A smile ghosts my lips.
For an instant there is silent communication between us. An odd moment that we are both caught in it… A string of connection—like the first time our eyes met. When I was a bridesmaid and he the best man and he winked at me across a crowded church. Then he deliberately breaks the moment and, turning away, sits up. He pushes his hair away from his forehead. I squeeze my eyes shut. I won’t give up. I open my eyes and, reaching out a hand, touch his back. He stiffens.
‘Julie…’ he starts to say.
I sit up, the sheet falling away from my body, and clamp my hand across his mouth. His eyes travel down to my bare br**sts. ‘Before you say anything else I want to show you something.’
He blinks and nods.
We get dressed, get into his car and drive to Kilburn. I ask him to stop outside my house. We go up the stairs and down the corridor without exchanging a single word. My stomach is in knots. I am so nervous I feel like throwing up. In front of my door I stop and put my key into it. As soon as I open the door the stale smell rushes out, engulfing us. I look up at Vann. His face tells me everything I need to know. Shock. Disgust.
‘This is my house.’
He swallows. I take him to the living room. My mother is too shocked to stand or speak.
‘Vann, this is my mother. Mum, meet Vann.’
Vann moves forwards and takes her soft swollen hand in his.
‘Come,’ I say to Vann and take him upstairs to my room. I unlock the door. ‘This is my room.’
He follows me into my scrupulously clean bedroom. I turn around and watch him close the door, lean with his back to it, and look around him. His face is carefully blank.
I point towards the wall with the bits of Blue tack still sticking on it. ‘That wall there used to be full of photos of Jack, some even blown up to poster size, but I took them all down the day before yesterday. I wanted to tear them all into tiny pieces, throw them away and pretend I had never been so stupid, but when it came to it I didn’t have the heart. It would have meant that I wasted so many years of my life. They’re in that drawer.’
I point to the lowest drawer of my dresser. His eyes follow my finger. He seems bemused.
Here goes. Total honestly.
‘I kissed Jack on Friday.’
That makes his eyes jump back to me. The cobra rears its head fiercely.
‘I called him up, went to his house and asked him to kiss me. And he’s a good kisser, I’ll give him that, but you know what? I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ I look pleadingly into his eyes. ‘Vann, you’re the one I think of all day, you’re the one I respond to even when I don’t want to. You’re the one I love. That crush I had on Jack was based on hot air. It was just a fantasy created by a lonely, terribly, terribly unhappy girl.’
He opens his mouth to say something, but I hold my hand up.
‘There are other things you don’t know about me. I’m not a good friend to Lana. When you met me I was jealous of her and I hated her, or at least I thought I did, but the real truth is I hated myself. I hated everything about me.
‘Remember you once asked me about my dad and I didn’t want to talk about him? Well, my dad was a drunk. “You are nothing but an animal,” my mother would sneer as he walked through the door, and it would all kick off. He would hit my mother and my brother, but never me. He loved me. Sometimes when he was very drunk he would fall on the couch and lift one arm so I could climb in and the arm would come back down. It was warm and nice in there.
‘But one day after a particularly furious bust-up my mother packed a suitcase and we left home while he was still asleep. They temporarily housed us in a bed and breakfast on Cromwell Street. It’s gone now. They pulled it down and built something else, but then it was full of other broken people like us; prostitutes, asylum seekers, single mothers and their children.
‘We were having breakfast when my father walked through the door. He was swaying. His eyes were large, glassy and haunted, a drunk’s eyes. “I’ve come for Julie,” he said. My mother did a strange thing. She looked at me with cold, strange eyes and tight lips.
“Let her choose. Do you want to stay with me or go with your father?” I looked at her. At how cold her eyes were and I said, “Stay with mummy.” My father turned around, stumbled and walked away. I think I regretted my decision before he was out of the door, but I didn’t do anything about it. I never saw him again, until I was fifteen and we heard he died in a ditch. I’ve never forgiven myself for that decision. I should have gone with him. He needed me. She didn’t. She had my brother. She would have gone on just fine without me.’
‘It’s not your fault, Sugar. He was a grown man.’
‘And one more thing. Don’t think you’ll have changed my life by giving me that painting or that you can wash your hands of me that easily, because I’ll never sell that painting. It will be with me till the day I die. If you really want to change my life I suggest you take me with you wherever you go.’
‘Will you come with me to Paris?’
I am so shocked my mouth falls open. ‘Say that again,’ I whisper.
‘Come with me to Paris.’
‘So you do care for me.’
He puts out a hand, pulls me towards his hard body, and starts kissing my neck. ‘Care?’ he murmurs. ‘How blind can you be? I’m crazy about you, Sugar. I have been since that first night. It was a knife in my heart to know that all the time you were with me you wished you were with him.’
‘My poor darling. I’m sorry I was so cruel. Sometimes I would feel it, those invisible strings pulling me towards you, but I was so insanely obstinate, I’d break them by mentioning Jack. The truth is I was only reminding myself because I had forgotten him.’
‘I even started to hate the guy.’
‘Will you ever forgive me?’
‘There is nothing to forgive. I love you.’
It feels as if my heart is going to burst out of my chest. His lips trail delicious kisses along my neck. ‘I can be a bit slow on the uptake. So,’ I pull my neck away from him and look into his eyes. ‘I want to know everything. Tell me what you felt from the first moment we met.’
‘When I saw you for the first time in the church, I could hardly believe my eyes. I had spent years travelling the world looking for something that would fire my blood and bring my canvas to life, and there you were totally unaware of your beauty. I had already decided to ask you to dance when I got an even better opportunity thrown in my path.