The day our child was conceived, someone else arrived. She was there as the cells fused, like a ghost.
We had fucked, my love and I, moments before going out to dinner. In a hasty, clothes-off scramble as we changed, we had collided for the sake of romance, aware that we didn’t have time, and that the best sex occurred with self-imposed urgency. We spent twenty minutes laughing, protesting tripping over gussets, bellowing curses at the inevitable gathering lateness. How pleased we were with ourselves as we glanced sly-eyed at each other in the taxi, one snorting and hushing the other while we called mid-journey to lie about our lateness.
‘I’m full of you,’ said Lelia.
I twitched. Though limp and spent, I felt myself stirring again. I saw swarms of tadpoley cells diving through crevices. I didn’t know which one would swim fastest, like a little medal-winner.
The taxi came to a halt outside the house, and we bundled in, still sex-dazed. We were rudely late. I worried that my skin would smell of her as I kissed my hostess, Catrin. I could still taste her scent in my nose. Catrin’s boyfriend MacDara came over and shoved me a bit, and I nearly laughed at him in comradeship – the double delight of conveying sex afterwards to your friends – and because it was almost Christmas.
‘Come on then, you old bastard,’ said MacDara. He turned to Lelia. ‘Hello.’ He hugged over. ‘You look great,’ he said.
The guests were already a little inebriated on Christmas champagne. My other closest friend from college was there, besides someone I knew slightly, and there were four strangers – a couple and two other women. We were introduced. I cannot remember her: cannot recall the first sighting of her, was entirely oblivious to her. We were all happy to reach the end of a year marked by the increasing disappointment of being in our thirties without the wealth or fame we had imagined for ourselves. Time was running out. Reality was finally dawning. However, the New Year would bring a magical sprinkling of fresh chances, of course, and here was Christmas Eve’s eve. We drank quite a lot, until the ice sneeze of champagne bored through Lelia’s juices in my nose. She looked fucked still, her dark eyes off-centre, her movements fluid. I nudged her, raising one eyebrow and smiling at her to hint at this. She scratched the back of my neck in passing, and I leaned against her and breathed in the scents of her hair.
We became happier. MacDara and Catrin, being richer than the rest of us, always provided. There were grilled things oozing olive oil on ciabatta which required more champagne, and then red wine to go with the Parmesan, and then inevitabilities in the minor smug-arse would we had somehow embraced without meaning to: rocket, and more Italian bread, and a risotto starter, all semi-familiar from the same cookery books everyone used.
Digression. The ghost was there. I didn’t even hear her name.
I was in my bubble. Lelia and felt passion reignited we who had only been together for four and a half years and sometimes couldn’t be bothered to have sex. The glow of our recent activities, bled into the glow of alcohol, and I loved her because she was beautiful. I loved her despite myself, despite my patched relationships CV, my tired neuroses and all the little trip-wires laid across love. She filled me, between sporadic rows and sudden irritations, with a kind of fury of devotion.
I was barely aware of the ghost at all. She was some face in a group of ten. Did she speak that night in her curious catching voice? A little, probably. I dismissed her as dull without even forming a conscious opinion. The others were too highly coloured: the glow of Lelia; uptight old Ren from university; blustering MacDara; his girlfriend Catrin. They were so familiar, I know their every tic with wincing recognition. The only hook on my memory; slight as a Velcro claw, was a vague recollection of her in the hall, speaking to Catrin before we all left. Something about her, or what she said, make me feel a flicker of protectiveness towards her, as though she needed to be helped.
That first sighted was repainted and lingered over so many times later; but at the time she was a blur. A slick of grey. Nothing. Beware of mice.
Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of Joanna Briscoe
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