For a moment I am struck dumb by my mother’s perceptiveness. Then my great, great love for her intervenes and I lie and lie and lie. ‘You only say that because you have not met Blake yet. He is beautiful and strong and kind. It was love at first sight. When I told him about you, he gave double what he knew I needed.’
My mother sighs. ‘I pray to God that I will be alive for your wedding.’
I feel the hollowness spread through my body. It doesn’t matter, I tell myself fiercely. So what if my mother will be disappointed? All that counts is she will be cured. I will forget this one in time and marry someone else, another who will not consider me so lowly that I am only fit to be hidden away like a dirty little secret. Someone with a beautiful heart like Jack.
Yes, someone like Jack.
I leave my mother’s house and going past Billie’s door run two floors down to ring Jack’s mother’s doorbell. While I am waiting for her to open the door I look down the railing, and see Fat Mary browning herself into an uneven shade of lobster.
Fat Mary is a big woman who lives in the corner downstairs flat and sunbathes topless in her garden, even though it is overlooked, by all the other flats in the block. Every Friday night she makes her hair big, stuffs herself into a tight dress and high heels, and goes to the Irish nightclub on Kilburn high street to find herself a bloke to bring home. Like clockwork they slip out of her door, all sheepish before lunch on Saturday.
All the little boys on bicycles always call out, ‘Hey, Mary, how’s your mary?’ Her fat face never alters as she shows them her middle finger.
Jack’s mother’s face appears at the kitchen window. ‘Oh, hello, dear,’ she says with a smile, before she comes to open the door. She has the same beautiful eyes fringed by thick sooty lashes as Jack.
‘Hi, Fiona. Mum sent you some cake.’
‘How lovely. How is she feeling today?’
‘It’s a good day today.’
‘That’s good. Would you like to come in, dear?’
‘Nah, I’ve got to run.’
‘Well, you run along, then.’
‘See you later,’ I say and turning begin to walk away.
I turn around. ‘Yeah?’
Fiona hesitates and I hitch my bag higher up my shoulder and take two steps towards her. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I…um…heard…you…ah…found yourself…a…boyfriend. A rich boyfriend,’ she says anxiously.
I shift from one foot to the other. ‘I just met him, Fiona. I wouldn’t call him a boyfriend just yet. It might not work out.’
Fiona’s timid face falls. It is obvious she has been hoping that the rumor going around is not true. Her voice is very tiny. ‘You will be careful, won’t you, my dear? I wouldn’t say anything normally, but you’ve always been such an innocent thing. And I thought to myself, even if I come across as an interfering, old busybody, I’ve got to say something.’
She takes a deep breath. ‘You know, I’ve always said you are the most beautiful girl on this estate, if not in all of Kilburn, and you should have become a model, but rich men are greedy. One is never ever enough for them.’
I put my rucksack on the concrete floor and leaning forward hug the woman. ‘Thank you for caring, Fiona. I don’t know how I would have coped all these years if not for Jack, Billie and you.’
Fiona hugs me tightly. ‘Oh, child, you are like my own daughter to me. What you did for Jack; I’ve never thanked you.’
I untangle myself from Fiona. ‘What I did for Jack? It is I who should thank Jack. He’s taken care of me and fought my battles since the day I arrived.’
‘He will never talk about it, but the year you arrived was the year his father died, and he became quite unmanageable and surly. He’d taken up with a gang who stole, carried knives and drank alcohol across the railroads. I was afraid for him, afraid that he would turn out like all the other boys on the estate—jobless drunks and drug addicts. But then your family moved in and suddenly he changed. He took over the job of being your older brother, and suddenly I got my caring, beautiful son back and thanks to you he’s going to escape this terrible estate and become a doctor.’ Tears filled her lovely eyes.
‘If I was useful to him then I am glad, because I don’t know what my life would have been like without him.’
Fiona smiles proudly at the thought of her good son.
‘I’ve got to go, but I’ll be around tomorrow with a box of biscuits like you’ve never tasted before.’
I laugh. ‘More like oo la la… They’re French.’
‘Goodbye, dear girl.’
I wave, and run up the stairs. My phone rings and I stop to answer it. It is Mrs. Arnold calling to say she has booked an eight thirty table for Blake and me at The Fat Duck. She reminds me to be ready by 7.30p.m.
‘Thanks,’ I say. I end the call and think, ‘I’ve been reduced to another appointment in his diary.’
Halfway up the second flight of stairs I hear Kensington Parish call out to me. I pop my head over the side railing and see that he is standing at his bedroom window at almost eye level to me.
‘What’s up, Kensington?’
‘Hey, Lana,’ he says. ‘Do you think your man will let me have a ride in that car of his?’
‘Unlikely,’ I reply and carry on running up the stairs even though I hear him shout pleadingly, ‘Oh! Come on, Lana. You haven’t even asked. It’s a 0-77. It’s custom made, Lana. Come on… Lana?’
Billie’s door is open and her mother is outside watering her hanging baskets.
‘She’s in her bedroom,’ she says, by way of greeting.
‘Thanks,’ I reply, and run up the worn blue carpet. I knock once and enter. Billie is using up a can of hairspray on her hair. The room is choking with the stuff.
‘Jesus, how can you bear to breathe this stuff?’
‘Open the window if it bothers you.’
I open the window and take a deep breath before facing the synthetic smell in the room. Thankfully, Billie has finished. Her white hair has now been sprayed into a stiff man’s pompadour that will survive a hurricane. She looks at her reflection with satisfaction. Then she turns away from the mirror, switches off her small telly, and goes to sit on the bed. She pats the space next to her.
I sit next to her and put my bag down.