The rules of the Crave were simple. V and I went to a nightclub in a predetermined place a good way from where we lived. We travelled there together, but entered separately. We made our way to the bar and stood far enough apart for it to seem like we weren’t together, but close enough that I could always keep her in vision. Then we waited. It never took long, but why would it when V shone as brightly as she did? Some hapless man would approach and offer to buy her a drink or ask her to dance. She would begin a mild flirtation. And I would wait, my eyes never leaving her, my body ready to pounce at all times. We have a signal: as soon as she raises her hand and pulls on the silver eagle she always wears round her neck I must act. In those dark throbbing rooms I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looking in that tall, broad way and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces, looking scared and timid. Sometimes we couldn’t wait to start kissing; sometimes we went to the loos and fucked in the stalls, V calling out so anyone could hear. Sometimes we made it home. Either way both our kisses tasted of Southern Comfort, V’s favourite drink.
It was V who named our game, on one of those dark, freezing nights where the rain looks like grease on your windows. V was wearing a black T-shirt which felt like velvet to touch. It skimmed over her round breasts and I knew she wasn’t wearing a bra. My body responded to her as it always did. She laughed as I stood up and put her hand against my hot chest. ‘That’s all any of us are ever doing, you know, Mikey. Everyone out there. All craving something.’
It is true to say that the Crave always belonged to V.
Part of me doesn’t want to write it all down but my lawyer says I must because he needs to get a clear handle on the situation. He says my story feels like something he can’t grab hold of. He also thinks it might do me good, so I better understand where we are. I think he’s an idiot. But I have nothing else to do all day as I sit in this godforsaken cell with only the company of Fat Terry, a man with a neck bigger than most people’s thighs, listening to him masturbating to pictures of celebrities I don’t recognise. ‘Cat still got your tongue? My banter not good enough for you?’ he says to me most mornings as I lie silently on my bunk, the words like unexploded bombs on his tongue. I don’t reply, but it never goes further than that because in here, when you’ve killed someone, you appear to get a grudging respect.
It is hard to believe that it isn’t even a year since I returned from America. It feels more like a lifetime, two lifetimes even. But the fact is I arrived home at the end of May and as I sit here now writing in this tiny, dark cell it is December. December can be warm and full of goodness, but this one is cold and flat, with days which never seem to brighten and a fog which never seems to lift. The papers talk of a smog blanketing London, returned from the dead as if a million Victorian souls were floating over the Thames. But really we all know it is a trillion tiny chemical particles polluting our air and our bodies, mutating and changing the very essence of who we are.
I think America might have been the beginning of the mess. V and I were never meant to be apart and yet we were seduced by the promise of money and speeding up time. I remember her encouraging me to go; how she said it would take me five years in London to earn what I could in two in New York. She was right of course, but I’m not sure now that the money was worth it. It feels like we lost something of ourselves in those years. Like we stretched ourselves so thin we stopped being real.
But our house is real and maybe that is the point? The equation could make me feel dizzy: two years in hell equals a four-bedroomed house in Clapham. It sounds like a joke when you put it like that. Sounds like nothing anyone sane would sell their soul for. But the fact remains that it exists. It will wait for us without judgement. It will remain.
I employed a house-hunter when I knew I was coming home, whom I always pictured stalking the streets of London with a gun in one hand and a few houses slung over her shoulder, blood dripping from their wounds. She sent me endless photos and details as I sat at my desk in New York which I would scroll through until the images blurred before my eyes. I found I didn’t much care what I bought, but I was very specific in my requests because I knew that was what V would want. I was careful with the location and also the orientation. I remembered that the garden had to be south-east-facing and I insisted on it being double-fronted because V always thought they were much friendlier-looking. There are rooms on either side of the hall, rooms which as a child I simply didn’t know existed, but which V taught me have peculiar names: a drawing room and library. Although I’ve yet to fill the bookcases and I have no plans to become an artist. The kitchen/diner, as estate agents love to refer to any large room containing cooking equipment, runs the entire back length of the house. The previous owners pushed the whole house out into the garden by five feet and encased it all in glass, with massive bifold doors which you can open and shut as easily as running your hand through water.
Underfloor-heated Yorkshire stone runs throughout this room and into the garden, so when the doors are open you can step from inside to out without a change in texture. ‘Bringing the outside in,’ Toby the estate agent said, making my hands itch with the desire to punch him. ‘And really, they’ve extended the floor space by the whole garden area,’ he said meaninglessly, pointing to the sunken fire pit and hot tub, the inbuilt barbeque, the tasteful water feature. He was lucky that I could already imagine V loving all those details, otherwise I would have turned and walked out of the house there and then.
And that would have been a shame, as upstairs is the part I like best. I’ve had all the back rooms knocked together and then re-partitioned so we have what Toby would no doubt call a master suite, but is actually a large bedroom, a walk-in wardrobe and a luxurious bathroom. I chose sumptuous materials for all the fittings: silks and velvets; marbles and flints, the most beggingly tactile of all the elements. I have heavy drapes at the windows and clever lighting, so it’s dark and sensuous and bright and light in all the right places. At the front of the house are two smaller bedrooms and in the roof is another bedroom and ensuite, leading to a roof terrace at the back. Fantastic for guests, as Toby said.
I’ve also taken great care over the furnishings. A tasteful mix of modern and antique, I think you’d say. Modern for all the useful things like the kitchen and bathroom and sound system and lighting and all that. Antique for all the totems. I have become a bit of an expert at trawling shops and sounding like I know what I’m talking about. And I found a field in Sussex which four or five times a year is transformed into a giant antiques market. People from Eastern Europe drive over huge lorries filled with pieces from their past and laugh at all of us prepared to part with hundreds of pounds for things which would be burnt in their country. You’re meant to bargain with them, but often I can’t be bothered, often I get swept away with it all. Because there is something amazing about running your hand along the back of a chair and finding grooves and ridges and realising that yours is only one of so many hands which must have done exactly this.
I bought a cupboard last time and when I got it home and opened it there were loads of telephone numbers written in pencil inside the door. ‘Marta 03201’, ‘Cossi 98231’, and so on and so on. It felt like a story without a beginning, middle or end. They struck me as possible workings of a private investigator, or even clues in a murder case. I had imagined having it stripped and painted a dark grey, but after I found the numbers I left it exactly as it was, with flaking green paint and an internal drawer which sticks whenever you try to open it. I’ve become attached to the rootlessness of the numbers. I like the thought that none of us will ever know what really happened to these women, or to the person who wrote down their numbers. But I’m not sure what V will think about the cupboard. Perhaps she will want to smooth the numbers away.
The colours on the walls all belong to V. Lots of navy blues and dark greys, even black in places, which the interior designer assured me wasn’t depressing any more. She encouraged me to have the outside of the cupboards in the walk-in wardrobe painted a shining black and the insides a deep scarlet. She told me it was opulent, but I’m not sure she was right because all I see when I walk into the room is leather and dried blood.
Almost the first piece of post I received after I moved in was an invitation to V’s wedding. It came in a cream envelope and felt heavy in my hand, my not yet familiar address calligraphed in a fine ink. The same flowery hand had emblazoned my name across the top of the card, which was thick and soft, the black lettering raised and tactile. I stared at my name for a long time, so long I could imagine the hand holding the pen, see the delicate strokes used. There was a slight smudge against the ‘i’, but apart from that it was perfect. I took the invitation into the drawing room and rested it on the mantelpiece, underneath the gilt mirror, behind the tall silver candlesticks. My hand, I noticed, was shaking slightly and I knew I was hotter than the day allowed. I kept my hand against the cool marble of the fire surround and concentrated on the intricate curls holding up the perfect flatness of the shelf. It reminded me that pure, flawless marble is one of the most desired materials known to man, but also one of the hardest to find. If it’s easy it’s probably not worth having, V said to me once, and that made me smile, standing in my drawing room with my hand against the marble.
I knew what she was doing; it was all fine.
I had emailed V from New York to let her know I was coming home. That was when she replied to say she was getting married. It was the first piece of correspondence we’d had since Christmas and it shook me very badly. I had only stopped trying to contact her in February and I emailed with my news at the end of April, which meant she’d only had a couple of months to meet someone and agree to marry him. I know you’ll be surprised … she wrote:
… but also I think your silence these past few months means you’ve accepted that we are over and want to move on as much as me. Who knows, perhaps you already have! And I know it seems quick, but I also know I’m doing the right thing. I feel like I owe you an apology for the way I reacted to what happened at Christmas. Perhaps you just realised before I did that we were over and I shouldn’t have behaved as I did, I should have sat down and spoken properly to you. I hope you’ll be happy for me and I also hope that we’ll be able to be friends. You were and are very special to me and I couldn’t bear the thought of not having you in my life.
For a few days I felt simply numb, as if an explosion had gone off next to me and shattered my body. But I quickly realised how pedestrian this reaction was. Apart from all the love she clearly still had for me, V seemed to be under the impression that I had wanted the relationship to end. Her breezy tone was so far removed from the V I knew, I wondered for a moment if she had been kidnapped and someone else was writing her emails. The much more plausible explanations were that V was not herself, or she was using her tone to send me a covert message. There were two options at play: either she had lost her mind with the distress I had caused her at Christmas and jumped into the arms of the nearest fool, or she needed me to pay for what I’d done. The latter seemed by far the most likely; this was V after all and she would need me to witness my own remorse. It was as if the lines of her email dissolved and behind them were her true words. This was a game, our favourite game. It was obvious that we were beginning a new, more intricate Crave.
I left it a few days before replying to V’s email and then I chose my words carefully. I adopted her upbeat tone and told her I was very happy for her and of course we would still be friends. I also told her I would be in touch with my address when I got back to London, but after the invitation landed on my mat I knew I needn’t bother. It meant she had called Elaine and that in itself meant something. It also meant that she probably wasn’t as angry as she had been any more. I quickly came to see the invitation for what it was: the first hand in an elaborate apology, a dance only V and I could ever master. I even felt sorry for Angus Metcalf, as the ridiculous invitation revealed him to be.
MR AND MRS COLIN WALTON
REQUEST THE PLEASURE OF
YOUR COMPANY AT THE MARRIAGE
OF THEIR DAUGHTER
MR ANGUS METCALF
AT STEEPLE CHAPEL, SUSSEX
ON SATURDAY 14TH SEPTEMBER
AT 3 O’CLOCK
AND AFTERWARDS AT
I woke sometimes with the invitation lying next to me in bed, not that I ever remembered taking it up with me. Once, it was under my cheek and when I peeled it from me I felt the indentations it had left. In the mirror I could see the words, branded on to my skin.
I left it a few days and then sent a short note to V’s mother saying I would be delighted to attend. Not, I knew, that she would share my delight.
I have spent a lot of time with Colin and Suzi over the years and there was a time when I imagined them coming to see me as a sort of son. Sometimes at Christmas it was hard to shake the feeling that V and I were siblings sitting with our parents over a turkey carcass. ‘We make a funny pair,’ she said to me once, ‘you with no parents, me with no siblings. There’s so little of us to go around. We have to keep a tight hold of each other to stop the other from floating away.’ Which was fine by me. I loved nothing more than encircling V’s tiny waist and pulling her towards me in bed, feeling her buttocks slip like a jigsaw into my groin, as our legs mirrored each other in a perfect outline, her head resting neatly under my chin.
Sometimes I think I liked V best when she slept. When I felt her go heavy in my arms and her breath would thicken and slow. I would open my mouth so that my jaw was able to run along the top of her head and I could feel all the ridges and markings on her skull. It didn’t feel like it would be hard to go further than the bone, to delve into the pulpy mixture protecting the grey mass of twisted ropes which formed her brain. To feel the electric currents surging, which kept her alive and alert. Often I would feel jealous of those currents and all the information they held. I would want to wrap them around myself so she would only dream of me, so that I filled her as much as she filled me.
I wonder if V had to argue with her mother to invite me, or if Suzi thought it would serve me right to see her daughter happily married to someone else. I wonder if she planned to look at me during the ceremony and smile.
But in retrospect Suzi was always a stupid woman, always pretending she wanted to be different when really she wanted to be exactly like the people who had surrounded her all her life. I should have realised this sooner, as soon really as I heard her name.
‘I’m Susan,’ she said to me on our first meeting, ‘but call me Suzi,’ which wasn’t too bad until I discovered she spelt it with an ‘i’. A ‘y’ would have been too cosy for Suzi, too normal, too close to who she actually is. And you should never trust people who yearn to be something other than who they are.
It wasn’t even vaguely hard to get a job in the City when I arrived back in London. I had glowing references from the American bank and my performance there spoke for itself. My new salary was large and my bonus promised even more. I didn’t mind the journey to the office each day and I even liked the tall, glinting building I worked in, high in the clouds. I spent my days shouting about numbers and watching them ping and jump on the screens on my desk. It was so easy I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t do it.
V had always said we should aim for retirement at forty-five and it was a target which looked easily within my grasp. I presumed she hadn’t completely changed her life since February and was still at the Calthorpe Centre, working in her sterile basement on her computer programmes which, she said, would render humans useless one day. She claimed not to know why she did it, why she persevered so steadily to make machines cleverer than we are, but I think she loved the idea of inventing something artificial that was better than the real thing. I think she loved the idea of seeing if she could outsmart human emotion.
It occurs to me now that if V hadn’t got her job we might have gone to America together. We might still be there. But I don’t like to think this way; it leads you down too many dangerous paths, into worlds of temptation which can never be yours. And I indulged too much in that sort of thinking as a child: that woman kissing her child in the park could be your mother, your key could let you into the house down the road with roses round the door, the smell of frying onions could be someone preparing your dinner.
And anyway, that is what happened. I got the job in America and she got the job in London. We were both riding the crest of a wave, me offered a salary so high I couldn’t take it seriously and V the youngest person ever to have been taken on as a director at the Calthorpe Centre, only six years out of university.
‘How clever of them to make it sound so innocent, like a medical foundation or something,’ she said after she took the call.
I wrapped her in my arms and whispered my congratulations. ‘But I’m going to New York in three months,’ I said.
She pulled away from me and her face tightened round her words. ‘I can’t turn this down, Mikey.’
Something rose through me which I thought might tip me off balance. ‘I won’t go then. I can get another job here.’
‘No. You’ve got to go. It’s an amazing opportunity for you. You can do a couple of years and earn lots of money and then we can start our proper life when you get back.’
‘You make it sound so easy.’
‘That’s because it is. We’ll talk every day and it’s not that far. We can fly over for weekends. It will be romantic.’ She laughed. ‘You’ll be even more like my eagle, flying across the Atlantic in your silver bullet.’
But that thought jolted me. I reached out and took her by the shoulders. ‘You have to promise that you won’t ever Crave without me, V.’
She shook herself free and rubbed where my hands had held her. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
Her tone cut at me and I turned away, trying to hide my hurt. But she followed me, twisting her body round mine. ‘Mike, I would never do that, you must know that.’
She stood on tiptoes so that her mouth was against my ear. ‘I love seeing how scared they are of you,’ she whispered. I held myself still, until she said, ‘Let’s Crave.’
I think we both knew it would be our last time. We went to a bar just off Leicester Square. We’d been there before, but not for at least six months. It was always filled with foreign students and tourists and gangs of boys up from the provinces. And the odd prostitute or escort. No one there looked as if they were having a good time and the music was a hard, steady thump which reverberated through your body and felt like you were giving yourself CPR. The lights strobed, making everyone’s skin take on a sickly, alien pallor. And something fluorescent in the air made the whites of everyone’s eyes glint and lint show up on everyone’s clothes.
V was wearing a grey silk dress which revealed the milky whiteness of her shoulders and her long, thin neck which curled into the base of her skull. She had piled her dark hair on top of her head, but tendrils had escaped to caress her neck, in a promise of what your lips could do. Black liner flicked over her eyes, stretching and elongating them, and she licked at her full lips which had never needed any lipstick. There was a blush high on her cheekbones, but I didn’t know if it was real or false. She smiled as the barman handed her a tall, brown drink and I saw her nails were painted black.
My own drink was too sweet and it coated my throat so it felt tight and sore. My head was filled with the knowledge of the time we were going to have to spend apart, which was causing an ache to build in my temples. A drunk man swayed into me, his girlfriend giggling on his arm. We were right next to the bar and it would have been very easy to take his head in my hands and bash it against the hard wood. The blood would have come quickly, his head contorted and broken, before anyone could have stopped me.
I looked back at V and she was still alone, still leaning against the bar, her drink making frequent trips to her mouth. It was possible she looked too perfect for this place and I thought about telling her we should leave. It was like putting an exotic butterfly in a roomful of flies, all buzzing round their own shit. I pushed myself off the bar to go to her, but as I did so a man approached her. He wasn’t much taller than she was; stocky, his large muscles bulging like Popeye’s from a pristine white T-shirt. His skin was swarthy and even from where I stood I could see it was covered in a film of sweat. A heavy silver chain with some sort of round coin encircled his neck and his black hair was slicked off his face. He wasn’t ugly, but something about him was grotesque, almost as though his features were too large for his face.
I stopped myself from moving, my eyes locked on to the encounter. I imagined, as I always did at this moment, what it was like to be that close to V, to feel the heat from her body and to imagine your hands at work there; to look at her lips as she spoke, to catch glimpses of her tongue as she laughed and wonder what that mouth was capable of. He leant forward as he spoke, craning close to her ear, his hand poised in the air just by her arm, as if summoning up the courage to touch her. She laughed. He dropped his hand to her hip, where it finally connected with her body through the silk. She was still leaning against the bar, but she tilted her hips forwards slightly so he could slide his hand behind her, against her buttocks. He closed the gap between them, extinguishing all the air, his groin pushing against her hips, no doubt already advertising whatever it was he had. I kept my eyes on V’s hands, but they stayed on her drink and the eagle hung uselessly round her neck.
My breathing had deepened and my body felt weak and useless. A mist was drawing down and I worried that soon I wouldn’t be able to see at all. Soon I would miss V’s sign and she would be swallowed by the night and the man. I turned my head and saw the neon exit sign above the door. I imagined walking towards it and into the open, returning alone to our flat, getting into bed and waiting for her to come home. I imagined letting go and not caring, the idea like tiny pins in my brain.
I looked back and even though the man’s face was against V’s neck, I could see her hand on the bird. The woman in front of me yelped as I pushed her out of the way. ‘Watch out,’ she called after me, pointlessly. Even in the moments it took for me to reach her, I saw V’s expression change. She wasn’t laughing any more and was pushing slightly against the man’s chest as he lowered his face towards hers. I took him by the shoulder, yanking him backwards so his drink made a stain down the front of his T-shirt.
‘What the fuck are you doing to my girlfriend?’ I asked, feeling the people around us melting into the background.
‘What the fuck?’ he said, straightening up. We stared at each other for a minute, but I had height and muscle on him and he had felt my strength when I pulled him back. He waved his hands in the air. ‘Nice fucking girlfriend,’ he said to me. Then he looked at V. ‘Cocktease,’ he said, turning away.
I felt V’s hand on my arm as it tensed and drew back, ready to lay waste to his stupid, oversized face. She turned me towards her and pulled me closer and I leant down and kissed her, putting my hands where his had been, laying back my claim. Her tongue was quick and fast and I wanted her so much I thought I would sweep the drinks off the bar and lay her in the spilt liquor. But she pulled me away, past the round tables and chairs, past the writhing bodies on the dance floor, past the booming speakers, past the merging couples, to a dark corner. She backed herself into it, pulling me towards her. She opened my flies and pulled me out, wrapping her legs around me. The silk of her dress slithered upwards too easily and she wasn’t wearing underwear, so I was inside her quickly and she was biting the side of my neck and moaning and it was like all the other people had gone and we were the only ones there, the only ones who mattered.
Afterwards, in the cold night air, with drunken people bustling along their sad, forlorn ways to terrible encounters, V said, ‘For a second I thought you’d abandoned me.’
I took her hand. ‘How can you say that?’
‘Because I touched the bird and it took you a while to come.’
I realised I must have spent longer looking at the exit sign than I’d meant to. ‘I’d never abandon you,’ I said.
‘Promise?’ she said and I looked over and saw she wasn’t giggling any more. She looked smaller, the black lines smudged now around her eyes.
I stopped, even though the streets were so full people immediately walked into us. I lifted the delicate silver bird which lived on the chain round her neck and she stepped towards me. ‘I’m your eagle,’ I said. ‘You know that.’
I didn’t give V the necklace. In fact, she told me she bought it for herself with her first ever pay packet from a waitressing job when she was sixteen. She told me she’d been walking past a shop and it had glinted at her from a window and she’d felt a deep desire to possess it. I had always presumed it to be a dainty bird, like a swift or even a clichéd lovebird, and I was surprised when she first told me it was an eagle. But when I looked properly I saw the length of the wings and the curved beak.
‘Eagles are magnificent,’ V had said. ‘They are the only birds which get excited by a storm, then they fly straight into it, so they can look down on all the chaos. But also,’ she said, putting her hands over mine, ‘they are very loyal. They mate for life.’
I’d leant down and kissed her mouth. ‘I’m your eagle,’ I’d said.
I thought it expedient to make friends in my new City job, even though the same plan hadn’t gone that well in New York. I would be fine if it was just V and me forever, but I’ve learnt that people find you strange if you’re happy like that. So, I’ve learnt their ways. I understand now that people do not always mean what they say. That they enjoy hours of meaningless chat in crowded bars without a reason like the Crave for being there. That they are happy to share their bodies with others and then act as if they barely know them.
If someone says something like, ‘I could fucking kill him,’ or, ‘I’m feeling so depressed,’ or, ‘My legs are literally about to drop off,’ they don’t actually mean any of those things. They don’t even mean anything close to those things. When a woman puts her hand on your leg she does not expect you to reciprocate. When a man calls you mate, it doesn’t mean he likes you. When someone says, ‘We must get together soon,’ you shouldn’t ask them when or text them the next day.
When I was in primary school I pushed another boy in my class, Billy Sheffield, and he fell and grazed his knee. My teacher, whose name I forget, told me I had to say sorry, but I refused because I wasn’t. He had called me some name, again I forget what but it would have been something along the lines of Two-Stripe or Fleabag, in reference to my market-stall trainers and unwashed clothes. Either way, I wasn’t sorry. So they took me to the little office where rumour had it they sent the crazy kids. A rosy-cheeked woman smiled at me and told me to sit in a comfy chair whilst she offered me sweets. It made me wonder if being crazy was all that bad after all.
‘Why aren’t you sorry?’ she finally asked me, after I’d stuffed myself with Smarties.
‘Because I’m not,’ I said.
‘But when you saw the blood on Billy’s knee, didn’t you feel bad that you’d done it?’ she said.
I thought back to the moment, standing over Billy and looking down at his raw knee, the skin scraped back and drops of blood popping on to the skin. I knew how it would sting and burn, how a bit of gravel might get trapped inside and how the nurse would right now probably be spreading foul-smelling iodine across the graze, wrapping it in a white bandage which he would wear like a medal of honour. ‘I thought he deserved it,’ I said.
‘No one ever deserves to be hurt,’ she said, still smiling.
‘He called me a bad name.’
‘Yes and that was very mean. He’ll be punished for that. But you still have to say sorry for hurting him.’ I must have looked blank, because she went on. ‘Sometimes, Michael, it’s worth saying sorry even if you don’t completely mean it. Just to keep the peace and make the other person feel better.’
I still sometimes wish I’d asked her if that applies to all emotion, or only contrition.
But I have learnt enough lessons over the years to better understand what is and is not expected in life. I knew, for example, that when George, who worked in the next office to mine, asked if I’d like to come out for a drink soon after I started in the City, I should arrange my face into a smile and say yes.
I had by then established a successful routine, and that made me feel confident about being able to adapt to a social situation. I rose every day at 5 a.m., ran for forty minutes along the same route, which was an acceptable 9K, came home, showered and dressed and left the house at 6.10 a.m., in order to be at my desk by 6.45 a.m. The office had its own gym, as all those offices do, and so I also worked out during my lunch hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I would have done it every day, but I knew there would soon be client lunches to attend and times when it was necessary to look as if I was so busy I was working through lunch. This set-up meant I had a bit of flexibility and could switch my days around if need be. I also bought a bench press and weights for home. For now they were in the bare library, but I knew V would never agree to this arrangement so I had already looked into the costs and feasibility of excavating the basement to make way for a gym. V always loved the heat, so I thought a sauna would work down there as well.
There were eleven of us out that evening, although only two are worth mentioning: George and Kaitlyn. George was loud and good-looking, but he drank too much and wasn’t very bright. His godfather ran the firm or something and his father was a lord, so he never had to worry about things like performance. You’d be amazed how many people there are like that in the City. How hard the rest of us have to work to carry them. And you could hate them, but what’s the point? The world, as I learnt at a young age, is hardly fair and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.
Kaitlyn worked in another office along my corridor, so we’d waved and said hello before. She was thin and tall and always dressed in some sort of dark-coloured suit, with amazingly high heels. I would watch her stride past my windows and wonder how on earth she didn’t trip and break her ankle. And yet she moved so effortlessly in them I concluded that she must have been wearing them for so long they had become an extension of her leg. Kaitlyn was very pale, with the lankest, blondest hair I’d ever seen. She was so blonde the shade extended to her eyelashes and eyebrows, which gave her an otherworldly quality. And her eyes were very blue, almost like looking at ice. I thought she’d be stern and severe, but in fact she was the exact opposite.
‘So, how are you finding us all?’ she asked when we found ourselves at the bar together, her accent a beautiful, soft Irish.
‘So far, so good.’
‘I hear you made a killing at Schwarz. I’d love to work there one day. My dream is to live in an apartment overlooking Central Park.’
‘My apartment overlooked Central Park.’ I glanced back at the rest of our table as I spoke, wondering when I could leave. We had been there for two hours and they were all already sweaty and red-faced, with a few of them making frequent trips to the toilets.
‘Oh wow,’ she said. ‘Why did you come back?’
‘I did my two years. London’s my home. The plan was never to go for more than two years.’
‘Yes, but New York. And Schwarz.’
Neither of us seemed to want to go back to our table, so I sipped at my drink at the bar. ‘My girlfriend has a job here she couldn’t leave.’
‘Oh, right. It must be impressive if it tops Schwarz.’
‘She’s not a banker. She works in Artificial Intelligence.’
Kaitlyn whistled through her teeth, an odd sound, not unlike one you’d use to call a dog. ‘Wow, what a power couple.’
‘Not really.’ I noticed that Kaitlyn wasn’t drinking her wine and the glass was tilting over the bar. ‘Careful, you might spill that.’
She looked down and laughed, taking a small sip. ‘So, where do you live now?’
‘Oh, near me then. Are you by the common?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, Verity was very particular about being near the common. She’s a runner.’
‘I’m a walker,’ Kaitlyn said. ‘I’ve got a little dog and I walk him there every weekend. It’s the closest I get to home.’
‘A tiny village in the south of Ireland. You won’t have heard of it.’
‘Is your family still there?’
She nodded and I was struck suddenly by the thought of her flying across the sea to this harsh London life, away from the coast and the hills.
‘What brought you here?’
She shrugged. ‘Oh, you know, life. Ireland’s beautiful but it’s not the easiest place.’ For a terrible moment I thought she was going to cry, but she laughed instead. ‘I bet you have one of those gorgeous double-fronted houses on Windsor Terrace.’
‘How on earth did you know that?’ I asked too quickly, wondering if she’d been looking through my personnel file or something.
But she laughed again. ‘Because that road is just one long line of bankers, that’s why!’
I tried to picture some of my neighbours, but realised I couldn’t. I hoped she was exaggerating. Because if there is one thing V hates it’s unoriginality. And what could be more unoriginal than working in the City and living on a road of bankers? I could feel Kaitlyn looking at me but I refused to return her stare, feeling my cheeks colour under her scrutiny. I hated her at that moment, with a deep, horrible passion. Because how dare she come along and piss on my bonfire? My beautifully laid, perfectly proportioned bonfire.
It took me all the evening until my walk home from the Tube to realise that what Kaitlyn had said didn’t matter anyway. V wasn’t a banker, so she wouldn’t know if all her neighbours were bankers. I breathed more easily as I walked, but still I peered into all the windows without their curtains drawn. And it didn’t make me feel much better, because I saw a lot of similar rooms, not just to each other, but to my own. A lot of dark walls, industrial lighting, expensive modern art, sleek corner sofas, state-of-the-art media systems, stripped floors. I also saw a lot of bloated middle-aged men in half-discarded suits and thin blonde women in pale cashmere, holding glasses full of what would undoubtedly be the finest red wine.
I poured myself a glass of my own fine red when I got in, loosening my tie and throwing my jacket over a chair, kicking my shoes into the corner. I knew V would hate that, but she wasn’t there to see it and I also knew I would never behave like that once she moved in. I wandered into the drawing room and put Oasis on the media system. Oasis are V’s favourite band; mine too. Before I met her I only listened to bands like the Clash and Nirvana and Hole. I liked to lock myself away with music and let it thunder in my ears while I beat a frantic imaginary drum on my bed. V said I should listen more to the lyrics because that was where the beauty lay. She allowed Nirvana, but she couldn’t believe I didn’t own any Beatles or Bowie, any Lloyd Cole or Prince, any Joni Mitchell or the Carpenters. But mostly she couldn’t believe I didn’t own any Oasis. Noel Gallagher writes the best love songs in the world, she said, which made me feel jealous of him, that he could make her feel something I couldn’t.
V’s wedding invitation taunted me from the mantelpiece and I felt an overwhelming urge to break the rules and contact her. I got my laptop out of the cupboard and sat with it on the sofa. First I googled her name, but as usual nothing came up. Her Facebook profile was still deleted and she had never been on public social media sites like Twitter or LinkedIn. She had, of course, changed her phone number after the American incident and I didn’t even know her address. The only access I still had to her was by email. Between January and February I had emailed her every day, sometimes more than once a day, but she never replied, not until the one I’d sent about coming home. Which meant that my breaking off contact had been the right thing to do.
I realised as I sat there that I had partly stopped emailing her to make sure she didn’t delete that account as well. Because if she had done then I would have had very little link left to her and that thought was too terrifying to contemplate. Naturally I had also recognised that I needed to get myself together and set up back in London before I could present myself as a realistic proposition to her again. I glanced back up at the shiny white invitation and the rage I felt was so pure and intense I was surprised the paper didn’t combust. It had taken her only a couple of months to meet and agree to marry this man. It was possible she had fallen so in love she had been what they call ‘swept off her feet’.
I stood at this thought, knocking my laptop to the floor, and paced the length of my drawing room once, twice, three times. I had to stop then and bend double, placing my hands on my knees and retching. I stood and leant my head against the wall, knocking it slightly as I did, although that felt good, so I did it again, then again, the thump I was feeling reverberating pleasantly through my body. When I stood back I saw some blood on the newly painted walls, so I went into the kitchen to get a cloth. The half-finished bottle of red was on its side so I picked that up as well. But as I was crossing the hall back to the drawing room there was a ring on the doorbell. It was past midnight and V was the only person I could imagine calling at this time. She was practically the only person who knew where I lived.
I rushed to the door and threw it open, but it wasn’t V, just a small, slightly overweight woman, dressed in what looked like pyjamas.
She took a small step back as I opened the door.
‘Oh, sorry. Are you OK?’ she asked, gesturing to my forehead.
‘Yes, yes, it’s nothing,’ I said, realising as I spoke that I was still holding the bottle of wine and the cloth. ‘Walked into a door.’
‘Oh, OK. I live next door.’
‘Yes,’ I said, although I couldn’t remember ever having seen her before.
She held out her hand. ‘Lottie.’
I nodded. ‘Mike.’
She smiled awkwardly. ‘Yes, I know. We work together.’
‘Oh,’ I said, trying to arrange my face into a look of recognition, although really my brain was scrambling for who she might be. ‘Sorry, yes of course.’
She laughed. ‘I’m at the other end of the trading floor, so, well …’
‘No, no, I was just being stupid.’ Her features meant nothing to me.
‘Although I think I might be moving over to your team in the near future.’
I vaguely remembered an email I’d received in the week about a change in personnel. The idea of living next door to a colleague was terrible, but I smiled. ‘Oh, great.’
‘Anyway. I’m really sorry to ask. It’s just I’m doing a ten K tomorrow and have to be up really early and, well, the music, I just wondered …’
I turned as she spoke, aware suddenly of Liam Gallagher shouting behind me about champagne supernovas, the noise spilling out into the street. ‘Oh I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.’
‘No, no, it’s fine. Normally I wouldn’t be such a party pooper, but you know.’ Lottie was backing down the path as she spoke, her hand raised in a gesture of farewell.
‘I’ll turn it down right now,’ I called after her.
I shut the door and went into the drawing room where the noise hit me like a wall. I snapped off the stereo, the silence immediately pressing around me, my eardrums still beating.
I sat back on to the sofa and poured myself a final glass. In the silence it was much easier to think clearly. Of course V hadn’t fallen in love that quickly. Of course she hadn’t fallen in love at all. She was still in love with me and I knew that to be true for two reasons: firstly, V wasn’t the sort of person to be swept off her feet, and secondly she would never have been so angry about the American incident if she hadn’t loved me. I had to keep reminding myself what I had already worked out: this was all part of our game. This was our ultimate Crave and only I would understand that.
I picked my laptop off the floor and rested it on my knees. Perhaps it would be stranger to simply turn up at her wedding without contacting her first. The rules of any game dictate that a move by one player is followed by the move of another. She had made the first move; I must make the second.
From: [email protected]
I just wanted to let you know I’m back now. Thanks for the invite to your wedding. I’ve let your mum know I’m coming.
I’ve got myself a job at Bartleby’s and I’ve bought a house in Clapham, although you must know that, as how else would I have received the invitation! I really think you’d love it. You should come round some time. It would be good to meet Angus as well. Where are you living now? Are you still at Calthorpe’s? I hope all is good there.
I’m still very sorry for all that happened and I can’t pretend I wasn’t surprised when you told me you were getting married. But I know life moves on. I understand a lot of what you said to me now.
It would be really good to see you.
I debated for a while about putting in the eagle bit, but V had often called me her eagle and I needed to start reminding her who we were. I wanted her to know that I got it, that I knew we’d started playing again.
I woke a few hours later with a pounding head and stiff limbs, the sun streaming through the window, revealing all the particles in the air before my face. I pushed myself up and saw another patch of blood where I had been lying. I reached my hand to my temple, but it was tender to touch, so I stood and looked in the mirror above the fireplace. I was shocked to see a mean, red lump protruding above my eyebrow. It looked like a tiny volcano on my face, rising to a dark peak, from which a thin trail of dried, almost black blood had run down one side.
I showered and brushed my teeth and drank a pint of water to rid my mouth of the taste of rotting meat, all of which removed the desire to die. But still all I felt capable of was putting on a tracksuit and dragging a blanket to the sofa. If V was here I knew she would make me some hot tea and feel my forehead; she would tuck in the covers and ruffle my hair. I checked my email, but my inbox was empty.
The day was very long. I ordered in food and watched the sort of television programmes that had punctuated my childhood, but which V had taught me to despise. Where once these types of shows had soothed me, sometimes even made me laugh, now I could only see them through her eyes, could only see fat, stupid people competing for non-existent prizes, as if humiliating yourself in public was the point.
I checked my email every ten or so minutes. At one point I unplugged and then reset my broadband. But I was worried this had done something to it, so I called my provider, who assured me there was nothing wrong with my connection. I asked Google how long undeliverable mail takes to be returned and was told the postmaster should inform you of a difficulty almost immediately, but confirmation could take up to three days.
The day drifted into the evening and the television got worse, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on books or music. I had my laptop open next to me, my inbox forever on the screen, my finger constantly refreshing the page.
I slept fitfully, on the sofa again, although this time I did have the foresight to close the curtains. I dreamt of V, trapped in an electronic world of her own creation, stuck behind a million passwords, which no human would ever be clever enough to decipher. She was being attacked by a massive eagle and screamed my name constantly. I woke with a start, my heart pinning me to the sofa like a butterfly in a box, my body covered in sweat and my mouth painfully dry. I lay very still and regulated my breathing, first into my toes, then up my legs, through my belly, my chest, neck and out of the top of my head. I felt better when I’d done that and I could see light creeping round the edges of the curtains, which gave me some hope. And I remembered all was not lost: Suzi and Colin were still at Steeple House, just as they always would be, and I knew that place as well as anywhere in the world.
I left it until 10 a.m. and then ten minutes more. By then I had run, showered and dressed, cleaned the house and opened the doors into the garden and made myself a pot of coffee. I would walk across the common in a bit and buy a paper, maybe even have lunch in a pub. Normal Sunday pursuits.
Steeple House’s number was still stored in my phone, although it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been lost. Suzi took a while to answer, but I knew better than to ring off, knew she would be in the garden on a fine summer morning with her daughter’s wedding looming and all the guests to impress.
‘Mike?’ she said, failing to hide her surprise behind her over-accentuated vowels.
‘How are you, Suzi?’ I asked, keeping my voice light.
‘Well. We’re fine, thank you,’ she replied, recovering herself. ‘Thank you for replying to the invitation so swiftly.’
I was worried when she said that. I thought I’d left an adequate time, but maybe I was wrong, maybe I looked too keen. ‘It will be lovely to see you and Colin.’
‘Yes. How long have you been back in England for?’
I could hear the radio spluttering on in the background and I knew it would be Radio 4, which was never turned off in Steeple House. V and I always listened to Radio 4 as well and I do miss it, but it’s one of the things I still find too painful. ‘A couple of months. I’ve bought a house in Clapham and got a job at another bank.’
‘Well, yes. Verity told me.’
It was good to know they had discussed me. ‘Fantastic news about Verity’s promotion,’ I said, which was a gamble, but not that big a one, if you knew V.
‘Oh, you heard?’ I could hear the pride in her voice. ‘Have you two been in touch then?’
‘Just by email.’ I let the conversation rest for a minute. ‘In fact, that’s why I was ringing. I wanted to send her and Angus an engagement gift and I haven’t got their address.’
I felt Suzi’s hesitation down the line, as large as a bear. ‘Oh, well, that’s very sweet of you, Mike. But you don’t need to do that, surely? And anyway, why don’t you ask Verity for it?’
I half laughed, trying to sound casual. ‘I was going to, but then I thought that might ruin the surprise.’
‘Well, yes, I suppose it might,’ Suzi said, but I could still feel the hesitation.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ I said cheerfully. ‘I should have realised it’s a bit of an odd thing to ring and ask after all this time. I’ll just email her, don’t worry.’
‘No, no. Sorry, I’m being silly. It’s 24 Elizabeth Road, W8. I don’t know the whole postcode, but I could get my address book.’
‘No, postcodes are easy to find.’ I looked at the words I had written on to the pad in front of me. I knew W8 meant Kensington and I had a feeling I knew Elizabeth Road. Large, grand houses. ‘How about a flat number?’
‘Oh no, they have the whole house.’ Again I heard the swell of pride in her voice. ‘Anyway, I’m glad you’re feeling, well, better, Mike. It’ll be good to see you at the wedding.’
‘Yes,’ I said, heat rising through my body. ‘Thanks.’
‘I think it’s a good idea to put all that nastiness behind us. And Verity’s very happy now. It’s good of you to understand that.’
‘Yes.’ I wanted to say something more significant but my voice felt caught inside me.
‘Anyway, take care,’ she said, ringing off before I could say goodbye.
I stayed sitting at the long table which runs along the back of the kitchen, by the bifold doors. I could imagine V holding lunches and dinners at the table, the doors open, me manning a barbeque. The day felt as though it had darkened, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
‘“Oh no, they have the whole house,”’ I said out loud, mimicking her entitled voice. ‘We don’t say toilet,’ she said to me on my second or third visit to Steeple House. They were having a lunch party and she took me to one side before it started. ‘Or pardon, for that matter,’ she’d added. ‘And please don’t hold your knife like a pen.’
She’d walked away from me after that, leaving me to wonder at all the other things I did wrong without realising. I found V in the garden and told her what her mother had said, but she told me not to worry, that her mother was a stupid snob. ‘Please, please promise me you’ll say at least one of those words during the meal and you’ll definitely hold your knife like a pen,’ she said. At first I refused, but she put her hand down my trousers and stroked me until I would have agreed to learn Chinese if that’s what it took.
The guests did flinch when I said both words, Suzi’s colour rising up from her shirt to her taut, chicken-like neck. But V just smiled and winked at me when nobody was looking.
I must have sat at the table for longer than I realised after speaking to Suzi, because it was 2 p.m. by the time I set off on my paper errand. There was a newsagent’s close by but I thought a walk across the common would do me good and there was a pub which overlooked it that appeared nice. I bought the Observer and a pint and sat outside on a table close to the road. I checked my email on my phone, but my inbox was still empty. Instead I did what I’d been avoiding all morning and typed 24 Elizabeth Road, W8 into Google Maps. The house was just what I had expected: grand, white, imposing. I expanded the image, but I couldn’t make out anything beyond white shutters and dark rooms behind.
Next I googled V’s fiancé, Angus Metcalf, my hands shaking slightly against the keys, so I had to retype his name a few times. There were quite a few results, but I knew immediately which he was. Angus Metcalf of Metcalf, Blake, apparently the pre-eminent advertising company of our age, who had embraced the more cynical, ever-connected world we live in to come up with the most innovative, exciting and successful campaigns of the past decade. On the staff page was a black-and-white photograph of a rugged-looking man. He was smiling out at the camera, his eyes creased and his hair greying slightly at the temples. I suppose some people would have called him attractive, but I thought he was very simian-looking and I had to tear my mind away from imagining his ape-like hands on V’s body. His smile was too full, as if he was laughing at you rather than with you. I estimated him to be quite a bit older than us, early forties perhaps, which made me feel a bit better because he hadn’t retired yet and he must be approaching V’s magical number of forty-five, which would suggest she wasn’t that serious about him.
I looked up and Kaitlyn was standing in front of me on the street, a disgusting little dog in her arms. The thing was yapping at me and I would have dearly loved to kick it across the road. V said anyone who kept pets was mad and this seemed to prove the point.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’ve just been walking Snowdrop.’ She laughed lightly. ‘Remember, I live here.’
‘Sorry, of course you do,’ I said, remembering our conversation from Friday evening.
‘God, what happened?’ She motioned to my eyebrow.
I reached up to the sore area of skin. ‘Oh, nothing. I walked into a door.’
Her forehead creased into a frown. ‘Are you here alone?’
‘Yes. Just reading the paper.’
I was slightly shocked to hear V’s name in Kaitlyn’s mouth and it took me a minute to remember everything I’d said to her. ‘At home. Making lunch.’
‘Oh, how nice.’ But she stayed standing where she was.
I stood up and drained my pint. ‘Anyway, better be off. I was only meant to be getting the paper.’ I held it up like an exhibit.
‘Oh yes, well. See you tomorrow.’ She put Snowdrop down and they moved away, all their long spindly legs marching on the pavement. I was relieved to see Kaitlyn was wearing trainers today and giving her poor feet some time off the vertiginous heels.
V says it is unfeminist to wear shoes in which you can’t run. Naturally she made an exception for when we were Craving, but then she said it didn’t count because she had me. Strong body, strong mind, V always said, and she is totally and completely right.
I went home and changed again into my running gear, setting off almost immediately back across the common, although I ended up going much further, getting lost in my movement, feeling my body move through the pain, and feeding off the adrenaline leaching into my muscles. It reminded me just how strong I am. Just how capable.
When I got home I made myself shower before checking my email. V doesn’t like workout sweat. She says it’s different from sex sweat and she used to scream if I came anywhere near her after a run. She definitely wouldn’t want me dripping on the sofa. And all in all it was the right thing to do, all of it, because when I finally sat with the laptop there was a reply from her, writ bold in my inbox.
From: [email protected]
Lovely to hear from you. I’ve been meaning to get in touch. Actually I was going to write before we sent out the invites, but time spun away from me, as usual. I rang Elaine to get your address. She says she hasn’t seen you or your new house since you got back. She sounded a bit wistful actually, you know the way she does. You should ask her over.
I’m so glad you’re coming to the wedding. I was worried you might feel a bit put out by it all, but it sounds like things are good with you. (Do feel free to bring someone, by the way, if there is someone, that is.) I’m so happy that we can be friends. It all got a bit silly back there and we both said things we probably shouldn’t have. I definitely acted a bit like a spoilt brat. Meeting Angus has put everything into perspective for me and has made me grow up quite a lot.
I would love to come and see your new house sometime and you must come here for dinner. I am still at Calthorpe’s, still trying to override humans!
It’s all a bit manic at the moment, as you can imagine, but after the wedding we’ll set a date.
Love V xx
I read the email many times, until I had absorbed it and let it become part of me. It was impossible not to see the implied meaning behind everything V said. When she said ‘time spun away from me, as usual’, and ‘you know the way she does’, she was clearly asking me to remember how well we knew each other. Even telling me to invite Elaine over was like her laying a hand on my arm, the way she used to do when dispensing advice, letting me know she still had the power to make me do things. And then the line in brackets saying I could bring someone, a line marked out in its ridiculousness. ‘If there is someone’, she had written, knowing full well there never would be anyone apart from her. ‘We both said things we probably shouldn’t have’ was an apology, and ‘meeting Angus has put everything into perspective’ was like telling me that she was using Angus as a way of understanding our relationship. She would ‘love’ to see my house and promised a ‘date’, two cleverly chosen words.
But of course the most significant phrase was ‘still trying to override humans’. We will be masters of our own world, she used to tell me. Don’t worry, Mike, she’d said, I’ll invent a chip that makes you and me cleverer than even the machines and we can ride off into the sunset together while everything else goes to shit. Those words told me that V and I were still on course to do that.
I felt significantly better by the time I looked up and realised dusk was settling over the day. I decided not to reply. We had both shown a tiny part of our hands, keeping most of our cards close to our chests for the fun which lay ahead. The Crave, I felt, had picked up pace.
Everyone at work commented on my lump and for some reason found my walking-into-a-door story hilarious. ‘You were definitely a bit the worse for wear,’ George said with a wink, making me stuff my hands into my pockets. He, as I remembered, had fallen on leaving the pub so there was no way he could have noticed what I was doing. I shut myself in my office, counting down the time until lunch when I could forget it all by concentrating on the weights I would have suspended above my head.
Kaitlyn knocked on my door at midday and I motioned for her to come in, which she did gingerly, which irritated me. ‘Just wondering how the head is?’ she said with a wide smile.
I was genuinely perplexed. ‘Everyone seems very interested in my head. Has no one ever come into work with a bump before?’
She laughed lightly. ‘Well, I can’t think of anyone. And I suppose they just find it amusing because of Friday night.’
‘What about Friday night?’ I asked, leaning forward over my desk.
‘Oh nothing. Just, you know, you were quite drunk. Not that it matters.’
I tried to piece together the events of the evening but I couldn’t remember much until getting off the tube and walking home down my road. Which meant I couldn’t have been that drunk or I’d never have been able to do that.
‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘I hear you live next door to Lottie.’
My mind blanked, but then I remembered. ‘Oh, yes. How do you know that?’
She cocked her head to one side but I could see a blush washing her transparent cheeks. ‘She mentioned it.’
‘Well, yes.’ I just wanted her to leave, but she stayed standing in my doorway.
‘I go round to hers sometimes. Next time I’ll look over the fence and say hi.’
I couldn’t think of many things I would like less. ‘OK.’
She looked at her watch. ‘God, I’m starving. What are you doing for lunch?’
‘Going to the gym.’
She looked at my arms and laughed. ‘Guess you don’t get those by magic. Have fun,’ she said as she left the room.
Since V got her hands on me women have always found me attractive. I never used to notice, but V taught me how to look for the signs. She used to say we should reverse Crave, but I never saw the appeal in that. V sculpted me into what she jokingly called the perfect man and she wasn’t happy until every part of me was as defined as a road map.
If I stood naked in front of you, you could trace every muscle in my body; you can see how I am put together and how I work. And I can’t deny that I enjoy the feeling that gives me; I like the sense of dedication that has gone into creating me.
V would sometimes moan when she touched me, tracing her finger along all my dips and ridges, down shimmering veins and into forests of hair. I’ve done too good a job, she’d say sometimes, you’re like Frankenstein’s monster. You’ll run off and leave me and I’ll regret what I’ve done. And in a way she was right, as the American incident proved. I did become a monster.
The stupid thing was I never found Carly attractive. I didn’t even particularly like her. She chewed gum and spoke with a deep nasal drawl which grated inside my head. She laughed too loudly and wore her skirts too short. She was also unashamed in her pursuit of me. She marked me out like a big game hunter and everyone in the office knew I was her prize.
But I was so fucking lonely over there. I begged V to let me come home all through the first year, but she kept on saying I was doing so well and making a future for us and how important that was to her and how much she loved me for the sacrifice I was making. We were both very busy at work and as the second year progressed we saw each other less and less, although we still Skyped and emailed and texted all the time. V would even sometimes sleep with the computer next to her all night so I could watch her through the day. I’d lock myself in the toilets at work and will myself down the wires and into the bed. Once or twice I even masturbated like that with the computer resting on the back of the toilet and my work colleagues taking a shit next to me.
Carly just caught me on a bad night. We’d gone out to celebrate a deal I’d landed, not that I wanted to go, but the boss made it clear it was what was expected. And everyone bought me drinks all night and before long the room was spinning and all the women there looked like V. I think I ended up crying because I remember a huddle of people around me and cold water being splashed on my face. I remember being lifted under the arms and the shock of the cold night air. I remember someone calling me honey and telling me it was going to be all right. I remember puking against a building and feeling like a monkey had stuck his arm down my throat.
Then we were in a strange flat and there was loud music and we were dancing with all the lights off and I realised it was just me and Carly. We were passing a joint between us and Carly was taking off her top and her breasts reminded me of V’s. All I wanted at that moment was to sink into a body, to stop the droning in my head and the aching, miserable loneliness eating its way through me. And ultimately, as V said, I am a weak person. I succumbed, and once I had I felt like a man who hasn’t eaten in days being given a steak. I couldn’t stop, even when Carly squeaked, even when she pushed at my hands, even when dawn started to crack open the sky. But I must have stopped because I woke the next day on the living-room rug, a blanket thrown over me.
I knew before I opened my eyes that the moment I did my head was going to split into lots of tiny pieces. The rug was sticky beneath me, its synthetic fibres making my body itch. My vision was blurred at first and the pain across my shoulders and shooting up my neck was like a knife scraping out my veins. And it was hard to believe that my throat wasn’t coated in poison as with every breath it felt like tiny pins were shooting through my sinuses.
I lay on my back, wondering how I was going to move again, taking in my surroundings. The room was small and dirty, the walls painted a depressing baby blue, with photographs stuck like a collage opposite the window. An Indian-looking throw with thousands of tiny mirrors covered a sofa that looked like it could have been pulled from a dump. The view from the window and the tight air told me I was in a damp basement, which was probably damaging the health of whomever lived there.
Although of course I knew who lived there, and the thought wrenched at me as if it was piercing my skin.
I sat up and the room lurched, my vision jagging at the edges. My stomach followed and I ran into the hall to find my way to the bathroom where I covered the toilet and the walls in a lurid pink vomit. I was shaking when I finished but I made myself stand so I could face myself in the mirror. My dick was purple and sore and we hadn’t used a condom. I was going home for Christmas in a week and I knew there were many sexually transmitted diseases which take months to show up.
I became aware of my smell: a musty, animal stench that rose from my groin and my armpits and made me gag again. I stepped under the shower, with its chipped blackened tiles, and stood with my face turned into the jets.
The water was hot but I was still shivering. There was something terrifying about this flat, so that it dragged over my skin like a bad dream. I looked out at the toilet with the cracked seat, containing the streaks of shit I had seen smeared against the side as I’d vomited. There was a blunt razor on the side of the sink still holding on to someone else’s hair. A spattering of black spores chased themselves up the windowless walls and the mirror ran with condensation.
I turned my face to the wall and leant my forehead against the cold tiles, but my brain boiled with a knowledge which ran through me like death – this disgusting, degrading, awful place felt like home. It reached out to me and wanted to take me in its shrivelled arms. This, I realised, was where I was meant to end up. Carly was the woman most suited to me and, like a dog, I had followed my nose home.
I was sick over my feet, into the base of the shower, the smell harsh and acrid. I chased it down the plughole with my feet, knowing it was going to block the drains. Surely I had worked too hard for this to be where I ended up.
When I came out of the bathroom Carly was in the lounge, wearing a tracksuit, her hair scraped into a ponytail and her face scrubbed clean of make-up. I went to fetch my clothes from the floor and she flinched as I passed. She watched me with her arms folded across her chest as I stepped into my crumpled suit, now soaked in the stench of the flat.
When I had finished dressing I forced myself to look at her and was at once so disgusted I thought about holding one of the couch pillows over her face and hiding her body in the wardrobe. I couldn’t imagine anyone missing her.
‘You should go,’ she said.
Her words surprised me but they were also a relief as I had imagined some dreadful scene in which she thought what we had done the night before meant something. A muscle twitched in the corner of her mouth and I felt the need to make things clear before I left.
‘Last night was a terrible mistake,’ I said. ‘I have a girlfriend in England whom I love very much.’
She snorted. ‘You’re telling me it was a mistake.’
It felt as if the terrible flat had swallowed all meaning. ‘I don’t want you to try and contact her or anything.’
‘For God’s sake. Don’t worry, your mystical girlfriend won’t be hearing from me.’ She motioned to the door. ‘Please, just go.’
I let myself out, hearing her rasp the lock into place behind me as I shut the door. When I reached the street I saw it had snowed overnight and I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, which seemed like an insurmountable problem. I started crying with my first step, the tears quickly becoming sobs, so that soon passersby were avoiding me as I lurched down the street.
In the days it took for the lump on my head to disappear I felt the need to prove myself at work, so found myself staying late. On Tuesday I didn’t leave until 10 p.m. The night was warm, and there were people all over the streets, spilling out of pubs and restaurants, their arms wrapped around each other. And all at once I missed V with a sharp, stabbing pain, as if someone had stuck a knife between my ribs. I wanted to go to her house and knock on the door and tell her I didn’t want to play any more. I wanted to cut to the end of the Crave, to the part where we’re together in bed and laughing at the rest of the world. I wanted to fall at her feet and tell her I understood, that I deserved my punishment, but it was enough now, I would never do anything remotely like that again, I would never even leave her side.
I found myself walking towards Kensington, a journey my iPhone told me was 4.8 miles and would take me eighty-nine minutes. It wasn’t a ludicrous distance. It was almost on the way home. I hummed through Oasis’s Definitely Maybe as I walked, filling my head with the noise. It only took me seventy-three minutes to get to Elizabeth Road, but I am a fast walker. Number 24 was about halfway down and as grand and imposing as I had feared, with newly refreshed paintwork and gleaming black and white tiles on the pathway and up the steps. A large black lantern hung in the porch, switched on and shining brightly out of the spotless glass.
Angus, I realised, must be extremely rich, far richer than me, a thought which made me want to sit down in the street. I crossed the road to a darker corner in case anyone looked out of the window, and fished out my phone. Zoopla told me the house had been bought five years before for £3.2 million; its estimated worth was now £8.1 million.
Lights were on in the front room, although the white shutters were closed, so there was nothing to see. I had the very strong sense that V was in there, moving around in the rooms beyond, perhaps even thinking of me. Maybe she was unhappy; maybe she too was regretting starting this game. It was entirely possible that her unhappiness had drawn me here because our connection was so strong. It seemed absurd that I could simply cross the road and knock on the door and she would be revealed to me. I hesitated on the kerb, my feet half on, half off, rocking with the thought. But the likelihood was that Angus would be home, and although his part in the Crave wasn’t entirely clear to me yet, I didn’t think it involved a doorstep argument. V had other plans for him, of that I felt sure.
A light flicked on in an upstairs room and I saw a figure pull some heavy curtains across the window. My heart jumped into my mouth and my hand reached uselessly upwards, as if to wave. Even though I’d only got a shadowy glimpse of the person, I knew it was V. ‘I’m here, my darling,’ I whispered into the night. ‘I’m coming to save you.’ She had felt me; I knew that then. She might not have known for certain I was standing on the street outside her door, but something had pulled her upstairs and to the window. Something had compelled her to give me that sign.
I don’t remember getting home that night or how I broke the wine glasses. I went into the kitchen after my run the next morning to get a glass of water and there was a pile of glass in the corner by the bifold doors. I turned and there were three glasses missing from my open shelves. I reached out for one and realised if I had turned and thrown it immediately it would have landed right where the pile of glass now was. There was something familiar in the movement and there was a certain pleasure to be found in imagining myself being so reckless. But the actual memory was absent.
‘I know, I know, sorry, V,’ I said as I got the dustpan and brush from under the sink. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll hoover afterwards. I don’t want you getting any glass in your feet.’
After that I showered, shutting my eyes against the water, but still I couldn’t shake an uncomfortable feeling of dislocation. I towelled my body and felt a bit better because my muscles reminded me that I am strong and in control. But the house still felt so empty when I came out on to the landing, dressed for the day. I knew I only had to walk down the stairs, put on my coat, pick up my phone and briefcase and leave, but still it felt scary. As if my only actions could be ones I knew by heart. Actions I would repeat again and again and again, meaninglessly. My mind jumped forward to the winter and I saw myself doing all these same tasks in the dark. Without V anchoring me, I realised suddenly, it didn’t matter how strong I was, I was still very capable of floating clean away.
‘See you later,’ I shouted as I shut the door behind me, which made me feel somewhat better. An image followed me all the way to work of V asleep in our huge bed, with the linen sheets she liked and the mohair rug on the end. I had even invested in those pointless pillows which you see on beds in magazines that I simply threw on to the floor every night and replaced every morning. But V had had them on our bed in our flat and she always seemed to judge hotels by the number of extra pillows they provided.
V didn’t have to be at work until 9.30 a.m., so it was entirely feasible that when she moved in she would be able to have an extra half-hour in bed after I left. Or maybe she would go to the kitchen and use the coffee machine to make one of her beloved espressos, which she would take back to bed. I was glad I had hoovered, in case she wanted to stand by the back doors and look out over the garden while she sipped her coffee.
I hadn’t, I realised, cooked properly since I’d moved in and that was a shame as I liked cooking. I resolved to buy some ingredients on my way home that evening and christen the kitchen with a proper meal. I reasoned that might make it feel more like home.
Work was busy that day. We were in the middle of the Hector deal and the chairman had put me in charge. It should have been relatively simple, but some of their figures didn’t add up and no one was answering my questions in a way I thought to be adequate. I felt myself coming close to losing my temper a few times during the day, as I heard one excuse after another. And not just from the people at Hector, but also my own team. I think I might have spoken a bit harshly and I felt people glancing in at me as they passed my office. But I can’t believe I wasn’t fair. If people do a good enough job and give me the right answers, then all is good. I can’t stand incompetence. V says I expect too much from other people, which always used to make me laugh, as I was brought up to expect nothing at all.
I stopped at the deli on the High Street on my walk home from the tube. I had loaded up with wine and salads and was standing looking at the ridiculously priced vacuum-packed steaks when Kaitlyn walked in. I raised a hand in greeting, but inside my heart sank. She seemed to be behind me wherever I went and the feeling was unnerving. I turned back to the red meat, hoping she’d get what she needed and leave, but she came straight over.
‘What are you having?’ she asked. The basket hanging off her own arm was empty. ‘I’m starving but don’t know what I fancy eating.’
‘Steak,’ I said, keeping my eyes on the meat. ‘It’s Verity’s favourite.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I’m vegetarian.’
I turned to look at her and her deathlike appearance made a bit more sense. But I also realised something else. I couldn’t very well buy just one steak now I’d said that. I reached up and deposited two large steaks in my basket, trying hard not to hear Elaine’s voice telling me she could feed five people for a week on what they cost. When you are brought up in a foster home, excess never comes very easily, however much money you accrue.
Kaitlyn moved towards the next fridge and picked up some gourmet hummus and a fresh pasta sauce. Her hand hesitated over the wild mushroom or spinach and ricotta tortellini, but the wild mushroom won. She sighed. ‘I wish someone was cooking for me tonight.’
‘V and I take it in turns,’ I said. ‘Whichever one of us is back first.’
‘That’s nice,’ she said. ‘It’s a bit lonely buying all these sorts of ready meals and eating them in front of the telly. It doesn’t make it any better just because you’ve paid ten times what you would in Tesco.’
I tried to smile, but an image of Kaitlyn doing just that almost knocked me off balance. I thought she probably changed into a tracksuit and scraped her hair off her face as soon as she got home. She probably let her dog eat the leftovers from her plate.
We stood in the queue next to each other, which took an annoyingly long time because a woman at the front was going through every ingredient of her vegan lasagna. Kaitlyn smiled wearily and I pretended to be interested in a non-existent message on my phone. We emerged into the evening together and walked up the hill until it was my turning, where we said an awkward goodnight. I realised as I walked down my road that I would be seeing Kaitlyn again in eight hours’ time and that it was perfectly possible that neither of us would speak to anyone else in the meantime.
I got changed myself when I got in, but not into a tracksuit, just some chinos and a T-shirt. I put on Oasis and turned on the oven. My plan was to flash fry one of the steaks in garlic and salt and then give it ten minutes in the oven, whilst I made a good dressing for my salad. But as I got the packets out of the bag I saw both had a sell-by date for the next twenty-four hours, which meant I would have to cook them both or waste one. I was hungry anyway, so I released both steaks into the air, rubbing them with garlic. Once they were in the oven I opened the bag of organic baby leaves and chopped an avocado and some baby plum tomatoes and made a mustardy dressing.
I had over-estimated and there was enough salad for two people. I put the bowl on the table and lit the candles which lived in glass hurricane lamps. They reflected nicely in the bifold doors and I saw the kitchen was well designed for supper parties or romantic dinners. V loved a nicely laid table and so I got two white napkins out along with the cutlery. Then I took down two wine glasses and put the bottle of red between the places. The steaks smelt ready and so I served them up. Two would have taken a whole plate and looked ridiculous. I carried both plates to the table and put them into their places. The meat was succulent and cooked to perfection, the hard brown skin yielding to the red, earthy flesh. And the salad was a perfect complement, crisp and light and benefitting from the blood on the plate. The wine had also been a good choice, full bodied and fruity, real coat-your-throat stuff.
As I sat, Liam began his mournful rendition of ‘Wonderwall’ and I had to put down my knife and fork for a minute to stop myself from choking. Because nobody does know you the way I do, V said, as the lyric sounded out, and I heard her words so clearly I had to remind myself that she wasn’t actually sitting opposite me.
‘Your favourite song, V,’ I said, raising a glass and catching sight of my reflection in the door.
For the record, I didn’t actually think V was sitting with me that night. But it gave me a wonderful glimpse of what our future held, of how we would be when she did finally come home to live with me.
If she had been there I would have spoken to her about the time we were in Ireland and I arranged for her to hold an eagle. At least, hold is the wrong word. She had to put on a long, thick leather glove which reached right up to her shoulder and stand very still, while the eagle’s handler attracted the bird with a dead mouse. We were standing in the grounds of an old castle, the sea whipping against the shore and the trees and grasses of the garden bent almost double by the wind. V’s hair was flying around her head, as if it was alive, and her eyes were fixed upwards. I followed her gaze and saw a speck of a bird high up in the slate-grey skies above our heads. It hovered for a few minutes, surveying us, and in those moments I wanted to rush to V and rip the glove off her hand, to pull her away and cover her with my body. Because as the eagle started to descend it was obvious it saw only the prey, obvious it cared nothing for us and our petty concerns. It whizzed over my head, so close I could feel the wind from its wings, and as it glided towards V I could see the meanness of its talons, the damage they could do. Don’t touch her, I wanted to shout, but it was landing before I could move, with a weight that made V’s arm buckle so the handler had to grab it and hold it upright and she laughed. The eagle picked at the mouse in her hand and V stared at it as though it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. But then the handler moved behind the bird and put a tiny black mask over the eagle’s eyes, making it look like an executioner. He then transferred the bird on to his own gloved hand and V dropped her arm, reaching out to stroke the top of the eagle’s head. ‘Thank you so much,’ she was saying by the time I reached them.
She turned to me and her eyes were sparking. ‘That’s the best present anyone’s ever given me,’ she said.
Angus might be able to buy her more diamonds than I could, but I doubted very much he was as thoughtful as I am. I doubted very much that he even knew her well enough to be as thoughtful as I am.
The days I spent at work were becoming unusually hard and I felt like we were wading through mud towards the finish line. Not completing the deal simply wasn’t an option and I made sure everyone in my team knew as much. Kaitlyn put her head round the door at the end of the day and I looked up and realised most people had gone home already. I glanced at the clock on the computer and was surprised to see it was nearly eight.
‘I’m just about to head off,’ Kaitlyn said. ‘Wondered if you fancied a drink on the way home?’
I opened my mouth to deliver a ready excuse, but was struck by the length of the evening ahead of me. All I would do if I went straight home was stop again at the deli and eat on my own, and the thought seemed suddenly desolate. And Kaitlyn was fine, nice even. ‘OK. Give me ten minutes.’
We took the tube to Clapham and went into a pub on the High Street. Kaitlyn sat at a table and I went to the bar to get us both a pint.
‘Thanks,’ she said, as I sat back down opposite her. I raised my glass to her in mock salute. ‘So, how’s Hector going?’
I rubbed my hands across my face. ‘Slower than I expected.’
‘Yes, I heard you weren’t happy.’
I looked up at her. ‘What do you mean you heard?’
She coloured. ‘Oh, nothing. You’ve just looked quite stressed.’
‘Have I? I haven’t felt that stressed.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s OK not to be Mr Super Cool all the time, you know.’
I gulped at my drink and felt the alcohol releasing into my blood stream.
‘Where are you from, Mike?’ Kaitlyn’s eyes were fixed on me.
‘You mean where was I brought up?’ She nodded. ‘Well, all over really.’ I nearly stopped myself from saying any more, but Kaitlyn was smiling and sometimes it felt good to talk, as the adverts always say. ‘I was born in Luton, but I was taken into care at ten and I didn’t get a permanent home until I was twelve. That was in Aylesbury.’
Kaitlyn’s smile had fallen. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’
I shrugged. ‘Why would you?’
‘Why were you taken into care?’
I drained my glass. ‘Usual story. Alcoholic mother, abusive boyfriend, absent father.’
‘That’s awful. I had no idea.’
I laughed because why on earth would she have any idea. I am not the sort of person you would look at and think they had been in care. ‘Would you like another?’ I held up my empty glass.
Hers was half full but she stood up. ‘My turn, let me.’ I watched her go to the bar and order our drinks. I noticed that she took one of her feet out of their killer heels and let it rest on the cool metal footrest.
When she came back she had recovered her smile. ‘So, you were adopted at twelve. Who by?’
I shook my head. ‘Not adopted. But I went into permanent foster care. A really nice couple called Elaine and Barry. They were great.’ And as I said Elaine’s name I could have been sitting at the kitchen table with one of her stews in front of me. It was funny to think of her like that, out of context, and it made me feel like I had a hole in my stomach.
‘So do you still see them then?’
‘And what about your mum?’
‘Oh God, no, not for years.’
‘Well, they must have done a pretty good job, your foster parents. I mean, you’ve turned out well, haven’t you?’ She laughed lightly.
I knew my hand was tight around my pint. ‘It was Elaine who made me realise I was good with numbers,’ I said. ‘I was really struggling before I went to live with her but she put everything into perspective for me.’ The atmosphere in the pub had become very close, almost as though we were underwater and running out of air. I knew I had heard that phrase ‘putting everything into perspective’ before, but I couldn’t quite place it and I couldn’t work out why it made me feel so uneasy. And I also couldn’t quite remember what Elaine had done or what I had struggled with before.
I have always had pockets of unsettling memories which I can’t be entirely sure are connected to me – the open mouths of shouting adults near my face, kicking heels, blood on the ground, pain in my chest. I pulled a breath into my stomach and concentrated instead on the feel of Elaine’s hand on top of my own, Barry’s cheer as I scored a garden goal, the warmth of the fire in their front room. I heard her say to me as if she was right by my ear again, ‘You just need to channel it, Mike. You’re good with numbers, why not see what you can do with them?’
‘Are you OK?’ Kaitlyn asked and I was almost surprised to see her sitting opposite me.
‘Yes, fine.’ I checked my watch. ‘But I should probably get going.’
‘I’m sorry if I asked too much,’ she said, her face as pale as the moon.
‘No, no, not at all.’
‘We’re quite alike actually, Mike. I mean, I wasn’t adopted or fostered or anything. But we’re both outsiders.’
‘Outsiders?’ The word felt hot in my head.
‘Yes. Haven’t you noticed what an old boy’s club it still is at work? How it’s all don’t you know so and so and where did you go to school? People like you and me need to stick together. They don’t naturally like us.’
‘Don’t they?’ The thought was both ghastly and new to me.
But she just laughed. ‘It’s not as bad as it used to be, but we still have to watch our backs.’
I resisted the urge to turn around. ‘Thanks for the advice,’ I said, standing up. ‘But I really should be going. Verity will be wondering where I am.’
She stood up with me. ‘Oh yes, of course.’
Kaitlyn went to the toilet and said I should go on without her, so I strode up the hill to my road with her words churning inside me. I hadn’t realised I was an outsider at work and it made me wonder what else I hadn’t noticed. V would have warned me about all of that. She knew all the codes and what everything meant. She could have even told me what to say, or at least why I shouldn’t care about it.
I turned on to my street and the loneliness hit me again like a gust of wind. I had nowhere else to go other than back to my dark, empty house, but at that moment it was about the most unappealing place in the world to me.
I took to walking home from work most nights, especially as the days were long and the warmth stayed late in the air. The Hector deal went through and the chairman said I could expect a large bonus. I wondered how much houses were in Sussex – for weekends of course. Walking via Kensington wasn’t that much of a detour, in fact it was pleasant, looking at the palace and the park, crossing over the Serpentine and looking at the birds and the boats. I didn’t walk down Elizabeth Road every evening, only sometimes, only when I felt like V wanted me to.
In the end I got what I had been half waiting for, half dreading, when a taxi pulled up outside number 24 and V and Angus got out. She was wearing a pair of loose white trousers and a pale blue shirt, with white, slightly heeled sandals on her feet. Her hair was tied in a loose bun at the nape of her neck and she had a grey bag slung across her body. Her skin looked tanned and I thought she had lost a little bit of weight; her collarbones certainly looked more defined than when I’d last seen her. She waited on the pavement while Angus paid the driver, checking something on her phone, which made her smile. When he turned to her she held the phone out to him and he looked and laughed, putting his arm round her and kissing the side of her head. Angus was dressed more smartly, in a crumpled blue suit with an open-necked shirt. I tried to work out what they’d been doing as I watched them climb the steps to their front door. It was nine thirty; maybe they’d met after work for an early supper. Or been to the cinema.
V unlocked the front door and they went inside, closing the door behind them. I waited, but no one went into the drawing room. I thought it likely that the kitchen was in the basement and so I crossed the road and walked towards the black railings, taking hold of them and looking downwards. I had no idea what I would say if V saw me, but at that moment it didn’t matter. I could see a sink in the window and the lights were on, but the view was infuriatingly oblique.
There were some old stone steps running from the road to the well in front of the basement, which was dark and in shadow. I pushed the gate at the top of the stairs and it yielded. I checked the street, which was empty, and then walked inside. I kept my body flat against the wall, sliding down the mossy bricks. I didn’t look into the window until I was at the bottom of the stairs, tucked behind a bend in the wall. And then I wished I hadn’t.
The room was illuminated like a screen, bright and inviting, a huge kitchen stretching on out into a dining area with a large table. V was sitting at an island in the centre of the room on a high stool, sipping from a glass of wine. Angus was cutting something on a board on the opposite side of the island and something he was saying was making her laugh. Occasionally he would hold out a piece of cheese or meat, or whatever it was, and she would take it and nod and lick her fingers. But then he stopped chopping and leant back against the wall of ovens behind him. He said something else and she looked up at him and I thought I might be sick because her eyes were wide and shining and trained only on him. And I knew that feeling too well, knew what it was to have V look only at you.
She stood then and circled the island, walking towards him, where he pulled her into him so there was no air at all between their bodies. She laid her head against his chest with her face turned out towards me, a generous smile on her lips.
I wanted to run up the stairs and into the evening, but of course that was impossible. I had to watch V turn her face to Angus and the long, slow kiss they gave each other. I had to watch him take her by the hand and lead her from the room. They switched off the light as they left the room and so I was able to stumble up the stairs without worrying too much about being seen. I felt woozy when I reached the street and slightly unconnected to what I was doing, so I kept on having to remind myself that it was necessary for me to get myself home.
I hailed a taxi when I got on to Kensington High Street and lay back against the soft seats, refusing to answer any of the cabby’s inane questions. My head felt like it had a vice around it, which was being slowly but surely tightened. I thought I might be sick and remembered I hadn’t eaten anything since an overpriced sandwich at lunchtime.
But when I got into the house the thought of walking through the empty space to the kitchen was too much and instead I went straight up the stairs to my bedroom, where I undressed in the dark and crawled into bed, my body shaking. I pulled some of the pillows into me, shaping my body around them, clinging on to their soft surfaces.
‘I’m so sorry, V,’ I said into the night, my face wet with my own tears and my whole chest as raw and ripped as if I had been mauled by a bear.
If I could have told V about Carly anywhere other than Steeple House I would have done, but she had been ill with flu and so was already there when I arrived home for Christmas.
I had booked a car to take me from the airport and I arrived in the early evening, on an unseasonably warm December night, pitted with fitful rain. Suzi and Colin were pleased to see me and led me in front of an unnecessarily warm fire, where they asked me lots of questions and accepted their gifts and looked at photos on my phone. V, they told me, was asleep and that was for the best as her temperature had only just come down and they’d had to call the doctor the night before. But before long she appeared in the doorway, her hair messy and her body wrapped in a large blanket. Suzi told her to come and sit by the fire, which she did.
We hadn’t seen each other for eleven weeks and all I wanted to do was take her in my arms, but it was impossible with her parents gazing down on us. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t leave us alone.
‘Has your headache gone?’ I asked and it sounded stilted.
‘Much better,’ she said. ‘Another good night’s sleep and I’ll be fine.’
‘I always forget how you young are in constant communication with each other,’ Suzi said. ‘In my day you had to write letters and everything took forever.’
‘I don’t know,’ V said. ‘A bit of mystery. That sounds quite romantic.’
‘Anyway, Mike. I’ve put you in the blue room.’ Suzi stood as she spoke and Colin followed her, as he always did. ‘Night, you two,’ she said as they left. ‘And don’t let Verity stay up too late, Mike. We don’t want her relapsing.’
V rolled her eyes at me. ‘It’s like I’m ten again.’
I smiled. ‘They just care.’
She sighed. ‘Sometimes you can care too much.’
I slid on to the floor and sat next to her, putting my arms around her shoulder. But she moved away. ‘Sorry, ow, I’m still quite achy.’ She looked fine though; there was even a bloom of pink on her cheeks.
The knowledge of what I had to tell V weighed heavily inside me. Because the sex I’d had with Carly had been unprotected I had already had all the necessary tests. The HIV test had already come back with an initial negative but, as I had suspected, the definitive results for that and all the other tests would take up to three months. I would have told V anyway because there has and will never be any point in us keeping secrets from each other, but there was no way I would have put her in any sort of physical danger.
‘What’s wrong?’ V asked.
‘Nothing. Just tired after the flight.’
‘No, there’s something else, I can tell.’
So I told her, as we sat by the fire. Probably I was wrong to do it there and then. Maybe her brain was still slightly addled from her fever. Almost definitely I said the wrong things, even though I had gone over and over my lines on the plane. I told her I’d made a terrible mistake, I would do anything not to have done it, it was only because I was so lonely and missed her so much, I wanted to come home, I would do anything to make it better; she, V, was the only person in the world I cared about, she was all I had, she was everything.
V sat very still while I spoke, her gaze focused on her hands, which were twined in her blanket. When she finally looked up her eyes were rimmed in red and her mouth was set into a small line.
‘Are you fucking joking?’ she said finally and I started to cry. ‘What sort of man are you?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, which was true.
‘And how dare you say you did it because you were lonely,’ she spat. ‘As if it was all my fault. You talk like I made you go to America, like it was my idea. Don’t you think I missed you as well?’
‘I’m sorry.’ My tears were now so violent I could taste them.
‘I thought you were different.’
‘Nothing like this will ever happen again, I promise.’
‘You’re so weak. Sometimes you remind me of a piece of modelling clay, like you could be anything. You disgust me.’
‘Please.’ I clamped my hands over my ears. ‘Don’t.’
‘Don’t!’ she shouted. ‘Maybe you should have thought of that before you fucked some secretary because you felt a bit lonely.’
‘Oh God, V,’ I sobbed, ‘please. It was nothing. This doesn’t have to change us.’
She laughed at that, but it was not a happy sound. ‘It changes everything. It completely alters my perception of who you are. I thought we understood each other, but evidently we don’t at all.’
‘But I do, I do understand you. I love you more than anything, anyone. I will never stop loving you.’
‘Just fuck off out of my sight.’
‘No, not until you tell me you love me too.’
‘I hate you.’
‘V, stop, I love you.’
‘I hate you.’
‘I crave you.’ She had stood up by then and I was down on my knees, my arms wrapped around her legs. ‘I fucking crave you, V,’ I shouted.
She slapped me round the face, which made me let go of her legs, and she was gone from the room in an instant, leaving the blanket pooled by the fire. I stood and followed her as quickly as I could, but by the time I reached her door it was locked tight against me. I knocked a few times, but the noise simply echoed round the still house and so I went to the blue room, where I lay fully clothed on top of the sheets.
The next morning V’s door was still locked and so I simply sat outside it, calling through the wood from time to time. Eventually Suzi came up the stairs.
‘I think you should go, Mike,’ she said.
‘I can’t go until V speaks to me,’ I replied.
‘She’s very upset. She doesn’t want to speak to you today.’ Her face was quivering slightly as she spoke and her hands were clasped in front of her. I was aware of the presence of Colin at the foot of the stairs.
‘It’s all a terrible misunderstanding,’ I said.
She frowned. ‘It sounds like a bit more than that.’
‘How do you know?’ I sounded harsher than I meant.
‘I spoke to her last night.’ I couldn’t quite imagine that happening and wondered if Suzi was lying, because V would never tell her about our life. And what had I been doing at the time? Surely I hadn’t slept?
‘Please, if I could just speak to her I’m sure we could work it out.’
Suzi shook her head. ‘I really think you should go now, Mike. See how the land lies in a few days.’
‘But it’s Christmas tomorrow.’
Suzi looked down. ‘I’m sorry, Mike.’
I ordered a taxi to take me back to our flat in London and sat and waited for it on my own in the kitchen. I couldn’t quite believe that V wasn’t going to come down the stairs and ask me to walk round the garden with her. I left her Christmas present, a pair of diamond studs, on the kitchen table and wrote a hurried note on to the Christmas-tree label. ‘I am still your eagle,’ was all I said, all I needed to say.
I looked back as we drove away down the gravel drive, the tyres crunching like a welcome, but the house looked stern and empty and there were no faces at the window.
I could have called Elaine and spent Christmas with her and Barry and whatever kids they had with them at the time, but the thought was simply too awful. Just the thought of the explanations involved was exhausting and besides, I had already sent them lots of expensive gifts from New York, so I felt I had done my duty. Instead I sat in my and V’s empty flat and ate stale bread and cold baked beans because I couldn’t bear to let myself have anything nice. I looked out of the window at fathers pushing new bikes down the road and felt like breaking something.
I called V every hour and sent her too many text messages to count. But she never picked up and never answered. She didn’t come back to our flat between Christmas and New Year and there were no messages telling me what she was doing. We had arranged to spend New Year in New York and I went to the airport on the thirtieth to see if she turned up to catch our flight, but she didn’t show and the plane took off without either of us. I called her from the airport, saying that I hadn’t got on the flight without her, that I could meet her anywhere, but that we mustn’t spend New Year’s apart.
She sent me a text an hour later: I’m not going to see you, Mike.
I went back to our flat and had some flowers sent to Steeple House.
She sent another text that evening: I am not at Mum and Dad’s.
Where are you? I texted back immediately, but she didn’t answer.
I rang Steeple House and Suzi answered. ‘Can I speak to Verity please,’ I said.
‘She’s not here, Mike. I’m afraid she didn’t see the flowers, although I told her about them.’
I tried to keep my voice even. ‘Where is she?’
‘She’s gone away with friends.’
My mind spun at this information. ‘What friends?’
I felt Suzi hesitate. ‘I’m not sure who. Some people she met at work, I think.’
‘She’s gone away with people you don’t know to somewhere you don’t know?’
Suzi coughed. ‘She’s an adult, Mike. She can do what she likes.’
I knew she was lying. ‘Please, Suzi. We have to talk.’
‘I’m sorry, Mike. It’s not up to me. I suppose Verity will contact you when she’s ready.’
‘Yes, but when might that be?’ I asked hopelessly.
‘Sometimes things just run their natural course. You’ve got a good life over there in New York, Mike, and Verity has one here. You were both very young when you met; it’s hardly surprising that things change. That doesn’t have to be scary, you know.’ Her tone was soft and it sounded like the sort of thing mothers told their children. But it made my head feel hot and I put the phone down on the stupid woman because certainly I would have said something unforgivable if I had stayed on the line.
I rang V next and shouted down the line into the echoey silence. I called her a few bad names. I told her she couldn’t just walk away like that. I said we needed each other. I told her again I craved her.
Later that day I received an email:
I am changing my number, so there is no point in trying to call me again. Your behaviour has been appalling and I don’t just mean with that girl, I mean in how you told me and how you tried to blame me in some way for what happened. Making money has always been unnaturally important to you, but I went along with it because of your background and all you’ve been through and I could understand how you wanted to create a better life for yourself. But sometimes you scare me and, to be honest, I haven’t felt particularly comfortable in our relationship for some time now. You need to find your own happiness within yourself. I don’t want to be craved; it’s too much. Go back to New York. I won’t be returning to our flat until you have left the country.
I knew immediately that she didn’t mean a word of the email, but I also knew her forgiveness was going to be hard won. I had to start by doing as I was told, so I booked the next flight out to New York.
God those first few weeks were awful. Mind-blowingly, gut-wrenchingly awful. I remember them like an illness; my whole body ached, my mind was dislocated, the world felt cold and everything took longer than necessary. I made the mistake of writing V emails, daily at first. I said the same things in all of them, a list of pathetic apologies and admonitions. Lines of promises and hopes, dreams and failures. I begged and pleaded, I prostrated myself. I agreed to anything and everything. But she never replied, not once, not one single word. In the end I understood that there was nothing I could say to make it better. That actions were the only thing that counted and I had to simply show V the kind of man I was capable of being.
After my trip down to the basement at Elizabeth Road I became obsessed with the need to see V on her own, without Angus. I realised that the first time I saw her simply couldn’t be at the wedding, with him. But I knew better than to request a meeting. She had laid out the rules in her last email and I couldn’t possibly risk moving backwards. The only way I could think of orchestrating it was to ‘bump into her’. All it took was a bit of patience and, for V, I would wait till the end of time. I loitered a lot where the top of her road met Kensington High Street, reasoning that it was a perfectly reasonable place for anyone to be walking at any time.
In the end I got my reward. Two Saturdays before her wedding, V rounded the corner dressed in black Lycra leggings, trainers on her feet and her hair pulled into a sharp ponytail. My heart actually jolted at her being so close, as if she physically occupied a hole inside me. She jogged on the spot as she waited to cross the road and I knew she was going to run round Kensington Gardens.
I acted quickly, maybe too quickly, raising my arm and shouting her name from where I stood by the bus stop. She turned, looking round for what she thought she had heard, only realising it was me as I walked towards her. Her mouth formed an ‘O’ as I approached and her jogging stopped. I reached her quickly and we stood for a few seconds just looking at each other. She was wearing a black top which zipped up under her chin so I couldn’t see if she was wearing the eagle.
‘My God, Mike,’ she said finally and her voice was a little hoarse.
I leant down and kissed her cheek, inhaling her scent of musky roses, which I was pleased hadn’t changed. ‘V.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Oh, just a bit of shopping. How about you?’
She motioned down the street I knew so well. ‘I live here.’
I looked where she was pointing and feigned surprise. ‘Do you? How nice.’
She blushed. ‘Well, it’s Angus’s house really, but you know.’
I nodded. ‘You must be excited about the wedding.’
She flapped her hands in front of her face. ‘Well, weddings seem to be mostly about planning.’
‘I’m sure Suzi has it covered.’
She laughed. ‘So, anyway, you look well.’ She looked at my chest as she spoke, hardly hidden by the light cotton shirt I was wearing. I could feel her hands on me and I had to shake away the memory.
‘So do you.’ A statement which was never a lie, but especially not that day.
‘Just trying to run off those last few wedding-dress pounds.’ She laughed.
There was an absurdity to the conversation. What we both really wanted to do was rip each other’s clothes off and fuck right there on the side of the road. V licked her lips and her breathing was heavy. I could have reached out and taken her hand; there was nothing stopping me.
‘I’m glad you’re happy, V.’ I lingered over the letter which had always meant something to us both.
‘Thank you. Are you?’ Her gaze was deep and penetrating and I knew there was so much more she wanted to say.
‘Yes, I’m fine. Work’s going well and I’m getting my house sorted. I’ve just had some quotes to put a gym and sauna in the basement.’
‘Well, you know how I love to work out.’ I kept my eyes fixed on hers.
‘Anyway,’ she said, tearing her eyes away from me and facing back to the road. ‘It was lovely to see you, but I should get running. Angus and I have a tasting in a couple of hours. The caterer has had to change an ingredient in the starter, something to do with suppliers …’
‘Where did you meet him?’
‘What?’ She looked back at me and her eyes flickered.
‘Angus – where did you meet him?’ I hadn’t planned on asking about him, but she had brought him up and I didn’t want her to think I was intimidated by him.
‘Oh, a work thing.’
‘It’s been very quick.’
She nodded. But then she looked down. ‘Don’t, Mike. I can’t do this, it’s too hard.’
I smiled my best smile. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.’
‘No, it’s fine. It’s lovely to see you,’ she said, but her voice quivered.
‘And you.’ I turned from her as I spoke and walked off, glancing back after a few moments, to see her still waiting on the kerb for the traffic to clear.
I wonder if that’s what alcoholics feel like when they have a drink after a long time sober. As if every nerve ending has been smoothed, all your blood warmed, your mind stroked. I walked as if I was on a cloud – I’m surprised I didn’t glide, didn’t rise up into the sky and float above the hordes of people on the pavement. I thought up heroic deeds and noble sacrifices. I made speeches which made others cry, I solved tensions, stopped wars, made peace. It was like my heart was a balloon which someone had finally filled with air and the only possible expression I could hold was that of a smile.
But of course the peace didn’t last very long, not even into the evening. And just like an alcoholic I craved my next fix. I searched my brain for reasons to call V up and wondered how odd it would be to ‘bump into’ her again. I let my mind play and thought that maybe the mere sight of me would have been enough to make her also want to forget the Crave and cut to the end. At any moment of any day I thought it was possible she was telling Angus it had all been a terrible mistake and that really she loved someone else. I strained to hear the ringing phone or doorbell I knew was coming.
After a few days of living in this state of constant anticipation I realised I must have done something wrong. V always had very strict rules and guidelines and clearly I hadn’t behaved entirely properly. She had as good as told me that she still loved me when she had stopped me from talking about Angus because ‘it was too hard’, but there was clearly something more she wanted from me, some ultimate proof that would make me worthy of her love. But, like a fool, I couldn’t yet work out what it was.
Naturally I knew the location of her office; I’d met her outside Calthorpe’s discreet entrance enough times and it wasn’t actually that far from where I worked. There was a bar opposite and I took to leaving work early and sitting in a table by the window. I saw V on only my second night, which was like a sign that I was meant to be there. She emerged from the large, revolving doors just before half past seven, before I’d even had time to sit with my pint at the table in the window. She was wearing a pale blue dress with white trainers on her feet and the grey bag slung across her body. Her hair was in a loose ponytail at the base of her neck and she was reading something on her phone which made her mouth turn downwards. Perhaps Angus was being annoying about some aspect of the wedding. Or perhaps she was wondering how to get out of the whole thing. After she had finished reading she stood for a minute in the street and she looked tired and distracted. I sipped at my beer and wondered if it would be possible to get a decent shot of her on my iPhone, because even the sight of her, just the knowledge that she was so close, had slowed my heart for the first time since our too brief encounter a few days before.
A man approached her, holding an open map in front of him, a small backpack sitting between his shoulders. He asked her something and she replied, leaning over the map and pointing. My body tensed as I watched, knowing that with his height advantage and the angle of her body he was probably able to see down the front of her dress. She finished talking and stood back but he was still standing too close. He said something else and she took a step back, shaking her head, her smile now fixed and closed. He reached forward, but she pulled back her hand and her smile dropped. I stood, my hands clenched at my sides.
It seemed suddenly obvious that V knew I was here watching and that she had engineered this Crave for me to see.
I went and stood in the door of the bar and as I did so I saw her hand shoot to her neck and grab on to the silver charm which could only have been her eagle. She was calling me as clear as day and I was here, right where I could save her. I stepped on to the road, but the man shrugged and began walking away. V stepped forward and raised her hand and a taxi pulled up almost immediately. I watched her get in and speak to the driver, relaxing back against the seat as they drove away. And then I found my breath hard to reach because there was no way that could have been a coincidence. She had been talking directly to me.
The man with the map had stopped again, but now he turned the corner and so I ran across the road and fell into step behind him. He walked annoyingly slowly, stopping often to either look at his map or up into the sky. I slowed my pace and slunk into doorways or leant against walls when he stopped. It was quite interesting actually; it made me realise I rarely look up in cities, but that there are some amazing sights to be seen if you do. London, it appears, is looked over by gargoyles. They sit above windows and doors, snarling and laughing at us all, casting evil spells.
I had no real plan as I walked, but I couldn’t stop following. I alternated between wanting to ask him if V had paid him to enact that scene and wanting to mash his face into the ground. He was tall, but he was out of shape and he walked with a lolloping gait which made me think he had a bad knee. I was sure I could pulverise him in minutes. I could have him lying bloodied and broken on the floor quicker than it would take him to lose consciousness. I could take his stupid backpack and go through his phone for messages from V. And the police would put it down to a mugging and he’d go back to wherever he came from and tell the story for the rest of his life. But of course this wasn’t possible. It was a balmy summer evening in central London and all the streets were heaving with witnesses. I probably wouldn’t even get as far as my first punch before someone called the police.
The man went into an off-licence and came out with four bottles of Beck’s which he carried with his finger through the top of the box, in a very irritating way. I was certain by then that we were heading for St James’s Park, which was odd because we must have walked a long way and I hadn’t realised we were even going in that direction. The light had started to sink and the sky was a deep orange, hazed by pollution. I checked my watch and it was nine fifteen. Once in the park the man sat on one of the first benches and produced a Swiss army knife from his pocket to open the first beer.
‘Excuse me,’ I said as I walked over to stand right in front of him. He looked up at me, a slight smile on his face.
‘Yeah,’ he said, his accent deeply American.
‘I saw you a while back approach a young woman. She came out of a building on Chancery Lane and she helped you with something on your map. Directions maybe?’
He smiled. ‘Oh yeah.’ But then he scrunched up his face. ‘How do you know?’
‘But that was a while back.’ Something shifted in his eyes, and he sat forward.
‘What did you say to her?’ A feeling not unlike electricity was running up my legs.
‘What? I asked her directions.’
‘No, after that.’ I could tell he was slow-witted.
‘I asked her if she wanted to go for a drink.’ He sipped from the beer as if to prove his point and I thought it would have been easy to ram the bottle in as far as it would go so he choked on the glass. ‘What’s this about, man? Have you been following me or something?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Did she ask you to speak to her?’
‘No.’ He laughed. ‘Who the fuck are you?’
‘She’s my girlfriend.’ I tried to keep my voice even against the still of the night. ‘We play this game. I just thought you might be part of it. It’s OK to tell me. It won’t ruin anything.’
He looked over his shoulder. ‘Is this for some TV show or something?’
‘No, I’m serious. I’m not going to do anything to you. I just need to know if she paid you to speak to her.’
‘This is fucked-up shit.’ He put the empty bottle on the ground and opened another. ‘D’you want one?’
‘No.’ I could smell the hops from where I stood and I knew how delicious it would taste. ‘Look, who are you? What do you do?’
‘Fuck, man, are you serious?’ I could see the glint in his eye, almost as if he was enjoying the game as much as V and me. I nodded. ‘I’m American,’ he said pointlessly. ‘Just travelling through Europe. Working here and there. Nothing serious. I was lost and asked your girl for directions. She’s pretty and I thought I’d try my luck. She said no; I went on my way. Nothing more or less.’
I breathed into the soles of my feet. ‘Thanks.’ I turned and walked away. I could hear him laughing behind me, the sound following me out of the now dark park.
He was just the sort of person to enjoy being part of our Crave, or to need the money enough to do it even if he didn’t want to. V had no doubt paid him to keep quiet. And of course she would anticipate me following him and talking to him. That would have been part of the deal. I felt I was starting to understand our situation better, that the rules of our new Crave were becoming clearer. It was obvious this wasn’t a game to be played in one night or one moment and it was also clear that the stakes were very much higher. I just had to work out what the end point was and when it was meant to take place. Not, surely, I felt, before the wedding, which was now only ten days away.
I woke the next morning with my alarm and pulled myself out of bed and into my Lycra. My head was heavy and my muscles sluggish and only when I returned home from my run did I notice the half-empty bottle of vodka and remember what I’d done when I’d got home the night before.
My CDs were splayed across the floor of the kitchen by the garden doors, their contents spilt like entrails. I couldn’t remember playing any, but it seemed likely I had. I went to the stereo and saw the volume button turned up to max.
I made an effort to say hello to Lottie at work that morning, planning some sort of apology which didn’t actually appear when I saw her blush and look at the floor. I found it hard to concentrate on work and sought Kaitlyn out with an excuse about some figures I could have worked out in my sleep.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked as I leant over her desk while she inputted the numbers.
‘Yes, fine,’ I said breezily.
She turned and looked up at me, her unnaturally blue eyes quivering slightly. ‘You look a bit rough.’
I stood up. ‘Really?’ When I’d shaved that morning I had noticed a redness around my eyes and thought maybe I’d lost a bit of weight on my face.
‘I hope you’re not working too hard.’
‘No, it’s fine.’
‘And last night, Mike, I …’ She blushed and I desperately tried to search my mind for whether or not I had seen her the previous evening, although I couldn’t have.
She shook her head. ‘Nothing. It just looks like you had a rough night.’
She went back to the numbers, tapping against her keyboard. ‘Is everything all right at home?’
‘Yes. Of course.’
She stopped typing and turned to me. ‘I know we haven’t known each other very long, but you can talk to me if you’d like, you know.’
I knew I was going to have to say something because Kaitlyn clearly wanted more than I was giving her. ‘There is something. I get really carried away with my music sometimes and I think I listen to it too loudly. I’m worried I’ve annoyed Lottie.’
But she ignored the question. ‘Doesn’t it annoy Verity?’
‘She’s away at the moment. With work.’
‘Oh.’ Kaitlyn tapped her finger against the glass of her screen. ‘All done. I’ve emailed them to you.’
‘Thanks.’ I went back to my desk feeling no better. I wished I hadn’t gone to see Kaitlyn; everything about her was irritating. I didn’t like the way she looked at me, as if she was peeling back my skin with her eyes.
My mobile rang and I saw Elaine’s name flashing on the screen. I had ignored so many of her calls, but this one I answered, a rush of need spreading through me at just the thought of her.
‘Mike,’ she said, sounding shocked. ‘Goodness, is that actually you?’
I laughed. ‘Sorry, I’ve been so busy since I got home. I’ve been meaning to call you.’
She snorted. ‘How are you, love?’
‘Are you settling into your new house?’
‘You must come and see it.’ But even as I said the words I cringed at the thought of her and Barry in the space and how they would never understand it.
‘Well, I’d love to. But actually I was ringing to see if you’d like to come out for lunch this Sunday?’
It felt as though I could taste her words and there was something intoxicating about them. ‘I’d love to.’
‘Oh, super. We’ve got a new boy just started with us and I’d love you to meet him.’
Sundays were a good day to fill as it was hard to watch over V at the weekend.
The journey to Aylesbury was shorter than I had anticipated, so I ended up ringing on Elaine and Barry’s doorbell at twelve o’clock. Elaine answered in her apron, the house fugged up with the smell of roast dinner behind her. Her face leapt into a smile when she saw me and she pulled me towards her, folding me back into her warm, earthy smell. Stepping into the house felt like stepping through time, as if I really could push through space and arrive somewhere different. And yet nothing was different; it was all completely the same. The same worn carpet on the stairs, the same oval table under the mirror loaded down with keys and letters, the same cracked lino on the kitchen floor, the same ancient oven which billowed smoke, the same washing line hanging across the garden, the same wooden table on which we would later eat.
Barry came in from the garden and I saw his roses resplendent behind him. ‘Mike, my boy,’ he said, advancing towards me and wrapping me in another hug. He felt fatter, I thought, although Elaine was perhaps slimmer. ‘Well, well, look at you,’ he said, standing back.
I looked down at myself and saw my polished brogues, my pressed chinos, my crisp blue shirt. It was almost embarrassing in this house. But Barry got us a beer and we sat in the garden and Elaine tried to sit with us, but kept jumping up to perform another task, making Barry roll his eyes at me. The conversation felt weary as soon as it began and there were times when I didn’t know how I was going to answer all their questions. But at the same time I didn’t want to leave; at that moment I could have sat in the garden forever.
Just as we were sitting down to lunch the front door slammed and a tall, lanky boy came into the kitchen.
‘Oh good,’ Elaine said, ‘you’re just in time.’
He came and sat at the table and I could see his chest moving and the sweat on his skin. It reminded me of all the times I had run home to eat Elaine’s food. He kept his eyes fixed on his hands in front of him.
‘Mike,’ Elaine said, ‘this is Jayden. Jayden this is Mike – you know I told you about him. Mike was with us for longer than any other child we’ve ever had.’
He nodded over towards me. ‘All right.’
I smiled back. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘A couple of months.’
Barry stood up to carve, while Elaine ladled potatoes, carrots, parsnips and Yorkshire puddings on to our plates. Sunday lunch in Elaine’s kitchen never changed, whatever the weather. I wanted to ask Jayden why he was here but knew better. I estimated him to be about thirteen or fourteen and from the hungry way he ate his food I could probably guess the answer anyway.
‘Jayden’s mad keen on football,’ Barry said, which I knew must please him as I had sat and tried to keep my eyes open on plenty of Saturday nights while Match of the Day droned away on the television.
‘D’you know the scores?’ Jayden asked, his mouth disgustingly full of food.
‘No, don’t tell me,’ Barry said, holding his hand over his ears and making Jayden laugh, and I wished suddenly I had been able to play this game with him. I knew all at once that Jayden had my room and that he would have put up his own posters and hung his clothes in the wardrobe and that it would already feel like a mini home to him. Elaine and Barry were laughing at something he’d said, which I’d missed, and the chair felt weak and insubstantial beneath me. Things did change and move on, even love.
Elaine reached over and put her hand over mine. ‘Oh, it’s so lovely to have you here, Mikey. We’ve missed you, haven’t we, Barry?’
‘We certainly have,’ Barry said. ‘While you’ve been off wheeling and dealing.’
‘Did you really live in New York?’ Jayden asked.
‘Yes.’ My throat felt strangely clogged.
‘But what else has been going on in your life?’ Elaine asked. ‘Any nice lady I should know about?’
I shook my head and for a terrible moment I thought I was going to cry. Thought I was going to lay my head down between the gravy jug and my plate and weep. ‘No, no lady.’
Elaine tapped my hand. ‘I hear Verity’s getting married.’
‘She rang to get your new address. Are you going to the wedding?’
I felt the atmosphere round the table shrink and spiral. Verity had sat where Jayden was on quite a few occasions. I had been embarrassed to bring her at first, but she claimed to love it in Peacock Drive. She said it made her feel cosy and Elaine and Barry had always marvelled over her, as if I had brought them an exotic flower to look at. And it all felt wrong suddenly. It was too much that she wasn’t sitting here now and we weren’t talking about our wedding. I wanted to tell Elaine and Barry what a mistake it had all been and how V and I loved each other in a way no one else could possibly begin to understand.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s next Saturday.’
‘What’s he like, her fiancé?’
‘I don’t know, I haven’t met him.’
I saw Elaine glance at Barry. Jayden had taken out his phone and was swiping at something on the screen.
‘So, you’re all right about it then, are you?’ she asked hopefully.
I smiled like I knew she wanted me to. ‘Yes, of course.’
Her body seemed to relax at that. ‘Oh good. It’s just Barry and I knew how hung up on her you were and we didn’t want it to have upset you.’
I felt a million miles away from Elaine and Barry at that moment, the gulf of understanding between us so immense it was as though we meant nothing to each other.
‘She’s a lovely girl, but there’s plenty of lovely girls out there, especially for a fantastic young man like you.’ Elaine was looking at me very closely, as if trying to tell me something with her eyes, so I kept my smile rigid.
‘It’s going to be OK,’ I said.
She looked at me quizzically. ‘Well, of course it is.’
‘No, I mean, between me and V. It’ll all work out fine.’
‘It’s nice you can be friends,’ she said, but I saw her smile had slipped, a bit like a wig on an old man’s head. ‘Maureen’s Sarah got married last year, to a man she met on one of those internet sites.’
I thought of Maureen’s Sarah and her doughy body, her lank, thinning hair, her oversized glasses. I could feel my own muscles tense, even though I was sitting down, and it seemed ridiculous that Elaine could suggest such a thing.
‘Hang on there,’ Barry said. ‘The poor lad’s only just turned thirty, you don’t need to go marrying him off.’
I felt so tired by the time I left I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it home. My eyes ached with the pressure of keeping them open and my throat felt raw and scratched. By the time I stepped off the tube I was shivering against the warmth of the day and I felt the sweat popping on to my skin on the short walk back to my house. Once there, all I could do was strip naked and climb beneath my covers, giving in to a restless sleep in which V visited me in so many different forms I found myself unable to keep up. I woke through the night to the sounds of foxes mating and people laughing and at one point I reached across the bed and felt V’s solid shape. But when I pulled her towards me I realised I was holding a pillow and kicked it away from me in disgust.
Even though I dreamt of her all night, the only one I clearly remember is her standing in her new doorway holding her eagle towards me. She had ripped the chain from her neck and it lay crumpled and pathetic in her hands. Be careful, I said to her, or you’ll lose it. It doesn’t matter, she answered, you’re not coming are you?
I didn’t feel any better when my alarm sounded in the morning, in fact if anything I felt worse, a deep sickness now also lodged in my stomach. I called work and left a message explaining I was ill, something I couldn’t ever remember doing before. I slept most of that Monday as well, my dreams not unlike a rough sea. But by evening I knew I was over the worst of the fever. I ordered food on my laptop from my bed, chicken soup and dumplings, with fine noodles. I paid enough for it to be delicious and fresh and for a while I felt better as I ate it slowly, leaning against my pillows, listening to the news on the radio.
But my thoughts have always waited in darkened corners for me, watching for moments in which I am lulled into a false sense of security.
Their favourite torture is to remind me of my solitude. That there is no one to bring me chicken soup or feel my head or even care about my fever. As I lay weakened in bed they dragged up a memory of standing behind the bars of what must be a cot, my nappy so wet I can feel the urine stinging my skin, my throat raw from crying, my hands freezing. I don’t know how this memory ends because it is fogged. I don’t even know if it is a single memory or something that happened many times.
I have always preferred the ones which feel more concrete. It’s easier to cling on to the hard facts: my stomach rumbled so much in class other boys used to gurgle at me in the playground; my trousers would often fall to my knees because there was nothing to hold them up; I had to explain in front of the whole class that we didn’t have any books in our house; I faked illness whenever we had a school trip because it would have meant bringing in a packed lunch; I was never asked to one other child’s house or birthday party; I spat at my feet to stop myself crying; cold can penetrate into your marrow in a way that nothing else can; I was very, very good at lying about the origins of my bruises and scratches.
The last time I was properly with my mother she was lying on the sofa in our flat, her body already floppy from drink, her speech slurring. Miss Highland had had me in her office again the day before to remind me I didn’t have any duty to protect someone who didn’t protect me. I had nodded and smiled and presumed nothing would change. But it must have done, because when the familiar knock sounded on our door that evening I let them in. I didn’t lie down flat on the floor so they couldn’t see me when they looked through the letter box, like Mum had taught me. I didn’t even try to wake Mum or bother to formulate a ready lie. I just opened the door and let them walk through into the living room covered with mouldy plates and overflowing mugs of cigarettes. I let them gag at the stench in the bathroom and stare open-mouthed at the piles of empty beer cans and bottles in the kitchen. I confirmed my name and let them lead me to a car. It was only afterwards, on our drive to the home, that I realised I hadn’t even asked what was going to happen to Mum. But it was too late by then.
I stayed in bed again on Tuesday, ordering in more food and managing to make it to the kitchen for cups of tea. I noticed that the weather was glorious with streaming sunshine and clear blue skies and I thought late summer was the perfect time to be getting married. By the end of the day I felt stronger and after a shower I felt well enough to put on some shorts and sit in the garden for half an hour with the sun on my face. Tomorrow I would have to get back to some serious workouts as I was determined to look as perfect as possible for Saturday.
I woke the next morning with the distinct impression I had forgotten something, but it was only on my run that I realised what it was. I hadn’t bought V a wedding present. The thought was so ghastly I had to stop and bend over, pretending I had developed a sudden cramp. I couldn’t quite believe I had been so negligent. If I wasn’t meant to stop the wedding, then my gift had to be very important.
It was my next move in our new Crave and I felt sure would be the first present V opened.
It was all I could think of throughout the day. Even when the chairman popped his head round my door and asked me if I was feeling better, I know I didn’t give him my full attention. I was even quite dismissive when he said there was a new project he thought would suit me and he shut my door with a look of vague confusion on his face.
Just before I left for America V and I were asked to the wedding of an old friend of hers from university. At the bottom of the invitation they had written: ‘No presents please, your presence is the only present we need.’ V had fake retched when she’d read that. What crap, she’d said, everyone wants presents.
It came to me the next morning and so I went at lunchtime to a rare bookshop I found on Google. There were hardly any books of the type I requested, he’d told me over the phone, but naturally he did have one. Its rarity, he warned me, would make it more expensive than the hideously expensive ones all around us in the musty, over-crowded shop, but I had expected that. I waited while he went to fetch it, breathing in the dust of centuries and running my fingers across worn and broken spines, the leather cracked and chipped.
I was pleased by the size of the book which he laid on to the wooden table at the back of the shop and, as soon as he turned the first page, I knew I was going to buy it. There were pages and pages of detailed, gorgeous pictures of eagles, each one protected by a thin layer of white tissue paper. The prints were good enough to cut out and frame, something the dealer told me had happened to so many of these types of books. I was lucky, he said, that I had found his shop because he could guarantee he was the only person in London to have such a magnificent item in stock. But I was barely listening, instead marvelling at the riches in front of me, the golds and blues, the intricate details, the amazing scenes. He told me he could let it go for £3,500 and I didn’t bother to bargain because I would have paid double, maybe even triple, for a gift so perfect.
I had the book professionally wrapped at another place I found on Google, leaving it overnight and collecting it at lunchtime. From there I had it couriered to Steeple House. I could have taken it back to the office to accomplish all these tasks, but couldn’t bear answering questions about it all afternoon in the office. I didn’t want to turn up with it on the day and, more than that, I hoped V would open it before the wedding, I hoped she would get the message.
V once told me that I’m useless at interpreting signs and at the time she was probably right. We were lying on the grass near to her home in Sussex and it was one of those blisteringly hot summer days which only really seem to exist in memory. We had taken a picnic to a nearby field and V had laid our rug in the semi-shade of a tree. We had eaten well and drunk a bottle of wine, and I was on my back, V was resting on my chest, my arm lazily slung around her. I could feel her head rise and fall with my breathing and I remember thinking that this was what bliss felt like. That you could put a picture of us next to the word in the dictionary and everyone would understand. And I also knew it was the first time I had ever truly felt that way. Of course Elaine and Barry had made me feel happy and safe and even loved, but this feeling, which seemed to spread through my blood, into my toes, up through my head, along my muscles, this was new. It was also delicious; it was like a drug and I was already addicted.
‘Look, there’s a swan,’ V said, pointing upwards.
I looked into the sky but there was nothing there. ‘Can they fly?’
She laughed. ‘No, not an actual swan. A cloud swan.’
‘Didn’t you ever play that game when you were young? You know, making shapes out of the clouds.’
‘No. We didn’t play any games.’
She leant up on her elbow so she was looking down on me and her hair brushed against my cheek. ‘Sorry, Mikey. I didn’t think.’
‘It’s OK.’ I reached up and wound a piece of her hair round my finger. ‘It doesn’t matter now.’
‘Was it very terrible?’
I tried to think of something to say about my childhood, but all that came to mind was the colour grey and the feeling of cold concrete. It had only been three years since I had last seen my mother by then but she had already blurred and morphed into more of a feeling than a person and I found I couldn’t grab hold of a memory which felt real. ‘It wasn’t all bad,’ I tried, but that sounded wrong. ‘Elaine and Barry were great.’
‘Of course,’ V said. ‘But what was your mother like?’
V and I had only known each other for about six months at that point and I had never spoken to anyone before about my mother. But with V I always had the feeling that nothing was ever enough, that we could never do or say or know enough about each other. If I could have turned myself inside out to show her how I worked I would have done.
‘She was very sad,’ I said finally, which sounded true as I said it.
‘In what way?’
‘In every way.’ I tightened my twist on V’s hair and realised how easy it would be to rip it from its roots. ‘I think she drank as a way of blocking life out.’ The conversation was starting to make me feel funny, as if there was something I was forgetting.
‘What about your dad?’
‘I don’t have a dad.’
‘Everyone has a dad,’ V said, her eyes locked on me.
‘No, the space is blank on my birth certificate. My mother said it could have been one of a few men, none of whom she was still in contact with.’ The words sounded unreal outside of myself, where they had lived for so long. I almost wanted to catch them like butterflies and put them back. I couldn’t meet V’s eyes in case I had made her hate me.
But she leant down and kissed me very softly on the side of my mouth. ‘Oh, poor baby,’ she said, so gently I could have cried. Then she laid her head back on my chest and we breathed together for a few minutes. ‘The swan is still there,’ she said.
I looked back into the sky, but all I saw were wispy clouds against the peacock blue. ‘I still can’t see it.’
She laughed. ‘You’re not very good at interpreting things, are you?’
I pulled her closer to me. ‘I love you,’ I said, needing to say it so much at that moment I thought it might burst out of me if I didn’t.
She was quiet for a moment, but then, ‘I love you too,’ she said.
I can’t tell you why V loved me as much as she did. I spent the first year of our relationship terrified that she would wake up and realise she had made a stupid mistake, or identify me as the faulty goods I had always presumed myself to be. But it didn’t happen and I came to realise that she loved me in spite of who I was, which was not something I had ever imagined happening. At times I even let myself believe that she loved me because of who I was, although that thought never seemed quite real to me.
I thought it was a joke when she came up to me at a party I hadn’t wanted to go to in our second year at university. I thought once she had her light she would walk off, but she leant against the wall and asked me my name and what I was reading and where I was from and all those normal questions. And I was so stunned I didn’t ask her any in return, which I only remembered after I got back to my room hours later. I sat at my desk then and wrote out a list of things I wanted to know about her, all the things I would ask her next time, if the phone number she had given me proved to be real. And I also marvelled at the fact that I had even been at the party, via a series of odd coincidences, which was the first time I considered the possibility that fate had wanted us to meet.
There’s a French film called something like The Red Bicycle, I can’t remember the exact title. I saw it years ago late at night on BBC2 and I was so mesmerised by it I forgot to wonder at the name until weeks later, by which time I couldn’t find any reference to it, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if I dreamt it or if I really watched it.
In the film there is a boy who works in a shop and a girl who cycles past the shop every day on her red bicycle. They nearly meet a hundred times, their paths crossing, but never merging. As the film goes on you get the feeling that they need to meet, that it’s imperative to humanity, that when they do something magical will happen. But still they never do. Then they both board a ferry on an ordinary day. They sit near each other, but still fail to notice each other. Even when the storm rolls in and catastrophe strikes, even when it is obvious the boat is sinking rapidly, even when people are losing hope, still they fail to notice each other. The boat sinks and people are dying, perishing, leaving, but still they are flailing on their own. Then the camera pans out and we are watching the event as news footage. The newscaster is telling us it is the worst maritime disaster in French waters since the war, that it is feared only two people have survived. There is a shaky shot of two people being helped off the upturned hull into a lifeboat. They are the only two people left, and they look at each other, and you know immediately that all it was ever going to take for them was one glance.
And what that means is that sometimes two people need each other so much it is worth sacrificing others to make sure they end up together.
The weather on the morning of V’s wedding was perfect. Blue skies and warm sunshine, neither too hot nor too cold. The air felt like a kiss on your skin and there was a sense of anticipation in the atmosphere, almost as if you could feel the plants growing and the flowers blooming. I had bought a new suit for the occasion, a beige linen which I wore with a white shirt and brown tie. I had been careful in my choice, not wanting to seem like I wanted to stand out, but also making sure that it showed off my body to the best of its advantage. I had also bought some new cufflinks, two old silver coins fashioned into a new purpose. In fact, I had bought two pairs, simply because I had been unable to resist a pair of antique engraved cufflinks I saw in the window of a shop in Burlington Arcade. Their flowing lines were very subtle, but still undeniably in the shape of a V. I had considered wearing them, but decided against it because they were the cufflinks I would wear to our wedding.
I left the house at 11 a.m. sharp because, even though the service was in Sussex at 3 p.m., I couldn’t risk being in any way late. Funnily I was in a good mood.
I knew it wasn’t real, I knew it was all part of our Crave and I was determined to enjoy myself. Apart from anything else, I hadn’t visited V at either work or home since my illness the week before and I was desperate to see her.
As I walked down my path Lottie’s front door opened and Kaitlyn came out. ‘Oh, hello,’ she said.
She had become like some weird presence in my life and she unnerved me slightly. I almost wondered if she had been watching my house from Lottie’s window and had engineered leaving at the same time as me.
‘Bye,’ she called to Lottie, who waved and shut the door.
We fell into step together on the pavement. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.
‘We’ve just been to LBT.’ I presumed she meant some sort of exercise class as she was wearing Lycra.
‘Oh, I didn’t know you and Lottie were so friendly.’
She laughed. ‘Yes, we are.’ We walked on and then she said, ‘You look very smart. Where are you going?’
‘No Verity?’ I thought I could hear a note of amusement in her voice, which made me want to slap her.
‘She’s there already. It’s her sister who’s getting married, at their parents’ house in Sussex.’
‘Oh, how nice.’
‘Yes, it’s an amazing house. It’s got its own chapel in the garden, which is where the wedding is taking place. It dates from Norman times and there’s a rumour that there’s a tunnel which runs from the house to the chapel underground.’
‘Oh, right.’ We’d reached the main road and she was turning in a different direction. ‘Well, have fun. See you Monday.’
I felt myself heat up as I continued on to the Tube. What had I been thinking of saying something like that? Now, when V came to live with me, I would have to change jobs, maybe even move house. Because Kaitlyn would no doubt keep popping up and she was just the sort of annoying person to ask V about her sister or the wedding.
I turned and watched Kaitlyn cross the road, almost wishing a bus would speed over the hill and drag her under its wheels.
The train journey calmed me somewhat as we left the urban sprawl and started to glide through quintessentially English countryside. It couldn’t all happen instantly which meant I would be able to secure new employment before V did move in. You couldn’t just get married and then immediately get divorced and, even when you did, it would no doubt take a bit of time. I let my eyes relax as I stared out of the window and the countryside began to blur and merge, until it became a series of soft greens flowing past me.
I still hadn’t worked out exactly what V wanted me to do, which bothered me. Usually I knew my role in a Crave and we played by set rules. I understood that the American incident meant V had changed the rules and that she was punishing me by not revealing them to me. I comforted myself with the thought that at least I knew the purpose or the end game. I knew we were heading towards the inevitability of being together, I just didn’t know yet exactly what was expected of me. All I could be sure of was that it was going to be something big, something which undeniably and irrefutably proved my love for V for ever more.
I arrived nearly two hours early, so went to sit in the village pub I knew so well, before walking up the lane to Steeple Chapel. I ordered a pint and went to sit outside with the paper, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to read a word. There was a group of people dressed for a wedding already there and their voices rose into the soft air. Angus’s friends, I thought, looking at their bright clothes and tousled hair.
Over the course of the next hour the pub began to fill with more and more people obviously going to the wedding. Lots of people were kissing and greeting each other and women were squealing in a way that made me wonder how any of them could have been invited by V. I was on my second pint by then and as it hit my stomach I became aware that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I checked my watch and it was two fifteen, so I stood to begin the five-minute walk to the chapel. But as I did so a woman broke off from one of the groups and came towards me, a broad smile on her face. I knew I knew her, but it took me the whole of her approach to work out she had been one of V’s friends at university.
‘Mike,’ she said, ‘how lovely to see you.’
We kissed on both cheeks in that bizarre way people do nowadays, her hat nearly falling off in the process. ‘Hello,’ I said, not remembering her name, even though I knew we’d spent a fair proportion of time together over the years. She’d been for dinner at our flat, with her boyfriend, whose name I also couldn’t remember.
‘You look well,’ she said. ‘Was America good?’
‘How long have you been back?’
‘Oh, a few months.’ I shifted my weight, my brain still scrabbling for her name.
‘Come over. James would love to say hello.’
I let her lead me over to a group of people, where a man I recognised as James shook me by the hand. The other people in the group looked at me expectantly. ‘You remember Ben and Siobhan, don’t you?’ James said. ‘What did you read again?’
‘Economics.’ I smiled at the people I didn’t recognise.
‘Oh yes,’ James said. ‘We were all English.’
Louise! It came to me finally.
‘What are you doing with yourself now then, Mike?’ James asked.
‘I work in the City. How about you?’
‘Oh, we’re all in the media, in various ghastly forms.’ James laughed, although I could tell he was really pleased with the fact.
‘It’s lovely that you came,’ Louise said. ‘I always think it’s so nice when people remain friends, even after tricky break-ups.’
I looked at her, not entirely sure what she was talking about.
‘Have you met Angus?’ James asked.
‘No, not yet.’ I said.
‘Oh, he’s a top bloke. We went to Dorset with them at Easter and it was a real laugh.’
I looked between the smiling faces and wondered what they were doing. The thought even occurred to me that V had set this up as well. But I couldn’t contemplate that because my mind felt mugged by the thought of Dorset and what that meant. Of the thought of V anywhere other than the house in Kensington, work or Steeple House. It made me feel quite shaky.
‘We should get going,’ I said, looking at my watch again.
‘Oh, there’s hours yet,’ James said. ‘Brides are always late. Louise kept me waiting twenty minutes; I began to think she wasn’t coming.’
Everyone laughed except me. ‘No, there’s only twenty-five minutes. I’m going to get going.’
I waited a few seconds but nobody moved, so I turned and walked away. ‘See you there,’ I heard Louise calling after me.
There were quite a few people at the chapel by the time I arrived, which meant James was wrong and I was right. I told the young boy at the door I was with the bride and was directed to the left-hand side of the chapel, where I sat about five rows back, but near the aisle, so V could see me when she came in. Angus was standing near the front, chatting to another man with a shock of ginger hair. He looked different in the flesh, slightly shorter than I remembered from my brief glimpse of him getting out of the taxi. And maybe also slightly slimmer. He hadn’t made much of an effort with his hair, which still looked too long, and there was a hint of stubble on his face, making him look absurd on his wedding day. He rubbed his hands over his chin and even though he was smiling, his eyes looked nervous.
I thought he seemed unsure as to whether or not V was coming. It was entirely possible they had had a massive row as the day grew closer and she realised what she was doing. It occurred to me that maybe she wanted me to stop the wedding in some way. Maybe I was meant to stand up at that moment when the vicar asks if anyone present knows of any lawful impediment to the marriage. I sat very still for a while, considering this, but in the end I concluded this could not be what was expected of me. V hated scenes; she would especially hate one in front of all her family and friends. No, she had brought me here to bear witness and my role in the destruction of this marriage would be much more subtle.
By the time I looked up the chapel had filled to such an extent that people were standing at the back and the man sitting next to me had his legs pressed right up against mine. There was a clatter of heels on the floor and I turned and saw Suzi rushing in. She was beaming, her face set in an expression of happiness which didn’t look entirely real, especially sitting as it was underneath a large pale yellow hat which did nothing for her complexion. Her dress was the same pale yellow and as she wafted down the aisle I thought she looked like a giant slab of cheese. She caught my eye as she passed; her smile faltered momentarily, but then intensified. She too, I realised, wanted me to bear witness.
The music started and the room fell silent. I could feel V in the entrance to the church, like a wire was attached between us, strengthening and tightening. We all stood and I could see from the rapt expression on Angus’s face that she was beginning her slow walk. I held myself very still, knowing I could move my head and see V in an approximation of what she would wear to our wedding, because of course she would save the best dress for me.
The people opposite were all smiling and exclaiming and there wasn’t much time left, so I turned my head, just at the moment she came level with our pew. She glanced up and our eyes locked for a moment, before she looked away. But I saw the jolt in her. I knew then what it had cost her to put me through this and I wanted in some way to let her know I was OK and I understood.
Her dress was made of very old lace, draped over a fitted, shimmering gown which flowed around her body like water. It glistened as she moved, revealing and yet hiding her perfect body in tantalising fashion. It was scooped out at the back, revealing her spine and the muscles which held her together, her pale brown flesh a reminder of all the times I had held her. Her hair flowed in loose ringlets, fixed in places by small white flowers. She radiated, purely and simply, and my heart reached out to her as she passed, screaming and weeping in my chest.
I barely heard the service as my blood was rushing through my ears. I stood and sat at the right times and sang the hymns, although I couldn’t tell you what they were now. I listened to V’s best friend Alice and Angus’s brother read extracts about love from books I didn’t recognise. And I tried to avoid looking at V and Angus standing side by side, the quick smiles they gave each other, or the note of joy in his voice when he said, ‘I do.’
The air felt thin and my vision was starting to become pitted, almost as if I was losing sight of something. It had also become unbearably hot in the little chapel and I doubted there was enough air for the number of people there. Finally V and Angus went to sign the register and the people next to me began to chat in a low murmur. I rolled the wedding service sheet into a cylinder, my hands tight against the card. And for the first time, maybe ever, I felt a rising anger for V. This had been a stupid idea of hers; it went above and beyond what had been needed. This was a binding contract; it was going to take pain and time to extricate herself from it and I still wasn’t even clear what she expected of me. I looked then at her forehead as she sat in the seat just vacated by Angus, as she steadily signed her name, and I wondered again what was going on beneath her skin, inside her skull.
If I had been standing close enough I think I might have taken the heavy golden cross from the altar and smashed it against her head, in order to delve about in the red mess of her brain to try and understand what she meant by it all.
It was a relief to emerge into the bright sunlight and stand back a bit while everyone shouted and cheered and threw their confetti high into the sky, like colourful acid rain. The air was filled with excited chatter and noise and children ran between the gravestones. But I felt tired and weak and could feel a pain building between my shoulder blades, a reminder of the punishing run I’d done that morning.
A woman had set a tripod up in front of the doors and people were being summonsed and posed, until only V and Angus were left. He drew her towards him, his arm encircling her waist, and she raised her head upwards to meet him and they kissed, slowly, like they had done in the kitchen the night I’d watched from the shadows. I readied myself for movement, waiting for her hand to reach for her bird, but as I had the thought I realised she wasn’t wearing any jewellery round her neck, nothing at all. Only small pearls on her lobes. My breathing quickened as I tried to work out this new sign, but for the moment nothing came to me.
We followed the path which led to the field at the bottom of Steeple House and went through the gate into the garden, which had been magically transformed into a land of wonder. A huge white marquee stood on the lawn, bedecked with flowers and garlands, shading lots of round tables on which glass sparkled and shimmered. A long table greeted us, loaded with popping bottles of champagne and fizzing glasses. I was handed one as I walked by and sipped straight at it, even though my head already felt addled and my stomach was as empty as a cave.
Emptiness is such a familiar yet terrifying sensation for me, scorched on to my physical memory so deep it drags me backwards through time to when it wasn’t in my power to feed myself. A time when I had no money to buy myself even a loaf of bread. A time when I was always alone, even when my mother was with me. A time in which I couldn’t make myself lovable and I didn’t know how to love. A time when it had seemed as if I was never going to fill the deep, all-encompassing void in my soul.
Luckily at the reception there were lots of young girls dressed in black and white holding laden trays of food. Except the food on offer was all one bite and I knew I couldn’t take a handful like I wanted to. I drifted to the edge of the party, pretending to admire Suzi’s flower beds, really wishing I could snip the heads off the flowers one by one, leaving them dead or dying in the border.
Everyone else had splintered off into groups and the noise they were all making was too loud and close. I circled the outside of the party, looking for V, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. It was possible, I supposed, that she and Angus were continuing their argument elsewhere. Or maybe she had broken down and admitted everything to him; maybe seeing me during the ceremony had been too much. I took another glass of champagne as a tray passed me, even though the bubbles were hurtling themselves around my empty stomach, pressing the void higher and higher, squeezing my heart and blocking my throat.
A queue was forming in front of the marquee, so I went to join it, standing between people who were still chatting, as if everyone had so much to say. It took me a minute to realise that V and Angus were standing just by the entrance to the marquee, smiling and shaking hands, kissing cheeks and sometimes exclaiming and hugging. I wiped my palms against my trousers, but they slicked again immediately. I was five people away from them and the line was inching ever closer.
The short, fat woman in front of me kissed Angus dramatically and then held V’s face in both her hands and kissed her lips, exclaiming as she did so at her beauty. Angus turned to me, his cheeks high with colour and his mouth already smiling. He reached out and shook my hand with a tight grip. ‘Hello, thanks for coming. Sorry, you are?’ Up close his skin was lined and he was definitely older than us, my early forties estimation had been correct.
V was still being mauled by the fat lady but I could feel her straining towards me. ‘Mike,’ I said.
His eyes widened for a moment and his glance flicked my length. ‘Oh, Mike.’
‘Hello, Mike,’ V said, now free.
I turned to her. ‘You look amazing.’
She blushed, but I stepped towards her, leaving Angus to deal with the next person. ‘Thank you.’
‘Did you get my present?’
She laughed lightly. ‘Yes, we did. It’s very beautiful. Thank you.’
‘I mean every picture,’ I said, my eyes refusing to leave her face.
She glanced over at Angus, but he hadn’t heard. ‘Oh, well.’
‘Where are you going on honeymoon?’
She hesitated. ‘South Africa.’ She turned towards Angus again and I realised Angus and the woman he was with had stopped talking and there was almost the feeling of a surge from the line, as if I was holding everyone up.
‘You’re on table fourteen, I think,’ V said, her smile back on her face. ‘The plan is just over there.’
I walked over to the seating plan, but my eyes had lost focus and it took me ages to find my name and then my table, which was in a far corner, under the slope of the marquee. I was the last person to my place and I had to fit myself in next to a mousy-looking woman and an older man.
The mousy woman turned out to be a cousin of Angus’s, although she hadn’t seen him for three years, and the older man was a family friend of V’s parents. I spoke first to the mousy woman, who was interesting only in that she was able to impart some facts about Angus. She didn’t appear to like him much. She called him ‘the family star’ and said she wasn’t surprised he’d ended up with someone as fabulous as Verity and didn’t I think they’d have beautiful children, a thought so disgusting it made me want to gag. She was keen to tell me how fabulously wealthy he was and what a success he’d made of his company, which he’d started from scratch, although I thought Angus’s scratch was probably a lot nicer than mine. She also confirmed he was older than V, thirty-eight to be precise, a bit younger than my estimation, which meant he hadn’t weathered well.
I moved on to the man towards the end of the main course. He said he knew who I was, although we’d never met, which seemed strange, but also made me think that I had obviously featured strongly in all their lives over the years. He had been in the army, he told me, and asked if it was a career I had ever considered. Banking is a hiding to nothing, he said, playing around with numbers and pretending things were important which were not. It was, he continued, why the country was in the mess it was in, this inability we had to grasp what really mattered.
But my brain felt suffocated by the fact that V was going to South Africa and I was finding it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. South Africa had been where we had always wanted to go and the thought that she would be seeing it for the first time with that repulsive upstart Angus was almost too much. I couldn’t help looking over at him throughout the meal. He was sitting at the long table which ran across the top of the marquee between V and Suzi. His arm was running along the back of V’s chair, but he was saying something to Suzi which was making her laugh. V was chatting to an older man on her other side who could only have been Angus’s father. I wondered what V thought, looking at him, ruining the surprise of what her future would hold in store were her marriage real.
And all at once I was struck by the thought that when we got married I would have two blank spaces where my parents were supposed to be. In fact, I would have blank spaces everywhere. I wouldn’t have cousins to sit next to ex-girlfriends. I wouldn’t have ex-girlfriends. I wouldn’t have friends, or even acquaintances. I thought stupidly of Kaitlyn and her washed-out face, perhaps the only person I knew whom I could legitimately invite, apart from Elaine and Barry of course.
I put down my knife and fork as the salmon defeated me and thought I might have to get up and excuse myself, when it came to me. I realised suddenly what V was doing with this marriage, almost as if she’d written it on to a piece of paper and given it to me. This was not the marriage she wanted. This was the marriage Suzi wanted. V was not this traditional bride, this doting daughter, this white virgin. V in fact was the complete opposite of this. V was dark and musty and throbbing. V craved. V craved me.
I lied when I said the Crave in that nightclub in Piccadilly Circus was our last. Our last Crave actually happened in America, the first summer I was living there. And it wasn’t even a proper Crave, although now I realise it was the moment when V knew that the rules could change and how much fun that could be.
V came out for two weeks and we flew south, picking up an old Chevy in which we drove routes we’d heard about in songs. We slept in hokey motels which looked like sets of horror films and ate in diners where the waitresses were all too old and sad. We swam naked in rivers and drank beer on the side of the road, sleeping it off in the car.
‘I feel like a Crave,’ V said one evening. We were lying in bed in a cheap motel in Dakota with the neon lights from the sign leaking in through the window on to our naked bodies. The motel was on the edge of an even cheaper town, where we had seen people dressed in cowboy boots and Stetsons.
‘They’d probably shoot us out here,’ I said, kissing the top of her head.
‘No, I was thinking something different,’ she said, her voice slightly muffled against my chest.
She sat up and her spine was ridged in her back as she curled her arms round her legs. ‘I want to sleep with a woman. Just once. And I want you to be there.’
I didn’t know how to answer at first. I was torn between the desire to do anything to make her happy and the repulsion at the thought of anyone else getting that close to V.
She turned round and I could see the need in her face. ‘It wouldn’t mean anything. It would just be sex. I just want to know what it’s like.’
‘OK,’ I said. And if I am being totally honest the thought was quite pleasant, desirable even. I knew how much V loved sex and what we made each other feel like and if she wanted to try something different then it was better that it was with me.
We dressed quickly, V looking all the more seductive for her bed-tousled hair and hastily applied red lipstick. We both probably stank of the sex we’d just had, but neither of us even applied deodorant.
The bars were like ones you see in films, dark and sordid, with loud rock music and pool tables. People stopped talking and looked at us when we came in and lots of them looked as if the beer had soaked right through their skin. The room smelt of farmyard and sweat and broken dreams. We drank neat whiskey for courage and its warmth spread through our veins.
We found what we were looking for at the third bar, sitting on her own at the edge of the room, on a high stool next to a high table which wrapped around a long wooden pole. She had frosted hair and smudged eye make-up. Her skin was pale and her teeth were yellow. Her skirt was short and her legs were dimpled and mottled and she wore what looked like a kid’s T-shirt bearing the emblem ‘Little Miss Trouble’. She said she was up for anything if we bought her a bottle of vodka.
She swayed on her walk back to the motel, and kept tripping over her feet, which both seemed to point inwards. She looked younger in the darkness, out of the lights of the bar, and she smoked with a defiance I had never seen before. V linked their arms and whispered something in her ear which made her giggle and I wondered if I would regret what we were about to do.
She stripped as soon as we got inside, before I’d even had a chance to shut the curtains, standing in front of us in cheap, grubby, once-white bra and pants. I sat in a chair, my head groggy and fuzzed, unsure of my role in the whole charade. I desperately didn’t want to have sex with the girl and my dick felt useless.
V walked towards her, removing her T-shirt as she moved. The girl spat her chewing gum on to the floor and then they were kissing. They fell on to the bed and I found I couldn’t stop looking at them, at how they fitted together, at how their bodies mirrored each other. Even when V arched her back and screamed, the girl’s head buried between her legs, still I looked, still I didn’t feel the need to rip them apart and beat my fist into the girl’s face. And of course I was so hard by then I stood up and my movement attracted V’s attention, so she beckoned for me and I went to her, moving straight for her mouth, kissing her fast. The girl sat backwards on to the floor and I heard the click of a lighter and smelt the enveloping smoke. But I didn’t care by then and neither did V, who was tearing at my jeans, rushing to get me inside her.
I had forgotten there were speeches at weddings.
Angus stood to loud applause. He wasn’t holding any notes and V was looking up at him, as were all the faces in the room.
‘Thank you all so much for coming.’ His voice was clear and confident. ‘It means so much to Verity and me to have you all here to share this special day with us and I know some of you have travelled pretty far to be here. We’re very touched.’ He droned on about how amazing Suzi had been with the organisation and how welcome she and Colin had made him feel. He said some sentimental crap about his own parents and his brother and his mother dabbed away a tear. He complimented the bridesmaids who just looked like generic little girls in white dresses to me.
‘But now, to the most important person,’ he said, turning to V. ‘My beautiful, amazing, clever, talented wife, Verity.’ He gazed down on her, but she had looked away and I saw her nervous blush begin to extend from her breastbone upwards. ‘I don’t need to tell you all how ravishing she looks today because you all have eyes. I don’t need to tell you how kind and clever she is because you all know her. What I do need to tell you all is how much she means to me.’ His voice broke slightly and he reached for his champagne, taking a sip.
‘I really cannot believe that we’ve only known each other for a year. In fact, we realised just the other day that we first met each other exactly a year ago last Saturday, which feels rather fitting. Not of course that we got together immediately because it took me a bit of time to build up my courage first to speak to Verity, then to ask her out, then to actually take seriously the fact that she might like me.’ Light laughter rang out and I wanted to stand on my chair and shout at everyone to shut the fuck up, so I didn’t miss a word. ‘So, it has amazingly only been ten months between our first date and this moment. Some might say that’s not long enough to know you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, but I knew after ten minutes. Verity is quite simply the best thing that has ever happened to me.’ He lifted his glass. ‘Can I ask you all to raise a toast to my wife, the most wonderful woman on the planet?’
I lifted my glass automatically, downing what was left in it. Ten months. A year. Ten months. A year. The words were like a steam train rattling through my brain. Verity and I had broken up at Christmas; it was now the middle of September. I counted down on my fingers even though I knew very well what the result would be. Nine months. I looked at Verity but she had stood up and was kissing Angus. My vision thinned to a small, white pin.
I endured Colin and the best man’s turgid speeches, only because I would have drawn too much attention to myself by leaving. I had to listen to how much everyone loved Angus and how Verity had had to overcome some difficulties, which was news to me, but was so happy now. I even had to hear Angus described as ‘the most eligible man in London’, a plainly absurd moniker for someone like him.
They finished in the end, as everything does, and the music began, so I was able to slip out into the now darkened night. Someone had lit a million candles and the garden seemed to sway with them. I stood by the side of the marquee and breathed deeply, letting the air expand my chest until I couldn’t hold any more, concentrating on the movement alone. The night was clear and the stars were sparkling, dotted across the sky like a message.
A woman was walking towards me, her steps small and her gait unsteady. Only when she got closer did I see it was Louise. She had a cigarette in her mouth, which she took out and waved at me. ‘You don’t have a light, do you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t smoke.’
She laughed. ‘Of course you don’t. You couldn’t possibly have the strength to grow those muscles if you had a disgusting habit like this.’ She had stopped but her body was still rocking and her speech was slurred. ‘They’re about to have their first dance. You should go and watch.’
‘Do you still love her?’
I looked over but it was dark where we were and I couldn’t make out all her features. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because you always loved her too much.’
‘How can you love someone too much?’
She laughed. ‘In the same way you can love someone too little. It’s like the three bears’ beds, it’s very rare you get it just right.’
I felt lost in the conversation. I didn’t know if she was trying to tell me something, maybe even something V had asked her to tell me.
‘You shouldn’t waste your time,’ Louise said. ‘Verity and Angus have got it just right and the rest of us can only marvel at their brilliance.’
‘What is it about Verity? Why do all the boys go potty over her?’
‘Because she’s perfect.’ I couldn’t believe anyone needed to ask that question.
Louise stepped a little closer to me. ‘You know, I always fancied the pants off you, Mike. Not that you’d have ever noticed. You were like a puppy around Verity, only ever had eyes for her.’ She closed the gap between us and put her hand against my dick, on the outside of my trousers. ‘I hate James,’ she said. ‘He fucks like a rabbit.’
‘This is Verity’s wedding.’
‘So?’ she said, her hand still on my limp dick.
I pulled back, raising my hands as I did so to remove hers from my body, but she was so drunk she lost her balance and toppled backwards, her high heels skidding from under her. She fell in an undignified heap, landing by the side of the marquee.
She looked up at me. ‘What the fuck.’
I knew I should help her up and apologise, but something about her crumpled figure on the grass disgusted me. The flickering of the candles was adding to my headache and I found all I could do was turn and walk away across the grass.
‘You pushed me, you fucking maniac,’ she shouted ridiculously after me.
I walked back down into the village but the last train had long gone, so I went into the pub and ordered another pint and asked if they knew of a taxi which would drive me back to London. My headache was so bad by then my vision had become jarred and jagged. I couldn’t answer the barman when he asked if it had been a good wedding and he shrugged and moved on to the next customer. I feigned sleep in the back of the cab to avoid talking, but something about the movement must have lulled me because I woke up as we were pulling up outside my house. I paid the £250 requested and let myself in, where I went to the kitchen and opened a bottle of red which I didn’t even really want.
There was just so much I didn’t understand. People said things they didn’t mean the whole time. Or maybe they didn’t know what they meant? Or, most terrifying of all, maybe nothing in the world made sense? What would have happened, for example, if I had fucked Louise behind the marquee? What would she have said to James? Did she really hate him? How do rabbits fuck?
And was it possible that V had known Angus for a year? That they’d had their first date a month before I came home for Christmas? Did they really have it just right like Louise said or was he nothing more than a part in our Crave? If I hadn’t been such a massive idiot and fucked everything up by screwing Carly, perhaps V had planned to tell me all about Angus?
I banged my fist against the marble of the counter top, the pain spreading comfortingly up my arm. ‘V,’ I shouted into the air, ‘I just want to understand. I just need to know what you want me to do.’ But the silence kept its counsel and all I could do was sit down at my long kitchen table and drink the bloody wine.