I’d grown up in a three-bedroom house on Hart Street, just the other side of the Oxford University Press and only a few minutes’ walk from the hairdresser’s, a movie hire shop, several restaurants of various ethnic cuisines, and probably half a dozen pubs and wine bars. You know, the important things. Also, it only took Mum ten to twenty minutes to walk (or cycle, if she was feeling particularly Oxfordian) to wherever it was she was meant to be teaching on a particular day. She’d started at Oxford as a junior lecturer about twenty years ago, when I was still in primary school (before that we were in Leeds and before that Aberdeen, neither of which I remember very well at all and both of which Mum hated), and had worked her way up in the following two decades until, at fifty-four, she was a professor of semiotics and one of the leading researchers in her field. No pressure on me, then, as the child following in her academic footsteps — lucky Mark, he still had no idea what he wanted to do and was perfectly happy faffing about from job to job and acquiring useless skills. Dad, unlike Mum, was still working the same job he’d been doing for the last twenty years; longer, actually, since he and Mum had first met when Mum had gone on his show back when they were both at uni.
I always missed home, and driving up in front of the house always made me nostalgic for when I was about twelve and Mum was in her ‘let’s make ethnic food from every country in the world’ phase, meaning you’d never know what was for dinner, and I fancied Tommy Harris from across the street, who at fifteen was one of the big boys and who would stop and chat with me when we both got home at the same time, making me feel really special because of course when you were fifteen you didn’t have to talk to the twelve-year-old neighbour girl. Tommy Harris had probably been my first major crush, one that lasted until I was fifteen and he was eighteen and he started riding a motorcycle, and I could brag to my friends that I’d actually been on his motorcycle, making everyone jealous of me for about two seconds before Annie Baker revealed she’d lost her virginity to a university boy, which totally trumped anything to do with motorcycles. And then Tommy Harris went away to Sunderland to do International Relations, moved to Malaysia, and I never saw him again. For probably a year every boy I met was compared with dismal results to Tommy Harris, and then Pete Carpenter moved to our school from America and it all started all over again.
Dad parked the car in front of the house and opened the door. “Your mum will be pleased to see you,” he said, taking my bag as I passed it to him. I clambered out of the back and stood next to Alex. “She doesn’t like it when you and Mark stay away for so long. You ever want to make her happy, you’ll move right back to Oxford for good.”
I snorted. “Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen.”
Dad put on a long-suffering face and added, “And I have no one to chat with about the footy. Your mother never tells me to turn it down when you’re here.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, starting up the steps. “You just want me as a barrier between you and Mum. Hmph.” Laughing, I added, “Stop trying to make me feel guilty, Dad. I shall just ignore you.”
“Cruel, that one is,” Dad said mournfully as he followed me. Alex just smiled.
Mum had never been one to hover by the door awaiting the arrival of family in possession of a key, regardless of how much she purportedly missed us. Instead, she calmly came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel, once she heard the door close and the chatter of voices filled the front hall. Classic Mum behaviour. It was like clockwork.
“There you are, then,” she said, holding out her arms and hugging me tightly. She smelled like lavender and onions — the latter, I assumed, from the roast. She gave me a once-over and tutted. “You’re much too thin, darling.”
“Thanks, Dad’s already mentioned.”
“You’re not still on that ridiculous diet?”
“Actually — ” I started to say, but she’d already moved on and had spotted Alex.
“Why, Alex,” she said, surprised but putting a delighted smile on her face anyway. “What are you doing here, dear?”
“He’s visiting,” I said, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. I loved my mother. I really, really did. But sometimes…
Mum looked at me, and then glanced behind us at the door, as though expecting someone else to come sailing through. “But where’s Nate?”
I sighed. “Nate and I broke up a week ago. I’m going to take my bag up to my room, if that’s okay.”
“What?” Mum didn’t quite shriek, but the decibel level was considerably higher than normal. Rats. So much for simple acceptance. I briefly wondered what the odds were of getting biscuits and ice cream and wine out of my mother in commiseration, and decided I’d be better off escaping the initial upset as quickly as possible.
“Alex,” I said, turning to him, “if you want to come upstairs I’ll show you Mark’s room.”
“Emily Rose,” Mum said, her voice rising dangerously as I mounted the stairs with Alex a step behind me, “please explain.”
“I thought I should get Alex settled before we launch into family disputes,” I said. “Do you need help in the kitchen?”
She hesitated, clearly torn between getting the truth out of me at once or taking advantage of my offer of help. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “The carrots and potatoes need peeling.”
“I’ll explain over peeling, then,” I said, and went up the rest of the stairs as quickly as I could, my bag knocking against my knees.