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Authors: Andy Jones

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BOOK: The Two of Us
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I finish, zip myself up and start running hot water into the sink.

Ivy’s voice is shrill from the bathroom. ‘Water!’

And here is one of life’s very modern dilemmas: turn off the tap so your pregnant girlfriend can continue her hot shower on a winter morning, or continue filling the sink so you can wash
the piss off her kitchenware. Ignoring Ivy’s increasingly loud shouts of ‘Water!’ and Frank’s running commentary, it feels as if it takes two weeks to half fill the
sink.

‘Christmas, hey?’ says Frank. ‘Shall I dry?’

‘I’ll be fine.’

Frank picks up a tea towel and starts drying a plate while I use my thumbnail to scrape congealed meat sauce off the bottom of a pan.

‘You okay?’ he asks.

‘Been better.’

‘You going back to your dad’s then?’

‘Looks that way.’

‘Ivy’s very close to Mum,’ Frank says.

‘That’s nice for her.’

I focus my attention on the pan.

‘You heading off today?’ he asks.

‘Mind if I use your room?’

‘Hey?’

‘I need some sleep.’

‘Oh, right, sure. I mean, it’s your flat.’

‘Your sister’s actually, but . . . whatever.’

Frank grabs a pair of jeans and a shirt, and I crawl into his bed and shut the door. The sheets are still warm and the pillow smells of Frank’s primate musk, but I’m asleep before I
have a chance to worry about it.

If anything my hangover has put on some muscle and developed an attitude by the time Ivy slips into Frank’s room. I’m disorientated and confused, first that I’m not in our
room, and then that I’m not on the sofa; as if my consciousness is running along behind me, like a toddler struggling to keep pace with his daddy.

Ivy sits on the edge of the bed and strokes my hair. ‘Morning.’

‘Hey. What’s the time?’

‘Little after ten. How’s your head?’

‘Stinks. How’s your . . . everything?’

Last night, whenever I woke up cold or dehydrated or with a sofa spring in my liver, I also had a question lodged in my mind. Does Ivy want babies more than she wants me? Of course she does, is
the glaringly obvious answer. They are my children, too, and, putting my tiny ego aside, I want her to want them more than she wants me. That’s how it ought to be, that’s how life
works. I suppose. The more difficult question originates twenty-one weeks ago:
Did
Ivy want children more than she wanted me? Was my most appealing feature the biological material in my
underpants? The answer is less clear, and if that answer is in the affirmative, it’s less easy to live with.

I do love Ivy; I think she’s smart and funny and beautiful . . . but as much as I don’t want to acknowledge the thought, I don’t feel as if I’m running as fast as I can.
I keep turning away from the thought, but it pursues me like a belligerent doomsayer – is this the woman you should spend the rest of your life with? Is she The One? Or are you simply
sticking around out of a sense of duty and the hope that everything will turn out okay in the end?

And the truth is, I don’t know. It certainly didn’t work out that way for Frank.

‘Are you getting up?’

‘I feel lousy,’ I say.

‘If I go now-ish I can get ahead of the traffic,’ Ivy says. ‘Maybe.’

‘Okay.’

‘Do you want me to wait?’

‘No, you go, it’s a long drive.’

‘Your present’s under the bed,’ Ivy says.

Despite everything, I laugh. ‘Yours too.’

‘Great minds,’ says Ivy. ‘Shall I get them?’

‘My head’s banging.’

‘Shall I get you some tablets?’

‘Had some a couple of hours ago.’

‘We’ll do presents when we get back?’ says Ivy.

I nod, close my eyes and I feel like crying. This is not how it’s meant to happen. We should be wearing matching jumpers with gaudy reindeers embroidered on the fronts, we should be
walking on the Common, playing Bing Crosby on the stereo, roasting chestnuts at gas mark seven. Not this; not Ivy trying to force a smile while I lie in her brother’s pungent bed,
incapacitated with cold, doubt and a hard-edged hangover.

‘Hey,’ Ivy says; she rubs my aching head, whispers in my ear: ‘Cheer up, baby, Christmas is overrated, anyway.’

She raises her eyebrows, broadens her smile, waiting for a reaction. But I don’t know how to react. Ivy goes to kiss me on the lips, but I turn my head to the side.

‘The babies . . . you’ll get my cold.’

Ivy twists my face around and kisses me on the mouth.

‘I’ll see you on Wednesday,’ she says.

I don’t even know what day today is, I don’t know if Ivy is going away for one, two or three days. ‘I’ll see you on Wednesday.’

Ivy stops at the doorway, places a hand on her stomach. ‘I didn’t know,’ she says. ‘Please believe me.’

And I do. Whatever the explanation, I know she is telling the truth. ‘I believe you.’

Ivy nods, mouths the words
thank you
.

As she leaves, pulling the door closed behind her, something glints at Ivy’s wrist. And as her footsteps move down the corridor, I realize she is wearing the clapperboard cufflinks that
she gave me just over one week ago.

When I next wake it’s after twelve and the house is as quiet as a monastery. I can’t even hear the neighbours. I go through to the main bedroom, lie on Ivy’s side of the bed
and doze again. I spend a long time in the shower, and by the time I’m dry and dressed I’m so hungry I feel nauseous.

Frank is sitting on the sofa, reading quietly.

‘Sausage sandwich for you,’ he says, pointing
Catch-22
at the breakfast counter. ‘And there’s coffee.’

The coffee and the sandwich are hot.

‘Thank you,’ I say, plonking myself down beside him on the sofa. ‘This is amazing.’

‘Got some of those posh sausages from The Village.’

‘How’s your wallet?’

‘Let’s just say it’s a good job I don’t have to buy a Christmas present for Lois this year.’

‘Every cloud, hey?’

‘You know she’s crazy about you, don’t you?’ Frank nods at the hallway door when he says this; the one Ivy left through about two hours ago.

And the truth is, I don’t know that I do.

‘Well, she is,’ Frank says, as if reading my mind. ‘Trust me, she is.’

‘You staying here, then?’

Frank sighs. ‘Looks that way. Can’t really go home solo.’

‘Why not?’

‘Mum and Dad are funny about divorce.’

I remember Ivy saying the same thing. ‘Funny how?’

Frank shrugs. ‘Just funny.’

I turn on the TV and eat my sausage sandwich in front of a daytime panel show full of mid-alphabet celebrities in party hats. Topics discussed include: the best way to cook a turkey, the best
Christmas movies, the best Christmas songs, what’s on TV over Christmas and a segment about a crazy bastard from Wigan who eats turkey with all the trimmings 365 days a year – 366 on a
leap year. Normally I drive down to Dad’s with a carful of ingredients to cook Christmas dinner for him and Maria’s family, but because I didn’t know (or refused to accept) what I
was doing this year, I am woefully underprovisioned. I’ll have to visit the expensive butcher before I head off, and take whatever extortionate fare he has left, festive or not.

‘What time you off?’ asks Frank, who is uncharacteristically sedate this morning.

The clock on the mantelpiece says it’s twelve twenty-three. ‘Any minute,’ I tell him.

‘Before you go . . .’ Frank springs up from the sofa and thunders down the hallway corridor.

He returns maybe nine seconds later, holding a small gift-wrapped package and a card. ‘Happy Christmas, happy birthday,’ he says, pulling me into an awkward bear hug.

‘Frank, thank you. I’m afraid I haven’t . . .’ I shrug, showing Frank my empty hands.

Under the bed next to Ivy’s (and my own) present, is a book on card tricks and a marked deck, already wrapped and ready to give to Harold on my way out. And I briefly consider redirecting
the present to Frank – he would probably appreciate it more than my surly teenage neighbour – but it seems a little wrong-spirited.

Frank dismisses my empty-handed gesturing with a wave of his paw. ‘Don’t be daft. I really appreciate you putting me up, man.’

‘It’s nothing.’

‘Well . . .’ Frank glances at the hallway door again, an involuntary flick of the eyes, ‘it’s not nothing to me. And I know things are . . . I know it’s . . .
anyway, thanks.’

‘Thank you,’ I say, holding up the clumsily wrapped present. And if it’s not a DVD box set behind the snowflake paper, I’ll be very surprised.

I’m not big on Christmas, but even so, I don’t like opening presents prematurely. Maybe it’s because December 25th is also my birthday and I’m trying to squeeze the most
possible enjoyment out of the single day. So I’m not being coy when I place Frank’s present on the coffee table unopened. It’s simply force of habit.

‘You not going to open it?’

‘I thought I’d save it for the big day,’ I say.

‘Open it, open it.’

In the time Frank has been staying in this flat, he and I have watched an eye-aching amount of TV with Ivy squashed between us on the sofa. And invariably, within five minutes of Ivy falling
asleep, Frank flicks through the channels until he lands on some old action movie from the eighties or nineties –
Highlander
,
First Blood
,
Delta Force
,
Cyborg.
So although it’s been less than three weeks, it has the feel of an old in-joke when I unwrap an Arnold Schwarzenegger box set of
The Terminator
,
Predator
,
Commando
and
Conan the Barbarian
.

‘You shouldn’t have.’

‘Well, if I hadn’t I’d probably end up watching
Home Alone
or something. Have you seen the shit that’s on over Christmas?’

I affect an expression that, I hope, projects equal parts hurt and disappointment. ‘You mean . . .’ I point at the DVDs, then at Frank. ‘You bought these . . . you bought them
for yourself?’

‘What? No, I mean . . . not exactly, I thought . . . I thought we could watch them tog—’ Frank catches the amusement in my eyes. ‘Oh, you bastard.’

‘Got you.’

‘Damn! Ivy does the same exact thing.’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘she does.’

‘Listen,’ Frank says, suddenly serious, as if he hadn’t been taken in by my ham routine at all, and was, in fact, simply setting me up for his own pay-off. ‘I know
I’ve been in the way, and I know things have been a bit . . .’ he wavers his hand, palm down ‘. . . a bit wonky with you and Ivy.’

‘I appr—’

‘But . . . me and Lois . . . we never had what you and Ivy have.’

‘Ivy said you were made for each other.’

Frank sighs, shakes his head. ‘We were good friends, made each other laugh, fancied each other. Ha, we even look like each other.’

‘She sounds . . . nice.’

Frank manages a smile. ‘Dark hair,’ he says. ‘And yes, she was nice. Is nice, I suppose. But it was all . . .’ the smile fades ‘. . . trust me, we never had what
you and Ivy have. We just didn’t. So don’t fuck it up, okay?’

I nod.

‘Or I’ll fucking kill you.’

And although Frank laughs when he hugs me, I can’t help picturing the muscular bulldog from
Tom and Jerry
, and the way he would hammer the indestructible cat through the
floorboards.

Chapter 21

The roads are as busy as you’d expect them to be at two o’clock on Christmas Eve. I have close to two hundred quid’s worth of glazed ham, turkey sausages, and
free-range organic lamb in the boot, and the smell of all that blood and meat within the confines of this tiny car is nauseating. Despite the cold and billowing exhaust fumes I have my window wound
down to its full extent, but at an average of three miles per hour, it’s not helping to clear the air.

All three lanes of the M25 are moving at walking pace, the cars’ back windows packed with cuddly toys, wrapped presents and gurning children. Miles of families crammed into their cars,
some of them no doubt singing, talking, playing silly games; others will be arguing, shouting or sitting in silence and wishing with all their hearts that they were anywhere else with anybody else.
At this rate it will take me about five days to get home, but I’m in no hurry; I need time to think and it looks like I’ve got all I can eat. Frank said he never had with Lois what I
have with Ivy. It’s a nice sentiment, but neither of us is in a position to know its validity. Frank doesn’t know what I have with Ivy any more than I know what went wrong with him and
his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Reasons why I’m annoyed with Ivy:

1) She invited her brother to live in our flat.

2) Which Ivy still views as her own.

3) Making me a glorified lodger.

4) She has more sympathy for her brother’s situation than mine. Which, now that I think about it, is probably fair enough considering he’s getting divorced and is semi-estranged from
his son.

5) Not enough sex. Mitigating circumstances, I agree, but it’s been four bloody months, for God’s sake.

6) She would rather spend Christmas with her family than mine.

7) She doesn’t buy full-fat milk.

There is a short-lived surge in the traffic and I cover maybe half a mile, getting all the way up into third gear before we settle back to a steady four miles an hour. It starts to rain, fat
drops bouncing off the windscreen. Ivy and I had our first kiss in this car; parked outside the fourth lamppost on the left. It was raining then, too.

It seems only fair to make the case for the defence: I love that Ivy goes to book club with a bunch of people twice her age; I love that she is a make-up artist and wears no make-up; I love that
she is wise and thoughtful and confident and maternal and playful. I love that she believes in the Wish Fairy, can’t whistle and has a goldfish named Ernest. I love that it was her idea to
take El to the Natural History Museum. I love the way she makes scrambled eggs. And I love that she loves me and I love (however it happened) that she is pregnant with my twins. And I don’t
need to make a list; I just know, in my heart, in my gut, that she is the one for me.

It’s all so obvious sitting in stationary traffic on the M25. Maybe I should have driven out here a week ago, rather than brooding and sulking like a stupid sodding teenager.

BOOK: The Two of Us
5.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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