Sarah’s shoulders sag with relief. ‘I don’t know how to get through to him; I’m at the point now where everything I say pisses him off. He might not think he can get away with being so rude to you.’
My mobile goes off on the table between us, and I feel almost guilty as a loved-up image of me and Oscar in Thailand flashes up.
‘It’s just Oscar checking about dinner,’ I say, scanning his text quickly. I’m terrified of ignoring messages in case there’s anything wrong; not surprising really given what happened to Jack.
‘Very domesticated,’ Sarah says. I can’t deny it. I’ve made no headway at all with looking for somewhere else to live, partly because of what happened to Jack, but if I’m honest mostly because I’m enjoying playing house without the onerous responsibility of a mortgage or bills. It’s a ridiculous way to live, I know, but for Oscar it’s just how life has always been, and I have to admit it’s amazing to feel so safe. Every now and then I wonder if it’s too safe, too steady, but sitting here listening to Sarah, I know I should thank my lucky stars.
‘Right then.’ Sarah nods towards my phone, where a picture of the Bolognese Oscar’s just made is flashing up. ‘Looks like you need to make tracks.’
I pause to hug her tightly as I get up to leave. ‘He’ll come good again, Sar, I know he will. He’s been through a lot. Just give him time.’
‘It’s all I seem to do,’ she says, shrugging into her jacket. The weather has been getting colder for the last few days. Winter coats suddenly fill the streets of London.
‘Enjoy a bit of sunshine.’ I’m hit by an intense longing to go with her, to dance, to laugh, to be carefree and silly the way we used to in Delancey Street.
‘I’ll have a cocktail for you,’ she grins.
‘Visitor for you in the living room, Jack m’lad,’ Billy shouts through from the hallway. I’m in the bathroom, half-heartedly brushing my teeth. I know it can’t be Sarah, because she’s off sunning herself in Tenerife. And I know it’s no one from work, because, oh yeah, I don’t have a job. And I hope to God it’s not my bloody mother again, because if it is and Billy has let her in on his way out to the footie with Phil then I’m going to fucking kill him. I should have accepted their invitation to go with them. Oh, wait. They didn’t ask me. I don’t blame them, to be honest. They’ve pretty much stopped asking me to do anything any more because they already know the answer will be no. Maybe it’s Mila Kunis. She’s in luck, I’ve had a shower.
‘Laurie,’ I say, surprised enough to come to a halt in the doorway of the living room. She’s perched on the arm of the chair, still buttoned into her red woollen coat, her bobble hat in her hand.
‘Jack.’ Her smile is hesitant and doesn’t quite make it as far as her eyes.
I look over my shoulder towards the kitchen suddenly, struck by the possibility that she hasn’t come alone. ‘Where’s posh boy?’
‘His name is Oscar,’ she says, testy.
I shrug. I don’t really want to pass the time of day talking about that tosser, so I change the subject. ‘Coffee?’
She shakes her head.
‘Wine? A beer?’
Another refusal as she takes off her coat and I go to the kitchen and grab myself a beer.
‘It’s good to see you,’ she says as I head back through and drop down on the sofa. ‘How’s things?’
‘Peachy.’ I raise my bottle. ‘Down the hatch.’
She sits quietly as I swallow half the beer.
‘You sure you don’t want one?’
‘It’s half past ten in the morning, Jack.’
I’m hoping the beer will be hair of the dog for my hangover. I’m starting to regret ditching all the painkillers in one go and using vodka instead to medicate. I know this can’t go on; I’m still half-cut from last night.
‘Did you come round here just to tell me what time it is? Because I have a watch to do that for me.’ I look at my bare wrist and belatedly realize it’s been a while since I last saw my watch. Probably somewhere amongst the piles of stuff in my room; Billy and Phil insist on being neat freaks out here, so my room is the dumping ground for all things Jack. Laurie looks thrown by my question. God knows why. She started it with her pious observations about my drinking.
‘No, I came because I’m worried about you,’ she says, sliding from the arm of the sofa on to the seat, her knees angled towards me.
‘Well, as you can see, there’s no need to be.’ I gesture grandly down at my fortuitously clean T-shirt. ‘Contrary to what Sarah has no doubt told you, I’m not wallowing in a stinking cesspit of my own self-pity. I’ve showered and I’ve eaten breakfast, so you can stand down from your suicide watch or whatever this is supposed to be.’
‘A clean T-shirt isn’t enough to convince me that you’re fine,’ she says. ‘I’m always here if you need someone to talk to, okay?’
I laugh. ‘Go and volunteer at the Samaritans if you want to listen to someone’s problems.’
‘Just stop, will you?’ she says, staring at me. ‘That’s enough.’
‘That’s enough?’ I hope the razor-sharp derision is enough to cut. ‘Enough?’
Her chin comes up, her round, wary eyes watching me. ‘Yes, Jack. Enough. I haven’t come here to fight with you. There’s no reason for you to be so damn rude.’
I glance at her. ‘How’s work?’
She looks for a second as if she’s having trouble keeping up with my swift change of direction. ‘Umm, yeah,’ she says. ‘It’s fine. I like it.’
‘Good for you,’ I nod, pointing at her with my beer bottle. ‘Although I always imagined you’d find something a bit more, you know, grown-up.’ I’m not proud of myself right now. I know how much landing that job meant to Laurie, and that she’ll be damn good at it. I can’t think of another person more full-hearted and kind to answer teenage problems without belittling their worries. I see how my offensive remark hurts her. It would be better for both of us if she just left.
‘Is that so?’
I nod. ‘Everybody has to start somewhere though.’
‘Yes, I suppose they do,’ she says. ‘How’s the job hunt going?’
Oh, clever. Just when I was already feeling like a tosser, she throws that one in. ‘Oh, you know how it is. They’re queuing round the block but I’m keeping my options open.’
‘You should probably buy yourself a new razor if you get called in for any interviews.’
I run my hand defensively over my stubble. Okay, so maybe it’s gone past stubble into minor beard territory. I think I can carry it off. ‘Did you come here for a row? Because you’ll get one.’
‘No, of course not,’ she says, exasperated. ‘Look, Jack. Everybody is worried about you. Sarah. Your mum … I know the accident must have been incredibly tough, and that losing out on your job was really crappy, but you can’t just sit here and rot. That’s not who you are.’
I watch her as she speaks; the way her mouth moves, the even line of her teeth. The beer must be going to my head. ‘You’ve barely changed at all over the years,’ I surprise myself by saying, and her expression slides from concerned to wrong-footed. ‘You still remind me of a street urchin or a Parisian waif.’
She looks startled, as if she’s going to say one thing and then rejects it in favour of something else. ‘Sarah said you’ve thrown your painkillers away.’
‘They were numbing me.’
‘That’s what they’re supposed to do, Jack. Numb the pain.’
I huff, because it wasn’t just my pain they were numbing. It was my brain, too. I’ve been walking like a man in lead boots, too tired to raise my bones from my bed, too fuddled to think any further ahead than my next meal and how long it is until I can go back to bed again. A small part of me acknowledges that the booze is doing pretty much the same thing.
‘I miss you.’ The words don’t register as my own, so much so that I almost look behind me to see if there is someone else here.