I nod, and she pushes her glasses up her nose.
Now that Oscar and I have been apart for some time, I’m starting to understand that we didn’t have what it takes to stay together for a lifetime. I thought we did, for a while; he was a safe and secure interlude in the tumult of my life, but in the end we weren’t a forever fit. We were just too different. I’m sure that doesn’t matter sometimes if the love is strong enough; opposites attract, as they say. Perhaps we just didn’t love each other enough? I don’t like that thought, though. I prefer to think we had something wonderful for a while, and that we shouldn’t regret anything about the time we gave to each other.
I never see him; I don’t run into him in bars or spot him out walking and cross the street – a positive side effect of living in different countries. Not that I’m spending my time in bars. I seem to have gone into hibernation.
He mailed our painting to my mum’s house at Christmas. The accompanying note said that he finds it too difficult having it around. I don’t know what I’ll do with it; I feel as if I have no right to it. I looked at it for a long time after it arrived. I lay on the single bed I slept in as a child and I thought of all the moments leading up to now. My childhood with Mum and Dad, Daryl and Ginny. School and college boyfriends. Delancey Street. Sarah. The top deck of a packed bus. A kiss in the snow. A beach in Thailand. A proposal in front of this very picture. Our beautiful wedding.
I hope Oscar is okay. It’s strange, but you never stop caring about someone, even if you don’t want to be with them any more. I think I’ll always love him a little. And it’s hard not to feel an element of failure at becoming a divorce statistic.
It seems inevitable that, sooner or later, Cressida will step into my shoes. I bet his bloody mother never did take that photo of them down from her piano.
‘I think you know where your place is, Lu.’
Sarah and I look at each other, and then we don’t say anything else because Luke appears from the beach and drops into the spare seat at the table.
‘Looking good, ladies,’ he grins. ‘What did I miss?’
Lorne looks like the hulk’s smaller, un-green brother, a fact that comes in handy when he’s trying to get served at the bar. It’s packed in here tonight, but he’s only been gone a couple of minutes before he’s already shouldering his way back across the pub bearing a couple of pints, a bag of crisps hanging from his teeth.
‘You bought dinner,’ I say, swiping them when he reaches me.
‘Closest thing you’ll get to a date tonight,’ he grins. ‘Although the woman at the table behind you is making a bad job of pretending not to check you out.’
I open the crisps and lay the bag out between us without turning round. ‘Piss off.’
‘I’m serious. She’s pretty hot too.’ He winks at her over my shoulder, and I thump him on the leg.
‘What are you doing, man? Kerry’s at home about to have your baby.’ Lorne’s very lovely wife is eight months pregnant; we’re out for a couple of pints tonight at her insistence because he’s driving her half crazy with his fussing.
‘It’s for you, twat,’ he mutters, shoving a handful of crisps in his mouth.
I sigh, adjusting my hearing aid because we’re next to a speaker. ‘I’ve told you. I’m off the dating merry-go-round for a while.’
‘You said that.’ He drinks deeply. ‘I just don’t believe you.’
He should. It’s been more than four months since Martique and I decided to knock things on the head, a separation that meant little to either of us. That was why we split, in essence; it was going nowhere, and I’m kind of over sex for sex’s sake. I don’t tell Lorne that though.
‘I’m thinking of becoming a monk,’ I joke. ‘I look good in orange.’
He looks at me. ‘You’re sure? Because she really is a looker.’ He nods towards the woman behind us. ‘Bit like Holly Willoughby.’
Time was that would have been enough to have me twisting round in my seat, but I just drink my pint and finish off the crisps. She may well look like Holly Willoughby and perhaps I could buy her a drink and take things further, but the fact is I don’t want Holly Willoughby or Martique or anyone else.
I wear myself out walking Edinburgh’s fascinating, steep streets, immersing myself in the city’s culture; I even bought a pushbike last week. I came to Scotland to escape and it worked better than I could have hoped.
I jumped in feet first when I arrived and lost myself in the work and the women, and now at last I’ve surfaced and I’m sucking down fresh, sweet air into my lungs. At first it seemed that I was gasping for breath; it burned my chest. Now, though, I breathe easy and I sleep through the night.
It’s just me and, for now, I’m good with that.
‘Night night. Miss you too,’ I say, waiting for Mum to ring off before I hang up. She’s in Tenerife with Aunt Susan; they’re both still in mourning, I think, but helping each other through it. In this case with sangria and sun. I don’t blame them; I seriously contemplated their offer to tag along, but in the end the pull of a dreary, cold London Christmas on my own was just too tempting to pass up. I’m kidding. Half kidding. I do at least have the house to myself for a couple of weeks though; my flatmate and her clan have all decamped to Wales until New Year. My plan, such as it is, is to just chill out, stuff my face and see a couple of friends here and there. Anna and Daryl have insisted I go to them for New Year, but aside from that, I’m as free as a bird. I wander into the kitchen and flick the kettle on, trying hard to feel urban and cool rather than lonely girl in London at Christmas.
An hour later, and I’m making a cake. I know, totally out of character, but the bottle of Baileys Mum sent me was next to a pile of cookbooks in the kitchen and I was suddenly overcome by the urge for cake. I’m on my second generous Baileys, and I couldn’t care less that it’s nearly ten at night and it’s taken me nearly an hour to mash up a load of unripe bananas. I’m even humming along to Christmas songs on the radio. Is it sad that I tune in to Jack’s station most nights? His late show is one of those where people can call in to talk about anything they fancy, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. He’s not on yet though, and I’m having a full-on croon to Nat King Cole. I’m reminiscing; he was my dad’s favourite.
I sit down at the kitchen table and close my eyes, and I’m back in my mum’s kitchen, the same smells of cake batter and Christmas songs, old-fashioned fairy lights pinned under the wall cupboards. We’re all there. I’m probably five or six, Daryl a year or so older, Ginny about three. Mum and Dad are there too, of course. No one’s doing anything in particular, no schmaltzy dancing or profound speeches. We’re all just there, and it’s so heart-warming and perfect that I don’t want to open my eyes and see all the empty chairs round the table. And then the music stops and Jack’s voice washes over me, and I’m okay again because his company stops me from feeling so alone.
I follow the recipe, weighing out the rest of the ingredients as he takes a couple of calls, one from a guy who wants to tell him about the fight he got into today with the Santa at his local garden centre, and another from a woman whose decree absolute arrived in the mail this morning; she feels like the luckiest woman alive because her husband had been the very definition of The Grinch. It’s all very light-hearted; Jack is an old hand at keeping the tone just right.
I scrape the cake batter into the tin I’ve lined, licking my finger to test it as the next caller comes on.
‘I want to tell my girlfriend that I love her, but I can’t,’ he says. From his voice, I’d say he isn’t much more than a teenager.
‘What do you mean, can’t?’ says Jack. ‘Do you love her?’
The guy doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Oh yes. I nearly told her today after college. I was looking at her, and she asked me why I was looking at her oddly, but then the words got stuck in my throat. I can’t get it out.’
Jack laughs softly, and the sound is so familiar that I can see him clearly in my head, that amused glow that lights his eyes. ‘Look, if there’s one bit of advice I can give you, it’s for the love of God, man, just say it. You won’t die, I promise. What’s the worst that can happen?’