‘Get a room, kids.’ Sarah’s laughter spins light and bright, and I open my eyes again and smile.
‘Blame me,’ Oscar grins. ‘I can’t keep my hands off her.’ He runs his hand from my shoulder down to my hand and catches hold of my fingers.
Behind Sarah, Jack manages to laugh while frowning at the same time, a feat of facial engineering. ‘A proper drink to cool you off, mate.’
Oscar accepts the beer, laughing, good-natured despite Jack’s inference that Oscar’s cocktail hadn’t made the cut as a proper drink.
Sarah hands me a glass of champagne, her eyes giddy with delight about me and Oscar.
Jack lounges against the wall, beer in hand. ‘So what do you do, Oscar? Besides bum around on Thai beaches picking up girls?’ He softens his comment with a wink, but all the same it feels like he’s having a dig.
‘Living with Billy seems to be rubbing off on you, Jack,’ I say, throwing in a none-too-friendly wink of my own. He shoots me a tiny ‘not bothered’ shrug, then looks away.
‘Banking,’ Oscar says with a self-deprecating smile. ‘I know. Typical posh wanker, right?’
‘Whatever floats your boat, mate.’
Okay, now that was rude. Sarah looks at Jack sharply, and quite honestly, I could tip his beer right over his annoying head. Oscar, however, is very used to derision around banking, and it rolls off his back.
‘Dull, I know. Not like you, from what I hear? Radio, isn’t it?’
Crisis averted. Jack finally finds the grace to pick up the conversational baton that Oscar has passed him, entertaining us with stories about the radio station and telling us about a more high-profile job he’s ninety-five per cent certain he’s in line for in the summer. He lights up like a flare when he talks about work, more himself, more relaxed, and I’m finally able to relax too. Perhaps the evening might not be a disaster after all.
Tonight’s all about making a point, isn’t it? Oscar posh-boy double-barrelled twat face. Let me buy you expensive fucking cocktails in my private members’ club, let me drop that I’m a banker casually into conversation, let me stick my tongue down Laurie’s throat when I know you’re both watching. Well, I’m on to you, posh boy, with your floppy black hair and your deck shoes (because who knows when you might need to step aboard someone’s yacht at a moment’s notice).
I think all of this with my cock in my hand at the urinal. I’ve been hiding out in here for the last five minutes, mostly because I know I’m acting like a dick and I don’t seem able to reel myself in. Sarah’s flashing me daggers; I won’t be peeling that dress off her anytime soon. She’s more likely to peel my scalp off, and I can’t say I blame her. I don’t know who’s winding me up more tonight, Oscar with his unshakable good nature and refusal to be needled, or Sarah for the way she’s practically jumping up and down begging to be his new best friend. I can’t help but wonder if she wants to force the same relationship with him that I have with Laurie, and I want to tell her that I’m sorry but you just can’t fake that kind of thing. It took me and Lu years. I pause to stare at myself in the mirror over the basins as I wash my hands and think about that for a second. Laurie and I hardly have much of a friendship left these days. I haven’t been alone with her since that night back in the kitchen at Delancey Street more than a year ago. Sarah accused me of acting like an over-protective big brother, but she’s wrong. I can’t claim to feel brotherly towards Laurie, I forfeited that when I – No, I’m not going to think about that now.
I step out of the gents intent on winding my neck in and run smack bang into Laurie. She doesn’t waste any time.
‘What the hell are you doing, Jack?’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this angry. Her cheeks are flushed pink and her shoulders are braced.
I glance over my shoulder towards the door I’ve just come out of. ‘Pissing.’
Her violet eyes spark with annoyance. ‘Pissing me off, more like.’
‘It’s good to see you too,’ I say, flicking into defensive mode.
‘Don’t,’ she hisses. ‘Don’t you dare do that, Jack O’Mara.’ We’re in an upstairs corridor with people milling around us, and she leans in to make herself heard. ‘What point are you trying to make out there, exactly? That you’re cooler, better, funnier? Is it too much to ask that you just be happy for me?’
I shrug. ‘I would be if he wasn’t a twat.’
‘He isn’t a twat. He’s good and he’s kind and I think he might even love me.’
I hear a sound of derision, and I realize too late that it came from me.
‘What?’ She shakes her head, her eyes over-bright with fury. ‘Is it so improbable that someone might actually love me, Jack?’
‘You barely know him.’
She reels as if I’ve punched her.
‘Who made you the expert all of a sudden?’ she comes back. ‘Who are you to tell me if I can fall in love in a minute or a month or a year?’
We stare each other down, and I realize with a sideways jolt that she isn’t the girl from Delancey Street any more. She’s a woman with a life that I’m by and large no longer a part of.
‘Do you love him?’
She looks away, shaking her head because I have no right to ask her. Especially not like this.
‘He matters to me, Jack,’ she says, softer now, and the vulnerability in her eyes makes me feel like a dick.
‘Okay,’ I say, and I mean it. I wish I could pull her into my arms and put our friendship back where it should be. But something in me knows that hugging Laurie isn’t the right move. Instead I grab her hand and look into her stormy eyes.
‘I’m sorry, really sorry, okay?’ And I feel as if I’m apologizing to her not just for this evening, but for everything that’s gone before. For lying about not seeing her years ago on that damn bus, for kissing her in a snowstorm, for always getting it so fucking wrong.
Finally, after what seems like ten minutes, but is probably about ten seconds, she nods and releases my hand.
I smile. ‘Go back downstairs. I’ll be right behind you.’
She nods again and walks away without glancing back.
Laurie has grown up when I wasn’t looking. It’s time for me to do the same.
‘Pick up, Oscar, pick up,’ I murmur, reading and rereading the letter in my hand as I listen to his mobile ringing out. This is the voicemail service for … Dammit! I hang up and try again, and once more I get that bloody annoying robot woman telling me that she’s terribly sorry but Oscar Ogilvy-Black can’t come to the phone right now. I stand in my parents’ quiet hallway, my fingers absently wrapped round my purple pendant. I wore it for the job interview last week and haven’t taken it off since in an attempt to summon good luck. And it worked! Desperate to tell someone my good news, I scroll through to Sarah’s number instead. I don’t try to call her because she invariably can’t answer at work, so I compromise and send her a text.
Guess who’s FINALLY got herself a proper job? Me! Brace yourself,
Sar, I’m coming back to London!
I press send, and it’s less than thirty seconds before my mobile vibrates.
HANG ON! Going to loos to call you. DON’T call anyone else!
Right on cue, my phone starts to ring. It’s another thirty seconds before I can speak, because she’s shrieking and clapping; I can see her in my mind’s eye right now, locked in the cubicle doing her happy dance, bemused colleagues listening outside.
‘Come on then, I want to know everything!’ she says, and at last I can officially tell someone my news.
‘It’s that job I told you about, you know, the one on the teen magazine?’
‘You mean the Agony Aunt job?’
‘Yes! That one! As of three weeks’ time, I’m going to be the woman that our nation’s teenagers turn to for advice on hair straighteners, spots and dodgy dates!’ I’m laughing, borderline hysterical at the prospect of working on a magazine at long last. It won’t be all of the nation’s teenagers of course, just the small percentage who read the not-all-that-prolific magazine, but it’s something, isn’t it, it’s real. It’s my much-longed-for stepping stone into the next part of my life. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be offered the position. The interview wasn’t particularly conventional, two women who couldn’t have been more than twenty-one firing make-believe problems at me to see what answers I might give.