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He felt he’d come of age during his time with her. What were his previous relationships compared with what he had with Jenny? Nothing. Merely insignificant teenage fumblings. Everything was different with her. They were just so right together, they laughed so much, had so much fun, and the summer days seemed so particularly summery: long, light and warm. Youth tasting the cup of adulthood without the weights of responsibility. When he wasn’t with her, he thought about her: the smell of her dark flowing hair; the long eyelashes that protected her hazel eyes. He would think of the delicate curve of her neck and the outline of her collar bone, so sensuous, feminine and alluring. Harry felt an intensity to his love, his feelings given added confidence by Jenny’s incredible love for him.
So how had he allowed her to melt away from his life? Everything had changed once he got to Cambridge. He was there, and Jenny was in London, beginning four years of teacher training at Roehampton. They were no longer half-an-hour apart and it was no longer summer. For a brief, blissful while, they had been flowing in the same wind, but with the flick of a switch, their lives were suddenly set on totally different courses. All around him at Cambridge, his fellow students were getting drunk, debating the meaning of life and sleeping with one another. Jenny sounded distant on the phone and hurt when he didn’t ring when he said he would. He began to feel resentful that she seemed to depend on him so much; the balance of their relationship had somehow shifted. When she came to visit him, early on in the term, he felt embarrassed: young freshers weren’t supposed to be involved in serious – and hence boring – relationships; they were meant to be young bucks, carefree, unshackled and irresponsible. By the Sunday afternoon, Harry was snapping at her irritably and she was looking at him with disbelieving pain. They went for a walk across the water meadows, but it was no good. The magic of the summer had gone. Then she asked him whether he’d slept with anyone else, and he admitted he had. He’d got drunk, ended up in some girl’s bed, screwing her while someone else was sick in the corridor outside. It hadn’t meant a thing and he hadn’t seen or spoken to her since. Jenny looked desolate. Without saying another word, she drove off in her cluttered Peugeot. It was the last time he saw her.
From rather enjoying thinking about the fun they’d had that summer, Harry now felt rather depressed. To make matters worse, he’d never really gone out with anyone else at Cambridge. All those pathetic plans to sleep around and be a ‘free agent’ – what a sham. He’d kissed quite a lot of people, slept with some of them, and then started seeing a girl called Katrina in his last two terms. Looking back on it now, he realized he had been fairly horrible to her too. He rarely saw her during the day, creeping round to her rooms last thing, spending the night with her, then drifting off the following morning. Once they’d left, the – the relationship, if it could be called that, ground to a halt. They liked each other, but not enough to make an effort any more.
Who came next? A year of being single and jealous of friends who had settled relationships, and then Jo, an old Cambridge friend. She had been single for a while too, so it became a pairing of convenience. They carried on being friends, only now they slept together. Harry wondered whether he might feel more for her once he knew every inch of her body. But he didn’t. Then she found someone to fall in love with properly and that was that. They were still friends though, which was more than he could say for Jenny or Katrina. And Jo got married to the man she’d fallen in love with. Harry and he became friends too, and when they asked him to design the service sheet, he felt only too happy to help out. He liked doing that kind of work. It was something slightly different, didn’t take long, and all the compliments at the wedding gave him a smug sense of satisfaction.
Harry switched on the radio, hoping for some old classics on Radio Two or Heart FM, but didn’t recognize anything they were playing, so switched to Classic FM instead. It was never long before they played something he knew, and the stuff he’d never heard before was always bearable as background noise. Soon after Jo, he’d started seeing a New Zealander called Tanya. She was almost very beautiful, but something about the end of her nose and her slightly crooked teeth spoilt things. And he also had a suspicion that her eyes were just slightly too wide apart. He kept hoping that somehow these minor flaws would iron themselves out as he grew more and more fond of her. It was Ben who put him straight. Tanya’s flaws weren’t her nose or teeth. It was simply that they weren’t really suited. Harry knew his friend was right, but carried on going out with her until, fortunately, she decided to go back to New Zealand. As he waved her off at Heathrow, Harry felt an enormous sense of relief and liberation sweep over him.
There was only one other person he’d slept with before Julia. Christ, he couldn’t even remember her name. That was terrible. He stopped painting and stood back, rubbing his chin. A man’s name, shortened for a girl. Sam, or Marty. Toni? What was it? Clary. That was it. Not a man’s name at all. She’d been voracious though, pulling off his clothes the moment they were in her room, then leading him to the shower and getting straight down to business. He remembered thinking her sexual confidence must stem from experience, and then becoming terrified she might give him some dreadful sexually transmitted disease. Still, she was feisty and attractive, and Harry was slightly drunk and his fears quickly subsided. But after making love for a second time back in her room, she pulled out a cigarette and started to smoke. He hadn’t touched a cigarette himself for a couple of years and the smell, at that time in the early hours of the morning, seemed particularly repugnant. The lights were off, but the room was still suffused by a faint orange glow from the streetlights outside, and Harry watched in horror as the burning red tip glowed brighter every time she inhaled. Then, her fix of nicotine complete, she leant across him, her left nipple brushing against his chest, and stubbed it out on a plate on the bedside cabinet.
‘Hmm,’ she breathed over him, and thrust her tongue in his mouth once more. The taste was vile, like kissing an ash-tray, and completely unerotic. The next morning he left as soon as he could, appalled at his own cheapness.
That had been nearly two years ago. Until Julia, he’d forsaken casual sex and any relationship vowing that unless he met someone he could fall in love with, he would rather stay both single and chaste. Harry smiled to himself. He hadn’t thought about his former girlfriends for ages. But it was sad that with the exception of Jenny, he’d slept with five people and only really liked one of them. That was Jo, and she’d been a friend anyway. If he’d known what he knew now, he wondered, would he have discarded Jenny so casually? But at the time, in his youthful imagination, he’d pictured a future full of wild love affairs and nights of passion with a string of beautiful women, until someone swept him off his feet so completely he’d never want for anything again. He stopped painting again, and went upstairs and out onto the road, clutching his phone.
‘Ben, hi, it’s me,’ he said into the phone.
‘Oh, Harry, hi. Listen, I can’t speak now. I’ll call you later, OK?’
‘Yeah, yeah, all right.’
He tried Flin, but got his voicemail. He nearly left a message, but decided against it. Perhaps Lucie was around. She wasn’t, only her assistant, who said she was terribly sorry, but Lucie was in a meeting. Could she help at all? No, thought Harry, no one can. He didn’t really want to talk to any of his other friends. There was a simpler remedy: stop thinking about what might have been with Jenny. Things had worked out differently. Now he had Julia, and if he wasn’t in love with her just at that moment, then perhaps he would be in time. She was certainly more fun and better looking than anyone in between. And he was very fond of her. Or maybe he was in love with her, but just didn’t realize it. Maybe memory was shrouding his relationship with Jenny in a rosetinted frame, and it had never been half as good as he remembered.
Stomping back downstairs, he heard the hourly news. More misery in Chechnya. Mass killings in Sierra Leone. Harry picked up his brush, humbled. It was easy to distance oneself from horrors in a far-off land, to feel sorry for the people involved, but then to shrug and put them to one side. But really, if all he had to worry about was whether he was in love or not, he couldn’t be doing too badly. And at least he didn’t have to go to meetings. He didn’t have to call back later because someone was hovering over him. He could do what he liked, and, at the end of the day, if he so wished, he could go back to his flat and do whatever he wished there too, without anyone to get in his way.
But when he arrived back home later that evening, he padded upstairs and, in a move that had been secretly premeditated since before lunch, dug out his photo albums. He soon found the picture he was after, his favourite photo of her, the one he’d once kept in a frame by his bed. The colours were fading, but every line and curve of her face still looked, even after eleven years, heart-breakingly familiar.
CHAPTER THREE Flin receives a shock (#ulink_6a04ba48-3414-5ba9-b47d-4a6bcacc22c5)
When Harry asked Tiffany about Flin’s great plans to move out, she admitted they had come to very little.
Harry laughed. ‘I had a feeling they wouldn’t.’
‘I’ve worked out a very simple way of dealing with Flin’s sudden impulses and new crazes,’ Tiffany told him. ‘I go along with it initially, then throw in a word of caution and wait for his enthusiasm to trail off.’
‘And that always works?’
‘So far,’ she grinned.
Flin returned with more drinks. ‘What are you lot laughing about?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘Nothing,’ said Harry. ‘So when are you moving out to the country then?’ Sniggers from around the table.
‘You may laugh,’ Flin told them, ‘but it will happen.’
‘You’ve only mentioned it twice this week though, honey. That’s an eighty per cent drop on last week. And that was a fifty per cent drop on the week before,’ said Tiffany. The others laughed outright.
‘The Flin enthusiasm barometer is definitely dropping,’ added Harry.
Flin looked sheepish. Perhaps the sense of urgency had waned somewhat, but, as he pointed out to them, the idea had far from gone away. He did still think about all the wonderful things they would do once they moved to the country; and he did still gaze wistfully at passing Land-Rovers. He’d even reread all his H. E. Bates novels and bought Country Living.
‘But you haven’t actually done anything about it though, have you, baby?’ said Tiffany. Well, no, that was true. But he would, and soon.
Privately though, Flin found there always seemed to be something holding him back. It was a very busy time of year at work. There were big films coming out, with PR he was already committed to. Furthermore, his assistant had left too, and he considered it a bit churlish to leave before he’d found a new person and helped him or her settle in. Then there were the big summer blockbusters to prepare for, as well as all the normal day-to-day work to be done. And anyway, moving out wasn’t something they needed to rush. Waiting a few months for everything to quieten down at work wouldn’t make any difference in the long run.
Then one evening something happened to Flin which was to change this attitude irrevocably.
The day started brightly, with clear early April skies and the promise of warm, mild weather to come, and Flin set off for work feeling cheerful and fairly content with his life. There was nothing especially exciting happening that day, although he’d arranged to meet Ben for lunch and was going to a screening of a new film in the evening. It meant he would be home late, but that didn’t bother him; it was a film he wanted to see and an aspect of his work he’d always enjoyed.
In fact, lunch with Ben took nearly an hour and a half out of his day, but he returned to the office thinking more positively about his job than he had in ages. Really, he thought, when he thought about Ben, he was very lucky. There was no one watching his every move. The working hours could be very intense and busy at times, but on the whole were fairly relaxed – compared to Ben’s at any rate; he met interesting people, even if egos sometimes got in the way, and he could wear whatever he liked. And he was paid to watch films he would have paid to go and see anyway.
That afternoon he managed to secure a weekend magazine front cover for one of the films he was working on, spoke to Tiffany four times and made plans to visit Geordie in Wiltshire the following weekend. The film in the evening was even better than he’d hoped and, after loitering at the end for a few drinks with some journalists, he set off for home feeling even more cheerful and sanguine than he had that morning.
He jumped on a bus at Piccadilly. Usually he cycled to work. He enjoyed cycling, although there was a more practical advantage to it too: it was the only way he felt he could get around London without being constantly late; but if he was going to be late getting home, or if the weather looked ominous, he was perfectly happy to allow a bit more time and take the bus. That way he avoided the Underground and could still see the streets of London as he travelled to work. Furthermore, the bus he took was one of the old-fashioned variety: an open step-on at the back, and seats facing each other towards the rear. This was important to Flin. He was tall and it meant he could sit there without feeling cramped, and see the faces of the people opposite, which he liked.
By the time he reached Olympia, the weather had changed dramatically. Rain poured down, and he wasn’t wearing a coat. Cursing, he shoved his hands into his pockets, hunched up his shoulders and set off. The road between the exhibition halls and the railway was always well lit, but behind it, the way suddenly darkened. This had never bothered Flin. Ever since he’d moved to London, no one had so much as shouted at him. He’d never seen a mugging, a fight, or even a traffic accident. Nor had he ever been burgled. If that was just good luck on his part, he’d never bothered to think about it. Instead, a confidence in his own security steadily grew, so that he thought nothing of walking down dark ill-lit streets late at night or chaining his bicycle with nothing but a cursory shackle between frame and railing.
He’d seen the four youths sheltering under a delivery bay to the rear of the halls, but had barely given them a thought. Had he been more alert to the possible dangers, he might have thought it odd that four people should be hanging about in such a place at such an hour on such a night, and briskly walked to the other side of the road. Or even run. But he didn’t. It wasn’t until he’d already passed them that he realized one of them had given a nod to another. And by then it was too late.
Hands grabbed him from behind, while someone rushed to his front and punched him hard in the face and then the stomach. He heard the sound of his nose breaking, felt the blood pour in a warm stream over his lip and chin, and tasted the thick sweet-metallic taste on his mouth. It happened so quickly. A youth, spotty and with tufts of random stubble on his chin, pulled a knife from his pocket and held it to Flin’s neck, the point breaking the soft and vulnerable skin.
Flin gurgled and gasped as another knife slashed off his bag and hands rifled through his pockets. Then another punch, this time from behind: hard, swift, and unbearably painful, into his kidney. He crumpled to the ground. Grazed skin on his face and hands stung as he hit the wet roadside. For a split second he wondered whether they would kill him. An enormous wallop hit him in the ribs, a kick at full strength, blasting the last bit of air from him. Then footsteps running off into the night. The attack had lasted no more than half a minute.
For a few moments, Flin lay there, still clutching his eyes, the rain spattering his back, and the cold, dirty water from the pavement seeping through his jacket and shirt, cloying against his skin. He could only just see, his vision blurred by the rain and rapidly swelling eyes. His nose hurt like hell, while his ribs and back throbbed, and tiny specks of grit stuck to the sides of his grazed hands. Blood continued to stream down the side of his face. Still in shock, and in extreme pain, he put his hands out flat on the hard wet concrete and pushed himself up onto his knees, and then falteringly to his feet.
Leaning against a wall, he felt for his handkerchief, his raw hands stinging as they met the edges of his pockets. Holding it out to the rain, he dabbed at his eyes as they swelled further with each passing moment. He groaned with a humiliation keener than the pain. He’d been literally fleeced by four youths, probably nearly half his age, and left sprawled out on a rain-soaked roadside. What had he been to them? Nothing. Just something to rob, a walking cash opportunity.
He made it home staggering, although he was nearly run over as he crossed the road to his own street. A car turned a corner and he never saw it, never even heard it. The attack had dulled all his senses. At his front door, he pressed the buzzer; his own keys had been in his bag.
‘Tiff, it’s me. Can you let me in?’ His voice felt strange, not his own, as though his tongue had been stung repeatedly.
‘Oh my God, Flin, what happened?’ cried Tiffany as she opened the door. His jacket was torn, and, soaked, bloodied and squinting, he was barely able to stand.
‘Mugged,’ he stammered, ‘punched. I think they broke my nose. Oh, Tiff, it was horrible. So frightening.’
Tiffany grabbed his arm and led him to the bathroom. There she gently undressed him, washed his wounds and rinsed his eyes.
‘I’m going to take you to hospital,’ she told him. ‘You need someone to look at you.’
‘I’m fine,’ said Flin. But he knew he wasn’t. He gently massaged his neck, unable to forget the sensation of a knife-point digging into him. His body began to shake all over, uncontrollably, as Tiffany dabbed at his wounded face. She insisted they go to Casualty, and Flin felt unable to resist. So, an hour later, he sat in a hospital cubicle, exposed and humiliated for the second time that night, as a doctor began to stitch up his broken face.
‘You’ll be fine,’ the doctor told him matter-of-factly. ‘Wear dark glasses for a couple of days and you should soon be OK. The swelling will go down and, although it might hurt for a bit, I think your nose will look its old self soon enough.’
Flin also had a broken rib, although there was nothing to be done about that. He would just have to be patient, not exert himself and wait for it to mend.
He said nothing as Tiffany drove him back to their tiny flat, just gazed distractedly out of the window. He wanted to be in bed, safe and warm, holding his beloved Tiffany, far away from a world of dark menace and violence.
As the doctor predicted, Flin made a swift physical recovery. His side was sore for quite some time, but after watching his face turn a myriad of different colours, the swelling and bruising gradually diminished. After a couple of weeks, only a scar across the bridge of his nose remained as physical evidence of his attack. But his confidence in London as a fun and vibrant place to live altered dramatically. The plan to move out suddenly returned as an urgent priority.
‘Do you mind, Tiff?’ asked Flin as they drove off for another weekend in the country. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘I can’t stay here now. Those youths were obviously sent to give me a kick up the arse. Must have been. You know, Tiff, I don’t want to live in this kind of world any more. I don’t want to feel crowded, obsessed with work, and constantly worn down by the stress of living in a city of eleven million people. I just want to be with you, on our own in some rural haven. I want to live in a place where we can shut everything else out if we want, batten down the hatches and create our own little existence untroubled by modern life. The real world’s too dark, too sinister. I don’t want our kids growing up in a place where they could be set upon at any moment. They should have open fields to run about in, and woods for making dens, where they’re not threatened by a constant stream of cars and lorries hurtling past them. And nor do I want to live solely on tasteless packaged food, being conned by supermarkets and eating chickens full of chemicals. Let’s grow our own, Tiff. Vegetables, animals. The Good Life. Wouldn’t it be great? We really could be like the Larkins if we wanted. We’ve just got to take the plunge. This isn’t just a passing fad any more. This is something I think we should do, now, right away.’
‘Have you finished?’ said Tiffany calmly.
‘Good because, Flin darling, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it. I’m fed up of hearing you talk about it, then never getting off your arse and actually making plans. We’re doing something about it now, or not at all.’
‘And I think we should also think about going back to Australia.’
‘Australia. Perhaps we should go out there for a bit. It’s the perfect place to get away from it all. You could meet my family properly.’
‘I don’t know, Tiff. When I meant move out, I meant within England really.’
‘Can you at least think about it?’
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