Julian has been quiet since he arrived. His rigid posture, stick-thin back and clump of pale hair suddenly make me think of a scarecrow.
‘What’s the matter, Jules?’
His eyes fix on mine with an uncanny intensity. Instead of his studious-looking black plastic-rimmed specs – ‘Joe 90s’, I call them – he’s wearing his new contacts. They transform the uncertain haze of his irises to a precise blast of metallic blue. The effect is disconcerting.
‘Oh, just things,’ he replies, finishing his glass of wine. He prods a piece of the tandoori chicken from the local Indian as if a slug has crawled onto his plate. ‘I’ve been feeling a bit off lately.’
Come Away With Me, Julian’s favourite album, is playing low in the background. Nora Jones’ sweetly sad rendition of ‘Don’t Know Why’ seeps through my flat, adding to the melancholy mood.
‘What things? Bridges?’
Aside from his shiny black Jaguar XK8 and watching Formula One races, Julian’s thing is bridges. He specialises in bridge design at his civil-engineering firm.
He scowls. ‘I don’t want to go into it now.’
‘If it’s to do with the earrings… I’m sorry if I upset you.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing. They look nice, by the way.’
‘Thanks.’ I pull my hair back and turn my head to show off my ears, each adorned with a disc of lapis lazuli set in a spiral of silver. ‘I do like them. I didn’t mean to be ungrateful. I was a bit taken aback, that’s all. We never give each other anything for Valentine’s Day. We’re not that like that… ’ I wait for him to look up from the table. ‘Are we?’
Since he gave me the earrings two days ago – he thought I’d appreciate them because I didn’t get any Valentine cards – they’ve sat in their box inside my dressing-table drawer, where I keep things that I’m not sure what to do with: foreign coins, spare buttons and a collection of brooches, scarves and other items my mother has given me over the years. I put them on for the first time fifteen minutes before Julian arrived. Julian has never before given me jewellery; on our birthdays we buy each other silly cards and maybe a cake or a bottle of wine.
‘What do you mean?’ A woolly unease gathers inside me.
‘It’s OK, Jaf. If that’s what you want, I understand.’ He turns his attention back to the table.
Jaf, originally Jaffa, was Julian’s nickname for me at university, when I had a thing for Jaffa Cakes. I got to know him in my final year; we both hung around the same local pubs where certain bands played. At first I saw him as a bit of a geek, obsessed by puzzles and anything with an engine. But it didn’t take long to find the humour beneath his reserve. I got Julian in a way that some people didn’t. Like me, he had issues with his mother. She died unexpectedly, soon after we finished uni, while we were backpacking around India. It struck me as odd that he decided he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to go to her funeral.
Julian sighs, his shoulders slumping. ‘Hey, why don’t you open another bottle?’
I find the bottle of Haut Medoc that my father gave me. The contents smell like a dusty library but taste pretty good. We chat about the dangers of stilettos; Julian’s sister caught her heel in a drain cover while running for a bus.
‘No one knows what random fluke is going to strike next,’ Julian gazes around the room as if expecting a meteorite to crash through the ceiling. ‘A car accident, an incurable disease –’
‘You’re in a cheery mood.’
Julian pushes himself up from the table. ‘It’s Saturday night ’n’ all. What about a film? I brought a DVD over.’
I take the wine and glasses into the living room and tend to the DVD player. As I sit down on the sofa beside Julian he gestures to the magazine on my coffee table. It has a full-page, near-naked male model on its back cover.
‘That hunk’s been there for a while. Your bit of hot totty, is he?’
‘Well, you know how it is for us single girls,’ I smile. ‘I fantasise about him ringing my doorbell late at night, wearing just Calvin Kleins under his coat. I give him a shot of whisky and he unbuttons the coat, really slowly.’
A small crease appears above Julian’s nose, and rather than laugh as he’d normally do, he says in a low voice, not looking at me, ‘I don’t know why you bother with all these guys. If you don’t want a relationship, why go out with them in the first place?’
‘What guys? There’s been about three in the last six months.’ I scowl at him. ‘I do want a relationship. Just not with anyone.’
‘Not with me, you mean.’ He says it under his breath.
Something has changed between us, a micro shift. I take a slug of wine.
‘You’ve been acting really weird lately,’ I say. ‘Do you want to tell me something?’
He rubs the bridge of his nose, not meeting my eyes. I feel a surge of irritation.
‘Jaf.’ A blotch of red creeps up his neck. ‘You know I’ve always… fancied you.’
Julian has never hidden from me that he finds me attractive. Sometimes he compliments my legs or how I’m dressed. A few months ago in the Hampstead Everyman as we sat in the dark waiting for the film to start, he told me my face had the perfect bone structure. I giggled, nearly choking on my popcorn. Julian is short-sighted and on the scrawny side, whereas the only man I’ve ever been in love with and most of the guys I’ve dated have been strapping fellows. He has a high forehead, straight nose and wavy hair, lighter than mine. Handsome enough in a studious, slightly effeminate way. Like me, he went to a private school. An aristocratic overtone sometimes enters his voice, as if he’s asking the butler to bring him the newspaper.
‘Well, yes, sure,’ I reply. ‘But I didn’t think… ’ I’m up-ended fora moment. ‘We’re pretty close, aren’t we? But we’ve always kept it on one side of the line. That’s what I really like about us. It’s not like we’re in each other’s pockets, we’re not fuck buddies or anything. Are you saying you want to… Well, what are you saying?’
‘Sorry, Georgie, I didn’t mean to confuse you. It’s just… ’ He sighs, running his hand through his hair. ‘I don’t know. Can we talk about it another time?’
Now we’re finally getting to the nub of the matter, I don’t want to let it go. I wonder what’s going on; we can usually talk about anything, pretty much. His dread of losing his hair and his hope to one day become a father. My loathing of being photographed and my secret wish to get a tattoo of a seahorse at the top of my left thigh. His ambition to be his firm’s/the UK’s/the world’s number-one bridge designer. My uncertainties over what I should be doing with my life. The real purpose of bras. The components of dust. And the top ten ways to die – skiing off a mountain (accidentally or on purpose) is the only item we agree on.
The film is in French. I try to follow the plot but I’ve drunk rather too much. It’s all beautifully shot scenes of couples quarrelling and making up and climbing in and out of each other’s beds.
When it’s over, Julian yawns and stretches. ‘Another bottle? I feel like getting wasted.’
‘It’s late. I’ve had a hectic week.’
‘Come on, it’s Saturday night. You’re getting boring. Once you’re thirty you can drink a mug of hot milk and go to bed at ten every night.’
I slap his arm playfully and get the wine.
‘We could play that game we used to play,’ Julian says.
We’re slumped on the sofa now, side by side, feet on the coffee table.
‘Which game? I don’t think I could manage anything except Dominoes.’
The third bottle is almost gone and so is my brain. The rest of my body is struggling; what it most wants is sleep.
‘We swap confessions – bad things we did years ago, secrets we haven’t told anyone, that kind of thing.’
‘OK… You go first.’
‘There was this girl at my school. Hannah. She was the cool type, popular. I was mad about her, but to her I was invisible. After a while, I came to my senses. I decided to pay her back.’ His eyes gleam. ‘I took a mouse from the biology lab and put it in her sports bag.’
‘I hung around outside the girls’ changing room. There was a huge scream. I heard that the mouse ran right up her leg –’
‘That’s terrible. The poor girl.’
‘I can’t think… OK, I was thirteen. I was pissed off with my mother for not letting me go to the shops on my own. I took two tenners from her purse, went down to HMV and bought some CDs. She didn’t say anything about the missing money. She left us three days later. I felt really bad for not owning up. I used to have this idea that my stealing from her was what made her leave.’
Julian doesn’t speak for a long time.
‘I never told you about the time my mother left me, did I?’
I come back from my reverie with a start. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘My mother, my sister and I were in the car coming back from my grandmother’s. It was the summer holidays. I was nine. My sister and I were flicking elastic bands at each other – my mother blamed me, as usual. When she stopped to fill the car, I got out for the toilet. I came back to find them gone. She’d driven off without me.’ Julian’s voice sounds small and hollow, as if he’s become that little boy again.
‘She said neither of them realised I wasn’t in the car. But I was stuck in that place for fucking ages. I think she did it to teach me a lesson.’
‘That must have been awful.’
‘Shitty things happen. But life goes on.’ He reaches over and touches my cheek. ‘You’re beautiful, did I ever tell you?’
I stare at him. My mind has slipped out for a while, leaving no one in charge.
‘I want you so much, Jaf. You’ve no idea.’
His voice is strange, reckless. He leans over to kiss me. Instinctively, I pull away.
‘What’s the matter? Have I got bad breath?’
‘I don’t want to have sex with you, Julian.’
‘Are you sure?’ He puts his hand on my thigh and gazes at me with bluer-than-blue eyes.
‘I don’t think this is a good idea –’ I catch sight of the bulge in his jeans.
‘How do you know, if you never give it a chance? We could be amazing together.’
‘It would spoil our friendship,’ I insist. ‘It would change everything.’
‘Come on, Georgie, don’t be so uptight.’
My intuition tells me not to do it. But suddenly I feel weary, worn down. What the hell, why not give it a try? Perhaps it’ll be wonderful and I’ll change my mind about wanting to just stay friends. If it’s not wonderful, the sex thing will be out of the way and we can go back to how things used to be.
‘I’ve got another confession to make,’ Julian says as we lie on my bed afterwards. I’m naked; he still has his shirt on, half unbuttoned.
I look at him, only half listening, still coming to terms with what we’ve done. My vagina feels tender. I do my best to mop up the hot fluid trickling down my thigh with a lipstick-smudged tissue.
‘I love you, Georgie.’
I recoil. It’s as if he’s lobbed a brick at me. ‘You love me? Since when?’
‘Long enough. It wasn’t a lightning-bolt kind of thing. More a moss-growing kind of thing.’
‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ I push myself up onto the pillows and try to get my bearings.
‘I knew you’d take it badly.’ He laughs, a tepid gurgle in the back of his throat. ‘Hey, it’s one of those things. I know you don’t love me back – that’s not the sort of girl you are.’
I don’t know what to say. This is all wrong.
‘I’m sorry, Jules. You’re a wonderful friend… But that’s all.’
Julian gets out of bed and picks up a sock from the floor. I can’t see his face.
After an age, he speaks. ‘I’m sorry too, Georgie. This is all my fault. I’ve had way too much to drink.’
‘Me too.’ I try to stand but wobble and sit back on the bed. ‘I’m sozzled.’
‘I shouldn’t have pushed it. You didn’t really want to.’
‘It’s OK, don’t beat yourself up about it. I said yes, didn’t I?’
It isn’t OK, though. Why did I do it? Where have all my principles gone?
I try to think of something to say to clear the air. But there’s an awkwardness between us now that won’t go away. Julian starts to dress; I take a long shower.
‘I’d better be off,’ he announces on my return. ‘I promised Rob I’d go trout fishing somewhere in the back of beyond… I’ll text you later in the week. Let’s get together next weekend, shall we?’
His tone borders on casual, as if nothing has happened.
Next morning I don’t wake till midday. For a few moments I savour the sensation of being not fully awake with no need to go anywhere or do anything. Then dismay pours through me.
Julian. I went to bed with him. How could I have done something so stupid?
The night before rushes back. His sloppy dog kisses. His eager, slightly clumsy foreplay, interrupted by me fumbling with the bedside lamp for a packet of condoms. My increasing discomfort while I wait for him to finish. The grip of his hands on my arms, his harsh breath in my face. Closing my eyes and wondering if I should say something. The weirdness of it all.
I feel a surge of anger with myself for being such a dolt. After all my intentions to get things straight between us, I’ve gone and had sex with him. Then I feel angry with Julian. He encouraged me to drink to excess. Did he plan this all along?
It’s coming back now. There’s something else, even worse. Julian is in love with me.
I swear aloud. Why hasn’t he told me before? Why did I never realise?
After the ‘bee guy’, as I mentally refer to him, I built a barrier to ward off love in its various manifestations. Not on purpose, it just happened. I’ve dated guys on and off, quite a few over the years, wondering if one day I will meet one who will be different to the others, who might make me want something beyond some interesting conversations and good sex. But I haven’t considered the reverse – that someone might fall in love with me.
More than once lately, I’ve sensed something going on beneath the surface in Julian. He’ll look at me without speaking and not admit what he’s thinking about. I never imagined he was in love with me, though. He kept that well hidden. He told me not long ago how glad he was that we were friends, that a good friendship is better than a relationship because it can last for ever. I agreed, joking that we would probably still be friends in our eighties, sharing Christmases at our care home. Still, I always hoped – expected – for him to find a proper relationship sooner or later, perhaps with a leggy girl who loved obscure French films and could cook a perfect melanzane.
But now I know for sure. There isn’t going to be someone else. It’s me he wants.