‘Oh, we’re not …’ I stammer, at the same time as Jack rushes in with, ‘She’s not my … We’re just friends.’
Sweater boy winks knowingly. ‘Pity. You look good together.’
The wheel lurches a little to move round one place for the next car to be filled, and I close my eyes for a second because I have no clue what to say next.
‘Don’t tell me you’re a scaredy-cat, Laurie?’
‘No, siree!’ I laugh. Curling my fingers round the bar, I settle back into the deep raspberry-vinyl padding of the swing seat, my feet resting in the chrome footwell. ‘You’re not scared of heights, are you?’
He leans into the corner of the car and glances at me sideways, his arms flung out across the top of the seat, hands upturned as if I’ve asked a stupid question.
‘Do I look like someone who scares easily?’
Danny Zuko eat your heart out; but the way he drums his fingers on the top of the car close to my shoulder tell me he’s not as relaxed as his outward appearance might suggest. I don’t know what it is that’s making him uptight; being on the wheel without Sarah, or being on the wheel at all, or being on the wheel with me. I sigh, about to ask him, and then the familiar, swoony opening bars of ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ strike up and the wheel begins to rotate.
I shelve my question. It’s my birthday, after all, and I love Ferris wheels, and I’m with Jack, who I can’t help but genuinely like more and more each time I see him. And that’s good. I mean it, hand on heart, I mean it. It’s good, because he and Sarah are undeniably great together, and because I love her like a sister.
For the most part I’m pretty accepting of the situation. It is what it is. Perhaps if things had been different, if I’d found him first maybe, then he’d have his arm round me right now and be about to kiss me stupid as we crest the top of the wheel. Maybe we’d be deliriously loved up. Or maybe we would have been a terrible romantic match, and the very best outcome for all of us is exactly what’s come to pass. He’s in my life and I’m glad of him. It’s enough.
‘Wow,’ I murmur, distracted by the view as we climb higher. Barnes Common is festooned with bunting and lights: neon writing over the Airstream diners, disco flickers from the dance tent, tea lights on trestle tables as early settlers claim their spots on the grass close to the huge screen. We go higher still, and we can see beyond the common, over the spindly streets of South West London picked out by creamy street lamps.
‘Stars,’ Jack says, flipping his head back to look up as we near the top. I do the same and stargaze with him, and for a few seconds we hang there right on the brow of the wheel, the only two people in the world.
‘Happy birthday, Laurie,’ Jack says, quiet and serious when I turn to look at him.
I nod and try to smile but find that my face muscles can’t do it, because my mouth is trembling as if I might cry.
‘Thank you, Jack,’ I say. ‘I’m glad I got to spend it with you –’ I break off, then add, ‘you guys,’ for clarity.
Our car crests the summit and jolts over the brow of the wheel, rocking as the breeze catches it, making me squeal and grab hold of the bar with both hands. Jack laughs easily and puts his arm round me, the side of his body a warm press against mine.
‘It’s okay, I’ve got you.’
He gives me a brief, bolstering squeeze, his fingers firm round my shoulder, before he lounges back and lays his arm along the back of the seat again.
My stomach backflips slowly as I sit back too, and I’m ashamed to say it had nothing to do with the fact that we’re suspended high in the sky over Barnes Common and everything to do with the feeling of being alone on this beautiful old Ferris wheel with Jack O’Mara. Vintage pink and mint-green bulbs light up the spokes of the wheel as it turns, dancing shadows over his features as we slowly move.
Olivia Newton-John sings her hopelessly devoted heart out. I know how she feels.
My fingers close round my pendant, sliding over the familiar shape of the flat purple stone for reassurance. I had a five-minute meltdown this morning because I couldn’t find it; I cried when Sarah finally spotted it wedged between the cracks of the floorboards in my bedroom. Of all the possessions I own, my necklace is my most precious. Ginny and I both had one; I know it’s silly but I feel more connected to her whenever I wear it.
Damn. Another missed call from Mum. I feel like the world’s worst daughter as I click open the text message she’s just pinged across in lieu of a chat, and I resolve to call her first thing in the morning.
Laurie darling, I’m so sorry to put this in a text and even more sorry because it’s your birthday, but I know you’d want to know as soon as possible. It’s Dad – he’s in hospital, sweetheart, he’s had a heart attack. Give me a call as soon as you can. Love you. Mum xx
And just like that, one of the best days of my life has just become one of my worst.
I feel like someone lined my Uggs with lead. It’s been full-on bedlam at work with back-to-back Christmas party bookings over the last few weeks and my feet ache as if I’ve run a marathon. I’m thoroughly bloody knackered. Dad’s recovery has been slower than the doctors hoped; it seems to have been one thing after another with his health ever since. He’s gone from being my robust, no-worries dad to looking frail and much too pale, and my mum seems to have followed suit because she’s worrying herself to death over him. They’ve always been quite the glamorous couple; Dad’s got ten years on Mum but it’s never really shown up till now. I can’t say the same of late. My father turned sixty last year but looks ten years older again; every time I see him I want to bundle him on to a plane to sunnier climes and feed him up. Not that my mum isn’t doing her best; their lives seem to be one long round of specialist appointments and dietary restrictions, and it’s taking its toll on them both. I go home as often as I can, but Mum is inevitably bearing the brunt of it.
Christmas insults my eyeballs everywhere I look; I’ve been shopping for the last few hours and I’m at that point where I want to bludgeon Rudolph, bump off Mariah Carey and strangle the next person who pushes me with the nearest string of tinsel. I’ve been waiting in this never-ending, barely moving queue in HMV for the last twenty minutes, clutching a box set I’m not even sure my brother will ever watch, and I could genuinely fall asleep on my feet. For a music store, you’d think they’d manage to come up with something more cutting-edge than Noddy Holder screaming ‘It’s Christmas!’ at the top of his lungs. What kind of name is Noddy, anyway? I find myself wondering if he was born with big ears and his mother was just too whacked out on gas and air to come up with anything else.
I twist at the sound of someone calling my name and spot Jack waving his arm over the heads of the queue snaked around me. I smile, relieved by the sight of his familiar face, then roll my eyes to transmit how I feel about being stuck here. I look down at the box set and realize that my brother would prefer a bottle of Jack Daniels anyway, so I turn and push my way out of the queue, annoying pretty much everyone by going against the tide. Jack hangs around by the chart CDs while he waits for me, bundled inside his big winter coat and scarf, and I sigh because I’m caught by the memory of him at the bus stop. It’s been a couple of years now, and for the most part I don’t think about that day any more; my diligence in my mission to replace all of my errant thoughts about him with safer ones has paid off. They say that the human brain likes to follow repetitive patterns, and I’ve found that to be quite true. Jack now inhabits an appropriate place in my life as my friend, and as my best friend’s boyfriend, and in return I allow myself to enjoy his company and I like him. I really do like him so very much. He’s funny, and he’s incredibly caring towards Sarah. And he was a complete life-saver on my birthday, taking charge of the situation when I went to pieces there in the middle of Barnes Common. We were in the back of a taxi in the blink of an eye, my train tickets home booked before we even reached Delancey Street. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you what to do, and on that day Jack stepped up to the mark.