Her demeanour changes, and she drops to her knees in front of me, her hands over mine. ‘Look at me. Jack, listen. Please let us help you. Let me help you. Let me be your friend again.’
She’s looking at me sincerely with those big violet eyes of hers, as her fingers squeeze mine.
‘It’s always been like this with us, hasn’t it?’ I don’t have any control over the words spilling from my mouth. ‘When you look at me, I know that you really see me. I don’t think anyone ever has, Lu. Not the way you do.’
She swallows and looks down, frowning and confused by the direction our conversation has taken. I am too.
‘How can I help?’ she says, meeting my eyes again, staying doggedly on message. ‘Shall we make a list of all of the stuff on your mind and work through it?’
The only thing on my mind right now is Laurie. ‘You always smell like summer flowers. It’s my favourite smell in the fucking world.’ What am I doing?
I can’t not do this. This is the first time I’ve felt like a man in as long as I can remember, and it feels so damn good, like waking up from a coma. Her hand is warm and fragile in mine, and I do the only thing I can do, or perhaps the one thing I can’t not do. I lower my mouth over hers and kiss her, my mouth trembling, or perhaps it’s hers. I catch her off guard, and for just a second it’s perfect, my hand on her face, her lips warm under mine. And then it isn’t perfect any more, because she wrenches back and away from me, stumbling to her feet.
‘Jesus, Jack, what are you doing?’ She’s breathing fast, one hand on her hip, bending a little as if she’s just stopped running.
‘Isn’t this what you came for?’ I say, spiteful in my shame, wiping the back of my hand across my mouth as if she tastes rancid. ‘While the cat’s away and all that?’
She gasps and presses her hands to her flushed cheeks, horrified by my implication. ‘We’ve been friends for a long time, Jack O’Mara, but if you ever say anything like that to me again, we’re done. Is that clear?’
‘Oh, so high and mighty, Laurie,’ I mock, getting to my feet and pacing because the room suddenly feels claustrophobic. I’ve been cooped up in here for months, and now all I want is to open the door and get out. I’d walk to the edges of our island, and then I’d walk into the sea, and not stop until it’s over. ‘It hasn’t always been like that though, has it? Everything was different when it was you who needed comforting, wasn’t it? When you were sad, bone-tired and wallowing in your own misery?’
She’s shaking her head slowly and her eyes have filled with tears. ‘Please don’t say any more, Jack. It’s not the same and you know it.’
‘Yeah,’ I spit. ‘It was different because it was you who needed me back then, and I wasn’t so fucking high and mighty as to turn you down.’ I jab my finger towards her in the space between us. ‘I took pity on you, and now the tables have turned and you can’t lower yourself to return the fucking favour.’ It’s not true. Not a word of it. I don’t recognize the vicious loser I’ve become. I take a step towards her, to do I don’t know what, and she backs away from me, horrified. I see the person I’ve become in her eyes and it makes me sick. But then, as she moves, that bloody starfish pendant catches my eye and I reach out to grab it. I don’t know why, it’s irrational, I just want to do something to make her stop, but she jerks away from me and it snaps from round her neck. I stare at it for a moment, then throw it to the floor, and we stand stock-still and glare at each other. Her chest is heaving and I can hear my blood rushing in my veins like water crashing against rocks.
Slowly, warily, she stoops down and retrieves her necklace, never taking her eyes off me, as if I am an animal about to attack.
‘Run on home, Starfish, and don’t come back,’ I say, choking on the pathetic endearment I’ve heard Oscar use when he thinks no one’s listening. She sobs, full-on sobs, then she turns and runs, out of the door, out of the flat, out of my life. I watch her go from my window, and then I lie down on the floor and stay there.
Jack scared me this morning. No, he horrified me. I don’t know what I’m going to tell Sarah when she asks how my visit went. I’d no idea the state he was in, he’s dangerously low. God knows he’s not a man given to violence or vicious words under normal circumstances; it scared me to see him like that.
I tie my hair up in the bathroom and twist to look at the back of my neck. As I thought, there’s a mark, a small red graze where the catch on my necklace dug into my skin before it snapped. I place a cold flannel on it and then I sink down and sit on the edge of the bath. I don’t care about my neck; I know Jack well enough to know he would never hurt me intentionally; the chain was delicate enough to snap easily. But it was what it meant. And his words. Don’t come back.
‘I need to order some, er, flowers,’ I say. I’ve been loitering in the florist’s for the last few minutes, waiting for everyone else to leave. It’s fully Christmassed up in here already, decked out with ribbons and holly wreaths, and one whole wall of shelves is covered with those huge red plants that everyone sticks on the fireplace and battles to keep alive until New Year.
The forty-something florist is bundled into a puffa jacket, her fingers red and chapped. It’s cold enough in here to see my breath.
‘Any idea what kind you want?’ she asks, still scribbling on the previous customer’s order slip.
‘The kind that say I’m sorry I’ve been an idiot?’
Her pencil stops moving, and the look she gives me tells me she’s been here before. ‘Red roses?’
I shake my head. ‘No, no. Nothing, you know, romantic.’
She narrows her eyes. ‘Chrysanths go down well with more mature ladies … mums, for instance?’
Jesus, what is she, a florist or a therapist? ‘They’re not for my mum. I just want something that says I’m genuinely sorry. To a friend.’
She disappears into the back and comes back carrying a glass bowl brimming with fat peonies, creamy-white and lavender blue. ‘Something like this?’
I study them. They’re almost the exact same colour as Laurie’s eyes.
‘Just the white ones,’ I say. I don’t want the flowers to carry a jot of unintended meaning. ‘Do you have a card I can write to send with them?’
She hands me a shoebox that’s been divided by hand-written labels. One of the biggest sections, tellingly, is ‘I’m sorry’; clearly I’m not the first and won’t be the last guy in here who’s been a shmuck. I flick through the designs for the simplest, make a snap decision and pull out two.
‘I need to order two of those please,’ I say, nodding towards the peonies she’s placed down on the floor behind the counter.
‘Two?’ She raises her eyebrows.
I nod, and this time her look suggests that she’s distinctly unimpressed. ‘You don’t want me to vary them even slightly?’
‘No, exactly like that, please.’ She can think what she wants to think, I don’t care. If I order the same then I can’t get it wrong when Sarah mentions them.
She shrugs and attempts to look neutral. ‘I just deliver the flowers,’ she says. ‘Your business is your business.’ She hands me a biro and walks away to help another customer who’s just come in with a ‘Santa Stop Here’ sign and a bunch of mistletoe from outside.
I look down at the tiny card and wonder how on earth I’m supposed to say enough in such a small space. I’ve acted like a headcase for weeks. Laurie’s visit was the final straw; I lay on the floor after she left and it occurred to me that all of the people I love are in danger of giving up on me. It’s frightening how easily your life can spiral out of control; one day I was on the up and up, the next I’m face down on the carpet dribbling. I haven’t had another drink since, and I’ve seen the doctor for some milder pills to manage the pain. He suggested counselling; it’s early days – I’m not sure I’m quite ready to get all touchy-feely yet.