‘Maybe we could look at planning a trip out there to see her next year.’ He casts around for something mollifying to say, even though we both know there’s not even a chance of him taking a few weeks off to accommodate such a break, especially if this promotion happens. With the exception of our honeymoon, our holidays have been more like long weekends fitted around his working week in Belgium: a couple of days in Paris, a flying visit to Rome. On both occasions we’ve separated at the airport on Sunday evening and flown to different countries for work on Monday morning. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, our marriage is becoming exactly what we said it wouldn’t be – part-time.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow night, then,’ I say despondently.
‘You will,’ he says softly. ‘Sorry, Laurie.’
He rings off with an ‘I love you’ before I can say anything else.
‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ Sarah hugs me and twirls us round, laughing as she glances towards the hotel doors. ‘Where’s Oscar?’
‘Brussels. Sorry, Sar, he got stuck.’
She frowns, and then it clears. ‘No worries. You’re here, that’s the main thing.’
Our heels click against the marble floor as she leads me towards the bar. She’s chosen to have a farewell dinner with friends tonight before she and Luke head over to Bath tomorrow to spend their final few days with her family. I still can’t believe she’s going to live in Australia. I feel as if I’m losing her all over again. I’m thrilled for her of course, but I couldn’t help crying when she told me, and then crying again when I told Oscar at home later. I seem to have done a lot of crying lately.
‘This is nice,’ I say, trying to distract myself. I’ve not been to this hotel before; it’s got that intimate boutique thing going on, all warm greys and chandeliers with tall vases of flowers everywhere. ‘Very grown-up.’
She grins. ‘I had to do it some time, Lu.’
‘Moving across the world to be with the man you love certainly counts as grown-up in my book.’
She squeezes my hand. ‘Mine too. I’m bloody terrified.’
‘I don’t know why,’ I say. ‘Australia’s not going to know what’s hit it.’
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Sarah is going to rock it over there. She’s already secured a job with one of the leading TV networks; all hail Australia’s sparkling new showbiz correspondent.
Before we go through the glass doors into the bar, she catches hold of my hand to stop me.
‘Listen, Lu, there’s something I need to say.’ We stand close together and she squeezes my fingers. ‘I can’t fly to the other side of the world without saying sorry for the way I was about … well, you know, everything.’
‘Oh God, Sar, you don’t need to apologize,’ I say, choking back tears already. I don’t think our argument is something we’ll ever talk about without being emotional. ‘Or maybe let me apologize too. I hated so much about what happened that day.’
She nods, her lip trembling. ‘I said some horrible things to you. I didn’t mean them. Missing your wedding day is the worst thing I’ve ever done.’
‘I hurt you. I never wanted to, Sar.’
She dashes her hand over her eyes. ‘I should have accepted your bracelet. It was the loveliest thing anyone has ever given me. I love you like a sister, Lu, you’re my best friend in the entire bloody world.’
I’m wearing the bracelet right now, and I do exactly as I’ve planned to. I open the clasp and slip it off, then fasten it around her wrist. We both look at it and she grips my hand really tight.
‘There,’ I say, my voice shaky. ‘It’s where it belongs.’
‘I’ll always treasure it.’ Her voice catches in her throat.
I smile through my tears. ‘I know you will. Now come on.’ I pull her into a hug. ‘Dry your eyes. Tonight’s supposed to be a happy night.’
We hang on tight to each other; it’s an ‘I’m sorry’ hug, and an ‘I love you’ hug, and a ‘what am I going to do without you’ hug.
Luke pulls me into a headlock as soon as he spots me in the bar.
‘Now we can start the party,’ he says with a grin. ‘She’s been watching the door for you.’
He’s adorable. Built like a rugby player, loud and full of sunshine, he only has eyes for Sarah. When she and Jack were together, I thought I saw love. And perhaps it was love, of sorts, but not of this sort, and certainly not on this scale. Sarah and Luke ooze love from their bones.
I turn as someone touches my arm.
‘Jack! Sarah didn’t know if you’d be able to make it.’ Pleasure and relief wash through me at the unexpected sight of him.
He dips and kisses my cheek, his hand warm on my back. ‘I wasn’t sure we could come until this morning,’ he says. ‘It’s really good to see you.’
We. I look at him, and for a few seconds we say nothing at all. Then he looks away, towards a woman in a cerise dress who’s just appeared beside him with a couple of glasses of champagne in her hand. He smiles as he accepts one, slinging his arm loosely round her waist.
‘Laurie, this is Amanda.’
‘Oh,’ I say, and then catch myself and overcompensate. ‘Hi! It’s good to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you!’ I haven’t really; Jack’s mentioned her in passing in emails and I’ve seen her on his Facebook page, but somehow it hadn’t quite prepared me for seeing them together in the flesh. She’s quite beautiful, in a gilded blonde kind of way. Her chin-length flapper-girl waves look as if they’ve been set by one of those super-cool celebrity stylists, and she’s wearing her dress with a black leather jacket and ankle boots. She’s glamorous in an edgy way, and the watchful look in her blue eyes doesn’t quite marry up with the warmth of her voice.
‘Laurie,’ she smiles, air-kissing me on both cheeks. ‘We meet at last.’
I try not to overanalyse her words. At last? What does she mean by that? Her eyes linger on me, as if she wants to say something else.
We’re saved from the need for further immediate conversation by Sarah clapping her hands and ushering us all through into the restaurant. There’s fifteen or so of us, a mix of Sarah and Luke’s friends and closest colleagues. I glance at the two circular tables and see Oscar’s place card beside mine, with Jack on my other side, and then Amanda. I sigh and wonder if it’s too late to mess around with the cards, because without Oscar to balance us out, this is going to be testing. I don’t recognize any of the other names on the table. Joy.
‘Looks like I bagged the best seat in the house,’ Jack says with a grin, coming to stand beside me as he surveys the table.
My smile is so tight I wonder how my teeth don’t ping out and bounce off the walls. I doubt there’s enough wine in this hotel to make tonight bearable. I’m losing my best friend, my husband hasn’t turned up, and now I’m to spend the next couple of hours making polite conversation with Jack’s beautiful new girlfriend.
I take my seat and catch the waiter’s eye as he circulates with the wine. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other tonight.
Bloody Oscar. The one time I actually wouldn’t mind him being here and he can’t be arsed to even be in the same country. Although from what I gather, he’s practically emigrated of late. Poor Laurie, it must be pretty lonely for her.
‘Great,’ Amanda sighs as she scans the set menu card. I sigh inwardly too, because eating out with her is always a bit of a gamble. She’s pescatarian and sugar-free, although the sugar in wine gets some kind of special pass because she says the alcohol neutralizes it. I’m pretty sure she’s made that up right off the top of her head, something I routinely tease her about. Tonight, though, I really want us to make a good impression on everyone, which is tricky, because the starter is duck liver pâté and the main course is chicken, and it’s my fault no one knows that my girlfriend doesn’t eat either. Sarah sent an email a while ago asking if anyone was vegetarian and I never answered.