‘You’re early,’ I say, stretching my spine and trying to look like a serene yoga guru, if that’s at all possible while clutching a glass of wine.
‘Free champagne,’ Sarah says, or at least that’s my best guess at what she says. She’s laughing and leaning heavily against Jack; I think his arm round her waist is the only reason she’s still standing.
‘Lots of free champagne,’ Jack adds, and his rueful smile tells me that although Sarah has had too much, he hasn’t. I meet his eyes and for a moment he holds my gaze.
‘Am ver, ver tired,’ Sarah slurs, with long, exaggerated blinks. One of her false eyelashes is making a run for it down her cheek; it’s usually me that has that problem. I’ve tried and failed with them twice over the last few months; I look like a drag queen, much to Sarah’s amusement.
‘I know you are.’ Jack laughs and drops a kiss on her forehead. ‘Come on. Let’s get you into bed.’
She pretends to look shocked. ‘Not until we’re married, Jack O’Mara. What kind of girl d’you take me for?’
‘A very pissed one,’ he says, hanging on to her when she sways again.
‘Rude,’ Sarah murmurs, but she doesn’t fight him when he catches her behind the knees and lifts her into his arms. Shit. Watch and learn, Ryan Gosling. This man didn’t need to wade into a lake to melt the fair lady’s heart.
For clarification, I mean Sarah’s heart, not mine.
‘She’s passed out.’
I look up when Jack appears in the living-room doorway again a little later. Ryan Gosling has by now wooed his girl and rowed off into the sunset in favour of Nicolas Cage being all dependable and heroic on screen. Jack’s eyes light up and his face cracks into a broad smile.
‘Best action movie ever.’
I can’t argue. Con Air is my go-to movie; when the shit hits the fan in my real life, I invariably opt to watch Cameron Poe have a much worse time of it and still come out on top. However bad my day has been, I can generally be fairly certain that I’m not going to have to crash land a plane full of murderers and rapists on the Las Vegas Strip.
‘Everyone needs a hero,’ I say, disconcerted by the fact that Jack has decided to flake out on the other end of the sofa rather than leave it to me.
‘That’s such a girl thing to say,’ he mutters, rolling his green-gold eyes.
‘Piss off,’ I shoot back. ‘I’m practising for my long and illustrious career writing greeting card verses.’
‘You’ll be in great demand,’ he says with a grin. ‘Tell me another.’
I laugh into my glass; I’m definitely feeling uninhibited by the wine. ‘I need to know the occasion, at least.’
He considers the options. I really hope he doesn’t go for the obvious and say Valentine’s Day.
‘My dog died. Cheer me up.’
‘Oh, okay. Well,’ I pause and cast around for a snappy first line. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your dog who passed away, I hope that you remember the way he used to play.’ I draw out the last word with an upward inflection for emphasis, impressed with my own wit, before I carry on. ‘And how he always liked it when you used to stroke his head, yes, I’m truly very sorry that your precious dog is dead.’ I gather pace towards the end, and we both laugh.
‘I think I’d probably prefer a beer to any more shite jingles.’
Oh. I feel suddenly rude for being an ungracious hostess, but in my own defence, he’s caught me out. I didn’t expect him to emerge from Sarah’s room again tonight. I’d just pulled the remainder of the ice cream from the freezer for a second sitting and sat back down when he reappeared.
‘Go for it, there’s some in the fridge.’
I watch him as he leaves the room, all long legs in dark jeans and lean-limbed in an ink-blue shirt. He obviously made the effort for Sarah earlier in the evening, and at some point he’s loosened his tie. He drops back down with an open bottle of beer in his hand and holds up a spoon hopefully.
‘We didn’t get as far as dessert in the restaurant.’
I gaze down into the ice-cream tub and wonder if he’s going to be shocked by the fact that I’ve already eaten two-thirds of it.
‘What flavour is it?’ he asks as I hand it over hesitantly.
‘Karamel Sutra.’ Why couldn’t I have just said caramel?
‘Is that so?’ He raises his eyes to mine, amused. ‘Do I need to put my leg behind my head to eat it?’
If I was flirting with him I’d probably suggest he assume the downward dog or something, but as I’m not flirting with him, I just flip my eyes and sigh as if I’m terribly grown-up.
‘Only if you think it might aid your digestion.’
‘It might, but I’m fairly sure it’d ruin my jeans.’
‘Best not then,’ I say, my eyes trained on the TV. ‘This is one of my favourite bits.’
We both watch as Nic Cage goes into manly overdrive in order to protect the female guard on the plane full of convicts, Jack eating the ice cream, me nursing the last of the wine from the bottle. I’m pleasantly relaxed rather than roaring drunk, because a handy after-effect of student life is that it has given me the drinking capacity of your average rugby player. Sarah’s the same, usually.
‘There must have been a heck of a lot of free champagne for Sarah to get like that,’ I say, recalling the way she’d reeled into the flat earlier.
‘I’m not a big fan of the stuff so she had mine,’ he says. ‘They kept topping us up. She was drinking for two to save me from the embarrassment of saying no.’
I laugh. ‘She’s all heart, that girl.’
‘She’s going to have a headache in the morning.’
We lapse into silence again. I cast around for something to say to fill the chasm, because if I don’t, I’ll do the unthinkable and ask him if he remembers me from the bus stop. I really, really hope that at some point I stop having to consciously fight that particular urge, that it stops being important, or even relevant, to me. It’s a work in progress.
‘She likes you a lot,’ I blurt.
He takes a long, slow slug of his beer. ‘I like her a lot too.’ He looks at me sideways. ‘Are you about to warn me that if I ever hurt her you’ll come after me and black my eyes?’
‘Don’t think I couldn’t,’ I say, and then I make this ridiculous karate chop motion because I’m all bravado and no conviction, and what I was actually thinking was that I like them both a lot and it’s giving me the mother of all problems.
My loyalty lies firmly with Sarah, of course; I know where the line is and I’ll never cross it, but it’s just that sometimes the line feels like it’s been drawn with chalk on the grass, like at a school sports day, easily rubbed out and redrawn, but never in quite the same place as before. On nights like tonight, for instance, it has inched forward, and then on mornings like tomorrow, I’ll diligently push it back again.
‘Your secret ninja skills have been duly noted.’
‘Not that you’re going to need to use them on me,’ he goes on. ‘I like Sarah more than enough to not want to hurt her.’
I nod again, glad for Sarah that he’s kind, sad for me that he’s Sarah’s, and mad at the world for being shitty enough to put me in this crap position in the first place.
‘Good. Then we understand each other.’
‘Spoken like a true mafia moll.’ He leans forward to slide his empty beer bottle on to the table. ‘A mafia ninja. You’re turning out to be a dangerous woman to be around, Laurie.’
Especially when I’ve had a bottle of wine and I half love you, I think. I really should go to bed now, before I scrub the chalk line out and move it forward again.
You’re turning out to be a dangerous woman to be around, Laurie.
What the bloody hell are these words coming out of my mouth? It sounds like a cheap pick-up line in a naff made-for-TV movie, when all I was trying to do was say we’re friends. You stupid Jackass; I berate myself using the nickname I carried through school like a badge of honour. My school reports were littered with variations of the same comment, though more politely put: ‘If only Jack applied as much effort to his studies as he does to acting the fool, he’d go a long way.’