‘Down the hatch,’ she grins, sliding a glass across the table to me as she sits back down. ‘Happy Christmas, Lu.’
We clink and then knock our shots back, banging the empty glasses down on the table and wincing.
‘Doesn’t get any better with age,’ I whisper, feeling as if it’s taken the skin off the roof of my mouth.
‘Rocket fuel,’ she rasps, laughing. ‘Eat your sandwich, you’ve earned it.’
We lapse into sandwich silence, and when we’ve finished she taps the rim of her empty plate.
‘I think, because it’s Christmas, that we could add a sausage.’
I shake my head. ‘You can’t mess with the DS special.’
‘There isn’t much in life that can’t be improved by a saveloy, Laurie.’ She raises her eyebrows at me. ‘You never know, you might get lucky tonight and see David’s.’
Given the last two blind dates Sarah set me up on, I don’t let the prospect overexcite me.
‘Come on,’ I say, dumping the plates in the sink. ‘We’d better get ready, they’ll be here soon.’
I’m three glasses of white in and definitely very relaxed when Sarah finds me and literally drags me from the kitchen by the hand.
‘He’s here,’ she whispers, crushing the bones of my fingers. ‘Come and say hi. You have to meet him right now.’
I smile apologetically at David as she pulls me away. I’m starting to see what Sarah meant about him being a grower. He’s made me laugh several times already and he’s kept my glass topped up; I’d just been considering a tiny exploratory snog. He’s nice enough in a vaguely Ross from Friends kind of way, but I find I’m more intrigued to meet Sarah’s soulmate, which must mean that Ross from Friends would be a regret come tomorrow. It’s as good a barometer as any.
She tugs me through our laughing, drunk friends and a whole load of people I’m not sure either of us even know, until finally we reach her boyfriend standing uncertainly by the front door.
‘Laurie,’ Sarah is jittery and bright-eyed. ‘Meet Jack. Jack, this is Laurie. My Laurie,’ she adds, for emphasis.
I open my mouth to say hello and then I see his face. My heart jumps into my throat and I feel as if someone just laid electric shock pads on my chest and turned them up to full fry. I can’t get any words to leave my lips.
I know him.
It feels like just last week I saw him first – and last. That heart-stopping glimpse from the top deck of a crowded bus twelve months ago.
‘Laurie.’ He says my name, and I could cry with the sheer relief of him being here. It’s going to sound crazy but I’ve spent the last year wishing, hoping I’d run into him. And now he’s here. I’ve scoured countless crowds for his face and I’ve searched for him in bars and cafes. I’d all but given up on ever finding bus boy, even though Sarah swears I’ve banged on about him so much that she’d even recognize him herself.
She didn’t, as it turned out. Instead she’s presented him to me as the love of her life.
Green. His eyes are green. Tree moss vivid around the iris edges, warm amber gold seeping in around his pupils. But it’s not the colour of his eyes that strikes me so much as the look in them right now as he gazes down at me. A startled flash of recognition. A dizzying, headlong collision. And then it’s gone in a heartbeat, leaving me unsure if the sheer force of my own longing made me imagine it had been there at all.
‘Jack,’ I manage, thrusting my hand out. His name is Jack. ‘It’s so good to meet you.’
He nods, a skittish half-smile flickering over his lips. ‘Laurie.’
I glance towards Sarah, crazy guilty, certain that she must be able to sense something amiss, but she’s just grinning at us both like a loon. Thank God for cheap wine.
When he takes my hand in his, warm and strong, he shakes it firmly, politely almost, as if we’re meeting in a formal boardroom rather than at a Christmas party.
I don’t know what to do with myself, because all of the things I want to do wouldn’t be okay. True to my word, I don’t orgasm on the spot, but there is definitely something going on with my heart. How on earth has this colossal fuck-up happened? He can’t be Sarah’s. He’s mine. He’s been mine for an entire year.
‘Isn’t she fabulous?’
Sarah has her hand on the small of my back now, presenting me, actually propelling me towards him to hug because she’s desperate for us to be new best friends. I’m wretched.
Jack rolls his eyes and laughs nervously, as if Sarah’s obviousness makes him uncomfortable.
‘Just as splendid as you said she was,’ he agrees, nodding as if he’s admiring a friend’s new car, and something horribly like an apology creeps into his expression as he looks at me. Is he apologizing because he remembers or because Sarah is behaving like an overeager aunt at a wedding?
‘Laurie?’ Sarah turns her attention to me. ‘Isn’t he every bit as gorgeous as I said he was?’ She’s laughing, proud of him, as well she should be.
I nod. Swallow painfully, even as I force a laugh. ‘He certainly is.’
Because Sarah is so desperately keen for us to like each other, Jack obligingly leans in and touches his lips briefly against my cheek. ‘It’s good to meet you,’ he says. His voice matches him perfectly; coolly confident, rich, shot through with gentle, knowing wit. ‘She never shuts up about you.’
My fingers close around the familiarity of my purple pendant, looking for comfort as I force a laugh, shaky. ‘I feel as if I know you too.’ And I do; I feel as if I have known him for ever. I want to turn my face and catch his lips with my own. I want to drag him breathlessly to my room and close the door, tell him that I love him, strip off my clothes and climb into bed with him, drown in the woody, clean, warm scent of his skin.
I’m in hell. I hate myself. I take a couple of steps away from him for my own sanity and grapple with my wretched heart to stop it banging louder than the music.
‘Drink?’ Sarah suggests, light-hearted and loud.
He nods, grateful to be thrown a lifeline.
‘Laurie?’ Sarah looks at me to go with them.
I lean back and peer down the hallway towards the bathroom, jiggling as if I’m in dire need of the loo. ‘I’ll catch you up.’ I need to get away from him, from them, from this.
In the safety of the bathroom, I slam the door and slide on to my backside with my head in my hands, gulping air down so as not to cry.
Oh God, oh God. Oh God! I love Sarah, she’s my sister in all but biology. But this … I don’t know how to navigate safely through it without sinking the ship with all of us aboard. Hope flares bright in my chest as I fantasize running out there and just blurting out the truth, because maybe then Sarah will realize that the reason she’s so drawn to him is that, subconsciously, she recognized him as bus boy. God knows I’ve all but drawn him for her. What a misunderstanding! How we’ll laugh at the sheer absurdity! But … then what? She graciously steps aside and he is my new boyfriend, easy as pie? I don’t even think he recognized me, for Christ’s sake!
Lead-heavy defeat crushes the delicate, ridiculous hope as reality creeps in. I can’t do it. Of course I can’t. She has no clue, and Jesus, she’s so happy. It shines from her brighter than the star of fucking Bethlehem. It might be Christmas, but this is actual life, not some crappy Hollywood movie. Sarah is my best friend in the entire world, and however much and for however long it kills me, I’ll never silently, secretly hold up signs to tell Jack O’Mara, without hope or agenda, that to me he is perfect, and that my wasted heart will always love him.
Fuck, she’s so beautiful when she’s asleep.
My throat feels like someone shovelled sand down it and I think Sarah might have broken my nose when she smacked her head back in bed last night, but right now I can forgive her anything because her scarlet hair is strewn out around her shoulders on the pillows, almost as if she’s suspended in water. She looks like the Little Mermaid. Though I realize that thought makes me sound like a pervert.