would be a lot of companies, who had nothing whatsoever to do with investment banking, suddenly finding themselves in the biggest recession we’d see in a century. “The next few months are going to be a killer,” said Kamran, coming out of a conference room and joining the bodies around the TV. “Everyone’s going to be hit by this. The market’s broken. It’s going to be prolonged.”

31. July 2008, you were brave, I was a coward…

He should have asked her what was wrong. As she had lain on his bed cradling her phone watching the missed calls, he should have made her tell him. Why he didn’t, only he would know. Did he really think it would have no ramifications, that her problems would not come to a head, that if ignored they would fade away?

On that night at London Bridge he could not have been prouder when she asked him to meet her family. Now on Friday, the day before, he was panic-stricken. She was meant to have been staying at his flat that night, spending the whole weekend together – their trial run for moving in together. But she had called him Friday morning to say she was now working till ten o’clock, had done nothing regards cleaning her house for her uncles and aunts (her younger brother had not even bothered coming back to the house in the last week so he would not help) and she therefore needed to go back to Streatham. He said it was fine, trying to sound calm, as he tried to keep his nerves under control. But he wasn’t feeling calm. He was thinking about how he would get through the dinner, what to do if Hannah started talking to someone else, what he would say to her brothers and her friends – all of whom he would classify as the rebels at school: the crowd who would drink underage, smoke, skip classes, do drugs, have sex. If he knew them back then he would have either stuck out as someone who obviously did not belong or they simply would not have noticed his existence; ‘who invited the geek in the corner?’ He was a geek and they were the cool kids. He had fooled Hannah, but once they met him they would point it out to Hannah and then shun him, humiliating him.

Those were the thoughts going through Amyas’s head as he spent the day at work and what he said to Donny Tabasco at the pub after. “But… you don’t normally get tongue-tied,” Donny pointed out, looking slightly confused. “Just be yourself, mate. We all like you. She likes you, that’s why she’s going out with you. I’d don’t think you need to worry about a load of randoms suddenly becoming the only people in London who don’t like you.” Donny grinned, slapping him on the back and effectively telling Amyas to be a normal human being, while ordering two more beers.

Amyas got back to his flat in lighter spirit, partly due to the four beers. Donny was right. He was making Saturday out to be a far bigger problem than it was. He thought he should call Hannah to check how she was and she wasn’t stressed about her uncles and aunts arriving. That was probably his first thought about the party from Hannah’s perspective all day. In bedroom, undressing out of his work shirt, he received her text. It was long:

I’ve been such a selfish bitch, it said. I’ve spent the last hour on the phone to my mum. This is the first family gathering since my dad died and she is freaking out. I should have realised before but I ignored it. She is going to need all my attention on Saturday. I know how nervous you will be and if you were there I would want to spend all my time with you so I think it’s best if you skip Saturday. I’ll stay the night with my mum. I’m sorry darling I so adore you but my mum really needs me.

If Amyas was the man he had hoped he would be, perhaps his behaviour would have been more impressive. But he was not. You’re off the hook, were the first words to spring to mind. He was recalling Hannah’s text when she cancelled their tattoo date. He felt a twinge of disappointment but that was it, only a twinge. He exhaled like all his worries had been eased from his shoulders. It all started to make sense. She was having family problems, the party had become a tipping point and she no longer could use him and her as a sanctuary. She was asking him to be understanding and be patient with her one more time, letting her retract the invitation so she could focus on her family. It made perfect sense to Amyas. So he texted her back telling her everything would be okay, that he was here for her if she needed him, that he understood that she needed to be with her family and there would be plenty of other opportunities for him to meet them. And some part of Amyas actually did mean what he said, believing it chivalrous to step aside. He could meet her family another time, when there were fewer of them, when he could just focus on them one-to-one on neutral ground. That made so much more sense to him as he felt the relief course through his veins.

And in her reply she said he was lovely. That he was so kind and understanding that it made her start to cry. He never once thought of calling her. He never once looked beyond his own nerves and ego. He never once though about the consequence of his actions, leaving the girl he professed to love to her demons.

It snowed on Sunday morning. Snow in July, it was unheard of. He knew what was going to happen – not the snow – when it had reached midday and he was standing at the window watching the flakes fall, not quite settling, just a dusting on the ground and parked cars. He never replied to her text the previous night. He had spent it ordering a take-away and drinking a few beers watching a film. He still felt naïvely optimistic that now the party was done things would get back to normal, and he and Hannah could start making future plans. He had wandered down Upper Street the previous afternoon, stopping at Waterstones looking through the travel guides. Hannah had not been abroad since her passport expired, three years ago. He wanted to do something special for her so he bought a small guidebook to New York. He was going to surprise her with it when they next saw each other.

She did not reply to that first text of the morning when the first snowflake fell, asking her how she was and if it was snowing too in Shepherd’s Bush. When it had reached afternoon he knew the scale of his mistake – his cowardice.

She called him at seven o’clock. She told him her mum had coped fine and spent most of the evening talking with her aunts. She sounded tired. Like it was an effort relaying the information and hardly elaborating on the details – just the facts: evening went fine, her mum coped, aunts and uncles had all gone home. The only surprise, Hannah said, was that her brother had invited Raj after all and though it was weird at first, it was good to see him. That was when the alarms in Amyas’s head really started to go off.

“I’m on nights next week,” she then announced, matter-of-factly. “I need to start spending more time with my mum too. She needs me right now.” Amyas was about to jump in and say how much he understood but Hannah cut him off straight away. “Listen, it’s been a bit of an emotional weekend so I think I’m going to have an early night. I really need to start putting Mum first from now on. Perhaps see you next weekend, we can talk then.”

“Hello?” he said, more asleep than awake. In the dark with his eyes not fully opened he had not read the caller ID.

“Hey,” she said. There was a pause.

“Hey,” he replied, his voice gaining strength from the sound of her voice.

“Are you okay? You sound strange.”

“No I’m fine,” he said. “I’m just a bit groggy I guess, I was in bed.”

“Oh shit, it’s four-thirty. I had no idea. Same old selfish Hannah…”

“No, seriously, you’re not. It is great to hear your voice. I didn’t think I would this week. Besides you did me a favour, I was in the middle of the worst dream.”

“What were you dreaming of?”

“It was the end of the world.”

There was that one phone call midway during her week on nights. The rest of the week Amyas hardly slept. While she was working he tried to send her supportive messages saying he was there for her. The first thing she replied was things are really difficult for me. The rest of her replies were brief. She said work was busy, busy, busy and she needed to make time with her family. To this end Amyas was now an outsider.

He had screwed up and it was so painfully obvious. Put a shirt on, introduce himself, have a few beers, make conversation with the nearest person when Hannah needed to be with her mum. It was not difficult. Why did he make it into something so daunting? She was cooler than him, her friends would be edgier, they would spot him as an imposter in their world, but why did it matter? Why was he determined to envision himself as plain, boring and tongue-tied regressing to himself as a teenager out of his comfort zone? Would meeting Hannah’s friends and family expose him as the interloper he really was – someone she was only with as a brief escape from her own social scene? He loved her. But he could never quite believe she could love him. That would have been too good to be real.

As he sat on his sofa alone staring at his phone – reading her last text – he realised how self-fulfilling it all had been. He had been scared of losing her. So he lost her.

“Hey,” she said.

“Good morning,” he said, his heart lifting as he answered the phone. “Congratulations on finishing your week. You must be ready to sleep till November.”

“I haven’t finished. I said I’d do another night. Cover for someone.” She sounded tired, but determined. Focused with her emotions at bay.

“Oh,” replied Amyas.

“Listen, Amyas, I wanted to talk to you. This isn’t working.” There was silence. Over the week his optimism had run dry. He knew there could only be one result.

“Amyas, are you still there?”

“Yes,” he said, regaining his voice. “Hannah, where are you? I can come meet you…”

“No, please don’t. I’ve just left work. I’m exhausted and this is hard enough as it is.” He was standing in his spare room looking at the windowsill where he had held her, smoking and looking over the gardens by night.

“Amyas, I just can’t do it. I can’t do this. I don’t want to hurt you and the way things are I am only going to end up messing you around and making you hate me more than you do already.”

“I don’t hate you, Hannah.” He wanted to say he loved her. He was in love with her. But his voice broke. He heard the sound of air being sucked in on the other line. When she spoke her voice was higher.

“I am so, so sorry. I have been so selfish. But I need to be there for my family. I can’t do what I’ve been doing. I’ve let my mum fall apart. I’ve deliberately ignored her. I have to be with her. I can’t see you anymore. It’s too difficult. I’m falling in love with you and don’t want to feel like this…” He heard her voice break and could hear her sobs. His heart was spinning. It was melting and aching as the girl of his dreams, who he adored, told him he was perfect for her, that she was falling in love with him, and that she was falling apart, all on the other end of an invisible telephone line whilst he was unable to put his arms around her. Whilst he was unable to tell her it would be okay. Whilst he was unable to say or do anything of note or worth.

“My priority is my family. I have to be there for them. I can’t do anything else and if I see you… I don’t know!” She was bawling now.

“Listen, darling, it will be okay. It will all be okay. I’m always here for you, every time you need me. I… I…” He needed to tell her he loved her. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through but I will always wait for you. I promise you. I’m always here for you and will give you all the time and space you need.”

“Stop it, Amyas. Please just stop. I have to go, Amyas. I really can’t do this.”

Way back in April we were extemely fortunate to host authors Abiola Bello, Rebecca Ley, Eithne Nightingale and John McMenemie and hear them speak about the importance of promoting writing at the grass

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