‘I’m only looking out for you, it’s a fire hazard.’
‘Complimentary and grateful,’ she reminds me, and I get up and take the green beans from her.
‘Complimentary, huh?’ I kiss her bare shoulder. She’s wearing a strapless sundress with an apron over the top. ‘You look sexy in a pinny.’
‘The food, Jack,’ she says, turning her face to mine.
‘Okay. I’m grateful that you’ve cooked for me.’ I kiss her briefly. ‘And I’m grateful that you look like a blonde Swedish princess while you do it. I fancy thee rotten, Princess Amanda of Ikea.’
She turns into my arms and kisses me properly, her tongue in my mouth.
‘That was most unladylike,’ I say when she’s finished, pulling on the ties of her apron until she slaps my hand away.
‘Make yourself useful,’ she says. ‘Go and lay the table out on the balcony.’
The table looks holiday-brochure perfect on Amanda’s holiday-brochure-perfect balcony. It’s typical of her mindset; Grassmarket commands the best views of the castle in the city, so she made sure she rented here.
I’m about to head back inside when my phone buzzes. I glance at it, hoping it’s not Lorne calling me in to cover for someone. I’m in luck; Sarah’s name flashes up. I click on the message, and lean on the balcony railings to read it.
Have you spoken to Laurie recently?
Well, that’s fucking cryptic. I check my watch. Surely it’s the middle of the night where she is? Probably pissed up at a beach party. I text back.
Not in a while. Go to bed!
Grassmarket reels out down below, bright and thronged with Saturday-night party people. My mobile buzzes again.
Call her, Jack. She and Oscar split up a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t meant to tell you, but she needs her friends. I’m too far away to be any bloody use!
I stare at the screen, reading and rereading Sarah’s message as I slide down hard on to one of Amanda’s outdoor dining chairs.
Laurie and Oscar have split up. How can that be? I watched her marry him. She stood there in that church and told me and the rest of the world that he was the man she wanted to spend her life with.
What the hell happened? I send back, wondering if I’ve got time to call Sarah before dinner.
Stuff. Talk to her. It’s complicated.
Frustration rattles through me; Sarah’s words tell me nothing. Why’s she being so vague? Complicated? I’ll tell you what’s complicated. Standing on your girlfriend’s balcony reading a message from your ex about someone else you once kissed.
‘Jack?’ Amanda’s voice jolts me. ‘Can you fetch this please?’
I stare at my phone, my head full of questions, and then I make a snap decision and turn it off. This is my life now. I’ve got something here; my show is gaining fans, I care about the people I work with, and Amanda is … she’s everything any man could want.
I shove my phone in my pocket and go inside.
I stare at Sarah’s message again now I’m home. I’ve known for a whole night and day that Laurie’s in trouble and I haven’t been in touch. I don’t know if that makes me a good boyfriend or a shit friend.
I keep tossing it backwards and forwards, trying to decide the right thing to do. What’s right for me might not be right for Laurie, and not right for Amanda either. I don’t want to fuck up.
I look at the open screen. I’ve typed and deleted a message twice already. The first one, Hey, Lu, how’s tricks? was too cheery and out of the blue, and my second attempt, I’m always here if you need me was too intense. My fingers hover over the buttons, and then I try again.
Hey, Lu, Sarah told me your news. Can I call you?
I press send before I can deliberate, and then fling my phone down and grab a beer from the kitchen.
It’s half an hour before she replies. My heart does its old familiar flip at the sight of her name on the screen.
Would you mind not? I’m not really feeling ready to talk to people yet. Thanks though. I’ll call you when I can. Sorry. X
Christ. I’ve been relegated to people, outside of her most trusted circle. I slump and close my eyes, wondering if there will ever be a time when it feels like all the pieces of my life are in the right place.
Only a rookie singleton would book a package holiday to Majorca at half-term. Rather than finding myself barefoot on deserted beaches I’ve become an unpaid nanny for a bunch of badly behaved children whose parents are too exhausted or lazy to watch them themselves. I daren’t make eye contact with anyone else, in case they ask me to just keep a five-minute eye on little Astrid or Toby or Boden. No, I don’t want to hold their child. I don’t want to hear about school fees or food allergies. And I definitely don’t want to admit that, yes, I have a husband (technically), but no, he isn’t here on holiday with me. Anyone would think I’d sprouted a third eye or something. The only safe place seems to be the hotel bar.
‘Mind if I sit here?’
I look at the woman hovering close to the empty stool beside me at the bar. She’s older than I am, mid-forties at a guess, and she has that well-put-together look, from her perfectly applied coral lipstick to her diamond tennis bracelet.
‘Be my guest,’ I say, wishing I’d just gone up to my room to read after dinner.
She orders a glass of wine, then looks at me and my almost-empty glass.
The hotel is all-inclusive, so this is hardly the offer of the century. I smile. ‘Why not. I’ll have the most ridiculous cocktail on the list, please.’
My new neighbour looks at me with fresh appreciation. ‘Scrap the wine. I’ll have what she’s having.’
The bartender nods, as if this is all pretty standard. It probably is.
‘Vanessa,’ she says, even though I didn’t ask her name. Her accent places her up north. Newcastle, I think.
‘On your own?’
Reflexively, I twist my wedding ring round on my finger. ‘Yes.’
We break off as the bartender places two tall, lurid blue and green cocktails in front of us. My neighbour looks at them, then shakes her head sadly. ‘They’re missing something.’
I put my head on one side. ‘I think you’re right. They need pimping up.’
The bartender turns away with a sigh, and returns with cocktail umbrellas and straws adorned with wrap-around parrots, rather like those paper Christmas decorations that concertina round themselves to make a bell. Only these are, well, parrots.
‘Now that’s more like it,’ I say, once he’s shoved so many accessories into our glasses that there’s hardly any room to take a drink.
‘What do you reckon it’s called?’ my drinking partner asks.
We stare at the drinks.
‘Sex on the parrot-infested beach?’ I suggest.
She considers my suggestion, then wrinkles her nose. ‘Not bad. Although I’d probably have gone for something more along the lines of, “Don’t ask me for sex, I’m not over my ex”.’
I look at her properly then, and I notice she’s also wearing a wedding ring that she keeps twisting round on her finger too. It’s like a secret signal no one teaches you to read.
‘Ten years married. He left me nine months ago,’ she says glumly. ‘For the woman who lives three doors down.’
‘Does she still live three doors down?’ I ask, interested despite myself.
‘Aye, with my husband.’
‘Apparently they bonded over the community garden.’
We start to laugh at the absurdity of it.
‘He said their eyes met over the compost heap and that was that.’
We laugh so hard that tears roll down my face, and she pats my hand.
‘How long for you?’
I swallow. ‘Five months. My choice though. We weren’t married all that long.’
I don’t add how shell-shocked we both are or how horrified my mother-in-law was. The only thing worse than my marrying Oscar is my divorcing him. My own mum’s at a bit of a loss; she keeps sending me texts to see if I’ve eaten breakfast, but whenever I try to talk properly to her she doesn’t seem to know what to say.