‘God. Shit, I’m sorry,’ she mutters, dashing the backs of her hands furiously across her eyes.
‘No, no. I am,’ I rush, still not sure what I’ve said to provoke such a reaction. I want to hold her hand, cover her kneecap with my palm, something, anything to say I’m sorry, but I can’t quite make my hand move.
She shakes her head. ‘It’s really not your fault.’
I wait for her to gather herself. ‘Want to talk about it?’
She looks down, pinching the skin on the back of her hand, small repetitive motions; a coping mechanism, using physical pain to detract from emotional upset. My pain-in-the-arse brother, Albie, wears an elastic band round his wrist that he snaps for the same reason.
‘My little sister died when she was six years old. I’d just turned eight.’
Shit. I take back that description of my brother. He’s four years younger than me and it’s true that he can be a right royal pain in the arse, but I love the fucking bones of him. I can’t even bear to think of the world without him in it.
This time I don’t think twice. As a tear rolls down her cheek I reach out and swipe it away with my thumb. Then she’s properly crying and I’m stroking her hair and shushing her as a mother soothes a child.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have blurted that out,’ she gulps after a couple of minutes where both of us say nothing, pushing the heels of her palms into her eyes. ‘It caught me right out of nowhere. I haven’t cried about it for ages. Must be the wine.’
I nod as I lower my hand, feeling hideous for being so unwittingly insensitive.
‘I always say I only have a brother whenever anyone asks. I feel disloyal not mentioning her, but it’s easier than telling people the truth.’ She’s calmer now, drawing in slow, shaky breaths.
I have no real clue how to say the right thing in this situation, but I try; I have at least a small idea of how she might be feeling. ‘What was her name?’
Laurie’s face floods with warmth, and her vulnerability sears straight through me. Piercing, acute longing, bittersweet, as if something has been missing from her for too long. She sighs heavily as she turns to lean her back against the sofa beside me, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms round them. When she speaks again her voice is low and measured, like someone giving a rehearsed speech at a loved one’s funeral.
‘Ginny was born with a heart condition, but she was bright, and God, was she smart. She ran rings round me. She was my best friend.’ She pauses for a brief second, bracing herself for impact, as if she knows that telling the next part of her story is going to physically hurt. ‘Pneumonia. She was here one moment and then she was gone. I don’t think any of us have ever got over losing her. My poor mum and dad …’ She trails off, because there aren’t really any suitable words; parents should never have to bury their child. She isn’t pinching her skin any more; I don’t think there’s a coping mechanism in the world up to the job of distracting you from something like this.
On TV, Nicolas Cage is crashing around on a motorbike, all action and brawn, and here in this small living room I put my arm round Laurie’s shoulders and squeeze her against me. Her body judders with deep breaths, and she lays her head against my shoulder and closes her eyes. I can’t pinpoint the moment she falls asleep, but I’m glad she does because it’s what she needs right now. I don’t move, even though I probably should. I don’t get up and go to bed, even though a wiser man would have. I just sit and keep her company while she sleeps, and it feels … I don’t even know what it feels. Peaceful.
I don’t press my face into her hair.
When I wake up, I know there’s something I need to remember but my brain feels as if it’s wrapped in fuzzy felt. That’ll be the wine, I think groggily, and then I open my eyes and realize I’m not in bed. I’m still on the sofa, but my bed pillow is beneath my head and I’m snuggled under my duvet. A long squint at my watch tells me it’s only a little after six in the morning, so I lie back and close my eyes, working my way through the evening from the bit that comes most easily to mind.
Ice cream. Wine. Ryan Gosling rowing a boat. Swans. There were definitely swans. And, oh my God, Sarah had had a skin-full! I’ll check on her in a minute, it’s a good job Jack brought her home. Jack. Oh shit. Jack.
My mind sprints straight into panic mode, convincing myself that I must have said or done something terrible and disloyal and that Sarah is going to hate me. He was talking to me, and we were laughing and watching the movie, and then … Oh. And then I remember. Ginny. Sliding deep back inside the cocoon of my duvet, I screw my eyes up tight and let myself remember my sweet, beautiful little sister. Slender fingers, her nails so fragile they were almost translucent, the only other person in the world with eyes just like mine. I have to concentrate really hard to pull her childish voice from my memories, the excited joy of her giggle, the shimmer of her poker-straight blonde hair in sunlight. Fractured memories, faded like sun-damaged photographs. I don’t allow myself to think of Ginny very often in day-to-day life, or at all, really; it takes me a long time afterwards to reconcile the fact that she simply isn’t here any more, to not be furious with everyone else for breathing when she isn’t.
I remember last night clearly now. I didn’t do anything morally wrong with Jack, nothing that I need to feel compromised over in the traditional sense this morning, at least; I definitely didn’t show him my boobs or confess true love. Yet still I can’t let myself totally off the hook, because in truth I did cross a line, albeit a fine and almost invisible one. I can clearly feel it tangled around my ankles like fishing wire, ready to trip me up and make a liar out of me. I let myself get too close. All it took was a cheap bottle of wine to lower my guard; for one unwittingly misjudged comment to make me crumble like an abandoned sandcastle when the evening tide comes in.
‘Happy birthday, old biddy!’
Sarah blows a streamer in my face to wake me up and I struggle on to my elbows as she breaks into a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’.
‘Thank you!’ I give her a half-hearted round of applause. ‘Can I go back to sleep now, please? It’s eight o’clock on Saturday morning.’
She frowns. ‘You’re kidding, right? If you go to sleep now you’ll miss out on golden birthday hours.’
She sounds like one of her favourite Disney characters. ‘Last time I checked, we weren’t American teenagers on some cheesy TV show,’ I grumble.
‘Stop moaning and get out of bed right now. I’ve got big plans for you.’
I drop back on my pillow. ‘I already have a plan. It involves staying here until midday.’
‘You can do that tomorrow.’ She nods towards a mug on the side. ‘I made you coffee. You’ve got ten minutes before I come back and really wake you up rudely.’
‘You’re too bossy,’ I grumble, flinging my arm across my eyes. ‘I’m twenty-three now, and you’re still twenty-two. I’m old enough to be your mother. Go and clean your bedroom and do your homework.’
She toots on her streamer again as she leaves, laughing, and I shove my head underneath my pillow. I love that girl.
There are two clothes carriers hanging in the lounge when I emerge exactly nine and a half minutes later, and Sarah is practically hopping on the spot. Even more worryingly, the carriers are emblazoned with a fancy-dress hire company logo.
‘Umm, Sar …?’ I’m starting to realize she wasn’t kidding when she said she had a plan.
‘You’re going to die when you see,’ she says, her fists bunched with excitement like a kid on school-trip day.
I place my coffee down slowly. ‘Should I look now?’
‘Yes. But first you have to promise me that you’ll do exactly as I say for the next few hours, no questions asked.’
‘You sound like an undercover spy. Have you and Jack been watching too much James Bond again?’
She holds one of the carriers out towards me, but clutches on to it when I go to take it from her. ‘Promise first.’