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Authors: Andy Jones

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BOOK: The Two of Us
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‘One-eighty,’ says the guy, his voice betraying nothing: no irony, amusement or pity.

Maybe the threads in my new shirt are silver, after all. I start sweating again as I hand over my plastic, praying to God it won’t combust in the card reader.

Outside the shop, the best part of two hundred quid (and maybe another two pounds in lost bodily fluids) lighter, I give my face a final wipe down with my old shirt and drop it into the nearest
bin.

I arrive at the café one minute before the allotted time, order a coffee and take a seat at an outside table. My system is so full of caffeine and adrenaline by now that my hands are
shaking, and it takes a tremendous effort not to slop cappuccino down the front of my brand-new, very expensive shirt.

I’m making inroads into my second cup when I spot Ivy – maybe one hundred yards away – walking towards the café. I make a wave-cum-salute, and Ivy returns the gesture. I
can see her legs moving, but she doesn’t appear to be closing the distance between us. I pick up my phone and pretend to do something with it, take a leisurely sip of coffee, inspect the menu
. . . and when I glance back in Ivy’s direction she is still more than fifty yards away. I straighten my shirt, act like something across the street catches my eye, fiddle with the sachets of
sugar.

‘Hey,’ says Ivy and I look up, apparently surprised to find her there so quickly.

‘Hey,’ I say, and as I stand to meet her I bump the table with my hip and slop cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles onto the front of my shirt. Ivy doesn’t seem to notice. For
some reason I kiss Ivy on the cheek. A week ago we were at it like, well, not exactly porn stars, but there was nothing coy about it, and here I am kissing her on the cheek.

She wears no make-up and her hair is half tied back, half falling about her shoulders. She is dressed in loose-fitting jeans, a checked shirt with enamelled cufflinks in the shape of tiny
burlesque girls, and a plain grey jumper. And now that I think of it, in the two months since we were introduced, I’ve yet to see Ivy in a skirt, dress or one of those jumpers with puffy
sleeves that girls seem to like. My guess is that Ivy’s style is a by-product of her childhood accident. She can’t hide the scars on her face, but those on her body . . . she can
conceal these completely. Or maybe I’m over analysing it; maybe her clothes simply reflect the fact that she grew up with three brothers and is an honest-to-goodness tomboy. Either way, she
looks beautiful.

‘You look beautiful,’ I tell her.

Ivy smiles but it fades pretty damn fast.

A waitress comes to our table and Ivy orders tea.

‘So,’ I say. ‘How’ve you been?’

‘Oh,’ says Ivy, apparently unable to hold eye contact with me for more than three-quarters of a second, ‘good . . . busy . . . you know . . .’

When I was . . . I don’t know exactly, maybe seven, my teacher Mrs ‘Fatty’ Kincaid called me to her desk at the front of the class. I remember that the gouged wooden surface
was belly-high as I stood before her, and I remember the fear.

‘You’ve done something naughty,’ Mrs Kincaid told me. ‘Do you know what it is?’

I didn’t.

‘Your dad tells me you’ve been naughty,’ said Mrs Kincaid.

My mother and father were both intelligent people, and Dad was (still is) a teacher, used to dealing with errant children. Why he thought to approach my indiscretion via a third party, I have no
idea. I haven’t thought about it for over twenty years, and I guess you don’t need a degree in psychology to understand why this scene has just this minute dropped into my consciousness
like a brick into an algae-choked pond.

‘What did you do?’ asked Mrs Kincaid.

Occasionally I fantasize that I could revisit some past childhood event, equipped with my adult understanding and intellect. If I could answer now for my confused and frightened 7-year-old self,
I’d say, ‘God only knows. You’re the one with all the info, you tell me.’ Or something along those lines. Because instead of cutting to the chase she chose to draw it out
– to pull the plaster slowly.

What I said, I don’t recall, but I didn’t know the answer. Maybe I shrugged. But Kincaid wasn’t letting me off the hook. ‘What did you do?’ she pushed.

So I told her every single transgression I could think of. That I had pulled the heads from three of my sister’s Barbies; that me and Simon Henderson had found a tattered porn mag under a
hedge and transferred it to another hedge; I stole penny sweets from Randall’s newsagents; I often lied when I said I’d brushed my teeth; I read comics with a torch after bedtime; I
found twenty-three pence down the side of the sofa and kept it; I didn’t always say my prayers; I farted in class; I burped the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; and had once removed two legs
from a spider (I’d reasoned he’d be more than fine with six legs, and had taken care to de-limb the creature symmetrically).

‘And what else?’ said Kincaid.

If anything, I think of her fondly; she was pneumatically fat in a robust yet reassuring fashion, and I associate that physical heft with warmth and the promise of a hug, although I don’t
recall ever being hugged by her. She was, nevertheless, an intimidating woman – and not merely as a product of her mass. Mrs Kincaid was an unyielding and unsympathetic authoritarian, who
showed no compunction in humiliating her students with the teacher’s standard repertoire of insults: birdbrain, thicky, dunce and dummy; plus a couple of more idiosyncratic slurs like
fat-head, divbong and dough-brain. Not that I hold it against her; casual verbal bullying was all part of the job description back in those old schooldays. ‘And what else?’ she
pressed.

‘Nothing else,’ I said sincerely.

‘Really? Your father tells me you called your sister a bad name. Do you remember what you called your sister?’

‘No.’

‘Try,’ my teacher urged.

‘Smelly?’

‘Worse.’

‘Pig face?’

A slow shake of the head.

‘I don’t know,’ I pleaded.

Actually, I had a good idea, but I was particularly reluctant to disclose it to ‘Fatty’ Kincaid.

‘Your father has already told me, so why don’t you just be a good little boy and tell me yourself.’

‘Fat pig,’ I said.

And I do remember Kincaid wincing a little at that. She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You called your sister a “dildo”.’

‘Did I?’ I said, genuinely baffled.

‘Where did you hear that word?’ she asked.

Thinking about it now, I must have heard it somewhere on the playground and – being naïve of its potency – taken it home with me. But twenty-four years ago, staring into
Kincaid’s implacable eyes, I came up with a different solution to the conundrum.

‘I heard it from you,’ I said sincerely.

Within her colourful classroom lexicon, Mrs Kincaid’s favourite putdown was –
surely her own invention
– ‘dimlow’. If you got a question wrong, you were a
dimlow; if you talked during class you were a dimlow; if you didn’t answer your name during the reading of the register, ‘dimlow’ was inserted between Christian and surnames. And,
well, ‘dimlow’ sounds an awful lot like ‘dildo’, don’t you think?

‘You call us dildos all the time,’ I added.

I can only assume Mrs Kincaid registered my sincerity and guilelessness and understood how precarious her own employment had suddenly become, because she turned a deep red, told me never to say
it again and sent me back to my chair. I never heard another word about it.

And I haven’t thought about it for as long as I can remember. Until now, sitting opposite Ivy as she bites her lip, fiddles with her cufflinks and looks everywhere except at me. But
I’m not about to repeat the mistake I made twenty-something years ago; I am not going to start apologizing, justifying or grovelling for one thing when I might be in the doghouse for another.
That tactic is more likely to make things worse than better.

‘I’m sorry about Dad’s,’ my mouth says. ‘I was a bit of a berk.’

Ivy crinkles her brow. ‘Were you?’

Idiot.

‘You said you were tired,’ I remind her. ‘And I said “whatever”.’

She nods and the left side of her mouth draws inward and upwards in what could be an expression of resignation, recollection or disappointment. Whatever it is, it’s not a smile.

The waitress brings Ivy’s tea in a small pot with a miniature jug of milk and bowl of sugar cubes. Ivy lifts the lid off the pot, stirs the tea through half a dozen revolutions, replaces
the lid. She doesn’t pour yet.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ I say, and Ivy looks up as if just remembering that I’m sitting opposite her. ‘We should date more,’ I say.

Ivy frowns, but she appears to be faintly amused.

‘I mean, we’ve, you know . . .
seen
a lot of each other, obviously.’ Ivy smiles at this, nods in tacit agreement. ‘But we haven’t really
dated
.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t like . . . you know, dating.’

Ivy cocks an eyebrow.

‘What I mean is, we should go to . . . I dunno, the theatre, wine bars, Madame Tussauds, the zoo.’

‘The zoo?’

‘Yeah, I love the zoo. Monkeys, elephants, giraffes, all that kind of stuff.’

‘Animals?’ says Ivy.

‘Yes, exactly.’

‘Sounds like fun.’

And this is hope, this is a ray of light, this is not,
Forget it, Fisher, we’re finished
, this is,
Sounds like fun
!

‘Really?’ I say. ‘Amazing. We could go today, it might rain but, hey, we’ll just get those ponchos the tourists wear. What’s your favour—’

‘I have some news.’

And she chooses this moment to pour her tea; it takes forever.

‘News?’

‘You know how we’ve been – how did you put it? –
seeing
a lot of each other.’

‘Ivy,’ I say, ‘whatever I’ve done—’

‘Please,’ she says, ‘this is difficult.’

I take a breath, hold it, nod, exhale.

‘We’ve been having sex,’ Ivy qualifies, she half laughs. ‘A lot of sex.’

My mind rifles through the possibilities: I’m bad in bed, she is married, she has an STD, or . . .

Sometimes I can be so stupid it’s almost impressive.

Ivy and I have absolutely not talked about having a baby, but we have not exactly not talked about it, either. The first time we made love I asked Ivy (not, of course, with a full coherent
sentence, but rather a combination of facial gestures, eye movements and ‘do you have any . . .
you know . . .?
’) if it was safe to proceed.

And Ivy looked at me and said: ‘It’s okay.’

‘You’re on the . . .?’

Ivy shook her head, smiled. ‘It’s okay,’ she repeated.

It wasn’t a trivial thing. And, naked and enraptured as I was, I was also fully aware of the potential consequences –

‘potential’ being a significant qualifier. Maybe Ivy knew she was at a safe point in her cycle, maybe she can’t have kids full stop, or maybe when she said, ‘It’s
okay,’ she meant,
Hey, we love each other, don’t we? I want kids, I love kids, and I think you’d make an amazing father, so let’s allow nature to take its course.
And while this rapid inventory of possibilities was blurring through my brain, we were naked, aroused, Ivy’s hands were clasped at the back of my head, she was kissing my neck, pulling me to
her, raising her hips to meet mine and grinding herself against me – which kind of skews the decision-making process. And, yes, I do love her – not to be confused with the more
frivolous
being in love
; that too, obviously, but something more fundamental than that. My dad, romantic poet that he is, calls it ‘running as fast as you can’ – the
certain knowledge, deep inside yourself, that you are operating at maximum capacity in the love department. I’ve seen Ivy around children, the way she engages, listens and responds to them,
the way she smiles when she’s with them and the way that smile doesn’t fade after they’ve left the room. She adores children; they sense it and then bounce it back. She makes them
feel special, because to her they are. It’s a part of what I love about her. And she is sexy and beautiful and we’re naked and hot and sweaty and . . . well, what the hell. It seemed
like a good idea at the time.

We made love, twice, and (rather appropriately, it seems) I slept like a baby. It wasn’t until maybe three and a half minutes after I woke the following morning that I experienced, if such
a thing is possible, a minor panic. I’d known this woman, in a professional capacity, for a little over a month. Beyond that, and before our biologically blasé lovemaking, we had
probably spent a total of two hours absolutely alone with each other. So honestly, William Fisher, what the hell were you thinking, having unprotected sex with someone that amounts to little more
than a complete bloody stranger?

Ivy stirred beside me, rolled over, smiled, stroked my face and we made love again. Our relationship proper was approximately twelve hours old at this point and, cuddling on the crumpled sheets,
it seemed churlish, presumptuous and extremely unromantic to bring up the subject of children.

I placed the potential consequences into a small box and placed the box, locked now, in a closet in a room in a poorly lit corner of my mind. That was twenty-five days ago, and in the hundreds
of hours I have spent with Ivy since then, not one single thing caused me to doubt the wisdom of my foolishness. Once or twice or maybe a handful of times, I’ve found myself walking towards
the room in the corner of my mind, but I never lingered and I never opened the door. Because what would that achieve? Of course, in the five days since we drove back from Dad’s, it’s
been apparent that something was off, but the worst-case scenario my inner pessimist came up with was not gaining a baby, it was losing an Ivy.

Sitting outside the artisan coffee house in Wimbledon, Ivy still hasn’t shared her ‘news’. And maybe, after all that, she is simply searching for the right words to tell me
that as a lover I’m about as much fun as a week-old courgette.

‘I’ve been to the doctor,’ she says, which, when you think about the options – bad in bed, an STD, married, pregnant – only narrows things down to two.

BOOK: The Two of Us
8.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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