Dan and I got together at university, and stayed together afterwards, kind of by default. Pete and Sarah had been living together for about a year – in a two-up, two-down, in the village in which we all grew up. But they had to move out when their landlord sold the house. They found a bungalow near Pete’s mother’s, and Dan and I hadn’t been to their new place.
Getting there didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I finished work early, and we got lucky with the lights, so we made it in pretty good time. Pete and Sarah came out to greet us as our car pulled up on their driveway, and helped us unload our stuff – a boot-full of snacks and wine bottles, and two matching leather sports bags with our clothes inside.
After we’d found our room and unpacked, Dan and I sat on the sofa in the living room. Pete swivelled on the computer chair, looked towards the open doorway, and shouted: “Sarah! Can you get me a drink? Just blackcurrant.”
He waited for a response, which failed to come. He didn’t bother asking again.
“Didn’t you have a cat before?” said Dan.
“Well,” said Pete. He licked his forefinger and rubbed away a mark on the wall. “Jake got stolen.”
“Stolen?” I said.
Wiping his hand on his jeans, Pete looked at me and said: “Months ago. He kept disappearing and not coming back for days. And then… then he just didn’t come back. We got really worried, of course. We asked neighbours if they’d seen him, printed a couple of posters… then we saw him, just hanging out down the road.”
Sarah came into the room and handed Pete a frothy purple drink. He thanked her, and watched her take a seat on the armchair in the corner.
“Sorry, where was I?” said Pete.
“You saw Jake down the road,” I said.
“Oh yes. So I ran towards him and called his name,” he said. “Over and over again. He wouldn’t even look at us! He ran in the other direction, into someone’s garden. So Sarah and I went to knock on the front door, and this guy answered. We asked for our cat back. But the guy wouldn’t give him back. He said he’d never seen Jake. Really stuck-up, he was. There was nothing we could do but go back and just hope Jake turned up. After a few days, he still hadn’t showed, so we went back to the guy’s house and knocked on the door. The guy came round the side door and said he’d still not seen him. I said: ‘He’s not coming back to our house because you obviously keep feeding him!’ On the way back, I caught a glimpse of Jake in his porch!”
Pete glanced over at Sarah, who had struck a lighter’s flame. She held it carefully against an incense stick.
“I swear I could smell smoked kippers coming through from the kitchen,” said Pete. “That’s why Jake never came back. That guy down the street kept feeding him, so he just went round there all the time.”
Sarah blew out the flame and smoke trickled up into the air. The incense stick’s amber glow reflected in the darks of Sarah’s eyes for the shortest of moments.
“He’d feed Jake smoked kippers and fresh milk every morning,” she said. “Smoked kippers and fresh milk! We can't keep up with that. I’m not going to feed my cat pigging kippers every morning, am I?”
“Sorry, you don't mind her lighting this, do you?” Pete said, pointing at the incense stick.
I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said.
“Your asthma doesn’t tend to bother you anymore, does it?” said Dan.
I shook my head again. “Not for years,” I said.
“Guys, do you want a drink?” said Sarah. “Juice, tea? I think there’s a bag of wine somewhere…”
“A bag of wine?” said Dan.
“Yes, a bag of wine with a plastic tap on it,” said Sarah, smiling. She stood up.
“Thanks, but, we have our own wine,” I said. “I’ll take a cup of tea, though.”
“Sure. Dan?” said Sarah.
“Let’s see this bag of wine,” said Dan.
“Dan, we’ve got our own,” I said.
He stood up and followed Sarah out the door, ignoring me. As they entered the kitchen, the sound of their distant laughter became the hum of the refrigerator. I crossed my legs and looked up at the clock. It was nearly six.
“Wow, is it that time already?” I said.
Pete laughed. “What do you mean? You only got here 15 minutes ago,” he said.
“No, not that… I just mean the day goes quickly when you’ve been busy,” I said.
My gaze followed a strip of angled sunlight from the laminate floor to one of the peeling windowpanes, which offered a view of the front garden to my right. The grass was more yellow than green. Swathes of uncut areas swayed in a wind that reminded us that the long, hot, breezeless summer would not go on forever. I yawned.
“Daisy, we’ve missed you. I feel like I haven’t seen you for ages,” said Pete. “Did you get my email?”
I continued to look outside as a sparrow hopped around the scorched turf. It jumped onto the driveway, and danced around our car’s exhaust, before it stumbled over one of the cracks in the cement.
“It has been a while,” I said. “Dan lost his job a few months ago, and my mother’s been ill. We would have come sooner.”
“Sarah told me about Dan,” said Pete.
The sound of glass smashing in the kitchen distracted us both momentarily.
“It’s a nice place you’ve got here,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” Pete said. He chuckled. “It’s not.”
* * *
Sometime later I was smoking outside. Sat on an upturned plant pot by the front door in my pyjamas, I folded my arms and wished I was wearing my jacket. It was slightly too cold to enjoy my cigarette. I especially liked to enjoy the cigarettes I smoked alone. I exhaled towards the streetlight beyond the driveway, watching smoke rise into the yellow haze, further into the dotted night above. So many stars were out. I took a moment to try, in vain, to identify a constellation. Every few seconds a car would pass from left to right, before their rear lights disappeared over the hill that, I believe, led to Pete’s mother’s place. I learned how to tell who was a bad driver just by when they changed gear.
Inside they talked about love. At least that’s what it sounded like, muffled through double-glazed windows and thick curtains. Dan was talking a lot, and Pete wasn’t saying much. I felt bad for Pete. I thought about what I was going to add to the conversation back inside as I twisted my cigarette stub into the ground and stood up.
“Just throw it where you like,” said a voice behind me.
I turned around, startled. It was Pete.
“Oh, were you about to go back inside?” he said.
“Jesus, Pete!” I said. “You scared me!”
He smiled and pulled out a cigarette of his own.
“Got a light?” he said.
I found a lighter in my pyjama pocket and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said. “Do you want another one?”
I said: “Sure, why not,” and took one from the packet. My heart was still racing.
“Sorry about dinner,” he said. “Sarah was convinced she’d defrosted the chicken.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
Pete turned around and looked towards the back door. I could hear laughter through the front window, from where I was stood. Dan and Sarah were having a ball in there.
“Though it’s as much my fault as it is hers,” he said.
“Really, it’s fine,” I said. “The pasta was lovely.”
Pete handed back the lighter. He said nothing for a while, but I knew he wanted to.
“Daisy,” he said finally. “Did you get my email? The one I sent weeks ago. I need to know you got that message.”
“I did,” I said.
“You didn’t reply,” he said.
“I was afraid Dan would see it,” I said.
He nodded, and I smiled politely while holding his gaze. Another car clumsily changed gear as it staggered up the hill.
“I’ve never stopped being in love with you,” he said.
“Pete…” I said.
“Please, I need to tell you all this. I really do,” he said.
“Now? With Dan and Sarah inside?” I said.
“I’ve reached the point when I really don’t care anymore,” he said.
“Well I haven’t,” I said.
“I’m not putting words in your mouth, I’m just letting you know where I stand. I want to be with you. I love you,” he said. “I always have.”
He moved close to me and put his hand on my hip, my pyjama top fluttering gently against my goosepimpled body in the breeze. Then he undid one of my buttons and slid his other hand against my trembling flesh. His cigarette withered itself away at our feet.
“I can’t hide it any longer. If I can’t share the one life I have with you, I’m going to at least let you know how strongly I feel. Leaving you was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “There must be some way we can make this happen again, please.”
“Pete,” I said. “We’re not in school anymore. We’ve got different lives now, we really do. We moved on a long time ago. We’ve changed.”
“I haven’t. Circumstance has got in the way, but it hasn’t changed how I’ve always felt about you. I’d give up everything I have for you,” he said. “And I know you feel the same way.”
I didn’t resist as he put both his hands on my skin. I was completely lost in the moment, and I have to say, it felt surprisingly great.
“You’re still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
We leaned towards each other and kissed in the moonlight like we were 18 again. It was euphoric. After our mouths came apart, we rested our foreheads together and shut our eyes and cried together, briefly.
Nobody asked any questions when we went back inside, and I soon headed upstairs to bed.
* * *
Dan packed away the last of the booze he hadn’t drunk as I waited behind the wheel with my sunglasses on and the engine growling. “Don’t forget this, Dan!” said Sarah.
She struck a dramatic pose, and he laughed. It was obviously an in-joke. I didn’t even care. Once Dan shut the passenger door, I pulled out of the driveway, the bottles in the back clinking as the car rolled over the kerb. I honked the horn and everyone waved goodbye.
On top of the drive back, I had a lot to think about. I loved Dan. I did. But life ticks away one second at a time. This was the youngest I was ever going to be again. Maybe he just wasn’t enough. I needed to get home and think. Just think, in complete silence. I decided I wasn’t going to talk to anyone about it.
Dan squeezed my thigh and kissed me hard on the cheek. He hadn’t brushed his teeth so his breath stunk of booze.
“Can you not do that while I’m driving?” I said.
“Whatever,” he said.
I felt him glaring at me.
“What’s with Pete?” he said. “He barely said a word to me.”
I didn’t respond.
“Did you hear me? What’s wrong with you?” he said. “What have I done?”
“Nothing, I’m just tired,” I said.
He looked away, unconvinced. I kept my eyes on the road and put my foot down on the accelerator. The roundabouts came and went.
* * *
We were very nearly home when Dan’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Staring at the screen, he just kept saying: “Wow.”
“What is it?” I said.
“Oh my god, Pete’s left Sarah,” he said. “Wow.”
“What? When?” I said.
“Just now, by the sounds of it,” he said.
My clammy hands turned the wheel as I rounded the corner of the junction that led to our street.
“What? Where did he go?” I said.
“She doesn’t know,” he said. “He just threw his suitcase into the car and left.”
A shiver climbed my spine. My foot quivered above the brake pedal. I pulled the car into a parking space in front of our house. Never had its exterior looked so grey, despite it being washed in the epic sunlight of another sweltering afternoon. Dan opened the passenger door and got out. He raised his phone to his ear. I realised I wasn’t going to have the time I wanted to think things over. I kept the car in gear.
“What did he say?” he said, to Sarah on the phone.
I waited for Dan to walk around the car before I made my move. As soon as I felt him unlock the boot, I edged the car forwards. “Hey!” he said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to get food,” I shouted through my open window, creeping further ahead. I improvised. I was operating purely on instinct, and I couldn’t stop. The cogs were in motion.
“What are you talking about? We did a food shop before the weekend,” he said. “Daisy, stop! Stop the car!”
He ran up to my door, but I sped away before he could open it. I was halfway down the street in no time. In the rear-view mirror, I saw him standing in the middle of the road. He was still on the line to Sarah. Our elderly neighbours were out in their front yard.
At first I felt sick. But then, I felt good. Jesus, I felt more than good. I felt tremendous. I laughed, and kept laughing, uncontrollably, for a full two minutes or so, only stopping to light a cigarette. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I guess I loved Pete too. I needed to speak to him. A Carpenters song played on the radio as I approached the intersection. I sang the chorus loudly. It was the first time I’d heard my own singing voice in years.
When it was my turn to cross, my phone rang. I hoped it was Pete. The traffic was busier than usual, and this was an unfamiliar road. I didn’t know where I was going. I was just driving. Cars leapt towards me and veered abruptly away, while others waited in their lanes, their windscreens and mirrors reflecting harshly the sunlight that painted everything else golden. I was desperate to answer the phone call. I also needed the toilet. As I turned right, a truck turned into my path and honked its horn. Its front was at a right angle to its longer back, which took up most of the lane I was turning into. The screech of its brakes grew louder and closer, while other cars stopped to give me the room to make it round the truck. It didn’t look like enough space. My phone was still ringing. My damp palms gripped the wheel as I swerved sharply to the left and grimaced, and suddenly, thankfully, the exit to my right opened up. I was safe.
I pulled up somewhere as soon as I could and answered my phone. It was Pete.
“Pete!” I said.
“Daisy,” he said.
“I’m on the road, by myself. I know what’s happened. I’ve left Dan,” I said.
There was no response at the other end.
“Pete?” I said. “Are you there? Hello?”
“I’m here, Daisy,” he said.
“Where are you?” I said.
“Don’t panic, I love you,” he said. “I’m driving to your place.”
“No, no! Don’t go there! I’ve left Dan, I’m not there,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “Meet me at the airport.”
“The airport? Where? At the entrance? Pete? What do we do now? Hello?” I said before I realised the line was dead.
It didn’t matter. I was free. With a nervous smile on my face, I dropped my phone and sunglasses onto the passenger seat. It was almost dusk. I turned on the ignition and headed for the horizon, thinking: if this is possible, what else is possible?
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