Our Last Summer by Jennifer Joyce
‘Sorry, darling, the queue is horrendous. They’ve only got one person on the till and the line’s nearly to the door.’ The woman on the phone next to me places a finger to her lips and winks. We’re not standing in a queue. We’re not standing at all. We’re perched on high stools at the airport bar. She has a glass of wine in front of her while I’m yet to be served. ‘But I have managed to grab the perfume for your mum. I’ll be as quick as I can.’ She ends the call before taking a long sip of her wine.
‘The hubby.’ She jiggles the phone in her hand. ‘I’ve left him at the play area with the kids while I grab some last-minute gifts.’ She looks down by her feet, where there’s a bag resting against her stool. ‘Thought I’d give myself a five-minute wine break before I have to face nine hours in the air with a teething toddler and a lovesick pre-teen who’s devastated at leaving her “true love” behind in LA.’ She places her phone down on the bar so she can do the air quotes one-handed. ‘The hubby does this sort of stuff all the time. I’m just popping to the shed for five minutes to fix this or that, he says – usually when his sister turns up with her demon kids – so this—’ she holds up her glass ‘—is my shed.’ She takes a sip of her wine. ‘Are you travelling on your own or have you escaped for a breather too?’
‘I’m on my own.’
The woman raises her wine glass again. ‘Lucky you.’
‘I don’t feel so lucky. I’m on my way back home for my little sister’s wedding without a plus-one.’
The woman tilts her head to one side. ‘Ouch. But still not as bad as dealing with a screaming kid while your husband pretends to be asleep. Want to swap places? I’ll go to your sister’s wedding and get very, very drunk and you can administer Calpol to a toddler and offer heartfelt advice to a dejected eleven-year-old who will “never love again” after saying goodbye to her “holiday romance”.’ She does the single-handed air quotes again.
‘I’d quite like to get very, very drunk actually.’ Starting now. I haven’t been home for four years and I’m not looking forward to it – and not just because Heather’s getting married. I shoot a hopeful glance at the barman but he’s still serving the massive group of lads at the other end of the bar.
‘Me too, but I can’t leave Phil and the kids much longer. We’re due to board in twenty minutes.’
There’s almost an hour until my flight and I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or bad. On the one hand, I have a bit of a reprieve before I have to board, but on the other it’s simply prolonging the agony. It feels like I’m in the dentist’s waiting room instead of an airport bar, my anxiety wanting me to stay forever on the plastic seat but the throbbing, excruciating pain wanting the tooth yanked, asap. My stomach is a jumble of nerves and I can feel my armpits prickling as I tap my nails against the bar.
I really need a drink.
‘You look like you need this more than I do.’ She offers me her glass of wine but, tempting as it is to down it, I’d rather wait for something a bit more potent than the dregs of a stranger’s glass of wine. I’ve been feeling a sense of foreboding over this trip from the start, but it isn’t as though I have a choice in the matter. I can’t say thank you very much for the invitation but I’d rather stay in LA if you don’t mind. As desperate as I am to stay in California, I can’t. Believe me, I’ve tried to think of excuses not to return to the UK, but none would have been sufficient to get me out of this journey back home. I’m going back to England, to Little Heaton, whether I like it or not.
I really, really need that drink.
I crane my neck to try to see past the group of lads, so that I can shoot such a heart-rendingly pleading look at the barman that he takes pity on me and throws a drink my way, but the gathering at the bar is far too big and I can’t even see the member of staff I glimpsed on my way inside. There must be at least fifteen guys and they’re all pretty beefy, with broad shoulders and what appears to be a couple of boulders tucked under the sleeves of their T-shirts. My best friend Yvonne would love to be here right now, surrounded by a pack of all-American guys who are buzzing about whatever adventure they’re about to embark on.
They’re showing off their super-white teeth as they laugh and joke, slapping each other on the back and play-punching each other on the arm. High on life, it seems, but then I bet they’re not heading to a boring, sleepy little village where everybody knows your business before you do. I bet they’re going somewhere exciting. Somewhere fun and wondrous and life-affirming – trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a walking safari in Kenya, snorkelling with sharks in the Galapagos or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in … the place where Mount Kilimanjaro is.
These men are jetting off for a fun-filled time and I’m being dumped on the set of Emmerdale, but without the murders, stalking and affairs to liven the place up. If I sound jaded, it’s because I am; I’m thirty-two, very much single, and I’m about to travel thousands of miles to attend the wedding of my little sister. I mean, she’s twenty-six for goodness’ sake. What business does she have living happily ever after with the man of her dreams while some of us go home to an empty apartment every night to eat sad little meals-for-one in front of the telly? And it isn’t even good telly because your viewing is interrupted with adverts for erectile disfunction medication every thirty seconds. Kim Wilde never mentioned that when she was bragging about being a kid in America, did she?
Maybe I will have the dregs of that wine after all. Except my new friend has just polished it off and is slipping off her stool.
‘Better go and rescue Phil. I hope you have a nice time at the wedding.’ She stoops down to pick up her shopping bag. ‘And you never know, you might meet somebody.’ She winks before turning to rejoin her family and I could weep with relief when I see the all-Americans finally move away from the bar with jugs of beer. The barman heads towards me, a slightly smug smile on his face as he closes the small gap between us with a confident swagger, and I fight the urge to yell at him to hurry up. I’m in desperate need of a drink to steady my nerves about the fact that I’m going to see everyone back home in Little Heaton for the first time in four years. Mum, Dad and Heather. Yvonne. Tomasz.
My stomach lurches and I have to clutch onto the bar for support. I can’t do this. I can’t get on this plane and go back home where I’ll have to face up to what I did. What I lost.
The barman is resting his forearms on the bar and leaning towards me, his smile less self-assured than it was a moment ago, his eyebrows pulled down low. I guess he’s asked me what I want to drink at least once before and he’s wondering why I’m gazing at him like an idiot. Or maybe he thinks I fancy him. He probably gets that a lot. His shirtsleeves are rolled up, showing off tanned, toned forearms, and he’s got the sort of messy hairstyle that looks like he’s just rolled out of bed when really he’ll have been perfecting the look at the mirror for ages. He reminds me of Ed: the height, the hair, the smile that makes his whole face light up. He doesn’t have Ed’s tattoo, though. His inner wrist is free of Butters from South Park, which had seemed a ludicrous image to brand yourself with at the time, but now I miss seeing it. I can’t watch South Park anymore because it brings back memories of Ed that are too painful to revisit. I’d take the adverts for erectile dysfunction meds over those recollections any day.
‘A clementine Bellini. Please.’ I only just remember to tack the ‘please’ on at the end. It isn’t the barman’s fault that he reminds me of Ed, that seeing him on the other side of the bar is dredging up memories of that night in Little Heaton. I can practically feel the roar of the motorbike as it sped off into the distance, can taste the fear as it disappeared from view, the roar diminishing to a rumble. It has been four years since the accident but still the grief rises all over again as I think of that night and I remember the hysteria as the news travelled around the village. I want to press my hands to my ears to drown out the wail as Ed’s mum thrashed in her husband’s arms as she tried to break free so she could run to her baby and save him. But it was already too late. Ed was dead. None of us would ever see him again.
Where’s that drink?
‘Thank you.’ I manage to pull my lips into something that vaguely resembles a smile as the barman places the glass down in front of me. It’s served in a champagne flute with an orange slice sitting on the rim while a twist of peel bobs on the surface.
‘Nice accent.’ He tilts his head to one side and narrows his eyes. He doesn’t sound like Ed, which is a relief. ‘You’re British?’
‘Yes.’ I take a demure sip of the cocktail. I want to down the whole lot in one go but manage to hold back so I don’t come across as a drunk. Plus, I don’t want to choke on the orange peel. As much as I’d like a man to wrap his arms around me, I don’t think performing the Heimlich manoeuvre counts as a romantic move, not even after four years of being single.
‘London, right?’ The barman points his finger at me, grinning as though he’s hit the jackpot.
‘Chesh-uh?’ He shakes his head. ‘I haven’t heard of that place. Is that near Edinburgh?’
‘Closer to Manchester. Excuse me, but I need to make a call.’ I slip off my stool and grab my drink, placing the money for the drink down on the bar, including a generous tip to make up for my flakiness, and head for a table in the corner. Yvonne should be home from work by now, so I FaceTime her, hoping she’ll pick up and take my mind off the fact I’m about to stuff myself into a tin can that will somehow travel through the air at mind-blowing speed before dropping me off to the place where I lived through an actual nightmare. I’ll have to wander the streets suffused with memories of Ed – and of Tomasz. Because I lost one of my best friends the night of the accident but I also lost the love of my life too. Tomasz is alive and well but what we had is gone forever.
‘Elodie!’ My best friend’s face appears on my screen, her cheeks all puffed up as she grins at me. ‘Are you at the airport?’ Her grin falters and there’s a hint of suspicion in her voice. ‘Please tell me you’re at the airport.’
‘I am. I promise. I’m in the airport bar. See?’ I turn my phone and pan around before turning the screen towards me again. The barman is faffing about with a cocktail shaker but he’s too far away for Yvonne to see how much he looks like Ed. I’d show her the group of all-American guys but she’d probably drool all over the screen.
‘Good, because I can’t wait to see you.’
‘You’re seeing me now.’ I wave at the screen with my free hand. ‘Hello. It’s me – Elodie.’
Yvonne raises her eyebrows while the rest of her face remains blank. ‘Yeah, because this is the same as seeing you right in front of me. The same as hugging you. Man, I miss our hugs. I can’t believe it’s been four years since we last had a squish.’
I remember that last squish. It was at a different airport, in a different country. A different life.
‘I miss our squishes too.’
‘I’m going to give you the biggest squish when you get here.’ Yvonne bounces up and down and clasps her hands together. ‘I’m so excited. When do you board?’
My stomach churns. ‘About forty-five minutes.’ I take a sip of my drink to try to settle the nerves.
‘Is that a cocktail?’ Yvonne leans forward to get a better look. ‘What time is it there?’
I press my lips together as I place the glass back down on the table. When I speak, my voice is small. ‘Ten a.m.’
‘I thought it might take the edge off. I’m really not looking forward to being back home.’ I look down at the table, focusing on a deep scratch in the dark wood. ‘I’m not sure I can do it.’
‘Elodie Parker.’ I can’t bring myself to look up at the screen of my phone, but I can guess what my friend’s expression is like from the stern tone of her voice. ‘Stop being a scaredy-cat and get your arse on that plane.’
Yvonne has always been on hand with her encouragement over the years: Elodie, stop being a scaredy-cat and say yes. You’d be perfect for this promotion. Elodie, stop being a scaredy-cat and go over and talk to him. Ask if you can have a ride. Elodie Parker, stop being a scaredy-cat and tell him you’re sorry, before it’s too late.
‘You cannot miss your sister’s wedding.’
‘Can’t I? Please?’
Yvonne gives a wry smile. ‘It won’t be that bad. And it could be worse – you could be a bridesmaid. I bet she’s making them wear something hideous, just so she looks even more amazing.’
‘That would be such a Heather thing to do.’ I nod before dropping my gaze back to the scratch on the tabletop. ‘It’s just …’
Tomasz.What if I bump into him after all this time? Little Heaton is a pretty small place. Suffocatingly tiny. What if he looks happy? Happier than he was with me, if that’s even possible? Because I don’t want to sound arrogant but we were blissfully happy before the accident. We had plans for the future. Big, exciting plans.
But also, what if I don’t see him? Because as much as I’m filled with dread at the thought of seeing him after all this time, after everything that happened, the things I said, I’m also scared that I won’t see him. Ever again. And that makes me ache. I never allow myself to think about him usually, which is much easier here in California with thousands of miles between us, but back home it’ll be different, because even if I do manage to avoid him, there will be reminders of him, of us, everywhere.
‘Do you ever …’ I brave a peek at my friend. She’s sitting forward, her face filling up the screen, wating for me to elaborate. ‘Do you ever …’
Yvonne tilts her head to one side as I falter again. ‘Do I ever what?’
I suck in a breath and hold it for a second or two before I puff it out. ‘Do you ever wish you could go back and do things differently?’
Because I do. I wish, with all my heart, that I could go back and change it all. Grabbing my cocktail, I fish out the orange peel twist and dump it on the table so I can drain the glass in one go, hoping that the alcohol will help to numb the pain of going back to the place where it all went so horribly wrong.