Chapter Seventeen

‘Do you want sake?’

Later that evening I leave work and hurry to Wabi Sabi, a tiny little Japanese restaurant tucked away underneath an antique shop in Chelsea, to find my sister already sitting waiting for me at the sushi bar.

‘Erm . . . yes, great,’ I say, puffing slightly after my run from the subway. I’d been determined to arrive first for once, and had even left the gallery early, but despite my best efforts she’s here before me.

Now I know how a British holidaymaker must feel when they discover that despite getting up at the crack of dawn, the Germans have already got to the sun loungers.

‘Good. Because I’ve ordered it.’ She nods as I slide into the free seat next to her. ‘I didn’t wait. I knew you’d be late.’

That’s my sister for you. Never one to mince words.

‘Lovely to see you too.’ I smile, giving her a hug, despite the fact that she doesn’t really do hugs. Or kisses. Or in fact any shows of public affection. At school the boys used to call her ‘Iceberg’, which was a bit mean. And blatantly not true.

After all, icebergs do sometimes melt.

‘Oh, before I forget I wondered if you wanted to go with me to the theatre next week. Robyn has two free tickets,’ I say, breaking open my chopsticks and diving on the little bowl of edamame. I’m starving. I’ve only had coffee and an apple all day.

‘’Fraid not. I’m training,’ she replies, shaking her head.

‘Every night?’

‘Well, the marathon is only a couple of months away.’

That’s another thing. On top of the fourteen hours a day that my sister puts in at the office, she’s currently spending her free time training for the New York Marathon.

I know. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.

‘I have free passes for my gym. You should come,’ she suggests, popping out the soybeans with her teeth. ‘Now you won’t be doing all that yoga.’ She smirks and I swat her with a chopstick.

I’ve already told Kate about how I’ve broken up with Nate. I called her last night and filled her in on the details, at the end of which I’d drawn breath and waited for her response. It had come in the form of one word – ‘Good’ – and then moved briskly on to a conversation about her new bathroom tiles.

‘Effusive’ is not a word you could use to describe my sister. Sometimes I wonder if she views words like the rest of us view money and tries to save them up and not spend too many all at once.

‘I think that was a lucky escape,’ she continues. ‘It will save you a fortune on chiropractic bills.’

‘I’m not that bad at yoga,’ I complain sulkily.

‘Luce, how are you going to get into the lotus position when you can’t even cross your legs? Remember that time in school assembly?’

Trust Kate to remind me of one of the most humiliating moments of my life. Aged twelve, I’d been sitting crossed-legged in the school hall, listening to our headmaster, and my legs had suddenly gone into cramp and I’d been unable to uncross them. I’d had to be airlifted out of assembly by Mr Dickenson, our PE teacher. I don’t think I’ve ever got over the shame. For years after I was teased mercilessly with ‘Don’t forget to cross your legs’, which took on a totally different connotation as I got older.

‘Excuse me. Your sake.’

I look up to see a waiter return with a little bottle and two small ceramic glasses. Ceremoniously he arranges them on the counter in front of us.

Domo arigato,’ smiles Kate, bowing her head respectfully.

The waiter beams. ‘Do itashi mashite,’ he replies, nodding profusely and backing away.

I stare at Kate in astonishment. ‘Since when did you start speaking Japanese?’

‘Since most of my clients are based in Tokyo,’ she says casually, taking the sake bottle and pouring me some. ‘I’m learning in my spare time.’

I look at her agog. My sister never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes I wonder if we really are sisters or if there was some mix-up in the hospital. I mean, can I really be genetically related to someone who learns Japanese? In her spare time?

There I was thinking spare time was for logging on to Facebook and sneaking a look at everyone else’s photos, bidding on lots of things on eBay that I don’t need and never fit properly, and watching TV with Robyn and discussing challenging subjects such as ‘Do we order a twelve-inch pizza and garlic bread, or shall we just go for a sixteen-inch with extra toppings?’

‘Now it’s your turn. You have to pour mine,’ she says, passing me the sake bottle. ‘It’s supposed to be good luck to pour each other’s.’

‘I thought you weren’t superstitious.’

‘I’m not.’ She frowns as if I’ve just called her a bad name. ‘It’s tradition. Not superstition. There’s a difference.’

‘So tell me, how’s work?’ I ask, changing the subject. ‘Any good . . . um . . . mergers and acquisitions happening?’

If there’s one sure-fire way to snap my sister out of a bad mood, it’s to ask her about work. It’s her favourite topic of conversation. If she had it her way, it would probably be her only topic of conversation. Unlike my girlfriends, she’s not interested in commenting on the fabulous new dress you just bought from Zara, speculating about what’s going on in the Jennifer-Brad-Angie triangle or talking about relationships. Not even when it’s her own.

In fact, the closest I think she ever got was on her wedding day, when someone asked her what the best part of being married to Jeff was and she replied cheerfully, ‘Our new apartment. With two salaries, we can now afford a two-bedroom,’ which I don’t think was exactly the gushing response they’d hoped for.

‘Exhausting but exciting,’ she says, suddenly galvanised. ‘The CEO is thrilled with the merger so far, which is superb on a performance note, but it looks like the Joberg-Cohen deal might need some extra . . .’ She trails off as she sees my glazed expression. ‘Are you interested in any of this?’

‘Of course,’ I protest. ‘It’s fascinating.’

And it would be. Truly, it would be. If only I had half a clue what she was going on about.

‘Hmm.’ She looks at me unconvinced, then suddenly stifles a yawn. ‘Anyway, it’s all good. Just the hours are pretty gruelling.’

I look at my sister closely. Beyond the power suit and immaculately groomed bob, there are dark circles under her eyes and the crease between her eyebrows is so sharply etched it’s turning into a furrow.

‘You look shattered,’ I observe. ‘You need a holiday.’

Kate looks at me like I just told her she needs to grow another head. ‘A holiday?’ she snorts, as if the very idea is completely ludicrous.

‘When did you last go away?’ I persist.

She falters momentarily and I can feel her brain whirring backwards. ‘We went to Mum and Dad’s,’ she says, with a flash of triumph.

‘For Christmas last year,’ I point out. ‘Anyway, that was Mum and Dad. That’s not exactly a holiday.’

‘Luce, I don’t think you understand,’ she gasps impatiently. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she rubs her nose agitatedly. ‘I can’t go anywhere right now. I’m far too busy.’

‘But you look like you need a break,’ I say, squeezing her arm.

‘No, what I need is to be partner,’ she says determinedly, moving her arm away. ‘And if I continue at this pace, there’s a very good chance of being recommended at the next annual meeting.’

But can you continue at this pace? I ask myself silently, looking at her pinched expression and feeling uneasy. My sister has always been a crazy workaholic – ‘over-achiever’ is scribbled across her school reports – but she seems to be overdoing it, even by her standards.

‘What does Jeff say?’

Her face clouds. ‘Jeff understands. He knows how important this is to me.’ Opening her menu, she says briskly, ‘Anyway, we should order. It’s getting late,’ which is her way of saying the subject is closed.

She beckons over the waiter and orders for both of us. I’m not sure exactly what, as she does most of it in Japanese. ‘Oh, and an extra miso soup to take away when we’re done,’ she says in English. ‘For Jeff,’ she adds, turning to me. ‘I promised to bring him back some soup as he’s a bit under the weather.’

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask, feeling a beat of concern.

‘Oh, nothing. Probably one of those seventy-two-hour bugs.’ She shrugs, taking a sip of sake.

‘He should go and see Robyn – she’s got Chinese herbs for everything,’ I suggest, thinking about the dozens of bottles that are randomly scattered around the flat. I’m forever tripping over things with weird and wonderful names like Yellow Croaker Ear-Stone or Long-Nosed Pit Viper.

‘You have got to be kidding me!’ gasps Kate.

‘No, really. I know you don’t believe in all that stuff, but she swears by them.’ I stop as I see her making googly eyes at me.

‘Are you OK? Is something in your eye?’

Now she’s jabbing chopsticks at me and pulling this weird sort of strangled face. Suddenly it registers and I feel a flash of panic.

‘Oh my God, are you choking?’

An image of me having to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre in the middle of the restaurant flashes across my brain. Shit. Why didn’t I watch more episodes of ER? I got bored when George Clooney left.

‘No, behind you,’ she hisses, like a pantomime dame.

‘What?’ Bewildered, I frown, wondering what she’s going on about, then turn sideways.

I don’t believe it.

Because there, sitting right next to me, at the sushi counter, is Nate. He’s with another man in a business suit and they’ve obviously just arrived, as they’re ordering a couple of drinks. I stare at him in disbelief.

‘Are you following me?’ I accuse, finding my tongue, which had been held hostage by shock.

Hearing my voice, he turns and sees me. His face darkens. ‘Are you following me?’ he accuses back.

I can feel my hackles rise. ‘I was here first,’ I point out stiffly.

‘Well, I made the reservation for the sushi bar last week,’ he replies, as if to say, Told you so.

Not to be outdone, Kate fires back over my shoulder, ‘We made ours the week before. You can check with my assistant.’

‘Hello, Kate.’ He nods in her direction.

‘Nathaniel.’ She gives him one of her scary looks.

For a moment there’s a standoff and I can see Nate’s business contact glancing uncertainly between us, like someone who just stumbled into a gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

‘Well, this is a coincidence,’ says Nate evenly, for his benefit.

‘Well, that’s one way of putting it,’ quips Kate dryly.

‘Come on, let’s move,’ I say, turning back to Kate. ‘There must be a free table.’ Just then I glance around me and realise with dismay that the whole place has now filled up. There’s even a queue of people waiting outside. ‘Damn. Maybe we should leave,’ I suggest.

Kate looks at me as if I’ve gone mad. ‘I’m not leaving. I’ve just ordered seventy dollars worth of sushi.’

‘We could get takeout,’ I whisper.

She shoots me a look. ‘It’s crucial that you do not give the other party any cause to believe they have the position of power.’

‘Kate, we’re not talking about law now,’ I say desperately. ‘We’re talking about my ex-boyfriend.’

She frowns and spears another endamame. ‘If anyone’s leaving, it’s him, not us.’

‘He won’t – he’s too stubborn,’ I say pleadingly.

But she won’t budge. ‘Well, in that case, just ignore him.’

So I try. I try my very hardest. I talk about the gym, about the gallery, about anything to try to stop myself thinking about him, but it’s not easy. I mean, he’s right there next to me. Eating my miso soup, I can hear him asking the waiter to run through all the wines and then insisting on tasting every one. Before, it had impressed me, but now it annoys me. At one point I am about to turn round and yell, ‘Just choose a bloody wine,’ but thankfully my crispy salmon roll arrives and distracts me.

In fact, it’s really bizarre, but through the course of my meal I discover that all the things I used to find cute and endearing now bug the hell out of me. Like the way he gels his hair into that little peak at the front, or makes that funny hissing noise between his teeth when he laughs, or mentions his game show Big Bucks about twenty million times.

‘I mean, did he really go on about Big Bucks that much before and I never noticed?’ I whisper to Kate.

Pausing from eating her tuna sashimi, she frowns. ‘I thought you were ignoring him.’

‘I am, I am,’ I protest quickly. ‘Except it’s not that simple.’

‘Well, don’t worry, he’s leaving now,’ she says, gesturing behind me with a chopstick.

‘He is?’ Feeling a rush of relief, I turn round to see the seat next to me is now empty and he’s walking towards the exit. ‘Oh, thank goodness,’ I sigh, my whole body relaxing. ‘Bumping into him once was bad enough, but twice? In one day?’

‘Unlucky,’ says Kate simply.

I nod and turn back to my food, but something niggles. Is that all it is? Just an unlucky coincidence?

‘Of course, there’s always another reason,’ says Kate.

‘What?’ I ask, snapping back.

‘He’s trying to find a way of getting you back.’

‘What? By following me?’ I frown.

‘Bumping into you “accidentally”,’ corrects Kate. ‘Remember like you did with Paul who used to deliver our papers?’

I’d forgotten all about that – well, more like blanked it out – but now I’m reminded and cringe at the memory. At twelve years old I had a crush on the paperboy and would find any excuse to bump into him: walking the dog along his route, accidentally on purpose being by our gate as he arrived, even resorting to following him around as he delivered the papers on his BMX. Oh, the shame.

‘Nate wouldn’t do that,’ I say dismissively. ‘He wanted to break up as much as I did.’

‘Are you sure that wasn’t just his pride talking?’ Kate raises her eyebrows. ‘Dump-before-you’re-dumped kind of thing?’

I crinkle up my forehead, doubts forming. I think back to our argument in the taxi. ‘No, trust me.’ I shake my head decisively.

‘Well, just a thought.’ She shrugs. ‘More sake?’

I’m reading too much into this. Bumping into Nate is a pain, but there’s no big reason. It’s just coincidence.

‘Um . . . yes, please.’ I hold out my glass.

Like Kate said, it’s just unlucky.

You're the One That I Don't Want