‘Best thing about winter,’ he says, rubbing his hands together briskly in front of the fire before he slides along the leather seat opposite me and pulls his pint towards him. ‘God, do I need this.’ He drinks deeply, smacking his lips appreciatively.
The wine is blood-warm in my mouth, pepper and rich blackcurrants.
‘Thanks for helping me today,’ he says. ‘I’d never have found anything so perfect without you.’
I smile, because I know how much Sarah is going to treasure the compact. ‘She’s going to be super-impressed with you.’
‘I’ll claim it’s all my own work, of course.’
‘Your secret’s safe with me.’ I drink a little more, feeling the alcohol begin to work its magic.
‘Have you heard from Sarah?’
‘Not today.’ Jack shakes his head. ‘She called yesterday. Sounds like she’s having a ball, of course. I could hardly hear her.’
She called me from a bar yesterday too, probably straight after speaking to Jack by the sounds of it. She headed back to her parents’ a few days ago to celebrate her sister’s eighteenth birthday.
‘She put Allie on the phone, sounded drunk as a skunk.’ He laughs, halfway down his drink already. ‘Have you met her sister? They’re like two peas in a pod when they’re together. Double bloody trouble.’
I look towards the fire for a second and nod. ‘I know. Their mum and dad must have had their hands full over the years.’
Jack pauses, clearing his throat. ‘Sorry, Laurie. I didn’t mean to … well, you know.’ He doesn’t say Ginny’s name but I know that’s why he’s apologizing, and I wish for the hundredth time that I hadn’t told him. This is precisely why I don’t talk about her; people feel the need to offer sympathy or platitudes when there really isn’t anything helpful to say. It’s not a criticism. It’s just a shitty fact of life.
‘Are you heading back to see your mum for Christmas?’ I change the subject on to safer ground and he visibly relaxes.
‘Not until after my last shift on Christmas Eve.’ He shrugs. ‘Winding things up, winding things down. You know how it is.’
A couple more red wines later and I’m finally relaxing. I’d forgotten how nice it was to just sit and chat to Jack.
‘Will you stay in radio for ever, do you think?’
‘Absolutely. I love it.’ His eyes light with interest. ‘Plus no one cares if you’ve brushed your hair or still have yesterday’s T-shirt on.’
I laugh softly, because despite his attempts to sound laissez-faire, I know that Jack’s fiercely ambitious. Whenever he isn’t with Sarah he’s either at gigs or working, producing mostly, although he still occasionally gets to fill in for the regular late-night DJ, cutting his presenter teeth. I have no doubt that his voice will be on the airwaves somewhere as I eat my cornflakes or drift off to sleep over the years to come. I find the thought strangely comforting. I, on the other hand, have not got any further with my magazine job. The last few months, it hasn’t exactly been my top priority.
We get more drinks, and I can feel the heat in my cheeks from both the alcohol and the fire.
‘This is nice,’ I say, resting the weight of my chin in my hand as I look at him. ‘The fire, the wine. It’s what I needed. Thank you for bringing me.’
He nods. ‘How are you, Lu? Really, I mean. I know it hasn’t been easy on you these last few months.’
Please don’t be perceptive, you’ll unpick me. It doesn’t help that he called me Lu; only Sarah does that, and she doesn’t know it but the only other person in the world who ever shortened my name to Lu was Ginny. She couldn’t manage ‘Laurie’ when she was a baby; Lu was easier and it stuck. ‘I’m okay,’ I shrug, even though I’m anything but. ‘Most of the time. Some of the time.’ I gaze into the fire and try to keep the lump in my throat down. ‘It feels as if someone pulled the rug out from under my family’s feet, you know. My dad is our cornerstone, he always has been.’
‘Is he getting better?’
I press my lips into a tight line, because the truth is we’re not really sure. ‘A bit,’ I say. ‘He’s over the heart attack for the most part now, but looking back, that seems to have been just the beginning. He’s taking so many pills that he practically rattles, and my poor mum has had to take over everything, really. Therapy appointments, dieticians, consultants, not to mention getting a grip on all of the bills and household things. It just seems endless.’ I swallow a large slug of wine. You know how some events turn out to be the big stepping stones between one part of your life and the next? I don’t just mean the steps you intend to take, like leaving home or starting a new job or marrying the person you love on a summer’s afternoon. I mean the unexpected steps: the middle-of-the-night phone calls, the accidents, the risks that don’t pay off. My twenty-third birthday turned out to be one of my unexpected stepping stones; a step away from the solid foundations built by my indomitable parents towards quicksand where they are fragile and too human and need me as much as I need them. It’s knocked my world off-kilter; I’m sickly nervous every time the phone rings and there’s a permanent cesspool of fear sloshing around in the base of my stomach. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say I feel hunted. I’m caught in the crosshairs, waiting for the bullet that may or may not come, running, looking over my shoulder, braced for impact. I dream of my sister more nights than I don’t: Ginny cheering me on from my father’s shoulders at my primary school sports day, Ginny holding tight to his hand as they cross a busy road and leave me behind on the other side, Ginny sleeping on Dad’s shoulder in the pub garden we used to go to sometimes in the summer when we were kids, her blonde hair half covering her delicate face.
‘I just want my big strong dad back to normal, you know?’ I hate that I can hear the thickness of tears in my throat. And that Jack must be able to hear it too.
‘Oh, Laurie,’ he says, low and soothing, and then he slips round the booth and puts his arm round me. ‘Poor you, you look so knackered lately.’
I don’t even have the energy to act annoyed at that comment. I can’t deny it. I’m bone-tired. I don’t think I’ve even registered how low I’ve been because you have to keep on keeping on, don’t you? But right here, sitting in this pub feeling insulated from it all, it hits me like a shovel to the face. I’m so exhausted I feel like I’m disintegrating inside my clothes.
‘Life can be really shit sometimes,’ he says, his arm still warm and reassuring round my shoulders. ‘It’ll come good again. It always does.’
‘You think so? It sounds so stupid but I just feel like I’m failing at everything. Life here, no proper job. Perhaps I should just go back home. I should be with my parents, help my mum out.’
‘Don’t say that, Laurie. You’re down, but you’re not out. Your parents will be okay, and they’d want you to follow your dreams. You’ll get there, I know it.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Come on. Look at you. You’re clever and you’re funny; you won’t be stuck behind that hotel reception for ever. I’ve read some of your freelance stuff, remember? You’ll get your break soon, I’m sure of it.’
I appreciate the generosity of his praise, but I know that what he actually means is that he’s read the scant couple of articles I’ve had published because Sarah has pushed them under his nose. She’s worse than my mum whenever I place anything, which is barely ever.
Jack’s looking at me now, really studying me, as if what he’s about to say matters.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my life with as much … I don’t even know what it is that you have. Warmth, I guess, although that isn’t exactly it.’ He looks pissed off with himself for his inability to find the right words. ‘You just have a way about you, Laurie. Being around you makes people feel good.’
I’m surprised enough to stop feeling sorry for myself and look up. ‘Do you really mean that?’