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One Day in December

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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * A Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine Book Club Pick "Get ready to be swept up in a whirlwind romance. It absolutely charmed me."--Reese Witherspoon "Josie Silver writes with a warmth so palpable her characters sneak their way into your heart and stay for a long time."--Jill Santopolo, New York Times-bestselling author of The Light We Lost Two people. Ten chances. One unforgettable love story. Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn't exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there's a moment of pure magic...and then her bus drives away. Certain they're fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn't find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they "reunite" at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It's Jack, the man from the bus. It would be. What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.
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The Kiss Thief

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Josie Silver

* * *


A Christmas Love Story


2008 21 December

2009 New Year’s Resolutions

20 March

24 October

18 December

19 December

2010 New Year’s Resolutions

18 January

14 February

15 February

5 June

12 December

2011 New Year’s Resolutions

1 January

28 January

3 May

20 September

12 October

13 October

29 November

12 December

2012 New Year’s Resolutions

3 January

10 March

14 May

9 June

4 August

5 August

10 August

15 September

24 October

3 November

12 November

13 November

2013 New Year’s Resolutions

8 February

16 February

20 April

23 April

12 December

14 December

2014 New Year’s Resolutions

16 March

27 May

10 June

25 June

12 October

13 October

27 October

2015 New Year’s Resolutions

6 May

12 September

21 November

2016 New Year’s Resolutions

26 January

23 February

14 March

23 March

9 June

13 June

16 June

2 July

3 July

19 October

17 December

2017 New Year’s Resolutions

1 March

5 June

1 August

22 December

23 December


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Josie Silver is an unashamed romantic who met her husband when she stepped on his foot on his twenty-first birthday. She lives with him, her two young children and their cat in a little town in the Midlands.

What readers are saying about

One Day in December


‘Devastatingly good’

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‘Wow! What a book!’

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‘This kept me turning pages long into the night. I’d highly recommend it’

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‘I can’t wait to reread it over and over’

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‘Beautifully written’

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‘I just didn’t want this book to end … I shall be singing its praises from the rooftops’

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‘The perfect book to read this winter’

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‘I really loved this little gem of a book. I’d recommend it to all’

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‘I devoured this book’

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‘I absolutely loved this book!’

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‘A totally lovely, fabulous story’

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‘A five-star read … buy this book’

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‘I couldn’t put this book down’

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‘Both beautifully heartbreaking and wonderfully uplifting’

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‘An utterly adorable read’

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‘Don’t read without tissues’

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‘Not your traditional love story … I was entranced’

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For James, Ed and Alex with love.


* * *

21 December


It’s a wonder everyone who uses public transport in winter doesn’t keel over and die of germ overload. In the last ten minutes I’ve been coughed on and sneezed at, and if the woman in front of me shakes her dandruff my way again, I might just douse her with the dregs of the lukewarm coffee that I’m no longer able to drink because it’s full of her scalp.

I’m so tired I could sleep right here on the top deck of this swaying, rammed-full bus. Thank God I’ve finally finished work for Christmas, because I don’t think my brain or my body could withstand even one more shift behind that awful hotel reception desk. It might be festooned with garlands and pretty lights on the customer side, but step behind the curtain and it’s a soulless hellhole. I’m practically asleep, even when I’m awake. I’m loosely planning to hibernate until next year once I get home to the nostalgic familiarity of my parents’ house tomorrow. There’s something soothingly time warp-ish about leaving London for an interlude of sedate Midlands village life in my childhood bedroom, even if not all of my childhood memories are happy ones. Even the closest of families have their tragedies, and it’s fair to say that ours came early and cut deep. I won’t dwell though, because Christmas should be a time of hope and love and, most appealing of all at this very moment, sleep. Sleep, punctuated by bouts of competitive eating with my brother, Daryl, and his girlfriend, Anna, and the whole gamut of cheesy Christmas movies. Because how could you ever be too tired to watch some hapless guy stand out in the cold and hold up signs silently declaring to his best friend’s wife that his wasted heart will always love her? Though – is that romance? I’m not so sure. I mean, it kind of is, in a schmaltzy way, but it’s also being the shittiest friend on the planet.

I’ve given up worrying about the germs in here because I’ve undoubtedly ingested enough to kill me if they’re going to, so I lean my forehead against the steamy window and watch Camden High Street slide by in a glitter of Christmas lights and bright, fuggy shop windows selling everything from leather jackets to tacky London souvenirs. It’s barely four in the afternoon, yet already it’s dusk over London; I don’t think it got properly light at all today.

My reflection tells me that I should probably pull the naff halo of tinsel from my hair that my cow of a manager made me wear, because I look like I’m trying out for Angel Gabriel in a primary school nativity, but I find that I really can’t be bothered. No one else on this bus could care less; not the damp, anoraked man next to me taking up more than his half of the seat as he dozes over yesterday’s paper, nor the bunch of schoolkids shouting across each other on the back seats and certainly not dandruff woman in front of me with her flashing snowflake earrings. The irony of her jewellery choice is not lost on me; if I were more of a bitch I might tap her on the shoulder to advise her that she’s drawing attention to the skin blizzard she’s depositing with every shake of her head. I’m not a bitch though; or maybe I’m just a quiet one inside my own head. Isn’t everyone?

Jesus, how many more stops is this bus going to make? I’m still a couple of miles from my flat and already it’s fuller than a cattle truck on market day.

Come on, I think. Move. Take me home. Though home is going to be a pretty depressing place now that my flatmate, Sarah, has gone back to her parents’. Only one more day then I’ll be out of here too, I remind myself.

The bus shudders to a halt at the end of the street and I watch as down below a stream of people jostle to get off at the same time as others try to push their way on. It’s as if they think it’s one of those competitions to see how many people can fit into one small space.

There’s a guy perched on one of the fold-down seats in the bus shelter. This can’t be his bus, because he’s engrossed in the hardback book in his hands. I notice him because he seems oblivious to the pushing and shoving happening right in front of him, like one of those fancy special effects at the movies where someone is completely still and the world kaleidoscopes around them, slightly out of focus.

I can’t see his face, just the top of his sandy hair, cut slightly long and given to a wave when it grows, I should imagine. He’s bundled into a navy woollen reefer jacket and a scarf that looks like someone might have knitted it for him. It’s kitsch and unexpected against the coolness of the rest of his attire – dark skinny jeans and boots – and his concentration is completely held by his book. I squint, trying to duck my head to see what he’s reading, wiping the steamed-up window with my coat sleeve to get a better look.

I don’t know if it’s the movement of my arm across the glass or the flickering lights of dandruff-woman’s earrings that snag in his peripheral vision, but he lifts his head and blinks a few times as he focuses his attention on my window. On me.

We stare straight at each other and I can’t look away. I feel my lips move as if I’m going to say something, God knows what, and all of a sudden and out of nowhere I need to get off this bus. I’m gripped by the overwhelming urge to go outside, to get to him. But I don’t. I don’t move a muscle, because I know there isn’t a chance in hell that I can get past anorak man beside me and push through the packed bus before it pulls away. So I make the split-second decision to stay rooted to the spot and try to convey to him to get on board using just the hot, desperate longing in my eyes.

He’s not film-star good-looking or classically perfect, but there is an air of preppy dishevelledness and an earnest, ‘who me?’ charm about him that captivates me. I can’t quite make out the colour of his eyes from here. Green, I’d say, or blue maybe?

And here’s the thing. Call it wishful thinking, but I’m sure I see the same thunderbolt hit him too; as if an invisible fork of lightning has inexplicably joined us together. Recognition; naked, electric shock in his rounded eyes. He does something close to an incredulous double take, the kind of thing you might do when you coincidentally spot your oldest and best friend who you haven’t seen for ages and you can’t actually believe they’re there.

It’s a look of Hello you, and Oh my God, it’s you, and I can’t believe how good it is to see you, all in one.

His eyes dart towards the dwindling queue still waiting to board and then back up to me, and it’s as if I can hear the thoughts racing through his head. He’s wondering if it’d be crazy to get on the bus, what he’d say if we weren’t separated by the glass and the hordes, if he’d feel foolish taking the stairs two at a time to get to me.

No, I try to relay back. No, you wouldn’t feel foolish. I wouldn’t let you. Just get on the bloody bus, will you! He’s staring right at me, and then a slow smile creeps across his generous mouth, as if he can’t hold it in. And then I’m smiling back, giddy almost. I can’t help it either.

Please get on the bus. He snaps, making a sudden decision, slamming his book closed and shoving it down in the rucksack between his ankles. He’s walking forward now, and I hold my breath and press my palm flat against the glass, urging him to hurry even as I hear the sickly hiss of the doors closing and the lurch of the handbrake being released.

No! No! Oh God, don’t you dare drive away from this stop! It’s Christmas! I want to yell, even as the bus pulls out into the traffic and gathers pace, and outside he is breathless standing in the road, watching us leave. I see defeat turn out the light in his eyes, and because it’s Christmas and because I’ve just fallen hopelessly in love with a stranger at a bus stop, I blow him a forlorn kiss and lay my forehead against the glass, watching him until he’s out of sight.

Then I realize. Shit. Why didn’t I take a leaf out of shitty friend’s book and write something down to hold up against the window? I could have done that. I could even have written my mobile number in the condensation. I could have opened the tiny quarter-pane and yelled my name and address or something. I can think of any number of things I could and should have done, yet at the time none of them occurred to me because I simply couldn’t take my eyes off him.

For onlookers, it must have been an Oscar-worthy sixty-second silent movie. From now on, if anyone asks me if I’ve ever fallen in love at first sight, I shall say yes, for one glorious minute on 21 December 2008.


* * *

New Year’s Resolutions

Just two resolutions this year, but two big, shiny, brilliant ones.

1) Find him, my boy from the bus stop.

2) Find my first proper job in magazines.

Damn. I wish I’d written them down in pencil, because I’d rub them out and switch them over. What I’d ideally like is to find the achingly cool magazine position first, and then run into bus boy in a coffee shop while holding something healthy in my hand for lunch, and he’d accidently knock it out of my clutches and then look up and say, ‘Oh. It’s you. Finally.’

And then we’d skip lunch and go for a walk around the park instead, because we’d have lost our appetites but found the love of our lives.

Anyway, that’s it. Wish me luck.

20 March


‘Is that him? I definitely got a bus-ish vibe from him just now.’

I follow the direction of Sarah’s nod and sweep my eyes along the length of the busy Friday-night bar. It’s a habit we’ve fallen into every time we go anywhere; scanning faces and crowds for ‘bus boy’ as Sarah christened him when we compared Yuletide notes back in January. Her family festivities up in York sounded a much more raucous affair than my cosy, food-laden one in Birmingham, but we’d both returned to the reality of winter in London with the New Year blues. I threw my ‘love at first sight’ sob story into the pity pot and then immediately wished I hadn’t. It’s not that I don’t trust Sarah with my story; it’s more that from that second forth she has become even more obsessed with finding him again than I am. And I’m quietly going crazy over him.

‘Which one?’ I frown at the sea of people, mostly the backs of unfamiliar heads. She screws her nose up as she pauses to work out how to distinguish her guy for my scrutiny.

‘There, in the middle, next to the woman in the blue dress.’

I spot her more easily; her poker-straight curtain of white-blonde hair catches the light as she throws her head back and laughs up at the guy beside her.

He’s about the right height. His hair looks similar and there is a jolting familiarity to the line of his shoulders in his dark shirt. He could be anyone, but he could be bus boy. The more I look at him, the more sure I am that the search is over.

‘I don’t know,’ I say, holding my breath because he’s as close as we’ve come. I’ve described him so many times, Sarah probably knows what he looks like more than I do. I want to inch closer. In fact I think I have already started inching, but then Sarah’s hand on my arm stills me because he’s just bent his head to kiss the face off the blonde, who instantly becomes my least favourite person on the planet.

Oh God, I think it’s him! No! This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen. I’ve played out variants of this scene every night as I close my eyes and it never, repeat never, ends like this. Sometimes he’s with a crowd of guys in a bar, other times he’s alone in a cafe reading, but the one thing that never happens is he has a girlfriend who he snogs to within an inch of her shimmery blonde life.

‘Shit,’ Sarah mutters, pressing my wine into my hand. We watch as their kiss goes on. And on. Jeez, do these people have no boundaries? He’s copping a thorough feel of her backside now, wildly overstepping the mark for a busy bar. ‘Decency, people,’ Sarah grumbles. ‘He’s not your type after all, Lu.’

I’m crestfallen. So much so that I pour the entire glass of chilled wine down my throat, and then shudder.

‘I think I want to go,’ I say, ridiculously close to tears. And then they stop kissing and she straightens her dress, he murmurs something in her ear, and then turns away and walks straight towards us.

I know instantly. He brushes right past us, and I almost laugh with giddy relief.

‘Not him,’ I whisper. ‘Not even very much like him.’

Sarah rolls her eyes and blows out the breath she must have been holding in. ‘Jesus, thank fuck for that. What a sleaze-dog. Do you know how close I came to tripping him up just now?’

She’s right. The guy who just sauntered past us was high on his own self-importance, wiping the girl’s red lipstick from his mouth on the back of his hand with a smug, satisfied grin as he made for the loo.

God, I need another drink. The search for bus boy is three months old. I better find him soon or I’m going to wind up in rehab.

Later, back at Delancey Street, we kick off our shoes and flop.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ Sarah says, crashed out on the other end of the sofa to me. ‘There’s this new guy at work, I think you might like him.’

‘I only want bus boy,’ I sigh, costume-drama melodramatic.

‘But what if you find him and he’s a twat?’ she says. Our experience in the bar earlier obviously hit home for her too.

‘You think I should stop looking?’ I ask, lifting my heavy head off the arm of the sofa to stare at her. She flings her arms wide and leaves them there.

‘Just saying you need a contingency plan.’

‘In case he’s a twat?’

She raises her thumbs, probably because it’s too much effort to raise her head.

‘He could be an A-class, top-drawer super-knob,’ she says. ‘Or he could have a girlfriend. Or Christ, Lu, he could even be married.’

I gasp. Actually gasp. ‘No way!’ I splutter. ‘He’s single, and he’s gorgeous, and he’s somewhere out there waiting for me to find him.’ I feel it with all the conviction of a drunk woman. ‘Or maybe he’s even looking for me.’

Sarah props herself up on her elbows and stares at me, her long red waves the worse for wear and her mascara end-of-the-night smudged.

‘I’m just saying that we, you, might have unrealistic expectations, and you, we, need to proceed with more caution, that’s all.’

I know she’s right. My heart almost stopped beating in the bar earlier.

We look at each other, and then she pats my leg. ‘We’ll find him,’ she says. It’s such a simple gesture of solidarity, but in my boozy state it brings a lump to my throat.


She nods and draws a cross over her heart, and a great snotty sob leaves my throat, because I’m tired and pissed and because sometimes I can’t quite bring bus boy’s face to mind and I’m scared I’ll forget what he looks like.

Sarah sits up and dries my tears with the sleeve of her shirt.

‘Don’t cry, Lu,’ she whispers. ‘We’ll keep looking until we find him.’

I nod, dropping back to gaze at the Artex ceiling that our landlord has been promising to repaint ever since we moved in here several years ago. ‘We will. And he’ll be perfect.’

She falls silent, and then waves her pointed finger vaguely over her own head. ‘He better be. Or else I’ll carve “twat”, right here in his forehead.’

I nod. Her loyalty is appreciated and reciprocated. ‘With a rusty scalpel,’ I say, embroidering the grisly image.

‘And it’ll go septic and his head will drop off,’ she mumbles.

I close my eyes, laughing under my breath. Until I find bus boy, the lion’s share of my affection belongs to Sarah.

24 October


‘I think we’ve nailed it,’ Sarah says, standing back to admire our handiwork. We’ve spent the entire weekend redecorating the tiny living room of our flat; we’re both covered in paint splatters and dust. We’re pretty close to done now and I’m feeling a warm glow of satisfaction – I only wish my crappy job at the hotel would make me feel even half as accomplished.

‘I hope the landlord likes it,’ I say. We aren’t really allowed to make any material changes, but I don’t see how he can object to our improvements.

‘He should be paying us for this,’ Sarah says, her hands on her hips. She’s wearing cut-off dungarees over a Day-Glo pink vest that clashes violently with her hair. ‘We’ve just increased the value of his flat. Who wouldn’t love these boards more than that threadbare old carpet?’

I laugh, remembering our comedy sketch struggle to lug the rolled-up carpet down the stairs from our top-floor flat. By the time we reached the bottom we were sweating like miners and swearing like sailors, both plastered in chunks of loose foam underlay. We high-fived each other after we slung it into a neighbour’s skip; it’s been there half full of junk for ever, I don’t think they’ll even notice.

The old oak floorboards have come up beautifully – in years gone by someone had obviously gone to the trouble of restoring them before the current landlord hid them beneath that patterned monstrosity. Our arm-aching efforts to buff them up all feel worth it now that we’re standing in our mellow, light-filled room thanks to the fresh white walls and big old sash windows. It’s a tired building with glamorous bones, Artex ceiling notwithstanding. We’ve added a cheap rug and covered the mismatched furniture with throws from our bedrooms, and all in all I think we’ve performed a shoe-string miracle.

‘Boho chic,’ Sarah declares.

‘You’ve got paint in your hair,’ I say, touching the top of my head to show her where and promptly adding a whole new splodge to mine.

‘You too,’ she says, laughing, then looks at her watch. ‘Fish and chips?’

Sarah has the metabolism of a horse. It’s one of the things I like most about her, because it allows me to eat cake guilt-free. I nod, starving. ‘I’ll go.’

Half an hour later, we toast our newly fabulous living room over fish and chips eaten off our knees on the sofa.

‘We should jack in our jobs and become TV home-makeover queens,’ Sarah says.

‘We’d kill it,’ I say. ‘Laurie and Sarah’s Designer Do-overs.’

She pauses, her fork halfway to her mouth. ‘Sarah and Lu’s Designer Do-overs.’

‘Laurie and Sarah’s sounds better,’ I grin. ‘You know I’m right. Besides, I’m older than you, it’s only fair I should come first.’

It’s a standing joke; I’m a few months older than Sarah and I never miss a chance to pull rank. She splutters on her beer as I lean down to pick my bottle up off the floor.

‘Mind the boards!’

‘I’ve used a coaster,’ I say, grandly.

She leans down and peers at my makeshift coaster, this month’s supermarket offers flyer.

‘Oh my God, Lu,’ she says slowly. ‘We’ve become coaster people.’

I swallow, sombre. ‘Does this mean we’re going to grow old and have cats together?’

She nods. ‘I think it does.’

‘Might as well,’ I grumble. ‘My love life is officially dead.’

Sarah screws up her finished-with fish-and-chip paper. ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame,’ she says.

She’s referring to bus boy, of course. He’s reached near-mythical status now, and I’m on the very edge of giving up on him. Ten months is a long time to look for a complete stranger on the off-chance that they’ll be single, into me and not an axe murderer. Sarah is of the vocal opinion that I need to move on, by which she means I need to find someone else before I turn into a nun. I know she’s right, but my heart isn’t ready to let him go yet. That feeling when we locked eyes – I’ve never had that before, ever.

‘You could have trekked around the entire globe in the time since you saw him,’ she says. ‘Think how many perfect men you could have shagged doing that. You’d have had tales of Roberto in Italy and Vlad in Russia to tell your grandkids when you’re old.’

‘I’m not going to have kids or grandkids. I’m going to search vainly for bus boy for ever and have cats with you instead,’ I say. ‘We’ll start a rescue centre, and the queen will give us a medal for services to cats.’

Sarah laughs, but her eyes tell me that the time has come to pack my bus boy dreams away and let him go.

‘I’ve just remembered I’m allergic to cats,’ she says. ‘But you still love me, right?’

I sigh and reach for my beer. ‘It’s a deal-breaker, I’m afraid. Find someone else, Sarah, we can never be together.’

She grins. ‘I’ve got a date next week.’

I clutch my heart. ‘You got over us so fast.’

‘I met him in a lift. I held him to ransom with the stop button until he agreed to ask me out.’

I really need to take life lessons from Sarah – she sees what she wants and grabs it with both hands. I wish for the millionth time that I’d had the balls to get off that bus. But the fact is, I didn’t. Maybe it’s time to wise up, to stop searching for him and drunk crying every time I fail. There are other men. I need to make ‘What would Sarah do?’ my life motto – I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t spend a year of her life moping.

‘Shall we buy a picture for that wall?’ she says, looking at the empty space over the fireplace.

I nod. ‘Yeah. Why not? Can it be of cats?’

She laughs and bounces her screwed-up chip paper off my head.

18 December


‘Try not to make any snap decisions when you meet David tonight? You probably won’t think he’s your type on first sight, but trust me, he’s hilarious. And he’s kind, Laurie. I mean, he gave up his chair for me the other day in a meeting. How many guys do you know who’d do that?’ Sarah delivers this speech while on her knees pulling as many dusty wine glasses as she can find from the back of the kitchen cupboard in our tiny shared flat.

I cast around for an answer and, to be honest, it’s slim pickings. ‘The guy from the bottom flat moved his bike out of the way to let me through the front door this morning. Does he count?’

‘You mean the same one who opens our mail and leaves trails of cold kebab on the hall floor every weekend?’

I laugh under my breath as I immerse the wine glasses in hot foamy water. We’re throwing our annual Christmas party tonight, which we’ve held every year since we first moved into Delancey Street. Though we’re kidding ourselves that this one will be much more sophisticated now we’ve left university, it’s mostly going to involve students and a few colleagues we’re still getting to know descending on our flat to drink cheap wine, debating things we don’t really understand and – for me it would seem – getting off with someone called David who Sarah has decided is my perfect man. We’ve been here before. My best friend fancies herself as a matchmaker and set me up a couple of times when we were at uni. The first time, Mark, or it might have been Mike, turned up in running shorts in the depths of winter and spent the entire dinner trying to steer my food choices away from anything that would take more than an hour to work off in the gym. I’m a pudding girl; the main thing off the menu as far as I was concerned was Mike. Or Mark. Whichever. In Sarah’s defence, he bore a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt, if you squinted and looked at him out of the corner of your eye in a dark room. Which I have to admit I did; I’m not normally one to sleep with guys on a first date, but I felt I had to give it a go for Sarah’s sake.

Her second choice, Fraser, was only slightly better; I can at least remember his name. He was far and away the most Scottish Scotsman I’ve ever met, so much so that I only understood about fifty per cent of what he said. I don’t think he mentioned bagpipes specifically, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was packing a set underneath his jacket. His tartan bow tie was disconcerting, but none of that would have mattered. His real downfall came at the end of the date; he escorted me home to Delancey Street and then kissed me in the style of someone trying to administer CPR. CPR with an entirely inappropriate amount of saliva. I made a dash for the bathroom as soon as I got inside, and my reflection confirmed that I looked as if I’d been snogged by a Great Dane. In the rain.

Not that I’ve got an impressive track record at choosing boyfriends for myself, either. With the exception of Lewis, my long-time boyfriend back at home, I seem to somehow keep missing the mark. Three dates, four dates, sometimes even five before the inevitable fizzle. I’m starting to wonder if being best friends with someone as dazzling as Sarah is a double-edged sword; she gives men unrealistic expectations about women. If I didn’t love her to pieces, I’d probably want to poke her eyes out.

Anyway, call me stupid, but I knew none of those men were right. I’m a girl given to romance; Nora Ephron is my go-to answer for fantasy dinner party guest and I yearn to know if nice boys really do fucking kiss like that. You get the idea. I’m hoping that amongst all these frogs will one day come a prince. Or something like that.

Who knows what David is going to be like, perhaps it will be third time lucky. I’m not going to hold my breath. Maybe he’ll be the love of my life or maybe he’ll be hideous, but either way I’m undeniably intrigued and more than up for letting my hair down. It’s not something I’ve done very often over the course of the last year; we’ve both had the upheaval of moving out of the cushioned world of uni into the reality of work, more successfully in Sarah’s case than mine. She practically walked into a junior position with a regional TV network, whereas I’m still working on the reception desk at the hotel. Yes, despite my New Year’s Resolution I am decidedly not working in my dream job yet. But it was that or go home to Birmingham, and I fear that if I leave London I’ll never get back again. It was always going to come more easily for Sarah; she’s the gregarious one and I’m slightly socially awkward, which means interviews don’t tend to go so well.

None of that tonight though. I’m determined to get so drunk that social awkwardness is a complete impossibility. After all, we’ll have the buffer of New Year to forget our ill-advised, alcohol-fuelled behaviour. I mean, come on, that happened last year for God’s sake. Move on already!

It’s also the night that I finally get to meet Sarah’s new boyfriend. She’s known him for several weeks already but for one reason or another I’ve yet to lay eyes on him in the apparently incredibly hot flesh. I’ve heard enough about him to write a book, though. Unfortunately for him, I already know he’s a sex god in bed and that Sarah fully expects to have his children and be his wife once he’s the high-flying media celeb he’s clearly on track to becoming. I almost feel sorry for him having his future mapped out for the next ten years at the age of twenty-four. But hey, this is Sarah. However cool he is, he’s still the lucky one.

She can’t stop talking about him. She’s doing it again now, telling me far more about their rampant sex life than I’d ideally like to know.

I scatter bubbles in the air like a child waving a wand as I hold my soapy fingers up to halt her flow. ‘Okay, okay, please stop. I’ll try not to orgasm on sight when I finally clap eyes on your future husband.’

‘Don’t say that to him though, will you?’ she grins. ‘The future husband thing? Because he doesn’t know that bit yet and, you know, it might, like, shock him.’

‘You reckon?’ I deadpan.

‘Far better if he thinks it’s all his own brilliant idea in a few years’ time.’ She dusts off the knees of her jeans as she stands up.

I nod. If I know Sarah, which I do, she’ll have him wrapped round her little finger and more than ready to spontaneously propose whenever she decides the time is right. You know those people that everyone gravitates towards? Those rare effervescent birds who radiate this aura that draws people into their orbit? Sarah’s that person. But if you think that makes her sound insufferable, you’d be wrong.

I first met her right here, the first year of uni. I’d decided to go for one of the university rentals rather than halls and I’d picked this place. It’s a tall old townhouse split into three: two bigger flats downstairs and our attic perched on the top like a jaunty afterthought. I was utterly charmed when I first viewed it, my rose-tinted glasses jammed all the way on. You know that shabby-chic little flat Bridget Jones lives in? It reminded me of that, only more shabby and less chic, and I was going to have to share it with a total stranger to meet the rent. None of those drawbacks stopped me from signing on the dotted line; one stranger was easier to contemplate than a crowded, noisy hall full of them. I still remember carting all of my stuff up three flights of stairs on moving-in day, all the time hoping that my new flatmate wasn’t going to crush my Bridget Jones fantasy dead.

She’d tacked a welcome note to the door, big, loopy red handwriting scrawled across the back of a used envelope:

Dear new housemate,

Have gone to buy cheap fizzy piss to celebrate our new home. Take the bigger room if you like, I prefer being in stumbling distance of the bog anyway!

S x

And that was it. She had me in the palm of her hand before I’d even laid eyes on her. She’s different to me in lots of ways, but we share exactly enough middle ground to get on like a house on fire. She’s in-your-face gorgeous with waves of fire-engine red hair that almost reach her bum, and her figure is amazing, though she doesn’t give a toss about how she looks.

Normally someone as gorgeous as her would make me feel like the ugly sister, but Sarah has this way of making you feel good about yourself. The first thing she said to me when she got back from the corner shop that day was, ‘Fucking hell! You’re a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. We’re going to have to get a deadlock on the door or else we’re gonna cause a riot.’

She was exaggerating, of course. I don’t look very much like Elizabeth Taylor. I have my French maternal grandmother to thank for my dark hair and blue eyes; she was quite a celebrated ballerina in her twenties; we have the prized programmes and grainy press cuttings to prove it. But I’ve always thought of myself as more of a failed Parisian; I have inherited my grandmother’s form but not her grace, and her neat brunette chignon has become a permanently electrocuted mass of curls in my hands. Besides, there’s no way I’d ever have the discipline for dancing, I’m far too fond of an extra chocolate biscuit. I’m going to be a goner when my metabolism catches up with me.

Sarah jokingly refers to us as the prozzie and the princess. In truth, she’s not got an ounce of slut in her and I’m nowhere near ladylike enough for a princess. Like I said, we meet in the middle and we make each other laugh. She’s Thelma to my Louise, hence the reason I’m disconcerted that she’s suddenly fallen hook, line and sinker for a guy I haven’t even met or vetted for suitability.

‘Do we have enough booze, do you think?’ she asks now, casting a critical eye over the bottles lined up across the kitchen work surface. No one could call it a sophisticated collection; it’s pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap supermarket special offer wine and vodka we’ve been hoarding for the last three months to make sure our party is one to remember.

Or not remember, perhaps.

‘More than. People will bring a bottle too,’ I say. ‘It’s going to be great.’ My stomach rumbles, reminding me that neither of us has eaten since breakfast.

‘Did you hear that?’ I say, rubbing my middle. ‘My guts just asked you to make a DS special.’

Sarah’s sandwiches are the stuff of Delancey Street myth and legend. She’s taught me her holy breakfast trinity of bacon, beetroot and mushrooms, and it took us the best part of two years to settle on our signature dish, the DS special, named after our flat.

She rolls her eyes, laughing. ‘You can make it yourself, you know.’

‘Not the way you do it.’

She preens a little, opening the fridge. ‘That’s true.’

I watch her layer chicken and blue cheese with lettuce, mayo and cranberry, an exact science that I’ve yet to master. I know it sounds hideous, but trust me, it’s not. It may not be your average student food, but ever since we hit on the winning combo back in our uni days we make sure to always have the ingredients in the fridge. It’s pretty much our staple diet. That, ice cream and cheap wine.

‘It’s the cranberry that does it,’ I say after my first bite.

‘It’s a quantity thing,’ she says. ‘Too much cranberry and it’s basically a jam sandwich. Too much cheese and you’re licking a teenager’s dirty sock.’

I raise my sandwich for another bite, but she lunges and pushes my arm down. ‘Wait. We need a drink with it to get us in the party mood.’

I groan, because I realize what she’s going to do when she reaches for two shot glasses. She’s laughing under her breath already as she reaches into the back of the cupboard behind the cereal boxes for the dusty bottle.

‘Monks’ piss,’ she says, pouring us each a ceremonial shot. Or Benedictine, to give the old herbal liqueur that came with the flat its proper name. The bottle informs us that it’s a special blend of secret herbs and spices, and on first taste not long after we moved in we decided that one of those secret ingredients was almost certainly Benedictine monks’ piss. Every now and then, usually at Christmas, we have one shot each, a ritual we’ve come to enjoy and loathe in equal measures.

‘Down the hatch,’ she grins, sliding a glass across the table to me as she sits back down. ‘Happy Christmas, Lu.’

We clink and then knock our shots back, banging the empty glasses down on the table and wincing.

‘Doesn’t get any better with age,’ I whisper, feeling as if it’s taken the skin off the roof of my mouth.

‘Rocket fuel,’ she rasps, laughing. ‘Eat your sandwich, you’ve earned it.’

We lapse into sandwich silence, and when we’ve finished she taps the rim of her empty plate.

‘I think, because it’s Christmas, that we could add a sausage.’

I shake my head. ‘You can’t mess with the DS special.’

‘There isn’t much in life that can’t be improved by a saveloy, Laurie.’ She raises her eyebrows at me. ‘You never know, you might get lucky tonight and see David’s.’

Given the last two blind dates Sarah set me up on, I don’t let the prospect overexcite me.

‘Come on,’ I say, dumping the plates in the sink. ‘We’d better get ready, they’ll be here soon.’

I’m three glasses of white in and definitely very relaxed when Sarah finds me and literally drags me from the kitchen by the hand.

‘He’s here,’ she whispers, crushing the bones of my fingers. ‘Come and say hi. You have to meet him right now.’

I smile apologetically at David as she pulls me away. I’m starting to see what Sarah meant about him being a grower. He’s made me laugh several times already and he’s kept my glass topped up; I’d just been considering a tiny exploratory snog. He’s nice enough in a vaguely Ross from Friends kind of way, but I find I’m more intrigued to meet Sarah’s soulmate, which must mean that Ross from Friends would be a regret come tomorrow. It’s as good a barometer as any.

She tugs me through our laughing, drunk friends and a whole load of people I’m not sure either of us even know, until finally we reach her boyfriend standing uncertainly by the front door.

‘Laurie,’ Sarah is jittery and bright-eyed. ‘Meet Jack. Jack, this is Laurie. My Laurie,’ she adds, for emphasis.

I open my mouth to say hello and then I see his face. My heart jumps into my throat and I feel as if someone just laid electric shock pads on my chest and turned them up to full fry. I can’t get any words to leave my lips.

I know him.

It feels like just last week I saw him first – and last. That heart-stopping glimpse from the top deck of a crowded bus twelve months ago.

‘Laurie.’ He says my name, and I could cry with the sheer relief of him being here. It’s going to sound crazy but I’ve spent the last year wishing, hoping I’d run into him. And now he’s here. I’ve scoured countless crowds for his face and I’ve searched for him in bars and cafes. I’d all but given up on ever finding bus boy, even though Sarah swears I’ve banged on about him so much that she’d even recognize him herself.

She didn’t, as it turned out. Instead she’s presented him to me as the love of her life.

Green. His eyes are green. Tree moss vivid around the iris edges, warm amber gold seeping in around his pupils. But it’s not the colour of his eyes that strikes me so much as the look in them right now as he gazes down at me. A startled flash of recognition. A dizzying, headlong collision. And then it’s gone in a heartbeat, leaving me unsure if the sheer force of my own longing made me imagine it had been there at all.

‘Jack,’ I manage, thrusting my hand out. His name is Jack. ‘It’s so good to meet you.’

He nods, a skittish half-smile flickering over his lips. ‘Laurie.’

I glance towards Sarah, crazy guilty, certain that she must be able to sense something amiss, but she’s just grinning at us both like a loon. Thank God for cheap wine.

When he takes my hand in his, warm and strong, he shakes it firmly, politely almost, as if we’re meeting in a formal boardroom rather than at a Christmas party.

I don’t know what to do with myself, because all of the things I want to do wouldn’t be okay. True to my word, I don’t orgasm on the spot, but there is definitely something going on with my heart. How on earth has this colossal fuck-up happened? He can’t be Sarah’s. He’s mine. He’s been mine for an entire year.

‘Isn’t she fabulous?’

Sarah has her hand on the small of my back now, presenting me, actually propelling me towards him to hug because she’s desperate for us to be new best friends. I’m wretched.

Jack rolls his eyes and laughs nervously, as if Sarah’s obviousness makes him uncomfortable.

‘Just as splendid as you said she was,’ he agrees, nodding as if he’s admiring a friend’s new car, and something horribly like an apology creeps into his expression as he looks at me. Is he apologizing because he remembers or because Sarah is behaving like an overeager aunt at a wedding?

‘Laurie?’ Sarah turns her attention to me. ‘Isn’t he every bit as gorgeous as I said he was?’ She’s laughing, proud of him, as well she should be.

I nod. Swallow painfully, even as I force a laugh. ‘He certainly is.’

Because Sarah is so desperately keen for us to like each other, Jack obligingly leans in and touches his lips briefly against my cheek. ‘It’s good to meet you,’ he says. His voice matches him perfectly; coolly confident, rich, shot through with gentle, knowing wit. ‘She never shuts up about you.’

My fingers close around the familiarity of my purple pendant, looking for comfort as I force a laugh, shaky. ‘I feel as if I know you too.’ And I do; I feel as if I have known him for ever. I want to turn my face and catch his lips with my own. I want to drag him breathlessly to my room and close the door, tell him that I love him, strip off my clothes and climb into bed with him, drown in the woody, clean, warm scent of his skin.

I’m in hell. I hate myself. I take a couple of steps away from him for my own sanity and grapple with my wretched heart to stop it banging louder than the music.

‘Drink?’ Sarah suggests, light-hearted and loud.

He nods, grateful to be thrown a lifeline.

‘Laurie?’ Sarah looks at me to go with them.

I lean back and peer down the hallway towards the bathroom, jiggling as if I’m in dire need of the loo. ‘I’ll catch you up.’ I need to get away from him, from them, from this.

In the safety of the bathroom, I slam the door and slide on to my backside with my head in my hands, gulping air down so as not to cry.

Oh God, oh God. Oh God! I love Sarah, she’s my sister in all but biology. But this … I don’t know how to navigate safely through it without sinking the ship with all of us aboard. Hope flares bright in my chest as I fantasize running out there and just blurting out the truth, because maybe then Sarah will realize that the reason she’s so drawn to him is that, subconsciously, she recognized him as bus boy. God knows I’ve all but drawn him for her. What a misunderstanding! How we’ll laugh at the sheer absurdity! But … then what? She graciously steps aside and he is my new boyfriend, easy as pie? I don’t even think he recognized me, for Christ’s sake!

Lead-heavy defeat crushes the delicate, ridiculous hope as reality creeps in. I can’t do it. Of course I can’t. She has no clue, and Jesus, she’s so happy. It shines from her brighter than the star of fucking Bethlehem. It might be Christmas, but this is actual life, not some crappy Hollywood movie. Sarah is my best friend in the entire world, and however much and for however long it kills me, I’ll never silently, secretly hold up signs to tell Jack O’Mara, without hope or agenda, that to me he is perfect, and that my wasted heart will always love him.

19 December


Fuck, she’s so beautiful when she’s asleep.

My throat feels like someone shovelled sand down it and I think Sarah might have broken my nose when she smacked her head back in bed last night, but right now I can forgive her anything because her scarlet hair is strewn out around her shoulders on the pillows, almost as if she’s suspended in water. She looks like the Little Mermaid. Though I realize that thought makes me sound like a pervert.

I slide from the bed and fling on the nearest thing to hand: Sarah’s dressing gown. It’s covered in pineapples, but I’ve no clue where my own clothes went and I need headache pills. Given the state of the stragglers last night I wouldn’t be surprised to find one or two of them still strewn across the living-room floor, and I figure pineapples will offend them less than my naked arse. Shit, it’s pretty bloody short though. I’ll just do a quick dash.

‘Water,’ Sarah croaks, flinging her hand out towards me as I skirt round the edge of the bed.

‘I know,’ I murmur. Her eyes are still closed as I lift her arm and carefully tuck it back under the quilt, and she makes a noise that might mean Thanks and might be For God’s sake help me. I drop a kiss on her forehead.

‘Back in a sec,’ I whisper, but she’s already slid under the fog of sleep again. I don’t blame her. I plan to climb back in there and do the same thing myself within the next five minutes. Glancing at her again for a long second, I back quietly out of the room and click the door shut.

‘If you need paracetamol, they’re in the cupboard on the left.’

I pause for a beat, swallowing hard as I open the cupboard door and root around until I spot the small blue box.

‘You read my mind,’ I say, turning to Laurie. I force a casual smile, because in truth this is really fucking awkward. I’ve seen her before – before last night, I mean. It was just once, fleetingly, in the flesh, but there have been other times in my head since: random, disturbing early-morning lucid dreams where I jolt awake, hard and frustrated. I don’t know if she remembers me. Christ, I hope not. Especially now I’m standing in front of her in a ridiculous pineapple-strewn ball-grazing dressing gown.

Her dark hair is piled high on her head in a messy bun this morning and she looks as if she’s as much in need of medication as I am, so I offer her the box.

Sarah has banged on about her best friend so much that I’d built a virtual Laurie in my head already, but I’d got her all wrong. Because Sarah is so striking, I’d lazily imagined that her choice of friend would be equally colourful, like a pair of exotic parrots perched up here in their cage. Laurie isn’t a parrot. She’s more of a … I don’t know, a robin, maybe. There’s a contained peace about her, and a quiet, understated sense of being okay with herself that makes her easy to be around.

‘Thanks.’ She takes the tablets, popping a couple out into her hand.

I run her a glass of water and she raises it to me, a grim ‘bottoms up’ as she knocks the pills back.

‘Here,’ she says, counting how many are left in the packet before she hands it over. ‘Sarah likes –’

‘Three,’ I jump in, and she nods.


I feel a little as if we’re competing to prove who knows Sarah best. She does, of course. Sarah and I have only been together for a month or so, but Christ, it’s been a whirlwind. I’m running to keep up with her most of the time. I met her first in the lift at work; it jammed with just the two of us inside, and by the time it moved again fifteen minutes later I knew three things. Firstly, she might be a fill-in reporter for the local TV station now, but one day she’s likely to take over the world. Two, I was taking her for lunch as soon as the lift got fixed, because she told me so. I was going to ask her anyway, for the record. And lastly, I’m pretty sure she stopped the lift herself and then released it once she’d got what she wanted. That mildly ruthless streak is a turn-on.

‘She’s told me a lot about you.’ I fill up the kettle and flick it on.

‘Did she tell you how I like my coffee?’

Laurie reaches for some mugs out of the cupboard as she speaks, and I hate the reflex that sends my eyes down her body. She’s in PJs, more than respectably covered, yet still I observe the fluidity of her movements, the curve of her hip, the navy polish on her toes.

‘Erm …’ I concentrate on hunting down a teaspoon, and she stretches across to tug out the drawer to show me where they are.

‘Got it,’ I say, reaching in at the same moment as she does, and she jerks her hand away, laughing to soften the suddenness.

As I start to spoon the granules out she folds herself on to a spindle-backed chair, one foot tucked underneath her backside.

‘To answer your question, no, Sarah didn’t tell me how you like your coffee, but if I had to guess, I’d say …’ I turn and lean against the counter to study her. ‘I’d say you take it strong. Two spoons.’ I narrow my eyes as she watches me without giving any hint. ‘Sugar,’ I say, passing my hand across the back of my neck. ‘None. You want to, but you deny yourself.’ What the actual fuck am I saying? I sound like I’m coming on to her. I’m not. I’m really not. The last thing I want her to think is that I’m a player. I mean I’ve had my share of girlfriends, a couple even edged towards serious, but this thing with Sarah feels different somehow. More … I don’t know. I just know I don’t want it to end any time soon.

She pulls a face, then shakes her head. ‘Two sugars.’

‘You’re kidding me,’ I laugh.

She shrugs. ‘I’m not. I take two sugars. Two and a half sometimes, if I’m in the mood.’

The mood for what, I wonder. What makes her need more than two sugars? God, I really need to get out of this kitchen and back to bed. I think I’ve left my brain back there on the pillow.

‘Actually,’ Laurie says, standing up, ‘I don’t think I want coffee right now after all.’ She backs towards the door as she speaks, and I can’t quite read the expression in her tired eyes. Maybe I’ve offended her. I don’t know. Perhaps she’s just knackered or maybe she’s on the verge of hurling. I’ve been known to have that effect on women.


‘Well? What do you think?’

It’s just turned four when I slump next to Sarah at the pale-blue Formica kitchen table. We’ve finally got the place back to something resembling normal and now we’re both nursing huge mugs of coffee and the remnants of our hangovers. The Christmas tree we lugged up the stairs between us a couple of days back looks haphazard, as if a gang of cats has attacked it, but aside from that and a few broken wine glasses we’re pretty much as we were. I heard Jack leave around midday – okay, I failed miserably in my attempt to be cool about the situation and watched him walk away down the road from behind my bedroom blind like some kind of horror-movie stalker.

‘It went well, didn’t it?’ I say, deliberately misinterpreting Sarah’s question to buy myself some thinking time.

She rolls her eyes as if she thinks I’m winding her up on purpose. ‘You know what I mean. What do you think of Jack?’

And so it begins. A hairline crack has opened up in our relationship that Sarah isn’t even aware of, and I have to work out how I stop it from widening, how to prevent it from opening up into a chasm we’re both going to tumble headlong into. I’m conscious that this is the one and only chance I’m ever going to get to come clean; this single, solitary opportunity is mine to take, or not take. But because Sarah is looking at me with such hope, and because by now I don’t even know if I was imagining the whole thing, I silently promise to for ever hold my peace.

‘He seems … nice,’ I say, deliberately choosing a bland, mundane word for the most exhilarating man I’ve ever met.

‘Nice?’ Sarah scoffs. ‘Laurie, nice is a word you’d use for furry slippers or, I don’t know, chocolate eclairs or something.’

I laugh lightly. ‘I happen to really like furry slippers.’

‘And I happen to really like chocolate eclairs, but Jack isn’t a chocolate eclair. He’s …’ She trails off, thinking.

Snowflakes on your tongue, I want to suggest, or the bubbles in vintage champagne. ‘Very nice?’ I smile. ‘Is that better?’

‘Not even close. He’s a … he’s a cream horn.’

She laughs, dirtily, but she’s gone all dreamy-eyed on me and I don’t think I’m ready to listen to her try to convince me of Jack’s merits, so I shrug and wade in before she can speak again. ‘Okay, okay. He’s … well, he seems like fun and he’s easy to talk to and he’s obviously wrapped round your little finger.’

A snort-laugh escapes Sarah’s throat. ‘He is, isn’t he?’ She crooks her little finger and we nod over our coffee mugs. She looks about fourteen; her face is scrubbed clean of make-up and her hair hangs in two long plaits over her ‘My Little Pony’ T-shirt.

‘Is he what you’d imagined?’

Oh God, Sarah, please don’t push. I don’t think I can for ever hold my peace if you do.

‘I’m not sure what I expected, really,’ I say, because that much is true.

‘Oh, come on, you must have had some image in your head.’

I’ve had Jack O’Mara’s image in my head for twelve clear months. ‘Um, yeah. I suppose he’s sort of what I’d imagine your perfect man to be.’

Her shoulders sag, as if just thinking about his fabulousness has sapped the small amount of energy from her tank, and she’s lapsed into that glassy-eyed state again. I’m relieved we’re both still hung-over, it’s a ready excuse not to over-enthuse.

‘But he’s hot, though, right?’

I glance down quickly into my coffee cup while I try to pull the panicked, guilty truth back out of my eyes, and she’s looking straight at me when I lift my gaze. Her uncertain expression tells me that she’s seeking my approval, and I both understand why and resent her for it in the same breath. Sarah’s generally the most striking woman in any given room, a girl accustomed to being the centre of attention. It could have made her precocious or precious or pretentious; it hasn’t made her any of those things, but there’s no escaping the fact that she’s lived her life as the girl who can bag any guy she wants. More often than not that’s meant her boyfriends have been outlandishly good-looking, because, well, why wouldn’t you?

For the most part it amuses me, and up to now it’s meant that our romantic paths haven’t crossed. But now …

What am I supposed to say? There is no safe answer. If I say yes, he’s hot, I don’t think I’ll be able to make myself sound un-pervy, and if I say no, he’s not hot, then she’ll be insulted.

‘He’s different to your usual type,’ I venture.

She nods slowly and bites her bottom lip. ‘I know. You can be honest, I won’t be offended. He’s not the obvious kind of handsome you expected him to be, is that what you’re trying to say?’

I shrug. ‘I guess. I’m not saying he isn’t good-looking or anything, just different to your normal.’ I pause and give her a knowing look. ‘Your last boyfriend looked more like Matt Damon than Matt Damon does, for God’s sake.’

She laughs, because it’s true. I even called him Matt to his face once by mistake, which was okay because he only lasted four dates before Sarah decided that, however handsome he was, it didn’t make up for the fact that he still called his mum three times a day.

‘Jack just seems more grown-up, somehow.’ She sighs as she cups her hands round her mug. ‘As if all the others were boys, and he’s a man. Does that sound ridiculous?’

I shake my head and smile, beyond forlorn. ‘No. Not ridiculous to me.’

‘I guess he had to grow up early,’ Sarah says. ‘He lost his dad a few years ago – cancer, I think.’ She breaks off, reflective. ‘His mum and his younger brother depended on him pretty heavily for a while afterwards.’

My heart breaks a little for him; I don’t need telling how devastating that must’ve been.

‘He seems a pretty cool guy.’

Sarah looks relieved by my assessment. ‘Yeah. That’s what he is. He’s his own kind of cool. He doesn’t follow the crowd.’

‘Best way.’

She lapses into contemplative silence for a few seconds before she speaks again. ‘He likes you.’

‘Did he say so?’ I intend to sound nonchalant, but I fear I might have hit something closer to desperation. If I did, Sarah doesn’t flicker.

‘I can just tell. You two are going to be best friends.’ She grins as she scrapes her chair back and stands up. ‘Just wait and see. You’ll love him when you get to know him.’

She ambles from the kitchen, giving my topknot an affectionate waggle as she passes. I fight the urge to jump up and pull her into a fierce hug, both by way of apology and as a plea for understanding. Instead I drag the sugar bowl towards me and stir extra sweetness into my coffee. Thank God I’m heading back home to spend Christmas with my folks soon; I seriously need some time to myself while I work out how the hell to play this.


* * *

New Year’s Resolutions

Last year, I made two resolutions:

1) Find my first proper job in magazines. Well, I can safely say I’ve failed spectacularly on that front. Two near misses and a couple of freelance never-got-published articles ranks as neither glittering nor fabulous really, does it? It’s both depressing and scary that I’m still working at the hotel; I can see how easy it is for people to get stuck in a rut and let go of their dreams. But I’m not giving up, not yet.

2) Find the boy from the bus stop. Technically, I guess I can tick this one off. I’ve learned to my peril that you need to be super-specific when you make New Year’s Resolutions – but how was I supposed to know I needed to specify that my best friend in the world must not find my soulmate first and fall in love with him too? Thanks for nothing, Universe. You suck big donkey balls.

So my only resolution this year?

To work out how to fall out of love.

18 January


It’s been a month now since I discovered that Sarah and I have inconveniently fallen for the same guy and, despite my resolution, I don’t feel a shred less wretched about it.

It was so much easier when I didn’t know who he was; it allowed me the luxury of imagining him, of fantasizing about stumbling into him again in a crowded bar or spotting him drinking coffee in a cafe, of his eyes finding mine and us both remembering and being glad that the stars had finally aligned again.

But now I know exactly who he is. He’s Jack O’Mara, and he’s Sarah’s.

I spent all of Christmas telling myself that it would be easier once I got to know him, that there were bound to be things I didn’t like about him in reality, that seeing him with Sarah would somehow reset him in my head as a platonic friend, rather than the man who has broken the beats of my heart. I stuffed myself with food and hung out with Daryl and pretended to everyone that I was okay.

But since we got back to London it’s been worse. Because not only am I lying to myself, I’m lying to Sarah too. God knows how people have affairs; even this paper-thin layer of deception has me constantly on edge. I’ve kept my own counsel. I’ve heard my own case, I’ve listened to my own plaintive cries of innocence and misunderstanding, and still I’ve delivered a damning verdict: liar. I’ve made a liar out of myself by omission, and now every day I look at Sarah through my liar’s eyes and speak to her with my forked, serpent tongue. I don’t even want to admit it to myself, but every now and then I burn with miserable jealousy. It’s an ugly emotion; if I were of a religious bent I’d be spending more than my fair share of time in the confession box. I have moments of a different perspective, times when I know I haven’t done anything wrong and try my best to still be a good friend even though I’ve been backed into a corner, but those moments don’t last long. Incidentally, I’ve also discovered that I’m quite the actress; I’m one hundred per cent sure that Sarah has no idea there’s anything amiss, although that’s probably because I’ve found reasons to be somewhere else on the couple of occasions when Jack’s been at the flat.

Tonight though, my luck has officially run out. Sarah’s asked him over for pizza and a movie, but the subtext is that she really wants me to get to know him better. In fact, she said it, as plain as that, when she handed me a coffee on the way out of the door this morning.

‘Please be around, Lu, I really want you to get to know him so we can all hang out together more.’

I couldn’t think of a decent excuse off the cuff and, moreover, I realize that avoiding him isn’t a long-term solution. What bothers me most of all, though, is that while ninety-five per cent of me is dreading tonight, the other five is sparking with anticipation at the idea of being close to him.

I’m sorry, Sarah, I really and truly am.

‘Let me take your coat.’

Let me take your coat? What the hell am I, the maid? I’m just glad I didn’t call him sir for good measure. Jack walked into our flat thirty seconds ago and already I’m acting like a moron. His smile is nervous as he unwinds his scarf and shrugs out of his winter coat, handing them to me almost apologetically even though I asked him for them. I have to work hard not to bury my face in the dark navy wool as I hang it on the already-packed coat hooks beside our front door, almost laying it over my own jacket before pointedly hanging it as far away from it as possible. I’m trying, I really am. But he’s half an hour early, and has managed to arrive just as Sarah ran down the fire escape off the kitchen, as if they are theatre actors in a farce.

‘Sarah’s just nipped to the shop for wine,’ I flounder. ‘It’s round the corner. She’ll be back soon. Five minutes, I should think, unless there’s a queue. Or anything. It’s only round the corner.’

He nods, his smile still hovering despite the fact I’ve repeated myself at least three times.

‘Go through, go through,’ I say, bright and overanxious, flapping my hands in the direction of our tiny living room. ‘How was your Christmas?’

He perches on the end of the sofa, and I momentarily falter over where to sit before choosing the chair. What else was I going to do? Join him on the sofa? Accidentally press myself against him?

‘Yeah, you know.’ He smiles, almost bashful. ‘Christmassy.’ He pauses. ‘Turkey. Too much beer.’

I smile too. ‘Sounds a lot like mine. Except I’m more of a wine drinker.’

What am I doing – trying to make myself sound sophisticated? He’s going to think I’m some kind of pretentious knobber.

Come on, Sarah, I think. Come back and rescue me from myself, I’m not ready to be on my own with him yet. I’m horrified as I find myself wanting to snatch this chance to ask him if he remembers me from the bus. I can feel the question climbing up my windpipe like it’s being pushed from behind by a determined colony of worker ants. I swallow hard. My palms are starting to sweat. I don’t know what I hope to gain from asking him if he remembers, because I’m ninety-nine per cent certain that the answer would be no. Jack lives in the real world and has a super-hot girlfriend; he’d probably forgotten about me before my bus turned the corner of Camden High Street.

‘So, Laurie,’ he says, clearly casting around for something to say. I feel the way I sometimes do when I get my hair cut; as if the stylist finds me hard work and I’m shortly going to need to lie about where I’m going on holiday. ‘What did you study?’

‘Media and Journalism.’

He doesn’t look surprised; he must know that Sarah and I were on the same course at Middlesex.

‘I’m a words person,’ I elaborate. ‘Magazines, hopefully, when I can get my foot in the door somewhere. I don’t plan on a career in front of the camera.’ I stop myself from adding ‘unlike Sarah’, because I’m sure he already knows that Sarah’s life plan involves presenting the local news before moving up the ranks towards the national broadcasters. There’s a trite quote I see bandied around on Facebook every now and then, ‘Some girls are born with glitter in their veins,’ or something similar. Sarah is that, but there’s grit mixed in with her glitter; she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. ‘How about you?’

He lifts one shoulder. ‘Journalism at uni. Radio’s my thing.’

I know this already, because Sarah has tuned the kitchen radio into the station he works at, even though he’s only ever on it if the late-night presenter isn’t there, which has been next to never. Everyone starts somewhere though, and now I’ve heard his voice I know that it’s only a matter of time before he moves up the ranks. I have a sudden, hideous vision of Sarah and Jack as TV’s golden couple, the next Phil and Holly, shining out of my TV at me every day with their in-jokes, finishing each other’s sentences and winning every People’s Choice award going. It’s so realistic that I’m winded, and I’m relieved to hear Sarah’s keys clatter in the lock.

‘Honey, I’m home,’ she calls out, slamming the door so hard she rattles the old wooden sash window frames in the living room.

‘Here she is,’ I say unnecessarily, springing up. ‘I’ll just go and help her.’

I meet her in the doorway and take the unchilled wine from her hands. ‘Jack’s just arrived. You go and say hi, I’ll stick this in the freezer to cool down for a bit.’

I withdraw to the kitchen, wishing I could climb into the freezer drawer too as I shoehorn the bottle in beneath the bag of frozen berries we use for smoothies when we feel like we might die from lack of nutrients.

I open the bottle of wine we’ve already chilled in the fridge and pour out a couple of decent glasses. One for me, one for Sarah. I don’t pour one for Jack, because as I already know, he’s more of a beer kind of guy. I’m warmed by the fact that I know what he’d prefer without needing to ask, as if this one tiny snippet is a new stitch in the quilt of our intimacy. It’s an odd thought, but I run with it, imagining that quilt as I pull out a bottle of beer for Jack and flick the lid off, then close the fridge and lean my back against it with my wine glass in my hand. Our quilt is handmade, carefully constructed from gossamer-thin layers of hushed conversations and snatched looks, stitched together with threads of wishes and dreams, until it’s this magnificent, wondrous, weightless thing that keeps us warm and protects us from harm as if it were made of steel. Us? Who am I kidding?

I take a second mouthful of wine as I catch hold of my train of thought and try to reroute it along safer tracks. I force myself to see that quilt on Sarah and Jack’s king-size bed, in Sarah and Jack’s gorgeous house, in Sarah and Jack’s perfect life. It’s a technique I’ve been testing out; whenever I think something inappropriate about him, I make myself counter it with a sickly, positive thought about them as a couple. I can’t say it’s working all that well yet, but I’m trying.

‘Come on, Lu, I’m gagging in here!’ Sarah’s voice runs clear with carefree laughter as she adds, ‘Don’t bother with a wine glass for Jack, though. He’s too unsophisticated for our five-quid plonk.’

I know, I want to say, but I don’t. I just shove Jack’s beer under my arm and refill my glass before I go back through to join them in the living room.

‘Pineapple on pizza is like having, I dunno, ham with custard. They just don’t go together.’ Sarah shoves two fingers down her throat and rolls her eyes.

Jack picks up the offending piece of pineapple that Sarah has flicked disdainfully into the corner of the box. ‘I had banana on pizza, too, once. Trust me, it worked.’ He squidges the extra pineapple down on to his slice and grins at me. ‘You can have the casting vote, Laurie. Pineapple yay or pineapple nay?’

I feel disloyal, but I can’t lie because Sarah already knows the answer.

‘Yay. Definitely yay.’

Sarah snorts, making me wish I’d lied. ‘I’m starting to think that getting you two together was a bad idea. You’re going to gang up on me.’

‘Team J-Lu.’ Jack winks at me as he laughs, earning himself a good punch on the arm from Sarah that makes him groan and rub it as if she’s broken it.

‘Easy. That’s my drinking arm.’

‘That’s for trying to split up team Sa-Lu.’ She’s the one winking at me now, and I nod, keen to show that I’m on her side even if I do like pineapple on my pizza.

‘Sorry, Jack,’ I say. ‘We’re wine sisters. It’s a stronger bond than pineapple on pizza.’ And I have to say, the wine is definitely helping me get through this situation.

Sarah shoots him a ‘suck on that’ look and high-fives me across the gulf between the mismatched sofa and armchair. She’s curled into the end with her feet shoved under Jack’s ass, her long red hair plaited round her head like she might nip out the back and milk her herd of goats at any moment.

I’ve deliberately gone effort-light with my appearance; I’ve aimed for a ‘making a bit of an effort to be sociable’ look without obviously looking any different to normal. I’m dressed in leaving-the-house clothes, which definitely isn’t a given for a night in front of the TV. Jeans, soft, dove-grey sloppy jumper, slick of lip gloss and a flick of eyeliner. I’m not proud of the fact that I put more than a few minutes’ thought into my outfit, but I’m trying to be reasonable with myself about this too. I don’t actually own sackcloth and ashes, and I don’t want to let Sarah down. Besides, she added her own silver daisy hairslide to my fringe earlier because it kept flopping in my eyes and she knows I covet it, so I reckon she’s pleased that I look presentable.

‘Which movie are we watching?’ I ask, leaning forward to grab a slice of pizza from the box flipped open on the coffee table.

‘Twilight,’ Sarah says, at the exact same time as Jack says, ‘Iron Man.’

I look from one to the other, sensing that once again I’m about to be asked to play adjudicator.

‘Remember which team you’re on, Lu,’ Sarah says, her lips twitching. Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up. I haven’t read the books or seen the films yet, but I know enough to know that Twilight is about a doomed love triangle.

Jack looks pained, then bats his eyelashes at me like a seven-year-old asking for money for the ice-cream man. Jesus, he’s lovely. I want to say Iron Man. I want to say kiss me.



Fucking Twilight?

Everything about this evening screams of awkward. And now we’re watching one of the most cringe-worthy films of all time, about some moody-mouthed girl who can’t choose between two guys with superpowers. Sarah leans into me, and I kiss the top of her head and train my eyes on the screen, not allowing myself to slide even an occasional glance towards Laurie on the armchair unless she speaks directly to me.

I don’t want things between me and Laurie to feel awkward, but they do, and I know it’s my fault. She probably thinks I’m some kind of exceptionally dull weirdo, because my conversational skills dry up around her. It’s just that I’m trying to establish her place in my head as Sarah’s friend rather than the girl I saw once and have thought of often since. All of Christmas – which was terrible, by the way, my mum was so sad, and as usual I didn’t know what to do, so I just got drunk – I kept seeing Laurie in her pyjamas in the kitchen, gazing at me with that strange look on her face. Jesus, what a twat I am. I take solace from the fact that it’s just the way my blokeish brain stores away a pretty face, and from the fact that she doesn’t have a blokeish brain and so hopefully has no awkward memory of me gawking at her from a bus stop. So far I’ve managed quite successfully by just avoiding spending any time with her, but Sarah came straight out with it yesterday and asked me if I didn’t like Laurie, because I seemed to say no every time she invited me over. What the fuck was I supposed to say to that? Sorry, Sarah, I’m currently trying to reprocess your best friend from fantasy sex partner to platonic new friend-in-law? Is that even a phrase? If it isn’t, it should be, because if Sarah and I ever split up, she’ll spirit Laurie away with her. The thought makes my gut churn.

Of losing Sarah, I mean.

14 February


Who was St Valentine anyway and what made him such an expert on romance? I’m willing to bet his full name is St Smugbastard-three’s-a-crowd Valentine, and he probably lives on a candle-lit island where everything comes in pairs, even bouts of thrush.

Can you tell that 14 February isn’t my favourite date in the calendar? It doesn’t help that Sarah is a fully paid-up member of the hearts and balloons brigade this year. To my shame I realize I’d been hoping she’d get bored of Jack or something, but it’s quite the opposite. She’s already bought three different cards for him because she keeps seeing a new one that sums up how happy he makes her or how ridiculously hot he is, and every time she shows me the latest one my heart shrivels like a dried prune and it takes a good couple of hours for it to plump up again.

Thankfully they’re going to the local Italian, where they’ll no doubt eat heart-shaped steaks and then lick chocolate mousse off each other’s faces, but at least it means I get to commandeer the living room tonight for a pity party for one. Bridget Jones has nothing on me. I’m planning on lying flat out on the sofa, inhaling ice cream and wine at the same time.

‘Lu, have you got a sec?’

I close my laptop – yet another job application – lay the reading glasses I don’t really need but wear to concentrate on the table, and wander into Sarah’s room with my coffee mug. ‘What’s up?’

She’s standing in her jeans and bra, her hands on her hips. ‘I’m trying to decide what to wear.’ She pauses and picks up the Coca-Cola red chiffon blouse she bought for Christmas dinner with her olds. It’s pretty and surprisingly demure until Sarah lays it on the bed beside a black micro-skirt. ‘These?’

She looks at me and I nod, because she’ll look undeniably fabulous in the outfit.

‘Or this?’ She pulls her killer LBD out of the wardrobe and holds it against her body.

I glance from one to the other. ‘I like both.’

She sighs. ‘Me too. Which one says “hot Valentine” more?’

‘Has Jack seen the red?’

She shakes her head. ‘Not yet.’

‘There you go then. Nothing shouts Valentine louder than lipstick red.’

Sartorial decision made, she hangs the dress back in the wardrobe. ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right on your own tonight?’

I roll my eyes. ‘No. Take me with you.’ I lean on the door frame and knock back a gulp of too-hot coffee. ‘Because that wouldn’t look weird at all, would it?’

‘Jack’d probably like it,’ she laughs. ‘Make him look like a stud.’

‘You know what, on second thoughts I’ll have to take a rain check. I’ve got a double date tonight with Ben and Jerry. They’re sweet.’ I wink as I back out into the hallway. ‘We’re going to work our way through the Karamel Sutra. It’s going to be a thrill a minute.’

Of all the ice creams in all the world, I happen to know that B&J’s Karamel Sutra is Sarah’s favourite.

‘I’m actually jealous, you know,’ she calls after me, unbraiding her hair in readiness for the shower.

Me too, I think, miserable as I drop down heavily into the armchair and flip my laptop open again.

Whoever the hell is in charge of TV scheduling needs a bullet between their eyes. Surely they could work out that anyone who needs to resort to watching TV on Valentine’s night is single and potentially bitter, so why they thought The Notebook would make suitable viewing is beyond me. There’s romantic rowing on the lake and there’s Ryan Gosling, all wringing wet and shouty and in love. There’s even swans, for God’s sake. Hang on, I’ll just pour some salt in my wounds while I’m at it, shall I? Thank God they’ve had the good sense to schedule Con Air to follow it; I’m going to need a good dose of Nicolas Cage saving the day in a dirty vest to recover from this.

I’ve made my way through two-thirds of Ryan Gosling, half the tub of ice cream and three-quarters of a bottle of Chardonnay when I hear Sarah’s keys in the lock. It’s only half past ten; I expected my party for one to still be going strong at midnight, so frankly, this is something of an interruption.

Sitting cross-legged in the corner of the sofa, I look towards the door expectantly, my wine glass in my hand. Have they fallen out and she’s left him to eat his tiramisu alone? I try not to hope so as I call out, ‘Grab a glass, Sar, there’s enough wine left in the bottle if you’re quick.’

She appears swaying in the doorway, but she’s not alone. My party for one has segued swiftly into a ménage à trois. That’s a thought I don’t want to process, so I abandon it in favour of wishing I was wearing something other than black yoga pants and a mint-green vest. I’d optimistically dressed for the Davina workout I knew I wasn’t really going to do. It could be worse; I could have gone for the checked flannel PJs my mum gave me because she worries the Delancey Street flat gets too draughty.

‘You’re early,’ I say, stretching my spine and trying to look like a serene yoga guru, if that’s at all possible while clutching a glass of wine.

‘Free champagne,’ Sarah says, or at least that’s my best guess at what she says. She’s laughing and leaning heavily against Jack; I think his arm round her waist is the only reason she’s still standing.

‘Lots of free champagne,’ Jack adds, and his rueful smile tells me that although Sarah has had too much, he hasn’t. I meet his eyes and for a moment he holds my gaze.

‘Am ver, ver tired,’ Sarah slurs, with long, exaggerated blinks. One of her false eyelashes is making a run for it down her cheek; it’s usually me that has that problem. I’ve tried and failed with them twice over the last few months; I look like a drag queen, much to Sarah’s amusement.

‘I know you are.’ Jack laughs and drops a kiss on her forehead. ‘Come on. Let’s get you into bed.’

She pretends to look shocked. ‘Not until we’re married, Jack O’Mara. What kind of girl d’you take me for?’

‘A very pissed one,’ he says, hanging on to her when she sways again.

‘Rude,’ Sarah murmurs, but she doesn’t fight him when he catches her behind the knees and lifts her into his arms. Shit. Watch and learn, Ryan Gosling. This man didn’t need to wade into a lake to melt the fair lady’s heart.

For clarification, I mean Sarah’s heart, not mine.

‘She’s passed out.’

I look up when Jack appears in the living-room doorway again a little later. Ryan Gosling has by now wooed his girl and rowed off into the sunset in favour of Nicolas Cage being all dependable and heroic on screen. Jack’s eyes light up and his face cracks into a broad smile.

‘Best action movie ever.’

I can’t argue. Con Air is my go-to movie; when the shit hits the fan in my real life, I invariably opt to watch Cameron Poe have a much worse time of it and still come out on top. However bad my day has been, I can generally be fairly certain that I’m not going to have to crash land a plane full of murderers and rapists on the Las Vegas Strip.

‘Everyone needs a hero,’ I say, disconcerted by the fact that Jack has decided to flake out on the other end of the sofa rather than leave it to me.

‘That’s such a girl thing to say,’ he mutters, rolling his green-gold eyes.

‘Piss off,’ I shoot back. ‘I’m practising for my long and illustrious career writing greeting card verses.’

‘You’ll be in great demand,’ he says with a grin. ‘Tell me another.’

I laugh into my glass; I’m definitely feeling uninhibited by the wine. ‘I need to know the occasion, at least.’

He considers the options. I really hope he doesn’t go for the obvious and say Valentine’s Day.

‘My dog died. Cheer me up.’

‘Oh, okay. Well,’ I pause and cast around for a snappy first line. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your dog who passed away, I hope that you remember the way he used to play.’ I draw out the last word with an upward inflection for emphasis, impressed with my own wit, before I carry on. ‘And how he always liked it when you used to stroke his head, yes, I’m truly very sorry that your precious dog is dead.’ I gather pace towards the end, and we both laugh.

‘I think I’d probably prefer a beer to any more shite jingles.’

Oh. I feel suddenly rude for being an ungracious hostess, but in my own defence, he’s caught me out. I didn’t expect him to emerge from Sarah’s room again tonight. I’d just pulled the remainder of the ice cream from the freezer for a second sitting and sat back down when he reappeared.

‘Go for it, there’s some in the fridge.’

I watch him as he leaves the room, all long legs in dark jeans and lean-limbed in an ink-blue shirt. He obviously made the effort for Sarah earlier in the evening, and at some point he’s loosened his tie. He drops back down with an open bottle of beer in his hand and holds up a spoon hopefully.

‘We didn’t get as far as dessert in the restaurant.’

I gaze down into the ice-cream tub and wonder if he’s going to be shocked by the fact that I’ve already eaten two-thirds of it.

‘What flavour is it?’ he asks as I hand it over hesitantly.

‘Karamel Sutra.’ Why couldn’t I have just said caramel?

‘Is that so?’ He raises his eyes to mine, amused. ‘Do I need to put my leg behind my head to eat it?’

If I was flirting with him I’d probably suggest he assume the downward dog or something, but as I’m not flirting with him, I just flip my eyes and sigh as if I’m terribly grown-up.

‘Only if you think it might aid your digestion.’

‘It might, but I’m fairly sure it’d ruin my jeans.’

‘Best not then,’ I say, my eyes trained on the TV. ‘This is one of my favourite bits.’

We both watch as Nic Cage goes into manly overdrive in order to protect the female guard on the plane full of convicts, Jack eating the ice cream, me nursing the last of the wine from the bottle. I’m pleasantly relaxed rather than roaring drunk, because a handy after-effect of student life is that it has given me the drinking capacity of your average rugby player. Sarah’s the same, usually.

‘There must have been a heck of a lot of free champagne for Sarah to get like that,’ I say, recalling the way she’d reeled into the flat earlier.

‘I’m not a big fan of the stuff so she had mine,’ he says. ‘They kept topping us up. She was drinking for two to save me from the embarrassment of saying no.’

I laugh. ‘She’s all heart, that girl.’

‘She’s going to have a headache in the morning.’

We lapse into silence again. I cast around for something to say to fill the chasm, because if I don’t, I’ll do the unthinkable and ask him if he remembers me from the bus stop. I really, really hope that at some point I stop having to consciously fight that particular urge, that it stops being important, or even relevant, to me. It’s a work in progress.

‘She likes you a lot,’ I blurt.

He takes a long, slow slug of his beer. ‘I like her a lot too.’ He looks at me sideways. ‘Are you about to warn me that if I ever hurt her you’ll come after me and black my eyes?’

‘Don’t think I couldn’t,’ I say, and then I make this ridiculous karate chop motion because I’m all bravado and no conviction, and what I was actually thinking was that I like them both a lot and it’s giving me the mother of all problems.

My loyalty lies firmly with Sarah, of course; I know where the line is and I’ll never cross it, but it’s just that sometimes the line feels like it’s been drawn with chalk on the grass, like at a school sports day, easily rubbed out and redrawn, but never in quite the same place as before. On nights like tonight, for instance, it has inched forward, and then on mornings like tomorrow, I’ll diligently push it back again.

‘Your secret ninja skills have been duly noted.’

I nod.

‘Not that you’re going to need to use them on me,’ he goes on. ‘I like Sarah more than enough to not want to hurt her.’

I nod again, glad for Sarah that he’s kind, sad for me that he’s Sarah’s, and mad at the world for being shitty enough to put me in this crap position in the first place.

‘Good. Then we understand each other.’

‘Spoken like a true mafia moll.’ He leans forward to slide his empty beer bottle on to the table. ‘A mafia ninja. You’re turning out to be a dangerous woman to be around, Laurie.’

Especially when I’ve had a bottle of wine and I half love you, I think. I really should go to bed now, before I scrub the chalk line out and move it forward again.


You’re turning out to be a dangerous woman to be around, Laurie.

What the bloody hell are these words coming out of my mouth? It sounds like a cheap pick-up line in a naff made-for-TV movie, when all I was trying to do was say we’re friends. You stupid Jackass; I berate myself using the nickname I carried through school like a badge of honour. My school reports were littered with variations of the same comment, though more politely put: ‘If only Jack applied as much effort to his studies as he does to acting the fool, he’d go a long way.’

I like to think I proved them wrong; when it came to the crunch my grades were just about decent enough to scrape into my first choice of uni. Truth is that I was lucky; I’ve been gifted with a near photographic memory, so those textbooks and theories only needed to go in once and they stayed there. With that and an ability to talk crap to anyone, I’ve done okay. Though for some reason my ability to talk doesn’t seem to extend to Laurie.

‘So, Laurie. What else should I know about you, besides the fact that you’ll beat me black and blue if I hurt your best mate?’

She looks startled by my question. I don’t blame her. The last time I asked anyone a question like that was my one and only hideous attempt at speed dating. What am I doing, interviewing her?

‘Umm …’ She laughs, music-box light. ‘There’s not really very much to tell.’

I try to bring it back to normal, shooting her a ‘try harder’ look. ‘Come on, throw me a bone here. Sarah wants us to be best buddies. Give me your three most embarrassing facts, and then I’ll give you mine.’

She narrows her eyes and her chin comes up a little. ‘Can we take it in turns?’

‘Go on then. As long as you go first.’

I tell myself that I’ve suggested this because Sarah is so keen on me and Laurie being friends, and that honestly, genuinely, is partly the reason. Partly. But the other part just wants to know more about her, because she intrigues me, and because I’m comfortable here on the other end of the sofa, and because I find myself relaxed in her company. Maybe it’s the wine she’s drunk, and it’s probably the beer I’ve sunk, but I think I could be good friends with this girl. That’s okay, isn’t it? I know some people don’t believe that platonic friendships can happen between men and women.

I’m going to trade truths with Laurie, and we’re going to become the best of friends. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my grand plan.

She drums her nails against the edge of her glass, thinking, and I find I’m really interested to hear what she’s going to say. She looks down into the dregs of her wine, and when she raises her eyes, she’s laughing.

‘Okay, I was fourteen, fifteen maybe.’ She breaks off and presses her hand to her red cheek, shaking her head. ‘I can’t believe I’m going to tell you this.’

That giddy laugh again, and she lowers her lashes, making me duck down to catch her eye.

‘Come on, you’ve got to tell me now,’ I cajole.

She sighs with resignation. ‘I was with Alana, my best friend at the time, and we were at the school disco trying to pretend we were super-cool. I think we might even have had a box of cigarettes, although neither of us smoked.’

I nod, wanting to hear more.

‘And there was this boy, as there always is, and I really fancied him. Half the school did, in actual fact, but by some miracle he seemed to like me too.’

I want to butt in and tell her that it’s not a miracle or even a surprise really, but I don’t.

‘So he finally asks me to dance at the end, and I nonchalantly accept, and it’s all going really well until I look up sharply just as he looks down at me, and I full-on headbutt him in the face and break his nose.’ She looks at me, wide-eyed, and then laughter bubbles up in her throat. ‘Blood everywhere. They had to call him an ambulance.’

‘No way.’ I shake my head slowly. ‘Wow, you’re a really shit date, Laurie.’

‘I wasn’t even dating him,’ she protests. ‘I wanted to, but it never got off the ground after that. No surprise, really.’ Knocking her knuckles on her skull, she shrugs. ‘Iron hard, by all accounts.’

‘Okay, so now you’re a ninja mafia moll with an exceptionally hard cranium. I can understand what Sarah sees in you.’

She plays it straight. ‘I reckon I must make her feel safe.’

‘I’ll say. You really should think about charging protection money. Pay your student loan off in no time.’

Laurie puts her wine glass on the table and leans back, tucking her dark hair behind her ears as she settles cross-legged, facing towards me. When I was a kid we went on annual family holidays to Cornwall, and my mother had a thing for those tiny little pixies you could buy, usually sitting on toadstools or something equally twee. Something in the neatness of Laurie’s lotus position and the point of her chin when she smoothes her hair behind her ears reminds me of those pixies now, and for a second I experience a jolt of homesickness out of the blue. As if she is familiar, even though she isn’t.

‘Your turn.’ She grins.

‘I don’t think I have anything that measures up,’ I say. ‘I mean, I’ve never even headbutted a woman.’

‘What kind of man are you?’

She feigns disappointment, and even though she is joking, I consider her question seriously.

‘A good one, I hope?’

Her laughter dies in her throat. ‘I hope so too.’

I know she means for Sarah’s sake.

‘How about this one …’ I change the subject abruptly. ‘Let me tell you about my sixth birthday party. Imagine a small child who got buried in the ball pit and then got so scared that his dad had to navigate the jungle of slides and scramble nets to find him. I was three foot under the balls and crying so much that I threw up. They had to clear the place.’ I have a vivid flashback to the faces of the horrified parents of the kid whose party dress got splattered with my chocolate-cake puke. ‘Funnily enough, my party invitation rate dropped off sharply after that.’

‘Oh, now that’s a sad story,’ she says, and I don’t even think she’s taking the piss.

I shrug. ‘I’m a man. I’m made of tough stuff.’

She raps her knuckles on her skull again. ‘You forget who you’re talking to here.’

I nod, solemn. ‘Ironwoman.’

‘The very same.’

We fall silent and assimilate what we now know of each other. For my part, I know that she’s awkward with men and likely to cause injury. For hers, she knows I scare easily and am liable to throw up over her. She takes the empty ice-cream carton and spoon from me and leans sideways to slide it on to the coffee table, and despite my best efforts, my man brain observes the movement of her limbs, the sliver of breast I can see under her arm, the inward curve at the base of her spine. Why do women have to have all of that going on? It’s really not okay. I want to be platonic friends with Laurie, yet my brain is filing away her every movement, storing her up, building a map of her in my head so I can visit her every now and then in my sleep. I don’t want to. When I’m awake, I really don’t think of Laurie in that way, but my sleeping brain doesn’t seem to have received the memo.

In sleep, I’ve observed that her skin is creamy pale and that her eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Laurie’s eyes are a fucking summer hedgerow. And now I can add that pronounced curve at the small of her back, and that she gets giddy after wine, and how she bites her bottom lip when she’s thinking. Times like this, my photographic memory becomes more an impediment than advantage. Of course, Laurie’s not the only woman I have dreams about, but she seems to warrant a more regular walk-on role than most. Not that I’m dreaming of other women all the time. I’m going to stop now, because I’m making myself sound like a closet sleazebag.

‘Right, I guess that makes it my turn again,’ she says. I nod, glad that she’s derailed my train of thought.

‘You’re going to have to go some to top the headbutt story.’

‘I started too strong,’ she agrees, chewing her lip again, struggling to dredge up something suitable.

To help her, I chuck out a few prompts.

‘That embarrassing incident when you went out in high winds without knickers?’ She smirks but shakes her head. ‘Poisoned someone with your cooking? The time you accidentally snogged your sister’s boyfriend?’

Her features soften, a sudden study of nostalgia and other emotions I find hard to read as they slide over her face. Christ. I must have said something really wrong, because now she’s blinking hard, as if she has something in her eyes. Like tears.

‘God. Shit, I’m sorry,’ she mutters, dashing the backs of her hands furiously across her eyes.

‘No, no. I am,’ I rush, still not sure what I’ve said to provoke such a reaction. I want to hold her hand, cover her kneecap with my palm, something, anything to say I’m sorry, but I can’t quite make my hand move.

She shakes her head. ‘It’s really not your fault.’

I wait for her to gather herself. ‘Want to talk about it?’

She looks down, pinching the skin on the back of her hand, small repetitive motions; a coping mechanism, using physical pain to detract from emotional upset. My pain-in-the-arse brother, Albie, wears an elastic band round his wrist that he snaps for the same reason.

‘My little sister died when she was six years old. I’d just turned eight.’

Shit. I take back that description of my brother. He’s four years younger than me and it’s true that he can be a right royal pain in the arse, but I love the fucking bones of him. I can’t even bear to think of the world without him in it.

‘Jesus, Laurie.’

This time I don’t think twice. As a tear rolls down her cheek I reach out and swipe it away with my thumb. Then she’s properly crying and I’m stroking her hair and shushing her as a mother soothes a child.

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have blurted that out,’ she gulps after a couple of minutes where both of us say nothing, pushing the heels of her palms into her eyes. ‘It caught me right out of nowhere. I haven’t cried about it for ages. Must be the wine.’

I nod as I lower my hand, feeling hideous for being so unwittingly insensitive.

‘I always say I only have a brother whenever anyone asks. I feel disloyal not mentioning her, but it’s easier than telling people the truth.’ She’s calmer now, drawing in slow, shaky breaths.

I have no real clue how to say the right thing in this situation, but I try; I have at least a small idea of how she might be feeling. ‘What was her name?’

Laurie’s face floods with warmth, and her vulnerability sears straight through me. Piercing, acute longing, bittersweet, as if something has been missing from her for too long. She sighs heavily as she turns to lean her back against the sofa beside me, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms round them. When she speaks again her voice is low and measured, like someone giving a rehearsed speech at a loved one’s funeral.

‘Ginny was born with a heart condition, but she was bright, and God, was she smart. She ran rings round me. She was my best friend.’ She pauses for a brief second, bracing herself for impact, as if she knows that telling the next part of her story is going to physically hurt. ‘Pneumonia. She was here one moment and then she was gone. I don’t think any of us have ever got over losing her. My poor mum and dad …’ She trails off, because there aren’t really any suitable words; parents should never have to bury their child. She isn’t pinching her skin any more; I don’t think there’s a coping mechanism in the world up to the job of distracting you from something like this.

On TV, Nicolas Cage is crashing around on a motorbike, all action and brawn, and here in this small living room I put my arm round Laurie’s shoulders and squeeze her against me. Her body judders with deep breaths, and she lays her head against my shoulder and closes her eyes. I can’t pinpoint the moment she falls asleep, but I’m glad she does because it’s what she needs right now. I don’t move, even though I probably should. I don’t get up and go to bed, even though a wiser man would have. I just sit and keep her company while she sleeps, and it feels … I don’t even know what it feels. Peaceful.

I don’t press my face into her hair.

15 February


When I wake up, I know there’s something I need to remember but my brain feels as if it’s wrapped in fuzzy felt. That’ll be the wine, I think groggily, and then I open my eyes and realize I’m not in bed. I’m still on the sofa, but my bed pillow is beneath my head and I’m snuggled under my duvet. A long squint at my watch tells me it’s only a little after six in the morning, so I lie back and close my eyes, working my way through the evening from the bit that comes most easily to mind.

Ice cream. Wine. Ryan Gosling rowing a boat. Swans. There were definitely swans. And, oh my God, Sarah had had a skin-full! I’ll check on her in a minute, it’s a good job Jack brought her home. Jack. Oh shit. Jack.

My mind sprints straight into panic mode, convincing myself that I must have said or done something terrible and disloyal and that Sarah is going to hate me. He was talking to me, and we were laughing and watching the movie, and then … Oh. And then I remember. Ginny. Sliding deep back inside the cocoon of my duvet, I screw my eyes up tight and let myself remember my sweet, beautiful little sister. Slender fingers, her nails so fragile they were almost translucent, the only other person in the world with eyes just like mine. I have to concentrate really hard to pull her childish voice from my memories, the excited joy of her giggle, the shimmer of her poker-straight blonde hair in sunlight. Fractured memories, faded like sun-damaged photographs. I don’t allow myself to think of Ginny very often in day-to-day life, or at all, really; it takes me a long time afterwards to reconcile the fact that she simply isn’t here any more, to not be furious with everyone else for breathing when she isn’t.

I remember last night clearly now. I didn’t do anything morally wrong with Jack, nothing that I need to feel compromised over in the traditional sense this morning, at least; I definitely didn’t show him my boobs or confess true love. Yet still I can’t let myself totally off the hook, because in truth I did cross a line, albeit a fine and almost invisible one. I can clearly feel it tangled around my ankles like fishing wire, ready to trip me up and make a liar out of me. I let myself get too close. All it took was a cheap bottle of wine to lower my guard; for one unwittingly misjudged comment to make me crumble like an abandoned sandcastle when the evening tide comes in.

5 June


‘Happy birthday, old biddy!’

Sarah blows a streamer in my face to wake me up and I struggle on to my elbows as she breaks into a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’.

‘Thank you!’ I give her a half-hearted round of applause. ‘Can I go back to sleep now, please? It’s eight o’clock on Saturday morning.’

She frowns. ‘You’re kidding, right? If you go to sleep now you’ll miss out on golden birthday hours.’

She sounds like one of her favourite Disney characters. ‘Last time I checked, we weren’t American teenagers on some cheesy TV show,’ I grumble.

‘Stop moaning and get out of bed right now. I’ve got big plans for you.’

I drop back on my pillow. ‘I already have a plan. It involves staying here until midday.’

‘You can do that tomorrow.’ She nods towards a mug on the side. ‘I made you coffee. You’ve got ten minutes before I come back and really wake you up rudely.’

‘You’re too bossy,’ I grumble, flinging my arm across my eyes. ‘I’m twenty-three now, and you’re still twenty-two. I’m old enough to be your mother. Go and clean your bedroom and do your homework.’

She toots on her streamer again as she leaves, laughing, and I shove my head underneath my pillow. I love that girl.

There are two clothes carriers hanging in the lounge when I emerge exactly nine and a half minutes later, and Sarah is practically hopping on the spot. Even more worryingly, the carriers are emblazoned with a fancy-dress hire company logo.

‘Umm, Sar …?’ I’m starting to realize she wasn’t kidding when she said she had a plan.

‘You’re going to die when you see,’ she says, her fists bunched with excitement like a kid on school-trip day.

I place my coffee down slowly. ‘Should I look now?’

‘Yes. But first you have to promise me that you’ll do exactly as I say for the next few hours, no questions asked.’

‘You sound like an undercover spy. Have you and Jack been watching too much James Bond again?’

She holds one of the carriers out towards me, but clutches on to it when I go to take it from her. ‘Promise first.’

I laugh and shake my head, intrigued. ‘Go on then, I promise.’

She hands it over with a little clap, then flaps her hands for me to hurry up and look inside. Holding it out at arm’s length, I give it a shake and then slide the central zipper down a few inches to sneak a glimpse.

‘It’s pink …’ I say, and she nods, fast.

I whoosh the zip all the way down and shrug the plastic cover off, revealing an instantly recognizable candyfloss-pink satin bomber jacket and black satin leggings.

‘You want me to dress up as a Pink Lady for my birthday?’

She grins and whips her own outfit out. ‘Not just you.’

‘We’re both pink ladies.’ I speak slowly, because I’m somewhat confused. ‘I mean, I kind of love it already as a birthday theme, but what are we going to do once we’re dressed? Because we’re going to stick out like sore thumbs down The Castle.’

‘We’re not going to the pub.’ Sarah’s eyes gleam with anticipation.

‘Can I ask where we are going?’

She laughs. ‘You can ask, but I won’t tell you the truth.’

‘How did I know you were going to say that?’

She unzips her jacket and slides her arms into it. ‘You have seen the movie, right?’

‘Once or twice.’ I roll my eyes, because everyone on the planet has seen Grease at least a dozen times, usually because it’s on TV on New Year’s Day and you can’t physically bring yourself to move and find the remote.

I hold up my satin leggings doubtfully. The waistband is about six inches across. ‘I hope they stretch,’ I say.

‘They do. I tried them on at about six o’clock this morning.’

Her words make me realize how hard she’s trying to give me a fun birthday; and the part of my mind that’s constantly feeling guilty at the moment gives me a hefty dig. Whatever it is she has planned for us today, I need to give her my one hundred per cent best.

‘Pink Ladies it is then,’ I say with a laugh.

She looks at her watch. ‘We need to leave at eleven. Go and jump in the shower, I’ve already been in. I’ll do your flicky eyeliner for you when you’re out.’

It’s midday and we’re on a train out of Waterloo, and it’s fair to say we’re getting our fair share of odd looks. I’m not surprised. We’re the only Pink Ladies on board today, and we definitely have the most fabulous hair and make-up. Sarah’s gone with a hig