‘So am I likely to see you sliding down that fireman’s pole anytime soon?’
She laughs. ‘I’ll have you know they see me as a serious reporter. They only send me to cover the most important stories.’ She sips her drink. ‘I met Gok Wan last week.’
‘Way. And he told me he liked my shoes.’
‘Were you interviewing him?’
She nods, and then caves and shakes her head, laughing. ‘I was behind him in the queue in Pret in Covent Garden. He did really like my shoes, though.’
I grin. ‘Lorraine Kelly better watch her back.’ I’m only half joking.
‘So … Oscar.’ She leans in and lowers her voice, her eyes lingering on his profile as he bends to catch something Jack said. ‘How serious is it?’
‘Well, it’s early days still,’ I say, because although it feels like longer, we’ve only been together for five months. ‘But I like him a whole lot, Sar. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be my type, but somehow we just seem to work.’
She nods, watching him with Jack. ‘Will they have much in common?’ she asks. ‘Besides you?’
I’m momentarily blindsided by the thought that she knows about the kiss. She starts to laugh.
‘Do I take that as a no?’
I smile, faltering. ‘No, of course not. I mean, they’re pretty different, but I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t get on with Oscar. He’s … well, he’s pretty easy to like.’
Sarah’s smile widens, and she sneaks her arm round my shoulders and squeezes me, her cuff bracelet cool against my skin. ‘I’m so happy for you, Lu! You just need your dream job now and then you can move back to the city where you belong.’ Her eyes shine. ‘You are coming back, right? Because now there’s the four of us we can do all that double-dating shit.’ She laughs and rolls her eyes, but I know she’d love it.
‘I’m not sure. I hope so,’ I say. ‘But you know …’ I shrug. ‘Rent and all that. It’s just so expensive. I need to stay at home until I get a proper job, not waste my time earning money in a crappy job which leaves me no time to get a new one.’
I think again about Oscar’s much-repeated suggestion that I move in with him, even if it’s just as a practical stop-gap while I find something else. He lives in a flat owned by his mother, rent free of course. But something makes me want to do it myself. Not depend on anyone too much. Mum and Dad always impressed on us the importance of making our own way in life.
‘Imagine if we could go back to Delancey Street,’ she says wistfully. ‘I’m sharing with a woman from work now and she’s a right bitch-bag. Fanatical about keeping everything separate, even our loo rolls. She’s drawn up a rota for when we get to use the lounge. Can you believe that? Says she doesn’t like to feel I’m watching her watch the TV.’
It’s my turn to slide a supportive arm round Sarah’s shoulders. ‘What about you and Jack? Will you look for somewhere together soon, do you think?’
Sarah flicks her eyes sideways, the tiniest of eye-rolls, but I don’t miss it. ‘It’s not on the cards yet. He’s super-busy at work and he house-shares with Billy and Phil, one of the guys he works with.’
‘Snake-hips Billy?’ It’s been his unofficial nickname since the day he revealed his ‘Greased Lightning’ dancing skills. Though just the thought of it reminds me sharply of the awful way the day ended.
She nods. ‘I’m not sure Jack enjoys it all that much but it’s the right side of town for the station and affordable, so he’s kind of stuck there for a while.’
She watches Jack lean in to look at something on Oscar’s mobile. ‘I’m starting to worry about him, Lu. He hasn’t seemed himself lately.’
My stomach turns over with dread. ‘In what way?’
Sarah folds her arm across her slender, leather-clad midriff and stands closer to me so we can’t be overheard. ‘I can’t put my finger on it. He’s … distant?’ It comes out as a question, as if she’s asking herself rather than telling me, and she lifts one shoulder, biting her bottom lip. ‘Or maybe it’s me. I don’t know, Lu, I’ve asked him if he’s happy and he just brushes me off as if I’m going crazy or something.’ She half laughs, sounding anything but amused. ‘Just busy, I guess.’
I nod, wishing I had something useful to say. I’m massively unsettled by the idea of trouble in their paradise. In the early days of their relationship I selfishly hoped their romance would be short-lived, but over time their love has become an integral part of the map of my life; a bloody massive island I’ve had to reroute my own path round, yet rely on to locate myself all the same.
‘Did you show Sarah these, Laurie?’ Oscar says, turning to us with his mobile in his hand. He tilts the screen our way as he steps closer and scrolls through images of our perfect ramshackle beach shack, the endless blue ocean and the pink-and-purple-streaked Thai dawn that I know so well.
‘Some of them,’ I say quietly, and Oscar’s eyes are tender when I look up at him. Can he see that I wish with all of my being that we were back there right now, sitting on the steps of the beach shack, burying our toes in the cool sand? They are my favourite memories, those shoulder-to-shoulder hours, those hushed conversations and languorous kisses. It’s unexpected, this stab of longing through the ribs, more so because I’m with Sarah and Jack, who I’ve never wanted to run from before.
I’m surprised by the heat of my anger towards Jack. I want to yank him out of the bar by the sleeve of his cool leather jacket and tell him: Be happy, you stupid, stupid man. And let me be too.
‘God, it looks so amazing,’ Sarah sighs. ‘I’d love to go there.’
Jack drains his cocktail without disguising a mild shudder. ‘I’ll get the beers in.’
Sarah looks as if she’s going to say something, then smiles tightly, catching Jack’s hand as she offers to help him. We watch them pick their way across the busy bar and Oscar slips his arm round my waist, his still half-full glass in his other hand.
‘Okay?’ I ask, hoping he and Jack have hit it off.
He nods. ‘Sarah’s just how I thought she’d be.’
From this, I deduce that I’ve given him the impression that Jack is kind and easy-going, and that so far he’s coming across as guarded and uptight.
‘Did I get it wrong?’ Oscar’s dark eyes cloud with consternation as he studies his drink. ‘We could have met them somewhere else, you only had to say.’
I’m suddenly furious with Jack for being so unfriendly. What the hell is he trying to prove here, with his offensive T-shirt and lightly veiled disdain at the exclusivity of the bar and Oscar’s cocktail choice? That he wins at being cool, even if Oscar is wealthier?
I put my empty glass down and slide my arms round him, relieved when the troubled look in his eyes clears. ‘You got it exactly right, Oscar. This is you,’ I skim my eyes around the bar, ‘and you’re lovely, and I want them to know you just as you are. They’re going to love you, and you them when you get to know them better.’ His hand rubs up and down my arm as I speak. ‘Just relax and enjoy the evening.’
I spy Jack and Sarah coming back, two beers in his hand, more champagne cocktails in Sarah’s.
‘She definitely looks as if she belongs on TV,’ Oscar observes. I try to see Sarah through his eyes as she heads our way, all golden tanned legs and Hollywood curls.
‘Are you sure you chose the right girl?’ I joke. I hate it, but there’s always a part of me wondering why – why would this gorgeous man want to be with someone like me?
He shows a mild flash of annoyance, and I wish I’d just kept my mouth shut. ‘You’re so wrong that I don’t know what to say.’ He softens and his hand moves to cup the back of my neck. ‘You’re always the most spectacular woman to me, Laurie. In any room or any bar or on any beach.’
He dips his head and kisses me, gentle but sure. I close my eyes and for those seconds I feel like the most spectacular woman.