The old oak floorboards have come up beautifully – in years gone by someone had obviously gone to the trouble of restoring them before the current landlord hid them beneath that patterned monstrosity. Our arm-aching efforts to buff them up all feel worth it now that we’re standing in our mellow, light-filled room thanks to the fresh white walls and big old sash windows. It’s a tired building with glamorous bones, Artex ceiling notwithstanding. We’ve added a cheap rug and covered the mismatched furniture with throws from our bedrooms, and all in all I think we’ve performed a shoe-string miracle.
‘Boho chic,’ Sarah declares.
‘You’ve got paint in your hair,’ I say, touching the top of my head to show her where and promptly adding a whole new splodge to mine.
‘You too,’ she says, laughing, then looks at her watch. ‘Fish and chips?’
Sarah has the metabolism of a horse. It’s one of the things I like most about her, because it allows me to eat cake guilt-free. I nod, starving. ‘I’ll go.’
Half an hour later, we toast our newly fabulous living room over fish and chips eaten off our knees on the sofa.
‘We should jack in our jobs and become TV home-makeover queens,’ Sarah says.
‘We’d kill it,’ I say. ‘Laurie and Sarah’s Designer Do-overs.’
She pauses, her fork halfway to her mouth. ‘Sarah and Lu’s Designer Do-overs.’
‘Laurie and Sarah’s sounds better,’ I grin. ‘You know I’m right. Besides, I’m older than you, it’s only fair I should come first.’
It’s a standing joke; I’m a few months older than Sarah and I never miss a chance to pull rank. She splutters on her beer as I lean down to pick my bottle up off the floor.
‘Mind the boards!’
‘I’ve used a coaster,’ I say, grandly.
She leans down and peers at my makeshift coaster, this month’s supermarket offers flyer.
‘Oh my God, Lu,’ she says slowly. ‘We’ve become coaster people.’
I swallow, sombre. ‘Does this mean we’re going to grow old and have cats together?’
She nods. ‘I think it does.’
‘Might as well,’ I grumble. ‘My love life is officially dead.’
Sarah screws up her finished-with fish-and-chip paper. ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame,’ she says.
She’s referring to bus boy, of course. He’s reached near-mythical status now, and I’m on the very edge of giving up on him. Ten months is a long time to look for a complete stranger on the off-chance that they’ll be single, into me and not an axe murderer. Sarah is of the vocal opinion that I need to move on, by which she means I need to find someone else before I turn into a nun. I know she’s right, but my heart isn’t ready to let him go yet. That feeling when we locked eyes – I’ve never had that before, ever.
‘You could have trekked around the entire globe in the time since you saw him,’ she says. ‘Think how many perfect men you could have shagged doing that. You’d have had tales of Roberto in Italy and Vlad in Russia to tell your grandkids when you’re old.’
‘I’m not going to have kids or grandkids. I’m going to search vainly for bus boy for ever and have cats with you instead,’ I say. ‘We’ll start a rescue centre, and the queen will give us a medal for services to cats.’
Sarah laughs, but her eyes tell me that the time has come to pack my bus boy dreams away and let him go.
‘I’ve just remembered I’m allergic to cats,’ she says. ‘But you still love me, right?’
I sigh and reach for my beer. ‘It’s a deal-breaker, I’m afraid. Find someone else, Sarah, we can never be together.’
She grins. ‘I’ve got a date next week.’
I clutch my heart. ‘You got over us so fast.’
‘I met him in a lift. I held him to ransom with the stop button until he agreed to ask me out.’
I really need to take life lessons from Sarah – she sees what she wants and grabs it with both hands. I wish for the millionth time that I’d had the balls to get off that bus. But the fact is, I didn’t. Maybe it’s time to wise up, to stop searching for him and drunk crying every time I fail. There are other men. I need to make ‘What would Sarah do?’ my life motto – I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t spend a year of her life moping.
‘Shall we buy a picture for that wall?’ she says, looking at the empty space over the fireplace.
I nod. ‘Yeah. Why not? Can it be of cats?’
She laughs and bounces her screwed-up chip paper off my head.
‘Try not to make any snap decisions when you meet David tonight? You probably won’t think he’s your type on first sight, but trust me, he’s hilarious. And he’s kind, Laurie. I mean, he gave up his chair for me the other day in a meeting. How many guys do you know who’d do that?’ Sarah delivers this speech while on her knees pulling as many dusty wine glasses as she can find from the back of the kitchen cupboard in our tiny shared flat.
I cast around for an answer and, to be honest, it’s slim pickings. ‘The guy from the bottom flat moved his bike out of the way to let me through the front door this morning. Does he count?’
‘You mean the same one who opens our mail and leaves trails of cold kebab on the hall floor every weekend?’
I laugh under my breath as I immerse the wine glasses in hot foamy water. We’re throwing our annual Christmas party tonight, which we’ve held every year since we first moved into Delancey Street. Though we’re kidding ourselves that this one will be much more sophisticated now we’ve left university, it’s mostly going to involve students and a few colleagues we’re still getting to know descending on our flat to drink cheap wine, debating things we don’t really understand and – for me it would seem – getting off with someone called David who Sarah has decided is my perfect man. We’ve been here before. My best friend fancies herself as a matchmaker and set me up a couple of times when we were at uni. The first time, Mark, or it might have been Mike, turned up in running shorts in the depths of winter and spent the entire dinner trying to steer my food choices away from anything that would take more than an hour to work off in the gym. I’m a pudding girl; the main thing off the menu as far as I was concerned was Mike. Or Mark. Whichever. In Sarah’s defence, he bore a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt, if you squinted and looked at him out of the corner of your eye in a dark room. Which I have to admit I did; I’m not normally one to sleep with guys on a first date, but I felt I had to give it a go for Sarah’s sake.
Her second choice, Fraser, was only slightly better; I can at least remember his name. He was far and away the most Scottish Scotsman I’ve ever met, so much so that I only understood about fifty per cent of what he said. I don’t think he mentioned bagpipes specifically, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was packing a set underneath his jacket. His tartan bow tie was disconcerting, but none of that would have mattered. His real downfall came at the end of the date; he escorted me home to Delancey Street and then kissed me in the style of someone trying to administer CPR. CPR with an entirely inappropriate amount of saliva. I made a dash for the bathroom as soon as I got inside, and my reflection confirmed that I looked as if I’d been snogged by a Great Dane. In the rain.
Not that I’ve got an impressive track record at choosing boyfriends for myself, either. With the exception of Lewis, my long-time boyfriend back at home, I seem to somehow keep missing the mark. Three dates, four dates, sometimes even five before the inevitable fizzle. I’m starting to wonder if being best friends with someone as dazzling as Sarah is a double-edged sword; she gives men unrealistic expectations about women. If I didn’t love her to pieces, I’d probably want to poke her eyes out.
Anyway, call me stupid, but I knew none of those men were right. I’m a girl given to romance; Nora Ephron is my go-to answer for fantasy dinner party guest and I yearn to know if nice boys really do fucking kiss like that. You get the idea. I’m hoping that amongst all these frogs will one day come a prince. Or something like that.