“Fat lot of good you were then,” I said, jabbing Alex in the side as we walked down the street.
“Oi,” he said. “I tried.”
“She likes you better than me now!”
He poked me. “Overreaction much? You’re just easier to criticise because you have to love her regardless.”
I sighed. “Yeah. Right. It’s not fair.”
He shrugged. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be. So,” he continued as we turned onto St Giles’, “what’s your plan of attack when you get to St Andrews?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s tiny,” he said. “How are you planning on meeting people?”
“I wasn’t,” I said dryly. “I thought I’d become a hermit.”
“Funny. Seriously, though.”
“Oh, seriously,” I said mockingly. “I don’t know. Most of the people in the department are middle-aged or old, so although I’m sure they’re all lovely people I’m not quite sure they’re the kind of people who will want to have a late-night drinking session.”
“You never know. They could be the absolutely mad professor types who do embarrassing things like stay up all night drinking like first years.”
“One can hope,” I said. “Right, Sainsbury’s. White wine?”
“Do you think your mum would be horribly upset if I picked up some ciders?”
“Dad will love you, so go right ahead.”
Dinner was, at best, strained. Mark had rung Mum while Alex and I were out, and although she said everything was fine, it was clearly not. Mum had a habit of banging things down when she was upset and her mouth got tight at the corners, and when she banged the gravy down on the table so hard it actually sloshed over the sides of the jug and spilled onto the tablecloth, that was a pretty good sign that something was wrong.
“Remind me to ring my brother later,” I said under my breath to Alex.
“I thought you were the problem child,” he whispered back as he handed me the bowl of roasties.
“Shut up and give me the potatoes,” I replied, smacking the back of his hand with my spoon. “I’m too afraid to ask Mum what he’s done this time.”
“I thought I’d nip round to the pub this evening for a pint,” Dad said, “if you or Alex would care to join?”
I glanced at Alex; he shrugged. “Sure, Daddy,” I said. “If that’s okay, Mum?”
“I don’t mind,” she said. “Eat before it gets cold.”
Walking back from the pub, slightly the worse for wear, I suddenly remembered I’d meant to call Mark.
“Bollocks,” I said, digging around in my jacket pocket for my mobile. “Wait up, Alex, I have to make a call…”
“Your dad’s already outstripped us,” he said, pausing halfway down Little Clarendon Street and waiting for me to catch up.
“’S fine,” I said, finding my phone at last. “He’ll just collapse on the couch when he gets in, so no worries. Right, Mark…Mark…” I scrolled through my contacts until I found him, accidentally rang Max from my undergrad who I hadn’t spoken to in about eight years, and finally hit the right button.
“What do you want?” Mark demanded.
“Oh, hello to you too, little brother,” I said. “What the hell did you say to Mum to upset her so badly?”
“Oh, is that why you’re calling? For fuck’s sake, Em, I didn’t say anything.”
I leaned on a bollard and tucked the phone between my shoulder and my cheek, motioning for Alex to go on ahead. He shook his head and sat down on the cobblestones, looking up at me with a cheeky smile on his face.
“Mum spilled gravy on the tablecloth,” I said irritably. “And she didn’t even notice. What the fuck did you say to her?”
He groaned and I heard him shout to someone to turn the music down. “I’m not coming home for Christmas,” he said, annoyed.
I blinked. “That’s, like, months away. Why’d you bring it up now? And why’d you tell Mum now?”
“For Christ’s sake, Em, I don’t need you to read me a lecture!”
“I’m not!” I exclaimed. “I asked a question, Mark!”
He huffed and said, “Okay. I told Mum because the thing is that I’m kind of not going to be home for Christmas because I’m not going to be in the country.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“France,” he said, and added defensively, “I did French A-levels, so I’m totally cool here. I’m getting along fine.”
I frowned. “You mean you will be getting along fine, right?” Surely I wasn’t just being stupid. Surely… “Mark, don’t tell me you’re already in France.”
“What the hell are you doing in France?” I shouted. “You’re supposed to be in Liverpool for the start of term!”
“Yeah…I’m taking a year out,” he said.
“Are you kidding me right now? Is that what you told Mum that’s put her off so badly? Why the hell are you taking a year out?”
He groaned again. “Dammit, Em, will you stop being so damned critical? You sound just like Mum!”
“I do not!”
“Yeah, you do.” He was silent for a moment, and I could just see him running his hands through his hair until the gel clumped and made his hair stick up at odd angles. “There’s this girl.”
“Mark.” I took a deep breath. “Please don’t tell me you’re slagging off your degree to go chasing a girl.”
“She’s not just any girl,” he said defensively. “And I took leave of absence. I can go back whenever I want.”
I slid down to the ground and rested my back against the bollard. “Who’s this girl, then?”
“She’s super fit,” he said eagerly. “And she’s totally into me. But she’s, like, your age, so she’s got this job and shit, so she’s always off travelling. So I told her I’d come with her.”
“Well, she said that would maybe not be so great,” he said, sounding somewhat sheepish. “But she did say she’s in France a lot so if I were there it would be easy to see me and we could go around the Continent together.”
“You’re an idiot,” I said bluntly. “Really, Mark? She’s probably just using you as a booty call.”
“You think I give a shit?”
I sighed. “Okay. Fair point. So you were stupid enough to tell Mum this?”
“Well, I had to tell her something — she was talking about her and Dad coming up in a couple weeks to see me on their way to Nan and Granddad’s, and obviously I wasn’t going to be there, so I fobbed her off with a lie about having too much work, but then she was on about Christmas and at first I tried to tell her I was going to my mate’s for the holidays but she wasn’t happy about that and she knew something was up, so…” He stopped. “Well, you know how Mum is!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I know.” I dropped my head to my knees and sighed. “Okay, well, let me know if you need anything. I’m off to Scotland for a year but I guess that’s as near to France as Notts would have been, so I guess it doesn’t make a difference. Just, if you need something…”
“Thanks, sis.” He laughed a little. “Sorry I’m such a screw-up.”
“You may be a screw-up but Mum loves you more,” I teased.
“Bullshit. Now get off the phone and go get laid.”
“Well, you need something to relax you!”
“Fuck off,” I said, with less irritation than affection.
“Yeah, you too,” he said, and hung up.