Jed entered the kitchen, grimacing at me by way of a greeting. His toffee brown hair stood up in tufts, the shadows under his eyes testified to a bad night’s sleep.
“Hangover?” I asked, not a trace of sympathy in my voice.
Jed raised an eyebrow at me. “Possibly,” he replied, reaching for a mug and pouring himself a cup of coffee. “I’ll let you know when I wake up.”
“Why did you bother getting up if you’re still half asleep?” I said peevishly.
“The smell of your coffee. It could raise me from the dead.” He looked at me from across the kitchen. “Hangover?” he asked suddenly, mimicking the tone of my earlier question.
“Of course not,” I snapped back. “I wasn’t the one out drinking last night.”
“Maybe you should have been. Why are you so ratty?”
“Right. All sweetness and sunshine this morning.” Jed turned to leave, cup of coffee in hand.
“Wait!” I called out. “Jed? I’m sorry! I’m just tired, that’s all. Had a couple of nightmares. Didn’t sleep properly. I actually meant to say I’m sorry. About last night, I mean. I don’t know what came over me.” So much for the smooth apology I had rehearsed.
He stood in the kitchen doorway, sipping his coffee. “What did you dream about?” he asked at last, coming over to join me at the table.
“Oh, all sorts of things,” I replied vaguely, wanting to kick myself for mentioning the dreams at all.
“Um — an old school friend from way back. You know, from my time in Hong Kong.” I fell silent as renewed images of Selden rushed through my head.
“And the nightmares?” Jed prompted.
“Oh, yes, those. Nothing specific, really. I was suffocating. But I don’t remember why. I really felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was very frightening. That’s all.”
“Hmm. Interesting.” He downed his coffee, placed the empty mug on the table. I presumed he was about to launch into an analysis of my asphyxiation nightmares, but instead he asked, “Did you call back Richard last night?”
I shook my head. “After you left,” I began, but decided that I wasn’t going to explain how I had followed him into the night. I had acted on emotional impulses too vague to define, too complex to unravel on an empty stomach. “I thought I’d clean up in here,” I continued lamely. “Haven’t you noticed how nice the place looks? And it got a bit late.”
Jed gave me that penetrating look I knew so well — the one that meant he was reading the subtext to my words. He was good at that. Uncomfortably good. His moss green eyes read unspoken implications the way foreign film buffs read subtitles.
“There you go again,” I said accusingly. “X-ray me all you like, I’ve got nothing to hide.”
He didn’t reply, but continued looking me straight in the eye, his own gaze holding something akin to a challenge. “You know, Mara,” he said at last, “if my bride-to-be was as unexcited about viewing our future home as you are —”
“What makes you say that?” I cried out.
“When I told you that Richard called to remind you of your viewings today —”
“I’m not unexcited about those!”
“ — your shoulders slumped, and you actually sighed.”
I immediately felt my shoulders slump, and to my dismay, a sigh escaped from deep within me.
A smile tugged at Jed’s lips. “Are you going to hit me with that magazine again?” he asked.
“I’d love to! If only I hadn’t tidied up so thoroughly!” I stood up and crossed the kitchen. “I’m starving,” I announced, rummaging through the fridge. “I could do with a cooked breakfast. Do we have any bacon?”
“I know you’d rather evade the issue,” Jed continued, immediately putting me on edge, “but that long, convoluted monologue you rehearsed on me recently, explaining how you feel about mortgages and the kind of home you’d prefer — I take it you haven’t run that by Richard yet, am I right?”
“No,” I replied. “I mean, yes, you’re right. I haven’t run that by him. I can’t. Getting a mortgage, owning a designer house, throwing large parties? All those things are as necessary and natural to him as breathing. You can’t explain to someone that you’re scared of breathing.”
“And so you’d rather suffocate.”
Ah! So he had an explanation to my asphyxiation nightmares after all!
“Anyway, a little something for you to think about, seeing as the big day is just three months away,” he added lightly, getting up to refill the coffee machine.
“It’s more like three and a half months, actually, and I have thought about it,” I said to his busy back. “A lot, since we last talked. Buying a house is about our future, our security. Richard is absolutely right to want all that. I’m lucky to be marrying someone down-to-earth and sensible — and I’m being immature about everything. But I refuse to be immature any longer. I love Richard enough to get over my —”
Childish fears, I had wanted to say. But Jed had flicked the switch on the coffee machine to cappuccino mode, drowning my words in percolating froth. By the time he turned to face me, I had found the bacon and lined up half a dozen eggs on the kitchen counter.
“How hungry are you?” I asked, summoning the most cheerful tone I could. I wanted to change the mood between us, and was certain breakfast would do the trick. “I thought we could have some omelettes. With bacon, mushrooms and cheese?” I smiled at him hopefully.
“Good idea! Make that enough for all of us,” Marc joined in from the doorway. He headed straight for the kettle, yawning widely as he filled it with water. He stumbled around, filling two mugs with tea, sugar and milk that he spilled in miniature pools around the table top, then padded back out, presumably to rejoin Jacintha in bed.
“Go on,” I urged Jed, who was wiping up Marc’s mess with an old tea towel. “It’s not every day I offer to cook for us.”
“Alright, then,” he agreed. “But be gentle. I’m feeling a bit tender this morning. Hangover, remember?”
I scowled at him and marched back to the fridge. I lined up another six eggs on the kitchen counter — I had to take Marc and Jacintha into account now. Jed sat at the kitchen table, staring into his cappuccino as I chopped onions. I glanced at him from time to time, but he seemed preoccupied, a thoughtful frown marring his forehead.
As I placed the dish of bacon and omelettes on the table, he caught me in his sharp gaze. “Sol Daunter,” he said quietly.
There was that electric shock again. “What did you say?”
“Sol Daunter,” he repeated, watching me closely.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I turned away, busied myself getting plates and glasses. I handed Jed his cutlery. “Sol — what?”
“With an a-w, as in dawn, sunrise?” I took the orange juice out of the fridge.
“No, with an a-u, as in daunting.” He shook his head. “You’re a strange woman, Marama Fuller. I reveal mystery man’s identity, and you ask prosaic questions. So, now that you know how it’s spelled, does the name mean anything to you?”
“No. I’ve never heard that name before.” My heartbeat was slowing back down to normal. “Sol Daunter,” I repeated to myself. “Hang on! How do you know his name?”
Jed began helping himself to bacon and eggs. “I went back,” he said, munching.
“You went — back to the symposium? So that’s why I couldn’t find you!”
“You came looking for me?”
“Yeah, sort of. Just in the pub and the Tex Mex, you know. Thought you might — never mind, go on,” I urged.
“You didn’t prepare any toast,” he said accusingly.
“Oh, sod the toast. What did you do? Did you meet him? What did you say?”
“He wasn’t there anymore.”
“So how did you find out his name?” I felt like screaming now.
“Vickie Lange,” Jed said smugly, rising to place some bread in the toaster. “I’ve been looking for an excuse to speak to her.”
“Vickie Lange!” I shouted at his back. “What did you say to her, Jed? I hope you didn’t mention that —”
“My flat-mate has a thing for the mysterious stranger who was chatting her up?”
“He wasn’t chatting her up! He was —”
“Mara, I’m shocked! Since when do you eavesdrop on other people’s conversations?”
I felt my cheeks go hot — which most likely meant they were glowing bright red.
Jed laughed and returned to the table with two slices of toast. He placed one on my plate. “We should let Marc and Jacintha know that breakfast is ready before it all goes cold.”
I grabbed hold of his wrist. “Don’t you dare call them down. I want to hear what you said to Vickie last night.”
“Ah, yes, Vickie. She was just —” Jed frowned as the multi-toned melody of the door-bell interrupted him. “Expecting someone?” he asked.
“No. Who could that be?” I wondered out loud. None of us ever had visitors so early in the day. “Do you think Merridee’s forgotten her keys?”
“Unlikely. She’s not due back until tomorrow night, and she never forgets anything,” Jed replied. “But she did mention ordering books from Amazon, so that could be the postman. I’ll go look.”
He walked off towards the door, leaving me to fume at the untimely interruption. Worried that he would call Jacintha and Marc down to breakfast — I didn’t want them there as an audience to this particular conversation — I ran into the hallway, crying out, “Jed! I need to talk to you alone! Don’t —”
He turned to me with a grim smile. “It’s for you,” he announced, stepping aside to allow Richard through.
“Oh!” I stood frozen for a second, then rushed forward. “Richard! I was about to ring you!”
“I’m glad you didn’t, darling. I wanted to surprise you.” He produced a bunch of long stemmed, blood-red roses from behind his back and pulled me close for a kiss. “Did you get my message?” he asked on releasing me. “The one I left last night?” He nodded his head in Jed’s direction.
“Oh! Oh, yes, of course,” I assured him quickly, leading the way into the kitchen, where I knew Merridee kept a couple of vases in a shelf under the sink. “It’s just, I didn’t sleep well last night, and I got up so late this morning, starving! That’s why I haven’t phoned back yet. And the house viewings are only in the late afternoon, aren’t they? So I figured there was loads of time. Would you like some breakfast?”
Richard took one look at the dish of eggs and wrinkled his nose. “I thought you said he was a good cook,” he said, glancing in Jed’s direction.
“Jed’s a great cook,” I snapped, annoyed at the way Richard avoided saying his name. “I prepared breakfast for us all this morning.”
“And it looks lovely, darling, but I’ve already eaten.” Richard placed another kiss on my lips, then sat down.
Feeling piqued, I stuck the roses into a vase and filled it with water. Jed sidled up to me, a clean mug in his hand. “Would he like some coffee?” he asked me, pointedly nodding his head at Richard.
“I’d prefer a cup of tea, thank you,” Richard replied, ignoring the insult that had been aimed at him. I glared at Jed, who unflinchingly held my look, just long enough for me to know that he, too, was annoyed. He placed the mug in front of Richard. “Kettle’s over there,” he said, pointing at the row of appliances as he strolled out the kitchen. A moment later, I heard him bang on Marc and Jacintha’s door. “Breakfast!” he yelled. “Come in formal attire, we’ve got company!”
“Are you on your way in to work this morning?” I asked Richard, wondering why he had dropped by so unexpectedly. Richard was not usually one for surprises.
“I’m not working today, but I do have to stop by the office for something I forgot. So I thought I would come and collect you on the way. Save you the trouble of — ”
“Collect me?” I instantly felt like a lost item of baggage.
“Yes, my love.” Richard must have noticed the resentment in my tone. “You’re a collector’s item,” he said smoothly. “Rare and beautiful. And so I wish to collect you.” He reached for my hand and pulled me onto his knee, kissing me tenderly on the lips.
Jed had returned in the midst of our little exchange, a newspaper clutched under his arm, his face a studied blank. He silently helped himself to bacon and eggs, unfolded his paper, and disappeared behind the screen of black ink. He couldn’t hide from me, though. Even through his multi-layered barrier, I could sense his scorn.
“Actually, that’s what I was calling about last night,” Richard continued a moment later, seemingly oblivious to Jed’s presence at the table. “To let you know that I’d be coming. But as you were at that symposium, and I had no way of reaching you, I thought I’d surprise you instead.”
“And so you did!” I assured him. “And the roses are lovely. Thank you so much.”
“Ah, but the roses and my presence here are not the surprise.”
“Oh? Then what is?” I asked eagerly, feeling that whatever it was, the surprise would be something romantic. Surely those long stemmed roses were a precursor to something more. I was in desperate need of romance, and it would be wonderful to see Richard being something other than practical and — and financial!
“Ah, now, all I’ll say is, hurry up and get dressed, and then pack an overnight bag for the rest of the week end,” came Richard’s reply. “And don’t forget to slip in a party dress.”
Jed couldn’t resist peeking at me over the corner of his paper.
“Party dress?” I echoed in alarm. “Overnight bag? I can’t go away for the whole week end, Richard, I’ve got work to finish off for —”
There was a yell, followed instantly by a loud crash. We all turned towards the kitchen door in alarm.
“That sounded like Marc. I’ll go see if he’s okay,” Jed called over his shoulder, already heading off. At the same moment, Jacintha came pounding down the stairs, shrieking, “Marc! Marc! Are you okay?”
Whatever had befallen him, Marc wouldn’t be needing me, but I rushed off after Jed, nevertheless. The door to the bathroom flew open and Marc appeared in the corridor, stark naked and utterly livid. It was just as well Jacintha reached him first — she leaped in front of him, blocking our view of everything but her boyfriend’s furiously waving arms and angry red face.
“What freak idiot moron scrubbed out the fucking bath!” he yelled at us.
I ducked my head, gingerly raised a hand. “That was me,” I heard my voice squeak.
“Well, I fucking went and slipped, didn’t I! What you trying to do? Kill me?”
“I’m sorry,” I whimpered. “The bath was filthy. You know Merridee likes the house cleaner than it is.”
“Come on, Marc, it was an accident,” Jacintha said soothingly. “Mara was just trying to do us all a favour.”
“Favour! I could be paraplegic now! Or dead!”
“You’re perfectly alright, Marc.” Jacintha pushed him back into the bathroom. “You’re not even winded, yelling at that volume! Get back in there and finish what you were doing. Sorry, Mara! Sorry, Jed!” she managed to fling over her shoulder, before she shut the door on us.
Jed turned and shrugged at me. “Oh, well. We’ll know to leave strips of grime on the floor of the bath next time,” he said with a grin.
“Yes,” I agreed grimly. “Or perhaps I should stick down some Velcro.”
“Oh, don’t do that!” Jed exclaimed in mock horror. “Marc’s hairy balls would be stuck fast for life!”
“Yuck!” I cried out, laughing. I could still hear Jacintha appeasing Marc as I turned to head back into the kitchen. It was only then, I realised that Richard had been standing right behind me all this time.
“Pack your bags, Mara, we’re leaving at once,” he said, his voice colder than I had ever heard it.
“Excuse me.” Jed’s voice was equally cold, as he pushed past us. I watched him stride into the kitchen, his shoulders squared, as though barring the way to Richard.
“Richard,” I began, my voice appeasing. “I’m starving, I need to eat.”
“Yes, but not here. I can’t believe he just spoke to you like that.” He was glaring at the bathroom door. “Jumping around like a savage, yelling in your face! I ought to punch him!”
“Marc was just shocked, that’s all,” I defended my flat-mate. “I’d be shouting too, after a fright like that. He’s not —”
“I’ll take you out for breakfast,” Richard interrupted. “Tell you what, I’ll take you to —”
But I never found out what the alternative to my rubbery eggs might have been. Richard was interrupted mid-sentence by an onslaught of honking, instantaneously accompanied by the outraged howl of a siren, right outside our front door. The noise, sudden and piercing as it was, caused me to dive to the floor for cover, my arms over my head. Jed came racing out of the kitchen. His lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear him above the din. He turned and rushed towards the front door. I looked up at Richard, saw a look of understanding cross his face. He hurried after Jed. I rose from my crouched position and followed, my hands flying to my ears as Jed tore open the front door. He paused for a moment on the threshold, then stepped out into the urgent screaming of the siren. I flinched, as another volley of honks exploded through the air, watched with horror as Richard brushed past Jed, striding down the steps that led to the street. I dashed forward, crying out his name. But Jed caught me in his arms, preventing me from going further.
And then I, too, understood what the cacophony on Amber Close was all about: Richard had backed his car into the first available space he had found, a space hardly large enough to swallow the bulk of his Audi Q7. His left front wing jutted out into the narrow road, blocking the passage of passing vehicles, in this case a passenger car, with an ambulance close on its tail. At the appearance of Richard, the honking ceased, to be replaced by angry shouting.
Jed pulled me back into the house, shutting the door against the lights and noise. “Come, Mara. Have another coffee. You look like you need one,” he said, pushing me towards the kitchen. “Is that really how you spent your evening, then?” His voice had taken on the lightly teasing tone that was so familiar to me. “Practising your house-wifely moves on us?”
“I’m not in the mood to be teased,” I snapped.
He grinned at me. “Seriously, Mara, thanks for cleaning up. Merridee will be pleased. Now, will you accept my peace offering of a cappuccino? Just the way you like it? Go on, say yes. I know you want to.”
I acquiesced with a nod, followed him to the coffee machine. “You owe me something more,” I insisted.
“Really? What would that be?”
“What did you say to Vickie last night?”
“Ah, you’re wrong, Mara. I don’t owe you that at all,” he said, immersing the steam nozzle into the milk.
I leaned against the kitchen counter, feeling too deflated to raise my voice above the screeching steam. I watched in silence as the milk frothed. I should have asked for a double Espresso instead. I suddenly felt drained, as though the marrow had been sucked out of my bones. Perhaps I should declare myself ill, spend the week end in bed.
“However, as you wish to know,” Jed continued, turning off the steam nozzle, “I told her that I really enjoyed her paper, and that she made some very interesting points. We discussed some of those points for a while. Very academic of us, don’t you think? Then I confessed that I’ve been to a couple of other talks she’s held in the past — ”
“You know I have, Mara, we went to them together.”
“Oh, yes, I remember.”
“And that what I enjoyed most about those talks, was her voice. Oh, yes. She’s got a lovely voice.”
I watched him sprinkle cocoa powder onto my cappuccino.
“She said she had noticed me, too, on those previous occasions. So I invited her out for a drink.”
“Why do you look so surprised?”
“I didn’t think she was your type, that’s all.”
“Really? What do you think my type is?”
“I don’t know. You went out with Charlotte for a while, she’s nothing like Vickie. But then, Vickie seems to be everyone’s type at the moment.”
“Look out!” Jed grinned at the sudden cattiness in my tone. “Your claws are showing.”
“Oh, shut up. I mean, get on with the story. So you meekly joined the queue and invited Vickie out for a drink. Then what happened.”
“She said she didn’t feel like going out for a drink.”
“What a shame.”
“She asked if I’d like to go to her place instead.”
“Oh. Right. What, like right then? Or some other time?”
“No, right then.”
“And did you go?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Survival instinct?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“I like living dangerously.”
“Fair enough. So you went to her place. And then what happened?”
“That’s not the bit you want to know.”
It took a full two seconds for his meaning to sink in, and then I cried out, “Jed, you’re stalling! I’m very happy all your dreams came true, but I need to know how you found out about — him.”
“Well, as you know, I asked Vickie about him.” He repeated the stress I had laid on that last word with a mocking smile. “Which is why you now know his name.”
“Yes, but did she tell you anything else? About him, I mean?”
From the look Jed gave me, I knew I would glean no more useful information, until he had finished toying with me. And I was right. “You know, you’re a hard woman to figure, Mara,” he began. “Last night, when I offered to make inquiries, you said you’d have forgotten mystery man by Monday. Why the sudden, hot interest?”
“What the hell was that racket about?” Jacintha asked, entering the kitchen. “The one outside, I mean, with the siren and all that honking.”
Jed glanced at me, but remained silent. I dreaded to hear his account of what had passed outside our flat. It would be colourful indeed. He was obviously allowing me to put forward my more subdued rendering of the tale.
“Oh, that was just Richard,” I said quickly.
“Richard? Honking like that?”
“No. He wasn’t the one honking. He — um — was badly parked. I think he didn’t mean to stay long. Just long enough for me to throw some things into a bag. But I wasn’t expecting him, and then Marc slipped — and I wanted to eat breakfast before leaving, and — well, he ended up blocking some traffic.”
“With that bulldozer of his,” Jed chimed in, unable to help himself.
Jacintha saw my embarrassment and suppressed a laugh. “Thanks for cleaning the house,” she said, turning to me. “I’m sorry about Marc, shouting like that and all. He didn’t mean any of it.”
“I know,” I assured her quickly. “Oh, I think Richard’s back.” I could hear him push the front door open. Jed had left it off the latch for him. “I should probably skip breakfast and get packed.”
“Good idea,” Richard rejoined, entering the kitchen. “Don’t forget the party dress. Bring something —”
“Don’t you like your cappuccino, Mara?” Jed interrupted, a look of innocent concern on his face.
“Oh, I do,” I assured him.
“Won’t you finish it, then? And you should try and eat something,” he urged. “You look pale. We don’t want you passing out from hunger. Here, sit down. Have a slice of toast, at least.”
“We don’t need any toast,” Richard stated firmly. “As soon as Mara’s packed, I’m going to take her out for a proper —”
“Morning, everyone!” Marc’s booming voice now filled the kitchen. His cheerful smile changed to a sheepish look as soon as he saw me. “Sorry about yelling at you, Mara. It was really nice of you to scrub out the bath. Hell of a way to wake up, slipping like that, you know! Sorry I lost it. Hey, Jed! Hey, Rich!”
Richard replied with a dark look at the bath towel Marc wore, wrapped low around his hips. Marc could spend the whole week end lounging about the flat, wearing nothing but that towel, which bore the appearance of having been haphazardly flung on. On moving in, I had spent the first few weeks wondering when it would fall off. But it never did. Precarious as its hold on Marc seemed to be, it clung fast. He frowned at my bacon and eggs. “Oh, hell! Sorry, Jed,” he said. “I didn’t mean for you to ruin breakfast.”
“He didn’t,” I replied sourly. “I was the one who cooked this morning.”
“Ah!” A look of understanding dawned on Marc’s face.
“Look, just tip the whole lot into the bin, will you!” I said, more aggressively than I had meant to.
“Leave it to me, Mara!” Marc declared. “It’s my fault breakfast was ruined, so it’s up to me to spruce it all up. We’ll pour some of this on.” He reached into the cupboard for a tin of baked beans.
Richard leaned in closer to me. “Get packed!” he ordered into my ear. “I can rescue you from all this.” His dramatic whisper was clearly heard across the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jed flicking through his newspaper.
“I can’t really get away for the week end, Richard. Not for the entire time, anyway. I have something to finish off for Monday.”
“Take it with you. I promise you’ll hand in a far more accomplished piece of work than anything you’ll achieve in this chaos, with your flat-mates behaving like apes and treating you like Cinderella.”
Marc and Jacintha were standing by the stove, heating their baked beans in silence. Jed folded up his paper and threw it on the table. “How was the film last night, Jazz?” he asked, turning away from us.
“Really good,” she replied, directing her answer solely at Jed. “We watched that new romantic comedy. It was great fun.” She grinned. “Quite steamy at times. That new actor — what was his name Marc?”
“Dunno. You were the one drooling last night, Jazz.”
“He had an unusual name. And not only was he scrummy to look at, he could act too! Anyway, you should see it, Jed.”
“Hm. Perhaps I will.”
“Have you got plans for the week end?”
“Some work, and then a long run. I need to be ready for France,” he told her.
“Remind me, when are you off?”
“In under two weeks’ time.”
“You off to France?” Marc piped in. “No one told me! Have you got somewhere to stay? Can we come, Jazz and I?”
“He’s climbing, you idiot!” Jacintha countered. “In Armagnac, wasn’t it, Jed? We’ll have to climb too, if we go along. Getting up the stairs at the tube station with bags of shopping is quite enough for me! The lifts have been broken for weeks now.”
“That’s different from climbing in France,” Marc argued. “Are you going on your own?” he asked Jed.
“I’m going with friends. We’re staying at Collette’s dad’s house in Armagnac. It’s empty at the moment, cause he’s working in Paris. If you want, I’ll ask Collette if there’s room for the two of you. You don’t have to climb. I doubt Collette will. It would be too strenuous, if you haven’t trained for it. Dangerous, too.”
“Oh, wicked! Hey, Jazz, you up for a trip to France?”
“Let’s see what Jed can do before we get excited. Collette might say no, you know,” Jacintha replied, laughing at Marc’s childlike enthusiasm.
Feeling left out, I sipped my cappuccino slowly, wanting to participate at least as a passive audience. An absurd wish to be invited along to France, too, began niggling at me, though I knew it would be impossible for me to go along.
“Marc and I are meeting up with some chums at the pub tonight,” Jacintha was saying now. “Just our local one. Want to come?”
“No, thanks.” Jed replied. “I hate that place on week ends. Overcrowded. Besides, I’ve got a date with someone tonight. Perhaps I’ll take her to see that film.”
I drained my cup, pushed my chair back and stood up. “I’ll get packed,” I told Richard quietly. “Would you like to help me choose a party dress?”
“Gladly,” he replied with apparent relief. Taking my hand, he led me out of the kitchen.