‘Yes.’ His smile is slow, crooked. ‘Of course I do. Right from the first time we met.’
I catch my breath, trying to keep my thoughts inside my head, but they seep out, like water through my fingers. ‘The first time we met or the very first time?’
Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.
Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. She remembers.
‘You mean … at Christmas?’
We’re sitting closer than we were, almost thigh to thigh, and close up I can clearly see the toll recent months have had on her. Those dark circles, the high set of her shoulders as if she’s always got her teeth clenched. She looks in need of a hot bath, chicken soup and her bed for a week.
‘On the bus?’ she breathes. Her cheeks are pink from the wine, and her eyes more animated than they have been since the summer. ‘Do you remember?’
I frown and arrange my features into what I hope suggests puzzlement. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that to acknowledge my memory of those few moments at the bus stop would be a monu-fucking-mental mistake. Our entire friendship is built on the dynamics of my position as her best friend’s boyfriend. I wait in silence and she withers in front of me. The jittery shimmer in her eyes dims and I know she wishes she could suck those words out of the air between us and back inside her body. If I could, I’d blow them back in there myself rather than have to hurt her with a lie.
‘At your party,’ I say gently.
‘No. Before then,’ she says, pressing me. ‘I think I saw you sitting at a bus shelter. Months before. A year before.’
Oh, Laurie, why is it never the coward’s way out for you? Trust me, it’s an easier path. Until you get called on it, that is. I feign complete ignorance, my best Hugh Grant nonplussed impression.
‘I think the wine’s gone to your head, Lu. We first met at your Christmas party.’
She holds my gaze, silent and unwavering, and right there in front of me I see her slowly reach her limit and raise the white flag of defeat. Ten seconds. Fifteen, maybe. It seems longer, and I feel like the world’s biggest cock. Shit, I think she’s trying not to cry. I’m a complete fucking bastard. Should I have said I remembered? Would it have been better? For Laurie in this exact moment, probably kinder, but for Laurie next week or next month or next year? I don’t think so.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, compounding my position as the big bad wolf. ‘Ignore me.’
‘I’d never do that.’ Three pints in and it seems that I’m struggling to maintain the lie too.
She blinks a few times and tears spike her lashes. ‘Maybe you should.’
I look at her, really look at her, and I don’t want to tell her any more lies today. She’s all kinds of vulnerable, and we’ve both had a drink.
‘Maybe I should,’ I acknowledge. ‘But I don’t want to. I like being with you too much.’ Christ. I know, okay? I shouldn’t have said that. It’s on the edges of inappropriate, and it’s selfish.
‘I like being with you too much too,’ she whispers, and a single, desolate tear slides down her cheek.
‘Don’t,’ I breathe, my voice rough even to my own ears. ‘Please don’t cry.’
Only a hard-faced bastard would let a girl cry like this without comforting her, and despite the fact that I’ve told her lies, I’m not a hard-faced bastard, so I brush her tears away with my fingertips, my other arm still round her shoulders.
‘It’s okay, honestly it is,’ I murmur against her temple. How can she smell of wild summer flowers even in winter? Her skin is delicate under my fingertips, and although every atom of my being knows I should drop my hand, I hold her face instead, following her jawline with my thumb. For a moment we stay like that, until she moves slightly to look up at me and her mouth is suddenly dangerously close to mine.
I don’t think she’s breathing. I don’t think I am either. Jesus, she has the most beautiful mouth this close up. Full and trembling. I can taste the wine on the warm heat of her breath. She moves forward, I think, and I swear there isn’t any air between our lips. I’m anguished. Torn.
‘I can’t kiss you, Laurie. I can’t.’
I’ve drunk too much wine, and I’m the shabbiest person in the world, but I couldn’t move away from Jack now even if this pub was burning down. We’re caught in a tiny capsule of time, this unexpected booth at the end of the world, and there is just his generous mouth and his kind eyes and his warm, comforting hands. If this were a TV show I’d be shouting stop, because I’d know that however good they seem together, the shit would hit the fan further down the line. But this isn’t make believe, it’s real life, and in real life people make mistakes. I raise my head, and if he kisses me I won’t have the power to stop myself from kissing him back, because to me he looks exactly as he did that day at the bus stop, and for a second I’m that girl on the bus in 2008 again. My dad isn’t sick, and Jack isn’t Sarah’s boyfriend, and there’s tinsel in my hair. I can almost hear the whirl of time turning back, whooshing past my ears like the sound of an old-fashioned tape recorder being rewound or a vinyl record being played backwards. God, I don’t think I can stop this from happening.
‘I can’t kiss you, Laurie. I can’t.’
His words land on my heart like hailstones. Shit. What in God’s name am I doing? What kind of hideous lowlife am I? I need to get away from him.
‘Christ,’ I whisper, panicked, pressing my shaking fingers against my lips. I’m on my feet, scrabbling for my bags and half running out of the pub before I really know what I’m going to do, and it’s only when the bitter-cold air hits me that I realize I don’t have my coat and it’s snowing steadily.
‘Laurie! Laurie, wait up.’
He’s out of breath, my coat clutched in his hands as he catches hold of my sleeve. ‘Please, just stop a second, will you?’
I pull away, too hard, spilling the shopping from one of my bags over the quiet backstreet. He helps me to shove it back in and wraps my coat round my shivering shoulders, then he wraps his arms round my coat, holding me until the heat penetrates my clothes and my bones. It’s so very, very warm from the fire, and I close my eyes because I’m inexplicably in tears again. I’m not generally a crier, yet today my tear ducts seem to be bursting their banks.
‘Laurie,’ he whispers, raw, his eyes star-bright in the street lamps. ‘The last thing I ever want to do is hurt you.’
‘I’m such a fool,’ I whisper. ‘I don’t even know why I’m crying.’
Jack sighs, exasperated, kind. ‘Because you’re tired, and you’re worried, and you feel as if you’re always swimming against the tide.’
He rubs my back as he speaks low and steady against my ear, his body sheltering mine from the snow. My back is turned to the wall, and my fight is gone because he’s saying such incredibly comforting things and he’s holding me close. I’m so very tired of swimming. Most of the time I feel like the tide is going to pull me under, but here in Jack’s arms I feel as if he’s just reached over the side of a life raft and hauled me to safety. I realize, bleakly, that I don’t think there will ever be a time when I don’t have feelings for this man.
‘I wanted you to kiss me, Jack,’ I say, bereft. It’s not as if he isn’t aware what I wanted back there; to be coy would be pointless. ‘I don’t like myself for it.’
He strokes my hair, cups my chin, looks me in the eyes. ‘If I tell you something, do you promise to never tell another living soul, not even a goldfish?’
I swallow, eye to eye with him as I nod, and he takes my face between both of his hands. Whatever he’s about to say, I think it’s something I’m going to remember for ever.
‘I wanted to kiss you back there in the pub, Laurie, and I want to kiss you even more right now. You’re one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met in my whole life.’ He looks away, down the length of the deserted street and then back at me again. ‘You’re beautiful and kind, and you make me laugh, and when you look at me like that with your summer hedgerow eyes … only a fucking saint wouldn’t kiss you.’