‘Hello, Ruth.’ I sound normal enough.
‘Ava, how are you?’ She sounds normal, too.
‘Good, thank you.’
‘I was waiting for you to call. Did you forget about me?’ She laughs.
Actually, I did. Her lesbian crush has made way for other more important things. ‘Not at all, Ruth. I was going to call you later.’ I’m lying through the skin of my teeth.
‘Oh, well I beat you to it, then. Can we meet tomorrow?’
I sink into my chair, my mind whizzing through a million excuses to put her off, but I know I have to face this head on. I can be professional. ‘Sure, how about one-ish?’
‘Perfect. I look forward to it. Bye!’ She hangs up, and I hang my head. I bet she is. I’ll be wearing trousers tomorrow, and I won’t be making too much of an effort either.
Tom lowers his fashion specs to the end of his nose. ‘Dumped?’ he asks. I don’t need to push for an elaboration on his one word question.
‘It’s complicated.’ I brush him off and start to mark up some drawings, but something catches my attention outside the office.
He’s standing on the pavement looking into the office and after what seems like an age of us staring at each other, he pushes his way through the door. ‘Hi,’ He smiles.
My hand comes up in a little wave gesture. ‘Hi,’ I whisper. We’re in that awkward place again.
‘Lunch?’ he asks hopefully.
I smile and collect my bag, joining him at the front of the office. My simmering anger has cooled, but I’ll re-stoke it later. Right now, I want to fix things with Dan, get things back on track before he goes back to Australia. He’s been a complete arsehole, but I can’t hold grudges, not with my brother. ‘Tom, I’ll be back in an hour.’
‘Hmmm,’ he replies. I look back and see him staring dreamily at Dan. ‘Bye, Ava’s brother.’ he croons, waving a limp wrist and actually fluttering his lashes. I purse my lips and shake my head, especially when Dan’s eyes enlarge in alarm and he starts walking backwards.
‘Urm, yeah,’ He coughs and straightens his shoulders in an obvious attempt to make himself look more manly. ‘See ya,’ His voice has gone deeper, too.
I laugh. ‘Come on,’ I push Dan through the door. ‘You have an admirer.’
‘Great.’ he quips. ‘Not that I’m homophobic or anything. You know, whatever tickles your fancy.’
‘I think Tom wants to tickle your fancy.’
‘Ava!’ He looks at me in horror, but then breaks out in a grin. ‘He’s got taste, obviously.’
‘I don’t want to burst your bubble, but he’s like that with most men. You’re nothing special.’
We start walking side by side down Bruton Street, towards Starbucks. ‘Thanks,’ Dan laughs, nudging my shoulder.
I nudge him right back and smile up at him. We’re going to be okay.
* * *
Dan sets down the coffees and his sandwich, and I immediately tip three sachets of sugar into my cup, momentarily unaware that what I’m doing is completely out of the ordinary, until I look up and see Dan’s brow all knitted as he watches me stir it in. ‘Since when have you taken sugar in your coffee?’
I freeze mid-stir, frantically searching my brain for a viable excuse. We’ve not talked, but things are comfortable. Advising him that I’m pregnant will catapult us straight back to awkwardness, so I’m going to be a total shitbag and wait for him to go back to Australia, then I’ll get our mum to tell him. ‘I’m knackered. I need a sugar hit.’ It’s the best I come up with.
‘You look tired.’ He sits down, eyeing me suspiciously.
‘I am tired.’ I admit. No hair twiddling needed.
‘Work stress.’ Half true, but now I’m fighting my hands to keep them on the table. ‘So, you’re okay?’
‘Kate told me to take a leap, but I’m sure you know that already.’ He un-wraps his sandwich and takes a bite.
Yes, I do, but there is little point confirming it. ‘You should never have gone there, and you really shouldn’t have gone there on my wedding day.’
‘Yeah, I was out of line. I’m sorry.’ He reaches over and places his hand over mine. ‘We’ve never had cross words.’
‘I know. It was horrible.’
‘It was my fault.’
‘It was,’ I grin, and he dips his finger in the froff of my coffee and flicks it at my nose. ‘Hey!’
‘Congratulations, anyway.’ He smiles.
‘What?’ I blurt.
‘I never congratulated you on your actual wedding day. I was too busy being an arsehole.’
‘Oh, thanks.’ The relief that takes hold makes me sag in my chair, but just as quickly, I’m stiff as a board. Matt knows, and he has been doing a fantastic job of keeping my parents informed and up-to-date on my love life. He’ll be like a pig in shit over this. That cooling fury has just boiled over into the realms of panic. I quickly disregard the possibility that he’s called my mum and dad already because if he had, then Dan would know, and he wouldn’t be sat opposite me happily chomping his way through a tuna melt. This is bad news. I need to get to Matt before he gets to my parents. Or I could just ring my parents and tell them myself. That would be the sensible thing to do, but I want to see them with Jesse. I want to do this bit right, which is absurd, but after how they found out about Jesse and the shock of a rushed wedding, I want to make this part special.
‘You okay?’ Dan’s worried tone pulls me from yet more mental meltdown.
‘Yeah, so when are you going back?’
‘I’ll get on-line when I get back to Harvey’s to see what’s available.’ He dabs his mouth with his napkin and proceeds to launch into a proper apology speech.
I spend the next half an hour listening, nodding, yes-ing and no-ing, but I’m a million miles away from the conversation, my head struggling to decide on what to do for the best. Why hasn’t Matt called them already?
‘You’ll get sacked.’
‘Huh?’ I glance down at my Rolex, noting its two fifteen. I’m already late, but I feel no sense of urgency to hurry back to the office. The only urgency I have is to resolve my little Matt issue once and for all. ‘Yeah, I’d better shoot.’
‘Nice watch.’ He nods at my wrist.
‘Wedding present,’ I stand and brush myself down. ‘Which way are you heading?’
‘Back to Harvey’s.’
‘Okay, will you call me? I mean, you won’t just leave, will you?’
His eyes warm and he stands before pulling me into him and giving me the biggest cuddle. ‘I wouldn’t go anywhere without saying goodbye to my little sister.’ He kisses my head. ‘Let’s not fall out again, okay?’
‘Okay. Keep it in your trousers then, and try to be civil to my husband if you ever have to share company with him again.’
‘I promise.’ He assures me. I’m a little surprised he doesn’t point out that Jesse was discourteous, too, because he really was. ‘Take care.’
‘You, too.’ I leave Dan, but instead of going to the office, I call in sick again and go to get my car. I’m walking on thin ice, but this really cannot wait. Matt won’t be home, but he’ll be at his office, and I really don’t care where I verbally bash him.
But he’s not at his office, and he hasn’t been for weeks. After driving across the city in mid-afternoon traffic, I pulled up to the glass building which houses the sales centre of the firm that he works for, only to be told by the receptionist that Matt lost his job a few weeks ago. I remember him mentioning it, he’d used it as an excuse for his shitty behaviour, but I never gave it another thought.
Despite his misfortune, though, I don’t feel pity or concern. Nothing is going to dampen down my resentment and contempt. I sit in my car and pull my phone from my bag, full of determination. I’ll track him down.
It rings once. ‘Ava,’
I was expecting a voice laced with smugness and deep satisfaction, so when I hear this one, which is broken and strained, I’m thrown completely. It takes me a few moments to piece a sentence together and when I do, it’s not at all what I had intended to say. ‘Are you okay?’
He laughs, but it’s weak. ‘Why don’t you ask your husband?’
The back of my head hits the headrest of my seat, and I stare up at the ceiling of my car. I should have predicted this. ‘How bad?’
‘Oh, just a couple of broken ribs and a black eye. Nothing major. Your husband knows how to do a job properly, I’ll give him that.’
‘Why did you do it?’
‘Because I want everything he has with you. Or I did. Kate took great pleasure in telling me you were marrying him, and then that letter fell on my doormat. I wondered why you would be seeking an abortion if you were married, so I guessed he didn’t know. I took a chance. Why are you having an abortion?’
‘Because I was shocked.’ I shout defensively. I’m not explaining myself to him. Silence falls down the line, and I’m not in the least bit compelled to explain myself further. ‘I think this is where you give up, Matt.’
‘Well I won’t be setting myself up for another beating from your unhinged husband. Not even you are worth the pain I’m in right now.’
I laugh to myself and my stupidity for almost feeling sorry for him.
‘Oh,’ he continues, ‘and don’t worry about Elizabeth and Joseph. I’ve been given a little taste of what will happen if I share your news. Can I suggest that you get your address changed so I don’t receive any of your shit in future?’ He hangs up, and I stare down at my phone in disbelief. I didn’t blast him with half of the words I’ve been mentally preparing throughout the day. I didn’t get to spit my hatred at him, or even slap his face. I’d love to slap his face. I smirk to myself, my smile only broadening when a mental image of Jesse pounding on Matt’s loser arse springs to mind. I’m not a violent person, but if Jesse wants to take his anger out on someone, then Matt would be my person of choice every time. He deserves everything he gets, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I won’t be hearing from him again and neither will my parents. It’s one more thing ticked off my list of issues. Sarah has apologised, for what it’s worth, but she’s gone and that’s all that matters. Kate and Sam are together, and Kate and Dan are not. I’ve made friends with my brother, and Matt has been trampled. That one makes me smile again. But what I really need to be doing is finding my husband and making friends with him. I chuck my phone on the passenger seat and make my way back towards the city.
I feel like I’m on a cleansing mission. Our new life together will be free from troubles very soon, and it’s right now that I decide to tackle the final issue tomorrow. Mikael. I’ve still not heard from him, but there’s nothing he can say, anyway, nothing he can tell me, so I don’t know what the point of our meeting will be. He’s not back from Denmark, or if he is I’ve not heard from him, but I’ll call him. I’ll beat him to the punch. I’m full of determination to eradicate this final issue. I’m making it my mission objective. I’ll do anything.
As I’m driving over London Bridge, I glance up to my rear view mirror and spot a familiar car. Jesse’s car. He’s dipping in and out of the traffic in his usual haphazard style, overtaking and generally causing traffic mayhem in his wake. I spend a few moments flicking my eyes between the road ahead and my rear view mirror, the potential of what I’m about to face slowly settling in the pit of my stomach. He’s been following me, which means he has followed me to Matt’s office, which means he is going to hit the fucking roof. I didn’t see Matt, but the intention was there, and I’m not going to try and convince myself that Jesse wouldn’t know where Matt worked. Of course he knows where Matt worked. I’m fighting the clash of extreme worry and extreme rage. I’m worried for obvious reasons, but the rage is overshadowing that right now. Following me? This shouldn’t be a surprise. I need to stop being so astounded by what lengths this man goes to—the things that he does, the reactions that he has, the extreme reactions he draws from me.