Best friends tell you everything; about their kitchen renovation; about their little girl's schooling. How one of them is leaving the other for a younger model.
Best friends don't tell lies. They don't take up residence on your couch for weeks. They don't call lawyers. They don't make you choose sides.
Best friends don't keep secrets about their past. They don't put you in danger.
Best friends don't always stay best friends.
‘I’m leaving her.’
No response. Josh was fiddling with his mobile phone, trying to get it to stop autocorrecting a text he was composing to Hannah, so he wasn’t really listening. He checked his texts assiduously these days before pressing Send, ever since coming back from a weekend at his parents’ and unintentionally informing his mother he was homosexual instead of home. The truth was he hated texting, and was the only person he knew who still laboriously typed 'you' instead of the ubiquitous ‘u’. And as for apostrophes – don’t get him started. ‘I thought you just said you were leaving Sash,’ he chuckled, still worrying away at the keyboard, his broad fingers as unwieldy as sausages.
‘I did. Look, would it kill you to pay a bit of attention?’ There was something hiding in Dan’s voice. A whine tucked away like a polyp under the surface of his normally cocky, over-egged Essex twang.
Josh looked up. ‘You’re joking, right? This is a joke.’
‘Do I look like I’m fucking joking?’
Dan didn’t in truth look like he was joking. His expression was strained and a little horrified.
‘You can’t.’ It was a feeble thing to say, but Josh was too shocked to think of anything else. Dan and Sasha had been together for years. Eight or nine. Nearly as long as him and Hannah. And then there was September. She was still only four. ‘What about the new kitchen?’
Dan and Sasha had only just finished moving the kitchen up to the top level of their art deco-style house so they could take advantage of those views out across the cricket and tennis clubs towards Ally Pally, spread out along the top of the distant hill. Josh and Hannah had been at the inaugural dinner party to celebrate the end of all the months of dust and builders just a couple of weeks before, and he and Dan had ended up doing tequila slammers on the new concrete worktops.
‘Sod the fucking kitchen. That was Sasha’s idea anyway. I was quite happy with the old kitchen.'
Dan put down his pint and fixed Josh with his wide-set blue eyes – the ones Hannah had once declared, in a drunken moment, to be ‘far too sexy for a man’, which Josh had tried hard not to mind.
‘We’re just not good together any more,’ Dan said, shaking his head. ‘Don’t get me wrong, Sasha is brilliant. I love her to bits. I’m just not in love with her.’
He kept his eyes trained on Josh’s while the clichés spilled out of him, as if intensity was proof of sincerity. But Josh, who had accompanied Dan on two stag weekends as well as countless lads’ nights out, had seen him give this look too many times before in too many less-than-sincere circumstances for it to be one hundred per cent effective. He sat back in his uncomfortable wooden chair with the saggy leather cushion, in the pub they always insisted on going to on match days, purely because it was so unappealing that they were always guaranteed a seat. Suddenly his head buzzed with adrenaline.
‘You’ve met someone else.’
Dan’s eyes widened still further, his raised eyebrows disappearing into his floppy dishwater-blond hair.
‘What are you talking about? Look, mate, I know it’s a shock, but sometimes people just grow apart. It doesn’t mean there’s someone else.’
'Cut the crap.’ Josh wasn’t angry – mostly because he didn’t believe Dan was remotely serious. But neither was he about to let him get away with feeding him some women's magazine bullshit. ‘You wouldn’t leave Sasha and September unless there was someone else waiting in the wings. I know you. Mate,’ Josh trusted that anyone listening would realize he was using the word ironically, ‘you’re emotionally lazy.’
Dan bristled as if gearing up to protest, but then seemed to think better of it and slumped back down again. ‘OK, you’re right. I have met someone.’ He glanced at Josh, checking how this had gone down. ‘But we haven’t done anything. What I mean is we haven’t slept together.’
Josh knew he was lying. ‘So who is she?’
His friend’s eyes suddenly brightened, and he almost fell over his words in his delight at being given licence to speak of this new beloved. ‘She’s incredible. Amazing. Honestly, you have no idea. I met her on a shoot. Yeah, yeah, she’s a model. Cliché, cliché. But she’s not like all the rest. She’s so smart and funny and down to earth.’
‘And, don’t tell me – “gorgeous”.’ Josh paused before the last word and traced exaggerated quote marks in the air with his fingers as he said it, to show he was being sardonic. But such
subtleties were lost on Dan.
‘No. She looks like the back end of a bus,’ he grinned.
Josh struggled then to hide the wave of blind fury that swept over him out of nowhere. Anger was appropriate, wasn’t it, in view of his friendship with Sasha? He refused to acknowledge, even to himself, that the anger might be overlaid with something else. Something acidic and powerful. It wasn’t jealousy. Most assuredly, absolutely not. Why should he feel jealous of Dan when he was about to lob a live grenade into the heart of his family? ‘Listen, Dan.’ He put on the voice he used when he was talking to his pupils – reasonable, calm, but firm. ‘Everyone needs an ego boost from time to time. What are you – thirty-five? Thirty-six?’
‘Oi, steady on! Just because you’re staring forty in the face doesn’t mean the rest of us are fucking ancient as well. Actually, I’m only thirty-four.’
‘Whatever.’ Josh was thirty-eight. It was hardly ancient. He was fairly sure he was younger than Robbie Williams, for instance. ‘Listen, Dan, most blokes our age’ – he enjoyed Dan’s momentary scowl at that – ‘who’ve been with the same woman for a long time get itchy feet. Do you think I’ve never thought about how it would be to be with someone else apart from Hannah?’ Briefly he wondered whether that was true. Had he ever seriously considered being with someone else? Really? ‘But the thing is, I know it wouldn’t be worth it. I’d be jeopardizing everything that’s important to me for what? For a brief thrill?’
Dan had started shaking his head when Josh was only halfway through this speech. ‘Look, I loved Sasha. That’s why I married her. But she’s not laid back like Hannah. She is totally neurotic – you know that. Understandable given what happened to her as a child, but fucking wearying to live with 24/7. Stuff goes on at home that you wouldn’t believe. She’s always testing me, do you know what I mean? She’ll say something really hurtful just to try to get me to lose my temper, and then it’s all “See, you can never trust anyone. All the people in my life who were supposed to care about me let me down.” Last week we were having a drink at our neighbours’ house and suddenly Sasha announces she has a headache and gets up and leaves, telling me to stay and she’ll be fine. Then when I get home she launches into me for not going with her to make sure she’s OK. It’s exhausting!’ Dan’s tone had taken on a shrill, self-justifying note. He looked up and caught Josh’s raised eyebrow. ‘OK, you’re right,’ he said in a strange, strangled voice suddenly quite unlike his own. ‘I know you’re right. I’d do anything rather than hurt Sasha. But what can I say, man? I’ve fallen in love. I realize now I was never really in love with Sasha. I wanted to look after her, but with Sienna I've found an equal. Someone who can be a real life partner. I feel alive!’
Dan shrugged. ‘Yeah, yeah. But you can’t blame her for her name.’
Josh found it hard to unstretch his eyes from their Are you fucking kidding me? expression. Of course. She would be called Sienna. Dan couldn’t possibly have fallen for a Cathy or Melanie or Ruth. ‘And how old exactly is Sienna?’ His voice came out more sneering than he’d intended.
Dan pushed himself back from the table, dislodging the folded-up cardboard beer mat that had been wedged under one of the legs to stop it wobbling, and glanced around the pub. His guileless face, still cherubic even in his mid-thirties in that pretty-boy style that usually – Josh believed – puffs out to seed by fifty, betrayed, as ever, every emotion going on inside him just as surely as if he had subtitles running in a permanent loop along his forehead.
Josh was quietly satisfied now to recognize embarrassment in his friend’s expression (not surprising) and shame (well, good). But there was something else as well, something Dan was trying very hard to hide. Triumph. That was it. On some level, Dan was pleased with himself.
‘Don’t laugh, OK, but she’s twenty-four.’
‘Twenty-four! For fuck’s sake, you’re a walking, talking cliché.’
‘I know, I know. But she’s really mature for her age. She has an old soul.’
‘Yeah, don’t tell me, you were lovers in a past life.’
Dan allowed himself a quick smirk before his face crumpled again, the even, pleasant features folding in on themselves like dough. ‘Oh God, I feel awful about everything. How am I going to tell Sash? And September?’
For a second Josh almost felt sorry for him. He couldn’t imagine turning his back on his own wife and child, packing up his things and moving out of his family home. Just the thought of it made his heart race uncomfortably. Not waking up with Hannah’s long, thick red hair tickling his face, or Lily’s little hand on his arm, shaking him awake. ‘Come on, Daddy, you big old sleepyhead poo-poo head.’ Not taking Toby the dachshund around the block before work, his breath coming out cloudy in the cold air, crossing paths with Janey from two doors down with her dribbling chocolate Labrador. Now there was a proper dog. Josh had been mortified when Hannah had first brought Toby home, a sausage on legs, a furry worm, all floppy ears and big mournful eyes. ‘Just as long as you don’t expect me to be seen with that thing in public,’ he’d warned. Now, predictably, he doted on Toby, even more than Hannah and Lily did. Just because something started as a compromise didn’t mean you couldn’t end up loving it just the same.
He still couldn’t believe Dan was serious about leaving it all behind – the familiar hot-water bottle of domesticity. Sure, he and Sasha bickered a lot, but it didn’t mean anything. The next minute they’d be all over each other, often nauseatingly so. It wasn’t perfect, but they were happy, surely? They were all happy.
Josh started to think about what all this could potentially mean for him and Hannah. Dan and Sasha had been their best friends since they all met when the girls were newborns. They socialized together, they helped each other out with babysitting. Dan and Josh had their Saturday football, Hannah and Sasha went to art galleries or their Thursday evening bookclub (which seemed to him to be largely an excuse to drink wine and complain about their husbands). The little girls were inseparable.
‘We can still hang out together,’ Dan said, as if he’d read Josh’s mind. ‘You’ll love Sienna when you get to know her.’
‘Dream on, mate.’
‘If you think you can just slot another woman into Sasha’s place and we’ll all be like an episode of bloody Friends, you’re living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Hannah would never stand for it. She’s really loyal that way.’
‘I know it wouldn’t happen immediately. Just in time, that’s all I meant. And don’t worry, I’m going to give Sasha whatever she asks for. I don’t want her or September to want for anything. I give you my word this is going to be the most civilized divorce in history.’
Josh gaped at him. ‘So, let’s just recap. You’re leaving your wife of what – eight years? – for a woman a decade younger. And you think she’s going to be happy to sit down over a nice cup of tea and make arrangements about dividing up her home, her daughter, for God’s sake. You’re fucking deluded.’
Dan coloured, his skin taking on the purplish hue of under-diluted Ribena. ‘I’m not leaving her for Sienna. I told you, Sasha and I haven’t been right for ages. We’ve never really been right.
Living with her is like being on eggshells the whole time. I haven’t been happy in years.’
‘And don’t tell me, you deserve to be happy.’
‘Sure. Everyone does, don’t they?’
Josh shook his head. ‘I’m not going to get caught up in some existential debate about the nature of happiness.’ He was properly angry now. ‘I just don’t happen to think you can build your happiness on the back of someone else’s unhappiness.’ Now who was talking in clichés?
Dan looked miserable, yet defiant. Josh recognized that look from his own teenage pupils.
‘I know Sasha will be in bits at first. Of course she will. But I really believe that in the long run she’ll realize it’s the best thing for her. This way she’s free to find someone who really appreciates her.’
Josh sighed. Now that it was sinking in that Dan actually was serious, he was feeling faintly sick. Until Dan, he’d never really had a close friend, not since school anyway. He was more the type of person who got included in group outings but not intimate gatherings. And once he’d met Hannah, she was the only friend he’d needed. So he’d been pleased – grateful, even – to find himself accepted so readily into Dan’s inner circle. And he was fond of Sasha, too, although she could be prickly sometimes. ‘When are you going to tell her?’
‘Tonight. That’s why it’s really important you don’t tell Hannah anything until I’ve had a chance to talk to Sash properly. I know you two can’t shit without giving each other a full description, but you’ve got to promise me not to say anything. I don’t want Sasha to hear about this from anyone except me.’
Dan’s face wore a noble expression and Josh had an uncharacteristic impulse to punch him in it.
‘Oh, and whatever you do, don’t mention Sienna. I’m not going to tell Sasha about her until she’s got used to the idea of us splitting up. It would just confuse the issue.’
'What’s there to be confused about? You’re leaving her for another woman. Oldest story in the book.’
Josh’s anger was mounting and Dan put up both his hands in mock surrender.
‘Look, Josh, I get why you’re upset. I’d feel the same if our positions were reversed. And I love you for being so protective of Sash. But the fact is, I am leaving her. I’ve made up my mind.’ Dan said this as though making up his mind about something was all it took to make it so. As if he had only to formulate the intent for the deed to be done. His self-assuredness stoked Josh’s fury. ‘And what I really need is for you to help make it as painless as possible – for Sasha’s and September’s sakes. Not for mine. This thing with Sienna is still very early days. It might come to absolutely nothing. It’d be stupid to throw that into the mix now when we all need things to be as clean and simple as possible. I don’t want to hurt Sash any more than necessary.’
‘You’re all heart.’
‘I’m not supposed to tell you. I was sworn to secrecy. But seeing as he’s probably telling her as we speak, and there’s a good chance she’ll turn up on the doorstep at any moment in the throes of a nervous breakdown, I thought it was only fair to warn you.’
Hannah had her hand clapped over her mouth, above which her pale-blue eyes appeared almost completely circular. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Oh my God. Poor Sash. What a bastard. What a complete and utter bastard.’
‘To be fair, he seemed pretty cut up about it.’ Josh couldn’t understand why he was defending Dan to Hannah. It wasn’t as if he had the slightest bit of sympathy for what he was doing. Still, some intrinsic friend-protection instinct was kicking in and he found himself trying to justify what Dan was doing. ‘You know Sasha isn’t the easiest person.’
‘And that makes it OK, does it, to cheat on her with a twenty-four-year-old and break a little girl’s heart?’
‘Twenty-four isn’t exactly a little girl—’
‘Don’t even joke about it, Josh. You know exactly what I mean. These are our friends, remember? How many Saturday nights have we spent round there? How many holidays have we been on together? He can’t split up over some stupid affair. He just can’t.’
Josh had the oddest idea that Hannah was talking about Dan splitting up with them rather than with Sasha. He remembered Dan’s face when he’d talked about Sienna, but this clearly wasn’t the time to suggest to Hannah that this might be more than a ‘stupid affair’.
‘I can’t believe it. I really can’t.’
Josh shifted along the battered wine-coloured velvet sofa Hannah had fallen in love with on eBay, which had required dismantling the door frame to get into the flat. He put a tentative arm around her, half expecting her to wriggle away, as she sometimes did these days. Now that Hannah was always so tired and their sex life had dwindled to almost nothing, all physical contact between them seemed to carry extra weight, with the result that they didn’t touch each other nearly as much – or as naturally – as they used to. He felt her shoulders trembling under his hand.
‘Hey.’ He tilted her face up towards him so he could see her properly, taking in the freckles he adored and she claimed to despise, and the mouth with its mismatched lips – the top one so thin and well defined and the bottom one almost indecently plump. ‘Don’t get so upset. Of course it’s horrible, but we’re still OK.’
Hannah’s eyes, canopied by fine, surprisingly dark eyebrows, peered up at him through a glaze of tears. ‘But they’re our best friends. I thought they were so happy together. All those I love yous at the end of every phone conversation. Was that all a show? And if it can happen to them, what’s to stop it happening to us?’
Josh pulled her closer, savouring the contact, and planted a kiss on the top of her head. Despite everything, he allowed himself a little smile. Trust Hannah to jump straight to the worst-case scenario. What was it that therapist had called her? A catastrophist. That’s it. As if you could catch divorce from other people like the flu.
‘Never,’ he whispered into her hair.
After a moment, Hannah pulled away, looking utterly wretched. ‘Oh, but when I think about little September, growing up without her father.’
‘Not according to Dan. He thinks it will be the most amicable split in the world. He’s got it all worked out. He and Sasha will sell the house and buy two flats within walking distance of each other. September will be able to see both of them whenever she wants to. She won’t even notice they’re not together.’
‘What planet does he get this stuff from? He really thinks he’s going to move in down the road with some bloody schoolgirl bimbo and everything’s going to go on just as before?’
Hannah got to her feet and started angrily clearing up the remains of the Indian takeaway which were spread across the coffee table in front of them in a selection of foil containers, all smeared with orange- or ochre-coloured sauce. A tell-tale pink flush was sweeping across her normally pale cheeks, and Josh felt a twinge of alarm, remembering how he’d promised not to say anything to her.
‘You’re not going to call Sasha, are you? Dan made me promise I wouldn’t tell you about any of it, but especially not about her. About Sienna.’
He was nervous now – conscious suddenly of having gone back on a promise, of having been compromised.
Hannah made a snorting noise at the name.
‘No really,’ Josh went on, ignoring it. ‘He doesn’t want it to get out about him seeing someone else. He says it will make things nastier than they need to be.’
‘He should have thought about that before he got his dick out then, shouldn’t he?’
Hannah stalked out of the living room, hands full of dirty plates and silver-foil cartons. Josh heard her clattering around in the tiny kitchen next door, and he tried to still the involuntary leap his thoughts had taken hearing Hannah say the word dick.
‘Please, Hannah. Don’t say anything. I should never have told you.’
She reappeared in the doorway and flung herself back on to the sofa, curling her long legs in their black leggings up underneath her. ‘OK. But I just want you to know I hate lying to Sasha. It isn’t right for him to ask you to do this. She deserves to know the truth.’
‘Yes, but not from us. It’s not our place. We have to stay neutral.’
‘But how am I supposed to look her in the eye? Don’t forget they’re coming for lunch tomorrow.’
Josh slung his arm around her once more, emboldened by his previous success, and she snuggled back against him.
‘I wouldn’t bank on it,’ he said. ‘Dan says he’s telling her tonight. I can’t imagine they’ll be round here playing happy families tomorrow.’