She’s right of course, but we’re also underneath several layers of fur hides and drinking rum. We’ve escaped to Norway for a few days and it genuinely feels as if we’ve landed in wonderland. I’ve never seen so much snow; we’re currently watching it fall from the comfort of our huge bed beneath the glass dome of our igloo. If she’d had her way we’d have made a run for the sun, but we made a bet and she lost, so we’re here scratching my itch to go aurora hunting. We’ve been unlucky so far; tonight’s our final night here, so it’s all or nothing.
‘What’s been your favourite thing so far?’ I say, kissing Amanda’s forehead. She’s naked and nestled in the crook of my arm on the pillows, and she wrinkles her nose as she thinks.
‘Probably the reindeer sleigh ride,’ she says. ‘Too romantic for words.’
‘More romantic than this?’ I say, my hand cupped possessively over her breast. ‘Game of Thrones has got nothing on us.’
‘I thought …’ She trails off and sighs heavily.
‘What?’ I say, taking her glass from her before I roll over and pin her beneath me.
‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘Forget I said anything.’
‘What is it?’
She looks to the side and kisses my shoulder. ‘It’s silly,’ she says, pink-cheeked. ‘I thought you might be bringing me here to propose.’
I hope my shock doesn’t show on my face. I thought she’d been acting a bit weird this evening. ‘You did? Shit, Amanda, I’m sorry. It’s just that we’ve never really talked about, you know, marriage.’ I don’t know what to say. We’ve never talked about anything so serious – marriage just isn’t in my head when it comes to us. When it comes to anyone, really. She’s looking up at me, and I’m gazing down at her, and I know that what I say next matters.
‘You’re very lovely.’
Her smile is too small as she shakes her head. ‘Shut up.’
I kiss her, because it’s safer than trying to let her know how I feel with words, and then I nudge her knee wide with my own and watch her close her eyes as she lets go of her thoughts and gives in to her feelings instead.
Afterwards, she clings to me, her mouth on my neck.
‘Look up,’ she whispers. ‘Look up, Jack.’
I slide from her body and lie beside her, and gasp. Above us the skies are flooded green and azure and purple, rolling swathes of glorious colour.
‘It’s breath-taking,’ Amanda whispers.
We lie on our backs beneath the majesty, naked and spent, and I wonder what the fuck I’m waiting for.
The third time isn’t a charm in our case. My regular-as-clockwork period keeps me waiting until nine in the evening to bother showing up, by which time Oscar has called me five times and I’ve been to the loo at least fifty times. I ring him and we console each other, and then I break my no-drinking rule and pour myself a huge glass of red. I briefly consider calling Sian, my friend from the office. We sometimes grab a drink after work or go to the movies on the days Oscar’s in Brussels, but the ins and outs of my monthly cycle feel too intimate to burden her with. I speak to Mum most days too, but obviously I haven’t told her we’re trying for a baby; if I tell her, it’s someone else to let down. I don’t think it would be nearly this disappointing if Oscar was here, but being apart gives everything this sense of urgency, of make or break.
Miserable, I take myself to bed with my laptop and lie propped up, flicking through all the fabulous things everyone but me is doing on Facebook. As predicted, Australia is all over Sarah like a rash. They can’t get enough of her British accent or her sunshine smile. I reach out and touch the screen as I watch a video she’s posted on her page of an interview she and Luke gave together on morning TV over there about Anglo-Aussie love matches. She’s my Super Sarah: super-loved, super-successful, just super. God, I wish she was here. Our Monday-night Skype sessions are one of the highlights of my week, but it’s not the same as having her actual shoulder to lean on.
I feel stupid for crying, and click from her page on to Jack’s. Our friendship has effectively ended since the night of Sarah’s farewell dinner. The furthest our friendship goes is me liking his photos on Facebook, and him occasionally commenting on mine. From what I see on his page it looks like he’s on one long holiday with Amanda. From mine it must look like I have absolutely no social life at all. Just a long, blank post-less space. Perhaps I should unfriend him and be done with it.
‘Close your eyes!’
I’m in the kitchen making dinner (Tuna Niçoise) when Oscar comes home after his usual three-night run to Brussels. He sounds cheerful for once, and I feel a wave of relief crash through me. Things have grown progressively more tense between us; there’s still no sign of Oscar’s promised full-time return to London, and we’ve been trying for a baby for almost six months now without success. Not that that’s so massively unusual, especially when you throw in the fact that we’re sometimes in different countries at the optimum time for conception. Yes, I know all about these things now.
‘Are you sure? I’m holding a kitchen knife,’ I laugh, laying it down and doing as he’s asked.
‘You can open them again now.’
I do, and he’s standing there with a bouquet so large he can barely see over the top of it.
‘Should I be worried?’ I smile, taking it from him.
He shakes his head. ‘I’d have bought champagne, if we weren’t off the hard stuff,’ he says. He’s been really good about the not-drinking thing, doing it too out of solidarity.
A knot of dread ties itself in my gut. It’s four days until my period is due or not due. It seems a bit premature to be celebrating.
‘Ask me then,’ he says, and I realize there’s something else. I stop searching for a vase big enough to hold such a generous amount of roses and lay them down.
‘What is it?’ Already I’m second-guessing what he might be about to tell me. Could this be it? His Brussels run coming to an end? We can be a full-time couple again at last.
‘Come and sit down,’ he says, prolonging the moment as he takes my hand and leads me through to the sofa in the sitting room.
‘You’re making me nervous,’ I say, half laughing, half worried.
He sits next to me, his body angled towards mine. ‘Brantman turned up and called me in for a meeting this morning.’
I knew it! ‘And?’ I smile.
‘You’re looking at the bank’s newest director!’
His face is wreathed in smiles like a child whose Christmases have all come at once. I catch the whiff of alcohol about him when I lean in and hug him – our drinking ban must have fallen by the wayside today.
‘Wow, that’s brilliant!’ I say. ‘And very deserved too, you work really hard for them. I’m glad they see that. Have they given you a date to move back to London?’ I squeeze his hand.
‘Well, it’s not exactly less time in Brussels.’ His smile falters. ‘Or not at all, actually.’
I go still, filled with a sudden sense of foreboding that there’s more to come and I’m not going to like it.
‘I’m not leaving Brussels, Laurie,’ he says, holding on to my hand. ‘In fact, the job will be based there full-time.’
I stare at him, aware that I’m blinking too fast. ‘I don’t …’
He reaches for my other hand and looks at me imploringly. ‘Don’t say no straight away. I know it’s out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking about this all day and it’s the right thing for us to move out there, I’m sure of it. You, me and the baby too, soon. Brussels is a gorgeous city, Laurie, you’ll love it, I promise.’
I stare at him, shell-shocked. ‘But my job …’
He nods. ‘I know, I know. But you’d have to give up work for the baby, anyway; this way you get to take your pregnancy off too.’
‘Would I? What if I wanted to go back to work?’ I don’t know yet that I do, but how dare he just decide for me? How typically old school of him to assume that I’ll be a stay-at-home mum. And how silly of me, I realize, to not have talked to him about this before.