Two weeks later the four of us got out of a cab at a posh hotel in Chelsea. Before heading out we’d shared a bottle of wine, out of which I had managed to squeeze three big glasses for myself, but it wasn’t nearly enough to still my nerves. Lucy squeezed my hand as we walked in, her posture rigid and her smile wide, as if nothing could touch her. We greeted Theresa and her husband Geoffrey with pecks on the cheeks and, in Geoffrey’s case, lingering fingers in inappropriate places. Impeccably dressed waiters handed us flutes of champagne, which I gulped down as if it was water after spending a fortnight in the driest desert. Alex went off to work the room, Ben by his side as the most elegant prop. Lucy recognised someone she used to work with and introduced me. I drained more champagne and cautiously looked around for a sign of Claire or Lou, but I didn’t see either of them.
“I’m going to find the washroom,” I whispered in Lucy’s ear. “I’ll be right back.” I meandered through the crowd, everyone dressed up as peacocks as if it were the event of the year. I was sure Theresa got quite the thrill out of that. Then, emerging from the door that led to the toilets, I finally saw Claire. I was startled at first, even though it was hardly a surprise, but the sheer shock of seeing her, of being in the same room with her, was enough to make my heart skip a beat.
“Hey baby,” she said. “How are ya?”
I could have cried. I felt the tears well up behind my eyes but I swallowed them away. It was nostalgia and the remnants of something, possibly the greatest love I’d ever had, and it cut through me without mercy.
“Hello Claire.” The curve of her mouth, that ever-mocking downward twinge, struck me again, and her eyes, in all their un-touched glory, seemed to know something. “I wish I could say I was happy to see you, but I’m still on the fence about it.”
“I know, baby, I know.” She curled her lips into a tight smile. “Let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
My whole history with Claire flashed before me. Meeting her at Waterloo station, the first drunk night, moving to Paris, the pain and not wanting to give up despite knowing better. Is this it then, I thought? Was this the love of my life and will I never feel the same for anyone else again? It seemed like such a bad deal. We walked into the hallway and leaned against the wall, away from the party chatter.
“So you’re with Lucy now.” There was no sign of sarcasm in her voice, no superiority, just plain niceness and I didn’t really know how to handle it.
“Yes, it’s been a few months. It’s good.”
“I’m happy for you.”
“The way you were happy for Lou and me?” I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t just the anger, it was the nerves and the anxiety that had been building. It was the image of her in Lou’s doorway that was etched in my memory and haunted me like a recurring nightmare.
“I’m sorry, Lee. Looking back, it’s one of my biggest regrets.” She bent her head towards me. “And I won’t ask for your forgiveness.” Her lips were almost at my ear now. “But I’m glad you came tonight.”
“There you are,” Lucy said. “I was wondering where you’d got to.”
Claire abruptly retracted her head and held out her hand. “You must be Lucy. Nice to meet you. I’m Claire.”
To be continued…