“Is that a picture of you, Mum? It fell out of your Macbeth. I borrowed it 'cos I've lost mine. Oh God, you look like Boris Johnson. How old were you?” Toby's voice cracked with an adolescent horror that she had ever had a life that didn't include him. She took the photo and turned it over. Her intricate purple teenage handwriting marked the date, May 11th, but not the year.
She held out her hand, unspeaking, for the creased paperback. She riffled the soft pages; a blur of pencilled notes, cartoons; the guilty scorch on the back cover - a cigarette? A candle or joss stick?
“I must have been your age. That was the year I did my O'levels.” She took the picture, the book and her glass of wine, over to the window seat.
The girl in the photo had a shock of crimped, snow-coloured hair and a slash of kohl ringed each crinkly, laughing eye. She was perched on a style in the Sussex countryside, many miles and a million lifetimes away from her expensively monastic Shepherd's Bush kitchen.
The day came back in snapshots. The fluttering jade ruffle of her ripped skirt, skewered on the barbed wire, their shouts of laughter carrying across the sunny fields. She remembered the scratch of tartan rug on bare legs, the deep smoky tang of German cheese, pale wine and sweet-tasting kisses. The bellowing farmer. Their breathless laughter as they dropped forks, a bronze pump, a Specials tape, a chain of squashed daisies, in the mad dash for the safety of the woods.
Outside her London front door, a taxi rumbled to a stop.
‘Mum!” Toby's voice betrayed the familiar anxiety and dread. “He's here.”