I slide from the bed and fling on the nearest thing to hand: Sarah’s dressing gown. It’s covered in pineapples, but I’ve no clue where my own clothes went and I need headache pills. Given the state of the stragglers last night I wouldn’t be surprised to find one or two of them still strewn across the living-room floor, and I figure pineapples will offend them less than my naked arse. Shit, it’s pretty bloody short though. I’ll just do a quick dash.
‘Water,’ Sarah croaks, flinging her hand out towards me as I skirt round the edge of the bed.
‘I know,’ I murmur. Her eyes are still closed as I lift her arm and carefully tuck it back under the quilt, and she makes a noise that might mean Thanks and might be For God’s sake help me. I drop a kiss on her forehead.
‘Back in a sec,’ I whisper, but she’s already slid under the fog of sleep again. I don’t blame her. I plan to climb back in there and do the same thing myself within the next five minutes. Glancing at her again for a long second, I back quietly out of the room and click the door shut.
‘If you need paracetamol, they’re in the cupboard on the left.’
I pause for a beat, swallowing hard as I open the cupboard door and root around until I spot the small blue box.
‘You read my mind,’ I say, turning to Laurie. I force a casual smile, because in truth this is really fucking awkward. I’ve seen her before – before last night, I mean. It was just once, fleetingly, in the flesh, but there have been other times in my head since: random, disturbing early-morning lucid dreams where I jolt awake, hard and frustrated. I don’t know if she remembers me. Christ, I hope not. Especially now I’m standing in front of her in a ridiculous pineapple-strewn ball-grazing dressing gown.
Her dark hair is piled high on her head in a messy bun this morning and she looks as if she’s as much in need of medication as I am, so I offer her the box.
Sarah has banged on about her best friend so much that I’d built a virtual Laurie in my head already, but I’d got her all wrong. Because Sarah is so striking, I’d lazily imagined that her choice of friend would be equally colourful, like a pair of exotic parrots perched up here in their cage. Laurie isn’t a parrot. She’s more of a … I don’t know, a robin, maybe. There’s a contained peace about her, and a quiet, understated sense of being okay with herself that makes her easy to be around.
‘Thanks.’ She takes the tablets, popping a couple out into her hand.
I run her a glass of water and she raises it to me, a grim ‘bottoms up’ as she knocks the pills back.
‘Here,’ she says, counting how many are left in the packet before she hands it over. ‘Sarah likes –’
‘Three,’ I jump in, and she nods.
I feel a little as if we’re competing to prove who knows Sarah best. She does, of course. Sarah and I have only been together for a month or so, but Christ, it’s been a whirlwind. I’m running to keep up with her most of the time. I met her first in the lift at work; it jammed with just the two of us inside, and by the time it moved again fifteen minutes later I knew three things. Firstly, she might be a fill-in reporter for the local TV station now, but one day she’s likely to take over the world. Two, I was taking her for lunch as soon as the lift got fixed, because she told me so. I was going to ask her anyway, for the record. And lastly, I’m pretty sure she stopped the lift herself and then released it once she’d got what she wanted. That mildly ruthless streak is a turn-on.
‘She’s told me a lot about you.’ I fill up the kettle and flick it on.
‘Did she tell you how I like my coffee?’
Laurie reaches for some mugs out of the cupboard as she speaks, and I hate the reflex that sends my eyes down her body. She’s in PJs, more than respectably covered, yet still I observe the fluidity of her movements, the curve of her hip, the navy polish on her toes.
‘Erm …’ I concentrate on hunting down a teaspoon, and she stretches across to tug out the drawer to show me where they are.
‘Got it,’ I say, reaching in at the same moment as she does, and she jerks her hand away, laughing to soften the suddenness.
As I start to spoon the granules out she folds herself on to a spindle-backed chair, one foot tucked underneath her backside.
‘To answer your question, no, Sarah didn’t tell me how you like your coffee, but if I had to guess, I’d say …’ I turn and lean against the counter to study her. ‘I’d say you take it strong. Two spoons.’ I narrow my eyes as she watches me without giving any hint. ‘Sugar,’ I say, passing my hand across the back of my neck. ‘None. You want to, but you deny yourself.’ What the actual fuck am I saying? I sound like I’m coming on to her. I’m not. I’m really not. The last thing I want her to think is that I’m a player. I mean I’ve had my share of girlfriends, a couple even edged towards serious, but this thing with Sarah feels different somehow. More … I don’t know. I just know I don’t want it to end any time soon.
She pulls a face, then shakes her head. ‘Two sugars.’
‘You’re kidding me,’ I laugh.
She shrugs. ‘I’m not. I take two sugars. Two and a half sometimes, if I’m in the mood.’
The mood for what, I wonder. What makes her need more than two sugars? God, I really need to get out of this kitchen and back to bed. I think I’ve left my brain back there on the pillow.
‘Actually,’ Laurie says, standing up, ‘I don’t think I want coffee right now after all.’ She backs towards the door as she speaks, and I can’t quite read the expression in her tired eyes. Maybe I’ve offended her. I don’t know. Perhaps she’s just knackered or maybe she’s on the verge of hurling. I’ve been known to have that effect on women.
‘Well? What do you think?’
It’s just turned four when I slump next to Sarah at the pale-blue Formica kitchen table. We’ve finally got the place back to something resembling normal and now we’re both nursing huge mugs of coffee and the remnants of our hangovers. The Christmas tree we lugged up the stairs between us a couple of days back looks haphazard, as if a gang of cats has attacked it, but aside from that and a few broken wine glasses we’re pretty much as we were. I heard Jack leave around midday – okay, I failed miserably in my attempt to be cool about the situation and watched him walk away down the road from behind my bedroom blind like some kind of horror-movie stalker.
‘It went well, didn’t it?’ I say, deliberately misinterpreting Sarah’s question to buy myself some thinking time.
She rolls her eyes as if she thinks I’m winding her up on purpose. ‘You know what I mean. What do you think of Jack?’
And so it begins. A hairline crack has opened up in our relationship that Sarah isn’t even aware of, and I have to work out how I stop it from widening, how to prevent it from opening up into a chasm we’re both going to tumble headlong into. I’m conscious that this is the one and only chance I’m ever going to get to come clean; this single, solitary opportunity is mine to take, or not take. But because Sarah is looking at me with such hope, and because by now I don’t even know if I was imagining the whole thing, I silently promise to for ever hold my peace.
‘He seems … nice,’ I say, deliberately choosing a bland, mundane word for the most exhilarating man I’ve ever met.
‘Nice?’ Sarah scoffs. ‘Laurie, nice is a word you’d use for furry slippers or, I don’t know, chocolate eclairs or something.’
I laugh lightly. ‘I happen to really like furry slippers.’
‘And I happen to really like chocolate eclairs, but Jack isn’t a chocolate eclair. He’s …’ She trails off, thinking.
Snowflakes on your tongue, I want to suggest, or the bubbles in vintage champagne. ‘Very nice?’ I smile. ‘Is that better?’
‘Not even close. He’s a … he’s a cream horn.’
She laughs, dirtily, but she’s gone all dreamy-eyed on me and I don’t think I’m ready to listen to her try to convince me of Jack’s merits, so I shrug and wade in before she can speak again. ‘Okay, okay. He’s … well, he seems like fun and he’s easy to talk to and he’s obviously wrapped round your little finger.’