'What's she like, then?'
We were gathered in the kitchen where Stu was leading the interrogation. Before answering, I looked across at Lee, who was very much the junior partner, and saw that he was readying himself to say something funny.
'If she's half as fit as that Spanish bird, he's doing okay.'
Good old Lee, I thought. ‘The Spanish bird’s name was Valeria.’
'Oh yeah, that’s the one. I could never work out how you got hold of her.’
‘To be fair, none of us could’, added Stu to guffaws from Lee. It was a fair comment. I didn’t know how I ended up with her either.
‘So, you still haven’t told us about the new girl’, Stu added.
I’ve only been seeing her for a few weeks. There’s not much to tell.’
‘You must be able to tell us something about her?’
I could say that she might just be the one to fill the aching void in my life and turn me into something resembling a normal human being. But I couldn’t say that to her, so I definitely wasn’t telling them.
‘She is real, isn’t she?’ Lee asked, to no laughs.
‘Of course she’s real’, said Stu. ‘He doesn’t need to lie, does he? We’re stuck with the same women but he’s still out there, doing it for the rest of us. Isn’t that right, Jamie?’
‘You know I’m not twenty anymore, right?’
‘I know mate, I’m just having a laugh’, said Stu defensively. ‘And trying to live my life vicariously through you.’
Three pairs of eyes turned to the door as Sam entered from the hallway.
‘You lot look suspicious. What are you doing?’
‘Jamie’s got a new girlfriend, but he’s keeping schtum’, Stu explained.
‘I’m not surprised. He doesn’t want you two drooling all over her like that Spanish girl.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’, Stu replied.
Sam raised her eyebrows and stared back at her husband, then at Lee, without eliciting a response. ‘Anyway, it’s presents time, so can you please all get in the front room.’
We followed Sam through the hallway and into the front room. It used to be two separate rooms but the previous owners had knocked it through to make one huge room, which occupied most of the ground floor space. I knew this because Stu told me when they first moved in, not that I was remotely interested. Single living had left me more or less immune to the joys of home improvement.
I hovered back while Sam, Stu and Lee walked towards the two sofas at the furthest end of the room, near the patio doors. This wasn’t really my thing, and no one would criticise me for not taking a keener interest.
It seemed like everyone was waiting for an official announcement, so Stu moved in front of the kids. ’Okay Lottie, are you ready to open some presents?’
His daughter was cross-legged on the floor, a few feet in front of him, and surrounded by other seated children. ‘Yes’, she shouted. ‘How many?’
‘All of them’, said Stu with an extravagant raise of his hands. He exchanged a brief glance with Sam, whose demeanor suggested that he’d strayed considerably from the script. Being an eight-year-old, Lottie ignored the parental tension and ripped into the biggest, most elaborately wrapped present with gusto. The wrapping paper was no match for her frenzied grabbing, but the ribbon proved more durable. Several times Stu looked like he was about to intervene only for Sam to place her arm in front of his chest. Eventually, Lottie's efforts were getting close to hysterical, so Sam removed her arm and Stu stood up. 'I'll get some scissors’, he said before carefully weaving through the crowd of parents and children and out of the room.
‘Hooray, we get to watch a child open presents for an hour.’ The woman with crazy, blue hair had managed to position herself approximately two inches from my left shoulder without me noticing.
‘Yeah, but it’s the most important part for her, I guess.’
‘Fucking tedious for us.’
I was starting to like her.
‘Then there’s the games. Or have we had them already? I can’t remember.’
‘We’ve had the games already’, I confirmed.
‘Ah, okay. Well we’ve still got to sing “Happy Birthday” and cut the cake, of course. Every single kid’s party. All exactly the fucking same.’
Although no one else was too close, her voice - which had started as a conspiratorial whisper, was becoming noticeably louder.
‘We discussed whether we should do something a bit different for our daughter’s party, but my husband bottled it. Said people expected the same stuff and we shouldn’t disappoint. I suppose he’s right but I’d be happy if we could just get pissed in the garden and leave them to it.’
‘I’d definitely sign up for that.’
‘I’m Anita, by the way, and that’s my hubby over there.’ She pointed towards two men, who were talking to each other. I had no idea which one was her hubby ‘And that’s my daughter sitting near the birthday girl.’ This time she pointed to the scrum of seven girls around Lottie.
‘I’m Jamie and I’m a friend of Stu and Sam’, I said, having a fair idea which question would follow.
‘And which one’s your kid?’
Bingo. ‘I don’t have any kids. I’m just. . .’
‘Here because you were invited?’
‘Yep, exactly.’ I smiled at her. She got it, thank God. Most parents didn’t. Still, it left an awkward silence while she swiped away all the child-related questions and tried to reset her brain.
‘I’m gonna get another drink. Do you want one?’ I asked.
‘Yes please. I’ll have a white wine.’
‘No problem’, I responded as I opened the front room door and swiftly progressed into the kitchen. As I rummaged through the fridge to find my beer I heard someone entering the room.
‘Escaping the fun, shithead?’
‘I turned to see a heavily pregnant Amy staring at me. ‘Yep, too much excitement for me.’
‘Well, I’m trying to enjoy it. After all, it’s going to be my life for the next sixteen years.’
‘I think parties like this tend to stop when they’re ten or eleven. Maybe twelve.’’
‘You can promise me this, can you?’
'Nope, don’t quote me on it. I’m definitely not an expert.’
‘You never know’, she said as she patted her bump. 'This could have been you.'
There were many times I’d been tempted to tell Lee about me and Amy. But it happened long before they ever got together, and there wasn’t much to tell, anyway. ‘I thought we weren’t going to talk about that?’
‘I know. I’m sorry’, she simpered. ‘You’d never tell him, would you?’
‘No’, I replied. He was a bit of a prick, but I wasn’t that cruel.
‘I know you find him annoying. Even I find him annoying, sometimes. But he’s a nice person, underneath it all.’
‘Yeah, I know. Lee’s alright.’ I struggled to say anything more positive but this, at least, was true. It seemed to be enough for Amy, who smiled appreciatively in response.
From beyond the room, the shrill doorbell sounded. Amy opened the door to the hallway slightly, then closed it again. I presumed she’d seen someone else heading towards the front door.
She wasn’t finished with me, though: ‘So, who’s this new girl of yours?’
‘Not you as well?’
‘Sorry, Lee told me. But it’s something people talk about, Jamie.’
‘I know, it’s just a bit complicated. I’d rather wait before telling everyone about her.’
She laughed gently and patted my arm. ‘You don’t change, do you? Still putting the different parts of your life into boxes.’
‘I think this one might be different.’ This prompted raised eyebrows from Amy, but I wanted to convince her, and myself. ‘Look, I know I’ve somehow got this reputation as a bit of a player, but that’s not me. Not really. And I like her. A lot.’
‘Okay, I believe you. We’ll just wait until you’re ready.’
‘Thanks’, I said, but I wished things were different. I wished they weren’t complicated and she was standing right next to me. But it couldn’t happen. It was clear from the way she acted and the things left unsaid, that the two of us weren’t the only people in our relationship, if that’s what it even was. Of course, I wanted answers, but I didn’t want to push her too hard, in case she drifted away.
The door from the hallway swung open and a man walked in carrying a small rucksack that was clearly filled with booze. He was dressed in shades of muted grey and black. His wavy, dark hair was streaked with occasional flashes of grey and the lower half of his face was covered with proper stubble. Not the patchy effort that disgraced my face. He was basically a slightly taller, better looking version of me.
‘Hi guys, sorry we’re late.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it. You missed pass-the-parcel but you can still catch the end of the present unwrapping. And there’s the cake to look forward to.’ Amy was smitten already.
‘First things first’, he replied whilst maneuvering around us, towards the fridge. He delved deep into his bag and emerged with a large bottle of Belgian beer, opened the fridge and, after a bit of repositioning, found a suitable space. He repeated the process with another two beers and a bottle of white, before opening a final bottle. ‘At least we’re within walking distance. Not sure I could survive this without drinking.’
‘That seems to be a common theme’, I joked. ‘Makes you wonder why we don’t just get pissed in the garden and leave the kids to it.’
He laughed and so did Amy. I didn’t care that the joke was stolen.
‘I’m Julian, by the way.’
I introduced myself and we shook hands. ‘And this is Amy’, I added.
‘Hi Amy, and Amy’s bump. When’s it due?’
‘Two months, and I’m so over it already.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard it can get a bit testy’, he replied, before turning to me. ‘Still, you must be very excited.’
Amy didn’t give me time to respond. ‘Ha, Jamie’s far too mysterious for any of that boring, responsibility stuff. The father’s in the front room.’
Julian apologised and turned to me. ‘I’m sure Jamie just hasn’t met the right. . .’
‘Woman’, I confirmed, to laughs from Amy.
Julian grinned at me awkwardly. ‘Sorry, I didn’t want to assume.’
‘It’s okay’, I assured him.
‘I actually think you’d do quite well as a gay man’, added Amy. ‘You wear nice clothes and you’re really secretive.’
‘Nice stereotyping there, Amy.’
‘Oh dear, I feel like I’ve started something’, said Julian.
‘Don’t worry. I’m just winding him up. He’s got a new girlfriend and he won’t give us any details.’
‘Oh, I get it. It’s early days and he doesn’t want to curse it’, Julian said, before turning to me. ‘Right, Jamie?’
‘Something like that’, I gratefully replied.
The door from the hallway began to inch open and Jamie went to grab it.‘Talking of other halves, I think this might be mine now.’
I suddenly had a premonition of what was going to happen. It all seemed so inevitable.
She pushed through, with her head pointing downwards so her dark, almost black, hair covered her face. But I didn’t matter. I knew it was her. There was a young girl with her and the family resemblance was startling.
‘This is my wife, Charlotte’, said Julian.
She lifted her head, glanced at Amy and me, and didn’t skip a beat. It was masterful.
‘Hi guys’, she said.
I picked up my beer so I had something else to concentrate on.
‘And this is Olivia’, added Julian, gesturing towards the child.
‘Well, hello Olivia’, replied Amy. ‘I’m Amy and this is Jamie.’
Everyone turned to look at me just as I was taking a slug of beer. The tension made my throat constrict, forcing the liquid down the wrong hole. I spluttered and coughed while they stood watching.
'As you can see, Jamie is very, very cool’, added Amy to polite laughs.
I wanted to say something but every effort to speak just made it worse, so I made half-hearted, waving motions then exited through the side door and into the narrow alleyway, which ran alongside the house and into the garden.
I sat on the patio wall and tried to collect my thoughts. How could this happen? The kids went to the same school. That had to be it, the reason why they’re here. But what should I do? There was no way I could imagine staying, so I had to leave. But what would I do about Charlotte? It was fine when the other person was unmentioned and unknown, but a husband and child? I couldn’t be responsible for this. I had to end it. There was no other way. So that’s what I decided. Make my excuses, leave the party, then stay away from her. For ever.
I lurked near the back of the room, hoping to catch Stu’s eye, but he was busy being the affable host at the other end, and I couldn’t go down there because Charlotte and Julian were there. I was just considering how I could leave without telling anyone, and not face a huge shit-storm, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
‘Where’s my white wine?’ Anita fired an accusing stare at me.
'Oh crap, sorry!'
'Probably for the best. I'm driving so I'll save it for later.'
'I was going to bring it, honestly, but we got chatting and. . .'
'Basically, yeah. Sorry, again.'
She looked at me with mock indignation. 'Talking to Julian and his wife, were you?' she asked while raising her head in their direction.
'Yeah. I was just introduced in the kitchen.’
‘It’s not fair, is it? They’re both so good looking and successful and clever, and they’ve got a lovely kid and they should be horrible, despicable people. But they’re not, they’re really, really nice.’
‘You know them?’
‘I used to work with Julian. Don’t know the wife so much. He’s had a bit of a tough time recently.’
It would be awkward not to enquire further, as much as I really didn’t want to. ‘Oh, what happened?’
‘His mum died, then he had to put his father in a home.’
If I had any doubts before, they were gone now. With any luck, he’d never find out about us, and we could all get on with our lives, separately. But then she caught me. It was one of those looks when someone pretends to scan the room, but really they’re just hoping to see one person. She lingered in my direction for a millisecond longer than she should, and gave a half-smile. I was pathetically grateful, but what did it mean? Was she just acknowledging the difficult situation, or was she looking at me for the last time?
I walked into the kitchen to get my remaining beers. Amy was already there. It felt like she was waiting for me.
'Leaving so soon?'
Yeah, feel like a bit of a spare part, to be honest.'
'But it's so early, Jamie.' She looked straight at me and held her unrelenting gaze. It was more than a bit uncomfortable.
‘A coughing fit and now you’re running for your life. It’s so bloody obvious, Jamie. Charlotte’s your mystery girlfriend, isn’t she?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Come on, Jamie. It makes perfect sense. You get your love story without the commitment. It’s you all over, isn’t it?’ She must have realised she’d landed a bullseye because Amy's expression changed from triumphant to something a little softer.
‘Sorry, Jamie, but it’s time you grew up. All your friends have partners. Some even have kids. . .’ she tapped her belly, unnecessarily I thought, before continuing: ‘and you’re still out there, looking for God knows what.’
'I didn't know she had a family.'
'Really? No clue at all?’ she asked.
I stood firm in front of Amy’s accusing stare. Sure, I hadn’t gone out of my way to find out about Charlotte’s other life, but it was true. I really didn’t know.
‘Well anyway, you can’t carry on seeing her. You know that, right?’
'Yeah.' I shuffled past her and out the house, and away from Charlotte. I could take some comfort knowing I'd be doing the right thing but this one was going to hurt.
As I turned the corner onto the High Street, I wondered how it was going to end. Would we simply never contact each other again? It would be the easiest and the hardest way. Practical but missing that final chance to say farewell. Even if I wanted to get in touch, I couldn’t risk contacting her. I'd just have to stay in emotional purgatory until we eventually forgot each other. I knew that would take a long time. For me, anyway. Just thinking about never seeing, touching or smelling her again made my legs go weak. Then my phone buzzed. A text from her.
This changes nothing.
I felt the surge of serotonin wash over my brain before checking myself. I had to stay strong. I had to tell her that she was wrong, that it had changed everything, but, but. . . who the hell was I kidding?
Author Notes: Just a little idea I had. Any feedback, good or bad, gratefully received.