I wasn’t expecting the call. It wasn’t in my plans. It’s thrown me and, right now, I don’t know what to do.
The phone, hastily silenced after breaking the late-night stillness, continues to buzz in my hand. There’s no name saved to the number. That’s not my way. But I know this particular collection of digits very well. They are the ones I always want to ring me, the ones I always want to call. But I can’t, not after last time.
“Why don’t you speak to her? What harm can it do?”
I know the voice is goading me. Does it really want me to speak with her, or is it just trying to get in the way of me making a decision? Cause me to second guess myself? Or is it triple guess at this stage?
“Did you ever consider that I’m looking out for your best interests?” I may not always be able to read the voice that rattles around my head, but I know that’s a lie.
“You are not here to help me.”
“That’s your opinion.”
My phone suddenly pings, the noise reverberating around the old London buildings that surround me. It’s a voice message. She has left me words. That’s new.
“Didn’t she say she’d never speak to you again?”
I pocket the phone and set off at a brisk stride. I can’t listen to her voice. I must not know the words she has left. Doesn’t she realise how hard I’m working for her? For us? Everything I’ve done recently is all with her in mind. And it’s not time to speak with her.
“You’re not talking to her. It’s just listening to a recording of her on your phone. Nothing more than that. Why don’t you just hear her out?”
“That’s how it starts.”
I slide into the Bentley, ignoring the parking ticket on the windscreen. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. I’ll easily pay it using the appropriate alias. The engine flutters into life. It’s the one thing I hate about this vehicle. Sometimes I need to hear the roar of the machine under the bonnet. Now is one of those moments. I turn up the radio. I don’t know how it got onto smooth jazz, but the tinny racket does help block out my thoughts.
“Why not just call her back?” The voice rises as it fights to be heard over the music.
The problem with being a master planner is that I can see how everything comes together. I can perfectly predict each and every action, as well as the reactions. The threads all lay before me, and I can see exactly what strumming one will do to the others. And in my current plans, there is no place for a conversation with Lily. No matter which way I play it, it’s always going to end the same way, with the same argument. “It might not. Why not just listen to what she has to say? All of your future happiness could hinge on the words on your device.” I jam at the volume button on the radio, ratcheting up the noise that echoes around me. It doesn’t help. I drum my fingers against the steering wheel, focusing a little too hard on the road. “Come on. It won’t hurt you.” At this stage, I can’t tell which one wants me to listen to the message more–me or the voice. “That’s hurtful. Aren’t we one and the same?”
“You are definitely not me.”
“I’m you, and we both want to hear what your young lady has to say…”
“She’s not mine, not anymore, anyway.” I pull over and wrench the handbrake up roughly. I desperately try to tell myself that it doesn’t matter. It’s only listening to a recording. It can’t do any harm. I slip the phone from my pocket and turn it over in my hand. It feels so much heavier now. I shouldn’t.
“Yes, you should.” I mustn’t. “You will.” I suck a deep breath through gritted teeth and then let my fingers flit across the phone’s screen. My thumb hovers over the final control, and then I take the plunge. Suddenly she’s there in the car with me. Her voice, so sweet, so innocent, reverberates around me.
“Darren…look, I know what I said. And this–this doesn’t change anything. It’s just that, well, Uncle Barry…he passed away today. I just…you know…after that Christmas. You got on so well with him. I guess I thought you should know. And,” the catch in her throat is more pronounced than when she delivered the sad news, “I guess I just thought we could talk. Maybe you could come over? I guess you’re busy. Eeerrrmmm…it’s okay. I’m alright. Don’t worry. Sorry, I shouldn’t have called you, but…no, it’s fine. I’m okay.” The message ends, and I just sit there. I can’t believe it. She wants me to go to her.
“How very unexpected!”
“Shut up, okay. Just shut the hell up!”
“There’s no need to take the annoyance at your pathetic failures out on me.” I listen to the message again. And again. I hear everything. The words. Inflections. Even the soft hum of her laptop in the background. I know so much and can see everything so clearly. She needs me. “Why must you lie to yourself like that? She’s sad, depressed. She’s just reaching out. You happen to be the first person she found in her contact list. If you’d called yourself Xavier when you first met her, she probably would have called some other ex, and he’d be having this debate with himself. Or maybe not? Another man–a real man–would already be over there. Holding her tightly, caressing her back, getting close to her…” My mind is racing. Without processing what I’m doing, I write a text.
Me: Sorry. Just got your message. I am sorry. I’ll come round if it’s not too late for you?
My heart lifts as I see she’s typing. A thumbs-up lands on the screen, and I whip the handbrake off, hitting the accelerator hard. The car leaps forward, and soon the street lights are whizzing past the windows. I know I shouldn’t go. But what’s the point of doing everything that I am, only for Lily to resent me because I wasn’t there for her when she needed me? I’ve got to try.
“Even if this makes everything worse?” I’m not listening. I’m not even seeing the roads. I’m just moving on instinct, my desire pushing me forward.
The Bentley screeches to a halt a few streets away from her flat. I may have presented myself as well off, but not this much. The car could create too much explaining, complicate things. That’s not what now is about. I just need to be there for her.
I’d say it’s lucky I have some casual clothes in the car’s boot, but I’m always ready for eventualities. Most of them, anyway. I shift to the backseat, slip off my sweater and dark trousers. In seconds I’m sliding jeans up to the coyote tattoo on my lower abdomen. I finish buttoning my shirt as I dash across the road. My footsteps echo up the high-rise flats and back to me, making my ears tingle. I probably should text a couple of local contacts to keep an eye on the Bentley, but I really don’t want to slow down.
“This is a mistake.”
I mash my thumb so hard against the buzzer I’m certain I’ve left a dent there. Immediately the door screeches, and I tug it open. Lily’s let me in. Even after all this time.
“It will all end in tears.”
I race up the stairs, taking them two at a time. On the third floor, I find her door resting gently against the frame, the catch keeping it ajar. She wants me.
“Are you sure?”
I push into the room and there she is, the love of my immortal life. She throws herself on me, and her big glasses bump against my chest as she nuzzles in. Her hair gets caught in my mouth, but I don’t care. The smell is amazing, and how I’ve missed it. And then she’s moving away stiffly, batting at her eyes as she does.
I open my mouth. “I’m…” What? Sorry for her loss? Glad to see her? Upset about how things ended between us? I can’t finish the sentence because anything I want to tell her is the truth, and I can’t get that past my lips. “…sorry it’s late.” I’m not. I can see the half-finished vodka bottle on the small counter of the kitchen area. I bought the alcohol for her as a gag a few Christmases ago. You only touch stuff like that at an hour like this.
“That’s it?” Lily demands, whirling at me. The long t-shirt that she’s wearing flutters lightly around the top of her slender legs, and I yearn even more for her. I hold up my hands, still unable to find the right lie to explain how I feel. I’d never had a problem being tongue-tied before. It just came with the territory. It was part of my fun. Everything changed when I met her, though. With her, I found myself unable to say what I wanted. What she wanted, needed, to hear. I tried to make it work between us, but I never could. It’s why we’re in this situation.
“How are you doing?” It’s meek, worthless, but it’s the best I can muster.
“How am I? Is that all you can say?” She throws her hands up in the air. We’re back there again, caught in the same old loop. Lily stalks around the pokey apartment, flapping her hands like they are wings. “You know how much I adored Uncle Barry.” She glares at me. “And I know you did too.” It’s true. I only met him at a few family gatherings, but there was something about him. He was straight talking. It was a quality that I really came to admire.
Lily breezes past the little desk in the corner of the flat, the random scattering of paperwork lifting as she does. She’s such an untidy person. So opposite to me. I think that’s what made us work so well together. As she steps past the tiny sofa, I notice her toenails are bright red. It’s not a colour I’m used to on her. I find it alluring. There’s so much I want to say, but so little I can.
“What happened to him?”
“Stroke!” The word hangs between us, and I’m suddenly not certain how to follow up. The silence goes on for too long. “Is that it, Darren? My uncle is dead, and all you can do is stand there dumbly asking questions?” Once more, she launches her hands above her head. “Just like you. Why can’t you say something supportive? Comforting?” There must be something I can say. Some half-truth. Anything. Lily stomps her foot hard into the threadbare carpet, and I can’t help but watch the little painted toes clench tightly together. “You don’t change, do you?”
Immediately my attention is on her face. I can see all the pain there, and I know I’m making it worse. I move forward, arms outstretched, and as my fingertips touch her, the response is electric. She shudders and twists away from me. I hold still, and when she finally looks back, I see she’s crying. I watch helplessly as big tears roll down her freckled cheeks. I’m still lost for words. Finally, I remember I have a tissue in my pocket, and I offer it to her. Roughly, she bats me away.
“Darren, please.” She pleads. “Won’t you say something?”
I love you, is what I’m desperate to tell her. She gave herself wholeheartedly to me once. I did the same for her. But there was one point we could never get round. I wanted to say it. She needed to hear it. Shame and regret well up in me, and I try once more, lifting my gaze to meet her expectant one. I let my features do the talking. My face creases, my brows lift softly, showing her how much I have missed her. How sorry I am. It’s not enough. It has never been for her.
“Can I get you anything else?” I’m pathetic. Her whole face turns red as her fingers curl up into fists.
“Get out,” she says, only just above a whisper.
I try to protest through a half-formed question, and then she’s screaming at me, “Get out! Get out! GET OUT!” As she finishes shrieking, Lilly is on me, hitting and shoving. She’s tiny, the strikes light. They only hurt me on the inside. I reluctantly give in and turn towards the front door. She’s on me all the way. The blows continue, little stabs of anger and despondence.
The door slams loudly behind me. “I don’t know why I called you!” she yells. I resist the urge to sink to the floor. Instead, I set off for the building’s exit. My hands are curled so tightly I can feel the nails digging into my palms. This is why I’m working so hard. It’s all for her. All so I can say three little words.
At the top of the stairs, I look back, staring at her door one more time. I shouldn’t have come.
“Told you so!”
My phone vibrates, and I can only imagine how this night can get any worse.