I nod. ‘Coffee.’ I never drink coffee, but I feel like it. I watch Lana walk up to the counter and ask for some coffee. I had thought it would be a vending machine affair, the way it is at the hospitals I go to, but an orderly comes with a trolley, a coffee pot, two proper cups, sugar bowl, milk jug and a plate of biscuits on a tray.

I take the coffee, the cup rattles on the saucer. I take a sip and feel sick. I return the coffee to the tray.

I swallow hard.

‘When can we see him?’

‘Now. Come.’

She takes off down a corridor and at a door, stops and pushes it open. We go in. The first thing I notice is how pale he is and the second thing I notice is the way his eyes fly to Lana first and then come to rest on me.

‘Hi, Julie.’

‘Hi, Jack.’ I walk up to the bed. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘I’ll live.’

I feel Lana’s hand on my arm and I am propelled forward. She pushes me into a chair beside the bed. ‘I’ll leave you two for a minute. I have to call Blake,’ Lana says, and walks to the door. And I experience the strangest sensation. I don’t want Lana to leave. I don’t want to be left alone with Jack. Probably the guilt. Because of what I have been doing with Vann. All the dirty things I have been doing with Vann. The way I take Vann’s c**k in my mouth and the pleasure I get from sucking it until he spurts his hot cum in my mouth.

‘So what have you been up to?’

Shame flushes my face.

His eyebrows rise. ‘So what have you been up to?’

‘Nothing. How did it happen?’

He looks away from me towards the window. ‘I was careless.’ His voice is flat, far away.

‘Are you going back?’

‘No.’

‘Thank God. It’s too dangerous out there. You could have died.’

‘I could have, but I didn’t.’

The way he says it shocks me. Makes me think that he would have preferred to die.

I open my mouth to say something, what, I don’t know, and the door opens and his mother walks in. She does not see me; instead she rushes to the bedside with a sob. Jack puts his arm on her hand, and I stand up and walk out. Outside I feel lost. I am not sure which end of the corridor will lead me out of the place. I go down one direction and it leads to a dead end so I turn back. I don’t see Lana anywhere so I go into the lift and out of the hospital. Outside the light seems too bright, the noise level too high. I look up and see two very fat pigeons sitting on a roof. I head for the Tube station. I feel shattered. A text message comes through on my mobile phone. Vann. I don’t even open it.

When I unlock the door to my room and open it, I am oddly shocked by my own room. How pink and childish it is. It is the room of a five-year-old child. I think of the red satin sheets I have ordered from the Internet. I wanted silk but they were too expensive, so I settled for satin. Vann will wonder what they are about when they arrive at his place. Will he know to put them on his bed or will he leave them unopened?

I look at the wall full of Jack’s photos with surprise. He looks more alive in these two-dimensional photos than he did in the hospital. I remember his saying, ‘I could have, but I didn’t.’ What has happened to my Jack? And the despair and grief in his eyes as he turned away from me and stared unseeingly out of the window.

I go and lie on my bed and look at a pink rabbit that I have had for years. What the hell was I thinking of? It is so f**king ugly.

That night there are no stars in the sky. Jack is in London, anyway. I think of Vann in his empty flat. And I feel sad. I won’t go back to him again.

I’ve f**ked up. I’ve f**ked up big time.

Twenty-eight

‘Ouch!’ I cry, and drop the rose stalk. I bring my finger to my mouth and suck it.

‘Are you worryin’ about your boy in hospital?’ calls Ziporrah from the front of the shop.

‘He’s not in hospital anymore. He insisted on checking himself out,’ I mumble automatically, and then I take my finger out of my mouth and look at it. I was not thinking of Jack. A drop of blood grows on the surface of my skin. I stare at it without really seeing it.

At that moment I feel as if I had been walking on a road and all of a sudden the road had stopped and I was standing at the lip of an abyss. When I look back the road that seemed so clear minutes ago is dissolving into nothing.

There is no road! There never was a road.

I finish de-thorning the roses, cut the stems diagonally, put them into the metal bucket and store the bucket in a dark corner. Then I clear the tabletop and leave the cool dim back for the sunlit shop. Ziporrah is adding calla lilies into a sophisticated red and dark pink arrangement.

‘Zip, do you mind if I leave a little early?’

‘How early?’

‘Like, now?’

‘It’s Friday, but we got no deliveries scheduled so I suppose you can.’

‘Thanks Zip. I’ll make it up next week.’

Ziporrah waves her arms. ‘Go, go, go see him.’

I take my mobile out of my apron pocket and dial Jack’s number. Jack answers on the first ring. He sounds grumpy.

‘Jack, can I come round and see you?’

‘I guess so,’ he agrees reluctantly.

‘Great. See you in twenty minutes.’

Jack’s mother opens the door.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says. I can’t really blame her. I have, over the years, made a pest of myself.

She ushers me into her living room and scuttles back in the direction of the kitchen. Jack is stretched out on his mother’s sofa reading a spy thriller. He puts his book down and I find myself a seat opposite him.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Bored sick.’

I don’t beat about the bush. I don’t have time. ‘Jack, will you kiss me?’

He shrinks like a touch-me-not. ‘Oh, for f**k’s sake, Julie, come off it. We’ve been through this before.’

‘It’s not what you think.’

‘No?’

‘No. It’s not a sexual thing.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, really. Just consider it as an experiment. You can close your eyes.’ I pause. ‘You can pretend I’m someone else.’

‘Why?’

‘I just need to know something and I won’t know it until I kiss you.’

‘OK.’

I grin and stand up. I walk over to the sofa and kneel beside him. He turns his face towards me.

‘Ready?’

‘Don’t talk. Just f**king do it,’ he growls.

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