‘Take this through to your dad, will you, love?’ Mum rolls her eyes as she hands me a mug of tea. ‘He’s in the den watching football.’
Dad’s an avid Aston Villa fan; if they’re on screen he’s watching it, even on his grandson’s birthday, it would seem. I take the mug and escape down the hall, glad of an excuse to get out of the ‘when will Laurie have a baby’ conversation. The answer is when – and if – Laurie is ready.
‘Dad?’ I push the den door, startled when it won’t open. It can’t be locked; it doesn’t even have a lock on it. I push again. There’s something wedged behind it. ‘Dad?’ I call out again. My heart starts to race when he doesn’t answer. Panicked, I shoulder the door, slopping tea on to Mum’s new beige carpet, and this time it opens an inch or so. Then everything seems to stop, and I hear someone who sounds like me, but can’t possibly be, yelling out for help again and again.
‘I’ve given her something to help her sleep, she’s exhausted.’
I try to smile at the doctor when he comes downstairs but my face won’t do it. ‘Thank you.’
Dr Freeman lives across the street from my mum and dad, and over the years he’s been in and out of our house for both social and medical reasons. Christmas parties, broken bones. He came the second Daryl banged on his front door yesterday, yelling for help, and he’s here again now to see how things are.
‘I’m so sorry, Laurie.’ He squeezes my shoulder. ‘If there’s anything I can do, just pick up the phone, day or night.’
Daryl sees him out, and then we sit together at the dining table in our parents’ too-quiet house. Anna has taken the baby home, and Oscar is stuck in Brussels until tomorrow afternoon at least. He feels desperate about it, but to be honest there isn’t anything he, or anyone else, can do or say.
My dad died yesterday. Here one minute, and then gone, with no one at his side to hold his hand or kiss him goodbye. I’m plagued by the thought that we might have been able to do something to help if only we’d been with him. If Daryl or I had taken the time to watch the game with him like we used to as kids, even though neither of us are big into football. If Mum had made his tea ten minutes earlier. If, if, if. The ambulance crew who arrived and declared him dead tried their best to assure us otherwise, that it bore all the hallmarks of a massive heart attack and it would have taken him regardless. But what if he called out and no one heard him? Daryl pushes the tissues towards me and I realize I’m crying again. I don’t think I’ve stopped today. Don’t they say that human beings are seventy per cent water or something crazy like that? It must be true, because it’s flooding from me like a tap left on in an abandoned house.
‘We need to make funeral arrangements.’ Daryl’s voice is hollow.
‘I don’t know how,’ I say.
He squeezes my hand until his knuckles are white. ‘Me neither, but we’ll sort it out, you and me. Mum needs us to do it.’
I nod, still seeping tears. He’s right, of course; Mum is in bits, there’s no way she’s going to be able to do anything. I’ll never forget as long as I live the sight of her scrabbling on her knees to get to Dad. She came running, panic-stricken, as soon as I yelled, as if some sixth sense had alerted her to the fact that the love of her life was in trouble. They’ve been together since they were fifteen years old. I can still hear it now: the sound of her screaming his name when she couldn’t rouse him, the low wail of grief as the ambulance crew recorded the time of his death and gently moved her away from his body. And since then, nothing. She’s barely talking, she won’t eat, she hasn’t slept. It’s as if she’s shut down, as if she can’t be here now that he isn’t. Dr Freeman said it’s okay that she’s reacted this way, that everyone reacts differently and to just give her time. But I don’t honestly know if she’ll ever get over this. If any of us will.
‘We’ll go tomorrow,’ Daryl says. ‘Anna will come and sit with Mum.’
We fall back into silence in the immaculate, quiet room. This is the house where we grew up, and this is the room where we always ate dinner together, always in our same places round the table. Our family of five barely survived becoming a family of four after Ginny died; always an empty chair. I look towards my dad’s empty chair now, crying again. I can’t fathom how we can go on as a family of three. It’s too few.
‘Whoever you are, fuck off.’
They don’t, so I fling my arm out of bed and grope around on the floor for my mobile. People know full well I work nights, they can bloody hear me on the radio, so God only knows why someone is insisting on calling me before lunchtime. My fingers close round my phone just as it stops; typical. I bring it up close to my face and squint at it, my head already back on the pillow. Missed call from Laurie. Shit. I eye Amanda’s straight, naked back turned towards me and weigh up whether it’s crass to call Laurie back while my girlfriend sleeps beside me. On balance, I think it probably is, so I click it off. It can’t be that urgent.
‘Who was it?’
Amanda turns to me, all honey skin and blue eyes and stiff nipples. We’re still in the ‘shag like rabbits’ stage of our relationship, and the sight of her no-tan-lines body does freaky things to my brain.
I lean in and close my lips over one of her nipples, and behind me on the bedside table my phone rattles loudly to indicate a new message. Laurie doesn’t call very often. We mostly email or chat on Facebook every now and then like civilized adults these days. If she’s left a message, she must want something particular.
‘Fuck, sorry.’ I roll away and pick my phone up. ‘I better just check it. Hold that thought.’
She watches me idly as I click to listen, and as the automated voice tells me I have one new message, she slides her hand under the sheet and down my stomach. Christ, she’s good. I close my eyes, breathless as the message begins. I’ve pretty much forgotten who’s called me.
‘Hey, Jack. It’s me. Laurie.’ I want to tell Amanda to stop, because it suddenly feels all kinds of wrong listening to Laurie’s quiet voice with another woman’s hand wrapped round my cock. ‘I wanted to talk to you. Hear your voice.’ Christ, I feel as if I’m hallucinating. Even now I sometimes still dream about Laurie, and often the dreams go pretty much like this. She calls me, she wants me, she needs me. I’m rock hard.
‘I’m sorry for calling when you’re probably sleeping. It’s just that my dad died yesterday. I thought you might be around.’
Somewhere in the middle of listening to that sentence I realized she was crying and pushed Amanda away. I sit bolt upright in bed. Laurie’s dad’s died. Fucking hell, hang on, Lu. I stumble out of bed, dragging my jeans on as I stab the buttons on my mobile and mumble an apology at Amanda. I lock myself in the bathroom and sit on the closed loo so I can speak to Laurie without being overheard. She answers on the third ring.
‘Lu, I just got your message.’
She doesn’t get beyond my name before she’s sobbing too hard to get her words out, so I do the talking instead.
‘Hey, hey, hey.’ I speak as softly as I can. ‘I know, sweetie, I know.’ I wish with all of my heart that I could hold her. ‘It’s okay, Laurie, it’s all right, sweetheart.’ I close my eyes, because her grief is so raw it hurts me to hear it. ‘I wish I was where you are,’ I whisper. ‘I’m wrapping my arms tight round you. Can you feel me, Lu?’ The sound of Laurie crying is the worst thing in the world. ‘I’m stroking your hair, and I’m holding you, and I’m telling you everything’s going to be okay,’ I say, quiet words as her sobs slow. ‘I’m telling you that I’ve got you, and I’m here.’
‘I wish you were,’ she says after a while, ragged words.
‘I could be. I’ll get the next train.’
She sighs, her voice steadier at last. ‘No, I’m okay, honestly I am. Daryl’s here, and Mum, of course, and Oscar should be here tomorrow night.’