‘I’ll go in the kitchen and you call me when they’re inside as if I didn’t know,’ I say, heading for the kitchen.
‘Can I ask why?’ he asks mildly.
I pause in the doorway. ‘So I don’t look over-eager?’ What I’m really thinking is that I want to neck a glass of wine for Dutch courage; my socially awkward streak is suddenly alive and kicking again.
I reach for my mobile as I pull the wine from the fridge and fire off a quick text to Sarah.
Hurry! G&F already here. Back-up required!
I check the coq au vin, and I’m pleased to report it looks quite a lot like the picture in the recipe book. Hey there, Jamie Oliver, my coq’s better than your coq. I’m laughing to myself as my phone vibrates, and I grab it quickly as I hear Oscar calling my name.
On my way, 5 mins max. Jack’s running late, be there when he can. Sorry. Don’t drink all the wine without me!
Five minutes. I can do that. Bloody Jack, Sarah was practically in tears right here in our kitchen last week after he’d missed another of their dates because he had to work late. And it’s going to get worse when he starts the new presenting job in a couple of weeks. Pretty soon the only way we’ll be able to keep up with Jack is to tune into his radio show. I shake off my annoyance and plunge the opened wine bottle into the ice bucket as I plaster a smile on my nearly bee-stung lips and head through to the lounge.
‘I don’t think I can hold off much longer without it drying up,’ I say. Sarah and I gaze down at the already slightly less impressive coq, then she looks at the clock and shakes her head.
‘I’m really sorry, Lu, he’s acting like a complete twat lately. He knows how important this is for you.’
Jack is more than an hour and a half late, and aside from a text to say he’d be here soon, just after Sarah arrived, it’s been radio silence.
‘Shall I text him too? He might be too scared to open your messages,’ I say, filling up her glass.
She shakes her head. ‘Don’t bother. Come on, let’s take this through and eat. It’s his loss.’
It might be better all round if Jack decides to swerve coming tonight; he’s already late enough to look horribly rude, and there’s every chance Sarah will knock his head off his shoulders.
It’s after ten, the coq was a triumph and Gerry isn’t so bad after a couple of drinks. Fliss is hideous – teetotal and a fucking vegetarian (not that I would have minded, but she never bloody said until I put a great big chicken limb in front of her! And it’s come to me who she reminds me of – Wallis Simpson, proper waspish). And Jack still isn’t here. Not only that, he hasn’t even called. Sarah’s so pissed off that she’s started to refer to him only as shitface while swigging more than her normal helping of wine, and poor Oscar is doing his best to defend him, even though Jack’s done nothing to earn such loyalty.
‘Chocolate mousse, anyone?’ I say loudly, to change the subject.
‘God, yes,’ Gerry groans as if I’ve offered him a blow job, at the same time as Fliss makes a hissing sound similar to the cry of the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy doused her in water. I look from one to the other, unsure what to do, when Sarah’s mobile starts to trill and we all stare at it expectantly. Over the course of the dinner Sarah’s gone from having it tucked under her bum for a sneaky check every now and then to having it in full view on Jack’s empty dinner plate. I think she might be making a point.
‘There we go,’ Oscar breathes, relieved. ‘Tell him it’s fine, Sarah, there’s food left if he hasn’t eaten.’
Her mobile rattles and bounces on Jack’s white china plate.
‘Personally, I wouldn’t dream of answering that.’ Fliss looks down her nose, full of haughty disdain. ‘Bloody cheek.’
Sarah looks at me, wavering and uncertain. ‘What shall I do?’
‘Get it,’ I say, mostly to piss Fliss off, and after a second Sarah grabs it and stabs at the button.
‘Balls. Missed it,’ she says, disappointment in her eyes even as she adds, ‘Serves him right, shitty shitface,’ and lays the phone back on Jack’s plate. ‘Let’s have dessert.’
As I push my chair back, Sarah’s phone rattles again to alert her to the fact that Jack has left her a message.
‘Odds-on he’s in a pub somewhere,’ Fliss says, even though she has no right to an opinion having never even met Jack.
‘He’ll be stuck at work.’ Gerry bats for Team Jack, God knows why – perhaps he dislikes his wife as much as I do.
Sarah picks up her phone. ‘Let’s see, shall we.’
A hush falls around the table and we can all hear the tinny voice informing Sarah that she has one new message in her inbox. She huffs and clicks again, and I cross my fingers under the table that Gerry’s on the money.
‘Hello, this is a message for Sarah,’ someone says, fast and loud, traces of an Australian accent. Sarah raises her eyes to mine, frowning at the unknown male voice. ‘I’m calling because this phone has fallen out of the pocket of a guy who’s just been involved in a serious road accident on Vauxhall Bridge Road. Your number comes up as the one he dials most often – we’re just waiting with him for the ambulance crew now. I thought you’d want to know as soon as possible. My name’s Luke, by the way. Let me know what to do with his phone when you can.’
Sarah’s already crying hot, panicked tears before the end of the message, and I drop to my knees beside her chair and take the phone from her shaking hands before she drops it.
‘What do I do, Laurie?’ She’s breathing too fast, clutching my hand. All of the colour has drained from her face; she can’t keep a limb still.
‘We go to him,’ I say, trying to keep my voice steady. ‘I’m calling a cab now, we’ll be there in a few minutes.’
‘What if he’s …’ She’s shaking so violently that her teeth chatter.
‘Don’t,’ I cut across her, my eyes nailed to hers because I need her to listen to me. ‘Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. It’s going to be okay. Let’s just get there first, you and me together, one step at a time.’
She nods, still dithering, trying to get a hold of herself. ‘You and me. One step at a time.’
I hug her, fast and fierce, and Oscar’s bleak eyes meet mine over her shoulder. I look away.
He’s alive. Thank God, thank God, thank God.
We’re huddled on nailed-down metal chairs drinking something lukewarm Oscar got from the vending machine. I can’t tell if it’s tea or coffee. The doctor came to see us a couple of hours back; we can’t see Jack yet. He’s in theatre, she said, in a quiet, reassuring voice that actually frightened the hell out of me. Head injury. Broken ribs. Fractured left shoulder. I can handle broken bones, because I know bones can mend. It’s the head injury that terrifies me; they’re going to get him scanned, or whatever it is they do, then they should know more. I couldn’t digest everything she said because my red-alert panic button was screaming inside my brain. Head injury. People die from head injuries. Don’t die, Jack. Don’t you dare die on us. On me.
We sit on either side of his bed, Sarah and I. We tried to get hold of his mum in the confusing minutes after we located him at St Pancras Hospital, but then Sarah remembered that she’s in Spain with Albie, Jack’s brother. I left the message rather than Sarah, so we didn’t frighten the life out of her.
And so we watch over him together, and we wait, because we’ve been told that’s all we can do for now. He’s out of theatre, out of immediate danger, but they won’t know the extent of his head injury until he’s conscious. He’s shirtless and pale and absolutely still aside from the rise and fall of his chest. A mess of bandages and tubes cover him, hooked up to all kinds of machines and drips. I’ve never been this frightened. He looks too fragile, and I find myself worrying about what happens in here if there’s a power cut. They have back-up, right? Because I don’t think Jack’s keeping himself alive right now, he’s beholden to the national grid. How ridiculous. Across London people are boiling their kettles and nonchalantly charging their phones, using up precious energy when it should all be saved up and sent here to keep Jack alive. Please stay alive, my lovely Jack. Don’t leave us. Don’t leave me.