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‘So … how’s Soup Girl?’

‘Karen? She’s good.’ He smiled, the kind of smile that denotes private happiness, the kind where you have nothing to prove. ‘She’s good. Actually, we’re moving in together.’

‘Wow. Already?’

He looked up almost defiantly. ‘It’s been six months. And with rental prices as they are in London, those not-for-profit soup charities don’t exactly make a fortune.’

‘That’s great,’ Ed stuttered. ‘Fantastic news.’

‘Yeah. Well. It’s good. She’s great. I’m really happy.’

They sat there, silent for a moment. He’d had his hair cut, Ed noticed. And that was a new jacket. ‘I’m really pleased for you, Ronan. I always thought you two would be great together.’

‘Thanks.’

He smiled at him, and Ronan grinned back, pulling a face, like all this happiness stuff was a bit embarrassing.

Ed stared at his pint, trying not to feel left behind. Trying not to think about the fact that his own life was basically a mess while his oldest friend was sailing on to a happier, brighter future. Around them the pub was filling up with end-of-the-day office workers, secretaries in too-high shoes and young men trying to prove they were, actually, men. He suddenly had a sense of limited time, of the importance of laying things out, straight, in front of him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘About everything. About Deanna Lewis. I don’t know why I did it.’ His voice emerged as a croak. ‘I hate how I’ve messed things up. I mean, I’m sad about the job, yes, but mostly I’m just gutted that I messed us up.’ He couldn’t look at him yet it was a relief to say it.

Ronan took a swig of his drink. ‘Don’t worry. I’ve thought about it a lot these past months and, while I kind of don’t want to admit it, there’s a good chance that if Deanna Lewis had come on to me I would have done the same.’ A rueful smile. ‘It was Deanna Lewis.’

‘She’s … really not what we thought she was.’

‘Believe it or not, I get that.’ Ronan grinned.

‘Seriously, though, I’m sorry about all of it. Messing it all up. Our company. Our friendship. If you knew what I’ve been like this last –’

Ronan shrugged, as if Ed should say no more.

They sat in silence. Ronan leant back in his chair. He bent a beer mat into two, and then into four. ‘You know … it’s been kind of interesting with you not being there any more,’ he said finally. ‘It made me understand something. I don’t much like working at Mayfly. I liked it better when it was just you and me. All the suits, the profit-and-loss stuff, shareholders, it’s not me. It’s not what I liked about it. It’s not why we started it.’

‘Me too. I miss you, but I don’t miss them.’

‘I mean the endless meetings … having to run ideas past marketing people even to proceed with basic code. Having to justify every hour’s activity. You know they want to bring in time-sheets for everyone? Actual time-sheets?’

Ed waited.

‘You’re not missing much, I tell you.’ Ronan shook his head, as if he had something more to say but felt he shouldn’t.

It felt momentous. It felt a little like that moment in a date, where you’re about to confess your feelings to the other person, not quite sure how they’re going to respond.

‘Ronan?

‘Yeah?’

‘I had this idea. This last week or two. About a new piece of software. I’ve been fiddling around, working on a piece of predictive software – really simple stuff – that will help people plan their finances. A sort of spreadsheet for people who don’t like spreadsheets. For people who don’t know how to handle money. It would have alerts that pop up whenever the user was about to incur a charge from their bank. It would have an option calculation to show how much different interest charges would add up to over a set period of time. Nothing too complicated. I was thinking it’s the kind of thing they could give away at Citizens’ Advice Bureaux.’

‘Interesting.’

‘It would need to be able to fit cheap computers. Software that might be a few years old. And cheaper mobile phones. I’m not sure it would make much money but it’s just something that I’ve been thinking about. I’ve outlined it. But …’

Ronan was thinking. Ed could see his mind working away, already chewing over the parameters.

‘The thing is, it would need someone who is really good at coding. To build it.’

Ronan watched his pint, his face neutral. ‘You know you can’t come back to Mayfly, right?’ he said.

Ed nodded. His best friend since college. ‘Yeah. I know.’

Ronan met his eyes and suddenly they were grinning.

39.

Ed

All these years, and he didn’t know his own sister’s number off by heart. All those years of her living in the same house, and he still had to look up her address. Those two things alone made Ed feel bad. He seemed to have an ever-growing list of things to feel bad about.

He had stood outside the King’s Head as Ronan headed off to the Tube station and a nice girl who made soup, whose presence in his life had given him a whole extra dimension, and he knew he could not go home to an empty flat, surrounded by boxes, the chill breath of its next owner in his lungs.

It took six rings for her to pick up the phone. And then he heard someone screaming in the background before she actually answered.

‘Gem?’

‘Yes?’ she said, breathlessly. ‘LEO, DON’T YOU THROW THAT DOWN THE STAIRS.’

‘Does that offer of spaghetti bolognese still stand?’

They were embarrassingly pleased to see him. The door of the little house in Finsbury Park opened and he walked in through the bikes and the piles of shoes and the overloaded coat rack that seemed to extend the entire way along the hall. Upstairs, the relentless beat of pop thumped through the connecting walls. It competed with the cinematic sounds of a war game on some kind of games console.

‘Hey, you!’ His sister pulled him to her and hugged tight. She was out of her suit, wearing jeans and a jumper. ‘I can’t even remember the last time you came here. When was the last time he was here, Phil?’

‘With Lara,’ came the voice from down the corridor.

‘Two years ago?’

‘Where’s the corkscrew, love?’

All was noise and chaos. The kitchen was filled with steam and the smell of garlic. At its far end two clothes-horses sagged under several loads of washing. Every surface, mostly stripped pine, was covered with books, piles of paper or children’s drawings. Phil stood and shook his hand, then excused himself. ‘Got a few emails to answer before supper. You don’t mind?’

‘You must be appalled,’ his sister said, plonking a glass in front of him. ‘You’ll have to excuse the mess. I’ve been on late shifts, Phil has been flat out and we haven’t had a cleaner since Rosario left. All the others are a bit pricey.’

He had missed this chaos. He missed the feeling of being embedded in a noisy, thumping heart. ‘I love it,’ he said, and her eyes scanned his swiftly for sarcasm. ‘No. Seriously. I love it. It feels …’

‘Messy.’

‘That too. It’s good.’ He sat back in his chair at the kitchen table and let out a long breath.

‘Hey, Uncle Ed.’

Ed blinked. ‘Who are you?’

A teenage girl with burnished gold hair and several thick layers of mascara on each eye grinned at him. ‘Funny.’

He looked at his sister for help. She raised her hands. ‘It’s been a while, Ed. They grow. Leo! Come and say hello to Uncle Ed.’

‘I thought Uncle Ed was going to prison,’ came the cry from the other room.

‘Excuse me for a minute.’

His sister left the pan of sauce and disappeared into the hall. Ed tried not to hear the distant yelp.

‘Mum says you lost all your money,’ said Justine, sitting down opposite and peeling the crust from a piece of French bread.

Ed’s brain was desperately trying to marry the awkward, reed-thin child he had last seen with this tawny miracle who stared at him with faint amusement, as if he were a museum curio. ‘Pretty much.’

‘Did you lose your swanky flat?’

‘Any minute now.’

‘Damn. I was going to ask you if I could have my sixteenth-birthday party there.’

‘Well, you saved me the trouble of a refusal.’

‘That’s exactly what Dad said. So are you happy that you didn’t get banged up?’

‘Oh, I think I’m still going to be the family cautionary tale for a while.’

She smiled. ‘Don’t be like naughty Uncle Edward.’

‘Is that how it’s being pitched?’

‘Oh, you know Mum. No moral lesson left unlearnt in this house. “You see how easy it is to end up on the wrong path? He had absolutely everything and now …”’

‘… I’m begging for meals and driving a seven-year-old car.’

‘Nice try. But ours still beats yours by three years.’ She glanced towards the hall, where her mother was speaking to her brother in low tones. ‘Actually, you mustn’t be mean about Mum. You know she spent all of yesterday on the phone working on how to get you into an open prison?’

‘Really?’

‘She was properly stressed about it. I heard her telling someone you wouldn’t last five minutes in Pentonville.’

He felt a pang of something he couldn’t quite identify at his utter ignorance of his sister’s efforts on his behalf. So deep in self-pity had he been that he hadn’t considered how others would be affected if he was sent to prison. ‘She’s probably right.’

Justine pulled a lock of hair into her mouth. She seemed to be enjoying herself. ‘So what are you going to do now you’re a family disgrace with no job and possibly no home?’

‘No idea. Should I take up a drugs habit? Just to round it off?’

‘Ugh. No. Stoners are so boring.’ She peeled her long legs off the chair. ‘And Mum’s busy enough as it is. Although, actually, I should say yes. Because you’ve totally taken the heat off me and Leo. We now have so little to live up to.’

‘Glad to be of help.’

‘Seriously. Nice to see you, though.’ She leant forward and whispered, ‘You’ve actually made Mum’s day. She won’t say so, but she was really, really pleased you came. Like, embarrassingly so. She even cleaned the downstairs loo in case you turned up.’

‘Yeah. Well. I’m going to make sure I do it more often.’

She narrowed her eyes, as if she were trying to work out whether he was being serious, then turned and disappeared back up the stairs.

‘So what’s going on?’ Gemma helped herself to green salad. ‘What happened to the girl at the hospital? Joss? Jess? I thought she’d be there today.’

It was the first home-cooked meal he had eaten in ages, and it was delicious. The others had finished and left, but Ed was on his third helping, having suddenly reacquired the appetite that had disappeared for the last few weeks. His last mouthful had subsequently been a little over-ambitious and he sat there chewing for some time before he could answer. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

‘You never want to talk about anything. C’mon. Price of a home-cooked meal.’

‘We split up.’

‘What? Why?’ Three glasses of wine had made her garrulous, opinionated. ‘You seemed really happy. Happier than you were with Lara, anyway.’

‘I was.’

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