A simple enough question? Patient long enough? I don’t think he even realizes how patronizing he sounds. If this wasn’t Laurie’s dad’s funeral, then this would probably be the day when Oscar and I finally stopped pretending to like each other. As it is, I dignify his simple enough question with a simple enough answer.
I look up at Sarah half an hour later. ‘What are you people trying to do, get me drunk? First Oscar, now you.’
She looks upset. ‘Sorry. I can leave you alone if you’d prefer?’
‘No,’ I sigh, accepting the beer from her outstretched hand. ‘Sorry, Sar, that was rude. Sit down. Come and talk to me a while.’
She slides in next to me, warm in black fake fur. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asks, sipping red wine. ‘Beside the obvious.’
It takes me a moment to understand that by ‘the obvious’, she means the fact that we’re at a wake.
‘Just the obvious,’ I say. ‘It gets to me, makes me remember stuff I’d rather not think about, you know.’
‘I do,’ she says. ‘You’re probably the most qualified of all of us to talk to Laurie.’
I drop my arm round her shoulders and steal her warmth. ‘I don’t think it’ll make it easier for her to hear I miss my dad every damn day.’
She leans into me. ‘I’m sorry if I didn’t ask you enough about him.’
‘You don’t need to be sorry for anything,’ I say. ‘You were marvellous and I was a shit.’
She laughs softly. ‘Well, I’m glad we finally got that straight.’
We sit in contemplative silence, the clink and hubbub of glasses coming from the house behind us, the low babble of the brook in front of us.
‘Are you ever going to tell me what happened between you and Lu? Tell me I’m wrong if you like, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a family emergency that kept you from her wedding.’
Her mouth twists as she considers my question. ‘I don’t think there’s much point in dragging it all up. It’s in the past.’
I don’t push the point. ‘Still with Luke?’
She can’t keep the light from her eyes as she nods. She tries, but I see it.
‘Is he good to you?’
She laughs under her breath. ‘He definitely isn’t a shit.’
‘I think he might be my one hundred per cent.’
I look at her, so bright, so vibrant, and I feel nothing but love and gladness for her. It’s proof enough that we did the right thing, even if it ripped our hearts out at the time. She takes my hand. ‘He’s asked me to go out to Australia with him.’
She swallows, nods, then kind of shrugs. ‘It’s a big decision.’
‘I’ll bet.’ I can’t imagine her leaving all she’s worked for here to start again in Oz. ‘Is he worth upheaving your whole life for?’
‘If I have to choose between him and here, I’d choose him.’
Wow. ‘I’m really happy for you, Sar.’ It’s true. I think of her now on the first day we met, and then again on that awful freezing night in Laurie and Oscar’s garden, and on all of our days in between. We were each other’s chrysalis love, we grew together until we couldn’t grow together any more. ‘Laurie tells me he flies search and rescue helicopters.’
She smiles, and it’s the loveliest thing I’ve seen all day. ‘Yes.’
‘Proper fucking hero,’ I mutter, but I sort of mean it. I clink my beer against her wine glass, and we drink to them.
‘What about you and Amanda?’
I’m impressed she’s remembered Amanda’s name from the occasional texts we’ve swapped; it’s taken me a while to work my way through to a woman I can stick with.
‘I like her.’
‘Like isn’t much of a word,’ she says.
‘Jesus, Jack. Like? Nice? Just put her out of her misery and dump her already.’
I frown. ‘Just because I’m not rushing in and pinning a gold star on her chest and awarding her full marks?’
‘Yes.’ She looks at me, incredulous. ‘Or what’s it all been for?’
What’s it all been for? Her question renders me momentarily silent. ‘I guess I’m trying to work out if people need to start out at one hundred per cent or if they can start at, I don’t know, seventy, and work their way up.’
She shakes her head and sighs as if I ought to know the answer to that by now.
‘If I ask you a question, do you promise to answer honestly?’
Jesus. It really is ‘put Jack on the spot’ day. I get the feeling she’s going to ask me a question I’d rather not answer. ‘Go on then.’
She opens her mouth to speak, and then closes it again as if she’s deciding how to phrase it. ‘If you’d met Laurie instead of me, do you think she might have been your one hundred per cent?’
‘Whoa. Where the hell did that come from?’
‘I heard about your speech at the wedding.’
Ah. That damn speech again. ‘Someone had to step in, Sarah. I was just there.’
She nods, as if it’s a perfectly reasonable answer. ‘Way I heard it, you made every other woman in the room wish you were talking about her.’
I laugh softly. ‘You know me. I can talk myself out of anything.’
‘Not this time.’ Her voice cracks; I can’t look at her. ‘You stupid, stupid man. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d realized. I think a small part of me did, but I just didn’t want to. Why didn’t you tell me?’
I could pretend not to understand what she means, but what would be the point? ‘There would’ve been no use, Sar. And she’s married now. She’s happy. She stopped loving me years ago.’
‘Did you love her?’
I don’t know what to say to her. We sit side by side in silence. ‘I don’t know. Maybe for a second. I don’t know. This isn’t the movies, Sar.’
She sighs and leans against me.
‘But what if it was? If Oscar left, what would you do?’
I press a kiss against her hair. Some things are best left unsaid. ‘Let’s go inside. It’s too cold out here.’
We walk back towards the house hand in hand, then I make my excuses and head for the train station. It’s obvious that my presence is only doing damage here; I need to go home. Perhaps while I’m on the long train ride back to Edinburgh, I can work out if seventy can ever become a hundred.
* * *
New Year’s Resolutions
I just read back over my resolutions from last year. I can’t believe how much I took for granted: spend more time with Mum and Dad. How I wish I could write that again this year. I miss my dad with indescribable ferocity.
I’m not in the mood to make any new resolutions for the year ahead. Instead, I’m just going to try to concentrate on looking after what’s really important. The people I love.
‘But, Oscar, you know how important tonight is.’
I can’t keep the plaintive note from my voice. Oscar promised he’d come back a day early from Brussels this week to attend Sarah’s leaving dinner. I so rarely impact on his travel plans; I’m well aware that his diary is full and difficult to rearrange, but I thought just this once he’d be able to do what I needed him to do.
‘I know I did, and I wish there was something I could do, but my hands are tied,’ he says. ‘Brantman flew over this morning out of the blue, and between you and me I think there might be another promotion in the pipeline. How’s it going to look if I duck out early to go to a party?’
I sigh. Brantman is Oscar’s boss, the big cheese. ‘I see. It’s okay.’ I don’t especially see and it’s not really okay, but there’s nothing to achieve from arguing with him – I know he won’t change his mind. The huge commitment Oscar puts in for the bank compromises our marriage in a million ways, and it isn’t just any old party tonight. It’s a farewell dinner; the night I have to hug my best friend in the world goodbye and wish her well with her new life on the other side of the globe.