‘You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,’ I say.
‘Fuck off,’ she mutters, starting to cry. ‘I told you not to say that.’
‘And I told you not to bloody cry,’ I say, dragging the end of my sleeve across my eyes. ‘Now look what you’ve done.’
We hold hands, really tightly.
‘We’ll always be friends, right?’ Her voice is small and shot through with vulnerability. ‘Even when you go to Thailand and join a hippy commune, or whatever it is you’re going to do over there?’
‘Even then,’ I say, squeezing her fingers. ‘How about when you become a big-shot TV presenter? Will you ditch me for your celebrity friends?’
She laughs, pretending she needs a second to think it over. She went to see the new station about a behind-the-scenes role and wound up being asked how she’d feel about taking on maternity cover for their roaming reporter. They obviously took one look at her and saw what we all see: star quality.
‘Well … I reckon Amanda Holden can hold her drink.’
I thump her on the arm and she sighs, faking disappointment.
‘Fine. I won’t ditch you, even for Amanda Holden.’ She pauses for a second. ‘We’ve had a laugh though, haven’t we?’ she says, leaning against me.
I close my damp eyelashes and lean my head on hers. ‘We have.’
‘You know what my favourite memory of you is?’
I don’t answer her, because there are tears rolling down my cheeks and my throat is aching.
‘It’s a recurring memory, actually,’ she says. ‘I like how you look after me when I’m hung-over. No one will ever hold my hair back like you do when I throw up.’
I laugh despite my tears. ‘You’ve got a lot of bloody hair, too. It’s not easy.’
‘And how you make my morning coffee just right,’ she says. ‘Everyone else gets it wrong. Even my mother.’
‘You have four grains of coffee, Sar. You can’t even classify it as coffee.’
‘I know that. But you do. You ask me if I want coffee, and then you make it how I like it. Four grains.’
I sigh. ‘You’ve probably made me more cups of coffee than I’ve made you. And you’ve definitely made the most sandwiches.’
‘You always forget about the mayo. You know how crucial it is.’ She sags. ‘How are you going to survive out there in the big wide world without me, Lu?’
‘It’s not as if we’re never going to see each other,’ I say, wiping my face. ‘I’ll be able to see you on the TV if nowhere else. I’ll be waiting for the day they make you slide down a fireman’s pole.’
‘But I won’t be able to see you when you’re on the other side of the world.’
I put my arm round her shoulders. ‘I’m not going for ever.’
‘You better bloody not,’ she sniffs. ‘Don’t go shacking up with some yogic monk and knocking out a dozen Thai babies or anything, will you? I want you back in London by Christmas.’
‘I don’t think monks are allowed to have babies.’ I laugh shakily. ‘I’ll only be gone a few months. I’ll be back in time to spend New Year together.’
‘Promise me?’ She links her pinky finger with mine like a little girl, and those damn tears threaten again because she reminds me of another little girl from a long time ago.
‘I promise I’ll come back, Sarah. I promise.’
‘You’re sure you’ve got everything? Insect repellant? Disinfectant spray?’
I nod, squeezing Mum as she and Dad prepare to leave me at the airport. Her perfume and the jangle of the bracelet she always wears are so dear and familiar to me; I’m choked up at the thought of being so far from home.
‘Torch?’ Dad says, ever practical.
‘Got it,’ I say, and he puts his arms round us both.
‘Come on, you daft things. Let’s make this a happy send-off. It’s an adventure.’
I untangle myself from them and wipe my eyes, half laughing and half crying as Dad lifts my backpack on to my shoulders. ‘I know it is!’
‘Go on then,’ he says, kissing me on the cheek. ‘Be off with you.’
I lean in and kiss Mum too, then step back and take a deep breath. ‘I’m going now,’ I say, my lip wobbling.
They stand together, Dad’s arm round Mum’s shoulders, and they nod. I’m sure it would feel less of a wrench if I wasn’t going alone; I feel about fourteen as I turn round at the gate to give them one final wave before I lose sight of them. Mum blows me a kiss and Dad lifts his hand, and then I turn away and walk determinedly towards the gate. Thailand awaits.
I raise my hand in greeting to Nakul, and he grins and throws me a thumbs-up as I take a rickety seat at an equally rickety table at his cafe on Sunrise Beach. It sounds bizarre to say that my time here has been a hectic blur of Buddhist temples, but that’s how it feels – a weird juxtaposition of absolute serenity amid happy, noisy chaos. No one could ever call Thailand boring; my head is in a spin and I’ve got muscles where I never had them before. I travelled north after I arrived in Bangkok, intent on getting my shot of culture in early; I feared that if I headed straight to the south I’d spend my entire trip in a hammock on the beach.
But now I’ve seen enough to allow myself the luxury of resting, and I’ve hit the eye-wateringly perfect castaway beaches of southern Thailand. I’ve set up temporary home in a cheap-as-chips beach shack; it’s one room, but it’s my room, and there is a veranda to sit and read on overlooking the beach. I don’t think I’d realized how much I needed this break from reality. When I first got to Thailand I cried for almost a week straight as I trekked through jungle terrain with a small group of other travellers. I didn’t cry because the trek was so strenuous, although it certainly was. I cried with sheer relief, hot, salty tears, releasing my heavy burdens into the earth as I walked. A few weeks before I came out here my mum and I caught Eat Pray Love at the local cinema, and though I haven’t got anywhere near to finding love, I am having some kind of mini epiphany. I’m like an in-patient in recovery, learning how to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made and acknowledging that I’m still me, still a good person and still a true friend to Sarah, despite what happened with Jack. Perhaps one day I might even deserve to be happy.
I smile, pleased by Nakul’s adulteration of my name as he picks his way across the warm, powder-soft sand to my table. I’ve been here on each of the four mornings since I arrived on Koh Lipe, and the island is working it’s laid-back magic into my skin and bones. It is as if I’m finally standing still for the first time in years.
‘Khop khun kha,’ I say when Nakul places a small white cup down in front of me, still hesitant over my Thai manners. He grins nonetheless, hopefully because my clumsy attempt at his language is better than not at all.
‘Your plan for today, Lau-Lau?’
He’s asked me the same question each morning, and every time my answer has been the same: ‘I don’t have a plan at all for today.’
Koh Lipe isn’t a place for people with big plans. The entire point of the island is to chill out. He laughs as he walks away to speak to new customers who’ve just ambled up from the beach.
‘No plans on a beautiful day like this?’
I turn towards the distinctly English voice and a guy drops down at the little table on the other side of me. He catches Nakul’s eye and raises his hand in greeting, his smile easy and relaxed as he stretches his long legs out in front of him on the sand. The Thai sun has baked my own skin honey gold, but this guy has been more serious altogether on the sun-worshipping stakes. He’s chestnut brown, his almost blue-black hair flopping in his dark, amused eyes.
I smile and shrug a little. ‘Nothing beyond floating in the sea and reading my book.’
‘A fine plan,’ he says. ‘What are you reading? Please don’t say The Beach.’