Laurel and Floyd have their second date that Tuesday. This time they stay local, and go to an Eritrean restaurant near Floyd that Laurel had always wanted to try but Paul would never agree to because they had a three-star hygiene rating taped to their window.
Floyd is dressed down, in a bottle-green polo shirt under a black jumper, with jeans. Laurel is wearing a fitted linen pinafore over a white cotton blouse, her hair clipped back, black tights and black boots. She looks like a trendy nun. She had not realized, until she met Floyd, how stern, virtually clerical all her clothes were.
“You look amazing,” he says, clearly missing all the signs of her sartorial struggle. “You are far too stylish for me. I feel like an absolute bum.”
“You look lovely,” she says, taking her seat, “you always look lovely.”
She’s amazed by how relaxed she feels. There are none of the nerves that plagued their first meeting last week. The restaurant is scruffy and brightly lit, but she feels unconcerned about her appearance, about whether or not she looks old.
She stares at his hands as they move and she wants to snatch them in midair, grab them, hold them to her face. She follows the movement of his head, gazes at the fan of smile lines around his eyes, glances from time to time at the just visible spray of chest hair emerging from the undone top button of his polo shirt. She wants, very badly, to have sex with him and this realization shocks her into a kind of flustered silence for a moment.
“Are you OK, Laurel?” he asks, sensing her awkwardness.
“Oh, God, yes. I’m fine,” she replies, smiling, and he looks reassured by this and the conversation continues.
He talks warmly to the waitstaff, who seem to know him well and bring him bonus dishes and morsels of things to taste.
“You know,” she says, tearing off a piece of flatbread and dipping it into a mutton stew, “my ex refused to bring me here because of the poor hygiene rating.” She feels bad for a moment, belittling Paul, painting a one-note picture of him for a stranger when there is much more to know about him.
“Well, hygiene, schmygiene, I have never had a dodgy tummy after eating here and I’ve been coming for years. These people know what they’re doing.”
“So how long have you lived around here?”
“Oh, God, forever. Since my parents went back to the U.S. They gave me a piece of money, told me to put it down somewhere scruffy but central. I found this house; it was all split up into bedsits, just disgusting. Jesus, the way people live. Dead rats. Blocked toilets. Shit on the wall.” He shudders. “But it was the best decision I ever made. You would not believe how much the place is worth now.”
Laurel could believe it, having sold her own Stroud Green house only a few years earlier. “Do you think you’ll ever go back to the States?”
He shakes his head. “No. Never. It was never home to me. Nowhere ever felt like home to me till I came here.”
“And your parents? Are they still alive?”
“Yup. Very much so. They were young parents so they’re still pretty spry.
What about you?” he asks. “Are your parents still with you?”
She shakes her head. “My dad died when I was twenty-six. My mum’s in a home now. She’s very frail. I doubt she’ll be around this time next year.” Then she smiles and says, “In fact, it was her who told me to call you. On Sunday. She can barely talk, it takes her an age to form a sentence; usually all she wants to talk about is dying. But she told me to call you. She said it was fantastic that I’d met you. She literally put my phone in my hand. It’s the most”—she glances down at her lap—“the most maternal thing she’s done in a decade. The most human thing she’s done in months. It moved me.”
And then Floyd reaches across the table and places his hands over hers, his nice gray eyes fixed on hers, and he says, “God bless your glorious mum.”
She hooks her fingers over his and squeezes his hands gently. His touch feels both gentle and hard, sexual yet benign. His touch makes her feel everything she thought she’d never feel again, things she’d forgotten she’d ever felt in the first place. His thumbs move up her wrists and pass over her pulse points. His
fingertips draw lines up and down the insides of her arms. She pulls at the soft hair on his forearms, and then pushes her hands deep inside the soft wool of his sleeves. She finds his elbows and his hands find hers and they grasp each other like that across the table for a long, intense moment, before slowly pulling apart and they ask for the bill.
His house is exactly the same as her old house, just three roads down from where she used to live. It’s a semidetached Victorian with Dutch gables and a small balcony over the front porch. It has a tiled path leading to a front door with stained-glass panels to each side and a stained-glass fanlight above. There is a small square of a front garden, neatly tended, and a pair of wheelie bins down the side return. Laurel knows what the house will look like on the inside before Floyd even has his key in the front door because it will look just like hers.
And yes, there it is, as she’d known it would be, the tiled hallway with a wide staircase ahead, the banister ending in a generous swirl, a single wooden step leading down to a large airy kitchen, and a door to the left through which she can make out a book-lined room, the flicker of a TV set, and a pair of bare feet crossed at the ankle. She watches the bare feet uncross and lower themselves to the stripped floorboards, then a face appears, a small, nervous face, a shock of white-blonde hair, a crescent of multiple earrings, a thick flick of blue liner. “Dad?”
The head retracts quickly at the sight of Laurel in the hallway.
“Hi, honey.” Floyd turns and mouths Sara at Laurel before popping his head around the door. “How’s your evening been?”
“OK.” Sara-Jade’s voice is soft and deep. “How was Poppy?”
“She was OK.”
“What time did she go to bed?”
“Oh, like half an hour ago. You’re early.”
Laurel sees the delicate head lean forward slightly, then snap back again. “Sara”—Floyd turns to Laurel and gestures for her hand—“I’ve got someone to
introduce you to.” He pulls Laurel toward the door and propels her in front of him. “This is Laurel. Laurel, this is my elder daughter, Sara-Jade.”
“SJ,” says the tiny girl on the armchair, slowly pulling herself to her feet. She gives Laurel a tiny hand to shake and says, “Nice to meet you.” Then she falls back into the armchair and curls her tiny blue-veined feet beneath her.
She’s wearing an oversized black T-shirt and black velvet leggings. Laurel takes in the thinness of her, wonders if it is an eating disorder or just the way she’s built.
On the television is a reality TV show about people having blind dates in a brightly lit restaurant. On the floor by SJ’s feet is an empty plate smeared with traces of tomato ketchup and an empty Diet Coke can. Crumpled on the arm of the chair is a wrapper from a Galaxy bar. Laurel assumes then that her build is all natural and immediately pictures her mother, some tremulous pixie woman with enormous eyes and size six jeans. She feels pathetically jealous for a moment.
“Well,” says Floyd, “we’ll be in the kitchen. Do you want a cup of tea?”
Sara-Jade shakes her head but doesn’t say anything. Laurel follows Floyd into the kitchen. It’s as she’d imagined: smart cream wooden units with oversized wooden knobs, a dark green range, an island surrounded by stools. Unlike her old kitchen it hasn’t been extended into the return but just to the back where there is a pine table surrounded by pine chairs, piles of papers and magazines, two laptops, a pink fur coat slung over one chair, a suit jacket over the other.
She sits on a stool and watches him make her a mug of camomile tea, himself a coffee from a filter machine. “Your house is lovely,” she says.
“Why thank you,” he replies. “Although I feel you should know that that exact spot where you’re sitting was where the guy who used to live in the back room kept his chamber pot. And I know that because he left it behind when he moved out. Unemptied.”
“Oh my God!” She laughs. “That’s revolting.” “Tell me about it.”
“You know, your house is the same as my old house. Exactly. I mean, not exactly, obviously, but the same layout, the same design.”
“All these streets,” he said, “all these houses, they were modern estates once upon a time, built at the same time to house the City workers.” He passes her her tea and smiles. “Strange,” he says, “to think that one day our ancestors might
be charmed by a Barratt estate, desperately trying to preserve the period features. Don’t touch that plastic coving, it’s priceless.”
Laurel smiles. “Can you believe, the people who lived here before took out the fitted wardrobes with mirrored sliding doors!”
Floyd laughs and eyes her fondly. And then he stops laughing and stares at her intently. He says, “You know, I googled you. After our first date.”
The smile freezes on Laurel’s face. “I know about Ellie.”
Laurel grips her mug between her hands and swallows. “Oh.” “You knew I would, didn’t you?”
She smiles sadly. “Oh, I don’t know, I suppose it occurred to me. I would have said something. Soon. I was on the verge. It just didn’t seem like first-date kind of fodder.”
“No,” he says softly. “I get that.”
She turns the mug around and around, not sure where to head next with this development.
“I’m really sorry,” he says. “I just . . .” He sighs heavily. “I wouldn’t . . . I can’t imagine. Well, I can imagine. I can imagine all too well, which makes it hard to bear. Not that me bearing it is of any relevance to anything. But the thought of . . . you . . . and your girl . . . it’s just. Christ.” He sighs heavily. “And I wanted to say something all night, because it felt so dishonest to sit there making small talk with you when I had all this knowledge that you didn’t know I had and . . .”
“I’m an idiot,” she says. “I should have guessed.”
“No,” he says. “I’m an idiot. I should have waited for you to tell me, when you were ready.”
And Laurel smiles and looks up at Floyd, into his misty eyes; then she looks down at his hands, the hands that just caressed her arms so seductively in the restaurant, and she looks around his warm, loved home and she says, “I’m ready now. I can talk about it now.”
He reaches across the counter and places his hand upon her shoulder. She instinctively rubs her cheek against it. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she says. “I’m sure.”
It is nearly 1 a.m. when Floyd finally leads Laurel up the stairs to his bedroom. Sara-Jade had taken a taxi home at midnight, saying good-bye to her father in hushed tones and without acknowledging Laurel.
Floyd’s room is painted dark burgundy and hung with interesting abstract oil paintings he claims to have found in the basement of the house when he was renovating it. “They’re kind of ugly, I guess. But I like them. I like that I liberated them from total obscurity, let them live and breathe.”
“Where’s Poppy’s room?” she whispers.
He points above and behind. “She won’t hear anything. And besides, she sleeps like the dead.”
And then he is unzipping the back of her pinafore dress and she is tugging at the sleeves of his warm soft jumper and they are a tangle of limbs and clothes and tights and despite the fact that Laurel had decided a long time ago that she and sex were over, five minutes later it is happening; she is having sex and not only that but it is the best sex she has ever had in her life and within moments of doing it she wants to do it all over again.
They fall asleep as a dull brown dawn creeps through the gaps in his curtains, wrapped up in each other’s arms.