We’re heading into flashback territory. Not too far. Just a week, but still, hold onto your dentures, Grandma!
Kate meets me at London Bridge. Predictably there are delays on the Piccadilly Line so we’ve allowed two hours to get to Heathrow. On the way Kate gives me my presents; underwear, socks, a t-shirt. I’ve asked everyone to get my underwear and socks this year. My current stockpile is more hole than fabric. At the airport I start to feel nervous. I’m wearing sunglasses because of the sty (I don’t want to scare children) so I keep bumping into people. We walk behind two middle aged Indian men in dark grey suits who look like they could be travelling together on business except that they’re holding each others hand tenderly.
I worry that I won’t recognise Amber. Partly because I’m still wearing the sunglasses (I don’t want to scare my sister) and partly because she could have changed her hair or be wearing glasses herself or maybe I won’t be sure if it’s her because two years has passed. Kate checks the board again for me but the plane has definitely landed. My eyes hurt from peering at faces. No, no, no, no. Suddenly there’s an unmistakable smile.
“I need a cigarette,” she says, after we hug and I’ve shown her the sty.
“I thought you’d given up?”
“I lied,” Amber says, very breezy for someone who’s been on a twelve hour fight and should be crippled by jet lag.
On the tube back it’s her turn to give me presents (!); a heavy dark blue writing pen and a box of chocolate liquors. We eat the liquors. I’m expecting some type of gelatinous filling but its pure alcohol which makes me gag.
We shower and change at my flat and meet Lizzie near the restaurant. “Happy birthday!” she yells, from the end of the street. I run up to her and give her a kiss. I want to grab her waist and swing her round. I always feel like doing that when I meet women I love, and tonight I’m with a lot of them.
Amber will get lost if I don’t show her to the tube station. She could get mugged if I don’t teach her to hide her purse. She might not come back if I don’t explain to her about rush hour. I take the morning off work and give her the crash course.
In the early evening I travel to a bar I’ve booked for my drinks - the NFT (National Film and Theatre) under Waterloo Bridge. I sit at the table as the waiters sticky tape sheets of A4 that explain about the booking. There are angry mumblings. “It doesn’t seem fair!” exclaims a grey haired luvvie in a pashmina. I’m almost drunk before my first guests arrive. Thank God Amber makes it in one piece. The Scoobies arrive, so does Felicity and my flatmate Susan. Olly buys me a drink, and then Joe does and then I think Sam places one in front of me - it’s a conspiracy to get me drunk. I catch myself becoming lairy. Lizzie and co wants to go on somewhere else. Tonight could go either way, I think to myself as we step into the night.
I wake up next to Am. I have a fuzzy memory of break dancing and wearing the eye-patch. It could, however, have been a lot worse.
We take no hurry with the day and it’s nearly three by the time we decide to meet Trinity in Clapham Common. The three of us chat and slip in and out of the newspapers. At one point, while she’s talking, I’m struck by the way Amber has changed, of the sad moments where life has ripped suddenly on rough edges. Before I can dwell on this too much, she flashes that smile again and makes fun of my sty.
I get home from work and my rooms a mess. Her stuff is piled on the floor and the ironing board is still out from the morning. The windows haven’t been opened so it’s a bit stuffy. There’s a glass of water, half full, on the chest of drawers. I flop onto the bed.
“Do you want me to turn the TV down?” Amber asks.
“No, I’m fine,” I say, snuggling deeper into the pillow.