‘Sarah,’ I write, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a twat lately. You’re an angel for putting up with me. I’ll change. J xx’. I seal it inside its envelope before Judge Judy can read it over my shoulder, writing Sarah’s name and address on the front.
The other card stares up at me, blank and intimidating.
Dear Laurie? Laurie? Lu? I don’t know what note to strike. I hesitate, pen poised, and then I think to hell with it and write without thinking too much, in the hope that it’s going to come out right. The worst that can happen is I’ll need to spend another 20p on a fresh card.
‘Hey Laurie. I’m sorry for the way I behaved. I didn’t mean a word of it. Not one. Except that I miss you. I’m so sorry I fucked our friendship up. Jack (shithead) x’
It’s not perfect, but it’s going to have to do because the florist is all keen-eyed as she slides behind the counter to finish serving me. I put the card in the envelope and fill out the front, then push them both across the counter towards her.
She doesn’t say a word as she rings up my bill, but as she hands my credit card back she smiles. An acid smile that says you’re a very, very bad person, and I’ll take your money but that doesn’t mean I approve of you.
‘I’ll take care not to mix the deliveries up,’ she says, sarcastic.
‘You do that,’ I say. I’m all out of smart comebacks, because she’s right. I’m a very, very bad person, and I don’t deserve forgiveness from either of them.
‘There’s another man sending you flowers? Tell me who he is and I’ll challenge him to a duel.’
Oscar’s just come in from work and is hanging up his overcoat when he notices the bowl of peonies on the hall table. I seriously considered binning them when they arrived earlier, because he was bound to ask who’d sent them and I didn’t want to tell him a lie. I didn’t chuck them in the end. They’re so beautiful, they deserve to be admired; it’s not the flowers’ fault they were sent by Jack O’Mara. I smile at Oscar’s light-hearted comment; I don’t know if he’s just so secure in our relationship that he isn’t concerned or if he’s too damn nice for his own good and always ready to jump to the benign conclusion. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if he owned a duelling pistol.
‘Jack sent them,’ I say, fiddling with the starfish pendant I had mended without mentioning anything to Oscar.
He pauses as he lays his keys down beside the bowl, a fractional frown, the tiniest of double-takes.
‘We had a bit of a falling-out a few days ago,’ I say. I’ve been struggling to decide what to tell Oscar ever since the day at Jack’s flat; how much information constitutes the truth, how much omission constitutes lying. Now I wish I’d just come out with it.
He follows me into the kitchen and sits on one of the breakfast stools as I pour us both a glass of red. It’s a pattern we’ve fallen into on the evenings when he’s not dining out with clients; it’s a little ‘fifties housewife’ I know, but he works late so often that I normally have dinner ready and a bottle open by the time he gets home. It feels like the least I can do when I’m staying here for free. Still. Anyway, I don’t really mind; as long as he doesn’t ask me to warm his slippers or stuff his pipe, I’m good. There’s something soothing about coming in and chopping vegetables, especially after long days like today. Being a teen agony aunt isn’t all prom dress stress and period advice. My inbox has been particularly heavy-going this afternoon; I’ve been researching bulimia to try to help a fifteen-year-old boy who wrote to me about the struggle he’s hiding from his family. I just wish I could do more; sometimes I feel hopelessly underqualified for this job.
‘What did you and Jack argue over?’
‘He was upsetting Sarah,’ I say. ‘His self-destructive behaviour had reached a point where he’d crossed the line into wallowing. She asked me if I’d mind trying to get through to him, and it didn’t go so well.’
My speech pattern sounds unnaturally fast, as if I’m a child on stage, rushing to get my rehearsed line out before I forget it and screw up the play. It strikes me that I’ve been lying about Jack O’Mara to different people for different reasons for almost as long as I’ve known him. Even if only by omission.
Oscar tastes his wine as he watches me pull the stew I’ve prepared out of the oven.
‘Perhaps a change of scene would do him good,’ he says, his voice unreadable.
I nod. ‘A holiday might be an idea.’
He loosens his tie and pops his top button. ‘I was thinking of something a bit more long term. A new start.’ He breaks off, watching me carefully. ‘A new city. I mean, everywhere has a local radio station, right?’
What’s the collective noun for bats, I wonder? A hoard? A plague? And then it comes to me. A colony. I have a colony of bats behind my ribcage, their claws hooked over my bones as they hang upside down, and the mention of Jack making a fresh start somewhere outside of London has them fussing and stretching their eerie paper-thin wings. It makes me queasy. Would it be for the best if Jack were to leave? Where would he go? And would Sarah go with him? The thought of losing them makes me swallow a mouthful of wine rather than the sip I’d intended.
‘It’d be too tricky for Sarah to leave London with her job,’ I say mildly, pulling bowls from the cupboard.
He watches me, sipping his wine. ‘There’re trains. She could stay in London.’
Oscar has never voiced an overtly negative opinion of Jack, and I sense that he’s stopping himself short of it now. I know full well there are trains, and they could commute to see each other if they lived in different cities. I just don’t want them to.
‘It’s a thought,’ I say, hoping it’s a thought neither of them ever has. Is that selfish? I can see merit in the idea of Jack kick-starting his life somewhere without any of the negative connotations dogging him here: the accident, his stalled career. These days I think I’m one of those negatives too. Our friendship is brittle, fire-damaged; as I look back on it I can’t discern if it’s ever been as genuine as I thought it was. It appears real, but it’s been built for purpose because we both love Sarah. Oscar holds his tongue; there’s an unusual atmosphere between us tonight, a weight in the air, a storm warning.
‘How was your day?’ I ask, smiling, at least on the outside.
‘Noisy,’ he sighs. ‘Pressured. Peter’s still away so I’m doing most of his job as well as my own.’
I sometimes wonder if banking is Oscar’s true vocation. There’s a cut and thrust to it that isn’t his natural vibe, although perhaps I underestimate his chameleon-like ability to switch character the moment he snaps his red braces over his shoulders in the mornings. Who is the real Oscar? My bare-chested Thai love or the starched city shirt? If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said the former without hesitation, but now I’m not so sure. Despite the pressures, there’s no doubt he enjoys what he does. He starts early and stays late, and he’s never happier than on the nights when he’s landed a deal. What will I say in five years or ten? Will he have been so sucked in and chewed up by the corporate world that I can no longer see my Robinson Crusoe? I hope not, for him even more so than for myself.
‘Why don’t you go and jump in the shower?’ I take the lid off the stew and add a little more wine, then slide it back in the oven for a few more minutes. ‘This can wait a bit longer.’
At the end of the evening, I walk through the flat and turn out the lights before I join Oscar in bed. I linger in the hallway, my finger on the switch of the table lamp that bathes the bowl of peonies in a creamy glow. They’re stunning, but already a petal has fallen from one of the blooms and landed on the wooden floorboards. That’s the thing about flowers, isn’t it? They’re lush and extravagant and demand your attention, and you think they’re the most exquisite thing, but then in the shortest time they’re not very lovely at all. They wilt and they turn the water brown, and soon you can’t hold on to them any longer.