Edward waited outside the pub. Julia had insisted on taking him out for his birthday. She had, she said, been forced to buy him something in order not to ruin the pretence and while she couldn’t run to a posh restaurant, she knew a place that did decent pub grub.
“Edward?” said Julia, catching him by surprise by emerging from within the building. “I did say to meet inside. No point in standing in the rain, is there?”
He turned. “Apparently not.”
Once they’d sat down in the corner, with high-backed bench seats that made a cubicle of sorts, Julia leant forward. “I’m not taking you away from a family celebration or something, am I? It only occurred to me after that you might want to be with somebody real.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“You know what I mean.” Julia pulled back, leaning against the seat.
“I think I’m a little old for birthday parties. And I wouldn’t want to give the game away at this stage.”
She smiled at him. “Oh, good. Sometimes I get carried away.”
“Yes, you propose convenient relationships to strangers in coffee shops,” said Edward. He glanced down at the plastic-covered menu card. “What do you recommend?”
Julia stuck her tongue out at him.
“You’d rather be with your family, then? If it was your birthday,” said Edward. It was unfair, but they’d been getting on so well these last few weeks, and he hoped she might tell him the truth now if he created an opportunity. “Noted.”
As they ate, Edward enquired she was progressing with Diana’s lounge.
“Oh, I finished that ages ago,” said Julia. “She said she liked it. You’ll have to go admire it some time.”
Edward laughed. “I will. Did you do the decorating, or bring in someone?”
“Well, no,” said Julia. “Although that’s the ultimate idea – I shall be paid indecent amounts to throw out instructions to my minions! In the meantime, I made more money doing it myself. Besides, I love painting. It’s very satisfying.”
“But you are working on something, aren’t you? Another project, then?”
Julia shook her head. “I thought I told you – perhaps I didn’t, then. I didn’t want to jinx things to begin with. Somebody who knows Mrs Morley telephoned and now I’ve got a whole house on the go.”
After the main course, they had ice cream. Julia finished first, and then sat there, waiting for him. Eventually she said, “How long does it take to eat ice cream?”
I don’t know,” said Edward. “You should have set your watch at the start and timed me.”
Julia sighed and leaned against the seat. “Sorry, but I’m tired of waiting to give you my present.”
“How old are you?” he murmured, polishing off the last of his mint chocolate ice cream.
Julia grinned. “It depends.” She placed a small tissue-paper parcel on the table, tied up in silver string, and threw him an expectant look.
“You shouldn’t, you know,” he murmured, but he was touched nonetheless, taking it, and turning it over. It was so easy tonight to forget there was any pretence. In so many ways, there almost wasn’t any more. Almost.
“I’ve had two jobs I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “And I’m not sure what you’ve got in return apart from a visit from my no good brother – and an obligation to tell lies to all your friends. So, take it. It’s not very much.”
Edward carefully undid the string and unwrapped it, pulling out a blue-grey tie with subtle, intermittent lines of tiny white and silver squares. It was a good choice, he realised, and looked at her again. It would be a stupid thing to build too many hopes upon. After all, picking out what went with this, that or the other was something she did on a professional basis.
“If you don’t like it,” she said, mistaking his silence, “I have the receipt.”
Edward shook his head. “I do. It’s very nice.”
“You can wear it when you date again – for real this time,” Julia said, giving a grin.
He let it slide out of his fingers, back into the dark blue tissue paper. Suddenly, everything seemed to have broken. He’d bought too far into the illusion and forgotten that was all it was.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t do this, not any more.”
He raised his head as he spoke and saw her staring back at him in dismay. He looked away again, not willing to see her face, and ran a hand through his hair. “Oh, hell. Julia, I’m sorry. I’ve been meaning to talk to you, but I hadn’t meant for it to be tonight.”
“But what is it – what’s wrong?” said Julia. All her humour and confidence had vanished. “You said you liked it. Edward –”
Edward wished he’d bitten his tongue, but it was too late now, and it was true: going on with this was a terrible plan. “Look, I like you, Julia. I like you far too much for this charade – and I know you don’t feel the same way. I wish we could carry on, but I don’t think I can.”
“Oh,” said Julia.
He closed his eyes. “I’m a pig, I know. I didn’t mean to do this, especially not since – Julia, I know about the accident. Christy told me. And if this has helped as a distraction as well as the business, I’m glad. I’ll never be sorry we did it. But I suppose at some point, I have to do the sane thing and back out.”
“It wasn’t anything very dreadful,” said Julia. She sounded as pale as she looked. “Only a dinner party here and there.”
Edward flushed, feeling an idiot. “Yes, I know. It seems you and all my friends are right: I should have made more of an effort about dating, because a few evenings out with you and here I am. It’s ridiculous. I’m sorry.”
“You said you would never dump me. You said it would ruin the whole pretence.”
“I know. And yet I think I’d better – unless you’d care to go out with me for real. I don’t expect that you would,” he added hastily.
“I don’t mind sleeping with you, you know,” said Julia. “If that’s what you mean.”
Edward tightened his grip on the table, all the more so because he couldn’t help being tempted by her offer, terrible as it was. “No, it wasn’t. I mean – that, too, but – look, Julia, let’s call it a day. It’s been fun, and if you ever change your mind, let me know.”
Julia gathered her coat and light scarf with unsteady hands. “I see,” she said, her voice obviously thick with unshed tears. “Yes, of course. I was being thoughtless and selfish – I knew it really. Excuse me –”
Edward stood, but she waved him back down and walked out, only narrowly missing some of the other tables as she went. He stared after her, and the enormity of what he’d done hit him; the unbearable idea of never seeing her again. “Oh God,” he said under his breath. “Julia.”
He got to his feet, dashing towards the door, only to run into one of the staff carrying a tray. Between them they managed to avoid any worse damage than one lost drink, but the time spent in apologising and paying for a replacement cost him dearly. Julia was nowhere in sight by the time he made it to the door.
Edward moved back across to his table, and reached for his phone, calling her. Julia didn’t seem to be picking up, he thought, before he slowly realised that her phone that was ringing somewhere nearby. He looked around first in hope which rapidly died as he found it wedged between the seat and the wall.
He sank back into his seat and put his head in his hands. For once, he didn’t even care if he was making an exhibition of himself in public. He had meant to try and have a more serious conversation with her at some point, but not now, not like this. The memory of her face remained; he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t hurt her. His hand closed around the tie and he stuffed it into his pocket.
And all because the last thing he could ever damn well wear on a date with someone else was something that reminded him of Julia.
Julia made it home via tube and bus and barely remembered the journey, in a numbed state of misery. It shouldn’t matter, of course. That was the point. An unreal relationship couldn’t hurt, and yet it did. She shut the door of her flat behind her, and kicked aside the junk mail on the floor: half a dozen takeaway flyers and no post.
She sank down onto the worn sofa, not bothering to remove her coat, and leant her head against its cushioned back. What she should have done was to tell Edward, yes, that she did want to go out with him. She closed her eyes and replayed the moment in her head, but even then she stopped short of the right answer. She couldn’t. Not yet. She hadn’t even been sure that she wanted to till now. Their pretence had been a good way to avoid the question, but contemplating the prospect of resuming a life that had no Edward Iveson in it, made her find it hard to breathe. She’d miss him so much: he was one of the few people who’d seemed to get her stupid sense of humour, for all his surface seriousness.
She straightened up and reached into her jacket pocket for her phone, but it wasn’t there. She stopped searching, letting out a sigh. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t ring him and say, yes, yes, let’s go out. All the old panic built up in her: yes, she had to go on living, but it was too soon to leave her lost family behind, far too soon to try and build something that might even promise happiness. It was too great a betrayal.
She knew, underneath, that wasn’t logical, but it was hard to get round. Her business arrangement with Edward had been a way of fooling her own inner demons of guilt. Only a little while longer, only a few more private pretend dates, and the curse would have been lifted as the deception became reality; the spell broken with the right words, a touch of their hands, or a kiss.
She couldn’t even quite muster up the energy to be angry at Edward, for his terrible timing and his old-fashioned values that made him back away instead of making the most of the opportunity. That thought gave her a sudden hope and she blinked away her tears, sitting up again. He would phone her. It was Edward, and he would phone any minute now to be sure she was home, to apologise, even if not to restore matters. She could try to say something – perhaps. Now, or in the morning, he would phone.
Julia picked herself up, and went to bed.
Edward didn’t phone, although in the morning, Julia found that he couldn’t anyway, since she seemed to have lost her mobile. She cursed widely as she searched the flat and turned her pockets inside out, but she had a vague memory of putting it down on the seat beside her – on the bus, probably, it wouldn’t be the first time – and it was gone.
“Crap,” said Julia. She had been careful never to let Edward know her address, and she didn’t have a landline. She wasn’t sure she could remember his mobile number, and she’d never written it down, only put it in her phone. She knew where he lived, of course, but she shied away from the idea of turning up on his doorstep unannounced after he’d told her he wanted to stop seeing her. That was borderline stalker behaviour, and, yes, she might technically have eyed him up in the café and then leapt on the opportunity to start a pretend relationship with him, but she had some standards.
He probably had tried to ring her already, she thought, her heart slowly turning leaden. He’d have tried to ring her and assumed she was ignoring him, and then he wouldn’t try again.
She’d have to send him a letter. If she could ever find the courage to say any of the things she wanted to say.
Julia was working fewer hours at the café this week, with her current project on the go, but on Tuesday she had to call in for the next week’s rota. She hadn’t heard from Edward, or found her phone, despite going to the bus depot, and she still hadn’t decided how to write to him and what she should say if she did. Perhaps she should buy a postcard and write ‘Wish you were here?’ on it and maybe he would understand.
Lisa, the manager handed over the rota, and then she said, “Your boyfriend came in the other day. He left your phone.” She held out the smart phone.
Julia stared. She couldn’t think for a moment how he could have had it, and then close on the heels of that discovery, the realisation that he hadn’t even used it as an excuse to see her. She shook herself and took it back, thanking Lisa, although she wasn’t sure afterwards what she said.
“Had a row?” asked Lisa, with no real interest, but not without sympathy. “He left a note, too. You know, you two might want to embrace the twenty-first century sometime.”
Julia lifted her head. “A note?”
“Yes,” said Lisa and thrust it at her.
Julia went outside into the park and sat down on a bench – their bench, she realised, with amusement – and tore open the envelope.
I’m so sorry about the other evening. I wondered if you would reconsider advising me re. interior decoration of my house?
Please do call, whatever the case.
It wasn’t what she had expected, but very like Edward, and oddly right. Julia laughed and had to blink away tears as she switched the phone on. There was, mercifully, some battery left.
“Edward,” she said, when he answered her call. “It’s me. Julia. And, yes, yes, I will.”
He hesitated before replying on the other end. “You will what? I mean, Julia – I’m sorry! I was an idiot the other night, and then I wasn’t even sure how to find you –”
“Your house,” she said, catching her breath. “I will take it on, although there is one condition.”
“Yes – I need to choose where I start.”
Edward, on the receiving end, sounded puzzled. Julia grinned to herself. “Yes, of course. But Julia –”
“How soon can I come round for a consultation?”
“I’m free now, if you wanted to meet. I was home waiting for someone to fix the boiler, but they’ve been and gone –”
Julia was smiling too widely, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. “I’ll be round as soon as I can, then.” She switched the phone off before he could say anything else, and then raced for the nearest tube station.
The underground seemed to be running unaccountably slow, and then when she finally got off and started walking to Chalcot Avenue, there seemed to be a lot of stupid people walking in the other direction, hampering her progress. When she finally reached number twelve, the door opened even as she approached.
“Julia,” said Edward, stepping down to meet her. “I’m so sorry, I really am. I don’t know why I overreacted the other night –”
Julia shook her head and closed the last distance between them, flinging her arms around his neck, pressing her head in against him. “Edward,” she said, her voice muffled in his shirt. “Edward.”
“This isn’t very professional,” he murmured in her ear, hugging her tightly in return as he guided her into the house, and out of any watching eyes. “Aren’t you going to tell me what to do with my hallway?”
She moved back, and looked round at it, before, with a look at him, she tore a strip off the wallpaper: tangled branches and thorns in her hand, before she let it fall to the floor. “Yes, of course,” she said. “There!”
“Ah, so this is where you’re starting?”
She laughed. “No, no. When taking on a project like this, I think it’s absolutely imperative to first get to grips with its occupant.”
“Is it?” he said, and then grinned back at her. “Oh, God, Julia. I wasn’t even sure how to get in touch with you again. I should have kept your shoe – I’d have had better luck wandering around Bermondsey with that than a smart phone.”
“I doubt it – there were a lot exactly like it on that market stall.”
“I tried your website,” he said, “but it only had a form and I couldn’t bring myself to type, ‘please give me a second chance as your fake boyfriend’ into it. I wasn’t even sure if you could check it easily without the phone. I hope you didn’t mind me using the café, but I had to try something.”
She squeezed his arm. “Do I look as if I’m annoyed about it?”
“Julia,” said Edward, but then he edged away, back into the other side of the wall, watching her closely, forcing himself to be serious. Julia hoped that wasn’t a bad sign. “Are you sure? You’ve always maintained your motives were mercenary –”
She gave a half-smile. “Oh, that was true enough, but I’m not sure, underneath, that I didn’t want you all along and that was my excuse – the only way I could do it. Because, you see, it’s not fair that I should be here – still living. Even if worse if I went about trying to be happy. Do you see?”
He nodded, and now he moved nearer to her again, putting a hand to her cheek, and it made her catch her breath, not daring to speak and spoil the moment.
“I think I do,” he said, “although, Julia, you can’t possibly tell me that you liked me from the beginning –”
“Oh, but I did,” said Julia. “Somewhere. You came in so regularly and you never even really looked at me, only at your newspaper, and I wanted you to. Just to look, to smile. But I wasn’t feeling up to trying to make anything happen, even to thinking that I might want to – and then suddenly –” Julia gave a shrug. “I took the chance when it came. Although, really, Caroline was the limit that day, so maybe it was mere pity –”
“She means well.”
Julia shook her head and then, at his look, she said, “Probably she does, mostly, but that was only ever about assuaging her guilt – wanting to make you be happy so she wouldn’t have to feel bad about what happened. You can’t do that. It’s not fair.”
“No, true,” said Edward. “Although, Julia – if you’d only said before –”
“I couldn’t,” she said. She felt her heart rate increase talking about it. “I’m not sure I can even now –”
Edward nodded, moving in nearer, and kissing her briefly. “It’s all right, darling,” he said. “We’ll resume the pretence, that’s all – nothing to worry about. We’ll just try to be more convincing this time around. How about it?”
Julia laughed and, as he kissed her again, slid her arms around his neck and pulled him in close, returning him kiss for kiss, pressed up against the winding, wooded wallpaper. “Oh, God, yes, let’s.”