Authors: Abby Clements
Tags: #General, #Fiction
‘Two hours late?’
‘Yes,’ she said. Balls. It didn’t sound great, when you put it like that. ‘Danny needed me.’
‘OK,’ Jay said slowly.
‘What?’ Laurie said, feeling defensive. It sunk in that she’d let him down – he’d made an effort for her, and she hadn’t even bothered to turn up on time. She strengthened her resolve. She wouldn’t be weak, wouldn’t admit she was in the wrong. ‘I’m sorry, Jay. Is that what you want me to say? I’m sorry. But work’s work.’
Jay shrugged. ‘Look, Laurie – let’s forget it, it’s not that big a deal, come through and I’ll whip something else up. It’s just, like you say, a phone call would have been good.’
‘I know,’ Laurie said. ‘But Jay, it’s just – your work is different, isn’t it? I mean it’s not like a proper career. With your band – and with the furniture stuff – you can stop and make personal phone calls and it’s no biggie … but I …’
Jay’s eyes were wide in surprise as Laurie continued.
‘… I mean, I’m not saying it’s not important, but I mean it’s not …’
‘It’s not as important as what you do?’ he said. ‘Laurie, God, can you hear yourself?’
‘There’s not the same responsibility, is there? A boss, a salary or—’
‘Right,’ Jay said. ‘I think I get the message here. Your work comes first, and it always will. I guess it’s better that I find that out now, rather than later.’
‘That’s …’ Laurie started. But she couldn’t deny it. As much as she wanted to make things OK between them again, she couldn’t tell him he was wrong. Her work did come first.
‘I’ve worked hard to get where I am,’ Laurie said, trying to justify herself. ‘I can’t let it slip. We can’t all be dreamers like you, letting your creative bird take flight and …’
Jay raised his eyebrows. ‘Wow.’
Laurie floundered, searching for something to say to put things right. But nothing came out. Eventually she gave up. She turned around and left his flat, her cheeks burning hot, slamming the door shut hard behind her.
Weeks had passed, then months, with them hardly speaking to one another, and that’s how it still was. Jay had only been hers for a fleeting moment – but after that one of her best friends was gone from her life and it hurt. Really hurt. Now, on Sunday mornings she’d listen to Jay’s music coming through her bedroom floor because it made her feel like she was down there with him. She should try dating other people, Siobhan said. But Laurie didn’t know what she wanted any more – maybe relationships weren’t for her. Maybe, after all of this, she didn’t want anyone at all.
‘Well, it’s a shame, if you ask me,’ Lily said with a shrug. ‘You seemed a good pair, you two. But you’re a hard-headed woman, I know,’ she said. ‘But anyway, it’s friends you need,’ she smiled warmly, ‘and you’ve got plenty of those.’
Laurie glanced over at the pictures of Lily’s grandchildren hung in gold frames on an untouched part of her wall. The question slipped out before she could stop it. ‘Were you ever in love?’
‘Oh yes,’ she laughed. ‘Or at least I thought I was. With my babies’ dad, Jimmy. I had my children, now I’ve got my grandbabies – and they’re my sunshine, even if they’re far away right now. Wouldn’t take back a step. But the arguing? That wasn’t for me. Me and Jimmy were too young then, or maybe –’ she shrugged – ‘well, maybe I’m just not the settling kind.’
Monday 27th November
How are things? So it looks like I’m not going to be able to meet up with you after all. Long story, but I’m going to London for a couple of weeks with my family. Bad, because I’m missing out on stuff here – but good, because I’ve always wanted to see London, and I get a bit of time off school.
We can stay in touch though – if you want?
‘So it’s two weeks you’ll be gone?’ Diana asked.
Rachel was sitting in her neighbour Diana’s living room, on the sofa. Diana’s small dog Alfie was dozing on the window seat in a patch of winter sun. The cushions were perfectly plumped, the coffee table was polished to a shine and the air carried a whiff of vanilla air freshener. Diana herself was as neatly presented as her cottage, her blonde hair wound back into a French pleat, her slightly creased eyelids dusted with pale blue shadow, and her nails painted dusky pink. Rachel, in her jeans and woolly jumper, felt like a blot on her neighbour’s pristine landscape.
‘It all depends how quickly they find out what’s wrong with Bea. That’s how long Laurie will be up here, though.’
Diana looked unsettled by the news. ‘And are the kids OK?’
‘Yes. Zak’s absolutely fine – disappointed about missing his nativity play, but excited about our big adventure. It’s absolute packing chaos at home, though, he’s campaigning to take his bike.’ Rachel smiled. ‘And Milly – she’s come round. She was reluctant at first, said something about missing out on a party or something – but she’s always wanted to go to London.’
‘I’m sure she’ll enjoy it.’ Diana said.
‘It’s hard to tell sometimes,’ Rachel said, contemplatively. ‘I used to know exactly what Milly liked, but it seems to be changing so quickly. She’s at a mixed school now, of course, and I get this feeling that boys are rapidly taking over from horses.’
‘Anyone in particular?’
‘I don’t know,’ Rachel said. ‘Maybe. I’ve spoken to her about relationships and she’s told me in no uncertain terms that she won’t get “knocked up at nineteen” like I did.’ Rachel laughed. ‘Perhaps I should be grateful for that. She’s more ambitious than I ever was, that’s for sure.’
‘She’s a sensible girl,’ Diana said. ‘Well, anyway, I’ll miss you all. And of course I’ll be thinking of Bea.’
‘Hopefully they’ll get to the bottom of it soon. I’ve never seen her like this before, Diana. Aiden is stressed about it – and then he’s got a lot on at work at the moment too. He’ll be around for a couple of days still. But could you check in on Laurie? She’s not really … how can I put this … she’s not exactly much of a country girl.’
‘Of course. I’ll pop in. Let her know I’m only next door, if she needs anything. So you say the two of you went to school together?’
‘Yes. We’ve known each other for years. Met at secondary school back in Kent. But then, I don’t know. We drifted apart somehow – you know how it is. I moved here, had the kids, her career took off in London.’ Months seemed to speed past in a blur these days. ‘We’ve stayed in touch, the odd email here and there, though. Laurie’s Milly’s godmother actually.’
‘I’m surprised I haven’t met her before, then.’
‘It’s a long way to travel.’ Rachel defended her old friend. ‘I understand that it’s hard to get here. She’s really busy, works in fashion and always has these glamorous events to attend. But it sounds like she’s ready for a break now.’
‘Well, I look forward to meeting her,’ Diana said, cutting two slices of cake and passing one to Rachel.
‘You OK?’ Rachel ventured.
‘Oh, me and Alfie,’ Diana said, reaching over to stroke the dog’s tummy and switching to a baby voice. ‘We’re getting along just fine, aren’t we, darling?’
‘Good. Well, I’m glad to hear that. You know that if there’s ever—’
‘I’m fine, Rachel,’ Diana said, her mouth tight. ‘I’m really enjoying being on my own, as it happens. But thanks for asking.’
‘OK,’ Rachel said, wishing she’d kept quiet.
‘Actually I’m still hoping you might reconsider my offer,’ Diana said, her tone softening, ‘to help me out with some interior design for the company.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Diana. I loved doing up the kids’ rooms, but I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes to be a professional.’
‘I disagree. And you know I could train you. While you’re in London, think about it, at least.’
‘OK then, I will,’ Rachel said.
In bed that night, Rachel rested her head on Aiden’s chest. ‘I’m going to miss you, you know,’ she said, thinking of the days they’d have apart before he could get down to London.
‘Me too,’ Aiden said, tipping her chin upwards and giving her a kiss.
‘And if you can get down any sooner …’ she said, looking up at him.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I thought we agreed that it was OK—’
‘Of course it is,’ Rachel said, pulling away. ‘I didn’t mean it like that. I understand about your work. I’m just going to miss you, that’s all.’ They hadn’t spent a night apart for years. ‘Once you’re down, if you do have time maybe we could do some things together, as a family.’
‘I don’t know, Rach,’ Aiden said, his voice a little strained. ‘I’ve started the handover, but I’ll be managing the Westley barn remotely while I’m down in London. I can’t say how much free time I’ll have.’
‘OK,’ Rachel said, a truer picture of the coming fortnight taking shape in her mind.
‘Right now I just need some sleep,’ Aiden said, turning away from her on to his side.
Ah – I’m gutted to hear you’re going away. As soon as you appear, with your red hair and smiles and lovely eyes – you’re vanishing. Damn.
But, YES. Let’s stay in touch. It’s only a couple of weeks. And in the meantime – London. That’s exciting. I went there last year to visit my cousin – he took me up in the London Eye and it was incredible – you can see for miles. Maybe you can take your little brother up on that?
So, for starters – tell me more about you … I mean I know you live close to the pub, and you drink Southern Comfort and lemonade … and you mentioned you like Adele and The White Stripes. But what else? The good, the bad, the ugly?
Tuesday 28th November
Laurie knew what she had to do. She was going up to Skipley tomorrow, Wednesday, and she’d already packed, so all she needed to do was leave the keys with someone for Rachel to pick up.
But with Siobhan and Lily both busy, she was going to have to ask Jay. It should have been easy, it was a normal favour to ask of a neighbour. But the idea of going down there, talking to him … they had barely spoken in over two months. Laurie had been standing in her hallway with her hand on the front-door handle for a full five minutes.
Taking a deep breath, she opened her door and walked down the stairs to Jay’s flat. As she buzzed on Jay’s doorbell, butterfly wings beat against the walls of her stomach. Maybe he won’t be in, she thought, half-willing it to be true.
Jay answered a moment later. His dark hair was a little mussed, and he was wearing indigo jeans, brogues and a dark-red sweater. Not just any sweater, one that fitted him perfectly and set off his light-brown skin. One that Laurie had seen in a shop in Soho at the start of the year, and encouraged him to buy, because it suited him. Back when they were friends and she still did that kind of thing. The sound of a radio came from inside his flat, and distracted her for a moment.
‘Hi,’ she said, her voice coming out a bit husky.
‘Laurie,’ Jay said, with a hesitant smile. ‘Hi.’
The words Laurie had planned to say vanished from her mind with Jay there in front of her. Her eyes drifted to his full mouth, remembering the way he’d kissed her. ‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’ she managed at last.
He nodded, his eyes drifting momentarily to the floor, no longer meeting hers.
‘Busy times,’ she went on. ‘All go, go, go at work at the moment.’ She kicked herself. Where had that come from? All go, go, gone would be more accurate.
‘Oh yeah,’ Jay said, then after a pause, ‘Well, that’s good. And today? How come you’re at home?’
‘Holiday,’ she said – best not to mention she’d been practically banned from her workplace. She bit her lip, then quickly changed the subject. ‘Anyway, I was hoping to ask a favour.’
‘A favour? Sure,’ he said with a warm smile. ‘What can I help with?’
Female laughter came from inside Jay’s flat, over the sound of the radio, and cut Laurie short. She looked towards the sound; her stomach felt tight. She just wanted to give Jay the keys and get away as soon as possible.
‘My friend Rachel is going to be staying in my flat for a couple of weeks. Could you give her my keys when she arrives tomorrow?’ She held up her keyring. ‘She’ll get in at around three o’clock with her son and daughter.’
‘Sure,’ Jay said, nodding. ‘That’s fine.’ Laurie passed him the keys and their hands touched for a moment. Laurie wanted to stay right there, his skin against hers, close – but he pulled back and put the keys on his hallway table.
‘So where are you—’ he started, looking back at her.
‘Jay,’ a voice called out from inside the flat. ‘Your tea’s getting cold here.’
It was her. That girl. ‘I should probably go,’ Laurie said, a heavy feeling in her chest now. ‘But thanks, I appreciate it.’
She turned and walked away up the stairs, her heart thudding. The girl’s voice. That was intimacy.
‘But Laurie, I’ll see you at Lily’s party, right?’ Jay called up.
‘Oh yeah, sure,’ Laurie said, glancing back and forcing a smile. But she realised as soon as the words were out that with Jay, like this, was the one place she couldn’t be at Christmas.