DECEMBER 24, 2004
Let me just say it for one last time: I still love you. In a way, I didn’t know existed. I still miss you. In a way that hurts so badly sometimes I think I’ll go insane.
But I’m letting you go now – secretly hoping it’s true what they say: if you ever return to me, it’s because you’ve always been mine.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
11 YEARS LATER...
London, National Institute of British Architects Gala
Some say betrayal always comes from the ones you least expect. They’re damn right. Trust is a luxury not everyone can afford, that’s one of the life lessons I had to learn the hard way. One I needn’t be reminded of, not today.
Then there are those who believe that truly sociable people hate social events. Frankly, right now I'm inclined to think they, too, are right. Yet, here I am, in my black-tie attire, walking up these stairs, the sound of hurried steps mingling with those of distant piano notes and excited chatter.
I knew I’d regret it anyway, if I hadn’t come to tonight’s award ceremony. After all, there’s a lot at stake here. Besides, regrets are always about bad choices – and I obviously already had enough poor choices for one day.
As I push through the large door and close it behind me, the vast open space immediately becomes claustrophobic, almost suffocating.
Though there is a dining table with my name on it somewhere, I stride across the crowded room and head to the bar instead. “I’ll have a whisky. Straight.”
With a nod, the bartender grabs the bottle.
“Make it a double, please.” I clench my jaw to control the wave of remorse sweeping over me.
A burst of cheering and applause fills the hall, vibrating within me like the rumble of an approaching thunder. I turn and scan the room until my gaze rests on her, chatting with a woman I’ve never seen before.
Utterly elegant, with a touch of sophistication. The off-the-shoulder champagne dress against fair skin. The perfectly etched features. The long blond hair cascading down her back. The sapphire eyes. The slightly parted red lips. An almost ethereal beauty.
Too bad she’s a cheating liar, the voice of reason screams inside my head.
I observe them for a moment. Mary, the woman who once meant so much, and Peter Rogers, the man who’d always been like a second father to me. Their intimate glances and knowing smiles. His hand running up and down her back in slow, gentle strokes, tracing the shape of her. The confident expression on his face as he proudly displays her, his latest accomplishment.
Shaking my head in disgust, I tighten my hand around the glass, my throat aching from suppressing the emotions. I stare at the amber liquid in front of me before I gulp it down in one swallow. It’s but a futile attempt to wash away the anger inside.
Here’s the bare truth about deception: it’s happened to us all, one time or another. You’ve put your trust in someone only to find out later they were lying to your face, and you were being played in accordance with their own twisted agenda. It may knock you down and consume you until you crawl onto your feet again. And even when you do, your mind may still occasionally wander back and let it eat at you.
That’s exactly what’s happening today. Since Mary came to my doorstep uninvited wanting to talk.
I should have told her to leave immediately when she showed up with that nonsense, saying she missed me, that she was sorry and wanted me back. But I didn’t. I just sat and listened numbly, not knowing what to say.
The next thing I know, she’s kissing me. I didn’t react for a second, but then I kissed her back. Hard. Furiously. Hands roaming her body like they had many times before.
Out of longing? Out of raw lust? Out of pure anger?
I’ve no idea. My mind was a blur, flooded with frustration and confused thoughts. With the need to punish her. To take revenge on both of them. Some kind of wild justice to make them pay for what they’d done to me.
But mostly, for hurting everyone I care about.
‘This is insane, you should go now. And don’t come back here again,’ I told her when I finally came to my senses. Then I grabbed my jacket and left, slamming the door behind me.
“Goddamn fool,” I mutter under my breath, clunking the empty glass on the counter, cursing myself for allowing it to happen. The consciousness of regret is an all-consuming beast and, worse still, I’m old enough to have known better.
Raising my hand, I ask for a refill and check my phone, which is buzzing for the hundredth time this evening.
It’s Sue, my sister, sitting across the room, certainly dying to tell me off and ask where the hell I’ve been. It’s nine-thirty already. I not only missed dinner but also half of the ceremony.
A deep and enthusiastic voice cuts through my thoughts, “These are the six outstanding projects that made it to this year’s shortlist, all of them brilliant examples of excellence and significant contribution to both architecture and regional development...”
My eyes travel to the event host and then to the images projected on the screen. Photographs of the projects selected by the jury, the Harrow Community Centre I worked so hard on being one of them.
I try to focus on the man’s introduction but fail miserably at it. In my head, his cheerful words keep colliding against her soft voice begging me to give us another chance.
Draining my second glass, I find myself secretly wishing it’s not my name they announce in a few seconds, ultimately acknowledging I must be a bloody fool indeed.
“Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I’m proud to announce that due to its inspiring clarity and vision, originality, innovation, and sustainability this year’s Wren Prize goes to... John Anderson Architects, represented here by the young and talented Brian Anderson. Congratulations!”
It feels like a tidal wave hitting when the thunder of applause invades the room, the loud sound thudding in my ears and jolting through my body. I need to take a deep, steadying breath to keep my nerves under control.
Winning an award as prestigious as this one is quite shocking in itself; it’s one of the most coveted prizes, one every professional in their right mind dreams of. Winning it today, however, after this afternoon, when I’d already buried our story, feels particularly overwhelming.
Several heads turn to the vacant seat at my table, raising a slight commotion that quickly turns into another ovation as I traverse the hall towards the beaming host and the representative of the sponsoring organisation.
After receiving a handshake and a hearty slap on the back given as a token of congratulation, I accept my trophy with a serious countenance and turn to the audience, my sister the first person I thank wordlessly, with a subtle nod. Sue frowns and shoots me a reproachful glance first, but then her face breaks into a warm smile, one that is full of pride and joy.
Our eyes meet for a moment. Mary’s and mine. She’s sitting only two tables away, but the chair next to her is empty.
Inadvertently, my eyes dart around the room and find him walking towards the bar, probably a strategic manoeuvre to avoid me.
Better so. Had he kept his hands off her, he’d be one of the first people I’d thank and dedicate this award to tonight.
But no, he had to betray me.
Betray us all.
It’s been over a year, but I still feel guilty somehow. The thought my father deserved more respect from the man he supported his whole life still makes my gut clench.
Despite the anger simmering below the surface, I lean one hand against the podium to steady myself and let my eyes fall to the beautiful crystal piece I’m holding, taking an instant to read the inscription.
But then our eyes lock again, the events of this past year flashing through my mind, the turmoil inside making it almost impossible to think and summon the words.
“Congratulations,” Mary mouths, a trace of a nervous smile appearing on her lips. I keep my face impassive, and she turns her gaze away, my cold and distant demeanour obviously affecting her.
Glancing up at the audience, I stare at them blankly for a moment. Eventually, I clear my throat and force the words out, “On behalf of everyone involved in this project, I’d like to thank you for this recognition. I’m honoured to be here tonight, and very grateful to be the recipient of this award... Thank you, again, and good night to you all.”
My brief and dispassionate thank you speech is met with momentary silence. They were probably expecting me to say some heartfelt words or something to keep the mood light. After all, this is a festive event. But I’m in no mood for pleasantries, let alone for anecdotes or funny lines.
After a short pause, another roar of applause breaks out. A subtle bow and I leave the podium, never looking down and ignoring the light touch of her hand when I pass by, determined to get out of this damn place and far away from her.
Hell no, I won’t allow it. Neither this woman nor anyone else will be given the chance to make a fool out of me, ever again.
Leaning against the handrail, I glance at the reflected image in the mirror. Open shirt and loosened tie. Jacket hung over the shoulder and crystal trophy in hand. Large brown envelope tucked under the arm and an overall grand-bloody-mess impression I refuse to look at any longer.
Tipping my head back against the wall, I close my eyes and take a steadying breath, the lift humming softly as it ascends to the third floor.
Upon entering my flat, I toss the envelope onto the console table and throw myself on the sofa, robotically, the headache pounding inside my skull making it almost impossible to think.
“Hello, Brian.” A soft voice cuts through the haze in my mind.
“You? What are you doing here?”
It’s my sister, sitting on the swivel couch, holding a steaming cup in her hands.
“Please, grab a seat. Make yourself at home.” I gesture toward her, irony dripping.
“How are you?”
“Aside from a raging headache? Fine, thank you.”
“So, how was last night?” She keeps her voice even, her expression calm. It’s all fake, she’s about to combust.
“Pretty uneventful, I’d say. How was yours?”
She scowls at me defiantly. “Seriously, Brian. What the hell happened to you last night? I was worried.”
“Very perceptive of you.” Her sharp, green stare pierces right through me. “It’s well past midday already. Where have you been?”
I sit upright immediately and check the time myself. “Shit, my flight to New York!” I mutter, the fact that I only have a few hours to gather my stuff, say goodbye to the kids and get to Heathrow dawning hard on me.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
“To make sure I get my arse on that plane?” I hunch forward and take a minute to hold my head between my hands, the throb against my temples only getting worse.
Sue sweeps her long hair back over her shoulder and tilts her chin upwards, narrowing her inquisitive eyes at me.
“What? That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Oh. In that case, my second guess is... you came to tell me personally how much of an idiot I am?”
“I think you need this.” She hands me her cup of coffee and I take a grateful sip, hoping the caffeine quickly enters my system. I’m in such sore need.
“Do you know what day is today?”
I give a half shrug. No bloody idea.
Sue allows me the time to think more about it, her angry silent scream making my stomach knot as the quiet settles in deeper.
“I’m sorry,” I breathe out after a while. For not knowing what day this is – a miserable one, that is for sure. For not showing up for dinner and leaving her all by herself last night. For ignoring her calls. For disappearing right after the ceremony. But mostly, for shutting myself away from everyone lately.
“You can’t just say you’re sorry, Brian. You have to pick yourself up! And stop letting people down!”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”
“So I’m just being over-dramatic?” Sue crosses her arms defiantly. “For crying out loud, look at yourself! You look like shit. I bet you spent the night with the first trashy whore who swayed her ass in front of you!”
Sue, please. I’m too exhausted to argue.
I lean my head against the back of the sofa, and close my eyes, wishing I could tell her more of what’s happening. But I can’t. She wouldn’t approve of any of this. She wouldn’t understand.
“Talk to me goddammit!”
I look up and hold her gaze intently. “Stop assuming you always know everything. Because you don’t.”
No, I didn’t spend the fucking night with a woman! That is the very last thing on my mind right now. I was driving all night long, following up on a tip to unmask the bastard that nearly killed our father. More specifically, paying a ‘commission’ to some guy – just another agent in a chain of intermediaries used to disguise just another corrupt transaction.
Hiding money in offshore accounts and tax evasion. Real estate corruption. Shell companies. Bribes disguised as political donations. Bribes disguised as charitable donations. You name it. The list’s so fucking long, he’ll beg for mercy when I rub it in his face.
“How does it feel, huh?” Sue gives me another of her long scrutinising looks. “To wake up after a night of rebound sex only to find yourself as empty inside as you were before? Don’t you want to feel something more meaningful in your life? Don’t you crave something that inspires more than an orgasm?”
“Is that really what you think of me?!” A bitter snort escapes me. “Right. Because I’ve been such a fuck-boy all my life…” I shake my head, furious. And hurt. She should know me better than that.
“What the hell is going on then? Talk to me!”
“You think what you want, I don’t care.” I throw my hands up in the air as if in surrender. “Now, really, this isn’t the best time for this. Please leave. I’ll be sure to check one of your get-your-shit-together self-help books when I return, all right?”
“Listen to me, you arrogant arse.” Her eyes are like daggers, stabbing me deep. “Everyone falls on their asses from time to time, but then they pump up their legs and move on. And that’s what you’ll do too, you hear me? Because I don’t like this new version of you! You’ve been acting strange for months now. Always so mysterious, so distant. Like you haven’t been here. As though you keep forgetting you have a family who needs you!”
“You should go now,” I say as I get up from the sofa.
“Damn you, Brian, that’s not you! Don’t bottle it up inside, talk it out. Or join a gym and punch some shit. Shave your head and join a sect! Whatever. But, please, find a way to keep it together!”
“Please leave. I need to shower and get ready.”
“No, you need an attitude adjustment!”
“I guess you know where the door is...” I gesture to the entrance hall.
“You didn’t answer my question: do you even remember what day it is?”
“Bust-My-Balls-Day?” I growl, halfway down the corridor towards my room.
“Josh’s tournament was this morning. You signed him up for it. You promised him you’d be there, pulling for him the whole time – but guess what? You were too busy shagging some stranger, drinking to wash your shit away, only God only knows what else, and never showed up!”
Sue chokes on a sob and my body goes rigid, the pang of guilt and remorse hitting me violently.
“Damn you, Brian! He was searching each face in the crowd looking for you the entire time! And I called you like a hundred times, but you didn’t even bother to answer the damned phone!” Her voice is rising with each and every word.
“You should have seen the disappointment in his eyes... How dare you do this to my child? He looks up to you, you’re his friggin’ hero!”
“Now, if you don’t want to be part of his life, that’s fine. But don’t make promises you don’t plan to keep, you hear me? Don’t you ever mess with any of my kids again or I’ll...” Her trembling voice trails off.
Dead silence hangs for a moment, but her words keep echoing through my mind, the taste of regret burning inside.
I love her children more than anything in the world and Josh is special. He’s my little mate. I can always rely on him to make me smile or laugh. To keep me on my toes. To give me so much more than I’ll ever be able to give to him. I’d never, ever do anything to purposely let him down.
“Oh, God...” I inhale deeply, ploughing a hand through my hair as I try to form the words. “I’m so sorry, I truly am. Give me an hour. I’ll go talk to him.”
“That’s not all.” Another pained look crosses Sue’s face.
The dull ache in my gut intensifies. I arch my brows, asking her to continue.
“Jimmy’s been calling you all morning too. It’s his granddad...”
“It’s all good, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Tapping me reassuringly on the leg, Josh’s eyes flare with understanding as he looks up at me. “I get it, I’m a big boy. How could you have made it, if you’re going away and have like a ton of things to prepare?”
Seated on one of the benches of the Holland Park playground, he takes another greedy bite of ice-cream.
“Right, you’re a big boy now.” I smile at his innocence, a bitter smile, though. Culpability is eating me up inside. “Three sisters to look after sure is a lot of responsibility. How have you been handling the situation, mate?”
“Going slowly insane. They’re always crying and whining. I’ve been thinking about moving out.”
Letting out a laugh, I poke him a little. “Where would you go, kiddo?”
He shrugs, his attention seemingly more focused on the chocolate chips he’s picking out with his fingers rather than on anything else.
I stretch back with hands clasped behind my head, feeling the rays of sun permeate the skin and warm up my face, the anxiety easing at last.
It’s all quiet now. There were a few endlessly amused kids swaying to and fro on the swings, but they’re gone now. It’s just the two of us and the sound of the leaves in the trees rustling a little.
“How’s the ice-cream?”
He glances up at me, his freckled face smudged with vanilla and chocolate. “It’s not contagious, is it?”
“What? That sticky mess on your face? Hope not.” I hand him a tissue.
He cleans his mouth clumsily and then puts on his thinking face. “What do you think your life will be like when you die?”
I’m taken aback for a moment, not really knowing how to explain the impossibility beyond the question. How do you even approach that inescapable part of life at all with a seven-year-old kid?
“You’ve already heard about Arthur, haven’t you?”
“How long have you known him?”
“As far back as I can remember. Did you know he was the one who taught us, Jimmy and I, how to ride a four-wheel bike? We were fourteen or fifteen. That was one hell of a summer! I’ll teach you too, someday.”
“Mum says he went to heaven, that everything in heaven is beautiful and perfect.” He pauses with his tongue hanging out, ice-cream dripping onto it. “If it’s such a great place, why was she crying on the phone?”
“Because it’s always sad when we have to say goodbye to people we care about.”
“But is it contagious or not?”
“No! Where did you get that from? Jimmy’s granddad has been very ill for a while now and his heart was too tired and weak to continue to–”
“Oh good, what a relief!” His shoulders sag, on his face a totally deadpan expression. “Because we went to see him last week and I still have a lot to do before I can go to heaven. Like finish school. Maybe get a girlfriend. You’re also going to die one day, aren’t you?”
“Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, a wise man once said.”
He stops licking and crinkles his nose, staring at me with a funny, puzzled expression. “I don’t understand.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and give it a squeeze. “It’s okay. It’s complicated, even for adults. But you should know no one ever really dies. They’ll keep on living in our hearts.”
Josh’s confused expression intensifies. “In our hearts? Wasn’t it in heaven? Where’s heaven anyway?”
Why do such euphemisms always seem so hard to explain?
A quick check to my watch confirms I’ve got to take him home now. “Come, we’d better get going or I’ll miss that plane.”
He holds my hand as we walk back to the car park. “Ben says they stuck his grandmother inside a coffin until Jesus picked her up.”
“Yes, some people do that.”
“And then they planted her.”
I let out a chuckle. Josh is one of the most thoughtful kids I know. His random connections, quite often little excursions into the absurd, are sometimes as funny as they are completely and totally insane.
“Are they going to plant Arthur too? I mean, why would they even put people in the ground? It’s filled with bugs and yucky stuff. Unless they’re going to grow into something. Are they? Why doesn’t Jesus come down right away?”
“Jesus comes to pick up your soul, not your body.”
“And why do they put a stone on the top? Ben says is to keep them down there, but where would they go anyway?” He tilts his head and frowns at me, clearly confused. “What’s the soul?”
I look up at the oak trees, secretly hoping for some help on this. Quite frankly, I find it confusing too.
“Well, your soul... some people believe there’s a part of us that...” I struggle to find words. “It’s sort of an invisible part that exists within us, something that–”
“Hey, it’d be really cool if you could bring me an Arsenal jersey!” He shakes my hand, a cute smug smile peeking from the corners of his mouth.
“Hmm. Not sure I can find those over there. Maybe I can get you something from the New York Knicks instead.” I turn Josh’s cap backwards. “A cap maybe?”
Eyebrows raised, he gives me a thumbs-up sign. “Have I told you Mattie farts a lot? Emma says those are burps coming out of her tiny butt. What’s your view on that?”
“Huh...” Right now, I don’t have an answer. I think my brain is hurting.
“This was fun. Can we come back next week again? And try the Smurf ice-cream? Can we bring Emma along? You’ll be back next week, won’t you?”
“I will. I’ll be back on Friday. How about I pick you up from school? And you stay overnight?”
Jumping with excitement, Josh high-fives me before he slides into the backseat and slams the door shut, on his face a beaming smile I can’t get enough of.
On the outside, the reflection in the car window is one of a guy who’s smiling too, genuinely wishing there were more moments like this.
“You sure you don’t want to come in?” Josh’s lips set into a little pout.
I check my watch again. We’re on the pavement, right in front of my sister’s front garden. “Sorry, mate. Really need to go.”
“But aren’t you saying goodbye to Mum?”
“Have already. Now go. I’ll wait here till you get inside and wave you all goodbye.”
“All right then.” He grabs my sleeve and pulls me down, to give me a kiss and whisper in my ear, “Don’t forget my cap. And our guys’ night.”
“I won’t. I promise.” I ruffle his hair before he runs to the front door, where Sue is already waiting with Mattie on her hip.
Standing at the living room window, with her nose pressed against the glass making funny faces, I find Emma, giggling and waving. I wave back.
Shaking my head amused at the whole scene, I walk to the car and open the door, casting one last glance at them all. For a moment my eyes rest on Emma again, who’s blowing me kisses from the palms of her tiny hands. So cute.
But then I freeze, the unexpected glimpse of a silhouette behind the drifting gauzy curtains making my heart thump so hard in my chest. Of a woman rocking Marianne in her arms.
A woman I used to know a long time ago. A very long time ago...