I look away first, my eye drawn to the door by Sarah and Jack’s arrival. Joy blooms hot in my chest at the sight of Sarah’s familiar red hair, although she’s warmed the shade down from fire engine to rich mahogany and it’s been styled into lustrous, tumbling waves rather than the Princess Leah plaits of Delancey Street. I touch my own messy bun, self-conscious for a moment, but then her face cracks into a huge grin when she spots me and her gait goes from uncertain to almost skipping across the bar to get to me.
I’m glad, actually, that Oscar isn’t beside me right at this moment; it gives me a couple of seconds to just be myself, for it to be me and Sarah, like old times. Her grip is fierce when she hugs me.
‘It’s so good to see you,’ I say, at the same time as she says, ‘Bloody hell, Lu. It’s been too long.’
We stand back at arm’s length and check each other over. I take in her screamingly sexy leather dress and she takes in my standby black dress that she’s seen countless times before; I think she may even have worn it herself once or twice. I’ve jazzed it up with a skinny snakeskin belt and the small gold and diamond starfish pendant Oscar gave me at Christmas, and up to the point of Sarah’s entrance I felt pretty glam, in an understated way. She looks like herself after a TV makeover, which, I guess, is effectively what she’s had. Her job seems to have transformed her from my beloved potty-mouthed friend into someone who could easily have walked out of a magazine. Until she opens her mouth, and then, thank God, she’s still exactly as she always was.
‘Fuck,’ she says, wiping one fingertip under each eye so her mascara doesn’t run. ‘I don’t get this upset over my own sister. I bloody love you, Laurie James.’
I laugh, squeezing her hand. ‘Love you too. I’m so glad you’re here.’
Jack steps out from behind her then, and I brace myself for impact. I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to act casual around him. I’ve put off even thinking about seeing him again, a tactic which has worked right up to this very second where I now find myself wholly unprepared.
He looks right into my eyes, no shifty gazing off over my shoulder, and for a moment I’m knocked off-centre by that aching, familiar longing. Old habits die hard, it would seem.
‘Good to see you, Laurie,’ he says. For an awful moment it seems as if he’s going to shake my hand, but then he holds it and pulls me close into a hug. The scent of him fills my head, warm spices and lemon, probably something expensive Sarah has given him, underscored with that inimitable essence of him, a smell I can neither describe nor reimagine when he isn’t there. But he’s here now, and for a second I close my eyes and feel the heat of his body through his inappropriately worded T-shirt as he kisses my forehead. It’s a casual embrace, I tell myself. Of no significance to me now I’m with Oscar.
‘Happy New Year,’ he says into my hair. He sounds self-conscious, and I half laugh as I step away.
‘You’re three months late, you plonker.’
‘Where is he then?’ Sarah’s excited eyes scan the half-full bar, and Jack stands at her side, one hand resting on her waist. I’m struck by how much they’ve changed in a relatively short time, or perhaps how they seem to have grown up without me. It’s subtle: a gloss on Sarah, a layer of self-assurance on Jack. Oscar has it too, to an extent; he’s now firmly entrenched in his role at the bank alongside his brother, and although we speak most days I’ve become aware of something edging between us. It’s an inevitable consequence of living separate lives, I suppose. He’s here in London making new friends, eating at cool places, and I am back living with my parents in Birmingham. It’s possible that I’m imagining it because I’m anxious about my lack of job. Or maybe I’m just plain old jealous. Not everyone can make it, can they? Some do, and others settle for less. I think all of this in the split second between greeting Sarah and Jack and catching Oscar’s eye as he moves towards us across the bar bearing a tray of impressive-looking cocktails. I wink at him subtly as I step aside so he can deposit them on the table, and Sarah catches my eye and gives me a little thumbs-up behind his back. I don’t look at Jack as I catch hold of Oscar’s hand when he straightens and steps back. I love that Sarah doesn’t stand on ceremony; she lunges straight in and kisses him on the cheek, catching hold of his other hand.
‘You must be Sarah,’ Oscar says with a laugh, and for a moment they silently size each other up. I wonder if she is what he expected; whether he measures up to her idea of him. No one speaks for a second. I think Sarah, Jack and I are each trying to decide where Oscar fits into our trio. Will he be given equal billing? Or must he be assigned a temporary spot in the corner, holding space while he’s assessed for permanent residence?
‘And you must be Oscar,’ Sarah says, still holding on to his hand. ‘Come on then, let me get a good look at you.’
She pretends to scrutinize him, and he obligingly holds his breath and waits for her verdict, solemn-faced, like a schoolboy in front of the headmistress.
‘I approve.’ She grins, looking from me to him and back again. Belatedly, she turns to Jack and draws him into the circle.
‘This is Jack,’ she says, presenting them to each other, and now it’s my turn to catch my breath. I watch as Oscar is first to hold his hand out and note how Jack allows a deliberate beat to pass before reciprocating.
‘Look at you, all big-brother posturing.’ Sarah bumps shoulders with Jack to lighten the atmosphere. ‘Laurie has her actual brother to do all of that stuff for her so you can stand down, soldier.’
‘You’re not going to ask me about my intentions towards Laurie, are you?’ Oscar deadpans. ‘Because they’re all very, very bad indeed.’
‘Oh, I like you already,’ Sarah laughs, delighted, and Oscar rewards her with a champagne cocktail, and the same for me. Jack sniffs the tumbler of iced amber Oscar passes him, practically turning his nose up.
‘They call it Penicillin,’ Oscar says. ‘Whisky. Ginger. Honey.’ He grins at Jack. ‘Almost a health drink.’
Jack raises his eyebrows. ‘I’m more of a beer bloke, to be honest, but I’ll give anything a go once.’
Oscar’s smile falters a fraction as he raises his glass. We all follow suit.
‘What shall we drink to?’ he asks.
‘Old friends,’ Jack says.
‘And new ones,’ Sarah adds pointedly, her megawatt smile all for Oscar.
We clink glasses and I shoot Jack a micro-look that I hope sends a macro-message. Don’t you fucking dare, Jack O’Mara.
He appears to receive it, because he turns to Oscar and engages him in a question about Thailand, leaving me and Sarah free to catch up.
‘This is fancy,’ she whispers, her excited eyes flickering around the private members’ bar.
I grin, because I knew she’d get a kick out of it. ‘It is a bit, isn’t it? Oscar wanted to make a good impression.’
‘Any man who orders champagne cocktails and makes my best friend smile gets the thumbs-up from me.’
I flick a glance towards Jack and Oscar as Sarah speaks. They share a similarity in height, but very little else. Jack’s sandy hair always looks as if he’s been scrubbing his hands through it, whereas Oscar’s freshly cut blue-black waves flop perfectly over his eyebrows. He debated for longer than I did over what to wear tonight, wondering whether his striped shirt was too banker, his tweed jacket too headmaster. In the end he settled for a chambray blue linen shirt; it reminds me of our days in Thailand. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter what Oscar wears. He comes from wealth; there is an undisguisable whiff of establishment about him that would show through even if he was wearing a hoodie. I find myself wondering again whether I’d even have spoken to him if I’d met him anywhere other than on a beach, where all bodies are more or less equal. It certainly came as a culture shock to see him so well-heeled when we met again for the first time in England; it really rammed home the point that we come from two different worlds. I’m hoping Jack will be able to see through the polished exterior. Jack has gone for the ‘just tumbled out of bed after shagging a hot model’ look that comes off as slightly arrogant. If I didn’t want to think better of him, I’d wonder if it was a deliberate move to undermine Oscar. But because I do want to think better of him, I let it slide and just absorb the sight of them standing together. So different. Both so important to me. I gulp down a mouthful of cold champagne and refocus on Sarah.