I See You – Clare Mackintosh

The man behind me is standing close enough to moisten the skin on my neck with his breath. I move my feet forward an inch and press myself into a grey overcoat that smells of wet dog. It feels as if it hasn’t stopped raining since the start of November, and a light steam rises from the hot bodies jammed against each other. A briefcase jabs into my thigh. As the train judders around a corner I’m held upright by the weight of people surrounding me, one unwilling hand against the grey overcoat for temporary support. At Tower Hill the carriage spits out a dozen commuters and swallows two dozen more, all hell-bent on getting home for the weekend. ‘Use the whole carriage!’ comes the announcement. Nobody moves. The grey overcoat has gone, and I’ve shuffled into its place, preferable because I can now reach the handrail, and because I no longer have a stranger’s DNA on my neck. My handbag has swung round behind my body, and I tug it in front of me. Two Japanese tourists are wearing gigantic rucksacks on their chests, taking up the space of another two people. A woman across the carriage sees me looking at them; she catches my eye and grimaces in solidarity. I accept the eye contact fleetingly, then look down at my feet. The shoes around me vary: the men’s are large and shiny, beneath pinstriped hems; the women’s heeled and colourful, toes crammed into impossible points. Amongst the legs I see a pair of sleek stockings; opaque black nylon ending in stark white trainers.

The owner is hidden but I imagine her to be in her twenties, a pair of vertiginous office heels stashed in a capacious handbag, or in a drawer at work. I’ve never worn heels during the day. I was barely out of my Clark’s lace-ups when I fell pregnant with Justin, and there was no place for heels on a Tesco checkout, or coaxing a toddler up the high street. Now I’m old enough to know better. An hour on the train on the way into work: another hour on the way home. Tripping up broken escalators. Run over by buggies and bikes. And for what? For eight hours behind a desk. I’ll save my heels for high days and holidays. I wear a self-imposed uniform of black trousers and an array of stretchy tops that don’t need ironing, and are just smart enough to pass as office-wear; with a cardigan kept in my bottom drawer for busy days when the door’s forever opening and the heat disappears with every prospective client.

The train stops and I push my way on to the platform. I take the Overground from here, and although it’s often as busy, I prefer it. Being underground makes me feel uneasy; unable to breathe, even though I know it’s all in my head. I dream of working somewhere close enough to walk to, but it’s never going to happen: the only jobs worth taking are in zone one; the only affordable mortgages in zone four. I have to wait for my train and at the rack by the ticket machine I pick up a copy of the London Gazette, its headlines appropriately grim for today’s date: Friday 13 November. The police have foiled another terrorism plot: the front three pages are rammed with images of explosives they’ve seized from a flat in North London. I flick through photos of bearded men, and move to find the crack in the tarmac beneath the platform sign, where the carriage door will open. My careful positioning means I can slide into my favourite spot before the carriage fills up; on the end of the row, where I can lean against the glass barrier. The rest of the carriage fills quickly, and I glance at the people still standing, guiltily relieved to see no one old, or obviously pregnant. Despite the flat shoes, my feet ache, thanks to standing by the filing cabinets for most of the day.

I’m not supposed to do the filing. There’s a girl who comes in to photocopy property details and keep the cabinets in order, but she’s in Mallorca for a fortnight and from what I saw today she can’t have done any filing for weeks. I found residential mixed up with commercial, and lettings muddled up with sales, and I made the mistake of saying so. ‘You’d better sort it out, then, Zoe,’ Graham said. So instead of booking viewings I stood in the draughty corridor outside Graham’s office, wishing I hadn’t opened my mouth. Hallow & Reed isn’t a bad place to work. I used to do one day a week doing the books, then the office manager went on maternity leave and Graham asked me to fill in. I was a bookkeeper, not a PA, but the money was decent and I’d lost a couple of clients, so I jumped at the chance. Three years later, I’m still there. By the time we reach Canada Water the carriage has thinned out and the only people standing are there by choice.

The man sitting next to me has his legs so wide apart I have to angle mine away, and when I look at the row of passengers opposite I see two other men doing the same. Is it a conscious thing? Or some innate need to make themselves bigger than everyone else? The woman immediately in front of me moves her shopping bag and I hear the unmistakable clink of a wine bottle. I hope Simon has thought to put one in the fridge: it’s been a long week and right now all I want to do is curl up on the sofa and watch telly. A few pages into the London Gazette some former X Factor finalist is complaining about the ‘pressures of fame’, and there’s a debate on privacy laws that covers the best part of a page. I’m reading without taking in the words: looking at the pictures and scanning the headlines so I don’t feel completely out of the loop. I can’t remember the last time I actually read a whole newspaper, or sat down to watch the news from start to finish. It’s always snatches of Sky News while I’m eating breakfast, or the headlines read over someone’s shoulder on the way in to work. The train stops between Sydenham and Crystal Palace. I hear a frustrated sigh from further up the carriage but don’t bother looking to see who it’s from. It’s already dark and when I glance at the windows all I see is my own face looking back at me; even paler than it is in real life, and distorted by rain.

I take off my glasses and rub at the dents they leave either side of my nose. We hear the crackle of an announcement but it’s so muffled and heavily accented there’s no telling what it was about. It could have been anything from signal failure to a body on the line. I hope it’s not a body. I think of my glass of wine, and Simon rubbing my feet on the sofa, then feel guilty that my first thought is about my own comfort, not the desperation of some poor suicidal soul. I’m sure it’s not a body. Bodies are for Monday mornings, not Friday evenings, when work is a blissful three days away. There’s a creaking noise and then silence. Whatever the delay is, it’s going to be a while. ‘That’s not a good sign,’ the man next to me says.

‘Hmm,’ I say non-committally. I carry on turning the pages of my newspaper, but I’m not interested in sport and now it’s mostly adverts and theatre reviews. I won’t be home till after seven at this rate: we’ll have to have something easy for tea, rather than the baked chicken I’d planned. Simon cooks during the week, and I do Friday evening and the weekend. He’d do that too, if I asked him, but I couldn’t have that. I couldn’t have him cooking for us – for my children – every night. Maybe I’ll pick up a takeaway. I skip over the business section and look at the crossword, but I don’t have a pen with me. So I read the adverts, thinking I might see a job for Katie – or me, come to that, although I know I’ll never leave Hallow & Reed. It pays well and I know what I’m doing, now, and if it wasn’t for my boss it would be perfect.

The customers are nice, for the most part. They’re generally start-ups, looking for office space; or businesses that have done well, ready for a bigger place. We don’t do much residential, but the flats above the shops work for the first-time buyers and the downsizers. I meet a fair number of recently separateds. Sometimes, if I feel like it, I tell them I know what they’re going through. ‘Did it all turn out okay?’ the women always ask. ‘Best thing I ever did,’ I say confidently. It’s what they want to hear. I don’t find any jobs for a nineteen-year-old wannabe actress, but I turn down the corner on a page with an advert for an office manager. It doesn’t hurt to know what’s out there.

For a second I imagine walking into Graham Hallow’s office and handing in my notice, telling him I won’t put up with being spoken to like I’m dirt on the sole of his shoe. Then I look at the salary printed under the office manager position, and remember how long it’s taken me to claw my way up to something I can actually live on. Better the devil you know, isn’t that what they say? The final pages of the Gazette are all compensation claims and finances. I studiously avoid the ads for loans – at those interest rates you’d have to be mad or desperate – and glance at the bottom of the page, where the chatlines are advertised. Married woman looking for discreet casual action. Txt ANGEL to 69998 for pics. I wrinkle my nose more at the exorbitant price per text than the services offered. Who am I to judge what other people do? I’m about to turn the page, resigned to reading about last night’s footie, when I see the advert below ‘Angel’s’. For a second I think my eyes must be tired: I blink hard but it doesn’t change anything. I’m so absorbed in what I’m looking at that I don’t notice the train start up again.

It sets off suddenly and I jerk to one side, putting my hand out automatically and making contact with my neighbour’s thigh. ‘Sorry!’ ‘It’s fine – don’t worry.’ He smiles and I make myself return it. But my heart is thumping and I stare at the advert. It bears the same warning about call charges as the other boxed adverts, and a 0809 number at the top of the ad. A web address reads www.findtheone.com. But it’s the photo I’m looking at. It’s cropped close to the face, but you can clearly see blonde hair and a glimpse of a black strappy top.

Older than the other women pimping their wares, but such a grainy photo it would be hard to give a precise age. Except I know how old she is. I know she’s forty. Because the woman in the advert is me. 2 Kelly Swift stood in the middle of the Central line carriage, shifting to one side to keep her balance as the train took a bend. A couple of kids – no more than fourteen or fifteen years old – jostled on to the train at Bond Street, engaged in competitive swearing that jarred with their middle-class vowels. Too late for after-school clubs, and it was already dark outside; Kelly hoped they were on their way home, not heading out for the evening. Not at their age. ‘Fucking mental!’ The boy looked up, his swagger giving way to self-consciousness as he saw Kelly standing there. Kelly assumed the sort of expression she remembered her mother sporting on many an occasion, and the teenagers fell silent, blushing furiously and turning away to examine the inside of the closing doors.

She probably was old enough to be their mother, she thought ruefully, counting backwards from thirty and imagining herself with a fourteen-year-old. Several of her old school friends had children almost that age; Kelly’s Facebook page regularly filled up with proud family photos, and she’d even had a couple of friend requests from the kids themselves. Now there was a way to make you feel old. Kelly caught the eye of a woman in a red coat on the opposite side of the carriage, who gave a nod of approval at the effect she’d had on the lads. Kelly returned her look with a smile. ‘Good day?’ ‘Better now it’s over,’ the woman said. ‘Roll on the weekend, eh?’ ‘I’m working. Not off till Tuesday.’ And even then only one day off before another six on the trot, she thought, inwardly groaning at the thought. The woman looked aghast.

Kelly shrugged. ‘Someone’s got to, right?’ ‘I guess so.’ As the train slowed down for Oxford Circus, the woman began moving towards the doors. ‘I hope it’s a quiet one for you.’ That’s jinxed it, Kelly thought. She glanced at her watch. Nine stops to Stratford: ditch her stuff, then head back. Home by eight, maybe eight thirty. In again for 7 a.m.

She yawned hard, not bothering to cover her mouth, and wondered if there was any food at home. She shared a house near Elephant and Castle with three others, whose full names she knew only from the rent cheques pinned neatly to the board in the hall, ready for collection each month. The sitting room had been converted to a bedroom by a landlord keen to maximise his income, leaving the small kitchen the one communal area. There was only room for two chairs, but her housemates’ shift patterns and erratic hours meant Kelly could go days without seeing anyone at all. The woman in the biggest bedroom, Dawn, was a nurse. Younger than Kelly, but far more domesticated, Dawn occasionally left a portion for Kelly on the side by the microwave, with one of her bright pink Post-It notes telling Kelly to help yourself! Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food, and she glanced at her watch. The afternoon had been busier than she’d thought; she was going to have to put in some extra hours next week, or she’d never get through it all. A handful of businessmen got on at Holborn and Kelly cast a practised eye over them. At first glance they looked identical, with their short hair, dark suits and briefcases. The devil was in the detail, Kelly thought.

She searched out the faint pinstripe; the title of a book pushed carelessly into a bag; wire-framed glasses with a kink in one arm; a brown leather watch strap beneath a white cotton shirtsleeve. The idiosyncrasies and appearance tics that made them stand out in a line-up of nearidentical men. Kelly watched them openly, dispassionately. She was just practising, she told herself, not caring when one of them looked up and found her cool gaze on him. She thought he might look away, but instead he winked, his mouth moving into a confident smile. Kelly’s eyes flicked to his left hand. Married. White, well-built, around six foot tall, with a shadow around his jaw that probably wasn’t there a few hours ago. The yellow flash of a forgotten dry-cleaning tag on the inside of his overcoat. Standing so straight she’d put money on ex-military.

Nondescript in appearance, but Kelly would know him if they met again. Satisfied, she turned her attention to the latest influx of passengers, getting on at Bank and filtering through the carriage to find the remaining few seats. Almost everyone had a phone in their hand; playing games, listening to music, or simply clutching it as though grafted to their palm. At the other end of the carriage someone lifted their phone in front of them and Kelly instinctively turned away. Tourists, getting an iconic shot of the London Underground to show back home, but she found the idea of being background scenery in someone’s holiday snaps too weird to contemplate. Her shoulder ached where she’d slammed into a wall, taking the corner too tight as she ran down the escalators and on to the platform at Marble Arch. She’d been seconds too late, and it annoyed her that the blooming bruise on her upper arm was in vain. She’d be quicker next time. The train pulled in to Liverpool Street; a throng of people waiting on the platform, impatient for the doors to open. Kelly’s pulse quickened.

There, in the centre of the crowd, half-hidden beneath oversized jeans, a hooded top and a baseball cap, was Carl. Instantly recognisable and – desperate though Kelly was to get home – impossible to walk away from. It was clear from the way he melted into the crowd that Carl had seen Kelly a split second before she had seen him, and was equally unenthusiastic about the encounter. She was going to have to move fast. Kelly jumped off the train just as the doors hissed behind her. She thought at first she’d lost him, then she caught sight of a baseball cap ten or so yards ahead; not running, but weaving swiftly through the throng of passengers leaving the platform. If Kelly had learned one thing over the last ten years on the Underground, it was that politeness got you nowhere. ‘Mind your backs!’ she yelled, breaking into a run and shoving her way between two elderly tourists dragging suitcases. ‘Coming through!’ She might have lost him that morning, and copped a bruised shoulder as a result, but she wasn’t about to let him get away again. She thought fleetingly of the supper she had hoped would be waiting for her at home, and calculated this was going to add at least two hours on to her day.

But needs must. She could always grab a kebab on the way home. Carl was legging it up the escalator. Rookie error, Kelly knew, taking the steps instead. Fewer tourists to negotiate and easier on the thighs than the jerky, uneven motion of a moving stairway. Even so Kelly’s muscles were burning as she drew parallel with Carl. He threw a quick look over his left shoulder as they reached the top, then swerved right. For fuck’s sake, Carl, she thought. I should be booking off now. With a final burst of speed she caught up with him as he was preparing to vault the ticket barrier, grabbing a handful of jacket with her left hand and twisting one arm up behind his back with her right.

Carl made a half-hearted attempt to pull away, knocking her off balance and causing her hat to fall to the ground. Kelly was aware of someone picking it up and hoped they weren’t going to run off with it. She was already in the dog house with Stores for losing her baton in a scrap the other week – she could do without another telling off. ‘Warrants have got a Fail to Appear with your name on it, mate,’ Kelly said, her words punctuated with breaths that were hard to take within the confines of a stab vest. She reached for her belt and unclipped her cuffs, snapping them deftly on to Carl’s wrists and checking for tightness. ‘You’re nicked.’ I see you. But you don’t see me. You’re engrossed in your book; a paperback cover with a girl in a red dress. I can’t see the title but it doesn’t matter; they’re all the same.

If it isn’t boy meets girl, it’s boy stalks girl. Boy kills girl. The irony isn’t lost on me. At the next stop I use the incoming swell of commuters as an excuse to move closer to you. You hang from the strap in the centre of the carriage, reading one-handed; turning the page with a well-practised thumb. We’re so close, now, that our coats are touching, and I can smell the vanilla base of your perfume; a scent that will have long since faded by the time you leave work. Some women disappear into the loos at lunchtime; touch up their make-up, add a spritz of fragrance. Not you. When I see you after work the dark grey make-up on your lids will have drifted into tired shadows beneath your eyes; the tint on your lips transferred to countless cups of cof ee. You’re pretty, though, even at the end of a long day.

That counts for a lot. Not that it’s always about beauty; sometimes it’s exotic looks, or large breasts, or long legs. Sometimes it’s class and elegance – all tailored navy trousers and tan heels – and sometimes it’s brassy and cheap. Slutty, even. Variety is important. Even the finest steak becomes dull when you eat it all the time. Your handbag is larger than average. You usually carry it over your shoulder, but when the train is busy – as it is at this stage of your commute – you put it on the floor, between your legs. It has slouched open, allowing me to see inside. A purse – soft brown calf leather with a gilt clasp.

A hairbrush, blonde hairs trailing from its bristles. A reusable shopping bag, neatly rolled into a ball. A pair of leather gloves. Two or three brown envelopes, torn open then pushed into the bag along with their contents. Post snatched from the doormat after breakfast, opened on the platform while you wait for your first train. I crane my neck to read what is printed on the uppermost envelope. So now I know your name. Not that it matters: you and I aren’t going to have the sort of relationship that needs names. I take out my phone and swipe up to reveal the camera. I turn towards you; use my thumb and forefinger to zoom in until only your face is in the frame.

If anyone noticed me now, they’d just think I was uploading a record of my commute to Instagram, or Twitter. Hashtag selfie. A silent click, and you’re mine. As the train takes a bend you let go of the ceiling strap and lean down for your handbag, still intent on your book. If I didn’t know you better I’d think you’d caught me looking, and were moving your belongings out of view, but it isn’t that. The bend in the track simply means it’s nearly your stop. You’re enjoying this book. Usually you’ll stop reading much earlier than this; when you reach the end of a chapter, and you slip between the pages the postcard you use as a bookmark. Today you’re still reading even as the train pulls into the station. Even as you shoulder your way through to the door, saying ‘Excuse me’ and ‘sorry’ a dozen times.

You’re still reading even as you walk towards the exit, your eyes flicking upwards to make sure you don’t bump into anyone. You’re still reading. And I’m still watching. 3 Crystal Palace is where my train terminates. Had it not been, I might have stayed in my seat, staring at the advert in the hope of making sense of it. As it is, I’m the last to get off. The rain has slowed to a drizzle, but I’ve barely left the Tube station before the newspaper in my hands is sodden, leaving traces of ink on my fingers. It’s already dark, but the street lights are on, and the neon signs above Anerley Road’s myriad takeaways and mobile phone shops mean I can see clearly. Garish lights hang from each lamp-post, in preparation for this weekend’s Z-list celebrity switch-on, but it’s too mild – and too early – for me to start thinking about Christmas. I stare at the advert as I walk home, oblivious to the rain plastering my fringe to my forehead.

Perhaps it isn’t me at all. Perhaps I have a doppelgänger. I’m hardly the obvious choice to advertise a premium rate chatline: you’d think they’d go for someone younger, more attractive. Not a middle-aged woman with two grown children and a bit of a spare tyre. I almost laugh out loud. I know it takes all sorts, but that’s some niche market. Between the Polish supermarket and the key-cutter is Melissa’s café. One of Melissa’s cafés, I remind myself. The other is in a side street off Covent Garden, where her lunchtime regulars know to phone ahead with their sandwich orders, to avoid queuing, and the tourists dither by the door, deciding if the panini will be worth the wait. You’d think Covent Garden would be a licence to print money, but the high rates mean that in the five years it’s been open it’s struggled to turn a profit.

This one, on the other hand, with its tatty paintwork and unlikely neighbours, is a gold mine. It’s been here for years, raking in the cash long before Melissa took it over and put her name above the door; one of those hidden secrets that appear occasionally in city guides. The best breakfast in South London, says the photocopied article Sellotaped to the door. I stay on the opposite side of the road for a while, so I can watch without being seen. The inside of the windows are steamed up around the edges, like a soft-focus photo from the 1980s. In the centre, behind the counter, a man is wiping the inside of the Perspex display. He wears an apron folded in half and tied – Parisian waiter style – around his waist, instead of looped over his head, and with his black T-shirt and dark, just-got-out-of-bed hair he looks far too cool to be working in a café. Good looking? I’m biased, I know, but I think so. I cross the road, watching out for cycles as a bus driver waves me across in front of him. The bell above the café door jingles and Justin looks up.

‘All right, Mum.’ ‘Hi, love.’ I look around for Melissa. ‘You here on your own?’ ‘She’s in Covent Garden. The manager there’s gone off sick so she left me in charge.’ His tone is casual, so I try and mirror it in my response, but I feel a swell of pride. I’ve always known Justin was a good boy; he just needed someone to give him a break. ‘If you give me five minutes,’ he says, washing his cloth out in the stainless steel sink behind him, ‘I’ll come home with you.’ ‘I was going to pick up a takeaway for tea. I suppose the fryer’s off now?’ ‘I’ve only just turned it off.

It won’t take long to do some chips. And there are some sausages that’ll be thrown out if they’re not eaten today. Melissa won’t mind if we take them home.’ ‘I’ll pay for them,’ I say, not wanting Justin to get carried away with his temporary position of responsibility. ‘She won’t mind.’ ‘I’ll pay,’ I say firmly, getting out my purse. I look up at the blackboard and calculate the price for four sausage and chips. He’s right that Melissa would have given them to us if she’d been here, but she isn’t here, and in this family we pay our way. The shops and businesses peter out as we walk further from the station, giving way to terraced houses in rows of around a dozen. Several are boarded up with the grey metal shutters that mean a repossession; graffiti adding red and orange fireworks to their front doors.

Our row is no different – the house three doors down has missing tiles and thick ply nailed across the windows – and you can spot the rented houses by the blocked gutters and stained brickwork. At the end of the row are two privately owned houses; Melissa’s and Neil’s, in the coveted end-of-terrace spot, and mine, right next door. Justin’s fiddling in his rucksack for his keys, and I stand for a moment on the pavement by the railings that run around what might generously be called our front garden. Weeds poke up through the wet gravel; the only decoration a solar-powered lamp shaped like an old-fashioned lantern, which gives off a dull yellow glow. Melissa’s garden is gravelled, too, but there are no weeds to be seen, and either side of her front door sit two perfectly manicured box trees, shaped into spirals. Beneath the lounge window is a patch of brickwork a shade lighter than the rest; where Neil scrubbed off graffiti left by someone in South London still narrow-minded enough to object to a mixed-race marriage. No one has bothered to pull the curtains in our own lounge, and I can see Katie painting her nails at the dining table. I used to insist we all sat at the table for meals; used to love the opportunity to catch up on what they’d done at school. In the early days, when we first moved in, it was the one time of day when I felt we were doing all right without Matt. There we were, a little family unit of three, all sitting down to a meal together at six o’clock.

Through the window – coated with the ever-present layer of grime that comes from living on a busy road – I notice that Katie has cleared a space for her nail kit among the magazines, the pile of bills, and washing basket, which has somehow chosen the table as its natural home. Occasionally I clear the mess so we can eat Sunday lunch together, but it isn’t long before a creeping tide of paperwork and abandoned carrier bags pushes us on to our laps again, in front of the telly. Justin opens the door and I remember what it was like when the kids were little and they’d run to greet me when I came home, as though I’d been away for months, instead of stacking shelves at Tesco for eight hours. When they were older it would be next door I’d call on, thanking Melissa for the after-school care the kids claimed to be too old for, but secretly loved. ‘Hello?’ I call. Simon comes out of the kitchen with a glass of wine. He hands it to me and kisses me on the lips, his arm sliding around my waist to pull me closer. I hand him the plastic bag from Melissa’s café. ‘Get a room, you two.’ Katie comes out of the lounge, her fingers spread out and her hands in the air.

‘What’s for tea?’ Simon releases me and takes the bag into the kitchen. ‘Sausage and chips.’ She wrinkles her nose and I cut her off before she can start moaning about calories. ‘There’s some lettuce in the fridge – you can have yours with salad.’ ‘It won’t get rid of your cankles,’ Justin says. Katie hits him on the arm as he ducks around her and runs up the stairs, two at a time. ‘Grow up, you two.’ Katie is nineteen and an easy size eight, with not a hint of the puppy fat she still had a few years ago. And there is nothing wrong with her ankles. I move to give her a hug, then remember her nails and kiss her cheek instead.

‘I’m sorry, love, but I’m knackered. The odd takeaway won’t do you any harm – everything in moderation, right?’ ‘How was your day, honey?’ Simon asks. He follows me into the lounge and I sink into the sofa, shutting my eyes for a brief moment and sighing as I feel myself relax. ‘It was okay. Apart from Graham making me do the filing.’ ‘That’s not your job,’ Katie says. ‘Neither is cleaning the loo, but guess what he had me doing yesterday?’ ‘Ugh. That bloke is such an arsehole.’ ‘You shouldn’t put up with it.’ Simon sits next to me.

‘You should complain.’ ‘To who? He owns the place.’ Graham Hallow comes from the breed of men who inflate their egos by belittling the people around him. I know this, and so it doesn’t bother me. For the most part. To change the subject I pick up the London Gazette from where I dumped it on the coffee table. It’s still damp and parts of the print are blurry, but I fold it in half so the chatline and escort ads are showing. ‘Mum! What are you doing looking up escort services?’ Katie says, laughing. She finishes applying a top coat to her nails and carefully screws the lid on, returning to the table to push her hands under an ultraviolet lamp to seal the varnish. ‘Maybe she’s thinking of trading Simon in for a newer model,’ Justin says, walking into the lounge.

He’s changed out of the black T-shirt and jeans he was wearing for work, into grey joggers and a sweatshirt. His feet are bare. In one hand he carries his phone; in the other a plate heaped with sausage and chips. ‘That’s not funny,’ Simon says. He takes the paper from me. ‘But seriously, why are you looking at chatlines?’ His brow furrows and I see a shadow cross his face. I glare at Justin. Simon is fourteen years older than me, although sometimes I look in the mirror and think I’m catching him up. There are lines around my eyes I never had in my thirties, and the skin on my neck is beginning to crepe. I’ve never had a problem with the age difference between us, but Simon mentions it often enough for me to know he worries about it.

Justin knows that, and takes every opportunity to stick the knife in. Whether he’s getting at Simon or at me, I can never be sure. ‘Don’t you think that looks like me?’ I point to the bottom advert, beneath Angel’s ‘mature’ services. Justin leans over Simon’s shoulder, and Katie removes her hands from the UV lamp so she can get a proper look. For a second we all stare at the advert in silence. ‘No,’ Justin says, just as Katie says, ‘It does a bit.’ ‘You wear glasses, Mum.’ ‘Not always,’ I point out. ‘Sometimes I put my contacts in.’ Although I can’t remember the last time I did.

Wearing glasses has never bothered me, and I quite like my current pair, with their thick black frames that make me look far more studious than I ever was at school. ‘Maybe it’s someone playing a joke,’ Simon says. ‘Find the one dot com – do you think someone’s signed you up to a dating agency as a joke?’ ‘Who would do something like that?’ I look at the kids, wondering if I’ll catch a glance passing between them, but Katie looks as confused as I am, and Justin has gone back to his chips. ‘Have you called the number?’ Simon says. ‘At £1.50 a minute? You must be joking.’ ‘Is it you?’ Katie says. Her eyes are mischievous. ‘You know, for a bit of pocket money? Go on, Mum, you can tell us.’ The uneasy feeling I’ve had since I first saw the advert starts to subside, and I laugh.

‘I’m not sure who would pay £1.50 a minute for me, love. It really does look like me, though, doesn’t it? It gave me quite a start.’ Simon fishes his mobile out of his pocket and shrugs. ‘It’ll be someone doing something for your birthday, I bet.’ He puts his phone on speaker and taps in the number. It feels ridiculous: all of us crowded round the London Gazette, calling a sex line. ‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised.’ I realise I’ve been holding my breath. ‘That’s that, then,’ Simon says, handing me the newspaper.

‘But what’s my photo doing there?’ I say. My birthday isn’t for ages, and I can’t think who would find it funny to sign me up for dating services. It crosses my mind that it’s someone who doesn’t like Simon; someone wanting to cause problems between us. Matt? I dismiss the thought as quickly as it arrives. Instinctively I squeeze Simon’s shoulder, even though he shows no sign of being bothered by the advert. ‘Mum, it looks nothing like you. It’s some old bird with bad roots,’ Justin says. There’s a compliment in there somewhere, I think. ‘Jus is right, Mum.’ Katie looks at the advert again.

‘It does look like you, but lots of people look like someone else. There’s a girl at work who’s the spitting image of Adele.’ ‘I guess so.’ I take one last look at the advert. The woman in the photograph isn’t looking directly at the camera, and the resolution on the image is so poor I’m surprised it’s being used as an advert at all. I hand it to Katie. ‘Stick it in the recycling for me, love, when you go and dish up for the rest of us.’ ‘My nails!’ she cries. ‘My feet,’ I counter. ‘I’ll do it,’ Justin says.

He dumps his own plate on the coffee table and stands up. Simon and I exchange surprised glances and Justin rolls his eyes. ‘What? You’d think I never helped out around here.’ Simon gives a short laugh. ‘And your point is?’ ‘Oh fuck off, Simon. Get your own tea, then.’ ‘Stop it, the pair of you,’ I snap. ‘God, it’s hard to know who’s the child and who’s the parent, sometimes.’ ‘But that’s my point, he’s not the …’ Justin starts, but stops when he sees the look on my face. We eat on our laps, watching TV and bickering about the remote, and I catch Simon’s eye.

He winks at me: a private moment amid the chaos of life with two grown-up kids. When the plates are empty of all but a sheen of grease, Katie puts on her coat. ‘You’re not going out now?’ I say. ‘It’s gone nine o’clock.’ She looks at me witheringly. ‘It’s Friday night, Mum.’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Town.’ She sees my face. ‘I’ll share a cab with Sophia. It’s no different from coming home after a late shift at work.’ I want to say that it is. That the black skirt and white top Katie wears for waitressing is far less provocative than the skin-tight dress she is currently sporting. That wearing her hair scraped into a ponytail makes her look fresh-faced and innocent, while tonight’s do is tousled and sexy. I want to say that she’s wearing too much make-up; that her heels are too high and her nails too red. I don’t, of course. Because I was nineteen myself once, and because I’ve been a mum long enough to know when to keep my thoughts to myself. ‘Have a good time.’ But I can’t help myself. ‘Be careful. Stay together. Keep your hand over your drink.’

.

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