Making your mind up, p.38

Making Your Mind Up, page 38

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “Spare panties,” Jojo said helpfully as her cell phone beeped to let her know she had a text. “It’s from Donny, asking where we are.”

  A sign whizzed past. “Coming up to junction nine. The Tewkesbury turnoff.”

  “They’re at junction fifty-nine on the M1. Darlington.” Jojo looked up in amusement. “And he says his dad’s dead nervous about seeing you again.”

  “What are you sending?” demanded Cressida as Jojo began texting in return. Beaming, Jojo held up the phone.

  On the illuminated screen she’d put: Ah, aren’t old people sweet? Mine 2!

  * * *

  It was almost nine o’clock at night. After three and a half hours of driving and one short break at a gas station they had arrived in Chesterfield. Jojo had the road atlas open across her knees and was on the phone to Donny as they negotiated their separate ways toward the Taplow Road branch of Burger King. So far Cressida had had to stop the car three times to ask directions.

  And now, finally, they had found it. There was the familiar logo as the brightly lit restaurant loomed ahead of them out of the darkness. Breathlessly turning into the busy parking lot, Cressida felt gloriously intrepid, like Indiana Jones finally discovering the Holy Grail. If only she had an Indiana Jones hat to cover her frazzled hair.

  Oh Lord. A fresh wave of butterflies broke free in her chest. Why couldn’t she be wearing something remotely flattering? Was the stray lipstick she’d found in the bottom of her bag too bright? She wasn’t even wearing any foundation, for heaven’s sake. At this rate the moment Tom clapped eyes on her he was going to run screaming out of the parking lot.

  “Don’t fuss,” said Jojo when Cressida had nervously parked between a filthy green van and a gleaming Audi. “You’re fine.”

  “I’m not. I look a sight!” Peering frantically in the rearview mirror, Cressida attempted to rearrange her bangs into some kind of order. Her fingers shook as she ruthlessly pinched color—ooch—into her pale cheeks.

  “OK, now listen to me. Donny and I have been texting each other for weeks. And if anyone knows, he does. Aunt Cress, Donny’s dad wants to see you again every bit as much as you want to see him. He doesn’t care if you’re wearing posh shoes and makeup. He’d be just as happy if you were wearing a gnome suit.”

  Cressida wasn’t so sure about that. She definitely wouldn’t be overjoyed if Tom were to turn up wearing a gnome suit.

  Beep beep went Jojo’s cell phone. Having read the text, she opened the passenger door. “Right, me and Donny are going in for a burger. You two can join us when you’re ready.”

  Numbly Cressida nodded; it was nine o’clock on a hitherto normal Wednesday evening and she was here in Chesterfield. “Thanks.”

  Jojo paused halfway out of the car. “Is that a sarcastic thanks?”

  “No, sweetheart.” Oh, how she loved Jojo. “It’s a real thanks. You arranged a fantastic surprise.”

  “Well, Donny helped too. We did it between us.”

  Cressida was struck by a thought. “Are you and Donny…?”

  “Eurgh, no way!” Jojo’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I wouldn’t fancy Donny in a million years. He’s a friend, that’s all. Like in Phew! it’s always saying how important it is to have boys who are friends because then you can chat with them and find out how the opposite sex ticks. Well, that’s how it is with Donny and me. We’re just friends who chat with each other.”

  “That’s great.” Smiling at Jojo, Cressida thought that sometimes Phew! did actually make sense.

  Jojo headed into the restaurant to meet up with Donny. Cressida watched her run inside, then took a deep breath and climbed out of the car herself. Brrr, it was cold. On top of everything else she was going to be greeting Tom with watering eyes and a pink nose, which would really knock his socks—

  “Hi, Cress.”

  Turning, Cressida saw him standing twenty feet away, a green wool scarf wrapped twice around his neck and the collar of his overcoat pulled up around his ears. His hands were stuffed into his coat pockets and his breath hung in white clouds of condensation before him.

  Cressida said, “Fancy meeting you here.”

  “Damn.” Tom moved toward her. “I was going to ask you if you came here often.”

  “Sorry.”

  “Don’t be. You’re here.” Taking his hands out of his pockets, he greeted her with a kiss on each cheek, and Cressida felt how cold he was. It was so wonderful to see him again. She’d forgotten quite how much she loved the little lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes.

  “What have our kids done to us, eh?” He shook his head.

  “I know. I suppose it was the last thing you needed to hear this afternoon.”

  “The last thing?” Tom’s laughter lines deepened. “It was the best thing I could have heard. I’ve already rung my boss and told him I’m taking a few days off work. The only problem is…”

  “What?” Cressida’s imagination instantly careered into overdrive: he had a girlfriend, he was gay, he’d booked a one-way trip to Mexico. Fearfully she said, “Tell me.”

  “OK. Well, Donny kind of sprang this on me.” Rubbing the back of his head, clearly embarrassed, Tom said, “Tomorrow you’re coming back to stay at our house. So the thing is, I have to warn you that it’s not going to be what you’d call tidy. In fact, it’s a bit of a mess.”

  Cressida blinked. “That’s the problem?”

  “It’s quite embarrassing, you know,” said Tom. “You’re going to think I’m a complete slob. When we get home you’ll see last night’s dishes still waiting to be washed up.”

  “I have dishes in my sink,” said Cressida.

  “And the living room carpet needs vacuuming.”

  “Mine does too.”

  “My ironing pile is spilling out of its basket.”

  “Snap.”

  “Come here.” Visibly relieved, Tom drew her toward him until their misty breath mingled and melted together. “I suppose we ought to join Jojo and Donny. But before we do, can I just say how much I’m looking forward to the next week?”

  He kissed her. Cressida stopped worrying about her messy hair and lack of makeup. As customers left the restaurant and headed past them back to their cars, she kissed him back and whispered joyfully, “Me too.”

  Chapter 59

  Mario wasn’t looking forward to next week. Or the one after that. He’d quietly planned to carry on at work without drawing attention to it, but Jerry had put the kibosh on that. Fat, stubbly-chinned Jerry was now impossibly smug as a result of having found himself a skinny, smooth-chinned girlfriend. Studying the office vacation planner up on the wall yesterday, he’d said over his shoulder, “Blimey, you’ve still got twelve days to use up before the end of the year. Better get on and take them, mate. They won’t let you carry them over.”

  Mario, studying his computer screen, had said casually, “I’m not going to bother. Jerry, have you seen last month’s sales figures for—”

  “Whoa! Hold your horses just one cotton-pickin’ minute there, boy.” Jerry’s new girlfriend was a huge line-dancing fan and had been dragging him along to classes.

  “Jerry, I’m really not bothered about taking time off work.”

  “Now that is the saddest thing I ever heard.” Jerry was incredulous. “You and Amber broke up months ago. I can’t believe you haven’t gotten over it yet and found yourself a replacement. I mean, look at me and Pam! She’s changed my life!”

  She’d certainly made him an annoyingly cheerful person. Mario wondered if that was a good enough reason to sack someone.

  “You need to get yourself a new bird,” Jerry went on confidently. Bird, ugh. “That’ll sort you out. And what kind of loser comes into work when he doesn’t even have to?”

  “So I stay at home and do what exactly? Make model airplanes?” Mario gestured out the window at th
e gray sky and bundled-up passersby hurrying past in hats and scarves. “Because it’s too bloody cold to go out and fly them.”

  “You’re depressed, that’s what you are. You ain’t even thinking straight, pardner.” Pointing a chunky index finger at Mario, Jerry said, “Get a grip, man. You don’t have to stay at home! You can buy a plane ticket and fly off to some place where it isn’t cold enough to freeze the whatsits off a brass monkey. Get yourself off to somewhere with a bit of life to it and cast your eye over a few babes in bikinis. Treat yourself to a fortnight of mindless sex, man. Tenerife, that’ll do the trick.”

  “No thanks.” Mario suddenly felt incredibly tired. He didn’t want a vacation and a fortnight of mindless sex. He just wanted Amber.

  * * *

  Amber was wearing a calf-length dark blue velvet dress, neat shoes, and discreet pearl studs in her ears. She looked as if she might be on her way to church.

  She was also looking pretty startled.

  “Sorry,” said Mario. “Maybe I should have rung first, but I needed to see you. Can I come in?”

  It was seven o’clock in the evening, and Jerry’s suggestion had been dancing through his brain all afternoon. Finally he had made up his mind and driven over to Tetbury.

  From the expression on Amber’s face he guessed she’d have preferred it if he hadn’t.

  “Mario. Actually, I’m on my way out.”

  “Just five minutes. It’s important.” God, she had no idea how important.

  “Quentin’s going to be here in five minutes.”

  “Where’s he taking you? To the Tory Party conference?” As soon as he said it Mario knew he’d made a huge mistake.

  Amber’s eyes flashed. “To meet his parents, if you must know. They’re quite elderly. I wanted to make a good impression.”

  Mario hated it that making a good impression on Quentin’s parents was important to her. “You don’t need to. Listen, you know how I feel about you. I love you. Come away with me.” Reaching for Amber’s hand he said, “I’ve got two weeks’ vacation to use up, starting from now. Let me take you somewhere amazing. We’ll have the best time ever, I promise.”

  Amber said, “Mario, are you mad? I’m not going on vacation with you.”

  “Please.”

  “I mean, apart from anything else, it’s December.” She emphasized the month as if it might have escaped his notice. “And I have a busy salon to run.”

  “The other girls can cover for you. I’ll pay them to do it.” He’d already thought this through. “I’ll pay double.”

  Ignoring the offer, Amber raised an eyebrow. “And what would I tell Quentin?”

  Recklessly Mario said, “Oh, I don’t know. How about telling him you’re going on vacation with your friend Mandy. That’s what you usually do, isn’t it?”

  Bong. If the jibe about her outfit had been wrong, this was worse. A tumbleweed rolled past. Amber’s jaw tightened, and in that moment he knew he’d lost her.

  “You shouldn’t have come, Mario. Quentin will be here any minute now. He’s taking me to meet his parents and—”

  “That’s why you’re dressed as Margaret Thatcher?”

  “What I choose to wear is none of your business,” Amber retorted.

  “You don’t even look like you.” He indicated the understated makeup, the neatly tied-back hair. “Did you ever see The Stepford Wives?”

  “I’m not going to argue. You live your life the way you want to live it,” said Amber, “and I’ll stick to mine, OK? Now please go.”

  “Wait. I’m sorry.” Mario began to panic. “I’m only saying it because I love you.”

  “You love everyone. That’s your problem.” Amber was closing the door on him. “Never mind, I’m sure you’ll find someone else to take on vacation. Have a nice time now. Bye.”

  * * *

  Mario woke up the next morning and groaned. He’d well and truly done it this time. In fact, where the hell was he? Blinking and rolling over in the double bed, he blearily took in pink-and-cream-flowered wallpaper, matching ruffled curtains, and a raspberry-pink satin eiderdown that had slid to the ground. Not while he and whoever had been doing something sexually athletic, he sincerely hoped.

  Someone was moving around in the kitchen. He could hear a kettle being boiled, the clinking of tea being made. Shit, he couldn’t believe he’d gotten himself into this situation again. How could he have been so—

  “Jesus!” Mario exclaimed as the bedroom door swung open to reveal a horrible sight.

  Jerry, resplendent in rumpled Bart Simpson boxers and carrying a mug of tea, retorted, “Not looking so hot yourself, sonny boy.”

  Mario did a lightning rethink. His last memory of yesterday evening was of ringing Jerry and arranging to meet up with him and Cowgirl Pam after their line-dancing class. He ran a bemused hand through his hair.

  “Where am I?”

  “Spare room.”

  “What? Your spare room?” The last time Mario had slept here, the walls had been bare and the only items of furniture had been a never-used exercise bike and an old ironing board.

  Jerry looked abashed. “It was a bit of a mess before. Pam persuaded me to redecorate. She chose all the wallpaper and stuff.”

  The spare bedroom resembled a giant pair of old ladies’ frilly bloomers. The next time Jerry told him he was a sad bastard, he’d be able to retaliate. Holding out a hand for his tea, Mario said, “Did I have a lot to drink?”

  “Put it this way. The bottle of scotch I bought my dad for Christmas is now an empty bottle of scotch. And I had to confiscate your phone.”

  Hmm, that rang a distant bell. Mario dimly remembered fighting a losing battle to keep it. “Go on then. Tell me why.”

  “You kept ringing Amber. Well, trying to ring her. She had it switched off after the first time.” Jerry grinned and scratched his sizable stomach. “But you left a couple messages for her, something about how you hoped she was enjoying the Tory Party conference.”

  “Oh God.”

  “That was only the start of it. You had a few things to say about Quentin as well. And his parents. Oh yes, and you told Amber you hadn’t had sex with anyone for months, and you loved her, and she was making the biggest mistake of her life staying with a boring old fart who—”

  “Stop it, stop it! Don’t tell me any more!”

  Jerry looked pleased with himself. “That’s why we wrestled your phone away from you.”

  “Oh fuck.” Mario had his head in his hands. “Fuck, fuck.”

  Modestly, Jerry said, “You can say thank you if you like.”

  * * *

  “Right then! Lovely! And when do you want to go?”

  The travel agent was wearing an acid-yellow blouse and an oh-so-perky smile. She spoke in exclamation marks, which was a bit much at nine thirty in the morning when you had a headache the size of Cheltenham Town Hall.

  “Today,” said Mario.

  “Today! Ooh, how exciting! So, whereabouts in Tenerife? Somewhere quite lively, I’m guessing!”

  “How about we just see what’s available and then I’ll decide.” Mario nodded at the computer screen on her desk.

  “Of course! Let’s do that! Now, how many of you are going?”

  Mario made an unwise attempt at humor. “How many of me? Just the one. I’m the only me I know.”

  “You mean…oh, I’m sorry.” The travel agent looked momentarily surprised. “You’re actually going away on vacation on your own?”

  “Yes. That’s what I’m doing.”

  Hastily she recovered herself. “Well, that’s great!”

  “Not really. My girlfriend and I broke up.” Now why had he even said that?

  “Oh, poor you.” Eyeing him flirtatiously the travel agent said, “Actually, I’m single too. So if you ever feel like meeting up when you get
back from Tenerife, you know where to find me!”

  Mario had no intention of meeting up with her when he got back, but he forced himself to smile. “Thanks for the offer. Now could we—”

  “My name’s Trina, by the way!”

  “OK. To be honest, Trina, I’m in a bit of a rush here. Could we just get on and find me somewhere to go?”

  * * *

  “So that’s it,” Mario concluded as Lottie juggled baked potatoes out of the oven and onto a row of plates. “I’m flying out tonight. Everything’s booked. I should have asked you if that’s OK. Sorry, I didn’t think. Seeing Amber again last night just kind of knocked me for six. Am I messing up any plans?”

  “Stop making out you’re indispensable. We’re fine.” Slicing the baked potatoes in half, Lottie scalded her fingers yet again. “And the kids’ll understand. You need this break. Who knows,” she added brightly, “you might meet the girl of your dreams!”

  Mario’s answering smile was bleak, like a hospital patient attempting to be polite when he hears it’s lamb stew for lunch. Taking a folded sheet of paper out of his jacket pocket along with his phone, he said, “Right, I’ve written down all the details of where I’m staying. If you need to get hold of me, this is the number of the—”

  “Can’t I just ring you?”

  “I’m leaving my phone here.” Mario pushed it across the kitchen table toward her. “You can look after it for me. That way it won’t be so easy to make a dick of myself if I have a few drinks and decide to phone Amber again.” Wryly he added, “Well, not more of a dick of myself than I already have.”

  “OK.” Lottie nodded as she piled tuna and sweet corn into one bowl and chili with sour cream into another. Then she put down the chili pan, made her way around the kitchen table, and gave Mario a hug because she hated seeing him so down.

  “Is dinner ready? Eurgh, they’re hugging. Don’t do that, it’s sexy,” ordered Nat.

  “I’ve just realized,” Mario said during dinner, “I’m going to miss your Christmas concerts.”

 

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