“Lara? You awake?”
“No.” My voice is croaky and sleep-thickened. I try to unglue my lips, running my tongue across the dry skin.
“Max is crying.”
Reluctantly, I open my eyes. “It’s your turn.”
Alex smiles, making the stud in his eyebrow rise up. He’s a sexy bastard and he knows it, even at four o’clock in the morning.
“I’ve been up three times, but he won’t settle. I don’t have the right equipment.” Alex is still smirking when he glances at my chest then looks down at his own. I follow his gaze to his taut, muscled skin, and the vibrant ink etched upon it. I know every line, every colour. I’ve kissed my way across them so many times.
Slowly, I sit up and swing my legs to the side of the bed. My head starts to swim at the suddenness of my movement, and I have to brace myself on the mattress.
“Whoa there, dizzy girl.” He reaches out to steady me, his hands warm and strong, the pads of his fingers rough on my body. “You okay, babe?”
“Yeah, give me a minute.” I’m not sure if I’m talking to Alex or Max now. Not that it matters since Alex lies back down and closes his eyes, while Max decides to up the ante by screaming louder. I lift him out of his cot, cradling his soft, warm body, but he won’t be comforted. His face is vermillion red, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth so wide I can see his tiny tonsils. They vibrate with the screeches he makes.
“Shh.” I press my lips to his forehead. The fine hair covering his scalp tickles my face. Beneath it his skin is overheated, smelling of burning baby shampoo.
As soon as I pull him to me, Max starts to root, turning his face into my chest while his screams turn into sobs. I carry him back to the bed, climbing in and leaning against the headboard, unbuttoning my top and opening my bra.
When he latches on there’s a moment of blessed silence. The ringing in my ears dulls to a faint buzz, and I let my head fall back and my eyes close. Then, he starts snuffling and grunting—sounding more of a pig than a baby—and I resign myself to another sleepless night.
I’ve never known exhaustion like this. It’s as if I’m walking around in a constant haze; everything seems slowed down, deeper, heavier. Each movement requires an effort I’m not sure I possess. I don’t own anything anymore. My time, my body—they all belong to this tiny bundle of flesh curled up in my arms. It’s the side effect of childbirth they don’t warn you about at prenatal class. You find the love of your life and lose yourself in the process.
Max finally falls back to sleep at six, after a nappy change followed by an hour of gurgled kicks on the mat. Moments such as these make it all worth it: his smiling eyes, his rosebud mouth, the way he looks at me as though I’m his personal angel. I lift him up to kiss his lips, and he sighs contentedly, his breath warm and milky.
One of my favourite smells.
Alex gets up at an hour later and is annoyingly chipper, considering our broken night. He showers then walks naked into our bedroom, and though I pretend to be asleep, I crack an eyelid open to watch his movements.
While childbirth has made me feel leaden and doughy, it’s only made Alex more attractive. It’s so annoying how that happens. All he has to do is take Max for a walk in the park and he’s got a gaggle of admirers staring at him. I, on the other hand, find myself tucking my stomach into my jeans, along with whatever baby-drool decorated T-shirt I choose to wear that day.
“I can feel you staring.” Alex turns round. Although this frontal isn’t full, it still takes my breath away. His stomach is pale, ribbed, with a line of dark hair from his navel to waistband. The coloured edge of a tattoo peeks out; though I can’t see it, I know it’s the point of a star, the rest covered by his shorts.
I never found tattoos attractive until I met Alex. Back then, I tended to date clean-skinned, suited types; the sort of boys I grew up with back home. We shared the same kind of upbringing, backgrounds, cultural experiences, and the whole thing was downright boring.
Alex was a blinding light cutting through the darkest of nights. He unravelled me, thread by thread, until the old Lara was somebody I hardly recognised. Within the space of two years I was married, retrained and working in a drug clinic, counselling addicts and helping them get clean.
He pulls the covers from my body and crawls into the bed, nudging my legs apart with his knees. Putting his hands either side of my head, he hovers over me.
“Lara.” He breathes my name out, lowering himself down until his body touches mine. I watch as the wiry muscles in his arms flex, then turn and kiss his forearm, tracing my name with hungry lips. His skin is warm, still damp from his shower, and I can smell the woody fragrance of his soap. When I finally turn my head to look at him, my chest clenches at his expression. He’s hot and needy. I shiver as his fingers drag down my side, trailing from my chest to my waist, sinking into my hip, pulling me towards him. “Fucking beautiful.”
That’s how I feel when he holds me. In spite of the stretch marks that spider across my less-than-perfect stomach, and breasts that seem more milk factory than erogenous zone, Alex has this way of making me feel desirable. Wanted.
It’s not only me who feels this way. A few minutes with Alex is enough to have young girls and old women eating out of his hand. Unlike other men I’ve known, he’s totally at home with females, happy to talk, flirt, and grin his way through any situation. I guess it’s a side effect of being brought up by women; his divorced mum plus two sisters. He doesn’t blink twice at buying tampons, isn’t squeamish about periods or leaking breasts or tears. I’d go as far to say he’s at home with all bodily fluids. Positively encourages some of them.
He presses his body to mine a final time; hard planes against my soft chest. “I’m going straight to the studio after work.”
Since being laid off from his printing job, he’s been picking up work at building sites. Spending his days carrying bricks and wood, layering plaster and laying floorboards, while his nights are spent recording music with his band. The manual labour has honed his already tight muscles until he’s taut and lean. He’s a scrapper, a man ready to fight, the tattoos inked across his body only enhancing that effect. He’s the sort of bad boy I’d spent my life avoiding.
The only one who knows the real me.
“Don’t work too hard,” I say.
“Never.” One last kiss to my shoulder and he pushes himself up, hovering for a moment before jumping off the bed. Then he’s fastening his tight, faded jeans. Before he can do anymore, a loud cry cuts through the morning air, piercing the little bubble we’ve built around us. My focus is shattered, pulled to pieces by the tiny little human who has taken over my world.
* * *
When Max wakes up from his afternoon nap, I strap him into the buggy and take him for a walk. We don’t go anywhere in particular, simply meandering through the streets of Shoreditch, breathing in fresh air, inhaling the aromas wafting out of the restaurants. We pop into the local supermarket on the way back to our flat. Max has got it into his head that he doesn’t enjoy his buggy and like a little dictator he groans and shuffles, his burbling turning into a full-on scream when he realises he isn’t getting his own way. In the end, I lift him out of the pushchair and use it to store the carrier bags full of food. The Bugaboo is turning out to be the world’s most expensive shopping trolley.
Typically he coos as soon as he’s in my arms, his wet cheeks plumping when he flashes a smile at the checkout lady. She reaches out and tickles him under the chin, coaxing out a giggle that comes perilously close to a burp.
“He’s gorgeous. How old is he?”
“Nearly six months.” God, is it actually that long? I haven’t had an unbroken night’s sleep in almost half a year. Surely that must be some kind of record. Score another one for the tiny dictator.
“Bless him, he’s going to break some hearts when he gets older.”
I don’t tell her he breaks mine every night. Just one cry and I’m torn in two.
With Max still in my arms, his tiny fists grabbing hold of my shirt, I manoeuvre the buggy out of the shop, one-handed, silently thanking the gods of sliding doors as we pass easily onto the pavement. I adjust him on my hip and we walk the two blocks to our flat, past the closed-down charity shop and boarded-up pub. Somehow, I manage to make it home without dropping anything.
There are three stone steps leading up to the front door. Another thirteen to climb up once we are inside. This is where I long for an extra pair of arms, and start to calculate what to carry up first—the groceries, the buggy, or Max.
In the end, I attempt to lift all three. Holding Max up with one arm, I pull the buggy with the other, bumping it up each step in turn. The plastic bags slide across the seat, contents spilling out, and a jar of pasta sauce rolls off and falls to the ground. I watch in horror as it lands on the second step, the glass splintering, and red sauce flying everywhere. It covers my legs and the concrete, making it look as though there’s been some kind of gore fest. For a moment, all I can do is stare, open-mouthed.
Then I hear laughter coming from behind me. I don’t know whether to be annoyed or to join in, though when I turn to look at the offender all thoughts of amusement fly right out of my head.
The guy behind me is built. Tall, blonde and with freckles plastered across his skin. He has the type of face that has a smile permanently etched on it, laughter lines furrowing out from the corner of his eyes.
“You okay?” He sounds Australian. That explains the blonde hair and deep tan. “That’s all sauce, right? No blood or anything?”
I look down. The sauce is now dripping onto the gravelled path. “I’m fine.” Completely embarrassed, but fine. I try to hold on to the buggy while rooting through my bag for my keys, but that only causes a tin of sweetcorn to fall out, rolling through the gore until surf-boy picks it up.
“Let me help you.” He bounds up the steps and steadies the buggy for me. With my free hand, I grab my key and slide it into the lock. He reaches out and touches Max on the cheek, and I pull back.
“What is he, about six months?”
I look up in surprise. “Yeah, around that,” I answer, suspiciously. “How do you know?”
“I’ve got a one year old. Doesn’t seem a minute ago she was this age.”
When he catches my eye, we smile. It’s stupid, because he could be lying through his teeth, but his admission somehow puts me at ease. Enough to let him help me get my stuff into the hallway.
And he seems…nice. Friendly.
“You’re the first floor flat, right?” He asks.
Immediately, my hackles rise again. This time when I look at him, it’s through narrowed eyes. “What makes you think that?”
He shrugs, nonplussed by my suspicious ways. “I’m on the ground floor, so I guessed you must be upstairs.”
“You live here?”
He starts to laugh. “Yes. Did you think I was some weirdo breaking into your house?”
“Then why did you let me in?” He’s stopped laughing now. Looks more concerned than anything.
“I was being polite.”
He shakes his head. “Crazy English people. You’re so bloody polite you’d probably thank me for chopping your head off.”
“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to speak if you chopped my head off.”
Smiling, he reaches out a hand. “I’m David.”
I take it with my free hand. “Lara. Pleased to meet you. Thank you for your help. And… ah… not chopping my head off.”
“Any time.” He winks, and lifts the buggy easily, balancing the shopping before heading towards the stairs, making me wonder if I may have finally found a friend around here.
I wake up late on Sunday, a shaft of bright light invading the peacefulness of my dreams. That’s when my eyes spring open and I sit right up, panic rising inside me as bubbles in a bottle of soda.
I jump out of bed and run to his cot, half afraid to look, scared he may be lying there, lifeless and unmoving. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, one that keeps me awake at night, long after I can hear him snuffling in his sleep. Even during his daytime naps, I find myself checking up on him, touching his face to make sure it’s warm, and listening at the door so I can hear him breathe.
His cot is empty. The blanket is crumpled at the bottom of the mattress, the sheet askew where he’s been turning in the night. For one crazy moment I actually wonder whether he climbed out himself.
The kid can’t even crawl. How the hell is he going to climb?
When I rush into our living room, rubbing my frantic eyes, I spot him in his bouncy chair, and relief floods though me. He’s there, having fun; his arms and legs kicking as he tries to hit the lurid plastic mobile Alex has placed above him. He spots me and smiles, a contented cooing sound rumbling from deep in his throat, and holds his arms out for me to pick him up.
Smiles in the morning. The best gift of all.
“Hey, what are you doing up?” Alex walks out of our tiny kitchen. “I was trying to give you a lie-in.”
He’s still wearing lounge pants, the waistband low on his hips. The rest of his body is bare.
“I woke up and he wasn’t there. I panicked.” Mentally, I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of the sleep. How long have I been saying I’d kill for more than three hours at once?
“You panicked?” Alex smiles, taking a step closer. His hair is still rumpled from where he’s slept on it, and I can’t help but reach out to touch it.
“I thought he might’ve escaped.”
“He’s six months old, sweetheart. What did you think he was gonna do, hail a cab?” He laughs as he pulls me towards him, wrapping his arms around my shoulders. I bury my face in his chest, breathing him in, loving the sensation of skin on skin. “You’re a fucking nutter, you know that?” Alex cups my cheek, the smirk still pulling at his lips. When he presses them on mine I can feel them curl.
“I’m your nutter,” I whisper into his lips.
“Bloody right you are.”
We spend the morning in some kind of sleep-deprived haze. Alex practices on his guitar while I make a half-hearted attempt to clean the kitchen. After Max’s nap, we play with him on the floor, laughing and clapping as he rolls over and again. It seems an awkward way of travelling, but it works for him, and he has this self-satisfied expression that fills my heart with love.
Sunday afternoons are family time. As in Alex’s family. We get dressed, fill a bag up with supplies for Max, and make our way down the stairs. Alex carries all our stuff while I hold on to Max. When we pass the door to the downstairs flat, I suddenly remember the new tenant.
“Did you know we had a new neighbour?” I ask. “Some guy called David. From Australia.”
“What happened to Nancy?”
Nancy was the previous tenant. Though she was well into her seventies, she dressed as though she was twenty, and had a glorious array of wigs.
“No idea, I forgot to ask.”
We’re outside and making our way to Shoreditch High Street station. I used to have a car—a rusted, beaten-up Mini I loved—but when Max came along we had to choose between nappies or car insurance, and the former won out. Today, though, it’s a pain. We have to take the Overground train to Whitechapel and change to the District Line. It would be enough of a palaver on our own, but with a baby, a buggy, and an enormous bag, it’s like going on a bloody trek.
Still, at the end of it is a pot of gold. Or what I prefer to call, Sunday lunch.
On the train, Alex holds Max in his lap, and starts talking to him in gibberish, making Max laugh. A couple of teenage girls sitting on the other side of the carriage eye him up, smiling when the baby giggles and batting their eyelashes whenever Alex kisses him. He doesn’t notice though—he’s too busy playing with his son—and his indifference makes me grin.
Alex’s mum still lives in his childhood home, on one of the nicer council housing estates in Plaistow. The three-bedroom terrace is well-maintained, mostly thanks to Alex. He keeps a toolbox here now, sick of having to carry it from Shoreditch every time a job needs doing, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that whenever we come here he’ll disappear for a few hours with only a screwdriver and hammer for company. He’s still the man of the house, even though he hasn’t lived here for years.
I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for Alex growing up here. The middle of three children, he was the only boy in a sea of girls. That’s probably why he finds it so easy to talk to women; it comes naturally. He’s a born flirt, of course. It was the first thing I noticed about him, after the tattoos and the sculpted cheekbones. He smiles and the women come flocking.
It’s a blessing and a curse.
The other side effect of growing up in a houseful of women is he’s spoiled rotten. Though he does all the jobs that need doing with a screwdriver, I don’t think his mum has ever let him load the dishwasher. It’s all “sit down, darling, you work hard enough” and “let us girls get you a drink, you deserve a break”. Every time she says it, I try to bite down a smile, knowing he’d never get away with that sort of thing at our flat.
“You’re here!” Tina—his mum—opens the door, a huge smile spreading across her face. Before either of us can say a word she’s whipped Max out of my arms and is cradling him close. Max nuzzles into her chest, delighted at the soft landing, while I lower my arms, unsure whether to be peeved or delighted at her love for my son.
“Come on in. Put the kettle on, will you, Lara? Alex, can you take a look at the upstairs toilet, I think there’s something wrong with the flush?” Though she has her back to us as she walks into the living room, we can still hear every word.
Alex starts to laugh at my appalled expression. “Go and put the kettle on, there’s a good wife.”
“Piss off, plumber boy.” My voice is low. His yelp when I pinch his arm isn’t.
“Are you all right?” Tina seems naturally attuned to her son’s cries, even though he’s twenty-nine. I wonder if I’ll end up that way when Max is older.
“Where’re the girls?” Alex asks, opening the cupboard under the stairs and pulling out his toolbox.
“Andrea’s on her way. She needed to get some petrol. And Amy’s upstairs on the laptop.”
Tina had the novel idea of naming all her kids with the letter ‘A’. That was fine for Andrea, and even for Alex. Poor Amy drew the short straw, having spent most of her life trying to escape from her colourful name, ‘Amethyst’. She hasn’t let Tina forget about it.
“Is she doing coursework?” I ask. At twenty-two, Amy is the youngest of the three. The brightest, too, at least academically. Though she left school at sixteen and messed around for three years, she ended up going back to college, taking her ‘A’ levels a couple of years late. Now she’s at the local University in Stratford, studying Business. To say the whole family is proud of her is an understatement.
“She’s always doing coursework,” Tina grumbles. Max makes a grab at her bleached-blonde hair, and she pulls away, tutting at him. “That kid never gets out. Her friends have given up asking.”
“It isn’t easy studying for a degree,” I offer gently. I know how hard it is; having spent three years at York. Alex loves the fact I’m an English graduate, loves even more he’s my ‘bit of rough’, at least in his words.
“Yes, but all work and no play makes Amy a dull girl.”
“Oy, I heard that.” Amy walks into the room, glaring at her mum. She smiles when she sees me, though. We’ve always got on well, from the first time we met when she was only seventeen. That was in her wild days, when she was spending way too much time at bars and pubs, going out with different men every night. Strange to think how different she is now.
“Good. You need to get out more.”
“I’m too busy. And anyway, you used to nag me all the time for going out too much. Now I don’t go out enough. I can’t bloody win.”
“Language.” That comes from Alex. It makes me laugh because he has the dirtiest mouth I know.
“Fuck off,” Amy replies.
When Alex’s older sister, Andrea, arrives, muttering about road works and traffic jams and the cost of petrol, Tina hands Max back to me and the two of them disappear into the kitchen to finish cooking the roast. Alex is upstairs, elbows deep in the toilet, leaving Amy and me in the living room.
“Can I have a cuddle?” She reaches out for Max, and I place him in her arms. “God, he’s getting so big. Is he talking yet?”
I laugh. Being the youngest, she has no idea about developmental milestones. Nor did I at her age. “Nah, not for a while yet.”
“Or ever if you’re lucky. Alex talks enough for all of you.”
“True that.” I smile when Max pulls at her ink-black hair, and it comes free from the perfect bun on the back of her head.
“Did you know Einstein didn’t talk until he was five?” She nuzzles close to Max, making him giggle. “They say late talkers turn out to be geniuses.”
“When did you start talking?”
“Dunno. Whenever it was that Andie and Alex let me get a word in edgewise.”
She has a point. The Cartwrights are a family of talkers. The first time I came to visit, I was shocked by how noisy they all were. Having grown up in a quiet home in Dorset, I wasn’t used to the cacophony.
“How’s the course going, anyway?”
“All right. I’m applying for placements for next year. Fingers crossed I get something good.”
“Where have you applied?”
“All the usual places. Banks, consultancies. I even applied for a couple of non-profits. Some of the other students are getting interviews already, but I’ve not heard anything yet.”
“How long is it for?”
“A year. Then it’s back to University for the final throes.” She smiles weakly. “And please don’t ask me what I’m going to do after that because I’ve no idea.”
“Isn’t that what the placement’s for? To give you some ideas?”
Her eyes light up when she smiles and nods. “You get it. If only Mum understood. She can’t understand why I’m spending four years studying and I don’t know what I want to do with it.”
“She’s proud of you. They all are.”
“They’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
The door to the living room opens. “Funny way of showing what?” Alex sits on the chair next to me, slinging his arm around my shoulders.
“Nothing.” Amy looks down, suddenly fascinated by Max. I try to hide my smile. Like the rest of them, she idolises Alex, can’t stand for him to think badly of her. Not that he ever would; I know for a fact he adores her right back.
This is just how they are. They are loud, used to sharing their emotions, never whispering when they could shout. They’re a unit, they stick together, protect each other fiercely.
Exactly how a family should be.
* * *
When people meet me now, they find it difficult to believe I used to be a hard-nosed career girl. For four years I worked in the City for GMSilver, a mid-sized investment bank dealing in securities and derivatives. It seemed the natural transition back then, for a girl with a first-class degree. When they offered me the job I didn’t hesitate to say yes, my eyes full of pound signs and thoughts of glamour.
And it was glamorous, or at least some of it was, for a time. Along with the other interns they took on each year, I worked my arse off, arriving in the office at around seven in the morning and often staying until ten at night. We used to have a game, the other interns and I, where we’d try to be the last one to send an email in the evening. Some of them even took to hiding in the toilets so we’d think they’d gone home, waiting until everyone else had left to hit the final ‘send’ button. Whoever won that week didn’t have to buy any drinks on Friday night.
Of course, we drank a lot on Friday nights. Hedonistic evenings full of alcohol, white powder and casual sex. It was incestuous, too; we tended to keep to our small band of interns, maybe twenty or so, hooking up with different partners each week, never mistaking sex for anything more than the basest of releases.
One Friday we were celebrating landing a major deal. One of the partners had given us his Black Amex card, and we were using it to the full. Bottles of champagne were succeeded by vintage Macallan, which I pretended to like because it was so expensive. When the bar closed for the night, we were all still too amped to go home, not ready to pair off. Instead, we headed for a seedy club west of Wapping, giggling at our bravery, smiling because we were ‘slumming it’.
The club wasn’t seedy as much as it was industrial. In the basement of an old, Victorian building, it was all red brick and exposed pipework. Among the crowd inside—mostly young and hipsteresque—there wasn’t a business suit or a shift dress to be seen. We stood out like sore thumbs.
Yet, there was something about it that called to me. By that point I was already feeling the strain of working seventy-plus hours a week. And though I didn’t realise it then, now I understand I was yearning for something deeper than ten more years of the same.
After paying the cover charge and getting our hands stamped, we joined the people clustered around the stage, entranced by the performance going on in front of them. It wasn’t only that the band were good—although they were—but they had charisma leaking out of their pores, clinging onto the notes as they danced through the air.
It was impossible to do anything but watch, listen, and dance.
At some point I lost my jacket. Though it had cost me the best part of three hundred quid, I didn’t care; I was too excited, too alive, too blissed-out to bother. Instead, I let myself be dragged forward by the crowd, riding the wave of their surge, trying to avoid being pulled under. When the band finished their song, the movement stopped, and I found myself a few heads away from the front of the stage.
That’s when I saw him.
Jet black hair. A T-shirt that looked sprayed onto his muscled torso. Tattoos that seemed to cover every single part of his body. He was the complete opposite of every boyfriend I’d had. The clean-cut city types who hardly knew how to kiss.
I was entranced. Maybe it was the buzz of the alcohol, or the lingering victory of our earlier deal, but when he finally raised his head, glancing up from his guitar, I didn’t look away.
Neither did he.
Though that moment only lasted for a few seconds, half a minute at the most, it was the most powerful thing that ever happened to me. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t feel my heart beat. All I could do was stare at this glorious, sweaty, messed-up guy, and pray he wouldn’t look away.
People say that some moments are life-changing, but seeing Alex that night was more revolutionary than that. He transformed me completely, nucleus by nucleus, until my old life was little more than a discarded snakeskin left drying in the desert sun. When he mouthed two words to me, all I could do was nod, finally sucking in a breath, still failing to do anything but look at him.
That was all he said. That was all I wanted to do. So I stood, and I stayed, and I watched as Fear of Flying finished their set, all thoughts of multi-million pound deals wiped clean from my brain.
Two days after our trip to Plaistow, the sun is beating fiercely down as I emerge from the tube station and the sudden brightness is a shock after the dull gloom of the underground. I blink a couple of times to acclimatise, and the world appears before me in bleached-out colour. When I reach the street, I stand for a minute, watching the blur of people as they pass by, clasping bags, Styrofoam cups of coffee, all with a look of determination on their faces.
They have somewhere to go. So do I, but first I need to catch my breath.
I haven’t been to work for nearly six months, and though I’ve brought Max into the clinic to show him off, this time it’s different as I walk through the doors. My arms are empty, my heart is full, and my baby is being looked after by a stranger.
It’s harder than I thought it would be. Everything is the same here; the harassed receptionist, the aroma of antiseptic that clings to the dull, tiled floor, the posters whose corners are peeling off the wall. They contain warnings about substance abuse and drug addiction, adverts for group therapy and various medications.
It’s only been two hours and I already miss Max desperately. He cried when I left him at the nursery, his tiny fists rubbing at his red eyes, his bottom lip sticking out as he hiccoughed and sobbed. And even though the carer promised me he would stop as soon as I walked out, I could still hear his screams reverberating in my mind as I walked up the street.
I’m a bad mother and a bad employee. I can’t even imagine counselling anybody when I’m hardly able to think straight.
“Hey, you’re early. Want a cuppa?” Elaine is my supervisor at the clinic. When I’m back here full-time, we’ll meet weekly to discuss my caseload, for me to share my worries, my fears. For now, though, our catch-up consists of a quick hello and occasional gossip, while I visit the clinic for half a day. I’ll only have a couple of clients assigned to me when I return and I suspect they’ve given me the simple cases to ease me back into the swing of things. One of them is an ex-cocaine user who has long been sober, and another is a parent of a seventeen-year-old boy who has been using crack. Though sad, their stories aren’t heart wrenching. Not yet.
“I’d love a coffee, please.” With the sleepless nights I’ve had, tea is for wimps. “How’s everything?”
“Same old stuff, really. Emergency calls, relapsing patients. Poppy is doing brilliantly at arranging the outreach classes.”
Poppy is my friend Beth’s replacement, as Beth has moved to Brighton to start a new life. Though she seems a nice girl, somehow we don’t gel as Beth and I did. Which is a shame, because I could do with some new friends.
Elaine finishes making the coffees, throwing the teaspoons in the dishwasher and wiping down the sides. I try not to laugh at her meticulousness; we both know the place is going to look like a stink hole by lunchtime. “There you go. One coffee, black, no sugar. Is that right?”
“It’s what I need,” I say grimly, taking the cup and letting the bitter fluid burn my lips. “If I’m going to stay awake for the next eight hours.”
My office is on the first floor, at the top of a long flight of stairs. Though it’s been used occasionally during my maternity leave, there’s still an aroma of staleness to it when I open the door. A light covering of dust lies on top of my textbooks—where I haven’t pulled them out at all in the past six months. It feels as if I’m walking into Miss Havisham’s dining room.
Even my chair seems odd. Harder than I remember, stiffer when I try to spin. I sit at my desk and drum my fingers on the table. I should check my emails, re-read some case notes, but all I really want is a hug from my best friend.
But she isn’t here.
I met Beth nearly five years ago, when she started working at the clinic. I can still remember her first day, the way her eyes widened as I showed her around, the dip of her lip as I explained the range of abuse we dealt with. Back then she was still recovering from the drug-related death of her friend, a death she blamed herself for. It took her years to accept it was a tragic accident, to forgive herself for not being there when he died.
I suppose I saw something of myself in her. Two years earlier, I’d suffered my own tragedy when my mum died, and like Beth I’d found it difficult to pull myself out of my misery. If it hadn’t been for Alex, I may never have succeeded. Maybe that’s why we became friends. She liked my strength, and I knew she could find her own. We became so close, she even moved in with us for a while when she had nowhere else to go, and I loved the way we would all talk into the night. The way Alex liked her as much as I did.
Likes her. She’s not dead. Just moved away.
I miss her so much. I know she’s happy, living in Brighton with her lovely boyfriend and foster daughter, but I’m feeling nostalgic for the days when we used to escape from the clinic at lunch time, stuffing our faces with greasy chips and a cold glass of white wine. When responsibility was a four-letter word.
That’s why I decide to call her. I pull out my iPhone and select her number, and she answers after a couple of rings.
“Hey, yourself.” For the first time since I left Max at the nursery, a smile threatens at my lips. “How’s life in the sticks?”
A mock sigh. “I told you, Brighton’s where it’s at. You need to move here immediately.” I can hear a voice in the background. Her boyfriend Niall, maybe? “So what’s up, buttercup?”
She’s so much more playful since she started seeing Niall. I love the way he’s helped her become the person she wants to be. The way she’s turned into such a kind, wise mum to Allegra, her eight-year-old foster daughter.
“I’m at the clinic. I miss you.” And Max, I add silently.
“What are you doing there? I didn’t think you were going back until next month.”
“It’s my ‘Keeping in touch’ day. They’re reacclimatising me, like a plant that needs to be moved. I’m hoping they might be able to give me a brain transplant, too.”
“Still getting no sleep?” she asks, sympathetically.
“Max woke up three times last night. I can’t even imagine how I’m going to cope when I’m working full-time.”
She clucks. “You’ll cope. That’s what you do. And anyway, isn’t Alex helping?”
“Where he can, but as he keeps reminding me, he doesn’t have the right plumbing. But don’t worry, I’m working on weaning Max onto a bottle, then I’ll have my revenge.” I let out a Dracula-style laugh. My mwah-ha-ha reverberates down the phone.
“Score one for the sisterhood.” Her tone is the oral equivalent of a high five. “Max might sleep better when he’s on the bottle.”
He might… but then again, that little carrot has been dangling in front of my face for months. Maybe when he starts to roll, maybe when he starts on solids, maybe when he reaches fifteen pounds…
He’s done all of those things, and still he isn’t sleeping.
“How’s Alex?” As soon as she asks, an image pops into my head; the way he cuddled Max this morning, his biceps knotted and taut as he swung him in his arms, the delighted smile on Max’s face as Alex blew raspberries on his pudgy tummy.
“He’s good. Their band has a new manager, reckons he can help them hit the big time.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” She must have caught my inflection. “Imagine if they become famous, you can give up work and be a groupie.”
“Can you be a groupie if you’re married to the lead singer?” I ask, not hiding the sarcasm in my voice. “Anyway, what kind of groupie drags a six month old baby around with her?”
“The best sort.” Beth’s voice is warm. “The baby-momma of the lead singer sort.”
“Ugh, I’m pretty sure nobody wants a groupie with stretch marks.”
“I’m pretty sure Alex does.”
That’s true. The changes to my body haven’t phased him one bit. He still constantly grabs at me, running his hands down my body the same way he always has. “And how are your lot? Is Allegra looking forward to the school holidays?”
“She can’t wait. I’ve booked her into extra dance lessons. She wants to be a ballerina.”
“He’s still Niall. Covered in paint and planning out his next exhibition.”
Everything has finally come together for her. There’s nobody who deserves happiness more than Beth. It’s been a long time coming. “Maybe we’ll come over and visit soon,” I suggest. “I need a bit of Beth time.”
“That sounds great,” she agrees easily. “We could leave Niall and Alex with the kids and go out on the town. Paint the place red.”
A night out? Dancing and drinking and a giggle with my best friend? It sounds like heaven. “You’ve sold me. I’ll text you some dates.”
“Perfect!” She sounds as happy as I am. “I can’t wait.”
* * *
The first thing I notice when I open the door to our building is the smell. The usual musty aroma of damp and dust has disappeared, replaced by something I can only describe as clean. I shift Max on my hip and look around the hallway, wondering what on earth happened to the pile of envelopes that have been living in the corner for the past two years.
“Err… ooh… bwrll.” Max starts to babble, pointing at the stairs.
I nod solemnly. “Yes, we’re going to go upstairs now.”
A click to my right alerts me. I turn to see the door to the ground floor flat open. Our new neighbour, David, pops his head around, smiling when he sees me. “Hey.”
“Hi. What happened in here? Did I miss a nuclear bomb? A tornado?”
“I had a bit of time on my hands. Decided to give the place a clean-up.” He shrugs, walking out of his flat and leaning on the doorjamb. “I took a look through all that stuff in the corner, I don’t think any of it belonged to you. If it did, it’s only out the back in the yard.”
“It’s okay, it’s not mine. I think it belonged to the last tenant. Or the last but one, something like that.” I look around, marvelling at the lack of dust motes and the way the black marks no longer line the wooden floor. “It looks great. You should have said something, I could have helped.”
“Nah. I figure the ground floor is my responsibility. You guys can have the upstairs.”
This time I start to laugh. “I’m glad you haven’t seen it up there. It’s almost as much of a pigsty. I haven’t had a chance…” I look at Max as if he’s an excuse. Not that he is, really. I’ve had a hundred opportunities to clean, every time he takes a nap.
“Ahhh, you can’t do everything when you’ve got a nipper. Maybe when he’s older.”
David is way too nice for his own good.
“That gives me a bit of time to think up a better excuse. Thanks for that.” I give him a cheeky grin.
“At your service.” He takes a mock bow and sends me a wink. Not that he needs to, I’ve already decided I like him. “So, what do you guys have planned on this beautiful Friday evening?”
“I’m going to a gig.”
“Isn’t he a little young? Or do they have high chairs at venues nowadays?” David walks towards us and tickles Max, who starts to giggle uproariously. “Although I can see this guy being the life and soul of the party.”
Max wriggles in my arms, more interested in David than staying safe. I try to pull him back. “This little fella has a date with a cot and a babysitter. It’s my husband’s band, they’re playing at a club in Hoxton.”
“He’s in a band? Anybody I’ve heard of?”
“I’m pretty sure you haven’t. They’re good, though. Come along if you’re free, I can introduce you.”
David nods, a grin unfurling on his lips. “Sounds like a plan. Count me in.”
When I get upstairs, Alex is bouncing off the walls, buzzed on adrenaline and anticipation. Before I can even close the doors he grabs Max out of my hands and starts dancing him around the room. He sings to him loudly, sweeping him up and down, and I’m grinning like a lunatic.
“What caused that smile, gorgeous?” Alex moves back towards me, pulling me into his free arm. His hand cups my hip, fingers digging in deliciously as he bends his head to my neck and presses his lips there. I breathe him in, fresh and clean from a shower, hair glistening and moulded into an almost quiff.
He’s all gel and rolled-up sleeves. There’s no collar on his t-shirt, so I can see the dark inked scrolls that lick up from his chest and shoulders peeking out from the material. Even though Max is in his arms, I can’t help but trace them with my fingers, feeling him tense up as I flutter my hand against his skin.
“Maybe Max should have a nap.” Alex’s voice is thick. “He seems really tired.”
Max starts babbling again; sleep is clearly the furthest thing from his mind.
“He’s not due another nap until this evening.” I try not to laugh at the disappointment on Alex’s face. He stares at me through narrowed eyes, and I smile in response. I’m caught somewhere in the middle of turned-on and amused.
“He seems really tired,” Alex repeats. “And those lips of yours look really empty.”
I know where he’s going with this; I feel like playing.
“They are. Really empty. Desperate to be filled.”
“Then put the baby to bed,” he growls.
I lean forward and press my mouth to Alex’s. He kisses me back, his movements heated. Cupping my chin, he angles my head, slowly running his tongue along the seam of my lips. “Put the baby to bed, now, Lara.”
As if he knows he’s being talked about, Max lets out an almighty shout and then hits us both in the face. Not softly, either; there’s nothing about his slap that could be classified as a ‘love tap’. He’s forceful, and my skin stings from the impact.
“Ow.” I pull back, rubbing my chin with my palm. Either Alex is sturdier than me, or Max didn’t hit him as hard, because he doesn’t appear to be wincing. “I don’t think the baby wants to go to sleep.”
“Little cockblocker.” Alex nuzzles Max affectionately. Then he whacks me on the bottom.
“Hey, that hurt.”
“It was supposed to. A gentle reminder that your arse is mine. Tonight. When Max is asleep.”
I flutter my eyelids at him and turn to walk into the kitchen, sending him a coquettish smile over my shoulder as I walk. “My arse is always yours, darling. And if you can manage anything after being on stage followed by God knows how many pints of lager, I’ll be impressed.”
“You’re always impressed,” he shouts. I pretend not to hear him, but he carries on, anyway. “And so you should be. I’m fucking impressive.”
“I’m not impressed by your modesty,” I sing out, opening the cupboard to find some rice. I bite down on my lip in my efforts not to smile. I love it when he’s home. With all the nights he’s been practising, and weekends at the recording studios, I’ve missed this.
“It’s not my modesty you want to be thinking about. It’s my hard, dirty…”
“Max is listening!” I peek my head around the door. “Do you want his first word to be ‘cock’?”
“You said it, not me.” He laughs, his eyes sparkling. “I can’t believe you’re teaching our son dirty words. Wait until I tell Mum.”
“You do that and I’ll tell her that you tried to make me suck you off while our son was wide awake. Imagine her horror.”
He puts Max in his green and blue striped chair, and the baby starts to bounce and kick happily. When Alex stands up, he looks at me, still peeking around the door. His hands are on his hips, eyes narrowed.
“Are you threatening me?”
A little thrill shoots through me. I love it when Alex is playful, but his hard, strong side is what really turns me on. “What if I am?”
He walks towards me, bare feet slapping against the floorboards, the angles of his face sharp and strong. My heart starts to speed up. I know that look—intense, intent; Alex on heat.
“You want to be careful.” His voice is soft, but the timbre doesn’t fool me. My throat tightens as he steps into the kitchen, and I back away until I’m caught up against the work surface with nowhere to go. Even though he’s only a man, he fills the room, charisma radiating from him. He’s not touching me, but I can feel him all over my skin, pressing against my body. This is what he does.
Every single time.
“I’m not the careful type.”
“I can see that.” He puts a hand either side of me, clutching the worktop, caging me in. Lowering his head until his brow is pressed to mine, he stares at me, his thick, long eyelids fluttering as he blinks. “You’re a very bad girl.”
“I am,” I breathe.
“And you deserve to be punished.”
Yes I do. I really do.
He moves his face against mine, kissing me softly, little more than a brush of the lips. “Tonight I’m going to bend you over and fuck you so hard the snark flies right out of you, baby.”
My heart flutters in my chest, and I can’t think of a single, witty reply.
Then he hits my arse yet again, and saunters out of the kitchen, and I can hear the smile in his voice.
From Broken Chords by Carrie Elks, Copyright 2015
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